Andrea and I are hosting a screening of Charles Ferguson’s scathing, Oscar-wining documentary, Inside Job, on Sunday, February 12, at 6 PM, as part of their movie party series. I’ve never hosted a MoveOn screening before–although I have attended several house party screenings in the past–so I’ve been intrigued by how excited I am by getting involved in this way. I’ll be interested to see if my reaction to the film changes on a second viewing, given that I felt slightly overwhelmed by Ferguson’s arguments when I watched Inside Job the first time. But more than anything, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to contribute to the wider conversation about the relationship between corporate deregulation and the “We are the 99%” movement. If you live in or near southern Wake County, you can find out more information about our screening here, but if not, perhaps you can seek out a screening in your own neighborhood. There are several hundred planned for this weekend across the U.S.
Archive for politics
With Andrea out of town for the weekend, I’ve spent much of my time attending and participating in Duke University’s Marxism and New Media Conference. While my own work seemingly places much more emphasis on the category “new media” than “Marxist,” I deeply enjoyed and benefitted from testing the limits of current conversations in media studies about the practices of production, and in my own essay on social check-in services, about the creation of value in an attention economy. I’m not going to try to read today’s links completely through the lens of the conference, but I think it has sharpened my thinking on a couple of key points:
- One quick bit of news: Star Wars Uncut, a fan film I discussed in the edited collection, Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation: Across the Screens, has been released on YouTube in a director’s cut, one that includes more seamless video and sound editing. I discussed SWU as a paradigmatic example of a crowdsourced adaptation and still remain fascinated by it, though I have to admit that I still have some fondness for the original patchwork version that was auto-generated based on people’s votes.
- Speaking of fan responses, I’ve been interested in the Vertigo meme, in which fans, responding to Kim Novak’s complaints about the use of the Vertigo theme in The Artist (which she referred to as a “violation”), have been adding the music to a wide range of other texts. For one of the more thoughtful discussions of this project check out Jason Mittell’s discussion of how he Vertigoed The Wire and Kevin Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz’s announcement of the contest at Press Play. Scroll down for one of my favorite examples, in which The Big Lebowski gets the Vertigo treatment. Moments like these renew my faith in remix culture.
- This story is a few days old, but given my focus on digital cinema, I think it’s worth noting that Eastman Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
- I’m intrigued by the discussion of this screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, in which the pre-show advertising automatically turned on during the movie, leading to overlapping images showing Ben Kingsley talking over ads warning us to silence our cell phones, animated candy bars, and other advertising ephemera. It’s a bizarre mashup and a horrifying depiction of the automation of theatrical projection in the era of digital cinema.
- On a related note, Anthony Kaufman discusses some of the challenges for indie and art house theaters in the era of digital projection.
- Worth noting, many of the videos I’ve mentioned today would be at risk of being pulled (and their websites would also be threatened with legal action) if SOPA and/or PIPA had been passed. Henry Jenkins links to a detailed discussion of some of the creative activism that has been inspired by the anti-SOPA movement. On a related note, New Tee Vee has an article that explores some of the possible motivations for piracy, specifically the lack of available premium content via digital platforms.
- Curiously, given this complaint, however Janko Roettgers, also of New Tee Vee, argues that we are in a “golden age of content.” Roettgers uses the announcement that both Hulu and Netfix are producing original series (rather than merely serving as a portal to access content produced by others) to argue that we have far more choices for watching than ever before. Videonuze also has a discussion of “online originals.”
- On a related note, Aymar Jean Christian has announced the launch of a new academic blog dedicated to the study of the future of video and television, Hacktivision.
- This has been around for a while, but via the cinetrix, I just learned about the promo video for a planned adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer from 1986.
- Joe Swanberg has a new film out called Marriage Material. Richard Brody reviews the film favorably and notes that it will be available to watch online for free for two weeks.
So far, the 2012 Republican primaries have offered a dispiriting display candidates who seem ill-prepared to run a political campaign (Perry’s brain lapses, candidates failing to get on the Virginia ballot), much less a country, even while those same candidates are sustained by the so-called SuperPACs that allow them to raise virtually unlimited funds. It’s dismaying to watch, for sure, which gives me an even greater appreciation for the work that Steven Colbert has been doing in satirizing the excesses of this process, in part through his own SuperPAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, as well as his appearance on a Sunday morning talk show, in which Colbert–in character–continued to play coy with his exploratory plans to run for President in South Carolina.
Part of Colbert’s political theater has involved handing over the reigns of his SuperPAC to Jon Stewart, his Comedy Central fake news colleague, with the two of them almost giddily displaying the absurdity of the idea that campaigns and SuperPACs are not coordinated. Now Colbert is using gaps in campaign finance law that allow him to broadcast advertisements in the days leading up to a presidential primary. The result is Colbert’s “Mitt the Ripper” ad in which Colbert simultaneously mocks campaign financing, Romney’s corporatism, and attack ads themselves, effectively turning Romney’s comments that “corporations are people” on its head.
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Colbert Super PAC Ad – Attack In B Minor For Strings|
It’s worth noting that anti-abortion extremist Randall Terry has been exploiting the same loophole, airing an advertisement that depicts aborted fetuses as he wages a non-serious campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. I’m not entirely sure what the solution is when it comes to producing more democratic elections, but few people have been more effective than Colbert at diagnosing the problems.
Here are some of the topics and issues I’ve been thinking about over the last few days (weeks, in some cases) while I’ve been away:
- Jeffrey P. Jones, a media studies scholar at Old Dominion University, has a good historical overview of political humor in today’s Washington Post. I think there is a tendency to ignore some of the historical precedents for Colbert, Stewart, and all of the web-based political satire, but Jeffrey makes some useful connections here. Also, if you’re in the DC area, I hear the print edition has some illustrations that go along with the text.
- I’m hoping to write a longer blog post about this later, but I’ve just been assigned a senior seminar for spring semester, and I am thinking about reviving my “Documenting Injustice” theme from back in 2007, when I last taught that course. I’ll probably start with some of the same texts (Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc), but I’m hoping to build toward more contemporary practices, especially the distributed efforts to document Occupy Wall Street (including Twitter streams and other ephemera), as well as the use of animation and other platforms to create “documentary” narratives, such as Waltz with Bashir. The course is for English majors, so I’m trying to balance film and written media carefully (books, stories, etc), as well as my students’ limited book budgets.
- I’m also teaching our graduate level course, Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, and may do a little crowdsourcing soon to get ideas for updating that course. I learned, for example, that some local teachers are using Glogster for student projects, but if there are other similar resources out there, I’d love to hear about them.
- Some of the early reviews are out of UltraViolet, the new digital locker service supported by most of the major studios, and New Tee Vee is reporting that they are mostly negative. Given the company’s ultra-high-profile launch and the fact that it often takes users a while to figure out how to incorporate a new technology into their media routines, I think some complaints are inevitable. As Home Media Magazine asserts, consumers will likely have to be “educated” (or persuaded) to see the long-term benefits of the service. Of course, I’m not convinced that Ultraviolet is answering a specific consumer necessity, given that we no longer need to own copies of movies (physical or cloud-stored) anymore. Still very interested to see how this plays out.
In Media Res, the video curation project sponsored by MediaCommons, is focusing on a theme this week that I find especially fascinating: interactive documentaries. Given that I recently published an essay on this topic in Jump Cut, “Digital Distribution, Participatory Culture, and the Transmedia Documentary,” I am excited to see some of the new work being done with documentary and interactivity. One fascinating example of the shifting grounds of interactive documentary: Kathleen M. Ryan’s discussion of “augmented reality” as a means of building more immersive documentary experiences. Also fascinating (and closer to some of the arguments I make in my essay) was Jennifer Proctor’s call for a “slow internet,” one that would encourage using the web for building narratives that require sustained attention over time. Be sure to check out all of this week’s In Media Res posts and join in some of the lively conversations that are taking place.
Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching over the last couple of days:
- David Leonhardt of The New York Times attributes the ongoing recession to a lack of consumer spending.
- Greg Sandoval of CNET asks whether Netflix is killing DVDs in the same way that Apple “killed” floppy discs.
- Tama Leaver links to a creative artwork that comments on the issues of digital rights.
- Anthony Kaufman mentions the release of the second edition of Ian Scott’s American Politics in Hollywood Film and asks whether Hollywood films inevitably reinforce the mainstream political establishment (and like Kaufman, I am curious to read the book).
- Kaufman also discusses (and criticizes) the proposed anti-piracy “Protect I.P. Act.” In fact, over 90 law professors have written Congress to state that the bill, as it is written, is unconstitutional. Kaufman learned about the issue from the filmmakers behind the documentary Citizen 3.0.
- Henry Jenkins interviews Brian David Johnson, author of Screen Future: The Future of Entertainment Computing and the Devices We Love. Johnson is a futurist at Intel Corporation and is interested in “reinventing television.”
- NCR may sell its Blockbuster kiosks.
- Chris Cagle calls attention to a call for papers from the excellent journal, The Velvet Light Trap, on the issue of media materiality.
I don’t have time to give this case the attention it deserves, but I’m more than a little intrigued by the results of the recent Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association, in which the Supreme Court declared a California law that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors unconstitutional. The ruling was a little unusual in that Justice Antonin Scalia joined the typically liberal Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, while Justices Breyer and Thomas were the dissenting votes.
I think the case will provide quite a bit of fodder for media studies and free speech scholars, especially given the nature of the rulings (this Daily Kos posting offers a solid overview of the different statements written by the justices). Notably, Scalia compares playing violent video games to “reading Dante,” and while he insists that it is indisputable that literature is ore “intellectually edifying” than playing a video game, Scalia points out that there is no “constitutional” difference. He goes on to argue that protecting children is not enough of a concern to enact a new set of “content-based regulation.” There is some speculation, that Scalia is supporting free speech here to provide cover for his ruling on Citizens United, but I’m not sure if that’s a fully justified critique.
Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, takes the defense of children to fascinating extremes, arguing that
The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that “the freedom of speech,” as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.
Thomas grounds this argument in the idea that the founders believed that parents had absolute authority over their children. Breyer’s dissent is actually more interesting, grounding itself in social science research that discusses the potential harm of violent video games (I’m not sure I agree, but at least there is some justification). There is quite a bit more here that I can’t cover in detail now, but I am always fascinated when the Supreme Court justices play the role of media scholars.
Here’s what I read or watched over my second cup of coffee this morning:
- Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, not content to release his latest installment of the Spy Kids franchise in 3D, is going into the fourth dimension….with what he calls “Aromascope.” Basically, moviegoers will be provided with a series of numbered scratch-and-sniff cards that correspond with specific scenes in the movie. Of course, incorporating scent with movies isn’t entirely new, with Smell-O-Vision dating back to 1960 and John Waters using Odorama for Polyester. The Los Angeles Times has a brief interview with Rodriguez in which he tries to argue that Aromascope will enhance the moviegoing experience.
- TV set-top boxes are huge energy hogs, according to the New York Times, mostly because many of these boxes are powered on 24/7, even when people aren’t watching.
- The streaming rental service Zediva continues to test the limits of copyright law. Citing the First Sale Doctrine, Zediva has argued that once they purchase a copy of a DVD, they have the right to rent it out, in their case, renting it via streaming video. The First Sale Doctrine is what permits rental services such as Blockbuster, Netflix, and Redbox to rent physical copies of a DVD or video, but streaming quite obviously blurs this line, given that Zediva’s customers never actually take physical possession of the video being “rented.” Will be interesting to see how this case plays out.
- Something to keep an eye on: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been added to the board of directors for Facebook.
- With Hulu up for sale, there has been quite a bit of discussion about potential changes to the service. New Tee Vee (citing the LA Times) reports that Hulu may soon be expected to verify that users of the free service are cable subscribers before they can watch recent episodes of current TV shows. David Poland suspects that Hulu will be a difficult sell. Amanda Natividad offers a useful timeline of the history of Hulu.
Here’s what I’ve been reading over my post-rapture Sunday morning cup of coffee:
- Via Chris Becker, a link to a Nielsen study that traces how tablet devices are being used in conjunction with television consumption.
- Chris is also writing about her media experiences in London. In one of her first reports, she discusses differences between U.S. and British television scheduling. One notable feature: she reflects on her own consumption of American season finales and notes that British TV–which tends to follow a year-round schedule–doesn’t have a similar intensive month of season finales.
- David Poland discusses the weekly box office totals, specifically looking at unexpectedly low numbers for the most recent Pirates movie. I try not to obsess too much over box office totals, but Poland’s speculation that 3-D (in particular the 3-D ticket prices) may actually be having a negative effect on movie attendance is worth considering.
- Here is some indication of how Dish TV will be their purchase of Blockbuster Video: they are offering a free three-month subscription to Blockbuster’s DVD by mail service as an enticement to subscribe to Dish’s satellite service.
- Stacey Higginbotham traces out some of the contradictions embodied in the advertisements for mobile devices offering high-definition service and the bandwidth required to actually deliver true HD. As she explains it, “The physics of the spectrum don’t support it, and from an economic perspective, the current pricing plans offered for cellular data make it expensive for consumers. Since I don’t see that pricing going down anytime soon, I’m puzzled.” The article offers some helpful links to resources on the technological and political issues shaping mobile video.
- Higginbotham’s complaints echo an earlier lament from Jeff Belk regarding a number of Verizon ads that are promising faster mobile video. But given my recent obsession with promotional discourse, I’m linking to this one, mostly because of the Verizon ad that seems to directly evoke the old idea of the Radio Boys, the technological hobbyists who built their own radio sets in the 1920s (see Alison Powell for a quick overview of the concept).
- Also from Nielsen, a quick overview of online video consumption broken down by ethnicity. As New Tee Vee points out, African Americans and Hispanics watch far more video online than white viewers (and as they also note we should be reluctant to use this demographic data to come to any conclusions that would reinforce racial and ethnic stereotypes). Still, Nielsen’s New Digital American Family Report seems to offer quite a bit of information that will be interesting to media scholars and others interested in U.S. media consumption habits.
- Tech President has a discussion of a North Carolina bill that would limit the ability of community broadband services to compete with media conglomerates such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Lawrence Lessig is urging people to contact Governor Bev Perdue (D) and to encourage her to veto the bill. I’ve put Perdue’s contact information below. If you live in North Carolina, please consider sending a message that you support community broadband
- Finally, it’s subscription only (free registration for temporary access), but this New Scientist article on the use of “text mining” to predict future events is a little unsettling. As the article puts it: “We are all part of a vast market research project, whether we like it or not.”
North Carolina friends, please call Governor Bev Perdue at (800) 662-7952 or send her an email at email@example.com. Ask her to veto the bill that would kill community broadband networks.
Grades are in. Conferences are done. Summer is pretty much officially here. Here are some links to stories I’ve been following:
- There has been quite a bit of discussion of the news that Netflix has passed BitTorrent as the website that takes up the most bandwidth on the Internet. NewTeeVee uses the news to speculate whether this means that Hollywood has “won” its battle against movies being distributed on peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent, a question that seems to gloss some of the larger questions about Netflix’s heavy investments in streaming content. Both NewTeeVee and the Washington Post emphasize the fact that cable companies are threatening to charge Internet users based on how much data they consume, rather than using flat monthly fees. Also worth noting: NewTeeVee points out that the explosive growth of Netflix in Canada has forced the company to lower the quality of its video streams to account for the somewhat more restrictive bandwidth costs there.
- The IFC blog has an interesting discussion of how digital projection will affect art house and independent theaters, speculating that the high cost of conversion–approximately $60,000 per screen–could make it difficult for many independent theaters to survive. This is something I saw as a concern when I wrote Reinventing Cinema, and it appears that the challenges are becoming even more complex, especially given that many independent filmmakers are producing movies solely on digital, without any existing film print. The article also points to Anthony Kaufman’s discussion of how indie and art house theaters often thrive by building communities around the cinema–he cites the example of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse and Florida’s Enzian Theater. Also worth noting: Roger Ebert’s Newsweek column, which discusses the decline of communal screenings of “quality cinema” (which deserves a longer blog post).
- Ebert’s comments make Robert Altman’s cynical Hollywood satire, The Player, seem all the more prescient. I love teaching the film, and show the opening sequence often as a powerful example of how long takes can be used. Now Jim Emerson has an extended reading of that shot, complete with a reminder that the fictional studio’s slogan, “Movies: Now More than Ever” is a reference to Nixon’s 1972 presidential slogan and Altman’s citation of that slogan in his 1975 film, Nashville.
- I’m still hoping to do some work on the role of online video in the 2012 presidential campaign, and so I’m intrigued by the YouTube Town Hall, where politicians can post two side-by-side videos presenting competing positions on a specific issue, and users can then vote on which position they prefer. Winning videos would then be posted to the Town Hall Leader Board (via TechPres).
- Sone news about a couple of creative cowdsourced and crowdfunded movies. First, the Australian film, The Tunnel was released. The film was funded by selling each frame of the film for $1 to raise the $135,000 budget. Like some other crowdfunded films, The Tunnel will be released via BitTorrent, illustrating that not all peer-to-peer distribution entails piracy. The film will also get a limited theatrical release and Paramount Australia and Transmission Films will conduct a DVD release. Salon also has an update on Iron Sky, the Finnish space Nazi parody, noting that filmmakers have announced an April 2012 theatrical premiere.
Update: via @KelliMarshall, a Tech Crunch article on Netflix’s bandwidth numbers. The TechCrunch article has some amazing graphic depictions of how “peak period” internet traffic is divided. Well worth a look if you’re interested in the changing media landscape.
I’ve been interested in Christopher Dodd’s attempts to establish a voice as the new leader of the MPAA. One of the themes that seems to be coming up quite a bit is the idea that, despite the red carpet and other forms of glamor, Hollywood is also a site of (blue-collar) labor. It’s a theme in his comments about piracy from ComicCon a few weeks ago when he sought to define piracy as a crime against labor:
[Piracy] also affects all the names in the closing credits and so many more –middle class folks, working hard behind the scenes to provide for their families, saving for college and retirement. And since movies and TV shows are now being made in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, movie theft harms middle class families and small businesses all across the country. Those who steal movies and TV shows, or who knowingly support those who do, don’t see the faces of the camera assistant, seamstresses, electricians, construction workers, drivers, and small business owners and their employees who are among the thousands essential to movie making.
More recently, Dodd has deepened this message in a speech he delivered a few days ago, in which he explained that Hollywood needs to market itself better as an institution, comments that echoed his ComicCon speech, again characterizing Hollywood as a “a blue-collar industry,” while adding that if you commit piracy, “you’re stealing from the middle-class people whose families rely on this industry to make ends meet and build a better future for themselves.” There have been attempts to connect piracy to a crime against labor in the past, but it seems like an explicit approach for Dodd here. And, quite obviously, there is some truth to Dodd’s arguments, in that the movie industry is supported by a wide range of blue-collar and white-collar work that typically isn’t visible on-screen, although Dodd is (most likely) much more concerned about protecting the industry’s financial bottom line.
After attending a panel on piracy (mostly about video piracy) at this year’s MIT conference, including Jinying Li’s excellent discussion of piracy as an alternative public sphere in China, I’ve become more attuned to these sorts of debates, and Li’s talk in particular, raised some questions about the role of China’s movie quota system in driving the distribution of many American films underground there. John Caldwell’s Production Culture is also a key text in thinking about depictions of labor in Hollywood, as well, but I think it will be interesting to see how Dodd uses the idea of below-the-line labor in order to craft his message about Hollywood.
I’m rushing to post this before I catch a plane to the Media in Transition conference, but I just learned about Mike Huckabee’s new “Learn Our History” animated series via TPM, and I can’t resist a quick post (hopefully I’ll be able to edit this later). The series features a group of plucky teenagers who travel through time to learn about history as it “really” happened. The website’s FAQs emphasize that our history books teach students to “blame America first” and that (as a result), history is no longer fun.
As you might imagine, Ronald Reagan plays a key role, and the kids travel to hear an animated Reagan repeat several of his most famous soundbites (“government is not the solution to our problem, it is the problem”), with the kids nodding in agreement. But the videos themselves seem so earnest and unambiguous that they almost seem like self-parodies, as if one of Stephen Colbert’s writers was moonlighting for Fox News. Take a look:
There are two other videos that TPM spotted, and all three are worth a quick look. One narrates the history of World War II in two minutes and celebrated America coming together to defeat the godless Nazis. Two odd notes here: one is that we hear Reagan invoking God at the beginning of one video and then hear Hitler doing the same thing in the very next video. Second is the “you go girl” girl-powerism cited by one of the female teenagers when she spots a Rosie the Riveter poster. The other is a more detailed version of the Reagan video, complete with rioting inner city criminals (mostly black, of course).
I get the impulse here, and there is a long history of complaints about history being “too liberal,” but I find the mode of communicating this history here incredibly odd. By being so transparently conservative, it’s reductive to the point of self-parody, and the attempt to make the teens hip (does anyone still say “you go girl” without some degree of irony?) is equally off-key. Now it’s time for someone with editing skills to make the remix.
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.
I’ve been fascinated by the promotion for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I haven’t seen the film yet, but Spurlock has been conducting a number of interviews and engaging in a number of promotional activities for a documentary that is about product placement. The promotional materials capitalize on many of the qualities that Spurlock displayed in Super Size Me: his characteristic laid-back, even self-deprecating, wit mixed with a gently critical edge that comments wryly, in this case, on the role of product placement in Hollywood entertainment.
As Spurlock notes in this interview with David Poland, the film is designed to build upon the publicity he generates. In fact, Pom Wonderful has agreed to certain incentives that will pay even more every time their beverages are mentioned alongside of the documentary, generating an amusing bit toward the end where Spurlock imagines mentioning the drink at the Oscars and, therefore, generating hundreds of millions of “media impressions.” At the same time, Spurlock himself becomes attached to certain brands, welcoming customers to flights on JetBlue and to stays at Hyatt Hotels or, even more oddly, smiling from soda cups sold at Sheetz Convenience Stores (which I may try to track down when I pick up my fiancee at the airport, since there is a Sheetz nearby). There are also financial incentives for Greatest Movie if it plays in over 250 theaters or, I think, if its box office achieves a certain level.
Toward the end of the interview with Poland, Spurlock even points out that when he “the meta-narrative could continue on–it will definitely continue on into the DVD at least.” He adds that if the movie were to play overseas, he could seek out new sponsors that would be more appropriate to that audience, joking that “you’d have to get a beer sponsor in England.” Whether such comments are tongue-in-cheek or not, Spurlock has, in fact, managed to use his documentary–and the publicity surrounding it–to provoke a useful conversation about the role of product placement in TV and movies, a role that has changed somewhat now that audiences can either fast-forward through ads or avoid them altogether by watching online versions of the show. To that end, I enjoyed reading the New York Magazine interview with Spurlock, in which he lists the five “worst” incidents of product placement, including the scene from Heroes that inspired the film, in which Hayden Panettiere’s father gives her the keys to a Nissan Rogue. The camera pans, quite blatantly across the front of the car, which gets name-dropped something like four times. And as the father hands her the keys–in soft focus–it plays just like an automobile ad. The New York Magazine article has the added bonus of pointing out that product placement is nothing new. Edison was notorious for it in his early films, and the novelist Jules Verne engaged in the practice as well.
There is, of course, a fuzzy line between Spurlock’s form of critique and his own complete immersion in the practices of product placement, but in much the same way that Super Size Me helped spark a conversation about fast food, it will be interesting to see what sorts of reactions Spurlock is able to achieve with this film. And of course, in writing this post, I am acutely aware of the fact that I am participating in the process of promoting not only Spurlock’s film but also some of the products he has included in his documentary project, and this degree of product placement could be the source of dystopian anxiety, as we see in M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel, Feed, or it could also breed cynicism, a response that even Ralph Nader seems to express in the film’s trailer when he suggests that “sleep” is the only escape from branding. But hopefully the film will find another approach, one that allows us to engage with these marketing practices in slightly more complicated ways.
Given the polarized viewpoints associated with the issue of gun ownership, Barbara Kopple’s latest documentary, Gun Fight, which I caught at Full Frame but also happens to be playing on HBO, will almost certainly be misunderstood. Gun rights activists who have commented on the film suggest Kopple is using the Virginia Tech massacre to “push” a gun control agenda. Meanwhile, Spout blogger Christopher Campbell mistakes Kopple’s decision to interview several gun right activists as an attempt to conform to the tendency in non-fiction film to be “objective” by presenting all (or at least multiple) sides of the gun right issue. Both of these readings misunderstand the complexity of Gun Fight’s underlying arguments about the place of guns and gun legislation in the United States, and although the film stakes out a position that we do need stronger gun laws (and stronger enforcement of those laws), the film is at its best when exploring the complex psychological status of gun laws and ownership in the United States.
Kopple’s film opens with footage of the Virginia Tech massacre taken on a shaky cell phone camera, the gun shots echoing in the near distance, interrupted by frightened gasps and piercing screams. News reports remind us of the number of victims while showing us haunting pictures of Seung-Hui Cho, the mass murderer who obtained all of his guns legally, despite his history of mental illness. The massacre is narrated by Colin Goddard, a student at Virginia Tech who survived being shot four times but witnessed several classmates getting killed. Goddard describes his wounds while expressing relief that he remembers very little of the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and as the film unfolds, he becomes one of our primary guides through the debate. Motivated by the shooting, he becomes an intern and eventually begins working for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The other major interviewee is Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist famous initially for publicly defending subway shooter Bernard Goetz. Feldman now has more recently moved on to lobby for the gun industry instead, in part because he has sought some middle ground with some sensible gun legislation, such as childproof locks on guns. Others discuss the traumatic physical effects of getting shot. A physician at the trauma center at UC Davis talks to a woman who still feels the effects of getting shot in the neck 40 years after it initially happened. We see a star high school football player who was shot several times after he was mugged, likely ending his sports career, positioning us to recognize the devastating consequences of gun violence.
Of course, to address these problems of gun violence, Kopple does allow gun owners to speak, possibly leading to Campbell’s mistaken observation that the film is trying to be falsely “objective.” A graduate student at Virginia Tech claims that if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus, Cho would have been stopped sooner, but Kopple answers this by showing a segment from ABC’s 20/20 that illustrates that having a student with a concealed weapon, even one that is adequately trained, likely would have led to more violence, not less. More crucially, Kopple shows how easy it is to obtain powerful guns without any background checks from unlicensed sellers at gun shows. In fact, Goddard goes into a gun show with a hidden camera and manages to conduct several transactions, even joking with one seller that he likely wouldn’t pass the background check.
To some extent, this is familiar territory. There have been discussions of closing the gun show loophole and of enforcing background checks ever since Columbine, calls that were recently raised again during the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. To that end, one of the strengths of the film is its attempt to make sense of the power of the gun lobby in shaping the legislative and political process, and this is where the film seeks to explore the passions of gun rights advocates, a very narrow segment of gun owners. On a purely pragmatic level, Feldman speculates that Al Gore probably “lost” the 2000 election, not (just) because of Ralph Nader but because many labor Democrats were more worried about Gore taking away their guns than they were about George W. Bush’s record on labor (although it’s worth adding that the Supreme Court probably helped here). He also points out that even the threat of a Democratic president or of a law calling for restrictions on guns feeds the outrage machine of the NRA, allowing them to fundraise based on people’s fears.
To that end, Kopple draws from arguments raised by Scott Melzer in his book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, which argues that the NRA’s appeals are rooted in an evocation of nostalgia for frontier masculinity and a very specific version of patriotism, one in which gun ownership is a means of holding the federal government in check. To explore this point, we see figures like Larry Platt talking about the importance of militias and gun rights rallies where guns are raffled off as a demonstration of spite against any federal regulations on gun ownership. Although these activists are far from representative of all gun owners–there are an estimated 80 million gun owners and 300 million guns in the United States–they often drive the passions of these single-issue voters. And although these groups are often rooted in white masculinity–both Melzer and the UC Davis doctor link the fringe of gun rights activists to Neo-Nazism and pro-Confederacy positions–we are also made palpably aware of how this culture of fear also permeates inner-city African-American men as well, when two young black men show us their apartment, which is stocked with a gun quite literally in every room.
Although the film offers some pragmatic legislative solutions, it also directs us to what seems like a bigger challenge, and that is: how do we engage with the politics of fear? During the Q&A, Colin Goddard acknowledged his own ambivalence about appealing to fear, while his father sought to redefine freedom not as the right to carry a weapon but as the right to move freely without fear of getting shot. In some ways, these responses aren’t completely adequate, and I think this is reflected in the reluctance of many Democrats, especially Obama, to take up legislation restricting gun ownership. I don’t think this inability to think beyond the “politics of fear” is a flaw in the film, as much as it is a potential limit in our current political imagination. Kopple’s film is likely to polarize. Gun right activists will surely see an “agenda,” while some viewers may share the film’s stance on “common sense” legislation, even while wishing for something more assertive in staking out an anti-gun position. What Kopple has given us, instead, is a film that shows that the politics of guns, are indelibly complicated.