Archive for July, 2003

Twenty-Five Years Ago Today…

Just realized that I first moved to Atlanta about twenty-five years ago this week (I’m not sure about the exact date). I do remember that I saw my first Atlanta Braves baseball game on August 1, 1978, the night that Pete Rose’s 44 game hitting streak came to an end. The game ended dramatically with Rose striking out in the ninth inning with one last chance to keep the streak alive. The game was a rare Braves victory by the score of 16-4. If I remember correctly, four $6 tickets put my family about fifteen rows behind home plate. I thought it was a pretty cool night.

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Happy Endings and Afterimages

I’m still thinking about issues pertaining to the temporality of blogging and had the good fortune of coming across an interesting definition via Jill’s blog: In weezBlog, Elouise Oyzon writes,

Blogs are a first person narrative in real time.

Can’t wait to see how mine turns out. I do so hope it has a happy ending. Don’t we all?

I certainly like this definition and the way in which it plays with the two forms of immediacy (personal and temporal) associated with blogging. There’s an interesting wrinkle or two here, one that I keep trying to grasp. First, I’m struck by Elouise’s mention of the much desired “happy ending.” Much of the writing I do (I won’t speak for anyone else) anticipates certain conclusions (finishing an article or book, securing a happy relationship, getting a tenure-track job), some of which–of course–entail new beginnings. Then again, as Margaret Atwood reminds us, there’s really only one way of ending a story. But this sense of anticipation seems structurally crucial to my blogging, and may be relevant to others.

I’m also working through some of the contradictions raised by the attempt to capture “real time,” the temporal immeidacy of blogging, and the project of the archive. In Mary Ann Doane’s latest book, she comments on the tension in recent technologies of representation between the desire for immediacy and the wish to archive. Doane comments that

“The obsession with instantaneity and the instant … leads to the contradictory desire of archiving presence. For what is archivable loses its presence, becomes immediately the past” (82).

In this sense, I’d like to add to the notion of blogs as “first person narrations in real time” the concept of the after-image, where what appears to be instantaneous, present, might actually be marked (perhaps usefully) by delay.

There is certainly something imprecise about imposing a visual metaphor onto the textual medium of blogging, but in a strange way, I think it fits. Both film (in its original form) and blogging are characterized by similar desires–the desire to produce a stable representation of the present. Both are characterized by their sequential structure, although film’s sequentiality (24 frames per second) is much more structured than the blogger’s. And, of course, blogging is much more explicitly characterized by a subjective frame of reference than the motion picture camera, which advertised itself as an objective image of reality. Hmmm….I still have lots to think about here.

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Time, Death, and Sex in Early Cinema

I’m completely fasicinated with the early films stored in the American Memory Digital Library, especially after reading Mary Ann Doane’s discussion of their treatment of time. Note: To view films, click the above link, click “search,” and then type the name of the film. I’ve been having touble with establishing direct links to the films themselves.

A few of the films I checked out (most by Edison’s studios):

  • Execution of Czolgosz, a re-enactment of the electrocution of President William McKinley’s assassin. The film opens with the camera panning across outside the prison on the day of Czolgosz’s execution before cutting to the re-enactment. According to Doane, the sweeping camera movement often signaled actuality footage, while the static camera during the execution sequence would indicate to viewers that the action was staged. The film also expresses a fascination with electricity as a means of execution, something that interested Edison.
  • Arrival of McKinley’s Funeral Train, which also documents events surrounding McKinley’s assassination. Not much to add there because I just happened to come across it by accident.
  • What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, one of many Edison “What Happened” films. It involves a static camera that captures a series of movements on a New York sidewalk–the camera seems to capture whatever happens, but when a young woman walks across a grate, a gust of air blows up her skirt, which aligns the camera with a voyeuristic gaze, but it also invokes images of modernity as an undifferentiated mass of detail, out of which the significant event emerges.
  • What Happened in the Tunnel, another film that plays with sexual desire and temporality. In this film a white woman and her black maid are seated on a train in front of a young man. The man flirts with the woman, trying to seduce her. In the middle of teh seduction the film fades to black for about ten seconds, signifying that the train is going through a tunnel. During this time, the two women switch seats so that the man finds himself hugging and kissing the black woman, thus introducing fears of miscegination into anxieties about representing sexual imagery.
  • Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show: The “Uncle Josh” films were an early “genre” where a country rube is fooled by new-fangled technologies such as the motion picture. In this one, the poor guy is first fooled by a film of dancer (again highlighting cinema’s voyeuristic tendencies), and then he is frightened by a film of a train rushing toward the camera. Fed up, “Uncle Josh” finally rips down the movie screen, still unable to comprehend cinema’s illusory representations.

I was struck by the use of film to convey the temporal irreversibility of death (there were other “execution films,” including actual footage of an elephant being electrocuted, but most aren’t available in the Digital Library). Of course, as I mentioned yesterday, early film used the potential reversibility of the cinematic image in some complicated ways, and it was common practice during the earliest days of “the cinema of attractions” to play films backwards, to show them several times in succession, to play with the multiple temporalities of cinema (the time of the narrative, the time of projection, the time of spectation) in complicated ways. I think there is a tendency in certain teleological histories of cinema to view these early films as “primitive,” and while it certainly takes a while for the language of narrative cinema (or “classical cinema” to use the Bordwell-Thompson language) to develop, already by 1900-1901, complicated temporal schemas are already starting to appear. Very cool stuff.

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Early “Time-Bending” Film

I’m currently reading Mary Ann Doane’s impressive 2002 book, The Emergence of Cinematic Time, which focuses on the relationship of the emerging technology of cinema and various constrcutions of time at the beginning of the twentieth century. I’ll have a lot more to say about this book in the days ahead, but so far, I’ve read her discussions of cinema’s capacity as an archive in relationship to Freud’s theories of the unconscious; her consideration of the impossibility of capturing the present; and–most relevant here–the apparent irreversibility of time’s arrow.

In her discussion of temporal irreversibility, Doane mentions a 1901 Edison film, The Artist’s Dilemma (directed by Edwin Porter), which takes place in an artist’s studio, consisting of a stage for models, a grandfather clock, and an easel. A model steps into the studio from inside the clock, and the artist begins to paint her portrait, when a second figure emerges from the clock. This “ghostly figure” removes a paint can from the clock and takes over for the artist, and begins to swiftly paint the portrait. As Doane points out:

It is clear that this section of the film is reverse motion: a film strip in which the clown/demon had painted black over an already existing picture of the model is simply run backwards so that it appears as if an impressive likeness of the model emerges magically from the broad, careless strokes of the demon’s brush

Once the portrait is complete, the “demon” invites his representation down from the painting, essentially bringing her to life. Notably, throughout the film, the grandfather clock remains set at four o’clock. As Doane points out, “reversible time” is subordinated to the narrative–painting the portrait–but in my reading, The Artist’s Dilemma is not quite time travel, but might be considered a “time bending” film, one that works against the linear, chronological time of cinema (especially the early “actualities”).

Even cooler, you can view the film (type in the search term “The Artist’s Dilemma”) through the Library of Congress’ “American Memory National Digital Library” project, using Real Player or Quick Time. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly check out the holdings at the digital library, but it strikes me as a valuable tool for retaining some semblance of our cinematic past, especially as celluloid begins to deteriorate. Of course as Matthew and Kari point out, “preservation also always entails loss.” There was something unsettling about viewing this old film on my computer–the loss here, in part, the flicker of the projector, and perhaps the experience of viewing the film with an audience. Matt also addresses several key concerns about digital preservation in his entry on the e(X)literature conference, specifically Stewart Brand’s observation that presevation is a social–not technological–problem (Matt’s also absolutely right to reflect on the relationship between preservation and mortality). More about digital preservation here.

It’s interesting to think about how the questions raised by the cinema about the archive are being revisited–in strikingly similar language–with the emergence of digital technologies.

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Contextualizing Your Blogroll

My former student, Patrick, has addressed a question that I’ve had for a while: How do you convey the relationship between your blog and the links in your blogroll? Patrick offers an elegant solution, a brief bit of code allowing the author(s) of a blog to include a second link with a brief explanation of why you’ve linked that particualr blog–or what you find interesting about it. I’ve found several interesting blogs by searching friends’ blogrolls, and this kind of information might make that process easier.

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Y tu mamá también

I finally saw Y tu mamá también this weekend, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. También focuses on two teenage boys–one middle class, the other upper class–who convince an older woman to travel with them to the legendary Heaven’s Mouth beach. The film is bracketed by a past tense voice-over narration that provides the film with a reflective, slightly nostalgic tone. The class distinctions–and the generic conventions of the road movie–allow director Alfonso Cuarón to address not only the sexual coming of age of the two boys but also the political landscape of Mexico.

I liked the film’s honest treatment of sex, and like Roger Ebert, I think the film underlines the impossible constraints placed on American filmmaking by the MPAA’s rating system (Kevin Sandler’s discussion of “The Incontestable ‘R’” seems relevant here–I’d also warn against renting this film from Blockbuster). Their interactions with the older Luisa allow Cuarón to explore the tensions between the two boys, and an important detail we learn near the end of the film also helps us to reinterpret many of Luisa’s decisions as she playfully teases Julio and Tenoch. I’m still torn about this discovery about Luisa. In my original viewing of the film, it felt a little forced, but I think it does motivate her actions more plausibly than the discovery of her husband’s infidelity.

The film also foregrounds class distinctions in complicated ways. We learn that Tenoch is the son of a conservative Mexican president, and one of the opening sequences of the film shows Julio and Tenoch weaving through a protest in order to borrow a car from Julio’s sister, who is protesting Tenoch’s father’s government. Later, Julio and Tenoch drive through police roadblocks and encounter the poverty of rural Mexico–illustrated in part through the run-down hotels where the group stays. When they finally arrive at the legendary Heaven’s Mouth beach–more or less by accident–we learn that it will soon be transformed into a resort, with a local fisherman and guide forced to take a job as a janitor (“He never fished again,” the narrator tells us).

In his Salon review (subscription required), Charles Taylor reports that Cuarón has commented that También is

“about two teenage boys finding their identity as adults and … also about the search for identity of a country going through its teenage years and trying to find itself as an adult nation.”

Cuarón addresses both of these concerns gracefully, especially through the background landscape that Tenoch and Julio can barely see–their energies so focused on reaching the legendary Heaven’s Mouth.

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I haven’t blogged in a few days, mostly because I’ve been busy doing research/reading and rethinking the framework of my book project. I did take a break this afternoon to attend an exhibition opening, “The Art of Africa,” with S at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, which was very cool–interesting art, good music, and great food. I’ll try to blog more in the next few days, but right now, I’m pretty tired.

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Hey Nostradamus!

I read Douglas Coupland’s latest a few days ago, but haven’t had the opportunity to blog about it. It’s an enjoyable read and extends some of the concerns about celebrity and death that he raised in Miss Wyoming. Nostradamus has four distinct narrators. It begins with Cheryl’s serene desciption of a massacre at a Vancouver High School in the late 1980s, with Cheryl eventually narrating her own death, but rather than focusing specifically on the media spectacle such events attract, Coupland turns to the aftermath of such events in the three remaining sections of the book. Several of Cheryl’s friends from a school religious group–for example–take her doodling the words “God is Nowhere…God is Now Here…” on a notebook as a sign of her abiding faith. Other characters, including her boyfriend Jason, cannot reintegrate themselves into their (religious) community after the shootings. Coupland also avoids focusing on the motivations of the murderers–their crime remains unexplained–instead concerning himself with the characters who survive the tragedy and are forced to make sense of it.

The novel fascinated me in part because of its use of multiple narrators in order to expand on–and then–undermine our perceptions about the school shootings and the story’s central characters, especially Reg, Jason’s fundametalist father, whose faith is tested in complicated ways. Coupland provides each narrator with a distinctive voice and manages to address their attempts to work through the tragedy with humor and sensitivity.

I liked this novel a lot, and I fear that my description isn’t going to adequately represent my enjoyment of it. In an odd way, the novel reminded me of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Both texts deal with the difficulties communities face when trying to make sense of tragedy. In Lee’s film, the narratives of the American Dream, of the perfect multi-ethnic family, only temporarily ease Monty’s pain. Similarly, in Coupland’s book, the need to believe in a higher power is severly tested–in a variety of complicated ways–for each of the novel’s four narrators.

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Reading in a Coffeehouse…

…is now apparently suspicious behavior. Check out this article in Atlanta’s alternative newspaper, Creative Loafing about a local retail employee, Marc Schultz, who was questioned by the FBI after a Caribou Coffee employee reported him for reading a left-wing editorial in public. After being asked if he had carried anything into a Caribou one Saturday, Schultz is unable to recall.

Then [Agent] Trippi decides to level with me: “I’ll tell you what, Marc. Someone in the shop that day saw you reading something, and thought it looked suspicious enough to call us about. So that’s why we’re here, just checking it out. Like I said, there’s no problem. We’d just like to get to the bottom of this. Now if we can’t, then you may have a problem. And you don’t want that.”

No, we wouldn’t want that, would we? Here’s the “controversial” article Schultz was reading.

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Quick Question

I just changed the font size for my comments because I was finding them difficult to read. For those of you who are familiar with my blog, does the new font size make the comments easier or more difficult to read? If you prefer, you can email me your observations.

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Marxist Film Theorists are Destroying My Daughter’s Life!

I came across this Los Angeles Sunday Times Magazine article complaining about required film theory courses through Planned Obsolescence. The author David Weddle is shocked by his daughter’s C on her film theory final and awed by all of the incomprehensible jargon on her final exam. As KF points out:

Weddle’s article is so rife with the kinds of anti-intellectualism often found in the mainstream media that it becomes a sort of cliché.

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Donnie Darko

I’m working through some ideas about what I find to be one of the more striking films of the last couple of years, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. It’s a visually compelling film, beautifully filmed, with great performances. Kelly also uses music very effectively, evoking the John Hughes films of the 1980s with songs by The Thompson Twins, Joy Division, and a cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World.” This post may be a little disjointed as I’m still thinking through the film.

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SCMS Panel Proposal

I just submitted the following panel proposal for the upcoming Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in Atlanta in March 2003. If anyone is interested in submitting an abstract, feel free to contact me by email. Other proposed panels are available here.

This panel explores how digitization transforms our understanding of moving images, producing what Lev Manovich refers to as a “‘crisis’ of cinema’s identity.” Possible questions may include: How does digitization transform cinematic montage? How does the apparent malleability of the digital image transform cinematic perception? How has cinema’s “identity crisis” been displaced onto the “identity crisis” associated with discussions of the “posthuman?”

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Indy Media Reminder

Just wanted remind Atlanta readers about tomorrow night’s media forum and celebration of WRFG’s (Radio Free Georgia) 30th anniversary. I’m looking forward to going and meeting with others who support or participate in the independent media.

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Turning Tables

In the original incarnation of the chutry experiment, I reflected (scroll down to March 16 and 17) on what I found to be a fascinating use of blogs, the first hand accounts from journalists, soldiers, and civilians on the war in Iraq, the most famous of which is, of course, Salam Pax. I was struck by the fact that the immediate publication associated with blogging seemed perfectly fit to the immediacy of first-person narratives about the war. I’m less wide-eyed about the medium now, but I have recently come across a blog published by a U.S. soldier that struck me as particularly fascinating. The soldier, who publishes under the identity “moja,” is frequently critical of U.S. policy and in many of his posts carefully weighs the consequences of our actions in Iraq, while often expressing sympathy with the Iraqi citizens (including Salam Pax). Perhpas most interesting is his reflection on what is permissible for him to say, a question that comes across in an exchange with an ex-Navy Seal. Moja writes that the ex-Seal

feels that as a soldier i should keep quite about all of my political beliefs…i, as a soldier, feel that i do have the right of free speech with in the realm of the army…there are things that i can not speak about…my chain of command…the president…their decisions…and the like…
These questions frequently come to the surface in Moja’s blog, and through his ambivalence about U.S. policy, he provides an intriguing perspective on the situation in Iraq. As with other “front bloggers” (I prefer that term to “warbloggers”), there has been some debate about the authenticity of <...turning tables...>, but it’s still an interesting read.

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