Archive for April, 2010

Friday Links: Fests, Blogs, Downfall, and More

Feeling a bit out of the loop because of the end of the semester, but here are some of the things I’ve been reading an watching over the last few days:

  • David Bordwell draws from his experience at this year’s Ebertfest in order to make a case for “repertory film festivals.”  Repertory theaters, for the uninitiated, are those that would revive classic films, in many cases offering themed film series (Hitchcock films, film noir, French New Wave, etc).  In addition to reminding me of how much I enjoyed my limited experience at Ebertfest (and making me wish I could get back there at some point soon), Bordwell makes a strong case for how screenings of classical films, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, can serve as a valuable (and sometimes profitable) means for fostering the preservation of film history and for reminding audiences of how viewing well-crafted films can be an “event.”
  • On a related note Saskia Wilson-Brown discusses the changing role of film festivals in the new indie film economy.  Wilson-Brown emphasizes the need for fests to develop alternative (online) distribution strategies, such as the Sundance and Tribeca deals.  She also encourages festivals to offer open-access panels that help to educate filmmakers and audiences about making and distributing their movies.
  • The New York Times offers an account of a “rebuilding” independent film industry, one characterized by tinier budgets for both production and marketing.  Of special interest to my mind is the discussion of the role of video on demand (VOD) not necessarily to drive profits but to encourage sales of the film in other media and formats.
  • Farhad Manjoo asks whether Blockbuster Video can survive.  The answer for now: maybe, especially if Blockbuster can capitalize on its advantage of having DVDs 28 days prior to Redbox and, in some cases, Netflix.  I’m a little skeptical, especially given that the launch of a new DVD or video seems less like an event than it did just a few years ago.  In The Business of Media Distribution, Jeffrey C. Ulin briefly describes how studios were successful in building cultures of anticipation around the release of new movies in video stores and retail outlets.  But in our “post-retail” moment of ubiquitous access, the initial release date seems like less of an issue (especially when you can pay a dollar for the same movie just a few weeks later).
  • Tama Leaver links to a Rocketboom/Know Your Meme public service announcement that addresses the recent copyright claims that have led to a large number of “Downfall Meme” parodies being taken down from the web.  What’s especially cool is that the video offers a clear step-by-step process on how to contest the copyright claim in order to have your video restored.  A very smart, funny, and helpful video.
  • The Hollywood Reporter has a great discussion of how the World Cup is wreaking havoc with the summer movie schedule, especially in Europe.  The end result: many movies, including Iron Man II, will debut overseas several days before they play widely in the US.
  • Finally, Todd McCarthy, former Variety critic, has launched his new indieWire blog, adding to their impressive collection of writers and critics.

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Pop Politics Revisited

Over the course of the 2008 Presidential election cycle, I wrote a series of articles tracing the phenomenon of political mashups, videos that reworked scenes and characters from famous movies in order to comment on the election, whether to support a specific candidate or to tarnish the brand of a rival candidate.  Initially, much of this work had an almost “insurgent” quality, outsiders challenging political norms by channeling popular culture iconography in order to get a signal through the noise of political discourse.  Phil deVellis’s “Vote Different” is a classic example.  By identifying Hilary Clinton with the Big Brother figure in the “1984” Apple advertisement, he not only positioned Obama as the outsider ready to shake up the system but also positioned video mashups as a subversive force for shaking up politics.

Quite naturally, these video practices eventually became absorbed into the mainstream, so much so that candidates and their party organizations began to make creative use of intertextuality in an attempt to frame the political discourse surrounding an election.  One of the most famous examples of this is Clinton’s “Sopranos” parody, which emulated the final scene from HBO’s hit show.  At the time, a number of pundits read this as misstep, asking whether Clinton wanted to be identified with Tony, the affable, but often violent and malicious, mob boss.  At the time, I argued that Clinton was instead identifying herself as a fan, someone who appreciates popular culture like the rest of us, who values family (note the presence of Bill as her chief supporter).  The reference was not to Tony himself but to the fandom surrounding the show.

Flash forward to a year later, and now the Republicans are casting themselves as the insurgent party, with minorities in both the House and the Senate (although there’s always the filibuster).  This political opposition has been shaped, rather dramatically, by the tea party movement, a highly visible and vocal coalition of voters who arguably represent a small, but significant, minority of the population.  With that in mind, I’ve become intrigued by the discussions of a recent video by the Republican Governors Association (RGA), aligning the Republican Party with Guy Fawkes and Obama with the monarchy of King James via the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

The video is on the front page of the splashy (and I’ll admit engaging) Remember November website, and it is ample illustration that the powers of parody and intertextuality are not necessarily ideological.  The video picks up where John McCain’s “Celebrity” video left off, but mixes the chanting crowds in that video into the protesting crowds at various tea parties across the country.  And, through splashy, menacing titles, the video seeks to defuse Obama’s “Yes we can” campaign slogan against itself by suggesting that “we” can “ignore the will of the American people” or “corrupt your representatives.”  Decontextualized comments from Nancy Pelosi and Al Sharpton help craft the idea of Democrats as a ruling elite and the tea partiers as a populist mob fighting to take the country back.  The “V” in the concluding “Remember November” icon explicitly recalls the “V for Vendetta” logo.

Of course, there are some odd things going on here.  The original V for Vendetta novel was meant as a critique of Thatcherism.  The Wachowskis updated that for the movie to criticize the war on terrorism and the use of torture (or enhanced interrogation techniques as some would have it).  Now it’s being used to fuel populist rage against health care reform and fears about unemployment and low wages (the video works primarily on an affective level, so its treatment of specific political issues is a little vague).  Others, including Josh Marshall and Steve Benen would point out that the RGA is essentially aligning themselves with a would-be mass casualty terrorist, with Marshall remarking that “Nothing shocks me anymore. But this shocks me.”

But I think that Michael Scherer’s reading of the video makes quite a bit more sense, in that the video’s “cinematic qualities” are quite impressive, much more effective than some of the lazy mashups hastily assembled during the McCain campaign.  It’s also far more edgy than most of the material coming from Republicans in previous elections.  I’d also add that the video carefully sidesteps the issue of violence, instead positioning itself in terms of the emotions.  What we see is an angry, but contained, crowd using their rights to free expression (images that were also carefully chosen to avoid any offensive, racist or misspelled images).  To echo my earlier reading, the reference isn’t to Guy Fawkes himself but to the affect, or emotion, of the film, the palpable sense of frustration at the current economic climate, or more likely the feeling of exclusion from the political process.  Although I disagree completely with their politics, I think it’s a pretty savvy piece of messaging in its attempt to cast Obama as an out of touch monarch ignoring the will of an aggrieved public.  Yet, as Scherer also points out, the video is not available for embedding and is available at only a couple of websites in an attempt to direct viewers to the Remember November website.  It’s a powerful piece of political messaging, one that seems to be embracing the volatility of the current climate and perhaps it’s also an illustration that the oppositional messaging associated with mashups is easier when your party isn’t in power.

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The Kids Grow Up [Full Frame 2010]

If you’ve been following me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll likely know that I recently gave The Best Girlfriend Ever a Flip Camera for her birthday.  We’d talked about buying one for a while, in particular so that we can document an upcoming trip to Spain, but once I had a chance to play with the camera (here’s one recent effort), I found myself increasingly drawn to filming, recording even the most banal moments of everyday life.  But even though I enjoy playing with the camera, I’m conscious of how it shapes my experience these events, simultaneously saving their representation for later while also potentially distancing me from participating in the event itself, in real time, as it’s happening.  The Flip Camera, which is about the size of a cell phone, helps diminish that sense of distanciation, but no matter what, the camera’s presence shapes my interaction with the people I’m filming.

Playing with the camera in recent days has left me thinking about the genre of personal documentary, in particular Doug Block’s most recent film, The Kids Grow Up, a follow-up to his prior film, 51 Birch Street.  In The Kids Grow Up, Block traces the evolution of his relationship with his daughter (and only child), Lucy, as she finishes high school and prepares for college.  During an opening scene, Block comments that “nothing prepares you for letting go,” and The Kids Grow Up serves as his cinematic testament to that sentiment.  In conversations with his wife and Lucy, Block is forced to confront his own ambivalence about his daughter leaving home.  At the same time, although Lucy complies with his requests to appear on camera, she is also, quite often, a recalcitrant subject, demanding privacy during certain key conversations, both out of a sense of privacy and out of a desire for an unmediated relationship with her father.  The film traces a number of important coming-of-age moments: looking for colleges, meeting a new boyfriend, meeting a college roommate.  Throughout the film, we are made conscious that Block is filming, and the camera becomes the subject of many of the film’s conversations (and, sometimes, arguments), but at the same time, we often see Lucy making choices about self-presentation because of her awareness that she will later be watched.

Watching the film, quite naturally, reminded me of my own relationship with my girlfriend’s kids, who are both teenagers and will soon be leaving home, and although Block depicts an experience that might be familiar to many of us–the excitement (and difficulty) of watching a child grow up–he presents it in an honest and refreshing way. Like Anthony Kaufman, I appreciated Block’s approach to his subject.  As he points out, “Even though the film is ostensibly autobiographical, he focuses his lens on his daughter, his wife, and everyone else around him, which saves the project from navel-gazing.”  Because of the care Block uses in depicting his subject, The Kids Grow Up is a subtle, personal meditation, not only on the experiences of parenting but also on our contemporary habits of documenting those experiences, whether to hold onto them–and relish them forever–or simply to make sense of them.

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How to Fold a Flag [Full Frame 2010]

Reviews of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (my response) tended to address the film’s hyperrealist aesthetic, its use of handheld camera and its visceral treatment of a squad of soldiers whose primary purpose is to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  In particular, reviewers latched onto the thematic hook proposed by the film that, as Chris Hedges puts it, “war is a drug.”  And although I found The Hurt Locker to be masterfully directed, the film seems to totalize the experiences of U.S. soldiers, reducing them to types.  When Jeremy Renner’s SFC William James stares blankly at an aisle of cereals, Muzak playing menacingly in the background, he seems to stand in for all of the soldiers unable to adjust to life after combat.

In that context, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s latest Iraq War documentary, How to Fold a Flag (IMDB), offers a welcome corrective by depicting the diverse ways in which soldiers adjust to life after combat.  This is Tucker and Epperlein’s fourth film documenting aspects of the Iraq War, and most of the subjects of How to Fold a Flag appeared in their first film together, Gunner Palace (my review), which portrayed a unit of soldiers stationed in a bombed-out palace belonging to one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.  Now, seven years after Gunner Palace helped to shape the genre of the Iraq War documentary, Tucker and Epperlein offer a complex portait of what it means to come home.

The film follows four soldiers, Javorn Drummond, a college student (who happens to attend Fayetteville State University, where I teach), and who also worked at a nearby hog processing plant; Stuart Wilf, the “class clown” of Gunner Palace, who now works as a convenience store clerk; Michael Goss, who is a professional cage fighter; and Jon Powers, who runs for Congress in his hometown community near Buffalo, NY.  Tucker also visits the family of Ben Colgan, a soldier who died during the time that Tucker was filming Gunner Palace, meeting with Colgan’s parents, who are active in the peace movement.

In weaving these stories together, Flag raises a number of questions about how veterans are welcomed back into the community, as well as the difficulty of communicating that adjustment to people who haven’t gone to war.  Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of returning home is how little things seem to change.  As Javorn describes it while giving a tour of house, a small shack north of Fayetteville, “when you come back from war, you come back to what you left behind.”  In Javorn’s case, that includes a somewhat distant relationship with his mom, a Brooklyn-based poet who is dying of cancer, as well as the struggles of paying the bills while working your way through college.

Michael Goss, on the other hand, seems utterly haunted by his experience of the war.  Before his cage-fighting matches, he wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the names of soldiers he served with who died during the war.  At the bottom of his list is his own name, with Goss saying that “the real Michael Goss died out there.”  The cage fights themselves offer a distorted, borderline surreal twist on patriotism, with Miss Louisiana singing the National Anthem, the riled up audience singing an off-key version of “Proud to be an American,” and even an ceremony of a group of soldiers joining the army.  When Goss fights, he seems to be fighting for his very soul, admitting at one point (after posting a violent war video on the web) that after being kicked out of the army he “lost his sense of home.”

All of the soldiers’ stories take place against a backdrop of American politics, a pageant that seems completely alien to the everyday challenges faced by Goss, Drummond, and others.  Wilf, somewhat ambivalently, attends Barack Obama’s DNC speech in Denver, remaining reflective while the crowds around him cheer at nearly every moment.  Wilf’s cynicism–he makes several humorous jokes about politicians–prevents us from fully embracing the electoral process as genuinely transformative, even while Jon Powers, running in a Democratic Congressional primary in New York, holds out hope for political campaigning.  We see Powers giving speeches, walking door-to-door, and marching parades, a sea of American flags waving along the side of the road while high school bands play.

By telling us these stories, Flag seems to be making two arguments: First, we need a more robust effort to help soldiers adjust to “normal” life after spending time in combat.  But second (and perhaps more crucial) is the point that we should not totalize (or universalize) the soldiers’ experiences.   For this reason, I found Peter Brunette’s review a little mystifying.  While Brunette faults the film for offering little more than post-Iraq War “hand-wringing,” I found little of that. Although several soldiers, including Courtney Massey, who participates in the flag-folding detail at many soldiers’ funerals, acknowledge the disillusionment about the war, the film is far more interested in telling us the personal stories of several soldiers who fought and reminding us that each one of them has his own story, and that they each face different challenges once they come home.

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Waste Land [Full Frame 2010]

During the introduction to her documentary Waste Land, Lucy Walker modestly remarked, “this is a film about garbage.”  And, to some extent, it is about waste, garbage, dumps, refuse, and the people who patiently pick through the Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, in order to dig out the recyclable materials that have been tossed aside.  The dump and the workers who toil there become the subject of a massive and ambitious art project undertaken by Vik Muniz, an affable New York-based artist who grew up in a  working-class neighborhood in the city.

The workers who comb through massive mountains of garbage, many of which appear to be 30-40 feet high, are known as catadores, and although the work forces them to dig through smelly garbage, often for low wages, they are also able to recognize the value of what they do.  One older gentleman, Victor, reflects that every plastic bottle they find is one less that will clog up a landfill.  Many of the young women reason that the work is better than prostitution, and some of the young men have ambitions to organize a union or worker’s organization that will provide various forms of assistance.  One of the pickers, Tiao, enthusiastically discusses Nietzsche and Machiavelli with a colleague.

After learning about the dump and the workers, Vik Muniz embarks on a fascinating project: he wants to work with the catadores on creating a series of portraits that will depict not only the workers themselves but that will also incorporate the recyclable materials they pull out of the dump.  Initially, Vik takes photographs of several of the workers, many of them posing in imitation of famous works of art.  Some pose dramatically, relishing the attention given by Muniz and his crew.  Others gaze shyly toward the camera.  From there, Muniz rents out an art studio in Rio where he works with the catadores to arrange bottles, glass, and paper in the shape of the photographs he had taken previously.  This manufactured portrait is then photographed and presented as the object of art.  As the pictures begin to attract attention within the art world, the pickers relish the attention drawn to themselves and the work they do, with one of them remarking, “I never thought I would become a work of art.”

It would be easy for a film with this subject to feel exploitative, but Walker and Muniz demonstrate a remarkable self-consciousness about their engagement with the catadores.  Muniz seeks out the advice of the workers, while also ensuring that all proceeds from sales of this art go back into the community.  The sale of Tiao’s portrait at a London auction nets thousands of dollars to support the community center.  Others, though not all of them, see their lives improve in material–and sometimes immaterial–ways, thanks to their ability to se themselves differently after being transformed into art.

On an emotional level, the film is incredibly powerful.  It won the Audience Award at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.  But, like Peter Debruge of Variety, I was engaged, in large part, because of its meditation on art and the role of the artist in society (and like him, I was also reminded of Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and Me, a documentary that compares documentary filmmaking to the act of scavenging). As Arthur Ryel-Lindsey notes, both Muniz and Walker are attentive to questions about “the responsibility of the artist to his subjects.”  At the same time, the film offers a subtle environmental message about the value of recycling.  The sheer amount of garbage is almost breathtaking.  Finally, the film seems to offer art–the high art of galleries and museums in particular–as a means of redeeming waste and transforming it into something meaningful.

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Hollywood in the Carolinas

During a recent visit to Wilmington, North Carolina, the Best Girlfriend Ever and I dropped by EUE Screen Gems Studios for their tour.  The studio is currently best known as the site where CW Network television series One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek are (or were) filmed, but the facility has been used for a number of movies and TV shows, including Blue Velvet and The Hudsucker Proxy, and intermittently HBO’s hilarious Eastbound and Down, as well as a number of Geico ads, among others (my girlfriend happened to notice the backdrop for one of the gecko ads in the distance of one studio).  Because I’m not a specific fan of either show–I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an episode of One Tree Hill–the tour was not really an experience of fandom for me, as much as it was a chance to see how such tours are constructed and the attempts to create an “on-set experience.”

The history of the studio itself was fairly interesting. It was built by Dino De Laurentiis, who did not realize the proximity of the nearby Wilmington airport at the time, a situation that has created some complications in filming there (though these are apparently handled relatively easily).  One of the surprises for me was the distinction between the show itself as an intellectual/entertainment property and the studio as a site where the shows (or movies) are filmed.  Because of this distinction, the only merchandise available on the property was associated with the Screen Gems name, not the individual properties or shows produced there.  Much of the tour involved exploring several of the One Tree Hill sets, including the kitchen and bedrooms of several characters, as well as the recording studio owned by one of the show’s characters.  Although I know little about the show, it was hard not to be impressed by the attention to detail, by the attempts to make a relatively flimsy set look like a genuinely lived-in (or worked-in) location.  Details such as photographs, books, and even magazines seem carefully placed to suggest that the space is occupied by a family (or individuals).  Non-functioning refrigerators filled with food products, many of which were part of product placement strategies, also helped to complete the picture.

Even cooler for me was stumbling across a bulletin board with an annotated script plan on it, often with notes suggesting the tone of a key scene here (including one that said simply “they bond here,” of two of the show’s key characters).  The tour concluded with a short video consisting of snippets of TV shows and movies that had been filmed on the studio lot shown in one of Screen Gems’ screening rooms.  Significantly, the room was outfitted with a medium-sized TV set so that production personnel could see how the show would play on a smaller screen.  Throughout the tour, the guides, most of whom were UNCW film and theater students, related on-set production anecdotes, including some of the challenges of avoiding continuity errors.  Obviously, no photographing or filming was permitted on the tour to avoid potential spoilers (or other concerns), but because of Wilmington’s history as a site for movie and TV production, it was quite a bit of fun to see how the studio creates a narrative about the show and other work done on the site.

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New Reinventing Cinema Review

I’m taking a quick break from my Full Frame blogging to mention that I have just learned about another review of my book, Reinventing Cinema, this time from Bad Lit blogger and American Film Institute researcher Mike Everleth.  Mike is especially attentive to my arguments that both utopian and dystopian claims about the future of cinema need to be challenged.  Here’s a nice pullquote that gets at the flavor of the review:

Our media landscape is definitely changing in the digital age, but we need to watch out for the doomsayers and hucksters. To navigate this new world, there needs to be more reasoned analysis on par with what Tryon has accomplished with Reinventing Cinema.

Be sure to read the whole review.

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My Perestroika [Full Frame 2010]

Robin Hessman’s My Perestroika (IMDB), which won the Center for Documentary Studies Award at this year’s Full Frame, offers an engaging, subtle meditation on the profound changes that many Russian citizens felt during the last stages of Communism and the jarring transition into a capitalist economy.  Hessman, who lived for many years in Russia, tells this story through the lens of five Muscovites, including two teachers, a clothing retailer, a former punk rocker, and a billiards table repairwoman, who attended the same school during the late 1980s and early ’90s when Gorbachev introduced many of the principles of perestroika, and their stories offer a complex lens through we can view these broader historical changes.

As the film illustrates, the euphoric celebrations of the 1990s often obscured far more complicated realities.  Many of the film’s subject express nostalgia for the “simpler times” of the old USSR and acknowledge that they were rarely preoccupied with what happened in the West and had little desire to live there.  Of course, that lack of interest may have been fueled by anti-capitalist propaganda, which showed only the worst excesses of American life–crimes, protests, and poverty.  Hessman makes liberal use of this propaganda, often to humorous effect, but most of them recall that they rarely felt deprived, an attitude that may be changing in an era of iPods and other cultural commodities.  Others note the (unnecessary) competitiveness of capitalism, with Olga joking that her job title is manager, but “that’s what everyone is called,” while Ruslan, a former anti-bourgeois punk rocker, now busks for money on the subway rather than conforming to the new value system.

At the same time, the disillusionment with the electoral process runs through the film as an important theme.  Vladimir Putin casts a heavy shadow on all Russian elections, and many of the people who grew up under the old Soviet system no longer feel the need to vote or participate in the electoral process.  More than anything, I found myself thinking about how much their lives had become similar to my own: (American) chain stores dominate the urban landscape.  Parents worry about their children’s education and about paying the bills.  The biggest difference, perhaps, is the amount of vodka that is consumed on a daily basis.  But, overall, My Perestroika offers a quiet, subtle meditation on historical change and how that change is felt in individual lives.  Although it would be easy to see the subjects of the film as types, Hessman managed to draw each of them out as multi-faceted subjects with unique experiences. In all cases, the film helps to show that the political changes that took place in the old USSR under perestroika, which translates to restructuring, also served as a personal restructuring (“my perestroika”).

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Casino Jack and the United States of Money

Even with all of the enthusiasm displayed during the 2008 presidential election, in which record numbers of voters turned out to cast a ballot, there remains a fundamental sense of cynicism about the ability to influence the political process.  Lobbyists on K Street seem to have far more power than individuals on Main Street, a feeling that was only reinforced when the Supreme Court recently ruled that the government may not restrict corporate spending in candidate elections.  This cynicism can, in some part, be tied to the actions of Jack Abramoff, a conservative lobbyist who built a massive lobbying business, often by playing multiple parties against each other (especially Native American tribes campaigning for the right to build casinos).  Abramoff profited immensely from these endeavors, even while he was able to build a massive political war chest, issues explored in Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money.

Gibney plays the Abramoff story with the right amount of humor and popular culture savvy, especially given Abramoff past history as a producer of highly conservative action films such as Red Scorpion, not to mention the sheer unreality behind Abramoff’s manipulations of the public trust, recalling Gibney’s earlier film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.  Like the Enron documentary, Gibney uses emails and phone calls that illustrate the sheer audacity of Abramoff’s behavior, with one email blithely remarking that “stupid people get wiped out,” in order to justify his actions.  This sense of entitlement is carefully rooted in Abramoff’s collegiate experiences as a member and leader of Republican organizations, where he met people like Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ralph Reed, who all sought to make Republicans cool and even rebellious (in an Alex P. Keaton kind of way, I suppose).  But in all cases, Abramoff and his band of Republican crusaders show a sharp-eyed understanding of political theater (illustrated in part by Tom Delay cutting red tape from a Statue of Liberty) and a willingness to do virtually anything to win a campaign.

Although it is entertaining to point up these absurdities, especially when Abramoff is behind bars and Republicans are in the minority in Congress, Gibney is also careful to show the consequences of Abramoff’s actions, especially his work in campaigning for sweatshop owners in the Mariana Islands, where workers making well below minimum wage work to manufacture clothing, much of which bears a Made in the USA label because of the location’s status as a commonwealth in political union with the United States.  Because the workers, many of which were brought in from other countries, often couldn’t make a living wage, many turned to prostitution.  Others were forced to pay expensive fees to be relocated to the Mariana Islands, which were deducted from their paychecks, essentially making them indentured servants.

The film is a little ambiguous on what Abramoff represents.  Although Gibney shows clips of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in order to ask whether we were hopelessly naive back then or whether our political system itself is now rooted in a money-driven cynicism, the film stops short of investigating whether Abramoff was an exception or whether he is the most visible system of a more corrupt system.  A brief clip of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald calling campaign financing “legalized bribery” offers us one answer.  But the most explicit answer is tied to the film’s relationship with Participant Productions, which is using the film to promote activism around the issue of electoral reform. Casino Jack helps to spell out a confusing page in recent political history by looking at the Abramoff trial and by looking at the implications of lobbyists.  In places, however, the film seems too focused on tracing out individual pathology rather than looking at the issue of corruption more systemically.

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War Don Don [Full Frame 2010]

in focusing on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, one of the leaders of the Sierra Leone rebel forces, Rebecca Richman Cohen’s War Don Don asks a difficult and thought-provoking question: what role do war crimes trials serve? Do they offer the “justice” that citizens and survivors of the war want? Do they provide us with unambiguous answers about culpability or agency?  What happens when the enormous expense of the trials is measured against a country’s extreme poverty and need to rebuild after a brutal civil war.  To Cohen’s great credit, War Don Don (which translates to “war is over”) never offers simple answers, making the film one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I saw at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

The film focuses on the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay, which lasted over five years and cost millions of dollars to conduct.  Sesay was the second in command of the RUF, under Fuday Sankoh, who is described by at least one observer as apuppet of Liberian President Charles Taylor.  The war itself is characterized by its extreme brutality.  RUF soldiers raped women, or “bush wives,” as they are euphemistically called, and took on underaged soldiers. But soon after Sesay took command from Sankoh, he quickly and unilaterally disarmed, bringing an end to the conflict, as his defense attorneys, led by Wayne Jordash, are quick to point out.  Prosecutors, including David Crane, complicate this defense by comparing the conditions in Sierra Leone to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and describing initiatives such as “Operation No Living Thing.”

Residents of Sierra Leone themselves seem ambivalent about the war crimes trial.  Many are unconcerned about whether Sesay is tried for his crimes.  Others point out that both sides used brutal techniques and add that the money invested in trying Sesay could be spent on rebuilding the country.  These questions are especially pertinent when we consider whether the trials are meant to arrive at the “truth” of what happened in Sierra Leone or whether they serve some greater purpose, such as national healing or legal justice.  Many, including Eldred Collins, question the reductive narrative about the RUF itself and see the rebellion as symptomatic of the nation’s problems with poverty and inequality, while adding that it’s unclear how much control Sesay might have had over individual soldiers.

Shot primarily in a talking-heads style, but supplemented with courtroom and news footage, War Don Don moves at a brisk pace while allowing the complexity of the issues at stake to unfold carefully.  It is an intelligent and engaging film that forces us to ask what happens after a war when a people tries to make sense of a national trauma.

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12th and Delaware [Full Frame 2010]

One of the more compelling documentaries examining the Bush-era evangelical culture was Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp.  The film obviously touched a nerve for me.  I wrote about it several times, and updated my main review multiple times, reflecting my own ambivalence about how the movie represented the politics of Christian fundamentalism.  Now Grady and Ewing have returned with another culture-war exploration, 12th and Delaware, which looks at the intersection between pro-choice and pro-life groups by looking, quite literally, at a Florida intersection where an abortion clinic and a pro-life pregnancy center are situated.  Grady and Ewing’s film is unapologetically pro-choice and often explicitly undermines pro-life misinformation, but it treats its subjects, especially the women seeking abortions or counseling, with a great deal of care and sympathy.

The film’s pro-choice politics are certainly clear.  The film challenges some of the pro-choice misinformation, such as the fabricated link between abortions and breast cancer.  At the same time, they use patients to challenge some of these false claims.  When a counselor tries to suggest that condoms aren’t especially effective, one patient retorts, “If I used the condom I wouldn’t be pregnant.”

Although such a project might seem to be redundant–most people have relatively clear positions on the issue of abortion–12th and Delaware seems less focused on persuading people to hold a specific political position than it is about the difficult choices that many women face when it comes to abortion, as well as the physical and emotional risks that abortion providers face on a daily basis.  As the film illustrates, the pro-life “Pregnancy Care Center” thrives on confusing women who are emotionally vulnerable, through the name of the clinic, choosing locations near abortion providers, and through props and other forms of “counseling” meant to make women reconsider their decision to have an abortion.  Due to incredibly active anti-choice activists, the abortion providers often fear for their physical safety. Doctors are driven out of the clinic undercover, and in one unsettling scene, a protester actually follows and seems to stalk the doctor.

Most powerful for me is the depiction of the patients who seek out abortions or even advice about what choice they should make.  Many of them, rather bravely in my opinion, appear on camera, absorbing the counseling from the pro-life clinic, and often challenging the primary counselor when she attempts to bribe patients with food and promises of care for the baby after its born.  The most powerful tactic of the pro-lifers is to take the women in for ultrasounds, with the hope that the image of the fetus will make the women reconsider.  Many listen patiently, others become fascinated by the image, and most find their way to the clinic across the street.  Similarly fascinating is the different rhetoric used by both sides.  The pro-lifers are immersed in the language of spiritual warfare and often use highly confrontational and graphic images in order to persuade women to chose not to terminate their pregnancy, while the clinic itself seems besieged and mostly saddened that they are unable to perform their work without facing almost daily threats.

Given the nature of this material, 12th and Delaware will no doubt polarize audiences.  More than anything, it is a window into a very complicated issue and a powerful portrait of the women who are often unwilling participants in this highly emotional conflict.

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The Mirror [Full Frame 2010]

David Christensen’s The Mirror has a quiet charm, offering what The Columbia Missourian describes as a “modern fairy tale” about a small Italian village, Viganella, nestled deeply in the Alps.  In fact, the village is so deeply nestled, a nearby mountain blocks the sun for 83 days every winter.  Most of the people in the village seem to welcome this seclusion and the simplicity that life in this remote community provides.  In fact, the Italy from Videocracy, another film I caught at Full Frame, seems to exist on another planet compared to the farmers who spend their spare time playing games in the local pub, attending mass, or quietly meditating at home.  Many of them, like Thomas, a forty-something farmer, seem content to have found a place to escape from the noise of the rest of the world.

But the village’s mayor, Piefranco Midali, develops an inspired idea: install a giant mirror in one of the nearby mountains that could reflect sunlight into Viganella during the winter.  Midali comes across as a cross between a showman and a dreamer.  We meet him during his full-time occupation as a coach driver, which he compares to his job as a mayor: you’re out among the public, meeting people and helping them.  And Midali’s main purpose for building the mirror initially seems to be to make it easier for people to socialize.  More light in the city square will make stopping and chatting in the winter afternoons a little more inviting.

And so Midali commissions a local contractor to build and install the giant mirror, a task that takes on almost mock epic qualities, especially when they learn that the mirror must be dropped into place by a helicopter, the mirror itself hanging precariously from a cable dangling below.  At first, Midali and the crew did not factor in the force of the wind created by the helicopter’s blades, and the mirror is badly dented.  Meanwhile, as the story builds, Midali and the village of Viganela become an international news story, with Midali cheerfully giving interviews over his cell phone or to the news crews who arrive to watch what happens.

As the Missourian review points out, The Mirror revels in the play of light and darkness, and the sheer excitement of watching the village of Viganella suddenly illuminated for the first time by the winter sun (even if it’s a reflected sunlight) is pretty contagious.  It’s difficult not to be charmed by Midali and the town’s inhabitants, and Chistensen’s camerawork helps you to become conscious of the play of light and shadows in our daily lives.

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Videocracy [Full Frame 2010]

Note: This is the first in a series of reviews of films that played at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham.

Many web surfers have probably stumbled across clips from Italian television on YouTube.  Studio hosts joke with laughing and cheering audiences during inane “talent” competitions while half-naked young women dance or pose beside the host in an absurd demonstration that the “vast wasteland” thesis about television may not be far from the truth.  Much like their American compatriots in the world of  reality TV, celebrity is seen by these competitors as a form of escape, whether from their boring workaday lives as mechanics or office workers or from the anonymity that makes them feel as if their lives lack purpose.  This fascination with celebrity may seem harmless, but when the Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi owns most of the country’s major TV stations and is, in some sense, the county’s biggest celebrity, these questions become a little more troubling.  Swedish filmmaker Erik Gandini explores this phenomenon in his documentary, Videocracy, which he made, according to the Onion reviewer, out of a desire to explain Italy’s absurdities to his friends back in Sweden.

Gandini traces these absurdities by following three primary subjects: a soft-spoken mechanic who dreams of becoming a reality TV star, imagining himself to be a cross between Ricky Martin and Jean-Claude Van Damme; a famous talent agent who is introduced reclining in a pure white house and who demonstrates his admiration for fascism by playing his ringtone, which is a Mussolini “hymn;” and a papparazzo who attempts to use a prison stint to make himself into a celebrity, eventually to the point that he seems to lose touch with reality.

This exploration of the ways in which the fascination with celebrity might occlude political thinking is a worthwhile project, but like the Italian TV Videocracy sets about to criticize, the film gets lost in the funhouse of opulence and eye candy.  Shots of half-naked young women auditioning to appear on Italian TV are filmed in a gauzy, dreamlike fashion that only seems to reinforce–or even heighten–their prurience, as Ella Taylor points out in her Village Voice review.  Further, the film does little to convey the shallowness of political thinking.  There is no real guide through the Italian political scene, other than Gandini’s halting, impressionistic voice-over.  More striking, we never (or rarely) hear from any of the women striving to appear on these shows, much less anyone who is critical of them or of Berlusconi’s degree of control over Italian TV and politics.  Although the film has some strikingly funny and absurd moments, the film seems to enjoy much of what it is ostensibly criticizing.

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Institutionalizing Transmedia

I was fascinated to learn (originally via Nikki Finke) that the Producers Guild of America has officially approved a new credit, transmedia producer, for people who oversee the expansion of a textual universe across multiple media platforms.  As Finke and Scott Macauley (among others) point out, much of the credit for shepherding this new position into being goes to Jeff Gomez of Starlight Entertainment, who has worked on a range of transmedia projects, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, and Avatar (and discussed the importance of transmedia textuality here).  The credit goes a long way toward acknowledging the difficulty of maintaining textual consistency across a vareity of media platforms and toward recognizing the ways in which fans engage with popular texts through multiple iterations.  There are many positive aspects to this decision, including the basic recognition that a significant portion of our entertainment today is not contained within a single text.  It’s also cool that the PGA includes “marketing texts” within the definition of what a transmedia producer might oversee.

Christy Dena, although excited about the creation of the transmedia producer (TP) credit, offers one or two minor reservations, first by questioning why the minimum number of platforms was set at three and by questioning the use of the term “storylines” to describe the multiple spaces where part of a textual project can appear.  Like her, I wonder if this definition isn’t (potentially) a little limiting, especially when it ocmes to non-fictional texts.  Although Dena is focused more on game consoles and other forms of interactive textuality, it’s certainly possible to imagine transmedia works that aren’t overtly guided by narrative aims, such as documentary films that might have pedagogical or political purposes, such as the PBS project Digital Nation or mny of the films produced and distributed under the Participant Procutions label.

Still, this is a welcome recognition that textual boundaries far exceed a two-hour movie or weekly television series and that what happens outside of the “primary” text is important to the viewer’s overall experience, even if the language for describing some of these practices is still rushing to catch up.

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Rethinking Visual Effects

There is a great discussion about the place of visual effects in the film industry that I stumbled across on Twitter.  I don’t have time to do justice to the nuances of the debate, but here are some highlights:

  • Scott Squires jumps into the debate with an overview of the history of VFX and addresses the financial challenges that many in the VFX business face before making an argument that VFX employees might benefit from unionization
  • He then follows that up with a detailed response to some of the objections to his calls for a VFX union
  • Lee Stranahan makes a similar call for a trade guild or union in an “open letter to the VFX industry” and another to Avatar director, James Cameron.
  • An interview from Motionographer about “fairness” for VFX workers.  Also via Motionographer, a number of links, including Jeff Heusser’s discussion of the “leverage” held by those in the effects industry.
  • To continue following the story, search for the Twitter hashtags #vfx and #vfxtownhall.  Given the amount of revenue generated by films with extensive special effects, these arguments about a need for better working conditions are worth considering

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