Archive for October, 2007

Tuesday Media Notes

I’ve got a slightly longer post brewing about (articles about) the box office failure of Iraq War films, but I just wanted to mention some media/film notes that have crossed my radar this morning over a surprisingly leisurely cup of coffee this morning:

  • In my article on Jem Cohen’s wonderful film, Chain, I briefly mentioned the controversy over New York City’s proposed new rules for obtaining a permit to film in the city.  Thanks to a number of complaints, the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theater and Broadcasting has revised those rules and re-opened the comment period until December 13.  Agnes has the full-text of the new rules, which certainly look better than the previous draft, but as one of the commenters at PictureNY observes, the definition of “obstruction” may lead to some complications for documentary filmmakers shooting on the city’s sidewalks.
  • In my Introduction to Film course this week, I’ve been teaching Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, which famously helped to clear Randall Dale Adams of the murder of Robert Wood (or, at least, evidence that Morris uncovered during his research for the film did).  I enjoy using the film as an example of documentary films that have genuinely made a difference in the world (even if only for a small number of people), and now it appears that another high-profile documentary, Paradise Lost, about the Arkansas murder case known as The West Memphis Three, may be having a similar impact.  Monday, it was revealed that there was no DNA from the three defendants found at the scene of the crime.  While Morris’s investigative work in The Thin Blue Line may be unrivaled, HBO’s Paradise Lost (and its follow-up) helped keep public attention on the case.  It will be interesting to see how this new evidence affects the case.
  • Back in 2004, I admitted my fascination with the reality TV show, High School Reunion.  That interest has faded away in the glow of the hundreds of channels available on digital cable.  In fact, I had no idea it was still on until I learned, via a MySpace email, that my high school class is being “considered” for the show.  I have no idea how to process this information, other than to be somewhat mystified by the fact that I’ve been out of high school for nearly twenty years (side note: being “mystified” is not the same thing as feeling old).  I have no plans to apply to appear on the show, but I wonder whether my train-wreck fascination with the show will be revived if people I once knew (albeit many years ago) are involved.

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Teaching in the Information Age

I came across another video by Kansas State professor Michael Wesch and his digital anthropology students, this one, “A Vision of Students Today,” focusing on characteristics of students today, in particular how they use and encounter information and how our teaching strategies are often not only obsolete but in fact work against how contemporary students learn.  The video is especially enlightening when it comes to illustrating what and how students acquire information, the number of papers they write versus the number of emails, the kinds of reading they do, the degree to which they (we?) are multitaskers.

While I like much about the video, I do have some reservations about the degree to which it generalizes the practices of students.  I wonder, for example, if community college students or students at a public HBCU such as Fayetteville State, where I teach, fit so neatly into the categories depicted in the video.  For example, several of my students have told me that they don’t have computers at home.  Others don’t have internet access or still rely on dial-up modems, which makes me wonder whether that 3.5 hours spent online isn’t reflective of a limited slice of students.  To be fair, the video does address briefly issues of a digital divide, but I think that teasing out some of these differences and not universalizing the experiences of students at a major state university could be valuable.

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The Tenth Planet: A Single Woman’s Life in Baghdad

One of the films featured at the International Museum of Women’s Online Film Festival is Melis Birder’s fascinating documentary short, The Tenth Planet: A Single Woman’s Life in Baghdad.  Birder reports that she traveled to Baghdad in 2004 to cover the aftermath of the war in Iraq when she met Kawkab, a young Iraqi woman who was to serve as her translator and guide.  However, as Birder got to know Kawkab, she found that her story was worth telling.  The film’s title refers to Kawkab’s name, which means “planet.”  When someone asks about her name, Kawkab describes herself as “the tenth planet.”  Like many documentaries of the Iraq War, The Tenth Planet is an indispensable portrait of daily life in Baghdad, with Kawkab taking us on a tour of her daily experiences–stopping at a hair salon where she reveals the blond highlights hidden by her scarf, visiting her office where she is unable to work because of a lack of electricity, and eating dinner with her family.

The film is especially valuable because it is one of the few Iraq War documentaries to focus primarily on women’s experiences, and Kawkab discusses her experiences as a single woman with remarkable candor, including one scene in which she describes two potential suitors, one a man she has known for several years and clearly loves who cannot afford to support her.  Another who might be able to provide for her happens to belong to another religious sect and Kawkab worries that her father will not approve of the marriage.  It’s a poignant scene, and while the film explicitly shows us the physical damage the war has wrought on Baghdad, these reminders of the emotional turmoil are important as well.

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Saturday Links

Just spent the last couple of hours putting together an In Media Res post on Barely Political’s latest video, “Perfected: The Ann Coulter Song.” I’m convinced that it’s one of their best videos yet, in part because it offers a more explicit critique than many of the parody group’s earlier videos. The post will be up in a few days (I’ll let you know when), but for now, you should check out and comment on some of the other recent posts, including Tara McPherson’s “At the Border,” which focuses on a Wholphin video on border fences. Other things that I’ve been thinking about and/or watching this week:

  • Michael Wesch, the Kansas State University professor behind “The Machine is Us/ing Us” is back with “Information R/evolution,” a new video that expands upon many of the possibilities and challenges raised in his earlier videos.
  • Karina Longworth responded to my Newcritics post on Medium Cool and Redacted by tracking down and comparing the trailers for both films.
  • Agnes Varnum offers a reminder about the International Museum of Women Online Film Festival, which everybody should check out.
  • A nice movie mashup video or two, the first suggested by an email tip: “The Queen and Donkey” and, via Anne Thompson, the very funny spoof trailer, “Glen and Gary and Glen and Ross.”
  • Also via Thompson, this incredibly beautiful Wong Kar Wai short, which started as a promo video for Phillips’ Ambilight televisions.  As Thompson says, “Very mod.  Very beautiful.”  I came thisclose to writing on IMR about this short rather than the Coulter video.
  • Via Virginia Heffernan, Mos Def interviewing Al Gore on MySpace TV.  Like Heffernan, I think it’s an interesting video and I appreciate the degree to which it appears to be a genuine dialogue between the two of them.
  • Kairosnews has a link to Daisy Pignetti’s article on the role of blogs in covering Hurricane Katrina.  Because of the wildfires in Southern California, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot this week.  I haven’t had as much time to watch “amateur” coverage of the wildfires, but a number of compelling videos have appeared on YouTube, including this one.
  • I caught The Darjeeling Limited last night, and like many of Wes Anderson’s films, I need some time to sort out my response.  I don’t have time to write a full review right now, but like The Shamus, I found many of the scenes to be utterly beautiful and appreciated the film’s emotional sincerity.  Like him, I also thought the film had a number of false steps, including the scene featuring the death of a minor character.  The baggage motif/metaphor also seemed a bit, well, heavy-handed to me.  Also worth checking out, the video interview between Anderson and the film’s lead, Owen Wilson.

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The Cinema of Public Space

I almost forgot to mention that I have a short article on Jem Cohen, Chris Marker, and the cinema of public space that just came out in the most recent edition of the Barcelona-based Art Signal Magazine. Currently (as of 8:30 EDT on Tuesday night), the article is only available on the web in Spanish–the first time something I’ve written has ever been translated–but the English edition should be available in the next day or so.

Or, you can check out a PDF of the entire second issue, which I recommend because the stills that accompany the article add quite a bit.

Update: Here’s the English language version of my article.

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The Whole World is Watching

I’m teaching Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool in my senior seminar this week, an experience that has deepened my appreciation for the film considerably. And in particular, I’m finding Wexler’s meditation on the politics of photography incredibly useful in thinking about contemporary debates over the use of Iraq War photographs in Brian DePalma’s Redacted, an issue I discuss in greater detail over at newcritics.

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Making the Drive-In Mobile

I’m doing research for my book on networked film publics, I have become increasingly interested in alternative screening spaces, especially those that have been aided by or associated with social networking. In particular, I’ve done quite a bit of writing on the house party model associated with Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films, where people gather at houses, churches, or community centers to watch one of Greenwald’s documentaries. One of my arguments in the book is that movie culture is not, in fact, becoming more privatized and domestic, but that instead we are witnessing the flourishing of new models of movie watching that entail complicated relationships between public and private space.

One of the alternative screening “sites” that I’m finding increasingly fascinating is the “MobMov,” or Mobile Movie, movement, a topic discussed by Scott Kirsner in a recent article in Variety.  In one sense, MobMov is a networked reinvention of the drive-in, with “chapters” organizing impromptu screenings of movies, often independent films without established distribution.  The makeshift “projection booths,” according to Kirsner entail “an LCD projector perched atop a car, a DVD player and an FM radio transmitter for the soundtrack.”  Unlike Film Snob, I’ve only been to a drive-in once (the product of my evangelical parents’ caution about going to such “passion pits”), but obviously there is something appealing about watching movies in the open air.  And the spontaneity associated with such screenings would seem to add to the enjoyment.

But I’m equally interested in the use of MobMov as a venue for promoting self-distributed and other ultra-indie productions.  As Kirsner mentions, Lance Weiler’s Head Trauma, currently sitting next to my DVD player waiting to be played, is slated to play at some MobMov chapters on October 20, and the animated film, We are the Strange is also scheduled to play before Halloween.  Obviously, these distribution and promotion models have a much longer history, as Kirsner’s example of Russ Meyer implies, but it’s still an interesting example of the ways in which the new indies have become so deeply connected to these networked film publics.

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Media Consolidation is Back

Just saw in The New York Times that Kevin Martin, head of the Federal Communications Commission has once again proposed loosening media ownership restrictions. These looser restrictions would allow, among other things, media conglomerates to own a television station and newspaper in the same city, to own two TV stations in the same city (as long as one is not among the city’s top four stations), and to own up to eight radio stations in the biggest radio markets.

There is already too little diversity in local programming as it is, and media consolidation tends to limit the kinds of voices that are heard on TV, on the radio, and in newspapers. This proposal was tremendously unpopular the first time when Michael Powell proposed it in 2003 (around the same time I started this blog), and it should be rejected this time as well. Good for Byron Dorgan, among others, for stepping up to the plate on this issue.

While I’m mentioning members of Congress, good for Fayetteville-area reps Bob Etheridge (who represents my district) Mike McIntyre for finally coming around on SCHIP. Etheridge, McIntyre, and Republican rep Robin Hayes have been getting pilloried in ads airing on local TV, so I’m glad to see that the pressure on them actually worked.

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Rethinking Scholarly Publishing

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has an interesting new article about the new online publication technology, CommentPress. The article, “CommentPress: New (Social) Structures for New Networked Texts,” addresses the many challenges associated with delivering, storing, and organizing scholarly content in the age of electronic media. The article was written in the CommentPress format, allowing individuals to comment on individual paragraphs within the essay, so please do check out the essay and participate in this very useful conversation (also check out this Chronicle article on CommentPress and related electronic publishing issues).

Update: I finally got the chance to give Kathleen’s article a (relatively) close read, and I just wanted to highlight her arguments about the role of blogs in facilitating what she calls “scholarly discourse networks” and how those networks can be used to facilitate the kinds of interactions and conversations that are vital to our profession (with blogs functioning as what she calls “conferences-without-walls”).  The bigger question that she’s asking, however, about whether (and how) the interactivity associated with blogging and the scholarship associated with books can be merged is especially interesting.  Like her, I think CommentPress (see her article for an example) is an important gesture in that direction.

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A Modest Proposal

After reading Mark Hemingway’s editorial in The National Review, “Meet the New Frosts, Same as the Old Frosts,” I’m no longer sure that students will recognize this as satire. In short, Hemingway essentially argues that 2-year old Bethany Wilkerson should never have been conceived because her parents have jobs that don’t offer health insurance benefits, calling their decision to become parents “irresponsible.”

Hemingway also criticizes the Democrats for choosing a “photogenic” child for calling attention to the SCHIP issue. Imagine that. A political party using TV-ready children to rally support for a specific cause. As I tried to argue earlier, what bothers me about this issue is that conservatives have been able to do anything other than to resort to either silly or malicious ad hominem attacks against these two families who have gone public in attesting to the need not only to sustain but expand SCHIP to more needy families.

Thanks to Think Progress for the link (and to Olbermann for continuing to cover this issue).

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Tuesday Links

Just wanted to mention a few items that have caught my attention in the last few days:

  • First, newcritics will be hosting a comedy blogathon the week of of November 6-11, to coincide with the New York Comedy Festival. I’ve been a total slacker about participating in blogathons, but this one sounds like fun. Plus, I’ve been an occasional contributor over there, something I also need to get back in the habit of doing. As always, everyone is welcome to participate.
  • Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post has an interesting editorial on the Tyler Perry media juggernaut. Perry’s films have largely flown under the radar, but few actor-directors can open a film quite like him (his latest film opened with box office totals of $21.5 million). I’ll admit that I’m not really a fan of Perry’s films, but I think Robinson’s take on him is about right: “What Perry does is depict black Americans as people relating to other people — not as mere plot devices and not as characters defined solely by how they relate to the white world. The rest of the movie industry would do well to take note.”
  • Keith Olbermann featured an interview with Frost family last night on Countdown, in which they respond to the absurd right-wing smears of their family and the importance of SCHIP. The House is scheduled to vote on Thursday to try to overturn Bush’s veto. Local reps Etheridge and McIntyre originally voted against it, so if you’re in the Fayetteville area, give them a call and ask them to reconsider.
  • Finally, via the CHE blog, a creative video promoting a piece of legislation promoting a bill passed House Democrats that would save students as much as $4,400 by cutting interest rates on federally-guaranteed student loans. The video features an anthropomorphic dancing check in what might be an update of Schoolhouse Rock’s “Just a Bill” for the viral post-YouTube age.

Update: I forgot to mention the Los Angeles Times article reporting that YouTube has come up with a method for detecting and deleting videos using copyrighted material. I think there are some real problems here in that many of the videos that would be subject to removal would fall into Fair Use categories (videos by Brave New Films would fall into this category). More on this later, hopefully.

Update 2: Here’s another SCHIP ad, “Meet Bethany,” which details the story of Bethany Wilkerson.  Because Bethany was born with a serious heart condition, private insurers refused to help her, and SCHIP stepped up to the plate.  I realize I’m hammering on this issue quite a bit, but I simply don’t understand what’s so offensive about providing children with adequate health care.

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James Yee at FSU

Fayetteville readers might be interested to know that James Yee will be giving a free public talk at Fayetteville State’s Seabrook Auditorium on Tuesday, October 16, at 6 PM. Admission is free and open to the public. Yee is the former U.S. Army chaplain who ministered to Muslim prisoners held in Guantanamo after the September 11 attacks, and after returning from duty in 2003, was arrested under suspicion that he was spying on the United States.

All court-martial charges against Yee were dropped, and Yee reports that he was held in solitary confinement for several weeks and that he was forced to undergo sensory deprivation. He has also asserted that many of the prisoners held in Guantanamo were mistreated. Yee is the author of For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.

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Half-Marathon Man

I’m considering running the Atlanta Half-Marathon on Thanksgiving Day when I go home to visit my family, but I’m not quite sure I can be ready in time, so if I have any runners among my readers, I’d appreciate some advice. Right now, I’m running about four days a week, usually about 3-4 miles a day on Tuesday and Thursday with longer runs (today about six or seven miles) on Saturday and Sunday.

I’ve never run in a half-marathon before, much less a 10k run (which I could do easily now), but I think it would be a great goal that would, among other things, keep me on the right path in terms of weight loss. I’m down 30 or so pounds since July 15 and would like to lose another 10 or 15 by Christmas. I’ve also never really considered myself that athletic (I once went entire seasons without scoring a single point for my recreation league basketball team), so to be able to run a half marathon would be pretty cool.

I probably wouldn’t be considering this, but my sister is planning to run, and I think it would be fun to run with her. So, is it plausible to get from my current level to a half marathon in more or less five or six weeks? I have absolutely no aspirations about finishing with a decent time; more than anything, I’d just like to be able to say that I finished.

Update: It’s official.  I’ve decided to run.  I’ll try to keep everyone posted on my progress as I get ready for the race.  Nothing like a little public accountability to keep me motivated.

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Documenting Iraq

Just wanted to mention some films that came up in a CNN report on Redacted. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about documentary lately because of the debate over Redacted, so I’m now curious to check out these films as well. First, I think I’d heard something about Phil Donahue’s planned Iraq documentary, but have been somewhat out of the loop lately. The doc is called Body of War and it focuses on a paralyzed Iraq War vet named Tomas Young. Cinematical has some nice background on Donahue’s film, including the information that all profits will go to charity or to Young’s medical bills.

The other film is Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha, which focuses on the alleged massacre of 24 Iraqi men, women, and children in November 2005 by a group of US Marines. I’ve had some doubts about Broomfield in the past (I found Kurt and Courtney utterly manipulative in its representation of Courtney Love), so I’m definitely cautious about this one. According to IMDB, Broomfield’s film involves actors playing the key roles, not documentary footage, so I’m not sure what kinds of claims it will be making with regards to factuality.

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Chipping Away at SCHIP

A few days ago, I wrote a post calling for my Fayetteville readers to call their member of Congress asking them to reverse their initial votes on SCHIP and overturn President Bush’s veto of what I consider a valuable piece of legislation (both of Fayetteville’s Democratic reps were among a small number who voted against it). But an important aspect of this story I haven’t addressed is the smearing of Graeme Frost, the 12-year old boy who gave the Democratic response to a September radio address given by Bush. Graeme and his family are beneficiaries of SCHIP, their combined wages too low to afford the expensive health care premiums needed to cover a family with four children. Add to that Graeme and his sister’s injuries in a car accident and insurance costs would have been utterly prohibitive. In short, the Frosts are precisely the kind of family that SCHIP was designed to help.

Of course, that hasn’t prevented the right-wing smear machine from going full-tilt in attacking the Frost family, even to the point of staking out the Frost home and calling them constantly on the telephone. I mention these right-wing attacks not because I think the Frosts should be completely out of bounds when it comes to the debate over SCHIP. By placing themselves in the public eye on this issue, they have established themselves as participants in a wider debate about health care. However, I am disturbed by what amounts to harassment of the family and by the way in which the right-wing blogs have succeeded in spreading vast amounts of misinformation about the Frost family’s ability to afford health care (see both Krugman and Dionne on these points). And I think that’s what troubles me the most about the “debate” over SCHIP is that conservative critics, unable to challenge the merits of health coverage for children, have resorted to name calling and other rhetorical fallacies in order to attack a popular program. And the baseless attacks on SCHIP illustrate the worst elements, in my opinion, of the echo chamber mentality of the blogosphere (there is also some evidence here that a staffer for Mitch McConnell may have helped orchestrate these attacks).

But these attacks clearly do little more than focus on a single family with vague innuendo that does little to suggest that the Frosts don’t qualify for SCHIP. The larger questions about whether or not SCHIP should exist or whether or not working- and middle-class families are able to afford adequate health care are left unanswered. Here, I’m generally in agreement with Krugman, and I’m not sure I can say it any better, so I’ll give him the final word:

I don’t know about you, but I think American children who need medical care should get it, period. Even if you think adults have made bad choices — a baseless smear in the case of the Frosts, but put that on one side — only a truly vicious political movement would respond by punishing their injured children.

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