Archive for September, 2008

The Twitter Election

Saul Hansell has an interesting discussion of the role of Twitter in mediating the 2008 election in his New York Times Bits blog. As most of my readers will know, I’m a fairly active Twitterer, and in fact, many of the ideas that would have turned into short blog posts have now become 140-character soundbites on Twitter instead. I don’t believe I’m alone in this shift in blogging habit (if I remember correctly, someone raised this question on Twitter the other day), and it’s tempting to regard the rise of Twitter as an example of the further dominance of soundbite politics, the triumph of snark over substance.

But like Hansell, I think this misunderstands how Twitter can be used. Sure, Twitter allows us to post knee-jerk reactions to campaign speeches and political debates, but I’ll gladly admit that I found it incredibly therapeutic during the conventions to “watch” the convention speeches with Twitter friends and acquaintances scattered across the country (and possibly the globe). Because Twitter allows both immediate “publication” and requires a limited number of characters, it privileges the spontaneous and conversational, almost like a more public form of IM.

More important, from my perspective, is that Twitter also serves as an alternative means for sharing links. Much like or Digg, Twitter operates like a social bookmarking site. I knew, for example, that even though I forgot to watch Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin sketch live last night on Saturday Night Live, someone would have a link to the video posted in their Twitter feed the following morning. It turns out that “Rachel Maddow” did (I have no idea, of course, whether it’s the “real” Rachel Maddow). And, of course, if you haven’t seen the video, which parodies Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, it’s hilarious. Fey nails Palin’s distinct mannerisms and even quotes word-for-word Palin’s incoherent response to Couric’s questions about the Alaska governor’s foreign policy experience.

Hansell also points out the value of the new Election 08 feed created by Twitter, which compiles all election posts in a real time feed, allowing for a virtual snapshot of public responses to political news.  But in my case, I usually lose interest in the election feed somewhat quickly.  It’s a nice tool for knowing what others are saying (and for finding other political links), but I usually prefer the somewhat slower, but more contextualized, conversations with my preexisting network of friends.

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Blogging and Film Criticism

Raleigh News-Observer film critic Craig Lindsey takes a look at the burgeoning culture of online film criticism, and I get quoted quite a bit. I have to admit that I feel like I come off a bit air-headed in this interview (I actually use the phrase “like wow!” at one point), but Craig’s discussion of the rise of amateur internet film criticism seems about right to me.

Update: On a second read, I think there are a number of good points here.  One of the issues I wanted to emphasize was that bloggers can champion less commercial films while print critics are often obligated to cover the more heavily promoted films.  And like most bloggers, I genuinely embrace the conversational, though reflective, spirit of most film blogs.

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Cine Manifest

In a number of past reviews, I’ve mentioned my fascination with documentaries that retell or revisit specific “moments” from the 1960s and ’70s, including The Weather Underground, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Inside Deep Throat, and Berkeley in the Sixties. While Weather and Guerrilla explore some of the more seductive elements of political revolution, all of the films seem to mix nostalgia for an era rich with idealism and political possibilities with some degree of reassessment, and in some cases regret.

Cine Manifest, a documentary about a film collective of the same name by Judy Irola (available from Docurama Films), revisits some of this ground by looking back at the attempts of a small group of filmmakers to make small, independent films that made a difference politically. Irola, who was the only female member of Cine Manifest, structures the film around interviews with all of the members of group, addressing the conflicts between personal ambitions and group dynamics. Cine Manifest structured themselves around basic Marxist principles, with the filmmakers contributing to a general pool for living expenses while seeking out funding for their films, one of which, Northern Lights, won the 1979 Camera D’Or at Cannes.  Their struggles to make movies (and often over how to make them) remain relevant as filmmakers seek to invent new film distribution  and exhibition formats and illuminate another piece of the long history of independent filmmaking and its connection to political idealism.  It also addresses how the politics of the 1960s and ’70s were so deeply shaped by the issues of gender and social class.  Irola, for example, describes the tension she felt between her fascination with the feminist filmmaking movement of the 1970s and her loyalties to Cine Manifest.

Cine Manifest has a number of strengths, namely Irola’s ability to draw out relatively compelling interviews, and the film uses animation well to underscore the group’s propensity to produce massive, detailed, and certainly overwrought manifestos, memos, and mission statements that would be discussed at length. But, as usual, the real interest, for me, was the use of archival footage–essentially home movies–of the collective’s “birthday movies,” many of which are included as extras on the DVD. I’ll admit that I knew little about Cine Manifest before watching the documentary, and I sometimes found myself reacting with slight indifference towards the subjects of the film, something that could have been remedied by a slightly stronger narrative.   Still, the film is a solid contribution to understanding not only the broader histories of independent filmmaking and 1970s politics but also the narrower personal reflections and reassessments of those histories.

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Critical Condition

It was impossible for me to watch Roger Weisberg’s health care documentary, Critical Condition, without thinking about the current economic crisis. While much of the turmoil this week has focused on the collapse of several major banks and insurance companies, John McCain published a little-noticed article in Contingencies, the magazine of the American Academy of Actuaries, in which he argued that “Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation” (credit goes to Paul Krugman for calling attention to it). We’ve all seen how deregulation worked for the banking industry this week, but McCain’s comments merely echo a more general cynicism about the role of government in protecting its citizen against the excesses of Wall Street and the health care industry.

But rather than engaging specifically with health care policy, Weisberg deliberately underplays the righteous indignation and policy wonkery (although the film quietly argues for a more humane health care system), choosing instead to place a human face on the health care crisis by introducing us to four uninsured Americans who are dealing with potentially fatal illnesses or with chronic health problems. All of them are employed, taxpaying citizens who contribute to the system. But they are among the 47 million U.S. citizens who do not have health insurance, and they are all faced with overwhelming medicals bills, sometimes ranging into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the case of Joe Stornaiuolo, a charming former doorman who develops cirrhosis and deals with diabetes, a lack of insurance turns a treatable condition into a potentially fatal one when he cannot afford the medication to regulate his condition. Joe’s story alone refutes the claim of McCain adviser, John Goodman, who has asserted that because of the availability of emergency rooms, there are essentially no uninsured Americans.

Equally compelling and, in some cases, heartbreaking are the film’s other three stories: Karen Dove, a property manager from Austin, Texas, develops ovarian cancer and faces chemotherapy while uninsured, leading her to consider divrcing her husband of thirty years if it will reduce their financial burden. Hector Cardenas is forced to have his foot amputated after complications related to diabetes but loses his insurance when he exhausts his sick days at his job as a warehouse manager, which also leads to him losing his meager benefits. Carlos Benitez, who works as a chef, also has a painful degenerative back condition that could be treated with surgery, but without insurance the operation would cost over $100,000. Carlos considers getting the surgery in Mexico, which would cost $40,000, allowing the film to point out that thousands of Americans cross the border every year to get cheaper medical treatment.

I’ll admit that I found some aspects of Critical Condition a little frustrating. The transitions between stories, which were punctuated by a generic Muzak-type score, felt disruptive to me, taking away from the film’s contemplative, observational style, and I think that material could have been delivered more effectively as a voice-over, perhaps, but that is the smallest of quibbles. To my mind, what counts is the fact that Weisberg genuinely allows us to get to know the families involved, to see these four uninsured people in their daily lives, often over the course of a couple of years.

Much like Michael Moore’s Sicko, Critical Condition reminds us of the absurd choices people are forced to make in order to preserve their health. Get a paper divorce to reduce medical costs? Cross the border to get surgery at a significantly reduced cost? Take expensive pills or fall behind on your mortgage? While Critical Condition lacks the historical grounding that I found valuable in Moore’s film (the history of HMOs, in particular), the film illustrates the degree to which so many health insurance organizations place profit over care, while also illustrating the fact that in the long run, we end paying more when people don’t have adequate access to health care, not merely financially but morally as well.

Update: Critical Condition will be broadcast September 30 at 9 PM as a part of PBS’s POV series.

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Saturday Links

A few of the things that I’ve been reading lately (and may want to reread later):

  • Henry Jenkins revisits his “Photoshop for Democracy” essay from 2004–developed in much further detail in Convergence Culture–on his blog in a review of Sarah Palin photoshops, many of which creatively use visual imagery to question Palin’s qualifications and address concerns about McCain’s age.  For the most part, I’ve written on the use of web video in mediating the 2008 election, but many of these photoshopped images, especially the ones that reference Juno, use some of the same intertextual strategies to comment upon the election.
  • Patrick Goldstein has an interesting blog discussion of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s assertion that in the near future all films will be made in 3-D.  Katzenberg’s argument relies on the primary assumption that 3-D is now capable of reproducing an immersive experience, arguing that even independent films–he cites the example of Juno–would be improved by allowing us into Juno’s living room.  Like Goldstein, I’m still somewhat skeptical, especially when Katzenebrg seems to imply that 3-D is inevitably a “better” experience simply because it is 3-D.  In fact, his enthusiasm for it actually leads him to imply that what he regards as two-dimensional media are somehow imperfect or lacking (“We can’t fix reading or paintings”) because they lack a third dimension, which seems false to me on multiple levels.  I’d certainly question whether paintings are necessarily two-dimensional, especially given the use of collage and other techniques, much less the issue of the positioning of the viewer in relationship to the painting.  More crucially, the idea of 2-D art such as painting somehow being less realistic than 3-D art such as sculpture just seems odd to me.  Katzenberg’s comments seem to have struck a  nerve.  Maybe I’ll do something longer on 3-D later.
  • In the most recent issue of FlowTV, Ethan Thompson addresses the aesthetics of web video via the practices of Josh Marshall’s TPMTV.  In preparing for the upcoming Flow Conference, I’ve been thinking about TPMTV and Brave New Films quite a bit lately.  Both sites make extensive use of the tools that allow broadcast media to be archived easily and then, through simple editing tools, to be juxtaposed against other texts.  Marshall, in particular, has been instrumental in using video to debunk some of the myths about the major presidential candidates, such as Sarah Palin’s now discredited claims about being a “reformer” who fought against the practice of obtaining earmarks.  Also worth checking out: Kathleen Battles’ FlowTV on “The Politics of Pluckiness.”
  • And now a few DC movie links: Sujewa gets the Film in Focus “Behind the Blog” treatment (thanks, Sujewa for the shout out!), Film in Focus also profiles the favorite movies of a number of 20th century US presidents, and finally a video of Ben Kingsley in the role of Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye.

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Straight Drivin’ Express

I’m really enjoying these new videos from Billy the Bus Driver of the Straight Talk Express.  His explanation of how John McCain invented the Blackberry is especially brilliant.

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Is There a Digital Generation?

They’re behind a pay wall, but I just wanted to mention two engaging Chronicle of Higher Education articles on the so-called digital generation.  Mark Bauerlein, author of the provocative book, The Dumbest Generation, offers a scathing critique of the over-reliance on digital technologies as teaching tools.  While I think that Bauerlein’s account of a “digital generation” underestimates differences within current college-age students, some of his larger arguments about why we need to reconsider current educational practices are well worth addressing.

In the same CHE issue, Siva Vaidhyanathan counters the generational myth, pointing out that not all students are equally “wired,” pointing out that “the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly within every class. Yet it has not changed in the aggregate in more than 10 years.”  I’ve had the opportunity to teach in a variety of university settings, and this observation strikes me as basically right.  More to the point, generational arguments obscure the different ways that students use digital technologies (text messaging, playing games, downloading music, making videos).  Siva goes on to compare Bauerlein’s Generation to an earlier anti-media jeremiad, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which Postman argued that TV would scramble our thought patterns.  In that regard, I would agree that Bauerlein ascribes too much power to digital technologies in shaping practice.

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Ralph Nader’s Parrot Video

Back in 2000, before Bush made good on his promise to end our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity, I was a Ralph Nader supporter. I feel a little guilty about that, not because my vote in Illinois would have affected the Electoral College, but because I’m now convinced that Al Gore would have been a good president (I said something similar in my review of An Inconvenient Truth). But I remain interested in the problems that “third party” candidates face in receiving the kind of media attention directed towards the major party candidates.

With that in mind, I was intrigued to check out Nader’s “Parrot” video, in which Nader laments the fact that he is being ignored by the cable news media, reasoning that cable news shows seem much more interested in animal stories than in covering his campaign, leaving him unable to shape the political dialogue. As the CNN commentator noted (or maybe it was MSNBC), Nader’s strategy is comparable to Mike Gravel’s “Rock” video, which I still believe to be a minor masterpiece of political performance art. But I’m not convinced that Nader’s video works–and not just because taking campaign advice from Mike Gravel seems like a bad idea.

First, Nader’s shtick about the similarity of the two major parties no longer rings true in the light of the last eight years. I don’t think anyone seriously believes that a Gore or even a Kerry administration would have looked at all like the Bush administration. Second, the video does little to differentiate Nader from other candidates. I get the parrot joke–Dems and Repubs are “parroting the corporate line”–but that’s about as far as it goes. But I think the biggest problem is that the video positions Nader as powerless to fight against “Big Media” and their attempts to black out the Nader campaign. The video managed to attract some attention on CNN, probably because of the media critique, but instead of depicting Nader positively as a champion of workers, he is basically shown on his own. Still, the video raises some valuable questions for how third-party or independent candidates can use YouTube in order to inform political dialogue.

Update: I’m not quite sure that my comments reflect the main point that I was trying to convey.  I understand Nader’s basic argument here about the implications of excluding minor candidates from the presidential debates, but the video does little to entice me (or, I’d assume most viewers) to take a second look at his campaign.  Unlike some of the more prominent web videos, it does little to introduce a new signal into the cable noise.

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Fayetteville Tweets…Live

One of the aspects of Twitter that I’ve come to appreciate most is that it can help to foster a sense of localism by connecting Twitterers to others in their community.  When I first started blogging in 2003 when I was living in Atlanta–and blogging itself was a relative novelty–this sense of localism was a major attraction, but as my blogging practices changed (and after several moves), blogging rarely seemed to serve that function anymore.  Obviously, that potential is still there, but my personal blogging networks seemed increasingly focused on long-distance scholarly connections.  Not a bad thing at all, but a redefinition none the less.

So when I say that I partied like it was 2003 last night at the first ever Fayetteville (NC) Tweetup, I mean that as the highest compliment possible, as the gathering reminded me a lot of my Atlanta blogger meetups back in the day.  We had about a dozen social media geeks chatting about the history of social media, some reminiscing about Usenet and bulletin boards while others of us discussed our different web presences on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.  And, of course, there was pizza.  Melissa Garcia, the Fayetteville Observer’s Tech Sassy blogger has a few more details (via Gregory Phillips, who was also there), including a link to a streaming video recording of the event captured by Wayne Sutton featuring me talking way too much (probably) after a long day of teaching.  Thanks to Tiffani for setting up the whole thing.

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Sunday Notes

More random bullets for now:

  • Tatyana Ali’s talk in support of Obama at FSU this afternoon was a lot of fun.  A solid, enthusiastic crowd, especially for a Sunday afternoon.  I’ve rarely worked behind the scenes at one of these events, so it was fun helping out (even if was relatively minimally involved).
  • Caught Burn after Reading Friday night, the first time I’ve had a chance to get out to the theater in a few weeks.  There are already plenty of reviews out there, so for now, I’ll just say that I enjoyed it quite a bit.  The satire of DC spy culture was pretty amusing, and Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand as a couple of clueless gym workers were very funny.

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Harold Perrineau at FSU

Fayetteville readers might be interested to know that the actor Harold Perrineau (of Lost and Oz fame) will be speaking here at Fayetteville State on behalf of Barack Obama this Sunday. He’ll be speaking from 12 PM to 1 PM on Sunday, September 14 at the Shaw Auditorium in the School of Business and Economics Building. Perrineau is being hosted by the organization Students for Change, and Fayetteville State University does not support or oppose any political candidate or party.

Update: Turns out it’s going to be Tatyana Ali who will be coming to FSU, not Harold Perrineau.

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Monday Links

I probably shouldn’t apologize anymore for my lack of blogging, but things are still very busy, so for now, here are a few links:

  • First, a quick reminder that Rachel Maddow’s show premieres tonight on MSNBC (at 9 PM on the east coast).  I’ve been suggesting for a while now that she deserves her own show and I’m glad she’s getting the opportunity.  The Packers-Vikings game isn’t going to be that interesting anyway–especially without the Brett Favre drama–so you should watch Maddow instead.
  • The Cinetrix, author of Pullquote, one of my favorite all-time film blogs, gets the Film in Foucs Behind the Blog treatment.
  • I haven’t had time to read it yet, but the Cineaste forum on “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet” looks really interesting.  Hoping, as usual, to respond in more detail, but with a couple of imminent deadlines, I’m not making any promises.
  • More mulling over the State of Indie from Raleigh News-Observer film critic Craig Lindsey and The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis.

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Digital Distribution and Political Participation

Interesting news on the film distribution front: Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films are teaming up to distribute Moore’s Slacker Uprising, a documentary about his 60-city tour during the 2004 election when he traveled to various college campuses to encourage students to vote. While the film has played at a few festivals (Stephanie Zacharek and Joe Leydon have reviews, both of which characterize the film as “self-indulgent”), Greenwald and Moore have embarked on what looks like an interesting distribution plan. In order to attract the widest possible audience before the election, the film will be available for free digital download starting on September 23, in addition to being available for purchase on DVD for $9.95, a plan not unlike the experiments with distribution conducted by bands such as Radiohead and the filmmakers behind the documentary 10 MPH.

Given the goal of the film–to promote voting among Democrats–the distribution plan for Slacker Uprising makes a lot of sense.  As Moore acknowledges in an interview with Wired, the documentary is very clearly intended for “the choir,” while adding that “the choir needs a song to sing every now and then.”  And using the social network associated with Brave New Films is probably the best way to ensure that the song carries as far as possible (at least within the U.S. and Canada).  Worth noting: it looks like Slacker Uprising will cover some of the same territory addressed in This Divided State, a great little documentary about a Utah university’s attempt to bring Moore to their campus.

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YouTube and the Election CFP

A friend alerted me to an upcoming conference focusing on the role of YouTube in shaping the 2008 election to be held in Amherst, Massachusetts, on April 3-4. I’ve done quite a bit of writing on this topic over the last few months (some of which should appear in print soon), but this conference appears well-timed to provide a little post-election perspective on the role of web video in this year’s election. It looks like there will be some cool participants as well, so I’ll be interested to see how this conference plays out.

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Movies are Over. Again.

Karina Longworth’s report on a Telluride panel on the end of film (and film criticism) has me thinking about these issues once again. The panel, moderated by Columbia University film scholar Annette Insdorf and featuring filmmakers Paul Schrader and Danny Boyle, among others, revisits the “indie crisis” that received so much attention this summer around the time that I was finishing a draft of my book. It appears from Karina’s account of the panel that Schrader took the most extreme position regarding the future of cinema, stating that “movies are a 20th century art form, and they’re basically over.”

Instead, Schrader, citing the professional quality of many web series, seems to imply that feature-length movies will be replaced by short-form web content, and in fact, he plans to release his next “film” in multiple formats, including a twelve-episode web series that includes some (“X-rated”) content not included in the theatrical version (I’m not sure which version or versions would be included on the DVD). Other panelists correctly challenged Schrader’s more extreme position, noting that what we are experiencing is, in fact, the multiplication of distribution models, an argument that I make in the book. Certainly, many of these models will not work, but others will, a point raised by Michael Barker of Sony Classics. I disagree with Barker, however, on the idea that the indie film crisis can be attributed to the current “global economic crisis.” A number of Hollywood films have, of course, done quite well this summer.

In addition to the changing distribution models (and the implied changes to film content), the panel spent some time addressing the “crisis” in film criticism.  The consensus on the panel seemed to be that the full-time film critic is endangered as a profession but that it wasn’t clear yet how the blogosphere would work as an alternative.  For the most part, the panelists continued to assert that it’s difficult to identify consistent, insightful film bloggers (like Karina, I’d argue that GreenCine Daily serves this function rather admirably).  Like Dave, who commented on Karina’s post, I’m not terribly convinced by the “quality” argument, in that many film bloggers clearly have “expertise” that matches many professional critics.  It’s just a matter of learning to navigate the many insightful film blogs that are already out there.  Not much to add here, but it’s interesting to see how these issues are continuing to circulate.

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