Things that don’t quite fit the film itself

What to do when faced with that awkward academic situation when you read an article in a major journal that seems very relevant to exactly something you are working on; you draft a line from this and then watch the film it’s about afterwards (not one you’ve seen before and that had to be obtained through the post), only to find that the argument isn’t really stood up by the film?

That just happened to me and it is a bit tricky. The point made just fitted nicely into something I was writing. I’m probably going to keep it, and say that, in this particular case, the film used seems to contain no real grounding for the claims made in this case. But, then, I can’t really use up enough words fully to explain this (I’m always over-writing), which maybe seems a bit unfair. I suppose I could just do that here online instead, but I don’t really want to devote a post just to knocking someone else’s work for the sake of it.

This does raise a broader issue, though, to do with the way we interpret films (or other media texts) in relation to issues of their social context, as is the case here. To what extent do we need to have some specific grounds in the text for making such readings, rather than situating them very broadly within such contexts? That’s a long-standing issue, of course. There is a vast amount of work that stretches such things a long way from what can reasonably be said to be grounded in the text. I’m saying nothing new here in that sense.

This is probably inevitable in some more theoretically based approaches, but there are many cases in which the preexisting theoretical concept seems to be prioritised over whether or not it really works for the text. In the case I’m talking about here, the writer seems to have some such concepts, then to take some more directly relevant material from related films, and then find small details in the main film examined on which to base reading across from the others to the one. That seems rather tendentious and trying too hard to fit a film into a frame.

We all probably do this at times, to some extent. But I think a key issue here is to make it clear where such readings remain broad and speculative – where they are very strongly a reading-into rather than based on something that has a reasonably clear presence in some form in the text itself. What exactly ‘reasonably clear’ means is itself less than transparent, of course, and leaves plenty of space for debate. But it is good to be open about this rather than to apply readings in a head-down manner that can require a large act of faith on the part of the reader – or that imposes a ‘take it or leave it’ alternative, rather than trying to open out the question of how far such readings work or for whom.

This is an issue that perhaps has a particular application to the field of art cinema, on which I now mostly work, part of the textual nature of which is sometimes to be elusive rather than to provide unambiguous grounds for interpretation. That can created an open season for theoretically inspired speculation. One way to deal with this is to identify that as a phenomenon in its own right: one of the appeals of certain kinds of art cinema to academics is the license it can provide for certain types of theoretical interpretations. That’s fine, but it’s good to try to distinguish between this and questions of what films are likely to mean to those who view them outside the context of academic interpretation. That can involve actual audience research of some kind or just acknowledging the very particular nature of much academic interpretation.

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The Cinema of Discomfort

About time I posted something new, after a gap of all-but a year, so an update here on my next book, which is The Cinema of Discomfort: Disquieting, Awkward and Uncomfortable Experiences in Contemporary Art and Indie Film. This is now almost finished and due for delivery in October, for publication next year by Bloomsbury. A blurb follows:

How do we understand types of cinema that offer experiences of discomfort, awkwardness or disquieting uncertainty? This book examines a number of examples of such work at the heart of contemporary art and indie film. While the commercial mainstream tends to offer comforting viewing experiences – or moments of discomfort that exist largely to be overcome – The Cinema of Discomfort analyses films in which discomfort is offered in a sustained manner. Cinema of this kind confronts us with material such as distinctly uncomfortable sexual encounters. It invites us into uncertain relationships with awkward and sometimes unlikable characters. It presents us with challenging behaviour or what are presented as uncomfortable realities. It often refuses information on which to base judgments. More discomfortingly, cinema of this kind tends to provoke uncertainty at the level of what emotional responses were are encouraged to have towards difficult, sometimes controversial, characters or events. 

The Cinema of Discomfort examines a number of case-studies, including films by Todd Solondz (US), Ulrich Seidl (Austria), Yorgos Lanthimos (Greece), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Greece), Roy Andersson (Sweden), Ruben Östlund (Sweden) Joanna Hogg (UK), Maren Ade (Germany) and Rick Alverson (US). Offering close textual analysis of the manner in which discomfort is generated, it also asks how we should understand the appeal of such work to certain viewers and how the existence of films of this kind can be explained, as products of both their socio-cultural context – locally and within broader understandings of late modernity or neoliberalism – and the more particular institutional realms of art and indie film.

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Annapurna under threat of bankruptcy?

Bad news for the indie/Indiewood sectors if Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures is exploring the option of bankruptcy, as is suggested in various reports, initially from Deadline.com. Annapurna has been a key supporter of both indie productions and more challenging studio or speciality division features in recent years, including Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle, The Master, Detroit and If Beale Street Could Talk.

According to Deadline, meeting are about to take place between Ellison and her father and backer, the billionaire Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, the company being reported to have ‘burned through much of the $350 million credit facility the company secured in fall 2017.’

Will Larry step in and save the day, either with some of his own billions or more guarantees? Hopefully, as Annapurna would be a significant loss to the indie film and ‘quality’ Hollywood ends of the market. Megan Ellison herself has issued a statement to staff referring to restructuring deals with financial institutions and saying she remains committed to the company and its future.

Links below for reports from Deadline and the studio trade press:

Deadline

The Hollywood Reporter

Variety



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Voices on indie exhibition

Interesting round-table of voices on Indiewire in response to one of the latest expressions of doom-and-gloom about demand for theatrical exhibition, particularly of indie and art films.

This is a seemingly endless debate, often circling around the same issues, but there are some usefully calm and pragmatic voices here. We do need to remember that most indie films have never gained theatrical release, even in the ‘golden age’ of the late 1980s and 1990s, so panic responses are often overstated. And, as suggested here, there remains a particular space for the theatrical experience for non-mainstream films, even if it is limited.

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Positioning Art Cinema, cover and blurbs

Very pleased with the finished cover design for my new book, Positioning Art Cinema: Film and Cultural Value, now due out at the end of this month. A copy of the descriptive blurb is included below. I’m also very grateful to those who provided wonderfully supportive quotations for the cover or inside, also copied below as they might not be legible in the image.

Art cinema occupies a space in the film landscape that is accorded a particular kind of value. From films that claim the status of harsh realism to others which embody aspects of the tradition of modernism or the poetic, art cinema encompasses a variety of work from across the globe.

But how is art cinema positioned in the film marketplace, or by critics and in academic analysis? Exactly what kinds of cultural value are attributed to films of this type and how can this be explained? This book offers a unique analysis of how such processes work, including the broader cultural basis of the appeal of art cinema to particular audiences.

Geoff King argues that there is no single definition of art cinema, but a number of distinct and recurrent tendencies are identified. At one end of the spectrum are films accorded the most ‘heavyweight’ status, offering the greatest challenges to viewers. Others mix aspects of art cinema with more accessible dimensions such as uses of popular genre frameworks and ‘exploitation’ elements involving explicit sex and violence. Including case studies of key figures such as Michael Haneke, PedroAlmodóvar and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this is a crucial contribution to understanding both art cinema itself and the discourses through which its value is established.

‘For too long, the term “art cinema” has suffered from slippery, I-knowit-when-I-see-it usage. Incisively and intrepidly, Geoff King dissects thiscontested category, deliberating on the diverse, yet codified ways ofattributing cultural value to film drama.’
Mattias Frey, Professor of Film and Media, University of Kent, UK‘

Here’s a book film studies has long needed. Geoff King is sensitive tonuances of both text and context and he introduces fruitful terms like the“heavyweight” film. Essential reading for anyone interested in art cinema!’
Michael Z. Newman, Associate Professor and Chair,Department of Journalism, Advertising, and Media Studies,University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA

‘With Positioning Art Cinema, Geoff King deftly executes a delicateintellectual maneuver: writing nonjudgmentally about critical judgments.The book navigates the subjective and contradictory terminology thatsurrounds a range of films, filmmakers and modalities framed as distinctfrom perceived mainstream entertainments. Never drifting into schematictaxonomy, King shrewdly unpacks the proliferating categories thatscholars, critics and filmmakers themselves have used to assign culturalvalue to cinema.’
Mark Gallagher, Associate Professor of Film and Television Studies,University of Nottingham, UK‘

‘Following his leading work in the fields of Hollywood blockbusters,American independent cinema and quality Hollywood films, Geoff Kinghere shifts his attention to the often vaguely defined and understood fieldof art cinema. Through questioning established critical orthodoxies andwith the help of his trademark close textual analysis of key recent titles,Positioning Art Cinema does a great job in laying bare the complex,culturally determined and often unspoken assumptions that help elevatethis type of cinema to the top of cultural hierarchies. Superbly researchedand utterly readable, the book will appeal to both experts in the field andart film novices.’
Yannis Tzioumakis, Reader in Film and Media Industries,University of Liverpool, UK

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Positioning Art Cinema

I’m delighted to be able to report that I’ve managed to get the original title restored for my forthcoming book on art cinema, which will now be called Positioning Art Cinema: Film and Cultural Value, which represents the focus of the book much better than the bland ‘Art Cinema’ main title that was previously insisted on the publisher. This was the rather fortunate fall-out, for me, of the recent take-over of I B. Tauris by Bloomsbury.

What follows is a draft cover blurb for the book, which is due out at the end of October. Should be able to post a cover image soon.

Positioning Art Cinema: Film and Cultural Value offers a unique examination of the way art cinema is positioned in the film landscape and how its cultural value is established. It explores a range of types of art cinema and its framing within critical and academic discourse, seeking to explain the broader socio-cultural basis of its appeal to particular audiences.

Geoff King argues that there is no single definition of art cinema, but a number of distinct and recurrent tendencies are identified. At one end of the spectrum are films accorded the most ‘heavyweight’ status, offering the greatest challenges to viewers. Others mix aspects of art cinema with more accessible dimensions such as uses of popular genre frameworks and ‘exploitation’ elements involving explicit sex and violence. Including case studies of films such as Michael Haneke’s Hidden, Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse and PedroAlmodóvar’s All About My Mother, this is a crucial contribution to understanding both art cinema itself and the usually taken-for-granted bases on which it is accorded cultural value.

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New book on art cinema

I’ve recently signed a contract for my next book, Art Cinema: Positioning Films and the Construction of Cultural Value. I’m quite excited about this project, which is already at an advanced stage, due for submission late summer for publication by I.B. Tauris in 2018. It’s a expansion of some of the key issues I’ve been exploring in recent work, focusing on the ways certain kinds of cultural value and status are accorded to art cinema – and so widening the scope of my focus beyond the American contexts (indie, Indiewood and the studio ‘quality’ film) that have been my main objects of study in recent years. In its focus on the bases on which notions of cultural value are attributed (or otherwise) to certain kinds of film, it builds particularly on some approaches central to my recent Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film (2016).

I haven’t been posting much here of late, mostly because I’ve been working on this book without having a publisher in place, and so have been a bit reticent (I’ve previously usually got publishers lined up at an earlier stage in the writing process, so this is an unusual situation for me). One thing of which I’ve become increasingly aware over the last year or more is how contentious a field the study of art cinema can be, from some responses I’ve had to my initial proposal. If the American indie sector is an area in which plenty of strongly held investments exist, including on the part of those who study the subject, this seems to be all the more so for art film, a category that remains highly contested.

My book on this subject includes a focus on academic ways of positioning art cinema and attributing to it certain kinds of higher worth, and some of the usually unspoken assumptions (and often excessive claims) on which these sometimes rest, which makes it likely to be more contentious that my previous work.

Will be posting some more details about aspects of the book here in the future.

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Companion to American Indie Film out soon; plus Indie Reframed

A new collection I’ve edited, A Companion to American Indie Film is out soon from Wiley Blackwell (due 6 December). I’m really pleased with the way this has worked out. You can read the intro and find a full list of chapters and contributors on this site here.

final cover

The aim of this collection, for me, was to offer a more concerted approach to the territory than is the norm for many edited collections. That’s always quite hard to pull off, given the various different orientations and interests of any group of contributors, but I think it does generally succeed in this (it starts with an emphasis on broader aspects of indie culture before examining various individual manifestations that can be situated within these kinds of frameworks). I am, of course, hugely grateful to all of those who have contributed. Editing any collection can be quite a slog, and this one is larger than usual (more than 500 pages), but it went really smoothly and has been more of a pleasure than I’d expected.

The only downside is that the book’s eye-wateringly expensive: just under £125 in the UK for the Kindle edition ($152 in the US), with the hardback going to be even more. So looks like a library-only prospect for now.

It’s clearly the season for indie collections, as my book is joined by the excellent Indie Reframed: Women’s Filmmaking and Contemporary American Independent Cinema, edited by Linda Badley, Claire Perkins and Michele Schreiber (Edinburgh University Press). This is the first volume to address the specific role of women in the indie sector in a sustained manner. I’m delighted to be one of the contributors, details of all of which are available here.

cover from amazon

Nice to see also that this one is immediately available in paperback at an affordable price (not exactly cheap at £25), something that seems ever-rarer these days. I haven’t had the chance to read all the chapters yet but this looks like a really useful addition to the field (and I love the cover image).

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Interview – in Portuguese

There’s a quite lengthy interview about indie film I’ve done for a Portuguese film website available below – although it’s in Portuguese, so might not be accessible to many!

Geoff King: “o interesse da noção de independência resulta de ser algo sempre contestável”

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Quality Hollywood cover

The final cover has now been agreed for my new book, Quality Hollywood: Markers of Distinction in Contemporary Studio Film, which of course necessitates a plug! Will update when it hits the shops, which shouldn’t be too far away.

Quality Hollywood

Below is the cover blurb. A slightly longer and more personal description of the book is available on its new entry in the list of my works in these pages, here.

What defines ‘quality’ in contemporary Hollywood film? Although often seen as inhospitable to such work, the studios of the blockbuster-franchise era continue to produce features that make claims to higher status. Films such as The Social Network, The Assassination of Jesse James and Mystic River are marked as distinctive from the mainstream norm. But how exactly, and how are such qualities mixed with more familiar Hollywood ingredients, as found in larger doses in other examples such as Blood Diamond and the blockbuster-scale Inception?
Quality Hollywood is the first book to address these issues, featuring close analysis of case study films, critical responses and the wider notions of cultural value on which these draw. Geoff King argues that such films retain a presence as a minority strand of studio output. The reasons for this combine factors relating to economics, the power of certain filmmakers and Hollywood’s investment in its own prestige.

I’m grateful for Prof. Tom Schatz for providing a kind endorsement for the cover, as follows:

With Quality Hollywood, Geoff King provides yet another astute assessment of contemporary cinema and contemporary culture. In incisive case studies of films such as Inception and The Social Network, King demonstrates how issues of authorship, style and storytelling still matter – and how quality filmmaking has somehow persisted – in the current age of formulaic blockbusters and dumbed-down billion-dollar franchises.
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