Archive for December, 2006

Post-MLA Video Links

I may write a longer MLA wrap-up post when I get back to the ‘ville, but for now, a couple of pointers to some interesting video links. First, The Washington Post has video footage (apparently taken from an Arabic television network) of Saddam Hussein being led to the gallows just before he was executed. It’s rather gruesome stuff, even if the video doesn’t show the actual hanging, but for some reason the footage reminds me of the Edison short, Execution of Czolgosz.

Unrelated: I’ve been planning to link to Steven’s discussion of a couple of NPR reports (report #2) on YouTube, but because of MLA, I haven’t had time. More later when I’m back in the ‘ville where my wireless internet access is free and fast.

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The Morning After

Kathleen and Collin have already written up the MLA blogger meetup, and like them, I had a really good time. In addition to chatting with Kathleen and Collin, I was also able to catch up with Jonathan and Clancy.

It was also very cool to meet in person several bloggers I’ve been reading, often for years: Dr. B, Amardeep (congrats to Amardeep, btw, on the release of his book), Laura, John, and Amanda (apologies if I missed anyone).

Had some great conversations about blogging (surprise), television, and other assorted fun topics. I also had one too many beers, but that’s probably no surprise, either.

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MLA Blogger Meetup/My MLA So Far

Via Kathleen, a reminder that the MLA blogger meetup will take place at SoleFood, which is located in the Loews Philadelphia, a very cool modernist hotel across from the Convention Center Thursday evening at 8:45 p.m.

Thus far, I’ve had the chance to attend one very cool panel, “Terrorism, Technology, and Visual Media,” including papers by Jennifer Doyle on the art of Ron Athey, by Cynthia Fuchs on representations of torture in 24 and Battlestar Galactica, and by Cynthia Ann Young on representations of terrorism in The Unit. Later tonight I’ll be attending the “Reportage, Class, and War” panel, which features a paper on Gunner Palace, as well as papers on journalism in the Spanish-American War and on the “technomechanization of the working class” in World War II and the Iraq war. More later, hopefully, if my allergy symptoms subside (and if I don’t stay out too late with the bloggers).

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Pre-MLA 2006

Like many language and literature professors, I will be spending the next few days in Philadelphia where I’ll be attending this year’s MLA convention. I’m looking forward to this year’s convention, in part because of the blogging panel, Meet the Bloggers: Blogging and the Future of Academia organized by Scott Eric Kaufman. As Scott McLemee points out in his pre-MLA article, the status of blogging in academia has changed quite a bit in the two years since MLA last met in Philadelphia, when Scott Jaschik’s “Bloggers in the Flesh” profiled a gathering of academic bloggers, myself included, who met for drinks at the 2004 conference, so I’m very much looking forward to some sustained discussion of blogging and academia.

Also worth noting: IHE reported a few weeks ago on an MLA special committee that has proposed changes in the way English and foreign language professors are evaluated, especially when it comes to tenure. As the IHE article reports, the panel discussed moving away from the “fetishization” of the monograph and making tenure expectations clearer.

Hoping to have time to blog from the conference, but I’m not making any promises.

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Lazy Pre-Christmas Eve Media Links

A few links before my last-minute dive into the holiday shopping madness:

First, via Michael at Zigzagger, Virginia Heffernan’s multimedia year in review, which is pretty interesting. As Michael points out, Heffernan pronounces reality TV, network news, and parent-child bonding shows such as The Gilmore Girls dead, while seeing a glimmer of hope for the sitcom. Related: Heffernan’s NYT article.

A mildly interesting AJC article about Ted Turner’s decision to purchase MGM/UA in the 1980s, which famously gave the media mogul access to MGM/UA’s massive film library, which included Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and Wizard of Oz, as well as RKO’s Citizen Kane and the now annoyingly ubiquitous A Christmas Story (a movie I used to like before it was sampled in pretty much every Christmas commercial this year).

Finally, McChris linked to a post offering some interesting Nielsen Top Ten lists, including a list of the ten most time-shifted shows. The most time-shifted show happens to be Studio 60, followed by Heroes and Gilmore Girls, suggesting that these shows have prestige audiences but that these audiences are likely zapping through the commercials. Scroll down the Nielsen entry for other goodies such as the ten most cited Wikipedia entries (Web 2.0 is number one) and the top ten advertisers in “traditional” and online media (interesting to see where certain advertisers target potential customers).

Blogging will almost certainly be infrequent until after Christmas now that all the local coffeehouses (and their high-speed internet service) will be closed for the holidays. And then I’m off to Philly for MLA (where I may have some time to blog the convention).

Update: The Nielsen post also has the ten programs with the most occurences of product placement and the ten brands with the most cases of product placement on network TV. Perhaps unsurprisingly, reality TV shows dominate the first list.

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The Last King of Scotland

It was difficult for me to watch Kevin Macdonald’s feature debut, The Last King of Scotland (IMDB) without thinking of (and wishing to rewatch) Barbet Schroeder’s disturbing documentary about the brutal Ugandan dictator, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait. In Schroeder’s documentary, we see Amin as a strangely innocent and charming figure while also being forced to reconcile these images with the brutal dictator who was responsible for the deaths of at least 300,000 Ugandans. While most audience members will be unaware of the documentary, Last King depends almost entirely on Forest Whitaker’s “chameleonic” performance as the mercurial despot, it was never entirely clear to me what story the film was trying to tell about Uganda or Amin.

The film views Amin through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who briefly takes work as a doctor helping Uganda’s rural poor before being taken in as Amin’s personal physician, in part because of Amin’s admiration for all things Scottish (he even names his children Mackenzie and Campbell). Garrigan, as the Voice review notes, is a composite of a number of white advisors who helped Amin retain power, although in the film, Garrigan gradually becomes repulsed by Amin’s actions and his own complicity in them (he even lies at one point to cover for Amin’s assassination of a Ugandan bureaucrat).

I’m still sorting out what I didn’t like about Last King, and I’m wondering if it isn’t related to my response to Blood Diamond a few days ago. While I recognize there can be value in using the conventions of the Hollywood thriller to depict stories such as Amin’s, I found that both films relied too heavily on stock characters that seemed to have the effect of leaving the politics of postcolonialism in the abstract. Instead of the idealistic reporter and the mercenary, Last King offers a naive doctor who is lured in by Amin’s charms and by the pleasures of wealth and power. And, yet again, a story about Africa is told through the eyes of a white outsider, although, to be fair, it is interesting that Africa has become the subject fo so many Hollywood films.

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Makin’ a List

Still blogging from suburban franchise coffeehouses, so this post will have to be relatively brief, but I’ve been intrigued by the discussions of ten best lists, starting with Andy Horbal’s list of reasons why he doesn’t like ten best lists (also see Jim Emerson’s response to Andy). Keeping with my personal blogging tradition, I’ll wait until after the holidays before I contribute my own top ten list, but thinking about this year’s list has encouraged me to reflect on my viewing habits and how those habits were altered to some extent by moving from DC to North Carolina this year (of course, given that I had a chance to attend Silverdocs, this year, you can probably guess that once again, my list will be loaded with documentaries).

But as online video culture continues to evolve, I’ve also been thinking about what it might mean to start creating a “canon” of internet-based videos. Obviously, online video is still very much an ephemeral, nascent medium, but it would seem that such a young medium would stand to benefit from this form of preservation. As many film scholars have pointed out, most early films have been lost, in part due to the fragility of the film medium but also because not enough people recognized the importance of preserving this important part of our history. So I’ve been contemplating what it might mean to create a “ten best list” of online videos or whether it would even be plausible to compile a representtaive list when there is so much material out there. There’s already one interesting Top Ten list out there, compiled by the folks at lulu.tv, which includes what I regard as one of the best online videos of the year, “George Bush’s Imagine” (thanks to Virginia Heffernan for the link).

Of course a top ten (or twelve) list of online videos brings to the surface questions of taste and aesthetics that are far from established (the same might be said of top ten film lists, but critics’ lists do tend to overlap quite a bit). The lulu.tv list is notable because the listmakers chose to list single films from a set of categories or genres (machinima, mashups, parodies, remixes, male and female vlogs) rather than simply choosing ten favorite videos, an approach that succeeds in depicting the diversity of material now available online. I’m not sure I’ll have enough computer time until after the New Year, but I may try my hand at compiling a similar list or at least highlighting a few of my favorite online videos from the last year.

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Distribution, Exhibition, Promotion

Hiding out at a well-known franchise coffeehouse catching up on some blogging and blog reading and just wanted to keep track of some links that have crossed my path. Via GreenCine, a discussion of teh distribution plans for John Sayles’ Honeydripper, which just wrapped. The film’s producers have set up a blog, where they discuss their intentions of fixing a broken distribution system while still working to see the filmmakers manage to see some profit from their hard work. More: Brendon Connelly compares the distribution strategy for Honeydripper to Steven Soderbergh’s simultaneous distribution of Bubble in multiple formats. I’ll be interested to see how this story unfolds (see also: the Emerging Pictures website).

Also from GreenCine, Stuart Klawans’ review of Blood Diamond, which is pretty similar to my own.

Finally, and I’m very late in pointing to this one: Anne at the Risky Biz Blog has an interetsing entry on the potential (?) role for MySpace in promoting indie film. As she points out, MySpace is often dismissed as a dating or social site “for kids,” but it can also be used for networking and promotion, as many musicians (and their publicists) have discovered. Her question: have there been any MySpace indie film “success stories?” She notes that Filmmaker Magazine has embraced the site, but while their MySpace friends are a who’s who of indie films and festivals from the last year, I’m wondering what role MySpace has served in raising awareness of these films (or whether the social networking site is the best tool for promoting these films).

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Blogging in the Burbs

I’m back in Atlanta for a few days where I’m visiting my parents for the holidays. Because they have a 56k modem, blogging may be light to nonexistent until I fly up to Philly for a brief cameo at MLA. While it’s nice to be back in Atlanta, which is more or less home for me, I inevitably think about change and loss every time I revisit a place where I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life. For example, I was saddened to learn that one of my favorite movie theaters, the Garden Hills Cinema, just below Buckhead, closed in October. Garden Hills is where I first discovered Kevin Smith, caught Winged Migration on a date that I remember rather fondly, and watched dozens of other films when I began making the transition to studying film rather than literature, so I hate to see that it’s closed.

There are some other nice things about being in Atlanta. I still look forward to listening to Album 88, Georgia State University’s excellent radio station, so much so that I found msyelf trying to tune it in every couple of miles as I drove into the city yesterday afternoon. And, of course, parents who take you out for a sushi dinner just hours after you’ve made a long, exhausting drive home are pretty cool, too.

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Fast Food Nation

Adapted from Eric Schlosser’s investigation of the fast food industry, Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation (IMDB) weaves together three discrete narratives that reveal the dark underbelly beneath the shiny veneer of the fast food indsutry. Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) is a Mickey’s marketing executive sent to Cody, Colorado, to investigate high fecal content in Mickey’s signature Big One burger (or as another marketing exec succinctly puts it, “there’s shit in the meat”). In Cody, Don converses briefly with Mickey’s counter-girl, Amber (Ashley Johnson), who dreams of going to college, in part because it will get her out of her stifling hometown. Even her ambition to become an astronaut seems more about a desire to escape than any specific interest in science. Finally, we are introduced to Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) and Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a married couple who immigrate from Mexico to take work in Cody, where they inevitably wind up working for the town’s giant slaughterhouse.

When the three plots intersect, they do so casually and conversationally, allowing characters to discuss the implications of the fast food industry, rather than lecturing us about the evils of fast food, which, deep down, many of us already know. In doing so, the film manages to be self-critical, questioning its own premise as an activist movie, a gesture often absent from overtly political films such as Crash (my reading here is not entirely original: Stuart Klawans, MaryAnn Johanson, and AO Scott both make this point in similar ways).

This self-criticism emerges in two pivotal scenes, the first of which features Bruce Willis as a cynical Mickey’s executive working in Cody who openly acknowledges to Don that, yes, there is shit in the meat, but that “everybody needs to eat a little shit from time to time.” [Note: the next few sentences reveal a major plot point.] Later, Amber, charmed and inspired by her free-spirited uncle (Ethan Hawke), chooses to take her own form of political resistance against the fast food industry. After becoming involved with a group of environmental activists at a nearby college, Amber picks up on the cynicism of Paco, who dismisses the group’s plan for a letter writing campaign against Mickey’s, instead suggesting that the group liberate the cows waiting to be slaughtered by opening the pens where they are confined. Of course, Amber’s plans don’t go as expected, and the students are confounded when the cows don’t particualry want to be liberated, preferring the feed and comfort provided by the slaughterhouse.

While I have suggested that Linklater’s film offers these moments of self-critique, his film, like Schlosser’s notorious work of investigative journalism, does not shy away from depicting some of the more gruesome elements of the production of meat. Opening in a relentlessly cheerful Mickey’s, the camera tracks into a hamburger patty, leading us, as it were, into the dark side of the industry. Several scenes were filmed in an actual slaughterhose, including one particularly graphic scene filmed on a kill floor, while Sylvia and Raul endure any number of hardships on the line, with several scenes in particular noting the degree to which illegal immigrant workers can be exploited by what one long-time rancher (Kris Kristofferson) aptly describes as the fast food “machine.”

Linklater’s “machine” metaphor complicates any simple notion of agency. Can Don risk sacrificing his career over his moral objections to the slaughterhouse? What effect can Amber and her fellow environmental activists have when “the bad guys” always seem t win every election? What are the alternatives available to Raul and Sylvia? While Scott and Klawans’ reviews convey this political complexity, I get the impression that FFN was dismissed in other quarters as a political screed, condemning the supposedly intoxicating pleasures of fast food. However, instead, Linklater has offered something far more complicated than that, questioing the efficacy of political films while at the same time reminding us of their absolute necessity.

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Shut Up and Sing

With the current opposition to the Bush administration’s approach to the war in Iraq reaching 70% of the American public, it’s easy to forget that in the days just before the invasion began, expressing opposition to the war, as Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks did during a concert in London, could provoke hostile responses ranging from accusations of a lack of patriotism to death threats. Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s subtle, underrated documentary, Shut Up and Sing (IMDB), serves as a bracing reminder of how the Dixie Chicks became embroiled in the propaganda war that accompanied the US invasion of Iraq. Maines’ offhand remark that she was ashamed the President was from Texas, of course, provoked outrage among the country music audiences that had made Maines and her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, the target not only of massive boycotts but also of astonishing levels of verbal abuse, with protestors holding up signs calling the group “traitors” while others gather to destroy copies of the bands CDs, and one mother eggs her small child to say “screw ‘em.” Kopple and Peck’s film follows the band over the course of their 2003 tour and returns two years later to witness the band writing songs that will become Taking the Long Way.

While Kopple and Peck take some effort to show how the Bush administration built its case for war through key soundbites from Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell, Shut Up and Sing is less a political statement than an analysis of the music industry itself through the experiences of Maines, Maguire, and Robison over the course of the last three years. The film opens with the Dixie Chicks performing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl and quickly moves from there to footage of Maines’ now famous London concert, where her comment was picked up by The Guardian (I think this is the original concert review) and eventually repeated in the right-wing blog, Free Republic. Kopple and Peck show Maines and the rest of the band fascinated and perplexed by the hostility her comment provoked, and just as quickly, the band’s manager, Simon Renshaw, begins to ask the group how they want to “spin” the controversy, which as Stephen Holden notes, makes the band appear as if they are being “marketed like politicians to targeted constituencies.”

Eventually, of course, the controversy snowballed to such a degree that two of the massive country radio conglomerates refuse to play the Dixie Chicks because of fears that they will be subject to similar boycotts. As one astute DJ observes, most of his listeners would likely rather listen to hard rocker Marylin Manson than the former queens of country radio. This indictment of the music industry is underscored through footage of Renshaw testifying to Congress during some of the hearings on media consolidation, with Renshaw vividly depicting the silencing effect that media consolidation can have.

The film also depicts some of the more absurd responses the band faced, including an ongoing feud with conservative country singer Toby Keith, which included Maines wearing an “FUTK” t-shirt during one of her concerts and culminating, to some extent, in the notorious Entertainment Weekly cover and story where the band faced many of their critics head-on. And perhaps most dramatically, we see the band bravely playing a Dallas show soone after receiving a death threat.

These responses cannot be separated from the knowledge that the Dixie Chicks probably would not have been as widely criticized if they weren’t women, a point made in the Village Voice review of the film. Many of the harshest comments have a distinctly gendered tone, with Bill O’Reilly insisting that Maines and her bandmates ought to be “slapped around,” and Kopple and Peck are careful to depict the double standard that exists when it comes to musicians expressing their political views (Stephen Holden also touches on this in his Times review).

But I think that what made the film most compelling for me was how the band’s music grew so explicitly out of their experiences as artists and public figures but also as wives and mothers. In this sense, the film reminded me quite a bit of the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster in depicting a band at a kind of crossroads and, perhaps, working to redefine themselves in the face of negative publicity (Metallica, of course, alienated fans due to their testimony on music piracy). To the credit of the band members, the Dixie Chicks remained true to their country roots, producing a deeply personal record that took on the public outcry rather than avoiding it, a sentiment best expressed in the song, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” While I’ve always been aware of the band’s talent, these scenes deepend my appreciation of a group of talented musuicans.

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Blood Diamond

In one of the climactic moments of Blood Diamond (IMDB), Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an American journalist righteously insists that if American consumers knew how our diamonds were obtained, we’d stop buying them. As Bowen lectures the ruthless mercenary Danny Archer (Leo DiCaprio, complete with Zimbabwean accent), I couldn’t help but think about the ubiquitous jewely advertisements that have been airing on TV throughout the holiday season. Yes, those commercials do a fantastic job of masking the means of production (or perhaps, more precisely, procurement) that placed that diamond in the glass case at the local mall, and perhaps Blood Diamond does something to make that process more visible, but like Nathan Lee of The Village Voice, I was uninspired by the film’s “facile politics and bad storytelling,” Perhaps this disappointment is due to the fact that I watched this movie in a mall within walking distance of several jewelers whose commodities exist comfortably alongside the very film I was consuming. Perhpas it’s mere holiday grumpiness. Or maybe I was just bored by half a dozen action sequences in search of a story.

To be fair, Blood Diamond makes some effort to dramatize the degree to which Western jewelers exploit, and sometimes even exacerbate, civil unrest in Africa in order to obtain diamonds (and, the film even implies, to ensure that diamond prices remain sufficiently high to ensure greater profit). And through the eyes of Maddy, we see American consumers caught up in the Monica-gate drama while the civil war raging in Sierra Leone received little attention. The film also dramatically depicts the rebel army’s horrific practice of conscripting child soldiers. But the story itself is told with what seemed like a paint-by-numbers script featuring what Lee describes as the “holy trinity of African-adventure film” characters, the serious journlaist, the ruthless mercenary, and the righteous native, Solomon (played by Djimon Hounsou, who deserves better work).

The plot, such as it is, involves Solomon becoming forced into hard labor panning for diamonds, after being separated from his wife and children, including his son who dreams of becoming a doctor. When Solomon discovers a giant pink diamond, he manages to bury it but not before rumors of the diamond spread throughout the diamond trade, where they inevitably reach the ears of Danny. Maddy just happens to be in Sierra Leone to write a story about the “conflict diamond” trade when she meets Danny who clearly sees the “blood diamond” as a final big score before he “retires.”

I think that what bothered me the most about the film was its depiction of the civil war in Sierra Leone. If Blood Diamond intended to be critical of the exploitation of Africans, it certainly seems to relish the bloody action sequences in which entire villages of anonymous Africans are slaughtered in a hail of bullets. There’s little, if any, exploration of the politics that produced the civil war, which gives the violence a strange inevitability that I don’t think the film intends. I’m probably being more critical than I ought to be of what appears to be a well-intentioned film, but because there’s very little exploration of how the diamond industry operates outside of Africa (other than Maddy’s long-shot photographs of Solomon selling the eponymous bood diamond to a European dealer), the critique ultimately felt a little thin.

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Late Thursday Video Links

I caught Blood Diamond (IMDB) tonight, and my first impression of the film can be summed up in four words: Jewelers bad. Journalists good. Of course it helps when Jennifer Connelly is playing the journalist. Planning to have a longer review later if I can convince myself that the film is actually worth it. While you’re waiting, check out these videos instead:

Nuckin’ Futs: Jib Jab’s sweet satirical take on 2006.

Also worth checking out: Ajit from TickleBooth’s compelling video, 12 Verses in Water.

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The Lost Room Revisited

I’m still fascinated by The Lost Room, even if the inconclusive final scene was a little disappointing, as Peter points out, although the open ending no doubt leaves open the possibility of a Lost Room series as several fans of the show have speculated. I still think the basic concept is interesting, in which a collection of mundane “Objects” left in a hotel room in 1961 take on mysterious powers and groups of rival collectors compete to collect as many of the Objects as possible (for a variety of reasons, of course).

In part, I’m intrigued by the idea that the Objects represent artifacts of a lost past, a point that comes up in Virginia Heffernan’ sreview of the show, recalling the old hotels and travelers who inhabited them. As Heffernan points out, “The series skillfully taps into the collector fever that has been kindled by that auction site, further conjuring a peculiar nostalgia for the isolation of the traveling loner in the days before cellphones, Internet and pay-per-view made motel rooms bearable.”

Not sure I have much to add right now, but I’ll be intrigued to see what happens with The Lost Room and whether it gets picked up as a regular seies.

Update: I also like John Joseph Adams’ reading of the mini, particularly his comparison of The Lost Room to puzzle-oriented video games such as Myst and Resident Evil. [Updated a second time to add a link--perhaps I shouldn't blog when I'm so sleepy.]

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Tuesday Video Fun

Taking a break from grading for a day to work on some other projects that have been occupying my mind and came across some nice video and blog distractions. First, via GreenCine, a video of Eternal Sunshine director Michel Gondry solving a Rubik’s Cube. With his feet. In less than three minutes. Which sorta trumps that Will Smith character in The Pursuit of Happyness.

I’ve also been planning to link to this “Addicted to YouTube” video for several days now, I think after I discovered it while reading the LonelyGirl15 article in Wired.

The LG15 narrative arc has me thinking about documentary, autobiography, and authenticity, topics that Girish touches upon in his recent post on Bill Nichols’ discussion of documentary modes. Girish also points to Steve Shaviro’s related discussion of blogging and “real” life.

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