Because I’ve been getting tons of traffic looking for more information about Peter Gilbert and Steve James’ fascinating new documentary, At The Death House Door, I double-checked and realized that it was having its television premiere on IFC tonight. I really can’t recommend this documentary enough, so if you have IFC, TiVo it or catch it later this month when they rebroadcast it. I had the chance to see the film’s subject, a former death row minister turned anti-death penalty advocate, at the Full Frame screening, and he seemed like a warm, caring individual. And the film has a lot to say about the morality of the death penalty, as well.
Archive for May, 2008
It is impossible to hear the call for a conversation about race without thinking about Barack Obama’s “A More Perferct Union” speech, which he delivered in response to the growing controversy over comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And while columnists including Eugene Robinson praised Obama for establishing “new parameters for a dialogue on race in America,” it was equally dispiriting to encounter the disingenuous responses to Obama’s call for dialogue from conservative pundits such as Pat Buchanan and Jonah Goldberg, who both resist any such conversation, likely out of fear that their version of history will not hold up very well. In short, the responses to Obama’s comments only underscore the need for such a conversation. It is in this context that I viewed Katrina Browne’s important new documentary, Traces of the Trade, which will be airing on the PBS series, P.O.V. on Tuesday, June 24. In Traces of the Trade, Browne makes use of her own physical and psychological journey to map out the history of the slave trade in North America and its continued implications in the present moment and should play an important role in our ongoing conversations about race.
Traces opens with Browne reflecting on her own family’s long history in Bristol, Rhode Island, a small, bucolic town on the Atlantic coast, images that suggest what Browne herself calls a “fairy tale of old New England.” We see her family participating in marches to celebrate July 4 and backyard barbecues, the home movies casting a nostalgic sheen over what appears to be an idyllic past. However, Browne discovers, through a booklet authored by her grandmother, that her family’s status in Bristol is based, in part, on wealth earned by several generations of the DeWolf family through the slave trade. Later, Browne acknowledges in voice-over that she knew about this family legacy, but that through a willful historical amnesia, she and other members of the family chose to bury it.
In order to confront this part of her past, Browne decided to go on a journey to the three points that made up what was called the Triangle Trade, Bristol, Ghana, and Havana, Cuba, a practice the family continued even after it was declared illegal to buy slaves from Africa. This history serves as an important reminder of the northern complicity in the slave trade, even after slavery was abolished in northern states. The northern economy strongly benefited, of course, from the cheap cotton produced by slave labor; ship builders certainly would sell to the DeWolfs and other slave traders. These details often get lost in traditional histories of the United States. As Browne writes in her director’s statement about the film: “victors write the history books, and thus forget their guilt.”
Browne invited well over 200 descendants of the DeWolfs to join her on the trip, and while nine other family members chose to join her, including one person who was a seventh cousin, Browne remarks on the extent to which many family members were unwilling to confront this part of their history. However, the decision to share her journey with others in her family was a wise one, in that it allowed Browne to model the kinds of conversations that are often sorely lacking when it comes to race. When they arrive in Ghana, for example, family members confide that they feel out of place at several ceremonies meant to commemorate the history of slavery. But they also are provided with a tangible sense of this history by exploring the dungeons where slaves were held before being put on crowded ships that would cross the Atlantic, a journey that Toni Morrison memorably evoked in her discussion of the Middle Passage in Beloved. Later, in Havana, a family member worries that the documentary will simply be a “nice” family travelogue that fails to truly acknowledge the history of slavery. Another fears that the film will appear as a “self-indulgent” attempt for them to assuage their guilt about the past. And I think it’s this willingness for Browne to question the ability of her documentary–and in some sense documentary in general–to address these potential limitations that makes Traces of the Trade work.
In addition, once the family begin to fully understand this history, they turn to the implications in the present, what one family member, James DeWolf Perry VI, describes as “the living consequences” of the slave trade. Traces addresses the possible impact of financial reparations and other forms of restitution. Others talk about the legacy of the church in failing to address the morality of slavery. But one of the more compelling questions raised by the film goes pretty much unanswered. At one point, a family member observes that today’s consumers are complicit in an economic system that continues to rely upon sweatshop labor to produce the cheap goods that we purchase at the malls and big box marts across the country. Of course, given the film’s goal of provoking a conversation about these issues, what matters is that someone is asking that question.
I’ll admit that in a couple of places, I found Browne’s voice-over narration of her experiences a little intrusive. There were places that a subtle camera movement would have sufficed; however, I appreciated Browne’s willingness to openly address her own family’s history and its complex relationship to the history of slavery in America, and I hope that Traces of the Trade receives the attention it deserves. As the debates about the Barack Obama campaign illustrate, this is still a much needed conversation.
Update: This is the first of several posts I will be writing on documentaries from PBS’s P.O.V. series. I also wanted to mention that Thomas Norman DeWolf, one of the participants in the journey documented by Katrina Browne, has written a memoir about his experiences, Inheriting the Trade, and has kept a blog discussing the reception of his book.
I’ve got a couple of longer blog posts brewing, including a review of Katrina Browne’s thought-provoking new documentary, Traces of the Trade, which is due to air on PBS’s P.O.V. series in a few weeks (and which I can’t recommend enough), but for now some links:
- Eric Alterman recommended Bill Moyers’ interview with Jeffrey Toobin, author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, about the implications for this year’s presidential election for the Supreme Court, and it is a bracing reminder of the ways in which a McCain presidency could further tilt the balance of the Court in the direction of conservatives for a long time to come, especially given that Supreme Court justices have lifetime appointments. And the recent movie Recount is only one small reminder of the power the Court can have in shaping the future direction of the country.
- I’d been planning to write a quick blog post about YouTomb, the M.I.T. Free Culture group’s watchdog site, which tracks videos removed from YouTube, usually for copyright violations. Instead, I’ll point you to Virginia Heffernan’s New York Times column. I do like their idea of making the YouTube takedown policy more transparent in that a number of the videos that have been removed could qualify as “fair use” under a number of grounds, especially when the videos are used under the auspices of scholarly analysis as they have been in MediaCommons’ In Media Res project. One interesting example, which I happened to write about, might be this video produced to convince fans of the CBS series Jericho to send bags of nuts to the network in order to convince them to renew the series. The fan’s original citation of the series might test the limits of what counts as “fair use,” but given that he or she used only about one minute of material from several episodes, it doesn’t seem as if that particular video would have threatened CBS’s ability to profit from the show. If anything, it served as a form of grassroots advertising for CBS programming and was a valuable document of the ways in which that kind of fan activity operates.
- The P.O.V. Online Short Film Festival is also worth checking out. And as someone interested in language, I found Ars Magna, which is about people obsessed with finding anagrams in words or phrases, to be especially entertaining.
- Finally, Raleigh News-Observer movie reviewer and columnist Craig Lindsey pointed me to news of “The Movie Show,” a radio show on Greensboro, NC’s WUAG (he was scheduled to appear on yesterday’s episode). The show, and the radio station itself, can be heard online. Podcasts from the show are available on The Movie Show blog.
Starting with its premiere last night on HBO, I’ve been watching bits and pieces of Recount (IMDB), the cable channel’s dramatization of the month-long battle between Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the 2000 election. I did ultimately watch the whole thing, but it’s a hard movie to take in a single sitting. Like a lot of bloggers I admire, including Atrios and Eric Alterman (who chose not to watch), I was somewhat ambivalent about revisiting these events, especially since I believe, as Alterman himself documents in What Liberal Media?, there is plenty of evidence that Gore won a plurality of the votes in Florida. But my interest in political drama outweighed my better instincts, and I’ve been watching it, usually in a state of distraction, in part because it’s difficult to watch the film without being acutely aware , to borrow from Leonard Cohen, that the the good guys lost. But while the film acknowledges many of the troubling problems that cast doubt on the legitimacy of Florida’s vote–the illegitimate purging of thousands of names from voter rolls, the divergent standards used to identify the “intent” of voters, the problem of political appointees overseeing election results–Recount is forced to stop short of asking some of the more troubling questions about how elections are conducted and how they are covered.
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Filmoculous posted a pointer to the Salon interview/conversation between their book critics, Louis Bayard and Laura Miller, about the death of criticism, providing me with just the excuse needed to write that long-promised blog post on this summer’s round of reflections on blogging and the decline of “public” criticism. The impetus for their discussion of the apparent crisis in criticism is the publication of Ronan McDonald’s The Death of the Critic. McDonald is, of course, more concerned about literary criticism and the decline of “public critics” and of a “reading public;” however, his arguments–more precisely Miller and Bayard’s comments about him–might provide a productive angle through which we can think about the blogger-critic discussion. I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately because of the emphasis they place on the role of criticism in a larger public culture. In short, what is criticism? And what role does criticism serve in a larger public sphere?
I’ve just learned about McDonald’s book, so I haven’t had time to read it, but Miller and Bayard report that McDonald’s primary object of blame is fellow academics who have substituted cultural studies and post-structuralism for the more proper evaluative role of criticism. Since I haven’t read McDonald’s book, I’m obviously not ready to address the specifics of his argument, but Miller and Bayard highlight some important points, first by highlighting McDonald’s primary argument about the role of academia in shaping public critical discourse and later by discussing the role of amateur critics, primarily us bloggers, of course, in undermining the print criticism that McDonald and others have come to mourn. As someone who is both a blogger and an academic informed by cultural studies, you’d be right to guess that I’m going to disagree with some of their conclusions even while I try to argue for the importance of the prominent public critic.
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Because of my research on presidential parody videos and because, well, it’s a pretty big deal, I’ve been following the 2008 election way too obsessively this year. And like pretty much everyone, I’ve been disappointed by the coverage of this year’s campaign (just Google “campaign coverage sucks” to get a whole range of other reasons). That being said, there have been a couple of bright spots: Olbermann has typically been reliably good, although I’m still mulling his special comment on Hillary’s RFK comment. Yes, her comments were wrong. Yes, her “apology” was weak. Yes, she should be criticized, but I fear that this kind of comment can only feed the overblown hostilities that are starting to make this campaign unbearable.
All of that being said, I’ve found myself watching MSNBC more than any other network, despite my aversion to Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson, primarily because of Rachel Maddow, who has proved to be one of the most engaging pundits out there, quite often calling out fellow pundit Pat Buchanan or pointing out much of the sexism and racism that has come to dominate election coverage, all while remaining calm, cool, and so on. Apparently, lots of other people are taking notice, including the folks at Brave New Films and the Docudharma blog. Like them, I’d love to see Maddow get her own MSNBC show. It’s worth noting the ways in which blogging and other online communities have shaped the fandom that is developing around Maddow. Obviously, her history on Air America is a big part of her popularity, but I’m not the first blogger to write enthusiastically about Maddow, so it’s interesting to see her star rise online. Again, here’s hoping that MSNBC takes notice.
Yesterday evening, if you had driven about a mile from my apartment, you would have seen the following image. According to the Fayetteville Observer blog and article in the Observer, every time a Chik Fil-A opens, the fast-food chain gives the first 100 adult customers a year’s worth–52 coupons’ worth–of free combo meals (side note: there’s also a short video). The result: a small tent city camping out in that newly-paved parking lot, which used to be in the middle of a giant a field just over a year ago (now, after the arrival of a certain big box mart, there are a number of chain restaurants and stores instead). As the article mentions, many of the people travel hundreds of miles to be present at the opening, and regulars even exchange contact information so that they are aware of a new restaurant opening.
Obviously, the people in the Chicken City are enjoying themselves and seeing the opening as an opportunity to break from their regular routines, but as I drive past this new manifestation of sprawl every day on my way to campus, I still feel like something is being lost as these chains seem to crowd out (or maybe crowd in) the local.
Like many of the Mumblecore films it closely resembles, Aaron Coffman’s D.I.Y. feature, Texas Snow is attentive to the rhythms and cadences of conversation, telling the story of its young protagonists through elliptical references, anecdotes, shared secrets and glances. Texas Snow focuses on a budding romance between a painter, Jesse (John Gregory Willard), and a ballerina, Caroline (Julia Rust), both in their twenties. Complicating matters just a bit, Caroline used to date Jesse’s roommate, Lee (Ryan Shields). In fact, Lee once proposed to Caroline, who rejected him, and despite the rejection, Lee and Caroline have sought to maintain a friendship. It’s clear, of course, to any objective observer that Lee still holds out hope that he and Caroline will get back together, making Jesse and Caroline’s betrayal all the more painful and their initial romance all the more exciting, as this early scene from the film illustrates. Once Lee discovers that Jesse and Caroline seem to be falling for each other, he leaves, which quickly leads to an uneasy tension between Jesse and Caroline. Once their relationship is no longer a secret, the excitement fades.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Texas Snow was Coffman’s attention to the way that twentysomethings communicate, the late night confessions and revelations that usually take place several hours (and usually several beers) after most sane people have fallen asleep. This conversational, rambling pace has led both Hollywood is Talking and Rogue Cinema to view the film’s pace as plodding, and I don’t think that’s quite right. The pacing, underscored by Keegan DeWitt’s score, in fact recalled David Gordon Green’s lyrical All the Real Girls (which I wrote about on my old blog). I do think the film stumbles in a couple of places. The shift in the nature of the relationship between Jesse and Caroline is a bit too sudden and dramatic. Perhaps more crucially, Caroline is presented fairly unsympathetically here. As the Rogue Cinema review points out, she seems as if she is doing little other than playing games with the men she dates, and I’m not sure the film is attentive to her reasons for not wanting to settle down with Lee or Jesse.
That being said, Texas Snow is a well-crafted film. The cinematography is quite good, and Coffman is content, in places, to simply allow the camera to observe, to capture subtle details of a space, such as an apartment or an art gallery. The twentysomething characters certainly brought back memories of my own late nights during graduate school, and I think Coffman is attentive to the nuances of character and dialogue, and I hope to see more work from Coffman in the near future.
I guess summertime is not only the time of equels and big Hollywood blockbusters but also of memes coming back to life. I’ve been getting an unusual amount of search traffic for my post from a couple of years ago when I wrote about the Netflix “local favorites” feature, which at the time, I read as an attempt to simulate some of the localizing aspects of the neighborhood video store. It turns out that the “Netflix neighbors” meme has been reborn with former Gawker writer Joshua Stein participating, among others.
The last time I tried out this meme, I noticed that Fayetteville tastes tended towards war movies and children’s movies, which isn’t surprising given the demographics here. This time around, the top five are Karate Kid III (must be that Ralph Macchio cult here in town), The Unit: Season 2, Ned Kelly, Feel the Noise, and Shadowboxer. Amazingly, I’m not even sure I’ve heard of the last two on that list. Stein’s Williamsburg neighbors are just a little more interesting, at least from my perspective: they’re watching Do the Right Thing, La Jetee, and Blow Up.
Lawrence Lessig has an editorial in today’s New York Times explaining why the copyright legislation intended to solve the problem of “orphan works” will be create far more problems than it solves for both content creators and copyright holders.
Update 2: After reading through the issue further and based on Agnes’s comments below, I’ve decided to remove the link to the above petition. I’m usually with Lessig on most copyright issues, but as Agnes points out, the orphan works legislation actually helps artists. I should have been more attentive when I posted the original editorial and the link to the petition.
This is apparently a few days old, but via the Guardian Film blog, I just came across this great Onion video, in which tourists go on “historical” tours of an old Blockbuster video. The stores hire actors to play employees and customers, with tourists taking pictures and expressing amazement that people had to go through so much effort to watch a movie (one “customer” describes driving six miles twice a week, just to watch a movie). And while it’s pretty humorous to see Blockbuster reduced to the subject of such a gag, it’s also a reminder of how much the practices of viewing movies at home have changed.
Living in Fayetteville, where there are no independent video stores (I’d likely have to drive an hour up to Raleigh to rent a movie with subtitles), it’s difficult not to embrace mail-order video services such as Netflix and GreenCine or video-on-demand services such as IFC First Take. I certainly miss the great independent video stores I used to frequent in other cities–Atlanta’s Movies Worth Seeing (which had a great collection of B-movies and an auteurist bent) and Champaign-Urbana’s That’s Rentertainment–both of which served, for me at least, as social sites as well as businesses. In that context, the Onion clip reminded me of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind and its whimsical nostalgia for locally-owned video stores and the community of eccentrics that congregated there (and according to Danny Leigh, the Guardian blogger, there is a similar video store scene in Will Smith’s I Am Legend). Not sure I have any grand conclusions here, but I find this video store nostalgia interesting.
Gearing up for a longish day of book revisions but realized I hadn’t posted a link post in a while:
- In the Washington Post, Abdullah Al-Eyaf, a Saudi film critic and filmmaker writes about moviegoing practices among Saudis, many of whom go to great lengths and travel great distances just to see films on a silver screen. But despite these challenges, Al-Eyaf offers some hope as websites such as Cinemac.net provide space for film discussion and as a generation of Saudi filmmakers themselves have begun to emerge and see their films play at festivals in Saudi Arabia and abroad.
- On a similar note, Anthony Kaufman reports for Film In Focus on attempts to revive film production in Iraq. Kaufman describes the attempts by Kasim Abid and Maysoon Pachachi to teach filmmaking courses in Baghdad, often on the rooftops of building amid the satellite dishes in order to avoid the fighting on the streets below. Unfortunately, the fighting has forced Abid and Pacachi to leave Iraq and set up shop in Damascus, Syria.
- An interesting Ars Technica article about a study by Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis that challenges the arguments that text messaging and IM are harming students’ writing abilities after all. I’ve been skeptical for a while about claims that that IM is to blame for the perceived decline in literacy, in part because they seem to be based on relatively simple assumptions about how media effect behavior (via Kairosnews). There’s also a Chronicle of Higher Education article on this study that I’d planned to blog a few days ago.
- Girish has started the conversation about The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, the inaugural selection for the new Film of the Month club started by Chris Cagle. I just got the movie from Netflix the other day and I’m hoping to contribute to the conversation soon.
- Thanks to the Film in Focus blog profile, I’ve just discovered a cool new-to-me film blog, Kimberly Lindbergs’ Cinebeats. Kimberly writes about the interview and her reasons for blogging about film here. The Behind the Blog profiles are one of the more interesting features of the Film in Focus site and generally do a good job of mapping what is happening in the film blogosphere.
Update: I wanted to mention this news earlier, but Andy Horbal has put together a very cool tool for navigating film blogs, a Google Custom Search Engine, Film Blogs, Etc., that focuses exclusively on film blogs and a few prominent film publications such as Senses of Cinema and indieWIRE. The argument behind such a tool is that we have a variety of means for finding professional reviews (IMDB, Metacritic, etc), but few ways of easily finding many of the well-written blog reviews that are out there. So far, Andy has indexed 117 film blogs and related websites.
Update 2: I’ve been digging around in some of the Pew Internet and American Life Project studies today and was reminded of another significant claim about the relationship between emails and text messaging and literacy. According to the Pew Report, “Writing, Technology, and Teens” (PDF), most teens do not associate the material they create electronically as “real writing” (emphasis in the original). Also significant: most teens strongly believe in the importance of developing good writing skills. I’ve only had time to skim the study, but for academics involved in the teaching of writing, the entire study is well worth a read and potentially challenges a number of assumptions about declining literacies while also illustrating the vital need for good writing skills.
Update 3: Edited to correct some terrible typos in my sentence about “good writing.” Doh!
Yet another presidential parody video: “Hillary Clinton’s Sunset Boulevard.” I’ve been kind of grumpy lately when it comes to these parody videos, but the hammy acting here is pretty funny, a nice tweaking of Clinton and of one of the most iconic scenes in Hollywood history.
The critical consensus on Stephen Walker’s Young@Heart (IMDB), a documentary that focuses on a musical group by the same name featuring singers in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, covering contemporary rock songs has been relatively consistent. There are few things more heartwarming than watching a group of senior citizens energetically performing songs by the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, the Clash, and the Talking Heads. And yet, in places, Stephen Walker’s intrusive narration–his desire to show rather than tell the story of this remarkable group–almost gets in the way. Still, when Walker is content to observe, to let the story of this wonderful group unfold, we are given access to a wonderful community of people who keep going the best way they know how: by having fun together performing before enthusiastic crowds.
As a number of critics have pointed out, including the New York Times’ Stephen Holden, the premise of the group and the documentary itself could easily risk falling into caricature. It would be easy for these performances to fall into “rapping granny” jokiness or cloying sentimentality; however, the members of the group are far too reflective and self-aware to let that happen. Instead, we connect with the group because of their unbridled enthusiasm for life, their desire to keep going and to provide as much joy as possible. And it’s impossible not to share in the fun when a group of older singers perform “I Wanna be Sedated” in a way that seems far more punk than pretty much anything the Ramones ever did. The group’s power becomes especially poignant when they perform a concert in a New Hampshire prison, singing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” just a couple of hours after learning that one member of the group had passed away. As the group performs we see hardened prisoners and guards both moved to tears.
Young@Heart focuses on the group’s preparations for a concert in Northampton over the course of two pivotal months. The group’s leader, Bob Cilman, who has directed Young@Heart for the entire 25 years of the group’s existence, introduces them to a number of songs, including James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” both of which present unique challenges to a group of singers more comfortable with opera and the classics. Still, the singers enthusiastically pour themselves into learning and interpreting the songs, and there are moments of recognition that are utterly fascinating.
In fact, Young@Heart offers one of the most compelling examples of adaptation that I’ve encountered in some time. To hear a group of septuagenarians performing songs such as the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” is to hear these songs in a whole new way. “Stayin’ Alive” becomes, quite literally, an act of defiance, not the cheesy masculine bravado associated with John Travolta. But, by far, the most compelling act of reinterpretation comes with Fred Knittles’ performance of Coldplay’s “Fix It.” Originally planned to be a duet with another choir member, Bob Salvini, Knittles is forced to perform the song as a solo when Salvini passes away suddenly, providing the song with an incredible emotional power (something I never would have expected out of a Coldplay song).
These performances left me with a number of questions that the documentary didn’t–and probably couldn’t–answer. As I watched the Young@Heart singers reinterpret these songs, I wondered what it would be like to be the original authors of the song and to see these songs bringing such joy to a group of genuinely cool people. I would have loved to see the reactions of Chris Martin of Coldplay or David Byrne as they saw the joy that their songs were bringing to both to the Young@Heart singers and their audiences in the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, Walker never quite asked a question that I wished he had pursued. On one level, it’s pretty clear why Bob Cilman might devote his career to working with the Young@Heart singers. The pleasure of working with this group of individuals is abundantly clear, but Walker never really follows through on how Cilman ended up choosing this path. Still, Young@Heart helped bring into focus some important questions about cultural assumptions about aging and death and provided a remarkable opportunity to celebrate music, friendship, and the joy of living.
The organizers of the 2008 Flow Conference have posted the questions that will inform the roundtables around which the conference is organized. Unlike most academic conferences, in which participants deliver a paper, the Flow Conference is designed around directed discussion. A participant poses a question and respondents submit a brief abstract and, eventually, a short (600-800 word) position paper in advance of the conference. Those position papers then provide the basis for the roundtable discussion at the conference. The organization is mean to provoke discussion and to create a more participatory experience, something that is often missing at academic conferences.
To that end, I’d like to mention that I’ve proposed a roundtable on “Viral Videos and Political Participation” and would like to invite interested participants to submit responses (the due date is June 15) to the Flow Conference organizers. I’m hoping that the panel will prove to be especially timely, given that the presidential election will be taking place only a few weeks after the conference. I should mention that the question, as it stands right now, leaves open the possibility of discussing the role of viral videos in non-U.S. political discourse, although my own research focuses primarily on the U.S. presidential election and the intersections with (generally American) popular culture texts.
But if you’re not interested in viral political videos, there are a number of interesting proposals out there, including proposed discussions of “Mobile Television” and another on “Television, Technology, and Everyday Life,” among many others. The 2006 Flow Conference was one of the more enjoyable conferences I have attended, so I’d absolutely encourage anyone working in film and media studies to participate.