Department of Theatre and Film
Associate Editor's Introduction
This issue of The Projector focuses on debates about film, media culture and critical practices. It brings together a collection of essays that interrogate both cinema’s function as a representational medium and the function of cinema criticism as a method of evaluating the social and cultural significance of that medium. From modernist audiences’ assessment of the formal elements of film to the contemporary political uses of the James Bond franchise to the limitations of film criticism as a form of political activism, these essays examine specific cinematic texts, production practices, or theories of spectatorship, but they also invite us to reconsider theoretical debates surrounding the cinema, as well as the role of the cinema critic.
In the first of the referred essays, “From This Moment on: The Dialectics of Modernism,” Darin D. Kerr argues for an interdisciplinary view of modernist aesthetics in which “visual literacy” during the modernist period is understood as moving increasingly towards “a process of juxtaposing an understanding of one form or medium against the comprehension of another.” Using early film audiences’ reception of motion pictures as an example of this process, Kerr contends that, for those audiences, the appraisal of cinema as an artistic medium was shaped by the ways in which their familiarity with other visual media both informed and was contrasted with their assessment of film’s “quality of movement and how [it] achieved that quality.” Rejecting the prevailing scholarly view of the modernist period as “a narrative of the triumph of mechanization,” he uses Jean Epstein’s concept of photogénie to theorize this form of spectatorship, as well as to suggest that “our understanding of aesthetic engagement in the modernist period can be better understood as an interdisciplinary, dialectical process” that sees the modernist aesthetic as a contradictory and multi-faceted confluence of artistic forms rather than only as “an inexorable march towards mechanization/fascism.”
Turning to the ideological dimensions of contemporary cinema, the second referred essay, Mark Bernard’s “‘Christ, I Miss The Cold War’: James Bond, 9/11 and Casino Royale,” argues that the film Casino Royale updates the Bond franchise in light of the 9/11 attacks, not by replacing the Cold War rhetoric indicative of earlier Bond films with post-9/11 discourses concerning the need for decisive action in the face of perceived terrorist threats, but rather by joining the two together in order to “justify and validate the hard-nosed, paranoid, and bellicose tactics that the United States and its allies are utilizing in the ‘war on terror.’” Bernard analyzes the film’s narrative and stylistic departures from earlier Bond installments—it’s darker tone, it’s graphic depictions of violence, and it’s thematic exploration of the physical and emotional toll that “saving the world” takes upon Bond—in order to explore the ways in which this more “serious” and “realistic” portrayal of 007 merges Cold War paranoia with post-9/11 vigilance, positioning the updated Bond as at once the embodiment of U.S. vulnerability and the epitome of U.S. resolve. By situating the film in a long line of cinematic narratives that offer imaginary solutions to real political problems, Bernard also suggests that the film can be read as “a testament to how the Cold War modes of thinking, and icons like James Bond, really never left us, but instead have disguised themselves under the veneer of ‘realism’ and ‘seriousness’ and continue to inform the ways in which we envision and conceptualize our current global and political situation.”
In an editorial essay entitled “Subversive Fictions: A Patina of Radicalism in Corporate Media Society,” Cynthia Baron analyzes what she identifies as the tendency in contemporary media and cultural studies scholarship to conflate “avant-garde aesthetics and avant-garde politics,” and to equate “cultural commentary with political action” such that the consumption of corporately produced media texts that promote themselves as “subversive” through their rejection of highbrow taste or middlebrow morality has come to be seen as an act of political radicalism. Using Easy Rider and the films of Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth as examples, Baron notes that the status of film as a commercial commodity, its production within a corporate media structure, and the contingency of its circulation upon expectations that it will turn a profit for its producers/distributors all place limits on the extent to which any individual film can or will challenge the status quo, while the promise of “subversive” content or the use of directors and the casting of actors with “radical” star personas function far more effectively as marketing tools to attract “allegedly counterculture audiences” than they do as guarantors of alternative political statements.
In an effort to explain how this engagement with “subversive” representations became a “natural” option for people searching for an “authentic” connection to a world out there, Baron draws on the work of Raymond Williams. She proposes that our “intense engagement with representations” and “overriding sense that political action is something done by someone else out there” can be seen as responses to what Williams has described as the experience of mobile privatization (increased mobility combined with increased isolation) integral to industrial/post-industrial life where people are separated by distance but able to keep in touch. With the arrival of radio, television, and the internet, these responses have been intensified to the point that we live in what Williams has termed “a dramatized society” in which “stories” from out a world out there are channeled into “private” space on a 24/7 basis. In this context, “subversive” cultural products can take on special importance, for, situated as we are, looking out at a world out there, they seem to put us in touch with moments of authentic experience.
Finally, the Forum on Hollywood Blockbusters in this issue is comprised of a series of invited contributions that reflect on the essays collected in Julian Stringer’s Movie Blockbusters. Contributors Darin D. Kerr, Sudipto Sanyal, Kevan A. Feshami, Justin Philpot, Christian Remse, Bryan McGeary, Carolyn J. Sweet, J.R. Rawlins, and Ed Uszynski expand upon several of the arguments proposed in the anthology, including how the blockbuster is defined, if the blockbuster form can be applied to national cinemas outside of the United States, and how economic factors influence the methods of production, distribution and exhibition, as well as the viewing, of the blockbuster. However, the forum essays also introduce new topics for analysis in relation to the blockbuster, as well as seek to problematize existing scholarship in this area. Taking up the issues of the art/commerce binary, the cultural relevance of the blockbuster and its ideological uses, the gendering of the genre, its content, and its presumed audiences, and the ways in which questions of taste influence critical reception of the blockbuster, these essays not only challenge us to reconsider the ways in which the blockbuster is studied by media and cultural scholars, but the majority also point out gaps in current scholarship and/or blindspots in current methods of analysis, and propose suggestions for how the blockbuster might not only be studied differently, but also more comprehensively.