Archive for April, 2009

Monday Links

Classes end on Friday, so I’m not sure how much time I’ll have for blogging.  That being said, there are a few items on my radar that deserve more than the fleeting 140-character treatment:

  • Reid Gershebin, who has previously worked for both Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, is in the process of organizing The Two Week Film Collective, a film series that invites any interested filmmaker to make a film in a two-week time span.  All submitted films will be screened in San Francisco and Gershbein is seeking other screening venues in other cities.  Gershbein is also rounding up a group of film bloggers and critics to review, comment on or discuss the participating films and/or the state of independent movies today.  He’s collected a solid roster of critics on Twitter (yep, there again), myself included, and happily invites others to participate.  As usual, I’m intrigued by Reid’sattempt to combine two indie cinema practices that I find especially appealing: creating new, often temporary sites for screening movies and encouraging conversations about the production process (and the films themselves).
  • Reid reports that he was “inspired” to create the Two Week Film Collective after reading and participating in Alejandro Adams’ recent roundtable on self-distribution.  I’ve only skimmed a few of the contributions so far, but it looks like a fascinating discussion.  I contributed to one of Alejandro’s roundtables on the video iPod on the old BraintrustDV site way back in 2005 (when my ideas for the book were starting to come together), so I’m excited to see that Alejandro is reviving these virtual forums.
  • Nick Dawson, a contributor to both Filmmaker Magazine and Film In Focus, has a new biography of director Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude and Being There, among others).  I haven’t had a chance yet to read Nick’s book, but I’m putting it on my summer reading list.

I’m hoping to write something more sustained on the fruitful conversation taking place at the roundtable, as well as Reid’s thoughtful response, but again, end-of-semester demands are looming.  I am very much looking forward to the summer, though.  If the past couple of years have been dominated by working on Reinventing Cinema, I’m looking forward this summer to spending a little more time rediscovering movies, whether in theaters, on cable, or on whatever screen they happen to play.

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Reading Together, Reading Alone

Steven Berlin Johnson’s recent Wall Street Journal article on how the e-book will change reading practices had me racing to my blog before I’d even finished it.  Building from a moment of recognition (an “aha moment”) in an Austin coffeehouse, in which he “put down” the nonfiction book he was reading on his Kindle to purchase and start reading a novel.  Within minutes, Johnson had started reading Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, “shelving” the other book.

As my use of scare-quotes illustrates, the Kindle may very well change the metaphors we use to describe shifting our attention from one text to another.  If I switch books on a Kindle, am I really “putting something down?” More to the point, Johnson interprets this moment as a model for the new ways of reading that may be on the verge of taking place in the era of Google Books and the Amazon Kindle, and I think–at least on an impressionistic level–Johnson’s argument has a number of strengths (note: I still haven’t had an opportunity to test-drive a Kindle or iPhone).  He’s certainly right to observe that the ability to search our libraries will affect how we do research.  I’ve already found myself using a quick Google Book or Google Scholar search to track down certain concepts.  More often, I’ve used delicious or some other tool to manage ideas or articles that I want to revisit, but having access to books as well, via search tools or some other mechanism, would change even further how I write and research.

But the claim that sent me scurrying to read Johnson’s article, which I can’t recommend enough, is the idea that reading will be transformed from a fundamentally private activity to a more public one:

Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

Johnson compares the act of reading on a Kindle to the “public” practices of blogging, where bloggers read, annotate, and mull over the writing of others.  There’s something incredibly enticing here, at least for me.  While Johnson speculates that our attention to any single linear narrative might wane (a debatable claim), the engaged audience he imagines here would seem ideal for scholarly readers and writers.  And as the book itself is reimagined as an object to be cited and circulated online, it potentially creates room for new forms of scholarship and writing.

But I do find myself puzzling over his claim that reading currently is a “fundamentally private activity.”  In fact, reading as I have experienced it, has always been a complex interweaving of public and private tendencies, never fully reaching either extreme.  In my literature classes, my students and I read passages aloud in the classroom.  Once we’ve read a couple of stories or poems, the classroom reading practices inform how my students prepare. Discussions with scholars at academic conferences shape my own reading habits. Book clubs, virtual and physical, mix up the public/private distinction as well.  Yes, the novel has typically been associated with solitude, but even when we read alone, we do so through the lenses of others.  And, given that I could now “find” books from my laptop, the physical–presumably semi-public–activity of going to the library seemingly becomes less necessary.

Johnson also sees changes in how books are authored, organized, indexed, and sold.  I think he’s right that some books may be sold on a per chapter basis (maybe along the lines of an iTunes model) and that authors may write with search engines in mind (and Alex Halavais’s cautions about the emerging “search engine society” are crucial here), that citations will serve as a form of currency. These issues are certainly central to some of the conversations that have been taking place in the last couple of years at scholarly resources such as MediaCommons (where I’m an advisory board member), so Johnson’s comments are useful.

In general, Johnson’s article puts together some useful questions about the future of the book.  It’s not difficult for me to imagine that my second book will be significantly different stucturally than my first one, in part thanks to these new digital tools.

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Teaching Carnival 3.5

Just a quick reminder that Teaching Carnival 3.5 is now available at academHack. Plenty of good reading on the future of education.

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More Sunday Links

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

  • First, Pamela Cohn discusses SnagFilms’ new YouTube channel, which will provide documentary fans with yet another site for fining some very cool nonfiction films.
  • Also, in YouTube news, the video sharing site has reached a deal to make content produced by Lions Gate, Sony, and MGM available, in part in an effort to compete with Hulu (via The Extratextuals). Karina also discusses the YouTube deal and argues that the site needs to work on restructuring its search tools to direct viewers to the legally available content, supporting something I’ve been thinking for a log time: that we need better filters for finding quality films online (hopefully SpeedCine, when it’s ready, will help here).
  • Anne Thompson has a link to the trailer and some discussion of one of the summer flicks I’m most looking forward to seeing: Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control.
  • Via David at IFC Daily, another film I can’t wait to see: Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Women Art Revolution, which looks at the history of feminist art from the 1960s to the present.  Based on the trailer, this looks like a thorough reflection on art, gender, and politics. The film is currently in post-production and I can’t wait to see it.
  • Liz Losh has a terrific roundup of spoofs of that notorious anti-gay marriage ad with its bad special effects and paid actors.  On a related note, Frank Rich reads the indifference over the Iowa Supreme Court ruling as a sign that we’re finally turning the corner on gay marriage as an issue.
  • Virginia Heffernan joins the Twitter-ambivalent crowd, expressing how Twitter has helped contribute to her wariness about social networks.  I’ve already discussed why I think Twitter is valuable, so no need to rehash that here, but I do appreciate that Heffernan criticizes it fom the position of someone who uses and knows what Twitter can do. Especially valuable, her reading of Twistori, “a new site that sorts and organizes Twitter posts that use emotionally laden words like ‘wish’ or ‘hate’ or ‘love,’ thereby building an image of the collective Twitter psyche.”
  • Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times has an interesting blog post about the ongoing popularity of Paul Haggis’s Crash.  I criticized Crash when it first came out an still think the film is flawed, but I think it is worth asking what contributes to the film’s continued high ranking on Netflix as a popular favorite (note: I may expand this question into a longer blog post later). On a related note, Karina also points out that the LA Times has started a regular independent film column.  Like her, I think this is a smart way to attract new readers.

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Sunday Links, Local Edition

Just in time for summer, I’m starting to find my writing mojo once again.  After finishing the book, I’ve been languishing a bit this academic year (probably in part due to increased university service demands), but thanks to an upcoming grant application deadline (more on that if I get it), I’ve regained my focus a little.  But a recent post by Collin, building from a post by Jim Brown, comparing dissertation and book writing to the vicissitudes of baseball season has helped me make sense of my writing process.  The book, like the season itself, requires pacing.  Games are available when you want, but if you miss a week, you don’t feel particularly lost.  I’ll add that when finishing my book and my dissertation, I did put in seriously long hours (sometimes 20 hours a day), but perhaps that’s the equivalent of the pennant race or playoffs, where you need more sustained attention and focus.  Still, it’s reassuring to think about writing this way, as something that can occupy my “continuous partial attention,” to use Collin’s phrase, rather than a disconnected series of sprints.  Now for some links:

  • The Fayetteville Observer has a blog post about the successful efforts in preventing Time Warner Cable from “experimenting with” metered billing for internet use in nearly Greensboro, NC (among other places), that would require frequent users to pay more for internet service.  For those of us who often work from home, this could have been pretty costly.  Obviously TWC’s plans aren’t going away anytime soon, but glad to know that the protests worked.
  • Also from The Observer, a reminder about an upcoming forum on how to spend the government stimulus money locally.  The forum will be held Thursday, April 30, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Smith Recreation Center on Slater Avenue in Fayetteville.
  • By the way, I’m planing to attend a forum at Duke University’s Frankilin Humanities Institute on May 1, “Histories and Humanities at HBCUs: Embracing the Legacy of John Hope Franklin.” It looks like a terrific opportunity to network with some of my colleagues in the humanities and nearby colleges and universities.
  • On a related note, I finally had a chance to see Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway, a thoughtful meditation on the legacies of slavery wrapped around a creative narrative hook: Cheshire’s cousin decides to move the family plantation, Midway, from a busy intersection in Raleigh to a wooded area a few miles down the road.  During the film, Cheshire, thanks in large part to the efforts of Al Hinton, works to reconnect the black and white sides of his extended family.  It’s a solidly researched, entertaining little documentary, well worth adding to your queues.

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Sons of Cuba [Full Frame 09]

The recent news about thawing relations between Cuba and the United States reminded me that I haven’t written about one of the more compelling films that played at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Andrew Lang’s debut documentary feature, Sons of Cuba, which follows three young boxers as they train at the Cuban Boxing Academy.  The film offers a rare glimpse inside of a culture closed off to most Americans while also providing a compelling, suspenseful coming-of-age story about three talented and charming young boys.

Lang’s film is structured around the stories of three boys,Cristian “The Old Man” Martinez, Santos “The Singer” Urguelles, and Junior “The Dalmatian” Martinez, all between nine and eleven years old and all facing unique challenges as they seek to win the national titles for their age group and weight.  The three boxers wake up, with their fellow boxers at 4 AM, well before dawn, for two hours of training before eating a small breakfast and spending a day of school and then more training in the afternoon.  These training sessions, which involve jogging, calisthenics, usually before dawn, help to convey the dedication the boys have to the sport and the sacrifices they are willing to make to succeed in their sport and, potentially, position themselves to win a spot on the Olympic boxing team.

When I first saw the film, I found myself resisting some of the sports film cliches that put the narrative in motion.  Cristian, the son of Luis Felipe Martinez an Olympic and world champion boxer, returns to fight after losing in the national championship the previous year, costing the Havana Boxing Academy the team title. Santos fights in part to overcome the grief over his mother’s death but also struggles with a voracious appetite that may push him into a higher weight class.  Junior, who originally trained in ballet, worries that he is too soft, caring too much about his opponents’ feelings.  But even while these stories may echo past sports films, Lang manages to show how these narratives help to give the boys a way to make sense of their lives.

The film is also important because of the glimpse of daily life in Cuba that it provides.  Unlike Moore’s Sicko, which seeks to make a pedantic point using Cuban hospitals, Sons of Cuba offers a sustained analysis of daily life: the struggles and the poverty many Cuban citizens face but also the admiration reserved for successful athletes, an admiration fostered by Fidel Castro himself.  Significantly, Lang was in Cuba when Castro became ill, ceding authority to his younger brother, Raul, and we get a number of scenes in which the boys watch the news with concern to learn more about their nation’s leader.  As relations between these two countries (hopefully) continue to thaw, Sons of Cuba should provide a valuable window into the daily lives of a group of young boys who fight for themselves, for their teammates, for their families, and for their country.

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Food, Inc. [Full Frame 09]

One of this year’s Center Frame features was Food, Inc. (IMDB), Robert Kenner’s investigation into the industrialization of food production and the implications not only for our physical health but also for the saftey and well-being of the people who produce the food we consume, not to mention the health of the planet itself.  In that regard, Food, Inc., like other recent documentaries and features that explore the politics of food, such as Fast Food Nation, King Corn, and Super Size Me, is unapologetic about its “agenda,” in arguing for more sustainable food production practices.

Like Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me, Food, Inc. is attentive to the pleasures of a well-made meal.  The film opens with journalist Eric Schlosser (author of the book, Fast Food Nation, on which Richard Linklater’s fictional film was loosely based) eating a hamburger in his favorite diner.  Such scenes seem carefully designed to reassure the viewer: we’re not going to lecture you or turn you into vegetarians; we’re not the food police.  But Kenner quickly moves past this gensture to introduce us to some of the major concerns of the film: the increasing industrialization of food production, and along with it, the privatization of food resources.

Many of these scenes are quite chilling.  Footage from a killing room shows laborers at an assembly line endlessly cutting and chopping the meat that will eventually find its way to our grocery store shelves.  Chicken growers allow us access to the windowless pens where hundreds of chickens are enclosed in spaces so tight that the chickens are often forced to climb over the dead birds laying on the ground.  The strak, industrial gaze during these scenes has a powerful impact, one that is not unlike a horror movie, as a Variety writer observes.  And while this industrialization of food production might seem to lead to greater efficiency and reduced costs, the farmers often see very little in the form of compensation from the big food companies with whom they have contracts.  Other scenes, including one set at a nearby Smithfield pork factory, remind us that many food processing companies rely upon the labor of undocumented laborers while working to suppress the formation of unions.  Finally, we are reminded of the degree to which our food is now, quite literally, manufactured. Genetic modifications of seeds prouce more desirable vegetables and larger crops, while chicken farmers attempt to create larger-breasted chickens because most buyers prefer white meat.  These scene, as Owen Glieberman implies, sometimes unsettle our very definitions of what we are eating.

It’s hard to know, however, what effect such images have on viewers.  Food, Inc. is being distributed by Participant Productions, a film company that is interested in movies that inspire viewers to take some form of action, and the film’s website encourages a wide variety of actions viewers can consider: campaigning against junk food in schools, supporting better working conditions for farmers, going to farmer’s markets, calling for nutrition information at restaurants.  To promote many of these ideas, the film uses extensive interviews with sustainable farmer and author Joel Salatin, who runs Polyface, Inc, a family-owned, organic, pasture-based farm.  Salatin is a true sustainable food evangelist, promoting food production practices that are healthier and safer.  And certainly the film made me want to follow through on these practices (whether I’ll do so or not is another question).

So, as with many of Participant’s films, I’m wondering about how we can truly measure the impact of a political documentary of this type or to what extent such films are preaching to the converted or semi-converted.  Based on the crowd’s reaction when he showed up onstage, it was clear that many in the audience knew of Salatin, whether from his writings or the food that he sells (or both).  Others (and I count myself in this category) knew much of the information in the film and make some effort to eat healthy foods. Still, I think that if Food, Inc. helps to redirect our conversation about the politics of food, it will have accomplished quite a bit.  Even though I know a fair amount of information about these issuse, many of the film’s scenes were quite startling in showing us how little we know about the manufacture of the food we eat.

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Owning the Weather [Full Frame 09]

One of the elements of our world that often receives little exploration is the concept of the weather.  Certainly we talk about the weather all the time, either as a form of small talk or as a means of expressing concern about climate change.  But weather also stands in as something more elusive and, perhaps, beyond our control.  Maybe this is why we often talk about it with strangers: it’s essentially noncontroversial, and there seems to be little we can do about it anyway, other thn appealing to some divine force for some rain.  But Robert Greene’s documentary Owning the Weather explores the attempts of a small group of people to control the weather, using the powers of technology to reshape weather patterns, and in doing so, uncovers a complex set of motivations and beliefs that might explain why these people would want to take the risk of tampering with nature, while also introducing any number of important ethical questions, as The Indy observes.

The desire to control the weather would seem to involve actions that belong in conspiracy movies: powerful men and women seeking to control the uncontrollable, possibly in order to have power over the lives of millions of people.  But what we encounter instead, quite often, are men who are well-intentioned, seeking to imrpove the lives of the members of their community, usually by “seeding clouds“in order to make rain more likely.  Others point out that if you could change the direction of a Category 5 hunnicane, like Katrina, it would be very tempting.  Of course, even these seemingly benevolent attempts at altering the weather are not without controversy.  Perhaps the most famous example here is the use of cloud seeding by the Chinese government both to clear out air pollution before the Beijing Olympics and then, later, to make sure there was no rain during the Olympics.

While such weather modification activities might seem presumptuous, proponents observe that our current climate change conditions are merely low-level forms of altering the weather: the emission of greenhouse gasses has led to global warming.  Others point out that overpopulation (and the rapid growth of a number of Sun Belt cities) has led to other forms of weather modification.  And certainly, we work hard to alter our interior climates.  Couldn’t some of our experiments in global cooling simply be a form of air conditioning on a grand scale?  Greene’s film clearly comes down as skeptical of attempts at moifying weather patterns.  He shows that it is difficult to measure authoritatively whether attempts to modify the weather have actually worked, and the film also makes clear the risks involved when you go about tinkering with a fragile climate.  But Owning the Weather treats weather modifiers sympathetically, allowing them space to express thei views without mockery or heavy-handed critique.  As Kenneth Morefield (who also saw the film at Full Frame) points out, it is a remarkably fair film.

The film shows both historical attempts to control the weather and more recent experiments and proposals, some of which sound as if they were planned by Dr. Evil.  Seeding clouds is a relatively old practice, of course, and there have been debates about its legality for decades.  More recently, as global warming has become recognized as a serious threat, extreme measures have been proposed, including one scientist’s suggestion that we launch 16 trillion flying discs into the space between the moon and the earth in order to blot out 2 percent of the sun.  Or to build a giant volcano that would spew out sulfur dioxide creating the conditions for rain.  I can’t imagine what would go wrong with those ideas.

Greene’s documentary is based on a Harper’s article by Ando Arike ($), and, like Arike, Greene is not only interested in the implications of weather modification but the motivations behind it.  Quite often it is simple scientific curiosity: can I make this work?  What are the limits of science and technology?  In other cases, it is, indeed, something more sinister.  The film’s title, implies a desire to own something completely intangible–a cloud, a patch of air–that woul seem to belong equally to everyone.  Thus, even while the film seeks to uncover the dangers of excessive hubris with regard to altering our climate, it also shows the very human desires behind those practices.

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Friday Links

I’m going to try to put together at least two more Full Frame posts later this weekend, one a series of shorter reviews for a few other documentaries I liked but won’t have time to review at length and a post inspired by some of the panels I attended.  For now, a few quick links:

  • I’ve been trying to avoid mentioing it before, but it appears that Ali Larter is, hmm, Obsessed with me. To be honest, I’d heard nothing about this film until I saw the viral video in my Twitter feeds, so the video has succeeded at least on that level, while providing at least some information about the film itself.  Unfortunately, Obsessed also looks like one of those generic scary stalker-chick in the workplace movies a la Fatal Attraction, so I’m not that interested.  And I’m not really interested in giving a film studio my phone number (as the video requests at the end).  I like Ali Larter well enough, though, so I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.
  • Sujewa pointed out these fake Mumblecore movie trailers available on Chris Holland’s blog. They’re pretty funny, especially if you’ve seen a few Joe Swanberg films.
  • Speaking of Mumblecore, I finally watched the Duplass Brothers’ Baghead, their follow-up to The Puffy Chair, which is still one of my favorite recent indie films.  Baghead follows four filmmaking wannabes to a cabin in the woods where they hope to write a successful screenplay starring themselves.  I think the film works well as a commentary on the desires for indie stardom (and works somewhat well as a parody of the Blair Witch phenomenon, even while having some vaguely scary moments).
  • Videomaker has a roundup of a discussion on whether “digital distribution” is useless.  Until we begin figuring out the most effective models for distributing movies and filters for helping viewers find it, digital distribution may not appear promising, but it is important to remember that it’s still very early in the history of accessible digital video on the web (and to remember that a large percentage of people in the US don’t have broadband internet or, in some cases, access to it).

Finally, just a blanket note to some of the people who have sent me screeners.  I’m working on getting to them, but may not be able to watch all (or any) of them until the semester ends in three weeks.  Which gives me an excuse to (belatedly) link to story about the independent filmmakers who posted an ad on Craigslist offering to buy a quote from someone who “calls” himself or herself a film reviewer (here’s the actual ad, soon to expire, I’d imagine).

Update: Just wanted to mention this TV Week column on the online campaign to save the NBC series, Chuck, one of the funnier and more clever shows out there right now (and I’d say that even if I didn’t share a name with eponymous main character and leaders of the Nerd Herd).  The column suggests that the networked nature of Twitter and the use of reputable TV critics to promote “Chuck Week” represents something slightly different.  No matter what, it’s good to know that there are so many “pro-Chuck” messages circling throughout Twitterland.

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Objectified [Full Frame 09]

After watching Gary Hustwit’s insightful new documentary about industrial design, Objectified (IMDB), I found it impossible not to look at objects–whether iPhones, automobile frames, or coffee mugs–without thinking about the myriad decisions that went into their design.  In fact, even items that seem utterly “natural,” such as toothpicks, are designed, the product of countless decisions and experimentation.  In exploring these design choices, through interviews with a number of iconic industrial designers, Hustwit allows us to see our everyday world of objects in a new way.

Hustwit’s film works in part because of the sheer curiosity with which he treats his subjects.  As he acknowledged in the question-and-answer session after the film, “I’m a design geek,” adding that the film allowed him to answer one of the great design questions in recent memory: “Why did I obsess over the new iPhone?”  While this fascination is, no doubt, inseparable from the successful Apple branding and marketing campaigns, there is still something tantalizing about the objects themselves. Significantly, Hustwit acknowledges this role for marketing, citing New York Times design columnist, Rob Walker, who points out the temptation for consumers to focus on “what’s new or what’s next,” not necessarily what will endure.  Walker later adds that if he could engage in a multibillion dollar marketing campaign, he would seek to convince people to keep (and cherish) what they already own.

Others address questions about how design itself has been marketed and how designers themselves have become a means of adding value to a product, as illustrated by companies such as Ikea and Target that have “democratized” design. These questions about design are further addressed on the Objectified blog, where Hustwit includes a weekly, “Obectify Me” feature, in which prominent designers write about objects that inspire them.

Visually, however, the film isn’t shy about geeking out on the practices and products of industrial design.  As the cinetrix points out,

Form follows function here. The cinematography–the framing alone–is shiny as all get out. Sleek machines smoothly extrude products. And you’ve never seen so many gorgeous closeups of hands [or, er, hangnails] holding toothbrushes and potato peelers.

[Worth noting: A.J. Schnack also points out Luke Geissbuhler’s “sharp” cinematography] And in other scenes, I found myself acutely aware of how the design process is based upon other objects.  A brainstorming session in which designers seek to build a better toothbrush makes us of Post-It notes.  And the Apple designers constantly build upon previous generations of their products.

But I think that what kept me engaged with Objectified were the challenging ethical and sociological questions raised by the film. How do designers, who are tasked with creating products that consumers will want to buy (whether they need them or not) engage with issues of sustainability.  Karim Rashad, in a hyperglib pink an white costume (and setting) mulls the idea of selling cardboard laptops that would biodegrade more quickly than the metallic versions we toss every few months anyway.  Others seek to create objects that will not become obsolete so quickly, questions that Hustwit beautifully illustrates by showing objects that have quite literally been tossed to the curb, including most notably an old stereo and turntable sitting abandoned on a sidewalk, covered in snow.

Like Hustwit’s previous film, Helvetica, which explored typefaces and which I read as a form of media history, Objectified encourages us to look at our surroundings in new ways, asking us to think about the objects we use on a daily basis.  Design becomes at once a form of expression, an attempt to humanize our world, and a form of marketing.

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Voices from El-Sayed [Full Frame 09]

Oded Adomi Leshem’s Voices from El-Sayed (IMDB) depicts a small Bedouin community in the Negev desert on the outskirts of Israel that also happens to be the home of the largest deaf community on the planet.  Thanks to the community’s large deaf population, the villagers of El-Sayed no longer see deafness as a handicap.  At the beginning of the film, none of the town’s residents wear hearing aids, and others, including the young auto mechanic, Juma, in fact consider their isolation from the noises of modern life to be something close to a benefit.  Juma is protected from the noise of the auto repair shop where he works, oblivious to the noise of drills and other mechanical instruments, even taking catnaps in the midst of persistently loud noises. More compelling, the villagers have evolved their very own sign language, and most people in El-Sayed, whether hearing or not, are fluent in the language.

The town’s sense of itself is challenged somewhat when a group of Israeli doctors come into El-Sayed offering to perform cochlear implants on some of the town’s children.  The operation is covered by the country’s medical insurance, and the surgery might provide some of the town’s deaf children with opportunities they might not otherwise have.  Although most of the town’s residents, including Juma, are skeptical, one father, Salim, decides to get the operation for his son, Muhammad, raising interesting questions about whether parents have the right to obtain what might be seen as elective surgery on their children, committing them to an irreversible procedure that will, in many ways, transform their relationship to the world.

The father’s decision is presented with incredible complexity, both in terms of the implications of the choice, and through the sound and visual elements that convey how the decision will affect young Muhammad.  As Jett Loe (a fellow Full Frame attendee) points out, the hospital scenes make us acutely aware of how we experience sound.  The father hears an automated recording on an elevator that his som blithely ignores.  Street sounds hit us in ways that make us feel as if we are hearing differently, more acutely.  Later, we learn that the cochlear implant procedure is not as simple as it sounds: it will take months for Muhammad to learn to hear, and his family will have to spend hours speaking to him and practicing, testing him by banging drums and pots behind him to see if he reacts.  Complicating things further, El-Sayed is an “unrecognized” village, meaning that the state government doesn’t provide them with the electricity needed to keep the implant fully charged, and Salim has to arrange for a noisy generator to be used to fulfill that purpose.

Intercut with Muhammad’s story are scenes filmed by a 17-year old girl, Ruwayda, who aspires to be a wedding photographer or filmmaker.  Her scenes capture much of the beauty in the everyday life of El-Sayed.  Because Ruwayda is deaf, Leshem plays her scenes silently, with titles telling us her story, her aspirations to film, and her insecurities about her talents.  While her compositional style clerly shows her eye for filmmaking, the calmness of the scenes stands in contrast to the noises of El-Sayed, illustrating again the problems with labeling deafness as a disability, even while recognizing the excitement that Muhammad displays when he first hears sound.

While the film is built primarily around Muhammad’s narrative, I read it more as a meditation on language, communication, and identity.  There is a powerful scene included in the film in which a couple of English-speaking researchers are videotaping El-Sayed residents as they sign their language for the camera. Juma and others eagerly participate, understanding the importance of preserving their language and culture.  At the same time, Juma becomes increasingly reconciled to the potential benefits of hearing.  He is clearly relieved to hear that Muhammad is beginning to adjust to the hearing world.  By introducing us to such compelling characters and challenging philosophical questions, Voices from El-Sayed heightened my awareness of how we communicate and how hearing structures our world.  It was, without doubt, one of the most subtly observant documentaries I saw at this year’s Full Frame.

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Reporter [Full Frame 09]

Like many readers of The New York Times, I often find myself resisting the urge to click away from Pulitzer Prize-winner Nick Kristof’s columns, which often feature unblinking reporting and commentary on social injustices taking place all over the globe.  His direct accounts and his unflinching efforts to implicate his readers, to get them, us, more involved in stopping genocide or alleviating poverty are as difficult to read as they are necessary to the social and political world Kristof seeks to document.  While I may not always agree with Kristof’s conclusions about the social forces involved in creating the conditions of poverty and war crimes, his voice is an important and distinct one amidst the red-blue punditocracy that has dominated recent political commentary.  And yet, as the newspaper industry continues to lose significant sums of money, the kinds of expensive reports filed by Kristof requiring travel abroad, often into hostile and unsafe countries, have become increasingly difficult to sustain.  Eric Daniel Metzgar’s Reporter (IMDB) primarily a documentary of one of Kristof’s trips into the Congo, provides not only a fascinating glimpse into Kristof’s reporting practices but also a subtle reflection on the state of journalism today and the potential implications of losing a well-funded newspaper industry.  At the same time, the film offers a subtle meditation on what it means to be a witness and what role journalists can serve in reporting difficult stories.

I’ve been a fan of Metzgar’s ever since I saw his previous documentary, Life. Support. Music., the gently sentimental portrait of musician Jason Crigler’s recovery efforts after suffering a brain hemorrhage onstage at a concert, at last year’s Full Frame.  Reporter opens with a broder reflection on the state of journalism today.  Gail Collins underscores the urgency of covering difficult, often epressing stories.  Samantha Power insightfully explains that most audiences inevitably avoid seeking out stories about genocide and poverty.  And Kristof himself explains his own challenges in reaching readers who may not be indifferent to the suffering of others but may not know how to address it (the film’s web site has  number of suggested actions).  As Kristof notes, seeing these stories often makes us feel powerless to act, especially when we are confronted with statistics that tend to deindividualize the suffering and pain of others.  These ethical problems have been explored further in the film’s blog, which features a number of philosophers and critics reflecting on the ethics of witnessing, or of acting (or not acting) to alleviate suffering, incluing recent blog posts by Peter Singer and Paul Slovic.

Given these challenges, Kristof has ha to come up with new methods to communicate the problems associated with extreme power inequalities, war, and violence.  In the documentary, we see Kristof traveling to the Congo with two young Americans, a Chicago school teacher and a medical student, part of a contest that Kristof had run on his blog.  Metzgar’s film uses the experience of the two fellow travelers well to communicate some of the pobelms facing the Congo today.  The teacher takes a number of photographs, supplementing the film’s documentary project but also introducing some of the chalenges of what it means to film others, to use their experiences to tell these stories.  The medical student worries that she will be violating the confidentiality agreement between doctor and patient when she crosses the line between observer and participant when she reaches out to help a 41-year old woman dying of infection and malnutrition.  The woman, who had previously been a healthy, successful teacher, weighed less than 60 pounds when Kristof’s group met her, illustrating that the conditions in conflict zones are not natural or inevitable.

Also powerful: a segment in which Kristof interviews a Congolese warlord, General Nkunda, who greets his Ameican guests with an odd mix of benevolent charm, fervent Pentecostalism (he calls himself a “pastor”), and unsettling power.  When Kristof and his company worry about returning to their hotels after dark, Nkunda is powerful enough to ensure their safe travels and to insist that they stay for a meal (which one character awkwardly acknowledges was the best-tasting meal they had during their entire trip).  Kristof’s questions for Nkunda are typically subtle but allow him to get the story he needs to report on the warlord’s violent activities.  By focusing primarily on these two scenes–and by implying to some extent their interconnectedness, Metzgar’s film becomes afilm version of one of Kristof’s columns: seeking to identify the individual story that will stand in for the experiences of others, conveying in simple, narrative terms, problems that need to be addressed.

Given the semi-biographical nature of the film and its focus on Kristof’s attempts to reduce violenece and poverty, it would be easy for Reporter to appear self-congratulatory, and I think there are one or two moments–possibly including the Nkunda scene–that could be read that way, but I think that Metzgar is also careful enough to reflect more broadly on the problem of witnessing and the specific challenges that journalists and columnists face in getting readers to care about these social problems and to knw how they can act to help solve them.  I would have liked a more careful, historical exploration of the social forces that contributed to the violence depicted in the film, and in a few places, I also found myself wanting to think about other forms of agency beyond well-intentioned New York Times readers and writers: aren’t there other groups, other forms of agency, that might be better positioned to alleviate the forms of suffering depicted in Kristof’s columns and the movie itself.  For example, are there legal or institutional forces that could be used to greater effect?  What happens after we bear witness to these atrocities?  How are the problems of genocide linked to economic inequalities?   No matter what, Metzgar has provided a complex, moving portrait of an individual reporter, and in doing so, has opened up important questions about the tasks of the journalist and documentary filmmaker working on complex political topics.  It is a powerful film, and the questions it raises need to be discussed by a wider audience.

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Art & Copy [Full Frame 09]

Doug Pray’s love letter to the advertising industry, Art & Copy (IMDB), explores the explosion of “creativity” in the advertising industry after the “Creative Revolution” of the 1960s (associated with William Bernbach, among others) when advertisers began putting the art department and the copy writers in the same room, spawning a number of the more famous and iconic advertisements in history.  Pray uses this hook to explore the more general theme of the source of creativity and the role of adevrtising in our daily lives, including the “responsibility” to produce good advertisements that many advertisers claim to have.  Pray’s approach is to interview several of the prominent names in the advertising industry, inviting them to reminisce about their most successful ads or about more general changes in the industry, and it is probably indicative of the film’s stance that no one working outside of advertising, no one who is not benefitting financially from ads, is interviewed for the film.

In fact, the closest the film comes to offering “balance” are a few interludes where titles list the amount spent on advertising or the number of ads that a “typical person” encounters on a daily basis, often while a billboard “rotator” replaces one bilboard message with another.  There is little consideration of the relationship between advertising and a consumer culture that has left countless people in debt, overextended on credit card debt, often with items we don’t particularly need or even want and only the most benign discussions of how advertisements shape our wants, desires, or even our sense of self (one female exec comments proudly at one point that she “was born with a gift of sensing what it is that will turn people on”).

That being said, I don’t think that yet another dry condemnation of advertising is going to take us very far, either.  In one scene, we see the number of rip-offs, parodies, subverions, and détournements of the Got Milk ads (many of them very funny), only to realize that these subversions often do little more than underscore (and reinforce) the power of the original.  And instead of merely condemning advertising as a “false ideology,” one that merely seduces cultural dupes, I think there is value in exploring the meaning-making functions of advertisements and how they operate.

Perhaps the most compelling segments here involved Hal Riney, creator of the famous 1984 Ronald Reagan ad, “Prouder, Stronger, Better,” describing the fact that advertisements allowed him to create an imagined world that he lacked as a child.  Others point to the role of Nike ads and their famous “Just Do It” slogan in empowering a new generation of fitness fanatics (while selectively ignoring fast food’s role in creating childhood obesity and Nike’s checkered labor rights history).  But most enjoyable of all were the scenes featuring the blunt-talking ad man, George Lois, who describes how he cajoled and badgered unknown fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger into becoming a household name. Even with my skepticism about the role of advertising in daily life, Lois’s unapologetic and brash defense of his industry is entertaining to watch.

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45365 [Full Frame 09]

I’ve seen 45365, an observational documentary about Sydney, Ohio, compared both to a Normal Rockwell painting (on IMDB message boards) and to American Graffiti.  But I think that both of these comparisons place too much weight on what is essentially a sentimental series of postcard glimpses of the hometown of the filmmakers, Bill Ross and Turner Ross.  Life in Sydney, a small city near Dayton, includes 4-H clubs, judge’s races, high school football, church services, barbershop conversations, and nights at the local bar.  These activities are woven together, in part, through the voices of a group of local DJs who play “all the hits” (most of which are well more than twenty years old).  In other cases, young men struggle to control their drinking and drug abuse, and in some cases find themselves, moving in and out of prison.

The carefully composed shots of manicured lawns and snow-covered sidewalks complete the portrait, but it’s difficult to tell whether the filmmakers are suggesting that this version of small-town life is eternal, as implied by the passage of seasons, or something a little bleaker.  The observations never quite added up for me, but given the multiple narrative strands within the film, the filmmakers did an excellent job of keeping the stories moving.   In addition, the filmmakers seem to be genuinely fond of their community and are generally content to observe as the stories of the local residents unfold.  And as the Spout capsule review observes, 45365 leaves some room to interpret the ambiguities and overlapping stories that compose this small, quiet city in Ohio.

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