Archive for November, 2006

365 Films

Via the if:book blog: the incredibly cool news that experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas is planning to make a short video every day for a calendar year, beginning January 1, 2007, with the director stating that “It will be my diary of sorts.” The project will be formatted for the video iPod but will be viewable in other formats.

As a fan of Mekas’s films, I’m very much looking forward to watching this project unfold. Also worth checking out: Mekas now has a number of his films available online.

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Meme Participation: An Experiment

Collin’s post reminded me that I hadn’t yet participated in Scott Eric Kaufman’s call for participation in a blog meme experiment. Basically, Scott is conducting an experiment on the propogation of memes in the blogosphere as part of his research for a paper he’ll be delivering at MLA. Scott’s postulating that most memes are only “superficially organic” and that they actually gain momentum through publicity on “high-profile” blogs.

In order to measure the spread of memes, Scott is asking readers to do the following:

1. Write a post linking to this one in which you explain the experiment. (All blogs count, be they TypePad, Blogger, MySpace, Facebook, &c.)
2. Ask your readers to do the same. Beg them. Relate sob stories about poor graduate students in desperate circumstances. Imply I’m one of them. (Do whatever you have to. If that fails, try whatever it takes.)
3. Ping Techorati

Pretty simple stuff, and, yes, you’ll be helping a poor, possibly beleagured graduate student. Which is a pretty cool thing to do.

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Kopple on Counterspin

I’m still waiting for Barbara Kopple’s documentary about the Dixie Chicks, Shut Up and Sing, to make it to the ‘ville, but until then, here’s an audio interview with her on FAIR’s Counterspin series (note: the interview is about twenty minutes into the show).

Completely Unrelated Update: Just a quick pointer to this NYT article on DC’s new graphic novel series aimed at teenage girls. If you push aside some of the marketing hype, there’s an interesting discussion about the representation of women in most superhero comics, as well as their attempts to recruit writers for this new series.

Another Unrelated Update: Some Saturday video fun courtesy of David at GreenCine. First, this priceless video of Rex Reed talking about the Oscars with Dick Cavett in 1971. Second, the cool new blog Expanded Cinema, which curates some obscure and compelling avant-garde and experimental films.

Also, I’ve been planning to link to Girish’s very interesting post about the categorization of his massive VHS collection (related “VHS is Dead” post, in part because his comments helped inform my reading of Barbara Klinger’s discussion of video collections in her recent book, Beyond the Multiplex, but alas, I’ve been a little distracted lately.

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Media Studies and Fair Use

Some good news regarding media studies and fair use. According to an AP report, the US copyright office has just announced several new exemptions to copyright law, at least one of which will benefit media and film studies professors. The exemption would allow film and media professors to copy clips from DVDs for educational compilations (an important teaching tool in Intro to Film courses). As the AP article explains it:

The exemption granted to film professors authorizes the breaking of the CSS copy-protection technology found in most DVDs. Programs to do so circulate widely on the Internet, though it has been illegal to use or distribute them.

The professors said they need the ability to create compilations of DVD snippets to teach their classes — for example, taking portions of old and new cartoons to study how animation has evolved. Such compilations are generally permitted under “fair use” provisions of copyright law, but breaking the locks to make the compilations has been illegal.

Hollywood studios have argued that educators could turn to videotapes and other versions without the copy protections, but the professors argued that DVDs are of higher quality and may preserve the original colors or dimensions that videotapes lack.

Other exemptions dealt with computer obsolescence, allowing copy-protection controls to be circumvented for archival purposes for computer prorgams and video games that require obsolete machines. The full list of new exemptions is available at the US Copyright Office website.While I’d like to see Fair Use extend a little more broadly, these changes will certainly benefit scholars and teachers working in film and media studies.

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The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (IMDB) depicts a love story between Tom (Hugh Jackman) and Izzy (Rachel Weisz) that spans centuries, leaping, often in the span of a single cut, from 16th century Spain to the present and, ultimately, hundreds of years into the future. In the 16th century, Izzy is Queen Isabel, beseiged by the Inquisition, and Tom is Tomas, a conquistador commissioned to find the Tree of Life, which is believed to be hidden in the midst of a Mayan jungle, or as Isabel casually describes it, “New Spain.” In the early twenty-first century, Tom desperately seeks a cure for a brain tumor that threatens Izzy’s life, while in the distant future (I believe in the 27th century, but who’s counting?), Tom waits sadly beside a tree, which may or may not hold the spirit of his beloved Izzy.

The film itself is rather ambitious, seeking to meld these mystical ideas with cinematic narrative (or as AO Scott suggests, to “subvert the essentially sequential nature of film”). And, in fact, I was reminded in places of filmmakers such as Alain Resnais or Chris Marker; however, The Fountain never quite works through the questions of time, space, memory, and mortality that it introduces. In different hands, The Fountain might have pulled off what J. Hoberman aptly describes as its “pulpy mysticism.” Instead, The Fountain came across as utterly tedious, its primary idaes established within the first few minutes of the film.

There are several sequences in the film that are visually stunning, and the music, performed primarily by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai aptly conveys the film’s ethereal tone, but for the most part, the attention to atmosphere simply served as a reminder that there really wasn’t much going on in the film to begin with. I think this emptiness may have been due to the fact that Tom and Izzy seemed like little more than types, and I never had any sense that these two characters had endured hundreds of years together as a couple. As Scott points out, “It’s hard to sympathize with their hunger to overcome death, since neither one is credibly alive to begin with.” Of course, given that the film felt like an eternity when I was watching it, perhaps it was doing something interesting with time after all.

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The Queen

In the opening sequence of The Queen (IMDB), Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and her husband Prince Philip (James Cromwell) watch on television as broadcaster announce that Tony Blair has been elected prime minister, ending over a decade of Tory rule. The youthful, energetic Blair (Michael Sheen) embodies a spirit of modernization that becomes one of the major concerns of the film, with Blair’s populist rhetoric completely at odds with Elizabeth’s adherence to tradition. The scene also sets up one of the film’s most persistent motifs, Elizabeth’s complete isolation from the British people, as we see the queen and her family consistently watching television as their only real window into the British public (and like AO Scott, I’m fascinated by the number of films–Marie Antoinette and The Last King of Scotland are the others–that seem fixated on the question of monarchy). .

This opening sequences sets up the major narrative of the film, Elizabeth’s struggles to maintain the relevance of the British monarchy after the death of Princess Diana in a car accident on the streets of Paris, and after showing Blair’s assumption of the role of prime minister, the bulk of the film focuses on the week between Diana’s death and her funeral a week later, providing us with an insider look at two very different families, the youthful and vibrant Blairs and the out-of-touch monarchy, who consistently who their lack of understanding of the national and international grief over Diana’s death, often to the bemusement of Blair’s staffers and speechwriters who happily show him newspaper headlines depicting public disappointment in the queen’s behavior (in fact, this isolation even extends to members of Elizabeth’s own family and her inability to even allow her own grandchildren to mourn their mother’s death, instead sending them off hunting at their Balmoral estate).

The role of television serves the film in other ways as well. Diana’s celebrity and the mourning over her death is conveyed almost entirely through television footage of Diana herself, and director Stephen Frears wisely chooses not to cast anyone to play the exiled former princess, perhaps reminding us that it was less Diana herself and more her image that was so beloved and so deeply mourned.

This opposition between modernization and tradition is also played out during Blair’s first meeting with Elizabeth, when he meets her for the ceremony that will officially give him the title of prime minister. Blair and his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory), are carefully coached by Buckingham Palace staffers on the ceremony while Elizabeth herself carefully puts on the cool facade of monarchy. Cherie Blair, whose subversive attitude towards the monarchy is probably closest to my own, scoffs at the expected deference, while her husband merely endures the ceremony with mild discomfort. Significantly, Cherie’s position becomes increasingly marginalized over the course of the film in ways that I sometimes found unconvincing or frustrating (Filmbrain even refers to her as a “borderline Lady Macbeth“).

But the identification between Blair, who sees Elizabeth as a kind of mother figure, and the queen becomes interesting, especially as we are now witnessing the end of Blair’s leadership, in part due to his support of the unpopulr war in Iraq. At one point in the film, Prince Philip (I believe) reminds Blair that his current popularity will eventually wane, possibly quite suddenly, a line that certainly resonates with Blair’s imminent departure as prime minister, brilliantly satirized in the “Should I Stay” mash-up.

As this review suggests, there’s quite a bit going on in The Queen, especially in its treatment of a quickly transofrming political culture and its exploration of the vicissitudes of celebrity. It’s one of the smartest and most emotionally compelling films I’ve seen this year.

Update: Wort checking out: Kristin Thompson’s reading of The Queen. Like her, I’m often hesitant to see films that are promoted as actors’ vehicles (such as Monster’s Ball, Boys Don’t Cry, and Monster), and for that reason I was also hesitant to see The Queen, but the film’s treatment of (relatively) current politics drew me in. I think she’s right to note the ways in which the film is stylistically compelling, especially in the way that Frears establishes a contrast between Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair’s very different worlds. I think she’s absolutely right that “the royal-family scenes in The Queen look very 1950s.” During the scenes set in Balmoral and Buckingham, I found myself thinking about some of Douglas Sirk’s films, while the Blair scenes were often filmed using a handheld camera, establishing the prime minister’s energetic and casual style.

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That Was Fast…

While checking out my Sitemeter stats this afternoon, I just learned that Law and Order: Criminal Intent is planning an episode loosely based on the whole LonelyGirl15 phenomenon, with Buffy’s Michelle Trachtenberg slated to play a popular video blogger who gets kidnapped. The CI detectives are then forced to determine whether the kidnapping was real or staged.

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Power of Ten

Via the cinetrix, the latest on the 2007 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The fest just announced its “thematic program” and, like the cinetrix, I’m impressed:

Ten years, ten curators, ten films. Artists who have contributed to Full Frame these last ten years return to reflect on the decade and show the films that have influenced their understanding of it in our curated series called The Power of Ten.

Martin Scorsese
Mira Nair
St. Clair Bourne
Julia Reichert
D.A. Pennebaker
Ariel Dorfman
Walter Mosley
Charles Burnett
Cara Mertes
Michael Moore

We are asking the curators to chose a film to screen at the festival and to write an essay about the past ten years, their impact on them personally, and why this film is relevant.

This program sounds fantastic, a great way for me to bring spring semester to a close. FFDFF takes place April 12-15, right up the road in Durham.

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Robert Altman, RIP

Just learned that Robert Altman, one of the great American film directors, passed away today. Altman’s Short Cuts, which I first saw when I was just starting graduate school, is one of the most important films in my “cinematic eductaion,” and I never tire of teaching The Player, especially that tour de force opening shot, in my introduction to film courses.

Update: Here’s the Washington Post article.

Update 2: David at GreenCine has compiled a number of blog entries and articles offering their memories of Altman. And here is the video of Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin introducing Altman before his honorary Oscar in 2006.

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All Over the Map

I have an article/book chapter on YouTube and other video sharing services percolating, so I’ve been following the recent discussions of the site with some interest. First, David at GreenCine points to Youtubers, an interesting montage featuring a number of YouTube personalities, most of whom are directly addressing the camera with the hope of connecting with a wider audience, as Ajit at TickleBooth points out. The montage makes especially good use of LonelyGirl15 (remember her?), who first rose to prominence because she played to that desire for connection so effectively.

Henry Jenkins has an interesting and convincing read of YouTube’s “vaudeville aesthetic,” noting that like vaudeville sketches, most YouTube performances are relatively brief. He also points out that “the YouTube performer courts a sense of the amateurish which also places a high emphasis on seeming spontaneity.” Many YouTube videos cultivate this “unrehearsed” style. Jenkins is careful here to distinguish between a sense of “liveness” and what he calls the “realness” of these YouTube clips.

Finally, we have (at least) two new cases where videographers using camera phones have been able to record and upload videos depicting, in one case, a student at UCLA being brutally tazered by the UCLA campus police, and in a second case, Seinfeld’s Michael Richards unleashing a racist tirade in response to a group of African-American hecklers (Richards later apologized on Letterman, with his apology available on YouTube, naturally). Both videos dramatically illustrate the documentary potential of these new technologies, but the UCLA video in particular recalls, for me at least, the video recording of the beating of Rodney King in the ealy 1990s (possibly more on this topic in the next few days).

Somewhat related: The most recent elections have frequently been described as the “first YouTube elections,” with Brett Arends of the Boston Herald making an interesting case that online videos might have greater potential to “pull” centrists than the more highly-polarized political blogs that shaped the 2004 elections.

I realize this entry has been all over the map, as my title suggests, but I’m intrigued by how quickly YouTube, in particular, has become such a crucial component of media culture. Even though many of these videos were seen by fewer than one million people on YouTube, they also have the potential to push stories onto television (George Allen’s attachement to the Confederacy likely would never have become a national news story without online video, to name just one example). More later, but I had genuinely planned for this to be a quick linkdump.

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Ken Burns in Fayetteville

Via the Fayetteville Observer, the news that Ken Burns will visit the ‘Ville in April to promote his latest documentary, The War, which focuses on the emotional impact of World War II on soldiers and on people at home. So far, it’s not clear whether the screening, which will feature selections from Burns’ 14-hour series, will be open to the public. I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of Burns’ style, but hopefully I’ll be able to attend (and, of course, blog the whole thing).

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The Weinsteins at Home

Via Ezra Klein, the news that Blockbuster and the Weinstein Company have signed a deal allowing Blockbuster exclusive United States rental rights to movies produced by the new studio, thereby preventing Netflix from renting copies of the new studio’s films, including Bobby, The Nanny Diaries and The Protector. The move likely makes financial sense for both sides, especially with Blockbuster striving to compete with Netflix and video-on-demand services, but it may also have the effect of limiting audiences for the Weinstein Company’s films. While I’ve rented from Blockbuster occasionally over the last decade, I only do so as a last resort, which likely means I’ll simply skip most Weinstein films that don’t make it to theaters in Fayetteville.

Ezra’s blog also has an interesting discussion of the legal issues involved in this agreement.

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Teaching Information Literacy

Via JBJ: An interesting IHE article by Paul Thacker on teaching information literacy. Some of these issues will no doubt be relevant in my graduate seminar on technology in the liberal arts classroom. I had a much longer entry on this topic, but it disappeared into the internet abyss, and I’m no mood to reconstruct.

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2006 Oscar Doc Short List

Via Sarah Jo at Documentary Insider: the great news that one of my favorite documenatries of the past year, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? has qualified for the short list of the 15 films in the Documentary Feature category. As I mentioned in my review, Mr. Smith raised some valuable questions about our political process, and I’m very happy to see it make the cut.

Other personal favorites among the finalists include Davis Guggenheim’s Al Gore doc, An Inconvenient Truth, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp, and James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments and Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes, both of which offer urgently needed perspectives on the war in Iraq. Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, which I caught in DC at Silverdocs earlier this year, is also a solid choice.

Exciting to see so many cool documentaries gain some much deserved recognition. Go to Sarah Jo’s place for a complete list of the fifteen finalists.

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Teaching YouTube

The folks at MediaCommons have pointed to an interesting Inside Higher Ed article by Christopher Conway on the potential uses of YouTube in cultural studies classrooms. The discussion at both IHE and MediaCommons is worth checking out, and I’m writing this post in part as a reminder to revisit these ideas in my “Technology in the Liberal Arts Classroom” seminar next semester.

Specifically, Conway, a professor of Latin American studies, points out that clips uploaded to the service can provide a useful accompaniment to course readings, documentaries, and other assignments, adding that in one recent course, he was able to show Hugo Chavez’s notorious “Bush is the Devil” speech (with a Noam Chomsky book playing a key prop). Conway points to a number of other useful clips including the Chomsky-Foucault debate and Malcolm X appearing at Oxford. I think there’s little doubt that Conway is right that scholars and teachers should plunder, I mean borrow from, YouTube at every opportunity, and Conway is also right that blogging software makes it relatively easy for professors to link to these clips (although I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to assume that students will have access to the high-speed internet connections required to view the clips, at least not at my university). At the same time, YouTube’s “video library” vastly exceeds the resources available at my local university or at the high school libraries where many of my students will eventually teach, so I think he’s right that it can be a very useful resource.

Conway’s article also raises some imprtant questions about YouTube and copyright, asking whether a professor who links to an illegally uploaded YouTube clip is “complicit in infringing on someone’s copyright.” And, of course, now that Google owns YouTube, we may see some of this valuable material removed from the website. I think that the MediaCommons position, which emphasizes “fair use” addresses many of Conway’s concerns, but these legal and institutional issues will significantly effect what kinds of material remains available on YouTube and other video-sharing sites.

And yet, I find myself wanting to read Conway’s article somewhat “against the grain,” emphasizing not the “hidden gems” that he describes but the amateurish, home movie clips that he describes at the beginning of the article before asking what YouTube can do for professors “apart from giving them something to look at during their lunch breaks.” Instead of looking at YouTube as a source of content, why not look at it as a technological form, focusing with our students on how the site not only changes what we (can) watch but how we watch (the beauty of the SNL “Lazy Sunday” clip is that I didn’t have to watch an entire SNL episode to see it). I think these questions are implied in Kathleen’s question about how we could re-imagine YouTube as a “scholarly tool.”

Lots of interesting questions here, and I’m not sure I have any answers yet, but I’m happy to see others thinking about the role of media sharing in the liberal arts classroom.

Update: Jeff’s reading of the IHE article is also worth checking out. In particular, Jeff offers an insightful reading of Conway’s passing comment that instructors who use YouTube may not want their students to view the sometimes inane comments that accompany most videos, and like Jeff I see comments (and the video responses inspired by such video series as the LonelyGirl15 saga) as a crucial component of the medium. Again, some interesting questions.

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