Archive for January, 2010

Thursday Links: Netflix, Indie, Hulu Notes

Yes, I should be working on my syllabi.  But a few recent news stories keep distracting me (and I’m not even ready to start thinking about that Apple tablet thingie):

  • A number of people have reported the story that Netflix and Warner have made a deal that would significantly expand Netflix’s ability to offer streaming versions of Warner films in exchange for delaying rental of Warner titles until 28 days after they go on sale.  This gives Warner a short retail window that might allow them to boost DVD sales while providing Netflix with access to more streaming content.  As NewTeeVee points out, it’s much cheaper for Netflix to stream videos rather than distributing them on DVD by mail.
  • Wired Magazine has an interesting article about The Asylum, a low-budget studio “specializing in shamelessly derivative knockoffs that are not-so-affectionately dubbed ‘mockbusters.'”  I’ve seen a couple of their titles, I think, at my local Blockbuster (including Snakes on a Train), but although the studio made approximately $5 million last year, they typically are ignored when we talk about “independent filmmaking,” one presumes because their films are perceived as schlocky or derivative.  But, as the Wired article astutley points out, there is a long history of this sort of practice, and given the glut of indies out there playing one or two festivals, we might benefit from thinking about studios like The Asylum, and how they fit into narratives of independent cinema, because they do make films that get relatively wide video distribution.
  • The most recent comScore analysis shows that viewers watched 31 billion online videos in November alone.  Google sites (i.e., including YouTube) accounted for nearly 40% of the total.  The nearest compeitior, Hulu, clocked in at 3%.
  • NewTeeVee also has some interesting, if somewhat odd, notes on Hulu’s audience, as compared to attendance at a number of blockbuster films.  I’m not sure what we learn from seeing that 42 million people saw a video on Hulu in October while nearly 20 million attended New Moon on its opening weekend, but the comparisons are worth a look.

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Box Office, Politics, Avatar

Although I still haven’t had time to see Avatar yet, thanks to holiday travel and teaching obligations, I’m fascinated by the reception of the film, both as a political artifact and as a box office juggernaut.  There can be little doubt that Avatar is a huge box office success and may, in fact, surpass James Cameron’s other epic success, Titanic, in terms of all-time (non-adjusted) worldwide box office dollars.  Yes, if we adjust dollars or take into account total number of admissions, Gone with the Wind has better numbers, but given the sheer number of competing forms of entertainment, Avatar’s numbers seem to inspire a kind of awe in a number of entertainment reporters and observers.  But it’s also a film that has turned into a kind of political football, which is not surprising, given the film’s popularity.

Some of these thoughts began to crystallize for me when I read RC’s post at Strange Culture, which asks where Avatar will “land” in terms of all-time “domestic” rankings.  As I mentioned in the comments, it’s important to focus on worldwide gross, especially given that blockbusters often see two-thirds of their overall box office from overseas audiences.  If I were to guess, I would imagine that the technological spectacle of the film translates well regardless of subtitles or dubbing, making it “easier” to translate to non-English audiences.  Part of me wonders, as I did back in the Dark Knight days, why we’re all so invested in Avatar’s box-office numbers, as if we ourselves are somehow involved in breaking these records or feel the need to witness these records being broken.

But RC also mentions the phenomenon of repeat viewings, which seems to be aiding the film’s overall numbers.  RC points out that many repeat viewers are reporting that they are “upgrading” their viewing experience, going from 2D to 3D or IMAX, in order to see the film anew, a significantly different characterization of repeat viewers than we saw with Cameron’s previous film, Titanic, where most repeaters were characterized as teen girls with a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.  Although Titanic was seen as a technological achievement, the love story narrative–complete with cheesy Celine Dion music–seemed to obscure the film’s use of technology.  With Avatar, for the most part, the technology itself seems to be obscuring the eco-friendly narrative.

That being said, the film has become a political football, especially for prominent conservatives who want to attack the film for being out of touch with mainstream values.  The most recent–and absurd–version of this attack comes (via Glenn Kenny) from Jonah Goldberg, who argues that the film’s biggest failing is…its framing of “the culture war” because the film gave the impression that “there are no secular people on the right.”  I’ll buy the idea tha the film is critical of the Iraq War or that it supports environmentalism, but this kind of reading treats the film solely as a partisan political message, not something with a complicated, even contradictory, ideology (and, quite honestly, gives good, well-supported ideological readings a bad name).  Worse, it reads everything not just in terms of left-right politics but the very narrow frame of contemporary U.S. elections, as if Cameron simply made a $350 million campaign ad, not an entertainment product.  The good news is that Avatar’s box office success seems to put a lid on the idea that “average Americans” are put off by Hollywood’s liberal excesses.  If Avatar is both liberal and excessive, most people don’t seem to mind.

The other popular “meme” about the film is that it has a derivative script.  I jokingly said it looked like “Dances with The Blue Man Group,” but I think that Anne Thompson offers a useful critique of the charge that Cameron’s films are derivative.  Yes, he certainly borrows (hmm..) liberally from past films and narratives, but the film itself is an original property (i.e., it’s not based on an existing media franchise) and its originality is, in part, the visual world Cameron has created (historically, I think Speilberg’s Oz comparisons, cited in Thompson, sound pretty apt).  I’m not saying that the film is “original,” because that’s a loaded term in academic film criticism, but that to fault the film for borrowing heavily from other narratives misses the point (it would be like faulting Wizard of Oz for borrowing from past coming-of-age narratives).

I’m not trying to make claims on Avatar’s politics here.  I’ll say more about those soon enough, I’m sure, but I continue to be fascinated by how the film functions as a political and cultural intertext, how audiences read the film’s politics and aesthetics and what that might mean in terms of seeing the film as a cinematic “game changer.”


Wednesday Links: 3D TV, Year in Cinema, Digital Humanities

Here are a few of the items I’ve been watching, reading, and thinking about in recent days:

  • Both James Poniewozik and Nick Bilton discuss the recent announcement that several channels (including ESPN) are planning to offer some 3D programming in the next few months.  Like them, I’m a little skeptical about whether or not there is a huge desire for 3D programming at home, especially if it requires wearing the glasses, and wondering whether programming trends that emphasize cheaply-produced reality TV actually warrant 3D.
  • Via Michael Newman on Twitter, “Cinema 2009,”a  very cool montage by Kees van Dijkhuizen, featuring clips from 342 different films produced in 2009.  Van Dijkhuizen has an eye for rhythmic editing and demonstrates an engaged–even obsessive–love of cinema that makes this little video a pleasure to watch.
  • Scott Kirsner points to a Wall Street Journal article that provides data on customer movie rental and purchase habits in 2009.  Actual theatrical spending increased dramatically, while DVD sales plummeted (DVD rentals stayed about the same).  Online purchases and streams remained a very tiny, but growing, portion of overall spending.
  • David Parry has a thoughtful response to recent discussions of the so-called rise of the digital humanities in light of Brian Croxall’s paper on the state of academic labor.


Twitter, Blogs, and Wikis: eCitizenship at Fayetteville State

This post is part of a panel at the upcoming mid-year conference at Fayetteville State University organized by several faculty members and students who attended the American Democracy Project’s eCitizenship Initiative Meeting in Detroit.  The goal of the project is to introduce faculty to social media tools that we can use to help students become more engaged with their classroom experiences and campus communities.  My contribution to the panel is a very brief overview of Twitter, blogs, and wikis, three tools that I have used both in the classroom and in my professional and personal life.  The panel itself leaves room only for about a 15-20 minute description, so these remarks will be incredibly broad (and I probably won’t be able to cover everything listed below, but want to make it available for faculty after the presentation), but if you have anything you’d like to add in the comments, I’d appreciate it.

Blogs: Although blogs are becoming a fairly visible part of web culture, professors and teachers are still exploring their implications for classroom use.  The most common expectations of blogs is that they are frequently updated, with newer entries appearing at the top of the page, making them valuable for course updates and for organizing class discussion.  Although Blackboard offers a blog function, I have often used public blogs in order to help students learn to write for a public audience.  Some useful links for faculty interested in blogging:

  • There are two major free blogging services, Blogger and WordPress (demo setting up a Blogger blog), where you can set up blogs, usually within minutes.  Both services offer default templates, but if you have basic web design skills, you can customize your template rather quickly.  Both services allow you to insert hyperlinks, video, and images quickly and easily.
  • Here are two past courses, both at Georgia Tech, where I required students to create both personal and group blogs, Rhetoric and Democracy and Writing to the Moment.
  • Be prepared for readers outside the class to discover your blogs and your students’ work, especially if you create a direct link to someone else’s site.  In a few cases, authors have left comments on student blogs responding to what they have to say.  For the most part, this seems to validate student perceptions of their writing, suggesting that others found it interesting or engaging.
  • Sample class blogs by faculty at other universities include David Silver (University of San Francisco), Bill Wolff (Rowan University), and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Pomona University).
  • For some information about blogging and scholarship, here is a presentation I gave at this year’s MLA conference in Philadelphia, and for another helpful explanation of the value of blogging, you might also read Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog.”

Twitter: Another easy-to-use resource, Twitter is a microblogging service that limits updates to 140 characters.  Although it has been much-maligned, it is also an incredibly valuable tool for sharing information and organizing conversation.

  • My personal Twitter account
  • Possible classroom uses for the @reply/retweet feature: users can direct a response to a specific comment while keeping their tweet public (demonstrate, asking readers to say hi)
  • Role of hashtags in organizing conversations: #MLA09 as conference backchannel.  You could create a course hashtag and allow students to submit questions via cell phone/text during class or to raise questions outside of class (one problem: older tweets may not be successfully archived after a few days; Twitter is more ephemeral than blogs).
  • Posting links: although Twitter is often criticized because it limits discussion to 140-characters, many tweeps use it to link to longer forms of writing, including blog posts.  There are several URL shorteners on the web, including and
  • Although students have been more reluctant to pick up Twitter than Facebook, it is being widely used by film, media, and literary scholars (among others).  For some discussion of Twitter’s use in the classroom, see Kelli Marshall (who identified some problems with using it) and David Parry, who offers a number of helpful instructions on setting up students with accounts.
  • Lists as a convenient way to follow a sub-group of specific Twitter users:  Film Studies for Free’s “Essential Reads” and Dan Cohen’s “Digital Humanities” list.
  • Two recent articles on Twitter: Inside Higher Ed reports on Twitter’s use at this years MLA Convention, Clive Thompson on Twitter’s “sixth sense,” and my AlterNet article, “Why You Should Be on Twitter.”

Wikis: Most people know wikis only from the collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the massive online encyclopedia that “anyone” can edit.  Although this crowdsourced approach to knowledge organization has been widely criticized, research has shown that it is no less accurate than other major encyclopedias, but most media scholars are interested in the wiki tool as offering a new mode of authorship for the digital age, one that emphasizes collaboration rather than individuality.

  • Blackboard offers a wiki function that I haven’t yet tested.  PBWiki is a free wiki service that offers basic wiki authoring tools (they make money through ads).  Other professors have had success with requiring students to write Wikipedia entries on subjects that haven’t yet been included in the site or to polish entries on subjects familiar to the students.  Wikipedia has a very helpful page offering suggestions for instructors thinking about creating assignments around the site.
  • There is a relatively slow learning curve with teaching students wiki authoring.  I spent several class periods working with students and many of them still struggled.  But here is a typical welcome page for a wiki (login may be required).
  • A more productive project–one that I found to be very successful, even if students were originally resistant–was an assignment asking students to analyze Wikipedia as a source.  Here is my original description of the project (note: this entry offers a number of useful links, including the assigned readings I gave) and an update a few weeks later after I’d read the students’ papers.
  • My project in particular asked students to examine how a typical Wikipedia entry is conducted in order to make conclusions about new forms of digital writing and collaboration.  I used the entry on Representative Joe Wilson to jumpstart this project, showing students both the discussion and archive pages for his entry (see the tabs at the top of the page on Wilson).

If you have any questions or observations about this project, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me by email at ctryon[at]uncfsu[dot]edu.

Update: Here are a couple of pertinent links that have crossed my radar since I composed this post.  First, via David Silver (linked above), an article by Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times about the role of hashtags in reshaping Twitter conversations.  Second, Steven Johnson explains “how Twitter will change the way we live.”

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My Decade in Movies, Part II

The second half of my “Decade in Movies” list (go here for part one) reflects a deepening interest in documentary and, eventually, in do-it-yourself (DIY) cinema, leading to the rise of the Mumblecore phenomenon and many other filmmakers ready to take up their mantle (pretend the list starts with the number 13).

  1. I admired Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset when I saw it in 2004 and deeply enjoyed revisiting it with my girlfriend a few months ago.  It successfully recreates the characters of Jessie and Celine as older, wiser, and slightly more cynical adults while retaining much of the romance of the original film.  And it made me want to revisit them again in 2014.
  2. Michel Gondry’s playful experiments with storytelling, subjectivity, and cinema, whether working with Charlie Kaufman or on his own managed to balance self-conscious quirk with broader philosophical themes.  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may be one of my favorite films of the last decade–it’s among the first to find its way to my Intro to Film syllabus–but I also quite liked Be Kind Rewind, especially due to its romantic celebration of the power of creativity (as discussed by Jason Sperb in this fantastic blog essay).  I was ambivalent about Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synechdoche, New York, but Roger Ebert’s recent comments on the film sold me on it.
  3. Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know had a powerful impact when I saw it at the Atlanta Film Festival many years ago.
  4. My year in Washington, DC, gave me access to more independent and documentary films than most other locations.  Jia Zhangke’s The World offered a sharp, moving analysis of globalization through the lens of workers at an amusement park that sought to simulate, albeit partially and incompletely, tourist sites from the rest of the world.
  5. On a related note, Jem Cohen’s Chain, a hybrid documentary-narrative feature offered a powerful portrait of consumer sprawl, using as its setting locations in several cities, states, and even countries to create a powerful sense of displacement (in multiple senses of that term).  The film, inspired in part by Walter Benjamin’s powerful critiques of the Paris Arcades, Chris Marker’s cinema essays, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s descriptions of retail work, is probably my personal favorite of the decade and, in fact, inspired a short essay I published in Art Signal.
  6. When I lived in DC, I also began to develop an awareness of the Mumblecore filmmakers and their achievements with DIY cinema.  My favorites:  By chance, I happened to catch Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha at a special screening at the AFI Silver, and I was immediately impressed by Bujalski’s ability to capture the awkwardness of young adult romance.  The Duplass Brothers’ Puffy Chair played soon after at the E Street Theater.
  7. One of the most influential DIY films of the decade was Four Eyed Monsters.  Arin Crumley and Susan Buice helped create some of the more successful models for promoting and distributing films online, through video podcasts and YouTube and Second Life screenings.  Much of what they did informed my own thinking about DIY cinema in Reinventing Cinema and beyond.
  8. Another important DIY film: Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, an imaginative re-telling of a section of The Ramayana mixed with Annette Hanshaw blues numbers and visually realized through a pastiche of animation styles.  Paley, like Buice and Crumley, turned to web distribution and used Creative Commons licenses after running into problems with clearing rights to Hanshaw’s songs.
  9. Like Sita Sings the Blues, Waltz with Bashir used animation to powerful effect, in this case to retell a traumatic massacre of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers.  The film explores the Israeli soldiers’ feelings of complicity with the massacre, as well as their inability to remember fully what happened or what they saw at the time.
  10. Like Roger Ebert, I’ve continued to be impressed by the work of Rahmin Bahrani, who made three powerful films over the last decade, Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and Goodbye Solo.  If I had to pick a favorite, it would likely be Goodbye Solo, if only because I saw it on the big screen in Cary, soon after moving up to the Research Triangle.  But all three films are small, intimate, observant stories about outsiders.  On a related note, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy struck a similar chord.
  11. Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy mixed Richard Linklater’s penchant for showing two characters wandering aimlessly through city streets while deep in conversation (in this case, San Francisco) with some astute observations about race and class and their relationship to indie culture.
  12. Once is one of the few musicals that worked for me, a film that incoroprated Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova’s music perfectly into the grubby streets of Dublin in a bittersweet romance between The Guy and The Girl.

Any observations? Objections? Omissions?  I’ve certainly not pretended that my list is definitive.  I missed many quality films, of course, but I hope these two lists tell us something about the decade we’ve just endured and about the movies that helped make it a little better.

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My Decade in Movies, Part I

With the decade coming to a close, there has been a frenzy of list-making from bloggers and reviewers alike, ready to name the best films or documentaries of the last decade.  Although such lists often have ideological functions or merely serve to show the “hubris” of the list-makers, as Jeffrey Sconce points out, there is some value in list-making, in using lists to tell a story about the last year, the last decade, or even the last century.  Although it is easy (albeit worthwhile) to criticize organizations such as the American Film Institute for championing middlebrow, white-bread entertainment, these list-making practices persist, whether in blogs, the pages of newspapers or magazines, or in the syllabi to the courses we teach.  As A. O. Scott points out, list-making allows for a fascinating dialectic between the “consensus masterpieces” that tell us something about our cinematic past and the subjective tastes that may prove more idiosyncratic but may also allow us to see a certain moment in the history of film (or audiovisual) culture in a different way.  It is the curatorial power of the list-maker that can map relationships between films in order to make sense of our cinematic past.

With that in mind, I’m resisting the impulse to pick a “10 Best” list for the last decade, following Sconce’s observation that such lists are often arbitrary and subjective.  There are hundreds of films from the last decade that I haven’t seen–including, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy–so any claims toward universality aren’t very convincing here.  So instead, I’ll discuss an extended list of movies that had some significance for me and that may also say something about film culture in the last decade.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I wouldn’t have predicted that many of the films on my list would stick with me so many years later.  Others that I listed as favorites have faded from memory, a phenomenon addressed by Dan Callahan in his review of the last decade.   The full “list” is below the fold in a semi-chronological order shaped by my own memories of seeing or reviewing them.

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Watching the Ball Drop

In order to celebrate our first New Years Eve together, it only made sense for The Best Girlfriend Ever and I to do something extravagant together, something a little crazy and excessive, and maybe a little goofy, too, so once we realized that I would be in Philadelphia for the MLA conference, we decided to take the short train ride to New York to spend New Years Eve in Times Square, waiting for and eventually watching the ball to drop.  Because the Times Square event–not to mention Times Square itself–is so hypercommercialized and sanitized to the point of inoffensiveness, unless you have an aversion to lots of flashing lights, I wasn’t especially excited about the performances or the hosts who would be orchestrating things, but as a media studies scholar curious about how these kinds of ritual events are manufactured and how users negotiate them.  It was a form of participatory field research, albeit one that required wearing lots and lots of layers of clothes.  But it was also a way to spend a fun, exciting night with my girlfriend, so even if it meant several hours of Seacrest, Daly, et al, I hoped that we could at least have a story to tell–and if we were too cold, we could always find a nearby bar and bring in the new year there.Times Square 1

Thanks to several friends who had spent time in New York, we learned that we would have to arrive at Times Square at around 2 or 3 PM in order to get a decent view of the ball dropping.  This is probably true for the most part, although a small group of Russian tourists showed up at around 11:30 PM, so perhaps there are ways of sneaking in at the last minute.  But because of crowd control issues, police would allow people to leave the penned off areas, but it was less clear whether they’d let you back in.  Which meant no bathroom breaks, no trips to nearby pizza joints or coffeehouses, no chances to run into nearby hotels and warm up.  Andrea and I arrived at around 2 PM, had a slice of overpriced pizza and, almost without recognizing it, found ourselves in the middle of the pen at 46th and Broadway, directly in front of the Marriott Marquis and next to the Nivea stage where the hosts–Nick Lachey and a female host I didn’t know–would stand.  Off in the distance, down the hill was the stage where Jennifer Lopez and American Idol rocker Daughtry would perform later in the evening.

The first few hours consisted of enforced waiting in cool, damp weather.  It had snowed a little–about four inches–that morning, at least in New Jersey, where we were staying.  And later that night, we got a little more frozen participation, which changed into a cool mist, but most people stuck it out despite the elements.  Probably the most difficult aspect of the event was the lack of food.  If I were to do the Times Square event again–and I likely wouldn’t–I would bring more food and, especially, water.  After 2 PM, our diet consisted of: a cranberry muffin, four chocolate-covered pretzels, a Fiber One bar, and a lollipop (all shared).  The event’s organizers made some effort to alleviate crowd boredom, tossing out balloons and hats to the crowd at various points, but much of the afternoon and evening consisted of extended waiting, talking to people standing nearby, and as the evening wore on, some dancing to top 40 and older dance tunes piped in over speakers.

times square 2Oddly, despite the depiction of the NYE event as a kind of giant concert, there was very little live music to be witnessed.  A couple of generic pop musicians I’d never heard (or heard of) performed a couple of songs around 8 PM.  A few minutes later, Jennifer Lopez did a couple of songs wearing a black body suit (and there was some debate about whether her music was “live”).  From our position on Broadway, we could see her hair swinging in the air on the stage below us, but most of the performances we saw were shown on a giant screen immediately below the ball.  The most memorable visual stimuli, for me, were the lights, the commercial noise that is part of the normal fabric of Times Square (and sometimes reminded me of that shot of Tom Cruise in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky), and the constant image of people holding up cameras, for both still photos and video, although this is a relatively common image in the tourist centers in Manhattan, of course.  Speakers would occasionally invite the audience to raise a “virtual glass” to toast the New Year (using an iPhone app, no less) or would advertise for the company that designed the crystal on the ball.

As the night wore on, making it until midnight became a kind of endurance test.  I joked at one point that it felt a bit like a marathon.  Jennifer Lopez came out again, this time wearing a brownish body suit that apparently looked like it was transparent, and performed again.  times square 3A Jay-Z video received its premiere.  More waiting.  Finally, as the clock loomed closer to midnight, it became easier to embrace the collective sentiment that makes such an event possible.  The tourists that were smoking and dancing obnoxiously nearby become a little more charming.  Umbrellas are shared, and the vague sense of hope associated with new beginnings becomes a little more evident.  And then, as the clock begins to count down the last minute of the year, it’s difficult not to share in the excitement.  Although it’s difficult to see the ball dropping live, even from our relatively ideal position, the falling confetti seems to fill the sky.

And then, within minutes, most of the crowd had dispersed, many of them, if the lines at most of the city’s pizza places are any indication, as hungry as we were.  I probably would not do the New Years Eve event at Times Square again.  Once is enough.  Although the final countdown was fun and the company was wonderful, it’s also tedious, with lots of empty time and waiting (at least, in my case, the company was good).  The “live” audience, in many ways, sees quite a bit less than the audience at home, at least in terms of live music.  While in the pizza place, I looked up at the TV and caught a Green Day performance–I’d hoped to see them live, at least, after hearing that they would be playing on one of the stages.  But seeing the event live also helped me to see how the event is staged for the audience at home, how the viewers at home are the true “audience” for the shows, while the crowd activities become a part of the show.

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