UC Press Author Trevor Paglen Part of Oscar-Winning Team

Congrats to The Last Pictures author Trevor Paglen, who was part of the Oscar-winning team behind Citizenfour, last night’s winner for Best Documentary. Paglen contributed footage of surveillance sites to director Laura Poitras for the film. Here he is celebrating at the Oscars:


The Envelope, Please: UC Press Cinema Experts Cast Their Votes for the Oscars

With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, we asked some of our authors to weigh in with their picks and predictions.
 

Boyhood is my favorite movie of the year, my pick for Best Picture. I’ve always been interested in moviegoing as a sort of autobiographical experience. In my book Hollywood Vault, I talk about how American audiences watched the 1944 reissue of Disney’s Snow White and measured how their lives and world had changed since the film’s original release. Boyhood immediately invites these types of personal reflections. What was I doing 12 years ago when Richard Linklater began this project? Could the pretentious 19-year-old film student who panned Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life (I remember complaining, “it’s not deep enough”) believe that he would feel so emotionally overwhelmed by the director’s ambitious next project, or that he would watch the new film sitting next to an amazing person, pregnant with their third child? These questions grow as we revisit events that mean something different now: Roger Clemens’ late-career stint pitching for the Astros; Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. The emotional and narrative backbone that allows these moments to hang together comes from Patricia Arquette. Her character’s 12-year journey captures something simple and profound as she slowly moves closer to the person she wants to be while accepting the never-ending responsibilities of parenthood. On Sunday, Boyhood and Arquette will both go home with Oscars, just as they should.

—Eric Hoyt, author of Hollywood Vault

***
 

I find it always interesting when a film is nominated for Best Picture and the director and other key shapers are nowhere to be found. Such is the case with SELMA. Ava DuVernay should have been nominated, as should David Oyelowo for his standout performance as King. There’s been a lot of online speculation that Hollywood felt it had done all it needed to in 2013, after lavishing so much (deserved) praise 12 YEARS A SLAVE. And this year was also chock a block with biopics, a fair number of which I was happy to avoid.

Glad that BOYHOOD’s doing so well, that film was an experiment/experience that took risks and paid off. FOXCATCHER and BIRDMAN, on the other hand, I can’t find the brilliance in either. (AMERICAN BEAUTY was one of the few male mid-age crisis movies I’ve warmed to). The buzz around FOXCATCHER puzzles me in particular; yes, it’s an interesting and weird story, but beyond that . . . and am I alone in believing that C. Tatum’s performance was better than S. Carrell’s, for doing so well with a more nuanced, less flamboyant role? At least Ruffalo’s in the running.

All that being said, I’m looking forward to who “gets the envelope.” It’s a wide field; I don’t think there’s a slam dunk. I wish I’d seen more of the nominated films, and in that regard, this year will be, for me, like many others . . .

—Caryl Flinn, author of The New German Cinema and Brass Diva

***
 

One of the most unjustly neglected films of the year is Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a full-throttle action and special-effects movie about a dystopian future in which the only survivors of the human race are crammed aboard a single passenger train. It’s an allegory of contemporary capitalism, and will be darkly amusing to anybody who has had to travel in steerage on today’s airliners. It’s also a shame that Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Steven Knight’s Locke were overlooked. Tom Hardy’s performance in the latter film is a tour de force—he, too, should have been nominated.

My favorite film of the year is Pavel Pawlikowski’s haunting Ida, which is nominated for best foreign picture in a group of unusually good nominees. Photographed in black-and-white, it looks exactly like an old Polish art film from the period in which the story is set, and the two women in the lead roles (two Agatas—Kulesza and Trezbuchowska) are mesmerizing. Among the US pictures that were nominated, for me it’s a tie between BoyhoodBirdman, and Grand Budapest Hotel.

James Naremore, author of An Invention without a Future, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts and Acting in the Cinema

***
 
 

In her most recent dialogue with fellow New York Times film critic A.O. Scott about the upcoming Oscars competition, Manohla Dargis referenced, half in jest, the words of film scholar Tom Hempel: “Moviegoing in America is a blood sport.” This seems especially true during Oscars season—or at least in certain awards-obsessed circles across this fair land—when individuals, publicity teams, and the studios try, in what occasionally appears to be a knock-down-drag-out battle, to champion their darlings and to take down their opponents. I personally could not be any less interested in the tired arguments over historical accuracy in American Sniper or The Imitation Game or Selma, all of which are contenders for Best Picture. In fact, if I had to argue in favor of one film in that coveted category, it would be—no major surprise, perhaps—what strikes me as the most innovative and unconventional of the lot: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. That widely celebrated film (it’s already racked up its share of early awards) has become something of a darling among scholars and critics, I realize, but it also stands, rather quietly and subtly, apart from the rest. And, yes, if I’m going to weigh in on this mad ritual of impassioned amateur speculation (no blood, please): for her equally unflashy, supremely convincing performance in the same film, Patricia Arquette has to my mind more than earned an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Voilà!

Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer

***
 

Birdman is a great theater movie. Its central conceit of unfolding nearly all the action in a single continuous take imparts added expressive weight to the mise-en-scene, making staging more important and giving the actors fewer places to hide. It’s a film about faces. There is much for acting students to relish, such as when Edward Norton’s character, Mike, filling in for an injured actor the day before the first preview, gets a rehearsal on its feet. Mike knows all his lines, and he and Norton are exhilarating to watch.

Birdman is a great theater film, but it is not theatrical. The camera incessantly circles, floats, pushes in, pulls back. It’s a film about reframing as much as faces. We wait for a figure to cross the frame, and the camera to follow, before we can get a reverse angle on the character she’s just chewed out; or the angle is provided by a mirror conveniently tucked in the mise-en-scene. Sometimes we find that the actors and camera have drifted into an intimate shot of two kissing faces, and we have no idea how we got there, while at other moments the soaring camera reveals itself to be the hidden star of the film.

Theater seems to be the place where a Hollywood actor can go to rediscover his authenticity, an idea the film gestures toward every time Michael Keaton’s Riggan peels off his hairpiece (five). But there’s too much cinematic wizardry on hand, and it’s too much fun, for us to swallow this cliché entirely. Riggan confesses a story of childhood abuse, horrifying his rival Mike, and us, and then brightens and exclaims that he can pretend, too. Mike has said that “the truth is always interesting,” but Birdman is at pains to demonstrate that pretending can be just as good.

—Robert Spadoni, author of A Pocket Guide to Analyzing Films and Uncanny Bodies
 


B. Ruby Rich on Trigger Warnings

Thumbnails, the news and culture roundup at RogerEbert.com, gave a nod to Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich’s column, “Thinking about Triggers, Thumbs, Sex and Death.” The essay, they say, “provides invaluable commentary on a variety of topics, including Steve James’s acclaimed documentary, ‘Life Itself,’ based on Roger Ebert‘s 2011 memoir of the same name.” Here’s a selection from the essay:

Ebert never failed to be generous to films by outsiders, gay or lesbian filmmakers, African-American filmmakers, many directors of color, international talents, or anyone pushing cinema in new directions. And other critics. During the interregnum between Siskel’s death and Richard Roeper’s hiring, he invited me on the show. We reviewed Kimberly Peirce’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ (1999), raved about Hilary Swank’s performance as Brandon Teena, debated his/her pronouns, and agreed on two thumbs up. It was classic Ebert: championing a first-time film on a controversial subject, produced by indie film impresario Christine Vachon’s Killer Films. He was the star of a show produced by Disney with millions of viewers and a brand that spanned multiple platforms, but Ebert wouldn’t desert upstart films that were daring, outspoken, and great filmmaking. Even when the cancer that had been in remission came back and got him, Ebert remained a force to be reckoned with. Shifting gears from television to blogging when he could no longer speak, he kept up with the film festivals that had always been his lifeline and kept filing copy, watching screeners, doing his part to hold up the ongoing dialogue about what films are worth seeing, what ideas worth holding, what talent worth supporting. Roger Ebert lived and breathed film to the end. I wonder what he’d have to say about ‘trigger warnings.’

Read it in full at Film Quarterly.


Hollywood theatrical reissues—past, present, and future

by Eric Hoyt

I remember the experience well. My friend, Matt Charney, and I visited the local multiplex on a freezing cold day to watch the “best movie ever made.” Yes, Citizen Kane was playing in our Kansas City suburb’s largest theater (20 screens!), and we figured we ought to see it. So we did what any precocious fourteen-year-olds would do in such a situation—we asked our mothers to drive us to the theater.

At the time, in the 1990s, I was impressed by Kane’s storytelling and cinematography, which Roger Ebert’s movie guide had told me was important. But I never really reflected on how or why this vintage film reached an AMC multiplex in Overland Park, Kansas. Today, almost two decades later, I recognize Citizen Kane’s reissue as part of a long history of Hollywood monetizing its film libraries and, in the process, enabling access to works of American cultural history.

My new book, Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries before Home Video, is about the history of how old movies became valuable. I wanted to understand how business decisions about film libraries have shaped our ability to access old works from film history. I began the project assuming, like many, that new technologies—such as television, VHS, and DVD—were the primary drivers of this history.

Instead, I found in my research that film libraries held economic significance long before Hollywood features reached television. The most important technology for monetizing film libraries from the 1910s until the mid-1950s was 35mm film; the most important market, the theatrical reissue. Small-to-mid size exhibitors generally liked reissues because of their price tag—theaters could rent a four-year-old A movie for the cost of a new, low-grade B movie.

As I discuss in Hollywood Vault and the video below, the turning point in history of film libraries came in the 1940s when the number of reissues on American screens boomed (“One in Every Five Pix Showing in NY a Reissue,” announced a 1947 headline in Daily Variety).

This video is one of seven short videos that I have included in a free, online exhibit about the history of theatrical reissues. The exhibit, which I developed using Omeka, shares clippings and evidence from my book. I hope you’ll explore the exhibit, and if you find the material interesting, read the book, which examines reissues, remakes, and the television market in greater depth.

In one of the final videos in the exhibit, I ask the question: where are theatrical reissue today? I didn’t know it when my Mom dropped me off at the multiplex to watch Citizen Kane, but I now recognize I was living through a brief renaissance of Hollywood theatrical reissues. Consider the data: in 1997, the studios reissued 34 films to theaters; more than double the average of 14.7 studio reissues per year from the period of 1990 to 1996. The blockbuster reissues of 1997 were the three of original Star Wars films, which beat out new releases to be the number one movies in America. Other reissues that year included The Graduate and The Godfather, which I also saw at the multiplex, though in the case of The Godfather, my father drove me and stayed for the picture.

This renaissance did not last long. The studios reissued an average of only 3 movies per year from 2002 to 2006. By the time the studios’ trade organization, the MPAA, issued its 2010 statistical report (my sources for this data), the category of “reissue” was no longer counted.

What explains this change? Chiefly, two interrelated business factors. First, the marketing costs for releasing movies theatrically escalated dramatically during the 1990s and early-2000s. From the studio’s perspective, the major appeal of a reissue was always that the film’s cost has already been fully depreciated, so all revenue earned—after P&A costs (prints and advertising)—is pure profit. But as the P&A budgets and the costs of marketing and distributing a film increased, the economics of reissuing films became less advantageous.

Second, and more importantly, the competition for multiplex screen space has grown far more intense in the 2000s. Maximizing a picture’s ticket sales on its opening weekend is the name of the game, and studios aggressively try to open on as many screens as possible. It’s not uncommon nowadays to look at the listings for a 14-screen theater and see that only 6 movies are playing. Reissues, which generally return a lower per-screen average, have gotten pushed out alongside indie, documentary, and foreign films (all of which similarly lack the large marketing budgets).

Does this mean that all access to film history has been cut off? Of course not.

Repertory cinemas, like our fantastic Cinematheque here in Madison, continue to screen old films. And I envy the suburban Millennial who can inexpensively have obscure film and television titles mailed and streamed to her home from Netflix. But as Daniel Herbert eloquently describes in his recent book about American video stores, there is also something lost in these transitions. Outside of cities and college towns, the opportunities dwindled to experience great old movies on the big screen.

Fortunately, the landscape seems to be shifting again. Digital projection has reduced the costs of distribution, and many exhibitors are embracing “alternative content” options to show on weeknights. Some multiplexes are finding they can increase attendance and goodwill in their communities by showing old films, such as Lawrence of Arabia and Singing in the Rain, at lower-than-usual ticket prices on a Tuesday or Wednesday night.

Here we see, once again, the business of film libraries at work—buyers and sellers adapting to market conditions to monetize old content and serve their specific needs. New technologies don’t determine how these practices play out, but they can enable new marketplaces and opportunities, which in turn, can open or close opportunities for audience access.

If you, like me, have ever wondered why a particular old movie was available in your multiplex, cable box, or Netflix list (and why others, perhaps even better, were not), then the answer comes from studying the business of film libraries.

Eric Hoyt is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-director of the Media History Digital Library. He designed, developed, and produced the MHDL’s search and visualization platform, Lantern, which received the 2014 Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award from the Society for Cinema & Media Studies.


SCMS 2014: Tiny Screens, Post-Broadcast TV, and More

Mary Francis, Acquisitions Editor, reports back from the Society of Cinema & Media Studies annual conference, held this year in Seattle.

I’ve been going to this conference for more than a decade. The society was previously called the Society for Cinema Studies; the ‘M’ for “media” was added to reflect the wide range of topics that are now part of the society’s remit: cinema of all sorts (commercial, documentary, experimental, industrial), television, radio, games, social media and personal tech, surveillance technology, and much more.  This expansion into new areas of scholarly inquiry is driven by the many changes in contemporary media industries, consumer behavior, the economy, government regulation of media, etc.  This is a very exciting time to be publishing in this field, and I am working to shape our list to reflect the best and most dynamic work in these new areas.

Acquisitions Editor Mary Francis (R) with UC Press author Richard Abel (L)
Acquisitions Editor Mary Francis (L) with UC Press author Richard Abel (R)

As with all academic conferences, having so many researchers together  (this year there were more than 1800 scholars, grad students, and writers in attendance) makes is easy to take the pulse of a field: what are the hot trends and new ideas for research, what are the topics that people are teaching new classes on, where are new departments and degrees being offered.  News of the field also comes via checking out what other publishers are doing.  Checking out the new books from our competitors is a great way to suss out what is happening in the field: I am aware of what competing publishers tend to specialize in, but publishing is very dynamic these days, so I pay close attention to shifts in the types of topics and products that our competitors are working on.

But the bulk of my time is dedicated to one-on-one meetings with scholars. We have been publishing in this area longer than any other academic press, and so there are always many authors who have an existing relationship with the press to check in with about their latest projects.  But I spend a great deal of my time talking with people who are not yet working with the Press.  I target new authors whom I want to woo, people who are writing on topics I think are crucial to the field.  Some are very established scholars who might produce a “Big Book” that defines a subfield; some are productive mid-career scholars with proven track records or up-and-coming stars working in new areas that I want to bring to our list. I always keep my eyes and ears (and schedule, when possible!) open for entirely unplanned encounters. Great ideas for projects that I didn’t have on my radar always come up at these conferences.

UC Press author Dan Herbert at SCMS
UC Press author Dan Herbert at SCMS

I’m there to acquire the best scholarship and to keep my list healthy and active, I have to think about short, medium, and long-range projects.  I look for cutting edge projects that ought to be published in a timely way, within a year.  But I also have to keep the three-to-five-to-seven year plans in mind as well.  Different types of books take different amounts of time to research and write—not to mention the fact that every author has their own pace and style of work. You certainly need a nimble mental calendar!

The many changes in cinema and media mean that the field is growing fast. It can be difficult to stay on top of fast-moving trends, but also exciting.  Scholars are talking a lot more about television, for example. It’s ironic in some ways, because television literally isn’t what it used to be. With the exception of live sports or breaking news, the old version of television—a few large networks, shows tied to certain time frames and eight or nine month seasons—that’s largely gone.  But television is thriving as it never has before. There’s a lot of creative energy (particularly among writers) and a lot of financial resources are being pushed towards post-broadcast television.  Programming is very different from what it used to be, with the advent of so-called reality TV, shorter seasons for dramatic series, etc.  The way people watch television is changing too.  Not only can you watch on a range of devices, but you can choose when and how much of your favorite TV shows to watch—for example “binge watching” where you watch an entire season of your favorite show over one weekend. Almost every aspect of television is in transition right now—it’s crazy.

Acquisitions Editor Mary Francis (L) and Journals Publishing Manager Hannah Love (R) at the Film Quarterly reception
Acquisitions Editor Mary Francis (L) and Journals Publishing Manager Hannah Love (R) at the Film Quarterly reception

When it comes to cinema, there are a lot of changes as well.  If television is like a serialized novel, film is more like opera. It takes more resources than television, it’s on a larger scale, it is very international nowadays, it has different storytelling and genre conventions. But personal tech and consumer behavior have changed how commercial films are made nowadays.  In particular, people are watching film on smaller and smaller screens: most films are no longer being watched on a large-scale screen in a theatre, but on a domestic screen like a flat screen TV, a laptop screen, or a little smartphone screen. If you’re directing a film to be shown on the big screen you can do certain things that will not work if someone is watching on a smaller screen—and many directors readily admit that this is changing the way they shoot.

Film Quarterly
Film Quarterly

Another very interesting topic is the place of film and video in the art world now.  The moving image has had a presence in the gallery for many decades. But that has exploded in recent years. There is a lot of fruitful crossover between cinema studies and art history nowadays, and since we publish in both fields, this has been a very welcome development that has guided my work in parallel with that of our art editor.

Film and television as an area of study is becoming more interdisciplinary. For instance the overlap between art history and cinema studies is clear, and those scholars are pretty fluent in each other’s languages.  Discussions of economic and industrial developments, trends in technology and government regulation, etc. compel an interdisciplinary approach, because to understand what’s happening you can’t just look at what’s on the screen. You have to explore historical issues like how the federal government regulates the media; economic issues such as the finances of shorter television seasons or the challenge of declining audiences for theaters; and the ever-challenging changes in consumer behavior. There is still a lot of fine scholarship on the content and its artistic merits. But things are changing and the range of topics in the field is wider than ever.

 


Obituary for the Video Store

By Daniel Herbert

Released in January, my book Videoland has turned out to be something of an elegy, even an obituary, for the video store. Although certain stores and chains continue to flourish (Family Video in particular), the greater brick-and-mortar video rental business has largely vanished. Even great specialty stores that seemed to have strong community support are faltering. Le Video, the immense and venerable store in San Francisco, is currently conducting a fundraising campaign to prevent closing on May 15. Many other fantastic stores, including Scarecrow Video in Seattle (featured prominently in my book), are in imminent danger of shutting their doors for good.

Lately, I have been struck by the wave of nostalgic affection for video culture that has attended the disappearance of video stores. Numerous articles and online think pieces lament the loss of these places, and not one but two feature-length documentaries about video culture have been released, Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector. The trailer for Rewind This! gives a good sense of its accomplishments.

In telling the story of video’s impact on the world, Rewind This! focuses particularly on the way video facilitated the production and consumption of low-brow, “trashy” movies and genres. Along these lines, Adjust Your Tracking is not so much about video stores as it is about a subculture of VHS collectors who mainly collect obscure cult movies. One segment from the film details a collector who created a video store in his basement, like a model train collector who builds tiny villages full of plastic people.

Here, the affection for video goes hand in hand with an affinity for the space of the video store. Yet most of the subjects in this movie don’t celebrate video stores as much as they celebrate the size and breadth of their personal collections; indeed, a number of these people seem to have acquired many of their VHS tapes from video stores that were going out of business. In many ways, their veneration of the video store and video culture would not be possible without its demise.

With their shared interest in cult cinema, Rewind This! and Adjust Your Tracking paint a picture of video culture that seems strangely informed by the current decimation of the brick-and-mortar rental business. Simply put, the trashing of the video store has prompted some people to reflect on the trashiness of video as a medium. And the sense of nostalgia found in these movies also seems specific to this historical moment. Their retrospective celebration of the 1980s, of VHS tapes, and of the video store appears like a rejection of the present conditions of media culture, where Video-on-Demand and internet streaming services dominate.

These movies are just as much about the present moment as they are about the past. And, soon enough they will become historical documents in their own right. They will not only provide records of video culture, but will illustrate how the story of video was told at a particular time. It will be interesting, as time goes on, to see how this sentimentality for video will evolve and to see what new things we will become nostalgic about. While Videoland tells one part of the history of video, I am excited to see that history continue to unfold – even as it incorporates its own historiography.

Daniel Herbert is Assistant Professor of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan. Read a review of his new book Videoland on SantaCruz.com and listen to an interview with Herbert on Wisconsin Public Radio.


Hilary Hallett on the Women Who Made Hollywood

Go West, Young Women!  cover imageColumbia history professor Hilary Hallett has been getting some wonderful advance praise for her new book, Go West, Young Women!, which explores the influx of women in early Hollywood and their role in the development of Los Angeles and the nascent film industry. The Huffington Post included Go West, Young Women! in their list of 10 Must-Read Books, noting that “university presses are publishing some of the best and most provocative books on film and film history.”

The book also appeared on The Page 99 Test, a blog that asks authors to publish the 99th page of their book and describe its significance. In Hallett’s entry, she looks at the meaning of the Horace Greeley quote that inspired the title for the book.

Last year, Hallett received the Western History Association’s prestigious Jensen-Miller Prize for Best Article in Women’s and Gender History for “Based on a True Story: New Western Women and the Birth of Hollywood”, which appeared in the Pacific Historical Review.

To read Hallett’s prize-winning article, subscribe to eNews in Sociology, History, California and the West, or Cinema. We’ll include a compliementary access token to the article through JSTOR, as well as a code to receive 20% off your next order. You’ll also receive updates on new releases in these areas, special discounts, and more. We hope you enjoy reading Go West, Young Women as much as we have!


From Ghost World to Your World: Boom interviews graphic novelist Daniel Clowes

The latest issue of our journal Boom: A Journal of California (visit Boom’s web site), published this week, features an exclusive interview with Oakland artist and graphic novelist Daniel Clowes.

Clowes launched his career with the comic series Lloyd Llewellyn, about the adventures of a private detective, then went on to create the comic series Eightball, which included such seminal works as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World, and Death Ray. Ghost World, the 2001 movie based on Clowes’ screenplay, was nominated for an Academy Award. His work has been featured in The New Yorker, Time, and Newsweek, and in 2011 he was awarded a PEN Literary Award for Graphic Literature. His most recent book is Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly), the story of a lonely, middle-aged malcontent.

In the interview he discusses the differences (and differing inspirations) between his early life in Chicago and the present day in the Bay Area; the effects of second-tierism, and many more insights into his creative process.

Read “From Ghost World to Your World: An Interview with Daniel Clowes” at boomcalifornia.com.

The interview coincides with “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes”, the first-ever survey of Clowes’ work, currently on display at the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibition features the Academy Award-nominated storyteller’s full body of work including 100 works that range from 1989 to 2011. All of the works featured in the exhibition are original, and all but two were made to be published rather than seen as a original artwork. The exhibition runs through August 12.

Visit the Oakland California of Museum’s exhibition page for “Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes.”

Download the press release.


An Acquiring Eye: Mary Francis on Cinema and Music Books and Journals

In the newest Acquiring Eye feature, Humanities Publisher Mary Francis gives us her take on the music and cinema titles and journals coming out this spring.

Starting with one of the flagship publications from our Journals Division, Film Quarterly is always a treat to find in the mailbox.  Never an issue goes by when I don’t learn something new (even after years of working in cinema and media studies), or discover a terrific new writer, or am compelled to go find a local screening of one of the films discussed–or all of the above!

What could be better?  Film Quarterly online, of course.   Editor Rob White supplements FQs regular feast of articles, columns, and reviews with a range of in-depth web exclusives, including more reviews of films, dialogs between writers and filmmakers, festival reports, and much more.    My favorites are the dialogs around recent films and TV shows.  White and Nina Powers on Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” (a kind of continuation of their thoughtful response to von Trier’s controversial “Antichrist”) challenged me to revisit a film that confounded me on first viewing.  And the excellent discussion of Todd Haynes’s version of “Mildred Pierce” was a treat for fans of both Haynes’s interpretation and the classic 1945 version.

Ellington Century by David Schiff — Was Duke Ellington the greatest composer of the twentieth century?  It would be easy to say that he was the greatest jazz composer.  But David Schiff’s new book challenges readers to break down the false barriers between jazz, classical, and pop music to appreciate Ellington’s amazing music in the broadest possible context.  Schiff’s elegant, evocative prose opens our ears to the way that Ellington’s music is as vital to musical modernism as anything by Stravinsky, more influential than anything by Schoenberg, and has had a lasting impact on jazz and pop that reaches from Gershwin to contemporary R&B.

 

 

 

Weill’s Musical Theater by Stephen Hinton — Speaking of composers whose work crossed all barriers, Stephen Hinton’s new book is the first truly comprehensive treatment of Kurt Weill’s music. Hinton’s elegant prose and mastery of the history of twentieth century music finally give Weill his due as one of the century’s great masters. Weill wrote some of the world’s most fantastic songs (try to get “Mack the Knife” out of your head after reading this), and a huge variety of works for the stage, such as the Threepenny Opera, that are still performed today.  ‘’Variety” is the key: Weill’s output ranged across conventional operas, Broadway musicals, experimental forms, works for children, and more.  He was a self-conscious innovator (like his most famous collaborator, Brecht), and Hinton pays close attention to Weill as a ‘reformer’ with an important role in the history of opera and music theater.

 

Frontier Figures by Beth Levy — Composers have been as invested as anyone in the myths of the American West, and Beth Levy’s prize-winning first book looks at how American composers seized upon the American West as a creative cornerstone on which to build a uniquely American identity.  Composers such as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Virgil Thomson, Charles Cadman, and Arthur Farwell were all city born and bred, educated in Europe, with little personal experience of life on the range, yet deeply invested in exploring how music could embody the sounds of the west.  Levy investigates what these composers knew (or thought they knew) about Indian music, the real life of farmers and cowboys, and the history of western expansion.  She ranges from Mexican music at Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, Dvorak composing symphonies in Iowa, Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, and the music played at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows to Hollywood westerns, Agnes DeMille’s ‘cowboy ballets,’ and what the American west did (and does) still mean to composers living more than a century after the close of the frontier.

 

Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth Century Music by Susan McClary — We often think of so-called early music as poised and quaint, distanced from our contemporary expectations of music’s emotional power.  But the music of the 17th century is quite charged: harmonically tense, virtuosic, lushly orchestrated, in a word, intense. What were the social and historical reasons that music of the period, sacred or secular, prized emotional intensity so highly?  And how was this linked to the many technical innovations of the period?  McClary’s clear, evocative prose brings the heady emotional quality of this music alive, showing how this music retains its powerful immediacy for listeners.

 

 

The Anatomy of Harpo Marx by Wayne Koestenbaum — Wayne Koestenbaum is a unique critical voice.  He is deeply engaged with the ways in which all the arts are in some way performing arts, whether one is the artist or the audience. All his writings grapple with the personal, lyrical dimensions of performing, listening, watching, remembering, and learning via poetry, prose, making music, watching films, gazing on artworks.  Kosetenbaum’s playful and astute approach makes him perfectly suited to write a critical love letter to the sublime performance style of Harpo Marx, whose mute physical comedy brought the style and affect of the silent era into the otherwise wildly noisy, anarchic world of the Marx Brothers films.  He blends close readings of the visual style of the films with more personal reflections on the Marx Brothers as vaudevillians, as modern movie stars, as Jews, as brothers, as both exemplifying and breaking all the rules of comedy.

 

Black Hole of the Camera by JJ Murphy — There are many books on the artworks of Andy Warhol, but there has never been a comprehensive book on Warhol’s films until now.  Given that there are hundreds of films (if you count the short, compelling Screen Tests), many of them challengingly long (Empire), rebarbative, subversive, or simply, arrestingly strange, the challenge of trying to see this vast and influential body of work on its own terms is great.  JJ Murphy, himself an award-winning filmmaker, does an amazing job of looking all the entire corpus of Warhol’s film and video work, and brings his own artist’s eye to these challenging, much-misunderstood works.

 

 

 

Poetics of Slumberland by Scott Bukatman — Why are comics and animation particularly suited to visualizing the fantastic, the impossible, the crazy and comic? From the start, animation, comics, and early cinema were about delight in seeing a fantastic creature (Gertie the Dinosaur, her contemporaries, Muybridge’s galloping horses, or the inhabitants of Little Nemo’s dreams) come to life. Bukatman looks a how animation and cinema were new technological realms for familiar aesthetic pleasures that go back to Frankenstein, Pinocchio, and Pygmalion. (Bukatman’s discussion of why My Fair Lady absolutely had to become a movie musical is quite amazing.) Part of the pleasure is ambivalent: the newly animated creature usually moves quickly beyond the control of the creator to comic, fantastic or scary effect (sometimes all three).  Bukatman carries his argument through related genres and phenomenon, from superheroes whose actions destroy the frames of comic books to CGI monsters in contemporary summer blockbusters and digital enhancements of live performers on stage.


Deeper Context: The Nicest Kids in Town

One way to look at a publisher’s ultimate role is that they facilitate the conversation between the author and the reader, but if authors start developing their own sites as well as Matt F. Delmont did for the site to accompany his new book, The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, I may have to go work for my uncle’s slide rule and buggy whip franchise.

His site, which is coincidentally also called The Nicest Kids in Town, can be best summed up in Matthew’s own words: “As you navigate this site, you will be able to view over 100 images and video clips related to my book project, including American Bandstand memorabilia, newspaper clippings regarding protests of American Bandstand, photographs from high school yearbooks, and video clips from American Bandstand.”