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“I Can Haz Film Fest”

I don’t have much to add to the existing discussion of the Internet Cat Film Festival, other than to say that I think it’s a brilliant illustration of the ways in which online activity can be used to facilitate collective online experiences. As the New York Times article on the festival points out, cat videos are one of the most popular attractions on YouTube, at least among content generated by amateurs. And many of the cats in the videos have, in fact, developed their own degree of celebrity.

Like many other similar genres, cat videos invite repeat viewings, and in many cases, the videos have acquired such a clear meaning that they can be used to comment on other aspects of popular or political culture (as the enduring power of the LOL Cats meme illustrates). Thus, even though many of these videos may be several years old and may have been seen millions of times, they still have the power to entertain, especially when they are watched collectively. The cat video that won the best of the fest award was Henri, Paw de deux, which has been around for several years, but which still manages to elicit laughs with its projection of existential angst onto its feline protagonist.

But I think it also illustrates one of the less emphasized aspects of internet video culture: the role of niche audiences in shaping reception. The event illustrates the degree to which many of the participants felt a sense of connectedness with other cat lovers (and cat video lovers). As one participant told the Times, “The more videos you’ve seen, the more ‘queen of the cat ladies’ you feel, so it’s nice to see that people are with you.”

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Remembering Chris Marker

I’m late to the countless tributes that have already been posted about French filmmaker, Chris Marker, the cine-essayist behind La jetée and Sans Soleil, as well as dozens of other films, but given Marker’s role in shaping my own interests in film and digital media, I’d like to add to those who’ve emphasized Marker’s insightful reflections on movies, history, and memory. I’d initially become engaged by Marker when I was thinking through Anne Friedberg’s discussion of cinema as a “time machine” when I stumbled across La jetée, almost by accident, reading about it (I think) in an issue of Entertainment Weekly before tracking it down. Twelve Monkeys came out around the same time–I think I saw Gilliam’s film first–and questions about memory, remaking the (cinematic) past, and narrative–immediately became more meaningful.

A few months later, I discovered that the same video store had a copy of Sans Soleil. During the opening sequence, in which Marker shows a group of Icelandic children and describes his attempts to link it to another image, I was immediately hooked–even pausing my VCR to gasp at the ideas he was exploring. Many years later, I attempted to work through some of the questions Marker introduced for me in an essay published in Rhizomes. It’s a youthful essay in that I think it tries to hard to attach Marker to current critical theory, but what I think is implied throughout the essay is my own fascination with Marker’s meditation on the possibilities of cinema.

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Film Studies Ryan Gosling

Waking up from a very long blogging slumber to point out the completely geeky but utterly hilarious Film Studies Ryan Gosling tumblr blog.

 

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Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

The filmmaker Roger Corman occupies a unique–and somewhat complicated–place in Hollywood history. He is perhaps the master low-budget exploitation film director and producer, with several hundred titles credited to him. His ability to produce visceral thrills through action and horror have become a template for the modern tentpole film. Movies like Jaws owe a tremendous debt to Corman’s style of filmmaking. Rather famously, Corman’s sets provided an early testing grounds for many of New Hollywood’s most significant actors and directors, including Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Jonathan Demme, and Ron Howard, all of whom are interviewed here, an apprenticeship system that Bruce Dern aptly described as “The University of Corman.” All of these complications emerge in Alex Stapleton’s engaging and (thanks to its liberal use of scenes from Corman’s films) incredibly fun documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, about one of cinema’s truest rebel figures.

The film opens with Corman, now in his mid-80s, continuing to work, directing a grisly attack scene from his latest film, Dinoshark. Corman’s affect while directing–and throughout the film, really–approaches bemused detachment. It’s clear that he enjoys making movies and making them on his terms, using a low budget and shooting very quickly. In fact, David Carradine remarks that Corman would rather “shoot a film in three days” than take a larger budget to create a film with more elaborate special effects. Corman’s World then flashes back, following Corman’s career roughly chronologically, from his early career working behind the scenes of the Hollywood film, Gunfight, before launching out as an independent when the studio neglects to give him credit for contributing to film’s story.

Eventually, Corman launches an independent film career, at a time when such careers were incredibly rare. he started with a three picture deal at American Independent and worked there for a while before launching his own New World production company.  Corman also discusses his attempts to create more aesthetically meaningful films, in particular an anti-segregation film, The Intruder, which he shot in the segregated south, often at some personal risk. Although the film was well-received, it failed at the box office, and Corman began considering more overtly commercial (and often exploitative) subjects, even while working in what he called “subtextual” messages into many of his films. Many of these included his depiction of the Hell’s Angels in Wild Angels, a film that helped pave the way for Easy Rider. As Tom Elrod notes, Corman’s World seems to imply, in fact, that many of Corman’s low-budget films were essentially repurposed, with bigger budgets, only to become big box office hits. The film also places slight emphasis on the fact that Corman was responsible for helping to distribute many of the European masters that came to shape modern Hollywood filmmaking, helping to introduce American audiences to Kurosawa, Truffaut, Bergman, and Fellini, showing Corman’s influence in that arena as well.

But the tone of the film becomes a little more wistful when it covers the industry shift in the 1970s toward blockbusters and entertainment franchises. In a characteristically understated fashion, Corman recalls that, “When I saw Star Wars, I said, ‘this is a threat to me.’” Nicholson, who displays a tremendous fondness for Corman is even more blunt, asserting, “I hated Star Wars,” in part because he recognized that it signified a turning point in the production of film. These reflections are punctuated with archival footage of factory workers assembling Star Wars toys and memorabilia, and the message is clear: Hollywood has become a factory for manufacturing products rather than making movies, and Corman and other independents and rebels like him are left out in the cold. Finally, as Elrod notes, Corman modestly, though rather bluntly, questions the massive budgets required to make Hollywood spectacles, arguing that a then-large $25 million budget would be better spent rebuilding a slum. Although such an opposition might be somewhat false, Corman’s attachment to the little guy and to his principles of low-budget filmmaking come across clearly.

Corman’s World offers what amounts to an engaging recuperation project, providing a fun introduction to a director who has shaped Hollywood, as well as independent filmmaking, in complex ways. the fact that Corman is a quiet, unassuming gentleman making what appears, on the surface at least, to be B-movie schlock makes his story even more enjoyable.

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Documentary Traditions

During the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Opening Night screening of Julie Moggan’s Guilty Pleasures (my review should be posted tomorrow), it occurred to me that I have been attending Full Frame for five years now. Ever since I began teaching at Fayetteville State, I have seen Full Frame as both an end of semester escape–a break from the rigors of teaching and grading–and an engaging way to catch some of the year’s best documentaries.

In some ways the event has become routine for me: I know the downtown Durham neighborhood and can navigate the Convention Center and all the screening locations quickly and easily. I even recognize many of the regulars, whether the guys who serve souvlaki or coffee, or even some of the regular attendees. And yet, at the same time, the festival is an escape from routine. Tonight, as I rushed from my afternoon class at Fayetteville State through rush hour traffic, I found myself nervously worrying that I would miss the opening night film and all of the rituals associated with the unofficial launch of this year’s festival. As it happened, I collected my press pass at 6:45 and managed to squeeze into the 7 PM screening just in time, thanks to some lucky parking, but in retrospect, it made me wonder about why I felt such an urgency to get to the festival when I did.

Part of the answer, at least for me, is that festivals seem to offer one of the more engaging sites of genuine collectivity and novelty associated with film culture. Festivals offer the pleasures of discovery, of finding out about that new filmmaker, of sharing in the collective pleasure of interacting with the filmmakers and subjects who make these films. They also offer the opportunity to be among the first people to encounter that film, the ability to be “in the know” (Charles Acland has made a similar argument about opening night screenings). I will add that the films that play at Full Frame never cease to engage me. Every once in a while I find myself weighing the possibility of cutting back on the number of movies I see, and yet, very year, I find myself spending hours standing in lines, walking into darkened theaters, before walking out blinking into the afternoon sun, jotting notes, and blogging about what I saw.

It’s almost impossible to believe that it has been five years since I first saw films like The Devil Came on Horseback, but Full Frame remains a vital and engaging part of my year, a spring ritual of anticipation, entertainment, and engagement.

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In Media Res Themed Week: Transmedia: New Platforms

Here’s an early reminder that I have a post coming up for MediaCommons’ In Media Res series.  This week’s theme is “Transmedia: New Platforms” and was organized by Elizabeth Strickler of Georgia State University. Here are this week’s posts:

Monday, October 11 – Janet Murray (Georgia Tech) presents: Inventing New Conventions for Digital Storytelling

Tuesday, October 12 – Henry Jenkins (University of Southern California) presents: Harry Shum Jr.: Dancing With and Without Glee

Wednesday, October 13 – Chuck Tryon (Fayetteville State University) presents: Learning from the Elders: Crowdfunding, Transmedia and Documentary

Thursday, October 14 – Christina Dunbar-Hester (Rutgers Universitiy) presents: 646-833-0759

Friday, October 15 – Jeff Watson (University of Southern California) presents: Games of Nonchalance

Looking forward to your comments!

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Reinventing Cinema Review in Film & History

Michael Marino is the most recent person to review Reinventing Cinema, this time in the journal, Film & History. The review is generally positive, with Marino remarking that  “Tryon’s book is generally interesting and well argued and it is clear he is an expert on this topic. The book does an excellent job outlining the evolution of the medium of film in the age of digital technology. This topic in turn speaks to wider themes related to the intersection of technology and society.”

He does criticize the book for not appearing critical enough of the ways in which corporate culture–such as media conglomerates–threaten to suffocate the democratizing aspects of digital cinema, an issue I thought about quite a bit when writing the book.  Ultimately, I decided that the “giant media entities” described by Marino couldn’t be reduced to a single intentionality or effect–note Paramount’s decision to support a small set of micro-budgeted genre films–and tried to navigate a fairly careful line between the many players involved in the digital transformation of cinema.  Still, it’s an insightful review that helped me to see some of my key arguments from a different perspective.

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More Political Ad Shenanigans

Not much to say about the latest internet ad from McCain that is–yet again–pushing the whole celebrity angle.  I’ll admit that the parody of hard-sell TV ads (“But wait, that’s not all…”) is mildly funny, but the ads continue to try to cast Obama as a celebrity or rock star, this time by pushing the idea that “hot chicks dig Obama.”  Like Erik Kleefeld of TPM, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the two women who describe Obama as attractive are white.

Meanwhile, the Obama camp hits back, depicting John McCain as a “Washington celebrity,” showing the Republican nominee hanging with a variety of talk show hosts, DC insiders, and most prominently, embracing George W. Bush.  While I like the ad’s basic message that McCain is putting the interests of lobbyists over those of the voters, though, the advertisement still seems a bit reactive to me.

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Wednesday Links

At least, I think it’s Wednesday…I always lose track of time in the summer. At any rate, here are the links:

  • First, a little self-promotion. Ted at Big Screen Little Screen took a short break from blogging while traveling to Tokyo, but to keep the blog running, he invited a group of film and media types, including myself, to guest blog. I ended up writing about this summer’s big topic: the indie film crisis and what it means for independent filmmakers and audiences.
  • Second, I wanted to mention that Jill Walker’s book on blogging is out. Readers in the UK can pick up the book via Amazon, but US readers will apparently have to wait a few more weeks. I’ve been reading Jill’s blog for years and can’t wait to read the book.
  • Finally, Chris Hansen has a proposed panel on any topic related to the Doctor Who phenomenon for this year’s Film & History Conference which will take place October 30-November 2 in Chicago. I’ll include the full text of the CFP below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Wednesday Night Links

Taking a break from the book to point to a few links and things:

  • First, the good news that the filmmakers behind Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed saw their rights to use the John Lennon song “Imagine” upheld in court under the doctrine of fair use.  While I found the film’s depiction of intelligent design to be misleading at best, I also felt their use of Lennon’s song should have been defended.  In the film, they use “Imagine” as a way of diagnosing what they believe to be a left-wing, Darwinist ideology, so while I find their reading of the song absurd, it is in some sense an interpretation.  Further, given that it was a borderline case, I do think it’s worthwhile to err on the side of protecting fair use (link via Agnes).
  • Second, while I am incredibly excited that Barack Obama has finally won the Democratic nomination, I have become increasingly frustrated by the degree to which the news media and Obama’s political rivals have increasingly identified him as either elitist or as condescending.  At some point, I’d like to write something longer on the problems of the desire to tag Obama with the elitist label, but for now, I’ll point to Todd Gitlin’s TPM Cafe column and Susan Jacoby’s New York Times editorial.
  • In my very limited spare time, I’ve been reading Mark Baurelein’s The Dumbest Generation.  In the past, I’ve been somewhat skeptical about some of Bauerlein’s claims about declining readership rates and the potential effects on the future of democracy, but in many places, I think he makes a compelling case.  I’ll try to write a longer blog post on the book if I have time, but I have a pretty long list of promised blog posts piling up, so we’ll see.

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Netflix Neighbors Revisited

I guess summertime is not only the time of equels and big Hollywood blockbusters but also of memes coming back to life.  I’ve been getting an unusual amount of search traffic for my post from a couple of years ago when I wrote about the Netflix “local favorites” feature, which at the time, I read as an attempt to simulate some of the localizing aspects of the neighborhood video store.  It turns out that the “Netflix neighbors” meme has been reborn with former Gawker writer Joshua Stein participating, among others.

The last time I tried out this meme, I noticed that Fayetteville tastes tended towards war movies and children’s movies, which isn’t surprising given the demographics here.  This time around, the top five are Karate Kid III (must be that Ralph Macchio cult here in town), The Unit: Season 2, Ned Kelly, Feel the Noise, and Shadowboxer.  Amazingly, I’m not even sure I’ve heard of the last two on that list.   Stein’s Williamsburg neighbors are just a little more interesting, at least from my perspective: they’re watching Do the Right Thing, La Jetee, and Blow Up.

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Video Store Nostalgia

This is apparently a few days old, but via the Guardian Film blog, I just came across this great Onion video, in which tourists go on “historical” tours of an old Blockbuster video.  The stores hire actors to play employees and customers, with tourists taking pictures and expressing amazement that people had to go through so much effort to watch a movie (one “customer” describes driving six miles twice a week, just to watch a movie).  And while it’s pretty humorous to see Blockbuster reduced to the subject of such a gag, it’s also a reminder of how much the practices of viewing movies at home have changed.

Living in Fayetteville, where there are no independent video stores (I’d likely have to drive an hour up to Raleigh to rent a movie with subtitles), it’s difficult not to embrace mail-order video services such as Netflix and GreenCine or video-on-demand services such as IFC First Take.  I certainly miss the great independent video stores I used to frequent in other cities–Atlanta’s Movies Worth Seeing (which had a great collection of B-movies and an auteurist bent) and Champaign-Urbana’s That’s Rentertainment–both of which served, for me at least, as social sites as well as businesses.  In that context, the Onion clip reminded me of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and its whimsical nostalgia for locally-owned video stores and the community of eccentrics that congregated there (and according to Danny Leigh, the Guardian blogger, there is a similar video store scene in Will Smith’s I Am Legend).  Not sure I have any grand conclusions here, but I find this video store nostalgia interesting.

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Obama in 30 Seconds

I’ve been too distracted by the end of the semester to discuss MoveOn.org’s “Obama in 30 Seconds” contest, but after David linked to the winners in a Twitter post, I figured I’d throw my $.02 in.  Like him, I think my favorite is “It Could Happen to You,” which won the prize for “Funniest Ad.”  I’m also pretty fond of “They Said He Was Unprepared,” the ad that compares Obama to Lincoln.  That being said, I’m guessing that the winner, David Gaw and Lance Mungia’s “Obamacan” will play best on television.

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The Force Will Be With You, Always

The Empire Strikes Barack appears to be the latest pop-culture viral video to come out in support of Obama.  Less a mashup than a jumbled compilation of clips from election news and the Star Wars films, the video positions Hillary Clinton as the leader of the Dark Side against Obama’s message of hope and change.   The video honestly doesn’t tell us a whole lot about either candidate, but I find it mildly interesting if only because it, perhaps unintentionally, underscores the complete incoherence and stupidity of much of the discourse surrounding the 2008 election at this point, discourse that seems intentionally designed to prevent us from knowing anything much about any of the candidates’ policies.

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Sunday Links

Here are some of the things I’ve been reading or watching over my second cup of coffee this morning.  I’d like to write longer blog entries about several of them, but that’s probably not going to happen:

  • Even though it’s pretty much a promo piece for Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, I enjoyed Dennis Lim’s New York Times article on VHS nostalgia.  I have an essay, currently in circulation, on VHS nostalgia in the American adaptation of The Ring, and Lim’s article touches on some of the key points, particularly the ways in which VHS becomes identified with concepts of authenticity, especially in the age of the DVD.  Lim cites Barbara Klinger, author of Beyond the Multiplex, on these issues, but I think one of the more interesting aspects of the article is the discussion of how we interact differently with the “mechanical” VCR than with the “computerized” DVD player, an issue raised by Andy Hain, the coordinator of the incredibly useful website, Total Rewind, which provides a history of the VCR.
  • Michael Wesch has posted a thoughtful response to Mark Marino’s mashup of his “A Vision of Students Today” video, which I discussed a few days ago. Not much to add here, but I think that Marino’s video has provoked an interesting conversation.
  • I haven’t had time to comment on (or even process) the Oscar nominees this year, but I think it will be an interesting race this time around.  But Anne Thompson has the text of an open letter sent out by Michael Moore that seeks to place this year’s nominees in a historical and political context.  Moore also explains some of the rather confusing rules that govern the nominating and voting process, especially in the documentary category.
  • One of the nominated films I’m most excited to see is the animated feature, Persepolis, an adaptation of the autobiography in comic book form by Marjane Satrapi about her experiences growing up in revolutionary Iran during the 1970s and early ’80s (I’ll respect Satrapi’s wishes and not describe it as a “graphic novel,” even if I don’t think the term has the high-cultural baggage she attributes to it).  During some of my elusive spare time, I’ve been reading the Persepolis comic book, and I’m finding it pretty compelling.  This interview with Satrapi in the Boston Globe provides a nice overview of the book.

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