Archive for August, 2008

I Get Quoted

Myron Pitts, one of the columnists at the Fayetteville Observer and good friend of mine, wrote an interesting column this weekend about the role of the DVR in reshaping our experience of television. I’m cited in a couple of places, describing the ways in which television has become increasing menu-driven rather than being schedule-driven.  Hoping to return to some more substantive blogging soon.

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No End in Sight on YouTube

One of the more devastating documentaries about the Bush administration was Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight, which provided a scathing analysis of the Washington insiders who planned the war in Iraq, diagnosing an unbelievable amount of incompetence and hubris in a war that was sold as a “cakewalk.”

Now, via Todd Holmes (and just in time for the election), I’ve learned that No End in Sight will be available for free in its entirety on YouTube from September 1 through November 5. Todd has the trailer and a little more background on the film and the plans for making the film accessible online.

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Hey There Obama

Overheard someone from CNN discussing “Make Me Your VP (Hey There Obama),” a nice little parody of the hit song, “Hey There Delilah,” and couldn’t resist blogging it.  Unless Joe Biden commits a huge gaffe, it’s probably not gonna happen, but it’s still a funny song with some creative rhymes.   The video is produced by the group Back of the Class, most of whom appear to be associated with Tufts University.

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Sunday Links

Now that classes have started, I’m beginning to gain a sense of normalcy again.  Last night I even found time to engage in my annual tradition of watching Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused during the first week of class, which now dates back at least six or seven years (I already considered it a “tradition” in 2004).  I’m not quite sure what purpose this practice serves, but it is a fun way to enter a new semester, perhaps a reminder to slow down a bit.  As usual, I have a couple of blog entries percolating, but here are a few quick links I want to mention:

  • J.D. Lasica has an interesting post on Intel’s launch of what it is calling the “cinematic internet.”  Lasica and Intel executive Eric B. Kim discuss some of the flaws of interactive television as it has been understood for the last decade or so, namely that interactivity has usually been inseparable from marketing (you can buy Jennifer Aniston’s dress), and Lasica and Kim go on to outline the different values that are typically associated with television (ease of use, reliability, etc) and the different values associated with the internet (personalization, etc).  It’s interesting stuff.
  • The New York Times has an article focusing on the role of political bloggers at the 2008 political conventions, comparing the relatively tiny number of press credentials awarded to bloggers at the 2004 conventions with the dozens of bloggers who’ll be at the 2008 conventions.  Obviously it’s very cool that so many passionately political bloggers will be attending the 2008 conventions, but it’s also worth noting that a surprising number of bloggers have managed to raise hundreds of dollars from their readers to help pay their travel expenses.
  • Finally, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself writing more than I ever would have expected about the politics of science, especially when it comes to teaching evolution and global warming.  I was an indifferent student in my science courses throughout my schooling, but in retrospect, I think I was lucky in that I got a straightforward introduction to evolution (the county next to mine, several years after I graduated, notoriously cowed to parental pressure and added stickers defining evolution as just a “theory”).  With that in mind, I was intrigued by this Florida science teacher’s efforts to find creative ways to teach the concepts of evolution to resistant students, some of whom were taught intelligent design in private high schools and churches.  The teacher, David Campbell, came up with some fairly innovative ways to engage students and to invite interested questions.  While it’s less clear that he changed the minds of all or most of his students, Campbell was capable of communicating some of the basic elements of evolution in a creative and informative way.

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Counting Houses

Finalizing syllabi, so I don’t have time for a longer post, but I just wanted to mention a couple of the responses to John McCain’s gaffe the other day when he acknowledged that he wasn’t sure how many houses he owns. The Obama campaign was pretty quick to respond with the advertisement, “Seven,” which works pretty well, I think, to depict McCain as out of touch on the economy (here’s Obama talking about McCain’s recent comments about wealth on the stump).

But I have to admit that I’m probably more partial to this response, found on Daily Kos, by Aaron Walker, a college student, that offers a witty take on McCain’s inability to count the number of houses he and Cindy own. BTW, I’m half-listening to Richard Wolffe on MSNBC pointing out that this gaffe helps to tie together a number of narratives about the McCain campaign, especially given that it depicts him as out of touch on the economy, and I think he’s right. It allows Obama to reintroduce McCain’s connections to Phil “Nation of Whiners” Gramm and his claims that the “economy is fundamentally strong.” Interesting story and some sharp responses by the campaign and by some of Obama’s supporters.

Update: More parody fun over at Daily Kos, including a LOL Cats image and another video, The Fabulous Life of John McCain.

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Grading 3-D

Roger Ebert has an intriguing blog post discussing the new wave of 3-D movies hitting theaters in recent months.  Reflecting on a missed press screening of Fly Me to the Moon, Ebert sardonically imagines a film featuring flies buzzing straight towards the audience, reminding us just how little is truly novel about digital 3-D.  Ebert goes on to add that 3-D is essentially distancing, that rather than proving viewers with a “realistic” visual experience, it actually defies conventions of visual perception.  I haven’t seen Fly Me to the Moon yet–chalk that up to some last-minute scrambling as I get ready for a new semester–but I’ve been thinking about 3-D quite a bit lately (especially in my response to Beowulf), and while my initial impulse is to agree with Ebert, I want to tweak his argument just a little.

When I first saw Beowulf a few months ago, I remarked that I could never quite forget that I was watching a movie, that I never felt immersed in the world of the film.  Part of my reaction is due to the discomfort of wearing the 3-D glasses, which were a little too tight, but I think a secondary cause has to be attributed to the possibility that 3-D remains a medium tied to spectacle.  I’m thinking here of Tom Gunning’s discussion of the “aesthetic of astonishment,” in which Gunning challenges the myth of early cinema audiences fleeing from theaters in fear of trains rushing towards them and explains that while early cinema audiences may have been amazed by the technology of motion pictures, they were not duped by the illusion of motion presented in these early films.

I think something similar may be going on with 3-D.  We’re not necessarily meant to experience these films as realistic.  In fact, many of them are animated.  Instead, we are supposed to be “astonished” by the technology itself.  For me, I was acutely aware of the 3-D technology even while I was ostensibly watching a sixth century epic. Like Ebert, I don’t really regard myself as a fan of 3-D (although I’d like to see as many of these films as I can in the coming months), but I’m not quite convinced that realism or classic forms of identification–I never identified with Beowulf, for example–are the goals that motivate storytelling in 3-D.  On one level, of course, the goals are commerce (3-D films are harder to pirate and, for some, they are a novelty), but I think they are also an attempt to theorize the limits of film as a representational medium, of finding new ways to tell stories using images projected on a giant screen in a darkened theater.

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Maddow’s New Gig

This is pretty cool.  MSNBC’s sharpest political commentator, Rachel Maddow finally got her own show, taking over the 9 PM slot previously occupied by Dan Abrams (Maddow’s reaction), who will remain at the network as a host and general manager.  I’d have preferred that Maddow take the time slot currently occupied by Chris Matthews or David Gregory, but this is very cool (via Karina).

I’ve been hoping this would happen for a while, as Maddow and Eugene Robinson have been about the only two political commentators I could tolerate this election cycle. I’ve always been a fan of Rachel’s graceful and deft ability to fight back against right-wing ranters such as Pat Buchanan, and she’s incredibly smart to boot.  Here’s hoping she can raise the level of campaign discourse a notch or two in the coming months, something that is sorely needed in the world of celeb ads and demands to drill now, drill anywhere, drill everywhere.

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Strange Culture and the Limits on Documentary

In his Pop Matters review of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture, Shaun Huston revisits the debate between A.J. Schnack and film critic John Anderson over the nature and purpose of documentary film.  As A.J. points out, Huston’s review is well worth reading, even if you haven’t seen Strange Culture (at the very least, it will hopefully inspire you to see it soon), in large part because Shaun uses Leeson’s formal experimentation to test the limits of documentary as a form.

Strange Culture focuses on the experiences of Steve Kurtz, an artist and member of the Critical Arts Ensemble (CAE), who became the subject of an FBI investigation soon after the  sudden death of his wife Hope.  After his wife stopped breathing, Kurtz called an ambulance and when paramedics found biological materials (which were due to be part of an art exhibit by Kurtz and other members of the CAE, Kurtz was reported to the FBI, who eventually pursued wire fraud charges against him (although he was originally investigated as a terrorist).  As Shaun points out, Hershman Leeson’s innovative use of reenactments challenges traditional documentary form, with well-known actors such as Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan playing Hope and Steve, in a sense speaking for them when they were unable to speak.  At the same time, Swinton and Ryan talk about their investment in the documentary and the issues that are at stake in a case like Kurtz’s.  Through these techniques, Hershman Leeson avoids sentimentalizing the subject too much.  At the same time, the film resists being reduced to “preaching to the choir” or offering simplistic appeals to social justice.  Instead, Hershman Leeson uses the documentary form and Kurtz’s story in particular to raise important questions about the role of documentary in intervening in the social world.  As Shaun observes, the film “raises questions about free expression in times of war, the role of artists in society, the particular realities of both in America after September 11, 2001, as well questions about the GMOs meant to be posed by the CAE exhibit.”

A.J. revisited these arguments in a response to Shaun’s article, adding that while Kurtz’s story may be worth telling, “without an artist behind the lens, the worth of Kurtz’ tale may be lost on all but the most like-minded and agreeable viewers.”  I’m more or less inclined to agree with this point, but I would hasten to add that, as Shaun notes in the comments, that for a documentary such as Strange Culture, it does seem significant that Leeson chooses the approach she does for that particular subject matter.  I’m deep in the midst of syllabus writing, so I don’t have time this week to give this conversation the attention it deserves, but I think that Hershman Leeson’s film and Shaun and A.J.’s comments reveal that the conversation over documentary craft versus subject remains one that deserves revisiting.

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Sunday Links

Just wanted to mention a New York Times article on Jon Stewart and The Daily Show that provides a little more background on how the show is produced and on Stewart’s vision of the show as a means of distilling or working through the news, to use John Ellis’s phrase. Michiko Kakutani, the article’s author, also mentions the Pew study that concluded that Stewart is the fourth “most admired” journalist, tied with Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper, and Dan Rather. At any rate, it’s a good discussion of the ways in which Jon Stewart and (to a different extent) Stephen Colbert are informing election coverage and providing us with new filters for making sense of political discourse.

On a related note, the people behind Baracky and The Empire Strikes Barack are back with Baracky II, this time pitting Obama against McCain, who sometimes sports a Mr. T-style mohawk. In my research on political parody videos, I’m certainly interested in the ways in which shows such as The Daily Show have provided textual (and sometimes intertextual) models that video producers can use to make their own political critiques. The Baracky videos are especially adept at using some of the techniques of juxtaposition found in shows such as The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. In fact, every time I become utterly infuriated with election coverage, these videos serve as a welcome reminder of the countless participants in our political conversation who are reading things against the grain.

Update: Just wanted to mention McCain’s difficulties in making use of copyrighted materials in many of his web videos. Newsweek discusses the removal of “Obama Love,” a video that sought to link Obama to a number of celebrities with a Frankie Valli song playing in the background. The Warner Music Group asserted its copyright claim, and the clip was pulled and eventually retooled with new music. Mike Myers has also demanded that a clip depicting him in a scene from Wayne’s World be pulled. While McCain has not been nearly as aggressive as some Senators in limiting the fair use of copyrighted material, it is interesting to see him running up against some of the limitations on fair use that have been instituted into law during his time in the Senate.

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The American Carol Trailer

Jesse at Pandagon pointed to the just-released trailer for An American Carol, a new comedy (and I use that word very loosely) by David Zucker.  The film is meant to be a satire of “the American left,” by which they apparently mean Michael Moore.  The main character is a chubby documentary filmmaker named Michael Malone (played by Chris Farley’s younger brother) who hates America so much that he wants to ban July 4.  The film features a number of Hollywood conservatives such as Kelsey Grammar and Jon Voigt who play the spirits of American heroes such as General Patton so that they can, I guess, teach Moore, I mean, Malone all about American values.  They do so, apparently, by repeatedly punching the filmmaker in the face.  Or by resorting to stereotypes of lesbians and Muslims.

There are one or two moments of self-awareness in the trailer, with David Zucker being called a master of satire by…David Zucker.  And because the trailer recycles jokes that could have been used in 2004 at the Republican convention, I considered the possibility that the movie is satirizing the right, but there’s not enough in the trailer to suggest that kind of self-awareness.  I’m all for political parody, but you have to do better than Michael Moore fat jokes.

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Back to School Links

Mandatory pre-semester activities start tomorrow, which means that I’ll have to get up early tomorrow–I’m even setting my alarm–and that I’ll likely have a difficult time falling asleep tonight.  I have a blog entry or two on the back burner, but for now some links:

  • This political video, Republicans and Military Men on John McCain, offers a pretty dramatic reminder of what a McCain foreign policy might look like. In addition to citing some of the usual clips (McCain singing “Bomb Iran,” McCain promising “more wars”), there are one or two pretty startling moments.  The big one for me: Pat Buchanan saying that McCain would make V.P. Dick Cheney “look like Gandhi.”  The background music, from Requiem for a Dream, is a bit overdone for my tastes, but this a great use of the web video format.
  • Jeff Sneider posted some interesting links on the Thompson on Hollywood blog, including Stephanie Zacahrek’s Salon article on “blockbuster fatigue,” which I’ll confess to feeling at some point in April, soon after I saw Speed Racer (which I actually sort of liked). Hoping to write something longer on Zacharek’s article later.
  • Sujewa has a poster up for the indie film bloggers doc.  If you look carefully, you can see me inside the “O” in road.  Here’s another poster where I am little more visible.
  • David blogged about his work on a new Okkervil River documentary (here’s the trailer), which I can’t wait to see.   I loved their last album and have enjoyed what I’ve heard from the new one quite a bit.
  • Chris has a thoughtful post on Errol Morris’s latest discussion of documentary, photography, and manipulation.  Like Chris, I think Morris’s essay would be interesting to teach.  Hoping to get back to that in a blog post as well.

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Life Without Cars

Great little video about Summer Streets 2008, an event in which several miles of Manhattan streets were closed to automobiles (h/t Atrios).

Update: Just wanted to add that because I’ve been sequestered in my apartment all summer working on the book, I’d forgotten how unpleasant driving can be.  Having an iPod makes driving a little more tolerable, but I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would want to spend mote than about eight minutes a day inside a car.  This video is a gentle reminder that there are alternatives out there to traffic, gridlock, smog, noise pollution, etc.

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More Political Ad Shenanigans

Not much to say about the latest internet ad from McCain that is–yet again–pushing the whole celebrity angle.  I’ll admit that the parody of hard-sell TV ads (“But wait, that’s not all…”) is mildly funny, but the ads continue to try to cast Obama as a celebrity or rock star, this time by pushing the idea that “hot chicks dig Obama.”  Like Erik Kleefeld of TPM, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the two women who describe Obama as attractive are white.

Meanwhile, the Obama camp hits back, depicting John McCain as a “Washington celebrity,” showing the Republican nominee hanging with a variety of talk show hosts, DC insiders, and most prominently, embracing George W. Bush.  While I like the ad’s basic message that McCain is putting the interests of lobbyists over those of the voters, though, the advertisement still seems a bit reactive to me.

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Documentary Double Feature

I’m finally getting a chance to catch up on some of the documentaries (and other movies) I’ve been planning to watch for a while, which is kind of nice.  I’ll try to blog some quick reviews when I can, but with a new semester just around the corner, we’ll see how things go.

Based on a tip from Agnes, I checked out Senator Obama Goes to Africa, which chronicles Senator Obama’s 2006 journey to Africa.  Like Agnes, I was already an Obama supporter before I saw Bob Hercules and Keith Walker’s movie, but many of the scenes helped to solidify my support for him.  Structurally, the film is pretty standard stuff, following Obama to his hometown of Kisumu, Kenya, to the Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was held, and finally to a refugee camp in Chad, just across from the Darfur region of the Sudan.  And, again like Agnes, I think that each segment could have played just about as effectively as a “webisode” on YouTube as it did in an hour-long documentary.  That being said, Africa does provide a window into Obama’s foreign policy credentials, showing him publicly taking an AIDS test to raise awareness of the issue, to name just one small example.  It’s also astounding to see the amount of hope invested in the Obama campaign, as witnessed by the thousands of people who gather to hear him speak at various stopping points during his journey.  I’m not really convinced that these kinds of documentaries can do a lot to change people’s minds about how they’ll vote, but I think that Africa’s more important function may be to reintroduce some of the lingering economic, health, and political problems to a wider audience.

Because I liked the premise, if not the execution, of Randy Olson’s global warming mockumentary, Sizzle, I wanted to go back and give his earlier film, Flock of Dodos, a documentary about the evolution-intelligent design controversy a closer look, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity.  Where Sizzle stumbled, I felt that Flock of Dodos actually seemed a little more sure-footed, especially in its attempt to communicate the problem that, well, evolutionary scientists aren’t that great at communicating ideas.  While Flock of Dodos came out a couple of years before Ben Stein’s Expelled, it was interesting to see many of the same spokespeople in both films, and while Olson (thankfully) avoids many of the gotcha theatrics deployed by someone like Stein, it’s clear that Olson is making a sincere attempt to think about how to translate scientific ideas while also addressing how pro-intelligent design activists have been able to make inroads onto school boards across the country.

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08-08-08 Links

Just in case you need something to distract you from the breathless coverage of John Edwards here are some links:

  • Amy Sullivan has probably the most thorough coverage I’ve seen of McCain’s “The One” advertisement and its highly dubious use of coded language to associate Obama with the Antichrist, including some insightful comments from progressive evangelical Tony Campolo–by far the most memorable speaker I saw during my days at an evangelical college–connecting the imagery directly to the apocalyptic Left Behind book series. Scott McLemee has some insightful observations about “The One,” as well, as does Maud Newton. I’ve suspected for a while that the Obama as Antichrist meme would resurface from time to time, so I think it’s important to address–and challenge–these messages whenever they appear.
  • As an antidote to “The One,” here is some (incredibly geeky) political humor, McCain Portrait, done in the style of Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Wonderfully devastating stuff. Thanks to Professor B for the link.
  • I don’t write about music very often here, but I totally dig the new Gnarls Barkley album, and this video is terrific.
  • My North Carolina readers might be interested in knowing about the “Mixed-Tape Film Series” sponsored by the guys behind the terrific The Movie Show, which I’ve had the chance to catch on podcast a few times. Kind of reminds me of Girish’s cool idea of calling for double bills. Off the top of my head, one double bill I’d love to program: Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil followed by Jem Cohen’s Chain.
  • Some interesting discussion regarding the state of the box office: Via Sharon Waxman, a WSJ article arguing that people are seeing fewer movies, using as its basis a survey by the group Interpret. Wired, however, did some digging and found that box office receipts are actually up slightly in 2008. That’s probably partially due to increased ticket prices, but as I argue in my book, surveys asking people to describe their moviegoing habits can be unreliable. I don’t think movie theaters are going to be extinct anytime soon. That being said, with the continued emphasis on Hollywood franchise pics, they might be less likely to show the movies that I want to see.
  • Bad Lit has an interesting post about a new player in the online indie distribution scene: IndieRoad. I haven’t had time to investigate the site as fully as I would like, but it looks like a promising new resource for filmmakers and indie film fans alike. I’ll try to write a longer post once I’ve had the chance to check out the site in more detail.
  • While I’m thinking about it, I’ve been watching the documentary, Mardi Gras: Made in China.  I don’t know that I’ve been surprised by any of the revelations in the documentary, but it offers a really powerful metaphor for thinking about the use of underpaid labor in producing US consumer goods.  The film cuts from people literally throwing away the beads they’ve purchased to the workers who make only a few dollars a day, while working shifts that often run twelve hours or more, to make them.  Well worth checking out.

Just wanted to add that I’m finding the nonstop Edwards coverage a bit nauseating.  Yes, it’s got all the makings of a great scandal: sex, hypocrisy, falls from grace, etc.  And I do think it was incredibly selfish for Edwards to risk sacrificing his principles to run for president when he knew that news of the affair would likely come out.  But shouldn’t we devote at least a couple of minutes of the news to the fact that Russian tanks are in Georgia?  Or that Olympians have been banned from China for speaking out on Darfur.  Or even if you want to talk about the election: the dubious contributions that rolled into the McCain campaign from Hess executives.

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