Archive for December, 2009

[MLA 09] “Blogging” Sample Links

Here are some of the blogs and sources I cited in the “Blogging” paper listed below:

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Indie Movies and “Audience Distribution”

Via The Film Doctor’s Twitter feed, I came across this Time Magazine article about indie filmmakers who are offering some version of free access to their movies.  Many of the usual subjects are mentioned, including Nina Paley, who released Sita Sings the Blues to YouTube using a Creative Commons license.  It’s a pretty solid overview of the ability of some indie filmmakers to use viral marketing techniques to promote their films, but I think I’m most intrigued by Paley’s description of her film’s success as due to what she calls its “audience distribution,” that is, the role of the audience in spreading the word about the movie.

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[MLA 09] “Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere” Draft

It’s probably too late for any substantial commentary, but in the spirit of my MLA panel, convened by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, on Media Studies and the Digital Scholarly Present, which calls for taking a closer look at new models of digital scholarly communication, I’ve decided to post a draft of my conference paper below the fold.  In essence, the paper looks at how blogging as a practice has begun to shape other forms of scholarly communication and, more crucially, how scholars can learn from the three primary styles of blogging as defined by Jill Walker-Rettberg in her book, Blogging. Walker defines these as personal, topic-driven, and filtering, and part of what I’m trying to do in the paper is to make a case that “filtering blogs,” blogs that offer collections of links, often with short commentary, are a crucial means not only for navigating a wide array of material but also for creating collectives with shared interests.

I’m still not satisfied with the paper, in part because the concept of the filter seems imprecise, especially when it comes to the role that many “filter bloggers” have in building communities with shared interests.  I’m also still trying to map out the ways in which blogs are defined in terms of how they structure (or are structured by) time.  I’ve always been intrigued by the tension between immediate (but not necessarily spontaneous) publication and permanent archives that accrue over time.  It’s a topic I’d planned to address years ago (way back in 2003, when blogging was very young) but never found the right forum.

Apologies for any formatting problems below.  I copied this directly from a Word processing file.

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Blogging, Research, Serendipity

I’m doing some (very last-minute) writing for my paper on blogging for this year’s MLA convention.  Yes, I know I should have finished the paper weeks ago, but now I get to hole up in a Caribou Coffeehouse playing saccharine Christmas music near my parents’ house while frantically polishing off this paper.  But, anyway, as I was writing, I began thinking about blog types in terms of Bill Nichols’ documentary modes.  Rather than looking at different blogs in terms of genres, I liked the idea that blogs themselves entail a mode of engagement with the world.  I’m not sure that I will use that particular framing, but as I was doing some quick Googling on Nichols’ use of this term, I stumbled across an old post by Girish about Nichols, one that illustrates another assertion I want to make about what Jill Walker-Rettberg refers to as “topic-driven” blogging, namely the ability of blogs to serve as a public form of gradual knowledge-building.  Naturally, Girish describes this process much more eloquently than I ever could:

Here’s my single favorite thing about blogging: being able to educate oneself in public. Going through this process—trying to move forward, stumbling, groping, occasionally finding—in full view of the world does not always stroke one’s ego. Each week you find yourself writing not about what you know but about what you perhaps hope to learn from the process of watching, reading, and struggling to think through and articulate.

Girish’s account is very similar to my own experience, and I think that his ability to express curiosity about a topic, whether it’s the state of film criticism or the history of documentary is what makes his blog such an impressive forum for scholars, fans, and journalists alike (not that these categories don’t overlap and intersect). Talk about a happy accident.

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Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air begins and ends with documentary-style footage of workers who have recently been fired–or “downsized” in one of the more insensitive euphemisms of our times–discussing their reactions to losing their jobs.  They discuss the challenges of losing work, the financial and emotional turmoil that comes with being newly unemployed.  After watching the film, my girlfriend speculated, correctly, that the fired workers (other than cameos by J.K. Simmons and Zach Gialifianakis) appeared to be actual workers who had lost their jobs in a struggling economy, a brief glimpse of documentary realism interjected into the film’s narrative.

Because of the film’s topicality–its references to unemployment and the everyday experiences of the contemporary (white-collar) worker–it has become a kind of pretext for talking about the economy.  George Will, to no great surprise, uses the film to bash “entitlement programs,” such as unemployment benefits, drawing from the details that the movie is based on a novel from 2001, when the economy was humming along relatively nicely, and that 3.3 million people lost their jobs in 2006 when the unemployment rate was “just” 4.6%.  A few lost jobs are simply part of the “creative destruction” of capitalism.    Meanwhile, Frank Rich sees the film as a modern day Grapes of Wrath, as “dour” as anything produced during the Great Depression, showing “an America whose battered inhabitants realize that the economic deck is stacked against them, gamed by distant, powerful figures they can’t see or know.”

The film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, an Omaha-based worker who specializes in flying around the country firing workers when downsizing companies are unwilling to do it.  Bingham is meant to provide a soothing, reassuring presence, providing terminated employees with vague platitudes that nobody really believes, often telling workers that getting fired is an opportunity.  Bingham spends virtually every day of his life in hotels and airplanes, accumulating an unfathomable number of frequent flier miles and an impressive insider knowledge of all of the perks offered by hotel chains.  Bingham’s life allows him to shield himself from any true emotional commitments, and his travels allow him a secondary job as a motivational speaker in which he offers even more platitudes about dispensing with any unnecessary baggage (both physical and emotional).  Here, Clooney’s cool detachment works well as a supplement to the character he plays, with the film serving as a commentary of sorts on his star persona.

Bingham’s ability to shield himself from emotional attachments is challenged when the company he works hires Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a 23 year-old Cornell grad who comes up with the idea of streamlining the firing process by setting up a “virtual termination” system. Instead of traveling around the US to fire employees, Bingham and his colleagues can simply sit in a warehouse or office park in Omaha and fire workers over video chat. It saves thousands of dollars in travel money and time, allowing the termination-outsourcing company to make even more money.  At the same time, Bingham begins to develop feelings for a fellow traveler, Alex (Vera Farmiga), first trading travel secrets and work schedules and then connecting on a more emotional level.

Although Bingham’s work is distasteful, a cold way of dealing with traumatized workers, Natalie’s plan to make the firing process more efficient provides us with one of the film’s more powerful observations about how workers are dehumanized, the video chat serving as a way of mediating the employer-employee relationship even further and making it even easier to see workers as objects rather than fully human.  Notably, these video chat shots visually echo the documentary sequences so that this commentary becomes a little more explicit.  But whether this commentary takes us into political critique is less than clear.

Both Will and Rich catch the remix of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” which plays under George Clooney’s voice-over narration of his frequent travels early in the film, but only Rich is astute enough to link the song to Guthrie’s leftist politics (Will just calls it “weird”).  And while the film criticizes the attempts to make the termination process more efficient, it does so, to some extent, within the purview of Bingham’s psychological and emotional turmoil.  But perhaps the most telling detail about Up in the Air’s ideological outlook is a closing sequence featuring more displaced workers. These are presented from a documentary POV and in the context of Bingham confronting his need for emotional connection after attending his sister’s wedding, and rather than talking about the struggles they face after being fired, the workers discuss how their families helped them to survive, providing them with the emotional support needed during a difficult time.  Family becomes a buffer against an uncontrollable economic storm.  The CEOs who make the choices to fire (or downsize) these workers remain invisible, the consequences of this unemployment appearing largely off-screen.  Instead of the impassioned speech in favor of unionization seen at the end of Grapes of Wrath, the film turns to sentimental love as an alternative to the massive loss of jobs.

As a result, the film opens itself up to a reading like Will’s that allows him to place emphasis on the film’s emotional storyline (Will even resorts to the cliche of citing E.M. Forster’s “only connect”).  And although Rich is correct to suggest that Up in the Air makes visible the disconnect between “the two Americas,” it never quite offers the fired, indebted workers an alternative to their current conditions.  Significantly, these workers are typically seen in offices and skyscrapers, not in the factories where blue-collar workers dominate.  Although Detroit is prominently mentioned, it appears that these lost jobs would, perhaps, disrupt the narrative world too much.

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Tuesday Links: Gondry, Blu-Ray, Transmedia Indie Films

A few pointers to videos, blog posts, and other distractions, to celebrate the end of the semester:

  • Jason Sperb’s “incomplete” blog essay on Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind.  Jason makes some powerful connections here regarding Gondry’s videophilia with a careful attention to the film’s efforts “to celebrate the endurance of the ephemeral, rhizomatic communities that film periodically creates (every cinema is a community, and every community is a cinema).”
  • Movie Marketing Madness has a couple of interesting articles today, one focusing on the fact that Blu-Ray DVD player sales are increasing and another exploring Warner’s decision to withhold DVDs from Redbox rental kiosks for one month after the initial retail release of the DVD.
  • NewTeeVee reports that Paramount has temporarily extended its agreement to provide Redbox with new releases in exchange for further data on rental patterns, despite current “wisdom” that Redbox is costing the entertainment industry billions of dollars.
  • New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis discusses the politics of women and Hollywood in a candid, no-holds-barred interview.
  • Janko Roettgers, writing for NewTeeVee, asks whether DVRs remain “relevant” in the age of Hulu and other online streaming sources for TV content.  Although the evidence is mostly anecdotal, Roettgers raises some interesting questions about how new technologies affect patterns of use.
  • Ted Hope has a thoughtful post I’d like to address in further detail speculating about the reasons why the art-house movie audience appears to be graying and concludes that, in part, it’s due to the lack of opportunity for participation in the creation of indie film narratives: “Transmedia holds tremendous potential in its efforts to turn the presentation into an actual dialogue, although we still lack the defining work that goes beyond cross-platform to an actual back and forth, with both sides being equal creators.” This seems like a valid point to me, though one barrier might be the costs, both financial and physical (i.e., in terms of human labor), in sustaining a truly effective transmedia project.  Obviously there are a number of free video and blog hosting sites out there (among other resources), and innovative authors can exploit them, but it’s a bigger challenge without a studio’s marketing resources at a filmmaker’s disposal. Like him, I’d love to participate in any forum or think tank that engaged with these issues in a serious way.

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Wikipedia Project Revisited

Earlier this semester, I discussed a planned first-year composition assignment that would require students to analyze the construction of a Wikipedia page in order to determine the online encyclopedia’s relevance as a source of information.  In short, the assignment required students to select a Wikipedia entry, to look at the entry’s discussion page and history and to make an argument about whether the site’s openness made it a “better” source than other encyclopedias (or other sources of information).  Students were required to cite (preferably quote) at least three contributions to the discussion page and at least one other secondary source on Wikipedia.  After reading the students’ papers and reflecting on other projects I’ve assigned this semester, I’ve decided that I like the project quite a bit and may try to teach it again, albeit with some minor tweaking.

What worked about the assignment: The assignment helped frame the conversation their papers were entering.  Because the paper assignment was fortuitously timed alongside Robert Mackey’s NYT blog post on “Wikipedia’s reaction”* to Joe Wilson’s outburst against Obama, we had a familiar case study that students could use as a reference point.  Students had heard other instructors warning them against Wikipedia but knew little about the site other than the fact that “anyone” could edit it.  After completing the assignment, many students could talk critically about how they would use a source such as Wikipedia in the future.

On a more subtle level, the assignment provided students with helpful models for incorporating sources in a fairly sophisticated matter.  They could use quotations from Wikipedia to illustrate a point and then turn to authors such as Benkler, Parry, and Mackey as secondary sources commenting about Wikipedia. In that sense, the assignment helped to support our department’s turn toward encouraging “information literacy” approaches that helps students to think critically about sources and to use them in their papers.

What didn’t work: The assignment was initially fairly intimidating for many of my students.  This may not be a negative, but I was a little surprised at their initial resistance to the assignment.  The papers ended up taking an either/or position on Wikipedia (it should/should not be used as a source).  Students still treated Wikipedia as something “out there” that they could use/analyze/look at, not as something that could allow them to participate.  I realize this is a difficult step, even for media studies scholars, but it’s still difficult to convey the significance of the idea that the “anyone” capable of editing a Wikipedia page includes them (or you, for that matter).

In the future, I’d like to find a way of framing the assignment slightly differently so that the range of thesis statements/arguments about Wikipedia are somewhat broader.  That being said, the Wikipedia papers were much stronger than the traditional research paper I assigned as the final assignment of the semester, which may be due to a number of factors (competition with other end-of-semester assignments, a narrower project with more clearly defined parameters, continued problems on my part in teaching how to find and cite sources, etc).  But it’s definitely a project I will use again in future composition classes.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of treating Wikipedia as a singular entity capable of a homogenous, non-contradictory reaction.  If anything, the discussion on how to represent Wilson’s actions display a remarkable lack of consensus.  Still, it is possible to treat Wikipedia “institutionally” to some extent.

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Hamlet in the Kitchen

You may have heard of Hamlet in the Streets; now, here is Hamlet in the Kitchen, with Shakespearean actor Brian Cox teaching a young boy Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.  Cox’s reaction to the child reciting Hamlet’s lines is priceless.  Warning: the video is dripping with cute, so please take all necessary precautions.  This would have been so much fun to show my students when teaching Hamlet earlier this semester.

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Saturday Links: Super, DVD Box Sets, Klosterman

A few links to celebrate the end of finals week:

  • One of the more compelling aspects of digital cinema is the increase in access to production discourse for the average movie consumer.  John Caldwell touches on these issues in his important book, Production Culture, and I tried to address those practices in Reinventing Cinema.  Now as DIY and indie filmmaking are developing a more recognizable presence on the web, I’ve become interested in how these conversations about movie production have become tied to the practices of film promotion.  With that in mind, I’m intrigued by what Ted Hope is doing with Twitter in his role as producer for the upcoming film, Super.  Using Twitter’s new list function, Hope has curated a list of 30 cast and crew members involved in the production of the film, as a way of building interest in the film.  It helps that one of the cast members is Rainn Wilson (The Office), who already has a massive Twitter following, but once again, we can see how social media tools are altering and expanding notions of film culture.
  • Via The Film Doctor, I found this interesting interview with pop media theorist Chuck Klosterman, where he talks at length about the role of the web in mediating fan cultures and practices.   Among other observations, Klosterman argues that the web has intensified and transformed the celebrity process.  He also notes that fans [of Twilight in particular] “have incorporated this film almost like a verbalized cog in their conversation.”  Film stills sent via email or posted on Facebook or MySpace pages become, as the interviewer puts it, an updated version of the emoticons we might have sent in the past.
  • Also worth noting: On Film in Focus, Jenna Bass has a recent post listing essential (online) resources on film festivals.
  • Finally, Slate’s Grady Hendrix has a discussion of his distaste for the DVD box set, calling it “the newest and most terrifying form of ritualistic abuse we inflict on one another.”  DVD purchasing in general is down, but I think Hendrix tackles some of the reasons why box sets, in particular, may not always be welcomed as gifts.  I disagree with some of his basic arguments, however, in particular his claim that “Television episodes were never meant to be viewed in rapid fire order.” Perhaps that’s the case, but show like 24 and Lost very easily lend themselves to the kind of intense viewing that DVDs offer, and I likely would have never survived my dissertation without Buffy breaks–2 or 3 episodes per night after a long day of writing during a time when I didn’t have TV reception.  To be fair, I likely wouldn’t inflict an entire TV series on an unsuspecting relative, but DVDs in general, with their power to anthologize and curate, have reshaped TV discourse, and that’s something that shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed.  

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“A Dollar Book Freudian Gag”

Cool find of the morning.  For years, I’ve made reference to the interview with Orson Welles where he dismisses the “Rosebud” elements of Citizen Kane as a cheap plot device.  Now here on YouTube is the video of that interview, which I’d never seen until now (via Kottke and Film Doctor).

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Friday Links: Paramount, Moviegoing, Wikis

I’m in the last throes of the semester and ready to start thinking in earnest about spring semester and some writing projects that have been, shall we say, dormant for the last few weeks.   Here are some of the links that have crossed my radar over the last few days:

  • ProfHacker has an interesting post on a new wiki sponsored by the Modern Language Association for discussing “the evaluation of digital work.”  These questions have been the subject of debate at my university as we revise our promotion and tenure standards, and it’s good to see a professional organization such as MLA become more actively involved in endorsing digital work.  Obviously (for example), my blog has become a significant site where I have done work that might be defined as scholarly (or at least as a form of “service”), but we are just now developing a language for talking about materials that aren’t peer-reviewed journals that happen to be online.  This type of definitional work is valuable, however, not only for protetcing the intersts of younger scholars but also for imagining new forms of knowledge creation and dissemination.
  • The Auteurs recently tapped into my ongoing fascination with end-of-an-era listmaking with their recent thread calling for users to submit the “most memorable” movie images of the past decade.  A number of personal favorites showed up, including images from Punch Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine, but this form of listmaking fascinates in part because of its collaborative nature and also because it places emphasis on how a single frame can convey so much information or have so much power.  The stills also provide a short visual history of the past decade in filmed entertainment.
  • Speaking of lists, Anne Thompson’s end-of-year and end-of-decade lists are also quite good.  I’m glad to see someone who shares my admiration for Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, a film that continues have incredible power as a commentary on post-9/11 New York.
  • Two divergent narratives are developing to characterize current moviegoing practices.  First, Patrick Goldstein looks at box office numbers and concludes that audiences are still enthusiastic about seeing movies on the big screen.  But according to a National Endowment for the Arts study, moviegoing is on the decline, with fewer adults reporting that they attended a movie in a theater last year.  The latter study seems, to me, to be a poor measure of the health of moviegoing, especially gven that it obscures the frequent moviegoers who attend movies often.  Nevertheless, the writers at Big Hollywood misread the statistics to suggest that there has been a 7% drop in movie attendance since 2002 and to further argue that such a drop can be attributed to Hollywood being “out of touch” with their ostensibly conservative customers.  Yeah, the same ones who elected Obama to be President about a year ago.  And the same ones who are eagerly consuming those movies on DVD, cable, and elsewhere.
  • On a related note, Variety reports that single-screen theaters are continuing to struggle in their competition with multiplexes.  I addressed this issue in passing in my book, noting that digital projection, especially, could hurt single-screen and smaller, independent theaters.
  • Finally, in one of the more compelling stories of the day, at least for low-budget filmmakers: Paramount has decided to open a division designed to focus on producing and releasing micro-budget films, focusing in particular on films with budgets of less than $100,000.  Filmmaker Magazine and Cinematical have bothe responded.  The decision is likely connected to Paramount’s recognition of the success of Paranormal Activity, which was made for approximately $15,000.  A number of commenters at Filmmaker Magazine are skeptical, speculating that Paramount may focus on developing genre films with a better chance at the kind of grassroots success that greeted Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch Project.  But it is nice to see at least one major studio investing modestly in supporting low-budget filmmaking.

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Thursday Night Links

A few links to get you through exam week:

  • Eugene Hernandez has an article on the transformation of film festivals in the age of digital distribution, pointing in particular to changes with Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca.  In particular, Hernandez reports that festivals will increasingly become part of the distribution process.
  • A report from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. argues that Redbox and other inexpensive DVD rental services have cost the entertainment industry as much as $1 billion, leading to unspecified job losses, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
  • On a related note, Video Business reports that video-on-demand numbers continue to rise and that day-and-date distribution is increasingly expected.
  • Finally, Henry Jenkins has a thoughtful reflection on the increasing prominence of transmedia storytelling in contemporary entertainment culture.  As Jenkins observes, we have moved in less than a decade from the moment when transmedia material in the textual universe of The Matrix was a sometimes confusing curiosity to a moment when it is essentially expected.

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Social Media and The Blind Side

Just a quick pointer to a CNN article on the role of social media in boosting the word-of-mouth support for The Blind Side that happens to feature a couple of brief quotes from yours truly.  It’s a nice little overview of how social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have helped to speed up and expand the reach of movie audiences.

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Forrest Gump’s Blind Side

In a recent post, Melissa Silverstein of Women & Hollywood observed that the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Blind Side, eclipsed New Moon to become this week’s number one film at the box office, attributing much of the film’s success to lead actress Sandra Bullock and her appeal to female audiences.   That’s probably a fair assessment, as far as it goes.  Both Silverstein and Annie Petersen have been incredibly attentive to Bullock’s star power (as I mentioned a few days ago), arguing that Bullock’s spunky, quirky charm works well for female audiences while not necessarily alienating male viewers.

When I watched Blind Side a few weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, I found the film entertaining enough.  Bullock is charming and the cameos by college football coaches are amusing.  But as I’ve let the film settle and as I’ve witnessed its quiet, but remarkable, surge in popularity (thanks to strong word of mouth), I’m becoming convinced that The Blind Side has become this decade’s Forrest Gump, both in terms of its (ideological) content and its box office prospects.

Both films emphasize cross-racial, southern friendships, in which charcacters are offered forms of earthly redemption through their generosity or kindness to a character who is (or appears to be) mentally challenged, but who can through his simplicity, offer a deeper understanding of the meaning of life.  Gump teaches us through his cryptic aphorisms to accept the simple things in life.  Michael Oher, in The Blind Side, becomes a device for allowing wealthy whites to “rescue” African-American characters living in poverty.  Notably, both films use sports and other forms of male homosocial bonding (i.e., the military) as crucial aspects of the male lead’s psychological development.

The Oher narrative is especially insidious given that it is based loosely upon Oher’s childhood experiences but only works by exaggerating Oher’s passivity and naivete about football and schoolwork.  In short, it reduces Oher into Forrest Gump, as Max Weiss of Baltimore Magazine points out (with Weiss speculating that this may explain Oher’s supposed distaste for the film).  When I first posted this observation on Twitter, I was being somewhat coy, but as the discussion has evolved, I’m finding it increasingly convincing (even to the point that I now see Bullock as a kind of female Lieutenant Dan).

I bring this up not especially to criticize The Blind Side, although I find it problematic, but to point out that the film’s appeal rests, in part, on its ability to reach multiple audiences.  It certainly benefits considerably from Sandra Bullock’s status as a lead–imagine Hillary Swank or any other major actress in her role–but it’s easy to forget how much emphasis was placed on the role of sports in the film’s marketing (and on promoting the film during pro and college football broadcasts). And thanks to a brief conversation about the role of social media in shaping the reception of this film–more on that in the next few days–I’m wondering whether the film’s success can be attributed, in part, to campaigns, in particular among conservative bloggers, such as those writing for Big Hollywood, encouraging their readers to support the film (despite the supposed jab at President Bush).

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Avatar, World-Building, and Revolutionizing Cinema

In recent weeks, I’ve become casually interested in the hype surrounding James Cameron’s Avatar, a $500 million, special-effects laden, 3-D epic that serves as Cameron’s first feature-length narrative film since 1998′s Titanic.  It’s easy to forget that when Titanic came out, there was concern that the film would sink Cameron’s career and, potentially, a major studio.  But since then, Cameron has assumed a powerful position in the pantheon of blockbuster auteurs, alongside of Spielberg, Jackson, and Lucas (I’d include the Wachowskis here, but they need something besides the Matrix films to really qualify).  As the Avatar buzz begins to build, I’ve become fascinated by the ways in which the film is being positioned as the latest effects spectacle to simultaneously offer us a glimpse of a new world, one populated by an alien race with a distinct language and music, and a new way of seeing the world, one made possible by new cameras and more powerful computing power for rendering lifelike characters.

My thoughts on the promotion of Avatar began to crystalize when I read a recent profile of Cameron in this month’s Wired.  As usual, the article places emphasis on Cameron as a techno-auteur, someone who is equally adventurous in developing and testing new technologies as he is in taking storytelling risks.  In my book, I have a brief discussion of Cameron’s involvement in urging theaters to adopt the digital projectors that would be equipped to display 3-D films, a goal that the article ties directly to 3-D’s (thus far unrealized) potential to provide greater realism.

But I found it even more compelling that Joshua Davis’s profile also places emphasis on Cameron’s exhaustive efforts to create a convincing, coherent world for the Na’vi, the alien race depicted in the film.  We learn, for example, that Cameron recruited USC professor of linguistics, Paul R. Frommer, to create a new language for the Na’vi, discussing details such as whether modifiers would precede nouns, and training actors to speak the language phonetically (more on the language-creation here and in this even more thorough LA Times article).   Cameron also hired Jodie Holt, chair of UC Riverside’s botany and plant sciences department, to create a taxonomy of the plant life found on the planet where the Na’vi lived, as well as experts in astrophysics, musicology, and archaeology, to help imagine the world he’d created.  And while much of this content may not appear directly in the film, it will show up in the Pandorapedia, a book-length encyclopedia, part of which will be available online, but which has also been linked to the video game.

To some extent, these practices aren’t entirely new.  Fans have been learning Klingon since the 1960s.  Lucas and others collaborated in creating a vast textual universe inhabited by the Star Wars characters, and the Wachowksis create such an elaborate world for the Matrix characters that the final film was virtually incoherent for many casual observers (but much clearer for ardent fans).  Video games are also nothing new, but given the comments in this review from North Jersey.com, I’m curious to check out how the game engages with questions of narrative identification, given that you can play as either a human soldier or a Na’vi.

And yet, as the Wired title promises, Avatar is being positioned as the latest film that “could change film forever.”  On the one hand, it’s easy to dimiss such claims as so much marketing hype (or perhaps the utopian longings of the technogeek).  But I’m also fascinated by the language of transformation that seems to permeate so much of the pomotional materials, whether that is tied to a change in how stories are told visually or to a revitalization of a struggling film industry, as we see John Horn and Claudia Eller’s L.A. Times Cameron profile.  Here, Cameron is a prophet, capable of moving (digital) mountains, and potentially, providing us with a new cinematic language for visuallizing them.  Thus we find that Jon Lewis’s proclamation in the late 1990s that we have reached the “end of cinema as we know it” becomes both the status quo and continued hope for Hollywood filmmaking.

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