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Liveblogging Mad Men

I’ve been curious to see the new AMC series Mad Men, which according to all reports, evokes the style of 1950s business men–or at least their representation in North by Northwest and The Apartment.  With that in mind, I’ll be and watching and possibly doing a little liveblogging with the crew from Newcritics.  The show–and the blogging–starts at 10 PM.

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Socialized Medicine Causes Terrorism

If Sicko has done nothing else, it has made universal health care look so inviting that right-wingers are now forced into making the absurd argument that it attracts terrorists. After all, terrorists want nothing more than cheap health care. I’ll try to write a longer post on Sicko a little later, but for now, a couple of fleeting thoughts. In general, I liked the film, and I think it does a pretty effective job of undercutting many of the arguments against universal health care, especially when he lays out the logic of H.M.O.s, which operate under the principle of offering the least amount of health care possible.

But Sicko also opens itself up to certain kinds of criticism. Whatever might be said about Moore’s fact-checking, I think the bigger concern is that Moore opens himself up to charges of disingenuousness when he depicts life in France, Canada, the UK, or (obviously) Cuba. Especially in France we are left with the impression of an almost utopian place where leisure is emphasized, health care is free, and production remains high–in short a place where there are no problems, which is, of course, not entirely true.

I’ve avoided engaging with John Pierson’s “open letter” to Moore, criticizing him for fabricating certain elements of the narrative of Roger & Me, but I think that Pierson does raise some valid points about the implications of Moore’s documentary techniques (btw, Pierson’s open letter is available online and well worth checking out). That being said, I remain convinced that Sicko is valuable if only because it has placed universal health care back on the table as an issue worth considering.

Update: Here’s my full Sicko review.

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Wednesday Night Links

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching tonight over one last cup of coffee.

  • First, via BoingBoing, yet another political mashup, Presidential Idol. I can’t decide if this one’s clever or not. The connection between American Idol and the political process has been done before, and most of the clips of the various presidential candidates have been seen before, but I was a little surprised by the ending.
  • Second, via Liz Losh, news that YouTube will be creating web portals in seven different languages. Like her, I’m ambivalent about English’s dominance on the web, but like her, I’m also concerned about the effects of this segmentation, wondering whether–or how–that might change what is available on YouTube as it stands right now.
  • On a related note, a discussion in the New York Times of the ongoing difficulties in creating an effective system for distributing movies over the Internet. Most services still only have a few hundred movies available for download, and systems that allow you to create DVD copies remain poor in quality. Still, I think this article points to the increasing use of the computer as a site for viewing films (which is one of the points of my book) and the larger fantasy of having all of the history of cinema available at the click of a mouse.
  • Of course, there are plenty of films available on the web illegally. I’ve briefly mentioned the debates about the piracy of Michael Moore’s Sicko (in yesterday’s equally slapdash bullet-point entry), but apparently Lion’s Gate and the Weinstein Company have decided to address the piracy problem by releasing the movie one week early in a few select cities (Fayetteville, as you might imagine, is not one of them). But Mike Nizza points to a larger issue related to internet piracy. Apparently PirateBay is on its way to unveiling a YouTube-style streaming site, which would make it even easier to watch pirated movies.

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Pirated Sopranos Finale

Yet another parody of The Sopranos finale (caught this one on Olbermann).  Here’s another parody that imagines what would happen if several classic movies ended like The Sopranos

While I’m blogging, Pharyngula links to “The Singles Map,” which shows where excess men (blue) and women (red) live.  Two observations: First, there’s a very odd east-west split with far more women on this side of the Atlantic.  Second, there are apparently far more women in Fayetteville than I imagined.  Is it possible that soldiers aren’t counted in these numbers because they don’t conform to my observations around town.

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Political Video Friday

My colleague and I been doing some work on our article on political mashup videos this week, but as we’ve been working on the article, I’ve become acutely aware of how quickly new forms of political video have emerged on the web. To some extent, it feels like the best we can do is offer a brief snapshot of something that is evolving very rapidly, and mashups are, of course, only one form of video circulating right now. But as a result of this project, I’ve become increasingly addicted to the techPresident blog, one of the better places out there for analyzing this online video culture from a variety of perspectives (check out, for example, their charts tracking cumulative video viewership per candidate).

But what really has me blogging before I’ve finished my second cup of coffee this morning are a number of intriguing new political videos, including a number of videos I discovered via techPresident. Like many people, I’m intrigued, fascinated, or maybe just confused by former Senator Mike Gravel’s two recent videos, “Rock” and “Fire.” “Rock” shows Gravel staring directly into the camera for nearly a minute before walking away and dropping a rock into a lake, the video continuing to run as the ripples in the water slowly return to normal, while “Fire” shows Gravel building a bonfire and then we watch as the fire burns for six or seven minutes. The videos are oddly minimalist and quiet, more like experimental video than a campaign ad. When the videos are embedded into a blog, they are oddly disorienting, jarring us–or me at least–briefly out of what I normally expect to see in a campaign video, which is probably the point. Significantly, if you view “Rock” on YouTube, you discover that it is also a video response to a video of Gravel’s performance at the most recent Democratic debate (suggesting, maybe, that Gravel’s performance barely made a ripple?).

But one of the most widely discussed videos of the week is also one of the most interesting: “I Got a Crush on Obama,” by Obama Girl and the comedy team at BarelyPolitical. If you haven’t seen the video yet, go watch it…my blog isn’t going anywhere. It’s a funny video with great lyrics (Universal health care reform/it makes me warm…), clearly more polished than most, and as Micah Sifry points out, it may complicate definitions of what the folks at techPresident have been calling “voter-generated content.” It also presents a potential interpretive challenge. In his discussion of the video, Alan Rosenblatt seems to take the video at its word, asserting that “it means this girl likes Obama, at least on the face of things.” I read the video more directly as a parody of the sexualization of political candidates, particularly someone like Obama who has been described in terms of his charisma and charm. But Rosenblatt is certainly correct to assert that the “teaching moment” of this video is that it, like many other “voter-generated videos,” will present some interesting interpretive challenges for the audiences that encounter them and pass them along to others.

Finally, Sifry pointed out one of the better mashups I’ve seen in some time, “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” which mashes up Republicans calling for, umm, enhanced interrogation techniques with clips from Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. Like “Godfather IV,” the video is a relatively specific policy critique of the Republicans through a popular culture text, requiring at least a limited knowledge of the pop culture text to make sense of the critique, and identifying McCain and Romney’s endorsement of these interrogation techniques with the absurd torturers in Monty Python is pretty funny (and because of blog entries on techPresident and BoingBoing, starting to get lots of traffic).

On a related note, because of all of the material out there, I’m now considering doing an election theme this fall in my composition classes, much like the Rhetoric and Democracy course I taught at Georgia Tech during the 2004 election (and discussed in a “From the Classroom” article in the journal Pedagogy). At this point, it’s pretty clear that there will be plenty of material out there to work with.

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New Location

I think that all of my old entries have been successfully transferred from Movable Type over here to WordPress. I’ll be spending the next few days playing with templates and getting things squared away over here, but it’s nice to have functioning comments and many of the other features that WordPress offers.

While I’m thinking about it, I wanted to mention the NYT story on the decision to make R-rated trailers available online. To view the trailers, you have to enter a name, birth date, and zip code. My information apparently isn’t available online, but my father’s was, so I was able to check out R-rated trailers for Superbad, which looks mildly funny and The Brothers Solomon, which does not.

David Poland’s Hot Blog has an interesting discussion of the racy “red band” trailers, including the flaws that prevent people whose DMV information isn’t available online from seeing trailers (my problem) and that viewers from outside the US cannot get through the age wall.

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Where Have You Gone, Lorelai Gilmore?

In a recent post to JustTV, Jason points to Virginia Heffernan’s smart New York Times article on the disappointing turn taken by The Gilmore Girls this season. As Jason points out, the show’s change in direction can be attributed to the deprture of series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Daniel Palladino, (Lisa, at the Fayetteville Observer’s TV blog, has a similar take).

Like Jason, I think Heffernan’s article raises some interesting questions about TV authorship and how we “read” the series. Jason asks,

Will future scholarship of Gilmore Girls simply disregard or bracket off this season as not “core” to the show? By bracketing off such periods, like with the Sorkin-era West Wing or Northern Exposure under Brand & Falsey, do we assert a simplistic vision of authorship which is complicated by the inherently collaborative process of television production?

These are difficult questions to answer, of course, and Heffernan’s article complicates these questions by pointing to the important contributions of the show’s two stars, Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, whose performances cannot be excluded from the show’s “authorship.” I do think a lot has been lost this season with the departure of Sherman-Palladino, namely the rapid-fire dialogue that evoked, for me, screwball comedy movies (or, as Heffernan suggests, a David Mamet play).

I don’t have much else to add here, but I’ve been wanting to mention Jason’s blog for a couple of days, and his post on The Gilmore Girls seemed like a good excuse. On a related note, his post on audience’s “faith” in TV authors (the “Trust Joss syndrome”) is also worth checking out.

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Silverdocs 2K6

Oh, by the way, while my blog was down yesterday, I ended up posting about Silverdocs over at Indie Features 06. Here’s what I posted:

For some reason, my personal blog isn’t working right now, but I’ve been jonesing to blog all day (what a boring addiction), so I’ll finally blog something here several months after Sujewa invited me (to be fair, I did write one quick entry back in the day). But while I’m thinking about it, I though I’d do a quick mention that Silverdocs tickets are available and to note that some screenings have already sold out for non-passholders.

Silverdocs, for people who are unfamiliar is a documentary film festival held annually in Silver Spring, MD, just outside of Washington, DC. This year’s fest looks promising. So far, I’m planning to see Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp, at the major risk of bringing back any number of traumatic childhood memories; Susan Dynner’s Punk’s Not Dead; Gary Tarn’s Black Sun, which focuses on visual artist Hugues de Montalembert’s experience going blind as an adult; Alexandra Lipsitz’s Air Guitar Nation (yeah, there’s a musical theme), which comes highly recommended by Sara Jo Marks; Steve Anderson’s Fuck, which focuses on the history and significance of the film’s title word; Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; and Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo, which looks like an incredibly powerful and potentially controversial film, in part because of its hybrid of documentary and re-enacted scenes.

At any rate, the film schedule looks excellent, and if you’re in the DC area, it’s certainly worth a quick Metro ride up to Silver Spring. Hopefully things will be up and running in my corner of blogworld soon.

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Lazy New Years Day Film Links

I’m slowly starting to settle back into a routine after last week’s MLA conference, and one of my first goals is to turn my conference paper into an article, in which I’ve been thinking about cinematic representations of the military, or more narrowly the war in Iraq, after September 11. With that in mind, I just wanted to bookmark a couple of articles that look interesting. First a NYT article on the upcoming slate of September 11 films, many of which should hit theaters this year.

Second, Benjamin Halligan’s “On the Interval Between Reality and Unreality,” a response to Zizek’s original 9/11 essay published in Senses of Cinema.

Finally, and this isn’t really related to my paper, but it’s still pretty darn cool: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library has launched a searchable online catalog highlighting more than 30,000 motion picture scripts available for research at six Southern California collections (via Alternative Film Guide).

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year.

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Progressive Film Clubs

I’ve used this blog recently to address questions about the definition of independent cinema and to reflect on the political role of the house party film screenings. While I’ve expressed some doubts about the “house party” model, I think they can be useful as a tool for organizing people with similar interests, as this San Francisco Chronicle article argues. I use “house party” in scare quotes because many of the Greenwald films are screened in public or semi-public spaces such as churches, community centers, bars, cafes, and other non-private spaces.

I mention these issues because I received an email tip the other day about the launch of the Ironweed Film Club, which will promote independent filmmakers and “offer movies as a rallying point for Americans who share progressive values.” It’s basically a monthly subscription service that distributes independent and politically progressive DVDs (if you subscribe to MoveOn.org or The Nation, you’ve probably heard about it). In their FAQ section, in fact, the folks at Ironweed describe themselves as “a monthly progressive film festival on DVD.” Ironweed looks like an interesting concept. The service builds on the successful practices of the house party events associated with the launch of Robert Greenwald’s documentaries and also provides indpendent filmmakers with the exposure and buzz they need to promote their films, as many filmmakers confront significant challenges when it comes to distributing their films.

The first film, Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary has been getting some good buzz, and with Bush focusing more attention on illegal immigration issues, it’s certainly a pertinent topic. Also included is Where is Iraq?, a short
film that explores the experience of ordinary Iraqis exiled in Jordan after the American invasion. I’ll be interested to see the direction this service takes over the next few months, but it certainly seems consistent with the move away from the multiplexes and into other kinds of screening experiences, not all of which are retreats into the private world of the home.

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Control Room Update

In Control Room (my review), Jehane Noujaim’s 2004 documentary about the coverage of the Iraq war by the Al Jazeera television network, former US Marine captain Josh Rushing (at the time of the film he was a lietenant, as I recall) emerges as one of the more compelling characters in the film. While he is initially optomistic about the war effort, Rushing also demonstrates a willingness to engage in dialogue with the Al Jazeera reporters who are quite literally watching a different war, one that is informed by a much different history. In one of the film’s final scenes Rushing agrees to dinner with Sudanese journalist Hassan Ibrahim in a scene that illustrates the possibilities for dialogue.

After the film, it was widely reported that Rushing left the Marines because he was unhappy with their media management. Now, according to The Guardian, Rushing has joined al-Jazeera International. It’s certainly interesting to see Rushing’s evolution in terms of his relationship to Al Jazeera, which he characterized as an Arab version of Fox News in one scene in Control Room (via Newslab).

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Instant Replay

I’ve been thinking about the concept and technology of instant replay this afternoon. Because of my interest in media and time, I’ve thought about replay in passing from time to time, but while I was reading an essay about video this morning, I began thinking about how instant replay might represent a fairly significant shift in television’s temporal flows. Most of the sources I’ve encountered identify ABC’s Wide World of Sports (“the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat“) broadcast of the 1963 Army-Navy fooball game as the original use of instant replay, at least as we understand it from sports broadcasts. The technology was invented by Tony Verna,* who has also been very active in video preservation efforts. The concept apparently gained some degree of cultural awareness fairly quickly. By 1967, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer titled his diary of the Packers’ Super Bowl season, Instant Replay.

But digging around the web, I noticed that the technology had other early uses, including some military applications (surprise!), allowing the Navy to add stop-action to jets’ on-board cameras in order to avoid bumpy landings (Dennis Dodd’s CBS Sportsline story implies that instant replay wasn’t used for sporting events until 1964). Dodd speculates that instant replay has changed our viewing habits forever, and on the level of sports scrutiny, our ability to view and review any and every possible play, where every play is now a potential highlight, he’s clearly right.

But, on another level, instant replay has a secondary significance that has, perhaps, been overshadowed by the Sports-Centrification of American life (“He…could…go…all…the…way!“). Specifically instant replay, as a concept, invokes what Wolfgang Ernst describes as “that oxymoronic relation between presence and its storage.” Ernst pushse the boundaries of what is normally called instant replay, dating it back to the CBS Eevening News broadcast on November 30, 1956, in which, for the first time, a network news program was recorded on videotape for rebroadcast on the west coast.

The archivability of television is now widely accepted of course, whether via videotape, DVD collections of favorite shows, or TiVo (or even through the re-run). But the narrower definition of instant replay seems significant precisely because the manipulation of the temporality (replay/slow motion) of the image becomes the subject of the shot, rather than the technological possibility represented in the news broadcast Ernst describes. It also inaugurates the (illusory?) control over time that had more commonly been associated with the cinema. Ernst even argues, following Samuel Weber, that TV watchers can no longer tell whether a broadcast is “live,” unless it is “interactive digital TV,” allowing the viewer to participate in the narrative (voting contestants off the show, perhaps), a claim that I’m not quite willing to accept (in fact, some of ESPN’s humor derives from our conscious recogniion of the play between live and “pre-recorded” images).

But there are aspects of Ernst’s argument about instant replay that I find frustrating, particularly the way that he unpacks the concept of “liveness,” which he associates with “amnesia.” Ernst argues that “early TV, like radio, is characterized by its lack of storage abilities — it shows a tendency to amnesia” (632). He later reiterates this perception of televisual amnesia, arguing that “we are made oblivious to the amnesia of TV in the enduring flow of transmission.” (633). I don’t doubt that countless early TV shows/episodes are “lost,” in the sense that no physical recording exists. But the equation of “liveness” with “amnesia” seems imprecise, in part because the programs themselves, particulalry using repetition (of characters, mise-en-scene, or plot elements) to mitigate against amnesia in order to ensure that audiences would be motivated to return, but even the serialization associated with soap operas would seem to work against this notion of amnesia.

* Corrected to address some faulty research on my part.

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Box Office Blues

The summer slump for Hollywood studios continues, and historically one of the explanations has been that home theater systems have allowed people to stay at home rather than going out for a movie. Studios were still cashing in on DVD sales, but now, according to Marginal Revolution, DVD sales are also hitting a lull. In the past, I’ve refrained from seeing a larger box office trend, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold that position, as gross receipts have been below last year’s for nineteen out of the last twenty weeks. And the decline in DVD sales also has to be a major cause for concern, at least for the studios.

Some of the explanations for this decline make little sense. A Govindni Mutry editorial published in the LA Times asserts that the lost profits can be attributed to that classic monster, the Hollywood liberal. She blames the “box office blues” on blue-state screenwriters, actors, and directors, who make “constant gibes about Republicans, Christians, conservatives and the military.” She comments that conservatives are turned off by the snub of Mel Gibson’s Passion, adding that liberal writers “are out of ideas and have to resort to endless sequels and remakes” (which raises a question: wasn’t Mel’s idea essentially a “remake?”). I’ll agree that I’m sick of sequels and tired of remakes, but Murty’s political claims rely only on anecdotal evidence describing a few studio meetings, not necessarily how those films have been received by audiences. Essentially, Murty is making an argument about the perceived quality of Hollywood films, and I’m not sure that the quality of the blockbusters is entirely to blame (even old ideas can be recycled in interesting ways).

Daniel Gross, in a slightly more convincing New York Times article, compares Hollywood’s problems to Detroit’s, arguing that the Hollywood business model is obsolete. Both industries face increased competition (foreign car manufacturers or video games and the Internet), and Hollywood’s expensive production costs are not unlike the auto industry’s. Of course this is complicated by the fact that studios can benefit from a thriving game industry through video game tie-ins.

Tyler at Marginal Revolution adds a few other reasons for declining box office, including the increasing quality of high-profile television shows and better home theater systems, adding that declining DVD sales may be attributed to the fact that casual film fans no longer feel the need to add to their collections. Tyler’s argument might also be suported by the Netflix Effect. With Netflix, film fans no longer even have to go to the video store to check out movies, and because there are no late fees (Blockbuster’s pseudo-no late fees policy might have a similar effect), I’d imagine people feel less need to buy movies in the first place.

In general, though, I’m inclined to agree with Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Gate that the current box office malaise doesn’t have a simple explanation, though I think he identifies several other important factors, specifically teh degree to whcih multiplexes now feel comfortable selling the attention of their captive audiences to advertisers before the movies (or even the previews) start. I’m not going to get into predictions or speculation here (after all, this is just a blog entry), but Wiley’s description of a 1970s-style Hollywod re-organization, in which studios experiment with new, possibly cheaper, forms of production and distribution, seems like a possibility.

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Faulkner and Orwell

This is too cool not to blog. The cinetrix reports that in a 1956 interview with the Paris Review, William Faulkner, who wrote the screenplays for To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, was asked if he would like to make another movie. His response?

Yes, I would like to make one of George Orwell’s 1984. I have an idea for an ending which would prove the thesis I’m always hammering at: that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.

Like the cinetrix, I wish I could’ve seen that ending. Back in my previous incarnation as a literary critic, I wrote a master’s thesis on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and he’s still one of my favorite twentieth century novelists, so I’m simply fascinated by this bit of news.

You can now return to the latest election year insanity, in which Tom DeLay engages in a bit of neo-McCarthyism.

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Quick Question

Are other Moveable Type users having trouble using the MT Blacklist? I keep getting an error message that says something like “the server has left.”

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