Archive for June, 2005

37 Candles?

So the rumored Pretty in Pink sequel was just a hot Internet rumor. And Bender and Andrew missed the MTV Award-inspired and long-anticipated Breakfast Club reunion. The Brat Pack gossip du jour is a sequel to Sixteen Candles. Molly Ringwald has apparently found a script that “works,” and one can only assume that Anthony Michael Hall will be happy to join the party.

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Transitions

I’ve been feeling rather lethargic this summer, unable to concentrate on anything for any length of time. To a certain extent, my lack of focus obviously can be attributed to the fact that I’ll be moving in less than a month, and as Ryan points out, moving can produce a lot of stress and a lot of mixed emotions. I’m certainly excited about the move. Washington is a cool city, and my teaching gig next year is a great opportunity. So I’m trying not to sound like I’m complaining, at least not too much.

So, yeah, I’m excited about the move, but, like Ryan and Claire, I’m also aware of some of the things I’ll miss about the place I’m leaving. In particular, I’ve grown to enjoy Georgia State’s amazing Album 88. I’ll also very much miss my favorite bagel shop, Bagel Palace Deli and Bakery (any good bagel suggestions in Hyattsville?), Manuel’s Tavern, and other favorite Atlanta haunts. Of course, because my family lives here in Atlanta, I don’t feel a sense of permanent loss because I can always revisit these places when I visit. I think it’s more of a sense of disruption or disorientation.

I’m caught up in the sense that I’m waiting for something to happen, that everything is on hold until The Move takes place. I’ve also found it difficult to get into any kind of routine so far this summer. Because I’m already deep enough in debt that a self-financed summer sabbatical is a bad idea, I’ve also been doing some very tedious freelance-type work. The work isn’t difficult, but it requires enough concentration that, at the end of the day (one that starts insanely early), my brain is completely fried, and the last thing I want to do is read or even look at a screen (after a day of this kind of work, even watching TV is unpleasant). And my breaks from that work have consisted of either looking for an apartment or waiting to go back to work.

This sense of being on hold is partially exacerbated by the fact that my ’89 Mazda has been having all sorts of electrical problems, leaving me stranded for pretty much every weekend this summer (other than seeing a re-release of Major Dundee this weekend, I can’t remember the last time I was in a movie theater). So, long story short, the entire summer, so far, has been characterized by waiting and immobility.

I’ve been trying to follow KF’s suggestion that some meandering can be productive, but right now, the enforced waiting, the inconsistent reading, and the infrequent writing have only left me feeling impatient and edgy. I think that when I arrive in DC, I’ll regain a sense of direction, that I won’t feel quite as placeless as I do right now.

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Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine

I caught Vikram Jayanti’s 2003 documentary, Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine tonight on video. The film documents Kasparov’s notorious 1997 chess rematch against the IBM-designed Deep Blue. Previously, Kasparov had defeated an earlier version of the Deep Blue computer, but during the second game of the 1997 match, Kasparov became flustered when the computer began “playing like a human.” After the second match, the normally charming Kasparov begins making accusations that there was “human involvement” that allowed IBM to win. The result is, of course, a profundly ambivalent victory for the computer’s designers: they’d managed to design a computer that could defeat the world’s greatest living chess player, quite an accomplishment but also a potential sign of human limitations against a powerful machine.

Vikram Jayanti’s film seems to embrace Kasparov’s accusations of conspiracy. Voice-over whispers imply that IBM stood to gain considerably from a victory of the golden boy of chess (their stock apparently increased by 15% the day after Deep Blue’s victory). They remind us that Kasparov’s request to see Deep Blue’s game logs initially was accepted, but the logs were never provided. Kasparov also speculates about “corporate responsibility.” Would we be as willing to trust corporations now, after the fall of Enron? I think the whispers of conspiracy are relevant to the narrative, to our perception of the relationship between increasingly powerful computers and the increasingly powerful corporations who build them, but because of the lack of compelling evidence of wrongdoing, the conspiracy narrative remains inelegant and unconvincing.

The film relates Kasparov’s match to the legendary Baron von Kempelen’s 18th-century chess player automaton, “The Turk,” that mysteriously beat all competition, including Napoleon (it was later revealed that a man squatting behind the figure was directing it), both through staged scenes of an automaton playing and, through clips from Raymond Bernard’s 1927 silent film, The Chess Player (as Dennis Lim notes). Both Lim and New York Times critic Ned Martel comment that these “hokey” paranoid trappings undermine the conspiarcy argument, which seems about right to me, though the film clips could have been designed to undermine subtly Kasparov’s credibility.

That being said, for me, the inclusion of Baron von Kempelen’s story only emphasized the film’s lack of attnetion to the larger implications of the Kasparov-Deep Blue competition. During an early sequence, philosopher John Searle illustrates the mathematical difficulty of programming a computer to play chess under tournament conditions against a grandmaster (though processing speeds have changed this fact to some extent). Because a player can make one of eight moves, with each of those moves potentially countered by eight moves, and so on, you’re talking millions of possible moves very quickly. But the film only briefly explores these philosophical questions, considering only tangentially how Deep Blue’s victory raised questions about definitions of humanity. Further playing up the emotional aspect of chess (computers don’t get psyched out by their opponents; they’re not distratced by the smell of cigar smoke) might also have helped.

The film also seemed to struggle with how to make filming chess visually interesting, especially chess against an inert box. Many of the matches themselves were compelling, if only because of Kasparov’s animated reactions, which stand in stark contrast both to the machine itself and the human interpreter (I can’t think of a better term) who physically moved the pieces. Game Over had all of the material for a compelling documentary, but the conspiracy narrative seemed to work against what I found most interesting about this story.

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“Change is in the Air”

Via indieWIRE Insider, a Hollywood Reporter/Reuters article on the ways in which indie film players are reshaping entertainment business practices. The article focuses on IFC Films (blog) and Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment. The article is a pretty good overview of the changes in film distribution that many independent producers are considering, and I think it reflects some of the more recent concerns about Hollywood’s box office slump.

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“The Petty Cash of History”

French filmmaker Chris Marker has a new exhibit playing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art through June 13. OWLS AT NOON Prelude: The Hollow Men is the first element of a work in progress that, as Marker describes it, serves as “a subjective journey through the 20th century.” The exhibit, taking its cue from TS Eliot’s poem starts with World War I as a “founding moment” of the century and uses found images (graffiti, postcards, stamps, found photographs) to produce this history.

Exhibit organizer Colin MacCabe compares Marker’s filmmaking technique to that of a “beachcomber,” and the exhibit emphasizes the possibility of new connections via digital technologies, which seems like an apt metaphor based on my experience with Marker’s work. Robert Davis has a full review of the exhibit, which will run through June 13 (thanks to Green Cine for the tip).

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Stars Fell on Atlanta

Speaking of screening experiences, TCM is sponsoring Screen on the Green, a series of films in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. The cinetrix has all the details, including the most important detail of all: admission is free.

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My Own Private Screening Room

Nick at Digital Poetics explains that he is “left cold” by watching movies on the web, adding that the experience is often solitary, quite unlike “public” theater screenings associated with going to the movies. Nick wonders about the “pleasures of web cinema,” and implies that much is lost without the theatrical experience (and given how often I go to see movies on the big screen, I must have some affinity with Nick on this point). I also spent a fair amount of time thinking about these issues a few months ago when I was writing my media horror article (still in publication limbo), which seeks to trace out how these horror films narrativize the move towards home screenings. I think it’s well worth asking how our viewing habits might be changing (although I still think it’s too easy to blame computers for declining movie attendance).

Like Nick, I’m aware of the qualifications here. Moviegoing has changed considerably over teh last one hundred years. Plus, as Isabel Cristina Pinedo observes, darkened movie theaters are only “semipublic” spaces, with audience interaction often constrained by the spatial arrangement of seats as well as pre-movie requests for silence. I’d also note that watching movies distributed online doesn’t preclude the possibility of watching them with an audience, as the grassroots distribution of Robert Greenwald’s films implies, but of course, that’s the exception, not the rule, but it does illustrate what I believe is a desire for some form of public participation or dialogue that isn’t fulfilled by wtaching the same movies at home. Ernest Miller suggests that we “have to get video content on the internet off the computer screen and onto the big screen in the living room,” but moving the screen from one room to another in the same house (or apartment) won’t, by itself, sustain the public quality of moviegoing that I find so valuable.

There are other pleasures associated with web cinema. Nick observes that “watching a movie on the web lays bare its tricks,” adding that a viewer can “easily click to another web page if I’m bored, or it loads too slowly, or the sound is bad.” But in my experience, this is potentially one of the more interesting pleasures of web cinema (maybe not the slow download time). For me, there’s still a certain amount of pleasure in watching a film online that exposes these glitches, in part because it makes me more aware of the craft that went into the making of the film, the fact that it was made, whereas most Hollywood films do their best to hide that very fact, at least in the initial theatrical experience. Encountering these “glitches” still gives me the sense of discovery, that I’ve found something that others haven’t.

I do think that Nick is right to imply that certain aspects of the moviegoing experience as we know it now will soon appear to be historically contingent (let’s hope that’s the case for The Twenty), but of course, a blog entry is too small a space for me to speculate on this topic any further (plus I need to run to the post office before it closes).

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Walmart: The Movie

Via Brian Flemming: Robert Greenwald, of Outfoxed and Uncovered fame, is currently working on a documentary about the retail giant. As you might imagine, Wal-Mart isn’t very happy about it. Greenwald has the full scoop at an entry on The Huffington Post and on his personal blog.

Like many of Greenwald’s projects, the Wal-Mart movie is a grassroots effort, with Greenwald calling on people to submit photographs and video to tell their stories about how the company has affected their community. And, as usual, Greenwald has been criticized for not allowing Wal-Mart executives to tell their side of the story. Greenwald counters by noting that the company spends millions in public relations already, which is certainly true. Still, I’d love to see some of these executives forced to address some of the difficult questions (about Wal-Mart’s low wages, their lack of affordable health care, despite ten billion in annual profits).

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