Tagged: UC Santa Barbara

Remembering Edward Branigan

Professor Edward Branigan at the 2005 SCMS Conference in London.

Over the weekend, I learned that Professor Emeritus Edward Branigan had passed away on June 29, succumbing to leukemia. During my time as an undergraduate at UCSB, I took only one class from him—Film Studies 192A: Classical Film Theory. The class was one of the most intensive classes I took at UCSB, although it would be unfair to characterize my other classes as easy.

The Classical Film Theory course was very different from most other college film courses. First, there were no film screenings. There were only readings, and there were a lot of them. Second, the class met three times a week, for a hour each day, plus a discussion section with a TA. Third, the class was not actually about film. It was a philosophy class about film. So rather than stressing concepts like aura, montage, or realism, the course was based around concepts such as ontology, epistemology, and aesthetics. And we used those to understand not just how to criticize a particular film—but to understand the nature of all film—those that had been produced and those not yet even imagined. Many students struggled in this course, but I was managed to stay afloat largely because I had already taken an experimental film course. And that course helped me understand that film was much more than we see at the movies.

The Department of Film and Media Studies posted a memorial tribute to on its website. It chronicles many major milestones of Branigan’s life and catalogs his many achievements in film studies. He lived a rich life, serving in the military during the Vietnam War era and practicing as an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood before transitioning to academia in the 1980s.

One accomplishment from that tribute that I would like to highlight is his developing Film Studies 146: Advanced Film Analysis, a class that “weeded out” the students who could not keep up with the major. For those of us that remained, it was an important part of crafting film scholars. Professor Branigan didn’t teach 146 when I took it: Donna Cunningham did. But now that I think about it, it is clear that this was a “Branigan class” in that it was not like the other film classes.

Unlike Classical Film Theory, we did screen films, but only ten of them. We met three times a week—once on Monday afternoon, again that same evening, and once more on Wednesday afternoons. On Monday, we would watch a film and study how it employed a specific narration technique: such as space, time, and sound. We talked about it some more on Wednesday. Then, the following Monday afternoon, we would screen a different film—which would be unknown to the class—and be asked to write an eight-page paper on the film’s narrational techniques by Wednesday afternoon. We would repeat this pattern four times throughout the semester. If anything, it taught me to quickly identify the “moral” of the film and to outline how the film communicated that moral through cinematography, editing, sound, mise-en-scène, etc.

The last time I saw Professor Branigan was in 2005 at the SCMS Conference in London, which is where I snapped the above photo of him. I was at NYU at the time. My friend Scott, from our UCSB days and who was studying at Berkeley, was with me. Scott and I approached… no, we cornered… Edward at an evening reception on the conference’s first day. The Film Studies department at UCSB in the 1990s was pretty small, and the students had a very close relationship with the faculty: we even called our professors by their first names. I believe Scott asked him about his new role as the department’s Director of Graduate Studies. I feigned surprise and brashly asked Edward, “Wait! They put you in charge of the graduate students?” Everyone was aware that Edward had married one of his former graduate students, who herself passed away in 2016.

He responded with a smirk on his face, with a tone of sarcasm, and in his distinctive raspy voice: “Oh, I like graduate students.”

Rest in Peace, Edward.

Update: David Bordwell wrote a touching and personal memoir of Edward Branigan, one that spans decades and maintains close contact throughout that time. Because of the Independence Day holiday, I didn’t keep up with Observations on Film Art as closely I usually do. I only found out about his passing from the UCSB Alumni newsletter.

The Smoker: A History of Stag Films at Light Industry, but No Smoking, Please

As I get older, I forget about some of the things I’ve done that not many others have. Case in point: I took two pornographic film classes as part of the my film studies curriculum.

The first was as an undergraduate at UCSB that was taught by Constance Penley, who Rolling Stone called a notorious professor in 1998. By the time I took the class, it had been taught several times and was not the hot-topic around campus as much as it was when it was first offered. Nonetheless, Penley ran the class as an historical survey of pornographic film, no different than any other professor would teach a survey of animation, documentary, or French cinema.

The second class was as graduate student at NYU, although our instructors were a bit sly about the subject matter of the class. They called it Explicitly Independent, insisting that we were studying experimental, independent film that pushed the boundaries of representing sexuality. This class was not meant as a broad survey of explicit film, as my undergraduate class was, but instead was meant to address a number of topics that our instructors were studying.

Both classes made clear a couple of facts about pornographic film:

  1. it has been around a long time: about as long as motion pictures themselves have been around.
  2. more people consume pornography than you think: it’s pretty much close to 100% of film viewers.
  3. a stylistic history of pornography tracks closely to the stylistic history of cinema at large: the golden age of pornographic film is in the 1970s, which is the same decade as the golden age of New Hollywood.

Light Industry is presenting nine short films on Tuesday, February 20, beginning at 7:30 PM: a program they call The Smoker: A Brief History of the Stag Film. The term “smoker” refers to the smoke-filled rooms where men—and only men—would watch sex on film as part of some weird homosocial ritual to prove that each guy wasn’t “a homo.” If you ever wondered what your grandfather did with his buddies at an Elks Lodge meeting on a Saturday night, it was probably watching these films.

As someone who watched a lot of these kinds of films with an audience that isn’t there for sexual gratification, I will tell you will initially feel a bit awkward when you recognize the situation of watching porn while sitting next to strangers.

Light Industry seems to recognize this. They will screen the films silent in the spirit of historically accuracy. It was common for men to hoot-and-holler while these films played, and indeed, Light Industry’s website notes “in the spirit of smokers past, we encourage attendees to provide their own soundtracks.”

I would go a step further and encourage you to provide your own beverage, too. But, remember that this is the twenty-first century: there no smoking during these smokers.

When Saving Time and Money Costs a Lot of Time and Money

Earlier this week, I had one of those moments when I realized that the system I was using to save time and money was costing me a lot of time and my employer a lot of money.

Then I remembered something that happened back in college.

As an undergraduate student at UCSB in the 1990s, I worked at the on-campus computer labs. At the time, our IT people were trying to figure out how to charge students to print at the labs.

What sounded like a simple process of procuring and installing a payment system, turned into an endless series of trials for one system after another…and a lot failures. Exasperated, the lab manager suggested that we abandon our efforts and take the paper out of the printers. “Can’t we just give students 50 sheets of paper each term and show them how ‘manual feed’ works?”

I don’t exactly remember what the final solution, but I wasn’t the “manual feed” solution. Regardless, I’m sure it doesn’t exist today.

Exam Copies Done Right

Despite being an unaccomplished and underachieving scholar, I still receive a fair-share of examination copies of academic trade books and textbooks. These are books that publishers provide for free for a “trial period.” Usually, the publisher doesn’t specify the length of the trial period so they are effectively free books, if not explicitly so. However, some publishers have explicitly requested that I ship the book back to them or else I will receive a bill for the book, albeit with an “industry” discount of 20% or so.

Publishers provide these books because they hope that I will adopt them for a course and require my students to purchase them. When I worked at UCSB’s college radio station in the mid-1990s, record companies would similarly provide free CDs for the music and programming directors in hopes that they would play the recordings on-the-air and, consequently, promote sales of the recording.

It seems like a great way to promote a book or a recording, but since everyone does it, the examination/promotional copies often become clutter. My music director used to give me a bunch of CDs that he knew I would like, and I have a pile of under-examined—or entirely unexamined—books on my desk.

Examination Copies that have gone unexamined

Examination Copies that have gone unexamined.

Done Wrong

In the academic world, the examination copies of books arrive in one of two ways:

  1. The publisher sends a print copy. They have done so for as long as I’ve been in the game. Although it’s not as many as it used to be, some occasionally arrive by expedited couriers, such as UPS and FedEx. I always thought that to be a huge waste of resources. Haven’t book publishers heard of media mail? The post office basically invented the service just for them. Also, this is a book, not a newspaper or a timely document. There’s no way that an extra day or two will “spoil” the content.
  2. The publisher provides an ebook.

The ebook makes a lot of sense for examination copies. It costs the publisher next to nothing to supply a bunch of interested readers the book. Moreover, it gets to the reader quicker than sending it by expedited courier. And, again, it costs a lot less.

However, most publishers are utterly terrified of unauthorized reproductions. They’re so frightened about it, in fact, that they burden the ebook with DRM that makes the book unreadable. The most common way they do this is by requiring you to use something like Adobe Digital Editions to read the book. That platform, and others like it, basically render the book and its words, into images of the book pages. In effect, you’re not reading, you’re looking at photographs of text. This makes it almost impossible for reading on small-screen devices, such a smartphone, because you can’t resize the text; you can only resize the page. No wonder phones are getting bigger and bigger.

Not only that, you can’t highlight text—only parts of the page. You can’t look up words by tapping or clicking on them because the computer doesn’t see text—it sees images. And, if you want to read somewhere without an Internet connect, such as a subway train or an airplane, you won’t because you can’t print pages or cache the entire book on your device. Bleh!

I don’t know how recording companies handle promotional copies, or whether they even provide them at all anymore. I would think that since the advent of the Internet, iTunes, and other streaming music services, they would provide radio stations with a digital file or some type. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they still shipped plastic disks via Pony Express. But let’s say for argument’s sake that, in the intervening twenty years since I worked at KCSB, the record companies started sending programming and music directors promotional MP3s. If these recording companies followed the footsteps of the book publishers, their digital offerings would be as follows:

The music director would be instructed to download a proprietary listening application specific for that recording company’s group. I suppose that’s one good thing about only three recording groups—Warner Music, Sony, and BMG—existing today. She would then download a version for each of her devices: i.e, personal computer, work computer, smartphone, and iPod-like music player (they *still* exist). The sound quality would be reduced through downsampling, resembling something like FM radio: serviceable, but certainly not optimal. The music could only be heard with a live Internet connection: go into an elevator, and you’re listening to the elevator music in the elevator. And lastly, as a final insult, the app would not allow you to change the volume.

Done Right

Earlier today, the University of California Press offered an examination copy of Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor, edited by two UCSB scholars: Michael Curtin and Kevin Samson. When I saw that I could download an ebook, I was expecting to see the book in Adobe Digital Editions or something similar crappy. Instead, I saw that I could download an EPUB, a PDF, or a MOBI file. Each of these work with different readers, such as Kindle, iBooks, and many other open source applications.

Download Precarious Creativity

I was further pleased to see the book was not crippled by cumbersome DRM and that it was the entire book for me to examine. Thanks!

epub of Precarious Creativity

This is definitely the way to go, and even if I don’t adopt it, the book will not be abandoned on my desk. And it didn’t cost the publisher anything to send it.

Remembering Chantal Akerman and Her “Feminist Horror” Film

Chantal Akerman, an internationally renown filmmaker who made her first film in the late 1960s, has died in Paris at age 65. Le Monde reports that she committed suicide.

I first learned of Akerman in college in 1997. It was then that I watched one of her films—Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), that changed my life. I’m not exaggerating.

As a newly declared film student at UCSB, I was already watching quite a few films, although most of them were standard commercial, narrative films from a variety of countries and a range of time periods. This film, however, was different. It ran for about three-and-a-half hours, very little happened in terms of story, and most of the film seemed to be shot from the eyeline perspective an adult’s hip.

Jeanne Dielman endlessly preparing food at home

This film is very hard to watch, but that is exactly the point.

I was taking an interdisciplinary course that was equal parts women studies, film studies, and art history and was taught by film studies professor Constance Penley and Abigail Solomon-Godeau from the art history department. The class was a survey of women in art history, and it met twice a week on Monday and Wednesday afternoons for our lecture/discussion period. We also usually convened for two hours on Wednesday evenings for a film screening. One week, Professor Solomon-Godeau warned us that, on this particular Wednesday night, we would be staying late. We would be watching Jeanne Dielman, a film she described as a “feminist horror film.”

This may have been the first time I understood the relationship between content and form, and how a spectator can relate to an onscreen character. Jeanne Dielman is a single mother who spends almost the entire film cooking and cleaning. We watch her wash each dish, one by one, that is more boring to watch than the proverbial drying-of-paint. By showing each of these household chores in real time, or maybe even expanding the duration, we experience Jeanne’s ennui along with her. It is one thing to have a character explain how bleak her life seems as a domestic servant, but it’s quite another to have to endure the never-ending dreariness of household labor.

Akerman’s oeurve was a lot more eclectic than this one feminist film with avant-garde tendencies. She made documentaries, narrative shorts, as well as other narrative features throughout her life. But for a student getting his feet wet studying film, Jeanne Dielman was the first film I saw where it began to make sense.

A Little Dab Will Do You

There’s been a lot of road milling and repaving going on lately in South Williamsburg, particularly on Driggs and Berry. Many bicyclists have noticed because we cross those streets along South 4th Street, a vital access route to the Williamsburg Bridge. As I biked to the bridge this morning, I rode over a small but thick pool of tar. Predictably, the sticky tar covered portions of both my tires.

Before I rode over the bridge, I tried to get as much of the tar off as I could. As anyone who rides regularly knows, the tar would pick up any bits of glass or sharp rocks and hold them there until one of them punctures my tube. But because I like to travel light, I didn’t have anything to remove the tar. I had to use my hands.

As a UCSB alumnus, I know full well that the best way to remove tar from your skin is to use a bit of baby oil. You don’t need much, just enough to dilute the tar. Since there’s a drug store on nearly every block of this city, I stopped in to a Duane Reade and picked up the smallest bottle I could find. For $1.09, plus tax, I had my solution at hand, so to speak. Rub a quarter-sized dollop of baby oil into your hands and the tar comes right off. Be sure to have a cloth or paper towel at hand to clean up the mess.

A friend of mine suggested that I could use gasoline.

That might be good option, should this happen again, except for two reasons:

  1. Where can you find a gas station in Manhattan? There are almost none left.
  2. Sure, I would have been free of tar on my hands, but now I’d have gasoline on my hands. How do I get that off?

Besides, with baby oil, my hands are clean and moisturized. And they’re soft as a… well, you know…