Archive for politics

Love and Other Drugs

Until checking its Wikipedia entry, I had no idea that Love and Other Drugs (IMDB) was based on a non-fiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, by Jamie Reidy, who, like the Jamie Randall character in the film (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), worked as a pharmaceutical rep.  That detail provides a slightly clearer motivation for setting the film in the 1990s, an aspect of the film I found fascinating (and will return to momentarily).  I haven’t read the book, but it seems that its primary purpose was to blow the whistle on some of the more unsavory practices of the pharmaceutical industry.  Although there are a number of scenes that satirize Big Phrama, the film seems less assured when it so earnestly depicts the romance between Jamie and Maggie Murdock (Anne Hathaway) primarily as a means for Jamie to enter belatedly into adulthood.  Although Maggie is also depicted as vulnerable, the story seems in places to use Maggie’s diseased body as a means for allowing Jamie to discover his better self (he and his brother, who made millions off of  medical software, are both depicted as overgrown children).

The romance plot does have some nice moments.  Edward Zwick (thirtysomething, Courage Under Fire) has good storytelling chops.  The film uses Maggie’s artwork, including a video project where she and Jamie record their bedroom conversations, relatively well in order to explore the emotional vulnerabilities of the characters, but it was often difficult to see the characters as anything other than types: the haunted artist and the overgrown (but sensitive) playboy.

Instead, I found myself focusing on the treatment of the 1990s boom era.  Nearly a decade after Clinton’s presidency ended, it’s becoming increasingly possible to view “the nineties” as a distinct historical era, with its booming economy, based in part on the exploding dotcom and pharmaceutical industries.  Jamie’s brother is a software millionaire, and Jamie hands out favors–umbrellas, pens, even to the point of arranging sexual trysts–to doctors in order to entice them to prescribe his drugs rather than his competitors’.  Although Jamie recites the benefits of Pfizer drugs–fewer side effects, better results–it’s clear that he doesn’t really believe his own pitch and doesn’t especially care.  Jamie’s career is given a boost when he lands the opportunity to sell Viagra (it’s almost impossible to write a sentence about Viagra without at least one bad pun), and the film treats Viagra as a symbol of the excessiveness of 90s culture.  At the same time, aspects of that excess, including the wild parties that are fueled by the drugs and drug company profits, are enticing and energizing, with the result that the nineties become the object of ambivalent nostalgia for the film (this is expressed musically as well through the use of The Spin Doctors, among others).

The depictions of the pharmaceutical industry–and its cynical emphasis on profits over care–did resonate with some of the current debates about health care.  Although the pharmaceutical reps, driven by the drug companies themselves, are probably the chief “villains” in this equation, the doctors (including Dr. Knight, played by Hank Azaria) are usually depicted as complicit in the system itself.  I don’t have time to track it down now, but at least one review compared Love and Other Drugs to the similarly topical Up in the Air (my review) and that comparison seems about right, although I liked the latter film quite a bit more.  Both movies map aspects of romantic drama onto workplace settings that engage with, or at least anticipate, our troubled economic times.  Although Love and Other Drugs primarily tracks Jamie’s transition into an adult capable of unselfishly loving and supporting Maggie, it is also engaged with topical issues in a relatively thoughtful way.

Update: Another film that has this topical vibe is David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network.  For a sharp analysis of the film, check out Tama Leaver’s recent column at FlowTV.

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Pushing the (Red) Envelope

It has been an eventful week for the various players in the digital cinema industry, in particular Netflix.  Although there continues to be quite a bit of turmoil, Netflix has continued to buy the rights to stream films, especially from independent film distributors, suggesting that they still streaming as a major component of their business.  This CNET article, for example, offers a quick overview of the licensing agreement between Netflix and the independent film distributor, FilmDistrict.  The article touts Netflix as a means of providing consumers with “an inexpensive, simple, and legal way to access movies,” even suggesting that legal streams provide a viable alternative to piracy.

Still, the financial model remains unclear.  Netflix recently raised their monthly subscription rates for people who continue to receive discs in the mail (as I do), and there is still some debate about whether studios stand to benefit more by working with cable TV providers because subscription TV may actually pay more initially.  The same CNET article notes that there is some evidence that Netflix is contributing to the process of pulling consumers away from cable (i.e., “cord cutting“), although there is some debate about whether cord cutting is as significant as some have suggested.  David Carr offers one version of this narrative characterizing it as a “rivalry,” one that presents a dilemma for Hollywood studios.  Carr’s numbers do potentially underscore the idea that cable deals are more lucrative than online deals, pointing out that, to stream Disney and Sony movies, “Netflix pays about 15 cents a month for each subscriber, much less than the $4 to $5 a month that cable and satellite owners pay for access to Starz.”

Like David Poland, I am somewhat skeptical of this attempt to paint Netflix as an industry threat, however.  As Poland points out, Netflix is paying a large sum of change for the rights to stream movies and TV shows (or send them out on DVD), most of which are not the newest releases.  Poland also makes the argument that Netflix’s success as a rental service had little effect on DVD sales. I’m not quite sure I fully buy Poland’s argument here.  I’d agree that the DVD bubble had begun to burst a long time ago; however, I do think that Netflix helps contribute to the idea of movie consumption as an essentially disposable activity.  Because most DVDs are theoretically available within a few clicks (and possibly a somewhat slower mail truck), the urge to collect has diminished considerably.  Especially in a recession economy, I think that most film consumers are willing to wait through the so-called retail window and watch the movie later when it reaches Netflix or Redbox.  I also like how Poland parses Netflix’s business model, which he describes as an “everything everywhere” model rather than a model focused on the most recent movies, and Poland offers some pretty good data to back that up.

But one of the biggest concerns–and one that extends well beyond Netflix to anyone concerned with an open internet–is the issue of net neutrality.  Level 3, the company that helps Netflix deliver streaming movies, has complained that Comcast is charging them additional fees, essentially a “toll” on the delivery of certain kinds of data.  Although Comcast has argued that this practice doesn’t violate principles of net neutrality, the decision to charge additional fees on video delivery would likely complicate the inexpensive delivery of streaming video that is so crucial to Netflix.  Caught up in this conflict as well is Comcast’s planned acquisition of NBC Universal.  As the Times article cited above notes, Comcast could stream NBC shows more quickly than programs produced by their rivals unless the government intervenes.

It’s worth noting that Netflix is responsible for something like 20% of all download traffic, leading the Times’ Brian Stelter (again, cited above) to characterize them as a “de facto competitor” for Comcast, Time Warner, and other cable television and internet service providers.  Although Netflix had (as of the other day) declined comment on this specific case, New Tee Vee provides some good context, noting that the video rental service has expressed concern in the past about companies like Comcast and Time Warner that are network operators who also produce content.  As Wired notes, the FCC’s December 1 announcement of new net neutrality rules was met with disappointment, especially from consumer groups (and Marvin Ammori offers some good reasons to be skeptical, noting in particular that the new policies would exempt wireless internet access from net neutrality rules; see also, Josh Silver’s comments).  Long story short, I think that net neutrality rules (or the lack of rules or lack of enforcement) could hinder some of Netflix’s current practices.

Ultimately, I think it Poland is probably right to express some skepticism about the long-term future of Netflix (a point echoed by Time Warner’s Jeffrey Bewkes).  I’ll let you revisit his arguments about why Netflix’s power and long-term potential in the industry is overstated, but I think he’s probably right that the technological barriers for competitors are minimal, allowing studios to create their own streaming service.  I’d originally planned this as a links post, so I’m still putting together my overall sense of where things are going with digital or streaming distribution, especially given the ongoing conflict between Comcast and Level 3.

Update: Some good news on Net Neutrality.  Michael Copps, one of the Democratic-leaning FCC committee members has strongly hinted that he will not support the watered-down version of net neutrality currently being proposed.  Copps’ support is probably necessary, so this may give supporters of an open internet a little more leverage in their fight.

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Saturday Links

I’m in the midst of two writing projects with relatively immediate deadlines, so I’ve been away from the blog for a few days.  Hoping that I’ll have a little more time to blog in the spring since I will only be teaching three classes (my smallest course load in something like five years).  Also hoping that I will see many of my readers at this year’s SCMS conference in New Orleans.  Here are the links:

  • Over at his CinemaTech blog, Scott Kirsner offers a nice overview of some of the key contributors to his recent Distribution U summit in New York.  Because I’ve been doing some research on fan adaptations recently, I was especially intrigued by the video presentation by Timo Vuorensola, maker of the Star Wreck series and the film, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning.  In the video, Vuorensola is discussing his new project, Iron Sky and his very cool “Wreck a Movie” platform.
  • Anne Thompson offers an initial report on Amazon’s plans to create what amounts to a crowdsourced movie studio.  Users can submit storyboards, scripts, and even completed projects to the site where they can solicit advice from others.  Amazon, however, retains exclusive rights to all projects submitted to the service.  The one enticement (beyond Amazon’s “first-look” deal with Warner) is that they will be awarding monthly and yearly prizes.  Liz Miller of NewTeeVee reacts and warns aspiring filmmakers to read those rights agreements carefully.  Scott Macauley is also skeptical and uses the Amazon announcement to raise some red flags about crowdsourcing in general.
  • I’ve really been enjoying the interview series on the state of political remix videos that Henry Jenkins has been posting over the last few days.  I wrote about political remix videos quite a bit during and after the 2008 election and may be returning to the topic for a conference paper (and maybe a journal article) this spring.  Here is part three of Henry’s series.
  • According to research cited by NewTeeVee, viewers may be watching online video on anywhere from five to ten screens per household, thanks to smart phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices.
  • On a semi-related note, Time Warner is now experimenting with a new, cheaper cable bundle that would cost only $40 a month but would cut out some basic cable staples such as ESPN.
  • Finally, one of the sections of the book that makes me cringe a little is my discussion of interactive movies, in part because I lost track of how digital video could be used to create interactive features.  With that in mind, I really liked the recent Choose Your Own Adventure-style “Night of the Living Dead,” which repurposes footage from the original Night of the Living Dead (currently in the public domain, apparently). For people familiar with the original film (or even the plot devices of zombie films in general), it will likely be easy to steer the lead characters to safety; although it might be equally fun to create a little mayhem.  You can always backtrack later.  On a related note, here is a discussion of an interactive cinema iPhone app.

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Colombian Film Week

As I mentioned a couple of times, I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Bogota, Colombia, where I was invited to speak at the Semana del Cine Colombiano (Colombian Film Week), which gathered together a wide range of speakers who addressed some of the challenges facing filmmakers in Latin America who are seeking to gain wider distribution for their films. The symposium ended up being an incredibly thought-provoking experience, one that challenged me to rethink some of my assumptions about the role of digital distribution in reshaping the film market.  At the same time, I found myself drawing connections between the challenges that Latin American filmmakers face and the very similar challenges confronting independent filmmakers in the United States.  As a result, I am in the process of trying to think through some of these questions in what will hopefully be a more systematic fashion (perhaps in a journal article or something similar), but for now, here are some notes and other quick impressions that I was able to glean from my trip, which included attendance at the Premios Macundo, the Colombian Film Awards, designed to honor the best in Colombian filmmaking (for a basic overview of the Colombian film industry, Wikipedia offers at least a cursory discussion).

Perhaps the “meat” of the conference for me was getting a better sense of how film production and distribution works in Latin America.  Other speakers focused on the use of legal, economic, and ideological practices to sustain and encourage indigenous film production and consumption, and (as I’ll discuss in detail), it was impossible not to be impressed by some of the innovative practices that were being used to expand Latin American film culture.  The dominance of the Hollywood system around the globe is pretty well documented (see, for example, the book, Global Hollywood). But some numbers are worth mentioning here.  According to research presented by Paolo Goncalves, 8 of the top 10 highest-grossing films in Brazil came from the U.S. Similarly, 9 of the top 10 films in Argentina were U.S. films, while all of the top ten films in Mexico were made in the U.S.  In terms of shares of box office, Argentinian films constituted 16% of their country’s box office take, while Colombian films accounted for only about 4.8%, a problem that seems to have been exacerbated by attractions such as 3-D film.

One of the other challenges that speakers addressed was the small number of theaters available, especially outside of urban centers.  According to Goncalves, there is only one movie screen for every 91,000 residents of Brazil and one for every 81,000 Colombian, compared to a 1:8,000 ratio in the U.S. and a 1:10,000 in Ireland (a number that was relatively consistent across Europe).  Similarly, according to the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, there are “only 19 movie theatres in Uruguay, of which 16 in Montevideo,” making access outside of urban centers extremely difficult, a point echoed in discussions of the Brazilian film industry (dozens of cities with over 100,000 residents in Brazil lack a single movie theater).  At the same time (or perhaps, in part, because of these limitations), piracy is rampant, with films circulating through unofficial channels, despite the somewhat incongruous presence of several Blockbuster Video stores throughout Bogota.

Although these numbers might be disheartening, especially for those of us seeking to foster a diverse audiovisual culture, I was impressed by the attempts to create alternative production, distribution, and exhibition practices that could provide greater access to Latin American films.  One compelling program was the Espacios INCAA, a program sponsored by the Argentinian government to encourage the construction of movie screens devoted exclusively to showing Argentinian films.  These screens are generally built near universities and in other city centers, offer lower ticket prices than theaters screening U.S. films, and seem designed to appeal to younger audiences who could, in theory, develop the habit of attending these films.  The program was successfully promoted on Twitter and Facebook and used social media to help build an audience for local films.  Although less focused on promoting local film, Brazil offers a similar incentive program to encourage building more movie theaters and expanding access to movie screenings.

One of the more commonly discussed practices was co-productions.  The most visible form of this activity was the Ibermedia Fund (English version), which is a joint project of 12 countries, including Spain, who all gave money to create a fund for which filmmakers could apply.  These projects would, if I understood correctly, have to be co-productions between two different countries.  One of the benefits, of course, is that filmmakers can draw from tax incentives from two different countries, while also allowing them to pool resources.  However, as a number of people observed, these co-productions are not always well-received for a number of reasons, in part because of the problems of incorporating creative personnel and/or settings from both countries into a single film.

Perhaps the most compelling attempt to rework film distribution was a Uruguayan initiative called Efecto Cine (official website) a traveling film exhibition series, which brought a series of ten Uruguayan films to the “outskirts of Montevideo and [to] 30 towns all over the country” using an inflatable screen (you can see some pictures of screenings and the set-up involved here).  These were free public screenings that anyone could attend–normally a ticket to a theater in Uruguay costs about $6.00 U.S.–and in just over four months, over 90,000 Uruguayans were able to attend a movie screening.

As an outsider, I was struck by the strong emphasis on theatrical distribution.  Given the increasing focus here on digital distribution, whether video-on-demand, Netflix, or iTunes, it would seem that digital technologies might provide an untapped resource, and to be fair, some panelists did address this potential, in particular, Steve Solot of Latin American Training Center, who pointed to the ongoing sense, in the United States at least, that the days of a “typical pipeline,” from theaters to cable and DVD, no longer exists.  Solot also noted that many distribution tools available in the U.S., such as iTunes, are not available in other countries, perhaps complicating the use of on-demand systems.  Still, Solot was especially attentive to the ways in which the challenges indie filmmakers face mirror those facing Latin American filmmakers (in fact, his organization works with the Independent Features Project).

Finally, the Colombian film awards, the Premois Macundo, served as yet another ideological approach for fostering Colombian film, in particular.  Because my Spanish is relatively weak, I was only able to get a partial understanding of what was happening at the Premios Macundo.  The awards, I learned later, were being run, for the first time, by the Colombian Academy of Motion Pictures, but it was interesting to see how the awards both corresponded to and diverged from ceremonies such as the Oscars.  The awards highlighted most of the familiar categories–best actor and actress, cinematographer, editing–but there were, if I understood correctly, three major film awards, one a kind of people’s choice award, another selected by the Academy, and a third selected by an international jury, with the latter award considered the most significant.  Although some might be tempted to lament the fact that the Colombian Awards seem to imitate the American awards, thus cementing them as a (good) model, I was struck by the ways in which the awards could function positively as means for promoting Colombian film, both within the country and abroad.  Both my fiancee and I were intrigued by a number of films, including Contracorriente (Undertow), and Los Viajes del viento (The Wind Journeys).

These comments risk scratching the surface of what is, in fact, a much more complicated set of industrial, governmental, and creative challenges and opportunities.  As usual, I was impressed not only by the vitality and creativity of the filmmakers but also of the people working to foster a vibrant Latin American film culture.

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Watching the Rally

Due to time constraints, I was unable to travel to the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall today in Washington, but I did watch most of it on Comedy Central this afternoon.  In addition to being a welcome break from a dismal afternoon of college football–at least if you’re a Purdue fan–it was also an entertaining media event, one that powerfully illustrated the power of comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to draw a crowd in support of their politically-themed humor.

It was fun to watch musical performers such as Jef Tweedy and Mavis Staples singing together, while Yusuf Islam and Ozzy Osborne had a humorous mock music competition.  But of course the main purpose for the rally was to serve as an antidote to the Glenn Beck 8/28 rally that appealed to the politics of fear and divisiveness.  As Stewart himself said during an earnest concluding speech, “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” a message that seemed to be echoed by the crowd that stretched across the Mall.  And as an alternative to the comments from Juan Williams (and NPR’s awkward response), Bill O’Reilly’s blow-up on The View, and countless political ads, the rally came across as a means of embracing more healthy forms of political participation, a point illustrated by Stewart’s embrace of Velma Hart, who calmly and rationally challenged Obama on some of his policy choices.  It’s a position consistent with other comments made by both Stewart and Colbert in other venues, including Stewart’s famous Crossfire appearance and Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

But it’s a position that seems to be absent from many, if not most, of the comments about the rally, even those that seem to be enthusiastic about it.  Will Bunch, a media columnist for the Los Angeles Times reads the rally as an attempt to “elevate ironic detachment to the level of a political manifesto” before worrying (somewhat insincerely, if I’m reading him correctly) that the rally could undercut their reputations as comedians who speak truth to power.  Similarly, Alexandra Petri argues (favorably) that the rally is the ultimate example of Millennial posturing, calling it “the ultimate anti-protest. It’s a Facebook group in the flesh.”  Meanwhile, Carlos Lozada worries that the rally will shatter Stewart’s status as a sideline satirist, turning him into something more earnest.

What we saw instead was something other than mere “ironic detachment.”  The satire performed by Stewart and Colbert has long been rooted in principle, and the rally is simply an expression of that, part of the “Stewart [and Colbert] lore” that Lozada worries will be undercut by the rally.  The comments from Bunch and Petri both seem to underestimate the political power of satire, albeit with different investments.  Petri seems to imply that Millennials are committed to little other than ironic self-expression, while Bunch worries that the rally signifies that we are laughing into “oblivion” (to echo an old anti-pop culture remark from Neil Postman).

Instead, the rally was a reminder that we can and should do better when it comes to the institutions that shape our politics.  Although the rally avoided explicit commentary about some of the more insidious factors that have affected our politics–the Citizens United decision to name one example–it did offer, through its embrace of Velma Hart, an alternative to the heated cable news programming that Colbert and Stewart have been parodying for years.

Update: Here is the video of Stewart’s speech summing up the purpose of the rally.  Here is the transcript for easy quoting.

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Wednesday Links

Recovering from a cold, but hoping to put together a more substantial discussion of my trip to Bogota soon:

  • Jeff Deutchman’s crowdsourced documentary, 11/04/08, which assembles footage of people’s reactions to the election of Barack Obama as President, had a simultaneous premiere in approximately 20 cities the other day. The film will soon be available from Amazon, YouTube, and other online retailers.  Matt Dentler and Christopher Campbell have the details.  I missed the premiere because of travel, but I have to wonder how the documentary looks nearly two years after Election Day through the political lens of ongoing political and economic uncertainty.  Hoping to watch it soon.
  • Barack Obama joins Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, addressing bullied and isolated gay teens with a message of comfort.
  • The LA Times has an interesting discussion of the reemergence of consumers choosing to rent rather than purchase movies on DVD (or in streaming formats).
  • David Poland cites the Kickstarter success story, Blue Like Jazz.  One of the commenters suggests that Jazz’s success may be tied to its appeal to Christian audiences.  No matter what, raising over $300,000 online for a movie is an impressive achievement.  Hoping to have more to say about this project soon.
  • Anthony Kaufman’s latest “Industry Beat” column discusses the ongoing indie crisis, with one indie producer, Michael London, suggesting that making independent “movies has become more a hobby than a livelihood.”
  • Fun video of the day: an indie director and Charlie Chaplin fan comes to the conclusion that he has spotted a time traveler on a cell phone at the premiere of one of Chaplin’s films.  Needless to say, commenters at Cinematical are skeptical.
  • Scary video of the day: Citizens Against Government Waste uses race-baiting fear tactics to persuade us that progressives are in the process of destroying the American economic empire.  The video plays like a cross between the Apple 1984 ad and the sequel to Red Dawn.
  • Netflix is investing bigtime in streaming content, with a tab that might exceed $2 billion (h/t Chris Becker).

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Mickey Mouse Reacts

Mickey Mouse tunes into Glenn Beck’s show to learn that someone has been remixing Disney cartoons to make a political point:

A pretty creative response to the totally awesome Donald Duck video from the other day.

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Monday Links

What I’ve been watching, reading, and thinking about over the weekend:

  • Via Henry at Crooked Timber, Donald Duck Meets Glenn Beck, a brilliant remix of dozens of Disney cartoons from the 1930s to the ’60s.  Let’s hope Disney’s lawyers respect this as an example of a transformative work, one that falls well within the boundaries of fair use.
  • Since I haven’t had time to see the real “Facebook movie,” I thought I’d revisit the YouTube Movie trailer parody instead.
  • Spotted via Christine Becker’s News for TV Majors, Eric Deggans reflects on whether satire TV (of the Stewart-Colbert variety) can fix what ails our political system.
  • Hunter Weeks of 10 MPH discusses what he’s learned about DIY movie distribution.
  • With the planned release of 3D versions of Star Wars and Titanic, the LA TImes asks if studios are going too far with the gimmick.  Hollywood might just kill my desire to go to movie theaters after all.
  • The makers of the ElfQuest graphic novel have gotten behind a fan-produced and crowdfunded 1-3 minute internet trailer based on the novel (the rights to a film is currently held by Warner).  Not only have they given the filmmakers their blessing, they are donating artwork and promising personal phone calls to anyone who donates at the VIP level.

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Wednesday Links

Here are some of the film and media stories that I’ve been following today:

  • Henry Jenkins posted the extended version of his op-ed, on “Avatar Activism” to his blog.  The original appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.
  • Cinematical reports that the makers of Freakonomics have a one-day-only promotion that allows audiences to pay the price of their choice to see the film.  You can pay as little as one cent and as much as $100.  All you have to do is fill out a survey, “so economists can analyze data about what kind of person chooses what kind of cost for him or herself.”  This is the second major experiment with alternative forms of distribution for this film.  It’s already available on pay-per-view, several days before its theatrical premiere.
  • MediaShift has an interesting discussion of how filmmakers have used crowdfunding tool Kickstarter to help pay production costs.
  • Some fascinating discussion of the blurred lines between democracy and entertainment when Lady Gaga tweeted an appeal to her followers to contact their Senators to support the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
  • And in what seems like a notable juxtaposition: Netflix announced it is now making its streaming video service available in Canada just as the Wall Street Journal was reporting that Blockbuster looks to be headed into bankruptcy.
  • Finally, Lawrence High School is back, following up their “Kids in America” lip dub video with a performance of “Colour My World.”  Once again, they’ve made an incredibly fun video that brightened my afternoon.

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(False) Mourning

I’ve been intrigued by the discussion on Wonkette and in Kathleen Parker’s latest column about “Mourning,” a reworking of the classic 1984 Ronald Reagan ad, “Better, Prouder, Stronger,” a.k.a. “Morning in America,” this time suggesting that Obama has sent the country into a national state of mourning over high taxes, unemployment, deficits, and (implicitly, at least) health care.  At first, I mistook it for a straightforward mashup along the lines of “Vote Different,” but it’s actually just a masterful emulation of the original, twisting it to imply that Obama has, in the space of less than two years, destroyed the Reaganite main street utopia celebrated in the original ad.

Like “Vote Different,” I’m fascinated by the rhetoric of the advertisement and what it might suggest about web-based political advertising. Perhaps the most notable feature of the advertisement is its uncanny resemblance to the Reagan ad, playing off of nostalgia for Reagan and the older forms of televisual political advertising associated with the ad, and in this regard it’s hard to deny the ad’s cleverness, its ability to use intertextual appeals to evoke a specific experience of American identity and culture.  But I have to wonder what audiences will feel included in that appeal.  Although some younger viewers may know the Reagan ad from their political science or media studies courses, it’s likely to be only vaguely familiar to most younger viewers.

The advertisement seems to work relatively well as an attempt to define the current climate of economic frustration by suggesting that Obama has reversed Reagan’s efforts to reduce government.  Over a shot of the Capitol, the folksy (but mildly ominous) narrator remarks that “the government is taking over choices we once made,” before dissolving to a shot of a flag at half-mast and then a funeral, turning a significant symbol of national identity into a vague threat.  Unlike the thriving main streets of the Reagan ad, we see shuttered buildings that indicate that Obama’s policies have “failed.”

The ad’s racial rhetoric is also striking: Shots of unemployed workers, one of them Latino, seem to imply, in part, that immigration is a root cause of the country’s economic problems.  During a closing shot sequence depicting a white, male child waving a flag, the voice-over calls for a “smaller, more caring government, one that remembers us,” with the word “us” superimposed between the flag and the boy’s face, inviting me to ask who is excluded from the “us” in that particular image.

I’ve concentrated primarily on the advertisement’s visual rhetoric primarily because “Mourning,” like “Better, Stronger, Faster,” seems to be working primarily at the emotional level, engaging with (and seeking to shape) a national “mood.”  But it’s worth noting that the advertisement obscures the fact that the debt described in the ad is primarily the result of the Bush tax cuts and spending.  And the ad also implies that the government is also taking “choices” away from the people, when in fact, Republicans have worked against certain kinds of choices, including the “choice” to marry the person you love, regardless of gender.

It’s worth noting that the ad was made  not by an individual, but by an organization called “Citizens for the Republic,” an organization that should not be read as representing a grassroots insurgency against Obama.  In fact, as Kathleen Parker acknowledges the ad was produced by Fred Davis, who also made the Carly Fiorina “Demon Sheep” ad, but I think that as online political advertising continues to evolve, the boundaries between inside and outside are going to become increasingly permeable.  I’m not convinced that the ad will work for all audiences.  As Parker suggests, the advertisement works well to define (or at least reflect) some aspects of the employment crisis, but what seems most endangered in the ad actually seems to be a Reaganite vision of America.

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Monday Links

Here are some of the stories and videos I’ve been reading, watching, and following over the weekend:

  • Christine Becker has a pointer to David Carr’s analysis of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s planned 10/30/10 rallies in Washington, DC.  Carr does a good job of tracing out the challenges that both comics face in transitioning from media satirists into something closer to genuine political figures.  Carr surmises that Colbert, who can continue to operate within his carefully-crafted persona, may have an easier time pulling off his “March to Keep Fear Alive.”  Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor asks whether the rally will have an effect on the election.
  • An interesting discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education: several college and university libraries have decided to purchase Netflix subscriptions to make films available to students and faculty, and Netflix is crying foul, suggesting that the libraries’ subscriptions violate the user agreement.  I kind of like what the libraries are doing here.  Although I usually encourage my students to pay for a Netflix subscription as a cheap alternative for watching the assigned movies in my film course, I realize that not all of them an afford the extra monthly fee.  One cool alternative might be for Netflix (or some other service such as Mubi) to create institutional accounts that would allow libraries (or university film studies programs) to subscribe.  Seems like a good way to recruit future customers, as well.
  • There is a new issue of the open-access journal, Transformative Works and Cultures.  Check out the TWC blog for more details.  Especially relevant to my readers is a discussion of fan filmmaking in several of this issue’s articles.
  • Inside Redbox discusses details of an article that suggests that the kiosk company may not have streaming video on its horizons.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Redbox stayed out of streaming.  After all, there are so many other video rental services that already stream, and most of them have much deeper catalogs than Redbox; streaming seems like an unnecessary complication of their existing approach.  Just a hunch.

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Friday Links

Here’s a wide range of reading and viewing for your early weekend pleasure:

  • The first part of a series of videos on remix culture called, aptly enough, “Everything is a Remix.”  One of the strengths of the video is the argument that remix practices have a much longer history (note the persistent recycling of the bass line from Chic’s “Good Times”).  This video is really good on how we evaluate the quality of remixes, so this is certainly a project that is well worth following (update: via Film Doctor).
  • Given some of my interests, I’m bummed that I haven’t come across Aina Abiodun’s Film Futurist blog sooner, but her recent discussion of three new movies that negatively depict social networking and/or the internet is well worth a read.
  • The Vulture has an interview with Werner Herzog about his new 3-D documentary about cave paintings (which I can’t wait to see).  Keep reading for the section where he explains his distaste for Avatar, in part because he is “allergic against group sessions of yoga.”  Speaking of 3-D: here is a little more skepticism about the appeal of 3-D storytelling, with Jeffrey Katzenberg calling for more films that “look good” in 3-D, while a DirecTV casts 3-D TV as a “niche” product for the foreseeable future.
  • Matt Dentler links to and analyzes a recent study that observes (among other things) that 37% of Netflix subscribers aged 25 to 34 use Netflix’s streaming service as a substitute for pay cable.
  • Here is an interesting documentary short about the success of Threadless Tees, the online T-shirt company that sells uniquely designed shirts.  It’s pretty celebratory, but the exploration of design culture is worth watching.
  • Via News for TV Majors, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are organizing rallies in Washington, DC.  Stewart’s rally is a Rally to Restore Sanity, while Colbert’s planning a March to Keep Fear Alive.  James Poniewozik and CNN have all the details. It may jut be time for a “research trip” to our nation’s capital.
  • The LA Times also has a discussion of the promotional plans for Paranormal Activity 2.

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Machete

Robert Rodriguez’s Machete (IMDB) offers a strange brew of exploitation movie action sequences and political satire, one that has sent a number of right-wing blogs (see for example John Nolte’s Big Hollywood screed) into an uproar over the film’s depiction of the immigration war.  The stylized, often ludicrous, violence recalls everything from blaxploitation and kung fu movies to spaghetti westerns, with the film’s titular character, played with quiet panache by longtime character actor, Danny Trejo, quietly offing a diverse set of bad guys after he gets mixed up in the ongoing border wars over drug smuggling and illegal immigration.  Like Grindhouse, where the concept for the movie originated in a fake trailer also directed by Rodriguez, the film is an exuberant love letter to B-movies while also eagerly dropping itself in the midst of contemporary politics.

The film opens with Machete working as a police officer in Mexico and refusing to take a bribe from a Mexican drug kingpin (Steven Segall), establishing a revenge subplot that will develop later, before moving to the present day when Machete is hired to assassinate a right-wing state senate candidate (played by Robert DeNiro) campaigning for office on the strength of his stance against illegal immigration–a stance he proves by shooting and killing a pregnant woman as she seeks to cross the border while riding with a militia-style border patrol group.  Without going into too many details, the film depicts a clear alliance between the Mexican drug kingpins and the conservative politicians.  The planned border fence would potentially block people from entering while continuing to allow dealers to slip through.  Meanwhile, Immigration Officer Sartana (Jessica Alba) spends much of her time monitoring a food stand run by Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), allowing Rodriguez to show how much our economy depends on the cheap labor done by many immigrants.  Sartana is monitoring Luz because she is rumored to be “She,” the leader of an underground organization of immigrants ready to fight back.

In some ways, as Christopher Campbell points out, Machete offers a mix of “serious issue and stupid action,” and the blunt political allegory is hard to take too seriously.  Although Rodriguez shies away from commenting seriously on the immigration issue by suggesting that serious commentary wouldn’t be “entertaining,” he also hasn’t hesitated to comment from a satirical point of view, as his “Cinco de Mayo” trailer (sending up the new Arizona immigration law) illustrates.  At the same time, the campy action sequences–including the transformation of Luz into a latter-day Che with better abs–make it seem rather silly that the film would be read as inciting a “race war.”  Finally, the film offers enough subplots that it’s hard to see the film as a simple allegory.  How, for example, are we meant to interpret the subplot involving April (Lindsey Lohan), the daughter of conservative political operative Booth (Jeff Fahey) who transforms from a webcam starlet to a machine-gun slinger wearing a nun’s habit? Or the ability of the virtually mute but muscle-bound Machete to seduce virtually every woman he meets (including April and her mom)?  A running gag reminds us that “Machete doesn’t text,” so is this a satire of geeky (but wimpy) guys?  Or just another way to have fun with Machete’s old-school style?

Because I’ve had a stressful week, I was in the mood for some big, dumb fun and Machete definitely fit the bill.  The film’s treatment of the immigration debate, its satire of race-baiting politicians in particular, was pretty amusing, even if it’s difficult to take it very seriously.  Karina Longworth is most certainly right that the film doesn’t really offer a “consistent” political critique, but the film’s sheer enjoyment of B-movie tropes was a lot of fun, and although its critique is far from coherent, Machete is a fascinating “political” text, in part because of its incoherence.

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Wednesday Links

The latest and greatest from my blog reads over morning coffee:

  • I’m not really in the mood to revive the “film criticism is dead” debate that seems to take place every few months.  I pretty much covered it when I criticized Thomas Doherty’s Chronicle of Higher Education article on the subject a few months ago. But Paul Brunick’s discussion of the changes in film criticism is quite good, and he makes a point that others ignore: if some of the great ’70s critics, such as Pauline Kael, had access to the platforms available online, doesn’t it seem likely that they would have used them?  He also points out that the number of talented writers on the web deserve more institutional support, and dismissive articles about the state of film criticism may have the effect of making those voices less visible.
  • I’ve generally tried to avoid the Justin Bieber hype machine, so I don’t quite know what to make of the news that there are plans to produce a Bieber biopic in 3-D.  Some of the proclamations of impending doom seem sort of silly to me, given that there is a long history of using movies to promote popular musicians.  This film seems to fit neatly into the demographic most likely to see 3-D movies: tweens and their (likely unwilling) parents and seems unlikely to end the revival of 3-D, as the writer at NewTeeVee suggests.  Probably the oddest bit of news in the whole story is that Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth and the upcoming education documentary, Waiting for Superman, is planning to direct.
  • That being said, Anne Thompson has traced some resistance to 3-D, not just among fans but also among directors, including Christopher Nolan, who wisely avoided using 3-D for Inception.  Speaking of 3-D, this image is pretty funny.
  • David Poland has an interesting overview of the “new toys” that are now making more content available anytime, anywhere.  Poland’s concluding questions are well worth asking: “how much anything/anywhere is enough? When does everyone who is not in puberty get to too much/too many places?”
  • Speaking of on-demand, Mike Hale of The New York Times discusses the role of IFC On Demand in expanding access to movies that may not be available in major cities, while adding that more and more filmmakers are seeing on-demand as a “first option.”  Of course as Hale hastens to add, informing audiences about these films is a bigger issue: “The challenge for the viewer is to find what you’re looking for or, more likely, what you don’t yet know you’re looking for.”  I briefly address IFC’s on-demand service in my book, and although acceptance seems to be increasing, I think there is still work to be done to help audiences find some of these movies.
  • Slate did an interesting study of the curation of Sarah Palin’s Facebook page, using a computer program to monitor how many and what kinds of comments are taken down from the site.  See also the Wall Street Journal blog. In addition to negative comments about Palin and her family, the site’s monitors also deleted comments that criticized candidates Palin had endorsed, comments that promoted birtherism, and even comments that complain that she endorses too many women.

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Monday Links

Quick observations about some of the film and media articles that have crossed my radar in the last few days:

  • Everyone is talking about the Jeffrey Rosen article about how the Internet is making us incapable of forgetting and how it is leading to the end of privacy.  The article goes on to suggest that social media are leading to the “end of the fragmented self,” now that all aspects of our lives are visible online.  Although most people seem to buy into Rosen’s arguments, I think Scott Rosenberg offers a much more nuanced reading of how personal reputation “is evolving” in the age of social media.  Rosenberg is correct to point out that much of what is posted online is forgotten or lost.  More crucially, Rosen uses only a small number of cases–one of them several years old–to imply that incriminating photos and Facebook comments are costing people jobs, and as Rosenberg points out, these aren’t ancient comments that come back to haunt someone several years after the fact; they are actually relatively contemporaneous.
  • This week’s In Media Res posts focus on transmedia storytelling, with this week’s curators including Christy Dena, Marc Ruppel, Robert Pratten, Brian Newman, and Ted Hope.  See Ted Hope’s Truly Free Film blog for more details.  Today’s post by Dena takes us back to a 1972 documentary, The Computer Generation, to document just how far we have come with regard to using the computer for artistic purposes.
  • The cinetrix has a near-perfect takedown of the Duplass brothers’ most recent film, Cyrus.  Although I liked the film more than she did, I agree that the film’s conflict between John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill over Marisa Tomei offers a tired rehashing of Eve Sedgwick’s thesis in Between Men. Worse, as she points out, the camerawork is awful, managing to make both Catherine Keener and Tomei look washed out and often out of focus.  Read her post for a beautifully snarky critique and send Tomei and Keener’s agents some better scripts asap.
  • July 24 was the big day for Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald’s YouTube documentary, Day in the Life, though users have until July 31 to submit their footage for the project.  In response, Edward Delaney at Documentary Tech assesses the future of crowdsourced documentary.  I generally agree with Delaney that the planned film shows the strengths and limitations of corwdsourcing, but I’m a little less convinced that the film’s “novelty” will draw out a big audience, especially given similar efforts (The Beastie Boys’ Awesome, I F**** Shot That) in the past.  Worth noting: the Sundance Institute’s marketing efforts that cast the film as “part of history” and to be a part of film that will feature the work of indie filmmakers like Joe Berlinger, Marianna Palka, and Caleb Deschanel.
  • After Andrew Breitbart’s craven attempts to disparage Shirley Sherrod through a heavily-edited video, I’ve found myself thinking about the role of web video in political discourse again.   TPM has an interesting article discussing efforts by the Democratic National Committee to train video trackers to capture conservative campaign missteps on video in search of a new “macaca moment,” as part of their “Accountability Project.” Here is a photo, courteous of TPM, that they were distributing at this year’s Netroots Nation convention.
  • Finally, The Yes Men have leapt into the free distribution game, making their movie, The Yes Men Fix the World, available for download on Bit Torrent and other websites, with the hopes that appreciative fans will circulate the film as widely as possible.

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