Archive for December, 2004

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson and his films have been variously described as “quirky,” “idiosyncratic,” “precious,” and as filled with “terminal whimsy.” In his earlier films, especially The Royal Tennenbaums, I’ve enjoyed Anderson’s playful style, his meticuolous attention to set design. Many critics have noted that Anderson’s films function more as giant “doll houses” more than carefully plotted narratives, an observation that is perhaps most evident in the arrested development of the Tennenbaum mansion and the Max’s set models in Rushmore. Further, as David Edelstein points out, in many of Anderson’s films, “there’s a tension between the person and the persona,” whether the flawed “family of geniuses” in the Tennenbaums or the aspiring crime geniuses in Bottle Rocket.

His latest film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (IMDB), indulges many of these tendencies. In fact, Zissou, in my reading, seems even more whimsical and less carefully paced than many of Anderson’s earlier films. Zissou focuses on the ocean explorer Steve Zissou (Murray), a Jacques Cousteau figure whose films are receiving less attention (and popularity) as their narratives lose any suspense and romance. The film opens at an Italian debut of one of his latest films (in a familar Anderson trope of showing a film or play audience), and it’s clear that the audience is bored by the film, their questions polite rather than curious. But when Zissou’s closest friend and assistant is killed by a “jaguar shark,” he vows revenge, plotting to pursue the shark and kill it a la Captain Ahab. At the screening, Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who claims to be his son. This claim is never confirmed, but the two lonely people attempt to connect, with Zissou inviting Ned to join his crew.

Like other Anderson films, the tension between person and persona is played out narratively and through set design. Zissou’s pretensions as an undersea explorer are conveyed as much by his red sea cap, his ship’s flag, and his blue uniform. In one of the film’s best shots, the camera glides from room to room in the ship, revealing much about how Zissou (and the rest of the film’s characters) wish to see themselves. But once the film established this tension, I was never quite sure how it wanted to address it. There are several moments in which the film seems to want to parody the documentary form, to convey the ways in which “reality” in a documentary is constructed, but Anderson seems to abandon that question towards the end of the film.

Visually, Anderson’s films continue to fascinate, and the “undersea adventure” parody gives Anderson’s vivid visual imagination room to play. He still offers characters who confront the difficult realization that they may not be able to live up to their celebrity image. Like The Royal Tennenbaums, especially, Zissou seems to exist in a temporally muddled alternate reality, with characters appearing slightly out of place. In Tennenbuams, this approach is clear. Anderson explicitly masked all references to contemporary New York City, using actors’ bodies to block out shots that would normally include the Statue of Liberty (for example).

In Zissou, the bright reds and garish yellows of Zissou’s uniform and the fan club insignia ring that Ned dutifully wears make the film appear to take place in a slightly different present than our own. This sense of an “alternate present” is conveyed in part musically, with the crew member (Seu George) who sings David Bowie songs in Portguese. I’m not quite sure how to bring these observations together into a fully coherent reading. Like Roger Ebert, I’m finding it difficult to “recommend” the film, but I’m not sure that’s the point of writing about a film, anyway. I do think that Anderson’s narrative becomes muddled towards the end, but the film seems more interesting to me this morning than it did last night.

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Bloggers at the MLA

I just returned from the MLA conference in Philadelphia, where I met up with several other academic bloggers. Scott Jaschik, of Inside Higher Ed, was there and wrote an article about our little get together.

I’m pretty exhasuted from the trip, but it was wonderful to catch up with several old friends I hadn’t seen in a while and to meet lots of other cool people.

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Ocean’s Twelve

About ten years ago my family started an annual tradition in which we go to see a movie on Chritsmas afternoon. I’m not really sure why my sister was so eager to start this tradition, but, then again, I’m not going to complain about going to see a movie. The only difficulty is finding a movie that will keep me interested without offending my mother and sister, who are both very religious (my father prefers to sleep off his turkey buzz at home). This year, for the first time in several years, I genuinely enjoyed our Christmas selection.

Ocean’s Twelve (IMDB) is a genuinely entertaining film, a nice follow-up to the Vegas caper film, Ocean’s Eleven. Most (if not all) of Danny Ocean’s crew is back for the sequel, living on their earnings from the first film’s casino heist (about $19 million per person). Danny (George Clooney) and Tess (Julia Roberts) have settled into something resembling a domestic routine. They’ve bought a suburban home, and Tess is squabbling with painters over paint colors when she sees Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), victim of the first heist, approaching the door. He wants the money back. With interest.

Danny and Tess get the crew back together in Europe, reasoning that their crew wouldn’t be able to pull any more jobs in the States. But that’s just an excuse, I think, for director Steven Soderbergh to spend several months in Europe with some of his favorite actors. I won’t say anything about the capers themselves because that’s part of the fun of watching the film (as Roger Ebert notes in a solid review of the film).

What I enjoyed most about the film, however, was what seemed like Soderbergh’s sheer joy in making this kind of film. More than most directors, Soderbergh has a terrific pop sensibility, and he uses it well in this film. Ebert’s review cryptically mentions two “cameos,” but there’s a third one featuring Topher Grace (of That 70s Show) playing himself as an out-of-control actor who has destroyed a hotel room while partying. The camera is playful throughout the film with one long pan shot revealing the massive amount of alcohol consumed by Grace and his friends. This scene, relatively early in the film, clues us in that the film is very much about celebrity, and more broadly about performance.

Later in the film, Linus (Matt Damon in “sincere and intense” mode) has a conversation with Rusty (Brad Pitt), telling him that he’s “ready for a bigger role.” He’s talking about their upcoming heists, but he might as well be talking about the film itself, about the role that stardom plays in dictating who gets the most screen time. There’s also the question of celebrity among thieves, with Danny and his crew competing with European rivals regarding who is more famous. I won’t reveal the film’s other cameos, other than to say that they fit the film’s treatment of celebrity perfectly.

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Just a quick bookmark post: Collin has a nice round-up of a discussion of “centripetal” versus “centrifugal” blogging. He notes that Clancy’s use of blogging in the classroom emphasizes the goal of creating “a close community ethos in the classroom,” while Collin expresses less interest in community building, emphasizing the goal of “having students looking outward.” For now, I just want to store this set of links so that I can return to it after MLA when I’ll be doing the bulk of my planning for srping semester.

Note: Clancy’s post provides a great overview of some of the instructional basics that many of my students have struggled with in the past. In the spring, I’d like to spend more time getting new bloggers up to speed, so this may be a good way to start.

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MLA Blogger MeetUp

I’ve been spending the last few days preparing for MLA hence the relative blog silence recently, but just wanted to mention again G’s suggestion that academic bloggers get together at the MLA. By the way, do we have a time and place staked out yet?

Things may be quiet around here until after MLA, so if I don’t post any more messages, I’ll wish everyone a happy holiday, including those of you who celebrate Festivus. And, like G, I’ll encourage you to check out Vic Chesnutt’s “White Christmas.”

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Spectacle, Surveillance, Control

My original plan of a documentary media-themed freshman composition course didn’t work out this semester. Because the course is supposed to introduce students to literature/literary studies, my documentary emphasis didn’t quite fit. So, instead, I’ve decided to teach a very loosely related theme, “Spectacle, Surveillance, Control,” using Debord, Foucault, and Deleuze as reference points for each of these themes. I taught a section of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish together with Deleuze’s “Postscript on Control Societies” at Tech a few years ago, and the discussion of both essays turned out to be fairly productive (thanks to Anne for the link). I’m planning to use excerpts from The Society of the Spectacle for Debord, but that’s still somewhat up in the air.

I think that one of the major benefits of this type of approach will be that it will portray the means by which academic argument can proceed. Foucault responds to Debord. Deleuze responds to Foucault. At the same time, we can “test” their approaches on a range of contemporary phenomena. Inspired by Ryan, I’ll likely start the semester with the unit on spectacle, by focusing on the inauguration and protests as forms of spectacle (and given last year’s controversy, the Super Bowl halftime show might be interesting to watch, too). Later in the semester, I’ve heard that Georgia Tech is planning a symposium on Freedom Tower, so that might be a useful moment to revisit those questions.

I will also require students to read Douglas Coupland’s Miss Wyoming and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. The latter, especially, can introduce students to questions about control societies quite nicely. Plus, I think both novels would be fun to teach. I’ve been trying to think of some good short stories/films for teaching alongside of Foucault. I think Bentham’s Panopticon is such a powerful image that it stands on its own, so I’m more intrigued by the ways in which Foucault talks about disciplinarity. If you have any suggestions, I’d appreciate them. I have thought about teaching Cube, but that doesn’t quite seem to fit what I’d like to do in terms of surveillance and disciplinarity. One other possibility (again, for control societies) would be Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, another film I’ve long wanted to teach.

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Random Monday Afternoon Film Notes

Just some quick notes on a couple of New York Times film articles. First, in “Revisiting Rwanda’s Horrors With an Ex-National Security Adviser,” John Darnton writes about watching the upcoming Terry George film, Hotel Rwanda (IMDB), with Clinton administration national securtiy advisor, Anthony Lake, who provides an overview of the Rwanda genocide crisis, and offers a fairly chilling reflection on how the UN failed the Tutsis and moderate Hutus (it’s estimated that extremist Hutus murdered over 800,000 people). Also noteworthy: Darnton interviews Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero and hotel clerk whose story the film depicts. But what I find most compelling about Lake’s viewing of the film is his observation that the current situations in Sudan and eastern Congo are echoes of what happened in Rwanda, and while the film almost certainly began production long before the crises in Sudan and Congo became public knowledge, Hotel Rwanda looks to have the potential to spark discussion about the US and UN response to what’s happening.

The Times also has an interesting article about the disappointing domestic box office for 2004, citing estimates that cinema attendance declined a little over 2% this year. The article features the usual hand-wringing about bloated budgets for bad scripts (Troy, Catwoman, Hidalgo), with one critic noting that if it weren’t for Mel Gibson and Michael Moore, 2004 might have been a very bad year at the box office, though I think their effect on ticket sales is probably slightly overrated.

Finally, while watching On the Waterfront, I saw a preview for Rodney Eavns’ Brother to Brother, which looks fairly promising (IMDB), a feature film about the Harlem Renaissance (check out Manohla Dargis’s generally positive review). Also caught a preview for the re-release of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and I can’t wait to see the film (the preview itself was worth the cost of my movie ticket).

As I mentioned earlier, I had mixed feelings about watching Waterfront, but it is a very pretty film with its black-and-white cinematography. The lighting transforms Brando’s Terry Milloy into a virtual saint for testifying against the corrupt crime boss, Johnny Friendly (a great performance by the underrated Lee J. Cobb). But it’s hard to shake my ambivalence about Kazan’s politics. Still very glad I was able to catch it on the big screen.

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Question for my Firefox Readers

Still tweaking because some Firefox readers noted that the new look was still difficult to read. I’ve changed to a solid white background for the entire blog to see if that solves the problem. If the background isn’t solid white, let me know.

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Blogging and Privacy in the Times

George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen has an article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that explores the ways in which blogs are redefining the boundaries between public and private. For most bloggers, this type of story is probably old news, especially given the infamous Washingtonienne “scandal” and other lesser-known stories about bloggers losing jobs or relationships because of their blogs, but I think the article does raise some valuable legal and ethical questions about the ways in which blogs blur that boundary.

A similar thread of discussion has been floating around this corner of the academic blogosphere, with G. and profgrrrl weighing in. Like profgrrrl, Rosen notes in passing that “although men and women blog in roughly equal numbers, personal bloggers are more likely to be women than men.” I won’t revisit all of the points that have been raised on this topic, but it’s worth noting that Rosen addresses the gender disparity in terms of how it plays out in the discussion of the personal.

I think that what I find more interesting is the way in which Rosen treats blogs as personal documentaries, using some of the same formulas that were used to analyze popular webcams such as the now defunct Specifically, he describes Justin Hall’s as kind of a “gonzo documentary” (Justin also has a blog about his studies at USC where he is a student in the interactive media division of their film school). I’m not quite sure what I find unsatisfying about Rosen’s characeterization of blogs as “documentaries.” It may be that in Rosen’s description, these “documentary” blogs still seem to have a voyeuristic quality, as if blogs were meant merely to be read or seen, like a low-budget reality TV show, while I see blogs as far more interactive.

But I think there’s also an unstated assumption about (and fear of) the process of “recording,” one that seems connected to the unruly audiences who read (and write) blogs. When Rosen discusses law blogs (or blawgs), he acknowledges some discomfort at what his students might be writing about his public performance as a teacher. He reflects that “now that I know that students may be reporting my after-class comments without my knowledge, I’m more likely to be circumspect in private conversations.” While some version of privacy may be lost here, I do think we’re seeing the emergence of a new form of cultural literacy that while redefining the boundary between public may also become more acutely aware of the role of language and communication in daily life, with Rosen, echoing former FCC chief Reid Hundt in acknowledging that blogs make “controlling audiences” impossible. Of course, “controlling audiences” has never been as simple as Rosen implies here, although I would agree that blogs make the multiplicity of audiences far more evident than before.

Not sure I have a conclusion here, but I’m intrigued by this discussion of privacy, especially as it pertains to the question of documentary and “reality TV.”

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Maybe I’ve Been Asleep for a While…

…but when did Amazon start tracking blogs? It’s weird to see a screenshot of my old template, but it’s also interesting to see their “recommendations,” i.e., people who visit my website might also enjoy Liz Lawley, Unfogged, Culture Cat, and Arts and Letters Daily. At least I’m in good company.

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Mel has been scooping me big-time when it comes to film reviews, but I finally got a chance to see Mike Nichols’ Closer (IMDB) tonight. Like Mel, I thought the film was beautifully photographed, with the London settings very effectively capturing the mood of the film, and Damien Rice’s melancholic music, which plays during both the opening and closing credits, fits the film’s mature treatment of love perfectly. And, like Mel, I found the casting choices interesting and effective, especially Julia Roberts playing against type as a relatively unglamorous photographer who is usually wearing, as Mel puts it, “some great men’s trousers.”

Closer focuses on four characters, Dan (Jude Law), an obituarist and sometimes novelist, and Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper; and Anna (Roberts), a photographer, and Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist. The film opens with Dan meeting Alice for the first time, in a near fantasy sequence, with the two of them gradually approaching each other on the sidewalk, Alice’s “Lola Red” hair shining in the sun. Lola, an American, forgets London’s traffic rules, steps in foront of a car, and sustains a minor injury. Dan takes her to the hospital. Later, Dan inadvertently plays Cupid for Anna and Larry by posing in a sex chatroom as “Anna” and seducing Larry, arranging a meeting in an aquarium. When Anna happens to be there, she figures out the joke, but begins to date (and eventually marries) Larry.

The film is based on a play (Patrick Marber adapted his own play), and there are only six speaking parts in the entire film. While the characters are fascinating, articulate, and complicated, I experienced this tight focus as claustrophobic. The film’s narrative is also fairly elliptical, often skipping several years to move to the next pertinent moment. I realize this is part of the point of the film, but for whatever reason, I found these temporal ellipses a bit frustrating, especially when Dan reveals to Alice that he’s been having an affair with Anna for over a year. I think the problem for me is that the film doesn’t convey that duration very effectively. I didn’t sense (from my experience of the film) that Dan and Alice had even been together for a year, so the betrayal didn’t really register like it could have (A.O. Scott has a much more generous reading of the temporal gaps than I do).

Even with that (minor) gripe, I relished the articulate screenplay. All of the characters are clearly articulate, using their dialogue in a variety of ways: to deceive, to wound, to challenge. Dan, posing as Anna, tricks Larry in a sex chatroom. Alice questions whether or not Anna’s photographs of working class pain are truly “honest” or whether they are simply comfort narratives for bourgeois art consumers. Alice is stripper, someone who might seem to reveal everything, but when she sees Larry at the club, Larry has what seems to be a profound moment of emotional self-revelation. And, of course, we learn at the end of the film that perhaps the most surprising deception has been comitted by Alice herself.

I’m not quite sure what to do with the film’s treatment of authenticity, or perhaps, more precisely, honesty. But I think that’s one of the great strengths of the film. It doesn’t offer easy answers about romance, sex, or love. It’s far from a predictable film, which is very much in its favor. In ways, Closer seems to fit nicely alongside the more critically-acclaimed Sideways and Before Sunset as a film that treats adult relationships in a serious, thought-provoking way.

Update (2:09 AM): Two things. First, I’m not sure what this says about me, but everyone has been talking about the film’s heavy use of profanity. To be honest, I didn’t really notice. I just thought that’s how people speak. Second, some of those same people have been comparing Closer to Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, but I don’t think that’s really representative of what Nichols and Marber are doing in this film. Where the characters in LaBute’s films seem downright immoral, sinners who will eventually find themselves in the hands of an angry G-d, the characters in Closer seem a bit more complicated, less doomed to hell and instead merely deluded.

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More Tweaking

Titus helped me with some tweaking to fix the appearance of my blog in Firefox, and now, I’m hoping that everything is wokring properly around here (everything still looks cool in IE). If you see any glitches or problems, be sure to let know.

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The Background is Owned

Brian Flemming explains a new problem confronting documentary filmmakers: “the background is owned.” Christopher Sims started shooting a documentary film, “An Army, One by One,” about Army recruiting in 2002, but cannot show the film without being sued because much of his footage includes corporate logos in the background. These logos are, Brian notes, “incidental.” They just happen to be in the background when Sims was filming, but as Flemming notes, “A corporation can (and often will) sue simply because you caught a trademark or copyrighted media product in the background of a shot.” Of course, on another level, these images are far from incidental, in that any film that presents an uncomfortable argument can be silenced in our spectacular culture. Guess I won’t be making that documentary about NASCAR dads any time soon.

As Brian notes, this practice has dangerous implications in terms of who is allowed to speak, who is allowed access to the public sphere:

If you’re a media corporation, and one of your primary goals is control, it’s a great trick. Clutter every part of our lives with logos, advertisements, video, music and other media–and then demand veto power when someone tries to document the world. Because you own it. At its most extreme, this scheme would require everyone who ever made anything about the world around them to get permission to share their work.

You can see Chistopher Sims’ film here.

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Words, Images, and Penguins

Here are a few of the articles I’ve been reading and flash movies I’ve been watching over the last few days. First, GreenCine Daily has been linking up a storm, with all of the end-of-the-year “Ten Best” lists coming out. Among other good reads, Nathan Kosub of Stop Smiling Magazine nominates Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset as the best film of the year, and I’m not sure I disagree.

In other news, a commenter in Filmbrain’s entry on long takes mentions David Bordwell’s Film Quarterly article, “Intensified continuity: visual style in contemporary American film.” In the article, Bordwell asks whether the average shot length in Hollywood films has decreased dramatically in recent years. Surprising factoid: Bordwell discovered that Dark City is “the fastest-cut Hollywood film” he found, at an average shot length of a mere 1.8 seconds.

Also from GreenCine: Hal Hartley, one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, is debuting his new DV feature, The Girl from Monday, at Sundance and will hit DVD very soon after. I haven’t had a chance to watch his newly released collection of short films, but my video store has a copy, and I’ve seen a few clips, and the collection looks very cool.

Ed Rampell of Alternet uses the re-release of On the Waterfront, which I’ll be seeing tomorrow night or Sunday, to remind audiences of “the film’s proper historical context: as a case study in Red Scare propaganda.” I haven’t seen the film in a few years, and while I’m aware of Kazan’s testimony before before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he named eight people who had been members of the Communist Party, I’m still curious to see the film again. Rampell’s basic thesis–that Kazan likely made Waterfront in order to justify his decision to inform–seems about right to me, so I’ll be watching this film through a variety of lenses.

Finally, Weez pointed me to a Flash animation starring my favorite species of animal, penguins: When Penguins Attack: The Post-Modern Version.

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New Year, New Appearance

Like G at “Thanks for Not Being a Zombie”, I’m upgrading and changing the appearance of the blog. I’m still not quite satisfied, but you’re witnessing the basic new look for the chutry experiment for 2005. I’ve been using the black (or chracoal) background for such a long time that I’m still adjusting to the new appearance. There are some line-spacing problems that I need to tweak, but otherwise I’m relatively happy with the new look (mostly a default template from Moveable Type). I’m finding the width of the sidebar to be a little narrow, but that could be a problem with my monitor and browser only. Let me know if anything needs to be fixed.

I’m hoping that the white background will make it easier for me to use (or at least understand) the blog as a space for working through some of my academic research and that it will simply make my blog easier to read. I’ve been relatively focused on wrapping up the semester and preparing for MLA interviews, so haven’t had time to write as much as I would like here. Like many of us, I’m also still reeling a little from the election, and while I’ve attempted to write several blog entries about the election, moral values, or complaints to the FCC about the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics, but the entries don’t seem to be doing what I want them to. In part, I’m trying to rethink my own understanding of the relationship between politics and popular culture, and I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with the language I’ve been using to describe that relationship.

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