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).