Archive for November, 2009

Sunday Links

For your Sunday afternoon reading pleasure:

  • I’m always somewhat ambivalent about end-of-an-era listmaking (as my remarks about A.O. Scott yesterday suggest), but the indieWire list of “25 Things the Oscars Did Right” over the last decade is pretty good, a solid analysis of the last decade of film and a thoughtful reflection on the politics of Oscar.  Of note: their observation that the two Oscar wins for Milk indicate some progress on public support for gay rights.  They also highlight the Oscar success of a number of deserving indie and documentary filmmakers including Errol Morris, Michel Gondry, and Fernando Meirelles (for City of God).  Also worth noting: their list of 50 Oscar snubs from the last decade.  Among the most notable for me: Marjane Satrapi for Persepolis.
  • McHrebin picks up on some of my arguments about the Twilight films, providing some more data on the film’s enthusiastic fan base, pointing out that the openness of the text provides viewers with the potential to add to it.
  • Jon Reiss, whose book, Think Outside the Box Office, is now available, discusses the new distribution landscape for a column in Screen News Daily.  Although I find myself cautioning against words like “revolutionary,” Reiss is attentive to the ways in which indie filmmakers have become marketers and reflects on the ways that these promotional activities can become an organic part of the film text.
  • On a related note, Xiaochang Li discusses one of the panels from this weekend’s Future of Entertainment conference focusing on the uses of transmedia storytelling for encouraging social change, asking whether “Does transmedia as a narrative strategy [has] not only formal implications, but also ignites some political ones?”  As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the years, not only through the political uses of mashups but also through the work of documentary filmmakers that combine feature-length documentaries with supplemntary materials on the web, some of which can support and encourage political activism.
  • Finally, Catherine Grant has compiled another amazing reading list, this one focusing on adaptation, transmedia, and intertextuality.

Update: Via the Film Doctor on Twitter: Umberto Eco on our habit of making lists.

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Twilight, Sandra Bullock, and Taste Cultures

The ongoing discussion here in blogworld of the Twilight films has me thinking again about how film criticism, cinephilia, and taste cultures intersect.  Although I’ll admit that I know little about the Twilight saga beyond what I’ve absorbed from observing and talking to my girlfriend’s daughter, I’m fascinated by the ways in which the films have become the latest case study in the ongoing debates about female audiences and box office success.  Already, just hours after New Moon has opened, Melissa Silverstein and others have pointed to the fact that the film is breaking box office records, in this case, shattering the record for box office totals for midnight screenings.  Silverstein adds that online ticket seller Fandango is reporting that the film is selling more than ten tickets per second on their site.

Despite these impressive numbers, Silverstein is quick to point out that Twilight’s success is being seen by many as an accident, a phenomenon that cannot be reproduced.  Underpinning that observation is the point that “the film blogosphere” continues to devalue the tastes of the tween girls who have made these films a box office success.  In a round-table discussion with a group of female film writers, Silverstein and her colleagues discuss whether the Twilight films receive “respect” from the film blogosophere, which Silverstein and many of her colleagues characterize as overwhelmingly male.  On the one hand, I’m tempted to complicate this formulation a little. I’m skeptical of the idea that there is a singular film blogosphere.  On the other, I’m certainly aware that there are some dominant players among the gossip blogs in particular and attentive to the fact that film bloggers have become a crucial means by which taste cultures form, whether among Hollywood franchises or among the art-house blogger communities.  Silverstein’s round-table is well worth reading, especially when the writers discuss their ambivalence about the content of the series (it’s use of a traditional rescue narrative, Bella’s fining meaning in relationships while rejecting her studies), while also recognizing the core appeal that the books and films offer.*

But one of the questions informing this particular post comes not from the Twilight films but from other forms of taste-making connected to canon formation.  A few days ago on Twitter, I snarked about an A.O. Scott article about the best films of the decade (which, believe it or not, ends in just a few short weeks).  My complaint: Scott’s article didn’t mention a single film directed by a woman as belonging among the decade’s best or most memorable films.   I’d planned to write a longer post mulling on what this article says about canon formation, cinephila, and taste cultures, but other obligations got in the way.  Fortunately, however, the cinetrix took my passing remark and ran with it, connecting Scott’s decade-in-review article to the masculinized version of cinephilia described by David Bordwell in a blog post many months ago.  To be fair, Scott remarks that many of the most memorable movies of the decade–the ones that will fill DVD bins in big box marts (or, as Scott surmises, the great web portal in the sky) for years–offer “geek-revenge fantasies” that dismiss or ignore women: “Movies seem to be, increasingly, for and about men and (mostly male) kids, with adult women in the marginal roles of wives and mothers, there to be avenged, resented or run to when things get too scary.”

Scott’s remarks obscure quite a bit here, conflating box office success and critical acclaim.  The “geek-revenge” movies, many of them associated with Judd Apatow, have no doubt received quite a bit of attention, but a recent post by Annie Petersen on Sandra Bullock’s appeal to what Petersen calls the “minivan majority,” places some of these comments in perspective, pointing that a Bullock romantic comedy, such as The Proposal, can gross as much as $300 million worldwide on a $40 million budget.  Petersen is right to point out that the Bullock audience may be less visible on the web and that her appeal may not work on many of the male critics who review and comment on her films.  Petersen’s account of Bullock’s appeal to female viewers is well worth reading, but I mention it now to raise the point that Scott’s narrative of the 2000s as the decade of Apatow, Saw films, and stories of “arresred male development” overlooks quite a bit.

I don’t have a larger conclusion here, but these threads have been weaving together in my mind over the last few days, especially as the frenzy of end-of-decade posts begin clogging up my RSS feeds.  An underlying point of Scott’s article is worth addressing: new distribution and exhibition formats, such as Netflix, Hulu, and The Auteurs will shape how our “screen memories” are formed, likely in ways we cannot yet predict.  But these  can also obscure how large groups of people consume, think about, and discuss movies.

Update: Worth noting: New Moon broke the opening-day box office record previously set by The Dark Knight, an especially impressive achievement given that the film opened during the fall, when opening nights tend to be smaller.

* It’s worth adding, of course, that not all viewers and readers of the Twilight saga will follow this dominant reading or even focus solely on the Bella/Edward/Jacob love triangle.  Obviously that’s a major aspect of the story, but nearly two decades of fan studies should tell us that “dominant ideology” readings of Twilight can miss quite a bit.

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Thursday Links

It appears that SCMS has started sending out acceptance notices for this year’s conference.  I’m happy to report that my panel, focusing on media industries issues, has been accepted.  I’ll be talking about some of the recent debate about DVD rentals, in particular Netflix and Redbox as two key models for reaching home audiences.  Hope to see some of my readers in Los Angeles in a few months.  And now for some links:

  • A number of articles, including one from The Guardian, have been reporting on the launch of YouTube Direct, a service designed to link citizen journalists with news organizations.  The service was developed in collaboration with The Huffington Post and wil allow news services to “request, review, and rebroadcast clips directly from YouTube users.”  NPR and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others, have signed on to use material posted to the site.
  • Via @negaratduke, a link to Social Text’s special issue on the Iran election, with a special focus on the use (and depiction) of social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. I havn’t had the chance to read the articles yet, but will hopefully take a closer look soon.
  • The most recent Nielsen ratings show that Facebook is now the number three site for online video, behind YouTube and Hulu.
  • More The Twilight Saga: New Moon online fandom news: The live streaming premiere hosted by MySpace and powered by Ustream had over two million unique views and three million total views, shattering the previous record, the streaming broadcast of the premiere of the Michael Jackson documentary, This is It.
  • Liz Gannes reports on Movie Monitor, a new search tool that helps movie fans find movies online to rent or buy from a variety of services including Hulu and Amazon and other legal sources. The site seems comparable to Speedcine, although Movie Monitor appears to provide a little more information about the films in its search engine. Thanks to reading Alex Halavais’ Search Engine Society (a really useful book, btw) and, more recently Randall Stross’s Planet Google, I’ve been thinking about search engines quite a bit lately, and video search remains a weakness for Google, so it’ll be interesting to see how these specialty services work.
  • Feministing has posted a fascinating video featuring teenage girls talking about their perceptions of social media and their relationship to popular culture.  The video is the first in a series produced by the Women’s Media Center and Girls Learn International.  The episode’s 17-year old producer comments here.

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Location Theory

I’m still processing much of the discussion that took place at this week’s American Democracy Project eCitizenship conference.  The conference, which brought together representatives from approximately universities, was a welcome opportunity to engage with others on how social media tools could be used to help foster democratic engagement among our students.  I’ll be working with several of my colleagues and students over the next few weeks to generate some ideas for our campus, but what I really want to talk about is…Red Dawn.

More specifically, I had the fascinating experience of spending a few minutes on the set of Red Dawn, a remake of the classic 1984 film directed by John Milius and starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, and Lea Thompson.  The remake, according to IMDB, reworks the original film’s post-apocalyptic plot slightly, by depicting a group of teens seeking to save their city from an invasion by Russian and Chinese soldiers.

Observing the activity on set–something I haven’t had an opportunity to do as often as I would like–was pretty cool.  Perhaps the most compelling prop was a giant tank sitting in the middle of a downtown intersection, but we also saw soldiers jogging past, and propaganda posters subtly dotted the sometimes crumbling facades of nearby buildings.  We could see crew members setting up shots, laying down dolly tracks, and preparing lights for a nighttime shoot.  Later, after we left the set, the sound of a tank firing shook the building briefly.  And we learned from a chat with a crew member that a scene featuring a stunt man falling from the twelfth floor of our hotel had been filmed a few days earlier.

As I ate a gyro at a downtown Coney Island restaurant that actually constituted part of the set, I began thinking about the intersections between the film’s (reported) plot and the location where it is being filmed, downtown Detroit, which has become a symbol of the current unemployment and economic crisis.  While we were on set, we fell into conversation with one of the below-the-line crew members, discussing his work and the tax incentives that led to Detroit becoming a popular and inexpensive location for filming movies.  I also took note of the number of derelict, abandoned spaces in the downtown area surrounding the hotel and mentally maped that onto more familiar depictions of Michigan and Detroit in recent films, naemly Michael Moore’s portrayal of his hometown of Flint in many of his documentaries.    In looking at the post-apocalyptic iconography on the film set, I began thinking about how Moore’s films create the sense that his community–and the state in general–have been abandoned by General Motors and by the government, making it easier, perhaps, to imagine Detroit as a post-apocalyptic city.  A quick glance at the skyline with its glass tower depicting the GM logo only cofirmed such a perception.

Of course these images of Detroit, whether Red Dawn’s fictional invasion narrative or Michael Moore’s post-industrial dystopia, aren’t “real,” but are both narratives that help us to make sense of ourselves and of the horizons of our economic possibilities.  There are other parts of Detroit that are full of energy.  I enjoyed several delicious microbrews and found some restaurants featuring delicious Mediterranean food.  But I’m also convinced that both Red Dawn and Michael Moore films offer sense-making activities that should be taken seriously and that the location shoot of Red Dawn in downtown Detroit might provide some way of thinking about how “location” matters when we talk about the production of movies.  It would be easy to treat the Red Dawn reboot as just another Hollywood film, and in some ways, it is the product of movie production in the age of media congolmerates: take a familiar media franchise, reimagine it slightly, add exposions, throw in some ancillary materials, and (boom!), you have the recipe for box office success.

But in many ways, Red Dawn will “belong” to Detroit and to others who witnessed or participated in its production.  A number of local workers, whether below-the-line crew or extras who happened past, contribute to the making of the film.  Others, including my cab driver to the airport (and my colleagues and I), spend time gawking at the set, taking pictures or looking for familiar actors.  The streetscapes will be familiar.  We will know something about the film’s production.  The closest I can come to a critical-theory model for thinking about this experience is John Caldwell’s discussion of the inustry practices of self-theorizing, but I think another useful line of thought might invite us to consider how location might tell us something about a film’s meaning, about how we think about movies and our investment in them.  Just stepping into the set of the movie, I found myself talking about the economics of film production, about the collapse of Michigan’s industrial economy, and even about the changing histories that allow the original Red Dawn’s Cold War paranoia to be reworked for new audiences.  Without this happy accident, I likely never would have thought about an action film remake alongside of Michael Moore’s documentary critiques of capitalism, but now I’m convinced that this relationship–based almost entirely on a shared shooting location–is far from accidental.

Update: FYI, here is a video of the “explosion” that I heard the other night via a Detroit discussion board.  Scroll down for a discussion of complaints about the fact that local/downtown residents weren’t alerted to the fact that there would be some loud noises coming from the film set sometime after 11 PM.

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Film Criticism’s “New Moon”

I’ve been thinking about the Twilight series quite a bit lately.  No, I haven’t developed a thing for vampires or Kristen Stewart, although my girlfriend’s daughter, Yasmine, is a huge fan of the series (and I happen to think that Stewart is a talented young actress).  Instead, I think it’s a fascinating example of how internet buzz can develop around a transmedia franchise such as the Twilight books and movies and what it might mean for film fandom.  Anne Petersen, gossip scholar extraordinaire, has a witty, thoughtful post about this phenomenon, noting that her web traffic spikes considerably whenever she mentions the movies or pretty much anyone connected to them (and, no, this isn’t *really* a shameless plea for traffic).  More significant, however, is that Petersen also points out that gossip sites that are dependent upon building high volumes of traffic to build advertising revenue might be tempted to drop a few Kristen Stewart-Robert Pattinson rumors just to keep the fan base clicking in.

I mention these details because I’ve been reading John Hartley’s Television Truths, a book that devotes significant attention to the speed of publication (or transmission) associated with various media.  The sections I’ve read focus less on the web or bogosphere than older media, but I think his arguments are perfectly suited to describing the accelerated pace by which information is produced in the film blogosphere.  I’m not ready to argue that this process–in which gossip and entertainment bloggers rush to satisfy the voracious interest in the Twilight films–is harmful.  After all, I use Twitter, the microblogging tool known for short, quick posts.  Nor am I a purist about posting ads on blogs.  But I think it does speak to one of the ways in which the “industry” of blogging–the modes of producing a profit–begin to shape how film gets covered and even risks drawing attention from lesser-known films.  As Annie’s colleague, Nick, observes: “there can never be enough information on a star; therefore, more information is always needed.”

That being said, I think we lose a lot if we don’t reflect carefully on the specific attractions Twilight and its sequels offer its (predominantly, though not exclusively, young and female) audience.   With that in mind, I’m intrigued by a couple of stats mentioned by Anne Thompson, who notes that New Moon ticket pre-sales are significantly outpacing Twilight.   On one level this shouldn’t be surprising: more audiences have had a chance to discover (or become devoted to) the series through the original film, the DVD, the books, and online fan cultures.  More intriguing is Thompson’s discussion of the high level of activity on Flixster surrounding New Moon, which Thompson reports is seeing more discussion than the biggest grossing film of 2009, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  I’m not sure that this metric can be used to predict that New Moon will surpass Transformers‘ numbers, but it does show that the fan base for it is probably quite a bit deeper and may (I’d imagine) attract more repeat viewings.

I don’t really have a grand conclusion here, but it’s interesting to see how social media tools such as Flixster and blogs have become an important part of the reception, promotion, and discussion of New Moon and other Twilight films.

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Movie Title Compilation Video

Via Anne Thompson, an amusing little video that compiles scenes from movies where characters mention the movie’s title.  Pretty fun in a fannish, film geeky, sort of way.

In other news, I’m hoping to get back into a regular blogging schedule soon.  My attention has been pretty divided lately for a number if reasons, but I find that when I’m writing for the blog, I’m also somewhat more likely to be writing for longer formats such as journal articles and such.  Michael Z. Newman has an interesting discussion of this topic in a recent post on the ephemerality of Twitter posts, but unlike him (and many other scholars), I find that blogging helps me to engage and signals that I am more–not less–focused on my scholarship.  I’ll admit that I’m likely unusual in that regard, but the lack of blogging (and even Twittering lately) has been keeping me from sifting through some new research.  Mike’s post does offer a cool reflection on the implications of the ease with which Twitter posts disappear from view.

Update: Just wanted to add that I had a recent conversation with a colleague, I believe at the eCitizenship conference I’ve been attending, about what it means that responses to blog posts have been increasingly migrating to Twitter and Facebook.  It seems possible that those comments, which were often valuable to me in completing my first book, will now be more difficult to track down given that they are not in a single location and that they are often posted to sites that make it harder to archive and find older content.

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Travellin’ Man

A couple of quick notes to prevent the blog from going completely dormant: First, I’ve just returned from Portland, where I attended the “What is Film?” conference sponsored by the University of Oregon.  I had some good intentions of blogging some (or all) of the conference, but the three-hour time change really threw me for a loop.  Still, I found the conference to be incredibly rewarding, one that will hopefully inform some of my more recent research on the role of social media in shaping the digital delivery of movies.

Second, I’ll be leaving tomorrow morning for Detroit, where I will be one of several representatives from my university who will be participating in eCitizenship, an initiative of the American Democracy Project.  I’ve only briefly glanced at the schedule, but as someone who works quite a bit with social media both in the classroom and in my scholarship, I’m looking forward to participating.For those of you who are interested in following along, there is already a Twitter hash tag. (#eCit09).

On a related note, I’m starting to piece together my talk for this year’s MLA convention in Philadelphia, which will focus on academic blogging (which is one of the reasons I’m trying to generate a few posts, even if they are mostly filler).  I will also be the delegate for MLA’s film studies discussion group, which is kind of cool.  Once again, there is some pre-conference activity taking place over Twitter (including a list of people planning to attend an MLA tweetup).

I’m hoping that my spring schedule will allow a little more blogging time.  I’ve been missing the conversations in this part of my online life and have been finding myself composing a few mental blog entries on everything from Michael Chabon’s recent autobiographical essay collection, Manhood for Amateurs (which had a few intriguing moments), to Steven Johnson’s very cool collection, The Best Technology Writing of 2009 (some of which I’d read before).  More later….

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Filming Faulkner

Because I wrote my senior thesis and MA thesis on various Faulkner novels (and because I still love teaching pretty much anything by Faulkner when I get the chance), I’ve been curious for years to see the 1959 Martin Ritt adaptation of The Sound and the Fury.  Now, thanks to the power of YouTube–the film isn’t currently available on DVD or VHS–and the similar curiosity of Michael Berube, I’ve managed to  see it (or at least the first eight minutes).  Like Michael, I’d heard it was a poor adaptation.  I knew that Yul Brenner played Benjy and that the male Quentin Compson was rewritten as “Uncle Howard,” someone much older than Quentin, a southern gentleman addicted to his gin and tonics.

Until I read Michael’s post, I wasn’t prepared for the 1950s-style jazzy score or the transformation of the younger, female Quentin into the film’s heroine. Or her voice-over narration and bus rides back from Memphis.  I’m not necessarily opposed to film adaptations of novels, even those that radically reinterpret the “original” text, but this is more than a bad reading of the novel; it’s something far more surreal.  I’m tempted to go back and watch the whole thing later when I’m not pressed for time, just to marvel in the strangess of this attempt to convey something–the story? the spirit? a few characters?–from Faulkner’s novel.

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