Archive for April, 2008

American Teen

In her coverage of Full Frame for Green Cine, the cinetrix succinctly summarizes the buzz surrounding Nanette Burstein’s American Teen (IMDB), a documentary following a group of Warsaw, Indiana, high school students over the course of their senior years: it’s entertaining and guaranteed to find an audience, but in a sense, perhaps due to its pop sensibility, it also seemed like an odd fit for Full Frame. Burstein’s film, which breezily mixes in animated fantasy sequences, voice-overs, and talking-heads sequences, follows four high schoolers who could have been pulled from a John Hughes film, a jock, a nerd, an art school misfit, and a prom queen. And while I found myself compelled by the film’s individual stories, I did have some reservations about what the film seemed to be telling us about high school life. While the teens depicted in the film certainly did adjust to the daily presence of the cameras in their lives, it’s also clear, as James Rocchi points out, that they also seem acutely aware of the camera. At the same time, the film’s short running length–especially when compared to a year of high school–guarantees that much of the tedium of high school will be cut, placing emphasis only on the most dramatic moments, something I’ve come to appreciate as I’ve written this review. In fact, my memory of high school is that every day seemed simultaneously tedious and overloaded with dramatic moments.

The comparison to John Hughes film is not accidental. Burstein has deliberately set her sights on using the tropes of high school films as well as coming-of-age documentaries, such as Michael Apted’s Up Series (7 Up, 42 Up, etc), and even the film’s poster art recalls the poster art for The Breakfast Club (in fact, at a glance, I confused the two). And while titling the film American Teen clearly sets Burstein up for criticism–Warsaw, Indiana, is very white, conservative, and very middle-class, not unlike my own suburban Atlanta high school, in fact–Burstein captures a world that was distinctly familiar to me when I was a graduate student teaching at Purdue. There was something oddly familiar and almost timeless about the world Burstein depicted; the students’ lives could have easily intersected with the students I taught several years earlier at Purdue.

At the same time, their world is clearly connected to a specific moment in time, as Megan bullies one of her friends by sending a revealing picture of her to the cell phones and computers of all her friends. That moment in particular raised some interesting questions about whether these students might experience their public and private lives in ways that are quite different than what I experienced in high school. While students could be incredibly vicious, spreading gossip about their classmates at the speed of sound, the viral movement of this picture across the internet was almost shocking, even for someone who writes semi-daily blog posts.

The four students face all of the difficulties of high school life. Colin, the athlete seems to face the stark choice of earning a college basketball scholarship or join the army. His father, who works part-time as an Elvis impersonator, sees few other options given the family’s economic status. Megan, the prom queen is desperate to earn her way into Notre Dame in order to preserve a family legacy, eventually lashing out at her friends as the pressure mounts. Hannah, the art-school type, confronts the pain of getting dumped, first by skippng school for several weeks before cautiously moving on. She eventually decides to set her sights on film school in San Francisco, a career choice that frightens her Hooiser mom. Jake, the geek, tentatively seeks out romance, first with a freshman who doesn’t know his reputation at the school and then later with a girl from another school, and as Rocchi observes, Jake seems to be “looking forward to college like a prisoner waiting for parole.”

Of course, to some extent, this desire to escape seems true of all four of Burstein’s subjects. You get the feeling that all of them are looking ahead, ready to move on to college and out of the small town that seems to define them. Whether that represents their actual experience or whether that is a narrative imposed onto the material by Burstein is another question. I was certainly ready to graduate from high school, ready to escape what seemed like an inalterable and utterly arbitrary place in the social life of my suburban high school, and Hannah and Jake, in particular, fight against the roles that have been assigned to them in what Hannah clearly recognizes as an unfair social system.

American Teen is an entertaining and enlightening documentary, one in which most viewers will see some version of themselves. I’m tempted, like Dennis Harvey, to wonder if the film is “so highly worked, so packed with high dramatic incidents” that it has borrowed too heavily from reality television, but in retrospect, I think that’s what high school is really like. While American Teen may be, as Harvey complains, “edited-within-an-inch-of-its-life,” so is high school in may ways. I found myself thinking about how important not going to senior prom felt at the time. It felt, quite literally, as if my life was headed down some horrible, irrevocable path. And, of course, every conversation with a prom queen or every college application I ever received in the mail was so loaded with meaning and significance that I think the film may be onto something in deploying that edge-of-its-life pace. Of course, I could have been a complete freak in high school. But I’m OK with that…I think.

Update: After a couple of private conversations and after reading Pamela’s review of American Teen, I’m starting to think that my initial comments were a bit too generous.  I remember thinking that I didn’t feel as if I had learned anything significantly new about teenagers, only that I had been presented with images of teenage life.  I’m well aware of the ambiguities of concepts such as authenticity, especially when it comes to identity.  I’m also aware of the ways in which the teens may have absorbed prescribed mediated roles, but the doc now feels a little too reality-TVish (is that even an adjective?) for my tatses.

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At the Death House Door

At the Death House Door (IMDB), which won the Full Frame Inspiration Award, tells the fascinating story of Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister from Huntsville, Texas, who served for fifteen years as the prison’s death house chaplain, presiding over nearly 100 executions, including the state’s–and the world’s–first lethal injection. The film, directed by Steve James and Peter Gilbert (both of whom worked on 1994’s Hoop Dreams), narrates Pickett’s conversion from a supporter of the death penalty to an opponent, in part because Pickett began to recognize many of the inherent flaws in the death penalty. We are reminded, for example, that blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be executed than whites and that people who are innocent have been executed. But Pickett’s conversion is also a moral one based on the decision that the Bible teaches that taking a life is wrong, even when it’s being done as punishment by the state.

It’s quite clear that, from the beginning, Pickett was haunted by the demands of his ministry, which consisted, in part, of ensuring that the inmate would be relatively compliant when led into the execution chamber. To work through those mixed emotions, Pickett recorded audio tapes after every execution, discussing the details of the case, his conversations with the prisoner, anything to help him make sense of what he was doing. While we hear only bits and pieces of Pickett’s audio reflections, they offer an incredible resource, an oral history of Pickett’s evolution into a death penalty opponent. The tapes were originally meant for Pickett’s private use. His wife and children knew nothing about the tapes, and Pickett had never listened to them after making the recordings, but clearly he felt the need to save them, and we see them carefully preserved in plastic boxes. And as Pickett’s story unfolds, we realize that there are a few cases, in particular, that haunt him, including the case of Carlos deLuna, an inmate executed in 1989 whom Pickett was convinced was innocent.

In fact, it was the 2006 investigation of two Chicago Tribune reporters into deLuna’s case that led James and Gilbert to Pickett in the first place. In addition to a healthy reminder of the importance of good investigative journalism, the Tribune story helped to flesh out the details of the case, pointing out that another man, Carlos Hernandez, was likely the murderer. The reporters work with deLuna’s sister, Rose Rhoton, to investigate the case further, and Pickett quickly becomes an important ally in seeking to get deLuna’s verdict overturned and in putting an end to the death penalty.  And while Rhoton becomes a powerful force in her own right, the film’s primary story belongs to Pickett, and despite his reluctance and privacy, we get a clear sense of how his experiences have shaped him, leading to his decision to stop presiding over executions.  This reluctance is illustrated in a powerful scene at the family dining table, in which Pickett’s four children all express surprise when they discovered their father’s opposition to the death penalty.

As I watched At the Death House Door, I couldn’t hep but think about other films that have presented powerful arguments about the death penalty–Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Jessica Sanders’ After Innocence among them–and like both of those films, Death House makes us acutely aware of the irreversibility of the death penalty.  In addition, like The Thin Blue Line, Death House takes place in Texas, and Pickett reminds us in a couple of places of the “Wild West” mentality that seems to inform the use of the death penalty in that state.  We are even given a brief flashback to then-governor George W. Bush’s decision to proceed with the execution of Karla Faye Tucker.  But the film generally avoids any easy pandering to anti-Bush sentiment, choosing instead a more somber approach to the death penalty issue, viewing it through Pickett’s thoughtful and reflective eyes.  At the Death House Door is a powerful indictment of the death penalty, one that introduces us to the emotional transformation of Pickett without cheap sentimentality.

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Trouble the Water

Trouble the Water (IMDB), Kimberly Roberts’ gripping personal narrative of survival in the face of Hurricane Katrina, introduces us to Kim in an Alexandria, Louisiana, shelter where she and her husband, Scott, have finally landed a few days after the storm, a look of exhaustion and relief crossing their faces mixed with a hint of excitement that they may finally have a platform from which to tell their story. “Y’all are national, right?” Kim asks, skeptically at first. “Because our story is too big for the local news. Nobody’s got what I got.” And the film itself, as directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, goes on to fulfill that promise, taking viewers on a journey beginning just a few hours before Katrina hit through the storm itself and then several months later, as many of the government’s promises remain unfulfilled, with many of the city’s poorest residents slipping through cracks in the system.

Much of this story is told through the eyes of Kim and her friends and family. Kim happened to purchase the camera a few days before the storm, originally intending to use it to make some side money recording weddings and birthdays, but instead she introduces us to her Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood and her neighbors who are told to evacuate but often can’t because of a lack of transportation. In fact, the Roberts likely would have left New Orleans before the storm had their car not been stolen days before the storm hit. As the storm approaches and eventually hits, bringing the flood waters that would breach the levees, Kim records everything with her digital camera. We see the family huddled in the attic, a distant stop sign almost engulfed in water, a marker for the amount of flooding. We see a neighbor who has managed to corral a small fishing boat he can use to escort Kim and others to safety (one of the great moments in the film shows Kim, Scott, and the neighbor, Larry, discovering the boat where they left it, propped up against a school that had served as a makeshift shelter. We also see Kim and her friends as they return to the Lower Ninth Ward, confronting the death and destruction that had gone pretty much ignored by the National Guard rescue teams.

The result of all this is one of the most personal, gripping narratives about Hurricane Katrina that I have yet seen. While Variety’s Robert Koehler dismisses the film as a “minor” contribution to a larger body of work about one of the biggest natural disasters in U.S. history, it is precisely the story’s intimacy that makes the film work. In fact, the film provides us with what is one of the more memorable images I’ve seen on screen in a long time: a sequence recorded in the Memphis home of one of Kim’s cousins in which Kim, an aspiring rapper, raps along to a recording of one her songs, telling the story of overcoming her mother’s drug addiction and early death due to AIDS. The song comes across as part prayer, part confession, but it is filled with the bravado of someone who has faced every imaginable obstacle and managed to survive.

The film also provides us with some reminders of the official response to the storm, with the bravery and ingenuity of Kim, Scott, and Larry contrasted with the incompetence and indifference of FEMA and the federal government in general. At one point, in fact, we see Scott punctuating this point by reminding a group of National Guard soldiers that the “real” war is here in New Orleans, in all of our poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and not in Iraq. But Trouble the Water underplays these depictions of FEMA chief Michael Brown, allowing Kim and Scott’s experiences to comment more powerfully than any gotcha clips ever could. As B. Ruby Rich observes, the Roberts’ personal story provides us with everything we need to see “government malpractice” on a massive scale.

As Karina points out, there is some risk that the Roberts’ story may risk coming across a little “pat,” especially given that the film seems so determined to find an inspirational arc within their experiences. But it remains difficult for me to view the images of destroyed and abandoned buildings that dominate the Lower Ninth Ward without being reminded of the emotional and physical toll the storm took. Kim’s decision to record her experiences of Hurricane Katrina has provided us with an important, much needed perspective on Katrina’s devastating toll while also showing us one individual family’s struggle to survive the storm. Even a day after watching their story unfold on screen, I’m still reeling.

Update: Thanks to Green Cine for compiling links to many of these reviews.

Update 2: A.J. Schnack raises some interesting questions about Trouble the Water that have been bothering me as well.  He points out the significant problem that Lessin and Deal are credited as directors while Roberts, whose footage comprises a major bulk of the movie is merely credited with “additional camera work.” I didn’t get a chance to see Axe in the Attic, the other Katrina doc referenced by A.J., so I can’t make a comparison, but I do think there are some fairly powerful moments that reflect some deep emotional conflict, particularly the scene in which Roberts performs one of her songs for the camera, narrating to us her story of survival, both before and after Katrina hit, culminating in her defiant return of the camera’s gaze.

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Festival Fatigue

I’ve just returned to Fayetteville after a long weekend of documentary bliss at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival up in Durham.  By my somewhat mathematically-impaired and bleary-eyed calculations, I saw a total of sixteen movies (counting shorts) in three days.  Several of the films were unforgettable, but all I can think about right now is just how physically and mentally draining watching that many docs in three short days can be.

By the time I was ready to drive home tonight I found my eyes struggling to adjust away from staring at a movie screen, and my thoughts scrambled after bounding mentally from India to the Mojave Desert to Iraq and to the top of the World Trade Center and finally to the Lower Ninth Ward, with the result that by the end of the weekend, I felt mildly disoriented, almost as if time had fallen slightly out of joint, an experience that was probably exacerbated by an hour’s drive home on the non-space of an interstate highway.

At any rate, this is just a quick post to say that I’ll try to review as many of these films as possible in the next few days, in part because I want to highlight some of the great films I saw but also for the very selfish reason that I hope I can use the blog to process what I saw.

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Book News

A few months ago in the context of mentioning his own forthcoming book on indie films, Mike mentioned the factoid that there are now nearly 300,000 books published every year in the United States.  My book should hopefully join that number in the not-too-distant future, as I’ve just signed a contract with Rutgers University Press for my book on what I have been calling “networked film publics.”  That title may change slightly, but in terms of the book itself, it appears that things are moving along.  I’ll keep everybody posted on the book’s progress in the weeks and months ahead.

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“I’m F*cking Obama”

This video, by Hugh Atkin, literally made my jaw drop.  For those of you who missed it, here’s the original Sarah Silverman-Matt Damon video that provides the basis for this mashup.

Just to provide some analysis, I’ll admit that I initially laughed at the sheer audacity of the video.  That being said, I’m less convinced that the video says anything useful about the political process or, certainly, about Hillary Clinton (and of course, I get the manifest point that Clinton’s comments are hurting Obama’s chances to be our next President).  I’m probably as tired of primary season as anyone, but the video seems to reinforce some pretty sexist attitudes towards Clinton, and quite possibly towards women in power in general, attitudes that are clearly reflected in the comments on the video.

Still, Hugh’s blog is a great resource for getting a sense of his process in assembling video mashups, including decisions about the length of the video and editing techniques.  It’s interesting that mashups have become so naturalized in our pop-political discourse, and yet we often neglect to think of them as highly constructed objects.  Further, as Hugh somehow calculated, there are over 300,000 words in all of the Democratic debates thus far, with at least one more debate to come, which provides an incredible amount of information to sift through (video originally found at Oliver Willis).

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Wednesday Links

Starting to get geared up for Full Frame, but here are a few of the things I’ve been reading or thinking about this week:

  • Via an email tip, another article by documentary critic Paul Arthur, this time taking Errol Morris to task for looking at the Abu Ghraib photographs through an epistemological rather than a moral lens in Morris’s new documentary Standard Operating Procedure. While I’m somewhat more hesitant to fault Morris’s previous documentary, The Fog of War, which focused on Robert McNamara, Arthur makes a compelling case that “Morris’s ballyhooed skepticism toward documentary’s higher truth claims has bled into a wider distrust of representing causality.”
  • As a number of other bloggers have noted, Arthur passed away recently after a relatively brief bout with cancer. I have long appreciated Arthur’s work on documentary and avant-garde film, particularly “Jargons of Authenticity,” which is, as Chris notes, just a great essay. I never met Arthur personally, although I saw him in passing at several SCMS panels, but I’ll certainly miss his incredible contribution to the fields of film and media studies and documentary, in particular. The New York Times has an obituary that provides just a brief sketch of Arthur’s career.
  • Via Participant Media’s TakePart blog, news of Howard Zinn’s latest project, a graphic novel entitled A People’s History of American Empire. The Participant blog entry also links to a video featuring a short sequence from the graphic novel with narration by Viggo Mortensen (the text of the featured essay, “Empire or Humanity? What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me about the American Empire,” is also available from TomDispatch).
  • The appearance of Zinn’s video on YouTube gives me some license to critique the frame surrounding Big Think, which Ari Melber somewhat condescendingly describes as “YouTube for the Harvard set.” The implication behind Melber’s introduction of the site is if the Kill Your TV crowd is right and you are what you watch, then we’re all screwed given that YouTube “is ground zero for some of the dumbest crap online.” The embedded assumptions here ignore that YouTube and other video sharing sites can provide outlets for a whole spectrum of forms of expression, many of which may not be traditionally regarded as thought. To reduce YouTube to the vapid, the banal, or the silly overlooks quite a bit. That being said, Big Think provides interviews and discussions with a number of sharp thinkers on a variety of issues and is well worth checking out, and the utopian elements of Big Think, the attempt to create a public, two-way dialogue over important social and political issues is certainly one that I can get behind.
  • Rob Rushing has an interesting discussion of the lack of film scholarship on John Sayles at the newish blog, Kritik, which is sponsored by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois. Rushing is responding to a subscription-only Chronicle of Higher Education article by David Shumway.
  • Also worth noting: The New York Times has an article on the latest round-up of print-based film critics who are being forced out at major newspapers. This follows on the heels of Eric Alterman’s New Yorker article on the decline of the American newspaper and the implications of an Internet-based news culture for democracy.

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Bad Voodoo’s War

Deborah Scranton’s Frontline documentary, Bad Voodoo’s War, focuses on the experiences of a California National Guard platoon, showing us, as the website claims, “the war through [the soldiers’] eyes, filmed with their own video cameras.” In order to make the film, Scranton equipped the soldiers with cameras and then kept in close correspondence with the soldiers via IM and email as they continued to send her tapes of their experiences. The technique, which Scranton describes as a “virtual embed,” is more or less identical to the technique that she used in her 2006 documentary, The War Tapes (my review), in which Scranton depicted the stories of three soldiers from Charlie Company.

In Bad Voodoo’s War, Scranton revisits this technique, mixing in talking-head interviews with the soldiers taken before they go to Iraq or while they are home on leave. And while I found the soldiers’ stories in Bad Voodoo’s War individually compelling, Scranton’s use of this technique a second time exposed, to some extent, the limits of the format and, perhaps in a different way, the difficulties of making the virtual embed work within the Frontline format. As I was watching Bad Voodoo’s War, I found myself thinking about the late Paul Arthur’s argument in “Jargons of Authenticity,” in which Arthur interrogates “the formal embedding of truth claims, guarantees of authenticity, and hierarchies of knowledge” over the course of American documentary, and I do think it is well worth asking about how or why the virtual embed is being constructed as a more authentic representation of the Iraq War. I don’t mean to imply that anyone is concealing the truth of the Iraq War as they see it, but I’m also not convinced that Scranton goes far enough in acknowledging her role in constructing the soldiers’ stories or even the partiality of looking at the war solely through this lens.

That being said, the film featured a number of powerful moments, including the comment of one soldier who comments that despite his PTSD he is returning to Iraq for a fourth tour because of the connection he felt to his fellow soldiers. Others are fairly explicit in acknowledging their doubts about their mission in Iraq, which essentially consists of dodging IEDs while escorting convoys of food and supplies destined for private contractors working in Iraq, what the soldiers call “lettuce and tomato runs.” It’s also clear that these missions produce an incredible amount of strain, as this New York Times review suggests, particularly when Sfc. Toby Nunn instructs his soldiers to wear their “combat action tourniquet” on the leg closest to the door because it is more likely to be hit in an IED attack. The film also concludes essentially in the middle of a mission, reminding us that the soldiers featured in Bad Voodoo’s War are scheduled to be in Iraq until May. This abrupt ending is a healthy reminder that the war itself is ongoing, now well into its fifth year.

It’s also worth pointing out that Bad Voodoo’s War is accompanied by a fairly active website where soldiers featured in the film will be blogging and where some discussion of the film is taking place. The soldiers are also continuing to record video, and of course, the entire film is available online.

Update: While I’m thinking about it, there will be (or was, depending on when you’re reading this) a live chat with Deborah Scranton Wednesday, April 2, at 11 AM EDT, on the Washington Post website.

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