Archive for March, 2005

DIY Cinema

Really nice Sight and Sound article by B Ruby Rich about Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (on DVD May 17) that discusses the film’s fascinating mix of documentary and autobiographical cinema. Rich also connects Caouette’s films to the New Queer Cinema of the early 1990s, especially Sadie Benning’s very cool Pixelvision films, noting that Caouette has avoided the documentary label, calling his film “DIY cinema,” while citing influences ranging from Derek Jarman and David Lynch to Spike Lee and Sidney Lumet.

One more day until Spring Break. Then I’ll probably sleep until Monday.

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SAMLA Documentary Film Panel

I’m chairing the SAMLA (South Atlantic MLA) film panel this year, and not surprisingly, I’ve decided to have the panel focus on documentary film. So far I haven’t received that many proposals, so I figured I’d mention the CFP here one more time. If you’re interested in participating send me an email.

More information below the fold.

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A Twist of Lemon

David Edelstein calls for his audience’s least favorite twist film endings and gets over 200 comments and suggestions from readers. Like him, I’d happily defend the twists in Mulholland Drive, Arlington Road (one of the most underrated films of the last ten years), and even Wild Things. Appreciated the twist in Vanilla Sky, although I don’t think it’s very far from the “it was all a dream” pet peeve he describes. Mystified: is the ending of Dark City really a “twist?” After all, Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Dr. Schreber, tells you everything you need to know about the city before the opening credits.

But on to the list: I am disappointed by his putting Usual Suspects on the list of films with the “worst” twist endings, because formally, I think the film earns the twist at the end. I’m a little more ambivalent about the twist in Fight Club, especially the ways in which Tyler’s revelation contains the film’s more subversive elements, but styliitsically it fits the film rather well, especially given how the “projectionist” sequence anticipates the possibility that the film is being manipulated.

If I had to put one film at the top of the list, it would be The Village (my original take). Other films I’d add: the awful Sean Connery vehicle (and pro-death penalty screed), Just Cause to the top of the list . Frequency‘s time-travel resolution of its serial murder manhunt is a bit too easy, and I’ll throw another Shyamalan film on the list with Unbreakable, which also seemed a bit obvious and bit too easy.

So what are some of your favorite (or better, least favorite) twist endings?

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Recent Rentals

We’re counting down the hours to Spring Break here at the North Avenue Trade School, and I just wanted to mention a few of the films I’ve been renting recently. I don’t have time to write full reviews but recommend all three with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Over the weekend, I had a chance to watch Ming-liang Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn, a haunting movie about moviegoing. The film is set in a giant downtown Taipei theater, and the theater is almost entirely empty excpet for a few patrons who wander the corridors or sit silently watching the film. Goodbye Dragon Inn has almost no dialogue except what you hear on screen from the film they are watching, Dragon Inn. For more about Goodbye Dragon Inn, check out A.O. Scott’s review, but it’s a compelling film visually, very atmospheric and haunting.

I also watched Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the 2004 documentary about the making of the band’s most recent album. I was mildly disappointed with Monster, finding it a little tedious, and after a while, I didn’t think the film went any further with its attempt to deconstruct the image of the heavy metal band, and the doc certainly had the subtext of seeking to humanize the man who killed Napster. Maybe I missed something about the doc because I didn’t find it nearly as compelling as some viewers, but it was mildly interesting.

I’ve been wanting to see Tongues Untied for a long time, and finally decided to watch it last night. The 1985 short film about black gay life, which originally aired on the PBS show P.O.V., is pretty moving, and it certainly illustrates the political power of autobiographical documentary. Riggs, who died in 1994, commented on the film and its reception in this 1991 article in Current.

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Bud Foote, RIP

I just learned that Bud Foote, a member of Georgia Tech’s LCC community, passed away this week. Bud retired from Tech in 1999 but always remained a part of the department community, often contributing to campus symposia on science-fiction and fantasy literature. The obit also mentions Bud’s generous donation to Tech’s science-fiction library and his love for playing folk music (and his friendships with many of great folk musicians).

While I only talked to him a few times, I cherished the conversations I had with him about time-travel fiction and film. I’ve never really written about the death of someone I knew in the blog before, so I’m acutely aware of the inability of my words to adequately describe what he meant to me and and the rest of the Tech community, so I’ll simply conclude by saying that he will be missed.

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Slacker Story

Via Karen at the Cinecultist, I found this great story from Jeff Turboff of Filmkicks about an encounter he had with Richard Linklater in Austin back in the day.

I also really enjoyed Karen’s narrative about watching one of her favorite comfort films.

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Errol Morris on David Harris

When I was preparing to teach Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line this morning, I came across this interview with Morris conducted on Wisconsin Public Radio within a few days of David Harris’s execution last summer, which I wrote about last summer. Morris’s discussion of their relationship is actually pretty fascinating:

I don’t get him. I probably never will get him. One of the things that is so interesting, he was described by many people as “The Kid”. He was kind of a fresh-faced kid at the time of the killing of the police officer. There’s something actually sweet, something sympathetic about David Harris, and it doesn’t quite square with the things that he’s done. It’s one of the puzzling things.

You know, I met him several times when he was a free man, and he scared me. He scared me but there was something endlessly fascinating about him as well.

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The Rosebud Syndrome

One final blog entry to complete my Sunday morning procrastination in blogworld. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution mentions (registration required) a study by economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England which reports that an active sex life makes people happier than a large bank account. In fact, a “good family life” will make you happier than being able to pay your electric bill, according to the study.

Sex therapist Lynn Talmadge does question some of the study’s conclusions, noting that not all marriages are happy ones, but adds that “it is very good for driven Americans, who are taught that material things will buy them happiness, to pause and reconsider, because it’s the richness of relationships that makes us happy.”

I’m glad to see that economists and sex therapists are finally catching up to something that Hollywood has known all along. Just ask Orson Welles or Frank Capra. Or even Nicolas Cage.

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Death and Mourning in Hollywood After September 11

The New York Times also has an article worth reading on films made in the wake of September 11 that deal with characters mourning the untimely death of a friend or family member. None of these films have explicit political references to that tragedy, but as the article suggests, the subtext seems pretty clear. First-time director Tim Daly even notes that many of family homes in these “mourning films” prominently feature American flags.

Among the films included in this category: Fear X, Winter Solstice, Bereft, Imaginary Heroes, and The Upside of Anger. Mike Binder, writer-director of Anger, acknowledges that he conceived his film in direct response to the events of September 11, starting the script later that week.

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Forget Jeff Gannon

Forget Armstrong Williams. Forget Jayson Blair and Karen Ryan. The real scandal is the Office of Broadcasting Services (part of the State Department), which has been producing news segments that are distributed to major networks. The Office of Broadcasting Services, along with the PR arms of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture, among others, make “informative” news segments touting particular Bush administration actions ranging from Bush’s controversial prescription drugs program to the war in Afghanistan. These segments are then inserted seamlessly into news broadcasts without any attribution, appearing to the home viewer as if they were produced by the news stations that broadcast them.

But, wait a second, you might say, isn’t the spread of domestic propaganda prohibited by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948? The Smith-Mundt Act allowed the broadcast of pro-government news abroad but not in the United States. According to those highly ethical folks at the State Department, Smith-Mundt doesn’t apply to them, just to Voice of America (not that I’m endorsing Voice of America’s role of spreading propaganda overseas), so there’s no need to worry there. Of course, these broadcasts are merely intended to “inform” the public, not to persuade them to assent to Bush’s policies. But a segment about Bush’s prescription drugs policy that makes no mention of the bill’s many critics aired on at least 40 stations in some form or another. Another report, apparently by WHBQ-Memphis’s Tish Clark, which modestly touts U.S. efforts in helping to liberate the women of Afghanistan, actually consisted of interviews conducted by State Department contractors, with Clark re-recording their questions.

Like Tish Clark, news people all around the country are shocked by this news. When the Times interviewed several station news directors, all of them endorsed the view that stations should identify the origins of these “video news releases,” but many of these stations were discovered to have engaged in precisely that practice. When The Times rudely mentioned this detail, the same station managers stopped taking their phone calls. However, Karen Ryan, who participated as a “reporter” for many of these broadcasts notes that the line between network news and “video news releases” isn’t always clear, commenting in the Times article, “It’s almost the same thing.” While the Times is quick to insist on the differences between the two, I’m less convinced. There is little benefit for local TV stations, already struggling financially, to spend their small resources in investigative reporting. And there’s even less incentive in admitting that the station is using video news releases provided by the government. In addition, there’s little incentive for the Federal Communications Commission, nominated by the President, to enforce ethics guidelines that encourage networks to disclose the origins of their news segments.

To be honest, I’m no longer sure if this kind of news report is even remotely surprising, much less shocking. It feeds into our already exisiting cynicism towards the mainstream media. This is why I think that Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed misrepresents the real point. While the Bush administration has spent more than twice as much on public relations as Clinton did during his second, Monicagate-shadowed second term, both recent presidents have spent very heavily on PR. The scandal isn’t that certain media outlets are partisan. The scandal is that there’s no real difference between news reports and video news releases.

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Two

I almost forgot to mention that I’ve been blogging for two years now (here’s my original blog). Sometimes that hardly seems possible, though on other days, it feels like I’ve been writing here forever. Usually when blog anniversaries or birthdays roll around, I spend some time digging in the archives, but this time, the rush of activity kept that from happening. Still, I’m finding that blogs provide a nice reminder of what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been over the past year. I like that autobiographical element a lot even if I don’t talk very much about my personal life around here.

Like Mel, I’ve enjoyed the ways in which the blogging community has provided me with a space for thinking through some of my scholarly ideas (and sometimes even having those ideas challenged in productive ways). Or sometimes to have the blog function as a virtual water cooler where I can talk about everyday stuff like my favorite comfort movies. Thanks to everyone for your comments over the last two years and for your insightful blog posts that always interest and often challenge me.

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Born Into Brothels

I should start this review by mentioning that I had some reservations about seeing Born Into Brothels (IMDB), not because I didn’t want to confront the somber images of children living in Calcutta’s notorious red light district but because I recognize and am deeply concerned about the ethical problems of documentary, especially those non-fiction films that seek to represent other cultures. In his New York Times review, A. O. Scott comments:

The impulse to document the lives of poor, neglected and oppressed people, which motivates countless filmmakers and photojournalists, is unquestionably noble, but it is not without certain ethical difficulties. Vital as it may be to bring news of human suffering to audiences who might otherwise remain comfortably ignorant, such exposure does not always help the suffering.

Unlike Scott, I’d have to question the motivation of some of these filmmakers (though not necessarily Briski and Kauffman) and note that besides failing to alleviate their subjects’ suffering, such documentaries are inevitably partial, incomplete pictures of the lives they attempt to capture. Seema Sirohi also notes other ethical implications, observing that many of the film’s subjects may not have consented to having their photographs taken and now find their images projected in theaters throughout the world. Such observations might seem obvious, but in a film such as Born into Brothels, the material that gets left on the cutting room floor (or never gets filmed in the first place) may have profound political implications.

Brothels began as an attempt to document life in Calcutta’s red light district, but the prostitutes and johns were naturally suspicious of a white journaliust carrying a camera, and Briski quickly fell into the idea of teaching the children how to photograph. And her students quickly develop an enthusiasm for taking pictures as a means of gaining some semblance of control over their lives. One of the most talented photographers, Avijit, even receives an invitation to partcipate in a photography conference in Amsterdam, and his awareness of the power of the camera as a tool for documentation is rather compelling. The other children clearly bring their personalities into what they photograph. Their pictures are clearly marked by how they see the world, a perspective reinforced by the handheld shots in the city’s sidewalks filmed at the height of a child.

Briski also resists the temptation to deliver this material in a classical narrative style. While Briski’s immense efforts to help the children find places in boarding schools inform the film’s story, they don’t dominate the film. Born into Brothels isn’t a film about triumphing over difficult circumstances, even if some of the kids fulfill their goals of leaving life on the street. The film also avoids introducing “experts” who might stand in for providing us with “the truth” of life in Calcutta. Instead, we are more or less immersed into this particular world, and any wisdom about it comes from the people who experience it on a daily basis, especially the children, many of whom know very well that they may soon be forced to work on the line themselves. We even see some of the girls telling us their mothers have been asking them when they’ll start working as prostitutes.

Like Jeffrey Anderson, I think that Brothels would have been a stronger film if Briski had been more self-conscious about her role in shaping the narrative and in shaping the lives of the Calcutta children. While I don’t think that the film should have been “about” Briski or about her “journey,” a little more attention to her role as a filmmaker, teacher, and activist might have complicated the film in productive ways. The film is filled with poignant moments and powerful images captured by these young photographers, and while Briski avoids the temptation of offering a complete portrait of life in the red light district, the film still seemed to stop short of fully acknowledging these problems of representation.

Update: For some reason, I couldn’t find Amardeep’s review of Born into Brothels last night, but his comments clarify my interpretation of the film. I think he’s right that Briski’s involvement with the children has done more good than harm. In terms of the film’s tone, Amardeep also notes that Briski works hard to avoid making the film appear “voyeuristic” or “about herself,” and I think he’s right that this is actually a strength of the film, that this uncertainty may indicate a conflicted (in the best possible way) attempt to think about representation in new ways.

Amardeep also has tons of links, including one to an NPR interview with Zana Briski the day after she won the Oscar for best documentary.

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More Atlanta Film Recommendations

Because I’ve been caught up in job stuff, I’d completely lost track of the fact that the first Women of Color International Film Festival will be taking place this weekend here in Atlanta. Thanks to the cinetrix for the tip.

The films look great, and the guest list, which includes Sisters in Cinema director Yvonne Welbon and Daughters of the Dust actress Barbara O, looks cool, too.

Update: When I went to the theater tonight to see Born into Brothels, I learned about yet another cool film screening. Sandra Dickson and Churchill Roberts’ Negroes with Guns: Rob Williams and Black Power (IMDB) (IFILM) will be playing at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Site Screening Room on March 17 at 7:30 PM. There will be a Q&A with Dickson and Mabel Williams after the movie.

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Act Up Fight Back

Just got an email reminding me that the next installment of the Film Love series will take place in a couple of weeks. “Act Up Fight Back: Art and Activism in the Time of AIDS” will have two very different programs. On Wednesday, March 30, there will be a screening at Eyedrum featuring Nino Rodriguez’s Identities, Lawrence Brose’s An Individual Desires Solution, and James Wentzy’s The Ashes Action, among others.

On April 1, there will be a second set of films screened in Emory University’s White Hall. This set includes Jim Hubbard’s Memento Mori, which will be introduced by Hubbard himself. Also featured: ACT UP oral histories and Robert Hiferty’s Stop the Church. Both nights offer exciting programs, and for more information about these screenings be sure to check out series organizer Andy Ditzler’s notes about the films and other local Atlanta film events.

Film Love’s last series, “NOW! Short Films on African American Experience in the 1960s,” was very rewarding, and this film series looks exciting, too.

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Ways of Seeing

Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Oscar-winning documentary, Born into Brothels (IMDB), will be playing this week in Atlanta and I’m hoping to catch it this weekend. The film focuses on Briski’s efforts to empower the children of several Calcutta prostitutes by providing them with camers as a way of giving children a greater sense of control over their world. Briski has since raised money for the children by selling their photographs, and Briski’s “Kids with Cameras” project has expanded into Cairo, Haiti, and Jerusalem. I’ll admit that I have some reservations about Briski’s project even before I see the film, specifically the potential that the film might be more about the filmmaker’s journey rather than the children she is trying to help, as Seema Sirohi observes. Sirohi’s article also notes many of the other controversies that the film has raised, including the fact that Briski has stated that she will not screen Born into Brothels in India. Others have claimed that the children’s condition has actually worsened due to Briski’s film, but that’s under fairly heated debate. If anyone has seen this film, I’d be curious to know your reactions to it (links via mind the __GAP*?).

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