Archive for June, 2005

The Last Days of Chez Decatur

Just a quick post to mention that things should be pretty quiet around the blog for the next week or so. My computer decided to crash in a fit of rebellion, and because I’m moving in less than a week, I won’t have time to have it repaired until I move to DC (any suggestions on reliable & hopefully cheap repair folks in/near Hyattsville would be greatly appreciated).

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Wednesday Morning Coffee Reads

I’ve been trying to regain some sense of summer normalcy this week, catching up on blogs and other cool reads before I make the Big Move next week. Here’s what I’ve been reaing this morning, in no particular order:

While reading a Miranda July interview yesterday, I came across her fascinating collaborative web project with Harrell Fletcher, Learning to Love You More, which calls for visitors to complete “assignments” that are then posted on the website. Assignments include re-reading your favorite book from 5th grade, reading Raymond Carver’s story, “Cathedral,” and then drawing a cathedral, and drawing a scene from a movie that made you cry (thanks to Craig Phillips for the tip).

The LA Times is the latest newspaper to discuss the box office blues. Some executives are blaming the dissemination of negative film reviews on the Internet (mea culpa), but another culprit appears to be those annoying pre-movie advertisement shows. I still agree with executives that it’s too early to abandon the good ship Hollywood, but those shows, such as “The Twenty,” do make the movie theater experience feel more like watching television.

The New York Times is plugging the documentary Waging a Living (IMDB), which documents the experiences of a small group of working poor living in northern California. The article describes the film as a live-action version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. The Times also mentions Sally Potter’s latest film, Yes, which was written entirely in verse (now I really wish I’d caught this at the Atlanya Film Festival last week).

From the Washington Post (my soon-to-be local newspaper!), an AP article noting that the World Monuments Fund has deemed all of Iraq an endangered site, the first time they’ve listed an entire country as endangered.

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The Education of Shelby Knox

The Education of Shelby Knox (IMDB) functions in part as a coming-of-age story, relating the experiences of a Lubbock, Texas, high school student and Southern Baptist who follows her conscience in advocating comprehensive sex education in the city’s public high schools despite widespread opposition from her community. And while the documentary sometimes veered into tourist mode, gawking at the locals, the film powerfully conveyed Knox’s attempts to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her growing political commitments.

The film begins with a brief overview of life in Lubbock, including the jarring information that 1 in 14 Lubbock teen girls become pregnant every year. The official policy of the city’s schools is to promote abstinence-only sex education. We are then introduced the Shelby, who at fifteen, takes a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage at a ceremony in her church. But gradually, Shebly begins to recognize the need for a more thorough sex eductaion program. She becomes involved in a city-supported youth organization where she uses the platform to promote her point of view. She goes to Planned Parenthood and participates in their sex ed program. Through the course of the film, Shelby speaks before the city council, debates her pastor, and eventually, we learn in the epilogue, chooses to pursue a career in politics.

Watching Shelby become a more powerful advocate for sex ed was pretty impressive. Given her community’s social and political conservatism (her mom comments at one point that if there any Democrats in Lubbock, she doesn’t know any of them), it would have been easy to accept the status quo or to write off any possibility of changing people’s minds. I did find myself frustrated by the film’s sometimes uncomplicated representation of the pro-abstinence position because the representative for that position, a local pastor who teaches that “true love waits,” often spoke in cliches (“God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) or in condemnation (at one point he proudly proclaims that “Christianity is an intolerant religion”), but Shelby’s conversations with the pastor illustrate the degree to which she eventually distances herself from him.

However, I was also completely fascinated by the film’s representation of Shelby’s family, especially to the degree that it complicated stereotypical images of a Baptist family. It’s made clear from the beginning of the film that her father is a conservative Republican, and Shelby’s mom generally shares those beliefs. But, even when Shelby’s campaigns are met with community disapproval, her parents are remarkably supportive, with her father acknowledging by the end of the film that comprehensive sex ed is important and her mother (somewhat ambivalently) marching in solidarity with a gay-straight alliance group that is trying to become an official, school-sanctioned club.

The storytelling in this documentary is first-rate, but what really made the film work for me was the character of Shelby Knox. I mentioned before that I was interested in the subject matter because I attended a fundamentalist church when I was a teenager, and like Shelby, I found myself struggling with many of these issues, and the film captures that experience very well (speaking of teenage fundamentalism, I’m still planning to write about Brian Flemming’s doc, The God Who Wasn’t There, at some point in the next few days, but I’m still sorting through that one).

Update: Here’s the live chat Natalie mentioned.

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Let’s Talk About Sex Education

Via the cinetrix comes the news that the PBS show, P.O.V., will be airing the documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox (on Atlanta’s PBS Channel 8, it will be airing at midnight on Thursday night, but local times may vary, as they say).

The documentary is about Lubbock, Texas, teenager Shelby Knox, who campaigned for three years to have a more thorough sex education program included as part of the public high school curriculum. According to the New York Times, Knox defies stereotypes for a sex ed champion, who is described as “a conservative Christian teenager and warrior princess for comprehensive — as opposed to abstinence-only — sex education.” Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times has further details on Knox’s story.

As a former teenage fundamentalist, I find these stories fascinating, especially given my frustration at “abstinance only” advocates at my parents’ church and at the college I attended (though it’s important to note that these institutions are rarely as homogeneous as they might seem from the outside or even from the POV of a disenchanted soul like me), but it sounds like this doc is particularly effective at asking the right questions about sex education. The film has already received quite a bit of acclaim, winning the Emerging Pictures audience award at the Full Frame documentary film festival earlier this year.

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Miranda July Interview

Here’s a Green Cine interview with Miranda July, writer-director-star of Me and You and Everyone We Know. Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on the film, I’m convinced that it’s simply an amazing film (link via Wiley Wiggins).

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Private Warriors

Frontline has a documentary, “Private Warriors,” airing tonight on the work being done by miltary contractors, such as Haliburton, in Iraq (times may vary, but it’s on at 10 PM on both of Atlanta’s PBS stations).

Based on the website overview, it appears that the documentary will cast a fairly critical eye towards the practice, specifically in terms of the place of contractors in the chain of command. Could be an interesting show. I was generally impressed, with some reservations, by their documentary, “A Company of Soldiers,” in which a pair of embedded reporters followed the soldiers of Dog Company during November 2004.

Because the Bushies have decided to target PBS for major budget cuts against the will of a vast majority of the American public, it’s worth emphasizing the valuable service public media can provide. Media Matters has the full scoop.

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Gonna Get Myself Connected (Faster)

Those of you read this blog with any degree of regularity know that I’m currently living my internet life in the slow lane on a 56k modem and in the world of 8 channels (an upgrade of 7 channels from where I lived before). With the big move to our nation’s capital (and a job in media studies), I’m planning to get a faster modem and cable TV.

So here’s the big question for my DC readers: What do you recommend in terms of internet service and cable TV service? I’d love to be able to watch IFC, the Sundance Channel, and similar movie stations, but I’ll have to watch my budget. Suggestions are welcome, either here in the comments or by email (chutry[at]msn[dot]com).

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Movie Meme

It’s a lazy Sunday. I don’t have to work tomorrow. And I found a movie meme at Long Pauses and CultureSpace, so I’ve decided to join the fun.

Read the rest of this entry »

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[AFF 2005] Me and You and Everyone We Know

The closing night film at the Atlanta Film Festival was Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. Like the cinetrix, I was quite impressed by this film and its ability to capture the loneliness and isolation of its central characters. The film is set primarily in rundown neighborhoods in Los Angeles and features a shoe salesman father with two kids going through a divorce, a performance artist who runs a taxi service for senior citizens (played by July who has a blog!), and a contemporary art museum director, among several characters, but what I found so rewarding about the film was its treatment of inter-generational relationships and the isolation and confusion that many children and teenagers feel.

The meticulous narrative, which carefully weaves together several distinct plotlines and characters, emphasizes a notion of community that I found wonderful, a welcome contrast to Crash’s portrayal of a Los Angeles characterized only misunderstanding and (often unconscious) racism. In Me and You, characters proceed cautiously, reaching out carefully to others in an attempt to make a connection with someone. July’s Christine, hoping to connect with the shoe salesman, Richard, keeps finding excuses to show up at the shoestore. Richard’s youngest son finds himself in an Internet romance chat, where his naive comments come across as playfulness. When Richard can’t reach his sons at home (they’re on the Internet), he panics, reasoning that neighbors should be more prepared to watch after each other, echoing the sentiment that it takes a neighborhood to raise a child. As A.O. Scott notes, “True to her movie’s title, Ms. July proposes a delicate, beguiling idea of community and advances it in full awareness of the peculiar obstacles that modern life presents.”

As the Internet romance subplot suggests, many of these tentative gestures take on a sexual edge, and there are moments where you feel that the film could have taken a much different, unnecessarily dark direction, but July avoids the heavy-handedness of most Hollywood films that handle similar topics. I very much enjoyed this film. It introduced me to a world of characters that seemed believable and genuine, beautifully capturing that desire for connection.

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I’m Back

Mind Numbing Freelance Work Marathon has finally ended, which means I’ll have some time to return to blogworld, at least for a few days. Now I’m counting the days until I move to Washington (I get the keys to my new place on June 30). I’m still recovering from the work (my last day was Friday). This particular job has affected my summer routine to a degree that I wouldn’t have expected, particularly when it comes to producing any fresh writing, including blog entries.

I’m pretty far behind in reading film headlines, but apparently, Neal Stephenson’s New York Times op-ed, commenting on the audience response to the new Star Wars installment has been making the blog rounds. The basic thesis seems to be that US film audiences are less excited about the science and technology in sci-fi films (a process Stephenson calls “geeking out”) and instead just want to “veg out,” to have a film that provides them with non-stop excitement.

I still haven’t seen the new Star Wars film, nor do I have any plans to see it, but Stephenson’s comments seem to miss the audience’s response, as I’ve understood it, to the film. Stephenson comments that

In sum, very little of the new film makes sense, taken as a freestanding narrative. What’s interesting about this is how little it matters. Millions of people are happily spending their money to watch a movie they don’t understand. What gives?

I’ll first mention that many viewers seem to be seeing the film out of a sense of obligation to their sense of nostalgia to the original triology, not necessarily out of any enthusiasm for the current film (or even the current trilogy), and the muddled narrative has been the source of many complaints.

But Stephenson’s more significant point is that “ancillary media” have led to the “geek out” material being taken out of the film itself, leading to a series of high points, the film as PowerPoint presentation of a larger narrative that exists primarily off the silver screen (in this sense, the new Star Wars trilogy seems comparable to the Matrix films), allowing people to “veg out” and enjoy the narrative ride, essentially rendering audience members passive before the story rather than active partcipants in it. As I’ve mentioned, I haven’t seen the film, but I’d imagine the emphasis on “vegging out” has less to do with an anti-intellectual or anti-science bias in film audiences than it has to do with the desire to provide the film with the widest audience possible, including non-US markets that may be less versed in Star Wars lore. But I’m not sure that it’s entirely fair to suggest that what’s happening is the complete “vegging out” of film audiences, or even what it might mean if we’re (whoever “we” are) submitting passively to Hollywood spectacle.

The famous difficulty of the film’s narrative suggests that some audience members have done their homework about the saga. The article privileges the film itself as the central text. Many Star Wars fans are familiar with the basic narrative already from books and fansites, and the film is a realization of that (in fact, Lucas has commented in several places that much of the material in this film was penned as early as the mid-1970s). My main point here is that it’s impossible to view the film in isolation from all of the other texts, whether created by Lucas, fans of the films, or by political thinkers looking to use the film as a shorthand for illustrating Republican Party excesses.

So perhaps rather than suggesting that Revenge of the Sith privileges the “veg out” mode over “geeking out,” I’d argue that it’s possible the film emphasizes (or tries to emphasize) some of the extreme tendencies of both modes.

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[AFF 2005] Pretty Persuasion

The other film I’ve seen at this year’s festival was the disappointing Pretty Persuasion (IMDB), a Heathers-Saved-Mean Girls clone but without even the critical edge found in those films. The film focuses on Kimberly Joyce (Thirteen’s talented Evan Rachel Wood), a 15-year-old Catholic school student who dreams of being an actress and, after getting the lead in her school play, eventually charges the drama teacher (Ron Livingston, who deserves better) with sexual harrassment. Kimberly encourages her two friends, Brittany and Randa, to file charges as well, while an enterprising reporter happens to be on campus to cover another story. Naturally, the charges become a major media event, and Kimberly, who seduces the reporter, becomes a media darling. I think the film is supposed to be a satire of our scandal-hungry media and of high schools and parents that will do anything to protect their reputations, but it comes across as mean-spirited, particularly towards high school girls who are either utterly manipulative (Kimberly) or completely naive (Brittany). If the film was doing anything particularly interesting with its media critique or its satire of high school life, I’d be less critical. If it were less predictable, I could have enjoyed the film as a low-rent version of Wild Things, but for some reason, the film left me completely cold. In addition, the film’s portrayal of Randa, a Hindu teenage girl unaware of the potential coldness of the American teenager, seemed particualrly mean-spirited.

Scott Weinberg, at eFilmCritic.com, liked the film a lot more than I did, calling it “one of the most brave and adept satires of American teen-dom that I’ve ever seen.” I’m willing to grant the point about the film’s discomfort level. As in Thirteen, Evan Rachel Wood plays up teen sexuality to levels rarely seen in Hollywood films, but the film frames her sexuality in such a moralizing fashion that I don’t see this portrayal as ultimately thinking about sexuality in any kind of complicated way.

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[AFF 2005] Lady from Sockholm

Over the weekend I had a chance to catch two of the films that were playing at the Atlanta Film Festival. The first was Lady from Sockholm (IMDB). Despite my lazy editing around these parts, that’s no typo. Writer Lynn Lamousin and co-directors Eddy Von Mueller and Evan Lieberman’s highly entertaining movie is a film noir performed entirely by sock puppets. The film features a classic noir plot: gumshoe Terrence M. Cotton is hired by Heelda Brum to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her (wealthy, older) husband, Darnell. Heelda suspects notorious bootlegger, Big Toeny of getting rid of her husband, and Cotton is, of course, charmed by the young widow.

The co-directors, who teach film at Georgia State University and Emory University, are, of course well-heeled (sorry) in film noir, and Sockholm riffs off of Double Indemnity, Lady from Shanghai (of course), The Maltese Falcon, as well as several of Hitchock’s key films (especially Strangers on a Train). As my review implies, the film’s heavy use of puns was enjoyable, and for fans of classical Hollywood and noir, it’s a lot of fun.

Afterwards, several members of the crew talked about their experience making the film, reminding viewers about the scale of their sets (a cowbell on a door could be no more than one-quarter inch tall to remain in scale with the bodies of the sock puppets). The visuals capture the noir vibe very well. While the film was made in color (the production staff was warned against filming in black-and-white), the cast shadows evoke the atmosphere commonly associated with the genre, and the sets add to the film’s playful humor. Lady of Sockholm is a genuinely fun film, one that deserves a much wider audience.

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September Tapes

September Tapes (IMDB), directed by Christian Johnston, is one of the most fascinating and bizarre films I’ve seen in some time, even if I also regard it as severely flawed. If the film were to be pitched in a Player-style meeting, it could be described as The Blair Witch Project meets Apocalypse Now set in Afghanistan. But as fascinating as I find the film, the making of the film is even more compelling.

The film itself is a mockumentary, opening Blair Witch style, with titles that indicate that we’re watching some film footage found by the Northern Allince near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We then see footage of New York-based documentary filmmaker, Don “Lars” Larson (if I were the Yankee ballplayer, I’d sue), who travels to Afghanistan to find out the “real” story about Osama bin Laden. He arrives in Kabul with his translator, Wali, and his camera operator, Sonny, and proceeds to explore the city in search of the famed terrorist. Lars gradually finds himself drawn into the hunt for bin Laden (hence the Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness connection), buying guns from arms dealers and breaking curfew to get interviews that might lead him to bin Laden. Eventually, Lars, disappointed with the slow pace of the search, gets himself arrested and thrown into a Kabul prison in order to find contacts that might lead him to bounty hunters searching for bin Laden. He eventually meets Babak, who leads him and his crew deep into the Afghani contryside right to the border with Pakistan.

What makes this narrative interesting, in part, is the fact that September Tapes was filmed almost entirely on location in Afghanistan, in and around Kabul in late 2002, during a moment when there was still a rumored bounty on the heads of American citizens. Fleeting shots of women show them still wearing burqas out of fear that the Taliban will regain power. Footage of bomb-damaged buildings suggest the destruction of a country that has been at war for most of the last 25 years. Many of the participants in the film were, in fact, members of the Kabul police force and men who had fought against the Taliban.

This material, in itself, is fascinating. The mockumentary genre is clearly an implicit critique of the “embedded reporters” who covered the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lars, who often comes across as a stereotypical cowboy-Rambo American, is sometimes criticized by the film, particulalry when he is dismissive of Wali’s assertion that the World Trade Center attacks are in part the response to US foreign policy. These fleeting political references, however, are never really developed, and the film becomes a quest narrative, in which Lars is “inexplicably” drwan deeper into the hunt for Osama bin Laden, to the point that he carries an AK-47, which he shoots into the night sky (the night vision footage adds a surreal quality to Lars’ behavior). I use scare quotes here because I felt that Lars’ purpose for going into Kabul was telegraphed from the opening scene of the film, in which Lars mentions his wife, Sarah, who is revealed to have died in one of the planes that was hijacked by the terrorists. Including a recorded phone message from her, essentially her dying words, at the end of the film cheapened everything that came before, making the filmmaker’s behavior a bit too obvious in motivation.

September Tapes has been widely criticized by film critics, including Jonathan Curiel of the San Francisco Chronicle, who apparently didn’t recognize the cues identifying the film as a mockumentary before criticizing the film for exploiting the conditions in Afghanistan for the sake of provocation:

Though the movie contains some sensitive images of Afghan kids and others, and though the film was apparently made with the consent of some Afghans, “September Tapes” never edifies, never humanizes, never entertains and never says anything new or interesting. Afghanistan shouldn’t be used as a backdrop for some director’s selfish attempt at provocation. Real Americans and real Afghans are still dying in Afghanistan. We don’t need to see a fake version of that on the big screen.

While I had similar thoughts about September Tapes, I felt that the film’s attempts to deconstruct the sobriety of the documentary and news media forms were much needed, even though Lars’ behavior often seemed inexplicable or unmotivated (he spoke absolutely no Farsi and assumed that the people of Afghanistan speak “Afghani,” to name one example). In addition, the use of non-professional actors and unscripted scenes often led to many important perceptions about the situation in Afghanistan to emerge over the course of the film. The film is most certainly flawed, and can be seen as “trivializing” its subject, but as a representation of the “war on terror,” it’s certainly a fascinating document.

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The Agronomist

I caught Jonathan Demme’s labor-of-love doc, The Agronomist (IMDB) the other night on DVD. Demme’s film offers a sweeping overview of the life and assassination of Jean Dominique, owner of Radio Haiti, a journalist, and human rights activist. The film celebrates the significance of Dominique’s independent radio station in combatting the Duvalier dictatorships, primaily through talking heads interviews with Dominique and his family.

The interviews with Dominique are certainly the most enjoyable scenes in Demme’s film (as Ebert notes, Demme recorded several hundred hours of footage over nearly a decade), and the film offers a veiled, but welcome, critique of Reagan’s foreign policy, which essentially propped up the Duvalier regime. But in general, I found myself vaguely dissatisfied with the film for reasons I can’t quite articulate. To some extent, I felt the film seemed to hold back when it came to critiquing US foreign policy (I certainly wanted more specifics on this history).

It may be that I found the storytelling itself a little frustrating. During one interview, Dominique reveals his passion for avant-garde and French New Wave cinema, celebrating Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Fellini’s La Strada among others. Domnique comments that its not merely the content of these films that is revolutionary, but the “grammar” of the films, the way they tell their stories. Perhaps the chronological approach, with stock footage supported by interviews, didn’t adequately represent one of Haiti’s most important political activists.

But after reading so many favorable reviews, I’m starting to change my opinion to some degree. In fact, as Cynthia Fuchs’ Pop Matters review implies, even doing a documentary about Haiti, one of the poorest nations in Western Hemisphere, is itself a political act.

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Personal Jesus

I’ve just learned that filmmaker and blogger Brian Flemming’s God Who Wasn’t There will be playing at this week’s Atlanta Film Festival at the Eastside Lounge on June 15th. I’m hoping to attend, and if any other Hotlanta readers are interested, do let me know. While you’re in the neighborhood, check out Doug Monroe’s Creative Loafing review.

I’ve been so caught up in moving stuff and work stuff (Mind Numbing Freelance job) that I haven’t had a chance to look at this year’s film schedule. Any suggestions for can’t miss films? The four screenings I attended last year were all very satisfying.

Update: God isn’t a part of the Atlanta Film Festival, but I’m still eager to see it.

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