Saturday, April 16, 2016

Twilight Saloon (Tomu Uchida, 1955)

If you're one of the thousands (millions?) who have fallen in love with Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives, then you ought to check out Twilight Saloon. Confined to a saloon from open to close one evening, the narrative follows the lives of various patrons and employees and some viewers will no doubt disdain the telegraphed stories and hastily wrapped up conclusions. But the real drama here is musical. Twilight Saloon is choked with songs - folk songs, pop songs, military songs, workers' protest songs, arias. Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," a record of Josef Marais' (I think) take on "Brandy, Leave Me Alone" (and allusion to the "Whiskey, Laisse-moi Tranquille" scene in Hawks' The Big Sky?), a story-turning "Toreador Song," Japanese music about which I'm ignorant, etc. It's about what we do with songs, how they insinuate themselves into our lives, how they police the distinction between professional and amateur, how they signal disappointment, hope, rage, lust, justice, resignation. I absolutely adored it and kudos once again to Michael Raine for programming it at Japan Society's Japan Sings! series.

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Saturday, April 09, 2016

You Can Succeed, Too (Eizô Sugawa , 1964)

It's going to be difficult to top the opening night film at Japan Sings! The Japanese Musical Film at Japan Society. You Can Succeed, Too (Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru) is an absolute stunner, calling to mind Yasuzo Masumura's Giants and Toys, Frank Tashlin's Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, and Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and easily the equal of any of them. Concerning a tourist agancy's attempts to become more efficient like (their perception of) America, the film is most memorable for how it reprises several of its big musical numbers in more ironic contexts at later points in the narrative, especially the showstopping "In America" number available in a horrible Youtube clip below without subtitles (indeed, the print last night was shown with live subtitles). 

I cornered the curator, Michael Raine, Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Western University, Canada, after the film and he told me that the final number which takes place on a construction site was actually an American military base. But the filmmakers could get only a few shots since they were kicked off the site! So the scene quickly switches to hilariously fake studio sets. Raine suggests that these material conditions reflect the film's main theme - the need to but ultimate impossibility of emulating America. And it definitely serves as the film's hysterical moment, as per Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's "Minnelli and Melodrama," when realist representation breaks down to signal the film's inability to contain its own contradictions. Raine also told me he showed it to Miriam Hansen who loved it! You will too!!

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Monday, April 04, 2016

SCMS 2016 Final Day :(

Sunday mornings are even more appropriate for porn (studies), particularly the Pornography is a Fighting Word: Sex Media and the Law panel. Laura Marks' "The New Wave: The Fall Out of Traci Lords" discussed the reedited Talk Dirty To Me Part III which shoddily cuts out scenes featuring an underage (under USA law) Traci Lords and replaces her with actress Lisa De Leeuw. For Marks, the reedit speaks to several tensions within porn fandom and history. Porn fans feel betrayed and lied to by the industry. Covers advertise scenes and even stars that do not appear in a film/video. And the reedit conveys the industry's cavalier attitude toward artistry. For instance, the new scenes were shot on video while the original was shot on film making for an in-your-face sloppiness. But such attitudes leave porn fans in a difficult place since they also have to defend the artistry/importance of pornography much of the time. Marks positions the reedit at the threshold of the turn to video and eventually gonzo, especially in a masturbation scene in which the director's instructions are left on the soundtrack. direction.

Peter Alilunas' "Regulation, Authenticity, and Pornography: The Legacy of “Freeman v. California”" focused on the landmark case in which porn producer Harold Freeman was arrested for pandering due to the sex acts in the film Caught From Behind (1982). Five female (but no male) performers were brought to trial and maintained that they were performers, not prostitutes. As Rhonda Shantell stated, "the sex acts were totally devoid of sexual arousal, gratification, or pleasure." However, the jurors only read the screenplay and concluded that the acting stopped when the sex began. In short, the pleasure was believed and Freeman was convicted on five counts of pandering. Appeals determined that the performers were acting sex rather than having actual sex. In 1988, the California Supreme Court found that the pandering law had no bearing on adult films and the US Supreme Court declined to hear any appeals. At stake here is the very definition of pornographic realism. But I was equally intrigued/repulsed by Dennis Conte of the Los Angeles Vice Squad who harassed performers and coerced them into testifying.
Constance Penley was the respondent and in her scholarship discovered that the porn industry is more afraid of censorship from Verizon and Google than any government obscenity trials. She also reported on a pleasant 45-minute phone conversation she had recently with a Los Angeles Vice Squad officer who told her "Our job would be so much easier if you could just tell us what obscenity is."
Then it was off to the Sound Studies SIG and my illustrious panel, Tracking Sound: On Film Music, Aesthetics, and Narrative. Paula Musegades' "Communism, Propaganda, and Music: Aaron Copland’s Film Score for Lewis Milestone’s The North Star"(1943)" covered the myriad songs in Milestone's de facto propaganda film about partnering with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis. Dana Andrews and Farley Granger sing! For "Love Me Tonight (1932) and the Development of the Integrated Film Musical," Hannah Lewis looked at early scripts for Rouben Mamoulian's masterpiece at the Library of Congress and revealed that the filmmakers were far more interested in technological innovation than so-called integration. In fact, one earlier script provided more narrative motivation for the tenuously integrated numbers than what wound up in the film. Finally, Matthew McDonald's "Behind the Whirring Machinery: Narrative Levels in the Coen Brothers’ Films" analyzed the interplay of narrative elements that distort the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic. Oh yeah, and my paper, "Music is heard, not seen: Grand Rights and the Visualization of Song in Hollywood Cinema" was FABULOUS!

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Sunday, April 03, 2016

SCMS 2016 Day Four

Day Four was for bouncing around starting with Misha Kavka's "Truly, Madly, Queerly: Extending the Camp Canon" at the New Cultural Politics of Camp panel. Kavka traced the migration of camp into sitcoms, news, Republican debates, and, especially, reality television. While convergence works against the common reference point so crucial to the logistics of camp, a show like Mob Wives makes clear that camp is no longer a private code. A queer stylistic takes over such that the wives' behavior recalls transgender performance. But anger and fighting have replaced the life-affirming energy of camp.  

Then it was off to the Music Matters: Sound Studies in Context panel. Brain Fauteux's "'Songs You Need to Hear': Public Radio Partnerships and the Mobility of National Music" about the transnational song sharing programs of the BBC and the CBC. Fauteux asks: How does public radio constitute national identity in a transnational digital mediascape, especially when such sharing can lead to a global brand?
Steve Spence's "Eyes on the Prize and the Music of Black Power" was about the 1987 civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. Spence played a clip from the film in which Dr. Bernice Reagon explained the importance of song to the civil rights movement. When we sing, we resonate. Thus, songs can bring communities into existence. The song maintains the air around you so that no one (particularly, the police force) can take the space back. It changes the very air around you. Moral (courtesy of Kodwo Eshun): Rhythm is a biotechnology.
Colleen Montgomery's "From The Little Mermaid to Merida: Female Vocal Performance in Disney and Pixar Animation" discussed how a film like Brave gives girls' experience a voice given how the film is about finding a voice. Montgomery also demonstrated how the Dolby Atmos sound system had the mother and daughter's voices separated in surround speakers to heighten the dramatic conflicts between the two. 
Tim Anderson's "Listening to What I Want to Become: Instructional Records, Instructional Listening" explored the Music Minus One label as well as albums like Albert Brooks' Comedy Minus One - records in which one element of a song or routine is missing so that the listener (as musician or actor) can fill in the blanks. Anderson conceives of these curious discs as a method of teaching the listener how to listen to records. I would add that they encourage the kind of musical amateurism thought to be killed off by the decline of pianos and organs in family homes.
The fascinating Queer Excisions in Global Media panel featured Karl Schoonover on "Queer Excision 1: Jump Cuts as History and Aesthetic Form." Schoonover contends that because queers are written out of history and archives, excision becomes a mode of queer temporality. As an illustration of his contention, he showed Youtube clips of Tubog as Ginto (Dipped in Gold), a 1971 bomba film directed by Lino Brocka. The fact that we can watch these films in crappy bootlegs versions on YouTube is both archival and anarchival. Odd ellipses and repetitions suggest censorship. And there is a signalling of pleasure with some scenes played over and over leading to tape deterioration. Bootlegs thus trace the reception practice of sharing and desire. However, some shots of same sex intimacy are not in the YouTube version. We see a caress twice in a loop with dissolves or a jump cut of a remainder of a dissolve. They make for a revised queer space and time, unhitching viewing from the narrative event. In sum, some queer scholars have maintained that the classical continuity system makes heteronormativity an inevitabilty on top of which queer style can happen. But he's trying to redefine continuity as a mode alllowing different forms of connectedness. 
Marc Siegel's "How Do I Look Now?" harked back to the seminal 1991 Bad Object Choices collection How Do I Look? to look beyond the interests of the nation state and homonationalism. He analyzed two short films (Jaurès and Mondiale 2010) that look away from gay relationships and the couple through windows at Afghani immigrants and Palestinian refugees.
Keith Corson's "Tyler Perry Superstar: Brand Management and the Re-Imagination of Gospel Theater" revealed that Perry has never left the stage despite the success of his films. The live experience allows him to test what would work on film. He continually breaks the fourth wall and breaks character not in attempt at Brechtian distanciation but to make mental notes out loud. His films then generate an expectation of participation. They even have beats to allow for it. Thus, he turns the movie theater into gospel theater.

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Saturday, April 02, 2016

SCMS 2016 Day Three

Thursdays are for porn and exploitation, no? At the Exploitation Cinema and History: Rethinking the Relationship panel, Austin Fisher presented "Blood in the Streets: Negotiating History Through the Italian Vigilante Film" and the only problem with it is that I will now be seeking out these titles so they can languish with 10,000 other films on my beloved/dreaded external hard drives. Fisher dicussed how the 1970s Italian vigilante films conveyed a nihilistic sense of futility when going against a faceless system. The films rarely refer to specific events but the spectre of WWII fascism hovers over them, especially Street Law (Castellari, 1975).

Johnny Walker's "A 'Golden Age' of Exploitation?: Video Culture in 1980s Britain, Beyond the 'Video Nasties'" demonstrated how commentary on the Video Nasties have distorted video history. The subculturealimportance of horror and exploitation are highlighted in these misty-eyed meditations on the Nasties. For instance, Severin has reissued some of the Nasties that were orginally released by Intervision. But their advertising reconfigures early video history as a golden age of maverick, illicit dealings in obscure titles. In actuality, Intervision had a robust mail order business and a glossy catalog revealing that they dealt in all kinds of films. By 1980, it was the leading video distributor, making deals with indies like Tigon and Alpha. Thus, the films Intervision distributed weren't all obscure. The Exterminator, Come Play With Me, Zombie, and The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, for instance, were sizable hits. Even though these films were hardly obscure, though, they were still exploitation fare which weakens Walker's argument. Despite their popularity, the films listed would make any commentator/exploitation film lover on the era misty-eyed all over again.

Neil Jackson's "From Porno Chic to Porno Eeeek!: Forced Entry and the Hardcore Roughie" linked Shaun Costello's 1973 film to Vietnam vet films and other hardcore roughies such as Femmes de Sade, Sex Wish, and Waterpower for a more dystopic vision in the porno chic era. It was a perfect compliment to Eric Schaefer's "Sexploitation After Hardcore: Strategies of Soft-core Films in the 1970s." Schaefer shows how hardcore and the New Hollywood had sexploitation directors worried. But as early as 1972, there was a new cleavage between hard and softcore. For instance, Together was a softcore film that attracted women and couples who would have been turned off by Forced Entry. The film grossed $1 million in New York City alone in just 3 weeks. Costume films like The Lustful Turk and The Notorious Cleopatra and girl group films like The Stewardesses and The Pom Pom Girls maintained a couples market throughout the decade. But higher budgets and an ever more explicit Hollywood forced sexploitation to reap their highest rewards in the video market.

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Friday, April 01, 2016

SCMS 2016 Day Two

I caught most of the Sound and Scoring panel on Thursday. Daniel P. Robinson's "A Problem in the Historiography of Recorded Sound: The Hidden History of Optical Sound, and Walter Ruttmann's 'Study in Sound-Montage,' Wochenende (1930)" intervenes in the notion that Pierre Schaeffer invented musique concrète with magnetic tape after WWII. In fact, Ruttmann cut and edited an optical soundtrack akin to the methods of montage editing for his audio film Wochenende (Weekend).

Michael Hammond's "Cowboys, Beggars, and the Deep Ellum Blues: Playing 'Authentic' to Silent Films" discusses his involvement with a jug/skiffle band playing old, weird American tunes as accompaniment to the silent film Beggars of Life (William A. Wellman, 1928). His band tries to evoke the heterogeneous musical environment of Deep Ellum, a black neigborhood of Dallas, by focusing on lowdown blues as well as more traditional pop and classical fare.

I had to leave during Alexander Stalarow's "Postwar Orpheus at Play: Dramatized Creative Processes in Orphic Settings by Jean Cocteau and Pierre Schaeffer." But he aimed to demonstrate how musique concrète developed in conversation with cinema, especially Cocteau's Orpheus.
Then it was off to Cinema Landmarks in American Youth Culture. Yannis Tzioumakis' "In the Shadow of The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle, and Rebel Without a Cause: Rock Around the Clock and Its Independent Look at the Youth of the 1950s" was a terrific paper linking Rock Around the Clock to useful cinema. Unlike the first three films mentioned in the title, Rock spoke directly to teenagers in a most didactic way, offering a crash course on how to make it in show business.
Elissa Nelson's "The Breakfast Club as Archetype: Revealing the Tropes of the teen Film as Genre" made me view the film as useless cinema and led me closer to figuring out why I have such an intense love/loathe relationship with it. Where Rock Around the Clock suggests how a utopia might be organized (through capitalism, sure, but at least it tries), The Breakfast Club offers temporary, if that, solutions to big problems. Nelson discussed the teen film as a genre through the lens of The Breakfast Club, specifying narrative elements to show how they exemplify the genre.
Tim McNeils' "Precious about Genre?: Hybridity and the African American Youth Film" tried to complexify the idea of the African American film as a genre. Some critics have suggested political criteria are more important than aesthetic ones for such a genre, i.e., it must concern a group of people engaged in struggle for social equality. But McNeils contended that overt politics need not be so central to the genre, especially when youth is added to the equation.
Timothy Shary's "Depicting Boyhood on Screen: Richard Linklater's Audacious Endeavor" evoked the subtle ways Linklater's masterpiece traces the passage of time. Age and grade are rarely mentioned so changes in hair styles tip the viewers off that a new year is occurring. The film cannily avoid first times while only brief allusions to Harry Potter and Obama refer to any specific time period. Even the chapters on the DVD avoid corresponding to the main character's age at any point. Shary also distributed an insanely detailed handout attempting to determine age in each scene.

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