Archive for March, 2009

Sunday Links

Here are some of the links I’ve been thinking about this week:

  • First, Craig Lindsey of The Raleigh News-Observer writes up the upcoming Full Frame Documentary Film Festival up in Durham.  It’s a good overview of the changes that are happening this year with the festival and this year’s planned themes, which include a series of sports documentaries and films and a focus on the late filmmaker, St. Claire Bourne.  I’m quoted briefly at the end talking about some of the questions facing documentary filmmakers and film festivals as they navigate a changed entertainment and media landscape.
  • It’s a few days old now, but Henry Jenkins’ two-part interview (part one and part two) with Jessica Clark about the new role (and definition) of public media in the digital age is worth a read.  Clark co-authored a white paper, “Public Media 2.0,” with Pat Aufderheide a few weeks ago about these issues (here was my response).
  • I’m also intrigued by the launch of YouTube Edu, the video sharing site’s academic channel.  Not sure I have much to add here other than to observe that the videos range from promotional advertisements to more playful videosmade by students (the “compliment guys” at Purdue are sort of fun).
  • I’m hoping to write something longer later, but I’m also interested in Robert Greenwald’s latest project, Rethink Afghanistan, covered in this New York Times article a few days ago. Rather than release the documentary as a whole, he is posting sections of the documentary gradually in multiple parts, allowing him to adjust material as policies and conditions change.

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Fans, Friends & Followers

Scott Kirsner’s Fans, Friends, and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age uses interviews with a number of prominent artists who have been able to forge careers and gain widespread popularity primarily through promotional and distribution tools available online.  For those of us doing research on digital cinema, Kirsner’s book is a valuable resource, one that illustrates the ways in which content creators are navigating, and sometimes profiting from, what Chris Anderson has described as the “long tail” of digital distribution and what others have described as do-it-yourself (DIY) distribution.  While my own research, in Reinventing Cinema (Amazon) , focuses exclusively on filmmakers, Kirsner assembles a number of key figures from what he calls the “era of digital creativity,” including musicians, comics artists, visual artists, and novelists, in order to establish or explore how a set of practices have emerged that allow artists to escape the “gatekeepers” of traditional distribution and market themselves. While Kirsner’s book is generally optimistic about the potentials of DIY, a number of significant themes surfaced throughout the interviews.

One of the themes that a number of content creators mentioned was the desire to use digital tools in order to produce social change.  Kirsner interviews both Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed and Uncovered) and Sandi DuBowski (Trembling before G-d), both of whom used the house-party model as one tool not only for distributing their socially-conscious documentaries but also as a means for creating a conversation about them, one that could, especially in Greenwald’s case, turn into an active, politicized audience.  Greenwald also describes his efforts to move away from feature-length films and toward short videos that could have a more immediate effect on their audience (51-53), although Greenwald’s more recent project, Rethink Afghanistan, seems to offer a more subtle blend of both approaches by releasing short, timely segments online and then editing those into a feature-length film.  As Brian Stelter notes in the New York Times, Afghanistan is “being shaped both as a film and a campaign at the same time.”  Kirsner also makes a point of asking Greenwald to explain the collaborative process that has become such an important part of his documentaries, especially with much of the material on Brave New Films being produced by other video activists.

Kirsner’s interview with M Dot Strange also produced a number of key insights.  Strange, an animator and filmmaker, also discusses how he has cultivated an active audience, in part by openly communicating how he constructs many of his visual effects: “I’ve found that educational stuff can attract an audience. Share your techniques, and tell people about the software you’re using. You’re almost giving them the DVD extras before they buy the DVD” (54). Strange adds that many studios mask the “real” construction processes behind their films as “proprietary,” furthering mystifying the processes of production for potential filmmakers. While this theme isn’t explicitly addressed elsewhere in Kirsner’s book, this “pedagogical” component of DIY culture seems significant, and it is certainly implicit in the practices described by many of the artists he interviews.

Another question the book addresses–and I wish this had been a more explicit concern–is the energy required to promote the finished products made by these digital creatives.  M Dot does acknowledge that the new distribution models open up new models while reminding that everyone will not be successful and adding that “You’ve got to be like a carny: crafty and resourceful” (54).  Artist Natasha Wescoat acknowledges feeling “overwhelmed” by the promotional work and having “a couple of burn-outs” (78).  Similarly, DJ Spooky, consciously echoing former President Bill Clinton, suggests that he views his career as a “permanent campaign” (65).  Given the negative effects of the “permanent campaign” on governing, it is easy to speculate that such non-stop self-promotion may interfere with artists actually pursuing their creative goals, a question that was never satisfactorily addressed in the book. However, because I am also intrigued by the “extratextual” features that accompany most films (and because those extratextual features are important meaning-making devices in their own right), it’s worth treating the new distribution models and promotional practices themselves as forms of “creativity.”

Finally, I was interested in comedian and YouTube executive Mark Day’s discussion of “expertise” and the ability of successful digital entrepreneurs to turn that success into a second career as an “expert,” whether as a consultant or as a speaker at film festivals and other venues.  Given that many of these success stories are about timing and luck (among other factors), I found myself wondering about the other side of the digital coin, the less popular digital creatives who have remained on the periphery of this new DIY culture.  In most cases, I don’t think it’s fair at all to regard these figures as “failures,” but I wonder if there are other narratives that we call tell besides the digital Horatio Alger story, narratives that might emphasize the new forms of storytelling made possible by digital media.  Most of the people Kirsner interviewed were honest about approaches that didn’t work for them, so I’m not looking for a similar collection of failed attempts, just more narratives about what is possible.

That being said, I think Kirsner knows DIY culture as well as anyone, and he is well-positioned to document what is happening in a variety of digital media, to provide that crucial snapshot of digital DIY practices.  He is also aware that what he is providing is just that, a snapshot, pointing out that these practices are far from static and subject to alteration as new artists find new techniques for having their voices heard (and hopefully making a living from it).  The book also provides at least some statistics about what opportunities are actually available financially to even the most successful digital artists, making the book a useful guide to all of us interested in the ongoing practices of indie filmmakers, musicians, and artists alike.

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Alexander the Last

Fair or not, Joe Swanberg, director of five movies and mainstay at the South by Southwest Film Festival, has become a poster boy for the new do-it-yourself film movement in general and Mumblecore in particular.  Swanberg’s films, which are often characterized by improvisational and collaborative scripts, homemade production designs, and frank explorations of young adult sexuality, have tended to polarize critics, some of whom seem more preoccupied by the Mumblecore “brand” than the films themselves.  Of course, as Alejandro Adams argues, Swanberg’s films are inseparable from Mumblecore, and Swanberg himself is an “institution.”  Others argue about relatively trivial aspects of the films: The cast is too white. The production values suck. And so on.  I’ll add that I’ve tended to have some ambivalence toward many of Swanbeerg’s films, mostly because I found Amy Taubin’s reading of Mumblecore as deriving from “lad-magazine culture” to be somewhat persuasive.  But after catching Alexander the Last (IMDB) recently on IFC’s On-Demand, I’ve become somewhat more energized by Swanberg’s approach to moviemaking and by the themes his films often revisit.

Alexander the Last opens with a mock lesbian wedding between two sisters, Alex and Hellen, their wedding rings improvised stems of flowers.  While Alex (Jess Weixler) recites standard wedding vows, her sister improvises her own vows, and as Cynthia Fuchs notes, the scene is “a sweet, touching, and oddly intimate moment, and it’s not completely clear—now or later—just what it means.”  It certainly recalls the childhood games sisters might play, but it also introduces some of the major themes of the film: the intense friendship between these two sisters, the power of marriage vows, and the challenges associated with sexual intimacy that have become a central preoccuption in many of Swanberg’s films, as well as his web series (with his wife Kris Williams), Young American Bodies.

We then see Alex in bed with her new husband, Eliott (musician Justin Rice), as Eliott prepares to go on tour with his band.  As they embrace, Alex asks Eliott what she describes as a “fake question:” do you love me?  Again, as Fuchs points out, the question itself isn’t completely fake, but her manner of asking allows her to confess or express some level of insecurity about their relationship and to seek reassurance from Eliott.

After Eliott leaves, Alex auditions for and wins the part in a play that will frankly explore the sexual relationship between a character played by Alex and another played by Jamie (Barlow Jacobs). The film carefully establishes a vgue attraction between Jamie and Alex, even while Alex introduces Jamie to Hellen.  Although Alex flirts with Jamie, she also flirts with the boundary between player and performance.

During several key scenes, the playwright (Josh Hamilton) and director (Jane Adams) insist that the play must deal with sex directly and worry about theability to convey sexual desire onstage.  And in one of the more effective sequences, the film crosscuts between stage rehearsals of the planned sex scene in Alex’s play and Jamie and Hellen actually in sexual throes.  The rehearsals are deliberately awkward.  We hear the director describing what she wants and even physically arranging the actors with the future audience in mind.  As a result the film seems to introduce a dialectic between authenticity and representation that is somewhat new to Swanberg’s films.

The scene also displays a level of formal sophistication that may not have been explicit in some of Swanberg’s earlier films that seemed to wear their homemade status as a badge of honor.  As Andrew O’Hehir observes, Alexander “is a distinctly more professional film than Swanberg’s previous work, and in most ways that’s a good thing.”  The compositions are sharper, and the use of sound and editing seems far more self-assured.  I don’t want to suggest that there is anything particularly “new” here.  The dialectic between authenticity and performance has been a staple of punk cinema for decades, and the low-budget, minmalist aesthetic isn’t entirely new either.  I even found myself thinking of Woody Allen’s mid-career character dramas in places, perhaps because of the New York setting, but I think Alexander is aksing some interesting questions, both about social relationships and about our means of representing them onstage and onscreen.

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Teaching Carnival 3.4

Welcome to the fourth installment of the 2009 Teaching Carnival.  For many of us, including myself, the end of the academic year is fast approaching, but even as stacks of papers to grade loom large, there continues to be a wealth of blog posts and videos reflecting on our teaching practices.  With the South by Southwest Film Festival taking place over the last few weeks and with the significant challenges raised by the current economic crisis, I’ve been impressed by the number of bloggers who have been reflecting on the activity of teaching.

As usual, here are some definitions for those of you unfamiliar with the Teaching Carnival concept, along with some words of advice to consider as you read Carnival entries.  Finally, thanks to Alan Benson for doing such an excellent job with Teaching Carnival 3.3, as well as Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Jason Jones for the first two 2009 carnivals.  Check out the new issue below the fold:

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Medicine for Melancholy

Barry Jenkins’ sharp, incisive romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy (IMDB) tells the story of two African-American twenty-somethings, Micah and Joanne, as they wander the streets of San Francisco over the course of a day after having a one-night stand at a party.  Their conversation begins tentatively, almost accidentally, after Micah realizes that Joanne left her purse in a cab they had shared the morning after meeting.  But soon, the two of them discover shared interests in music and art and spend a day biking to different places in San Francisco, looking at art, sharing meals, and filling time with conversation about their lives.  The image of two lovers moving restlessly through city streets recalls, to some extent, similar plots in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but unlike these films, Medicine uses its characters to meditate on the rapidly changing, gentrifying spaces in San Francisco, creating not only an emotionally powerful film but also one that challenges viewers to reflect on social class, gentrification, and indie culture in some complex ways.

Medicine for Melancholy explores these themes through the interactions between Micah (Wyatt Cenac of The Daily Show), an aquarium installer, and Joanne (Tracey Heggins), a t-shirt designer.  As Micah and Joanne become acquainted, we learn that Joanne’s boyfriend is an art dealer, away in London on business, and he’s white.  While we never see the boyfriend, his whiteness becomes a key point of conversation between the working-class Micah and the upper-middle class Joanne, an issue that is reflected in the tony, but somewhat sterile apartment where Joanne lives, one that Micah is quick to point out has no art on its walls. These issues of class and race and their relationship to San Francisco’s indie scene bring up, as A.O. Scott points out, a number of questions about “self-definition,” as Micah seeks to uncover–and wrestle with–the homogeneity of the hipster culture the two of them inhabit.

But as Scott also points out, Medicine for Melancholy is far from a polemic.  Instead, the film plays as a sincere reflection on the ways in which San Francisco, like many cities, seems to be rebuilding itself by pushing its poorer residents out.  Medicine does this, in part, through the use of a deeply desaturated, almost monochromatic, cinematography.  As Karina Longworth points out, “in such a literally colorless landscape, it’s a freak occurence that our protagonists have met at all.” And while there are moments in which we get brilliant flashes of color, the dulled cinematography forces us to see San Francisco in a slightly different way, to see it through Micah’s eyes as whitewahsed and dull, but also as Karina observes, strangely beautiful (it would, in fact, be interesting to compare the depiction of San Francisco in Medicine to the somewhat more celebratory Milk).

Notably, these concerns are even reflected in one of the promotions for the film, sponsored by IFC, that asks fans to submit photographs of places in their city: “Whether you’re in Seattle, New York, Des Moines, or wherever, we want to see how your city inspires you, how it effects the romantic, social, and political aspects of your life.”  The photographs submitted thus far offer a mosaic of social space, one that is in keeping with the film’s overall themes of the politics of space and the effect of those issues on the possible romance between two people who had been complete strangers just a few hours earlier.

Medicine for Melancholy’s cinematography and its use of street locations in San Francisco gave the film an almost documentary feel in places, at least for me (although Andrew O’Hehir, a longtime resident of San Francisco, had nearly the opposite experience).  This documentary quality emerged most explicitly for me during a scene relatively late in the film involving members of a housing rights committee who discuss the housing changes, including changes in rent control rules, that are affecting San Francisco’s working class and poor residents.  We learn, for example, that only seven percent of all San Francisco residents are black.  This scene, almost jarring in its introduction and execution, pushes Medicine for Melancholy well beyond what O’Hehir describes as the “Before Sunrise…almost-romance genre.”  It also helps make it one of the more compelling and thoughtful films I’ve seen in a long time.

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Teaching Carnival Reminder

A quick reminder that the next issue of the Teaching Carnival will be going live in less than a week.  I would encourage anyone who is interested in participating to send along links either via email to chutry[at]msn[dot]com or according to these instructions from the Teaching Carnival website.

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m espeially interested in getting some of my media studies colleagues involved this time, but I’d welcome submissions from anyone who is interested in participating.

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Tuesday Links

Getting in all my blogging now before I get slammed with my next round of grading.  Here are some more links that have recently crossed my radar:

  • Fellow Newcritic Tom Watson weighs in on the newspaper crisis with some of the more measured observations I’ve seen.  Tom picks up on many of the points raised recently by Clay Shirky, adding that with the demise of newspapers, we will be in anger of losing those “small” stories, the city council meetings and local cultural activities, that require the resources that had historically been available to local newspapers (and that could, at one point, sustain two or more local dailies in many cities). Tom’s also right to challenge Craig Newmark’s glib assessment that newspapers need to begin experimenting with new revenue models.  Those experiments have been taking place for years, andeven while readership of newspapers is expanding considerably, newspapers themselves continue to struggle financially.
  • Via Alisa Perren, a wide assortment of media links, including news that indie film company B-Side Entertainment has launched a theatrical distribution arm.
  • On a related note, the online movie reference site, IMDb is planning to develop a tool that would allow browsers to watch movies directly from their IMDb pages. As the website’s founder Col Needham explains, “We want a play button on every single page of IMDb.”

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I’ve been meaning to mention for the last few days that I’ve now been blogging for six years, something that I find hard to believe, not because I ever thought I would run out of things to say but because those years seem to have passed so quickly.  When I reflect on the history of my blog, I’m inevitably reminded that I started blogging, in part, because I felt frustrated by the pro-war messages being promoted in most corporate media outlets and what felt like the lack of serious attention being given to dissenting views.  While I didn’t have any expectations for my blog, the solidarity I felt at joining in with other anti-war bloggers was very meaningful at the time.

Now, with the sixth anniversary of the Iraq War approaching on March 19, I find myself thinking about these issues again after watching Alexandra Juhasz’s hour-long documentary, Scale: Measuring Might in the Media Age, which is now available for free on SnagFilms and follows Alex’s sister Antonia as she goes on a tour to promote her book, The Bush Agenda. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with Alexandra quite a bit at conferences over the years, and I know that she and I share concerns about media and activism and about the potential effects that our cultural productions–our books, articles, blogs, videos, and movies–can have in the social and political world.  Scale explores some of these questions via the “scale shift” Antonia experiences when her book begins to make a dent in some bestseller lists, in part because of interviews with a number of media outlets, including Air America, Greg Palast, and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman.  The sisters discuss the ways in which Antonia is able to leverage her new status in order to ensure that her arguments about the Bush administration’s economic motives will be heard by a wider audience, and the concept of a scale-shift is a useful one, even if I found myself wanting to complicate it to some extent.

Alex’s documentary is a “little” film in the best sense of that term: intimate and reflective without being intrusive, and she and Antonia consistently reflect on the role of the camera in mediating what is happening onscreen, a theme that is introduced in the opening sequence when Antonia and Alex plan the scene they are about to perform.  Shots of Alex, reflected in a darkened window, camera in hand, also remind us that we are watching a constructed artifact, something that is actively making meaning, unlike most news shows that seek to hide their seams to create the illusion of objective truth.

I’ll admit that I’m somewhat skeptical of one of the underlying assumptions suggested by the film and by the framing on Scale’s Snag page, which asks whether “regular people can use the media” to expand the reach of their voices, in part because it seems to treat the media, which I regard, in part, as a vast collective of individual people often with competing agendas, too homogeneously (that is by implicitly excluding those in the media from the category of “regular people”).  This is beyond the intended scope of Alex’s documentary, but I’ve also found myself interested in thinking about how we are experiencing a different sort of scale-shift in the field of journalism right now as a number of major local newspapers are going bankrupt or shifting to online-only editions, with once powerful voices now becoming somewhat muted in relationship to their digital counterparts, a question that seems to be a dominant one at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.  And yet, as I move into my seventh year of blogging, I continue to find myself returning to some of the questions Alex raises in this film, about how political speech is shaped by the media in which we communicate.  And I’m especially glad that I’ve had the blog as a means of working through many of those reflections with such an attentive, critical audience.

Update: There is further conversation about the concept of “scale,” as both Alex and Antonia are thinking about it on Alex’s YouTube page.

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Brothers at War

Thanks to my proximity to Fort Bragg, I had the opportunity tonight to catch an early screening of Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War, a documentary that details Jake’s journey to Iraq to learn more about why his two brothers serve in the military and what their service is like.  Because many of the soldiers depicted in the film are stationed at Fort Bragg, Fayetteville proved to be an ideal audience for the film.  Other screenings were held this week in Columbus, GA, and Jacksonville, NC, cities near military bases, as well as Chicago and Washington. The screening is part of a larger planned roll-out that will have the film expand to 20 cities next Friday. Rademacher’s film seems to defy the conventions of most Iraq War documentaries.  Roger Ebert, for example, comments that he has “been waiting for this film since the early days of the war in Iraq” and credits the film’s honesty and authenticity.  Soldiers and spouses in attendance, including several participants in the film, all described the film as a “real” portrait of the war.  But I found myself unable to reconcile the narrative of war and military life depicted in Brothers at War with other images, other documentaries I’ve seen, although I think the storiy that Rademacher has told has helped me to understand my fellow citizens here in Fayetteville a little better, and for that, the film deserves a lot of credit.

Because of my place here in Fayetteville, writing about this film presents unique challenges.  In fact, I’ve likely seen many of the soldiers depicted in the film here in town, perhaps at a local grocery store or watering hole.  They may have held the door open for me as I was entering a convenience store or restaurant.  Living here has put a slightly more human face on the war, even as my opposition to the war has deepened.  I’m prefacing my response to the film with these comments because I’m still grappling with the material in the film and the conditions of its production.

In many ways, Brothers at War appears to be a relatively straightforward documentary.  Jake, the oldest brother, wants to learn more about his two brothers’ military service and becomes embedded with his younger brother Isaac’s unit.  The first third of the film gently mocks Jake’s relative softness as compared to his younger brother.  We see that the barracks in which Isaac is stationed are surrounded by cement walls nine inches thick, and Jake records footage for about three weeks, goes on a relatively eventless mission, the biggest highlight a mysterious car that appeared briefly, and Jake goes home.  Still feeling as if his younger brother, Joe, doesn’t fully respect him, however, Jake returns, and during the second trip, he does witness a brief skirmish in which several soldiers are wounded, including several Iraqi soldiers the unit has been training.

These scenes clearly convey the sacrifices the soldiers are making, and I don’t want to deny that, but this is also a moment that seemed to illustrate a limit, either to the grunts-eye documentary in general or to Brothers at War in particular, in that the film is unable to place the soldiers’ actions inside of any meaningful context other than the ideal of being a soldier.  All of the soldiers and family members return to the idea of sacrifice and duty, and yet there is almost no connection to a larger political context.  In one barracks shot, a soldier’s “W ’04” bumper sticker is clearly visible, but that’s about the only “politicized” image we see.  This lack of overt political statement prompted Ebert to see the film as not offering a pro-war position, and yet, the meaning the soldiers get from the war, the degree to which they are seen as “becoming men” by serving seems to suggest otherwise.  In fact, in writing this review, I am reminded of Chris Hedges’ thesis that war gives us a sense of meaning: “Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our news. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.”

This contrast between triviality and seriousness is an ongoing theme in the film.  Soldiers talk about returning home and going to the local Wal-Mart and feeling offended when customers complain about their cell phone bill or about the quality of the meat at the deli counter.  Others mock the gossip rags that obsess over Tom Cruise’s latest antics.  All of the soldiers Rademacher interviews argue that war has matured them and given them a sense of purpose. And this is where I began to find Bothers at War to be a little unsettling: we see the sense of meaning that is derived from the war.  I think this is where many soldiers complain about documentaries that are more explicitly ambivalent about the war, such as Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland: these films are less willing to find “meaning” in the war and therefore seem to obscure the successes and “good things” accomplished by the soldiers. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t believe that soldiers aren’t doing “good things;” I’m just skeptical of the suggestion, implied in the film, that depicts (as Hedges suggests of previous war narratives) “the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good.”

I also struggled a bit with the assertion that Hollywood is unfriendly to pro-war or pro-military narratives.  Those of us who opposed the war often see things through the opposite lens, believing that the mainstream media was largely supportive of the war in Iraq until the insurgency made it relatively unpopular.  In fact, if anything, the film’s final sequences, complete with the use of downbeat music and perfectly lit soldiers and their families suggested nothing more to me than a cross between Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  And yet the claim by Rademacher and by the film’s executive producer, Gary Sinise that Hollywood refuses to tell such stories seemed to be taken at face value, allowing the filmmakers to depict the film as “oppositional,” if not to any political institution to the institution of Hollywood itself.  Of course, Hollywood is far from a homogeneous culture, and even Sinise admitted that Hollywood’s primary motivation is money.

That being said, Rademacher has powerfully told a story about his family’s experience with the war, about the role of military life for himself, his brothers and sisters, and his parents, and for anyone who wants a better understanding of the sacrifices experienced by military families, this film provides that.  Rademacher knows how to tell a story, and his subjects are very candid about their experiences.  Despite any political reservations I might have, Brothers at War is an important contribution to our ongoing attempts to doucment the Iraq War and should be seen by a wider audience.

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Newspapers, Mumblecore, and More

I had a slight change of plans and will catch Brothers at War tonight and will hopefully have a review up tomorrow.  For now, a quick tour through some interesting conversations taking place in my corner of the blogosphere, many of them loosely related to the South by Southwest Film Festival taking place right now:

First, Clay Shirky has an important blog essay on the state of the newspaper inustry.  What I like about Shirky’s article is his reading of the current state of media transition via Elizabeth Eisenstein’s brilliant book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. In the book, as Shirky observes, Eisenstein engages in the messy task of looking at the very “chaotic” transitional period when print first appeared.  Shirky goes on to argue that we are still in that transitional period and that phenomena that initially appeared to be very minor–he cites the example of Craigslist–actually prove to have far-reaching consequences.  Shirky isn’t terribly sanguine about the future of the newspaper industry while still making a powerful case for our continued need for journalism.  Shirky’s piece is well worth multiple reads. Speaking of newspapers, the Washington Post is joining a number of other newspapers in dropping multi-page stock quotations and in folding its business section into its front page.  This is obviously a cost-cutting move, but given the intersections between the economy and politics, it makes some degree of sense.

On a related note, Eszter Hargittai reviews some of the changes to the Pew Internet & American Life Project (PIP) website.  I’ve been finding myself returning more oftem to the PIP website for my research on viral political videos and other web phenomena, so these changes look incredibly helpful.  On a relate note: I’m hoping to sit down and closely read Pew’s report on Twitter use in the next few days.  In fact, I probably should have read it before I wrote my AlterNet article, as I think it would have helped support my argument that Twitter and similar tools are deeply entwined with other social media and not reducing thought to 140-character soundbites.

I’ve been finding myself increasingly engaged with some of the Mumblecore discussions that have been taking place in the last few weeks, in part due to the South by Southwest Film Festival, where Mumblecore “stars” Joe Swanberg and Kris Williams have films playing.  First Alejandro Adams challenges some of the more common myths and misconceptions about Mumblecore in “The Truth about Joe Swanberg.”  Noralil Ryan Fores has a long, thoughtful interview with Swanberg and Williams about their new films, Alexander the Last (which I’m hoping to watch via IFC’s on-demand) and Williams’ debut feature, It was great, but I was ready to come home, which I’d also like to see.

An implicit theme of SXSW again seems to be issues of media convergence, the simultaneous access to films and other media via a variety of channels.  Already, at least four SXSW films are playing on IFC, and several of last year’s films are now available on Hulu, as Matt Dentler and Anne Thompson point out. With that in mind,I’ll point to MIT’s Convergene Culture Consortium, which has an interesting read on some of these changes, especially as they affect the TV industry and television narratives, in particulat the “time” and “space” of TV.  I’m becoming increasingly interested in navigating how these spatial shifts are affecting the film industry, especially events such as festivals that were once “exclusive” spaces (“you have to be there”) to something a little more complex.  You can now watch festival panels on YouTube or watch Sunance and SXSW films online.  That’s certainly not the same thing as being present at the festival, but it does represent a significant shift in how we theink about the festival as a discovery and promotional event.

Finally, Ken Levine has the shooting script (PDF), complete with “stage directions,” for the “Dancin’ Homer” episode of The Simpsons he co-wrote with David Isaacs.  It’s a great little resource for thinking about how to convert an animated TV show from page to screen.  And, it’s also very funny. Enjoy.

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Alejandro Adams’ unsettling science-fiction dystopia, Canary, is one of the first films I’ve seen in ages that sent me scrambling to learn more, not simply because the film was “difficult,” but because it engaged me on so many levels.  I’ve been in contact with Alejandro ever since he invited me to contribute to a roundtable on the video iPod when it was first released in November 2005, but I don’t think I was fully prepared for Canary’s profound meditation on interpersonal communication, corporate malfeasance, and cinematic storytelling.

Canary depicts an alternate present in which a large percentage of the human population has received organ transplants, and the people who have received transplants are apparently functional.  The primary corporation involved in the organ transplant business, Canary Industries, is one of those medical companies that we know through relentlessly cheerful advertisements showing smiling families watching beautiful sunrises from improbably pristine beaches (Adams has set up a nice mock-up of this PR spin on the film’s official website).  However, those transplant recipients are only “leasing” the organs, which can be repossessed if the user is not properly taking care of them.  At one point, a medical consultant gently lectures a small child for not eating properly.  Other details come across more elliptically.  A passing bit of information reveals that a large percentage of infants are equipped with organ transplants, suggesting the ways in which Canary Industries is able to build a long-term customer base.

This cruelty is set against the public relations workers who, while watching a series of PowerPoint slides, attempt to design a new logo that will put a friendlier face on the corporation and the relentlessly cheerful banter of the office staff at Canary Enterprises (one of my Twitter friends aptly suggested the film could have been called “PowerPoint: The Banality of Evil”).  These scenes are unsettling, in part, because we view them from the position of an outsider.  Adams studiously avoids allowing us to identify with any specific character, creating a “voyeuristic, disconnected” feeling that distances us even further from the characters we are watching.  At the same time, the messy, noisy, seemingly improvised conversations in the Canary cubicles recalled the overlapping dialogue commonly seen in Altman films (Dennis Harvey also makes this Altman connection), here to the effect of turning the viewer into an observer of the action.  As Adams observes in this interview, the film’s “horror is terminal alienation, the absence of coherent interpersonal communication.” This lack of communication also comes across in an unsettling conversation in which a mother picks up her daughter from a preschool, talking on a cell phone while only half-listening to a teacher’s concerns about the daughter’s recent behavior. Is the teacher overreacting to behavior that might be perfectly normal? Perhaps, but the mother hears only part of the conversation, too distracted by other things.

This forced chattiness stands in stark contrast to the mute, unsettling gaze of Carla, the organ collector, who quietly observes before taking action, whether repossessing organs that are being used “improperly” or, in some cases, walking away.  Because she generally observes without speaking, we have no sense of how she views her job, the morals involved. These scenes are especially creepy, as Nick Rombes observes, because we never actually see Carla complete the act of harvesting an organ. We watch her meticulous preparation, and we even see her apply a bright blue goo to people’s chest and stomachs, but the act itself remains unseen, conjuring for us something that might be far more sinister than what we see on screen.

Like Nick, I appreciated the film’s textures, the ambient noises, such as the sounds of small children energetically drawing and coloring pictures, that gave the film a naturalistic film even in the midst of its sci-fi plot.   At the same time, despite the naturalistic use of hand-held camera, a number of shots had a deliberate, sometimes stunning composition.  While Canary will no doubt challenge many viewers, through its use of distancing techniques (including significant sequences that feature dialogue in untranslated Russian, German, and Vietnamese), it also asks compelling, engaging questions.

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Thursday Links

Thanks to Spring Break, I’m blogging up a storm this week.  We’ll see if that lasts once classes start again on Monday.  For now, here are a few links that my North Carolina readers might find interesting, especially those of you in Fayetteville.

  •  First, the Fayetteville Museum of Art will be hosting a premiere party for a new exhibit, “Raw Identity,” this Friday from 6-8 PM.  Amneris Solano of the Fayetteville Observer has more information. The premiere party will include the music of Chapel Hill folk duo, Birds and Arrows.
  • Also on Friday will be a special screening of the film, Brothers at War, a film by Jake Rademacher that explores the effect of the Iraq War on his family while he was embedded with a Marine-trained Iraqi Army unit and while his two brothers were serving in the military. The filmmaker and executive producer Gary Sinise will be present at the screening and will participate in a Q&A after the film. Brian Dukes of the Fayetteville Observer has more information about what sounds like a compelling film.
  • Via Second Cinema, news about a cool upcoming event: Race in NC: Looking Back • Moving Forward, Documentary Film Forum, sponsored by ChathamArts. The event starts at 2:30 pm Saturday March 21 and continues on Sunday afternoon March 22 and takes place in downtown Pittsboro, NC, just outside of Raleigh. Films include Mackey Alston’s Family Name and We Shall Not be Moved, the story of the Tillery, NC, Farm Resettlement.
  • Finally, Full Frame is less than a month away.  I need to sit down soon and start planning my schedule.  I managed to snag a press pass this year, so I’m hoping to overdose on some great documentaries again this year. Any recommendations from this year’s schedule?

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Transmedia and Social Networking

I received a promotional email for the new CBS show, Harper’s Island and its corresponding web series (or “social show” as it’s being billed), Harper’s Globe.  There’s a lot going on here, at least in the earliest stages of the show’s promotion that I’m interested in following (the series itself doesn’t premiere until April).  It’s probably not unusual at this point to have content associated with network shows appearing in a variety of media channels, a practice that Henry Jenkins has famously referred to as transmedia storytelling, but there are some specifics I’d like to monitor.

First, the CBS series is being described as a horror-mystery show crossed with reality TV.  The trailer for Harper’s Globe, availabale on the Globe website, evokes such films as Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project, and The Ring, with the vague suggestion of found video footage that opens up a mystery.  But the show itself also borrows from reality TV shows such as Survivor in that one of the characters in the series will die off during each episode.  The result is a deliberately planned series of thirteen episodes that follows the model of British television shows that have a predetermined duration, which provides the series creators with more freedom to write off (or kill off) lead characters.

Second, the accompanying “social show” looks interesting.  Already, in the comments, fans are participating in some of the work of finding clues embedded within the original videos to a wider, distributed storyworld involving blogs, wikis, and other sites.  The trailer, for example, offers a URL that leads to this blog, WPU Dorm Diaries, purportedly authored by one of the characters in the show.What I find especially interesting is the nod to social media scholar danah boyd, not only through a blogroll link but also through an explicit shout-out in the blog in an entry where Robin reports that she is “majoring in the internet.”  Someone is clearly doing their internet-studies research.

The web portion of the series focuses on Robin, who goes to work for Harper’s Globe, the local newspaper, where she will be “digitizing old articles and building a community-based Web site.”  Robin will be a peripheral character on the TV show while maintaining a primary presence in the web series.  If Robin’s story, a mysterious young woman reaching a wider audience on the internet, sound familiar, it probably should.  The web material is being produced by the creative team behind LonelyGirl15 and Kate Modern.  The CBS series is being produced by Jon Turtletaub, Karim Zreik, and Dan Shotz (among others), all of whom were involved with Jericho, a series I liked quite a bit that used the web well but never found a network audience.

I’m a little behind on tracking how current shows are using the web to expand the storyworld of a series, so the Harper’s material will provide me with a good excuse to catch up.  I like the premise of a series with a planned duration, so it’ll be interesting to see how this particular model of transmedia storytelling works.

Update: Forgot to mention that Harper’s Globe also has a Twitter feed, mandatory not only for newspapers these days but also for aspiring web series.

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Building a Film Search Engine

Because I’ve been reading Alex Halavais’s fascinating book, Search Engine Society, I’ve been finding myself reflecting on the role that search engines play not only in how we look for information or what information we find but also in the very questions we ask about the world.  While search engines are a new phenomenon, he points out, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine life without them.  Yet, there are some things that search engines don’t do well.  They don’t always provide us with the best information or most interesting resources, and at least in my experience, they rarely do a good job of indexing video content, especially since most search engines focus on looking for keywords.

With that in mind, I’m incredibly intrigued by SpeedCine, a new video search tool launched by New York publicist Reid Rosefelt.  I learned about the tool, which is currently in its earliest stages of development, from Anne Thompson, who reports that SpeedCine “is a database, not a crawling search engine,” a decision the creators made in order to avoid leading viewers to illegally uploaded films.  Instead, the site focuses on bringing users to legally uploaded versions of films, available on both free and pay sites. It also introduces you to a wide array of options. Instead of searching separately in two or three sites for an available copy of the film, SpeedCine searches across multiple sites providing links to the film wherever it might be available.

Like Thompson, I tried a number of searches on the demo version, which compiles about 150 films.  A search for the 1974 documentary, Waiting for Fidel, took me to a streaming version of the film on the National Film Board of Canada’s website. A search for Richard Linklater’s Slacker led to half a dozen streaming versions, including one on Hulu and another on YouTube, made available by the indie cinema group Cinetic.  Thompson’s search for Kicking It took her to SnagFilms (you could also watch instantly via Netflix if your membership in the rental service allowed).  During the demo phase, SpeedCine only has 150 films in their database, but that is in the process of changing.  The cool part, so far, seems to be the emphasis on indie films and documentaries.  This looks like an interesting service, one that could benefit independent filmmakers down the road, although given the site’s database structure, I am a little cautious to see what films will be included.  As Halavais’s book points out, search engines have participated in both promoting and discouraging diversity, so I’ll be interested to see whether SpeedCine can fulfill this promise.

Update: On a related note, Jim Quillen points to news that Google is working on a voice search for video, which would “allow their search engines to recognize and index the audio portions of online videos.”  In an interview with Charlie Rose, Google VP Marissa Mayer also added that Google would like to index images, but that the technology is several years away.

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Popping the CNBC Bubble

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll likely know that I’m a big fan of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.  Although the shows are on a major cable channel owned by a multimedia conglomerate, few texts out there do a more effective job of offering a form of popular media criticism, equipping viewers to become more attentive media critics.  And arguably, in some of the stronger clips, these shows provide at least some means for digging into the almost impossibly vast archive of cable news images, slowing the relentless stream of talk down to make connections between ideas.  In this sense, Stewart and Colbert have an affinity with some of the better practices of the video media critics working for and with Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films to provide a popular (and very funny) form of media criticism.

With that in mind, I’ve been blown away by the recent series of Daily Show segments in which Stewart and his writers have been sending up the financial news industry for their culpability in the ongoing financial crisis.  One of Stewart’s primary targets, Jim Cramer, is an especially large target due to predictions (about Bear Strearns, about the real estate market) that have proven to be spectacularly wrong.  In response, Cramer (rather unwisely) dismissed Stewart as “just” a comedian, engaging himself in a battle of wits with some of the best TV writers out there, essentially digging himself deeper into a hole by going on virtually every channel NBC owns, a move that Stewart mocks by eiting himself into a couple of shows owned by Viacom (MTV’s The Hills and Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer).

Nicholas Graham has been covering these ideas for the last few days for Alternet and has a really sharp read. Stewart’s original target was Rick Santelli, who referred to people who defaulted on their mortgages as “losers,” ignoring years of bad policy decisions by the government and banking industry and the investment frenzy created by networks and news organizations such as CNBC.  Cramer responded in a number of venues, most notably on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, leading to Stewart’s more recent response (available via Graham).  I’ll be interested to see how Stewart handles Cramer as a guest, but I think we need more commentary like Stewart’s, not less, in order to make sense of this financial crisis and the logic that made it possible.

Update: I can’t resist a quick pointer to this supremely bizarre attack on Stewart from Big Hollywood. I normally wouldn’t bother, but it’s Spring Break, and for the first time in a while, I don’t have any looming deadlines.  Short version BH’s Dan Gifford suggests that Stewart is “manipulating” viewers through his use of humor to criticize Rick Santelli’s now-famous CNBC rant.  Gifford quotes a passage from Stewart’s monologue that leaves him mystified as to why the Daily Show audeince would laugh:

He had done some critical reporting on the hundreds of billions of dollars of bailout money going to failed banks, failed auto makers and insurers of failed banks and auto makers (laughter).

The laughter isn’t, as Gifford oddly surmises, coming from the idea that Santelli was critical of the bailout money going to “fat cats.”  The key to me seems to be the characterization of Santelli’s work as a reporter, the smug self-righteousness that he knows all the answers, a point that is illustrate quite vividly in the montage video featuring Santelli and Cramer authoritatively making predictions that were painfully wrong.  And while I’d never take investment advice from CNBC, I’d imagine lots of other poeple did, so Cramer and Santelli’s smug authorittiveness eserves to be taken down a notch or two.

Gifford goes on to argue that Stewart’s humor–like humor in general–is born out of hostility.  I’ll leave the full analysis of the use of parody and satire and their relationship to power to those who know the field better than I do.  But given how much money this bailout is going to cost American taxpayers, their children (and probably grandchildren), I think we’ve got a right to be hostile.  And yes, Santelli’s tone in the rant seemed to imply that we need to bailout the big guys while drawing a line in the sand at helping individual mortgage holders.  It’s not a stretch to see why Stewart’s audience might be angry.

Finally, Gifford uses his anti-Stewart rant to undercut the relative sophistication of Daily Show audiences with regards to political news.  Citing an Annenberg study that showed that Daily Show viewers knew more about the news than FoxNews watchers, Gifford then–in language that some might regard as “humorous” with a mix of hostility–dismisses the study by suggesting that the Annenberg study’s bar for media literacy is set way too low.  I’m willing to go along with that.  I desperately wish U.S. citizens were better informed about news and politics.  The country would be better for it. So, why do FoxNews viewers know even less about the political world than their Daily Show counterparts? And what does that tell us about our “real” newsgathering channels?

Update 2: I’ll try to do a longer update tomorrow about Jon Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer, which I think reached, and maybe surpassed, Stewart’s Crossfire appearance.  As a number of Tweeps pointed out, Stewart ripped the network to shreds for failing to be accountable to its audience and to the investors who have been encouraged to view the stock market as a long-term investment plan.  Yes, it may have been self-righteous, but it was the most satisfying thirty minutes of television I’ve seen in a long time.  For those of you who missed it, Yahoo has an early summary of the episode, and I’ll link to the full video tomorrow when it’s available.

Final update: Here’s the full episode.

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