Archive for July, 2009

45365 on Snag

One of the more memorable documentaries of the 2009 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was 45365, Bill and Turner Ross’s lyrical, impressionistic portrait of small-town Midwestern life.  Now, thanks to a one-week special screening on SnagFilms, I’ve had a chance to take a second look, and after seeing the film again, I was more prepared to embrace its impressionistic, observational approach to depicting Sidney, Ohio, a small town not far from Dayton.

When I first reviewed the film back in April, I expressed some ambivalence about the film, stating my concern that the film sentimentalized small-town life, depicting Sidney in nostalgic terms that evoked a lost or receding past.  Watching the film a second time, I was impressed by the use of long takes that allowed the events–high school football practices, banter in the local barbershop, local political campaigns, and police patrolling the streets–to unfold organically.  In some ways, it is an unlikely complement to the city symphony films of the 1930s, such as Berlin: Symphony of a City and Man With a Movie Camera, in its attempt to compose a portrait of a specific location at a specific moment in time.  However, unlike the manic energy of these films, the Rosses–who are longtime residents of Sidney–offer something more laconic and introspective, even while capably moving between the various social classes and age groups that help to define the city.

This portrait of a small town is punctuated by several key motifs: a local radio station that plays all the hits (a DJ patiently argiung with a caller over a very strange interpretation of The Who’s “Squeeze Box” is hilarious); residents who struggle to stay out of jail; coaches who talk about the local high school football team. But the film resists placing too much emphasis on any of these narratives, which would have distracted us from the ebbs and flows of daily life that the Rosses sought to capture.  I do have some reservations about treating a single town as “a microcosm of American life,” as the film’s description on Snag suggests, given the diversity of cultures and lifestyles and settings where people live, but 45365 is a compelling document of a specific place and time.

It’s worth noting, too, the discussion of 45365′s distribution strategy on A.J. Schnack’s blog.  A.J. asks some useful questions about the implications for distributing such a critically-acclaimed documentary for free (at least temporarily) on Snag, with the Rosses concluding that “Growing up out of sight line of an urban environment we learned well that not everyone has access to certain kinds of artwork.  We spent much time and funds as kids trying to track down certain films that we wanted to see.  If the technology is there, why shouldn’t we embrace it and have our work available to all who want to experience it?” 

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Getting Critical

More podcasting fun, this time with Craig “Uncle Crizzle” Lindsey for his Critical Condition podcast series on his Raleigh News-Observer blog.  Enjoy.

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The Twitter Effect

Tama has a link to a recent Reuters article on the supposed “Twitter effect,” the idea that some summer movies have seen their box office deflated or inflated by the immediate word-of-mouth responses of moviegoers posted to Facebook or Twitter.  These real-time posting can very quickly shape audience consensus, and in the case of Bruno, may have led to a dramatic one-day decline in box office.  And given that many people on Twitter have hundreds or thousands of followers and friends, that simply multiplies the reach of an idle comment that might, in the past, have remained in the local mall or multiplex.

That being said, the article seems to take the Twitter hype completely at face value.  I wonder if the article overstates this effect to some extent, especially when it implies that “Ashton Kutcher has raised his profile and that of his production company” through his tweets.  He did receive a lot of attention, especially during his rivalry with Shaq to become the first person to reach one million followers on Twitter, but how that affects his marketability is less clear.

Still, I’m inclined to agree with Universal’s president of marketing and distribution, Adam Fogelson, who argues that even negative tweets can be positive in that they reflect a level of passionate argument and debate about movies, even if that debate is confined to 140 characters.

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More Iran Updates

It’s difficult to know what to say at this point about the Iran elections, but I think it’s worth pointing to some of the videos and blogs that are coming out of Tehran as protesters have been holding a mourning ceremony to mark the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who was shot to death during post-election protests.

But Negar Mottahedeh has been tracking links to videos and blogs on Twitter, and this video posted to YouTube, in particular, depicts police shooting into the crowd, as well as a number of brave protesters standing up to the police. The Revolutionary Road blog is currently liveblogging the protest and providing a vital report on what is happening in Tehran.  The New York Times blog also has some incredible compilations of some of the tweets, blog posts, and videos that are coming out of Iran.

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Thursday Links

Or, yikes, it’s almost August!  Fall semester is on the horizon, which will give me yet another ball to juggle, but here are some new film and media links:

  • Mary Madden has a new report for the Pew Internet & American Life Project reporting that online video consumption has increased dramatically over the last two years.  Some quick notes: 62% of adult internet users have now watched an internet video, nearly doubling the percentage from December 2006, while “89% of internet users ages 18-29 watch content on video sharing sites.” These claims seem to echo research by Forrester that discovered that approximately 25% of web users watch some TV online, although only 13% watched TV online “at least once per month.”
  • It’s still somewhat unclear, however, how “ancillary” content, such as webisodes, plays into fan experiences of TV shows.  In an (admittedly unscientific) survey at ComicCon, one NewTeeVee reporter found that many of the Lost Super-Fans she polled watched these episodes infrequently or not at all.
  • “Daily” blogger David Hudson has found a new home with and a slightly newer format with The Auteurs, one of the more compelling movie portals offering free classic and independent films in a quality streaming format.  Instead of David’s usual extended links posts, he is now doing quick links on Twitter supplemented by a daily recap of the most important or engaging film reads of the day.
  • Speaking of The Auteurs, I’m strongly considering the possibility of assigning films exclusively or semi-exclusively from their catalog.  Because there isn’t an easy way for me to requite students to watch films uring a lab or at a university screening, having something like The Auteurs available might make it easier to ensure that students can find the movies I want to teach.   Skimming the first couple of pages of their catalog, I can see at least three films–Citizen Kane, Blade Runner, and Breathless–that I normally teach.  At the very least, it looks like a great resource for the teaching of (classical Hollywood and European, especially) film.
  • Patrick Goldestein has an interesting report on a failed viral marketing effort by Fox to promote their teen romantic comedy, I Love You Beth Cooper, in which the film company paid Kenya Mejia $1800 to end her valedictory address with the declaration, “I love you Jack Minor!”  The video features the usual shaky camera and other markers of autehnticity (including a fake narrative in the video’s description), but it all just comes across as clumsy and forced, in part, I think, because of Mejia’s discomfort in delivering the line.  And it had the overall effect of making me less interested in seeing Beth Cooper, if that’s possible.  The Wall Street Journal–significantly another News Corp property–got to the story first.

Update: Via Michael Newman on Twitter: the Outlet Wall is a brilliant solution to your “cord clutter.” The comments are recommended.

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Monday Links

Working through some thoughts on Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price, which will hopefully be posted in the next day or so, but the short version is that you should consider me as part of the “underwhelmed” camp.  In essence, I’m not sure that Anderson is really saying anything particularly new.  There is a relatively long history of giving some content or service away for “free” in order to sell something else (TV and radio are or were “free” for a long time, with broadcasters selling the audience’s attention to advertisers, to name one example that still guides current debates about digital distribution), making his claims that “Free” is “radical” or “revolutionary” ring somewhat hollow to me.  I’m still sifting through some ideas, however, before I write a longer review.  For now, a few quick links:

  • Karina Longworth has linked to several videos designed to promote various Mumblecore films.  The first three were produced by Mumblecore director Andrew Bujalski and feature parodies of Elvira and Dracula, complete with homemade effects.  The segments were produced for Canadian television, and as Karina observes, the goofy humor and low-budger effects work well.  The other is an ad from BBC 4 promoting the broadcast of a few Mumblecore films that, well, looks like something left on the cutting room floor of Reality Bites II: The Mumblecore Years.  Complete with quick cuts and “young attractive people standing in front of graffitied walls,” the actors in the advertisement seem about as connected to Mumblecore as Winona Ryder and Ben Stiler seemed to “Generation X.”  The BBC ad is worth watching just to see how Mumblecore is packaged as a concept.
  • This is several months old, but this Google Maps mashup, which allows users to post pointers to their favorite arthouse theaters is pretty cool.  There is a related article on the place of arthouse theaters in local communities, both from PBS’s Independent Lens.
  • Matt Dentler has an interesting post on “Arthouse TV,” in which he observes that at the recent Sundance Producers Summit, a number of indie executives discussed the ways in which independent movies now find themselves competing with quality television such as Mad Men, True Blood, Big Love, 30 Rock, and The Office. This is something I’ve been discussing with collagues for a while now.  Given the success of HBO and others in positioning themselves as providing quality television, the “distinction” associated with independent film isn’t always as clear.

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Has Film Criticism Lost its (Box Office) Mojo?

In what is becoming an annual ritual, yet another discussion about the role of the film critic in shaping popular taste has emerged. The most recent diagnosis of the distinction between the popular and “quality filmmaking” comes from Guardian film blogger Danny Leigh, who observes that the most successful Harry Potter films have also been those that were most reviled by professional film critics, leading him to the conclusion “that critical voices have become not only irrelevant, but counterproductive.”  Leigh goes on to observe that most of the top grossing films of all-time are sequels (or based on familiar comic book franchises) and often feature “bad” filmmaking (although he never quite defines what counts as “bad”).

First some background: In 2006, New York Times critic A. O. Scott noted that negative reviews in magazines and newspapers across the country could do nothing to stem the barbaric hordes from storming the multiplexes to watch the dreaded third installment of the pirate-movie franchise.  Back then, I observed that popular excitement about an upcoming film didn’t necessarily translate into the belief that such a film was “good.”  And I still believe that to basically be true.  While the most recent Transformers movie may be approaching $400 million in domestic box office, suggesting that audiences just don’t appreciate film criticism enough, its user score on IMDB is a relatively paltry 6.3 out of 10.  Sometimes people just want to see stuff get blown up, and such niceties as character and plot don’t matter.  In 2008, this conflict reemerged over the reception of The Dark Knight, with some fans openly chastising film critics who failed to appreciate the greatness of Chris Nolan’s film (some similar issues were addressed in a Salon discussion of Ronan McDonald’s book, The Death of the Critic).

In all of these cases, critics seem to be imagined, first, as consumer guides, gatekeepers who can tell us how to spend our $8.50 (or whatever) on our weekly (or semi-weekly) trek to the local multiplex, but I think that may be a misunderstanding of what good film critics can do in fostering a more productive and engaging movie culture. Instead of seeing film critics as telling us what movies we ought to see, wouldn’t it make more sense for reviews, whether in blogs, newspapers, or magazines, to start a conversation about whatever movies are out there?  Critics could, by advocating for specific directors or storytelling techniques, shape popular taste, perhaps, but the idea that a small number of underpaid (and now underemployed) critics are going to have the same megaphone as all of the major studios creates an impossible battle, one that will continue to exacerbate what I believe to be a false opposition between critics and the popcorn-munching cultural dupes who get (falsely) blamed for all of this.

First, I think it’s probably safe to say that some films, especially on opening weekend, are critic-proof.  Again, this isn’t because people are cultural dupes but because the hype machines of the major studios–through advertising, trailers, viral marketing, and conventions such as ComicCon–far outweigh, at least in volume, a newspaper or blog review.  Second, I do think that film critics, often over the course of several articles, can champion the better independent filmmakers such as Ramin Bahrani and Kelly Reichardt, and in the best cases help them find a wider audience.  This is the goal of Ted Hope’s recent compilation of websites that will review undistributed films (something I’ve also done from time to time).

Still, treating film reviews as part of a conversation seems like a much more productive approach, a point that I think is best illustrated by reviews of the most recent Harry Potter film.  In my own review, I admitted my lack of knowledge about the franchise and discussed my reaction to the film in terms of its ability to engage fans and non-fans alike, as well as the ways in which film franchises might now be better understood in terms of a “serial” model that has had some success on television.  Comments to my review addressed some of my concerns, often by discussing the challenges of adaptation (especially when you’re working with a beloved, widely-read text) and how the Harry Potter film franchise fits within the new blockbuster economy.  Although I admitted that I found the film tedious and slow, I was more concerned about how it was engaging with larger debates in film culture, and those were the issues that seemed to engage my commenters.

Obviously we’ll continue to have reviews that conform to the thumbs-up, rotten-tomatoes, three-and-a-half-stars approach, but I think the “consumer-guide” approach to film reviewing and the related belief that film critics are “failing” because they can’t stem the tide of people seeing Transformers or whatever obscures some of the more complicated interactions between film critics, their readers, and the movies we love (and sometimes love to hate).

Update: Just wanted to mention that I write this with the awareness that film marketing departments continue to rely on having positive reviews that can be pullquoted on posters, DVD cases, and other marketing tools and that reviews are part of the larger entertainment economy, albeit one that may be bypassed as bloggers and others gain credibility as valued voices about given films or genres.

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

First, a quick confession: I’ve never really been a fan of the Harry Potter books.  I learned about the books well after the first four or five had been released and noted with curiosity the strange titles that occupied the tops of all the fiction bestseller lists, but by the time I began hearing about the pleasures of reading them from colleagues and friends in graduate school, I felt hopelessly behind.  Plus, I had a dissertation to finish and felt guilty about reading anything that wasn’t related to my research.  I’ve never quite understood the sneering, high-culture contempt that these books have sometimes inspired, but I also have no real investment in them.  So, until recently, my primary experience with the Harry Potter world is through what I’ve absorbed in supplemental texts–reading about fan fiction in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture or about the Harry Potter hype in entertainment industry mags.

But thanks in large part to a complete lack of big-screen alternatives–there are, as Jim Emerson suggests, some movies that film critics and/or scholars don’t have to see–I’ve ended up seeing the last two installments of the Harry Potter film franchise.  I’m not that interested in reviewing the most recent film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but will acknowledge that for the most part, the film left me feeling somewhat indifferent, even bored, in a number of places, a response that seems to be shared by fellow Triangle-based critic, Daniel Cook Johnson.  The entire film felt like exposition in anticipation of the final chapters, a two-movie treatment of the final book in the Harry Potter series.  The visual details of the world continue to fascinate me: I like the odd mix of the semi-futuristic, the contemporary, the Victorian, and even the medieval in a fascinating pastiche of (primarily British) literary and cultural history.  Whimsical images of moving photographs on dead-tree newspapers are a nice touch, as are the Chuck Taylors and other contemporary clothes worn by the Hogwarts students, although as I watched this time, I began sensing what might be considered some form of early nostalgia for the 1990s and the first, print, iteration of the Potter franchise.  It wasn’t quite the idea that the Potter franchise is “dated” in the sense that it’s obsolete, just that I found myself, in places, reflecting on the idea that Harry was “born” in the 1990s, a moment that now seems to be part of a distant past.

I also found myself intrigued, especially in retrospect by the interplay between Harry Potter’s status as The Chosen One and other analogues of this figure, including Lance Mannion’s convincing analysis of the ties between Potter and Anakin Skywalker, one that captures an interesting critique of the franchise: the inability to imagine Harry going over to the “Dark Side,” of being seduced into using his powers for harmful purposes.  Lance does unpack Harry’s (and Dumbledore’s) ambivalence about his status as The Chosen One quite nicely.  There’s always a sense that Dumbledore is giving Harry too much responsibility too soon, and yet Harry’s powers prevent him from actually being able to choose not to become involved.  And although the film felt slightly heavy with the weight of exposition, I liked how Half-Blood Prince negotiated the tension between Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s status as teenagers confronting the daily challenges of teen romance and peer pressure with their more serious “calling” in the world of magic.  In fact, those “human” moments thrilled me far more than the CGI-infused action scenes that very rarely offered any suspense or, for me, any truly engaging eye-candy (this was, in part, due to the fact that I own a t-shirt with a fairly prominent Harry Potter spoiler in it–don’t click if you don’t want to see it).

Still, because I was watching the film with my girlfriend, who has read all of the Harry Potter books, I was somewhat more aware of the challenges not only of satisfying both readers and non-readers alike but also of providing casual fans with some form of access to the Harry Potter story-arc without watering down the content too much.  In some sense, that’s the challenge faced by serial TV shows on a weekly basis, whether the “paranoid” narratives of something like Lost or the ongoing character arcs of something like The Sopranos (quick note: Jason Mittell, who has written extensively about serial TV has a very convincing reading of J.K. Rowling’s amazing ability to control the storyworld of her books, something the films, thanks to the nature of the medium have struggled somewhat to do).  This tensionhas led a couple of prominent bloggers, incluing Michael Berube and Amanda Marcotte, to suggest that the complex storyworld of the Potter books would have been better served by a long-running TV series.  And although I appreciate the development of serial TV as a format for presenting complicated storyworlds–and possibly even allowing digressions that would serve to develop a larger narrative–I’m not sure I fully agree.

I think they’re right to point out (as others have) that the latter novels, some of which approached or exceeded 800 pages, would have been better served being chopped up into two or even three installments and that 2.5 hours didn’t seem to do justice to Rowling’s Half-Blood Prince novel while also providing a butt-numbing film that could have used an intermission.  But I think we make a mistake when we see the feature films as discrete objects.  Given the money involved, it was pretty much pre-ordained that all seven Potter novels would be filmed, but given the increasing reliance on sequels and entertainment properties–comic bok or video game characters–feature films have become, in many ways, a form of (serial) television, one that may be reimagined as new directors and stars are introduced to a project.  Note the shift in tone from the Burton-Schumacher Batmans to the Chris Nolan Batman films.  And although drawing out the serial form of the films on television may have helped the storytelling, the event status of the films more closely resembles the event status of the publication of a new Potter novel, which often featured midnight celebrations at local bookstores, with many people showing up in costume, to greet a new book.  In essence, although TV has become more adept at telling big stories (and showing them HD-style), the felt collectivity of seeing the movie on the big screen with other fans seems like something that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.  The Harry Potter books need the big screen, in part because of the dense visual pallete needed to match Rowling’s descriptive prose but also because films remain more readily identified with Event status, with being part of a larger crowd in sharing in the excitement about a beloved narrative.

I’ll emphasize again that I didn’t particularly enjoy last night’s screening of Half-Blood Prince.  It was overloaded with exposition and felt like prologue for something else.  That being said, the film provided just enough for me to remain invested in the series.  More than anything, though, the Potter films help point toward the ways in which Major Motion Pictures may be able to learn from serialized narrative TV in order to tell increasingly complex, long-form stories.

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CinemaTech Podcast

Now that Reinventing Cinema is officially out, I’ve been enjoying some of the early conversations about it.  I’m particularly excited that I had a chance to talk with Scott Kirsner, author of Fans, Friends, and Followers and Inventing the Movies for an interview on his CinemaTech podcast series.  Scott has been an insightful observer of the changes that digital media are introducing to the entertainment industry, and he asked some very interesting–and challenging–questions over the course of our twenty minute conversation.

Among the topics we visited: the future of professional film criticism in the blog era, the effects of the democratization of digital production tools, and the concept of the “endless” film, an idea that Ted Hope has recently discussed and that comes up in some recent scholarship by Nick Rombes as well.  The questions provide a good overview not only of the topics covered in the book but also of some questions I’d like to address in future work.

You can listen to the podcast at Scott’s CinemaTech blog or here at Scott’s website.

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The Betrayal: Nerakhoon

Although it was mostly lost in the blitz of media coverage focusing on the intrigue surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, the death of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy and one of the architects of the Vietnam War, brought renewed attention to the consequences of that war.  Although McNamara’s position in history remains controversial, he has often been relatively frank in analyzing his actions, admitting, for example, that if the U.S. had lost World War II, he and General Curtis LeMay likely would have been tried as war criminals for the fire-bombing of a number of Japanese cities.  As Errol Morris observed in a recent interview about his relationship with McNamara, addressing these issues brings us to “the realization that nothing can really erase that history.”

I found myself thinking about these issues as I watched Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath’s lyrical,visually stunning documentary, The Betrayal: Nerakhoon (IMDB), which revisits the effects of the Vietnam War on the neighboring country of Laos, looking at that history primarily through the lens of a single family.  Phrasavath, the son of a Laotian soldier who worked with the U.S Army, retells his and his family’s experiences, describing his and his family’s escape from Laos, first into Thailand, and later into the United States.  His mother also recalls that she was forced to leave two of her children behind because she feared that her other seven children might be endangered and that she assumed her husband had been killed by the opposition army.  Later, it is revealed that he was merely sent for “reeducation” and had, in fact, immigrated to the United States where he had remarried and fathered two children in addition to his original family.  And although the film is explicit in associating the “betrayal” of the film’s title with the United States’ betrayal of the Laotian army, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that members of the Phrasavath family have suffered a series of betrayals and difficulties dating back to the war itself.

Kuras and Phrasavath tell this story not in a linear fashion but in a series of associative links, evoking the past through stock footage of Nixon and JFK speeches, US plans dropping bombs on Indochina, and photographs from Laos’s distant past and suggesting the complicated relationship between personal and official histories and the effects of the war on one individual family, recalling in some ways (for me at least) Rea Tajiri’s experimental documentary, History and Memory, which focused on her family’s experiences in the Japanese internment camps in California during World War II.  But, in addition to these compelling visual images and an innovative storytelling structure, Kuras and Phrasavath (with whom Kuras worked on the film for over twenty years) also offer a poignant picture of a family who endured one of the more neglected strains of the Vietnam War, revealing the human costs of McNamara’s “rational” approach to war.

The Betrayal aired on PBS’s POV series earlier this week, but the POV website raises some interesting questions about documentary, including the implications of inviting the subject to collaborate in the making of the film.

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Games into Film

Although I understand the fascination that others have for playing, I’ve never really had that much interest in playing World of Warcraft (WoW), the massively popular online game.  Like some of the better serial TV shows, I tend to think that I’m so far behind that I’ll never really be able catch up and invest enough attention to really enjoy WoW.  I also tend to get frustrated by video games rather quickly, and the pressure of working with (or against) other players would only add to that.  That being said, I’m intrigued by today’s news that Warner Bros. has tapped Sam Raimi to direct a film version of the game (see also uber-fansite Ain’t It Cool News).

In part, I’ll be curious to see how one “adapts” such a complex, interwoven narrative, involving such a massive number of characters/players/participants or what exactly would get “represented” in a film narrative about a game.  Of course, the popularity of game itself provides WoW with a potentially huge audience and a number of different venues for various forms of promotion and, to use Henry Jenkins’ phrase, transmedia storytelling.

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“Nobody Watched The Watchmen

Via Nikki Finke, an amusing video from Funny or Die, “Nobody Watched The Watchmen,” in which Rorschach, one of the heroes of The Watchmen, seeks an explanation for why the Watchmen movie tanked.  Noticing that the film’s director, Zack Snyder, has been blacklisted and that the film’s screenwriter has disappeared, Rorschach confronts his career, the notoriously prickly Alan Moore.  The video offers a good spoof not only of the ambivalence about adaptation but also of the marketing (and reinterpretation) of movies on DVD, and there’s a humorous nod to Ms. Finke and her Deadline Hollywood Daily column as well.

My favorite part: Moore’s Nam June Paik-style TV wall.

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Tuesday Links

Blogging from the Java Divine coffeehouse in Holly Springs while waiting for my girlfriend.  I’ve been planning some longer posts about some of my summer research projects, but will start with a few links:

  • I continue to be interested in watching how film and music festivals are adapting to the emergence of online video.  Via the editor’s blog at Film in Focus, I’ve just learned that Sundance will be hosting a virtual screening room of original short films by Sundance Directors Lab alumni, including Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden, and Tamara Jenkins. Sundance, of course, is now much more than a festival and is, instead, a cable channel, a trining ground, and even an institution responsible for participating in the ongoing redefinition of “independent” filmmaking.  Worth noting: the Sunance Institute defines the Screening Room in pedagogical terms, with Director of the Feature Film Program at the Michelle Satter emphasizing that she hopes the YouTube videos will “provide a window into the creative process of our new discoveries and showcase the early work of leading independent filmmakers who have emerged from the Labs in previous years.”
  • Via Matt Dentler, I learned about Jim Killeen’s documentary, Google Me, which uses the hook of vanity Googling to explore the significance of sharing a name with another human being, possibly someone on the other side of the world.  All of the Jim Killeens (including the film’s director) featured in the film are charming, interesting guys, but I’m not sure that Google Me covered any ground that wasn’t already addressed in Alan Berliner’s superior The Sweetest Sound.  Although the latter was made before Google became such a ubiquitous part of contemporary culture, Berliner’s film seemed more adept at navigating the relationship between names and identity.  That being said, Killeen’s film does gesture toward the ways in which Google functions to help us imagine a global “community.”
  • One of the richest texts I’ve encountered in a while is the video of Michael Wesch’s Personal Democracy Forum lecture, “Toward a New Theory of…Whatever.”  In addition to tracing shifts in the linguistic uses of “whatever,” Wesch offers a useful theory of community as it plays out on YouTube, including the impediments to true community, and the structurings of community through direct address of an implied audience (the idea that although YouTube vloggers often refer to their potentially universal audience, they speak to an essentially lifeless camera, often in an otherwise empty room).  I feel like I need to watch the lecture again to tease out all of the key details, but Wesch’s video is well worth the time.
  • I’ve been trying to squeeze in some time to read Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything, his astutely titled book that sounds like an important contribution to the literature on blogging, but for now, here’s a quick pointer to his recent blog entry on how Twitter makes blogging “smarter.”  I tend to agree that Twitter’s focus on the immediate has led to fewer “link and (no) comment” posts on blogs, such as quick links to viral videos.  Of course, given that Twitter’s archives are often hard to search, I still tend to use these short links posts as a quick “first draft” for thinking about ideas I want to address either in essays or other longer texts.

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Children Against Children’s Healthcare

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“That’s the Way It Is”

One of my earliest childhood television memories is of Walter Cronkite sitting at the CBS News anchor desk, reading and assimilating the day’s events.  In fact, my parents have frequently told an anecdote in which I told a family friend that my two favorite shows were “Sesame Street and ‘Walter Cronkite.’”  I was six years old at the time.  While I was, no doubt, a precocious kid, such was the power of “Uncle Walter” to provide a better understanding of the day’s events.  For the most part, I was too young to truly understand Cronkite’s contribution to journalism when he was a nightly anchor–he retired when I was twelve–but I think I intuitively understood the seriousness, integrity, and curiosity that earned him the title, “the most trusted man in America.” 

As I reflect on the life and career of Walter Cronkite, I can do little to match the heartfelt tributes and historical analyses that others have offered.  Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s transcript of her introduction of Cronkite before a commencemnt address he delivered at Pomona College captures much of what he contributed not only to the field of journalism but also to American politics through his analysis of the Vietnam War. A.J. Schnack reminds us that Cronkite’s contributions extended well beyond the nightly news to long-form television documentary as well.  Keith Olbermann observes that Cronkite often brought his own perspective to the news he covered, whether that was his enthusiasm for the space race or his opposition to the Vietnam War, emphasizing the journalist’s skills as an honest analyst of the news, not merely someone who was a “dispassionate statue” reading a series of loosely-related facts.  

All of these accounts capture something about the man, who by all accounts was just as gracious away from the cameras as he was trusted throughout his career both behind the news desk and on location.  But as I was watching the tributes last night, flipping between CNN, MSNBC, and even Fox News, I found myself thinking that part of what was being mourned was a certain kind of journalism and a certain moment in television history, namely the three-network model in which Cronkite operated, a point that Howard Kurtz addresses in his thoughtful tribute.  A number of Cronkite’s producers have referred to the changes in how TV news is manufactured: the switch from film to tape, the emergence of the 24-hour news cycle, the movement to niche broadcasting.  Without diminishing Cronkite’s accomplishments, these changes have made it difficult to imagine a single broadcaster having the same kind of reach that he did for over two decades.  As Brian Williams observes in his thoughtful tribute, “no one before or since has had just a mystical hold on the American people.”

Cronkite is important not only because he managed to inspire such trust in the Amercian audiences who consumed his broadcasts over their evening meals.  He is crucial because he was such a key figure in shaping the news, in figuring out and fulfilling the public service role of television news, in demonstrating through example the research and exactitude necessary to the best forms of journalism.  Even though he had been out of the public eye for some time, his contributions have not been forgotten. He will be missed.

Update: David Kurtz of TPM also has a nice tribute and reports that he also named “Walter Cronkite” as one of his favorite TV shows as a child.

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