Archive for December, 2005

Lazy New Years Day Film Links

I’m slowly starting to settle back into a routine after last week’s MLA conference, and one of my first goals is to turn my conference paper into an article, in which I’ve been thinking about cinematic representations of the military, or more narrowly the war in Iraq, after September 11. With that in mind, I just wanted to bookmark a couple of articles that look interesting. First a NYT article on the upcoming slate of September 11 films, many of which should hit theaters this year.

Second, Benjamin Halligan’s “On the Interval Between Reality and Unreality,” a response to Zizek’s original 9/11 essay published in Senses of Cinema.

Finally, and this isn’t really related to my paper, but it’s still pretty darn cool: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library has launched a searchable online catalog highlighting more than 30,000 motion picture scripts available for research at six Southern California collections (via Alternative Film Guide).

Here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year.

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Top Ten Movies of 2005

Inspired by the lists put together by Girish, Sujewa, and Darren and unimpressed by the lists put together by the Washington Post’s film reviewers (Hustle & Flow?!?), I’ve put together a hastily assembled Top Ten list. Like Darren, I chose to select films I saw in the 2005 calendar year, in part because many prominent films aren’t widely released to theaters until well after their original release date. And, more to the point, several of the films on my list have not received major distribution.

Here’s my modest contribution to the now ubiquitous Ten Best discussion in semi-chronological order, with links to my reviews of the films if available:

  • Gunner Palace: Michael Tucker’s grunts-eye doc can be frustrating for someone looking for a clear political critique of the Iraq War, but Tucker’s documentary, which used interviews and freestyle raps by the soldiers he documented tapped into some crucial questions about the representability of the Iraq War (a theme that will come up a lot in this list).
  • Sunset Story: When I was drafting this list, I passed over this amazing documentary about the friendship between two women living in a retirement home for political progressives, but as I began thinking about how Sunset Story deals so frankly with aging and death, I realized how much the film meant to me.
  • Enron: The Smartest Guys in the RoomI’d forgotten my initial enthusiasm for this film and its contribution (as a topic of conversation at the very least) to the ongoing investigation of Enron. The film had a tendency to vilify Enron rather than seeing it as a symptom of larger flaws in global capitalism, but the film captured Enron’s glitz and shiny surfaces rather well, as the cinetrix pointed out at the time.
  • Me and You and Everyone We Know: Like Crash, Miranda July’s debut feature emphasized the degree to which we are all connected. Unlike Crash, Me and You avoided cliches in proposing its delicate and complicated concept of community. It’s also one of the few films to feature children who are fully fledged human beings and not foils for washed up comedians or harbingers of some kind of lurking horror.
  • The Edukators: This might be a personal obsession, as I haven’t seen it on other people’s lists, but I found the film’s suspenseful and engaging treatment of the conflict between the wealthy businessman an dthe young political radicals to be utterly compelling.
  • Funny Ha Ha: I was too tired to write a full review when I caught Funny Ha Ha at the AFI, but like Girish, I was impressed by Andrew Bujalski’s “neo-realist slacker comdey.”
  • Occupation: Dreamland: Mines terriroty similar to Gunner Palace, but Occupation features soldiers who are in Fallujah and watching as the insurgency unfolds before their very eyes.
  • Chain: A compelling and philosophical meditation on the commodification of public space, Jem Cohen’s Chain enthralled me completely, inheriting and extending the legacy of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. If I had to choose a favorite film of 2005, this would be it.
  • The War Within: A compelling indie film about a Pakistani man who is deemed suspicious and wrongfully imprisoned. His imprisonment radicalizes him, leading him to participate in a planned suicide bombing of Grand Central Station. The film uses the conventions of the thriller and the indie film in a compelling, thoughtful way.
  • Syriana: This is easily the “biggest” film I saw in 2005, and it’s one that makes some powerful connections regrding the relationship between big oil and the war on terror. The final sequence of the film, in particular, is a scathing critique that effectively comments on all of the disparate threads of the vast, if loosely organized, conspiracy that animates the film’s plot.

Some of the films I wish I’d seen include Barbara Kopple’s Bearing Witness, Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, Cache and Tristam Shandy, both of which were in Darren’s Top Ten, Capote, and After Innocence.

Some of the films that almost made the cut: A History of Violence, The Jacket (I’m too close to the film to think about it in terms of a top ten list), 2046, Good Night and Good Luck, and The Squid and the Whale.

Some other important and entertaining movies that more people should see: The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,, Guerilla News Network’s BatleGround, Hayder Mousa Daffar’s The Dreams of Sparrows, the underrated The Education of Shelby Knox, which I saw on PBS, Chris Hansen’s The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Caveh Zahedi’s I am a Sex Addict, and Hany Ab-Assad’s Paradise Now.

Comments? Observations? Omissions? Feel free to mention your top ten lists in the comments.

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Even More MLA Wrap-Up

Just a few quick links that empasize some of the other discussions taking place this year at MLA. First, Inside Higher Ed reports on the MLA panel on tenure evaluation and notes that some changes may be on the horizon (this is another panel I wish I had been able to attend). The highlights: less emphasis on the scholarly “monograph,” more willingness to accept peer-reviewed online publications as of equal value with “print” publications, a distinction that has become rather silly with so many “print” journals now making their issues online through Project Muse and eventually through such projects as ElectraPress.

Other changes included a reconsideration of the role of outside readers in determining a candidates’ qualifications for tenure; a more explicit understanding of how teaching, scholarship, and service contribute to a tenure case; and a renewed emphasis on mentoring tenure-track professors.

I also wanted to highlight the IHE article on some of the changes in what university presses are looking to publish. That process is still somewhat mysterious to me, so I found the article to be fairly useful in demystifying that process to some extent.

Finally, I think I’m the only blogger who was at MLA who didn’t meet Scott Eric Kaufman of Acephalous. I do think that Scott’s right to note that having a blog can make MLA a little less daunting and alienating than it might normally be. I had the chance to meet up with several other bloggers, including several bloggers who write anonymously.

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More MLA Wrap-Up

Here’s a second TCS Daily article, “The Kids Are All Right, Dammit,” by Nick Gillespie.

First, I think Jonathan’s read of Gillespie’s TCS Daily article is a good one (I gave it a half-hearted read a few days ago). As Jonathan notes, articles about the MLA convention have a bad habit of attributing agency to a professional organization consisting of over 30,000 people. These articles, which are often written for an audience that is already “negatively predisposed” towards the MLA. Reading Gillespie’s article with that audience and that “insider” position in mind, I’d argue that his asides about “political correctness” are worthy of suspicion.

The second article raises a few red flags as well. Gillespie discusses a panel on “English Studies and Political Literacy,” a topic I sought to address in my Rhetoric and Democracy coures last fall. The first major prblem is the assumption that professors are confronting the problem of dealing with “increasingly conservative” student populations, a characterization that Gillespie offers little evidence to support, as Rich Puchalsky’s comment to an entry at The Valve points out. The Census data used to support this claim shows little change since 1980, although there was a dramatic, and perhaps unsurprising, change from 1970 to 1980. To be fair, this description of an increasingly conservative student population may have come from the professors themselves, but Gillespie accepts it at face value. In fact, it’s probably the case that something far more complicated is happening when it comes to students’ political beliefs, one that cannot be represented by the census statistics that rely upon people to self-identify within a liberal-conservative-moderate spectrum.

Some important points did come out of the panel: Mark Bauerlein did point out the importance of political literacy, which again is something I sought to emphasize in the Rhetoric and Democracy course I mentioned earlier, in which I required studnets to follow election coverage and arguments (including the major deates) and to analyze those arguments on their strengths and weaknesses. I am often suspicious of claims about declining political literacy, encountered in such venues as David Mindich’s Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News, in part becuase these models sometimes rely upon a Golden Age of a “Tuned In” populace that I’m not sure ever existed (or if it did exist, it was only available to a limited population). That being said, Mindich’s book is now high on my reading list.

Gillespie’s bias about the MLA does show up in the article in which he describes freshman composition courses as “those dreary required classes which are often little more than clumsy attempts at political indoctrination.” The charge of “political indoctrination” is pretty much a right-wing buzzword that has been around since before I began teaching ten years ago, and to describe the classes as “dreary” sets up expectations that they will be. There’s also some antipathy when Gillespie notes that one professor identified “openly” as a progressive, as if that’s something that ought to be kept secret.

Still, I’m glad that Gillespie highlighted the dicussion that took place at this panel (and I now wish that I had attended) because I do think these issues of political literacy can positively inform the kind of work we do in the composition, literature, and (in my case) media studies classrooms.

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Post-MLA Wrap-Up

I’m still recovering from this week’s MLA convention here in DC. I think my panel went well enough, especially given the connections my co-panelists and I were able to make with each other. But the non-stop conference activity over the last four days, including frantically finishing my paper, has certainly caught up with me. And the strange non-time of conferences, of spending hours in window-less hotel conference rooms, has also wreaked havoc on my internal clock. Conference time paradoxically slow and fast, with entire days sweeping by quickly, but also incredibly slow, especially in those nervous minutes immediately before a job interview.

While I’m thinking about it, I do want to point to Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the MLA, specifically their discussion of the MLA delegate assembly’s decision to pass a resloution opposing the two David Horowitz campaigns to pass legistaltion that would limit the academic freedom of professors.

The resolution is a slight alteration of the original proposal, which, according to IHE, described the Student Bill of Rights as promoting “the teaching of ‘conservative’ ideas that cannot win support through their own merit.” Several of the respondents to the article have complained that the passage provides evidence of left-wing cluelessness run rampant in English departments, but I do think the changed resolution shows that a more pragmatic position prevailed. Michael Bérubé is right to note the removed clause was “deeply problematic” because of the its assumptions Horowitz’s intentions.

Another problem is that the “consertavive ideas” clause re-establishes an us-against-them model that is both unproductive and misrepresentative. The false polarization of “left” and “right” can place limitations on thinking in the first place as people seek to identify with the model. But it’s also misrepresenttaive in that it assumes that all people of a certain category (or professional body) share the same beliefs and values. That being said, I think the removal of the clause illustrates that the MLA delegate assembly can work fairly well, as the more pragmatic and less problematic version of the proposal was affirmed.

I’m less pleased with the lack of a resolution supporting the striking graduate students at NYU, but I may save my comments on that topic for another post.

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Pillorying and Parodying Washington at the MLA

I’ve mentioned it before, but I just wanted to extend one last invitation to my film panel tomorrow morning (I’ll be talking about The Jacket). Yes, I know it’s the last day of MLA. And I know it’s early in the morning (8:30 AM), but I’d certainly enjoy having a good crowd, so grab a cup of coffee and please stop by.

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Watching the Watchers

No time for a full response, but I just came across one of those inevitable and tired articles on the annual MLA convention, this one in TCS Daily. In “Who’s Afraid of the MLA,” we get the usual complaints about “tenured radicals” and “political correctness” run amok.

To be fair, the author, Nick Gillespie, is a member of the MLA and raises the point that few other academic conventions inspire such concern about what we’re teaching kids today. And Gillespie does point out the number of panels and papers that focus on traditional readings of canonical texts with paper titles that don’t make use of bad puns. I’ll have to postpone my longer response to Gillespie’s article for now (other MLA-related responsibilities are calling), but one thing I think Gillespie will find is that many papers this year, including my own, are concerned with questions of the human, or more narrowly, of human rights, in an age where those questions are of some importance. To ignore the role of literature (and film) in engaging with those questions would, in my opinion, be a mistake.

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MLA at Home

I’ve just returned to DC after a quick visit to see my family in Atlanta just in time for this year’s MLA conference, which happens to be here in town (maybe you’ve heard about it). This year, I’ll be interviewing for a tenure-track job and delivering a paper (8:30 AM on Friday December 30, Carolina Room, Marriott). The paper is almost done at this point, and I’m trying my best not to think about Ivan Tribble.

The holidays were nice enough, and I may try to write up a review of Walk the Line, this year’s annual family Christmas get-out-of-the-house movie, later this week, but I’m guessing most people who care have already seen it (I’ll admit that I liked it much more than I expected).

But what I’ve been thinking about this afternoon is the experience of having MLA in the town where you live. There are some distinct benefits of having MLA on your home turf. You can sleep in your own bed at night, and it’s certainly a lot cheaper. And, of course, you know your way around the city. But I’m also finding it more difficult than usual to transition into MLA mode. Traveling to MLA has become an annual rite. Finding a cab to the MLA hotel, checking into the MLA hotel, and getting settled in the hotel are all part of that routine, the deliberate decision to enter into MLA mode.

I’m not whining or anything. I’ll certainly be comfortable for MLA and I’ll be able to retreat to my apartment at the end of the day, but the distinction is an interesting one, especially given the degree to which MLA often feels like its own world, insulated by the concrete, steel, and reflective glass that keep the rest of the city out.

But if you’re planning to be at MLA, you’re certainly welcome to drop by my panel (it’s at 8:30 AM, so I’ll understand if you’re not awake). It’s probably a bit late to plan an MLA blogger meetup, but if you’d like to meet for drinks (caffienated or alcoholic), feel free to email me as well (chutry[at]msn[dot]com).

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Documenting Neighborhood

I received an email tip about a cool new online documentary project, TurnHere, which “chronicles different neighborhoods across the country, focusing on people, culture, history, local businesses and political landscapes through the use of Internet video.” It looks like an interesting project, and several DC neighborhoods (including Dupont Circle and Shaw Neighborhood) are already represented.

The Dupont Circle film captures the neighborhood’s personality rather well, I think, and even shows one of my favorite DC bookstores.

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Sunday Afternoon Film Reads

Just a couple of quick links while I take a short break on my MLA paper (it’s moving along pretty well), both via GreenCine. First, a pointer to Roger Ebert’s Top Ten List for 2005. The list is an interesting one, even though I still don’t understand the hype for Crash. Scroll down for a list of candidates for his “Overlooked Film Festival,” held annually in Champaign, Illinois.

I’ve also been thinking about definitions of and possibilities for “independent cinema” over the last few weeks (these questions inform my MLA paper), so the news, reported here by Anne Thompson, that Dreamworks was sold to Paramount a few days ago was of interest to me. Thompson’s analysis makes some sense here: “That DreamWorks couldn’t survive as a stand-alone company has everything to do with the words ‘studio’ and ‘independent.'”

And, also relevant to the paper I’m currently writing, James Meek’s consideration of Jarhead in the context of previous war films, especially Vietnam films.

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Digital Projection and Visual Pleasure

Randall Stross of The New York Times is reporting on the motion picture industry’s plans to convert from film to digital projection, focusing specifically on Mark Cuban’s 2929 Entertainment and Landmark Theater chain (Cuban has been talking about this story at some length on his blog).

I don’t have as much time as I would like to work through the article, but there are a few points worth noting. First, Stross places emphasis on the differences in visual quality between film and digital. He writes,

People in the theater exhibition industry know what many outside it may not: that the transition from film to digital will not improve the visual experience for theater customers. Nothing yet invented can match the richness of film. When digital projection arrives, the best selling point that theater owners can offer may be, ‘Don’t worry about it; you probably won’t notice.’

I do think it’s worth holding onto film as a medium, and there are films that use celluloid in ways that are breathtaking. But Stross’ comments close down any discussion of the visual and narrative possibilities available to digital that may not be available to film (Steven Soderbergh’s recent comments about his latest film, Bubble, are but one example). This notion of “richness” is a constructed category and one that needs to be interrogated.

I think Stross is right to identify the ways in which moviegoing as a practice is changing, and Robert Sklar’s comments underline some of these changes, but the habit of merely pointing to declining theater attendance doesn’t address how these audiences are engaging with the movies they watch (or how they understand themselves as audiences). Cuban himself points this out in the Times article, noting “the virtues of enjoying a movie in a theater with fellow movie fans.” There are plenty of examples of audiences seeing themselves as a collective, ranging from Harry Potter fans who line up for the film’s permiere to churches who attended Chronicles of Narnia as a group to politcal activists who attend Robert Greenwald documentary house parties. Megaplex theaters sometimes work against this sense of collectivity, especially when you have half an hour of pre-preview advertising, but Stross’ model seems to view moviegoing as essentially solitary (“sitting quietly in the dark with a few dozen others”).

Ultimately, it’s the movie historian who gets this right (no surprise there). As Sklar points out, “Teenagers’ need to get out of the house will keep theaters alive.” Moviegoing as a practice will certainly change if digital distribution becomes dominant, but Stross’ skepticism overlooks some of what might be valuable about these changes.

Update: Just a quick pointer to A.O. Scott’s New York Times article, in which he asks whether some of Hollywood’s films aren’t bad enough. Scott’s point is that the studios are increasingly avoiding the risks that produced notorious “failures” such as Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, and Showgirls, or even something like Apocalypse Now, which while achieving some success is remebered as much because of Coppola’s “visionary recklessness.”

I’m not sure this article is related to this entry, other than to note Scott’s observation that “the studios have delegated artistic ambition to their specialty divisions, which turn out modestly budgeted, sophisticated pictures, the best of which bear the stamp of a filmmaker’s uncompromised vision.” I may have more to say about Scott’s article later, but I need to do some non-blog writing today.

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The Case of the Missing Audience

I need to work on a paper or two, but as I was surfing away from one of the links in my last entry, I came across this Sharon Waxman article in The New York Times on declining attendance in movie theaters (which should not be read to imply a declining interest in movies, of course).

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Cinephile Blogging

Just a link and comment for now because I’m still working on my first cup of coffee (plus my paper for MLA beckons), but I thought this indieWIRE article on “The Year of the (Film) Blogs” was worth noting. In the article, Steve Rosen notes the increasing number of Oscar-Watch and gossip blogs as well as newspaper-sponsored blogs, such as The New York Times’ Carpetbagger, where I found this article. Rosen adds that the art-house chain, Landmark Theatres, is in the process of expanding its online resources by offering blogs by filmmakers and critics.

But what I found most interetsing about the indieWIRE article is the emphasis on what might best be described as “independent” film blogs. As Rosen points out,

Lively, intelligent blogs that feature frequently updated, conversational postings about cinema — as opposed to celebrity gossip — are flowering. They’re trying to create an interlinked community devoted to those passionately interested in film, similar to what the pioneering urban art houses of the 1950s and 1960s did. And if they haven’t yet reached the point where they have a measured impact on box office, they’re trying.

Rosen mentions GreenCine, the Twitch blog, and MovieCityIndie among others, but he could have added many others, including Girish’s blog or Darren’s Long Pauses among many others. But the point is that these film blogs are ushering in a new mode of appreciation for independent cinemas, whether documentary, international, or “indiewood,” potentially creating an audience for films that might otherwise disappear beneath most viewers’ radars (just last night I caught the important Italian documentary, Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre, thanks to David’s link at GreenCine).

Of course there will always be outstanding films that fail to receive the audience they deserve, but this discussion of film blogs seems to stand in stark contrast to the “decay of cinema” arguments that lament the eclipse of a certain mode of cinephilia. I’ve been thinking about this potential function for film blogs quite a bit recently, in part because I was invited to review several of the films that played at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, and one of my goals with those reviews was to generate interest in films that haven’t received a wide audience in the U.S. That’s not the only reason I blog, of course, but I think it’s worth emphasizing the role of film blogs in facilitating some lively conversation about cinema.

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New Teaching Carnival

If you read my blog, you very likely read New Kid on the Hallway, but just in case you don’t, she’s just posted the December Teaching Carnival. Lots of good stuff on teaching, and I’d say that even if I wasn’t included.

Posting may be infrequent over the next few days as I work on my paper for MLA.

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Winter Soldier

In George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, we get a brief glimpse of the Winter Soldier press conferences that took place over three days in Detroit in February and March of 1972. Now, the 1972 documentary of these press conferences, Winter Soldier, is receiving a limited re-release here in DC and in a few other major cities (Kerry appears briefly in the 1972 documentary). During these press conferences, several panels of young soldiers reported on unimaginable atrocities committed by US soldiers in all branches of the military. The film opens with a brief voice-over explaining the source of the title, before immediately moving into pilot Rusty Sachs’ testimony, in which he describes watching as blindfolded Vietnamese prisoners are pushed out of airplanes, a practice he describes as routine. Other soldiers add to this picture, describing atrocities that were relatively common practice.

Visually, the film is stunning in its immediacy, using a cinema verite style to capture the sense of urgency these soldiers clearly feel. In many sequences, the filmmakers favor close-ups, with soldiers such as Scott Camil speaking directly into the camera about the atrocities they witnessed. The documentary is entirely in black-and-white except for fleeting color photgraphs (and perhaps some color Super 8 footage) of the fresh-faced soldiers in Vietnam, creating a stark visual contrast.

Winter Soldier was so controversial that it did not play widely on television or in theaters in the 1970s, playing primarily in smaller venues such as the Whitney Museum, and it’s worth noting that the film’s re-release was held back until after the 2004 Presidential election out of concern that it might negatively effect Kerry’s chances in the election.

This decision speaks to the film’s relevance even today. During one sequence, in which a soldier describes their (lck of) training in the Geneva Conventions, it’s impossible not to think about the actions of teh soldiers in Abu Ghraib, as Amy Heller points out in this interview with Anthony Kaufman. But aside from the press conference itself, I found many of the “backstage” moments utterly compelling, in particular one sequence in which an African-American soldier comments on the degree to which a history racism informs the treatment of Vietnamese people as less than human (Anne Hornaday, in an incredibly insightful review, also found this scene to be pivotal).

Hornaday also notes the degree to which several of the soldiers, particularly Camil, are struggling in front of the camera “not only with their experiences overseas but also with the very definition of manhood, whether as constructed by cultural mores or one’s own inner code.” Winter Solider is a powerful experience, not simply as an anti-war document (although that is certainly important), but also as a document of a certain moment in American history when the soldiers’ experiences in the war were forcing them to grapple with questions of race and masculinity.

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