House Logo

Miriam Hansen (#110 of 2)

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

Comments Comments (...)

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze
The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” Thus begins famed cultural theorist Roland Barthes’s 1957 essay entitled “The Face of Garbo,” which concluded by claiming that Greta Garbo’s face, unlike that of the contemporary Audrey Hepburn, belonged to the realm of ideas, rather than events. One should take such a proclamation to mean that Garbo’s face—its projection on a large screen—transcended the bounds of nationalistic interest and attained a degree of universality: an idea. Barthes’s interests embody an Eisensteinian notion of cinematic signification, emphasizing individual frames and filmic components over narrative coherence. Such an aesthetic leaning will not be surprising, however, after reading editor Marina Dahlquist’s recently published collection of essays on silent serial queen Pearl White, who, much like Garbo in later years, was valued across the globe for her face and body—and, more to the point, what each of those stood for in relation to an articulation of the femme nouvelle blossoming at the end of the 1910s.

Of particular reference here is the serialized film The Perils of Pauline (1914), though various, subsequent films are discussed. Over the course of seven essays, White is discussed in a global context, trotting the globe from France, to Sweden, to Czechoslovakia, to India, and to China, respectively. Alone, each essay provides clear historical context. Together, they assemble an invaluable addition to the canon of what Miriam Hansen terms “vernacular Modernism,” and supplements previous understandings and articulations of this concept with rigorously detailed examinations of precisely how White’s body and persona impacted various cultural and nationalistic, artistic movements. In some cases, as with the surrealists and the French, the impact was exponential. In Sweden, censorship prevented Pauline and her serial sisters from frequenting screens. Yet, regardless of the degrees of impact, these essays conduct their historicity with a sensitive, keen eye for not just culturally specific detail, but together provide a comprehensive approach to the topic in ways that few edited collections manage.

History As Thriller Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

Comments Comments (...)

History As Thriller: Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema
History As Thriller: Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema

Film-history texts can often be dull, lack real insight beyond a litany of factual information, and plod along to foregone conclusions, structured as simply a lecture, where content overrides form. Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema isn’t only an exception to these rules, but establishes a benchmark for which contemporary film-history research should aim. What separates Miyao from the rest? Numerous qualities, but above all, he’s constructed a historical work that isn’t simply another recasting of Japanese film, replete with a discussion of numerous auteurs and production stories as evidence; rather, Miyao is after the heart of the matter—the very circumstances, through Hollywood and Japanese interaction, which cultivated predominant visual styles, and how these processes of “transnational and cross-cultural negotiation” ultimately yielded certain aesthetic expectations, from producers and viewers alike. Moreover, he achieves this, at least in part, by structuring his scholarship as more of a thriller, than merely the standard (and soporific) fact-upon-fact approach.

Miyao’s begins with a fluid, though rigorous foundation of previous historians and theoreticians, which he appropriates in order to weave together his complex historiographies. Drawing upon the likes of film studies staples such as David Bordwell, Stuart Hall, and Noël Burch, but not simply trotting out their arguments as stand-alone methodologies, Miyao instead juxtaposes and employs them as means to unpack the geographical explanations that are central to linking an aesthetic (and its invention) with a specific time period, particularly on an international scale. Thus, Miriam Hansen’s “vernacular modernism” and Harry Harootunian’s “coeval modernity” are ultimately the kinds of historicizing concepts that compel his line of questioning—especially Haroontunian’s, which Miyao values for its emphasis on “contemporaneity yet the possibility of difference.” Nevertheless, though I have made Miyao’s setup appear to be thoroughly academic (in a theoretical sense), fear not: The bulk of Miyao’s work revolves around historical figures within a system, with recourse to numerous film titles and close-readings. Herein lies Miyao’s keenest eye; rather than having to consistently recall terms and provide extended definitions, the analysis balances the individual and the international. If there were something akin to an academic page-turner, Miyao has produced it here.