Archive for February, 2006

Brokeback to the Future

Speaking of time travel, here’s that “Brokeback to the Future” preview clip that has been making the blog rounds for the last few days.


The Infinite Corridors of Time

Via GreenCine, the news that quirky, short-lived 1960s TV series, The Time Tunnel, is now available on DVD. Time Travelers Robert Colbrt and Lee Meriwether visit the Titanic, the War of 1812, and Pearl Harbor, and that’s just in the span of four episodes. My Netflix queue just got a little bit longer.


The Last Telegram

Odd timing: I happened to be teaching the history of the telegraph in my Media and History course this week when Western Union announced that it has sent its last telegram.

Like my students, I was a little disappointed that Western Union declined to report the recipient of the telegram or its content, especially given Samuel Morse’s famous first telegraphed message, “What hath God wrought?” But the Tribune article does provide a nice historical overview of the telegraph, including its role in the news gathering process and the cultivation of “telegraphese,” which bears more than a passing resemblance to today’s text messaging.

Also in extremely old media news: cavers have identified cave drawings in a grotto in western France that may be over 25,000 years old, which would make them significantly older than those located in the caves of Lascaux.

Update: One of my media students passed along this MSNBC story on the end of the telegram, in which we learn a little about the content of the last ten telegrams, many of which consisted of birthday wishes, condolences, and several people trying to send the last telegram.

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Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble (IMDB) has received more attention because of its experimental distribution schedule than because of the film itself, but the film itself is deceptively experimental focusing intimately on the lives of three workers in a small doll factory in a small industrial town on the border of West Virginia and Ohio.

Bubble first introduces us to Martha and Kyle who work together in the doll factory and have cultivated a quiet but grounded friendship, based in part on the daily rituals of driving to work together and sharing a fast food lunch in the factory’s breakroom. Both Martha and Kyle work outside the factory in second jobs to make ends meet, and they sometimes discuss what they would do if they managed to save just a little money. Their routine is subtly but inevitably interrupted when the factory hires a new employee, Rose, a single mother in her early twenties. When Rose is introduced to the small group of workers (maybe 5 ot 6 people) in the doll factory, her brief smile at Kyle indicates her attraction to him. As Ebert points out, it’s unclear whether Kyle returns Rose’s acknowledgement, but Martha sees the smile and begins to see her relationship to Kyle change. Martha’s “loss” of Kyle (they remain friends but their friendship, and Kyle’s reliance on Martha, is what changes) is also measured by the lunch breaks in which Rose and Kyle share a cigarette at the end of the meal in a spearate section of the breakroom. Soderbergh’s camera emphasizes how this subtle act not only changes Martha and Kyle’s daily routine but also how it begins to create some distance between them, physiaclly and emotionally.

Rose also becomes representative of an independence unavailable to Martha and Kyle. Her second job entails cleaning wealthy people’s houses, where she takes bubble baths in their tubs, reasoning that she doesn’t have that luxury in her apartment, with Rose’s free-spiritedness prompting Martha to comment, “I don’t know about her.” Eventually Kyle asks Rose on a date, with Rose, in turn, asking Martha to babysit her daughter, setting up a scene of profound awkwardness when the three of them are forced to interact in Rose’s apartment, building towards an act of violence that is somewhat shocking although it is certainly consistent with the emotions of the film’s central characters.

Soderbergh, along with screenwriter Coleman Hough (who also worked with Soderbergh on Full Frontal), sets the tone for this kind of story very effectively. The doll factory itself allows for some slightly uncanny imagery, with Kyle pouring pastic into the leg and head molds, while Rose and Martha airbrush identical faces on rows of these cheap plastic dolls (Filmbrain describes the creepiness of the doll factory rather well). The featureless breakroom, which looks like it could have been decorated anytime in the last thirty years, the fast food restaurants that provide daily nourishment, and the mobile homes and apartments all suggest a sense of routine or monotony.

Using these characters, Soderbergh has created a quiet, intimate portrait of small-town, southern life, a world that Soderbergh knows well, as Michael Atkinson points out. Because the film is simultaneously available on DVD and in theaters, it will be interesting to see what kind of reception it receives (and whether the site of reception matters in terms of audience response), but the film does offer one of the more interesting character studies I’ve seen in some time.

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The Politics of Oscar

I’ve been intrigued by the recent discussion of what might be called the “Politics of Oscar,” the ongoing discussion of the films that have been nominated for Academy Awards and how they might serve as a barometer for whether Hollywood is liberal or conservative or whether the nominated films reflect the values of this mysterious heartland that I keep hearing about.

The Oscar argument has taken on two distinct flavors. On the one hand, several observers have speculated that the Bush propaganda machine may have had a hand in preventing some of this year’s more explicitly political documentaries, such as Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, from receiving a documentary nomination, as reported in this New York Times article. Politex at Bushwatch speculates that Michael Moore’s speech at the March 2003 Oscar ceremony after he won the Best Documentary Oscar for Bowling for Columbine (not Fahrenheit 9/11) may have been seen as too threatening: “what we’re seeing now are attempts to prevent such an event from happening again. Given what we have learned over the years about Bush news management and propaganda, a White House hand in Hollywood is hardly out of the question.”

In this context, I agree with Alternet’s Laura Barcella that such influence is unlikely, and this lack of influence is not something I would ascribe to Hollywood liberalism real or imagined. In the first place, attributing a discrete set of politics to an entire industry is reductive at best. There are obviously indivduals and production companies that are making films with politically progressive aims in mind, such as Jeffrey Skoll’s Participant Productions, profiled in this Washington Post article (more on Skoll, who professes to be politically “centrist,” and Participant Productions later).

And dsepite these claims, several of the nominated documentaries can be read as strongly critical of Bush administration policies, particularly Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, in which Bush contributor Ken “Kenny Boy” Lay is one of the film’s chief villains. More crucially, an Oscar nomination (or the Oscar itself) is no guarantee that the winning documentary’s “message” will reach a wider audience in the way that the filmmaker intends or that the documentary will provoke political change. In fact, if anything Moore’s visibility as a documentary filmmaker after Bowling and Fahrenheit has been quite useful to the conservative noise machine.

But others, such as Jason Apuzzo, have argued that this year’s Oscar nominees represent a “trend” towards honoring “message” [read liberal] films, a trend Apuzzo describes as The New Triviality. In my opinion, this is a more sinister claim because it redefines triviality so that it becomes its opposite. Films that attempt to have an effect socially or politically are “trivial” by his definition when it is clear that they are clearly far from trivial, esecially given that they are shaping political dialogue in a way that Apuzzo doesn’t like. In fact, Apuzzo offers no clear definition of what a non-trivial film might be. He complains that the most recent Star Wars was snubbed at the Oscars, but Lucas himself has acknowledged some relationship between his film’s political intrigue and the Bush administration’s behavior, and given his maverick status, his film’s lack of nominations may have nothing to do with either the content of the film or its quality.

Apuzzo further posits that these films are alienating heatland audiences. Apuzzo glosses the fact that Brokeback Mountain appears to have turned a tidy little profit ($52 million so far on a $14 million budget, with enthusiastic audiences across the country). He also ignores the fact that the “message” film has been a staple of Hollywood since D. W. Griffith picked up a camera in the 1910s, if not earlier (Griffith’s message wasn’t a good one, of course, but it was a message). Ceratinly many critically acclaimed films, such as 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, and even many of Frank Capra’s films show that this trend is not a recent one. In short, many of this year’s nominees feature “social issue” topics, but that is nothing new by any stretch of the imagination (thanks to tbogg, whose critique of The New Triviality is far more effective than mine, for the link).

Note: I’ve also submitted this story to Agoravox, where I’ll be publishing articles and reviews from time to time.

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Documenting Iraq

I’ve been finishing up an article on first-person documentaries about the war in Iraq (my deadline is about two weeks away), and the essay is beginning to feel like the beginning of something much larger. With that in mind, I want to mention a new documentary that has received tremendous acclaim at Sundance, James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, which seeks to explore some of the ongoing conflicts in post-war Iraq.

Also check out Hannah Eaves’ excellent interview with Longley, available from GreenCine, which provides a nice overview of the conditions in which he found himself filming and emphasizes the lack of historical scope in many of our discussions of Iraq.

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Michael Haneke’s Cache (US website/IMDB) opens with a static image of suburban house, with a steady, unblinking gaze not unlike that of a surveillance camera. The camera doesn’t move as scenes of daily life are displayed leaving the viewer to contemplate why this house is the object of such intense scrutiny. Suddenly our gaze is disrupted when the image begins to fast-forward and we realize that we are watching a videotape along with the owners of the house, Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche). Throughout the film, Georges and Anne continue to receive videotapes from the unidentified source, though as the film’s tension escalates, the images become increasingly personal, with one videotape depicting Georges childhood home.

In many ways, the opening scene recalls a similar moment in Haneke’s earlier, underrated film, Funny Games, which I won’t spoil for people who haven’t seen the film, but in both films, video seems to disrupt the temporal “present” of the films in complicated ways. In both films, the status of the viewer is implicated as we become conscious of the camera’s gaze. In both films, the camera–or videotape–also serves to intensify tension within an upper-middle class family.

In the case of Cache, this tension maps allegorically onto both the US war on terrorism and, more explicitly, onto the French treatment of Algerians during the 1960s, but given the recent riots, these scnes have a very contemporary feel. It has been a few days since I’ve seen the film (I’ve had no time and little energy to write for the blog recently), so my memory on details about the film is a bit thin, but I found it to be a successful, chilling psychological thriller, one that used the genre conventions in order to comment on contemporary issues in a thoughtful way.

But if others have seen Cache, I’d enjoy knowing what you thought of it.

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