Archive for March, 2005

Time Traveling with Aronofsky and Van Sant

I’ve been hearing buzz about two new potentially interesting time-travel films. First Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain is currently in production, with Hugh Jackman slated to star. Meanwhile, Elephant director Gus Van Sant is reportedly working to adapt Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife for the big screen. Not sure I have anything to add right now, but I’m already curious to see what these two directors will bring to the genre.

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Sin City

Thanks to friends with connections, I caught a preview screening of Sin City (IMDB) tonight at the local ultra-plex, and quite enjoyed the film’s brutal, high-adrenaline, sensory-overload take on forties noir. Co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller (whose graphic novels were the film’s source) have crafted a pulpy, excessive film that is among the most gratifying comic book adaptations I can remember seeing. The film is a loosely connected set of vignettes that present three of Miller’s Sin City novellas, a la Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Formally, this works pretty well, as each of the stories comment on the brutality of Basin City and the characters who inhabit it, but as an adaptation, it serves the material well, as I’m not sure that any of the stories could have carried a feature film very well by itself.

What I enjoyed most about this particular adaptation was the adptation of graphic novel to the big screen, with the panels from Frank Miller’s graphic novels serving as storyboards for the films. The result is a film that looks like a comic book, completely with shots featuring black-on-white silhouettes and Miller’s characteristic extreme close-ups. The heavy rainstorms in Basin City, the setting for all of the film’s narratives, were well done, with rain taking on a weightiness that seems to come straight from Miller’s pages. I haven’t read any of the Sin City volumes in several years, but Rodriguez and Miller’s visuals vividly brought back those images to me as I watched the film.

The narratives are the stuff of forties pulp fiction (and, yeah, QT directed at least one segment in the film). Some reviewers make reference to Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, but Miller’s books and the film they’ve inspired remind me of the more brutal noir associated with films like Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Joseph Lewis’s The Big Combo. The voice-over narration, supplied by the vignette’s three main protagonists, played by Bruce Willis, Mickey Roarke, and Clive Owen, wittily plays with the cliches of those detective novels and films.

I realize the film might be read as affirming certain gender stereotypes. Many of the storylines wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the noir world I’ve mentioned, but the stylized images constantly remind us that we’re being taken for a ride. The black-and-white shots, with occasional bursts of color–red blood, an evil baddie’s yellow skin–convey the film’s self-awareness about the world we’re watching. I’m probably being a little generous to the film, but tonight I needed a popcorn flick badly, and Sin City served me well.

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Re-Enacting History

The New York Times has addressed the controversial practice of documentary filmmakers using re-enactment footage. It turns out that the Oscar-winning documentary short, Mighty Times: The Children’s March (IMDB), used undisclosed re-enactment footage in its portrayal of a 1963 Civil Rights protest involving thousands of children. There is some debate about the amount of re-created footage, but Eyes on the Prize producer and cinematographer John Else estimates that approximately half the footage was fabricated.

Defining the boundary between “re-enacted” footage and “real” footage is, of course, a sticky problem, but the degree to which these filmmakers, Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, worked to mask the re-enactment footage seems a little unethical to me, especially their attempt to “mesh seamlessly” re-enactments with footage taken at the actual event. It’s a description that Houston welcomes:

“That’s my quote: ‘Thank you,’ ” Mr. Houston said. “The way we make our films is like baking a biscotti. We make a classic documentary using the archival record. We then make another layer of film. We bake the cookie twice, like a biscotti. That second layer of film fills in the gaps, and what you end up with is a seamless telling and definitive telling of unknown chapters from civil rights history.”

While I have no basic objections to using re-enactment footage, I’m a little uncomfortable with this characterization of documentary storytelling. Aren’t these “gaps” the real story? Isn’t it more significant to acknowledge the documentary filmmaker’s role in reconstructing this history from the evidence she or he collects along the way? In general, I have some real objections to any claims that you’re presenting events “as they really were,” to paraphrase Benjamin, and this practice of using extensive re-enactments in this way could certainly be used in ways that are highly unethical.

Later in the Times article, filmmaker John Else discusses teh question of “re-enactments” in terms of Errol Morris’s use of them in The Thin Blue Line, but the crucial difference is that Morris uses this technique to question the stories of several of his witnesses, not to create a “seamless” narrative that presents history as it happened. In fact, these re-enactments are clearly marked by formal features, such as film noir lighting and the Philip Glass score.

To be fair, I haven’t seen “The Children’s March,” so I can’t comment specifically on how re-enactments are used, but I think this is a question that merits consideration. I think it’s both naive and limiting to expect that documentary filmmakers not use re-enactment footage (after all history is nothing but interpretation), but it’s also risky to present that footage as “real” without the practice being used in ways that might be highly unethical.

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Tara Wray Interview

Several weeks ago I mentioned Tara Wray’s documentary-in-progress, Manhattan, Kansas. Now, there’s an interview with her on GreenCine Daily about the filmmaking process. Wray addresses the inevitable compaisons with Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, which also has a heavy autobiographical component. What I found partciularly interesting was Wray’s discussion of the difficulty of placing narrative closure onto an autobiographical documentary.

At any rate, I’m really looking forward to seeing the completed film.

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Lunch with Ralph

Yeah, I’m pretty much cribbing Ralph Luker’s title, but just wanted to mention that I had lunch with a fellow blogger over Spring Break. It’s always fun to meet fellow bloggers, and I was especially interested in talking with Ralph because he’s working on an article about blogging for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives.

As Ralph mentions, we first ran into each other in blogworld almost two years ago (at least in academic time), when I first started using blogs in a freshman composition classroom in Fall 2003, and back then, Ralph didn’t think it was a good idea (scroll down for the original entry). In fact, as he so eloquently puts it, he thought it was “a form of madness.” I’m not sure he’s wrong about the “madness” part, but I have found that blogging supplements many of my composition classes rather nicely.

At any rate, I just wanted to respond to Ralph’s question about plagiarism, mostly because we didn’t really talk about that particular topic all that much at lunch. I think he’s right that writing online can encourage plagiarism, but that will happen with any online form of writing, whether WebCT or any other format, and because the grades for blogging are a relatively small percentage of my grade, there’s really no incentive to plagiarize. In fact, from what I hear (and I’ve rarely had this happen), students are far more likely to copy text from the Web into their major papers than into journal entries.

Ralph also comments on blogging’s immediacy and the degree to which it might work against the process of revision. That’s probably fair, and in my specific case, I do have other assignments that require multiple drafts, but in some of my classes, the “immediacy” of blogging has been the object of study, to discuss with my students what kinds of writing that encourages and discourages, as well as what “rules” develop in specific blogging communities (there are, of course, vast numbers of communities even if a few A-listers get most of the press).

At any rate, this is a long way of saying that I very much enjoyed meeting Ralph who lives basically within walking distance of my apartment, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the artcile when he completes it. And I’m very much lamenting the fact that my Spring Break is basically over, although I am very pleased with how productive I’ve been–getting lots of writing done even if very little of it is showing up here.

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High Noon in Germany

David at GreenCine points to Patrick Walsh’s insightful discussion of teaching Western films in Germany. Walsh’s stated intention was to use the Western to “guide [his] students toward a consideration of American manhood,” but students instead identified the Western with George W. Bush’s “cowboy” persona and instead used the course to think about “American self-sanctioned violence.”

Also interesting that “anti-heroes” from such films as The Wild Bunch and Fistful of Dollars also failed to appeal given that the men in these films still used violence to achieve their goals, even if they did so in ways that weren’t sanctioned by the dominant culture. Also interesting that Blazing Saddles, a film that tears at the seams of the Western myth, was among the students’ favorites.

I mention this article because I find the students’ reading “against the grain” to be rather insightful, but also because I want to remind myself to return to Flow, the very cool online journal that published the article.

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Freedom is a Dangerous Thing

Florida’s “The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights” has been making the rounds in the academic corner of blogworld lately. According to the Alligator Online:

Republicans on the House Choice and Innovation Committee voted along party lines Tuesday to pass a bill that aims to stamp out “leftist totalitarianism” by “dictator professors” in the classrooms of Florida’s universities.

The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights, sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, passed 8-to-2 despite strenuous objections from the only two Democrats on the committee….

While promoting the bill Tuesday, Baxley said a university education should be more than “one biased view by the professor, who as a dictator controls the classroom,” as part of “a misuse of their platform to indoctrinate the next generation with their own views.”

The bill sets a statewide standard that students cannot be punished for professing beliefs with which their professors disagree. Professors would also be advised to teach alternative “serious academic theories” that may disagree with their personal views.

Like Ted of Crooked Timber, my initial reaction is to look back on the ancient days of yore when Republicans complained about the Evils of Political Correctness with some degree of nostalgia. You see, back in the day, Republicans would mock left-wing students who complained of being victimized. Now in the age of “Academic Freedom,” all of that has been turned on its head and Republican children are being persecuted in classrooms for their views on such topics as evolution (the only example Dennis Baxley, the bill’s sponsor, mentions).

I think that part of what bothers me is the langauge that characterizes the university in such stark terms, referring to university professors as “leftist totalitarians” and “dictators.” Baxley’s characterization of the college classroom, with students who are “being persecuted” is striking in this regard:

“Some professors say, ‘Evolution is a fact. I don’t want to hear about Intelligent Design (a creationist theory), and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’” Baxley said, citing one example when he thought a student should sue….

“Freedom is a dangerous thing, and you might be exposed to things you don’t want to hear,” he said. “Being a businessman, I found out you can be sued for anything. Besides, if students are being persecuted and ridiculed for their beliefs, I think they should be given standing to sue.”

I thought Republicans were against frivolous lawsuits, but maybe lawsuits are only frivolous when they target poor little multinational corporations, not big, bad dictatorial professors who make $150,000 a year for only six hours of work a week. But then again, we need the rest of our time to plot out methods for persecuting our students. Of course, maybe I’m missing the point here. Maybe I could start suing people for saying things I don’t want to hear….

According to what I’ve read, the bill has two more house committes before receiving a full house vote where it may actually pass. The Florida state senate is apparently more skeptical about the negative effects such a bill might have on recruiting faculty to state universities.

Thanks to Chris at Left Center Left, who refers to Ted’s entry (who cites MyDD). Inside Higher Ed is also on top of the story.

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Washington Bound

I just received the good news that a paper I’ve proposed for the film panel at this year’s MLA conference in Washington, D.C., has been accepted. I’ve never had a paper accepted to MLA before, so like Mel, I’m practically dancing around the room, as much as I can dance given my complete lack of rhythm. I’ll be presenting material from my current book project on time-travel films, focusing primarily on my reading of The Jacket.

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Inside Deep Throat

For any number of reasons, documentary filmmakers have been turning their lenses on the 1970s with increasing frequency lately. It might be more accurate to say that these seventies documentaries have found wider audiences than most other docs, but in the last two years, seventies docs include Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, The Weather Underground, and Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, with Eugne Jarecki’s The Trials of Henry Kissinger also touching on ’70s politics, specifically Kissinger’s support of Pinochet and his role in Vietnam. Add the Robb Moss doc, The Same River Twice, and it’s clear that the 70s are hot–at least for documentary filmmakers.

I’m tempted to read that popularity as a retreat to a moment whose political conflicts now appear to be resolved, a reading that the predictable, if mildly prurient, documentary Inside Deep Throat (IMDB) seems to invite, but I’m trying to resist that reading to some extent in order to think about how all of these films seem to comment, on one level or another, on the contemporary political moment (Jarekci’s Kissinger doc is the most important and effective by far in this regard).

In his review, Roger Ebert–constant crusader against the silliness of the ratings system–notes the oddity of the fact that a studio such as Universal would produce a documentary about an NC-17 film but would be unlikely to make such a film, and that’s something that struck me as I watched was the degree to which representations of the sex scenes in Deep Throat were framed by precisely that “eductaional” rhetoric that the film was trying to subvert. Instead of men in white lab coats, you have Camille Paglia and Dr. Ruth, but the same discourse of edification returns with a vengeance. You also get an oddly distracting voice-over narration from Dennis Hopper. I get the fact that he’s identified with 1970s excess, but it seemed like a use of celebrity just for the sake of having a celebrity.

In addition, the support of Universal and HBO (the new Miramax in its support of low-budget sexy flicks) turned the film’s educative impulse into a flashy, high-gloss trip through seventies culture. As Manohla Dargis’s review implies, it’s the closest you’ll get to a “blockbuster” documentary, and quite frankly, I found that the graphics and the huge music budget tamed any subversiveness this doc might have had. I’m trying to avoid any surface-depth metaphors because that’s not quite what I’m concerned about here (though the film was remarkably shallow given the incredible cast of interviewees–more on that in a minute). Instead, the documentary seemed to want to make Deep Throat into a “safe” form of titilation for average Americans. Take a walk on the wild side but stay where I can see you.

The discourse of “healthy” rebellion permeates the entire film, with the dcoumentary apparently assuming that all viewersnow regard the uproar over Deep Throat to be an overreation, implying with a wink and a nudge that viewers of the film would have been among the sophisticates like Erica Jong, Gore Vidal, and Stormin’ Norman Mailer, who would have attended screenings of the film, police be damned.

Inside Deep Throat also simplifies the political conflicts over the film, reducing the battles to a cynical “fisrt shot” by Tricky Dick Nixon in the family values battles that continue to dominate political discourse. While the connection certainly exists, it reduces both conflicts to relatively simple two-sided positions. Free expression or censorship. It’s a lot more complicated than that. The essential conflict centers on the prosecutors’ decision to go after male lead, Harry Reems, who faced a five-year jail term for his involvement in the film. Instead of focusing on the exploitative aspects of the industry that exposed Reems and co-star Linda Lovelace (who received immunity for reasons that weren’t explained) to the greatest amount of risk while securing only minimal profits, the film concentrates solely on the “free expression” question.

Perhaps more troubling was the bashing of 1970s era feminism the film engages in after disclosing that Reems was eventually cleared of all charges. While I do find the extreme anti-pornography positions of some 1970s feminists somewhat unsupportable, Inside Deep Throat seems to blame people like Susan Brownmiller for exploiting impressionistic kids like Linda Lovelace for their own purposes without really thinking about their arguments in any real detail. When Susan Brownmiller becomes a villain of equal stature with district attorney Larry Parrish, that’s not a very nuanced reading.

Inside Deep Throat concludes by reminding us that a modest little film made for $25,000 ended up grossing $600 million (according to some seriously unreliable estimates), but then laments the fact that pornography has become so heavily commodified (this in a film that cites Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt as references–no commodification there). Ironic shots of the Adult Video Awards in Vegas show hotties with implants suggest the dgree to which the industry has become artificial since the golden age of porn (didn’t Mark Walhberg already cover this in Boogie Nights?) before we get the mandatory reminder about freedom of speech with an American flag isolated against a night sky no less.

I think I would have enjoyed this film more if it weren’t so transparent, if I had been surprised at least once over the course of watching it. About the only real enjoyment I got was playing “spot the film theorist,” with appearances by two pretty cool academic film theorists, Linda Williams (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”) and Jon Lewis (Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry). Williams does make the good point that Deep Throat is one of the first films to make women’s sexual fulfillment an issue onscreen (as David Edelstein’s review points out), and while I did enjoy many of the interviews, I felt this doc stopped short of doing anything interesting with some really fascnating material, most importantly because it never really questioned its own assumptions about the material it was analyzing.

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The Difficulties of Representing War

I just came across Walter Chaw’s very critical review of Gunner Palace, which I found on the cool new film blog, Cinemonster. My initial review was certainly more positive, but I do share some of their reservations about the film, specifically regarding Tucker’s voice-over. I do think the film’s lack of a clear political message, implied in what Chaw describes as “the lack of a unifying theme” can be read in a more positive light as an implicit criticism of the war’s lack of a clear focus.

Also, based on my experience at a screening attended by the director and one of the soldiers in the unit portrayed in the film, I don’t think Tucker’s point is to criticize opponents of the war, as Chaw suggests. Tucker’s status as a veteran certainly informs the lens through which he sees the soldiers, but to suggest that Tucker is “spitting like a bona fide jarhead in the face of all us lefty wimps who’ve made the mistake of trying to learn something without getting shot at” seems to deny the very purpose of the documentary Tucker and Epperlein have made. In fact, I think it would be reasonable to argue that the film is equally critical of armchair hawks who have “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers on the back of their cars without any real understanding of what the military is doing, and while the representation issue (“we can’t really know what the soldiers experience”) may be obvious, I do think it’s worth revisiting.

I actually didn’t intend to write another blog entry “defending” the film or my original review of it, but now that the film has achieved “must-see” status, I can’t resist continuing the conversation and testing my initial reading of it. It does bother me that the film didn’t take a slightly more explicit anti-war stance, and I’m still concerned that the film failed to represent any sense of how the Iraqi perceived the war, but there are still some powerful moments in the film that make it well worth seeing (if only so that you can complain about it later).

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Documentary Jones

So, yeah, I’ve been out of the blog loop lately, but the good news is that I have been very productive this week, getting lots of writing done. I’ve also had a little time to satisfy my documentary jones, watching Alan Berliner’s 1996 documentary, Nobody’s Business, which I really liked. In fact, watching Berliner’s earlier film has led me to reconsider my earlier, fairly dismissive review of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Nobody’s Business focuses on Berliner’s mildly combative relationship with his father who persistently deflects his son’s questions during their interviews, telling him, “Nobody cares about this.” Gradually the son does get his father to asnwer a few questions, using their relationship to explore his father’s complicated relationship with previous generations.

I also finally watched Su Friedrich’s 1990 Sink or Swim, a powerful auto-documentary in black-and-white that evokes her family’s history through 26 segments titled with a letter of the alphabet running in reverse order. This is another very cool doc, one that uses autobiography to reflect on the complications of father-daughter relationships.

Now I’m off to see Inside Deep Throat, my first trip to the cinema in way too long, at least ten days or so.

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Springtime in the 21st Century

A few major signs that spring has finally arrived. My entry in at least one March Madness pool is in last place. My students’ research papers will be due in a few short days. My allergies are starting to go haywire. And, of course, I’m getting (already deleted) comment spam from Claritin.

I’m on Spring Break this week, which means I’ve had some time to get some writing done, which is a nice feeling. This is also the first time I’ve slept past 7:09 AM on a Monday since January, also a nice feeling.

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Do the Evolution, Imax Remix

Last year, it was stickers in school books in suburban Atlanta. This year, it’s IMAX movies, according to the New York Times, which reports that some Imax theaters, including some in science museums, are now refusing to show ceratin Imax films that refer to evolution, I mean “biological changes over time.” The highlights:

The fight over evolution has reached the big, big screen.

Several Imax theaters, including some in science museums, are refusing to show movies that mention the subject – or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth – fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures.

The number of theaters rejecting such films is small, people in the industry say – perhaps a dozen or fewer, most in the South. But because only a few dozen Imax theaters routinely show science documentaries, the decisions of a few can have a big impact on a film’s bottom line – or a producer’s decision to make a documentary in the first place.

So a brief speculation that life on earth may have begun inside volcanoes leads several Imax theaters to pass on 2003 release, Volcanoes because several viewers regarded the film as “blasphemous.” Like the cinetrix, I’m no big fan of Imax or the cinema of attractions, but things are getting out of hand when science museums are so cautious that they are self-censoring legitimate scientific research. Oh those reality-based documentaries!

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Hollywood’s Big Picture

Neil Genzlinger from the New York Times reviews two new books on Hollywood’s “blockbuster” economy, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, by Tom Shone, and The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, by Edward Jay Epstein. Based on Genzlinger’s review, I’m curious to read both books even though some of the material mentioned in the review, especially on the role of blockbuster films, has been well-documented by film scholars such as Justin Wyatt.

Both Shone and Epstein, for example, emphasize the role of marketing in driving the “success” of Hollywood films, with Genzlinger highlighting the huge box office bonanza for critical lemons such as Godzilla. At the same time, the review notes Hollywood’s notoriously creative accounting practices that make any real measure of box office success impossible, with Genzlinger characterizing Hollywood’s accounting practices as a “high-stakes hall of mirrors,” which might make the climactic scene of Lady from Shanghai the ultimate metaphor for Hollywood business dealings. Although I think it’s worth noting here that contemporray manifestations of this practice are generally intensifications of existing practices and nothing entirely new. Epstein, in particular seems to note that film audiences and box office no longer “matter,” and in fact, a prolonged theaterical release can even get in the way of the more lucrative industry of DVD sales and rentals, news that may not be surprising for a film scholar but might be for a more general audience (although I kind of doubt it).

What seems to bother the reviewer most is the underlying cynicism with which film audiences are being treated. At one point, he comments “It’s a disillusioning notion–all that advertising, all those awards shows and low-cut gowns, sustaining a fiction. A suspicion arises when reading Epstein’s somewhat dizzying book: these corporate giants don’t actually need us at all, whether in the theaters or in the video stores or in line at Disney World.” I’m a little puzzled here: Genzliner didn’t realize that the Oscars are sustaining a fiction? Again, I’m not sure that knowledge is entirely surprising. But the review’s emphasis on Hollywood’s cynical regard for its audience does make me curious to read both of these books.

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High Museum Carribean Film Series

Just a quick note to mention that the High Musuem will be showing two films this weekend as part of its Carribean film series. On Friday, March 18 (tonight), they will be showing Sugar Cane Alley, while tomorrow, they will be showing Jonathan Demme’s documentary, The Agronomist.

I know it’s a blogging cliche to mention events that you don’t plan to attend, but I’m probably not going to have time to attend Friday’s screening. I am hoping to see The Agronomist on Saturday, but no matter what, I think the High Museum series is worth mentioning.

In other news, my Spring Break starts in two hours. Spring Break! Yeah!

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