Archive for January, 2008

Once in a Lifetime

To celebrate the first anniversary of newcritics, our esteemed captain, Tom Watson, invited regular newcritics contributors to write about a single “bit of media that touched your life in the last year.” I ended up cheating–a little–and choosing John Carney’s amazing movie musical, Once, and its soundtrack, featuring the music of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the film’s two stars.

And while you’re there, be sure to check out some of the other contributions addressing Tom’s surprisingly difficult question.

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Pirates in the Dorms

I forgot to mention the Inside Higher Ed report from a few weeks ago on the MPAA’s calculation error that led them to blame university campuses for something like 44% of the motion picture industry’s domestic losses.  It turns out, as the MPAA concluded, that by their calculations, that total is actually closer to 15% (PDF).   Of course, these updated numbers still raise a number of questions about how the MPAA is calculating “domestic losses” in the first place, but more crucially, as Kenneth Green observes in a more recent IHE article, the real target of the MPAA seems not to be the college students themselves, but the high-speed internet connections that are standard in most university dorms.  Instead of acknowledging the role of commercial broadband networks owned by Time Warner, Comcast, and others,  the MPAA continues to attribute much of the blame for piracy onto  college kids in their dorms (it’s worth noting, as Green does, that the MPAA’s report also relies upon a relatively limited notion of a college student, focusing primarily on on-campus residents at major universities or liberal arts colleges).

Green does a much more thorough job than I can in breaking down the problems in the MPAA’s analysis of digital piracy and of the implications of  the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007, which stipulated that universities seek solutions to combat digital piracy, so I’ll leave that to him.  But, as always, I’m fascinated by the ease with which the MPAA was able to shift so much of the blame for digital piracy onto college kids when it’s relatively clear that students are far from the only group engaged in this practice.

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How the University Works

In his theoretically sophisticated and thoroughly researched analysis of academic labor, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, Marc Bousquet offers a sharp critique what might be called the “corporate university,” illustrating the ways in which universities have come to depend upon the very labor “crises” they claim to denounce. In fact, as Bousquet explains at length, the increasing reliance upon adjunct and flexible labor is not a crisis at all but fully consistent with the university’s desire for a flexible and cheap labor pool, while for-profit educational services have seen their profits skyrocket. In describing the increasingly corporatized management of university labor, Bousquet compares this management structure to the practices associated with managed health care. As we have seen with Michael Moore’s agitprop critique of HMOs in Sicko, this emphasis on profit over care inevitably leads to what Bousquet describes as “degraded service” (1). But while Bousquet is attentive to the degree to which the use of contingent, flexible labor has become a means of subsidizing “education profiteers,” I was equally intrigued by his discussion of how work permeates every aspect of university life, a point Miriam raises in her discussion of “the need to conceptualize academic workers as workers, and not as disembodied minds engaging in some activity that has nothing to do with other forms of labor.”

Like Miriam, I generally find this claim convincing, especially when it comes to describing the experiences of both undergraduates and graduate students. As many people have pointed out, including Cary Nelson, in his provocative Foreword, one of the most jarring moments in Bousquet’s book is his account of “Metropolitan College,” a joint partnership between UPS and the University of Louisville, that uses student labor to sort packages late at night (usually from midnight until 3 AM), with the promise of tuition breaks, especially for students willing to work five nights a week. Eventually, we realize that while this partnership clearly provides a docile, cheap labor pool for UPS–not to mention the tax breaks that come with providing tuition benefits instead of actual wages–the deal isn’t so good for the students who engage in the backbreaking and under-compensated labor for the promise of upper mobility seemingly offered by a college education (note: sections of this chapter are available here). In fact, given the low wages and inconsistent hours, many of the students employed by UPS are forced to take second jobs or live in their cars, while a majority of the UPS students drop out of school altogether. Thus, instead of serving as a means for supporting students in acquiring a college degree, the UPS partnership actually benefits from students failing to achieve their degree (144). While the Metropolitan College example may represent an extreme of sorts, it’s clear that students are facing increasing financial obstacles in their pursuit of a college degree, whether that entails working long hours in addition to schoolwork or taking on sizable student loans. But in addition to this recognition that students are workers, Bousquet is at his sharpest in identifying the “pedagogical” implications of this experience of the university. Taking his cue from Jeffrey Williams’ concept of the “pedagogy of debt” (153), Bousquet points out that the Louisville students learn to see themselves via the lens of “failure,” or believe that they “deserve their fate” when their work lives overwhelm their lives as students (147). By placing students in the position of indebtedness, by putting an increasing financial burden on them, the corporatized university is also teaching them about the limits and possibilities available to them in the future (in fact, I can speak from my own experiences in saying that student loan debt certainly has shaped the career choices I’ve made).

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Sunday Links

Here are some of the things I’ve been reading or watching over my second cup of coffee this morning.  I’d like to write longer blog entries about several of them, but that’s probably not going to happen:

  • Even though it’s pretty much a promo piece for Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, I enjoyed Dennis Lim’s New York Times article on VHS nostalgia.  I have an essay, currently in circulation, on VHS nostalgia in the American adaptation of The Ring, and Lim’s article touches on some of the key points, particularly the ways in which VHS becomes identified with concepts of authenticity, especially in the age of the DVD.  Lim cites Barbara Klinger, author of Beyond the Multiplex, on these issues, but I think one of the more interesting aspects of the article is the discussion of how we interact differently with the “mechanical” VCR than with the “computerized” DVD player, an issue raised by Andy Hain, the coordinator of the incredibly useful website, Total Rewind, which provides a history of the VCR.
  • Michael Wesch has posted a thoughtful response to Mark Marino’s mashup of his “A Vision of Students Today” video, which I discussed a few days ago. Not much to add here, but I think that Marino’s video has provoked an interesting conversation.
  • I haven’t had time to comment on (or even process) the Oscar nominees this year, but I think it will be an interesting race this time around.  But Anne Thompson has the text of an open letter sent out by Michael Moore that seeks to place this year’s nominees in a historical and political context.  Moore also explains some of the rather confusing rules that govern the nominating and voting process, especially in the documentary category.
  • One of the nominated films I’m most excited to see is the animated feature, Persepolis, an adaptation of the autobiography in comic book form by Marjane Satrapi about her experiences growing up in revolutionary Iran during the 1970s and early ’80s (I’ll respect Satrapi’s wishes and not describe it as a “graphic novel,” even if I don’t think the term has the high-cultural baggage she attributes to it).  During some of my elusive spare time, I’ve been reading the Persepolis comic book, and I’m finding it pretty compelling.  This interview with Satrapi in the Boston Globe provides a nice overview of the book.

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There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (IMDB) finally made it to Fayetteville this week, and like a lot of people, I found it to be an impressive film, possibly my favorite in this year’s Oscars race. I’m not prepared to talk about it as an adaptation, as Miriam did so effectively, but I found the film’s bleak characterization of the oilman, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and the religious huckster, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), to be a pretty compelling critique of the seemingly intertwined politics of oil and religion. Based on my relatively limited experience with Upton Sinclair, I have no doubt that the source novel, Oil!, is an overtly didactic attack on the exploitation and destruction caused by the pursuit of oil and the wealth that it offers. [[Spoilers follow]].

As Miriam reports, Anderson essentially turns Sinclair’s novel inside-out, eliminating the socialist turn taken by Plainview’s son (in the novel, his name is J. Arnold “Bunny” Ross, Jr) and by Eli’s brother Paul. In fact, the renaming of characters suggests the degree to which Anderson seems to want to distance himself from the original novel’s characterization of the oilman, Ross, who is described by Miriam as “ruthless, corrupt yet relatively mild-mannered and even fair-minded,” while the renaming of Eli Watkins seems to be a nod to the turn-of-the-century evangelist Billy Sunday, leading Miriam to argue that the film places emphasis on psychology rather than politics, on Plainview and Sunday’s emptiness and greed rather than on the more corrosive effects of capitalism.

To a great extent, I’m inclined to agree. And Plainview’s violent outbursts, including his brutal beating of Eli during the film’s final scene, certainly suggest an unchecked desire (as OGIC puts it, Plainview “wants something”).  I had initially hoped to defend the film in part as a commentary on our current political moment, on the ways in which Sinclair’s novel can be recycled to comment on the ongoing relationship between the politics of oil and religion, but I think that Miriam is right to suggest that Anderson more or less closes off the most interesting political readings.  It was impossible for me to watch a film about an oilman and a preacher without thinking about the current administration and its use of religious rhetoric to gain votes while passing legislation friendly to major corporations and ensuring that oil companies continue to accumulate record profits. In the film, both Plainview and Sunday cynically manipulate stagecraft, performance, rhetoric to convince their congregations or audiences to bend to their will.  In fact, here is where the name change of Eli’s character worked for me, connecting him to some of the excesses associated with Billy Sunday, who prospered incredibly, taking in millions of dollars and taking conservative political positions in the pulpit, while his listeners struggled financially.  At the same time, Plainview’s loathing of other humans–he never marries and adopts an orphan son largely to manipulate customers into regarding him more sympathetically–and his unquenchable thirst (“I drink your milkshake”) suggests that the true capitalist will never be satisfied.  Despite the physical dangers of the wells and the emotional destruction of his family, the Plainviews of the world will continue to drink up, to consume, until there’s nothing left.

That being said, this more “psychological” approach also leaves us with few alternatives.  Plainview’s soon leaves his father not to become a socialist fighting back against capitalism but to compete with his father, moving his practices of exploitation and destruction across the border to Mexico.  The corrupt preacher, Eli, is gone, but his socialist brother, Paul, is simply his double, yet another capitalist bent on making a buck.  Thus, even in a year where voters are clamoring for change, in a moment when the environmental destruction caused by the pursuit and consumption of oil is now indisputable, Anderson can offer no alternatives to the status quo.  In fact, his film goes well out of its way to eliminate socialism–and any other political and economic alternative–from the story.

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Radio Days

How odd.  I had no idea (or had somehow forgotten) that Atlanta’s 99X was changing formats, essentially putting an end to one era of (commercially viable, post-Nirvana) alternative music in Atlanta.  The station provided me with a decent introduction to alternative rock back in the early 1990s when I was an M.A. student at Georgia State University, but as the station increasingly began to play heavy alternative, I sort of lost interest.  Still, it’s sort of sad to see the station disappear from Atlanta’s airwaves, even though Album 88 and WREK have been better for a long time.  It’s also sort of lame that they signed off with “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” the Green Day song that became a good-bye cliche around the time that Seinfeld stopped making new episodes.

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Nice little mashup video satirizing the rhetoric of the 2008 presidential campaigns to the tune of David Bowie’s “Changes.” Calling attention to the overuse of the term “change” in this year’s election is a bit obvious, perhaps, but I appreciate mashups that have some larger political or pedagogical point, and I think this one fits into that category (via TechPresident).

Wonkette’s slamming on Edwards’ online mock “movie trailer” ad, but I think it’s pretty entertaining. I can think of at least one ad that is more irritating, although “irritating” isn’t quite the right word for Giuliani’s “Ready,” which engages in some of the most transparent fear-mongering since LBJ’s “Daisy” ad. At least “Ready” has inspired a nice parody or two.

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FSU to Host Debate

Local readers might be interested in knowing that Fayetteville State University will play host to a debate between the Democratic candidates for Lieutenant Governor here in North Carolina. The debate will be held Thursday, January 24, at 7 PM in Shaw Auditorium and is free and open to the public. And apparently there will be some time for questions from the audience.

Update: I stuck it out for about half the debate on Thursday night and took some notes, but because I’m still learning the recent political history of North Carolina, I’m not as prepared to place the debate in context. That being said, my impressions of the candidates were similar to those of Gordon Smith at Blue NC in his summary of the Asheville debate a few days earlier. I was impressed with Dan Besse’s emphasis on environmental stewardship and on social and economic issues. Both Walter Dalton and Hampton Dellinger seemed to stake out positions relatively consistent with the Easley/Perdue status quo, and like Smith, I found the dynamic between Dalton and Dellinger a bit frustrating. Dellinger is clearly an ambitious guy–not a bad thing in a politician–but his attempts to turn the contest into a two person race were not only too transparent but also a bit clumsy. The fourth candidate, Canton, NC, mayor Pat Smathers seemed to have quite a number of good ideas but tended to fade into teh background a bit during the debate.

Significantly, Dan Besse seemed to respond directly to one of the complaints cited in the Blue in NC blog, that none of the candidates had addressed the state’s “mental health crisis.” Because I was unaware of the context of the issue, I didn’t pay a lot of attention, but it’s clear that Besse (or someone in his campaign) has been paying attention to the discussion of the first debate, which is the way things ought to work. I’d been on campus for about twelve hours by the time the second half of the debate started, so I couldn’t stick it out until the end, but kudos to the North Carolina Foundation of College Democrats for putting together and supporting these very informative debates.

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(Re)Visions of Students

A few months ago, I mentioned Michael Wesch’s second video in a planned three-part series, “A Vision of Students Today.” The video depicts students in a large university lecture hall silently holding up signs describing their classroom experiences (“I Facebook through class;” “My average class size is 115”), and while the video presents itself as giving voice to students via a collaboratively-authored Google document, two things about the video struck me as somewhat false. First, the mobile, disembodied camera suggests a universal image of students, one that seems to be reinforced by the students’ silence during the video. Second, this image lacked virtually any students of color. And while Kansas’s racial demographics almost certainly inform Wesch’s student population, the video raised important questions for me about how we define the normal collegiate experience when, in fact, Wesch’s vision of a technologically-enhanced lecture hall is far from the norm.

Now, as Liz Losh, among others, has pointed out, in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday, Mark Marino has made a parody remixed response, “(Re)Visions of Students Today,” which calls into question some of the (likely unconscious) visual arguments made by the original video about student life, about the “us” described in the video and the students’ privileged relationship to the digital divide. Marino does so by re-editing Wesch’s original video and writing over some of the students’ original hand-held signs in order to tease out some of these tensions (Marino discusses his intentions here). In looking back at the video, I do think that Wesch is attentive to some of these problems, calling attention to a digital divide and to the fact that many of his students are working their way through school, and Wesch’s attempt to investigate the discursive space of the classroom is an important one. As Wesch points out, whatever else they are learning, students are also learning “to sit in nice neat rows and remain quiet while the information / knowledge is delivered to them by an authority figure standing at the front of the room.” This is not to suggest–as some have implied–that we should abandon all traditional pedagogical practices or that we should replace textbooks with web pages, but an argument for thinking about how classrooms reproduce certain kinds of social relationships. But Marino’s remix is a healthy reminder that there is no singular classroom experience, that some of the broader claims in the video may not describe student experiences in other environments.

And while I’m having a difficult time connecting these points, I think it’s worth adding that both videos seem to suggest for me a need to rethink the status of higher education in general. As this video interview of University of Pennsylvania Adolph Reed by Marc Bousquet indicates, we now think about college education as a commodity and not as a right. Reed argues, cogently in my opinion, that higher education should be free and that the costs to taxpayers would be negligible, a drop in the bucket of our current budget (Reed calculates that the total cost of tuition and fees of all college students currently enrolled at public universities is approximately $35-40 billion). By redefining education as a right, many of the perceptions of education, including the “relevance” of readings, would no doubt be transformed, and the image of students today in Wesch’s video would almost certainly change.

Update: I’m reconsidering some of my original critiques of the Wesch video as the comments below indicate.  No time to write a full, new entry here, but feel free to dive into the comments.

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Cinema Eye Nominees

I just got the press release announcing the nominees for the inaugural Cinema Eye Honors for Non-Fiction Filmmaking (and now they are posted to A.J. Schnack’s blog), designed to reward documentaries in a variety of categories, including direction, editing, and graphic design. As I mentioned a few days ago, I think these awards are a pretty cool idea, in that they recognize the importance of craft and storytelling in creating good documentaries. It looks like the biggest winners are Philip Gröning’s very deserving Into Great Silence, which focuses on the daily routines of a group of monks living in a monastery in the French Alps, and Jason Cohn’s Manda Bala, which focuses on political corruption in Brazil (and which was one of the films I most regretted missing at Full Frame this year). Tony Kaye’s highly confrontational Lake of Fire, which focuses on the abortion issue, and Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight also received a number of nominations. But I’m impressed by the breadth and variety of films that were nominated or, at least, received consideration for awards, including many that I’m hoping to see in the near future. Also glad to see among the graphic design/animation nominees: Trollbäck & Co. for Helvetica and Petra Epperlein for The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.

Instead of posting the full list of nominees, I’ll just send you over to A.J.’s blog, but I’d love to get a discussion going here. What’s your take on some of the nominated docs? Do you think Sicko (or any other doc) was snubbed? Awards will be announced March 18 at the IFC Center in New York.

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The Tracy Flicking of Hillary Clinton

The issue has been pretty well-covered by now, but like M. LeBlanc at Bitch Ph.D. and Kate Harding at Shakesville I just wanted to add to the list of those bloggers who have expressed frustration about the fact that Hillary Clinton is being faulted for being–gasp!–too ambitious because she wants to be president. This is especially insidious when an editorial writer such as Meghan Daum attributes those sentiments to “ordinary people,” rather than to her own prejudices. In fact, despite Daum’s claim that average Joes and Janes think that Hillary “just wants this too badly,” working-class voters and women have supported her campaign rather enthusiastically. I guess those other candidates are raising hundreds of millions of dollars on a complete whim.

This depiction of Clinton as too ambitious comes across most annoyingly in this Slate video, which equates Clinton with Tracy Flick, the overly controlling candidate for high school student body president in Election played by Reese Witherspoon. While I found Election to be a great send-up of presidential politics and high school, the suggestion that Clinton is trying too to be liked is more than a little irritating, especially given that Tracy is viewed through the lens of the film in a somewhat unsympathetic light, as the object of satire. If the video is trying to parody the complaints that Hillary is too ambitious, as this Onion column does, then I don’t quite see it.

Update: Media Matters has another variation of this premise where Tim Russert is shocked to see that a “self-avowed feminist” might show emotion and that it might be “ironic” that other women would connect with Hillary’s emotions. Gotta love our media discourse right now.

Update 2: Edited to fix my annoying habit of overusing “seems to” when I’m feeling cautious about a specific claim.

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Sunday Morning Miscellany

Taking a break from thinking about my prezvid paper to post a few links. By the way, I watched Gary Hustwit’s documentary, Helvetica, last night. I’ll try to write a longer review later, but it’s worth mentioning that Hustwit has taken a focus on what might seem like an innocuous font typeface (see below) and turned that into a fascinating exploration of the relationship between graphic design and public space. In a sense, the documentary functions as a form of media history, especially when it comes to graphic design and advertising. Now on to the links:

  • Pretty much everyone has commented on the fact that the Library of Congress has put many of the photos in its collections on Flickr, but here, via Oliver Willis, is a pointer to one image from that collection, an African-American version of the Rosie the Riveter icon. I used the LOC collections of Farm Security Administration photos quite a bit in my “Documenting Injustice” course, so I’m excited about the new forms of access to these images.
  • In honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, here’s an audio recording of King’s speech explaining his opposition to the Vietnam War.
  • Like Chris, I’ve been slow to adopt electronic alerts from journals. But it looks like a good way to keep track of when a new issue of a journal is coming out and its content. Chris has a helpful list of many of the major journal publishers and how to subscribe to their email lists or RSS feeds.
  • I’m also late to the party on this fascinating little video featuring people from age 1 to 100 playing the drums in the order of their age. It’s a neat little meditation on aging that wears its gimmick well.

Update: I’ve been meaning to mention Bernard Timburg, Erick Green, and Hsaio Chu’s “Launch Texts, Rebound Texts and Commentary Montage,” posted to FlowTV a few weeks ago, but it got lost in the shuffle a couple of times. It’s an interesting use of video-form criticism that looks at the revival of Al Gore as a public figure in 2006-07, focusing in part on his acceptance of the Best Documentary Oscar last year.

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It’s almost impossible to watch Cloverfield (IMDB) and not recognize the allusions to the September 11 attacks. The film opens with titles that explain that the footage we are about to watch was found in what “used to be called Central Park.” And the image of a shocking, unknown (and almost unknowable) monster attacking Manhattan cannot help but recall 9/11, especially when the Statue of Liberty, one of the iconic images of New York–and of America itself–is destroyed during one of the film’s early scenes. Shots of Manhattanites sprinting away from collapsing buildings, plumes of smoke chasing them down city streets, clearly recall familiar images of 9/11, as do the streams of people attempting to cross the Brooklyn Bridge. Aaron at Out of Focus is especially attentive to the treatment of 9/11, and I think he’s right to argue that the film seems to illustrate that “our fears, and therefore our monsters, are scarier, more spontaneous, less calculating and seemingly impossible to find and destroy.”

But while the Manhattan setting seems crucial to Cloverfield, I also found myself thinking, at least during one or two key moments, about the war in Iraq. During one key scene late in the film, Rob Hawkins confides to the camera that he and some of the other survivors are “caught in the middle,” trapped between the unknowable, unpredictable, and utterly amorphous monster and the U.S. military attempts to contain it. And, of course, the battle itself is unwinnable. During the attack on Manhattan, smaller monsters–possibly recalling terrorist cells–splinter off of the main monster, and all of the attempts to bomb the enemy into submission seem doomed to failure and, in fact, quite often endanger civilians, despite the best intentions of the military itself (in retrospect, I may be over-reading here).

Cloverfield also plays with genre conventions in interesting ways. When I first started to write a review, I was tempted to glibly suggest that it was “Blair Witch meets Godzilla with a twist of 28 Days Later.” But after looking at Aaron’s review and the Austin Chronicle review, I’m not sure that I’d mean that as an insult. Like Blair Witch, Cloverfield consists almost entirely of handheld, DV footage. The premise of the film is that Rob is leaving to take a job in Japan and his buddy Hud ends up videotaping the going-away party, and in fact inadvertently records over a tape made by Rob and Beth on a date to Coney Island, creating a nice flashback effect. Once the monster attacks, Hud insists on keeping the camera rolling. While Hud justifies this by arguing that it’ll be “important” to know what happened, there’s another way in which recording is essential for Hud. As long as he’s recording, he’s still alive. Much like the video camera provides Heather in Blair Witch with a “filtered reality,” Hud is able to protect himself–and to connect with others–only through the safety of the camera.

And like both Godzilla and 28 Days Later, the attack on a familiar city, the destruction of recognizable landmarks, functions as an allegory of contemporary fears. At the same time, the use of handheld camera throughout the movie created an intense focus on a small group of four or five characters also works well, as does the use of DV, with the camera work actually serving to tell the story (I’m reminded here of some of Chris’s comments about the relationship between DV and mockumentaries, although Cloverfield comes closer to the intimacies and clumsiness of home video).  I don’t want to oversell Cloverfield, and it’s worth noting that I anticipated many–if not all–of the major “plot twists.” But I liked the film’s engagement with the monster genre and its attempt to use genre to reflect upon the contemporary political moment.

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Not sure I have that much to say about it, but I’ve been intrigued by Keith Olbermann’s recent diary posts to Daily Kos. Both posts address some of the online debates and critiques of his show and demonstrate a willingness to engage with those audiences, a valuable gesture during a volatile election season in which many voters are becoming increasingly impatient with the election coverage provided by television and print journalists.

In his most recent post, he even admits that he “screwed up” when he failed to point out that recent guest Lawrence O’Donnell had written a post on The Huffington Post declaring that “John Edwards is a Loser.” Obviously, such a post might call into question O’Donnell’s ability to discuss Edwards fairly, and it’s probably something that should have been disclosed during the show. I’ve been a fan of Countdown with Keith Olbermann since I started subscribing to cable a couple of years ago (after a nearly eight year break), but I think Greg Sargent is correct to assert that Olbermann’s honesty, his willingness to engage with his audiences, only adds to his credibility.

Now if only we could convince MSNBC to get rid of Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson.

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Yet Another Crush Video

Feeling hopelessly behind when CNN MSNBC hears about the latest crush video before I do. But here it is: “I Got a Crush…on Hillary.” Like most presidential crush vids, it’s an explicit response to ObamaGirl, but it’s also a pretty entertaining parody of many of the conventions of pop-punk videos.

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