Archive for October, 2003

We Interrupt This Broadcast….

Speaking of haunted media: today is the 65th anniversary of Mercury Theater’s presentation of War of the Worlds, as directed by Orson Welles (who has suddenly been on my radar a lot lately). Go to Metafilter for more details and links to the original broadcast.

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Fair and Balanced Education

Reading the Atlanta Journal Constitiution this morning, I came across an article reporting that Senate Republicans held a hearing on “liberal” universities (props to the headline editor who put scare quotes around the word “liberal”). The hearing takes place one week after Georgia Republican Congressman Jack Kingston introduced a bill stating that colleges and universities are too liberal, and at issue was the fact that “universities intimidate students and faculty into liberal ways of thinking.”

At issue are the usual conservative hobgoblins including “diversity training” and “academic freedom,” which the hearing redefines against what Anne Neale, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, calls “bastions of political correctness hostile to free exchange of ideas.” Of course, by imposing a certain approach to teaching from above (i.e from Congress), this group is enforcing even more extreme limits on academic freedom.

Courses on multiculturalism also come under attack by conservatives. According to the article,

Anthony Dick, a student at the University of Virginia who helped found the Individual Rights Coalition, a student group that opposes what it charges are abuses of individual freedoms by college administrators, complained about the campus instituting diversity training for students. He said that, by its nature, the training asks people to assume discrimination against certain groups is a problem.

The word choice here is interesting (discrimination against groups, especially based on race, ethnicity, or religion is, of course, a problem that our government ostensibly recognizes), but because the article writer is paraphrasing, not quoting, I’m not sure what Dick’s actual stance might be. Still, courses in women’s studies or postcolonial studies are common targets for conservative writers who assume the mantle of objectivity in these debates.

In that context, I think academics and/or liberal thinkers (who are not identical at all, although both are attacked in this hearing) should reclaim the terms of discussion as George Lakoff recently suggested, to more carefully “frame” the issues at stake. The conservative use of the term “diversity training” to describe a broad set of courses (postcolonialism, women’s studies) focused on a more objective portrayal of contemporary culture is one such example. [Brief aside: I am suspicious of his framing things in terms of the "strict father" and "nurturing parent" models, in part because I think his model glosses somewhat the economic forces that reinforce the abilities of conservatives to frame these discussions.]

In an attempt at objectivity, the article does offer one professor’s (Judith Wegner) response to the charges of academic harassment, but she makes a “power move” that, I think, makes things worse, commenting that some of these cases boil down to unprepared teaching assistants who “have not yet developed adequate skills for presenting all sides of an issue.” Teaching assistants already have their credibility challenged enough without offering them as a sacrifice in this particular debate.

I find this discussion partciularly threatening under the current climate in which our civil liberties are being threatened by the Patriot Act. I realize that this is nothing more than a hearing, but it still has the quality of an attempt to police thought by these conservative politicians and lobbyists.

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The Magnificent Ambersons

After rewatching The Royal Tenenbaums the other night, I decided to take a break tonight and watch Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, which I hadn’t seen in several years.

Anderson’s film riffs nicely off Ambersons, but I really enjoyed going back to Welles’ film. I’d forgotten how effectively Welles uses space in the old mansion, with that fantastic curved staircase, and the low-key lighting in the mansion captured the family’s decline very effectively (of course I’m a sucker for low-key lighting). I also enjoyed Welles’ ability to map the Amberson family’s decline against the developing technologies of modern life, most notably the automobile that appears as a novelty at the film’s beginning when Eugene, Isabel’s longtime suitor (Joseph Cotten, a favorite actor of mine), takes several of the Ambersons for a drive in the snow. By the end of the film, the quaint town has been transformed into an industrial center, with tracking shots of smokestacks reinforcing the family’s decline.

Of course Ambersons is a very flawed film (the studio slapped on a happy ending and trimmed nearly 50 minutes (now lost) of the director’s cut while Welles was out of the country), but there are certainly some cool moments.

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Hitting the Pause Button

Sometimes I think my blog needs a rewind button, or at least a pause button, so that I can go back to those topics that I’ve wanted to address but the timing wasn’t right. Of course, just as you can’t fast forward through the “boring bits,” I suppose real time narratives (no matter how simulated) can’t have a pause button either.

My blog silence hasn’t been due to a lack of interesting experiences to relate or work through. I’ve simply found myself caught up in other things (a huge cycle of grading has just begun, among other things). But I still have so many other things I want to blog about.

For example, I wanted to blog about Georgia Congressman John Lewis’s editorial on gay marriage in the Boston Globe, which I found courtesy of Atrios, but never really found the time. I don’t think I have much to add to Lewis’s observations (he’s always been one of my favorite local members of Congress), and I’m not going to make any promises to come back to this topic later.

I’ve also been trying to find some time to write a review of Kill Bill, Vol 1 (IMDB), which I rather enjoyed, especially in its sheer film geek joy at the obscure references to the Hong Kong action cinema that Tarantino obviously relishes (most of which were completely lost on me). The “sampling” of so much popular culture, implied in both QT’s references to cinematic memory and in his reinterpretations of popular music plays out a “database” aesthetic characteristic of new media. I enjoyed Kill Bill almost completely, but left the film feeling somewhat unsatisfied, in part because the playful dialogue of many of his earlier films seemed missing.

I’ve also wanted to provide blog props to misbehaving.net, a cool new site dedicated to issues pertaining to women and technology.

Finally, I once had the good intentions of reviewing Lost in Translation, but Jason Rhody has done a fantastic job of that already, so I’ll just send everyone there, and say that like Jason I really like how sound operates in the film, especially during the “obscure” final scene.

Light blogging may continue for the next few days unless someone can find a pause button for me…

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Student Expelled for Writing

Just read in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that a local high student was expelled for the rest of the school year for an entry in her private journal. I’m still waking up (only one cup of coffee so far), but I needed to express a little frustration about this decision.

Rachel Boim, a 14-year old freshman, had written a short piece of fiction in which a student dreams about killing a teacher. One of her teachers–an art teacher, no less–confiscated the journal and kept it overnight. According to the article, the piece is completely fictional: no specific teacher is named and the student in the story isn’t clearly identified as the author herself (after all, it’s fiction). Boim, who grew up near Columbine, claims that her story was merely reflecting the violence that many high school students face in their daily experiences. Several prominent authors, including poet David Bottoms, have testified on her behalf, but Boim was still expelled.

I know that teachers and administrators must be pretty sensitive right now to any threat of violence, but this action really disappoints me. In part, I’m somewhat troubled by the action of the teacher. If the student’s sharing her writing with her friends was a distraction, I undertsand the teacher’s choice to temporarily confiscate the journal, but his reading through the student’s private (unintended for him, at least) writings seems a little invasive. From what I understand, there was little effort to place Boim’s story in a context with the rest of her journal.

More than anything, the “zero tolerance” policy is having the effect of silencing her–decding what she should and should not write about. I just happened to graduate from this high school (a long time ago, in a building not too far away), so that only increases my disappointment.

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We Await Springfield’s Tristero Empire

Via Unfogged: Reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon, author of The Crying of Lot 49 (one of my favorite books) will appear on an upcoming episode of The Simpsons. Pynchon has, of course, resisted book signings, television and radio interviews, and publicity photos, so it’s interesting to see him “appear” on an episode of The Simpsons. True to form, Pynchon’s animated image will be wearing a paper bag over his head. That’s one episode I’ll make sure to watch.

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The Future of Blogging

I’ve been planning to reflect on some of the questions raised by the Perseus White Papers’ The Blogging Iceberg, in part because I think it speaks to some of the concerns I want to address in my “Blogging and the Everyday” paper, which is constantly shifting focus as I continue to write, read, and reflect. Warning: random thoughts ahead. I mostly wanted to collect some links to some really interesting posts.

I won’t address the many critiques of Perseus’ methodology, other than to note that by ignoring non-hosted blogs, I’d guess that any information about user demographics would be considerably skewed (as would the percentage of abandoned blogs). I’m intrigued by the growth rate, although I think that is also hard to predict, especially given the unpredictable role that AOL blogging tools will have, but more than anything, the survey indicates to me the extreme difficulty of making too many quantitative claims about blogging.

Instead, I’m more intrigued by what blogs are doing (how people are “using” or understanding them) and what they will or may become. In that regard, I’m especially intrigued by David Weinberger’s discussion of the future of blogging. I think he’s probably right that distinctions between high traffic bloggers and “the rest of the world” (note: Clay Shirky’s discussion is highly relevant here) will probably increase to the point that their sites will begin to look less like blogs and more like something else, a perpetually updated op-ed page, perhaps. Now that I’ve gone back to re-read Liz’s post about this topic on Many-to-Many, I think she articulates what I’m trying to say quite well:

The big difference, to me, is that when you’re at the top of the “power law curve,” you’re in broadcast mode. When you’re at the tail end, you’re in private diary mode. But in the middle, that’s where the interlinking and dialog and community-forming are happening. Those are very different modes of communication.

In my experience, my status (presumably somewhere in the middle) has provided me with the “dialog” and “community forming” that Liz describes, and now that I think about it, that experience considerably regulates my interpretation of blogging as a medium.

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Ringu

I watched Ringu, the Japanese horror film on which The Ring is based. Like Steven Shaviro, I found the film to be “an effectively creepy horror film.” In fact, after finishing it last night around 2 AM, I double-checked my doors and saw movement behind every shadow. Having watched the American remake a few times recently, I was struck by a few of the differences between the two films (although I genuinely like and recommend both).

The Japanese film is rather minimalist (as Shaviro observes), and I enjoyed the use of black-and-white flashback to explain the cursed video. I was also surprised at how “faithful” the American film was to the plot of Ringu, while still being a much different, much “cooler,” film in the sense that it felt more self-conscious (I don’t necessarily mean that as a critique or compliment, but in the more neutral sense of “hipness” or “stylishness”). Both films also negotiate narrative closure in remarkably similar ways (although that may be due to the constraints of the horror film genre).

The Ring also attempted a more explicit commentary on a media system that preys on other people’s emotional pain, especially through the implicit critique of the Naomi Watts character, who initially sees the mysterious deaths as nothing but a headline story. The American remake mines the European-American avant-garde for most of the images in the murderous videotape, and of course it more explicitly plays out the supposed attenuation of the traditional American family.

There are a few things I’m still trying to sort out: I’m struck by the fact that the American film is made in 2002, after the DVD revolution, while Ringu was made in 1998 before DVD players were nearly as commonplace. In the American film, when the hotel clerk mentions that his cabins have VCRs, it almost sounds quaint or obsolete, and the old, discarded videotapes in the hotel clerk’s collection reinforce that observation. There’s something specific about the materiality of the videotape that appears to be significant here in the American film, while in Ringu, the videotape seems closer to a “return of the repressed,” emphasizing the revival of a forgotten past (the emphasis on specific haunted locations might reinforce this thesis).

The other significant moment, to my mind, would be the use of photography. In both films, photographs play a key evidentiary role in showing which people have seen the videotape. After a person sees the tape, her face is blurred in all future photographs (it also seems crucial that in the Japanese film, the main characters test this hypothesis with a Polaroid). I’m still thinking through the precise problem that The Ring opens up, and I do think that electronic media create the conditions of possibility for the videotape, although the matreial tape itself (the hard plastic casing, the fragile tape inside) seems important, especially in the American film (in which Naomi Watts tosses the tape into a fireplace and burns it).

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More Blogging Panels I Wish I’d Attended

As promised, more detailed comments on the reports from Liz at AOIR: Alex Halavais gave a paper drawing comparisons between cities and blogospheres, drawing heavily from Robert Park’s argument that cities should be studies as “institutions.”

In the same panel, a question I’ve been trying to address: to what extent cn hyperlinks (within blogs) be understood as disruptive? Do trackbacks change linking in any fundamental way? The panel/discussion doesn’t really come to a clear answer, and I’m not sure there is a simple answer. I think it depends in part on the nature of the “encounter:” Are we talking about the author of the blog making the link? The author of the linked blog? The reader of the blog? What exactly is being disrupted by the link? The individual entry? The reader’s experience of a given blog? In my own experience, I certainly feel a much greater sense of control over my online experiences now that I blog. My blog is a means for me to organize my fleeting, often disorganized thoughts as I have them, feeding into a certain experience of immediacy.

Another important question, especially for my own work:

Question: perhaps content is too ephemeral on blogs; are weblogs more like newspapers in their balance of ephemerality (of individual pieces of content) and persistence (of the vehicle for that information)?

I’ve actually found this metaphor enticing. I think it’s why there are so many blogging journalists and pundits who can focus on the immediate, disseminating information in an overwhelming maelstrom that can be difficult to navigate (or at least escape). I think TV works as a metaphor, too, especially given that both TV and blogs thrive on immediacy (although their definitions of this term might be slightly different).

I’d also agree with Liz that the general discussion of blogs as neighborhoods could certainly be informed by Steven Johnson’s Emergence (especially his discussion of Joanne Jacobs).

I also need to find a way to sift through Pierre Lévy’s incredibly dense keynote address (as blogged by KF), especially the question of cybersapce as a “memory repository.” Still sorting.

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The Homeless Guy

Via Liz’s extensive reporting of AOIR, I found The Homeless Guy (THG), a blog authored by someone who has been homeless off and on over the last twenty years. He lives primarily in Nashville, Tennessee, and provides an intrguing narrative about his experiences as a homeless person. The Homeless Guy, Kevin Barbieux, comments that he first discovered blogging on a public library computer (a little over a year ago according to his archives).

Like Liz and Laura, I was rather surprised (and disappointed) to learn that one class who saw the site became angry, complaining that the author should not solicit donations online. Donating is obviously voluntary (there is a discrete PayPal icon located somewhere on the page), and the author is clearly offering a valuable service–providing a first-hand account of his experience of being homeless (rather than merely panhandling). As Laura points out, several middle-class bloggers have PayPal or Amazon links, but I think the mentality must be that the Homeless Guy should “just get a job” must be pervading their logic. More importantly, Laura highlights the thin line between having a home and living on the streets, especially with so many people living from one paycheck to the next (I know from personal experience as a volunteer at a homeless shelter that many homeless people are, in fact, employed, but face other problems).

No matter what, THG is an interesting read, an intriguing life narrative that uses the blogging medium very effectively.

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A Decade Under the Influence

I just rented the very cool Independent Film Channel documentary, A Decade Under the Influence, which examines the New Hollywood movement of the 1970s. The film, directed by Richard LaGravenese and the late Ted Demme, mixes talking-head interviews with prominent ’70s filmmakers and footage from some of the decade’s most influencial films.

The three-part documentary offers an effective overview of the decade starting with the decline of the studio system in the late 1960s, which allowed young Hollywood filmmakers, such as Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, and Rafelson, to enter the scene. I also deeply enjoyed the archival footage of John Cassavetes directing several scenes in his classically improvisational style. In general, the narrative of the films follows a relatively standard account of the 1970s focuisng on a decline of the studio system followed by a re-entrenchment due to the success of Jaws (which also marked the success of that newly dominant genre, the high-concept film). I think it’s a pretty accurate narrative, and I was pleased that, for the most part, the filmmakers tried to counteract the “Heaven’s Gate myth” of overly excessive filmmakers.

The documentary does uphold the “Rocky myth,” the argument that mainstream audiences had simply tired of moral ambiguity after all of the scandals and crises of the decade (Watergate, Vietnam, Three Mile Island). I’d point, instead, to the studio practice of larger budgets tailored toward huge opening weekend gross profits, which tends to obscure smaller films (with a few notable exceptions).

Still, the documentary had several great moments, including William Friedkin’s explanation that an exterior shot of the family home in The Exorcist was inspired by a Magritte painting (I think it might be The Empire of Light, but I’m not certain). Also enjoyable were the interviews with Julie Christie and Ellen Burstyn who challenged the gender politics of New Hollywood. More than anything, the documentary made me wish I subscribed to IFC.

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Grabby Fan’s Fifteen Minutes

To Chicago’s infamous “grabby fan:” welcome to your fifteen minutes of fame.

Less than a week after an overly enthustiastic Cubs fan deflected a foul pop hit by Florida’s Luis Castillo, allowing the Marlins to come back and win the game (and eventually the playoff series), Revolution Studios (owned by 20th Century Fox, the same company that broadcasts major league baseball) has accepted a pitch for a movie based on the fan’s experiences according to cnn.com.

Chicago Cubs fans have been waiting for over fifty years for their team to return to the World Series (the Cubs haven’t won the Series since 1908), and because the fan deflected what might have been a key out, he has become Chicago’s latest villain. Several Chicago papers also released the fan’s name (when I first saw the fan’s last name, Bartman, I immediately thought of Bart Simpson’s alter ego, which somehow seems apt), forcing him to change his phone number and basically go into hiding.

As Jason points out, the collective frustration of Cubs fans has produced some strong reactions (including an elected official who’d like to see the “grabby fan” exiled to Alaska). To be honest, I’m apparently one of the few people outside of south Florida who was cheering for the Marlins, mostly because of my own sour grapes. But when I lived near Chicago during graduate school (in both Illinois and Indiana), I generally preferred the White Sox instead of the Cubs. I think it was their outsider status, the fact that the Cubs generally received a lot more press in the city’s newspapers.

Anyway, I hope “grabby fan” endures (“enjoys” might be too much to ask) his brief fame. After all, as Cubs fans know well, there’s always next year, and with their talented pitchers, I think the Cubs will be competitive for a long time.

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AOIR Supply: Blogging Panels

Jason and Liz have blogging their experiences at AOIR, specifically their experiences at several panels on blogging. Liz discusses one panel on “Authors and Consequences,” which offered a range of statistical analysis. Perhaps the most important point is the conclusion that “the blogs featured in public representations are not representative.” I think Liz is absolutely right to be suspicious of their predictions about how blogging will be used in the future in the sense that blogging is still a nascent medium and will find a variety of uses, many of which I don’t think we can yet imagine. Jason also attended this panel and commented that their attempts to break blogs down into subgenres seemed “counter-intuitive,” given their status as a hybrid, boundary-blurring form.

Liz attended another blog panel that sounded incredibly stimulating (other than the fact that it was scheduled for 8:30 AM). The comparison between blogs and cities was particularly enticing and may help explain why bloggers sometimes group themselves according to geographic proximity (citywide webrings, etc). Too many questions to handle right now, but the discussions here sound really promising.

Update: I’m guessing that KF attended some of these panels, too.

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Confidence

I’m still working through my interest in heist movies, and with that in mind I watched James Foley’s Confidence (IMDB), which stars Edward Burns as the lead con man, Jake, who begins the film acknowledging (a la Sunset Boulevard) that he is a “dead man.” He then begins telling the story of his latest scam, which he is pulling on behalf of a local mob boss (played by Dustin Hoffman) who proudly embraces his hyperactivity. As the film develops, Jake draws story illustrates the connections between a successful scam and an effective narrative. Both requires figures within the “story” to play their roles properly, to work according to the script. Both require a set of moves to reach a desired end (later in the film, Jake uses (surprise!) a chess metaphor).

This self-awareness is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, but as Roger Ebert points out, it also makes the film feel a little like a hollow exercise. Unlike Ebert, I don’t think a successful film has to make us care about the characters, and in fact, Jake’s cool distance fits effectively within our expectations for the genre, and because I do enjoy several of the character actors (Paul Giamatti, Luis Guzman, Andy Garcia, Donal Logue) who are involved in the scam, I enjoyed the game to a limited extent. This cool distance is reflected in the film’s cinematography, which uses deep blues, greens, and reds to create (as Ebert observes) a postmodern noir city filled with lonely streets and back room deals in dirty strip clubs. However, even the cinematography felt unnecessarily ostentatious in places. During one sequences, Jake converses with Lily (Rachel Weisz) in medium-close-up, with her face lit blue and his face lit green, but these visual pyrotechnics felt unnecessarily flashy, as if the film were constantly reminding us of its goal of reinterpreting film noir.

The New York Times review also recognizes the film’s slavish dependence on David Mamet films and Elmore Leonard novels for its narrative twists and criminal milieu. I’ve been pretty critical of this film, but I did enjoy watching it in general. I’m just not sure it’s breaking any new ground. In terms of the heist film genre, I found that several of the key twists were telegraphed, which may also have made the experience less than satisfying. I’m still trying to think about the significance of “narrative mapping” in heist films, about what desires are being enacted and fulfilled.

Stay tuned. I might have more to say about these issues later (then again, maybe not).

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Books on Video

I’ve been flipping through Richard Dienst’s Still Life in Real Time: Theory After Television and just wanted to remind myself to revisit these books when I’m researching my paper on The Ring:

  • James Lardner, Fast Forward: Hollywood, the Japanese, and the VCR Wars, 1991.
  • Jane Gaines, Contested Cultures: Image Properties in the Industrial Age, 1991.
  • Sean Cubitt, Timeshift: On Video Culture, 1991.

In part, I want to work through how these books trace the technological development of VCRs, at least partially in order to address how videotape follows a different structure of tempoarlity than television. Video originally appeared to offer a much more liberating relationship to TV, permitting viewers to rearrange TV signals in a variety of ways (Dienst 23). Now, of course, it appears remarkably clunky in relationship to the ability of digital technologies to manipulate images, and tapes themselves eventually decay. Of course, none of this has anything to do with the blogging paper I’m supposed to be writing.

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