BIMI-Pitt Research Workshop on Urban Change

The second edition of the biennial research workshop organised by Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh will take place Wednesday 10 May to Friday 12 May 2017 at Birkbeck University of London. The idea of the workshop is to bring together faculty and postgraduate students from Birkbeck and Pittsburgh to share their ongoing research, to get to know each other in person, and to develop collaborative research projects together. The first edition, “Cinema and the City”, May 2015, was a productive and enjoyable occasion, which has already generated several joint research initiatives, including journal publications, student and staff exchanges, public lectures, curatorial projects, and study days.

The forthcoming edition, entitled “Urban Change”, pursues the broad theme of cinema and the city, while addressing more precisely how moving image culture – in all its changing forms and formats, both aesthetically and technologically speaking – has responded and continues to react to the ongoing economic, social and political transformation of urban environments. These environments are understood as physical spaces but also as places to live, work, love and play, both individually and in terms of interpersonal and community relationships. While the cities of Pittsburgh and London remain significant topics for exploration, the geographical and historical coordinates of this workshop are entirely open, and participants will be exploring urban contexts and examples drawn from France, Algeria, Canada, India, Russia, Japan, Hong Kong, Denmark and Sweden.

The workshop is open to all, and will be especially happy to welcome students and researchers working across the range of research areas and disciplines that BIMI is committed to representing as part of its mission: Film and Media, English, History of Art, Languages, Law, History, Philosophy, Politics, Geography, Psychosocial Studies, Applied Linguistics, and Psychological Sciences.


Randall Halle, Pittsburgh

"The Record of Modernity, the Poetics of Urban Change – Heinz Emigholz’s Architecture and Autobiography"

Screening material: a sequence from Perret in France and Algeria/Perret in Frankreich und Algerien, Heinz Emigholz, 2012

Abstract: Under the title Architecture and Autobiography, German experimental filmmaker Heinz Emigholz has explored the work of significant architects who offered a breakthrough in the design of the built environment. He started with Sullivan's Banks (1993), and moved onto projects like Perret in France and Algeria (2012), all the way to this year’s Dieste [Uruguay].

Each of the films in the series takes up figures who advanced the project of modernity through aesthetic theory and breakthrough use of new materials like poured concrete, steel reinforcement, etc. The films consist of static camera shots of exterior and where possible interiors of projects in their contemporary setting. The buildings, frequently remodelled or in decay, are not treated as museum pieces but as standing chronicles of the vicissitudes of urban development.

I want to explore these projects in order to raise three areas of questioning. First is a somewhat straightforward question of genre. What does this project in particular help us understand about the dominant modes of representing the urban space?  If narrative film relies on the city as a backdrop for stories, do documentary images serve an investigation: images showing us people or places directly affected by a question, e.g. gentrification, bearing thus less weight on their own and acting rather as vehicles for didactic information? What is the nature of story, information, documentation in the recording of urban change?

Second is the question of modernism, what is its record? Literally, how does the modern inflect the present? In this regard Emigholz’s projects are filmic versions of Benjamin’s Arcades Project able to present us with the promise and failure of urban design, planning, architecture.

Finally, I want to connect Emigholz’s work to the condition of second modernity--not post-modernity. Second modernity here invites a condition of reflection informed by the past, not a rupture with the past as first modernity sought. Not to bulldoze the past, nor to continue dotting the present with monuments of starchitects, but to think our design into the future. In this regard “Dempolis” the investigation of the right to public space, an established principle of contemporary urban design, asks us to question intensely the function of form in our future design.

Profile: Randall Halle, Klaus Jonas Chair of German Film and Culture Studies as well as Director of the Film Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh. My last two books focused on the moving image as marker of social political processes: transnationalism and Europeanization. The work on Emigholz I am presenting here bridges two current book projects: Visual Alterity and (Un)Popular Culture.

Joel McKim, Birkbeck

"Transitional Vancouver: Stan Douglas’s Circa 1948"

Screening material: I would like to use Douglas’s Circa 1948 as a starting off point for a broader discussion of digital animation and interactive media projects as platforms for the exploration of urban history and politics.

Abstract: Canadian conceptual artist Stan Douglas is not generally associated with digital animation or computer generated imaging (being more frequently recognized for his film, video and photography work), but he has recently adopted these technologies in a series of projects set in his native city of Vancouver. Digitally rendered images of 1940s Vancouver appear as backdrops within the 2014 stage play Helen Lawrence; as standalone printed works, such as The Second Hotel Vancouver (2014) and Bumtown (2015); and in animated form in the interactive installation and app Circa 1948, produced in collaboration with the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) Digital Studio in 2014.

All of these works explore Vancouver’s immediate post-war years, a period that is significant for Douglas in that it represents an uncertain and less often recalled interim moment between the war-era and “the sudden call to order and morality” of the 1950s. Through these works, and Circa 1948 in particular, Douglas digital reconstructs a largely overlooked period of Vancouver’s sometimes seamy past that stands in sharp contrast to the city’s current image as an affluent Western metropolis of gleaming condo towers. This confrontation with the real-estate scams, neighbourhood cleansing and urban re-organisation that characterize 1940s Vancouver provides a different perspective on a city considered to be reaching a point of contemporary crisis due to property speculation, soaring housing prices and processes of gentrification.

Profile: Joel McKim is Director of the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology, Birkbeck. His work focuses on urban political communication and the impact of digital technologies on architecture, art and design, and draws together such fields as architectural and urban studies, digital media theory, memory studies, philosophy of aesthetics and communication theory. Current projects include a forthcoming book entitled Architecture, Media and Memory: Confronting Complexity in Post-9/11 New York (Bloomsbury 2017).

Curry Chandler, Pittsburgh

"Visualizing Urban Change and Differential Space in Chris Ivey’s East of Liberty series: Gentrification, Community Activism, and Documentary Film as Aesthetic Spatial Practice"

Screening material: I will be screening scenes from the East of Liberty documentary film series. Ivey’s films focus on gentrification and residential displacement in Pittsburgh, and primarily focus on the city’s east end neighbourhoods. The sequence I plan to screen features scenes of festivities amidst the demolition of a high-rise housing project and includes interviews with displaced residents. This sequence appears in the first East of Liberty instalment, released in 2006.

Abstract: This project examines how urban documentary films not only produce important representations of neighbourhood change and development, but also create opportunities for new uses and understandings of urban space. The U.S. city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has recently experienced rampant gentrification in several neighbourhoods resulting in the displacement of residents amidst a city-wide affordable housing crisis. Local filmmaker Chris Ivey began documenting these developments in the early 2000s, and his efforts culminated in the East of Liberty documentary film trilogy. Ivey’s films constitute an important visual archive of neighbourhood change in Pittsburgh, featuring scenes and interviews with residents and various urban stakeholders, as well as critical contextualization of their stories within a history of urban development phases in the city. Rather than emphasizing the representational aspects of these documentaries, this project highlights practices of filmmaking and circulation in not only representing but also producing urban spaces. The ongoing circulation of these films as part of housing summits and other community events comprise a dynamic spatial practice, one that dialectically produces a counter-hegemonic spatial configuration that Lefebvre termed differential space. Understood as aesthetic spatial practices, these films can be seen to project images that supersede dominant discourses of urban development and open up new imaginaries and possibilities for citizens.

Profile: Curry Chandler is a graduate student in Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. He has published scholarly articles on media theory, news reporting, and the mediated labour of ride-share drivers. His current research examines the impact of smart city infrastructure on urban space and public life.

Melissa Butcher, Birkbeck

"Creating Hackney as Home – Five Reflections on a London Borough"

Contemporary urban transformation has led to arguments that cities are being subject to spatial sorting as former industrialized or inner-city neighbourhoods are displaced by a ‘middle class’ in processes of gentrification that appear to be accelerating globally. Hackney, in east London, appears iconic of these changes as it undergoes rapid redevelopment within a context of complex diversity including intergenerational inequalities. The Creating Hackney as Home project (CHASH – see: aimed to better understand how young people experience these changes and what would enable them to have a greater stake in their neighbourhood. Using participatory video the project’s five peer researchers created short films that captured their experiences of living in Hackney. From journeys through and across the city come explorations of the impact of gentrification, reflections on growing up and out of space and managing everyday cultural diversity. In documenting youth experiences of urban transformation, this research has attempted to reframe debates on its impact, increasing the volume of youth voices in its analysis and intervening in debates surrounding the need for a more nuanced understanding of its differential impact. For example, there is evidence for a more complex relationship between gentrifiers and local residents. There are expressions of ambivalence towards the impact of gentrification rather than straightforward rejection or immutable antagonism. Young people appear to have the capacity to reimagine their relationship with the complex space they have grown up in and call home. Yet, while displacement (spatial and affective) may not be a totalizing framework, social structures and power dynamics still condition the possibilities for young people as choices and access are hampered by lack of social, cultural and financial capital.

Neepa Majumdar, Pittsburgh

"Wiring for the Talkies: Bombay’s Cinema Theatres, 1927-1940"

Screening material: extracts from Indian films of the early sound period.

Abstract: Historians of the first three decades of cinema in India struggle with the realities of an absent archive. In my book project on the transition to sound in Indian cinema, I have become obstinately aware that this transition cannot be understood without considering its impact on the space of the movie theatre, its rewiring for sound, its refurbishing for better acoustics, and its expansion into other parts of the city. The Report of the Indian Cinematograph Committee of 1927-28 and the massive five-volume Evidence (transcripts of their interviews) provides an unusual and data-rich snapshot of all aspects of cinema in India during that single year, even if as makes no mention of sound cinema. With this Report as my starting point, I have been looking for and collecting indirect sources on movie theatres in Bombay at this time. At the cusp of the transition to sound, the Report mentions 77 “cinema houses” in Bombay (the city with the largest number of movie theatres in India), and my goal is to track both new construction and the transformation or closure of older theatres under the pressures of sound conversion. Mapping the location of the theatres in the city foregrounds their well-known segregation into Indian and Western theatres, both in terms of the movies screened and their audiences. But mapping also helps place theatres in the context of other social and institutional structures of everyday life, such as schools, restaurants, parks, hotels, promenades, bazaars, and police stations, etc. My interest is ultimately in the archival traces of a mostly inaccessible structure of feeling associated with the sonic transformation of the city, at times supplementing absent images of movie theatres with stand-ins from the films themselves. This research is in its early stages, but here I will be sharing what I have found so far.

Profile: Neepa Majumdar is Associate Professor of Film Studies in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research interests include film sound, star studies, South Asian early cinema, and documentary film, tracking the transmutations that occur in such seemingly self-evident ideas as “stardom” and “aurality” as a way to remap the specificities of locally grounded cinematic cultures in early twentieth century India, where the nationalist project remained firmly in conversation with Hollywood and international cinemas. 

Nikhil Thomas Titus, Pittsburgh

"Curated Desires: Examining Intersections of Low-Cost Film Exhibition, Migrant Audiences, and Gentrification in Mumbai"

Screening material: The material is largely footage that I have shot in phases over the past 8 years since I have been engaging with the topic of low-cost film exhibition. It includes footage from single screen and tin-shed theatres, and brief interviews with audience members. A series of clips shot through community media engagements correspond to the nature of working-class migrant life in Mumbai. In depicting these supposedly hierarchical desires for entertainment and basic amenities I hope to illustrate the intricate connections of a variety of cinema with diverse communities and their aspirations.

Abstract: My research interests focus on the relationship between cinema and the working class in Mumbai’s low-cost film exhibition spaces such as video-parlours and single screen theatres. The study is based on alternate production, distribution, and viewing practices that an increasing number of people in Mumbai and other parts of the Global South have to adopt in order to counter the exclusionary processes of development and entertainment regimes. Innovative distributions platforms that audiences utilize to get access to content, download-centres where content can be purchased on cards and then played on mobile phones and the piratical infrastructures these circulations are facilitated by are central to my work. The common reportage around such institutions usually revolves around the publics, low caste-class migrant men, that frequent them or the aesthetics of the cinema exhibited there, often expressing strong bio-political sentiments against such peoples. It is this quest of understanding the vulnerabilities and compulsions of those who patronize such spaces and the political economy around such venues that form a core to my research. My project seeks to interrogate how societal attitudes influence development policy and are able translate onto infrastructure and governance in a city like Mumbai.

Through video footage, audio interviews, archive images and edited segments of documentaries I will argue that neoliberal policy, censorship, and intellectual property regimes shape this distinct arrangement of screens and audiences, and yet ironically produce a space where these doctrines experience precipitous drops. Studies on exhibition spaces have looked at the historic and economic dimensions of screening spaces in Mumbai, but the intersection of precarity and the piratical in making significant contributions to the cultural sphere of the city and its cinema is often overlooked. Alongside these factors, I will consider the implications of dismantling low-cost recreational and housing environments to advance the installing of mass-transit systems, elite colonies and niche entertainment spaces. Critical to the study is an examination of structures that facilitate access to rights and recreation and how they entangle the lowermost citizens with the processes of the state.

My work straddles areas of film studies and anthropology and I seek to engage with films as well as audiences through intersecting frameworks of film theory, ethnographic research, and media production. In the years ahead, I hope to broaden the scope of my research project by producing and incorporating media content not merely as a documentary tool but as an exploration of the process of reflexivity in my relationship with the cinemas and audiences I engage with.

Profile: Nikhil Thomas Titus is a Ph.D. student in Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests focus on themes of low-cost film exhibition, stardom, urban infrastructure, piracy, and migrant narratives. He is documentary filmmaker and an active contributor in the Community Media education space in India.

Michael Allen, Birkbeck

"What Goes Up Must Come Down – Negotiating Social Continuity and Change in the Representation of Post-War Architecture in British Film and Television"

Screening material (tbc): extracts from various British films and television series of the post-war period.

Abstract: The post-war period in Britain saw an extensive rebuilding programme to both replace the buildings destroyed in German bombing, and to continue the slum clearance programme which had begun in the decades before the Second World War. Such a programme of new building was a mixture of pragmatism and idealism, of houses and apartment blocks constructed as quickly and cheaply as possible to house the maximum number of then-homeless people and families, and of designs and visions that could represent the best of current British design and urban planning; an effective break with the past and an embracing of future possibilities; a literal construction of the best that a modern Britain could hope to become.

British films and television programmes of the period repeatedly charted and displayed these changes. New buildings could spatially represent the hopes of a British people recovering from austerity, as in Cathy Come Home, where young couple Reg and Cathy are given (albeit temporarily) the chance to live beyond their wildest dreams in a light and spacious tower-block flat which is a far cry from the dingy Victorian space they shared with Reg’s mum earlier in the drama. Class boundaries are similarly being literally, though again temporarily, threatened when Steptoe and Son attempt to move from their East End hovel to aspirational middle-class suburbia in one episode of their classic sitcom.

At the same time, the uses of different styles and periods of building in other texts could offer a more elegiac perspective, of familiar and secure communal spaces torn down to make way for new, impersonal replacements, as in the case of the local pub demolished in the opening scene of movie spin off of the sitcom The Likely Lads (1976). Representing the threat of the modern in a different way, the slightly brutal, functional architecture of certain New Towns (Stevenage, Hatfield) could be repurposed to stand in for sinister Iron Curtain training camps in Danger Man (1964). Other new, ultra-modern spaces, such as the multi-storey car-park in Get Carter (1972), are places of corruption, confrontation and death.

This range of depictions show a Britain torn between the desire for change and the strength of tradition and continuity; a battle negotiated partly in the safe (imagined) spaces of the cinema and television screen. Buildings and architectural design take on concentrated significance and meaning; the spaces where traditionally-minded people and communities are born, live and die, and new spaces which allow the post-war aspirational Briton to escape the stultifying pull of that tradition and enter a bright new world; a world, however, often tainted by danger and failure.

Profile: Michael Allen is Head of Department, Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Birkbeck. He has published widely on various aspects of film studies and media history, including the early film of D.W Griffiths, contemporary US cinema, film and television coverage of the Space Race, the technological evolution of digital cinema, and the career of Robert Redford.

Adam Hebert, Pittsburgh

"Wheels and Reels on Both Sides of the Pond – Skateboarding and City Planning from Philadelphia to London"

Screening material (tbc): examples of filmic representations of skate-boarding culture.

Abstract: My current research revolves around street skateboarding culture, its image-making, and certain municipal measures undertaken to curtail its expression and freedom of movement. Thus, the “Urban Change” workshop will allow me to share my findings on these issues with an array of scholars attuned to such questions, to learn from them in turn, and to better familiarise myself with London’s own skateboarding community.

My presentation will focus primarily on the recent changes in and around Philadelphia’s legendary Love Park, a skateboarding “mecca” in the heart of the city. Love has undergone a number of “face-lifts” in the last decade, and is now in the process, tragically, of a complete overhaul. Building on Ocean Howell’s work, which examines the ways in which skaters in Philly have been “conscripted” as “shock troops of gentrification” and used as a “broom” to effectively “sweep out” the homeless, I discuss the use of defensive architecture to thwart a creative interpretation of space and to restrict the park’s availability to the destitute. While I analyse numerous municipal documents outlining how to “control” movement in the park and to skate- and homeless-proof the area, I also append examples from skateboard videos that function as counterpoints to such repressive measures. In other words, I examine the ways in which skateboard media is both a crucial historical/archival record of urban change and a vital “weapon” against prohibitive dictates.

While I am deeply involved in studying the skateboarding scenes in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – including a study of how the University of Pittsburgh’s campus and its nearby public spaces are riddled with defensive architecture – I have also lived in Southern California, the skate hub of the “other” coast. As such, my work expands beyond the local to consider the broader issues at play when city governments shape their transformative efforts to discourage the presence of interrelated groups. What remains, however, is to look more closely at these concerns abroad; while Barcelona and Paris are rife for study, London is a preeminent locus for learning about urban change and skate culture. The “South Bank” skate-park controversy of recent years may be the crux of London’s ongoing navigation of its skate spaces, with a protracted legal struggle resulting in the preservation of the historic spot in the face of its proposed demolition and replacement with businesses. I believe that my studies will be buttressed by a more intimate look at this area and those who populate it, as well as media representations of the public space. Furthermore, the study of skate culture – which remains marginal, as it were – can be said to originate from Iain Borden’s 2001 Skateboarding and the City, which uses a Lefebvrean theoretical base to explore the spatial and socio-political valances of skateboarding in London and beyond.

Profile: Adam Hebert is a Film Studies PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh. His current research focuses on embodiment and motion in cinema, the blurred boundary between documentary and avant-garde practice, and the creative interpretation of space. These concerns are brought together in his work on the subculture of skateboarding, its image making, and political valences. He is currently expanding his work on skating to include more international research.

Nancy Condee, Pittsburgh

"Moral Repository – 'The landscape of the Russian soul corresponds with the landscape of Russia'"

Screening material (tbc): extracts from Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, Nikita Mikhalkov, 1977; Two Days, Avdot’ia Smirnova, 2011; St. George’s Day, Kirill Serebrennikov 2008; Wedding, Pavel Lungin, 2000.

Abstract: “The landscape of the Russian soul corresponds with the landscape of Russia: the same boundlessness, the same formlessness, reaching out into infinity, breadth.”  (Nikolai Berdiaev, The Origin of Russian Communism)

I begin with a claim, arguably as obvious as it is flawed: cinema is always and exclusively a metropolitan art. The camera may shoot the provinces, but does not belong to the provinces. It remains urban not only in its technical origins, but equally in its training, editing, production, and centralized systems of distribution and (to a lesser extent) exhibition. I grant in advance: even the earliest Russian films – shot after Camille Cerf’s May 1896 filming of Nikolai I’s Kremlin coronation – captured memorable landscape scenes. In 1908 alone, these include Vladimir Romashkin’s Stenka Razin, usually cited as Russia’s first narrative film; Aleksandr Drankov’s Big Man and Marriage of Krechinskii; Vladimir Siversen’s Drama in a Gypsy Camp near Moscow; Vasil Aamashukeli’s Seaside Walk [not preserved]; and N. Iа. Filippov’s Diligent Batman.  I do not yet consider this accumulation of titles contradictory to my argument.

As a cultural practice of the Soviet-Russian city – here, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa, Sverdlovsk and Tbilisi, to choose robust studio traditions – cinema is unlike all other arts, whether the visual arts, drama, music, architecture or sculpture. Among those, we might find rural traces or older antecedents. The camera is different: it may encounter the provinces at the moment of shooting, but – after that – in no significant way, except at the village club as a brief and temporary visitor.

The relation to the Workshop is this: my interest lies not in pastoral representation (e.g. the content of the shot itself), but in the struggle of contemporary film (as an urban articulation of change) to retain a recognizable moral custodianship. As some contemporary trends in Russian cinema move away from the landscape shot as the vault of cultural value (and, in Berdiaev’s model, the metonymic Russian soul), cinema confronts anew the mystery of its own modernity: from where does it derive nativist value to sustain itself in the contested relations of global cinema? On what sturdy terrain does its modernity stand?

Berdiaev’s identity of Russian landscape and soul takes two totalizing concepts as single, homogenous things (boundless, formless, broad). Set en face to each other with an equal sign between them, each is an omnivorous entity (“reaching out into infinity”), an imperial cipher capacious enough to consume all human matter. How compatible with this magisterial enjoinment are the interests of contemporary cinema, irreducibly comprising an entangled legacy of European and Soviet visual habits?

Profile: Nancy Condee (Slavic, Film Studies) is Director of Pitt’s Russian and East European Studies Center. Recent publications include The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov, edited with Birgit Beumers (Tauris); Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema (Oxford), which won the MLA Scaglione Slavic Prize and the SCMS Kovács Book Award; Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, edited with Terry Smith and Okwui Enwezor (Duke); and Soviet Hieroglyphics (Indiana).

Mark Best, Pittsburgh

"Giant Monsters, the City of the Future, and Spectacles of Urban (Non-)Destruction: Gamera visits Expo ’70"

Screening material: extracts from Gamera vs. Jiger, Noriaki Yuasa, 1970.

Abstract: Created in 1965 to compete with Toho Studios’ Godzilla film series, Daiei Studios’ giant, flying, fire-breathing turtle Gamera quickly found its marketing identity as the Friend of Children. Within five years, the Gamera series’ formula – two boys, one Japanese, one American, help Gamera defeat a giant menace – was ensuring box office success as children’s entertainment. Part of a book-length history of the Gamera film series from 1965 to the present, this paper focuses on the penultimate Gamera film of the original series before Daiei declared bankruptcy in 1972, Gamera vs. Jiger (Noriaki Yuasa, 1970). Previous Gamera films had drawn upon the Space Race to offer children fantasies of spaceships, an alien city, and giant alien invaders. In contrast, Gamera vs. Jiger promised juvenile viewers the opportunity to experience a real city of the future.

Set just prior to the opening of the Japan World Exposition of 1970 – Expo ’70 – in Osaka, Japan, much of Gamera vs. Jiger functions as a promotional documentary for the fair. Expo ’70 was the ideal setting for an earthbound Gamera film. According to an English-language guide, fairgoers could experience “lively and interesting technology” such as moving sidewalks. The international pavilions demonstrated architecture “of the new world of 2000 A.D.,” while inside them were “fascinating previews of what life may be like in the not too distant future.” In other words, Expo ’70 offered real-life pleasures not unlike what some of Gamera’s boy heroes had already experienced on screen. Emphasizing global cooperation, the fair offered an exciting backdrop for monster mayhem, while dovetailing neatly with the values of scientific wonder and progress that Yuasa and his screenwriter Niisan Takahashi had tried to emphasize in previous Gamera films.

Expo ’70 was similarly interested in humanity’s past, which Gamera vs. Jiger recast as the basis for the evil monster Jiger’s origins in “mysterious” antiquity. Menaced by Jiger, the international milieu of the fairground becomes a synecdoche for the evil monster’s global threat. However, the potential for Expo ’70 to offer the most familiar pleasure of giant monster movies, the spectacle of urban destruction – in this case, the destruction of a “real” city of the future – was neutered by staff of the fair itself, who forbade Yuasa from depicting any damage to Expo ’70 itself. Consequently, Yuasa and Takahashi had to indirectly suggest Expo ’70 as the site of monster destruction, while finding other sources of spectacle. Nearby Osaka provided some landmarks and industrial spaces to destroy, generic alternatives to Expo ’70’s pavilions and Tower of the Sun. More significantly, fictional Expo ’70 technology enables the boy heroes to save Gamera (while fighting a boy-sized monster), conflating the sci-fi interests of the Gamera films with a hyperbolic and fantastic version of Expo ’70 itself: to save Gamera is to save Expo ’70, which in turn is to save our urban future, the purview of plucky, science-minded boys who watch monster movies and, presumably, will visit the fair.

Profile: Mark Best is a Lecturer in English and Film Studies at University of Pittsburgh. His research interests include the American superhero genre and gender in the Cold War era, the Bible in popular culture, and Japanese science fiction film and television. He is currently working on a book project on Japanese giant monster movies, specifically the history of the Gamera film series from the 1960s to the present.

Kevin Flanagan, Pittsburgh

"Hong Kong-D.C. Connection – Transnational Martial Arts Cinema between Regional Production Contexts and Global Audiences"

Screening material: extracts from Honor and Glory and Undefeatable, Godfrey Ho, 1993.

Abstract: This project presents a representative case study of an underexplored mode of transnational media production and consumption – the “regionally” produced martial arts film that uses a U.S. production context and local martial arts talent (usually provided by the house styles or schools of individual dojos), but whose intended audience is international, and largely geared towards the taste of those familiar with Hong Kong action cinema. In particular, I will examine two films by ActionStar Pictures, a U.S.-production company set up to promote Tai Yim Kung Fu Schools, Honor and Glory and Undefeatable (both 1993). These two films cut to the quick of tensions in the study and circulation of “regional” (that is, made outside the “national” production contexts of Hollywood or New York) films made for global audiences – both star Cynthia Rothrock, a white female action star (a dual citizen of the U.S. and pre-handover Hong Kong) known to Hong Kong audiences in her recurring role as a visiting police officer or investigator; both are directed by prolific Hong Kong director Godfrey Ho, but mainly focus on a cast of actors local to the Metro D.C. area (Northern Virginia, Maryland, Washington D.C.); and both have legible action-thriller plots with zany and idiosyncratic local nuance.

I will examine how regional productions like these present international audiences with intimate knowledge of the “unseen” and un-glamorized aspects of quotidian cultural experience. In particular, Honor and Glory and Undefeatable are filmed in near-anonymous strip malls, at private homes, and in Tai Yim training centres, and extensively use “stolen” shots to include prestigious locations.

I am fascinated by these films, as they were made in the area in which I grew up (I know some of the locations quite well); yet, I want to explore the disjunction between their straight-ahead function as films that appeal to global audiences of Hong Kong cinema and their intimate, perhaps even accidental, function as documents of hidden America. Regional productions provide global audiences with weirdly specific knowledge about underrepresented parts of a national film culture, yet often do so without impeding one’s consumption of a narrative. What I want to suggest is a possibly larger project that selects case studies in regional film production from different national and transnational contexts, and considers their functions and failures for global audiences.

Profile: Kevin M. Flanagan is a Visiting Lecturer in the Department of English/Film Studies at Pitt. He has published essays in Framework, Critical Quarterly, Adaptation, and South Atlantic Review, and is currently working on a book project about postwar British culture and war films. He continues to work on the “architecture on TV” project he began developing at the last Pitt-Birkbeck workshop, and has recently co-edited a dossier related to it for Screen (with Matt Harle, Birkbeck).

Kelsey Cummings

"Analysing Evocations of Urban Destruction in Romantic Comedy, with a Focus on Representations of Women’s Bodies"

Screening material: extracts from post-9/11 urban romantic comedies, including Just Like Heaven (2005, San Francisco), Knocked Up (2007, Los Angeles), Life as We Know It (2010, Atlanta), Trainwreck (2015, New York City), and Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016, London).

Abstract: Expressions of urban change in popular culture centre on anxieties of destruction, with film and other narratives consistently playing out cyclical imaginings of the ruination of the urban environment, and sometimes, its rebuilding. Though much work has been done on the function of such destruction in the Hollywood action genre, this topic would benefit from a theoretical approach that expands beyond the usual conventions to consider other production contexts, representational qualities, and genres. As a result, my project aims to explore evocations of urban destruction in the context of the romantic comedy, considering the ways in which the established literature on action ruination might be applied to an understanding of representations of women’s bodies in urban-centric rom-coms.

The forms of bodily destruction that are alluded to or symbolically enacted in the rom-com – from slapstick humour, pregnancy plotlines, and plastic surgery jokes to drunken breakdowns, rape references, and physical fights – suggest consistent underlying anxieties about the enactment of destruction that parallel those centred on urban environments. The forms of destruction through which we read action film’s treatment of urban settings are frameworks just as applicable to the rom-com’s treatment of women’s bodies; whether it is literal or figurative, the subjects are assaulted, they decay (from age or other causes), and they are debased, destroyed, and damaged.

This project will ask how and why the destruction of urban environments in the form of women’s bodies represents change even as it evokes longstanding cultural imaginaries and realities. Drawing from and building on well-established post-9/11 literature and similar cultural theorizations, this project undertakes new analyses that are particular to the contemporary moment, focusing on how moving image culture’s reflections of urban change are enacted in the specific context of the rom-com. Which potentialities emerge when the woman’s body is considered as an extension or reflection of her urban environment in the context of the rom-com? How might the literatures on both filmic urban destruction and rom-coms be understood in conjunction with each other? Which reactions to urban change manifest in this context, and what do these reactions say about evolving urban environments on a global scale?

Profile: Kelsey Cummings studies new media and pop culture as a PhD student in film and media studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She has published on the mechanics of mobile and online girl games for Television & New Media. She has an MS in media studies from the University of Oregon and a BA in film studies and English language and literature from Smith College. Her research interests include contemporary blockbuster film and social media.

Janet McCabe, Birkbeck

"Female Cartographies, Spatial Mappings, Regional Tourism – Location and The Bridge (Bron/Broen)"

Screening material: selected extracts from Bron/Broen, seasons 1, 2, and 3.

Abstract: Bron | Broen (2012-present) opens with the grisly discovery of a female cadaver, sliced in half and placed slap in the middle of the bridge between Denmark and Sweden. The bridge in question is the Øresundsbron (in Swedish, Öresundsbron; in Danish, Øresundsbroen), which traverses the straits between the two Scandinavian nations, with the body carefully positioned on either side of the Swedish-Danish border. With the recognizable top half belonging to a prominent Swedish politician and the unidentified legs of a Danish prostitute, the Swedish homicide detective Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) with her Danish counterpart, Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) are united at the border to investigate on behalf of their respective nations.

Technically, halfway is inside Swedish territory, because of the immense tunnel leading onto the bridge from the Danish side. In literally shifting the border to this imaginary midway point we have a new kind of TV crime series – a geo-political, bilateral, bi-lingual thriller – that challenges the familiar and provides insight into the conditions of small-nation television production operating in a global marketplace. Just as the bridge allows for cross-border traffic and migratory movements within this transnational region of Scandinavia, literally reshaping the physical environment (with the artificial island of Peberholm built to transfer vehicles from the tunnel onto the bridge), a series like Bron | Broen is travelling far beyond the traditional perimeters of national TV territories. This presentation represents my initial research into questions of (media) cities, imagined urbanscapes and public spaces. Building on the idea of public service television and the public sphere, I will look at how experience is mapped in and through the landscape and city spaces, as well as across the topography of female bodies and their representation, to offer a gendered critique of the public sphere within the globalised age.

Profile: Janet McCabe is Co-Director of Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Research in Media and Cultural Practice (BIRMAC) and Editor-in-Chief of Critical Studies in Television: the international journal of TV Studies. Her research and teaching interests are principally concerned with contemporary television, gender politics and feminism, cultural memory and representations of the historical imagination in the media. She is currently preparing a book, Disconnected TV Heroines: Nordic Noir and Global Femininities (I.B. Tauris, forthcoming).

BIMI & BIRMAC with Essay Film Festival: screening of HOMO SAPIENS (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria, 2016, 94 minutes), followed by a response to the film by Carl Lavery, University of Glasgow, in conversation with Anna Reading, Kings College London

Presented in partnership with BIRMAC and the Essay Film Festival, HOMO SAPIENS is a documentary made by the Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter. The film chronicles, as a wordless collection of long, static shots, a series of sites in a state of ruination following natural disaster or human abandonment. This screening, including presentations and discussion, is the culmination of a three-year critical exploration of the theme of Ruin/s, where BIRMAC has sought to question the rigid distinctions between nature and culture, aesthetics and politics, memory and history. Even though HOMO SAPIENS does not locate its sites geographically or politically, there are numerous clues, as it evokes various disasters (New Orleans, Fukushima, Tchernobyl), as well as iconographies of the ruin, both dystopian and utopian. The documentary offers a compelling modern mediation on man versus nature, and its succession of images shot by Geyrhalter across the world opens up questions about the distinction between natural and man-made catastrophes.

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