Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ellis - Visible Fictions

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. New York: Routledge, 1992.

An extensive comparison between cinema and TV (despite the title, the VCR is barely mentioned), Ellis perceives fundamental differences between the two media based on their respective images and sounds, their narrative styles, their spectators, and their stars. Part I and Part II deal with cinema and television respectively in each of the above categories. Part II compares the institutions of cinema and TV.

Originally written in the early 80s, Ellis spent the next decade working as a television producer. His 1992 "Postface" (ch. 17) nevertheless is not moved in his conclusions by the changes in the television industry.

Note also: Ellis is predominantly writing from a British perspective, and the vast majority of his examples are British.

The Nitty Gritty of the Comparison
Scheduling: it's hard to catch a TV program "tomorrow." Schedule is geared toward assumed daily routine of families.

Setting: public versus domestic.

"Flow" (a la Raymond Williams): Television is continuous. Films are shown separately. [Ellis agrees with the concept of flow to a point, but notes that the stream of items on TV are read by viewers as separate items much more than Williams seems to suggest.]

Segments: Much smaller in TV... about 5 minutes long generally. Editing is much tighter

Sound: much more important for TV to draw viewers' attention.

Images: TV is much smaller, lower definition

Assumed Audience: TV assumes a nuclear family, heterosexual, 2-child, etc.

Format: Single view film v. series and serial format of television

Viewer: Voyeuristic gaze (film) v. distracted glance. Assumption of semi privacy in the public setting of a darkened theatre v. the direct address of TV.

Stars: Film stars are distant and somewhat incomplete in their construction in the media, with the film being a chance to see their image completed in fiction. Television stars are familiar, repeating their situations in fiction or directly addressing the audience in news programs.

Industry: Film emerged out of the studio system. It is still dominated globally by Hollywood because of the initial advantage the U.S. had after WWI, and a natural market size that dwarfed individual national markets in Europe. Major studios fill the American market with a calculated number of films, making it difficult for foreign films to break in. Television production is divided between the networks and independent studios under a complex management structure that emphasizes the replaceability of all the individuals involved in the production - directors may change but their style will not be differentiable in television.

Key terms
photo effect - the paradoxical nature of an photographic (and video) image in which the figures portrayed are present in their image but not actually existing there at that moment. Ellis notes that the photo effect is not as fixed in television, which often maintains a sense of live and instantaneous.

The density of this book makes it feel almost like an abridged version of Ellis's career of theory, though in fact he is merely applying his career of thinking about film criticism to television. It says quite a bit for its size, even if it doesn't feel like it's breaking new ground theory-wise. I think Ellis is too stubborn in his "Postface" in not acknowledging the significant changes in the television medium in 1992 - for example, he dismisses the suggestion that Twin Peaks is groundbreaking. Of course, it is easy in 2010 to perceive how much television series have become more cinematic since the early 80s. In some ways, then, this book is something of a prequel to BT's Television's Second Golden Age.

Despite - or perhaps because of - the fact it is dated, this book provides an excellent overview of the crucial differences between film and television. Thus, it would be perfect for any graduate student entering the field or interested undergraduate. In fact, I could see myself assigning the first two sections to an undergraduate media history class, though the third section is probably the most fatally dated.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Abel - The Red Rooster Scare

Abel, Richard. The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1999.

Abel traces the rise and decline of Pathé Films, a French company notable for its red rooster brand. He argues that after 1907 Pathé began to lose it's strong market share in America as theater owners were persuaded by the calls of progressive reformers (as well as American film makers) that the best films in terms of moral quality were those that promoted American ideals. It is no coincidence that Pathé's decline occurred after 1907 when immigration hit a peak of almost one million. Critics believed European-made films would have an adverse effect on the process of assimilation for new Americans. While Pathé attempted to respond to these pressures through marketing efforts and by adding to the emerging "American" genre of westerns, it nonetheless relinquished its market share in America and soon turned its attention to maintaining its supremacy in Europe.

Things that Made Pathé Such a Successful Brand in the First Place
  • Color: Pathé films were widely considered the best in terms of colorization (40-47). Pathé developed a stencil technique (similar to Méliès) "by which 'colorists' (all women) could apply up to three different colors within a single film frame, with greater precision and uniformity." (p.43)
  • Branding: The red rooster logo (itself notable for its red color) helped Pathé counter an early problem it had as it entered the American market: its films were being ripped off and shown under competing brands. Pathé was eventually able to develop a few ways to protect its films, and in the process elevated its brand as a signal of quality to theatre owners and viewers.
  • Viewer comprehension: Because the films were made by the French for viewers in America who didn't speak French, Pathé films tended to have storylines that were comprehensible through the visual action as opposed to through added text. This was critical in making the films appeal to new immigrants... a fact that would be used against Pathé by critics concerned over its relative failure to serve as an Americanizing agent.
  • Overall quality: With less reliance on added text, the acting had to be better. Plus, Pathé just made good films. Furthermore, at the turn of the century France was considered a leading nation in terms of technology, on par with, if not ahead of the United States.
Other Points
Who went to the cinema
- Women and children, who Progressive reformers were particularly preoccupied with.
- New immigrants
What was the cinema like - Blend of vaudeville with films gradually becoming the feature presentation. This was the peak of nickelodeons, which allowed a long stretch of various entertainment for five cents. The cinema was a place of congregation, where people would meet and chat and pass their free time.

This case study fits early film history neatly into the history of the Progressive Era. It feels more like a long essay than a book. The final chapter on the rise of the western genre as an American genre is somewhat disjointed from the Pathé story. Intriguingly, Abel presents his work in the style of a vaudeville variety show; each short chapter ends with 1-3 short primary source documents as well as an "Entra Acte" (written by Abel) which goes into more detail on a tangential topic. I was concerned the documents would be a distraction but I was pleasantly surprised at the end result. Much like a variety show, the presentation worked to keep my interest from one item to the next. It's an interesting way to write history.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cohen - A Consumers' Republic

Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Argument/Key Terms
Consumer's Republic - During the two decades of post-WWII prosperity, Cohen perceives the broadly-held belief that America's mass consumption would lead not only to widespread prosperity but also help achieve social and political ambitions for a more equal, free, and democratic nation. (13) There was an underlying assumption that the government would support the consumers in the marketplace, even more than they supported the producers. This lasted until Nixon, Ford, and Carter began to pursue supply-side policy even before Reagan.

Cohen is essentially writing a traditional history book that supports the criticism raised in intellectual history/cultural critics of the Lasch variety. Writing in the 70s at the tail end of the Consumer's Republic, these critics were musing about how individualism went to far. Cohen traces its slide.

She is also preoccupied with the ramifications of the Consumer's Republic on Blacks and Women. Blacks notably exercised their position as citizen consumer, through boycotts and sit-ins, to negotiate and improve their position in society. The rise of segmented marketing coincided with the rise of Black Nationalism, strengthening Black identity. However, segregated neighborhoods and (thus) schools remain as evidence of the suburbanization that left the poor- mostly black - population behind. The ideal of equality within the Consumer's Republic thus failed largely to benefit black citizens.

Cohen analyzes advertising strategies to show how after WWII women lost the gains they had made during the war, both as laborers and as consumer citizens. Ads emphasized the father as the primary consumer of the house, and thus advertised accordingly, the ads themselves (as well as ad-driven TV shows like Father Knows Best) emphasizing women's proper role as submissive wife. Women eventually gained social status at the end of this period, and organized as consumer citizens - boycotting and protesting for key consumer issues.

Other Big Concepts
citizen consumer - The Roosevelt administration thought of consumers as a self-conscious body of Americans on par with labor and business, and courted their political support. For the first time on a broad level, Americans began to consider how their purchasing actions could shape society. Also, they became concerned with fairness in the marketplace.
purchaser consumer - The idea that consumers held the key to economic recovery. Strongly influenced by Keynes.
First-wave consumer's movement
- Progressive Era
Second-wave consumer's movement - 1930s and 40s, Notably, consumers were given a voice and official position in New Deal agencies, most importantly in the NRA.
Third-wave consumer's movement - 1960-78. (p.360) Typified by Ralph Nader. Pursued greater protection of the consumer in the marketplace (Cohen calls this level 1) and the reinvigoration of Government regulation in consumer interest (level 2). Despite a long struggle, consumer interest groups failed to place a consumer advocate in a permanent government position.
Consumerization of the Republic - Cohen's term for what followed the Consumer's Republic, typified by a desire not for a marketplace that could be molded, both by consumer action and government policy, to shape a stronger society but rather for a marketplace that favored individual interests. This was brought about in no small part by the rise of segmented marketing strategy.

Chapter Ideas
Ch. 1 "Depression: Rise of the Citizen Consumer" - Second Wave consumer's movement and the New Deal
Ch. 2 "War: Citizen Consumers Do Battle on the Home Front" - Consumers supported price fixing measures, and received them. Meanwhile, Blacks had to fight harder for price protection just as they had to go so far as to threaten protests to be an equal part of the wartime labor force.
Ch. 3 "Reconversion: The Emergence of the Consumers' Republic" - Out of post-war recession, the G.I. Bill helped returning soldiers and their families reach higher standards of livings. However, Cohen shows that Blacks and uneducated G.I.'s were left behind by the bill's benefits.
Ch. 4 "Rebellion: Forcing Open the Doors of Public Accommodations" - Civil Rights Movement gained access to public accommodation...
Ch. 5 "Residence: Inequality in Mass Suburbia" - ...just in time for prosperity, including public accommodation, to depart the cities for white suburbia.
Ch.6 "Commerce: Reconfiguring Community Marketplaces" - The rise of shopping centers moved shopping from the public space of the city to the private space of the mall. Cohen discusses court cases fighting to make the mall a public place for political action: initially these cases had success, such as the 1968 Logan Valley Plaza decision to allow union members to picket the plaza, which was the equivalent of a sidewalk. After that, the malls gradually gained back rights, as the Court granted the states the right to decide whether their own constitutions protected access.
Ch.7 "Culture: Segmenting the Mass"- Segmented advertising
Ch.8 "Politics: Purchasers Politicized"- Third-wave consumer's movement

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Christopher Lasch et al -In the final pages, Cohen mentions Lasch and Michael Sandel as critics who have argued liberal faith in a growing economy to solve America's problems failed to consider traditional criticism of individualism. Cohen is more realistic in her criticism, admitting it is difficult to overturn a century of transformation that has turned voters from civic-minded to consumption-minded.

Cohen breaks new ground with her concept of a Consumer's Republic. I just wish she had done so with a shorter book that relied a bit less on endless statistical examples. She warns in her prologue that she is going to use northern New Jersey, where she grew up, as a frequent case study and I thought it worked well as the changes in that area seemed representative for national trends.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Slater - The Pursuit of Loneliness

Slater, Philip Elliot. The Pursuit of Loneliness; American Culture at the Breaking Point. Revised Edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.

Writing at about the same moment of American 70s malaise as Lasch (Culture of Narcissism) and Bell (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism), Slater also begins with the assumption that America is in decline. He argues that three positive societal needs - community, engagement, and dependency - have been marginalized by American individualism. (p.33) Chapter two, "Kill Anything That Moves," expresses Slater's horror at the technological developments seen in the recent Vietnam war that allowed the American military to kill indiscriminately from the air with napalm and cluster bombs.

In chapter three, Slater briefly uses The Graduate along with a dash of Freud to critique familial relationships. He argues The Graduate shows how parents see their children in a "vimpiresque way. They feed on the child's accomplishments..." (p.66) Homebound mothers look to sons to provide the satisfaction and achievement they themselves cannot achieve and they cannot get from the absent working husband. Slater also critiques the concept of romantic love as another symptom of individual - a selfish belief that there is one match in the world that a person is meant to be with that leads the individual to close himself out to broader social relationships.

Chapter 5, "Divided We Sit," addresses countercultural movements that arose in the sixties. Slater approves of some of their ideas which encourage community and attack traditional romantic love notions. But he senses an undercurrent of individualism that encourages people to "do your own thing" without concern for the needs of the group. (p.128)

Proposed Solutions - Chapter 6 & 7
Slater proposes some radical (somewhat half-baked) ideas to address these problems. One goal he has is to remove the incentive to achieve wealth. To do this, Slater suggests a 100% tax on income beyond $100,000. He is also disgusted with inherited wealth, and similarly proposes strict limits on money that can be passed down to generations; he suggests estates be pooled and distributed fairly to all members of the following generation, perhaps in an education fund.

Use of Evidence
This is clearly written for a popular audience, and the footnotes are few and far between. Slater offers his own intellectual musings rather than rely on a body of research or connect with any other works.

Slater makes his claims without a strong base of evidence, so it is difficult to take him seriously. It feels like he is just throwing ideas up in the air. Still, he fits right into the Bell/Lasch category in underlying tone, if not in academic rigor. I'm not quite sure how useful a read this was, but it certainly was a change of pace from the academicky stuff I have been grinding through.