Archive for July, 2009


I don’t have that much to say about Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest satirical mockumentary, Bruno. I found most of the humor tedious, obvious, and, quite honestly, boring.  The Bruno character has always seemed less developed and interesting than some of the other characters in Cohen’s repertoire.  Like Borat, Bruno comes across as incredibly naive, a position that allows him to draw out the sometimes shocking behaviors and beliefs of the various people he encounters, whether public figures such as Ron Paul or private citizens, with their own interests (including the opportunity to appear in a “documentary”).  But I’ve been puzzling about two things when it comes to Bruno.  First, why did the film seem so remarkably unfunny to me (I even considered walking out)?  Second, is the film saying anything genuinely new or interesting through its use of satire?

It shouldn’t surprise us that anti-gay ministers will say things that are homophobic or that a bunch of rabidly drunk universal fighting fans will freak out when a performer exposes some of the homosocial tendencies of that sport.  I’m certainly willing to see a film that is happy to mock homophobia, even if I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the methods it uses.  There has been some debate about whether or not Bruno reinforces gay stereotypes, and given that viewers will inevitably bring their own biases to the film, that may be a concern, but for the most part, the encounters staged by Cohen are clearly meant to reveal the absurdities of homophobia.  Still, there was nothing terribly insightful about the observations made about those issues.

That being said, I find myself agreeing (somewhat) with the review by Maura Flynn on the conservative website, Big Hollywood that the more interesting elements of satire in the film involve the desire for celebrity.  The film is loosely structured around Bruno’s desire to achieve celebrity status, and like Borat’s cross-country journey to find (and marry) Pamela Anderson, Bruno sets its sights on reaching Los Angeles, in this case, because it would allow Bruno to become “famous.”  Bruno’s attempts to become famous are, thanks to his naivete, based on a fundamental misunderstanding that if he becomes involved in political causes, makes a sex tape, or adopts a child, he will become famous because he has seen celebrities doing those things.  I don’t think “Hollywood” is the sole target here, as Flynn argues, but celebrity culture more generally, including the more excessive behaviors of parents who are willing to exploit their children for teh sake of fame and/or financial gain.  Cohen, for example, shows some moms who are willing to allow their children to appear in a variety of offensive and tasteless poses if they think it will help their careers, but it’s easy to take such images out of context, and we don’t see why these parents are making the decisions that they do.  Still, one of the more compelling (and funnier) scenes shows conservative political candidate, Ron Paul, taking an interview with Bruno in his hotel room, suggesting that the desire for celebrity doesn’t stop at the California state line (and that Ron Paul needed a more competent staff for vetting interviews).

For the most part, I found the film utterly dull (except for one or two moments, including the final scene).  It seemed rushed and too derivative and formulaic, exposing the (very narrow) limits of Cohen’s shtick.  I’m a big fan of satire and parody, but the targets of satire here weren’t surprising or new, and my sense is that rather than opening up questions about homophobia or the effects of celebrity culture, Bruno actually closes up some of the more interesting lines of thought about these issues.

Update: Jim Emerson makes a slightly more convincing case for appreciating Bruno by reading it as an update on the “heel” character from professional wrestling and observes that the film isn’t really that interested in exposing “heartland homophobia” to shocked blue-staters.  He also offers a sharp reading of the talk show scene (I won’t try to summarize it) and teases out some interesting differences between the Borat and Bruno personas.  I still didn’t think the film was very funny, but Emerson’s review is worth reading.

Update 2: Patrick Goldstein’s reaction to Bruno was similar to my own.  He also challenges the thesis that Bruno’s box office failure was abetted by Twitter.  Although bad word-of-mouth may have hurt the film, it’s too easy to blame the latest communication technology when the product simply isn’t that great. Besides, if some recent research is to be believed, the teen audience who would see Bruno in theaters isn’t usingTwitter anyway.

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Sita in the Triangle

Hey, Carolina readers, Nina Paley’s fascinating animated feature, Sita Sings the Blues (my review), will be playing at the Galaxy Theater in Cary this week for a series of afternoon screenings.  Sita is one of the freshest, funniest, and bluesiest movies to come out in a long time.  Bonus: you’ll be supporting a talented independent filmmaker and a great local theater, too.

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Wednesday Links

More film and media links to brighten a summer afternoon:

  • Lots of other film bloggers have mentioned it, but there’s a new issue of Senses of Cinema out.  As usual, a number of articles, festival reviews, and book reviews worth your time.
  • Salon and The Big Think have a nice little interview with Lizz Winstead, creator of The Daily Show.  Winstead talks about the origins of the show, which are tied to the first Gulf War in the 1990s and whether Stewart has more influence than other broadcast journalists, a question she takes apart by pointing out that mostcable news broadcasters generally engage in commentary rather than journalism.
  • Another video, this one a fake trailer for Roland Emmerich’s upcoming movie 2012, one that mocks the explosion-porn that has been dominating multiplexes in recent months.  Dennis, riffing off a comment from Drew McWeeny, speculates that the fake trailer, which is intended to parody action-film conventions, may actually have succeeded in further hyping the film and possibly increasing its opening-day box office.  I’m inclined to agree somewhat in that the parody my actually succeed in creating greater awareness of the film (which I knew nothing about).  And I think you can enjoy the parody here while still enjoying the explosions.
  • More video fun via Anne Thompson: a reminder that “The Beatles Were Terrifying.”
  • Also via Anne, a link to Flickchart, a new website that promises a better way to rate movies.  Instead of asking views to rank movies using 0-5 stars (or something similar), Flickchart “asks you to pick one movie over another.”  As you choose between two movies, a general ranking system emerges.  Hopefully I’ll have more to say soon when I can check out the site in further detail.  You can learn more about the website via the Flickchart blog.
  • Ted Hope joins the debate about Chris Anderson’s “Free” thesis, in part by calling for a more careful definition of what “free” really means. Still waiting for Anderson’s book to arrive in the mail,which I’m hoping to read during an upcoming plane trip.
  • Also worth checking out: a new report from the Center for Social Media that “traces how a committed group of volunteers harnessed the micro-blogging tool Twitter to create innovative public media 2.0 experiments.”  Again, I’ll try to provide a closer read soon, but given the contested role of Twitter in recent political discourse, this looks like an interesting read.

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Rethinking Indie

As I was wrapping up the semi-final draft of the book last summer, I began finding myself increasingly drawn to the ongoing debates about the future of independent movies in the age of digital media.  I addressed these issues briefly in a guest post published over at Big Screen Little Screen and managed to work some of these ideas into the conclusion of the book.  My post–and much of what I’ve written about the topic–was informed by Mark Gill’s keynote address at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, in which Gill worried that the “digital revolution” would do irreparable damage to independent cinema.  Gill pointed to the closure of a number of major indie studios as a sign that the sky was (or is) falling, and the speech sparked an energetic debate about what counts as “independent cinema” and how digital distribution tools, in particular, were changing things.  Although these changes seem significant, a number of observers, including “Bob,” writing at the Indiepix blog, argued that these changes did not signify the end of indie cinema but merely pointed to a changing business model, one that is more dependent upon digital distribution practices such as video-on-demand and iTunes.

These issues were recently revisited, thanks in part to James D. Stern’s 2009 address at the Los Angeles Film Festival.  Given the ongoing economic turbulence and the notoreity of Gill’s 2008 speech, it’s probably inevitable that these questions remain at the forefront of conversations about independent cinema.  The financial crisis has been especially difficult for indie distributors and financiers, and the theatrical market for independent films continues to wither.  Stern makes the basic argument that making independent films will continue to be a challenge but that for filmmakers who wish to remain independent, the non-monetary pleasures (the “eggs,” to use his extended metaphor) are worth it.  But, as Stern hastens to add, digital distribution, including streaming video, may help soften these blows and evenprovide some alternatives, especially as apporaches such asNetflix, Hulu, and others continue to mature: “With streaming, we’ll all have the biggest video store imaginable, crammed into our little TV remotes, enticing us every time we turn on the set to make an impulse buy.”

That all sounds reasonable to me.  The internet has increasingly become a highly-efficient marketing (and vending) machine, anticipating our needs often well before we know we even have them, and in the case of Netflix’s finely-tuned, almost uncanny, recommendation algorithm, both anticipating and shaping our desires for entertainment.  And given Netflix’s vast database of movies available at a single click of the mouse, there are always more movies to recommend.  Those tools may do little to balance out the sheer number of movies and other forms of visual narrative being produced, but they can help shape groups of viewers around shared tastes and interests.

But what I’ve found interesting about the reception of Stern’s speech isn’t the question of whether these new models will work (although I think that’s an interesting, if loaded, question).  Instead, I’ve been intrigued to see how Stern’s speech has sparked a return to the debate about where independent films fit within the nexus of art and commerce.  These issues were originally raised by Eugene Hernandez, who was responding to both Stern’s address and the news that David Hudson would be leaving his post as author of the IFC Daily.  Eugene adds that indieWIRE has been receiving some criticism for spending so much space covering industry issues before pointing out the crucial role that David’s daily columns have served in fostering community within the film blog world.  Thus, although the commerce questions are important, I think Eugene is right to read indie film culture as an “artform” of sorts, one that produces a non-monetary value (the “eggs” Stern mentioned, maybe) for the people who participate in it.

Bob at the IndiePix blog tackles these questions more directly, essentially arguing that independent film is inseparable from commercial interests, even adding a third (possibly redundant) term, financing, to the balance.  To some extent, Bob is no doubt right.  Independent films, like any other form of “art,” cannot operate easily outside of commerce.  As Fellini stated in an oft-cited dictum, “When there is no money left, the film will be finished” (see, for example, this debate about Deleuze’s cinema books).  But I think that we’re also facing new challenges in thinking about how “independent cinema” is defined, especially as these new distribution tools, which were based in part on the model of a scarcity of theatrical screens, emerge.  Certainly terms like community are important, as Eugene observes, and there are a number of social tools–blogs, Twitter, Facebook–that help to perpetuate a certain version of indie culture, especially when financial or economic defintions of indpendent film remain cloudy.

I’m still in the early stages of thinking about some of these ideas, but I think the questions raised by Stern’s address are worth considering, especially as they help us to consider the tricky question of what it means to be “independent” in the age of social media.

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The Downfall Meme Never Dies…

…it just adapts to new circumstances.  The latest version has Hitler reacting to the news that Sarah Palin has resigned from her position as Governor of Alaska.  I originally wrote about the “Downfall Meme,” a creative use of web video in which users substitute alternate subtitles to a scene from the movie Downfall to make it appear as if Hitler is reacting to current events, in May 2008 and figured it would be a short-lived curiosity, a relatively thin joke that would fade quickly from memory.  But now, well over a year later, the meme appears to be alive and well, and the video’s creator, andyroweiii, here offers a creative take on the Palin story with a twist of Michael Jackson humor.  Good stuff.

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Marketing Etiquette in the Age of Social Media

Over at Crooked Timber, John Holbo has a question that is pertinent to my own experiences as a newly-published academic author.  Holbo, who has a co-authored (with Belle Waring) book on Plato coming out soon, asks about the thin line between marketing and spamming in the era of social media.  This is a concern of mine on a number of levels.  First, as someone who writes about digital cinema and the use of social media to distribute and promote independently-made films, I’m aware of the challenges that these filmmakers face in finding an audience for their films, and I try to review most of the DVD screeners I receive in a timely fashion.  I don’t always succeed, given the demands of teaching and research, but a polite, semi-original email doesn’t bother me at all, and I’ll at least consider writing a review.  The benefit for me is the opportunity to learn more about various forms of digital cinema and to see some interesting films that I might otherwise miss.

But now with my own book soon to appear in print–my author’s copies are stacked neatly on a table just a few feet from my computer–I find myself in the uneasy position of thinking about my own role as a marketer and what Holbo calls “the line between marketing and spamming.”  When I first mentioned that I had a book coming out, one (former) colleague suggested that I send a mass email to department chairs and others introducing myself in my book.  I immediately cringed at the idea, regarding that as a form of spam, one that would likely annoy potential future collaborators and colleagues.  But like Holbo, given that academic presses face tight budgets and difficult economic models, I do feel some obligation to support the marketing of the book.  This tension inspires Holbo to pose the question of what a theory of “just marketing” might look like when it comes to academic texts.

As one of the Crooked Timber commenters recommends, I’ve started a Facebook group for my book although I’m not yet sure what role the “group” will serve (a question that seems to haunt other academic authors who have started Facebook groups for their books).  So far, I’ve only invited people who are already listed as “friends” to join the group and I’ve seen some ripple effect where friends of friends have joined.  This approach seems relatively fair in that it allows people to opt-in.  Ignore or block the initial invitation and you won’t continue getting emails.  A blog, much like Matt Kirschenbaum’s for his book, Mechanisms, also seems like a useful way of promoting the book.  So this raises some questions: first, how has the marketing of academic books changed in the eraof Twitter, Facebook, and blogs? To what extent should academics market or promote their work? What’s the line between marketing and spam?  Some of the answers over at Crooked Timber have been enlightening, but I’d enjoy hearing from others on this issue.

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Life. Support. Music.

When I first saw Eric Daniel Metzgar’s poignant, lyrical, and understated Life. Support. Music. (POV) at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, I was moved by the story of Jason Crigler, a talented New York musician who suffered a near-fatal brain hemorrhage while playing guitar onstage at a New York club.  At the time of his brain hemmorhage, Crigler was a rising star in the New York music scene with a new CD soon to be released.  His wife was pregnant with their first child.  In the days after his collapse, Jason’s family was told that he would likely remain in a near-vegetative state.  But rather than accepting that diagnosis, Jason’s family and friends rallied together working around the clock to provide the care Jason needed to recover from what happened.  As Metzgar, the film’s director and a friend of the family, observes, the film reveals the family’s “intense optimism” and their “incandescent love,” as well as their sheer determination to help Jason rebuild his life.

Metzgar’s amazement at the power of the Crigler family is evident throughout.  Other than brief interviews with doctors who confirm their initial prognosis that they believed Jason would remain in a vegetative state, the story belongs to Jason’s family and friends who recount the decisions they made and their own excitement as Jason gradually began to recover, each step–walking unassisted for the first time, picking up and playing the guitar again–a small miracle.  Metzgar’s gentle, almost whispered, voice-over helps to underscore the personal connection to Jason and his family.

But as I watched the film a second time with my girl friend, a nurse practitioner, a number of other questions and observations began to emerge, many of them confirming the miraculous nature of the story while others helped to place the film in a more specific context, one that isn’t entirely disconnected from our current battles over health care, among other questions.  In a passing comment in the narration, Metzgar mentions that Crigler had exhausted his lifetime cap of $1 million from his medical insurance, and when he entered Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, he did so by relying on support from Medicaid.  Later, as family bills begin to mount, Jason’s friends in the music industry, including Norah Jones, Marshall Crenshaw, and Tommy Thompson,  rallied to support him with a series of benefit concerts, showing just how fortunate Crigler was to have the financial support needed to make his recovery possible.

At the same time, the film quietly asks questions about what happens to the “self” of the person who suffers a traumatic brain injury.  One of the doctors who treated Jason, Dr. Christopher Carter, remarks that “Scientifically, he wasn’t there,” but the family sees Jason’s “self” in small gestures, the little details or movements that hint that Jason’s personality still exists somewhere inside.  But while these questions exist on the edges of the film, Life. Support. Music. is primarily a film about both a family and an individual who refused to give up, even in the face of what seemed like an impossible recovery.

Life. Support. Music, will be broadcast as part of PBS’s POV documentary series on July 7, 2009.

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Friday Links

As many of my readers will likely know, David Hudson, one of the most prolific, attentive, and eclectic film bloggers out there is discontinuing his “Daily” blog, an indispensable resource where David would aggregate, and often comment on, the day’s most significant film links.  In doing research for my book and tracking resources for the classroom, David’s work, both at his old GreenCine blog and more recently at the IFC website, has been incredibly valuable.  David promises, in his final entry, to return soon to the film blogosphere, and although I’m enthusiastic about this new direction, I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that his work on the “Daily” will be missed.  Here are a few other links:

  • Chris Anderson, author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, responds to Malcolm Gladwell’s critical review of his new book.  I’m still generally convinced by many of Gladwell’s reservations about Anderson’s argument (at least as it is articulated in Anderson’s Wired article from a few months ago).
  • Lance Weiler has a PowerPoint presentation on the film resource site, The Workbook Project, where he offers an overview of how filmmakers and others can use social media to “extend a story and generate a conversation around their work.”  The slideshow focuses on such case studies as Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the Brave New Films website, and the expanded online world of the TV show Mad Men (which included characters from the show posting on Twitter).  Lance also has some useful numbers on the demographics of users of social media.
  • The Film Blog Calendar looks like a valuable resource, one that will hopefully help to aggregate special events, such as blogathons and themed weeks, making them more accessible for film blog readers and writers.
  • Adrian Martin has an intriguing editorial/rant about the popular bias built into (the Internet Movie Database, for those who dont know it).  Martin acknowledges that, for better or for worse, IMDB is probably going to be a major resource for film scholars, consumers, and cinephiles for some time before pointing out its maddening gaps, especially when it comes to independent, non-U.S., and avant-garde films.  This popular bias is, no doubt, informed by the fact that the site blurs the line between being a source of information and a location for the intense promotion of Hollywood films.  I do think that IMDB users can alleviate these biases to some extent by contributing to the site (whether by posting reviews or by aletring the site’s editors to omissions or errors), but Martin’s read is a good one.

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