Archive for August, 2006

World Trade Center

Reviews of movies about the events of September 11 inevitably invoke questions of representation and timeliness. As A.O. Scott notes, these questions emerged almost immediately after the September 11 attacks, perhaps in part because of the massive scale of the events themselves, which “represented a movie scenario made grotesquely literal.” These questions have returned with the release of two major Hollywood films that attempt to represent the immediate experience of 9/11, often in excruciatingly narrow detail. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (IMDB), which focuses on two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who were trapped beneath the rubble of one of the towers until they were discovered by an ex-Marine, Dave Karnes (who eventually re-enlisted). Stone’s film follows their saga over the next twenty four hours, more or less, cross-cutting between the two police officers and their families who watch and wait helplessly.

A.O. Scott argues in his review that Stone’s film is “uncharacteristically” devoid of politics, focusing almost exclusively on the emotions of the two police officers and their families, but while the public figures most associated with the tragedy–George Bush and Rudy Giuliani–appear only briefly and often in the background, marginalized by the personal experiences of the family members who serve as the focus of the film, the reactions to the attacks seem to follow the narrative conventions most associated with the Bush administration narrative of the war on terror. As J. Hoberman observes, the responses to teh attacks feature a Sheboygan police officer calling the attackers, “bastards,” with another declaring that “we’re at war,” downplaying to some extent the immediate sense of grief and loss in comparison to the more militaristic response. This immediate response is ultimately channeled into a strangely uplifting narrative focusing on the rescue of two of teh twenty people pulled out alive from the rubble in which 2,700 people lost their lives. Hoberman describes this as the “Schindler’s List” approach to representing September 11, complete with the welling musical score and the edits that cut between the police officers and their wives, often mixing in flashbacks to tranquil domestic scenes before the attacks.

In this sense, Stone’s film stands in relative contrast to Paul Greengrass’ clinical, obsessive real-time re-enactment of the hijacking of United Flight 93, with as Stephanie Zacahrek points out, “is the kind of harrowing moviegoing experience that’s supposed to make us feel like better people for having suffered through it.” Like her, I found United 93 to be one of the most painful, punishing experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater, making Stone’s film perhaps the more compassionate of the two films, even if both conform, as Hoberman notes, “the narrative put forth by George W. Bush.”

But the point I want to address regarding World Trade Center and United 93 has less to dow ith reviewing the two films, and that is whether we actually need or want films that so obsessively reproduce the immediate experience of Septmebr 11. Zacharek addresses this question in her review, asking why we “need or want” these films, and after seeing both World Trade Center and United 93, I’m not sure that anyone has adequately answered this question. I’ve seen both films simply because, as someone who writes about and studies popular culture for a living, I felt obligated to weigh in on the films that attempt to tackle the important issues of the times, but the obsessive focus on 9/11 itself, as something outside of time, simply seems to concretize the power of that particular day over America’s definition of itself and its understanding of the events of the last five years. With the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks quickly approaching and the recent folied plot to blow up as many as ten trans-Atlantic flights, reception of Stone’s film has been framed by the renewed attention to terrorism. (and the degree to which this discussion centers around how the terror plot might affect the film’s box office seems just a bit trivial).

In this sense, I remain convinced that the best films “about” September 11 are those films such as Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and John Touhey’s September 12th that deal with its aftermath, with our attempts to live in the world after the attacks instead of obsessively revisiting and reliving the events of that horrible day.

Update: I wish I’d read Anthony Kaufamn’s AlterNet review before writing my own. I think he’s pretty much right about the entire film, particularly when it comes to the vapid depictions of New York City, complete with happy homeless people and Pena’s Latino police offcier singing along to Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America” while driving in to work. I do think that Kaufman is right that Hollywood representations of history reduce it, particulalry when it comes to such complex events as 9/11, but I wonder if these films consistently fail to connect with audeiences for precisely the reason that 9/11 resists such easy simplifications and reductions.

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Home Movies in Raleigh

Made the trip to Raleigh yetsreday to participate in their Home Movie Day 2006 screening event, sponsored in part by the AV Geeks, and very much enjoyed it. as the Home Movie Day website points out, home movies present an important problem for archivists and film scholars who are concerned with preserving these valuable windows into the past. Most home movies are simply sitting in boxes in basements or attics, in part because families have no way to watch these films because they don’t own a projector. I don’t have very many home movies, but I very much enjoyed watching family movies, some of which dated back to the 1930s (or possibly even the late 1920s) and using those films to see images of family and community life throughout the US over the last fifty or sixty years.

Many of the home movies were taken in the 1960s and ’70s, often centering on holidays and special occasions such as Christmas, weddings, and graduation ceremonies, allowing a glimpse not only into that individual family but also into the fashions and tastes of a middle-class, southern family in the 1960s, the decrations on the Christmas tree, the children’s toys and preents, and other remarkable details that might go unnoticed. Other films included home movies taken at Yankee Stadium in the 1930s, footage of a family picnic featuring the biggest lobster claw I’ve ever seen (the claw was nearly as big as someone’s head), a 1970s Taiwanese family eating sushi likely in a Manhattan restaurant, and some incredible black-and-white footage taken through the bottom of a glass-bottomed boat. But the phrase “home movie” can also be misleading in that much of the footage was taken on vacations or other locations that aren’t exactly home. It was interesting to watch as people tried to recall when and where footage was taken, and at the Raleigh screening, we had home movies filmed all over the world, from as far away as Taiwan, Australia, Indonesia, and Brazil, in some ways complicating any simple definition of home.

Home Movie Day also served as avaluable reminder of the effect of the various film stocks and cameras on what we saw. Alternating between Super-8, 8mmm, black-and-white, and color film with a veariety of lenses, these home movie screenings can also serve as a valuable illustration of the history of how families documented themselves and the kinds of products developed and sold by Kodak and other comapnies specializing in marketing cameras for the home market. Simply a cool event all around. I even won a DVD collection of eductaional films, The Modern Housewife, compiled by the AV Geeks.

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Friday Afternoon Film Notes

The ‘heders have had some technical difficulties over the last few days, but hopefully things are returning to normal now. Last night’s Deerhoof concert up in Chapel Hill was excellent, and I also liked Pleasant, the Chapel Hill-based band that opened for them. Pleasant’s sound reminded me quite a bit of Pavement, with the vocalist’s occasional use of falsetto recalling, for me at least, Ted Leo. But I really want to blog about some documentary news that crossed my radar this afternoon.

First, Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes (IMDB) will be coming to Fayetteville in the next few days. I’m slated to catch a special screening on Monday, but apparently, the film will officially open on Friday. To make The War Tapes, Scranton sought volunteers from Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Mountain Infantry, with 21 soldiers filming at least some material and five soldiers filming for an entire year. The final film features three of these soldiers, with Scranton directing by IM and email and eventually editing the footage into the film in collaboration with the soldiers themselves. When the soldiers returned stateside, Scranton also filmed over 200 hours of interview footage with them. I’ll be very interested to see the reception of the film here in F’ville, given the city’s relationship to Fort Bragg and Pope AFB and, of course, I have been looking forward to seeing the doc for some time. A number of bloggers, including Black Five and Joi Ito have already written about the film, so I’m looking forward to contributing to that conversation.

Now a few notes thanks to Green Cine Daily, starting with Kirby Dick’s petition to the MPAA requesting that it overhaul it’s secretive (and often arbitrary) ratings system. The petition is related to Dick’s documentary about ratings board practices, This Film is Not Yet Rated (blog).

Also intriguing: the documentary Anytown, USA, which, like Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, takes a much-needed look at how we go about electing people to office. And finally, there’s Helvetica a feature-length documentary about typography and graphic design. As the website points out these questions intersect with issues in media studies and urban studies.

Update: Entry edited to correct and clarify information about the making of The War Tapes.

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Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: Homefront

It’s Reading for Pleasure Wednesday again (okay, technically, it’s Thursday, again), and I just happened to pick up Catherine Lutz’s Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century, an urban anthropolgy about my new place of residence, Fayetteville, North Carolina, and its complicated relationship to Fort Bragg. Lutz’s book explores what she calls “the costs of being a country ever ready for battle” (2), and it has proven to be a good overview of the intertwined histories of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg. In some sense, I’m already learning a lot about this history simply by talking to locals, hanging out at coffeehouses and bars, and simply by driving through the city’s different neighborhoods, but given that I’ll be living here for a while, I think it’s worthwhile to learn as much as I can about the city’s culture and history. Lutz traces this history back to the origins of Fort Bragg during World War I and, in the chapter I’m currently reading, describes Cold War training operations that used civilians as mock enemies.

Lutz’s book beautifully mixes archival research, military records, and oral histories in providing a portrait of Fayetteville. As this review from the Quaker House Newsletter article and this Independent Weekly review indicate, the book was greeted with some controversy when it was originally published in 2001. I’m off to catch Deerhoof in concert, so I’ll have to revisit this topic later, but the book is a fascinating read even if you’re not specifically interested in Fayetteville itself but interested in what it represents as a “military city.” More on Homefront later.

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Media That Matters Revisited

I’m a little behind on this topic, but I happened to catch a report on CNN this morning about the Media That Matters Film Festival, which features short videos on a variety of important social and political topics (I had hoped to catch the festival when it played in DC). According to the festival website, the Media That Matters Film Festival presents a new collection of short videos every June (most run between five and ten minutes). The video featured on CNN, Kiri Davis’s “A Girl Like Me,” replicates a famous experiment from the 1950s in which African-American girls overwhelmingly showed a preference for white dolls over black ones, and as we see in the video these reactions have changed little, at least in Davis’s Harlem neighborhood. Davis was also profiled in the New York Daily News. My internet service at home has been haphazard, so I’ve only seen bits and pieces of Davis’s film, but the sequence featured on CNN was incredibly powerful.

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Documenting Cynthia

One of the documentaries I most regret missing at Silverdoc was American Blackout (IMDB) Ian Inaba’s documentary about Georgia’s embatteld Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. McKinney has been in the news recently in part due to her scuffle with a Capitol police officer in March (a grand jury declined to indict her), and because of a strong primary challenge by former DeKalb County commissioner Hank Johnson, but she has always been a polarizing figure in state and national politics because of her outspoken views on a number of topics. When I lived in Atlanta, I lived in McKinney’s district and while I voted against her in the 2002 Democratic primary, I have always appreciated her support for a number of progressive causes. Given that personal connection and my general interest in political documentary, I had hoped to catch American Blackout at Silverdocs.

For now, this New York Times article provides a nice overview of the role of documentary in shaping public opinion and possibly influencing elections. In the article Brenda Goodman notes that Blackout played at the Midtown 8, the major art house theater in Atlanta recently, and the movie has played at least a minor role in McKinney’s re-election campaign. I’m inclined here to agree with Michael Cornfield, who teaches political strategy and message at George Washington University, in thinking that while political documentaries may reinforce people’s feelings, it’s soemwhat more difficult to determine whether these documentaries actually translate into votes.

But it’s also worth noting that Blackout also focuses on the disenfranchisement of many black voters in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004, with reporter Greg Palast, among others, serving as a commentator, and if American Blackout can provoke a larger conversation about voter disenfranchisement, then I think it will be providing a valuable service.

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Home Movie Day 2006

As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m fascinated by home movies and other forms of amateur media. I can’t quite remember why, but I missed the annual Home Movie Day last year when I was living in DC, which always takes place on the second Saturday in August. This year’s event takes place on August 12, 2006, and there are home movie screenings scheduled throughout the United States, including ones in Raleigh and in Durham, one of which which I’m planning to attend. As the Raleigh-Durham website points out, home movies not only provide valuable records of individual families, but they can also offer valuable informtion about the communities and hometown where they were filmed. The Home Movie Day also raises important questions about preservation, challenging the notion that digital copies are inherently more stable and permanent than the original movies themselves.

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There’s the Rub

Via Sivacracy.net: a link to the Bush Backrub game, inspired by Bush’s impromptu and apparently unwelcome backrub of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, in which you move Bush behind various world leaders and give them backrubs to encourage them to think happy thoughts. If the “comfort levels” get too low, you lose.

As the folks at Water Cooler Games point out, there’s not much political content here, but it is a playful interpretation of Bush’s “performance” at the G8 Summit.

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Synthetic Actors

Via Blank Screen Media, a New York Times article about a new camera system to be unveiled at Siggraph that promises “to create compellingly realistic synthetic actors by capturing the facial movements of real actors in much greater detail than is currently possible.” The Contour camera system has already been embraced by David Fincher who plans to use it in his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” about a character who ages in reverse. The Contour system, I think, raises some interesting questions for how we define visual entertainment and what we’ll expect of it in the future.

According to the Times, the Contour system will allow filmmakers to transform the appearance of actors in the computer, making it possible for viewers to control the point of view, creating what is being called a form of “navigable entertainment.” Times reporter John Markoff goes on to write, “the Contour system requires actors to cover their faces and clothes with makeup containing phosphorescent powder that is not visible under normal lighting. In a light-sealed room, the actors face two arrays of inexpensive video cameras that are synchronized to simultaneously record their appearance and shape. Scenes are lit by rapidly flashing fluorescent lights, and the cameras capture light from the glowing powder during intervals of darkness that are too short for humans to perceive.”

As Grand Text Auto explains it, filmmakers get “an extremely high resolution digital model, photographed textures and motion capture of the actor’s face.” While the phosphorous powder cannot be used on certain body parts (on the eyes, inside the mouth), Contour is working on plastic teeth molds with embedded phosphor powder. Of course such a camera has clear implications for film production, making it possible for directors to digitally control camera angles. But the larger question is whether the technology will allow filmmakers to cross what Masahiro Mori, the Japanese robotics specialist, has called the “uncanny valley,” which describes the negative emotional responses people have when encountering robots and animated figures begin to very closely resemble humans (as the Times argues, some have attributed the negative responses to Tom Hanks’ Polar Express to this principle).

Andrew at GTA argues that the Contour system does nothing to cross the “uncanny valley of AI,” but one or two of the commenters have a slightly different reading. I don’t yet know enough about the Contour system, but it’s difficult for me not to feel some sense of loss whenever I read about a new “advance” in digital video technologies. I’m not terribly attached to recording on film, but as systems such as Contour develop, I have to wonder what kinds of narratives it will enable and what kind of stories will be supplanted by the new medium.

Cross-posted at Dr. Mabuse’s Kaleidescope.

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Lazy Heat Wave Links

I think the heat wave is making me lazy (it’s certainly making me sleepy), so here are two quick comments about things I’ve been planning to mention: First, it looks like Fayetteville, North Carolina will be getting its very own chapter of Drinking Liberally in the next few days. I really enjoyed the two DC groups quite a bit, and when a new friend here in town suggested we start a chapter here, it sounded like a great idea. I don’t think that many of my readers are from here in Fayetteville, but if you happen to come across this entry, be sure to check for updates on the main DL page or drop me an email. Right now, we’re planning to get things started by mid-August, with the hopes that everyone’s schedules will be returning to normal by then.

Second, for my readers who don’t read Green Cine Daily, I just wanted to mention that David’s “summertime quetsion” for me was posted today. Regular readers of my blog will probably not be surprised that he asked me to name the “documentary of the year” so far. I still stand by my response (I mentioned Black Sun as my favorite thus far) , but of course I can think of several others I wish I’d listed. The documentary that has been bringing the most traffic to my site recently is Jesus Camp, which focuses on an evangelical camp for kids, and given the doc’s treatment of the mix between religion and politics, I think it may provoke some interesting discussions in the months to come.

Update: Speaking of Drinking LIberally, I just got an email notice that the DC Drinking Liberally Thursday group will be hosting a preview screening Sundance’s new documentary series, The Hill, which is set in the office of Florida Congressman Robert Wexler (Dem), and depicts the professional and personal lives of many of Wexler’s staffers. Several of The Hill’s subjects will be attending the preview screening, which is set for tonight (Thursday) from 6:30-9 at Timberlake’s, 1726 Connecticut Ave NW. Now that I’m no longer in DC, I guess I’ll have to wait until the TV premiere on August 23, but The Hill looks like really compelling TV.

Update 2: I’ve been getting tons of hits lately from people looking for information on or reviews of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary Jesus Camp, in part (I’m guessing) because of the recent controversy over whether the film would be playing at Michael Moore’s Travese City Film Festival. Originally it was implied that Jesus Camp distributors, Magnolia Pictures, had decided to pull the film, but Cinematical, among others, is reporting that Magnolia merely requested the film be pulled and Moore denied the request. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that viewers are significantly more likely to dismiss the film as “liberal” because of the association with Moore’s festival, and in fact, this controversy may even bring a larger audience to the film. Once again, I’m very curious to see how the publicity surrounding a film will ultimately shape its reception.

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Marking Time

Girish has asked film bloggers to participate in an “Avant-Grade Blog-A-Thon,” and his entry on Joseph Cornell, concluding with a long list of participants, has me feeling guilty for not contributing. Many of my readers will know that I’ve written in the past on Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, but like many Marker fans, I first discovered him via Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, which was “inspired by” Marker’s amazing short film, La Jetee, a 28-minute black-and-white post-apocalyptic time-travel narrative composed (almost) entirely of stills. I read Marker’s film not only as a cautionary tale about the dangers of war in the age of nuclear weapons but also as a profound meditation on cinematic time, on the ways in which cinema itself can be read as a kind of time machine.

But while I could easily write at length about La Jetee’s treatment of time and memory, which manages to sweep in everything from fashions and city ruins to museums and Hitchock’s Vertigo, I continue to find myself asking definitional questions about the avant-garde and its place in a world in which MTV’s appropriation of avant-garde aesthetics now seems almost ancient, especially with the recent hoopla over MTV’s 25th anniversary, which has done little other than underscore the network’s declining relevance as a music industry institution. As I began writing this entry, I found myself returning to a blog entry Nick Rombes wrote some time ago on cinematic archives, noting the correspondences between shots in Meshes of the Afternoon and in the killer video in Gore Verbinki’s ultra-pop horror film (and I mean that in the best possible way), The Ring.

These intersections between commercial and avant-garde cinema are not entirely new. James Cameron riffs on Bunuel and Dali’s Un chien andalou when Schwarzenegger’s cyborg is forced to do some improvised eye-repair work, and The Ring takes its aesthetic not only from avant-garde film but also from visual artists such as Francis Bacon and David Hockney. But Twelve Monkeys’ reconsideration of its cinematic source continues to fascinate me, particularly during the scene set in the downtown theater in which Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe are hiding from the police while Vertigo plays onscreen. And, of course, Hitchcock himself was no stranger to the avant-garde, deploying animated images in Spellbound that were created by Salvador Dali. Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery namedrops Alain Resnais’ use of flashbacks in Last Year at Marienbad. The list goes on.

I need to get back to work on my article, but I’m having trouble formulating the question (or questions) I want to ask about these observations. I think there’s more going on in these citations of the avant-garde than mere appropriation. The “Vertigo” scene in Twelve Monkeys is incredibly rich, offering its very own theory of spectatorship and exhibition (it’s worth noting that Robert Harris and James Katz were hard at work on their restoration of Hicthcock’s original vision for Vertigo), and many of Verbinski’s citations have a similar effect. For now, perhaps I’ll simply ask if readers can recall other examples of commercial films citing, quoting, or otherwise referencing avant-garde cinema and, perhaps, how you interpret those intersections.

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Fall Teaching Topics

I’m still in the earliest stages of thinking about my freshman composition classes this fall. I know that the course will focus on digital media topics, but beyond that most basic framework and a few specific themes, I’m still thinking about specifics. With that in mind, I’ll likely be pointing to articles, blog entries, and online videos that seem to raise useful questions. Given that I’m teaching the section of composition that focuses on the research paper, I do think it’s worth spending some time discussing both the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia with my students, a topic that Alex addresses in some detail in relationship to Stephen Colbert’s coining of the term “wikiality,” although I think Alex’s more important point probably pertains to what he calls Wikipedia’s “lumpiness,” its tendency to place more emphasis on current events topics.

I’d also like to spend some time talking with my students about issues of copyright and YouTube offers an interesting case for discussion, as Bob Cringley points out (thanks to Agnes for the link). Cringly notes that while filmmakers who post to YouTube retain ownership of that material, YouTube’s license “explicitly gives them the right to do whatever they want with your video. They say they don’t have the rights to sell users’ content, but the wording says otherwise and there’s nothing in the license to prohibit them from doing so.” Cringley also speculates about why people feel compelled to post video to YouTube, a question I want to raise as well. I’m sure there isn’t an easy (or single) answer to this question, which will hopefully make it an interesting topic to address with students.

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Colbert and Composition

Summer “vacation” is quickly coming to an end, and with classes soon to begin, it’s time to start thinking and writing about teaching in higher education again. With that in mind, George has announced this year’s schedule of teaching carnivals where he explains the whole concept of the teaching carnival and how you can participate.

If you’re not sure what to write, George suggests a number of possible questions you might address, including a question about whether you’ll be doing anything differently in the classroom in the approaching academic year, a topic I plan to address as I make a transition between two very different student populations, although I’m hoping that my experiences teaching media studies this past year will inform my approach to freshman composition. I flaked out on a number of the carnivals last year, but I’m planning to contribute more consistently this time around.

Speaking of media studies, I continue to be amazed by The Colbert Report. The commentary about language and media is incredibly sharp. Last night’s “Word” sequence, in which Colbert coined the word “Wikiality” to describe the ways in which “anyone” can edit an entry to change the facts based on their whims (and, yes, I know that Wikipedia is more complicated than that). I happened to have my laptop nearby while watching Colbert, and within seconds (I believe before the end of the “wikiality” segment), the Colbert Report entry had been changed to reflect Colbert’s mention. Colbert’s “truthiness” won last year’s American Dialect Society Word of the Year. Wikiality might make it two years in a row. BTW, if anyone has the video on that segment, I’d love to have a link to it for my composition classes. It seems like a humorous way to remind students about the credibility of internet research.

Update: At least for now, it’s available on YouTube.

Update 2: While skimming some of the blog buzz on “wikiality,” I came across the news about Lewis Black’s planned series for Comedy Central called Red State Diaries, which also looks like a lot of fun.

Update 3: There’s an interesting overview of the controversy over “wikiality” at the No Fact Zone, a Colbert Report fan blog.

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