Thursday, June 17, 2010

Blogging and Interactivity

I was excited to get started on working with New Media in this class, in the context of "Writing about Literature." I expected it to be a bit tough and frustrating at times, and it certainly turned out to be. For instance, I spent a good 2 hours one day completing absolutely no new research or writing, but just trying to get my text into the right text size and font. I ended up having to settle for something that would be okay, but not great, because I just couldn't afford to spend more time on the form of my blog without making progress in other areas.

Having said that, I believe that working with new technology affords new ways of making intellectual links, ways of thinking that would simply not be available in a more traditional context. For instance, in one blog post, I was able to post some paintings I worked on this semester in a personal exploration of what was generally a more traditionally academic mode. By having a format in which I could then post a video of my textual source immediately following the paintings, I could both connect myself personally to the subject, and make academic comments about the differences in the medium of painting and film. Such a comparison would be difficult to represent just through text in a more traditional paper, especially in a topic like mine that looks specifically at visual ramifications of texts.

As I think about it now, the ability to embed video in a blog post allows it some serious advantages to a text book. A textbook rarely comes with film examples on DVD, even when the text is specifically a text on film criticism or history. But even if the text did come with a DVD or CD to offer much-needed representations of the subject matter, having an embedded video directly beneath a bit of text could do the job so much more efficiently and elegantly. Such a pedogogical tool would even allow less text to analyze the same thing, just because of the ease of reference.

Additionally, the sort of "open-source" quality of a blog or open-access online resource certainly fulfills the objectives of a university...mine has as one of its institutional objectives to "advance truth and knowledge" and "extend the blessing of learning," things that are much more available and accessible on this blog than they would be in an expensive text book. A blog invites rather than excludes, both from academic circles and from the community at large. Connected with this idea of "invitation" is the way that something like a blog encourages feedback and discussion through it "comments" feature, allowing further investigation to occur for readers, and for the creators of the blog.

Still, there are some drawbacks to our blog-writing format. To start, it was difficult to translate more traditional methods in to a new medium; this wouldn't be such a bad thing, accept that in our continued academic career, we will likely just need to go back to the old way of doing things. It might have been interesting to complete work in a new format, like our blog format, and also a more traditional product, and compare the two. The open-ended nature of a blog is perhaps a better analogy of the way intellectual exercise never really concludes on a topic, and yet the traditional "final draft" also allows for useful summations and precise characterizations of difficult material to be used by others for important work. A blog that remains too exploratory or wishy-washy is not as useful in some ways in the public sphere as a polished product that at least stands firm on a side, allowing further researchers to offer modifications and qualifications that can refine a problem into cohesive, best effort solution.

I believe that for me, this blog was a very useful tool, one that offers ways of seeing media that are necessary and yet undervalued in academia so far. Yet it can't quite replace traditional modes...I still think that there is something extremely valuable about struggling to craft something just the way you want it, even if "perfection" is a unrealistic thing.

Let Me Explain...No, Let Me Sum Up Heather's Blog

One of the things that I appreciate most about my classmate Heather's blog for this term's "Writing About Literature" assignment is how thorough and well structured she has been. Her last wrap-up blog post, The End As The Beginning, is a good example of this: while on the lengthier side, she divides it up into bite-sized morsels that can be read without scrolling, and with headings that make it clear what she intends to talk about. Quite a good example of sign-posting, I believe. I think that this "sign-posting" mentality was especially helpful on posts that had a lot of analysis of relatively abstract and difficult material, like her post Online Identity: Multiple Forms Singlular. That post had 5 subheadings, each giving a good teaser of what the argument beneath it would include.

So, while Heather tended less towards the informal, personal mode of blogging, and more towards a traditional research paper, her alteration of the form to include sign-posts and break things up into digestible bits made a load of text seem more manageable.

An additional benefit to Heather's use of "signposting" is that it structured each post very neatly so that it fit in with her thesis, and so that she could link each post in with the project as a whole. So while her blog is text-heavy, it is also one of the easiest in our class to navigate and understand the scope of her argument.

To Work On:

Part of the reason that Heather needed so desperately to "sign post," and should be praised for it, is because of the density of her analysis in blog posts. In some cases, this was a bit overwhelming, especially because some posts, especially at the beginning, did not make use of the multi-media possibilities that can help break up text and engage the reader. For instance, a series of 4 posts posted from May 25th to June 1st included no video, image, os visual other than a single thumbnail in the last lengthy post on June 1st. While this might not be necessary or even advised in a traditional paper, the blog format allows a scholar to make use of tools that are exciting and might help readers to connect with material in new, interesting ways. By keeping her early blog text-heavy with little visual stimulation automatically filters out interested viewers or readers who simply have a hard time making it through that much text.

Heather clearly recognized this, though, and starting with her post on June 3rd, titled "Palfrey, Harvard, and Identity Play," Heather began including vibrant, engaging photos. In that same post, Heather referred to the photo, including a personal perspective and explaining its use, which was a welcome personal addition to a complex, difficult subject. And while Heather did not explore any other media use in her blog, by the end, each post was shorter, and more engaging structurally, indicating an obvious trend towards understanding the reader's needs.

Also, while Heather's signposting mitigates other structural gaps, she could have used tags or labels to allow alternate ways to combine and search material in her posts. Her final post, for instance, does not contain any tags, and so would not be found through a search of key words, either by scholars searching outside her blog, or inside of it. By contrast, Ben used labels very effectively in his last blog post, making it possible to group his posts in interesting ways based on specific things a reader might be looking for. This gap in Heather's posting mechanics limits a reading of her material to more traditional modes, and shies away from the unexpected and fortuitous results that can come through the intelligent manipulation of new media search tools.

Let Me Sum Up:

In general, Heather completed a well-researched, well organized, insightful series of posts. It was always interesting to read, and Heather was responsive to comments from her readers. While her form was more traditional, she clearly made concessions to the blog format, which greatly improved the readability over what a traditional paper merely pasted online would have.
Great job!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Riding Off Into the Sunset

This is my last post in a series looking at the way landscape functions in film. To see the journey and how it has evolved, look at my first hub post, and then my reformulated hub-post that concludes with thoughts left here.

A Recap of My Last Post
In my
last post, I spoke about the ways in which natural elements in movies have been used as a way of "transporting" us to another world, creating an "immersive" experience that can capture the viewer's attention, and not allow additional moments for reflection. I used "Avatar" as a prime example, and showed its trailer which employed the typical attention-grabbing techniques. We might ask ourselves whether the trailer actually made use of "landscape," as I defined it in a blog post under my older hub, in which landscape is differentiated from "nature" and from "setting." In the trailer, perhaps the pace was such that the natural setting never had a chance to emerge from the margins to take its place as the focus of attention.

Also in my last post, Andrew made a comment that questioned my use of the trailer as an example. I think he makes a good point that the trailer pushes an extreme...but it makes my point. There well may be extended uses of landscape in the film Avatar, but it will be up to future viewers to make that decision, and to decide whether that movie provides the space within which to reflect, or whether even the uses of natural settings are only shown long enough to entrance and immerse, but not to reflect.

My Limitations
I don't think that I have a neat formulation of what line we may form between "setting" and "landscape," partly because the "landscape view," is dependent upon the viewer to have, at the moment that he or she chooses it. Nevertheless, we may say that the natural elements indicated in the Avatar trailer certainly allow little time for a "landscape view" to arise.

Back to My Main Text, and Why Landscape Matters
What would be a film on the other end? I refer here back to the literature that inspired my musings on landscape in film: Victor Sjostrom's Terje Vigen.

In this clip, a man rows to save a family stranded in a sinking ship. The scene is full of emotional tension, and certainly that influences the way that one will see the natural elements. But one of the things that most markedly differentiates between this clip and the trailer from Avatar, is the duration of the shot, that allows the viewer to understand the action occuring in the scene well enough to spend time considering the aesthetic properties of the sea, thus creating "landscape." The aesthetics of the "landscape view" are further accentuated by the naturally engaging rhythms of the wind-blown waves. A viewer might spend those moments of aesthetic consideration any number of ways: mesmerized by the "motion of the ocean," or recalling a childhood experience on the beach, or perhaps even (as I did) pondering about the authenticity of the churning waves as a backdrop for a fictional film. The former engaged my thought process, not by entrancing me, but by demonstrating to me the juxtaposition of a fictional narrative with something that (for me) transcended even the story being told, because of its authenticity, because of this "landscape," or "seascape" being so much more than an artificially constructed set, but rather something that existed before the making of the film, almost eternally.

Barthes and the Readerly/Writerly Perspective
In a
1983 article in Sight and Sound just following Roland Barthes death, the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a short review of what he perceived to be Barthes' views on film. He described Barthes as "mistrusting the hypnotic spell exerted by cinema," and at the same time saying that "the best films are those that suspend meaning the most..." Rosenbaum explains that such a film would "jolt" the viewer "profoundly," corresponding with what Barthes had also written about "writerly texts - the kinds that refuse easy understanding and are hard work to get through. See Barthes' S/Z for more background.

My relation of landscape to Barthes' ideas about "readerly" and "writerly" texts refers not to that "jolt" supplied almost forcefully by the difficult, uncomfortable text(film), but rather to what Barthes writes about the ability of a consumer to create "writerly" texts from a text that is "readerly." By nature, a film pulls along the viewer according to a predetermined pace, and in many ways filmic narratives might be considered in the "readerly" category, unless through story or spectacle they seek to deliberately "jolt" the consumer, rather than entrance or immerse. And because of that same pacing, it might be difficult for a viewer to deliberately create what Barthes calls "edges" in a text, by skimming, flipping pages, or reading out of order as one might do with a book (of course, I must point out that I am referring to a theatre-type viewing, in which the viewer has no control over the showing of the film). But when we have shots as in the above clip from Terje Vigen, the length of time dwelling on the landscape images, without the intercession of flashy film techniques like panning, zooming, tracking, quick editing, aggressive sound track or sound effects, etc, allows an opportunity for the viewer to create the edges that Barthes talks about; the lingering nature of the landscape allows the viewer, should he so choose, to find a "writerly" moment in a text that would often otherwise be "readerly."

Concluding Thoughts
This, ultimately, is the driving force behind my exploration of landscape as Victor Sjostrom used it, and in film in general. It is not an exhaustive proof, and certainly does not detail in much thoroughness the ways that film grammar functions in film, nor does it extend my hypothesis into a much-needed survey of films including natural elements to determine accuracy. Nevertheless, I hope that my use of media in this blog has provided enough concrete evidence for at least a thoughtful question to be posed, even if my answers are inadequate. To the reader who would continue this exploration, may you journey thoughtfully into the sunset-drenched horizon, and may you develop your own, individual ideas about landscape.

P.S. You'll want to click on this last image

Prepare to be Immersed...

In my early set of posts before I reformulated my direction in a new hub post, a few classmates made comments about how landscape in a scene from Lawrence of Arabia either immersed them further in the scene, or allowed them to separate themselves from the story...Allison in fact said both:

1. "I would have to agree that you have to step a foot or two away from plot or narrative to appreciate the aesthetic. "


2. "I rewatched Out of Africa lately, and it is also another example of a film which stops action entirely at points to transport viewers to another landscape."

This presents me with a dilemma: landscape, if it "transports" you somewhere, is actively engaging you, rather than allowing you space to step back and think. My argument, then, that landscape allows one to step away from narrative, would merely replace one attention-stealing thing with another. In the moment that one steps back from the plot, says Allison, one is also sucked into an observation of the aesthetic.

Indeed, Chris also made a similar comment in my follow-up post:

"For me, landscape is a huge deal in film. I think most of my favorite movies draw me in with good use of landscape and physical setting."

Again, the way that Chris is "drawn in" suggests being more captivated or mesmerized by the scene, with less space for reflection.

In the same comment section as Chris, Heather says, "Well, do characters allow us to immerse ourselves more fully in the plot, or step back from it. I would say immerse us, because they become an integral part of what the plot really is."

The kind of "immersiveness" that Allison, Chris, and Heather allude to is exactly the thing that I intend to argue against in my next and final post, when thinking about certain kinds of landscapes making a film text more "writerly" than "readerly."

But it will be an uphill battle. Chris comments about the film Avatar, relating landscapes to the "world," saying that the film "owes a LOT of its success to creating a world rather than just a story." He pointed to the way people were so drawn into "Pandora" that "
Avatar Withdrawal Syndrome" became a seriously disturbing news story. Avatar is a film that takes ideas about "immersion" and pushes them to the extreme, both by virtue of its 3-D environment, which converts a flat screen to a "surround-visual" experience, and by using digital technology that allows virtually constructed spaces to seem authentic. So, does the meticulously-crafted natural world of Pandora perform the same agressive attention-grabbing function that 3-D shows do?

Perhaps it does, at least in some cases. But the conversation needs to go beyond just "landscape does this" or "landscape does that." In a conversation that I had with my "Writing about Literature" professor, Dr. Burton, we discussed the ways in which film "grammar" effect the way we perceive something, and landscape is no exception. Whether a certain scene in film is filled with quick edits and short shots, or is filmed from an unnerving dutch angle, or backed by mood-enducing music, or whether it employs slow-motion or filtering effects, our perception of the scene is affected, as is the space we may have for reflection.

Take, for instance, the following trailer for the film Avatar, especially the second half of it. Despite a serious load of natural elements, the "film grammar" (ie. quick edits, soundtrack, placement of characters in relation to camera and natural elements, etc) of the trailer does exactly what a trailer is meant to do: it grabs your attention in as many ways as it can, to the exclusion of providing space to analyze or consider it reflectively.

Any consideration of what landscape does or does not do in film must take into consideration the film grammar of the scene that it is in, and I will try to delineate some of those differences in my final post.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Landscape: made of 0's and 1's?

This post follows up my new hub post in which I articulate 3 new areas of exploration, with this post focusing on how the analogy of landscape might be applicable in the digital context.

My classmate, Ben, and my professor, Dr. Burton, commented on my new hub post with the appropriateness of "landscape" as an analogy, and suggested another film term to consider: Mise-en-scene.

The appropriateness of "mise-en-scene"
"Mise-en-scene" has been called film's "grand undefined term," because of different opinions about its scope, but a quick, narrow definition of mise-en-scene follows: "everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement - set, props, actors, costumes, lighting." In other words, in its narrow definition, it refers to things that are arranged by the film-maker, to give a certain mood, tone, or look to a scene.

Dr. Burton suggested the appropriateness of "mise-en scene" for the digital realm because it is "artificially composed." I like that, but I have a few things to say about landscape that might still justify the comparison.

The appropriateness of "landscape"
According to Martin Lefebvre, "landscape" can be contrasted to "nature" in the sense that it is man's "interaction with nature and environment that produces the landscape." In other words, the "landscape view" is one that directs an intentional gaze at nature, transforming it at least in part by the very eyes that behold it.

So how could "landscape" still be more useful than "mise-en-scene" as an analogy? Mise-en-scene implies that a film-maker put things in the frame for a specific purpose, whereas having a "landscape view" considers a broad vista which is much larger than oneself, and transforms it by looking at it in a certain way. Despite the artificiality of the internet, for instance, it was certainly not created by Al Gore nor any other single person, or even by a finite group of people. For any individual considering the scope and complexity of the data streams coursing through servers and individual computers, the internet may as well be a thing as vast, sublime (see my classmates Andrew, Chris and Katherine's thoughts on the sublime in new media) and removed from a single individual's influence as "nature." But, a single individual can choose to consider the complexity of the internet in a certain way - to begin to organize it conceptually by applying the "landscape gaze" to it - which is what search engines and other data organizers do.

Another way of thinking about a way that the internet may be considered using the "landscape view" is that the internet, by definition, connects information that would otherwise sit isolated in a location somewhere. But by applying an intentional "view" of connectedness, the internet transformed all of that isolated information into a broad vista of information, and provided tools with which to craft it into forms useful for mankind, much as "landscape" does with "nature."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Out With the Old, In With the New

After a conversation with my "Writing About Literature" professor Dr. Burton, I've decided to take this moment to recap my project, and provide another hub post, so that I might tighten things up a little, and streamline my thoughts into more bite-size, but still inter-related chunks.

In my initial hub-post, I laid out a plan to look at landscape through the lens of Victor Sjostrom's early films, and thereby demonstrate the importance of landscape in our modern context. I had developed a plan to look at at least 7 different topics, only a few of which I have covered, including a historical look at landscape in early film before Victor Sjostrom, and a personal exploration of landscape painting. However, my posts have been long and generally include several different subjects, making the process of reading one of my posts feel a little muddy and disjointed.

So, this new hub-post provides an opportunity to re-establish my main idea (thesis?) and move in new directions with a fresh resolve to be concise and efficient. As I discussed with Dr. Burton, there is no reason why a blog can't have 5, or 10, or 20 hub posts, recapping previous efforts and re-formulating a path of research, but always remaining connected, like the webs in the image above.

For the moment, the following indicates a new path in my exploration of landscape, in an effort to involve a more contemporary perspective:

2. How does landscape in film provide elements of interactivity and immersiveness, especially with the new technology used in modern film showings?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Do you have to Do Something to Know it?

This post explores personal experience with landscape painting, referencing ideas that can be found in my Head post about landscape and film using Victor Sjostrom's works as a lens.

Where is the Scholarly Discussion About Practicing What You Want to Know?
I have now spent several hours trying to find some good scholarly articles about how a person might understand landscape better by actually trying to produce it. For the most part, I've struck out. I can find articles on business management and economics, like one from the Harvard Business School Press called "The Knowing Doing Gap," which looks at the "challenge of turning knowledge about how to enhance organizational performance into actions consistent with that knowledge," but it doesn't quite address what I'm referring to. Or I can find articles in organizational management and psychology, like an article in Organization Science called "Knowing in Practice: Enacting a Collective Capability in Distributed Organizing," in which Wanda J. Orlikowski of the Sloan School of Management at MIT outlines a perspective on "knowing in practice which highlights the essential role of human action in knowing how to get things done in complex organizational work." Or even an article in the book Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory entitled "Learning by Doing," in which Roger C. Schank (Director of the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University) discusses "developing skills rather than perfecting routines," and the benefits of "just in time" training.

I hadn't thought it would be so difficult to find a reliable, scholarly person suggesting that you've got to try something before you can really teach it or talk about it knowledgeably. I suppose I might find something along those lines if I looked into Anthropology, where I know that there are discussions of the limitations of writing about populations if you haven't really lived with them long enough to really know them. But I'm talking about art here, and it just seems like there'd at least be a few art historians who would argue for experience with practicing a medium, and not just looking at it, being important for one to understand it. Why can't I find it?

The Difficulty of Search Terms
Partly it's probably because the search terms I can think of are so commonly used as analogies in just about every academic field. A "landscape" could be "the landscape of companies in the Fortune 500," "nature" could be "the nature of non-newtonian fluids," "art" could be "the art of concrete pouring for large projects," and "painting" could be "painting a picture of new methodologies in exercise science."

The Implicit Acknowledgment of Doing in order to Know
I'm pretty sure that what I'm looking for is out there; when a professor requires you to write a Sonnet or even to mimic the style of a prominent critic, the implicit assumption is that doing it will teach you something that merely studying it will not. My English professor Gideon Burton writes a new Sonnet every single day; I'm sure that he would argue that he has a better understanding of the form and could talk about it more intelligently now that he has tried it.

So, in any event, I've been trying my hand at landscape painting during this term, with the thought that it might teach me something about "nature," "setting," and especially "landscape" that I might not realize if I just continued to watch films or look at art.

Some Caveats About Comparing One Medium to Another
To start with I have to admit that a painted landscape probably engenders something different in a viewer than a filmed landscape, especially if the painted landscapes are more abstract, as mine are. When you look at a painting, I think you often try to compare that depiction with the real thing, and there is something of a "pause" in that moment, as you think, "how close is this to things I know in real life?" You may also ask yourself, especially if the painting is not photo-realistic, "does this landscape give me similar feelings to the thing in real life?" A final question that a person might ask themselves when looking at a painting might be: "Does this painting suggest new ways of thinking about or looking at the world that I would not have considered before?" All of these questions might run a little differently when looking at a landscape in film. If the film is live action, then the inclination for viewers is to see the landscape not as a "representation," like the painting, but as a "reproduction;" that is, the landscape in the film is usually seen as the "real thing," and not an artistic creation. Film scholars will be quick to dispute this illusion of "reproduction," as Bill Nichols does in his book "Introduction to Documentary." Nichols writes that everything within the frame of the film screen:

stands for a particular view of the world, one we may never have encountered before even if the aspects of the world that is represented are familiar to us. We judge a re-production by its fidelity to the original - its capacity to look like, act like, and serve the same purpose as the original. We judge a representation more by the pleasure it offers, the value of the insight or knowledge it provides, and the quality of the orientation or disposition, tone or perspective it instills. We ask more of a representation than we do of a reproduction.
So, there is no doubt that my paintings are "representations:"

But what about nature depicted in film? When do we care more about its fidelity than the pleasure that it gives? And isn't the film-maker's gaze a way of creating a work of art? The "framing process," of choosing this portion of land or sea rather than that, of finding the right lighting, of even noticing a bit of land for its aesthetic not that the process of an artist? Let us consider this scene from Sjostrom's 1918 film The Outlaw and his Wife:

At what points in the film does the natural world merely serve as a place for action to take place (setting), and at what point does the natural world become something more, something to be appreciated in itself, as landscape? In addition, do we gain pleasure from these beautiful scenes, or merely satisfaction when they seem to be "true" to the original land? Are we seeing reproduction, or representation?Whatever the film scholar may argue, it matters the way in which the general viewer responds to the film.

I would argue that while a viewer might ask different questions about my paintings than about landscape in film, there are also similarities, especially when the film-maker uses his natural resources with the kind of subtlety and respect that Victor Sjostrom does.

Some Preliminary Conclusions About My Painting Experiment
As for the process of painting - I believe that I do have, if not a greater understanding of landscape, at least a greater appreciation for it. I think more now about horizons, of deep space and perspective, of things that are implied outside the frames of my art. I think of the time it took me to experiment with different styles, and which ones seemed to work, and which ones did not. I think of how humanity fits into representations that seem devoid of it. I think about not just the outdoor experiences that I have had, but about the ones that I will have, seeing with more discerning, even appreciative eyes. Perhaps as much as anything else, the length of time it took me to paint, to wipe and repaint, to stand back and consider, to plan my next moves, helps me to view landscape as something that involves contemplation, time, and consideration. But I also know that while these feelings in me are perhaps stronger now, they are not entirely new. The viewer who has never practiced, may still have similar feelings, even if they are less pronounced, or even unconscious. After all, I was moved by landscapes before I ever picked up a paint brush.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The landscape of landscape (and film)

When I first found Martin Lefebvre's volume Landscape and Film, I was pretty happy, because Lefebvre's arguments about the way landscape functions matched pretty closely with what I wanted to look at. Landscape and Film was published in 2006, and since then, a few interesting projects have gotten underway, namely a book involving my current research inspiration, Tom Gunning, called Cinema and Landscape.
It was published in 2009. It touts itself as "the most comprehensive study of film landscapes ever published."

As part of a continuing project with Cinema and Landscape, I learned that an international conference on "Cinema and Landscape" was held in the United Kingdom at the University of Sheffield, less than a month ago! Zut! I just missed it by a few weeks and a few thousand miles. The topics were to include:

landscapes of national cinemas; aesthetics; landscape and film; place, identity and the role of film; geo-political film-scapes; film directors and landscapes; new readings in film geography; landscape and film form; travel, journeys and filmic landscapes...And more!
That "and more" part has me especially excited. Imagine the possibilities of "And More!" I also found a recent graduate conference in landscape studies had concluded in March at Indiana University, the 2010 Landscape, Space, and Place Conference. The topics for this one include:

landscape ecology; landscape architecture; cultural landscape; symbolic landscape; sense of place; historical landscape; landscape and the arts; landscape-related pedagogy
I also found that The Society For Landscape Studies held a "Spring Field Weekend" in mid April, in conjunction with the Sussex Archaeological Society. It seems Spring is the time to hold conferences, and I just missed the boat. Luckily, many conferences post past paper abstracts, like the Landscape, Place, and Space Conference in hopefully I won't have to wait too long to see what this year's event was all about.

Another conference taking place in the United Kingdom is the Emerging Landscapes conference at University of Westminster, a joint venture between The School of Architecture and the Built Environment and The School of Media, the Arts, and Design. Although the deadline for papers has passed, the conference is June 25-27, I wonder how one might find a way to sneak in and attend a few lectures...

It seems in general that I've missed the conferences for this go-round, at least for submitting papers; and they don't have much in the way of archived video or other media, at least at this point in time. Abstracts might be useful to understand what conversations people are having, but actually attending one of these seems like it would yield the greatest results.

Tom Gunning: Setting me straight

My "Writing About Literature" professor, Dr. Burton, asked that we extend our research process beyond our own isolated bubble, so that we could better take part in a larger conversation about our research topics, and learn to make connections that will allow us to grow through collaboration. So, I decided to send an e-mail to the superstar of silent film scholarship, Tom Gunning.

Tom Gunning is the Chair for the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at The University of Chicago, and is "famous" for creating a new way of looking at pre-feature silent films, which he terms "the cinema of attractions." The following is an excerpt from his Bio on UChicago's faculty page (along with a great Bio pic):

His published work (approximately one hundred publications) has concentrated on early cinema (from its origins to the WW I) as well as on the culture of modernity from which cinema arose (relating it to still photography, stage melodrama, magic lantern shows, as well as wider cultural concerns such as the tracking of criminals, the World Expositions, and Spiritualism). His concept of the "cinema of attractions" has tried to relate the development of cinema to other forces than storytelling, such as new experiences of space and time in modernity, and an emerging modern visual culture.

I decided to send Dr. Gunning an e-mail with a question that I had been researching but could not find an answer for. Here is the e-mail:

Dr. Gunning,

I am a double Film and English Major at Brigham Young University. I don't presume that you respond to e-mails from anonymous students; but as I'm working on a project in your area of expertise, I finally decided that it was worth giving it a shot.

I have spent some time following the work you have done, especially in early silent film. About a year ago I found Martin Lefebvre's volume "Landscape and Film," which you contributed to, and have since learned about your work with what you term the "cinema of attractions." It was an exciting experience to realize that there is still a fairly current and evolving discussion about film, even in its classic stage, and it is a dream of mine to contribute to it myself.

My specific interest is in landscape and film, and I know that you have spent time looking at D.W. Griffith and landscape in particular. I am currently revising a paper I hope to find publication for about Victor Sjostrom and the "landscape view," as I was sharply struck by Sjostrom's use of landscape (seascape) in Terje Vigen (A Man There Was - 1917), and The Outlaw and his Wife(1918). I am formulating a paper that suggests that these two films of Sjostrom's may form a model that we might benefit from today.

One specific question I have is whether Sjostrom was diverging from common practice by shooting such striking, poignant scenes out in nature, as opposed to in the studio. I have extrapolated that most producers would choose to shoot big-budget films on a set in a studio because it would be cheaper than moving a whole film crew to a natural location...and that the studio system was really coming into its own during just this period...but have not found definitive proof for this in the research that I have conducted.

Whether you find the opportunity to respond to this e-mail or not, I wanted to express my admiration for the work that you have done.

Neal Call

About an hour later, I realized that I'd made a mistake in my e-mail (aw suck!), and sent Dr. Gunning a second e-mail apologizing:

As I was looking at Martin Lefebvre's book again, I realized that it was Jean Mottet who wrote an article about landscape in D.W. Griffith. It doesn't alter my interest in your work, but I apologize for misrepresenting. I just knew that you had done work with the early American film and D.W. Griffith.

Despite my silly mistake, Dr. Gunning responded almost immediately with an answer that probably saved me 5-10 extra hours of research trying to find evidence for something that didn't exist (and I'd spent that much time already trying to find it). Here is his response e-mail:

Dear Neal

A quick answer. In the teens when Sjostrom was working, shooting in a big studio for landscape scenes was not necessarily cheaper, so it was not unusual for directors of the teens to shoot landscape scene sin nature (Griffith, prodcuer Tomas Ince and the various directors who worked under him) Maurice Tourneur, all did great work in landscapes, However I would agree Sjostrom was perhaps more powerful than any of the others, not because he was the only one shoorting in landscape, but because he has such an extraordinary sense of the way environment interpenetrated his character and his narrative. Outlaw is perhaps the masterpiece in this regard, but most of his films show this great sensibility. It may partly be a cultural sensibility, since I feel the strongest rival to his talent in this regard is his fellow Swede Maurice Stiller, especially Song of the Scarlet Flower and (available on DVD) Sir Arne's Treasure I have an essay on Sjostorm, but it is not on one of his landscape films: “‘A Dangerous Pledge’: Victor Sjöström’s Unknown Masterpiece Mästerman” in Nordic Explorations: Film Before 1930 ed. John Fullerton and Jan Olsson (Sydney: John Libbey and Co., 1999).


Tom Gunning

And Dr. Gunning's response to my flub of attributing his work:

Dear Neal

I did wonder, but if you look at my Griffith book you will find pleanty on Landscape...



You'll note that Dr. Gunning directly refutes much of what I wrote in my second post on landscape in film, but I am overjoyed that he did, because I knew that I was making a leap without enough proof. Now I can revise it to make it accurate. Even better, though, was that he corroborated my sense that Sjostrom did something special that other film-makers were not doing - he in essence justified my paper, even if he offered a concrete counter to a sub-argument. All things considered, it was an excellent exchange, and if I can come up with another good, concise question to ask, I hope Dr. Gunning might offer me another pearl or two.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Landscape in Film: Where'd it come from?

This is the second post in series about landscape and film, through the lens of early silent films by Victor Sjostrom. Click here for the Head Post.

The first 20 years in the life of the motion picture marked fascinating developments from a “cinema of attractions” to narrative films. Tom Gunning posits that the “cinema of attractions” dominated the cinema until about 1906-7, and that it was an “exhibitionist cinema,” as opposed to the “voyeuristic aspect of narrative cinema” (56). With the “cinema of attractions” came travel films, such as those put on by Hales Tours in the first few years of the 1900s, the “largest chain of theatres exclusively showing films before 1906" (Gunning 58). Natural locations, in these early films, were a popular subject. They were not just films statically showing nature, as we would imagine in landscape paintings; they were often moving films, filmed from trains, mimicking a sense of “travel” that was extremely popular (Gunning 58). For the example of one of Thomas Edison's films on a train from 1900, see my "Head" post.

As narrative films came into their own, nature took a backseat to story. More and more films were shot in studios to take advantage of lower shooting costs and greater control. In 1915, when D.W. Griffith released Birth of a Nation, the narrative reached dominance with the feature film. Thereafter, features ruled the screen.

On the other side of the ocean in Sweden, Victor Sjostrom made films during the same exciting period. He cut his teeth on fairly uninspired films during the early teens, but like D.W Griffith, made the most of his developing powers as filmmaker in the later teens, crafting magnificent, singular feature films. Where nature took a dominant position in some of the earlier “attraction” films, it was demoted in many later narratives; Sjostrom promoted it again in his great work Terje Vigen, which also laid the groundwork for The Outlaw and His Wife, which would follow shortly.

To understand Sjostrom’s movement towards his masterpieces (
Terje Vigen specifically anticipating others such as The Outlaw and His Wife, the Girl from Marsh Croft, etc.) in the late 1910s, we should first consider the filmic traditions from which he was building. The Lumieres showed their first films to a paying audience in 1895, while the first moving images shown in Scandinavia were in Norway’s capital in April of 1896. For the first few years, most of the films shown in Scandinavia were English and French films (Iversen 94). As much as anything, audiences came simply to see an exciting new technology; Gunning describes the technology itself as an “attraction,” independent of any film shown (58). After a few years, certain types of films developed greater popularity than others and these films formed what Gunning has called the “cinema of attractions” (57). Before native Scandinavians were producing films, foreign filmmakers employed by such companies as Hales Tours had descended on the Scandinavian fjords and mountains to make travel films, primarily for foreign audiences (Sorenssen 103). There was an early sense that the Scandinavian landscape held a special spirit about it, and so-called “Norway films” remained popular into the 1920s and 1930s even as other films of the “cinema of attractions” era faded away (Sorenssen 104).

The travel films offered the most significant group of films that incorporated nature as something for its own sake, independent of any other on-screen action. Earlier films by such filmmakers as the Lumieres had natural elements; we should think particularly of
A Boat Leaving Harbour, as its depiction of the men struggling on the sea is later echoed in other Scandinavian films, specifically Strosjom’s Terje Vigen. The sea, for Sjostrom, would be a recurring and deeply personal subject. We can see a similar subject matter in the first Norwegian feature film produced between 1906-1908, entitled Dangers of a Fisherman’s Life – An Ocean Drama, a one-reeler in which a fisherman’s son falls overboard and is lost. This film is significant both in theme and because its photographer, Julius Jaenzon, later became the “master photographer” for both Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller (Iversen 95). Yet the primary purpose of both of these single-reel films was to show the action of the men in the boat; the ocean was incidental. By contrast, the travel films focused on the land or scenery and no specific action or event.

Post update: 6/5/2010:

After posting this, I had an e-mail exchange with Tom Gunning, the man who got "cinema of attractions" into the silent film lexicon, and he let me know that shooting in natural locations was not in fact as abnormal as I suggest - he points out that Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Maurice Tourneur all frequently shot "landscapes." However, he does corroborate my view that Victor Sjostrom was using landscape in some unique ways that set him apart from other film makers.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Landscape and Narrative: Using Victor Sjostrom's Early Films as a Case Study

This post forms the "head" for an exploration of landscape in narrative, and with a heavy emphasis on narrative in film. While many of my arguments stem from a close look at the use of landscape in Victor Sjostrom's silent films, they use elements of Sjostrom's films also as illustrations of what landscape generally can do within the context of the moving image, the motion picture. Why use Victor Sjostrom's work? Partly I have a desire to see his name fixed more prominently amongst the great filmmakers of our age; many are familiar with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, etc, but Sjostrom rarely enters prominently into a discussion of the early great auteur filmmakers. Nevertheless, Andrew Sarris (the man who popularized the "auteur theory" in America) wrote of Victor Sjostrom that he was possibly "the world's first great director, even before Chaplin and Griffith." Why was he great? Sjostrom came to film from the theatre, and developed characters and situations that had great depth and emotional significance, as with one of his first acclaimed works, the 1913 film Ingeborg Holm. But in addition to Sjostrom's nuanced sensibilities about character and story, he also introduced natural elements into his films that brought the spectacle of the natural world to a level rarely achieved before, or after. His films A Man There Was and The Outlaw and His Wife, released in 1917 and 1918, were at the time described as "the most beautiful films in the world." Sjostrom brought subtlety and beauty to the mise en scene of the natural world, surpassing the sort of place-holding role that setting and set design had been relegated to in a transitional period between the prominence of a "cinema of attractions" and the triumph of the feature film. Consider the opening sequence of A Man There Was, and how powerfully Sjostrom uses the natural world (and note that it is Victor Sjostrom himself in the title roll):

I am a lover of outdoor spaces, of big skies and distant horizons, of the sublime grandeur of mountain ranges and the infinite repetition of waves in a choppy sea. And while this love is personal, and forms the impetus for my exploration of landscape in media, it is also communal, as it follows a general societal impulse to see the world's awe-inspiring natural locations, whether in person or vicariously through whatever medium may be available. We can find, for instance, in an early silent film produced by
Thomas Edison, a short film of a natural setting in which no specific action takes place other than the motion of the train and of the water roaring by in the gorge outside the train's windows.

Audiences flocked to see these types of films, called "phantom rides," "scenics," "travel films," "travelogues," or "foreign views." There are clearly echoes of the "travel film" in
A Man There Was...but Sjostrom takes the camera's ability to capture natural spectacle and weaves it into a story that uniquely benefits from the union. He did this at a time when many films had removed from natural settings, because of the expense of transporting actors and film crew and for concerns about weather and disruption of extremely tight shooting schedules.

The many terms synonymous with "travel film" is indicative of the huge volume of such films that were produced in the early days of film, generating copious descriptions and labels. And it is clear that natural locations are still important in film, that they strike a chord in audiences in ways that deserve to be explored further. We might look at a scene from Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, and note the ways that the framed depictions of a desert world worked to create one of the most celebrated films of all time. In a more current example, we might consider moments from Baraka, a film that was filmed in 152 locations in 24 countries, and that was neither cheap nor easy to make.

Why make it? Because it was meaningful both for the filmmakers, and for the audience, just as Edison's film from 1900 was. The fact is, that along with narrative stories and action and events, both historical and modern audiences are drawn to landscapes.

The popular affinity for the grandeur of our world is a sensibility that Victor Sjostrom tapped into. But I argue that landscape in film is much more than a pretty thing to entrance us. Martin Lefebvre, Associate Professor in the Mel Oppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University, Montreal and author of
Landscape and Film, says that "landscape is everywhere in film, but it has been largely overlooked in theory and criticism...What kind of landscape is cinematic landscape? How is cinematic landscape different from landscape painting?" Lefebvre poses such questions in his volume, and I hope to articulate a response that enriches the discussion. I also intend to note differences between the use of landscape in literature and the use of landscape in film.

Ultimately, it is my view that developing an understanding of the way landscape can work within a text will aid the modern viewer in determining valuable aspects of visual aesthetics, especially aesthetics in film. I also suggest that this understanding may help modern viewers to be reflective and discerning in consuming media, so that the viewing process is one of growth, rather than cheap thrills or stagnation.

The following points delineate the different areas that I will consider in my exploration of and arguments about landscape:

1. A historical look at the transition period between the "cinema of attractions" and the feature film
2. The biography of Victor Sjostrom and the events that led him to consider his natural environment as an important aspect of his films.
3. A comparison using film clips of Victor Sjostrom's films and representative films of the same time period.
4. A historical look at the way that landscape has developed in art and literature, and in film, and an analysis of the differences between them.
5. An extrapolation of Roland Barthes' thoughts about "Readerly" and "Writerly" texts to the film paradigm, and the ways that landscapes can promote the creation of a "writerly" text.
6. Personal experiences in creation of landscape painting and film that inform my thoughts about landscape
7. Theorists and texts that might add to the discussion that I have not yet explored.

Edit 6/15/2010: I reformulated ideas generated in this exploration in a new hub-post that crystallized my thinking and went in some new directions.

Friday, May 28, 2010

People who I disagree with

I am still struggling to rip the scenes I need from My Sjostrom DVD, so in the meantime I'll share a bit about landscapes from two online writers that I disagree with.

To start, I found Stewart McKie's article on Sys-Con Media, titled "The Role of Landscape in Film." He lists some of my favorite movies: Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves, Aguirre: The Wrath of God, etc., and goes on to describe the ways in which the landscapes within them "add additional depth to a story or the situation that characters find themselves in." I don't have a problem with that statement. In fact, I'd agree with most of what McKie says, when he includes a list of ways that landscapes can work in film:

  • Reinforce themes
  • "Raise the stakes"
  • Create emotional highs
  • Emphasise contrasting worlds
  • Act as a character in its own right

But he leaves out an important element that I think Martin Lefebvre is keen to observe in the introduction to his volume, "Landscape and Film." Lefebvre's essential addition is that observation of landscapes often results in a removal or break from the narrative, because it privileges the aesthetics over the plot. McKie only discusses landscapes in ways that are more immersive to the viewer in the world of the story, if not the story itself. He sees landscapes not as opportunities for pause from narrative, but as extra tools to maintain the film's pull on the viewer, to root them in the story. I don't deny that what McKie says can happen, but I don't think landscape is always or merely an immersive element.

Yet again as I sought another online writer, I found Renee, a blogger and film-maker who again sees landscape as an opportunity to latch ever more strongly to the "world" or "atmosphere" of the story. In her case, she speaks of having worked on the movie "Twilight" as a painter, and discovered the ways that landscapes were so powerful to people. There is a real town called "Forks" on which Twilight fans have descended, because as Renee puts it, the land and landscape are a way to "enter into the story through a real-world portal." And that's something they tried to recreate on the set of Twilight.

So I'm bumped up against the question that challenges my assertion: Does landscape really immerse us more in the story, or does it offer us an opportunity to step back from it? Or both?