Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Film Strip image from Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 9, 2018

Event Summary: Discussion with Miriam J.Petty and Allison McCracken

On March 1, the Chicago Film Seminar hosted a discussion with the co-winners of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Best First Book Award for 2016–2017, Miriam J. Petty (Northwestern University) and Allison McCracken (DePaul University), moderated by Allyson Nadia Field (University of Chicago). 

To start things off, Petty gave an overview of her book, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood. Through five case studies—of Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Hattie McDaniel, Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson—the book explores the possibilities and limitations of African American stardom in 1930s Hollywood. Before going on to talk in more detail about Robinson as an exemplar of the work of the book, Petty went into some of the broader context and background for the book. She explained how the title Stealing the Show represents the bifurcated response to African American performers at the time. “Stealing the show” was a term used in the 1930s by both African American press and mainstream press to refer to African American performers; when it appeared in the latter, it was patronizing, limited and limiting praise, relegating performers to the margins of Hollywood movies, whereas in the African American press, the term is critical of Hollywood’s limited opportunities for African Americans, and is used to praise the performer while simultaneously criticizing the role in which they appear—in other words, a way to credit African American actors for doing much with little. Working with a definition of stardom from Richard Dyer, of the star as a structured polysemy, a multi-faceted gem, Petty asked how this notion of stardom could be available to or possible for African American performers in 1930s Hollywood. How can performers relegated to roles on the margins (maid, butler, mammies, porters) be stars? How can polysemic significance be seen in roles that are seemingly extremely limited? Petty found answers to these questions by studying reception, specifically the ways that African American audiences engaged with performers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. For instance, Petty recognized that children and childhood are a central part of Robinson’s stardom in ways that go beyond his association with Shirley Temple. Elements of his stardom—including play, mentorship, and philanthropy—come to the fore with African American children in particular, both on a textual level and a spectatorial level. Petty showed a clip from the 1935 film Hooray for Love in order to demonstrate some of these elements of Robinson’s stardom, and how that stardom becomes more nuanced when we take into account African American spectatorship.

Allison McCracken provided a brief response to Petty, in which she outlined interests that both books share (cultural shifts in the 1930s that went unstudied for a long time, reception studies over media text or industry, and particularly how subaltern audiences can have an impact on culture), before introducing her own book, Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture. McCracken identified her book as a story of the rise and fall of romantic crooners, beginning in the 1880s and with a focus on the 1920s and 1930s, and provided a brief timeline of crooning in American culture, ending with the crooning “culture wars” in the 1930s. According to McCracken, the popularity of crooning in the 1920s prompted a massive backlash, wherein new masculinity codes needed to be constructed for white male popular singers and their voices. This led to the stigmatization and cultural devaluation of crooning, or the establishment of what McCracken calls the “crooner paradigm,” a cultural construction from the early 1930s that still applies today in the way young male pop stars are talked about in the press and in popular discourse. The crooner paradigm includes characteristics such as effeminacy and femininity, suspect sexuality, artless commercial production, and exclusively female/feminine fans portrayed as mindless hysterics and emotionally excessive. McCracken went on to trace the history of the term “crooning” in American culture. A Scottish term that was originally associated in nineteenth-century America with mammies and “crooning mammy” songs in minstrelsy, “crooning” was later applied more broadly to the intimate singing between mother and child before becoming fully deracinated and broadened, finally associated in the early twentieth century with romantic courtship. In the 1920s, the modern crooner was created with technological advancements that finally allow for soft, intimate crooning to be recorded and broadcast, thus changing singing forever, as projection from the chest was no longer necessary. McCracken then turned to a discussion of Rudy Vallée, the first romantic crooner and U.S. pop idol, and played a clip of his song “Deep Night” (1929) in order to demonstrate the melodic, soft, emotional quality of his voice. She also showed photos to show the submissive and feminine/gender transgressive qualities of his persona. Attacks on crooners, led by Cardinal O’Connor of Boston in 1932–33, opened the floodgates to condemnation of crooning. Bing Crosby for one was able to survive the backlash by recuperating his playboy persona, and as an example of this McCracken showed a clip from Rhythm on the Range (1936), where Crosby sings to a bull instead of the woman in the scene, before ending with a scene from The Big Broadcast of 1932, in which Crosby is chased by female fans, thus demonstrating the enduring cultural anxiety about women’s romantic tastes, sexual agency, and buying power.

Petty then gave a brief response to McCracken, in which she identified the ways in which both books are interested in a traffic in affect, where producing affective responses allows an opportunity for stars to speak to marginalized audiences. She also related the policing of Vallée’s and Crosby’s masculinity to more contemporary instances of the policing of masculinity, such as with Luther Vandross or Boyz II Men. Finally, she drew a connection between the two books through the way that each deals with how technology creates a kind of identity that can’t be controlled by the performer themselves. 

Allyson Field then moderated a discussion with both presenters. Beginning with the observation that both books originated as dissertations, she asked Petty and McCracken what had changed in terms of archives and access between dissertation and book. McCracken said that the biggest change was the digitization of Variety, which has benefits and drawbacks, and Petty also experienced using different research methods, such as searching keywords in digitized books, when adding new sections for the book version of her dissertation. Both authors agreed that another huge change was the new availability of films, especially on formats like YouTube. Field then suggested that both books would not be possible without the sort of hybrid methodology that comes from straddling the transition to digitization, and emphasized how both kinds of approaches are valuable.

The evening ended with a question that referred back to the idea of contemporary crooners and the body, particularly in 1980s African American music, and how this might relate to an embodied sense of masculinity/femininity in Vallée’s look. McCracken responded that the natural wave in Vallée’s hair indicated his Irishness but also seemed to align with the artificially wavy hair favored by homosexuals of the time. 


The University of Chicago’s annual graduate student conference will be held April 20–21, 2018. The topic of this year’s conference is “Sensing Media,” featuring a keynote address by Mark B.N. Hansen. More information can be found at

The Great Lakes Association for Sound Studies (GLASS) is holding a conference April 20–21, 2018 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For more information, see their Facebook page at

Attendees of the event included:
Ben Aspray
Nicholas Baer
Crystal Camargo
Kelly Coyne
Michael DeAngelis
Ilana Emmett
Samantha Freeman
Barbara Klinger
Sergio Mims
Ariel Rogers
Molly Schneider
Jordan Schonig
Nova Smith
Annie Sullivan
Shannon Tarbell
Ashley Truehart

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Winter Meeting: Date Change!

We’re pleased to announce the next meeting of the Chicago Film Seminar, which will take place Thursday, March 1, at 7:30 PM. (Please note the date change; the meeting has been moved from February 8 to March 1.) We will be meeting 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)

Join us for a discussion with Miriam J. Petty (Northwestern University) and Allison McCracken (DePaul University) of their books Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood (University of California Press) and Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture (Duke University Press). Allyson Nadia Field (University of Chicago) will moderate.

Stealing the Show is a study of African American actors in Hollywood during the 1930s, a decade that saw the consolidation of stardom as a potent cultural and industrial force. Petty focuses on five performers whose Hollywood film careers flourished during this period—Louise Beavers, Fredi Washington, Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Hattie McDaniel—to reveal the “problematic stardom” and the enduring, interdependent patterns of performance and spectatorship for performers and audiences of color. She maps how these actors—though regularly cast in stereotyped and marginalized roles—employed various strategies of cinematic and extracinematic performance to negotiate their complex positions in Hollywood and to ultimately “steal the show.” Drawing on a variety of source materials, Petty explores these stars’ reception among Black audiences and theorizes African American viewership in the early twentieth century. Her book is an important and welcome contribution to the literature on the movies.

The crooner Rudy Vallée's soft, intimate, and sensual vocal delivery simultaneously captivated millions of adoring fans and drew harsh criticism from those threatened by his sensitive masculinity. Although Vallée and other crooners reflected the gender fluidity of late-1920s popular culture, their challenge to the Depression era's more conservative masculine norms led cultural authorities to stigmatize them as gender and sexual deviants. In Real Men Don't Sing Allison McCracken outlines crooning's history from its origins in minstrelsy through its development as the microphone sound most associated with white recording artists, band singers, and radio stars. She charts early crooners’ rise and fall between 1925 and 1934, contrasting Rudy Vallée with Bing Crosby to demonstrate how attempts to contain crooners created and dictated standards of white masculinity for male singers. Unlike Vallée, Crosby survived the crooner backlash by adapting his voice and persona to adhere to white middle-class masculine norms. The effects of these norms are felt to this day, as critics continue to question the masculinity of youthful, romantic white male singers. Crooners, McCracken shows, not only were the first pop stars: their short-lived yet massive popularity fundamentally changed American culture.

Miriam J. Petty is Associate Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. Her first book, Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood (University of California Press), was the co-winner of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Best First Book Award for 2016-2017. Petty’s other honors include a 2015-2016 Alice Kaplan Institute Faculty Fellowship and a 2014-2015 Junior Faculty Fellowship with the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. An academic with a longstanding commitment to public scholarship, Petty is also an avid producer of public programs; her recent projects include the 2012 symposium "Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable: Perspectives on the Media of Tyler Perry" at Northwestern University, and the 2015-2016 film series "Seeds of Disunion: Classics of African American Stereotypy" at the Black Cinema House of Chicago. She is currently at work on a book manuscript examining media mogul Tyler Perry’s productions and his African American audiences’ nostalgic investments in such cultural forms as folktales, music, literature, and religious practice.

Allison McCracken is Associate Professor of American Studies at DePaul University. She is the author of the book Real Men Don't Sing:  Crooning in American  Culture  (Duke University Press, 2015), which has received several awards, including co-winner of the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, the Irving Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music, the Woody Guthrie Prize from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-United States (IASPM-US), and the Philip Brett Award from the American Musicological Society's LGBT Study Group. She teaches courses in American popular culture and media, social media, gender and sexuality studies, and American Studies methods.  She is currently doing research on the television series The Voice and the social media platform Tumblr.

Allyson Nadia Field is Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at The University of Chicago. A scholar of African American cinema from the silent era to the contemporary, her work combines archival research with concerns of film form, media theory, and broader cultural questions of representation. She is the author of Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film & the Possibility of Black Modernity (Duke University Press, 2015) and co-editor with Jan-Christopher Horak and Jacqueline Stewart of L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (University of California Press, 2015). She also served as a co-curator of the L.A. Rebellion Preservation Project of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. With Marsha Gordon, she is co-editing Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Duke University Press, Forthcoming 2018). Her current book project is on African American film historiography, the challenge of evidence, and the “speculative archive.”

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.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Event Summary: "The Art of Scale" with Aymar Jean Christian

At the inaugural meeting of the Chicago Film Seminar for the 2016-2017 academic year, Aymar Jean Christian of Northwestern University presented on his current research project, Open TV Beta, a production and distribution platform for independent web series and pilots by queer, trans and cis-women and artists of color. Mobilizing the concept of scale to analyze the development of work by Open TV artists, Christian argued that “production value” has different meanings at different production scales.

For small scale productions, like the work produced through and for Open TV, Christian argued that production value no longer depends upon a logic of scarcity (in which resources are rare and competition for resources is key) and that instead production value resides in a logic of capacity (in which resources are seen as something to be mined from what is available in community). In his talk, Christian focused on how space, time, and culture were utilized in Open TV productions from the 2016 season with an emphasis on mining and building capacity.

To build production value and capacity through strategic use of time, Open TV pilots crafted focused narratives that highlighted culturally specific writing and featured interdisciplinary performers who could take on several production roles at once. For example, Let Go and Let God was able to achieve a highly efficient set through foregoing sync sound in favor of telling story through dance while Southern for Pussy limited the story to a single set in order to emphasize visual style. Like Southern for PussyNupita Obama Creates Vogua also used a single set to create production value through strategic use of space. According to Christian, limiting locations and drawing on available spaces from within a community allowed artists to focus on building production value based on character development and culture knowledge. Cultural knowledge itself is a form of “production value” for Christian, and he argued that queer identity creates value for productions that draw on artists’ personal experiences, connections, and subcultural knowledge. A film about Chicago drag culture, Lipstick City, offered a clear example of how queer identity produces the production value of cultural sincerity.

In his response, Neil Verma of Northwestern University noted that the opposition between scarcity and capacity has been a key fulcrum organizing artistic practices from sculpture to dance to mass media, and he suggested that Christian’s work here opens up new questions about the relationship between quantity and quality in media production. He also suggested that Christian’s research project queers the border between production and pedagogy. 

The audience raised a variety of additional questions, including a question about what it means to still call this work “television.” Christian responded that, although he sees web series as an important shift away from the massive amounts of content that television production currently generates and towards considerations of art, he still considers web series to be “television” because the focus is on character-driven stories that unfold over time. In response to a question about whether the production value of queer identity could be described with the term “authenticity,” Christian argued for the use of the word “sincerity,” from John L. Jackson’s Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. Unlike authenticity, which suggests something absolute, sincerity is something that is negotiated in relation, and is at issue in camp performance, as Christian has explored in an article title “Camp 2.0.”

Upcoming Events and Announcements:

The Great Lakes Association for Sound Studies had its first meeting on October 21st, with a presentation by Jim Lastra among other business. Their Facebook page can be found here:

The conference Seeing Movement, Being Moved: An Exploration of the Moving Camera took place at the University of Chicago October 27-29. More information can be found here: 

Link Roundup:

Open TV – Beta
Let Go and Let God
Southern for Pussy
Nupita Obama Creates Vogua
Lipstick City
“Camp 2.0: A Queer Performance of the Personal” by Aymar Jean Christian
“Daughter, Mother, Mirror: Zackary Drucker's Southern For Pussy” by Nicole Erin Morse

All images courtesy of Aymar Jean Christian and Open TV - Beta

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"The Art of Scale" with Aymar Jean Christian

Join the Chicago Film Seminar on October 20th at 7:30 pm for "The Art of Scale: Production Value in Networked Television" with Aymar Jean Christian of Northwestern University. Neil Verma will serve as respondent.

"Scale" dominates how technology and entertainment executives discuss their work today, and for them, scale almost always signifies "big" – whether as a noun to imply the size of capital available for production or as a verb to imply a process to facilitate capital accumulation while keeping costs low. Yet scale by definition is relational, a way to orient collective perspectives. A scale allows agents to approximate size in relation to other agents, projects, or objects so it is conceivable to collaborators and stakeholders. Scholars in media studies have for too long taken for granted the implicit bias toward "bigness" in television and new media, limiting our conception of television’s representational possibilities. The networked environment – marked by digital, peer-to-peer as opposed to one-to-many distribution – has opened TV distribution to productions across sizes, troubling conceptions of "high production value." Networked television encompasses everything from YouTubers who profit with relatively small crews to Netflix series outpacing cable television in production budgets.

Christian argues that productions have different values at different levels of scale. "Small scale" production critiques dominant trends in networked television by shifting value assessments from artificial scarcity to building capacity attendant to diverse needs and communities. Queer producers are especially equipped to re-scale television, shifting time, space, and cultural representation considerations on set from limitation and competition to value creation. Using data and experiences from developing Open TV beta, a Chicago-based platform for community-based networked television, Christian shows that small-scale production reveals heretofore under-recognized aspects of production value. He focuses on the experience of producing the first four pilots released under Open TV Presents, a series featuring artistic collaborations among queer and intersectional artists.

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. His book, Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood, will explore web television as an innovation in series development. His work on television and new media has been published in numerous academic journals and popular publications, including Cinema JournalContinuum, and Transformative Works and Cultures. He leads Open TV beta, a platform for television by queer, trans and cis-women and artists of color. He has curated film, television and video for the Peabody Awards, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Tribeca Film Festival, among others. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

Neil Verma is assistant professor of sound studies in Radio/Television/Film and associate director of the MA in Sound Arts and Industries. Verma studies the cultural history and aesthetics of narrative sound media, and has special expertise in radio plays. Verma is working on two books, tentatively titled “How Sounds Think: Making Strange Radio in the Podcasting Age” and “Hiding in Plain Sound: The Radio Drama of Orson Welles.” He is Network Director for the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress, Special Editor at the site Sounding Out!, and co-founder of the Great Lakes Association for Sound Studies (GLASS). He holds a PhD in History of Culture from the University of Chicago, where he was also Harper-Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows from 2010-14.

"The Art of Scale" 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.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

April 28th: Defining the Field

Please join the Chicago Film Seminar on Thursday, April 28th, 7:00PM, for a roundtable discussion, titled "Defining the Field." Bringing together scholars with diverse perspectives on the field, this workshop opens up a discussion of the evolving contours of cinema studies as it confronts new media and technologies, new methods, and new intellectual and institutional challenges. The conversation will focus broadly on the objects and approaches of cinema and media studies as they are transforming with the academic landscape.The workshop participants will include:

Gerald Butters, Aurora University

D. N. Rodowick, University of Chicago
Salomé Skvirsky, University of Chicago
Neil Verma, Northwestern University
Pam Wojcik, University of Notre Dame


Gerald R. Butters Jr. is a Professor of History at Aurora University. He is author of the following books - Beyond Blaxploitation (2016), From Sweetback to Superfly: Race and Film Audiences in Chicago's Loop, 1970-1975 (2015), Banned in Kansas: Motion Picture Censorship, 1915-1966 (2007) and Black Manhood on the Silent Screen (2002). A Fulbright scholar, Dr. Butters has lectured internationally including an address to the European Community in Luxembourg. 

D. N. Rodowick is Glen A. Lloyd Distinguished Service Professor in the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago. His most recent book, Philosophy’s Artful Conversation (2015), was published by Harvard University Press, completing the trilogy that began with The Virtual Life of Film (2007) and Elegy for Theory (2014). His newest book, What Philosophy Wants from Images, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2017. Rodowick is also a curator, and an award-winning experimental filmmaker and video artist.

Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky is Assistant Professor in the Cinema and Media Studies Department at the University of Chicago. Before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago, Skvirsky taught in Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and in the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her work has appeared in Cinema Journal, the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, and Social Identities. Currently, she is working on a book-length manuscript titled The Aesthetic of Labor: Cinema and the Process Genre.

Neil Verma is Assistant Professor in Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University, where he is Associate Director of the MA program in Sound Arts and Industries. He is the author of Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and American Radio Drama (Chicago), which won the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema & Media Studies in 2013. He is co-editor of Anatomy of Sound: Norman Corwin and Media Authorship (California), forthcoming this Spring. Verma focuses on the intersection of sound and narrative media, and has published chapters and articles on a range of subjects from radio documentaries to film noir, from Bertolt Brecht to Game of Thrones. He is the Network Director for the Radio Preservation Task Force at the library of congress and Special Editor at Sounding Out.

Pamela Robertson Wojcik is Professor in the Department of Film, Television and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame and President Elect of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. She is author of Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna, The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975, and the forthcoming Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction.


Ariel Rogers is Assistant Professor in the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. Her research and teaching focus on movie technologies, spectatorship, and new media. She is the author of Cinematic Appeals: The Experience of New Movie Technologies (Columbia University Press, 2013) and has published articles in Cinema Journal, Film History, and montage AV (forthcoming).

The workshop 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.

For more information about Chicago Film Seminar events, please visit and