Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Save the Date: Next CFS meeting February 8

The next meeting of the Chicago Film Seminar will take place on Thursday, February 8. Miriam Petty (Northwestern University) and Allison McCracken (DePaul University) will join us to discuss their recent books, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood (University of California Press, 2016) and Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2015), which shared the 2017 SCMS First Book Award. Allyson Nadia Field (University of Chicago) will moderate the discussion. 

Please save the date and, if you haven’t read the books already, consider adding them to your winter reading list. More information will follow in the new year.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Event Summary: Graduate Student Panel with Ilana Emmett and Mikki Kressbach

On November 16, the Chicago Film Seminar held its annual Graduate Student Panel, featuring talks by Ilana Emmett of Northwestern University and Mikki Kressbach of the University of Chicago. University of Chicago professor James Lastra provided a response to the talks, which explored, respectively, the role of sound and silence in creating domestic spaces and listener identification on 1940s and ’50s American radio soap operas, and the effect of wearable fitness tracking devices on perceptions of everyday habits and health and fitness.

Emmett’s talk, titled “Sound and Silence: Conversation, Emotion, and the Creation of Domestic Spaces on American Radio Soap Operas,” focused on examples from the long-running radio serials The Guiding Light and Ma Perkins in order to show how soundscapes dominated by voices, simple and ordinary sound effects, and silence are able to create the sense of an intimate domestic space that mirrors the listener’s own domestic space. While the sparseness of the soundscapes point to the financial and temporal limitations of the programs’ production schedules, Emmett argued that these very same limitations also allowed for easier listener identification through the very vagueness and familiarity of their sonic outlines. Emmett went on to explain how listener identification in these programs was also encouraged through the use of first-person-plural or second-person narrators, who could overtly invite the listener to place herself within the narrative, even taking on the identity of different characters. The soap operas thus create, Emmett argued, an uncanny (i.e., simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar) listening experience for their audience, in that they allow the possibility of occupying unfamiliar roles while foreclosing the possibility of moving out of familiar, domestic spaces, at once expanding and limiting the listener’s world. 

Kressbach began her talk, “Does Data Determine Our Situation?: Wearable Fitness Tracking Technologies and Quantifying the Everyday,” by inviting attendees with iPhones to take them out and open the “Health” app, asking how many were previously aware of the app’s automatic tracking of number of steps walked, flights climbed, and distance covered each day. This opening exercise provided an illustration of the ways in which such fitness tracking devices (including the Apple Watch, Fitbit, and Jawbone) have become an increasingly common part of everyday life, whether one was previously unaware of the app’s tracking of daily movements or an active participant in what has come to be known as the quantified-self movement. In transforming the everyday actions of walking and climbing stairs into quantifiable data, Kressbach argued, these devices transform users’ perception of their everyday habits through the lens of health and fitness. In an attempt to move away from polemical, totalizing interpretations of wearable technologies as either devices of empowerment or surveillance that position users as alienated subjects, Kressbach shared her own experience using Fitbit and the Apple Watch as well as her students’ reflections on using fitness tracking technologies in order to provide a phenomenological account of the ways in which these devices produce the impression of scientific authority sufficient to inspire attachment and affect users’ behaviors, even as users become aware of the devices’ fallibility and grow increasingly anxious in their use of them. 

Lastra began his response by acknowledging a point of contact between the two talks—the everyday—and, more specifically, the attempt to fathom changes wrought to our experience of the everyday through mediating technologies, before going on to respond to each talk individually. Addressing Emmett’s discussion of the creation of listener identification through the use of second-person narration, Lastra suggested that identification is only one possible result of this rhetorical device. In radio, it can also be used to mark the shift to soliloquy or internal monologue, and in popular music and literature, the second-person can open positions beyond simple identification. Reading a passage from Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City as an example, Lastra claimed that the second-person could be used to create distance from which to view the self. Turning to Kressbach’s talk, Lastra brought up the paradox of belief inherent in the use of the fitness tracking device—that users doubt the device’s ability to perfectly record their movements, even as they act as if it does so—and related it to an older technological paradigm, that of photography, which inspires a similar paradox of trust/belief. Finally, Lastra suggested that the anxiety that many notice while using these devices—that the device will fail to record movement or a user will forget to wear the device during exercise—is a kind of anxiety that has always attended habitual exercise, but what is different now is how the anxiety is mediated by the device. 

In the question-and-answer session, the discussion of anxiety continued, as Kressbach acknowledged that the tendency is indeed longstanding, but that mediation expedites the appearance of anxious feelings, and one attendee made the point that anxiety surrounding everyday behaviors seems to be increasingly normalized or even mandatory, where once it was more likely to be considered pathological. There were also questions concerning the importance of competition in the use of fitness tracking devices and the theorization of space in Emmett’s talk, in which the use of the narrator seems to run counter to the common notion of the domestic as confining. A final question tied the two talks together under the themes of surveillance and seriality.

Attendees of the panel included:
Benjamin Aspray
Nicholas Baer
Simran Bhalla
Joao Pedro Cachopo
Will Carroll
Michael DeAngelis
Cara Dickason
Samantha Freeman
Matt Hubbell
Ian Jones
Nicole Morse
Miriam Petty
Ariel Rogers
Zoran Samardzija
Jordan Schonig
Hannah Spaulding
Shannon Tarbell
Alex Thimons
Mimi White
Pam Wojcik

Monday, October 23, 2017

Graduate Student Panel on November 16: Ilana Emmett and Mikki Kressbach

Please join the Chicago Film Seminar on November 16 at 7:30 PM for our annual graduate student panel, featuring talks by Ilana Emmett (Northwestern University) and Mikki Kressbach (University of Chicago). James Lastra (University of Chicago) will serve as respondent.

The Graduate Student Panel will be held at DePaul’s Loop Campus in the Daley Building at 14 E. Jackson Blvd., Room LL 102 (use the State Street entrance located at 247 S. State). 

A reception will follow the panel. 

See below for more information on the talks and presenters.

Sound and Silence: Conversation, Emotion, and the Creation of Domestic Spaces on American Radio Soap Operas
by Ilana Emmett

From their earliest days on radio, American daytime serials have been associated with their domestic settings. But how exactly did this notion develop within a medium that has no physical location and takes up no space? And what did this aesthetic of domesticity afford or deny for its supposed female listeners? By considering the role of sound early in this popular genre, I interrogate what the aesthetic space of soap operas allowed for, even as its fast-paced production schedule may have, in fact, prevented more complex sound design. The combination of dialogue, narration, simple everyday sound effects, and often not much else meant that the invisible spaces of radio serials created, and then relied on, a sound and a space that was domestic, familial, and emotional. This paper will focus in particular on the role of both silence and voiceover narration in allowing listeners to place uncanny versions of themselves within the narrative. Through its soundscape, radio serials created domestic spaces where there were none and began daytime soap opera’s ongoing commitment to emotional production and complex aesthetics.

Ilana Emmett is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on the aesthetics of American daytime soap operas on radio and television from 1930 to today. Additional research addresses the history of television programming for deaf audiences in the U.S. and the U.K. She has a B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago and an M.A. in Film and Television Studies from the University of Warwick in the U.K.

Does Data Determine Our Situation?: Wearable Fitness Tracking Technologies and Quantifying the Everyday
by Mikki Kressbach

Wearable technologies (e.g., Fitbit and Apple Watch) and fitness tracking apps (e.g., Today, Record, and Human) allow individuals to passively monitor their vital signs, movements, and exercises in pursuit of health and wellness. For users, self-improvement depends on a direct relationship between data and self-knowledge. In an effort to explore the impacts of these devices and apps, this talk asks: how do wearable fitness tracking devices and apps shape ordinary interactions and movements through the world? How does the interface design, feedback, and competition features mediate one’s everyday behaviors or condition habits? How does this “datafied” vision of yourself impact one’s sense of success or failure? And how might these features and experiences shape contemporary perceptions of health and wellness? Through phenomenological readings of the device interfaces and features, drawing on my own experience using Apple Watch and Fitbit, as well as student reflections on using mobile tracking apps and self-quantification technologies, I begin to explore these questions by turning to individual experiences and encounters. Recent work on wearable technologies has emphasized the way they participate in the neoliberal collapse of work and leisure by turning daily life into data, ostensibly homogenizing movements, activities, and individuals. I seek to complicate these determinist readings by turning to the disruptions, oddities, and play found in the ordinary encounters with fitness tracking devices and apps.

Mikki Kressbach is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago, where she has recently completed her dissertation on the representation of emergent infectious disease in contemporary film, television, and video games. Her work, more broadly, explores the intersection of digital media and paradigms of scientific evidence and logic in contemporary popular culture. This research has led to related projects on the horror genre, health and wellness, and educational video games.

James Lastra is Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, the Department of English Languages and Literature, and the College at the University of Chicago. He specializes in American film and has published extensively on sound in film, especially as it relates to the unfolding history of modernity and the aesthetics of both high and vernacular modernism. He is the author of Sound Technologies and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2000), and in addition to his work on sound he has also written on topics including Surrealism, silent film comedy, and the work of Luis Buñuel.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Summary: "The Gertie Project" with Donald Crafton

On Thursday, April 13th, Donald Crafton presented "The Gertie Project: Animating Liveness" at the Chicago Film Seminar. Working with collaborators Marco de Blois and David Nathan, Crafton is restoring Winsor McCay's 1914-15 animated short, popularly known as "Gertie the Dinosaur." A multi-media work that toured as part of a vaudeville act, the film was produced and distributed as a standalone short film, but this version, the version with which most people are familiar, neglects the live performance aspect of the original. Thus, the Gertie project also involves research into McCay and exploration of how modern multi-media technologies could be incorporated into the live performance of the film. The restored version will premiere in 2018, and the research on the film has raised a variety of important points about agency, performance, and "liveness" in animation.

Crafton discussed the history of the film and its emergence out of McCay's own explorations of cartoons and proto-animation, drawing attention to how reviews of the film emphasize the apparatus. This interest in the mechanical process that brings McCay's drawings of Gertie to life raises intriguing questions about the experience of "liveness" in animation. Crafton suggested that the film's interest turns in part on the possibility that the animated dinosaur might escape from her creator's control, a possibility that is produced through the work itself, which is designed to appear responsive to the showman -- originally McCay, but here, performed by Crafton. According to Crafton, this indicates the extent to which "liveness" is always the result of mediating technologies.

In his response, W. J. T. Mitchell discussed why there is a particular charge to the re-animation (or resurrection) of the dinosaur, a creature that no human has ever seen. Describing the emergence of the image of the dinosaur in 1851, Mitchell shared images of these early Victorian imaginations of the dinosaur, including a hollow sculpture designed to hold a dinner table for a meeting of paleontologists. Mitchell also discussed the significance of the dinosaur as totem, describing how humans, as the currently dominant species, are invested in the dinosaurs as a representative of the previous dominant order. Mitchell noted that the human imagination of the dinosaur's rapacious appetite provokes interesting reflections upon the transition to consumerism, and he showed a McDonald's commercial that rips off "Gertie" and continues the theme of the dinosaur as voracious eater.

In the Q&A, Tom Gunning followed up on this topic with a comment about other early films about consumption and swallowing, including of course "The Big Swallow." Crafton responded by noting that McCay displayed an interest in consumption in other works, including works in which the animation eats the animator. Mitchell noted that the theme of consumption extends to the connection between the totem animal and the totem meal.

This final meeting of the Chicago Film Seminar for the 2016-2017 academic year was attended by the following people:

Jose Capino
Jiayi Chen
Andrew Crafton
Patrick Friel
Tom Gunning
Mikhail Gurevich
Jim Jacob
Barb Klinger
Jim Lastra
Richard Leskosky
Nicole Morse
Carter Moulton
Susan Ohmer
Lawrence Pearson
Ariel Rogers
Zoran Samardzija
Salome Svirsky
Takuya Tsunoda
J. D. Wang
Artemis Willis
Pamela Wojcik
Cameron Worden

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

W. J. T. Mitchell to serve as respondent for "The Gertie Project" April 13, 7:30 pm

We're thrilled to announce that W. J. T. Mitchell will be joining the Chicago Film Seminar as respondent next week. Mitchell teaches literature, visual arts, and media at the University of Chicago where he is editor of Critical Inquiry. His books include Iconology, Picture Theory, The Last Dinosaur Book, What Do Pictures Want?, Cloning Terror, Seeing Through Race, and Image Science. He is a well-know hunter of imaginary dinosaurs and a fan of Winsor McCay.

Monday, March 13, 2017

"The Gertie Project: Animating Liveness" with Donald Crafton

The Chicago Film Seminar presents "The Gertie Project: Animating Liveness" with Donald Crafton on Thursday, April 13th, at 7:30 pm.

In 1914, Winsor McCay, who was America’s leading comic strip artist (“Little Nemo in Slumberland,” etc.), produced a seven minute fully animated film to include in his vaudeville act. Gertie was an adorable trained dinosaur that danced for the audience and responded to the artist’s commands. Bringing the beast to life required thousands of individual hand-made drawings Now, Crafton and his research partners are reanimating the film using the original camera footage and the surviving original drawings. Furthermore, they will reconstruct McCay’s vaudeville act to simulate its live performance environment. Key questions arise concerning the ontology of animation cinema and, indeed, early cinema in general, and their complex relationships to the stage and live performance.

Donald Crafton, the Joseph and Elizabeth Robbie Professor Emeritus, taught a variety of courses in media history, criticism, and theory at the University of Notre Dame. His previous research includes Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film (1990), a monograph on the French cinema pioneer and inventor of animation cinema; Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928 (1982, revised 1993), which was the first survey of animation in the silent cinema; The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (1999) and Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2012). In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named him an inaugural Academy Film Scholar.

"The Gertie Project" 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, March 2, 2017

Event Summary: Graduate Student Panel

On February 27th, the Chicago Film Seminar held its annual Graduate Student Panel, featuring talks by Benjamin Aspray of Northwestern University and Sabrina Negri of the University of Chicago. Titled "Gross-out as Gatekeeper: Disgust, Anti-comedy, and Taste Distinction in Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!" Aspray's talk explored gross out aesthetics in sketch comedy. Negri's talk, titled "Film As Archival Object: Analog Film Materials and the Evidentiary Value of Archival Holdings," examined the evidentiary function of film prints in the digital age.

Opening with a review that calls Tim and Eric's Awesome Show Good Job! an attack on comedy, Aspray discussed how gross out aesthetics implicate the audience while blurring the boundaries between the highest and lowest forms of comedy. Focusing on gross out comedies that risk alienating the audience through inspiring excessive disgust, Aspray argues that, as gross out aesthetics have moved into the mainstream, with films like Bridesmaids and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, sketch comedies like Tim and Eric offer opportunities to isolate gross out aesthetics separate from their narrativization. Without diegetic spectators to model appropriate reactions for audiences, sketch comedies (unlike narrative films) produce polymorphously perverse spectatorial pleasures.

Responding to Sabine Lenk's article from The Moving Image on the future of film prints in a digital age, Negri argued that film archivists and cinema scholars produce a false binary of potential uses for old film prints, a binary that is echoed by the false binary that is presumed to exist between digital and analog media. Instead of seeing only two possible uses for film prints in this era of digital preservation and restoration -- as fetish objects for projection or as obsolete refuse for destruction -- Negri argues that the digital age transforms film prints into archival objects that have an evidentiary function. Drawing on the example of Miracolo a Milano (1951), in which the digital restoration eliminates wires supporting the magic broomsticks, Negri argues that the film print becomes a document of the original production history of the film.

In his response, Zoran Samardzija focused in on several key questions raised by the two talks. Responding to Aspray's talk, Samardzija asked about the politics of the distinction between high and low culture, noting that this is a distinction that modernists have sought to trouble for years. He also asked Aspray to reflect on the limits of a comedy of disgust, asking if comedy can still use disgust to deconstruct politics once politics themselves have taken on the form of obscenity. Building on Negri's discussion of the wires, which she argued represent an intersection between magical realism and neorealist aesthetics, Samardzija asked about how digital restoration demands a new account of cinematic realism.

The question and answer session raised several additional issues, including the potentially ideological conservatism of gross out aesthetics, the difference between digital preservation and the creation of a new cinema object, and what it means to differentiate between cinematic objects along the binary of analog versus digital rather than mechanical versus electric. Although Aspray granted that there may be conservative tendencies to some gross out comedy, he argued that non-narrative gross out comedies tend to be anti-authoritarian. While granting that digital media has materiality, Negri argued that the division between analog and digital media has shaped much of the debate in cinema studies around the ontology of cinema, making it a useful though inaccurate way of assessing different possibilities within the field. Furthermore, she contended that one of the effects of digital technology has been to compel us to re-evaluate the category of "analog media" as well as its status as a material object.

Attendees at the event drew attention to several upcoming events of interest to the seminar, including the Chicago Irish Film Festival (March 2-5), the SCMS screening at S&A studios on March 20th, and the University of Chicago CMS Graduate Student Conference on Trauma and Melodrama (April 21-22).

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Graduate Student Panel February 27th: Benjamin Aspray and Sabrina Negri

Join the Chicago Film Seminar on February 27th at 7:30 pm for our annual graduate student panel, featuring graduate students Benjamin Aspray and Sabrina Negri. Zoran Samardzija will serve as respondent.

Gross-out as Gatekeeper:
Disgust, Anti-comedy, and Taste Distinction in Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!
by Benjamin Aspray

Psychologist Susan B. Miller describes disgust as “the gatekeeper emotion,” and indeed, the wide-ranging scholarly concepts of disgust almost unanimously understand it as signifying the transgression of a boundary, whether biological, cultural or social. Hence its use in comedy, a close ally of transgression - particularly gross-out comedy, the film and TV subgenre centered on the human body’s impolite functions. But whereas many accounts of gross-out comedy understand it as a populist discourse, celebrating universal animal drives in defiance of civil society’s inhibitions, few consider its potential for the contrary: deliberately alienating the viewer and flouting popular appeal. This excerpt from my dissertation examines disgust as an aesthetic strategy of “anti-comedy,” an oblique form of comedy that emphasizes its own failure. The paper focuses in particular on the case study of Cartoon Network’s late-night sketch comedy series Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! (2007-2010), arguing that the series’ extreme gross-out gags are emblematic of the cultural logic of narrowcasting in that their confrontational aesthetic acts as a gatekeeper for a self-consciously exclusive taste public.

Benjamin Aspray is a PhD candidate in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University. His dissertation, “Comedy Vomitif: Comic Disgust and Spectacles of the Body in Contemporary Film and Television,” examines the aesthetic and cultural meanings of lowbrow physical comedy since the mid-1990s. He has presented at the SCMS Conference in Chicago and Montreal and the Screen Studies Conference in Glasgow.

Film As Archival Object: 
Analog Film Materials and the Evidentiary Value of Archival Holdings
by Sabrina Negri

The digital preservation of analog moving images faces scholars and archivists with challenges that have been overlooked in most of the literature dealing with the theoretical implications of digital cinema. One aspect that has not received the attention it deserves is the way in which digital technology shapes our understanding of the concept of analog. This talk will investigate how digital preservation shifts the status of analog film materials from objects of use to archival objects, and will discuss the consequences of this transition on the evidentiary value of film materials.

Sabrina Negri is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include film archiving and preservation, Italian colonial and post-colonial cinema, and detective fiction. She published essays in international journals such as Cinéma&Cie, Intérmedialités, and Journal of Film Preservation. She is currently working on a dissertation on the digital restoration of analog films.

The Graduate Student Panel 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.