Archive for November, 2005

Comics into Film

Just a quick pointer to an interesting Green Cine interview with Maus author Art Spiegelman. Among other points of interest, Spiegelman makes the argument that comic artists invented cross-cutting years before D.W. Griffith picked up a movie camera. Spiegelman also revisits his decision not to make a film version of his Maus comics. Best line:

In the beginning, when it happened, I remember there was one person who got my home number and kept bugging me. And she would say, “Well, if you were going to do it…” I said that I wasn’t going to make a movie, but then she would insist, and say, “But if you were going to do it, how do you see it, how could we do it?” And at that point, because this was a relatively early technological moment, I said, “OK, let’s do it, but let’s use real mice.”

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Rove’s War Trailer

The cool folks at Take Back the Media have put together a documentary called Rove’s War that traces Rove’s role in building the case for war in Iraq. So far, they’re promoting the film with an extended (12-minute) trailer that provides a nice sense of what the film will be doing.

The most powerful segment of the trailer–in my reading at least–cuts between George Bush giving the talk to the press corps in which he pretends to be looking underneath the podium for WMD (“No WMD here. I know they’re around here somewhere!”) and yearbook-style photos of a small number of the soldiers who have died so far in Iraq. My DVD budget is a little tight right now, but if anyone gets a chance to see it, I’d love to hear a review.

Thanks to Crooks and Liars for the tip.

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Uninspired

Badger mentions the American Film Institute’s latest list, 100 Years…100 Cheers: America’s Most Inspiring Movies (pdf). So far, more than 300 films have been nominated, and 1,500 industry types will vote on the films that have “inspired them.”

Badger’s predictions about the final list sound about right. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg will make about seven appearances each. We’ll have lots of sports teams triumphing over great odds, heroic teachers and lawyers saving the day, rags-to-riches stories, dozens of individuals beating evil corporations and/or faceless bureaucracies, and heterosexual couplings galore (with Philadelphia the notable exception here because of the Tom Hanks Factor).

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Anthem

I’m leading a discussion that involves this MCI advertisement. More later.

Update: I’m also talking about this IBM advertisement.

Update 2: Just a quick explanation of this entry. In my senior seminar, I was teaching a section of Lisa Nakamura’s Cybertypes, in which she discusses the utopian imagery of the MCI “Anthem” advertisement and the Microsoft “Where Do You Want to Go Today?” advertisements and came across this useful resource, Representations of Global Capital, by Robert Goldman, Stephen Papson, and Noah Kersey. The site stores a number of corporate TV advertisements that depict a world shaped by global capitalism.

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Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

I caught Robert Greenwald’s latest documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price last night at the DC Drinking Liberally screening in a bar near Dupont Circle, and while I praised the film’s tireless promoters earlier simply for shifting the conversation about Wal-Mart, the documentary itself was surprisingly powerful. Many of the documentary’s arguments may be familiar regarding Wal-Mart’s harmful effects on locally-owned businesses, its poor hourly wages and benefits packages, its intense anti-union efforts, and its use of overseas labor. I’ll admit that I was surprised about a few things, including the company’s surprising stinginess when it comes to supporting charities. But what I found most valuable about the film was its ability to put a human face on all of Wal-Mart’s harmful business practices.

The film is framed by video footage of a shareholders meeting in which Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott repeats talking points about the beneficial effects of Wal-Mart, which would include obscene profits at the expense of their underpaid employees. Scott’s cheerleading is then undercut by various examples of the harmful effects of Wal-Mart. Some of the more vivid examples include a local business owner in Ohio forced to close his store after 41 years in business. In another instance, we are introduced to a Chinese woman who works in one of the factories where Wal-Mart goods are manufactured. The woman explains that even if she and her boyfriend choose not to live in the factory’s dorm, they still have rent deducted from their tiny wages. Other images include an African-American woman who suspects that she was passed over for management because of her gender and race. The attention to these last two personal experiences alone makes Wal-Mart a remarkably feminist film.

But this awareness of Wal-Mart’s effect on the everyday lives of its employees and members of the community doesn’t stop there. To my mind, one of the major strengths of this film was its ability to capture people in their everyday lives. When we meet the family whose business has been forced to close (I forget their names), the grandmother is portrayed working in the home, ironing clothes. Another female anti-Wal-Mart activist is shown preparing dinner while she talks to the camera. A union organizer working for a Wal-Mart auto repair center is shown making calls and trying to convince others to join. The effect–to my mind–is powerful. We glimpse these employees in their homes and get a very clear sense of who they are. The fact that the women, in particular, are engaged in domestic labor when they get home form work conveys some sense of how hard they are working (note: Ty Burr liked the film for similar reasons).

But, like Andrew O’Hehir, I felt the most powerful moments are the ones in which Greenwald’s camera enters the dreary factory in which we meet several workers who earn roughly 30-40 cents an hour to produce the cheap goods sold at Wal-Mart. O’Hehir compares these images to the righteous anger of Chapter 4 in Marx’s Capital, and I think that’s an apt comparison. As O’Hehir’s comments imply, scenes like these can have the effect of shaking one’s complacency as a consumer. But O’Hehir’s review blurs some of Greenwald’s most important critiques, particularly when he asks, “Am I really willing to buy a shirt at a price that would pay the person who made it a decent wage?” Prices matter here, of course, but Greenwald’s villain is not the consumer but the concentration of wealth at the top of the corporation. And, in fact, we already pay higher prices for these goods through hidden costs such as tax breaks used to lure Wal-Marts into communities.

While the film raises some serious charges against Wal-Mart, often using some powerful emotional images, it manages to balance that with some playful humor, whether the satirical commercials used to promote the film or in one well-timed break in tension, a clip from The Daily Show. The fim itself ends on an optomistic note, featuring two local communities that fought Wal-Mart and won, often through word-of-mouth campaigns that grew from a few people in a small room in the back of a church to several hundred people marching on the streets. Although O’Hehir faults the film for making Wal-Mart the bad guy in the current stage of global capitalism, I think he underestimates the film and its audience, and his critique, in fact, produces a sense of resignation. Instead of concluding that Wal-Mart is the only villain, the film offers a recipe for thinking about power imbalance in other situations as well. Part of the power of taking on Wal-Mart, however, is that they are the most potent symbol of these abuses. And while the not-in-my-backyard politics can only achieve so much, if enough people keep Wal-Mart out of their backyards, then Wal-Mart and even its competitors will be forced to do better.

Plus, anything that makes Bill O’Reilly this upset has to be good, right?

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Lazy Wednesday Links

I’m heading out to the Wal-Mart movie screening in a few hours (I’ll write a review as soon as I possibly can) and while I should be doing other things, I found a few more links I’d like to preserve. First, via a Technorati tag search, I came across a cool film and media studies blog by John Schott, Ratchet Up.

Second, Eric Alterman has a pointer to Rebecca A. Goetz’s CHE article on academic blogging and explains that acadmic blogs are valuable because they raise “questions for scholar and layman alike about important questions that relate to both simultaneously. There are many of these and it’d be a shame to lose them.” While you’re in the neighborhood, check out Rebecca’s blog.

Finally, I’ve been out of the loop for the last few days (job market stuff, film screenings, research, the usual), so I completely forgot about the third installment of the Teaching Carnival, hosted by Scrivener. Worth noting: the rebirth of Palimpsest as a wiki.

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I Am a Sex Addict (2005)

I had the good luck of seeing Caveh Zahedi’s poignant autobiographical documentary, I Am a Sex Addict, (Zahedi’s official site, but also check out the caveh experiment) last night at the AFI Silver Theater. Darren has already written an incredible review-essay of the film, which describes many of the aspects of the film–including the play between documentary and fiction–that I found most rewarding. It’s wroth noting, of course, that Zahedi’s film was screened as a part of an AFI-sponsored film series on recovery from addiction, and that Zahedi frankly treats his own recovery from sexual addiction through autobiographical narrative.

As Darren points out, I Am a Sex Addict opens with Zahedi intrioducing himself to us as Caveh, on his wedding day (note: Thomas Didymus’s comment on the re-shooting of that scene complicates the play between fiction and documentary even further). Throughout the film, Caveh directly addresses the camera, often breaking from character, to make a witty aside or to comment on what we’re watching. As a result, Caveh disarms the viewer, creating sympathy for him as his sexual addiction deepens over the course of the film. This addiction primarily manifests itself in a desire to have sex with prostitutes, and as Darren’s review notes, Zahedi’s film portrays his increasingly ineffective strategies in dealing with this addiction (these straegies are scrawled one-by-one on a chalkboard, which I thought was a nice touch). Ultimately, Zahedi’s two previous marraiges and other sexual relationships are harmed by his addiction . I’m finding myself wanting to repeat many of Darren’s observations, but I think he’s also right that Zahedi’s care in establishing the right tone for this film was essential. It would have been easy for Zahedi to make his on-screen persona unlikable, particularly during one or two scenes where Caveh describes some specific fantasies to Greg Watkins (playing himself of course), his cinematographer and close fiend. But the gradual deepening of Caveh’s addiction generally makes the film work.

As Darren notes, Zahedi constantly reminds the viewer that we are watching a film. He calls attention to the fact that one scene is filmed in San Francisco rather than Paris because Paris is too expensive and later films in Paris anyway. He points out the use of hair coloring to make himself look younger during certain scenes, and most importantly, we are introduced to several “behind-the-scenes” moments including one in which an actresses playing one of his girfriends expresses discomfort with doing a sex scene. I personally found myself drawn into these behind-the-scenes moments and initially wanted more of that. But after the film, when I joined Caveh and Sujewa while Sujewa interviewed Caveh, Caveh pointed out that many audience members felt they were being taken out of the film by those scenes, that our emotional identification with Caveh’s story was disrupted, and I think he’s right about that. But the scene with the actress is clearly necessary in that it complicates Caveh’s necessarily graphic but often comical depictions of sex. This blurring takes place in other ways, too. When describing his earlier relationships, Caveh introduces his ex-girlfriend and ex-wives using home movie footage.

It’s worth noting that the post-film conversation complicates my review of the film in other ways in that I feel as if I’m participating in the blurring of the lines between the real Caveh Zahedi and his on-screen persona in I Am a Sex Addict, and I’m not quite sure how that might affect my response to his film. I’m still processing what I’ve seen, but the film’s deeply confessional nature is compelling, and in this case, it clearly serves a valuable instructive purpose in dealing so explicitly with a topic such as sexual addiction.

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Fountain Blog

Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming time-travel film, The Fountain, has a blog. It’s mostly teasers, film stills, and other promotional information, but worth checking out if you’re curious about the film.

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Hollywood Goes to War (Again)

I learned about the New York Times Magazine special movie issue on Hollywood and war via Alterman’s discussion of Matt Bai’s backhanded compliment of Hollywood Liberals. I think Alterman’s take on the article is just about right. Bai clearly seems angry that Rob Reiner and the Hollywood Liberals were, as Alterman puts it, “righter about the war than most of his colleagues in the mainstream media.” It’s clear that Bai wants to retain the image of Reiner and company as either politically unsophisticated or perhaps politically insincere, unwilling to “take to the streets” in support of their convictions.

Bai’s evidence for suggesting that Hollywood types are unsophisticated relies on one anecdote about a Hollywood party in which Ben and Jerry’s Ben Cohen describes economic poilcy using Oreo cookies. In fact, the opposition to the war among many Hollywood players is attributed to the very fact that “Hollywood was so out of touch with what seemed like reality that it was, in fact, entirely in touch with the new political ethos of Washington, where facts are elasticized in pursuit of box-office approbation.” Because critically thinking about the problems with Bush’s case for the war wouldn’t have worked now, would it?

Perhaps more troubling are Bai’s claims that Hollywood stars failed to take to the streets in protest of the war in Iraq. This July 31, 2003, Altermedia article tells a much different story, reporting that stars including Tim Robbins, Christine Lahti, Martin Sheen, and James Cromwell (to name but a few) did take to the streets (quite literally) in stating their opposition to the war in Iraq.

I didn’t intend to write such a long response to Bai’s article because the Magazine has published several other articles on war and cinema that are far more interesting. Tom Bissell’s “Rules of Engagement” offers an intriguing critique of the current crop of war documentaries, arguing that they are sometimes too close to the action and released too quickly to give us a sense of what’s going on. Bissell criticizes Control Room and Gunner Palace, among others, for not offering a long view of the war, including the history of Iraq, arguing in favor of a film like Dreams of Sparrows as an alternative to the “partial maps” that produce what he calls “journalism in a hurry.”

I think it’s reasonable to argue that many of these documentaries seem “hurried,” and Bissell is absolutely right to fault many of these films for not offering Iraqi citizens an opportunity to have their voices heard, but I’d also like to defend the role of multiple documentaries as “partial maps” rather than expecting that any documentary will offer a complete picture of the war. In fact, these “partial maps” (a term I like quite a bit) often structure within them the impossibility of a complete understanding of the war, their inability to offer a definitive portrait of what is happening in Iraq as we continue to learn new information and to watch things unfold.

The entire NYT Magazine issue is worth checking out, and I might have more to say later, but I have some other work that is calling my name.

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Gulf Coast Reconstruction

Yesterday, I mentioned the class blog, Writing Hurricane Katrina, but here’s another useful resource in tracking the post-Katrina rebuilding process. Via Atrios, I came across the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch, a new project to document and investigate teh rebuilding of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The project is affiliated with the Institute for Southern Studies, a non-profit research center.

While you’re there, check out the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch’s Voices section and their blog.

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Writing and Catastrophe

I just received a note from a former colleague, Doreen Piano, who is teaching a course in nonfiction writing at the University of New Orleans. In the class, students are using a class blog, Writing Hurricane Katrina: A Class Blog, as an attempt to “witness” the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and to provide “a public memorial” for all of those affected by the storm and its aftermath.

The students’ narratives are rather compelling and provide a wide range of perspectives on the aftermath of the hurricane. In one of her entries, Doreen includes a picture (taken from Katrina: A Midcity Blog) and describes her response to the devastation of her neighborhood. This strikes me as an incredibly productive use of classroom blogging and blogging’s use of chronological posts and archives, especially given the ongoing efforts to rebuild and recover from the storm.

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Paradise Now

In the opening scene of Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (IMDB), Said and Khaled attempt to repair a broken-down car. Said is quieter and more serious while Khaled is more playful, but the close friends struggle to get the car running. After working on the car, Said meets Suha, the daughter of a prominent Palestinian martyr. She has come to have her car repaired, and it’s clear that there is an instant attraction between Said and Suha. But soon after this initial meeting, Said and Khaled are given a much different task. They are recruited for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv, and it’s a testament to Abu-Assad’s thoughtful approach to this material that Said and Khaled are treated not as mosnters but as conflicted individuals who struggle with the task set before them (in this regard, Paradise Now provides a nice companion piece to The War Within).

The film focuses primarily on the 24 hours before Said and Khaled are slated to go into Tel Aviv. The film shows them recording their good-byes to the families on video, and we see later a video store in Nablus that does a brisk business selling these goodbyes. We also see Said agonizing over this act, asking his best friend whether they are really going to be martyrs who will be rewarded in paradise (and, here, I think Ebert terribly underestimates the doubts that both characters have). We also see Said discuss his doubts with Suha, who is Palestinian but was born in Paris and lives in Morocco, and whose politics seem most aligned with the filmmakers. Suha condemns the suicide bombings and instead condones a response to the Occupation that emphasizes human rights.

While Desson Thomas’s review places emphasis on this individual struggle and on the film’s innovative use of genre, I found the film’s “documentary” feel to be more compelling. As J. Hoberman notes, Paradise was filmed on location in Nablus and in Abu-Assad’s hometown of Nazareth, and the traces of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are everywhere. We see the rubble bombed out buildings, derelict spaces used to train and equip suicide bombers, and more importantly, the wall that divides the two worlds. This division is made even more apparent when Said rides through the streets of Tel Aviv, with its vacationers walking along the beach.

I wish I’d written sooner about this film, or had more time to write about it, because I think it deserves a much wider audience (to be fair it did play to a packed crowd at the Dupont Circle theater where I saw it, so hoopefully it will play for a few more days). For now, I’ll point to Cynthia Fuchs’ Pop Matters review.

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Jarhead

I’m behind on my movie reviews, so this week’s reviews may be a bit rushed, but here goes. After finishing Anthony Swofford’s thoughtful Gulf War I memoir, Jarhead, I was curious to see Sam Mendes’ big screen adaptation (IMDB), starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jamie Foxx. The film, which does convey the nervousness and frustration Swofford describes of waiting for the first Gulf War, ended up disappointing me, but I’m not quite sure I can figure out why that’s the case.

I think I would have liked the film to further convey the disconnect between the Marines at war (or waiting for war) and their lives at home, both during and after the war. The section of Swofford’s book that I found most compelling were those that described his conversations after the war with the men from his sniper unit. As it stands, the film only offers fleeting glimpses: the wall of shame for soldiers’ cheating wives and girlfriends, a brief, awkward bar conversation with a fellow soldier desperate to be remembered as heroic. Swofford conveys the degree to which his identity is bound up with his stint in the Marines, and I’m not sure the film captures that.

More than anything here, I’m interested in challenging Stephanie Zacahrek’s thesis that Jarhead is both anti-war and anti-soldier, a position that she seems to base primarily on one early scene in which we see a boot-camp instructor slam Swofford’s head against a chalkboard, implying that the scene underlines the abusive treatment of soldiers (what Zacharek calls Mendes’ “Miliary Bad!” approach). Such a reading ignores the more sensitive characterizations of Staff Sgt. Sykes (Foxx) who seems genuinely invested in his military career as well as in Swofford himself. In a final scene, in which many of the members of the STA unit are temporarily reuinted, it’s also easy to see the comraderie and alternate family structures that the military can offer.

Jarhead is far from being anti-soldier, and Zacharek’s assertion that the film contains no likable characters (or that Mendes doesn’t like or care about his characters) misreads the film considerably. Whether the film is antiwar or not is another matter. I’d argue that like most post-Vietnam films, Jarhead is ambivalent. One of the final lines of the film, spoken during a stateside victory parade, “We are still in the desert,” has been read as commenting on the fact that the US has been forced to return to Iraq, the line answering one soldier’s earlier celebratory comment that “we will never have to come back here again.” But while that comment can be read as anti-war, it can equally be read as suggesting that the government didn’t let the military take out Saddam Hussein the first time.

There were a few things I liked about Jarhead: Roger Deakins’ cinematography, especially during the scenes in which the sky is blackened by the oil well fires, are very effective, almost hauntingly beautiful, like a bizarre solar eclipse. Some of the musical choices, particularly the use of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” were quite good. And the film conveys the fragmented, frustrating, desultory waiting-for-something -to-happen quite well. But in general, the film was far less interesting than I’d hoped and certainly far less interesting than Swofford’s book deserved. In fact, I’m gradually becoming convinced that Sam Mendes is perhaps the most overrated Oscar-bait director working today.

Note: J. Hoberman’s Village Voice review is a little more generous than mine, but unlike Hoberman, I found Jarhead far too cautious when it came to commenting on the current war. But I’m curious to get other reads on Jarhead. I still don’t feel like I have a god grasp on my response to it.

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Merchants of Cool

I’m moving into a unit on youth culture/subcultures in my junior seminar this week. I’ve already taught Dick Hebdige’s groundbreaking work on subcultures and will be teaching Angela McRobbie’s “Youth Culture and Femininity” later this week.

But because of a blip in the schedule, I’ll have some extra time in class on Monday, in which I’ll be showing segments of Douglas Rushkoff’s fascinating Frontline documentary, Mercahnts of Cool, conveniently available online at the Frontline website, and discussing Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on “coolhunting.”

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The Guantanamobile Project

While doing an unintentionally ambiguous Google search, I came across an October 2004 article in NC State University’s The Technician on “The Guantanamobile Project,” a grassroots documentary project by Lisa Lynch, a filmmaker and colleague of mine at Catholic University, and Elena Razlogova, a Web programmer and media historian at the Center For History and New Media.

According to the article, Lynch and Razlogova equipped a van with laptops, wireless communications, digital projectors, and video cameras and travelled to several cities where they would show footage form Guantanamo and then ask audiences to respond to what they had seen. Lynch and Razlagova have published their project in the online journal, Vectors.

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