Archive for September, 2005

Hamburger America

Movies about food preparation and consuption also tend to be films about enjoyment, and George Motz’s Hamburger America (no IMDB listing) is no exception. That these films also often tend to be about place also seems far from coincidental. While I have in mind films such as Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, Alfonso Arau’s Like Water for Chocolate, and Juzo Itami’s Tampopo, all of which celebrate the sensual pleasures of preparing and consuming good food, a certain type of enjoyment even creeps into several scenes in Morgan Spurlock’s scathing critique of the fast food industry, Super Size Me. (my review), even though Spurlock seeks to deny or disable that pleasure by showing the harmful consequences of a fastfood diet on his body.

It’s this pleasure in preparing and consuming food, namely hamburgers, that Hamburger America seeks to celebrate. I had a chance to watch the film last night at a screening, wisely served with a burger and a beer, here at Catholic University last night (the film’s director George Motz attended CUA). In the film, Motz travels to eight burger joints scattered across the US, sampling the burgers at each location and allowing the restaurant’s owners to talk about the work that goes into the preparation of their specialty and about the history of the restaurant itself, which more often than not, also represents something of a fmaily history. Motz wisely stays off camera, allowing the locals to speak for themselves rather than making himself the “star” of the documentary. In a sense, the film is “about” a certain mode of production, nostalgic for the local cuisines that sometimes disappear beneath the weight of so many franchise restaurants. This enjoyment of the local became most vivid for me during Motz’s visit to the Bobcat Bite, a Santa Fe, New Meixco diner, where the specialty is a green chile burger. Because I had several friends in graduate school who were from New Mexico, I came to some understanding of just how important the green chile is to the local cuisine, and each restauarant offered some kind of similar localized pleasure (even writing this review is making me hungry).

There were a few places where the film seemed to want to defend itself “in advance” against the anti-fastfood treatises such as Super Size Me and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, with several characters reporting that they eat one of the local hamburgers every day, and those comments about the healthiness of eating hamburgers struck me as somewhat unnecessary, as I don’t read either of those texts as criticizing the local burger stand at all (both Spurlock and Schlosser. Instead, they seem more critical of the fast food industry as such (in which food preparation is completely mechanized) or in the monopolization of choice (fast food restaurants that eclipse the local that we se in Motz’s film).

On the whole, however, Hamburger America is an enjoyable little film (it should be playing soon on the Sundance Channel, I believe), although you probably should not watch it while you’re hungry.

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A Turd Blossom By Any Other Name…

Via Kevin Drum, I just found the Dubya Nickname Database, which lists nicknames “granted” by George W. Bush. Of course, Bush’s nicknames for Karl Rove (Turd Blossom, Boy Genius) are pretty well known at this point, but I hadn’t seen or heard a lot of these nicknames before.

In particular, I’m troubled by his nicknames for women, which range from the saccharine (“Sweet Susan” for Republican Senator Susan Collins, “Dulce” for reporetr Candy Crowley) to the combative (“Cobra” for Maureen Dowd, and “Ali” and “Frazier” for California senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein), something that Kevin Drum commenter Psyche also noticed. Interesting to see so many of the nicknames compiled in one place, though the list looks a little incomplete.

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Airborne Toxic Events Coming to a Theater Near You

If you’re one of my readers who teaches in a literature department, you may want to skip this entry. I just found out that there are plans to make a film version of Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Apparently the film has been planned for at least a year, which makes me (want to) believe that it may not be happening, especially given the track records of the director Barry (Wild Wild West and Men in Black II) Sonnenfeld.

I’m not someone who believes that literary adaptations are necessarily a bad idea or that the novel (or whatever “original” source) is always superior to the film, but as Aaron pointed out a long time ago, Sonnenfeld’s stylistic flourishes don’t seem to fit the spirit of DeLillo’s novel. Right now, I’m trying to operate under the assumption that this film will never happen.

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I Want My WM*TV

The parody advertisements for Robert Greenwald’s latest documentary, WAL-MART: The High Cost of Low Price, are pretty funny and set a nice tone for the film’s reception. Check out The Gospel According to Sam Walton and Betty’s Diet Plan for a nice irreverent twist on the WAL-MART image (and for more viewing fun, here’s the film’s trailer).

According to the film’s official website, premiere week is November 13-19, with over 3,200 planned screenings in all fifty states and several countries, numbers that significantly exceed the 2,600 screenings for Uncovered.

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“Thanks for the Last and Greatst Betrayal…”

Via GreenCine, a link to a short Gus Van Sant video of William Burroughs reciting his “Thanksgiving Prayer.” More great Burroughs sounds and images are available at the Reality Studio website. Van Sant’s direction, which consists primarily of laying iconic American images behind the elderly Burroughs, is far less powerful than Burroughs’ reading itself.

Also worth checking out: a Quick Time version of Towers Open Fire, a 1963 film scripted by Burroughs and directed by Anthony Balch. I hadn’t seen this film before, and as experimental film goes, it’s fascinating stuff.

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A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Just a few quick impressions of the second half of No Direction Home: First, the second half seemed to have a clearer narrative than the film’s first half, focusing more explicitly on what Scorsese called “the journey of the artist.” Not surprisingly, given the film’s limited historical scope, No Direction Home climaxes with the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when Dylan “went electric.” As I’ve suggested, that reflection on the individual artist as genius isn’t terribly interesting to me, and I think Direction underplays the contributions of other artists to Dylan’s success in order to conform to this image of the solitary artist Following His Own Path.

And yet, the images themselves were arresting. In the post-film interview with Charlie Rose (cited above), Scorsese remarks on the amazing collection of footage available to him, including the D.A. Pennebaker footage from Don’t Look Back, some startling footage taken by Jonas Mekas, as well as all the concert clips. And the scenes of Dylan singing with Johnny Cash were just plain cool. More than anything else, I think that’s what I enjoyed about the film.

This treatment of the artist as genius ultimately obscured some of the more interesting political aspects of the 1960s, but there were several powerful moments that seemed to resonate with the current political moment. Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” opens the film’s second half and sets the tone for Scorsese’s whirlwind tour of the political conflicts of the early half of the decade. Shots of Mario Savio’s December 1964 speech before the Free Speech Movement Sit-In mix with shots of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and shots of Joan Baez, whose interviews I found compelling, singing at an anti-war rally. This final image couldn’t help but remind me of Baez’s recent performance at the Operation: Ceasefire concert, and that’s how I’m seeking to link No Direction Home to the present moment.

It’s tempting to read Scorsese’s use of these historical images (he includes fragmentary clips from the Zapruder film as well) as a “flattening” of history, but I’m not sure that’s quite fair or even the most interesting reading of the film. For now (because I should really be doing some teaching prep), I’ll just say that the decision to focus on Dylan’s early career now seems wise, not because it’s Dylan’s creative peak. It was certainly a period in which Dylan was incredibly prolific. But these “historical” images certainly haunted the narrative and gave the film a power I’m still trying to articulate (and now I really need to do some work).

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No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

I want to watch the second half of Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan before making a full interpretation of it, but the documentary material Scorsese has compiled here, collecting interviews and culling from concert footage and amateur film, is pretty impressive. And until I watched this film, I’d forgotten how haunting and how powerful many of his songs actually are. Scorsese has long had a great ear for music, and that enthusiasm certainly shows in this film, which I certainly enjoyed watching, although I will acknowledge that some aspects of the film (the somewhat uncritical Dylan worship, in particular, left me feeling cold).

With that in mind, I want to reflect on some of the reviews I linked to earlier in the day. As I mentioned, David Greenberg, writing for Slate, criticizes the film for focusing almost entirely on Dylan’s early career, with the effect that Dylan’s later career, which features some fantastic music (“Hurricane” is a personal fave), is almost ignored. Greenberg acknowledges, of course, that what Scorsese offers is not a conventional biographical documentary, but wonders whether the film’s ’60s nostalgia inhibits critical thinking. It’s an interesting argument, and while I share some of Greenberg’s suspicions regarding nostalgia, even for the 1960s, I wonder if there isn’t a way to use the film’s nostalgia critically to think about the politics of cultural production.

Like Greenberg, I found myself somewhat frustrated by some of the ’60s clichés used as “background” for the film. As Dylan “arrives” in Greenwich Village, we hear the eloquent John F. Kennedy calling the youth of America to national service (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). I’ve heard or seen that image thousands of times, and I’m no longer sure that it can be made “new” again, but the sights and sounds that were memorable for me were the street scenes and poetry readings in Greenwich Village, as Scorsese painted a portrait of a youthful artist who was busy absorbing everything he could from Beat poetry to folk, country, and Gospel music, to James Dean and Marlon Brando movies.

In portraying Dylan as the one person capable of Putting It All Together, the film does fall into the somewhat less interesting narrative of Dylan as Genius (which isn’t really news for most of us). In fact, my reading of the film should be seen as virtually antithetical to Roger Ebert’s account of learning to empathize with Dylan, a reading that derives, in part, from a serious misreading of D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, in which Ebert keys on Dylan’s verbal harangue against a young journalist, ignoring the film’s commentary on media and the production of celebrity. But in celebrating the artistic scene out of which Dylan emerged, No Direction Home, implicitly at the very least, does reflect on the conditions of possibility that allowed Dylan to emerge as an artist, whether a maturing teen culture, the collectivity of the Greenwich Village bohemian culture, or the institutional status of the music industry. The film also shows the role the budding Civil Rights movement had on Dylan’s music when he performs “Only a Pawn in the Game,” a scathing critique of institutional racism (although Dylan does resist the characterization of himself as political throughout the first half of the documentary).

I realize that by placing emphasis on Scorsese’s portrayal of the 1960s that I am reading the film somewhat against its intentions (or “against the grain” to use an old phrase), but I think there is some value in rethinking Dylan’s reputation as someone who absorbed the disparate pieces of a fragmented culture and translated them into something else. It’s a tempting reading, though a somewhat uncomfortable one, especially given David Yaffe’s more critical take, which takes the film to task for a variety of sins (no mention of the sex and drugs that went along with rock and roll; the implication that Dylan’s “people” carefully sanitized Dylan’s image). But, following from Yaffe’s criticism of the film and other forms of recent Dylan-worship, I think it’s worth asking why Dylan (again) now? What cultural need (beyond profit) is the return to Dylan answering? I’m not sure I have the answer to that question–check back with me after Part 2–but I think it’s a far more interesting question than merely dismissing the film for its whitewashed take on Dylan and far more satisfying than mere empathy with the genius.

Finally, welcome to all the readers who found their way here from Michael Bérubé’s blog. Judging by my statistics, a lot of you are dropping by, so I’d love to know what other people are thinking about No Direction Home.

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Time Warp to the Fifties

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the fact that I’ve been invited to guest lecture in a graduate seminar at the University of Maryland. The topic: 1950s juvenille delinquency films, specifically Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, two very different but very powerful films that now represent some of the earliest ripples of a burgeoning youth culture. And once again, GreenCine is right on top of my research question of the day. First, there’s a Carina Chocano article about director Mary Harron’s Bettie Page biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page (IMDB), which I’m now very curious to see (director Harron, screenwriter Guinevere Turner, and producer Christine Vachon constitute a virtual indie all-star team).

Page, as Chocano notes, “gained notoriety when her bondage and fetish modeling for photographers Irving and Paula Klaw became the focus of Senate hearings led by Estes Kefauver, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, in 1955,” the same year that Blackboard Jungle and Rebel were released. Harron’s take on the Bettie Page story, and on the fifties in general, is worth checking out, and I’m now pretty curious to see this film.

Also via GreenCine, David Thomson’s article marking the 50th anniversary of James Dean’s death after crashing his Porsche Spyder into another vehicle. In addition to reflecting on Dean’s final moments, Thomson notes the important connection between Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle, which made a belated hit out of Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.” Thomson’s article generally celebrates Dean’s legendary status, cemented of course by his dying young, but it’s also useful for a quick run through on the cultural pulse of 1955.

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Time Warp to the Sixties

Lots of great links at GreenCine Daily today, including several reviews of Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home (IMDB) as part of their American Masters series (the film is airing tonight on many PBS stations, including at least one in DC). Writing for Slate, David Greenberg takes the film to task for basking in ’60s nostalgia at the expense of the rest of Dylan’s excellent career, and offers a more general critique of nostalgia, especially for the 1960s:

Nostalgia is also sentimental and thus meshes well with the machinery of mass culture, which, as Dwight Macdonald wrote years ago, tends to produce prepackaged cultural artifacts not dissimilar from chewing gum. More than any individual historians or critics, it’s the leveling tendencies of mass culture that are really to blame for perpetuating our flattened, idealized images of the 1960s.

We’ve been drenched for so long in so much mass-produced 1960s kitsch that our Pavlovian responses to the music, words, and images of the time override critical assessments of it. And at bottom, today’s cultural climate doesn’t much distinguish between history and nostalgia. (Billy Joel once explained the genesis of his song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”—the one that reels off proper nouns from the postwar years, as in “Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, television/North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe”—by saying that he had always been interested in “history.”) So, maybe we have to resign ourselves to accepting “the 1960s” as it’s purveyed in mass culture—and to concede, with the postmodernists, that ultimately there’s no real way to separate the 1960s from our myths of it.

While I haven’t seen the Dylan documentary, Greenberg’s comments strke me as excessively dismissive of nostalgia. Sure, nostalgia can easily be used to produce “flattened, idealized images” of the past (the VH1-ification of history), but a “critical nostalgia” might also provide a useful way of critiquing and acting in the present (Slate article via Steve, who also notes that yesterday’s counter-protest supporting the war in Iraq was, shall we say, slightly outnumbered).

For more on No Direction Home, check out Mick Brown’s outstanding article/review. Brown seems less bothered by the focus on Dylan’s early career and identifies several highlights from the film. I’d imagine the film is worth watching just for Dylan’s screen test for Andy Warhol (speaking of Warhol, selections from the Warhol Museum will be on display at the Corcoran Museum here in DC until February 2006). Hoping to catch the Dylan documentary tonight and write a brief review, at least.

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Blogging Handbook

I know that some of my other frequent reads have posted a link to the Reporters Without Borders’ Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents, which looks like a nice introduction to the world of blogging. As McChris notes, “the pamphlet offers advice on starting a blog, strategies for issues like maintaining anonymity and avoiding censorship, and personal profiles of bloggers from around the world.” There’s a PDF of the whole handbook available online. The handbook includes accounts from bloggers in Iran and Nepal who use blogs as a tool to have their voices heard.

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Daily Show Nostalgia

Via Boing Boing and Lost Remote: Like Jesse, the news that the old set of The Daily Show is being auctioned for charity reminded me of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer finds the old Merv Griffin Show set in a dumpster.

While I’ve never really liked that episode of Seinfeld, the artificial nostalgia for those 1970s talk shows always struck me as a humorous concept. In general, the attempts to preserve a televisual past always seem strange to me, especially since TV–which is infinitely repeatable and now, with syndication and DVDs, infinitely repeated–is so resistant to any kind of aura (seeing TV props in a museum, for example, is generally disappointing for me).

The auction is for a good cause, 826NYC, a litearcy center “dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills.”

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Control Room Update

In Control Room (my review), Jehane Noujaim’s 2004 documentary about the coverage of the Iraq war by the Al Jazeera television network, former US Marine captain Josh Rushing (at the time of the film he was a lietenant, as I recall) emerges as one of the more compelling characters in the film. While he is initially optomistic about the war effort, Rushing also demonstrates a willingness to engage in dialogue with the Al Jazeera reporters who are quite literally watching a different war, one that is informed by a much different history. In one of the film’s final scenes Rushing agrees to dinner with Sudanese journalist Hassan Ibrahim in a scene that illustrates the possibilities for dialogue.

After the film, it was widely reported that Rushing left the Marines because he was unhappy with their media management. Now, according to The Guardian, Rushing has joined al-Jazeera International. It’s certainly interesting to see Rushing’s evolution in terms of his relationship to Al Jazeera, which he characterized as an Arab version of Fox News in one scene in Control Room (via Newslab).

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Occupation: Dreamland Screening

Quick self-reminder that Garrett Scott’s Occupation: Dreamland will be playing at the Warehouse here in DC on September 30th. My schedule is so insane right now that I’m not sure I’ll be able to attend, but I’m going to try.

Joshua Land has a review in the Village Voice. Will be interesting to compare this film to Gunner Palace.

Update: Here’s some more good buzz for Occupation: Dreamland

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Because I Haven’t Participated in a Meme in a Long Time

Via Anbruch and profgrrrl:

1. Go into your archive.
2. Find your 23rd post (or closest to it).
3. Find the fifth sentence (or closest to it).
My 23rd post (like Anbruch, oddly enough) didn’t have five sentences, so I went to #24.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.

Here it is:
The identification process itself is pretty trippy (click on the appropriate link of the Ramesses website) [Note: I think this is the link I was talking about], with the use of X-rays, DNA, the placement of the mummy’s arms, the mummification process, and other forms of testing.

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Blogging: Free Press for All or Free-for-All?

I’ve just returned from the blogging panel at the National Archives that I mentioned a few days ago. The panelists in attendance included NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, author of the PressThink blog, Deborah Potter, president and founder of Newslab, and Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association. The panel was moderated by Frank Bond of Newseum. In general, the panel addressed the title question: what are the implications for the emergence of blogs for the practice of journalism?

All three of the panelists were fairly optomistic about the effects of blogs on journalism, with Rosen in particular emphasizing the fact that blogs allow writers to bypass the traditional “gatekeepers” that tended to promote one-way rather than two-way communication. Rosen cited A.J. Liebling’s remark that in the past that “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” Of course blogging is relatively cheap, at least compared to other media, but I want to complicate this argument to some extent. Certainly this is one of the reasons I started blogging, and I’m fairly enthusiastic about the opportunities that blogging provides, but these claims about access essentially went unchallenged (I would have raised the question during the Q&A, but we ran out of time).

Cox did mention the fact that most blogs still only have a few readers per day, noting the Truth Laid Bear ecosystem as one illustration of this principle. This is where the question of “access” seems important, as the question of the leisure time needed to sustain a high-traffic blog was addressed only in passing (when one of the audience members asked in bloggers ever get paid). Aside from access to a computer, it’s difficult to have the time to research a topic and write about it.

As the panel’s title suggests, the discussion focused primarily on “journalist bloggers” and the role they have played in reshaping journalism practice. Potter cited the example of the Rathergate scandal a few months ago, noting the role of bloggers in “deconstructing” news stories and describing blogging as a means for people to “talk back to their TVs.” There’s certainly value in this potential, but I’m not convinced that what is happening on many blogs that claim to be practicing journalism can accurately be described as such. And much of what has been attributed to blogs (specifically news stories reaching the public faster) might better be attributed to the 24-hour news cycle.

But while I would have liked some “balance” on the panel, Cox and Rosen in particular noted the ways in which blogging has changed our reading practices for better or for worse, and that’s a point worth underlining. Blogging has presented some real challenges for thinking about the First Amendment issues implied in the panel’s title, and the attempts to contain, through Federal Election Commission regulations, or co-opt blogging are worth noting, if only because these efforts illustrate just how much weblogs have shifted the boundaries.

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