Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Summary: Dan Bashara on UPA Cartoons and Prewar Modernism

On Thursday, Jan 13, 2011, Dan Bashara, PhD student at Northwestern University, gave a talk entitled "Useful in the Abstract: UPA Cartoons and Prewar Modernism." Bruce Jenkins of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago provided the response.

In his talk, Bashara focused on postwar animation’s relationship to Precisionism, an often overlooked strand of American modernist painting that first appeared in the late teens and proliferated in the 1920s, going into decline thereafter until the rise of Abstract Expressionism supplanted it on the national radar. The practitioners of this modernist animation style, among which the most prominent was the United Productions of America, were rooted in artistic sources that were concerned with developing a distinctly homegrown modernism that operated outside the orbit of Abstract Expressionism (the privileged example in most histories of American modernist painting).

Precisionism, and the period in which it flourished, was marked by a search for a uniquely American art, one that could be modernist without being European, and that could address changes in the experience of space and time without merely copying Cubism or resorting to an outmoded, pastoral brand of realism. The loosely-grouped Precisionist painters adapted European modernism to the American landscape, seeking a way to make it relevant their own geography, history and culture, often turning their attention to industrial and architectural imagery. “The essence of the Precisionist aesthetic,” one art historian writes, “was an objectivist synthesis of abstraction and realism, manifested by hard-edged, static, smoothly-brushed, simplified forms rendered in unmodulated colors.” Concepts of order and organization, also hugely prominent in industrial and scientific culture and discourse of the time, were often understood to be the pervasive underlying idea in Precisionist works.

By the early 1950s, the work of UPA was at the forefront of American animation. Its aesthetic was characterized by a basic set of visual stylistic options: hard-edged, simplified forms; bold, unmodulated colors; evacuation of detail; a minimalist environmental surround often reduced to bare-bones geometric lines, regular patterns or flat color planes; the abolition of rounded, centerline character design; and a relaxed – to put it mildly – implementation of Renaissance perspective. The look of the UPA cartoons, along with the aesthetic discourse of their animators, was often strikingly similar to that of the Precisionists, representing a significant engagement with modernity rather than the fashionable appropriation of modernist style by the popular arts that is frequently described in animation histories. The “cubistic” style of the UPA cartoons that resulted, were, like Precisionist painting, based in cubistic forms found in the American cityscape: skyscrapers, bridges, turbines, etc. It is, Bashara, argues, a variation on Precionism’s modernism, the meticulous and ordered engagement with vision and the outer world.

In his response, Bruce Jenkins strongly endorsed Bashara’s account of UPA’s aesthetic origins. He disagreed somewhat with the common characterization of Walt Disney, whose style served as a strong contrast for both Bashara’s argument and for the UPA animators themselves. Disney’s style, Jenkins observed, should not be understood as photographic realism (which is, of course, distinct from UPA’s quasi-abstracted style), but rather as an adaptation of painterly traditions from the 18th and 19th centuries. Jenkins also noted that photography actually played a huge role in Precisionist painting: painter Charles Sheeler was a prominent, prolific photographer (and an early avant-garde filmmaker), but, also, it was photography that actually permitted the aerial perspectives on which key Precisionist cityscapes were modeled. Jenkins additionally noted the importance of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and the Bauhaus school of design, as well as the influence of animator Oskar Fischinger, on the UPA animators and their sources.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

NEW DATE: Gregory Waller on Thurs, Feb 10

Last week's weather-plagued Chicago Film Seminar has been rescheduled for this Thursday, Feb 10 at 6:30. Please join the CFS to welcome Gregory Waller for his talk "Tracking the Nontheatrical: The American Cinema in 1915." Gregory Waller is a professor in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Scott Curtis (Northwestern) will respond. 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, Feb 10 at 6:30pm
Gregory A. Waller (Indiana University), "Tracking the Nontheatrical: The American Cinema in 1915"
Respondent: Scott Curtis (Northwestern)

Waller describes his talk as follows:

Instead of asking "what is cinema?" I propose reframing this question: what was cinema in a specific time and place­-say, in the United States in 1915, the year of the Mutual Decision and The Birth of a Nation, Chaplin’s The Tramp and the continuing consolidation of Hollywood? And, further, how was this historically specific cinema constituted and constructed not only though films, production practices, and industry-driven discourses, but also though the circulation and exhibition of moving pictures outside as well as inside of what we think of as the film industry and the commercial movie theater? Framed in this way, the nontheatrical figures as an essential aspect of the history of cinema. Like the often-related notion of educational film, the nontheatrical has no singular or constant meaning, for it is historically grounded, always subject to redefinition and realignment. Focusing on the traces left in local newspapers, trade magazines, and other publications, I'll track, in a preliminary way, how certain versions of the non-theatrical and the educational--separately or in tandem--were understood, promoted, and put into practice in 1915.

Gregory Waller:
Scott Curtis:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Summary: Mark Williams on MINORITY REPORT

On Thursday, Dec 2, 2010, Mark Williams (Dartmouth) presented a talk entitled “Closely Belated? Thoughts on Real-Time Media Publics and Minority Report” at the Chicago Film Seminar. James Lastra (University of Chicago) provided the response.

This talk considered the “relationship between issues of citizenship, temporality, and media culture through an address to particular configurations of the techno-future” in Steven Spielberg’s 2003 science fiction film, Minority Report. Set in a future in which crime is prevented before it happens, the film builds its premise around the issue of human choice, and how this important principle, and its technological mediation, can define the actions of the state. Building on previous work of his, in which he discussed how the significant relationship between what are termed televisual “liveness” and computer-mediated “real time” form an electronic culture dispositif.

The term “liveness”, Williams asserts, has shifted in meaning from a broadcast that is taking place simultaneous to its electronic transmission to any description of what an electronic medium is representing at this moment, what it is showing now. The transmission of electronic media become less “live” (in the original sense of the term) and as the temporality of its consumption grows more complex with the development of surfing, zipping and time-shifting devices (first VCR’s and now DVR’s). In this way, it is helpful to understand “liveness” as a mutable, historically situational effect. Computer-related electronic media, in contrast, are characterized by the properties and desires of “real time,” as evidenced by demand for ever-faster data processing and downloading capabilities.

Taken together, “liveness” and “real time” can be understood to possess the synergistic capacity for a frenzy of the temporal, such that reference to time as a traditional anchor for certainty achieves a fluidity that questions the relationship of the present to what might have and what will occur. Williams introduces the phrase “real-time subjunctive” to describe these creative dynamics within cyber-culture. The rise of digital culture, and its attendant pressure to render and actualize the near future, can thus be seen to have produced evidence of a pressure toward different states of belief as regards our relationships to media, typically taken for granted, and the complexities of which we disavow. Minority Report addresses subjectivity through these terms of mediated belief, temporality and disavowal. In particular, the film utilizes a DVR-like device that then allows the possibility not just of replay and pausing the image, but of representing what is to come in the near future. This premise of “subjunctive temporal fluidity” is situated within two temporalities in the film: the mobile, interactive consumerist public sphere in which each person is bombarded with a persistent “now” of advertisements responding to his individual history and movement, and the temporality of trauma, represented here through one protagonist grieving the loss of his child and another the murder of her mother. Traumatic traces, in the form of moving images of deceased loved ones, complicate a provocative possible relationship between the tropes of mediated temporal frenzy and those of the temporal dynamics of societal trauma, especially as regards the politics of media and public memory.