Archive for June, 2004

Sympathy For David Harris

This news caught me completely off guard. I’ve been teaching Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line in my summer film class, and several of my students were curious about what happened to the film’s main participants, and it turns out that David Harris, whose false testimony originally put Randall Dale Adams on death row for the murder of Officer Robert Wood, faces execution this week in Texas.

A federal judge blocked the lethal injection procedure Texas uses for executions, and Harris’s lawyers have other appeals pending with the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, the lawyers have appealed due to the testimony by court psychologists that Harris would be likely continue to be a danger to society. In The Thin Blue Line, Morris and Adams work to discredit the testimony of one such court psychologist, James Grigson (about whom Morris originally planned to make the documentary before learning about the Adams case), whose testimony helped put the innocent Adams on death row in the first place. I’m not sure why this story has thrown me so much. I oppose the death penalty, no matter the victim, but because of Morris’s film, I have a little more sympathy for David Harris.

Update: CNN is reporting that Harris was executed this morning.

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Atlanta Time Machine

Last summer, I wrote several blog entries about how Atlanta’s past may be both remembered and forgotten in the rush of development and re-gentrification. I’m fascinated by the traces of Atlanta’s (or any city’s) past when I can find them, and the Atlanta Time Machine provides a wealth of access to these images. The site collects vintage photographs of Atlanta and compares them with contemporary photos taken from nearly the same location. Greg, the author of the site, has devoted a tremendous amount of energy to this project, and it works very well, the comparisons of past and present beautifully presented.

In case you’re interested, I live within walking distance of this intersection, but if you want to see something really mind-blowing (or if you’re nostalgic for Atlanta’s pre-traffic-nightmare past), check out this before and after shot of downtown Atlanta from the 14th Street bridge. Most of the vintage photographs were provided by Special Collections at Georgia State University’s Pullen Library. Cool stuff (via Metafilter).

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The Whys of the Oubliette Film

An essay by Molly C. O’Donnell on Metaphilm about recent popular films about memory loss, including Memento, 50 First Dates, and Eternal Sunshine.

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Sunday Morning Film Reads

In an otherwise insightful review of F9/11, David Edelstein comments,

This is not quite a documentary—which I define, very loosely, as a work in which the director begins by turning on the camera and allowing the reality to speak for itself, aware of its complexities, contradictions, and multitudes. You are with Moore, or you are a war criminal.

To imply that documentaries only exist when the filmmaker allows “reality to speak for itself” is an incredibly rarefied concept of a documentary, verite to the highest possible degree. I realize that I’m overreading here, but Edelstein seems to ignore that every cut, every camera movement is a meaningful act, one that will shape the reality that we see. I do think that in spite of its clear thesis (which Edelstein overstates for emphasis), Moore’s film shows some awareness of the complexities and contradictions of American life, particularly when it comes to social class, even if many of those complexities are subsumed within Moore’s larger thesis.

One of the other Big Questions about the film has been how the film will play among swing voters. An LA Times article includes interviews with several swing voters and lifelong Republicans who now claim they will not vote for Bush. A similar AJC article notes, however, that ticket sales in suburban Atlanta have been “good, but not overwhelming.” No word in the AJC article about how the suburban audience responded to the film.

Now for some non-F9/11 reading material (all via GreenCine): A Eugene Hernandez interview with Jim McKay, who recently directed the fantastic HBO film, Everyday People, and a second McKay interview by Craig Phillips. Finally, a Jennifer Ordoñez profile of Julie Delpy who stars in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, a follow-up to Before Sunrise, which I re-watched last night, just to give myself a break from all of the documentary films I’ve been watching lately.

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Quick link and comment to this New York Times article about the R-Card, a card distributed by GKC Theaters that parents can purchase for their teenager children, which would give them permission to see R-rated movies without being accompanied by a parent or guardian.

I think it’s a pretty good idea (of course I don’t have a 15-year old child). It allows parents to skip obnoxious action movies their teen children might want to see, and in general, it simply assumes a level of trust between parents and children. And, of course, most video stores already have options that allow their children to check out R-rated films anyway. Naturally, MPAA captain Jack Valenti thinks it’s a bad idea, that it somehow subverts the ratings system (of course, in my opinion, that’s not a bad thing, either).

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Fahrenheit 9/11

Here are some initial observations about Fahrenheit 9/11 (IMDB). This review will probably ramble quite a bit. It may seem a little impressionistic. I’m still recovering from the intensity of the sounds and images I’ve just witnessed (“spoilers” ahead).

First, the theater where I saw the film was sold out for every screening tonight (and also incredibly hot–couldn’t they have cranked the A/C?), with most people arriving at least half an hour early to line up for seats. I saw at least two news trucks (did anyone happen to watch Atlanta’s Channel 2 news tonight?). Lots of cheering and enthusiasm throughout the film (and, yes, a long ovation at the film’s end). And while F9/11 had far fewer “gotcha” moments than most Michael Moore films, I’m not sure I’d call the film “restrained” as some critics have. It might be better described as far more somber than anything Moore has done.

The film employs a relatively straight chronological approach, starting with election night coverage (with Ben Affleck and Bobby D, of all people, standing behind Gore celebrating) and moves quickly through many of the election controversies, including an upsetting montage sequence in which several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (including Cynthia McKinney) try to contest the results (there’s also one Asian woman), but because no Senator signed the petition, Gore (who was still President of the Senate) was forced to uphoild parliamentary procedure and decline their petition. We see the massive protests of Bush’s inauguration (which I’d forgotten). What follows is a montage of Bush vacation sequences, with the Go-Go’s “Vacation” playing on the soundtrack, and the news that Bush was on vacation approximately 40% of the time between inauguration and 9/11, a statistic that has been relatively widely reported. All of this happens before the opening credits (which show various Bushies preparing for photo-ops, including a slimy image of Paul Wolfowitz using spit to set his hair in place), when the film shifts in tone considerably.

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Kerry’s Coalition of the Wild-Eyed

Via Metafilter, I just came across one of the more bizarre and disturbing campaign ads (this link offers a partial script and another link to the ad) I’ve seen all season. The advertisement, “Kerry’s Coalition of the Wild-eyed,” is intended to depict the “pessimism and rage” of prominent “Kerry Democrats” such as Al Gore, Howard Dean, Michael Moore,, and Kerry himself.

The most disturbing image in the ad shows Adolf Hitler giving a speech and implicitly claims that MoveOn compared Bush to Hitler (a false accusation in the first place). The advertisement itself is rather muddled and confusing, at least for me. Without the context of the Bush campaign homepage, it’s not at all clear how these images are being used until the very end of the advertisement. In fact, on an initial, inattentive viewing of the ad, most of what we hear in the ad involves criticisms directed at the Bush presidency (Moore’s “fictitious president” comment, etc). Although the ad concludes with a call for Bushian optimism, it’s impossible to determine from the advertisement what to be optimistic about.

It would also be easy to think that the advertisement is comparing the Democrats themselves to Hitler, especially if you read the editing cues (which suggest an equivalence between each of the images). One commenter in the MeFi discussion did make the point that the ad is likely focused on “true believers” who would already know how to read these images (i.e. “look how scary these guys are”), but no matter the audience, the trivialization of these images of Hitler deserves to be heavily criticized.

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Father Outsources Best

Possible article for my essay on teaching globalization. In the June 20 (Father’s Day) issue of the New York Times, Bruce Stockler’s “Father Outsources Best.” The op-ed piece is written as a letter to his children imagining that his job as father has been outsourced to Bangalore, India.

As Anjali points out, the article unfairlydirects resentment towards Indian people who are ostensibly benefitting from globalization at the expense of American people. What I find interesting (and upsetting) about the essay is the extent to which the essay hinges on a crisis in masculinity through the concept of a father whose authority in the family has been displaced by globalization. In this sense, I think the essay will fit nicely with the “crisis in masculinity” narrative that contends with and underwrites Fight Club’s “anti-corporate” narrative (I don’t believe the film to be truly anti-corporate, but merely tapping into those tensions so they can be resolved later in the film).

I’m currently working through David Held and Anthony McGrew’s Globalization/Anti-Globalization, which lays out many of the issues I’m planning to address quite nicely. More later as this essay continues to evolve.

Update: Corrected to clarify vague referent. I need to proofread my blog entries more carefully from now on.

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Unintended Consequences of McCain-Feingold

According to The Hill, Lion’s Gate may not be able to advertise for or promote Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 after July 30 due to restrictions on corporate-funded advertisements that identify a candidate within 30 days of a primary. Because the Republican convention is technically considered a primary, that may limit future promotion of the film.

If the six members of the Federal Election Comission (FEC) board uphold the legal advice given by its general counsel, that would severely restrict advertising not only for Moore’s film, but also quite possibly for the pro-Clinton doc, The Hunting of the President , the Candian documentary, The Corporation, and even John Sayles’ recent anti-Bush feature film, Silver City. At the same time, David Bossie, the same guy who encouraged Republicans to compalin to theaters showing F9/11, plans to file a complaint with the FEC stating that it violates federal election law. I don’t have the legal background or the knowledge of how the campaign finance laws work to specifically address the legal issues. If anyone understands these issues better than I do, I’d appreciate your take.

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Fahrenheit 9/11 House Parties is organizing house parties on Monday night to mark the release of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It’s similar to their house party screenings of Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered, although Moore’s film won’t be screened at the party itself. I’ll be attending one of the “house parties” (actually in a coffeehouse) here in Decatur.

The “Fahrenheit” house parties will feature an online, interactive chat with Michael Moore, and MoveOn is encoraging groups to discuss plans to defeat George Bush in the 2004 election. I’m still intrigued by the way in which these house parties can frame an interpretation of a film, in both cases by translating viewing and discussing the film into a certain type of action (voter registration drives, campaigning for Kerry, both things I like), but I’m a little suspicious about how these house parties might actually inhibit a critical engagement with Moore’s film.

In my initial reading of this practice, I tended to read the “Uncovered” house parties realtively uncritically, perhaps in part because my appreciation of grassroots political movements and my opposition to George W. Bush prevented me from seeing how such an approach might actually limit the possibility of thinking critically about Uncovered itself as a film. As a result, I wasn’t very satisfied with that paper. Now, I’m as critical of Dubya (and the war in Iraq) as anyone, but I’m not sure how beneficial it will be to attend the film with an interpretation (translating information into action) in mind.

Perhaps this is my real problem with the house party concept. It seems that MoveOn is treating the documentary film (whether Moore’s or Greenwald’s) as mere information. As many great critical essays on documentary filmmaking suggest, documentaries are much more than mere information; they are narratives that organize “information” in highly specific, ideological ways. Again, I know that my politics roughly coincide with Moore’s, but I think that watching the film with a specific interpretation in mind (how can I use this information to convince people that Bush should not be re-elected?) seems like it might actually prevent genuine conversation about the film rather than provoking it.

Update 6/30: Here’s a New York Times article covering several of the New York house parties. It also mentions the release of a Disney documentary called America’s Heart and Soul, which purports to describe the American Dream through (very carefully selected) interviews with a diverse group of Americans. At some point, I’d be curious to see the film simply as a cultural artifact (it sounds a lot like the Frank Capra and John Ford WWII-era films), but for now, I’d rather enjoy this review in The Onion.

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A Milestone of Sorts

It just dawned on me that I’ve officially been a Wordherder for one year now. I had my one year blogaversary a few months ago, so it feels a little cheap to describe this as another milestone, but I still felt I should mark the occasion somehow. Maybe the best way of doing that is to thank Jason for getting the whole thing rolling.

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The Weather Underground

Because I was born in 1970, images from the 1960s have the aura of history for me. I don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, so I find representations of that era to be fascinating. When I taught freshman composition at the University of Illinois, I often showed Mark Kitchell’s 1990 documentary, Berkeley in the ‘60s, in order to introduce the research project, in which the class would write research papers on specific historical events from a specific decade. When I watched this film, I found myself unself-consciously drawn to charismatic leaders of the Free Speech Movement, such as Mario Savio, who spoke so passionately about his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

With that in mind, I watched Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary, The Weather Underground (IMDB), tonight. The film focuses on the radical left-wing political group that bombed several government buildings, including the US Capital, in the late 1960s and ‘70s. It’s a film that is impossible to watch without acknowledging one’s political investments, and in fact Roger Ebert’s review of the film verges on being only a reflection on his politics (he mentions that he still has his SDS card signed by Tom Hayden).

I knew a little about the Weathermen, but I didn’t have a clear sense of their long history. The documentary certainly provides that, although I’d imagine that one aspect of their experience is probably unrepresentable: after watching this film, I’m not sure that I have any sense of what it must have been like to be separated from family and friends for years, unable to communicate except perhaps in elliptical ways. One member of the group comments that after the early 70s they became “invisible,” unrecognized by old friends, and unable for the most part to return to familiar haunts. I’m not sure how anyone represents that, though.

The documentary uses interviews with former members of the Weather Underground, undercover FBI officers, and former SDS president and Weathermen opponent, Todd Gitlin, to trace the history of the Weathermen, from their formation at the 1969 Students for a Democratic Society conference through the late seventies when the group essentially disbanded (after Jimmy Carter’s amnesty for draft dodgers), with many members turning themselves in. Like the leaders of the Free Speech Movement (such as Savio), many of the Weathermen were incredibly charismatic, their press appearances carefully constructed to convey their passionate beliefs, and archived footage of Bernadette Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Naomi Jaffe and Mr. Flanagan effectively conveys the idea that they were “sexy criminals” as Elvis Mitchell puts it (by the way, what must it be like to be surfing the Internet and find yourself described as a sexy criminal?). Several times during the course of the documentary, Dohrn and Ayers (who are still a couple), particularly, are described as a real-life Bonnie and Clyde, and the footage certainly captures that spirit of rebellion that I find so enticing, and the film shows to some extent how carefully the group managed their image.

The interview format, mixed with news footage and home movie footage (often in Super-8), allows for a reflective format, in which many of the Weather Underground find themselves looking back at their actions with mixed emotions. In one of the more compelling interview sequences, Brian Flanagan, who now owns a bar, reflects that “When you feel you have right on your side, you can do some pretty horrific things.” Others, including Mark Rudd, now a community college teacher, also express mixed emotions about their actions, but some members of the group show less remorse. Still, there’s a great deal of nostalgia among many of the group’s members, a nostalgia for the moment of possibility represented by the volatility of the late 1960s.

As the indieWIRE reviewer suggests, the film’s format, at least on a formal level, is relatively orthodox. However, this approach masks the extent to which members of the Weather Underground are presented sympathetically. I would have liked to see interviews with other liberal or left opponents of the Weathermen besides Todd Gitlin. It’s not that I’m necessarily suspicious of Gitlin, but because of his involvement in SDS, it’s hard to shake his personal investment in that history (and I’m not suggesting that anyone could be objective, but another point-of-view from the outside could have been helpful). The roughness of the footage does add to the intensity of the film as well.

Of course the film cannot be separated from its contemporary context, and I think that’s what makes this documentary so successful. Brian Flanagan, in particular, clearly feels some degree of remorse for his actions, comparing them to the Oklahoma City bombing. And, implicitly at least, the film raises questions about the current opposition to the war in Iraq and (to some extent) the resistance to globalization, about what can be said, about what form that opposition takes.

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Recent Documentary Articles

I’ve pretty much put the finishing touches on my horror film article, just missing my June 15 goal. Should hit the mail tomorrow. Now I’m starting to think about my conference paper on Capturing the Friedmans, a paper that I’m hoping will allow me to reflect on some key debates in documentary filmmaking. I’m way too exhausted to write anything terribly coherent about the questions I’d like to address right now.

With that in mind, I’ve linked to a few recent articles on doucmentary films. David Sterritt, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, has recently written an article discussing the recent trend of political documentaries. Sterritt attributes the rise in political documentaries to the polarized political atmosphere, and to some extent, I agree. Joel Bakan, co-writer of the Canadian documentary, The Corporation, echoes many of these claims:

Bakan started writing “The Corporation” in the mid ’90s, when he decided that “globalization, deregulation, privatization, [and] relaxation of merger and acquisition laws” were leading to “our democratic institutions being subsumed to the corporate agenda.”

The movie is catching on, he says, because people increasingly sense that the the world is facing real problems. Yet when they watch the news and read the paper, they don’t have a sense of why it’s happening the way it is happening. Documentaries try to make sense of the big picture, he says, and viewers welcome the engagement such films provide even if they don’t always agree with a film’s conclusions.

To some extent, I agree, documentaries allow for greater reflection than either news broadcasts or radio talk shows. I’d also agree that Bush’s policies have led to widespread opposition and energized people on the left. But, as Bakan’s experience suggests (he began writing the film in the good old mid ’90s), this opposition has been building for some time, and Michael Moore has been producing significant anti-corporate documentary work since 1989. I don’t know that I have any complete answers here. Certainly having access to cheap equipment has been critical, but again, that’s only part of it.

This emphasis on politcal documentaries also appears in Stephen Holden’s New York Times review of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF). Like Sterritt, he mentions The Corporation. The connection Holden makes between the HRWIFF and the photos and videos from Abu Ghraib also seems very much relevant.

Finally, Matt at Rashomon also has a recent blog entry on political documentaries helpfully collecting some links and listing some of the key films in this cycle.

Now, I’m off to watch one of the classics, Primary, Robert Drew’s documentary about the 1960 Democratic primary race between John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

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[AFF] This Land is Your Land

I attended my last Atlanta Film Festival screening yesterday evening, watching Lori Cheatle and Daisy Wright’s This Land is Your Land (IMDB), a film that sought to document the powerful impact of corporations on everyday life, using both humorous images of corporate branding, and later, interviews from Natchez, Mississippi, a town that has been devastated by factory closings. The film draws from the stories of many other people as well. Cheatle and Wright generally take a talking-heads approach, focusing primarily on interviews, and allowing people time to tell their own stories, an approach that I think works well with the material they’re addressing in the film.

The opening segment of This Land focuses primarily on the ubiquity of advertising and features interviews with Naomi Klein of No Logo fame. Most of the material here will be relatively familiar to the people who watch this film, but it’s still rather humorous to watch one woman, who is wearing Adidas products from head-to-toe, comment on how “tacky” it would be to mix-and-match corporate brands. More crucially, we are introduced to two running subplots in the film: a small independent coffee company sued by Starbucks for using its trademarked name “Christmas Blend” and a lawsuit against Nike for using misleading advertising. The latter case allows Cheatle and Wright to introduce one of the film’s more powerful arguments and consistent themes. In short, they are challenging the interpretation of the 14th Amendment that allows corporations to be treated as people.

Also enjoyable: an interview with Granny D, the 89-year-old New Hampshire woman who decided in 1998 to walk across America to raise awareness for campaign finance reform and is currently running for the US Senate in New Hampshire.

The film builds nicely towards a concluding section in which we see the different ways in which people have responded to the negative effects of these corporations. In general, the film does a great job of landing many of its critiques with a relatively soft touch (that is, without appearing mean-spirited), which I think is a useful approach. In its spirit and politics, the film seems to take its cues from Jim Hightower (blog), who is prominently featured in the film. In general, it’s both a fun and thoughtful film, and even with the critique of corporate power, This Land is Your Land never leaves the viewer feeling powerless.

Update 7/5: Here’s a quick link to the Austin Chronicle review of Land. I’ve been thinking about this film a lot over the last few days because of my “teaching globalization” paper. Also, because of the July 4 holiday, I’ve been thinking about definitions of citizenship, and this film addresses that question in a very effective way.

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Saturday Morning Coffee Reads

The Juneteenth Film Festival started this week in Dallas, TX, and runs through June 20. The website has interesting historical information about the history of the Juneteenth holiday.

Meanwhile, the New York Times continues its round-the-clock coverage of the publicity for Michael Moore’s new film (maybe you’ve heard about it?). A Philip Shenon article, echoing similar claims by Roger Ebert, notes that Moore will be under tremendous pressure to ensure that factual information in the film is accurate. To that end, Moore has put together a “war room” of sorts to rigorously fact-check everything in the film. I’m very much in suspense about how this film will be received.

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