Archive for cultural studies

Betting on the House

270px-House_of_Cards_title_cardMy social media feeds are practically overflowing with references to the second season of the hit Netflix series House of Cards, many of them assessing the show’s realism (or at least fidelity to recent political events) and its mechanics for maintaining suspense (we know Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood will succeed; the pleasure is in seeing how he manages to do so). The show doesn’t just confirm our perception of Washington as hopelessly corrupt, it revels in that. The show has prompted readings that identify it as feminist, while Alyssa Rosenberg identifies a far more problematic depiction of gender politics.

But even more attention has been paid (and more digital ink spilled) focusing on what the success of House of Cards means for the future of television. One of the best assessments comes from Matthew Yglesias, who offers a pretty insightful analysis of the structural aspects of the entertainment industry that currently favor Netflix over its chief competition, HBO (arguments that are not unlike some of the points Max Dawson and I raised in our essay, “Streaming U: College Students and Connected Viewing“). Yglesias points out that Netflix benefits from several key advantages over HBO: first, it’s significantly cheaper than HBO, especially for cordcutters who are not paying for a cable television subscription, and as Dawson and I argue, a large proportion of college students fall into this category. If college students are habituated into subscribing to Netflix, those habits may carry over after graduation. In fact, Yglesias astutely diagnoses that users are often likely to share HBO Go passwords (although this also happens with Netflix). Finally, Yglesias, like pretty much everyone else points out that Netflix has also tapped into the pleasures of binge watching by releasing all episodes of a “season” simultaneously, a technique that rewards the kinds of intense viewing that many fans have embraced.

This emphasis on binge watching has provoked a number of essays attempting to define binge watching and addressing whether or not the practices of binging are harmful or not. Nolan Feeney of The Atlantic offers an elaborate taxonomy of binge watching, detailing everything from how many episodes have to be watched to call it “binging” to whether binging is a harmful activity. Others, like Slate’s Emma Roller, defend the practices of binge watching by suggesting that it encourages more attentive viewing (Slate’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang also defends binging). But the implication throughout is that our on-demand culture allows us immediate, intense, inexpensive, and uninterrupted access to texts that inspire passionate discussion.

That said, there may be some complicating factors that dislodge Netflix’s “disruptive” distribution model. As Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn reports, broadband caps that limit the amount of data that consumers can use in a given month are becoming more widespread (and with the imminent merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, likely to become even more common). According to Harris’s calculations, a particularly avid binge watcher consuming movies in high-definition, as Netflix and Amazon deliver them, is likely to use her entire data allotment in the course of a single weekend (the data costs for avid gamers would be even worse).  This potentially makes Netflix a more expensive alternative than a basic cable subscription with HBO added on. The future of streaming could follow a number of different directions, but it’s important to note that this mode of consumption may prove to be a temporary form that is upset by any number of technological, political, and economic forces. In the future, we may binge-watch the old-fashioned way: on DVD.

Comments

Primetime Politics

I’ve been out of the loop for the last few weeks, but several people have requested that I post my syllabus for my junior seminar, “Primetime Politics,” which focuses on representations of Washington D.C., in Hollywood films and TV series. Obviously there is way too much out there to cover, especially in a junior level course, so I decided to focus on a few major strains: historical films (and some documentaries) depicting actual presidents or public figures; backstage narratives that look at the behind the scenes aspects of DC culture (Scandal, Thank You for Smoking, and House of Cards all fall into this admittedly broad category); and finally parodies and satires of DC life (Colbert and Stewart are big, but I’ll also cover SNL’s depiction of politicians from Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford to Tina Fey’s uncanny depiction of Sarah Palin). I’m trying to avoid a fully straight-forward chronological organization, so I will start with John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln before doubling back to Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

At one time, I was leaning toward teaching only texts that were available on Netflix. When I discovered that Netflix’s selection was too thin for what I needed, I did decide to put personal DVD copies on reserve for a few films, but in making that choice, I ended up leaving out a couple of films (Bob Roberts, in particular) that I think would have worked well. I strongly considered including something like The Parallax View to reflect Watergate-era cynicism, but couldn’t quite work it in. I also considered using JFK as an alternate form of myth-making (to compare to Lincoln), but Oliver Stone’s direction typically gives me a headache. The class starts tomorrow (Tuesday, January 14), so I have time to do some last minute tweaks if you have any suggestions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments

Primetime Politics

This spring, I’ll be teaching our department’s junior seminar, which I’ll be structuring around the theme of “Primetime Politics.” I’ve written quite a bit in the past about citizen-generated political mashupsonline parody videos, and image macros that mix popular culture with political commentary. To some extent, this grew out of a fascination with the debates about how social media tools were opening new forms of political engagement. But more recently, these interests have led me to think about how Washington, D.C. has been depicted in television and film. Washington culture has certainly become the subject of fascination for many TV viewers with shows like Scandal, House of Cards, and Homeland currently attracting enormous attention, while parodies of DC politics (SNL, The Daily Show, and Colbert) also continue to play a vital role in how we think about politics, even to the point that Daily Show appearances can lead to political operatives getting fired.

With that in mind, I’m planning to structure the course around popular culture depictions of Washington, D.C., both past and present. For now, I expect to bracket off most documentaries, like Fahrenheit 9/11, and instead focus on scripted entertainment and will likely focus to some extent on contemporary media, although I’d like to take a look at a few past texts. I’ve generated a longish list of TV and film texts that I’m considering, knowing that I likely won’t be able to show all of them in a 16-week course. I’d welcome suggestions of texts that I might be missing and with the TV series suggestions about specific episodes that you believe might resonate the most. For Scandal, for example, I am strongly considering showing season one, episodes six and seven, which traces a major portion of the “Amanda Tanner affair” plot, while also introducing quite a bit of backstory to the president’s campaign. For The West Wing, I’m considering showing the debate episode (between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick) and one early episode. Below the break, I’ve listed some of the movies and TV shows that I’m considering and some (very) loose themes to organize them.

Obviously it’s somewhat inaccurate to suggest that we have evolved from a naive faith in Washington to a more skeptical or cynical view (one could hardly be more cynical than Kubrick in Strangelove), and the 1990s introduced a number of polarizing views on (sexual) scandal and the role of media in shaping political perception. K Street and The War Room potentially help to turn DC insiders such as James Carville into “stars,” a situation that eventually inspires Stewart and Colbert’s satirical response to these media narratives. I’m turning over writing an article or even a longer text on some of these issues, so suggestions about both readings and texts (movies, TV shows, and even novels or short stories) would be much appreciated.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

The Heat

Reactions to the female buddy-cop movie, The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, have been predictably polarizing. Many female critics have praised the film for its self-aware reworking of the tropes of the buddy-cop movie, while others, including Andrew O’Hehir, express disappointment that The Heat falls into storytelling cliches–drug dealers, many of them minorities, hiding out in abandoned warehouses–offering regressive humor in the guise of feminism. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wells, citing A.O. Scott’s indifferent review, seems to offer a tacit disdain for the lowbrow (or possibly white bread) humor of the film, even resolving to “just man up” and fork over the fifteen bucks to see the movie. Implied in many of these reviews is the idea that a mainstream film with two female leads also somehow needs to be revolutionary or subversive in order to be worth our time.

A description of The Heat’s plot would lead us to believe that it is formulaic: Straitlaced FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) joins forces with the edgy, emotional Boston street cop Shannon Mullins to pursue a drug kingpin. Ashburn is so conservative and isolated by her duty to her work that her only companion is a cat, a neighbor’s cat. Mullins is bawdy and sexually self-assured, and the streets of Boston seem to be littered with needy guys that she has abandoned. They each have their own motivations for pursuing the kingpin–Ashburn wants a promotion, Mullins wants to protect her brother–and like most buddy-cop movies, they violate a laundry list of police protocols along the way. Purely on that level, I can see why O’Hehir might be hoping for more, even when he acknowledges that much of this is completely “agreeable” and fun, especially the undeniable chemistry between the two lead actresses. O’Hehir’s reading is pretty close to my initial reaction to the film: it was a fun way to pass two hours at the movies with my family, even if it ran a little long in places.

But what sold me on the film was the NPR review by Linda Holmes. While her headline oversells The Heat a little bit by describing it as “revolutionary,” her review captures the aspects of the movie that are pretty rewarding. First, I think she’s right to point out that the film doesn’t overplay McCarthy’s weight, focusing instead on her manic energy (other than one early scene where Mullins struggles to squeeze out of a window). Second, Holmes points out some of the ways that the film uses typical female buddy-movie tropes and seems to turn them on their head. Throughout the film, there are several jokes at Ashburn’s expense regarding her conservative wardrobe (all buttoned-up pantsuits), which sets the stage for the inevitable makeover scene, which takes a place in a nightclub where Mullins (quite literally) rips Ashburn’s clothes to shreds in order to make her fit in at the nightclub where they are staking out a dealer. As Holmes points out, the scene is a “twisted, tortured parody” of typical makeover scenes where a character’s beauty is revealed only when she gets the right (usually expensive) clothes.

To some extent, we’ve been here before with Bullock. As Anne Helen Petersen pointed out some time ago, Bullock’s films are often filled with the promise of transformation, hence her appeal to her female fans. She is often cast as a “non-glamorous protagonist” who is able to transform herself–and her material conditions–by the end of the film. But what makes this film work for me is that this transformation isn’t based on romantic affirmation or even necessarily professional affirmation from a male boss. Instead, it’s almost completely based on the friendship between the two women. If this film were subject to the “Bechdel Test,” which asks whether a movie depicts two female characters talking about something other than romance with a male character, not only would it pass, but it also seems to suggest that romance is beside the point. Yes, Ashburn shows a slight attraction to an FBI colleague (played by Marlon Wayans), but the real story is is the female friendship. The police subplot, we know from having seen others in the genre, will work itself out, and it does so mostly in entertaining fashion.

I don’t think The Heat is revolutionary. It’s also easy to forget some of the precedents when it comes to the female buddy-cop genre (after all, Cagney and Lacey was a top-rated TV show for years). But it still offers something relatively rare, in much the same way that Bridesmaids upended the male “wild party” comedy subgenre. It offers two, talented female comediennes in entertaining roles that subtly challenges gender norms. And in a multiplex dominated by somber superheroes and zombie hunters, we need more of this type of counter-programming.

Comments (1)

Hollywood Imploding

I was revisiting Steven Soderbergh’s widely-discussed “State of Cinema” address from the San Francisco International Film Festival when I came across today’s news that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas–speaking at an event at USC–stated that the Hollywood studio system would “implode.” Given that Spielberg and Lucas were speaking at the opening of USC’s Interactive Media Building (where students would theoretically be preparing themselves for careers in the entertainment industry), their comments seem even more ominous. Like Soderbergh, the two star directors describe a distribution culture that is both on the verge of collapse and closed off to innovative storytelling. But while this Hollywood narrative of collapse invites quite a bit of buzz–articles about Spielberg and Lucas’s talk have been circulating widely on Twitter and Facebook–it’s also a story with a number of holes in it.

First, Spielberg asserts that “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” Such claims are tempting, especially when looking at the tepid results of films like the Will Smith vehicle After Earth, but these box-office bombs are often balanced with low-risk successes such as The Purge, which has made $43 million so far on a budget of $3 million (not to mention all of the countless Paranormal Activity sequels). Thus, suggesting that studios “would rather” focus solely on making big-budget films misses the mark considerably.

Spielberg and Lucas, echoing Soderbergh’s earlier comments, imply that personal projects will now inevitable wind up being distributed online or on television. Soderbergh, who has in the past placed microbudgeted films on the big screen, reported that he released his HBO biopic, Behind the Candelabra, via HBO because it was seen as too much of a financial risk to distribute theatrically, while Spielberg similarly stated that Lincoln was “this close” (imagine thumb and index finger inches apart) to being distributed through the cable channel. Implicit in these comments is the idea that TV (or streaming) offers an inferior experience to film, even though both directors have worked in both media throughout their careers. There is something mournful in their comments (not unlike those from Soderbergh).

That said, in the post-DVD, on-demand era, such claims about theatrical distribution have been circulating for a while. Mark Gill was making similar warnings back in 2008. But even with Gill’s dire descriptions of indie distributors shutting down or paring back on buying new titles, what’s happening now is far from a collapse. Instead, what we are witnessing is what amounts to a realignment and reworking of traditional business models. Scott Macauley captures this in his report on the 2013 Cannes Film Market, where he points out the lack of consensus around today’s distribution marketplace. Most notably, he observes that VOD is working best in the United States, that China continues to be a “difficult” market, and that older audiences still hold tremendous appeal for the art-house circuit thanks to the success of films like Exotic Marigold Hotel.

But what’s most perplexing from my oint of view is the discussion of (1) the future of moviegoing and (2) the culture of videogames. In terms of moviegoing, Lucas makes what seems like a remarkably odd prediction, suggesting that movie theaters will morph into a Broadway model, where individual films will premiere with $50-100 tickets and will linger in theaters for over a year. Given some of the incentives for theatrical churn (more movies=more opportunities for ticket sales, big screen movies must quickly “compete with” pirated versions), this idea seems counterintuitive at best. While I can imagine event screenings, even of big budget releases (say, Iron Man 4, in which Robert Downey and the gang do a live Q&A with theaters across the globe), these event screenings depend on scarcity models, not on long-term access. Once the film has been in thousands of theaters for several weeks, scarcity is no longer a selling point.

Their points about video games are just as odd. Spielberg argued–somewhat oddly–that video games had failed to create any characters with which the player could feel “empathy.” Lucas echoed this claim by suggesting that the next revolutionary video game would be one aimed at girls and that would mix action with an “empathetic” character making it the “Titanic of video games.” While I’m not an avid gamer, empathy in games seems to be beside the point. That’s not to suggest that a game can’t be used to tell a powerful story, but their accounts of gaming seem to discount (or outright ignore) many of the pleasures–especially the social aspects of online, multiplayer games–of gaming. Games don’t have to offer a choice between “actual relationships” and “shooting people.”

There is little question that the industry is changing. Tentpole films do serve as a major focus for the studios. Although the theaters were showing art house projects by Polanski, Ozon, Kore-Eda, Soderbergh, Jarmusch, and Payne (among others), the mise-en-scene of Cannes itself was dominated by large banners promoting hollywood blockbusters. Entire hotel walls were covered by posters for The Lone Ranger, The Great Gatsby, and The Hunger Games. But it’s also clear that the festival’s Competition films still mattered. They drove the discussion at Cannes, and whether we encounter these movies on the big screen, on cable, or on our laptops, they will still generate conversation, and distinct artists will still work to ensure that their voices are heard.

Comments (2)

Mars Landing

Yesterday, I mentioned the Veronica Mars movie Kickstarter project and suggested that it would likely get funding. I didn’t quite expect it to reach its $2 million funding goal in less than 24 hours. But I think the fact that the show had a comparatively large (as opposed to the many relatively unknown independent artists who use the site) and incredibly enthusiastic fan base shows that crowdfunding can work incredibly well for the right kind of project. As James Poniewozik suggests, Kickstarter may be a means for creators to “monetize depth, not breadth, of interest,” allowing fans to put their money where their fandom is. In my previous post, I briefly addressed the idea that crowdfunding could function somewhat similarly to the way in which “foreign pre-sales” were used to guarantee funding for independent films, and I’m trying to work through that comparison a little further. Like foreign pre-sales, crowdfunding provides money that will help get the film made, as well as a guaranteed audience that will watch the film (if you “donate” to get the movie made, you’re also likely to pony up to pay for a movie ticket down the road). There are obvious differences: the foreign pre-sales helped provide up to 20-30% of an indie budget, but the buyers were essentially paying for distribution rights before the film was released. Crowdfunders aren’t investing for the sake of profit; they are doing so simply because tehy want a project to get made.

This leads Richard Lawson of the Atlantic to complain about the ethos of Kickstarter, suggesting that it really isn’t a “donor” system because the people who are asking for money on the site don’t “really need it.” He goes on to add that donating to support professional artists and creators–he also singles out Amanda Palmer’s $1.2 million campaign to finance a folk album–ignores other charities that really deserve or need our money. Certainly, there is a reasonable point here about the needs to address global poverty, the importance of supporting political causes we find valuable, and so on, but I wonder if people who give to Kickstarter campaigns are doing so out of charitable impulses or if they are seeing it as a kind of “investment” in the entertainment they want to see. If tossing ten bucks in a hat to get a Veronica Mars movie made (and to get a couple of perks that will have collectible and, arguably, emotional value) is necessary, I think many people are willing to pay that price in the same way that we all make decisions about what concerts to attend, what DVDs to buy, and whether to pony up for a premium cable channel like HBO.

Sure, in some cases, creators make a pitch that appeals to the donor ethos, but I didn’t detect that in the Veronica Mars pitch. Instead I saw an appeal to the enjoyment that many people had–references to the show’s narrative and visual style and to the ability to spend at least a few more hours “hanging out” with these characters. I do have some concern that this will become a more standard technique in funding “independent” projects down the road, especially since Warner will eventually be involved in making the movie. What does it mean that we are paying in to support these projects–and to be fair, I’ve only donated to one Kickstarter project–to provide studios with a way to protect themselves from facing as much financial risk?

I’m skeptical about Lawson’s other contention that Kickstarter fundraising is essentially a “passive” activity. Yes, the Veronica Mars crew had to do very little during their campaign (which was funded in a day or so), perhaps, but they did spend several years developing the characters that clearly meant something to thousands of enthusiastic backers. I do think that we need better theories of what it means to crowdfund, especially in an evolving and complex media ecosystem, one in which “independence” is also a highly ambiguous term, but I think that dismissing it because it fails to adhere to an idealized notion of a “donor” system misses out on what might motivate people to support a project financially.

Update: Kieran Masterton, who worked on the distribution platform OpenIndie (among many other endeavors) has some nice reflections about this topic, addressing whether the Veronica Mars campaign is in the spirit of Kickstarter’s donor model. A point that I’d skipped earlier is the question of transparency and whether the Veronica Mars team was fully honest about their intentions for the project, and I agree with Kieran that they were. They clearly disclose their relationship with Warner and make clear that the campaign is meant to demonstrate to Warner that there is a deep interest in the film. Given how many people supported the project financially (now over 45,000), I’d also be curious to know the metrics of what that would translate into in terms of an estimated opening weekend audience, given that many thousands of people did not support the project financially but would see the film.

Update 2: Immediately after I published this, S.T. Van Airsdale answers some of my questions about the financial implications, and many, many others. If you’re interested in the math of this–including the substantial costs of the perks for donating, this post is well worth reading.

Update 3: Last one, I promise. But I’m intrigued by Josh Wolk’s reading of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter frenzy in terms of nostalgia. Of course, it’s not surprising that fans would rally around a cult show that was perceived to have ended too early, but I wonder if Wolk is correct in surmising that it’s less about wanting the show itself (although obviously fans want that) than it is about being “back at the time when you enjoyed it,” a return fantasy. Wolk is also explicit (in a way that I should have been) about the connections between Kickstarter and on-demand culture, about our desires to get even more of our favorite shows, movies, and characters, long after widespread demand for them is exhausted. Wolk’s argument builds upon an old column by Matt Zoller Seitz that admonishes fans for attempting to resuscitate dead shows.

Comments (2)

Defining Digital Spectatorship

It’s almost impossible to know where to start with Netflix’s latest publicity gambit, the Flixies, a series of awards in categories that are meant to mock the conventions of watching movies and TV shows on streaming video. The most obvious is complete astonishment at whoever thought that a category called “Best PMS Drama” would actually be considered funny. Or you know, not offensive. Compare that to the more masculine “Best Bromance” category, and it’s hard not to miss the fact that gender stereotypes about media viewing are permeating into the realm of streaming video. As many of my Twitter friends have observed, Netflix has just made everyone’s next unit on gender studies that much easier to teach. The PMS category is so silly that it’s not difficult to imagine Reed Hastings throwing together a hastily produced apology video, much like his poolside mea culpa after the Qwikster announcement.

Even so, some of the choices of categories–and the films included in them–demand further analysis, in part to see what Netflix is implying about how we use these VOD services, how they fit into gender dynamics, how they fit into family life, and how they fill time during our daily schedules. I’ll admit that I’m perplexed by the inclusion of Friday Night Lights and First Wives Club as nominees in the PMS category, in particular. Friday Night Lights doesn’t seem, to my mind, to be specifically coded as female, and First Wives Club seems like a film that wouldn’t attract a lot of attention given that it was a moderate hit something like 20 years ago. Meanwhile, many of the “Bromance” films don’t seem to fit that category (which I normally associate with movies like Point Break or pretty much anything by Judd Apatow) at all.

But what seems most notable about many of the categories is that they seem to engage with the time frames that shape how and when we watch. Most obviously categories like “TV Marathon” (Notably the Netflix-produced House of Cards is included here) reflect our habits of binge watching, while Best Commute Shrtner (and yes, they omitted the “o”) depicts the idea of using VOD to fill empty time during subway or bus commutes–and also, notably, includes shows that seem geared primarily to male audiences. But even a category like “Best Hangover Cure” (which scandalously failed to include The Big Lebowski) implies lazy weekend viewing. Less directly related to the idea of time is the category Best Tantrum Tamer, which focuses on TV shows and movies that help entertain impatient or bored children, underscoring Netflix’s status as the latest in a long line of electronic babysitters.

The Flixies crossed my radar just a few hours after I discovered a couple of Netflix television advertisements that have apparently begun playing in the last few days (which also seem to have their own gender issues). the first, “Miss Know It All” features an oblivious woman who goes around spoiling television series before her friends and acquaintances before they have a chance to watch. “Spoilers” have become easy villains  in the era of complex TV narratives, but this ad, which urges us to “watch responsibly” makes out the practices of binge watching to be a social norm. Similarly “Preparation” depicts a bromantic trip to the local  bulk food store to stock up on supplies so that the guys can watch six consecutive seasons of a favorite show. In both cases, Netflix is promoted as enabling our most obsessive traits as media consumers.

So while it would be easy to focus solely on the silly genre categories, I also wonder what else Netflix is telling us about the way we use streaming video. Given Netflix’s extensive and well-documented use of “big data,” it seems unlikely that these categories were chosen completely on a whim. Instead, many of these categories (and the films contained within them) are likely being drawn from existing practices, even while they help to reinforce actions such as binge viewing, spoiler antipathy, and distracting bored children. After engaging viewers by producing and promoting its original programming, Netflix now seems determined to participate more deeply in the process or redefining spectatorship in the era of streaming video.

Comments (2)

Sunday Links, Hulu, Video Privacy, and 56 Up

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

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

Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments (4)

Are We “Bored” with 3D

Somehow I lost track of the fact that my interview with Craig Lindsey about “3D Boredom” was published in Raleigh’s Indy Weekly. I think Craig asked some really good questions and did an excellent job of paring down a thirty-minute conversation into a good discussion of the issues. I still find myself going back to one or two basic observations about the place of 3D in the entertainment economy:

First, I still see it playing a key role in driving the transition to digital projection in theaters, both in the United States and especially abroad. That’s going to continue for a while, especially as the number of 3D screens in China increases dramatically over the next decade or so.

Second, in terms of consumer interest, I think we’ve reached the stage where consumers and studios alike will be making cost-benefit analyses to determine if the 3D will be worthwhile. For consumers, in particular, they are beginning to ask if the extra $3-4 per ticket worth it. The answer, I’d argue is far more complicated than simply an aesthetic appreciation of 3D or a decision about whether a film “needs” 3D (although those are factors).

In general, though, I’ll say that the conversation with Craig was a fun, engaging, and productive one, and I hope you enjoy his synthesis of it.

Comments

Eastwooding, Or Old Man Yells at Chair

Given my interests in the intersections between politics, humor, popular culture, and social media, I found the responses to Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, ad-libbed campaign performance art at the Republican National Convention to be completely irresistible. In case you missed it, the Hollywood icon (whose movies I admire) gave a 10-minute speech supporting Mitt Romney in which he lectured an empty chair meant to represent current president, Barack Obama, asking “him” questions about why he has failed to deliver on his campaign promises. From a conservative perspective, there’s probably a valid point embedded in the speech–Obama as empty suit or whatever–but the impromptu nature of the talk has made it the subject of widespread mockery on the political web.

To some extent, the mockery derives from the fact that Eastwood’s performance before the RNC departs so radically from his star persona as a tough-talking Dirty Harry-type. Instead, the bit accentuated his age, a perception that was probably reinforced by his slightly disheveled hair and by the fact that he was ad-libbing and often seemed to be searching for the right words. The performance also departed radically from the rest of the RNC, which appeared to be tightly scripted, a perception that is mocked in this Photoshopped image from The Simpsons showing an altered headline in which Abe Simpson “yells at a chair” (the original if I recall says “cloud” instead of chair).

But as Chris Becker documented in an indispensable post on her News for TV Majors site, there were literally hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts that showed up within seconds of Eastwood’s appearance. One of the most notable was the appearance of the Invisible Obama Twitter feed, which was created during Eastwood’s speech and which now has 45,000 followers less than a day after the speech (one of “his” best tweets: “Someone should tell Marco Rubio he’s standing on my foot right now”). Eastwood’s speech also provided an excuse for celebrities to weigh in with both supportive and humorous content, all of it documented by Entertainment Weekly. Among the best remarks was Seth Myers’ “props” to Eastwood for bringing down Twitter. Even the Obama campaign got in on the act with an amusing, if slightly smug, tweet showing Obama seated in the Oval Office, saying “this seat’s taken.”

But one of the more common responses has been the practice of having a picture taken of a person pointing to an empty chair and acting as if the subject is lecturing it–a practice that has quickly become known as “Eastwooding,” although many of them feature pets and even children. Ana Marie Cox has identified this picture as the “original” Eastwooding image, but in any case, the empty chair has now become a key signifier in the political blogosphere, one whose meanings will probably take some time to settle into place (although I think the Abe Simpson image probably tells us the direction this is heading).

Finally, there is another Invisible Obama meme, one that features a photograph of Eastwood gesturing toward the empty chair with a red, white, and blue background. The Meme Generator allows people to enter their own text to create captions that comment on Eastwood or use his performance to make a commentary on politics. On a brief glance at most of the images that have been generated, they are generally anti-Romney or anti-Republican. My favorite so far actually makes reference to another popular meme, the “Most Interesting Man in the World” images that mock or make use of the character from the Dos Equis advertisements. The Meme Generator is especially interesting to me in that it readily invites the participation of others who may have limited coding or video editing skills. It also fascinated in that, like Twitter, it benefits heavily from verbal dexterity, even while participants have the ability to riff of a specific image, creating an incredibly low barrier to participation (although, in an odd sort of way, it doesn’t seem that remote from the longtime New Yorker contests inviting readers to provide captions for its cartoons). Facebook and Twitter users can also share and comment on many of these images without having to create new ones themselves, so that provides another important layer of participation.

I’ve been fascinated by political memes for a long time, in part because they invite citizen participation, but also because they allow untapped political meanings to gain expression, often through coded language associated with popular culture. Most of these Eastwood memes show a fluency with popular culture that invites sharing–they’ve also attracted the attention of George Takei, which never hurts–so it’ll be interesting to see how the Eastwood meme plays out over the next several months.

 

Comments (8)

Streaming Flow

One of the characteristics normally associated with on-demand programming is the idea that it is menu-driven, rather than being driven by the continuity of television channels. Even so, a number of people who use streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu used these services to engage in binge viewing practices, where they would watch several episodes of a show in sequence by clicking through ordered menus. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about this practice, one that points out some of the industry ramifications–most notably the fact that binge viewing cuts into traditional revenue models based on advertising and syndication–but it also touches briefly on how this changes the culture of TV viewing (notably one Netflix executive discourages the use of the term “binge viewing,” suggesting that it makes the practice sound “pathological”). But as these practices have evolved, it is interesting to see Netflix attempt to program binge viewing into their streaming video service using a feature they call “Post-Play.”

The feature, which has been available on the laptop and PS3 versions of Netflix was recently announced on their official blog, and essentially the feature is set up so that the credits are minimized and the following episode will be cued up in another corner of the screen. If the viewer does nothing, the next episode will automatically start. As a result, binge viewing becomes the default option rather than something viewers have to actively create. In a sense, this brings us to a new version of what Raymond Williams referred to as “televisual flow,” in which TV is structured or organized in a way that is deliberately designed to keep us watching (and in Williams’ case, designed to keep us watching the same channel).

But what I find fascinating about the announcement is the reaction to the feature in the comments. Hating Netflix has become kind of an art form, where bloggers, commenters, and others complain about some aspect of Netflix (often in a manner that seems excessive, given the relative novelty of streaming video), but in the comments, you can also begin to see a fairly sophisticated discussion of how on-demand movies and TV shows are contributing to an evolution in viewing practices. Some commenters complain that the feature makes it more difficult to view the credits, while others state that having the new episode start right away disrupts the sensory pleasures of savoring an episode while the credits and music play. Others suggest that the feature should be opt-in so that viewers who want to continue watching an episode don’t have to hit a button to continue watching. Finally, many viewers point out that extra scenes are often embedded deep into the credits so that a viewer may miss an important scene. These comments point to valuable questions about how viewing practices and interfaces are constantly in negotiation in the current moment of media in transition.

Comments

Selling (to) China

Steven Zeitchik and Jonathan Landreth have a fascinating must-read article that explores how the Chinese market is affecting creative decisions made by Hollywood studios (also Check out Zeitchik’s blog post on the topic). Because of China’s growing middle class (and the further opening up of their movie quota system), studios are working harder to produce content that will satisfy the relatively strict censors at China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television while also working to court Chinese businesses for production funds.

Some of these changes are relatively minimal: The movie Battleship was tweaked to give Chinese scientists credit for first identifying the alien invaders. Others are more substantial. The remake of Red Dawn (which seems to have been in process for ages) was re-edited to change the U.S. invaders from Chinese to North Korean, while Chinese bioelectric engineers were added as “experts” to the movie Salmon Fishing in Yemen, when there were no similar characters in the original novel. In all cases, narrative and character decisions are being made with some awareness about how (and even whether) the film will play legally in the Chinese market.

Zeitchik and Landreth characterize these decisions as a form of “censorship” in a couple of places, but I’m not quite sure that’s the right way of describing what is happening (or I would at least like to qualify the concept of censorship here). Yes, undesirable images may be censored, and in some cases literally cut, from movies, as happened when Chow Yun Fat’s scenes were removed from one of the Pirates of Caribbean movies. And these decisions may shape the kinds of projects that get funded. I’d imagine, for example, that a studio might now be much more reluctant to finance a project like Seven Years in Tibet. But “economic censorship” is quite a bit different than state censorship, and filmmakers theoretically could reject working with Chinese companies, as Relatively Media did when it was threatened with a boycott by human rights groups angered that they planned to film in a location close to wehere activist Chen Guangcheng was being held under house arrest. And if this means that we will get fewer racist caricatures of Chinese people and cultures, then I think there is some value in respecting these markets. This doesn’t mean that state censorship isn’t functioning here–China’s censorship practices are well-documented–but it is still the case that most of the motivations for Hollywood for altring content are economic.

Still, I think the article is an important read if only because it illustrates the degree to which these forms of economic censorship function in shaping cinematic storytelling, and more significantly, how these changed storytelling practices are being driven not necessarily (or even primarily in some cases) by American sensibilities but by those of a wider, globalized audience and by the state and economic interests that seek to shape the content of Hollywood entertainment.

Comments

“Just Like Buying a Bag of M&Ms”

In doing some research on digital movie distribution, I have become fascinated by the role of movie kiosks as tools for renting, and in some cases selling, movies. Probably the most visible–and most disruptive–version of the use of kiosks has been Redbox, which now has over 35,000 DVD vending machines in retailers, fast food restaurants, and airports across the United States and Canada. I’ve discussed Redbox in some detail in an article I published in the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, where I linked Redbox’s success, in part, to its ability to cater to families, especially those with young children, while also attempting to map out how Redbox’s cheap rentals (along wit Netflix’s streaming service) were changing the “value” of a copy of a movie. When consumers learn that they can pay a dollar or so for a night’s movie rental, there is little incentive to pay $15-20 for a copy of the film.

But this focus on Redbox’s role in shaping the value of cinematic texts (recall David Bordwell’s argument that “films have become files”) placed too much emphasis on the novelty of that particular company and ignored a number of other past precedents and new practices in automated video vending. Many of the origin stories about Redbox discuss Mitch Lowe’s past failed attempt to create a VHS vending service in the 1980s called Video Droid, but since then, I have been running into a number of other examples of services that have a longish history in both Europe and East Asia. Currently, I am still learning more about some of these services, and if you have any experience with them, I’d appreciate any guidance (in the comments, on Facebook, Twitter, or by email). One of the more dominant services appears to be Cinebank, a video vending machine (some locations called it a “video vestibule”) company operating in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Oddly, it appears that although the machines operate 24 hours a day, you must register in advance and can only do so during certain hours of the day, and in order to register users must provide their finger print. But from what I have been able to tell, Cinebank–or at least the company that manufactures their kiosks–has been in operation since the 1990s.

In other sites, video kiosks appear to be having less success. The British service Rent it Here has been in and out of administration in the last month or so, and from what I can gather, despite some early enthusiasm, another service, The Movie Booth, has also been relatively unsuccessful, but I am still trying to sort out some details there. These also appear to have disappeared, but there were a couple of predecessors to Redbox here in the United States. The most prominent one that I could find was MovieBankUSA, an off-shoot of Cinebank, the European automated video vendor, but unlike Redbox, MovieBank charged $3.50 per rental, and stories about this service also disappear sometime around 2008 or 2009, but like Redbox, the service was promoted as a convenience to consumers, one that was available 24 hours a day. Unlike Redbox, the service gave each member a PIN that could be used to access movies, and the service encouraged parents to create unique PINs for each family member so that their children couldn’t rent inappropriate movie titles. The service also used a “block” system, in which users could pre-pay $50 to get seventy dollars’ worth of rentals. Interestingly, MovieBank targeted not only retail locations but office complexes and apartment buildings. There was also a service in Singapore that also shut down, and like Cinebank, it required a thumbprint, but in the limited discussion I have seen (and much of this is only on Lexis-Nexis, so I can’t link), it sounds like Singapore’s small size, its later business hours, and the vaster selection at video stores (and online) made those options more attractive than kiosks.

There was also an attempt back in 2008 to rent or sell movies using flash drives pioneered by a service called Porto Media. At the time, there was a lot of skepticism regarding the service, and I don’t see any indication that the service ever took off. But in the last few weeks, another service, Digiboo, is attempting to try flash drives again, this time by targeting travelers in airports. I’ve seen a few Redbox kiosks in airports, and it seems that sites of enforced waiting (often without access to wi-fi) such as airports serve as ideal locations for cheap video rentals. Digiboo is quite a bit more expensive for rentals than Redbox, but it allows users the option to purchase, and unlike Porto Media, it benefits from increased processing power, with some downloads taking only about 30 seconds, with Digiboo’s chief marketing officer frequently comparing video vending to buying a bag of M&Ms.

It’s obviously too early to make any predictions about whether Digiboo will function as a useful alternative to Redbox. I know that I don’t often travel with a spare flash drive (although I probably should), but by contrast, I also plan my in-flight reading activity well in advance of any trip that I take, so I am likely not the best judge. What I am trying to uncover is why certain models (Redbox, Cinebank) seem successful while others disappear, often without any media attention whatsoever. Why might some locations and populations be more prepared to embrace kiosks while others are not? It’s easy to dismiss Redbox (and probably other kiosk services) as feeding into “lowest common denominator” entertainment, but rather than seeing kiosks merely as reinforcing the popular, it’s worth asking how they fit into a wider everyday media culture.

Comments

What Else I’m Reading

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

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

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

 

Comments