Archive for March, 2006

Our Brand is Crisis

I caught Rachel Boynton’s Our Brand is Crisis (IMDB), a fascinating and frustrating documentary about US political consultants hired to assist Bolivian presidential candidate Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada in his bid to return the office during the 2002 election (Goni previously had been president from 1993-1997). Boynton’s documentary takes on added interest with the election of one of Goni’s political rivals, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who campaigned as a socialist on the MAS (Movement to Socialism) platform, but the film itself is an incredibly rich portrait of what it means to export US election strategies to other countries. This portait becomes even richer and more fascinating given that the consulting film hired by Goni is none other than James Carville’s GCS, with Carville’s down-home screen style prominently featured. While other viewers might reach different conclusions, I was left feeling somewhat troubled by these consulting strategies, and I’m not quite sure Crisis pushes this critique far enough.

In one of the film’s opening scenes, Jeremy Rosner describes the role of GCS in somewhat startling terms: “We listen very aggressively.” While Rosner seems to intend to say that GCS works hard to listen to and understand the opinions of the voters, “listening aggressively” took on a different connotation for me. Instead of properly hearing the discontent of the Bolivian people, “listening aggressively” became an aggressive act, in which an image of Goni was foisted upon the various focus groups assembled to watch the latest advertisements about Goni or news reports about his rival candidates. Given that Goni himself is often dismissive of the various voters that GCS is trying to court, their task becomes a rather difficult one. The title itself also has an interesting resonance as Carville and other GCS staffers author a narrative for the election, in which they point to Bolivia’s unemployment and economic insecurity and conclude that “our brand is crisis” and that Goni will be the solution to that crisis, the means by which that crisis narrative is resolved.

Boynton’s greatest strength as a filmmaker was her attention to the ways in which Goni’s candidacy–and I would argue GCS itself–seemed out of touch with the rising tide of opposition to Goni’s neoliberal economic policies and support for the socialist policies of Morales, who is constantly marginalzied as a candidate during the 2002 election. This disconnect is conveyed strkly through visuals of “focus groups” in which Bolivian voters are shown advertismenets for Goni while GCS consultants, especially Rosner and Carville, watch from behind a two-way mirror while a Goni employee translates. The two-way mirror visually suggested a divide between the Goni campaign and the voters. But more starkly, Goni’s sterile campaign office stood in stark contrast to the protests that took place outside, in the city streets. Such distinctions are also highlighted by the fact that in Goni’s office, English is the primary language (Goni studied at US universities and spent much of his life in the US), while in the streets, Spanish dominates.

There were several aspects of Bolivian politics that went unexplored. We rarely hear from Bolivians “on the street” about their perceptions of the political situation there, other than through the highly mediated context of focus groups, in which many of the questions already come “pre-answered,” packaged by Goni’s advertisements and by the framing of the question itself. While Boynton suggests that she found it difficult to include such interviews “organically” with relationship to the narrative, the absence of such interviews only served to reinforce the looking-glass effect with which Goni’s campaign seemed to view the Bolivians, especially the indiginous people. I also would have liked a slightly more explicit meditation on what it means to brand “crisis” as Goni’s campaign did. There is little question that Bolivia was in economic turmoil, but the film didn’t fully explore the intersections between campaign narratives and other attempts to understand Bolivia’s economic situation.

Crisis culminates with the 2002 election and its aftermath. While Goni won the election, the vote was deeply divided, with the top three candidates (Goni, Morales, and Manfred Reyes Villa) each receiving between 20-22% of the vote. As these numbers suggest, Goni’s position as president was weakened by the lack of popular support (that a president can get elected to office with such a small percentage of the vote is, of course, surprising), and because he offered no quick fix for the Bolivian crisis, what little support he had quickly dissipated, leading to the massive riots that eventually led to Morales being elected with 54% of the popular vote, an incredibly high percentage by Bolivian standards (and, as Boynton herself noted in a Q&A, Morales’ support came from across the political spectrum), but through the course of the film, we are offered little to explain Morales’ appeal other than soundbites from several of his speeches, though significantly Morales is almost always seen among the people, rather than above them in the glass-and-steel skyscrapers or expensive mansions where we see Goni.

As Stuart Klawans points out, Carville’s presence in the film will recall Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary The War Room, and like the earlier documentary, I found myself troubled by the image of deomcracy that I was witnessing, one that, as Klawans notes, “ought to be about something more than steaming up people’s emotions, venting the pressure and then hoping the populace will simmer down again, so the work of capital markets may go on undisturbed.” As always, though, Carville is a bluntly honest and darkly funny screen presence. Rosner, who has the most screen time, is also quite engaging, though his dismissal of Morales as an “irresponsible populist” only reinforced, for me, his distance from the situation on the ground in Bolivia.

Thanks to The Washington Note for sponsoring the screening.


Spike Lee in the Observer

Too lazy to come up with a better title, but this Spike Lee interview in the NY Observer is pretty interesting. In the interview Lee talks about his Katrina doc for HBO, set to debut in August, and Inside Man a New York cops and robbers thriller that apparently taps into a similar post-9/11sensibility that made 25th Hour one of the most underrated films of the last few years.

But the article also introduces other interesting tidbits about the director, including this cool bit of trivia: the first assistant director on his student academy award-winning film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads? Classmate Ang Lee, who’s done okay for himself. And Lee just moved into a place on the Upper East Side, which once belonged to famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. And Spike’s family purchased the place from painter Jasper Johns who left behind a videotape of Gypsy Rose’s appearance on This Is Your Life filmed in the house.

Thanks to RiskyBiz for the link.

Comments (2)

Against All Enemies, The Movie

Keith Demko initially tipped me off to the fact that Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies is on its way to the big screen. The latest news from Cinematical is that the screenplay offers a taut thriller comparable to All the President’s Men. The bad news is that Crash-man Paul Haggis is currently planning to direct.

As both Keith and Martha of Cinematical suggest, the big question is casting. Jeffery Wells, who has read the screenplay, reports that George W. Bush only appears off-screen, while President Clinton actually has a substantial suporting role in the film. Wells’ suggestion? Cast the ex-Prez as himself. I still think that Brian Cox would make an amazing Richard Clarke. Larry Hagman might be able to pull off Dick Cheney (although Paul Sorvino might work, too). Sam Waterson would make a great Paul Bremer. But who would play Condi Rice? Paul Wolfowitz? Karl Rove (maybe Bob Balaban)? The mind reels. Make your suggestions, serious and otherwise, in the comments below.

Comments (2)

IndieLoop and Other Connections

I’ve really enjoyed watching the apparently tireless Sujewa’s Indie Features 06 blog grow over the last few weeks, and I hope the blog loses the “06” and continues to grow over the long haul. I discovered the blog through Sujewa, of course, but several filmmakers I know, whether through blogging, IRL, or through their films, are contributing, and it’s nice to see that film community evolve (and it even makes me wish I had a movie to promote).

I’ve also enjoyed discovering new films and filmmakers through the blog, including Joe Swanberg’s LOL-The Movie, which looks like a fun movie (and in classic indie form, LOL not only has a blog but a MySpace page, too (and Karina’s review of the film also sounds promising). I’m also curious to see Kat Candler and Stacie Storie’s Jumping Off Bridges, which has been getting some good buzz recently after a SXSW screening.

I mention Indie Features 06 in part because I’m intrigued by indieWIRE’s recent introduction of indieLOOP a social networking space for filmmakers and other members of the independent film and media community. I’m still exploring the place (you can check out my profile if you’re really curious), but once again Karina scooped me on this news.

Update: By the way, I got an incomplete invite from indieLOOP the other day, so if you sent me an invite and I’m not reciprocating, that’s probably why. If you’d like to join indieLOOP and haven’t been invited email or leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to invite you.


They Shoot Movies, Don’t They

They Shoot Movies, Don’t They (IMDB) relates the story of Tom Paulson, a former hotshot baseball player who decided to make movies when his baseball career was derailed by a knee injury. Paulson scrapes together his savings for a relatively low budget feature (around $200,000), Mirage, but finds himself just a few thousand dollars short of completing the film and getting it distributed. Because we’ve never heard of Mirage or Tom Paulson, it’s clear from the beginning of the film that Paulson’s, we know that Paulson’s film never succeeded, making They Shoot Movies a kind of cautionary VH1 “Behind the Music” episode (“Behind the Movies” maybe?) about the wanna-be star director who never managed to overcome the “second-act” complications thrown at him over the course of his brief career in entertainment. But like a “Behind the Music” episode, I felt They Shoot Movies never went deep enough in its exploration of the star system, choosing instead to stay on the unreflective surface without unpacking how stardom or indie, to name two examples, get constructed in our media-saturated society.

Like a “Behind the Music” episode, we see interviews with Tom, along with his friends and colleagues that describe his ongoing struggles to finance and finish Mirage, and a documentary crew follows Tom as he seeks to finance his film, including a scene in which Tom screens a rough cut in the hopes of building interest in the film. While Tom is hardly the most adept negotiator of the Hollywood scene, his attempts to seek financing for his film, whcih is clearly a labor of love for him, may be familiar to other indie filmmakers. The style of the film, with its heavy emphasis on talking-heads interviews and scenes in which the crew follows Tom to various meetings, allows us a glimpse of Tom’s struggles to jumpstart his career. The film is an interesting, if somewhat cynical, glimpse inside a low-budget film production, and in that regard it fits in with other “inside Hollywood” films such as The Player, Sweet Liberty, and State and Main.

Mild spoliers follow: If you’ve seen They Shoot Movies, you will likely know that the film is, in fact, a mockumentary, with Tom Paul Wilson playing the role of “Tom Paulson,” and other actors playing the role of Tom’s friends and colleagues. In a sense, I felt that They Shoot Movies tries too hard to play with this boundary between reality and fiction without really capturing a full understanding of independent film production. This may be due to some weaker performances or the limited focus of the film on the several weeks in which Tom seeks the money to finish his film (we never actually see a single frame of Mirage, which is ostensibly nearly complete). I think They Shot Movies is of some interest for fans of mockumentaries, but the film itself seemed too cautious to achive a full critique of the studio mode of production, and the parody of the incompetent filmmaker also fell a little flat.

Comments (4)

Unknown White Male

On July 2, 2003, at around 8 PM, Doug Bruce left his Manhattan apartment. Severeal hours later, Bruce found himself exiting the New York subway at the Coney Island station wearing shorts, a t-shirt a flip flops. He had no idea who he was and had no memory of his past. He wasn’t carrying ID but happened to have a backpack with a book inside, where he found a woman’s phone number stuffed inside. Turning himself in to the police, Doug spent several days in a Brooklyn mental hospital while he waited to contact the woman. While the set-up of Unknown White Male (IMDB) sounds like something straight out of film noir, Doug Bruce’s story is actually true, and Unknown White Male documents Bruce’s experiences as he comes to terms with his amnesia and tries to make a new life for himself.

The phone number in Doug’s backpack belongs to a friend, and she is the first person to reintroduce Doug to his old life–he was a stockbroker who “retired” at age 30–and his luxurious Manhattan apartment, and from there, Doug begins meeting old friends and family, including Rupert Murray, a drinking buddy from Doug’s days in London who decides that Doug’s story would make an interesting documentary. Several critics have speculated that Doug’s amnesia may be faked or that the documentary itself is an elaborate hoax (if it is a hoax, Doug is a fantastic actor), in part because very little medical evidence is offered on-screen to explain Doug’s condition (director Rupert Murray seeks to defuse the “controversy” in this City Paper interview). But no matter what, Doug’s story offers a profound meditation on what counts as human, what constitutes as identity, and even on the capactity of personal reinvention embedded in the American dream (Hoberman’s good on many of these issues), and to Murray’s credit, he features interviews with psychiatrists and philosophers who recognize the complications Doug’s experiences raise.

Many of the film’s early scenes feature Doug in a mental hospital The scenes featuring Doug’s encounters with his family and friends are as unsettling as they are fascinating. While Doug’s father and sister have decades of memories of him, he is, in some sense, meeting them for the first time. Because Doug has lost memory of his mother’s death, he re-experiences that loss a second time. At the same time, Doug develops a fascinating sense of wonder about the world around him. When he swims in the ocean for the first time, he describes a child’s sense of amazement mixed with an adult sensibility that allows him to process what he is experiencing. Memories of place also shift dramatically. When driving through London for the first time since his amnesia began, Doug seeing Westminster Abbey comments, “This is like that movie, 28 Days Later.”

But for me, the most compelling scenes involved Doug watching old home movies of himself hanging out with his friends at the pub or goofing for the camera just a few years earlier. As he watches the films, Doug notes that not only does he have no memory of these events, but he also barely recognizes himself. Towards the end of the film, Doug makes an anlogy between watching these films and time travel, noting the degree to which they take him back to past he doesn’t remember. This lost past does allow Doug to “reinvent” himself, or perhaps to “invent” himself, since he has no memory of who he was before the amnesia took hold. Doug’s sister describes him as more gentle, while Doug’s photography teacher believes that Doug’s amnesia may have provided him with new insight into the human psyche, admiring portraits that seem to offer a deeper and unexpected understanding of the people he photographs.

Murray identifies Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (my article) and Andrei Tarkovsky as major influences, and that seems like a pretty good read to me. Doug’s story offers a profound meditation on cinema, memory, and identity, even as Doug himself searches for–and seems to find–a new identity for himself.

Comments (6)

From Cinema to Cineplex

While doing some research the other day, I came across an interesting little resource on the history of movie theaters after World War II. Steve Schoenherr’s “From Cinema to Cineplex” starts with the building of the “last of the movie palaces,” the Loma Theater on Rosecrans in San Diego, and offers a timeline of various multiplexes and megaplexes built over the last half century. It’s pretty amazing to note that the first megaplex (defined as a theater with sixteen or more screens) wasn’t built until 1995.

The “Cineplex” page also offers some useful links to pages on drive-in movies and American Picture Palaces, as well as Jim Ridley’s “Attack of the Megaplexes,” a relatively early account of the megaplex phenomenon.

Comments (2)

Melodious Cacophony

We’ve just completed an upgrade of Moveable Type, so I’m still learning how things work. For now, I’ll mention that I caught the “performance” of George Antheil’s 1924 “Ballet Mecanique,” featuring three xylophones, four bass drums, sixteen player pianos, seven electric bells, three airplane propellors, and other instruments as part of the National Gallery of Art’s Dada exhibit.

The performance was incredibly fun. Loud, cacophonous, and yet somehow melodic. The Dada exhibit itself ws pretty impressive, a nice collection of materials, which was organized by the cities that were Dada’s biggest hotspots: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, and Paris, and the exhibits were also contextualized within the Dadaist’s opposition to and horror at the events of the First World War. While the Dada exhibit runs longer, the daily performances of Antheil’s composition only run through March 29.

Comments (2)

Wordherders’ Wild Ride

The Wordherders are still dealing with comment and trackback spam, so the next day or two may be rough riding in Herd country. Jason is working hard on getting things up and running again, so here’s hoping things return to normal soon.

Among other changes, we’re moving up to MT 3.2, which may mean a slightly different look for the chutry experiment in the near future. Also, I’d like to apologize to the distributors who’ve sent me DVDs to review. I’m a little behind because of work and blog issues, but reviews are on the way.

Comments (5)

Marketing Crisis

There will be a special screening of Rachel Boynton’s critically acclaimed documentary, Our Brand is Crisis on Monday night, March 20, at the E Street Cinema (right down the street from the Metro Center station). Crisis documents the practice of U.S. strategists-for-hire quietly influencing the opinions of voters and the messages of political campaigns in international campaigns. Interestingly, the film focuses on the role of campaign strategists James Carville, Tad Devine and Jeremy Rosner in the recent Bolivian presidential election.

The screening starts at 7 PM, but guests are encouraged to arrive at 6:30 PM. For more information on the screening, including RSVP information, check out The Washington Note.


Moviegoing Memories

I’m still working through Charles Acland’s incredibly rich and deeply researched Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture, published originally in 2003. For my own purposes, I’ve found most productive Acland’s discussion of the cinema as “an assemblage of practices, people, technologies, times, locations, and ideas” (43). Such an approach allows Acland to explore the specificity of film exhibition in a variety of forms. Interestingly, Acland is writing after the movie theater has lost its centrality as the primary site for encountering motion pictures, but the book itself bears traces of the moment when it was written in that most of the information tracking movie attendance was gleaned before the most recent decline in moviegoing. Still the book illustrates the degree to which screen cultures are determined by far more than the technologies by which they are distributed and more resiliant than the home theater systems that ostensibly threaten to keep everyone at home.

The book offers a number of important observations about moviegoing and the movie theater, including the reminder that movie theaters are not only places of leisure but they are also workplaces and the reminder that no two screenings are absolutely identical (a point that is implicit in much of what follows).

But what has surprised me about the book has been the degree to which it has sparked me to think about my own moviegoing experiences and my participation in a certain kind of screen culture both online and beyond. In particular, his discussion of the relationship between time and moviegoing reminds of my own aversion to matinees and my strong preference for late night films, a predilection that sometimes conflicts with the subway schedule. Acland also offers useful data on frequency of moviegoing, and I think it’s no surprise that I qualify as a frequent moviegoer (the US average frequency is five movies per year) or that movie attendance is significantly higher in urban areas, which is probably true for me (it’s certainly the case that I see different kinds of movies when living in cities).

This discussion of Acland is perhaps an excuse to point to someone else’s cinematic narrative. As I was doing my evening blog surfing, I came across Flickhead’s compelling narrative about a triple feature he watched back in 1974 at the Uniondale Mini Cinema. Flickhead’s description of walking out into a cold windter’s night after watching a midnight screening of Magical Mystery Tour under the influence evokes layers of nostalgia for a form of moviegoing that is all but lost.

I’m still working through many of Acland’s arguments and had planned to write a much different blog entry, one focusing on some of my own screen experiences, but a long day of reading and writing is catching up with me.

Comments (2)

Screen Overkill

Just wanted to highlight a few upcoming screenings and symposia I learned about via the Women in Film and Video website.

First, American University’s School of Communication is sponsoring “Reel Journalism: Screenings & Symposia,” including screenings of Democracy on Deadline, Dateline Afghanistan, and War Photographer. The “Reel journalism” series looks absolutely amazing, both the screenings themselves and the panels as well.

Also just a quick note that the early registration deadline for Silverdocs is fast approaching (March 20) and that DC Environmental Film Festival is starting tonight. I think it’s quite possible that even I can’t hanlde seeing this many films over the next two or three weeks. Pretty amazing.

WIFV, by the way, is a more than 1,300 professionals in the DC film, television, video and related screen-based media industries.

Comments (2)

American Messiah Revisited

I’ve enjoyed reading Lance Mannion’s review of The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and his interview with director Chris Hansen (btw, Chris also has a blog that describes his experiences as an independent fimmaker). Because I watched the film without an audience, I couldn’t get a sense of how the film would play for other viewers, and Lance’s comments on the film and his interview with Chris helped to clarify much of what I liked about the film.

Like Lance, I was struck by the narcissism of the central character Brian B, whose “miracles” never seem to serve anyone other than himself. Although Brian believes himself to be called by God, displays little generosity towards others, including a homeless man who asks for Brian’s help. In his interview with Lance, Chris comments on his impatience with big-name Christians, such as Pat Robertson, who “don’t represent Christianity very well,” while adding that he has become more interested in the historic role of Christianity in issues of social justice. And here I think Lance’s read is right on:

But Brian B., as a satirical target, isn’t meant to be a stand-in for those big-name Christians, except to the degree that they preach a religion of complaceny and self-aggrandizement instead of one of charity, mercy, humility, and love.

The object of satire in Brian’s story is also its point of sympathy. Brian’s “folly” is his desire to feel special and important in a vast and unfriendly universe, and his quest for proof that God is out there and that he cares, while played for laughs, is still treated with compassion.

I believe that Lance is planning a third blog entry on Messiah, and when it’s available, I’ll post the link, but it’s nice to be able to communicate with others about the film, even through the mediated world of blogging.

Comments (2)

Bubble Wrap

I came across this MIT Convergence Culture Consortium blog entry on Bubble this morning, and because of my own interest in the film and its “day and date” release, wanted to hang on to the link. It’s clear from Alec Austin’s entry and the subsequent comments that I liked the film quite a bit more than they did. Alec is responding to a blog entry from The Artful Writer.

I’m still not sure that I can predict whether releasing a film to theaters and on DVD will prove to be a useful long-term strategy given the continued decline in box office. I do know that the expense of attending movies, the improvement in home theater systems, and perhaps even the development of quality TV programming have made theaters less attractive options, but I don’t think the trends away from moviegoing are inevitable. At the same time, I think it’s probably a mistake to judge day and date release from a single movie.


Kieslowski and the Metroplex

Conitinued problems with th Wordherder servers, which have been slammed with trackback and comment spam. Right now, we’ve decided to shut down trackbacks temporarily at least, but hopefully Technorati or Site Meter will catch most links (or just leave a comment!). The server shut down while I was writing this blog entry the other day, but luckily I was able to save it:

Just a couple of links I don’t want to lose: First, via GreenCine, a Guradian article on a Krzysztof Kieslowski retrospective in London. Kieslowski’s Three Colors:
is probably the film most responsible for my deciding to do my graduate school research on film rather than literature (even though I’ve only written in passing about Red or any other Kieslowski film for that matter). What’s interesting about Richard Williams’ article is that it’s also an “end of cinema” essay, too. In commenting on Quentin Tarantino winning the Palme d’or over Kielowski at Cannes in 1994, Williams writes:

In its recognition of the potential influence and commercial significance of Tarantino’s film, the jury’s decision could not be faulted; nevertheless the choice appeared to close the curtain on the European cinema of ideas, a tradition of films based on character-driven narratives and an unhurried approach to pacing.

Williams does provide a great overview of Kieslowski’s career, especially his late-career “French” films.

Unrelated link: Edward Jay Epstein’s discussion of movie piracy in China, where he notes that very few Chinese people attend the cinema while billions of pirated DVDs have been sold. Implicitly, it seems to be an argument for collapsing the window between theatrical and DVD release dates, but again, it seems to reinforce the “end of cinema” argument. I’ve been thinking about these changing movie-watching practices a lot lately (as you might have noticed), particularly
in the context of Charles Acland’s fascinating book on 1980s-1990s moviegoing practices, Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture. Perhaps most significantly for my research, Acland’s book is a reminder that the multiplex is actually a relatively recent phenomenon even within the very short history of cinema itself.