September 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
We are almost there, and I’m thinking: it’s all about immersion, as usual with SC. That is what they do best.
The whole dilemma, for the SC people, is that the more organized the evening, the creepier it will feel; the more spontaneous it will feel, the more humanitarian. It’s a challenge SC usually does well: see customers who can’t tell the difference between SC actors and costumed customers at Star Wars show this summer. Immersion requires masking signs of organization, the feeling of the organic.
How will they fare here?
September 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
I finally got the email. Still no idea what the film is going to be–and the way the message is worded, it does seem like a complete afterthought. It will start in Sloane Square, that much is certain. Beyond that, what to expect?
This is an invitation to a protest, not a screening. And it is a good thing, the emphasis on the donations. I also like the idea of building cinemas in refugee camps around the world to bring; it speaks to a (nostalgic?) vision of cinema to enchant, make people dream, and unite that I can relate to. Secret Cinema, the new Hollywood?
This is definitely part of the message–even if the event remains elitist and anything but mainstream, more expensive than an evening at the movies, secretive, and so on. It plays, self-consciously, on the image of an event for the lucky few (tell no one!)–but it sells itself as cinema for the masses.
There are worrying signs, too, that the commercialization will intrude, that this corporate endeavour at being good citizen is just that, a corporate endeavour. #bandwagon? “To harness the greatest movement of displaced people since the Second World War by standing a global screening protest” is cringe-worthy, as is the metaphor of “the sea of activists”, considering the thousands of refugees dead at sea. And the grammar in “to send a message of solidarity to those that need to listen” is obscure, to say the least. These are signs of potential incoherence.
In the end, we did pay for a screening. Is the protest stance then make-believe? Is SC’s attempt at communicating activism just setting the mood, in the same way that they do with their other shows?
So, for now, I am left with issues that I will be looking out for at the event/screening/protest tonight:
- activist vs. commercial
- solidarity through watching a film??
- the film vs. the event
- audience involvement–in what? Participation –to what? To what fiction?
Complete report tomorrow. In the meantime,
September 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
I’ve spent a good portion of the summer being frustrated by the folks at Secret Cinema (London)–for reasons best left unsaid.
But then last night I get this:
For reasons of professional interest (the expansion of cinema, fictional presences in everyday life, etc.), I’ve been on Secret Cinema’s mailing list ever since we moved to London. I’ve never been to any of their events — but, surely, this has got to be the one.
And so starts the ethnographic project.
Query: why would people choose to express a protest by going to a movie? a movie they don’t know anything about? in a location they don’t know anything about? How does any of this make any sense, in the face of the plight of the 20 million or so refugees worldwide–or the plight of the more recent ones Europe has been struggling to welcome?
Method: audience ethnographic project. I will embed (with my 15-year old son!) within Secret Cinema’s audience for the evening, and conduct a field investigation. The trick, as usual with ethnography (at least since Malinowski!), is that this will perforce be participant observation.
And so the ethnographic project really starts with a research diary: what is my trajectory from non-audience to audience and back? What discourses are framing my attendance? What expectations do I bring? What representations are shaping what I think I will see? How do I construct what hypotheses? And what am I to make of the show?
This is what this diary, over the next 5 days, will trace: my trajectory to the film (or is it a show?), during the performance, and after it.
Monday 7 Sept. 18:21 — reception of Secret Cinema’s commercial email.
My itinerary, my transformation from individual to audience member, to vibrating aesthetic subject (or to commercial subject blindly manipulated, as you wish) really starts as I receive Secret Cinema’s email. (Well it really started earlier, a long, long time ago in fact, but 1) there is literally no end to that regressus ad infinitum and 2) the notes below will indeed elucidate some of what has been building in my trajectory before that commercial sollicitation)
I am sitting at my computer, it is evening, I’ve worked all day at the computer but I should be doing more–I’ve been frustrated over the past couple of hours that I haven’t been able to work as I had planned. There’s an article that needs revising, the deadline is in 3 days. But I’ve had to deal with minor domestic crises (no ink in the printer! No phone service!)–and so I’ve ended up nervously checking The Guardian‘s website for the 1000th time today (like everyday). In terms of me being turned into an audience for entertainment, I should note that this message also comes at a point where we’ve talked, as a family, about our frustration of not doing enough shows, museum visits, films, etc., in London. We want to “make more” of the city. We want, in other words, to become cultural consumers.
I think frustration is a keyword here.
This email attracts my attention for several reasons:
1) I’ve been trying to get more involved to help refugees over the past week — I’ve been trying to get more involved with border issues for months now, in fact I’ve pretty much decided that understanding open borders is what I will be doing in terms of publishing in the next 2 or 3 years. I have several book projects on the topic of borders already in my mind. But getting to do something concrete, useful, apart from sending money…it’s been difficult. At bottom I think I am afraid of contact–in the sense that I overanalyse contact with refugees as being contact with the great unknown, and I am a control-freak. It’s stupid and I hate it, but the reality is this: i haven’t been to Calais, to the Jungle, though I’ve read and crossed it several times (even saw police chasing the people there one night waiting for the Eurostar). I have signed up to help refugees in the UK, though I don’t have a spare-room. I have signed petitions, sent tweets, liked FB pages…but nothing approaching contact.
2) I am disgusted that the UK is not opening its borders to more refugees. If Germany can take the equivalent of 1% of its population (800,000 over one year), so could the UK (this would be 650,000….not the miserable 20,000 over 5 years that the Conservatives have promised today…better than nothing, sure, but paltry). And so the urgency of expressing outrage publicly, as inefficient and self-centred as it may very well be, has been building. I want to put public pressure on governments to do more. “Standing-by” is not an option. But see 1)…. Still, this promises to be a public event.
3) I am indeed intrigued by the concept of a “Protest Screening”. When was the last time attending a movie was a civic gesture? I can count on one hand the films I have seen out of civic duty: Lanzman’s Shoah in a Paris theater, or that documentary about Yitzhak Rabin that I saw in a small downtown Los Angeles theater (was it this film?). These are films I felt I had to make a public point to see–a duty to watch. But here I don’t even know what film they’re going to show us!
So the best I can understand my motivation is,
1) that I feel I have a duty to signal my participation publicly–and indeed, as soon as I buy the tickets, I invite a few London friends via FB to do the same–although there is an added sense of potential danger as I don’t know whether the film will please, shock, move, or disgust me. So, metaphorically speaking, I am willing to be potentially emotionally tossed around (yes, this is a boat metaphor, and I am aware of the creepy link with refugees, but at this point, I wouln’t put it past Secret Cinema to have worked out that metaphor themselves, see the poster for the event). And
2) that this is the closest I will ever be to doing something together with refugees: I am particularly attracted by the promise that the film will also be shown, at the same time, to the migrants stuck in the Jungle camp in Calais. Yes, this will merely be a virtual connection (in 3 hours there is no time even for Secret Cinema to transport us to Calais and back…), but we will share, and share emotions which is what humans can do. And, to be honest, this doesn’t happen every day at the movies nowadays: audiences, the general claim goes, are fragmented (by age group, sociology, ratings, etc.), and the days of the “evening’s entertainment”, with everything for everyone in the family, are long gone. This promises to create an audience more diverse than we’ve become accustomed to, and isn’t that what cinema is supposed to do best, help us connect, the Esperanto of film, film language as universal language, and so on? Secret Cinema, bringing you face-to-face with fiction..
The nagging suspicion I have, so far, is that of course this is all commercial ploy. Secret Cinema has been trying to position itself as the rediscovery of the joy of cinema — a new Hollywood, as their cover photo of Aug. 21 intimates — and this re-creation of a common civic audience beyond differences (them and us, this side and that side of the border, poor and rich, etc.) smacks of a similar commercial positioning. Also I am not entirely at ease with a for-profi, commercial private company doing politics. The event Facebook page has been posting pro-refugee messages and promoting a very clear, astonishingly (for a private company) aggressive activist stance on the issue–but only since Sept. 2, the day news outlets published the picture of Aylan’s body on the beach: how long has Secret Cinema been supporting the Refugee Council? I can’t say. Are they seeking to exploit this tragedy? I can’t say. And I can’t say either how different this social media build-up is any different from their standard operating procedure and the FB build-up to their summer Star Wars show, for instance. Are they just trying to “put me in the mood”? Am I even supposed to enjoy myself at this show?
At the same time, for any company to take a political stance is gutsy–and sure enough, Secret Cinema is getting negative comments from FB users (“stick to what you know”)–but is this also staged? Is it just a ploy to allow them to answer “this is what we know”, so me, reading this exchange, will feel understood in my sympathy for refugees, immersed in a well-meaning and shared space of love and understanding for refugees, a space where I can abandon myself to emotions of pity, gratitude, etc., without a hint of critical disturbance, without, for instance, the dissonance created by this FB user’s ironical question “It will be interesting to see if this tempts any of the people in Calais to hang around there for the rest of the week so they can see the film, or will they try to illegally jump on the back of a lorry in the hope of being in London in time for the UK screening” ?
And so I end up signing up for a host of reasons, but one of which harks back to the best Barnum every did: is it truth, or fiction? Reality, or a hoax? And, honestly, I can’t decide.
September 8, 2015 § 2 Comments
I had not heard such stories in a long time, and I did not even think they would be possible. But Ballyhoo’s on the rise again, and there’s no headline big enough. Still, I was surprised to stumble upon this story this morning, regarding the soon-to-be-released cannibal horror flick by Eli Roth, The Green Inferno. Roth is here talking about the production in Peru:
“So when we shot it, I wanted to film somewhere that was really, really, really in the Amazon. Really, authentically off the grid. We scouted in the summer-time and went up the river for hours and hours and found this village where there was no electricity, no running water, grass huts. Ten people in a shack. And it looked incredible; it looked like a village from another time, so we asked if we could film there. But I was told that we have to tell them what a movie is because they have no idea. They’ve never seen one. They’ve never even seen a television. So they went back with a television and a generator and showed the village Cannibal Holocaust, which I couldn’t believe. And the villagers – thank god – thought it was a comedy. The funniest thing that they’d ever seen. And they wanted to play cannibals in the movie. So we had the entire village acting in the film. And they speak Quechua – which is like another language from another time.” (from a 2013 interview with Roth)
I have right now no way of knowing where Roth actually filmed (though his admission that “they call the river Aguirre because the last film to shoot there was Aguirre The Wrath God” would indicate that he was in the Ucayali region), or indeed whether the story is true or spurious. As usual, with Ballyhoo, it is probably both. And Roth’s own words in his tale are small comfort for anyone trying to take him seriously: either the shoot is genuinely dangerous (“we could have died any number of times — there were floods, and there were rock-slides, there were tarantulas, snakes, animals walking through shots. It was crazy…it was brutal”) or it is really a merry “jungle adventure — we had cameras and everyone was just so up for it”. Either the village has not made contact and the tribe lives in complete isolation (“no electricity, no running water, grass huts”), or there is enough electricity to play with iPads (“you became friends with all the kids and all the old people. And then by the end they were all playing with iPhones and iPads. We’ve completely polluted the social system and f*cked them up”). Ballyhoo, of course, can have it both ways.
But what attracted me to this story is that I had read it before–in fact, I had read it all (including the bit where villagers are shown a movie “for the first time”, and were then induced to act out as cannibals in a movie) in an account of Edward Salisbury’s expedition to shoot a “documentary” entitled Black Shadows (1922) in the Solomon islands. The excerpt is from “Eighteen Months on the Trail of Cannibals”, ostensibly written by Edward Salisbury himself, published in The Atlanta Constitution, 5 nov. 1922, pg. F9 [which is available, I believe, through Proquest]:
“In the meantime I had to teach the natives, like children, that they were in a play when going through their usual avocations and amusements before the motion picture camera, for I wanted to make pictures of all their life and pursuits as well as of their warlike proclivities.
It proved impossible for the islanders to understand what the small box which stood on three legs had to do with recording their history, so I decided upon taking the risk of showing them a motion picture of themselves by way of convincing them.
Swarthy forms filled the Wisdom’s deck before a curtain strung across it on the night when Vella Lavella saw its first motion picture. The shock of its appearance was greeted with a yell of terror. Up sprang the warriors in a confusion of struggling limbs. Those nearest the rail jumped overboard and swam ashore. Others pressed behind, remembered their record for bravery, hesitated and stood their ground.
“Oh, oh!” howled Buli. “Devil-devil!”
“See!” I shouted, clapping my friend Buli on the shoulder, “he is alive. He is not hurt!” I made them feel each other to prove that no one was dead or injured.
Meantime this new devil-devil, whose spirit was in the beam of light which shone upon the curtain, awakened all manner of fears in their startled minds. They found their voices. A panic of cries and pointing fingers broke loose. Here and there Berche-la-mer asserted itself.
“Oh, him no b’long here! Him no b’long here.”
How could Buli be sitting among them the while his spirit danced upon the curtain?
Although still badly frightened, a number of them were induced to touch the sheet and convince themselves that the devil-devil was novel [?], making pictures of their acts while they, themselves, were unharmed.
The savages examined first one side of the screen, then the other. How was it possible for a man suddenly to become so thin! The projection machine stopped. The figures on the sheet disappeared. I had to quell another panic. “Where had the warriors gone?”
Through Buli I explained that in my box was a magic eye which saw everything they did and several days afterwards this eye would tell on a sheet what it had seen them do. I told them that when I returned to my own island the magic eye would tell my people what a brave nation of warriors they were, and how they lived and danced and fought.
“Great medicine!” they responded, and told one another that this box of the magic eye was white man’s big medicine, which could drive the ills out of a sick body and do many wonderful things.”
I’m just putting this out-there, but there would be other stories from the colonial past that would be similar. In fact, there’s another example available on Picturegoing, and Tom Gunning wrote an entire article about this figure of the “(in)credulous spectator”, ranging from the myth of the “first” audience running away from the Lumière film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, to
“the state usually attributed to savages in their primal encounter with the advanced technology of Western colonialists, howling and feeling in impotent terror before the power of the machine”. (Gunning Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator.” Art and Text 34 (Spring 1989): 31-45.)
I think the onus is on Roth to explain how he squares the contradictions, also obvious in the 1922 text, between the pretense of “discovery” of an uncontacted tribe — the pretense, to be more precise, that this status as “uncontacted” truly matters — and the “corruption” that he makes light of (or, in Salibury’s text, the pretense that the film is a “documentary”, and the grooming of villagers as actors via film). At least in Roth’s story the tribe is so media-savvy that they immediately recognise that the cannibal horror film is a joke–and so we are led to think that the on-film portrayal of the tribe as “barbaric, primitive” (Roth’s words!!) is also just a joke.
I have my doubts as to whether Roth’s film itself will endanger uncontacted tribes, as AmazonWatch, for instance, and other such NGOs that do tremendous work protecting these tribes, have argued. And I certainly don’t think censoring the film is a solution. But what is for me very clear is that the whole trope of the “primitive” tribe being “cannibal” and learning about “modern” civilisation through watching movies but remaining somewhat “primitive” has a long and disgusting history. Maybe, as Roth argues, it’s all a joke–but it’s a sad, tired joke, and surely we can do better.
Or, in an even more disquieting way, does it speak about some sort of on-going Western panic attack about all these Others knocking on our rich world’s doors, in a way that No Escape, apparently, also does?
September 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
Not that I am necessarily a great believer in the metaphor of the ghosts of the silent screen, but
a) there is enough evidence to make the links between spiritism and silent cinema (see Valentino’s séances for one) quite intriguing — how much reality was/is there, then, in images of silent films?
b) turning a film studio into an art installation, and film shooting into performance art, is a rather seductive idea that would deserve more work;
and c) i haven’t posted anything on this blog for quite a while.
But I had missed this back in 2012: Guy Maddin’s installation of silent studio shoot / spiritism / art installation / chasing after films that have vanished at the Centre Pompidou:
and it seems the film Maddin has managed to piece together from these experiences will open at the London Film Festival next month: The Forbidden Room.
Enough serendipity to drive one mad!
November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
As usual, David Bordwell’s post on the psychology of movie-watching is essential reading as it surveys a whole century of theories trying to explain what happens in audiences’ minds as they watch movies, engage with them or (as some theories have it), submit to them. It ends, unsurprisingly, with a plea for a naturalistic, cognitivism-based explanation of movie-watching: basically, we make sense of movies because of thousands of years of visual cognition that have allowed us to read visual clues, make inferences, test visual hypothesis about movement, danger, and so on. Films (of the Hollywood narrative kind) are popular because they are easy to follow because they ask for cognitive skills that we are born with.
True as this certainly is, I cannot help but think that there is one aspect of film studies that is conspicuously missing from this account: cultural studies. Yet (especially British) cultural studies have been quite vocal, since the 1980s (30 years ago!), that audience activity in making sense of what they watch had to take into account viewing contexts, local cultures, family habits, and so on. See David Morley’s pioneering work on British TV audiences, or more recently Martin Barker’s work on young audiences to action movies. But none of this makes it into Bordwell’s account, where the drift in explaining movie-watching is universalising, all-encompassing, and in the end so general as to fail to truly explain anything. It’s almost as if Bordwell is looking for the killer-app here: groomed into the fight against Grand Theory, which he has masterfully waged and, in my view, won, he seemed to still be looking for the one theory that will make all theories moot–and that this theory is cognitivism, supported by the non-humanistic (ergo vague?) science of the brain. End of history, end of quest: humanities resting on the firm ground of experimental medical science.
But meaning-making is what we still need to explain: every act of movie-watching is particular. Our eyes may, indeed, spend more time on average looking at the center of the frame — but they do wander to the edges, too. What does a close-up of a tropical plant mean for an audience in Sumatra? In London? to an audience of Polish immigrants in London? How do we account for dreaming at and with the movies? What of the processes of remembering a film to account for the pleasures of cinema? And so on and so forth. Cinema, as proliferating ethnographic studies of audiences establish, still today, in our so globalised world, does not mean at all the same to different audiences around the world… And its circulation, in cultures, memories, expanding media, continues to force us to confront movie-watching as a rich phenomenon.
It seems to me, to simplify, that cognitivism explains why audiences, when confronted to a film, are able to see a coherent object rather than an unrelated hodgepodge of visual stimuli. Just as cognitivism may explain how we are able, when confronted with the multiple stimuli of everyday life, to make make sense of the world around us — as opposed to perceiving a mess of visual impulses. But it does not address the question of meaning. And it certainly does not do justice to the richness of the processes, strategies, imaginaries deployed by audiences when watching a film.
October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
Readers of this blog may find this CfP interesting:
Historically, studies of performance have often been tied to star images, focusing on issues of celebrity in professional, public, and private spaces. As a result, a large body of research has explored how the star is constructed through extratextual discourses and how this off-screen persona may shape perceptions of on-screen performance. However, scholarly attention to performers has been shifting from star image and celebrity to acting and performance. Several collections on film acting and performance – most recently Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s Reframing Screen Performance (2008) and Aaron Taylor’s Theorizing Film Acting (2012) – have extended our knowledge of the historical evolution of acting practices. The editors of The Velvet Light Trap would like to further the ongoing conversation surrounding performance studies by focusing attention on the relationship between performance and the body and the ways in which the body is being performed across the mediums of film, television, and new media.
Such unavoidably embodied performances as Buster Keaton’s physical comedy and Misty Copeland’s athletic Under Armour ad serve to foreground a fundamental, yet often taken for granted, premise: the body is the central locus of performance. Through movement, gesture, facial expressions, and vocalizations, the body provides the basic physical language of performance. Yet this language is neither fixed nor ideologically neutral but is instead continuously shaped and reshaped by historical and cultural pressures brought to bear on the body as contested site of identity. Much scholarly work has been attentive to identity construction and the body: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), Kathleen Rowe’s The Unruly Woman (1995), and Deborah Harris Moore’s Media and the Rhetoric of Body Perfection (2014), for example, have explored identity issues pertaining to body shaming, body disorders, bodily violence, expressions of sexuality, and gender and sexuality performativity. Moreover, as Baron, Diane Carson, and Frank Tomasulo argue in More than a Method (2004), performative mediations of the body “lie at the intersection of art, technology, and culture” (p. 1). Thus, the representational practices through which bodies are enacted offer particularly fertile ground for interrogating the production and reception of performance from both interpretive and historical perspectives. Recent developments in new media (such as video games, social media, YouTube) and digital technologies (such as motion capture, 3D, and Photoshop) may have shifted how the body is viewed, visualized, and altered. The body can now appear in otherwise impossible situations or be changed into otherwise impossible shapes.
Issue #77 of TVLT, “Performance and the Body,” seeks both to advance discussions of the centrality of the body to performance studies and to encourage greater scholarly attention to performative bodies across mediums. The editors are particularly interested in work focusing on the performance of the body through movement and voice; the aesthetic and ideological construction of performative bodies through fashion, makeup, body modification, and digital manipulations; and digital performance of virtual bodies. For this issue, the editors seek to bring together original scholarship that engages new theoretical frameworks, archival sources, and historical perspectives that encourage re-evaluations of this crucial aspect of media studies.
Suggested topics include, but are by no means limited to:
● Performative bodies and the construction of identity (gender; sexuality; queerness; transgenderism; race; ethnicity; nationality; age; ability; political beliefs; nationalism)
● Body modification as a performative practice (body augmentation and plastic surgery; extreme weight changes; the use of makeup and prosthetics)
● Training the performing body (athletic training; military training; dance training; musical training; vocal training)
● Performing bodily excess (representations of the drugged or drunken body; the grotesque body; death; illness; bodily violence; sex acts)
● Performing the Other (blackface performance; racial masquerade; performing queerness; cross-gender performance; stereotyping bodies; voices; and accents)
● The performance of the body through costume and dress
● Laboring bodies (body doubles; stunt doubles; stand-ins; Steadicam operators)
● Digital technologies and performance (performance in video and role-playing games; virtual reality user performance; digital resurrection; Photoshopping or airbrushing the body; robotic and non-human performers)
● Performing animated bodies (vocal performance; motion-capture; rotoscoping; anatomical studies in producing animated bodies)
● Supporting bodies (background performers; stand-ins; stunt performers)
● Social media and YouTube (selfies; Instagram; YouTube makeup/fashion tutorials)
● Non-traditional body performance studies (animal performance)
● Genre and performance (action film performance and “hard bodies”; performing bodily humor; “body genres”)
● The body and performance style (early cinema; silent/transitional; classical; Method acting; pastiching performance styles; performance styles in an actor’s “body of work”)
● Performing “real” bodies (biopics; performers playing themselves; cameo performances)
● Multiple bodies performing a single character and single performers representing multiple bodies (double casting; body/voice doubles; replacing performers in long-running texts)
● Fans as performers/producers (reenacting and reproducing performances through cosplay; adjusting celebrity bodies in photo manipulations; fan art; and fan vids)
Submissions should be between 8,000 and 10,000 words, formatted in Chicago style. Please submit an electronic copy of the paper, along with a separate one-page abstract, both saved as a Microsoft Word file. Remove any identifying information so that the submission is suitable for anonymous review. The entire essay, including block quotations and notes, should be double spaced. Photocopies of illustrations are sufficient for initial review, but authors should be prepared to supply camera-ready photographs on request. Illustrations will be sized by the publisher. Permissions are the responsibility of the author. Send electronic manuscripts and/or any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Journal
TVLT is a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal of film, television, and new media. It publishes articles and interviews written with the highest scholarly standards yet accessible to a broad range of readers. The journal draws on a variety of theoretical and historiographic approaches from the humanities and social sciences and welcomes any effort that will help foster the ongoing processes of evaluation and negotiation in media history and criticism.
Graduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Texas at Austin coordinate issues in alternation. TVLT’s Editorial Advisory Board includes such notable scholars as Charles Acland, Richard Allen, Mark Betz, Michael Curtin, Kay Dickinson, Scott Higgins, Jon Kraszewski, Nicholas Sammond, Jacob Smith, Jonathan Sterne, and Cristina Venegas. TVLT’s local advisors include: Mary Beltrán, Ben Brewster, Jonathan Gray, Michele Hilmes, Lea Jacobs, Derek Johnson, Vance Kepley, Shanti Kumar, Charles Ramírez Berg, Thomas Schatz, and Janet Staiger.
Courtesy of digra.org.