Archive for film theory

DVDs and Film History

Thanks to a project I’m currently developing on new models of DVD distribution, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the utopian claims about “long tail” retailing and its relationship to film history. In Reinventing Cinema, I expressed quite a bit of skepticism about claims that at some point in the future, film consumers and cinephiles would have access to the entire history of cinema at the click of a mouse, a claim expressed most vividly in this New York Times article by A.O. Scott (note also Kristin Thompson’s critique of this fantasy).  In addition to noting the sheer financial and infrastructure costs, it’s worth considering that such a fantasy obscures the larger question about who might have access to this perfect archive.

Now, with the decline of the DVD sell-through market, we are beginning to see just how precarious our film catalogs actually are.  In a post for Antenna, Bradley Schauer points to two notable stories about DVD consumption.  First, Sony announced that it is laying off 450 workers, many of them in their home video division.  More notably, the WSJ also points out that, for the first time since 2002, studios made more money from box office than from home video.  Schauer uses these details to contextualize his discussion of Warner’s decision to make much of its back catalog available via DVD-R copies of titles that are burned on-demand.  As Schauer notes, Warner’s strategy has two major effects: one, it takes classical Hollywood films further out of the realm of bricks-and-mortar stores.  Second, it allows Warner to market these products as “rare,” adding to their value as collector’s items.

But it also makes it possible that many “hidden gems” will remain invisible to casual (or even energetic) film viewers.  In that sense, both Schauer and Richard Brody, in a post discussing Humphrey Bogart’s The Harder They Fall, remind us of the significant curatorial role of TCM in presenting many of these forgotten classics.  These issues were turning over in my mind last night during a conversation with another local film professor, when we were talking about the implications of the degrading VHS tapes that contain dozens of films that have never been converted to DVD.  It’s easy to dismiss this in terms of market logic–if the films were that good, they’d be available on DVD–but obviously it’s not that simple, and even if the films themselves aren’t gems, we can learn quite a bit about film and media history from some of these “lost” texts.  That being said, one of the “lost” movies that we watched last night, a Star Wars Holiday special–featuring the film’s entire lead cast plus Bea Arthur, Art Carney and Diahann Carroll, of all people–did turn up online after a quick Google search.

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Anticipating Oscar

For a number of reasons, I’ve been more fascinated than usual by the Oscar chatter.  Although some of the “scandals” and controversies over The Hurt Locker have begun to get a little tiresome, they have, in some cases at least, provoked some highly pertinent questions about cinematic realism, especially when it comes to depictions of war.  But, aside from prolonging public discussions about some films that I find thought-provoking, the Oscars (and the anticipation of them, which may, in fact, be more important) are also worth thinking about because they offer us one of the more explicit and privileged public narratives available about the film industry.  They are, in short, Hollywood’s best opportunity to represent itself to a movie-consuming public (while remaining mindful of any number of other audiences, including film industry personnel and film journalists).

I addressed this issue briefly in Reinventing Cinema when I discussed a couple of Oscar sketches and speeches, one of which featured Jake Gyllenhaal telling the audience to see movies on the big screen.  A comedy sketch featuring Jon Stewart mocking the “wide screen” on his video iPod had a similar effect.  This is also why the Hollywood history montages, even if they often feel like filler, are so important by selling Hollywood as a popular art (and as a quick search through my blog illustrates I’ve been thinking about these issues for a while).

But the Oscars are also fun because they invite the same water-cooler discussions associated with other forms of “event TV,” such as the Super Bowl and, to a lesser extent, the Emmys and Golden Globes, an issue addressed in Sheila Seles’ Convergence Culture Consortium blog post.  Like her, I enjoy live-blogging (or, more likely in our evolved social media climate, live-tweeting) the Oscars and sharing my fascination about the awards with others.  Seles mentions in passing a New York Times article that reports that many of these TV event shows have been receiving record ratings.  This past Super Bowl even surpassed the final episode of M*A*S*H for total number of viewers, a fact that would likely bother me slightly if I wasn’t a huge Drew Brees fan.  The New York Times article attributes this reversal–TV ratings for top shows have been declining for some time–to the “water-cooler effect” associated with social media tools like Twitter, a phenomenon echoed in Max Dawson’s discussion of “watching Twitter on TV.”

The Oscar producers have been thinking about these social media issues quite a bit and have created an Oscars Facebook page and an iPhone application in support of the show, while also seeking to make the awards more “relevant” by having ten Best Picture nominees rather than five.  I have to wonder if the latter move will have any significant effect once viewers catch on to the fact that usually the race boils down to two or three films (this year, The Hurt Locker or Avatar).  It’s also less than clear what effect a Facebook page might have on attracting younger audiences.  Now that having a Facebook profile is becoming common across generations, I wonder if the people who “become fans” of the Oscars will be the same people who were already fans when it was just a 4-hour annual TV show.  Also, as with the death of film criticism, concerns that the Oscars aren’t relevant to today’s youth is an ongoing complaint.  Still, the tension between old media and new media is an interesting one, especially when it’s connected to Hollywood’s ongoing narrative about itself and the movies it creates.

Update: To some extent, I’ve been trying to think through the relationship between the Oscars and fandom in this post.  Obviously, the Oscars tow a fascinating line between traditional fandom and what Jonathan Gray has called anti-fandom.  The Oscars are, in many ways, a celebration of stardom and celebrity (“ooh…look at Julia Roberts’ dress”) and a way of mocking some of these institutions of celebrity, whether through celebrity-watchers like Joan Rivers or through political screeds like those at Big Hollywood.  Gray is especially attentive to the pleasures of being an “anti-fan,” and the Oscar water-cooler invites both kinds of responses equally successfully.

Update 2: Just a few minutes after my first update, I came across this Auteurs post that compiles some of the recent Oscar chatter, including Armond White’s entertaining (or eye-rolling, take your pick) New York Press article about how the annual awards are contributing to the media’s effect of ensuring that “the public stays culturally illiterate, intellectually docile and aesthetically numb.”  Talk about anti-fandom.  The Oscar-bashing is utterly incoherent politically (the Auteurs post nails its politics as a surreal cross between Guy Debord and Milton Friedman), but I do think his read of The Hurt Locker as an investigation into constructions of masculinity has some merit.

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Film Criticism is Dead (Again)

The latest paean to print-based film criticism, Thomas Doherty’s Chronicle of Higher Education article, “The Death of Film Criticism,” surveys the recent history of film criticism and concludes that today’s digital “young punks” are happily supplanting all pretense of literacy and seriousness in order to pour out their “visceral and emotional” responses to films all over the (digital) page.  Doherty is weighing in on a debate that has been circulating for several years now online and in print–I weighed in on this very debate about film blogging in Reinventing Cinema–and reaches a not terribly surprising conclusion that the internet age has threatened a form that featured such luminaries as Carl Sandburg and that reached its apotheosis with the debates between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.  It’s a powerful and persuasive narrative, especially when juxtaposed against job market crises in academia and in journalism, but in treating film criticism as a genre, it obscures quite a bit.

To be fair, Doherty acknowledges that a number of prominent traditional film critics have found new voices on the web, citing examples such as David Bordwell and FlowTV, but even there, the suggestion is that Bordwell is a reluctant blogger, “feeling the…heat” of the digitalization of everything rather than recognizing that Bordwell and others have found a medium that allows for a more conversational, and yes, potentially obsessive, focus on film analysis.  Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog posts, like those produced by many other film bloggers, are like mini-seminars in film analysis.  Even more curious, Doherty seems to imply that all film bloggers, including Bordwell, seek to have an influence on box office numbers, a goal that seems rather marginal, at least in my corner of the film blogosphere.

Perhaps more frustrating is the generation-gap baiting that permeates the entire article.  Web-based critics are “young punks who still got carded at the multiplex” or “a man-boy of the people, visceral and emotional, a stream-of-consciousness spurter with no internal censor or mute button.”  The “gnomish” Harry Knowles is our “poster boy.”  In short, internet based film critics are young, chubby anti-social males who don’t get out much.  And we pour our thoughts onto the page without any reflection whatsoever.  Doherty is thus falling victim to what might be called the “immediacy fallacy.”  Just because blogs can be published instantaneously doesn’t mean that bloggers necessarily publish ideas without hours or even days of reflection, and even if they post quickly, their posted work is often the product of years of research and reflection.

Finally, Doherty sets in opposition blogs, with their conversational immediacy, and scholarly journals, with their significantly slower publication rates.  As a number of academic bloggers have pointed out, this logic represents a misunderstanding of the scholarly ecosystem where ideas can be tested in the blogosphere before being expanded, developed, and reconsidered before finding final form in a book or scholarly article.  That was my experience not only with my book but also with an article I co-wrote with Richard Edwards on viral videos.

I’m not suggesting that film criticism isn’t changing.  The demand to publish quickly, to get scoops over competing web publications, can encourage writers to make provocative claims or to rush their analysis just to collect page views.  Assessing the place of a film blog in a tenure file still remains a sticky subject.  And the wide-open nature of the film blogosphere fragments the audience for film criticism, making it less likely that we will ever have a rivalry that matches the epic battles between Sarris and Kael,  but I don’t think anyone benefits when we place the present in competition with the past without seeing the connections and continuities between them.

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Reality Effects: Politicizing The Hurt Locker

Now that Kathryn Bigelow’s verité-style war film, The Hurt Locker, has achieved front-runner status for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, the publicity for the film has directed renewed attention to the politics of representing war.  As Vadim Rizov argues, this is one of the benefits of this year’s awards season, allowing us to discuss these issues in a potentially rewarding way, even though he seems to back down from this claim when he suggests that political discussions give the awards season an “undue importance.”  In thinking about this debate, I’m less interested in coming to a conclusion about the film’s politics than I am in interrogating the grounds by which we try to determine them.  Although it’s tempting to accept the comments from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal as definitive, it’s also important to place the film against some of the other paratexts–including the DVD itself–that help to define how it will be received.

As Rizov points out, The Hurt Locker had been pitched, until recently, as an apolitical treatment of the experiences of a unit of soldiers specializing in defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and for the most part, the film seems to conform that on a formal level.  The experiences of the soldiers are depicted in a non-judgmental way, a perception reinforced by the use of a hand-held camera that seems to emulate the footage seen in a number of Iraq War documentaries ranging from Gunner Palace to The War Tapes, and the lack of an explicit narrative (hinted at via the in media res opening sequence in which one soldier is killed) only serves to reinforce that.  The realism effect produced by the film is powerful, making it easy to read the film as an apolitical observation of what it’s like to be in combat.  Here, even the Chris Hedges quotation that serves as the film’s epigraph, telling us that “war is a drug” can be read as politically neutral, an updated formulation of the “war is hell” cliche, to acknowledge the adrenaline rush produced by combat.

However, in a number of recent interviews, Bigelow has argued that the film is intended as a critique of the Iraq War, suggesting at one point that she hoped the film would help bring “closure” to the war before later adding that war is “completely dehumanizing” and that the depictions of violence against children should tell us that the film is taking a specific position against the “futility” of war.  Add in the recognition that Hedges, whom she cites favorably, has been an outspoken critic of the war, and it becomes tempting to read the film as anti-war, a reading that might be reinforced by the final scene when Jeremy Renner’s SSG William James is unable to cope with the tedium of returning home to a life of grocery shopping and taking kids to school.

But I think this reading–based primarily on the artists’ intentions–misses quite a bit.  A number of observers, including Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, have argued that no combat film is ever fully anti-war.  And although I am not prepared to agree with her, Martha Nochimson, isolates this “pro-war” reading, arguing in Salon that we are  aligned with James’s “expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement.”  In fact, although the film details James’ expertise in defusing bombs, he is also seen as making dangerous and often risky choices that endanger himself and his fellow soldiers.  And, yes, we fail to see the Iraqi civilians clearly, but that’s partially because the soldiers themselves cannot see the Iraqis clearly.  The one attempt to bond with an Iraqi boy ends, as we likely anticipate, in tragedy.  And asking every war film to deal with “the larger context of the American presence in Iraq” seems to be calling for a political lecture, precisely the kind of film that most audiences have rejected, usually because they are too reductive.  But it’s not impossible to see the film as endorsing some version of our presence in Iraq, especially when you view the DVD, which includes a trailer for Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War, a documentary that essentially offers a pro-war argument while telling the story of Jake’s experience being embedded with his brother’s military unit.

A much more insightful critique comes from prominent war critic, Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who criticizes the film for its failure to depict combat realistically, particularly when it comes to James’ maverick behavior (although Rieckhoff commends the film’s depiction of adjusting to life after combat).  In fact, Rieckhoff suggests the film lacks “respect” for US soldiers and cites another that calls the film “insulting” to the soldiers whose job it is to defuse IEDs.  Rieckhoff’s complaints about the lack of realism are certainly hard to dispute, and even without any combat experience, I was well aware that many of James’ actions would have gotten him in trouble with his superiors or, worse, led to him getting shot.  But given that the film asks us to balance two forms of realism–a documentary realism that depicts actual combat and an emotional realism that depicts the addictiveness of war–I’m tempted to accept some looseness when it comes to depicting combat.

This tension regarding cinematic realism was recently addressed by Chris Cagle, who argues that The Hurt Locker’s documentary aesthetic makes us feel as if we are “watching a slice of historical reality.”  Although the film is deconstructing the war film (and, arguably war video game) aesthetic, much like many of Bigelow’s older films deconstruct film tropes, whether the buddy film (Point Break) or masculine visual pleasure (Strange Days), the reality effect is hard to shake.  But even with this deconstructionist approach, I’d argue that the film should instead be read as politically ambivalent, as sustaining both pro- and anti-war readings, and in some sense, that ambivalence depends almost entirely on the “war is a drug” theme.  In fact, the recognition that war is addictive works because of the adrenaline rush we get vicariously through James, the excitement at saving lives and the thrill of facing life-and-death decisions.  In a sense, we are torn between indentifying with James and seeing him as symptomatic of a war gone wrong.  Either James’ experience of combat offers an unrivaled form of excitement, allowing us to vicariously experience a watered down version of war, or the film invites us to recognize him as an object of analysis, with both approaches and readings potentially, perhaps even equally, available.

The Hurt Locker is a fascinating film, especially because of its treatment of the issue of representations of war, but it is not unequivocally pro- or anti-war, an ambiguity that is suggested not only by the reviews the film has received but also by the paratexts that help shape our interpretation of it.  The film’s realism effect is also complicated by its engagement with the politics of representation, making it an incredibly difficult film to pin down.

Update: By the way, Patrick Goldstein addresses the debate over the military response to the film’s accuracy in an interesting post on his Big Picture blog.  I think he’s right to point out that feature films, including those about historical events, often include inaccuracies, but given the film’s overall aim, I wonder if I’d take it as a compliment to hear that The Hurt Locker has “too much John Wayne stuff.”

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Thursday Links: B-Side, Blockbuster, Avatar, 3-D

I’ve got a post percolating on the politics of The Hurt Locker, but for now, here are some quick pointers to some recent articles that are worth a click-through:

  • Filmmaker Magazine was the first to announce that B-Side Entertainment, which specialized in providing website services to film festivals, is closing.  The Filmmaker blog post provides an incredible overview of the company and the services they offered.  Founder Chris Hyams sums up this history saying that “We find ourselves at a time of great upheaval in the film industry. We are somewhere between the old and the new world. Technology is altering the way films are being made, and there are new avenues for how films can be consumed.”  Unfortunately B-Side was unable to make a financial model work for their company.  Bad Lit and The IFC Blog also react.
  • Responding to an LA Times article on Avatar’s animated acting,” Kristin Thompson has a thoughtful assessment of whether motion-captured performances, such as Andy Serkis’ Gollum and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri should be considered for acting awards at the Oscars (or similar ceremonies).  Thompson concludes that the digital changes to actors’ facial features transform the original performance too much to make judgments about what to consider as the actual performance too fuzzy.  I don’t really have strong feelings here.  I’m not invested enough in the awards to care, but I’m also not sure where we draw the line given the long history of prosthetics, makeup, and other “artificial supplements” to an actor’s performance.
  • On his indispensible Twitter feed, Roger Ebert pointed to a Wall Street Journal article reporting that three major theatrical chains have now secured funding to convert as many as 14,000 screens from celluloid to digital projection, thus enabling them to project digital 3-D movies, thanks in part to the success of Avatar.
  • One of the fascinating aspects of Redbox’s rise to dominance has been the attempts by Blockbuster to reinvent themselves, a process that seems to entail throwing things against the wall and waiting for something to stick.  They are reportedly exerimenting with cell-phone movie rentals (so you, too, can have tiny, hypermobile movies in your pocket), moving toward online rentals (probably too little too late), and hoping that they can benefit from getting many Hollywood features for rental one month before both Redbox and Netflix.


Friday Links: Redbox, JFK, and Tricky Dick

My first sets of papers and other projects are starting to trickle in, so blog time may be curtailed once again, but I am hoping to see Shutter Island again and may even have time to weigh in with a review.  For now, here are a few links:

  • Via the Inside Redbox blog, a discussion from Home Media Magazine of what is now being called the “retail window” that Warner and other studios have instituted in order to protect themselves against perceived losses caused by Redbox and other rental services.  I’ve been speculating for a while that the “retail window” probably won’t do very much to increase DVD sales.  People who are looking to shell out $1 to pass the time on a Friday night aren’t the same ones who will buy a DVD for their collection.  I realize that dollar rentals drive down prices across the board, but are the people who use Redbox kiosks really going to be so driven by the demand for one specific film that they’ll purchase it?
  • I’m hoping to write a longer post about the much-discussed History Channel JFK documentary to be made by conservative activist Joel Surnow (best known for his work on the TV show 24), but Jeffrey Jones has an interesting read of the debate over the documentary and how it comments on the contemporary politics of images.  As Jeffrey observes, “With a distrust of elites, a delegitimized news media, a populist-paranoic rise in anti-intellectualism, and a hyper-ideological political culture, what constitutes historical truth (and even contemporary reality) is and will be hotly contested in the foreseeable future.”  And a big part of this conflict is the variety of media platforms where these debates will play themselves out.  Documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald has been spearheading one of the most visible responses in attempting to depict the Surnow documentary as nothing more than tabloid fodder.
  • And if you wanted more evidence that the 60s will never die, even after most of the politicians and many of cultural figures have faded away, Jim Emerson points to Adam Curtis’s six-minute documentary that argues that we have all become Richard Nixon, thus turning us into “increasingly paranoid weirdos.”  The film is at its most powerful in tracing out the extent to which a “culture of fear” (to use Glassner’s phrase) permeates public discourse as well as the degree to which that has accompanied an increasing mistrust of institutions, especially political ones, to make a difference in our lives.  Although compelling, I found it a bit reductive in a few places.  After all, didn’t 52% of us (more or less) vote for a guy who promised to restore hope and to bring change to government?  That being said, as a diagnosis of how “we” have become atomized and skeptical of any public officials, it raises some powerful points.
  • I haven’t yet jumped into the Film Preservation blogathon (organized in part by the Self Styled Siren) yet, but I will point to Catherine Grant’s contribution, which starts with one of my favorite meditations on the materiality of film: Bill Morrison’s Decasia.


Tarantino: The Author as Cinematic Database

I’ve been intrigued by a series of recent articles discussing Quentin Tarantino’s ambivalence about reviews that attempt to identify the influences on his films.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein, Tarantino complained that

Instead of critics reviewing my movies, now what they’re really doing is trying to match wits with me. Every time they review my movies, it’s like they want to play chess with the mastermind and show off every reference they can find, even when half of it is all of their own making. It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with.

According to Goldstein, Stephanie Zacharek’s review of Tarantino’s Kill Bill was one of the reviews that tested QT’s patience the most, with Zacharek referring to the film as something akin to a late night “on a moldy postgraduate couch” with the director offering a running commentary on film culture rather than, you know, a narrative feature.  Zacharek’s review may serve an extreme expression, but I think Tarantino is right to remark that his films have become overshadowed by his (highly constructed) reputation as a movie fanatic video store clerk-turned director.

In my discussion of DVD culture in Reinventing Cinema, I referred to Tarantino as a “video auteur,” as someone who was so immersed in the history of film that his movies offered a “database” of references to past films (and other images).  Although I linked this to Tarantino’s biography, I was more interested in his reputation as a director, as it has been established in a series of press accounts, DVD commentaries, and interviews.   To some extent, however, Hollywood filmmakers (and others) have long traded in visual references.  Godard’s early films are loaded with references to the history of cinema, and directors routinely describe a desired visual effect by reference to earlier films, but Tarantino has, perhaps a little unfairly, become singled out as the most visible contemporary instance of a video auteur.

In this regard, I think Tarantino’s work, especially his most recent film, Inglourious Basterds, presents an interesting case for thinking about how the nature of interpretation seems to be changing in the age of networked film criticism in the blogosphere.  As Jonathan Gray has recently argued, we always interpret films (or TV shows or whatever) in terms of their paratexts, the trailers and interviews and supplemental materials that accompany or advertise or announce the existence of an upcoming film.  And, in some sense, Tarantino’s status and reputation as a director have positioned his films so that “we” (cinephiles, film critics, and even scholars) read them first as a collection of cinematic references, which often obscures what Tarantino himself may be trying to do (and I’ll leave to the side for now the entire debate about authorial intentionality).

To be sure, many of Tarantino’s films contain homages to prior films (and he goes on to describe many of the influences on Basterds in the Goldstein interview).  Jackie Brown cannot be read without some knowledge of the history of blaxploitation or the career of Pam Grier, to name but one example.  But with the rise of the film blogosphere and crowdsourced fan sites, such as, what has changed is that audiences are now collectively unpacking cult and/or auteur-based films in such exhaustive detail that every scene in a Tarantino movie is now subject to the wider database and collective knowledge of a massive film audience.  The same “collective intelligence” (to use Pierre Levy’s phrase) that might be used to solve a Lost alternate reality game or to identify Survivor spoilers is now attempting to “solve” the interpretation of a Tarantino film.

In a sense, this is what literary and film critics have “always” done: use their collective knowledge to resolve ambiguities in a text or to identify meanings that hadn’t previously been recognized.  But with the rise of networked film criticism, these practices have become intensified, crowdsourced to the extreme, as film viewers seek to unpack an especially challenging film (or filmmaker) in an attempt to demonstrate a form of mastery (hence Tarantino’s antagonistic account of a “chess” battle).  And given the sheer number of films available to this movie-hungry audience, it’s inevitable that those viewers will see references that were not intended by Tarantino himself, that are, in his words, “of their own making.”

There is obviously a long history of directors complaining about being misunderstood, a complaint that has become amplified in the age of blogging, but I think that Tarantino unpacks one of the complications associated with the collective intelligence of the film blogosphere.  In that sense, I don’t think the right question to ask about Tarantino is whether he uses “too many” cinematic references, as Monika Bartyzel does, but instead, we might ask how the changing nature of interpretation, informed by crowdsourcing and social media, changes our engagement with the history of images that Tarantino so enthusiastically and astutely addresses.

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Epstein on Indie

Now that Miramax has joined the long list of indie film companies that have closed their doors, entertainment journalist Edward Jay Epstein is now weighing in on the fate of independent movies and wondering whether indies can “survive” (thanks to Film Dr’s Twitter feed for the tip).  Epstein points to the financial success of tentpole movies such as Avatar and the decline of pre-sale agreements to foreign buyers and cable channels as a sign that indie films may be endangered.

Epstein is an attentive observer of the film industry, so his arguments are worth considering.  His previous book, The Big Picture, was incredibly helpful for me when I was working on Reinventing Cinema; however, in some cases, I’d argue that predicted economic consequences are not always straight-forward.  Back in 2005, when Epstein was promoting The Big Picture during the 2005 box office “slump,” he expressed concern that the narrowing of the “window” between theatrical and DVD releases from six months could lead to a decline in box office that would produce a “death spiral.”  when, in fact, DVD sales have begun to level off while box office (if not attendance itself) remains relatively steady.

Indie filmmakers are clearly confronting some challenges, including many mentioned by Epstein (and others, including an intensely competitive marketplace , but rather than dismiss experiments by Sony, Focus, and Lionsgate, I think it’s worth considering how these approaches may offer new alternatives for indie filmmakers.  Sony’s plan to focus on indie films with budgets of less than $2 million may allow filmmakers quite a bit of room for creativity.  Lionsgate’s decision to focus on genres such as horror is consistent with a long history of low-budget filmmaking (note the horror boom in the 1980s when VHS was introduced).  Epstein also fails to mention Paramount’s new low-budget division, another potential landing place for indie directors.

Still, I’ll be curious to check out Epstein’s latest book, The Hollywood Economist, which promises to explain how studios make their money.

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“A Dollar Book Freudian Gag”

Cool find of the morning.  For years, I’ve made reference to the interview with Orson Welles where he dismisses the “Rosebud” elements of Citizen Kane as a cheap plot device.  Now here on YouTube is the video of that interview, which I’d never seen until now (via Kottke and Film Doctor).

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Location Theory

I’m still processing much of the discussion that took place at this week’s American Democracy Project eCitizenship conference.  The conference, which brought together representatives from approximately universities, was a welcome opportunity to engage with others on how social media tools could be used to help foster democratic engagement among our students.  I’ll be working with several of my colleagues and students over the next few weeks to generate some ideas for our campus, but what I really want to talk about is…Red Dawn.

More specifically, I had the fascinating experience of spending a few minutes on the set of Red Dawn, a remake of the classic 1984 film directed by John Milius and starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, and Lea Thompson.  The remake, according to IMDB, reworks the original film’s post-apocalyptic plot slightly, by depicting a group of teens seeking to save their city from an invasion by Russian and Chinese soldiers.

Observing the activity on set–something I haven’t had an opportunity to do as often as I would like–was pretty cool.  Perhaps the most compelling prop was a giant tank sitting in the middle of a downtown intersection, but we also saw soldiers jogging past, and propaganda posters subtly dotted the sometimes crumbling facades of nearby buildings.  We could see crew members setting up shots, laying down dolly tracks, and preparing lights for a nighttime shoot.  Later, after we left the set, the sound of a tank firing shook the building briefly.  And we learned from a chat with a crew member that a scene featuring a stunt man falling from the twelfth floor of our hotel had been filmed a few days earlier.

As I ate a gyro at a downtown Coney Island restaurant that actually constituted part of the set, I began thinking about the intersections between the film’s (reported) plot and the location where it is being filmed, downtown Detroit, which has become a symbol of the current unemployment and economic crisis.  While we were on set, we fell into conversation with one of the below-the-line crew members, discussing his work and the tax incentives that led to Detroit becoming a popular and inexpensive location for filming movies.  I also took note of the number of derelict, abandoned spaces in the downtown area surrounding the hotel and mentally maped that onto more familiar depictions of Michigan and Detroit in recent films, naemly Michael Moore’s portrayal of his hometown of Flint in many of his documentaries.    In looking at the post-apocalyptic iconography on the film set, I began thinking about how Moore’s films create the sense that his community–and the state in general–have been abandoned by General Motors and by the government, making it easier, perhaps, to imagine Detroit as a post-apocalyptic city.  A quick glance at the skyline with its glass tower depicting the GM logo only cofirmed such a perception.

Of course these images of Detroit, whether Red Dawn’s fictional invasion narrative or Michael Moore’s post-industrial dystopia, aren’t “real,” but are both narratives that help us to make sense of ourselves and of the horizons of our economic possibilities.  There are other parts of Detroit that are full of energy.  I enjoyed several delicious microbrews and found some restaurants featuring delicious Mediterranean food.  But I’m also convinced that both Red Dawn and Michael Moore films offer sense-making activities that should be taken seriously and that the location shoot of Red Dawn in downtown Detroit might provide some way of thinking about how “location” matters when we talk about the production of movies.  It would be easy to treat the Red Dawn reboot as just another Hollywood film, and in some ways, it is the product of movie production in the age of media congolmerates: take a familiar media franchise, reimagine it slightly, add exposions, throw in some ancillary materials, and (boom!), you have the recipe for box office success.

But in many ways, Red Dawn will “belong” to Detroit and to others who witnessed or participated in its production.  A number of local workers, whether below-the-line crew or extras who happened past, contribute to the making of the film.  Others, including my cab driver to the airport (and my colleagues and I), spend time gawking at the set, taking pictures or looking for familiar actors.  The streetscapes will be familiar.  We will know something about the film’s production.  The closest I can come to a critical-theory model for thinking about this experience is John Caldwell’s discussion of the inustry practices of self-theorizing, but I think another useful line of thought might invite us to consider how location might tell us something about a film’s meaning, about how we think about movies and our investment in them.  Just stepping into the set of the movie, I found myself talking about the economics of film production, about the collapse of Michigan’s industrial economy, and even about the changing histories that allow the original Red Dawn’s Cold War paranoia to be reworked for new audiences.  Without this happy accident, I likely never would have thought about an action film remake alongside of Michael Moore’s documentary critiques of capitalism, but now I’m convinced that this relationship–based almost entirely on a shared shooting location–is far from accidental.

Update: FYI, here is a video of the “explosion” that I heard the other night via a Detroit discussion board.  Scroll down for a discussion of complaints about the fact that local/downtown residents weren’t alerted to the fact that there would be some loud noises coming from the film set sometime after 11 PM.

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The Movie Book Meme, Part II

Here is the second half of my response to the book meme (here’s Part I in case you missed it).  Thanks again to The Film Doctor for tagging me and to Movieman0283 for suggesting such a productive meme.

  1. One of the books that I found myself constantly revisiting when writing the book was Barbara Klinger’s Beyond the Multiplex, one of the best books out there on the implications of watching movies at home. Klinger looks at a variety of phenomena including home theater systems, DVD collecting, repeat film viewing, and online videos shorts to consider shifts in viewing practices as movie watching increasingly migrates into the home.  In a similar context, I found myself learning a lot from Anna McCarthy’s Ambient Television, especially in her discussion of how TV, typically associated with the home, “shapes and often dominates public spaces.”  Although McCarthy primarily addresses television as a medium, her book helped me to make sense of the increasing significance of mobile devices (such as iPods) in accessing movie content.
  2. Another book that came to me as I was finishing Reinventing Cinema was John Thornton Caldwell’s Production Culture, which examines the “cultural practices and belief systems of Los Angeles–based film and video production workers.”  In particular, I found Caldwell’s analysis of “industrial self-reflexivity,” especially as it is expressed in DVD commentary tracks, making-of documentaries, promotional texts, and user-generated content, to be incredibly helpful.
  3. In addition to the many scholarly books that have been important to me, I’d also like to list some books that capture, at least in part, the pleasures of movie watching.  Few recent books on film are more readable than Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a history of the five films nominated for Best Picture Oscars in 1968, a pivotal year not only in the history of Hollywood but in the larger political world. As a fan of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, two of the nominated films, I love the behind-the-scenes narratives that Harris masterfully weaves together.  As someone interested in the history of Hollywood, I find it an immensely readable resource.  Finally, Harris quietly captures the social and political change taking place while these films were being made.
  4. Although it’s a slightly flawed and clunky book, I’ve always liked Alberto Fuguet’s novel, The Movies of My Life, in which the protagonist, seismologist Beltran Soler, narrates the story of his life in relationship to movies that were important to him, both during his years living in the U.S. and his life in Chile.  Beltran starts his memoirs during a layover in a Los Angeles hotel room, a setting that seems apt for thinking about film’s powerful influence in our lives.
  5. Another book that taps into both my cinephilia and my appreciation of those who have written so eloquently about film is Philip Lopate’s indispensible collection, American Movie Critics: From Silents Until Now, a collection of film reviews dating from the earliest days of the genre to the present, at a moment when film criticism is itself rapidly transforming as some of our most insightful critics write not for newspapers and magazines but for blogs and other websites. The book is a great resource for tracing the debates about ongoing, but ever-changing, role of movies in our daily lives, as they played out on the pages of local and national newspapers and magazines.

I’m supposed to tag five other people, but I’m always hesitant to do that, so consider this an open invitation to join the meme.  When you do, be sure to link back to the origins of the meme at The Dancing Image.

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The Movie Book Meme, Part I

The Film Doctor kindly invited me to participate in the “Reading the Movies” meme, originally started by movieman0283 at his blog, The Dancing Image. As The Film Doctor points out, there are already some incredible lists out there from smart and entertaining film bloggers like Campaspe, film critic Glenn Kenny, and New Yorker blogger Richard Brody, so I’m very happy to join in the fun.

There is also an interesting tension in some of the lists between bloggers who cite books that influenced them or “changed [their] lives” and, in the case of The Film Doctor, “favorite” film books.  Many of the books that most influenced me, especially in recent years, are difficult, challenging books that may not offer traditional forms of reading pleasure.  At the same time, as my own research has evolved, many books that were important to me as a young, initially tentative film scholar, have become less significant to my recent scholarly output.  With that in mind, I’ve tried to balance between books I love, many of which are themselves about a love of cinema, and books that shaped my scholarly interests and inclinations.  At the same time, this list might be considered a small repayment of the debts I owe to the scholars, critics, and thinkers who helped make my own book possible.  Because most of these annotations run a bit long, I’ll divide this entry into two parts.

  1. Few books have been more important to me than Illuminations, a collection of some of Walter Benjamin’s more significant essays compiled and published posthumously, especially Benjamin’s groundbreaking “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a profound meditation on cinema and modern subjectivity, one that assimilated everything from Georg Simmel’s sociological analysis to Dziga Vertov’s celebration of the camera’s ability to document and reveal hidden elements of everyday life.  In my own personal, dog-eared copy of the book, the margins are littered with comments and virtually every word of that essay is underlined as I sought to grapple with Benjamin’s arguments.  Another essay in the same collection, “Unpacking My Library,” also quietly influenced some of my thoughts on the practices of collecting DVD addressed in my book.
  2. When I first began my Ph.D. at Purdue, one of the first courses I took focused onfeminist film theory.  Naturally, Laura Mulvey’s paradigmatic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” anthologized in Visual and Other Pleasures, served as an important, if controversial, touchstone for discussions throughout the semester.  Although Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze” and her call for film texts that called for deconstructing visual pleasure have been challenged (quite often by feminist critics), her work helped convey to me the value and pleasure of film analysis.  At the same time, her book helped to foster an incredibly productive cycle of scholarship on the concept of the spectator, inlcuding another book that had a major influence on me, Steven Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body. And even though Mulvey’s book is less frequently cited these days, I’d argue that her discussion of spectatorshiphelped make possible some of the more recent work on fan studies an active audiences, even if many of those scholars were actively working against her main arguments.
  3. When I first began writing seriously about film, I became increasingly influenced by scholarship that combined a focus on spectatorship with a growing body of scholars focused on postmodernism, especially as it was defined by Fredric Jameson.  This interest helped me to identify time-travel films as crucial sites for thinking about films as “time machines” that altered historical consciousness.  Because of these interests, I found myself grappling with, citing, and revisiting Anne Friedberg’s Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, a book that elegantly weaves together Benjamin-influenced analysis of shopping malls and multiplexes with careful considerations of how movies were creating a postmodern spectator lost in the funhouse of images.  Not-so-faint echoes of Friedberg’s work can be heard in my book when I attempt to read my experience of watching Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at an Atlanta drive-in.
  4. Charles Acland’s Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture helped me to think about the importance of the locations where we view movies and also reminded me that movie theaters retain an important status in the cultural imagination when it comes to thinking about how movies are understood.  Acland also offers a useful analysis of the pleasures of attending movies on opening night, linking that practice to what he calls a “felt internationalism,” a desire to be both “in-the-know” and part of a larger collective with shared interests, ideas that I tried to assimilate into my discussion of film blogs.
  5. Acland’s book was also an important bridge from some of the scholarship I read early in my career that was informed by cultural studies and some of the valuable work coming from a political economy perspective.  A particularly important book for me was Global Hollywood, authored by Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell.  Although the book misses some of the ways in which movies are used and acted upon by film audiences, the book also helped me to think more carefully about how movies circulate globally.

Stay tuned for Part II.

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Sunday Links

Plenty to think about as usual in the film and new media blogosphere, especially with the discussions taking place at and around the Cannes Film Festival this week:

  • It’s a few days old, but this Criterion interview with Chris Marker is terrific: Marker, posing as his Second Life avatar Sergei Murasaki, expounds on Second Life’s “sense of porousness between the real and the virtual,” while modestly characterizing his own work in film as “cobbling” (and his work in SL as “supercobbling”).  I had a chance to “see” Marker, in the case appearing as Guillaume the Cat, in Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes this year at Full Frame.  I didn’t write about it at the time because I felt like I needed to see it again, but like many of Marker’s films, it is a playful meditation on cinema, memory, documentary, and identity, and where those categories intersect (here’s a short segment on YouTube).
  • Via Dr. Strangelove, a link to Birgit Richard’s “Media Masters and Grassroots Art 2.0 on YouTube,” from Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer’s Video Vortex Reader. Dr. Strangelove also provides an ongoing bibliography of academic essays and books that focus on YouTube (h/t Adrian Miles).
  • Pamela Cohn reports that The Good Pitch is making its North American launch.  The Good Pitch, which was developed by the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, not only brings together documentary filmmakers with potential funders but also allows them to connect with other institutions and groups that might aid filmmakers in building an audience for their films. Filmmakers could connect with “foundations, charities, NGOs, campaigners, distributors, advertising agencies, and other third sector organizations” to raise awareness for their films, allowing them potentially to have a much larger impact (Pamela cites the ACLU, Amnesty International, and WITNESS as possible examples). It sounds like an incredible project, so hopefully I’ll be able to write about it in a more sustained fashion in the next few days.
  • Salon has an article by Wolfgang Höbel asking whether the moment of the big film festivals has passed.  Citing a gloomy economy and a declining independent and art-house film sector, Höbel argues that the art house cinema no longer has the same resonance it once did.  I think it’s easy to look at past festivals through rose-colored glasses (a point that Roger Ebert acknowledges in one of his Cannes diaries), and I also wonder if the auteur cinema that Höbel mourns ever had the popular resonance that he seems to imply.  But the article is a good overview of the current economic concerns that are haunting at least one sector of the film industry.
  • Höbel also discusses The Auteurs, a new resource for discussing and viewing films that bills itself as an “online film festival,” which includes a number of world cinema classics curated by none other than Martin Scorsese (note you may have to be a member to view specific pages).
  • Finally, Ted Hope, in preparation for his appearance on Fox Busienss Chanel, lists “38 American Independent Film Concerns and Problems.”  While Hope, who was one of the producers of Adventureland, a film I quite liked, has generally been one of the more optimistic figures in debates about the future of independent cinema, here he identifies a number of the problems the indie sector is facing.  It’s a pretty convincing, if discouraging, list.

Update: Someone left a random and seemingly irrelevant comment (or several actually) that I didn’t recognize as pertaining to this entry, so I deleted it.  Turns out it was part of an ARG connected to Lost.  But for the sake of the game, I’ll try to add the comments back.   See below.

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Quantifying Film Reviews

Thanks to an email tip, I just took a quick look at, “Do experts and novices evaluate movies the same way?” (also via BPS Research Digest) a study conducted by Jonathan A. Plucker, James C. Kaufman, Jason S. Temple, and Meihua Qian, and published in the journal Psychology and Marketing, part of a special issue devoted to the theme of marketing movies.   The authors seek to explore differences between how professional critics, “amateur” online critics, and general “novice” audiences to determine which groups tended to give movies the highest ratings.

The authors focused their research on films that opened widely, that is on 1,000 or more screens, which raises some potentially thorny problems I’d like to address later.  The sources for their samples of reviews made some amount of sense.  Critics’ reviews were culled from the numerical rankings on, while the ratings from amateur critics were taken from IMDB discussion boards.  Finally, the “novice” moviegoer numbers were taken from student surveys, a sample that also introduces some complications, given that students may be more generous than older audiences (a point the authors acknowledge in their discussion of the project’s “limitations”).  Probably a bigger definitional problem, for me, is that users of IMDB discussion boards are self-selecting in a way that might bias them in favor of positive reviews.  I would imagine (but could be wrong) that reviewers writing for a personal blog might be more critical of mainstream films, in particular, than user-generated reviews on IMDB, especially given IMDB’s bias toward newer films and a “popular canon.”

To be fair, they are attentive to the fact that the timing of reviews matters considerably.  Critics reviews typically appear before amateur and novice reviewers have a chance to see a film, and students completing an anonymous survey might respond differently than they would if their reviews were more public.  Further, to give Plucker, et al, credit, they are attentive to the fact that their categories are not mutually exclusive but instead represent a continuum, one that is increasingly complicated due to the rise of film criticism appearing in a variety of internet publications.

Given the sample the authors chose, it is probably no surprise that they discovered that professional critics tend to offer the lowest ratings while novice moviegoers ranked films more highly.  By focusing on films that open on more than 1,000 screens, the study excludes a number of critically-acclaimed films, such as Million Dollar Baby or Juno,  that deliberately use slow roll-outs in order to build positive word-of-mouth (or that target adult audiences who are less wedded to seeing films on opening night).  I’m not suggesting that critic and novice rankings would have been reversed for these two films, but by placing too much emphasis on heavily-marketed, high-concept films that open widely, we may lose some subtleties about how different audiences might evaluate a film.  Being specific matters quite a bit here.  It would be worth exploring distinctions within individual films.  How do critical evaluations of that plucky indie film compare to those of bigger budget films?  By not naming a single movie title, the authors streamline what is often a much more volatile process.  We also lose quite a bit when it comes to relative reach.  Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis will always have a wider audience than I do as a mostly amateur blogger, not to mention greater access to the film industry itself.

Another concern that I have is how they reduce the reviews to their numeric rankings.  Most, though not all, of the critics I read eschew numeric ratings or starred ratings, and my decision about whether or not to see a certain movie can depend on any number of factors that have little to do with who rates a film highly (in Fayetteville quite a bit depends on what’s available at any given time).  That being said, I think they’re probably right to suggest that these numbers can probably help to guide the practices of marketers as they seek out the “tastemakers” who might champion certain films.  Their conclusions also seem to imply that sites such as FlickTweets that compile film reviews posted to Twitter may actually help to expand positive buzz for a given film.  More than anything, though, a closer look at specific cases would probably tell us more about how these rankings evolve and how “amateur” critics may review films differently than their professional peers.

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Film Criticism in the Internet Age

This is a response to Reid Gershbein’s call for contributions to a roundtable titled, “Film Criticism: Evolution and Importance In the Digital Age,” part of The Two Week Film Collective project, in which Reid has invited filmmakers to make a film in two weeks, with the participating films to be screened in several cities in the United States and abroad.  Because these are issues I’ve explored briefly in my forthcoming book, Reinventing Cinema, I couldn’t resist revisiting them here.

In his call for participants in the “Two Week Film Collective,” Reid Gershbein also asks for volunteers to review the films and to participate in a series of panels, the first, fittingly enough, focused on “Film Criticism: Evolution and Importance In the Digital Age” (itself an implicit response to Alejandro Adams’ recent roundtable on self-distribution).  The question of the role of film criticism has been widely debated over the last several years as new modes of production and distribution have emerged, challenging, even upending, the traditional independent film distribution models that have operated for the last several decades.  At the same time, the traditional sites where indie filmmakers could get reviews, alternative weeklies and even major dailies, have been cutting back on the number of reviewers, a concession to plummeting advertising revenue and a struggling economy.  Instead we witness the proliferation of unaffiliated or semi-affiliated, blog-based critics (or, in many cases, reviewers), who can help to establish word-of-mouth about a new film.  So what happens to the role of the film critic here?  This is a somewhat tentative, roundabout attempt to answer that question.

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