Getting the Picture

For newly hired theorist and critic Rembert Hueser, it’s all about the frame.

Rembert Hueser has been known to plunk down eight bucks just to sit through a bad movie’s opening titles. So avid is his interest in what happens in the opening minutes of a film that even years later, he can provide a frame-by-frame analysis of the cat who prowls suggestively through the title sequence of a movie often derided as one of the trashiest ever, Edward Dmytrk’s 1962 Walk on the Wild Side.

“It’s true that I sometimes go to the cinema and the film’s over for me after the first three minutes,” says Hueser, a scholar of film, culture, and German studies who joined the GSD faculty last fall. “It’s also often the case that the titles are the best part of the film, much smarter than what comes afterward.”

Analyzing title sequences from a century of Hollywood movies is one of the more interesting ways Hüser probes how we come by our understandings and interpretations of things—whether our “readings” of films or books, or the assumptions we take with us as American tourists in Germany (or vice versa). Hüser does his most productive digging not on the well-trod paths, but off to the side or under the surface—in theoretical parlance, in the “paratext.”

“It’s about all the things that belong to a text, but that also are somewhat separate from it,” Hüser explains. “The frame around the painting. The cover, blurb, and intro to a book. The footnotes. The titles to a movie. When you look closely at what’s going on at the margins, very often you can understand the processes of signification in a more complex and complete way.”

Literary archaeology
If Hueser’s “digging” sounds faintly archaeological, that’s not surprising. Growing up in northwest Germany, Hueser pored over 17th-century chronicles in Muenster-based archives to locate battlefields of the Thirty Years’ War, and he longed to wield a shovel of his own in a nearby excavation of a huge Roman military camp that might have been the legendary “Aliso.” He became a scholar of literature and history instead, not just because of the shaky job prospects for archaeologists but also because his interests were too wide-ranging to be confined to literal digs.

Combining the build of a linebacker with the perpetually ironical expression of a born philosopher, Hueser describes himself as “an intellectual dilettante” much like his father—a classic autodidact who earned his living as a civil servant but lived to take university classes and to read widely in seven languages.

“I’m always hopping from one project to another, pursuing several parallel tracks,” says Hüser, who also credits the formative inspiration of his mother, “a factory secretary who expressed great creativity on the side” in avocations such as dressmaking.

“If there’s a pattern to my own work, it’s wanting to ask questions about the structure of knowledge. It’s not about ‘mastery.’ I just want to pose interesting questions, not necessarily ‘find answers.’”

Following the questions
For a scholar who sees German studies as a bridge to many other disciplines, getting hired by GSD at Minnesota is “like winning the lottery,” says Hueser, who taught for the better part of a decade at the University of Bonn (“a very old-fashioned university”). He has long admired the work of GSD faculty. As a graduate student, he read volumes of Theory and History of Literature, the influential book series edited for 20 years by GSD’s Jochen Schulte-Sasse, along with texts by Arlene Teraoka and Rick McCormick; recently, he relied on work by Jack Zipes in teaching a class on Walt Disney.

The department’s reputation for eclectic interdisciplinarity—its openness to the intrepid, the hybrid, and the new—makes it a good fit for a scholar whose curiosity knows few bounds. Hueser has written on such disparate subjects as the rhetoric of criticism, the cultural politics of the reunification of Germany, textual strategies in reading Beckett, the dynamics of tourism, the “longing for glamour” in national discourse, the layers of allusion in a TV automobile commercial, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, horror film fan pages on the Web, the German response to 9/11, and Shakespeare reception in 18th-century German literature.

Hüser uses the term dilettantism to describe his inability to stay put, intellectually speaking, but the better term might be serial obsession. He goes wherever his questions take him. “If the questions you explore are productive, they’ll bring up other questions. You just keep pushing into what you don’t know.”

The films within the films
At present, Hüser is wholly preoccupied with his interest in the forms and functions of movie title sequences—“those interesting little films within films,” in Hueser’s words. Because they are produced separately from the film proper, often by a creative team given a long leash by the director, the titles are a kind of parallel universe to the feature film. The best of the best— such as those of legendary film title director Saul Bass, whose dozens of riveting titles included Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm, North by Northwest, and the aforementioned Walk on the Wild Side—are virtuosic displays of compressed storytelling.

The primary function of title sequences is analogous to that of a book’s title page: to state the name of the film and establish who brought it into being. Typically, the front end of a film will list the producers, director, actors, cinematographer, composer, editor, and writer. But when Hueser leans forward in his theater seat watching the titles roll by for Psycho or Anatomy of a Murder—to name two other Bass masterpieces— it’s not just to squint at the actors’ names. Titles fascinate film buffs and cultural critics like Hueser because they riff off the themes and story of a film to summarize and symbolize the film, to establish a mood, and to tell stories of their own.

Hooked on titles
Hueser’s interest in film is longstanding and ardent; he thought nothing of screening 400 films while helping to program a German film festival in the late 1990s. But his scholarly gaze was drawn from the feature to the titles only after he attended a talk by Saul Bass himself at the New York School of Visual Arts in 1996. After sitting through the Bass titles for many Hitchcock films, as well as for the likes of Exodus and Goodfellas, Hueser was hooked.

“It’s really fascinating once you see several title sequences in a row. You realize the astonishing potential of the form,” Hueser says. “Not all titles are interesting, of course. But most of the time, titles offer intriguing readings on the film that follows. What’s packed into these compact little vehicles of communication can be incredibly sophisticated.”

Because little in titles is accidental, Hueser says, nothing is beneath notice—from the footage used (clips from the film or new scenes shot by the title team) to the typography, graphics, music, animation, and special effects.

“Once you become accustomed to looking at titles, you see the games being played,” says Hüser. “You see how images turn emblematic, how a whistle is used to underscore something. You also see how surprisingly self-reflexive Hollywood is—for instance, how some titles slyly mess around with the corporate logos of the lion, the mountain, or the lady with the torch.”

Archival research
Hüser conducts much of his research at film archives in Los Angeles. His indefatigable eagerness to screen the most obscure title reel has made him well-known at both the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a little-known warehouse treasure trove of Pacific Title and Art Studio (whose productions span the intertitle cards of 1920s silents, the glass-plate titles of the 1950s and sixties, and the splashy digital titles of today’s blockbusters).

Because of the remarkable breadth and depth of his research (including detailed interviews with 12 title producers and observation of the digital title production for The Mummy Returns), he is fast becoming a leading expert on titles, with many articles and publications to his credit. He will soon publish a book-length essay on the titles in Hitchcock films and is at work on a more comprehensive book project.

Bigger questions
Hueser feels so in his element exploring titles that he jokes he’s entertained the idea of “leaving academia to work in the Pacific Title warehouse.” Yet he emphasizes that his interest in title semiotics— in how, say, the titles of the 2002 release Panic Room, with giant unattached letters floating in the air about Manhattan, conjure up the post-9/11 sense of mourning— is only one reflection of “my obsession with texts in general: academic writing, popular literature, newspapers, film—all the ways knowledge is structured and communicated.”

Not surprisingly, Hueser is a pack rat. “If you had seen my former apartment, you probably would have run out of it immediately,” he laughs, describing towering piles of books, photos, videos, and project files. The title work is all-consuming now, but in Hueser’s piles are other works in progress intended to interrogate what goes on “in texts at the margins, or in the spots where people feel least observed.”

One of Hueser’s ongoing projects involves elucidating a new critical rhetoric—a way of writing more meaningfully about literature and other texts. His work in this area boils down to their essence the structure and language of written works, whether by Heinrich von Kleist, Thomas Mann,Virginia Woolf, or a contemporary critic writing in a scholarly journal.

This deconstructionist project, which is likely to be of keen interest to literary theorists, offers readings of texts that are organized around evocative metaphors gleaned from a penetrating analysis of the work itself. In some respects, this is not entirely unlike what the creators of a title sequence do with a film.

Another project—“my next great passion; I’m already buying books for it on e-bay,” Hüser says—examines narratives by German tourists in the United States, both in the 1920s and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, to “explore the cultural markers that you take with you when you travel. By this I mean the beliefs and fantasies that inevitably shape how we ‘read’ our experiences when we travel to a new place.” (“German Projections of ‘Amerika’” was, not incidentally, the first course Hueser taught upon his arrival at Minnesota last fall.)

Hüser’s future course list reflects his sweeping interdisciplinarity: a course on German terrorism of the 1970s. One on representation of the Holocaust. One on the rhetoric of case studies. And, naturally, a course on film titles.

That he has the space he needs to pursue his rangy intellect is, he says, confirmation of “everything people told me about this department when I was making the decision to leave Germany to come here.

“I didn’t want to go to the U.S. to end up in Bonn all over again,” says Hüser. “People said GSD was the place to be for people who don’t want to fit into a narrow definition of German studies. It turns out they were absolutely right—it’s the perfect place for me to be pursuing my dilettante dreams.”

REMBERT HeSER

Focus: Cultural studies, film studies, literary criticism.

EDUCATION: Dr. phil., U of Bielefeld (German lit).

RECENT PUBLICATIONS: Hitchcock: The First Three Minutes (Legenda, forthcoming); “9/11 and 911: Links to Link” (Cultural Critique, 2004); “Rock You!” Freund, Feind, Verrat (Dumont, 2004); “The Best Year of Our Lives: The 74th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony” (Soziale Systeme, 2003).

FAMILY: Spouse, Verena Mund, a film scholar and former director of the Feminale film festival.

HOME: A 1916 house in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis—”near the Mississippi River; in Germany, I lived close to the Rhine. I ride along the river on my old three-speed touring bike.”

PUTS DOWN THE BOOKS FOR: Going to the movies or Gophers women’s basketball games (“I first made the mistake of buying a season ticket for the men’s team—the women’s team is much smarter and tougher”); checking out bands at the First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis (“I was a singer in a punk rock garage band as a teenager; I’m still a teenybopper, into bands like the English band The Fall”).

LAST GOOD MOVIE SEEN: Punch-Drunk Love (“made by P.T. Anderson, one of the American directors I like very much”); Kill Bill [1 & 2]; the restored Adventures of Robin Hood at the Heights; and the complete Bollywood [Indian cinema] series.

ON MY NIGHTSTAND: Lakota Society by James R. Walker (“an ethnography by the physician on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early 20th century”); Gertrude Stein’s How Writing is Written (“’Off We All Went to See Germany’ is brilliant—just incredibly funny”).

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on March 6, 2009 10:04 AM.

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