Archive for April, 2008

Three Videos

Getting ready to head out to Console-ing Passions, but here are some new videos that just crossed my radar:

  •  From Joey and David, Viralcom, a great video mockumentary series about a Hollywood-style studio that produces viral videos.  It’s as if Robert Altman made The Player in the age of YouTube.
  • Via Cinema Blend: Expelled has already inspired its own fake trailer, Sexpelled, in which Ben Stein now fights against the scientific establishment’s refusal to entertain the “stork theory” of childbirth.
  • And a new presidential ad parody: McBain for America.

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Baracky: The Movie

Just saw Baracky profiled on Olbermann.  It’s pretty funny, hitting all of the recent highlights (Bosnia, Jeremiah Wright, etc).  I’m working on my conference presentation for Console-ing Passions, so just a link for now.

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DTV 411

Reading Brian Winston’s discussion of HDTV in Technologies of Seeing tonight, I was reminded of a bizarrely fascinating infomercial on the planned transition to digital TV that aired on WRAL in Raleigh last night (there’s a short preview here). While it’s not clearly portrayed in the preview, the infomercial was structured around a cranky-grandfather type who played analogue TV (and who appears not to have touched a hairbrush in ten years) and a younger, cooler grandson who played the digital TV.

The infomercial does seem pretty helpful in spelling out exactly what viewers will need to receive a TV signal after February 17, 2009 (many of my students were convinced that you would need an HDTV, not merely a TV that can receive a digital signal), but obviously what’s interesting about the short program is how it works to convince us that we need digital or high-definition TV. It’s not surprising to see the arguments that HD is beneficial to consumers, but what does seem interesting is how much the program seems targeted towards male viewers, especially with the emphasis on the use of HD to watch sports, but also in terms of how tropes of age and infirmity seem to be driving negative perceptions of analogue.

Update: Here’s a Raleigh News-Observer article on DTV 411, which will apparently be broadcast a few more times in the weeks and months ahead (and was, in fact, broadcast simultaneously by most NC stations). This CBC article reports that the show was produced by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters. And here is the official DTV 411 website.

Update 2: Just thought I’d add that the analogue TV and the digital TV are placed next to each other against a white screen, much like the now famous Apple ads, in a sense using an almost identical rhetoric to depict digital as an improvement over analogue (and, equally significant, showing the degree to which Apple has been so successful in branding itself).

Update 3: Just thought I’d let readers know that now you can see the video for yourself on YouTube.  Props to WRAL for putting the video online so that it would be more widely available.

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Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Expelled, the new pro-intelligent design documentary directed by Nathan Frankowski and starring Ben Stein, first gained notoriety when one of the film’s subjects, biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers, was, ahem, expelled from a Minneapolis test screening a few weeks ago, while fellow interviewee, Richard Dawkins, was allowed through to watch the film. Stein, a comedian, game show host, and former Nixon speech writer, imports his droll style to the debate over intelligent design in perhaps the most heavy-handed and misleading documentary I’ve seen in some time. I’ll admit that I went into the film already skeptical of Stein’s arguments, but nothing prepared me for some of the unbelievable logical leaps taken by the film. Still, because Expelled (probably wisely) wasn’t screened for critics and because the producers apparently have a distribution strategy of releasing the film first to those of us in flyover country, rather than the urban “elite,” I felt obligated to check it out.

The film begins by focusing on a small group of scientists who were denied tenure at various universities (or endured some other form of public criticism) for expressing a belief in some of the tenets of intelligent design. Ominous music suggests a conspiracy among the scientific community to hold these decent, hard-working, and potentially revolutionary scholars back. However, as the Expelled Exposed website reveals, there is much more to the stories of this group of “expelled” scholars. I don’t want to go into specifics with each scholar, but Stein’s film desperately labors to make these scholars look like rock-and-roll rebels against a scientific establishment that is so orthodox and so stifling that there is absolutely no room for dissent or even debate about any issue that might even be remotely controversial. Of course, it can only do this by ignoring the specific content that is controversial–in this case, what Fox News critic Roger Friedman refers to as the “junk science” of intelligent design. In fact, the film in places tries–absurdly–to position these scientists as latter day Einsteins, ready to introduce the next great paradigm shift in scientific thought. More crucially, the “scientific elite” are seen as stifling free speech, an absurd assertion when science scholarship can by no means be reduced to or equated with the state.

The critique of the theory of evolution would be bad enough on its own, but Expelled is also one of the most transparently manipulative films I’ve ever seen, with Frankowski comparing an utterly homogeneous scientific community to the Communists and the Nazis at various points and referring to scientists who study evolution as “Darwinists,” as if Darwin is just another ideology on par with these political philosophies. One of the film’s structuring elements involves black-and-white footage of the building of the Berlin Wall alongside color stock footage of the major Washington, DC, landmarks in order to position intelligent designers on par with the founding fathers, Lincoln, and conservative hero Ronald Reagan, virtual freedom fighters on the front in the battle against tyranny and totalitarianism. Darwinism becomes or at least logically leads to eugenics, the film seems to argue, and Stein drops a couple of ominous passages from Darwin’s research to reinforce this point, as if all scientists accept Darwin’s theories to the letter. In fact, Expelled crosses a line that few films do in establishing its analogy between evolutionary theory and Hitler’s theories of eugenics by actually entering the concentration camps and showing the ovens where hundreds, if not thousands, of victims were cremated. Such a manipulative use of the Holocaust dead to score relatively cheap political points should not be tolerated.

Expelled culminates with a montage cutting between shots of intelligent design scientists discussing their ideas and footage–now in color–of German citizens taking chisel and hammer in hand to tear down the Berlin Wall, with footage of Reagan’s famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech providing a vocal counterpoint, making transparent–as if we’d missed it before–the argument that intelligent designers are simply free speech radicals who have been oppressed by the scientific community, the state, whatever.

But one thing that jarred me about this final montage was the use of the Killers’ “All These Things That I Have Done” to reinforce the image of the ID crowd as rock-and-roll rebels. I found myself asking: How could the Killers license their music to such a crap documentary? I even considered deleting their CD from my iPod. It turns out that apparently the filmmakers used the Killers’ song and John Lennon’s “Imagine” without getting permission.** I certainly support the idea of Fair Use when it comes to academic uses of intellectual property, and the use of “Imagine,” as absurd as it might have been, bordered on “fair use” (the film sought to equate Lennon’s “imagine…no religion” line with, uh, something like meaninglessness, a lack of purpose, a reason not to kill people), but the use of the Killers was simply to support the film’s emotional climax and plays as if the band endorses Stein’s politics. While Brian Flemming correctly points out that Yoko could likely sue for more money than the film earned at the box office, it’s tempting to see their use of these songs as intentionally provocative, yet another haphazard attempt at ginning up a controversy by pitting underdog filmmakers against yet another institutional power–Yoko’s lawyers. Thus far, the attempts to sell the controversy don’t seem to be working that well. The film finished eighth at the box office this week, despite conservative claims that the film was finding a relatively wide audience, and there were, in fact, a grand total of three people at my late night screening in Fayetteville.*

I’m pretty convinced that Expelled will disappear quickly enough, and in writing this review, I’m torn between advising audiences not to see it–I likely would have skipped it if not for the free movie passes–and following MaryAnn Johanson’s suggestion and recommending that people see it in order to understand the intelligent design arguments. My guess is that the viewpoints expressed here may even be hysterical and extreme for some IDers. It might also be worth watching as an example of some of the sloppiest filmmaking to hit the big screen in a long time. More than anything, it’s rather distressing that with all of the talented documentary filmmakers out there working, this is what gets distributed to the local multiplex. At least nobody here in Fayetteville seemed to be buying it.

* To be fair, Expelled is actually a relative box office success for a documentary, as A.J. points out, grossing over $3 million in its opening weekend, a number that would place it within striking distance of the all-time top 25 for top grossing documentaries. It’s still not a good documentary, though.

** It turns out that the Killers apparently did give permission for the song to be used but under false pretenses. When they saw how the song was used, they sought to have it removed, but it was too late.

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Sunday Links

Clearing out my links so that I can write that promised snarky and/or horrified review of Ben Stein’s Expelled:

  • Jason Mittell of JustTV discusses his experience of being interviewed for an NPR segment on the appeal of American Idol. As Jason observes, it’s often difficult to communicate criticism of a show such as American Idol in a sound bite.
  • The P.O.V. Blog points to the news that Shelby Knox, the subject of the documentary, The Education of Shelby Knox (which I really liked), is now blogging and speaking about issues related to sex education.
  • Karina points to the trailer for the latest horror film from Blair Witch director Joe Myrick.  As Karina notes, the film pretty much looks like the Kabul Witch Project, complete with haunted technologies–including faulty compasses–and other mysterious, unexplained phenomena. Still, as an attempt to provide new narrative approaches to representing our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter almost forgotten by the U.S. media, I’m curious to see what Myrick is up to.
  • Scott Kirsner looks at various (legal) online indie film distribution sites for Film In Focus.
  • Karina and Kevin from Spout both look at the future of film criticism, in part in light of Nathan Lee being the fourth film critic forced out at the Village Voice.
  • Scott McLemee reviews Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States.  Hoping I can find time to read it myself at some point this summer.

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Saturday Links

Doing some late evening revisions on my horror film article before going out for a midnight movie (Ben Stein’s Expelled, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, other than maybe the desire to write a snarky blog review). But just thought I’d mention this interesting Errol Morris interview by Bob Edwards. Morris primarily discusses Standard Operating Procedure, but it’s also interesting to hear Morris discuss the fact that he generally likes the people he interviews, even if he disapproves of their actions. The show also features an entertaining interview with Jeanne Hatch and Stan Goldman from the Young at Heart Chorus and the new documentary, Young at Heart.

Also, in order to build in some public accountability, I thought I’d mention that I’ve identified my next big run, the Outer Banks Half Marathon scheduled for early November. I may use the Outer Banks run as a tune up for the full Atlanta Marathon Thanksgiving weekend, but I’m not sure if I have the time to train for that.

Update: Just a quick note to mention that I always find it odd when someone finds my blog by doing a Google search for the exact same movie I happen to be watching on television.  I first noticed this happening a couple of years ago when I was watching Shattered Glass on IFC, and it just happened again with American Splendor, which I just now realized is nearly five years old.  It’s kind of a weird form of an imagined community. There’s someone else at home, bored on a Saturday night, who happens to be watching the same old movie, probably because there’s nothing else on.  Of course, this may also reflect my own narcissism (or boredom) that I happen to be paying such close attention to my blog stats.

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Friday Links

A couple of quick links while I’m procrastinating on reading an MA thesis and a set of papers:

  • Karina points to news about another Iraq doc, JD Johannes’s Outside the Wire (blog), that purports to see the war through the eyes of the soldiers. The DVD features three documentaries Johannes filmed while embedded with his old Marine Corps unit beginning in 2005, and Johannes bills the documentary series as the first “pro-troop” documentary. Consider me a little skeptical given the generally sympathetic depictions of the military in a number of Iraq docs, including The War Tapes and Gunner Palace, among others. Johannes also has the rather odd goal of trying to sell 2,900 copies of the DVD from his website in order to match the US box office totals of Brian DePalma’s Redacted, in order to convey that “pro-troop, pro-victory documentary can succeed in the market place by beating the domestic box office gross of an anti-war film.” Of course, given the degree to which Redacted flopped at the box office, I don’t think that’s a terribly strong message.
  • It appears that the “six word” meme that ran its course in the blogosophere a few months ago has spread to YouTube.  YouTuber micahsamaniac is calling for viewers to submit six word summaries of their life so far (or at the moment).  And so far there seem to be quite a few video responses (and many others in the comments).  I’m not quite sure if the meme works or not for video because it really only takes about eight seconds or so to say six words.
  • It may be gone soon, but Karina also points to Frederick Wiseman’s fascinating and disturbing 1967 documentary, Titicut Follies is available on Google Video.  Wisemen’s film offers an unsettling look at the treatment of patients in a Massachusetts  mental hospital.

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Iraq War Movie Fatigue, Part 2

While I was sorting through my reviews of Full Battle Rattle and Bulletproof Salesman the other day, I wrote a quick post addressing the widespread belief that audiences are experiencing something akin to Iraq War movie fatigue. At the time, I expressed some skepticism about the assumptions underlying the explanations for the poor box office of a number of well-intentioned but often overly-serious (or self-righteous) Iraq War sagas, such as Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah. And I’m still convinced that the poor box office of some of these movies cannot be blamed on an unwillingness to engage with the issues , to name the usual complaint. Instead, I pointed to interest in a couple of PBS docs as examples that audiences were engaged but that Hollywood films were offering prepackaged interpretations of the war that weren’t terribly satisfying. I didn’t quite say it at the time, but for many of these war films, I often feel as if I’ve already seen the movie well before it hits theaters, and I’d imagine that others feel the same way. In short, many of these films fail because they don’t seem to be saying anything new about the war (at least from their promotion in trailers and other advertising).

For this reason, I found Anthony Kaufman’s recent Village Voice article on a new round of films that “defy the clichés of the post-9/11 Iraq War cinema” especially interesting. Kaufman highlights a number of upcoming films–most notably Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Morgan Spurlock’s Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?,–that defy many of the tired conventions of the standard well-meaning anti-war film, and while it is impossible to predict how these films will be received by audiences, I think that Michael Tucker, quoted in Kaufman’s article, is correct to argue that the sobriety of the standard Iraq film has been largely ineffective: “Trying to be earnest about something—it does nothing to explain it….That’s why the fiction films have largely failed—because people are already in that emotional place.”

The attempt to find a new way of depicting the war–or one small slice of it–is what I liked most about Tucker’s Bulletproof Salesman (co-directed with Petra Epperlein) and Jesse Moss and Tony Gerber’s Full Battle Rattle. Both films avoid imposing easy interpretations of their subjects–an armored car salesman and a fake Iraqi village in the Mojave desert, respectively–and provide their audiences with a degree of trust that seems missing in many of the high-profile Hollywood films. At any rate, Kaufman provides a nice overview of some of the films coming down the pipeline that might be treating the war from a slightly different perspective, including several (Harold and Kumar, in particular) that I’ve been looking forward to for some time.

Update: No time for a full post, but James Rocchi has an interesting related post on bad box office for Iraq War films at The Huffington Post.

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Monday Links

I’m procrastinating on some grading again, but at least now with three or so weeks left, I can see the light at the end of the semester, so here are a few of my morning and (almost afternoon) distractions:

  • After seeing Smart People this weekend and reading about The Visitor (and contemplating Luke Wilson’s tenure movie) I’m stuck on one of my favorite questions again: representations of academics on the big screen. I’ve obviously complained quite a bit about stereotypical depictions of frumpy academics, but what I haven’t articulated quite as clearly is the fact that invariably professors on the big screen are male, a point that The Bittersweet Girl raised in a recent blog post. BSG mentions Sally Kellerman’s Sex Pot professor in Back to School and Barbara Streisand’s character in The Mirror Has Two Faces, and in the comments Flavia mentions Julia Roberts’ character in Mona Lisa Smile, but I’m having trouble thinking of any others. Obviously, there are female professors in supporting roles in many of these films, but depictions of female professors seem to occur with far less frequency.*
  • I’ve been planning to promote Chris Cagle’s proposal for a Film of the Month blog/group for a while now, but with all of my Full Frame blogging, I’d forgotten. Basically, once a month, a participant will select a movie that others in the group will watch, and then the blog will provide a space for the discussion of that film. It sounds like a great way to discover new movies and to have conversations about them. Girish has selected the first movie in the series, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.
  • There’s an interesting Hollywood Reporter article on the role of 3-D cinema in driving the conversion to digital projection in theaters, and Scott Kirsner at CinemaTech also points to an interesting article on some low-budget 3-D films in the works.
  • Finally, Anthony Kaufman has an interesting blog post about the “big” movie fallacy. Addressing the hype over small-screen convenience, Kaufman challenges the conventional assumption that “small” films such as documentaries and indie films work better on the (super) small screen than big screen epics such as Lawrence of Arabia or Transformers. I think he’s basically right on many of the key points, especially in his reading of the “gulf” between the two main protagonists in Old Joy, a gulf that seems significantly larger on a big screen. But I’m really citing Anthony’s post because it reminded me of the degree to which this year’s Oscars almost seemed to be mourning the obsolescence of the big screen experience.

* The Cinetrix points out that Ann Hornaday used Smart People as a vehicle for thinking about the whole “professors on film” phenomenon.  Given that Hornaday was a finalist for a Pulitzer this year, I think that puts BSG and me in pretty good company.

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Smart People

Just to prove that I occasionally watch movies that aren’t documentaries, I’ll offer a brief review of Noam Murro’s Smart People (IMDB), the indie comedy-drama starring Dennis Quaid as the frumpy, self-absorbed English professor Lawrence Weatherhold and Sarah Jessica Parker as the soft-hearted medical doctor whose past schoolgirl crush on Weathehold is renewed when she treats him in the hospital. Ellen “Juno” Page joins the party as Vanessa, Weatherhold’s overachieving young Republican daughter (think Alex P. Keaton as a girl), and Thomas Haden Church pops in as Chuck, Lawrence’s adopted slacker brother (why, again, is Chuck the default name for slacker guys on TV and in the movies?).

As Village Voice critic Robert Wilonsky points out, Smart People is meant in part as academic satire, and because I’ve already acknowledged my inability to resist films about academics, I ended up seeing the film, against my better judgment. All of the classic stereotypes are there: the teacher who intentionally forgets his students’ names, who pushes the clock ahead to skip out of office hours, who has no awareness of fashion (or razors, for that matter). You get the idea. The film’s plot centers on Lawrence’s attempts to belatedly come to terms with his wife’s death after an accident almost too goofy to describe gives him a concussion, preventing him from driving for six months. Enter Chuck, the charming pot-head, beer-drinking slacker brother who makes money by stapling diet ads to telephone poles (not polls, as I originally wrote). Chuck becomes Lawrence’s unofficial chauffeur, and of course, in the process coaches Lawrence and Vanessa in getting in touch with their emotions and becoming (slightly) less self-absorbed. Throw in Lawrence’s initially tentative relationship with the good doctor, Janet, who also seems emotionally isolated, and you have pretty much every element of the quirky indie comedy drama about dysfunctional smart people. It’s About Schmidt meets The Squid and the Whale with a Sideways twist.*

Aside from hitting so many indie drama cliches, Smart People fell into other traps as well. We get absolutely no backstory for Janet, other than one brief conversation with a sympathetic colleague. She wrote a paper for Lawrence’s class; he gives her a C, and she is so traumatized that she chooses to major in biology instead. That’s about it. And [spoiler warning] Smart People is yet another indie film that resorts to pregnancy as a means of providing redemption for one or more of the film’s characters. Like the Seth Rogen character in Knocked Up, Lawrence essentially sheds his self-absorption only after a condom mishap leads to the inevitable responsibilities of parenthood. And Smart People spends even less time than Knocked Up and Juno in considering abortion as a viable option. But at least Chuck’s porn ‘stache was cool.

* In retrospect, I meant As Good As It Gets, not About Schmidt (I was intending to refer to the improbable relationship between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt),  but I think the point is more or less the same.

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Full Battle Rattle

Because of my proximity to Fort Bragg, one of the films I was most curious to see at Full Frame was Full Battle Rattle (IMDB), Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s documentary about a simulated Iraqi village, Medina Wasl, set up in California’s Mojave Desert. Medina Wasl is often the last stop for many soldiers before they are deployed for Iraq, and it is meant as a kind of training ground for soldiers to prepare for dealing with the problems they are likely to face when they arrive in Iraq. The city is populated by hundreds of Iraqi exiles who take on various roles–including one Iraqi who comically complains of being stuck in the role of deputy mayor–much like extras in a Hollywood movie might. And, in a striking move, the leaders of the Iraqi insurgency are, in fact, played by U.S. soldiers who have already served at least one tour in Iraq.

Full Battle Rattle follows the experiences of one Army Battalion as they go through the simulation. The film opens with a battle scene that unfolds before our eyes, complete with dramatic confrontations, wounded soldiers and civilians, everything you might expect to see in a war (movie). When the battle abruptly stops, we realize that it is a simulation with all of the special effects that one might find in a Hollywood blockbuster, complete with special effects, mannequins splattered with fake blood serving as wounded soldiers, and even a soldier offering method acting tips to one of the participants. From there, we are introduced to a number of the participants, both within the Battalion undergoing the training, and within the “Iraqi” village itself, and to the “authors” of the conflict that the Battalion must attempt to resolve without allowing the village to devolve into anti-American sentiment. And, at this point, we get a clear sense of the fact that we are watching a movie about a movie-like simulation of a real war. It’s a somewhat unsettling realization, and unlike Variety reviewer, Eddie Cockrell, I think that the non-judgmental approach taken by Gerber and Moss place a lot of trust in the audience, allowing them to make sense of this activity, to reach their own conclusions about what the simulation says about the politics of war.  In fact, what compelled me was not the degree to which these narrative representations of the Iraq War are inadequate–that’s pretty obvious–but the way in which the representations actually seem to shape the war itself.  As one commenter at Full Frame observed, Jean Baudrillard would have a field day with this film.

There are, in addition, a number of resonant moments. One of the Iraqi women observes that her mother, who is still living in Baghdad, has told her that she is happy that the daughter still has a reason to wear traditional Iraqi clothing, if only in a simulated version of Iraq. Another Iraqi player turns out to have journeyed through half a dozen countries before arriving, illegally, in the U.S. We see him going through court proceedings in order to avoid being deported, as he hopes that his participation in Medina Wasl will be viewed favorably in the court. At the same time, we are introduced to soldiers, whose attitudes towards Iraq range across the spectrum. One soldier, who plays an insurgent in Medina Wasl, admits that when he returns to the simulation, he has to put aside his own hatred of Iraqis, a process that often takes several days.

Perhaps the most oddly compelling scene in the film is the simulated funeral of a “fallen” soldier who is ostensibly killed in the war gaming.  During the funeral, we see soldiers shedding real tears for the simulated death of a comrade.  As Indy Weekly writer David Fellerath observes, it’s an unsettling scene (review found via the FBR blog), one that raises any number of questions about exactly what these simulations are meant to teach.  Full Battle Rattle is clearly critical of the war, and the (scripted) dramatic increase in tensions in Medina Wasl seems to predict the (seemingly unscripted) conflicts in Iraq.  It was certainly one of the most fascinating films I saw at the festival, one that looks at our investment in the war in Iraq from an entirely new perspective.

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Man on Wire

One of the biggest winners of Full Frame (Special Jury Prize and the Full Frame Audience Award) was James Marsh’s highly enjoyable Man on Wire (IMDB), which tells the story of Phillipe Petit’s audacious and whimsical tight rope walk between the two World Trade Center Towers on August 7, 1974. Petit, who had previously completed high wire walks on the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and on a bridge overlooking the Sydney Opera House, performed for 45 minutes for an astonished New York City audience before being arrested. The images of Petit suspended in the sky on a cloudy New York morning are, no doubt, breathtaking, and while the images of the towers inevitably bring back memories of the 9/11 attacks, Marsh deftly brings us back to what seems like a more innocent time, celebrating Petit’s artistic philosophy and Petit and his crew’s amateurish, if ultimately successful, adventure.

As Tom Hall notes in his Sundance review, Man On Wire primarily plays as a heist film, with the central participants, Petit and his band of friends and followers, relating their efforts to stake out the World Trade Center, which was still under construction at the time. As they discuss plans to smuggle cable into the building by posing as construction workers, for example, we get a clear sense of how easily they could have been caught. In addition, as the narrative unfolds, we also learn about the petty jealousies that permeate the group, and yet all of the participants seem to remain astonished at what they pulled off, even more than 30 years after the fact.

Marsh wisely underplays any attempt to impose an interpretation of Petit’s act, which is described, in part, as “the art crime of the century.” Instead, he allows the people who were involved in the event to offer their interpretations. In addition, Marsh generally avoids placing too much emphasis on the subsequent tragic legacy of the towers after 9/11, but as Hall notes, one shot of Petit walking between the two towers, with a jet immediately overhead, inevitably invokes such comparisons. Still, Marsh is capable of showing how Petit managed, through his “art crime” to humanize the towers at a moment when many New Yorkers saw the buildings as nothing more than “monoliths of capitalism.” In one brief moment, Petit’s crime gave the towers new life and a sense of whimsy, one that is brought back to life in this breathtaking film.

Green Cine has a few more reviews.

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Bulletproof Salesman

In a post I wrote earlier today, I was trying to challenge claims that film audiences had achieved “Iraq War fatigue,” that the poor box office for a number of Hollywood films about the Iraq War constituted a public refusal to engage with representations of the war. I remain unconvinced that the relative box office failure of a small number of Iraq War-themed films can really tell us anything about whether audiences want to be engaged by compelling narratives and documentaries about the war. In fact, I would argue that what we need are newer, more focused narratives that can provide us with new ways of seeing and understanding the war, a point that A.J. addresses in a recent blog post when he praises a small number of recent docs for focusing on what he calls “small stories, personal portraits and intimate profiles.”

One of the films that A.J. praises is Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein have Bulletproof Salesman (IMDB), which introduces us to Fidelis Cloer, a war profiteer who sells armored cars to diplomats, journalists, and others working in Iraq. Bulletproof Salesman, like Tucker and Epperlein’s two previous documentaries on the Iraq War, Gunner Palace and The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair, avoids any simple political positions, instead choosing to introduce us to one face of a man who profits off of war. The film works, in part, because Cloer is a natural salesman, selling himself just as quickly as he sells bulletproof cars and vests, as well as other safety devices. In fact, as Variety reviewer Joe Leydon observes, there is an extent to which Cloer seems like he would be a charming dinner guest until you develop a full understanding of his occupation and its dependence on the continuation of the war, or perhaps of war in general.

In order to tell Cloer’s story, Tucker and Epperlein make use of footage taken starting in early 2003, just months before the insurgency began; however, it is clear that Cloer anticipated the violence and is prepared to meet the needs of an increasingly nervous pool of consumers (he recognizes that it is, in fact, “the end of the beginning of the war”). The film mixes what I have called Tucker and Epperlein’s “video verite” style sequences, in which we observe Cloer at work, with talking heads interviews with Cloer. Further, Leydon points out, titles provide the film with a mordant sense of humor, such as when Tucker and Epperlein underscore Cloer’s assertion that “chaos is opportunity.” Ultimately, Bulletproof Salesman follows Cloer off and on for several years of the war as it escalates and evolves, forcing Cloer to change and improve his cars.

Throughout the film we see Cloer testing his equipment, constantly trying to find ways to improve the safety of the vehicles he sells. He takes armored cars out into a field where he directs others to fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition and to set off massive explosions in order to test their safety, but Cloer acknowledges that the only way to genuinely improve his products is for one of them to fail. Essentially people have to die, an observation that Cloer accepts in his trademark matter-of-fact style. At one point, Cloer, prodded by a customer, even climbs into the car, allowing dozens of rounds to be fired into the windshield, in order to demonstrate his confidence in the product he is selling. While it’s clear that Cloer is initially reluctant, he also recognizes the importance of standing behind his product.

But, while Cloer’s cold, dispassionate view of the war might unsettle us, as Tucker points out in an indieWIRE interview, Bulletproof Salesman is about more than a single individual, it is in fact, “a film about the pathology of violence.” And I think this is where Tucker and Epperlein have provided us with a significant new narrative about the Iraq War and about conflict in general. Cloer constantly acknowledges that he isn’t simply selling cars, that he is, in fact, selling safety and security, protection from a world in which violence is increasingly commonplace. And yet, of course, we realize that no vehicle is ever truly safe, impervious from the newer weapons and more powerful explosives. While Bulletproof Salesman is unambiguous in depicting the unsettling fact that war has become “disturbingly normal,” it never presents that depiction of Iraq in a simplistic, moralizing way. Instead, we are confronted with someone who profits from that war, from the very conditions where safety becomes a commodity rather than the norm.

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Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

One of the most entertaining films of Full Frame was Christopher Bell’s Bigger Stronger Faster* (IMDB), which takes the steroids hysteria dominating sports media over the last five years and turns it on its head. Using a breezy, pop-culture savvy style reminiscent of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Bell identifies many of the hypocrisies that inform the coverage of steroids while also arguing that steroid use is symptomatic of a uniquely American ideology of success. Bell personalizes this story by looking at his family’s experiences with steroids while also interviewing a number of the more significant participants in the steroids debate–at least those who were willing to appear on camera.

Bell’s film is pretty effective when it uses popular culture texts to challenge some of the biggest myths about the effects of steroids on users. Panic about steroids is compared to earlier cinematic warnings about the dangers of marijuana via a clip from Reefer Madness that Bell juxtaposes against a scene from a movie about steroids. Both films play to our fears of death, and especially our desires to protect children from physical harm. And while Bell is able to assemble a nice selection of doctors who are willing to appear on camera to assert that we don’t yet know the long-term effects of steroid use, I’m not fully convinced that the film offers sufficient evidence to suggest that we shouldn’t worry about those long-term effects. There is a segment featuring archival interviews with and about former Oakland Raiders star Lyle Alzado, who attributed his early death to steroid use, but Bell’s attempt to undermine steroid use as a cause in Alzado’s death doesn’t quite address why there is such concen about steroid use by athletes.

Bell is pretty effective in highlighting the hypocrisy of major league baseball when it came to steroids, noting that the sport was pretty willing to turn a blind eye to steroid use when it was financially beneficial during the home run chase of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were slamming homers and mugging for the camera across the country. And he also presents a sympathetic interview with Tour de France competitor Floyd Landis who had his title taken away based on allegations that he was doping. also instructive were interviews with former Olympic track athletes Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis. These scenes work well to contextualize not only how pervasive steroids and HGH are in pro and Olympic sports but also how they are connected to the ways in which pro sports, especially, has exploded as a business in recent years.

However, Bell’s attempt to link this desire to get bigger, stronger, and faster to uniquely American ideologies of capitalism rings a little false. To be sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears briefly in one of the film’s funniest shots, has become the physical embodiment of one version of the American Dream, and wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan espoused American values of hard work, even while doing steroids on the side. And, yes, the body image of GI Joe has changed radically since the 1950s, but I’m not sure this can be read as uniquely American. In fact, the identification with Hollywood stars such as Arnie and Sly Stallone is very much a global phenomenon with Rambo movies opening in Brisbane, Beirut, and Boston on the same day with similar audience enthusiasm. And the doping in Olympic sports is clearly a global phenomenon. That being, said the importance of understanding why young men, mostly, feel compelled to use steroids is useful, and this is where Bell’s film may have the most to offer us.

Here, Bell draws from his own childhood experiences, growing up with two brothers. He describes an early childhood in which all three brothers were bullied or teased for being overweight or unathletic. All three brothers respond by bulking up, and both of Bell’s brothers openly confess to using steroids and report no major physical consequences. Both acknowledge that family members–wives, their parents–want them to quit. And yet, they are not at all apologetic for steroid use and even point to th benefits it has provided them. This recognition of the cause of steroid use is certainly valuable, but I’m not sure that the film is self-reflective enough to address whether steroid use has truly been beneficial. Bell doesn’t really track down anyone who regrets steroid use and even seems to overstate the degree to which young boys who were teased will view them as an option.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is a welcome antidote to some of the hysteria surrounding talk about steroids in the national media, but I’m not quite sure that it offers a compelling alternative. Simply dismissing the anti-steroids crusaders as worrying unnecessarily isn’t really fair and reduces some of the complications associated with this issue.

Update 12/15/08: A few months after I saw BSF, Mike Bell, one of the three brothers featured in the documentary, died at the age of 37. According to what I’ve read so far, no cause of death has been named. But you can find more information at the blog, Under the Ring and in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

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Iraq War (Movie) Fatigue

This is a post I didn’t really intend to write, but I’m sorting through some ideas as I prepare to review a couple of Iraq docs from Full Frame, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s Bulletproof Salesman and Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s Full Battle Rattle, both of which were highlights of the festival for me.  But as I began thinking about both films, I wanted to think through some of the questions that have been circulating recently about the place of documentaries and narrative features about the Iraq War.

It has become common wisdom that audiences are resistant to seeing movies about the Iraq War, whether those films are documentaries or features.  This assumption seems to have been firmly established during Oscar season when a few high-profile directors and films (Brian DePalma’s Redacted, Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah) fared poorly at the box office.  And this assumption seems pretty much taken for granted in a Studio 360 interview with Stop Loss director Kimberly Pierce, who talks passionately about how her brother’s service in Iraq.  The dismal box office even inspired a Full Frame panel on “Crisis Fatigue” that I was unable to attend, thanks to a poorly timed dental appointment.  While most commentators speculate that audiences are going to theaters to seek out entertainment, not to get “lectured” about the war, I want to suggest that things may be a little more complicated.  After all, supporters of both political parties still cite the war as the most important issue facing the country.  And, in fact, as Eugene Novikov of Cinematical implies,  the box office numbers for many of these films may not be as bad as advertised.  And, in perhaps a clearer sign of ongoing interest in movies about the war, the New York Times reports that PBS’s Bush’s War has attracted a substantial online audience (in fact, that’s where I discovered the film).  Similarly, Deborah Scranton’s Bad Voodoo’s War seems to be generating a lot of traffic, if visits to my blog review of the film are any indication.

While both of these examples do not address the problem of getting audiences into theaters, they do suggest that there is an audience out there for meaningful, compelling documentary coverage of the Iraq War and its consequences.  I do think that PBS’s decision to make these docs available online and to promote them heavily within the blogosphere (I’ve seen tons of online ads for both) makes a lot of sense, and both films seem to fit neatly within the recent headlines about General Petraeus’s testimony.  I’m not saying that theatrical distribution of Iraq docs isn’t an issue, but I don’t think things are quite as dismal as the “box office crisis” narrative might suggest.

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