Category Archives: Reviews

Art Institute of Chicago: Nothing Personal

This week I’m in Chicago!

“Nothing Personal”

During my visit to the fabulous Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a provocative exhibition that in part relates to one of my favorite movies: Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996). The exhibit “Nothing Personal” interrogates the politics of the archive and includes the fictional, photographic archive of Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), who is an elusive, but central character in Dunye’s movie. For the movie, artist Zoe Leonard created an archive charting Fae Richards’s life. It’s these fabricated documents that are now on display at the AIC.

The Watermelon Woman follows young black, lesbian filmmaker Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), who works in a video store in Philadelphia with her best friend, and occasional camera assistant, Tamara (Valarie Walker). When she’s not working, Cheryl is making a documentary movie about the deceased Fae Richards, a black actress who featured in Hollywood 1930s movies playing “Mammie” roles and who only ever received credit as the “Watermelon Woman.” Over the course of her research Cheryl discovers that Richards was romantically involved with movie director Martha Page – a type of Dorothy Arzner figure. Cheryl shoots her documentary on video, and the clips from her film are intercut with Cheryl’s confessional video diary, real archival footage, and the faux, fabricated footage from Richards’s movies.

Cheryl records her video diary, while surrounded by her archive of Fae Richards memorabilia.

Cheryl records her video diary, while surrounded by her archive of Fae Richards memorabilia. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

During Cheryl’s quest to make her documentary, the film repeatedly and brilliantly challenges archival practices. Cheryl visits a multitude of sites in pursuit of information about Richards’s life. She first pays a visit to Lee Edwards’s home: Edwards is a black film historian and collector of race movies. While Edwards’s collection is vast, when Cheryl asks him about the Watermelon Woman he tells her “women are not my specialty.” Cheryl and Tamara next visit the public library where at the reference desk they encounter a snooty white male librarian, coded as gay. He tells the women that the library doesn’t hold any reference category on black women in film.  A further excursion takes Cheryl to the Center for Lesbian Info and Technology (cheekily referred to as C.L.I.T.). This haphazardly organized, comically bureaucratic archive run by an all-volunteer collective holds a few items on Richards’s life, but Cheryl is forbidden from using them in her film (Many of these photographs appear on exhibition today at AIC). While the movie makes a serious political point about the difficulties of conducting research on history’s most marginalized people and explores a black filmmaker’s complex relationship with America’s exploitative movie heritage, Dunye’s film never loses its sense of cinephilia and fun.


Cheryl is scolded by one of the archivists at C.L.I.T. for attempting to videotape items from the Fae Richards Collection. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

The mise-en-scene of the video store where Cheryl works also resembles something of an archive due to the stacks and stacks of videotapes that loom behind the store’s front desk. In addition to archivists, the clerks perform the roles of film curators, programmers, and reviewers. They order and collect the non-mainstream videos they want to see (many of these are lesbian and pornographic). They also advise customers on what movies they should rent, and in the “two for one video deal” Cheryl suggests movies that will complement each other. The Watermelon Woman is a movie indebted to videotape, but it’s also something of a celebration of video’s aesthetic and the medium itself.  In the nineties, the innovations and affordability of the camcorder along with the availability of video rentals permitted a new film culture to flourish and enabled the New Queer Cinema movement. A movement indisputably enriched by Dunye’s contributions.

Cheryl and Tamara working together in the video store. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

Cheryl and Tamara working together in the video store. The Watermelon Woman (1996).

If you watch The Watermelon Woman today you may be struck by how the movie hasn’t dated, and this seems quite a feat given its relationship to videotape! I could almost believe Cheryl and Tamara are out there right now working in the last video store in Philadelphia. But rather than timelessness, perhaps this is a matter of timeliness given the parallels between The Watermelon Woman and Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black (2014-). To draw just one superficial comparison, the relationship and banter that Cheryl and Tamara share in the video store very much resembles the friendship and back-and-forth between Taystee and Poussey, who work together in the library in OITNB. Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to have made this connection. Journalists have asked Dunye to comment on the similarities between her work and OITNB, especially since Dunye actually made a movie about a womens’ prison. Thankfully, Dunye’s nineties movies seem to be receiving greater recognition today. As critic Ruby Rich notes about New Queer Cinema – the term she coined – “the movement…was always eleventy-zillion light-years ahead of the mainstream.” It therefore seems about the right time for the AIC to put on this exhibition that partly pays homage to The Watermelon Woman.

You can currently stream The Watermelon Woman on Amazon Prime.


Another highlight of my visit to the AIC was encountering Edward Hopper’s celebrated painting Nighthawks (1947).

Edward Hopper

What you don’t get a sense of from reproductions of the painting is the luminosity of the yellow. I stood four rooms back and could still see the brightly lit diner glowing in the distance.

Nighthawks Glowing in the Distance. On Display at AIC.


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To Wisconsin and back again: Film and History 2015

I had a great time last weekend at the Film and History Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. It was wonderful to meet up with old and new friends. Film and History is often referred to as one of the friendliest and most collegiate conferences in the Untied States and I’ve certainly found this to be the case.

My presentation was on the unique production history of Cover Girl (1944) written by Virginia Van Upp, and starring Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly and Lee Bowman. I’m extremely grateful to the panel organizer Deborah Carmichael and my fellow panelist Philip Sewell, both of whom gave insightful and meticulously researched presentations on local exhibition strategies. I’m also super appreciative for the advice I received in the Q&A session from the scholars who attended our panel. It’s so fabulous to come back from a conference and feel this inspired.

Below are a few of the PowerPoint slides I included in my talk.

I like to think of the below title slide’s background as ‘ironic pink.’ The movie employs the same pink satin background for its titles and credits.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 7.54.11 PM

Continue reading

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An Evening of Illuminations: Germaine Dulac’s Movies Screen at New York University



Lillian Constantini (unidentified shot) from “Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations”


On the evening of Wednesday, March 4th in the Cinema Studies Department at NYU, guest speaker Dr. Tami Williams (English Dept. U of Wisconsin – Milwaukee) presented a program of moving images by French feminist and pioneer of avant-garde cinema, Germaine Dulac (1882-1942). Williams introduced and contextualized each of the movies screened, drawing from her recent book Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations (University of Illinois Press, 2014).  Continue reading

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An Evening of Stargazing

Authors Discuss How to Write and Publish in the Field of Star Studies


“’British Film Institute Star Studies Panel’ (from left to right) Martin Shingler, Cynthia Baron, Jacqueline Reich, Keri Walsh).” Photo courtesy of Fordham University English Department.

On the evening of Friday, September 19 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center, I attended an engaging and productive panel discussion entitled “British Film Institute Star Studies.” The session focused on “the thorniest questions encountered in star studies” contributing to Fordham’s three-day conference “Rethinking Realist Acting,” organized to confront established notions about realism in film and theater.

The panelists, speaking from personal experience, introduced some of the challenges scholars face when writing about a screen star and suggested various methodological approaches to negotiating them. The four panel speakers were the editor and authors of books on movie stars, three speakers had written BFI series books. Continue reading

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How Americans Came to View Old Movies

Eric Hoyt’s original focus and smart approach provides a new perspective on what we may have considered familiar film history.


Eric Hoyt, Hollywood Vault: Film Libraries Before Home Video, University of California Press, 2014, 288 pp.

As a film historian I think about movies a lot, however I’ve never been more conscious of the physical size and weight of film until a recent visit to a collector’s apartment in Manhattan. Standing in his kitchenette – one of the many rooms given over to his film collection – he explained: “I removed the stove for more space. I couldn’t use it anyway because the heat would damage the film. Now I just microwave everything.” I returned a look that expressed something of both awe and concern. The space, effort, and cost required to preserve film proves considerable so if you’re not storing it out of love it needs to have value. While individuals may be susceptible to the former, the latter motivates corporations. “When did old movies become valuable?” This is the question Eric Hoyt asks at the start of his book Hollywood Vault, which traces the changing valuation of film libraries across six decades from their emergence in the silent era through to their acquisition by conglomerates in the late sixties (2). Continue reading

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“The Andy Griffith Show” Receives Scholarly Attention

Pérez Firmat’s A Cuban in Mayberry creatively combines memoir with the intense study of a single television show.


Gustavo Pérez Firmat, A Cuban in Mayberry: Looking Back at America’s Hometown, University of Texas Press, 2014, 194 pp.

Living in America as an exile in the forties, Theodor Adorno wrote: “Every intellectual in emigration is, without exception, mutilated and does well to acknowledge it to himself…He lives in an environment that must remain incomprehensible to him…he is always astray” (Minima Moralia, 33). Cuban exile, and Professor of Literature at Columbia University, Gustavo Pérez Firmat echoes something of this sentiment in his book A Cuban in Mayberry, as he describes how the émigré suffers a “strictly irreplaceable” loss of “intimacy between person and place” (12). Attempting to comprehend the ‘incomprehensible,’ Adorno turned his sharp, critical eye on American popular culture which infamously did not fair well. It fairs far better under Pérez Firmat’s analytical gaze. Pérez Firmat posits that the analysis of U.S. pop culture goes some way to alleviating his feeling of displacement. Indeed, he takes refuge in the complex, fictional TV town of Mayberry where its residents – the characters of The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS) – “have never lost their place” (10). Pérez Firmat states: “watching TAGS, I developed a sense of what it must be like to enjoy such intimacy, to feel rooted in the ground under your feet and to know that you live among people who are similarly rooted”(11). Creatively combining memoir with the intense study of a single television show, Pérez Firmat’s book astutely and gracefully analyzes how TAGS, one of the most popular sitcoms in U.S. television history, has managed to turn “millions of Americans and at least one Cuban into Mayberrians” (15). Needless to write, Adorno with his justified suspicion of such cultural hegemony would have hated TAGS. Continue reading

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