Archive for October, 2009

More Apple-Political Video Mashups

I haven’t written as much lately about political mashups, in part because the 2008 election cycle has passed.  But two recent ads by the Democrats have sought to exploit the rhetoric of some of the Apple ads to support Democratic candidates for Senate and the House:

The GOP Plan, by the DSCC, offers a relatively standard take on the Mac-PC ads featuring John Hodgeman and Justin Scott, attempting to identify the Republicans with “old” ideas. Republicans in Congress uses an iPhone ad touting the product’s applications to identify Republicans with a number of negative behaviors suggesting that there “is a rep for that.”

Both ads seem to work well enough, especially for politically-informed viewers, but I’m intrigued by the degree to which the relationship with the Apple brand seems so flexible.  As a number of commenters on Daily Kos (where I found the video) noted, the Justin Scott character often comes across as relatively smug, something the DSCC ad tries to dilute.  The “iPhone ap” ad has itself become the source of parody in a Verizon ad (“there’s a map for that”).  Not much to add right now–it’s very late on a Saturday night–but interesting to see these memes continue to evolve.

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More Reinventing Cinema News

A quick pointer for now to a Fayetteville Observer article that offers a short profile of my book.  It’s a nice little overview of the book for non-specialists and even offers a pointer to my (somewhat neglected) Facebook page for the book.

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Thursday Links (Clearwater, Florida, Edition)

Because my girlfriend is attending a conference in Clearwater this weekend, I decided to tag along, get a little sun, go for a run along the beach, and get away from North Carolina for a couple of days (perfect timing, too, because it’s rainy and miserable back home).  The wifi at the hotel is fast and free, so I’m also taking advantage of that to get a little work done.  At any rate, a few more links before I go on a mini-hiatus from the blog to finish up the paper:

  • On Ira Deutchman’s blog a few days ago, Tyler Davidson issued a call for a “public option” for filmmakers.  There is, of course, some public support for U.S. filmmakers already, but Davidson calls for a model resembling the Canadian system in which films “are primarily funded by a mix of government funding and incentives, government mandated funds from broadcasters, broadcasters themselves, international financing partners, and film distributors.”  I’m certainly intrigued by this idea, and the Canadian model has helped to foster some unique filmmaking talents, but I also recognize that it might be a difficult sell, especially given the culture wars that raged around the NEH in the 1980s.
  • Anne Thompson has an article on the “Flixster effect,” an analogue to the so-called Twitter effect.  Thompson notes that Flixster, which has a huge presence on both MySpace and Facebook, is host to over two billion reviews.  I have a very brief discussion of Flixster in my book, taking note (as Thompson also does) that Flixster can also collect data on its reviewers in order to better target them with advertising.
  • Via Tama, a link to the trailer for Truth in Numbers, a documentary about Wikipedia.  From the trailer, it appears that the film gives equal time to both proponents and critics (Andrew Keen, among others) of the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.  Given my struggles with the Wikipedia assignment I gave my first-year composition students, it would have been helpful to have had this documentary as a way of framing student discussion.

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Sunday Links

As I mentioned on Twitter and Facebook the other day, my laptop monitor died the other day, so I’ve been less able to blog.  I’m working on a borrowed laptop right now, but as I continue to think about my upcoming talk at the What is Film? conference in Portland, I’m still processing some of the discussions about transmedia movie distribution that have been taking place in recent weeks.  Here are some of the articles that have recently crossed my radar:

  • Scott Macauley has a “letter from the future” from an independent filmmaker who is reviewing some of the changes that are taking place with independent film and new distribution and promotion models.  Also see the post from Mike Johnston on the Filmmaker Magazine blog focusing on new models of indie music distribution.
  • Ted Hope offers a response of sorts to Macauley’s open letter, and in doing so, provides a solid overview of many of the issues connected to self-distribution.
  • Salon has a review by Andrew O’Hehir of a number of recent indie successes made in Great Britain and speculates that American indie filmmakers are suffering, in part, from being divided into narrow niches.
  • One of the biggest stories in DIY distribution is the launch of OpenIndie, a new model for financing an promoting movies conceived by Arin Crumley and Kieran Masterton.  For more about the project, you can also check out this video on YouTube.  Here is the indieWire story on OpenIndie.
  • Anne Thompson has a discussion from Chris Dorr about how Jane Campion’s Bright Star could have been marketed more effectively using social media tools.  Like many of Campion’s films, Bright Star is eloquently constructed and tells a powerful story, but Dorr imagines that the film could have reached a bigger audience by posting more frequently on Twitter and Facebook.  Also from Thompson, a thoughtful article on the implications of the FTC decision to require bloggers to disclose who paid them to review or write about films (or other products).  As Thompson surmises, it will be difficult to enforce, but Thompson does offer an enlightening picture of the practices of contemporary film bloggers.

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Tuesday Links

I’m in the final stretch of an extended grading marathon, but here’s what I’ve been using to distract myself the last few days:

  •  David Hudson of The Auteurs has compiled a list of “The Best Film Sites” out there on the web.  In addition to listing blogs, Hiudson has also added pointers to some of the better film magazines and journals, and although the list focuses primarily onEnglish-language materials, it is pretty international in scope.  I’m on the list, and as usual, I’m pleased to be included in such excellent company.
  • Matt Dentler points to a Wall Street Journal article explaining that Wal-Mart will now place less emphasis on devoting floor space to DVD promotion, a response to declining DVD sales in general.  Contributing factors cited include the continued rise of rental programs such as Redbox and Netflix and Wal-Mart’s desire to have stores that are less cluttered.
  • Anne Thompson has continued the discussion of the ongoing indie crisis, a question that seems more pertinent than ever, now that Miramax has been slashed to almost nothing.  Worth noting: although Miramax hasn’t been a dominant player in indie film for a while, this seems like a major blow, at least symbolically, to the previous era of indie distribution and promotion.
  • Ted Hope continues to preach the DIY gospel at the Woodstock Film Festival during his “Trailblazer Acceptance Speech.”
  • Anne Petersen has an astute read of the controversy swirling around the New Yorker profile of Hollywood blogger-reporter Nikki Finke.

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Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment

Here’s a quick pointer to an article I co-wrote with Richard Edwards for the journal, First Monday, “Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment.“  The article focuses on three modes of political mashup: advocacy, protest, and commentary through three videos that commented on the 2008 election, Vote Different, Imagine This, and Godfather IV, and was itself born through a conversation that began online soon after Vote Different appeared in 2007 when Richard and I wrote articles for In Media Res and Flow, respectively.  It’s the first time I’ve co-written a peer-reviewed article, and I think it turned out well (and was definitely fun to write).

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Promoting Capitalism

Just a quick note to clarify one of the arguments I made in passing in my initial review of Michael Moore’s latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. In the review, I suggested that Moore was, in part, reflecting on the ability of advocacy documentary to help instigate social change, a concern that comes up explicitly at the end of the film when Moore observes that he has been making documentaries for two decades and that little seems to have changed.  He then places responsibility for further change in the audience, asserting that it is “up to you” to act for a more democratic society.  Although I argued that Moore leaves that version of radical democracy undefined, this final sequence seems to be consistent with Moore’s broader attempts to shape the reception of his film.

In some of my recent research, I’ve been working through the concept of the “networked documentary” (although I think “transmedia documentary” may be a better term), and it’s important to contextualize Capitalism within Moore’s larger promotional practices, including an open letter sent to subscribers and posted on his website characterizing the film as “the #1 or #2 top-grossing movie there for the evening,” and imploring readers to attend the film on its opening weekend to send a message to CEOs and others.  Moore goes on to suggest that the box office for Capitalism is essentially a “referendum” on the film’s economic critique.  It’s tempting to read Moore’s letter as a transparent attempt to drive up box office and to line his pockets with more money, but as Rachel T observes on Twitter, a more generous reading might be that Moore is trying to “measure audience activism,” and that box office is one way (though not the only way) of doing so.

The letter also invites fans to submit cellphone pictures and video of crowds attending the film, at least in part as an attempt to represent the reception of the film (and its potential for inspiring activism).  Significantly, Moore has expressed disillusionment about the documentary format in interviews.  In an AP interview Moore comments that he may stop making documentaries because their social impact isn’t clear:

I’ve done this for 20 years…I started out by warning people about General Motors, and my whole career has been trying to say the emperor has no clothes here, and we better do something about it…Two years ago, I tried to get the health care debate going, and it did eventually, and now where are we? We may not even have it. What am I supposed to do at a certain point?

In a sense, I’m still not fully convinced that Moore takes us past the diagnosis of the problem of capitalism’s harmful effects, so it’s not clear how Moore will be able to measure the kind of change that he is promoting, and in fact, popular desire for change may, in fact, be channeled back into the system when that change isn’t clearly defined.  No matter what, I think it’s important to read Capitalism not merely as an isolated text but as a transmedia event, one that is seeking to theorize and mobilize audience activism.

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Capitalism: A Love Story

For nearly two decades, Michael Moore has built a career out of staging confrontations between himself, as representative of the poor and working-class populations, and the incredibly rich.  Moore’s trademark baseball caps, blue jeans, and his Everyman physique have fed into a public persona meant to expose the limits of capitalist exploitation and political manipulation.  However, as Moore’s street theater antics, which often involve being barred from entering steel-and-glass skyscrapers by bemused security guards, have become increasingly predictable, they have lost much of the power. Thus, much like Erik Marshall, I went to see his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, with relatively low expectations, but as I consider what Moore is doing here, I think the film serves not only as a productive contribution to the conversation on What Went Wrong with the economy over the last year but also as a thoughtful consideration on the potential of activist documentary.

Like many of his films, Capitalism is grounded in Moore’s personal childhood experiences.  In fact the opening sequence both echoes and cites Roger and Me, establishing that many of Moore’s family members had been able to maintain a comfortable middle-class living working for General Motors and related companies and establishing, from the beginning, that union-busting in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan had created the conditions where today’s disparities in wealth were made possible.  These connections are powerfully reinforced when Moore walks with his father past the site where his factory had been located, now an empty lot, a small sign on a chain link fence the only indication of the work that had been done there.  Moore’s father reminisces about his colleagues and describes his ability to provide for his family, a modest goal that now seems lost in the Flint, Michigan, where Moore has set so many of his films.

But, unlike many of Moore’s films, especially Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, the “antics” he uses to stage conflicts between rich and poor were, if anything, underplayed, as the film took on a somewhat more somber tone.  This tone is established when Moore shows a number of people, from various parts of the country, having their homes foreclosed.  In one heartbreaking case, a worker from Peoria, Ilinois, living on a disability compensation, sees the home and property that has belonged to his family for a generation being taken by a bank.  In other scenes, we are introduced to a foreclosure vulture who is remarkably unapologetic for his practice of seeking out and turning over foreclosed homes and to commercial pilots who earn something close to the wages paid to a fast-food employee, forcing them to take part-time work in addition to their flight schedules.  Moore also traces out the absurdity of “dead peasant” insurance, where an employer can take out a life insurance policy on their employees, without their knowledge or consent, setting up a situation in which the employee may be worth more to the company dead than alive.

All of these segments are carefully designed to illuminate some of the absurdities of unregulated capitalism.  If the logic of capitalism is to maximize profit no matter what, then our safety and health may be sacrificed.  From there, Moore traces a historical trajectory, starting with the 1950s and ’60s and running through the union-busting practices in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan and, via Alan Greenspan’s economic manipulations, through the Clinton era, to the present.  Moore is careful not to present an overly rosy picture of the 1950s, acknowledging that economic prosperity not only depended on the destroyed German and Japanese auto industries but also allowed the violence of segregation and other social ills; however, he does show how higher taxes on the wealthy made possible eveything from bridges and dams to the interstate highway system.

As Erik points out, Moore’s primary argument is essentially as follows: “Americans are no longer in control of the economic system in the United States, and that we must act to reintroduce democracy into all areas of government.”  Instead, corportions, through political contributions and through nominations to organizations meant to regulate capitalism, have control over how our financial system is managed.  And although Moore (insightfully) reads Obama’s election as an ideological expression of a desire for social change, he is somewhat careful to indicte that he will be holding the President accountable, especially given that Goldman Sachs and other financial companies became some of his most significant campaign contributors.

Another valuable insight here is that Moore offers two distinct tactics that have led to current capitalist practices.  One is ideological and echoes arguments made by Thomas Frank and others: supporters of hypercapitalism have promoted the idea that capitalism is identical to freedom, and argument Moore undercuts by crosscutting between a Bush speech espousing “free enterprise” and the “choice” to work anywhere with the image of unemployed workers skimming classified looking for any jobs for which they are qualified.  Mortgage ads by Countrywide offer home ownership to people who cannot financially afford it and are given APR mortgages that become impossible to pay.  But he is also attentive to issues of power and the ability of the very powerful to control all of the financial regulations and tax codes.

Given these conditions, it is somewhat difficult to imagine an alternative to the existing system.  The powerful have rigged the game, with both Democrats and Republicans supporting the bailout last year.  Jobs continue to disappear, and corporations continue to carve out increasingly perplexing ways of extracting profit.  Moore himself even expresses concern that his movies are not having the desired effect of translating awareness into action, concluding with a reminder that, as the film ends, the next step is up to “you,” the viewer.  Moore does offer some useful alternatives: a small company where each employee makes a similar salary and has one vote each on company decisions and, most powerfully, a brief segment on the sit-in at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, where workers succeeded in using media publicity to get their modest demands.  For the most part, however, Moore can do little other than posit a renewed democracy as an alternative to capitalism.

Update: In skimming Gerry Canavan’s excellent review, I realized I’d forgotten to mention one of the film’s key scenes, in which Moore shows footage of FDR delivering his final State of the Union address when he proposed a Second Bill of Rights, one that would have (among other things) protected the rights of all Americans to have a job and to be able to support their families.  The footage, apparently, was believed lost, and Roosevelt, speaking from beyond the grave, offers a haunting presence, one that is marked by Moore’s admiration of him and of the unrealized potential of FDR’s agenda.  If anything, that proposal represents the closest thing to Michael Moore’s utopia and a goal toward which we can strive.

Gerry’s review is a must-read, especially for its trenchant critique of Moore’s shoddy historical analysis and his conflation of left and right populism.  As Gerry notes, Moore seems to imply that opposition to the bailout came from principled Democrats, when much of the opposition was expressed by right-wing populists.  There is quite a bit of slippery analysis here, but as an attempt to use documentary as a tool for populist activism, Moore’s film is worth engaging.

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Wikipedia Discussion Project

At the request of several of my Twitter followers, here is an overview of the Wikipedia assignment I recently gave my students.  The assignment is designed for first-year composition students and essentially asks them to take a specific Wikipedia entry about a controversial figure or subject–I’ll include the full text of the assignment below the fold–and to analyze the discussion page for the entry on that subject to see if Wikipedia “worked.”  I very consciously left what that meant relatively open, so that students could take any number of positions on the site’s policies and procedures, inviting them to question whether the site should present controversies neutrally or objectively or, in some cases, whether the site is truly free from bias.

At first, students were skeptical.  Most of them were warned not to use Wikipedia as a source.  One even described the debate as a “dead issue.”  But rather than lecture them on the perils of encyclopedia use, I hoped to complicate their notions of collective authorship  (what Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum call commons-based peer production) and its implications for creating and sharing knowledge.  I introduced the assignment by asking students to read and respond to a set of articles that take a variety of positions on Wikipedia and, in some cases, ask students to edit or author entries themselves.  These articles included:

The latter article, which focused on Joe Wilson’s notorious shout of “you lie!” during Obama’s health-care address was especially successful, both because of it being a recent event and because many of my students are black and were sensitive to Wilson’s racial politics.  Mackey’s blog entry not only showed how to cite discussion pages but also how to process wide-ranging discussions and debates.It could also allow them to see–very quickly–the politics of authorship, the implications of depicting Wilson in a certain way based on past behaviors and comments (a quick glance at the Wikipedia debate about Obama’s citizenship clinched the deal).

There are, as @wiki_nihiltres reminded me,a significant number of projects like this that have been anthologized on Wikipedia.  The entry that lists current projects helpfully lists guidelines for doing edits to wiki entries and a number of suggested projects, but because I wanted to complete the assignment relatively quickly (2-3 weeks), I felt that the meta-analysis would better suit my needs for the class.  And so far, after seeing the thesis statements today, I think the project is working.  Popular topics have included Michael Vick and same-sex marriage, but other students have shown that entries on current figures such as Britney Spears over-emphasize the gossip surrounding her personal life, often at the expense of a focus on her career.  One of the more sophisticated analyses will look at the entry for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, arguing that the entry fails to conform to Wikipedia’s stated objectivity standards, drawing from a very rich discussion page to support his point.  But, in general, students have reached a variety of conclusions about Wikipedia’s potential as a new model of authorship, which is precisely what I was hoping to see.

I’ll try to post a follow-up in a few weeks, but students are clearly mulling over the architecture of Wikipedia and coming to a wide range of conclusions about it.  One student reminded us, for example, that you could easily compare archived pages under the history tab.  Others were attentive to the various framing devices on many talk pages that called for civil discussion.  But after this assignment, they should, at a minimum, have a better sense of how and why Wikipedia works the way that it does.

The full text of the assignment is below the fold:

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