Archive for April, 2007

MIT 5 Links

Still recovering from a long weekend of conferencing and travel. There’s no easy way to travel from Fayetteville to most major cities, so I spent most of the day Sunday on various modes of transportation. But I very much enjoyed my first Media in Transition conference and will certainly try to return to the conference in the future. I probably won’t have time to blog the many panels and plenaries that I attended, so instead, I’ll try to point to some other people who have been posting about the conference, including Axel Bruns’ impressive report on my panel, “Culture 2.0.”

Other blog reports on MIT 5 are available from Jason (see especially his discussion of his lost panel), redline, Jill (who also notes the number of folks who Twittered the conference), Jean (who posted slides from her paper), Mike, and Tarleton Gillespie. While I’m thinking about it, I also want to mention Ravi Jain’s very cool videoblog, Drive Time, which Ravi discussed during the panel he shared with Mike.

Henry Jenkins also has an extended post requesting further comment as the organizers plan for MIT 6 as well as providing links to podcasts of the plenaries (a very cool idea). Reading all of the other conference posts and Twitters, I now wish that I’d made the effort to drag my laptop around Boston and Cambridge for the conference because the panels I attended gave me a lot to process as I move into summer writing mode.

Update: I completely forgot to mention that I met “cyborganize,” the person behind these great Battlestar commentary vlogs, which came across my path a few months ago when I was doing research for my “future of science fiction TV” paper. Also worth checking out, Jean has an extended post on the ways in which Twitter and blogs and other social networking technologies served to mediate the conference in various ways. Hoping to return to that point later, in part because I made the deliberate decision not to carry around my laptop for this particular conference (except on the last day when I had to read my paper off the monitor because of an unexpected printing problem).

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Bill Moyers: Buying the War

Bill Moyers is back on PBS tonight (at 9 PM in most locations) with an investigation of the reporting on the buildup to the war in Iraq. The special aims to explore not only how the Bush administration marketed the war but the role of the press in reporting it.

Also includes interviews with John Walcott and Warren Strobel, who were among the only skeptics regarding the Bush administration claims that Iraq had WMDs. Sounds interesting, and I’m glad to have Moyers back on PBS again (via Eric Alterman, who also points to Scott McLemee’s interesting IHE article on declining coverage of books in newspapers).

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Politics and the Public Domain

Via Atrios: Lawrence Lessig is heading up a bipartisan effort to request that the RNC and DNC allow convention and debate footage to be placed in the public domain or under a Creative Commons license. Such a move would allow campaign footage to be placed on sites such as YouTube or without fear of legal repercussion. It would also allow more people to participate in the political process. Like Lessig, I’m sure that I won’t like all of this user-generated content (politically or aesthetically), but I think, or at least hope, that placing this footage in the public domain will make for a more invigorating and inclusive debate.

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Mashups and Gender, Part 2

Just wanted to mention that Karina followed up on my question about gender and parody trailers in a column on the NewTeeVee blog. Her read helped to clarify a couple of points I’m working through in my article on trailer mashups.

Karina identifies a couple of cases that tested my speculation that “fake trailers are more commonly identified with male producers.” She first points to the very popular Scary Mary that reworks Mary Poppins as a horror film, but notes that the trailer reworks a “girl-friendly” text with a “masculine (and maybe even misogynist) gaze in mind.” Her second example, Notes on a Queen creatively mixes Notes on a Scandal and The Queen based on the “rivalry” between Oscar contenders Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. But, as Karina notes, the use of the Rocky theme still evokes a predominantly male genre.

All of which leaves open the question of why online parody seems to be a largely male domain. Karina’s observation about pop culture geared towards women seems like one reasonable hypothesis, although I would argue that Rocky IV through VI don’t need to be subverted any more than Pretty Woman or the other chick flicks that Karina names (that being said, I still think Rocky parodies are lots of fun). I’m in paper writing mode for the rest of the day but would continue to welcome suggestions or observations (including examples that might test the limits of this observation).

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A few months ago, I mentioned the launch of Ironweed, which bills itself as “a monthly progressive film festival on DVD.” My initial interest in Ironweed grew out of their use of a “DVD of the month” distribution strategy to support a progressive politics, but more recently, I’ve had a chance to review or revisit some of Ironweed’s recent offerings, including Deborah Scranton’s underrated The War Tapes (my review) and Ian Inaba’s American Blackout.

While American Blackout structures its narrative around the political career of former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, the documentary’s primary focus is the issue of voter disenfranchisement, a topic that continues to be relevant in the scandal at the Department of Justice (see also this article by Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers). As American Blackout astutely illustrates, the voting irregularities in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004 helped to feed a deeper cynicism regarding the election process. It was also interesting to revisit McKinney’s volatile political career, especially after closely following her short-lived return to office in the 2004 election.

I’m also very glad I had the chance to revisit The War Tapes, which was one of the first films I saw when I moved to Fayetteville, thanks to a special screening targeted toward soldiers serving at Fort Bragg. I think that what sets Scranton’s film apart from other war documentaries is her decision to show not only how the war affects the soldiers themselves but their families at home. Living in a military town and having a number of students who are married to soldiers, their stories really hit home for me this time, and most Iraq War documentaries haven’t really provided that perspective. I’ll try to do a little more writing about The War Tapes soon (I’m thinking about including it in my cinema and autobiography course next fall), but some other deadlines are demanding attention.

I’m also hoping to write a little further about Ironweed and the role that a progressive film club can serve. I think my original comparison with the Robert Greenwald documentary house parties still holds, especially given Ironweed’s more recent attempts to cultivate a larger progressive film community. The documentaries they distribute are often very timely and include a number of the more significant documentaries made over the last few years, including Sir, No Sir (my review) and Boys of Baraka, and Black Gold (which I still haven’t seen).

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RFD: Fake Trailers and Gender

Quick question: I’m working on my MIT 5 paper on trailer mashups, and I’ve been curious about something. I’ve noticed that many of the fake trailers that receive the most attention are for films that are more commonly associated with male audiences (Scorsese, Kubrick, etc).

I know that slash fiction, for example, is more frequently done by female authors, but I’m wondering if fake trailers are more commonly identified with male producers. The reason I ask is that I see these trailers as participating in the ongoing process of canonization of certain films by well-established directors. Of course, the parody wouldn’t work if audiences were unfamiliar with the original film, so maybe these choices reflect a canon that has already been established (it’s also interesting to observe how articles such as the ones I linked are also participating in a second-level form of canonization by preserving certain fake trailers as worthy of attention).

The paper itself is taking shape, but I happened to think about this question as I was writing and wanted to see if anyone had any thoughts about the issue.

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The Bank

Phil de Vellis, who made the “Vote Different” advertisement I wrote about for Flow, has returned with a new mashup that criticizes World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz (via MyDD). It’s an interesting video, one that makes good use of NBC’s The Office but one that may also require some knowledge of the World Bank to be entirely successful. The comments about the video at MyDD are also worth checking out.

Update: MyDD also links to a petition you can sign calling for Wolfowitz to be fired. Sign on, if you’re so inclined.

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Jump Cut 49

Just wanted to mention that a new issue of Jump Cut is now available. There’s quite a bit of reading material here, incluidng a special section on Chinese cinema, a spotlight on horror (including an essay on The Ring and the obsolescnece of VHS, a topic I tackled in a conference paper a long time ago), an interesting article on the role of gossip blogs in constructing stardom, an essay on the lost ancestor hoax in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, and an article on environmental skeptics and An Inconvenient Truth.

Also worth checking out, Julia Lesage’s article on social bookmarking, which I had the chance to read in a draft version a few weeks ago. Interesting stuff.

Update: In skimming the table of contents, I somehow missed this article on Iraq and Vietnam documentaries (thanks to a social bookmarking pal for pointing it out).

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Hollywood Is So Money

In a recent Hollywood Reporter article, Paul Bond reports that Wedbush Morgan Securities is predicting that 2007 will likely be a big year at the box office. The article cites Wedbush Morgan’s 40-page report, which asserts that predictions that new technologies would damage the exhibition industry were exaggerated. I’ve written quite a bit about these issues in my blog, and in general, I’ve tried to remain skeptical about these predictions of Hollywood’s decline.

And, in general, the Wedbush Morgan report sounds about right. Most of the people who purchase home theater systems and have Netflix memberships are also the people who have the disposable income to attend movies in theaters (as their research illustrates). I disagree, to some extent, with their assessment that the recent lull in theater attendance can be attributed to “poor quality” movies. Instead, what I see happening is that in the years 2003-2005, there simply weren’t as many movies with the high franchise potential. To suggest that “bad” movies are responsible, they cite a correlation between lower critics’ ratings and a slight decline in movie attendance, but that may simply be a coincidence because the taste of film reviewers and mainstream audiences is often quite a bit different. The article is useful, though, in dispelling the myth that movie theaters will be obsolete sometime next week.

Thanks to Michael for alerting me to the article (and check out his reading of a recent Variety article on how digital technologies have changed movie acting).

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Full Frame 2K7 Friday

In addition to the Jem Cohen films, I caught four other films on Friday at Full Frame (two features and two shorts). The first short, Alice Sees the Light, focused on light pollution using female narration and statistical information, underlining that information with visuals that depict our attachment to bright lights in the night sky. The other short, Liza Johnson’s South of Ten depicts a group of Mississippians recovering from the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina. Johnson uses a poetic, elegiac tone to show a number of haunting scenes, including most memorably, an elderly man who finds a trombone amidst the rubble left behind by the storm.

One of the features I caught on Friday was the environmental documentary, Everything’s Cool, which focused primarily on the efforts of people such as writer Bill McKibben, White House whistle-blower Rick Piltz, and and journalist Ross Gelbspan, as well as Weather Channel global warming expert, Dr. Heidi Cullen. Rather than merely making the argument that global warming is happening, the film explores the frustration these men feel about the slowness of the response to the global warming crisis. While the film clearly takes an activist stance, I found it more interesting as an illustration of the long battles that many of these activists faced in getting their story heard and accepted by resistant and often hostile members of the government and news media.

Finally, I caught Radiant City an anti-urban sprawl documentary that is likely to provoke some controversy if and when it receives a slightly wider audience (the title comes from a phrase used by French architect Le Corbusier). The film offers many of the usual anti-sprawl suspects, including James Howard Kunstler, who also appeared in The End of Suburbia, but Radiant City appears to be attempting something different, first by openly acknowledging that most suburbanites know the anti-suburb arguments but may find themselves with few options when inner-city housing is too expensive and too far from good schools.

At the same time, the film introduces us to a couple of typical suburban families, best represented by the Moss family where many of the tensions about suburban life play out. The father, Evan, decides to put on Suburb the Musical, a clearly satirical take on suburban life, while his wife, Ann, complains about Evan’s negative attitude towards suburban life. Notably, the family’s life is neatly planned out on a dry erase calendar color-coded for all the members of the family, but as we see at one point, the son quietly sabotages his mom’s best laid plans by erasing certain events and re-arranging others. The focus on a typical family recalls a number of reality TV shows (Wife Swap and Trading Spouses come to mind), but the references to Evan’s musical suggested something slightly different, as I’ll explain below the fold to avoid spoiling a key component of the film (but if you’ve seen the film I’d love to hear your interpretation of this element of the film).

Read the rest of this entry »

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Full Frame 2K7 Jem Cohen

Friday at Full Frame I had the chance to catch several great films, including three films by Jem Cohen, whose work often focuses on musicians, including Benjamin Smoke and the Fugazi doc, Instrument. Because the Cohen films were a major highlight of the festival, I want to cover them in some detail. One of Cohen’s films this year, Building a Broken Mousetrap focused on the Dutch punk band, The Ex, who played a show in New York City on September 11, 2004, just days after the Republican Convention. Cohen crosscut between some of the more compelling and intimate concert footage I’ve seen, much of it filmed on a 16mm Bolex in black-and-white, and footage filmed on the streets of New York, including shots of several of the anti-war protests at the Republican Convention. One of the highlights is a brief interlude in which Cohen was filming in front of an electronic store and a destitute, probably homeless, man remarks on the expensive prices of radios, noting that he would never pay $200 for a radio. The brief scene only adds to some of the marked contrasts between rich and poor (among other polarities) in a city such as New York.

Cohen’s other films were two shorts, Blessed are the Dreams of Men and NYC Weights and Measures. The former is a contemplative short feature filmed from the window of a bus traveling across Europe at 5 AM, its windows blurred by morning dew and its passengers sleeping awkwardly as rural and industrial landscapes rapidly replace each other. Dreams, like much of Cohen’s work, reminded me a bit of the opening sequence of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil in its contemplative, almost meditative, tone. NYC is a “short elegiac comment” on prohibitions against street photography in New York after 9/11. Cohen has an eye for interesting, unexpected images, and NYC beautifully illustrates that. The film concludes with a brief note telling us that at some point after 9/11, Cohen was stopped on the street while was filming and had the footage he had taken confiscated. Now, over a year later, that footage has yet to be returned.

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Full Frame 2K7 Saturday

After driving through a torrential downpour, I’m back in Fayetteville after two very cool days after seeing about a dozen documentaries–several of them shorts–at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham. I can recommend pretty much all of the films I saw with some degree of enthusiasm and will try to write short reviews for at least most of them, but the Fest was an opportunity to catch up with or meet several bloggers and filmmakers I’ve been reading, including the cinetrix, AJ Schnack, and Paul Harrill of Self-Reliant Filmmaking. Here are some quick mini-reviews from Saturday’s lineup, which I’ll follow up with the movies I caught on Friday.

My Saturday began with two films focusing on the war in Iraq and its aftermath. The feature, Meeting Resistance, is one of the most compelling documents to come out of the war in Iraq. The directors, Steve Connors and Molly Bingham, managed to gain access to several members of the Iraqi “insurgency” over the course of several months providing us with a compelling portrait of the resistance that challenges both media and official accounts. Meeting Resistance was preceded by James Longley’s short, Sari’s Mother, a portrait of an Iraqi woman caring for her son who contracted the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. Longley originally planned to include Sari’s Mother in his Academy Award-nominated documentary feature, Iraq in Fragments, and the short, at least in my experience, felt like a continuation of that project.

Later on Saturday I watched The Devil Came on Horseback, an emotionally powerful and provocative documentary about the genocide in Darfur, as told through the eyes of former US Marine Captain Brian Steidle. After his military service was complete in 2003, Steidle takes a job as a monitor for the African Union where he becomes one of the few witnesses to gain photographic evidence of genocide in the Darfur region. Steidle is clearly troubled by the fact that he was unable to do more than watch helplessly as these actions were taking place and similarly troubled by the lack of a clear government response. The film itself is a profound meditation on what it means to be a witness.

I finished Saturday with AJ’s Kurt Cobain About a Son (IMDB), which uses audio recordings of journalist Michael Azerrad’s interview with Cobain to allow the famous singer to tell his own story. AJ used images of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, including the lumber yard where Cobain’s father worked and the high school he attended, as well as Olympia and Seattle to tell Cobain’s story. While the film provides valuable access into Cobain’s personality, challenging many of the myths about the singer, it also works as a portrait of a specific place, of the Pacific northwest where Cobain lived. Kurt Cobain was paired with the humorous short, Talk to Me (see also), in which the filmmaker Mark Craig compiled twenty years of answering machine messages to narrate his life story over those two decades. I don’t think the movie would have worked as a feature, but as a short, it was a lot of fun and used the audio from answering machine messages very effectively.

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More Full Frame Links

Heading up to Durham tomorrow for Full Frame. For now, a few useful links to Indy Weekly’s coverage of the festival from David at Green Cine.

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Documentary and the Oscars

I don’t have time to write a full response to the ongoing debate about the changes in the Academy rules guiding the nomination process for documentary features, but the discussion speaks not only to the increasing prominence of documentary films in the public sphere but also the technological changes that are altering how motion pictures are distributed and exhibited. For now, I just want to map some of the key arguments in the debate, and hopefully, when I have some of that mythical free time, I’ll come back to these discussions.

As A.J. Schnack, whose Kurt Cobain doc I’ll be seeing this weekend, points out, the documentary category has long provoked heated (often political) debate, especially during a stretch in the 1980s and ’90s where a number of worthy and memorable films either failed to receive nominations or lost to other documentaries under suspicious circumstances (most famously, Roger & Me, The Thin Blue Line, Buena Vista Social Club, Four Little Girls, and Hoop Dreams). Schnack helpfully points to Carl Bromley’s 2001 Nation article, which focuses primarily on Wim Wenders’ disappointment at losing out to Arthur Cohn’s One Day in September, a documentary about the killing of several Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. Wenders’ complaints don’t take into account that One Day in September is actually a pretty compelling film, but Bromley’s article highlights the widespread position that the documentary committee often treated the genre like “cinematic Castor oil.” These complaints ultimately led to rule changes in 2003 that, Schnack suggests, may have finally helped documentary auteur Errol Morris finally win an Oscar for The Fog of War (the rules included an expansion in the number of cities where a film must play before being considered for a nomination).

The new changes in 2006 include a further strengthening of the number of cities in which a film plays (AJ has the details, and you can also see them in the Academy’s press release), which has led to a number of complaints from the documentary community, including this letter from Iraq in Fragments producer John Sinno, in which Sinno asserts (probably incorrectly) that Iraq in Fragments would not have qualified for a nomination. Worth noting: Sinno’s letter also complains about Jerry Seinfeld’s jokey introduction to the documentary category, a performance I found inoffensive but not terribly funny.

I do think some of the changes, including a relaxation of the technical standards, will make getting a nomination both cheaper and easier for filmmakers and show an awareness that interesting films can be made and distributed on a modest budget. And the Academy has wisely made a concession to films funded by “television entities,” narrowing the window between initial theatrical exhibition and TV broadcast considerably, with films now required to wait only 60 days after they have completed their rollout requirement.

At any rate, a few of the other key articles and blog entries in this discussion include: Agnes Varnum’s “Doc Oscar Rules Continued,” Sasha Stone’s “Acad Docs in Fragments,” Nikki Finke’s DHD piece, and Bilge Ebiri’s “Documentaries in the Oscar Ghetto.” More later, hopefully, but again, I think a lot of these questions come back to some interesting debates about changing technical standards and viewing contexts for documentary films. I think it also speaks to the increasing relevance of documentary filmmaking as a practice.

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Full Frame 2K7

I’m planning this at the last minute, but I may try to travel up to Durham this weekend for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. As usual, there are a number of interesting films on the schedule. Among the films/events I’m interested in checking out: AJ Schnack’s Kurt Cobain: About a Son; Jessica Yu’s Protagonist (her previous film was In the Realms of the Unreal); Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway; and Steve Connors and Molly Bingham’s Meeting Resistance. Mark Craig’s Talk to Me, which comiles twenty years of answering machine messages also sounds compelling. Other suggestions are welcome, but given my teaching schedule, I may only make it up to Durham, which is about one-two hours from Fayetteville, for one day.

Operation Homecoming, which I caught a few weeks ago is also playing. It should also be airing on PBS in the next few days. BTW, documentary bloggers, if you’re going to be in Durham, let me know and maybe we can grab a coffee or something.

Update: Oh, and I can’t believe that I forgot to mention that there will be a screening of three new Jem Cohen films. Chain is still one of my favorite films from the last two or three years.

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