Archive for August, 2005

Visible Evidence Links

Yeah, I know I’m hopping on a plane in just over 35 hours, but while doing a convoluted Google search, I came across a few links I don’t want to lose. The first is a Green Cine interview with Gunner Palace co-director Michael Tucker that looks really promising. In particular, Tucker’s comments about his political biases:

“I don’t even know what my bias is anymore,” says Tucker. “My bias has completely changed. I think that sometimes I sound like a raving right-wing lunatic and other times I sound like a raving socialist or something. But I’m trying to make something that’s honest. And soldiers have a huge hang-up about it. All they want is for someone to tell the truth. Not embellish it.”

David’s interview also provides some useful background information regarding how Tucker became involved in making the film and how he became embedded with this particular military unit.

I found the link to this interview via an incredibly fascinating blog, Camera/Iraq, that focuses on “the war of images in the Middle East.” The blog is a project of the Cinema and Media Studies Department at Carleton College.

Finally (for now), I’ll use this Cinemocracy blog entry to bookmark the debate about Gunner Palace’s PG-13 rating. People who followed teh story may remember that Tucker’s film initially received an R rating, due to the profanity, but the rating was changed to PG-13 on appeal. Of course what makes this story so frustrating is that the film’s portrayal of (actual, sometimes brutal) violence was less of a problem for the MPAA than the language. I absoultely do not think teenagers should have been prevented from seeing the film, but Gunner Palace’s ratings battles illustrate just how arbitrary misguided the ratings system can be.

Update: Just another self-reminder to go back to Ken Tucker’s total misreading of Gunner Palace, as well as some other links I’d like to have nearby.

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Visiting Montreal

I’ve probably mentioned at least once the fact that I’m going to a conference in Montreal next week. The conference, Visible Evidence, looks fantastic, and my paper is slowly falling into shape. So here are my questions for you, dear readers. I’ve never been to Montreal and would love to know a few places that I absolutely should not miss. What restaurants would you recommend? What are the cool bars and cafes that I should check out? Any recommendations and suggestions would be much appeciated.

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Tragedy in Real Time

Recently I mentioned the news that filmmaker Paul Greengrass would be making Flight 93, a film portraying the 9/11 hijacking that ended with the plane crashing in a Pennsylvania field. Now, via Cinematical, I’ve just learned about 102 Minutes, a Paramount film based on a book by New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, which will focus on the time between the first plane hitting the tower and the collapse of that tower. Like Greengrass’ film, 102 Minutes will unfold in real time, a coincidence that seems fairly significant when it comes to representations of these events.

In some sense, this real-time resentation fits the already existing narrative of the days’ events, with a shocked world watching as events unfolded on television while they happened. And ceratinly real-time presentation fits within the temporal structures of TV’s presentation of catastrophe. By disrutping normal TV programming, our daily routines are also disrupted, as Henry Jenkins and Shari Goldin argue in “Media and Catastrophe.” In most cases, our memories of September 11 are shaped by the live televisual presentation, so real-time films, portraying only a small protion of the day’s events, make a lot of sense.

But following Jenkins and Goldin, who were writing in the immediate aftermath of the day’s events, I wonder what effect this real-time narration will have on shaping our interpretations of 9/11. Drawing from Svetlana Boym’s arguments, Jenkins and Goldin point out that

the catastrophe creates a context where ordinary judgement breaks down, when emotions push us forward, and where we arrived at decisions which we might otherwise reject. We hold off panic in such a situation by returning to familiar terms, comfortable values, normal ways of thinking, but this may make it hard to think through the problem from a fresh perspective or arrive at new truths about a changing situation.

Perhaps my question here is this: how will these mass-spectacle, real-time presentations affect our ability to think critically about the events of September 11? And to what extent might these films silence other perspectives on 9/11? In other words, by showing these micro-narratives of the last moments on a hijacked plane or the last few minutes before the first World Trade Center tower crashed, what stories and narratives will be lost?

Update: The re:constructions website offers an outstanding resource of responses to the media coverage of the 9/11 attacks by media studies scholars. Given Hollywood’s “return” to 9/11 and the upcoming Freedom Walk, these questions suddenly seem more pertinent, particularly when it comes to thinking about how various media shape our experience and how they contribute to a sense of cultural memory.

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DC Bloggers Meetup

I’ve just returned from tonight’s DC Blogger Meetup at Pharaoh’s Bar and Grill in Adam’s Morgan, my first visit to that DC neighborhood. The organizer, Rob Goodspeed, who also contributes to the DCist has the full list of attendees with some details about the night’s events (yes, that’s my arm and head in the corrner of the picture). Wayan of Metroblogging DC and Belly Button Window also has a pic (I’m the one trying to look away from the camera).

I’d found a few of these blogs before the meetup, so it was cool to meet everyone in person. Scott at Broke Kid tipped me off to free documentaries. I also met Pat, whose blog I’ve been reading for several days. Shannon from Playful in DC and I talked about theater, grad school, and filmmaking (we’re also both from the south). Michael’s blog addresses a wide range of science topics. Robert’s photoblog has some cool photos of DC. John of Prod and Ponder is an adjunct professor at George Mason, where he once taught a course on cybercultures. I’ll let you go over to Rob’s blog and explore the blogs of the other attendees, but I always enjoy meeting and drinking with other bloggers, and the vibe at Pharaoh’s–and in Adam’s Morgan in general–was very cool. In other news, tomorrow, I may try drinking liberally.

Update: Here’s another photo from the blogger meetup on Wednesday, courtesy of John. I’m pretty much obscured in the photo, but here’s furtehr evidence, if it was ever needed, that I do have a social life after all.

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Grunts

Via the Gunner Palace website: I’ve been working on my conference paper (yeah, I know, it’s just a week away), and I’ve been thinking about how representations of the war have been framed. These questions are no doubt informed by the recent history of war coverage in the United States, dating back at least to Vietnam’s status as the first “living-room war,” and certainly through the criticism of the U.S. media for its uncritical coverage of the first Gulf War, as well as more recent failures of the major media outlets to challenge the Bush administration claims about WMDs in Iraq. Of course, it’s probably worth emphasizing that these questions about war coverage have a much longer history (the Vietnam film as a response to the heroism portrayed in World War II movies), but these question about representing war persist, especially when it comes to the portrayal of the American soldier. Most TV rpodcuers claim that by portraying the soldier, or “grunt,” they are remaining politically neutral.

In this context, Cynthia Littleton’s Hollywood Reporter article illustrates this logic very effectively:

Fighting the global war on terrorism is vexing enough in real life. Fighting it on the small screen from a highly politicized point of view would be a tactical mistake, according to a group of top television writer-producers.

Steven Bochco, co-creator and executive producer with Chris Gerolmo of FX’s Iraq war drama “Over There,” said during a panel session Monday that they sought from the inception of the show to keep its focus on the lives of “grunts” on the ground and not on larger questions of U.S. foreign policy, morality or geopolitical concerns.

Panel moderator Michael Kinsley, editorial and opinion editor at the Los Angeles Times, suggested that the lack of explicit discussion of the politics of the war in Iraq among the main characters in “Over There” was in and of itself an anti-war statement given the show’s gritty portrayal of the chaos and carnage enveloping those grunts. But Bochco and Gerolmo disagreed.

“It seems to me that if we make an overt political statement in ‘Over There’ about the war … then immediately the debate becomes not only about policy, but it becomes about our politics, Chris’ and mine, as opposed to a discussion or a provocation about the human consequences of war,” Bochco said. “The moment we become overtly political, half the audience dismisses us and doesn’t pay attention to us because they disagree with our politics. And the other half discuss us … in the context of our political leanings. And that’s just not what my goal is with this show.”

The panel, I believe, should raise some important questions about the politics of representing war, but Kinsley’s claim that texts that identify with the grunts are making an anti-war statement seems wrong to me. I think that Kinsley is implying that by identifying with the soldier, we become more aware of the absurdity of the war and of the harmful Bush administration policies that endanger the men and women of the military. But I don’t think identification is that simple, and Kinsely’s claim relies on the assumption that the troops have a more authentic experience of the war than anyone else.

But I also think that Bochco’s response–taking on the cloak of political neutrality–may be even more misleading. I don’t think Bochco is being disingenuous when he argues that he didn’t want to alienate “half the audience” by making a show about policy, but it seems perfectly clear that any approach to the portrayal of war will inevitably have political consequences. Choosing not to look at policy would seem to be an implicit acceptance of those policies. In short–because I should be writing the paper, not blog entries–these claims about “political neutrality” have dominated war coverage, and that neutrality has often been channeled through claims of offering a “grunt’s-eye-view” on the war, a claim that necessarily gives me reason to pause. That being said, I don’t think that a film or TV show that identifies with soldiers necessarily supports a pro- or anti-war position, although Kinsely’s reading of Over There as anti-war rings pretty false in my opinion.

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But Will We Still Have To Watch “The Twenty?”

Just learned via The Reeler (his title’s far better than mine) about a Bruce Weber New York Times article discussing the emerging trend of motion picture chains that want to redefine the moviegoing experience (and, of course, make a tidy profit along the way). Perks at these thetares include gourmet snack bars, valet parking, and, of course, booze. Weber notes that up until recently, very few first-run theaters served alcohol in the United States:

The first first-run theater to offer alcohol was the Commodore, a one-screen palace in Portsmouth, Va. And according to In Focus, a trade magazine published by the theater owners association, by 1997 only 14 theaters allowed patrons to drink, either in the lobby or their seats. At the beginning of this year, the magazine said, the number was 270, most operated by independent owners or small chains. Places like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Tex., and two small chains in northern New England, Chunky’s and Smitty’s, seat customers at tables and offer different versions of dinner and a movie.

One restaurant, I mean theater, in Boca Raton, Florida, serves shrimp cocktail and sushi to selected patrons while they wait for the movie to start. Now, of course, these specialty chains represent one possible response to flagging movie ticket sales and, more importantly, to the ways in which the giant multiplex chains have made moviegoing feel more like watching television through extensive pre-show advertising.

While I don’t want to dismiss other factors behind the decline in movie attendance, I’m fairly convinced that theater chains should be in the process of redefining the moviegoing experience in order to make it more attractive than staying at home, and these theater chains offer an interesting alternative, especially for adult audiences. Obviously, these luxuries will only draw in a certain niche market, and I do find some of the upscale pretensions to be a little excessive, especially the valet service. I think these chains may be a useful alternative to the cattle-herding experience offered by most multiplexes, although these luxury movie palaces might also be read as an attempt to avoid rubbing elbows with the general public (the “crying babies, giggling teenagers, [and] rude patrons” who populate multiplexes). There’s certainly a history of theaters offering luxuries, such as air conditioning, to entice customers, so I’d imagine that these chains will flourish, especially in urban centers, but as I’ve been writing this entry, the underlying subtext of disdain for general movie audiences is fairly striking (not that I’d pass up a beer and a California roll to go with my movie).

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Tracking Flight 93

S.T. VanAirsdale at The Reeler, a great new-to-me film blog, passes along the news that filmmaker Paul Greengrass has been given the go-ahead to make Flight 93, a real-time version of the 9/11 hijacking that ended with the plane crashing in rural Pennsylvania. This follows pretty qucikly in the wake of the announcement that Oliver Stone has begun making a 9/11 film. In his treatment, Greengrass writes:

I … believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something precious, something much larger than the event itself … the DNA of our times. Hence, a film about Flight 93.

I’ll admit that I’m curious about the idea of a real-time film of the hijacking, in part because it seems consistent with the modes of crisis and catastrophe that Mary Ann Doane associated with live television broadcasts, but to claim that you’re looking “clearly and unflinchingly” at anything that happened on September 11, without the existing frames and narratives that have developed around it (“Let’s roll”) seems misguided at best. It may seem obvious to suggest that the film will distort these events by emphasizing their “immediacy,” but those distortions are far from trivial when it comes to definitions of national identity.

Given how quickly this announcement follows the news of Stone’s film, I’m curious about these attempts to dramatize the events of September 11, which as Nick points out, had been relatively rare. These fictional representations seem caught up in the same sentiment that has led to the planned Freedom Walk, Department of Defense event to memorialize victims of the September 11 attacks, which has been criticized for serving primarily as a rally of support for the war in Iraq (specifically given that it will culminate in a concert by Clint “I Raq and I Roll” Black).

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The Wal-Mart Code

Edward Jay Epstein’s talking about sex in his most recent Slate column. More precisely, he’s talking about the lack of sex and nudity in recent Hollywood films. Epstein starts by tracing the early history of sex in the cinema. Many films made before the 1932 Hays Code featured sexually-charged images, including De Mille’s biblical epics. I’ve often taught the Marlene Dietrich film, Blonde Venus, to illustrate Hollywood’s lively early days. He then illustrates, quite effectively, how a combination of factors have prevented studios from explicitly showing sexual images. These factors include the Hollywood rating system, FCC-imposed network TV restrictions against nudity, and perhaps most importantly, Wal-Mart’s status as the studio’s major customer for DVD purchases (Wal-Mart paid studios over $5 billion last year).

Epstein’s argument won’t be unfamiliar to film students and scholars who have read Kevin Sandler’s work on the ratings system, and how it restricts what movies the studios make, and I think this argument is generally sound. And while Wal-Mart’s restritions on movie content may be relatively trivial compared to some of their other practices (Epstein’s comments on Wal-Mart’s “deceny policy” are worth checking out), I think it does illustrate to some extent how Wal-Mart’s buying power can be harmful. Ultimately, Epstein concludes that independent productions are more likely to take the “risk” of dealing with sexual topics, and given the lower budgets for most independent films, I don’t think there’s much of an argument there.

That being said, I think Epstein overstates his case to some extent. Certainly one of this year’s most successful films has been the Vince Vaughan-Owen Wilson comedy, Wedding Crashers, which has made well over $100 million, and the summer also has seen the Deuce Bigelow sequel and The 40-Year Old Virgin. It does seem significant that all three of these films feature male leads who are essentially children in adult bodies (Steve Carrell’s 40-year old virgin; Rob Schneider’s Bigelow; the wedding crashers), rather than the high school or college students of the American Pie films, for example. And by redirecting sexual images and behavior through comedy, it strikes me as a means for avoiding studio censorship (and I don’t mean censorship here in the narrow, legal sense). In other words, Hollywood hasn’t left the sex business entirely, but it has reworked it to imply that Vaughan, Wilson, and Schnieder are engaging in “risky” business by making “hard” R-rated films.

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Home Movies as Cultural Artifacts

I’ve already discussed my plans for the senior seminar I’ll be teaching on “media times,” and that course is starting to come together, but my plans for my junior seminar course are still developing. The goal for the junior seminar is to “introduce students to the methods and problems of research and writing on media.” Students are required to find, describe, and use primary and secondary sources and tow rite two short (6-8 page) research papers, but within that framework, they should have a lot of room to find subjects that interest them.

For this class, I’d like to work through several examples of cultural artifacts, and one that I think would work particularly well would be the home movie (Super 8) and home video cameras. I’ve been thinking about some of these questions ever since I started working on my Capturing the Friedmans article (still somewhat in limbo due to the move), because of the father’s home movie hobby, which I find to be one of the more significant subtexts of the film (in a sense, it’s really a movie about images). I probably won’t show the film to my students, but I’m intrigued by how home movies and home movie cameras were used, as well as how the marketing of the home video camera might change things. In that sense, I think these technologies (and their products) would work very well as examples of cultural artifacts.

Nick has already discussed in some detail questions about do-it-yourself filmmaking and the discourses that emerged around amateur movie-making. For secondary sources, I’ll likely use James Moran’s There’s No Place Like Home Video and Patricia Zimmermann’s Reel Families, among other sources (other suggestions are welcome). The “home movie” (or D-I-Y filmmaking) discussion won’t provide the primary content of the course. This is primarily a brainstorming post, allowing me to work through some ideas for the course, and suggestions are welcome.

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National Archives Events

So, today appears to be Announcement Day at The Chutry Experiment. But I just received an email tip about two upcoming events at the National Archives, both in late September. On Thursday, September 22, The National Archives Experience will be sponsoring a panel on blogging and journalism entitled “Blogging: Free Press for All or Free-for-All?” Here’s the full scoop from the National Archives website:

In honor of Constitution Day, the Newseum and the National Archives present a program examining how technological advances are reshaping interpretation of the first amendment, which guarantees, among other things, free speech and free press. It has been said that the power of the press belongs to the person who owns one. Today, as the Internet turns desktops and laptops into personal presses, first amendment rights are challenged, and a power shift seems to be under way. Bloggers are staking a claim to “grassroots journalism,” and print and broadcast journalists are looking to the future and wondering where their reporting skills fit in. What’s credible? What’s not? And, just how far does the first amendment protect this new wave of journalism? Frank Bond of the Newseum and former Channel 9 anchor will moderate a discussion with Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association and managing editor of “The National Debate”; Bruce Sanford, a first amendment lawyer with the D.C. office of Baker & Hostetler, LLP, and chairman of the board of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression; Jay Rosen, chairman and professor of journalism at New York University; and Deborah Potter, president and founder of Newslab as they examine the issues on the line when technology meets traditional journalism.

The following night there will be a panel on documentary film and copyright issues, entitled “Copyright, the Constitution, and the Crisis in Historical Documentary Film,” and focusing specifically on the copyright issues that have prevented such documentaries as Eyes on the Prize from gaining a wider release. If you’re interested in attending, both events are free, but you’ll need to go to the National Archives website to make reservations.

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Free Documentaries

Via Broke Kid, a DC blogger I found on the Meetup website: FreeDocumentaries.org, a website dedicated to supporting free distribution of documentary films using Bittorrent. FreeDocumentaries.org operates according to the principle that “a true democracy depends on full access to information. In an era of an increasingly censored television media, FreeDocumentaries.org aims to provide you with films which you may not be able to find on the mainstream networks.” I might never have to go to a video store again.

Some of the films they offer have been hard to find inside the U.S., including Le Monde Selon Bush, a film I’ve been wanting to see for over a year.

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August Blogger Meetup

Just got an email reminder about the August Blogger Meetup here in DC, which I’m planning to attend. Here are the basics, thanks to playfulindc, in case any of my other DC readers want to attend:

When:
Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 7:00 PM
This is United Weblogger Meetup Day

Where:
Pharaoh’s Bar & Grill
1817 Columbia Rd. NW
Washington, DC 20001
202-232-6009

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Last Days

I caught Gus Van Sant’s Last Days (IMDB), Van Sant’s most recent film, following after Elephant, which I liked quite a bit, and Gerry to portray characters who suffer an early death (Dennis Lim explains this comparison nicely). Last Days was “inspired” by the often banal final days of Kurt Cobain, but the film itself claims that it is not “biographical” in the narrowest sense of the term.

The film is beautifully photographed, and Michael Pitt’s performance as Blake, the dying rock singer, effectively captures the mental and emotional haze of someone completely addled by drugs and by perosnal isolation. Blake’s face is often hidden behind his blond hair, and he speaks in mumbles and grunts while stumbling through the commune-like house where he is crashing. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the pople who share the house seem almost oblivious to Blake’s needs. As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir notes, the film captures the self-absorption of Blake’s hangers-on beautifully, especially the guy, Scott, who listens incessantly to Lou Reed’s “Venus in Furs.” The film also captures the tedium of those final days (several shots are virtually repeated, suggesting a lack of progression) and carefully refuses to impose a significance to certain events (Blake watches an entire “Boys II Men” video; he takes out an ad in the Yellow Pages; Mormon missionaries stop by). This decision not to seek out larger explanations, to avoid digging into Blake’s psyche, gives the film its strength.

For some reason, I don’t have much to say about the film. Perhaps the tight focus on Blake and his death prevents any real commentary or critical response, and I’ll admit that I find that a little frustrating. It’s not that I don’t value the deliberate pacing or the apparent lack of focus (one critic wrongly compared watching the film unfavorably to watching paint dry–I won’t reward him with a link), but I’m not sure what to do with the film’s treatment of Blake’s tragedy. Of course the “last days” title also has vaguely apocalyptic imagery, further emphasized by the Mormon missionaries who discuss their eschatology with Scott, but even there,I’m not sure I have a larger claim about the film. This review is a very tentative one, so I’d like to hear other reactions to Last Days, so that I can better understand my own conflicted response to what I regarded as a very well made film.

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Grizzly Man

Like Matthew Ross of Filmmaker Magazine, I really liked Werner Herzog’s fascinating documentary, Grizzly Man (IMDB). Herzog’s doc focuses on grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell, who spent 12 summers living with and “protecting” grizzly bears from poachers. Treadwell was a mini-celebrity of sorts. He once appeared on David Letterman’s show and spent hours speaking to children about animal rights. The film opens with the revelation that Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were attacked and killed by a grizzly, leaving behind hours of footage of Treadwell and his relationship to the grizzlis he admired (significantly Amie rarely appeared on screen, and Treadwell often spent days alone with the bears).

Herzog is a sensitive interpreter of Treadwell’s footage, mixing Treadwell’s fascinating, often deeply confessional, images with interviews with Treadwell’s family and friends. And Herzog wisely allows Treadwell’s footage to carry the story, sometimes showing us Treadwell’s own professional ambitions (he’d often do several “takes” of a shot he was preparing for his documentary) but also showing us those unexpected images that would emerge when Treadwell simply allowed the camera to run.

As Herzog notes, Treadwell’s charming persona (laid-back, childlike Californian) masked a deeply haunted psyche, and we get several segments where Treadwell curse repeatedly in front of the camera, his paranoia about the threats to the bears magnified by his isolation. Herzog’s interpretations of Treadwell’s story–conveyed largely through voice-over–are often quite insightful, especially when it comes to Treadwell’s inner demons, but Cynthia’s point that Herzog may have romanticized Treadwell, seeing in him another version of the “holy fool,” may be right. When Herzog compares Treadwell’s relationship to the grizzlies to his own highly-conflicted relationship to actor Klaus Kinski, it seemed as if Herzog was appropriating Treadwell’s story.

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Rumsfeld vs. Zizek

Also via GreenCine: At the recent New York premiere of Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener, Focus Films co-President, James Schamus, invoked both the Bush administration’s resident epistemologist and the Slovenian philosopher:

“There are known knowns,” Rumsfeld said back then. “These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

Schamus then went on to quote the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who discussed Rumsfeld’s comments in an essay appearing in In These Times entitled “What Rumsfeld Doesn’t Know That He Knows about Abu Ghraib” and which I excerpt from below:

“What [Rumsfeld] forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘unknown knowns,’ the things we don’t know that we know — which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself,’ as Lacan used to say.

“If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the ‘unknown unknowns,’ that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the ‘unknown knowns’ — the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.”

Zizek’s article is over a year old, but well worth revisiting, especially given Zizek’s parsing of Rumsfeld’s notorious early attempts to defend the Bush administration against charges tha Saddam Hussein did not have a WMD program. Specifically, Zizek focuses on the “theatricality” of the use of torture in Abu Ghraib, the use of cameras to film what happened and the staged, or posed, quality of many of the images. Zizek’s comments might provide an interesting starting point, or reference point at the very least, for the paper I’m writing for MLA, although I’m not quite prepared to go into specifics just yet.

But Schamus’s comments also make Meirelles’s follow-up to City of God, easily one of the best films of the decade so far, sound that much more interesting. Gardener, which has been marketed as a relatively run-of-the-mill thriller, is based on John Le Carre’s novel about a “Big Pharma in Africa” conspiracy, focusing specifically on unsafe drug testing in Africa. Le Carre also discusses the pharmeceutical industry in a 2001 article that orginally appeared in The Nation.

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