Archive for January, 2006

There Are No Gay Cowboys in Utah

Via Steven Greenstreet, who directed the documentary This Divided State: the news that a major movie theater in Utah cancelled a planned screening of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, just hours before it was scheduled to open.

Steven has the contact information for all of those people who are responsible, including Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, who owns the theater that pulled the film (I knew there was a reason I never liked that team).

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“Abundance of Books Makes Men Less Studious”

Spring semester starts on Monday, and as I’ve mentioned, I’ll be teaching three sections of a sophomore “Media and History” course. On Monday, I’ll do the typical first-day stuff and set up Wednesday’s discussion of Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy: Writing Restructures Consciousness,” which focuses in part on Plato’s misgivings about writing (“writing destroys memory, those who use writing will become forgetful”).

This is a long way of explaining why I’ve linked to web versions of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and Phaedrus, which I’m hoping to discuss (or at least introduce) in class on Monday.

Update: Just came across this interesting and creepy flash video, EPIC 2014. Might make for an interesting discussion with my students.

Update 2: While I’m linking, SHARP has some great resources for teaching print culture.

Yet another update: The last time I checked, Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project and Manifesto was down, but it might be a useful resource for my course as well (and, while I’m at it, this April 2005 article complicates Sterling’s original project).

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Drill Sergeants in the Movies

Just a quick bookmark for an article I’m writing: The Guardian’s John Patterson reviews the history of Hollywood representations of the drill sergeant. Not surprisingly, Full Metal Jacket’s Lee Ermey, who had been a USMC drill instructor, gets high praise.

Patterson’s article appears to accompany the British release of Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, with Patterson speculating that the lowkey portrayal of the DI in Jarhead suggests the impossibility of matching Ermey’s frightening DI. I’d argue that Kubrick’s use of/commentary on the DI is intentionally far more pointed than Mendes’ in Jarhead, in which the film seems far more interested in the tedium of the war and the apparent “obsolescence” of the ground troops in the first Gulf War (it’s probably obvious that the Iraq War complicates the notion that ground troops are obsolete).

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Munich

For reasons I’m not sure I can articulate, I was reluctant to see Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, Munich (IMDB). I know that I’ve been let down by many of Spielberg’s “historical” films (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and, in a different way, The Color Purple). But Munich has challenged me in ways that I did not expect. I’m still not quite sure what I think about the film, so if you’ve seen Munich I’d appreciate knowing what you think.

Munich opens with the 1972 kidnapping and murder of eleven athletes and coaches from the Israeli Olympic team by a group of Palestinians. Much of this material has already been portrayed in the 1999 documentary, One Day in September, but like the documentary, Spielberg focuses on ABC’s live coverage of the crisis, culminating in ABC broadcaster Jim McKay’s bleak comment, “They’re all gone.” This sequence sets up the recruitment of Avner (Eric Bana), a Mossad agent and former bodyguard for prime minister Golda Meir, to a clandestine assassination squad. Meir’s chilling observation that the assassination of the Israeli athletes “changes everything” clearly echoes post-9/11 rhetoric, as David Walsh points out, and throughout Munich, we encounter echoes between the past and present.

Avner is tapped to lead a squad of four others, including most prominently, the cold-blooded Steve (Daniel Craig) and the reluctant “worried,” Carl (Ciarán Hinds), allowing Spielberg to explore a relatively broad range of responses to the morality of revenge. Eventually, Avner enlists the help of the mysterious Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who provides the squad with information about the location of their targets, as well as safe houses where they can stay while plotting each assassination. And this is one aspect of the film I’m still trying to interpret. While Louis and “Papa” (Michael Lonsdale), the even more secretive source of information, suggest some sort of larger conspiracy, that conspiracy is never fully articulated. Are they representatives of the CIA? Mossad? Or are they merely profiting from this desire for revenge?

This question is complicated when Avner’s squad is sheltered in the same safe house as a group of Palestinian bodyguards, presumably by mistake (the Israeli team pretends to be European left-wing terrorists in order to avoid conflict). Avner ultimately discusses the history of the conflict with one of the Palestinians, Ali (Omar Metwally), raising anothre important question that was unresolved for me at the end of the film.

Clearly, any history of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East will be informed by the chronological starting point of the narrative. By beginning the story with Munich, Spielberg’s film places less emphasis on what might have provoked the events in Munich. Still, Spielberg’s version of this history does challenge prior narratives of this history. Munich also portrays all of the murders as tragic–including the deaths of the Israeli Olympic team, which are conveyed in one of the more troubling flashbacks I’ve seen in some time.

Again, I’m still not quite sure how to respond to this film. The echoes with the present are clearly important. As Stephanie Zacharek points out, the film’s final shot, which takes place in 1973 after Avner has resettled in Brooklyn, shows the World Trade Center deep in the background. But the film’s moral and political positions are somewhat ambiguous. Whether, as Zacharek suggests, that’s due to the competing visions of screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth or due to Spielberg’s own ambivalence is another question.

Again, I’m curious to hear what others thought about Munich. I’m still sorting through my reading of the film, but I am glad to see filmmakrs such as Speilberg tackle such a complicated topic in what appears to be a very serious way.

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Building the Syllabus

I’m putting the finishing touches on my Media and History syllabus (more on that later), and a colleague suggested a few resources that I wanted to keep in mind for future reference (other people might find them useful, too).

First, George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media has an excellent resource, a syllabus search that allows you to search 639,752 syllabi at the Center for History and New Media and over 500,000 syllabi via Google using keywords, names, and titles. I think I’ve mentioned this site in the past bceause of their September 11 archive, which also looks incredibly useful.

Second, a couple of resources that might be useful in teaching students how to read academic writing. Tim Burke’s “How to Read in College,” which illustrates its suggestions with a reading of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which I was considering teaching. Another good resource for helping students navigate difficult material is Susan Strasser’s “How to Read a Book.”

More later, but I thought others might find thees resources particularly helpful this time of year.

Update: The one section of my syllabus that seems a little underdeveloped is the unit on photography. I’ll likely use sections of Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Walter Benjamin’s A Short History of Photography, but found lots of other cool ideas while digging around on the Center for History and New Media’s syllabus search.

Update 2: This is mostly a bookmarking update, but I have 1-2 open sopts in my syllabus, and I’m thinking about devoting one of those classes to a discussion of early debates about sound recording, including John Philip Sousa’s intriguing essay, “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” The Phonozoic website also has Barnet Phillips’ 1891 essay, “A Record of Monkey Talk” and several other articles reporting on the early history of the phonograph, as well as sound files and other cool stuff.

Update 2.5: The Phonozoic site also has a pointer to a nice collection of Edison sound recordings.

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Walk the Line

On Christmas Day, my mom, sister, and I completed our annual pilgrimage to a lcoal metroplex to see Walk the Line (IMDB), the Johnny Cash biopic that has just about run its box office course. Because I’m a fan of Cash’s music, I’d resisted seeing the movie, and while Walk the Line worked well enough as safe family entertainment, I left the theater feeling vaguely disappointed.

I knew going into the theater that the film would focus primarily on Cash’s career from the 1940s to his 1968 concert at Folsom Prison, which would mean emphasizing his relationship with June Carter and his recovery from amphetamine addiction. There weren’t any major surprises here: the film deals extensively with the romance elements, and Reese Witherspoon never quite captured June Carter’s playful, sensual side (as the World Socialist Website reviewer points out).

I’d hoped, however, that the film would focus on Cash’s rather complicated political background, his interest in prisoner and Native American rights and his opposition to the Vietnam War. For a moment, such a film seemed possible. It opens with Cash’s band playing the Folsom prison audience into a frenzy while backstage Cash (adequately played by Joaquin Phoenix), leaning on a table saw, seems to be agonizing over some past moment. Of course, the saw blade is a memory-image recalling the death of Cash’s older brother and setting in motion an abuse narrative (Cash’s father never forgave Johnny for outliving his older brother, who by coincidence was played by the son of a family friend) that dimiinishes the story considerably.

As the WSWS review points out, another film about Cash could have focused more extensively on his youth in an experimental New Deal community, the fact that he grew up dirt poor among sharecroppers. The film underplays his rejection of the country music establishment and even his interest in prisoner rights (Phoenix’s snarling response to a prison warden, seen in pretty much every preview of the film, is pretty much all we get). In short, pretty much everything interesting about Cash was stripped away from the film in favor of a love story that seemed far less interesting than its real-life counterpart.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of the film was that it made me want to go back and dig through my CDs and rediscover the Johnny Cash that I’d admired. I’m perhaps being a bit too hard by calling out the paint-by-numbers biopic narrative (abusive parent, dead brother, outsider recording artist, sound familiar yet?) , and perhaps I should instead be asking why the biopic about the outsider musical genius is suddenly so popular, but I’m not sure I have an interesting answer to that question.

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Meaningless Award Ceremony

Gets a little more interesting. Maybe I’ll watch the Oscars after all.

Update: The New York Times confirms that Jon Stewart will be hosting the Oscars this year, replacing Chris Rock, who apparently took too many shots at President Bush and the film industry last year in the opinion of some Academy members. Which makes me wonder if these people have ever watched The Daily Show.

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DIY Film Blog Project

I’ve been planning to mention Sujewa’s 2006 blog project for several days now but have been distracted by the new semester, which is very quickly approaching, and a couple of publishing projects.

Sujewa’s project is to write about 52 D.I.Y. features over the course of 2006. So far, he’s lined up a few films, including Kissing on the Mouth, which has been getting some good publicity not only from Sujewa but also the folks at Cinematical and Nerve.com. Sujewa will also be discussing The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, which I reviewed a few weeks ago.

It’s a cool project, both in terms of promoting truly independent films and in terms of the potential for creating networks of interesting filmmakers. I’m curious to see Sujewa’s Date Number One, even moreso now that I’ve seen this still from the film.

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One in a Million Trillion

This is primarily a bookmarking post for future reference. I’ve been watching DVD collections of the Errol Morris series, First Person, over the last few days and found the episode, “One in a Million Trillion: An Interview with Rick Rosner,” particularly interesting. In the episode, Rosner describes how he sought to repeat the experience of going to high school several times until he could “get it right.” Rosner managed to forge transcripts, identification cards, and other materials and would then “transfer” into a new high school in a different state. Essentially he engages in a series of “do-overs” he compares to time travel (or at least the repetitions of an alternate-reality film such as Groundhog Day).

This desire for a do-over colors Rosner’s adult life, as well. Rosner describes his obsessive attempts to get onto the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Once on the show, Rosner loses on what he believes to be a poorly-worded question (“What capital city is located at the highest altitude above sea level? A. Mexico City, B. Quito, C. Bogotá, D. Kathmandu”), eventually spending the next several years of life seeking to get another chance on the show to make up for the faulty question (Rosner’s correspondence to Millionaire producers is available here).

Over the course of his research, Rosner develops, according to Errol Morris’s website, “a theory of cosmology in which the universe is seen as trillions of years old. ‘Why so old!?’ you might ask: To give the universe the opportunity to endlessly redo itself” (side note: these reviews offer a slightly different take on Rosner’s experiences).

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Where is Independent Cinema?

Reading Andrew O’Hehir’s “Top Ten Indies” article for Salon, I wish I could revise my own Top Ten list that I dashed together yesterday in a post-MLA convention, post-New Years hangover. I’d almost certainly replace one film from my list with Jia Zhangke’s 2004 film, Shijie (The World), which would actually screen quite nicely in a double-feature with Jem Cohen’s Chain. O’Hehir’s list also mentions three or four films that I wish I’d had a chance to see, most notably Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband, which hit theaters in DC while I was out of town and disappeared from theaters before I had a chance to see it.

But I didn’t write this entry merely to criticize my own list-making or implicit canon formation. Instead, I was intrigued by O’Hehir’s discussion of the precarious status of indie cinema (or maybe a certain brand of indie cinephilia) today. O’Hehir points out the difficult marketplace for independent films today, observing that few indie films are given the opportunity to develop an audience gradually by playing for several weeks in order to garner favorable reviews (one high-profile exception here might be Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, which was screened for art-house and military audiences for several weeks before screening widely).

O’Hehir points to one of the major problems confronting indie today, the fact that films come and go so quickly, in part because of the large number of films competing for a small number of screens. But I also detect some nostalgia creeping in when he discusses the lack of a “cultural imperative” to see films by certain filmmakers (“Who knew what Fellini and Truffaut were earning at the box office? Nobody knew, and nobody cared”). The implication is that the competitive market stifles the cinematic auteur, while films with a hook (the penguin movie, the gay cowboy movie) get the hype and the audiences. And to suggest that “nobody cared” whether Godard and Truffaut’s movies made money isn’t entirely fair. After all, somebody had to pay the bills. But I’m also suspicious of the idea that seeing a Godard or Truffaut film (or a Bergman or Fellini film, for that matter) was a “cultural imperative.” For what audiences were these films “cultural imperatives?” I ask this question not out of a cinematic populism, but instead wonder how widely these films were seen and who might be included in defining a “cultural imerative” film. In this regard, what’s happening with indie might be understood in terms of a continued decline in a certain mode of cinephilia.

In this regard, today’s indie culture in which more people have access to more choices seems a bit more inclusive. And it might be worth considering what it means that people are choosing to see films based on “buzz” rather than on a filmmaker’s signature (it can’t be entirely negative that one of the most discussed films of the year is that “gay cowboy” movie). And, of course, it’s worth noting that the role of reviewers and academics in cultural taste-making will continue via ten-best lists and introduction to film courses. While scholars such as Andrew Sarris (to name one example) were instrumental in cultivating an audience for European filmmakers and filnding value in Hollywood auteurs, film bloggers and film professors continue that work, even if our approach is no longer guided by the aura of the director.

These comments didn’t really take the direction that I expected. O’Hehir’s analysis of the precarious state of indie does point out the degree to which the existence of indie depends so heavily on “industrial” factors.

Thanks to Ann for the link to O’Hehir’s article.

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