Archive for August, 2008

“Thanks for the Endorsement, White-Haired Dude”

I’m pretty much torn between revulsion and fascination regarding the controversy over John McCain’s “Celeb” advertisement.  And I’m even more perplexed to find myself concluding that Paris Hilton’s response to the “Celeb” ad may be one of the best I’ve seen.

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Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music

Johnny Cash: The Man, His World, His Music, which will be airing Tuesday, August 5, on PBS, is a rare treasure, an intimate portrait of one of America’s most important musicians as he travels, tours, records, and converses. The film is a compilation of footage captured by cinematographer Robert Elfstrom in 1968, just a few years after Cash had recovered from years of alcohol and drug use and soon after Cash’s marriage to June Carter. Elfstrom followed Cash as he performed concerts at prisons and Indian reservations, as he revisited his hometown of Kingsland, Arkansas, and as he recorded songs with a young Bob Dylan. By depicting Cash in these everyday moments, we begin to see the sources for his music, how many of his songs grew organically out of his experiences working the land. Elfstrom’s film is a surprisingly intimate portrait of Cash, one that provides a valuable glimpse of one brief moment in his illustrious career.

I should probably admit that I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan. I have incredibly fond memories of listening to Cash’s American Recordings collaborations with Rick Rubin while I was finishing my dissertation, but I’m also fond of the music he was doing in the late 1960s, when he was experiencing a revival of sorts (punctuated by a scene in which he wins a Country Music Association award for best album). Like most rockumentaries, Johnny Cash is structured around stage performances. We see Cash perform classics such as “Folosm Prison Blues” in front of an audience in a prison. He sings “Ballad of Ira Hayes” to an audience of Native Americans, a scene that segues nicely into a scene where Cash visits the site where the Battle of Wounded Knee took place. As usual, these performances are incredibly infectious. Every time I watch Cash and Carter perform “Jackson,” I’m always struck by how much the couple seems to be enjoying themselves. It’s an incredibly fun song, and in every recording I’ve seen, they always make it seem fresh and alive.

But while these performances are amazing, some of the scenes that I found most compelling were those where Cash observes or listens to others, particularly other musicians.  It’s difficult not to appreciate Cash’s generosity, his willingness to support a younger generation of talented musicians.  Because Johnny Cash is an observational documentary, it might frustrate viewers who are looking for a more coherent narrative, but I think Cash fans will enjoy seeing him in these somewhat more unguarded, everyday moments.

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Walking in Los Angeles

For now, just a quick pointer to one of the more interesting new examples of the do-it-yourself (DIY) film culture that continues to flourish on the web, Lisa Salem’s new blog on building an audience.  Starting in 2005, Salem began making Walk With Me, a project in which she walked the entirety of the city of Los Angeles while pushing a baby stroller with a DV camera mounted to it (here’s a good overview of the project).  The idea of seeing the city of Los Angeles, a notoriously car-oriented city, from the eyes of a pedestrian is a fascinating one, all the more so given that LA is also one of our most mediated cities, one that we invariably see through the various screens of TVs and movies.  Salem also invites others to walk with her, including (among others) an La city councilperson.

Salem is talking about her experiences as part of Lance Weiler’s new Workbook Project, and her plans for talking about how DIY filmmakers can learn to build an audience are pretty impressive.   In general, both Salem and Weiler speak to the ways in which DIY filmmakers can benefit from engaging with their audience and creating an ongoing conversation with them.  Worth noting: Weiler addresses some of these concerns in a recent Filmmaker Magazine article, where he addresses one of the concerns I sort of tap dance around in the book: “Today independent filmmakers find themselves in a wonderfully awkward position. It is the best of times in terms of the ease of making work and the worst of times with regards to seeing profits from your efforts. This paradox creates an interesting opportunity for those willing to experiment with new models.”  I’m very much looking forward to learning from Weiler, Salem, and others to see what new models the new generation of DIYs can create for getting their voices heard.

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McCain’s Pop Politics

Just happened to hear about the new internet-only McCain attack ad (does he have any other kind?), depicting Obama as a wannabe Messianic figure. To me, like most McCain campaign attempts to use humor and popular culture to criticize Obama it comes off as a bit clumsy. We’ve already seen Obama compared to Paris and Britney, and now it’s apparently Moses. I don’t really buy the idea that the Paris and Britney comparison is intended as racist. Instead, the ad seems to be a calculated attempt to depict Obama as vacuous, an empty suit, and the Moses comparison is obviously meant to imply that Obama has delusions of grandeur (i.e., Obama will part the Red Sea or at least the sea of red ink that is our budget deficit).

Both ads are clearly trying to create a relatively consistent narrative about Obama as celebrity or as an empty icon, but both oddly compare him to fairly conservative public figures (Paris Hilton’s grandparents have, in fact, donated to the McCain campaign and Britney famously admonished us to support President Bush; Moses is played by conservative icon, Charlton Heston). The Moses ad, in particular, seems oddly incoherent to me, just a set of random, loosely associated images. Still, it’s interesting to see the McCain campaign tentatively entering the arena of pop politics. What scares me is that it might be working.

Update: My original analysis here is bothering me a bit.  When I said that the comparison was “not intended” as racist, I now feel like I pretty much got it wrong.  In part, I was interested in the social class associations (Obama as elitist, etc), but obviously that doesn’t account for the specifics of the Spears and Hilton comparisons.  I was also trying to sort through a mental comparison with the far more overt Harold Ford “Call Me” ad from a couple of years ago, but I think that Bob Herbert and  Melissa McEwan more or less get this one right.  I still find the ad utterly incoherent ideologically.  And I worry even more that we’re going to see even more ads like these.  There is an interesting discussion of this ad at The Washington Post, where a number of election strategists analyze the implications for both campaigns.

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The Dark Knight: Why So Serious?

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the reasons why I had such a neutral reaction to Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman flick, The Dark Knight. After all, the film has achieved both mind-boggling box office success and the kind of impassioned fan base–some might call it a mob–that clearly suggests it has touched some kind of cultural nerve. Before I continue, I’ll go through what now seems like a ritual with Dark Knight reviews in acknowledging that the film is a well-crafted comic adaptation with some genuinely breath-taking visuals. The performances, especially Heath Ledger’s, were all solid. As an implied critique of the superhero genre, it is fairly engaging. But the film’s attempts to evoke deeper themes (good vs. evil, chaos vs. order) and its tentative references to the current political zeitgeist left me feeling somewhat indifferent. If The Dark Knight is political, it’s political in the same way that a Democratic Leadership Council speech might be: some vague references to social problems but carefully calibrated to offend virtually no one (that’s not to suggest, of course, that Batman and the DLC have the same politics).

I had been entertaining the notion of writing about The Dark Knight for a couple of days but could never quite figure out why I hadn’t really engaged with the film until I read Filmbrain’s excellent discussion of the film. I certainly agree with him that The Dark Knight may be the first populist film since The Matrix to make such a concerted attempt to engage both philosophy and politics, but like him, I feel like the film does so only at the broadest of levels (although Scott’s discussion of the Teddy Roosevelt-Batman connection, which was intentional on the part of the Nolan brothers, is somewhat interesting, and I’ll try to get back to that in a minute). In terms of the philosophical references, I found the “kill-or-be killed conundrum” during the third act to be a bit tedious while also playing off racist assumptions (what will the big black felon do?!?  And why is the big felon black?).

I’ve also struggled with some of the larger political elements of the film. Like pretty much everyone, I find the Bush as Batman argument a non-starter despite the clear, if altered, references to the war or terror.  At least Batman appears to be capable of self-critique. But, again, as Filmbrain points out, the film’s politics seem carefully calculated not to offend: Batman’s perfect surveillance machine clearly evokes the Total Information Awareness excesses of the Bush administration, but it’s meant to be used only in an extreme situation and to be destroyed after the Joker is caught and order is restored. I’d say that the suspension of civil liberties, however temporary, is still an issue, and the film does naturalize some version of the state of emergency that logically warrants spying, but it also critiques that logic to some extent when Lucius Fox (the perpetually wise Morgan Freeman) quits in protest at Batman’s actions.

I don’t think the film “obviates morality” or “trashes belief systems,” either, as Armond White suggests. In fact, by pointing to the moral dilemmas faced by Batman/Bruce Wayne, the film is, in fact, quite moralistic. Wayne/Batman is punished in places for putting his selfish desires for Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) over the needs of the larger community. The ferries full of civilians are rewarded for their willingness not to kill. In short, the depiction of Batman’s moral ambiguities by no means endorses them, and we are invited to critique his actions and to recognize his moral failures while still maintaining a relatively strict moral code. Nothing here that left me that excited or specifically challenged.

Still, as a number of critics have observed (including, most eloquently, Filmbrain), the film has become a virtual religion in terms of its masscult appeal and in terms of the visceral responses to anyone who dares to criticize The Dark Knight (and I realize that I risk becoming one of those people). Obviously the film has tapped into some kind of post-9/11-with-a-bad economy cultural zeitgeist, but I’m wondering if the “Batman as Teddy the Rough Rider” reading might not be onto something. While the biographical connections clearly seem to be intentional as both Scott and Frank Murphy suggest, the more important questions seem to be connected to Teddy and Batman’s similar ideological roles: the threatened or weak male body becoming armored, the self-made man fighting against various national threats, whether terrorism or criminal masterminds such as the Joker, with Gotham standing in, as usual, for the nation itself. In fact, Harvey Dent, as the reformist public figure capable of changing the status quo seems to offer a secondary component of this ideology, the belief that civic institutions can be reformed not only to eliminate corruption but also to protect these (dangerous) city streets from crime and/or terrorism. In other words, part of the film’s appeal might be roted in some of these deeper assumptions associated with American masculinity as it has been articulated in the figure of Teddy Roosevelt. That the film offers a somewhat muted critique of this myth–Batman, at the end of the film is forced to ride away from Gotham in order to preserve the (falsified) myth of Dent as the one honest public figure–is certainly interesting, and the emphasis on that critique at the end of the film places emphasis on this critique, but again, I read the film’s politics here as intentionally ambivalent: Batman willingly sacrifices himself for the greater good (preserving the Dent myth) thus allowing Wayne/Batman some measure of heroism or, perhaps, the Joker is right and the verities of freedom and justice disappear as soon as the social order is threatened.  Both conclusions can be affirmed by this final scene.

So maybe, as I’ve written this entry, I’ve talked myself into identifying some moral complexity here, but again, I don’t think the film is quite as profound as it pretends. And I do think that anything resembling “politics” in the film is designed to go straight down the middle, offending virtually no one in its treatment of civil liberties and the war on terror. As an example of populist political art, The Dark Knight is intriguing, but I still left the theater wishing that the film had taken more risks with the material.

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Tracking Documentaries

Jonathan Kahana, author of Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary, has a couple of interesting posts over at the Columbia University Press blog. The first revisits a list of the “best documentaries of all time” that he was commissioned to write for an in-flight magazine, with the stipulation that all of the films he cited be available on DVD. He followed that post up today with another post listing some great documentaries that should be available on DVD but aren’t, including An American Family and Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia.

I mention Kahana’s post, in part, because he addresses a point that I try to develop in my own book about the perception that digital media, such as the DVD, will provide us with universal access to the entire history of moving-image culture.  Certainly in the era of “long tail” marketing, there is a lot of stuff out there, but as formats change, we can lose access to quite a bit.  Plus, as Kahana points out regarding An American Family, disputes over rights to the film seem to have held it back from DVD distribution.   And although the DVD is seen as more permanent than VHS or other formats, that’s not always the case.

I do think that projects such as Reframe, the Tribeca Film Institute-Renew Media collaboration to provide lesser known films for digital download, can provide new alternatives, but it also seems likely that the films we’ll have available on any given format will continue to be at least somewhat variable.  No matter what, Kahana’s lists are worth checking out and include many of my personal favorites or films that I’d like to see.

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