Archive for film theory

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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Analog Dreams

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve joined in Nick Rombes’ latest cinematic project, Do Not Screen. The project was conceived when Nick, searching in an abandoned barn, came across a stash of film frames cut into strips of 12 from an old 16 mm movie. Each strip, then, constitutes essentially half a second of screened time. Rather than reassemble the film himself, Nick, with the support of the University of Waterloo’s Critical Media Lab,  has sent out dozens of strips to film scholars, critics, bloggers, and others with an activation code. Once that code is activated, the piece of film goes live on the Do Not Screen site, where participants can see or comment on their strip of film.

Nick also included several other artifacts in each envelope, and in my case, I received what appears to be a billing statement listing billable hours for activities such as “general repairs” or “unloading filling” or a brief notation saying “Sunday not working.” Some of these documents inclue a brief typed message, “DO NOT SCREEN,” in my case in all caps. As Nick notes, the film seems to depict some kind of ceremony or gathering, and the strip I received shows musicians–a pianist in particular–playing (unheard in this silent clip) music that is amplified by speakers on a pole. There is always something fascinating about coming across an old movie clip like this. Given the inherent fragility of film strips and the transition into digital, any found film seems like a message from a lost and (potentially forgotten) past.

I look forward to working with other film lovers in reassembling sore version of that past, however incomplete.

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Thursday Links

Expect light blogging for the next few weeks, due to a couple of big upcoming events, including a trip to Costa Rica, where the Best Fiancee Ever and I will be recharging our batteries for a few days. I’ve also been working on a new book, which tends to pull me away from the blog. Even so, here are a few links:

  • The new Muppets movie has been using parody trailers as a form of promotion. Viewers in theaters are presented with what appears to be a trailer for a romantic comedy called Green With Envy, featuring Jason Segal and Amy Adams, with the Muppets showing up halfway through. It’s a pretty creative parody of rom-coms and shows the Muppets at their playful, often slyly subversive, best. The Muppet Hangover 2 parody, “The Fuzzy Pack,” is also very funny.
  • New Tee Vee has a cool infographic illustrating the almost exponential growth of video uploads to YouTube. In 2007, YouTubers were uploading eight hours per minute. By 2011, that number has increased to 48 hours per minute. If my back of the envelope math is correct, that means that it would take nearly 3,000 days to watch all of the video posted to the site every day. I’d argue that it also makes it difficult to make broad generalizations about user practices.
  • Roger Ebert seizes on an article by Boston Globe writer Ty Burr to argue that 3D films are now negatively affecting the projection of 2D films. Ebert and Burr both note that 3D projectors are often used to show 2D films, and when the polarizing lens (which creates the 3D effect) is left in the projector, it makes the image dark and murky. While I suspect that they are both right, I find it interesting that Burr’s “informal survey” of moviegoers showed that most of them were indifferent or unaware of the difference in quality.
  • Home Media Magazine more or less confirms what seems to be conventional wisdom: most movie consumers now prefer to rent videos (in whatever format) rather than buying them.
  • Disney is joining the retro-3D party with their plans to rerelease their 1994 animated hit, The Lion King, in 3D in September of this year. This means that Disney will beat out the re-release of Titanic by several months. Given recent reports about a 3D backlash (see below), I’ll be interested to see how these 3D re-releases are received.
  • David Poland crunches the numbers for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and concludes that moviegoers last week offered a “clear rejection” of the 3D format, with ticket sales for the 2D version vastly outpacing the 3D.
  • Canadian cable provider, Shaw, has increased its bandwidth caps, which is good news for Netflix and other streaming video sites that depend heavily on the higher caps. Netflix had already been providing Canadian subscribers with a lower quality streaming image in order to help customers avoid fees for exceeding their monthly bandwidth allotment.

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How do Movies Matter?

In Reinventing Cinema (and in probably half a dozen blog posts), I addressed the frequently-repeated discussion of the death of film criticism. Typically the complaints focused on the decline in the number of professional film critics working for major newspapers, a decline in jobs that is by no means trivial. However, a number of other critics also suggested that newspaper readers were also ignoring the advice of film critics and seeing Hollywood “dreck,” rather than watching more obscure movies that were more favorably reviewed, as if the goal of film criticism was to serve as little more than a consumer guide. I’ve generally responded to these complaints by pointing out that much of the best film criticism has migrated to the web and that many of the most influential critics have a much wider audience than ever before, thanks to online distribution. More crucially, these online conversations often contain a level of engagement that would be difficult to match in the limited column space in a physical newspaper. But there is another variation to this argument, one that shows up in a recent article by Stewart Klawans, in The Nation, where Klawans argues that cinema itself has been outmoded and that motion pictures no longer have the same political currency they once did. Given the recent changes in audiovisual culture–most notably the fragmentation of media choice–Klawans offers a tempting argument. But I think Klawans overstates the degree to which movies no longer have the social relevance they once did.

Klawans, a critic I typically enjoy reading, is responding to the recent publication of David Kehr’s When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, which Klawans reads as “a chronicle left by a vanished civilization,” documenting the lost cinema culture of the 1970s (I haven’t read Kehr’s book yet, but I hope to do so). In addition, Klawans defines film rather oddly, as “movies projected in public spaces large enough to accommodate a crowd.” Although theatrical moviegoing continues to be a common social activity, most of our movie consumption now takes place elsewhere–in our homes, on our computers, and even on our cell phones and iPads. All of this makes me think that Klawans (I won’t include Kehr in this argument) is looking in the wrong places. Rather than looking at the images on the slightly tattered screen in the half-empty theater at the local strip mall, doesn’t it make more sense to measure how movies matter by looking at how they circulate? Instead of offering a somewhat indifferent close reading of another disappointing indie film (as Klawans goes on to do with Tom McCarthy’s Win, Win), shouldn’t we be thinking about the ways in which the concept of cinema is circulating through all of the new distribution, exhibition, and reception channels out there?

Klawans’ comment about “movies projected in public spaces” does reflect an ongoing change in the film industry, especially as studios turn increasingly toward digital distribution and toward closing the “window” between the theatrical release date and digital distribution (VOD, DVD, etc).  The most recent shift entails current plans to offer films via video on demand just two months after their theatrical debut, albeit at the relatively hefty cost of $30 per rental. As Cinematical reports, Home Premiere is set to launch in the immediate future, with the Liam Neeson film, Unknown and the Adam Sandler flick, Just Go With It, serving as the first two films to be made available. For the most part, Cinematical addresses these issues primarily in terms of consumer choice: will viewers be willing to pay a premium to see a recent theatrical release? Or will audiences simply wait a month or two and see the film more cheaply? David Poland has a much more extensive take, one that traces out the implications not only for consumers, but also for theaters themselves, as well as the unionized employees who stand to lose financially due to the new distribution models. These debates about how movies will be distributed seem to to illustrate that movies do continue to matter, not simply because of their content but because of the “content” of the industry itself, the ways in which the movie industry seeks to capitalize on our continued fascination with audiovisual culture.

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Blade Runner Sequels, Cult Films, Commodity Culture

I’ve been fascinated by the response to the news that Alcon Entertainment, best known for bringing us The Blind Side, has secured TV and film rights to Blade Runner, a move that would allow them to do “anything” with the original movie. While executives from Alcon have wisely ruled out the possibility of remaking Blade Runner, they have stated their intentions of making sequels and possibly a prequel to the 1982 film, which has become a cult favorite (and film studies staple) after starting out as a box office failure. Like many of my film studies colleagues, I expressed my share of righteous indignation about Alcon’s plans–I think I compared the idea to Highlander 2–but, upon further reflection, I think it’s worth asking why announcements about possible sequels for Blade Runner could arouse such immediate and vitriolic opposition.  I’m not defending Alcon, much less suggesting that a sequel or a prequel would be a good thing, but I wonder if the reaction to the news tells us something about our engagement with movies, and particularly a text that has such a thorny production and reception history as Blade Runner.

First, there are some interesting chronological aspects that introduce a number of logistical problems when it comes to adding to the Blade Runner universe. I’ve taught Blade Runner for years, and as the 2019 date of the film’s setting fast approaches, my students have become increasingly bemused by the distinction between the world of the film and the “actual” 2019  they envision. No flying cars yet, and no replicants, though robots are becoming increasingly realistic. No “uncanny valley” to unsettle our definitions of what it means to be human. Any prequel would have to reach theaters quickly, unless it was to be set in the past. But that’s a relatively trivial concern, and given some of the effects in Tron: Legacy, it would likely be possible for some of the original actors to reprise their roles, playing characters even younger than those that appeared in the original 1982 film (I imagine Sean Young is calling her agent now).

More crucially, a sequel to Blade Runner potentially changes its status as a “cult” text and threatens to turn the film into what Cinematical’s Jacob Hall calls, “just another popular commodity, ready to be used and abused by the powers that be.” The film is transformed, Hall and others imply, from a work of art into something that can be damaged by being relaunched as a transmedia franchise. Sean O’Neil at the Onion AV Club echoes this thesis when he points out that Blade Runner sequels were “inevitable” once another sequel to an 80s cult film, Tron: Legacy, reached $100 million at the box office. Of course, despite Blade Runner’s box office failure, the film is, without doubt, already an aggressively commodified media product.  There are at least two video games (though none of them appear to be recent) that retell aspects of the movie and several different DVD versions of the film, including the original theatrical release, the director’s cut (which, when it appeared on VHS in the 1980s, helped to revive the film’s critical reputation), two different Collector’s Editions, and the two-disc “Final Cut.”  Although the film failed as a theatrical franchise, it is a powerful domestic media franchise, one that has been aggressively marketed, in part through the ability of DVD to make multiple editions of the film easily accessible.

These multiple editions of Blade Runner–one of the collector’s editions of contains at least five different versions of the film–introduce multiple problems when it comes to any sequel. These different editions of the film, although they only contain slight variations, have profoundly different implications for some of Blade Runner’s thorniest questions. What is the fate of Rachael, the benign replicant, and Rick Deckard at the end of the film? Is Deckard a replicant? It depends, in part, on what version of the film you’re watching. A similar, though only mildly relevant problem (raised by The Guardian’s Ben Child), is the fact that Philip K. Dick never wrote a sequel to the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which Blade Runner is based. Of course, given the degree to which Blade Runner departs from Dick’s novel, that’s probably not a major concern. As it stands, Blade Runner reveals much about the collaborative nature of film production. It builds on Dick’s novel, sure, but it’s also the product of Ridley Scott’s direction and, just as importantly, the visual effects of Syd Mead, complicating any efforts to remain faithful to any artist’s “vision” for the text. For some good discussion of these issues, check out the collection of essays on Blade Runner edited by Will Brooker, including Jonathan Gray’s discussion of Blade Runner as a “replicant text.”

To be fair, it is difficult to underestimate what gets lost when a sequel “answers” many of the film’s unanswered questions, and I am sympathetic to the critics who have worried that a sequel will force us to re-evaluate our perception of the original film. My students have spent entire class periods debating Deckard’s status, citing key scenes to underscore their interpretations. Any answer to these questions risks undermining some of these strategic ambiguities. Of course, if the film sucks, we can try to pretend it never happened and continue to study and appreciate the original, but in a way, I think that risks suffocating the original, putting it in a plastic case where it turns into a mere object of contemplation, not a living text that continues to evolve as our own histories change. I think it also risks idealizing what is, in many ways, a flawed film, especially in its phobic depiction of Asians and other diverse cultures. In fact, given the trend toward more antiseptic depictions of a future devoid of racial and ethnic conflict, it will be interesting to see how a sequel handles those more problematic aspects of the original.

To be sure, the response to this news is, to some extent, a naturalized response to any announcement of a sequel to or remake of a film that is regarded as a classic. We are all protective of the films we love, as evidenced by my unwillingness to acknowledge the Karate Kid remake. But given Blade Runner’s incredibly convoluted textual history, I’ll be fascinated to see how the efforts to expand the text play out.

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Time Lapse

When I first started writing about film, my research focused on cinematic representations of time. This research centered on various forms of time travel films (broadly defined) and rested on some of Walter Benjamin’s theories about how film, with its inexorable flow of film stills through a projector, echoed the rhythms of industrial capitalism, as we might see in features such as the assembly line or the railroad.  I was intrigued by ideas about how time travel films engaged with the linear flow of time, but underlying that research was an interest in how films depict the passage of time or our engagement with time. That research faded as I became more interested in the political economy of film distribution, but that original research interest, which led to a couple of publications on Dark City and Sans Soleil, sometimes re-emerges in unexpected ways.

With that in mind, I am incredibly fascinated by this BBC report about Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a fascinating film installation, which plays non-stop for 24 hours a day showing clips from movies in which that particular clock time is depicted on screen.  Thus, if it is 11:19 AM, as it is while I compose this entry, the film shows a scene from a movie in which a clock or watch flashes that particular time on screen. As the BBC reporter points out, the film makes the viewer incredibly conscious of time, well after they walk out of a (presumably partial) screening. On another level, this seems like the kind of project that becomes much more viable in an age of compilation videos on YouTube, in which massive amounts of movie content remains available in a giant cinematic database, waiting to be cited and recited, configured and reconfigured as we seek to navigate our way through visual culture.

The Clock is playing at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York until February 19, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has watched it to get a sense of your experiences with it.

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Wednesday Links

I’ve got a separate post on the Hulu-Criterion deal brewing, but for now, here are a few links:

  • Interesting film history note: Cinematical has an article about Australian filmmaker Phillipe Mora’s discovery that a crude version of 3-D filmmaking was developed in Nazi Germany, sometime around 1936.  Mora has found at least two films that use 3-D imaging.
  • Scott Rosenberg has a thoughtful post on some of the complaints about The Huffington Post’s practices in paying (or not paying) for much of the content that appears on its site. I think that what is especially notable about Rosenberg’s post is his discussion of the role of (paid) platform designers who design the code that allows sites like HuffPo and Google to operate.
  • Jim Emerson’s post reminded me that The Self Styled Siren’s For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon is up and running.  There are already dozens of insightful links, and it’s all for a good cause, film preservation, too. Write, link, donate, if you can.
  • More discussion of the fact that customers are choosing to rent, rather than own, digital content, at least when it comes to movies.
  • Liz Shannon Miller reports on a talk by Intel futurist Brian David Johnson’s predictions about the future of television. As a number of us have been saying for a while, there are important social aspects of television viewing, which means that some form of liveness will persist (if only so we can live-tweet the Oscars and Super Bowl).
  • Radiohead is releasing a new album, but they’ve decided to skip the “Radiohead model” of inviting buyers to pay what they want this time. Scott Macauley considers the implications for the film industry.
  • Catherine Grant has compiled some links on “film festival studies” for her indispensable Film Studies for Free blog.

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Documenting Remix Culture

Pretty much everyone has been linking to the second installment in Kirby Ferguson’s outstanding series, Everything is a Remix. But I think it’s worth highlighting Ferguson’s work, in part because he is a keen observer of how the practices of remix and adaptation permeate popular culture and even scientific inquiry. He also is a skilled editor, adept at producing juxtapositions between two related texts.

Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

The second part of the series touches on the role of (Hollywood) filmmakers in adapting material from older texts in order to tell new stories. In particular, Ferguson traces the influence of older films and texts (including Joseph Campbell’s discussion of myth) on Star Wars, a discussion that I wish I’d had a few weeks ago when I was writing an artcile on fan films and adaptation. Ferguson’s broad definition of “remix” allows him to define genre elements as a remix practice, which allows him to show that Avatar, far from being a completely “original” film stands upon and reworks older, familiar material. But, essentially, as Ferguson’s title for the series suggests, “everything is a remix.” And far from diminishing the “originality” of these stories, Ferguson recognizes these remix practices as creative acts that can potentially take us in new and unexpected directions. Philosophically, these ideas may themselves not be new. Literary and cultural critics have recognized the permeable boundaries of texts for some time, but I think Ferguson presents these ideas in an accessible, engaging, and entertaining format. I’m very much looking forward to parts three and four.

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Requiem 102 Project #1

This blog post is the inaugural post of the “Requiem for a Dream // 102 Project,” conceived by Nick Rombes as form of collective, distributed film criticism, modeled loosely on his 10/40/70 project, in which Nick “reads” three screen captures from a film taken at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks.  In this case, Nick has invited 102 contributors from across the film criticism spectrum to look at one frame from each minute of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, a movie that unsettled many audience members when it was first released to theaters ten years ago.  For more about the project, check out the 102 Project’s “About” page and follow it on Twitter.

Requiem for a Dream famously offers one of the most visceral treatments of drug addiction in recent screen history.  When I first saw the film with an old girlfriend, on VHS, over a decade ago, we both were so unsettled by the experience that we immediately left my apartment for an hour-long walk, despite the cold Illinois weather.  These reactions can be attributed to the film’s visual and aural style, which becomes gradually more disorienting as the addictions of the four major characters deepen, emptying them out–physically and emotionally–in the process.  By the end of the film, all four of the characters seem to be falling apart physically or emptied out emotionally, to the point that Marian’s makeup serves as a kind of mask hiding the natural self.   The process of getting high is depicted as a series of flash cut images and sounds: a bag unzipping, drugs cooking, eyes dilating. Rush as routine.  But all of the characters are seeking a fix in what seems like a lifeless world.

Although this shot is not a split-screen, the visual style here seems to echo the split-screens from earlier in the film when Harry (Jared Leto) and his mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn) have been arguing over Sara’s ancient TV set, which Harry plans to sell to a nearby pawn shop in order to buy some heroin. Both of them know that Sara will go and retrieve that same TV set from the pawn store owner to satisfy her own addiction to a surreal self-help show, making the fight seem like an oddly choreographed dance, but the split screen helps divide mother and son from each other, despite their overlapping addictions.  As Harry remarks later to Marian (Jennifer Connelly), “I asked myself, what’s her fix? Television, right?”  Again, the frame seems to be split in half.  In this case, we see Harry and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), partially obscured by the metal railings, pushing the old TV set, a relic with rabbit ear antenna and a seemingly without a remote, down the Coney Island boardwalk during what was one of the film’s few quiet moments, while the roller coaster sits quietly on the opposite half of the frame.

The shot invites contemplation, and viewing the screen capture out of its narrative context, I found myself reading it as I might a painting or still photograph, looking at compositional balance and other details.  It’s impossible to look at the shot without seeing the sense of decline or collapse creeping into the shot, a sensation that will only deepen as the film unfolds.  The boardwalk is empty, except for Tyrone and Harry, and Coney Island, a place typically associated with innocent, if slightly tacky, fun, is abandoned.  The lines of the boardwalk also lead our eyes to the roller coaster, stationary in both the still frame and the movie itself, that fills much of the left-hand side of the frame, reminding us again that the park is, or appears to be, closed.

But in looking closely at this still I find myself entertaining a couple of other readings: first, the rejection of TV as addictive seems like a typical extension of the same old rivalry between movies and TV: television is addictive and dangerous and leads to Sara’s self-destructive use of diet pills later in the film.  Sara’s addiction seems all the more painful given that she is forced to use such a shabby, old TV set with a tiny screen.  More crucially, however, the boardwalk–and the sightlines in this frame–seem to be leading us to the roller coaster in the corner, perhaps reminding us that film in general has been compared to and identified with roller coasters and the cheap amusements associated with locations such as Coney Island.  Movies were often shown at amusement parks (see Anne Friedberg’s Window Shopping for a wonderful account of this history), and parks such as Disney World and Universal Studios are now devoted to celebrating motion picture entertainment.  Movies themselves can be a roller coaster rides, and this film in particular, with its aesthetic innovations and its treatment of drug addiction–itself a kind of ride–will also prove to be a kind of roller coaster as well.

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Monday Links: e-books, Facebook, Hitchcock, and More

Here are some the things I’ve been reading, watching, and thinking about this morning:

  • First, Inside Higher Ed has an interesting discussion of Daytona State College’s plan to convert to a textbook system based entirely around e-books.  There are obviously some benefits here: no more heavy books, cheaper textbook prices, and more profits for publishers.  The campus bookstore would–at least in the short run–appear to be the biggest loser, financially.  I’m still ambivalent about e-book readers, in part because I appreciate the tangibility and permanence of physical books, but this is an interesting experiment, especially given that most students essentially rent their textbooks at a prohibitively high cost.
  • On a related note, Kairos News has been exploring questions about why open-source textbooks appear to be struggling to catch on.  Part of the problem, of course, has been that these open source projects, fairly or not, are perceived as vanity projects.  I can imagine that many tenure committees would look with skepticism at the open-source model, so there is probably a need for some form of institutional change and continued education from open-source advocates.
  • Continuing with the education theme, Catherine at Film Studies for Free (one of the best open-access models out there) provides a pointer to yet another wonderful tool for the Introduction to Film classroom: Majestic Micro Movies’s video primers on film aesthetics.  Catherine cites four videos dealing with topics such as deep focus, shallow focus, tracking, and short-reverse-shot.  They’re witty, fun, and provide some context for why these techniques are often hotly debated.  Their YouTube and Facebook pages are great resources for students and teachers of film.
  • More classroom stuff: The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention has concluded that frequent Facebook users are more likely to stay in school and shows that students who have more friends on Facebook are more likely to return for their sophomore years.  Because the study is based on a survey at a single university, Abilene Christian University, I’d like to see the results reproduced elsewhere before I put much stock in them.  Is a public HBCU or regional state university going to be different than a private, religious institution?  A bigger question might be causation versus correlation. Perhaps the networked students are already disposed toward returning to school and Facebook is simply an expression of that.
  • Tama Leaver points to an Economist article on “the future of the internet.”  Like Tama, I appreciate the article’s acknowledgement that the internet seems to be continuing its fragmentation into various “walled gardens,” many of them highly profitable, as well as the discussion of the ongoing attempts to create tiered internet provision (different levels of internet service for different prices), moves that the author characterizes as a virtual “counter-revolution.”
  • The journal Off Screen devotes its most recent issue to internet-based film criticism. Especially noteworthy: Paul Salmon’s “A Film Prof at the Cineplex.”
  • Finally, Christine Becker links to David Carr’s article arguing that there is “too much” TV out there.  A couple of key quotes: “Our ability to produce media has outstripped our ability to consume it. The average photograph now gets looked at less than once simply because there is almost zero cost and effort to producing one.”  And perhaps more crucially: “We don’t watch TV anymore as much as it seems to watch us, recommending, recording and dishing up all manner of worthy product.”  Database TV seems to hold out the prospects of unlimited choice, and yet, as Carr suggests, recommendation algorithms, DVRs, and other tools have become more adept at assessing tastes, analyzing us and, in some sense, choosing what we want to watch.

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Cinema, Video Games, Art, Part II

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been following the “video games as art” debate spearheaded by Roger Ebert, I’ve also been thinking through some of my own questions about the definition of cinema and how that definition might be changing thanks to digital media, and at the advice of a fellow media scholar, took a look at Dudley Andrew’s recent book, What Cinema Is! (Blackwell, 2010), which takes many of the core questions raised by Andre Bazin about definitions of cinema in the 1950s are repositions them to address how digital tools–whether cameras, editing equipment, or projectors–alter our understanding of cinema.  Andrew is one of the more astute voices in academic film theory today, and for the most part, he resists what he calls the “discourses of the digital,” instead seeking to “sketch a film aesthetic that owes nothing to the digital” (xiv), even while many of his questions are shaped by the new tools that inform audiovisual storytelling.

Andrew goes on to argue that the films he regards as most consistent with the project of cinema are those that seek “to discover, to encounter, to confront, and to reveal” (xviii).  Andrew adds that, in a culture of “audiovisual entertainment,” this aim of cinema is attenuated.  Andrew breaks down the structure of filmmaking into four moments of “cinematic transformation:” the camera, the editing table, the projector (or exhibition process), and the subject matter, with each of his four major chapters tracing each of these moments.  For Andrew, the culture of audiovisual entertainment augurs a move away from the possibilities of discovery or happy accidents–the insect caught the lens during a dramatic sequence in Jules et Jim–toward a greater emphasis on post-production (5), a claim that is certainly valid if we look at the mass of special effects spectacles that dominate suburban multiplexes (or even the carefully storyboarded films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, one of Andrew’s key examples), but that may be less apt if we look at other modes of filmmaking.

His discussions of editing express similar concerns (digital editing produces not magic, but a calculated effect) before moving on to the chapters I found most compelling: his discussion of exhibition and content.  In his discussion of exhibition, Andrew first acknowledges that, in many ways, little has changed since the 1930s when it comes to production: actors still perform scenes on sets or on location in scripted films that fulfill marketable genre conventions, but that the brief theatrical run of most movies, combined with the emergence of home and mobile viewing environments, have contributed to a situation where “the consumer controls the experience” (68).  Andrew goes on to imply that this new situation helps contribute to the demise of the movie theater as an “alternative public sphere” (68), a position that seems to deny the pleasures and values of the online film cultures that I have grown to appreciate.  Andrew’s frustration seems to reach its deepest when he despairs that viewers might catch movies “on demand” or “via ‘Youtube'” (87, his scare quotes and spelling) and worries about the overlap between the present-ness of video gaming (which requires real-time decision making in his read) and the more “reflective” mode associated with film.  Although I would question whether video games are, by default, only in the present tense, the fact that a screen may be used for games does not imply that our consumption of films on a monitor will be tarnished.

That being said, Andrew’s arguments about the “subject matter” of cinema are utterly fascinating and worth reading, especially for scholars engaged with issues of adaptation.  Without going into to much detail, Andrew offers a detailed, and highly historicized account of Bazin’s arguments about the role of adaptations of novels, including his attempts to complicate concepts of “fidelity,” a loaded term in adaptation studies that refers to the degree to which a latter text is “faithful” to its original.  Without going into too much detail, Andrew reads Bazin as arguing that “genuine fidelity abandons obvious matching for creative respect” (140).  He goes on to map “adaptation” as a practice onto modes of evolution to make the case that cinema continues to evolve, whether because of, in spite of, or alongside of digital tools.  It’s a compelling argument, and I’m sure that I’m not doing it justice here.  But as I discussed in my post on Ebert and video games, Andrew’s questions point to the vibrancy of the debate about our current definitions of cinema in the age of media convergence.

While Andrew’s chapters focus on four crucial categories of “cinematic transformation,” the camera, the editing table, exhibition, and subject matter, I find myself wanting to complement Andrew’s structure with some reference to the blog-based cinephilia that is still in the process of emerging.  In looking at this culture of film criticism, it’s worth asking how (or whether) these digital dialogues alter the categories (or practices) of film criticism.  Some of these transformations of film criticism have been addressed in a series of blog posts by Girish Shambu, as well as in the most recent issue of Jump Cut.  In one post, Girish addresses the question of audio commentary tracks on DVDs (and now, in some cases, online), a relatively common form of movie consumption for cinephiles in the digital age.  Girish followed that up with a fascinating post tying Internet-based cinephilia to Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “mediators.”  Essentially, mediators allow us to get caught up in forces larger than ourselves; applied to Internet film criticism, film writers on Twitter, Facebook, and in the blogosphere “carry [us] from one idea to another, one film to another, one spark of curiosity to another.”  Girish goes on to say that he can experience a dozen “encounters” per day that might inspire him to add a film to his Netflix queue or to read up on another critic.  This seems similar to my own experience–and anecdotally, others have said the same thing–and Girish sees “the dizzying, accelerated frequency of our encounters” as opening up “rich possibilities whose only drawback is their super-plenitude.”  To be sure, not all blogs (or all film blogs, for that matter) have this kind of journey of open-ended discovery as their aim, but I think that blogs have the potential to sustain these encounters.

Girish’s comments seem to undercut some of the assumptions about digital media provoking fragmented selves who lack the ability for sustained attention (see Nicholas Carr, Maggie Jackson, and Mark Bauerlein, among others).  Instead of placing emphasis on a medium’s purported ability to undermine our concentration skills, Girish sees the blogosphere as potentially pointing “outward” to other media forms–books, essays, films–where we can focus our energies.  Thus, if Andrew is correct in his assessment that the mission of cinema is “to discover, to encounter, to confront, and to reveal” (xviii), then there are few places today better than the film blogosphere for sustaining those journeys of discovery, for providing us with the framework for making new connections.

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Cinema, Video Games, Art, Part I

I’ve been fascinated by Roger Ebert’s ongoing reflections, conveyed via his Twitter feed and blog, about whether video games can be art.  The debate intrigues me not only because it demonstrates the vibrancy of a public culture focused on issues of media criticism but also because Ebert’s questions address debates that have engaged scholars for decades: What is cinema? How is film different than other media? Does this change in an era of digital production and distribution? Can movies (or video games) qualify as art and under what circumstances?  These are all “big” questions, and to my mind, they put to rest any suggestion that public film criticism is “dead.”  If anything, it shows that these debates about the social role of art and entertainment, films and video games, matter for cinephiles, video game players, and many others.

The debate about whether video games can be art has a relatively long history (and I’ve worked through it in detail here: feel free to skim).  According to a timeline assembled at the Independent Gaming website, Ebert’s original complaints about video game aesthetics date back to an October 2005 review of the movie adaptation of the popular video game, Doom, in which Ebert compares watching the movie to watching someone else (“some kid”) play the video game rather than playing yourself, introducing one of the key themes that will play into debates about art, and film art, in particular: the question of interactivity.  Significantly, Ebert is clear to emphasize his admiration of the SF genre in his condemnation of Doom, even defending his positive reviews of Ghosts of Mars, Red Planet, and Total Recall, in order to make clear that the video game storyline is the film’s problem.

From there, as the Independent Gaming blog points out, Ebert defended his initial review of the film, first by asserting that books and movies are better mediums than video games, without any significant evidence other than the lack of critical consensus on what should be included among the canonical games, and later, on the grounds that video games lack the “authorial control” that films and novels have, a position implied in his initial comment about books and movies, in which he cites the great authors/auteurs of film and literature (Scorsese, Ozu, McCarthy, etc).  Here, Ebert’s emphasis on interactivity becomes even more explicit when he argues that “video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”  What gets lost here is the fact that a well-made video game can structure player choices in complicated ways, creating a story world or game narrative that can inspire reflection.  It also grounds artistic expression within the individual genius, or in the collaborations of a pair of filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, rather than in collective or collaborative authorship, a point that is reinforced in a response Ebert wrote to Clive Barker several years after his original claims about video games (note: Jason Rohrer criticizes this point in his response to the Ebert/Barker “debate”).

While the emphasis on authorial intent is problematic, the definition of what counts as art is ambiguous.  As Rohrer notes, Ebert uses adjectives such as “complex, thoughtful, empathetic” to describe high art, leading Rohrer to respond that he gained more “profound insights” from playing Super Coumbine Massacre RPG than he did from watching a documentary and feature film about the event.  Rohrer’s read on Ebert’s comments (as of 2007) is worth checking out in full and approximates my own skepticism about Ebert’s attempts to differentiate video games from film and novels.

Skipping forward to 2010, Ebert revisited this position in April after watching a TED talk by game designed Kellee Santiago (which I still haven’t seen, but Ebert seems to characterize it fairly enough).  Ebert maintains his assertion that works of art are the expressions of individual artists, adding that collectively produced objects, such as cathedrals and tribal dances, originate in the genius of an architect or choreographer, a position that, to my mind, wouldn’t preclude an individual video game designer from sketching out a game that was assembled by others, including video game participants.  Ebert goes on to dismiss games by suggesting that they have “rules, points, objectives,” but isn’t it true that quite a bit of interactive art entails a similar process of negotiation?  More crucially, Ebert acknowledges that Santiago’s definition of “art,” which she describes as “a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging” is ambiguous to the point that pretty much any text might qualify.  But Ebert’s response, rather oddly, seems to deny the very practice of criticism by arguing that “you can perform an exegesis or a paraphrase [of a work of art], but then you are creating your own art object from the materials at hand,” a position that seems contrary to many of the texts that he cites as works of art.  After all, Picasso, Beckett, and Eliot (three of the artists he cites) are engaging with the history of their respective media (painting, drama, poetry) in their works.  Picasso’s “Las Meninas” paintings, to cite just one example, are an extended series of citations and recitations of an earlier painting in an attempt to engage with the history of art.  In a way, Picasso’s work is not just art; it’s a form of art criticism. Ebert concludes this blog post by asking why it matters so much to gamers that their medium be potentially considered as art, which seems like an odd question to me.  Given the power of art to offer legitimacy to a form of expression, it is a way of recognizing that video games are important and worthy of study.

Ebert later responded to the avalanche of comments–some 4,599 and counting the last time I checked–in a series of blog posts and tweets, one of which offered an admittedly unscientific survey in which his readers asserted their preference for a great video game over Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  By the end of his second post, Ebert is willing to concede not only that his argument about video games was ungrounded (due to his lack of experience with them) but also that his prior definitions of art may have been too ambiguous.  And in his most recent post on the topic (as of July 9), he reports the results of his “meaningless poll” as a lead-in for asserting the importance of reading literature, which he ties to the ability of great works of art to promote empathy with alternative points of view.  Again, gamers could easily respond that a carefully-crafted game could easily produce similar feelings of empathy, forcing a player to reconsider deeply-held assumptions.

I’ve rigorously avoided offering my definition of art in my deconstruction of Ebert’s positions, if only because I’m less invested in asserting that video games or films are art–why shouldn’t they be?–than I am in considering how media (and our responses to them) function within a larger social and political arena, a logic that informs much of my work on political mashup videos that not only challenge the positions of specific politicians but also seeks to challenge the legitimacy of political discourse as it is currently constructed, offering a populist critique of the influence of the rich and powerful on political speech.  But I am interested in mapping some of Ebert’s arguments onto recent film theory debates about the role of the digital in shaping definitions of cinema (in the narrower sense of film as art), a question I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been reading Dudley Andrew’s recent book, What Cinema Is! (Blackwell 2010), at the suggestion of a fellow media scholar, but since this post is running a bit long, I’ll return to that in a separate post.

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Narratives of Digital Distribution

There is an interesting debate about rising ticket prices taking place, and implied in those narratives are different attitudes toward the “future” of digital cinema and the primary locations where we will watch movies in the near future.  Patrick Goldstein argues that rising ticket prices now risk reaching a tipping point, especially with adult tickets for a movie like Shrek Forever After in 3-D now approaching $20.  That’s an expensive night out for a family of four, even if children’s tickets are significantly cheaper. David Poland acknowledges that there is an increase in ticket prices, especially for 3-D and IMAX, while pointing out that normal (non 3-D) ticket costs have only increased by a quarter or so, but worries that these stories will feed into a larger narrative about the future of theatrical distribution.

Poland is correct to point out that the discussions of rising ticket costs are part of competing narratives about how we’ll watch movies.  In particular, he argues that

What I am feeling inside the industry is a well-founded fear that the 3D business is overreaching already and that increasing ticket prices for often unnecessary 3D will soon turn off average moviegoers. This is balanced by a group that wants to change the whole system and hopes to use the misunderstanding of the facts in stories like this “rising ticket prices” thing to push their agenda forward.

As Poland observes, these narratives are often supported by using selective data that looks at tickets sold rather than total revenue (for example).  Although I’m inclined to believe that the industry is overreaching a bit when it comes to audience interest in 3-D, I’m more interested in how these narratives about box office are feeding into perceptions about the future of digital cinema.

One of these alternatives involves a renewed emphasis on the use of video-on-demand as a means for supplementing or bypassing theatrical distribution.  According to The Wall Street Journal, Time Warner Cable has pitched Hollywood studios on a “studio window,” in which movies would be released on-demand just thirty days after being released in theaters for $20-30 per view.  Several studios have expressed interest, and the model could be in place by the end of this year or early 2011.  As the WSJ article suggests, the new model would amount to a relatively radical overhaul of the “windows” that have traditionally protected theatrical revenues, and needless to say, theater owners are unhappy about the proposal.  In addition, these VOD models would also complicate existing details with cable channels such as HBO that often pay for cable distribution rights to movies (although many channels are now relying increasingly on original programming).

I saw this article via David Poland, and I think he’s right to be a little skeptical about whether this would work.  First, he’s correct to point out that younger moviegoers who comprise the largest audience for bigger blockbuster movies typically don’t control their cable bills (Mom and Dad do).  Second, he points out that such an approach would likely cannibalize theatrical, especially if studios felt some pressure to reduce rental costs.  But Eugene Novikov of Cinematical speculates that the VOD approach might be appealing to families who might have an eye for saving money during a time of economic belt-tightening (although this might not account for a family’s desire to get out of the house).  These VOD models have worked for art-house and indie films simply because access to these films is often fairly limited, and many of the films available on IFC On Demand (for example) would likely never play in most towns and cities.  But I think that studios are feeling quite a bit of pressure to make up for declining DVD sales, and they’re willing to try a number of experiments to make that up.

Implied in all of these debates are questions about the social and (arguably) metaphysical role of cinema.  Manhola Dargis revisits these concerns in her discussion of Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, which focuses on the story of Carlos the Jackal, pointing out that distributors and exhibitors are now turning toward digital projection, taking us away from “rich textural density of film” to the “ones and zeros” of digital media.  Her blog post provokes a range of comments, many of them lamenting the demise of film as a medium, while others challenge utopian claims about digital media providing idealized projection experiences.  Many of the points addressed by Dargis have already been considered by film scholars–note her citation of D.N. Rodowick–but like the debates about VOD, her arguments push against attempts to define the “future” of cinema.

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Remake Angst

Because of a planned essay on movie adaptations–I’ll be a little more specific about details in a few weeks–I’ve been thinking rather broadly about the concept of making and remaking texts.  Although adaptations and remakes perform vastly different tasks–one reinterprets a text, often a novel or comic book, into a different medium while the other reworks an older film–there are similarities between the two practices, especially when it comes to fan or audience reactions.  Both are reinterpreting an “original” (or at least prior) text, and both risk alienating audiences who don’t wish to have their experience of that prior text tarnished.

With that in mind, I’ve been fascinated by the response to two announced remakes.  The first, a new reboot of the Planet of the Apes films, seems to have been met with relative indifference.  This could be due to the fact that the most recent “re-make,” Tim Burton’s 2001 version, was less than popular with audiences and critics.  Or it could be that the Planet of the Apes transmedia world is relatively expansive–including novels, TV series, and multiple sequels.

But the other announced remake, a reworking of the 1981 Dudley Moore-Liza Minnelli film Arthur, has been received with varying degrees of panic and righteous indignation. One frequently retweeted comment complains, “*head desk* They are going to remake ARTHUR. That’s it. Just shut Hollywood down. It’s over for them!”  Karina Longworth (who is one of the few people who has expressed curiosity about the remake) cites a commenter on Nikki Finke’s blog, angrily denouncing the remake plans: “Of all the remakes, this is the most blasphemous of all. This is worse than remaking Casablanca.” A second commenter agrees, adding (with an odd echo of the McCarthy hearings), “This remake is a complete travesty and I hope it dies a gruesome death in a money pit abyss (altho clearly Rusty and Greta aren’t costing much). A complete insult to all involved in the original, particularly the late Steve Gordon. Shame on everyone working on this remake. Have you no sense of decency?”

To be honest, I don’t have strong feelings about the original Arthur film.  The performances are relatively charming, but the film’s glib treatment of Arthur’s alcoholism is sometimes cringe-inducing.  Like Karina, I’m happy to see Greta Gerwig, one of the strongest talents to come out of the Mumblecore movement, getting more work, and given her performance in Greenberg, I think she’ll handle the “poor girl from Queens role” nicely.  But the outrage over remaking here seems oddly disproportionate, especially given that most of the commenters at Finke’s site likely haven’t watched Arthur in a decade.

Part of what fascinates me about these reactions is the degree to which they talk about how Hollywood is bereft of ideas, illustrating this point with increasingly absurd and presumably sacrilegious remake ideas, culminating with a commenter asking, “What’s next, a new “Citizen Kane” in 3D with a CGI-ed Orson Wells speaking with an Australian accent?” I think I’d actually pay to see that movie, actually.  I’m certainly prey to mild ambivalence over remakes, especially when they tangle with my popular culture nostalgia, but for an industry that is almost entirely based on remaking, reworking, and reimagining older texts and ideas, I don’t quite understand why the Arthur remake isn’t being treated as business as usual.

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Monday Links: Alice, Box Office, Green Zone

My spring break is now officially over, but for once, it has been fortuitously timed. Next week, I will be going out to Los Angeles for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, and thanks to having the break before the conference, I’ve had a chance not only to finish my talk but also to sort through some ideas for future writing projects. I’m not ready to divulge too much, but obviously the topics I’ve been thinking about in my blog are a pretty good clue for measuring what I’ll be writing about in longer form. Now, here are some links, some of them (at least) involving my attempt to peak through the window at this week’s South by Southwest festival and conference:

  • Deadline Hollywood Daily has a discussion of the role of Avatar (and, presumably Alice in Wonderland) in pushing theaters in Europe to convert to digital projection systems capable of showing 3D films.  Given that theaters in Denmark, Slovakia, and several other European countries have been able to charge twice as much for 3D, this isn’t terribly surprising.  What is surprising is that, in some countries, including the United Kingdom, taxpayers are helping to pay for this technological changeover.
  • Jeremy Kay at The Guardian has a thoughtful reading of some recent numbers from the MPAA about theatrical box office in 2009.  Worth noting: nearly 11% of all box office in 2009 came from 20 3D films.  Kay is certainly correct to point out that these numbers should be placed in context with DVD, cable, and VOD totals, but it’s worth noting that DVD revenues have actually declined in relation to theatrical in the last couple of years.
  • Further evidence that Twitter is not just a social media platform but a powerful tool for market research: the new Twitter ap, Trendrr that, according to Mashable, “tracks online conversations by gender, location, sentiment, influence, reach and volume.”  The Mashable article offers a nice breakdown of how the tracking service works, showing a number of screen shots of data on commentary on the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Although I’m generally enthusiastic about Twitter’s status as a media “water cooler,” it’s well worth thinking about how those conversations are archived and monitored by others.
  • Speaking of Twitter, here is a quick pointer to Jason Mittell’s thoughtful response to the recently reemergent debate about the state of film criticism.  I think Jason is right to illustrate the (positive) ways in which critical categories have been blurred due to the rise of film blogging.  He also raises some useful questions about access and audience toward the end of the post, pointing out that we may need to rethink what we value in academia when a widely read film blog can receive many more daily views than a scholarly book or article.
  • I’ll wait until I’ve had a chance to see The Green Zone to comment further, but I have to admit that I find Ross Douthat’s op-ed review of the film fascinating, not because I agree with his politics or his defense of the Bush administration lies about weapons of mass destruction (in fact, I find Daniel Larison’s more thoughtful response from the American Conservative website far more persuasive), but because I’ve been finding myself increasingly intrigued by how Hollywood films get appropriated for political debate.  I’ve discussed these issues quite a bit in terms of video-based satire (as have a number of other sharp-eyed scholars), and quite often the political readings conducted in these sites are pretty shallow, but they do help to set the conditions of interpretation for many people who watch the films (or who watch and participate in politics).

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