Archive for November, 2005

Dead Men Voting

Via Atrios, more on the Joe Dante-directed episode of Masters of Horror from the Village Voice. Best line goes to Dante himself at the film’s premiere in Turin: “This is a horror story because most of the characters are Republicans.”

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Downloading for Dollars

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been doing some writing about the new video iPod lately. After David’s comment to the latter entry, I’ve become intrigued by the video iPod less as a viewing technology and more as a means of distribution. Now I know that the video iPod will be used for watching movies, but the 2.5″ screen limits the number of locations (on the subway, waiting for an airplane or in a doctor’s office) where watching will be pleasurable. Instead, the video iPod is more valuable as an incredibly cheap means of distribution, allowing studios to dodge many of the expensive costs of producing DVDs, as this “Downloading for Dollars” article by Edward Jay Epstein argues. I’ve been writing about this topic often lately, so just didn’t want to lose the link.

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Die Hard in Baghdad

I’ve written fairly often here about Hollywood film representations of war, arguing (following David Robb’s argument in Operation Hollywood) that because Hollywood studios depend on the military for equipment and expert advice, they rarely make explicitly anti-war (or, more precisely anti-military films). But, via TBogg, I see that the same tired arguments are being made about “Liberal Hollywood’s” opposition to the war.

TBogg offers a link to the news from the folks at Pajamas Media that Bruce Willis is planning “a pro-war feature film about United States involvement in Iraq.” The PJs Media folks add that “Willis is bucking a nearly unbroken skein of Tinseltown anti-war films that goes back to such Vietnam era favorites as Coming Home and Platoon.”

The PJs Media folks must have forgotten Saving Private Ryan, the made-for-TV series, Band of Brothers, Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers, the Rambo movies, or even Willis’ own Hart’s War and Tears of the Sun. And certainly the Top Gun genre is pro-military, even if the Tom Cruise grin-fest is not exactly a war film. I understand their forgetting, however, as I’ve tried to forget many of these films myself. The point here isn’t to suggest that Hollywod is “pro-war,” but to argue that studios are more interested in profits than politics. If the film gets made–and I wouldn’t be surprised either way–it will be because the film’s proposed budget seems like a good economic risk.

They also speculate that Willis’ project might never be produced despite his status as a “bankable star.” I’m tempted to make some smart comments about the folks at PJs Media calling Bruce Willis a “bankable star,” especially given the grosses of Hostage, The Whole Ten Yards and Tears of the Sun, to name three of Willis’s recent films. But I’ll let Willis’ recent box office speak for itself.

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Masters of Horror

Other people have already been talking about the Friday December 2, episode of Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, Homecoming, directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins), but I figured I’d mention it anyway.

In Homecoming, the country is gripped by terror when it is learned that zombies have stolen the presidential election. According to one of the IMDB reviewers (no permalink to the review, unfortunately), it sounds like the episode’s “sharp” political satire works pretty well. Yet another reason I should have cable.

Update: The entire series looks pretty interesting, with a who’s who list of prominent horror directors (Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, John McNaughton, and others).

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Media and History Course

In the spring, I’ll be teaching 3 sections of CUA’s Media and History course. The stated goal of the course is to “explore mediation in and across time,” with the hope of introducing students to questions about the transitions and interactions among media and culture. In the past, the course hasn’t been taught as a comprehensive survey of media history (teaching several thousand years’ worth of media in fifteen weeks would be rather difficult). Instead the emphasis is on using past media transitions to make sense of contemporary transitions, which I think is a good idea. So far, I have the basic scaffolding for the course set up, including the books I’ll require my students to read:

  • Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880, which I believe will riase some interesting questions about 19th Century print culture here in the US.
  • Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America. Still one of the strongest and most accessible cultural histories of the cinema. I’ll probably supplement his book with more recent accounts of waning studio profits and new distribution technologies (these discussions of film are obviously quite timely).
  • Susan Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. In part, this is an excuse to spend some more time with another cool book, but discussions about the social role of radio also now seem timely with the emergence of podcasts, internet radio, and other modes of broadcasting (or narrowcasting as the case may be).
  • Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media. I’ll likely use the “haunted media” theme as a framing device for the course and insert Sconce’s chapters on telegraphy, telephone, radio, etc, throughout the semester.

I’ll certainly supplement these books with some relevant historical essays (too tired to list them right now) and required encounters with relevant texts (Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, possibly the Bela Lugosi film, Murder by Television, and others). I’m thinking out loud over here, so any suggestions or observations would be welcome.

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Shaping Brands

I’ll be teaching a selection from Naomi Klein’s No Logo in my junior seminar this week, and while I was re-reading the chapter tonight, I came across a detail that always send me reeling: Jean-Luc Godard, notoriously critical of all things Hollywood, once directed a Nike commercial for European TV. I’ve done a quick Google search and haven’t had any luck finding the ad, but I did find another interesting Frontline episode on corporate branding called The Persuaders. Of primary interest, an interview with Andy Spade, a creative consultant for Song Airlines, who discusses the cinematic influences on Song’s TV ads (Godard and Truffaut, but also Wes Anderson, among others). It’s no longer surprising, of course, that even work by the most anti-corporate mediamakers can be appropriated for commercial purposes, but The Persuaders does look like it might be a useful resource for a media studies class.

So, if anyone knows where I might be able to find the Godard Nike ad, I’d be curious to see it.

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Theory is Dead

Via the Filmmaker Magazine Blog, a New York Times Magazine interview with the French philosopher the Wachowski brothers made safe for America, Jean Baudrillard, conducted by Deborah Solomon.

The interview is pretty disappointing, in part because the interviewer moves away from Baudrillard’s arguments about the war as “simulation” too quickly, but the playful photograph of Baudrillard is worth a look. Also interesting: Baudrillard’s stated preference for American fiction (Roth, Capote, etc) over French novelists.

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Washington Jewish Film Festival

I just received an email alerting me about the upcoming Washington Jewish Film Festival, which runs from December 1-11. Based on the schedule, it looks like a fairly eclectic collection of films produced both in the US and abroad and the festival includes documentaries as well as feature films. Also included: the tele-film version of Budd Schulberg’s scathing Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run?, which until 2004 was belived to have been lost.

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Media Humor and Movie Suggestions

Some media humor from The Onion. Thanks to Lost Remote for the tip (like them, I don’t want to spoil the joke).

Movie suggestions: If, as Professor B suggests, Thanksgiving is movie time, what movies will you be seeing? I never quite got around to reviewing it, but The Squid and the Whale was entertaining. It reminded me a lot of The Royal Tennenbaums in its treatment of divorce and family.

I’m still trying to decide what I’ll see tonight. So far, I’ve been resisting Capote and Walk the Line, but I keep hearing good buzz. Any suggestions?

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The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah

Chris Hansen’s The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah (official website) is a mock documentary that follows Brian (Dustin Olson), a balding thirtysomething who believes that he is a messiah. Not the messiah, Brian persistently reminds the unseen documentary filmmaker (played by the director), but a regionally-selected messiah for a “100-mile radius,” Brian estimates. Brian’s delusions of grandeur are supported by his younger brother, Aaron, who admires his older brother, and his sister, Miriam, who recognizes Brian’s problems but seeks to prevent him from harming himself. The film is structured around a brief interlude in Brian’s “career” as he arranges to announce himself and his “higher purpose” to the public at his town’s civic center.

The mockumentary follows Brian first as he explains why he’s a messiah and later as he seeks to raise money to rent the civic center and to pay for t-shirts with a humorously garbled message designed to promote his appearance. Brian’s attempts to raise money include a baptism service that he sets up at a nearby swimming hole/beach, with Brian debating with his younger brother about how much he should charge for a baptism. Later, when Brian and his siblings go door-to-door to raise money, they find themselves in the home of someone (played by Arrested Development’s Tony Hale) who needs a messiah’s services to drive out unwanted–and apparently invisible–guests, producing a remarkably comedic scene in which Brian is forced to confrot someone else with similar delusions.

The mockumentary format allows Brian to talk at some length about why he believes that he’s a messiah (he describes “miracles” that he performs; he introduces us to his collection of Jesus figurines) and also allows Hansen to play with the conventions of the documentary (and now the mockumentary) genre, with the film recalling the Michael McKean/Christopher Guest collaborations (Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap), Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts, and most explicitly, for me at least, Chris Smith’s American Movie. The film plays with documentary tropes (including the use of vocal distortion and shadows to protect a character’s “anonymity,” and the documentarian’s occasional abuse of his poisition of knowledge with regards to his subjects. In Hansen’s film, the mockumentary approach works best when staging the drama between the three siblings, particularly when Brian’s sister, Miriam glances at the camera, indicting the filmmaker for his complicity in sustaining Brian’s delusions. In this regard, the film’s title seems especially resonant: what role are these characters serving in encouraging Brian in his delusions?

The film also reminds me, to some extent, of religious satires such as Saved, although Hansen’s film is significantly less inhospitable towards people who are religious (in an interview, Hansen compares it more readily to Life of Brian). But the comedy–and the film’s critique–derives primarily from Brian’s capacity for believing himself to be a messiah without delivering any of the good works or displaying any of the generosity that one might expect out of him. This is best illustrated in a scene in which Brian is so caught up in his own attempts to locate his “higher purpose” that he is oblivious for several days to the fact that his sister has left home (update: these family dynamics might also recall Napoleon Dynamite, with which Hansen’s film has some afinity).

The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah was only recently completed and does not yet have distribution (in fact seeing the film this early in the game seems to be one of the perks of having a film blog). The film is currently making the rounds at film festivals, and I hope it receives the much wider audience that it deserves.

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Mobile Video

Here are a few more links for one of my current writing projects thanks to the prolific bloggers at Lost Remote. First, they mention that network and studio executives are upset by TiVo’s decision to allow subscribers to download TV shows from their TiVos to their PCs and from there to portable devices such as the new iPods. It’s not hard to guess that the reason the networks are upset is that they are cooking up plans to sell their content on demand (see also PaidContent). Cory at Lost Remote also mentions the new company TVMyPod,whihc will sell you a new video iPod preloaded with your choice of DVDs (again, also see PaidContent).

Since the primary use for iPod video has been television, mobile cinema didn’t feel like the right term to describe this emergent phenomeon. Still sorting through ideas here, but I didn’t want to lose the links. Just out of curiosity, have any of my readers experimented with the new iPod video. If so, I’d enjoy hearing about it (what you watched, where you watched it, etc).

Update: Here’s another take on the new screen culture, “Couch Potatoes Arise,” from The Age. And from the Northwetsern University student newspaper, the university’s School of Communication is offering podcasts and videocasts that among other things, will be used to give prospective students a sense of what life is like at the University.

Update 2: Here’s an interesting article on the quickly booming market of iPod pornography. As with most new media technologies, debates revolve around children gaining increasing access to pornographic material, but the more interesting question in this short article is the degree to which the video iPod seems to complicate sites of public and private viewing. Here’s a similar article reprinted from the Washington Post.

I’ve also been planning to link to this article, originally in the LA Times, on the decline and apparently imminent fall of the studio system (Malcolm Gladwell’s term, “tipping point,” is even being thrown around, so I think it’s pretty serious).

Update 3: Here’s another Washington Post article (originally from PC World). I’ve been trying to find promotional photopgraphs of the video iPod, or more specifically, someone watching the video iPod, and this is one of the few that I’ve seen so far. Not a big deal, but something I’m vaguely curious about.

Even better, here’s a typically snobbish op-ed from George Will on iPods.

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Mobile Cinema

Just a quick entry to track some articles on what might be described as “mobile cinema,” although cinema seems like an inadequate term to describe the range of mobile video products including Apple’s iPod video, the forthcoming TiVo To Go, and Fox’s plans to offer movies online via Movielink. My thinking about this new mobile cinema is still brewing, but hopefully I’ll have something to say about it over the next few days.

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Cinema’s Dyin’…Who’s Got the Will?

I’m sorting through some ideas on a couple of writing projects today, and many of the essays, articles, and interviews I’ve been reading keep repeating the same narrative: cinema is dead. Or maybe dying. For the most part, I’ve seen this narrative as one narrative among many for describing what’s happening right now in the world of making, distributing, and consuming moving images, but the popularity of this narrative certainly begs the question: Why do so many people insist that cinema is dead (or dying)? And, a slightly different question, what are the desires involved in witnessing the death of cinema?

I have several examples in mind here, both academic and popular. A good place to start would be Jon Lewis’s provocatively titled collection, It’s the End of Cinema as We Know It, which linked 1990s millenial culture with a cinema industry in a state of transition (the birth of digital technologies, the “globalization” of Hollywood, etc), but it would also make sense to include Edward Jay Epstein’s The Big Picture, which seeks to document the transformation of the major studios.

But this imagined “death of cinema” seems to have a much longer history. Jean-Luc Godard is famous for pronouncing the death of cinema, at the end of his 1967 film, Weekend (“Fin de Cinéma”). And, of course, Pillow Book and Prospero’s Books director Peter Greenaway has joined those who wish to declare cinema dead (thanks to Matthew Clayfield’s BraintrustDV essay for the link). Godard and Greenaway’s claims are, of course, provocative, equally polemical and playful, at least in my reading.

Greenaway’s comments, however, do point towards one of the key signs of cinema’s imminent demise: the potential for interactivity offered by the remote control, essentially locating this so-called death of cinema in new modes of image consumption. To some extent, I find his arguments enticing, especially given the degree to which video-on-demand, iPod video, and other technologies multiply the locations where we can watch moving pictures (film now seems to be an imprecise term) and the degree to which spectators believe themselves to be in control over the viewing experience, and this is one question that I’m still working through. In a BraintrustDV interview with filmmaker Caveh Zehedi, the interviewee describes the experience of downloading one of Zahedi’s films and watching it in a coffeehouse (the comment is about halfway through the interview). There is clearly something new going on here (“private” viewing in a public space, etc), but it seems hasty to read such practices as signalling the obsolescence of seeing movies in theaters (note: Nick’s recent comments about “the vanishing screen” might also be relvant here). In fact, despite the ease of making digital films, distribution often remains a major hurdle, as this New York Times article illustrates (more on this article later).

This question is also informed by new modes of production. I’ve been spending a lot of time this afternoon reading essays on BraintrustDV, so I’ll just point out cinematographer Russ Alsobrook’s “Back to the Future” essay as one example illustrating this rhetoric as it appears in conversations about filming (recording?) with digital cameras. Here, of course, the reverse (negative?) image of the death of cinema appears in the guise of a “digital revolution” (a similar–and interesting–version of this narrative also appears in this essay by Keith Griffiths).

I don’t have any conclusions here, but the persistence of this death-of-cinema narrative is striking. Epstein’s efforts to link this story to economic interests are an obvious place to start. Obviously convenience and portability are major selling factors, at least in terms of marketing the death of cinema, but why are so many of us so willing to declare, along with Godard, “Fin de Cinéma?”

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The New Progressivism

Via Kevin Drum: a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress about their upcoming issue on “The New Progressivism.” Details below the fold.

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Adapting Graphic Novels

Earlier this week, Girish asked for your favorite literary adpatations and your reasons for liking them. Like Girish, I’m not a fan of films that slavishly imitate the book’s narrative, realizing in pictorial form what I’ve already read. Instead, I prefer films that borrow creatively from a written source, including those that offer compelling reinterpretations of the prior material. In that regard, Kubrick’s take on The Shining is compelling in part because of its departure from King’s novel. Altman’s Short Cuts, one of my favorite adaptations, fascinates because of its clever weaving of Raymond Carver’s stories as well as Altman’s inspired decision to move the stories from the Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles.

Adaptations of graphic novels complicate this question to some extent. In Marc’s comment to my previous entry, he notes the “deceptively sophisticated negotiation of gap filling strategies and linkings” required by the best graphic novels. I think that many filmic adaptations of graphic novels end up falling flat because they underestimate this sophistication by merely adding motion to the graphic novel’s images, sometimes treating images from the novels as nothing more than rough storyboards. So here’s my question: what are your favorite adaptations of graphic novels? Or better, least favorite adaptations? And why?

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