Archive for April, 2006

My Tuesday Procrastination Reading

Whenever I write on new media, i find myself getting easily sidetracked. For example, I’ll go to Robert Greewald’s blog to refresh my memory on the excellent political work done through his unique documentary distribution strategies and will find myself redirected to Don Hazen’s Alternet article on progressive politics and new media. I don’t have time to discuss Hazen’s article in detail, but he makes a strong case for explaining how new media technologies should be used to promote progressive politics. Hazen also points to important projects such as New American Media, which focuses on sustaining and developing journalism for “51 million ethnic Americans, 150 languages, and 2,000 ethnic media outlets.”

I’ve also been planning to link to A. Horbal’s “Alt-Weekly TV” for several days now, and because TV Turn-Off Week is fast approaching, now seems to be as good a time as any. In particular, I found David Edelstein’s call for good TV critics to be rather compelling. Of course there is already some outstanding TV criticism being done at Flow and Pop Matters, but I think he’s right that we need to think about TV more carefully, (I remain unconvinced that activties like TV Turn-Off Week are the best way to engage with TV), but perhaps more to the point, I’m not sure that TV criticism works best when engaging with TV at the level of an indvidual show or episode (and Edelstein is right to note that in some contexts, TV can be a “genuinely liberating force”).

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Sounds, Images, and Smells

Here’s some of what I’ve been reading today instead of working on an article with a relatively imminent deadline:

  • k-punk’s review of Burial’s self-titled album, which they describe as a “MASSIVE new addition to the sonic hauntology canon.” Burial sounds like an incredible CD, but I also wanted to point to the reference to Erik Davis’s “Dead Machines: A review of The Ghost Orchid and electromagnetic voice phenomena.” In his review of The Ghost Orchid, a CD collection of EVP recordings, Davis, echoing arguments by Jeffrey Sconce, explains that “From the moment that human beings started communicating with electrical and electromagnetic signals, the ether has been a spooky place.”
  • I continue to envy everyone who has been able to attend this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham (the good news: I might be able to attend next year). Eugene Hernandez reports on the fest for indieWire, with an emphasis on Katrina docs.
  • Finally, a Yahoo article reporting that Japanese film distributors are planning to use digital technologies to incorporate smells into film screenings. While the article suggests that these plans are unprecedented, film historians may recall that there were brief and generally unsuccessful experiments with “Smell-o-Vision” in the 1950s. There’s a similar discussion of “immesrive TV” at the Hero website, with a brief historical overview of the 1950s scent experiments. In both cases, the emphasis seems to be on producing a fully immersive experience, providing the viewer with a sense of virtual “presence.”

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Temporary Memory Lapse

I’m trying to remember the title of a movie that came out recently, but it’s completely escaping me. It’s a British or American independent historical film about the introduction of cinema to China in the late 19th or early 20th century. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the director or the lead actor right now. If you have any idea what I’m talking about, please leave a comment or email me (chutry [at] msn [dot] com). I’ve been trying several different IMDB keyword searches but haven’t been able to find the film.

Update: Okay, I finally remembered. It’s the 2000 film, Shadow Magic, directed by Ann Hu, and it starred Jared Harris as Raymond Wallace, one of the first promoters of cinema in China. The film is particularly interesting in that it raises the question of whether film will “preserve tradition” even in the face of technological change and fit neatly with such films as Photographing Fairies and The Govenress that explored the transformative role of photography and cinema just as digital photography and cinema were emerging on the scene.

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George Bush’s “Imagine”

Via MyDD: Someone remixed several Bush speeches to the words of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” overlaying that with video footage of the war in Iraq as well as several other familiar and more calculated Bush photo ops. There’s also a nice montage at the end showing media graphics (“Target: America”) that no doubt fed American fears of terrorism. Fascinating, powerful stuff.

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Low-Budget Moviemaking and the Death of Film

Just a quick pointer to part two of Jeremiah Kipp’s interview with Godfrey Cheshire (here’s part one). The second half of the interview focuses primarily on Cheshire’s documentary about his family plantation, which sounds really facinating. Because I grew up in Atlanta and have family scattered all over the south, including sections of North Carolina not too far from Cheshire’s family plantation, I’ll be curious to see what Cheshire does with this story (his speculation that D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation may been based on his ancestors makes the story sound doubly interesting).

But Cheshire’s comments about the effects of low-budget video on the decline of European auteurs are also worth noting. Specifically he notes that fewer people are going to independent theaters for forign films to the point that the foreign film market has “dried up.” It’s an interesting argument, and I think it’s relatively clear that audeinces are more commonly seeing foreign (non-US) films on DVD, if at all. Cheshire argues that

We’re still in a stage where we have art film distributors, for example, that go to the foreign festivals and still put out some foreign films, but I’m afraid that’s on its last legs. It’s been in such decline since I wrote that article in 1999 that it wouldn’t be surprising if a few years from now you could only see foreign films on DVD. Maybe some would open in New York or Los Angeles just to get the advertising, but we really aren’t far away from that.

The whole interview is well worth reading, and I would have more to say about it, but I really should be working on other things.

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Remediating Baseball

Via Jeff Passan’s Yahoo article, I just learned about the fascinating viral video, “RBI Game Six,” available on You Tube. It appears that I’m a little late to the party on this video. According to Passan, “RBI Game Six” has received over 200,000 views, and Conor Lastowska’s blog, San Diego Serenade, has developed a significant following, in part due to the video’s popularity. It’s a playful and entertaining use of the video game to revisit one of the most famous (or infamous) and widely replayed World Series in recent history.

The video, created by Lastowka, depicts the ninth inning of the 1986 World Series, in which the Red Sox, just one out away from winning the World series, saw their Series hopes dashed on Bill Buckner’s tenth inning error. Lastowka, fascinated by “Game Six,” was also a fan of Nintendo’s RBI Baseball game, which first appeared in 1988. RBI baseball featured the four playoff teams from 1986 and 1987 plus all-star teams for both leagues. The players looked identical, other than a nod to whether the player bats right-handed or left-handed.

Lastowka ran through the first 9.5 innings of the game, setting up the correct score and number of hits before saving the tenth inning on a video game emulator. From here, Lastowka had to emulate the details of the inning prefectly, often replaying the same pitch as many as 200 times in order to set up a fly ball to center field, for example. RBI baseball graphics also add an interesting twist when showing Bill Buckner’s infamous error. Instead of showing Buckner’s error as it happened, with the ball dribbling behind first base, in RBI, “the player stands frozen for a second with what look like tears spouting from his head.” Lastowka supplemented the late-80s video game graphics with Curt Gowdy’s game six broadcast, bringing Gowdy’s classic, colorful delivery to the revised visuals of the game.

It’s a creative use of the video game emulator software, especially in the nostalgic evocations of both the RBI Baseball game and baseball itself. The experience of making the video also made clear to Lastowka just how “improbable” the outcome of Game Six actually was (this might be a general effect of producing videos on a game emulator–having to go back and replay a pivotal moment until you “get it right.”).

Update: Lastowka writes about his experience making RBI Game Six on his blog. Like him, I think Bill Buckner should receive far less blame for the Game Six loss. His error was just the culmination of the Red Sox’s collapse (a version of the video is also available here).

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Sunday Morning Links

Via the cinetrix and Peter, this great parody trailer for a Michael Bay version of March of the Penguins from the folks at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Interesting Washington Post interview with Nicole Holofcener, who directed Friedns With Money, and Mary Harron, who directed The Notorious Bettie Page, both of which will be playing DC starting this Friday, April 21. Among other issues, Ann Hornaday asks them about the opportunities available for women filmmakers today, but they also have an interesting conversation about sex scenes in Hollywood films (both Harron and Holofcener speculate that female directors may be more likely to “demystify sex” than male directors). It’s a solid interview, especially when Holofcener and Harron play off of each other and discuss their shared experiences as independent filmmakers.

Finally, I just learned about this interesting little project called The 1 Second Film, a 70mm non-profit collaborative film, where for a one-dollar donation, anyone can buy a producer’s credit. The film features one second (24 frames) of animation and an estimated ninety minutes of credits, which will also include a making-of documentary. All profits from the film will go to the Global Fund for Women.

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LA Times on United 93

Regular readers will notice that I’ve been following the controversy surrounding the promotional trailer and upcoming release of Universal’s United 93, which depicts the hijacking and eventual crash of United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and Jason Apuzzo of the conservative film blog, Libertas, has posted an LA Times article asking whether or not the United States is “ready” for a film about 9/11. Apuzzo argues,

Of course, the Main Stream Media is now scratching its head, wondering whether America is properly ‘ready’ for movies about 9/11. Again, it’s odd that this debate didn’t accompany Michael Moore’s film, or the recent V For Vendetta (as obvious a War on Terror metaphor as we’ve seen), but now that realistic depictions of the War on Terror are being presented, suddenly some people are very worried about the public’s ability to ‘handle’ (i.e., absorb on their own) what’s coming at them.

Apuzzo then goes on to criticize “left-leaning ‘intellectuals’ [talking] about what ‘complex,’ ’sophisticated’ wartime films should look like.” To be fair, like Apuzzo, I think the Times article is asking the wrong question by focusing on whether or not America is “ready” for a film such as United 93. Given the ratings success of A&E’s TV movie version of this story, it’s clear that many people want to revisit these events, whether as a means of working through their grief, making sense of what happened, or out of some other motive altogether. Instead, I think the more crucial question–the one we ought to be asking–is how these films will present this history. I have been concerne about the discussions of the film as “realistic,” often with the implication that this realism is a guarantee of an objective representation of what happened, which is a rather dubious claim. More crucially, focusing entirly on the flight itself may in fact obscure crucial elements of the historical narrative about 9/11.

But I also want to address Apuzzo’s dismissal of “left-leaning ‘intellectuals,'” in part because he misreads the comments of the film scholars who were interviewed for the article and in part because this misreading plays into Apuzzo’s absurdly simplistic binary between “patriotic movies” and what he calls “movies in which America loses.” It’s worth noting that Apuzzo conveniently omits film historian Robert Sklar’s comments about the Office of War Information and the films produced by directors such as Frank Capra and John Ford, which were made to rally US support for the war, with Sklar implying that with past tragedies such as Pearl Habor, audiences were almost immediately “ready” for films that depicted the attack by the Japanese military. USC film professors Richard Jewell and Howard Rodman do call for more subtle and nuanced depictions of the events of 9/11, but the article offers little evidence of their specific politics. In fact, Jewell, despite Apuzzo’s characterization, actually suggests that we might have been better off if studios could have “miraculously gotten this film out in the first three months.”

The focus on major studio film representations of 9/11 also overlooks the number of independent and documentary films that have already dealt with the topic in a variety of ways, but more crucially, the article ignores the fact that television shows, such as 24 and The West Wing have been dealing with the events of 9/11 for some time. I still think that the trailers promoting United 93 could have been handled more gracefully, but I don’t think the question is whether audiences are “ready” to revisit the events of 9/11; instead we should be more concerned with how those stories will be told.

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Bunker Busters

I think it’s safe to say that I am opposed to any kind of military strike against Iran, including so-called precision bombing. Even so-called “surgical strike” precision bombing results in too many civilian casualties and would very likely lead to a military response from Iran that would only result in even more deaths. But as Diane Feinstein points out in the LA Times, reports have suggested that some people in the administration may be considering the use of “tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons” against Iran. This animation by the Union of Concerned Scientists shows why this is a bad idea (via Crooks and Liars).

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Rethinking “Incompleteness”

Nick’s concept of “Incompleteness” overlaps nicely with a recent discussion of the DVD version of Lodge Kerrigan’s haunting film, Keane, which includes a “director’s cut” or re-mix of the film not by Lodge Kerrigan but by friend and colleague Steven Soderbergh (for more see the Washington Post). Sodebergh’s reworking of Kerrigan’s narrative would seem to illustrate perfectly Nick’s principle of “incompleteness,” the idea that “there is no properly finished product any longer; nothing is complete.” Nick’s right to add that no film or work of art or text was ever truly complete, and I’m curious to explore the implications of this notion of incompleteness even further.

Such a principle is clearly present in the deleted scenes that are now included on many DVDs, often with actor and director’s commentary tracks expressing regret that a scene could not be included in the theatrical release of the film. Often, DVDs will even include alternate endings (one significant example is The Butterfly Effect, which with its time-travel plot, adds a new wrinkle to the question of alternate endings). Even director’s commentary tracks themselves can explode the idea of a final version of the film, but just as often the commentary track might also serve to reinforce the cult of authorship with the director’s vision as, in some sense, final.

But Nick’s discussion of “incompleteness” with regards to the digital archive also has implications for art that is archved digitally on the Web. Nick points to the constantly-updated art isntallations available on a site such as Rhizome.org, noting the “sheer abundance” of art projects, many of which are concerned with “a sort of madness of indexing, a madness of database.” Even blogs, of course, might participate in this “madness of indexing,” especially entries that detail, sometimes quite painstakingly, the everyday experiences of their authors (or their results on countless personality tests or their weekly iPod shuffles). And I think that Nick’s right to suggest that the incompleteness can allow for a perpetual recontextualization or rethinking of what is already there. Again, blogs offer a useful model here: the constant updates recontextualize what comes before.

An even more interesting example might be Day-to-Day Data, an art exhibition that “exhibits the work artists who seek inspiration from insignificant details in their own or the publics’ everyday lives,” with Adele Prince’s Trolley Spotting, for example, taking an interest in abandoned trolleys (or shopping carts). Miranda July shows a similar interest in the quotidian in her on-going web project, Learning to Love You More, which invites others to contribute to her site by responding to certain “assignments.”

But while blogs offer one useful model, I think Nick is right to point towards wikis, most famously Wikipedia, as a more useful model for illustrating this notion of incompleteness. As he points out, wikipedia entries change rapidly, especially when the definition of a term or concept is under intense scrutiny or deliberation (see, for example, this discussion of the September 11 wiki). This incompleteness, the instability of a site such as Wikipedia, certainly introduces a number of questions about the degree to which these terms are constantly being contested and the difficulty of achieving consensus on the meaning or significance of certain terms.

I do have some reserveations about the historical novelty of this notion of “incompleteness.” Nick notes that Lev Manovich has argued that “Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium. Therefore the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the level of an interface did not exist” (Database as a Genre of New Media). IManovich’s comments echo Benjamin’s discussion of the aura, and while the institution of art certainly valorized unique works of art, I think it worth noting that there is a parallel history of incompleteness. One might make the case, for example, that scribal culture fostered a version of incompleteness, with scribes often making imprecise copies of prior versions, whether out of boredom, exhaustion, or out of some other motivation. Even marginalia could be seen as a form of “revising” what comes before. Hollywood studios often had multiple versions of the film they made, with scenes cut (or deleted) either appease local censors or, later, to remain in compliance with the Hays Code. I certainly agree that digital media offer a new way of thinking about incompleteness, a concept that Nick’s blog entry unpacks quite effectively.

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Cinema After Film

Over at The House Next Door, Matt has posted an interview between film citic and journalist Jeremiah Kipp and Godfrey Cheshire, author of “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema,” one of the more notorious and thought-provoking essays on the end of cinema. Cheshire focused on the transition from celluloid to digital projection technologies within theaters, and theorizing that audiences might respond differently to digital projection, discussed the implications of that transition. I’ve gone back to Cheshire’s essay several times and continue to find Cheshire’s essay thought-provoking, even if he couldn’t have anticipated many of the changes we’ve witnessed since he published the essay in 1999.

I’m still taken by the idea of the “death of film,” a concept that has only gained currency with the ongoing technological changes that continue to redefine cinema as we know it. As Cheshire is careful to note, when he first wrote the essay, the first demonstrations of digital cinema were taking place, with Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace being one of the first major motion pictures exhibited using digital technology. While the digital changeover has not happened as quickly as Cheshire anticipated (in part due to debates about technical specificiactions), that transition seems imminent, and it’s still quite tempting to imagine what cinema will look like after film’s “death.”

I’m still convinced that it will be diffiult to predict how digital exhibition will alter cinema culturesor our perception of film as a medium (as opposed to the movies themselves). Film as a technological artifact may take on a rarefied status, consigned to museums and repertory theaters, but I think our relationship to movies (which Cheshire defines as “motion pictures as entertainment”) and cinema (Cheshire defines this as “motion pictures as art,” but I would define as the “institution” of moviemaking) will be far less predictable, but it’s certainly possible that digital exhibition will contribute to rendering movies and cinema itself as more banal, everyday, or to use Kipp and Cheshire’s own observations, more “televisual.” As Kipp notes, “One could argue that television created many of the habits we incorporate into our lives that go way beyond the simple act of watching television, and that it creates a kind of attention deficit disorder.” Echoing these comments, Cheshire adds, “The success of films like ‘Crash’ and ‘Syriana’ represent the creeping erosion of cinematic values by television values.”

Implicit in both Kipp and Cheshire’s claims is a characterization of television as a bad object, against which the cinema is defined, with TV “eroding” the purity of cinema and damaging cinematic ways of seeing. Although I’d be one of the last people to offer a defense of Crash (I’ll happily defend Syriana, a film whose critique of Big Oil could not have been sustained without its expansive storylines), I also think such claims about television need to be unpacked somewhat more carefully, especially regarding the effects of television on human attention span. Movies may be becoming more banal or even more ” televisual,” but television, in its very banality, can explore political and philosophical limits in surprisingly complicated ways.

But Cheshire’s comments on the emerging film cultures formed by the DVD format and by the energetic film blogging communities seem about right. These cultures have “changed the perception of movies and the way people relate to movies and understand them in enormous ways.” As Cheshire notes, many of his students at UNC Chapel Hill reported that they get their news about film via the Internet rather than through the local or community film critics, something that Cheshire seems to experience as a significant loss. At the same time, film bloggers and online reviewers can create new audiences for directors, films, or genres that might have been ignored by local critics.

Finally, I found Cheshire’s discussion of cinema after 9/11 to be well worth reading. As he notes, many current movies are seeking to make sense of the world after September 11. Like Cheshire, I’m not confident that the films he mentions (Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Jarhead, The Constant Gardener, and Crash) have “succeeded,” but I think the attempts at sense-making may be more important than the conclusions or explanations themselves. I will hopefully return to his discussion of these post-9/11films a little later when I have a little more time, but that’s certainly another topic that has occupied my attention for a while now.

As Matt points out, Cheshire continues to review films for The North Carolina weekly, The Independent, and is wrapping production on a first-person documentary about his family and their Southern plantation (sounds like it would pair nicely with Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves). As someone who comes from that part of the country–and may be spending a chunk of time there in the near future–I’m really looking forward to Cheshire’s film.

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Immigration Rallies

David Silver has some photographs of last week’s march in Dallas, which attracted over half a million people, and follows the march in Los Angeles that also drew 500,000 people marching for human rights. David mentions a sign carried by one participant that said “Today we act. Tomorrow we vote.” There are hundreds of other photographs on Flickr that show a social movement coming into visibility (I love the creative signs), and he’s right to say that “this is what a social movement looks like.” But I think it’s important to point out that it’s a social movement that has been building for some time, fostered by Spanish-language DJs who have been promoting the rallies for weeks, as well as religious and human rights groups, as reported in the LA Times. I’m not sure I have much to add right now, but David’s discussion of the rallies and his students’ enthusiasm for talking about them, as well as his planned course on Digital Democracy, has me thinking ahead to the classes I’ll be teaching next fall (more details on that a little later).

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Herders at the Ballet Mecanique

Jason has a few photos taken at the Ballet mecanique performance a few weeks ago at the National Gallery of Art. In case you were wondering, I’m the guy in the middle in this photograph.

I caught the Ballet mecanique a second time when my parents were visiting last week and I’m still astonished by it, although I think my mother just found it sort of strange. You can catch what critics are calling “a happy riot” twice a day (at 1 PM and 4PM) through May 7.

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Redirected

David Lowery mentioned a Washington Post article which reports that the DVD version of Lodge Kerrigan’s Keane will come with an alternate cut of the film edited by Steven Soderbergh, who had a different take on how the narrative should be shaped. In the Post, Micheal O’Sullivan describes Keane as a sort of psychological drama focusing on a father looking for his six-year old daughter. The film deploys the handheld camera and cinema-verite style favored by Soderbergh is his independent projects such as Bubble. According to Soderbergh:

“While I was away on location, Lodge sent me a copy of ‘Keane’ to look at before he locked picture. I loved the film and told him so, but I also sent him this version to look at, in case it jogged anything (it didn’t). In any case, we agreed it was an interesting (to us) example of how editing affects intent. Or something.”

O’Sullivan’s Post article offers further details about the different versions, but I’m waiting until I see both versions before I comment further (and that may take awhile). As Soderbergh notes, the experiement can say a lot about the role of editing in shaping a film, but I think it can also point to the ways in which no film is completely final, an approach that often guides Soderbergh’s approach to filmmaking. I like the idea of imagining films with “version 2.0, recut, rescored,” and while recutting or reshaping a film is nothing new, it’s intriguing to think about how certain films might be re-imagined. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of one auteur, Soderbergh. reworking a film by another director, Kerrigan. More later when I’ve had more caffiene or, better, more sleep.

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Weird Science

This week’s Wednesday night DC Drinking Liberally event will feature author Chris Mooney, in what looks like an interesting event. Mooney is the author of The Republican War on Science, which argues that “the Republican Party has not only ignored science, but has used bad science to justify its political agenda.” Mooney also writes for Seed Magazine and The American Prospect, and his blog, The Intersection, is a useful resource for global warming and other important political issues.

Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion of Mooney’s book with a response from the author.

The Wednesday DC Drinking Liberally meets from 6:30-8:30 PM at Mark and Orlando’s, a short walk from the Dupont Circle Metro station. There are drink specials and even some free (and delicious) appetizers.

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