Archive for July, 2005

Instant Replay

I’ve been thinking about the concept and technology of instant replay this afternoon. Because of my interest in media and time, I’ve thought about replay in passing from time to time, but while I was reading an essay about video this morning, I began thinking about how instant replay might represent a fairly significant shift in television’s temporal flows. Most of the sources I’ve encountered identify ABC’s Wide World of Sports (“the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat“) broadcast of the 1963 Army-Navy fooball game as the original use of instant replay, at least as we understand it from sports broadcasts. The technology was invented by Tony Verna,* who has also been very active in video preservation efforts. The concept apparently gained some degree of cultural awareness fairly quickly. By 1967, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer titled his diary of the Packers’ Super Bowl season, Instant Replay.

But digging around the web, I noticed that the technology had other early uses, including some military applications (surprise!), allowing the Navy to add stop-action to jets’ on-board cameras in order to avoid bumpy landings (Dennis Dodd’s CBS Sportsline story implies that instant replay wasn’t used for sporting events until 1964). Dodd speculates that instant replay has changed our viewing habits forever, and on the level of sports scrutiny, our ability to view and review any and every possible play, where every play is now a potential highlight, he’s clearly right.

But, on another level, instant replay has a secondary significance that has, perhaps, been overshadowed by the Sports-Centrification of American life (“He…could…go…all…the…way!“). Specifically instant replay, as a concept, invokes what Wolfgang Ernst describes as “that oxymoronic relation between presence and its storage.” Ernst pushse the boundaries of what is normally called instant replay, dating it back to the CBS Eevening News broadcast on November 30, 1956, in which, for the first time, a network news program was recorded on videotape for rebroadcast on the west coast.

The archivability of television is now widely accepted of course, whether via videotape, DVD collections of favorite shows, or TiVo (or even through the re-run). But the narrower definition of instant replay seems significant precisely because the manipulation of the temporality (replay/slow motion) of the image becomes the subject of the shot, rather than the technological possibility represented in the news broadcast Ernst describes. It also inaugurates the (illusory?) control over time that had more commonly been associated with the cinema. Ernst even argues, following Samuel Weber, that TV watchers can no longer tell whether a broadcast is “live,” unless it is “interactive digital TV,” allowing the viewer to participate in the narrative (voting contestants off the show, perhaps), a claim that I’m not quite willing to accept (in fact, some of ESPN’s humor derives from our conscious recogniion of the play between live and “pre-recorded” images).

But there are aspects of Ernst’s argument about instant replay that I find frustrating, particularly the way that he unpacks the concept of “liveness,” which he associates with “amnesia.” Ernst argues that “early TV, like radio, is characterized by its lack of storage abilities — it shows a tendency to amnesia” (632). He later reiterates this perception of televisual amnesia, arguing that “we are made oblivious to the amnesia of TV in the enduring flow of transmission.” (633). I don’t doubt that countless early TV shows/episodes are “lost,” in the sense that no physical recording exists. But the equation of “liveness” with “amnesia” seems imprecise, in part because the programs themselves, particulalry using repetition (of characters, mise-en-scene, or plot elements) to mitigate against amnesia in order to ensure that audiences would be motivated to return, but even the serialization associated with soap operas would seem to work against this notion of amnesia.

* Corrected to address some faulty research on my part.

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“I Have No Script”

Via Green Cine, a 3AM Magazine interview with Jonas Mekas, one of the godfathers of autobiographical cinema. In the interview, Mekas, a Lithuanian-born poet and filmmaker who emigrated to the US, describes his practice of recording hours of footage, often over the course of several years, before compiling that material into a film:

I have no script. The story is me and the people around me. It’s there, it’s real life and there is no other. I’m not carrying any other story. There is no suspense. There is no violence. There is no drama.

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Radio Free Washington

I haven’t been in Washington, DC, very long, but it hs quickly become clear to me that DC radio sucks. Other than the NPR station, it’s pretty much awful in a Clear-Channelled-for-your-protection sort of way, leaving me longing for Atlanta’s twin gods of college radio, Georgia State’s Album 88 and Tech’s slightly more obscure WREK. So, now that I (finally) have high-speed internet, I’ve been exploring the wonders of Internet radio.

So far, I’ve been enjoying Seattle’s KEXP quite a bit (thanks for the recommendation, Jason and Dave), and Northeastern University’s WRBB looks promising. WREK also happens to be available, so I’m sure I’ll be listening in there from time to time. But I’m new to this wonderful world of Internet radio, so I’d love to hear your recommendations. What Internet radio stations/shows do you enjoy? I usually listen to indie rock, punk, alt. country, or hip hop, but I’m open to other suggestions.

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“We Were Street Punks…”

Today’s Washington Post features an interview with Jim Jarmusch, whose Broken Flowers will be hitting theaters in the next few days. Word on the street is that Jarmusch’s latest is a very good film, so I’m looking forward to it.

The article focuses on Jarmusch’s production process, noting that for his films he always retains full creative control. Jarmusch also discusses his excitement at winning the Camera d’Or, the award for best first feature, at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 for Stranger Than Paradise.

Also, folks who live in or around Washington, DC, might be interested to know that the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring is featuring a Jarmusch retrospective this month in celebration of the release of Flowers.

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Video Time

Somehow, I’d missed Mark Hansen’s fascinating Spring 2004 Critical Inquiry essay, “The Time of Affect.” In the essay, Hansen discusses Bill Viola and Douglas Gordon’s experiments with time and video, using their work to explore phenomenological approaches to time-consciousness (specifically the work of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty), while criticizing Deleuze’s cinema books for their implicit assumption of a disembodied spectator. It’s a great essay, though I feel like I need to revisit it a few times before I’m ready to discuss it in detail.

Instead, I’ll use my reading of Hansen’s essay to frame my pointer to a couple of essays on video art that have appeared in the last few days. In The Age, there’s an article about video artist Bill Viola, whose experiments in slowness generally sound fascinating:

At first glance, the exhibition, appears almost conventional – portraits on a wall. But these portraits move. Slowly. Very slowly. The faces are shown in extreme slow motion and capture every delicate shift of emotion. This is not work that reveals itself instantly. Indeed, some works reveal themselves so slowly that viewers are advised to look, move away, then return. For Viola, that’s part of the purpose. Because, as Gandhi once said, there’s more to life than increasing its speed>

Many of Viola’s images are projected in extreme slow motion, with a brief event often stretched out over several hours, and excerpts of several of his video installations are available at his website. (check out The Passions for one very powerful example of his work). As Viola notes, this approach is also a highly political one:

The velocity and knee-jerk response to events happening in real time that television brings us precludes any kind of reflection or contemplation and therefore analysis. And that’s been one of the greatest political dangers in the post-war era. The idea of the reasoned, thoughtful response goes out of the window.

I’ll admit to some ambivalence about Viola’s project, at least when it comes to automatically identifying slowness with contemplation, but Viola’s project also presents a significant third term for Nick’s recent comparison between real-time film and the fragmented, fast cutting of many contemporary films. If Nick is right that viewing real-time film and video may remind us of our own mortality, then Viola’s project takes us to another register altogether.

Hansen also mentioned the work of Douglas Gordon, whose 24 Hour Psycho stretches the Hitchock film over a twenty-four hour duration, so that rather than seeing 24 frames per second, the frame changes only every few seconds. Gordon’s work, mentioned in the context of an exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Musuem (recently profiled in the New York Times). As Hansen points out, it would be impossible to see the entire film in a single sitting (or at least within the limited hours that a museum is open). But what makes the work so powerful, in my reading, is the sense of anticipation. Because most viewers will be familiar with the Hitchcock film, watching and waiting for the next shot to unfold would, I think, make someone acutely aware of her position as a spectator. Hitchcock’s film, which itself is acutely aware of its role in positioning spectators, would seem to serve this kind of project very effectively.

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Theorizing Adaptation

Just a quick pointer to Laura’s comments at The Valve about the study of literary adaptation. Laura cites Dudley Andrew’s claim that adptation theory is “the most narrow and provincial area of film theory.” Like Laura, I have some investment in thinking about issues of adaptation. I’ve published on Charlie Kauffmann’s Adaptation, cinematic interpretation of Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, and an essay I wrote about the experience of teaching Fight Club (both the film and the novel) is currently finding its way towards publication. While writing these essays and talking about the differences between the Fight Club novel and film with my students, I struggled to find a satisfactory vocabulary for talking about adaptation. These questions seem valuable to any discussion of film, especially given the prominence of adaptations in film studies and literary studies classrooms.

Laura notes that she

can’t think of another sub-discipline of either literary or film studies which is so widely taught, studied and discussed, at all educational levels and in all types of fora and publications, yet remains so undersupplied with concepts and vocabularies purpose-built for talking about the things (texts? or processes?) under investigation.

She later speculates that this lack of concepts is largely institutional. Adaptation essays that simply compare novel and film are “ast to write and relatively easy to publish.” They are also the kinds of books that libraries are more likely to purchase.

But I also think Laura’s conclusion that the lack of a developed adaptation theory is “perhaps a manifestation or symptom of adaptation presenting itself to us for consideration: a (naive) response to the way adapted movies irresistibly invite comparison with their sources, openly or furtively.” This reliance upon comparison is certainly a complicated problem (and extends even to the “low-brow” adaptations of graphic novels, as this screen shot-comic panel comparison from Sin City indicates). It’s tempting to develop these comparisons, even if you don’t hold the original in high regard, but such comparisons, even if they account for and appreciate historical differences between the two texts (adaptation theorists that embraced Clueless, for example), I’m not sure that’s a sufficient way to establish a more effective vocabulary for thinking about adaptation (this critique becomes more explicit in one of Laura’s comments on the same entry).

One possible solution may be to ground these questions historically in a more precise fashion. In the comments (a great discussion in general, by the way), Chris desscribes his work on postwar social problem films and the preference given to literary adaptations during the 1940s, as Hollywood sought greater cultural legitimacy. These historical positionings seem crucial to me, as would a more precise attention to the role of the two media themselves in shaping teh adaptation (or even the decision to adapt). But again, I’m fairly convinced by Laura’s argument that a more developed vocabulary for talking about adaptation would contribute to film and literary studies.

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Anticipating Southland

Marc mentions the website for Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s latest film, Southland Tales, due to be released sometime in 2006. Marc notes that the film is set in Los Angeles in the year 2008, with the war in Iraq still ongoing, giving the film an interesting contemporary/political subtext, an aspect of Donnie Darko that I’d argue is often overlooked (in fact, the film’s first line of dialogue is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s intentionally provocative breakfast table comment that she’s “voting for Dukakis”).

But for now, I’m more interested in Marc’s discussion of a planned 6-volume graphic novel series, with each novel exceeding 100 pages, to be released in advance of the film itself. Marc notes: “It should be interesting to see how these books are pushed, given that Kelly is far from a household name and that graphic novels, despite their renewed academic and cultural status, are far from mainstream reading. Regardless, a six-hundred page prequel story for a film is quite unheard of, especially when it is released before any other chapters of the story have been told.”

In a sense, I think it’s an interesting gamble, one that can build onto the cult status of Kelly’s reputation as the director of Donnie Darko (a status that was powerful enough to score a theaterical release of his Darko director’s cut). And as Tim noted in a comment to a recent entry on my blog, the contemporary Hollywood economy may allow for (and even encourage) building on the enthusiasm of a niche audience, creating what might be called a “culture of anticipation” that builds buzz for that film (and I’ll be the first to admit that my blog entries are participating in that buzz).

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The website itself is fascinating. This screen capture, with its washed out, off-color, left-right divided American flag recalls the iconic flag paintings produced by Jasper Johns, giving the website itself, at least in my experience of it, a slightly haunted quality.

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Celluloid Fading

Just a quick blog-and-run entry on a recent New York Times article reporting that film studios have reached an agreement on “new technical standards that will make it easier for movie theaters to show digitally produced movies.” The studios, facing the increasing costs of making and marketing movies (but ignoring the fact that they could make cheaper movies), are looking to cut corners (movie film prints cost as mcuha s $1200 each, while digital copies are far cheaper and can even be distributed electronically).

It will take some time for individual theater owners to purchase the projectors, so celluloid will not disappear anytime soon, but I think it’s worth emphasizing what is lost when we move to digital projection.

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Hollywood’s Death Spiral

In Slate, Edward Jay Epstein, author of The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, discusses what he calls “Hollywood’s death spiral,” the increasing reliance on profits acquired from the home entertainment divisions of major studios, specifically through pay-per-view and DVD sales and rentals. Epstein challenges recent claims about a “box-office slump,” noting that studio revenues have actually increased in the first quarter of 2005 over the same time period last year, adding that the declining audience in theaters “came mainly at the expense of independent, foreign, and documentary movies. For the Hollywood studios (and their subsidaries), in fact, there was no slump at all.”

In his article, Epstein also argues that the supposed lull in DVD purchases has also been manufactured to some extent, specifically criticizing media reports about heavy returns on Dreamworks’ Shrek 2 DVD that speculated that the DVD boom had reached its peak. In fact, sales of the Shrek 2 DVD outpaces sales of the original film over the first few months of each film’s release. But Epstein’s larger point is more crucial: “In any case, the attempt to divine an overall “slowdown” in DVDs from the sales of any particular title is dubious: No one knows whether consumers who elected not to buy the title in question bought another title instead (in which case overall sales would be unaffected).” In fact, DVD sales now account for 59 percent of the feature film revenues for studios. Epstein’s research is documented in several charts, which show studio receipts for the first quarter of 2004 and 2005; DVD and VHS revenue during the same 3 month intervals; adn finally, what he calls “the rise in the home entertainment economy,” in which he tracks the decreasing percentage of revenue derived from theatrical box office.

Essentially, Epstein’s major point is that what has changed in the last few years, and dramatically so since 1980, is “the location of the studios’ crucial audience.” As Epstein notes, in 1948, studios receieved all of their revenues from the box office, but with the advent of video, and now DVD (and other new formats), those numbers have changed considerably. More importantly, the “window” between a film’s premiere and its release on DVD has shrunk dramatically. In 1980 (when 55% of profits were still based on box office), when studios wished to “protect” films running in theaters, they established a six month gap between theatrical premiere and DVD release. That gap has been reduced to as little as three to four months for many films, especially for studios seeking to market summer blockbusters as Christmas gifts.

I’ve summarized Epstein’s argument in some detail not only because I find it rather persuasive, but also because I think it points to a significant change in our habits of film spectatorship, a question that ought to be fairly important for film scholars and theorists. Because the home entertainment divisions have established themselves as the power centers in the studios, this may eventually dictate what films receive the greenlight, and it will certainly limit the opportunity for smaller films to slowly build an audience theatrically. Another result is that theaters themselves now rely more heavily on concessions in order to make a profit.

But I also wonder how these industrial factors effect how viewers access films or how they experience them, and this is a difficult argument for me to unpack. We clearly have a situation where more viewers are seeing films at home rather than going out to theaters, and one of the aspects of the filmgoing experience that I value most is the “public” nature of that activity. Even though I’ll occasionally have an oblivious tall person sit directly in front of me, I enjoy watching a film with a larger audience, especially when they respond deeply to the film (whether laughing at a comedy or shrieking at a horror film). I realize that watching films at home doesn’t imply that you’re watching films alone, and there are benefits to watching films at home (it’s cheaper, you don’t have to watch the pre-show infotainment), but I have to wonder what else is driving this ternd to stay at home rather than seeing movies in the theater.

Thanks to Green Cine for the links.

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It’s Raining Ads

Via Anne: Researchers in Japan are working on what they call “information rain,” which would allow projectors to display images of raindrops hitting the ground, hoping that curious consumers will open their hands allowing small advertisements to be displayed on their open palms.

Anne’s right that personal computing–no matter what else it does–will inevitably be a conduit for advertising, as her reference to the interactive ads parodied (portrayed?) in Steve Spielberg’s Minority Report illustrates, so this intensified form of advertising should come as no surprise. Science-fiction novels such as Feed and Jennifer Governement have been describing similar advertising phenomena for some time.

But the “information rain” concept really creeps me out. I think, in my case, it has something to do with personal space and the way in which the researchers anticipate how consumers will incorporate the advertisements into their shopping experiences (or perhaps even more specifically onto themselves):

“It’s quite natural that you hold out your palm when it starts raining,” said Yoko Ishii, a chief researcher in the human interaction project.

“People jot things down on their palms. The palm is the information tool closest to humans,” she said.

Much as the Internet gave way to unique pop-up and interactive advertisements, the new technology can develop in its own fashion to find ways to make the hand ads more attractive, she said.

“Advertisements are usually something that’s given to you, but it would be different if they showed up on your palms. You would feel more familiar with the message that appears in your personal area,” she said.

An advertisement on the body would help convince people that the message is really meant for them, she said.

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Ghostly Machines

I’ve been revising some of the arguments in my media horror article (I may have more to say about said article’s status in the near future), and watching White Noise last night has opened up some of the ideas in that paper considerably. At least one reviewer (I’ll track her/him down later) noted that the screenwriter for White Noise ws inspired by the Japanese film, Ringu, which was remade as The Ring and which may have inspired Blair Witch Project as well. But the film has me thinking about some other questions about the portrayal of communications technologies as haunted.

First, I’m trying to think about the role of cell phones and land-line phones in these films. Of course, The Ring’s premise includes the fact that viewers of the killer videotape receive a phone call from the dead (usually on a land-line phone). But it also seems significant that the film’s major characters often fail to make contact because their cell phones are out of service or out of range at inopportune moments. In White Noise, Jonathan (Michael Keaton) becomes convinced of the existence of EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) when he receives a cell phone call displaying his wife’s cell phone number even though he can see that her phone is not in operation. I’m trying to remember similar “haunted” moments involving cell phones in media horror films, but more crucially, this sense of ghostly cell phones seems to be a larger discursive phenomenon. One example I’ve recently discovered: Digital artist Leslie Sharpe has a “ghost story” for wireless handheld devices (PDAs), Haunt>Pass. She comments that the project is “about a ghost, in the form of an electronic signal, which is discovered haunting the ship. It jumps onto people’s devices.” Sharpe’s art, of course, expresses a great deal of self-consciousness about the ways in which communications media shape perception, including our concepts of “presence,” something I believe to be at the heart of these media horror films.

White Noise also has raised my curiosity about Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), the belief that the dead can communicate with the living via electronic devices, an idea inspired in part by Edison’s fantasies of such a device (a more skeptical take is available here). This premise clearly informs White Noise, but it also seems to be a subtext in The Ring, as well. I’m tempted to read the current vogue for EVP in horror films in several unrelated ways, including the continued understanding of electronic technologies as “living” (a concept already unpacked by Jeffrey Sconce). But I also wonder to what extent something like EVP might be connected to blurred definitions of living and dead produced by medical technologies that can keep people alive even when they are, for example, in a permanent vegetative state. In this regard, Bill Frist’s tele-diagnosis of Schiavo might be an interesting cultural touchstone. And an early plot twist in White Noise itself hinges on Jonathan’s doubt about whether or not his wife is actually dead because her body has not yet been discovered (note: because of the emphasis on shared grief, it’s also tempting to wrap the film’s pervasive gloominess into some general post 9/11 malaise, but that seems a little too simplistic

Update: The Wikipedia entry on the topic reminds me that Cayce’s mother in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition uses a form of EVP to try to communicate with Win (Cayce’s dad), who disappeared during the 9/11 attacks.

Update 2: An Indianapolis Star article on “cell phone addiction,” which starts with an anecdote about an assignment requiring students to turn off their cell phones for three days. I don’t think the article covers any new territory. Cell phone addiction stories are commonplace, as are suggestions that a lost cell phone can cause people to feel absolutely “helpless.” Mostly thinking out loud here about how popular narratives about cell phone use overlap with how they are represented in these horror films and novels.

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“Dark Acres”

Just came across a Screen Magazine article promoting Tara Wray’s autobiographical documentary, Manhattan, Kansas, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. The artcile highlights some of Wray’s inspirations for making the doc, including Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and To Have, which I’ve been planning to see for several weeks. The article also mentions many of the challenges involved in making a personal documentary. Wray’s description of her interviews with her mother is interesting, especially given the degree to which the camera is often seen as increasing the tension between the documentary filmmaker and her subject:

Sometimes it felt a bit self-indulgent, though, talking about myself to my own camera. But, at this point, enough people have taken an interest in the story. I’ve allowed myself to let go of the fear that I’m just gazing at my navel. Sometimes I held the camera, sometimes I used a tripod. Mostly I just tried not to drop the damn thing. The camera was a really effective distraction for me, a nice buffer between my mother and me – a shield. It was a way for me to feel like I was invisible while still being in the same room as my mom. It would have been way too intense to spend a month with her without the weight of the film pulling me through.

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Another Book Meme

G Zombie has tagged me with yet another book meme, this time featuring general questions about book collecting practices. Since I’ve recently moved, these questions are now in the process of being renegotiated, which is a little disorienting.

1. How do you organize your collection?

I separate fact from fiction. American novels go on one giant shelf. British novels go on a smaller shelf. Theory, criticism, and other non-fiction fill the other three shelves. These rules are somewhat fluid, however. I regard Brecht’s plays as theory as much as they are drama. And Dennis Rodman’s autobiography, Bad as I Wanna Be goes on the shelf with my collection of American fiction. I’m also careful to alphebetize each section by author so that I can find that book quickly.

2. What books or records do you keep separate from your collection for easy access?

Until this year, none. My organization made it very easy to find whatever book I needed (plus my theory bookshelves were about three feet from my computer desk). But now that I have a real live office, I’ve gradually been bringing many of my media history and theory books into my office. I usually keep a few style manuals available for easy access as well.

3. When you take down a book for reference, how long after you finish it does it take you to reshelve it?

Usually when I’ve finished a final draft of whatever article or chapter I’m currently writing. In some sense, this is a significant ritual for me, providing me with a sense of completion. This process also works really well when I return a huge stack of library books.

4. What resources do you keep separate from your collection because you don’t want anyone to know you have it?

None, really. I have a huge baseball card collection (thousands of cards, easily), but I don’t currently keep it in my apartment because I move too frequently (3 times since 2000) and don’t want to lug them all over the country.

If anyone else wants to play along, they’re welcome to do so.

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White Noise (2005)

“Nobody knows whether our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere, but if we can evolve an instrument so delicate to be manipulated by our personality as it survives in the next life such an instrument ought to record something.” Thomas Edison 1928

White Noise (IMDB), a January 2005 horror film that has no connection to Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name, was almost universally reviled when it was released to theaters, and yes, the film is poorly executed, particularly when it comes to the ease with which the main character, Jonathan (Michael Keaton), accepts the film’s supernatural premise that we can communicate with the dead through contemporary information technologies (as Cynthia Fuchs notes, the film fails to offer any characters who really question the supposedly scientific premise). Or when it comes to a mildly incoherent final act in which much of the film’s violence is grounded in a rather trivial source. It’s basically Ghost meets The Ring, but without the pathos of the former and the professional sheen and even the limited pop philosophy of the latter.

But White Noise is interesting, at least in its treatment of haunted media technologies. White Noise opens with a Thomas Edison quotation, fantasizing about the potential for communicating with the dead intercut with television static. In the film’s opening scenes, we learn that Jonathan’s wife, Anna, is pregnant, which pretty much seals her fate as a character. Jonathan, distraught at his wife’s death, eventually meets Raymond, an expert in Electronic Voice Phenomenon, in which the dead communicate with us via our TVs, computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices (Jeffery Sconce’s discussion of Haunted Media seems relevant here). Eventually, Jonathan meets others who share his belief in EVP, and there are some potentially interesting time shifts when Jonathan gets messages from characters who won’t die for several hours or days (recalling Rene Clair’s whimsical newspaper yarn, It Happened Tommorow), but the film shows little self-awareness in unpacking the high concept it introduces.

Still, it’s worth asking why this film appears at this particular historical moment. There is an implied post-9/11 subtext: Jonathan’s inability to prevent the deaths foreseen by Anna seems to be trying to communicate the impossibility of preventing all meaningless death, a point hammered home by Jonathan who notes that Anna only warns him of deaths that he could potentially prevent (“she didn’t warn me about some explosion overseas”). But I’m also intrigued by the film’s idea that our communications technologies provide us with some sort of link to the dead. The film’s fascination with alienating urban spaces and the flat screens of TVs and computer monitors conveys this desire for spiritual (or emotional) connection rather effectively. These shots, which often show Johnathan simply staring at staic, his face reflected in the dead screen, are the most effective moments in the film, with Fuchs noting that these scenes potentially implicate the viewer of the film:

To indicate John’s simultaneous loss of self and slide into self, the film has him literally scritch off the screen, transformed into the very static he can’t not watch. It’s a striking effect, and gestures toward critiquing the culture that invests in such reflective abstraction and emptiness. Indeed, it almost indicts your desire to see something in nothing.

And, of course, as in many recent horror films, the family subtext (the dead, pregnant wife; Jonathn’s rescue of a small child; a daughter’s ability to hear from her mother who died in childbirth) virtually overwhelms the film. Unfortunately, White Noise never really follows any of these leads with any degree of interest, which makes it a mediocre horror film, if mildly intriguing in its treatment of our fears about communications technologies.

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Amateurism and the Avant Garde

Nick has recently raised some important questions about the potentially false divide between the post-World War II avant garde and post-war home movie practices. Chris questions some of Nick’s arguments, stating that the difference is not merely discursive but registered in the films themselves.

I’m inclined to side with Nick in this discussion in that the framing narratives of DIY amatuer film production in the 1940s-60s are relatively similar to those found in some avant-garde film practices:

Both operated outside the realm of Hollywood. Both worked in genres that were largely absent from the big screen. Both experimented with the camera and openly embraced a logic of mistakes and trial-and-error. If today we associate the cinematic avant garde from that period with a handful of names, then this must be due, in part, to the movement’s self-canonization, which was made possible largely through writing

Nick’s comments primarily seem to emphasize production issues (how to use the tools available to you as a filmmaker) and have less to do with the individual content of the films. In other words, I don’t think the avant garde’s later “camp-ironic quotation” of the home movie matters as much as the practices themselves and how the filmmakers in both camps understood themselves. Nick’s arguments about self-canonization also seem persuasive to me, although I recognize my own complicity as a critic/scholar in replicating that canon, especially after attending a screening of some of Stan Brakhage’s films at the National Gallery of Art yesterday afternoon.

I think Nick’s questions about avant-garde and amateur practice are significant, and my still incomplete article on Capturing the Friedmans seeks to tackle some of these issues, especially regarding the documentary’s ambivalent relationship to the family’s extensive collection of home movies, most of which were taken in the post-WWII context that Nick discusses. The discourses that Nick is unpacking, in my reading at least, can have profound implications for how we think about practices of filmmaking, including the politics of memory often associated with amatuer filmmakers, many of whom saw their practice as a means of remembering and recording family life.

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