Archive for September, 2009

DIY, the Indie Crisis, and Film Labor

I’m still following the recent conversation about the independent film crisis relatively closely in the midst of long marathons of grading and fighting off an early fall cold.  Like everyone else, I’ve been following many of the recent debates about where this indie asteroid is hurtling.  For every article celebrating the principle that movies can now “debut on your iPhone,” there are dozens of others that offer far more sobering accounts.  A.J. Schnack has a roundup of some of the recent discussion, starting with Anne Thompson’s now widely-cited TIFF column describing the indie marketplace as a bloodbath and concluding that “The old independent market is over. A new one will take its place. But we are smack in the middle between the end of one paradigm and the start of another, and it’s a scary place indeed.”  A.J. goes on to offer pointers to reports from the Indie Summit, including discussions from Eugene Hernandez and Thompson, who served as a co-moderator.  Thom Powers considers the implications of these issues for documentary filmmakers.

But one issue that deserves further consideration is A.J.’s discussion of the place of film festivals in the indie crisis.  Noting that five of the major festivals for documentary have undergone significant changes in the last year,  he observes that “for many festivals, the days of largesse have passed.  No travel, no accommodations, no screening fees.”

The IFC Blog has a thoughtful take, pointing out that arguments based on “quality” (that we just need “better” movies) are faulty, given the diversity and unpredictability of people’s tastes. While a number of festivals and venues have used public enthusiasm, or audience curation, to define what films will play in a given venue, such approaches may be limited and may prevent challenging films from finding a wider audience.

In a related matter, Melissa Silverstein has an engaging interview with Sally Potter about her most recent film, Rage, which was initially released via cell phone.  Potter discusses her concept of “poor cinema” and the challenges introduced by making films so cheaply. On one level, Potter is optimistic, arguing that music downloads may help (in some cases) to stimulate music purchases and that such an approach may benefit filmmakers as well.  In digging around for more detail on her concept of “poor cinema,” borrowed from Jerzy Grotowski, I came across an earlier report by Potter about the making of Rage and the challenges the new indie models raise for film production.  While it is easy to romanticize the idea of the basement auteur, the solitary figure making brilliant films outside the normal production cultures, there is a risk (acknowledged by Potter) that such a practice does in a sense

steal work from others who would otherwise be employed in one capacity or another. A film is not a solitary process, like writing a book or painting. It is a collaborative medium, an interface of art and industry, and therefore money is involved for those people – from sound recordists to editors to lab technicians – who depend on being paid.

I think that what often gets lost in some of the more reductive attempts to analyze DIY production is the genuine costs of labor (and the implications of working on smaller crews that Potter describes).  The first episode of Rage is now available online, with more episodes to follow later this week.

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Reinventing Academic Publishing

Earlier this week, Kathleen Fitzpatrick announced that her most recent book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, scheduled to published later this year by NYU Press, is now available online for you to read and comment.  The book also serves as the launch for MediaCommons Press, a site promoting the publication of books and article-length texts.

As a member of the MediaCommons advisory board, I’ve been excited to see the attempts to rethink academic publishing–and all of the assumptions that go along with it–for the digital age.  Chief among those changes is the shift from blind (anonymous) peer review to something approaching an open-source model, where authors invite comments and observations from a wider public, some of whom happen to be academics.

As Kathleen notes in her announcement, we’ve worked hard at MediaCommons to build a scholarly community around media studies.  Now, with the publication of her book, we’ll get a chance to see how these tools can be used to invigorate media scholarship.  If you get a chance, take a look at her book, share your observations, and keep the conversation about scholarly publishing going, both in the margins to her book and on your own blogs.

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Thursday Links

A quick post today because I have a to-do list that seems to be growing by the minute:

  • Some recent research by Wharton Operations and Information Management professor Serguei Netessine and doctoral student Tom F. Tan seems to challenge Chris Anderson’s assertion that the internet is creating a “long tail” of niche alternatives to mainstream fare.  I’ve only had time to skim the article about Netessine and Tan’s research, but I’ve been somewhat skeptical about many of Anderson’s arguments for some time.  No matter what, their arguments are well worth engaging.
  • Catherine Grant continues her indispensable work at Film Studies for Free, compiling a list of all of the University of California Press books on film that are now available as public-access e-books.  I’ll just refer you to the list and (as usual) offer a note of thanks to Catherine for creating this list.
  • Kairos has just opened up its call for nominations for its 2010 Awards.  Categories include best webtext and best academic blog.  Past winners include a collection of many of my favorite blogs and scholars, so nominate your favorites now.
  • I’ve been a little out of the loop lately, but I’m intrigued by a post about the promotion of Paranormal Activity, a new low-budget film, on The Fayetteville Observer’s entertainment blog.  In particular, I’m intrigued by the use of footage from a test screening in this video as a way of guaranteeing the movie’s authenticity as a truly scary movie.

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The Age of Stupid

It’s impossible to review Franny Armstrong’s fascinating and persuasive hybrid documentary about climate change, The Age of Stupid (IMDB), without also talking about the distribution and promotional practices that have shaped its reception.  In an impressive achievement for word-of-mouth, low-budget marketing, the film was distributed to over 500 theaters worldwide in over 45 countries in a live-via-solar-powered-satellite premiere that attracted over one million viewers (according to estimates reported by the filmmakers).  As I mentioned the other day, the filmmakers sought to leverage social media tools not only to build an audience but to create a movement around climate change. And although I learned about The Age of Stupid relatively late–just a day or two before its premiere–the screening in Raleigh was certainly well attended, suggesting that the campaign generally worked, at least in terms of getting audiences in the door.

The film itself used a relatively innovative hybrid documentary structure in which Pete Postlethwaite plays what seems to be a lone surviving human living in the year 2055 who has assembled an archive of all of the great works of art, literature, and culture in a giant library somewhere near the Arctic Circle, now turned into a tropical beach-front setting.  The archivist navigates a series of documentary news clips, using an invisible touchscreen imposed between him and the viewer, in some sense directing the movie, as he seeks to make sense of how the world allowed climate change to continue unabated until the planet itself became virtually uninhabitable.

The Archivist toggles between four or five primary stories, one focusing on the efforts of Piers Guy, a UK-based windfarm developer who faces opposition to one of his windfarms because local residents worry about having their view tarnished and express concern about noise pollution. Others include a Shell employee, who despite seeing his home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, steadfastly defends his employers practices, and a mountain guide who observes the receding glaciers in the Alps Mountains where he has lived much of his life.  A young Nigerian woman who dreams of becoming a doctor, discusses how oil company practices have led to polluted water and increases in water-borne illness.  The approach here seems significantly different than the Al Gore lecture model seen in An Inconvenient Truth, although like that film, it proceeds in part through mechanisms of identification, especially with Guy and his family.

The overall effect is to illustrate, in part, that climate change is a global problem and one that deeply effects ordinary people while also emphasizing the ways in which others, often while juxtaposing them against others who seem oblivious about the effects of climate change on the planet, including one well-intentioned Indian executive who seeks to create a low-cost airline that will allow poor people to fly rather than travel by train.  In places, this opposition could have been more carefully established, and quite often the assertion that global warming is happening is asserted anecdotally, rather than through scientific reasoning, but The Age of Stupid seems to be after something a little different by trying to make sense of one central question, expressed by The Archivist: Why, when the science seems so obvious, did we let this happen?  In other words, why were/are we so stupid, especially when all of the science was there?  The Archivist solemnly concludes not that we didn’t believe climate change, but that we believed we weren’t worth saving.  It’s a somber thought and one that might have worked better had the film offered more evidence to support it or had it explored the topic a little more carefully.

The film’s premiere, timed to an important environmental conference held September 22 at the United Nations,  seemed well-suited to shape the conversation about climate change and to regain the sense of urgency that seems to have been lost in the years following the release of Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, and the post-movie discussion featured short speeches by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, among others, designed to underscore the need for serious reduction in carbon emissions.  That being said, Armstrong and others seemed, at moments, a little too caught up in the sense of urgency set up by the film and the context of a massive premiere to communicate clearly how to change the course, and quite often, the climate change talks to held in Copenhagen later this year seemed to be set up as an all-or-nothing proposition.  A more explicit endorsement of the 10:10 proposal, the plan to encourage consumers to cut their carbon emissions by the year 2010 (to name one example), might have helped.

Still, The Age of Stupid offers, one level, new ways of thinking about the ways in which the networked documentary can be used to advocate for social issues and, more broadly, it offers one enticing model for new models of film distribution, as Jon Reiss has recently argued in The Huffington Post. It may be a slight exaggeration to say that The Age of Stupid is “the future of film;” however, as Reiss points out, the film illustrates a number of key points regarding digital distribtion and the use of social networking as a promotional tool.  First, Reiss is correct to note that theatrical screenings can still serve as an important part of independent or DIY distribution, especially with more theaters converting to digital projectors.  That being said, it’s less clear whether these “event” screenings will work for all (or most) indie films, especially given the timeliness of the subject matter in Stupid.  Second, his reading of the role of NGOs and other organizations in promoting Stupid seems right to me.  They are crucial not only to helping the film find an audeince but also in shaping its meaning for the audiences who saw it.  It is, in short, a movie about a much larger conversation, and one that has significant global implications. 

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New Left Media and the Networked Documentary

Short-form networked documentaries aren’t an entirely new idea.  Activist filmmakers have been using tools such as camcorders and other cheap video tools to document under-reported stories.  Add to that the use of YouTube as a rapid distribution model and a vibrant political and documentary blogosphere, and we have seen a number of attempts at analyzing political activity on the fly.  More often than not, this format has lent itself to forms of gotcha journalism that may be a temporary distraction along the lines of Max Blumenthal’s visit to the CPAC conference a couple of years ago when Ann Coulter made homophobic remarks about John Edwards.  Such events often risk falling into the category of what Bill Wasik describes as nanostories, short lived news items that disappear quickly.

But in the best cases, I think these networked documentaries can provide thoughtful analysis of a political movement or set of practices, using observational techniques and careful editing to reveal some aspect of a political mindset.  Thanks to A.J. Schnack, I came across New Left Media’s compelling documentary short about the 9/12 Tea Party event in Washington, D.C.   Posted just two days after the Tea Party protest, the video short depicts an interviewer, Chase Whiteside, talking to several protestors about their views.  Although the editing often emphasizes how uninformed the participants are–a long segment is devoted to their concern that Obama has appointed several “czars,” a practice that dates back to at least the Reagan era–a consistent subtext is the fear that many of the Tea Party protesters feel.  One woman cries about (imagined?) grandchildren who would confront her in the future if she did nothing to stem the socialist tidal wave threatening her country.  Others display a fear that is clearly rooted in racial difference.

In general, the 9/12 Tea Party video displays a maturity and thoughtfulness often lost in purely partisan videos, especially ones produced for viral distribution and consumption, and although the interview style may recall the work of Michael Moore (the observational style–reinforced by Eric Stoll and Chase Whiteside’s careful editing–offers a clear thesis about political literacy and knowledge), it doesn’t feel overly forced and it seems to capture some version of the tea party culture, however incomplete.  Like A.J., I want to se more work by Whiteside and Stoll, perhaps something like what A.J. calls “the immediate feature film,” but this shorter, more immediate and linkable format seems to serve them well.

Update: Edited to correctly credit Chase Whiteside as the interviewer and to list both Whitside and Stoll as editors.

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Sunday Links

In celebration of being listed as one of the 100 Top Blogs about Film Studies, here is a long links post full of pointers to some recent debates about film distribution, documentary, and the new media landscape:

  • Pretty much every post Ted Hope writes is worth reading, but I found his list of “18 Actions Towards a Sustainable Truly Free Film Community” especially engaging.  A quick glance at the list will show Hope’s deep enthusiasm for the ways in which social media can revive independent film.  In particular, Hope emphasizes practices such as mentoring, curating, and networking as useful practices for indie filmmakers.
  • Also via Hope, a reminder about Jon Reiss’s research on digital distribution, coming soon to a bookshelf near you in the form of his book, Think Outside the Box (Office).  Reiss has posted sections of his book on his website, and it looks like a great resource for those of us who are thinking about the new distribution practices.  I think it’s easy to underestimate how significant these “nuts-and-bolts” guides can be in helping to reshape media practices.
  • Speaking of indie distribution, Anne Thompson’s Toronto International Film Festival coverage offers a starkly pessimistic account of the prospects for a number of well-received films that face a tough distribution climate.  When the word “bloodbath” is invoked in the title, you know it’s not good news.
  • Via The Film Doctor, several notable links including an intriguing online documentary project, Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood, which looks at the increasing practice of marketing toward children.  The seven-part video series is anthologized here.
  • The Good Doctor also provides a pointer to this excellent video on media convergence produced by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod.
  • The New York Times has a fascinating analysis of Wikipedia’s response to Joe Wilson’s outburst uring Barack Obama’s health care address.  Robert Mackey’s blog post traces the history of the debate by looking at the Joe Wilson discussion and track changes pages, noting that a number of editors worried at first that Wilson’s remark would be too transient to be worth documenting in an encyclopedia entry.  Include in the discussion is a debate about whether the merits of Wilson’s charge were actually true and whether that should be included in the entry.  The discussion is, in fact, a great illustration of the politics of knowledge, showing the ways in which history is written on the fly in this 2.0 age.  It’s also a perfect model for my students’ Wikipedia projects, which they will start drafting later this week.  Sometimes the gods smile upon you, my friends.  So I guess I owe Rep. Wilson my heartfelt thanks for being a bit of a jerk and breaking with two centuries of American political protocol (link via Tama Leaver).
  • Here’s Part One and Part Two of a recent debate about instituting micropayments to help subsidize the lagging newspaper industry from PBS’s MediaShift.  I’m skeptical about whether micropayments would work, but it’s an interesting conversation nonetheless, especially given that newspapers now have a wider readership than ever before, even while advertising and subscription revenues are rapidly declining.
  • In the spirit of indie distribution, a quick reminder that Sally Potter’s latest film, Rage, will be available to mobile viewers starting on September 21 and on the Babblegum website starting September 28 (thanks to Matt Dentler for the tip).  The film will be available on DVD in the US, starting Tuesday, September 22.
  • Finally, a blog post from Henry Jenkins announcing the call for papers for the first Digital Media and Learning Conference. My conference dance card is relatively full, especially given the relatively thin state travel budgets this year, but it looks like a really cool event.

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Age of Stupid Premiere

A few months ago, I began hearing about Age of Stupid, a feature film about climate change by McLibel director Franny Armstrong and starring Pete Postlethwaite as “a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking at old footage from 2008 and asking: why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?”

Now, via Jon Reiss, a reminder that Age of Stupid will be having its global premiere this week at over 500 theaters in 45 countries.  As Reiss notes, the makers of Age of Stupid have used a number of hybrid or transmedia strategies to raise awareness of the film.  For those of you in the Raleigh-Durham area, the film will be playing on September 21st at 7:30 PM at the North Hills Stadium 14 Theater.

The website itself offers a number of social media features and the making-of page explains that the filmmakers “crowd-funded” the entire 450,000 pound budget, positioning the film as part of the emerging model of digital distribution.  An, in keeping with the film’s environmental politics, even measures The Age of Stupid’s own carbon footprint.  A 50-minute documentary on the production of The Age of Stupid, which I’ll try to watch asap, was also recently launched on The Guardian’s website.

There’s a lot to like here, at least from my perspective, as someone interetsed in seeing the emergence of new distribution models.  The film’s producers have succeeded in creating something of a special event, a “live” premiere sent from a solar-powered tent (in keeping with the film’s environmentalist goals) to theaters around the world.  It’s a cool way to build conversation about an important social and political issue and to build anticipation for what looks like a compelling film.  You can check here to see if the film is playing in your neighborhood.

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Carolina Screen Notes

I’ve just learned that a group of indie film fans are putting together a film festival here in Fayetteville.  The Sandhills Film Festival is now accepting submissions for films to this years festival.  The early deadline for the festival is September 25, but films may be submitted as late as October 1 for an additional fee.  Screenings will be held “from October 22-25 at various locations throughout Fayetteville and Hope Mills.”

This is a brand-new festival and the organizers hope to bring additional energy to an already revitalized and growing downtown Fayetteville, so if you’re in the neighborhood, please consider submitting to the festival or attending when it comes around later this year.  The festival hopes to have several programming spotlights focusing on women and minorities, so films addressing those groups are certainly invited to apply.

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Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture

It’s difficult for me to read Kaya Oakes’ engaging and well-researched new book, Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture without thinking about my interest in how the term “indie” has been deployed for the last two decades in the world of film.  If “independent film” refers to any movie produced outside of the studio system–in other words, if we apply a strictly economic model that focuses on ownership–then a number of films that don’t look very “indie,”arguably including many of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, seem to qualify.  At the same time, desktop distribution tools allow anyone to become a filmmaker who could (potentially) share her films with millions of interested viewers, suggesting that “independent film” could become so expansive a category that it risks losing all meaning.  Finally, a number of films, such as Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, seem to embody an “independent spirit” even while featuring recognizable actors and a healthy budget.  Although Oakes rarely discusses the category problems of independent film because her focus is on other media, namely music, publishing, and craft culture, her book provides an accessible, thoughtful analysis of how the concepts and practices of indie culture have circulated through a variety of media over the last two decades.

As Gina Meyers at Bookslut observes, Oakes makes clear from the outset that Slanted and Enchanted is a personal book and that her case studies are informed by her personal background as a participant as a producer of indie culture. She has published books with independent presses and worked as an editor for the independently-produced Kitchen Sink magazine.  Similarly, as noted in Rob Tennant’s review, her connections to the punk scene in Berkeley and the riot grrl scene at Evergreen State, thanks to a brief stay in Olympia, Washington, allow her unique access to some “indie” subcultures, while leaving others outside of her range of analysis.  This participant-observer approach allows Oakes to draw from her own experience, as well as to conduct interviews with a number of other indie artists, all of whom are actively involved in theorizing, and in some cases reinventing, their corner of indie culture.  Other subjects she addresses–including the DC hardcore scene, the Beat poets, and the contemporary crafting scene–are all offered as markers of a consistent, flourishing indie culture that may change shapes over the years but remains committed to a spirit of independent production.  In some places, this approach risks reducing “indie” to an empty concept, something that seems outside of history, leaving me looking, in places, for a slightly more specific understanding of how indie functions as an oppositional culture and why she chooses some of the historical antecedents, such as the Beats.

At the same time, Oakes is attentive to the ways in which some of the traditional economic definitions of independence–where “independence” marks both separation from and opposition to major media conglomerates–no longer holds.  When Oakes asks her students what indie signifies, their immediate response is “skinny pants,” a fashion signifier that might be found at almost any local mall and one that is central to places such as Urban Outfitters and American Apparel.  When we learn that the CEO of Urban Outfitters is a “staunch Republican” who has even donated money to Rick Santorum, it’s easy to become cynical about the current branding of indie.  Complement these skinny pants with a pair of Chuck Taylors, now produced by a company that is owned by Nike, and indie, like many subcultures before it, seems to have been completely co-opted, in a process documented as early as the late 1970s by Dick Hebdige.

But Oakes, in my reading, is careful to go beyond such easy oppositions, even when noting how they operate in mass culture.  Throughout the book, Oakes is attentive to the tension between indie as a philosophy (one that is now being reinscribed into a wider DIY culture) and indie as both a genre and marketing ploy. That being said, such an approach risks taking us in the direction of ferreting out “authentic” and “inauthetntic” versions of indie, a problematic distinction, to be sure, especially when we enter into the diverse distribution practices that mark contemporary film culture, especially when artists such as Steven Soderbergh seem to circulate between multiple formats, genres, and distribution practices.

Further, Oakes is attentive to the ways in which new distribution technologies have altered how we think about independent productions.  Noting that MySpace has completely altered the way that bands market themselves, even while Bit Torrent complicates the way music is distributed, Oakes, implicitly criticizing Chris Anderson’s concept of the long tail, expresses concern that “as indie music multiplies and changes, niche audiences abound, many of which are too small to make an impact” (205).  Although these new tools allow access to a virtually infinite range of content, it’s more difficult to reach a wider audience, leading to a situation in which “indie is simultaneously reaching a stage of oversaturation and corporatization” (207), hence some of the major challenges facing indie bands, filmmakers, and others.

Although Tennant complains in his review that Oakes avoids theorizing the new internet DIY cultures in significant detail, I think that Oakes’ book is a significant contribution to the literature on indie culture, especially in its detailed histories of the subcultures in which she was a participant.  If anything, I would have liked a little more synthesis and analysis in places, as well as a little more self-reflection on such loaded terms as “authenticity” and “community,” which are often taken for granted.   Slanted and Enchanted is a quick read but one that offers a thoughtful glimpse at how indie and DIY cultures retain such power and why they remain necessary as a challenge to the artistic and cultural status quo.

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Tuesday Links

I’ve reached that nice part of the semester where class prep is starting to feel a little more routine but I haven’t yet accumulated a stack (or multiple stacks) of papers to grade, so I’m slowly but surely starting to map some ideas for future projects (hopefully more on that soon).  For now, a few links that are worth checking out:

  • The New York Times has an interesting round table, organized by Manhola Dargis and A.O. Scott, on the state of indie film culture.  For people interested in these issues, there is quite a bit of useful material here.   The article is framed by the discussion of the ongoing crisis in indie distribution and worrying that “serious, middle-size movies will become an endangered species.”  But what’s notable about the discussion is its openness to video-on-demand and other new formats, referring to them as a “new era of spectatorship.”  On a quick skim, one particularly astute observation comes from Howard Cohen of Roadside Attrctions who observes that the 90s “boom” in indie profitability benefited from the advent of the DVD.  Now that the format is seeing declining sales, indie films are especially affected.  Others, including Cohen, deconstruct the idea of a past “golden age” of cinema during teh 1960s and ’70s, noting that audiences for films such as 400 Blows likely weren’t significantly larger than today’s art-house audience.  If I’m reading the article correctly, it looks like this will be the first in a series of articles investigating the transformation of independent film distribution and culture.  And based on what I’ve seen so far, it should be well worth following.
  • Some interesting research from Silicon Alley Insider on how people use Twitter.  Some of these findings seem relatively consistent with what I’ve seen in the past: slightly more than half all who use Twitter are female.  Most people rarely or never tweet, and 10% of people who tweet account for 90% of all tweets.
  • Eugene Hernandez has a post on a Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) panel on the role of social media tools in helping to preserve and cultivate a vibrant indie film culture.  Worth noting is Ted Hope’s efforts to champion “DIWO cinema” (do-it-with-others) as an alternative to the more-widely discussed concept of DIY.  Hope expands on these ideas in his blog.  Implicit in some of my work on digital distribution is the idea that fans can become participants in the promotion of a film, and in some cases, can become involved in creating the film text itself.  As someone who relishes talking about movies (as you might have guessed by now), I think this is an interesting discussion.
  • On a relate note, Patrick Goldstein has a thoughtful article on the complicated efforts to find distribution for Richard Linklater’s critically-acclaimed Me and Orson Welles.
  • Henry Jenkins offers part two of his response to David Bordwell’s blog post on transmedia storytelling (I addressed some of these issues the other day).  One key takeaway: For Jenkins, “the core aesthetic impulses behind good transmedia works are world building and seriality.”  I think he’s probably right about this point and correct to add that these storytelling impulses may work better for some genres than others.

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Sunday Notes

Some videos I’ve been watching and articles I’ve been reading in between stealing glimpses at the Falcons-Dolphins game:

  • I’ve been intrigued recently by Digital Nation,  “a new, open source PBS project that explores what it means to be human in an entirely new world–a digital world.”  The “documentary” starts as an ongoing web archive of expert interviews exploring issues ranging from defining what counts as a “digital native,” to Mark Bauerlein asking whether these “natives” are as “savvy” as they appear (side note: although I disagree with many of Bauerlein’s arguments, his openness to using social networking technologies as teaching tools was somewhat surprising).  This research will then be compiled into a feature-length documentary due to be broadcast in winter 2010, creating what appears to be a fascinating project on how these new media technologies affect our relationship to the world, even while making use of those tools.  I have a couple of articles circulating right now that deal with what I called “transmedia documentaries,” non-fiction films that make use of multiple media and channels to develop a larger (non-fictional) storyworld, while (potentially) getting audiences involved, whether through political activism or knowledge creation.  I’m hoping to have more to say about this very cool project in the next few days.
  • If you’re in my Twitter circle, you may already know about Prof Hacker, a new website “devoted to pedagogy, productivity, and technology, and the intersection of these, in higher education,” but as Jason Jones, one of the site’s co-creators, points out, there are some great discussions going on there.  If you’re invested in technology and higher education, it’s well worth a look.
  • I’ve been planning to write a response here to Annie Petersen’s query for suggestions on how to maintain an academic blog, mostly because of the wide number f comments and suggestions she received.  My short answer to her question would be that I’ve allowed my blog to evolve as my scholarly interests and needs have changed.  These bullet point posts, for example, are often helpful in serving as a slightly more public version of “social bookmarking,” in which I can link and annotate a text relatively quickly.  I tend to post relatively frequently when I’m not writing elsewhere (or grading) simply because it keeps me in the habit of writing, even when I’m just writing a quick reaction to a film I’ve seen recently.
  • It’s a few days old, but Mashable has some research that seems to refute the myth that “teens don’t tweet,” with teens now becoming the fastest growing group of Twitter users.  Not sure I have much to add here, but I’ve always found claims that teenagers don’t use Twitter to be somewhat reductive.
  • Finally, Jonathan Gray has an interesting post discussing the challenges of indexing his book.  I faced many of these questions myself last summer when I was wrapping mine, especially the challenge of thinking about how readers might use different terminology than I do to access information or ideas.

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Julia, Adam, and, Summer

Some quick thoughts on some of the movies I’ve seen recently:

  • Via MaryAnn Johanson of the American Women Film Journalists blog, a pointer to Katha Pollitt’s insightful take on Julie & Julia and (500) Days of Summer, in which Pollitt explains that her appreciation of Julie & Julia stems in part from its rich depiction of two female characters–the famous chef Julia Child and food blogger Julie Powell–who “struggle to express their gifts through work.” And although I was left somewhat cold by the film, I liked the use of parallel editing to tell the stories of two different women who worked to find their voice in two very different eras.  Pollitt is correct to point out that it’s somewhat rare to see two career-driven female characters in the space of a single film without pitting the two of them against each other.  I’ll go ahead and add that I appear to be one of the few people who liked the Amy Adams/Julie Powell section better.  It may be an unconscious (and unfair) reflex against the Meryl Streep hype, but I also think that I related to the very specific experiences of the Adams character (Julie Powell) who discovers her voice through the online audiences who read and commented on her blog.  Given my own professional and personal trajectory of finding my book project through blogging, Powell’s story really resonated for me.
  • In the same article, Pollitt is critical of (500) Days of Summer for depicting Summer as having “all the external trappings of individuality — aloofness, a sly smile, vintage clothes and indie tastes–” while lacking any clear sense of an inner life, career ambitions, or anything else, for that matter.  She’s just there so that Tom can find his path as an architect.  I didn’t really address this point in detail in my original review, but I think Pollitt raises a valid point about the film.
  • Finally, I saw Adam last night, a passable romantic drama about Adam, an engineer with Asperger’s Syndrome, and Beth, a teacher with aspirations to become a writer of children’s books.  In our post-movie discussion, my girlfriend pointed out that the film often simplifies the range of emotional attachments that people with Asperger’s Sydrome have, and although I appreciated Hugh Dancy’s understated performance as Adam, I’m inclined to agree with Ebert that the film tried to tie “their story in too tidy a package,” falling into some of the more annoying habits of a crowd-pleasing indie.  In places, the casting was a little distracting, too, especially seeing a much older and slightly heavier Mark Linn-Baker playing a role other than the straight man on Perfect Strangers (in this case one of Adam’s bosses).  Bad 1980s sitcoms are simply too much to overcome, and as a result, I was distracted every time he was on screen.  Plus the corrupt criminal father–a good fit for Peter Gallagher–felt like it was ripped off from Say Anything.  A little too paint-by-numbers, especially for something with inide or art-house aspirations.

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Live Interview

Quick programming note: I’ll be interviewed live tomorrow, Tuesday, September 8, at noon EDT on Blog Talk Radio by Wayne Clingman, a big supporter of DIY filmmaking and the film community in Wisconsin.  The show will be available live here and will then become permanently available on iTunes (I’ll post that link when it’s available, too).  We will talk about my book and hopefully other issues related to digital cinema, but the keyword for me right now is “live,” as in operating without a net.  Hopefully I don’t crash too often.

Update: I think the interview went well enough and will try to post a link to the iTunes version here or in the comments ASAP.  One of the odd things about doing these interviews is that it’s never clear to me who is listening (or how many listened or whatever).  For the blog, I feel like I have a general sense of who my readers are, even though others may drop by from time to time via Google searches or whatever, but the audience for something like this is far less concrete for me.

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(500) Days of Summer

I finally had a chance to catch this summer’s indie darling, (500) Days of Summer (IMDB), the feature debut from music video director, Marc Webb.  The film, through the story of greeting card author, Tom, and his girlfriend, Summer, at worst, offers a mature reflection on romance between two urban hipsters, and at its best, it serves, as A.O. Scott points out, as an effective rejoinder to some of the worst cliches of romantic comedy, at least until the film’s final sequence.  Instead of the childish, smut-loving guys (and the girls who indulge them) of The Hangover and Judd Apatow films, Tom and Summer’s romance seems somewhat more recognizable.  Add to that, a creative storytelling structure, in which Tom looks back at the five hundred days that mark his relationship with Summer, flashing back from day 488 to day 12 and then forward again (a technique Roger Ebert admires quite a bit), and it’s not difficult to understand why the film has been so well regarded among critics and fans alike.

It’s also a film that is fluent in the language of indie culture, one that allows the signifiers of indie credibility to speak about and through Tom and Summer.  Both of them, as children of the 1980s, have posters of The Smiths’ Viva Hate cover on their walls.  Summer’s vintage clothes and haircut straight out of ’60s Paris helps segue neatly into a black-and-white Nouvelle Vague-inspired sequence, while the couple’s forays into a company karaoke party allow them to slum by performing and listening to covers to bad ’80 songs from Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” to Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”  In the language of (500) Days, this allows Tom and Summer to distance themselves from the vapid greeting card publisher where they work, treating the manufactured sentiment less with a sneer than with a bit of bemused eye-rolling.

Tom and Summer are also able, during several key scenes, to both embrace and mock modern constructions of domesticity when they spend leisurely afternoons running through an Ikea store, sitting on sofas and lounging in a fake bedroom, joking about the customers who watch curiously nearby.  If the banal furnishings of the local Ikea made Brad Pitt and Edward Norton want to fight, Tom and Summer, instead choose to play a semi-ironic version of house, lounging on the couch, playing with a remote control that does nothing and turning on sinks where no water comes out.  The scenes seem to suggest that the couple is mocking the Ikea-inspired American Dream of traditional bourgeois romance, although it’s clear that Tom, who ignores Summer’s protestations that she’s only looking for a fling, clearly seeks out some version of this idealized life.  And although the film depicts Tom and Summer post-breakup, as Tom tries to make sense of what happened, Zooey Deschanel succeeds in making Summer both likable and honest enough to prevent her from seeming overly villainous.

And yet, despite these flourishes, I found myself becoming frustrated with the film in places, wondering if the film’s “indie” elements and its ironic nods to 80s kitsch (the film threw in Knight Rider and Hall and Oates for good measure).  Like Brian Orndorf, although his reaction is far more negative than mine, I sometimes wondered if these moments weren’t a little too calculated in places.  In particular, the film uses Tom’s dream of becoming an architect to introduce a hand-drawn aesthetic.  Tom is frequently seen sketching sections of the Los Angeles skyline and pointing out the handicraft of many of the city’s buildings.  These sketches provide the backdrop for (500) Days’ many transitions and replay what has become something of a cliche of contemporary indie, the use of a hand-made aesthetic, one that seems to be a response both to the big-budget Hollywood features and (quite possibly) to the encroachment of digital media into aesthetic artifacts.  A similarhandmade approach dominates the work of Michel Gondry and was a major design principle in this summer’s Away We Go (a film I’ll admit that I liked quite a bit).

I don’t think it makes sense to talk about such flourishes in terms of the language of “co-optation,” of accusing a Fox Searchlight film of taking something that is authentically “indie” and then marketing it to naive audiences, so accusing the film of lacking authenticity seems to miss something crucial about it, at least as the use of handicraft plays out in a commercial project such as (500) Days.  I’m currently reading Kaya Oakes’ engaging history of indie, Slanted and Enchanted, so these definitional questions about indie are in the forefront of my mind, so my reaction to the film is somewhat torn between appreciating the film’s thoughtful engagement with constructions of modern hipster romance and frustration at what, in some places, seemed like a cynical recycling of some of the more fashionable tropes of handicraft as an oppositional stance.

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Transmedia Notes

It’s a few days old, but David Bordwell’s discussion of transmedia storytelling has been bouncing around in my thoughts over the last few days.  Coming across my radar at around the same time as Henry Jenkins’ thoughtful reading of the ongoing District 9 universe, Bordwell’s post has had me thinking again about how transmedia narratives not only serve as forms of marketing but also as enticing new storytelling modes.  I like Bordwell’s approach quite a bit, both for his brief emphasis on encouraging media scholars to engage with media professionals and, more crucially for this discussion, for his reminder that transmedia storytelling forms weren’t invented in 1998 when The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project were born.  Gesturing toward Gerard Genette’s discussion of “hypernarrative” in his 1982 book, Palimpsests, Bordwell describes the “taxonomic zeal”Genette brought to the study of sprawling, multithreaded literary narraives (think, for example, of the expansive, fictive Yoknapatawpha County forged by William Faulkner over the course of twenty novels and dozens of short stories).  But there are a few key points worth emphasizing further as the practices associated with transmedia storytelling continue to generate discussion.

First, Bordwell is attentive to the ways in which these “‘immersive’ ancillaries” are often less focused on complicating a film or TV show’s storyline than they are in maintaining viewer interest.  This claim, by itself, isn’t terribly surprising, and it now has become a form of industry common sense, one that often gets repeated at festivals, conferences, and in other meta-industry conversations.  It also explains why these prescriptions for cross-media storytelling (to use Lance Weiler’s phrase) often frustrate (see also Weiler’s discussion of these issues in this month’s Filmmaker Magazine).  Although I think that Weiler is correct to point out that a transmedia approach “extends the life of a project and builds an audience throughout the process,” it’s also easy to create transmedia texts that are simply transparent marketing and not something that will supplement the storyworld in any satisfying way.

As Bordwell’s discussion of Weiler’s approach suggests, transmedia storytelling has been discussed as a potential alternative in a struggling independent film marketplace.  Weiler and Ted Hope recently addressed some of these ideas at the Open Video Conference and  they were addressed further in a guest post on Hope’s blog by Anna Tovich from the New York Film Academy.  I certainly agree that these transmedia approaches can build loyalty and long-term interest in a project–it’s something I address briefly in Reinventing Cinema–but I find myself feeling somewhat skeptical when it’s described (as Tovich does) as “a way out of the doldrums.”  Sure, a successful transmedia approach can help a film, especially an independent, break through the media clutter, but I’m left to wonder if transmedia approaches risk limiting the narrative possibilities available to filmmakers who are more conerned about creating a larger storyworld.  Bordwell is especially attentive to the ways in which some independent films may not lend themselves to transmedia models, or at least models that would offer anything more than fleeting interest.  Tweets from Juno?  Maybe I’d follow them for a day or two.  Here, Bordwell may be right to acknowledge that some genres–horror, sci fi, mystery–may lend themselves more readily to transmedia treatment than others.  He’s also right to point out that these new models are also leading to a need to rethink how we analyze texts, a point that Jenkins addresses from a slightly different perspective in his District 9 post: what counts as the film text when the film itself becomes a potentially boundless array of supplementary narratives?

That being said, I’m intrigued by other possibilities for transmedia textuality.  In my book, I discussed the ways in which documentary filmmakers could take advantage of DVD extras in order to expand the story of the original film, singling out specifically Anrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans DVD, which includes not only a story update but also his original planned documentary (on NYC birthday party clowns) and footage from some the film screenings where subjects from the film were in attendance.  As the role of DVDs and websites continue to shift, much of this content could emigrate online, sparking public conversations about the issues raised in the movie, but one area where this kind of storytelling could be especially useful might very well be in the realm of “transmedia documentary” (worth noting: the POV blog has been focusing on these issues quite a bit lately).  At the same time, the focus on narrative may obscure other possible approaches–interviews with the cast, making-of specials–that might have originally appeared as part of the DVD.

No matter what, the experiments with these new forms continue to offer exciting new possibilities for filmmakers and consumers alike.

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