Archive for documentary

Documentary and Digital Distribution (in Spanish)

Taking a quick break from other projects to mention that my recent Jump Cut article, “Digital Distribution, Participatory Culture, and the Transmedia Documentary,” has been republished and translated into Spanish for the Barcelona-based magazine, Blogs and Docs.

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IMR Interactive Documentary Week

In Media Res, the video curation project sponsored by MediaCommons, is focusing on a theme this week that I find especially fascinating: interactive documentaries. Given that I recently published an essay on this topic in Jump Cut, “Digital Distribution, Participatory Culture, and the Transmedia Documentary,” I am excited to see some of the new work being done with documentary and interactivity. One fascinating example of the shifting grounds of interactive documentary: Kathleen M. Ryan’s discussion of “augmented reality” as a means of building more immersive documentary experiences. Also fascinating (and closer to some of the arguments I make in my essay) was Jennifer Proctor’s call for a “slow internet,” one that would encourage using the web for building narratives that require sustained attention over time. Be sure to check out all of this week’s In Media Res posts and join in some of the lively conversations that are taking place.

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Life in a Day

There are three primary structuring devices in Kevin Macdonald’s YouTube-enabled documentary Life in Day (IMDB): The first is a charismatic Korean young man who has traveled to over a hundred countries, riding through most of them on a bicycle. The second is the (somewhat falsified) chronology of the film itself, with the opening sequences featuring people starting their day and all of the morning rituals that entails (shutting off alarms, making coffee, reading the newspaper). The third, of course, is YouTube itself and the global totality of amateur self-expression that the site represents. YouTube was the first video sharing site to make uploading videos appear to be accessible to the masses, and as a result it invited a wide range of self-expression, practices that may be somewhat obscured by YouTube’s more commercial uses.

As I watched Life in Day, in fact, I was reminded of YouTube earlier, mostly unrealized utopian fantasy of global community, one that is based in the shared banalities of everyday life–our morning rituals, our moments of vulnerability–as well as the cultural and economic differences that continue to mark our daily existence. Life in a Day is, perhaps, one of the most ambitious crowdsourcing projects in recent memory, with the film’s director Kevin Macdonald combing through over 4,500 hours’ worth of video recorded in 192 countries, all filmed over the course of a single day July 24, 2010, and uploaded to YouTube. The clips were structured around a small number of questions (what’s in your pocket? what do you love? what do you fear?), and although such questions might invite us to reach for some kind of global “temperature taking,” a recognition of the ways in which our lives and experiences and behaviors are interconnected, but those kinds of observations remained elusive, reinforcing the individualism and narcissism that a site like YouTube often invites.

The film’s narrative approach is established quickly, as it opens with a montage of people performing their morning rituals, including a sequence of people reading their morning newspaper, imagery that evoked (perhaps unintentionally) Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities. These sequences seem to emphasize our commonalities, allowing us to see how we are in fact connected with others. From there we get vignettes of people whose experiences seem designed to touch on something more universal. One father teaches his son to shave. Another directs his son to light an incense candle for their mother. From there, Life in a Day weaves back and forth between montages of individuals engaged in their daily routines and these vignettes, inviting us to draw connections, although many of these connections are incompletely drawn, though most of them seem related to broader themes of birth and death, love and loneliness, community and isolation. We see pregnant women and the birth of a giraffe. We also see a cow getting slaughtered followed by a shot of someone eating spaghetti (an implied argument for vegetarianism, perhaps?).

Two of the more compelling juxtaposed vignettes featured an army wife preparing to Skype her husband, who was stationed in Afghanistan. She gets ready for their “date” by dressing up and seeking to find some way to alleviate her loneliness. This is juxtaposed with a scene filmed by a self-described photojournalist living in Kabul who seeks to challenge our perception of Afghanistan as a war-torn country, showing us people engaging in their daily routines of buying and selling and going to school, and in one case an all-female martial arts class. The implications of the opposition are somewhat unclear, though: are we meant to see the soldier’s actions as improving the situation in Afghanistan? Are we supposed to draw the conclusions that our commonalities should unite us? Again, the answers are frustratingly elusive. Others tell us that they “fear” homosexuals or that people who don’t believe in God will go to hell. Is Life in a Day mocking, endorsing, or merely reporting here? Do we learn anything from the depiction of these pronouncements?

For the most part, the film avoids direct reference to any major political or world event, with the one exception being the tragic deaths of 18 people who were trampled at the Love Parade in Germany, and although it seems important to acknowledge a significant event that happened on the chosen day, the flat tone makes it difficult to even grasp how that event fits into the film’s overall narrative. To that end, this is where the film’s delicate balance between collective authorship (all of the YouTubers who created videos) and individual authorship (Kevin Macdonald’s attempt to craft a narrative) struggled the most. Late last week, there was some discussion of whether the crowdsourcing approach used in Life in a Day was exploitative, and I argued that the non-monetary rewards of self-expression might be more meaningful than any financial compensation the contributors might gain (assuming the film is financially successful). I’m still convinced that the pleasures of participation–of contributing to the activity of making meaning–came through. But I think that the attempt to grasp YouTube through these broad emotive connections prevented the film from making more meaningful insights.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe that we can’t make sense of the world through the banalities of everyday life, as Andrew Schenker seems to argue (in fact, I have an essay on Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and another on Jem Cohen’s Chain that argue the opposite). But I don’t think it’s enough to present us with a decontextualized set of images, as Christopher Campbell reads the film, and assume that will provide us with anything other a murky glimpse of a far more complex human experience. Although the Korean bicyclist imagines a more harmonious world–one in which the two Koreas are, in fact, no longer divided–Life in a Day mostly seems to miss how the banalities of everyday life are structured by larger factors (economy, politics, etc), even while it sees YouTube (at least in its initial You-topian conception) as a partial expression of a desire for a globalized community.

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New Jump Cut Issue

The latest issue of the film and media journal, Jump Cut, is now available online. As usual, it’s packed with a wide range of articles on topics relating to the film and media industries. I’m excited to add that I have an article focusing on the concept of the transmedia documentary, where I look at how transmedia techniques have been used by documentary filmmakers for political purposes. The article looks at a range of films including An Inconvenient Truth, The Age of Stupid, and Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

The articles in Jump Cut are meant to be accessible and engaging for scholars and non-scholars alike, so take some time and dive in to some excellent work on film and media.

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Crowdsourcing, Labor, Value

One year ago this weekend, directors Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald commissioned YouTube users to produce video depicting an aspect of their daily life and to submit it to a designated channel on the video sharing site. The directors would then take that footage and compile it into a feature-length documentary, Life in a Day (more info here). Now, on the anniversary of that event, YouTube, along with National Geographic Movies, is distributing the film theatrically in a limited nationwide release (a list of theaters is available here). As a number of people have observed, the story of the film’s production is awash in the language of crowdsourcing, with Life in a Day’s YouTube page describing the movie as “user-generated feature film.” I haven’t yet seen the film–although I hope to see it soon–but the planned release has sparked a renewed discussion of the implications of crowdsourcing within the movie industry. Specifically, what does it mean if studios are profiting off of the work of hundreds, or in this case, thousands of participants who contributed footage (some estimates suggest the filmakers received over 81,000 submissions of over 4,500 hours of footage) that was considered for the documentary?

Marketing and publicity expert Sheri Candler looks at the process for Life in Day and points out that participants likely signed a consent form (which they, of course, did voluntarily), giving over rights to the footage. More crucially for her, they are now expected to participate in the marketing of the film as part of the “marketing SWAT team” designed to create buzz and fill seats at a local movie theater. Although she acknowledges that contributors receive a “co-director” credit, that credit doesn’t appear on IMDB, and users do not profit financially from their participation. Finally, she worries that users cannot even see the film since it is not available online. Candler has some reasonable arguments regarding the potential for financial exploitation here, and this is something that I have been weighing quite a bit when reviewing the appeals toward crowdsourcing made by a number of independent filmmakers.

Edward J. Delaney, writing for Documentary Tech, takes this a step further, arguing that many of these crowdsourcing initiatives create a “false relationship” between the user/audience and the producer/filmmaker. Delaney’s argument is enticing, especially given the use of affectionate terms to describe people who contribute to the production of a film. Delaney and Candler are likely right to surmise that some participants are seduced into believing that their participation will serve as a bridge into the film industry, that they will be “discovered” (to use Delaney’s phrase) due to their contributions. There is certainly a culture of celebrity within YouTube, one that is reinforced through the various “success stories,” in which amateurs gain international attention through their videos. And, yes, National Geographic is a profit-making institution making a film in which many of the participants are working as volunteers. Crowdsourcing leaves open the potential for exploitation, and fan activity, in particular, is uncompensated, even while studios can use that activity to build attention (and presumably profit).

But, as I suggested on Twitter, we need a more nuanced understanding of why people chose to participate in Life in a Day. The film has been billed as a kind of anthropological “project,” a snapshot of a moment in the history of the world. There might be significant non-monetary reasons to contribute to such a project, including the attempt to provide a more vivid portrait of that particular day. Where are we? What is our world really like? How can we make the world a better place? Sure, it’s easy to take advantage of people’s good intentions, but to some extent, the argument that people are being duped assumes that they are unaware, dupes of participatory culture. I don’t think there is significant evidence to support the claim that “most [participants] probably think it might get them somewhere.” Candler is certainly correct to argue that filmmakers should make a conscious effort not to exploit their audience when using the techniques of crowdsourcing, and certainly many projects (including Life in a Day) have the potential to generate enormous value for major media conglomerates, but to some extent, I think that perceiving crowdsourcing merely as free labor misses the many ocmplicated motivations that might inform people’s desires to participate in producing or promoting a movie or TV show.

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Friday Links

Here are some of the links I’ve been following over my first cup of coffee:

  • CNET reports that Netflix anticipates at least some backlash over their price increases. In response, Blockbuster has stepped up their efforts to market their DVD subscription plans.
  • Ryan Lawler traces the anticipated sources of advertising revenue for TV advertising as more and more people turn to connected TV sets and streaming TV.
  • The Economist has launched its new documentary film website, providing documentary filmmakers with yet another site for finding an audience for their films.
  • The IFC Blog reports on an MIT study that considers biases in the “star systems” that are typically used to evaluate movies on sites such as Netflix, where those rankings inform recommendation algorithms. The author of the study, Devavrat Shah, suggests that external factors, such as the user’s mood, may affect ratings and proposes that more accurate rankings would be produced if films are paired.
  • On a related note, USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab has launched a new tool, the USC Annenberg Film Forecaster, that seeks to quantify anticipation for an upcoming movie. The tool measures both the number of tweets and the sentiment expressed in those postings. One interesting example: they were able to track the fact that Green Lantern was getting quite a bit of buzz but that approximately 40% of it was negative. One of the difficulties they are addressing is how to teach the tool to recognize sarcastic tweets. The tool is also limited by Twitter’s ostensibly younger demographic, suggesting that adult-oriented films may get fewer mentions.
  • This is more for fun, but someone has created an amusing infographic showing which Netflix films are popular in different parts of the country.

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Catching Hell

Like longtime Red Sox fan and sports commentator, Bill Simmons, I’ve always been a skeptic when it comes to sports curses. Living in Atlanta as a kid, my sports memories are more shaped by mediocre teams, incompetent management, and a little bad luck, but the idea of a sports curse always seemed more like a sidebar, a creative narrative to give a game or a team a little more flavor (although I briefly flirted with the idea of curses as a teenager when the Braves temporarily evicted then-mascot Chief Noc-a-homa from his perch in left field, and yes, in retrospect, I am fully aware that the whole concept of the chief was a little embarrassing) . But, despite Simmons’ claims that true Sox fans “never” talked about being cursed, it’s clear that these narratives have a tremendous amount of power, especially for those long-suffering fans who have never experienced the excitement of winning a World Series. Alex Gibney’s new documentary for ESPN, Catching Hell (IMDB), thoughtfully explores this terrain, asking questions about how these curse narratives develop and why they have such power.

Gibney’s film focuses on two of the more memorable moments in the history of sports curses, Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, in which Bill Buckner watched Mookie Wilson’s ground ball roll slowly between his legs, and Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, in which Cubs fan Steve Bartman reached for a foul pop-up, knocking it away from Cubs left-fielder Moises Alou. The latter play extended Luis Castillo’s at-bat and eventually led to the Marlins scoring eight runs. As Gibney points out, both events have taken on far more weight than they deserve. Buckner’s error likely never happens if Calvin Schiraldi doesn’t give up several ninth inning hits. In the 2003 NLCS, bad bullpen management by Dusty Baker and an error by shortstop Alex Gonzales also played a key role in the Cubs’ Game 6 loss. Gibney also points out that both events took place before the final games of their respective series, but that, for many fans, those final games had an air of inevitability: once the pivotal moment hit, the series was lost. But curses (or at least the narratives about them) defy logic. Once an iconic moment of futility or fate has been established, that image–whether of Buckner looking helplessly as the ball rolls away or of Bartman sitting impassively as thousands of fans boo him and chant “asshole” at him–seems to offer some kind of greater truth, an explanation for why the Sports Gods seem to be punishing a given team.

To explore how Bartman becomes the chief villain in the renewed narrative of Cubs futility, Gibney uses the massive archive of official and unofficial recordings of the game. As one of the game’s producers acknowledges, there were several cameras that captured the Bartman foul ball, and once he was identified as the “culprit,” he was incorporated more deeply into the narrative of the game. Fox broadcaster Steve Lyons, among others, acknowledge some culpability here. Although Lyons sought to deflect blame from Bartman (who hadn’t been identified by name at the time), he admits that incorporating the foul ball so deeply into the narrative of the game helped create the conditions in which Bartman became a villain for Cubs fans. Exacerbating the situation, fans outside the stadium on Waveland Avenue, who had come to celebrate a Cubs playoff victory, were watching the game on a TV and were reacting to the error, blaming the fan. Eventually, Bartman, who made an inviting target due to his bright green turtleneck, earphones, and impassive demeanor, was escorted out by security, with countless Cubs fans shouting threats and throwing objects at him.

To explain how Buckner and Bartman have become the objects of ire for their respective fan bases, Gibney, via an interview with Unitarian minister Kathleen C. Rolenz, resorts to the Biblical  idea of “scapegoating,” in which an innocent goat is weighed down with the sins and mistakes of an entire village and is then cast out of that village, banishing those elements from the community.  And with the Bartman narrative, scapegoating seems to offer a plausible explanation. The Cubs’ fans immediately turn on Bartman, a response that is only exacerbated when Bartman seems to shrink into his seat, and yet, as many of the fans who sat near Bartman acknowledge, they were also reaching for the foul ball. One fan even triumphantly holds up the ball after it bounces to him before being warned by a friend to sit down. Amateur footage of the bleachers at Wrigley Field seem to show fans turning immdiately, but rather than resignation, their response is shockingly hostile, a reaction that may have been cued by Moises Alou’s angry reaction. Since then, Bartman has virtually disappeared, with ESPN’s Wayne Drehs offering one of the few “public” moments when he stalks Bartman to a Chicago parking deck.

The “scapegoat” explanation is less convincing when it comes to Buckner, however. This may be due to the fact that the Red Sox have since won two World Series and to the fact that Buckner continued to play Boston in 1987, and then briefly in 1990. Like Simmons, Buckner regards the curse as an effect of the media, and when he talks about forgiveness, he doesn’t feel the need to forgive fans as much as he does the sports media that have replayed his clip for decades. Sure, Buckner once seemed like part of a constellation of players and managers who represented a long history of playoff frustration in Boston, but I’d imagine that Grady Little probably evokes more resentment at this point for Red Sox Nation for leaving Pedro in too long during another key game.

Significantly, the film’s obsessive focus on Bartman and Buckner also causes it to ignore other notorious curses. The Chief Noc-a-Homa curse was a mild diversion for Braves fans in the 1980s, one that allowed owners to complain about corporate greed when the chief’s “teepee” was displaced to add 150 extra seats in left field, but in the wake of the 1995 World Series, it’s pretty much long forgotten. Other teams have similar levels of futility and manage to avoid romantic notions of curses. Finally, the focus on baseball ignores the lesser known and somewhat allegorical Curse of the Detroit Lions, suggesting that Gibney chose examples that fit his “scapegoat” thesis while ignoring others.

With that in mind, I think there are several things to like about Gibney’s film. He’s clearly a sports fan, and his microscopic, almost obsessive, examination of these two pivotal sports moments–one review suggests that Gibney treats these moments like they are crime scenes–helps us to think about how they work and about how Steve Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan, could be driven into a life of permanent seclusion, with one reporter describing him as the “J.D. Salinger of sports fans,” someone who cannot use a credit card for fear of being publicly identified. Gibney also recognizes the role that narrative plays in shaping our experience of sporting events. Stories of curses offer alternative explanations for why “we” don’t win. In addition, Gibney also subtly criticizes the sports media for perpetuating some of these storylines, in particular for making Bartman into a target for frustrated Cubs fans. Finally, as Christopher Campbell acknowledges, Catching Hell also conveys something about the ways in which sports fandom can descend into something resembling an angry mob during moments of frustration, and as Campbell observes, we need more attentive explorations of how sports fandom, in particular, works.

I do think the “scapegoat” explanation of the Bartman phenomenon works, to some extent, but even the documentary seems reluctant to use it as a full account for why he became so deeply vilified by Cubs fans, at least in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 collapse. But as an archive of two of the most discussed moments in baseball playoff history, Catching Hell offers some thoughtful reflections on the intersections between sports and entertainment.

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Branding Documentary

I’ve been fascinated by the promotion for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I haven’t seen the film yet, but Spurlock has been conducting a number of interviews and engaging in a number of promotional activities for a documentary that is about product placement. The promotional materials capitalize on many of the qualities that Spurlock displayed in Super Size Me: his characteristic laid-back, even self-deprecating, wit mixed with a gently critical edge that comments wryly, in this case, on the role of product placement in Hollywood entertainment.

As Spurlock notes in this interview with David Poland, the film is designed to build upon the publicity he generates. In fact, Pom Wonderful has agreed to certain incentives that will pay even more every time their beverages are mentioned alongside of the documentary, generating an amusing bit toward the end where Spurlock imagines mentioning the drink at the Oscars and, therefore, generating hundreds of millions of “media impressions.” At the same time, Spurlock himself becomes attached to certain brands, welcoming customers to flights on JetBlue and to stays at Hyatt Hotels or, even more oddly, smiling from soda cups sold at Sheetz Convenience Stores (which I may try to track down when I pick up my fiancee at the airport, since there is a Sheetz nearby). There are also financial incentives for Greatest Movie if it plays in over 250 theaters or, I think, if its box office achieves a certain level.

Toward the end of the interview with Poland, Spurlock even points out that when he “the meta-narrative could continue on–it will definitely continue on into the DVD at least.” He adds that if the movie were to play overseas, he could seek out new sponsors that would be more appropriate to that audience, joking that “you’d have to get a beer sponsor in England.” Whether such comments are tongue-in-cheek or not, Spurlock has, in fact, managed to use his documentary–and the publicity surrounding it–to provoke a useful conversation about the role of product placement in TV and movies, a role that has changed somewhat now that audiences can either fast-forward through ads or avoid them altogether by watching online versions of the show. To that end, I enjoyed reading the New York Magazine interview with Spurlock, in which he lists the five “worst” incidents of product placement, including the scene from Heroes that inspired the film, in which Hayden Panettiere’s father gives her the keys to a Nissan Rogue. The camera pans, quite blatantly across the front of the car, which gets name-dropped something like four times. And as the father hands her the keys–in soft focus–it plays just like an automobile ad. The New York Magazine article has the added bonus of pointing out that product placement is nothing new. Edison was notorious for it in his early films, and the novelist Jules Verne engaged in the practice as well.

There is, of course, a fuzzy line between Spurlock’s form of critique and his own complete immersion in the practices of product placement, but in much the same way that Super Size Me helped spark a conversation about fast food, it will be interesting to see what sorts of reactions Spurlock is able to achieve with this film. And of course, in writing this post, I am acutely aware of the fact that I am participating in the process of promoting not only Spurlock’s film but also some of the products he has included in his documentary project, and this degree of product placement could be the source of dystopian anxiety, as we see in M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel, Feed, or it could also breed cynicism, a response that even Ralph Nader seems to express in the film’s trailer when he suggests that “sleep” is the only escape from branding. But hopefully the film will find another approach, one that allows us to engage with these marketing practices in slightly more complicated ways.

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Tim Hetherington’s Diary

As many readers will no doubt know, acclaimed filmmaker and journalist Tim Hetherington, best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo, was killed in mortar attack in Libya. I was unable to catch his most recent film, Diary, when it played at Full Frame, but via the cinetrix, I see that it has now been posted online in its entirety.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

As the Full Frame page for the film reports, “Diary is a highly personal and experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work, and was made as an attempt to locate myself after ten years of reporting. It’s a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.”

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Tabloid

Like many of Errol Morris’s subjects, Joyce McKinney, the “star” of his most recent documentary, Tabloid, has a fascinating screen presence, playing on an earnestness that may be a mask for a more troubling pattern of obsessive behavior, while offering turns of phrases that only a former southern beauty queen could make believable. When asked at one point whether a woman could rape a man, she comments that “it would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.” For those who are unfamiliar with McKinney, she was a one-time beauty queen who notorious became involved in what was known as “the case of the manacled Mormon,” a story that was widely discussed in the British tabloids and involved, depending on who you believe, McKinney traveling to England to stalk, kidnap, and even rape an ex-boyfriend, Kirk Anderson, or the boyfriend getting whisked away and brainwashed by a secretive religious cult, with McKinney heroically trying to rescue him.

McKinney’s descriptions of her life–and the gossip reports that catapulted her to tabloid stardom for several years–become the fodder for several of Morris’s most significant pre-occupations, most notably the difficulties of resolving competing narratives. Is McKinney the innocent woman she portrays when she protests that she was a virgin when she slept with Kirk for the first time? Or is she the high-priced escort who posed nude and in bondage gear for dozens of underground men’s magazines? Or is the truth somewhere in between? As Morris notes, in this interview with Anthony Kaufman, it’s almost impossible to tease out the full truth of what happened, based on all of the conflicting accounts we are given. A private pilot tells us that McKinney hired him and a bodyguard to travel to England to track down Anderson. McKinney doesn’t deny this, emphatically stating, “I did what any girl would do [after he 'disappeared']–look for him.” But the pilot adds the detail that she asked him while posing nude on the beach for a gaggle of photographers. When she travels to England, it’s either a rescue or a kidnapping. McKinney remembers Kirk going voluntarily, enjoying the cinnamon oil back rubs, while court testimony suggests that McKinney chained him to the bed.

Naturally, these lurid details and McKinney’s quirky public performances make her story irresistible for the British tabloids. One Express reporter acknowledges that she was paid 40,000 pounds for her story and then describes a bizarre story in which Joyce, having skipped bail, meets the reporter at the Atlanta Airport Hilton with a companion wearing a disguise to make her appear to be an Indian woman “from Calcutta.” Meanwhile, a rival tabloid, The Daily Mirror manages to obtain hundreds of pictures of McKinney nude or in bondage gear, along with advertisements inviting sexual services. An acquaintance of McKinney’s confirms some details, and other photographers remember her, primarily because she was always accompanied by her pet dog, Millie.

Throughout the film, these questions about media sensationalism and Joyce’s own relationship to the tabloid press remain unresolvable. McKinney claims to have developed agoraphobia and complains about being stalked by paparazzi even years after her story left the tabloids, and yet, years later, she makes a dramatic return to the media fray when she spends thousands of dollars to get her beloved dog, Booger, cloned by a South Korean doctor. Morris isn’t afraid to dive into the lurid details here. As he himself puts it (in a statement quoted at Full Frame), the film is a return to “one of his favorite genres: sick, sad, and funny.” In places, in fact, the film seems to risk complicity with the tabloids in perpetuating the virgin/whore opposition that is used so often in the portrayal of women in the media, with McKinney serving as a slightly more predecessor to someone like Britney Spears. But I think that Morris is going after something deeper here. The film is a meditation on how we get a handle on the truth about ourselves and about the world around us, how the tabloids shape the news and engage our attention. As McKinney herself puts it at one point, “you can tell a lie long enough ’til you believe it.”

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The Interrupters

Steve James’ The Interrupters tells the story of Chicago’s CeaseFire organization, a group of activists who are attempting to reduce inner-city violence through a potentially dangerous approach: they seek to intervene in the midst of conflicts as they are happening, quite literally interrupting people before they commit a violent act. Their methods are certainly controversial, but the film seems to show that in many cases, the group is able to stop people from acting rashly, and in some cases, to provide them with an alternative to the gangs and violence that are damaging their community.

The film documents a year in the life of the organization and follows three principal interrupters, Cobe, Ameena, and Eddie, all of whom have backgrounds in street gangs. Ameena, in fact, is the daughter of a well-known gang leader, and although their histories command respect with many of the youth in Chicago, the Interrupters also gain power through their commitment to helping others. We follow the three of them over the course of one year, as they insinuate themselves in a variety of potentially violent situations and, in some cases, work to form relationships with the people they help. The film opens with one such conflict, with Ameena stopping a teenage boy who plans to avenge a violent act. Ameena successfully takes him away from the situation, and we begin to see that in many cases, the people who commit these violent acts are often reluctant and, in some sense, are waiting to be stopped from acting.

This is most evident with “Flameo,” a young man who is threatening to get revenge. He tosses his phone angrily, yells, curses, but when Cobe starts talking him down, he begins to slow down. When Cobe offers to take him to dinner, he stops for a beat: “You mean right now.” Cobe responds, “yeah, right now.” And this simple gesture gives Flameo enough time to check his anger. We also see situations where the Interrupters struggle to help people break bad habits. Ameena spends countless hours trying to counsel a troubled teen, Caprysha, often with limited success. Eddie works with local schools in order to use art projects to reach troubled youth, creating a bond with a Latino family who lost a teenage child to gun violence. There is also a powerful scene when a teenager goes back to a barbershop he robbed in order to apologize to the victims, and it’s difficult not to get swept up in the emotional lives of the people whose lives we follow. Cobe, Eddie, and Ameena are all reflective about their past lives, the wrong choices they have made, and we seem to be constantly patrolling the city, riding in cars as the Interrupters seek to break up yet another conflict.

In many ways, the film reminded of Steve James’ breakthrough documentary, Hoop Dreams, in its grand-scale structure and its Chicago setting. The documentary gains remarkable access not only to the CeaseFire group but also to the lives of the many people they encounter. James also has a talent for capturing small gestures–characters nervously twitching their fingers, for example–that reveal a lot about the characters’ emotions. In places, the film did seem to run a little long, and the film did raise some important questions for me. Although there were some elliptical references to the negative effects of gangs–one Interrupter remarks at a funeral that most of the teens are wearing red, a local gang color–The Interrupters could have been a little more forceful in addressing some of the larger systemic causes of violence. Overall, though, it is a challenging and engaging documentary, one that should be used to deepen our conversations about how to reduce violence.

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Page One: Inside the New York Times

Prominently displayed in New York Times Media Desk editor Bruce Headlam’s office is a French poster for Citizen Kane, perhaps the most famous film of all-time about a journalist. Although Headlam tells us that he loves the improbable graphics of French movie posters, it is impossible not to draw a comparison between Welles’ film about a newspaperman and the documentary we are watching, Andrew Rossi’s engaging and often humorous Page One: Inside the New York Times, which follows the work of several Times reporters working at the paper’s newly created Media Desk. The role of these reporters–including the perpetually boisterous David Carr and the energetic new media whiz Brian Stelter–is to document the changing state of the media industries, even while the Times itself, like other newspapers, is undergoing rapid change. Rossi and his production partner, Kate Novak, had incredible access to the work of Stelter, Carr, and Headlam, watching as they adapt to a range of new media tools, even while they seek to preserve the journalistic standards associated with their paper.

Rossi and Novak followed the Media Desk for approximately fourteen months, using a hybrid cinema verite and talking-heads style, and the film is essentially framed by the newspaper’s complicated attempts to engage with Wikileaks, Julian Assange’s notorious website where whistleblowers could post state secrets. As Stelter observes early in the film, Assange essentially sees himself as an activist working on behalf of radical government transparency, a goal that is vastly different than that of a journalist, but the exchange with Assange does illustrate the changed landscape when people can go public through Wikileaks rather than through a major newspaper like the New York Times, and the film spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the ethics of publishing Wikileaks documents, and later, on what it means that the Times partnered with Assange to release other documents about the war in Iraq.

Inevitably, the film spends quite a bit of time meditating on the changes to the Times’ business model as a result of the changes introduced by social media. To some extent these positions are articulated by Web 2.0 champions such as Jeff Jarvis claims in the film, that “newspapers are dead.” Page One also quotes Clay Shirky as stating that because “anyone can publish,” we have achieved something approximating a “revolution” when it comes to media. To some extent, Jarvis and Shirky come across (somewhat unfairly) as wild-eyed futurists, especially when paired with images of Arianna Huffington brusquely defending the practice of aggregating articles from other news sources. At the same time, Brian Stelter, in particular, defends the role of social media in gathering and sharing information (even the more traditional David Carr becomes a somewhat reluctant convert).

Ultimately, the film is at its best when it observes David Carr at work, talking with his father, or generally enjoying life. I’d never seen him speak before, and he has a raspy voice, one that conveys the many challenges he has faced–including drug addiction and being a single parent on welfare–and his toughness comes through very clearly, but he’s also incredibly funny and generous with his younger colleagues. In places, the film does feel a little like an advertisement for the necessity of The New York Times. The film, which must have been completed only very recently, mentions the Times’ decision to create a paywall that requires readers to pay after they have read more than twenty articles in a month, and I found myself contemplating paying for an online subscription. The Times newsroom is often romanticized, especially when we see Carr mentoring Stelter or when Headlam encourages one of his journalists to pursue a story.

But beyond that, the film is a reminder of the importance of an energetic and critical news media. One reporter remarks on the fact that most news services have cut back on the “press gaggle” that follows the President around the country because of the expense involved, while Stelter points out that despite our nostalgia for print, the crucial issue in saving newspapers is the importance of “original sources,” of gathering the information necessary to make sense of the world. To that end, Page One is a Participant Media film, and the “cause” identified with the film is “the importance of knowing the original source of the news you read, watch, hear and tweet and the difference between original reporting and commentary.” This is, no doubt, an easy message to sell at a festival dedicated to documentary, but I hope that Page One will have a wider impact, allowing us to reflect on the changing media distribution landscape and the ways in which that affects the practices of journalism.

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The Loving Story

A recent poll found that 46% of Mississippi Republicans believe that interracial marriage should be illegal, and although such a poll may only have limited implications, it does show that attitudes about race and sexual desire remain contested in contemporary American culture over four decades after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that state laws forbidding interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The arguments about interracial marriage have reverberated for decades, and it’s not too much of a stretch to connect those taboos to more recent debates about gay marriage, and while many of these present-day complications reverberate within Nancy Buirski’s documentary debut, The Loving Story, what Buirski offers is not a simple talking-heads exploration of the ideas that informed the debate but a more profound and poetic exploration of the people who were somewhat reluctantly at the center of this national debate: Richard and Mildred Loving, a white construction worker and an African-American and Cherokee woman, who were convicted, briefly jailed, and forced into exile, because they chose to marry.

Buirski takes the unexpected and striking approach of allowing home movies and other archival footage to do much of the “talking” in the film. Both Richard and Mildred Loving have passed away–in fact Richard was killed by a drunk driver only a few years after the Supreme Court case–so their voices seem to come from beyond the grave, with most descriptions of them being provided by their daughter. What emerges from the archival footage is a portrait of a gentle, affectionate couple, with Mildred quietly elegant and Richard appearing somewhat shy. Shots of Richard resting his head in Mildred’s lap at home or of the couple subtly touching each other’s hands while walking into one of many court rooms shows their affection for each other. Both emerge as relatively unlikely activists: Richard’s crew cut and his penchant for racing cars and Mildred’s reserve make them seem less political, but after Mildred write a letter about their situation to Robert Kennedy, who recommends that they contact the ACLU, they are thrust into the spotlight.

The lawyers who took the case, Philip Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen were also unlikely heroes. Hirschkop, in fact, had only been out of law school for a couple of years, while Cohen had been out of law school for three years. Watching them talk publicly about the case in the 1960s was also quite powerful, an contemporary interviews with Cohen and Hirschkop help to ground the film narratively. I’m still contemplating some of Buirski’s formal and storytelling choices, but I think the film reflects the quiet gentleness of the figures at the center of the case. When Cohen asked Richard Loving if there was anything he wanted to tell the Supreme Court, Cohen tells us that Richard said simply, “Tell them I love her.” Through the archival materials, gently interwoven with contemporary interviews, Buirski relates a powerful ove story that has left a powerful mark on American culture.

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Gun Fight

Given the polarized viewpoints associated with the issue of gun ownership, Barbara Kopple’s latest documentary, Gun Fight, which I caught at Full Frame but also happens to be playing on HBO, will almost certainly be misunderstood. Gun rights activists who have commented on the film suggest Kopple is using the Virginia Tech massacre to “push” a gun control agenda. Meanwhile, Spout blogger Christopher Campbell mistakes Kopple’s decision to interview several gun right activists as an attempt to conform to the tendency in non-fiction film to be “objective” by presenting all (or at least multiple) sides of the gun right issue. Both of these readings misunderstand the complexity of Gun Fight’s underlying arguments about the place of guns and gun legislation in the United States, and although the film stakes out a position that we do need stronger gun laws (and stronger enforcement of those laws), the film is at its best when exploring the complex psychological status of gun laws and ownership in the United States.

Kopple’s film opens with footage of the Virginia Tech massacre taken on a shaky cell phone camera, the gun shots echoing in the near distance, interrupted by frightened gasps and piercing screams. News reports remind us of the number of victims while showing us haunting pictures of Seung-Hui Cho, the mass murderer who obtained all of his guns legally, despite his history of mental illness. The massacre is narrated by Colin Goddard, a student at Virginia Tech who survived being shot four times but witnessed several classmates getting killed. Goddard describes his wounds while expressing relief that he remembers very little of the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and as the film unfolds, he becomes one of our primary guides through the debate. Motivated by the shooting, he becomes an intern and eventually begins working for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The other major interviewee is Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist famous initially for publicly defending subway shooter Bernard Goetz. Feldman now has more recently moved on to lobby for the gun industry instead, in part because he has sought some middle ground with some sensible gun legislation, such as childproof locks on guns. Others discuss the traumatic physical effects of getting shot. A physician at the trauma center at UC Davis talks to a woman who still feels the effects of getting shot in the neck 40 years after it initially happened. We see a star high school football player who was shot several times after he was mugged, likely ending his sports career, positioning us to recognize the devastating consequences of gun violence.

Of course, to address these problems of gun violence, Kopple does allow gun owners to speak, possibly leading to Campbell’s mistaken observation that the film is trying to be falsely “objective.” A graduate student at Virginia Tech claims that if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus, Cho would have been stopped sooner, but Kopple answers this by showing a segment from ABC’s 20/20 that illustrates that having a student with a concealed weapon, even one that is adequately trained, likely would have led to more violence, not less. More crucially, Kopple shows how easy it is to obtain powerful guns without any background checks from unlicensed sellers at gun shows. In fact, Goddard goes into a gun show with a hidden camera and manages to conduct several transactions, even joking with one seller that he likely wouldn’t pass the background check.

To some extent, this is familiar territory. There have been discussions of closing the gun show loophole and of enforcing background checks ever since Columbine, calls that were recently raised again during the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. To that end, one of the strengths of the film is its attempt to make sense of the power of the gun lobby in shaping the legislative and political process, and this is where the film seeks to explore the passions of gun rights advocates, a very narrow segment of gun owners. On a purely pragmatic level, Feldman speculates that Al Gore probably “lost” the 2000 election, not (just) because of Ralph Nader but because many labor Democrats were more worried about Gore taking away their guns than they were about George W. Bush’s record on labor (although it’s worth adding that the Supreme Court probably helped here). He also points out that even the threat of a Democratic president or of a law calling for restrictions on guns feeds the outrage machine of the NRA, allowing them to fundraise based on people’s fears.

To that end, Kopple draws from arguments raised by Scott Melzer in his book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, which argues that the NRA’s appeals are rooted in an evocation of nostalgia for frontier masculinity and a very specific version of patriotism, one in which gun ownership is a means of holding the federal government in check. To explore this point, we see figures like Larry Platt talking about the importance of militias and gun rights rallies where guns are raffled off as a demonstration of spite against any federal regulations on gun ownership. Although these activists are far from representative of all gun owners–there are an estimated 80 million gun owners and 300 million guns in the United States–they often drive the passions of these single-issue voters. And although these groups are often rooted in white masculinity–both Melzer and the UC Davis doctor link the fringe of gun rights activists to Neo-Nazism and pro-Confederacy positions–we are also made palpably aware of how this culture of fear also permeates inner-city African-American men as well, when two young black men show us their apartment, which is stocked with a gun quite literally in every room.

Although the film offers some pragmatic legislative solutions, it also directs us to what seems like a bigger challenge, and that is: how do we engage with the politics of fear? During the Q&A, Colin Goddard acknowledged his own ambivalence about appealing to fear, while his father sought to redefine freedom not as the right to carry a weapon but as the right to move freely without fear of getting shot. In some ways, these responses aren’t completely adequate, and I think this is reflected in the reluctance of many Democrats, especially Obama, to take up legislation restricting gun ownership. I don’t think this inability to think beyond the “politics of fear” is a flaw in the film, as much as it is a potential limit in our current political imagination. Kopple’s film is likely to polarize. Gun right activists will surely see an “agenda,” while some viewers may share the film’s stance on “common sense” legislation, even while wishing for something more assertive in staking out an anti-gun position. What Kopple has given us, instead, is a film that shows that the politics of guns, are indelibly complicated.

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Guilty Pleasures

Over the last two decades, thanks to scholars such as Henry Jenkins, the study of fandom has become an integral part of media studies. My own work on film blogging and YouTube remix videos was an attempt to engage with this scholarship, especially as it played out within the cultures of cinephilia. What Jenkins and other scholars have pointed out is that fan practices are far more complicated than they might appear to outsiders and that cultural forms, whether romance fiction or genre television, should not be dismissed as “low” forms, in part because of the cultural work they are doing. Because of that background, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with Julie Moggan’s Guilty Pleasures, the Opening night film at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a documentary that follows the lives of a carefully selected group of people whose lives are affected by their role in producing or consuming Mills and Boon romance novels.

The reading culture around Mills and Boon novels is massive. Pre-credit titles tell us that a Mills and Boon novel is purchased somewhere in the world every three seconds. Roger, an older male author who writes under the name, Gill Sanderson (because male authors apparently aren’t well received in the Mills and Boon audience), speculates that his novels have been translated into a dozen languages, while Stephen, the handsome but flighty male model, estimates that he has graced the cover of over 200 romance novels.

Meanwhile we are introduced to three readers, each from a different part of the world, and each with her own sense of emptiness that the Mills and Boon novels ostensibly fill. Shirley is a British woman who shares a life with her husband, Phil, who at the beginning of the movie, at least, seems to show more affection to his do-it-yourself guides and tool belts than he does to his wife. Hiroko reads her Mills and Boon novels on the Tokyo subway and fantasizes about being swept away by her ballroom dance instructor, while her somewhat impassive husband admits that he lacks the grace to sweep her of her feet on the dance floor. Finally, Shumita, an Indian woman reads the novels and longs to be reunited with her ex-husband who left her, in part he says, because she became a “militant feminist” for reading Erica Jong and Gloria Steinem. In some sense, reading the books seems to hold Shumita in an unhappy cycle: she longs for the happy ending and spends much of the film worrying about her appearance, getting facials and worrying about her weight, all for a guy who seems more fixated on his car than anything else in the world.

Thus, rather than really being about the culture of romance reading (or even romance writing), the documentary is really trying harder to be a “real life romcom,” as Tanya Gold observes in her Guardian review, one that explores the cultural desire for romantic connections, while using the Mills and Boon books as a platform for exploring that. Thus, for people who are romance studies scholars, the  film will likely be a big disappointment. By looking solely at the Mills and Boon universe, the documentary misses out on literally dozens of other subgenres of romance, while also playing into practically every conceivable stereotype of romance readers. At one point, Moggan cuts to Shirley eating bon bons and sipping wine in bed while reading a Mills and Boon. Similarly, Shumita is often shown curled in bed reading, the books an apparent escape from her romantic solitude. Finally, the choice of two male figures, Roger and Stephen, to stand in as the producers of Mills and Boon novels seems odd given that virtually all romance writers are female. Although that is hinted at briefly when we see that Roger is the only male author at the Romance Writers convention, the lens for looking at this culture seemed a bit too narrow.

To be fair, Moggan seemed less interested in doing an anthropological study and more inclined to create a narrative involving each of the five major characters. At one point, Roger, echoing the recommendations of many creative writing teachers, remarks that all major characters must undergo a change by the end of the book, and Moggan seeks to follow the trajectories of Shirley, Shumita, and Hiroko, as they negotiate their domestic and romantic lives. Meanwhile Stephen, at the beginning of the movie comes across as charming but also narcissistic, obsessed with food and seeking out his “twin flame,” a partner who will be just as beautiful as he is. Roger, meanwhile, seems to have a quiet existence, just the opposite of what you might expect a writer of passionate romances to have.

But even these stories seemed to play into, rather than critiquing, the stereotypes of romance readers (and here, I do want to point out that Gold’s assessment in The Guardian of most of characters seems a bit harsh and ungenerous). During the Q&A Moggan commented that she was trying to explore the distinctions between appearance and reality through the characters. Roger is not the female author he claims to be. Stephen, far from having a glamorous lifestyle, tends to spend a lot of time at home in his relatively spartan apartment. Shumita desperately seeks out the happy endings provided in the romance novels, to the point that she is blind to her ex-husband’s shallowness. Hiroko reads about ideal worlds while riding the subway or while hanging out at home with her geeky husband who dreams of fathering an entire baseball team. It’s a familiar hook, but one that misrepresents romance readership, casting it primarily as a form of escape. Even so, some of the characters do make the effort to change, in ways I’ll avoid spoiling here.

To some extent, I think the documentary could have benefitted from some kind of meta-commentary, someone who could comment on the complications of romance readership. Moggan mentioned during the Q&A also that she had not been a reader of romance fiction prior to making the film, and I think that was evident in a couple of places, especially when she plays into the worst stereotypes of passive, wine-sipping female readers.

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