Archive for February, 2007

Wednesday Evening Media Links

With Spring Break and the annual Society for Film and Media Studies conference fast approaching, I’m in full writing mode this week, but before I forget, I just wanted to post a quick pointer to a blog post at MediaCommons. In just a few weeks, the editorial board for MediaCommons will be holding its first meeting, and we’re seeking discussion of the role that MediaCommons can play in the scholarly community.

While I’m thinking about it, Michael has linked to several of fun and interesting videos, including one belonging to one of my favorite genres, the mock film trailer. This time, it’s David Lynch’s Blue Velvet transformed into “Something Blue,” a romantic comedy. But I think I’m even more intrigued by “What Does Marcellus Wallace Look Like?,” which Michael aptly describes as feeling like a form of “found poetry,” especially in the way that Tarantino’s words move across the screen. Happy viewing.

Update: Just received an email reminder that Frank Popper’s insightful documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is now on sale at the film’s official website. I remain convinced that Mr. Smith is one of the best documentaries I saw in 2006, an incredibly valuable commentary on the the challenges of running for political office. As the 2008 presidential election heats up, the lessons of Mr. Smith about the fund-raising demands and other challenges are becoming all the more palpable. The film has also been playing on the PBS “Independent Lens” series, and it is certainly deserving of an even wider audience.

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The Pit Breakup

Ryan uses Facebook to get over a thousand of his closest friends to meet in “The Pit,” a central location on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus, where he would break up with his grilfriend Mindy. Within days, hundreds of people join his Facebook community. Ryan drafts the services of the Lorelais who serenade Mindy with an a capella version of the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Hundreds of people, many equipped with digital video cameras, show up on Valentine’s Day to watch the drama unfold. Many in the audience chant “slut! slut!” when her infidelity is revealed. Within days, hundreds of thousands of people watch the video on YouTube (as well as post-breakup interviews), and Ryan and Mindy become the latest “stars” on the internet, their private drama revealed to a mass public. Eventually the story gets picked up by mass media outlets, including a planned segment on Good Morning America (which ultimately didn’t air). Then, as the buzz peaked, we learn, via The Charlotte Observer that the video was staged.

Ryan and Mindy never dated, but both were interested in showing that the media “don’t always accurately gauge what teenage and college kids are interested in.” In fact, Ryan planned the hoax video to promote a company he’d like to start to promote musicians. The video has provoked quite a bit of conversation, including a report in Inside Higher Ed apparently written before the video’s status as a hoax was confirmed. The response to this latest bit of Web 2.0 performance art illustrates just how much our response to web video remains unsettled, with many of the responses to the video commenting on the “public humiliation” of the woman involved or suggesting that kids today have no morals. Of course, the video is far more complicated than that. Taking the video at face value, Mindy turns the tables on Ryan, embarassing him for needing hundreds of people to break up with her. And because the video was staged, I think it makes more sense to note the power of the social networking sites that make such hoaxes, performances, and viral videos possible. More later if I have time.

Update: Some interesting letters to the editor in The Daily Tar Heel (scroll down a little).

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Storyteller to the World

One final take on the Oscars before I dive into some grading. Kenneth Turan had what I regard as one of the oddest reactions to the best picture and director wins for The Departed. Noting that the film is an adaptation of the Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, Turan remarks that “It is not the happiest state of affairs that Hollywood, once the storyteller to the world, has to go to another culture to get its best ideas.” Although he adds that he welcomes Hollywood’s assimilation of the stories of other cultures, his remark ignores the fact that Hollywood has always turned to other cultures for some of its best stories.

In fact, the very first best picture win went to Sunrise, directed by German F.W. Murnau. Two years later the winner was All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a novel by German solider, Erich Maria Remarque. 1932 nominee, Shanghai Express featured German-born Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg in prominent creative roles. 1934 nominee, Viva Villa! focused on the story of Pancho Villa. The 1937 winner, The Life of Emile Zola, is a biopic about a French novelist. The 1957 winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai, was based on a French novel. I mention these examples not because Turan’s comments are resistant to the contributions of other cultures but to point out that the idea of Hollywood as “storyteller to the world” makes sense only because so many Hollywood filmmakers have long built upon, borrowed, or reworked stories from the rest of the world. Thanks to GreenCine for the link.

Update: Corrected to fix the name of Murnau’s film. I should have had one more cup of coffee before writing this entry.

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Oscars Open Thread

I wasn’t sure I wanted to liveblog this year’s Oscars. After all, I’m trying to keep track of the broadcast and the online, interactive stuff. Plus, some friends at the Fayetteville Observer are already liveblogging. But I can’t resist throwing out a few comments. Feel free to leave a comment or two, if you’re so inclined.

Update: While I’m thinking about it, check out the Oscar coverage on the Risky Biz blog and Anne Thompson’s column on Errol Morris’s Oscar doc, one of my favorite segments of the show.

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On Being an Unperson

Three very fascinating YouTube videos about the dehumanization of people with developmental disabilities. As silentmiaow, the creator of the videos, points out, our ability to see certain people as non-persons (or unpersons) enables all forms of human right abuses. The videos prove to be a profound meditation on definitions of communication, thought, intelligence, and even personhood:

While all three videos offer compelling meditations on a number of philosophical questions, I was especially taken by the videomaker’s deconstruction of the idea of “normal” human thought. This is really fascinating stuff that I’ll be thinking about for some time (thanks to Anne for the pointer).

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Sunday Morning Film Reads

Several interesting articles on documentary came across my radar this morning: First, a New York Times article on Manufacturing Dissent, an investigative documentary that turns its lens on Michael Moore’s documentary practices. The film’s trailer appears to be a bit muddled, but according to the Times article and Moore proponent John Pierson, Dissent raises some useful questions about subjectivity in documentary.

Second, yet another article, this one from The Washington Post, giving Al Gore the “rock star” treatment. While William Booth, the article’s author, stops short of speculating about a presidential run, it’s an interesting read on Gore’s new celebrity status. Booth attributes the warm reception of Gore’s messages about global warming and the Iraq war to a changed political climate, but I think much of Gore’s success as a speaker and public figure has to be attributed to the Inconvenient Truth filmmakers who helped to bring a much different image of Gore than the one we saw during the election in 2000.

Finally, an interesting Washington Post article on AMC Theater’s programming stunt of a marathon screening of all five best picture nominees. The screenings started at around noon and ran until midnight with fifteen-minute breaks between films and a half-hour break for dinner. If I remember correctly, I watched four films in one day at least once during Silverdocs, but enduring five films in one day is an impressive achievement. In her article, Rachel Beckman reports that 80 people attended the Rio Cinemas marathon, one of 80 or so throughout the country. One of the most important bits of information from the entire article: You can bring food into any AMC theater “as long as it doesn’t disturb the other guests,” according to one AMC spokesperson.

Update: The IFC blog has a list of the Independent Spirit Awards winners and nominees, where there is an interesting discussion of whether Michael Winterbottom’s Road to Guantanamo (my review) qualifies as a documentary. I have a relatively expansive definition of documentary and wouldn’t hesitate to include the film in that category. Excluding the film solely based on its use of re-enactments seems excessive to me; after all, it also makes use of testimony and other talking-heads interviews. I’d be interested to hear from others why the use of clearly marked re-enactments would disqualify it from consideration for awards in the documentary category.

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Net Neutrality Video

I’ve linked to it everywhere else, so I might as well mention it here. Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, the filmmakers behind the independent feature, Four Eyed Monsters have put together a cool little video on net neutrality. Definitely worth a look.

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Sunstein on Wikipedia

I’ve already mentioned this in the comments section to Jason’s MediaCommons blog post, but wanted to mention Cass Sunstein’s Washington Post editorial on Wikipedia here as well.

Sunstein describes Wikipedia as “one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity, that have been made possible by new technologies.” He also notes that Wikipedia is now cited four times as often as Encyclopedia Britannica in judicial opinions, but I think his definition of Wikipedia is perhaps more useful in illustrating how the site functions for me.

Update: Not related at all, but I also wanted to mention the interesting Washington Post article on Al Gore and the Oscar buzz surrounding An Inconvenient Truth. As I’ve said elsewhere, Gore’s presence in the film is so magnetic, it’s easy to forget David Guggenheim’s excellent work in making a well-crafted documentary, but Gore is obviously the biggest star here, even if I think the speculation that he’s planning a presidential run is probably wrong.

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Notes on a Scandal

I finally caught Notes on a Scandal (IMDB) tonight (we’re a little behind in Fayetteville), and while I wanted to like it, something about the film fell flat for me. I think that Patrick Marber’s (Closer, which I also found to be a bit overrated) screenplay and Richard Eyre’s direction seemed a bit forced, as if the film had to telegraph too much information about Barbara (Judi Dench), the prim, matronly, but creepy schoolteacher who develops a fondness for young, vulnerable, female teachers. This information is given to us through Barbara’s voice-over narration of her diaries, which we are immediately led to understand are unreliable, suggesting her character’s psychological instability and her lack of awareness of her own motives.

When Bathsheba (Cate Blanchett), the art teacher with a thrift-store chic, takes a job teaching at Barbara’s working-class high school and begins an affair with a 15-year old student, it becomes clear a little too quickly where their relationship is going (it could be that I saw the trailer a few too many times). The student-teacher affair is an interesting subplot, especially when it becomes clear that the student is, in many ways, the aggressor in the relationship, lying to Sheba and playing to her interest in art to win her sympathies, but I couldn’t help but think that if the filmmakers had trusted the audience a bit more, Notes could have been a more interesting, darker film. Add the somewhat undeveloped subplot of Sheba’s boredom with her marriage–she comments at one point that “marriage and kids, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t give you meaning”–and the film felt mildly dated (which might explain all of the Fatal Attraction comparisons).

There was a strain of dark comedy that seemed to emerge on occasion, such as when Barbara disdainfully describes Sheba’s family as “bourgeois bohemians” or when she sharply dismisses the school principal’s kinder and gentler methods of educating children, but those moments were displaced by the film’s need to explain Barbara’s actions too simply as sexual repression. I don’t really have time for a longer review right now, but it’s hard for me to resist the idea that Notes on a Scandal could have done more with the material that was available.

Update: Edited for corrections. I originally listed the screenwriter as Stephen Mamber. It was Patrick Marber. Perhaps I should stop blogging so late at night.

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Oscar Comments

Inside Higher Ed invited a panel of film, media, and popular culture scholars to weigh in with some Oscar predictions and analysis, and I’m one of them. I think that what’s interesting about the article is the “taste” question, when the panelists name the film that should win the Oscar, the film they liked best, in part because of the formal and political criteria that emerge in identifying an Oscar winner.

Of course, what I didn’t say in the article is that, as a documentary buff, I’m far more curious about how the best documentary categorty will play out. Iraq in Fragments is an incredible documentary, one of the best I’ve seen on the Iraq War, but I’d be incredibly curious to see the response if An Inconvenient Truth won.

By the way, I caught most of Rory Kennedy’s fascinating HBO documentary, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, last night. I’m not sure I completely buy Kennedy’s Milgram Experiment-inspired thesis that the guards actions can be explained because they internalized the military power structure, but the decision to explore the Abu Ghraib scandal through the testimony of former prisoners and interviews with the guards was an interesting one.

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The Great Wikipedia Debate

Via Altercation: A New York Times article on the decision of the Middlebury College history department to ban students from citing Wikipedia in their papers and exams. While I recognize that Wikipedia has its limits, I’ll join the chorus of those who think this policy is a bad idea, but this debate illustrates the degree to which educators will need to rethink how they teach academic research.

Like Jason Mittell, who is heavily quoted in the article, I think the history department’s policy misses a tremendous opportunity for thinking about changes in research methods and knowledge acquisition. In fact, like Jason, I have assignments in one of my classes requiring students to participate in a course blog and wiki. In my case, I have asked students to contribute to a course wiki rather than editing or adding to an existing wiki such as Wikipedia (others are obviously welcome to participate in the blog and the wiki). While the blog and wiki are relatively rudimentary, I think its useful to consider how these forms can inform our goals as educators and researchers. Such activities seem far more effective in thinking about information literacy than an outright ban on using certain sources.

That being said, I encourage students to think critically about such sources as Wikipedia, namely its status as an encyclopedia that offers very little in the way of specialized knowledge and one that may be more subject to factual errors than other encyclopedias. But banning Wikipedia prevents us from having some valuable conversations about how these online tools can be used.

Update: Tim Anderson has a useful defense of Wikipedia on the MediaCommons blog. I’m inclined to agree with Tim that Wikipedia can be especially useful in tracking popular culture ephemera that might otherwise fall beneath the academic radar or get caught up in academic publishing limbo. While he’s right to argue that Wikipedia may appear to be poor starting point for researching events or texts that have been discussed for decades, if not centuries, the site can be of value for those of us who teach and study popular culture.

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Looking for an Icon

As I watched Hans Pool and Maaik Krijgsman’s documentary, Looking for a Icon, I found myself thinking about Susan Sontag’s 2004 essay on the Abu Ghraib photographs, “What Have We Done.” Pool and Krijgsman’s film explores the iconic power of four of the photographs that won “World Press Photo of the Year” and have since become photographic icons: Eddie Adams’ 1968 photo of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, an anonymous photo of Salvador Allende taken soon before he was killed during the 1973 coup, Charlie Cole’s 1989 photograph of a solitary student standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, and David Turnley’s 1991 Gulf War photograph of a grieving U.S. soldier. As Sontag predicted, the Abu Ghraib photographs have become of the primary means by which the war in Iraq is understood: “Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what people recall of events, and it now seems likely that the defining association of people everywhere with the rotten war that the Americans launched preemptively in Iraq last year will be photographs of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the most infamous of Saddam Hussein’s prisons, Abu Ghraib.”

The iconic photograph of the Iraqi prisoner standing on the box, his arms outstretched with fake electrical wires attached to his fingers, loomed large over Looking for an Icon, appearing at first in the background on the computer monitor of Geoffrey Batchen before later becoming one of the key images by which the documentary sought to understand how photographs assume significant places in our image archive. The Abu Ghraib images remind us that the role of photographs in documenting history, specifically the hsitory of conflict, remain pertinent, while at the same time complicating the question not only of how photographs acquire their meaning, and by extension, their iconic status.

Looking for an Icon opens with a meditation on Eddie Adams’ 1968 photograph of the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, a photo that is now regarded as helping to turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. In an audio interview, Adams reports that he was “surprised” that the photograph led to widespread protests and, in fact, his photo actually had a mixed reception, with many letters to the editor arguing that the execution was justified. Of course, because Adams photograph did have tremendous power, Batchen argues that there has been a greater effort to control the images of war that we see, turning press photography into what he calls a “propaganda machine,” a pronouncement that seems somewhat reductive in my view, in part because the “press” has been redefined since the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War.

These questions of representation frame David Turnley’s memory of taking his famous 1991 photograph of an American soldier grieving for a fallen comrade. During the interview, Turnley comments that as he look at the photograph, he recognizes that he is sitting approximately where he was seated when the photo was taken, describing beautifully the identification between camera and viewer. While Turnley’s photograph has been described as iconic, Adriaan Manshouwer, one of the committee members for the World Press Photo Award, challenges such claims, arguing that the photo fails to capture the Iraqi experiences of the war. In this sense, the film is willing to challenge some of its central claims about how photographs become icons.

Perhaps the most powerful moment for me was the interview with Charlie Cole, who photographed the lone student confronting the tanks in Tiananmen Square. In the interview, Cole reports his desire to give the student’s action meaning, recalling that “If this kid is going to sacrifice his life, I owe it to him to tell his story, to make his life mean something.” The narratives of the photographers themselves were often quite powerful, suggesting the complicated role of the photographer in documenting history, questions that continue to confront us as the war in Iraq continues to haunt us with no end in sight.

Looking for an Icon is available via First Run/Icarus Films.

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Taxing Thoughts

Jason Mittell alerted me to a bill currently under consideration in the Arizona senate that would severely curtail academic freedom. According to Inside Higher Ed, if this bill were to become law, faculty members could be fined for endorsing “one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.” As Jason points out, such a law would essentially make it impossible for many faculty members to do their jobs.In my media courses, I consistently take poisitions on “partisan” issues such as media ownership, media ethics, advertising discourse, and political coverage. Like him, I feel little obligation to teach “both sides” of the debate when students are usually only given one side of the story. Fauclty members could also be fined for “endorsing, supporting or opposing any pending legislation, regulation or rule under consideration by local, state or federal agencies.” Professors who violate this rule would be fined $500.

If this bill became law, questions of what counts as “partisan” would also raise questions fields such as biology (evolution) and environmental science (global warming), although pro-business (free trade, Social Security privatization) positions should also be under challenge, and while the bill explicitly forbids “hindering military recruiting,” wouldn’t supporting the war or the neo-conservative rationalizations for it also be a “partisan political position?” Quite simply, the bill would make the task of teaching virtually impossible. As Jason points out, “to speak about a subject is to take a position on it.” While I think it’s unlikely that such a bill would ever become law, I think it’s worth calling this bill out as a dangerous piece of censorship and a threat to academic freedom.

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Interactive Oscar

Today’s buzz is that Oscar is joining the YouTube generation with a reworked website that will include games, quizzes, an Ellen DeGeneres videoblog, and, perhaps best of all, a “Thank You Cam,” which will allow winners to continue their speeches off-stage. You can guess randomly at Oscar trivia questions and take a quiz to find your ideal Oscar date (mine was Renee Zellweger, then, oddly, the game selected Charlize Theron when I answered questions “requesting” a short brunette).

It’s easy to make fun of some of this stuff, especially when one of the show’s creative consultants comments that, “All of the major sponsors of the Web site are holding sweepstakes, so it’s very interactive.” Of course, thus far, the site offers a fairly limited range of interactive features. I couldn’t find chat rooms or discussion boards where fans could gossip about the Oscars or talk about other awards ceremonies (or whatever). All of the “interaction” seems to be directed back towards the show. But the video clips with many of the 177 nominees, including those in relatively minor categories, look interesting (with the added bonus that the interviews were produced by Errol Morris).

Plus, I’ve just taken the “What Oscar character are you?” quiz and discovered that I’m Atticus Finch, so everything is all right.

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I’ve been menaing to watch Chuck Olsen’s Blogumentary for a while now and finally took some time this afternoon to watch it on Google Video. I had been following Olsen’s project for some time via his personal blog and knew that Olsen was an avid blogger who had a lot to say about this new medium. I think Blogumentary works best as a short video history of blogging, in providing an overview of how blogging fits within a rapidly changing media ecosystem. A few highlights for me:

  • A segment featuring an interview with film blogger Matthew Clayfield, whose blog I’ve been reading regularly for a couple of years.
  • Blogumentary is really good on the role of blogging in connecting people who might not otherwise meet. During one segment, Olsen describes meeting people andmaking freinds through links on his blogroll, concluding that “finding a blog you like is like making a friend.”
  • Olsen spends much of the documentary discussing whether blogs are a form of citizen journalism and how many bloggers define themselves against what often gets described as the mainstream media. Noting the role of bloggers in challenging racist comments by Trent Lott and in questioning the authenticity of the 60 Minutes report on Bush’s Air National Guard documents, Olsen explores this complicated relationship between print and television journalism and blog commentary. And the documentary is careful (and correct) to differentiate blogging from genuine journalism.
  • One of the more compelling segments of the documentary featured an interview with Stuart Hughes, a BBC journalist and blogger who was wounded during the first few months of the invasion of Iraq. Hughes eventually had part of his right leg amputated and credits his blog audience with suporting him through the recovery process, Olsen also describes a similar story of being able to counsel a friend who was going through an emotional crisis, again emphasizing the role of blogs in creating and sustaining communities.
  • An interesting discussion of the role of blogging in the Howard Dean campaign. I’m still relatively ambivalent about the contributions of blogging to the public sphere, and while I certainly embraced Howard Dean and Joe Trippi’s message of “people-powered politics,” I’m still skeptical about the degree to which political power has been decentralized, and the merciless attacks on the Edwards campaign bloggers, both of whom were eventually forced to resign, leaves me wondering to what extent blogs have shaped political discourse for the better (Olsen’s discussion of this controversy is quite good).
  • Olsen also addresses the blogging “gender gap,” the observation that while over half of all bloggers are female, most of the so-called A-List bloggers are male. I think this is an important question, but I’m also sure that I can’t do it justice in the space of a single bullet point.

I’m usually relatively resistant to anything that seeks to define blogging primarily as a tool for grassroots politics and citizen journalism, but Blogumentary does a good job of balancing those definitions with the role of blogs in keeping people connected and in fostering community. I think it’s a valuable contribution to our on-going discussions and definitions of blogging.

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