Archive for May, 2005

“We Have the Same Taste in Movies”

There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Elaine falls for a video store clerk because of his movie recommendations, developing a crush on him, despite never seeing him in the store. Of course, it turns out the clerk is a shy high school student, leaving Elaine to explain herself to the boy’s mother, but the episode is a fairly amusing take on the role of shared cinematic tastes in producing real-life chemistry. Now it’s possible to meet someone online using shared taste in movies.

Via Cinematical by way of Cynthia, I learned about MatchFlick, an online dating service that allows you to meet people based on shared movie tastes (sort of a Netflix meets Match.com).

Cynthia notes that at least one commenter would prefer not to date someone with similar taste in movies, but given my investment in film (and the sheer number of movies I watch), I’d probably consider joining if I weren’t too lazy to create a profile. I know, for example, that when I meet a fellow cinephile, especially outside the context of an academic conference, I really enjoy that initial sense of shared excitement about a director’s films. That being said, a shared taste in movies might be a pretty weak basis for developing chemistry with someone.

Dave Winer’s suggestion of pairing Match.com with your Netflix cue seems like a bad idea to me. I’d suddenly feel self-conscious about renting a really bad movie out of fear that someone might just think I have bad taste or something. And we wouldn’t want that, would we?

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Going Postal on the Spy Who Loved Me

I almost forgot to mention that I had a little time to do some sightseeing while on my visit to DC. In particular, I spent time at two museums that were new to me (and, I think, are realtively new to DC). The first, the National Postal Museum, is a part of the Smithsonian and a fairly standard historical account of the men and women who brave sleet, snow, and such to deliver catalogs and bills directly to your doorstep. The second, The International Spy Museum, offers a high-gloss history of spying, particulalry within the US (other than the fact taht we spy on other countries, the “International” part is a bit overstated). By days end, between the two museums, I began to feel a bit like a lost character from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and while I enjoyed both museums to some extent, the latter museum irritated me, I think, because it seemed a bit shallow and muddled, romanticizing spying at a time when “intelligence failures” are a major topic just a few blocks down the road.

I probably would have skipped the Postal Museum, but because my grandmother worked in a post office, my mom was curious to see it. The museum features several “interactive” features, including an opportunity to “profile” yourself to show how direct mail “services” know what advertisements to send you (mine didn’t really work, but that may have been my fault). In general, I enjoyed some of the museum’s attempts to relate the history of the postal service, including the role of the post in allowing the colonies to disseminate information quickly during the Revolutionary War. But looking back on the experience, I’m intrigued by the musealization of the postal service, with the exhibit implying that the post office is something that needs to be “remembered,” especially in the age of email and other forms of digital communication.

Like the Postal Museum, The International Spy Museum, severely overpriced at $14 a person, also emphasized interactivity, almost to an excessive degree, turning the museum into something closer to an amusement park, with little reflection on the logic of spying (though the museum is clearly aware of the “allure” of spying). The museum opens by asking you to choose a “secret” identity from a list of about twelve possibilities (I chose “Colin,” an 18-yr old art student from Great Britain–very believable). Later, you’re given a chance to test your memory to see how well you remembered your secret identity. Other sections illustrated the tools of the trade, the history of spying (profiling famous spies such as the Rosenbergs), and the glamorization of spying in Hollywood films. I think the museum might have been more interesting if there had been a clearer narrative about the role of espionage in national conflict or if it had been more willing to be critical of some of the CIA practices during the Cold War (it’s very clear from the museum that any criticism of our intelligence efforts in Iraq would have been far too much to ask).

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Making Up for Lost Blog Time

As I’ve already mentioned, I spent the last week in DC looking for an apartment. During my apartment hunt, I stayed with my parents in their RV while they re-explored the city where they lived for about fifteen years in the 1960s and 70s. It was interesting to see them reunite with the couple that introduced them and even more interesting to drive past my father’s tiny apartment on Maryland Avenue, just a few blocks from the Capitol building, and to hear him describe watching the riots that took place immediately after Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination. I want to write more about those experiences at some point, though likely in another context.

But one of the things I found most frustrating about staying in the RV was the lack of access to Blogworld and to the Internet in general. So I’ve been spending the morning and afternoon skimming blogs and articles, trying to catch up on a week that now seems somewhat lost (I haven’t even been to the movie theater in something like two weeks). So that’s a really long way of saying this is a catch-all entry for a laundry list of film and media articles and blog entries that have no apparent connection other than the fact that I found them interesting (many links thanks to Green Cine Daily).

In no particular order: Today’s soon-to-be expensive New York Times has an article on Luis Mandoki’s documentary (currently filming) about Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidential campaign. The comparisons to Haskell Wexler’s blend of fiction and documentary, Medium Cool, make this film sound like a project worth watching.

Nick at Digital Poetics reflects on one of Errol Morris’ fascinating unfinished projects, The True Strangeness of the Universe. Nick comments, “I wonder if our fascination with the real in digital media–even as we experience that real through more complex interfaces–is in some ways an acknowledgement that we still yearn to be surpised. We yearn for the anarchy of Pure Reality, even if it means rendering that reality through evermore complex codes.” This is a tantalizing question, one that motivates my interest in digital media and the renewed popularity of documentary. It’s also not unlike Benjamin’s celebratory comments (echoing Kracauer) of the ability of the motion picture camera to produce an “unconscious optics” that would allow us to see the world anew.

There’s a Chronicle of Higher Education article on W. Nicholas G. Hitchon, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the subjects of Mciahel Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries.

Also check out Rob Nelson’s profile of Barbara Kopple, whose latest documentary, Bearing Witness, profiles five female war correspondents. The cinetrix has already spoken very highly (review) of Kopple’s film, which apparently played on A&E while I was in DC last week (anyone know when it will show up on TV again?).

Green Cine also mentions Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis’s documentary, The Take. And while I’m thinking about it, I received a lovely emil about a blog promoting the Asian American International Film Festival, but didn’t met a chance to mention it until now.

In The New Republic (free registration required) Elbert Ventura stodgily dismisses the “confessional” documentary genre, commenting that autobiographical docs such as Mark Wexler’s Tell Them Who You Are, Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, and Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect, are nothing more than self-healing exercises:

What these works have in common is their makers’ desire to put themselves and their personal traumas front and center. Implicit in each is the notion that the act of filming is integral to personal growth–a prerequisite for the “healing” to begin.

If that sounds not a little facile, that’s because it is.

Maybe I’ll return to Ventura’s comments later, but I think it’s fairly obvious that I disagree. Sure, some of the documentaries may have “contrived” moments, but all three films also avoid the easy answers that Ventura claims to find in them.

Finally, a Guardian profile of Frank Miller, whose graphic novels provided the basis for Sin City.

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What I Did on Summer Vacation

I’ve just returned from my DC adventure, and I’m exhausted from hours on the road (plus some serious allergy problems that kicked in this morning) but I’m now more excited than before about the move. I found a cool and comparatively cheap apartment in West Hyattsville within walking distance of a Metro stop. I also had the opportunity to get together with several of the Wordherders and friends while in DC (here’s the evidence). I’ll have more to say about the trip a little later, but I think it’s going to take a day or so to recover from travelling, especially since I was with my parents. More later.

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Music Meme

Alex tagged me with the music meme that has been floating around for a while. I’d planned to participate several weeks/days ago (blogtime runs too fast, so I can’t remember when I first saw this meme), but got distracted, as often happens.

Once again, answers below the fold.

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Everything in Threes

Just noticed that Terminal MFA tagged me with the “3s Meme.” As Filmmaker-Guy notes, I usually dodge most memes, mostly because I don’t want to obligate others to participate, but at his request, I’ll play along. Answers below the fold.

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On the Road

I’ll be leaving for Washington, D.C., early Sunday, which means little or no internet access for the next week or so (starting Saturday evening). I’ve been skimming online apartment guides all morning to get a sense of price and location, and that’s making the move a little more tangible–and exciting. If you’re in DC and want to meet up (I’ve already talked to some of you) or have a great deal on an apartment, let me know (chutry[at]msn[dot]com).

I imagine the trip to DC will be something of an adventure in that I’ll be riding up there with my parents in their RV. They’ve had the RV for several years now and seem to enjoy it, but to be honest, the idea of spending the night in one makes me feel like a deleted character in that Jack Nicholson film. The whole idea makes me feel like I’ll be completely disconnected from the rest of the world. But the cool part is that my parents, who both have fond memories of living in Washington, are excited about the move even though I’m leaving the Atlanta area (which is why they’ll be traveling with me).

I know I have two meme requests pending, so I’ll work on those this evening.

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American Sucker

Via the IFC Blog: Armond White slams David Denby for his glowing review of Paul Haggis’ LA race fable, Crash. I know I’ve disagreed with White in the past, but I’m glad he’s calling Denby out on this one. White’s take on the film:

These guardians of the status quo—Haggis among them—avoid admitting, confessing, realizing the real ways that social authority (whether legally held by the rich or criminally asserted by the poor) is used to the advantage of some people and against others.

I’m beginning to think that my original review was far too generous.

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Baadasssss Cinema

Last night I watched Isaac Julien’s Baadasssss Cinema, a 2002 IFC doc about 1970s blaxploitation films. Julien, best known for the amazing experimental documentary Looking for Langston, used talking heads interviews and footage from several blaxploitation films to convey what I read as an ambivalent nostalgia for this cycle of 1970s films. While several interviewees, including actress Gloria Hendry, emphasize the creative control and opportunity to work given to African Americans, others, including Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, observe that the highly profitable films helped support a struggling Hollywood studio system with little money actually reaching the creative people who worked on the films.

It’s clear that Julien appreciates the music (Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme; Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly) and recognizes the cultural shift represented in the early films (including Melvin van Peebles’ independently-produced Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song.

Fascinating tidbits: cultural theorist bell hooks singing the praises of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and archival footage of Jesse Jackson criticizing blaxploitation films. Pam Grier’s clear-eyed commentary on the political legacy of blaxploitation is also worth watching.

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Rods from God

Today’s New York Times has an article (better read it quick before you have to pay) about some of the Air Force’s new proposed space weapons programs. Putting aside the incredible costs, with some cost estimates reaching $1 trillion, and serious questions about the accuracy of these weapons, should we really be calling a space weapons program “Rods from God?” Or is such an absurd name simply a pre-emptive strike against future attempts to parody such a dangerous idea?

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Tarnation

Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (IMDB) challenges expectations and confounds genre expectations in a fascinating mix of documentary, autobiography, and art film. Made for $218 and edited on Apple’s iMovie, Tarnation tells the story of Caoette’s emotionally turbulent Texas childhood using Super-8 and video clips taken by Caouette starting when he was a small child. But beyond the home movie clips, Tarnation is a story of someone putting together the fragments of personal experience, mixing not only home movie clips but also the movies, music, and TV shows that consistently shape how we view the world.

We learn, for example, that his mother, Renee, was subjected to twice-weekly shock treatments for over two years when her parents believed that she was faking paralysis after falling off the roof of their house. The shock treatments naturally changed Renee’s personality considerably, and Renee spent much of Jonathan’s childhood living in institutions while her son lived in various foster homes, where he was often abused, before moving in with his maternal grandparents.

But what fascinated me about the film was the degree to which Jonathan, even as a teenager, began mediating his experiences, in part by using the camera as a way to provide himself with some perspective. But it’s also visible in the ways in which Caouette, as an eleven-year old, performs roles for the camera. In one amazing scene, he plays an abused wife testifying on the witness stand about why she had to kill her husband. Jonathan plays the role perfectly, nervously twirling his bleach-damaged hair while explaining how “dope” made her husband crazy. In teh audio commentary, we learn that the perormance is a mix of Jonathan’s own experience and an episode of Bionic Woman he’d liked. Later, he and his first boyfriend directed a play for their high school, a msucial version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet featuring songs by Marianne Faithful. Later, Tarnation emphasizes Jonathan’s cinematic education, his introduction to the films of Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol, John Waters, as well as low-budget horror by friends he met as club kid at a gay bar in Houston.

The film is careful to avoid easy answers about how Jonathan’s family fell apart. The shock treatments are clearly a major factor, but Caouette resists blaming Renee’s parents completely for what happened. Caouette also avoids a position of complete mastery over his experiences, skipping voice-over for titles that often convey uncertainty about what has happened. The use of iMovie not only creates a DIY aesthetic but also suggests the sense of fragmentation, of someone sorting through the fragments to put together a complete narrative. Ebert’s discussion of the editing in Tarnation pretty much gets it right: Caouette uses the clunky iMovie technology not simply as a cheap way to get his film made but as an integral part of the story itself.

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Paying for Pundits

I’ve just learned that The New York Times is planning a subscription system for some of their newspaper content starting in September.

The bad news first: readers won’t be able to get their David Brooks or Paul Krugman fix without paying a subscription fee of $49.95 a year. Like Farhad Manjoo of Salon, I’d imagine this subscription may undercut the influence of the Times’ columnists, especially within the blogosphere (Kos has already promised not to link to Times writers after September).

But the good news is that the subscription will allow readers access to TimesPast, the newspaper’s extensive archives. I realize that most of this material is already available at many university libraries in one form or another and that the New York Times Link Generator already offers permanent links to many recent articles, but access to the archives should prove valuable for research purposes.

Like Frank Rich (quoted in the Salon article), I recognize that running a newspaper is an expensive business (somebody’s gotta pay for that hard-hitting war journalism), but I also know that on my budget, I’m not likely going to be able to afford to pay $50 just to read the columnists. Of course, if they start hiding the movie reviews, that’s a whole different story. Then I might be completely lost.

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DVD Killed the Movie Star

The New York Times’ Sharon Waxman reports eleven consecutive weeks of declining movie attendance and revenue compared with last year, specifically noting that Ridley Scott’s crusader epic, Kingdon of Heaven, performed well below expectations. While I’m not particulalry worried about the profits of major Hollywood studios (after all, it’s a pretty safe bet that most movie executives will earn more money than I do this year), it’s interesting to speculate why this is happening–or more precisely to watch these executives speculate about why it’s happening.

President of Exhibitor Relations, Paul Dergarabedian, attributes the decline in box office to DVDs and home theater systems that make going to the movies less exciting, but given that DVDs have been out for some time, I don’t think that can be considered a major factor, and in fact, his comments seem to perpetuate the Hollywood practice that dates back at least to the advent of television of blaming new technologies for declining attendance. Nothing new there.

I’d imagine the biggest factor is simply the astounding (and somewhat unexpected) success of last year’s The Passion of the Christ, which brought out a large number of people who don’t habitually go to movies and probably artifically inflated last year’s box office in April and May. Ridley Scott’s Crusader epic, although it might portray historical events related to the church, is no Passion. Even my parents, who attend movies maybe once a year, were planning to see Mel Gibson’s film and knew enough about the controversial aspects of it (the violence, the possible anti-Semitism) to discuss it with me. This shouldn’t imply that the movies that have been released recently were mediocre movies (although Kingdom did get mostly negative reviews) but that The Passion mattered to many of the people who went out of their way to see it in theaters, and in many cases saw the film several times.

Again, I’m sure Hollywood’s gonna be alright. They’ve got Star Wars money coming in soon.

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Reel Time/Real Time

I’m really glad I stumbled across Nick’s blog because he’s been posting right and left about the temporality of cinema and new media, questions that I’m planning to address in my book on time-travel film and media.

In particular, his discussion of VCRs and time-shifting seems interesting. He cites a September 3, 1967, New York Times article, “Soon You’ll Collect TV Reels, Like LP’s,” which predicts that TV viewers will soon be able to rent or purchase any sort of visual material, ranging from films to concerts (note to self: he also includes an image of a 1976 VCR advertisement, also from the New York Times).

Not sure I have much to add right now, but the emphasis on collecting seems important in my reading. As Nick points out, the article emphasizes that a film afficionado could “have on their bookcase shelves the best of the works of W.C. Fields or Charlie Chaplin.” I can’t read the article clearly on my browser (I’ll try again later), but the ability to collect these films, and potentially gain cultural capital in their public display in a film library, seems crucial here.

More later, but I’ve got a long day of grading for hire tomorrow.

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Crash (2005)

In his review of Paul Haggis’s directorial debut, Crash (IMDB), A.O. Scott compares the film to other films where “Americans from radically different backgrounds are brought together by a grim serendipity that forces them, or at least the audience, to acknowledge their essential connectedness,” mentioning examples such as 21 Grams and Monster’s Ball. I saw the film as another in a series of Los Angeles films, such as Short Cuts and Magnolia, but Scott’s point is essentially right. And while Crash has been touted by many critics as a sharp commentary on race relations, I’d have to agree with Scott that Crash is often overwrought, and because it proceeds through character types (the racist LAPD officer, the isolated suburban housewife, among others), the film only reinforces what it is trying to challenge.

As if the title weren’t clear enough, the opening scene features a minor fender bender next to a crime scene. As they prepare to deal with the investigation, Graham (Don Cheadle), a detective, comments to his partner and lover, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), that he thinks people in LA crash into each other because they are so isolated, “It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” Ria dismisses Graham’s comments–accidents happen–but Graham’s remarks serve as a metaphor that’s supposed to guide our experience of the rest of the film. Characters from different race and class backgrounds keep crashing into each other (get it?) and are forced to confront (or not) the humanity of the people they encounter.

I think that what I found most frustrating about this film was the “shallowness” of its characters. By that, I mean that virtually every character seems to have two sides, one side heroic and tolerant and the other side fearful and, quite often, racist. Matt Dillon’s LAPD officer pulls over a wealthy, educated black couple for “driving while black,” sexually assaulting the wife (Thandie Newton) in a mock search for weapons. Later, he heroically rescues the same woman from a car accident. The wife of a white district attorney (Sandra Bullock) goes from liberal-minded to racist the minute her SUV is carjacked by a couple of black teenagers. She later proclaims that a Latino locksmith is going to pass along the new locks to their house to his gangbanger friends well within earshot of the locksmith who quietly goes about his job. By the end of the film she takes another chracater turn that felt equally implausible. Characters would leap from cardboard villains spouting racist epithets (or worse) to gentle souls at a single cut, something that seemed even more explicit with the female characters played by Bullock, Newton, and Jennifer Esposito. I don’t want to make any larger claims about the screenplay, but I did find the female characters far less developed than their male counterparts.

The film also used an endangered child subplot in a manipulative, transparent way. In one early scene, the locksmith finds his daughter hiding under her bed, deeply afraid that she’ll get hit by a stray bullet. Her father offers her an “invisible cloak” that will protect her from any violence. It’s not hard to guess that the scene serves as foreshadowing for a potentially violent scene later in the film. At any rate, throughout the film, I found myself frustrated by the magnitude of the interactions. There were no “everyday” scenes, and all interactions seemed far too charged for the film to seem completely plausible. For this reason, P.T. Anderson’s self-awareness in Magnolia, his acknowledgement of the implausibility of certain interactions, seemed far more convincing to me.

I don’t want to seem entirely dismissive of the film. The performances were generally quite solid (especially Don Cheadle, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, and Matt Dillon), and I liked the gritty cinematography (taken from the Michael Mann school of filming L.A.). And critics I like, such as the New Yorker’s David Denby really admired the film. In fact, Denby comments that “it’s easily the strongest American film since Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.” On a formal level, Denby may be right. Haggis’s film is “intricately worked,” with plot elements and characters tightly woven, often to productive effect. As Denby notes, in Haggis’s Los Angeles, “no one is entirely innocent or entirely guilty.” That’s probably fair to say, but I don’t think this observation is quite enough to sustain such an ambitious film.

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