Archive for March, 2008

Everybody Hates Critics

So, maybe “It’s Raining McCain” wasn’t satire after all.  At the very least, the lead McCain Girl seems just a little upset that people have been talking smack about her video.  Of course, as Kos points out, the mere fact that she had to take time to “burn some tape” telling all the haters that no one cares what we think kinda suggests that maybe she does care.   At least a little.  The good news (I think) is that there are more McCain Girl videos on the way.

Then again, maybe this is all just an elaborate plot to remain the topic du jour in the blogosphere and on cable news.

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Sunday Doc Links

Three quick documentary links:

  • Agnes has a recent post featuring the schedule for the upcoming summer season of PBS’s excellent documentary series, P.O.V. I won’t reproduce the full schedule here, but I am excited about a number of the upcoming documentaries, and Agnes offers a number of reasons to appreciate P.O.V. beyond good programming. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m also increasingly enthusiastic about P.O.V.’s web presence, including their blog, which is quickly becoming a great source for documentary news. Worth noting: their preview of Traces of the Trade, Katrina Browne’s documentary exploring northern complicity in the slave trade during the 19th century, including the involvement of many of her own New England ancestors.
  • Also on PBS, the series Frontline will be featuring Bad Voodoo’s War, Deborah Scranton’s follow-up to The War Tapes (my review), in which she equipped U.S. soldiers with cameras to allow them to document their experience of the war while also conducting interviews with the family members who waited at home for them to return. Bad Voodoo’s War uses a similar approach, by providing members of a group of California National Guard soldiers, who refer to themselves as the “Bad Voodoo Platoon,” with cameras. In a very cool move for those of us with busy schedules, Bad Voodoo’s War will debut on TV and online beginning April 1.
  • Finally, I’ve been watching bits and pieces of another Frontline doc, Bush’s War, online today. So far, I’ve watched the first two chapters, which provide a compelling and cogent account of how the attacks of 9/11 morphed into the seemingly endless war in Iraq. I’ll try to write in more detail about Bush’s War later this week, but with Full Frame coming up, I’m not sure if I’ll get a chance.

Update (3/31): I’ve had the chance to watch the first half of Bush’s War, which documents the buildup to the Iraq War, and it’s a pretty impressive look at the decision-making process in the White House, especially the power dynamics between Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell.

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Saturday Links

Trying to get a bunch of reading done before I head up to Full Frame next weekend, but here are a few links worth checking out:

  • Via Altercation, The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a contest in which participants submit plans for the Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University, with some amusing, and sometimes enlightening, results. As Alterman reminds us, SMU was selected despite the complaints of faculty and staff members at the university.
  • Ari Melber reports in The Nation on a new political website, VoterVoter.com that allows customers, starting at about $1,000, to purchase broadcast time in any market in the country and to choose an advertisement to air–or to make their own. I have to admit that I’m somewhat ambivalent here. This is clearly a way for small groups to pool their money to buy ad time in a market to promote a political cause or candidate, but I think it further reinforces the idea that voters have to buy their way in to participation in the public sphere. I’m not naive enough to expect publicly-funded elections on a massive scale, but this approach still retains the basic structure of American politics. More money equals more speech.
  • On the other hand, The New York Times presents a somewhat more optimistic image of networked political audiences by tracing the online circulation of Barack Obama’s response to Bush’s final State of the Union address. They report that younger voters are especially engaged with the election this year. They also offer some interesting research from Pew tracing a clear demarcation between younger and older audiences in terms of how people access news. One interesting tidbit: younger voters seem far more likely to link to and read or watch “primary texts,” such as speeches by Obama, Clinton, or McCain than they are to link to or email reporting on that speech, essentially replacing a “professional filter” with a “social” one.
  • Patrick Goldstein’s L.A. Times article on John Hughes crossed my radar the other day, and I’ve been planning to blog it for a while. I’d been wondering what ever happened to Hughes after catching bits and pieces of Pretty in Pink on cable the other day (news of Molly Ringwald’s 40th birthday also inspired this ’80s nostalgia-fest). Hughes’ teen cycle, especially The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller, was an important part of my early cinematic education. They were among the first films where I found characters who were “like” me, who recognized that the social hierarchies in high schools were screwed up and arbitrary, and Pretty in Pink even gave me an early introduction to one of my favorite character actors in Harry Dean Stanton. And, other than some quirky excesses–the dancing scene in The Breakfast Club comes to mind–they hold up quite well. Long story short: Hughes seems to have lost interest in working in Hollywood and has retreated from public life back to the Chicago suburbs he made famous in the multiplexes and on the VHS screens of countless 1980s teens like myself.

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Exclusive Engagements

This story is a few days old, but I haven’t had time to blog it. But apparently the movie theater company, Village Roadshow Gold Class Cinemas, is planning to build a chain of specialty theaters that would charge $35 per ticket. According to the AJC blog where I originally found the story, the theaters would feature approximately 40 reclining armchair seats, digital projection with 3D capacity, and valet parking, as well as a bar that offered drinks and appetizers, including things like sushi (food and beverages are not included in the ticket price, and I’m guessing that valet parking isn’t either). The basic approach sounds not unlike the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, only significantly more expensive, and it’s not clear what kinds of movies the theaters would show, although I’m guessing it would be a mix of Hollywood blockbusters and indie-lite films.

According to Variety, Village Roadshow is banking on the idea that offering a luxury experience will draw audiences back out of the home and into the theaters, with the double enticement that rowdy teenagers won’t be congregating near the theater and throwing popcorn at the screen (or whatever it is unruly teenagers are doing these days). It’s also seeking to profit heavily from the drinks and food that they will be selling, in part because the movie distributors get a large cut of ticket sales but don’t get a share of the concessions. In this sense, I suppose the idea makes some amount of sense–at $35 a ticket, they only need about one third of the number of ticket sales to match the box office numbers of regular theaters charging $8-10 a ticket, and with the “experience” that the theater plans to create, it seems likely that customers will buy drinks and appetizers.

That being said, despite my impatience with the local multiplex when it comes to poor projection quality, I can’t really imagine paying $35 for a ticket before concessions unless the chain was the only art house in town (a film festival might be another exception). Even then, I’d probably boycott it. The whole concept basically sounds like the movie theater as country club, excluding the unruly masses. The folks at Cinema Blend and /Film seem a little more enthusiastic about the idea than I do, but this idea seems to reinforce the bunker mentality Barbara Klinger associated with domestic movie audiences in Beyond the Multiplex rather than reviving any notion of a moviegoing public.

Update: So maybe I’m being too harsh here.  Other than, say, film festivals, would you pay $35 for a movie ticket, with the expectation that you might be spending another $10-20 on food and drinks?

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Hillary’s Bosnia Adventure

It turns out that Clinton’s memories of being under fire in Bosnia were correct.  Barely Political has unearthed indisputable visual evidence that Clinton showed incredible courage under fire during her tenure as First Lady.  And I see absolutely no evidence of Sinbad anywhere in sight.

I promise to write a “real” blog entry sometime later this week, but things have been pretty busy lately.

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Clinton in Fayetteville

In the interest of fairness, I should probably mention that Hillary Clinton will now be making a campaign stop here in Fayetteville on Thursday.  She’ll be speaking at Terry Sanford High School at 1:30.  It’s probably pretty clear that I’m an Obama Guy at this point, but if I wasn’t teaching, I’d probably go.

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He’s Ready at 3 AM

Here’s the latest ObamaGirl video, which has a couple of nice digs at Clinton’s 3 AM ad and Chris Matthews, among other targets. no further comment for now. I caught it this morning while watching MSNBC, so just wanted to bookmark it for later.

Update: and here’s a new parody of Hillary Clinton’s 3 AM ad.

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Raining McCain

It’s the end of viral political videos as we know them. Via Matt Yglesias, where one commenter describes the video as the “Plan 9″ of viral political videos.

I feel obligated to say a little more about “Raining McCain,” so I’ll echo a comment Michael Newman made on Twitter speculating that this looks a little less than sincere, although I’m not entirely sure where we are when YouTubers are parodying something like ObamaGirl that was already satirical. That being said, I find it utterly hilarious that the woman on the left keeps disappearing into the background because her green outfit blends in with the green screen. Another commenter at Matt’s points out that it’s a pretty good parody of the original “It’s Raining Men” video.

Update: Jonathan has a great post on the “extratextual” aspects of the “Raining McCain” video. In fact, what makes this video work so well as camp is that it never fully discloses its status as camp, unlike the self-professed camp of Snakes on a Plane, to name one (failed) example.  Jonathan also points to this Daily Kos post that suggests the video might be a Democratic “dirty trick” designed to reinforce the cultural point that Republicans are decidedly unhip.  If Jason is right that popular culture taste matters when we choose our presidential candidates, then perhaps this video is a further illustration of how out of touch the McCain camp–pardon the borrowed pun–actually is when it comes to viral videos.

I think he’s right that the video has some potentially regrettable gender codings, something I should have addressed in my original response to this video, and a point that I tried to address in my comment at Jonathan’s blog, which I’ll quote here: “Yeah, I was a little ambivalent about how the women in the video were “used,” but perhaps I assumed too readily that they were the ‘authors’ of the video, in a sense using their own identities to subvert both the ObamaGirl rhetoric and the McCain, uh, camp.”

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Taxi to the Dark Side

We have the terrorists on the run. We’re keeping them on the run. One by one, the terrorists are learning the meaning of American justice.–George W. Bush, State of the Union address, January 28, 2003

We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies.–Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, September 16, 2001.

No matter what else it does, Alex Gibney’s measured, thorough documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side (IMDB), provides us with chilling evidence of the use of torture on detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram, while placing that evidence in a powerful narrative that should force audiences into a more open conversation about the use of these techniques in fighting for American freedoms. Unfortunately, I fear that despite the film’s well-deserved Oscar, Taxi will not find the audience it deserves or needs, whether due to Iraq War exhaustion or due to other, external factors such as a crowded indie film marketplace. Just as the recent Winter Soldier hearings seem to have made barely a ripple in the mainstream media, Gibney’s provocative film may be presenting us with questions that many Americans don’t want to address. In fact, one of the unforgettable elements of Gibney’s film was the uncertain status of the “we” in Bush and Cheney’s comments above, both of which were cited in the film. What is the nature of the “American justice” we are presenting to the rest of the world? And what, precisely, is lurking in the “shadows” described by the Vice President?

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Blogger Critics Revisited (Again)

Gregg Goldstein’s Hollywood Reporter article about the decrease in the number of reviews of indie films and documentaries in major print publications has set off an interesting debate about the relative status of print and online reviews of films. Goldstein notes that when Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, opened in New York on January 18, it didn’t even merit single-paragraph reviews in either the New York Post or the Daily News, and while it would be unfair to attribute Taxi’s disappointing box office to this lack of critical attention, Anthony Kaufman looks at the film’s numbers and worries that non-fiction film may be doing some “serious backtracking” when it comes to theatrical attendance (that being said, one of Anthony’s commenters does question the idea that Oscars provide a box office “bump” for documentaries). What does seem clear, however, is that while there are a number of high-quality indie films and documentaries, the competition for theatrical space has become even more intense. At the same time, newspapers and other major print publications are frequently cutting staff, leading newspapers to rely on stringers or wire service reviews of indie films and documentaries, which raises some interesting questions about the role of unaffiliated critics writing in blogs and in other non-print sources in promoting independent and documentary films.

I want to be clear in saying that I don’t think the box office of a single film or genre can be attributed to one factor, much less one that is as hard to measure as the impact of a film critic or group of critics, so I’ll leave that question to others. In fact, it’s possible, sadly, that Gibney’s film was the victim of Iraq War fatigue or that other indie films were crowded out of screen space by pseudo-indies such as Juno. But I think this debate has raised some interesting questions about the role of film commentary in culture at large and about the “authority” of print and non-print publications. Both Kim Voynar and A.J. Schnack have used Goldstein’s article to ask whether their readers place more weight on print or online reviews, implicitly if not explicitly asking whether print critics “matter” when it comes to the ways in which audiences discover independent films and documentaries. Voynar, in particular, concludes that the acceptance of online critics is, to some extent, generational, with younger moviegoers more likely to accept the views of online reviews. I’d add that there is probably a slight distinction between the more professional online criticism associated with sources such as Cinematical, Salon.com, and Pop Matters and “amateur” criticism done on blogs (and I mean “amateur” in the best possible sense of someone who writes about a topic out of sheer love). Even though Cinematical and Pop Matters may be online, their reviews essentially function like magazine reviews. That being said, blogs duplicate–and even amplify–the “word-of-mouth” marketing that has taken place for decades. Living outside of a city center, I now benefit enormously from bloggers who have a chance to see films weeks or months before I do (even if I have to wait for the film to appear on DVD). There will be gradual, if grudging, acceptance of online criticism, especially as more and more print-based critics migrate to online venues, such as the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

That being said, I think our public discourse is weakened when newspapers are cutting back on critics or on staff in general. Sean P. Means, a film writer for the Salt Lake City Tribune, has an interesting article on what the cuts in newspaper staffs mean to the place of film critics in local newspapers, noting recent staff cuts at Newsday and The San Jose Mercury News, as well as past cuts in major papers across the country where film critics have been cut from the staff. In fact, I recall a similar conversation about these issues taking place less than a year ago, and as I mentioned at the time, I do think something is lost when print publications increasingly turn to wire service reviews that may lack the distinct voice of a writer based in the local community. And while there is a tremendous diversity of critics on the web, the cuts in print-based film journalists may have the effect of diminishing that diversity, at least in widely-circulated print publications, as Nell Minow asserts in her AWFJ column. At the same time, as A.J. and others have noted, it is quite often independent and documentary films that are left out when it comes to getting reviews in print publications, exacerbating the problems of films such as Taxi to the Dark Side.

Of course, at least one print critic, Lou Lumenick, has asserted that few readers have complained about the lack of reviews of indies and docs, arguing that “we haven’t had a single complaint from readers, only from distributors and publicists.” That may be true. As A.J. suggests, however, that’s no excuse for failing to review an Oscar-winning documentary, much less one that offers such a powerful indictment of the Bush administration and of the use of torture in interrogating prisoners in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and in Afghanistan. Perhaps one of the things that needs to happen, then, is that readers should “complain,” or should at least let these newspapers know that the voices of their movie critics matter and that moviegoers need local reviewers to make us aware of the independent films that don’t have massive marketing budgets behind them. In fact, many of these blockbusters come “pre-reviewed,” even before critics get a chance to see them, because of all of the publicity they receive through advertising, theatrical trailers, and publicity interviews, making it more crucial for indie films to benefit from the attention of a thoughtful review. Obviously print publications carry a lot of weight when it comes to promoting independent films, and if enough readers complain, then perhaps the editorial decision to devote more space to these films will follow.

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Saturday Links

Given how insanely busy my schedule has been lately (not that everyone else isn’t insanely busy, too), it appears that, at least for the next five or six weeks, Saturday is blogging day here at The Chutry Experiment.  But I finally found some time to dig through Google Reader and realized I’ve been missing a lot of interesting conversations and links:

  • There’s probably not anything to add to Jonathan Martin’s discussion of the McCain staffer who was fired for Twittering this anti-Obama video, which sought to compare Obama to Malcolm X and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two athletes who gave the Black Power sign at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (also worth checking out, this Tapped interview).  The video itself is relatively sloppy work compared to other mashups and regurgitates some of the more ridiculous aspersions against Obama that have been discredited, including the ridiculous assertion that Obama isn’t patriotic.  Still, I’m trying to keep track of as many of these as possible, an this is one of the few implicitly pro-McCain mashups that I’ve seen (as always, if you see others, let me know) and certainly one of the few to really go viral (Outside the Beltway also has an interesting read).
  • YouTube and the Vancouver Film School have teamed up for a neat competition in which aspiring filmmakers can submit videos around the theme of “What Matters to You.”  The three winners of the contest will receive full scholarships to any of the school’s 14 Entertainment Arts programs.  Video submissions are due May 9.
  • Karina has an interesting post on “iTunes movie demographics,” speculating about the reasons why an eight-year old film such as Zoolander, which also plays quite often on TBS, might be among the site’s most popular download-to-own choices.  I think she’s spot-on about most of the demographic points and would only add that Zoolander isn’t one of those films that DVD collectors would feel the need to own, that the film is possibly more disposable than other films where the DVD extras might provide additional value.  NewTeeVee’s Chris Albrecht also discusses this story.
  • I missed the YouTube awards this year, but just wanted to point to the Political video nominees, most of which I found to be good choices, especially the winning video, Stop the Clash of Civilizations, which is very deserving of the prize.
  • Siva points to a video interview with Alice Marwick who discusses the question of what it means to be “Internet Famous.”  I mention this only because a colleague asked me an almost identical question in the hall the other day.  Like the interviewer, he cited Andy Warhol’s dictum about everyone being “famous” for fifteen minutes.  My answer was similar to Marwick’s in that the internet or blogosphere or whatever seems to produce moments of micro-celebrity, fame within a limited sphere of colleagues and friends.  These moments can explode briefly, as they have with P.Z. Myers’ recent and hilarious discussion of being expelled from Ben Stein’s pro-creationist film, Expelled (Myers’ story even made the New York Times).  Or they might be more enduring, but with a smaller circle of people (Myers has obviously already established a wide readership through his blog), but I think that Marwick’s comments on the effects of this new form of micro-celebrity are well worth checking out.
  • Via an email tip from a colleague, Kevin Connolly’s The Rolling Exhibition, in which Connolly, who was born without both of his legs, photographs people as they look at him.  The photographs themselves are fascinating as people attempt to make sense of (or impose a narrative onto, as Connolly suggests) the person they are seeing.  Katie Halper also has a blog post about this incredibly fascinating collection of photographs.
  • Finally, an odd story from TPM reporting that the sleeping girl in Hillary’s 3 AM ad is…an Obama supporter.  It turns out the Clinton ad uses stock footage of a sleeping girl that is several years old.  Well, that girl is now a young woman working as a precinct campaign for Obama.  More than anything, I think I’m surprised that the Clinton campaign chose to use stock footage instead of recording something new.  I can’t imagine that it would have been that expensive.

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Full Frame 2008: Looking Ahead

Finished a couple of nagging projects yesterday, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time this weekend perusing the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and planning out what I’d most like to see.  As always, there are so many situations where films  I want to see are competing with each other, but here are some of the films I’m most looking forward to seeing:

  • Eric Daniel Metzgar’s Life. Support. Music., which tells the story of New York City guitarist Jason Crigler, who collapsed on stage in 2004 with a brain hemorrhage and the story of his family’s struggles to help him make a full recovery (trailer).
  • Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths, which focuses on the racial divide reflected in the celebrations of Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama (Cinematical review).
  • For my mid-afternoon screening on Saturday, I’m torn between Nanette Burstein’s American Teen, which documents a senior class in a small town in Indiana, and Werner Herzog’s return to documentary with Encounters at the End of the World, which looks at the people who work in Antarctica.
  • James Marsh’s Man on Wire, which looks back at Philippe Petit’s daring, but completely illegal, high-wire crossing between the two World Trade Center towers back in 1974 (The Reeler’s interview with Marsh).  I vaguely remember the notoriety of this story from when I was a kid, but it sounds like a compelling film.
  •  Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s latest Iraq war documentary, Bulletproof Salesman, which focuses on the story of war profiteer Fidelis Cloer (A.J.’s review).
  • Chris Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, an investigation of the relationship between steroids and American culture.
  • Joshua Weinstein’s Flying on One Engine, which tells the story of Dr. Sharadkumar Dicksheet, who despite being diagnosed with a life-threatening aortic aneurysm, travels to India to perform marathon surgery sessions, treating as many as 700 children for cleft palates, among other things.
  • Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s Full Battle Rattle, which looks at the phenomenon of Iraq War simulations in California’s Mojave Desert.  I’m told that similar simulations used to (maybe still do) occur here in and around Fayetteville because of our proximity to Fort Bragg, so I’m especially interested in learning more about how these simulations work.
  • Nishtha Jain’s Lakshmi and Me, which was recommended to me by a colleague, focuses on the relationship between Nishtha and her servant, Lakshmi, over the course of a year.
  • Irena Salina’s Flow: For the Love of Water, which focuses on the decline in the availability of that precious natural resource.

I haven’t bought tickets yet (tickets go on sale next week), so I’m certainly open to suggestions, but I’ve decided to take advantage of the opportunity to see as many of these movies as I possibly can on the big screen, and if you’re going to be at Full Frame,  hopefully we’ll cross paths at some point.

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Cinema Eye Honors

I’m supposed to be grading all day, but I just wanted to offer a quick congratulations to all of the winners at the first annual Cinema Eye Honors, which were announced last night at what sounded like a great event.  And a special congratulations to A.J. and the other people who worked so hard to put these awards together.

If you’re looking for interesting, exciting, compelling films to watch, I can think of no better place to start than these award-winning (and nominated) films.

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Chasing Tenure on the Big Screen

Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik has an article about Tenure, an upcoming movie starring Luke Wilson as a college professor on the tenure track. I’ve got a couple of sound bites in the article, including a couple of jokey comments about how to make the work of college professors “visually interesting.” According to Variety, Mike Million wrote the script and will be directing the film, which is set to be distributed by Blowtorch, a neo-indie planning to specialize in low-budget movies for younger audiences. They also produce and distribute shorts and mobile content, so much of my curiosity about this film will be around the way that a Luke Wilson movie about tenure is marketed.

I do find it odd that the film pits Wilson’s character against “an impressive new female colleague” in his pursuit of tenure and worried, obviously prematurely, that this plot line could be anti-feminist. That being said, I’m always intrigued whenever my profession (or at least someone who works in my profession) is depicted on the big screen, so I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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Obama in Fayetteville

Thanks to a student tip, I just found out that Barack Obama will be making a campaign stop here in Fayetteville on Wednesday (March 19). Details should come out tomorrow, which I’ll post asap.

Update: According to WRAL it appears that Obama’s Fayetteville appearance is now only open to a small group rather than the general public.

Update 2: Here is the transcript of Obama’s Fayetteville speech, courtesy of The Fayetteville Observer.

Update 3: And here is a video segment of Obama’s speech.

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