Archive for July, 2007

Tuesday Links, Part 1

Today’s interesting reading and viewing material:

  • First, I just wanted to mention the video blog over at Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films. I’ve been feeling guilty about pointing out all of the recent crush videos without also linking to some of the more substantive videos out there and Brave News Films is doing an excellent job of compiling some of the more informative political videos out there, One of my recent favorites features Barack Obama describing in detail what the Iraq War is costing us in terms of education and health care. It’s a powerful video, one that reminds me of why I was drawn to Obama in the first place. Also worth checking out: Fox Attacks! The Environment, a video that illustrates FNC’s consistent distortions regarding global warming. One of the strengths of Greenwald as a filmmaker (and others at Brave New Films) is documenting the ways in which Fox News (and other conservative pundits) spread misinformation, often by repeating certain points endlessly, as we saw in Outfoxed. There’s some good stuff here, so I’ll try to make more of an effort to highlight it in the future.
  • On a related note, here’s a photograph taken from the NAACP-sponsored forum for Republican Presidential candidates, which other than Tom Tancredo, features eight empty podiums. It’s worth pointing out that all nine Democratic candidates showed up for their NAACP forum.
  • Anne Thompson has an interesting article in Variety on the increasing interaction between celebrities and fans via the web. Some of this information is familiar to me. I knew, for example, that Zach Braff had blogged the making of Garden State (and beyond) and that Leo DiCaprio had a fairly active fan site where he sometimes discussed his political views. But this is a really useful overview of these celebrity web activities (and, of course, she’s absolutely right to point out Michael Moore as an absolute master of using the web to promote his films and his politics).
  • Cinema Tech called my attention to Ghita Loebenstein’s article on the portable video phenomenon. Loebenstein describes events such as “YouTube Tuesdays” where people gather in a local bar and collectively watch selected YouTube clips. YouTube Tuesdays are sponsored by Is Not Magazine as a way to raise money for the print version of their magazine. The article also describes the Portable Film Festival, which curates videos submitted from around the world. As video becomes increasingly portable and as audiences seek out collective “movie” experiences, I think these activities could become more commonplace. And, of course, there are few geographic barriers–portable film festivals could be started anywhere, in small towns, big cities, wherever there is interest.

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More Political Crush Vids: Debate ’08

Via the Washington Post, the folks at Barely Political are back with another political crush video, this time pitting Obama Girl against her Republican rival, Giuliani Girl, featuring the two performers in a singing and dancing competition on the streets of Brooklyn that suggests a spiced up version of West Side Story, with a little politics thrown in.

The Post also reports that the creators of the Barely Political vids had one major goal in mind, to go viral on YouTube and beyond, which they have quite clearly succeeded in doing. But The Post also brings up a secondary point, which reflects on something I wrote earlier today in my discussion of the supposed “divide” between entertainment and news cultures. As this article implies, the humor of these videos depends in part on having some knowledge about the two candidates, and while joking about Guiliani’s three divorces isn’t exactly the height of political discourse, the lyrics do address the candidates’ positions on the war (“Giuliani’s hungry for this war”) and Giuliani’s attempts to depict himself as an heir to Ronald Reagan (“I knew Reagan and you’re no Reagan”). In this sense, I do think these videos help to illustrate the artificiality of that separation.

Update: The folks at Barely Political also have a video response to some of the criticisms they’ve received, including Joy Behar’s comment on The View that described Obama Girl as a “hooker.”

Update 2: Apparently, this guy has a crush on “Fred Thompson’s politics.” This video seems a bit more sincere than all the others I’ve mentioned (dissing the IRS, accusing the Dems of piling up pork), which makes the video a little less effective in my opinion.

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Fayetteville Political Resource

Just a follow-up to my previous post on media and politics.  The local newspaper here, The Fayetteville Observer, is in the process of putting together an Election 2007 page to follow the upcoming local elections.  The page will include blogs from all of the candidates, as well as district maps, polling places, and articles from The Observer’s coverage of the elections.

I know I’m starting to pick up a few local readers, and I’d encourage you to take advantage of the paper’s coverage of these upcoming elections.  I know that when I moved here last year, I had to hit the ground running in terms of informing myself about local politics, and it looks like this page could be a big help.

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Blurring the “Media Divide”

Markus Prior, the author of Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections, has an interesting op-ed in today’s Washington Post, in which he argues that media choice–the availability of countless entertainment alternatives, including hundreds of cable channels–is producing an uninformed citizenry that is less likely to vote. Prior describes a “fault line” between news buffs and entertainment junkies that has led to a divergence in civic involvement, adding that because entertainment fans are less likely to vote, politicians may make little or no effort to represent their concerns. And while it’s difficult to disagree with the basic observation that many of us, including myself, have “tuned out” national network news, I also want to suggest that the “divide” between entertainment and news is a bit more complicated.

First, Prior concludes with the frequently cited specter of low voter turnout, of citizens so uninformed that they don’t bother to show up to vote. In fact, a George Mason University study suggests that there has been little to no decline in voter turnout since 1972 when turnout is calculated against the “voting eligible” population rather than as a percentage of those who are of voting age. That being said, Prior’s observation about voter turnout isn’t his most significant claim, and voter turnout itself is a fairly limited measure of civic involvement, anyway.

More significant is his argument that there is a “divide” between news and entertainment. The decline in ratings for network television news is certainly undeniable, but I don’t think it quite makes sense to see entertainment and news as completely separate spheres. Most cable news shows, including personal fave Countdown with Keith Olbermann, pay attention to entertainment and tabloid culture. More crucially, many entertainment programs require viewers to have at least some knowledge of contemporary politics. Programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have become entertainment for news junkies, so they may not work as examples, but SNL, The Simpsons, South Park, and a number of other shows also rely on viewers having at least some political knowledge (even if the shows themselves do not offer a coherent politics). And, it’s worth noting that certain news channels (Fox, in particular) often provide a skewed perspective on what is really happening.

But I think my biggest question about Prior’s argument is how he defines human attention and decision-making. And, to be fair, I realize that he has a limited amount of space within the confines of an op-ed column, but suggesting that our media habits are fully “voluntary” doesn’t seem quite right to me. Network TV shows, Hollywood films, and other media alternatives have the capacity to attract our attention in ways that are more difficult for “news” shows that often rely on relatively limited budgets. The op-ed piece seems to posit some form of rational actor choosing between news or entertainment as if they are simply two items on a menu, and in my experience, things aren’t quite that simple.

I don’t make these arguments to defend entertainment culture because I find a lot of TV shows to be utterly vapid, and in many of my composition classes, I do make every effort to require my students to read newspapers and follow the elections in order to complete their assignments. But I also think that news and entertainment are far more intertwined than Prior’s editorial suggests. All of these comments aside, I’d like to find some time this summer to read Prior’s book, which sounds like an interesting and rewarding read.

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“What the Fuck Are You Doing in the Dark?”

At least, that’s what British filmmaker (media maker?) Peter Greenaway is asking in this interview on Dutch television. Essentially, Greenaway is arguing that traditional linear cinema is “dead,” its storylines and techniques utterly exhausted and that it should be replaced with a more interactive model based on the logic of the DJ or VJ. The interview repeats many of the arguments he made several years ago in his 2003 Cinema Militans lecture of 2003–including his claim that cinema died in September 31, 1983, with the mass marketing of the remote control–so this interview may be a few years old (oddly, no one has mentioned the fact that September has only 30 days). But it’s still interesting and entertaining to see Greenaway, whose films have frequently deployed non-linear or database aesthetics, speaking so passionately about the changes in our media landscape.

I’ve been working through some of these ideas for a while now as I move towards the completion of my book, and I think that what fascinates me most, especially in Greenaway’s case, is the will to declare cinema dead. In fact, Greenaway seems to relish standing over the dead medium of film with the murder weapon–the remote control–in hand as cinema is replaced by something else.  Greenaway also defines the cinema experience in a somewhat limited way, with passive viewers seated in a darkened auditorium looking in a single direction, which is of course, not how most of us experience movies today (most people watch at home on VHS, DVD, or TV in rooms that are not fully darkened), but I like that Greenaway is bringing issues of the body into movie watching because for all our discussions of rapt audiences being caught up in the images projected on the screen, watching movies in whatever setting is still a physical, or bodily, experience.

Thanks to Screen Grab and The House Next Door for the links.  Screen Grab also pointed to segments from a couple of Greenaway’s performances as a VJ at PICNIC in Amsterdam in September 2006 and at the STRP Festival also in 2006.

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Sicko’s Box Office Health?

I tried to stay away, but it’s Friday and I don’t feel like working on my other projects. On Thursday, Karina addressed the debate about whether or not Michael Moore’s health care doc, Sicko, was a “box office success.” She points out that the conservative film bloggers over at Libertas have been pushing the idea that Sicko is a box office “disaster,” comparing the film’s per screen take to the Robin Williams comedy, License to Wed (according to Karina, Sicko actually is taking in 20% more per screen than License).

Such a comparison is misleading, at best. First, Sicko has been released with a far more gradual roll-out than License to Wed, or pretty much any studio product for that matter. It wasn’t even due to hit theaters in Fayetteville until this coming weekend (popular demand brought the film in a week earlier), and I’d imagine the same is true for other medium-sized cities. Because Sicko’s audience is more likely to be older, it’s also a film that is arguably less dependent on opening weekends than most studio films. Second, the folks at Libertas only cite domestic box office take in their attempts to define the film as a financial albatross for the Weinsteins. No mention of DVD sales or other “ancillary” income (which will obviously change these numbers). I’m not suggesting that Sicko will come close to the box office success of Fahrenheit 9/11, but that film’s success will be difficult to duplicate for any documentary, in part because of the unique conditions when it was released–Moore’s film gave license to criticize publicly a war that was becoming increasing unpopular, although many people were still hesitant to speak out against it. For many people, going to see Fahrenheit 9/11 was, in a sense, a political act in a way Sicko cannot really duplicate.

As Karina observes, a more valid comparison would be the Davis Guggenheim documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (starring a certain former VP), and Sicko’s box office numbers do compare favorably to last year’s blockbuster doc, with Sicko taking in $11 million in three weeks, numbers it took An Inconvenient Truth six weeks to achieve (see also indieWIRE’s Steve Ramos on this point). It’s worth pointing out that Sicko is already the sixth highest grossing documentary–and fourth highest grossing “political” documentary–of all time. Still, I’m not oblivious to the fact that these are not the box office numbers that Moore or the Weinsteins would want, and the numbers, so far, are not living up to Moore’s “star” persona or the amount of money invested in promoting the film. The film is not a “huge” hit, but it is in the ballpark with most other Moore documentaries (with the obvious exception of F9/11).

But I think the discussion of the film’s box office take misses the point, to some extent. By defining “success” in terms of box office take, Libertas ignores the ripple effect of the film within public discourse about health care in the United States. As Fayetteville Observer columnist Myron Pitts observes (I happened to see the film with Myron), the real point of Sicko is to challenge our current health care policies, and the film seems to be doing just that. Moore has been able to convey the twisted logic of HMOs, which put profit over medical care, and more importantly, he has challenged the rhetoric that “socializing” medicine would be a bad thing. After all, the fire and police departments are “socialized.”

The logic of using “the market,” in this case box office take, to determine whether a message is endorsed by a broader public is slippery at best. Just because Moore’s film isn’t bringing in audiences in record number does not mean that people are not unhappy about the health care system as it currently exists. Again, I think a comparison with An Inconvenient Truth is helpful. Even though the film “only” grossed $24 million, the film has been a catalyst for further conversation about global warming and about our stewardship of the environment. I ‘ll admit that I’m somewhat skeptical about the degree to which documentaries can change the world, but it’s probably fair to say that we wouldn’t be re-evaluating our health care system with this much energy if Moore hadn’t made this film, and in the long run isn’t that what matters?

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Thursday Media Links

Making progress on the book, so I haven’t had as much time to blog, but just wanted to quickly mention a couple of media notes:

  • First, Lawrence Lessig has an interesting article on Lucasfilm’s experiments with “remix culture.” Lessig points out that while Lucas has made clips from his films available for fans to remix, Lucas retains relatively tight control over what fans produce.
  • Second, I mentioned that the Sundance Channel is showing Jem Cohen’s Chain this month, but here’s a reminder that it’s airing tonight (at 10:15 EDT on Sundance West). I’ve already mentioned that Chain is one of my favorite recent films, but I’d really like others to check it out and let me know what they think.
  • Finally, Peter at Coffee coffee and more coffee responds to Andy Horbal’s blog-essay on “film criticism in the blog era.”  Peter argues that “what the serious film bloggers do best is write about past films in the present tense.”  It’s an interesting argument, one that is certainly backed up by the  wealth of posts that are produced for every film blogathon, though I’m fully aware that my own blog tends to have a bit of a presentist bias.

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Sicko Review

I decided to post my Sicko review over at New Critics. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that it’s one of Moore’s strongest documentaries to date, in part because Moore rarely overplays his hand with the gotcha moments that have characterized his previous films. Instead, it offers a relatively simple–and direct–thesis that health care should be a public good. Ultimately my reading was somewhat influenced by Chistopher Hayes’ Nation article on the film, which does a good job of emphasizing this aspect of Moore’s argument (also worth checking out: Edward Copeland’s review, which describes many of the health care horror stories I only mentioned in passing).

Update: At the request of SEK, here’s the full text of my New Critics review below the fold:

Read the rest of this entry »

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“Giuliani’s Got Balls”

I’ve mentioned ObamaGirl and Hott4Hill, so in the interests of political fairness, here’s the “Rudy Giuliani-Real Balls ” ad.  It features a New Yorker driving through the city talking about how tough Giuliani is.  On crime.  On terrorists.  On immigrants.  All while taking Rudy’s macho posturing well beyond satire (and making a point of blaming Giuliani’s prostate cancer on a Haitian “voodoo curse”).  Somehow, though, they forgot to mention Rudy’s taste for wearing drag.

The video does point to Rudy’s official website at the end, which throws an interesting twist into things and there’s a related “Rudy Giuliani-Not a Mormon” ad that’s part of the same series (found via Brian and Wonkette).

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Eight Things Meme

Alonzo tagged me a few days ago with the Eight Things meme, and since I haven’t been tagged in a while, I figured I’d play along. First, there are apparently some rules:

Rules:
1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged write their own blog post about their eight things and include these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged and that they should read your blog.

Eight Facts about Me:
1. The first movie I saw in a movie theater was The Muppet Movie. I vividly remember that it was an afternoon matinee and that I was fascinated by the crowd of people at the theater. I also remember being blown away by the scene where the projector appears to malfunction.
2. The first movie I videotaped off of network television was The Karate Kid. My sister and I must have re-watched that movie well over 20 times, which is by far, the most times I’ve seen any single movie. I’m not proud of this fact. Let’s move on.
3. When I was finishing my PhD in 2001-2, I inherited my aunt’s 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra. The car, which was approximately 18 years old, had less than 65,000 miles on it. During the two years I owned the car, I probably still drove the car less often than my aunt would have.
4. I’ve been digging the band Pela this summer. Before that it was Ted Leo & the Pharmacists and Wilco. But most of the time I listen to KEXP Seattle.  Oh, and I’m also digging Beirut’s “Elephant Gun.” Just a great song.
5. When I was getting my MA in the mid-1990s, I briefly lived next door to the professional wrestler and model Sable (I was completely oblivious about this information for several years until I saw her picture in the paper). Her 5-year old daughter once saw me carrying a copy of Absalom, Absalom! and asked me to read it to her. I wasn’t sure how she’d respond to Faulkner’s prose, so I tried summarizing the novel to her instead.
6. A friend and I have been toying with the idea of making a documentary about Fayetteville, but I have no idea when we would have time to make it.
7. Every time I board an airplane, I think of the final scene from Kieslowski’s Red, when Valentine (Irene Jacob) boards the ferry to cross the English Channel. Surprisingly, I find this scene very comforting.
8. My taste for black coffee is well-documented. Less widely known: I rarely, if ever, drank coffee before I was in my mid-twenties. My first memory of drinking coffee is in grad school, and the guy who made it for me put salt in it instead of sugar, and I didn’t drink coffee after that for nearly a year.

I’m supposed to tag eight people now, so a few people in random order: Chris, Heidi, Tama, Jason J, George, Film Snob, Dylan, and Jason M.

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Weekend Media Links

A couple of other links I’ve been planning to mention here:

  • Kim Middleton’s “Shot for Shot,” a discussion of some shot-for-shot remakes of the SNL “Lazy Sunday” video that turned YouTube into a household name. Kim mentions the example of “Lazy Sunday-Chinese Version,” which is a very funny riff on the original.
  • Via CinemaTech, news that Netflix may be planning a $50 set-top box that would allow you to pull movies from the internet and watch them on your TV set. It seems likely that internet distribution will happen eventually, but as Jennifer Netherby points out, the low cost of the “box” is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story.

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Termite Criticism

Andy Horbal, formerly of No More Marriages, has launched his new film blogging venture, Mirror/Stage, with a manifesto-style post on film criticism in the age of blogging. Observing that blogging and other technological developments have democratized criticism, Andy calls this new form of criticism “termite criticism,” suggesting that bloggers can find a niche, an area of expertise, and “nibble away at it until sated.” He adds that film bloggers are also less concerned with reputation and more focused on creating a community of people thinking, writing, and exploring films and film culture.

It’s an enticing argument, one that carries with it all of the anti-elitist and communitarian ideals that drew me in to blogging in the first place. It also responds forcefully to the debates about the decline of more centralized models of film criticism associated with The New Yorker of the 1960s and ’70s and later with the “TV critics” of the 1980s (Siskel, Ebert, etc), although Andy doesn’t mention them, and if I’m reading it correctly, I think Andy’s riff off of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s comments in the most recent issue of Film Quarterly works well to illustrate that bloggers are coming up with new ways of writing about film. And I agree that this multiplicity of voices about movies has been incredibly positive–it’s very close to what I’m thinking about right now in the book I’m writing when I talk about “networked film publics.” Whether we’re engaging a historical project of looking at films released in 1947 or weighing in on the latest Michael Moore film, film blogs are opening up new ways of writing about film and, potentially, engaging with the public sphere in interesting new ways.

I do think Andy’s point that new technologies–such as the DVD–are worth highlighting here, although it’s important to point out that VHS and cable have made many, if not most, films available for re-viewing since the 1980s (although DVD has arguably accelerated this process). Not sure I have much to add right now, but I’m glad to see the launch of Andy’s new project.

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Socialized Medicine Causes Terrorism

If Sicko has done nothing else, it has made universal health care look so inviting that right-wingers are now forced into making the absurd argument that it attracts terrorists. After all, terrorists want nothing more than cheap health care. I’ll try to write a longer post on Sicko a little later, but for now, a couple of fleeting thoughts. In general, I liked the film, and I think it does a pretty effective job of undercutting many of the arguments against universal health care, especially when he lays out the logic of H.M.O.s, which operate under the principle of offering the least amount of health care possible.

But Sicko also opens itself up to certain kinds of criticism. Whatever might be said about Moore’s fact-checking, I think the bigger concern is that Moore opens himself up to charges of disingenuousness when he depicts life in France, Canada, the UK, or (obviously) Cuba. Especially in France we are left with the impression of an almost utopian place where leisure is emphasized, health care is free, and production remains high–in short a place where there are no problems, which is, of course, not entirely true.

I’ve avoided engaging with John Pierson’s “open letter” to Moore, criticizing him for fabricating certain elements of the narrative of Roger & Me, but I think that Pierson does raise some valid points about the implications of Moore’s documentary techniques (btw, Pierson’s open letter is available online and well worth checking out). That being said, I remain convinced that Sicko is valuable if only because it has placed universal health care back on the table as an issue worth considering.

Update: Here’s my full Sicko review.

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Friday Watch List

Here are some of the videos I’ve been watching and thinking about this week:

  • Guywiththeglasses returns (GWG from now on). One of my favorite YouTubers, GWG, was suspended from YouTube and had his videos deleted for copyright violation. GWG’s “5 Second Movies” brilliantly parodied Hollywood films (and entire cycles) by reducing them to five-second videos. His return to YouTube includes an inspired video featuring Joe McCarthy grilling GWG on his use of copyrighted material, and GWG (correctly) defending his practice as a form of “Fair Use.”
  • Impeach Dick Cheney. Robert Greenwald of Outfoxed and Uncovered fame has a short video calling for the impeachment of the Vice President. Not much to add here, but the video offers a concise argument, primarily using interviews with Cheney on Sunday morning talk shows. There’s a petition for anyone who wants to sign on.
  • Meanwhile, the cinetrix points to this creepy Betty Boop short.

Happy weekend! I’m planning to watch Sicko tonight, so hopefully I’ll be able to join in the conversation about the film soon afterwards.

Update: I had no idea that the impeachment of Dick Cheney is so popular.  Or that Bush’s commuting of Libby’s sentence would be so unpopular.  But Eugene Robinson’s right–Bush never should have commuted Libby’s sentence, especially when you compare Libby’s sentence to the sentences of Martha Stewart, Paris Hilton, and Lil’ Kim.

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DVDs and Movie Trailers, Some Questions

Working on some ideas here regarding how we “use” DVDs and I’d appreciate your feedback. If you don’t want to leave a comment, feel free to email me instead. I’ll have a follow-up post that will hopefully contextualize these questions a little further in the next few days. In working through some of my arguments in my chapter on “fake trailers,” I’ve been reading Lisa Kernan’s engaging book, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers. Kernan treats film trailers as a genre–one that mixes advertising and cinematic forms–and uses a rhetorical approach to read how trailers “sell” certain movies to us. It’s an interesting project, one that can open up new ways of thinking about cinema culture.

But right now, I’m more intrigued by a passing comment she makes, essentially in a footnote, about the how trailers function in the age of the DVD, when increasing numbers of people are viewing movies at home. At one point, Kernan writes

The act of viewing a film after having seen its trailer enables spectators to “learn after the event” [...] that trailers were an illusory unity; in the process reminding us that the unitary worlds presented by film and television images and narratives themselves are illusory (38).

She adds in a footnote that DVDs have accelerated this process. In fact, I would argue that DVDs have actually reversed this process, where most people, if they view a trailer on DVD actually view it after they have seen the film, and with more people seeing films on DVD, I’m wondering if, or how, this reversal changes our perception of trailers (and how it changes the relationship of the trailer to the original film). Certainly when we go to the movies we typically endure, or maybe enjoy, up to twenty minutes of previews for upcoming movies, but most DVDs don’t require that, and when I have watched the trailers of movies I rent (or buy) on DVD, I often watch them immediately after the movie I’ve just watched, when I’m either too tired to do other work or when I simply want to extend a pleasurable viewing experience by a few more minutes.

So I think this raises a question for me about how we “use” DVD extras. I’m guessing that people are now more likely than in the past to watch trailers after they’ve seen a given film. But in thinking about my own DVD habits, I’ve been finding that I now rarely watch DVD extras unless I’m watching a screener copy of a film I’ve promised to review (or, sometimes, if I’m planning to write about a given film). Whether this is simply due to a time crunch or a genuine lack of interest in the extras, I’m not sure. But I’ve found that when I do play a DVD’s commentary tracks, I will often do so while I’m doing something else (blogging, reading, etc). So, here are my almost completely unscientific questions: How do you “use” DVD extras? How often do you watch/listen to commentary tracks? To “making-of” documentaries? To theatrical trailers? And, if it’s not too much to ask, how do the extras change your appreciation or understanding of a film (if at all)?

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