Archive for June, 2007

Away From Her

Because I’ve been engaged with other kinds of writing, I’ve fallen out of the habit of reviewing most, or at one time all, of the movies I see in the theater. But after catching Sarah Polley’s compelling directorial debut, Away From Her (IMDB), this weekend, I continue to find myself haunted by its depiction of a married couple dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. The film opens with Grant (Gordon Pinsent) describing Fiona’s (Julie Christie) playful marriage proposal 44 years earlier, an anecdote that frames their marital contentment, their comfort together after more than four decades, making the film, which is based on an Alice Munro short story, as much about marriage and the shared memories and histories produced by a long relationship as it is about the loss of self associated with the disease.

Interestingly, when Fiona’s memory lapses begin–putting a frying pan in the freezer, forgetting the word wine–she makes the decision to be placed in a long-term care facility herself, a place called Meadowbrook, seen initially through Grant’s eyes as he watches visitors, often desperately, trying to connect with the patients. The facility is also relentlessly bright and efficient, the natural lights and bright colors standing in contrast to the more muted tones of the cabin where Grant and Fiona live. And as Dan Callahan’s House Next Door review suggests, Fiona’s transformation is similarly communicated through fashion, her stylish ski coats and sweaters replaced, after she enters Meadowbrook, by a brightly striped sweater that Grant insists Fiona would “never” wear. As Fiona settles in Meadowbrook, we begin to learn that the image of marital contentment that frames the film covers over a slightly more complicated history, in which Grant was often unfaithful to his wife, an issue that emerges as Grant watches Fiona develop a friendship with Aubrey (Michael Murphy) another patient in her facility, and that lead to Grant cultivating an initially uneasy friendship with Aubrey’s wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis).

Away From Her is a small, subtle film, and while I’m unfamiliar with Munro’s story, Polley has demonstrated an impressive talent for storytelling, using a temporally fragmented narration to depict Fiona’s decline and Grant’s attempts to come to terms with losing her and with his own mistakes earlier in their marriage (by the way there’s a great interview with Polley in the print version of the most recent issue of Filmmaker Magazine).

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DC Punk, Documentary, and Place

One of the coolest uses of web video–and perhaps more precisely mobile video–is Yellow Arrow’s documentary project about the Washington, D.C., harDCore punk scene, Capital of Punk. The project features ten short videos that you can watch either on your computer, with the scene’s prominent locations highlighted on a Google map, or via video podcasts. The videos invite viewers to walk along the Washington streets to locations in Georgetown, Adams Morgan, and the U Street Corridor, highlighting the importance of place in the punk movement and, perhaps, music in general, as well as the lived experience of a city (based on links, I think this project has been around for a while, but I’m just now discovering it).

The videos feature interviews with prominent members of the D.C. punk scene, including Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, Brendan Canty, Joe Lally, and Dante Ferrando, and included footage from Jem Cohen’s Fugazi documentary, Instrument, as well as photographs and other documents from the early moments of the harDCore scene, and there are some great anecdotes about concerts, innovative political protests, and friendships within the community. But what I found most compelling about the videos was their ability to provide microhistories of many of D.C.’s neighborhoods, including many neighborhoods that have changed radically due to the economic shifts associated with gentrification (at one point, MacKaye even acknowledges the punk scene’s, perhaps unintentional, complicity with gentrification, describing live music venues and art spaces as “transitional businesses”).

Because I spent last year, many of the locations were familiar, and I found myself wishing I could have taken this virtual tour when I was still living in D.C, and in fact made me feel incredibly nostalgic for a city where I’ve spent much of my life. But the videos did remind me of the ways in which the city is a walkable, pedestrian friendly place. I remember, for example walking past the old 9:30 Club, depicted in this concert footage of Embrace, on my way to the E Street Theater (coincidentally right around the corner from Ford’s Theater and, unfortunately, a Hard Rock Cafe). And, of course, I spent quite a bit of time exploring the Adams Morgan and U Street neighborhoods, both of which have changed considerably since they were centers for the city’s music scene.

My sense of nostalgia is probably not accidental in that the interviews themselves take on a nostalgic tone as MacKaye and others describe their memories of Washington in the 1970s and ’80s. This is not to suggest that the people who were being interviewed were stuck in the past or that they were uncritically looking at that era as a golden age without also recognizing its flaws, but there seems to be something inherently nostalgic about many of the punk documentaries I’ve encountered (including the very interesting Punk’s Not Dead, which I caught at Silverdocs last year). But what I found interesting about the documentary clips–and how they framed the past–was that they explored the conditions that made D.C.’s punk scene possible. MacKaye credits former mayor Marion Barry–and, yes, I’m well aware of Barry’s complicated tenure as mayor–for supporting the arts and providing opportunities for teenagers to develop their music and artistic skills as instrumental to the music scene, while MacKaye, Barry, and others describe the devastating riots that took place on U Street after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the slow process of rebuilding that began when Barry commissioned the building of the Reeves Center, a major municipal building at 14th and U.

I’m probably the ultimate target audience for this kind of documentary project–I loved living in Washington, D.C., have a fondness for harDCore punk, and miss walking the city’s streets–but I would love to see more work like Capital of Punk that uses video podcasts to provide these tiny histories of specific places.

Cross-posted over at Newcritics.

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Political Video Friday

My colleague and I been doing some work on our article on political mashup videos this week, but as we’ve been working on the article, I’ve become acutely aware of how quickly new forms of political video have emerged on the web. To some extent, it feels like the best we can do is offer a brief snapshot of something that is evolving very rapidly, and mashups are, of course, only one form of video circulating right now. But as a result of this project, I’ve become increasingly addicted to the techPresident blog, one of the better places out there for analyzing this online video culture from a variety of perspectives (check out, for example, their charts tracking cumulative video viewership per candidate).

But what really has me blogging before I’ve finished my second cup of coffee this morning are a number of intriguing new political videos, including a number of videos I discovered via techPresident. Like many people, I’m intrigued, fascinated, or maybe just confused by former Senator Mike Gravel’s two recent videos, “Rock” and “Fire.” “Rock” shows Gravel staring directly into the camera for nearly a minute before walking away and dropping a rock into a lake, the video continuing to run as the ripples in the water slowly return to normal, while “Fire” shows Gravel building a bonfire and then we watch as the fire burns for six or seven minutes. The videos are oddly minimalist and quiet, more like experimental video than a campaign ad. When the videos are embedded into a blog, they are oddly disorienting, jarring us–or me at least–briefly out of what I normally expect to see in a campaign video, which is probably the point. Significantly, if you view “Rock” on YouTube, you discover that it is also a video response to a video of Gravel’s performance at the most recent Democratic debate (suggesting, maybe, that Gravel’s performance barely made a ripple?).

But one of the most widely discussed videos of the week is also one of the most interesting: “I Got a Crush on Obama,” by Obama Girl and the comedy team at BarelyPolitical. If you haven’t seen the video yet, go watch it…my blog isn’t going anywhere. It’s a funny video with great lyrics (Universal health care reform/it makes me warm…), clearly more polished than most, and as Micah Sifry points out, it may complicate definitions of what the folks at techPresident have been calling “voter-generated content.” It also presents a potential interpretive challenge. In his discussion of the video, Alan Rosenblatt seems to take the video at its word, asserting that “it means this girl likes Obama, at least on the face of things.” I read the video more directly as a parody of the sexualization of political candidates, particularly someone like Obama who has been described in terms of his charisma and charm. But Rosenblatt is certainly correct to assert that the “teaching moment” of this video is that it, like many other “voter-generated videos,” will present some interesting interpretive challenges for the audiences that encounter them and pass them along to others.

Finally, Sifry pointed out one of the better mashups I’ve seen in some time, “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” which mashes up Republicans calling for, umm, enhanced interrogation techniques with clips from Monty Python’s “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. Like “Godfather IV,” the video is a relatively specific policy critique of the Republicans through a popular culture text, requiring at least a limited knowledge of the pop culture text to make sense of the critique, and identifying McCain and Romney’s endorsement of these interrogation techniques with the absurd torturers in Monty Python is pretty funny (and because of blog entries on techPresident and BoingBoing, starting to get lots of traffic).

On a related note, because of all of the material out there, I’m now considering doing an election theme this fall in my composition classes, much like the Rhetoric and Democracy course I taught at Georgia Tech during the 2004 election (and discussed in a “From the Classroom” article in the journal Pedagogy). At this point, it’s pretty clear that there will be plenty of material out there to work with.

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This American Life in Fayetteville

While skimming the Fayetteville Observer tonight, I learned that representatives from the TV series This American Life will be visiting Fayetteville tomorrow night. According to Paul Woolverton’s Observer article, Haider Hamza, a 22-year old Iraqi living in New York, will visit Fayetteville to learn what “average Americans” think of the war in Iraq. Hamza is traveling around the U.S., but will record segments for the show in only three cities: Fayetteville, Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. It sounds like an interesting project, but I have to admit that I find the implicit assumption that people living in flyover country are “average Americans” incredibly problematic, when in fact, a large percentage of people happen to live in big cities.

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Four Eyed Monsters

I just wanted to quickly mention that Arin Crumley and Susan Buice have made their feature-length film, Four Eyed Monsters available on YouTube, the first time a full-length movie has been posted to the video sharing site. The film will be available on YouTube for one week only (the film should be available on YouTube until June 15), but can be purchased for download or on DVD. You can also help the filmmakers to pay off the debt they accumulated while making the movie by joining through the Four Eyed Monsters page. If you join Spout (for free), they will contribute $1 towards paying off Buice and Crumley’s debt.

Crumley and Buice have been cultivating an online audience for their film via video podcasts that describe the challenges they faced in the production and distribution of their film, so I was excited to watch the movie last night. The film itself is an interesting meditation on communication and romance in the internet age and is based on Crumley and Buice’s relationship. In the film, Buice and Crumley meet through an online dating service, but jaded by normal dating rituals, choose to communicate without speaking, instead passing notes, drawing, playing music, or using other non-spoken forms of communication. Eventually, they begin to communicate by videos they send to each other in the mail. Finally, after several months, they began speaking directly to each other.

I enjoyed the autobiographical elements of Four Eyed Monsters quite a bit (and think others will enjoy it) and the reflection on how communications technologies mediate our relatiohsips with each other, but I’m equally intrigued by the innovative distribution and promotion techniques that Crumley and Buice have used (it’s also worth noting that their film has already been viewed over 300,000 times on YouTube alone, which is a fairly significant audience for an indie film).

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New Location

I think that all of my old entries have been successfully transferred from Movable Type over here to WordPress. I’ll be spending the next few days playing with templates and getting things squared away over here, but it’s nice to have functioning comments and many of the other features that WordPress offers.

While I’m thinking about it, I wanted to mention the NYT story on the decision to make R-rated trailers available online. To view the trailers, you have to enter a name, birth date, and zip code. My information apparently isn’t available online, but my father’s was, so I was able to check out R-rated trailers for Superbad, which looks mildly funny and The Brothers Solomon, which does not.

David Poland’s Hot Blog has an interesting discussion of the racy “red band” trailers, including the flaws that prevent people whose DMV information isn’t available online from seeing trailers (my problem) and that viewers from outside the US cannot get through the age wall.

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My Curator’s Note on the fan campaign to save Jericho is now available on MediaCommons. I originally wrote the short commentary before I knew that the show would be renewed, but I found the use of internet video in rallying the show’s fans to be worth exploring.

Comments are still broken here, but you can comment over at MediaCommons if you’re interested.


The Sense of an Ending

Sopranos spoilers galore here. You’ve been warned. I’ve been fascinated by the reactions to the final episode of The Sopranos. Most of the people on the discussion boards I’ve skimmed have expressed disappointment at what has been described as the show’s “life goes on” final scene, but I think the ending is fitting, not simply because life goes on–that’s obvious–but because of the life that Tony finds himself living during that final scene. Because of all of the suspense cues–Meadow can’t parallel park her car, the mysterious guy at the counter in the diner–we become acutely aware of Tony’s situation, the fact that he’s constantly aware of potential threats. But also the scene suggests that everything he’s done to provide for his nuclear family has also potentially put them at risk. The denial of closure during that final sequence–I believe–worked really well.

But what I really wanted to mention, at least for now, is my fascination with a couple of YouTube clips that I discovered while skimming Sopranos spoiler sites last night before the show. One clip was actually recorded outside the Holstein’s diner as Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) struggles to parallel park her car before running into the diner to meet her family. The person who recorded this clip correctly predicted that it was from the final scene of the show and claims that it was the last scene ever shot for the series (a claim that I can’t confirm). A similar clip depicts someone from the show being thrown from a third story window. But I’m wondering how or if these clips will fit within the micro-histories of The Sopranos, especially given that show’s rich cultural roots in the state of New Jersey, and how YouTube and other video sharing sites might be able to contribute to a richer history of media production.

I’ll post a somewhat revised version of this entry on Newcritics because I’m curious to get your comments.


Jesus is My Prozac

Went to the Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival with George, where I discovered not only that Jesus is my Prozac but also that there is an entire film society named after me. Okay, so maybe the film society isn’t named after me, but Tryon, NC, is actually a pretty cool little town, and the barbecue fest featured some delicious barbecue. Thanks to George for the pix.

Update: A picture of me on the set of David Lynch’s NASCAR movie.


Bringing the War Back Home

My Flow article on the Iraq Veterans Against the War street theater performance, “Operation First Casualty,” is now available. Worth noting: in the comments, Elliott, one of the editors of the meerkat video discusses the ways in which the street theater performances “make people aware that a vast gulf may exist between their understanding of their own public space and those of people in, say, Baghdad–where things have been completely reordered without consent.” The video remains one of the more interesting forms of anti-war protest that I’ve seen in some time, and while the video itself cannot quite capture the immediacy of witnessing the performance live, I think it does depict the distinction between the public space of Times Square and Baghdad rather effectively.

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Travel Day Links

Getting ready to drive over to hang out with George for a couple of days, but before I leave, here are a few of my late morning coffee reads and viewing tips:

Via David, a short film about time travel! The Timebox Twins! is a fun short video directed by Tipper Newton and starring Newton and Ice Cream Floats bandmate and LOL director Joe Swanberg. In the vid, a brother and sister discover the “timeboxes” that keep schools on schedule. Steal four of them and you can build a time machine. Fun stuff.

Jason and Nikki both comment on the recent appeals court ruling that states that the FCC overreached in its excessive fines for “fleeting obscenities.” As Jason points out, the harsh punishments are a product of the post-nipplegate era and focused on unscripted content (Bono’s off-the-cuff remark that winning a Golden Globe was “fucking brilliant!“), which the appeals court ruled does not fit into the category of obscenity. Jason’s post has the added bonus of an audio version of George Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” routine.

Finally, via the comments to Sam’s post on self-Googling, I learned about a new documentary on the topic called Google Me, which judging by the Google iconography was made with Google’s cooperation. I’m certainly intrigued by the topic of naming and identity–as my post on Alan Berliner’s The Sweetest Sound indicates–but I do have some questions about what it means to identify Google as a stand in for community or unity as this film seems to do (as the trailer and the film’s description imply).

Comments are still broken. Hopefully they’ll be running soon.


Wednesday Links

Via Ted Z: A Variety article on Regal Cinemas’ decision to equip one patron per theater with a pager to alert theater management to problems. The pager will have four buttons, with one each for picture and sound quality. The other buttons are for piracy and for “other disturbances,” which presumably is a way of regulating unruly theatrical audiences, including, I’d imagine, viewers who are texting too conspicuously.

Via Filmmaker Magazine, a VideoNation web documentary on the Iraq Veterans Against the War street performance, :Operation First Casualty” (OFC), over Memorial Day weekend. This mini-doc was made by producer Laura Hanna and Zizek! director Astra Taylor. Taylor reports that she will have a second clip, on industrial food pollution, posted soon. My Flow column on OFC should appear over the next few days.

And, it’s official: the fan campaign to convince CBS to renew the post-apocalyptic TV series Jericho has succeeded. After hearing that the show had been canceled, fans sent over 50,000 pounds of nuts to CBS headquarters in New York and Los Angeles. I’ll have a short commentary on this topic on MediaCommons sometime next week.


Subpoenas, Now with Immunity

From the folks behind Godfather 4, a new video suggesting how we might be able to deal with the sudden memory loss of so many members of the Department of Justice. Really good riff on the DOJ scandal and those truly awful drug ads.

Cheap transition, but speaking of health care, here’s the YouTube page for Michael Moore’s Sicko, including the film’s trailer and an interview with two of the 9/11 workers who traveled with Moore to Cuba to get health care.


Operation First Casualty

Thanks to Jason Mittell, I just came across the Iraq Veterans Against the War video, Operation First Casualty, available on YouTube and on the meerkat media blog. In the video Iraq War veterans simulate sniper fire and mass detentions on the streets of New York, bringing home the experience of the war in an interesting way.

Like Jason, I’m wondering whether YouTube and other video sharing sites can be used to engage new kinds of audiences politically. Certainly, street theater has a long precedent–including the flash mob performances that became briefly popular a few years ago. The video also reminds me, in other ways, of the construction of authenticity established in so many “grunts’ eye” documentaries (such as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland).

Still working through my thoughts on the video, so hopefully will have more to say about it later.

Update: Via Rez Dog, news that at least one of the soldiers involved is now under investigation by the military and could receive a less than honorable discharge, which would potentially threaten “educational and other benefits.”


The Public Living Room Experience

Via Jim Emerson’s Scanners blog, Christopher Hawthorne’s architectural review of the new 12-screen flagship Landmark Theatre at the Westside Pavilion. The theater is clearly designed to compete with LA’s other art houses, including the ArcLight and the Bridge, but as Hawthorne observes, what is significant about the new Landmark is its desire to reproduce the home theater experience:

But it is also designed to compete directly with your living room–with your sofa, your flat screen and your ability to pause, rewind, turn on the lights or just give up on the movie idea altogether and switch over to “The Daily Show.”

As if to acknowledge how tough it’s becoming to drag people out of their houses for a night at the movies, with home-theater technology getting better and traffic getting worse, the Landmark includes a number of domestic architectural touches. The most striking are three “Living Room” theaters on the top floor that hold between 30 and 50 people each. They include sofas and side tables as well as overstuffed love seats and ottomans by the high-end French furniture company Ligne Roset.

Of course, it’s easy to point out that the Landmark has targeted a very specific niche audience (or taste culture) with this new architectural design, which Hawthorne, perhaps correctly, reads as “congratulating” that small segment of the population.

Like Hawthorne, I’m intrigued by what these “Living Room” theaters say about attitudes towards moviegoing in a digital era, but I’m curious about how the use of couches and overstuffed loveseats will work out. As Emerson points out, many of the screening rooms only accommodate 30-50 people, making it reasonable to ask whether they will generate enough revenue to be profitable, but perhaps the bigger question, at least for me, is how these screening rooms will negotiate the boundaries between public and private represented by bringing a certain version of the domestic screening experience into the more public space of the movie theater (keeping in mind that theaters have always only been “semipublic spaces” as Isabel Cristina Pinedo argues in Recreational Terror). Given that moviegoing is often a solitary act for me, I’m wondering how couches and loveseats–rather than individual seats–will shape how strangers share this semipublic space (if at all). Ideally, it could contribute to the public film cultures discussed by Barbara Klinger in Beyond the Multiplex. At the very least, I’m fascinated by the desire to re-create the home theater system at the movie theater and the continued characterization of the 1980s-era multiplex as the bad object against which contemporary screening experiences, whether at home or in the art house, are defined.

Update: Here’s a second LA Times article on the new art house theater at Westside Pavilion. Not sure it adds much to what I’ve already written, but the discussion of movie theaters and public space or movie theaters and their relationship to the local community is interesting. It also gives me a chance to complain about Landmark’s annoying decision to refer to themselves as Landmark Theatres rather than using the standard American spelling of “theater.”