Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image

John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel (eds.)
Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image
Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8166-6517-4 (Paperback)
376 pp
US$27.50 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

In a couple of ways John David Rhodes and Elena Gorfinkel have assembled what is an ideal collection of writings on location and the moving image. First, the collection brings together some of the most distinctive voices in contemporary film studies, many of whom are working on larger projects of their own, and doing so provides a series of glimpses into a whole world of scholarly work that takes location as a vital and important part of those projects. Secondly, the collection itself is a multifarious accounting for location in as diverse locations as Buster Keaton’s Los Angeles of the 1920s, Italian neo-realism’s Esposizione Universale Romana, the wonderous sleaze and pornography of The Deuce, New York’s Times Square of the 1960s, the studio landscapes of Cinecittà as refugee camp of the immediate postwar in Rome, the imaginary of South Africa and other colonialisms and the interspace of Okinawa and Hong Kong as well as some truly intriguing accounts of the work of location in the moving image.

Charles Wolfe’s ‘From Venice to the Valley: California Slapstick and the Keaton Comedy Short’ emerges from Wolfe’s much anticipated monograph on Buster Keaton and American modernity. Here Wolfe, in characteristic form, grounds his work in the historical world of Abbot Kinney’s fantastical Venice amusement park come residential community of the turn of the 20th Century. The public life of this Southern Californian hymn to modern liveliness attracted Keaton as the setting for his shorts The High Sign (1921) and The Balloonatic (1923). As we have come to expect from Wolfe, ‘From Venice to the Valley’ melds acute textual analysis, with an imaginative film history methodology, and a turn to what we used to call cultural studies, in articulating some intricate commentary on the emergence of a philosophy of modernity not just ‘in the air’ but textually, within Keaton’s own films as they resonate with the cultural shifts of the period.

Similarly, John David Rhodes’ grounded, yet marvellous historical work on the city of Rome in Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome (2007) and the newer Antonioni: Centenary Essays (with Laura Rascaroli) (2011) can be understood as part of the new wave of scholarship on neo-realism. Like Wolfe’s contribution, Rhodes’ ‘The Eclipse of Place: Rome’s EUR from Rossellini to Antonioni’ is an intriguing meditation on the function of the EUR, symbolised by the Pallazzo della civilità italiani in a manner which reflects Antonioni’s own audio-visual contemplation of place in L’Eclisse (1962). For Rhodes, “if EUR began life as a shrill and noxious attempt to make a place, and if its architecture symbolizes an ideology, Antonioni’s usage and inhabitation of it in 1962 makes us wonder about the seductive entwinement of symbolization and place” (47-8). In working to understand the function of place and its representation in film, Rhodes, provides an object lesson in contemporary film history.

In distinction from Wolfe and Rhodes’ reconsideration of the probably more familiar films of Keaton and Antonioni, Elena Gorfinkel’s ‘Tales of Times Square: Sexploitation’s Secret History of Place’ takes as its object the world of low-budget sexploitation films of the 1960s. These films can be regarded as documents of the period and its place with all its commingling of cultural forces that saw the genre’s emergence as well as indexical links to the Deuce, midtown New York City. Again part of Gorfinkel’s research project into American Sexploitation cinema of the 1960s and her larger work realm of erotic and sexploitation cinema ‘Tales of Times Square’ works to provide an articulation of the function of place, and of the ways in which these films document an imaginary which includes their own rendering of gender relations particular to this milieu. In bringing to light the many economic, political and cultural shifts that gave rise to Times Square’s sexploitation cinema, Gorfinkel provides a carefully thought through, scholarly and imaginative account of this cinema that is more often than not relegated to the ‘too-hard basket’ of cult cinema.

Anyone familiar with the new scholarship on neo-realism would be familiar with Noa Steimatsky’s Italian Locations: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema (2008). Surely one of the great film history books of the last few years, Steimatsky’s ‘The Cinecittà Refugee Camp, 1944-50’ is a distillation of that book (as far as I can tell). Like Wolfe, Rhodes and Gorfinkel, Steimatsky provides a wonderfully inventive film historical take on Italian neo-realism. As she tells us in the opening,

the conversion of one of Europe’s largest movie studios, Cinecittà, to a refugee camp has always seemed an odd footnote to the chronicles of Italian cinema. However, as one recognizes its material and historical vicissitudes, its true magnitude, the duration of its existence, and the broader social and political forces that governed its development, the camp emerges as a stunning phenomena and , in effect, a prime allegorical tableau. Once confronted, the existence of the camp marks our vision of postwar film history and, in particular, of neorealism.

Steimatsky continues to discuss the ways in which the Fascist State of Mussolini created the studios and how they continued to propel production during the war years until 1943 when production ceased and the sorry tale continued through German troop occupation and to the establishment of a displaced persons camp. In a particularly stunning paragraph on page 112 Steimatsky’s beautiful prose evinces the unfathomable painful unreality of hordes of displaced people faced with living in the manufactured worlds of cinema, a horrible unreality compared with the equally unreal reality outside the walls of the Cinecittà camp. In this contribution Steimatsky’s choice of Cinecittà, a simulacra of location, becomes an unbearable reality divorced from the world of confusion and insecurity despite the hope for the reconstruction of Europe which surrounds it. In this regard the term location becomes an unnervingly intricate affair but more imaginable due to Steimatsky’s imaginative work.

In her ‘The Placement of Shadows: What’s Inside William Kentridge’s Black Box/Chambre Noire?’ Frances Guerin examines Kentridge’s installation with a mind to articulate the deeper forces of colonialism that are made available to the spectator. Of particular interest to Guerin is the locating of Kentridge’s installation in the Deutsche Guggenheim “in the heart of reunited post-Wall Berlin” (234) providing the installation with not just a material setting but an historical one as well, implicating the history of German colonialism as a setting for Kentridge’s shadowy work. In this essay Guerin attends to the fantastical play of a host of shadows on the German capital as Kentridge’s work gives rise to the deep structures of German and, of course, South African colonialism that sits in the artist’s mind’s eye.

Rosalind Galt’s ‘Doing Away With Words: Synaesthetic Dislocations in Okinawa and Hong Kong’ is a curious yet enervating contribution to this collection. Working with Christopher Doyle’s directorial debut Away With Words (1999) Galt displays a productive ability to articulate the function of what, at least, two locations bring to bear on the film. While this may have been a companion piece to Guerin’s contribution, Galt instead employs a theoretical underpinning of the less well known discourse of synaesthesia and, again, what these colour locations and their histories provide for the film. In this way colour is a means by which to get to the deep cultural histories of location. Doyle’s work with Wong Kar Wai and in his Away with Words seems to elicit the kind of sympathetic (or synaesthetic) approach adopted by Galt and is an exemplar of the varied yet carefully adopted approach of these contributors.

Rhodes and Gorfinkel’s book is a varied and enervating collection that opens doors to not only a variety of locations but also to a variety of approaches to the ways in which location can be understood. Like the best edited collections it also opens doors to the worlds of some of the best film researchers working at the moment, and, in doing this provides a sense of the multifarious, intriguing possibilities for scholarship in contemporary film studies.

About the Author

Deane Williams

About the Author

Deane Williams

Deane Williams is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. His books include Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors (2008), Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane, 2009) and the three-volume Australian Film Theory and Criticism (co-edited with Noel King and Constantine Verevis, 2013–2017).View all posts by Deane Williams →