[This post constitutes me thinking out loud in a forum not as ephemeral as social media. If you want to start a fight, the comments here or elsewhere would not be the place to do it. E-mail me instead.]

In 2008, this scholar Timothy Murray published a book on the “digital baroque,” in which he’s arguing for a Deleuzian connection to early modern aesthetic forms in contemporary art films by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Peter Greenaway, among others. Murray argues that cinema has both helped structure modern perceptions and has simultaneously “folded in on itself” along with other, earlier art forms such as painting. This has led to a shift in cinematic and new media creations toward manic, quasi-mystical meditations that conflate technology and spirituality in a glorious aesthetic mess.


Timothy Murray’s book. He’s at Cornell, I think.




In 2015, there was this Australian/American/Namibian/South African co-production called Mad Max: Fury Road that – in my mind – actually exemplifies what I’m calling the “digital baroque” Maybe one could call it the “21st Century baroque?”


Publicity shot for Mad Max: Fury Road. You’ve probably seen this sort of thing all over the Internet this month

Anyway, this Mad Max film is an absolutely important entry in our contemporary film-theoretical discourse, crossing between media history, nerdy world-building, and socio-political activism without sacrificing its own integrity as a simple production that remains legible to any audience. It stands next to sci-fi works such as Dredd (2012) and Snowpiercer (2013) in this respect…. though we can debate as to how.


Dredd (2012) may be seen as a precursor to Mad Mad: Fury Road

It bridges between the paranoid and socially critical sci-fi of the 1970s such as the Parallax View (1974) and Silent Running (1972), the greatest of American and Italian westerns, and the possibilities afforded by digital painting and editing tools. It models rigorous, consequential writing and storyboarding, even though many of the names and visual concepts might very well have come from a 14 year-old boy or girl’s private sketchbook.

I am aware that many posts have been made on Mad Max: Fury Road, especially with regard to its aesthetics and openly feminist social politics. It has been called “the future of pulp.” Our massive data aggregators Google and Twitter have been so bombarded with information about this film made by 70 year-old director George Miller that even they are struggling to keep up with The Conversation about this film. My speculation is that the film is re-opening specific debates that were shut down in the transition between the wild and weird Hollywood experimentations of the 1970s and the blockbuster-formula quests of the 1980s: How much punishment can be dealt to male figures? Is there world-building that transcends the marketing of products? Should women link together into a grand sisterhood with their male allies to fight the heteropatriarchy? Questions, questions.

Or one could frame it like this: Most audiences do not remember or discuss the 1st or 3rd Mad Max films, but rather Road Warrior (1981), which this popular fourth entry most resembles. The first film is filled with male-charged sexual violence in the same way as its predecessor A Boy and His Dog (1975), while the third film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) has been continuously accused of being “clunky” and ambiguous at best. This Australian film series has incited thoughts and discussion about societies of absolute scarcity, but has also received askance looks from the film community for its bizarre qualities. Simply put, Miller has (rightly) turned toward a more “baroque” pulp production aesthetic and unambiguous political program in order to bring the woolly elements of the 1st and 3rd films into the blockbuster formula of the 2nd.

Why “baroque?”

Wikipedia tells us baroque things use “exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur.” Mad Max: Fury Road is a film relentlessly edited and adjusted to fit a lay audience, with frame-rates tweaked on individual shots and careful attention paid to continuity and physics of otherwise utterly ridiculous car creations. Exaggeration and excess pour out of every pore of the skin of this film, but care has been taken that the basics – can I see this character’s eyes? what is happening in this shot? who is in control here? – are not overwhelmed. The gender politics, which have received a well-deserved heap of attention, at least give us a breath of fresh air with regard to the agency and capabilities of specific marginalized groups. (Although don’t get me started on the race politics of the film.)

Such technique is how a film so batshit crazy on so many levels can also seem cool, collected, disciplined. Moreover, Mad Max: Fury Road makes many of its peer genre films seem ponderous, phoned-in, mired in artistic and fiscal conservatism.

Mad Max's sci-fi cousin?

Mad Max’s sci-fi cousin?

How are Dredd and Snowpiercer also related to Mad Max: Fury Road?

Well, for one thing – Hollywood seems less involved in their creation than usual. Dredd is a British / South Africa co-production, Snowpiercer a South Korean / Czech co-production. Such sci-fi films have permitted their directors and crew relative free rein over their resultant content, meaning creative experimentation beyond the Hero’s Journey-driven, Chosen One SFX vehicles that any film budgeted above $150 million usually become. Another aspect would be their direct, careful engagement with the basic tools of filmmaking. These are serious films that do not take themselves as deadly seriously as those of Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams, who pride themselves on adding random plot twists to otherwise pat genre narratives. They reference earlier productions without screaming from the hilltops like Tarantino that THEY KNOW EARLIER FILM HISTORY DAMMIT. The lay viewer can “get” the film – and be challenged by it – without previous fan buy-in or loads of film-history background. This is a good thing for a culture genuinely ignorant of such meta-level details and expecting their apps, hotel-room-ordering and video-game tutorials alike to be immediately user-friendly. All three films structure their action around a concrete dystopian scenario that a 5 year-old could get, and then pack them full of immediately persuasive cinematic details. Slo-Mo makes your life like an awesome, colorful music video. There’s an Ax Gang protecting this train. Nux has a V-8 engine tattooed on his chest. The redundancy becomes both necessary and an art form in of itself. Finally, each film offers a genuine digression from dominant paradigms of gender and social representation: Curtis and Edgar can have a queer relationship, Furiosa can be competent in charge, Dredd can sincerely respect his female colleague. Racial and ethnic diversity as found in several of the recent Fast and Furious films has become increasingly visible across these productions, although this area is need of improvement.

So yeah, “baroque” is the word I’ll continue to use and develop.

Digital baroque?

Dystopian baroque?

21st Century baroque?

Who knows?

At the end of May, Kat and I took a trip to Hong Kong.

Film Education:

This trip was part of a DEFA-Stiftung-funded project on German film schools co-authored Barton and myself: Divided Dirigisme: Nationalism, Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies. This article will appear in Mette Hjort’s 2-volume anthology The Education of the Filmmaker: Views from Around the World (Palgrave-Macmillan, forthcoming 2013).  The article is more or less about how German film education reflects Prussian traditions of centralized education control and an elusive Bildung ideal not necessarily reflected in the amount of work the subsidy-driven German film system can actually provide its up-and-coming filmmakers. We see it as a set of observations from outsiders, and a gentle-but-firm critique.

Mette was gracious to invite us to the inaugural conference of Cinema Studies at Lingnan University, three days of papers about film education from all parts of the globe held in this official-looking conference room:

Besides Mette and Barton, we had many other rock-stars of global cinema research in attendance: Duncan Petrie, Hamid Naficy, George Yúdice, Law Kar, Toby Miller, and Alia Arasoughly, to name a few.  Given how far many of us were from our host institutions, the conference often felt like more of a retreat, and this reinforced the collegiality in the room throughout the 3 days.

Because I tweeted the whole conference under the hashtag #cinemalingnan, I actually took some pretty decent notes of what was said. Here’s my drastically paraphrased write-up about the current state in world cinema education. I apologize in advance for any opaqueness or esotericisms:

Yoshi Tezuka – Dynamics of the Cultures of Discontent: How is Globalization Transforming the Training of Filmmakers in Japan?

Unlike in other major filmmaking countries, Japan did not have an elaborate public subsidy system that established film schools in the country. Instead, jishu eiga (amateur films) and pinku eiga (pornographic “pink” films) served as the training grounds for the next generation of filmmakers. Japanese independent cinema has since proven the established 2nd wing of commercial cinema (much like Hollywood) and this career trajectory of cult –> “indie” –> mainstream (like with Takeshi Miike) is now more or less expected.

Moinak BiswasLearning in Reverse: Teaching in the Age of Image Writing

One of the world experts on Satyajit Ray, Biswas tackled the larger topic of the digital shift in film education and how it can still be used as a means of critical praxis: this time through open source, local-knowledge informed image archives. Biswas highlighted the role of a filmmaker as a metadata producer, and also as a documentarist of localities such as Calcutta. He worked on projects recording ephemera such as graffiti and a closed factory across the street from his film school.

Stephen Chan – Film Education in Hong Kong: New Challenges and Opportunities

Chan looked at several institutions that helped promote filmmaking in Hong Kong, namely the broadcaster TVB, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (which apparently runs much of Hong Kong through charity efforts), and the wave of Hong Kong filmmakers educated in Europe or the United States who then returned to make films there starting in the late 1970s. The paper focused on how TVB used to play a much larger role in educating the newcomers, and now it relies on fairly piecemeal efforts to maintain an indigenous film industry,despite Hong Kong having a major investment in the history of cinema (more on this later).

Yomi BraesterThe People’s Republic of China — Professionalization and its Discontents

Braester looked at the Beijing Film Academy (BFA), which has been established as a school for overachieving Chinese filmmakers seeking entry into the mainstream Chinese media complex and/or advertising. They get all the latest equipment, and the BFA teachers even offer a kind of liberal arts education to have their students be more aesthetically and historically informed in their filmmaking (if not necessarily more critical). On the other hand, the titular “discontents” are the faculty and students at the Lin Xin Tin (sp?) film school, an opposition institution founded by an art critic out to cultivate a Herzogian “emotional sensibility” toward film and want students to actually stop taking classes and engage in filmmaking.

Gerda DullaartFrom Cinema in the Third World to Cinema in the First: Audiences and Markets

The South African entry, Dullaart focused on her own film school AFDA in Cape Town as a film school that emphasizes target demographics and markets over aforementioned artistic “sensibilities.” This has actually produced many excellent student films, ones that are well-informed about genre tropes and subverting expectations. By producing successfully for a local audience, AFDA in theory now has a wider global reach that would be imagined.

Osakue Stevenson OmoeraBridging the Gap: Answering the Questions of Crime, Youth Unemployment and Poverty through Film Training in Benin

Omoera comes from Nigeria, where there are hundreds upon hundreds of indigenous languages and a prominent culture of crime dominates its youth. Omoera sees film education as a solution to both: the Benin language can be preserved through a native media culture staffed by young men who would be making films rather than mugging others. Omoera’s forthcoming article on the economics of the Benin video film in Nollywood will appear in the forthcoming Quarterly Review of Film and Television.

Hamid NaficyBranch-Campus Initiatives: The Advantages and Liabilities of Knowledge Transfer

Naficy talked about a major topic in U.S. higher education, namely: elite U.S. branch campuses in the Middle East. He taught for Northwestern in Qatar, and noted that his students were primarily women who were given opportunities in their home country that they could not otherwise seek out abroad, as the men could. He weighed both the neo-colonialist projects of NYU, Columbia and Northwestern while also praising their impact on the populaces receiving their services

Alia Arasoughly“Confessions” at the “Crossroads” of “Summer in Palestine”

As the head of the Palestinian women filmmaker group Shashat, Arasoughly presented a courageous picture of women who overcame all odds and began producing and exhibiting their films in places like Gaza and the Golan Heights. She has a situation in which the filmmakers do not want to explore film history, but wish to make it, and do so by filming scenes of their “everyday” and showing them in traveling cinema exhibitions to Palestinians. In this way, she sees a slow path to empowerment and autonomy of an entire media complex of marginalized voices.

Mette HjortOne (Wo)man Documenatarians, Networks, and Gift Culture: The National Film School of Denmark’s Contributions to Film Training in the Middle East and North Africa

Hjort discussed the “Middle East Project,” a 4-week exchange program between Denmark and various countries in the Middle East starting in 2006. The program has produced many different filmmaking friendships, as well as the origins of a thriving cinematic dialog through global networks. Films such as Painting Our Secret and One Woman Army are testimony to the fact that good cinema will and does emerge from such cosmopolitan encounters.

George YúdiceAudiovisual Culture in Latin America’s Peripheries

Yúdice honed in on Brazilian favela filmmaking, and the fact that music videos, remixes and other popular forms of expression actually form the current backbone of the critical Latin American film aesthetic. In dialog with Robert Stam’s research on this point, Yúdice talked about programs such as Urban Connections and the Afro-Reggae movement that (like with the Nigerians in Omoera’s paper) emphasize filmmaking as an alternate mode of economic and cultural production outside of criminal channels.

Christopher MeirBuilding Film Cultures in the Anglophone Caribbean: Film Education at the University of the West Indies

Meir’s talk revealed a sparse film landscape in the Caribbean, a collection of islands that does not like to consider itself a collective in any case. The paper primarily focused on challenges of maintaining even a nominal film program in such an environment, but noted efforts to have students learn some film history and make streamlined feature films sometimes work.

Armida de la GarzaChildren and Practice-Based Film Education: La Matatena and Comunicación Comunitaria in Mexico

The talk focused heavily on La Matatena, a Mexican children’s film festival that teaches the cinematic imagination and filmmaking praxis to young children. Another effort in L.A., Comunicación Comunitaria, concentrates on similar goals to the South African AFDA: audience development and the construction of certain subjects/people in the media. “The room was teeming with stories,” she said, reminding me of other projects to teach children role-playing, larp or other interactive fiction.

Nicholas BalaisisThe Alchemy of Place: Local Immersion at the International Film and TV School in Cuba

Cuba always proves an interesting case study on any topic, and Balaisis delivered the goods on the legacy of filmmakers such as Alea or Guzmán. In effect, there is a “residual socialist ethos” to be found at film education sites like EICTV, but the shift towards a kind of bland global brand at the film school (and all across Cuba) can certainly be felt.

Toby MillerGood-bye to Film Schools: Please Close the Door on Your Way Out

Miller’s talk brought up some sobering facts about going to film school in the USA. There are 600 film schools available, but even the graduates from the top programs – USC, UCLA, NYU – are finding themselves working in an industry rapidly downsizing (either Hollywood or pornography) or a new media industry (i.e. YouTube/Google) that just doesn’t pay sufficient wages for the graduates to pay back their student loans. So somehow there’s a major gap between the universalist “storytelling” narrative on these top schools’ websites and the realities of those who pass through their halls.

Scott MacKenzieFilm Process and Processing: Film Practice and Education in Canada

MacKenzie introduced us to Phil’s Film Farm, a week-long retreat in Canada that has filmmakers writing, shooting, developing and screening 16mm material for fellow filmmakers. The profile of this institution has increased over the years, with a lot of women filmmakers showing up from all over the globe and even Kino Arsenal in Berlin curating some of the final film selections. The mistakes and contingencies that are part and parcel of developing 16mm footage in a bucket are seen as part of the finished artistic product from this retreat.

Anna Westerstahl StenportFilm Education in Sweden, with the Gothenburg Region Film Industry as a Case Study

Stenport interviewed a host of Swedish film professionals and students and discovered the Swedish film industry to be a fragmented establishment which is now moving over to a freelance employment system that actually (in the case of Trollhättan Trade College, at least) presupposes any film school student to be going into the working world as a freelancer. However, western Sweden in particular seems to be primed for a potential film boom in the coming years, thanks to fruitful networks, entrepreneurship, and a growing cinephilia among young people.

Charlie CauchiA Significant Cultural Industry”: New Developments in Local Audiovisual Education on the Island of Malta

Malta’s chapter in the film business is still very short indeed. A native of the Mediterranean Island, Cauchi discussed ambitions of Maltese filmmakers like Elio Lombardi and about newer films like Alan Cassar’s spoof Maltageddon (2009). Usually Malta is a service-provider nation, as in the case of The Game of Thrones. But now Malta is subsidizing its own film industry to produce arty shorts like Simshar (2012).

Renata ŠukaitytėInformal Film Education in Lithuania: A Vital Precondition for New Film Policies, Film Talents and Critical Film Audiences

Šukaitytė also dealt with a very small nation’s cinema and film training culture: Lithuania. Citing influences of filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Sarunas Bartas, she reconstructed the experience of various Lithuanian filmmakers negotiate their native Lithuanian-ness and efforts to bring a mobile film culture into a nation very protective of their national language but unable to finance even independent feature films.

Marijke de ValckFilm Training and Film Festivals

De Valck’s paper handled a topic with which I’m familiar: film festivals in Europe. Dieter Kosslick and other familiar figures turned up as De Valck discussed the role the Berlinale Talent Campus, the Cinefoundation in Paris, the TorinoFilmLab in Turin and the Odessa Summer Film School (among others) serve to promote young filmmakers at site-specific festival training workshops. These workshops primarily help initiate the filmmakers involved into the global film scene and promote intra-European film collaborations.

Duncan PetrieThe Struggle for a Scottish National Film School

Petrie looked at the recent history of the Scottish Film School establishment and found all sorts of schisms, political partnerships, and efforts between TV stations, independent filmmakers and Scottish art schools to get something going. He attributes the initial failure of establishing any Scottish film school to uninspired leadership in Edinburgh and a lack of common purpose or cohesion among Scottish filmmakers.

Barton Byg, Evan TornerDivided Dirigisme: Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies

Here, we talked about the history and formation of German film schools from the Weimar and Nazi eras to the present, and how that history reflects continuing processes of centralization and paradoxically lofty efforts to try to systematically cultivate the exceptional filmmaker. My portion of the paper compared two films – The Edge of Heaven (2007) and Inglourious Basterds (2009) – as two different paradigms for German film careers: one theauteurmodel that relies on subsidy, the other the German studio craftsperson model that also relies on subsidy.

Tom O’Regan, Ben GoldsmithBeyond the Modular Film School: Australian Film and TV Schools and their transition to digital media environments

O’Regan and Goldsmith did an admirable job of listening to everyone else’s presentation and then tried to wrap things up with a productive “spectrum” of film school issues, which I re-print here in their entirety:

* General – Specific
* Traditional – Modern
* Industry – Art (mainstream/alternative, product/process)
* Practice – Theory
* Craft – Creativity
* Individual – Collective – Network
* Education – Training/Retraining
* Inside – Outside (a system)

In the Australian context, film education is primarily accountable to government audits, but not necessarily to the students themselves. They advocate for a way of evaluating film education in terms of the kind of work students are able to secure afterward.

Round Table Discussion – Meaghan Morris (Chair Professor of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University, Hong Kong), Shu Kei (Dean of the School of Film and Television, The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong), Law Kar (Project Researcher, Hong Kong Film Archive, Hong Kong), Tammy Cheung (Documentary Director, Hong Kong), Xavier Tam, (Vice-Chairperson (Hearing), The Second Hong Kong International Deaf Film Festival Organizing Committee)

This impressive array of Hong Kong film experts essentially found that the Hong Kong locals are losing touch with their own venerable cinema history, and film history in general. They actually found that partially a decline in the teaching of literature itself was to blame, because so much of Hong Kong cinema is (unexpectedly) accessed through a kind of literary framework.  Some complained at length about how everyone paid attention to Wong Kar-Wai (who has a new film coming out The Grandmasters), John Woo and Johnnie To that they’ve ignored the “classics” of the 1940s and 50s. I’ve now got a to-watch list!

Also RIP Paul Willemen.

Although I’m still working out the meta-picture from all this, I think the papers connote a larger picture of a world coming to grips with a post-cinema world in which governments and major forces still attempt to exercise control over their media, but otherwise localities and their audiences are also pitching in with their own take on the notions of “nation” and “film.”

Anyway, now on to what you were waiting for, namely…

Wondrous Food:

…like this delicious peanut-coconut curry at a restaurant near Central Hong Kong and the Symphony of Lights.

…or this divine vegetarian dim sum at the Lock Cha Teahouse.

…or even the crazy food that one can get for super cheap at the (very 1950s) Mido Cafe in Mongkok. We tried the “tea mixed with coffee” and some egg sandwiches. Oh, and some bitter melon in black bean sauce (not listed here).


I certainly have more material to mine from this trip, but I’ve got a lot of preparations this week underway for several weeks to be spent in Ithaca, NY, so I’ll leave you hanging in mild suspense for now.

The Herzog Swoon

April 24, 2012

Today, Werner Herzog spoke at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, later at Amherst College.

Here he is, explaining how he gingerly treated the Treadwell material used for shooting Grizzly Man.

Facebook and Twitter were ablaze with enraptured students and faculty, trying in vain to capture their vertiginous experience of seeing him in words/images. After all, he’s at the very least that German director about whom someone made so many viral videos. Celebrity cults have the tendency of rubbing me the wrong way though, so consider this blog post a measured response to the enthusiasm.

I attended because I am a German film specialist, and was pleasantly surprised that the talk at UMass was much better than the conversation he had at Amherst College back in 2006, when the privileged male students there thought they could “beat” him in rhetoric about fiction/reality in his films. (BTW: They lost.)

Topics of discussion included, but were not limited to:

• How fairly he deals with his subjects, particularly those who are borderline personalities (Treadwell, Kinski)
Into the Abyss as an American Gothic
• His romantic sensibility about the emergence of filmic moments
• His ruthless pragmatism regarding a tight editing schedule (“within 2 weeks” is his motto) and a low shooting ratio
• Virgil’s Georgics and the importance of thick description
• His own personal, evil style of acting
• How most people don’t survive in the film industry unless they can find a fast-paced rhythm to events/timelines/finances as he has
• How he doesn’t like art, nor the term “artist,” but rather surrounds himself with maps
• How students should “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read” (Incidentally, he sounded like a liberal arts college professor at this point.)
• How aerobics, yoga, art installations, and an excess of pain relief are all abominations with which society should reckon

In essence, Herzog shares the quality with Slavoj Zizek that he is one of the rare crowd-pleasers who can cater to students’ desire for “profound messages” and professors’ desire for academically grounded wit with equal aplomb. At the same time, however, one also notices that – beyond the hype for the man and his films – he has made his career as a filmmaker by keeping both his feet firmly planted on the ground (except in White Diamond, of course). Over and over again, he reiterated crude existential truisms: shoot your next damn film, don’t agonize over anything, meet your deadlines, if your footage is good – it’ll fit together, and so forth. This is advice that even his ideological arch-enemy Mike Figgis could not deny, and constituted almost the same thing that DEFA director Jürgen Böttcher communicated to us in the fall.

That is to say: don’t look to Werner Herzog for a message or even an inspiration. Look to your own subjective experiences and your pathos-filled reading of the world. Look to the subjectivity found in his films, and take a stand for or against or alongside it. This is a man whose oeuvre you must watch anyway, and his apparently enchanting presence should encourage you to look at more of his films. But Herzog knows no more secrets behind his films than you do. The viewer really is the missing link in his world.

Wild Blue Yonder is mostly long-winded crap with a few brilliant moments in a space capsule.
Woyzeck was made in such a short amount of time (8 days) that its spontaneity captures the fragmentary nature of Büchner’s play.
Stroszek remains his best work and will never be trumped by any of his other documentary-informed features.
Heart of Glass has inspired me in terms of larp and game design.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams hinges on his voiceover and our meta-level interpretations thereof.
Cobra Verde begins as a narrative about plantations and slavery, and ends as a musical.
Nosferatu shows us how small vampires can be in our big world.
Grizzly Man has something to do about Humans and Nature. I think it’s about Humans and Cameras.

…and so forth.
Watch his material.
Have an opinion.
If your opinion’s strong enough, make a piece of art in response that expresses it.
Or at least express it over coffee with friends.

Today’s event was called A Conversation with Werner Herzog. In my mind, Herzog exists only in conversation.

For more information about the director as well as interpretive aids, I suggest Brad Prager’s book or recent edited companion. If you read German, try Chris Wahl’s Lektionen in Herzog.

Watch the movies, but also read, read, read, read, read, read…

To the End of April

April 21, 2012

Great to see so many people enjoyed my RPIG/Solmukohta report (at least relative to my usual traffic).

I take this as a cue to resume blogging for a while, with somewhat shorter entries.

This semester I have presented on 3 diverse topics at 3 very different academic conferences. According to my CV, they were:

• “Adventures in Stagnation: Gottfried Kolditz’s Unfilmed DEFA Project Zimtpiraten (1984)” At: Northeast Modern Language Association Conference 2012. Rochester, NY, March 15-18, 2012.

• “DEFA and the Third World: A Taxonomy of Transnationalisms” At: Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference 2012. Boston, MA, March 21-25, 2012.

• “Empty Bodies and Time in Tabletop Role-Playing Game Combat.” At: Role-Playing in Games Seminar. Tampere, Finland, April 10-11, 2012.

So, East German pirates, transnational film theory as applied to East German films regarding the Third World, and how tabletop role-playing combat frames time and bodies. I’ll leave all that to the reader for digestion.

Writing projects dominating the rest of my schedule until the end of April include:

1. My final dissertation chapter: Dyer on DEFA: White Labor Power in East German Musicals

…in which I argue for a critical race theory that can address the appropriations made by sorta-well-meaning East German musicals — particularly Revue um Mitternacht (1962, above) and Meine Frau macht Musik (1958). Some use blackface, exoticized revue sequences and the juxtaposition of free jazz as an East German progressive phenomenon (really?) vs. the oppressive big band revue music of the evil capitalists of yesteryear. A confusing hodge-podge to unpack to say the least. Oh, and I use Richard Dyer’s theories a lot.

2. The finished article on DEFA made-for-TV pirate films that I presented in embryonic form at NeMLA. It’s about DEFA’s willingness to adopt new genres and ideologically suspect material in order to compete for increasingly scarce East German TV eyeballs. Gojko Mitic makes one swarthy pirate.

3. A co-authored article with my advisor Barton Byg on film education in Germany: Divided Dirigisme: Regionalism and Reform in the German Film Academies. We are presenting this work in Hong Kong in May and I am otherwise plowing through catalogs of student films, statements and charters inaugurating film schools and other items to get a sense of how German film education fits into larger pictures of German education across the Bundesländer.

Many interesting questions buzzing about me on my laptop, and so little time until the end of the semester to answer them. Here’s to a successful end-of-April push!


January 3, 2012

Soon I will be boarding a plane for Seattle, and the 2012 meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Unlike Ulrike Ottinger’s film Ticket of No Return / Bildnis einer Trinkerin (pictured above), however, I will eventually return.

Those of you who know the academic job search will also know more or less what my MLA experience will be like: a professional conference where the interviews for tenure-track and (increasingly) non-tenure-track jobs take place.  Where the weight of individuals and institutions in the humanities is hefted, tested, critiqued and measured. As opposed to my regular haunts, the German Studies Association conference, Film and History, or the Northeast Modern Language Association conference, the MLA is supposed to be a fairly stiff-necked affair.  Faculty have confided in me about it being a kind of “meat market” or a “desperate” place.  One need only look at the various paltry statistics about employment in the academic humanities in this country since the 1970s to know this (and I have deliberately refrained from linking to said statistics, dear reader, to keep your optimism intact).

That being said, the only way out of the abyss is straight through it. That has been my dissertation solution and, as I seek new scholarly venues beyond my dissertation, a way out of the familiar.

2012 is a time for change, whether it stems from the movements of the masses or the movements within ourselves.


Dear Family, Friends, Colleagues and Other People Who Might Know Me or (Because It’s the Internet) Don’t,

I thought I’d type up a quick summary of what’s going on with me this fall of 2011.

While economic institutions lurch around their avaricious withdrawal of all capital from 98% of the world’s population, poor/plucky little me is heading out onto the German/film job market.  This was something I knew since the spring, but the visceral fact of the matter hit home over the weekend at the German Studies Association 2011 conference in Louisville, KY.  Yes, there are jobs.  Yes, there will be fierce competition among colleagues for them. Yes, I stand a chance at maybe getting one.

That being said, I’ve found myself involved with too many projects and loose ends to wrap up as I turn my attention to the timely completion of my long-overdue dissertation and the endless writing of cover letters, solicitation of information, etc.  In response, Kat and I have formed a solidarity pact to keep the various other forces at bay.

So what does this mean?

If you are involved on a project with me, I will endeavor to keep my deadlines, side of the bargain, etc.  If you are my friend, I will attempt to keep appointments to see you.  But if it seems like I’m a little spacy, punch-drunk, disorganized or whatever, please keep in mind that I’m now engaged in an existential proxy battle for my future while trying to keep all these commitments.

Thanks for your understanding!


(The Guy in the Black Hat)


August 31, 2010

The Guy in the Black Hat Meets Berlin is dead.

Long live The Guy in the Black Hat.


Three observations I made yesterday:

* Here’s a simple one: the Private sector could not manage to be regularly profitable without the Public sector.  A corrupt Public sector hemorrhaging resources (i.e., capital, social, environmental, etc.) in large amounts is the only way we humans seem to be able to drive the large-scale Private sector that would generate the necessary profits to satiate our greed.  Think about it.  Hollywood is a dirigiste film industry, massively subsidized by assorted forms of federal and state-level assistance (Toby Miller, 2002).  Nationalism and other forms of social imaginary generate imagined communities (Benedict Anderson, 1983) that it then re-processes into a system of consumer good distribution across networks.  Private 4-year colleges benefit from being near enough to Public graduate universities to have access to its cheap, energetic graduate labor supply.  And don’t get me started on Halliburton. Without governments there to round up the aggregate labor and exchange value of a populace, the Private sector might as well stay at the level of small to medium-size businesses.  Instead, it is an engine quite clearly propelling us toward the End of Human Civilization.

* I may be destitute since my time abroad, but my ability to write and think has increased volumes since being returned to proximity of the UMass library.  Give me a solid research foundation and I’ll live.

* Arcade scores are only three letters because kids can do so much damage with four-letter words.


Daybreakers (Spierig Brothers, US, 2010)

Everyone thought the premise on this movie was golden, let alone fitting for our times: in the near future, vampires have taken over the world, but now they are starving to death due to a lack of human blood to drink.  “Society” deteriorates as resources dwindle. We rented it on behalf of several recommendations, as well as Kat’s natural affinity toward vampires. Neither of us were impressed by the film’s utterly predictable narrative, overwrought seriousness, flat acting (except from Willem Defoe), ill-timed and gratuitous gore effects, and disastrously stupid protagonists. I thought Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Sunshine, and a host of other good sci-fi media had moved us into the new era of “clever” protagonists, but apparently there are still some stragglers caught in 1998, including this film.

RealityStrange Clock

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The days seem like hours now, so short they are in my perception.  I fly to Chicago on July 14th, where I will be picked up and delivered back to Iowa, where I’ll be until early August.

Yes, that means no more Guy in the Black Hat Meets Berlin in less than a week.  Egal – I’ll switch the name to Guy in the Black Hat Meets [Wherever My Permanent Residence Happens to Be at the Time].  I figure anywhere I go will provide me with interesting encounters to post on the Internet.  Long live Guy in the Black Hat Meets Northampton!

Berlin has been more than kind to me:  I have never felt as cosmopolitan before in my life.  I met filmmakers, drank in nice places/dives, attended a few concerts, saw a lot of movies, rummaged through archives, churned out articles and essays, visited Prague, Aarhus, Venice, Bremen and Göttingen, spent some time in an artificial tropical rainforest at Brand (Niederlausitz), saw the Frida Kahlo exhibit, experienced the elation of the Germans as Lena Meyer-Landrut won the Eurovision 2010 contest in Oslo, hung out with people from around the world, and managed to get plenty of much-needed sleep in the midst of it all.  All in all, I should not be complaining.  Still, a small update is necessary:

Just as my article and blog post on Uwe Boll came out, I discovered he was coming to the HFF on June 24th.  So I decided to audio-record the entire speech, which is an enjoyable 2.5 hours if you understand any German.  In fact, it was one of those instances in which understanding the German language quite literally gave me a better level of access to information about how the world works, which is why I am continuously baffled by why universities think cutting back on German is a great idea. Understanding German connects you with a whole next level of cultural production that, well, needs to be situated within its context.

Kat left for Iowa on the 29th, and I don’t think I’ve actually had a phone conversation with her since then, on account of her not having a cell phone but being on the road up in the Twin Cities and the time difference and all.  This makes me sad. 😦

All the more sad beyond having to leave Berlin and doing so alone is the fact that I missed the very wedding I didn’t want to:  that of Preeti Gupta and Seth Bacon.  These are two exceptional individuals with whom I’ve spent many a fine day, and whose wedding I knew was going to be awesome.  And then it was scheduled to take place within my last two weeks here, also on the very weekend I had a conference in Bremen.  So to all my Grinnellian alumni friends that were there (Taylor, Megan, Eve, David, John, Katie, Aaron, Ann, Sean… oh, the list is too long):  I missed dancing, gaming and reveling with Preeti and Seth.  And to Preeti and Seth:  the present’s on its way, but my well-wishes now will have to do.

So: the Bremen conference.  It was my first official conference paper delivered in German to a German audience on German soil, and I think it went fairly well.  The topic was “Turns und Trends in der Literaturwissenschaft,” and was designed to gather young scholars into debate about the field of Germanistik via papers delivered. I dealt with material pertaining to a racist “geopolitical fiction” science-fiction novel – Pereat Austria! – from 1907 written by a right-wing self-help author Marie Carola Freiin von Eynatten.  My paper was described as the “postcolonial turn” of the conference.  In any case, it will be published (with revisions) in German in October.  I’m psyched.  But I was even more psyched to by chance visit with Sarah, a former UMass professor, and her coterie of German exchange students to Dickinson College.  It was like being back with Grinnellians for the evening – interesting liberal-arts college types – and I felt suddenly at home amidst an otherwise somewhat alienating conference experience.

Naturally, we stopped our final discussion on Saturday as Germany trashed Argentina in a World Cup quarter final showdown.  Though it didn’t pan out for Germany in the semi-finals against Spain, the victory celebrations for the quarter final were extremely intense in Bremen, with cops and smoke bombs and yelling people and vuvuzelas and (enough booleans) such.  I remember exiting the Hauptbahnhof in Berlin and asking myself: “Is this a warzone?”  Men were hauling up random people off the street and stuffing them into a van to drink.  A couple in Tiergarten seemed to be celebrating with a deliberately heavy amount of heavy petting.  Bottles flew, music blasted, Germans yelped for joy.  Well, at least they made it to the semi-finals.

For reasons I’ll not state here, I was back early from Bremen and found myself in Berlin for the Fourth of July, which was celebrated at Tempelhof Park by the Young Democrats Abroad.  Hilary Bown ’02 and Justin Torrence ’03 were present and made me feel at home there.  We had a cherry pit spitting contest, and some guy named Jerry impressed me with his deep knowledge of Cold War history as an American ex-pat who lived in Kreuzberg.  Then Kira and I commiserated and had ice cream.

Monday night was a BBQ in Prenzlauer Berg in one of the older houses along Husemannstr.  After exactly one beer, I was repeatedly told by the Germans that I was “zu laut,” leading me to believe that I project my voice much better in the foreign language…

And now Peggy, my landlady, has come and inspected the apartment.  I am most definitely leaving, and the sparseness of my surroundings bears testimony to that fact.

But what’s life without melancholy, bittersweet endings, or the sending off of old friends to new places?


Die Liebe und die Königin (1976)

Based on Viktor Hugo’s novel Maria Tudor, this film stars Gojko Mitic as the dashing Fabiano Fabiani, an Italian nobleman who murders a Jewish loan-shark plotting to overthrow the throne, starting a whole chain of events.  The first time I’ve ever seen Mitic play a villainous role, though it looks like he’s still only got about two possible expressions.  It supports my argument for my GSA paper in the fall anyway…

Die schöne Lurette (dir. Gottfried Kolditz, 1960)

An adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s operette by the same name.  Best watched on fast-forward, I think – then you see fast-moving soldiers and peasants weaving in and around each other, occasionally donning masks and kissing.  Much better than its awkward Powell/Pressburger aspirations.

Echo Bazaar

I took the (loneliness-fueled) plunge and joined a choose-your-own-adventure Twitter app called Echo Bazaar.  The premise:  you are a quasi-damned, quasi-deceased soul in Fallen London, an underground version of the same that happens to share a border with Hell.  Quite addictive and quite well-written (because it’s British), my character has already done any number of dubious tasks, such as fed a hapless drunk to a demon and composed an ode about a fungal creature.  Fun times.

Shifting Forest Storyworks

A LARP community in California, Shifting Forest Storyworks, has been so generous as to offer many of their written parlor LARP scenarios for free.  I took a gander at several, including the Mirror Room, and was pleasantly surprised with how tightly structured and playable they all seemed.  It made me excited to run several upon my return.  Any players willing to have a go?

Evan and Rainer - Fall 2008 - Amherst, MA


After a day straining my eyes at the Bundesarchiv with microfiches detailing debates about film as a “kulturpolitisches Instrument,” it was nice to go to Potsdam and catch up with a friendly acquaintance.

Rainer Simon, one of the most prominent DEFA directors in the 1980s, invited me over to his art-bedecked apartment to talk shop and watch the World Cup.

While I hold much of our conversation in strict confidence, I can say he’s doing quite well:  he was at a film festival in Guadalajara, and intends on re-visiting Mexico via Ecuador this fall if all goes right.  He also foresees being in the U.S. for an extended stay in 2011, which may mean his films will be screened wherever he’s at.  As a foreign director working in Mexico, he finds himself revisiting Sergei Eisenstein and his “failed” project ¡Que Viva México! (1931), which never does one harm to do.

At a certain point, the match between Brazil and North Korea began, such that we spent the next 90 minutes gaping at the television as the rare spectacle of the tightly coordinated North Korean defense pitted against the Brazilian powerhouse offense unfolded before our eyes.  We naturally rooted for North Korea – Simon: “Ich stehe immer auf der Seite der Außenseiter.” – and were sad for their 2-1 loss.  Nevertheless, we found it so poetic that they posed such a strong resistance for the first 65 minutes of the game that we forgot the renewed geopolitical dispute over the 38th Parallel N the country’s leaders have offered us in recent months.  Then again, we are all captivated by immaculately kept soccer fields amidst a South Africa stricken by the horrific economic and social consequences of neoliberal capitalism.  So it goes.


Lady Snowblood (dir. Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

The classic “child of vengeance story”: a woman’s family is killed by four evil people, so she murders one and bears a child for the express purpose of having the remaining three killed.  Kill Bill (2004) extensively references this film, but let’s not dwell on that.  Instead, our attention should be focused on the intense shock edits demonstrating the revenge-obsessed psychology of the protagonist (cf Lone Wolf and Cub), the simple-yet-effective fight choreography (cf Seven Samurai) and the different philosophical paradigms embodied by the antagonists (cf El Topo).  A masterwork of generic excess.

Les Vampires (dir. Louis Feuillade, 1915)

I remember watching this French serial back at the University of Iowa in the summer of 2001 and wanted to see if it was as good as my memory of it.  It is.  Though the pacing of individual scenes runs against modern viewer expectation (i.e., we spend a long time watching actors walking all the way into buildings, across roofs, etc.), the mise-en-scène is still quite stunning, with multiple fields of action and a coherent delineation between them all.

Summer in Berlin

June 11, 2010


(WordPress told me I should include more images to attract people to the blog.  Since I have no ambition to get a digital camera or draw anything myself, I am content to assembling abstruse images from fragments on my hard-drive.  Some call me strange… but now you’ve seen the creepy smile.)

Well, the one thing being abroad in Berlin-Potsdam has taught me is that I don’t really like to blog, but that I really like short academic projects.  Over the past several weeks, I have written a 1,500 overview of the German adventure film for the World Cinema Directory, a short entry on the Jugendzeitschrift (youth magazine) in the 1950s for Henning Wrage’s 2011 post-war Germany publication and a finished draft of my article on Uwe Boll appearing in the next issue of kunsttexte.de.  In addition, I have drafted new material for Mist-Robed Gate, as I’ve been promoted to co-author.  Other than that, I have been steadily gathering material for my dissertation, publications in the fall, and for other assorted projects.

Three interesting things that have happened over the last 6 weeks to whet your curiosity:

* An Italian sitting across from me in the S-Bahn mentioned it was a sunny day and then broke into a three-minute full-body aria for my pleasure.  Everyone applauded.

* I attended the Kreuzberg Freiluft Kino for the Eurovision contest and watched Lena Meyer-Landrut win for the first time for Germany since 1982.  Never have I seen such an “ironic” crowd switch over to sincerity once it seemed like their favorite was to win.

* I met Tag Gallagher, the world’s John Ford expert and was given a dressing down about how Straub/Huillet films are actually meant to excite one’s emotions…


(Here are two from many I’ve enjoyed)

The Twilight Samurai (dir. Yoji Yamada, Japan 2002)

A marvelous movie – materialist and elegiac at the same time.  A destitute samurai rises to one last mission before modernity overtakes him.  It feels like a Jane Austen novel set in mid-19th Century Japan, which is more than a compliment.

Soul Kitchen (dir. Fatih Akin, Germany 2009)

While on the topic of good writing, I recommend Soul Kitchen to any who want to see a tightly scripted comedy with none of the false turns that lead most Hollywood films astray.  Done in the proper farce tradition of Billy Wilder, Soul Kitchen tells the story of a Greek owner of a restaurant in Hamburg and his clashes with his own life.  I haven’t laughed that hard in a while!