Archive for March, 2006

Historic Film Criticism

Laura Miller’s Salon review of American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, a new collection of film critcism edited by Philip Lopate, raises some interesting questions about the role of the film critic in the American public imagination (and also makes me want to read the collection ASAP).

Most notably, Miller points out that many of the critical debates that seem relatively recent actually have a much longer history, and I think that one of the major benefits of this book, for film scholars and cinephiles alike (not that the categories ar excusive), will be the historical materials Lopate has accumulated. The earliest anthologized criticism, dating from the 1910s and 1920s, can provide a window into the social role of these early films and illuminate the debates about film that persist to this day, including debates about whether film would corrupt its audience (in this sense, the book might prove to be an instructive companion to Gregory Waller’s useful collection, Moviegoing in America) . Miller does point out the objection that the anthologized essays are not clearly dated and that their original sources are not clearly marked, but given that the information is available, this seems like a minor concern.

Like Lopate, Miller seems to celebrate most the free-wheeling, playful, and often highly subjective critcism of the “Golden Age” of film critcism, most associated with critics such as Pauline Kael, but Lopate and Miller show some awareness that even Kael’s subjective style was not unprecedented. For example, Lopate includes modernist poet HD’s review of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which HD reports, left her “cut into slices.” Miller thus values Kael for her unqualified appreciation for cinematic “trash,” not because of an elimination of critical standards, but because of her willingness to enjoy films and her ability to express that enjoyment so convincingly. But Miller also worries that Kael’s influence as a critic may have led to “support for a cinematic culture in which ‘trash’ is all that anybody wants to make or see.” I don’t think that’s a terribly fair argument in that it underplays the economic and institutional factors that have shaped cinema over the last few decades. While I don’t want to deny that critics can shape how movie makers understand their craft, the decline in audiences for art house and foreign films (a decline I’m not sure exists) can hardly be ascribed to the embrace of so-called trash. Even if audiences aren’t seeing these films in art house and repertory theaters in the same numbers as in the past, other audiences are finding many of these films on DVD and on cable TV (via channels such as Turner Classic Movies and AMC).

These comments are not meant to “bury the dead” of the earlier film culture, which thrived on the public screenings and local film cultures identified with rep houses, but to suggest that other film cultures may be forming. I know that I’ve already pointed to some of the film blogs that I enjoy, and that culture continues to flourish as the recent film blog forum on the films of Abel Ferrrara illustrates (Girish has many of the links). Evn with declining box office, I do think that movies continue to matter. The politically-oriented debates about Brokeback Mountain’s Oscar-worthiness only underline the degree to which movies are still understood as functioning as a kind of cultural barometer. And I still believe that the blog format enables film critcism to do different things that writing articles for newpapers or magazines may not permit. Writing in the blog, I have few obligations to review films that don’t excite me, allowing me to promote films that I believe desrve a wider audience. But the blog genre also allows me to constantly track back, to rethink and restate why I like or dislike a certain film or filmmaker. It allows me to think about how my tatses have changed and evolved as I’ve continued to write in the blog.

Again, I’m really curious to read Lopate’s collection, but with the end-of-semester crunch quickly approaching, that may take a while.

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My March Madness

Somehow I’ve already managed to win this year’s Bloggers’ Mad Dance pool. Of the eleven participants in the pool, not a single one of us has a remaining Final Four team winning another game. Given that I watched maybe ten minutes of college basketball all season before the tournament, which I watched religiously, that’s either a sign of incredibly good guessing or of a crazy tournament, maybe a little of both. I actually managed to have six of the elite eight before things came crashing back to earth for my bracket and pretty much everyone else’s. I have two final four teams (Florida and UCLA), but I’m not picking either team to go any further. Now, like Michael, I can freely cheer for George Mason to win the whole thing.

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The Hole Story in Boston

I’m not sure how many of my readers live in the Boston area, but if you do, I highly recommend that you see Alex Karpovsky’s The Hole Story at the Harvard Film Archive at 7pm this Friday, March 31. Like Matt Zoller Seitz I think that Karpovsky has crafted an outstanding film that deserves a much wider audience. Go to Matt’s blog for all the details.

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Progressive Voices and the Media

FYI DC readers: Just received an email tip that Media Matters is sopnsoring a forum, “Media Matters: Progressive Voices and the Media,” here in Washington, DC, onWednesday, April 5th, at 4 PM, at George Washington University ‘s Jack Morton Auditorium, 805 21st Street NW. According to the Media Matters website, Al Franken will be featured on the panel, and my email lists David Brock, Media Matters President and CEO, along with Eleanor Clift, Danny Goldberg, and Helen Thomas as participants. Reservations are required and available from the Media Matters website.

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Sunday Afternoon Film Reads

I’m still working on a couple of projects, but that doens’t mean I can’t do a little procrastination blogging. One of my current projects is a short essay on all of the claims about the “end of cinema” proclamations we’ve been hearing over the last few years, as digital production, distribution, and exhibition become more commonplace. There’s no question that digital technologies have had a tremendous effect on moviemaking, but as I’ve suggested in the past, I think these claims about the end of cinema often try to identify a radical break when one doesn’t exist, but I’m more interested in how this “break” is described. With that in mind, Matt Zoller Seitz’s discussion of a recent Time Magazine article on “cinema’s digital future,” which Matt usefully contextualizes with Godfrey Cheshire’s 1999 NYPress article, “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.”

Also, via some indieLoop surfing, I discovered Documentary Insider, a new-to-me blog about a favorite subject of mine. Since I have a number of readers in the Los Angeles area, I’ll go ahead and mention an upcoming Academy Panel, “Documentries of Dissent, Part II,” scheduled for April 7. Go to Documentary Insider for the details, but it looks like a really cool panel.

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The Inside Man

Bank heist films are often about narrative, about the ability of the authors of the heist, the bank robbers, telling one story while working to convince the detective, security guards, the police, and often the audience that they are telling another story. The best heists take place when the bank robbers use the conventions of past heists (or heist films) but depart from the normal script in one or two key ways. It’s as if the author of the heist is directing his or her own heist film, complete with smoke and mirrors, just as a film director might use special effects. Spike Lee’s latest film, the taut, witty thriller, The Inside Man (IMDB) gleefully plays with this notion of the heist as story while simultaneously telling a genuine New York story, something that Lee has done better than anyone in the years after September 11. What I also appreciated about Lee’s film was its ability to encourage identification with both the perpetrators of the heist and with the detectives commissioned to bring the hostage situation to a safe and peaceful resolution, particualrly with Denzel Washington’s Detective Keith Frazier.

The film opens with Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) directly addressing the camera, telling the audience, “I choose my words carefully,” and then proceeding to give the audience (almost) everything they need to know to figure out the basics of Russell’s plan, and while Stephanie Zacharek argues that “no matter how closely you watch, or how clever you think you’re being, you’ll never pick it up,” I had a pretty good guess about where the heist and the story itself would go. But even with that knowledge–and perhaps because of it, in my case–I still very much enjoyed The Inside Man and Lee’s playful tweaking of past heist films and the classic New York films, such as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, to which his movie pays homage. We also know that most, if not all, of the hostages survive, as we watch Frazier and his partner, Det. Mitchell interrogate people in flash-forwards that anticpate what will happen.

The basics of the heist: four people, dressed as painters, come into the bank at the same time. They use the equipment they carry to barricade the doors while another uses spotlights to blind the security cameras making it all but impossible to see what is happening. The robbers then force their hostages to give up their cell phones and to strip down to their underwear. They make one other request, which like Zacharek, I won’t reveal. At this point, the robbers and the police and detectives, led by Frazier, Mitchell (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Captain John Darius (Willem Dafoe), set up communications, with the robbers setting their plot in motion (and here, I think Roger Ebert’s review seriously underestimates Lee’s film, with Ebert asking at one point, “Did they want to be trapped inside the bank?” Yes, they did. The success of their heist depends on it. In fact, Dalton has accounted for every step the police will take. He knows that accepting the offer of food (pizza) from the police will come with a specific price and anticipates that well in advance. He knows that releasing a Sikh hostage with a message wrapped around his neck will provoke a specific, gut response from the police, one based on mistaking the hostage for an Arab and a potential terrorist. In fact, several sequences in the film–including a rash decision by Captain Darius–might be seen as an implicit critique of the increase in police surveillance in New York, discussed here by James Wolcott, with the heist itself relying on and therefore foiling the surveillance apparatus.

But Lee’s film, based on a script by Russell Gewirtz, layers on a third plot, one that complicates Frazier’s ability to capture the bank robbers. The owner of the bank, Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer), seems far more concerned about protecting certain valuable items in the bank than in the money in the bank’s vaults. To that end, he hires the mysterious and aptly named Ms. White (played with relish by Jodie Foster), a “fixer” to the wealthy and influencial, to protect his interests, which may or may not correspond to those of the police. And as with most heist films, much of the suspense derives from the knowledge that each character has at a given point in the film. I won’t reveal the specifics of what valuable objects Case wishes to protect, other than to say that the objects deeply indict his character and the means by which he is able to obtain his wealth. Case’s bank itself–with its opulent, art deco interiors, and the majestic friezes and facades oustide–also seems to function as a character in the film, setting in contrast the street itself, often identified with rapid pans, crwods, and movement, with the vast interiors where we encounter Case and White.

While many observers have noted that The Inside Man appears to be the “least personal” film that Lee has made, I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s certainly a departure in that Lee seems to be working with a bigger budget, but the post 9/11 New York setting is crucial to the film’s narrative and provides a basis for the interactions between characters, with Det. Frazier gently chiding a police officer for using racial epithets while the police themselves are on guard against another terrorist attack, as suggested when they mistake a Sikh man for a potential terrorist. Perhaps his most compelling critique, however, features Dalton, the author of the heist, registering horror at a nine-year-old boy playing a Grand Theft Auto style video game on a Gameboy featuring disturbing depictions of black-on-black violence. Ironically juxtaposed against the bank vault full of money–the two are even sitting on bales of cash–Dalton tells the boy, “I’ll have to talk to your father about this.”

I think Zacharek is right to fault critics who will fail to regard The Inside Man as one of Lee’s “great” films. In part because of herreview, I couldn’t help but think about the vastly overrated Crash, with its muddled message about racial tolerance, and while Lee’s most recent film takes a much lighter, less preachy touch, it offers a far more observant portrait of New York’s melting pot of ethnicities and cultures and the conflicts they face in a post-9/11, post-Giuliani New York City.

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Eyes Back on the Prize

Apparently I’m late to the party, but while taking a PBS survey this morning–yes, I know that procrastination is bad, but was for a good cause–I learned that they will be broadcasting the acclaimed Civil Rights documentary, Eyes on the Prize, which had been blocked from TV broadcast or DVD release due to expired copyright licenses. Most famously, the documentary featured a scene in which supporters and friends sing the copyrighted song, “Happy Birthday,” to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. According to a Wired article from August 2005, the Ford Foundation and another philanthropist stepped forward with $850,000 to work towards clearing the copyrighted material. That clearances for this documentary would cost this much money, of course, is another issue altogether, but if this news is true, I’m pleased to know that Eyes will have the opportunity reach an entirely new audience.

Update: I did some more digging and found this press release indicating that Eyes on the Prize will air in Fall 2006, as a part of PBS’s ongong American Experience series.

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Booked Solid

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it, but this semester, I’ve been attending the Wednesday night DC Drinking Liberally at Mark & Orlando’s in Dupont Circle. It’s a nice way to unwind after a long day of teaching on Wednesdays, and here in DC, we’ve been able to bring in some cool speakers, including some of the folks from (among others). The free appetizers and drink discounts at Mark & Orlando’s aren’t bad either.

I mention this because the folks at DC Drinking Liberally have been promoting a book signing for Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics at the ultra-cool Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, here in Washington, DC. Crashing the Gate is authored by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos, and Jerome Armstrong, founder of MyDD. Because I teach on Mondays, I won’t be able to attend, but if you’re in the neighborhood, drop by the Politics and Prose event if you can (there’s an evening event at George Washington University at 6 PM, and I may try to swing by that if I can, but this week will be incredibly busy for me).

I’m still working through the book in my (somewhat minimal) spare time and haven’t been able to develop a full response to their arguments, but Thomas F. Schaller’s review in The American Prospect conveys the book’s general argument. As Schaller implies, Zuniga and Armstrong reserve most of their criticism for the consultants, whom they regard as out of touch with the voters (their dressing down of focus groups, in fact, reminded me of the depiction of focus groups in Rachel Boynton’s documentary, Our Brand is Crisis). And, like Schiller, I haven’t been able to resolve the tension between their desire for “organic netroots” practices on the one hand and the highly-effecient Republican election machine, which they clearly admire, on the other. As I’ve mentioned, I’m still working through the book, so hopefully when I finish it, I’ll have an opportunity to review it in greater detail. It’s certainly an engaging read, and if you’re in the DC area, I know the DC Drinking Liberally folks would appreciate a high turnout at the Politics and Prose event on Monday.

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Friday Afternoon Film Links

Just a few links I don’t want to lose:

First, Sujewa tipped me off to The War Tapes, which looks like it should be a fascinating documentary:

In March 2004, just as the insurgent movement strengthened, several members of one National Guard unit arrived in Iraq, carrying digital video cameras.

THE WAR TAPES is the movie they made with Director Deborah Scranton and a team of award-winning filmmakers. It’s the first war movie filmed by soldiers themselves on the front lines in Iraq.

The documentary follows the soldiers throughout their tour and has been endorsed by Chris Hedges, author of War is the Force that Gives us Meaning, who comments that The War Tapes is “a film of rare honesty and power that exposes, from the eyes of those who fight the war, the revolting and soul-numbing world of combat.” It’s worth noting that Scranton has emphasized that she worked closely with the soldiers in editing the film and sought to earn their trust in representing their experiences of the war. Regular readers may know that I’ve done some writing on documentaries about the war in Iraq, and so I’m very curious to see this film.

I also want to point to a Washington Times article from a few weeks ago about the use of digital projection at some local movie theaters. According to the article, it sounds as if audiences are responding positively to digital projection, but given the money involved, I have to wonder whose financial interests are being served by here (the article reads a bit like a promotional piece).

Finally, both Sujewa and David have reminders calling for donations to help keep AIVF afloat during its current financial difficulties.

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Democracy on Deadline: The Global Struggle for an Independent Press

As part of American University’s “Reel Journalism: Screenings and Symposia,” I had the chance to see Cal Skaggs’ fascinating and ambitious documentary, Democracy on Deadline: The Global Struggle for an Independent Press, which is due to air on PBS later this summer. The documentary traces the battles that news reporters face in the United States, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mexico, Russia, and Israel, as they seek to fulfill the media’s role in guarding against government abuses. During a Q&A after the screening, Skaggs commented that the documentary was intended as a series that would focus on news reporting in various countries, and that ambitious aim is reflected in the final product, a 2-hour documentary that addresses various complications news reporters face, whether Putin’s crackdown on the media or the Bush administration’s misnformation on WMD, as they seek to keep their readers informed.

While I think audiences could have easily benefited from an entire series on the topic, I found Skaggs’ method of juxtaposing these countries to be highly effective. Most notably, Deadline depicts the ongoing attempts at democratization in Sierra Leone and their relationship to the radio broadcasters who attempt to keep voters informed about the candidates’ policies, as well as information on polling places and other important information, while in Afghanistan, another reporter investigates the steep rise in cases of Afghani women committing suicide through self-immolation (this article is not by the reprorter featured in the film, but provides an overview of the issue). Skaggs builds from these stories to a discussion of the reporting on WMD during the build-up to the war in Iraq, and while he acknowledges the faulty reporting that failed to question the Bush administration’s threats of WMD, he instead interviews Knight-Ridder reporters Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, who were among the few major reporters to challenge the WMD claims. The film culminates with an extended segment on Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper that has been criticized by both Palestinians and Israelis for its depiction of the conflict between those two groups. Reportes from that newspaper discuss the challenges they face in reporting on the consequences of violence committed by both groups.

But while all of these segments offer valuable insight into the need for effective news reporting, I felt that the film was a bit inconclusive in explaining how to preserve a truly independent press, an issue that came up during the Q&A session. These questions have been at the forefront of the recent conflicts in the US over news reporting. As one observer pointed out, Haaretz benefits from an owner who is committed to more objective reporting of the Israel-Palestine conflict. But having privately-owned news media, rather than corporation-managed media, is clearly no guarantee of effectivel media coverage, as the Judith Miller fiasco illustrates. In that sense, I think it’s worth making the case, as Molly Ivins does, for non-profit newspapers. As Ivins points out, newspapers showed operating profit margins of 19.2 percent in 2005, which isn’t too shabby, even if it is down from the 21% from 2004. But her column more readily points to the problems that emerge when profit is placed ahead of the service that newspapers provide, and as Skaggs’ film beautifully illustrates, that service is a vital one if we want democracy to thrive both in the United States and abroad.

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Unfinished Business

Still having some problems with publishing the blog, but Jason speculated that my last entry may have timed out because it had too many links, so I’ll try publishing one with fewer links. I’d almost said that I would try publishing something “a bit more modest,” but then I realized that I was going to express my wonder that I’m currently in second place in my March Madness pool and my even greater surprise that I’m in the top 3% overall on Yahoo. It probably won’t last, but given that I watched maybe ten minutes of college basketball all season, I think I’m doing okay.

Update: Still timing out, but comments appear to be working.

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The End of Suburbia

Gregory Greene’s important and timely documentary, The End of Suburbia (IMDB), which played last night at the DC Environmental Film Festival, opens with an epigraph from James Howard Kuntsler, author of The Long Emergency and Geography of Nowhere: “We’re literally stuck up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV without a fill-up.” Kuntsler has been documenting for some time the long-term effects of suburbanization in contributing to what President Bush has belatedly described as our “addiction to oil.” Greene’s documentary compiles the research of Kunstler and other researchers, many of whom participated in a “Peak Oil” conference in 2003, where these researchers began discussing strategies for dealing with the imminent crisis in oil production. While Greene’s documentary is unsettling, it also offers strategies for alleviating the worst consequences of the end of an economy and culture based on oil, one best represented by the uniquely American version of suburbia.

To Greene’s credit, The End of Suburbia, if anything, underplays the stereotypical loathing of suburbia, noting instead the degree to which suburbia has been entangled with contemporary versions of the American Dream. Instead, Greene uses clips from In the Suburbs, a 1957 promotional piece commissioned by Redbook and available from the Prelinger Archives to gently mock suburbia while showing the link between suburbia and the American Dream to be an ideological one (the clips from In the Suburbs in fact provide some much needed kitschy humor). In the Q&A afterwards, Greene cautioned the audience against seeing “suburbia” as a universal concept, noting that in Canada, and more particularly in France, the suburbs have a much different cultural resonance than they do in the United States, where they are associated primarily with white flight and white picket fences.

More crucially, The End of Suburbia offers a wealth of evidence that the we are nearing the World Oil Peak, the moment when global demand for oil begins to outstrip supply, which will happen in the very near future, if it hasn’t already happened (especially given increased demand in India and China). As Suburbia painstakingly illustrates, the consequences of inaction–or worse, deepening our dependency–are tremendous. Consumers have already faced significant increases in energy prices and, in Maryland at least, a gallon of unleaded gasoline continues to hover around $2.60, which may soon seem like a bargain, and from there, the film asks some pointed questions. Notably, how will the end of oil affect our ability to ship products inexpensively from overseas (or even across the US, for that matter)? To what extent will the end of reliance on fossil fuels demand that we forsake McMansions for a return to city centers? One policy maker even speculates that multiple families may be forced to share these mansions in the distant future, while others predict that American subdivisions may become the slums of the future. It’s a relatively bleak portrait, and Greene wisely accompanies these dour predictions with a touch of humor that prevents things from seeming entirely too bleak.

The End of Suburbia also offers some alternatives that might not prevent what Kunstler has called “the long emergency,” but might make it a bit more manageable. Among other alternatives, the film espouses “the new urbanism,” which focuses on producing more sustainable communities and a greater emphasis on localism, the subject of Greene’s follow-up documentary. I had a chance to chat for a few minutes with Greene after the screening about the upcoming film, and it sounds as if the new documentary will complement The End of Suburbia quite nicely.

Update: I had problems publishing this entry earlier. Checking to see if those problems have been resolved. If you feel compelled to comment on this review, just leave the comments in another entry until I figure out what’s happening.

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Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone

I’ve been getting a surprising number of hits from people searching for more information on Doug Bruce, subject of the documentary, Unknown White Male (my review). A Washington Post story yesterday explored the possibility that Bruce’s story may actually be an elaborate hoax, although little substantial evidence is given that he might be faking.

The film’s director, Rupert Murray, adamantly insists that that he would not participate in this type of hoax, pointing out that it would severely undermine his credibility as a filmmaker. Skeptics include Hans Markowitsch, a neural psychologist, who points to the film’s conspicuous lack of a medical or psychological explnation for Bruce’s condition, and several acquaintances of Bruce’s, who point to his dexterity in conversations about certain topics (Middle Eastern politics), while claiming no memory of George Bush, Bono, or (to name one example from the film) the Rolling Stones.

I’m certainly in no position to judge whether Bruce’s story is a hoax or not. As my original review of the film suggests, it’s a fascinating story, one that genuinely tackles important questions about what constitutes identity and what relationship memory has to identity. As the Post story points out, it will be difficult to establish conclusively whether or not the story is a hoax, and I’m not sure that it matters that much. Perhaps I’m being a bit too glib, but I think the skepticism about Bruce’s story–expressed almost exclusively in press materials and not in the film itself–makes these questions about memory and idntity all the more compelling.

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Revisiting Crisis

David at GreenCine pointed me to Sudhir Muralidhar’s review of Our Brand is Crisis in The American Prospect. Like Muralidhar, I found that Boynton’s documentary “riveting” in part because of the unusual access to Goni’s campaign and to the American political insiders, such as James Carville and Jeremy Rosner, who orchestrated it. As I discussed in my review, Goni “wins” the 2002 election, but he is unprepared to handle the widespread opposition to his presidency and the onging economic uncertainty that haunts Bolivia, which the film illustrates through the stark contrast between the “focus groups” orchestrated by US political consultants and the protests taking place outside of Goni’s campaign headquarters. Muralidhar similarly notes that “What is particularly troubling about this story is the degree to which the political process, and all the character attacks and propaganda that process now entails, is so detached from the social and economic reality.”

In other doc news, David mentions Eugene Hernandez’s report that Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo will be released this summer by Roadside Pictures, and Doug Cummings reviews The Future of Food.

I’ll be attending tonight’s screening of The End of Suburbia at the DC Environmental Film Festival and will hopefully have a review up later tonight or tomorrow.

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CIDI Student Film Contest

Molly Williams passed along information about a student film/media production contest sponsored by The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), and I thought that if any of my students (or other student filmmakers) happen to read my blog, they might be interested in participating, I’ve included the text of the CIDI press release below the fold.

It looks like an interesting opportunity to find an audience while promoting the need for adequate disatser relief.

Read the rest of this entry »

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