Archive for August, 2005

Transitions, or the Anticipation of a Future Post about Teaching

I’ve spent a significant chunk of the evening thinking about how I could contribute to G Zombie’s Teaching Carnival, but because it’s the first week of class and because I’m learning the ropes at a new university, I’m pretty exhausted, but that’s pretty typical for me during the first week of class, especially in the fall. For this reason, my contribution to the Carnival might end up being a little disjointed. That being said, G Zombie’s suggestion has inspired me to dig around in the “teaching” catgeory of my archives to see precisely what I talk about when I think I’m talking about teaching. It’s probbaly not surprising that when I think I’m talking about teaching, I’m less focused on the process of teaching, of the specific narrative of a course, and often more interested in the “content” of the class (as my film class brainstorming posts illustrate).

So, perhaps this post will allow me some room to think about how at least one of my classes will provide an opportunity for me to reflect on my pedagogy in a more self-conscious way. In some sense, this process of reflection is determined by the shift in disciplines, in that I’m moving from teaching freshman composition almost exclusively for three years to teaching media studies courses. I’m also able to take advantage of a much different academic/research community. I think that regular readers of my blog can probably guess that I’m very excited about the courses that I’ll be teaching this year and the opportunity to learn alongside my students about DC’s fantastic media archives.

But one of the most interesting changes in my teaching practice will be the fact that I’ll have a teaching assistant working with me in the junior seminar, which is completely new to me. In fact, I’ve never served as a teaching assistant, which means that I’m still learning the basics, especially when it comes to asking someone to do a lot of the busywork (copying, making PDFs, etc) that I would normally do. Because I know it’s tedious work, I feel mildly guilty about asking others to do it. At the same time, I’m quickly learning that my TA can also teach me a lot about my classroom practice, in part by observing the dynamic in the class from a position slightly closer to the students’ POV. So, perhaps this post is actually a moment of anticipation, preparation for a future post or two (which is okay because there will be other Teaching Carnivals), as I learn to navigate this new pedagogical community.

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Helping New Orleans

G Zombie has an entry that lists several ways that people can contribute to the relief effort in New Orleans.

For people who might be looking for specific information about survivors (or for more information about what’s happening), Technorati has been tracking blogs and other news sources. The front page of the Tulane University homepage has been temporarily transformed into an information source as well.

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Digging in the Archives

So, basically this blog entry has turned into a paragraph summary of a phone conversation, but I don’t want to lose track of all of these cool film and media resources….

For my junior seminar in media studies, I’ve been working on setting up guest lectures featuring speakers from various libraries/archives here in DC, and I’m amazed at the amount of material “out there,” waiting to be explored. I just got off the phone with one of the archivists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Archives Center, where they have a really cool collection of materials, including a collection of industrial films and National Zoo Training films (!).

She referred me to several other collections, many of which are available online. The coolest highlight is the Prelinger Archives, where you can watch everything from Are You Popular?, a 1947 social-guidance film, to Duck and Cover, a civil defense film in which Bert the Turtle teaches chldren what to do in case of atomic attack. I could easily spend days scouring the Prelinger Archives (and probably will).

She also reminded me about Home Movie Day (I’ve been talking about this topic for a while), an annual event that usually takes place around August 16th, or 8/16, a sly reference to the two most popular (8mm and 16mm) home movie gauges. I wanted to attend DC’s event at the Warehouse Theater, but only heard about it a few hours in advance. Maybe next year (here’s an older NPR story on Home Movie Day and a blog entry).

She also mentioned some cool new films that I haven’t seen, including Karen Shopsowitz’s 2000 film, My Father’s Camera, which explores the role home movies play in social and family life (produced by the National Film Board of Canada, another cool resource), as well as the PBS American Experience documentary, Tupperware! (IMDB), which apparently made use of some of archival materials available at the Smithsonian.

And, here’s one more archival resource worth visiting: the National Anthropological Archives’ Human Studies Film Archives. My connection at the National Museum of American History mentioned their extensive collection of travel and ethnographic films. Finally, although I already knew about the fantastic Treasures from American Film Archives, I’m glad to have the link handy.

I’m also planning to introduce my students to the National Archives, and of course, the Library of Congress.

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Media Times: Baudelaire and Griffith

Classes started this week at Catholic U, so I’ve been running non-stop for the last few days doing all of that typical beginning-of-semester work, including making appointments for guest speakers (more on that later) and arranging for passcodes for classrooms, that sort of thing.

But for now, I just wanted to re-bookmark an old entry of mine that discussed the controversial online “docu-game,” JFK: Reloaded (lots of good discussion of the game in the comments to that entry). The post seeks to connect the game’s rhetoric of authenticity with D.W. Griffith’s cinematic theory of history, which imagines motion pitcures as an unmediated window onto the past (“There will be no opinions expressed. You will merely be present at the making of history”).

For the first day of class (it’s a 3-hour seminar that meets on Friday), I’m thinking about discussing Griffith in relationship with Charles Baudelaire’s famous rejection of photography in the Salon of 1859 (of course, Baudelaire’s distaste for photography did not prevent him from being photographed). I think the two short pieces will prexent an interesting juxtaposition for establishing how potography and cinema were received, specifically in terms of the concepts of time, memory, and history that I want to unpack in the class.

I’ll try to post my syllabi online in the next few days so that I can get some feedback and comments from media studies scholars who read my blog. I’ve already learned a lot from KF’s media studies syllabi for my junior seminar.

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Caffeine Dreams

This news article about the potential benefits of drinking coffee made my morning (please ignore the fact that I’m posting this in the early afternoon–morning is a relative term around here). It turns out that coffee has more antioxidants that any beverage in the American diet.

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DC Shorts

The DC Shorts Film Festival will be taking place from Friday September 16, through Sunday, September 18. Several interesting special screenings, including Lunafest, a series of short films by and about women, are planned. It’s also worth noting that all proceeds from Lunafest will be donated to the Breast Cancer Fund and to local organizations that support short films. Also promising: the Arts on Foot program, which will screen films by Canadian filmmakers.

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Junebug

Phil Morrison’s contemplative Junebug (IMDB) opens with shots of Appalachian men “catapulting their voices in shivery hill country hollers.” The shots have a grainy, documentary feel, and while Voice critic Laura Sinagra notes that the images set up the film’s treatment of “outsider art,” they also establish Junebug’s reflective tone. The film’s story focuses on Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer who specializes in “outsider art,” and through her scouts, she learns of an unknown outsider artist, David Wark, whose images depict surreal slave rebellions (all the slaves have white faces) mixed with computers and other contemporary objects. Madeleine’s husband George happens to be from that same postage stamp of North Carolina soil, setting up the film’s homecoming narrative. Although Madeleine and George have been maried for six months, George has never introduced her to his family.

The homecoming narrative is a staple of southern literature and fim (You Can’t Go Home Again is the classic reference here), and it would have been easy for the film to trade in simplified red-state-blue-state gags, but Morrison’s quiet camerawork and Angus MacLachlan’s script are a little too subtle for that. George’s family is certainly suspcious of Madeleine, with the mom worrying that a woman as smart and pretty as Madeleine cannot be trusted. George’s return is greeted by his North Carolina community as something of a hero’s return. While his family regards te return with caution, the church welcomes him home eagerly, even coercing him into singing a hymn about returning home before the congregation.

Part of what I liked about the film was the way that it sets teh atmosphere. Rather than the gaudy, kitschy images of the south you sometimes see, camera shots quietly reflect on the spaces George’s family inhabits. One sequence simply and silently shows static shots from every room in his parents’ house. Later, George and his father meet for breakfast at a Waffle House, very much a southern staple, but rather than playing up the restaurant’s bright yellow signs, a menu in the bottom of the screen suffices to establish the shot’s location. These visuals support the understated dialogue between characters who are often uncomfortable with their emotions, particularly George’s younger brother, Johnny, who is clearly less loved by his parents than his older sibling.

The film is quietly critical of Madeleine’s enthusiasm for outsider art, which sometimes views these objects as quaint. More specifically, she is criticized for playing outsider artist David Wark’s anti-Semitism against a rival bidder for his art. Wark’s name, as some film buffs might note, recalls the name of David Wark Griffith, the director of the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation, and Madeleine’s willingness to exploit Wark’s art offers an interesting, if under-explored critique. In general, Junebug is careful to treat all of its characters with dignity and to recognize that basically, all of the cahacters have good intentions, but I sometimes felt that it also stayed a little too narrowly inside the Sundance/indie film formula to offer anything completely new. Of course, it does offer a brief appearance by indie rock star, Will Oldham, so that’s a point in Junebug’s favor.

Update: So far, the Cinetrix is the only other reviewer I’ve seen who has caught the reference to that infamous southern filmmaker.

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Media Miscellany

I’ve been spending most of my Friday recovering from my trip to Montreal. As I mentioned, my panel went really well, but whether that has any connection to the quality of my paper is another issue. But because my plane was delayed, I didn’t get back to my apratment until late last night. So, I’m in short-attention span mode this afternoon, and here are a few of the places I’ve been surfing (perhaps my previous entry about drunk librarians should make me a little more cautious?):

First, I just heard on KEXP that Radiohead is blogging the recording of their upcoming album on Dead Air Space (nice name). Lots of photos, but also some interesting entries about the recording process (apparently it’s exhausting).

Also just learned that NBC anchor Brian Williams has a blog, the Daily Nightly (sorta goofy name). Williams offers an interesting window into how certain decisions are made about the content of the news, including the important decision about what “ribbon” to include on the bottom of the screen. You know, stuff that matters. To be fair, this New York Times article argues that Williams does offer some self-criticism when he feels the NBC news broadcasts fall short.

I came across Williams’ blog via the “related articles” on this Yahoo article about a hoax by a student newspaper at Southern Illinois University. For two years, tey published articles by Kodee Kennings, a small child whose father was a soldier in Iraq. All of the participants are distancing themselves from the hoax. I never read the articles, but what a bizarre story.

Classes here at Catholic U start on Monday, so expect lots of healthy procrastination blogging over the next few days.

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“The Internet’s a Drunk Librarian….”

Cat and Girl engages in a bit of media studies, comparing representations of TV to representations of the Internet. Hat tip to McChris.

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[VE] The Conflict in Question

Just a few thoughts on my panel at Visible Evidence. The panel was well-attended, and the discussion session afterwards was very productive, with the Q&A running well past the scheduled end of the panel. After I read the paper (which focused on Gunner Palace), my immediate reaction was how much the clips I showed–the long take of the Baghdad firefight and the soldier’s comedic monologue about using scrap metal as impovised armor for their Humvee–affected the audience’s reception of the film. Both scenes generated a lot of discomfort, and in retrospect, at least one clip of soldiers talking sadly about the unecessary deaths they’ve witnessed might have altered their reception of the film.

To some extent, I was surprsied at how few people had seen the documentary, although I learned after the fact that Gunner Palace had received a smaller international release. But the post-paper discussion of GP seemed to confirm my argument that the film is “politically ambivalent,” rather than politically neutral, in the sense that the film egenrates both strongly pro-war and anti-war readings. In fact, one commenter noted that the film could be read as a “recruitment video,” which might overstate slightly, but it does point to the way in which GP provides viewers with a sense of purpose and intensity that might not be available to the couch potato sitting at home.

At any rate, given some of the conversations I had at the conference, I now want to fold the questions I addressed, however broadly, in this paper into some larger questions about the role of the war documentary in shaping contemporary political discourse.

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[VE] Documentary, Interactivity, and Social Justice

Another bookmark post from Visible Evidence, where I attended this morning’s panel on Documentary and Social Justice. One paper, which focused on video-based activism, seemed particularly relevant to some of the issues I’ve been thinking about in relationship to the war documentary in general, and Gunner Palace, in particular. The presentation focused on the human rights organization, Witness, which “partners with human rights organizations, training them to use video to document abuse and create change.” At least one member of Witness was present at the panel, and there was some useful dialogue about definitions of human rights and documentation.

I don’t want to discuss the author’s paper in detail here, but his discussion of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, which addresses the possibility of using war photography in preventing war, raised some important questions about how photographs and video images of war might have the rhetorical effect of convincing audiences of the undesirability of war (I need to read a larger chunk of the Sontag book before I go into further detail). Gunner Palace, which received a much wider commercial release, may not be explicitly an anti-war film, but some of the same questions of representing war and violence persist, respecially when it comes to the institutional factors that constrain production and distribution. Another panelist mentioned the work of Joel Sternfeld in documenting the G8 protests in Genoa a few years ago, work that I’d like to revisit when I have more time (and with classes starting Monday, I don’t imagine that will be anytime soon).

Another panel I attended focused on issues of interactivity, and the main point for my purposes was the question of instutional authority and the problems of representation. One person on this panel emphasized the challenges that directors face in pitching documentaries to potential sources of funding, which no doubt, has a major effect on what kinds of documentaries are produced (David O. Russell’s problems in distributing Soldier’s Pay would be one example here). Some of these arguments were already implicitly developed in my paper, but I think there’s some value in connecting my questions to the larger themes that have been so eloquently developed throughout the conference.

I’m still working through some last minute paper ideas right now, so apologies for such a disorganized, and potentially self-serving, conference narrative. More later when I’m home from Montreal tomorrow night.

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[VE] Copyright and Conditions of Production

I’m Blogging from a cafe on boulevard de Maissoneuve across the street from Concordia University, where I’m attending the Visible Evidence conference. I’ll write a longer discussion of the conference later, but I just wanted to briefly mention one of the panels I attended this morning, which focused on copyright issues for documentary filmmakers and scholars, including the problem of clearing rights to copyrighted film and TV footage or music (significant examples included Eyes on the Prize, a civil rights documentary that includes copyrighted music, including the song “Happy Birthday” and Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed, for which Greenwald cited “fair use” in using short clips from FoxNews. I’ll hopefully write more about this panel, because the panel offered valuable comparisons of copyright law in the US, Canada, and the UK. But certainly one o fthe main concerns was the potential for copyright to inhibit documentary filmmakers, preventing them from telling certain kinds of stories because of copyright law (during the Q&A, there were also some valubale questions raised about the role of peer-to-peer and other forms of distribution).

For now, I’m just bookmarking the website to the Center for Social Media, an organization affiliated with American University and directed by one of the copyright panelists, Pat Aufderheide.

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Sad News

I’ve just learned that one of my favorite bloggers, George Fasel of A Girl and a Gun, died on Wednesday. While I never met him, I always enjoyed George’s reflections on film, particularly his willingness to challenge the received wisdom about many contemporary films. Following Lance Mannion’s tribute to George’s final entry on a James Cagney film, I’ve decided to post, in its entirety, one of my favorite blog entries from A Girl and a Gun, in which George criticized the recent Enron doc, challenging me to reconsider a film I’d previously embraced uncritically:

The documentaries are starting to roll in, confirming many predictions that they are coming into their own as credible contenders for a larger slice of the ticket-buyer budget. In NYC now, we have Mad Hot Ballroom, for which I saw a trailer and immediately rang up a notional saving of seven dollars on a geeezer discount ticket (that much saccharine has to be bad for one); Born into Brothels, Stolen Childhoods, Shake Hands with the Devil, and Tell Them Who You Are are also around, none of them tempting me much. I am also excited to report that there is on its way a documentary on bowling, for crying out loud, and if that doesn’t stir you, then you’ll certain want to catch the one on wheelchair rugby (this is not a joke).

I did wander into a showing of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a film which sports all the right prejudices–this was bad, it went to the top of the corporation, whose big guys robbed their employees and electricity consumers in the state of California, the Bush administration and family was at the very least “involved,” and so forth–and which I’m therefore feeling sorry I didn’t like more. To begin with, the filmmakers couldn’t leave well enough alone, telling the story through film clips and interviews; they had to throw in a lot of extraneous footage that is both intrusive and false. Example: Jeffrey Skilling liked to organize motorcycle trips through the outback with other senior guys, trips over rough country where broken bones and the like were common. There are a few stills from these childish undertakings, but we also get footage of professional cyclists doing huge loops in the air and other dangerous tricks. Patently not the Enronnies, who presumably weren’t up to such stunts; so why is the footage there? Example: when quoting from important internal documents or other written sources, the camera closes in on significant sentences or passages, and highlights them. But it’s immediately plain these are not the original documents, but copies made up for ease of photographing and viewing. The whole idea of employing such sources is to give an air of authenticity, which is undercut by these surrogates. Example: the suicide of Cliff Baxter, a senior Enron exec caught in a web of shame and guilt, is dramatically staged, which because we know it is a reenactment, and at that on the level of a cheesy History Channel documentary, subverts any power the simple story might have had.

The talking heads are also pretty flat and uninteresting. None is out-and-out terrible, but there is nobody we want to see again, nobody whose presence lights up the screen and helps tell his or her part of the story with the force of personality along with the substance. I think of Nathaniel Kahn’s mother in My Architect (2003), or (the now late) Frank Conroy in Stone Reader (2002), or Stanley Crouch in Ken Burns’s tv series Jazz, to name only some recent strong presences. We go from one bland account to another, and with the exception of a buccaneering type named (I think) Mike Muckleroy, there are very few human juices flowing.

Finally, we leap from one peak to another, one Enron reinvention and fraud and outrage to the next, preferably one where we can get some footage of Skilling being embarrassed before Congress, or Lay making a fool of himself in some public statement, or jumping from the California electricity crisis to the election of Arnold, with lots of footage of the latter. Context would have been much more helpful. Skilling keeps saying he’s not an accountant, so he couldn’t say what was going on, which is the same thing Bernie Ebbers said about World Com and not far from what Dennis the K was claiming about Tyco. How much more useful to have seen a pattern of corporate abuse, lies, and manipulation of which Enron was a part. There is a clip of W saying, by way of trying to minimize his connection to Ken Lay, that Enron gave a lot of money to a lot of people in Washington. That is true, but the film doesn’t follow up. How much more interesting to look not at squirming millionaire bilksters but at that wholly-owned corporate subsidiary called the United States Congress. Enron is two hours’ worth of missed opportunities and a film budget squandered on mediocrity instead of incisive reporting and therefore, in my book, memorable principally as a waste.

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Filmakers Library

Just another bookmark post: While doing some creative Googling, I came across the Filmakers Library, which rents rare videos and DVDs. One of those movies is Salam Pax’s Baghdad Blogger, part of what looks like a very interesting media studies collection. In other news, I’m gonna have a late, late night working on this paper before my flight tomorrow. Keep those iced coffees coming.

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Cultural Studies CFP

The Cultural Studies Association will have this year’s conference here in Washington, DC. I attended the Boston CSA conference two years ago and liked it quite a bit, with the coference featuring a broad range of papers on a variety of topics.

More later, but I should be working on a paper for another conference right now….

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