Archive for October, 2005

Fifteen in Fifteen

In honor of its 15th anniversary, IMDB has asked its editors to list their top fifteen movies over the last 15 years. Darren and Girish compiled their lists the other day, and as promised, here’s my Top 15 list. Like Darren and Girish, I’m breaking the rules a bit in naming more than 15 films. I did try to list a few films that other folks didn’t mention. So here’s my list, in no particular order (unlike Darren and Girish, I’m too lazy to alphebetize by director or film title).

I also considered a few others: Dark City, Primer (I need to see it again first), Boogie Nights and Magnolia, Bottle Rocket, Short Cuts, Wonder Boys (a potential guilty pleasure film), Lovely & Amazing, Safe and Far From Heaven, Code 46 (which I also need to see again), Three Kings, and Until the End of the World. Comments? Observations?

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Lazy Saturday Morning Links

Via Mark Crispin Miller’s News From Unerground, I’ve just learned that Florida State Representative Arthenia Joyner (Tampa) has filed the ERA Ratificiation Bill (HCR 8005), which would guarantee equal rights for men and women. Here’s more information on the bill from the Florida House of Representatives webpage, including the full text of the bill, which is also available from News From Underground.

Miller also calls attention to the recent Senate vote that denied additional spending for the federal home heating program (here’s the Associated Press report). With home heating costs scheduled to increase by an average of over $300 this year, many families are going to be facing some difficult financial decisions this winter.

More later, maybe, when I’ve had a second cup of coffee.

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Reader Maps

Time for me to join the reader map party. Go add yourself to mine (thanks for the tip, KF).

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My Week in Six or Seven Bullet Points

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the things I’ve been thinking about this week.

  • I took my junior seminar students to hear a speaker at the National Musuem of American History on Wednesday. Because the course is designed to further develop my students’ research skills, I have been working on introducing my students to the joys of primary research, and the NMAH speaker didn’t disappoint. My students had teh chance to see some great Tupperware promotional footage (some of whihc was used in this film), some home movies from the 1939 Worlds Fair, and an episode of the Industry on Parade TV series.
  • Later that evening, I showed my students Andrew Jarecki’s 2003 documentary, Capturing the Friedmans (my review) as part of our discussion of home movies, home video, and constructions of family. I’ve never taught the film before, so I’ll be curious to see how they respond in class discussion on Monday.
  • Current Metro read: Anthony Swofford’s powerful Gulf War I memoir, Jarhead, (Salon review) which will soon be released as a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx and directed by Sam Mendes. It’s a great book and probably deserves its own blog entry. We’ll see how that goes.
  • Speaking of Metro reads: I’ll be spending a significant chunk of time on the subway this year, so any book recommendations would be much appreciated. For whatever reason, my tastes have been running towards non-fiction lately, but any pleasure reading suggestions would be welcome. Trains run fairly infrequently in the evenings and on weekends, so I’m fining that having a good read handy is a must.
  • I saw the final proofs for my short essay on blogging for Pedagogy’s From the Classroom section. The issue should come out in early January, so the countdown is on.
  • Looking forward to G Zombie’s visit this weekend and just wanted to second his invitation for Sunday.
  • Girish has his own list of favorite films from the last fifteen years. Like Darren (I’ve already linked to his list at least once), Gisish lists more than 15 films. Many more. I’m still working on my list, but I’ve been doing some hardcore apartment cleaning today, so that’ll have to wait.

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Interrogating Guantánamo

In a comment to my previous entry, Ryan mentioned that DC’s Studio Theatre will be staging a production of the critically-acclaimed play, Guantanamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’, which was originally produced by the Tricycle Theatre in London, and uses “spoken evidence” to explore the treatment of Guantanamo detainees. With Vice President Dick Cheney “proposing that Congress legally authorize human rights abuses by Americans,” it would seem that this play is still very timely.

Guantanamo runs from November 2 through December 11, 2005, at The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW.

Note: It also played in New York’s 45 Bleecker Street Theater last year (New York Times review and Village Voice review).

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Documenting Guantanamo

My allergies are going nuts tonight (I think it’s because the steam heat in my apartment just came on), so I haven’t been able to get any real work done. Instead, I’ve been following Darren’s IMDB-inspired example of trying to list my top 15 films of the last 15 years. My list isn’t done yet, but while I was surfing IMDB, I came across news that Michael Winterbottom, who directed Code 64 (which made the long list), is currently working on The Road to Guantánamo, a TV movie about the Tipton Three, a trio of British Muslims who were held in Guantanamo Bay for two years until they were released without charge.

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Coming Soon to a Living Room Near You

This John Anderson article in the New York Times is basically a 1,300 word advertisement for IndieFlix, a new online resource for distributing independent films, but it still looks like a pretty cool service. Short version: Scilla Andreen and Gian-Carlo Scandiuzzi’s IndieFlix post independent films on their website, where customers can buy the film, which IndieFlix will burn onto a DVD for $9.95.

It’s not a bad deal for indie directors who might be looking for an audience for their films, with directors retaining all the rights to their films while being assured of gaining some visibility. In the article, Anderson comments that the major worry is visibility, with one commenter asking how film fans will learn about IndieFlix. A New York Times article can’t really hurt, I suppose.

I’d imagine the more difficult problem, also mentioned in the article, will involve the the cultivation of audiences based on shared interests. The most successful online distribution projects, measured by sales at least, involve the grassroots political films produced by people like Robert Greenwald. I’m wondering, for example, if this method of distribution, which will entail watching the film on a smaller screen, will be as effective for “narrative,” rather than documentary, projects. Sill, it’ll be worth watching to see where IndieFlix goes.

Update: David at GreenCine offers some other reasons to be skeptical about the Anderson article. Most crucially, Anderson misrepresents the service (i.e., it’s not really skipping “direct-to-video”). And it ignores several other similar services that came first, including the CustomFlix service rcently purchased by Amazon and Green Cine’s own video-on-demand service.

David raises these points in the context of Sujewa Ekanayake’s questions about his self-distribution of Date Number One, which looks like an interesting film.

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Small World

This probably won’t mean much to anyone besides me, but I thought it was pretty cool. I had one of those “small world” moments this weekend while I was hanging out in the Gallery Place-Chinatown Starbucks waiting to see a movie, when I ran into a student of mine from a film course I taught at the University of Ilinois, Urbana-Champaign.

When the former student–I’ll respect his anonymity–walked past, there was a vague flicker of recognition. He looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d seen him. After a minute or so, he returned to my table and asked if I had ever taught film classes at UIUC. Once we made the connection, the student–now working in New York, but visiting DC for the weekend–told me that my course had been one of the more exciting he’d had while in college, which was really a nice compliment. Now, given that I haven’t taught at UIUC since May 2002, I’m impressed that he remembered me, but at the very least, the conversation reminded me–however fleetingly–that the work of teaching can have effects far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Of course, if he knew what movie I was waiting to see, his good impression of me might have been tarnished forever.

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Frank Lloyd and Chris Marker’s Time Machines

Via GreenCine Daily: Harlan D. Whatley’s of Catherine Lupton’s biography of one of my favorite filmmakers, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future. In fact, long-time readers may know that I once published an essay on Marker’s Sans Soleil back in the day. David also points to the silverthreaded website, where you can find lots of cool stuff on Marker, including this Andrei Tarkovsky comment about cinema and time travel.

Speaking of time travel, I finally had a chance to watch Berkeley Square, the 1933 time-travel film I’ve been mentioning. I can see why Andre Breton, among others, admired it so much. The story eventually inspired the film Somewhere in Time, and the two stories are fairly similar. In Berkeley Square, the main character, Peter Standish (Leslie Howard), longs to travel to what he believes will be the far more civilized 18th century, confining himself into an old 18th century mansion in order to send himself back in time. He wakes up in the 18th century, where he violates many of the principles of time travel (don’t change anything, etc). Peter’s modern mannerisms offend all of his 18th century ancestors, except Helen, who has an intuitive understanding of Peter’s ability to travel in time.

In one scene, in fact, Helen has a “vision” of the future, with images of rushing automobiles, the brightly-lit streets of Broadway, and the mechanical warfare of World War I superimposed on her face in what is essentially a flashforward to the present. It’s a weird little scene, one that I’ll be revisiting frequently when I start revising my chapter on early time-travel films.

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D.C. Meetup

G Zombie will be here in Washington D.C. next week for a conference and has suggested a D.C. blogger meetup at Teaism in Dupont Circle on Sunday, October 30.

I’m guessing that if you read me, you probably read G Zombie, too (and if you don’t read his blog, you should), but I figured I’d help spread the word. Feel free to email me (chutry[AT]msn[DOT]com) or G Zombie if you’d like to join us.

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The War Within

I caught Joseph Castelo’s fascinating DV feature, The War Within (IMDB), on Friday night but haven’t been able to develop a satisfying interpretation of it. At the very least, the film is compelling because of its “sympathetic” treatment of someone who would normally be dismissed as a terrorist. Through this sympathetic treatment, Castelo attempts to understand how someone could be driven to this kind of violence (note that I’m treading carefully here in my use of terminology because I cannot write this review without thinking about the thousands of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq who have been killed due to the war on terror).

War focuses on Hassan (played by co-screenwriter Ayad Akhtar), a mild-mannered engineering student wrongfully arrested in Paris under suspicion of terrorism. He is hauled off to Pakistan, where he is imprisoned, tortured, and interrogated. Notably, these shots are filmed in almost total darkness, somewhat underplaying the violence by making it difficult to see. But after one particlarly violent beating, a fellow priosner gives Hassan a weathered copy of the Qur’an, and by the time that he leaves prison, Hassan is radicalized. Some reviewers have commented that we are offered insufficent motivation for Hassan’s radicalization, but these elliptical images generally worked, although they also have the effect of making Hassan’s motivation purely, or at least primarily, subjective, which works against his outrage at the broader effects of the war on terror.

After his release, Hassan enters the US with plans to meet up with a terrorist cell based in suburban New York. Specifically, Hassan plans to blow up Grand Central Terminal as a suicide bomber. His plans are complicated by his decision to live with childhood friend, Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), now a successful middle-class doctor, and Sayeed’s family. In particular, Hassan becomes drawn to Sayeed’s sister (Nandana Sen), who has become almost completely Westernized, to the point that she dates American men, at least at the beginning of the film. Sayeed’s middle-class complacency is simultaneously attractive and repulsive to Hassan, thus setting off “the war within” of the film’s title (Teresa Wiltz’s Washington Post review gets at these complications nicely).

I won’t go into specifics about how Hassan resolves his personal dilemma, but I will say that the film uses the conventions of the thriller in an effective, thoughtful way. The film did have a tendency to rely on cliched characterizations of various positions on terrorism, and Hassan’s relationship with Duri had the potential to simplify Hassan’s crisis of conscience a bit too much. Worth noting: Lisa Rinzler’s DV cinematography generally served the narrative well. Hassan’s flashbacks to the Pakistani prison contrasted effectively with the brightly-lit suburban streets of Sayeed’s affluent New Jersey neighborhood. More importantly, the footage of Hassan as he walks through Times Square, with its brightly lit symbols of global capitalism and shallow entertainment, seemed to capture his subjectivity very effectively. During many of these scenes, in which a solitary Hassan quietly wanders the streets of New York City–and later Grand Central Station itself–the faces of other pedestrians went out of focus. During these sequences, I was reminded of Don DeLillo’s fascinating essay, “In the Ruins of the Future,” in which DeLillo argues that the advantage of the terrorist is his ability not to see these faces (“this is his edge, that he does not see her”). I’m not sure that I agree with DeLillo anymore, and for reasons I can’t describe precisely without giving away the film, I believe The War Within complicates DeLillo’s arguments. The film is certainly worth seeing. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not quite sure how to respond to the film, so if anyone else has seen it, I’d love to know your response to it.

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Domino

I went to see Domino (IMDB) last night primarily out of curiosity to see what Donnie Darko writer-director Richard Kelly had done with the screenplay. And Tony Scott’s hyperkinetic direction can sometimes be fun. But as I was watching, I felt like I’d seen this film at least twice before, first when it was called Natural Born Killers and later when it was called True Romance.

Kelly’s script, very loosely based on the story of Domino Harvey, the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey who became a bounty hunter, had some potential, especially as a satire of the culture industry’s production of celebrity. This notion of celebrity and fantasy is perhaps best explored through the COPS-style reality TV series that follows the three lead bounty hunters on their quests. The reality series is hosted by former Beverly Hills 90210 stars Ian Ziering and Brian Austin Green, both playing themselves, and Tom Waits’ cameo late in the film also contributes to this notion of celebrity (the real Domino Harvey, who died of a drug overdose while the film was in production also cameos). The muddled, Tarantinoesque timelines actually fit the character’s somewhat addled mental state. So there are some interesting elements here, and I’ll be interested to see how it fits within Kelly’s future work.

However, I found Scott’s direction a bit too heavy-handed, especially in the choppy editing. I barely remember a single shot lasting more than 3 seconds, and the fact that I was bored enough to start counting shot lengths gives you some indication of how exciting I found this film (I wasn’t the only audience member who was bored–at least 4-5 other people actually left before the film was over).

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The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till (IMDB) revisits the murder of African-American Chicago teenager Emmett Till and the travesty of a trial that acquitted Roy Bryant and his half brother J.W. Milam, who later confessed to the murder in Look magazine, of all charges. While director Keith Beauchamp relies primarily on talking-heads interviews with family members and friends of Till, inlucing his mother who passed away just before the film was completed, he also makes extensive use of news footage and photographs from the weeks immediately after the murder. At the same time, Beauchamp uses Till’s story, including some powerful interview footage with Al Sharpton, to reflect on the terrible effects of the Jim Crow laws.

Certainly the most effective interveiws were those conducted with Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who graphically describes her experience of first seeing her son’s body and describing the degree to which his face had been mutilated. Roger Ebert explains the power of this scene rather well. Till-Mobley also explains her decision to display her son’s body in an open casket during the funeral, forcing the public to confront the racism that contributed to her son’s murder. As many reviewers have noted, her decision, which must not have been an easy one, clearly contributed to a growing civil rights movement here in the United States.

While Untold Story may seem like a relatively standard historical documentary, its most important purpose is that it serves as a reminder about this part of America’s past. The preservation of important voices like Mamie Till-Mobley’s is an important task, especially as many of the important contributors to the Civil Rights movement and many of the poeple who remember the Jim Crow era begin to age and pass away. The film has also contributed to a renewed effort to see several of those involved in the murder and cover-up prosecuted for their crimes (the Voice review has some more information on this case and offers a useful explanation for the “choppiness” in the final third of the film).

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Deconstructing Kansas

This is probably old news, but I just came across Larry Bartels’ essay,”What’s the Matter with What’s The Matter With Kansas,” (PDF) via Eric Alterman’s “Corrupt, Incompetent, and Off-Center”, (Alterman’s blog). I haven’t had a chance to read the Bartels essay (it’s my afternoon Metro read), but hopefully I’ll have some comments later tonight or tomorrow.

In other news, I’m planning to catch The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till and maybe The War Within this weekend.

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Video Aura

A few days ago, I mentioned that I’d finally tracked down a copy of Berkeley Square, a 1933 time-travel film starring Leslie Howard and Heather Angel and directed by Frank Lloyd for Fox, and my copy of the film arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon.

Berkeley Square is one of the earliest time-travel films made by a major studio (I’d argue that some of Edison’s shorts might qualify as “time travel”), whihc makes it important to my book project, but I’d been led to believe that the film could not be viewed, that it was among the hundreds of films from the early history of cinema that had not been preserved. The film is also of interest because Andre Breton once commented on how it realized some of the principles of Surrealism (an observation that was somewht more significant to my dissertation than it likely will be to my book). So, yeah, I’m incredibly excited to have the film in my hands, but I’ve now found myself resisting the idea of sitting down and watching it. It’s not that I’m not interested or that I’m bored with my book project. Quite the opposite, in fact. And I don’t think that my resistance comes from any sense that the film will “disappoint” me. I’ve read enough about the film that I have some sense of what to expect.

Instead, I think I’ve always enjoyed the idea that a “lost” film might provide the framework for a project about cinema and time. This attraction to lost objects may also explain why I found Bill Morrison’s Decasia, which consists of a montage of decaying film footage set to the symphonic music of Michael Gordon, so appealing. Now that I know the film exists, if only on video (another medium that is prone to decay), I fear that some of the film’s magic, or aura in Walter Benjamin’s sense of the term, will be lost.

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