Archive for Blogging

Requiem 102 Project #1

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

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

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

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

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

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Next Saturday Links

Thanks to a much busier week than usual, I’m just now catching up with some of my online reading, but here are some worthwhile things I found over first two cups of coffee:

  • Fred Fox, Jr., author of the notorious “Jump the Shark” episode of Happy Days, defends himself against charges that the Fonz jumping the shark was the beginning of the end for that show, and describes his reaction to becoming one of the most notorious phrases in ad hoc TV criticism.
  • NewTeeVee asks whether smaller cable channels, such as The Hallmark Channel, might be squeezed out thanks to the recent negotiations over carriage fees between cable providers, such as Time Warner, and channels such as TNT and ESPN.  We have over 100 channels I’d never miss–The Military Channel, Hallmark, etc–so I understand the temptation to eliminate some, even if I’d like to see niche programming get more protection and support.
  • On a related note, NewTeeVee also explores the implications of cheap iTunes rentals of individual TV episodes for television.  They also offer an assessment of Hulu’s impact on broadcast TV.  Perhaps lost in all of this is the impact of box sets of TV series, which now seem almost transitional as we look at how audiences access TV now.
  • David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have a compendium of useful essays from their blog that address topics covered in Introduction to Film classes.  These blog posts might serve as useful supplements to pretty much any Introduction to Film textbook and serve as a useful reminder of how the blogosphere is cultivating new forms of film criticism (rather than killing it as many critics have recently claimed–more on this in a longer blog post).
  • I’ve been following Scott Rosenberg’s series defending the practice of linking with quite a bit of enthusiasm.  He is responding to Nicholas Carr’s assertion that linking serves as a form of distraction, one that inhibits understanding, rather than aiding it.  Rosenberg’s third post is especially useful in that it provides a brief taxonomy of what kinds of textual effects links can have.  In general, links offer new, more visible and more immediate forms of engagement, allowing us to connect with others who have similar interests.
  • Interesting discussion with indie filmmaking expert Peter Broderick on the future of festivals and much more (via Documentary Tech).
  • Also from Documentary Tech, news that the Freakonomics documentary will be released via iTunes before coming to an art house theater near you.  To be honest, I’m not sure that this move is all that surprising or unusual for a film dedicated to such a specific (if relatively wide) niche.  The point, especially for indie films and documentaries, seems to be to provide multiple access points and to entice audiences to view the film on the platform of their choice.
  • Radiohead joins the Beastie Boys and Bon Jovi in turning their fans into amateur cinematographers.  Here’s the story: a group invited 50 concertgoers to record a live performance of the band using Flip video cameras that were then edited together into a concert video.  Kind of fun, right?  But what’s kind of cool here is the fact that Radiohead has given their Prague-based fans the actual soundboard recordings of the concert, turning what was originally an engaging amateur video into a band-endorsed concert film.  The DVD is available for free from the film’s website, with the band’s blessing.


Blogging and Tenure

Cathy Davidson has a provocative post up on the HASTAC blog that considers whether blogs should toward promotion and tenure. Her conclusion: blogs should count, but as a form of academic service rather than as a publication.  In general, I agree with her, even while understanding the potential risks of broadening our definition of “service” well beyond its traditional boundaries.

As she acknowledges, peer-reviewed books and articles have already been “vetted” before they reach publication, whether through blind peer-review or through the crowdsourced approach used (experimentally) by Shakespeare Quarterly I mentioned yesterday.  Davidson adds that blogs are not peer-reviewed, and as a result, they offer academic writers greater freedom to explore topics freely.  This is certainly my experience: when I’ve been able to devote more time to the blog, it has provided space for me to develop and work through ideas. Or just to write for pleasure.

As one of my Facebook friends describes it, blogs offer room for mediated scholarly conversations.  Many of the discussions that may have taken place at conferences may now take place online.  And, of course, as blogging has evolved, new forms such as MediaCommons’ In Media Res posts (be sure to Check out Jennifer Holt’s recent post on net neutrality, Google, and Verizon).  The ideas in these posts often circulate well beyond the blogosphere, of course.  In my case, an exchange that started on IMR eventually led to a co-written, peer-reviewed journal article.    So the activity of blogging has been valuable for me, whether that’s defined as sparking scholarly conversation or as something else.

I think that part of what’s fascinating about Davidson’s comments–and the debate they are likely to spark–is that we are still having many of the same debates about blogs nearly a decade after they have become a visible form.  I referred to some of these issues back in 2004, when I was a relatively new blogger and there seems to be some of the same caution today, with many people arguing that we don’t know how to evaluate blogging or implying that blogs are a form of vanity publishing. These arguments, however, overlook the ways in which incoming links and citations function as a means of establishing credibility (a recent citation in The New Yorker’s Front Row blog is a testament to some of the very cool work being done by Anne Petersen on celebrity, to name one example).

Although I am happy to argue that we do (potentially) have mechanisms for judging blogs through incoming links citations and other criteria,  not unlike the peer review system that might judge an article based on how often its cited, I think the more fascinating point is that blogs as a form of academic activity remain difficult to categorize.  And perhaps that’s what makes blogging such an engaging activity for me (at least when I can find the time to write).

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Complexity and Digital Distribution

Although I was critical of Edward Jay Epstein’s most recent book, The Hollywood Economist, one of the book’s undeniable strengths is its description of the complex, even labyrinthine, financing models that have evolved around the production of movies. From completion bonds and pre-sales agreements to movies as “off-the-books corporations,” Epstein is attentive to the ways in which the ticket sales reported on sites like Box Office Mojo are only a small part of the story when it comes to Hollywood accounting.  And, as Epstein’s book carefully documents, there are a number of winners and losers in this system.  The big media players can usually leverage this complexity to their advantage, while in recent years at least, independent filmmakers–at least in Epstein’s definition of them–have struggled.

After reading Epstein, I finally took some to sit down and read Clay Shirky’s widely forwarded lecture, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” in which he argues that complex business models eventually collapse under the weight of their own massive bureaucratic structure.  Drawing from Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Shirky concludes that the democratization of content production and distribution has unsettled traditional models, unsettling “media’s supply-and-demand curve,” as well as the prices for obtaining media content.  For Shirky, this means that cheaply made videos without any professional backing can capture a massive audience.  The example he cites, the YouTube video of young Charlie biting his older brother’s finger, has been viewed hundreds of millions of times, numbers that rival any event television broadcast and likely surpass (significantly) the tickets sold to any Hollywood blockbuster.

Shirky goes on to acknowledge that many within media industries will continue to adhere to “the old complexity” in order to protect the interests of media executives, in order to protect profits and add value to the media they produce.  the move toward 3-D and the restructuring of the theatrical-to-DVD window to emphasize retail are a couple of examples of that in the film industry.  And it’s worth noting that the “Charlie” video is an exception rather than the rule.  For every viral hit, there are thousands of videos that remain unseen outside of a small number of people.  Still, Shirky’s argument is an intriguing, if slightly utopic, reflection on the potential for using the relatively inexpensive (online) distribution channels in simple ways.

Shirky’s argument seems to have appeared at a moment when many of these ideas are circulating throughout the blogosphere.  Bob, at the Indiepix blog, reports from The Conversation, a conference organized by CinemaTech blogger Scott Kirsner, where Nina Paley and others urged filmmakers to “make everything as simple as possible,” while Ted Hope’s keynote at the DIY Days conference expressed confidence in a distribution model “that is artist and audience centric that can usher in a true middle class of artist entrepreneurs.”

Finally, both Alex Juhasz and The Film Doctor point to David Shields’ aphoristic, manifesto-like new book, Reality Hunger, a book that also seems to be imagining the reformulation of media content (Alex is somewhat skeptical of Shields’ approach to the issue, though, and with good reason).  Like Walter Benjamin, whose modernist/montagist Arcades Project featured quotations from a wide range of texts and media, Shields mixes borrowed passages from other writers and thinkers with his own reflections on writing and production.   Key quote from Shields (borrowed, apparently from William Gibson): “Copies have been dethroned; the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work. Art is a conversation, not a patent office.”

Update: Just wanted to add quickly that I like David Weinberger’s characterization of Shirky’s argument about complexity as a “myth,” not in the sense of a fiction, but in the sense that his narratives offer “broad, illuminating ways of making sense of what’s going on.”

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Media Industry Jokes

Ever since Sigmund Freud insisted, a little too adamantly for my tatses–that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, we’ve all known that jokes often express unconscious desires or have some form of hidden meaning or purpose.  No surprise there.  And, ever since George Plimpton punked an entire nation of sports fans with stories of a Buddhist Met with a 163-mph fastball, the April Fools article has been a staple of contemporary journalism, even moreso in the age of page views and click-through ad revenue.  And because those of us who hang out in the film blogosphere are not immune to such things, there are plenty of film and media bloggers who’ve taken the opportunity to comment on the state of the industry with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.

One story that almost seems like it should be an April Fools joke is the report from The Guardian that Sony and other studios may stop selling DVDs in Spain thanks to rampant piracy.  But apparently, this is one story that is being widely confirmed.  But part of the reason “piracy” is so widespread in Spain is that, as the LA Times puts it, “piracy isn’t against the law in Spain unless it’s done for profit.”  At the same time, David Poland notes that in an industry dominated by “red herrings,” it’s sometimes best to skip the jokes.

But one very fun April Fools prank comes from the folks over at Film School Rejects who have remade their page to make it appear as if all of the content was produced on April 1, 1980, when some movie called Clash of the Titans was set to re-invent special effects and viewers could anticipate the hottest new titles to hit VHS (complete with cool retro font and a debate about whether to get the film Betamax or laser disc).  There is even a paean to the fading “craze” of 3-D films and discussion of a media “upstart” named Ted Turner who plans a 24-hour cable news network.  On one level, of course, it’s an illustration of how far we’ve come in terms of media change.  “New” technologies such as the laser disc and VHS are long gone, and we take for granted the 24-hour news cycle that may very well be killing politics, but it’s also a fascinating, often irreverent account of how little has changed when it comes to the ways in which films are promoted for supposedly novel special effects.

Like The Film School Rejects, the blogger at Inside Redbox had a little (slightly less artful) fun with today’s license to joke, conjuring up a new Redbox service called BoxButler, in which the company promises that workers will stand next to kiosks to collect returned movies so that customers won’t have to wait in long lines or get stuck with the problem of a machine that is too full to take in more discs.  The post is a sly commentary on the state of the DVD rental industry, and even acknowledges the ways in which the labor and technology required to sustain a service like Redbox often remains unseen.

Update: How could I have missed Bieber or Die, Justin Bieber’s “takeover” of Will Ferrell’s “Funny or Die” website (h/t @annehelen)?


Wednesday Links: Criticism is Dead, OK Go, and Film Festivals

As I glance across my snow-covered lawn, only one thought crosses my mind: Spring break! But to keep myself warm until Friday, when the weather should magically change, here are some of the things I’ve been reading (in between grading papers and midterms, of course):

  • My critique of Thomas Doherty’s lament about the state of film criticism seemed to generate quite a response.  The Columbia University Press blog offered a relatively straightforward citation, while Keith Uhlich of The House Next Door caught my Kenneth Branagh reference.  Meanwhile Jim Emerson, citing a 1990 article by Richard Corliss, emphasizes a point I wish I’d given more attention: the long history of social critics decrying a new technology’s effect on film criticism.  Dozens of people, including some of my commenters, pointed out the absurdity of characterizing David Bordwell as a “postmodern” Harry Knowles.
  • In other news, I participated in a roundtable on religion in the blogosphere at the Social Science Research Council’s Immanent Frame blog.
  • Friend of the blog, and the filmmaker behind Clean Freak and The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, Chris Hansen has a trailer for his latest movie, Endings.
  • Matt Dentler points to the new OK Go video for their song, “This Too Shall Pass,” which features one of the most impressive Rube Goldberg machines I’ve ever seen.
  • Ted Hope has a discussion of the Tribeca Film Festival’s decision to make some of their films available through video on demand (VOD).  Hope points out that the failure of the Sundance-YouTube model was avoidable and offers some suggestions for making the festival-VOD model work better for festivals and filmmakers.

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Film Criticism is Dead (Again)

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday Links: Redbox, Netflix, Ebert, and ‘Alice’ DVD

Another round of links, including several that will likely find their way into a longer article I’m writing on new DVD distribution models:

  • The effect of Redbox has been widely discussed for months, with some observers making the claim that the DVD kiosk service may cost Hollywood over a billion dollars.  Some studios have responded by  preventing Redbox from renting some new releases until they have been available for sale for thirty days.  As a result, according to the Inside Redbox blog, Redbox is saying that “a 30-day block on new release titles could cost the Redbox up to 50% of its revenue.”  Some interesting discussion in the comments, including a few people challenging the whole concept of a “new release.”
  • On a related note, Edward Jay Epstein has a thoughtful analysis of the Netflix business model, noting that because the First Sale Doctrine doesn’t apply to digital rights, the company has to pay far more to provide streaming access to new release films from the studios.
  • Esquire has an amazing profile of film critic Roger Ebert and how he has experienced the loss of his ability to speak as well as chnages in his review practices as a result of social media.  Ebert is one of the few celebrities I follow on Twitter because his tweets always seem substantial, even when I disagree with them.  Some powerful anecdotes, including an account of Ebert listening to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” from his hospital bed.
  • Ebert himself interviewed Up in the Air director Jason Reitman, who spent some time discussing the awards campaign process (he claims to see Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron on a daily basis at awards show events) before talking about the ways in which blogs, which often place so much emphasis on the urgency of the scoop, have changed film journalism.
  • I still haven’t had time to watch the PBS documentary Digital Nation yet, but Douglas Rushkoff, who was involved with the film’s production, mentions that there is now an online forum where viewers can discuss issues related to the film.
  • Patrick Goldstein addresses the controversy over Disney’s decision to release the Alice in Wonderland DVD a scant thirteen weeks after the film appears in theaters.  Needless to say, theater owners are claiming they will be “killed” if this happens.  Although theater owners are making “doomsday” predictions, I think Goldstein is basically right to suggest that it’s impossible to predict whether narrowing the current four-month window will have any significant effect on box office simply because each film will be different.
  • Speaking of Redbox, there are rumors that the site is considering a move toward a number of different digital platforms including SD cards, USB drives, and portable media players.

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Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis: eCitizenship at Fayetteville State

Just a quick reminder that tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 PM, I will be giving a revised version of my talk, “Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis” in Fayetteville State’s Continuing Education Building.  If you are a student or faculty member interested in these issues, I’d be delighted for you to drop by.  I gave a much shorter version of this talk at our Mid-Year Conference, but this will allow me to cover quite a bit more material.

It will also allow me to show the legendary Stephen Colbert commentary on “wikiality,” which still holds up incredibly well, three and a half years after it first appeared on the air (hard to believe it was that long ago).  Hope to see some of you there.

Update: I’m also hoping to bounce briefly off of the debates about the Siegenthaler controversy before moving into a more specific discussion about wikis and even Wikipedia can be used productively as teaching tools in the college classroom.


[MLA 09] “Blogging” Sample Links

Here are some of the blogs and sources I cited in the “Blogging” paper listed below:

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[MLA 09] “Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere” Draft

It’s probably too late for any substantial commentary, but in the spirit of my MLA panel, convened by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, on Media Studies and the Digital Scholarly Present, which calls for taking a closer look at new models of digital scholarly communication, I’ve decided to post a draft of my conference paper below the fold.  In essence, the paper looks at how blogging as a practice has begun to shape other forms of scholarly communication and, more crucially, how scholars can learn from the three primary styles of blogging as defined by Jill Walker-Rettberg in her book, Blogging. Walker defines these as personal, topic-driven, and filtering, and part of what I’m trying to do in the paper is to make a case that “filtering blogs,” blogs that offer collections of links, often with short commentary, are a crucial means not only for navigating a wide array of material but also for creating collectives with shared interests.

I’m still not satisfied with the paper, in part because the concept of the filter seems imprecise, especially when it comes to the role that many “filter bloggers” have in building communities with shared interests.  I’m also still trying to map out the ways in which blogs are defined in terms of how they structure (or are structured by) time.  I’ve always been intrigued by the tension between immediate (but not necessarily spontaneous) publication and permanent archives that accrue over time.  It’s a topic I’d planned to address years ago (way back in 2003, when blogging was very young) but never found the right forum.

Apologies for any formatting problems below.  I copied this directly from a Word processing file.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Blogging, Research, Serendipity

I’m doing some (very last-minute) writing for my paper on blogging for this year’s MLA convention.  Yes, I know I should have finished the paper weeks ago, but now I get to hole up in a Caribou Coffeehouse playing saccharine Christmas music near my parents’ house while frantically polishing off this paper.  But, anyway, as I was writing, I began thinking about blog types in terms of Bill Nichols’ documentary modes.  Rather than looking at different blogs in terms of genres, I liked the idea that blogs themselves entail a mode of engagement with the world.  I’m not sure that I will use that particular framing, but as I was doing some quick Googling on Nichols’ use of this term, I stumbled across an old post by Girish about Nichols, one that illustrates another assertion I want to make about what Jill Walker-Rettberg refers to as “topic-driven” blogging, namely the ability of blogs to serve as a public form of gradual knowledge-building.  Naturally, Girish describes this process much more eloquently than I ever could:

Here’s my single favorite thing about blogging: being able to educate oneself in public. Going through this process—trying to move forward, stumbling, groping, occasionally finding—in full view of the world does not always stroke one’s ego. Each week you find yourself writing not about what you know but about what you perhaps hope to learn from the process of watching, reading, and struggling to think through and articulate.

Girish’s account is very similar to my own experience, and I think that his ability to express curiosity about a topic, whether it’s the state of film criticism or the history of documentary is what makes his blog such an impressive forum for scholars, fans, and journalists alike (not that these categories don’t overlap and intersect). Talk about a happy accident.

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Forrest Gump’s Blind Side

In a recent post, Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood observed that the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Blind Side, eclipsed New Moon to become this week’s number one film at the box office, attributing much of the film’s success to lead actress Sandra Bullock and her appeal to female audiences.   That’s probably a fair assessment, as far as it goes.  Both Silverstein and Annie Petersen have been incredibly attentive to Bullock’s star power (as I mentioned a few days ago), arguing that Bullock’s spunky, quirky charm works well for female audiences while not necessarily alienating male viewers.

When I watched Blind Side a few weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, I found the film entertaining enough.  Bullock is charming and the cameos by college football coaches are amusing.  But as I’ve let the film settle and as I’ve witnessed its quiet, but remarkable, surge in popularity (thanks to strong word of mouth), I’m becoming convinced that The Blind Side has become this decade’s Forrest Gump, both in terms of its (ideological) content and its box office prospects.

Both films emphasize cross-racial, southern friendships, in which charcacters are offered forms of earthly redemption through their generosity or kindness to a character who is (or appears to be) mentally challenged, but who can through his simplicity, offer a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.  Gump teaches us through his cryptic aphorisms to accept the simple things in life.  Michael Oher, in The Blind Side, becomes a device for allowing wealthy whites to “rescue” African-American characters living in poverty.  Notably, both films use sports and other forms of male homosocial bonding (i.e., the military) as crucial aspects of the male lead’s psychological development.

The Oher narrative is especially insidious given that it is based loosely upon Oher’s childhood experiences but only works by exaggerating Oher’s passivity and naivete about football and schoolwork.  In short, it reduces Oher into Forrest Gump, as Max Weiss of Baltimore Magazine points out (with Weiss speculating that this may explain Oher’s supposed distaste for the film).  When I first posted this observation on Twitter, I was being somewhat coy, but as the discussion has evolved, I’m finding it increasingly convincing (even to the point that I now see Bullock as a kind of female Lieutenant Dan).

I bring this up not especially to criticize The Blind Side, although I find it problematic, but to point out that the film’s appeal rests, in part, on its ability to reach multiple audiences.  It certainly benefits considerably from Sandra Bullock’s status as a lead–imagine Hillary Swank or any other major actress in her role–but it’s easy to forget how much emphasis was placed on the role of sports in the film’s marketing (and on promoting the film during pro and college football broadcasts). And thanks to a brief conversation about the role of social media in shaping the reception of this film–more on that in the next few days–I’m wondering whether the film’s success can be attributed, in part, to campaigns, in particular among conservative bloggers, such as those writing for Big Hollywood, encouraging their readers to support the film (despite the supposed jab at President Bush).


Twilight, Sandra Bullock, and Taste Cultures

The ongoing discussion here in blogworld of the Twilight films has me thinking again about how film criticism, cinephilia, and taste cultures intersect.  Although I’ll admit that I know little about the Twilight saga beyond what I’ve absorbed from observing and talking to my girlfriend’s daughter, I’m fascinated by the ways in which the films have become the latest case study in the ongoing debates about female audiences and box office success.  Already, just hours after New Moon has opened, Melissa Silverstein and others have pointed to the fact that the film is breaking box office records, in this case, shattering the record for box office totals for midnight screenings.  Silverstein adds that online ticket seller Fandango is reporting that the film is selling more than ten tickets per second on their site.

Despite these impressive numbers, Silverstein is quick to point out that Twilight’s success is being seen by many as an accident, a phenomenon that cannot be reproduced.  Underpinning that observation is the point that “the film blogosphere” continues to devalue the tastes of the tween girls who have made these films a box office success.  In a round-table discussion with a group of female film writers, Silverstein and her colleagues discuss whether the Twilight films receive “respect” from the film blogosophere, which Silverstein and many of her colleagues characterize as overwhelmingly male.  On the one hand, I’m tempted to complicate this formulation a little. I’m skeptical of the idea that there is a singular film blogosphere.  On the other, I’m certainly aware that there are some dominant players among the gossip blogs in particular and attentive to the fact that film bloggers have become a crucial means by which taste cultures form, whether among Hollywood franchises or among the art-house blogger communities.  Silverstein’s round-table is well worth reading, especially when the writers discuss their ambivalence about the content of the series (it’s use of a traditional rescue narrative, Bella’s fining meaning in relationships while rejecting her studies), while also recognizing the core appeal that the books and films offer.*

But one of the questions informing this particular post comes not from the Twilight films but from other forms of taste-making connected to canon formation.  A few days ago on Twitter, I snarked about an A.O. Scott article about the best films of the decade (which, believe it or not, ends in just a few short weeks).  My complaint: Scott’s article didn’t mention a single film directed by a woman as belonging among the decade’s best or most memorable films.   I’d planned to write a longer post mulling on what this article says about canon formation, cinephila, and taste cultures, but other obligations got in the way.  Fortunately, however, the cinetrix took my passing remark and ran with it, connecting Scott’s decade-in-review article to the masculinized version of cinephilia described by David Bordwell in a blog post many months ago.  To be fair, Scott remarks that many of the most memorable movies of the decade–the ones that will fill DVD bins in big box marts (or, as Scott surmises, the great web portal in the sky) for years–offer “geek-revenge fantasies” that dismiss or ignore women: “Movies seem to be, increasingly, for and about men and (mostly male) kids, with adult women in the marginal roles of wives and mothers, there to be avenged, resented or run to when things get too scary.”

Scott’s remarks obscure quite a bit here, conflating box office success and critical acclaim.  The “geek-revenge” movies, many of them associated with Judd Apatow, have no doubt received quite a bit of attention, but a recent post by Annie Petersen on Sandra Bullock’s appeal to what Petersen calls the “minivan majority,” places some of these comments in perspective, pointing that a Bullock romantic comedy, such as The Proposal, can gross as much as $300 million worldwide on a $40 million budget.  Petersen is right to point out that the Bullock audience may be less visible on the web and that her appeal may not work on many of the male critics who review and comment on her films.  Petersen’s account of Bullock’s appeal to female viewers is well worth reading, but I mention it now to raise the point that Scott’s narrative of the 2000s as the decade of Apatow, Saw films, and stories of “arresred male development” overlooks quite a bit.

I don’t have a larger conclusion here, but these threads have been weaving together in my mind over the last few days, especially as the frenzy of end-of-decade posts begin clogging up my RSS feeds.  An underlying point of Scott’s article is worth addressing: new distribution and exhibition formats, such as Netflix, Hulu, and The Auteurs will shape how our “screen memories” are formed, likely in ways we cannot yet predict.  But these  can also obscure how large groups of people consume, think about, and discuss movies.

Update: Worth noting: New Moon broke the opening-day box office record previously set by The Dark Knight, an especially impressive achievement given that the film opened during the fall, when opening nights tend to be smaller.

* It’s worth adding, of course, that not all viewers and readers of the Twilight saga will follow this dominant reading or even focus solely on the Bella/Edward/Jacob love triangle.  Obviously that’s a major aspect of the story, but nearly two decades of fan studies should tell us that “dominant ideology” readings of Twilight can miss quite a bit.

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Thursday Links

It appears that SCMS has started sending out acceptance notices for this year’s conference.  I’m happy to report that my panel, focusing on media industries issues, has been accepted.  I’ll be talking about some of the recent debate about DVD rentals, in particular Netflix and Redbox as two key models for reaching home audiences.  Hope to see some of my readers in Los Angeles in a few months.  And now for some links:

  • A number of articles, including one from The Guardian, have been reporting on the launch of YouTube Direct, a service designed to link citizen journalists with news organizations.  The service was developed in collaboration with The Huffington Post and wil allow news services to “request, review, and rebroadcast clips directly from YouTube users.”  NPR and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others, have signed on to use material posted to the site.
  • Via @negaratduke, a link to Social Text’s special issue on the Iran election, with a special focus on the use (and depiction) of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. I havn’t had the chance to read the articles yet, but will hopefully take a closer look soon.
  • The most recent Nielsen ratings show that Facebook is now the number three site for online video, behind YouTube and Hulu.
  • More The Twilight Saga: New Moon online fandom news: The live streaming premiere hosted by MySpace and powered by Ustream had over two million unique views and three million total views, shattering the previous record, the streaming broadcast of the premiere of the Michael Jackson documentary, This is It.
  • Liz Gannes reports on Movie Monitor, a new search tool that helps movie fans find movies online to rent or buy from a variety of services including Hulu and Amazon and other legal sources. The site seems comparable to Speedcine, although Movie Monitor appears to provide a little more information about the films in its search engine. Thanks to reading Alex Halavais’ Search Engine Society (a really useful book, btw) and, more recently Randall Stross’s Planet Google, I’ve been thinking about search engines quite a bit lately, and video search remains a weakness for Google, so it’ll be interesting to see how these specialty services work.
  • Feministing has posted a fascinating video featuring teenage girls talking about their perceptions of social media and their relationship to popular culture.  The video is the first in a series produced by the Women’s Media Center and Girls Learn International.  The episode’s 17-year old producer comments here.