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Toward a Naturalized Aesthetics of Film Music

An Interdisciplinary Exploration of Intramusical and Extramusical Meaning

Timothy Justus

Abstract

In this article, I first address the question of how musical forms come to represent meaning—that is, the semantics of music—and illustrate an important conceptual distinction articulated by Leonard Meyer in Emotion and Meaning in Music between absolute or intramusical meaning and referential or extramusical meaning through a critical analysis of two recent films. Second, building examples of scholarship around a single piece of music frequently used in film—Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings—I follow the example set by Murray Smith in Film, Art, and the Third Culture and discuss the complementary approaches of the humanities, the behavioral sciences, and the natural sciences to understanding music and its use in film.

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Altered Landscapes and Filmic Environments

An Account from the 13th Asian Cinema Studies Society Conference

Tito R. Quiling Jr.

It’s just past 10:00 am on a humid Monday in Singapore, and the streets seemed to have settled after a workday rush. My walk from Arab Street to McNally Street was rather placid, punctuated by moments at intersections, and surrounded by people heading somewhere. Minutes later, I was looking up at the postmodern buildings of LASALLE College of the Arts—a panorama of reinforced concrete, glass, tiles, and steel gleaming under the morning sun. In cinema, spaces and landscapes are primary features. At times, the setting goes beyond the overarching narrative, as it conveys its own story. Given their impact, Stephen Heath (2016) infers that a process occurs in identifying spatial connections to the characters, since “organizing, guiding, sustaining and reestablishing the space are the factors that reveal this process.” The audience absorbs the familiar images or experiences onscreen. However, embodied objects of varying iterations contribute to how environments in films are concretized. On this note, one can ask: in what ways do filmic environments thus project narratives and discourses?

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Biased Render

Indigenous Algorithmic Embodiment in 3D Worlds

Joshua D. Miner

This article explores the digitality of Indigenous bodies within contemporary 3D video games by mainstream and Indigenous developers. Its analysis relies on a critical examination of digital image synthesis via real-time graphics rendering, which algorithmically generates the visible world onscreen from 3D geometries by mapping textures, generating light and shadow, and simulating perceptual phenomena. At a time when physically based, unbiased rendering methods have made photorealistic styles and open-world structures common across AAA games in general, Indigenous game designers have instead employed simplified “low res” styles. Using bias as an interpretive model, this article unpacks how these designers critique mainstream rendering as a cultural-computational practice whose processes are encoded with cultural biases that frame the relation of player and screen body (avatar). The algorithmic production of digitally modeled bodies, as an essential but masked element of video games, offers a territory where Indigenous developers claim aesthetic presence in the medium.

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Elemental Imagination and Film Experience

Climate Change and the Cinematic Ethics of Immersive Filmworlds

Ludo de Roo

Abstract

In an age of ecological disasters and increasing environmental crisis, the experience of any cinematic fiction has an intrinsic ethical potential to reorient the spectator's awareness of the ecological environment. The main argument is that the spectator's sensory-affective and emphatically involving experience of cinema is essentially rooted in what I call “elemental imagination.” This is to say, first, that the spectator becomes phenomenologically immersed with the projected filmworld by a cinematic expression of the elemental world, and second, much like there is no filmworld without landscapes, the foundational aspect of elements are revealed as preceding and sustaining the narrative and symbolic layers of film experience. While suggesting the existential-ethical potential of this fundamental process of film experience, the second aim of this article is to show that this form of elemental imagination complements more mainstream “environmentalist” films, such as climate change documentaries and blockbuster apocalyptic genre films.

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Carl Plantinga

Abstract

The stories we tell each other, or present via mass media, are important components of the cultural ecology of a place and time. This article argues that 300 (2007), directed by Zach Snyder and based on a comic book series both written and illustrated by Frank Miller, evinces what can legitimately be called a “fascist aesthetic” that depends in large part on the moods and emotions the screen story both represents and elicits. While many other commentators have charged this film with incipient fascism, this article both deepens and expands on the claim by showing how the film's elicitation of affect contributes to this aesthetic. The article argues that the affects represented and elicited in 300, when taken in conjunction with and in relation to the ideology they support, constitute what can be called “fascist affect.”

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Grey Gardens and the Problem of Objectivity

Notes on the Ethics of Observational Documentary

Mathew Abbott

Abstract

This article turns to the Maysles brothers’ 1975 film Grey Gardens to problematize the philosophical assumptions at work in debates about objectivity and direct cinema. With a suitable picture of documentary objectivity we can avoid endorsing the claim that no film can be objective or the corollary that only documentaries that reflexively acknowledge the biases of their makers can succeed aesthetically or ethically. Against critics who have attacked Grey Gardens for its problematic claims to objectivity as well as theorists defending it for how it undermines objectivity, I argue that the film's objective treatment of its subjects is part of its aesthetic and ethical achievement. In the context of observational documentary, being objective does not mean taking a purely dispassionate stance toward one's subjects, but treating them without prejudice or moralism and letting them reveal themselves.

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Guest Editor's Introduction

Phenomenology Encounters Cognitivism

Robert Sinnerbrink

Abstract

Since the early 1990s, phenomenology and cognitivism have become influential strands of inquiry in film theory. Phenomenological approaches remain focused on descriptive accounts of the embodied subject's experiential engagement with film, whereas cognitivist approaches attempt to provide explanatory accounts in order to theorize cognitively relevant aspects of our experience of movies. Both approaches, however, are faced with certain challenges. Phenomenology remains a descriptive theory that turns speculative once it ventures to “explain” the phenomena upon which it focuses. Cognitivism deploys naturalistic explanatory theories that can risk reductively distorting the phenomena upon which it focuses by not having an adequate phenomenology of subjective experience. Phenomenology and cognitivism could work together, I suggest, to ground a pluralistic philosophy of film that is both descriptively rich and theoretically productive. From this perspective, we would be better placed to integrate the cultural and historical horizons of meaning that mediate our subjective experience of cinema.

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The Guilty Brelfie

Censored Breastfeeding Selfies Reclaim Public Space

Mari E. Ramler

Breastfeeding mothers and their babies are simultaneously in the public sphere and hidden from public view. Although social media has the potential to normalize attitudes toward breastfeeding by increasing visibility, Facebook and Instagram maintain an unpredictable censorship policy toward “brelfies”—female breast selfies—which has undermined progress. Combining Iris Marion Young’s “undecidability” of the breasted experience with Brett Lunceford’s rhetoric of nakedness, this article investigates what breastfeeding mothers communicate online via digital images when they expose their breasts. By deconstructing controversial case studies, this article concludes that brelfies have increased breastfeeding’s accessibility and acceptability in the material world.

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Other Sides

Loving and Grieving with Heart of a Dog and Merleau-Ponty's Depth

Saige Walton

Abstract

Maurice Merleau-Ponty's existential phenomenology has been crucial to contemporary film-phenomenology, yet his later thought has not received the same attention. Drawing on “Eye and Mind” and other writings, I apply the philosopher's ontological concept of depth to the cinema. Using Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog (2015), an intimate, experimental portrait of animal life, death, grief, and loss, I approach Anderson's film as “depthful” cinema, bringing Heart of a Dog into a dialogue with Merleau-Ponty, the film essay, and the lyrical film. Through its diffractions of the subjective “eye/I,” its poetic approach to grief, and its openness to nonhuman ways of being, I argue that Anderson's film is in accord with Merleau-Ponty's later thinking on depth in art and in the world.

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Elizabeth Jochum, Graeme Stout, and Brian Bergen-Aurand

Jennifer Rhee, The Robotic Imaginary: The Human and the Price of Dehumanized Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018). 240 pp., ISBN: 978151790298 (paperback, $27)

Soraya Murray, On Video Games: The Politics of Race, Gender and Space (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2018). xv + 315pp., ISBN: 9781786732507 (PDF eBook, $82.50)

Ari Larissa Heinrich, Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). 264 pp., ISBN: 9780822370536 (paperback, $25.95)