Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 26, 2015

December 4: The Littlest Rebel

Please join Black Cinema House and Chicago Film Seminar on Friday, December 4, 7:00pm, for a screening and discussion of The Littlest Rebel (David Butler, 1935, 74 min). Jacqueline Stewart (University of Chicago, Professor of Cinema & Media Studies, BCH curator) and Miriam Petty (Northwestern University, Assistant Professor of Radio/TV/Film) will introduce and lead discussion afterward.  

Black Cinema House describes the screening as follows:

Featuring the most enduring pairing of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, The Littlest Rebel focuses on the tribulations of a plantation-owning family during the Civil War. As battles rage and the family is caught trying to flee, the little girl and the slave perform musical numbers together to raise money and secure a pardon from President Lincoln. The Littlest Rebel is also a testament to the enduring cultural practice of blackface minstrelsy, featuring a scene that often surprises contemporary viewers in which Temple, pretending to be a child slave, appears in blackface. Robinson and Temple formed the first interracial dance team on film, and The Littlest Rebel is a strong example of the complex cultural dynamics that governed their performances together.

Please note that the screening and discussion will be held at:

Black Cinema House
7200 South Kimbark Avenue
Chicago, IL

Summary: Scott Curtis, “Experts and Their Images: Vision, Form, and the Historiography of Media Use”

On October 29th, Professor Scott Curtis (Northwestern University) delivered a talk, titled “Experts and Their Images: Vision, Form, and the Historiography of Media Use,” at the Chicago Film Seminar. A response was provided by Oliver Gaycken (University of Maryland). Using case studies from his book The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (Columbia University Press), Curtis explored the implications of non-theatrical films (specifically those made by experts such as scientists, physicians, and educators) for film and media historiography. He began by stating the objective of his project: “At the broadest level, I am interested in the criteria for the legitimacy of motion picture technology as a tool or good object within specific disciplines or communities. The book focuses on Germany before World War I to examine the interaction between motion pictures and four disciplines: science (specifically human motion studies, physics, and biology), medicine, education, and aesthetics. Why would these experts use film? What problems presented themselves such that motion pictures were at least a partial solution?” This talk explored the role of film form in these expert appropriations.

Examining the experts’ own writings on their implementation of motion picture technology, his first argument is that the successful appropriation of technology by an expert filmmaker depends on a correspondence between the logic of the discipline—the collective thought style of an expert group, including its investigatory or problem-solving methods and ideological assumptions—and the formal features of the technology, as manifested by the patterns of use. He explained: “In some scientific disciplines, the ability of film to frame and isolate the object under study and to expand or compress time were analogous to features of scientific experiments, such as the ability to isolate variables and to extend observational duration. In other disciplines, film’s temporal discontinuity, indicated by the gap between film frames, matched theoretical assumptions about the discreteness of the physical world, as in physics experiments using film to confirm theories of Brownian motion. For education and aesthetics, the logic of the discipline was less about solving problems than about describing goals or mental operations to attain those goals. For educators interested in the use of film, the consonance between the detail and duration of the moving image and the richness of the natural world created an analogy between the (perceived) realism of the image and the goal of visual instruction, which was to teach students to dwell on natural detail, recognize objects, and place them in logical and social contexts.” As each group worked with film within its discipline, it privileged some formal features over others.

If the larger argument of the book concerns the correspondence between technology’s formal features and the logic of the discipline, then the specific argument of the book is that “the acceptance of film as an appropriate tool or good object within a discipline depended on an alignment between the formal features of the filmic image and the practices and ideals of that discipline’s modes of expert viewing.” What important implications does expert viewing have for film and media historiography? Professor Curtis contends that engaging with the “proper” viewing model from descriptions of the experts’ practice (and noting their denunciations of “improper” viewing) helps us understand the duality of these constructions: "If ‘proper’ modes of viewing relied on ‘improper’ modes as a useful foil, then the opposite is also true: our understanding of spectatorship is incomplete without an understanding of expert observation.” One is the other’s negative space; hence “the shape of spectatorship” is best understood in relation to “the shape of observation.”

Furthermore, film analysis by cinema historians illuminates the relationship between form (style) and the broader historical trends of the time. However, the historiographical model for expert films differs in that it places emphasis on “patterns of use” rather than patterns of style: “Style is important and can be helpful, but patterns of use apply to adjustments to the technology, the circulation of images, the multiple function of any given film, or the role of moving images in a selection of representational options—a partial list at best. Patterns of use provide many more points of contact with the organization’s goals or the discipline’s logic than style alone.” He stressed that an analysis of nontheatrical media that ignores the experts’ own understanding of film form is inadequate, and that patterns of use will only make sense if properly understood against a background of disciplinary (as opposed to technological or aesthetic) context. A responsible analysis of expert filmmaking, then, would entail a significant immersion in their respective fields.

Monday, October 5, 2015

October 29: Scott Curtis, Northwestern University

Please join the Chicago Film Seminar on Thursday, October 29th, at 6:30 PM, to welcome Professor Scott Curtis (Northwestern University) for his talk, "Experts and Their Images: Vision, Form, and the Historiography of Media Use." A response will be provided by Oliver Gaycken (University of Maryland).

Reception to follow!

Scott Curtis is associate professor of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University, director of the Communication Program at Northwestern University in Qatar, and president of Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema. He has written extensively on scientific and medical uses of motion pictures, and his book on film and expert vision, The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany, has just been published by Columbia University Press. 

Professor Curtis describes his talk as follows:

Expert filmmakers--including scientists, physicians, psychologists, educators, and others who use motion picture technology for their own purposes--have populated the history of film since the beginning; only recently, under the rubric of "useful cinema" or nontheatrical media, have film historians paid them much attention. But this domain brings special demands--including much greater interdisciplinarity—that challenge our usual historiographic methods, especially concerning the function of individual films in our understanding of cinema history. So this presentation will explore the role of the expert in film history, using case studies from The Shape of Spectatorship: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (Columbia, 2015), while offering a potentially new model of media historiography, particularly for the nontheatrical realm.

The Chicago Film Seminar is held at DePaul’s Loop Campus in the Daley Building at 14 E. Jackson Blvd., Room LL 102, using the State St. entrance located at 247 S. State.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

May 7: Justus Nieland, Michigan State University

Please join the Chicago Film Seminar on Thursday May 7th at 6:30 to welcome Justus Nieland(Michigan State University) for his talk “Management Cinema: Film, Design and Communication in Aspen.” Nieland’s primary research includes modernism, film and media studies, and contemporary fiction. Additional interests include avant-garde and experimental cinemas, the film noir, film and media theory, theories of the affects and emotions, and modern architecture and design. He is the author of Feeling Modern: The Eccentricities of Public Life (U of Illinois Press, 2008), and David Lynch (Illinois, 2012), and co-author (with Jennifer Fay) of Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization (Routledge, 2010). He is currently co-editor of the Contemporary Film Directors series at the University of Illinois Press. He is working on a book titled Happiness by Design, which explores midcentury designers' interest in moving-image technologies and their role in remaking the sensorium for the conditions of Cold War modernity. 

Nieland describes his talk as follows:

This paper explore the contours of a filmic modernism shaped at the International Design Conference at Aspen, a crucial institution for the midcentury merger of the corporation, the industrial designer, and a late-Bauhaus aesthetic retooled for American-style democratic liberalism. Founded in 1951 by visionary Chicago-based industrialist Walter Paepcke, chairman of the Container Corporation of American, the IDCA would quickly establish itself as one of the world’s most important design conferences, assembling a roster of famous designers (Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Herbert Bayer, Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand, and Saul Bass, among others), artists, educators, corporate executives, and scholars from a diverse range of disciplines for an annual, week-long series of conversations around a predetermined theme. In many ways, the conference was symptomatic of the new professional legitimacy and cultural prestige of the designer at midcentury, and what architectural critic and historian Reyner Banham once referred to as “the problem of affluent democracy” incarnated by the design profession and its expansive liberal optimism. But IDCA also emerged from its founder’s interest in broad-based, humane inquiry into the most pressing problems of the Cold War world “to-be-designed.” This world’s challenges would only be met by open-minded individuals who understood “design as communication,” and thus, thought beyond the limits of their disciplinary training and expertise.

Situating the IDCA as an institution within the Cold War pedagogical reforms with which Paepcke was also involved (both in his Institute for Humanistic study at Aspen and in his patronage of László Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design in Chicago), I turn specifically to the 1959 conference “The Image Speaks,” the first at Aspen devoted to the role of film as medium of communication. I demonstrate how the design profession’s increasingly prominent claims on the administration of culture at midcentury is evident in the apportioning of cultural expertise at IDCA, and in the conference’s growing investment in film and the moving-image as management technologies.  The paper describes a brand of designer film theory, and assesses its instrumental modernist vision—at once managerial and democratic, pedagogical and humanist.

The Chicago Film Seminar is held at DePaul’s Loop Campus in the Daley Building at 14 E. Jackson Blvd., Room LL 102, using the State St. entrance located at 247 S. State.

Friday, March 20, 2015

April 2: Adam Ochonicky, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

Please join the Chicago Film Seminar at 6:30 on Thursday, April 2nd to welcome Adam Ochonicky (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh) for his talk "Nostalgic Frontiers" Spatiality, Violence and the Midwest in Badlands  and A History of Violence." Ochonicky received his PhD from University Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Zoran Samardzija (Columbia College) will provide the response. 

Ochonicky describes his talk as follows:

As a region, the Midwest is situated uniquely within the American popular imagination. Often labeled as being “flyover country,” this space and its inhabitants are considered to be both “authentically” American and a cultureless mass. In response to such regional perceptions, this talk examines two intertwined areas of focus: the cultural formation of the Midwest in film and the ever-shifting spatial and violent dimensions of nostalgia. From the closing of the Western frontier to the development of virtual environments online, the distinctive temporal properties of nostalgia have continually complicated and transformed how the Midwest’s place-identity is configured. Using Badlands (1973) and A History of Violence (2005) as case studies, I show how my concepts of “nostalgic spatiality” and “nostalgic violence” operate within cinematic depictions of the Midwest. Nostalgic spatiality refers to nostalgia being projected onto a physical landscape, thereby changing how that space is perceived, understood, or experienced. Nostalgic violence functions as a cultural force that regulates the behaviors and identities of both individuals and communities so that the present might appear as the nostalgic subject desires the past to be. Both Badlands and A History of Violence reimagine the Midwest’s physical territory as a realm in which the nostalgic desire for simultaneity is realized through a violent collapse of the past and present. Within these two films, the Midwest’s identity in American culture thus comes into focus as one of fluctuating meanings that are shaped by the inescapable pull of nostalgic longing.

Monday, February 2, 2015

February 12: Graduate Student Panel

Please join the Chicago Film Seminar at 6:30 pm on Thursday, February 12 to welcome Mary Adekoya (University of Chicago) for her talk, "Narrating Nollywood, Narrating Nigerian Modernity: Observations on the Restless Lives and Reckless Lovers in Nollywood Narratives," and Laura LaPlaca, (Northwestern) for her talk, "Mapping Mayberry: A Re-Appraisal of the Sitcom Mise-en-Scene."  Jake Smith (Northwestern) will provide the response. The CFS will be held at DePaul's Loop Campus in the Daley Building at 14 E. Jackson Blvd., Room LL 102, using the State St. entrance located at 247 S. State.

Thursday, February 12 at 6:30pm
Mary Adekoya, Ph.D. Candidate, U.Chicago
"Narrating Nollywood, Narrating Nigerian Modernity: Observations on the Restless Lives and Reckless Lovers in Nollyood Narratives,"
Laura LaPlaca, Ph.D Student, Northwestern
Mapping Mayberry: A Re-Appraisal of the Sitcom Mise-en-Scene"
Respondent: Jake Smith, Northwestern

Adekoya describes her talk as follows:

In this second chapter, from my dissertation “Shadows of Film: Nollywood and the Vernacular Revolution in African Cinema,” I argue that beyond its relation to homegrown modes of artistic expression, Nollywood cinema presents itself as vernacular through, one, – its reflection of what many scholars and cultural critics have identified as the often perplexing nature of everyday life in urban Africa, and two, – its mirroring of the way in which morality has become central to the questions surrounding Nigeria’s potential for full emergence into the world of neoliberal modernity. In essence, this chapter focuses on how Nollywood cinema offers a potent reflection of the everyday discontent and popular discourse on African modernity currently taking place in Nigeria. Its final argument is that this mirroring helps us to understand the “Nollywood revolution” more exactly as a revolution in which the links between cinema, everyday experience, and popular consciousness in Africa have become more solidified and been made remarkably more clear.

LaPlaca describes her talk as follows:

This talk treats the sitcom mise-en-scene as an architectural environment that can be animated by our perceptual play inside it. Sitcom storyworlds are not merely backgrounds for narratives, but generators of rich material and aesthetic resources that audiences can draw on as they navigate their everyday domestic experience. At the most extreme, these spaces can serve as detailed blueprints for viewers engaged in sitcom home re-creation – a practice that is much more prevalent than might be imagined. Using televised domestic storyworlds as models, fans engage in elaborate spatial exercises through dollhouse play, miniature making, virtual world building, and even full-scale custom home construction. However, sitcom home re-creation does not begin with a fan’s devotion, but with the very possibility that these televised spaces might be accurately measured and mapped. This possibility is not inherent to all televised spaces, but is particular to the ways in which the sitcom genre stylistically and discursively presents its storyworlds as accessible and inhabitable. That sitcom architectures are electronically transmitted makes them no less “real,” and certainly no less significant, than other historical structures; following Baudrillard, the “real” becomes that of which it is possible to give an accurate reproduction. Focused on one fan’s remarkable re-creation of The Andy Griffith Show’s mise-en-scene, I will explore some of the ways that sitcom storyworlds have historically been designed to not only represent domestic spaces, but to be domestic spaces.