Archive for October, 2006

Lost in Austin

I had the cool opportunity of attending the first ever Flow Conference, sponsored by the University of Texas Department of Rado-Television-Film (RTF), this past weekend. The conference organizers did a fantastic job of taking advantage of RTF’s industry connections, sponsoring a special screening of a couple of virtually unseen TV pilots, which were shown at the Alamo Drafthouse, a local theater that serves beer and snacks while screening art house, indie, and cult films, which is about as close as it gets to paradise for me.

In addition to those perks, the conference itself was an interesting–and mostly successful–experiment. Instead of panels featuring three or four scholars reading twenty-minute papers, the Flow panels placed emphasis on dialogue, with panelists submitting short 1-2 page position papers in advance of the conference that were designed to provoke conversation. The panelists would begin a roundtable by briefly summarizing their position papers, followed by an extended discussion of the panel topic. The result was a much more energetic and lively conference, with many of the conversations continuing long after the panels themselves had concluded.

Because my blogging software was malfunctioning over weekend, I didn’t get a chance to blog any of the panels, but Tim Anderson liveblogged many of the panels including my own and two panels I wish I coudl have attended, including panels on Technologies of Transport and Communication and Television as ‘Cultural Center’ in an Age of Audience. Oh, and the “New Technologies” Panel I missed because of a four-hour detour my flight took through Beaumont, Texas, because of delays at the Houston airport.

Also worth checking out, Kathleen liveblogged her own panel on Academic Publishing in the Digital Age, where this humble blog even scored a brief mention and her liveblogging of the “Watching Television Off Television” panel, which I also wish I could have attended.

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Should I Stay Blair Remix

I’ll have a longer post about the Flow Conference later this afternoon, but for now a quick pointer to the latest political video mashup: Tony Blair’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Thanks to Alterman for the pointer.

While I’m blogging, I also wanted to mention this New York Times article on the reception of serialized dramas such as Lost and The Nine. More on the article later if I’m caught up with some other work.

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Death of a President in Durham

I just found out that the controversial mockumentary, Death of a President is playing in Durham this week at the Carolina Theatre. The film follows a fictional assassination of President Bush in October 2007, mixing archival footage and the fictional story of the assassination. I’ll be in Autsin all weekend for a conference, but I am incredibly curious to see the film, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will play for more than a week. Just out of curiosity: have any of my readers seen DoaP? If so, what did you think?

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The Formula

Via both GreenCine and Vince Keenan, a discussion of Malcolm Gladwell’s October 16 New Yorker article, “The Formula,” in which Gladwell describes a computer program designed to predict hit movies using a system called an “artificial neural network.” As Gladwell explains it

Neural networks are used for data mining — to look for patterns in very large amounts of data.

Essentially, Hollywod screenplays would be treated as mathematical formulas, using elements isolated by the programmers to predict with uncanny accuracy the box office for a given film. They can even predict the box office benefits of adding a youthful sidekick or a romance subplot.

The article’s case study, Sydney Pollack’s UN thriller, The Interpreter, is a relatively persuasive example, in part because of the number of rewrites involved. As we learn from the article, the final film diverges radiacally from the original screenply, written by retired philsophy professor, Charles Randolph. The computer program did conclude that the rewrites made The Interpreter a more profitable film, but as screenwriter Scott Frank points out, it’s not entirely clear whether the revisions made for a “better” film. And it’s also not clear whether Pollack could have made an even more profitable film. Some of the suggested improvements do make a great deal of sense: Pollack could have made better use of the locations in the United Nations building. The fictional African nation where the plot began may have confused and turned off certain audience members.

I don’t know that I can offer more than a quick reading of the Gladwell article right now, but it’s difficult not to read it as anything other than an advertisement for Epagogix, the company founded by the two men who designed the software. I’m also more than a little skeptical of their reduction of the Hollywood marketing machine to various, sometimes arbitrary, plot formulas. At one point, a member of the Epagogix team confesses that he had no interest in seeing V for Vendetta because of the main character’s mask, not really acknowledging the significance of the mask to the graphic novel on which the film is (loosely) based. That being said, I’m not entirely sure there’s anything terribly new here other than the specifics of the formula (which the article doesn’t entirely reveal, of course). I need to think about the article for a while before I come to any real conclusions about it, but the article is a provocative read, especially for those of us in media and film studies.

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Before I Forget…

Still in full scramble mode, but I didn’t want to lose track of KF’s discussion of the NITLE (National Institute for Technology and Liberal Eductaion) symposium on Learning Management Systems. Because I’ll teaching a graduate seminar this spring on almost precisely this topic, her discussion of the symposium looks very helpful.

I’m hoping I can get back to a normal blogging schedule after I get back from the Flow Conference in Austin this weekend, but this semester has been unusually busy.

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Channeling Howard Beale

Scrambling to finish up some writing projects this weekend, but I just wanted to mention a short column I published on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip for Flow, an online journal focusing on television and media studies. I’d appreciate any comments about the column either here or at the Flow website.

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Tuesday Night Links

Fighting and/or recovering from a cold, so blogging may continue to be light for the next few days. I caught Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep the other night and very much liked it. Hoping to write a longer review later this week, but for now, check out Steven Shaviro’s review essay on the film.

Via GreenCine: the news that Douglas Coupland (of Generation X and Microserfs fame) will be writing a new science-fiction series, Everything’s Gone Green. And also via GreenCine, a pointer to David Bordwell’s blog, which I’ve been meaning to follow for some time.

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Anytown, USA

Kristian Fraga and Juan Dominguez’s Anytown, USA (IMDB) is a compelling campaign documentary following the 2003 race for mayor in the small town of Bogota, New Jersey, a small New York City suburb in Bergen County. The race takes place against the backdrop of unpopular budget cuts that threaten the local high school football team, with many locals resolving to see the current mayor booted from office. The race features the unpopular, fiscally conservative Republican, Steve Lonegan, a reluctant Democratic candidate, Fred Pesce, and a last-minute write-in candidate, David Musikant, a former captain of the football team who, like the mayor, is legally blind. The quirky characters and the depiction of smalltown life have compelled many critics to compare Anytown, USA to Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries (perhaps most notably Waiting for Guffman), but I found myself keying on the film’s relevance to the upcoming midterm elections and the ongoing debates about how elections are conducted, with the film reminding me of Frank Popper’s must-see doc, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?, and, to a much lesser extent, the insider doc, The War Room.

The film opens just a few weeks before the 2003 election during a city council meeting in which Bogota residents criticize Mayor Lonegan’s budget cuts, with Lonegan responding in typically pompous fashion, showing the degree to which the community is politically polarized. Entering the fray is Frank Pesce, a longtime local politician who reluctantly enters the race at the request of the local Democratic Party. While Lonegan runs a tight, organized campaign, Pesce’s campaign is inept and lazy by comparison. Compared with Lonegan’s colorful fliers and mock newspaper featuring thinly-veiled campaign propaganda (“The Bogotian”), Pesce’s campaign material appears cheap and lazy. Sensing an opportunity to make a difference in the race, Musikant enters the race as an independent, hoping to ride the wave of anti-Lonegan sentiment into office.

Initially, Musikant’s campaign struggles to get off the ground. At first, Musikant is running his entire campaign by himself, making calls from the basement of his sister’s home (where he lives) and struggling to read messages off of a giant computer monitor. When he contacts Doug Friedline, the campaign manager who helped Jesse Ventura get elected governor of Minnesota, he reluctantly admits that he doesn’t have a webmaster and hasn’t printed campaign t-shirts (among campaign basics). Friedline, excited to take on the challenge of helping elect an independent candidate, offers to help Musikant, and his campaign begins to take off, and gradually, Musikant becomes a more viable candidate with a more professional polish. In a creative and humorous touch, Musikant even employs a “pencil” mascot to remind voters that he is a write-in candidate.

While it would have been easy to play this smalltown mayor’s race for cheap laughs, however, Fraga and Dominguez instead demonstrate remarkable generosity towards their subjects. As a result, they gain remarkable access to the political candidates. Lonegan, who has become a major player in statewide New Jersey politics, is refreshingly blunt about his campaign tactics and his condescending attitude towards his political opponents, while Musikant comes across as a gentle, almost naive, figure, a local football hero who can still charm many of the locals. While Pesce is less developed, he is often surprisingly honest about his motivations (or lack of motivation) during the election.

Ultimately, the filmmakers use Bogota as a microcosm of current electoral politics, allowing the small, politically-divided New Jersey suburb to stand in for the nation as a whole. But while it’s tempting to see Musikant’s third-party candidacy as an allegory for Ralph Nader’s ill-advised 2000 election run, I think the more interesting reading is one that focuses on the actual work involved in political campaigns (and I think that Matt Zoller Seitz is correct o point out that Anytown, thankfully, is not merely a facile condemnation of a broken system”). The film uses as an epigraph Tip O’Neill’s famous maxim that “all politics is local.” And I think the film conveys that very effectively. Musikant begins gaining ground when he goes door-to-door, shaking hands with the voters and talking with them about the issues. At the same time, we see the dark side of many campaigns (candidates spread rumors about the health of their political rivals; candidates’ yard signs are ferquently torn down; and Lonegan uses his newspaper to report the “facts,” at least as his party interprets them). In short, Anytown, USA offers an important, refreshing, and sometimes humorous glimpse into local political campaigns and their implications for the communities where they take place.

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Quick Fall Break Update

FSU’s fall break began today, so here’s a quick update on what I’ve been doing the last few days:

  • First, I used the start of fall break as an excuse to drive up to the Triangle and catch the latest installment of Michael Apted’s “Up” series, 49 Up (my first visit to the very cool Carolina Theater). The “Up” series began with 7 Up in 1964, in which several British children were interviewed regarding their views about the world. The filmmakers have returned every seven years to receive updates from many of the participants. In this version, I was fascinated to see how many of the subjects discussed the “difficulty” of participating and their ambivalent relationship with the process of revisiting their lives every seven years in such a public forum. More later, but if you have a chance, I’d highly recommend seeing it.
  • From there, I drove across the Triangle to Chapel Hill to catch Built to Spill in concert at Cat’s Cradle, with Camper van Beethoven opening. A very good show, but I got terribly lost on the way home, driving down the darkest, loneliest two-lane roads I’ve ever seen in a terrible driving rainstorm. The result: Wednesday was a very late night, even for me (I didn’t get home until around 4 AM).
  • In other news, somebody “keyed” my car in the FSU parking lot. I’d be angry about it, but my car’s paint job was already awful (from some repair work my father did when one of my parents wrecked the car a few years ago), plus the vandal misspelled the curse word they tried to carve into my car’s hood (I’ll try to get a picture tonight), which made the whole thing sort of funny.
  • Also, if you’re local to Fayetteville, there is a drinking liberally event tonight at Huske Hardware from 7-9 PM. Hope to see you there.

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No Joke

This story is a few days old (and probably not terribly surprising), but I just wanted to mention Indiana University professor Julia R. Fox’s study that concludes that The Daily Show is just as substantive as nightly network news. The article is set to appear this summer in the Journal of Broadcast and Electronic Media (via Jim Emerson’s Scanners, where an interesting discussion of TDS and Colbert takes place).

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Academic Wiki-Blogroll

Just a quick pointer for now to Henry Farrell’s wiki-driven blogroll, spun off from the old Crooked Timber academic blogroll (via Chris at Category D). I share Chris’s reservations about some of the categories used to classify academic blogs, especially when it comes to film and media studies blogs (mine is housed in the Humanities section under “Culture, Theory and Literature,” while Chris’s Category D is housed under “Media and Communication” in the Professional and Useful Arts section). But the wiki-blogroll is a useful tool for sifting through the growing number of academic blogs and for thinking about the role of academic blogging as a kind of alternative university where some very interesting conversations about our profession are taking place.

The wiki also includes links to articles on academic blogging, as well as research on blogs, some of which may be useful for the course I’m planning to teach this spring.

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Spring Teaching (Already)

I’ve just received the very cool news that I’ll be teaching my first graduate-level course in the spring (in addition to the anticipated three sections of freshman composition), one that will present some interesting challenges for me. The course, “Technology and the Language Arts Curriculum,” is designed for teachers seeking their M.Ed. in English education, and as the course catalog suggests, the class is expected to focus on emerging media technologies and their effectiveness as pedagogical tools, with one of the goals being the production of a syllabus for a “computer intensive language arts course.”

So far, I’m only in the very earliest stages of brainstorming about what such a course should look like. Because I have quite a bit of experience with using blogs in the classroom, we’ll certainly discuss how blogs can be used in writing classes (something that went particularly well in my Rhetoric and Democracy course a few years ago, a course that also taught me a lot about teaching in a computer classroom). I’m also thinking about setting up a course wiki, which will (hopefully) introduce them to the possibilities and challenges of using wikis in their classrooms. Finally, I’m also hoping to spend some time working with my students on how they might set up video projects for their students (and to discuss the questions that such projects raise). There are some challenges here–including the availability of equipment–but it seems like it could be a fun class to teach.

Hoping to have more to say about the course in the next several days, but I still have one last round of grading tonight and I need to stop procrastinating.

Update: Forgot to mention that I’ll almost certainly discuss pedagogical uses of iPods and podcasting in general, but I don’t want podcasting to be considered merely a form of (course) content delivery. Still brainstorming. Must grade.

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Thursday Morning Film Links

With midterm grades due in the next few days, I’m in the last days of a grading marathon, which is why I’ve been pretty much invisible in Blogland lately. But David at GreenCine pointed to a few links I don’t want to lose.

First, Jeannette Catsoulis’s New York Times article on a new documentary, …So Goes the Nation, which offers a “clear-eyed and utterly ruthless dissection of the battle for Ohio in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election.”

Second, I also wanted to point to Anthony Kaufman’s review of Jesus Camp, published in In These Times. I’m still convinced that the film is unnecessarily polarizing, in part because it blurs the boundary between evangelicals and the Pentecostal group depicted at the camp. I’ve alredy written quite a bit about this doc, so I won’t repeat all of my arguments here, but I have been intrigued by the amount of discussion the film has received (AICN link via Daily Kos).

I’m hoping to finish my grading tonight, but I’m also finding that with a 4/4 teaching load and lots of publication dedlines looming, the one aspect of my life that is getting squeezed out is blogging. Hoping to get caught up soon.

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Eyes on the Prize Reminder

Just a quick reminder that PBS will be broadcasting Henry Hampton’s sweeping Civil Rights documentary, Eyes on the Prize starting Monday, October 2, at 9 PM, for the first time in over a decade (local listings may vary). The film had been unavailable on video and TV “because of expired copyright licenses,” including one poignant scene that featured a group of Martin Luther King, Jr’s freinds and supporters singing “Happy Birthday” to him (and, yes, “Happy Birthday” is copyrighted).

Also worth reading: The Washington Post had an article about a year ago about the long, difficult, and expensive task the filmmakers faced in re-acquiring copyright clearances for the documentary in perpetuity.

Update: Testing to see if the new location is working.

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