Archive for film theory

Sunday Links

Clearing out my links so that I can write that promised snarky and/or horrified review of Ben Stein’s Expelled:

  • Jason Mittell of JustTV discusses his experience of being interviewed for an NPR segment on the appeal of American Idol. As Jason observes, it’s often difficult to communicate criticism of a show such as American Idol in a sound bite.
  • The P.O.V. Blog points to the news that Shelby Knox, the subject of the documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox (which I really liked), is now blogging and speaking about issues related to sex education.
  • Karina points to the trailer for the latest horror film from Blair Witch director Joe Myrick.  As Karina notes, the film pretty much looks like the Kabul Witch Project, complete with haunted technologies–including faulty compasses–and other mysterious, unexplained phenomena. Still, as an attempt to provide new narrative approaches to representing our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter almost forgotten by the U.S. media, I’m curious to see what Myrick is up to.
  • Scott Kirsner looks at various (legal) online indie film distribution sites for Film In Focus.
  • Karina and Kevin from Spout both look at the future of film criticism, in part in light of Nathan Lee being the fourth film critic forced out at the Village Voice.
  • Scott McLemee reviews Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.  Hoping I can find time to read it myself at some point this summer.


Tiny Screens Redux

I’ve been planning to write about a couple of recent articles by Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern on changing screen cultures but have been distracted by a number of other things, so here’s a slightly truncated and much delayed version of that blog entry.

First, on February 23, Morgenstern bemoans the “death knell” of theatrical exhibition after watching a child watching her iPod at a movie theater instead of the movie on the big screen.  Like most of these articles, there’s a lot of generation angst about kids today and their newfangled devices, although I think Morgenstern is somewhat more forgiving of millennials than Denby.  And while moviegoing as an activity may be waning somewhat (although even this point is debatable, given last year’s record box office take), the article seems to overstate the degree to which younger viewers are turning away from watching movies on a big screen (i.e., Morgenstern throws in a couple of anecdotes and takes them to stand in for an entire generation).

More recently, Morgestern followed that article up by insisting–again–that size matters and kids today, all of whom seem to be blithely platform agnostic, simply don’t realize that bigger is better. But at least Morgestern acknowledges the fact that he finds today’s generation completely inscrutable: “For the first time in history adults don’t know how young people think. One could argue that adults have never known, and until psychology came along, didn’t care. But now the perplexity is profound. How do multitasking, multicurious, multiprivileged, multidistracted and multiscattered kids process information? With all those windows open on their digital world, how will they follow complex narratives? What will sing to them, stir their souls, seize their imaginations?”

Here, I think that what is interesting is that Morgenstern assumes that all that multitasking will ultimately disable the ability to follow complex narratives when, in fact, those “multiple windows” may be part of that complex narrative.  Or at least part of the means for decoding that complex narrative.  I’m not suggesting that the new modes of storytelling are better than the classical or modernist–and male–cinema that Morgenstern is implicitly privileging (note his desire for “new Coppolas, Altmans, or Renoirs”), but to suggest that kids can only pay attention to something for the duration of a webisodes underestimates audiences and content producers alike.


Watching the Professors

I’m writing for a relatively immediate deadline, so I won’t have time to write a longer SCMS wrap-up, but you might take a look at Kristina’s summary of two of the panels I wish I’d been able to attend (as always, many of the panels I wanted to see were competing with each other).

Meanwhile, Siva points to a somewhat unsettling Chronicle blog post on Blackboard’s plans to expand their course management services to include a “video surveillance” service.  Ostensibly designed to help make campus security officials aware of campus emergencies, such as school shootings, the service would allow “security officials to view live and recorded video over a campus computer network.” Quite obviously this service goes well beyond Blackboard’s traditional–and rather clunky–classroom management tools, raising a number of important questions about how this video material will be used (thanks to Siva for the link).


Monday Links

Gearing up for this year’s SCMS conference in Philadelphia. The paper I’m presenting–on internet film distribution–is basically done, so this year hopefully I won’t be hastily writing in the hotel bar minutes before my presentation as I had to do at one conference a few years ago. I know that some of my regular readers will be attending the conference, so hopefully I’ll have a chance to run into some of you at the conference. I know that there is some discussion of a Dr. Mabuse meetup, but haven’t heard anything official about a time or place. On a side note, here’s some of what I’ve been reading and watching now that midterm grades are turned in:

  • Loading the Playlist for Your Future: Via Brave New Films, the website, Hillary Speaks for Me, which allows Hillary Clinton supporters to upload 30-second videos explaining why they think she should be our next president. Obviously, it would have been better for Clinton had the site launched somewhat earlier, but it looks like a cool way to tap into all of those hip young videomakers like Jack Nicholson.
  • Ominous Narrators: Andy Cobb has a sharp parody of those “Red Phone” ads that the candidates been airing (Clinton’s 3 AM ad is especially bad). It’s a little dispiriting to see all of the presidential candidates playing the fear card yet again, and Cobb’s response to that is pretty effective (h/t techPres).
  • An interesting interview with Chicago 10 director Brett Morgen. Morgen has some interesting things to say about the Oscar nominating process and, more importantly, the reception of his documentary, which makes extensive use of rotoscoping animation (a la Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life) . Given the intensity surrounding the Democratic nominating process, Chicago 10 looks like an incredibly timely film.
  • Ana Domb has a blog post on From Here to Awesome, one of the more enticing online distribution models out there.
  • An interesting NYT article on the viability of the DVD as a format. The article suggests, among other things, that DVD sales are starting to lag, with the internet seen as a major culprit.
  • In an article for FlowTV, Alisa Perren takes on the genre I love to hate (or hate to love): the quirky indie. But she turns some of the cynicism directed at the genre on its head by attaching the sentimentality of films like Juno with a certain presidential candidate.

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Saturday Six

Finally got a chance to do a quick blog tour this morning and, as always, found a bunch of pertinent and interesting stuff that I wish I had more time to blog:

  • The folks at TechPresident are asking a question that I’ve been thinking about as well. In working on my article on online political mashups and remixes, I’ve come across a number of videos supporting Obama, Clinton, Paul, and Huckabee, but few, if any, supporting McCain, so this begs two are questions: are there any pro-McCain mashup artists out there that I’m simply missing? If there aren’t any McCain mashups, why not?
  • John Heilemann’s “The Meme Prisoner:” A lot of people have been blogging this article about the “unfair” press coverage that Clinton has received as compared to Clinton. For the most part, I think the article gets things right, especially the ridiculous “boys club” coverage on MSNBC, with the exception of Olbermann. But while Obama may be benefiting from the “rock star” meme that has become attached to his campaign, even that meme may harm Obama in the long run by suggesting that his candidacy entails the privileging of style over substance, as Barbara Eherenreich points out.
  • No time to blog about it further, but because I address these issues in the book I’m writing, I just wanted to mark the moment that Blu-Ray triumphed over HD DVD. Unlike the somewhat more protracted battle between VHS and Beta, the industry seems to have consolidated behind Blu-Ray.
  • On a related note, Scott Kirsner has a link to a WSJ article on the two 3D concert films featuring Hannah Montana and U2, both of which are currently in theaters.
  • I wrote about this issue a few months ago, but Jeff has an insightful blog post on the quirks of the Netflix community recommendation tools.
  • Girish has a great question for cinephiles about uncanny overlaps between two seemingly disconnected films. I didn’t quite answer his question straight, but instead mentioned my uncanny overlap between watching Wayne Wang’s Smoke for the first time and what happened in a Dupont Circle bookstore immediately afterwards.

Update: One more via a Twitter tip: Yes We Can Has, which combines two great internet phenomena, LOL Cats and Obamania.


Advocacy Documentary and Public Media

Pat Aufderheide has a thought-provoking blog post on the place of advocacy documentaries within the public sphere. Writing about a number of activist films that played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including Patrick Creadon’s I.O.U.S.A, Irena Salina’s Flow: For the Love of Water, Josh Tickell’s Fields of Fuel, and Susan Koch’s Kicking It, Aufderheide points out that many of these films raise more questions than they answer. While I haven’t seen these specific films, I’ve been thinking about the role of activist documentary in a 2.0 culture for some time (although not in a terribly systematic way), and like her, I’d like to see how social networking technologies can be deployed to provide the “context” and “vetting” that is normally associated with what Aufderheide calls “public media.”

Some of my initial reservations about activist documentary were somewhat clumsily articulated in a blog post on Ted Leonsis’s concept of “filmanthropy,” which I wrote in response to a Washington Post article on the topic. While I expressed enthusiasm for Leonsis’s commitment to supporting politically relevant films, the philanthropy model left me feeling a little skeptical because of what seemed at the time like a top-down approach (you raise the money…you help people to understand an important issue), but I don’t believe at all that the filmanthropy model necessarily excludes the kinds of informed, public debate that Aufderheide is calling for. At the time, I compared Leonsis’s concept of filmanthropy to Jeffrey Skoll’s more explicitly “2.0” approach, Participant Productions, which emphasized the use of social networking technologies in order to create more engaged and politically active audiences (and which was also profiled in the Post). A third model of what might be called a “networked documentary public” (after my own concept of networked film publics) might also be Robert Greenwald’s expansive Brave New Films, which has increasingly migrated online through the use of short web videos. And, of course, the increasing number of documentary bloggers, including PBS’s POV blog is a testament to the desire for more public debate not only about documentary but also about the social and political issues addressed in documentary films.

The combination of social networking and activist documentaries certainly opens up a number of possibilities for producing an informed discussion of important social and political issues, although I think it is important to take note of the ways in which websites structure those debates. Sites such as Brave New Films, for example, provide valuable opportunities for partisan and monitorial citizenship but may not fulfill the need for the kinds of “vetting and legitimation” associated with public media. Of the films she discusses, Aufderheide singles out Flow: For the Love of Water as making some effort towards building an activist community around the issue of water policy through social networking technologies. There are a number of intriguing possibilities here for a networked documentary public to provide an important hub for these kinds of discussions, and like Aufderheide, I hope that these documentaries take advantage of that.

Update: I should also mention that I discussed these issues at some length in my review of Aufderheide’s book a few weeks ago.

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Institutionalizing Documentary

One of the most salient points in Patricia Aufderheide’s Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction (my review) is the argument that film scholars should be more attentive to the business of documentary, including the institutions that support documentary filmmakers and the economies in which documentaries circulate.   And because of conversations both in the blogosphere and at documentary festivals such as Full Frame and Silverdocs, I’m inclined to agree.  In a blog post on the Oxford UP blog, Aufderheide describes, in the context of the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, the ways in which docs are increasingly becoming “big business” for a number of social and technological reasons, including new distribution channels/networks and docu-auteurs such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock (filmmaker and blogger A.J. Schnack seems slightly less sanguine here).  In this sense, the role of festivals and awards in shaping the reception of documentary (even our access to certain kinds of docs) needs to be considered more carefully.

I mention Aufderheide’s post in part because I’ve been looking for an excuse to discuss A.J. Schnack’s ongoing discussion of a new set of awards for documentary filmmakers, launched by “a coalition within the nonfiction and film festval community” and supported by IndiePix, a prominent film distributor.  These awards are designed to counter the Academy’s often confusing qualification rules (which have led to a number of eminent films, including The Thin Blue Line and Hoop Dreams, being disqualified from consideration).  A.J.’s frustration with the “Academy’s byzantine and oft-changing rules” is well-documented, and creating a more reasonable and equitable approach to highlighting the best in non-fiction filmmkaing is much needed.  But A.J.’s comments also underscore the need to acknowledge that documentary production, like feature filmmaking, is a craft.  In proposing these new awards, A.J. seeks to reward docs that “pushed creative and stylistic boundaries or marked the arrival of a major new talent.”  Instead of merely rewarding the “best” documentary of the year, these awards would also recognize the craft of documentary filmmaking by highlighting seven additional categories including Direction, Production, Cinematography, Editing, Graphic Design & Animation, International Feature and Debut Feature.

Like a number of other bloggers, I think there is quite a bit to debate here. Is this shortlist significantly different than the Academy’s?  In other words, aren’t omissions inevitable when trying to encapsulate a genre as diverse as documentary?  What gets lost by possibly emphasizing “craft” over “message” (and I realize these categories are not mutually exclusive)?  I do think these are important questions, though many of them can be answered as the awards evolve.  But in general, I appreciate the attempt to recognize that documentary entails a craft of “representing reality” and not merely recording it.

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Tuesday Afternoon Linkfest

Classes here at Fayetteville State start Thursday, so blogging will slow down soon (I also have a couple of upcoming article/conference paper deadlines), but here’s a quick link post so that I can procrastinate on work I ought to be doing:

  • First, in one of those cool coincidences, I just discovered the music of Fayetteville-based indie-acoustic musician, Joshua Morrison (MySpace), on KEXP Seattle this afternoon (strange to “discover” a local musician on a radio station based over 3,000 miles away). Even though I’m sometimes reluctant to make comparisons, his music sounds a bit like Iron & Wine and Elliott Smith, so if you like them, Morrison is well worth checking out.
  • Second, I’m not sure that I’ve mentioned the P.O.V. blog (or if I have, I lost track of it). But it’s definitely a go-to blog for all things documentary, including this round-up of documentary best-of lists. I’ll have more to say about documentary, including a new award for non-fiction films, in a subsequent entry.
  • Via Agnes, I just learned about the International Documentary Challenge, which is “a timed filmmaking competition where filmmaking teams from around the world have just 5 days to make a short documentary film.” This sounds like a lot of fun, and although I won’t be able to participate this year (the dates overlap with SCMS), I’d love to give it a shot in the future. Last year’s winners are available in the website’s “screening room.”
  • Girish posted an interesting survey of some top film scholars conducted by Screening the Past, asking them to name the most important contributions to film and media studies in the last ten years. Not surprisingly, it’s an interesting and eclectic list, ranging from Charles R. Acland’s Screen Traffic, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, and Toby Miller, et al’s Global Hollywood to the restored Touch of Evil DVD and the Documentary Filmmakers’ Statement on Best Practices and Fair Use. I could spend hours poring over the list in order to comment further, but I’ll leave the discussion to the folks over at Dr. Mabuse.
  • Agnes also points to the call for entries/new distribution model sponsored by some of the champions of web distribution, Lance Weiler, Arin Crumley, and M Dot Strange, “From Here to Awesome.”  One of the challenges of writing about what I am calling “networked film publics” is that new approaches to production and distribution seem to appear overnight.  But this looks like an exciting way for independent filmmakers to find that elusive wider audience.

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Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

As documentary films persist as an important aspect of the wider cinematic public sphere, definitions of documentary and its social and political role have become increasingly important. Invariably, when I mention at a cocktail party that I am interested in documentary, at least one partygoer will corner me in the kitchen and challenge me to offer a clear definition of what counts as a “documentary” (usually this accompanies a demand that I renounce Michael Moore as a documentary filmmaker, a demand that I typically resist, depending upon how contrarian I am feeling). But as this scenario of the hypothetical partygoer implies, defining documentary opens up a number of ethical and historical quandaries that are sometimes difficult to answer. It is in this context that I read Patricia Aufderheide’s breezy but informative Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction, part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series. And while I haven’t read other books in the series, Aufderheide’s book seems to fulfill the goal of the series, providing an accessible overview of the history of documentary and the political, social, and ethical questions that emerge from that history. It’s something that could easily be read while traveling or on mass transit, but I would add that the chapters are often substantive enough that the book could also be used in introductory-level film courses, especially if you are concerned about students’ textbook budgets. The book’s conclusion, I will argue later, is especially pertinent to documentary scholars and manages to raise some important issues about the study of documentary in a way that the casual reader will understand.

As I have suggested, one of the strengths of the book is its meshing of the historical narrative approach suggested in Erik Barnouw’s indispensable Documentary and the analytic problems raised by documentary scholars such as Bill Nichols and Michael Renov (my review: $). Quite obviously, this approach leads to both the historical and analytical approaches feeling incredibly condensed, but Aufderheide’s history of documentary’s foundational figures (Grierson, Flaherty, Vertov) and movements (cinema verite) provides a useful backdrop for contextualizing how certain practices begin to emerge, the ethical implications of those practices, and how those forms fit into larger institutional frameworks, including the subsidizing of documentary films by public television and the role of governments is producing propaganda. These sections may be especially useful in helping to differentiate between government-supported propaganda, such as Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or the Frank Capra Why We Fight series and documentaries that advocate for a specific cause (such as the Michael Moore films). Here, Aufderheide is also careful to remind readers that media effects theorists have rightfully challenged simplistic notions of manipulation (in fact, Triumph of the Will was far from a box office success in Germany, to name one significant example).

It is in this second major section of Documentary Film, which focuses on documentary “sub-genres,” such as propaganda and advocacy films, that I became increasingly intrigued with the book’s thoughtful engagement with the contemporary politics of images. Aufderheide focuses on six subgenres (public affairs, government propaganda, advocacy, historical, ethnographic, and nature). Given the popularity of documentaries on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and even VH1 (Behind the Music) and the critical acclaim given to Ken Burns’ PBS docs, it is crucial to consider how these movies frame, shape, and often distort historical events, social relationships, or even our relationship with nature. Documentaries such as Winged Migration seem to offer us unmediated access to “nature,” but as Aufderheide points out (and as I was aware, despite my glowing review), the birds depicted in the film were trained by the filmmakers to accept the presence of the camera. Aufderheide addresses these issues while toggling back and forth between relatively mainstream documentaries and others that may be unfamiliar even for those of us who study documentary for a living, fulfilling the important goal of introducing virtually unseen films to a potentially wider audience.

There were, of course, some enticing leads that I wish had been developed further. A more explicit exploration of the lineage that followed from Vertov’s experimentalism (Marker, etc) could have been useful. And I was compelled by the idea of treating An Inconvenient Truth as a “nature documentary” and would have loved to follow out the implications of that argument in much further detail (though, obviously, that’s not the goal of a “very short introduction”). Also, the list of “great documentaries” in the appendix seems to place more emphasis on contemporary films, with nearly two-thirds of the listed films being made after 1980, although that could be attributed to the flourishing of documentary as a medium and not a presentist bias.

But what will make me return to Aufderheide’s book, no doubt, is the conclusion, where questions about the “future” of documentary are addressed. As I have often argued on this blog, internet video is radically altering the possibilities available to documentary and, quite possibly, introducing a whole host of ethical challenges that will be important to address. As Aufderheide asks,

New technologies vastly increase the volume of production under the rubric of documentary. This volume may create new subgenres or may eventually force rethinking. When political operatives, fourth graders, and product marketers all make downloadable documentaries, will we redraw parameters around what we mean by “documentary?” (127)

This will, I believe, be a crucial question for documentary filmmakers and documentary scholars to address in the years ahead, especially as websites such as YouTube continue to expand the possibilities for “documentary” production.

Finally, Aufderheide also introduces some areas where documentary scholars might engage in further research. She is correct to emphasize that cinema studies scholars are not always attentive to “the business of documentary distribution,” noting that there is too little communication between documentary scholars and practitioners, a gap I have (however modestly) sought to bridge with my blog (134). Here, however, more discussion of how the documentary business operates (including at least some mention of festivals such as Full Frame and Silverdocs) might have been helpful. In addition, Aufderheide calls for further scholarship on “sponsored” and “formulaic” documentaries, subgenres that may not be as enticing but that often represent a crucial point of access for both documentary filmmakers, who often pay their bills with sponsored docs, and media audiences, who often first encounter documentary through television broadcasts or DVD extras. In short, Documentary Film is a useful introduction to one of the most important and most difficult to define genres of contemporary film. You might even loan a copy to that annoying partygoer who corners you next to the fridge and asks you to defend Sicko.

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Wednesday Morning Links

Doing a little procrastinating as I get ready for spring semester.  I only have two preps this semester (Intro to Film and Freshman composition), so I should be able to put together my syllabi fairly quickly.  I am doing some reading for a second article on online campaign videos (prezvids?) and some reading on documentary, so hopefully will have something substantial here later today.  But here’s a roundup of my morning coffee reads:

  • Weepingsam at the Listening Ear has a roundup of the year’s first few blogathons.  I keep promising myself that I’ll participate in more blogathons and never seem to find the time, but the “opening credits” blogathons sounds especially interesting, particularly the discussion of Psycho and Saul Bass in general.
  • Alessanrda Stanley explains why Letterman is so much cooler than Leno.   Letterman’s Top 10 and monologue helped to contextualize the demands of the WGA and provided a reminder of the importance of good television writing.  I flipped briefly over to Leno during commercials and the show was pretty much a train wreck.
  •  A.J. Schnack lists his favorite non-fiction films of 2007, many of which I’m dying to see.  While I’m thinking about it, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, where a number of these films played last year, is just a few months away.
  • Karina has a pointer to the announcement that Netflix is finally releasing its set-top box that will allow viewers to play movies on TV directly from the internet.  The Hollywood Reporter article emphasizes that the box will sell for $800 and will be marketed primarily to households with high-def TVs.
  •  ObamaGirl has a new video prominently featuring a Rocky theme just in time for the Iowa Caucuses.  Oddly, so does John Edwards.

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Rainy Friday Links

I’m working on an end-of-the-year list, but for now, just because I have time to post them, here are my links for the day:

  • The Hollywood Reporter has a series of articles predicting the Big Stories in entertainment for 2008. Some of their more interesting prognostications include the expectation that at least one major studio will dabble in day-and-date releasing, distributing one major film to theaters and to video-on-demand on the same day, and that there will be a resolution of the DVD format wars.  Also worth noting is the discussion of the plans for more 3-D entertainment experiences (is a 3-D Hannah Montana concert a movie? an event? both? something else?) at your local multiplex.
  • Steve Boone at The House Next Door points to his three-part interview with New York Press film critic Armond White.  While I often disagree with White, I find his willingness to counter the film-critical consensus refreshing.
  • The Down Low blog has a discussion of a possible iTunes plan to enter the video rental business.
  • TechPresident has a nice overview of what they regard as the best uses of the web among 2008 Presidential candidates.  No major surprises here (Ron Paul and Barack Obama tend to get rave reviews), but a useful overview of how the candidates are using the web this time around.
  • Speaking of politics and video, there’s a new ObamaGirl video, “You’re so Lame,” about our “Lame Duck” President.  To be honest, it’s not their strongest video (I only laughed once, when they compared Bush to a certain pop singer), but I’m a bit of a completist about these things.
  • Finally, the folks at if:book have a nice analysis of some of the New York Times’ new online features, including their interactive breakdown of the most recent Democratic debate (the last one before the Iowa Caucuses).


They’re Twittering! They’re Blogging!

But apparently, they don’t want to go to the movies anymore. At least, that’s what everyone keeps saying in Andrew O’Hehir’s “State of the Indies” article in Salon (wait through the ad). O’Hehir’s article reintroduces the usual villains, such as “crappy” theaters, shorter attention spans, and especially–as Karina notes–those socially-networked, hyperactive kids.

I think Karina’s right to be skeptical here. It’s not an either-or proposition. Sometimes we’re Twittering about that three-hour movie we happened to see at the theater the other night (not that I’m a kid). It is fair to say that we shouldn’t expect indie filmmakers to rely upon DVD distribution forever, but many of the assumptions here about entertainment (I won’t say movie or film) audiences here seem rather reductive to me.

Update: Mike Everleth of Bad Lit also has some interesting comments on the O’Hehir article.  Like him, I’m skeptical of the ritual in articles about the future of independent cinema of predicting the demise of indie films.

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Wednesday Linkfest

From a Starbucks in Roswell, a half mile from my parents’ house:

  • Via TechPresident (and an email from Kevin Bacon), John Edwards’ latest viral video, which takes on the genre of the fake trailer (“In a world where…”). I’m currently working on an academic article on viral videos and the 2008 Presidential election, and for this particular chapter, I’m especially interested in looking at how the campaigns have picked up upon the rhetoric of user-generated videos and mashups in their online advertising, such as the “Hillary Soprano” video, so this mock trailer is especially interesting. If you happen to come across some interesting political mashups, I’d appreciate them.
  • Speaking of political parodies, this mock political ad featuring German philosophers Kant and Nietzsche is pretty funny.
  • In one of my favorite TV moments this season, The Simpsons had a fantastic parody of the viral YouTube video featuring a photograph of Noah every day for six years (via Tama). I haven’t watched The Simpsons often this season, but a brilliant moment like this one may just bring me back (if the writers strike ever ends).
  • The cinetrix points to an intriguing (if space bar-deprived) joint venture from Random House, Faber & Faber, and Focus Features, FilminFocus, “a destination point and a haven for film lovers around the world.” Like the cinetrix, I’m a little leery of the “fearful synergy” entailed in this collaboration, but there is a lot of interesting content here. My favorite feature, by far, is the “Behind the Blog” page, which thus far features profiles on David Hudson of Green Cine and Andrew Grant of Lika Anna Karina’s Sweater, both of which are daily reads of mine.
  • Also wanted to point out that Jill Walker Rettberg recently blogged the cover of her book on blogging, which is due to be released by Polity Press.
  • Finally, Alex has a thoughtful discussion of the supposed critic-fan divide. Alex notes that while Time critic Richard Corliss faults critics for rewarding films that rarely find box office success, Corliss is ignoring the fact that critics are actually serving a “corrective” function in promoting films (such as P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men) that have only a limited amount of marketing muscle as compared to studio fare. In fact, I think Alex is right that perhaps we ought to be criticizing the studios for relentlessly promoting hollow, flat, violent fare such as The Transformers movie rather than smaller films such as Juno and Margot at the Wedding.

Update: Just as I was finishing up the entry, I noticed that the cinetrix had pointed to news that the MPAA is rejecting the poster for Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side because it “depicts torture.” Again, the cinetrix is asking the right question here: Isn’t it more unacceptable to commit acts of torture and suppress documentation of it? Here’s the Variety article. Alex Gibney’s response to this act of censorship is worth quoting in full:

“Not permitting us to use an image of a hooded man that comes from a documentary photograph is censorship, pure and simple,” said producer, writer and director Gibney. “Intentional or not, the MPAA’s disapproval of the poster is a political act, undermining legitimate criticism of the Bush administration. I agree that the image is offensive; it’s also real.”

Now, I’m off to see What Would Jesus Buy, just in time to get into the holiday spirit.

Update 2: While nostalgia-tripping in the Java Monkey in Decatur, my favorite coffeehouse on the planet, I came across A.J.’s post on the controversy over Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side poster.  A.J. compares the censorship of the poster to the MPAA rejection of a similar image for Michael Winterbottom’s hybrid narrative/non-fiction film, Road to Guantanamo.

Also, I received an email from one of the folks behind the scenes at FilmInFocus and realized that my “space bar” comments above may not have been terribly clear.  I was referring entirely to the lack of spaces between words in the title of the site, not to the layout or appearance of the site in general (which looks great, by the way).  Sorry for any confusion.


Beowulf 3-D

It’s probably no mistake that the first major feature to get the high-def 3D treatment is Beowulf (IMDB) one of the oldest stories in the English language. The Old English epic poem is a high school standard but one that mixes historical figures with mythic creatures (dragons, monsters), making it simultaneously familiar and alien. This uncanny quality makes Beowulf an apt vehicle for director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary to explore the ways in which digital 3-D can be used to reinvent cinema as a medium. And while Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Contact, Death Becomes Her) has often been dismissed as a gimmicky director, his Beowulf adaptation has some subtle touches that explore the relationship between cinema and embodiment in particular, but more importantly about the medium of movies themselves (can we even call it film anymore?).

The basic story of Beowulf is well known: King Hrothgar builds a giant mead hall where his subjects sing, dance, and celebrate, disturbing Grendel, who kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors. Soon after, Beowulf arrives, killing Grendel by ripping off his arm and setting up the second battle with Grendel’s mother (famously played by Angelina Jolie). However, instead of killing her, Beowulf finds himself seduced by her and returns from her cave claiming to have slain her, a fairly significant departure from the original poem, which Gaiman and Avary have justified by claiming that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. This seduction sets up the final scene in which the dragon attacks Beowulf’s kingdom, delivering a message from Grendel’s mother (“the sins of the father”), also a departure from the original text. In this sense, Beowulf is transformed from an epic hero to a flawed character, one characterized by his overreaching pride. More crucially, the film adapts the epic poem into a story about a crisis in masculinity, about Hrothgar and Beowulf’s failures to produce male heirs, an interpretation of the poem that I found mildly intriguing but deeply flawed in its execution.

The masculinity crisis is so overplayed in places that it became almost unintentionally funny. As Matt Zoller Seitz observes, the film contained “a few too many dick jokes, including elaborate attempts to shield a nude Beowulf’s mighty sword that just become ridiculous.” In fact, Beowulf’s action of ripping off Grendel’s arm is itself a symbolic castration, one that reduces the monstrous Grendel to a whimpering child (the depiction of Grendel was, in fact, one of the least intersting elements of the film). And Grendel’s mother’s seduction of Beowulf seems to revive fears of the monstrous female, as SMU medieval studies professor Bonnie Wheeler notes (Manohla Dargis also raises this point).  But even with these flaws, I found myself fascinated by the depiction of bodies, by the use of 3-D to depict movement, and in many cases, the use of shape-shifting to depict Grendel’s mother, in particular.

And this is where I think that Zemeckis’s use of 3-D may be a little more subtle than other attempts at 3-D in the past.  While Zemeckis does use 3-D occasionally to depict swords, arrows, or other objects flying directly at the viewer, Beowulf typically avoids many of these cliches.  However, unlike Frank Rose, writing in Wired Magazine, I did not feel as if the 3-D was used to draw me into the sixth century world depicted in Beowulf.  Quite the opposite, in fact, as I could never forget for a second that I was watching a movie.  Part of this can be attributed to the physical discomfort of wearing the 3-D glasses, which were slightly too small, for two hours, but much of the effect was due to the amount of visual information “on” the screen. 

And this is where I find Ted Pigeon’s review/reflections on the movie especially interesting and helpful, even if I’m not sure I share his conclusions.  Ted describes being “distracted” by the layering effect, commenting that:

The 3-D experience is so “distracting” because it disrupts the spatial unity of the cinematic image. For those who approach cinema from a more formal theoretical perspective, 3-D technology makes cinema something else entirely. It is, quite simply, a betrayal of cinema. 

Like Ted, I found the use of 3-D to be something of a “distraction,” but instead of seeing that as a weakness or flaw, the distancing effect was, for me, what made the movie interesting.  In fact, the film offers a calculated attempt to make us aware of how we watch movies, openly defying the pictorial flatness that has come to define movies as a medium (see also Pat Graham of The Chicago Reader and, more crucially, Rudolf Arnheim on this point).  But, again, rather than merely using 3-D as a gimmick, the 3-D serves to underscore a layered, hypermediated aesthetic.  Matt’s suggestion that the movie essentially uses “a high tech version of Rotoscoping,” giving Beowulf an almost painterly aesthetic, seems about right to me.

I don’t know that I have any conclusions about the experience of watching Beowulf just yet.  Unfortunately, there were only three or four other people in the audience when I saw the movie last night, so I did not get a clear sense of how a crowd might have responded to it.  The relatively empty theater may have, in fact, distanced me from the movie even further, making the act of watching feel even more like an academic exercise (I’m planning to discuss Beowulf in my revised chapter on digital projection) than a piece of entertainment.  I’m unwilling to embrace Wired’s wide-eyed futurism (note especially Roger Avary’s comments that “It was like a third eye opened up in my forehead,” and Fox executive Jim Gianopulos’ claim that “Talkies were an evolution of the medium. This is a complete transformation of the medium”).  But I do think that Beowulf’s use of 3-D introduces some interesting challenges to traditional definitions of cinema as we know it.

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It’s (almost) the End of the Semester as We Know It…

…and I’m feeling fine. A big stack of papers awaits tomorrow, but until then, I’m a (relatively) free man, so I’m taking a quick break to import some CDs to my iPod and do a quick blog update. In addition to my stack of papers, I have a small stack of DVDs that I’ve been promising to watch and review, and I’m planning to make a (small) dent in that stack tonight. But here are some short nuggets that aren’t quite worthy of an independent blog entry:

  • Now that I’ve survived my first half marathon, I’m on the lookout for some other races in which I can participate. I’m sure I’ll do another half marathon eventually (and maybe even a full one), but there are a couple of local runs that look pretty cool and seem to support causes I appreciate. Ryan’s Reindeer 5K on December 15 is one such run. Proceeds go to the Ryan P. Kishbaugh Memorial Foundation, the Duke Pediatric Bone Marrow Unit, the Friends of the Cancer Center of the Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training Program. I found the Ryan’s Reindeer 5K on the GetSetNC website, which looks like a good site for tracking upcoming races in North Carolina (although if I have any NC readers with better suggestions, I’d love to hear them).
  • Ted Z. has a link to the trailer for Michel Gondry’s latest film, Be Kind Rewind, which features Jack Black as a video store worker who decides to reshoot all of the films in his store’s VHS catalog after accidentally erasing them when he becomes magnetized. I’m a huge fan of Gondry’s, and the concept certainly appeals to my inner cinephile, my admiration of the low-tech indie aesthetic, and even, to some extent, my VHS nostalgia. Ted also points to a number of fake trailers of past films such as Robocop and Ghostbusters that are both very funny and seem to capture the mood of the film.
  • A few days ago, Jason Mittell posted an interesting entry on “Understanding Vidding” that should be helpful as I unpack similar issues in the book. I have an entire chapter devoted to user-generated videos, focusing especially on fake trailers. Jason also points to a video that combines footage from Madonna’s “Vogue” with the movie 300.
  • Brave New Films has a deleted scene from Michael Moore’s Sicko, in which Moore travels to Norway. The scene is entertaining enough as a stand-alone piece, and I’m not sure that I would have added much to the original film, especially given Moore’s travels to the UK, Canada, France, and Cuba, so this is a good example of using online video and DVD extras to the advantage of the film as it is presented in theaters while still ensuring the material finds a wide audience.
  • Scott Kirsner has an interesting (if somewhat old in bloggy terms) entry on an initiative to allow local moviegoers to program at least one screen of their local multiplex. The article echoes a number of recent descriptions of digital media allowing the emergence of a kind of “cinematic jukebox,” which is another issue I’m addressing in the book. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about Kirsner’s article in the near future, but I’m probably a bit more skeptical about the idea of a cinematic jukebox, if only because I wonder how such a jukebox will function to promote indie filmmakers (however one defines that term).
  • I don’t know if I agree with Naomi Wolf’s arguments about student political engagement in her recent Washington Post editorial, but given that I’ll likely do a variation of the election theme in my composition courses in the spring, I think it’s worth checking out and possibly discussing with my students. The article seems to fall into some of the “kids today!” shortcuts that I find a little tedious. In fact, I think she misreads her primary anecdote, in which her student is shocked (!) by Wolf’s suggestion that she run for city council. It seems plausible that the student in question actually understands how democracy works, but simply doesn’t believe that elections necessarily produce the best candidates or promote the best ideas (just look at last night’s exercise in immigrant bashing). That being said, I think Wolf’s ideas are worth taking about with my students in setting up the “rhetoric and democracy” theme.

Update: I clearly overstated things when I said it’s the “end” of the semester, so I edited the title to reflect the real state of things. I still have a week of classes, but the stack of papers I’m about to receive and the lack of energy on campus indicate that things are nearing the end. Also, for those of you who aren’t on Facebook, here are some pictures of me running the half marathon a few days ago.

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