Fantasy/Animation podcast

Episode 63 – Animated Christmas Advent (1951-2018) with Malcolm Cook

Film Research Seminar

New Blood in Contemporary Cinema: Women Directors and the Poetics of Horror

Hand holding red starfish.

Professor Patricia Pisters, our speaker, is a Professor of Media Studies with specialization in Film Studies from the University of Amsterdam. She gave this seminar online on 10 November 2020 to a large number of attendees from all over the globe.

Since the turn of the millennium, a growing number of female filmmakers have appropriated the aesthetics of horror for their films. In this book, Patricia Pisters investigates contemporary women directors such as Ngozi Onwurah, Claire Denis, Lucile Hadžihalilović and Ana Lily Amirpour, who put ‘a poetics of horror’ to new use in their work, expanding the range of gendered and racialized perspectives in the horror genre.

Exploring themes such as rage, trauma, sexuality, family ties and politics, New Blood in Contemporary Cinema takes on avenging women, bloody vampires, lustful witches, scary mothers, terrifying offspring and female Frankensteins. By following a red trail of blood, the book illuminates a new generation of women directors who have enlarged the general scope and stretched the emotional spectrum of the genre.

CIFR Podcast – October 2020

Jade Evans discusses the film Pride in this episode of the CIFR Podcast

Film Research Seminar

Jill Craigie: Documentary, Realism and Histories of British Cinema

Professor Yvonne Tasker, our speaker, is Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Leeds. She gave this seminar on 3 November 2020 online to a large number of attendees from all over the globe.

This session will draw from an ongoing AHRC research project exploring the political and filmmaking life of Jill Craigie (1911-99). Focusing on Craigie’s work in documentary and realist modes of filmmaking during the 1940s, the talk will situate films such as Out of Chaos (1944), The Way We Live (1946) and Blue Scar (1949) in relation to Craigie’s filmmaking and her feminist/socialist politics. Focusing on the latter – Craigie’s only feature as director – in particular, the talk will explore some of the ways in which Craigie’s public persona was constructed during this period. It will also reflect on the ways in which Craigie might more effectively be included within accounts of British cinema history.

Film Research Seminar

Film as Data: A Note on Behavioral Science and the Moving Image

Professor Vinzenz Hediger, our speaker, Professor of Film Studies at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main. He gave this seminar online on 20 October 2020 to a large number of attendees from all over the globe.

This contribution looks at the use of film in the study of human and animal behaviour in mid-20th century ethology. Based on a discussion of the “Human Ethology Film Archive“, a 600 hour collection of observations of patterns of human behaviour based on five long-term studies conducted by German biologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and his team between 1966 and 2007, I will argue that film not only records and documents, but constitutes behaviour as an object of knowledge.

Vinzenz Hediger is Professor of Cinema Studies at the Goethe University, Frankfurt and the Director of the Graduiertenkolleg “Configurations of Film“. He is a co-founder of NECS – European Networks for Cinema and Media Studies and the founding editor of the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft (Journal for Media Studies). He is a principal investigator of the Research Center “Normative Orders” at Goethe University and a member of the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz. His research concerns the aesthetics of film within the larger framework of a history of risk and uncertainty in modernity.

‘Let’s All Go to the Lobby’: How Concessions Shape Cinema

Figure 1. Frame from Let’s All Go to the Lobby (1957), an animated advert played before screenings or during intermission in the United States (credit: Filmack Studios).

The thick waft of buttered popcorn; the over-sized cupholder stuffed with empty sweet packages; the stale soft-drink puddles you can’t avoid stepping in – and who can forget that endless chorus of chewing and slurping?

The consumption of food and beverages are, to say the least, heavily embedded in the cinema-going experience – yet this is seldom acknowledged by film critics and theorists. In Anne Bower’s 22-chapter Reel Food (2012), which explores how acts of consumption are involved in constructing national, political and sexual identities through film, only one chapter is devoted to the exploration of food as an essential aspect of the cinema-viewing experience. And yet, as writer James Lyons observes, the consumption of food is one of the most important means by which audiences “embellish and enhance the experience of film watching” – and, perhaps above all else, a crucial source of income for exhibitors.

In this post, I aim to survey how a careful consideration of the relationship between acts of consumption and cinema might challenge the prevailing theoretical assumptions in the study of film aesthetics, history and politics.

Food in Film Criticism

First of all, it is worth noting that our ordinary critical language typically associates food with cinema as a ‘low-brow’ or ‘escapist’ medium. The terms ‘brain candy’, ‘visual feast’ and ‘popcorn film’, for example, are used to dismiss films that do not warrant much serious reflection, not least academic attention. In perhaps one of the earliest critical uses of the term, The Daily Times described Venom (1982) as a “spine-tingling brain candy” to complement its value as an artefact of entertainment while admitting to the suspension of disbelief required to swallow its premise.

The prevalence of these food idioms in our casual critical language allows viewers to create an ‘ironic’ detachment that justifies the enjoyment of a film they didn’t take too seriously. Like the junk food they reference, popular cinema is situated as an essentially harmless hedonic and sensory experience, as opposed to a strictly rational or intellectual one. This discourse, as I shall further explore, likely finds it origins in early film theory and exhibition.

Figure 2. A street popcorn vendor in 1910s Illinois (credit: Kirn Vintage Stock / Corbis)

Concessions and Class in Early Cinema

Throughout its history, the film industry has long tried to legitimate itself as an artistic and culturally-valuable medium, often adopting conventions and practises from the more established disciplines of literature, fine art and theatre. From the early 20th century, many film exhibition venues in major cities across the world were designed to resemble opera houses and theatres, and further attempted to draw upon associations with the ‘upper-class’ spaces and institutions of continental Europe from the preceding centuries.

In the 1913 program for the New Gallery Kinema in London’s Regent Square, for example, imported beers and afternoon teas were advertised to wealthy patrons, while the June 1934 program for Edinburgh’s New Picture House drew attention to the four-course lunch, smoke room and dining halls available in the venue. The consumption of certain foods and beverages hence elevated cinema into a higher cultural domain, emboldening the growing industry with more ‘genteel’ food rituals and symbolism.

On the other hand, early theatres in the United States typically distanced themselves from the association of public eating spaces with the more ‘profane’ carnival and burlesque industries. The admission of confectionery could risk spoiling the cinema’s theatrical rugs and carpets, and, more notably prior to the advent of sound cinema in 1927, would distract the audience away from the screen – and, worse yet, disturb the wealthier patrons.

Nevertheless, as the film industry began to trade intertitles for dialogue, literacy no longer provided a barrier for working class audiences, while the Great Depression brought even greater interest in cheap entertainment and distraction. Cinemas slowly give up their former high cultural aspirations when they realised that they would yield greater profit from opening up to wider audiences. Although food vendors rented spaces in or outside theatre lobbies during this time, theatre owners eventually decided to cut the middle man and include food consumption in their marketing and exhibition practises.

Figure 3. A movie theatre snack bar in 1940s North Carolina (credit: Voyageur).

The Emergence of Popcorn

As wartime sugar and chocolate rationing provoked exhibitors to look for alternative sources of revenue, a perfect solution was discovered in popcorn. Contrary to the prior assumptions of film exhibitors, this would prove crucial to the survival of the cinema industry: a theatre chain in Dallas is said to have installed popcorn machines in all but their five ‘best’ theatres, only for those five to close within the following two years due to falling profits. Overseas servicemen brought popcorn around the world as a nostalgic ‘luxury’, making way for American popcorn manufacturers to break into European markets after the war – something that has never really changed to this day.

Although it is difficult to gather accurate data, Time magazine reported in 2009 that concessions make up to 20% of a film theatre’s revenue and 40% of its profits in the United States, since a large proportion of ticket sales goes back to the film studios, as well as funding staff costs and theatre maintenance. This data is loosely confirmed by private research and interviews with theatre owners, though some factors will inevitably vary in different locations – popcorn itself can gather 85-90% profit for every unit sold, with added salt motivating the additional purchase of soft-drinks.

This provides an unexpected incentive: films with uncomplicated plots and narrative structure might actually yield proportionately greater profit for film theatres, even despite lower admission prices, as the audience are more likely willing to leave their seats to buy more food mid-way through the film – this no doubt goes some way as to explain why, as explored previously, food vocabulary is utilised in modern film criticism as such. Regardless, as Epstein has concluded cinema theatres are as much in the fast-food and advertisement industries as film distribution – a thought that might greatly disturb prevailing theoretical understanding of cinema.

Figure 4. Showcase Cinema De Lux, Southampton. Tickets and concessions are sold at the same desk in most modern cinemas (credit: Rosie Tapping).

Food for ‘Alternative’ Markets

Although popcorn and fast food quickly became deeply embedded in the cinema experience after WWII, its absence was – and continues to be – offered as a hallmark of sophistication and originality. Post-war arthouse and independent cinemas across Europe and the United States began offering pastries and coffees in smaller, café-styled venues, as an alternative to the more infantile associations of sweets and refined sugar. As Lyons observes, popcorn in particular has remained “a peculiarly emblematic commodity” in the mobilization of cultural distinctions throughout cinema history; a totem for the ‘escapist’ associations that film exhibitors either attempt to capitalise on or distance themselves from. Today, individual cinema chains and film festivals continue to privately reconstruct cinema experiences through providing alternative and unique food-screen paradigms: the British Everyman cinemas, for example, claim that they are “redefining cinema” by swapping soft drinks for red wine and pizza in their “innovative lifestyle approach” to film exhibition, and the States-based Film Food Festival helps its audiences simultaneously taste what they see on the screen. These theatres and programmes, and others like them, thereby depend on the discourses associations that encourage the denigration of popular cinema as ‘junk’ entertainment to differentiate their services as unique, ‘event’-oriented experiences.

Figure 5. A screening of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013) in the Food Film Festival 2018 (credit: Emily Hawkes and Noah Fecks).

On the other hand, the Planet Hollywood chain and its countless imitators somewhat invert this process, embellishing the family restaurant experience with mounted props, signatures and iconography from cinema history. Although this perhaps strays too far from my focus on film exhibition, it is no small matter that entire businesses are modelled on the premise that cinematic artefacts, sanctified by their participation in popular culture, can somehow enhance, or otherwise transform, the more profane activity of food consumption.

Conclusion

If it is true that acts of consumption are heavily involved in how films are experienced, distributed, assessed and situated in particular socio-political contexts, then it appears that cinema cannot be simply described as a matter of sight and sound (sorry, BFI!); but also, of smell, touch and taste –far from compromising its integrity, however, I would argue that this privileges cinema with comparatively unique opportunities as an immersive and engaging public institution. Much might be said on this topic, of course, but I intend here to provide – if you forgive the pun – an appetiser for further research.

Research

‘About Everyman’, everymancinema.com. Available at: https://www.everymancinema.com/about-everyman

‘About the Food Film Festival’, thefoodfilmfestival.com. Available at: https://www.thefoodfilmfestival.com/the-festival

Avery, T., ‘Popcorn: A “Pop” History’, pbs.com, 2013. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/popcorn-history/

Bower, A. L., ‘Watching Food: The Production of Food, Film and Values’, Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 1-13.

Butler, S., ‘A History of Popcorn’, History.com, 2018. Available at: https://www.history.com/news/a-history-of-popcorn

‘Capsule Reviews’, Daily Times, 1982, p.16.

Epstein, E. J., ‘The Popcorn Palace Economy’, Slate, 2006. Available at: https://slate.com/culture/2006/01/the-thirsty-moviegoer-fuels-the-movie-business.html

Geiling, N., ‘Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?’, Smithsonian.com, 2013. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-do-we-eat-popcorn-at-the-movies-475063/

Lobb, A, ‘Why does that popcorn cost so much?’ CNNMoney, 2002. Available at: https://money.cnn.com/2002/03/08/smbusiness/q_movies/

Lyons, J., ‘What about the Popcorn? Food and the Film-Watching Experience?’, in Bower, A. L. (ed.), Reel Food: Essays on Food and Film (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 311-333.

Tuttle, B., ‘Movie Theatres Make 85% Profit at Concession Stands’, Time, 2009. Available at: http://business.time.com/2009/12/07/movie-theaters-make-85-profit-at-concession-stands/

Journeys Onscreen: Theory, Ethics and Aesthetics

This collection concerns the importance of journey narratives to cinema. It charts the importance of journeying as a motif of transformation and as component of a world subject to flows of migration, globalization, and the redrawing of boundaries across the history of the last century and more. It considers space as a dynamic aspect of cinema and location as a key part of what makes each film unique.

As well as the introduction, I contributed the chapter ‘Sic transit: the serial killer road movie’: This identifies a specific form of road movie. It traces how serial killers are frequently defined by an association with mobility, where in their elusiveness and the generalized threat they pose to the social order, or their affinity to a modern world characterized by transience, anonymity and nomadism. These films, diverse amongst themselves, stage an encounter between two subjects of modern mythology, the serial killer and the road. The chapter considers two case studies, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Sightseers, to identify how the different contexts of American independent cinema and British farce confer different values on mobility, with the first having an essential and horrific meaning regarding to the void created by our intimacy with machine technologies within a modern, post-industrial life, and the latter pertaining to the comic inadequacy of the romance of the road in British culture. More than this, it seeks to establish a general characteristic of mobility with regards to characterizing particular kinds of people, that is, of establishing a simultaneous position of nearness and distance, or of being at odds with a frame of reference which however still determines its meaning – a position which has importance both socially, for how we consider the relationship of outsiders to every day life, and artistically, for how we are carried along with characters with whom we do not identify sympathetically.

https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-journeys-on-screen.html

The University of Southampton Student Film Festival

The University of Southampton Student Film Festival is a student-led festival showcasing the best films that our students have to offer. Running since 2016, every year the event gets bigger and better! This year we had an incredible 33 films submitted, with 15 being chosen for the shortlist and shown at the festival, including comedies, dramas, romance, and documentaries. Following the showcase of all the films, is the awards ceremony, celebrating the screenwriting, acting, editing, directing and sound talents present in the films.

The Film Festival is a great evening to celebrate non-professional filmmaking, and the talent within the University, giving the opportunity for young filmmakers to exhibit their work. Moreover, the Festival strives to represent the diverse and multiple perspectives of expression existing at the University.  We therefore welcome all stories, in all languages and all styles, representing all cultures, backgrounds and conflicts.

We would like to thank everyone who submitted a film this year and everyone who came to the event, including the film department’s own Huw Jones, Corey Schultz and Michael Williams. Also, a big congratulations to our winners this year; including Leo Barton, Liam Beazley, Curtis Allen, Bella Norris, Chandler Horsefield, Ben Hughes, Elliot Morris and Red O’Sullivan!

Check out the pictures to see for yourself what a great night it was. Here’s to many more University of Southampton Student Film Festivals!

The use of improvisation in the film ‘The Escape’

The Escape, which was released in 2018 in the UK, tells the story of a woman who seems to have it all – a nice house, a handsome husband and two wonderful children. However, this life isn’t what Tara (Gemma Arterton) wants anymore and she starts to lose herself while caring for everyone else. The film illustrates how Tara is driven to the edge and escapes to Paris, away from her family. Described by Barbican as a ‘perceptive, deeply compassionate portrait of a woman on the rocky road to becoming herself’, The Escape also demonstrates the use and value of improvisation.

This film was shot, edited and made for Gemma Arterton, who worked with the director, Dominic Savage, from the beginning of production. Dominic Savage has stated that the way that he worked, namely asking questions about who the characters are and their motives rather than having a direct script, mean that “You end up with a whole load of material that’s representative of the journey you’ve been on and the choices you’ve made and it gives you complete freedom in the editing room. It’s organic, all the way through”. For us scholars, it is also interesting to study these kinds of films because we can have a gain an increased insight into the process of film-making and also can archive them for any future use.

When watching The Escape, the originality is clear. It is brutally honest and human, and this was not only because the main actors (Gemma Arterton and Dominic Copper) had worked together before in the films Tamara Drewe and A Tuttle’s Tale, but also because they were given the freedom to express how they imagined the characters to be. In this way, there were no rules that they had to abide by, but rather they could show the reality of the lives of these two characters, portraying their journeys in their own way.

The audience sees Tara in oppressive close-ups throughput the film as seen below, such as Tara peeling and scrubbing the vegetables, picking up the children’s mess, or offering drinks to friends at a barbecue Mark has offered, or many times making love seemingly just for her husband’s benefit.  There are always toys strewn on the floor or cereal spilt on the kitchen table. The sex scenes are determinedly unromantic. “I am not happy. I can’t do this anymore,” is her conclusion to her current situation at home since she feels that she has lost herself and finds no comfort and happiness in her mundane, everyday life. Arterton gives a typically nuanced and sensitive performance as the wife and mother. I argue that without the freedom to express Tara’s emotions and thoughts in terms of how Gemma Arterton felt they needed to be portrayed, the film would not have as much credibility and originality. It would not have ended up with the positive response from the audience.

It is a film that touches every person that watches it and the essential stillness of Arterton’s work is a revelation. Arterton, as expressed by Hollywood Reporter Sheri Linden, has a performance that is deeply internalized and often silent, and because there is limited dialogue compared to other films. This provides the space for improvisation through physical performance, and through the way that there was lots of improvisation through the writing of Mike Leigh’s script before filming began, and also the way that the characters just simply interact with each other. Arterton’s face, regarded in somewhat overused close-up, is the movie’s central landscape, and signals with every gesture and glance that Tara’s discontent is no simple matter. Without the need to be initially bound by a script, Arterton and Cooper were free to express their characters as they saw fit and how they felt they needed to be shown. For me, it wouldn’t have worked any other way while they were questioning whether it is ever right for a mother to leave her children.

Wise Cracking Women

War Nurse (Edgar Selwyn, 1930)

Anita Loos

Clara Bow