Archive for February, 2006

Washington DC Independent Film Festival

I’m not sure how I missed the fact that the Washington DC Independent Film Festival begins this week and runs through March 12. Too bad I’ll be out of town all weekend, but if you’re in DC, be sure to check out a few of these films.

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After Innocence

“Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error: error in determining guilt and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die. What effect was race having? What effect was poverty having?

Because of all these reasons, today I am commuting the sentences of all death row inmates.”–Former Illinois Governor George Ryan

When I was living in Illinois a few years ago, the state’s death penalty came under intense scrutiny. It turned out that several death row inmates had been wrongully convicted, many of them spending decades on death row for crimes they did not commit. As he was leaving office, Governor George Ryan commuted all Illinois death row sentences to life in prison until the state’s legal system could resolve the problems that were producing false convictions. As a strong opponent of the death penalty and an observer of the legal system’s inequities, I couldn’t help but appreciate Ryan’s gesture. But legal exoneration is often only the beginning of the story, and Jessica Sanders’ compelling documentary, After Innocence (IMDB) asks an easily forgotten question: what happens after these innocent people are released from prison? How do they renew lives that were disrupted by the false conviction?

Innocence features seven cases of men who were wrongfully convicted of crimes, and in all cases the men discuss the powerful whirl of emotions and the overwhelming sensory overload that greets them when they emerge from prison. In almost every case, the men find themselves stepping back into the world at a tremendous financial disadvantage because they spent the years they would have been attending college, learning a trade, or serving in the armed forces trapped in prison. Many of them spent every dime of savings and their parents’ savings paying legal bills to fight their conviction. As Vincent Moto notes at one point, his parents should be retired and living in the Poconos. Instead, they’re forced to work far past the age of retirement. Others describe the difficulty of finding work when the conviction hasn’t been fully erased from their record, while Dennis Maher discusses the difficulties of explaining his situation to women he’d like to date.

One subtext of the documentary is the promotion of the Innocence Project, a campaign started by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992 to support te use of DNA evidence to oveturn false convictions. Of course this is only the beginning of securing justice, and more recently there has been an effort to seek financial restitution for those who are wrongfully convicted. In fact, in some cases, when these men were released, they were given little more than a bus ticket home, with many of them moving back into their parents’ homes years after adulthood.

In all cases, their stories are devastating, but Sanders’ subjects show surprisingly little anger about what happened to them. In fact, Maher somehow manages to forgive the original prosecutor of his case immediately after he walks out of prison a free man. Perhaps this is a conscious strategy on Sanders’ part to underplay their anger, which sometimes bubbles just beneath the surface, but I’ll admit that I couldn’t have shrugged off losing years of my life so easily.

At the same time, several reactions seemed fairly consistent. In many cases, the men would describe what might be described as feelings of emasculation. Soto, in particular, explains that he feels like he hasn’t lived up to his obligations as a father, who should provide for his children. Others describe the uncanny experience of returning to the community they called home and feeling like an outsider. Scott Hornoff, while driving through the town he had called home, reflects that “I feel like a foreigner.” Others describe the sensory overload that they confront when leaving prison, with Nick Yarris, who was prohibited from speaking during his first two years on death row, commenting that he “couldn’t believe how loud the world was.”

I do think that the film could have benefitted from more legal argument or explanation of how the justice system often fails. Instead of getting a clear understanding of these problems, the seven stories are somewhat isoalted from each other, and some tighter connections might have resolved this concern. But when one of the featured exonerees, Wilton Dedge, is finally released from prison several years after his innocence has become indisputable, it’s not hard to recognize some of the reasons for corruption. After all, if Dedge is released, it sets a precedent for other criminal convictions in Florida where DNA evidence was not used. Drawing these connections more explicitly, where possible, could have made the film an even stronger argument.

I caught After Innocence at DC’s Provisions Library, where Taryn Simon’s amazing photography series, The Innocents, is currently featured. If you can’t make it for the film screening, I’d certainly recommend spending a few minutes viewing Simon’s work.

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“No Crap. Okay Maybe a Little…But It’s Your Crap.”

Quick link to the upcoming documentary, 24 Hours on Craigslist, which is starting to get some buzz. For my talk at SCMS, I’ve been thinking about online social networks (Facebook, Craigslist, MySpace, Live Journal, and others) and how they intersect with or upset questions pertinent to film studies.

I won’t have time to see the documentary before giving the paper, but it looks really interesting. Here’s an ABC article on Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Links via Lost Remote.

Update: Lost Remote also points to the news that CBS has asked YouTube to pull down a video clip of the CBS news report on Jason McElwain, the autistic high school basketball player who had one of the most incredible hot streaks imaginable, sinking six three-pointers in less than three minutes. The clip, which is utterly irresistible, received at least 1.2 million views on YouTube before it was pulled.

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After Innocence Screening

I managed to score admission to a press screening of After Innocence (IMDB) tonight. Innocence tells the story of people who were wrongfully imprisoned, often for years, only to be exonerated years later through DNA evidence.

I think the film has already screened here in DC (maybe while I was out of town for a conference?), but it will be shown to the public twice this week at the Provisions Library (located near the Dupont Circle Metro stop), a resource here in DC focusing on the arts and social change. Screenings are scheduled for March 1 and March 3 at 7 PM.

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“Buy Us Back Chirac”

Photos of some politically interesting Mardi Gras floats, courtesy of RebeccaB. Not sure I have anything to add, but the floats are a pretty humorous, if occasionally morbid, critique of the incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

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Spring Break Monday Linkfest

It’s spring break here at CUA, which means it’s really time to catch up on all of that work I should have been doing several weeks ago. I’m still wrapping up my talking points for my workshop panel at SCMS, but GreenCine Daily (as usual) provided a few links I wanted to mention or to stoer for future reference.

First, a link to an entry on the WFMU blog, “Videomania,” which points to quite a few online video resources I hadn’t encountered. Lukas also offers a handy guide to the strengths and weaknesses of many of the popular video hosting websites, including iFilm and Veoh, among others (worth noting in this context: the IP issues that came up recently when NBC forced YouTube to pull down a popular Saturday Night Live skit that had been stored there. But the coolest aspect of Lukas’ entry: he has links to dozens of online videos to support your procrastination habit.

I’ve been hammering the point that there were no women among the best director nominees and the fact that there have been only three women nominees for best director in Oscar’s 78-year history. The Guerilla Girls and have erected a billboard in Hollywood to remind us of these depressing facts. Sharon Krum covers this story in more detail in The Guardian.

Update: One more link, via Wiley Wiggins: Democracy Player, which allows viewers to “download and watch all the best internet TV shows and videos in one powerful application.”

Update 2: Here are some basics on Machinima, as well as a link to the politically interesting French Democracy film that was making the rounds for a while back in November. And, while I’m thinking about it, here’s a Boing Boing pointer to an upcoming DIY film festival.

Update 3: Okay, technically it’s Wednesday but Mark Caro’s discussion of the IFC-Comcast deal to release several IFC films simultaneously on pay-per-view and in theaters is worth noting (thanks to the Risky Biz blog).

Update 4: Even later on Wednesday, but this Washington Post article on the role of iTunes in creating online communities is worth noting, as is their discussion of Derek Slater and Mike McGuire’s “Consumer Taste Sharing Is Driving the Online Music Business and Democratizing Culture,” although I’m generally skeptical about claims regarding the democratization of media.

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Digital Product Placement on TV

Just a quick link to this Yahoo article on the use of “digital product placement” on the show Yes, Dear. In a recent episode of the show watched by millions of people (I’ll get to that in a minute), a box of Kelloggs crackers was digitally painted onto a coffee table.

This practice is a relatively obvious response to the emergence of TiVo and other devices that allow viewers to skip commercials as advertisers continue to seek visibility for their brand images. And I’d like to note that I’m not really that interested in whether such practices are as “effective” as commercials themselves, although I think it does contribute to the commodification and branding of all (virtual) space in ways that I don’t entirely welcome, naturalizing the presence of these brands and logos in our daily lives.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about this new practice is that it allows greater flexibility in terms of allowing brand images to be “altered or replaced when the show goes into reruns and off-network syndication.” Thus, just as Spielberg was able to digitally edit out the threatening guns in ET, TV producers could re-sell that spot on Yes, Dear’s coffee table when the push to sell Kelloggs crackers has passed. In that sense, there is the potential for a weird de-historicizing of the TV image so that the stars of that show might handle products that didn’t exist when the show originally aired.

At the same time, I have to admit that I’m a little less alarmed by this news than I ought to be. After all, product placement is not an uncommon practice already, and sitcoms or TV shows such as Yes, Dear, are already so unreal that using digital technologies to insert a product into the sitcom world doesn’t seem that shocking. I think I’m more alarmed by the fact that “millions” of people watch Yes, Dear.

Update: Lost Remote has more information, including a photograph of the digitally-included product.

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Silence is Golden

I’ve been fascinated by the reaction to the recent article by marketing professors Wagner Kamakura (Duke University), Suman Basuroy (Florida Atlantic University), and Peter Boatwright (Carnegie Mellon University), which argues that film reviewers’ silence on certain films can tell us something about their opinions of those films. According to a Duke University press release, the study

finds that many film critics, faced with far too many movies to write about, tend to avoid writing reviews of bad films that they’ve seen. At the same time, a few critics, faced with the same overwhelming choice, tend to avoid reviewing good movies that they’ve watched.

The study has been widely criticzed, with Kamakura seeking to clarify their research on Poynter Online in response to these scathing comments by MCN’s David Poland. It’s a little difficult to develop a full reaction to the study without reading the whole thing, but several things seem problematic, at least when looking at the press release. First, they seem to describe the decision to review films as a free choice (“faced with far too many movies to write about, tend to avoid writing reviews;” “a few critics, faced with the same overwhelming choice”), which seems like an imprecise understanding of the requirements of professional reviewers. As Mark Caro points out, when a newspaper only has two or three reviewers, critics don’t always get their choice about what to review, especially if they are the paper’s junior critics (Ebert is suspicious of the study for similar reasons).

I’m also wondering how they handled other institutional issues, especially the complicated relationship between studios and distributors and the newspapers and magazines where these reviews are published (how, for example, might a magazine like Entertainment Weekly, owned by Time Warner, which also has a major film studio, shape who reviews what film or, more importantly, what films get reviewed?).

I’m going to refrain from criticizing their study further until I get a chance to read it. I know that university press releases can often miss the mark terribly when it comes to describing the significance of a given study. But the research does raise some interesting questions about the motivations for writing reviews or what function reviews might function in the consumption of films. In my own experience, I generally seek out independent and documentary films (you may have noticed this by now), in part because that’s what I like and in part because no one is paying me to watch Date Movie.

Their follow-up study seems similarly strange. According to the press release, the researchers are “now exploring the relationship between a movie’s critical acclaim and its box office sales,” with an eye towards determining which critics most affect box office. If they’re planning to judge consensus grades on films against box office, such a study would seem flawed from the beginning, especially when studis will spend as much as $40 million to buy an audience for their film. Again, I want to wait until I see the study, but I’m guessing that critics likely have their greatest effect when they campaign for or promote films that might not otherwise receive a wider audience. Still, I’d be curious to hear from both film reviewers and people who read film reviews (including mine). Does the quality of a film affect whether you write about it? Or better, what motivates you to write reviews, usually for no money, on your blogs? And for those of you who read reviews, does a critic’s silence on a certain film affect your perception of it? In general, how do film reviews shape your experience of or desire to see a given film?

Note: The Cinemarati discussion of this study is also worth checking out (and my questions are similar to theirs).

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Digital and DIY

I’m working on my contribution to my workshop panel at SCMS and have found myself thinking quite a bit about the relationship between digital video (DV) and the recent DIY culture that has grown up around it, which we’ve certainly seen among some of my favorite film bloggers. Because this is a workshop panel, I have a little more room to speculate and point towards interesting possibilities rather than reaching conclusions (which is kind of nice). These thoughts are all over the place right now, and I’d love to hear from indie filmmakers (and other interested folks) on some of these issues.

With that in mind, I’ll be tracking a few links to blog entries, websites, articles, and other materials that have been informing my thinking on these issues. I’ve already mentioned my interest in the buzz around My Space: The Movie and my curiosity about Dylan Avery’s Loose Change, which calls into question many of the claims about the September 11 attacks (I’ll try to write a short review later, but the doc does raise some interesting questions).

But as I’ve mentioned, I’m also very interested in the DIY community that seems to be forming in (or near) my corner of the film blogosphere. In particular, Sujewa has been incredibly active, not only in promoting his Date Number One, which I can’t wait to see, but also a punk rock DIY ethos. He’s also asking some important questions about whether DIY filmmaking can be a “day job,” which I think is an important question when it comes to the autonomy of the filmmaker and his or her work. I’m inclined to disagree with Sujewa to some extent and suggest that it’s relatively rare that a DIY movie maker can earn enough to make it a full-time gig, even if the quality of work is quite good, but I’m certainly open to hearing from others who might be more optomistic than I am.

David Lowery also discusses some of the issues at stake with regards to DIY, namely the distribution question. Of course digital distribution has been celebrated as an alternative to theatrical release, but like David (and Sujewa), I’m still pretty attached to the big screen (and here, I find David’s comparison with the music industry quite helpful). David also discusses the role of a filmmaker’s signature in using DIY priciples, specifically when he discusses the marketing/promotion of Mark Cuban-Steven Soderbergh experiments with “day-and-date” release for Bubble, which relied heavily on Soderbergh’s reuptation as a pop experimentalist.

There’s also a nice collection of links at Self-Reliant Filmmaking, where Paul Harrill has been asking some interesting questions over last few weeks. He also mentions the International Documentary Challenge, which sounds really interesting (and I think this short form can be an effective way of putting together an interesting doc).

I do have another question that may be difficult to answer: I’ve noticed that my digital DIY culture, is well, pretty much a boy’s club. I’m certainly aware that women are doing interesting work in independent film and video, but I can’t help but think that the construction of this version of DIY filmmaking has somehow been coded as male, and I’m wondering what might be producing that perception.

Finally, just a couple of additional pointers to atuthor Rick Schmidt’s website, where he is proting his filmmaking manual, Extreme DV at Used Car Prices, and to the Lost Film Festival, which looks like an interesting venue.

Update: Here’s some more information about Four Eyed Monsters, one of the more interesting self-distributed film projects I’ve encountered. Their video podcasts are highly entertaining and do a fantastic job of creating demand for the film (one of the film’s directors, Susan Buice, notes that each episode of their video podcast series has been downloaded 50,000 times, which would not be an insignificant audience for a low-budget indie).

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Plan Nine from MySpace

Susan Carpenter has an interesting article in the LA Times on David Lehre’s My Space: The Movie, a new short video satirizing the popular social networking website. Lehre’s film is rapidly gaining a wide audience on the internet. In fact, in less than a month, the video, which is available for download at (just search for “My Space”), has already been viewed an estimated 3.3 million times.

My Space: The Movie gently parodies many of the familiar features of the website, including the narcissistic photographs and the “angles,” the practice of taking self-pictures from flattering angles in order to appear more sexually attractive. I’ve had some problems viewing the entire film (due to downloading problems), but it looks like a fun little video and, more significantly, fits the online video medium quite well.

Lehre, who is a 21-year old self-taught filmmaker, has been able to translate his success into a development deal with MTVU, has already managed perhaps one of the biggest compliment a filmmaker can receieve: My Space: The Movie has already spawned several parodies and imitations.

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TV Reads

Two interesting, but unrelated articles on television that I wanted to mention: first an LA Times article on the new HBO show, Big Love (IMDB), which focuses on a polygamous Mormon family, with one husband (Bill Paxton) married to three wives (Chloe Sevigny, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Ginnifer Goodwin). As Susie of Suburban Guerilla points out, leaders of the Mormon church are upset about the show, arguing that they banned the practice some time ago. But the Times article points out that Utah officials have confirmed that “thousands” of polygamists are “trying to fit into mainstream society.” The series has the potential to introduce some interesting questions about definitions of family, but there’s a degree to which it sounds like it will be replicating the male fantasy of having several young, female partners (all three wives are 10-20 years younger than Paxton).

Also wanted to throw in a quick link to this discussion of “unbundled” cable television, which would allow consumers to choose which cable stations they want to watch and to avoid paying for those they don’t. If unbundled cable TV becomes a reality (and it seems likely), then I might actually become motivated enough to start getting cable again, if only to make snarky comments about series such as Big Love. The deabte is an interesting one, in part because one the FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican, has sought to curb the sexual and violent programming available on cable even though it might conflict with industrial concerns (Rupert Murdoch has actively opposed the a la carte option).

One of the objections to a la carte programming has been that “niche channels” such as Black Entertainment Television and the History Channel could be hurt if they don’t draw enough subscribers. While it’s certainly a possibility, I’d imagine that niche channels even find a wider audience if viewers didn’t have to pay for a “bundled” cable package (one of the reasons I don’t have cable is that I don’t wnat to pay for ESPN 2 through 7, for example). It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next few months.

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Early Visual Media Links

I’m putting together some ideas for my SCMS workshop and came across this really useful web resource, Early Visual Media, which would have saved me a lot of time the last two weeks when I was talking with my Media and Hitsory students about daguerreotypes and other early forms of photography, as well as prot-cinematic devices such as the phenakistoscope, the magic lantern, and other optical toys (such as the thaumatrope).

I did get a chnace to show my students some of the cool materials archived on the Library of Congress website, including the amazing Farm Security Administration photos, which I could easily browse for hours, and this quick overview on the 19th century practice of taking daguerreotypes of dead family members (now that I’ve taught sections of Jeffery Sconce’s Haunted Media and this discussion of daguerreotypes, my students think I’m way too preoccupied with death).

At some point, I do want to think about what it means that we encounter these old media outside their original context (that is, the physical/material qualities of these older media), but for now, I just want to point towards some of these valuable resources.

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Movie Mapping

Via GreenCine WFMU’s Mark Allen uses Googe Earth to capture current satellite images of the locations of eleven of his favorite films. Among the films and locations: the bank from Dog Day Afternoon, the spot where Lou’s Tavern from Fight Club once stood, and the high school stairs from Heathers.

David’s pointer to the WFMU blog also introduced me to their very cool radio station.

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Lavishly Wettest

Via Boing Boing, A map of DC’s Metro system (PDF) with all of the station names re-arranged into creative anagrams. Thus, my West Hyattsville station becomes “lavishly wettest,” and I work near the “Buckaroo Land” station. My favorite anagram: Pentagon City, which became “Giant Potency.”

For my Atlanta friends, There’s another anagram map for Atlanta’s Marta system.

Both of these anagram maps (along with several others) appeared soon after the London Underground demanded that one remixed map be pulled down (also via Boing Boing).

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Documenting Conspiracy

I’ve been swamped with grading this afternoon, but just noticed David Lowery’s link to the documentary Loose Change, directed by Dylan Avery. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, but plan to ASAP. The film is streaming for free at Google. Looks interesting, and I’ll be interested to know what others think about the film.

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