The Mediascape Q&A: Chon Noriega, Professor, Cinema and Media Studies

The Mediascape Q&A is a series of interviews designed to explore the work of UCLA faculty and graduate students beyond the classroom.

Dr. Chon Noriega

Matthias Stork: Since I have not yet had the pleasure to take a class with you, Professor Noriega, could you briefly explain what it is exactly that you do in the department? And additionally, could you illuminate some of your past and current research projects?

Chon Noriega: OK. I’ve been a faculty member in the Cinema and Media Studies program for 20 years now. And for the last 10 years I’ve also been directing the Chicano Studies Research Center, which currently accounts for about half of my time, primarily on the teaching side. I am still a full-time faculty member, in terms of service, in terms of student advising. But on the teaching side, it’s been reduced, although in 2011-12 I agreed to do a startup on our Colloquium. So, I taught five courses that year, and three of them were the Colloquium. The idea for the Colloquium was to create an intellectual commons where the faculty and the graduate students could come together to learn about new research by students, faculty in the program, faculty across the campus, and visiting scholars. But it was also designed as a forum for town halls to discuss programmatic issues related to the M.A. or the Ph.D. curriculum. I’m in the process of assessing this experiment right now, to understand whether we actually accomplished what we set out to do and how it could continue. In terms of my teaching, I try to balance it between doing core courses in the program and then the electives on the graduate side. In the past I’ve also taught undergraduate courses. The one I really like is “The History of African, Asian, and Latin American Cinema.” And I think, with the exception of Teshome Gabriel, I’ve been one of the few people that actually teaches all three regions rather than emphasizing just one of them. Continue reading “The Mediascape Q&A: Chon Noriega, Professor, Cinema and Media Studies” »

The Crank: ‘Thunderbolt’ Program Notes (10/11/12 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.

When asked about the transition to sound, Josef von Sternberg remarked, “There never were silent movies. The actors spoke and the titles reproduced their lines. There also was the accompanying music, which I preferred to choose myself. Thus, far from being opposed to the talkies, I made sound films myself right away. I even made one before The Blue Angel.” Indeed, sound has always played a highly important role in the work of von Sternberg. Yet the director’s first sound film, Thunderbolt, is frequently overlooked in surveys of the director’s career.

George Bancroft plays the titular character, Thunderbolt, a gangster on death row, in a performance that would earn him an Academy Award nomination. Upset that his girl (Fay Wray) has moved on to a new man, Thunderbolt conspires from behind bars to frame him. When his rival is placed in the cell next door, Thunderbolt’s new goal becomes to stave off execution long enough to get revenge on the man who stole his girl. The gangster film continues in the tradition of two of von Sternberg’s earlier films also starring Bancroft, Underworld and The Dragnet (a film that is unfortunately lost to us today). Andrew Sarris is careful to note that the von Sternberg rendition of the gangster story is more akin to a gangster fantasy than to a gangster film. Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Thunderbolt’ Program Notes (10/11/12 Screening)” »

Animating the Criterion Collection

Other than several compilations of partly-animated experimental films by director Stan Brakhage, the 1992 CAV Laserdisc of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) remains the only animation title in the Criterion Collection. The CAV-mode Laserdisc format was phased out nearly two decades ago, so why does Criterion, a company that transitions effortlessly between analog and digital formats, allow a masterpiece like Akira to fall victim to obsoletion? And why are other masterpieces, like those by filmmakers Lotte Reiniger, Jan Švankmejer, Jiří Trnka, Oskar Fischinger, Bill Plympton, and countless others, patently excluded from the Criterion Collection? The omission of animation becomes even more apparent as contemporary mediocrities like Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), and even Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) see Criterion releases. If there’s room in a cinephile’s DVD case for Steven Soderbergh’s Che (2008) and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010), then surely there’s room for some of the finest animated films ever produced. Continue reading “Animating the Criterion Collection” »

The Crank: ‘Tabu’ Program Notes (10/4/12 Screening)

The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.

Tabu (1931) is the final film from Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, famed German director of Nosferatu (1922), Faust (1924), Sunrise (1926), and countless other silent classics. After 18 months of filming in Tahiti with famed filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North), and then young cinematographer Floyd Crosby (who would win the Oscar for his cinematography), Murnau died, at 42, in a car accident one week before the New York premiere. A unique mix of the documentary experience of Flaherty and Crosby, with the brilliant silent directing of Murnau, Tabu, based on a Polynesian legend, tells the tragic story of a Pearl Diver (Matahi) and Maiden (Reri). Along with dangerous marked waters, the “tabu” of the title is the love they share despite Reri’s religious duty to remain a virgin maiden. The two must overcome both the edicts of their culture and the dangerous waters that separate them from their freedom.

Aside from its place as the last piece of Murnau’s prolific film career, Tabu‘s content and style are what make it particularly noteworthy. It is easily (if not hastily) placed alongside Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and Fritz Lang’s The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and The Forbidden Tomb (1959). However, unlike these films, Tabu evades making claims of being documentary, as is the case of Flaherty’s controversial film, nor does it use white actors in “brownface,” as is seen in Lang’s films (despite the fact that both pictures were shot on location in India). Rather, Tabu portrays itself as a cross between ethnographic and fiction filmmaking. This is further enhanced by the cinematography of Crosby, who had experience in photography and documentary film, as opposed to narrative filmmaking.

Despite using a shooting script with a fictional story, the film uses an entirely native cast. This, along with the Tahitian location, was one of the more notable elements of Tabu upon its release. Edwin Schallert, film critic of the Los Angeles Times, praised the film’s picturesque cinematography: “[Tabu] proves to be a lyrical and poetic achievement in motion pictures. The director…made his ultimate production in the South Seas, and it reveals a wistful and romantic charm in its story, set against natural backgrounds.” Given that the film is silent, an aesthetic choice on Murnau’s part rather than a technical one, this is high praise of a picture premiering at a time where nearly all of Hollywood was engrossing itself in sound films. Continue reading “The Crank: ‘Tabu’ Program Notes (10/4/12 Screening)” »

Two Perspectives on Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’

Andrea Arnold’s wonderful 2011 adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel begins its one-week engagement at the Nuart Theatre today.

Tree branches batting against a window. Clouds gathering for rain. A boy leaning in to smell a girl’s hair. The rhythm of horseback riding. Children running through a field. A fleeting gaze of desire. These are all shots that stuck with me throughout and after Wuthering Heights. This has less to do with the aesthetic pleasure of their construction—of which there is plenty—than how director/cowriter Andrea Arnold and her filmmaking team stir our various senses in the narrative. I find myself incredibly drawn to the film’s employment of the camera, its ability to capture beauty in the landscapes as well as complexities in the characters.

Wuthering Heights is probably the best adaptation you’ll see all year. I’m not saying that because it follows every facet of Brontë’s novel to a T; if that’s what you expect out of an adaptation, you’re probably better off waiting for a three-part film of a 300-page novel (oh wait, that’s The Hobbit.). Rather, it’s a fully cinematic evocation, one that runs so deep you’re likely to forget it was a book in the first place. Eschewing all literary pretenses so tantamount to most films adapted from esteemed novels—for instance, voiceover narration and static, lush cinematography—this Wuthering Heights is muted, subjective, and painful.

The phrase “overwhelmingly sensual” entered the conversation I had about the film with a group of colleagues after a special advance screening at Westwood’s Billy Wilder Theater last weekend. This unmistakable sensual quality emerges through the camera, and I cannot help but continue to try and explore how the cinematography accomplishes this. Atmosphere is carefully considered: landscape shots and production design alternately invoke richness and sparseness. It is just as easy to feel in awe of the fog rolling over the impossibly green hills as it is to feel struck by the creakiness and claustrophobia of the country home. The camera often travels with the characters in a given scene, but it cuts in to focus on intimate details. The slow pace of the film, which builds carefully across scenes and acts, creates a feeling of being absorbed in both the characters’ perspectives and the beauty surrounding them.

Continue reading “Two Perspectives on Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’” »

The Mediascape Roundtable: The Film Studies Canon and ‘Sight & Sound’

Once per decade since 1952, Sight & Sound—the monthly publication of the British Film Institute—has conducted a worldwide poll of critics and filmmakers to determine the 10 greatest films of all time. To discuss the film studies canon in relation to the 2012 poll, which was unveiled on August 1, the Mediascape Blog convened a roundtable of four film studies graduate students. Their conversation can be read or listened to below, or downloaded in MP3 format.


Click to download “TheMediascapeRoundtable_TheFilmStudiesCanonAndSight&Sound.mp3” (66 minutes, 90.4 MB)

Moderator: J.M. Olejarz

Mediascape Blog: Jimmy, why don’t you introduce yourself first, then we’ll go around the circle, so to speak.

Jimmy Gilmore: OK. I’m Jimmy, I’m just about to start the second year of the M.A. [in Cinema and Media Studies] at UCLA.

MB: Cliff?

Cliff Galiher: Am I next? I’m Cliff, I’m a first-year Ph.D. at USC, just finished up my Master’s [in Cinema and Media Studies] at UCLA.

MB: Eliot?

Eliot Bessette: My name’s Eliot Bessette, I’m a first-year Ph.D. student in Film and Media Studies at [UC] Berkeley, and before that I was in Cliff’s year in the M.A. program at UCLA.

Maya Smukler: Hi, I’m Maya, I got my Master’s and Ph.D. at UCLA in the critical studies department, and I’m two years [All But Dissertation]. And that’s it.

MB: I’m Josh [Olejarz], for those—well, I think you all know me, except for Maya. I’m a second-year Master’s [student] at UCLA, and I’ll be moderating tonight. Ready to get started, everybody? I was thinking to begin you could each, one at a time, say what your personal view of the canon is—what you think of it generally, general impressions, is it useful, is it not useful, and maybe we can get something going from that. Jimmy, do you want to start us off? Continue reading “The Mediascape Roundtable: The Film Studies Canon and ‘Sight & Sound’” »