BLOATED AND STARVING

These are the words a close friend used to describe how she feels as a university student. Bloated with access, information, and technology; starved for actual teaching, mentorship, and plain human contact.

She is receiving a graduate degree from a major (non-profit) American institution.  She rarely meets her colleagues or her instructor. Seminars are online and informal.  Her assignments include endless and shapeless bibliographies, aggregated and linked from tidy Blackboard pages.  She sends work into a void and receives grades in return.  After three years, she will have paid $30,000 in tuition, without ever having used anything other than the administrative services of the University.

This is just one (terrible) program.  But I think (fear) it foreshadows changes to come (or already here), namely the large-scale business modeling of higher education.  Doing more with less looks a whole lot like turning a major profit with no effort at all.

GLOBAL SILENT CINEMA

Menilmontant (Kirsanoff, 1926)

I am teaching a seminar entitled “Global Silent Cinema” next semester.  This course will introduce students to the eccentricities and complexities of cinema’s first three decades. Each week will be guided by a different concept (e.g. language, narrative, the archive, etc.).

I am just starting to make my way through a long list of possible films for the course.  I recently rescreened Ménilmontant, Dmitri Kirsanoff’s intertitle-less short from 1926, and made a first pass at gathering together the work that’s been done on the film.  Much of this writing focuses on the film’s experimental narrative form.  Richard Abel argues that the film is structured by series of losses and substitutions. Richard Prouty pivots from this claim to read the film’s spatial and narrative economies: Continue reading

HELEN HILL: FILM AND THE ENVIRONMENT


Cleveland Street Gap (Courtney Egan and Helen Hill, 2006)

Still thinking about histories of film and the environment.  How would one tell this history? What filmmakers are working at this site of intersection?  Helen Hill’s work seems like an interesting starting point.  The film embedded above includes footage that Hill shot before Hurricane Katrina, marked by the flood waters that filled her home. Continue reading

SHADOW LIVES

“I suddenly wake up in the middle of the night.  The shadows are there, all of them, out there, those from my childhood, and those from books, and particularly those from my dreams.  I get up.  I walk forward on tiptoe.  I chase shadows that disappear, that fade under the electric light, in rooms, bathrooms, through closets, from step to step, in the staircases, under beds, in the corners of curtains…Nothing remains but the house lit up from top to bottom like a screen on which shadows go by […] From that to the cinema, there is only one step.  You can see why I love—why I adore—the movies.  They are the endless play of all shadows, a dream in black and white.”–Josephine Baker [i]

This meditation on shadows and cinema appears in Josephine Baker’s autobiography. Continue reading

WRECK AND SALVAGE

I use this (beautiful) short during my first week of Film History.  We read an excerpt from Edward Said’s “Beginnings” alongside it.  Together, the film and text raise a number of interesting questions about the relationship between photography/film, old/new media, science/spectacle. Both (film and text) likewise trouble the security of film objects and origins, and call attention to the difficulty of beginning (to teach, write, and communicate history).

The short comes from Adam Quirk, Aaron Valdez, and Eric Nelson of Wreck and Salvage, the team responsible for the viral four-part series, “Everything is a Remix.” 

THIS DESTROYS THAT

I am rereading the 1994 transcript from the Amsterdam Filmmuseum Workshop on “Non-fiction from the Teens,” kindly given to me by Nico de Klerk during my spring screening visit to the Eye Film Institute.

The opening remarks by Nicola Mazzanti (one of the curators at Il Cinema Ritrovado) resonate in surprising ways with the (many) discussions of digital media we had last weekend at Screen.  Of early non-fiction films, he writes:

“This material provokes a deep crisis in the way you’re used to looking at the material your’re familiar with – at fiction films.  You’ve probably come to the viewing table well organized in your thinking and decision-making.  This material tends to destroy that, tends to pose new questions and impose new kinds of decision-making,” (12).

Although Mazzanti pivots from this crisis to reassert the archive’s questions and historical control (Which film should be saved, should be preserved?), he begins with the disruptive quality of the non-fiction film image, its capacity to overturn the viewer, to elude the reasonable question, and to destroy our historical methodologies.

The initial, radical ambiguities of film seem to have softened.  Or perhaps we have created the appearance of stability in our historiographic approaches.  The digital now operates as simulacrum, while film offers good histories, secure documents, well-behaved copies.  Indeed, in his plenary talk, Jan-Christopher Horak of UCLA argued that “digitisation obliterates history.”

On a different (but perhaps related note): the workshop report is itself a fascinating historical document, carefully preserving a moment in disciplinary history.  It includes the complete workshop schedule, the screening schedule, the list of participants and affiliations, and a transcript of every post-screening discussion.  Tom Gunning (then at Northwestern) and Miriam Hansen (Chicago) spar over their senses of simultaneity. Stefaan Decostere seemingly stuns the empiricists among the crowd with a meditation on melancholy. There is an historiographic method implicit even in ancillary documents such as these.