Archive for May, 2006

American Zeitgeist Screening

Via an email tip I’ve just learned about what sounds like a fascinating documentary, Rob McGann’s American Zeitgeist: Crisis & Conscience in an Age of Terror, which will be screened Thursday June 15, 2006, at 7:15 Pm at the New York Society for Ethical Culture to promote the documentary’s DVD launch (check out the trailer). The New York screening will feature a post-film debate between Christopher Hitchens and Mahmood Mamdani.

According to the film’s website, Zeitgeist “explores the underlying fractures of the War on Terrorism, considering how what America is, what it does and what it represents have become the most explosive questions on the world stage since September 11th.” Experts interviewed for the documentary include Richard A. Clarke, Peter Bergen, Daniel Benjamin, Steven Simon, Jessica Stern, Samantha Power, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Berman, Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Hamid Dabashi, and many others, bringing in a wide array of political and disciplinary perspectives on the war.

I haven’t had the opportunity to see Zeitgeist, but the doc has received some high praise for situating the war on terror historically. If anyone attends the June 15 screening, I’d love to hear about it, but no matter what, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the DVD.

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Feline Theology

Via Brian Flemming, tonight’s late-night YouTube fun: Kona and Hilo: Talking Cats.


An Inconvenient Truth Trailer

I haven’t written very much about the new documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth featuring former VP Al Gore, but that’s not because I’m not incredibly curious to see the film. While Gore’s documentary doesn’t quite have the massive buzz of Fahrenheit 9/11, Gore’s star power and the recent stirrings of renewed attention to global warming are setting up a documentary to become one of the more high-profile movie events of the summer. The film’s trailer, available on YouTube, effectively sets up An Inconvenient Truth as the “most terrifying movie of the summer,” complete with dramatic music and depictions of some of the more dramatic long-term effects of global warming.

Promoting the film has also provided Gore with his widest audience since the 2000 election, including this fantastic Saturday Night Live spoof in which Gore appeared in a mock-up of the Oval Office, addressing the audience as President. What I like about the SNL skit is that Gore parodies his straight-laced campaign while still landing several jabs at Bush’s presidency, commenting at one point, “On a positive note, we worked hard to save Welfare, fix Social Security and of course provide the free universal health care we all enjoy today. But all this came at a high cost. As I speak, the gigantic national budget surplus is down to a perilously low $11 trillion dollars. And don’t get any ideas. That money is staying in the very successful lockbox. We’re not touching it.” But what the SNL skit also illustrates is that the documentary will shape public dialogue about environmentalism, even for people who are unable to see the film, and this discussion should be felt for some time.

An Inconvenient Truth has a staggered release, which means that while it will open in some cities on May 24, it won’t reach DC until June 2, but it looks like Paramount is planning a relatively wide release. But, again, I’m almost as interested in the promotion of the film as the film itself, which was produced by Participant Productions, the indie production company that has sought to use films to encourage audiences “to participate in making a difference.” Will be interesting to see how this doc contributes to public dialogue about global warming.

Update: Just wanted to add this link to the Howard Kurtz “Media Notes” column from the Washington Post, which points out that the Truth hype is interesting, in part, because Gore’s 2008 aspirations aren’t yet clear. Of course Gore has claimed to be a “recovering politican,” but as Gore himself observed, there’s always potential for a “relapse.” Kurtz’s survey of blogworld lays out several compelling narratives (Gore as Comeback Kid, Gore as “what might have been”), which makes the publicity and promotion of the film that much more interesting.

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A Messiah in the District

Just a quick note to my DC readers that Chris Hansen’s highly entertaining mockumentary The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah will be playing here in DC on July 6 as part of Sujewa’s Capital City Microcinema series. The film will be playing at the historic Kensington Row Bookshop.

Chris’s film has been accepted to several film festivals and has been getting some good blog buzz, including this review from Lance Mannion, so if you’re in the DC area in July (I’ll be in Fayetteville by then, unfortunately), please try to check it out. The details: Messiah will be playing Thursday, July 6th, at 7pm, at the Kensington Row Bookshop, which is located at 3786 Howard Ave., in scenic Kensington, MD.


Walter Chaw Interview

Via an email tip, I was reminded to revisit Jeremiah Kipp’s interview with Film Freak Central reviewer Walter Chaw. I haven’t read or cited Chaw’s reviews as frequently as I should have, but even when I have disagreed with him as I did when he harshly criticized Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, I’ve found his writing on film to be consistently insightful (I very much agree with his review of Crash and now wish I’d managed to work it into my far-too-generous review).

The wide-ranging inteview is particularly valuable in addressing some of institutional factors that shape film criticism as it is practiced on the internet by both professional and amateur critics. In particular, I found insightful Chaw’s discussion of the process of screening films for critics, a process that he regards as “undemocratic and essentially corrupted.” I’m probably a little less concerned about being the first critic to review a movie (although I did manage to catch a world premiere recently), but Chaw’s discussion of being based in Denver is a useful reminder that place often detemines access to film and media, an issue I’m likely to confront with my move to Fayetteville a.k.a. Fayettenam.

But while my access to the art house flavor of the week is likely to change considerably, I’ll be interested to see how the move shapes what films I see and what I have to say about them. In that sense, I find Chaw’s comments about film criticism as autobiography–borrowed from Pauline Kael–worth noting. It will likely come as little surprise to many of my readers that I share Chaw’s belief that “good film criticism, as in any good criticism, is 1% savvy, 99% auto-psychoanalysis.” Many of my best reviews start with my personal investment in the film or films I’m discussing, and that’s perhaps one of the main reasons that I fond writing within the blog format to be so comfortable in that I’m able to foreground those investments in ways that might not work as well in other contexts. At any rate, it’s a thought-provoking interview and well worth reading.

Update: Edited to correct the name of the interviewer. Must have written this entry without drinking enough coffee.


“Hollywood Films are the Home Movies of Global Capital”

Snagging yet another link from MobFilms, this time a pointer to creativity/machine, where Jean provides a link to the provocative “Historiographic Axioms of Home Movies” (doc) by Patricia R. Zimmermann and Karen I. Ishizuka.


War Images

Via MobFilms: Joseph DeLappe’s online gaming intervention, Dead in Iraq, in which DeLappe logs into the U.S. Army’s online recruitment video game, “America’s Army,” to input all of the names of the military personnel killed in Iraq. So far, DeLappe reports that he has entered about 250 out of the 2,400 US soldiers who have died. DeLappe writes,

The work is essentially a fleeting, online memorial to those military personnel who have been killed in this ongoing conflict. My actions are also intended as a cautionary gesture.

DeLappe’s decision to document this performance via stills is an interesting one, and many of the stills that DeLappe has accumulated show that other participants are responding to his intervention.

MobFilms also includes a pointer to Deborah Scranton’s documentary, The War Tapes, a film I’ve discussed in the past. Both Dead in Iraq and The War Tapes make use of digital media and the internet in interesting ways in their attempts to represent war, with Scranton commenting about The War Tapes that “The unseen collaborator on the film is the internet. This is a Web 2.0 outside the wire – the intimate power of the internet exploding on the movie screen. Without instant messaging, the soldiers could never have become filmmakers – without email and cheap video, they soldiers could never have told their stories as they happened.”

Update Via Alex, more interesting anti-war images: “Not Your Soldier,” a flash video associated with Sir! No Sir!, a documentary about the GI movement to end the war in Vietnam. Sir! No Sir! will be playing in DC at the E Street Theater starting Friday, May 19.

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Date Number One

I caught the world premiere of Sujewa Ekanayake’s latest film, Date Number One, aptly described as a comedy about several first dates. Ekanayake’s lo-fi directorial style and the film’s conversational tone combine to depict the dating scene around a prominent Kensington Row bookshop where many of the key scenes were filmed. The twentysomethings and occasional thirtysomethings looking for romance recall Richard Linklater’s philosopher slackers and Jim Jarmusch’s minimalist attention to conversation, particularly in Jarmusch’s underrated Night on Earth. Date Number One focuses on five different first dates, including a ninja (played with deadpan relish by Government Issue bandmember John Stabb Schroeder) rather unsuccessfully looking for love, a woman who punctuates everything she says with air quotes, and a woman hoping to arrange a “first date” matching herself, her ex-girlfriend, and her current boyfriend.

While some of the film’s dating scenarios might appear cliched, Date Number One’s strength is its attention to the local lingo of Washington, DC, not the lingo of the Hill, but the locals who live and work around the city, many of them–at least in Date’s slightly off-kilter world–in the arts and culture fields. When characters first meet, the first question is invariably “What do you do?” followed by an apologetic “Not that you have to do anything.” It’s a quiet commentary on the ambition that shapes DC culture and the characters’ uneasy relationship to it. Other characters refer to local bands and bars, the kinds of places that give the District a character that is often overlooked on the Hill and in the city’s other tourist haunts.

Like the characters in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes who reflect on concepts of celebrity and fame, Date Number One’s twentysomethings find themselves returning to certain questions, in Date’s case the potential relationship between quantum mechanics and Buddhism, with varying degrees of seriousness and authority. The conversations provide some degree of unity between the various episodes, but more importantly, the conversations seem to suggest the way in which ideas or concepts can weave their way through a community of artists and readers who spend a lot of time in bookstores and coffeehouses. An overheard snippet of conversation might be picked up by someone else, and the questions about Buddhism and quantum mechanics take an unexpected direction.

Finally, I think Sujewa Ekanayake’s Date Number One offers an image of urban culture that might be understood as the anti-Crash depiction of life in the city. Instead of a city or community marked by distrust and hostility between racial and ethnic groups, Sujewa’s film depicts a comfortably multi-ethnic community, recalling for me the “sidewalk ballet” described by Jane Jacobs in her wonderful book, The Death and LIfe of Great American Cities, rather than the sidewalk mosh pit imagined by Haggis. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t hostile encounters like the ones imagined in Crash, but Date Number One offers a notion of “contact” that is far more subtle, at least in my experience on the sidewalks and in the bookshops and coffeehouses of the cities where I’ve lived.

If I have made Ekanayake’s film sound overly serious, it’s unintentional. In fact, Date Number One is quite funny and treats the dating life of DC twentysomethings with a light touch, and many of the actors show good comic timing (particularly the ninja-playing Schroder, Jennifer Blakemore from “A Romantic Dinner for 3” and Jewel Greenberg from “The Superdelicious French Lesson”). But it’s also a subtle, thoughtful film, which is what I will take away from it. Ekanayake is currently scheduling tour dates for the film, and if the film reaches your city, I’d happily recommend it.

Update: Here’s Sujewa’s report on the opening night screenings.

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Art School Confidential

Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes’ Art School Confidential (IMDB) attempts to satirize the shallow trendiness of the art world by viewing it through the ultra-sincere eyes of the virginal wanna-be artistic genius, Jerome (Max Minghella). Bullied as a kid in his suburban neighborhood–in fact the film opens with him being punched repeatedly by a classmate–Jerome develops the dream of becoming a world’s famous artist like Pablo Picasso. Upon graduating high school, he heads for Strathmore, an ostensibly prestigious art school that turns out to be far shabbier than Jerome’s treasured school brochure suggests, although Jerome’s interest in the school seems almost entirely based on his infatuation with the live-drawing model, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who poses inside the brochure. Jerome is joined by what might be regarded as the usual art school stereotypes (the wanna-be Tarantino filmmaker, the closeted fashion student, the professor living vicariously through his students, the jaded older student who knows all of the stereotypes, including his own). To some extent, the satire succeeds, especially when the film focuses on the seemingly shallow criteria by which art is judged, but for the most part, the humor was relatively obvious, and I never felt as if the film was trying to think about the art world in a new or even interesting way.

When Jerome arrives at the run-down Strathmore campus, which is set in a dangerous New York City neighborhood, the campus is abuzz with fear, but also a certain amount of excitement, about the presence of the Strathmore Strangler, a neighborhood serial killer who stalks the campus. While there seems to be concern about the danger the Strangler presents, many of the students seem equally concerned with how they can incorporate the crimes into their art. The serial killer plot ultimately provides the primary thread by which the romance plot and the critiques of art school are resolved, but in general, I found the plotline relatively artificial and ultimately distracting from the more interesting reflections on art school culture.

At the same time, Jerome encounters the often petty and invariably shallow competitiveness of the art school classroom. Despite the fact that Jerome seems most dedicated to his craft–he continues to draw during class breaks–and the most talented student when it comes to figure drawing (or because of it), he becomes the target of his classmates’ harshest evaluations while an enigmatic fellow classmate, Jonah (Matt Keeslar), who wears polo shirts and khakhis–prompting one student to regard his dress as “strange”–and paints poorly-porportioned sports cars and tanks against monochomatic backgrounds receives praise for his vision. Jonah also becomes the primary competitor for the affections of Jerome’s crush, Audrey. But like Jerome, Audrey seems to have little personality, other than being the art schol equivalent of the prom queen.

The film disappoints in part because Jerome is a relatively uninteresting character, a generic suburban kid who naively stumbles into the weird world of art school. Perhaps I’m too close to the jaded older student, Bardo (Joel Moore), wanting to make wisecracks from the back of the classroom–and yes, I’m a teacher–than I am to the ultra-sincere Jerome. In this context, I think A.O. Scott’s read on Jerome makes sense:

In their previous collaboration, the near-perfect “Ghost World,” Mr. Clowes and Mr. Zwigoff used adolescent misanthropy as both a method of analysis and an object of satire. Enid, their heroine, was mean-spirited but also clear-sighted, and she served as a sympathetic foil for the audience and the filmmakers alike. Jerome is a murkier, mopier character, and the movie grinds its gears, much as he does, between defiant romanticism and nasty cynicism.

Like Scott, I never quite got the sense that Clowes and Zwigoff knew what kind of film they were trying to make. In places, the film played like the prototypical PG-13 teen comedy, while in others, the film’s cynicism–especially its cynicism towards the art world–was abundantly clear.

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Dodging DaVinci

I’m intrigued by the debates among religious leaders (article via Green Cine) about how to respond to the upcoming release of Ron Howard’s film version of The DaVinci Code. As Laurie Goodstein points out, both evangelicals and Catholics are divided on how to address the film, which many regard as blasphemous in its implication that Jesus may have been less than divine. Not surprisingly, many groups including the Culture and Family Institute, headed by Robert H. Knight, are calling for a boycott of the film, with Kinght commenting, “I don’t have to see ‘The Devil in Miss Jones’ to know it’s pornography, and I don’t have to see ‘The Da Vinci Code’ to know that it’s blasphemous.”

While I have no plans to see DaVinci, I find such arguments deeply frustrating, precisely because they refuse the opportunity to engage with audiences who are quite clearly incredibly curious to see the film (at least if the novel’s long-running bestseller status is any indication). To be fair, many Christians such as Richard J. Mouw, have argued that it’s important for some Christians to see the film, but I’m more curious about teh motivations and assumptions behind calling for a boycott of DaVinci. The refusal to engage with the film seems to assume that audiences will be manipulated by the film, taking its representation of reality as the gospel truth, rather than viewing it as a historical thriller, or even an alternate history of sorts. Instead of asking what is wrong with the film, a more interesting question to ask might be why so many people, many of whom identify as Christians, have expressed such interest in the novel and film. Well over two years after I wrote it, my discussion of The DaVinci Code remains one of my most visited entries. And, in general, we are seeing more films exploring the intersections between religion and politics, as Alex points out in his early review of Amazing Grace, a film about Christian convert William Wilberforce’s efforts to abolish the UK slave trade, directed by Michael Apted.

My own perspective draws from my experiences while attending an evangelical Christian college in the late 1980s and early 90s. While I was a student there, several of my classmates organized a boycott of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ based solely on reports about the film. As someone who was already engaged with questions of representation, especially when it came to the church, I was curious to see the film but as a nervous freshman, I worried that crossing my friends’ boycott line might make me unpopular, so I didn’t see Temptation in theaters. Plus I didn’t have a car.

The other odd aspect of this debate is Barbara Nicolosi’s suggestion that DaVinci is somehow a blue-state film. Nicolosi discounts Sony’s claims that the film can be used as a tool for evangelism, arguing that “All they care about is getting the box office, and if they don’t get the red states to turn out, the movie tanks.” Given the degree to which DaVinci has been such a huge cultural phenomeon, it seems undeniable that many of those readers are living in red states. But in both cases, there is little discussion of how audiences are engaging with Brown’s novel, whether they take his claims of an alternate history seriously, or whether they selectively interpret the novel, accepting certain details and not others. The comments in my blog entry depict a range of responses, some of them condemning the novel for its limited notion of art history or its purple prose while others praise it for challenging them to read the Bible more carefully or to rethink the history of the Catholic Church.

More than anything, I think that what interests me about the controversy is its opening up questions of spectatorship and audience, about how we watch movies and use them to make sense of the world around us. I probably won’t see the movie in the near future because it has Tom Hanks in it and because there are so many other movies I want to see before I leave DC, but I will be interested in seeing how others respond to the film.

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DC Movie Events

Currently distracted, but a few more DC movie events that are worth noting. The AFI Silver is currently running Sean Connery and Robert Altman retrospectives. I’ll admit that I’m less than enthiusiastic about Connery as an actor (he’s by far the best James Bond), but he has had the good fortune to work with some great directors (Martin Ritt, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, to name a few). Since I’m only going to be in DC for a few more weeks, I’m hoping to make it to a few of these screenings. In particular, I’m hoping to catch Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes.

The Altman retrospective also looks quite good, highlighting many of his best films (Short Cuts, The Player, Nashville), but of the featured films, I’m probably most curious about The Long Goodbye, which I’ve somehow managed to miss even though I like Altman quite a bit.

Also just noticed that tonight is the last night of the DC installment of the 48 Hour Film Project, whihc I somehow manage to miss every year There’s a “Best Of” screening on May 25th, which looks like a good alternative. But my Atlanta readers might be interested in knowing that the Project will be rolling into your neck of the woods on the weekend of May 19th. Here’s the full schedule, and with at least two stops in the Tar Heel State, I may be able to catch the fest later on this summer.


Student Journalism Conference

Media studies students in the DC area (including my former students) might be interested in this Journalism Conference sponsored by The Nation magazine:

One Last Notice: Time is running out to sign up for The Nation/Campus Progress Student Journalism Conference in Washington, DC on Friday, June 2. Student writers will have the opportunity to come together for a day of conversations, workshops, panels, and parties featuring numerous Nation editors and writers, including Katrina Vanden Heuvel, David Corn, John Nichols, Eric Alterman, Liza Featherstone, Laura Flanders, William Greider, Ari Berman, Victor Navasky, and many more.

Click here for details and to apply. The conference is free of charge. A limited number of travel stipends are available. Both undergraduates and graduate students welcome. The application deadline is May 15.

Please pass this note on to anyone you think might be interested. Thanks for your help and don’t forget to check out StudentNation for the latest info on student-related articles, events and resources.

It looks like they’ve lined up some cool speakers for the conference. Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? is an insightful book, and his blog is one of my daily reads, but all of the participants look interesting. Best of all, the conference is free.

Update: Speaking of Alterman, I just noticed his pointer to Marshall Berman’s new book, On the Town : One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, which looks like an interesting exploration of issues of urban and public space through the lens of Times Square. Also worth noting: Samantha Power’s discussion of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

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Rainy Thursday Links

It has been raining off and on all morning here in DC. Combine that with a late night, and I’m starting slowly today. But here are a few links that I found while drinking my morning coffee (soon to be followed by my late-morning and early-afternoon cups of coffee).

First, I came across a New York Times list of the best American fiction of the last twenty-five years (with the added bonus of linking to the Times’ original reviews of the top novels). No surprise that Toni Morrison’s Beloved tops the list. I haven’t read Underworld, which finished second, but I was glad to see his White Noise make the list. Off the top of my head, I’d likely add Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and perhaps Russell Banks’ The Darling. Notably, the list has very little genre fiction (science fiction or horror or other pulp genres). I’m sure the list is missing some glaring omissions, but I really haven’t kept up with recent American fiction like I should (too many late nights in darkened art house theaters). So what books should be on the list?

Second, an indieWIRE article on recent documentaries including a discussion of the Nader doc, An Unreasonable Man and Werner Herzog’s confession that his favorite recent film is The Real Cancun, which he appreciates because of its lack of pretension.

Finally, a documentary I’m incredibly curious to see. Brian Brooks reports on a new doc called Jesus Camp, which focuses on Evangelical Christian children’s pastor Becky Fischer. As many of my readers may know, I was raised as an evangelical Christian. In addition, my younger sister works as a children’s pastor, so the film taps into some issues that are close to home for me. The documentary touches on many of the “cultural divide” issues of politics and religion, as well as issues of religion and education, but what seems interesting about the project from reading the article is Fischer’s self-consciousness, her willingness to engage with how certain actions might be read by “secular,” or perhaps more accurately non-evangelical, audiences. During one scene, Fischer holds a life-sized photograph of President George W. Bush and asks audiences to pray for him. During screenings of the film Fischer has expressed some surprise that viewers would regard this action as explicitly political:

“All you have to do is mention words like abortion, homosexuality and President Bush to [garner] strong feelings from people,” said Fischer who maintained that using images of the U.S. President the flags of the U.S. and Israel were not meant to be overtly political. “We are commanded to pray for our leaders and we’re commanded [by the Bible] to pray for Israel. So it was a surprise to me because we don’t think of this as political. But from a secular point-of-view, I can see how it’s viewed politically.”

Of course I don’t want to evaluate the film before I see it, but I’m incredibly curious to see how the film explores Fischer and her ministry. Having spent some time in those churches, I do think that the prayer for Bush has a politics (I wonder if Fischer would have a life-size photo of Kerry under the same circumstances), but I’m intrigued by Fischer’s attempts to recognize children as more fully human than most people assume (she comments at one point that “Kids have been sidelined within the Christian circle”).

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More Online Video Links

Via Green Cine, a series of Wired articles on the “online video explosion.” I’m not sure they add anything new to my understanding of online video (although they provide some nice pointers to online video sites I hadn’t seen), but it’s nice to see online video (or blogging or social networking sites) represented as something relatively safe or banal rather than as a threat to civil discourse or a danger to children.

Local news stations here in DC have been relentlessly repeating the idea that sites such as MySpace are constantly placing children in danger, and I’m still not quite sure how to read these “news” stories. I don’t think it makes sense to argue that the TV news broadcasters see Internet sites such as MySpace as competition. After all, many of these news stories appear on the local, somewhat tabloid-y Fox News affiliate, and Fox is owned by News Corp, which also owns MySpace. I could likely comment further but should probably get some other writing done.

Oh, while I’m thinking about it, my favorite radio station, KEXP in Seattle, now has a blog.


Irene Jacob Interview

Via the IFC Blog, an interview with Swiss actress Irene Jacob to promote the DVD release of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Véronique, in which Jacob starred. Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red, probably more than any other film, inspired me to study film in graduate school. Some interesting tidbits: Kieslowski originally wanted to cast Andie MacDowell for the double role in Veronique, but she dropped out after a mix-up about contracts. Jacob also mentions that Kieslowski was hesitant to discuss the metaphysics of his films with the actors: “That would have meant speaking about metaphysics and chance and doubles. He told me that because the film could be taken on such a poetic level we had to be very concrete. For him, metaphysics and chance was something always there in banal, everyday life – a piece of light, the rain.” If you’re a fan of Jacob or Kieslowski, it’s an interesting read.