Archive for October, 2005

The Digital Humanities

Via the MITH list-serv: Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has some interesting reading this month.

In “Here’s Looking at Casablanca,” my former colleague at Georgia Tech, Janet Murray, writes about a collaboration between the American Film Institute and Georgia Tech on a digital critical edition of Casablanca. Her essay raises some interesting questions regarding the role of digital technologies in teaching and studying film. On my old blog, I briefly reflected on the role of DVDs in reshaping film studies (primarily in the comments section), but I haven’t thought about this issue nearly as much as I should have, especially given my interest in the intersections between film and digital media. The project sounds really enticing and much more flexible than a standard DVD. To name one example, using this critical edition, one could search for all uses of the song “As Time Goes By” over the course of the film. In a sense, it’s treating Casablanca as a kind of database that might support certain kinds of scholarly projects. At the same time, the critical edition is a prototype for dealing with the strict copyright regulations that limit how films (or even short segments of films) can be re-used.

Of course, Murray’s passing refence to the experience of watching Casablanca at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge makes me wonder what is being lost in the transition to digitization. The cinetrix has been talking about the Brattle’s struggles to stay afloat financially when fewer people are going out to the movies (here’s Ty Burr on the Brattle and the cult of Casablanca). Burr’s article and the cinetrix’s comments also convey the degree to which the Brattle and othe repertory movie theaters function as a community or subculture (as the Brattle clearly does in Boston). I realize that the intent of a digital critical edition is to democratize access, but my inner cinephile doesn’t want to see the disappearance of these repertory houses and the communities they support.

In “Democratizing Knowledge,” Martha Nell Smith discusses the Dickinson Electronic Archive as an example of democratizing access to primary materials, in this case the manuscripts of poems by Dickinson, Blake, Whitman, and others. I’ve known about the Dickinson Archives for some time (as will many of the Wordherders), but Smith makes a great case for the ways in which digital technologies can enhance a humanities course (she also cites blogs, wikis, and other course management tools).

Also worth noting: Gregory Crane’s “Reading in the Age of Google,” whihc discusses the “active reading” driven by search engines such as Google.


Popcorn Economy

This is primarily a bookmarking post to Edward Jay Epstein’s Slate article on what he calls the “popcorn economy,” in which he explains the role of marketing and publicity in shaping the distinctions between indie and Hollywood.

While I think he overstates the distinction between major indies and Hollywood, specifically when major indies can rely on marketing support unavailable to truly independent filmmakers, the distinctions he makes are valuable. To name just one example, studios are now spending an average of $34 million to promote studio films, often offering “teasers” for their films several months in advance. Not much else to add here, but since I’ve been thinking about the concept of independent cinema lately, I wanted to have Epstein’s article nearby.

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Re-Mixing Politics

This may be old news on the Web, but I just came across the video for the remix, “George Bush Don’t Like Black People,” on iFilm. The video features music by the Legendary K.O. and was directed by Franklin Lopez (thanks to the folks at submedia for the tip).


Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck (IMDB), George Clooney’s film about the conflict between CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joeseph McCarthy opens with Murrow accepting an award from the Radio Television News Directors Association on October 25, 1958, just a few short years after the McCarthy’s HUAC hearings. Gorgeously shot in black-and-white, with Murrow’s figure set starkly against a black background, Murrow (David Strathairn) warns against the dangers of television becoming a tool for entertainment at the expense of its potential use for disseminating news and contributing to a vibrant public sphere (the actual text of Murrow’s speech is available here. Murrow warns,

Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live.

It’s hardly necessary to point out that Murrow’s comments are meant to resonate with the current moment, but Murrow’s warning is a powerful one. As Alex notes, at the very least, the film is an excellent piece of “propaganda.” It’s gorgeously shot and powerfully acted as well. In fact the use of stark, sometimes expressionistic black-and-white cinematography reminded me of another film about a newsman. The use of black-and-white is motivated in part by the decision to use actual footage of McCarthy rather than casting an actor to play him. We see McCarthy in his own words, his own gestures, and because he is always isolated on the screen, McCarthy seems to be part of another world, almost an alien figure. While Clooney’s film is far more modest, both filmmakers are interested in the role of the media (TV, newsreels, newspapers) in constructing national identity.

The film has been criticized in some circles for not telling the full story. Stephen Hunter, of the Washington Post (I almost missed this film because of Hunter’s sledgehammer review), faults Good Night for failing to acknowledge that there were Commie infiltrators in our midst, but Clooney’s film never claims that there were no Communist spies in the U.S. It is, as Murrow’s introductory comments imply, a film about the “watchdog” role of TV news. Oddly, Hunter also faults the film for making Murrow seem too one-dimensional, that he takes himself too seriously, rhetorically asking, “Did the guy drink, joke, pinch bottoms, get angry, root for a ball team, love his kids, read the funnies?” Hunter must have missed the bottles of scotch readily available in the office and the ever-present cigarettes that allowed Murrow to keep his cool when he realizes that his career might be in jeopardy due to his tangles with the Wisconsin Senator. Here, Alex’s questions about the role of the history film are quite relevant, as are his critiques of “objective” reporting: “Reporting cannot be unbiased, and as Murrow argues in the film, not all stories can or should be balanced. The balance, instead, is in how much you are able to use the facts to tell your story.”

Michael Atkinson’s Village Voice review offers a much more nuanced take on the film than Hunter’s, particularly when it comes to the film’s media critique (see also J. Hoberman’s interview with Clooney). But while Atkinson finds the scenes in the newsrrom too claustrophobic, I found these scenes to be fascinating, especially in the multiplication of screens that refract and multiply Murrow’s and McCarthy’s faces, with the use of rack focus often directing our attention.

It seems clear that Good Night is a powerfully relevant film, not only because of its critique of TV news journalism in the build-up to the Iraq War but also because of the attempt to recuperate McCarthy, most visibly in Ann Coulter’s Treason.

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A History of Violence

I didn’t intend to see David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (IMDB) until I read Girish’s favorable comments about the film (I think the film was poorly marketed, but that’s a rant for another day), and like him, I think it’s a smart film that uses genre conventions in innovative ways to reflect on concepts such as America’s myth of self-renewal and on the American Dream in general, as well as complicated questions about human identity (k-punk’s treatment of genre is good here).

The film opens with a couple of criminals travelling through the heartland to avoid criminal prosecution. The more sympathetic of the two criminals, younger and more handsome commits a cold-blooded act of violence, and the film cuts to a young girl screaming in bed after a nightmare about monsters. Her father, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), comes in to comfort her, and soon, her brother and mother (Maria Bello) join them. It could be a scene out of any domestic sitcom, down to the cliched words of comfort the family provides if not for the violent opening sequence In this regard, I think Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favorable comment that almost any shot in the film could be regarded as a “cliche” is absolutely right). Later, the same criminals enter Tom’s smalltown, midwestern diner, seeking to rob him and threatening the life of the diner’s waitress. Tom responds with a shocking brutality, made all the more shocking by Cronenberg’s paradoxically close-up but clinical treatment of his violent repsonse (note: Girish’s comments on the portrayal of violence are worth reading). Because of his swift response in rescuing his employees, Tom quickly becomes a “hero,” with the waitress and his chef both emphatically stating, “he saved us.” Here Cronenberg subtly treats the media’s role in promoting this form of heroism without overdoing it. Rather than the mobs of reporters typical of many Hollywood films, only one enterprising reporter awaits him at home to cover the story. As Girish notes, to some extent, the film’s positioning of Tom as a hero makes us complicit. After all, he’s the good guy.

[Note: There are probably some serious spoilers in the next few paragraphs] Tom’s passive acceptance of his newfound status as hero only deepens the viewer’s sense that something isn’t quite right (k-punk’s use of the descriptive term “uncanny” seems to fit here, and Andrew O’Hehir’s description of Cronenberg’s “dislocation effect” also works). Juxtaposed against Tom’s newfound popularity in the community, we see images of his family life. His son is an outsider, bullied by other students. Tom and his wife work to keep their marriage exciting. During an early sex scene, Edie dresses up in a cheerleader’s costume to re-create the teen years they never had together, aperformance that, as k-punk reminds us, calls attention to the fact that cheerleading itself is already a “performance.” But this concept of domestic tranquility is gradually challenged. A local police officer is mystified at Tom’s quick response. A mysterious car stalks the family home. Soon a tough guy named Fogerty (Ed Harris) shows up at Tom’s restaurant, identifying him as a gangster from Philadelphia. Tom denies that he’s the guy, but it becomes increasingly clear that he has a past life that he’s trying to bury.

Primarily in Tom’s attempts to bury this past, I regarded A History of Violence as critiquing the American Dream narrative of self-reinvention. As cronenberg himself notes in teh Salon interview, “It really is about America’s mythology of itself rather than attempting to be a slice of life as it’s lived in America now, which is quite a different thing.” Once “Tom” admits that he’s “Joey,” the Philly gangster, Tom consistently reiterates that he “buried” Joey or that Joey is dead, but it’s clear that he’s unable to entirely shake this part of his past. At the same time, the film can be read, as Cronenberg ofers, as a meditation on America’s ambivalence with violence (the cowboy myth that animates a certain version of foreign policy), and the film consistently places the viewer in a position of complicity with that violence, especially as Tom works to return to his wife and restore the “normal life” that has been shattered by the return of his (repressed) past.

I’ve already written far more about this film than I intended, which is testament to how deeply Cronenberg (and Mortesen, whom Cronenberg cites as a close collaborator) has engaged with some prominent myths about vioelnce and national identity. I think Violence is a film that will reward multiple viewings.

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Sounds, Words, Images

In the multiplex:
David Cronenberg’s fascinating genre-twisting, identity-bending, American Dream-allegorizing A History of Violence. Many thanks to Girish for pushing this film so enthusiastically. I came thisclose to skipping it.

In the DVD player:
The New Outer Limits: The 1990s version, which includes one volume consisting entirely of time-travel episodes. I got this DVD by accident from Netflix, but one or two of the episodes are quite good, particularly “A Stitch in Time,” in which Amanda Plummer plays a physicist who travels back in time to kill serial murderers before they can commit any crimes. Many of the New Outer Limits episodes are pastiches of prior time-travel films and TV shows, which doesn’t make them any less interesting.

Next up: Hal Hartley’s The Girl From Monday (thanks to Shaviro for the tip).

The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, the Mother of Love Emulates the Shapes of Cynthia.

The Postal Service, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” Give Up.

In the bookbag:
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.

On my compter:
The folks at JibJab take on outsourcing and a certain Big Box retailer (via DailyKos).

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Teaching Times

This Teaching Carnival entry is about some of my current experiences teaching a senior-level seminar for the first time. Both G Zombie and Another Damned Medievalist, in their discussions of grading, and Anbruch, in his discussion of teaching a seminar, have addressed some questions I’d like to discuss. Also, as I’ll suggest below, because this is my first 3-hour seminar, I’m still learning how to pace class discussion, a process that I’m describing under the concept of “teaching times” in honor of my interest in media and time.

The senior seminar is the culmination of the media studies degree and requires that students write a major research paper on a course theme selected by the instructor. In my case, I’ve chosen “Media Times” as the theme, which has allowed me to draw from research for my current book project, something I’ve really enjoyed doing. Rereading some of the important work on media and time (Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes; Television by Raymond Williams, and The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 by Stephen Kern, among other readings) has allowed me to see my own research anew and to recognize a little more clearly what I’d like to contribute with my book.

But teaching the seminar also has been a learning experience in terms of teaching an advanced course. I think Anbruch’s advice makes a lot of sense, and I intuitively incorporated some of his pointers into my senior seminar. Like Anbruch, I’ve generally tried to frontload the reading, with the knowledge that my students will be working hard on their projects at the end of the semester. I’ve also created a situation in which students do some of the work of leading class discussion. This also allows me to gauge how students are responding to some fairly difficult reading assignments. So far, so good. Discussion has been enthusiastic, and students have been eagerly re-reading theoretical concepts, such as Raymond Williams’ notion of “planned flow” through the contemporary situation of a society saturated with countless cable television channels, advertisements embedded within other TV shows, and other contemporary phenomena. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how quickly a three-hour seminar can sail past, at least from the perspective of the instructor. The first couple of weeks, I had to remind myself to take breaks because I’d get so caught up in the discussion, and because I know from recent experience that three hours from a student’s perspective is a lot longer than it is from an instructor’s. In one of my undergraduate courses, I even learned how to read a clock backwards in its reflection in a window. This clock-watching was not necessarily due to boredom or lack of interest but was instead due to a combination of exhaustion and a lack of control over the “narrative” of the class, and I’m still learning to account for the different level of concentration required in a senior-level class.

Also, as I’ve suggested, I’m still learning here, and this learning process includes developing strategies for managing senior-level research projects rather than shorter assignments. Unlike Anbruch, I’m not planning to cancel any classes this semester (my conference schedule is busier in the spring), but I will meet with my students individually to ensure that they are making sufficient progress on their papers. Because I have a relatively small number of students (12 or so in my senior seminar), for the first time in several years, it’s actually feasible to conduct conferences and to make them more meaningful. I’m also planning to have students “present” their paper projects to the class next Friday, an activity I picked up from one of my professors at Purdue. Not only will this require students to be prepared to talk about their projects to a classroom full of peers, but also it will allow them to cultivate networks and share resources as they conduct their research. It will also establish the seminar paper as a process rather than a punctual, last-minute activity.

But, as my discussion of the seminar paper implies, this will have the effect of backloading the work of grading for me. I’ve been careful to require occasional written assignments–a proposal, a dilation, a write-up of their presentation–so that there are no surprises at semester’s end, but I’m a little concerned about the time crunch in November and December when I’ll be prepping for MLA. G Zombie’s questions are similar to my own. How do you learn to comment judiciously on seminar papers? I know that I won’t be grading seminar papers like I do freshman composition papers, but I’m still trying to gigure out how I’ll be positioning myself as a reader (beyond the already-established position as teacher). Here, I think ADM’s comments about establishing grading rubrics and clearly defined goals for the assignemnt are really useful. If there’s a context in advance, it makes it easier to use comments more efficiently and hopefully to grade more quickly.

Finally, there’s the more obvious refrence implied by “teaching times,” with teachers fighting to secure morning or afternoon schedules based on their preferences. I’m not a “morning person,” so picking up a morning schedule has itself been a learning process. I didn’t plan for this entry to focus on “teaching times.” It just happened to take that direction, but given my focus on time in some of my research, it seemed like an interesting way to frame some of these questions.

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Frontline on Abu Ghraib

I just happened to catch a commercial for an upcoming Frontline documentary on Abu Ghraib, The Torture Question. The episode will be airing Oct. 18, 2005 at 9pm, though obviously local times may vary.

A press release on the PBS website offers more information about the challenges of filming in Iraq and especially in Abu Ghraib.

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Supreme Desires

Just a quick note on Ruth Marcus’s Washington Post column, “A Supreme Moment of Ambiguity,” which reads reaction to Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court through the new TV series, Commander in Chief, which features Geena Davis as the first female President of the United States. Marcus argues that, “the two events capture the uncertain position of women in public life today,” and I think she’s generally right about this uncertainty, but I’m not quite willing to share her argument that Miers was nominated primarily because of her gender, although her gender obviously played some role in that decision.

Like Marcus, I’d found the commercials for the show somewhat “off-putting,” especially given that the show seems to rely on the improbabilty of a female president. In fact, Davis’s character is thrust into office only when the President dies (Air Force One and The Contender, with their female VPs, mine similar territory). As Marcus observes, the series sometimes trades in the gender role reversals (the “First Man,” etc), but she quickly adds that because of Davis’s “matter-of-fact” performance as the POTUS, the series “is growing on her.”

While I haven’t seen the series (just the commercials) and can’t comment on its treatment of the idea of a female President, I can’t help but think of a third image that Marcus fails to mention: the political-pundit fantasy of a presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Condi Rice that many pundits have been imagining (or fearing). I’ve found it difficult not to think about these rumors every time I see an advertisement for Commander in Chief, and CiC seems to be tapping into those fears as well. Can a female President lead the military in a time of war? Here, it’s notable that both candidates are relatively hawkish. How will other nations react to a female leader? Of course the answer to the latter question will probably be yet another question: What took you so long?

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Starbucks Challenge: Gallery Place-Chinatown

G Zombie’s enthusiasm for The Starbucks Challenge is contagious. As G Zombie notes, Fair Trade coffee is a pretty cool thing, ensuring that coffee farmers and harvesters get fair working conditions and a fair price for their coffee. According to green LA girl, Starbucks policy is to make Fair Trade coffee for you if you request it, and this week, one of Starbucks’ featured coffees is the fair-trade certified Cafe Estima. I had some grading to do this afternoon, so I took the Metro down to the Gallery Place-Chinatown Starbucks, located at 800 7th Street, NW, here in Washington, DC (it was in the early afternoon, around 12:30 PM), to see if they could pass The Starbucks Challenge, reported G Zombie style:

Barista: Hi, may I help you?
Me: Hi, could I get a cup of Fair Trade certified coffee?
Barista: [Complete look of confusion]
Me: If I understand correctly, your Cafe Estima is Fair Trade coffee. I’ll have a venti cup of that.
Barista: [Still confused] I don’t think we have that. These are our available coffees.
Me: [Spotting the Cafe Estima, labelled only as “Estima”] I’ll have that, the Estima.
Barista corrects my pronunciation [mine sounded like “estimate,” hers more like “esteem;” anyone know which is correct?] and serves me a cup.

So, basically the trip was successful in that I got Fair Trade coffee, but she seemed a little unclear on the Fair Trade concept.

I happened to enter this particular Starbucks during a lull in customers, so I would have been prepared to request that they French-press a cup, but luckily they had some already brewed.

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Documenting Katrina

While digging around on Technorati tags, I came across the news that Spike Lee is planning a documentary, When the Levee Broke, aobout the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for HBO (via Breitbart and The Thinklings). Here’s an announcement from Variety confirming the planned documentary.

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I’ve recently received several great tips about some interesting film and documentary projects, so thought I’d pass the news along:

First, the promising-looking political documentary, This Divided State (IMDB), which follows Michael Moore’s controversial decision to speak at Utah Valley State College. The trailer is pretty powerful, and their website features some valuable supplemental material.

Also, a quick pointer to the caveh experiment (no relation to my blog), dedicated to the work of filmmaker Caveh Zahedi.

Finally, I’ve been meaning to call attention to The Journal of Short Film, a quarterly DVD journal containing 90-120 minutes of independent short film per volume. And, according to the website, JSF will soon be accompanied by The Journal of Political Film.

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Post Blogging

Last night, I caught Henry Farrell’s thoughtful discussion of how blogging is changing politics. Henry noted that although individual blogs have significantly smaller readerships than most major news sources (such as The New York Times or Washington Post), they have attracted a significant amount of attention in the media and even in political dialogue. Today, a Washington Post article, “Cyber-Catharsis: Bloggers Use Web Sites as Therapy,” explores the potentially therapeutic role blogs can have. While the article acknowledges the personal and professional risks of “therapy blogging,” it also cites Matt Kirschenbaum and others who note that blog relationships can become “very real” (these “risks” are not unrelated to the Tribblist cautionary tales about academic blogging). Henry’s talk and the Post article do bring up some interesting questions about why blogging has recieved so much ambivalent attention from “older” media.

In terms of political dialogue, as Henry noted in his talk, during Senator Cornyn’s questions for John Roberts, he apparently cited reaction to Roberts’ nomination in the blogosphere. Negative reactions in the blogosphere to Harriet Miers’ nomination, especially among conservative bloggers, have also received a lot of attention, even if relatively few people are reading a vast majority of blogs that are out there (including my own). However, as Henry notes, many of the people who are attentive to blogs, including journalists and political actors, can have a major, if indirect, effect on politics.

In this context, I’ve been interested in the responses to bloging by the two major national newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Most bloggers know by now that the Times has now walled off its op-ed content, requiring that readers pay a somewhat significant annual subscription fee. The result has been a decrease in the influence of New York Times columnists, at least within the blogosphere (which is only a small corner of the world, of course). By contrast, the Washington Post has used blogging to encourage readership, not only by using Technorati to highlight blogs that are linking to Post content, but also by citing bloggers in their Media Notes Extra section, to which I’m quickly becoming addicted. I probably don’t need to develop this line of argument any further, but I have been intrigued by the Post’s careful cultivation of an audience of bloggers.

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Smurf Bombs

I have to teach in about five minutes, so a quick link for now: According to The Age, UNICEF is using a short animated sequence of the Smurf Village being bombed to teach schoolchildren about the war. The film was made with the approval of the family of the Smurfs’ creator, with the stipulation that it not air before 9 PM. Needless to say, reactions to the bombing of Smurf village are mixed.

Metafilter has a link to the video. More later, if I get a chance.

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Night and Day

For now a bookmarking post: Peter Baldwin, “Mapping Time: Night and day in the nineteenth-century city,” Commonplace, 6.1 (October 2005). Thanks to Anne for the link.