Archive for August, 2009

Sunday Links

As the public voting on proposed South by Southwest panels comes to a close on September 4, I just wanted to make a quick reminder to everyone that I have a proposed presentation on film blogging in the running for inclusion at this year’s festival.  Audience support counts for 33% of the overall score when the organizers weigh which panels to include, so your votes would be appreciated.  I’ve never been to South by Southwest, but given my research areas, I think it would be a valuable learning experience.  Now for some links:

  • Matt Dentler points to news that Blockbuster plans to open up a blue alternative to Redbox by placing kiosks  in Big Y grocery stores throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, creating a service they’ll call Blockbuster Express.  The price per rental will be $1, just like Redbox, and the service will also convert several hudred The New Realease kiosks in Publix stores throughout the south.  Probably no surprise here that other video rental services would try to elbow in on Redbox’s turf, but interesting news nonetheless.
  • Over at NewTeeVee, there is a discussion addressing why Netflix seems to be thriving while TiVo is faltering, at least as measured by a 146,000 net decline in subscribers over the last quarter. As usual, I’m less interested in what these stories mean for TiVo’s bottom line than I am in thinking about what they say about how we engage with media.  I’ve never really used TiVo, and with so many other media options out there, I’ll admit that I don’t feel strongly compelled to start now.  TiVo seems to serve those who are deeply invested in watching specific shows, and so I’m wondering whether, with so many other entertainment options, it has become an unnecessary luxury?
  • I’ve already mentioned it once before, but Kristin Thompson’s piece on the precarious state of 3D movies is worth reading. I think her skepticism about the future of 3D as a storytelling medium is certainly warranted.
  • Ted Hope has a pointer to a lecture by Brian Newman on “Moving beyond Free to ‘Free (with Fee).’”
  • Finally, Jason Sperb, citing work by Angela Ndalianis, has an insightful reading on “the afterlife of Song of the South,” taking note that transmedia texts take place in a variety of forms and often involve media conglomerates cannibalizing and/or reworking earlier texts.  As Jason points out, although the film has a number of racist elements, making it somewhat difficult to allow overt associations with the Disney brand, pieces of the film (including the classic “Zip-a-dee-do-dah” song) are recycled subtly in less visible media contexts.

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Mocking Cameron, or How I Learned to Love the Downfall Meme

Via Anne Thompson, a look at the most recent update of the “Downfall Meme,” the long-running video mashup technique, in which a video creator takes an iconic scene in the movie Downfall, in which Adolf Hitler, as played by Bruno Ganz, has a complete meltdown, and substitutes new subtitles, creating the effect that a hapless Hitler is complaining about the fall of the Republican Party or Sarah Palin’s resignation from her position as Governor.  When I first encountered the meme with the famous “Hillary’s Downfall” video, I felt somewhat conflicted, admiring the creativity while ambivalent about any text that equated an American politician with the Nazi dictator. But as the meme has continued to evolve, the use of the scene now seems increasingly abstracted from the original history being depicted, and it has become a powerfully funny way of commenting on any number of issues.

With that in mind, I really enjoyed “Hitler Learns that the Avatar Trailer Sucks,” an incredibly clever take on the backlash against James Cameron’s expensive and, potentially overly obscure, experiment in 3D storytelling, Avatar.  As Kristin Thompson points out, the entertainment media and fan reaction to the film has sparked debate about whether 3D is “over,” whether it is a viable direction for the future of cinema, and  more tellingly, how 3D fails to achieve perceptual realism. The maker of “Avatar Trailer” shows a keen understanding of movie publicity practices and demonstrates a principle articulated by Nicholas Rombes, Bill Wasik, and others that we are all media theorists now, that the act of self-conscious theorizing is becoming a crucial part of our films and TV shows.  In this particular video, Hitler complains (in subtitles, of course) that Cameron “has taken the Hollywood opiate of putting technology before story while being surrounded by yes men, trivializing the 3D age as a pet project,” attacking not only Cameron’s notorious reputation as a bit of a bully but also the celebration of technological novelty that has become a crucial component of Hollywood’s marketing of high-concept films, a reading echoed in one of Hitler’s later remarks in which he complains that “all these old masters have lost their minds in the depth of a hard drive.”  A cutaway to a crying woman shows a second woman consoling her: “Don’t cry.  Cameron will never make that Spider-Man treatment.”

The video parody is loaded with references to Hollywood insiderism–script treatments, online fanboy cultures, and transmedia texts–some of which are funnier in context, so I won’t reveal them here.  Whether the video truly “goes viral,” recieiving millions of views (or whatever measure you’d choose), it would be easy to dismiss it, using Wasik’s language as yet another nanostory, a disposable moment of culture doomed to be forgotten soon.  An it’s likely the case that such a topical video will disappear from our memories soon after Avatar finds its way to the DVD bin at your local big-box mart.  And yet I’m tempted to see something else here: a compelling reading of the hype associated with Hollywood blockbusters.  The parody remains affectionate.  The videomaker would presumably love to see a well-made film and embraces the best elements of entertainment culture but fears that Cameron has finally become too immersed in the special effects that once served the story rather than overwhelming it (that being said, I still think that Titanic sucks!).

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And Then There’s This

Because of my interest in viral videos and political discourse, I was incredibly curious to read Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, a book that promises to diagnose the transformation of narrative in the age of viral media and to address the implications of those changes for public culture.  Wasik, who was responsible for the creation of flash mobs, a briefly popular phenomenon in which urban hipsters would briefly show up in a designated public space, perform a mundane activity, and quickly disperse, proves to be an effective observer of a number of viral phenomena and even offers–in a number of places–a useful vocabulary for talking about these transformations. Wasik reads these changes as having the potential to damage political discourse, as journalists (and audiences) clamour to find the next big thing.  In this context, I am less convinced by Wasik’s arguments about the implications of these new media; however, for those of us concerned about the effect of social media on political and entertainment culture, Wasik’s arguments (which stand, in part, as a useful corrective to Malcolm Gladwell’s bengin celebrations of viral “tipping points“) are worth addressing.

Wasik’s most useful contribution is by creating the concept of the “nanostory,” in which a story, whether a political narrative, a rock band, or a funny video, briefly becomes immensely popular (as measured through page views, blog mentions, etc) before fading quickly into obscurity. These “transient bursts of attention” (7), Wasik argues, become enticing, even addictive, in a new media climate (here Wasik draws on his own experience of trying to create viral content for The Huffington Post’s Contagious Festival, a monthly competition organized by Jonah Peretti (93).  And although I’d imagine that creating a successful meme or viral video could be enticing, Wasik is a little less clear when it comes to the pleasure of consuming such material, of explaining why people watch (and share) viral content.

Related to this desire for notoriety, Wasik identifies four traits common to viral culture: speed, shamelessness, duration, and sophistication.  It’s worth noting that two of these definitional terms have to do with time.  Throughout the book, Wasik expresses his “desperate desire to stop Internet time” (71), worries about “the dilemma of disposability” (183), or describes his concern about what Linda Stone calls the “continuous partial attention” (cited in Wasik, 41) that characterizes our multitasking, distracted, viral culture.  As I read these passages, I found myself thinking about Walter Benjamin’s arguments about the fragmentation of attention in early 20th century culture and wondered whether this characterization of internet culture as distracting is significantly different than past forms of entertainment and communication (or how one would measure such a thing).  Whether it’s true or not that we have access to more “inputs” isn’t quite clear to me (186), though it’s probably fair to say that the nature of that information has changed.

However, Wasik is much more persuasive when he traces the sophistication of many of the people who produce and consume viral media.  In some of my own work (forthcoming here and cited above), I have discussed how skilled producers of viral videos use intertetual cues, references to films, TV shows, and music, to introduce compelling commentary on political culture.  As Wasik observes, the Internet has become a site for countless forms of “cultural experimentation,” and savvy users are attentive to the ways in which viral media spreads.  In addition, in the best cases, meme-makers such as Lee Stranahan and  Andy Cobb (my examples) illustrate the ways in which the internet democratizes “cultural monitoring” (14).

More often than not, however, Wasik emphasizes the ways in which viral media, enabled not only by blogs but also by a voracious 24-hour news cycle (and, on cable news, a blurring  of the line between news and entertainment), often deal with “irrelevant foibles” (146) or “narratives that the facts cannot support” (151).  Wasik is right to be concerned about these issues, as only a quick glance at the health care debate indicates.  Days that could have been used to focus on creating meaningful reform were instead spent engaging rumors about death panels, ratined care, and other non sequitirs (not to mention BS rumors about Obama’s citizenship).  Although the “deathers” may no longer distract us, they dominated the news cycle, and the (manufactured) controversy derailed the legislative process and gave cover to those who were opposed to the public option.  And yet it’s impossible for me to see these nanostories as entirely frivolous or meaningless.  At the very least, it becomes crucial to “fight the smears” (182), if only to avoid the fate suffered by John Kerry uring the 2004 election.  But, in other circumstances, the “self-awareness” of viral media can produce the positive effect that we become more sophisticated viewers of the media we consume (and produce).  And, in the best cases, viral texts can provide sincere dialogue about important issues (I’d argue that the circulation of the George Allen “macaca” video did this, if only because it reminded us of how the political game has changed) or at least entertain us.  And yet, despite these reservations, I am generally persuaded by most of Wasik’s claims: short-lived, briefly popular, generally disposable videos have become a newly dominant genre and that, no matter what, these videos constitute a new way of talking about or narrating our daily lives.

Finally, although I have emphasized Wasik’s treatment of how nanostories affect politics, it’s worth noting that he also examines the role of nanostories in shaping indie rock culture, specifically focusing on how the desire to discover the Next Great Band can result in a kind of churn that pushes other more established bands to the side.  Here, Wasik offers an insightful reading of the role of KEXP (still my favorite radio station on the planet) in serving as tastemakers for any number of indie bands.  I think there may be some useful points here in thinking about how movie tastes are constucted online as well, especially as online reiewers become more prominent and as DIY filmmakers seek out reviews for their films.  Wasik’s book is an especially valuable contribution to the literature on viral media, in part because he treats it with some skepticism, especially when it comes to the ways in which viral media and nanostories are (often) implicated in the logic of the market and the transoformation of social relationships into marketing opportunities.  Wasik, more than most popular cultural critics, recognizes that the internet is not only a “meme-making machine” (81); it’s also a machine for organizing social, political, and economic relationships and that we need to engage with these new narrative modes in responsible and sustainable ways.

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First-Year Writing: Narcissism or New Literacies

With the emergence of a new academic year–we’re already a week in at Fayetteville State–we are greeted with another round of the annual rite of passage: the lament that Kids Today can no longer write effectively.  Perhaps the highest-profile version of this annual genre appeared in the (web) pages of The New York Times in a curmudgeonly blog post written by Stanley Fish that opens with a complaint about his graduate students’ prose before evolving into a complaint about what is being taught in first-year composition classes.  Fish’s comments echo concerns by John Sutherland about the encroachment of text-speak and Facebook-inspired narcissism into academic writing and are not that remote from a widely-discussed lament by Roger Ebert about a “gathering dark age.”  A new generation of writers and thinkers are paying attention to the wrong things, and their writing and critical thinking skills are diminished as a result.

It’s easy enough to refute some of the generational claims.  As Glenn Kenny observes, after offering ample evidence: “The kids of today didn’t invent dumb. They inherited it.”  Perhaps more vexing for those of us who teach first-year writing courses, is the question about whether Johnny and Jane can write.  Fish, after a brief review of his grad students’ prose, concludes that something is getting lost in writing instruction, an analysis that is reinforced for him by a review of an American Council of Trustees and Alumni white paper and a survey of his university’s composition syllabi, few of which seemed to offer explicit training in the craft of writing.  Although I am sympathetic with Fish’s concerns about the need to focus on writing, I cannot share his “conclusion that unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham.”   Nor do I believe that it makes sense “to insist that all courses listed as courses in composition teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else.” Many of the approaches that Fish rejects–courses that focus on the politics of culture–succeed as sites for the teaching of writing precisely because they are so attentive to how texts make meaning and to the importance of a rhetorical context (kairos, in classical rhetoric) in which these texts are produced.

In that context, I found Clive Thompson’s recent Wired column on “The New Literacy” to be a compelling read.  Thompson cites research conducted by Andrea Lunsford as part of the Stanford Study of Writing, a massive research project that examined thousands of pages student writing–from papers to short assignments–before coming to a much different conclusion: today’s students can write, and in fact, they write far more often than past generations, in part thanks to the massive amounts of socializing that take place online, whether in Facebook or Twitter status updates or in blog entries.  Much of this writing is text-based, and crucially, it is written for an audience.  I’ve done a number of activities, including my virginity auction activity last fall, in which students are asked to think about audience, and because of their online writing practices, I think it’s a concept that many students grasp intuitively.

I do have some reservations about Lunsford’s research.  The writing that she studied consisted of a longitudinal study of work produced by Stanford students, so I’d be curious to know if similar improvement could be measured in other university contexts; however, Lunsford’s conclusions (and Thompson’s synthesis of them) are a nice corrective against the claims that Kids Today don’t know how to write.

Update: Just to follow up a little further, as usual, I’ve been teaching my composition with a general focus on media or information literacy, and as I was doing some blog surfing (I prefer to call it “research”) this afternoon, I came across this MediaShift post about the evolution of media literacy.  One of my concerns about media literacy as its often constructed is the idea that students are unable or unprepared to “read” the media.  Toward the end of the post, there is a video of a public service announcement tutoring kids on the dangers of revealing too much information online.  Although there are notable cases of cyber-bullying (and other problems), these announcements often seem to underestimate the ability of teenagers to negotiate their online reputations.  Worth noting, though, is the article’s discussion of a bill sponsored by Senators John Kerry, Olympia Snowe and others, “21st Century Skills Incentive Fund Act,” that would encourage schools to promote media literacy education.

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Sunday Links

Sundays are usually slow days in the blogosphere, but I came across some interesting reading and videos that I want to post before the work week begins and I get swamped by teaching responsibilities:

  • Mark Cuban is the most recent observer to weigh in on the Redbox phenomenon, and I think his blog post addresses a point that has been ignored, for the most part.  Cuban’s observations help to illustrate how Redbox imlicitly challenges the “black box fallacy,” the idea that all media content will be streamed to a single site within the family home.  Redbox, which relies on careful placement at convenient locations in grocery stores, seems to defy the conventional wisdom that everything will be delivered directly into the home (or that consumers necessarily want that).  He also implicitly challenges the notion that certain kinds of media change are predictable or inevitable.
  • David Poland offers his contribution to the debate over the “Twitter effect,” the idea that social media is speeding up the word-of-mouth around Hollywood films.  Poland challenges the conventional wisdom, arguing that Twitter and Facebook are not having a significant effect, especially when compared to the marketing machines of the Hollywood studios and industry-friendly reviewers such as Harry Knowles and the Ain’t It Cool News fanboys.  His most compelling argument is that the significant drops in revenue from Friday to Saturday have been increasing for some time independently of the growth of social media.
  • Tama Leaver has a compelling post about a panel in Australia on “the future of journalism” in which he was a participant.   Tama is especially attentive to the complicated relationship between bloggers and journalists and echoes Dan Gillmor’s famous claim that “journalism is evolving from a lecture to a conversation.”
  • Here’s the YouTube find of the day, courtesy of the Open Culture blog: footage of Annie Sullivan lecturing on how Helen Keller learned to communicate verbally despite being blind and deaf. The entire video is well worth watching.

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Rainy Saturday Links

Now that my first day of classes are done and I can stop fretting over syllabi, I’ve been catching up on a huge backlog of blog reading.  As usual, I now feel like I’m about a month behind everyone else, but here are some of the reads that have been inspiring me to think lately:

  • As I mull over ideas for my proposed South by Southwest blogging presentation, I’ve been finding myself becoming more acutely aware of debates about film criticism practices.  With that in mind, I found Vadim Rizov’s discussion of Rotten Tomatoes’ (RT) effect on film reviews to be rather compelling.  Rizov cites a Daniel Engber analysis in Slate that tracks the tendency toward critical consensus around major Hollywood films (identifying Armond White as a key exception).  Engber concludes that even White takes a contrarian view “only” 50% of the time (a number that seems rather significant to me, especially given how far he is from the rest of the critics who were analyzed).  Rizov is probably correct to argue that RT’s “aggregate authority” may shape how readers of film reviews find recommendations and make decisions about what they will see, and I think the aggregation of reviews in general (one might also add the Netflix recommendation algorithm here) probably has had some impact on how people find movies.
  • On a related note: Anne Thompson points to Michael Sragow’s recent entry in the “Twitter effect” discussion. Although I expressed some skepticism about the role of Twitter in effecting box office totals (among other things), there is a case to be made that Twitter has sped up the process by which word-of-mouth on a movie spreads.  More often than not, the Twitter effect is seen as negative–Twitter killed Bruno–but one of Sragow’s key points is that social media can help smaller or lesser-known films, such as Robert Kenner’s remarkable documentary, Food Inc.
  • Via Rick at EyeCube, a couple of intriguing SXSW panel recommendations (and, yes, I’ll disclose that I’m one of the recommenations).  I’m especially interested in Peter Kim’s “Sponsored Conversations: Good Strategy or Spam.”  But I’d also like to recommend some panels and presentations featuring friends and colleagues, including the “Hacking the Ivory Tower” panel, which features several MediaCommons and FlowTV pals and Mona Kasra’s panel on the 2009 Iran election.
  • Ted Hope points to a YouTube video that argues that a social media revolution is taking (or has taken) place.  The video throws lots of mind-blowing statistics about the large number of Facebook users, YouTube videos, and so on, but while I have little doubt that social media is becoming a crucial part of our mediated lives,  I have to wonder exactly what else is being sold in the video’s techno-utopian logic.  In fact the video sets up a false binary with its driving question: “Is social media just a fad or is it the biggest shift since the Inustrial Revolution?”  In a post written for The Symposium for the Future, an event sponsored by The New Media Consortium, danah boyd has recently offered some compelling reasons why we need to be way of such techno-utopian arguments, noting in particular how they give technology an inevitable, almost mystical power.
  • Also from Anne Thompson: more analysis of the ongoing power (and market share) of video rental service Redbox.
  • The Film Doctor has links to a couple of interesting articles. First, an argument that new media technologies are reducing our attention spans and, therefore, hurting traditional formats, one that spills over into an argument for adapting various forms of transmedia storytelling.  He also cites Peter Jackson’s recent assertion that “anyone” can pick up a camera and make a film. As Scott Kirsner points out in the above link, this potential has been discussed for some time (recall Coppola’s famous utopian claim that a “fat girl in Ohio” would someday be able to make movies on an equal footing with Hollywood studios), which raises questions about why this promised democratization continues to exist as a future horizon, twenty or thirty years down the road, in Jackson’s estimation.
  • That being said, the IFC blog points to Marc Price’s extremely low-budget film and widely-acclaimed film, Colin, made for the very low price of 75 bucks.  As Rizov points out, Colin foregrounds its low-budget status, using that as a marketing hook and turning it into “a home movie that’s getting a UK [theatrical] release.”  These marketing hooks tend to work only when the material itself is good, as was the case with Primer, Tarnation, and others.  And, as the debate over the actual budget of Tarnation indicates, these extremely low budgets often require some fuzzy math.

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Documenting Health Care

A recent post on Daily Kos reminded me that PBS (specifically Bill Moyers) has been re-screening the powerful documentary film, Critical Condition, which looks at three families dealing with difficult financial and personal choices as a result of not having access to health insurance.  Thanks to a POV screener DVD, I saw the film a few months ago and appreciated it, but as the rhetoric over reforming health care heats up, I think Critical Condition might be an antidote to some of the misinformation and name-calling used to derail a public health care option.

The entire documentay is currently availble online on the PBS website and is well worth watching if you have a couple of spare hours this weekend.

By the way, I haven’t mentioned it recently, but my presentation is still in the running for a spot at this year’s South by Southwest conference.  If you have a minute, your vote would be appreciated. While you’re in the neighborhood, Peter Kim’s panel, “Sponsored Conversations: Good Strategy or Spam?” sounds fascinating and looks as if it will address some of my concerns about the blurry boundaries between social media and marketing.

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More Syllabi and Teaching Resources

I’m still tweaking my three syllabi for fall semester, for my Film and Visual Literacy, Introduction to Literature, and First-Year Composition courses.  I briefly discussed my plans for an “adaptation” theme in my Introduction to Literature course the other day, but after a comment from Rob Rushing, I may tweak the language to suggest something closer to “resonances,” to allow for some other kinds of echoes (I love the idea of discussing Office Space alongside of “Bartleby the Scrivener,” for example).  My film course will likely change little, although I’m considering the idea of working in at least two films made in the last decade or so because the course now feels a little dated.  Finally, I’m hoping to have more to say about my composition class, which will take an “information literacy” approach to the research paper (I’ve started by creating a blog), but for now, I’d like to point out a few of the articles, syllabi, and blog posts that have been helping me to rethink what I’m doing in my classes.  There are some really terrific resources out there:

  • First, Rob pointed me to his Introduction to Literature syllabus, one that focuses primarily on “great books,” while emphasizing historical knowledge.  I really like some of the questions he’s asking in the course overview, as well as the unit on the Enlightenment early in the semester.
  • Jason Sperb has posted his Film and Literature syllabus and offers a careful examination of the implications of adapting texts.  I’m still debating about how I’ll structure my unit on “transmedia storytelling” at the end of the semester, and Jason has some great ideas (speaking of which, here is Henry Jenkins’ “handout” on transmedia storytelling, conveniently posted on his blog).
  • Jill Walker Rettberg has posted about her course on “remix culture” and points us to her syllabus.  I like that she defines “remix” broadly to inlcude everything from the “Vote Different” video that remixed the iconic 1984 Apple ad to literary remixes such as the work of William Burroughs.  She also points to Michael Wesch’s discussion of how he runs his digital ethnography courses and to a student project that “went viral,” getting over 150,000 views).
  • Henry Jenkins offers two syllabi from his courses at his new digs at USC.  The first is a course on New Media Literacies that led me to this New York Times article by Motoko Rich about how new communication technologies have altered family dynamics and reading practices (which might spark an interesting discussion in at least two of my classes).  Also check out his course on Transmedia Storytelling.
  • While thinking about my own composition course, I’ve been learning a lot from George Williams’ “Read, Think, Write (Repeat)” as well as his innovative use of Flickr as a pedagogical tool.
  • In addition to these teaching resources, I’ve also found myself mulling a recent Guardian blog post about the challenges of adaptation, this time in response to the film version of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel, and is now already slated to become a TV series, with Friends creator Marta Kauffman taking the reins.
  • Scott Rosenberg also has a thoughtful discussion of a recent debate about whether it makes sense to retire the term, “blogger,” given that Jay Rosen (and others) hav argued that blogging itself has become such a broadly-defined activity.  Like Rosenberg, I’m inclined to argue that blogging is actually overloaded with multiple, often competing meanings that may have very little to do with the rudimentary concept of a frequently updated website with the most recent posts appearing at the top of a page.

Update: Thanks to a recent comment, I was reminded to go back and look at my Teaching Carnival post from last spring.  More good ideas for those of you who are still crafting your syllabi.

Update 2: Annie Petersen has a blog entry soliciting advice for her “History of the Moving Image” syllabus.  She also points to Timothy Burke’s discussion of why some professors post syllabi online (and why others don’t).

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Film Blogging at SXSW

Like their past events, South by Southwest will be featuring a conference alongside its film and music festival programming.  This year, however, they’ve added a fascinating new wrinkle into the selection process, inviting anyone who is interested to vote for whatever panels and presentations they’d like to see included at the event.  I’ve applied, and my proposal has made it past the initial stage, receiving approval from the programming staff at SXSW.  Now, I need your votes to help ensure my panel is selected for the conference, so please click through and show your support (for a detailed description of the selection process, go here).

My presentation, “Film Blogs as Contagious Cinephilia: Amateur Criticism and Movie Culture,” will build upon and expand research that I conducted while writing my book, Reinventing Cinema, specifically focusing on how blogs have altered or transformed the culture of amateur film criticism and the implications of these changes for the broader entertainment industry, whether filmmakers themselves, print media, or film consumers.  Given the continued challenges film companies face, due to new distribution models, I hope that my presentation will be a valuable contribution to our understanding about how film blogs serve as an important site for fostering dialogue about the possibilities for a vibrant, active film culture, one that can feed into and shape the processes of film distribution.

Below the fold, I’ve included a full summary of the proposed presentation, including the questions I plan to address in my talk:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Adapting the Introduction to Literature Course, Round One

Thanks to all the usual pre-semester activities and a quick visit from my parents, I’ve been unable to blog for a few days, but now, with the end of summer looming, I’m starting to rethink a couple of courses I teach on a consistent basis, in particular the Introduction to Literature course, which serves the dual purpose of being a gateway to the major (students can get a core humanities credit for taking it) and a class where English majors are introduced to basic literary concepts.  It’s a 200-level course, so I’m planning to keep theoretical material to a minimum, and due to our university’s book rental program, I was essentially required to use Literature: A Portable Anthology as this semester’s textbook, which has an array of the standard canonical poems, plays, and stories often taught in these classes.  Given how the course operates within the university and the major, I’m happy to introduce the stanard texts and terms, but I think the course works best where there is a course theme or a key set of questions that help to provide an overall “narrative” or arc for the students.  My working idea this summer has been to develop a theme around issues of adaptation, appropriation, and intertextuality.

There is obviously a wide history of scholarship on all of these issues that I cannot even begin to cover in a 200-level course, but I think this theme works for a variety of reasons: First, it helps to establish a history of relationships between literary texts (Yeats’s “Second Coming” assimilates the work of Percy Shelley, the mythology of William Blake, and The Book of Revelation, among other texts, to name one example).  Second, it introduces, addresses, and complicates questions of medium specificity ( ekphrastic poetry, cinematic adaptations of plays, novels, etc).  Finally, this approach foregrounds the issue of interpretation in some interesting ways in that every adaptation is a form of retelling or reinterpretation, one that is based on historical context and on the interpretive communities in which the text is being read.  Also, as (relatively) new media such as web video continue to proliferate, foregrounding new forms of production while archiving (and possibly reinterpreting) old ones, these questions remain germane, even politicized, especially when issues of copyright emerge.

I’m still in the relatively early stages of redesigning this course (and, yes, I know I shouldn’t have procrastinated so much this summer), so I may update with a more complete syllabus later, but for now, I’ll mention that I have about four weeks of class to play with, while describing some of the ideas I’m entertaining.  One current plan is to spend at least one class day looking at various performances (and interpretations) of Hamlet posted to the web.  I’m fascinated, for example, by the “Hamlet on the Street” videos featuring 18-year-old actor Craig Bazan (and theink they’ll play well with my students), but there are dozens of film adaptations (compare Olivier’s version of the graveyard scene with Branagh’s 1996 version or with Steve Martin’s LA Story parody of it). On a related note: one thing I didn’t do last time that several of my students requested very strongly was to require them to perform scenes from the play, rather than reading them in class, so I’m currently working on creating an assignment that would require some form of “performance,” one that could be staged, filmed, podcasted, or [fill in the blank].

I’ve also decided to have students watch Sita Sings the Blues while reading selections from Ramayana, the Indian epic which provides a loose basis for the film. In addition to being a film that foregrounds interpretation (the character Nina adapts Sita’s story; the “chorus” interpret it in various ways), the citation of Annette Hanshaw blues songs and the visual references to Betty Boop raise other engaging interpretive questions.  If I do a second film, I’m tempted to teach O Brother Where Art Thou? because of its reworking of the Odyssey, but I’d like to look at a number of web-based case studies.  This blog entry leaves things a bit open-ended, and as I write, I find myself thinking about other possible cases (fake trailers as forms of adaptation or interpretation; Orson Welles’ interpretation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds).  If you’ve done a similar theme in the past, I’d enjoy hearing about examples or activities that worked especially well.  The syllabus is probably a bit more polished than I’ve implied here, but I have some room for tweaking things.  Short essays that might introduce some of these issues in an accessible way would also be quite welcome.

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This Way Up

Throughout Georgi Lazarevski’s quietly contemplative documentary This Way Up (IMDB), the residents at the Catholic–run Our Lady of Sorrows Nursing Home in East Jerusalem find themselves increasingly closed in by the security barrier built by Israeli forces. The nursing home, “an incidental victim of the wall’s zigzag through the West Bank,” happens to fall on the Israeli side of the barrier, separating the aging patients from their families, making it more difficult to plan visits and to receive needed medications. Some of the patients upbraid their adult children for not visiting more often, but without the proper documentation, such visits become increasingly difficult, and soon they seem to accept the infrequent visits as a part of life at the home.  The Palestinian Christians who live there regard the barrier with degrees of curiosity, sadness, and resignation, sometimes quietly observing, but in other cases, lamenting their isolation from family and friends.

Lazarevski uses a vérité approach, content to observe the residents, their families, and the medical personnel who patiently run the nursing home, often mediating conflicts between residents who argue over the television or complain about someone singing too much.  One resident, Jad, remains in good health, and he serves as a guide of sorts, observing the construction of the wall and wandering the spaces behind the home that, thanks in part to the looming barrier, have become rocky and closed off (in fact, the film’s French title, Le jardin de Jad, reflects both Jad’s centrality and the tiny yard behind Our Lady of Sorrows).  Both Jad and another female patient are frequently seen puffing on cigarettes, and the female patient in particular, offers what may be her only smile when she is given the opportunity to satisfy her nicotine fix.  The doctors and nurses don’t bother to stop the cigarette smoking, perhaps reasoning that a small pleasure such as a cigarette outweighs the harm, especially at that point.

Even the medical staff must improvise to fulfill their daily routines.  Supplies are more difficult to obtain.  Many of the workers must sneak in from the Palestinian side of the wall; while others climb a ladder over an incomplete portion of the wall.  And the wall itself becomes a site for all manner of political statements and absurd observations.  In fact, the film’s title comes from a spray painted message “this way up,” painted quite naturally upside down, reminding us of the ways in which the wall has disrupte all sense of direction.  For the most part, teh actual conflict takes place offscreen.  Momentary glimpses of the conflict show up on TV, and sometimes a patient will complain about Bush or Arafat, but for the most part the geo-political battles are felt only in their implications for the residents and their families.

Lazarevski arranges these elements to depict the patients with great warmth and compassion while also teasing out the absurdities and difficulties of aging in the shadow of a security barrier, separating them from their families and friends.  In fact, during a couple of key segments, particularly when one patient was cursing out another for singing and when another admitted she’d “rather eat oranges” than follow the Israel-Palestine conflict, I found myself reminded of a Samuel Beckett play, as the residents sought to make sense of aging and the isolation brought about by the chance location of the nursing home where they live.  It’s a fascinating little documentary, one that brings an unexpected light on one aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its effect on the people who must endure it on a daily basis.

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Friday Links

Digging through the film blogosphere one last time before my obligations for fall semester begin next week:

  • The Chicago Tribune has an amazing story about how Netflix works.  Christopher Borrelli got the chance to tour a Netflix hub near Chicago and describes the somewhat bizarre process by which the company is able to deliver those red envelopes to your mailbox so quickly.  I’d pictured some version of this story: the 3 AM deliveries of large stashes of movies, the hidden and nondescript offices in an unmarked warehouse on the edge of town, the small army of workers opening envelopes to check for damaged DVDs.
  • The Encyclopedia Britannica blog is sponsoring a cool discussion/contest, in which author Raymond Benson will list his ten favorite films from 1969 in ascending order over the next two weeks.  Guess the name of his favorite film and you can win a signed copy of Benson’s latest book.  In addition to offering an opportunity to reflect back on some great movies, Benson’s list also opens up questions about the social role of movies during a turbulent part of our nation’s history.  Check out last year’s contest, including Benson’s discussion of his favorite film of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Roger Ebert has a melancholic piece about a “gathering dark age,” another contribution to the genre of articles lamenting the state of Kids Today.  Ebert, noting the lack of interest in film critics and TV news anchors (other than Colbert and Stewart, naturally) among people under 50, worries that this state of affairs indicates an increasingly illiterate public.  As usual, my tendency is to greet such articles with a great deal of skepticism, first because I don’t think the teens of my generation were any “better” when it came to cultural appreciation and because the cultural texts and forms of expression we value do change over time.  Further, while people under 50 may be “rejecting” At the Movies, it’s also true that there is a much vaster entertainment landscape out there (not to mention the fact that the replacements for Ebert and Roeper were mind-numbingly awful).
  • On a related note, Ebert also blames the relative commercial failure of The Hurt Locker onyounger audiences unwilling to give a challenging film a chance.  I’d blame it on (1) the film’s R-rating and (2) tepid marketing efforts that weren’t sure what to do with another Iraq War film.  To be fair, Ebert does acknowledge the problem with the rating system in the comments, but I think that given the opportunity, a lot of teens would find Locker to be an engaging film.
  • Errol Morris has a series of blog entries on “lying,” including this incredible discussion with magician and actor Ricky Jay.
  • NewTeeVee reports on a couple of online movie-themed games at the Hollywood Player website.  One is a jigsaw puzzle, in which the pieces assemble to produce a short clip from a Hollywood film.  The images on each piece are constantly in motion, making solving the puzzle even more of a challenge, even if you recognize the movie you’re putting together (mine was a scene from a Bourne movie). The game I enjoyed most was “Well Connected,” which plays like a fast-moving version of the “Kevin Bacon game,” in which you are supposed to connect actors via movies as their headshots rush toward you.  Both games are currently in their beta phase.
  • Also worth checking out: a few days ago, Tama pointed to some useful research on the demographic data for a number of prominent social networking sites and blogs, including Facebook, YouTube, Metafilter, Digg, MeetUp, Reunion.com, and Twitter.

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John Hughes, RIP

By now, you’ve likely heard that 1980s teen-film auteur John Hughes passed away at the age of 59 after a heart attack.  Hughes had all but disappeared from the Hollywood scene for well over a decade–the last film he directed was Curly Sue, which disappeared from theaters in 1991–but the imprint of Hughes’ sympathetic brand of storytelling persisted, not only in the storytelling styles of younger filmmakers or Hughes’ keen ear for music and dialogue but also in the ways in which many of us growing up in the 1980s view ourselves.

Like many others, I’ve been quietly mourning Hughes’ passing, reading all of the tributes, both personal and professional, including this amazing memoir of a “pen pal” frienship with the director, and I keep returning to my memories of first encountering Hughes’ films when I was a teenager in the 80s.  It was during an unexpected blizzard, I’m guessing in the winter or early spring of 1987.  Our family had just recently bought our first VCR, and while my father was rushing home from work to beat the storm, he stopped off at a local video store, asked the clerk what films my sister and I might enjoy, and came home with Sixteen Candles and Some Kind of Wonderful.  Soon afterwards we caught Pretty in Pink.  A few months after that, I rented the R-rated Breakfast Club while my parents were out of town.  But from the opening sequence of Sixteen Candles, I was hooked.  Molly Ringwald’s performance as the vulnerable, awkward Samantha resonated with me as a teenager who often felt like an outsider.  Similarly, Eric Stoltz’s Keith, a working-class romantic with dreams of becoming an artist echoed my own experiences and desires to become a writer.  The breezy pop-culture-heavy dialogue sounded familiar, even when Hughes pushed it to the point of parody (the “Neo-maxi-zoom-dweebies” of Ferris Bueller).  And Hughes had an ear for good pop-alternative music (Echo and the Bunnymen, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs) that helped to eventually shape my own taste in music.

There were some aspects of Hughes’ work that didn’t wear well.  The entire “Long Duk Dong” sequence of Sixteen Candles now makes me cringe, and like Matt, I was disappointed in Breakfast Club that Ringwald’s Claire felt compelled to “clean up” Ally Sheedy’s art freak and that everyone sees her as more beautiful afterwards (in fact, even as a teen, I never quite unerstod that scene).  But at his best, Hughes succeeded in relating to and comforting the outsider in all teenagers, and his vision of teen life carries over in the work of filmmakers such as Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith.  Makes me want to go back and visit Ferris and the gang one last time.

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Blogging, Film Criticism, and Niche Audiences

One of the ongoing questions I’ve been thinking about for a couple of years is the role of blogging in reshaping film criticism.  It’s a topic I tried to address in my book, particularly through the lens of the opposition between professional and amateur critics and the role of blogging in both directing attention to movies and in creating community around shared interest in movies.  But as I was writing that chapter (and especially as I look back on it now), I can’t help but feel as if I was aiming at a moving target of sorts, as the various practices of film reviewing change over time.  With that in mind, I continue to be interested in some recent discussions of the role of reviews in shaping film culture.

Part of that entails a shift in the status of popular film criticism.  A number of critics and film journalists have recently pointed out that after a failed reboot with younger critics, At the Movies, the show that introduced audiences to Siskel and Ebert, has now revamped, hiring veteran film critics, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips.  As Karina points out, drawing from an observation by Patrick Goldstein, ABC’s decision to hire Scott and Phillips tacitly acknowledges that the audience for this type of format is typically middle-aged (although Goldstein hastens to add that a show like At the Movies could find new life on the web).  Although the TV audience may be aging, one of the other points here may be that such shows (or reviews) now function best at the level of the niche audience, whether that’s a local readership or a group interested in a certain genre of film, such as the ongoing and borderline exhausting debates over Mumblecore: is it a genre? is it dead yet? is it killing (or saving) indie?  The selection of Scott and Phillips shows that there is some room for intelligent conversation about film, but a show like At the Movies would benefit from engaging its online audience, not antagonizing it, especially when audience taste in movies may or may not match up with box office totals.

One of the more interesting discussions of film criticism has focused on Paramount’s decision not to screen G.I. Joe for most film critics, taking the film to the “heartlands” with special screenings near Andrews Air Force Base and for web critics known to be friendly to action films (such as CHUD.com).  Jim Emerson, responding to a Boston Globe column by Ty Burr, has an interesting read on some of these issues, arguing that film critics rarely shape popular taste but instead reflect it: “Movies don’t fail because they get bad reviews; they flop because — whether they’re any good or not — the first audiences to see them don’t like them much, and/or ticketbuyers never show up in the first place because the marketing and advertising hasn’t motivated them.”  I’ll be interested to see how people interpret the box office for G.I. Joe and whether this “niche roll-out” of the film will be seen as successful, especially given Paramount’s desire to create another film franchise.

At the same time, web distribution of films allows for new models of engaging with niche audiences in order to encourage the consumption of movies.  Matt Dentler has an insightful response to Richard Corliss’s recent column explaining why he hates Netflix.  Many of Corliss’s complaints are standard variations of the usual video store nostalgia, including the concern that movie viewers will get films only via recommendation algorithms, not from cinephile video clerks.  Matt’s right to point out that there are a number of benefits to Netflix–easy access to movies, a potentially more targeted recommendation system–and that Corliss’s nostalgia obscures many of the annoyances associated with video stores.  A commenter, Tom, adds that many towns didn’t have independent video stores with a diversity of film choices.  Media scholar Joseph Turow, however, worries (probably correctly to some extent) about the degree to which the Netflix recommendation algorithm represents yet another step toward deepening “statistical evaluations of media audiences” and reshaping how companies think about the people who consume their products.  Although the Netflix recommendation algorithm is not properly a “review,” it does illustrate how many people will make choices about what they watch and what they regard as film culture.

But, in addition to tapping into (and possibly helping to create) niche audiences, blogs allow for different models of responding to films and a larger movie culture.  For this reason, I have become increasingly interested in the role of blogs and internet video in expanding the possibilities for creating dialogue about movies new and old.  One recent example that I really liked was Stephanie Zacharek’s video essay on Lost in Translation for the Film in Foucs Rewatch series.  Thanks to the discount bin at a local big-box mart, I happened to buy and rewatch Translation the other day, so the film was relatively fresh in my memory, but Zacharek astutely opens up several of the film’s key scenes, namely the karaoke scene at a party, carefully reading the film’s song choices and the performance of the two leads, Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray.  In addition, Zacharek’s attention to the subtle elements of costuming and camera focus would be useful for introductory film students.

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Wednesday Links

More film and media news that has caught my attention over the last couple of days:

  •  I’ve followed the work of Participant Media, the socially-conscious film production company that encourages its audiences to become politically active, for some time now.  The mix of political documentary and participatory culture speaks to a number of my interests, so I’m fascinated to see that in their promotion of the engaging new documentary by Robert Kenner, Food Inc. (my review), that they have joined forces with Chipotle to host special screenings and garner some free advertising.  The POV blog discusses Chipotle’s rep for using fresher (and sometimes organic) ingredients, one of the reasons Participant is working with them.
  • Sujewa pointed to Criterion’s newish sales strategy of charging $5 to allow viewers to download one of the movies from their catalog, allowing them unlimited viewing for several days.  If the viewer enjoys the film, they would then have a $5 credit toward the purchase of that film only.
  • A good discussion of David Hudson’s return to and reformulation of his “Daily” blogging at The New Yorker blog.
  • Anne Thompson and Matt Dentler weigh in on the beta version of film search site Speedcine. I’ll try to take a closer look later, but I’m doing a little speed blogging right now.
  • Mark Cuban explores some of the reasons behind Netflix rival Redbox’s explosive success.
  • NewTeeVee reports that TV and movie streaming “soared” over the last six months.
  • A nice article on the distribution of Sita Sings the Blues, this time from Eric Kohn.

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