Archive for February, 2010

Reality Effects: Politicizing The Hurt Locker

Now that Kathryn Bigelow’s verité-style war film, The Hurt Locker, has achieved front-runner status for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, the publicity for the film has directed renewed attention to the politics of representing war.  As Vadim Rizov argues, this is one of the benefits of this year’s awards season, allowing us to discuss these issues in a potentially rewarding way, even though he seems to back down from this claim when he suggests that political discussions give the awards season an “undue importance.”  In thinking about this debate, I’m less interested in coming to a conclusion about the film’s politics than I am in interrogating the grounds by which we try to determine them.  Although it’s tempting to accept the comments from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal as definitive, it’s also important to place the film against some of the other paratexts–including the DVD itself–that help to define how it will be received.

As Rizov points out, The Hurt Locker had been pitched, until recently, as an apolitical treatment of the experiences of a unit of soldiers specializing in defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and for the most part, the film seems to conform that on a formal level.  The experiences of the soldiers are depicted in a non-judgmental way, a perception reinforced by the use of a hand-held camera that seems to emulate the footage seen in a number of Iraq War documentaries ranging from Gunner Palace to The War Tapes, and the lack of an explicit narrative (hinted at via the in media res opening sequence in which one soldier is killed) only serves to reinforce that.  The realism effect produced by the film is powerful, making it easy to read the film as an apolitical observation of what it’s like to be in combat.  Here, even the Chris Hedges quotation that serves as the film’s epigraph, telling us that “war is a drug” can be read as politically neutral, an updated formulation of the “war is hell” cliche, to acknowledge the adrenaline rush produced by combat.

However, in a number of recent interviews, Bigelow has argued that the film is intended as a critique of the Iraq War, suggesting at one point that she hoped the film would help bring “closure” to the war before later adding that war is “completely dehumanizing” and that the depictions of violence against children should tell us that the film is taking a specific position against the “futility” of war.  Add in the recognition that Hedges, whom she cites favorably, has been an outspoken critic of the war, and it becomes tempting to read the film as anti-war, a reading that might be reinforced by the final scene when Jeremy Renner’s SSG William James is unable to cope with the tedium of returning home to a life of grocery shopping and taking kids to school.

But I think this reading–based primarily on the artists’ intentions–misses quite a bit.  A number of observers, including Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, have argued that no combat film is ever fully anti-war.  And although I am not prepared to agree with her, Martha Nochimson, isolates this “pro-war” reading, arguing in Salon that we are  aligned with James’s “expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement.”  In fact, although the film details James’ expertise in defusing bombs, he is also seen as making dangerous and often risky choices that endanger himself and his fellow soldiers.  And, yes, we fail to see the Iraqi civilians clearly, but that’s partially because the soldiers themselves cannot see the Iraqis clearly.  The one attempt to bond with an Iraqi boy ends, as we likely anticipate, in tragedy.  And asking every war film to deal with “the larger context of the American presence in Iraq” seems to be calling for a political lecture, precisely the kind of film that most audiences have rejected, usually because they are too reductive.  But it’s not impossible to see the film as endorsing some version of our presence in Iraq, especially when you view the DVD, which includes a trailer for Jake Rademacher’s Brothers at War, a documentary that essentially offers a pro-war argument while telling the story of Jake’s experience being embedded with his brother’s military unit.

A much more insightful critique comes from prominent war critic, Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who criticizes the film for its failure to depict combat realistically, particularly when it comes to James’ maverick behavior (although Rieckhoff commends the film’s depiction of adjusting to life after combat).  In fact, Rieckhoff suggests the film lacks “respect” for US soldiers and cites another that calls the film “insulting” to the soldiers whose job it is to defuse IEDs.  Rieckhoff’s complaints about the lack of realism are certainly hard to dispute, and even without any combat experience, I was well aware that many of James’ actions would have gotten him in trouble with his superiors or, worse, led to him getting shot.  But given that the film asks us to balance two forms of realism–a documentary realism that depicts actual combat and an emotional realism that depicts the addictiveness of war–I’m tempted to accept some looseness when it comes to depicting combat.

This tension regarding cinematic realism was recently addressed by Chris Cagle, who argues that The Hurt Locker’s documentary aesthetic makes us feel as if we are “watching a slice of historical reality.”  Although the film is deconstructing the war film (and, arguably war video game) aesthetic, much like many of Bigelow’s older films deconstruct film tropes, whether the buddy film (Point Break) or masculine visual pleasure (Strange Days), the reality effect is hard to shake.  But even with this deconstructionist approach, I’d argue that the film should instead be read as politically ambivalent, as sustaining both pro- and anti-war readings, and in some sense, that ambivalence depends almost entirely on the “war is a drug” theme.  In fact, the recognition that war is addictive works because of the adrenaline rush we get vicariously through James, the excitement at saving lives and the thrill of facing life-and-death decisions.  In a sense, we are torn between indentifying with James and seeing him as symptomatic of a war gone wrong.  Either James’ experience of combat offers an unrivaled form of excitement, allowing us to vicariously experience a watered down version of war, or the film invites us to recognize him as an object of analysis, with both approaches and readings potentially, perhaps even equally, available.

The Hurt Locker is a fascinating film, especially because of its treatment of the issue of representations of war, but it is not unequivocally pro- or anti-war, an ambiguity that is suggested not only by the reviews the film has received but also by the paratexts that help shape our interpretation of it.  The film’s realism effect is also complicated by its engagement with the politics of representation, making it an incredibly difficult film to pin down.

Update: By the way, Patrick Goldstein addresses the debate over the military response to the film’s accuracy in an interesting post on his Big Picture blog.  I think he’s right to point out that feature films, including those about historical events, often include inaccuracies, but given the film’s overall aim, I wonder if I’d take it as a compliment to hear that The Hurt Locker has “too much John Wayne stuff.”

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Financing and Distributing Indie Films

I forgot to mention this yesterday, but Jon Reiss has pointed to an incredibly useful resource for people interested in how independent films are financed, while pointing out how how “stars” and film festivals function in the indie film economy. The survey, known as the AKA Report, was compiiled by Jeremy Juuso Consulting, and it is available for free here.

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Thursday Links: B-Side, Blockbuster, Avatar, 3-D

I’ve got a post percolating on the politics of The Hurt Locker, but for now, here are some quick pointers to some recent articles that are worth a click-through:

  • Filmmaker Magazine was the first to announce that B-Side Entertainment, which specialized in providing website services to film festivals, is closing.  The Filmmaker blog post provides an incredible overview of the company and the services they offered.  Founder Chris Hyams sums up this history saying that “We find ourselves at a time of great upheaval in the film industry. We are somewhere between the old and the new world. Technology is altering the way films are being made, and there are new avenues for how films can be consumed.”  Unfortunately B-Side was unable to make a financial model work for their company.  Bad Lit and The IFC Blog also react.
  • Responding to an LA Times article on Avatar’s animated acting,” Kristin Thompson has a thoughtful assessment of whether motion-captured performances, such as Andy Serkis’ Gollum and Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri should be considered for acting awards at the Oscars (or similar ceremonies).  Thompson concludes that the digital changes to actors’ facial features transform the original performance too much to make judgments about what to consider as the actual performance too fuzzy.  I don’t really have strong feelings here.  I’m not invested enough in the awards to care, but I’m also not sure where we draw the line given the long history of prosthetics, makeup, and other “artificial supplements” to an actor’s performance.
  • On his indispensible Twitter feed, Roger Ebert pointed to a Wall Street Journal article reporting that three major theatrical chains have now secured funding to convert as many as 14,000 screens from celluloid to digital projection, thus enabling them to project digital 3-D movies, thanks in part to the success of Avatar.
  • One of the fascinating aspects of Redbox’s rise to dominance has been the attempts by Blockbuster to reinvent themselves, a process that seems to entail throwing things against the wall and waiting for something to stick.  They are reportedly exerimenting with cell-phone movie rentals (so you, too, can have tiny, hypermobile movies in your pocket), moving toward online rentals (probably too little too late), and hoping that they can benefit from getting many Hollywood features for rental one month before both Redbox and Netflix.

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Documentary Challenge 2010

I just received a reminder that registration for the 2010 version of the International Documentary Challenge is now open.  Registered participants are given a general theme and then have five days to make a 4-7 minute non-fiction film.  The top twelve films are screened at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival and other theatrical and TV screenings possible as well.  Winning films are also placed on a DVD compilation.  In addition, many past Doc Challenge winners are now available for viewing on their SnagFilms channel.  I was a judge last year and very much enjoyed watching the creative works of so many filmmakers.

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“A Narrative of Impending Tyranny”

In a recent post on his blog, Jay Rosen has raised some important questions about the nature of contemporary journalism, arguing that in the attempt to remain objective, many journalists evacuate the truth-telling role historically associated with reporting.  Rosen has been making a similar argument for some time, correctly castigating journalists for falling into the “he said, she said” pattern of reporting controversial events, in which reporters seem to dutifully take down the two primary interpretations of a current event and place them into competition without ever checking whether one side has a stronger hold on the truth, creating what Rosen refers to a “false balance” between competing points of view.  In some cases this kind of reporting can lead to a kind of epistemological paralysis in which it is unclear where the truth lies.  In other cases, it can lead to the cynical manipulation of historical memory that Jeffrey Jones has recently discussed in a must-read column for Antenna. Or, as Jim Emerson observes, “Without reality-based reporting, nobody’s accountable for what they do or say, and democracy itself doesn’t work.”

Rosen’s specific complaint is about one single line in a larger article by David Barstow tracing the history and philosophy of the Tea Party Movement.  As Rosen observes, it is an outstanding piece of political reporting, a detailed observation about the nature of the movement and its participants, and with many newspapers struggling with their bottom lines, one can only hope to see more journalism just like it.  But Rosen also notes that Barstow leaves unexplored a guiding characteristic of many people involved in the movement, noting that at one point, Barstow writes that “it is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny.”

Rosen’s complaint is that such a claim can be placed under scrutiny and tested as to whether or not it’s verifiable.  If the country faces “impending tyranny,” he asks, shouldn’t we know about it?  If it’s not, he implies, should the claims of the tea partiers be taken seriously?  The obvious answer is, of course, that we should be worried about the possibility of tyranny, but a slightly longer answer, at least from my perspective, is that things are a little more complicated, specifically when it comes to defining precisely what we mean by “impending tyranny.”

On the one hand, it would be easy to conclude that Barstow is assuming the narrative is wrong.  After all, he’s writing for the New York Times, and he can, perhaps, safely assume that the vast majority of his readers already assume that it’s a bogus narrative, the reaction of a significant, vocal minority.  As one commenter suggested, Barstow may simply be taking for granted that “by simply describing their belief, he is telling the typical reader of the Times that they are nuts.”  To some extent, I think there may be some truth to this observation.  The article reads like a sociological study, and here is what the Tea Party Tribe believes.  But in terms of assessing why the Tea Party people believe this way, it’s not very satisfying, and it leaves quite a bit open to interpretation.

But as commenter Robert Morris points out, many of the changes that are taking place–restrictions on smoking in public places or even the requirement to obtain health insurance–look like tyranny to many of the people who disagree with these policy changes.  Growing up in the south and attending an evangelical college, I heard countless references to other forms of “tyranny:” affirmative action policies, bans on school prayer, legalized abortion.  Although these policies seem to be rather unlike traditional notions of tyranny, they are quite often felt that way, making any simple interpretation or measurement of that claim a little more complicated.  Morris’s comment helps to flesh out why the Tea Partiers may believe the “impending tyranny” narrative, but he still takes us back to the “he said/she said” paradigm when he suggests that taking a position on whether tyranny is imminent would be “a slap in the face” of Tea Partiers.  We are still stuck with the debate about the nature of government rule and whether our liberty is threatened.

To that extent, I absolutely share Rosen’s belief that the Times article could have gone further in testing the validity of that narrative, of unpacking that claim a little further.  But instead of seeing that phrase–however calculated–as illustrating a gap in Barstow’s reporting, it could be read as a productive lens through which the politics of the movement can be read. If Tea Partiers feel a sense of “impending tyranny,” why do they feel that way?  What are the cultural, social, or political factors at play here?  This line looks to me like the beginning of a deeper analysis, not necessarily an endpoint.  As Barstow observes in a CJR interview, the Tea Partiers are the product of a number of social forces, and many of their views have a much longer history.  In fact, the article seems to be a “productive” one in that it has inspired a deeper conversation about the current political movement, and in that sense, I don’t think that the article (or a single line within it) should be read in isolation.  It is a keen insight and, hopefully, a launching point for further dialogue.

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Crazy Heart

Scott Cooper’s lo-fi drama, Crazy Heart (IMDB) focuses on down-on-his-luck country singer, Bad Blake, a hard-drinking but talented singer-songwriter who seems meant to recall the outlaw country musicians such as Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash, a connection that is only reinforced through Bridges’ resemblance to  a slightly less scruffy Kris Kristofferson.  He’s the guy who has tons of musical talent, but thanks to bad luck or his own stubbornness, never made it big. Now he’s playing every low-rent bar and bowling alley in cities all over the southwest.  West Texas, Santa Fe, New Mexico, back to Houston.  Bad seems to stumble from gig to gig, calling his agent, pleading for a final opportunity at the mainstream success that has always eluded him.  And despite his hard drinking ways, Bad does show up at every gig, in one case stopping in the middle of a song to leave the stage and vomit in a back alley before coming back for the big finish.

Although the romance plot with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean, a journalist who knows her country music (she name drops Lefty Frissell) seems to offer him the clearest shot at redemption, Bad seems even more focused on his relationship with Tommy Sweet, an attractive, young, rising country star (played by Colin Farrell).  Bad expresses frustration that Tommy seems to have neglected his mentor, choosing to focus on what “his label” wants rather than on loyalty to an old friend.  And although the film seemed to be derivative of a number of films, including co-star Robert Duvall’s own film, Tender Mercies, I found this conflict between Tommy and Bad to be worth addressing, in large part because it seems to replay, yet again, one of the central thematic devices of contemporary indie cinema: the conflict between indie and mainstream itself.

I’ve been reading Geoff King’s Indiewood, USA this week, and one of the more compelling observations King makes is that many of Charlie Kaufman’s scripts, especially Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, play out this opposition thematically, whether through Craig’s puppet shows or through the challenges of screenwriting for studios. Even last year’s acting Oscar-bait, The Wrestler, seems to offer a redemptive depiction of the pure physicality of minor league wrestlers like Randy, as compared to the fakery of commercial wrestling.  I’m not entirely sure that I should be registering this observation as a complaint: questions about the nature of artistic production are of utmost importance in our culture, and in the world of indie, it only makes sense to interrogate the role of capital in shaping those expressions.

So, yes, I do think that Crazy Heart is derivative, and I’ll even acknowledge that Bad Blake is a pretty watered-down version of the outlaw country singers he’s supposed to resemble (as one or more of my Facebook commenters observed).   But I think many of these films are trying to tell us something about the challenges artists face in navigating the indie-mainstream divide today, whether that’s in music or on film.  I don’t know that Crazy Heart offers anything new to that discussion, but I think it is symptomatic of a certain tendency in indie filmmaking.

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Digital Nation

This semester I’ve been teaching a master’s-level course for teachers called “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” and as usual, teaching the course pushes me to think about how digital tools fit into the pedagogical needs of today’s student population.  With that in mind, I’ve been curious for a while to see the PBS documentary, Digital Nation, directed by Rachel Dretzin, with contributions from Douglas Rushkoff, in part because of the attempt by the filmmakers to extend the conversation about the issues presented in the film to the web.  Like Henry Jenkins, who has posted a negative review of the film (but a positive review of the website), I found myself feeling frustrated at how the documentary framed a number of important questions about digital media literacy, but as an example of a transmedia documentary, I think it’s a fascinating case study, something that media scholars and others can use to powerful effect in their classrooms.

Jenkins raises some significant concerns about the frames through which the documentary engages with digital media.  We are presented at the very beginning of the film with scenes depicted addicted South Korean gamers, some of whom undergo a two-week “Internet Rescue Camp” designed to teach them to withdraw from the internet. Other sequences seem to depict family life as transformed with parents and children glancing at each other over a set of illuminated screens in what Dretzin referred to as her “kitchen experience,” while some students (rather anecdotally) report being able to write an “awesome paragraph” but not being able to focus for the length of an entire paper.  Douglas Rushkoff’s “conversion narrative” isn’t entirely convincing, either, and seems to be somewhat imposed on the film to give it a (somewhat tenuous) narrative arc.  Perhaps a bigger problem is the lack of understanding of what it means to “multitask.”  As Jenkins points out, some forms of multitasking have existed for a long time and often involve combining several mundane activities: watching a sporting event or listening to music or talking on the phone while washing dishes, for example.

As Jenkins and others have commented, however, many of these changes need to be placed in a historical context, and to be fair to the filmmakers, they did include Jenkins’ remark that these debates about distraction and multitasking and information overload have a much longer history dating back at least to the Progressive era.  Yeah, movies and kinetoscopes aren’t iPods or Crackberries, but it’s reductive to suggest that these problems and debates about literacy are entirely new.  More frustrating for me was the tendency to refer to today’s students as “digital natives,” an assumption that was (from what I can recall) never really challenged in the film.  To be sure, students today barely remember a time when Google didn’t exist, and many can navigate using a mouse in ways that surprise many adults, but that dexterity may not correspond to the more complicated forms of information literacy raised by web search and other activities.

In places, I found the documentary relatively helpful, especially in its recognition that real communities form in the virtual worlds of online games and Second Life, and the segment focusing on “Cooking with Bubbe,” an online cooking show featuring an 80-something Jewish grandmother, showed the power of online communities, as well.  The questions that the film raised about military uses of digital media were timely and important, especially the concerns about using done aircraft, in which pilots operating machines in Las Vegas direct airplanes to drop bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq.  I think it’s well worth asking about the moral implications of this kind of war: what does it mean when we can fire missiles or drop bombs 7,000 miles from any real danger and then go home and have dinner with our families or go to a PTA meeting?  It’s an unsettling question, one that the PBS version of the documentary can only begin to cover.

Which is why I think any critique of the film needs to acknowledge the mediating role of the Digital Nation website. Although it is no doubt true that many viewers will only encounter the film via the PBS broadcast, the conversation has spilled out onto the PBS website and beyond, illustrating the potential of transmedia documentary to create engagements with the world that are not always defined by a single perspective.  Viewers, like me, who are concerned about military uses of digital media can follow that path.  Or, we could learn more about one teacher’s use of a Ning to make Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird more accessible.  Jenkins is absolutely right that the supplemental material (a vast archive of deleted scenes, user contributions, viewer comments, and other material) can offer us a valuable lesson in media literacy: What was included in the PBS film? How was it organized? What might that tell us about the biases of the PBS audience?  For that reason, rather than dismissing the PBS documentary, I think it makes more sense to see it as just one component of a much larger work, one that is contradictory, complicated, messy, and often very compelling, much like the digital age in which we are living.

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Friday Links: Redbox, JFK, and Tricky Dick

My first sets of papers and other projects are starting to trickle in, so blog time may be curtailed once again, but I am hoping to see Shutter Island again and may even have time to weigh in with a review.  For now, here are a few links:

  • Via the Inside Redbox blog, a discussion from Home Media Magazine of what is now being called the “retail window” that Warner and other studios have instituted in order to protect themselves against perceived losses caused by Redbox and other rental services.  I’ve been speculating for a while that the “retail window” probably won’t do very much to increase DVD sales.  People who are looking to shell out $1 to pass the time on a Friday night aren’t the same ones who will buy a DVD for their collection.  I realize that dollar rentals drive down prices across the board, but are the people who use Redbox kiosks really going to be so driven by the demand for one specific film that they’ll purchase it?
  • I’m hoping to write a longer post about the much-discussed History Channel JFK documentary to be made by conservative activist Joel Surnow (best known for his work on the TV show 24), but Jeffrey Jones has an interesting read of the debate over the documentary and how it comments on the contemporary politics of images.  As Jeffrey observes, “With a distrust of elites, a delegitimized news media, a populist-paranoic rise in anti-intellectualism, and a hyper-ideological political culture, what constitutes historical truth (and even contemporary reality) is and will be hotly contested in the foreseeable future.”  And a big part of this conflict is the variety of media platforms where these debates will play themselves out.  Documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald has been spearheading one of the most visible responses in attempting to depict the Surnow documentary as nothing more than tabloid fodder.
  • And if you wanted more evidence that the 60s will never die, even after most of the politicians and many of cultural figures have faded away, Jim Emerson points to Adam Curtis’s six-minute documentary that argues that we have all become Richard Nixon, thus turning us into “increasingly paranoid weirdos.”  The film is at its most powerful in tracing out the extent to which a “culture of fear” (to use Glassner’s phrase) permeates public discourse as well as the degree to which that has accompanied an increasing mistrust of institutions, especially political ones, to make a difference in our lives.  Although compelling, I found it a bit reductive in a few places.  After all, didn’t 52% of us (more or less) vote for a guy who promised to restore hope and to bring change to government?  That being said, as a diagnosis of how “we” have become atomized and skeptical of any public officials, it raises some powerful points.
  • I haven’t yet jumped into the Film Preservation blogathon (organized in part by the Self Styled Siren) yet, but I will point to Catherine Grant’s contribution, which starts with one of my favorite meditations on the materiality of film: Bill Morrison’s Decasia.

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Tarantino: The Author as Cinematic Database

I’ve been intrigued by a series of recent articles discussing Quentin Tarantino’s ambivalence about reviews that attempt to identify the influences on his films.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Patrick Goldstein, Tarantino complained that

Instead of critics reviewing my movies, now what they’re really doing is trying to match wits with me. Every time they review my movies, it’s like they want to play chess with the mastermind and show off every reference they can find, even when half of it is all of their own making. It feels like the critics are IMDB-ing everything I do. It just rubs me the wrong way because they end up using it as a stick to beat me down with.

According to Goldstein, Stephanie Zacharek’s review of Tarantino’s Kill Bill was one of the reviews that tested QT’s patience the most, with Zacharek referring to the film as something akin to a late night “on a moldy postgraduate couch” with the director offering a running commentary on film culture rather than, you know, a narrative feature.  Zacharek’s review may serve an extreme expression, but I think Tarantino is right to remark that his films have become overshadowed by his (highly constructed) reputation as a movie fanatic video store clerk-turned director.

In my discussion of DVD culture in Reinventing Cinema, I referred to Tarantino as a “video auteur,” as someone who was so immersed in the history of film that his movies offered a “database” of references to past films (and other images).  Although I linked this to Tarantino’s biography, I was more interested in his reputation as a director, as it has been established in a series of press accounts, DVD commentaries, and interviews.   To some extent, however, Hollywood filmmakers (and others) have long traded in visual references.  Godard’s early films are loaded with references to the history of cinema, and directors routinely describe a desired visual effect by reference to earlier films, but Tarantino has, perhaps a little unfairly, become singled out as the most visible contemporary instance of a video auteur.

In this regard, I think Tarantino’s work, especially his most recent film, Inglourious Basterds, presents an interesting case for thinking about how the nature of interpretation seems to be changing in the age of networked film criticism in the blogosphere.  As Jonathan Gray has recently argued, we always interpret films (or TV shows or whatever) in terms of their paratexts, the trailers and interviews and supplemental materials that accompany or advertise or announce the existence of an upcoming film.  And, in some sense, Tarantino’s status and reputation as a director have positioned his films so that “we” (cinephiles, film critics, and even scholars) read them first as a collection of cinematic references, which often obscures what Tarantino himself may be trying to do (and I’ll leave to the side for now the entire debate about authorial intentionality).

To be sure, many of Tarantino’s films contain homages to prior films (and he goes on to describe many of the influences on Basterds in the Goldstein interview).  Jackie Brown cannot be read without some knowledge of the history of blaxploitation or the career of Pam Grier, to name but one example.  But with the rise of the film blogosphere and crowdsourced fan sites, such as IMDB.com, what has changed is that audiences are now collectively unpacking cult and/or auteur-based films in such exhaustive detail that every scene in a Tarantino movie is now subject to the wider database and collective knowledge of a massive film audience.  The same “collective intelligence” (to use Pierre Levy’s phrase) that might be used to solve a Lost alternate reality game or to identify Survivor spoilers is now attempting to “solve” the interpretation of a Tarantino film.

In a sense, this is what literary and film critics have “always” done: use their collective knowledge to resolve ambiguities in a text or to identify meanings that hadn’t previously been recognized.  But with the rise of networked film criticism, these practices have become intensified, crowdsourced to the extreme, as film viewers seek to unpack an especially challenging film (or filmmaker) in an attempt to demonstrate a form of mastery (hence Tarantino’s antagonistic account of a “chess” battle).  And given the sheer number of films available to this movie-hungry audience, it’s inevitable that those viewers will see references that were not intended by Tarantino himself, that are, in his words, “of their own making.”

There is obviously a long history of directors complaining about being misunderstood, a complaint that has become amplified in the age of blogging, but I think that Tarantino unpacks one of the complications associated with the collective intelligence of the film blogosphere.  In that sense, I don’t think the right question to ask about Tarantino is whether he uses “too many” cinematic references, as Monika Bartyzel does, but instead, we might ask how the changing nature of interpretation, informed by crowdsourcing and social media, changes our engagement with the history of images that Tarantino so enthusiastically and astutely addresses.

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Wednesday Links: Redbox, Netflix, Ebert, and ‘Alice’ DVD

Another round of links, including several that will likely find their way into a longer article I’m writing on new DVD distribution models:

  • The effect of Redbox has been widely discussed for months, with some observers making the claim that the DVD kiosk service may cost Hollywood over a billion dollars.  Some studios have responded by  preventing Redbox from renting some new releases until they have been available for sale for thirty days.  As a result, according to the Inside Redbox blog, Redbox is saying that “a 30-day block on new release titles could cost the Redbox up to 50% of its revenue.”  Some interesting discussion in the comments, including a few people challenging the whole concept of a “new release.”
  • On a related note, Edward Jay Epstein has a thoughtful analysis of the Netflix business model, noting that because the First Sale Doctrine doesn’t apply to digital rights, the company has to pay far more to provide streaming access to new release films from the studios.
  • Esquire has an amazing profile of film critic Roger Ebert and how he has experienced the loss of his ability to speak as well as chnages in his review practices as a result of social media.  Ebert is one of the few celebrities I follow on Twitter because his tweets always seem substantial, even when I disagree with them.  Some powerful anecdotes, including an account of Ebert listening to Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” from his hospital bed.
  • Ebert himself interviewed Up in the Air director Jason Reitman, who spent some time discussing the awards campaign process (he claims to see Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron on a daily basis at awards show events) before talking about the ways in which blogs, which often place so much emphasis on the urgency of the scoop, have changed film journalism.
  • I still haven’t had time to watch the PBS documentary Digital Nation yet, but Douglas Rushkoff, who was involved with the film’s production, mentions that there is now an online forum where viewers can discuss issues related to the film.
  • Patrick Goldstein addresses the controversy over Disney’s decision to release the Alice in Wonderland DVD a scant thirteen weeks after the film appears in theaters.  Needless to say, theater owners are claiming they will be “killed” if this happens.  Although theater owners are making “doomsday” predictions, I think Goldstein is basically right to suggest that it’s impossible to predict whether narrowing the current four-month window will have any significant effect on box office simply because each film will be different.
  • Speaking of Redbox, there are rumors that the site is considering a move toward a number of different digital platforms including SD cards, USB drives, and portable media players.

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Wednesday Links: Defining Indie

I’m finally catching up after a bout of food poisoning and virus of some kind hit me at the same time.  Then yesterday I got slammed by two flat tires.  Needless to say, I haven’t had a lot of time or energy for blogging lately. But here are a few links worth a look:

  • I’m still mulling over some of the questions that I briefly addressed in my post on Edward Jay Epstein’s discussion of indie film, but there have been a couple of posts that have addressed these issues in a thoughtful way.  Mike at Bad Lit takes apart Epstein’s overly broad definition of indie in the context of a discussion of YouTube’s experiment with selling streaming rentals of Sundance films.
  • Judy Berman responds to Epstein in order to ask why indie film is struggling while indie music seems to be thriving.  Like a lot of people who’ve responded to Berman, I’m not sure that the comparison between the two media holds.
  • One of the more useful interventions into this discussion in David Poland’s taxonomy of five categories of independent films.  It’s a good breakdown of how some of the key players in independent film may be defining themselves.  Poland also addresses how VOD may be affecting the theatrical potential of some independent films.
  • This isn’t about indie, but Poland also discusses Disney’s announcement that they will release the DVD of Alice in Wonderland a mere 13 weeks (three months) after opening the film theatrically.  Poland has some interesting speculation about the reasons behind this choice.

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Epstein on Indie

Now that Miramax has joined the long list of indie film companies that have closed their doors, entertainment journalist Edward Jay Epstein is now weighing in on the fate of independent movies and wondering whether indies can “survive” (thanks to Film Dr’s Twitter feed for the tip).  Epstein points to the financial success of tentpole movies such as Avatar and the decline of pre-sale agreements to foreign buyers and cable channels as a sign that indie films may be endangered.

Epstein is an attentive observer of the film industry, so his arguments are worth considering.  His previous book, The Big Picture, was incredibly helpful for me when I was working on Reinventing Cinema; however, in some cases, I’d argue that predicted economic consequences are not always straight-forward.  Back in 2005, when Epstein was promoting The Big Picture during the 2005 box office “slump,” he expressed concern that the narrowing of the “window” between theatrical and DVD releases from six months could lead to a decline in box office that would produce a “death spiral.”  when, in fact, DVD sales have begun to level off while box office (if not attendance itself) remains relatively steady.

Indie filmmakers are clearly confronting some challenges, including many mentioned by Epstein (and others, including an intensely competitive marketplace , but rather than dismiss experiments by Sony, Focus, and Lionsgate, I think it’s worth considering how these approaches may offer new alternatives for indie filmmakers.  Sony’s plan to focus on indie films with budgets of less than $2 million may allow filmmakers quite a bit of room for creativity.  Lionsgate’s decision to focus on genres such as horror is consistent with a long history of low-budget filmmaking (note the horror boom in the 1980s when VHS was introduced).  Epstein also fails to mention Paramount’s new low-budget division, another potential landing place for indie directors.

Still, I’ll be curious to check out Epstein’s latest book, The Hollywood Economist, which promises to explain how studios make their money.

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Miramax: A Cinematic Education

By now, pretty much everyone who cares will know that the legendary independent movie distributor Miramax has finally closed down.  The closing of Miramax, the studio built by Harrvey and Bob Weinstein and named after their parents, had been anticipated for a while in this era of downsizing studios, and of course, Miramax had long lost its reputation as a maverick dealer in edgy indie fare.  Once Disney took ownership (and especially after the Weinsteins left), it became difficult to see Miramax as an “independent.”  Its films were instead labeled with the sometimes-pejorative distinction “Indiewood.”  But as Miramax closes its doors, I’ve found myself thinking about how their films provided me with something like an ad hoc cinematic education, one that helped shape my decision to study film.

Like many people, including Owen Gleiberman, I first became aware of Miramax via Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, a film I happened to see several times because my religious college had overbooked the dorms and was forced to put several of us up in a local hotel.  And with three free months of premium cable, I had a chance to see the film several times, to begin to grasp, barely, that Soderbergh was trying to do something different, to mesh thoughtful, interesting (and, yes, potentially voyeuristic) material with a pop sensibility.

It would be several years later that Miramax would make its biggest impression on me, though.  And although Miramax helped ditsribute Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, two films I loved, it was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red (the trailer, oddly, is not anything like the film) that made me want to study films professionally.  Weeks after seeing the film, I was enrolled in a Feminist Film Theory course at Purdue (along with other coursework), and many of the questions about chance and coincidence depicted in the film began to motivate my early scholarship (work that briefly focused on another underrated Miramax film, Smoke).

The Feminist Film course at Purdue gave me a framework for reading both Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and, more crucailly, the marketing apparatus created by Miramax (and others?) that promoted the film as one with a “surprise twist.”  Although I criticized Miramax in the paper, that moment was the beginning of a slow realization that the framing materials around a film, the trailers, marketing elements, and so-called ancillary materials matter.  In fact, for me (and I’d guess many others), Miramax had become a frame that shaped our anticipation of what a film would be (this perception was only reinforced when the filmmaker Kayo Hatta discussed her negotiations with Harvey over the editing of Picture Bride during a talk she gave at Purdue many years ago).

So although Miramax became somewhat more conventional with its offerings–I’ve never been able to generate the interest to watch Gangs of New York, for example, and have fallen well behind Focus Features and others when it comes to more current indie fare–they helped contribute significantly to the debates about what counts as independent, indie, or Indiewood cinema.  The end of Miramax comes in an era when the definitions of independent film and the roles of film festivals such as Sundance in fostering indie voices are being redefined.  But it’s worth thinking about the remarkable energy those early Miramax films generated as we look ahead in the rush to define what’s next.

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