Archive for December, 2005

Facundo

I learned early yesterday morning that one of my colleagues in media studies, Facundo Montenegro passed away after a long battle with cancer. I only knew Facundo for a semester but found him to be a warm and generous colleague. I know he will be missed.

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“Underground is Just a Sexier Word for Illegal”

Via Wiley, a Wired interview with Stephen Soderbergh on his upcoming all-digital movie, Bubble, whihc will be released in theaters, on DVD, and on HDTV on the same day, Januray 27. As an attempt to curtail piracy, it’s an interesting experiment. Of course, because the film was made for a relatively modest $1.6 million budget, there is significantly less risk involved than a major release (as Soderbergh points out, a movie with Bubble’s budget “doesn’t have to be a cultural event to turn a profit”).

Soderbergh is clearly enthusiastic about the possibilities involved in digital, adding that he believes that within a few years, big-name movie makers (filmmakers now seems imprecise) will be self-distributing. He also adds that digital technologies will encourage more experimentation in releasing radically different cuts of the same movies (“I think it would be really interesting to have a movie out in release and then, just a few weeks later say, ‘Here’s version 2.0, recut, rescored.'”).

I’m pretty convinced that most of Soderbergh’s arguments are right. Certainly the window between theatrical release and DVD release will soon be dismissed, especially given the degree to which major films are already “released” through illegal download (here, I’m fairly convinced by Edward Jay Epstein’s arguments). And the database aesthetic that Soderbergh describes (featuring radically remixed versions of the same movie) has been discussed by Lev Manovich and Marsha Kinder, among others, for several years now.

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From the Vaults

Just a quick link to an upcoming screening at the National Archives: This Thursday night at 5:30 PM, “From the Vaults: The Way We Worked on Film,” a program featuring “a selection of short subjects, newsreels, and film clips from the motion picture holdings of the National Archives documenting various occupations, working environments, and labor-saving practices.”

The following night features the documentary, Roll on Columbia: Woody Guthrie and the Bonneville Power Administration, which focuses on Guthrie’s temporary job with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bonneville Power Administration.

Both film programs are part of the Archives’ temporary exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” which features photographs, audio, and video documents of work experiences during the years 1857-1987.

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Miranda July Videos

For my DC readers: I just noticed that the National Museum of Women in the Arts will be screening a collection of Miranda July’s short video and sound work tonight at 7 PM (reservations are required). If July’s debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know is any indication, tonight’s program should be quite interesting.

Mentioning July also gives me an excuse to link to her on-going web project, Learning to Love You More, which continues to evolve in really interesting ways, particularly the most recent “assignment,” in which contributors are asked to “give advice to yourself in the past.”

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Syriana

I’m still sorting through my response to Syriana (IMDB), so this review may seem a little scattered and unfocused. Perhaps instead of viewing this entry as anything remotely resembling a final take on the film, this entry will serve as a starting point towards something else (further discussion? an article?). Syriana, written and directed by Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, presents a multi-threaded narrative focusing on several different individuals and organizations who are involved in protecting U.S. oil interests, including oil executives, Gulf emirs, CIA agents, and corporate lawyers, as well as the displaced workers employed at the refineries. The film cuts between the power centers of Washington, Geneva, Tehran, and other unnamed locations in the Persian Gulf. While many critics have suggested that the multiple threads confounding, I think Digby’s right to suggest that these plotlines can lead to what he calls a “bracing clarity:” it’s about oil. More specifically, it’s about the increasing scarcity of that “natural” resource. The film is also, as David Lowery notes, a “contagiously angry” movie in its portrayal of conspiracy, without, at least in my opinion, coming across as overly sanctimonious. But here are a few reasons why I found this film so compelling:

First, Syriana is one of the highest-profile projects by the new indie, Participant Productions (they also produced Murderball, North Country, and Good Night and Good Luck among others). I’ll admit to being intrigued by Participant’s attempts to use entertainment for social change. According to their website, “Participant believes in the power of media to create great social change. Our goal is to deliver compelling entertainment that will inspire audiences to get involved in the issues that affect us all.” It’s clear that many of Participant’s films are intended to increase political awareness. It’s less clear how that will translate into people getting involved, although the website does offer a “take action” resource page (check out the LA Times article on Participant). More on that question in a moment.

Syriana, of course, recalls the 1970s conspiracy movies, such as All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor, that Fredric Jameson analyzed so thoughtfully in The Geopolitical Aesthetic. But, as J. Hoberman points out, in a line worthy of Jameson himself, “Gaghan is less fixated on superstar heroism and more interested in representing a system—if, indeed, that system can be represented.” The “system,” of course, is global capitalism, but what happens with Syriana seems to offer a subtle shift away from the ’70s films that posit the lone indvidual (or indviduals in President’s) to a model in which even the ostensible outsiders are implicated or involved on some level. While George Clooney and Matt Damon, among others, add star power to Syriana, they are far less attached to the model of heroism or idealism that we encounter in the conspiracy films of the Watergate era. Without giving too much away, Clooney’s CIA agent and Damon’s economic advisor are clearly implicated in the loose oil conspiracy that dominates the film. We also see a group of displaced Pakistani teenagers who find themselves suddenly unemployed after one corporate merger and subtly, but surprisingly quickly, tranformed into suicide bombers.

Some spoilers here: The multi-threaded (or hypertext as one critic described it) narrative is elegantly handled (much better than the somewhat manipulative use of multiple film stocks in Soderbergh’s Traffic, and the difficulty of sorting through the relationships is part of the point (the LA Times review is good on this point, as is David Lowery’s, which I cited earlier). What makes the film so troubling is that, as David implies, the film is so critical of the complicity between a Big Oil merger and the CIA that “it makes a triumph out of the terrorist attack.” I’m not quite sure I walked away with that reading, but it’s clear that we are meant to compare the suicide attack on the oil tanker with the cold-blooded assassination of the pro-democratization Prince Nasir by the CIA.

This final sequence actually left me feeling somewhat powerless and resigned (David has a slightly different read), and I think that’s an unintended consequence of the film’s presentation of conspiracy. I need to do some other work this afternoon, but I’m fairly certain that I’ll be returning to Syriana in the near-future. It’s an incredibly rich film that certainly demands that viewers confront this situation, but I’m not sure if the film offers any potential response to the conspiracy.

Update (11:21 PM): I forgot to mention this before, but one of the sensations that stuck with me the most in my experience of Syriana was the film’s overarching masculinity. The only review I’ve seen that explicitly addresses this topic is Cynthia Fuchs’ Pop Matters review. Fuchs notes that “In Syriana, Bob [George Clooney] is only one of several figures — specifically, fathers — trying to keep up.” Father-son relationships consistently inform the film’s dynamics. Bob’s son complains about the inability to live a normal teenage life. Bryan’s (Matt Damon) status as a father is crucial to his character’s opportunism. Prince Nasir’s relationship to his father motivates several major plot points. These father-son relationships may very well comment on issues of generational legacy (Jeffrey Wright’s Bennett Holiday pointedly refuses to drink in one crucial scene, for example), but it also seems significant that this generation gap is strictly paternalistic. Bob’s CIA agent wife goes unseen. The oil executives are resolutely men, Texas Oil Men in the most classic sense. The only female character with any significant screen time is Bryan’s wife (played by Amanda Peet), and she is seen only in the world of family and home, often at the breakfast table. Given all of the recent discussion of Valerie Plame, the absence of any female players in this saga seems rather significant, doesn’t it?

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PandaCam

While doing some blog reading this afternoon, I came across Plutonium Page’s link to Animal Planet’s live PandaCam feed (requires Real Player), featuring the newborn panda cub, Tai Shan (maybe you’ve heard of him). Watching the live feed is utterly addictive and more than a little voyeuristic, kind of a panda cub version of The Truman Show.

As I write, the cub is sleeping, allowing a single stationary camera to capture Tai Shan as he sleeps, but earlier today, while the cub ate, played, and explored, you could watch as one camera, close to the ground, would slowly pan before being replaced by another high-angle, overhead shot. The slow camera movement and the impersonal cutting strangely reproduce what feels like the look of a surveillance camera. It’s an oddly clinical and scientific look given the intense emotions attached to the newborn panda, an attachment that is no doubt intensified by the fact that pandas are endangered. Plutonium Page also links to the WWF webpage on pandas, which is also worth checking out.

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Jacket Links

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m in the process of writing my paper for the MLA conference, and so this blog may turn into a link clearinghouse for the next several days (it’s a process I’ve used several times, and I usually find it quite helpful). Plus, I now have so many pages open at the same time that I need to organize them in some way.

First, a link to a list of articles on The Jacket and director John Maybury at AltWeeklies.com. Among the more interesting articles on that series is Jim Ridley’s piece in City Pages.

Second, as I’ve mentioned Maybury argued in one interview that his film had Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo “as a subtext.” At the very least, it’s pretty clear that the film does have the current Iraq War as a backdrop. With that in mind, I’ve been reading Susan Willis’ fascinating book, Portents of the Real, which explores the role of the Abu Ghraib photographs in delivering a “body blow to our sanctimonious self-image.” Willis builds upon research by Seymour Hersh (2, 3) and readings of the photographs by Susan Sontag and Slavoj Zizek (essays to which I plan to return as I write my paper).

Finally, one of my goals for the paper, which is part of panel entitled “Pillorying and Parodying Washington” is to address the degree to which Hollywood and its independent studios, sometimes referred to as “Indiewood,” are addressing the war in Iraq. It should come as no surprise that I find the conservative Hollywood bashing unsatisfying, but with recent projects such as Jarhead,, Syriana and a planned Rob Reiner film about an American soldier wounded in Iraq, among others, it’s clear that Hollywood and independents are engaging with the war in complicated ways, but you’ll have to attend my MLA panel to hear the precise conclusions I’ve made about this relationship.

Update: One more link that I’d like to store here: Sahsa Abramsky’s article in The Nation,Supporting the Troops, Doubting the War.

Update 2: One more link to Arundhati Roy’s September 29, 2001, Guardian article on September 11 and the early stages of the war on terror (Operation Enduring Freedom).

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“We Live In Fictitious Times”

I’m working in earnest on my paper for MLA (I’ve been doing some research and reading all semester, of course) and happened to be watching the making-of documentary on the DVD for The Jacket, and the film’s director, John Maybury, mentioned the fact that the Iraq War was launched within a few days (if not the exact day) of the March 2003 Oscar ceremony, a detail that is certainly relevant to the film, which focuses on a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War. Maybury describes the surreal experience of watching as ABC cut from Peter Jennings to Billy Crystal back to Jennings to an Oscar acceptance speech.

Until I went back and did some digging, I’d forgotten that the events were so close together, but it’s worth noting that this is the ceremony in which Michael Moore made his “fictitious times” speech, in which Moore asserted that “we are now fighting a war for fictitious reasons.” The World Socialist Website also reports on the ceremony, specifically mentioning Chris Cooper’s Oscar acceptance speech (“In light of all the troubles in the world, I wish us all—peace”), while also emphasizing the jarring experience of watching ABC cut beteween the Oscar ceremony and heavy fighting in Iraq.

Here’s a February 18 BBC article that describes the plans for the Oscar ceremony in light of the build-up for war and the Wikipedia chronology for the invasion of Iraq (amazingly enough I never wrote about Moore’s speech on my original blog, but here’s the month of March 2003, anyway). The CNN article about the Oscar ceremony is also worth noting.

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The New Mixtape

Also via GreenCine, a link to Ethan Brown’s Village Voice article, “The New Mixtape,” which describes the phenomenon of DIY “DVD Magazines” that have begun to emerge from the hip hop scenes of several cities. Brown reports that

the spliced-up nature of DVD magazines—all of which (for now) are homemade and released straight to the street—has brought comparisons to hip-hop’s mixtape scene.

Brown adds that the “street-centric” approach has caused problems for some of the people featured in the DVDs, with Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta prosecutors likely to use evidence from the DVDs in criminal cases (Brown notes that this model of distribution can also be connected to the “Stop Snitching” DVD featuring NBA player Carmelo Anthony that circulated a few months ago).

I’m not sure I have anything specific to add here, but the DVD magazines represent an interesting form of DIY distribution, but I am intrigued by the degree to which the rhetoric of authenticity often goes unquestioned in the production of these ultra-low-budget DVDs, particularly when it comes to the performances of street cred that many of these DVDs feature.

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Nightmare Links

More links via GreenCine: the BBC reports on The Power of Nightmares, a documentary series that argues that “the idea that we are threatened by a hidden and organised terrorist network is an illusion.” The folks at GreenCine have already interviewed series director Adam Curtis, who describes himself as a “modern journalist,” twice (it’s worth noting that the filmmakers avoid using the word documetray to classify the series). The series is also available for legal download at the Internet Archive. See also reviews by Andrew O’Hehir and J. Hoberman.

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Birthday 2005

Today’s my birthday, and like Collin, I’ve been thinking a lot about time, calendars, and age often this week. For some reason, I’ve been agonizing about this birthday more than usual. Like last year, I think it’s worth noting that I’m happy with the decisions I made, that I’ve become the person I am and not the person I expected (or wanted) to be when I was in high school and college.

And I can always console myself with the fact that Teri Hatcher, Kim Basinger, and I share the same birthday. That’s gotta count for something, right?

Update: I shoul probably also mention that I share a birthday with Gregg Allman, Jim Morrison, David Carradine, and Mary, Queen of Scots, among others.

Update 2: One more for the list (via Green Cine): Hans-Jürgen Syberberg turns 70 today. I think we’ve found the director for the imagined screenplay discussed in the comments below.

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Local Call

Tonight I had the good luck of catching Arthur Joffé’s Local Call (IMDB) at the Washington Jewish Film Festival and found the film both charmingly funny and surprisingly touching. The film’s premise is a relatively simple one: Félix Mandel, a well-known astrophysicist with a wife and son receives a phone call from his father one evening, telling him to recover a black cashmere coat he’s just given to a homeless person. But what makes the phone call unusual is that Félix’s father has been dead for over two years. The coat’s significance, established in an earlier scene when a local tailor refuses to complete a requested alteration, becomes clear only at the end of the film for reasons I won’t reveal, at least above the fold. Suffice it to say that the film’s final turn addresses the divide between father and son in a very specific way.

It would have been easy for Local Call to fall into the trap of overplaying the comedic or melodramatic aspects of this kind of plot, and to Joffé’s credit, the film avoids becoming too maudlin or too shallow. The film’s humor erives primaily from the complicated interactions between Félix and his dead father, as is turns out that it costs a lot of money to talk to someone in the afterlife (plus his dad always calls collect). Eventually, because his phone bills are so exorbitant, Félix’s wife leaves him, taking their son, for the banker who called attention to Félix’s debts. Félix is later evicted from his apartment, banned from hotels, and evebtually fired because of his expensive phone calls (there’s a strong echo of The Book of Job here). Gradually the generation gap between father and son is resolved, especially after Félix’s material existence continues to decline. This reconciliation is connected in a fairly specific way to Félix finally recovering the lost coat (and from here I’ll be revealing details that might qualify as “spoilers”).

Read the rest of this entry »

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Progressive Film Clubs

I’ve used this blog recently to address questions about the definition of independent cinema and to reflect on the political role of the house party film screenings. While I’ve expressed some doubts about the “house party” model, I think they can be useful as a tool for organizing people with similar interests, as this San Francisco Chronicle article argues. I use “house party” in scare quotes because many of the Greenwald films are screened in public or semi-public spaces such as churches, community centers, bars, cafes, and other non-private spaces.

I mention these issues because I received an email tip the other day about the launch of the Ironweed Film Club, which will promote independent filmmakers and “offer movies as a rallying point for Americans who share progressive values.” It’s basically a monthly subscription service that distributes independent and politically progressive DVDs (if you subscribe to MoveOn.org or The Nation, you’ve probably heard about it). In their FAQ section, in fact, the folks at Ironweed describe themselves as “a monthly progressive film festival on DVD.” Ironweed looks like an interesting concept. The service builds on the successful practices of the house party events associated with the launch of Robert Greenwald’s documentaries and also provides indpendent filmmakers with the exposure and buzz they need to promote their films, as many filmmakers confront significant challenges when it comes to distributing their films.

The first film, Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary has been getting some good buzz, and with Bush focusing more attention on illegal immigration issues, it’s certainly a pertinent topic. Also included is Where is Iraq?, a short
film that explores the experience of ordinary Iraqis exiled in Jordan after the American invasion. I’ll be interested to see the direction this service takes over the next few months, but it certainly seems consistent with the move away from the multiplexes and into other kinds of screening experiences, not all of which are retreats into the private world of the home.

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Video Mobility

Just noticed that my contribution to the BRAINTRUSTdv roundtable on the new video iPod is now available.

All of the contributions are worth checking out, but I was most intrigued by Tara Veneruso’s comparison (her website) of the video iPod, which she redescribes under the term Pocket Cinema, with the intimate, personal screenings of the nickelodeon. Also worth noting is Veneruso’s discussion of Films Directed by Women, a website designed to promote awareness of and box office numbers of films directed by women.

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The NYU Strike

Michael Berube has the latest on NYU’s striking graduate students, including the news that both Andrew Ross and Alan Sokal have signed a letter supporting NYU’s striking graduate students and protesting NYU president John Sexton’s threat to withhold a semester’s stipend from graduate student who do not return to work by December 5. Here’s the full text of the letter:

PLEASE HELP US HEAD OFF FIASCO AT NYU

Teaching assistants at NYU conducted a union drive in 1999-2000, won an election, and affiliated with the United Auto Workers (in a local that also includes other educational professionals in NYC such as Museum of Modern Art and New York Historical Society employees). The NYU administration fought hard against the union but was ultimately forced to recognize and negotiate with it by the National Labor Relations Board. There followed a 3 year contract that brought the teaching assistants health benefits and a stipend increase. During this time the university ran quite smoothly.

In the summer of 2005, released from the obligation to negotiate by a new Bush-appointed NLRB, the NYU administration un-recognized the union and has been refusing to negotiate with it. Given this extreme provocation, the union had virtually no alternative but to strike.

They began striking on Nov. 9 and several hundred professors have been teaching off-campus so as not to cross the picket line. The administration—really, President John Sexton—steadily refuses to deal with the union. He has ignored a compromise proposal by a former dean. At one point several administrators infiltrated course websites (using the program “Blackboard”) so as to be able to determine which faculty and teaching assistants were supporting the strike; this resulted in widespread faculty outrage and the deans quickly withdrew from that effort.

Now President Sexton has again thrown a bombshell: he has threatened that any TAs who do not return to work by Dec. 5 will be deprived of an entire semester’s stipend and those who dare to return to a strike in the next semester will lose an entire year’s funding.

Such an action would be unprecedented. Graduate student employees have struck at many other universities, including those in the Ivy League and those just as anti-union as the NYU administration, but nowhere have such draconian reprisals ever been taken. Moreover, to date American workers retain a right to strike. While employers may well withhold wages during a strike, punishing strikers for a semester or a year afterward is illegal. The basic disagreement between the students and President Sexton is whether they are workers or not, and his point of view must be reckoned with, but surely the action of assistants who believe that they are workers cannot be criminalized because one disagrees.

If this threatened punishment is allowed to happen it will set a disastrous example for democratic debate at universities throughout the country. It would also cause irreparable harm to the reputation of NYU. We believe it will make it much for difficult for the university to recruit and retain the best faculty and graduate students.

Hundreds of faculty have formed a group, Faculty Democracy, to protest President Sexton’s policy and to push for greater administration consultation with faculty on important decisions—a consultation which, if undertaken seriously, might have prevented this whole debacle.

We urge scholars and intellectuals throughout the country to urge President Sexton to drop his threats and agree to negotiate with the union. He can be reached at 70 Washington Square, NY, NY 10012 and by email at john.sexton@nyu.edu .

Please send a copy of your communication to any sender of this letter.

Thank you,

Linda Gordon, History
Andrew Ross, American Studies
Alan Sokal, Physics
Mary-Louise Pratt, Spanish
writing for the group Faculty Democracy, numbering approximately 250

For more information on the strike, see Jonathan’s post at The Valve. To sign a petition supporting the students, go here.

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