Archive for October, 2004

To Be Silent is To LIe

So, I’ve been out of the loop for a while. The latest example: I didn’t realize that William Gibson is blogging again. His commentaries on US politics, while not terribly cheering, are fun to read. The good news: there might be a movie version of Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition. The cooler news, Peter Weir, of Truman Show fame, may direct.

I’ve been doing some heavy-duty writing lately, hence the blog silence. For whatever reason, I’ve found this paper fairly difficult to write (I know I’ve probably said that before), but it seems to be taking shape now.

Update: I just checked, and it appears that Gibson has only been blogging for a few weeks. Here’s why he returned.

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Movie Question

Just out of curiosity, does anyone else find it difficult to find time to watch movies when they’re in the midst of writing a (film) paper? I’m moving tentatively towards drafting my conference paper, and I had planned to catch a movie this weekend– several interesting films, including Shaun of the Dead and I {Heart} Huckabees are playing–but I’m finding it difficult to walk away from the computer to go see a film.

In addition, I’m less likely to even rent a movie while working on a paper. It’s not likely that I’ll “forget” what’s in the film I’m discussing (I took copious notes!), but for some reason, I’m less inclined to watch other films when in intense writing mode. Do other people have this experience? I don’t remember having this exact experience when writing my dissertation, so maybe it’s simply due to the fact that I’m in writing sprint mode rather than writing marathon mode.

The paper is going pretty well, I think. I’ve been re-reading James M. Moran’s excellent book, There’s No Place Like Home Video, which has helped me to think through my discussion of the use of video footage in Capturing the Friedmans. Not much I can discuss in detail just yet, but the distinction between home movie and home video footage in the film, and the nostalgia plotted onto the Super 8 film seems important to my reading of the film.

I had orginally planned to discuss my feelings of midterm malaise, especially after reading so many other bloggers talking about it, but with Fall Break providing me with a little time to get some work done, I feel a little better about the world right now, even though Purdue got beat, ending the run among the undefeated.

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You be the Judge

The upcoming Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode, in which viewers of the show decide whether or not a character lives or dies, sounds absolutely fascinating. I saw a commercial for this episode a few days ago, but until I read David Carr and Michael Joseph Gross’s New York Times article , I’d forgotten to blog about it.

The character, Nicole Wallace (Olivia D’Abo), is apparently a villain of sorts on the show, and the plot device grew out of a conflict between Rene Balcer, executive producer of the show, and Bruce Evans, a VP at NBC, about whether or not to write the character out of the show. The result: they’ve made two episodes, one in which Nicole dies, another in which she lives, which will appear in different parts of the country. Fans can then choose, American Idol style, which ending they prefer. Many fans have written on bulletin boards that they’d like to see her character killed, but the producers of the show suggest that their story may make that decision more difficult:

Once they see the episode, that may change their opinion. […] t’s easy to believe in the death penalty in the abstract. If you’re the one pulling the switch, it’s a little different. Here, the audience gets to pull the switch.

One of my colleagues at Georgia Tech, Janet Murray, comments that placing the audience in the position of the executioner violates the premise of the show, “In some way, that violates the premise of the series: How do we live together as a society, while containing antisocial impulses? Allowing the viewers to vote completely undermines the ‘order’ part of ‘Law & Order.'” Others have seen the show as the logical extension of reality TV, arguing that reality TV has become so extreme that it will “eventually lead to a live execution on television.”

I’m not sure the reality TV comparison holds entirely. Yes, many reality TV shows allow for greater audience participation, but some of the more popular shows (Survivor and The Apprentice) don’t involve audience participation. I’m also curious about the assumption that audiences will necessarily decide to execute the Nicole character. No matter the decision, I think it’s an interesting creative choice to give audiences more control over a narrative, especially in a world where things seem increasingly out-of-control, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out within the medium of television, which thrives on immediacy and presentness.

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More Jarecki Links

More research. Just came across this interesting interview from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (you may need a subscription) with director Andrew Jarecki. In the interview, Jarecki addresses the concern that his film might be voyeuristic or that it might “objectify” the Friedman family (he notes in the interview that he continues to talk to Elaine and Jesse Friedman). Also check out this British Film Institute interview. Some good questions from a bulletin board discussion on HBO’s website, including a discussion of the “reveal” that Arnold Friedman’s brother, Howard, is gay.

Other links:

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Update: Found a cool Eugene Hernandez article on documentary film while looking around on indieWIRE.

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More Capturing Links

I’m doing some last-minute thinking for my Capturing the Friedmans paper, which I’ll be writing this week. As I’ve discussed in previous entries (I believe Alex brought this up in a comment), Capturing the Friedmans (CTF) warrants comparison to Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line (TBL), especially in the inability of both documentaries to get back to an “inaccessible past.” Of course, in TBL, Randall Adams is eventually exonerated of the crime, while Arnold’s guilt is left ambiguous at the end of the film.

In this context, some critics have charged the film’s director, Andrew Jarecki, of cynically exploiting the “postmodern ambiguity conveyed by Capturing the Friedmans.” The author of this article, Chris Mooney goes on to imply that Jarecki may have “adopted this line as a cynical marketing ploy.” While I think that Mooney’s accusation doesn’t really hold up (I don’t think you can require a documentary film to proceed in the same way as a legal defense), he does bring together a few of the important reviews of the film. On the other hand, David Edelstein finds the “case against the prosecution more devastating for being undersold.”

Note: while following some links, I came across Jesse Friedman’s personal website and a website about Jesse’s case with a message from his brother, David. Also check out this Gary Dretzka interview with Andrew Jarecki.

Second note: I lost some of this entry when my browser shut down, but I’ve been struck by all of the comparisons to Rashomon (I got 298 matches on a Google search for “Jarecki and Rashomon”), and I’ve been somewhat surprised by how many of those reviewers see that comparison as negative, criticizing Jarecki for the film’s ambiguity.

I may continue to be beneath the blog radar for the next few days. Job market, conference paper, and teaching obligations are keeping me very busy.

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The Butterfly Effect

I had a brief moment of job market panic last night, so I decided to take a brief break and watch the Ashton Kutcher vehicle, The Butterfly Effect. (IMDB). Note: possible spoilers ahead, but I figure that if you’re interested in this film at all, you’ve probably seen it by now. I’m not quite ready to work through the film’s time-travel logic, which it associates with chaos theory, but I will note that the film may be loosely relevant to my project, especially in its use of the main character’s diaries, and eventually home movies, as the mode of conveyance through time.

I’m also intrigued by the film’s fear of unpredictablility, especially when it comes to the safety of children. Butterfly constantly puts small children, including the Ashton Kutcher character, Evan Treborn, in physically or psychologically dangerous situations that have a profound effect on Evan’s adult life (as well as the lives of three of his friends). It’s a strange, somewhat troubling film, one that seems desperate to protect innocence in the face of a dangerous, hostile world. Also interesting that Evan is essentially raised by a single mother (his father has been institutionalized due to his similar claims about time travel). Although Evan’s mom is portrayed as caring and protective, she is rarely around when Evan places himself in dangerous situations. Finally, the film, like many other time travel films, has a fairly explicit religious subtext, which becomes more explicit when you listen to the directors’ commentary, in which they note that the time traveler’s name was originally supposed to be Chris Treborn.

The question of unpredictability raised in this film (and it comes up in other films as well) was sparked when I was reading a colleague’s work this afternoon, and she mentioned Anthony Giddens’ Reith Lectures, where Giddens discusses the relationship between globalization and uncertainty or unpredictability, using the phrase “runaway world.” PDFs of several of the lectures are available at the Lectures on Key Topics website linked above, but his discussion of globalization seems particularly relevant.

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211 Miles of Bad Road

Technically, 422 miles of bad road, round-trip. So here’s the story of my weekend. My somewhat brief time in Statesboro was actually pretty nice. I gave a talk on some of my experiences using weblogs in freshman composition classes at a conference this weekend, where I had the good fortune of appearing on a panel with Dennis G. Jerz, who spoke about both blogging and wikis. Like Dennis, I learned quite a bit from being one of a small number of English faculty members attending the conference (compared to library sciences and other discplines).

But to be honest, the most memorable part of the weekend was the drive. I’m someone who really doesn’t like to drive. If I had a better car (I currently drive a 1989 Mazda with 192,000 miles on it), I might enjoy driving more, and it wasn’t really a bad drive. Georgians love their concrete, and I encountered fast, smooth roads all the way from Atlanta to Statesboro. I made it to Statesboro in time to watch the debate last night (you may have heard about it), and while Bush seemed less uncomfortable than he did last week, I still found him to be incredibly defensive, especially on foreign policy. His inability to acknowledge that he makes mistakes is also a major problem in my opinion. I do think that Kerry should have been a little more aggressive, but holding serve in the town hall debate doesn’t really hurt.

Finally, I’ve just learned about another film blogger out there and wanted to give him the spotlight, or at least a quick link. Filmmaker Guy (I’m eventually going to become lazy and start referring to him as FG, might as well start now) teaches film production and has made several films (and that’s all I’l say for now).

Too tired to go to see a movie at theater, so I’m watching the Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. Fun stuff.

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New HBO Documentary

I’m leaving town in a few minutes, so no time to blog in detail, but Alexandra Pelosi, who also directed Journeys with George, has a new documentary out called Diary of a Political Tourist. Catherine Seipp has a review.

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Statesboro Blues

Leaving tomorrow afternoon for the Georgia Conference on Information Literacy, at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, but, as usual, I’ll be spending most of the day before the conference (Friday) finishing the paper I’ll be delivering on Saturday.

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Watery Eye

Via Cinema Minima, a new lens that can “mimic the way the human eye focuses.” The lens uses water/fluid pressure to regulate the focal length of a lens, more closely simulating the ways in which the human eye focuses. Ratchet Up has the full story.

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Self-Indulgent Link Storage

Working on revising the abstract for my book project and so I was digging around in my archives (procrastination? organizing my thoughts? you decide!), and I rediscovered this Crooked Timber entry by Brian Weatherson on time travel. While sifting through the comments (now, I’ll admit that’s procrastination), I found a link to M. Joseph Young’s “A Primer on Time.” I haven’t looked very closely at Young’s site yet, but his analyses on several prominent time travel movies should be helpful, if only to remind me about some films I need to revisit.

I keep forgetting to rewatch the underrated Marisa Tomei-Vincent D’Onofrio film, Happy Accidents,, for example, but then again, I really didn’t need to be reminded about the Meg Ryan vehicle, Kate and Leopold (actually K&L is a little more interesting than it looks). I’m also trying to think about ways of incorporating a chapter or so on television. I’d especially like to write about the original versions of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

What I enjoyed the most about Brian’s entry and the comments that followed was the discussion of causality, a topic that I have tended to discuss less often in my work on time travel films. I’m usually less concerned about the specifics about the logic of time travel, and in fact, I’m more interested in those films that are “incoherent” or “inconsistent” to use a couple of terms that came up often in the CT discussion. I realize that I’m being pretty cryptic here, mostly because I’m trying to re-process some ideas that are in need of revision.

Update: Just a quick reminder that one of my conference narratives has a link to and discussion of the DeMille film, Male and Female, which I want to discuss in my early cinema chapter.

Update 2: Another DeMille film that deals with time issues, the reincarnation film, The Road to Yesterday, which is not available on VHS or DVD from Amazon. For some reason, on second glance, Man and Woman doesn’t look like the right film.

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One Vote

Just learned from a friend about the cool website and video, One Vote: A Short Film about Women and Voting. The website itself speaks to many of the concerns my students have addressed in our election-themed course about whether or not their votes “matter,” especially given that so few states have been designated as “swing states.” I’m still considering how I’ll approach teaching the video in my class, but I’m planning a discussion of GOTV and fundraising letters later in the semester, and watching this video might complement that discussion nicely.

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Links for An American Family

Just a quick link to the PBS page on Lance Loud, who passed away in December 2001. Lance Loud was the “star” of one of the first reality TV shows, An American Family, (IMDB) and one of the first openly homosexual people to appear on TV.

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Defining Documentary

I’ve been working on my Capturing the Friedmans paper, and today I’ve been reading Jeffrey Ruoff’s excellent book, “An American Family:” A Televised Life. I’ve been making lots of useful connections, most of which I’m not quite ready to discuss just yet, but Ruoff discusses one debate that seems to haunt my personal project, not to mention discusion of the reception of documentary film in general. In this context, Ruoff writes:

Visual anthropologist Jay Ruby claims that documentaries mask their ideological agendas, fooling viewers into thinking they are watching objective representations of the world. Using this, albeit untested, theory of spectatorship, Ruby has argued […] for a self-reflexive documentary that would acknowledge its constructed nature. […] More recently, film theorist, Bill Nichols, while surely sympathetic to Ruby’s formulation, has offered another text-based definition of nonfiction film. In Representing Reality, Nichols maintains that documentaries may best be categorized as works that present an “argument about the historical world” (95-6).

Ruoff, of course, goes on to complicate this comparison between Nichols and Ruby, but I think these two definitions of documentary speak to contemporary debates about this genre, including the battles over whether Michael Moore’s F9/11 should be classified as a documentary (a debate that came up at a party I attended this weekend), and I think these definitions could have clarified our discussion somewhat. Moore’s films are transparently reflexive, of course, with Moore himself playing a prominent role as a narrator, his looming presence in his films calling explicit attention to his directorial control. His documentaries are unambiguously argumentative (which is what makes Moore such a polarizing figure), though I’d argue that his best arguments are sometimes obscured by his tendency to overreach. But while viewers clearly see Moore as making an argument because of his reflexivity, they perceive that practice as defying the requirements of documentary film, which they expect to be “objective,” showing “both sides” of the story (in some sense this expectation is derived from a false equation between journalism and documentary film, two entirley different activities).

Ruoff adds that Nichols’ formulation may not hold for “observational cinema,” such as An American Family, especially in terms of reception. In my experience, most viewers demonstrate some awareness of the constructedness of all documentaries, even those that use a “fly-on-the-wall” approach. In this sense, I’m less inclined to uphold the idea of a “naive viewer,” especially one who is “fooled” into believing they are watching “objective representations” (here the ehcoes of “false consciousness” are far too strong for me to accept).

I haven’t quite resolved this tension, but it seems to inform most conversations about how documentaries are received, an issue that seems particularly relevant in my paper on CTF, which has produced such a wide variety of responses (as the comments in my original entry on the film suggest). The “reality effect” is amplified in CTF by the use of home movies and home video belonging to the Friedman family, but Andrew Jarecki’s directorial control over the film seems pretty explicit, in part because we hear him ask questions, but also because of formal flourishes, such as the time-lapse shots of the clock in Great Neck. Perhaps more importantly, Jarecki includes footage from several of the film’s screenings, showing us the arguments provoked by the film, and in some sense, potentially steering our interpretation of the film, not necessarily in terms of Arnold and Jessie’s guilt, but in terms of the questions that we ask after watching the film.

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Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry

George Butler’s sympathetic biographical documentary, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (IMDB), initially appears to be the perfect antidote to the cynical smear politics practiced by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth (SBVT). If you accept Butler’s representation of Kerry’s Veitnam service, then the SBVT charges are clearly false, or at least beside the point. We learn, among other things, that swiftboat duty was incredibly dangerous, with a 75 percent casualty rate. The swiftboats faced firefights on a daily basis, making it nearly impossible to claim that John Kerry’s service was anything but courageous.

We also learn that Richard Nixon, clearly threatened by the charismatic young veteran, sought to sabatoge Kerry’s young career, first by trying to find some “dirt” on him. Nixon aide Charles Colson, recognizing Kerry’s appeal, comments on one of the infamous White House audio tapes that “We have to destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Nader” (best laugh line of the night). When they cannot find any dirt, Nixon recruits John O’Neill, now the leader of the SBVT, to question Kerry’s reputation. To punctuate this point, Butler includes a segment from an episode of the Dick Cavett Show, in which Kerry and O’Neill debate. But Going Upriver is not interesting only as a campaign document. Most viewers of the film will already have made up their minds about Kerry before ever seing the film.

What I found most compelling about the film was the use of archival footage, including Super-8 film taken by Kerry and his crewmates on their swiftboat. These shots give Kerry’s Vietnam experience a surprising immediacy, not only conveying what Max Cleland calls Vietnam’s “beauty and terror,” but also showing John Kerry to be a charismatic youth, capable of taking a principled stand at an early age. The Super-8 film footage, and other archival footage when Kerry returns to the United States, fascinated me throughout, and Butler carefully selects this footage to convey Kerry’s heroics, both in Vietnam and later as a protestor. We see Kerry as engaged, thoughtful, and reflective, holding back the anger that seems to overwhelm many of his comrades, with Kerry’s clean-cut demeanor contrasting their shaggy-haired appearance.

The film is also carefully structured to convey John Kerry’s transformation from a Kennedy-inspired idealist who willingly fights for his country to a disillusioned veteran who returns to the United States to protest a war he sees as unjust, but while Kerry’s political shift is contextualized in his participation in the Winter Soldier conference on wartime atrocities, as J. Hoberman observes, Going Upriver fails to emphasize that Kerry represented the view of thousands of soldiers returning from the war, turning a major cultural shift into a personal journey.

Throughout the film, we see very few contemporary images of Kerry, other than a brief montage of photographs at the film’s end, including a shot of Kerry at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. In a sense, the film conveys the extent to which we still have yet to resolve the ghosts of the Vietnam War, and how those ghosts haunt our present war in Iraq. Following in the footsteps of Errol Morris’s Fog of War, Going Upriver carefully chronicles Kerry’s personal transformation during the Vietnam era, adding “a small, valuable contribution” to the continued efforts to make sense of the Vietnam War’s effects on American life.

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