Archive for April, 2007

What Are You Reading?

In the hopes of starting a mini-meme, I’m pointing to Girish’s recent post, which asks a very simple question: What are you reading? When I first moved to Fayetteville, I made some effort to participate in Dr. Crazy’s Reading for Pleasure Wednesdays, but then the fall semester started and I wasn’t really reading enough to participate consistently. But I like the idea of doing a reading post every few weeks or months to get suggestions from other bloggers about what I should be reading.

Like Girish, I sometimes spend several weeks or months working on a book, picking it, starting it, and returning to it weeks or even months later. Also, when I lived in DC, I would read on the subway or while waiting for a movie to start. In Fayetteville, I rarely find myself in situations where I have to wait, and so my time for pleasure reading has diminished somewhat. The good news is that because I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately, I’ve had a little more time to read than usual, so here a few of the books I’m reading. And, if you feel so inclined, feel free to offer suggestions here in the comments or over at Girish’s place (or create your own post).

At any rate, for whatever reason, I’ve been in the mood for non-fiction lately. This is partially due to the fact that I’m planning to teach a senior-level course on autobiography in the fall, and I may include a couple of memoirs in the reading list (of course, this is really just an excuse to feed my compulsion to collect and buy a bunch of books). So I’m either reading or planning to read the following:

Memoir: Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club; Allen Shawn, Wish I Could Be There: Notes on a Phobic Life; and Hugo Hamilton, The Speckled People. On the way from Amazon: Colby Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq (after seeing Operation Homecoming).

Other non-fiction: Craig Seligman, Sontag & Kael; Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City; and Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. Planning to read: Ross Melnick and Andreas Fuchs, Cinema Treasures: A New Look at Classic Movie Theaters.

Fiction: I came across Max Barry’s latest, Company, and may try to read that (in part because I thought Jennifer Government was incredibly funny), and I’m also planning to read Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document.

Update: At the suggestion of several cool people, including the folks at >> mind the__GAP*, I’ve been reading some of Bruno Latour’s recent work on the politics of things, including his Introduction to Making things Public and Reassembling the Social.

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Just Say Yes

I’m in the process of taking Google Analytics for a test drive on my blog, in part because Site Meter has been working inconsistently lately, so this is a test post just to make sure everything is still working okay. But I’ll also use this post as an excuse to link to some funny and interesting videos, all courtesy of Eli at The Recycled Cinema.

First, Eli’s collection of the best movie mashups includes some old favorites (Shining as family comedy) and some that are new to me (2001 Goodfellas and C for Cookie, which mixes V for Vendetta with Sesame Street).

He also points to Cliff Roth’s The Reagans on Drugs, which remixes the Reagans’ “Just Say No” speech.

And since I’m working on these issues, I should also mention Eli’s essay on “Found Footage on the Internet.” Like him, I’m thinking about these films in terms of detournement and culture jamming, but I also think he’s right to complicate these terms as they apply to “found footage” on the Internet.


Short Attention Span Saturday

Completely distracted today, so why fight it? Here are a few more links that I’ve been checking out this afternoon. First, via Feministing, the news that Kiri Davis’sA Girl Like Me” is up for a $10,000 prize from CosmoGirl (all three finalists are worth checking out, so go there, watch the films and vote).

Second, on her website, Miranda July playfully promotes her new collection of stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You. For more on July’s creatively low-tech approach, see Bob Stein’s post at the if:book blog. July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know remains one of my favorite films from the last two or three years, so I’m looking forward to checking out this collection, maybe after classes are over.

Finally, an interesting Deadline Hollywood Daily post on Grindhouse’s disappointing box office. It’s expected to do only $13 million or so, far less than the predicted $20-25 million. Bad news for the Weinsteins, but I wonder if this is one film that will benefit from word-of-mouth and/or eventual DVD sales. I’m not sure I have an answer for that question, but given that Tarantino’s biggest successes (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) are 13-15 years old, is Tarantino’s audience increasingly becoming the kind of audience that will encounter films at home? Rodriguez is obviously a more complicated case here, but QT’s star power as a director was probably a bigger selling point for Grindhouse. Worth noting: the three-hour screening time probably doesn’t help box office very much.

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In one of Grindhouse’s (IMDB) ubiquitous chase scenes, we get a fleeting glimpse of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse, the movie theater that represents a kind of mecca for film geeks. The shot is clearly no accident, of course, and I think it provides the best illustration for the kinds of shared cinematic pleasures that the film seeks to evoke.

Grindhouse allows Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino get their film geek on, paying tribute not only to the trashy high-concept horror films of the 1960s and 70s but the grindhouse theatrical experience itself. As A.O. Scott observes, Grindhouse is less interested in a certain style or genre than in a “lost ambience of moviegoing.” The film, as many critics have noted, is a double-feature, with Rodriguez’s zombies-in-Texas flick, “Planet Terror” opening for Tarantino’s car chase thriller, “Death Proof,” in which Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) has created a car that is, well, death-proof. In between the features, we get a brief intermission featuring parody trailers for horror films made by Rob Zombie and Eli Roth (among others), and the film itself seems to be plagued by technological glitches–reels are missing, the weathered film appears to pop and crackle. In short, Grindhouse is meant to evoke the decaying multiplexes described by David Denby in a recent New Yorker article.

As a bit of a film geek fascinated by the moviegoing experience, I enjoyed the film’s unabashed nostalgia for the tawdry pleasures watching these movies offered. Of course, as Scott points out, the joke is that most of these gags–the snapping and popping of the film, the missing reels (during the sex scene, of course)–were produced digitally, but again, that’s part of the fun. And, of course, the playfully “bad” filmmaking–the awkward cuts, the random close-ups–are part of the fun, too. Still, there was something strange about watching a movie meant to evoke those tawdry 1970s movie houses in the local art house, and sometimes, watching Grindhouse felt more like an academic exercise than anything else.

The individual features themselves went on a little too long, I think. Like Drew, I felt that Rodriguez’s zombies-deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas feature was pretty much on assignment. The bravura elements–Rose Macgowan’s go-go dancer Cherry Darling being outfitted with a machine gun as a prosthetic leg–were just goofy enough to be funny, but I’m not sure that Rodriguez did anything terribly new.

My initial reaction to Tarantino’s segment was that the pop-culture heavy dialogue felt like a lazier version of the conversations in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction where characters deconstruct everything from Madonna to kung fu movies. But a comment to Drew’s post has me convinced that there’s a little more happening than I initially noticed. As usual, Tarantino mixes a number of genres (slasher, car chase, blaxploitation), and the car chase scene offers one of the giddiest illustrations of the sexualization of cars imaginable. Still, I think, perhaps unlike Drew, I wanted more of the crackling Tarantino quips and self-referential humor. Given that Reservoir Dogs is now fifteen (!) years old, I’m starting to find myself becoming nostalgic for the moviegoing pleasures of the early 1990s and the excitement that Tarantino’s earliest films offered.

Update: The Guardian film blog has a nice round-up of the critical take on Grindhouse across the blogosphere. And I’d say that even if they didn’t mention me.

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Ghost Maps, Laptops, and Wikis

Getting a bit of a late start this morning, but here are a few links worth checking out. First, fellow Wordherder Jason interviewed Steven Berlin Johnson (blog) for PopMatters. The interview focuses primarily on Johnson’s most recent book, The Ghost Map, but Johnson also discusses books from earlier in his career. Scroll way down for a YouTube clip of Johnson discussing Ghost Map.

Interesting Wired article, The TV Is Dead. Long Live the TV, which tracks the ongoing fragmentation of the television audience. According to the article, the average television viewer now has over 100 television channels. Not that we have time to watch TV now that we’re all on YouTube.

Jason’s discussion of his class wiki project illustrates some of the unintended consequences of incorporating technology in the classroom. My wiki assignment hasn’t worked this semester, and I think that’s probably the result of not defining my expectations for the assignment very clearly.

Related: a Wikieducator tutorial on setting up a wiki and David Cole’s Washington Post editorial on laptop use in college classrooms. Cole explains why he has chosen to ban laptops from his law classes, arguing that laptops offer too many distractions and often inhibit class discussion as students frantically transcribe notes rather than engaging with ideas. Cole’s argument is interesting, although I’m not quite sure that I’m fully convinced that an outright ban is beneficial. In my “Technology in the Classroom” class, we’ve been considering how to use technologies (podcast lectures, blogs) to make better use of class time, and in that sense, laptops might be a distraction, but in other circumstances, I’ve benefited from having students do a quick Google search on a topic pertinent to class discussion (in fact some of my best class discussions have taken place in computer classrooms). Curious to know what others think.


Behind the Bush

This is really cool: that CSPAN video of Dick Cheney lurking in the White House gardens during a Bush press conference with Radiohead’s “Creep” playing [h/t to Kottke and my network].

Another good Cheney vid from a few months ago: “Impeach Cheney First,” to the tune of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang,” with the added bonus of a Lego re-creation of Cheney’s hunting accident.

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Lazy Friday Videos

Video inspirations of the day: First, via an email tip, “It’s Raining 300 Men” and “If Dick Cheney Was Scarface.” [Update: I just realized the Cheney video is a couple of years old, but somehow I’d missed it until now.]

Also, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing retold using Fisher Price Sesame Street toys. Via Michael, who raises a question I’ve been mulling for a while now.

In pointing to Virginia Heffernan’s article on that Seven-Minute Sopranos video, Michael observes that attention from the mainstream press serves as “a kind of endorsement of value” for these videos that seem to come out of nowhere. I’ve been trying to think through how certain videos become valued or recognized as objects worthy of attention (or study) and what that means. There’s an interesting tension between the novelty of those videos that seem to come out of nowhere (LG15, Vote Different, etc) and their eventual contextualization (and popularization) in MSM articles that ought to be addressed in some detail. Obviously the artists behind these videos are often rigging the system, parodying or playing off of better known cultural texts (300, Scarface, The Sporanos the Apple 1984 ad) in order to find the wider audience MSM attention brings.

But what I like about Heffernan’s article is the interpretive tension that she describes when it comes to the “Sopranos” vid. Noting that some viewers see the video as an homage while others see it as a parody, Heffernan illustrates the degree to which these videos sometimes remain elusive, beyond the easy interpretation that categories such as authorship provide.


Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

In “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin observed that soldiers returning from the First World War returned from the war “not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” In the essay, Benjamin illustrates the challenges of putting the experiences of mechanical warfare into narrative form. This difficulty of communicating the experience of war has provided a challenge for writers and filmmakers who have attempted to describe soldiers’ experiences, as we saw in a number of Iraq War documentaries, including Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, as well as the fictional adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War memoir, Jarhead, but as the Iraq War continues to unfold, we are again faced with the challenges of putting the events of the war into narrative form.

In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts created the “Operation Homecoming” program to help soldiers write about their experiences during the war. The program, which featured a range of writers including Tom Clancy, Mark Bowden, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Tobias Wolff, inspired an anthology of journal entries, short stories, poems, and other writings, and now some of these writings have been compiled in the documentary film, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (IMDB), which is set to air on PBS stations on April 16, as part of their “America at a Crossroads” series.

Operation Homecoming, directed by Richard E. Robbins, takes on the challenge of putting the soldiers’ stories into visual form. The film mixes dramatic readings of the soldiers’ writings by actors including Aaron Eckhart, Blair Underwood, and Beau Bridges with interviews with the soldiers and other writers, including Tim O’Brien, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Tobias Wolff. In all cases, the soldiers’ stories return to the question of using narrative to make sense of their experiences, and the value of this documentary is, in part, its illustration of the varied approaches the soldiers take in trying to represent their wartime experiences. These stories are represented visually through a variety of techniques, including a memorable animated sequence recalling the blocky images seen in graphic novels to illustrate Colby Buzzell’s story, “Men in Black,” as well as a variety of visual styles designed to distinguish each individual story.

The segments touch on a variety of aspects of the war experience. In “Medevac Missions,” Ed Hrivnak describes the experience of attending to wounded soldiers and speculates about how the soldiers will cope after they return home from the war in language that recalled, probably unintentionally, the Walter Reed scandal and the very problems with the medical treatment soldiers have received. Edward Gyokeres’ “Camp Muckamungus” uses dark humor to capture some aspects of the absurdity of war, creating what he calls “a primer for desert life.” And Jack Lewis’s “Roadwork” describes the experience of identifying with an Iraqi man who had lost his son.

The film typically avoids taking an explicit political position on the war, and as a critic of the decision to go to war in Iraq, I sometimes wanted a documentary that took a more explicit anti-war position. And as someone who has written quite a bit about grunts’ eye documentaries, I also wonder whether these documentaries romanticize the war, but I think that Homecoming underplays that impulse to some extent. As Robbins observes in an interview, “we wanted to talk about the human side, the personal, the experiential.” Of course, it’s impossible to completely avoid “politics” when it comes to representations of war, but my sense is that the film’s relationship to the war is an ambivalent one. As Buzzell observes in “Men in Black,” one of the goals of such a project is not to take a position on the war but to continue writing and, therefore, continue living.

Update: Just came across a blog promoting Buzzell’s book, My War, which I’d love to read at some point in the future.

Update 2: Also worth checking out: this Janice Page Boston Globe review of Operation Homecoming. I think she’s right to emphasize the fact that the film is about the writer’s ability to be a “witness.”

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Wednesday Afternoon Videos

Working on a couple of projects this afternoon, one of which includes some further thinking about political mashups (currently working through some of Howard Rheingold’s ideas on participatory media literacy). But I also came across a couple of cool movie trailer remixes that I don’t want to lose.

First, check out Davis Jung’s “Last Lion King of Scotland,” which nicely remixes the Idi Amin biopic with the Disney film. Davis raises some interesting questions in his artist’s statement, and the video is a nice remix not only of two very different films but also a useful take on the rhetoric of movie trailers in general.

I’m not sure how long this remix of Little Miss Sunshine into a horror film has been around, but it’s pretty funny, although I’ll admit that my enjoyment probably comes from being caught up in the backlash against LMS.


Onion News Network

Quick pointer to the new Onion News Network, The Onion’s new web video newscasts. So far, they only have three videos posted, one on illegal immigration (which doubles as a critique of corporate crime), another on Condoleezza Rice, and a third on using Civil War re-enactors in the Iraq War, but it’s interesting to see the deadpan humor of the Onion being deployed in a parody of the breathless fear and paranoia of cable news. NYT’s Virginia Heffernan has a longer review [h/t to Michael].

Speaking of cable news, Mark Andrejevic put together a nice mashup of Fox News clips for today’s In Media Res clip.


Same Name Game

Odd coincidence: just minutes after watching Alan Berliner’s 2001 documentary, The Sweetest Sound, in which Berliner explores his ambivalence about sharing his name with dozens of other people, I came across Chris’s blog post about sharing a name with an NBC news personality. Berliner’s documentary is a pretty cool meditation on the relationship between names and identity, a topic that becomes even more interesting when Berliner explores the uncertain origins of his last name.

But the documentary raised a number of interesting questions for me. The relationship between naming and identity is always complicated for me, especially since I’m a “junior” and share my name with my father. Berliner also mentions using the Internet as both a research tool (“egosurfing” to find other Alan Berliners) and a means of establishing a legacy, but I wonder to what extent the web has made people more conscious of all the other people out there who share their name. I know that when I’ve been on the job market, I’ve done my share of vanity Google searches just to find out what other Chuck Tryons are out there. Turns out there’s a management expert, a computer programmer and fantasy writer, an expert on fly fishing in Missouri, and a police officer in Texas. It also turns out that I’m avoiding linking to them because I don’t want them to get page rank over me.

In order to sound a little less threatened by the fact that I share my name with a few dozen complete strangers, I’ll add that what I liked best about The Sweetest Sound was Berliner’s use of home movie footage as means of thinking through these identity issues. And I’ll add that I’m doing a course on autobiographical film and video in the fall and Berliner’s films and videos might work well in that course.

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Sunday Links

Via Dr. Mabuse, news that the Visible Evidence community now has a list-serv. Visible Evidence is an academic community focused on the study of documentary images. They have an annual conference (next year’s conference will be in Bochum, Germany) and an associated book series published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Brian Flemming points to the YouTube interview with Phil de Vellis, creator of the Hillary 1984 video and raises an interesting point: “The weird thing is that YouTube is giving its implicit endorsement to a video that probably could have been red-flagged off of YouTube back before it was popular.” I don’t think YouTube’s behavior is that unusual here. Isn’t their usual practice to leave content online until somebody complains? No matter what, Brian’s larger point that such content should be protected under the fair use doctrine is the more important issue.

Ryan Stewart of Cinematical responds to Kristin Thompson’s discussion of A.O. Scott’s article on the future of movies. I’ve already written at length about the Scott article, but I’d like to address Stewart’s argument that “Thompson misuses Scott’s phrase ‘surviving history of movies.'” Stewart argues that Scott is talking not about all the ephemera–home movies, instructional films, etc–recorded by a motion picture camera but what Stewart calls “movie-movies.” However, even that category becomes unmanageably large when we take into account not only all of the independent titles but also the multiple versions of those titles (including versions subtitled or dubbed into other languages and versions edited for local censors). And as a film historian, I think it’s worth making a case that we should be saving the very films that Stewart dismisses as not quite “movie-movies.”

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The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (IMDB) opens with a classroom lecture in a East German classroom in the early 1980s. A Stasi (secret police) instructor, Gerd Wiesler, teaches his students about the best methods for conducting interrogations of suspected political subversives. Playing an audio recording of one interrogation, Wiesler expresses complete confidence in the surveillance methods, even when a student asks whether it’s appropriate to keep a suspect awake for over 24 hours, adding that “it’s inhuman.” It was tempting at this point to identify resonances between these interrogation techniques and the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo, but The Lives of Others, writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s feature film debut, turned out to be far more interesting as an account of the paranoia and absurdity at the heart of East Germany’s totalitarian state just as it is on the verge of collapse (in this sense, Lives of Others reminded me of Kieslowski’s mid-career Polish films, including Blind Chance and Camera Buff).

After the classroom scene, Wiesler, along with other members of the Stasi, attends the performance of a play by Georg Dreyman, described as one of East Germany’s few “non-subversive” writers. Still, the Stasi suspect that Dreyman may be becoming increasingly political, and Wiesler is assigned to spy on the writer, listening in on his apartment in alternating twelve-hour shifts with another member of the secret police. During these scenes, Wiesler is initially the perferct example of bureaucratic competence, carefully detailing Georg’s daily activities and writing them up in reports that he types up white listening to the apartment on clunky headphones. On Dreyman’s birthday, for example, Wiesler describes the birthday party and noting that Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria stayed after, speculates “presumably they have intercourse.” Of course, as J. Hoberman observes, Wiesler’s initial attraction to Dreyman is no doubt the opportunity to live vicariously through the charismatic writer having an affair with one of East Germany’s most talented actresses (Hoberman is more critical than I am of the film’s “squishy humanism”).

Eventually, Wiesler begins to develop some sympathy for Dreyman, recognizing his humanity and he begins working subtly to protect the writer from further persecution, making him kind of a Stasi version of Harry Caul, a comparison that comes up in this very good Cinematical review by Martha Fischer from the Toronto International Film Festival. This sympathy works through the doubled identification that is produced through the surveillance subplot. Through cinematic identification we see the world through the perspective of Wiesler, but within the film, similar processes of identification allow (or require) Wiesler to see the world through Dreyman’s more romantic and humanistic perspective. At the same time, Dreyman’s actions are not unambiguous. He has been favored by the state because of his “political neutrality,” but several of his colleagues, including the director who interpreted several of his plays for the stage, have been far less lucky.

The Lives of Others is one of the more compelling films I’ve seen in some time. Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review conveys much of what I like about the film. While von Donnersmarck’s movie never shies away from “the repressiveness of the GDR,” it also shows compassion for the characters who inhabit that world.

Update: While I was waiting for this entry to publish, I was skimming Alison Willmore’s IFC Blog review of Lives, and I think she may be right to point out that the GDR is painted in relative absolutes, noting that the film fails to acknowledge that the GDR had its supporters. She also adds that von Donnersmarck states that he made the film in response to his “disgust” at the ostalgie, the popular nostalgia for the GDR. I still think the film is a bit more complicated than Willmore suggests. Even the petty tyrants within the Stasi are seen as products of an overarching system, one that seems fully aware that it is on the verge of collapse.