Archive for March, 2006

Hammering it Home

Via Talking Points Memo, news of a new documentary by Robert Greenwald’s production company, The Big Buy: How Tom DeLay Stole Congress. Grassroots srceenings are scheduled for June, but the DVD should be available in May.

Some interesting discussion on the interviews conducted (or not conducted) for the film.

Update: The New York Times has an interesting article about the history of the DeLay film, which grew out of the Texas Congressman’s efforts to reshape legislative districts, creating the partisan stand-off that led to several Democratic legislators holing up across state lines.

I’ll be interested to see how the documentary fits within the narrative of the trial. There is some speculation that outtakes from the documentary might be subpoenaed or that it might be a “factor” in the trial. That doesn’t seem likely, but I imagine that The Big Buy will be used to shape opinion of DeLay or the trial.


Oscar the Grouch

I have been intrigued by the competing and sometimes contradictory narratives that have been used to frame this year’s Oscars ceremony (I referred to these issues earlier today). In Seattle Weekly, Tim and Brian introduce many of these narratives as they “bitch about the Oscars.” They note that box office fell by 5% in 2005 (which doesn’t account for how many people actually watched Hollywood or Indiewood films in other formats) and attribute this decline to the much larger video game market, concluding that “kids have better things to do than see movies.” They add that adults are bored by movies made to appeal to teens and then add that “everybody” is sick of ringing cell phones, crying babies, and other audience distractions. Others, such as Peter Suderman and Jason Apuzzo imply that the Oscars are simply “out of touch” with mainstream America, with Apuzzo arguing that the poor box office can be attributed to the Oscar films’ lefty politics. Finally, people have pointed to lower ratings for this year’s Oscar ceremony as another sign that interest in Oscars is on decline.

It seems clear to me that the number of articles debating the relevance of Oscar illustrate that the ceremony’s role as a tastemaker still carries a lot of weight. In short, despite the denials, Oscar still matters, even if the show itself is less than exciting (see Veronica, Lori, or Dylan’s liveblogging of the ceremony to make that call).

The “lefty” politics argument doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water, at least from my perspective. I find it incredibly difficult to read Crash as clearly a left or liberal film, and I’m not convinced that the film’s politics mattered as much as the clumsiness of the film itself (of course, Apuzzo’s snarky dismissal of the film’s $55 million box office take ignores the film’s $6.5 million budget, an impressive profit by any strecth). It’s also worth noting that four of the five nominees had an R rating, which always limits box office, so suggesting that the nominated films were ignored or irrelevant because of their politics doesn’t seem like a primary deterrent to movie attendance.

I’m willing to entertain the idea that people are less likely to attend movies because of the behavior of other patrons, who are described as talking loudly on cell phones and disrupting the moviegoing experience (not that there is an ideal moviegoing experience in the first place), but the idea of blaming the customer doesn’t seem quite right, either. Of these narratives, the most convincing one, in my reading, is the one that attributes box office decline to the increasing affordability of home theater systems and the availability of other forms of entertainment, many of which–such as games–offer more possibilities for interactivity, and movies, especially on the big screen, where you can’t stop, rewind or fast forward, begin to appear remarkably clunky and slow by comparison.

While I didn’t watch the Oscars this year, I likely would have if I hadn’t been 30,000 feet over middle America for most of the night (all distances are approximate and could be dead wrong), but as a film scholar interested in these issues of spectacle and marketing, I’m curious about whether these explanations for declining box office make sense to you or whether they are capturing the reasons that people are going to fewer movies than in the past. I’d also be curious to know whether you watched the Oscars and why you watched (or chose not to watch).

Update: James Wolcott has a wonderful rant about the claims that Hollywood is out of touch with Heartland America. As he points out, attempts to clean up Hollywood (or, in fact, the pre-Hollywood movie industry) have been around for some time and are not at all a recent phenomenon. In fact, the Fatty Arbuckle case, in which the talented comic performer was implicated in the death of a wannabe starlet, actually dates back to the 1910s. Wolcott’s read on this topic is a really good one that I missed because of my recent travels.

Update 2: Anyone know where I might be able to find a transcript or a videotaped copy of the Oscars? I’m working on some ideas for a paper I’m writing and having precise quottaions from Dan Glickman and others concerning the issues of piracy and Hollywood’s relationship to America’s cultural heritage would help considerably.

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The “M” Question

I’m still recovering from the long trip to Vancouver and still processing all of the panels I attended at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, but like Kathleen, I was intrigued by the prominence of television and new media panels at this year’s conference. For readers who are unfamiliar with SCMS, non-film, non-television media often figured less prominently at the annual conferences. Like Kathleen, I’ve spent some time thinking about my disciplinary home recently, and while this year’s conference may not have fully answered my questions (more on that some other time), I appreciated the inclusion of a number of panels and papers on new media, including Kathleen’s paper, which focused on blogging and documenting the self.

I’m tempted to map Kathleen’s observations about the conference to her brief mention of an ongoing motif at this year’s Oscars. In a quick Oscar entry, she remarks on the number of comments that “there‚Äôs no place else to really see a movie other than the big screen,” adding that such comments indicate “just a teeny bit of desperation.” I missed the Oscars because I was flying, but such comments seem to have intensified over the last few years as movie theaters continue to see declining box office. This is not to dismiss the influence of Hollywood but to point out that digital media multiply the screens and sites worth thinking about.

More later, but the conference and travel has put me a few days behind.


Vancouver Bound

Leaving for Vancouver early tomorrow morning for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Looking forward to checking out Vancouver and attending lots of panels. Will try to post from the conference if I get a chance.

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Hip Hop at the Smithsonian

No time to comment, but I happened to notice the very cool news that the Smithsonian Museum of American History will be sponsoring an effort to create an ongoing collection of hip hop memorabilia. Their collection efforts sound rather promising, as they seek to compile artifacts from the earliest days of hop hop in the Bronx in the 1970s, including relics such as turntables, microphones, and old vinyl records belonging to hip hop pioneers Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Fab 5 Freddy. Looks like a promising way to document this important and ongoing part of our cultural history.

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Cell Phone Cinema

This story is a few days old, but given my upcoming talk, it’s still worth mentioning. South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof has just completed the first cell phone feature film, SMS Sugar Man, which focuses on a pimp and two high-class prostitutes. The film, which was shot using available light, was completed for about $164,000US according to the article, and according Kaganof, using cell phones allowed actors greater improvisation with multiple cameras recording at the same time.

There’s a clear marketing angle with Sony Ericcson providing the W900i cell phones Kaganof used to record his feature. Also interesting: there are plans to blow the film up to 35mm and to have a “collapsed” release with DVD, theatrical, and Internet versions launching at around the same time.

More discussion at Metafilter and JD Lasica’s blog where I found the story. Kaganof has a blog, and it seems like he updates fairly consistently.