Archive for May, 2004

Vertigo and Cinematography

I’m teaching cinematography through Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo this week (through Tuesday), and I’ve been trying to track down a few film stills to support some in-class activities. The main difficulty is actually finding stills that are in the proper aspect ratio. Most of the stills online appear to be publicity stills (not film stills) or cropped. So far, I’ve found this book review with a couple of good stills. Any suggestions (in the comments or by email) would be much appreciated.

Update: Here are a few other Vertigo sites I found after my original post: A site called “Vertigo Described,” which includes an extende essay on the film as well as a few film stills (too cluttered for my purpose), and a very interesting news article on a “Vertigo Tour of San Francisco” that directs tourists to all of the locations Hitch used in the film. Finally, a site called NorCal Movies, which is dedicated to documenting films made in Northern California (this site has plenty of great film stills, but having a better method for finding stills would probably be a good thing).

Cross-posted at Palimpsest.

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Coffee and Cigarettes

I went to see Jim Jarmusch’s latest, Coffee and Cigarettes (IMDB), Saturday night but haven’t really had time to blog about it. The premise of the film is in keeping with Jarmusch’s minimalist style: essentially Coffee is composed of eleven conversations over coffee and cigarettes, usually with musicians and actors playing some version of themselves. One of the difficulties of such a premise is that it’s easy to see the scenes as unconnected, a series of slight fragments, without any real connection. In addition, the segments in teh film were shot over a seventeen year period, adding to the perception of the film as a slight distraction, but Jarmusch carefully weaves a meditation on celebrity and fame, as Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review illustrates.

Perhaps the most powerful example would be the Cate Blanchett segment, in which “Cate,” a famous Hollywood actress doing publicity for one of her films, meets her punk rock cousin (also played by Blanchett) at a fancy hotel bar. Here the high-key lighting accentuates “Cate’s” celebrity as the two struggle through a conversation with Cate’s fame preventing them from any mutual understanding. A similar segment starring Tom Waits and Iggy Pop also works well. Two of the coolest musicians on the planet meet for coffee, and again, they fail to connect because of perceived slights (Iggy points out that the juke box doesn’t have any Tom Waits songs, for example). Because of the “naturalistic” style of these scenes, it’s easy to see them as unplanned or acidental, but given the careful plotting, I do think there are some clear resonances at work.

The segments are also linked visually through the setting, usually “dive” coffeehouses (the Cate Blanchett segment, “Cousins,” is one exception) where customers can still smoke, rather than trendy Starbucks-style coffeehouses. The overhead shots of checkerboard-pattern tablecloths covered with coffeecups and ashtrays accentuate these connections, and the black-and-white cinematography (by several cinematographers including Tom DiCillo and Robby Müller) beautifully captures the film’s mood (I’m now convinced that the decline in black-and-white cinematography can be directly linked to the decline in tolerance for cigarette smoking in public).

I’ll refrain from describing other segments in detail, but it’s a fun film, on course with Jarmusch’s Night on Earth in structure and style.

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Political Wiki

The political bloggers at the Daily Kos have started a political wiki, dKosopedia. Typical entries focus on politcal parties, prevailing issues, key documents (Bill of Rights, etc), and reading polls. This will no doubt be a useful link for my election course this fall, but what I like most about the site is that it is a collaboratively-authored project that can use the wiki format to frame (in Lakoff’s sense) pertinent political issues. Worth watching.

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Sleepy Saturday Morning Linkfest

GreenCine Daily has a wealth of weekend reading material on film and media today. A few of the highlights:

  • An extended interview with Richard Kelly (more articles here), director of Donnie Darko, on the theatrical release of the director’s cut of that film and pre-production work on his new film, Southland Tales. For my book project on time-travel films, I’ll certainly be writing about Donnie, and perhaps the release of the director’s cut will inspire me to put a conference paper together.
  • The Defamer, a great site for the inside scoop on all things Hollywood. Recent highlights: MTV backs down on its decision not to air commercials for Super Size Me, and Fox decides to shelve their new “reality show” where straight guys pretend to be gay, citing the ever-popular “creative reasons.”
  • The always cool B. Ruby Rich writes in The Guardian about the recent lack of good lesbian films.
  • Brian Brooks previews the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival for indieWIRE
  • .

  • Finally, Jonathan Rosenbaum reviews Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, which I’m planning to see tonight.

On the home front, the Atlanta Film Festival kicks into gear soon, and I’ll try to catch as many films as my (currently very small) budget permits.

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Blogging and the Public Sphere

I’m somewhat unconvinced by some of Habermas’s arguments (though I haven’t yet had enough coffee to explain why), but I’ve felt for some time that his discussion of the public sphere fit nicely onto conversations about blogging. Clancy is giving a conference paper on the topic building on the work of Trish Roberts-Miller and Andrew Ó Baoill.

Yet another link for my Georgia Conference on Information Literacy paper.

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Moving to the Public

Here’s a quick reference to Charles Lowe and Terra Williams’ article, “Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom,” included in the Into the Blogosphere collection. Among many other projects (like George, I’ve got a busy summer planned), I’m looking ahead to my paper for the Georgia Conference on Information Literacy, and this article will provide a useful touchstone for discussing using the public nature of weblogs for teaching student writing. I’m still planning to use an election-themed course in the fall, and hopefully I’ll be able to integrate some o fthose experiences into the paper as well (link via Clancy).

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“The Photographs Are Us”

I had planned to write an extended entry on this Guardian article by Susan Sontag on Abu Ghraib, but other things got in the way. It’s still one of the better essays I’ve seen on these images, and it may be relevant to a project (conference paper/article) I’m planning on documentary film.

Update 8/31/2005: The Guardian link appears to be dead, so here’s another version of the same article at Common Dreams.

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Lost Boys of Sudan

Last night, I went to see Megan Mylan and John Shenk’s 2003 documentary film, Lost Boys of Sudan (IMDB), a dcoumentary about Sudanese refugees who have moved to the US to escape the growing humanitarian crisis in their home country (thanks to Jason for the link). The film explains that in 2001, when the documentary begins, most of the refugees are Dinka tribespeople who crossed the border into Kenya. The documentary focuses on two of the “lost boys of Sudan” who move to the US, Peter and Santino, and their struggles in the US once they arrive. The film itself is important viewing, especially given the utter lack of attention given to human rights violations in Africa in the US media, but I would have liked a deeper exploration of the humanitarian crisis in Sudan than the film offered.

The film opens with a brief voice-over explanation of the civil war in Sudan, illustrated with paintings and told from the perspective of one of the two “lost boys.” This is the only major use of voice-over in the film, and the filmmakers wisely avoid the god-like omniscient narrator that continues to dominate much documentary fimmaking. However, despite this attempt to situate Santino and Peter as the “storytellers” of the film early on, there were still several moments in which I was conscious of the filmmaker’s gaze (or perhpas, more precisely, the editor’s scissors) when watching certain scenes.

From there, we get a few images from a refugee camp in Kenya and an explanation of the program that brings several hundred young Sudanese men to the US for education and employment. The scene in which the men learn who has been accepted and who hasn’t is pretty powerful, especially given the extent to which they view the US as a ticket to freedom, something the film will eventually and repeatedly undercut. This sequence also highlights the sense of family and community that the boys will be leaving behind and the hopes that are being placed on their shoulders (one tribal elder wrns the boys not to get caught up in the “baggy pants” crowd).

The rest of the film then traces Santino and Peter’s struggles to make their way in the US, especially after many of the promises of opportunity and support fail to materialize. Both Santino and Peter originally settle in Houston, Texas, and both immediately notice that their appearance intimidates many of the locals. Eventually, both take factory work, but Peter begins to seek out opportunities to further his education. After receiving little support from his contacts in Houston, he eventually decides to move to Kansas City, where he enrolls in a public high school, managing to perform well in school almost in spite of a well-meaning, but oblivious, guidance counselor.

Santino’s story conveys many of the problems that immigrants might face. He fails a driver’s test, drives without insurance, and is eventually in a small car accident, and as a result faces several traffic tickets. The documentary doesn’t explicitly offer any blame for Santino’s poor decisions, but the absence of a local support network seems to be partially at fault.

In both stories, I found myself struggling to understand the agency of certain actions/events in the film. Santino, in particular, confronts a fairly bewildering (if not entirely unsympathetic) bureaucratic system, and in those scenes, I rarely noticed anyone with whom Santino could talk about navigating these complexities. Peter, on the other hand, is portrayed as completely independent, eventually choosing to take an apartment on his own. Throughout his life in Kansas City, he is often seen attending a local church and attempting to integrate with the teen group there. These scenes are a little more difficult to read. Peter clearly remains on the outside, but it’s only partially clear why that’s true (he sits passively while others sing worship songs that stand in stark contrast to the emotions in the songs that were perormed in Sudan, for example). In both stories, the film complicates the narrative that immigration to the US will solve all of their problems, something that becomes particualrly clear when Peter calls his sister who cannot understand why Peter isn’t sending more money home.

Overall, it’s a compelling film, and it generally avoids the documentary trap of objectifying Peter and Santino, although I think the film could have been a little more self-conscious of its status as a story. In typical verite style, the filmmakers seem to avoid any kind of artistic signature and do not explicitly acknowledge their role in shaping the story. I think there’s a way of calling attention to one’s status as an author without going to the extremes of a Michael Moore.

To its credit, the film also avoids easy answers. I didn’t walk away from the film thinking that I now understand the Sudanese refugee crisis or even that I understand what it’s like to assimilate from a Sudanese refugee camp into American culture. In that sense, I think the film works very well as a documentary. While avoiding many of the simple truth claims often associated with documentary filmmaking, the film still conveyed a profound sense of injustice about the situation in Sudan.

Update: One other question that the film doesn’t really address: what about the lost women of Sudan? The film focuses primarily on the young men who come to the US to earn money and get an education (an eventually help their families). One of the questions that seemed unanswered and that I left implied earlier: how are the Dinka women dealing with this crisis?

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The Killers

Listening to Album 88: The Killers’ “The Ballad of Michael Valentine” is a great garage song. The Killers have been compared to the Strokes, and while they do have the guitar and melancholic vocals of contemporary garge rock, the Killers’ lead singer, Brandon Flowers, doesn’t really hide his appreciation for the “stadium songs.” Anyway, it’s a great song, and maybe when I get my car back from the shop, I’ll go out and buy the CD.

Small bit of trivia: the name Michael Valentine comes from Michael Stipe’s rumored pseudonym when he stays in hotels.

Speaking of Album 88, is anyone out there going to the WRAS Fest fundraiser?

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A Beautiful Mind(fuck)

I’m getting closer to finsihing my horror film essay, and I decided to surf around and look at a few journals where I could pitch this project (particularly to see if there were any special issues on horror film just waiting for my paper). One of the venues I’ve considered (though maybe not for this paper) is Jump Cut, a journal that I’ve always appreciated–good articles on film and popular culture, usually with a clear left politcal bent.

More relevant for now: while I was surfing their recent archives, I found this article on “mindfuck” films by Jonathan Eig. I may have more to say on this topic later, but I think the mindfuck film (Memento, Mulholland Drive, and Donnie Darko, among others) seems to be tapping into some of the same problems that I’m trying to address in my work on time-travel films.

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Spurlock Interview in the AJC

Just a quick link to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview with Morgan Spurlock, director of Super Size Me. The interview will likely disappear in a few days, but Spurlock’s take on the issue of personal responsibility within the fast food industry is similar to mine (I originally had some trouble articulating this in the comments below):

Q: The government and the food industry say that personal responsibility and physical activity are key to reversing the obesity epidemic. What’s your take?

A: They need to accept some responsibility, especially the corporations. If you’re McDonald’s and you serve 46 million people a day, and you tell me you have no obligation to educate your consumers and help them make the right choices. . . . That’s absolute malarkey. This is a two-way street.

True, we Americans make bad choices every day. We overeat and underexercise. When your big sellers are fries and shakes and you’re going to educate to the point where we’re not going to eat those, why would you do that? Your bottom line is going to get hit.

Q: At the end of the movie, you throw responsibility for what we choose to eat back to consumers. What do you think they’re going to do?

A: For me this film is a snapshot of your life, that we make bad eating choices, health choices, exercise choices every day. I want people to walk out of this film and say, ‘I need to take more responsibility in my life, I need to eat better. I need to exercise more, I need to be a better role model for my kids.’

Parents need to understand if you eat out three or four times a week and don’t exercise, you’re going to raise kids who do the same thing. The biggest place where we need to focus our energies in this country is the schools. We’re educating kids in the classrooms and damaging them in the lunchrooms. We’re giving them a diet filled with fat and sugar and junk and we’re saying it’s OK to eat this, it’s fine.

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Super Size Me

Last night, I went to see Super Size Me (IMDB) at a packed 9:30 screening at the Midtown Art Theater (and according to the ticket guy, the earlier screening nearly sold out). The reception of the film was very enthusiastic, with lots of applause and laughter, and I really enjoyed it. I had been in a bad mood all day, and the film’s humor (as well as Spurlock’s success as an independent filmmaker) really cheered me. I’m not sure I have anything new to add to the discussion, but here are some quick hit observations:

Like Jenny, I appreciated director Morgan Spurlock’s affable approach to the topic. He managed to criticze the fast food industry without coming across as shrill or grating. Also, as Jenny notes, part of what makes the film powerful is the degree to which Spurlock’s health declines, but perhaps more powerful are the changes in mood, his depression and the buzz he gets when he finally eats a McDonalds meal. The intersperesd interviews demonstrate the extent to which fast food chains have created a “fast food culture,” through advertising and misleading information (the sequence in which Spurlock tries to find nutritional information at several McD’s is informative and funny). They also illustrate the extent to which alternatives (often a little additional financial cost) are available.

Not sure I have much more to add here, but the film is a lot of fun. I’m hoping the buzz will allow the film to be seen outside the art house context because I think the film offers a wry, but thoughtful, take on a serious problem.

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Documenting War

Via GreenCine, two links to recent and intriguing documentaries focusing on the coverage of the current war in Iraq, neither one of which is by Michael Moore. Not that Moore’s film isn’t intriguing, but I’ve heard so much about it, I feel like I’ve already seen it.

Esteban Uyarra’s War Feels Like War (on PBS in July, according to Caryn James’ New York Times article)focuses on his experiences covering the war as an independent journalist, specifically the distinctions between independent journalists and those embedded with the military, which Uyarra describes in this intervew as “a great trick.” Uyarra adds that embedded reporters quickly learned what they could and could not film, comparing the coverage to closed-circuit TV, where you get a series of documentary images (of bullets flying, of tanks rolling), but not explanation or understanding of what is shown. He also explains that even as an independent journalist, he was prevented from filming border crossings.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the interview with Uyarra is his reflection on whether or not he’d want to film in a war zone again. Uyarra recalls that

The first time I was asked that I said no. I’d just finished editing and once you start watching the same thing over and over you feel slightly more guilty about going to a place to film rather than to help. So my answer was no, but not out of fear. I wasn’t afraid when I was there – I was too focussed on doing the job. It was a sense of disgust, not of the journalists, but of the whole idea of war. What you have to go through mentally and how stupid you feel that there is nothing you can do. But saying that, I’ve just come from Haiti which was been really dangerous, with people shooting every where and machetes flying around and that felt more chaotic than Iraq.

In Iraq you still felt that you knew where the bombs may come from. You can’t say that of a random machete. I also enjoyed being in Haiti so I might be getting addicted to all this adrenaline. I don’t feel like I want to do it all the time – it’s like the once in a while cigarette – I’m a social smoker when it comes to war zones! I don’t think I’ll be chasing channels to send me to conflicts but if they ask me I know I will do it. I don’t have the imagination to create things out of nothing. If you give me an empty room, an actor and a tripod then I am lost. But if you give me people running from bombs I can dance with the camera and almost choreograph shots in my mind – I see people moving almost before they move.

Uyarra’s answer here reminds me of Chris Hedges’ recent book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, in which Hedges theorizes the power that war has on almost everyone.

The second film worth noting is Control Room (IMDB), a documentary by Jehane Noujaim, which focuses primarily on Arab perceptions of the United States’ was with Iraq, concentrating on Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the war. As Caryn James notes, the two films point to the difficulty of covering the war, an issue that has become especially poignant recently with the photographs documenting abuse in Abu Ghraib. I haven’t seen either film yet, but both films promise to provide us with an opportunity for asking questions about the possibility of documenting war.

Note: A.O. Scott also has an insightful review of Control Room.

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Man on the Moon

I discovered the “Andy Kaufman Returns” blog a few days ago, and I’ve become increasingly fascinated by it, especially as the story gains even more publicity from this press release. Of course I don’t really buy the story. Anyone can issue a press release, and in the blogosphere, nobody knows you’re a dog (or more precisely, nobody knows you’re not Tony Clifton), but the prank is a pretty good one, effectively playing Kaufman’s practice of mixing “reality” and “performance” against the possibilities of performing alternate selves on the Internet. It’s an entertaining read that captures the spirit of Kaufman’s comedy.

Begging to Differ has an interesting post on the topic, commending the pranksters for their thorough research into Kaufman’s biography, and Snopes uncovers several of the prank’s inconsistencies, including the backtracking on some of the information in the press release.

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Dawn of the Dead 2004 Links

I’m working on my “mediated horror film” article (I still don’t like that phrase), and I’ve been trying to think through the recent Dawn remake. I saw the film a second time recently at a creepy dollar theater up in Gwinnett County, and the film’s focus on TV and video seemed less significant than in my initial viewing of the film. This entry appears (somewhat unintentionally) to have turned into a brainstorming entry.

The opening and closing credits are clearly the most explicit references to TV and video, and there are several other key references. One point I hadn’t noticed, articulated by Jami Bernard, is the fact that Ana’s (Sara Polley) husband is watching a Survivor-style reality TV show. The survivors watch big screen news broadcasts in order to learn information about the zombies, with one security guard dismissively questioning the validity of the TV reports by commenting, “They say a lot of things on TV.” Later in the film, the gun store owner-survivalist guy, Andy, shoots various zombies based on their resemblance to celebrities (Rosie O’Donnell, Burt Reynolds). I’d also note in passing that Elvis Mitchell’s observation about the film’s resemblance to a video game is also relevant (although I still disagree with his review).

But during the second half of the film, there’s very little focus on the media/TV. In this context, I’ve been trying to interpret the final sequence when the zombies’ pursuit of the living seems to accelerate. The sequence reminded me of the opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan, at least in terms of how it was filmed, a reaction shared by the Diabolical Dominion reviewer (I’ve been trying to find out/figure out if they used the same effect).

Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe discusses the film’s Blair Witch-inspired ending, but he seems to take the use of video in horror film pretty much at face value:

Video might just be the final frontier for horror, which is too junked up with noise, formulas, and the witless bravado of mediocre directors to matter anymore. It’s how thousands of amateur home-moviemakers capture immediate reality. Exploiting that “amateur” technology to spook us is a stroke of brilliance, conveying an end-of-the-world darkness in a format we associate with truth. This is an idea grasped by both the makers of the smarter, more rigorously structured “28 Days Later” and the boys behind “Blair Witch.”

“Dawn of the Dead” is afraid to commit to a similar mood of digital doom, however. In the end, it’s no substitute for either of those movies or, even more so, Romero’s own idea of rancid humanity.

I’d agree with him that film generally seems to associate video with truth or immediacy, but it seems crucial that the Blair Witch films are constantly working to undercut that. I’m less inclined to agree that Dawn dodges the “doom” of the other zombie films. Specifically, I’d point back to the apocalyptic images during the opening credits, which show that the zombie plague has infected the entire world. By returning to a “mediated” delivery (a camcorder instead of TV, but clearly coded as mediated), the apocalyptic imagery is reignited. That being said, the satire is less focused than in the Romero original, and the commentary on mediation less nuanced than in both Blair Witch and The Ring. More later.

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