Archive for July, 2008

More Wednesday Links

For the first time in about two weeks, I’ve had a little time to dive back into blogworld. Here are some of the (many) things I missed:

  • Via Green Cine, news about Gary Hustwit’s Objectified, “a documentary about industrial design; it’s about the manufactured objects we surround ourselves with, and the people who make them.” Hustwit’s previous film, Helvetica, which looked at the role of typefaces in public space, is one of my favorite documentaries of the last couple of years, so I’m very much looking forward to this follow-up.
  • Film in Focus has a fun series in which they asked five politicos to nominated their favorite films about elections. I’ll highlight David Sirota’s list because he mentions one of my other favorite docs of recent years, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? But some of the other choices mentioned by Katha Pollitt and Rick Perlstein, including The Candidate and Bob Roberts are pretty good, too.
  • Chris Hansen has been getting some pretty good buzz after wrapping his latest feature-length film, Endings. As usual, Chris is providing some outstanding opportunities for his students at Baylor University, and so far he’s made a couple of pretty good films.  Here’s an NPR interview featuring Chris and some of the student crew members and an article from Chris’s local Waco newspaper.
  • I’d hoped to mention this sooner, but work on the book ate up much of my time last month, but Agnes has a pointer to the video initiative, Cinemocracy, which invited people to submit short videos to engage the delegates at the Democratic National Convention.  The films that generate the most discussion with be screened at the DNC in Denver.  Unfortunately, the deadline is August 1, so if you’re learning about this from me, it’s probably too late to submit a video.  Looks like a cool idea.

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Wednesday Links

Taking a couple of days to unwind after finishing–and mailing off–the latest version of the book.  I finally made it back to the movie theater last night to see The Dark Knight after not seeing a movie in theaters for about a month (the last one I remember seeing is Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure).  I may have a little more to say about The Dark Knight, but for the most part, it didn’t really live up to the hype for me.   Dark, brooding, morally ambiguous, to be sure.   But  I need to think about it further before I write about it in any detail (if I feel so inclined).  Still, it was nice to be back in the theater.   And now to get back into the blogging routine, here are a couple of links:

  • The Film Doctor has assembled the latest round of the “print critics in crisis” discussion.  I address some of these arguments in the book, including the question of whether blogging is a form of self-exploitation (i.e., unpaid bloggers voluntarily creating value for the film industry by writing reviews and promoting films).  But it’s a good collection of links, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
  • Now that the book is done, I’m starting to turn my attention back to presidential parody videos for a short article I’ve been invited to write for publication.  I’m probably a little out of the loop on many of the new parodies, but I just wanted to mention one that has crossed my radar recently, the Obama Zombie parody.  The video is something like an ObamaGirl video as directed by an art-school or experimental filmmaker.  I don’t think it quite works, although it’s interesting as an attempt to parody Obama’s cult of celebrity by depicting various Obama Girls as zombies.  Oddly, I think the video would work better if it played before an audience at an underground film festival than it does on a computer screen.
  • Speaking of Obama semiotics, I jut wanted to point out the current semiotic association that the McCain campaign is trying to create between Obama and….Paris Hilton (and possibly other “promiscuous white women”).  Josh Marshall and TPM have been addressing this in a couple of recent posts, noting the similarity of this comparison to the attacks on Harold Ford from 2006 when he ran for the Senate in Tennessee.  But the comparison here seems slightly different in that the ads seem less focused on the issue of promiscuity than on the vacuity, shallowness, and elitism of Hilton as a celebrity.  Hilton is certainly famous in part because of the sex tape, but isn’t she more readily identified with being famous for no clear reason, other than her enormous wealth?  The sexual stuff is definitely there, but I think there’s a secondary association happening that is equally problematic in terms of its gender and racial politics.

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Behind the Blog

Just taking a quick break from the book to point out that I was recently interviewed for Film in Focus’s very cool Behind the Blog feature. And to point out that between the FIF interview and Sujewa’s documentary, I’ve found myself thinking about blogging and community quite a bit lately.

One of the more interesting questions is where I was asked to name my “favorite blog entry.” It’s an odd question, one that I’d never really considered. And I think I could answer it differently every day depending on my mood. I do like the basic answer that I gave: my favorite entries are those where I was writing about a film that genuine inspired me (my review of the Jem Cohen film, Chain, is one example). But I think I could probably also name my rant against an LA Times op-ed complaining about Marxist film professors. Or about some of the many documentaries I’ve seen at Full Frame the last two years. I won’t make any claims about the quality of these entries, but it was sure fun writing them.

Update: I think the original link to the Behind the Blog feature is broken, so here is a new one.

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End of an Era

Just taking a quick break from writing to mark the end of an era, the official end of Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s participation in At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper after Disney decided to take the show in a “new direction.” Over the thirty-odd years of its existence, the show has had various names and appeared on various networks, including PBS, evolving as the contexts and the hosts themselves did. And while I do think the show stumbled a bit after Gene Siskel, Ebert’s longtime reviewing partner passed away, it was also one of the first to demonstrate to me that movies were worth analyzing, debating, and discussing, when I first started discovering movies as a kid in the 1980s.

David Poland has a statement from Roger Ebert suggesting that Ebert plans to continue to produce a review show in another format, so hopefully we’ll be able to rejoin Ebert in a couple of aisle seats on the balcony soon.

Update: A discussion on a Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog connects up the end of Ebert’s show, David Edelstein’s negative review of The Dark Knight, and the whole end of the newspaper critic debate (via Right Cinema).

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Hiatus

With just a few days until a pretty major deadline, I probably won’t be blogging much for the next few days.  See everybody soon.

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Speaking of Global Warming….

Al Gore gave a major speech calling for dramatic changes in our energy policy.  He argued that within a decade every kilowatt of electricity used in the U.S. should come from solar, wind and other eco-friendly sources (via Kos).  Here’s hoping Obama and McCain were listening.  This is essentially our generation’s “moon shot.”

BTW, I’m coming back around a bit on Sizzle.  I was initially pretty critical, but I think that Olson’s deliberate strategy of engaging with science bloggers on the issue was interesting.  In a sense, the dialogue fulfills the purpose of the movie.  I still think it’s flawed, but it raises some complicated arguments about the ways we discuss global warming.

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When Memes Collide

Darth Vader goes Rickrolling. The collective heads of the pop culture blogosphere just exploded (thanks to Tama for the tip).

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Political Satire Watch

A few days after the book is due, I have another deadline for a short article on political satire on the web.  So in the midst of the book, I’ve been trying to keep an eye on that sort of thing, and as some of you may have noticed, there was a bit of a scandal over some magazine cover or another. I think James Poniewozik (cited in the previous link) is more or less right that the New Yorker cover is an obvious stunt and not a very bright one.  He’s also right to point out that it fails, in part, because of context.  Put those images in a video with actors playing the roles and the story probably fades quickly (if anyone notices at all).  Timothy Egan’s also right to point out that the furor over the New Yorker cover also seriously underestimates those of us in flyover country by assuming we won’t understand the cover.  Contrary to popular belief, we get irony in North Carolina, and I’m guessing that’s true in Kansas or Texas as well (we may not find the cover very funny, but that’s another matter).  Then again, maybe with the economy tanking, the banking industry in crisis, energy prices shooting through the roof, a political scandal or two, and a couple of wars going on, we don’t have anything else to discuss right now.

But the cover seems to be feeding an overall perception that Obama–or perhaps the entire Obama campaign along with his devoted followers–is humorless, something that was repeated not only by Maureen Dowd but also by Poniewozik and  by Bill Carter of The New York Times.  I don’t really buy into the belief that Obama is unable to laugh at his public image, but there is clearly a perception out there that Obama is more difficult to satirize than McCain or Clinton (this has been reinforced by Obama’s comments on the ObamaGirl videos, for example).  I’ve been trying to track it down on my blog,  without any luck, but I’ve been noticing for a while that much of the political satire I encounter on the web tends to be pro-Obama, or at least anti-McCain or anti-Clinton.  I’m sure there are exceptions, and it may be a reflection of my own political echo chamber, but it seems like an odd gap.  Even the most recent JibJab video seems relatively tepid by comparison to some of their more pointed critiques from the 2004 election.  There are a couple of nice visual gags mocking Obama’s rhetoric of change, complete with rainbows and unicorns, but I actually found myself nostalgic for the Bush character that has been a staple of the JibJab videos for a long time.  Not that I’ll miss Bush’s presidency or his policies or anything like that.

Again, I’m not quite convinced that the so-called humor gap reflects anything in particular about Obama as a human being, but it is interesting to see so many pundit types reaching a similar conclusion this week.

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Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy

I’ve been given the cool opportunity to participate in a mass group review of Randy Olson’s latest science mockumentary, Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, joining approximately fifty other science and environmental bloggers (50 or so bloggers are slated to participate). It’s a cool idea, one that will likely help to promote Sizzle, but one that can also–hopefully–serve to provoke a conversation about our discourse on global warming. Plus, the trailer was pretty funny and it had the guy who does those David Blaine imitations on YouTube, which even made the idea of watching a movie about global warming seem like fun, and while I only infrequently write about science topics (usually when reviewing a doc), I’m very interested in mockumentaries and hybrid docs and wanted to see what Olson would be doing with the form. But a strange thing happened as I was watching the movie: I found myself getting more and more exasperated. After thinking about the film for a few hours, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing (note: after thinking about it for another day, I’m convinced that it actually doesn’t work). I will say that the film pushed quite a few buttons for me, both in terms of its use of the mockumentary genre and its attempt to convince climate scientists that they need to learn how to communicate to a wider public (one of Olson’s stated goals in many of his films).

Sizzle builds upon a relatively basic mockumentary premise: Olson plays a version of himself, a Harvard trained marine biologist, who wants to make a film about global warming. Olson, whose previous credits include Barnacles Tell No Lies (available here) and Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus, plays himself as the dorky scientist who struggles to explain himself to a wider public. In the opening scenes of the movie, we see him pitching the movie to studio executives who are initially interested, until they realize that there are no stars attached, despite Randy’s insistence that he has some of the top climate scientists lined up for interviews. Finally, a wealthy gay couple, Mitch and Brian, looking to make movies that matter steps in, although they hope to find a celebrity to appear in the film. One suggests Tom Cruise until Randy reminds him that Cruise is a Scientologist, not a scientist. They then suggest Kate Winslet, whose British accent is “very convincing.” Mitch and Brian continues to stalk celebrities throughout the film, a nice motif that underscores the green movement’s reliance on stars to make global warming sexy rather than worrying about communicating ideas.

We are then introduced to Randy’s crew, a couple of African-American guys named Antoine and Marion, who once helped Mitch and Brian out of a jam, making them impossible to fire. Unfortunately, to Randy’s consternation they’re always late. And even worse, Marion, in particular, is a global warming skeptic. And he keeps interrupting Randy’s interviews to argue with or shout agreement with the subjects. To some extent, the introduction of these characters begins to sound like a bad bar joke (a scientist, a gay couple, and two black guys go into a bar…), and I haven’t even mentioned the cameo by Randy’s mom. There is a purpose here, of course: Randy’s crew members are supposed to be the “regular guys” who don’t know a lot about global warming but have some vague opinion about it shaped by advertising, news editorials, or maybe that Al Gore documentary. As Mitch, one of Randy’s producers puts it, “we’re upset about global warming, we just don’t know why.” I think Olson’s right to diagnose the success of the green movement in making us uneasy about global warming without necessarily communicating why it’s a concern or even why it’s happening. And Randy’s interviews illustrate that communication problem quite well. Many of the more compelling and charming subjects in his film are the so-called global warming deniers, the scientists, think tankers, and media flacks who profit immensely from contradicting the scientific establishment.  That being said, the racial and sexual stereotypes really distracted, to the point that my friends and I could barely concentrate on the film’s scientific arguments.

But here is where I found Sizzle somewhat more frustrating. First, the mockumentary format is somewhat awkwardly executed. During the initial scene in which Antoine and Marion are late, we also learn that they haven’t brought cameras with them. But, of course, we can see them being filmed, which seemed to break the rules of the genre. Once I accepted the rules of this particular mockumentary, I was OK, but Sizzle felt less like a mockumentary than a comedy film about a guy making a documentary. Perhaps more frustrating, at least for me, was the fact that I felt that Olson overplayed his argument about the inability of scientists to communicate their positions against global warming skeptics, and during several key scenes, I felt frustrated by the film’s willingness to let the assertions of many global warming skeptics stand almost unaddressed, even though I think Olson tries to show the inconsistency of their positions, and it left me to wonder precisely what audience Olson had in mind for the film. Other scientists who need to learn to communicate better? People like Marion and Antoine who are confused about global warming? I could easily see a viewer becoming more convinced by this film that global warming is a hoax. Or at least exaggerated.

Eventually the film crew, with the help of Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history and science studies, convinces Randy that he should not only include himself in the global warming film he’s making but he should also include Marion’s questions because when Marion asks questions, the scientists speak to him like a regular human being, not like he’s a scientist. And here’s where the film takes a turn that I also found somewhat problematic. Randy eventually decides, on the advice of Oreskes and the crew, to put a human face on the global warming crisis by going to New Orleans to see the continued devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on that city, especially the poor Ninth Ward neighborhood. We get interviews with locals who are still getting their lives back in order after losing everything, and we also get a dramatic sense of the government’s ongoing neglect of the recovery efforts. A tracking shot of FEMA trailers, in fact, needs no commentary, given that many of them had dangerous levels of toxins in them, but again, their use seems disconnected from any specific argument the film wanted to make about global warming.

And here I felt the film risked exploiting the Katrina victims for its scientific argument without sufficiently establishing the link between global warming and the specifics of that particular hurricane. I have little doubt that the Bush administration has been negligent when it comes to responding to both climate change and to the Katrina recovery efforts, but these scenes confused the two to some extent, and I’m not sure that the “human face” technique is fully persuasive to audiences who feel as if they are being emotionally manipulated by the green movement (“save the polar bears!”). I certainly recognize that Olson is trying to do something different here–the film is an odd hybrid between Al Gore and Borat, which means Olson is taking some risks. And there are some interesting moments where scientists are forced out of their comfort levels by Marion’s “naive” questions. In that sense, even though it overreaches in places, Sizzle also provokes, forcing us to think about how we talk and write about scientific topics.

Update: Upon further review, I think my initial impression was right and that I may have been holding back a bit in my criticisms.  Sizzle is trying to address the framing debates, which I do think is important given the public confusion about global warming, but in the long run, the film itself is pretty incoherent and relies way too heavily upon racial and sexual stereotypes.  As I mentioned before, I think that some audiences could see this film and become more skeptical about global warming, not less.  Note: I’ve also done some tweaking to the original version of this review to reflect these sentiments.

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Monday Morning Links

Hoping to write something longer later, but I just drafted a long blog entry on Randy Olson’s Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy that I’ll be publishing later tonight. But for now a quick pointer to two new interesting essays on the ongoing crisis in film criticism:

  • First, Craig Lindsey, critic for the Raleigh News Observer and all-around cool guy, offers a passionate argument underlining the need for thoughtful, engaging film criticism. Craig looks back at the history of criticism and connects it to a larger public culture where debate and discussion could take place. It’s a great read and a valuable reminder of what good film critics (or even media critics in general) can do.
  • The second, an article from The Guardian by Jay Rayner, offers a broader view of the downsizing of critics of all stripes by print newspapers and magazines as they continue to negotiate how to make profits in a new media environment, especially as a number of bloggers write reviews–often for free–about any subject under the sun. The article points out that many bloggers are even “courted by the PR machine,” and goes on to address what has become one of the thornier issues associated with the critics crisis, the issue of “expertise,” of what qualifies a print critic over a blogger when it comes to writing about film or architecture or whatever. But like Craig’s article, it reminds us that print critics still serve a vital role in fostering these important conversations.

Update: I’d started a longer update, but it got lost when my computer briefly froze, so now I’ll just add a quick pointer to Agnes’s very sharp reading of Rayner’s article.

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Speaking of Indie…

I just happened to notice that a post I wrote for Big Screen Little Screen on the hotly-debated indie crisis happened to get picked up by The Guardian’s film blog.  I mention this news mostly because they’ve assembled a nice collection of links on the issue, including a blog post by John August, who comes to the conclusion that much of the past conventional wisdom about indie films has gone out the window after analyzing his experiences with the distribution of his most recent film, The Nines (by the way, I have no idea why I’m not reading August’s blog more consistently). Among the more interesting tidbits: Sundance is overrated.  So is theatrical release.  Day-and-date (releasing in theaters and DVD simultaneously) might not be a bad thing, especially for independent films.  Piracy’s effect on box office is overstated and piracy may actually help bring attention to lesser-known films.

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My Fifteen Minutes

As many of you may know, Washington-based filmmaker Sujewa Ekanayake is working on a documentary about the indie film blogger scene, appropriately called The Indie Film Bloggers: A Portrait of a Community. It’s a worthwhile subject, and I think I’d say that even if I hadn’t been blogging about indies and documentaries for the last few years. And yesterday, Sujewa was kind enough to swing through Fayetteville on his way to Atlanta to spend a few hours interviewing me for the film, which is actually a little out of the way.

I think it’ll be an interesting project, not only because Sujewa has assembled an interesting bunch of bloggers, including Brandon Harris, Tambay Obenson, and Brian Gelden of the Film Panel Note Taker, who can talk about indie film from a variety of perspectives, but also because blogging itself seems to have become an important part of the indie film scene. In addition, given all of the recent discussion of the “independent film crisis,” the concept of indie itself is in the process of be redefined, and if Sujewa’s documentary can make an entrance into that conversation, I think that could be pretty productive.

Like Tambay, I found the experience of being interviewed surprisingly invigorating. Sujewa was basically a one-man film crew, setting up lights, arranging shots, and lugging heavy equipment up into my apartment. And even though I haven’t been interviewed on camera that often (my biggest claim to fame is getting corralled at the recycling center by the local news), because I’d met Sujewa in D.C., we settled into a comfortable discussion relatively quickly. We spent much of the afternoon and early evening hanging out and filming, and by the time we were done, Sujewa had about ninety minutes worth of footage. Because I’ve been a hermit most of the summer, I hadn’t spoken that much in a long time, so the conversation left me feeling a bit wired but really happy that I participated (and that Sujewa invited me).

I have no idea what will make it into the final cut of the film and have little doubt that I will cringe at half of what I said (and I certainly cringed a little after I realized how much I move my hands when I talk), but it was interesting to reflect on the role of blogging in the independent film community and whether blogs have helped independent and DIY films find a wider audience. Because I’m not a filmmaker, I found some of those questions a little more difficult to answer. I’m usually happy to comment on screeners when I can and I hope that my reviews help (although I’m kind of busy right now with the book), but as I old Sujewa, my main reason for continuing the blog has been the fact that it allows me to participate in some really interesting conversations about a subject that I find valuable.

Update: By the way, I just wanted to thank Lance for naming me The Mannionville Gazette’s Favorite Blog of the Day and for bringing quite a bit of traffic to my humble blog. It’s always nice to get some appreciation from fellow bloggers, and Lance is one of the most entertaining and insightful bloggers out there on popular culture, politics, and all sorts of stuff.

Update 2: Here’s Noralil Ryan Fores of ShortEnd Magazine interviewing Sujewa about the documentary. I get a brief little mention or two. Interesting to hear Sujewa compare D.C.’s diversity to the strip malls here in Fayetteville (among other things).

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Fair Use and Online Video

Agnes’s post at Resources reminded me that I haven’t mentioned the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video written by the Center for Social Media. As the Code points out, online video has opened up a number of questions about what constitutes fair use as more and more nonprofessional content circulates on the web. And given that web video quite often makes extensive use of citations of earlier texts through remixes, mashups, and tributes, discussions of how fair use principles apply to online video are helpful. In essence, the Code bases itself in the principle of “transformativeness,” broadly defined. That is, the unlicensed use should “transform” the original material in some way, whether that entails analysis or commentary on the original, recombining elements to make a new meaning, or using it to illustrate a point of some kind. Overall, the Code is a great overview of these issues and well worth reading in full.

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They Rob Banks

I’ve been a little distracted this summer, so I haven’t had time to join in the fun at Lance’s summer movie series over at Newcritics, but this week’s movie is one of my all-time faves and, quite possibly, the film I most enjoy teaching: Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.  The Self-Styled Siren, James Wolcott, and other Newcritics have already listed dozens of reasons to appreciate Bonnie and Clyde, so drop by just for their observations about the movie.  Also worth checking out: Lance posted a brief excerpt from Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland–one of the many books I’m dying to read–discussing contemporary reactions to B&C.  The party starts at 10 PM, but feel free to stop by later, if you’re interested.

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Uncanny Subway

Just heard about this amusing stunt where a group of fifteen twins boarded a subway car, and standing or sitting opposite of each other, managed to create a human mirror.  The performance is just one of 70 or so completed by the group Improv Everywhere.

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