Pretty Pictures: Production Design and the History Film – capsule

C. S. Tashiro’s Pretty Pictures: Production Design and the History Film isn’t really about production design – at least not like some of the other texts I’ve reviewed here. While the term “production design” clearly features in the title, and the monograph features rich formal analysis of the design of several historical films (see below), the book seems to be more about mise-en-scène analysis than about the practice of designing films. Its visual analysis attends to cinematography – including framing, lighting, and issues of perspective – costume design, and performance in addition to production design.

However, this isn’t to say that the text isn’t rich with a visual analysis that students of production design will benefit from. Tashiro’s writing is at its best when it draws inferences from his subject’s mise-en-scène about viewer expectation and satisfaction. He’s particularly strong in differentiating between design in European and Hollywood production, even if some of the conclusions he draws somewhat predictably valorize European art film design sensibilities.

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Field Day Podcast: Polly Platt interview

At the end of July 2020, the kind folks at the Field Day podcast (specifically, Cormac Deane) invited to me to chat about my research and writing on Polly Platt. The conversation, which stretches just over an hour, ranged from discussing the problems of auteurism (which, see here and here), to the rise of the “New Hollywood” in the 1970s, to lots of talk about Platt’s work, her creativity, and my thoughts about her film authorship.

Listen here:

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Video Essay: Polly Platt – Designing the ’80s

Polly Platt is best known for two phases in her long Hollywood career. First, for her work as a production designer on some of the great films of the New Hollywood era (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, The Bad News Bears). As I’ve argued elsewhere, including in a previous video essay, Platt’s design work in the ’70s contributed significantly to the changing look and feel of American cinema during that era (along with Dean Tavoularis and Richard Sylbert, among others).

The second great phase of Platt’s career came with her production work in the ’80s and ’90s, mostly during her time at Gracie Films and through her long association with James L. Brooks. Producing films like Broadcast News, Say Anything, and Bottle Rocket, Platt further developed her reputation as a deeply knowledgeable and creative filmmaker who had a near unparalleled ability to see the micro and macro elements of film production at the same time. She also became well known for mentoring new and first-time filmmakers, including Brooks himself, but also Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, and J.J. Abrams (Platt helped Abrams develop a film idea that would eventually become the TV show Felicity).

In addition to these two phases (and her long-running work as a screenwriter), Platt also continued working as a production designer in the ’80s, particularly on four feature films: Young Doctors in Love, The Man with Two Brains, Terms of Endearment, and The Witches of Eastwick. In this video essay, I take a look at Platt’s work on those four films. I consider how she maintained her commitment to onscreen realism and to creating emotional spaces, while also deftly responding to the new visual aesthetics of 1980s Hollywood cinema.

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Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation – capsule review

Mise-en-scène can be a thorny critical area for students and scholars of production design. Nearly seventy years after its deployment by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, the term still carries the baggage of auteurism. Much of the scholarly writing on mise-en-scène is auteurist in nature and continues to argue that a film’s mise-en-scène is solely the product or work of the director. In fact, so wedded are the concepts that in some writing it’s less an argument than an assumption. It’s not uncommon for mise-en-scène analysis to make no mention whatsoever of individual production designers.

Because of its association with close formal analysis, mise-en-scène analysis is also often regarded as outdated and maybe a bit musty, along with other types of textual analysis. 

And it doesn’t help that the definition of the term seems to shift somewhat over time and with the user. Ask a group of film scholars whether mise-en-scène includes actors or lighting and you’re likely to get as many answers as there are scholars in the group.

Despite these perceived drawbacks, however, mise-en-scène analysis can be incredibly useful when studying production design. It has a rich history and there are numerous texts to draw on, including some of the foundational texts of modern film studies by writers like Laura Mulvey or Thomas Elsaesser. And because it’s so wedded to questions of authorship, it can be appropriated by scholars of production design interested (like myself) in arguing for the role that design plays in a film’s authorship.

John Gibbs’s 2002 monograph Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation (Wallflower) is a very useful primer on both the concept itself and the history and state of scholarship (at least, that is, up to 2002. Later in this series of capsule reviews, I hope to look at more recent additions to the field, particularly Adrian Martin’s Mise en Scène and Film Style, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

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Art Direction & Production Design – capsule review

Art Direction & Production Design (I.B. Tauris 2015), edited by Lucy Fischer, is a must-read for anybody – scholar or otherwise – who hopes to deepen their understanding of how film design has grown and developed from the earliest days of filmmaking to the present day. The book’s chapters are organised chronologically: 

  • “The Silent Screen, 1895-1927” (Fischer); 
  • “Classical Hollywood, 1928-1946” (Mark Shiel); 
  • “Postwar Hollwood, 1947-1967” (Merrill Schleier); 
  • “The Auteur Renaissance, 1968-1980” (Charles Tashiro); 
  • “The New Hollywood, 1981-1999” (J.D. Connor); 
  • “Hollywood’s Digital Backlot, 2000-present” (Stephen Prince). 

While the chapters do include some discussion of European influences (particularly during the various eras of European immigration to Hollywood) and independent cinema, the collection’s main area of focus is design and Hollywood cinema. Its particular focus is mainstream Hollywood cinema, as produced and distributed by the studios and, later, the joint efforts of studios and production companies that reconstructed Hollywood filmmaking in the wake of the studio era’s demise.

The chapters are structured somewhat similarly, with mild variations dependent on the era in question, available archival material, or each writers’ individual approach. Chapters generally begin by laying out the industrial state of production design at the start of the era in question, and the book has been thoughtfully edited so that each new chapter slightly revises the preceding one. Thus, if you hadn’t read, for example, Shiel’s chapter on “Classical Hollywood,” Schleier’s chapter on “Postwar Hollywood” quickly brings you up to speed on the state of production design in the years leading up to 1947. 

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Production Design: Architects of the Screen – capsule review

Jane Barnwell’s Production Design: Architects of the Screen was published by Wallflower in 2004, and it’s a fantastically handy guide for anybody who knows a bit about production design but is ready for a more thorough discussion of the process. Barnwell is an academic (senior lecturer in contemporary media practice at University of Westminster) with practical experience as a production designer and art director in film and television. As such, she ably combines research into the history of production design, film analysis, and practical knowledge of how production design works on contemporary film sets.

It’s in the latter area that this book excels and why I would recommend it. The book includes a section on the process of design (Chapter Three: From Concept to Construct) that clearly articulates how involved the production designer is in the filmmaking process throughout all phases of production, including, these days, post-production as the designer is likely to work collaboratively with the special effects department to make sure post-production effects correspond with the design strategy of the film. The monograph elaborates on this in Chapter Five: The Role of Technology.

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Production Design Texts: Introduction

As any scholar who writes about production design will tell you, film studies has not traditionally been very enthusiastic in its engagement with the topic of who actually creates the practical images we see on screen – or how they do it. Production design is a fundamental component of filmmaking – and has been from the very beginning – and yet how it’s done, who does it, and its impact on filmmaking, film meaning, and film reception are scarcely covered in scholarly or critical literature.

Quick: name your top three production designers.

For most readers, for most scholars even, it’s probably much easier to name three cinematographers or editors than it is to name three production designers, even though production design is a fundamental component of all films – in fact cinematography and production design are probably the two components of filmmaking that exist in every frame of every fiction film you’ve ever seen.

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Video Essay: “Pray for Mama”

“Pray for Mama”: Circumvented Trauma in Paper Moon

Paper Moon (The Directors Company/Paramount 1973) is a lovely little film. Set in the Depression-era Midwest, it features charming performances by Ryan O’Neal, Madeline Khan, John Hillerman, and nine-year-old Tatum O’Neal (Ryan’s daughter). László Kovács’s black and white cinematography is stunning, Polly Platt’s lovingly meticulous production design is highly evocative of the mid-30s, and it’s all directed with crisp efficiency by Peter Bogdanovich. The film received mixed reviews on its release, but was a box office smash, and Tatum O’Neal went on to win an Oscar for best supporting actress (although she’s the star of the film), still the youngest ever winner of an Academy Award.

As I’ve been researching the work and career of Polly Platt over the past couple of years, I’ve become a bit obsessed with this film. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best work in her filmography (or in Bogdanovich’s), but I do think it’s a lot better even than its pretty good reputation. Part of what makes it work is that it’s a film that’s very concerned with its surface – not just the striking cinematography and design, but the beautiful actors and the slight, rapidly paced script that hops from one set piece to the next with a refreshing buoyancy that is part of what makes the film still hold up remarkably well today.

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Video Essay: Polly Platt – Authorship by Design

As I’ve discussed in detail in earlier blog posts, Polly Platt was a key Hollywood figure for decades. She’s mainly remembered for her production design on a variety of films, in both credited and uncredited roles, between 1968-1987. But she also played significant roles as a writer, costume designer, location scout, and, later, producer, in a career that lasted until shortly before her death in 2011.

Much of the history and critical scholarship of creativity in 1970s Hollywood has been written about the decade’s larger-than-life men – directors like Altman and Scorsese, or producers like Bob Evans. However, the decade also saw an explosion of new talent behind the camera, in roles like cinematographer, designer, editor, and writer. And much of that creative force included women like Platt, who performed tremendous amounts of labour in creating the look, feel, and potential meanings of their films.

In this video essay, I briefly outline some of the signature components of Platt’s design work in the 1970s, and try to show how significant her contribution was to the films she worked on – the ways that, as one of the primary creative talents on her films, acted as one of their authors.

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Teaching Film Studies after Weinstein

This is my take on the recent disclosures about Harvey Weinstein. It is not meant to replace or supersede or in any way silence the many more heartfelt, eloquent, painful takes that others – mainly women – have been offering. I’m writing both as a male and as a film scholar and educator who considers himself an ally of women. I have a feeling most of what I have to say is obvious on the level of duh! to most of the women I know, so maybe there’s an implied male audience here. In any case, I welcome any feedback, criticisms, or suggestions for improvement from women or men who might read this.

Harvey Weinstein is not an exception. Not an outlier or an anomaly. Harvey Weinstein is the rule. This is not to say that every man in America or every man in the 21st century is a sexual aggressor or abuser (and let’s just get #notallmen out of the way – we’re engaged in an examination of deeply rooted cultural trends and systemic abuse here, which necessitates a broad approach. If that offends you, you’re behind the curve – maybe take a sociology class).

But modern culture – with whatever other qualifiers you want to use (American, Western, human, etc.) – is designed to allow and perpetuate sexual abuse. Particularly by men and most especially against women. It’s an inherent, fundamental part of the glue that makes patriarchy stick. It’s in our institutions, our languages, our politics, our education, our sport and leisure, and most definitely in our art.

And it fills in the cracks where all those different parts of life and culture intersect.

I study and teach film and other screen media. To do so, one needs to have a language of art, but also of commerce, of industry, of history. And to do justice to any of those fields and their intersections, you have to understand gender.

I’m not an expert in that field, but here are a few things that are clear if you look closely enough at film studies as an academic discipline. Continue reading

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