Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image

14.12.2010


I am one of the editors of a new on-line journal on philosophy and the moving image, along with Patrícia Castello Branco and Susana Viegas. It may be found at http://cjpmi.ifilnova.pt.

Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image is a refereed international publication published by the Philosophy of Language Institute (Faculty of Social and Human Sciences, New University of Lisbon) and it has emerged in articulation with the research project “Film and Philosophy: Mapping an Encounter”. The journal publishes original essays and critical articles, reviews, conference reports and interviews, and releases original art work in the field of philosophical enquiry into cinema. The term “cinema” is here taken in its broadest sense as moving image (and image that moves). Historically, cinema studies have centred on film, but with the digitisation and proliferation of new means of production and distribution have also studied video, television, and new media. This deep engagement with cinematic culture, so understood, can provide tools for a better understanding of contemporary visual culture. Cinema is particularly interested in philosophical approaches to the aesthetics of the moving image as well as in philosophical investigations on particular works and about the contexts in which these works are seen and produced. It accepts submissions in Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish and it offers free access to its content.

Cinema aims at:

• disseminating philosophical investigations into cinema in the broadest sense, that is, including video, television, and new media;
• promoting the link between Portuguese and international scientific communities that develop work simultaneously within the fields of cinema studies and philosophy;
• providing a platform for a fruitful dialogue between various approaches, particular methodologies, topics and interdisciplinary contributions, within the scope of the journal.

These are the contents of the first issue:

“Editorial”, Patrícia Silveirinha Castello Branco, Sérgio Dias Branco, and Susana Viegas

ARTICLES

“A Care for the Claims of Theory”, D. N. Rodowick (Harvard University)

“Carroll on the Moving Image”, Thomas E. Wartenberg (Mount Holyoke College)

“Deleuze: The Thinking of the Brain”, Raymond Bellour (CNRS/Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3)

“Mucous, Monsters and Angels: Irigaray and Zulawski’s Possession”, Patricia MacCormack (Anglia Ruskin University)

“Film Theory Meets Analytic Philosophy; or, Film Studies and L’affaire Sokal”, Murray Smith (University of Kent)

INTERVIEW

“Georges Didi-Huberman: ‘.... ce qui rend le temps lisible, c’est l’image’”, by Susana Nascimento Duarte and Maria Irene Aparício (New University of Lisbon)

CONFERENCES REPORT

“Cognitive Deleuze: Report on the SCSMI Conference (Roanoke, 2-5 Jun. 2010) and the Deleuze Studies Conference (Amsterdam, 12-14 Jul. 2010)”, William Brown (University of Roehampton)

PhD in Film Studies

09.12.2010

My PhD viva took place yesterday at the University of Kent. The thesis, “Strung Pieces: On the Aesthetics of Television Fiction Series”, was accepted with no corrections by the internal examiner, Dr. Jinhee Choi, and by the external examiner, Dr. Jason Jacobs (University of Queensland), who were generous and attentive in their commentaries and questions.

I am deeply grateful to the School of Arts of the University of Kent for its financial support. This research would have remained a wishful and unrealised project without it. Kent, a wonderful place to study film and related topics, is my birthplace as a scholar and teacher. It will always be part of my life because it is part of my history.

I am also thankful to Dr. Sarah Cardwell, Dr. Catherine Grant (University of Sussex), and Dr. Peter Stanfield, and especially to Prof. Murray Smith and Dr. Steven Peacock (University of Hertfordshire) for their marvellous and dedicated guidance — and essentially for seeing this through. Dr. Andrew Klevan (University of Oxford) and Dr. Su Holmes (University of East Anglia), who were once affiliated with the department of Film Studies at Kent, also contributed in many ways to my thesis. The work of Prof. Jerrold Levinson (University of Maryland), who was Visiting Leverhulme Professor at Kent in 2008-2009, was and has been a source of inspiration and reflection.

Parts of my doctoral research were presented in conferences and sessions at De Montfort University, the University of Glasgow, the University of Kent, and Yale University. It was a pleasure to speak at these events. They were paramount to the development of this investigation. I am indebted to the hosting institutions, to the organisers, and to those who engaged with my work publicly and privately.

My friendly thanks to Helder Alcaparra, Rui Brazuna, and Jorge Pinto for their help on this venture. All the others will remain unnamed, but not unmentioned — a reminder, by absence, that I have thanked them in private and that I shall continue to do so. Still, I have to mention Filipa, my wife, to whom I dedicate the thesis. She has assisted me and heartened me in this lengthy process, like she has done on many occasions.

Sci-Fi Ghettos

12.07.2010


The essay collection “Battlestar Galactica”: Investigating Flesh, Spirit, and Steel is published today in the UK. I have contributed with a chapter entitled “Sci-Fi Ghettos: Battlestar Galactica and Genre Aesthetics”, which analyses in detail the motifs of the production design and the handheld camerawork of the series. The editors, Roz Kaveney and Jennifer Stoy, have put together an engaging and wide-ranging collection. My heartfelt thanks to them (and to I. B. Tauris) for giving me the opportunity to be part of this project on a remarkable television series. Roz was especially supportive throughout the editing process, even mentioning my paper in her concluding text.

On Essentialism

10.07.2010

Next week, I shall be in England to participate in the third Film-Philosophy conference. The event will be held at the University of Warwick from 15 to 17 July. This is abstract of my paper, “On Essentialism: Thoughts Between Nöel Carroll and Stanley Cavell”:

Nöel Carroll has been one of the most eloquent proponents of an anti-essentialist view of art, in particular, of cinema. He seems to think that Stanley Cavell holds an essentialist view of film, put forward in his foundational work, The World Viewed,[1] and developed in later essays and books. While Carroll admires Cavell’s philosophical readings of particular films, he also criticises his conception of film as essentially connected with photography. The aim of this paper is to provide some thoughts on this exchange between Carroll and Cavell, or more precisely, to compose a conversation between them based on their positions and what they entail. Perhaps their views are ultimately reconcilable.

Carroll rejects the photographic basis of film and instead proposes a definition of the works of the moving image (not moving pictures), an over-arching category that includes films. He avoids essentialism, but we may argue that so does Cavell in his characterisation of film as a succession of automatic world projections. As D. N. Rodowick rightly points out, this ontology of film does not assume an essentialism or teleology[2] insofar as it also claims that the possibilities of the medium cannot be determined in advance — that is, that they cannot be deduced from the medium because the medium is not a given. Cavell is then anti-essentialist in a Wittgensteinian sense, one that does not reject categories so much as defines them from similarities, family resemblances.[3] Therefore, this categorisation does not obscure salient differences between works. It instead invites us to notice them.

This is not to deny the differences between Carroll’s and Cavell’s ideas. They must be acknowledged, but their contributions can be thought of as complementary when all is said and done. They have different conceptions of medium, from simply materials to instruments, forms, and uses, as well. Carroll’s general definition comes from a narrow concept of medium, while Cavell’s restricted definition broadens what counts as media. The former tackles film from a theoretical approach, what we may call movies, the latter from an ordinary perspective, what we usually call movies.

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[1] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, enlarged edn. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).
[2] D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 42.
[3] See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations [1953], 50th Anniversary edn., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), sect. 67.

Coraline’s Soul

06.07.2010


Coraline.


I sent a proposal in May for the international conference, Cinema: Art, Technology, Communication, that will take place in Avanca, Portugal, this month. The energetic Avanca Cinema Club is organising this promising event for the first time. You can find more information here.

This is the abstract of my accepted paper, “Coraline’s Soul: Performance in Stop-motion Animation” that unfortunately I am not presenting because of some previous commitments:

This paper takes Coraline (2009), adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novella, as a case study of performance in stop-motion animation. Recent scholarly work on film performance by Andrew Klevan[1] urges us to pay close attention to films, moment by moment, and to understand postures, gestures, and intonations, not as merely conveying meanings, but as embodying personality. In stop-motion animations we usually do not see the animators; we see moving dolls — and so we have to posit an animating force that instils them with life. It is not by chance that “anima”, the Latin word for soul, is the root of “animation”. Stop-motion employs the technique of shooting successive altered figures to give them the impression of movement. The use of this technique in conjunction with 3D cinematography in Coraline is expressive because of its personal character: the visual depth and attention cues evoke the marvelled and fearful gaze of a child. In this sense, Coraline’s soul is not a spectral entity that commands the actions that she performs. Following Thomas Aquinas,[2] we can say that the soul is the principle of life — it is life, it is how a creature is alive, how it interacts with its surroundings. The soul therefore does not have to do with inwardness or the displacement of the spiritual world, but with outwardness and the inhabitation of the material world. Analysing Caroline’s performance, a performance with Dakota Fanning’s voice but without her body, is thus developing an analysis of how she is and how she acts in the world that the film projects and presents.

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[1] See Andrew Klevan, Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation (London: Wallflower, 2005).
[2] Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Ralph McInerny (London: Penguin Classics, 1998), pp. 410-28.

Pieces of Her

29.06.2010




“Piece of Me”.


Some scholars claim that the figure of the star is central to the understanding of popular music videos.[1] We do not have to agree with this general assertion to acknowledge that Britney Spears’ music videos are an eloquent example of this. Moreover, Britney’s videos often reflect on her status as celebrity, providing counter-images — something quite singular in contemporary celebrity culture.

It would be fascinating to analyse these counter-images, and the counter-narratives they create, in detail. Concentrating on “Lucky” (2000), “Everytime” (2004), and especially “Piece of Me” (2008), in which Britney deals with tabloid stories and photos in festive fashion, it could be argued that these are not simply images and narratives of opposition or retaliation. They are not a counterattack. As “Piece of Me” exemplifies, they often duplicate previous representations with the intent of substituting them. They are a counterpoint.

A way of fleshing out how Britney’s videos rewrite the visual record of her history as a celebrity is to compare them with Madonna’s videos. Madonna’s career is commonly a template for young pop singers. Both Madonna’s and Britney’s videographies present several radical changes in look, but Madonna often uses recognisable figures and masks — Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, a Geisha — even when expressing something intimate. In contrast, Britney’s videos normally reflect her personal history more directly: for instance, her progression from girlhood to womanhood and the stages in between — as “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” (2001) suggests. Her videos depict a search for identity open enough to incorporate the realisation of responsibility — motherhood in “Someday (I Will Understand)” (2005) — as well as the indecision following emancipation — the alternative roles as housewife, waitress, and office colleague in “Womanizer” (2008). These counter-images shape and alter the public perception of her and of her life.

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[1] See, e.g., Heidi Peeters, “The Semiotics of Music Videos: It Must Be Written in the Stars”, Image & Narrative, vol. 4, no. 2 (2004), http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/issue08/heidipeeters.htm.

Dreaming On

26.06.2010







Dream On, “The First Episode”.


This sequence is exemplary of Dream On (1990-96), a series built on the memory of television. In “The First Episode” (1.01), Martin Tupper’s ex-wife tells him that they need to talk and that it is about them. Tupper, who grew up in front of a television set, thinks that he knows where the conversation is heading. So a black-and-white clip matches the shots/reverse-shots of the chat between them and shows a woman confessing, “I’m in love with you. I don’t hide it very well, do I, darling? I want what you want. I want to come back. I want to be your wife.” After this fantasy, the woman explains that she is still waiting for him to sign the divorce papers. He tries to change the subject, but she is vehement in her insistence. So we are shown a boxer throwing a brutal punch.

Between Disorder

21.05.2010


Balagan.


You can now view or download the conference paper that I presented at the University of Coimbra on 7 May here (in Portuguese). The following is the abstract of the paper that I read at the 1st Spring Colloquium, a multi-disciplinary event organised by the Centre of Portuguese Literature (CLP) in association with Minho University and the University of Santiago de Compostela. It is titled “Entre a Desordem: Balagan como Mapa Intersticial de Identidades e Histórias” (“Between Disorder: Balagan as Interstitial Map of Identities and Histories”, in English).

Acre is a city in the coast of Israel. Between 1993 and 1996, the Acre Theatre Centre, which gathers Jews and Arabs, performed Arbeit Macht Frei fun Toidtland Europa, a controversial play where the past was enacted as a present that revealed the marks of memory. The controversy was due not only to the thematic strings that the performance interwove — the Nazi regime, Israel, Palestine, the Holocaust, the concepts of occupation and aggression — but also to the grotesque and confrontational scenes of the performance.

Two documentaries were made about the play: the video Al Tigu Le B’Shoah (Don’t Touch My Holocaust, 1994) and the film Balagan (1993). This paper focuses on the second. In Balagan, which means mess, other contexts where the play was presented are absent and only the original context is shown. Through the interplay of different elements, the film reveals interstices, that is, spaces in between actions, words, persons, and viewpoints. The play and the film are a product of the second generation of Arabs, Jews, Germans, after World War II, and follow a “recent tendency to privatize and ethnicize the memory of the Holocaust”.[1] The documentary centres around a place and around people, people who look for and negotiate a place, people who come together and come apart in a place. It can be seen as an interstitial map of identities and histories.

The singularity of Balagan lies in this intersection that shows the Holocaust as an event of rupture that is neither fundamentally public nor exclusively Jewish — relation substitutes opposition, between what is private and what is public, Jewish and non-Jewish. To demonstrate how the film examines these intervallic spaces, it is productive to analyse its conflicting and unsettling elements that build a dialectic relationship, a dialogue, between four levels: performances, statements, lives, and gazes. The plurals of these four strata reflect the plural portrait of this documentary work.

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[1] Yosefa Loshitzky, “Hybrid Victims: Second Generation Israelis Screen the Holocaust”, in Visual Culture and the Holocaust, ed. Barbie Zelizer (London: Athlone, 2001), p. 156.

Mystery Blonde Girl

27.04.2010


Veronica Mars, “Pilot” (1.01).


Veronica Mars is both character and narrator. The biggest mystery in Veronica Mars (2004-7) is not one of the cases that the blonde teenager tries to solve but the character herself, played by Kristen Bell. In the first and second seasons, Veronica’s voice-over reflects the protagonist’s puzzling identity.

One of the first sounds heard in the first episode is Veronica’s voice-over explaining the social structure of Neptune, a “city without middle class”. When a character is an internal narrator (or intradiegetic), the resultant narration is not necessarily restricted and may recount events that she or he did not witness. That is not the case in Veronica Mars: her voice-over is highly subjective and it is always related to something she has lived or is experiencing. Consequently, it is used to make observations about the present and to give details of her inner life, and it sometimes confines itself strictly to specifics of a case — with consistent expressive variations in intonation.

There has not been a tradition of using the voice of narrators in television series. Its use has been mainly limited to introductions — as in Bewitched (1964-72). Yet in recent years some shows have explored this way of presenting information and comments through a speaking agent more frequently. In Sex and the City (1998-2004), Carrie Bradshaw’s spoken words are observations of situations for her articles on sex and love. In Desperate Housewives (2004-), Mary Alice’s voice makes comments about Wisteria Lane after her suicide — and following the revelation of the reason why she did it during the first season, an unfamiliar spectator will probably interpret her voice-over in the next seasons as if it came from an external and omnipresent narrator. Veronica Mars’s voice establishes a different point of view; one that is not simply narrative because it is not simply justified by her investigations. Some cases have a personal and intimate nature — her rape, her best friend’s murder, her boyfriend’s accusation of homicide — which is signalled by the use of the voice-over, but her derisive and baffling remarks make it clear that she does not present the facts with rigour and objectivity.

Veronica’s voice is similar to Georgia’s voice in Dead Like Me (2003-4). While talking about their “professional” experiences they assume a subjective position to make sense of their life — or death, in Georgia’s case. What is singular is the way these private thoughts often involve a detachment from the scenes. In “Cheatty Cheatty Bang Bang” (2.03), for example, a confused Veronica criticises Wallace’s (Percy Daggs III) love interest in Jackie (Tessa Thompson) and he asks her: “What did you mean?” Then her voice-over repeats the question as if she is positioning herself as an external observer: “What did you mean?” This detachment contributes to the bewildering narrative structure of Veronica Mars, which incorporates her ignorance about certain events — well conveyed in the scenes in which she is not present, and through numerous flashbacks that forgo point-of-view shots and occasionally depict the same occurrence in different ways.

The Magnifying Class #7

04.03.2010


Sanxia haoren.


The next “Magnifying Class” is taking place tomorrow at the University of Oxford. Our group will be analysing and discussing Sanxia haoren (Still Life, 2006), directed by Jia Zhang-ke.

The film, whose original title means The Good People of the Three Gorges, is abundant in medium shots that frame people from the waist up. It is as if these persons do not have a ground to stand on. The gigantic Three Gorges Dam project is at the centre of the narrative as an engine of transformation of this region and of the lives of its people and the earth (in the Heideggerian sense of sustenance to the historical being that disappears in the turmoil of technology). Following Heidegger, we could say that the film contextualises its own origin. It provides an interpretation of the specific relationship between the cultural contrivances of existence and the natural context with which these contrivances are engaged. Perhaps this is why in some moments the ordinary becomes extra-ordinary. The idea underlying the events involving UFOs seems to be that the uneventful is not an excuse for distraction, but an opportunity for attention.

There is not exactly a rapport between the camera and the performers. Instead, there is a kind of co-ordination since the first panoramic shots on the boat — Sanming Han turns his eyes to the landscape as the camera stops its movement to focus on him. The behaviour of the camera is often autonomous from the motion of actors. In the striking scene when a motorcyclist takes Han to the (submerged) part of the town that he is looking for, the camera apparently follows a passing boat, but then seems to be searching for, or simply steering our attention to, an inhabited piece of land where buildings still stand.

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“The Magnifying Class”: #3 | #4 | #5 | #6

The Weight of Meaning

03.02.2010


The Sopranos, “The Weight”.


There is a play between the ordinary and the symbolic in The Sopranos (1999-2007). The most noticeable examples of this play are the dream sequences. Yet there are more subtle instances. Sometimes elements are completely inserted into the diegetic world, but gain the force of symbols to someone — which consequently justifies their return as something associated with that character.

This is what happens in “The Weight” (4.04). Consider the connection between Carmella (Edie Falco) and the song associated with Furio Giunta (Federico Castelluccio) at the end of the episode. When Tony (James Gandolfini) and Carmella are in the bedroom, the song seems an extra-diegetic element, music added to the scene. Then it is made clear that the sound is coming from Meadow’s (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) room. She is listening to the CD that she brought from Furio’s party. After Meadow turns down the music, Carmella and Tony have sex (or more precisely, just Tony). Later, the music returns when the camera concentrates on Carmella. She appears to be infatuated with Furio and the song recalls the connection between them and gives form to her infatuation through her memory. In the strict sense, the song is not an extra-diegetic sound since it directly expresses the contend of her thoughts and feelings.

Escolhas 2009

29.01.2010


Coraline.


Nada há de novo debaixo do Sol. O fetichismo tecnológico em volta de Avatar (James Camerson, 2009) relembrou esta verdade. Algo contra a tecnologia? Não. No entanto, talvez seja preciso dar um passo para trás e discutir não o que a tecnologia permite mas para que serve, o que serve. Compare-se o filme de Cameron com Coraline (Coraline e a Porta Secreta, 2009). Na fábula a partir do conto de Gaiman, o 3D é mais expressivo, espesso, a profundidade visual e solicitações de atenção evocam e correspondem ao olhar maravilhado e sobressaltado, curioso e inventivo de uma criança. De facto, o espalhafato efémero com que os filmes são hoje promovidos e divulgados por vezes encobre-os, reduzindo-os a acontecimentos estimulantes que negligenciam o seu valor humano e a sua dimensão artística. É urgente resistir a esta indiferença do consumismo cultural. É necessária uma abertura aos filmes, uma disponibilidade para a sua arte, um amor. A crítica, por seu lado, deve também fazer o seu papel, propondo um discurso de reflexão em vez de uma confirmação do óbvio (ou até de uma indicação de gosto).

Nada de novo sob o Sol. Mas as dez obras que escolhi mostram como no cinema, todas as coisas, quaisquer coisas, nos podem aparecer como novas, refeitas, recriadas, em imagens e sons, em gestos e palavras, que nos desafiam a concentrar no que é precioso, vibrante, diverso, único. É claro que nestes exercícios há sempre filmes ausentes. Mas vale a pena fazer uma distinção. Alguns ficaram de fora por falta de espaço — Amazing Grace (2006), Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura (2009), Shotgun Stories (Histórias de Caçadeira, 2007), This Is England (This Is England - Isto é Inglaterra, 2006), entre outros. Outros foram excluídos à partida — Gran Torino (2008), Inglourious Basterds (Sacanas sem Lei, 2009), por exemplo.

35 rhums (35 Shots de Rum, 2008), real. Claire Denis
Cant dels ocells, El (O Canto dos Pássaros, 2008), real. Albert Serra
Coraline
Go Go Tales (Histórias de Cabaret, 2007), real. Abel Ferrara
Happy-Go-Lucky (Um Dia de Cada Vez, 2008), real. Mike Leigh
Hurt Locker, The (Estado de Guerra, 2009), real. Kathryn Bigelow
Michael Jackson’s This Is It (2009), real. Kenny Ortega
Ne change rien (2009), real. Pedro Costa
Rachel Getting Married (O Casamento de Rachel, 2008), real. Jonathan Demme
Two Lovers (Duplo Amor, 2008), real. James Gray [1]

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[1] Publicado simultaneamente em Cinema2000: Balanço 2009 - As Nossas Escolhas”.

Writings of a Spectator

27.01.2010

This is perhaps obvious for regular visitors, but I am now keeping three (visible) blogs — and my personal site has been renewed. This one, The Motions of Images, is the primary blog. Aesthetics and Other Philosophies develops my interest in aesthetics and philosophical topics.

Writings of a Spectator is the sister blog of Motions of Images, an archive of critical notes on art works of the moving image in English and Portuguese.

Cultural Borrowings, the E-Book

16.01.2010


The Chemical Brothers’ “Get Yourself High” (2003).


In March 2008, I participated in a huge and fruitful conference at University of Nottingham on cultural borrowings. Almost two years after that event, Scope, the well-known online journal of the Institute of Film and TV Studies of that university, publishes an e-book titled “Cultural Borrowings: Appropriation, Reworking, Transformation”, a collection of the best papers presented at the conference. I have contributed with a chapter on music videos and reused footage. My thanks to the editor, Iain Robert Smith, to Dr. Elizabeth Evans, and to the three anonymous reviewers, whose suggestions have significantly improved my essay.

This issue of Scope also marks the 10th anniversary of the publication. It is an honour.

Maria de Morais

14.01.2010


I heard about Maria de Morais and her paintings in November 2009, so I am bit late. But these untitled flowers that bloom everywhere are still impressive, organically emerging from the surface of the paintings as if they are living things and are in motion. Her web site also includes photos and collages.