Archive for May, 2009
Here are some of the things I’ve been watching or reading this weekend:
- After reading Karina Longworth’s early review of David Lynch’s Interview Project, I’m even more curious to check it out. The project’s introduction, is a fascinating mesh of documentary modes and styles. As the introduction, opens, we hear the scratchy static of a car radio trying to get a signal before we see Lynch himself directly addressing the camera in what Karina describes as “deliberately prosaic monologue in sing-song, with the words ‘people’, ‘interview’ and ‘different’ pushed so many times as to completely lose meaning.” But there were one or two other moments that I found compelling. First, Lynch tells us that Interview Project will allow us to “meet” the people he interviewed, something that would seem implausible given the mediation of camera and computer. Second, the road trip motif, the music, and other aesthetic features from Lynch’s interviews remind me of some of the “documentary” projects of the 1930s, especially James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a text that is as much about the processes of mediation as it is about the subjects themselves. Interview Project launches June 1st, and Lynch will post one new video every day for the rest of the year.
- Stephanie Zacharek has an interesting article interrogating the industry hype over 3D movies. Zacharek provides some nice historical context, comparing the depiction of 3D in the 1950s with what’s happening now, and I think she’s right to be a little skeptical. On a related note, David Hudson has a round-up of reviews of Pixar’s Up, many of which address that film’s use of 3D.
- Also via David, a terrific oral history of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing from the LA Times, to celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary. DTRT has always been one of my favorite films to teach, and the interviewees include many of the major participants, including Spike Lee, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.
- Dr. Crazy has a terrific post offering advice to faculty who are about to start a job with a 4/4 teaching load. Without going into specifics, Dr. Crazy’s experiences are similar to my own.
Finally, just a quick reminder that my interview with Second Cinema will have its debut broadcast on Carolina 24 in the Raleigh-Durham area on June 1. The show’s other guest: Evan Rachel Wood. The broadcast times for other North Carolina cities are below the fold.
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I went to college at a small liberal arts university just outside of Chattanooga, and when we were bored on weekends, which was pretty much every weekend, we would often go into the city–to catch a movie, to hang out at the mall, to kill a few hours before our late night curfew (and, yes, we had a curfew). Perhaps for that reason, I’ve always experienced Chattanooga primarily from its freeways, seeing it mostly as simultaneously old and new, a mix of disused industrial spaces and empty lots and, on the other hand, suburban-style sprawl. Throw in the city’s strange tourist quirks–Lookout Mountain, Rock City, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo–and like most cities, you get a mix of old and new, rich and poor.
Jarrod Whaley’s Hell is Other People uses that older, emptier Chattanooga to tell the story of Morty, an unemployed, lonely guy who seems to be drifting through life. He wakes up in the morning, takes a quick smoke from a bong, and then embarks on a halfhearted effort to find a job. He also makes a similar awkward attempt to reach out and find a connection with another human being, especially the women he meets through the course of his seemingly random daily activities. Often, however, his attempts to flirt take place at the most awkward moments possible, his compliments coming across as strangely passive-aggressive ways to change the conversation. When the administrative assistant at his therapist’s office attempts to talk about the bill, he compliments her appearance and asks her out for coffee. When his ex-girlfriend is trying to ditch him after running into him by chance at a video store, he tells her he loves her. After doing a friend a favor several months earlier, he tries to get her to pay him for his work.
Gradually, perhaps inspired by the therapy sessions for which he will likely never pay (and which we never see), Morty siezes upon the idea of serving as an imprpmptu therapist for an acquaintance of his, Ryan, who, coincidentally, seems to like the same girl, but who is also struggling over creative control of his band. The two meet in random spaces throughout the city during their sessions–empty parking lots, the non-spaces next to highway exit ramps, even the city’s Incline Railroad–and Morty offers half-remembered advice he borrows from an older friend who watches movies with him sometimes and also serves as his pot dealer. His advice for Ryan isn’t half-bad, if Ryan would act on it, and much of it probably applies to Morty as well, though Morty’s near-sightedness (suggested, perhaps, in the thick, black-rimmed glasses he wears) prevents him from seeing it. Whaley asks in his director’s statement, “What is it about financial poverty that so often impoverishes the inner lives of those who suffer from it?” And I think one of the answers, suggested in the film, is that Morty is unable to see any other alternatives for himself.
Whaley uses the “limitations” of Chattanooga and of a small budget extremely well in this film. As he points out, Morty’s story is a “private” one and a large crew likely would have gotten in the way. This is a small, intimate story, suggested in part by Whaley’s judicious use of close-ups and extreme close-ups that seek to track down the inner life of these struggling, awkward characters.
Jarrod Whaley’s Passion Flower is a gem of a short film, one that engages with some profound questions about bodies and identity, especially as they pertain to breast cancer survivors. The film tells the story of Ann Law, a 50-something dancer who chooses to get a tattoo on her chest instead of being fitted with prostheses or submitting to reconstructive surgery after she underwent a double mastectomy. The film succeeds in large part because Law is such a compelling, charming character, someone who can speak knowledgeably about her experiences, about her ambivalence about the term “survivor” to describe people who have lived through cancer, and about the cultural discomfort about depicting the bodies of women who have undergone a mastectomy. She’s also attentive to the tactile elements of getting a tattoo, especially on those spots where she has scar tissue or some other reminder of the surgery. In essence, choosing to get a tattoo becomes a way for Law to reclaim her body, both from the cancer itself and (to some extent) from the medical bureaucracies that often make women’s choices less clear.
Law’s decision to get a tattoo of a passion flower on her chest seems to be affirmed by the tattoo process itself. Skip Cisto, the tattoo artist, a gentle spirit, comments that Law’s skin almost seems to “want” the ink, to welcome the tattoo. In one of my favorite moments in the film, Cisto also remarks that he had done research the night before to seek out other examples of women who have gotten tattoos after undergoing lumpectomies. Finding few, he remarks on the possible cultural taboo of showing such bodies. I’ve rarely felt compelled to get a tattoo myself. Childhood allergy shots provided me with a pretty severe distaste for needles, even the relatively gentle “scratching” feeling associated with getting a tattoo. But Passion Flower captures precisely why, for Law and I’m sure for many others, getting tattoos is such a meaningful experience. It’s a smart, powerful little film.
Like Bubble, Stephen Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (IMDB), his second of six films for Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures, functions in part as a workplace drama, in this case focusing on the emotional struggles of a high-end call girl, Chelsea, played by porn star/performance artist, Sasha Grey. Chelsea is one of those high-priced escorts who provides more than mere sex with her clients; she also provides the illusion of a relationship, performing as the client’s girlfriend. She laughs at his jokes, listens intently to his stories, even answers his questions about her profession, all while maintaining a remarkably consistent facade.
Throughout the film, we are constantly reminded that Chelsea’s job is based primarily on performance, on providing an experience that will make her clients want to continue their relationship. As a result, GFE becomes, in part, a film, as J. Hoberman explains, about “the nature of acting.” Chelsea takes detailed notes about her dates, writing down what she wore, down to the designer, where they went for dinner, whether they had sex. She is also interviewed by a news reporter doing a story on prostitution who repeatedly pushes to reveal the “real” Chelsea to him. Alongside of her professional life, Chelsea’s boyfriend, Chris, a personal trainer, is beginning to doubt their relationship, especially after Chelsea encourages him to go on a weekend trip to Vegas with one of his rich clients so that she can work. Throughout the film, though, Chelsea maintains, as Karina Longworth describes it, an “impenetrable facade,” a sort of clinical distance that allows her to continue her work, though that cool surface unravels slightly over the course of the film. This coldness is also echoed in the clinical style Soderbergh uses to film GFE. As Karina also points out, “Close ups, especially of Grey, fail to function as the windows on internal life that Hollywood film trains us to look for.” And Grey herself seems to be a mirror of sorts, refusing to let us see beyond the surface of her dark sunglasses and blank stare.
The film is structured around a small number of set pieces and is told in a series of flashbacks and flashforwards that may seem a little disorienting, especially on a first viewing. Chelsea faces a series of personal and business challenges. She wants to “expand [her] business” by increasing her presence on the web, which might include a session with a popular (and sleazy) manager of an escort review site who also promises to secure her lucrative employment in Dubai, where, he promises, men will pay thousands of dollars to “shake her hand.” Her boyfriend is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with her career, especially when she agrees to go away for the weekend with a client with whom she feels a slight connection. She spots one of her regulars with another escort, a woman who physically resembles her, but is taller and seems, at least on a brief glimpse through a shop window, quicker to laugh and smile.
GFE is also filled with period details, making the film run the risk of appearing “instantly dated,” to use Karina’s phrase. The movie takes place in the weeks before the 2008 election, and many of her clients are concerned about their future economic prospects. One client counsels her to buy gold. Others talk about investment advice and try to chide her into voting for McCain. On one level, it makes sense to read these encounters as introducing a “life as commerce” storyline, as Bill Gibron writes in PopMatters, in which Chelsea’s maneuvers to maintain her clients are mirrored in the actions of her boyfriend’s struggles as a personal trainer and even in the actions of the Wall Street executives who pay for her services. This sense of anticipated crisis permeates the film, and while it is tempting to suggest that these scenes make the film feel dated, I had a quite different reaction, seeing these references as a brief, almost documentary, glimpse into a moment when a number of certainties about power, identity, and even the financial system itself, were in flux, especially as the Wall Street bankers and jewelers worry about seeing their economic prospects drying up. In short, GFE is a film rich in period detail, a fascinating first rough draft of the 2008 stock market and election year panic (one that seems to hearken back to Soderbergh’s work on the short-lived TV series, K Street), while also addressing the issues of identity and performance in an intriguing way.
The Girlfriend Experience is the second of six planned features that Soderbergh will be making for simultaneous theatrical and cable TV distribution through Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures and his cable channel. It’s odd to look back at my entry on the controversy over the distribution of Bubble, which was released early in 2006, especially now that so-called day-and-date distribution has become relatively normalized in such a short time. It’s also a nice reminder that day-and-date is a valuable alternative for those of us in smaller cities who likely wouldn’t have access to this film in theaters.
I’m posting these links just to prove to my parents that all that money they invested in my Ph.D. wasn’t completely wasted:
- First, the interview with Second Cinema went really well. My friends at the Cameo very generously gave us the run of the theater for about an hour to tape the segment and get some photos. The crew made me feel very comfortbale, and the show’s host, Hillary Russo (pictured here interviewing Evan Rachel Wood, who’ll appear in the same episode as me), asked some great questions. I’ll keep everyone posted on when the episode airs (it shows at different times throughout North Carolina) and will also let everyone know when it shows up online.
- Also, I just found out that my blog was listed as part of this month’s “Hotlist” on the Writers Guild of America, West, blog, which is kind of cool. Fellow bloggers, Michael Newman and Ted Zee also made the list.
- Finally, Sujewa has posted the segment from his documentary, Indie Film Bloggers Road Trip, featuring yours truly. I think the documentary may work better as a series of webisodes, and Sujewa has recut the film slightly, which also makes it seem stronger. I still wish I’d worn a different shirt, but it’s fun to see this moment of my life, when I was finishing up the book, captured in a documentary.
I’m putting the finishing touches on an article on documentary this week, so I’m not sure I’ll have anything substantive to say for the next few days. But it’s nice to have the time–and energy–to concentrate on writing for a few weeks. More later.
Hardly Bear to Look at You (IMDB), directed by Huck Melnick and written by Jeremy Herman (who also stars as Daniel), is one of those films that somehow simultaneously feels refreshingly original while also fitting neatly within various American indie and European art house traditions. It’s a quietly contemplative meditation on the activity of filmmaking and, more broadly, on the act of looking, on our ability to truly see another individual. That Melnick and Herman have managed to engage with these questions while also presenting a bittersweet love story between a gourmet-turned-screenwriter, Daniel, and his street-performer muse, Stella (Anna Neil) makes this film even more powerful.
The plot focuses on Daniel’s attempts to seduce Stella, a street performer who has been hired by Daniel’s friend, Hank (played by Melnick), for a film he is directing. Daniel describes their outings in obsessive detail, reading every line for clues that Stella might be interested in more than friendship. But despite any number of details visible to his friends, Daniel remains blind to Stella’s desire to remain an object of desire. Here, Stella’s status as a performer becomes crucial. Her fascination with Audrey Hepburn makes her into a postmodern Holly Golightly, as Noel Megahey points out (in a review that teases out many of the film’s literary and cinematic allusions), a “performance” reinforced by Stella’s attention to fashion: the costumes, hats, and hairstyles that seem to change on a whim.
As Nick Rombes points out in his review, Hardly Bear adopts many of the conventions of the Dogme 95 movement: hand-held cameras and ambient noise and music place us in the cafes and sidewalks of France and England where Daniel and Stella talk, laugh, eat, and drink. But where many Dogme 95 films seemed to treat their subjects with a clinical distance (or seemed something like an academic exercise), Nick is right to identify something more “humane” about the settings and conversations depicted in Melnick’s film. In this sense, Melnick’s film seems to tap into the intimacy of American indie pioneers like Cassavettes, even while acknowledging the ways in which that intimacy is constructed through the processes of scriptwriting, filming, and editing, much like Charlie Kaufman’s scripts and films but without his morose introspection.
This thematic of vision and of the filmmaking process is introduced at the very beginning of the film. Before the opening credits, a hand-held camera silently films Stella, her party clothes, a black scarf in particular, peeking out over the white bedsheets. The camera holds much longer than any normal camera. A jump cut changes our angle, but without an establishing shot it remains unclear who is doing the looking, implicating the viewer. Off-screen we hear a director shout “cut,” setting up the film-within-a-film motif. This subplot manifests itself more explicitly, as we see Daniel on set watching Stella playing a role he has written, which only exacerbates Daniel’s confusion about their relationship. At one point, Stella suggests that Daniel write their story. “It’s a beautiful story,” she observes, reminding us, yet again, of Stella’s status as a performer (and, quite possibly, her own role in authoring their story).
Hardly Bear to Look at You is a smart, subtle relationship drama, one that engages with past cinematic traditions and forms of realism, even while finding its own path, painting with a new set of brushes, even while allowing its brush strokes to remain visible.
Plenty to think about as usual in the film and new media blogosphere, especially with the discussions taking place at and around the Cannes Film Festival this week:
- It’s a few days old, but this Criterion interview with Chris Marker is terrific: Marker, posing as his Second Life avatar Sergei Murasaki, expounds on Second Life’s “sense of porousness between the real and the virtual,” while modestly characterizing his own work in film as “cobbling” (and his work in SL as “supercobbling”). I had a chance to “see” Marker, in the case appearing as Guillaume the Cat, in Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes this year at Full Frame. I didn’t write about it at the time because I felt like I needed to see it again, but like many of Marker’s films, it is a playful meditation on cinema, memory, documentary, and identity, and where those categories intersect (here’s a short segment on YouTube).
- Via Dr. Strangelove, a link to Birgit Richard’s “Media Masters and Grassroots Art 2.0 on YouTube,” from Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer’s Video Vortex Reader. Dr. Strangelove also provides an ongoing bibliography of academic essays and books that focus on YouTube (h/t Adrian Miles).
- Pamela Cohn reports that The Good Pitch is making its North American launch. The Good Pitch, which was developed by the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, not only brings together documentary filmmakers with potential funders but also allows them to connect with other institutions and groups that might aid filmmakers in building an audience for their films. Filmmakers could connect with “foundations, charities, NGOs, campaigners, distributors, advertising agencies, and other third sector organizations” to raise awareness for their films, allowing them potentially to have a much larger impact (Pamela cites the ACLU, Amnesty International, and WITNESS as possible examples). It sounds like an incredible project, so hopefully I’ll be able to write about it in a more sustained fashion in the next few days.
- Salon has an article by Wolfgang Höbel asking whether the moment of the big film festivals has passed. Citing a gloomy economy and a declining independent and art-house film sector, Höbel argues that the art house cinema no longer has the same resonance it once did. I think it’s easy to look at past festivals through rose-colored glasses (a point that Roger Ebert acknowledges in one of his Cannes diaries), and I also wonder if the auteur cinema that Höbel mourns ever had the popular resonance that he seems to imply. But the article is a good overview of the current economic concerns that are haunting at least one sector of the film industry.
- Höbel also discusses The Auteurs, a new resource for discussing and viewing films that bills itself as an “online film festival,” which includes a number of world cinema classics curated by none other than Martin Scorsese (note you may have to be a member to view specific pages).
- Finally, Ted Hope, in preparation for his appearance on Fox Busienss Chanel, lists “38 American Independent Film Concerns and Problems.” While Hope, who was one of the producers of Adventureland, a film I quite liked, has generally been one of the more optimistic figures in debates about the future of independent cinema, here he identifies a number of the problems the indie sector is facing. It’s a pretty convincing, if discouraging, list.
Update: Someone left a random and seemingly irrelevant comment (or several actually) that I didn’t recognize as pertaining to this entry, so I deleted it. Turns out it was part of an ARG connected to Lost. But for the sake of the game, I’ll try to add the comments back. See below.
Thanks to an email tip, I just took a quick look at, “Do experts and novices evaluate movies the same way?” (also via BPS Research Digest) a study conducted by Jonathan A. Plucker, James C. Kaufman, Jason S. Temple, and Meihua Qian, and published in the journal Psychology and Marketing, part of a special issue devoted to the theme of marketing movies. The authors seek to explore differences between how professional critics, “amateur” online critics, and general “novice” audiences to determine which groups tended to give movies the highest ratings.
The authors focused their research on films that opened widely, that is on 1,000 or more screens, which raises some potentially thorny problems I’d like to address later. The sources for their samples of reviews made some amount of sense. Critics’ reviews were culled from the numerical rankings on Metacritic.com, while the ratings from amateur critics were taken from IMDB discussion boards. Finally, the “novice” moviegoer numbers were taken from student surveys, a sample that also introduces some complications, given that students may be more generous than older audiences (a point the authors acknowledge in their discussion of the project’s “limitations”). Probably a bigger definitional problem, for me, is that users of IMDB discussion boards are self-selecting in a way that might bias them in favor of positive reviews. I would imagine (but could be wrong) that reviewers writing for a personal blog might be more critical of mainstream films, in particular, than user-generated reviews on IMDB, especially given IMDB’s bias toward newer films and a “popular canon.”
To be fair, they are attentive to the fact that the timing of reviews matters considerably. Critics reviews typically appear before amateur and novice reviewers have a chance to see a film, and students completing an anonymous survey might respond differently than they would if their reviews were more public. Further, to give Plucker, et al, credit, they are attentive to the fact that their categories are not mutually exclusive but instead represent a continuum, one that is increasingly complicated due to the rise of film criticism appearing in a variety of internet publications.
Given the sample the authors chose, it is probably no surprise that they discovered that professional critics tend to offer the lowest ratings while novice moviegoers ranked films more highly. By focusing on films that open on more than 1,000 screens, the study excludes a number of critically-acclaimed films, such as Million Dollar Baby or Juno, that deliberately use slow roll-outs in order to build positive word-of-mouth (or that target adult audiences who are less wedded to seeing films on opening night). I’m not suggesting that critic and novice rankings would have been reversed for these two films, but by placing too much emphasis on heavily-marketed, high-concept films that open widely, we may lose some subtleties about how different audiences might evaluate a film. Being specific matters quite a bit here. It would be worth exploring distinctions within individual films. How do critical evaluations of that plucky indie film compare to those of bigger budget films? By not naming a single movie title, the authors streamline what is often a much more volatile process. We also lose quite a bit when it comes to relative reach. Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis will always have a wider audience than I do as a mostly amateur blogger, not to mention greater access to the film industry itself.
Another concern that I have is how they reduce the reviews to their numeric rankings. Most, though not all, of the critics I read eschew numeric ratings or starred ratings, and my decision about whether or not to see a certain movie can depend on any number of factors that have little to do with who rates a film highly (in Fayetteville quite a bit depends on what’s available at any given time). That being said, I think they’re probably right to suggest that these numbers can probably help to guide the practices of marketers as they seek out the “tastemakers” who might champion certain films. Their conclusions also seem to imply that sites such as FlickTweets that compile film reviews posted to Twitter may actually help to expand positive buzz for a given film. More than anything, though, a closer look at specific cases would probably tell us more about how these rankings evolve and how “amateur” critics may review films differently than their professional peers.
Steve Clark’s debut indie feature The Last International Playboy (IMDB) opens during a vaguely euphoric party scene in which a group of improbably beautiful actress-model types frolic topless on the bed of Jack Frost (played by Roswell’s Jason Behr), a one-time novelist who has spent the last seven years doing little other than loafing about, drinking booze with his boorish best pal, “Scotch,” and pining over a grade-school romantic interest, Carolina, who has since rejected him. The scene, which visually echoes a similar scene in Wedding Crashers, successfully captures that tension between boozed-out bliss and the desperate loneliness that Jack is supposed to feel and that often comes with excessive partying. This desperation is most explicitly suggested in the opening shot, which depicts Jack’s friend, Ozzy (Krysten Ritter) sprawled out on the floor, doing heroin, oblivious to the world around her. But it also set up what were, for me, some of the problems the film had: namely the essentially impassive dullness that made it difficult for me to identify with Jack or to see why (presumably beyond the personal wealth that would allow him to party like Tad Allagash) anyone would really want to hang out with such a mopey guy.
Jack is gradually rescued from his depression-induced stupor in part by the assistance of Sophie (India Ennega), a sweetly precocious eleven-year-old girl who lives in his building and whose parents conveniently work all the time. Sophie quietly insinuates herself into Jack’s life, befriending him and consoling him over his problems with women while also getting him to take her trick-or-treating. Like Natalie Portman in Beautiful Girls and The Professional, Sophie is wise beyond her years, able to see Jack’s decency behind the flat surface (and, like Portman, she has terrific acting chops), but the story of the thirtysomething guy with Peter Pan syndrome has been done far more persuasively and with more charm, especially in the adaptations of two of Nick Hornby’s novels, as Variety’s review points out. More than anything, the film failed to render the worlds Jack inhabits in Manhattan with enough specificity to make them convincing: the elegant decadence of the club scenes, the cool professionalism of the publishing industry, much less Jack’s status as a novelist (a point echoed by Moving Pictures’ Elliott V. Kotek). Had these elements been more sharply drawn, Jack’s existential crisis and his friendships with Scotch and Ozzy might have been more convincing.
I’m aware that the film will probably play better for others than it did for me, and I appreciate that Playboy didn’t take the easy way out in transforming Jack into a saint. Playboy’s soundtrack features a number of tracks from A-list indie rockers but sometimes overwhelmed the film rather than supplementing it and adding to the feeling that the film was a series of disconnected set pieces. There are some nice moments in the film, especially those involving Sophie, but the film itself doesn’t quite work.
It’s the first full day of summer vacation here at Fayetteville State University and the home office of The Chutry Experiment is now in full swing (which essentially means that the pot of coffee is warm, KEXP is playing in the background, and piles of unread or reread journal articles are stacked on the floor). I’m about to dive into a couple of shorter writing projects, so here are some quick links:
- Harry Tuttle has already offered his annotations of a recent interview between Chris Fujiwara and Gerald Peary, who recently directed For the Love of Movies, a documentary history of American film criticism. The depiction of a divide between traditional or print-based film criticism and its blogging, Twittering rival now seems pretty tedious to me (Karina captures that tedium rather well). Harry Knowles has been reviewing films online for about a decade now (maybe longer?), and there are a number of other online film critics who have been working for a long time, both in blogs and in print publications. Certainly the structural place of the professional film critic, supported by a major newspaper, is changing, and to Peary’s credit, he is attentive to the fact that online critics are often serving the same function that past generations of critics such as Sarris, Kael, and others did: championing the films and filmmakers they admire and getting conversations going about films and film culture.
- IndieWIRE has the scoop on plans for Sally Potter’s film, Rage, to use an alternative distribution strategy, in which “Babelgum will be releasing the film as a series of episodes, timed to coincide with the film’s release in each territory.” Rage, according to the article (I haven’t seen it yet), focuses on a series of interviews conducted at a fashion show that appear to have been shot by a cameraphone, so this new hypermobile, fragmented distribution strategy makes a lot of sense, a point that David Hudson made in his February review of the film after seeing it in Berlin (IndieWIRE article also via David).
- Jessica Clark points to two articles discussing the state of journalism, one an older article by Eric Alterman characterizing Jon Stewart as a modern-day Eward R. Murrow. I don’t know whether Stewartholds the same structural place as Murrow did–Stewart’s status as an outsider to both politics and journalism offers him a slightly different rhetorical position–but through his position as a news satirist, he has been able to perform some of the most vital media criticism of the last few years. Clark also points to a recent Frank Rich column that makes a similar point. Both are good reads.
Because of my interest in new models of DIY film distribution, I’ve been quietly following the story of Nina Paley’s breathtaking and sharply inventive animated feature, Sita Sings the Blues. And although my initial interest in Paley’s movie was driven by Paley’s unusual distribution plan (more on that later), I’ll admit to being blown away by Paley’s inventive storytelling techniques and her creative, richly allusive animation styles.
Sita Sings the Blues, as Roger Ebert observes in his equally enthusiastic review, operates on several levels. First, we get the story of Nina and her boyfriend, Dave, happily in love, their cat Lexi contentedly sleeping on the foot of the bed (at least until it’s time for that 5 AM feeding). Paley mixes intentionally crude animation here with photographic backgrounds that capture bits and pieces of San Francisco, establishing a visual motif that will be repeated throughout the film. Soon after we are introduced to the couple, Dave gets a temporary job in India. Eventually, Nina flies out to visit, and Dave seems aloof, unwilling to show affection in public or, later, in private. Nina goes back to Brooklyn to take some freelance work and is greeted by an email from Dave telling her no to return.
Alongside of Nina’s story, we get another story about Sita and Ramayana. Sita endures a similar rejection after Ramayana suspects that she has been unfaithful. There is a kidnapping and rescue plot told with incredible visual flair and wit. This narrative is mediated by a group of three moden-day Indian storytellers, who joke about Ramayana’s decisions while gently debating when the story took place (“was it the eleventh century?”). But what makes Sita Sings the Blues feel so original was the decsion to have Sita express her emotionsby singing and dancing to recorings of songs by the early 20th century jazz perfromer, Annette Hanshaw (here she is singing “We Just Couldn’t Say God Bye“). Hanshaw’s songs of love (often urequited) and rejection beautifully match Sita’s story, and by extension, Nina’s. Sita herself is a bluesy, sometimes brazen Betty Boop-type figure, even while remaining faithful to her beau, and in a number of scenes, Sita’s 10th century BC India begins to recall the animation styles of the 1930s. When Sita sings, dancing birds and deer, though many of these creatures bear little resemblance to modern day animals, suggesting something far more surreal.
And here is where the innovative distribution strategies have come into play. Because many of Hanshaw’s songs are still under copyright, Paley would have to pay thousands of dollars in fees to “decriminalize” the film (Paley breaks down the numbers in detail here). And because the film depends so completely on the songs, Paley has opted to distribute the film on the web under a Creative Commons license, under the provision that “promotional” copies of movies and DVDs are not subject to the same licensing fees as those that are sold. So, Paley is giving away the film, essentially for free, on the web (I watched it here) and will be seeking to recover her costs through a limited-edition DVD sale, through donations, and through the sales of ancillary materials (t-shirts, etc).
I only have a (very tiny) fraction of the reach that Roger Ebert has, but like him, I’d encourage you to see it, to host screenings (if you host an official screening, Paley will record a personal video greeting), to contact your local PBS station and ask for them to screen it, and to support the film in whatever way you see appropriate. I’m already scheming about how I might be able to teach Sita in the fall. It’s one of the most exciting new films I’ve seen in some time and it deserves to be seen as widely as possible. It’s also a reminder of the limitations that overly restrictive copyright law can impose on creative expression.
Here are the rest of those links. Busy day for me in the blogosphere:
- David Poland has an interesting post reporting that the American Film Institute (AFI) has decided to make their tickets available for free. Poland notes that many major festivals provide so many tickets to sponsors, the press, and others that “festivals only have so many tickets to sell to ‘regular’ people.” Add to that the costs of setting up a ticket-distribution system, and it makes sense to give away tickets rather than charging. I’ve recently become interested in the changing role of teh film festival in the age of media convergence, so I’ll be interested to see how this story plays out. And like him, I think it’s a pretty exciting move.
- On a related note, TicketLeap is attempting to make it easier for do-it-yourself and indie filmmakers and exhibitors (among others) to distribute tickets online. It’s new product, Anywhere, “allows organizers of events – big or small – to facilitate the online handling of ticket sales at the venue door or when talking to customers on the phone” (via TechCrunch). The big bonus here, apparently, is that Anywhere would allow customers to sell tickets with their own computers to sell tickets, although some additional equipment may be needed (such as a barcode scanner). I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how useful such a tool would be for DIY filmmakers, but it is worth knowing about.
- Both Jim Emerson and JessicaClark point to the Internet Meme widget found on Dipity. For those of us who study internet video and memes, this looks like a really useful tool in tracking that history. But it’s also a lot of fun, and surprisingly nostalgia-inducing (here’s a history of the “Shining” meme, for example).
- The IFC Daily has a round-up of reviews of Gary Hustwit’s documentary about industrial design, Objectified, one of my favorite films at this year’s Full Frame (and one that seems even more impressive as I look back on it). Hustwit is incredibly skillful at introducing experts discussing key ideas about everyday life–typefaces, urban design–and introducing them in an entertaining and accessible way.
- Also from The Daily, discussion of Kiry Dick’s latest documentary, Outrage, which turns its lens on the hypocrisies closeted gay politicians who campaign on family-values platforms. Given the number of states that have recently moved to legalize gay marriage (go Maine!), this is obviously a timely film. A number of the links, including this NPR interview, address the ethics of “outing” closeted gay politicians in order to make Dick’s political point. Also worth noting” Dick’s interview with Filmmaker Magazine’s Nick Dawson on two issues that are engaging me right now: the future of documentary and th definition of activist documentary.
After seeing this blog included on the list of “100 Awesome Blogs By Some of the World’s Smartest People,” I feel obligated to, you know, actually blog something and try to live up to the hype. I’m often skeptical when I receive this kind of praise. My impostor syndrome kicks in and I wonder how they could have missed all the other cool blogs that I read, but it is nice to be included in some pretty select company. I have a couple of longer blog posts percolating right now, including a couple focused on future writing projects, but with grading and end-of-semester demands, I’ll have to leave things at the level of an annotated links post for now:
- Via Karina, a cool idea from Roger Ebert to compile photographs of the childhood homes of a number of prominent film critics, a project he took on after his hometown of Urbana, Illinois, placed a plaque in front of the house where he lived as a child.
- Twitter, apparently, continues to be the root of all evil. The Wrap has an article about Hollywood studio execs expressing concern that Twitter will further limit their ability to hype this summer’s blockbusters. It’s also responsible, apparently, for putting the final nail into the coffin of print-based film reviews. The focus of concern is the new site Flicktweets, which compiles movie tweets in real time. Of course, studios expressed similar concerns when text messaging was first catching on in the US, and the last couple of summers have seen record box office. Given that many of the reviews tend to be positive and that Twitter can be used to organize trips to the movies (among other things), I don’t think there’s much cause for concern. Unless the movies themselves are bad. As for critics, anyone who wants more than a one-sentence synopsis, which is most people I’d imagine, will continue to seek out good writing.
- One other point about Flicktweets: I would think that this would be one of the most valuable data-mining tools that any studio could ever have. After all, you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of Twitterers offering their first impressions of your new movie. Might be a good way to figure out how to make them better next time (or even how to promote them on DVD).
- I’m posting this interview for no reason other than the fact that Tilda Swinton might be one of the coolest people on the planet. I can’t wait to see two of her new films: Julia andThe Limits of Control. Toward the end there is a terrific bit about her film festival, which will be going “mobile” this year.
- Anne Thompson has a link to news that Hulu has now arranged to show a number of Bollywood films on their site. Cinematical offers further details, but this appears to be further evidence that the Hulu model seems to be increasingly attractive as one significant digital distribution option for studios.
- Some political doc news: I’m sure I’m way late to the party on this one, but apparently, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? is now being turned into a documentary (via Variety). Frank’s book sought to explain why red-state Americans often voted on social issues and against their economic intersts. Given the widely-documented failures of the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008, I think it would be easy to argue that Frank’s book has lost some of its explanatory power, but I would suggest that his arguments might be still be useful as a way of decoding the so-called Mustardgate, in which a host of conservative pundits sought to paint President Obama as an “elitist” for asking for spicy mustard on his hamburger. It’s the exact same playbook they used against Kerry. The good news is that it doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
- Speaking of Twitter, I came across the intriguing-looking new documentary, Disconnected, on my Twitter feed earlier today. Disconnected focuses on the experiences of three college students who decide to go without computers for three months (this includes typing papers, which forced them to learn how to use manual typewriters). The documentary was produced in collaboration between students and faculty at Carleton College and is available for purchase at their website.
- Patrick Goldstein, who was also one of the (well-deserved) “100 Awesome Blog” honorees, has an interesting post or two about the Summer Movie Posse, a group of Los Angeles-area high school students who watch trailers for summer movies with Goldstein and discuss their reactions to them. Their discussions say a lot about how that particular demographic reads movie trailers and how trailers inform our expectations of films. And if Goldstein’s sample is right, then, the makers of the Transformers movie won’t be able to blame a bunch of Twitterers for what appears to be a very lousy film. The biggest complaint: the Michael Bay-helmed film just looks like a bunch of visual noise, and the trailer fails to offer anything resembling a clear narrative (it’s shocking to hear that about a Michael Bay film, by the way).
- This Onion video about the response of Trekkies to the new, updated Star Trek film is pretty funny.
More links on the way in Part Two.
It’s final exam week, and my grading isn’t too overwhelming. Which means I’m listening to KEXP, surfing blogs, doing research, drinking coffee, and planning my summer. As I’ve said before, I’m hoping this will be the summer when I get a chance to catch up on some of the movies I’ve been missing the last couple of years while writing the book. Last night, I finally watched Man Push Cart, Ramin Bahrani’s terrific 2005 indie film about a former Pakistani rock musician who now operates a push cart in Manhattan where he sells coffee and bagels. Now here are some links:
- Via my Twitter feed (I think @negaratduke): Here’s what would have happened if Twitter existed in the 1960s. Update: also from Negar, If you started a movie on the day you were born and stretched it out over the course of your life, here’s where you would be. Which begs the question: what if your life was Memento?
- My previous entry was a response to Reid Gershebin’s call for a roundtable on film criticism in the internet age. Here is the full collection of contributions compiled on Reid’s blog. Also worth checking out: Alejandro Adams’ discussion of this issue, where a spirited discussion is taking place in the comments.
- Jeff Jacoby has an interesting interview with Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of Talkers Magazine, about the future of talk radio. The prognosis: there isn’t much of one, at least not on the AM/FM dial, as everything migrates to the Internet.
- It’s several days old (which pretty much makes it ancient history in internet time), but this “Michael Bay Does Breakfast” video is pretty funny and gets his aesthetic pretty well.