Archive for February, 2009

North Carolina Internet Town Hall

My local readers may be interested in knowing that will be sponsoring a town hall forum in Durham, North Carolina, on expanding access to a fast, affordable, and open Internet.  The town hall is scheduled for Saturday, March 7, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST, at the Durham Marriott Convention Center.  The FreePress blog has more information about speakers and agendas, but this looks like a valuable way to press for ensuring more equal access to the Internet.

In my own experience, I’ve found myself thinking about these issues a lot lately, especially given that I’ve been teaching a graduate-level course to local high school teachers about technology in the classroom.  While I’ve been conducting the course in a computer classroom and while they have been relatively enthusiastic about blogs, wikis, Twitter, and other social media tools, it’s often difficult to make the stretch to classroom practice when so many of their students have little to no internet access at home.  Long story short, I think these conversations are well worth having, especially with the economic stimulus potentially providing fertile ground for rethinking eductaion spending and pedagogical practices.

Worth noting: The town hall also has a discussion guide (PDF) that introduces some of the issues that will be addressed on March 7.

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Tuesday Links

Quick pointers to some of the more recent links to cross my radar:

  • Kathleen has assembled the latest version of the Teaching Carnival, with plenty of links to ongoing conversations about education from across the blogosphere.  David Parry is up next, and I’m on tap for March 23.  Just a reminder for all the film and media bloggers out there: I’d love to collect some posts from you about movies and teaching (or teaching in the movies).  Have a favorite film course? A favorite film about teaching?  Send me the link, and I’ll add it to the collection.  I’ll post more detailed information after Teaching Carnival 3.3 comes out in early March.
  • Speaking of teaching, Inside Higher Ed has a couple of recent articles about technology and instruction that are worth checking out.  Elizabeth Redden has an article about Kathleen Blake Yancey’s NCTE report calling for new pedagogies that take into consideration the fact that most of us will soon be “writing for the net.”  I’ll almost certainly have more to say about this report in the days ahead.  Meanwhile, thanks to a link in my Twitter feed, another IHE article by Steven Bell on the changing nature of the library, one that is marked by an increasing reliance on digital, rather than print, resources (I’ve lost the original pointer, but if you’re reading, thanks for linking!).
  • Meanwhile, Doc Searls’ post from the Integrated Media Association conference on the future of public media is well worth checking out, especially in relationship to the white paper recently published by the Center for Social Media on “Public Media 2.0.”  Searls points out that local news broadcasters are facing declining advertising revenues similar to those of newspapersand makes the cogent argument that PBS stations could reinvent themselves in part by taking a more active role in newsgathering.  Robert Paterson also reports from the same panel, with similar conclusions.
  • Finally, I found Marshall (“quarterlife”) Herskovitz’s discussion of internet movie distribution to be worth a read.  Herskovitz argues that Hollywood studios are not fully prepared for the new business models they’ll need to operate successfully online.  He’s also skeptical about the liberation narratives commonly associated with internet distribution.  Money quote:  “The question of the Internet being the great democratizer may be on its way out. Because although it is still cheap to create and distribute stuff on internet, it’s not cheap to market on the Internet. And that may be where big companies win as well, because they’ll have money to promote on the Internet. “

Update: By the way, saw this mentioned on Twitter, I believe by David Silver, and didn’t have time to blog it before, but Andrew Sullivan’s article on blogging for The Atlantic is well worth reading and (potentially) teaching, especially for students who may be relatively unfamiliar with blogging.

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We are a Part of the Twitter Nation

As new communication technologies emerge, it is not uncommon to see articles or essays bemoaning how the new technology will destroy or damage communication as we know it, that a tool will lead to illiteracy, narcissism, or whatever social ill might be haunting society at any given time.  Twitter, if we accept Alexander Zaitchik’s reading published on AlterNet, is poised not only to dumb down discourse to levels seen only in Mike Judge’s hilarious dystopian comedy Idiocracy* but also to produce a narcissistic, infantilized public concerned only with broadcasting to the world every banal idea that comes to mind.  And, just for good measure, Zaitchik takes pains to remind us that Twitter is not journalism.

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Second (or maybe third) Thoughts

I’m in the process of putting together some thoughts about the recent dust-up over the relationship between film blogs and the DIY film community that grew out of the reviews of Sujewa’s Indie Film Bloggers Road Trip.  I don’t want to revisit the relative merits of Sujewa’s documentary because that doesn’t seem like the relevant question here.  Instead, I’m interested in exploring how the overlapping roles and identities–blogger, filmmaker, publicist, participant–seem to have been confused in that particular discussion.  I’m currently working on assisting in setting up a venue and format for some of those discussions to take place–and it may not happen for a few weeks–but I think those conversations are worth having as we continue to see both communities evolve and change.

These debates are certainly shaped by the challenges of promoting and distributing micro-indie films and the requirements that filmmakers sometimes serve as their own publicists–note Todd Sklar’s recent discussion of his experiences promoting Box Elder and what he has learned from the process–and in which filmmakers and reviewers often run in similar circles.  I’m still in the process of sifting through these questions and how they feed into definitions of “quality” filmmaking, constructions of cinematic taste, etc.  I think these questions may also be shaped by the perceived relationship between blogging and immediacy (and, here, I’m using immediacy in all its richness to connote speed, quickness, directness, etc) and how that might feed into a compulsion to blog quickly.

I’ll keep everyone posted as these thoughts unfold and as I work with some others on framing them.  Some of the discussions that have been taking place both here and elsewhere have me rethinking my own (unpaid, in my case) work here in the blog, and I think that tension might be a good place to start a conversation.

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Indie Film Bloggers Revisited

Quick note: I’ve kept this post up in something close to its original form, but as I began writing and reviewing the post, I found myself growing increasingly ambivalent about it.  I think that writing about a film in which I’m a participant has led me to confront a couple of thorny problems in terms of thinking about how I talk about film here. I’ve considered deleting the post (and I still might), but I’m leaving it up for now precisely because I think it might introduce some useful questions about film blogging.

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Public Media 2.0

One of the questions that began to inform my thought as I was finishing Reinventing Cinema last summer was the role of Web 2.0 technologies in reinvigorating various forms of public media.  While I address some of those concerns briefly in the book, it’s an issue I hope to revisit as my research moves forward in the next few months.  With that in mind, I just wanted to mention a new white paper launched by American University’s Center for Social Media and authored by Patricia Aufderheide and Jessica Clark entitled “Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics,” which launched tonight.

I don’t have time for a thorough reading of the entire report, but I’d encourage anyone who is concerned with the role of public media and with creating an engaged, active, participatory public to take a look.  The report, which is the culmination of four years of research and discussion, outlines not only current 2.0 practices but also offers a number of useful, practical proposals for public media institutions, policymakers, and funders alike.

On an initial read I found a number of Clark and Aufderheide’s key points quite useful.  First, they highlight people’s changing media habits, noting that media use is increasingly characterized by choice, conversation, curation, creation, and collaboration.  Probably not a big surpise for those of who are blogging, vlogging, and Twittering, but useful as a starting point to describe the environment to which public media must adapt.  They are also careful to note that many of these practices, while emerging from a variety of experiments, often succumb to “the familiar terms of power and profit” (9), allowing at least some notes of ambivalence to correct against some of the more celebratory accounts of 2.0 culture. You only need to look at Facebook’s decision to change their Terms of Service, which now allow them to own whatever content you post there, to see how power and profit can sometimes work against the desire for engaged public spaces (although the swift condemnation of these practices shows that a critical, engaged culture persists, even as commercial platforms work against the public’s interests).

Clark and Aufderheide then discuss some of the more exciting experiments in Public Media 2.0, including The Independent Television Service’s World Without Oil alternate reality game and Barack Obama’s, where the incoming president sought suggestions fom the public that had recently elected him to office.  All of these initiatives are characterized by greater participation and by the desire to create more engaged citizens.  From there, they go on to offer some potential means by which public media–including public broadcasters such as PBS and NPR–can evolve given the new media environment, pointing out that public media can contribute in two very distinct ways, though both content and coordination.

Certainly, there is no shortage of great content being produced and supported by various public media institutions, including NPR, Participant Productions, and Kartemquin Films.  But no less importantis the task of coordinating all of this content (and, arguably, this is an even bigger challenge), including the need to provide “an accessible, stable, and reliable platform for public interaction,” among other practices (22).  One of the functions of such a coordination effort, they argue, might also include the creation and support of more effective filtering systems for identifying “high-quality media” (22).  While blogs and other informal media can serve this function on a decentralized basis, this is a useful suggestion.

For the most part, I’ve been summarizing key points from the white paper, in part because I’m still sifting through some of their major claims.  But they are absolutely right in identifying this as an important moment of transition, one that offers tremendous opportunities for public media to thrive and to become a productive component of an engaged, active public.

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The Wrestler

In Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, the camera studiously lingers over Randy “The Ram” Robinson as he prepares to go on stage before every match.  Randy labors to get into costume and to prepare his aging body for yet another match with another B-grade wrestler, tugging gauze around pads to protect creaky elbows and knees.  On other occasions, we see Randy injecting himself in the ass with steroids to keep his body toned.  He even hides a small razor blade in his wristband to cut himself later in the match to give his fans–typically crowded into small community centers–an extra thrill.  These physical elements are pushed to the extreme when a younger wrestler brings out a staple gun, stapling a $20 bill to his own head before filling Randy’s back and chest with staples.

It’s clear enough that Randy is used to better days and bigger celebrity.  He was popular enough for his wrestling character to appear in a Nintendo-type video game, and Randy enjoys replaying his best-known match against “The Ayatollah,” a “bad-guy” rival from the 1980s.  When Randy plays the game against a neighborhood boy, it’s clear that the child is humoring the adult, letting him win the match with his most famous move.  When Randy is given a chance to renew the rivalry in a twentieth anniversary rematch, he sees it as a chance to get back some of the celebrity he has lost.  This is put on hold when Randy suffers a heart attack after an especially violent match, and a doctor warns him that if he continues to fight, he could die.

Offstage, Randy is an amiable, if somewhat isolated lug, wrestling with the kids in his trailer park or practicing moves with fellow wrestlers (or demonstrating an impromptu move on a friendly store clerk), although he is completely alienated from his college-age daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood, in a limited performance) and desperately seeking companionship from an aging stripper, Pam, who goes by the stage name of Cassidy.  Like Randy (and presumably like most strippers), Pam adopts a stage persona to disatnce herself from her customers.  Randy attempts to cross this somewhat ambiguous barrier, seeking Pam’s assistance in buying a gift for his daughter and then asking Pam for an after-hours drink.  In this sense, both Randy and Pam are caught up in the mechanisms of performance and persona, Pam’s sleazy strip club a substitute for the run-down civic centers where Randy wrestles.

Some of these elements (the stripper with a heart of gold; the down-on-his-luck sports figure getting one last chance at the prize) could have easily turned The Wrestler into a set of cliches, but I think the film works, in part because of the physicality of Roarke’s performance and because of Tomei’s ability to bring some complexity to her role.  Randy’s attempts to go “straight,” working a deli counter at a grocery store, also fascinate, especially when Randy recognizes that the counter itself is a kind of stage, and he is able to flirt and charm his audience, his customers.

I’d like to comment briefly about the ending but because this is a pretty big spoiler, I’m going to do so below the fold (and note that there are similar spoilers in the comments).

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International Documentary Challenge Registration Open

Registration for this year’s International Documentary Challenge is now open.  The Doc Challenge, which I first learned about last year, is a timed documentary competition, in which filmmakers are given five days to complete a short documentary about an assigned topic (such as freedom) within a specified genre (such as biography, first-person, or music).  The limited time frame, of course, increases the incentive for filmmakers to work quickly, but as the Doc Challenge website points out, the contest attracts a number of talented filmmakers.  Last year’s winner, Eric Daniel Metzgar, for his short, Beholder, has also produced two very successful feature-length docs, including Life.Support.Music, which I caught at last year’s Full Frame, and Reporter, which focuses on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

The top twelve films premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival.  I’ve been invited to join the panel of judges who’ll be evaluating the films, so I’m very much looking forward to that.

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Tuesday Morning Insomnia Links

Awoke at 4:30ish unable to sleep, so here are a few links before I head to campus for what will be a very long day (two classes, a meeting, and a research presentation).

  • Jason Jones has posted Teaching Carnival 3.1, an excellent collection of links to recent posts about teaching.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick will be hosting the next carnival on February 23.  I’ll be doing hosting duties on March 23, and given my interests in film and media studies, I’d love to get some participation from the film blogging community.  I’ll have a more specific call for entries up soon, but here’s some information on how to nominate entries (including your own) to upcoming carnivals.
  • Spotted on BoingBoing last night: a video featuring every swear word on every episode of The Sopranos, in chronological order.  I didn’t have time to watch the entire thing last night, but this is a fascinating, odd, humorous video. Not for the easily offended (Vimeo page).
  • Some good news for Indie Film Bloggers Road Trip, the documentary in which I am briefly featured: according to Sujewa, IFBRT will be playing at the Atlanta Film Festival in a non-competitive slot.  The film will be use to launch a conversation, presumably a panel although that’s not clear from Sujewa’s post, at the festival about the future of film criticism, blogging, etc.  I’m still planning to attend the film’s premiere on February 17, in New York.

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Saturday Links

While I wait for page proofs of my book to arrive, I’m in the process of looking ahead to a couple of future research projects.  I have a couple of projects in mind, including one focusing on various modes of documentary filmmaking in the Bush era, so hopefully I’ll be able to address some of those ideas here soon in the weeks ahead.  But I’m mulling over a couple of other ideas as well, some of them reflected in todays links:

  • Scott Kirsner has a link to a Wall Street Journal article on interactive videos.  Now that YouTube is allowing embedded links, there are a number of opportunities for thinking about creating interactive narratives, much like the “Barack, Paper, Scissors” game I mentioned a few days ago.  Scott singles out The Time Machine as an interesting case study, and Ill try to write more about it, once Ive had time to review it.
  • The latest entrant in the ongoing debate over the “relevance” of film critics, this time a MoviesOnline discussion of a CNN report.  What’s interesting to me about these debates is not the “relevance” issue, although I think there should be room for paid professional critics on most newspaper staffs.  I’m more interested in the lack of a clear language for talking about critics now that bloggers and internet forums have begun to flourish.  CNN’s somewhat clunky term, “traditional critics” to describe professional newspaper critics is an illustration of the difficulty of coming up with a new language here, especially given that so much blog-based criticism looks like “traditional” criticism in the best sense of that term.  Both pieces are well worth checking out, if you’re interetsed in that sort of thing.
  • Pamela Cohn has a terrific interview with Sky Sitney, the Director of Programming for Silverdocs (which I’d love to attend this year).  Sitney has a lot to say about the new world of festival programming in the era of digital distribution.  In addition to finding fascinating subjects, Pamela, as usual, is aksing somereally valuable questions.  Ive been finding myself thinking about the changing role of festivals quite a bit lately, especially after all of the recent discussions at Sundance, and this interview is a thoughtful contribution to that ongoing conversation.
  • There’s a new post up at the Rutgers University Press blog on Luke and Jennifer Reynolds’ collection of essays, Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope.  Here’s a little background on the Reynolds’ story (note: my book will be published in July by Rutgers).
  • MovieMaker Magazine has another contribution to the growing literature on self-distribution, this time from Jeffrey Goodman.
  • The Guardian’s Danny Leigh joins the growing backlash against Mumblecore films, one that he sees as generationally marked, a problem correctly diagnosed by Karina as “crank old man-ism.”  I’ll admit that some Mumblecore films leave me feeling a little cold, but like Karina, I’m skeptical of the dismissive anti-new technology stances taken by many of Mumblecores major critics. Worth noting: Glen Kenny’s been blogging up a storm about why he’s not a Mumblecore fan (here and here).
  • Lisa Spiro has an incredibly thorough post on Digital Humanities scholarship in 2008. She points to a number of posts defining digital humanities and others that map out the modes of collaboration developed by digital humanities scholars.  Good stuff.
  • Agnes Varnum also has a thoughtful post on the IFC/SXSW announcement that films from SXSW will be available on-demand from IFC during the festival, responding in part to Tom Hall’s similarly thoughtful post on the issue.  My quick reaction is to agree with a number of their key points, including Agness observation that the trend right now is have content available simultaneously in as manyformats as possible.  The “sky is falling” panic over day-and-date, back when Mark Cuban and Steven Soderbergh launched Bubble just over three years ago, now seems like a conversation from a much different era, for better or worse (and for those of us not living in urban centers, my feeling is that the new situation is much better).

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Wednesday Links

No promises, but I’m going to try to blog a little more often this month.  That might mean more annotated links posts like today’s, of course.  But in looking back at some of my more polished research, I’ve found this initial processing stage, even if it’s just a short description, can help me to get a sense of where I want to take my research.  At any rate, here are some links:

  • Judging by the numnber of visitors who’ve already come to the site, I’m guessing that I’m pretty late to this party, but it’s worth mentioning that Lev Manonvich has published his book, Software Takes Command, to his website, where he invites commentary on the book from his readers, kind of like peer review on a massive scale.
  • An interesting blog post on the role of Sundance in today’s media environment, via Ted Hope (who also has been writing at the Truly Free Film blog).
  • Finally, HASTAC has an interesting forum discussion involving Brett Bobley, director of the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities, on the future of the digital humanities.

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Thanks to a couple of distribution snags, Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the biopic about former San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, finally made it to Fayetteville this weekend. The film, based on a screenplay by Duncan Lance Black, depicts the brief political career of Harvey Milk, often described as the first openly gay elected official, before he was murdered by fellow supervisor, Dan White, who also killed Mayor George Moscone.  Because the film came out several weeks ago, in the midst of the 2008 presidential election and, more crucially, California’s Proposition 8 vote, the reception of the film has been shaped by the continued culture wars over the definition of marriage.  Given Milk’s own involvement in fighting the 1978 Proposition 6 (“the Briggs Amenment,” discussed here by Rob Epstein, director of the 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk), which would have prevented gays and lesbians from working in public schools, it’s impossible not to see the resonances between the two eras, and I think the reception of the film invites us to use it as a political tool in supporting marriage rights.

That being said, Van Sant’s film left me feeling somewhat neutral, a reaction I often have to Oscar-bait films. Van Sant, I believe, brings a lot to the story, crafting it around a tape recorded by Milk a few months before he was assassinated.  In her excellent review of the film, Karina described the narration as an “unnecessary and somewhat illogical framing device,” and I think she may be right to suggest how the narration and other familiar tropes of the biopic make the film appear overly conventional when I hoped that it would push boundaries of genre, image, and film style.  The secondary framing, a chance encounter between Milk and a younger, hippieish Scott Smith (James Franco), establishes a similarly familiar trope of the hero who overcomes apathy or indifference in order to make a difference.

These intimate moments are contratsed with Milk’s gradual evolution into a kind of neighborhood leader (“The Mayor of Castro Street,” as he was often described), his camera shop becoming a center of activism in the gay community.  The film depicts Milk taking his familiar position on top of a box labeled “soap” to lead the crowds of gays and lesbians frustrated at arrests and other police harrassment building alongside Milk’s several campaigns for city office.  While many of these scenes were incredibly powerful, especially the playful repetition of Milk’s signature greeting (“I’m Harvey Milk, and I’m here to recruit you”), here is one moment where I think the conventions of a biopic, which force us to focus on a single aspect of Milk’s story, obscure some of the other valuable work Milk did in his political career, including his work on behalf of unions, senior citizens, and other groups.  This activity, carefully documented in Epstein’s film, disappears, for the most part, leaving us with an incomplete portrait.

To be fair, Milk had a number of memorable moments for me: I loved the intercutting between the contemporary performances and the documentary and stock footage of 1970s San Francisco, in particular the Castro district where Milk lived and worked.  Milk understood the power of images.  His campaign stunt of stepping in dog crap in order to underscore the need for pooper scooper laws is but one small example, and the pastiche of images helps to convey that.  And the shots of Anita Bryant campaigning for Prop 6 capture the prejudice that many gays and lesbians faced better than any re-creation of her character.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about Milk today is that I was, like Andrew O’Hehir, a little disappointed by the film’s lack of complexity and, in places, its tendency to sanitize the image of 1970s San Francisco.  To some extent, these choices may be motivated by a desire to reach out and to make the bohemian lives of Milk and his friends safe for the movie theaters and living rooms of the widest possible audience, an impulse that generally seems productive to me, even if it results in films that feel watered down.  I realize the pedagogical value of such films (A.O. Scott favorably describes Milk as a “fascinating, multi-layered history lesson”), especially when they can reintroduce forgotten figures into a wider cultural memory, but at the same time, I would have loved something more complex and detailed, a film that took the full measure of Milk’s significant political career.

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