Archive for April, 2005

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

I finally got the chance to watch Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (IMDB) last night, and like the cinetrix, I found the documentary to be “as dazzling as the Houston skyline.” She’s absolutely right to read Alex Gibney’s documentary as a heist film. In fact, as I left the theater last night, I found myself thinking that the Enron debacle made Danny Ocean and his crew look like a couple of high schools kids shoplifting from a convenience store.

Turning Enron’s motto, “Ask Why,” on its head, Gibney’s documentary mixes interviews, re-enactments, stock footage, and, most powerfully, a few videotaped sketches and stockholders meetings to address how the seventh largest corporation in America could go bankrupt in less than a month, leaving thousands of people unemployed with worthless retirement accounts. The film also uses music very effectively, using popular songs by artists from Tom Waits to Dusty Springfield to comment on events and propel the narrative. Primary interviewees include the authors Bethany McClean and Peter Elkind, whose book provided the basis for the film. As Ted notes, “There’s an admirable depth and scope; I had the feeling that the filmmakers knew a lot more than they could fit in. It does an especially good job at explaining some of the big issues: how the institutions which should have blown the whistle (banks, lawyers, accountants, and analysts) had perverse incentives to keep Enron going, and how the pressure to beat expectations led to escalating fraud every quarter.”

But what amazed me about the documentary was the sheer audacity and hubris of the Enron executives from Ken “Kenny Boy” Lay’s embrace of deregulation and his close ties to the Bush administration (in Texas and in the Oval Office) to Jeff Skilling’s hypermasculine compensation for his nerdy past through Baja motocross vacations. From Lou Pai’s insatiable stripper habit (he was rumored to bring dancers back to Enron HQ to prove that he really was a wealthy executive and later divorced his wife to marry a stripper girl-friend) to Andy Fastow’s creatively named (Jedi, Death Star, M. Yass) shell companies designed to hide Enron’s losses, these guys plyaed the “greed is good” game as hard as they could. Skilling’s life-or-limb rugged masculinity sets the tone for the film’s portrayal of these Enron executives, though to the film’s creidt, it doesn’t overplay this interpretation of what happened.

Also disturbing: recordings of Enron’s traders on the sales floor knowingly creating a false enery crisis in California in order to inflate the cost of electricity by nine times over its original cost. The traders cackle over the phone about bilking “grandma Millie” out of her retirement money while ordering California electrical workers to close down plants for “repairs,” thus increasing the cost of electricity. Footage of car accidents caused by broken traffic lights due to electrical outages are chilling, with one remorseful trader later admitting that not only would he step on someone’s throat for higher profits, he’d “stomp on it.”

The film also explains how Enron was able to maintain such high stock prices even when real profits weren’t forthcoming. Specifically we learn about Enron’s practice, tacitly accepted by disgraced accounting film Arthur Andersen called “mark to market” accounting where “projected” earnings could be added to company profits to create the sembalnce of financial security. Other techniques included Fastow’s shell corporations (meanwhile Fastow was skimming off the top to a tune of $40 million). But by the end of the film, Enron’s twin glass towers jutting into the Houston skyline seem more like halls of smoke and mirrors, magic tricks designed to keep financial anaylysts at bay until finally Bethany Maclean gently asked how the company actually made its money. And even then, Skilling treats her mildly tepid article merely as an attempt to compete with a rival publication. In addition, Lay reads a question submitted to him by an employee soon after the wheels start coming off, “Are you on crack?” This question is one of the few times that we get a clear sense of just how disillusioned and downright pissed off many of Enron’s employess must have been. I would’ve liked to hear more from the employees who saw their retirement savings stolen by Enron executives.

Other beefs and arguments: A few readers have suggested that because of Lay’s ties to the Bush dynasty, the film might be read as anti-Republican. I don’t think that’s entirely the case, because the primary target here seems to be the effects of deregulation, a practice that received broad bipartisan support in the go-go 1990s. Ted criticized the film’s stripper scenes for being potentially gratuitous. I disagree, especially given the way those scenes shore up the degree to which the Enron executives were caught up in this extreme form of masculinity (but I’ll admit that’s a mild disagreement at most). These scenes, as well as some of the voice-over interviews, do have the effect of turning Lou Pai into an “exotic Other,” an inscrutable man of mystery who cannot be fully explained.

Finally, while the film does avoid the “bad apple” argument by implying that Enron wasn’t an entirely isolated incident, I’m not sure that it goes far enough in offering an alternative to Enron’s insatiability. In many of the shots of Enron’s glass skyscrapers, we see a giant church steeple (and in fact one of the film’s first shots shows a church sign reading, “Jesus Saves”), and Enron concludes with a local Houston minister explaining that he’s still counseling many of the Enron employees over three years after the company’s collapse. During this scene, the minister, quoting the Gospel of Mark, asks, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?” The comment elliptically refers to the suicide of an Enron executive, but the metaphorical resonance is clear as well. However, I’m not sure that an injunction against greed is really a satisfactory response to the abuses committed by Lay, Skilling, Fastow, and others. But these comments shouldn’t outweigh my high regard for this film. Like many viewers, I was chilled by the utter contempt and disregard the “smartest guys in the room” had for their employees, for their California customers, for their stockholders, for just about anyone other than themselves.

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The Spectacle is Not a Collection of Images…

Cinematical reports the very cool news that Anthology Film Archives is launching a Situationist film series: “Films of the Situationist International: Guy Debord, Rene Vienet and Jean Isidore Isou starts tonight with The Society of the Spectacle, Debord’s movement-launching cinematic adaptation of his own manifesto of the same title.”

As Karina Longworth reports, Debord’s film introduces his concept of détournement, the process of taking media texts and re-working them until they criticize themselves. And while I’ve recently been critical of some of the Situationist principles, I’d imagine these films would still be fascinating to watch, so here’s hoping they’ll make it out of New York at some point in the near future (Anthology Film Archive schedule).

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History of Images/Images of History

The Chronilce of Higher Education has an interesting article (subscription required) about the role of libraries and other institutions in using digital technologies to archive film, TV, and video images. The article, by Scott Carlson, focuses primarily on the legal and material challenges that confront the digitization of images, but I think it also implicitly raises some questions about how these new preservation technologies may alter the way that we think about history or the past in general. This entry is mostly summary, a bookmark so that I can return to these ideas later.

Carlson emphasizes the work of William G. Thomas III, director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, to preserve footage of Virginia’s civil-rights movement for public use, with over 250 clips already available online. Currently, the films are listed by date on the website followed by a brief description, and even with a small number of clips, Thomas notes the storage and accessibility issues, observing that “We are really at the beginning stages of how we present, manage, and access video materials.” I think Thomas is absolutely right about that, and at the same time, these questions are going to weigh heavily on what gets “remembered” and how we remember the past (questions I remember contemplating when I attended the Film Love series a few months ago). I am aware, of course, that video archives are not the only means by which we’ll “access” the past. I’m also aware of the limits of any visual archive, especially in terms of how news producers, archivists, and documentarians, for example, choose what is worth recording what is worth preserving (and what isn’t).

As Carlson’s article notes, there are other “access” questions as well, with librarians and preservationists working to determine how to provide access to preserved images without violating copyright laws (digitizing images is also an expensive process, even without copyright costs). The classic example, which Carlson mentions, is the PBS Civil Rights documentary, Eyes on the Prize, which has been withled from release on DVD because of the conflict over the film’s use of copyrighted music and archival footage. Public screenings of the film are illegal, and many existing copies of the film are on VHS, a medium that, like celluloid itself, is well-known for decaying quickly (and even digital formats are not yet standardized, creating other probelms as well).

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Channel Surfing

Several other people have been sounding off on the Steven Johnson article I mentioned this afternoon, most of whom I found via this entry by Derek of Earth Wide Moth. Dana Stevens mentions a Salon interview with Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn in which he discusses TV-B-Gone, a remote control that can switch off most TV sets withing 20 to 50 feet, with the hope of “restoring calm to public places like airports, bars, or banks.” As Stevens notes, this kind of technology seems caught up in the logic of censorship, implying that all TV images are harmful, but Lasn’s comments essentialize the idea that television pollutes public space. Here, I’m far less pessimistic regarding TV’s role in public space, and TVs, often fixtures in bars in the 1950s, haven’t always been regarded as inhibiting conversation. I do think that Stevens’ comments about the role of advetising in underwriting television do raise some important questions, and I share her suspicions about narrative complexity necessarily translating into greater intelligence (but I find the question about whether or not we’re getting smarter to be a rather unproductive question in the first place).

Andy Cline mentions TV Turn-Off Week and the Steve Johnson article, commenting that TV’s major weakness when it comes to education value is that “TV lacks interactivity, and it moves relentlessly forward without pause for reflection.” Cline adds regarding interactivity: “We’re still just sitting there watching. No action is ever required of us.” TV’s temporal immediacy has always been the medium’s dream and nightmare. There’s a Twilight Zone episode from the original series where an obnoxious businessman learns how to stop time, with this ability clearly linked narratively to TV. But I’m not sure that TV’s relentless temporality necessarily prevents reflection. More crucially, I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that TV necessarily entails utter passivity. In fact, because I have a lot of nervous energy, I rarely watch an entire TV show without getting up several times or flipping channels or fixing dinner (in fact, I usually “watch” TV while I’m waiting for something else). Feminist critics have commented that many homemakers “watch” TV while doing chores around the house, implicitly challenging the “couch potato” model as inherent to TV. While there are certainly couch potatoes out there, I don’t think the passivity thesis really holds up, and physical passivity certainly doesn’t require mental passivity (not that I’m endorsing a mind-body split or anything).

Jeff Rice favorably mentions the Johnson article and discusses the concept of the “media mind,” arguing that “In many ways, the media mind is a filmic mind or a remix mind. It constructs possibilities and narratives which resist sequential thought or linear reasoning,” an argument that makes a lot of sense to me. In fact, I’d imagine that’s why I initially found (and still find) time-travel films so appealing: they often, though not always, “represent” memory and thought in complicated ways. In fact, Jeff’s comments help me to see just how central form is to many of my arguments in my book, though I’d likely emphasize content a little more than he does.

Steven Krause also discusses the TV-B-Gone remote’s misguided notion of TV invading public space, using the example of crowds gathered in bars to watch sporting events, an example I considered mentioning, and I’d also agree with him that there are already plentt of TV-free public spaces such as coffee houses and public parks. I don’t have any conclusions yet, but it’s interesting that most of these arguments return to questions of TV as polluting (or not) public space and TV as model of a media mind (whether for good or ill). I’m certainly aware of the anti-commercial(s) critique of TV, but that doesn’t seem to be an inherent property of the medium as much as it is a specific economic formation that privileges large multinationals hellbent on accumulating as much capital as possible. In general, I think Jeff’s right to be suspicious of many of these anti-TV arguments even if I never really watch TV very often (in fact, I wonder if I would defend TV so energetically if I did).

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Televized Thoughts

From May 1998 to August of 2002, I didn’t have television reception. I had a TV set, but its sole purpose was to play movies. Because of that, I have odd gaps in my TV literacy. I missed several seasons of Buffy until they appeared on DVD. I’ve seen more Fox News while watching Outfoxed than I ever have while flipping channels. I didn’t see a single episode of Survivor until the third season (even though I could likely name half a dozen of the contestants from that season). I watched only one episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire when a colleague at Purdue happened to be a contestant. And I didn’t watch a single minute of TV coverage of the September 11 attacks on TV until President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. This experience ultimately made me much more conscious of my TV viewing habits, and I still prefer to watch TV episodes on DVD several episodes at a time and without commercial interruption. In a sense, not watching TV has made me even more conscious of the temporality of TV, a question I’ve been thinking about for my book project.

I mention my televisual autobiography because TV has been a hot topic on the blogosphere this week. On one side of the spectrum, Scrivener mentions that April 25 – May 1 is National TV Turn-Off Week. On the other side, Steven Johnson argues that watching TV makes you smarter.

Now, of course, TV Turn-Off Week is designed to encourage children to spend more time reading and to discourage excessive TV watching, but these activities tend to ignore the educative aspects of television watching. I’m not necessarily even talking about educational TV here–I learned much about narrative and allusion from Bugs Bunny cartoons, for example, especially when characters would break the fourth wall. Now, to be fair (and to draw rom my own experience), I think it can be beneficial as a thought experiement — for adults or children — to stop watching TV for a short period of time (a week, a month), but after my experiment, I’m now inclined to think that watching TV is a virtue, and I honestly wish I had the patience and opportunity to watch more TV.

In that regard, I think that Steven Johnson’s New York Times article is an interesting companion to National TV Turn-Off Week. Johnson notes that a show like Fox’s politically ambivalent and narratively complicated real-time drama, 24, requires a great deal of concentration, an ability to juggle multiple narratives and character relationships on the scale of a George Eliot novel (his metaphor) or a Robert Altman film. And I think he’s right to argue that many anti-TV arguments have been misplaced. Yes, it’s better to have morally complicated shows like 24 or The Sopranos, but like him, I’m more interested in seeing TV as a kind of “cognitive workout,” one that can make us aware of the work we have to do “to make sense of a cultural experience.”

That being said, I’m not sure that Johnson’s model completely works, either. He compares shows with multiple narratives to shows with “intellectual” dialogue such as Murphy Brown or Frasier, arguing that these shows require less from their viewers. That may very well be true, but the claim also reinforces a form-content opposition that seems untenable to me. In addition, he argues that Hill Street Blues, the first “serious” drama, melds the serious subject matter of cops and robbers with the complicated narrative structures of “fluffy” soap operas, asserting that soapy shows such as Dallas aren’t “serious.” Implied here, in my reading, is the assumption that cop shows (usually the domain of male figures) are more serious than soaps (coded as domestic, female), which also seems problematic to me. But my biggest reservation is that Johnson’s comments seem to reduce “thought” to one activity: sorting out narrative threads. Even if working through the narrative of Alias is more complicated than sorting out what’s happening on Starsky and Hutch, that’s only one version of thought, and potentially a fairly limited one.

Still, I’m inclined to agree that TV watching can be a far more complicated and challenging activity than is usually assumed, and Johnson’s article makes that point nicely. That being said, I might unintentionally participate in this week’s TV Turn-off events, not intentionally but because I’m in the midst of a grading triathlon (film papers, freshman composition papers and web projects, and film final exams). Johnson article via TV Barn (see also Dave Does the Blog).

Update: Steven Johnson has a post in his blog about the Times article, an abstract from his forthcoming book, Everything Bad is Good for You. In the blog entry, Johnson includes a thought experiment, imagining an alternate universe in which everything is the same except one technological development, with video games being invented before books.

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Rebirth of a Nation

In Rebirth of a Nation, DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid (Paul D. Miller) remixes DW Griffth’s classic propaganda film, Birth of a Nation. Against an electronic soundtrack and using a Mac laptop and two monitors, Miller re-edits Griffith’s film in real time, projecting these images on three screens triptych. In typical DJ fashion, Miller loops back, emphasizing some of Griffith’s more volatile compositions through juxtaposition so that a shot of Lillian Gish’s “innocent” white womanhood is contrasted with threatening images of domineering black men (mostly white actors in blackface). Miller’s remix condenses Griffith’s 3-hour epic considerably but generally follows the narrative order of the 1915 film, culminating with shots, now presented ironically of course, of the Klan riding to the rescue of southern culture from the African Americans who have placed it in disarray.

In an NPR interview, Miller refers to the ongoing war in Iraq, which he describes as “the most televised war in history,” adding that more televised access does not provide clarity about what’s happening in the war. Miller making a case that his remastering of Griffith’s film might produce a greater awareness of media’s potential for manipulation and propaganda, states that “I want people to be uncertain about their entire media environment.” But I’m not sure that remixing Birth of a Nation produces that kind of awareness, especially given the film’s remoteness in US cultural consciousness. While many film history courses may show Griffith’s film (as Miller asserted in an interview on Album 88), I felt as if many of the images were so clearly manipulative on a surface level that the montage didn’t do enough to reinterpret them. I also found that while I found the ambient and electronic music engrossing in places, that I also often disengaged from the music, focusing only on the images on three screens. In this sense, my experience of this media event might be read as a compliment: Miller’s arrangement of images required a high level of concentration. But like the Boston Globe reviewer, I found myself wondering what might have happened if Miller had decided to “dig in the crates and spin a wide range of music rather than just his own electronic composition.” But unlike the Boston Globe critic, I’m not threatened by an artist like Miller using “academic verbiage” to convey what he’s trying to accomplish.

Miller also manipulates many of the film’s images visually, adding grids and geometric shapes to focus our attention on certain characters or on the power dynamics of a specific shot. In the NPR interview, Miller notes his interest in “social circuitry,” commenting on the DJ’s ability to quickly read a crowd and the individual dynamics within it. This issue of social circuitry seems connected to DJ Spooky’s emphasis on the “democratizing” aspects of digital technologies, the fact that anyone can potentially remix and remaster films such as Birth of a Nation (in the NPR interview, he refers to hackers who edited Jar Jar Binks out of the fouth installment of the Star Wars films), but I find that notion of democratization somewhat unsatisfying, especially given some ongoing questions about technological access.

Despite these reservations, I found Rebirth of a Nation to be a challenging experience in the best possible sense. I liked the experimentation and the use of the principles of DJing to remix a prior film, but given Miller’s invocation of the principles of a cinematic counter-narrative, a term that has a relatively long history, I’m not sure that Rebirth does anything new with the formula of remixing and montage other than to feed Griffith’s film into the machine and give it an electronic flavor.

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Subliminal Advertising

A colleague just reminded me that Atlanta College of Art and Design is sponsoring DJ Spooky’s Rebirth of a Nation, a performance by Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid. The perforamce is scheduled for Friday, April 22, 2005, at 8:00 pm in the Atlanta Symphony Hall. General Admission Tickets are $15 or $10 with a valid student I.D.

Rebirth is a “remix” of DW Griffith’s notorious 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. In his essay about the film, DJ Spooky comments that “By remixing the film along the lines of dj culture, I hoped to create a counter-narrative, one where the story implodes on itself, one where new stories arise out the ashes of that explosion.” I’ve only seen segments of the Griffith original, but I’ll be interested to see how DJ Spooky remixes it. It looks like general admission seating, so if anyone is interested in going let me know (in the comments or by email).

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Archive Diving

Wolf Angel comments that when she finds a new blog she likes, that she often goes back and reads the archives, adding that this practice sometimes feels like snooping. Her comments point to the ongoing discussion of how blogs engage with questions about the distinction between public and private, and an interesting discussion ensues in the comments about blog reading practices. What I found interesting is that at least one commenter mentioned feeling no guilt about reading the correspondence of historical figures, but noting that reading blog archives does feel like snooping.

Like many of the commenters, I find that my blog practices depend a lot on my other demands at the time, but right now, with stacks of papers to grade and end-of-semester fever kicking into gear, I’ve been seking out other distractions (blogs included). Like Wolf Angel, I often read through archives of blogs that I like (usually skimming them for shared interests). In my case, I don’t read the archives of political bloggers because their writing focuses solely on the immediate or topical, but I’ve been avoiding politcal blogs in general lately, not so much out of post-election malaise (there’s still that), but out of a greater sense of investment in and connection with other academic bloggers.

As profgrrrl’s comment implies, this question also addresses how we experience it when other people read our archives (which might, in some way, be a question about how we experience ourselves as writers), and while I’m not terribly attentive to my stats (I didn’t even install Sitemeter until a few weeks ago), I generally take it as a compliment when people take some time to read my archives. At the same time, I have been feeling much more cautious this year because I’ve become much more aware of how my blog is attached to my academic identity.

In my case, I do find that people who read beyond the front page frequently read within a specific category (my movie review archives tend to get some extra hits) rather than chronologically, though I’m a little too fuzzy tonight — my allergies are still killing me — to interpret the significance of that distinction.

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Movies After 9/11

David Halbfinger has an artcile in today’s New York Times about an upcoming cycle of films about the trauma of September 11. Perhaps the most intriguing of these films is The Great New Wonderful, which focuses on a group of New Yorkers one year after the events of September 11. Halbfinger’s article, which focuses primarily on promoting films playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, addresses many of the representational questions about what these films can show:

Are Americans ready yet to watch, let alone pay to watch, a re-enactment of some of the most searing events in their lives? When will enough time have passed? How do you make use of the stories of the victims and survivors without being seen as exploiting them?

The primary representational limit still seems to be the “unanimous reluctance” of filmmakers to show the planes crashing into the towers, primarily out of concern that these images could easily be exploited. Last summer, in my review of Fahrenheit 9/11, I praised director Michael Moore for his restraint in not showing the images of the planes crashing into the towers, primarily because I do fear that these images can be exploited, but this “reluctance” is now starting to give me pause, in part because it has the effect of limiting what can be said about these events (and I think it’s important to note that documentary filmmakers, including at least one of the filmmkaers who contributed to Underground Zero,have shown less reluctance here).

I do think that Halbfinger’s discussion of these epresentational issues points to some of the difficult questions we still face (and will likely face for a long time) when it comes to representing September 11, but one of the things that strikes me about this article — and several others like it — is the almost insistent “forgetting” that seems to be taking place regarding the number of films that have, explicitly or implicitly, dealt with the events of September 11. Perhaps this is a product of the newspaper’s constant cycling of information, but Halbfinger’s is the latest in a series of articles, many of them in the Times, to identify films that seem to be grappling with September 11, with the implication that films haven’t dealt with these events until now (A.O. Scott’s discussion on the recent cycle of “revenge films” and Stephen Farber’s on “mourning films” are two examples). Farber, in particular, implies that “Hollywood” is notoriously slow in making “current events” films, using the delayed production of Vietnam films as his primary example, but it would seem that the opposite is true, with Scott and Farber identifying just a small number of films that deal, however clumsily, with these questions (in IMDB’s completely unscientific categorization, at least 61 films make reference to Septmber 11, though of course many of these films were made outside of Hollywood).

I’m not sure I have any specific conclusions here other than to note that I do think that representations of September 11 raise important ethical and political questions that will likely confront us for some time, but I also think that Hollywood has been more responsive to “current events” than some of these articles would suggest.

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Enjoy Your Cinematic Symptom

Now hitting the festival circuit: Zizek! is a feature-length documentary focusing on “the eccentric personality and esoteric work of the ‘wild man of theory’: the eminent Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek.” The film follows “the Elvis of critical theory” as he gives lectures all over the US and Europe, including his native Solvenia.

Zizek! is the work of The Documentary Campaign, an organization that produces and distributes documentaries that promote human rights. The Documentary Campaign also produced the documentary short, Getting Through to the President, which I mentioned briefly a few days ago (thanks to David at Green Cine for the tip).

Update: Inside Higher Ed mentioned this film several weeks ago, noting that screenings are scheduled for the University of Georgia and Emory, but I didn’t get a chance to blog about it until now. If anyone has heard anything about the Emory screening, I’d certainly like to attend (and if I hear anything new, I’ll update this entry).

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For my Film Students: Run Lola Run Links

For my students, here are the links to the articles on Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run:

For the O’Sickey article, click through to the link to the PDF. I had some trouble getting access to the article from home, so if you have the same problems, try the link from a computer on campus. Also remember that your papers are due at the beginning of class on April 15.

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More Blog Talk

I keep forgetting to mention that I’ll be participating in a panel on academic blogging at the Social Software in the Academy Workshop at USC in May. The panel sounds like lots of fun. Thanks to Joe for assembling a really interesting collection of bloggers.

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Sunset Story

In a Q&A session after the premire of her 2003 PBS documentary, Sunset Story (PBS discussion site), Laura Gabbart reports that she originally wanted to make a film about Sunset House, a Los Angeles retirement home for free-thinking elders. Gabbart hoped to elicit stories from these veterans of various progressive causes, but instead found another story, the friendship of two of Sunset Hall’s residents, Irja Lloyd and Lucille Alpert. Within the details of their friendship, Gabbart was able to tell a powerful, moving story that touches on some difficult questions, perhaps most importantly, the challenges of aging, espcially in a culture that often seems dominated by a fear of aging. At the same time, the film conveys Lloyd and Alpert’s continued political commitments and their struggle to remain politically active despite their health problems.

The residents’ political commitments are still very clear and very much a part of their daily lives. Lenin’s collected writings are on the bookshelves. Residents such as Irja put up posters with messages such as “Free Mumia,” with Irja and Lucille worrying at one point that the staff at Sunset Hall should receive better pay. There are several shots of Irja and Lucille attending political rallies in support of women’s rights or labor unions, in scenes that are both inspiring–their continued commitment to political struggle–and disheartening–Irja’s comment that after fifty years, they’re still fighting many of the same battles (she jokes at one point that she should have saved all of her old signs because many of the slogans haven’t changed). The two also wander the halls of the retirement home together, Irja in her wheelchair, with Lucille using the chair as a kind of modified walker, with Irja checking with her friend before starting off, “Are we connected?”

Gabbart’s documentary isn’t cautious when it comes to showing the struggles that many eldery people face, particularly their virtual invisibility within contemporary culture. A high-angle shot of the home’s residents, gathered outside on the sidewalk during a fire drill, conveys the Sunset Hall residents’ outsider status, as Manohla Dargis points out. Other shots convey the physical struggles the residents face on a daily basis, with the 95-year old Lucille, in declining health, complaining about how exhausting it is to receive so many phone calls from family members checking on her (though she’s also aware enough to note that she’d complain if they didn’t call). Like Dargis, I sometimes wondered if shots of residents lost in dementia were needed and occasionally found those shots to be potentially exploitative. The documentary mixed talking-heads interviews, generally with Lucille and Irja, and observational footage of the home, but because most documentaries are really documenting an encounter between filmmaker and subject (not simply the subject itself), I would have liked a greater sense of the people behind the camera and their motivations for representing things as they did. It’s clear the filmmakers are sympathetic with the men and women in the home and that they engedered a great deal of trust with their subjects, but a clearer sense of that collaboration might have resolved some of my qualms.

Dargis also notes that because of the filmmakers’ decision to focus on the personal story of the two friends, the documentary only discusses the history of Sunset Hall, which was founded in the 1920s by the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, in passing. The retirement home has often struggled financially, and according to an LA Alternative Press article, the home currently faces an uncertain future, and while I think Gabbart’s film has told an important story, I would have liked a little more emphasis on the challenges Sunset Hall has faced in keeping its mission alive. But, in general, Sunset Story is at its best when celebrating the strength of these two women and the importance of their friendship, emphasized by the newly poignant repetition of Irja’s question: “Are we connected?”

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Hoop Dreams Revisited

Exciting news for documentary fans from The New York Times: Director, Steve James; cinematographer-producer, Peter Gilbert; and producer, Frederick Marx are planning a follow-up to Hoop Dreams, their remarkable 1994 study of Chicago’s high school basketball scene. The follow-up documentary grew out of a planned extra for Criterion’s 10th anniversary DVD where the filmmakers would track how the film’s relase changed the lives of their subjects, Chicago hoops stars, William Gates and Arthur Agee, but the filmmakers realized that given the subject matter, a longer documentary was needed.

I’m very excited about this DVD (and the new documentary) because Hoop Dreams is such a landmark film for me. I remember being outraged when the film was excluded from an Academy Award nomination for best documentary, especially given the film’s treatment of such powerful subject matter–notably the intersections of social class and race, sports and spectacle.

Hoop Dreams is probably the first documentary I ever saw in the theater, and it’s certainly a film that conveyed to me the powerful effect that documentaries can have, though this might be a specific product of my specific viewing experience. For several weeks in 1994, when the film was in theaters, an Atlanta theater (Tower Cinema, I think) had six screens all showing art house movies, with tickets selling for $1 or less, depending on the whims of the owners. The result was that I saw the film twice with incredibly diverse audiences who were unruly in the best possible ways. The audience often cheered the basketball triumphs or audibly criticized the exploitative coaches. It was, in many ways, a great introduction to the power of documentary. And the documentary always left me wondering what happened to these two families who so openly shared their four difficult years of their lives with a national audience.

Both William and Arthur have endured family tragedy in recent years. William’s brother, Curtis, who was also a basketball star, was murdered three years ago, and in January of last year, Arthur’s father, Bo, was killed in an attempted robbery (I remember trying write a blog entry about Bo Agee’s death but never quite feeling satisfied with it). Interestingly, both William and Arthur, who are both 32 years old, have settled into careers off the basketball court, with William becoming a pastor and Arthur an “independent designer,” who designed the logo for a Hoop Dreams clothing line. William and Arthur were also able to renew their friendship via a commentary track for the Criterion DVD. At the risk of sounding a little too optomistic, I think this is one great example of the positive effects of the DVD medium on “smaller” projects such as Hoop Dreams, which grossed only $7.8 million in theaters (a huge payoff for documentaries, but small compared to a feature film).

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Contacting the Past

Thinking out loud again. I’m sorting through some ideas for my book project on time-travel films and came across this essay by Henry Jenkins: “Contacting the Past.” In the essay, Jenkins mentions the opening sequence of Contact, which portrays how sound waves travel through space:

As the camera pulls back through our solar system, the soundtrack goes back into time, past landmark moments in the history of broadcasting — the release of the Iran Hostages, All in the Family, The Beatles, Milton Berle, the end of World War II, FDR’s fireside chats — and then, the silent void of space.

Jenkins is right, I think, to connect this silence to an “erasure of history,” with the film omitting the sounds of early radio and amateur radio operators. It’s also worth noting the sound images director Robert Zemeckis chooses to emphasize (all of the sounds have profound links to US national identity, except the Beatles, and even their appearance on Ed Sullivan has been re-appropriated as a landmark event in US media history).

While I found Contact’s portrayal of the profound silence of space intriguing, I’d actually forgotten these earlier sounds (I haven’t seen the entire film since it debuted in 1997), and Jenkins’ descripotion reminded me of a more recent time-travel film, Frequency, in which a son (Jim Caviezel), living in the 1990s, is able to talk to his father (Dennis Quaid), who died in 1969, through a ham radio the father used as a hobby. While Frequency’s father-and-son story is fairly standard family values fare, the opening sequence is eerily similar to the opening scene of Robert Zemeckis’s Contact, with sounds of 1960s songs (“Crimson and Clover”) mixing with famous political speeches in a historical pastiche of the sixties. I don’t know that I have a larger connection to make just yet, but I think that it might be productive to reframe my discussion of Frequency via Contact, especially given both films’ heavy emphasis on sound in the opening sequence. Jenkins’ comments on Contact might also be a productive way to launch some of my other arguments about time-travel narratives and history.

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