Archive for July, 2005

Hustle & Flow

Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow (IMDB) tells the story of DJay (played by Crash’s Terrence Howard, who will likely score a few acting awards), a small-time Memphis pimp and drug dealer who dreams of becoming a successful hip-hop artist. He’s learned from a local bar (Isaac Hayes) owner that local hip-hop legend, Skinny Black (Ludacris), will be in town to hang with his old friends and that DJay’s drug connections might come in handy. DJay sees this as his ticket to the top. Slide Skinny Black a demo tape after sharing some weed, and he’ll have his ticket out of the ghetto. Add in the mandatory recording sessions, and you’ve got a Showgirls for crunk. A Rocky for the Dirty South. A. O. Scott sees in this use of genre conventions elements that are “both naïve and cynical,” and that mixture might be what colors my own ambivalent response to ths film.

I still haven’t decided whether or not I like Brewer’s film, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Amy Vincent’s washed out cinematography gives Hustle & Flow’s Memphis a shabby, run-down quality that beautifully captures the lost souls who inhabit the film. The film also complicates many of cliches of the “star is born” genre. It’s no surprise, of course, that the hiphop star Skinny Black turns out to be a shallow party animal who has Forgotten His Roots, the hardscrabble Memphis streets that gave his music soul. But the film does make DJay a more complicated character. While he waxes poetic about our human awareness of our mortality in a potentially powerful opening scene with one of his prostitutes, Nola (Taryn Manning), he is occasionaly abusive towards the prostitutes who work for him and seems oblivious about the difficulty of their work.

The film also does little to contest the misogyny of some aspects of hiphop culture (Laura Sinagra of the Village Voice also notes the demeaning portraits of all of the film’s female characters, including the shrill church-going wife of DJay’s demo producer, though, to be fair Armond White offers an alternative, class-inflected reading of DJay’s relationships with the women who work for him). DJay’s first recording is “Whoop that Trick,” with all of DJay’s friends chanting the catchy hook. While some of DJay’s friends gently push him for something more “radio-friendly,” the humor of characters such as the white church musician, Shelby (DJ Qualls), singing the hook undermines any real critique. In addition, because these lyrics come from the heart, the pain of the south, as Shelby attests, they are “authentic” and presumably beyond critique.

But Hustle & Flow did hook me with some aspects of its rags to riches fantasy narrative. Terrence Howard’s performance was riveting, and the film’s implied criticsm of the power politics of the music industry was fairly effective, especially when Skinny Black shows complete disregard for his musical roots. This critique is also evident in the film’s final shot, which features DJay walking directly towards the camera repeating his mantra, “Everyone’s gotta have a dream.” Even with these solid moments, unlike Roger Ebert (an intelligent pimp with a heart of gold–haven’t seen that in a Hollywood film before), I don’t think the film quite moved beyond the limitations of its genre.

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Things to Do in D.C. When You’re Distracted

There’s a film festival, Slapsticon, this weekend in Arlington featuring primarily “silent” films. The schedule of films looks great with features by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harry Langdon, and Harold Lloyd. The silent films will be accompanied by a wide variety of musicians. If you’re in the DC area, this sounds like an entertaining film series. But right now, I’m more excited about the fact that I’ll finally get the chance to check out the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, which sounds like a really cool place (of course, any place with central air sounds cool to me right now).

Ralph tipped me off to the Smithsonian’s collection of previously unpublished photographs from the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Included are several photographs taken in downtown Dayton, Tennessee, during that summer’s trial. While these photographs appeal to the documentarian in me, they also have a strange personal resonance because I’ve been to Dayton once or twice because the undergraduate college I attended played Bryan College, named after Scopes prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, in basketball (Bryan College recently staged a re-enactment of the famous trial). Given all of the recent debates about “intelligent design,” it’s interesting to revisit some of these historical images (and a reminder that I’m pretty lucky to be living in museum central, even if it’s only for a short time).

Update: Speaking of the Silver, there will be a film series showing the work of Jim Jarmusch in August to accompany the release of his latest film, Broken Flowers. And speaking of evolution, there’s a film series sponsored by the National Istitute of Health called Science in Cinema that also looks interesting (admission to the science series is free, which makes it sound a little more interesting).

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The ‘Bad’ Guy

I happened to be skimming Steven Johnson’s blog this afternoon (after hearing him interviewed yesterday on NPR) and came across a June 21 Washington Post article on his latest book, Everything Bad is Good For You (I was either in the midst of moving hell or broken compter hell at the time, so missed it). I’ve already discussed my response to Johnson’s book, which was clearly written as a polemic, so won’t repeat my earlier arguments.

Instead, I want to rethink some aspects of his argument, in part because I may teach some sections from his book in one or both of my media studies courses this fall. Specifically, I’m a little suspicious of the privileging of cognitive development as the primary benefit of engaging with media texts. The Post offers a thumbnail account of Johnson’s argument:

To summarize briefly: He’s talking trends, not absolutes, and over the past 30 years, the trend in both video games and television shows has been toward forms that are more cognitively demanding. (He doesn’t dwell on the Internet, which he thinks needs little defense.)

Why the upward trends? When it comes to gaming, Johnson invokes some of the neuroscience he studied for his last book. Human brains are drawn to systems, he suggests, in which “rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment.” The exploration part is key: Gamers have to figure out the rules as they go along, and “no other pop cultural form directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus” the way video games do.

With television, Johnson’s argument rests more on economics. Complex narratives that “force you to work to make sense of them” have been rewarded by a marketplace where profit now depends heavily on repeat performances, whether on DVD or in syndication. Making shows more challenging to decode makes perfect sense if you’re assuming they’ll be watched more than once.

Games aren’t “Hamlet” or “The Great Gatsby,” Johnson writes; they’re more like mathematical logic problems. As such, “they are good for the mind on some fundamental level: They teach abstract skills in probability, in pattern recognition, in understanding causal relations that can be applied in countless situations, both personal and professional.”

I’m willing to entertain the idea that many (maybe most) TV shows require viewers to sift through multiple narrative threads and to concede the fact that juggling narrative threads can teach some of the problem-solving skills that he is describing (perhaps making playing video games the equivalent of eating vegetables), but I have become more suspicious of the political or social ends of developing these skills, at the expense of other habits of thinking about and interpreting the world (note: an excerpt of Johnson’s book is available on the NPR website).

Johnson’s examples are invariably “safe” games, such as The Sims, which he mentioned in his NPR interview, and a simulated baseball game, which he discusses in the excerpt cited above, which generally allows him to dodge the question about so-called harmful games, such as Grand Theft Auto, but there seems to be an implicit suggestion that the simulations are somehow more authentic representations of how a system operates. A computer simulation can take into account more variables, such as ballpark conditions, than a complicated baseball-dice game. The brief passage doesn’t take into account the fact that both simulations are representations (just as The Sims is a representation of human interaction that programs certain decisions about relationships in advance), competing narratives that might inform our experience of baseball or human relationships. I’d also wonder what it means to value texts that are “rewarded by the marketplace,” rather than other criteria (I’m not sure what these criteria would be).

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Media Times Two

Just a quick pointer to Ken’s insightful comments about my recent discussion of “Media Times,” which he aptly defines as “the various types of temporality depicted within and derived from various media.” He’s right to note that I’ve primarily worked out this problem via film, but I’ve recently become more interested in the multiple temporalities of television. Because my dissertation advisor wrote about television and time, I’ve generally been interested in the topic, but because I couldn’t afford cable and didn’t have television reception for over five years, I rarely watched–or thought about–TV, although I did watch certain TV shows, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos, on DVD.

In writing about TV time, I’ve been thinking about the early history of TV and the number of early TV shows that featured time travel or other sorts of time twists, such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits (Jeffrey Sconce mines similar territory in Haunted Media), but I’m also intrigued by TV’s treatment of what Mary Ann Doane refers to as the temporal modes of information, crisis, and catastrophe, especially when it comes to major media events, such as the September 11 attacks.

Some of these issues are addressed in Lynn Spigel’s fascinating essay, “Entertainment Wars: Television Culture after 9/11,” which focuses not only on the coverage of September 11 but also the television programming in the weeks and months after the attacks. My specific interest in the essay (for now) derives from her discussion of “liveness,” and to compare that with Nick’s recent discussion of “real-time” cinema (and before continuing, I think it’s important not to conflate these two modes).

In his discussion of real-time cinema, Nick argues that “by plugging us back into natural time, real-time movies reject the symbolic triumph over time that editing promises; in this regard, they are sweetly sorrowful reminders of The End.” In short, real-time movies remind us of our own mortality. I found Nick’s arguments persuasive (and still do), but Spigel’s dicussion of live television broadcasts characterizes them in precisely the opposite terms. She argues that the live broadcast of the 9/11 funerals actually served to assuage our fears: “Like all televised funerals, this one deployed television’s aesthetics of liveness to stave off the fear of death. In other words, not only the “live” feed but also the sense of unrehearsed spontaneity and intimate revelations gave viewers a way to feel that life goes on in the present” (250). I didn’t get a chance to watch the 9/11 memorial services because I didn’t have TV reception at that time, but Spigel’s comments remind me, to some extent, of my experience of watching Ronald Reagan’s funeral a few months ago. While a state funeral is highly scripted–complete with network commentators who explain the script–there was a potential for the unexpected or the unscripted that haunted those images, something that may have been complicated by the fact of Reagan’s public struggles with Alzheimer’s Disease and the resulting difficulties of memorializing him.

I’m tempted to attribute this difference to the properties of the two media. TV’s live, potentially infinite, transmission is inherently different than film’s finite, temporally-bound, and pre-recorded “screening.” But I’m not quite willing to attribute this difference solely to the technologies themselves, and it seems crucial to look at other test cases as well. Are there real-time films that don’t have the effect Nick describes? Are there “live” TV events that don’t conform to Spigel’s account?

Spigel’s discussion of “liveness” does remind me of certain reality TV shows, specifically American Idol and my new favorite guilty pleasure, Rockstar INXS (in which rock singers audition to be the new lead singer of INXS), which rely on highly managed forms of liveness, to the point that viewers are allowed to “participate” by voting for their favorite rockstar. Now, I don’t see anything particularly “liberating” about this form of participation, but these shows do seem to tap into cultural desires that might be related to a greater sense of control over the passage of time.

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Derrida

I finally caught Derrida (IMDB) on DVD and found the film to be a compelling take on one of the 20th century’s most important philosophers. As one might expect, Derrida proves to be a recalcitrant subject, unwilling to disclose too much personal information and more interested in reflecting on the documentary process itself, at one point noting that the situation is “completely artificial,” in its attempt to achieve some new understanding about the subject.

Because Derrida has frequently been mischaracterized as too obscure or even “meaningless,” the filmmakers are careful to portray him as accessible and personable, and teh film works against Derrida’s resistance to revealing the personal by cross-cutting between Derrida in public as a “star” and Derrida at home (an early sequence shows him searching for his house keys). Interspersed with interviews with Derrida, his wife, and other family members, who can offer no familial explanation for Derrida’s intellect, are quotations from some of Derrida’s key texts.

Not surprisingly, the film places emphasis on Derrida’s discussion of the temporality of the archive in Archive Fever. At the same time, the filmmakers themselves, in collaboration with Derrida, raise some valuable questions about the documentary process itself, an aim that becomes clearer in the directors’ commentary track (I’ve only listened to about twenty minutes, but so far it’s among the strongest commentary tracks I’ve heard).

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“Nannies Gone Wild,” or Ivan Tribble, Meet Helaine Olen

Helaine Olen’s New York Times essay about reading her nanny’s blog has been making the rounds this weekend. The nanny, Tessa, has her response to the Times article, and Bitch Ph.D. joins in with some valuable insights as well. Olen reports that “within two months of my starting to read her entries our entire relationship unraveled. Not only were there things I didn’t want to know about the person who was watching my children, it turned out her online revelations brought feelings of mine to the surface I’d just as soon not have to face as well.” In short, Olen reports that she became uncomfortable with having Tessa as a nanny because of what Olen describes as Tessa’s “accounts of semi-promiscuous couplings and tales of too much drinking for my comfort.”

Like Dylan, I’m concerned about the effects of Olen’s article for Tessa, who is naturally defending herself against Olen’s representation of her and seeking to debunk the “nannies gone wild” image that Olen fabricates, and while the blog furor over the Chronicle article on blogging has subsided, these two articles seem to serve as companion pieces to illustrate some of the misconceptions about blogging.

As Professor B notes, one purpose of Olen’s article seems to be that Tessa’s writing “brought feelings of mine to the surface I’d just as soon not have to face as well,” which is certainly valuable and a testament to teh strength of Tessa’s writing. It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy reading the academic bloggers who speak so honestly about their experiences. But, as Professor B adds, “Olen’s understanding of her nanny’s humanity goes beyond what it has with previous nannies,” which ultimately leads to the decision to fire her (or “let her go” to use Olen’s self-protective phrasing). Professor B’s analysis of the situation is, in this regard, very similar to mine. Olen’s essay isn’t really about Tessa or her blog; it’s about Olen herself and her own desire for her nanny to fulfill a specific role.

In this regard, Olen’s discomfort with her nanny’s blog is not unlike Tribble’s reactionary comments in the Chronicle several weeks ago. Tribble plucks several remarks out of his job candidates’ blogs and concludes that these candidates might be too interested in technology or too opinionated to fit into his department, implying that they might not fulfill what he imagines to be the role of the ideal colleague. As he puts it: “we can’t afford to have our new hire ditching us to hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job” (my emphasis).

I’ve already discussed the professional connections I’ve made via blogging, so I won’t repeat that argument here. Instead, I think it’s worth noting the degree to which blogs are seen to complicate what Professor B aptly describes as the “necessary fictions,” whether of a nanny or a colleague. I’m troubled by Olen’s reaction to Tessa’s blog and by Tribble’s treatment of his department’s job candidates. But I’m intrigued by the degree to which a weblog’s personal writing can disrupt these “necessary fictions.” Because both articles take such a cautious tone about the effects of blogging, it’s tempting to think, in fact, that these bloggers have are succeeding, to some extent, in challenging definitions of what it means to be a good colleague or confronting expectations about the work expected of nannies (expectations that, quite clearly, have significant gendered implications).

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Urban Ensembles, or How to Cultivate Community in the Age of Terror

2005 is starting to look the year of the Urban Ensemble movie. The two most prominent films in this cycle are Paul Haggis’s Crash and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. Haggis’s Los Angeles film was, in my opinion, terribly reductive in its treatment of race relations, to the point that some unexpected weather was the only means of resolving the city’s tensions. July’s film, set in another, less-polarized corner of Los Angeles, offered what I regarded as a more convincing treatment of individuals desperately longing for community. More recently, two other Urban Ensemble films have been released, and both films seem caught up in the genre’s more significant pitfalls, specifically the overly contrived or schematic plots that rely too heavily on coincidence.

Don Roos’s Happy Endings (IMDB) focuses on a group of loosely-connected Angelinos who are confronting a variety of sexual problems. Lisa Kudrow’s Mamie plays an abortion counselor in her early 40s. As a teen she became pregnant after having sex with her step-brother, Charley (Steve Coogan), who is now gay and partnered with Gil. Charley and Gil become suspicious that their best friends, a lesbian couple, may have been artificially inseminated with Gil’s sperm. We learn early in the film that Mamie, who claims to have had an abortion, actually gave birth, putting the child up for adoption. All of these stories interweave with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jude seducing the gay drummer of a rock band (Jason Ritter), in order to meet and seduce his father (played by Tom Arnold, in the film’s most explicit stunt casting), presumably to cash in on the family’s wealth.

While I enjoyed Roos’s playful storytelling style in The Opposite of Sex, the film’s constant attempts to wink to the audience, uisng split-screen images accompanied by white titles on a black background, were ultimately grating. Unlike Manohla Dargis, whose review is almost entirely to blame for my spending $9.50 (plus Metro fare) to see this film, I was somewhat unsatisfied with the film’s navigation of the question of community these films often address. Dargis argues that “Mr. Roos doesn’t pretend that a collection of spiky, selfish, self-serving individuals, even a group as white and comfortably situated as the one he has concocted, necessarily makes a community. In a lot of ensemble films, the moral of the story is that everyone is lonely, but at the end of the day and those empty nights, no one is alone. Mr. Roos doesn’t peddle such off-the-rack comfort.” However, the film’s final scene, at a wedding between two characters I won’t identify and even with the ironic use of a Billy Joel song, retains this deep-seated desire for community. Roos has made a well-crafted film, one that does navigate sexual politics in a thoughtful way, but Happy Endings retains many of the qualities of the Urban Ensemble.

Another recent urban ensemble, Heights (IMDB), focuses on the experiences of five New Yorkers over the course of 24 hours. Like Happy Endings, the film focuses on characters whose stories are related in various ways, their interactions often produced via chance or coincidence, though by the end of the film, a kind of tentative community is produced. I found Heights to be generally unmemorable, outside of Elizabeth Banks’ performance, and the film never strays far from the opening sequence monologue by Diana (Glen Close), a stage performer who is directing Macbeth, in which she urges her actors to get in touch with their passions. But the coincidence of watching these films on the same weekend has left me contemplating the recent emergence of this cycle of films. It certainly seems connected to the desire for safety and community after September 11, but there also seems to be something else going on. The films are, of course, set in global cities, centers of culture and commerce most explicitly associated with urban isolation, an experience that is explicitly underlined in Heights. I’m inclined to think there’s something significant about the form of the films, about the narrative complexity of juggling multiple characters and storylines (perhaps Steven Johnson’s comments about audience sophistication are relevant here), something that Happy Endings sends up in its playful use of titles (some reviewers felt these titles were condescending, but I read them as parody). I don’t have any final interpretations here, but I am curious about the cultural work that these Urban Ensemble films are supposed to be doing.

Update: This is several months after the fact, but I came across an interesting blog post by Amy H. Konig on ensemble films and didn’t want to lose the link.

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Media Times

One of the courses I’ll be teaching this fall at Catholic University (henceforth CUA) is the senior seminar in media studies, for which I have chosen to focus on what I am tentatively calling “media times” (suggestions for a cooler name would be appreciated), which will draw from my research on cinematic and televisual representations of time, and Nick’s recent discussion of real-time cinema raises some of the questions that I’d like to address both in my research and in the seminar.

Nick starts with the canonical distinction between editing (Melies) and long-take realism (the Lumieres), adding that this opposition has resurfaced in the age of digital filmmaking, in which both techniques — long takes and fast-paced editing — are made easier (or at least more imaginable), as the examples of the quick-cutting Run Lola Run and real-time Russian Ark illustrate.

Nick then adds, drawing from a comment by Jean Baudrillard, that time-shifting can be identified with fantasies of immortality. In The Perfect Crime, which I need to read, Baudrillard writes, “It’s a good thing we ourselves do not live in real time! What would we be in ‘real’ time? We would be identified at each moment exactly with ourselves. A torment equivalent to that of eternal daylight—a kind of epilepsy of presence, epilepsy of identity. Autism, madness. No more absence from oneself, no more distance from others” (53).

Nick then speculates that real-time cinema, including the Warhol experiments and Mike Figgis’s Time Code, remind us “too deeply of our own termination,” noting that time-shifting via editing may provide us with some form of illusory control over time. This argument is one I’ve been trying to articulate for some time, and within the time-travel films that I discuss, the ability to travel in time, often linked narratively to cinematic time-shifting, seems clearly identified with those desires for immortality. These fantasies of control over time are implicit in cinema’s origins, as Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time argues. But time travelers, of whatever sort, are inevitably associated with this control over narrative time, and many time-travel films revolve around the desire to delay death for as long as possible (Primer’s devastating critique of this desire for mastery is worth noting here).

I think that TV complicates this opposition between real time and “reel time” to some extent. The real-time flow of TV, even when a show is highly edited, seems inescapable, as broadcasters compete for viewers’ attention spans, against potentially hundreds of other simultaneous channels. Of course, it could be argued that commercials and other elements disrupt that continuous flow, but the direct address of the viewer is never interrupted (of course Tivo, a classic time-shifting technology, could disrupt this real-time experience of TV). These questions might be complicated even further, as Nick observes, by the popularity of real-time strategy video games (here’s a good overview of the history of these games). Essentially, I’m interested in how these media might produce different, often competing, representations and experiences of time, and I’d like to think about these “transitions” in and between media.

This post entails a fair amount of brainstorming and thinking out loud, but Nick’s point about the ways in which real-time cinema might make viewers more aware of their own mortality is a significant one when it comes to unpacking these questions about media and time.

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Box Office Blues

The summer slump for Hollywood studios continues, and historically one of the explanations has been that home theater systems have allowed people to stay at home rather than going out for a movie. Studios were still cashing in on DVD sales, but now, according to Marginal Revolution, DVD sales are also hitting a lull. In the past, I’ve refrained from seeing a larger box office trend, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold that position, as gross receipts have been below last year’s for nineteen out of the last twenty weeks. And the decline in DVD sales also has to be a major cause for concern, at least for the studios.

Some of the explanations for this decline make little sense. A Govindni Mutry editorial published in the LA Times asserts that the lost profits can be attributed to that classic monster, the Hollywood liberal. She blames the “box office blues” on blue-state screenwriters, actors, and directors, who make “constant gibes about Republicans, Christians, conservatives and the military.” She comments that conservatives are turned off by the snub of Mel Gibson’s Passion, adding that liberal writers “are out of ideas and have to resort to endless sequels and remakes” (which raises a question: wasn’t Mel’s idea essentially a “remake?”). I’ll agree that I’m sick of sequels and tired of remakes, but Murty’s political claims rely only on anecdotal evidence describing a few studio meetings, not necessarily how those films have been received by audiences. Essentially, Murty is making an argument about the perceived quality of Hollywood films, and I’m not sure that the quality of the blockbusters is entirely to blame (even old ideas can be recycled in interesting ways).

Daniel Gross, in a slightly more convincing New York Times article, compares Hollywood’s problems to Detroit’s, arguing that the Hollywood business model is obsolete. Both industries face increased competition (foreign car manufacturers or video games and the Internet), and Hollywood’s expensive production costs are not unlike the auto industry’s. Of course this is complicated by the fact that studios can benefit from a thriving game industry through video game tie-ins.

Tyler at Marginal Revolution adds a few other reasons for declining box office, including the increasing quality of high-profile television shows and better home theater systems, adding that declining DVD sales may be attributed to the fact that casual film fans no longer feel the need to add to their collections. Tyler’s argument might also be suported by the Netflix Effect. With Netflix, film fans no longer even have to go to the video store to check out movies, and because there are no late fees (Blockbuster’s pseudo-no late fees policy might have a similar effect), I’d imagine people feel less need to buy movies in the first place.

In general, though, I’m inclined to agree with Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Gate that the current box office malaise doesn’t have a simple explanation, though I think he identifies several other important factors, specifically teh degree to whcih multiplexes now feel comfortable selling the attention of their captive audiences to advertisers before the movies (or even the previews) start. I’m not going to get into predictions or speculation here (after all, this is just a blog entry), but Wiley’s description of a 1970s-style Hollywod re-organization, in which studios experiment with new, possibly cheaper, forms of production and distribution, seems like a possibility.

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Soldiers Pay

Tricia Regan, David O. Russell and Juan Carlos Zaldivar’s Soldiers Pay (IMDB) was originally scheduled to be included as an extra on a DVD re-release of Russell’s Three Kings; however, because Russell had been critical of the Bush administration, Warner Brothers chose not to release the film, citing “production issues.” The documentray has since found its way to the public via an election-eve screening on IFC and is now available on DVD. The documentary itself, filmed on an extremely low budget, consists almost entirely of talking-heads interviews with Gulf War veterans, psychologists specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder, and some Iraqi civilians (including participants in Russell’s Three Kings).

After watching the doc, I’m not sure that it adds anything particularly new to the dicussion of the war. As the Philadelphia City Paper critic notes, Russell makes a “crude” attempt at balance by including Iraqi civilians who dealt with Saddam Hussein’s brutal leadership. The documentary also spends too much time following a story that closely parallels the narrative of Three Kings, about a group of soldiers who found several million dollars in a house. Had this narrative been folded more effectively into a critique of the treatment of the soldiers, the documentary might have been stronger.

Despite these flaws, the documentary raises some interesting questions about representations of the war in Iraq and its aftermath. As I was watching this doc, I couldn’t help but think about Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, and the degree to which both films are careful to cultivate a rhetoric of authenticity in representing the experiences of the soldiers. It’s probably nothing new that both war films and documentaries return to the question about the impossibility of true representation, but the degree to which these documentaries insist on that impossibility seems significant. In fact, I’m inclined to think that the war film and the documentary are two of the cinematic genres most concerned with authentic representations, and that it’s worth asking how these genres seek to establish their authenticity (and how that authenticity is defined).

I’m in the process of writing a paper on Gunner Palace, so I’ll likely be talking about these issues frequently over the next few days, and one of the questions I’d like to consider is the degree to which both Gunner Palace and Soldiers Pay are indebted to or informed by previous generations of war films (Vietnam, World War II), but also by other media. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Thomas Doherty’s discussion of Vietnam as the first “living-room war” in Projections of War, the ways in which TV (or at least represenations of TV) so heavily informed representations of Vietnam and the first Gulf War. In this context, I’d also like to think about the ways in which films about the current war in Iraq might be framed by discourse associated with the Web, including (discussions of) blogs maintained by Iraqi citizens as well as by American soldiers. This idea is still developing, but I think the language of authenticity, usually rooted in personal experience or first-person narrative, is remarkably similar in both the documentaries and the blog narratives about the war and its aftermath.

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Return of the Zombies

Over at schizzes and flows, Scot discusses the recent cycle of zombie films, including 28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, and George Romero’s latest, Land of the Dead, explaining that he is a fan of the genre and speculating about the reasons why these films are so effective. Scot then mentions a recent article in which Romero asserts that the appeal of the zombie film derives from our fears about our neighbors:

“It’s the neighbors, man,” Romero said. “That’s the scariest thing in life, the neighbors. Who am I going to move in next to?

“I don’t think metaphysically about this. It’s not about death or an afterlife or anything like that. This is a new situation, it’s a change. A new species that just happens to be related to us.”

Scot empasizes the degree to which these films reflect our insecurities regarding privacy, and with my recent move to a new apartment in DC, I’ve been a little more attuned to these types of insecurities, especially when one of my new neighbors, a sixty-something woman, immediately greeted me with all sorts of personal information about her health and her family history. But horror in general seems to tap into this fear of the other that Romero describes. After all, The Ring deals with similar fears of home invasion via the VCR and even David Fincher’s underrated Panic Room makes this fear the subject of his film. I’m thinking about revisions for my media horror film article again, so it might be worth revisiting some of these questions, especially as I expand the article to focus on more films.

Update: I just came across Steven Shaviro’s discussion of Land of the Dead in terms of social class and Glen Fuller’s reading of the film in terms of spectacle and Hardt and Negri’s concept of the multitude.

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Catharsis Now!

New York Press critic Armond White has a compelling and frustrating review essay that compares Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds adaptation to the recent spate of soldier docs, including Gunner Palace and Operation: Dreamland. I’m currently writing a conference paper that focuses in part on Gunner Palace, so White’s take on that film (and his continued adoration of Spilberg) seems worth noting, if only for selfish reasons.

First of all, I think he’s probably right that fiction filmmakers are actively seeking metaphors for the war on terror. Zombies (Dawn of the Dead, etc) and monsters (the Texas Chainsaw remake) continue to haunt as directors raise the bar in terms of violence. And what makes the essay so compelling is the fact that White joins this impulse in blockbuster film with the similar impulse in soldiers’ eye docs, which themselves convey a certain kind of horror. He’s also right that in the post-Vietnam context, critics of war have found themselves in the rhetorical bind of the popular bumper sticker: “Is it possible to support the troops, not the war?” Before continuing, I do think that White’s question creates a false alternative between “supporting the troops” and “opposing the war,” but White is correct to recognize the question as informing much political discussion of the war.

In addition, I think that White misses a lot in the development of this metaphor. While I don’t want to completely evacuate documentary’s claims towards truth or authenticity, White’s assertion that Gunner Palace and other soldiers’ eye docs present us with reality of the war seems a bit simplistic:

We are there with them on the missions, evading land mines, dodging explosives, interrogating the non-comprehending Iraqis, bringing them “freedom,” receiving their rebuffs and feeling caught in the middle (my emphasis).

White’s suggestion of a pure identification with the grunts in Gunner Palace seems overstated. While the subjective camera and the emotional interviews (often featuring the soldiers’ freestyle raps) are designed to create identification, there’s also a distancing effect (“you can’t really know what we’re going through”). There’s also a problem with the horror film metaphor. Horror villains, such as Dawn of the Dead feature villains or monsters who are unknowable. Extending White’s metaphor, the Iraqi civilians that appear in Gunner Palace would seem to take on that role, and to a certain extent, that’s true of the film in my reading of it. Iraqi civilians are portrayed as unknowable, as a threat, a portayal that should have been complicated considerably.

White’s implicit critique that these soldier docs don’t provide “patriotic cheer” also seems misplaced in that the Iraq War itself has been the subject of tremendous skepticism, especially since the Bush administration’s WMD claims have been disredited. That being said, White’s claim that Speilberg’s War of the Worlds allegorizes aspects of the war on teror is almost enough to make me want to see Spielberg’s film, even if Tom “Psychiatry is for Dupes” Cruise is involved (thanks to IFC Blog fo the link).

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Mysterious Skin

I’ve never really been a big fan of the work of filmmaker Greg Araki. Like A. O. Scott, I felt that many of his films sought to shock viewers without offering anything larger. In retrospect, part of my distatse for Araki’s films may have derived from viewing them on poor quality VHS, but that’s another story, but in part because of Christopher Sharrett’s discussion of Araki, I believe in the essay, “The Horror Film in Neoconservative Culture,” I’d been wanting re-evaluate my take on Araki’s films, and Mysterious Skin (IMDB), speifically with its celebration of community and alternatives to the nuclear family, ultimately deeply impressed me.

The film is based on Scott Heim’s novel and couses on the experiences of two 8-year-old boys on a Kansas Little League baseball team. The film’s opening shot, of the 8-year old Neil, brightly lit, with Froot Loops raining down on him appears to be a playful image of childhood innocence, is re-interpreted when we realize that the cereal shower is the means by which Neil’s “All-American” coach seduces his “star player,” before molesting him sexually throughout the summer (titles mark the date as 1981). Because Neil’s father has left, he relishes the attention from this father figure. As many critics have noted, Araki’s staging of these scenes is very effective, often isolating the young boy to emphasize his emotional response to what’s happening.

Neil’s teammate, Brian, has a much different trajectory, as he relates in voice-over that several hours of that summer were erased from his memory, and that he’d been working to figure out what happened during those lost hours, when he woke up in his parents’ cellar with his nose bleeding, ever since. Araki’s film elegantly cross-cuts between the two characters as they grow into adults, with Neil growing to become a male hustler, first in his Kansas hometown and later in New York, where he lives with a childhood friend. Neil’s cool exterior clearly masks the pain associated with the molestation. Brian, meanwhile appears nerdy, and as one character describes him, “oddly asexual.” Desperate to learn what happened, Brian logs his dreams in a journal and eventually becomes obsessed with the idea that he may have been abducted by aliens after watching a TV show called World of Mystery, featuring a disabled girl from a nearby town. Although it’s clear to the audience that Brian was also molested by the coach, Araki reveals this information visually on gradually, allowing Brian’s memories to unfold slowly, as he remembers the presence of one of his Little League teammates, who turns out to be Neil, and then later as the alien hands that caressed his face become human. The film culminates in a Christmas Eve reunion between Brian and Neil, when they are around 19 years old, and without being too specific they acheieve a sense of community through their shared need for discovery and understanding about this traumatic moment from their past.

What I liked most about the film was its celebration of community. Neil is supported by fellow teenagers, Wendy and Eric, who care about Neil despite his emotional distance. Eric later “adopts” the lonely Brian when he begins looking for Neil to find answers to his questions about his lost past. The film also has several amazing sequences, including the Froot Loops scene, but also a compelling sequence in which Neil encounters a dying AIDS victim who asks him only to rub his back, making explicit Wendy’s reminders of the dangers of hustling. Mysterious Skin, in general, handles these emotional complexities very well, explicitly criticizing child abuse and some of the dehumanizing ways in which lost souls like Neil are treated, while clearly relishing the ways in which new communities can be created.

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Blogging on the Job

The academic corner of the blogosphere is buzzing about the now infamous Chronicle article/rant writen under the pseudonym, “Ivan Tribble,” a humanities professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Tribble writes that academic bloggers who publish under their real names risk being rejected for jobs by search committees concerned that the applicant might like technology too much (“we can’t afford to have our new hire ditching us to hang out in computer science after a few weeks on the job”), because they might reveal deep dark secrets about their new job, even if they’ve never done so in the past (“a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum”), or even because they have interests beyond the academic (the Professor Shrill rant).

Several other bloggers, including KF, GZombie, The Little Professor and Bitch PhD have already weighed in with insightful comments about the article, so I’m answering Matt’s call for blog entries about the professional dividends that our blogs have garnered. And as Matt implies, many of those dividends are the product of the networking opportunities that blogging offers.

Among the many connections I’ve made via blogging: Collin, based almost entirely on the strength of my blog writing, recommended me as a participant at the Convergences symposium last fall. My use of blogging in the classroom also gained som good publicity in The Guardian, questions that I’ve since developed into a short, forthcoming essay for Pedagogy’s “From the Classroom” section. I’ve also received some valuable feedback from colleagues and friends about my research, including extended discussions of my now-published essays on Dark City and Sans Soleil. And moving to DC has been much more exciting, knowing that I’ll have a social network of bloggers here in town that I’ve been reading for some time now.

Tribble’s observation that blogs are easily Googled is also nothing new (Invisible Adjucnt talked about this almost two years ago). Most academic bloggers know how to limit themselves. After I began teaching a composition course focusing on the 2004 election, I refrained from discussing politics as explicitly as I had in the past. I rarely discuss my “midnight anxieties” here, even if I sometimes write late into the night. In short, I’ve found that presenting some of my research, even if it’s still in its most formative stages, has been tremendously productive. I’ve made contacts that have clearly helped my career, and my readers have provided me with some suggestions that have been very helpful for my work.

Like Matt, I’d like to encourage other academic bloggers to post some of the ways in which blogging has paid dividends for their careers and to send a trackback to Matt’s entry.

Update: After talking with Matt IRL last night, I remembered that some of my blog movie reviews have been cited by the official websites of the film I was reviewing, including the recent documentary Gunner Palace. And I’ve been planning to mention the fact that Ralph E. Luker referred to my use of blogging in an article for the American Historical Association’s Perspectives, but I kept forgetting until now.

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Independent Film Scoop

I recently received an email about a cool new independent film currently in production. Chris Hansen’s a.k.a. Brian Barr is a mockumentary focusing on a guy named Brian Barr who happens to believe that he is a messiah.

A few technical details: the start date for filming is July 14, and it will be filmed on HD, with several alums of Second City. More information is available at Audio Rebellion, and Chris informs me that he will be blogging the shoot from the film’s official website once the shoot officially starts.

This looks like a cool indie project, so if you get a chance, check out the film’s website and maybe give the film a little grassroots blog love.

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