Archive for January, 2006

Oscar Nominees

I completely forgot that the Oscar nominees would be coming out today. Few of the nominations are that surprising, but Syriana certainly should have received a little more acclaim, and I’m still mystified about why Crash continues to be such a critical favorite.

On some of the smaller awards: I’d love to see Good Night and Good Luck win for cinematography (but I’m a sucker for black-and-whie films), and I was happy to see the Palestinian film, Paradise Now receieve a nomination. And I probably can’t escape without at least mentioning the documentary category, which had few surprises. March of the Penguins and Murderball were pretty much guaranteed. Of course, Academy rules for the documentary category continue to keep many good, timely documentaries out of competition. Also worth noting: another year has passed without a woman being nominated for best director.

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I’m Still Here

I’ve had a crazy week, which was topped by the Wordherders getting hit with a Denial of Service attack. Hence the recent, and somewhat unintended, silence over the last few days.

I caught Michael Haneke’s Caché over the weekend and really liked it. Hoping to write a review tonight, but there are 2-3 big writing projects that may keep me occupied for the next several days.

I also wanted to recommend Willenbrock, which I saw last weekend at DC’s German Film Festival but that review may not get written either.

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Sad News

I just found out that my Aunt Erma passed away this morning. It wasn’t entirely unexpected–she has been diagnosed with cancer in December, and bceause of her age, there was little doctors could do. But I’m still pretty upset by this news. Her funeral is scheduled for Wednesday, so I’ll be flying into Atlanta Tuesday to reconnect and reminisce with family and friends.

Aunt Erma was, in many ways, more like a grandmother than an aunt, something I expressed by calling her “Grandmother #3″ when I was about three or four years old. I’ve been trying to cherish the positive–her stories about working as a nurse and in her hometown post office, my memories of her pleasant laugh and her compassion for others.

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Bubble Screens

Via Atrios: Mark Cuban has a blog entry on Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, which will be released simultaneously to theaters, on DVD, and for two showings on HDNet TV on Friday, January 27. Part manifesto and part marketing ploy, Cuban’s blog entry makes some intriguing arguments for radically changing the ways in which films are distributed.

By making Bubble available in all three formats, Cuban and Soderbergh are defying standard industry practice, and in part, Cuban is responding to head of the National Association of Theatre Owners John Fithian’s fears that “day and date” release constitutes a “death threat” against movie theaters. I don’t have time to work through Cuban’s post in the detail it deserves (I’m actually planning to go down to one of Cuban’s Landmark Theaters to see Transamerica), but a few points are worth noting.

First, I think Cuban is right that movie theaters will continue to be attractive destinations for people who want to get out of their homes for a few hours. The assumption that people will automatically choose to stay at home to watch a movie, if given the alternative to watch it at home, doesn’t hold. In some cases, people will choose to stay at home rather than going to the theater, but that choice may have more to do with the theater experience than the availability of the film itself.

Here, I think Cuban is right to note that theaters, espeically mega-multiplexes, need to reconsider how they package the moviegoing experience (and I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for Landmark’s concessions). The main reason I see so few Hollywood films is precisely that multiplexes have managed to make the experience of seeing movies in their theaters so unpleasant (although I’m less bothered by kids chatting and texting on cellphones than the half-hour of commercials before the previews start, much less the film itself).

That being said, I’m not sure Cuban’s comparison between movies and the Mavericks, Cuban’s pro basketball team, holds entirely. Cuban argues that sports team owners once worried that showing too many of a team’s games would negatively affect attendance. As Cuban points out, the opposite has proven true. The increased numebr of games on TV has been accompanied by record attendance. Two comments here: first, I’d be careful not to mistake causation and correlation when it comes to this phenomenon (increased attendance might also be due to better ballparks, more aggressive marketing, or any number of factors).

Second (and more importantly), I think it is significant that sporting events such as Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks games are live, auratic events while movies are mechanically (or digitally) reproducible. Being present at a significant ballgame, such as the final game of a World Series, or a witness of a specific individual achievement is not the same as attending a film masterpiece, simply because the film can be repeated while the experience of being at the game or event cannot. For these reasons, I think Cuban’s comparison needs to be complicated.

That being said, I’m enthusiastic about Cuban’s proposal for several reasons. I do think it will democratize access, particulalry for the independents. I’ve missed several good indie films when they played in the theater and, as a result, had to wait six months until the DVD release to see the film (Tarnation is one recent example for me). I also think that “day and date” release could invigorate conversations about some important films, specifically documentaries or “topical” films that don’t always get a national release (that being said, there are still countless good films that never find distrbution). All of that being said, I’m less concerned about how theaters and Hollywood studios create wealth than I am in how films can add to larger political and social conversations as they are mediated by popular culture.

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Two or Three Things…

I received my contributor’s copies of the upcoming issue of Pedagogy on Tuesday, which means the new issue, in which I have a short essay on using blogs in the freshman composiiton classroom, should be available on Project Muse soon. The article grew out of a talk I gave at Georgia Tech last spring when I was working there as a teaching fellow.

I finally saw Capote a few nights ago, primarily on Heidi’s recommendation, and while I won’t have time to write a full review, I was impressed by it, particularly by the dynamic between Capote and Perry Smith, the convicted murderer whose story provided the basis for Capote’s In Cold Blood (Heidi’s discussion of the film in relationship to the history of Kansas City’s transvestite culture is also worth checking out). One other observation: While Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance has been getting most of the critical buzz, I was equally impressed with Catherine Keener’s perormance in the role of To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee.

My current documentary obsession is Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, so while I’m blogging, here’s an interview with the director and a review of the film, both from The Village Voice. I’m hoping to come back to the Voice articles later, but I’m way behind today because of a quirk in the schedule that left me with two long teaching days in a row.

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Bridges to Baghdad

I just came across this fascinating media project, Bridges to Baghdad, produced by Link TV, a non-profit television channel.

Bridges is a two-part series that places students from New York and Baghdad in conversation via live satellite feed in order to foster dialogue between youth in the two countries. The first part was filmed in March 2003, just days before the invasion. The second part, which I haven’t had an opportunity to watch yet, was filmed after the invasion began. This entry will consist primarily of unorganized notes on what I’ve seen so far. It’s worth noting that the first episode places emphasis on the technologies and labor required to produce the event. In addition, the show’s producers are shown talking to various Iraqi ministers, specifically arranging for permission to produce the show (notably, the ministers offer little resistance).

I’ve been watching the first episode off-and-on as I write this entry (available on streaming video from the website), and it’s intriguing to watch both the connections and the limits of conversation. At one point, one of the Iraqi women interrupts a conversation on whether dissent is permitted in Iraq, asking to change the subject to something safe, such as sports or music. The conversation is punctuated by videos made by both the Iraqi and American students portraying some aspect of their daily lives, with one Iraqi teenager showing his heavy metal band while an Iraqi woman takes us on a tour of her family’s bomb shelter. Part of what is compelling about this material, of course, is how their relationships are mediated by popular culture. Iraqi students describe their enthusiasm for Eminem or the Backstreet Boys and mention that their understanding of American culture derives primarily from the films they consume (one of the American students quickly describes these films as unrealistic, romanticized portrayals).

I think this material has been available for some time, but I just happened to come across it by accident while doing some digging for documentary materials on the war for a paper I’m writing.

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Why We Fight Screenings

Just noticed on IMDB that Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, which I’ve been wanting to see for a long time, is finally receiving a limited theatrical release, starting this weekend in New York and Los Angeles.

According to the Women’s Action for New Directions website, Why We Fight should be hitting DC on February 10 (the website has a full schedule). I’ve generally heard positive things about the film, so very much looking forward to seeing it.

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Movie Ratings and Independent Cinema

Just a quick link for now: David M. Halbfinger has an article in today’s NYT promoting Kirby Dick’s latest documentary, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which is set to debut at Sundance (it’s unrated, naturally).

Dick, who also directed Derrida and Tiwst of Faith, explores some of the inconsistencies and flaws in the ratings system, including the unsurprising observation that similar scenes of gay sex tend to be tagged with higher ratings than similar heterosexual sex scenes. He also discovered that the ratings board would often collaborate more willingly with the major studios than independent filmmakers, which probably isn’t terribly surprising but does constitute a kind of limit on indie filmmakers who seek a wider audience for their films.

But the film’s main concern appears to be the secrecy of the ratings board, whose members are not identified (at one point Dick describes them as a kind of “star chamber”). Because the film will likely be released without a rating (or, at best, with an NC-17), it will be interesting to see how widely the film will be released, but I think the film is tackling an interesting–and often overlooked–aspect of the institutional culture of filmmaking.

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Inventing Eternal Sunshine

Interesting news: researchers have developed a pill that may make it possible to blunt memories of traumatic experiences, such as those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The researchers, a group of psychiatrists based in the US and Canada, have postulated that PTSD occurs “because the brain goes haywire during and right after a strongly emotional event, pouring out stress hormones that help store these memories in a different way than normal ones are preserved.” These resrachers believe that taking a pill to diminish these chemicals soon after the traumatic event might prevent PTSD. A quick scan of the article does clarify that the pill will not, a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, cause amnesia or put a “hole” in someone’s memory.

There are some obvious benefits here, as well as some objections that are also not surprising: people who are dealing with all manner of traumatic experiences–whether abuse, war trauma, or a catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina–might be able to ease some of their pain, and the article notes that with veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, doctors need better treatment for PTSD (no mention of the needs of civilians living in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course). As Leon Kass, Chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics notes, “painful memories serve a purpose and are part of the human experience.”

One of the reasons I find this story compelling is the theory of memory that informs the research. The AP writer notes, “Memories, painful or sweet, don’t form instantly after an event but congeal over time. Like slowly hardening cement, there is a window of opportunity when they are shapable.” I’ve got some other writing/research to do tonight, so I can’t work through this story in as much detail as I would like, but found it too intriguing not to mention on the blog (and hope that blogging it will help me to remember to return to the idea later).

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Friends With Low Wages

Good news out of Maryland as state lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto of a bill that will essentially require Wal-Mart to contribute more to their employees health care. Specifically, according to The Washington Post, “the bill will require private companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health benefits or make a contribution to the state’s insurance program for the poor.” The Post also reports that at least 30 other states are considering similar legislation, which is not insignificant.

I’ve already discussed the ways in which Robert Greenwald’s Wal-Mart documentary helped to open up dialogue about Wal-Mart’s harmful practices, including its poor health care plan, so I’ll just use this blog entry as an excuse to point to this amusing flash video at the American Rights at Work website, “I’ve Got Friends with Low Wages.”

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This Divided State

I caught a review copy of Steven Greenstreet’s 2005 documentary, This Divided State (IMDB) last night, and I’m still sorting out what to write about the film. This Divided State focuses on the heated conflict at Utah Valley State College when the student government invites filmmaker Michael Moore to campus just a few weeks before the 2004 presidential election. Moore’s planned visit to USVC, a campus of over 25,000 students in Orem (a predominantly Mormon and conservative town just outside of Provo), is greeted with alarm by many of USCV’s conservative students. The resulting film is a sometimes humorous and often unsettling meditation on political discourse, especially in a community in which religious beliefs (95% of Orem’s residents are Mormon) is so important.

Eric Snider’s review of TDS offers a glimpse of the political atmosphere in Orem, drawing from his own first-hand observations of the controversy that spilled into local newspapers, radio and television stations, and even the courts, as one local businessman, Kay Anderson, eventually brought a lawsuit against the USVC student government. In addition, one group of students attempts to organize a recall of the student government president and vice-president, in more than a faint echo of the California recall. Early on, there are some debates about the $40,000 fee paid for Moore’s visit, but when his appearance sells out, concerns about money turn out to be less significant. Eventually, in a last-minute attempt at achieving “balance,” USVC invites the ubiquitous conservative radio and TV host Sean Hannity to speak a few days before Moore’s scheduled visit. These narrative threads make for compelling viewing, but the film’s most powerful and troubling scenes include student government presidnet Jim Bassi fileding phone calls asking him if USVC will follow up Moore’s talk with a speech by Hitler or Saddam Hussein.

Of course, the film isn’t entirely bleak. Many of the students, professors, and locals welcome Moore to campus, many because of their experiences as Mormons. One college student, pointing out that Mormons fled Chicago because of persecution, explains that he thinks it would be inappropriate to prevent others from speaking freely. Others point out that colleges and universities have the responsibility to present students with viewpoints they might not encounter under normal circumstances. Greenstreet also introduces us to some of Orem’s quirky characters including a local who strongly resembles Michael Moore and even plays up that resemblance by wearing jeans and baseball caps and shaving his beard to look like Moore’s (oddly enough, even with this physical imitation of Moore, he identifies as Republican).

TDS builds to Hannity and Moore’s visits, and Greenstreet gives a significant portion of the film to both speakers. In both cases, Moore and Hannity play to sold-out, cheering audiences. In his review, Jesus’ General argues that these scenes depict Moore (and liebrals) as more inclusive than Hannity (and conesrvatives). There’s a case to be made to support this claim, especially when Hannity belittles a liberal heckler by putting him on the spot in front of thousands of people, while Moore is shown emphasizing a position of tolerance. This opposition needs to be complicated to some extent, however, to ask why or how Moore becomes such a divisive figure (and I think this goes far beyond mere conservative dislike of his ideas).

While Greenstreet’s film is clearly sympathetic with the groups who support the decision to bring Moore to campus, the film is generally respectful of all participants in the controversy and seems to recognize why the community became so divided by Moore’s visit. And the film offers some reasons for optimism. Student protests and rallies challenge arguments that suggest that young people are disengaged from politics. While many of the arguments are heated, Moore’s visit provokes a conversation about political discourse that might not have taken place otherwise, challenging the members of the college community to reflect on what kinds of political language should be permissible in the public sphere.

This Divided State (blog) is available on Netflix and deserves to be a part of the ongoing conversation about politics, popular culture, and polarization.

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Voices of Iraq Links

I’m revising my Gunner Palace paper for publication. Specifically, I’m expanding the paper to focus on several other Iraq War documentaries, including Voices of Iraq, the documentary in which two former MTV producers distributed 150 cameras to Iraqis. The documentary has been praised by conservative groups such as FrontPage Magazine, where the reviewer comments that the filmmakers have “accomplished what the entire mainstream media thus far has not: they’ve captured the real life and times of the Iraqi people.” In the documentary, much of the footage affirms the rhetoric of “liberation,” and, in fact, the device of digital cameras being distributed to “normal Iraqis” seems to affirm this message of liberation, a rhetoric also implied in the instructions that accompanied the cameras when they were distributed. But for now, I simply want to compile a list of reviews and other articles on the film:

I’m still establishing which films I’ll address in the paper, but I think Voices of Iraq, which deploys a “home movie” aesthetic, is worth addressing, even if (and perhaps because) the film’s primary function seems to be to justify the invasion of Iraq and to promote neo-conservative talking points about the war.

Update: Another film I may discuss in some detail is Sinan Antoon’s About Baghdad (IMDB), which was filmed in July 2003. Here are some relevant reviews from The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Strictly Film School.

Update 2: And some more links for Occupation: Dreamland (my original review), including reviews from the World Socialist Website, The New York Times, and The Village Voice.www.villagevoice.com/film/0538,land,68006,20.html

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Unrelated Indie Notes

Via Chris of Left Center Left: Paul Harrill’s Self-Reliant Filmmaking, a blog that focuses on do-it-yourself filmmaking, a topic I’ve discussed from time to time. Paul’s most recent entry focuses on questions about DIY filmmakers building their own equipment, noting both the strengths and weaknesses of homemade equipment. As regular readers of my blog have probably noticed, I’m very much interested in theorizing independent cinema, specifically the DIY model.

But I also wanted to mention that Paul’s blog led me back to Hal Hartley’s homepage where I learned that Hartley is working on a follow-up (IMDB) to one of the more underrated indie films of the last decade, Henry Fool. The follow-up, Fay Grim, sounds promising and certainly timely.

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International De-Lurking Week

Via Scrivener and BrightStar: It’s International De-Lurking Week. If you’re a first-time visitor or regular reader or commenter, why not leave a comment or two? All comments are welcome. There’s no need to be serious or profound or anything like that.

If you’re a first-time visitor (or a long-time lurker), perhaps tell me how you found my blog. Or tell me if you liked Munich or if I left out any good films in my Top Ten list.

And if you have a blog, spread the word. BrightStar advises, “Say where you saw this idea….Keep this at the top of your blog all week like a sticky post. Also make a personal commitment to comment more often on blogs this week.” And now that I’ve asked for comments, I’ll do my best to comment elsewhere as well.

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Television as Time Machine

Two unrelated notes on television and time:

First, the new BBC series, Life on Mars (sort of) inspires Mark at k-punk to meditate on the nostalgic lure of time travel into the past. Life on Mars focuses on Sam Tyler, a detective from 2006, who is sent back in time to 1973 after a car accident.

Mark’s reflections on the series (which I haven’t seen) and his discussion of the logic of time travel inevitably raise questions for me about my own research on time-travel movies and television shows. First, I find the choice of 1973 interesting, especially given Fredric Jameson’s emphasis on 1973 as a point of major transition (Watergate, Vietnam, gold standard, etc), but I’m more interested in Mark’s comments about the “uncanny lure” of the past. Generally, I think he’s right that time-travel films and TV shows tend to involve time travel into the past rather than into the future, and I’d add that it’s certainly linked to fears of death. Thanks to Matt for passing along the link. I’d like to revisit this topic at some point, but with the new semester starting yesterday (Monday), I feel like I’m already in a full sprint.

Speaking of sprinting, David at GreenCine provides a pointer to Slavoj Zizek’s Guardian article previewing the new season of 24. Zizek’s analysis goes well beyond the expected observation that the show’s simulation of real time reproduces the sense of urgency that has become attached to the war on terror. Instead, drawing from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Zizek analyzes the show’s depiction of torture.

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