FILM FLAMES

Adventures on the Upper Nile (American Museum of Natural History, 1927)

This short clip is excerpted from Adventures on the Upper Nile, “a pictorial record of the O’Donnell-Clark African Expedition into the Southern Sudan…for the purpose of securing specimens of the rare giant eland.”  The film exemplifies the rhythms of ethnographic cinema: stretches of empty, unproductive duration (waiting, watching, etc.) punctuated by spectacular, but equally unproductive events.  In Adventures, these events include animal death/dismemberment, ritual dance, and environmental contingencies.  In this particular scene, the boat encounters a series of fires along the shore.  But, here, too, the event extends, repeats, stretches out.  It is an almost lyrical, meditative encounter, one which brings film material as such to the fore.  Here, we are told, birds dive towards the flames for insects.  We strain to see this interspecies interaction, but the birds and insects mingle with the deteriorated image, with its burns, scratches, and holes.

THE ETHICS OF THE VIRTUAL

Michael Clayton, Vascular bundle of a fern rhizome (2010)

I have decided not to attend the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in March.  My reasons are largely financial.  My institution has a limited budget for research expenses and I did not receive any funding for the trip.  This particular year, I can’t afford to pay entirely out of pocket.  The conference has become a major expense since I moved to Scotland in 2009: $200 for the conference, $800 for the plane ticket, $500 for several nights in a hotel in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago, etc.

I will miss the SCMS conference.  It offers a valuable snapshot of the discipline.  I learn what people are working on and what subfields are developing.  I meet new colleagues and potential collaborators.  And: I catch up with old friends, colleagues, and mentors.  It has become a kind of lifeline to an academic and social world outside of Northeast Scotland.

There are other conferences, of course.  And some outstanding ones in Film and Media Studies across the UK and continental Europe.

But my decision not to attend the SCMS conference this year has me thinking about academic conferences (esp. the large, multi-day, many-paneled, state-of-the-discipline events) and the more inclusive, accessible, and environmentally sustainable alternatives that (I hope) are on the way.

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MANY THANKS + UPDATE

Paul Sharits, Frozen Film Frame Series (1971-1976), Greene Naftali Gallery

Many thanks to Catherine Grant from Film Studies for Free for tapping Half/Films as the best new Film Studies blog of the year.  I am honored to be included in her 2011 round-up of Film Studies resources.

Spring semester is still a few weeks away.  I am taking a break from Aberdeen and spending a few days in New York, catching up on all the films I missed during the fall and checking out a couple of great half/film-focussed exhibits.  Thoughts on materialist filmmaking and early film history to come…

REMOVING THE JAW

Our first evening of “Shadow Play” concluded with R.W. Paul’s final work: an industrial film promoting a new commercial whaling route between Norway and Ireland.  For me, the film recalls the generic and temporal instabilities of many ethnographic hunt films.  The interminable progress of the hunt (and the factory) is disrupted by death and the gruesome transformation of animal into object.  The encounter between the film’s intertitles (Landing the Whale, Removing the Jaw, etc.) and its visual excesses is also strikingly disjunctive.  The image overwhelms, undermines, undoes the certainty of its plain text.

But this film ends with an amazing set of final scenes.  Irish and Norwegian workers “at play”: dancing together, sack racing, wrestling like animals on the ground.  Not only do the boundaries between industrial, educational, and ethnographic modes collapse here, but boundaries between nations, genders, and species likewise seem to be very much in flux.

Many thanks to Ross Whyte for providing an improvised electroacoustic soundtrack that matched the complexity of the evening’s images.  The glitches and stutters of the soundbox drew our attention, I think, not only to the content of these images (and the deep space that returned compositionally over and again), but to the surface of the celluloid, to its rips, gaps, tears, and imperfections.  My attention was pulled in two directions: into the depth of past/historical time and across the surface of internal/archival histories.

Next Thursday: The Dying Swan, Menilmontant, and Orphans / 7-9 PM / Auris Lecture

“EVEN WITH A SMALL HEELED SHOE”

Four Female Acrobats (1934 / via Rachele Ceccarelli) perform in full costume for Robert Douglas Lockhart, a Professor of Anatomy from the University of Birmingham, and A.C. Fowler, a radiographer from the University of Aberdeen.  The female body appears in live motion, slow motion, and skeletal/radiographic stills.  Linda Williams’ reading of science and bodily spectacle (“pornographic answers proceed from academic questions”) seems like a critical starting point in understanding the confusion of visual/disciplinary registers, the fetish objects that accompany these bodies, and the shift from fleshy (flashy) surfaces to bony interiors.  It is likewise worth noting that these images arrive forty years after Muybridge: Williams’ own starting point in her study of machines of the visible and visual frenzies.

(ONE) DEFENSE OF THEORY

Rupture of a Soap Bubble by a Projectile (Lucien Bull, 1904)

What is (film) theory?  Why does it matter?  Over the last year or so, I have had to draft responses to these questions (for students who would rather work on “real” films and colleagues who would rather do “real” history).  Though I am someone who takes pleasure in reading theory, arguments for pleasure (i.e., I enjoy it.  You should, too), or for the pleasures of departure (from “real” disciplinary concerns) are not all that convincing.  A first sketch of another argument:  Continue reading

IMPACT CONT’D

I have written a little about changes to higher education in the UK here, specifically the shift to business-model approaches to research.  The Texas Public Policy Foundation think tank recently proposed “seven breakthrough solutions” for public higher education in Texas.  Dean Randy Diehl and a committee from the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts wrote a clear and detailed counter-argument to each of the proposals.  On impact and the humanities:

We are also concerned by Mr. Sandefer’s suggestion that specialized academic articles with limited readerships lack real value.  This outlook could affect scholarship in such fields as mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences in which seemingly narrow findings have the potential to change human understanding. 

We are especially concerned it will inhibit research in the humanities and we take issue with the idea that the value of research can be judged by its immediate impact or reduced to a monetary figure.  Humanities research helps citizens better understand the world in which they live and the overall human condition. It provides the history, cultural contexts, and ethical framework needed to make sense of changes in society.

As in other disciplines, the impact of most humanities research is not immediately observable, nor guaranteed. It tends to work cumulatively over time and, for the most part, requires no start-up funds, research labs, or expensive equipment. Historians, philosophers and economists from the Greco-Roman periods through Voltaire, Hume, and Adam Smith, for example, all influenced the American founding fathers. These scholars’ impact was not fully known for decades or centuries, just as the value of much of today’s scholarship can’t be measured immediately.

The whole piece is worth reading.  It is at once a response to a very specific threat and a clear distillation of the arguments we all need to get better at making.  The strength of this defense rests not only on the claims themselves, but the way in which they are presented. Put another way, the defense depends upon the skill-set it so vigorously defends: critical thinking, clear arguments, close reading of the evidence…