Chromo-Drama: Innovation and convention in Douglas Sirk’s Color Designs

The Book is OUT!


This is a new anthology based on a terrific conference on Color Cinema held in Bristol England a few years ago. I’m proud to be among the contributors. I’ll say more about my contribution later — but for the moment, here are color illustrations that go with my essay. My chapter really needs about 90 color illustrations (!), or at least I like to think that. This is impossible in academic publishing, so I put references in the text to this blog page. I hope that some readers will seek these images out — since they help make the whole thing make sense. On the other hand, the stills are probably better than the essay — AND they are free! So, enjoy.




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Emily Nussbaum on Cliffhangers!

Some of the greatest shows on television today owe a debt to the serially told forms of the past, such as novels and soap operas.


The New Yorker has a terrific piece on Cliffhangers – pointing out the form’s long history and currency on television. Nussbaum traces a pretty clear trajectory from serials to daytime TV to prime-time dramas and thrillers. Her point that the cliffhanger crosses taste cultures and market identities seems to me pretty important. I’ve written here on the BBC’s Sherlock, which in the US has a snooty appeal, but Nussbaum’s opening example is the equally venerable Melrose Place. Melodrama is not as class-based as it once was thought to be (e.g. 19th century — though Brewster and Jacobs even dispute that). I am intrigued with the resurgence of the form on TV from the late 1990s onward. I’ve noted elsewhere that situational sound-serial plotting made a vengeful resurgence in shows like Alias and 24 about a decade ago. But the connection between these action mellers and the romantic/family soaps of day and night is certainly worth pondering. Alas, I’m spending my days and nights pondering The Drums of Fu Manchu and Daredevils of the Red Circle, so TV will have to wait for another summer.

Incidentally, I did finally catch up with season 2 of Sherlock and can report that the solution to the problem space was in the room the whole time. It isn’t particularly clever and not half as elaborate as the scenarios I’d built in my mind — but, that is the beauty of a good cliffhanger. For the interim, the viewer becomes the showrunner/filmmaker/storyteller. And like a serial, the show moves on quickly and never looks back.

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A Moment of Cinema

Last November, Steve Collins, Jeanine Basinger and I presented a WeSeminar to students, parents, and alums entitled “The Cinematic Moment: A Glimpse into the Wesleyan Film Studies Classroom.” The idea was to give a quick and vivid idea of how we approach cinema: seeking the explain the power of an artwork by LOOKING AT that work and THINKING LIKE the artist. I felt more than a little apologetic for imposing on my colleagues at what turned out to be the tail end of Middletown’s second major power-outage of the season. In the end, though, the event was the highpoint of my year as a Wes Film professor. We each showed a brief excerpt from a favorite film, and then tried to explain why it moved us. Here is my discussion of the “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” number from Meet Me in St. Louis.

For me, many of the medium’s highest achievements come from the Hollywood Studio Era, a time when a mastery of craft met the mandate to entertain and engage, and move audiences. This style reached an apex in 1944, in a simple scene of a young woman comforting her little sister on Christmas eve. She does this just after she’s promised to marry the boy next door. She does it with a song.

It helps that the young woman is Judy Garland, the sister is Margaret O’Brien, and the song is by Hugh Martin. The color is by Technicolor, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons, and Cinematography by George Folsey. All of this was marshaled, organized, and directed by Vincente Minnelli; also it has monkeys.

See the sequence here:

Why is this a highpoint of cinema history? How does it work? What does it do? And what can it tell us about Art, Cinema, and Film History?

It is deceptively simple, only eleven shots from the moment Garland enters her sister’s bedroom to the end. And the story, such as it is, is also deceptively simple – she comforts her sister with a song. But the depth, the emotional punch, the gripping engagement that Minnelli offers in this scene far outstrips simple summary. In fact, we are hard pressed to articulate in words what happens to us, what transpires on the screen, in these four minutes. Like the best Hollywood films, it has an effortless beauty, one that captures us, but also deflects analysis.

But let me try. I want to draw attention to one moment in particular, a small gesture that takes place in the 10th shot, but that changes everything. In fact, I think it is the heart of the scene.

Judy begins the song in shot number 9, and the whole of the song is covered by only three camera positions, cut back and forth. Shot 9 is a two shot from a medium distance (in itself vital  – we’ll come back to that). Shot ten gives us a close-up: Judy sings to her sister who is now off-screen. And then – as she hits the line “Next year all our troubles will be miles away” she takes off her headscarf and glances forward and a little bit upward. She takes a breath, and begins the song’s bridge “Once Again as in Olden Days, Happy Golden Days of Yore.”

The power of the moment comes from Vincente Minnelli’s meticulous control of the flow of detail, the choices made among the thousands of possibilities and the shaping of emotion out of a hundred little touches. The touch here involves George Folsey’s Technicolor cinematography, and his work within the limits of a fairly inflexible technology. The Technicolor Camera was famously stubborn when it came to light – it required a LOT of light and cinematographers had to fight hard to achieve the precision and balance of highlight and shadow they so valued in black and white. Close-ups were a challenge.

Here we have a relatively dim scene, and one that depends on small and precise shifts in light and dark to tell the story. The fact is, this scene isn’t all that dark, but Folsey has built up and layered highlights to give the impression of contrast. The lighting set up is quite precise, and it requires Garland to perform within a very small area of movement, she finds expression within the space allotted her by the cinematographer.



Folsey arrays shimmering highlights to add emphasis and connect us with the moment. Garland’s headscarf is an important costuming decision. It throws off a blaze of sparkle, of dazzle, that is essentially a-chromatic. This was important for Garland’s awkward love scene just moments before, which Minnelli designed around highlight and shadow, silvers, blacks, and dark blues, rather than strong color: an almost black-and- white scene in a Technicolor film.


Now the sequined scarf gives the impression of contrast, dapple and shimmer, but within a color lighting scheme.



In this moment, as we move in on Garland’s face, she removes the scarf — removes the sparkling mass of highlights, and, with perfect timing, glances forward, catching two pin-points of light near her pupils. This is an eye-light, a small light source set off to one side of the camera with the sole purpose of adding dazzle to the actress’s eyes. As she looks up and to the left, her eyes engage the light; highlight is shifted from costume to face in one fluid gesture.


The look into the eye-light is a pretty powerful way that cinematic form shapes performance, and the late 1930s and 1940s seems to be the heyday of this technique (though you can find much earlier, as in William Daniel’s work on Flesh and the Devil in 1926). It is what gives punch and intensity to Ingrid Bergman’s reaction when Paul Henried tells her he loves her in Casablanca, or Bogart says “here’s looking at you, kid” one last time;



it lets us see Vivian Leigh’s spark of self interest and ambition near the beginning of Gone With the Wind;


and, in a recent favorite of mine, it signals the evil Vultura’s heartless resolve as she prepares a human sacrifice in the Perils of Nyoka, a Republic Serial from 1942.


The glance toward an eye-light is a tool in the Hollywood cinematographer’s box, and the ability to play to the eye-light, a skill of the Hollywood actor.

What Garland, Minnelli, Folsey, and the crew of Meet Me in St. Louis have done, is to match this effect to an emotional beat – or, more accurately, they create an emotional beat out of this formal effect. When Garland looks away from her sister and into those lights, she broadens and deepens the song – she isn’t only singing to another character, in fact she isn’t comforting her little sister, but herself, and I think, the home-front viewers of 1944 for whom family union was held in abeyance by war.

She is, after all, looking toward the window of the boy next door – not her sister. This is the relationship that has been lingering before us, unresolved, since the last scene. Garland’s character seeks reassurance through song, and in doing so she acknowledges the impossibility, the sadness of it all. But too, the close up and the shift of the highlights places us in a different relationship to the character and the star. She is singing to and for herself, and to and for us. As Dr. Sara Ross pointed out to me, the bridge of the song broadens it – she looks ahead for “Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us, once more” — image and sound coordinate to address the audience. To borrow Jeanine Basinger’s terminology, the film slides into a “musical world” where we can be addressed, where we make a connection not just with character but also with star.

The glance into the eye-lights tops off a series of revelations across the scene.  It is part of a texture, a weave of moments and telling impressions. Garland’s trip from the door to the window brings her in and out of shadow, until she steps into a light that edges her from the background, in a nearly monochrome frame. Garland realizes she cannot just rush O’Brien off to bed, that this will take some serious talk; she takes off her pearl grey coat, returning the vibrant red ball gown from the evening’s Christmas dance (emotional beat, it recalls the joyous celebration in a somber scene). Next, the light from her boyfriend’s window shifts color temperature, and Garland’s colors pulse momentarily, before returning her to a colder, gray winter light  (another thread in the film which associates warm lamp and firelight with home – the image keeps reminding us what is about to be lost by the family). As the music begins, Garland makes a small entreating gesture to O’Brien, really a kiss in the air, a maternal touch that individuates her character and marks her empathy. This tiny movement also helps smooth the shift to Garland’s lip-syncing to on-set playback.  All of this preparing the way for Garland to take off the icy scarf, and catch us in her eye. She is opening up for us and for her sister, lowering barriers, and making a connection.

This is the brilliance of Minnelli’s work – a dense weave of textures, colors, movements, lights, sounds, and gestures – not one of which can do the job on its own. They collaborate to sweep over the viewer with an impression of order, plentitude, and feeling.

If that makes any sense, then I think it says something about how cinema can work on viewers, about what I find cinematic. People often think of film as a means of communication — as though there is a message, or a content, that a filmmaker pours into a spoon and delivers to the viewer’s lips. That content might be delivered by another vessel, a play, a novel, a dance, a political manifesto. Film Communicates an Idea To the Viewer.

But this is only part of what cinema can do, and in the Hollywood tradition it is perhaps a rather small part. Film form, the stuff up there on screen, the myriad stimuli that flow through sound and image, doesn’t communicate TO us, it captures us, harnesses and shapes our perception with pin-point accuracy and infinite finesse, Film form entertains, and moves us, and THAT experience is uniquely compelling – no other art does that in quite the same way.



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Cliffhanging by the Pool


I’m starting to see my topic everywhere. So, it shouldn’t have surprised me that when I took a break from my chapter on cliffhangers to watch the last episode of the BBC’s Sherlock season 1, I found myself face to face with… a cliffhanger. Sherlock is an updating of the Holmes universe, produced by Doctor Who alums Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. I think I am among the very last people to have watched it, but if not, be warned that SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.


In the The Great Game (the third of three episodes), Sherlock is taunted and run around town by Moriarty who has taken to wiring innocents with plastic explosives and threatening to blow them up with a sniper’s bullet should the detective be unable to solve various mysteries before an arbitrary deadline. Moriarty has apparently learned a bit from Dirty Harry’s Scorpio. Why he relies on a sniper’s bullet to set off the explosive, as opposed to the more pedestrian cell phone, is a mystery — though the little pinpoint of red light does build a visual motif, and the episode, refreshingly, avoids any red LED readouts ticking down to the deadline.


But the cliffhanger takes place the night after the last mystery is solved, and Sherlock arranges a meeting with Moriarty at an indoor swimming pool. The episode stages two standoffs, back to back; the second constituting the cliffhanger. In the first, Moriarty has rigged Watson with a vest bomb, and has his unseen sniper trained on him. If Holmes shoots Moriarty, Watson, and perhaps everyone, will die. This is quite a good situation, and it is a dry run for the cliffhanger. Watson, in an attempt to turn the tables, grabs Moriarty and uses him as a human shield. His move fails, though, when the sniper re-focuses his aim on Sherlock. The trap seems pretty well inescapable, and it is only resolved when Moriarty, having said his share, leaves the pool area. Sherlock rips the vest off of Watson and kicks it down the pool deck; both breathe a sigh of relief.



Then it all begins again. Moriarty reappears, claiming to have changed his mind on a whim, and a cluster of laser-sites begin dancing around on both Sherlock and Watson.  In response, Sherlock draws his pistol and aims it squarely at the explosive vest lying on the floor between the enemies. The episode ends, and we wait until next August (in the UK, later in the US) to see the resolution.


I’ve been trying to understand the power of the cliffhanger – a narrative structure that assured viewers would return to see the next installment of a serial in the 1940s, and that spurs them to stick around through (or fast forward past) commercials in any given episode of any given police procedural. At its most basic, the cliffhanger works by interrupting a suspenseful situation, holding the resolution in abeyance. In his essay “The Paradox of Suspense” Noel Carroll offers the cleanest and most concise explanation of fictional suspense that I have read. Suspense occurs when a character the viewer aligns with is caught in a situation with two clearly defined opposed outcomes, a desirable “moral” outcome, and an undesirable “evil” one. For Carroll, the “evil” outcome must be equally or more likely than the “moral” solution. Situations that progressively tip the balance of probability toward the evil outcome are excellent vehicles for suspense. Every moment that the time bomb ticks down, or the bus hurtles toward the unfinished bridge, or the laser beam approaches James Bond’s crotch, means that “time is running out on the good and therefore evil is becoming more likely” (in Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, 1996; 83).  Our hero’s fingers begin to ache, the sand slips out from beneath them, pebble by pebble, as she clings to the edge of the cliff.


Standoffs are particularly good situations because they can be so nicely visualized. As I’ve discussed in my Cinema Journal article “Suspenseful Situations,” the standoff has a venerable history, stretching back at least to the 19th Century melodramatic stage where the villain could hold the hero at knifepoint as the curtain closes before an act break. Melodrama thrives on making the stakes and emotions of scene visual and instantly graspable – a stage picture. Sherlock’s standoff gives suspense a clear geometry. Our hero is in the foreground, our villain at the rear, and between them lays the bomb. The “evil” option seems to have clearly won out.


[ingredients of the cliffhanger: Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch); Gun; Bomb; Moriarty (Jared Harris)]

In fact the very diagrammatic simplicity of the standoff reminds me of cognitive psychologist Richard Gerrig’s description of suspense as a “problem space” (Experiencing Narrative Worlds,1993; 82). For Gerrig, suspense is a participatory structure that cues viewers to seek some piece of withheld knowledge. The “problem space” analogy compares problem solving to searching a space for information that will allow one to achieve a goal (82). The contours of the trap, and the heroes aim, are clear, but the means of liberation, the escape hatch, remains hidden: “to make the reader really feel suspense, the author must sufficiently constrain the space of possible solutions so that the situation appears beyond hope” (83). The ingredients of Sherlock’s problem space are, heroes, villain, bomb, sniper(s), and swimming pool. The first standoff serves, in part, to lay out the parameters of the trap and to narrow the options. As Gerrig notes, a successful suspense situation “mimics the process of problem solving… by specifying and then eliminating potential means for escape” (78). We know that Watson’s “human shield” maneuver is off the table, and now doubt that Watson can serve any real purpose. We also know that Moriarty can simply change his mind – he isn’t just a villain he is a mad genius. Mad geniuses make excellent bad guys because they fuse malevolence with creativity and unpredictability. As simple as a standoff is, he remains a wild card.


And so, over the intervening months, the fan is left to search the problem space. I suspect the swimming pool will come into play, partly because its role hasn’t been directly acknowledged in the proceedings. Aside from the nice lighting opportunities it provides, why set this climax poolside in the first place? Atmosphere can step forward to save the day. The cavernous tunnel that climaxes episode 2 works in this way. It stops a villain from firing his gun because of the likelihood of an uncontrolled ricochet. The pool is the elephant in the room – though, search the space as I may, I can’t quite figure out how it might help resolve the situation. There might also be something to Moriarty’s use of snipers, since it seems a gratuitous method for setting off explosives. Are there any snipers at all?


As cliffhangers go, this is a fair one. It differs from its serial predecessors in two ways. First, a serial would end with a bang. We would see the room, the pool, the building explode in a fiery maelstrom before cutting to black. Serials tend to push situations to the point of cataclysm in order to leave a lasting impression. The drawback was that screenwriters had to resort to “cheating” for the cliffhanger’s resolution. So that explosion didn’t really happen, or everyone found a trap door (jumped into a pool?) just before the explosion, etc. The other difference is that Sherlock’s cliffhanger is just a little muddy. For all its clear simplicity, it lacks a ticking deadline. If Sherlock has managed to call Moriarty’s hand by aiming his gun at the bomb, then we are in a deadlock pure and simple. They could all stand that way forever, at least until August. More than that, though, viewers aren’t privy to the entirety of the situation’s dynamics. Why, I ask, does Sherlock aim at the bomb instead at Moriarty’s head? And why does he seem to think this is a cunning maneuver? Our hero already seems to know the way out.  It is in keeping with the show, which leaves the viewer (and Watson) just behind the hero’s problem solving process, but it interferes with the suspense. There is something about the situation that we don’t yet understand; some part of the problem space has been withheld, and we know it. This grain of uncertainty eats away at the set of opposed outcomes that the standoff usually makes us entertain.


One of Gerrig’s most valuable ideas is that suspense situations often rely on “functional fixedness” to throw the viewer off the trail of the solution. Our access to the scene’s secret is effectively blocked because we perceive each ingredient as locked into a single role – the bomb is there to explode, the guns are there to fire, Moriarty is simply evil and genius and mad, the swimming pool is there to create atmosphere. Sherlock’s move tips his hand just a little, he has thought outside of this fixedness and found another use for the bomb. I’m not sure why I find this cliffhanger less than completely satisfying, but perhaps it has something to do with the attention it draws to our own fixedness. It is better when we really don’t recognize the solution that will seem blindingly obvious after its reveal.


The bigger questions raised by cliffhangers point to the paradox of suspense, as Carroll terms it. Why are we fascinated or uncertain at all when we very well know that Sherlock will survive this ordeal. Beyond that, why do we find this kind of suspense pleasurable, since, from Gerrig’s perspective all this cognitive processing takes a good deal of work. Both theorists have their own answers. For my part, I’m beginning to think it has to do with the pleasures of problem solving. Sherlock has given me a puzzle to dwell on for the next several months, a situation to replay and tease out. And just as it was for serial fans of the 1940s, the solution may leave me unsatisfied – but the cliffhanger will have fulfilled its function (I’ve tuned back in). The real challenge for Gattiss and Moffat isn’t to get everyone off of that pool deck alive, but to set up another problem quickly enough to keep us watching.




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Looking with Arnheim

Routledge has just published a volume I edited titled ARNHEIM FOR FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES. I’ll admit it seems weird to devote a new volume of media scholarship to the work of Rudolf Arnheim. In our culturalist era, Arnheim seems a steadfast (even stodgy) formalist. Weimar intellectuals are ascendant in film and media studies, but Arnheim is not among them. He was notoriously inflexible, maintaining through his long lifetime that Film Art ended with the coming of sound (and color, and wide-screen, and what have you). For me, this is part of his appeal. Obstinanteness can be inspiring, polemics productive, especially in the hands of a brilliant visual analyst. But Arnheim is actually richer and deeper than that, and in editing this book I’ve grown fonder of him than ever.

\When I teach Film Theory, I always start with Arnheim’s FILM AS ART. It is a sturdy gateway into the game of aesthetic theory; the book is nothing if not coherently argued and organized. For students embarking on a semester of increasingly abstract thought, FILM AS ART is solid ground. It virtually outlines itself. Inevitably Arnheim becomes a foil to more overtly complex thinkers like Eisenstein and Bazin, the giants at the center of my course. I inherited this organization from my teachers; it is sound pedagogy. When I was a student, Arnheim struck me as graspable but limited. In labeling some film devices as “unusable” and in rejecting cinema after 1930, he had thrown up barricades that my classmates and I could not cross. But in returning to FILM AS ART year after year I began to see more in Arnheim than a scale model of aesthetic theory. In fact, I think I finally started to discover what I had refused to hear from my teachers — that Arnheim had a fertile, supple, and revealing way of looking at the screen.

The fact that he may be wrong in some respects doesn’t dampen his insight. Consider one of my favorite descriptions from the book, Arnheim’s take on the garden scene in Clarence Brown’s FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926):

[Garbo] has met the young officer John Gilbert at a party. They have already danced together very absorbedly, gazing into each other’s eyes; but externally everything is still quite conventional – two people who were indifferent to each other might do just the same. Nothing has yet been acknowledged; they only have glimmerings of what might be… They go into the garden, the girl takes a cigarette between her lips, the man lights a match, but instead of lighting up, she makes a tiny retreating movement, the flame illumines the two faces, they look at each other. This sudden arbitrary interruption of the social ritual explains their change of attitude better than any explicit acting out of feelings; it is enough. Something different is going to happen.

Arnheim begins with his memory of an expressive cinematic moment (one of the more famous in silent Hollywood history), he parses Clarence Brown’s goal in directing the scene (to visualize Garbo and Gilbert’s sensuous interchange), and isolates the scene’s formal triggers: a tiny retreating movement, a flare of light on Garbo’s face, the interruption of social ritual. Oddly, Arnheim overlooks Brown’s more direct interventions, like the intertitles (Gilbert: “You are very beautiful.” Garbo: “You are very young.”) and the exchange of shot/reverse-shot close-ups as the soon-to-be lovers eye one another in anticipation [he was undoubtedly working from memory]. But he captures something fundamental, a suite of directorial choices involving framing, staging, and lighting, which carry the affective charge. He does so elegantly.

Arnheim’s general argument about cinema has problems (sound and color did not spell the end of film art; cinema need not define itself by its limitations), but he has an exceptional eye, and a superb grasp of how the silent screen works. The more I wrestle with formal description (and it is always a fight), the more I’ve come to appreciate Arnheim’s deft analyses. In 1932, well before  “film studies,” much less the “historical poetics” of film, Arnheim gave us a way to interrogate the moving image. He viewed filmmaking as the weighing of various solutions to artistic problems, and he opened films up by posing hypothetical alternatives to choices made. When I ask how else my favorite filmmakers might have approached a particular scene in order to cast light on their originality, or when I require my students to consider the range of choices for dealing with a particular kind of scene or action, I am following Arnheim’s lead.

When I read Arnheim as an undergraduate my love of film was strong but narrowly contemporary, and I was quick to disregard a 70+ year-old treatise on cinema aesthetics. Today, I find that FILM AS ART holds up remarkably well. It is full of valuable lessons for filmmakers, such as the idea that an action can gain expressive power through “indirect representation” (his classic example: to depict a gunshot — show the flight of birds from a nearby tree rather than the gun).  Arnheim envisioned a visually literate audience, interested not in simply following stories but in considering how the story is told; like any film educator, he hoped to engender critical thought about popular images. And there were political and cultural stakes. A formally aware audience might be inoculated against the “brutal signs of immediate satisfaction” proffered by Fascist media (Arnheim had to flee both Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Though often regarded as an elitist, his taste was surprisingly democratic. Arnheim freely blends references to popular Hollywood and high-profile entries from the European movements.  THE GOLD RUSH, CHICAGO, and DOCKS OF NEW YORK rub shoulders with PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, THE GENERAL LINE, and CALIGARI. FILM AS ART still engages us because Arnheim is so thoroughly in the swim with the films of his day. He draws lessons from movies that we either don’t see, or that have become so familiar (canonized) that we have ceased to really look at them. He also reminds us of what we can achieve by looking seriously at our contemporary, popular movie milieu.

Arnheim’s major intellectual legacy followed his early interest in film. He pioneered the field of the psychology of art with ART AND VISUAL PERCEPTION in 1954, followed in rapid succession by TOWARD THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ART (1966), VISUAL THINKING (1969) and ENTROPY AND ART (1971). [David Bordwell has an excellent discussion of Arnheim’s contributions to the field here:] He never returned to cinema with the vigor he had in the 1930s, but his art scholarship built on ideas he first tried out in FILM AS ART. Film scholars rarely had recourse to this later period of Arnheim’s thought, though it is flush with worthwhile ideas.

A few years ago I became interested in his thoughts about color as an element of composition in painting. He disregarded color film, but he developed a precise theory of how hues interact on a canvas to guide the spectator’s eye. In my work on Technicolor I developed tools for tracking color’s contribution to the moving image, but the great colorists, eluded my reach. Vincente Minnelli was a master of brilliant surfaces; his color designs are both bewilderingly complex and immediately affective. Minnelli’s color work is simply too perceptually demanding to be captured by Technicolor norms. Arnheim’s model, which casts colors as dynamic forces connecting and segregating planes and shapes, offers an analytical foothold. Arnheim helped me to finally begin cracking one of my top cinematic moments, Minnelli’s “Skip to My Lou” dance in MEET ME IN ST LOUIS. [I’ve posted color illustrations for my analysis elsewhere on this site]. Though plenty of questions remain, it is clear that Arnheim’s color theory can sensitize us to the moment-by-moment unfolding of complex formal patterns; it brings us closer to unweaving Minnelli’s rainbow.

The contributors to ARNHEIM FOR FILM AND MEDIA STUDIES revisit FILM AS ART as a relevant text for contemporary scholars, they map productive avenues in his later work, and return Arnheim to his historical and cultural context. Essays deal with his early film criticism, major concepts from his film theory, and their relevance to artworks as far flung as the modernist avant-garde to comic books. The anthology takes up Arnheim’s subsequent studies of sound film, radio, and television, his thoughts on composition, realism, the rhetoric of photography, and the very concept of “style.” Arnheim emerges as multifaceted, nuanced, and more adaptable than we knew him; a visual theorist no less generative or timely than Benjamin or Adorno.

For my part, I keep returning to two quotations from ART AND VISUAL PERCEPTION. Arnheim wrote “all observation is also invention.” Vision is itself a creative act; an artwork is not finished until it is perceived; analysis is itself artful. The second quotation is more particular to my own orientation in film studies: “It is our task to search the perceived object for the formal features that determine what the eyes see.” I take this to be my task as a film scholar, and it is a rewarding one. Film studies has myriad agendas, aims, and targets, but to my mind, the best work always begins by looking, closely.

David Bordwell recently discussed this book on his blog. The project was inspired by one of David’s blogs, linked above. Arnheim would appreciate the symmetry.

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Serial Art

Here’s a not too brief discussion of what I’ve been up to, and why.

Batman dies at the end of Batman’s Last Chance, chapter 10 of Columbia’s 1949 serial. During his punch-up with a gang of The Wizard’s thugs in a downtown office building, Batman is thrown through a window and plummets to the sidewalk below. We clearly see the caped hero plunging through the air. No one could possibly survive the fall. And yet, the serial is called Batman and Robin, and there are five more episodes to come. Not even the most naïve viewer would believe that the hero has missed his last chance so early. Despite all the evidence, there must be a way out.

I am embarking (and have been embarking for the past year or so) on a new project – a book length study of sound serials of the 30s-50s. It will not be a complete guide to the genre, or an episode-by-episode commentary, or a survey of the great heroes and villains of the matinee screen. Plenty of those have been written, many of them sharp and detailed, for the ever-active serial fan market (see here:, and I hope instead to produce a historically informed study of the sound serial as an art. I am following the “historical poetics” model of scholarship as described by David Bordwell; an approach that privileges formal concerns while rooting analysis in proximate aesthetic, economic, technological, and cultural contexts. I am trying to understand how serials work as a mode of popular cinematic art, and to explain why a disreputable form, churned out quickly on low budgets and pitched to children, should be so fascinating.

Despite their repetitive formulas, I find sound serials eminently watchable. They had a good run. Over 200 12-15 part chapter plays were produced between 1930 and 1956 by studios like Columbia, and Universal, small but stable producers like Republic, and tiny houses including Mascot, Regal, Screen Attractions and Wonder Pictures. This was a minor but remarkably sturdy production trend that folded only when its target audience of 8 to 16 year old boys migrated to television and the studio system was finally dismantled. So why are they worth studying?

Anti-Classical or Super Hollywood?

Serials encourage historical and theoretical inquiry into classical Hollywood cinema as it is widely understood. In an essay on plot structure in the contemporary action film, I’ve argued for the relevance of “situational dramaturgy” to action-oriented genres from the 1920s onward. Situational dramaturgy is the name for melodramatic plot construction of 19th century stage spectacles, and early feature films discussed by Lea Jacobs and Ben Brewster in their groundbreaking history of filmmaking in the teens From Theater to Cinema. In this model, screenwriters conceived of their task as combining pre-formed “situations” or crises that characters could move through in exciting ways. The emphasis was not on goal-oriented protagonists struggling to achieve their aims, so much as a conglomeration of spectacular scenes stitched together by coincidence. Links between “Blood and Thunder” stage melodrama and the silent serial have been firmly established by Ben Singer in his important book Melodrama and Modernity, and by the best piece of research I’ve found on the sound serial, Rafael Vela’s PhD dissertation With Parent’s Consent. Clearly, Flash Gordon, Batman and Robin, and The Undersea Kingdom were Blood and Thunder for the junior set. Episode after episode, heroes and innocents were maneuvered into apparently inescapable crises, to be resolved in the next chapter.

This observation begs some questions. For one, how was it that in the heart of the classical Hollywood cinema, room existed for a melodramatic mode that rode against the standards of protagonist driven, causal narrative we associate with the feature film? More to the point, was the serial’s narrative form actually so opposed to the classical norm? Is Blood and Thunder melodrama actually “anti-classical,” or has the case for tightly causal classical plotting been over stated? On the surface it seems wrong to draw a hard line between Hollywood classicism and a long-running production trend like the serial. The serial was, after all, part of the studio system and its mode of production shadowed that of features. If studio feature production was as factory-like, serials were doubly so. The repetition of formula, the division of the output into genres, the employment of specialized talent enabled by a continuity blueprint, are central to serial production. In a sense, the serial was a case of “super-Hollywood” production; tightly controlled and rationalized practices made it possible for studios to pump out a five hour film in about six weeks. The more I watch and think about serials, the more I recognize a complex relationship to classical standards. They can shed light on what we mean by “classicism” by highlighting popular cinema’s melodramatic inheritance. Serials may be worth studying if only for what they can tell us about the nature of more mainstream Hollywood output, and they might modify our assumptions about studio era cinema.

Cash for Curiosity

The sound serial is also a window into the workings of a fundamental cinematic structure and spectator emotion: suspense. The cliffhanger ending was an invariable part of the sound serial formula; each episode was designed to leave the viewer in suspense until next week. As Vela and others have noted, cliffhangers had a commercial imperative; they guaranteed a return audience week after week and built a steady following. One thing that distinguishes the sound serial is the sheer quantity of suspense. More than any other Hollywood product, the sound serial was an intensive laboratory for putting viewers on the edges of their seats. Screenwriters had to wedge suspenseful situations into their episodes at regular intervals. The opening resolved the previous week’s cliffhanger, the midpoint delivered an action set piece (usually a fight or chase) that hinged on suspense, and the final few minutes left the viewer with an unsolvable puzzle. How on earth did Batman survive that fall?  Vela points out that there were basically two ways to resolve any cliffhanger. Either the hero turns out to be surprisingly invulnerable to whatever physical calamity befalls him (as when Captain Marvel or Superman simply walk away from guillotines and train wrecks) or some crucial bit of evidence that explains the means of escape has been left out and will be revealed next week.

This strikes me as a particular kind of cinematic suspense, more like a puzzle left for the viewer to solve than a nail-biting uncertainty about the outcome. The experience is akin to viewing a magic trick. The magician convincingly shows you the impossible, and yet you remain acutely aware of its impossibility and pine for the revelation of the “trick.” The secret, of course, is available, but at a price. The contemporary equivalent to this sort of suspense might be the Youtube videos of young magicians who offer to trade or sell the secret of getting a coin inside a bottle (see here: Curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction. As far as I know, the serial is unique in its heavy reliance on this quite specific structure. This raises larger questions. Why do we, as thinking creatures, find such puzzles so engaging? Is there a cognitive or cultural (or other) basis to the appeal of the trick? Why should we return, over and over, to the same kind of puzzle when we know, more or less, the kind of secret that is being withheld?

The issue of suspense has a historical component as well. The serial episode’s closest progenitor is not the feature film, but the one-reel action melodrama of the 1907 – 1913 period. These films, exemplified by D.W. Griffith’s Biograph shorts, packed nickelodeons by offering twelve to fourteen minute stories built around inescapable crises and races to the rescue (my favorite of these is Griffith’s Unseen Enemy: see here Sound serials lift these very old structures almost unaltered: crosscut last-minute rescue scenes that hinge on the delay and interruption of a “fatal gesture,” Tom Gunning’s term for the trigger of the death trap that ensnares the victim, were the bread and butter of the serial. The longevity of such basic structures, and the fact that they predate the narrative feature film, suggests that serials tap into a fundamental cinematic power. The sound serial may be a sort of aesthetic way station between the origins of popular film narrative and our own action films, which regularly employ the same situations in their third-act climaxes.

Problem and Solutions

By nature, genre production involves filmmakers in game of innovation within constraints. How filmmakers play this game, where they push for distinction and where they cling to convention, can tell us a lot about the nature of popular creative work. Serials were hyper-formulaic. Even across genres (sci fi, western, jungle film, detective, super hero) the format for each episode and for the overall arc was remarkably consistent. All the usual questions of genre-studies (definition, convention, audience appeal) find ample material in the sound serial. From a producer’s perspective, though, the sound serial can throw into relief patterns of artistic development, which Bordwell frames as “problems and solutions.” The serial comes with a rather particular problem for the screenwriter and director: how to create and then resolve an apparently unsolvable crisis for the hero. A virtuosic filmmaker might strive for the delicate balance between a seemingly unsolvable problem and a plausible solution (one that doesn’t reach too far outside the viewer’s range of expectations). It doesn’t seem that the sound serial was home to many virtuosi; I have yet to find anything resembling Hitchcock’s command of expectation and misdirection. As Vela points out, cliffhanger solutions fell into two categories, and completely cheating the ending was par for the course (see here ). Still, whenever intensive work is devoted to a well-defined area of film craft, it yields artistic refinement, elaboration, and experimentation (think of the martial arts sequences of Hong Kong cinema from the 1970s – 1990s).

In sound serials, the problems of setting up and resolving cliffhangers, of wedging suspense sequences in every ten minutes, and simply of varying the formula enough to keep the form fresh, could yield bizarre and ingenious solutions. Gene mixing that brought the Wild West smack up against lost civilizations, ray guns, robots, and musical comedy (as in the delirious Phantom Empire) is a good example. Subtler, perhaps, are the narrational convolutions that screenwriters undertook to keep suspense alive.  Batman and Robin episode 10 takes the standard practice of concealing an important action from the audience. In chapter 11, however, the cliffhanger resolution must backtrack several scenes to reveal the trick. It was not Batman who plunged from the window, but Vicky Vale’s ne’er-do-well brother who has stolen Batman’s costume after the superhero was shocked unconscious by an electrified doorknob. The revelation reorients viewer knowledge about the replayed sequences in a manner approaching a noir flashback. I have yet to find the “master” of sound serial storytelling (and maybe I won’t), but an aesthetic history can sort through the development of craft practices (the problems and solutions) that led some serials to baroque complexity.

Child’s Play

Their intended audience further distinguishes serials from the mainline of Hollywood product. Vela offers a convincing account of the origins of the Saturday matinee in popular early 20th century theories of childhood (the playground movement and the vitalist tradition), reformer concerns about the corrupting atmosphere of movie theaters, and in exhibitor’s desire to sell more adult fares in the evening shows. By the 1930s, film serials became a socially acceptable form of children’s entertainment, despite the fact that they were not regulated under the Hays code. The genre was remarkably well suited to introducing (some would say indoctrinating) America’s youth to commercial culture. Following a serial meant joining a fan community complete with merchandise (toys and costumes) that fostered participation in the fantasy. In borrowing from melodrama, the sound serial effectively manufactured weekly situations that could be rerun in the nation’s playgrounds and back yards. Designed to be continued off screen, serials provided roles and rules for imaginative play.

The relationship between viewer and genre invites speculation on its social function. Serials offered a child’s fantasy of adulthood: the hero may seem timid (Billy Basten or Clark Kent), but this hides a super confident and effective alter ego (Captain Marvel or Superman) for whom the adult world is a playing field free of complex emotion and responsibility. Like the Historical Adventure Films examined by film historian Brian Taves in The Romance of Adventure, serials proffered a code of values involving honesty, forthrightness, justice, and “the American way.” They also could engage in unabashed racist and orientalist stereotyping and remarkably narrow gender roles. From our perspective, the sound serial’s version of adulthood is a troubling fantasy, but also one in line with white American culture of the era. And yet, serials could not afford to limit themselves to children. They played as well to adult action fans in neighborhood and rural theaters. I am keen to understand the dynamics of this appeal, perhaps to an adult nostalgia for child’s play, perhaps to a sort of “innocent” violence and Manichaeism. Why do so many of us, both children and adults, find the serial world worth returning to?

Assorted Pleasures

After a presentation on serials at a recent conference, a colleague commented to me that narrative was but one pleasure offered by the form. He recalled that watching Batman and Robin involved, primarily, looking for Robin’s bald spot in hastily framed high angles. It is a fact that the sound serial has become a cult object, valued for its perceived excesses and camp potential. While serials are by no means “open texts,” they can encourage “perverse” or at least skewed viewing, partly because of their straight-faced absurdities and partly because they are so long and repetitive.  Even a casual viewer is likely to notice that the Phantom Empire and the Undersea Kingdom feature the same robots, or that Gene Autry is referred to by his full name (first and last) by major characters in the first several episodes of Empire, or that the scientific principles behind The Wizard’s cosmic rays in Batman (combining the remote control ray with the anti-remote control ray creates… invisibility) do not approach the meager standards of nonsense. And why does aviator g-man Ace Drummond sing the same song in nearly every episode? Sound serials overreached the limitations of their budgets and production schedules with stock footage and formal shortcuts, which gives them an air of confident inadequacy. Their narratives were prone to lurch to a stop, the better to demonstrate the operation of a high-tech gadget. They also give viewers plenty of time to appreciate their shortcomings. It is tempting to attribute perverse viewing to jaded adults who wish to proclaim their superiority to juvenile entertainment, but I also think the films build in a kind of self-mockery that helps protect them from pomposity. Like the adventure films of Fairbanks of Flynn, the sound serial walked a line between self-awareness and sincerity, a balance that helps them to cross demographic lines.  My aim in analyzing these films is to take them at their word, to engage them on their own level, but this does not mean ignoring the complexities of their address. Ultimately, I suspect the assorted pleasures of the sound serial are important to their continued relevance and, perhaps another area of continuity with contemporary cinema.

Cross/Inter/Trans Media

Though the situational and cliffhanger formulas have a substantial cinematic history, the sound serials were also enmeshed in the contemporary media culture of the 1930s – 1950s. Comic strips, radio shows, and even television shows, pre-sold properties for the youth of the day, served as the primary source for serial material. These media trafficked in the same sort of youth-oriented action melodrama, and serial producers were eager to tap into the commercial communities of sponsored radio series and comics readers. From radio came a new level of merchandising to children and the ambition to bind them to products through the power of narrative. But it is the relationship with comics that most intrigues me. Serials were prescient in adapting detective and super hero comics; a trend that finally came to fruition in the past decade and a half. Unlike radio episodes, which were self-contained, the comic narrative sprawled across long arcs, and were interrupted at suspenseful turning points to help sell daily and weekend papers nationwide. Films have traditionally been more like other films than the sources they adapt, but the comic strikes me as a potentially formative force for serials. I want to study the story-structure of the comic strip in comparison to the sound serial. Perhaps it could shed new light on the serial’s departure from classical norms, and it will certainly provide a new layer of historical perspective on cinema’s interaction with popular media.

Formal Legacies

The era of the sound serial officially ended in 1956 with Columbia’s final entry Blazing the Overland Trail. The genre’s reach and influence, however, can be summed up in two words, Star Wars. When I was nine, the target age for the original serials but thirty years too late, George Lucas fired the opening volley of Hollywood’s commercial assault on my (and every subsequent) generation. Star Wars was the first film that I saw repeatedly in the theater; it swiftly became a ritual that lasted all summer as I followed the film from multiplex to multiplex. Four years later it happened all over again with Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie of such import that my friends skipped school to catch the opening matinee. The debt of Star Wars and Raiders to the sound serial is widely remarked, and Lucas and Spielberg explain that they were inspired by their own Saturday matinee memories. I will conclude by book by arguing that these two films, and the franchises they spawned, forge a direct link between contemporary action cinema and juvenile blood-and-thunder of the 30s – 50s. Lucas and Spielberg managed to revitalize serial thrills and conform them to a feature format. They brought the fantasy of participation, the merchandising, the community building, the action-melodrama plotting, and the play value of the sound serial to the contemporary context. This project, then, is an occasion to return to my own formative matinees for a detailed discussion of form and narrative. I hope to deepen our view of popular action cinema by highlighting the flexible resilience serial conventions.

I’ll be living with serials for foreseeable future, and as sabbatical rounds the corner next semester these thoughts and questions will surely make themselves at home with me. The deeper I get, the more I appreciate outside perspectives and ideas. So, if you share an interest in the sound serial, do pass along your thoughts.

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Stallone, Expendables, and Color Today

Mickey Rourke's dramatic turn in Expendables

I have a theory that Stallone films, like Bond films, are excellent indicators of what film style looks like in popular cinema at any particular moment – they tend to be competent, and to show off whatever is thought to be “stylish” in current mainstream filmmaking, but they rarely break new ground. If you want a quick primer on the going cinematic fashion of 1969, just look at On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, if you need a quick glimpse at the popular palette of 1985, Then Rocky IV is a good bet. The Expendables doesn’t disappoint. In narrative content and structure is feels like a throwback cross between Commando and Cobra, a Reagan era action script propped up thirty years later. Visually, though, it is a nice distillation of the 2010 look. Stallone fully embraces the run-and-gun aesthetic for his action sequences, which are incoherent moment-by-moment but make a general sort of sense (same as Inception or Salt) [see Bordwell’s blogs on this topic:]. He employs digital compositing and CGI liberally: practical pyrotechnics are sweetened (and sometimes replaced) digitally. And, as in so many films of our period, the results are decidedly mixed and uneven. The team’s digital seaplane and the baddies’ digital fortress are surprisingly obvious; flat lighting of actors before a green-screen background (aboard the airplane or in a car) keeps the various elements from blending convincingly. Expendables’ visual effects are worse than some, but they are a good summary of a transitional moment of technology and technique.

One scene stood out for me, a moment of male bonding lifted from the Rio Bravo playbook. Mickey Rourke mourns the death of his soul while he paints a guitar under blue neon light in his Tattoo parlor. He recalls letting a woman die during a mission in Bosnia, and wishing he had saved her. Stallone listens intently, and takes the message to heart. He will return to Velina to rescue the general’s daughter, and save his own soul. The scene is The Expendables version of Bernstein’s monologue about the girl on the ferry in Citizen Kane. A secondary character’s revelation about memory and loss is meant to give us insight into the hero. Rourke gives his all in the scene, it is clearly his acting set-piece and seemingly the prime reason he is in the movie. The scene is pure Stallone. His films can feel like Lego constructions, each scene a different preformed brick. Rourke’s soliloquy is a stand-alone module of pathos plugged in among other modules that could be labeled “comedy,” “rollicking action,” “exposition,” and “brutality.”

But what caught my eye was the scene’s color design. Rourke is entirely blue. Navi blue. Stallone, is bathed in orange-red, as though lit by unseen firelight. Shots alternate between close-ups of the two stars, sometimes framing Stallone in Rourke’s background, an ember glinting behind an ice mountain. The color-coding is awkwardly literal: Rourke is blue, (his girl just left him), but he is also cold, dead inside. Meeting Giselle Itié during his recon of the island has ignited Stallone’s passion. He has a spark, and Rourke coolly encourages him to keep it lit. Color is splashed across the scene for an emotional effect, motivation seems a second thought – why is Rourke painting a picture under blue light? The color design comes right out of the early days of Technicolor, when Broadway designer Robert Edmond Jones employed colored light to broadcast characters emotions in the first three-color short La Cucaracha. Jones hoped that Technicolor film would become a sort of opera, with color arias swelling beyond the story to touch the viewer. When characters raged at one another the screen was blasted with scarlet, when they were sad, blue light stepped in. Jones helped promote Technicolor when the company needed to attract attention from studios, but his brand of mad hyperbolic color quickly faded from the scene. Color would become an adjunct to the drama and action, more like an orchestral film score than an opera. But the use of colored light to cue emotions continued in a more subtle form. Cinematographers soon realized that they could manipulate color temperature, cool and warm light, for dramatic and atmospheric effect. The technique worked well because it followed a generally accepted convention that moonlight is blue and lamplight and firelight were orange. I’m preparing a detailed discussion of this for a forthcoming anthology of color film – but you can see powerful instances of this mix in melodramas of the 40s and 50s. Consider the night-scenes between Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in Duel in the Sun, or the bedroom scene between Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind, and you will see how passion and resistance are played out in a dance of orange and blue light.

So here we are in 2010, and it seems that Stallone is raiding the visual vocabulary of Hollywood melodrama. Stallone, of course, is no stranger to borrowing from classical melodrama (this is how Brando’s “Stella” became Stallone’s “Adrian”), and he has always been prone to visual hyperbole. But what we see in Expendables is less a quotation of the past than a sign of a general resurgence of expressive color effects in popular cinema. The development is partly due to advancements in Digital Intermediate, which allow colorists to tweak a scene’s palette with unprecedented precision. I’ve discussed this with regard to films like O’Brother Where Art Thou and The Aviator in my book and elsewhere. Over the past decade filmmakers have become accustomed to muscling their palettes in post-production. Sometimes the effect is bizarrely experimental (as in Speed Racer) but more often the colorists fall back on old standbys: sepia for flashbacks/historical scenes; hot oranges for deserts and arid settings; blue for night; and green for “otherworldliness” (ala The Matrix). At the same time, audiences have shown themselves to be remarkably forgiving of variations in skin tones – once thought to be the bedrock of color reproduction. Historically, “good” flesh tones has been THE test of color technology, it was the one area in which the experts thought viewers demanded accuracy. Recent films like The Expendables suggest that in contemporary norms there is quite a lot of latitude. Rourke isn’t just cast in blue light, he IS blue, and Stallone’s face is simply orange. In other scenes, the flesh tones thin out to a grayish white (for the Caucasians in the cast), elsewhere they are flushed with warmth. I noticed a change in Tom Cruise’s skin tone from thin to amber across two shots in Knight and Day (during the airplane scene at the beginning). I’m not sure whether this new flexibility of color is a good or bad thing, but it seems that in one (small) area the contemporary filmmaker’s stylistic palette has broadened.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the “Teal and Orange” color design in contemporary cinema (see here: ), and the argument seems to be that digital colorists simply set their controls to orange fleshtones and teal backgrounds, sacrificing pure greens, reds, yellows, and essentially narrowing the palette. I find this argument overstated, and it is probably worth its own blog at a later point. It may be true that DI has encouraged greater play with chroma in a general way, but the new techniques follow well-worn paths. “Teal and Orange” is, of course, a development of the cool/warm color temperatures mixed for dramatic effect in the classical Technicolor era. More recently, the 80s action film often invoked this palette for the industrial settings of their big showdowns. Consider the rooftop of Die Hard, for instance, or the steel foundry at the end of Stallone’s Cobra where red light from blast furnaces contrasts with the cool concrete and girder arena. James Cameron almost made this look a trademark in films like Aliens, partly because the uniform blue helped integrate miniature footage with live-action. So The Expendables doesn’t exactly return us to the early days of Technicolor experimentation, but it does flag an area to watch in contemporary cinema. In binding the action film’s cool/warm palette and DI’s power to manipulate hue to an “acting” scene, a scene of male bonding melos no less, Stallone pushes the going style forward, creating a film that will look “very 2010” to future historians.

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Associate Professor of Film Studies

Scott Higgins has published two books:

Harnessing the Rainbow: Technicolor Aesthetics in the 1930s <>

Arnheim for Film and Media Studies <>.

He is working on a third book about film serials from the 1930s and 1940s. His areas of specialization include aesthetics, silent and classical cinema, narrative theory, genre, and technology.

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