Archive for Blogging

Sunday Links, Hulu, Video Privacy, and 56 Up

Embracing the last quiet Sunday morning before classes start back to catch up on some of my online reads. This semester will involve a number of transitions for me in that I’ll be teaching an online class for the first time (Introduction to Business Writing, which is also a new prep for me) and I’ll be preparing to teach a completely revamped Introduction to Film course next spring. I’m also in the final stages of polishing up my second book (page proofs should arrive in my inbox in the next few days). But all of these changes point toward the possibility that 2013 could be an exciting year. Here are the links:

  • I’ve been writing bits and pieces about the Video Privacy Protection Act, the 1988 law that is now being revised to allow companies like Netflix greater freedom in sharing customers’ rental habits. The bill is designed to give Netflix more freedom to create an app on Facebook similar to Spotify that would allow users to post what they’re watching in their Facebook news feeds (I’d assume something similar would be in place for Twitter, too). Think Progress has a great article on the implications for the bill, but I also wanted to highlight an Ars Technica article that documents how much (over one million dollars) Netflix has spent over the last two years lobbying Congress to pass this bill. It’s also worth glancing at some of the other media companies have spent to pay for lobbying efforts.
  • David Poland attempts to forecast where the studios will go this year in terms of cultivating new delivery systems. Since this is a major aspect of my next book, I was intrigued by Poland’s analysis. The most striking prediction is the speculation that Disney may eventually “eat” Netflix and seek to split its independent and children’s content into separate systems. I’m hoping to write further about some of these issues elsewhere, but Poland’s hunches–from my experience–have been pretty solid.
  • Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has apparently left the company. Om Malik reviews his tenure at the company and where Hulu might go from here.
  • Michael Atkinson has a review of 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series. I think that my introduction to the series came at around 35 Up, so like many others, I now feel as if I have quite a bit invested in the series, and I’ve also been fascinated to watch as it has evolved from an effort to document class stratifications in Great Britain to something more profound about the changes associated with aging, and how that experience is altered by having your life documented periodically.
  • For my online course this semester, I decided to use audio podcasts to deliver the course lectures. After struggling mightily with a podcast function on our university’s course management system (CMS), I had the good luck of stumbling into a slideshow instructing people on how to embed podcasts on Blogger (which I can then link to in our CMS). The cool part is that you can upload your podcasts to the Internet Archive where they are stored for free and where they uploaded very quickly. My two 7-minute mini-lectures both went up in about five minutes or less.

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“Binders Full of Women:” 2012 and the Image Macro Election

Last night’s debate left us with two or three comments that will endure throughout the election season and beyond, but none will likely have the staying power of Mitt Romney’s remark that when he was seeking out job female applicants his staff brought him “binders full of women.” On one level, it’s easy to read Romney’s remarks as a slip of the tongue, but on another the comment seemed to confirm the viewpoint that Romney is a jerk who is oblivious to women’s needs. In her debate post, Amy Sullivan details the ways in which Romney (“Mitt the Man”) came across as insensitive to women, and the binders comment–which only came out when Romney was trying to avoid answering whether he supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act–has provided a shorthand for expressing that sentiment. Within minutes of of the comment (as CBS News reports), there were Twitter feeds (@RomneyBinders had 33,000 followers by Wednesday afternoon) and Tumblr accounts where many of the Romney binders images were posted, suggesting that the comments provoked a fair amount of outrage.

In keeping with the current election-year rhetoric, many of the Romney binders relied upon existing internet memes in order to make their political points, ranging from The Most Interesting Man in the World to a revival of the “texts from Hillary” meme (via That Wren Girl) and even a riff on the Ryan Gosling meme (borrowed from MoveOn’s Facebook page). Many other posts from the Binders Full of Women Tumblr use images of recognizable celebrities in order to mock Romney or tie his comments to misogynistic aspects of contemporary culture. In one image, Romney’s comments are aligned with Hugh Hefner and in another with John Cusack, and in probably my favorite, with the movie Dirty Dancing. Although these posts may not constitute an entirely politically coherent response to Romney’s remarks, they do help to make visible Romney’s lack of concern for a number of women’s issues (including his non-answer on the Lily Ledbetter question). Further, because of the popular culture associations–with TV, film, and other internet memes–many of these political expressions are instantly accessible.

In addition, these images help to reinforce the idea that the 2012 election’s media format is that of the image macro, a picture superimposed with text, usually with humorous intentions. If 2008 was the “YouTube election,” then it might seem odd that static images would make such a comeback, but I think there are a few reasons that this is happening. First, the role of Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook in this election eclipses what was happening in 2008. More people are sharing political information than before, and thanks to Twitter’s associations with micro-celebrity, more people are attempting to create clever responses to debates and other political events in order to achieve (very) temporary fame–a tendency that The Onion beautifully satirtized in a post anticipating the second debate. Second, image macros are more instantly accessible than video mashups, even while using some of the same principles of montage and associative editing that Richard Edwards and I discussed in our article on some of the more popular mashups from 2008, including “Vote Different.” Image macros are fleeting; they can be viewed more easily than videos. Richard and I argued that mashups created meaning through the clash (or meshing) of popular and political culture imagery, and most image macros follow this same logic. More crucially, they have a much lower barrier to entry in terms of their production in that virtually anyone can go to a Meme Generator site, post or (more likely) borrow an image, and then add the necessary text to create their contribution to a meme. Video editing, on the other hand, requires a much more significant investment of time on the part of the creator. Thus, rather than taking several hours to painstakingly piece together multiple clips from a movie with a political speech, meme participants can get something posted literally within minutes, shaping the response to a debate even before it has finished.

This might produce some anxiety about critical distance or a fear that we may be relying too much on snap judgements about who “won” a debate. But I would argue that these fleeting political comments actually open up the debates to greater scrutiny than ever before. And the “Romney binder” meme has, in fact, opened up Romney’s record for hiring women, and it turns out that his record isn’t that great. It’s difficult to predict whether a political meme will endure. Eastwooding seems to have faded relatively quickly even though it was able–briefly at least–to integrate itself with older, more established memes. Still, as a moment of crystallizing a political truth, these populist forms offer a fascinating, lightning-quick mode of expression.

Update: Tama Leaver gave a talk at this year’s Internet Research Conference that mentions this post–talk about up-to-the-minute research–and makes a useful distinction between “trolling,” which he defines as disruption for the sake of disruption, and “image macro politics,” which can work as a form of online activism or engagement. But even as I review Tama’s presentation, I find myself wondering whether “meme election” might be better, especially given elements such as the Paul Ryan Gosling Twitter account, which borrows heavily from the logic of “remix politics” but also makes only limited use of images or image macros.

 

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Blogging is Dead (Again)

Chris Cagle has a new blog post that addresses what seems to be a decline in blogging in the field of film studies. Chris grounds this observation in the context of his own essay in Jason Sperb and Scott Balcerzak’s edited collection, Cinephilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction, Vol. 2, in which Chris offers a polemical argument endorsing the potential benefits of academic blogging for film scholars. Like Chris, I find that the initial energy behind academic film blogging seems to have waned–even as my own output has declined dramatically–and I think it’s worth asking about why that is happening. I have a couple of answers in mind and would be curious to know if others have similar experiences:

First, blogging has lost its novelty factor. Blogging appealed for early adapters and now we’ve moved on to other forms of networked communication–Twitter, Facebook, mashups, image macros–that make the practices of blogging feel less vital and immediate. There are so many competing communication formats, blogs are just one place where we can devote our limited energy.

On a related note, film scholars may be deciding that the energy needed to maintain a blog isn’t worth the payoff. I’d imagine that most tenure committees still don’t give significant credit to a well-maintained academic blog. I barely mention mine in my tenure file, even if it (indirectly at least) had a profound effect on how I was able to build a scholarly network. But on an anecdotal level, blogging feels like the one thing I can sacrifice while trying to publish, teach, grade, do service, and maintain a healthy family life. Short and fast–again, think Twitter and Facebook–is easier, even if it is more difficult to archive.

Similarly, TV lends itself to water-cooler discussion. Even if large numbers of TV fans can use DVRs and other tools for catch-up viewing, there is a premium on watching live and sharing in the reactions to narratives as they unfold. While film premieres have a similar value–there is obviously some pleasure in being the first to see and review a movie–the fragmentation of the theatrical distribution schedule has made it harder to sustain the conversations that many independent films inspire. Even if VOD allows for somewhat more simultaneous distribution schedules, most of us aren’t watching movies that way.

Finally, I wonder if it’s the movies themselves that are the problem (or, more precisely, if it’s our perception of the movie industry). Chris is perhaps the best example out there of a scholar who uses his blog to explore film history, but blogs seem best suited to looking at the contemporary, the immediate, and as a number of non-academic film critics have asserted, there may be reasons to be pessimistic about the current state of the film industry. Richard Brody of The New Yorker is more subtle here than David Denby or David Thompson, who both seem to have concluded that cinema is declining or dead. But there seems to be an on-going and inescapable sentiment that movies have lost their cultural relevance.

There are probably other factors here. Some of this could be purely a personal perception. I’d also be curious to see if academic TV bloggers feel as if the initial energy associated with blogging has faded. Like Chris, I don’t think that these forms of networked scholarly communication are dying so much as they are transforming. And I still see more dialogue between entertainment journalists and media scholars, but like Chris, I’m curious to see what forms this dialogue will take.

Update: I think the cinetrix has probably the best possible response to the current round of hand-wringing about the decline of film blogging. I’ll be the first to admit that some of what I was describing is probably personal, and some of it may be specific to academic writers (although even there, I realize that a number of media scholars continue to blog frequently and continue to offer a wide array of approaches to blogging).

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Reflecting on Blue Velvet

As some of my recent posts have suggested, I’m currently in a moment of transition, both in terms of my writing projects and in terms of the blog. For many years, I used the blog to review or reflect upon virtually every film I saw in theaters, but that eventually became too difficult given some of the demands on time. But like many other people, most of my energy the last several years has been directed toward short-form social media such as Twitter and Facebook where, rather than writing more extended entries here. To some extent, that’s out of laziness. I usually have Facebook or Twitter open and can post quickly, often automatically, much to the consternation of my politically conservative friends.

Looking back at my archives, I can see that many of of my posts were short and involved a link with a quick commentary, and these posts often turned out to help build toward larger arguments, so with that in mind, I’ve decided to start writing here again on a more frequent basis. One of the reasons I’m going to try to make a greater effort to write here is due to a nice mention of my blog in this interview with Nick Rombes, author of the fascinating Blue Velvet Project, in which Nick stopped the film Blue Velvet and offered a reflection or observation about each moment in the film. Nick’s discussion of how the project evolved and how it was shaped by critical theory is fascinating and well worth a read.

In writing this post, I realize that I may be making an unfair distinction between productive internet time (the blog) and unproductive time (social media), but formats and genres matter, both in terms of the kinds of expressions and practices they encourage and in terms of their archivability.

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What Else I’m Reading

Because I haven’t been posting in a while, here are some more things I’ve been following lately. In other news, I somehow completely forgot to mention my ninth anniversary of blogging last month (I started a Blogger blog way back in March 2003)  until I noticed how Atrios was commemorating his tenth (!) anniversary. This gives me about ten or eleven months to come up with a creative way of marking ten years of blogging by March of next year. Suggestions are always welcome. By the way, here’s another bulleted list for your weekend entertainment:

  • A longtime blog friend, Craig Lindsey, will be teaching a course on film criticism and column writing on May 5. The course is open to the public and will be held here in Raleigh.
  • One of the early inspirations for my blogging habit was Robert Greenwald, whose anti-iraq War documentaries showed me how social media could be used to promote political activism. Now he’s back (yet again), this time with a documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed, which is meant to document the poster boys of SuperPACs.
  • The cinetrix has posted another fantastic collection of links, but I’m highlighting this one because I’ll probably borrow at least half of these links when I teach Introduction to Film next fall (scroll down a bit for some terrific Welles and Kubrick links).
  • Hugh Atkin has posted what is, without doubt, the best political remix video of the 2012 election so far: Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up?
  • Michael Newman offers a compelling reading of advertisements for TVs, mobile devices, and 3D imagery.
  • For the 10th edition of Film Art, their introductory film textbook, Bordwell and Thompson are linking up with Criterion to create a series of videos for teaching many of the formal techniques of cinematic storytelling. Very cool.
  • Meanwhile Kristin Thompson warns against identifying trends based on a single year of box office numbers.

Hoping to have some more substantial blog posts soon, including reviews from this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, scheduled for next week (I believe this will be my fifth or sixth year of attending, another milestone that I find particularly unsettling).

 

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Rebooting

I’ve been away from the blog for a while. There are countless reasons for that. Many of the items that might have served as quick commentary posts have appeared instead on Facebook or, less frequently, Twitter. I’ve been frantically trying to finish a draft of my new book manscript by the end of the semester (I mailed it off on Saturday, standing in line at the post office for an hour). Teaching has produced the usual demands of grading and prepping and advising, among the usual activities that come with being a professor, but teaching has generally been pretty exciting this semester. I’ve also been doing some other writing that I can discuss in further detail in the next few days, hopefully.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time helping my stepson and my exchange-student daughter navigate the college sports recruiting process. I won’t go into specifics, but it’s a far more complicated process than most people realize, especially for sports that don’t generate a lot of revenue. In fact, getting recruited to many of these sports may actually be a reflection of qualities that have less to do with performance on the field or court (although obviously those skills matter a great deal). Getting recruited is certainly tied to networks, but you also have to have quite a bit of tenacity and skill at self-promotion and quite a bit of savvy about how the process works. This isn’t a complaint as much as it is an observation.

But as the year comes to an end (and especially with a draft of a book manuscript reaching completion), I’ve been finding myself reflecting on the future direction not only of this blog but also of my direction as a scholar and/or writer. To some extent, I’ve been trying to think how I can use the tools available to me–blogs, social media, academic conferences, etc–in order to continue doing work that is rewarding to write (and hopefully to read).

For that reason, I’ve been mulling Steven Berlin Johnson’s recent blog post, in which he discusses “the anatomy of an idea.”  Some of his conclusions aren’t that unexpected. Research (or “the discovery process,” to use Johnson’s phrase) is social. To a great extent, this has always been true. Writers and editors read and share drafts. Colleagues discuss ideas at cocktail parties. But I think that Johnson is probably right to emphasize the importance of the diverse forms of social activity that can foster inquiry. I certainly benefitted from a wide range of suggestions and advice when writing my first book, and while I have been less public about the process for my current book, I continue to learn from my fellow bloggers. As a result, I’m hoping to make a greater effort in the coming months to re-immerse myself in the network, not necessarily in the closed playground of Facebook (although I must continue to satisfy my Scrabble addition) but on Twitter, which tends to foster open-ended, public conversations much more effectively, and in the blogosphere.

I don’t want to commit to specific goals or to writing specific kinds of posts, though I miss writing both the essayistic posts where I took the time to develop ideas in detail and the movie review posts where I sought to  bring some of my own idiosyncratic concerns to reading contemporary films. Time demands have made writing film reviews a bit more difficult, but I’ve genuinely missed the opportunity to use this space to reflect about some of the ideas that matter to me.

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Wednesday Links

A quick survey of my morning blog reading:

  • Netflix has announced that they are raising their prices, which tehy will do by splitting their streaming and DVD-by-mail plans. New Tee Vee speculates that Netflix may be making the move to entice more people to choose the streaming-only plan, reducing infrastructure costs. Either way, customers are given a choice between two bad options. The Los Angeles Times more politely attributes the price change to the “challenging economics” of the entertainment industry, but as the IFC Blog points out, Netflix can’t really pretend to be hurting for money, given their recent plans for expansion into Latin America.
  • The median age for viewers of broadcast television inched up to 51.6 years old, according to Media Life.
  • IndieWire blogger Anthony Kaufman has relaunched his blog as Reel Politik, and his new focus will be the intersections between film and politics. As Kaufman notes in his inaugural post, these issues are worth considering, given the hotly contested upcoming election. Kaufman also sees his blog as a potential counterpoints to conservative and right-wing blogs that attempt to shape the perception of Hollywood. Kaufman’s earlier post on the politics of Hollywood blockbusters and a more recent discussion of the new Sarah Palin doc provide ample evidence of why this kind of blogging can be beneficial. I’ve considered shifting more explicitly toward this focus here, so I’m glad Anthony is tackling this.

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The Speed of Speculation

Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Unlike the people dancing in the streets, many of whom were documented in a Rachel Maddow blog post, in front of the White House, near Ground Zero, and in Times Square, I have a hard time seeing this as a moment of pure jubilation. Not so much because I mourn bin Laden, but because of what we have all lost over the last decade, thanks to the terror war. The chanting and cheering seems grounded in an anger that I still find unsettling. I’m not in a position to reflect on what this means for the war on terror. There are countless others who are already doing that, including Nicholas Kristof, who offers a pretty good place to start. But I have been intrigued by the discussions of how the bin Laden story broke, especially the distinctions between how the story was covered on TV and how people responded online. More than anything, I think that it’s worth reflecting on how social media help to restructure the way that news stories of this magnitude are reported and how viewers respond to them.

Although I was home alone when the speculation began, around 10 PM, I wasn’t paying that much attention to Facebook or Twitter for a change. I had been grading for most of the evening and was kind of surfing aimlessly while listening idly to the Phillies-Mets game on ESPN (much like Tom Watson, whose reflections on last night’s news are worth reading) when the broadcasters abruptly mentioned that Osama bin Laden may have been killed and that President Obama would have a major announcement. I immediately flipped over to CNN and began digging around my “most recent” Facebook feed. As I saw quickly, the news had been building gradually for half an hour or so. The earliest mention–from a reporter friend–simply mentioned speculation that bin Laden was dead. My guess is that, like me, many people were driven to watch TV or listen on the radio because of something they saw on Facebook or Twitter, suggesting that it would be reductive to suggest that people saw social media as a substitute for televised news.

Like many, I’d imagine that I began following this story during this brief window between the first reports that bin Laden was dead and Obama’s official announcement, a period that Myles McNutt has powerfully described as a “space of speculation.” McNutt observes that people were speculating about the news on Twitter, well before official reports were confirmed. To be sure, such speculation can often follow false paths, but I think that McNutt is correct to suggest that our memories of an event of such dramatic proportions are shaped not only by what we learn, but how we learn about it. Significantly, this speculation begins to create its own archive, as we seek to re-create what happened. One example of this would be the tweets by Sohaib Athar (@reallyvirtual), who lives in Abbottabad, where bin Laden was captured. Although his tweets were likely overlooked when they were first posted, they now serve as a tool for reconstructing what happened:

As you can see from looking at the image, Athar heard the explosions and the helicopter crash and, along with others in his Twitter feed, began assembling a sense of what was happening in real time. Alongside of this speculation, the “traditional” media was also seeking to put together what happened. Brian Stelter has a couple of interesting posts about this work (here and here), but again, the speculation was especially intense online, where (as Stelter reports), Twitter saw nearly 4,000 posts every second at the peak of activity. Certainly my Facebook page hummed with activity, as we sought to make sense of what had happened and what it meant.

Within minutes, of course, people were already teasing out the implications and coincidences: that the story broke during an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, that this was the eighth anniversary of Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech, that it was also the anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death. It didn’t take long for the event to fit into various internet memes. An LOL Cats post showing a triumphant Obama mocking the birthers hit within minutes of the announcement, linking the story to the increasing complaints about Donald Trump’s posturing. And as I discovered while reading David Poland’s blog this morning, someone has already revived the Downfall meme, redoing the subtitles yet again to show Hitler reacting to the news that bin Laden was killed. The language is often caught in the jubilation of the moment (Osama’s compound was “owned”) and often quite silly (Hitler comments in this version that he was looking forward to watching the American Idol finale with bin Laden), but the timeline for the video suggests that it was posted before midnight on May 1, which means the creator must have worked incredibly quickly.

Again, I write this in the midst of a sense of profound ambivalence. It’s clear that this is a moment of historical significance, one that has been shaped in the media, old and new, that helped to shape it. But I’m skeptical of the unfettered triumphalism that has led people to compare bin Laden’s death to VE Day (to name one example). Now, I feel like we’ve moved from one mode of speculation to the next. Rather than trying to anticipate the content of Obama’s announcement, we all have to sit, watch, and wait to see what happens next.

Update: Worth noting, Media Bistro has an intriguing post in which they discuss the fact that the New York Times literally had to stop the presses to reflect the late-breaking news. Eileen Murphy of the New York Times estimates that the last time that happened was during the first Gulf War in 1991, which shows just how rare it is.

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Wednesday Links: Cinematical, Blockbuster, Harry Met Sally 2

Shifting back into project mode, but first, here are some links:

  • There has been quite a bit of discussion today about the “implosion” taking place at Cinematical. Until this morning, I’d missed the story, but Movie City News brought my attention to the fact that Erik Davis, a longtime writer and editor for the site, had tendered his resignation. Meanwhile Mary Ann Johanson offers a more detailed explanation of why Cinematical, a long-running film blog that dates back to 2005, may be seeing its last days as a prominent source for film news: the Huffington Post-AOL merger. As Johanson reports, the new management at AOL/HuffPo sent out an email to their freelancers telling them, “You will be invited to contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system.” That’s awfully kind of them, isn’t it? I am sad to see Cinematical coming apart like this. When I was writing my book and for many years since, it has been a major go-to site for impassioned coverage of the film industry, but I think it also shows the fragility of the professional film and media blogosphere.
  • New Tee Vee asks a really interesting question: why is Dish TV willing to pay $320 million dollars to take over Blockbuster Video? They don’t really come up with a clear answer, but one partial answer might be that Blockbuster owns streaming rights to a number of movie titles.
  • Speaking of rights issues, the MPAA is planning to urge Congress to take up legislation banning “rogue” websites that are pirating Hollywood films. With former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd now leading the MPAA, it will be interesting to see what happens with this kind of lobbying.
  • One reason why piracy is so important: Convergence Consulting Group is estimating that streaming TV will be an $800 million business within two years. Tech Crunch has a pointer to some recent reports they have produced, including “Battle for the North American Couch Potato.”
  • Home Media Magazine is speculating that Redbox may partner with Hulu in its effort to launch a streaming video service.
  • Ted Striphas explores the implications of the latest Wired jargon, Culturomics, comparing it to his own attempts to read what he calls “algorithmic culture.” Wired’s Jonathon Keats discusses the term here and Brandon Keim mentions it in this blog post on the data-crunching possibilities found on Google books.
  • Finally, just for fun, the very amusing Funny or Die video, When Harry Met Sally 2. I don’t want to give anything away, but stick with the video. It gets much funnier about 2 minutes in.

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More SCMS Reflections

I’ve been intrigued by the wide range of SCMS conference reports that have been published this year. It seems that more and more scholars, including many junior scholars, have been thinking about the ways in which SCMS expresses something about the fields of film and media studies, and although a conference is an incomplete snapshot, one marked by individual tastes, I think that SCMS’s decision to embrace some of these social media tools has helped to foster some of these conversations. Rather than update my previous entry, I would instead like to highlight what others have said about their experiences at the conference.

Chris Cagle’s thoughtful roundup of the conference argues that SCMS would benefit from requiring contributors to submit papers in advance of the conference and creating a mechanism for publishing “proceedings” of the conference. I’m generally in favor of having authors submit complete papers, and Jason’s decision to post his paper to his blog illustrates how well this can work to encourage conversation. I’m a little less intrigued by the idea of conference proceedings, but an anthology of papers that address a specific theme–such as this year’s conference theme of media citizenship–could be valuable.

On a related note, Justin Horton argues that there is a “gulf” between TV and film studies in terms of social media use, and I think this is a reasonable observation–one that was occasionally raised at the conference. Justin also calls into question the 20-minute presentation, but again notes that more “traditional” media like film seemed to invite longer-form presentations while TV scholars were more likely to do shorter workshop and position papers. I’m tempted to attribute this, in part, to the different models of fandom associated with both media. Even with all of our discussion of asynchronous TV viewing through DVRs, streaming video, and other platforms, TV, far more than film, seems to inspire more real-time chatter. But that’s just a hunch on my part.

And it’s worth noting that many of these scholars have expressed a great deal of ambivalence about the conference. Although my experiences were generally positive, Mabel Rosenheck, among others, has pointed out that SCMS can (still) be an alienating experience, especially for younger scholars seeking to network and/or navigate their way through panels and other aspects of the conference that are less than transparent. In particular, Mabel points out that the purpose of scholarly interest groups (SIGs) isn’t clearly spelled out, and I tend to agree that is something that conference and SIG organizers could work on.

Noel Kirkpatrick also highlights some of these limitations, including the politics of tweeting (especially when you might be the only person tweeting a panel). Noel also offers a useful reading of the blogging “workshop,” which I wish I could have attended.

In all cases, these perspectives on the conference are well worth reading, and I hope you’ll drop by and comment on some of their posts. Although many of them are far more ambivalent about the conference than I was, their reflections help to illustrate (at least to my mind) the ways in which social media can be used to rethink our current practices as academic professionals.

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SCMS Reflections

This year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in New Orleans (note: some links may be accessible only by SCMS members) felt like a whirlwind of conversation, activity, and intellectual engagement, one that I’m still recovering from a day after the conference, and not only because I was forced to get up at 4 AM—the equivalent of 3 AM, given the shift to Daylight Savings Time—to catch an airport shuttle Sunday morning. During several of the panels this week, I found myself nodding in agreement with colleagues and friends from other universities as we discussed the richness and diversity of panels that seemed to reflect the Society’s commitment to a focus on media studies, and media industry studies in particular. At the same time, thanks to a fully engaged Twitter backchannel, as well as an effort to document the conference through SCMS-sponsored blogs, many of the conferences ongoing intellectual themes seemed to resonate more deeply for me than ever before.  It also made aspects of the conference feel as if they have been archived in a potentially more systematic way.

The focus on media industries was most deeply felt when the announcement came through from Paul McDonald that a proposal for a Media Industries Scholarly Interest Group had been accepted, helping to bring together in a more systematic way a wide range of media scholars whose work speaks across disciplinary and media boundaries, something I’ve been discovering in writing toward my second book, which looks primarily at issues pertaining to the digital distribution of movies. As a number of scholars have reminded me, the issues in place with regard to the film industry are similar to those in music (Spotify vs. iTunes) and certainly in television. As a result, I’m very much looking forward to see how we can synergize—to use an industry buzzword—our various scholarly pursuits.

It would be incredibly difficult to summarize my conference experience in a single blog post; however, most of the panels I attended ended up focusing in some way on providing more finely-grained analyses of media industry practices, while some of the panels I most regretted missing looked at specific regional production practices and cultures, whether the shooting on HBO’s Treme in New Orleans or, from Alisa Perren, a discussion of the comic book community in Atlanta. As Miranda Banks noted in her response to a panel on European production industries, we need more microstudies of local practices that are embedded within a macro-framework.

Other scholars offered compelling industrial analyses, whether at the very local or DIY levels, such as Steven Rawle’s discussion of digital independent cinema through the lens of Hal Hartley’s move toward self-distribution, Benjamin Sampson’s discussion of Christian distribution networks, or larger industrial practices, such as Bryan Sebok’s detailed engagement with the political economy of 3-D distribution or Tom Schatz’s discussion of what he called “post-theatrical culture.”  Both Sebok and Schatz underscored—from slightly different perspectives—an idea that I have been exploring in some of my own recent work that Avatar serves as one of the most influential films in recent memory, not so much at a narrative level as a distributional one. Finally, other industrial practices, such as the rise of theatrical advertising, carefully traced out by Kimberly Owczarski, can tell us quite a bit not only about the political economy of film distribution and exhibition but also about how we consume movies.

Sebok’s paper was part of a larger panel on 3-D, one that helped to expand some of my own current research on the increasingly common use of it in blockbusters (given that blockbusters now seem to appear year-round, it seems pointless to append the word “summer” to that particular distribution strategy).  In addition to thinking about it at an industrial level, historical papers by Allison Whitney and Melanie Brunell reminded me that 3-D is also rooted in ideological, even nationalistic traditions—especially for the IMAX format, while Bret Vukoder’s paper on the narrative genres most commonly associated with 3-D helped to deepen some of my own recent attempts to trace a taxonomy of 3-D movies (which I’m hoping to do in detail in a forthcoming blog post).

Amazingly, I had what can only be described as an epiphany of sorts during the last panel of the conference that I was able to attend on Saturday. The panel, “Digital Television, Analog Memories” helped to crystallize something I’d been struggling to articulate for a while, especially when Karen Lury offered what can best be described as a mini-ethnography of digital media consumption, one that looked at a narrow group of media consumers (approximately six or so families) in order to remind us—powerfully—of the importance of considering “the everyday mess of living” when we begin talking about all of the utopian narratives about digital transmission.  Max Dawson’s discussion of the shift from CRT television sets to LCD sets also grounded media consumption in an everyday by reminding us of the profound environmental waste associated with planned obsolescence (and the often related wanton destruction of these tools), one that encourages us to replace our cell phones every two years, our laptops every three years, and our TV sets in less than a decade. It’s often quite easy to accept the prescribed uses of new media tools as they are spelled out in the (web) pages of magazines like Wired and the countless tech blogs, but as Lury astutely observes, things aren’t quite that simple. Lury’s paper created quite a stir—Twitter was positively buzzing during her talk—and it helped me to see my on project in a slightly different light.

Ultimately, conference reports like this are grounded in the personal. Although I attended at least part of a panel during pretty much every session from Thursday through Saturday, given that there were usually 20-25 concurrent panels, others saw a much different conference. And yet, thanks in part to Twitter and blogs, I do feel more connected to the conference than ever before. This year’s SCMS coincided with the eighth anniversary of my blog, The Chutry Experiment. Something that began very much as an experiment in spring 2003 now serves as a crucial means for me to engage with the profession, one that has followed me from Georgia Tech to Catholic University and, for the last few years here at Fayetteville State. Blogging is often a frustrating practice for me. On occasions it feels obligatory, and yet it also has served as a crucial mechanism for allowing me to cultivate relationships and to engage in broader conversations.  This role of sharing and discussing was neatly spelled out by Jason Mittell who, in the spirit of conversation, has posted his conference paper (on series finales) on his blog.   To say that I’ve been challenged and inspired by the papers presented by my colleagues this year at SCMS is an understatement.  As I sat on my hotel’s curb at 4:40 AM, waiting for the airport shuttle and watching drunk revelers stumble away from Bourbon Street to their hotels and cars (!), I found myself already anticipating next year’s conference in Boston and regretting the fact that I wouldn’t be hearing more papers this year, but I am looking forward to keeping the conversation going through all of our online channels.

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Friday Links

Here are some of the stories I’ve been following the last couple of days:

  • University of Wisconsin media studies professor Jonathan Gray has one of the more thoughtful discussions of the pro-union protests that have been taking place in Madison over the last few days, with a promise to offer more posts in the days ahead.
  • Patrick Goldtsein looks at the attendance for Oscar contenders such as Black Swan, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network, and True Grit and attempts to address why adult moviegoers have been returning to the box office this year. My sense is that there probably isn’t a simple causal explanation, although it helps to have relatively marketable directors (Fincher, The Coens) and stars (Bridges, Wahlberg, Portman, Firth) involved in some of these projects.  True Grit is a “remake” of a familiar film, and others fit into or engage with familiar (and well-liked) genres.
  • Via The Film Doctor, Mark Harris’s GQ column about Hollywood’s reluctance to make movie dramas.  Harris offers a checklist of sequels, prequels, and comic book adaptations to imply that the studios have abandoned these kinds of films, but even though 2011 apparently promises a record number of sequels, that does not preclude the existence of other films.
  • Liz Losh considers whether blogging itself is becoming dated, comparing her practices of teaching it to “teaching Latin.” But she adds that she still learns quite a bit about the students in her relatively large classes from the blog posts that they write. But to me, asking whether blogging is dead sounds an awful lot like a conversation we’ve been having about film criticism for some time now.
  • Although I’ve been writing primarily about the digital distribution of movies, I’m also aware that the questions about VOD also have important implications for TV. With that in mind, I found ESPN’s discussion of their “multipltaform distribution” practices interesting. Especially notable was the claim that online distribution does not cannibalize traditional viewing on cable.
  • On a related note, Advertising Age discusses the distribution turf wars between Google TV and Hulu (among others).

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Wednesday Links

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

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

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Cinephilia, Blogging, and Time

I’ve been spending the last couple of hours reflecting on Girish’s thought-provoking essay on “The 21st Century Cinephile,” part of a dossier on “slow criticism” sponsored by the Dutch film magazine, De Filmkrant. Girish starts by making the case that the practices of film criticism have radically changed due to two related factors: our mobile, shrinking screens and our expansive, web-based film discourse.  As usual, Girish offers a concise, detailed (and non-judgmental) assessment of these new viewing conditions, readily identifying as an “internet cinephile.” He has also challenged to try to think through some of the ways in which these new viewing conditions interact with older forms of conversation about film.

First, Girish points out that our viewing practices have changed considerably since the days of the Nouvelle Vague: instead of submitting to a set of viewing conditions controlled by others (a darkened theater, pre-arranged seating, a projector), we now frequently watch films in home theaters or even in mobile settings.  We can stop, rewind, fast-forward through, or eject a film.  We can sample movies through compilation videos on YouTube or track down key scenes.  To be sure, many of these activities have been possible for decades, thanks to VCRs and later DVD players, but today’s platform mobility offers a relatively unprecedented ability to control the viewing experience.  As an example, Girish asks us to imagine watching Chantal Akerman’s seemingly interminable Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on a laptop, stopping the film and starting it again at our convenience, perhaps during lunch breaks.  Could such a film have nearly the same impact as it did when we watched it on a big screen, as I did during a feminist film theory class in college (when at least one of my classmates walked out of the film in frustration)?  Perhaps not, but these same tools that allow films greater mobility might ensure that a wider audience gets to see it and engage with it.

Girish’s more crucial point, however, focuses on the changes in cinematic discourse, as social media tools become a more pervasive force in shaping the ways in which we communicate.  As Girish notes, blogs have become a powerful tool for cinephiles, who often enjoy talking (and arguing) about films almost as much as they enjoy watching them.  Provocative blogs posts (and articles like Girish’s) can echo for days, reverberating around the globe. But with our conversations often spilling out into Twitter feeds and Facebook news feeds, Girish adds that many of these conversations have the potential to disappear.  Given that Facebook and Twitter do not offer an effective means of archiving posts, these conversations have an ephemeral quality, one in which “the past evaporates almost instantaneously.”

Girish adds quickly that this isn’t a particular concern.  In fact, he emphasizes that we should instead strive for a dialectical balance between the long-form attention associated with film scholarship and criticism and the fragmentary attention associated with social media chatter (in fact, Girish’s discussion of his daily engagement with film and film criticism illustrates the value of the fragmentary).  And while I don’t disagree with Girish’s conclusions, I think it’s worth adding that this dialectic seems inherent in film criticism prior to social media–instead, it might make more sense to suggest that social media has simply heightened our awareness of it.  Facebook and Twitter comments typically echo the rhythms of conversation itself: here, look at this video I found; the ending of True Grit was perplexing; what’s going on today?  These tools deepen our ambient intimacy, allowing us to connect, to share, and (hopefully) to listen.  These conversations took place long before Twitter, but Twitter makes them visible, while also deepening the pool of potential participants and dispersing them geographically.  They also, despite the ephemerality of the messages themselves, provide some of the means by which ideas are preserved.  Although an individual tweet may disappear into the cloud, I discover much of what I read through social media, and I’m guessing others have a similar experience.  I can then bookmark or blog those ideas and return to them at my convenience and, in the best cases, use that as a launching point for reading and writing scholarship.  That being said, my Twitter feed typically serves as a reminder for how much I haven’t watched (I’ve been ignoring most posts about Sundance for that very reason).

Blogging, Twitter, Netflix queues, platform mobility: all of these tools change our engagement with film.  We have fleeting conversations that disappear into Facebook’s vast databases.  We start and stop movies at our leisure, perhaps in line at the grocery store, but more likely at the dinner table or in bed.  We rate a movie on Netflix and get recommendations from an algorithm, we blog and read about films we haven’t seen, reinforcing a culture of anticipation (something that film festivals are specifically designed to create), producing orientations not merely to the past and present, but also the future.  I’m still puzzling over some of these issues, I guess.  When I first wrote about film blogging in Reinventing Cinema, I think Twitter was relatively new, so the issue of real-time (or close to it) conversation on Twitter wasn’t as relevant for me.  Ultimately, I think what struck me most about Girish’s post is that it provoked me to try to think more carefully about some of my own reflections on media change and how those changes might be affecting how we watch, think about, and talk about film.

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Gabler, Elitism, Cultural Taste

I belatedly came across Neal Gabler’s frustrating Boston Globe editorial,”The End of Cultural Elitism,” via A.O. Scott’s response in the New York Times.  In essence, Gabler finally seems to wake up to the existence of Internet-based criticism, prompting him to make the argument that we have reached what he calls “the democratization of cultural influence.”  Thus, Internet-based critics now stand on a level playing field with high-brow tastemakers such as “media executives, academics, elite tastemakers, and of course critics.”  Gabler deftly avoids taking a qualitative stand on the implications of this shift.  The Internet enables word-of-mouth to circulate endlessly, allowing everyday people to counteract the imposed hierarchies of cultural taste.

It’s a nice story, I guess, but it’s also one that makes its arguments on the basis of some rather slippery generalizations.  First, as one of the commenters in this forum points out, Gabler conflates taste with popularity, in order to make his case that movie and TV audiences are ignoring the critics and other elite tastemakers.  In doing so, he offers two main examples that are worth considering.  First, he uses American Idol to make the case that musical taste has been democratized.  There is a partial point to be made here.  We can vote for Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, or Jennifer Hudson, but winning Idol has never been a guarantee of a successful musical career, and our tastes as viewers/voters are, in fact, deeply shaped by the comments of the critics who judge each performance.  Although voters may initially defy the pronouncements of the judges, they also participate in a highly-sponsored spectacle, one that depends on the marketability of young pop vocalists.

His second example, The Social Network is even more problematic in that, despite Gabler’s claims, the film has been relatively successful at the box office given that it is a drama targeted primarily toward an adult audience, one without any marketable stars.  But Gabler glosses the fact that word-of-mouth has generally been fairly positive when it comes to The Social Network.  We might also look at True Grit, a relatively low-budget Coen Brothers film that has achieved a combination of relative box office success and critical acclaim, both among the tastemakers and audiences.

But Gabler’s most questionable point, for me at least, was his claim that Rotten Tomates and Ain’t It Cool News represent the most powerful examples of this new form of democratization, opposing the influence of “the tonier critics” who no longer have the same influence.  Of course, Rotten Tomatoes (like IMDB and other movie sites) aggregates critical reviews, many of them by critics working for “elite” publications such as The New York Times.  And, although AICN started well outside of the power structures of the Hollywood studio system–Harry Knowles was quite literally the blogger in the basement–it is now firmly entrenched within those same institutions, getting access to early screenings and other promotional materials.  Gabler is careful enough to admit that cultural populism has always “fought” against top-down impositions of culture, but the suggestion of an antagonistic relationship between high and low culture obscures the overlap between the two.

With that in mind, I found A. O. Scott’s response somewhat refreshing, although a second look raises some questions.  First, I think Scott is correct to question how Gabler defines “the elite.”  Scott challenges the idea that critics are imposing cultural taste, instead arguing that it’s a media industry marketing machine that performs the imposition of culture.   And in some sense, I agree with Scott that culture industries manufacture hype that can be used to bring crowds into movie theaters and theme parks and to sell DVDs and cheap plastic toys.  But I think Scott may push his point a little far when suggests that the marketers “manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers.”  Such a claim implies that viewers have little to no agency in negotiating their relationship with culture or making choices about how they respond to the movies and TV shows they do consume. Scott’s argument builds to a conclusion that echoes traditional culture industry arguments in concluding that the marketing of Hollywood fare deceptively provides users with the illusion of choice and freedom and that the critic (or public intellectual more broadly) offers one of the only possible disruptions of this process.

Part of my hesitation is due to the fact that, in some cases, critics are in fact complicit in this process.  Critical acclaim for The Social Network, True Grit, or even Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight can, in some cases, fit within the network of hype that Scott seems to distance himself from.  This doesn’t mean that critics shouldn’t participate in this media ecosystem, and it certainly doesn’t mean that critics are irrelevant (as Gabler surmises).  Critics, many of them affiliated with what Gabler might describe as “elite” institutions, continue to play a vital cultural role in shaping and contributing to our conversations about culture.  And popular culture can often provide us with a powerful vocabulary for talking about other social and political issues.  But I think we lose quite a bit when some of those same critics make such sweeping historical and cultural generalizations that we lose out on the specificity and diversity of practices taking place within critical culture.

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