Archive for July, 2007

Rural Screens

Because I’ve moved several times in recent years, I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about media and place, the role of specific geographical and political determinants in shaping what kind of media we encounter and how we encounter it.   Quite often, these thoughts have manifested themselves in reflections on (the lack of) access to good radio stations and my enjoyment of internet radio, especially KEXP Seattle.  But I’ve also found myself thinking about issues of access to art house and independent movies quite a bit since I’ve moved here, especially when it comes to the challenges an art house theater faces when serving a medium-sized city like Fayetteville with only a small university community (Fayetteville State serves about 6,000 students).

But in a recent Flow column, Joan Hawkins offers one of the more vivid accounts I’ve read of the ways in which geography shapes media access, even within the U.S. In recounting her experiences in traveling from San Francisco to a small South Dakota town to take care of her mother, Hawkins coins the term “dish towns” to describe the number of farms, often spread out over dozens of miles, that have satellite dishes in order to have access to the media that many urban centers take for granted, not to mention access to national and international news coverage.

In addition, she points out that, quite often, the four “local” theaters will play the same movie during a given week in a kind of saturation booking, even making access to movie choice a difficult proposition.  Add to that the pressure to carry family- or teen-friendly PG or PG-13 movies, and there are a number of Hollywood films (much less independents) that never play in the area.  It’s a much different kind of media culture than I’ve ever experienced (attending college in the smallish Cleveland, TN, comes closest), but I think it’s a useful way of illustrating how cultural differences can be shaped by media access.   Hawkins’ column is well worth checking out, if only because it underscores the ways in which the screening experience itself shapes our reception of films and television.

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Simpson Mania

I caught The Simpsons Movie last night at one of the local multiplexes, and while I enjoyed it well enough, it was only the second best animated feature I saw this weekend. The movie was consistently funny, with some relatively barbed political and media commentary, especially the jokes about an oblivious President Schwarzenegger being manipulated by an over-zealous EPA agent. But I rarely got the sense that the film was somehow “bigger” than the series or that I was seeing anything terribly new. To some extent, I think Karina is right to say that it’s difficult to say anything new about The Simpsons (with the exception of Jonathan Gray’s Watching with The Simpsons, an excellent book that uses the show to offer a useful way of thinking about parody and intertextuality).

But I think the somewhat unexpected box office success of The Simpsons Movie raises some interesting questions about film marketing and promotion. I probably could have guessed that Fox was low-balling in predicting that the film would do $30-40 million in its opening weekend, but I’m still fascinated that a series that has been running for 19 years, a series that has openly acknowledged its creative exhaustion in some episodes, could score such a huge opening weekend. Certainly the movie’s cross-generational, critic-proof appeal helps (after all, audiences have been watching the show for nearly 20 years), but I also think the online promotion of the movie helped quite a bit–notice all of the Simpsons avatars all over the web. But no matter what happens, it’s clear that the film has helped revitalize the franchise, keeping the show alive for several more seasons and, as Maggie suggests in her one-word post-credits cameo (“sequel!”), setting the stage for future Simpson movies.

In this sense, to answer Karina’s implied question, there may be very little new to say about the content of The Simpsons, whether on big screen or small (A.O. Scott’s review amounts to little more than a litany of some of the film’s best gags, a point he openly acknowledges), but I think the success of the movie has raised some interesting questions about the show’s ability to move across so many different platforms so successfully.

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Ingmar Bergman, RIP

Just learned that legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman passed away at the age of 89. Bergman gave us some of the most riveting films in the history of the moving image. Like many people I discovered Bergman through The Seventh Seal and the famous (and oft-imitated) scene in which a knight plays a game of chess against Death. But many of Bergman’s other films, especially including Persona and Fanny and Alexander were also very important to me.

Update: Here’s the chess scene from The Seventh Seal, thanks to Karina.

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Blockbusters and Me

Craig Lindsey, the film reporter and reviewer for the Raleigh News-Observer, has an article out about summer blockbuster exhaustion. I think the article is an interesting take on the role of hype in building up these films and the inevitability that most of these films won’t live up to the pre-release publicity blitz, and overall the article does a good job of showing how the theatrical release is tied to promoting the DVD and other “ancillary” products (although I’d push the starting point of the “event movie” back to Jaws, but that’s a minor quibble). Of course, even with this “exhaustion,” 2007 is on pace to become one of the biggest years in box office history (possibly eclipsing the record numbers of 2004).

And when Craig contacted me to weigh in on this topic, I was happy to do so (the second time this summer I’ve been interviewed about this topic). I’m still getting used to seeing my comments edited into news articles, but two of the bigger points that I wanted to make did get into the article. I do think that much of the enjoyment we get from “event movies” is the possibility of participating in something larger than ourselves, of being able to talk about the latest Harry Potter or Spider-Man sequel over the water cooler, real or imagined, at work or school or in blogs. On a related note, I was able to emphasize that many audiences are seeking out indie alternatives, such as last summer’s Little Miss Sunshine, or in the recent past, several of Michael Moore’s documentaries, and I think that LMS, especially, used that “bandwagon” appeal in selling the film last summer.

I also have a quick comment about the number of trailers for sequels that played before I watched Ocean’s Thirteen (which I didn’t dislike), including a not-so-subtle dig on Robin Williams for always playing the same character-type. I wish I’d articulated this point a little better in that what I wanted to say was that “stars” themselves (and I’d include Adam Sandler, among others, in this category) are often the primary reason for seeing a movie because we can expect a certain kind of character and story, making every film in which they appear a “sequel” of sorts. Anyway, it’s a nice article, a fun overview of the blockbuster exhaustion that many of us feel, and it’s pretty cool to be in the same company as another film blogger, David Poland, one of my daily film blog reads.

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Saturday Links

I did see Paprika last night, as planned, and I think Shaviro’s read is about right. The basic SF plot involves a machine that allows users to enter the dreams of others, but as the technology develops, the dreams collapse on each other in a giant, permeable collective dream. This SF plot overlaps with a classic detective plot, with the main character, psychologist Dr. Atrsuko Chiba, is attempting to discover who has stolen copies of the devices used to hack into people’s dreams. It’s a visually stunning film, one that uses animation beautifully to push this dream narrative. As Shaviro notes, the dream plot works well for Satoshi Kon’s visual style. Many of the backgrounds are almost photorealistic, but the foregrounds feature all manner of psychedelic imagery. And the movie’s (and dream’s) most commonly repeated motif–a loud, cacophonous parade of broken toys–is an interesting mishmash of Japanese popular culture. Oddly, I happened to watch Waking Life, another animated film about the permeable boundaries between dreaming and reality, the other night, and while Paprika is much more tied to the genre films that underscore its narrative, the use of animation to convey a dream state was somewhat similar (both films also, notably, use movies to evoke dreaming). I’d like to write a longer review, and if I get some more writing done on the book, I’ll try to do that.

While I’m blogging, I just wanted to give a quick mention of Alex Karpovsky’s latest film, General Impression of Size & Shape, which follows a group of bird-watchers who come to a small Arkansas town after someone spots an ivory-billed woodpecker, a species previously believed to be extinct. Karpovsky’s previous film, The Hole Story, was incredibly entertaining, so I’m very much looking forward to checking out his latest film.

Also, I’ve been planning to mention the launch of CommentPress, an open source comment tool based on “the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text.” I had a chance to play with CommentPress at a MediaCommons meeting last spring, and it looks like a fantastic tool. There are a number of interesting examples available of how the technology could be used, including a heavily commented version of the Iraq Study Group Report and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Scholarly Publishing in the Age of the Internet.

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Friday Media Links

Peeking out from underneath a pile of books to do a quick bullet list of media notes:

  • First, this should be a great weekend for movies here in Fayetteville. The Cameo has Satoshi Kon’s highly-regarded anime feature, Paprika, this week (check out Steven Shaviro’s review, which describes Paprika as “the finest, most exhilarating animated feature film that I have seen in quite some time”). Playing at one of the local multiplexes is Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. I haven’t seen as many reviews of Rescue Dawn, but Herzog is always an engaging filmmaker, so I’ve been looking forward to this film for a while, as well. The Simpsons will still be around on Sunday (and beyond), so save them for a later day when there are fewer interesting movie options.
  • Karina has a pointer to a Cinematical interview with Four Eyed Monsters co-director Arin Crumley on social networking and film exhibition.  The full interview runs for 49 minutes, so I haven’t had time to watch it just yet, but like Karina, I’m intrigued by Crumley’s metaphor of digital distribution as a kind of “theatrical jukebox.”  These questions about digital projection, digital distribution, and social networking are increasingly proving to be the backbone of my book, so I’m really looking forward to hearing Crumley’s take on these issues (hopefully on a slow writing day in the near future).
  • Finally, a quick pointer to A.O. Scott’s review of Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, which looks like an interesting, compelling documentary about the war in Iraq.  Unlike some of the other better known Iraq docs, Ferguson’s film focuses on the policies and practices that got us into the war in Iraq.  While many of the chief villains (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Bremer) won’t be terribly surprising, it sounds like an important film (Note: I just did some digging, and it looks like No End in Sight played on PBS a few months ago).

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Liveblogging Mad Men

I’ve been curious to see the new AMC series Mad Men, which according to all reports, evokes the style of 1950s business men–or at least their representation in North by Northwest and The Apartment.  With that in mind, I’ll be and watching and possibly doing a little liveblogging with the crew from Newcritics.  The show–and the blogging–starts at 10 PM.

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Walk on the Wild Side

Via The Salt-Box and Digital Digs, here’s Walk Score a cool little Google mashup that calculates the walkability of your place of residence “by locating nearby stores, restaurants, schools, parks, etc.” I scored a 25, not very walkable, which was better than Alex and slightly worse than JBJ, but like JBJ, I’m not sure my score matches my experiences.

In my case, I think the 25 is actually too high. I walk as much as possible, but as I mentioned in my comment at The Salt-Box, while there are a few businesses nearby, there are no sidewalks, and cars routinely go 55-60 mph on the highway in front of my complex. If I wanted to go to a business across the street, I’d feel like I was taking my life in my hands. And the “grocery store” they list as closest to my apartment is actually a convenience store, which would be fine if I ate nothing but snack food and liked lousy beer. They also lump clothing and music stores together, with the closest listed store being a Payless Shoe Store I’ve never noticed before. Not that it doesn’t exist; there are so many signs in Fayetteville that they sort of blur together in a single, somewhat shabby blur of advertising and visual noise.

That being said, it’s a cool tool for mapping the livability of a given location is pretty cool. If I had used this tool when planning my move to Fayetteville, I probably would have made more of an effort to find someplace here that’s even a little more walkable.

Side note: my apartment in Hyattsville, MD, scores a 55, which seems a bit low, especially given the access to public transportation that I had. My apartment in Decatur, GA scores a 52, which sounds about right, but also shows the limits of the tool. I happily went without a car during my year in DC, but that would have been practically impossible where I lived in Atlanta.

Another update: My apartment in Champaign, IL, scored a 95, which seems reasonable enough.  I could have easily lived there without a car, and more or less did (my car was about twenty years old), except for the fact that most of the chain movie theaters were about seven or eight miles away.

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Networked Film Communities

Finally getting over my initial caution about letting other people see my Netflix queue and ratings, so that I could test the waters with Netflix friends.  I have a section in my book on Netflix and figured I should at least experiment with the networking tools it offers, so if you want to be my “Netflix friend,” click the link.

I don’t know how much time I’ll have to play with the Netflix reviews and some of the other friends features, but I am interested in the ways in which Netflix has attempted to redefine the movie rental experience while also trying to preserve aspects of the neighborhood video store through such features as the Netflix neighbors list.

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Documenting Injustice

With fall semester fast approaching, I’m starting to think about the courses I’ll be teaching. Once again, I’ll be doing one section of “Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy,” and for now, I’m planning few changes from the version of the course I’ve taught in the recent past, with the exception of using Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust as one of my “American independents.” I may make some other minor tweaks, but the course worked well enough last year that I don’t feel an urgent need to reinvent it. And for my composition classes this semester, I’m planning to focus on election rhetoric (which also worked well the last time I tried it). With the 2008 election heating up so early, there should be plenty of material, and I think that the number of citizen-generated videos will present an interesting wrinkle in the campaigns this time around, but more on that later, in another post.

But the course that I’m still wrapping my head around is the senior seminar I’ll be teaching. Because I teach in an English department, I’m a little wary of overwhelming my students with film and media theory, but I’m also trying to provide them with an interesting and engaging capstone course. My current (somewhat self-indulgent) solution is a course I am tentatively calling “Documenting Injustice,” which will look at interesting case studies of using photography and film to document (and therefore, presumably, change) examples of injustice.  As I articulate this course concept, I realize that it sounds terribly vague, especially my somewhat broad definition of “injustice,” but I wanted to leave the theme somewhat open so that students could produce final projects from a range of approaches.

So far, I have five major (written) texts for the course, and I’m a little hesitant to add much more, especially given that I’ll be introducing my students to documentary films and photography archives.  The texts are:

  • Walker Evans and James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
  • Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
  • Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
  • Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing about Film
  • Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary

The course, as I imagine it now, will spend about eight weeks on photography (Evans and Agee, Barthes, Sontag, the American Memory Archives) before moving into documentary film.  I’ve included the Corrigan book simply because some of my students will not have taken Introduction to Film, and it should be a quick way to get students up to speed on film analysis.  I’m planning to use Nichols’ book simply to provide my students with one useful language for talking about documentary (the four modes, etc).  From there, I’d like to come up with 4-5 documentaries that my students could watch that relate loosely to various forms of “injustice” (a word that still doesn’t seem to fit).  Some of the docs I’m thinking about are In the Year of the Pig (or Winter Soldier), Sir No Sir, American Blackout, sections of Eyes on the Prize, and maybe something like Battle of Algiers that tests the limits of what counts as documentary.  Finally, if I could get it on DVD before the end of the semester, I’d love to finish with Sicko (but Roger and Me could work very well here).

I’ve considered adding both The Thin Blue Line and Harlan County, USA, but because my film students have already seen them, I wouldn’t want to repeat material I’ve already taught.  I’m hoping this sounds like an interesting course, and writing this post has been, in part, an attempt to convince myself that it will work as a class.  I’d love to hear your suggestions about other films I could teach or supplemental readings I could add to make the course feel a little more integrated (and if you have a better idea for a title, that would be cool, too).

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Home Movie Day 2007 Reminder

Noticed in the Raleigh News-Observer that the annual Home Movie Day is fast approaching, with events scheduled for Saturday, August 11, in cities all over the world.  I had a lot of fun at last year’s Home Movie Day in Raleigh and would encourage anyone in or near the Triangle to attend.  I’m going to try to make it back up for this year’s event, but with so many writing deadlines approaching, I’ve been a bit of a hermit this summer.

Looking back at my “review” of last year’s event, I think that what fascinated me the most about watching other people watch their home movies was the way in which these movies functioned as memory machines, as virtual time machines for revisiting lost moments in their family’s past.  And, of course, it’s also cool to learn about the kinds of film stock that were used and how to preserve home movies (and other useful information).

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Friday Documentary Links

Definitely not in writing mode today, but here are some the things I’ve been reading and watching today:

  • As I’ve gained some distance from Full Frame, I’m finding that the documentary that has stuck with me the most was A.J. Shnack’s Kurt Cobain About a Son. The documentary combines audio recordings from an interview with Cobain and video taken by Schnack in Aberdeen, Seattle, and Olympia to create not only an engaging portrait of the iconic rock star but also something closer to an essay film, one that beautifully captures the spaces Cobain inhabited. Now, A.J. has a blog focused on  the film, including a YouTube clip of one of the scenes from the doc.  I think this scene gives some idea of what About a Son is doing (and it really made me want to see Son again).
  • On his personal blog, A.J. also highlighted some of this year’s (very deserving) Emmy non-fiction nominees.  While the blogosphere is abuzz over the Emmy nomination for “Dick in a Box” and the My Name is Earl and Friday Night Lights snubs (Charlie Sheen over Jason Lee?!?), many of the non-fiction nominees went below my radar.  Some of the deserving nominees include When the Levees Broke and Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking and Spike Lee and Rory Kennedy (for Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) for Outstanding Direction for Nonfiction Programming.  Glad to see Lee garnering critical acclaim for one of last year’s most important films.  A.J. has all of the nominees, if you’re interested.
  • Also via Anthony (and Agnes), news that The Thin Blue Line and Fog of War director Errol Morris has started a blog for The New York Times.   In one recent entry, Morris revisits some of his arguments about the potential for photographs to provide (documentary) evidence.  As Anthony speculates, Morris seems to be meditating on the use of photographs to manipulate meaning, potentially implicating the Bush administration’s truth-bending practices, though as I recall, Morris has been making similar arguments about photography (or film) and meaning for some time.  Still, more news about Morris’s current project (due in 2008), now titled Standard Operating Procedure is pretty cool.

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Dziga Vertov 2.0

Via Karina and Michael: British artist Perry Bard is in the process of producing a collaborative “global remake” of Dziga Vertov’s landmark Man With a Movie Camera. Essentially Bard is inviting volunteers to pick a scene from the original and re-interpret it using their own footage.

This sounds like a really cool project, and as Karina points out, it’s very much consistent with both Vertov’s fascination with new ways of seeing and of the collaborative impulse of movie-making in general. Bard will begin accepting contributions in early August, so if you’re inclined to participate, definitely check it out.

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Debating the YouTube Debate

Jose Antonio Vargas of The Washington Post has an interesting article on the upcoming YouTube-mediated Democratic debate scheduled for Monday (July 23). The debate invites YouTubers to submit questions for the candidates with CNN’s political team, including DC Bureau chief David Bohrman and debate moderator selecting from over 1,500 questions submitted thus far. While Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at UPenn compares the YouTube debate to the 1960 “Nixon-Kennedy” debate, Vargas is careful to avoid reading the debate as a utopian or watershed moment in mediated politics, citing a number of critics who point out that the debate itself isn’t structured according to the populist logic of YouTube, which tends to privilege videos that have been viewed the most often (i.e., the oft-cited “wisdom of crowds”).

To some extent, I’m inclined to agree with the critics of the format, if only because it’s somewhat difficult to see how this debate format is entirely new. After all, there have been “town hall” debates in the past where audience members are given the opportunity to address candidates directly, and like those debates, the YouTube version will be carefully structured by the moderator, in this case, Anderson Cooper. Plus, the questions themselves will be mediated by their broadcast on television, which is now the medium with which most of us associate political debate. In that light, I’m somewhat prepared to agree with my former colleague at Georgia Tech, Ian Bogost, in viewing the YouTube event as “overhyped” (I made a similar argument about CBS’s “Democracy in Fifteen Seconds Contest” a few months ago).

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see the diversity of questions that the YouTubers are raising–about the crisis in Darfur, improving minority graduation rates, illegal immigration, and stem cell research. Some of the more compelling videos do take a very personal tone, taking advantage of YouTube’s rhetoric of direct address. Kim, a 36-year old housewife from Long Island, asks about affordable health care while removing her wig to underscore her ongoing battle with breast cancer (this health care question is all the more pertinent given Bush’s announced plan to veto the popular SCHIP program, which provides health care for poor children). Alexander Nicholson, who is fluent in Arabic and was discharged from the Army because of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, asks whether the candidates will change that policy, allowing the best-prepared people to serve, regardless of their sexuality.

Vargas also observes that a “surprisingly” small number of questions deal with the Iraq War, while a larger number deal with issues such as health care and education policies. But given that the Iraq dominates news coverage, I’m not sure that this is surprising. It’s also worth noting that many of the questions were submitted by students, possibly as a part of a course they were taking, which might explain their concerns with issues such as affordable, quality education. I’m still not convinced that this is a “watershed” moment in American media and politics, but as I write this entry, I have been finding myself increasingly intrigued by the potential of YouTube as a medium for allowing the participants to ground their political questions in their personal experiences.

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Tuesday Links, Part 2

Here are a few more links for your reading/watching pleasure:

  • Jason Sperb, of Dr. Mabuse fame, has relaunched his personal blog, Jamais Vu. Jason offers one of the more consistently engaging voices in the academic wing of the film blogosphere, so definitely check it out.
  • Henry Jenkins has an interesting post about his participation in a panel discussion sponsored by Mother Jones on new media and American politics. The panel is a virtual who’s who of American politics and new media, including Lawrence Lessig, Joe Trippi, Grover Norquist, and David Weinberger. Jenkins’ contribution expands on some of the ideas he developed in “Photoshop for Democracy.” Jenkins also points to the videos produced by New York firefighters who are critical of Guiliani, which I’ve been planning to discuss at some point.
  • An interesting Cinematical post on the “best reviewed” films so far of 2007, according to Rotten Tomatoes. The post illustrates the ways in which aggregate review sites can sometimes mislead regarding the “best” films. I’m not saying that Ratatouille isn’t the best film of 2007 so far (really, I’m not, I haven’t seen it), but the films listed so far in the top ten list are pretty unlikely to show up on any Oscar lists and are not necessarily films that critics would include on their end-of-year top tens (not that the Oscars are necessarily the best measure of quality). A solid, if unspectacular, film such as Knocked Up would seem to benefit from soft enthusiasm from a number of critics while more polarizing films might be excluded.
  • Finally, for the iPhone haters out there, a question well worth asking: Will it blend?

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