Archive for July, 2006

Mystery at Mansfield Manor

When I was given the opportunity to check out Mystery at Mansfield Manor, an online interactive murder mystery movie, I couldn’t resist. While I have somewhat limited experience with role-playing games, I’ve long been intrigued by the possibilities for interactive cinema, and Mystery, released online by a Canadian company, S.R. Entertainment, offered an intriguing narrative, a murder mystery involving the ancient patriarch of a massive family-owned oil business, making the game “a combination of Clue and a choose your own adventure,” as the interactive movie’s writer, Rory Scherer describes it. There’s quite a bit to like about Mystery, which is an ambitious, entertaining experience, but after viewing the movie (if that’s the right phrase), I still have questions about what constitutes interactivity and a truly interactive cinema.

The “mystery” of the film is established in a ten-minute introduction, in which we are introduced to Detective Frank Mitchell who is soon to retire from the police force when he gets a call instructing him to investigate the murder of Colin Mansfield, Sr, the elderly oil baron who has invited several guests for dinner to explain alterations to his will. Among the guests, Colin Sr’s alcoholic son (Colin Jr), his leftist daughter, his mistress, his lawyer, a Senator seeking his financial support, Colin Jr’s wife, and 2-3 employees who work in the mansion. Most of the guests seem to have some incentive to murder Colin Sr, and the object of the game is to play detective, sift through the clues, and (of course) solve the case. While the plot clearly recalls classic murder mysteries, the father’s oil profits, the daughter’s environmentalism, and the Senator’s soliciting campaign contributions give Mystery at least some degree of timeliness.

Mystery is worth checking out for a number of reasons. The decision to distribute the film online is itself intriguing. Rather than release the film on CD, Scherer chose to make the film available online at a cost of $4.95 for unlimited viewing for 72 hours. This is one of many possible avenues for self-distribution, of course, and I hope that Mystery can inspire similar relatively low-cost DIY projects. As Scott Colbourne, a Globe and Mail reviewer points out, the production values are quite impressive for what is essentially a micro-budget film. The use lighting and shadows in the mansion evokes classic detective films (of course the film takes place during a storm that cuts off the electricity, allowing the cinematographer to play with candlelight in several shots), and given that most of the action takes place inside the mansion, the film uses space relatively well. Mystery is also a relatively extended viewing experience, keeping me engrossed for the three or so hours it took to solve the mystery and to watch some of the alternative paths I didn’t chose. The game loads relatively quickly and requires nothing more than a Flash Player, making it accessible on most computers or game systems. The game also has a relatively simple and intuitive interface, although like Andrew Ogier, I found the “Evaluation Stage,” where you determine which of the suspects is lying to be somewhat confusing at first, in part because I wasn’t prepared for what was expected of me as a detective.

This is where some of my questions about interactive cinema begin to form. I recognize that by the most basic definition, I am interacting with the film’s narrative. I could choose to interview each of the suspects in any order I chose and could repeat the interviews and made other decisions about the order in which I watched many of the segments. But as I participated in solving the mystery, I still felt like a passive subject who was merely involved in bringing the narrative to a foregone conclusion and not actively creating something new in relationship with the previously recorded material. Perhaps this is a fine point, but as I made my evaluations of the characters, of the misunderstood environmentalist; the spoiled, alcoholic son; the corrupt Senator; and other characters, I couldn’t help but become conscious of my own biases and assumptions and how they might be feeding my interpretation of the film and of my role as a detective. An interactive cinema that is more attentive to why we make these decisions would, I believe, be a useful tool for thining about how we as viewers interpret the world, how we “read” films and other information.

No matter what, Mystery and Mansfield Manor is worth checking out, I hope that it can be used as a reference point for some of the ongoing conversations we’ve been having this summer about movie and videogame criticism.

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Scanner, Scoop, and Sketches

Somewhat unintentionally, I caught three movies this weekend, Richard Linklater’s stylishly trippy take on PK Dick, A Scanner Darkly, Sidney Pollock’s interesting if too deferential doc, Sketches of Frank Gehry, and Woody Allen’s dull “Thin Man” update, Scoop. I’ll try to write longer entries about them later (especially Scanner and Sketches, which both deserve further discussion), but for now a few quick comments.

A Scanner Darkly: I’d been looking forward to Linklater’s film for a long time, and the discussion of the film at CultureSpace describes much of what I liked about it, although my experience of the film was much different than Michael’s for reasons I can’t describe without giving away a major plot point. Linklater’s use of rotoscope animation works well for the subject matter: the highly addictive Substance D used by Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), James (Robert Downey, Jr), and Ernie (Woody Harrelson). Some of the best scenes feature Officer Fred (also Reeves) and Hank wearing scramble suits designed to conceal their identities by “scrambling” thousands of different identities that continuously morph and shift. As a commentary on surveillance and corporate power, Linklater’s film may not be adding anything new, but the disorienting effect of the animation makes for a powerful cinematic experience.

Sketches of Frank Gehry: While watching Sidney Pollock’s documentary about Gehry (essentially a series of recorded conversations), I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated with the film, in part because Pollock and Gehry rarely venture into any sort of interpretation of Gehry’s architecture. While I can admire the creativity of structures such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or the postmodern playfulness of the Gehry House in Santa Monica, I most appreciated the skeptical take on Gehry’s work raised by Hal Foster (an art historian whose work I admire), in part because Foster raised some specific questions about how people inhabit and use buildings, with Foster specifically raising the point that the Guggenheim building might overwhelm the art it holds. Much of the rest of the film seemed dominated by Pollock’s preoccupations with artistic success and creativity

Scoop: I probably wouldn’t have seen Woody Allen’s latest yarn under normal circumstances, but because I was with a larger group, I hoped for something like a playful, contemporary take on the Thin Man films described in AO Scott’s review, but Allen’s one-liners have lost their sharpness, and Scarlet Johansson’s bubble-headed college journalist simply wasn’t that interesting although Allen’s camera clearly relished lingering over Johansson in her wet bathing suit. I deeply enjoyed many of Allen’s low-key detective comedies (I’m rather fond of Manhattan Murder Mystery in particular), but Scoop simply seemed lazy and sloppy to me.

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Reading for Pleasure Wednesday, Thursday Edition

I’m a day late to the “Reading for Pleasure Wednesday” meme suggested by Dr. Crazy and also seen at George’s place, but because I’ve only briefly mentioned two of my summer reading books, I thought I’d mention them again. My picks risk bending Dr. Crazy’s rules to some extent because I originally picked up both of them for their unique approach to documentary, a subject that’s important for my research interests, but both books also have proven meaningful to me in ways that ultimately have little to do with my scholarship. Plus, it’s a really cool idea and many of the books suggested by other bloggers will now find their way to my reading for pleasure list.

The first is Joe Sacco’s 1995 graphic novel “documentary,” Palestine , which seeks to represent the Israel-Palestine conflict from the perspective of the Palestinians, a perspective we rarely see in the US media. I read Palestine about a month ago, well before Israel and Hezbollah began fighting again, but Sacco’s intelligent, insightful attempt to represent a myriad of Palestinian experiences is truly illuminating (as is Edward Said’s thoughtful foreword).

Also worth checking out: Margaret Sartor’s Miss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets, and Growing Up in the 1970s,, a compliation of diary entries Sartor wrote as a teenager while growing up in Louisiana I first learned about through Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. My initial attraction to the book grew out of my interest in memoir, autobiography, and popular culture, but the book grew into a more pleasurable reading experience, one that benefits from Sartor’s careful crafting of these journals into a larger narrative (and one that seemed to comment on my own experiences of growing up in another part of the south about a decade later). Both books are relatively quick reads, especially Sartor’s, which I read in a couple of afternoons.

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Thursday Morning Film Notes

Just wanted to put up a couple of pointers to some film articles that I don’t want to lose. I’m working on a couple of other projects right now, so I won’t be able to write in detail about them. First, the news from indieWire that Jesus Camp, the documentary about an evangelical camp for kids, will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures, which plans a marketing campaign designed to attract both evangelicals and the typically “liberal” documentary and art house audiences. After seeing the film at Silverdocs and admiring it quite a bit, I’ll be curious to see how wider audiences respond to the film. Of course my take on the film is somewhat unusual in that I read the film less as a commentary on the politics of evangelical culture–which is certainly a major concern in Jesus Camp–and more as a fascinating exploration of how children learn to inhabit their world.

Somewhat unrelated to Jesus Camp: the trailer to Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, which looks visually stunning and appears to be a thoughtful exploration of many of the desires associated with time travel, particularly the desires for power and immortality, with the film’s narrative spanning from Spain’s exploration of the Americas in 1500 well into the future. I’m really looking forward to seeing this one.

Finally, GreenCine Daily has been running a cool series of “summertime questions” for various filmmakers, cinephiles, and film bloggers, most recently Susan Gerhard. I’m enjoying both the questions and the responses quite a bit and really like the format (sort of like a one question interview), which fits the film blog format very well.

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Blue Velvet Festival in Wilmington

Just a quick entry to mention the Blue Velvet Festival, which is taking place in Wilmington, NC, on July 28, from 6-midnight. The exhibit features “a merging of media for all David Lynch freaks and Blue Velvet fans for this exhibition of wacked out art,” and it’s sponsored by the folks who run the Cucalorus Film Festival, which I’m looking forward to checking out in November. Trying to get some work done on an academic essay so blogging may be sporadic for the next few days.

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Facebook Communities

Patricia J. Williams’ Nation article on online communities, “The 600 Faces of Eve” (subscription only) looks like it might be a useful resource for my planned freshman composition course focusing on new media topics. Williams rather quickly moves past the questions of sexual predation to address what she calls the “invisible hands” that guide the activity of these social networks. Williams notes that when you create a MySpace profile, you are encouraged to “choose” interests that reflect your personality, which in her read isn’t an entirely benign activity:

You proceed by filling out themed questionnaires and following links and pursuing guided suggestions. If you choose a Paris Hilton-themed path, you might be asked how often you go shopping. If you choose hip-hop, you’re asked to “fess up to the acts of a true thug.”

Of course she’s right to point out that Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of MySpace raises important questions about what kinds of information MySpace participants post about themselves in a public space (and to what extent that information is subject to data mining), but in my experience, these quizzes are often treated with at least some ironic distance, a point that Williams acknowledges when she describes the practice of trying on different identities within MySpace. Not sure I have much to add for now, but Williams’ essay looks like something that might be useful for starting a conversation about the relationship between social networks and constructions of identity.

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David Lowery’s Some Analog Lines

Because I learned about David Lowery’s Some Analog Lines soon after I arrived in F’ville (and before I had internet service at home), I almost forgot to mention it here. Lowery’s Some Analog Lines is a playful but philosophical meditation on the materiality of cinema and the ways in which digital video remediates film. In thinking about these issues, Lowery not only theorizes the production process but also offers a theory of spectatorship that explores how the processes of production shape our reception of a film. Lowery explores this process in part through an observation that a number of Cineaste reviewers have expressed a “preference” for claymation over digital animation, with Lowery speculating that this preference derives in part from the materiality of claymation and the awareness that an animator such as Lowery might have moved the clay object hundreds, if not thousands, of times in order to render the illusion (?) of motion. The film explores this concept of handmade films even further, describing the construction of a wooden bookshelf next to his computer, a shelf that seems to morph into a strip of film, in part through the magic of animation.

While I can’t provide a full description of Some Analog Lines, I think it’s a profoundly insightful short film and well worth checking out. It’s also in competition in the SXSWclick “Popularity Contest,” so once you’ve seen the film, please consider voting for it as well.

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Iraq Uploaded: The War Network TV Won’t Show You.

Just a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the various forms of amateur war footage, specifically my initial curiosity about MTV’s Iraq Uploaded. I caught the MTV half-hour special report, Iraq Uploaded this morning primarily because I was curious to see how the show would frame the role of the soldiers’ video in documenting the war. The MTV report begins by citing the military policy of permitting soldiers to upload video footage of their war experiences in contrast to blogs and websites, which are monitored for “security content,” as this TPM Cafe review points out. The implication is that the soldiers’ videos offer “unfiltered” access to the soldiers’ experiences of the war. As MTV reporter Gideon Yago describes it, “from the hilarious, to the sublime, to the gruesome and the terrifying, these are anonymous, unspun visions of Iraq in their raw, stark reality.” But the MTV report doesn’t address the implications of this policy, what it means that the military is allowing this footage to appear online, and that is, by far, the more crucial question.

I think the answer to this question is hiding in plain sight in Yago’s interview with a 20-year old consumer of Iraq War videos. While the interviewee acknowledged that the violence in the videos deterred him from joining the Marines, it’s clear that the videos produced an explicit sense of identification with the soldiers and with the excitement and adrenaline of the war. It’s also worth noting that this “unfiltered” perspective on the war is consciously contrasted with the coverage of the war by the major TV networks. While it’s certainly fair to be critical of the networks’ decision not to show the coffins of dead soldiers, for example, the implication that the soldiers’ videos are providing access to a truth unavailable on the news needs to be interrogated more carefully.

At the same time, Iraq Uploaded is remarkably uncritical when it comes to comparing the US soldiers’ videos with similar videos produced by the insurgents. There’s a strange transition in which Yago interviews a wounded Iraq veteran who was hit in the chest by gunfire. The soldier was wearing a bulletproof vest and along with members of his unit managed to capture the insurgents who shot him. We then learn from a Homeland Security worker that the footage was taken by insurgents who ostensibly intended to use the video for “propaganda purposes,” with the implication being that US soldiers’ video footage serves a more complicated purpose, whether that’s to depict the war to others back home or to help the sodleirs recover from the trauma of war. I’m not suggesting that the soldiers’ videos don’t serve those functions, of course, but the report failed to consider how Iraqi audiences might have more complicated uses for video footage of the war.

I didn’t intend to spend so much time writing about this MTV report, but these discussions of amateur war footage have been on my mind quite a bit this week, in part because of the number of videos that have been posted to YouTube documenting the effects of the rockets and bombs falling on Israel and Lebanon, most recently in this Washington Post article by Sara Kehaulani Goo, which offers a nice overview of the debate about the issues at stake regarding the “citizen journalism” being practiced by YouTube users.

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War Documentary Links

With the release of Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes, James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, and MTV’s Iraq Upoladed, as well as the number of YouTube videos and blog entries documenting the effects of bombings in Haifa and Beirut, questions about representing the war are gaining renewed attention over the last several days. I’ve been planning to write this entry (or something similar) for several days but haven’t been able to get my thoughts together.

First, I found Ana Marie Cox’s Time article on Iraq dcumentaries interesting as a framing device for thinking about how digital and online media have shaped the reception of the war, with Cox calling the Iraq War “the first YouTube War.” Starting with a discussion of The War Tapes, which is being billed as the first documentary about the war filmed by soldiers fighting in it, Cox observes that the soldiers’ videos offer a relatively grim depiction of the war. She then points to te number of videos posted by soldiers on YouTube and other video hosting services, observing that these videos offer “an even grimmer reality” as they attempt to make sense of the war. Cox’s article pointed me to an MTV documentary, Iraq Uploaded that I missed the first time around (hopefully I’ll catch it soon–the next scheduled screening is Tuesday at 10:30 AM). Cox argues that while many of these videos offer an “unvarnished” depiction of the war, they lack the context for interpreting the depicted events.

MTV’s article on Iraq Uploaded offers an interesting overview of the documentary, drawing explicit connections between the subjective camera of many of these digital videos and the first-person shooter video games that have become a widely discussed feature of contemporary culture (if only to blame the games for promoting violent behavior). In fact, Marine Scott Lyon reports that many soldiers rigged hands-free cameras so that they could shoot all the time, noting that one soldier’s helmet camera “helped him catch more intense footage, because you don’t have to stop and put the camera down. I just think it captures things people want to see.” From what I can tell in teh article, it appears that many of the people viewing these videos are soldiers themselves, manyof whom are attempting to make sense of their experiences of the war, often weeks or months after they have returned from a tour over there.

There’s also an article in The Economist about Iraq docs (thanks to GreenCine Daily for the tip), describing a second generation of Iraq documentaries focusing on the experiences of Iraqis living with the effects of war, many of which use cinema verite techniques, with the filmmakers working to make themselves invisble. The article argues that the “first generation” of Iraq documentaries, such as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland focused primarily on the experiences of soldiers while more recently journalists and filmmakers have turned their attention to the experiences of Iraqi civilians. The article doesn’t mention two very good early documentaries, Sinan Antoon’s About Baghdad and Hayder Jaffar’s The Dreams of Sparrows, but it’s a good introduction to some of the more recent war documentaries to emerge.

Finally, I learned from George while we were chatting about this NYT article about “online war diaries.” The article describes Galya Daube’s jittery, first-person video as she rushed to her family’s bomb shelter, with air raid sirens blaring loudly. There are a number of similar videos of Haifa residents hiding in bomb shelters, making phone calls to family members, and waiting for the bombings to subside. Similar footage has been posted by residents of Beirut, depicting their experiences of being bombed by the Israelis. But we also see footage such as this video taken on a trip to a Beirut McDonalds several days into the most recent fighting, with the video functioing in part as an archive for a city that has seen several sections completely demolished but also as a way of putting a more human face on the civilian victims of the violence (it also stands in stark contrast to this more recent video footage, which depicts downtown Beirut just over a week later, the city a virtual ghost town on a warm summer night).

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Monday Morning Times Reads

The New York Times has two interesting articles about film production and promotion. First, Scott Kirsner’s article on the increasing use of digital cameras in Hollywood films. Kirsner points out that many filmmakers, including Steven Speilberg and M. Night Shyamalan continue to insist that they’ll only shoot on celluloid, and many cinematographers still prefer film when it comes to subtle lighting differences. But other filmmakers, including Michael Mann (Collateral and Miami Vice) claim to prefer the look of digital, while Dean Devlin, currently filming a World War I pic, notes that he was able to film “for nearly an hour during airborne dogfight sequences.” Nothing particularly new here, but I’m interested in tracking the ongoing transition from celluloid to digital.

Also worth checking out: Alex Mindlin’s article on film promotion and internet buzz. It’s a relatively brief article outlining the research of assistant professor of marketing Yong Liu, who argues that “movies that generated many messages in a given week tended to have high box-office receipts the week after, and movies with much prerelease buzz did well over all.” Liu reached these conclusions by looking at over 12,000 messages posted on the Yahoo movies dicussion boards. Perhaps Liu’s most important point is that the content of the messages mattered less than the number of messages. I’ll be curious to read Liu’s article when it comes out, although I’m more interested in the specifics of “buzz” and the degree to which these online discussions function for audiences.

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Manhattan, Kansas

During one of the final scenes of Tara Wray’s observant autobiographical documentary, Manhattan, Kansas (IMDB), Tara’s mother, Evie, seeking forgiveness for being an irresponsible parent or simply trying to understand herself, tells her daughter, “The past is over.” Of course, as William Faulkner reminds us and as Wray’s film illustrates, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” The scene, for me, underscores the ways in which Manhattan, Kansas offers a fresh and understated consideration of the concepts of family and home through its unblinking look at the strained relationship between Wray and her mother.

Manhattan, Kansas focuses on Tara’s attempts to reconcile with her mother after rarely speaking to or seeing her for over six years. Raised exclusively by her mother (Tara reports that she never met her father until she was 21), Tara accepts her mother’s eccentricities as normal, but gradually becomes estranged when her mother’s eccentric behavior crosses a line and becomes increasingly erratic and potentially dangerous, with Evie threatening at one point to drive their car into a river, killing them both. Because Evie is never diagnosed with a psychological disorder, Tara notes that it remains difficult to describe or even understand their relationship. Is her mother an eccentric rebel whose behavior constitutes her best response to a confining status quo that included a strict Mormon upbringing? Or is she bi-polar or manic depressive and in need of medication? While these questions are never clearly answered by the film, they do underline the ways in which having a language for talking about a relationship (or a psychological ailment) can help us to understand it. And when Tara confesses from under the covers of her bed on her first night in Kansas, a kitten crawling on her shoulders, that she and her mother “had a semi-normal conversation,” it illustrates that self-doubt one might have when dealing with a mentally ill parent.

As we learn early in the film, Tara and her mother have been estranged for several years, ever since Tara left her home in Manhattan, Kansas, to attend a study abroad program in Finland and eventually to settle in New York City, where she works at NYU. During an early monologue, Tara speculates that she often feels as if she should have been raised in Manhattan, New York, instead of the Kansas city of the same name (which often refers to itself as “The Little Apple” in a self-aware nod to the more famous city of the same name), that her small studio apartment in New York feels more like home than where she actually grew up, living in twenty or so apartments and houses over the first twenty years of her life. Tara’s appraisal of the stability offered by her life in New York touches upon some questions I’ve been rethinking lately, both professionaly and personally, about the ways in which we define home (and perhaps, how our homes define us).

Central to this question of defining home is Evie’s desire to locate the Geodetic Center of the United States, the point form which all measurements of the United States are taken, a virtually invisible site situated on a ranch near Hunter, Kansas. For Evie, the Geodetic Center represents an opportunity at reconciliation for herself and perhaps even a broader reconciliation with the US itself. While this reconciliation takes an unexpected turn I won’t reveal here, I think it touches on the mother’s eccentricties but also, potentially, her far less direct search for home. And while some of the scenes featuring Evie emphasize how her eccentricities and mental illness might negatively affect her daughter (Tara comments severl times that she felt like the parent in their relationship), scenes such as the visit to the Geodetic Center also illustrate Evie’s often wry humor and her awareness of their complicated relationship, and it’s important to note that during several key scenes, Tara and her mother are able to share laughs at the warped world around them.

Because of my interest in autobiographical documentary and the use of home video in documentary, I’ve been curious to see Manhattan, Kansas ever since I first heard about it over a year ago when it was still in production, and while Wray’s film makes extensive use of brief home video clips and family photographs, it’s Wray’s ability to show how those images of family haunt the present that I found most compelling. While watching home movies with Evie’s sisters, Tara remarks at the footage of her dressed in boy’s clothing, her hair often cut like a boy’s as well. Fascinated by this forgotten image of herself, Tara expresses wonder that she would have wanted to dress that way. Other photographs and home movie footage depict an apparently happy mother-daughter relationship, one that may or may not have reflected Tara and Evie’s actual experience. There’s even a nice self-conscious touch here when Tara’s aunt comments in passing that watching home movies is “boring,” allowing the aunt to admit for the film that perhaps that looking into the quotidian experiences of others isn’t always exciting.

Like Scott Weinberg, I admired Wray’s low-key, introspective approach to this material. Unlike many autobiographical documentaries, Wray is careful to question her own motives for turning her mother into a public figure, admitting at one point her guilt at potentially expoliting her mother for the sake of a documentary. But I also think that what Weinberg calls the “smallness” of Wray’s story is quite deceptive in that Manhattan, Kansas is dealing with some big ideas, taking the “home movie” documentary genre and asking us to rethink our concepts of home and family in some fairly profound ways.

Manhattan, Kansas received an Audience Award at South by Southwest and will be playing here in the Carolinas in the Southern Circuit film series. It will be playing in New York as part of the Independents Night film series sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center on August 10.

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Austin in October

Just found out that I’ve been accepted to the Flow Conference 2006, organized by the editors of Flow, the online critical forum dedeicated to TV and media culture. I’ll be on the “Participatory Political Cultures” roundtable and am very much looking forward to the conference, in part because many of the scheduled roundtables intersect with work that I find interesting.

I mention this news here mostly because I’m guessing that one or two of my readers may be planning to attend, and I’d enjoy meeting up at the conference. Also, if you have suggestions for places to go (restaurants, bars, whatever) when I’m in Austin, the weekend of October 26-29, I’d welcome those, too (especially if those suggestions will help me to dodge all the families in town for Parents Weekend at the university).

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Why I Don’t Watch DVDs Anymore

Interesting Wall Street Journal article by Matt Phillips arguing that Netflix may be altering people’s DVD habits, noting that the constant availability of Netflix DVDs may actually be leading to DVDs sitting on people’s shleves (or in their queues) for weeks or months without being watched. As Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of culture and communication at New York University, describes it, it’s “a paradox of abundance,” something that I’ve experienced over the last year as I’ve uncomfortably tried to adjust to using Netflix rather than renting movies from an independently-owned video store.

To be fair, I’m still watching a lot of movies, but for whatever reason, that is happening less often on DVD. I’ve found that when I rented from video stores, it was much easier to gauge what kind of film I’d like to see, and the late fees, even if they were relatively minimal, were punitive enough to motivate me to watch and return movies quickly. I’ll be curious to see how that changes now that I’m in F’ville and have less access to the art house and indie movie scenes in Atlanta and DC, but so far, I’ve been ambivalent about using the video service.

Among other notable observations, Phillips points to an experiment described by Daniel Read, George Lowenstein, and Shobana Kalyanaraman, in which subjects were asked to choose from a list of 24 movies what they’d like to rent. When choosing movies to watch immediately, subjects were more likely to choose “low-brow” action or comedy films, but when asked what movies they’d like to see in the future, many subjects would choose “high-brow” films (I need to read the full article to find out how “low-brow” and “high-brow” were defined). To some extent, these results do reflect my current Netflix practice, with my Netflix queue ambitiously loaded with films I ought to see or TV series (namely The Time Tunnel) that I need to watch for my research. But potential access to these films and TV shows makes it easier to delay seeing them, and many of the DVDs that do make it to my apartment collect dust for weeks and occasionally months (I think my personal record is having a DVD collect dust for three months before I gave up and returned it).

The WSJ is a pretty good overview of the topic, and it has the added bonus of a quote from Girish on his Netflix habits.

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Pirates and Snakes and Critics

I’ve been thinking about A.O. Scott’s New York Times article on the disparity between the tastes of film reviewers and film audiences, a distinction measurable in part by the box office success of The DaVinci Code and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, both of which were critically panned. Scott is picking up on a topic of much discussion in blogworld this summer, perhaps most notably in Andrew Horbal’s Blogcritics essay, which also stands as a review of Philip Lopate’s anthology of American film criticism since the silent era. Scott’s essay has remained on my radar in part because it relies so heavily on an opposition between the “elite” professional reviewer and the “populist” film fan who celebrates the experience of going to the movies.

It’s worth noting that Scott’s reading of the disparity between the taste film reviewers and the average filmgoer is probably overstated. Pointing to the critics’ grades for Pirates, Scott points out that Metacritics averages critics’ grades at 52 (now 53) while Rotton Tomatoes averages out at 54, reading these scores as critics giving the film an F, even with “grade inflation.” In fact, a quick glance at Metacritics’ explanation of their scoring system would place Pirates’ grade closer to C-level (pardon the truly awful pun). Further, while Scott acknowledges that box office success does not contradict “negative critical judgment,” he doesn’t extend the same logic to the average moviegoer. While Pirates has been filling theaters and selling popcorn, sheets, towels, and action figures, its IMDB users’ grade is a relatively average 7.5 on a 10-point scale, hardly the territory of The Godfather or Citizen Kane, to name two IMDB faves.

I think Scott is right to note that film reviewers are sometimes precariously placed (or place themselves) between a Hollywood studio system that warrants suspicion and a “populist” desire among audiences to particpate in the “happy communal experience” of experiencing the latest summer blockbuster the weekend it debuts, but I also wonder if Scott is too quick to dismiss the pleasures of this form of participation. While I will admit to a degree of art house and indie snobbishness, I readily and enthusiastically participate in a smaller-scale version of this “happy communal experience” when I’ve attended the debuts of An Inconvenient Truth or Fahrenheit 9/11 or movie events such as Silverdocs or even MoveOn.org sponsored screenings of the latest Robert Greenwald doc. Scott argues that studios “spend tens of millions of dollars to persuade you that the opening of a movie is a public event, a cultural experience you will want to be part of.” As my comments suggest, audiences have already accepted that movie openings are public events, something to be shared communally, which means that studios are doing something else when they spend those promotional dollars (in fact, I’d argue that Scott gets rather dangerously close to asserting that filmgoers are cultural dupes fooled into seeing a film because of a few flashy previews).

So, I think it’s worth thinking more carefully about what precisely is being “bought” when moviegoers pay to see a film on opening night. To be fair, I do think that studio marketing efforts are far from benign, and to a great extent, these marketing efforts are designed to persuade audiences to commodify these public events, the “happy communal experiences” described by Scott. I don’t think that makes someone who buys a Pirates t-shirt or DVD a cultural dupe. Instead, I would be interested in thinking about what kinds of public, communal experiences are being “sold” when we participate in these blockbuster events.

The elephant in the screening room that Scott fails to mention is Snakes on a Plane, and while not everything that’s happened this summer can be tied back to Samuel L. Jackson, I think that the Snakes phenomenon is perhpas the best recent illustration of what I’m thinking about. While New Line has rather cleverly redirected its marketing campaign for Snakes, it has tapped into the alienation from the studio system that many audience memebers have felt recently, allowing film fans to feel like participants in the making of the film rather than mere passive viewers, a sensibility reflected in the Snakes parodies and trailer mashups that are already cropping up on YouTube (including this great send-up not only of Snakes but Bono of U2 as well). And I think that’s an important part of the film, whether it’s a “good” film or not. In fact, it’s worth noting that New Line has decided not to screen Snakes for critics, taking the film “directly to audiences” and avioding the risk of negative reviews. In this sense, rather than reviewing films such as Pirates or Snakes or even An Inconvenient Truth as discrete objects that begin and end when the projector starts and stops, a film review methodology that takes into account these supplemental materials is what is needed.

Update: Check out Alex’s response to my entry. Alex points out that audience members generally arrive at theaters with a set of expectations that may vary from film to film (and may be as minimal as central air conditioning (which was certainly an incentive for me last summer when I lived in DC) or the lesser expectations associated with sequels.

Related: The cinetrix mentions a Film Comment editorial by Gavin Smith that addresses the ongoing conversation about professional and amateur film critics (I can’t find the actual editorial–maybe I’m missing something, but I was up awfully late last night).

Also related and just a little lame: Kevin Smith takes on the critics, booting Scott Foundas and David Poland out of critics’ screenings of Clerks 2. Poland apparently inspired Smith’s wrath because of an off-hand comment about the writer-director’s calves he made six years ago. In the comments to Poland’s entry, there is a good discussion of the ways in which blogs and gossip websites have made these kinds of scandals more public. But Smith’s concern about the getting good buzz for Clerks 2 smells mildly desperate to me.

Update to End All Updates: Peet’s not-so-subtle commentary on evaluative film criticism desrves the final word around here.

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Introducing MediaCommons

As many of my readers will know, Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Planned Obsolescence has been working with the Institute for the Future of the Book on the possibilities for and implications of electronic scholarly publishing, including the potential for new modes of peer review and possibilities for interaction among scholars and texts. After some discussion, they have devised a draft proposal of a “scholarly network” in which media studies scholars can “write, publish, review, and discuss, in forms ranging from the blog to the monograph, from the purely textual to the multi-mediated, with all manner of degrees inbetween.” This scholarly netwrok, MediaCommons, looks like a promising resource for media studies scholarship, and I hope other academic bloggers will particpate in this scholarly network.

The focus on media studies scholarship makes a lot of sense (and I’d say that even if I wasn’t a media studies scholar), in part because scholars in that field often explore in their research the very technologies that this network will use. And as KF points out, electronic publishing can be valuable for media studies scholars who need “to quote from the multi-mediated materials they write about” (something I’ve discovered in my writing on new media).

I think I’m most enthusiastic about this project, however, because it focuses on the possibilities of allowing academics to write for audiences of non-academics and strives to use the network model to connect scholars who might otherwise read each other in isolation. As Kathleen points out,

Most universities provide fairly structured definitions of the academic’s role, both as part of the institution’s mission and as informing the criteria under which faculty are hired and reviewed: the academic’s function is to conduct and communicate the products of research through publication, to disseminate knowledge through teaching, and to perform various kinds of service to communities ranging from the institution to the professional society to the wider public. Traditional modes of scholarly life tend to make these goals appear discrete, and they often take place in three very different discursive registers. Despite often being defined as a public good, in fact, much academic discourse remains inaccessible and impenetrable to the publics it seeks to serve.

My initial enthusiasm for blogging grew out of a desire to write for audiences wider than my academic colleagues, and I think this is one of many arenas where MediaCommons can provide a valuable service. In addition to writing for this wider audience, I have met a number of media studies scholars, filmmakers, and other friends, and my thinking about film and media has been shaped by our conversations.

Be sure to read Kathleen’s full post about the goals for MediaCommons, available at both Planned Obsolescence and the Institute for the Future of the Book blogs. This looks like an incredibly cool idea, and I look forward to particpating and hope others will as well.

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