Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, December 27, 2010

Dan Bashara on UPA Cartoons and Pre-War Modernism

Please join the Chicago Film Seminar on Thursday, Jan 13 (please note new date) at 6:30 pm to welcome Dan Bashara for his talk "Useful in the Abstract: UPA Cartoons and Pre-War Modernism." Bashara is a PhD candidate in the Screen Cultures program at Northwestern University. Bruce Jenkins from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will provide the response. The CFS will be held, as always, in the Flaxman Theater, Room 1307 of the School of the Art Institute's building at 112 S. Michigan Ave.

Thursday, Jan 13 at 6:30pm
Dan Bashara, "Useful in the Abstract: UPA Cartoons and Pre-War Modernism"
Respondent: Bruce Jenkins (SAIC)
For more information on this and other CFS events, please visit our website at

Bashara describes his talk as follows:

In histories of animation, the fabled "modern" style of the post-WWII American cartoon, perhaps best exemplified by the film studio United Productions of America and its Oscar-winning characters Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing, is often treated as an outgrowth of mid-century modernism. With their simplified, geometric shapes and flat planes of bold colors, UPA cartoons appear during the postwar proliferation of Abstract Expressionism and minimalist design, supposedly adapting these innovations to the medium of animation. This paper aims to resituate UPA animation within the historical context of Precisionism, a form of modernist painting that developed in America in the 1920s. I argue that 1950s animation did not emerge fully formed from the mid-century design boom, but rather is a resurgence of this earlier modernism and its attendant concerns of order and the establishment of a new, more efficient mode of vision. In so doing, I aim to expand our idea of the cultural work the postwar cartoon was presumed to do, and to highlight its more "serious" engagements with an often overlooked iteration of American modernism.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Session #4: Mark Williams on Minority Report (Dec 2)

The Chicago Film Seminar welcomes Dartmouth's Mark Williams to deliver his talk "Closely Belated? Thoughts on Real-Time Media Publics and Minority Report." Williams describes his talk as follows:

Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002) is renowned as an exemplary instance of the cyber-noir thriller. Even in an age of media convergence and consolidation, motion pictures can function as key sites of interlocution for the structuring of desires and anxieties about political and socio-economic dynamics and effects. Minority Report is rather rich in such opportunities for analysis, although despite the assuredness of its conceit and dramatic structure, I find more compelling what the film cannot resolve quite so neatly--what we might call its belated thematics. Via methods that derive from television studies, I will consider the film in relation to what I call "real-time" desires that condition its configurations of digital culture, the techno-future, and personal/social trauma.

Mark Williams is an Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies at Dartmouth College. He has published widely on film and television and is the founding editor of The Journal of e-Media Studies.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Summary: Andrew Johnston, “Coding Patterns: The Algorithmic Mechanisms of John Whitney, Larry Cuba and Early Digital Animation”

On Thursday, Nov 4, Andrew Johnston of the University of Chicago delivered his talk “Coding Patterns: The Algorithmic Mechanisms of John Whitney, Larry Cuba and Early Digital Animation,” from a chapter of his dissertation. Jon Cates, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, provided the response.

Johnston proposed an understanding of digitality based in what he likes to call the “stuff of the digital” – its materials, the processes by which it works and is made, its hardware and its software. To do this he explored the techniques used by abstract animators John Whitney and Larry Cuba to create digital films in the 1960s and 1970s. Using research from interviews he conducted with the filmmakers and programmers as well as from a study of the Whitney archives, Johnston described the complex and time-consuming (as well as time-delayed) methods by which Whitney and Cuba developed computer animation from what might be understood as the aesthetics of the algorithm. Whitney’s animation signaled an attempt to produce an abstract visual art of motion structured in time which has a perceptual impact that is akin to the one music can generate. Unlike other forms of animation, his films are not meant to transport the viewer into a transcendent state or otherly world of abstraction. Rather, it is meant to generate an aesthetic pleasure rooted in the eye, one based in pattern recognition.

Addressing the uneasy placement of animation in the discipline of film studies, and the even more uneasy understanding of abstract digital animation within studies of animation, Johnston argues that animation is the technological programming and projection of movement, a definition that highlights the way in which animation is born from a technological articulation and ordering of artifacts – a definition that can encompass traditional animation of sequentially-ordered photographs, direct animation on celluloid frames, or the inputting of code to render images. Each process, Johnston notes, is dependent upon a technologically mediated process of selection that results in the projection of an arrangement of images in moving succession. Whitney, for one, recognized the similarities between these different procedures and likened the inputting of code to the manipulation of discrete frames of film.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Summary: Christian Quendler, "Camera-Eye and Dispositif: Descartes vs. Vertov"

On Thursday, Oct. 14, the Chicago Film Seminar convened at the SAIC for its first regular meeting of the year (following the September roundtable discussion that kicked off this year’s programs). Christian Quendler of the University of Innsbruck, currently a visiting scholar at Northwestern University, delivered a talk entitled “Camera Eye and Dispositif: Descartes vs. Vertov,” from a longer essay-in-progress. Yuri Tsivian from the University of Chicago provided the response.

Quendler’s talk brought together the philosophical implications of a pre-cinematic notion of the camera eye rooted in Descartes’ philosophy of subject and Vertov’s notion of the kino-eye. Following Joachim Paech’s writings on Deleuze, Quendler posited a nuanced gradation of the medial aspects of dispositif by adding the rhetorical notion of the disposition and the psychological category of disposition to the discussion. Using Descartes’ and Vertov’s competing models of camera eye, Quendler mapped out the interrelations between media, discourse and senses. The dispositif refers to a space of interaction and communication between subject and object that is organized by media assemblies where things become visible and virtually available to be identified discursively. The disposition refers to an intentional ordering of things in discourse in order to achieve a certain persuasive effect, or the logic or grammar that structures an argument. Disposition may be considered as a virtual system of knowledge in contrast to the actual manifestations of knowledge. As a triad, these concepts structure the intervening spaces where intentionality as the flow between subject and object is refracted.

In his discussion of Vertov, Quendler noted that writings on the kino-eye illustrate the state of in-betweenness attributed to the dispositive. It blends subject and object as well as being and praxis. The paramount goal of the kino-eye is kinesthetic resolution, which can be correlated to Descartes’ notion “seeing better”. However, while Descartes’ imperative is geared towards ascertaining an autonomous object, Vertov’s resolution is best described as the visceral effect that result from calibrating technology to the chaos of life. In a Deleuzian sense, Quendler asserted, the kino-eye represents a threshold where different kinds of discourse break and discourse. Vertov’s kino-eye aligns with a highly heterogeneous discourse regime, which raises the question of the discursive order. Quendler views Vertov’s kino-eye as a model of camera vision that places an emphasis on “seeing more.” In contrast to Descartes, the visceral appeal of the kino-eye conceives of a linkage between camera and eye as “internal organs.” In its experimental alignment of medial and dispositional structures, the kino-eye generates a discursive order that is radically at odds with Descartes’ method of discourse and classical notions of subjectivity.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Session #3: Andrew Johnston on Early Digital Animation (Nov 4)

It's that time again! This Thursday, November 4, the Chicago Film Seminar welcomes Andrew Johnston, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago to present his talk "Coding Patterns: The Algorithmic Mechanisms of John Whitney, Larry Cuba and Early Digital Animation." Jon Cates, Associate Professor of Film, Video, New Media & Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, will provide the formal response before opening Q&A to the whole group.

Here is the brief abstract Johnston has submitted in advance of his talk:

This paper examines the development of digital filmmaking and animation technologies in the 1960s and 1970s through an analysis of John Whitney and Larry Cuba’s films. Whitney made some of the first digital animations while an artist in residence at IBM from 1966-1969 and later worked with a variety of programmers through the 1970s, including Larry Cuba on "Arabesque" (1975). Through an analysis of the materials employed in the construction of Whitney and Cuba’s films, my paper attempts to make an intervention into contemporary discourses that highlight the ephemeral nature of digital film or that neglect the importance of how specific platforms and programming languages affect both visual aesthetics and notions of digital technology. I show how these filmmakers were each deeply invested in working through a negotiation with digital technology that attempts to reveal both the mechanism’s expressive logic and its limitations while simultaneously exploring the nature of animation.

Location: This session will meet in our usual space, at the School of the Art Institute, 112 S. Michigan Ave, Room 1307, starting promptly at 6:30pm.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Session #2: Christian Quendler on Descartes and Vertov (Oct 14)

This Thursday, October 14, the Chicago Film Seminar begins its regular season meetings with Christian Quendler of the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and currently a visitor to the Radio/TV/Film Department of Northwestern University. He will present his talk "Camera-Eye and Dispositif: René Descartes vs. Dziga Vertov." The response will be provided by Yuri Tsivian of the University of Chicago.

What follows is a brief abstract Quendler has submitted for this talk:

Metaphors of the camera eye are among the oldest and most powerful tropes to depict human vision and subjectivity. As a proto-cybernetic metaphor that lends itself both to anthropomorphic and mechanomorphic readings, the camera eye has become a double agent of subjectivity. It has served as midwife for a modern philosophy of the subject in René Descartes's discourse on Optics and as a gravedigger for classical notions of subjectivity in Dziga Vertov's radically constructivist aesthetics of the kino-eye. By looking at Descartes's early modern and Vertov's modernist notions of the camera eye as two paradigmatic case studies, this paper examines the intricate relation between subjectivity and mediality. It examines figures of the camera eye as conceptual metaphors that construct subjective relations to orders of discourse and media spaces. Drawing on Joachim Paech's reflections on the dispositif for a theory of the order(ing) of media, Quendler will review the concept of the dispositif as a strategic place in the alignment of medium, discourse and genre.

Location: Unlike our kickoff, this session will meet in our usual space, at the School of the Art Institute, 112 S. Michigan Ave, Room 1307, starting promptly at 6:30pm.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Note from Dudley Andrew

Though he cannot join us for Thursday's kickoff session of the 2010-11 Chicago Film Seminar, Dudley Andrew has kindly offered some words about his book What Cinema Is in advance of our panel discussion. Here, he underscores and in some ways expands the sense of the book's core assertions as they were crystallized in the prompt that the CFS officers circulated in advance to our scheduled speakers.

"I shouldn't try to inflect Thursday's discussion since I had an entire book to say what I wanted to say, but I do worry that the provocative passage excerpted from the book on the blog's 'invitation' for Thursday may unduly limit discussion. The 'feature film' is not meant to absorb all the attention of the book and shouldn't absorb the attention of the discussion. True, I do call it the bull's eye in the concentric rings of a target, but I also say that we should be concerned with the entire target. Nor is the bull's eye necessarily a normative assessment of value (50 points if you hit it, only 30 points if you hit the documentaries that circle it in the next ring, 20 points for animation etc).

"I wanted to keep in view the 'centrality' that the feature played in film studies when the field gained its great strength in the 1960s and especially the 1970s. So this is a description of both the cinema when it thought itself unrivaled, as well as cinema studies when it felt sure of its coming power. I do think we should recognize this moment of postulated ascendancy, and it is associated with strong feature films, modern ones, not 'classical' as the blog's invitation has it. But my book itself needs to deal with other forms and it addresses such works as WWII docs (The Battle of Midway, Battle of San Pietro, Why we Fight), the two great Resnais docs of 1955-56, plus Les Maîtres fous). These short films are directly in the 'line' I am intent to trace and they help to produce it. As for experimental work of this modernist period, from Maya Deren to Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage, it forms another line, one that was and remains personally important to me, but that was parallel to, not part of, the line that emerges clearest in my last chapter. Bazin himself of course wrote on all sorts of non-features as well as on animation and TV shows. He was a media-fiend; but the main line of his ideas came through features and documentaries (films of exploration, of painting, etc). So don't let my initial plea for a concentrated corpus completely take over Thursday's discussion. It has a place in discussion but not a constitutive place.

"Finally, let me wish you a good discussion where the target may be my book, or at least its title (and without benefit of concentric circles), but where the real goal is the expression of new ideas and understandings. May these come in abundance."

Thanks, then, to Dudley Andrew for taking the time to say more about the motivating impetus of the book and the range of its investments—and for taking the very welcome initiative to make this blog a site for additional conversation, before, about, and after our formal Thursday sessions. Again, feel free to register your own first impressions about What Cinema Is or the questions you'll be bringing with you on Thursday night in the comments.

Reminders: Today is the deadline to RSVP if you'd like to stay around for dinner after Thursday's discussion. See the previous entry for more info about the format of the evening and about practical logistics of location, parking, etc.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Session #1: Responding to What Cinema Is! (Sept 23)

(Note: read to bottom of message for important info about unusual location for this session and follow-up meal!)

The Chicago Film Seminar kicks off its annual season of formal presentations on Thursday, September 23 at 6:30pm with a moderated workshop of short responses to Dudley Andrew's What Cinema Is!: Bazin's Quest and Its Charge, the cornerstone text for this year's CFS programming. Hometown all-stars James Lastra (U.Chicago), Lynn Spigel (Northwestern), Virginia Wright Wexman (UIC), and Pamela Robertson Wojcik (Notre Dame) will commence the session with a series of 10-minute reactions to Andrew's book, including the claims it ventures and the larger questions it prompts, all of which will ramify—in spirit, thought not always to the letter—across the rest of this year's presentations.

After our series of invited responses, the workshop session will open outward to a general discussion of the book and the speakers' points, as moderated by Scott Curtis of Northwestern. We encourage you to read what you can of Andrew's book before next Thursday, to facilitate the most substantial possible exchanges. However, both the book and the workshop format are structured to solicit commentary from a wide range of perspectives, relating to issues of key pertinence for anyone in the field. Indeed, the subtitle for our workshop is "The State of Film & Media Studies Today," in which we all have strong investments. So come one, and come all!

Location: This session will not meet in our usual Michigan Avenue location, but in Room 150 of the Arthur Rubloff Building at the Northwestern University School of Law (375 E. Chicago Ave). Suggestions for parking are here and here. The Red Line Chicago/State stop is also a great option, as are a dozen CTA bus lines and, for those with access, the Northwestern Intercampus Shuttle.

Dinner: An on-site dinner reception to celebrate the new year of CFS will immediately follow the seminar. If you plan on attending the reception, please RSVP using this link to our new CFS coordinator, Adam Hart, by Monday, Sept. 20th.

Links: Check in with our previous blog entry to read more about What Cinema Is! and its role in this year's programming for CFS, including links where you can buy the book. Click on the names of all four of our speakers in the right-hand sidebar to access their faculty bios.

In the Comments: Have you already read Andrew's book? Do you have specific thoughts or questions you'll be bringing to Thursday's session, or that you hope our speakers might engage?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What Cinema Is: The 2010-11 Theme

The coordinators of the Chicago Film Seminar have taken the unusual step this year of organizing its yearly slate of speakers around a unified theme, taking Dudley Andrew's recent book What Cinema Is! as either a direct or an indirect point of departure. Here is a copy of the prompt distributed to the invited presenters:

"In What Cinema Is! Bazin's Quest and Its Charge (Blackwell, 2010), Dudley Andrew posits classical cinema—fictional feature films made between 1938-1968—as the norm, not as a way of defending the canon for its own sake, but for the sake of defending 'an instinct of looking and listening' that developed out of long, critical engagement with that form of cinema. For Andrew, 'the legacy surrounding the feature film has caused the most heated and robust debates in film theory,' and if we are to cherish anything in a time of disciplinary upheaval, we should treasure the energy and focus behind those debates. Indeed, 'such debates...have made cinema studies among the liveliest sites in the humanities for the past half-century. The prospect of the decline of those debates is more worrisome than the putative mutation of their topic.'

"For Andrew, then, it all starts and returns to the feature film and 'the intensity and the focus that films invite and sometimes demand.' As long as we define cinema in multiple ways, according to Andrew, we risk losing the focus that created and defined our field. We invite you to present your latest work as an explicit or implicit response to this idea."

Please join us this year for a series of talks that, in their own ways, will take up some of Andrew's concerns, implicitly or explicitly suggesting some direct replies to his claims.

Links: Buy What Cinema Is! from Wiley-Blackwell or from Amazon

In the Comments: Any thoughts already on Andrew's book, or the CFS theme? Any questions you hope we might consider over the course of the year in relation to 'What Cinema Is,' either during our evening sessions or here on the blog?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Welcome to the CFS Blog

The organizers of the Chicago Film Seminar hope that this blog can achieve multiple purposes for the CFS:

  • Announcing and profiling upcoming speakers
  • Posting abstracts or summaries of CFS presentations
  • Posting summaries of formal responses to talks
  • Allowing for more sustained discussion of the content of these talks, or of other ongoing research projects, new books or articles, etc.
  • Providing links to local film and media departments, resources, and special events
  • Sustaining a communal conversation that encourages greater attendance at monthly talks
  • Encouraging more forms of energetic involvement with the CFS, and ongoing discussions about its goals and prospects

    Please stay tuned as this blog develops. We look forward to seeing you in the comment threads, and at our 2010-11 presentations!

    In the Comments: As a new or a longstanding participant in CFS, what would you most like to see happen on this blog? How can it serve to enrich our Thursday night presentations and conversations, and how can it take on a productive, enjoyable life of its own?