Archive for June, 2009

The Movie Book Meme, Part II

Here is the second half of my response to the book meme (here’s Part I in case you missed it).  Thanks again to The Film Doctor for tagging me and to Movieman0283 for suggesting such a productive meme.

  1. One of the books that I found myself constantly revisiting when writing the book was Barbara Klinger’s Beyond the Multiplex, one of the best books out there on the implications of watching movies at home. Klinger looks at a variety of phenomena including home theater systems, DVD collecting, repeat film viewing, and online videos shorts to consider shifts in viewing practices as movie watching increasingly migrates into the home.  In a similar context, I found myself learning a lot from Anna McCarthy’s Ambient Television, especially in her discussion of how TV, typically associated with the home, “shapes and often dominates public spaces.”  Although McCarthy primarily addresses television as a medium, her book helped me to make sense of the increasing significance of mobile devices (such as iPods) in accessing movie content.
  2. Another book that came to me as I was finishing Reinventing Cinema was John Thornton Caldwell’s Production Culture, which examines the “cultural practices and belief systems of Los Angeles–based film and video production workers.”  In particular, I found Caldwell’s analysis of “industrial self-reflexivity,” especially as it is expressed in DVD commentary tracks, making-of documentaries, promotional texts, and user-generated content, to be incredibly helpful.
  3. In addition to the many scholarly books that have been important to me, I’d also like to list some books that capture, at least in part, the pleasures of movie watching.  Few recent books on film are more readable than Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution, a history of the five films nominated for Best Picture Oscars in 1968, a pivotal year not only in the history of Hollywood but in the larger political world. As a fan of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, two of the nominated films, I love the behind-the-scenes narratives that Harris masterfully weaves together.  As someone interested in the history of Hollywood, I find it an immensely readable resource.  Finally, Harris quietly captures the social and political change taking place while these films were being made.
  4. Although it’s a slightly flawed and clunky book, I’ve always liked Alberto Fuguet’s novel, The Movies of My Life, in which the protagonist, seismologist Beltran Soler, narrates the story of his life in relationship to movies that were important to him, both during his years living in the U.S. and his life in Chile.  Beltran starts his memoirs during a layover in a Los Angeles hotel room, a setting that seems apt for thinking about film’s powerful influence in our lives.
  5. Another book that taps into both my cinephilia and my appreciation of those who have written so eloquently about film is Philip Lopate’s indispensible collection, American Movie Critics: From Silents Until Now, a collection of film reviews dating from the earliest days of the genre to the present, at a moment when film criticism is itself rapidly transforming as some of our most insightful critics write not for newspapers and magazines but for blogs and other websites. The book is a great resource for tracing the debates about ongoing, but ever-changing, role of movies in our daily lives, as they played out on the pages of local and national newspapers and magazines.

I’m supposed to tag five other people, but I’m always hesitant to do that, so consider this an open invitation to join the meme.  When you do, be sure to link back to the origins of the meme at The Dancing Image.

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The Movie Book Meme, Part I

The Film Doctor kindly invited me to participate in the “Reading the Movies” meme, originally started by movieman0283 at his blog, The Dancing Image. As The Film Doctor points out, there are already some incredible lists out there from smart and entertaining film bloggers like Campaspe, film critic Glenn Kenny, and New Yorker blogger Richard Brody, so I’m very happy to join in the fun.

There is also an interesting tension in some of the lists between bloggers who cite books that influenced them or “changed [their] lives” and, in the case of The Film Doctor, “favorite” film books.  Many of the books that most influenced me, especially in recent years, are difficult, challenging books that may not offer traditional forms of reading pleasure.  At the same time, as my own research has evolved, many books that were important to me as a young, initially tentative film scholar, have become less significant to my recent scholarly output.  With that in mind, I’ve tried to balance between books I love, many of which are themselves about a love of cinema, and books that shaped my scholarly interests and inclinations.  At the same time, this list might be considered a small repayment of the debts I owe to the scholars, critics, and thinkers who helped make my own book possible.  Because most of these annotations run a bit long, I’ll divide this entry into two parts.

  1. Few books have been more important to me than Illuminations, a collection of some of Walter Benjamin’s more significant essays compiled and published posthumously, especially Benjamin’s groundbreaking “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” a profound meditation on cinema and modern subjectivity, one that assimilated everything from Georg Simmel’s sociological analysis to Dziga Vertov’s celebration of the camera’s ability to document and reveal hidden elements of everyday life.  In my own personal, dog-eared copy of the book, the margins are littered with comments and virtually every word of that essay is underlined as I sought to grapple with Benjamin’s arguments.  Another essay in the same collection, “Unpacking My Library,” also quietly influenced some of my thoughts on the practices of collecting DVD addressed in my book.
  2. When I first began my Ph.D. at Purdue, one of the first courses I took focused onfeminist film theory.  Naturally, Laura Mulvey’s paradigmatic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” anthologized in Visual and Other Pleasures, served as an important, if controversial, touchstone for discussions throughout the semester.  Although Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze” and her call for film texts that called for deconstructing visual pleasure have been challenged (quite often by feminist critics), her work helped convey to me the value and pleasure of film analysis.  At the same time, her book helped to foster an incredibly productive cycle of scholarship on the concept of the spectator, inlcuding another book that had a major influence on me, Steven Shaviro’s The Cinematic Body. And even though Mulvey’s book is less frequently cited these days, I’d argue that her discussion of spectatorshiphelped make possible some of the more recent work on fan studies an active audiences, even if many of those scholars were actively working against her main arguments.
  3. When I first began writing seriously about film, I became increasingly influenced by scholarship that combined a focus on spectatorship with a growing body of scholars focused on postmodernism, especially as it was defined by Fredric Jameson.  This interest helped me to identify time-travel films as crucial sites for thinking about films as “time machines” that altered historical consciousness.  Because of these interests, I found myself grappling with, citing, and revisiting Anne Friedberg’s Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, a book that elegantly weaves together Benjamin-influenced analysis of shopping malls and multiplexes with careful considerations of how movies were creating a postmodern spectator lost in the funhouse of images.  Not-so-faint echoes of Friedberg’s work can be heard in my book when I attempt to read my experience of watching Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars at an Atlanta drive-in.
  4. Charles Acland’s Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture helped me to think about the importance of the locations where we view movies and also reminded me that movie theaters retain an important status in the cultural imagination when it comes to thinking about how movies are understood.  Acland also offers a useful analysis of the pleasures of attending movies on opening night, linking that practice to what he calls a “felt internationalism,” a desire to be both “in-the-know” and part of a larger collective with shared interests, ideas that I tried to assimilate into my discussion of film blogs.
  5. Acland’s book was also an important bridge from some of the scholarship I read early in my career that was informed by cultural studies and some of the valuable work coming from a political economy perspective.  A particularly important book for me was Global Hollywood, authored by Toby Miller, Nitin Govil, John McMurria, and Richard Maxwell.  Although the book misses some of the ways in which movies are used and acted upon by film audiences, the book also helped me to think more carefully about how movies circulate globally.

Stay tuned for Part II.

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Tuesday Links

I’ve been out of the loop for the last few days thanks to a wonderful long weekend with Andrea in Atlanta, which included a Braves-Sox game, tours of the CNN Center and Coke Museum, and a sentimental trip to some favorite restaurants and hangouts.  If you’re ever in Atlanta, the CNN tour is probably worth checking out, although I was a little disappointed by its relative brevity.  Still, spotting Ali Velshi working the newsroom on his way to the anchor’s desk was sort of fun.  I’ve got a couple of other entries lined up, so hopefully, I’ll have some new (and substantive) content soon.  Now, for some links:

  • Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker review of Chris Anderson’s latest book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, captures many of the reservations I’ve had about Anderson’s argument when I first encountered it in a Wired Magazine article a few months ago.  Essentially, Anderson argues that as bandwidth and server space becomes less expensive content creators can profit from giving away some of their content for free.  Gladwell, in his review, challenges a number of key assumptions in Anderson’s “technological utopian” argument, in part by deconstructing one of Anderson’s key case studies, YouTube, which still hasn’t shown a profit despite Google’s investment, and showing how giving content away for free often masks other costs.  I’ll try to write up a full review of the book when it comes out in July.
  • In the most recent issue of FlowTV, Ted Friedman offers a welcome corrective to some of the technological utopianism that has been swirling around the events in Iran in recent weeks, a celebration of Twitter and YouTube that sometimes swept me up in its massive scope.  However, as Frieman points out, there are only a small number of Twitter users among the thousands of protestors in Iran, and the cyberutopian rhetoric often obscures what supporters of Ahmadinejad may be doing with these social networks.  Finally, it has the potential to obscure some of the genuine, on-the-ground activity that may be taking place in the protests on behlaf of Mousavi.
  • One of the case studies I address in the book is the contest sponsored by Netflix, in which the video rental service invited people to create a better recommednation algorithm than their current version.  According to Cinematical, Netflix is ready to declare a winner of the $1 million prize.  Wired Magazine also discusses the contest, reporting that two front-running teams, Team Pragmatic Theory and Team Bellkor in Chaos, joined forces to create the winning algorithm.
  • The Scholarly Kitchen has an interesting discussion of the Impact Factor, a tool used to determine how much impact a sholarly book or journal has based on the number of citations in peer-reviewed journals.  The Schoarly Kitchen argues that such rubrics are now obsolete, given that citations can now appear anywhere, including tweets, blog posts, and Facebook status updates.  While these citations may not be equivalent with a mention in a peer-reviewed journal, theyoften do come from peers in the field.  This is something we’ve been talking about for a long time now at MediaCommons, but I think it is worth highlighting othes who are thinking about the ways in which digital media are enmeshed with questions of scholarly impact.
  • Finally, I’ll go on the record, about a week too late to matter, in saying that expanding the number of Best Picture nominees may do a little to open up a usually restrictive category to some non-traditional nominees.  As a number of people have noted, having ten nominees last year likely would have allowed popular and critical favorites, The Dark Knight and Wall-E, to get nominations.  This year, a successful, if overrated comedy such as The Hangover, could even be nominated, as Patrick Goldstein speculates in his analysis of the Oscar news.  The move might also allow documentaries and forign films to get nominated.  I’ll add that I’m not that concerned abut watering down the significance of a nomination (which seems like a relatively trivial issue for the most part), but it does have an intriguing marketing twist that allows five more films to use the little gold statuette in advertising and promotions.  For a low-budget indie or documentary, something like that could be pretty significant.

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Reinventing Cinema on Facebook

For those who are interested, I’ve started a Facebook group for my book, Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence.  I’m still thinking about how I’ll use the Facebook group and how it might differ from other forms of online visibility for the book, but at the very least, it should serve as a good resource for keeping friends and followers posted on events or issues I’ve addressed in it.  There is a degree to which I sometimes feel like all of these separate pages and profiles become a form of online noise and “success” becomes defined in part in terms of who is most adept at using social networks as megaphones to promote themselves, but hopefully the group can encourage discussion about issues pertaining to digital cinema.

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Is Ollie Really “Overwhelmed?”

I’ve been out of the loop for a few days, in part thanks to some internet connectivity problems, but I’ve been finding myself mulling Paul Schrader’s recent Guardian column talking about the “exhaustion” of narrative and how it might affect cinematic storytelling.  Essentially Schrader, a longtime screenwriter, director, and critic, argues that media consumers are encountering a significantly larger number of audiovisual narratives than in the past and then asks about the implications of this condition, specifically as it affects the ability of screenwriters to produce “original” material.  Schrader, thankfully, resists the temptation to view this situation as a “crisis,” or even a “big deal.” It’s just the way things are.  Narrative will change, and the social role of cinema will change along with it.

I’ll start by pointing out that I’m less interested in (and somewhat unconvinced by) Schrader’s retelling of the “narrative exhaustion” argument, the idea that there are seven (or three or tewnty) basic plots that we constantly rework, reuse, or recycle (apparently storytelling has always been sustainable).  That claim, as Schrader’s own citation of Kipling implies, has been around for a long time.  And yet, storytelling, in whatever medium, remains vital.  If anything, the sheer proliferation of audioviusal forms that Schrader cites–blogs, vlogs, viral videos, movies, TV–is testament to the pleasures of producing and consuming narratives.  Henry Jenkins’ discussion of participatory culture helps to unpack the ongoing enjoyment (and deepening commodification) of telling and hearing stories.

I’m also somewhat skeptical of Schrader’s assertion that “the traditional concept of movies, a projected image in a dark room of viewers, feels increasingly old.”  To be sure, many of our most successful narratives now involve sprawling, diffuse texts that include websites, alternate-reality games, DVD extras, mashup videos, and other features that spill out well beyond the boundaries of the two-hour film.  In fact, given the long lines that circle my local multiplexes, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine that the big screen experience will go away anytime soon.  Many theatrical releases may be increasingly vapid and silly roller coaster rides, and fewer theatrical screens may be devoted to independent films, but theaters remain social hubs, not to mention relatively cheap entertainment options during an economic recession.  Box office numbers may change slightly from year to year, but to see this “traditional” version of moviegoing as old or archaic obscures quite a bit.  People still crave stories–even formulaic, predictable ones.

But one of my other big questions about Schrader’s argument is embedded in my title, the question of whether today’s  consumers–at least in industrialized western countries–are encountering “more” audiovisual narratives than ever before.  Similar arguments have been raised for at least a century.  Georg Simmel worried about the increasing stimuli encountered by the modern, urban subject caught in a stream of traffic, noise, movies, and commodities.  Walter Benjamin deepened that argument, worrying about the withering of the “aura” of the work of art but also found in movies, the “unconscious optics” that would allow modern subjects to see the world in new, potentially revolutionary, ways.  Schrader updates this by imagining a contemporary subject, Ollie Overwhelmed, who now encounters significantly more narratives than his father or grandmother.  To his credit, Schrader avoids making revolutionary claims about the supposed uptick in the number of narratives we encounter, but I have to admit that I’m somewhat skeptical about the general idea that we are watching a quantitatively larger number of narratives than we did in the past or how one would even go about measuring such a thing.  Certainly we could count the number of movies, books, TV shows, and viral videos that people consume (or the hours spent consuming them), but aren’t narratives often diffuse, rambling, ongoing?  In my book, I’ve speculated about the motivations behind these assertions about the “end of cinema” or the”end of narrative,” and I often find them lacking solid evidence and instead expressions of certain desires or fears.  Desire for what? Perhaps the ability to witness the end of something?

Despite these reservations, I think that Schrader offers an interesting diagnosis of some of the shifts that are taking place in the entertainment industry.  He’s right, of course, that storytelling has become a business, and in fact, I would argue that many of the changes he describes–the rise of reality TV in particular–are motivated by a desire on the part of entertainment conglomerates for cheap, easily digestible, often mobile, forms of entertainment. In other words, it’s less about a desire for “originality” than it is about finding ways to migrate content through a variety of forms so that viewers will remain hooked into a larger narrative, and in somes cases, so that we will become involved in telling and even reworking those stories ourselves, through viral videos, fan fiction or other textual forms.  In questioning some of Schrader’s arguments, I’m not suggesting that nothing has changed with the rise of digital media and these new modes of storytelling.  But whether that translates into a threat to originality or a felt sense of “narrative exhaustion” seems far less clear.

Thanks to J. J. Murphy for calling my attention to Schrader’s essay.

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Open Video Conference

This is just a quick pointer to the Open Video Conference, a three-day event featuring a number of scholars, artists, and activists focusing on creating policies that will encourage a more participatory culture around online video.  As the conference description suggests, as online video matures as a medium, we face significant policy decisions and practices that will affect how people participate in broader political conversations.  As the events of the last few days in Iran illustrate, online video can be a powerful medium in shaping political discourse, something we also witnessed during the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, a point I addressed, most recently in this article for Popular Communication.

The conference is streaming live on the main page, but you can learn more about the conference here.  You can also follow discussion of the conference on Twitter via the #openvideo hashtag.

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Twittering in Tehran

Like pretty much everyone else, I’ve been wavering between nervous anticipation and cautious optimism, between excitement about the possibilities made available by social media and anger at what appears to be a stolen election, when it comes to Iran.  It’s impossible to predict, of course, what will happen as a result of these massive street protests, and while there are reasons to be excited about the popular expression of opposition to what appears to be manipulated election results, there are also reasons to remain apprehensive.  But it’s also impossible to think about the events of the last few days without thinking about how they have been represented in various media outlets and how these news stories have been relayed to the West via various social media, including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, often at some personal risk to the people who are sending out information when western media outlets have so little access.

I think it’s easy to criticize the cable news channels for paying so little attention to the story–devoting an hour of time this morning to a fleeting crisis in which an airline pilot died while en route from Brussels to Newark seemed to encapsulate these limits–just as its equally easy to celebrate uncritically technological tools such as Twitter and Facebook.  Western news outlets are limited, of course, to filing one news report a day by the Iranian government, so the role of usual news sources is even further complicated.  Similarly, I think it’s important to remain aware that Mir Hussein Mousavi may not be, as Tom Watson argues, a beacon of social change.  Still, as Lance Mannion observes, what’s happening in Iran seems to be less about Mousavi than it is about the actions of the Iranians themselves.  Lance cites this eyewitness report, sent through Juan Cole, from an eyewitness who describes the “orderly disorder” of the marchers and the ease and speed with which information is disseminated.

I’ll admit that I’m still somewhat unsure of where to begin when following these events as they unfold.  Because these events are unfolding essentially in real time, often while many of us in the US are asleep or at work, and because of the sheer volume of information that is out there beyond the majornews outlets, it is impossible to process everything and even more difficult to know what to do other than watch and wait.  PBS’s Media Shift blog, true to its expanded emphasis on social media, has a fairly thorough list of resources on Iran and on the powerful uses of social media out there, including Mark Glaser’s discussion of the #CNNfail and #IranElection hashtags on Twitter (although even these hashtags often become cluttered by overwhelming noise), as well as links to Iran election protest videos and Andrew Sullivan’s blog post arguing that “the revolution will be twittered.”

All of these accounts remind me of the challenges we face in the new social media landscape.  Sullivan, for example, celebrates the ability of people to improvise and get around the traditional filters, declaring that “You cannot stop people any longer. You cannot control them any longer. They can bypass your established media; they can broadcast to one another; they can organize as never before.”  While I think there is something genuinely new here, I do wonder about past precedents: the use of fax machines by students involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests or the use of copiers during the Vietnam protests. I do think there is something quantitatively and qualitatively different here when it comes to the speed and spread of information and the ability for amateur reporting to reach mass audiences.  But I think we need to be careful when equating the ability to tweet, blog, and Flickr with political freedom.

At the same time, I find myself thinking about the challenges these social media tolls present to us as readers, viewers, consumers, and in turn, linkers, posters, and interpreters of this information.  Chris O’Brien touches on some of these issues in a broader discussion of social media in his discussion of the “new obligations of readers” and about his own admitted “reluctance” to engage with the comments to stories.  Of course, when we are all potential writers ourselves, these obligations change.  Can we “participate” in what is happening in Iran?  Is it meaningful for millions of Twitterers to color their avatars green in solidarity with the protesters?  How do we filter through these many sources of information?  In the last hour or so, I’ve now heard CNN’s Wolf Blitzer use the phrase “watching history unfold” at least three or four times to describe our relationship to the events in Tehran, and while I feel essentially powerless to do much to change the situation there, that phrase no longer seems adequate to describe how we engage with world events, as we tweet, blog, and forward information and express our support for democratization.  The phrasing is too passive, an echo of televised news.  Something different is happening, and the old, passive terminology seems inadequate to describe it.  But I think the new tools raise thousands of questions as well.  I’ve been writing this post mentally for several days now, and even as I write I find myself pulled in any number of contradictory directions, half listening to CNN, intently checking Twitter and and blogs, trying to make sense not only of Iran but also of the social media tools that have become such an important part of this story.

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Thursday Film Links

Ted Hope has a short, pointed response to MovieMaker Magazine’s list of 50 Best Websites for Moviemakers 2009. The list includes a number of terrific resources, although the list seems uneven, especially when it comes to naming Hollywood journalists.  Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily is fine, I suppose, but there are several other journalists and observers (Anne Thompson, Dave Poland, etc) I’d rather read.  Obviously, as Hope points out, some of this is the politics of competition, but Hope’s response to the omission of his own blog, Truly Free Film, a blog that consistently helps me think through the challenges and possibilities of digital cinema, opens up some of the questions that I have about these top ten or top fifty lists and the criteria behind them.

Because The Karate Kid was the first movie my family ever owned on VHS (and because it is, in fact, a hugely entertaining and well-made movie), my sister and I wore our copy out to the point that it was virtually unviewable, something beyond grainy.  With that in mind, I really enjoyed Craig Simpson’s blog essay about the film on The House Next Door (part of a longer series on films from the summer of 1984).  The essay succeeded in evoking my nostalgia for the film and even helped me to see it slightly differently.  And Simpson also points out what I regarded, even as a neophyte cinephile, as a couple of the key gaps in the film’s storytelling logic.  It’s a fun little diversion, even if I don’t quite feel the need to see KK again (while also reminding me of why I’ll skip the planned Jackie Chan remake).

David Poland offers a welcome corrective to the hype over the new independent production company, DF Indie.  I didn’t mention it in yesterday’s post, but the launch seemed a little hollow to me, and Poland offers a clear diagnosis for why something like DF Indie is so enticing for those of us who like smart, engaging films: “Because everyone is drooling over the possibility that someone somewhere has The Answer. And so false prophets are made real overnight, as the industry prays that its savior has arrived.” It’s in my nature to be cautiously optimistic about the possibility of a more vibrant indie film culture, and DF Indie simply represents the newest, shiniest possibility for that, but Poland’s right to call for some skepticism.

Scott Kirsner has links to two LA Times articles about what he calls the “digital media future.” First, a report that Hollywood has “hit the stop button” on investment in “high-profile” web video, complete with a sidebar story on web video businesses that have failed.  Second, Scott links to his own op-ed, in which he discusses potential business models for the web.  Scott sensibly compares the current economic crisis, in which revenue models remain hazy, to past crises, including the introduction of of television in the 1950s, and cites a couple of web-based success stories, such as Lance Weiler and Robert Greenwald and the guys at Jib Jab.  But I think he overstates his case a bit when he concludes, “Business models for content on the Internet are still evolving. But it’s already becoming clear that $100-million movies like “Land of the Lost,” or even $10-million independent films, may not represent the future of the industry. And new technologies like YouTube, the iPhone and next-generation gaming consoles are opening up all sorts of new, creative possibilities.”  I think he’s completely right to point to all of the new storytelling models that web video, iPhones, and their techy friends open up, but it’s hard not to see Weiler, Greenwald, and a few others as exceptions sometimes (or else these lists would be a lot longer).  I think it also underestimates how integrated the $100 million transmedia spectacle (like Land of the Lost) already is within these web video networks.  In fact, if anything, web video makes it easier for studios to immerse fans in the expanded worlds created by the major studios.

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Wednesday Links

A lot of offline activity at the home office of The Chutry Experiment this week, so many of these links are probably old news for some readers.  Still, as I mentioned in my previous post, blogging links helps me to think through ideas for longer projects.  Hopefully I’ll be a more diligent blogger soon.

One of the stories I’ve been following is the introduction of Movie Review Intelligence, a new film review aggregator along the lines of Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes.  Anne Thompson has agood discussion of the niche that MRI is trying to serve, pointing out that the site bills itself as giving more weight to prominent film critics such as Roger Ebert.  She also points out that many consumers of film reviews also now give more weight to aggregate scores rather than the reviews of one or two individual critics, which seems about right to me.  Even more significant, as this column by Thompson from a year ago suggests, many younger film fans are turning to studio-friendly sites for their information about what to watch.

Many of my readers have probably already seen the teaser for Michael Moore’s new documentary, a parody public service announcement in which Moore asks viewers to donate money to “Save our CEOs.” Although the teaser offers little specific detail about the new film, it seems like Moore at his populist best, fighting against the absurdities of the intersections between power and money and how they’ve played out during the bank bailout.  According to The Wrap, at the New York premiere of the teaser, Moore had “ushers representing Moore’s satirical organization” collect donations, which were then given to a local food bank.  Christopher Campbell has a nice roundup of links to articles talking about the teaser.  A nice bonus: Moore has also posted a video documenting the reaction of a NYC theater audience to the teaser.

Via NewTeeVee, a discussion of the fact that Netflix doesn’t offer subtitles or closed captions for their streaming videos, a problem that apparently affects web video in general.   Apparently, Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced legislation that would require that web video be accessible to people with disabilities, but so far it has not been signed into law.  Neil Hunt, the Chief Production Officer at Netflix, explains why making streams with closed captions is somewhat difficult, and estimates that they will have closed captiona available, hopefully by 2010.

Scott Kirsner has two recent posts that have a number of useful links about digital cinema.  The first mentions the new indie start-up, DF Indie Studios, headed by Mary Dickinson and Charlene Fisher.  Here’s the NYT on the new indie studio, and as usual, Anne Thompson has an insightful take (as well as the full text of the press release announcing the DFIS launch).  Scott also points to a WSJ article about Alec Duffy who won the rights to an unreleased Sufjan Stevens song and decided that rather than making the song available online, he would require fans to come to his apartment to hear it with the hope of building a shared community around music.

NewTeeVee also discusses the idea of a “Watch Later” queue proposed by venture capitalist Fred Wilson.  Essentially, the queue would be a DVR for web video, allowing viewers to save videos for later viewing.  I already do this implicitly by saving videos on delicious or emailing them to myself (or, more rarely, adding them to my favorites on YouTube), so I’ll be interested to see if it works out.  My sense is that it may not be necessary in that most people who watch web video already have cobbled together solutions for bookmarking videos they want to watch later. But I could be wrong. Still, given the “Watch Now” and “Broadcast Yourself” rhetoric that bounces around in the land of web video, the idea of “Watching Later” is kind of cool.

Finally (for now), Andrew O’Hehir has an excellent overview of some of the recent changes in the digital cinema distribution landscape, focusing on some of the major players and how they are carving out niches (or not) for reaching online movie and TV audiences, with a special focus on indie films.  My impressions about digital cinema are similar to his, especially on one key point: “no single device or delivery mechanism is likely to dominate the others, at least for the foreseeable future. Individual films will be made available in multiple ways, either consecutively or all at the same time.”

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Blogging Toward the Book

In a recent exchange on Twitter, @mattthomas expressed interest in reading “a blog post about how your link posts inform your longer written work.”  I’ve been entertaining the idea of writing such a post for a while now, so Matt’s request seems like a good excuse to spell out exactly how those ephemeral, often very brief, posts ended up feeding into the book.

I think the short answer is that my blog serves as what Matt Kirschenbaum, several years ago, called a “public workbench.”  Matt’s comments about the role of blogging were, however consciously on my part, an important influence, especially as I was recasting the frame and scope of my first book, which evolved from a dissertation on time-travel movies to a more productive exploration of emerging forms of digital cinema.  Part of this process, for me, was the relatively obvious benefit of being able to work through ideas in a public format (more on that in a minute), but I think blogging also helped me to see what direction my interests were taking.  In The Weblog Handbook, Rebecca Blood made a passing comment about how blogging helped her to identify interests she hadn’t previously recognized, and I think blogging had a similar effect for me and helped me to see that the time-travel film project, in its current form, wasn’t working.  It’s impossible, of course, to know what direction my research would have taken without the blog, but when I began to realize that my posts on topics such as digital cinema and documentary were becoming more commonplace, I knew that was a direction I needed to take.

In terms of the link posts themselves, I think there have been several benefits.  First, it’s worth noting that my usual practice for the last two years has been to skim my RSS feeds for interesting blog posts and articles, which I will then bookmark on the social bookmarking service, delicious, so that I can reference them later.  Although I rarely annotate my delicious links, the mere fact of categorizing these posts becomes an early form of thinking about or processing the ideas in the posts.  Thus, the links posts themselves become a slightly deeper form of freewriting, an early attempt to work through some of the questions that I see as worth writing about.  It’s not a perfect example, but my “Blogger Critics Redux” post was one site where I was able to move toward some of the questions about blogging that I address in the book while also helping me to keep track of sources that I might want to address as case studies.  Similarly, even a fleeting post, such as this “Monday Morning Links” post discussing a few articles on the newspaper critics crisis helped me (at the very last second, in fact) to slightly reframe my arguments about the relationship between newspapers and blogging.  Often, for a post like this one, I’d write the post itself in the morning over my first cup of coffee (or, maybe, my second–I was drinking a lot of coffee last summer) and then, later that day, over my fifth or sixth cup, I’d turn to the manuscript itself, revising that section or adding new details or case studies that I hadn’t previously addressed.

But the other major component of blogging, of course, is that it is public (as Matt K’s “public workbench” implies), and even though my links posts may receive fewer comments than longer-form posts such as film reviews, I was conscious that these posts would be read and felt obligated to do more than merely point to a website or video without any comment.  And after a while, I began receiving suggested links by email, though delicious, and in the comments, which were incredibly helpful.  But in many cases, commenters, some of whom might not have access to my academic articles, could challenge me to rethink ideas or help me to see that something was working, and quite often those conversations would spill over into RL discussions at conferences and film festivals (and, as a result, many of my readers get a mention in my acknowledgments).  This experience probably isn’t that unusual.  Chris Anderson has made a similar point about his blog feeding into the publication of The Long Tail, but in my case, I’ve certainly found it to be true.

It’s pretty rare for me to directly lift language from the blog itself in the book, but as a first rough draft of the ideas I wanted to address, the blog has been indispensable, and I’m very grateful for all of the conversations, suggestions, and recommendations I’ve been given along the way.

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Wednesday Links

I’m not sure how many local readers I have, but I just found out that the local art house, the Cameo, will be screening Sin Nombre this week (and for one week only).  I’ve heard really good things (in fact, I’d originally planned to drive up to Raleigh just to see it), so if you’re in the neighborhood, definitely check it out.

It’s a few days old, but I came across a New York Times article discussing the fact that Hollywood is now grabbing pullquotes from the blogosphere for trailers and other promotional items.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the article views this practice as somehow deceptive, implicitly suggesting that it’s somehow “egregious” to take the reviews of film bloggers out of context (rather than professional film critics).  But the article is missing quite a bit, especially when it comes to the role of film bloggers in nurturing and promoting independent, DIY, an documentary films when newspapers don’t always review those films (a point raised in the soucre, now lost, where I originally found this article).

Jonathan Gray uses the news that a number of shows being cancelled (including a personal fave, My Name is Earl) to ask a couple of really good questions that might also apply–in a slightly different way–to the indie film industry: “How could either the television industry or fans better circulate information about shows?…How could the industry, writers, critics, and/or fans try to improve our information center and improve how we hear about shows, rather than simply hope that next year the viewing public will all discover all the shows we love, and nothing we dislike will ever be canceled again?”

Alissa Perren mentions news that the Weinstein Company might be in financial trouble.  Like her, I’d hate to see another major indie company disappear (and David Poland offers an even blunter assessment of the Weinstein Co’s financial struggles), although I also share her sense that the traditional methods of distributing “niche” movies don’t seem to be working that well.  Alissa also points to the news that IFC was the most active buyer at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and addresses their apparent success with video-on-demand distribution options.

On a related note, Matt Dentler, citing a Variety article by Dave McNary, notes that some indies are seeing “hopeful signs” in using video-on-demand (VOD) debuts.  McNary, in particular, points out that VOD can provide alternatives for people living outsie of city centers who read about the latest indie films online, whether in film blogs or in more traditional venues such as The New York Times. Living outside of a major city, this has been my experience.  It’s unlikely, for example, that I would have seen Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience without VOD access, so my sense is that, promoted properly, these modes of distribution can reach out to a previously underserved niche audience.

David Hudson has a pointer to a Current TV interview with Errol Morris in which the Thin Blue Line and Fog of War director lists his “five favorite films, kind of.”

Also check out Nick Rombes’ interview with the LA Times about his book, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk.

Update: I keep forgetting to mention iReel, another competitor in the expanding world of online movie distribution.  iReel is affiliated with Paramount, so most of the movies, from what I can tell, are connected with Paramount.  The site invites members to rent or buy from their catalog.  There is a pretty decent collection (American Teen, Baraka, Iron Man, Ben Button, as well as older films such as The Virgin Suicides), and I’ll be curious to see how this model works in comparison to “free” ad-supported services (such as Hulu and SnagFilms) and monthly rental services such as Netflix.

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New Muslim Cool

Jennifer Maytorena Taylor’s New Muslim Cool (IMDB), part of the upcoming season of PBS’s documentary series, P.O.V., focuses on Hamza Perez, a Puerto Rican rapper and one-time drug dealer as he follows his spiritual journey as a young Muslim and budding community activist.  We follow Perez as he and several other young Muslims open a mosque in Pittsburgh’s North Side, and through Perez’s own personal journey, first as a single father raising two children, and then as he meets, falls in love with, and marries his new wife.  Given some of Perez’s experiences, it would have been easy for New Muslim Cool (NMC) to offer yet another critique of the abuses of the Patriot Act, and while that is an implicit storyline, what came across for me was Perez’s sincerity about his calling, his gentleness with family and friends, and his desire for inter-faith dialogue and for improving the community where he lives.

NMC opens with members of Hamza’s family describing his conversion.  Although he grew up in a Catholic family, his mother (and others in his family) see his conversion as a stabilizing force in his life and emphasize that if it weren’t for his faith, he might be dealing drugs or in jail.  Instead, he has become active in trying to speak out against illegal drugs, both through his rap music and, later, through a jailhouse ministry and through speaking to community groups.  Usually this entails trying to reach out to low-end drug dealers to convey to them that they are being exploited, in part, he reasons, because drug users already have a number of institutions in place that are ready to help them, while dealers do not (at one point, he offers a rough sketch of the argument made in Freakonomics about the economic model of drug dealing).

In seeking to fulfill this calling, Perez faces some of the predictable forms of harassment that have become commonplace thanks to the Patriot Act and to the post-9/11 paranoia.  His mosque in Pittsburgh is raided and becomes the object of increasing surveillance. His security clearance to speak to inmates at a local prison is revoked, possibly in part due to an interview he gave when he was younger and trying to sound tough in an interview about his rap music.  These actions ultimately lead Perez to seek help from the ACLU in order to protect his First Amendment rights.  And while these events doplay an important role in Perez’s story, Taylor submerges them somewhat, choosing to emphasize instead Perez’s personal journey and his desire to create dialogue with others.  In fact, one of the more memorable sequences shows Perez working with a Jewish woman on a literary magazine that would publish poetry by teenagers of all faiths.  More crucially, we see Perez at home, interacting with his new wife, playing with his kids, being a dad, struggling to pack an unwieldy baby shower gift in the back of his minivan, essentially aspiring to and fulfilling a certain version of the American Dream.

This subtext was clearly a goal of Taylor’s.  In an interview on the PBS website, she explains that she sought to use Perez and the hip-hop hook to interrogate the idea that there is a “clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims.”  And I think that comes across well.  The film does come across as a bit episodic in places.  Taylor acknowledges that the raid never really provided an “Erin Brockovich moment” that could have provided the film a more dramatic, politicized narrative, but as an attempt to humanize Hamza and his family and the community in which he lives, it works impressively well.

In the spirit of New Muslim Cool’s emphasis on cross-cultural and inter-faith engagement and community and civic engagement, the filmmakers and P.O.V. are in the process of organizing a campus and community tour, in addition to using social media tools to encourage audiences to support the film (one cool idea: their “Recession-Buster Film Festival,” which encourages people to schedule screenings in community centers when the film airs on PBS on June 23).

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Digital Cinema Roundup

In a recent blog post on the new digital cinema distribution models, Jim Emerson cites Spike Lee’s interview with Digital Camera Magazine, in which Lee enthusiastically discusses how these new tools provide new “opportunities” for anyone who wants to be a filmmaker.  Emerson is absolutely correct to add that “the means of production and promotion are in the hands of filmmakers in ways they have never been in the medium’s history” and that filmmakers who are prepared to market and promote themselves energetically–and, presuming they’ve made a decent film–can often find an audience for their film, especially given that social media tools such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, allow fans to become advocates, collaborating on a viral marketing campaign.  In fact, for me, the best promotional practices can even become part of the story of the film, expanding our relationship to the filmmakers and the characters they’ve created.

That being said, these new distribution models also raise some new challenges, especially for filmmakers who are less capable–for whatever reason–of marketing themselves or talking about the film they’ve made.  Emerson cites Reid Rosefelt’s blog essay in which Reid characterizes the new promotional practices of filmmakers such as Lance Weiler, Gary Hustwit, Susan Buice, and Arin Crumley as a “new art form,” which I think is about right.  But Rosefelt raises an interesting question as to whether filmmakers who are able (or willing) to market themeslves will be in a better position of succeeding and whether social media tools will expand that gulf.

I think that my immediate answer is that it may not change much.  Savvy (self-) promoters such as Spike Lee would likely do well in either situation, again, assuming the movies (and the texts that frame them) offered something worthwhile.  But I think that Emerson and Rosefelt’s questions speak to broader questions about how audiences find movies in the first place and whether that has changed in some significant way in an era of social media, Netflix, Hulu, and other filtering tools.  Add to that the changing status of the newspaper-affiliated film critic, and our filtering systems have changed considerably.  Scott Kirsner recently addressed this question, asking his readers how they “discover” new movies, and the discussion, now approaching 40 comments, reveals a variety of practices from Netflix recommendation algorithms (with which I’ve had some success) to reviews and old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

I found myself thinking about these issues the other day when I was in Cary, waiting to see Goodbye Solo ( a wonderful movie, by the way) at the Galaxy Theatre.  Because I had a few minutes to kill and was bored with what I was reading, I found myself wandering into a local video rental store, and I realized how much I’d forgotten about that experience, thanks to my reliance on online or on-demand offerings.  After getting oriented, I found myself scanning the new release walls, spotting films that I’d been meaning to see but that had somehow missed finding their way to my various viewing queues.  I don’t know whether my experience is representative.  I live in a town without any real access to independent video stores and have an aversion to stepping into obnoxiously loud and garishly bright chain stores (hint: their colors are blue and yellow) that have limited independent, foreign, and documentary offerings.  But I’d forgotten how much I depended on that new-release wall for reminding me that something is available.  I’d still scan my video stores’ collections for older classics, but there is something about the physical makeup of the video store itself that could heighten my anticipation and direct my tastes that digital filters have not quite matched.  This doesn’t mean that it won’t happen but that the lack of material access to a video store changes my relationship to movies in a complicated way and that the digital distribution transition will likely not happen without some bumps and bruises along the way.

All of these questions seem related to Ken Levine’s recent blog post describing the sudden and dramatic decline in DVD sales in recent months.  Studios, Levine mentions, are reporting an 18% drop in DVD sales, even while box office has climbed 10% over that same time.  Levine adds that “bad movies are the ones that are no longer selling” (his emphasis).  As Levine speculates, part of this is likely due to the fact that the novelty of owning DVDs has worn off and consumers are realizing they can do without a DVD copy of whatever generic movie you can pull out of the DVD bin at the local big box mart. Part of it may be the economy (though many DVDs are now less expensive than a first-run movie ticket), but if the impulse to collect movies persists, and I think it will, it may be that people will make their purchases more juiciously in the future. Levine speculates (probably correctly) that this will only mean that “They’ll just invent a new format.”

I don’t have a way of tying all of these threads together, other than to say that they all speak to the ways in which current models remain up in the air.

Update: Forgot to mention that Alisa Perren and Jennifer Holt address many issues related to these in their interview with Tim O’Shea in promotion of their media studies textbook, Media Industries: History, Theory, Method.

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Mad Avenue Blues

Wow! This is a brilliantly funny, supersmart, and mildly depressing take on “the year the media died.” With an assist from Don McLean.  Watch it now (h/t to Tracy Van Slyke at Build the Echo).

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The Dabbler, The Dreamer, and the Man Who Broke the World [#2wkfilm]

Reid Gershbein’s The Dabbler…, one of several films produced for the Two-Week Film Collective, focuses on a group of young adults who find themselves adrift for a variety of reasons.  Cheryl only comes alive at “naked parties” when she is “intimately touched” by others.  Jeffrey is a writer, incapable of committing to writing pretty much anything.  Their friend, Orlando, simply seems lost.  As Angelo Bell points out in his insightful review, it’s not a leap to connect their malaise to our ongoing economic crisis. Against this familiar setting, however, Gershbein offers a defamiliarizing semi-sci-fi narrative, in which a mysterious box somehow manages to disrupt all of the world’s (or at least San Francisco’s) electrical and electronic equipment.  No cell phones, no Blackberries, no cars and computers.

The central characters in Gershbein’s movie accept this situation with little alarm. They go for walks, hang out on the beach, sit in gardens and reflect, but mostly they talk.  About dreams. About the desire to create. About their own confusion over their sense of self. The meandering dialogue reminded me a little of the philosophical conversations depicted in some of Richard Linklater’s films (Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunrise), especially given the eclectic mix of artists and experimenters, the Gen X subjects who find themselves adrift, uncertain of what direction to take.  Oddly, they don’t talk–much–about the lack of electronic equipment.  In fact, this lack seems to provide them with the freedom to wander and explore, in much the same way that the frozen city in Rene Clair’s classic modernist fable, Paris qui dort (Paris Asleep/The Crazy Ray), allows a small band of itinerant explorers the leisure to escape (however briefly) from the rush of modern urban life in 1920s Paris.  In fact, like Paris qui dort, The Dabbler defamiliarizes both in terms of plot and in terms of style.  Gershbein’s “tilt-shift” aesthetic suggests a cinematic world that is, itself, stuttering along, almost on the verge of breaking apart, perhaps a consequence of whatever is in the mysterious box that disrupted all of that electronic equipment.  As Kevin Wright observes, “The tilt shift style adds to the world the characters inhabit. It makes sense for things to blur and seem unnatural because their world is unclear and for the majority of the film, broken.” And like Mike Peter Reed, the film’s easy slippage into an alternate reality closely resembling our own reminded me of the best work by Philip K Dick.

As they explore their surroundings, Cheryl describes a dream she had in which she encountered a never-ending wall, and facing the impossibility of getting around it, she draws a door.  Later in the film, Cheryl, while talking to Jeffrey, literalizes her dream, drawing a door in a stone wall with a piece of chalk and allowing Cheryl to perform a brief monologue in front of Jeffrey–and a couple of strangers–in which she establishes the film’s implicit theme: “The funniest thing about us is that we think we have all this time… instead of embracing the magic that’s here…right now.”  Instead of aimless drifting, Cheryl seems to embrace the opposite: making a decision, acting, writing that story.  And by implication, given the unique circumstances of The Dabbler’s production over the course of two weeks, making that film.  Although The Dabbler depicts a set of characters who are adrift, lost, or broken, the film itself is clearly going somewhere.  It is engaging not only with the broken world we inhabit but also with the possibilities of using a new cinematic language for talking (or thinking) about that world.

You can watch The Dabbler… for free on Gershbein’s website, under a Creative Commons license, and if you like the film and want to support it, you can buy a “unit of imaginary air” (or make a donation) to support the film.

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