Archive for March, 2007

Documenting Paparazzi

Via the cinetrix, Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s video, “Pictures of Assholes” ($alon). Gordon-Levitt, who appeared in Mysterious Skin and Brick, turned his camera back on a group of overzealous photographers. Introducing the video on his website, Gordon-Levitt offers an interesting critique of infotainment culture: “I do believe that the myth of ‘Celebrity’ is not just innocently shallow entertainment, but a powerful and fundamental part of a larger movement revolving around greed, apathy and hierarchy that is currently dragging us down, down, down, lower and scarier, and perhaps weaker than we’ve ever, ever been. Smile!”

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ParkRidge47 Speaks

Via Jill, a PoliticsTV interview with Phil de Vellis, the creator of the “Vote Different” viral video that has been getting a lot of play lately. De Vellis has some interesting things to say about his decision to post the video anonymously and the potential role of citizen media in the 2008 election. Not sure I have anything to add right now, but I’m thinking of expanding on some of the ideas in my Flow article, either into a longer essay or something else.

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The Whole Shebang of World Cinema…

…will soon be available at the click of a mouse. At least according to NYT movie reviewer Tony Scott. Scott speculates that you, the film viewer or internet user (or whatever you are), “will be able to watch whatever you want whenever you want in the setting of your choice. The handful of Web sites that now offer streaming or downloadable feature films, along with wider video on demand through the cable box or satellite dish, offer a glimpse of what is to come.” Consider me more than a little skeptical. Because Kristin Thompson has already ripped apart most of Scott’s claims, I won’t bother (Karina also has a nice summary of Thompson’s post). But I am fascinated by Scott’s desire for access to “the entire surviving history of movies,” even if he ignores the very technological, social, and institutional barriers that make such access virtually impossible.

Scott’s article is part of a series of NYT articles focusing on the brave new media world, with Manohla Dargis offering both praise and blame for the new video service, Jaman, which claims to be “pioneering social cinema.” Jaman offers a number of ultra-indie films for download and allows viewers to comment on films as they watch, creating their own virtual commentary tracks. I haven’t had time to explore Jaman’s offerings that closely, but my guess is that the longer features will continue to struggle to find an audience. Noah Robischon is somewhat more enthusiastic, pointing out that the films on Jaman “are the antithesis of mainstream,” and adding that the social networking features on Jaman and Joost will help viewers find new content. Robischon does acknowledge that most filmmakers are still going to see digital distribution as “a last resort,” but again, the article conjures up the image of an unlimited digital library available at the click of a mouse.

I may return to these articles in further detail in the next few days, if only because they are caught up in some of the same questions about the status and definition of cinema that appeared in the far gloomier articles by David Denby and Neal Gabler and because I’ll be addressing similar issues in my talk at the Media in Transition conference at the end of April.

Update: In other news, VHS is dead, at least according to Variety. Michael, correctly, begs to differ.

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Lazy Friday Video Links

Taking a mental break this afternoon from some of the work I should be doing, so instead I’m watching and linking to some of my favorite recent videos, many of them courtesy of Michael.

JibJab’s latest, “What We Call the News” is pretty good, a decent parody of cable news. Seems like they’ve been subject to a lot of backlash lately, which I don’t really get. Maybe I’m missing something?

Related: PoliticsTV’s Top Ten: The Greatest Political Web Videos of All Time. It’s an interesting list. JibJab’s “This Land,” Colbert’s White House Correspondents Dinner speech, and George Allen’s “macaca moment” are among the top videos, but so is the camera phone recording of Saddam Hussein’s execution, which doesn’t strike me as “political” exactly (at least in the narrow sense of the term). I’m becoming increasingly interested in conversations about “political” videos, so the PTV video has given me something to think about.

Michael also points to Nate & Matt Meet David Lynch, a video in which two guys randomly run into David Lynch, a cow, and an Inland Empire poster while he is promoting Laura Dern for Oscar consideration.

I’ve been planning to write something on Karina’s post about Jennicam and Justin.tv, but I haven’t had time. Karina writes that “Justin.tv, produced by a camera mounted on a man’s forehead, with a feed streamed live through a television studio inside a backpack, inverts the driving principles of JenniCam by replacing a single, intimate space with the entirety of the outside world. It’s no longer about voyeurism, because Justin himself isn’t revealing much of anything; he’s actually turning the spectators into the exhibitionists.” While you’re at it, be sure to check out David Letterman’s interview with Jennicam “star” Jennifer Ringley. Hoping to come back to this discussion at some point in the near future.

Finally, one of the funniest videos I’ve seen this week: Kermit the Frog covering Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song, “Hurt.”

Update: I forgot to mention the notorious videos of Lily Tomlin and director David O. Russell cursing each other out on the set of I [Heart] Huckabees. Also check out this hip hop remix of their fight and great re-enactment of one of their epic fights.

Update 2: And since everyone else is linking to it, I’ll join the club: The Seven-Minute Sopranos. Can’t wait for the new season to start.

Update 3: Oh, and via Michael on del.icio.us, I just came across the “final” version of Michael Wesch’s “The Machine is Us/ing Us.” Not sure I have anything to add to my comments on the previous version, but worth checking out.

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Reinventing Scholarly Publishing

I’ll have more to say about the changes that are taking place over at MediaCommons over the next few days, but for now, I just wanted to post a couple of pointers to some of the more important discussions that are taking place. During our editorial board meeting earlier this week, we generated a number of principles that will guide the new model of “open peer-to-peer review” that we hope MediaCommons will foster. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has posted an overview of these principles on the MediaCommons (MC) blog, and we’d all appreciate your feedback on them. I’m especially excited about the discussions of how MC can foster academic community and collegial support through digital networking technologies.

Kathleen has also posted the text of a talk she recently gave at the University of Buffalo, “Scholarly Publishing in the Age of the Internet.” The talk addresses some of the problems with blind peer review and how some of those problems might be addressed by what she has been calling “open peer-to-peer review,” as well as the challenges presented by the economics of academic publishing. Kathleen’s paper models this new mode of review in that it is published in Commentpress , a publishing tool built on WordPress blogging software that allows readers to comment on individual paragraphs or pages in addition to an entire document. Obviously such a tool could be valuable for fostering conversations about academic texts (see, for example, this page from Kathleen’s paper or this version of the Iraq Study Group Report). No matter what, there are some great conversations taking place about academic publishing, and I’d like to see as much participation as possible.

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MediaCommons and Post-Identity

Just wanted to mention that I have a new article in a special issue of the journal Post-Identity. The special issue focuses on the topic of “New Writing for New Media” and features what looks like a great collection of essays on videoblogging, e-cinema, and other similar topics.

I’m planning to write up a longer report about this week’s MediaCommons editorial board meeting when my allergies stop raging, but I will say that the meeting itself was very exciting. We were introduced to a number of new publishing technologies that will enable much more flexible uses of text and video, but I think we also had some valuable conversations about rethinking peer review and academic community (Jason Mittell has some valuable comments about these topics). Look for a number of exciting projects in the near future. By the way, Faye Ginsburg’s In Media Res post on Amanda Baggs’ video, “In My Language,” is worth checking out.

Oh, and while we weren’t rethinking the concept of peer review, some of us even played some serious Wii Tennis. Check out my killer backhand and my mad volley skills.

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The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair

During Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s 2005 documentary Gunner Palace, soldiers from the 2/3 Field Artillery conduct a midnight raid on an Iraqi home where a group of brothers are rumored to be manufacturing weapons. One of the brothers, Yunis Khatayer Abbas, is a journalist who is fluent in English. He denies that he is manufacturing weapons, mouthing off to the soldiers for repeatedly telling him to “shut up,” but the soldiers detain him anyway, and Tucker reports in voice-over that Abbas was sent to Abu Ghraib prison. We learn little else about Abbas at that point, and because the film was released soon after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke, I was left wanting to learn more about his story. This lost thread also points to one of the weaknesses of Gunner Palace, its “myopic” focus only on the experiences of the soldiers preventing us from seeing the horrors of the war from an Iraqi point of view (see Manohla Dargis on this point).

Tucker and Epperlein have answered those questions (and raised a few others) with their intriguing new documentary, The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair (IMDB). For the most part, The Prisoner is a straight first-person documentary, focusing on Abbas’s story–his career as a journalist during Saddam Hussein, his experiences covering the war in Iraq, and finally, his experiences as a prisoner in Abu Ghraib, where he learned that he was suspected of plotting to kill British prime minister Tony Blair. Abbas also describes the torture he experienced under Saddam Hussein’s regime as well as the torture he experienced at Abu Ghraib (an American soldier confirms that Abbas was mistreated and clearly remembers him fondly). Abbas’s story is carried along in part with Petra Epperlein’s bold, pop art illustrations and by footage recorded by Abbas of the war that damaged his country. Abbas himself is an engaging storyteller, his impulses as a journalist clearly coming through as he narrates his experiences.

As Dargis also notes, the story is depressing and frightening, in part because Abbas is only one of many Iraqis to endure similar treatment during the course of the war. Because the war in Iraq has now lasted well over four years, I’m not terribly confident that it will receive nearly the audience or attention that Gunner Palace did, but I think it deserves a wider audience, if only because it’s telling a somewhat more difficult story about the war and its effects on Iraqi civilians.

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Hillary 1984

I’ve been traveling, so I didn’t have time to mention it until now, but my latest Flow column, “Why 2008 Won’t Be Like 1984:” Viral Videos and Presidential Politics, is now posted. While you’re in the neighborhood, check out Flow’s new website.

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Calvert DeForest, RIP

Goodbye to one of the most memorable characters in the history of late night television, Larry “Bud” Melman. I had forgotten that he introduced the very first episode of Letterman’s show, but as usual, the evidence is on YouTube.

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Four

Somehow I lost track of the fact that this week marks four years of blogging for me. But instead of writing yet another long post about how my blogging practices have changed over the last [insert number] years, I’d rather link to a few of my morning coffee reads:

  • Chris at Category D has a reminder about what sounds like a pretty cool conference, “Media History: What are the Issues?” Added bonus: the conference is in Austin, one of the coolest cities in the country.
  • That Little Round-Headed Boy mentions that it’s Spike Lee’s 50th birthday, using that as an opportunity to revisit Lee’s masterful Do the Right Thing. I’m tempted to agree with TLRHB that Lee is one of the “most interesting” (and prolific) contemporary directors. Everybody has been complaining for years that Marty had never won an Oscar. What about Spike?
  • Twittervision, a Google Maps/Twitter mashup, shows you what the whole world is thinking, one Twitter post at a time
  • I watched Inland Empire (IMDB) Saturday night. For a variety of reasons (mostly grading), I don’t have time to write a full review, but it’s one of the more compelling films I’ve seen in a long time, all the more so because of Lynch’s experimental approach (which included writing the screenplay as he was filming). Manohla Dargis of The New York Times liked it for similar reasons: “Like the surrealist practice of automatic writing, the film feels as if it could have been made in a trance, dredged up from within.” Like her, I found the film somewhat less approachable than Lynch’s earlier Mulholland Drive, but Inland Empire is definitely a film I’d like to revisit in the future.

Update: By the way, I haven’t mentioned MediaCommons in a while, but because I’ll be flying up to New Jersey for an editorial board meeting next week, I just wanted to point out that in addition to the In Media Res columns, there are a number of interesting project proposals that are starting to appear. More later.

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Constructing Authenticity

Jose Antonio Vargas has an interesting Washington Post article suggesting that various presidential candidates have struggled to adapt to the medium of web video. Vargas notes that John Edwards’s most popular video, his announcement that he is running for president, has only been viewed 116,000 times, a few thousand less views than the satirical “John Edwards Feeling Pretty.” Vargas cites James Kotecki, a Georgetown University student and YouTube mini-celebrity (Dennis Kucinich even responds to Kotecki in one of his videos), who speculates that the campaign videos are falling flat because the candidates do not understand the medium, that their videos lack the irreverence and “authenticity” inherent to (or at least popular in) the web video form. Others who have thought quite a bit about web video, including Jeff Jarvis and Micah Sifry echo the desire for what Sifry calls “that rare, unscripted, revealing moment.”

My use of scare quotes indicates my own skepticism regarding the concept of authenticity when it comes to presidential politics, and this probably has to do with how authenticity itself is a construction, a carefully crafted strategy to define the candidate in a specific way.Jarvis and Sifry both cite the example of a video featuring conservative British politician David Cameron washing dishes, his child crying in the background, as an authentic or “unscripted” moment. While there are unscripted elements, especially Cameron’s interaction with his child, it seems significant that authenticity is explicitly tied to domesticity, to the family home. I’m not faulting the video at all (In fact it’s pretty interesting and better than a number of similar videos); I’m just skeptical about how the video establishes itself as conveying something authentic about the candidate, or more generally, what we’re talking about when we use the word “authenticity” in the first place.

Still, it’s an interesting argument, but I think the lack of viewership may also reflect a lack of interest in an election that is still twenty months away (even the Iowa caucuses are months away). It also points to the fairly narrow line that candidates will have to navigate, especially given that what happens on YouTube won’t necessarily stay there. I’m still convinced that the more interesting uses of web video will not be by the campaigns themselves but by the political junkies and others who are watching and participating in the process in new ways.

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Little Children

During a key moment in Todd Field’s Little Children (IMDB), Sarah (Kate Winslet), a graduate student-turned-stay-at-home mom, finds herself discussing Madame Bovary at a book club. Most of the women in the book club, with one exception, are significantly older than Sarah, and as she is drawn into discussion, Sarah increasingly finds herself identifying with Flaubert’s famous adulterous heroine. Like Madame Bovary, Sarah finds herself stifled by her suburban life and bored by the other moms who typically serve as her companions at the local park where she takes her daughter, particularly one mom who insists on keeping her kids’ lives perfectly scheduled and who chides Sarah for her absent-mindedness.

Sarah’s boredom is interrupted by the arrival of the town’s one stay-at-home dad, the likable but blank Brad, a former college athlete who is seemingly emasculated by fatherhood and multiple failed attempts at the bar exam. Sarah and Brad bond almost by accident, hugging and then briefly kissing to shock the other moms who watch nearby before marching off in a huff of disapproval. But as they continue to talk, both Brad and Sarah become intoxicated as much by the thrill of escape as anything else.

Their story is countered by the better known but more marginal subplot about Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a convicted sex offender, who is released into the custody of his mother who lives in the same suburb. A former police officer Larry harasses Ronnie by putting up posters about him and yelling insults through a megaphone on his lawn late at night). And while I found Earle’s performance powerfully sympathetic, I never found the coupling of these two plots fully convincing. AO Scott offers a more affirmative reading of the film, noting that Ronnie and Larry are as “deeply connected as Brad and Sarah: they are symbols of failure, frustration and the ineradicable consequences of what earlier Massachusetts townspeople would not have hesitated to call sin.”

Scott’s reading makes sense but, like Ella Taylor, I never quite got what made Sarah and Brad’s life all that tedious. Both have comfortable lives, but more crucially, I never quite get the sense that Sarah and Brad consider themselves failures as much as they’re simply bored with their lives. This boredom relies almost entirely on the film’s utter disdain for suburbia, for the apparently bland upper-middle class lives in which the mere mention of adultery will send shock waves through the neighborhood. I’m certainly no fan of suburbia, but I found the film’s shorthand use of suburbia to stand in for Sarah and Brad’s tedium to be one floating paper bag away from American Beauty (and that’s not a compliment). Although, to be fair, I don’t think I found the suburban parents to be quite as shrill as Taylor implies, especially given the parental impulse to protect children from dangers real and perceived.

Taylor also reminded me that like Field’s previous film, In the Bedroom, Little Children relies on a relatively absurd plot twist, in this case involving Ronnie’s self-punishment for his own pedophilia. Field does bring out some interesting performances, which almost made the film work for me until the film’s ending, which, as I’ve tried to imply, left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

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Free Is the Best Price

Hey, this is pretty cool. The New York Times has decided to make its Times Select features available for free to any student or faculty member with a valid college or university e-mail address, and that includes me! Now I can read about Tom Friedman’s trips to Malaysia and chuckle at David Brooks’s oh-so-snarky digs at blue-staters like me (and make fun of them in this very blog)!

In all seriousness, I think this is a pretty good idea in that it will bring additional traffic to the Times columns and, by extension, add value to those columns. I’d almost stopped reading the Times online because of the Times Select feature that blocked much of the newspaper’s content (thanks to Thers, posting on Eschaton, for the news).

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Gabler Revisited

A few days ago, I wrote a relatively lazy takedown of Neal Gabler’s LA Times op-ed, “The Movie Magic is Gone.” At the time, I was more interested in taking on some of his claims about the centrality of movie culture and about what he diagnoses as a culture of narcissism associated with the new social networking technologies. But Kristin Thompson’s insightful analysis of Gabler’s editorial has led me to revisit some of my original claims. Essentially, Thompson identifies seven different ways in which Gabler’s article is completely wrong, and this is yet another quick attempt to hit a few highlights.

First, I think she’s right to be skeptical regarding Gabler’s assertion of a box office decline, especially if that decline is measured from 2002, which was a hugely successful year for the film industry with four major franchise films hitting theaters (Spider-man, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars). Thompson and David Bordwell make a strong case that annual attendance has been relatively stable, and these numbers, of course, don’t begin to reflect non-theatrical audiences, which vastly outnumber the audiences in movie theaters.

Second, she challenges Gabler’s claim that movies are no longer the “democratic art” they were in the 20th century. This claim seems perhaps the most absurd of all of Gabler’s arguments. Given the emergence of a number of energetic film blogging communities, debates about movies may be more democratic than ever before. I’m still convinced that movies allow us to work through some of our big cultural debates through the mediation of film texts. While Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth is one obvious example, the current box office champ, Zack Snyder’s 300, which I haven’t had time to see, might be another example, especially with the allegorical Iraq War readings that have been circulating across the internet. While these readings may go well beyond Snyder’s intentions, they do speak to the ongoing importance of questions about representation in the cinema. On a related note, Thompson takes apart the notion that movies have lost their communal appeal in their search for “niche markets,” noting that genre films have, for a long time, sought to appeal to what are now called niche audiences.

Thompson is also correct to challenge Gabler’s thesis that filmgoing has been eclipsed by what he calls “knowingness,” the idea that we are more interested in film gossip than in the movies themselves. In my original entry, I made a snarky and mildly satirical comment that I am more interested in TomKat gossip than I am in Cruise’s latest movie. To some extent, that’s probably true, but as Thompson points out, studio publicists are only too happy to collaborate with the infotainment industry, which suggests that the studios clearly benefit from all of that attention to the intimate lives of celebrities.

I think my comments about YouTube in my initial response to Gabler more or less echo Thompson’s. Yes, audiences appear to be more active in producing their own entertainment, but much of this content is based upon films and television series, including reworked trailers, slash videos, and other texts that draw from Hollywood films. If anything YouTube is a testimony to the fact that movie cultures are alive and well, that fans continue to be invested in movies as a medium, whether they encounter them in theaters, on DVD, or online. Finally, Thompson points to the vibrant film festival culture, which increasingly supports a network of indie and DIY films, as further evidence of the ongoing interest in movies.

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Instant Karma Action Figure

I forgot to mention that while I was in Chicago, I saw what has to be one of the best action figures I’ve seen in a long time in the window of a comic book store near Belmont and Clark: a John Lennon action figure based on his look during his New York City years. Tim also saw the action figure and tracked down an image, and discovered that the action figure was licensed by Yoko Ono and apparently has a sound chip allowing it to repeat a number of “Lennonisms.”

NYlennon.jpg

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