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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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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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Source Code

When I was in graduate schol, I did my dissertation on films about time travel, alternate realities, and other time-bending narratives, a project that grew out of a seminar paper on Twelve Monkeys and Strange Days. The project ended up not working quite as well as I would have liked, as I got lost in my attempts to classify films according to the direction of time travel. But I found myself thinking about that project last night while watching Duncan Jones’ Source Code (IMDB), a follow-up to his trippy debut film, Moon. In particular, I reflected on the degree to which the film’s plot device has been naturalized to the point that audiences need little explanation to grasp what is happening, and although I found the film to be somewhat flawed, it functions well enough as a psychological thriller that engages with questions of fate, destiny, and free will.

Source Code depicts the experiences of Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wounded Afghanistan War veteran who is sent back into the body of a passenger on a train bound for Chicago that is about to be destroyed in a terrorist attack. Stevens wakes up in the body of a high school teacher named Sean just eight minutes before the explosives are set to go off, killing everyone on board and must figure out the person who planted the bomb to prevent a later terrorist attack from happening. We are given a typical pseudoscientific explanation from the film’s mad scientist, Dr. Rutledge (a cheerfully excessive Jeffrey Wright). As Roger Ebert points out, the scientific implausibilities don’t really matter, because for the most part, it’s clear that the explanation serves a different purpose: we are given a set of narrative rules–Colton has eight minutes to solve the problem, in this case finding the bomber–and then watch as Colton attempts to complete the task he has been assigned.

As a result, Source Code seems to be the latest example of a series of films that follow what Alex Galloway, in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture,  has described as the “algorithmic form” of many contemporary narratives.* Although Galloway refers primarily to what he calls “films of epistemological reversal,” such as Fight Club or The Matrix, in which our existing understanding of how the world works is undermined, Colton’s quest in Source Code isn’t significantly different than the quest of completing a level of a video game, to the point that Colton, almost immediately, begins to identify specific patterns of repeated activity: a spilled soda, a conversation with the beautiful girl across the aisle. Even the logic of the behavior of the train’s passengers is constrained by how thy are already programmed. Given that the explosion “has already happened,” the train passengers are ostensibly dead, and therefore, Colton’s interactions with them don’t really matter. Much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Colton begins to see the train as a system, one that can be manipulated by a skillful “player” or user. The film’s paranoid depiction of time and fate–and their relationship to crime prevention–also has affinities with movies such as Minority Report and Twelve Monkeys.

And this is where I think Source Code ultimately “cheats,” to use a gaming term [spoilers follow]. As we learn early in the film, Colton is being sent back in time by a mysterious military organization, one that Colton is able to trace back to a base in Nevada. He receives instructions from Dr. Rutledge and a more sympathetic assistant, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who communicates to him through a computer screen. Colton is told that he is physically dead other than some mild brain activity, but during his visits to the past, he falls in love with a passenger, Christina (Michelle Monaghan as the pretty girl), and desperately hopes to keep her alive, even though he is repeatedly told that the attack has already happened. In one version of Colton’s “game,” he pulls Christina from the train before it explodes, believing he has rescued her, but that reality doesn’t really exist, so he is pulled back to begin the game anew. However, those who have seen the film will know that the narrative resolution “cheats” this logic of time or narrative rule. It’s a typical cheat of time-loop narratives, however: why does the time loop stop once the crime has been solved? Perhaps more telling, Colton is able to prevent the terrorist from ever committing a crime in the first place, which means that the military agency that sends him wouldn’t have any need to send him back, right? Although, I suppose it is entirely possible that the final sequence (when he does prevent the accident from happening) is entirely imagined.

These logical implausibilities don’t undermine the film completely. As Aaron Hillis observes, Colton’s compassion for the train’s passengers is seductive. Even if we are told (somewhat misleadingly) that the attempts to rescue the passenger are doomed, Colton’s “loyalty” make him a likable protagonist (a sense of intimacy that Manhola Dargis also recognizes in her NYT review). At the same time, it’s a film that succeeds in synthesizing a wide range of cinematic, video game, and narrative texts, one that recognizes the ways in which audiences engage with and accept the place of algorithms within cinematic narratives.

Update with Spoilage: One other point worth considering, raised in the comments of this Hollywood Elsewhere post, is that the film allows Colton to essentially take over the identity of Sean Fentress, the mild-mannered teacher/train passenger, whose body Colton inhabits when he travels back in time into the train. Thus, as the film ends and Colton continues to live in Fentress’s body, starting a new life with Christina, Fentress’s entire life history is effaced. Des he have a family? Friends? What about his students? The film can only do this, of course, by making Fentress basically a cypher with little actually personality.

* Another good reference here is Kristen Daly’s recent Cinema Journal article, “Cinema 3.0: The Interactive Image.”

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Inside Job

Although Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (IMDB) has been out for a few weeks, I finally caught it last night, thanks, in part, to the fact that the film won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and I’ll admit that while I found the film to be an exhaustively researched and carefully rational explanation of What Went Wrong with the economy over the last decade, I also found it to be incredibly frustrating at times. Part of this frustration may be connected to the complexity of the manipulative practices engaged in by the various captains of high finance. As A.O. Scott observes, the film feels like a “classroom lecture” at times, a history lesson with a pedantic purpose. That lesson is basically clear: we need tighter regulation of Wall Street, but the institutions that might serve to monitor Wall Street–the federal government and academia–are often complicit with those corporations. Many of the federal regulators, appointed and reappointed by both political parties, worked for Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms and stood to benefit tremendously from the lax oversight.

Ferguson’s film outlines–quite literally, in that Inside Job is divided into five chapters–how the crisis began, how it was allowed to continue, and in a far less convincing coda, what can be done to reduce corruption. The film itself is highly polished, with interviews taking place in the offices and interiors of the wealthy and powerful, far different, Scott also points out, than the hand-held camerawork that we typically associate with muckraking journalism (J Hoberman makes a similar point). But even while the film avoids the theatrics we might encounter in a Michael Moore fim, Ferguson’s anger at the absurdity of derivatives, credit default swaps, and other financial shenanigans is palpable. At one point, a Columbia professor states that he left a regulatory post to revise a textbook, with Ferguson reacting just off-screen, spitting out the words, “you can’t be serious?!” Many of the interviewees deny any wrongdoing, leaving Ferguson incredulous, although in places I found myself feeling resigned, almost restless, given the image of unchecked power that Ferguson had painted.

And that brings me to my first problem with the film: as Scott points out, Ferguson avoids any systemic explanations for the crash. Although he traces out a clear complicity between (mostly Ivy League) economics faculty, Wall Street executives, and government regulators, the film seemed to stop short of imagining any alternatives to the existing system. Power corrupts. Even some of the Wall Street executives he interviewed admitted as much. There is a vague suggestion that allowing banks to become “too big to fail” helped create the problem and that the coupling of commercial banks and investment banks also led to corruption. The film also tentatively spells out a “pathology” of sorts among the Wall Street executives, noting that many of them were highly-driven risk takers who spent their nights binging on cocaine and paying thousands of dollars for high-end prostitutes, but I think this form of risk-taking could have been spelled out more explicitly (although it echoes some of the conclusions reached in Alex Gibney’s Enron documentary).

The other aspect that I found mildly frustrating was the fact that it was somewhat difficult to develop a sense of identification with any of the people who were attempting to fight corruption. Although Elliot Spitzer offers some of the more trenchant critiques of Wall Street corruption, I often felt a little unmoored, even overwhelmed, by the film. Although Scott suggests that the film should not be at “fault” for producing this sense of dispiritedness, I found it difficult not to feel as if the economic system that produced this crisis–and the rising income inequality, unemployment , and poverty that goes with it–is inevitable (Kenneth Morefield makes a similar observation). That being said, I think the anger that Ferguson channels in Inside Job may, finally, be finding expression in the protests in Madison, Columbus, and state capitals throughout the country where workers are demanding that their collective bargaining rights not be taken away.

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The Company Men

Watching John Wells’ The Company Men (IMDB) against the backdrop of the ongoing union protests was a fascinating experience. In addition to the week-long protests taking place in Madison, where workers are fighting to retain the right to bargain collectively, there were solidarity marches in all fifty states on Saturday. In addition, as Frank Rich notes, there have been threats of a government shutdown that would potentially cut off access to food stamps and Social Security checks, while Governor Scott Walker cheerfully chats with a reporter impersonating billionaire David Koch about laying off state workers. Although The Company Men was produced well before these more recent labor crises, it gave the film a startling timeliness, one that makes its relatively invisibility–I’ve seen little advertising for or discussion of the film–a little startling.

Like Up in the Air (my review), a film that has been a frequent point of comparison, The Company Men grounds its narrative in the historical world. While Up in the Air used talking-head interviews with actual unemployed workers interspersed with unemployed workers, The Company Men opens and closes with an audio an video montage of news reports on the unemployment crisis, the bank bailouts, and the stock market, drawing (perhaps overly obvious) connections between the experiences of its central characters and the corporate downsizing.  This conflict is addressed through the psychological experiences of three executives from GTX, an amorphous conglomerate that originated in shipbuilding but now seems to make nothing in particular, while pushing papers across desks in a furious attempt to bump up stock prices before an anticipated merger.  Each of the men belongs to a different class background and generation. The primary point of identification is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a youngish sales executive, who has a high salary, but has overextended himself, buying a McMansion, a Porsche, and paying for expensive country club dues; Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who lovingly built the shipbuilding company and now watches cynically as it loses its manufacturing base; and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a man of working-class roots who rose from the factory floor to become an executive, although he experiences this status awkwardly, his graying hair and bland demeanor coding him as an outsider within the world of high finance.

All three of the characters are unceremoniously fired at various points, and the film traces their efforts to find work–and to regain a sense of lost dignity after being fired and falling short of their role as breadwinners. In this sense, the film becomes an exploration not merely of economic issues, but also of the masculinity crisis that  Bobby, Phil, and Gene face in various ways (a point addressed most effectively by Karina Longworth in her insightful reading of the film).  At first, Bobby is reluctant to allow his wife, a nurse, to take on more shifts and assumes that his job search will be brief. But as the search drags on, Bobby must give up many of the trappings of success and must endure a sometimes humiliating job search, a point underscored by Bobby’s experiences in a job placement firm where bossy (and emasculating) employment coaches direct him in goofy “empowerment” chants, while Phil is forced to endure a variety of humiliations: his wife demands that he not come home until 6 PM to keep up the illusion that he is employed, while a job hunter counsels him to omit any reference to any work before 1990.

At first, I was ambivalent at best about the fact that the film focused solely on the experiences of unemployed (but relatively wealthy) men and that the only prominent female workers were Bobby’s wife, Maggie, and Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), a GTX executive responsible for carrying out most of the firings. Maggie’s work is generally undervalued–her status as a worker is rendered insignificant compared to her role as a wife and mother. And Sally is often just inches away from falling into the stereotype of the dominant female executive who has stolen power away from men (a la Demi Moore in Disclosure). But I think the film is trying to make sense of how these economic changes might be affecting us on a psychological level, and as Karina concludes, it “offers a multifaceted glimpse at what can happen when the connective tissue between a man and his source of income is cut, and rarely suggests that it could be anything less than excruciating to stop the bleeding.”

The film is also savvy enough to recognize that the economic challenges extend well beyond those who wear suits and ties to work. After some time, Bobby reluctantly accepts a job working for Maggie’s brother, Jack (Kevin Costner), a carpenter who hires Bobby as a laborer and then promotes him to carpenter, subtly overpaying him, even though his own business is in some jeopardy. As Andrew O’Hehir observes, the film risks romanticizing working-class production, both through its depiction of Jack as a crusty, salt-of-the-earth guy and through its celebration of the revival of manufacturing as a way out of the unemployment crisis, with Gene lamenting the days when GTX used to build things. But as the aborted stimulus package illustrates, there is some value in building and repairing “things,” in giving our aging infrastructure a much-needed boost, and although the film’s ending is somewhat trite (I won’t spoil the specifics here), it allows us to think about the sterile world of high finance in contrast to the gritty and grubby world of making stuff, a comparison that is spelled out sharply through Roger Deakins’s cinematography.

Finally, to some extent, the film seems to have been implicitly criticized for being “too televisual.” The director, John Wells, has a background in TV production, working for ER and The West Wing, and many of the narrative moves in The Company Men feel like TV storytelling. However, rather than treating this as a fault, I think Wells uses these techniques well in order to crosscut between the experiences of the three or four major characters, in order to build up a consciousness of how the unemployment crisis might be resonating on a psychological level. At the same time, watching the film in the midst of the events in Madison reminded me of the fact that none of the characters mentioned unionization or collective bargaining, and to a great extent, being unemployed becomes an individual, and not a collective, crisis. To be sure, Bobby and several of his friends at the job placement center begin to work together, but they do so for the most part by operating within a system they find to be corrupt without really questioning how that system should be changed.

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Blue Valentine

The trailer for Blue Valentine (IMDB) features a scene in which Dean (Ryan Gosling) is attempting to seduce Cindy (Michelle Williams) by playing a song on a ukelele and singing along in a goofy voice and inviting her to dance along as he sings.  He has stopped her at night in front of a downtown storefront, where the interior lights perfectly illuminate her, and the scene, played out of context, seems like a sweet early moment in a relationship, as the couple begins to find each other’s inner beauty.  But there is also a hint of melancholia in the scene as Dean sings, “you always hurt the ones you love,” a sentiment that permeates throughout the film and of the ways in which Cindy and Dean will hurt each other.

But rather than telling this story of the dissolution of a relationship in chronological order, Blue Valentine, as directed by Derek Cianfrance, starts just as the relationship is about to end.  A gate has been left open, and their beloved family dog has escaped.  The couple’s daughter, Frankie, discovers this and first wakes Dean from the sofa, and later Cindy sleeping in their bed, a not-quite-subtle reminder that the couple has drifted apart.  The film then intercuts between the events of this final day (a school assembly, discovering their dog dead by the side of the road, a road trip to a nearby hotel for a weekend getaway) and the early days of their relationship when the couple first meets and begins to fall in love.

Dean is immediately enamored, while Cindy is tentative at first, before becoming seduced by his charms and by his willingness to support her through a personal crisis.  He works as a mover, and she sees him as he helps an older gentleman as he begins to settle into a nursing home, decorating his walls and seeking to make an older stranger more comfortable.  The intercutting between these two moments is effective, with the past shot in brighter colors, and Cindy’s hair longer and more freely flowing, while the later scenes typically rely on darker lighting.  The film is also relatively frank in its depiction of the couple’s sex life, shifting from the excitement the couple feels when it first meets to Dean practically forcing himself on Cindy during their last-ditch attempt to re-kindle things in the “sex hotel,” ironically in the “Future Room.”

In her review, Karina Longworth faults the film for providing the male character, Dean, with a rich interior life while denying any depth to Cindy, and I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that Cindy’s story is somewhat eclipsed by Dean’s.  Worse, for Karina, is the suggestion, during a scene at a women’ clinic, that Cindy may have been, to use Karina’s phrase a “tempestuous slut,” due to her past number of partners.  But I’d like to believe that our perceptions of Cindy were more subtle than that, and I found myself sympathizing with her frustrations with Dean and his inability to really understand his wife, with her recognition that things weren’t working and her attempts to hold things together, even during a chance encounter with an old flame.  I did find some aspects of the film to be a little forced.  Parts of the backstory with a violent old boyfriend and a judgmental father seemed contrived, as AO Scott observes.   But I appreciated how the film managed to navigate between the present and the past in engaging and thoughtful ways.

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The Fighter

While we were watching The Fighter (IMDB) last night, I caught my fiancee, a native of nearby Quincy, squirming several times at the depiction of Lowell, Massachusetts, the depleted industrial town that boxer Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) called home.  The broken down cars, shuttered buildings, the trash-strewn streets, and even the big hair and sharp accents all reminded her of a town her mother warned her about, one that the film manages to capture relatively authentically, even down to the accents (though Melissa Leo and Amy Adams slipped a few times).  It’s that kind of hardscrabble realism that saves what might have otherwise been a somewhat hokey sports character drama.

Many of the town’s residents have fallen into hard times, and we learn that Micky’s brother, a local boxing legend, Dicky Eklund, has become a deeply deluded crack addict, one who is convinced that an HBO crew documenting his daily routine is planning a movie about his professional comeback–not his addiction.  Of course we learn, well before Dicky realizes it, that the film is High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, a harrowing, and shockingly intimate, account of three Lowell residents who have developed addictions to one of the most powerful drugs out there.  The documentary is available through Snag Films, and it’s fascinating to watch, both for its depictions of addiction and for the documentary portrayals of the characters in The Fighter.

A look back at the documentary shows that Melissa Leo has perfectly captured the coiffed-up pretensions of Micky and Dicky’s mother, her ability to deny the fact Dicky is addicted, even while attempting to control the lives of her sons.  And Christian Bale’s gaunt features reflect the emptied out face of Dicky during the era when he was addicted.  For the most part, The Fighter avoids directly depicting the original documentary, instead re-enacting some of the scenes involving Dicky, but it’s fascinating to see the intertextual relationship between both films, to see how The Fighter revisits that earlier material.  This documentary subtext is reinforced through a storytelling device in the film, in which the filmmakers are ostensibly interviewing Micky and Dicky about their experiences.

This is one of those occasions where an Oscar nomination (or five) encouraged me to check out a film that I otherwise would have missed.  Boxing is a brutal sport, one that I don’t particularly enjoy, but the recognition made me just curious enough to watch, and I am glad that I did, especially after recognizing the relationship to High on Crack Street (which in many ways, is a far more brutal film).  It’s clear that the film struggled a little to work against sports movie cliches, especially given that Micky’s story conforms to many of those cliches, but as an attempt to construct a realistic depiction of Lowell, Mass, it’s fascinating little film.

Update: For the curious, here is an embed of High on Crack Street, the 1995 HBO documentary that plays a key role in The Fighter, courtesy of SnagFilms:

Watch more free documentaries

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True Grit and Winter’s Bone

By coincidence, I happened to watch both True Grit and Winter’s Bone this weekend.  For a number of reasons, I’d procrastinated on seeing True Grit in theaters, and the Winter’s Bone DVD sat collecting dust in its little red envelope, its availability allowing me to delay watching it.  But thanks to a brief break in my writing schedule, I found a chance to catch up on these two films, allowing me to reflect on the similarities between the two films: namely that both films depict tough, even stubborn, teenage girls bent on addressing an absent father.  Mattie in True Grit seeks to avenge the death of her father; while Ree in Winter’s Bone takes on the task of finding her bail-hopping father to save her family’s home from being taken away.

Both films also entail classic wilderness motifs, even while tweaking those elements to genre and thematic concerns.  In True Grit, Mattie famously hires Rooster Cogburn, a tough, but weathered, U.S. Marshal to seek out her father’s killer in “Indian country,” and then insists on following him into the wilderness to see that the work is done.  To demonstrate her mettle, Mattie follows Rooster and oddly charming Texas Ranger LaBoeuf across a river–a classic threshold moment–and continues with her single-minded focus on tracking Tom Chaney, while Rooster and LaBoeuf are often reduced to petty bickering about who is a better shot (read: better man), shooting all of their cornbread in an improvised target shooting contest.  Their confrontations with various unsavory types–the boundaries between law and lawlessness become increasingly permeable outside the city–also mix in darkly comic elements.  We’re not sure in places whether to laugh or be horrified by Cogburn’s actions.

Unlike these darkly comic moments, the regional neorealism and southern Gothic elements of Winter’s Bone create a much different mood.   The film opens with Ree managing her household–her mother is either too traumatized or too strung out on medication to be of any help–when a sheriff approaches her to let her know that her father has put up their house as collateral for his bail.  Ree determines that she will find her father to ask him to turn himself in, and when it becomes clear that he may have been killed, to find his body.  Ree’s adventures take her deeper into a meth syndicate, one that seems to weave deeply into her family tree–everyone in her Ozark town seems to be a “cousin” of someone else–and one that doesn’t trust outsiders, especially someone who might get the police involved.  At the same time, Ree weighs any form of escape she can find.  Learning that joining the military could provode her with the money to save her meager home (and could provide her with an escape from her Ozark community), she visits a military recruiter, who politely rebuffs her because of her age.  Eventually Ree receives some support from her father’s somewhat estranged brother, Teardrop.  Like the Indian country of True Grit, the mountains and woods offer a wilderness where traditional rules may not apply and where an unhealthy patriarchy still holds (at one point, the wife of a local dealer insists that “no man” touched Ree when she gets beaten up).

I’m certainly not the first person to notice this coincidence. Aymar Jean Christian blogged about this several weeks ago, and argued that True Grit’s lighter touch–true to most Coen Brothers films, it contains some darkly comic moments–makes it the superior film.  Winter’s Bone, with its depiction of a rural, paranoid, meth-addicted Ozark community seems, Aymar implies, almost too unrelenting.  I’m not really interested in choosing which film is superior, but it probably is worth noting that two films with such similar plots seem to be resonating with audiences and critics alike.  I think that what makes Mattie such a powerful character is her unflinching view toward violence. During a public hanging of three criminals, she hardly blinks, accepting the violence as a normal, even necessary, part of frontier justice.

Ree, by comparison, seems focused on preserving some version of family normalcy in the face of poverty and isolation.  She teaches her younger siblings how to shoot, how to skin a squirrel, essentially how to survive.  She instructs her siblings not to ask for charity because “you shouldn’t have to ask.”  When a neighbor offers to raise one of the children–to “take over” as she puts it–Ree is horrified by the thought of breaking up the family.  This determination allows Ree to go deeper into the claustrophobic  Ozark landscape to seek out the location of her father.  And here is where I find myself disagreeing with Aymar a little.  Aymar argues that Ree’s situation (and especially the film’s lack of humor) “inspires pity rather than empathy,” but I’m not quite sure that’s right.  First, I think the film avoids caricaturing southerners.  All of the people Ree encounters are complexly drawn, their motivations shaped both by their need for survival and their recognition of Ree’s need to find her father. In fact, there are some moments of humor–Ree’s ability to challenge her friend  into manipulating her husband to loan her a car is one such moment–and although Ree lives in poverty, she also seeks to create a sense of normalcy for herself and her family.  Like Roger Ebert, I found Ree’s determination and decency to be a powerful antidote to her unrelenting environment.

Both films offer fascinating, determined, even complex heroines, and I’d take many more films like them.

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Tron: Legacy

Like many science-fiction films, especially those about virtual worlds, Tron: Legacy (IMDB) cultivates a carefully-observed ambivalence about the effects of technology.  In many of these films, virtual-reality technologies either enslave us through ideological spectacle (The Matrix)  or distract us from real social problems (Strange Days).  At the same time, the narratives of many of these films depend on digital effects that require extremely sophisticated technologies.  As Eric Kohn points out in his excellent review of Tron: Legacy, this seems to lead to a “paradox,” in which “a franchise built around the fetishistic obsession with cyberculture now preaches its evils.”  Although I think Kohn is correct, at least at the level of narrative (the main goal of the human characters is to leave the “grid” where Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been trapped for two decades), the spectacular aspects of the film still embrace a kind of “techno-cool” that seems to be perfectly attuned to the legacy of the original film.

Although this tension between a technophobic narrative and technological spectacle is nothing new–Kohn and others have even identified intersections between Tron: Legacy and Chaplin’s Modern TimesTron: Legacy’s unique status as a much-belated sequel positions it as an enticing case for talking about some of the challenges involved in transmedia storytelling, digital special effects, and especially what might be called technological nostalgia (although that’s not quite the right phrase).  

Nick Tierce’s Tron-ified Modern Times from Nick Tierce on Vimeo.

As I was watching Tron: Legacy, I found myself feeling acutely aware of how the film was working to establish a “new” media franchise for Disney. After my recent trip to Universal Studios, I could easily imagine a simulation ride based on the interior of the game world, and the movie itself was planned with a video game in mind (and apparently a sequel or two). As a result, in a few places, the film seemed to be straining to establish the parameters for the grid, with many of these “rules” (escapees from the grid must have a disc containing all of their memories with them when they leave) defying any kind of logical sense, as Roger Ebert observes in his review. At the same time, aspects of the framing narrative seemed readymade for the cultural logic of Disney: young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is essentially orphaned when his dad becomes trapped in the grid, turning him into a “safe” rebel who races motorcycles through city streets (preparing him nicely for at least one of the games he is forced to play in the grid) and pulls creative pranks on the board of the corporation he inherited. The result is that the film, early on at least, seems to hang on to a number of cinematic cliches, and later, once we have reached the grid, the rules seem to change according to whims driven by the film’s plot. Essentially, Kevin tells us that when he designed the grid, he created a bot of sorts named Clu that would ensure that the grid remained “perfect.” Of course, what happens is that Clu attempts not simply to eliminate imperfections but to get rid of difference itself (the film renders this idea by turning him into a kind of fascist leader who spits out speeches to faceless masses).

The opening sequences also present another representation problem, in that they were filmed in 2D, while the grid sequences were filmed in 3D. Given the rapid movements within the game world, the use of 3D actually seems fitting. Although a pre-credit title tells viewers to wear their 3-D glasses throughout the film, (like Ebert) I removed mine during the 2D scenes simply because the dark glasses made those scenes too murky. But an even more engaging aspect of the early scene was the use of digital special effects to make Jeff Bridges appear to be nearly thirty years earlier. The scene reminded me of an internet rumor that George Lucas had purchased the rights to reproduce digital versions of a number of classical Hollywood actors in order to create new films. But it’s an uncanny match, one that makes his weathered appearance in the grid later in the film all the more powerful, given all of the time we know that he has lost (leading to yet another logical problem: why would a digitized creation “age” in the same way that organic bodies do?).

The tensions between the visual design of the “real” world and the grid are also worth noting. Someone among my Facebook friends suggested that the film resembles a “bourgeois Blade Runner,” and I can see that reading. Many of the spaceships and visual design elements seem to evoke a slightly cleaned up version of the shabby cityscapes of Blade Runner. To some extent, I think this is due to what I have decided to call “technological nostalgia,” the film’s attempt to evoke and update older fantasies of “the grid,” the matrix, cyberspace, or computerization in general. This nostalgia is suggested in part by the closed down arcade that serves as a portal to the grid. When Sam answers a page coming from his dad’s office, he goes to find the old classic games covered in dust, a somewhat “lost” model of gaming in the internet era, in which broadband connections and powerful graphics cards on personal computers make popping quarters into a giant box completely unnecessary. But it’s the grid itself that recalls earlier attempts at depicting the virtual (worth noting: this Indy Weekly article offers a solid history of the original Tron’s visual influence). But I think it’s also suggested in some of tech noir imagery, the spaceships that evoke some of Syd Mead’s work in the 1980s, and other visual imagery that seems to have given rise to the cyberspace imagination starting with Blade Runner and running through William Gibson’s Neuromancer into The Matrix and, later, cyberspace itself.

These thoughts are, I’ll admit, somewhat scattered. I think that’s due, in part, to the tension described by Kohn between the film’s use of computers to render a visually engaging virtual world and the technophobic narrative. But there is also a lost sense of whimsy in this Tron update. In the original Matrix, the film powerfully captured the excitement and novelty of digital media. Keanu’s recognition that he could defy the laws of physics suggested that he could “free his mind” and imagine that anything is possible. In Tron: Legacy, the film stills seems to hold out hope that digital effects can astonish us, but it’s far less optimistic about whether those tools will do anything other than leave us isolated and alienated from others.

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Love and Other Drugs

Until checking its Wikipedia entry, I had no idea that Love and Other Drugs (IMDB) was based on a non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by Jamie Reidy, who, like the Jamie Randall character in the film (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), worked as a pharmaceutical rep.  That detail provides a slightly clearer motivation for setting the film in the 1990s, an aspect of the film I found fascinating (and will return to momentarily).  I haven’t read the book, but it seems that its primary purpose was to blow the whistle on some of the more unsavory practices of the pharmaceutical industry.  Although there are a number of scenes that satirize Big Phrama, the film seems less assured when it so earnestly depicts the romance between Jamie and Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) primarily as a means for Jamie to enter belatedly into adulthood.  Although Maggie is also depicted as vulnerable, the story seems in places to use Maggie’s diseased body as a means for allowing Jamie to discover his better self (he and his brother, who made millions off of  medical software, are both depicted as overgrown children).

The romance plot does have some nice moments.  Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, Courage Under Fire) has good storytelling chops.  The film uses Maggie’s artwork, including a video project where she and Jamie record their bedroom conversations, relatively well in order to explore the emotional vulnerabilities of the characters, but it was often difficult to see the characters as anything other than types: the haunted artist and the overgrown (but sensitive) playboy.

Instead, I found myself focusing on the treatment of the 1990s boom era.  Nearly a decade after Clinton’s presidency ended, it’s becoming increasingly possible to view “the nineties” as a distinct historical era, with its booming economy, based in part on the exploding dotcom and pharmaceutical industries.  Jamie’s brother is a software millionaire, and Jamie hands out favors–umbrellas, pens, even to the point of arranging sexual trysts–to doctors in order to entice them to prescribe his drugs rather than his competitors’.  Although Jamie recites the benefits of Pfizer drugs–fewer side effects, better results–it’s clear that he doesn’t really believe his own pitch and doesn’t especially care.  Jamie’s career is given a boost when he lands the opportunity to sell Viagra (it’s almost impossible to write a sentence about Viagra without at least one bad pun), and the film treats Viagra as a symbol of the excessiveness of 90s culture.  At the same time, aspects of that excess, including the wild parties that are fueled by the drugs and drug company profits, are enticing and energizing, with the result that the nineties become the object of ambivalent nostalgia for the film (this is expressed musically as well through the use of The Spin Doctors, among others).

The depictions of the pharmaceutical industry–and its cynical emphasis on profits over care–did resonate with some of the current debates about health care.  Although the pharmaceutical reps, driven by the drug companies themselves, are probably the chief “villains” in this equation, the doctors (including Dr. Knight, played by Hank Azaria) are usually depicted as complicit in the system itself.  I don’t have time to track it down now, but at least one review compared Love and Other Drugs to the similarly topical Up in the Air (my review) and that comparison seems about right, although I liked the latter film quite a bit more.  Both movies map aspects of romantic drama onto workplace settings that engage with, or at least anticipate, our troubled economic times.  Although Love and Other Drugs primarily tracks Jamie’s transition into an adult capable of unselfishly loving and supporting Maggie, it is also engaged with topical issues in a relatively thoughtful way.

Update: Another film that has this topical vibe is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network.  For a sharp analysis of the film, check out Tama Leaver’s recent column at FlowTV.

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