Archive for November, 2007

Clean Freak

I just had a chance to watch Chris Hansen’s documentary short, Clean Freak, a follow-up to his feature-length mockumentary, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah. Equal parts Morgan Spurlock and Caveh Zahedi, with a twist of Alan Berliner, Clean Freak documents Chris’s somewhat obsessive need for a clean house. The film opens with Chris scolding one of his daughters about her messy room before cutting to shots of Chris’s wife and three daughters gently teasing him about his cleaning habits (one daughter’s drawing of Chris cleaning the kitchen floor underscores this point almost too neatly, pardon the pun), but the personal, almost confessional, style echoes Zahedi’s own exploration of personal psychology in I Am a Sex Addict and sets up Chris’s attempts to find the source of his clean freak tendencies.

Through interviews with his parents and his older brother Jim, Chris isolates a “primal scene” that he surmises might have triggered his behavior. The incident from childhood, which involved the spilling of a drink concoction Jim and Chris were making that included lots of sugar, lots of water, and eventually lots of soap. The soapy, sugary mess on the kitchen floor set off Chris’s mother’s own “clean freak” tendencies and eventually shaped Chris’s own habits. The incident is told in proper mock epic style, but it’s clear from the scene that the need for a clean house is an inherited trait. In some ways, this segment of the film was, for me, the most illuminating. During college and grad school, I lived with Jim and Chris at various points and as a mild slob, I can now see how living with me might have set their “clean freak” tendencies on edge.

Chris later experiments with various “cures,” a support group, a hypnotherapist, and an herbal remedy (St. John’s Wort), but in all three cases, finds the solution inadequate. Chris’s encounter with the hypnotherapist–and particularly his unwillingness to cede control–is particularly effective here. That many of these scenes appear to be (or could be) staged is certainly of interest here. Like his mockdoc, American Messiah, Clean Freak explores the limits of documentary as a medium for representing reality, or in many cases, shaping reality. Documentaries are full of those moments where the presence of the camera informs–or even shapes–what happens in front of it, an observation that Zahedi has used to great effect in many of his films.

To be fair, Chris does acknowledge that he has a relatively mild form of OCD, but the film’s sharpest move is his connection between his need to tidy things up in real life and his desire for narrative completion; in essence, filmmaking becomes a means of cleaning up the messes of everyday life. Chris allows this point to come through in a video chat with his brother Jim, a literature professor, who cites Frank Kermode’s groundbreaking book, The Sense of an Ending. In the book, Kermode essentially argues that endings function to make sense of what came before and can, in many cases, allow us to completely reinterpret “their irreducibly intermediary preoccupations.” In fact, this is where Chris’s playful engagement with the limits of documentary becomes especially crucial. Documentary becomes a means for Chris to make sense of his experiences, of putting his “clean freak” tendencies into a narrative form. Filmmaking, whether narrative or documentary filmmaking, can be a way of tidying things up, and Clean Freak provides a new–and humorous–way of reminding us of that.

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It’s (almost) the End of the Semester as We Know It…

…and I’m feeling fine. A big stack of papers awaits tomorrow, but until then, I’m a (relatively) free man, so I’m taking a quick break to import some CDs to my iPod and do a quick blog update. In addition to my stack of papers, I have a small stack of DVDs that I’ve been promising to watch and review, and I’m planning to make a (small) dent in that stack tonight. But here are some short nuggets that aren’t quite worthy of an independent blog entry:

  • Now that I’ve survived my first half marathon, I’m on the lookout for some other races in which I can participate. I’m sure I’ll do another half marathon eventually (and maybe even a full one), but there are a couple of local runs that look pretty cool and seem to support causes I appreciate. Ryan’s Reindeer 5K on December 15 is one such run. Proceeds go to the Ryan P. Kishbaugh Memorial Foundation, the Duke Pediatric Bone Marrow Unit, the Friends of the Cancer Center of the Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training Program. I found the Ryan’s Reindeer 5K on the GetSetNC website, which looks like a good site for tracking upcoming races in North Carolina (although if I have any NC readers with better suggestions, I’d love to hear them).
  • Ted Z. has a link to the trailer for Michel Gondry’s latest film, Be Kind Rewind, which features Jack Black as a video store worker who decides to reshoot all of the films in his store’s VHS catalog after accidentally erasing them when he becomes magnetized. I’m a huge fan of Gondry’s, and the concept certainly appeals to my inner cinephile, my admiration of the low-tech indie aesthetic, and even, to some extent, my VHS nostalgia. Ted also points to a number of fake trailers of past films such as Robocop and Ghostbusters that are both very funny and seem to capture the mood of the film.
  • A few days ago, Jason Mittell posted an interesting entry on “Understanding Vidding” that should be helpful as I unpack similar issues in the book. I have an entire chapter devoted to user-generated videos, focusing especially on fake trailers. Jason also points to a video that combines footage from Madonna’s “Vogue” with the movie 300.
  • Brave New Films has a deleted scene from Michael Moore’s Sicko, in which Moore travels to Norway. The scene is entertaining enough as a stand-alone piece, and I’m not sure that I would have added much to the original film, especially given Moore’s travels to the UK, Canada, France, and Cuba, so this is a good example of using online video and DVD extras to the advantage of the film as it is presented in theaters while still ensuring the material finds a wide audience.
  • Scott Kirsner has an interesting (if somewhat old in bloggy terms) entry on an initiative to allow local moviegoers to program at least one screen of their local multiplex. The article echoes a number of recent descriptions of digital media allowing the emergence of a kind of “cinematic jukebox,” which is another issue I’m addressing in the book. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about Kirsner’s article in the near future, but I’m probably a bit more skeptical about the idea of a cinematic jukebox, if only because I wonder how such a jukebox will function to promote indie filmmakers (however one defines that term).
  • I don’t know if I agree with Naomi Wolf’s arguments about student political engagement in her recent Washington Post editorial, but given that I’ll likely do a variation of the election theme in my composition courses in the spring, I think it’s worth checking out and possibly discussing with my students. The article seems to fall into some of the “kids today!” shortcuts that I find a little tedious. In fact, I think she misreads her primary anecdote, in which her student is shocked (!) by Wolf’s suggestion that she run for city council. It seems plausible that the student in question actually understands how democracy works, but simply doesn’t believe that elections necessarily produce the best candidates or promote the best ideas (just look at last night’s exercise in immigrant bashing). That being said, I think Wolf’s ideas are worth taking about with my students in setting up the “rhetoric and democracy” theme.

Update: I clearly overstated things when I said it’s the “end” of the semester, so I edited the title to reflect the real state of things. I still have a week of classes, but the stack of papers I’m about to receive and the lack of energy on campus indicate that things are nearing the end. Also, for those of you who aren’t on Facebook, here are some pictures of me running the half marathon a few days ago.

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Elephants on My YouTube

Getting ready to watch the Republican YouTube debate on CNN. I missed the Democratic version a few weeks ago and had to watch it in chunk online, so I’ll be interested to see how this debate plays live. One of the interesting questions that has come up this time around is that the YouTube format may not be as timely as other formats. For example, the questions were posted several days before today’s Politico report claiming that Rudy Giuliani billed NYC agencies for personal travel, making it more difficult for that issue to be introduced during the debate. That being said, it’s also worth asking whether individual debates should be tethered so heavily to the latest news cycle. I’m still ambivalent about the YouTube format and certainly aware of its limitations in fostering genuine political participation, but I’ll be interested to see how this debate plays out.

I may do some half-hearted liveblogging over the course of the debate if the mood strikes.

Update: Kevin Drum links to some of the post-debate reactions, including a National Review observer who argued that CNN intentionally chose questions from YouTubers that would reinforce negative stereotypes of Republicans as “confederate-flag-waving, gun-toting, bible-brandishing conspiracy theorists.”  I’m inclined to agree with Kevin that these guys (and they were guys for the most part) fit comfortably within the party of Tancredo, Huckabee, and Paul.  Certainly CNN chose questions that would play well on TV, but the views many of them were espousing were consistent with things said during the campaigns.

While I’m updating, I wish I’d noticed that the CNN debate page had (briefly) linked to my blog (which led to a somewhat significant, though, temporary, increase in traffic around here).  I would have made more than a half-hearted attempt to liveblog during the debate.

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It’s official! I survived the Atlanta Half Marathon, my first run of that length, finishing in a little over two and half hours. My sister finished just a few minutes after I did, and we ran together for most of the race, which was a lot of fun. The run itself was much more difficult than it had to be because I somehow managed to forget my running shoes, leaving them back in Fayetteville, which meant that I had to break in a new pair of running shoes during the race. In addition to that, it was raining for much of the race (the first time it had rained in about a month in Atlanta), which meant that my shoes weighed about two pounds heavier than they normally would, making conditions even more difficult than they had to be (even the winners were about 5 minutes behind their best times), so now I really want to try another half marathon to see how much I can improve my time.

Other impressions: The so-called Cardiac Hill, in front of Piedmont Hospital, about nine miles into the half marathon was entirely harmless. The hills I prepared on in Fayetteville were much more difficult. The cheering from rain-soaked spectators and volunteers was actually surprisingly encouraging, especially somewhere around mile 12 in front of the Rialto Theater on Georgia State’s campus. High-fiving a guy in a turkey costume was priceless.

Oh, and here is a short video of me full of pre-race bravado taken on my sister’s camera phone (my very first YouTube video). If you look carefully, you can see the bright lights of a Waffle House in the background.  Hoping to have a few more pictures later on.

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“Getting Paid is the Name of the Game”

The Writers Guild strike, Daily Show style.  Via Oliver Willis.

In other news, one of my two proposals was accepted to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philly, so hopefully I’ll be seeing many (or at least some) of my readers at the conference in March.  My paper will be focusing on some of the implications of digital distribution for independent films.  Should be a lot of fun.

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Words and Images

Or maybe, just one word.  News via Karina that “Mumblecore” was short-listed for Word of the Year by the Oxford New American Dictionary.  Mumblecore, which Oxford defines as “an independent film movement featuring low-budget production, non-professional actors, and largely improvised dialogue,” was beat out by “locavore,” a term describing the practice of buying locally-produced foods, a natural choice in a year dominated by environmental issues.

And a video or two from the Guardian’s Technology blog, specifically a very interesting video on the practice of “recycling” PCs by dumping them in Africa.  While the intentions may be good, most of the PCs don’t work and are ultimately destroyed, which does result in some cool images of piles of burning PCs but isn’t very sound environmentally.

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Pie Fights

As the Writers Guild strike enters its second week, I think it’s important to cast a wary eye towards articles such as the one that appeared in the New York Times that seems to be pitting actors and directors against the writers when it comes to getting even a small share of the residuals that the writers are demanding.  While a small number of elite actors (Tom Cruise, Will Smith) can demand the “first dollar gross deals” discussed in the article, a much higher percentage of actors subsist on relatively small wages.  And while the $70 million paychecks that an actor of Cruise’s stature could demand is possible, it’s a little misleading to suggest that such a payment could overturn the entire Hollywood economic system, as teh article seems to imply.

In fact, when you put these numbers in perspective, as Jane Hamsher does, pointing out that CBS exec Les Moonves earned $28.6 million last year, and that former Viacom CEO Tom Freston was paid $60 million to stop showing up for work, the WGA demands are clearly a drop in the bucket.  Add to that the fear tactics being used by media executives about the instability of the current business model, and color me skeptical.  As Patrick Goldstein points out, Hollywood studios notoriously saw video as potentially destroying the film industry, and now video and DVD are the primary sources of profit for most movie studios, with the theatrical release serving almost as a promotion for home distribution.  While I don’t want to dismiss some concerns about how media companies will monetize digital distribution, the suggestion that these big media companies are imperiled is vastly overstated.

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Saturday Night Links

Taking a break from working on the book to point out a couple of useful/interesting links:

  • First, Jason Mittell points to an important new document produced by the Society for Cinema & Media Studies on the issues of copyright and fair use as it effects our activity as academics.  The document, SCMS Best Practices for Fair Use in Teaching, is available from the SCMS homepage and well worth checking out.
  • Second, a quick pointer to a new John Edwards video highlighting a contest his campaign sponsored, in which the winners were given the opportunity to work with Edwards to help rebuild a section of New Orleans damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  The video generally succeeds in depicting Edwards as someone who is deeply concerned about the rebuilding efforts there, and at the very least, serves as an important reminder that in New Orleans, there is still a lot of work yet to be done.

By the way, I happened to catch the high-concept indie film, Lars and the Real Girl, last night at the Cameo and found it a little too quirky for its own good.   The basic concept, which features a delusional Lars purchasing a  somewhat life-like doll from a website and treating it as if it was a real person, was treated with a careful balance of humor and pathos, especially as members of the community seek to assist Lars’ family in preserving his delusion.  But like Manohla Dargis, I found the film a little too calculated overall, almost Capra-esque in its desire for small-town community.  I’d write a longer review, but I promised myself I’d do a lot of work on the book tonight.

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More Tuesday Links

I have to head out for a meeting shortly, but I just wanted to mention two other (non-strike) links really quickly:

  • First, a book collection to which I contributed a chapter, The Essential Science Fiction Reader, is now showing up on the University Press of Kentucky homepage.  It’s nice to see the collection getting positive reviews from a couple of respected media and SF scholars and it’s pretty cool to see that the book is coming out soon.
  • Second, in addition to an article, I’ve already co-written on political mashups, one of my projects this year is a book chapter on web video and the 2008 elections, so I’m starting to track down news articles and other popular articles on the phenomenon.  This Washington Post article is generally a good overview, offering pointers to a number of videos I haven’t yet seen, although like most news articles, the focus is on whether individual videos are “good” or “bad” for candidates, not on how web video itself might be affecting the political process.  Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the most common strains is a strong anti-Hillary sentiment, something that seems connected to the perception that her winning the nomination is inevitable (which was, basically, the point of Phil DeVellis’s “Vote Different”).

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“Why We Strike” Video

I’ve been a little surprised at the degree to which I’m becoming invested in the Writers Guild of America strike.  Perhaps it’s simply a case of the perfect blend of my solidarity with labor and my interest in the entertainment industry, but I think this “Why We Strike” video, which I originally found on Anne Thompson’s blog, very clearly illustrates the stakes of the strike.  But you can find this video and many others on the Hollywood United YouTube page, including my personal favorite, “The Office is Closed,” which features, you know, writers and actors from The Office.  Note: the Hollywod United blog remains the go-to source for information about the strike.

Some other interesting strike-related links:

  • Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore’s discussion of the conflict with Universal over compensation for The Resistance, a series of webisodes that ran between seasons two and three.  Moore correctly disputes the studios’ position that internet distribution is “too new” for there to be a clearly defined method for compensating writers and also disputes the claim that web material should be defined as “promotional” rather than part of the series itself, a topic I address in passing in my “future of science fiction television” article I mentioned somewhat elliptically last winter.
  • The Huffington Post has also been covering the WGA strike in some detail.
  • On a related note, The Washington Post is already asking whether the strike will redirect people’s attention away from television to other media, such as web video.  Given that a number of web video sites are owned by the same media conglomerates that own TV networks, such questions make little sense.  It’s also important to note, as this Freakonomics blog post points out, that media attention isn’t a zero-sum game.  TV can drive people to the web–witness Stephen Colbert’s relentless promotion of Colbert Nation–and the web can drive people back to TV (as it did, for me, with CBS’s SF series, Jericho).
  • The strike is already sending some networks scrambling, as Fox has decided to pull 24 from its winter schedule in order to ensure that season seven (or day 7) airs uninterrupted.

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More Striking Writers

Video entertainment of the day: here’s Ze Frank’s take on the writer’s strike.

Update: By the way, I just wanted to mention the Fayetteville Observer’s newest blog, From Fay to Z. Gregory Phillips provided some good, solid round-the-clock election coverage yesterday (unfortunately my city council district was uncontested, sort of making me wish I had run). But, overall, the blog is a great way to keep up with issues here in the local Fayetteville community.

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Striking Screenwriters

As you’ve likely heard by now, the Writers Guild of America has gone on strike, putting down their pencils to strike for an increased percentage of DVD online distribution residuals (the NYT also has a video by David Carr with interviews from the picket line). The strike has already disrupted the production of a number of late night talk shows, including The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report (possibly giving Colbert more time to concentrate on his presidential run), and both sides are anticipating the possibility of a long holdout. While many scripted shows have compiled a number of episodes, an extended strike could result in an increase in reality television and other forms of “unscripted” “entertainment.” Which will likely send me running to my Netflix queue or the local multiplex for comfort.

It’s easy to dismiss the strikers’ demands based on the relative wealth of a few high-profile writers, but given the immense profits made by the media conglomerates, the strikers’ demands seem quite reasonable. I’ve been following the negotiations between the Writers Guild and Hollywood studios for some time now, in part because the stakes of those negotiations–compensation for DVD and new media distribution–are so significant. As this Los Angeles Times article implies, the current DVD residuals amount to approximately 4 cents for every disc sold, an incredibly small total given the revenue generated through DVD sales (a number that’s even smaller given that this amount is divided among all of the writers). The original amount, notably, was based on the relative expense of manufacturing VHS tapes, but given the sheer dominance of the DVD format (more people see films at home than in theaters), that rate now seems rather small.

There are also some important questions about how writers will be compensated for shows streamed over the Internet, and some of these questions are connected to definitions of new media. According to this ars technica post, producers are arguing that new media distribution is essentially the same as DVD distribution, while the Writers Guild, correctly in my opinion, points out that online distribution is much cheaper (and very likely to explode in the near future). While studios have continued to insist that online content be regarded as “promotional” material, thus exempting it from compensation, the online episodes of series such as Heroes and Jericho are just as much a part of the story world for fans as the episodes that are broadcast on the networks. Lots of questions here, and I think this is going to take a while to sort out.

Update: Via Atrios and Brian K. Vaughan (author of The Last Man), here’s a blog, United Hollywood, that is offering solid coverage of the strike along with some useful explanations of the writers’ demands. It looks, for example, like the main point of contention is new media, not DVDs.

Update 2: Also worth following, Jane Espenson (who has worked on Buffy, Gilmore Girls, and Tru Calling) has an interesting take on the strike.

Update 3: Jason Mittell also has an interesting discussion of the strike.  Worth noting: he questions the claims that the industry is falling apart, that increased competition has led to increasing instability.  Jason is right to point out that while the media industries are transforming, much of the competition is “internal,” that is, viewers are migrating to other networks or shows owned by the same media conglomerates.

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Just Like Ann Coulter

My In Media Res post on Barely Political’s latest video, “Perfected,” a parody of Coulter’s divisive rhetoric, is available now. Check out the video and my Curator’s Note and leave a comment or two.

Post-Coffee Update: Interesting to note that I’ve grown to like “Perfected” even more than when I first wrote about it.  The song attacks Coulter’s recent comments that she wants Jews to be “perfected” by converting to Christianity.  I do think–and believed then–that “Perfected” is one of the best videos the folks at Barely Political have made, in part because it’s more explicitly critical of Coulter’s harmful contributions to our political discourse.

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Digital Documentary and Undocumented Workers

Tasha Oren’s In Media Res post, “After Macaca: Virginia’s Next YouTube Moment,” alerted me to the fascinating documentary project, 9500 Liberty, which bills itself as an “interactive documentary” focusing on the politics of immigration, especially as these debates play out in Prince William County in northern Virginia, where the county’s Board of Supervisors passed some of the harshest measures against undocumented workers in the country (and where those officials are now running for re-election). As we’ve seen in the exchange at the recent Democratic debate over Elliot Spitzer’s plan to provide undocumented workers with drivers’ licenses, this issue isn’t going away any time soon and the discussion is likely to be fueled by fear and misinformation.

The documentary’s YouTube channel offers what they describe as a “real-time, interactive documentary page,” where the filmmakers can quickly post videos and make them available for public comment and debate. While the filmmakers making the documentary have their eyes on eventually creating a feature-length documentary, this project looks like a welcome and timely intervention into this heated political issue, a very effective use of the features available on YouTube. The videos themselves often serve to challenge the fear and hostility that have come to characterize the debate around this issue. In addition to the video cited by Tasha, I found this video, “Fighting Illegals and the Gospel,” to be especially powerful in critiquing the ways in which scripture has been used to justify some of the harsh treatment of undocumented workers.

There’s also a 9500 Liberty blog where you can find more information about this project.

Update (12/11/07): I just noticed that someone living here in Fayetteville, presumably one of my students who has a final exam tomorrow found this page in a search for the term “interactive documentary.”  I should clarify that I am not using the term here in the way that Bill Nichols explains it in Introduction to Documentary (or in the way that I have discussed it in class).  I’ve changed the title of the entry to avoid future confusion.

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