After a relaxing holiday and an edifying and nostalgic walk down College Street, I’m back in Atlanta for semester #2 at Emory. My apologies for the month-long hiatus; the beginning of the semester tends to create conditions adverse to updates (as in the watching of SeaQuest DSV, East of Eden, and other online Netflix goodies). My classes this term: Contemporary Film Theory, the sequel to last semester’s Classical course; Gender and the Monstrous Body, a seminar in horror through various theoretical lenses (including feminism, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology); and Pre-Code Cinema, a course in historiography sampling that most wonderful of cinematic vintages, 1932. Some absolutely fantastic screenings so far, such that I have chosen yet again to cursorily describe the films (rather than reviewing any in depth) in the hope that someone out there will spread the good word. Some (namely, I) accuse me of privileging quantity over quality and indulging in esoteric interest. I guess all I can say (to myself) is welcome to the rightmost tip of the Long Tail! (I smell a Long Take subtitle…)
First up, my screenings so far from my Contemporary Theory class:
Blowup [Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1966]
Just as good the third time around, but not much to say that hasn’t already been said. Antonioni’s opus is famous for killing the already anemic Production Code, and is still one of the best films ever made about subjectivity and the act of spectatorship. I mean…nothing. It’s not about anything. Sorry. Actually, it is. But not really.
Seriously though, take a good look at the famous frame above. At first glance, the diagonal arrangement of the fashion models, combined with the lines of the room’s walls, floor, and ceiling, give the shot a strong sense of depth. However, Antonioni’s real project here is to expose the artifice of this depth as an act of “framing.” An extended look reveals the forced perspective of the space, and the glass panes separating the models expose our sense of depth as a simply a discontinuous series of flat planes. Furthermore, while the shot as a whole is obviously framed extradiegetically (even art films like Blowup tend to be projected in standardized rectangular aspect ratios), inside the story world, the act of framing here is a two-fold phenomenon. David Hemmings, the figure in the foreground who plays the film’s protagonist (Thomas, a fashion photographer), is framing a shot of the models using the viewfinder in his camera. Mentally erase his figure from the shot for a moment, and it is almost as if we are looking through his viewfinder at the intended shot. We thus retain a sense of both the objective scene and Thomas’s subjective point of view (as mediated by a camera), and Antonioni exposes an ambivalence about the act of spectatorship itself.
In any case, Blowup is one of those films worth a frame-by-frame analysis – and such an analysis would only begin to scratch the surface.
The Thin Blue Line [Errol Morris, 1988]
A superb documentary (although Morris apparently prefers the term “nonfiction film”) about the murder of a policeman and the wrongful conviction of the accused killer, Randall Dale Adams. Adams was eventually exonerated as a result of this film (and then sued Errol Morris for “stealing” his life story, but that’s a tale for another day). Visually stunning and morally exasperating.
As I’ve said, I’m normally going to try to avoid overt politics in this blog, but I know of few people who could watch this film and sill believe afterward that capital punishment is ever defensible, not to mention in a modern, democratic society.
There you go…short pieces on some of my other screenings to follow. Also, I am working on a theory project for my Horror class on highway safety films of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (Signal 30, Mechanized Death, Wheels of Tragedy, Death on the Highway, The Last Prom). I have already viewed Bret Woods’s excellent documentary on the subject, Hell’s Highway, but if anyone knows of any pertinent academic work, particularly on the relationship between safety or educational films and the horror genre, please do let me know.