Archive for July, 2010

Friday Links

I finally caught Inception last night and may have more to say about it later.  My basic impression of the film was that it was more clever than good.  The dream sequences seemed far too linear and scripted and far too much like 1980s action movies–cue the snow chase scene with explosives–to be convincing as dreams, unless you’re Michael Bay, I guess.  Still, the concept of implanting thoughts in people’s dreams is an interesting one and  plays with some of the tropes of the conspiracy thriller.  More on that soon, but for now, here are some links:

  • Jason Sperb offers an excellent reading of the overuse of the word “maverick” when discussing independent filmmakers.  It echoes one of the beefs I have with defining “independence” as an intangible category, a la the Independent Spirit Awards, but he also points to the strengths of two recent studies of independent film production by James Mottram and Sharon Waxman.
  • Inside Redbox offers an interesting tidbit that actually offers me some encouragement: apparently public libraries lend more movies than either of their major competitors, Redbox or Netflix.  These numbers don’t include Netflix’s streaming service, which would change these overall numbers considerably (and I’m a little skeptical of their methods for counting the number of movie “rentals”), but it’s easy to forget that libraries are a major source of media content.
  • Speaking of Redbox, they are starting to move more assertively toward offering a small selection of Blu-Ray discs in their kiosks at a price of $1.50 per day, rather than the $1.00 price for normal DVDs.  Also related, more information on the cost differences between streaming video and mailing DVDs for Netflix (see also NewTeeVee).
  • Ted Hope has a thoughtful post weighing the “filter problem” that challenges both consumers and producers of independent film.  Hope’s central question is one that has haunted indie filmmakers for a while now: “when we all have over 1000 films on our To Watch list, how do we begin to make a choice?”  See also Hope’s Curator’s Note at In Media Res, which presents a short clip associated with Braden King’s transmedia project, Here.  The YouTube clip accompanying the note is engaging, and as Hope argues, it’s crucial to expand our definition of transmedia storytelling beyond the genre texts (The Matrix, etc), with which its typically associated.  Perhaps one (limited) answer to Hope’s question is that we all contribute to the process of finding, discussing, and curating the stories that interest us whenever possible.
  • Documentary Tech has a series of posts about what promises to be an intriguing documentary, Nathaniel Hansen’s The Elders.  The most recent post offers a flavor of the interviews Hansen has conducted, while an older post traces Hansen’s fund raising efforts through Kickstarter and the audience response to some of the interviews he had posted online.  But like many recent documentaries, Hansen seems to be succeeding in combining online and film content.
  • And in news that has my inner-documentary fanboy grinning, Helvetica and Objectified filmmaker Gary Hustwit has announced the third film in his “design trilogy,” Urbanized, a film focused on issues of urban design.

Update: I missed this before, but Cinematical has an article about SnagFilms’ second annual Summer Fest, an online program of new documentaries posted prior to their television or theatrical debuts.  The lead-off film, The Age of Stupid, did have a one-day event screening, a simultaneous premiere in dozens of cities across the US and beyond, but many of the planned films are relatively new, including Videocracy, a documentary I caught at this year’s Full Frame.

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Monday Links

Quick observations about some of the film and media articles that have crossed my radar in the last few days:

  • Everyone is talking about the Jeffrey Rosen article about how the Internet is making us incapable of forgetting and how it is leading to the end of privacy.  The article goes on to suggest that social media are leading to the “end of the fragmented self,” now that all aspects of our lives are visible online.  Although most people seem to buy into Rosen’s arguments, I think Scott Rosenberg offers a much more nuanced reading of how personal reputation “is evolving” in the age of social media.  Rosenberg is correct to point out that much of what is posted online is forgotten or lost.  More crucially, Rosen uses only a small number of cases–one of them several years old–to imply that incriminating photos and Facebook comments are costing people jobs, and as Rosenberg points out, these aren’t ancient comments that come back to haunt someone several years after the fact; they are actually relatively contemporaneous.
  • This week’s In Media Res posts focus on transmedia storytelling, with this week’s curators including Christy Dena, Marc Ruppel, Robert Pratten, Brian Newman, and Ted Hope.  See Ted Hope’s Truly Free Film blog for more details.  Today’s post by Dena takes us back to a 1972 documentary, The Computer Generation, to document just how far we have come with regard to using the computer for artistic purposes.
  • The cinetrix has a near-perfect takedown of the Duplass brothers’ most recent film, Cyrus.  Although I liked the film more than she did, I agree that the film’s conflict between John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill over Marisa Tomei offers a tired rehashing of Eve Sedgwick’s thesis in Between Men. Worse, as she points out, the camerawork is awful, managing to make both Catherine Keener and Tomei look washed out and often out of focus.  Read her post for a beautifully snarky critique and send Tomei and Keener’s agents some better scripts asap.
  • July 24 was the big day for Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald’s YouTube documentary, Day in the Life, though users have until July 31 to submit their footage for the project.  In response, Edward Delaney at Documentary Tech assesses the future of crowdsourced documentary.  I generally agree with Delaney that the planned film shows the strengths and limitations of corwdsourcing, but I’m a little less convinced that the film’s “novelty” will draw out a big audience, especially given similar efforts (The Beastie Boys’ Awesome, I F**** Shot That) in the past.  Worth noting: the Sundance Institute’s marketing efforts that cast the film as “part of history” and to be a part of film that will feature the work of indie filmmakers like Joe Berlinger, Marianna Palka, and Caleb Deschanel.
  • After Andrew Breitbart’s craven attempts to disparage Shirley Sherrod through a heavily-edited video, I’ve found myself thinking about the role of web video in political discourse again.   TPM has an interesting article discussing efforts by the Democratic National Committee to train video trackers to capture conservative campaign missteps on video in search of a new “macaca moment,” as part of their “Accountability Project.” Here is a photo, courteous of TPM, that they were distributing at this year’s Netroots Nation convention.
  • Finally, The Yes Men have leapt into the free distribution game, making their movie, The Yes Men Fix the World, available for download on Bit Torrent and other websites, with the hopes that appreciative fans will circulate the film as widely as possible.

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Independent Film in the Classroom

Now that I am well over halfway through my summer, I’m starting to turn my attention back to the classroom.  Jessica King has an engaging post on teaching “independent film” in the classroom for Lance Weiler’s Workbook Project website.  Although she is primarily talking about her experiences in the high school classroom, her ideas certainly apply to college introductory film courses, as well, especially her discussions of how film courses fit into a more general curriculum and her reflection on what an introductory course in film studies ought to do.

King’s post is especially relevant for me because she addresses the fact that many film courses at the high school level are English electives and that the goals of an Intro to Film course–teaching film language and its effects–may be vastly different than a typical literature course.  She argues that

English teachers are often talented, enthusiastic people who LOVE literature, which means that they want to talk about themes and characters and feelings, but not about how a text creates meaning and establishes purpose. As a result, many teachers who end up in Film Studies teach film as an extension of literature, showcasing them as visual novels.

Although many of my students are often enthusiastic about my class and the films we discuss, I think that many of them enter the class with expectations similar to the ones described by King.  On one level, this isn’t a problem: it shows that our students are developing a methodology for reading, one that is shaped by other professors trained in literature.  But as King points out, an understanding of film language (and how it operates) can be worthwhile.

In many ways, her basic course structure echoes my own (here is an older version of my course), in that I offer a quick lecture on film history before turning to formal elements such as narrative, mise en scene, cinematography, and editing.  But as she moves on to make a case for teaching a unit on independent film, she offers what I find to be a refreshing take on how to tailor her film course for her audience, an urban Chicago audience, by arguing that her students rarely (if ever) see themselves in the characters or situations depicted on the big screen.  She then suggests a range of films–Ballast, Chop Shop, Amreeka, Raising Victor Vargas, Real Women Have Curves, Talk to Me, George Washington, and Waitress–that have succeeded in engaging her students.  I’ve been thinking about how to revamp my film course for a while now, especially during the second half of the semester when students have a basic grasp on film language00and I think King offers some useful suggestions.

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Reinventing Cinema Interview

In case you haven’t seen it on Twitter or Facebook, I was recently interviewed by Henry Jenkins as part of his ongoing series of conversations with people who work with or study various aspects of transmedia storytelling.  Henry asked some truly insightful questions, and I’m really pleased with how the interview turned out.

Here is part two of my interview with Henry.

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Cinema, Video Games, Art, Part II

Over the last few weeks, as I’ve been following the “video games as art” debate spearheaded by Roger Ebert, I’ve also been thinking through some of my own questions about the definition of cinema and how that definition might be changing thanks to digital media, and at the advice of a fellow media scholar, took a look at Dudley Andrew’s recent book, What Cinema Is! (Blackwell, 2010), which takes many of the core questions raised by Andre Bazin about definitions of cinema in the 1950s are repositions them to address how digital tools–whether cameras, editing equipment, or projectors–alter our understanding of cinema.  Andrew is one of the more astute voices in academic film theory today, and for the most part, he resists what he calls the “discourses of the digital,” instead seeking to “sketch a film aesthetic that owes nothing to the digital” (xiv), even while many of his questions are shaped by the new tools that inform audiovisual storytelling.

Andrew goes on to argue that the films he regards as most consistent with the project of cinema are those that seek “to discover, to encounter, to confront, and to reveal” (xviii).  Andrew adds that, in a culture of “audiovisual entertainment,” this aim of cinema is attenuated.  Andrew breaks down the structure of filmmaking into four moments of “cinematic transformation:” the camera, the editing table, the projector (or exhibition process), and the subject matter, with each of his four major chapters tracing each of these moments.  For Andrew, the culture of audiovisual entertainment augurs a move away from the possibilities of discovery or happy accidents–the insect caught the lens during a dramatic sequence in Jules et Jim–toward a greater emphasis on post-production (5), a claim that is certainly valid if we look at the mass of special effects spectacles that dominate suburban multiplexes (or even the carefully storyboarded films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie, one of Andrew’s key examples), but that may be less apt if we look at other modes of filmmaking.

His discussions of editing express similar concerns (digital editing produces not magic, but a calculated effect) before moving on to the chapters I found most compelling: his discussion of exhibition and content.  In his discussion of exhibition, Andrew first acknowledges that, in many ways, little has changed since the 1930s when it comes to production: actors still perform scenes on sets or on location in scripted films that fulfill marketable genre conventions, but that the brief theatrical run of most movies, combined with the emergence of home and mobile viewing environments, have contributed to a situation where “the consumer controls the experience” (68).  Andrew goes on to imply that this new situation helps contribute to the demise of the movie theater as an “alternative public sphere” (68), a position that seems to deny the pleasures and values of the online film cultures that I have grown to appreciate.  Andrew’s frustration seems to reach its deepest when he despairs that viewers might catch movies “on demand” or “via ‘Youtube'” (87, his scare quotes and spelling) and worries about the overlap between the present-ness of video gaming (which requires real-time decision making in his read) and the more “reflective” mode associated with film.  Although I would question whether video games are, by default, only in the present tense, the fact that a screen may be used for games does not imply that our consumption of films on a monitor will be tarnished.

That being said, Andrew’s arguments about the “subject matter” of cinema are utterly fascinating and worth reading, especially for scholars engaged with issues of adaptation.  Without going into to much detail, Andrew offers a detailed, and highly historicized account of Bazin’s arguments about the role of adaptations of novels, including his attempts to complicate concepts of “fidelity,” a loaded term in adaptation studies that refers to the degree to which a latter text is “faithful” to its original.  Without going into too much detail, Andrew reads Bazin as arguing that “genuine fidelity abandons obvious matching for creative respect” (140).  He goes on to map “adaptation” as a practice onto modes of evolution to make the case that cinema continues to evolve, whether because of, in spite of, or alongside of digital tools.  It’s a compelling argument, and I’m sure that I’m not doing it justice here.  But as I discussed in my post on Ebert and video games, Andrew’s questions point to the vibrancy of the debate about our current definitions of cinema in the age of media convergence.

While Andrew’s chapters focus on four crucial categories of “cinematic transformation,” the camera, the editing table, exhibition, and subject matter, I find myself wanting to complement Andrew’s structure with some reference to the blog-based cinephilia that is still in the process of emerging.  In looking at this culture of film criticism, it’s worth asking how (or whether) these digital dialogues alter the categories (or practices) of film criticism.  Some of these transformations of film criticism have been addressed in a series of blog posts by Girish Shambu, as well as in the most recent issue of Jump Cut.  In one post, Girish addresses the question of audio commentary tracks on DVDs (and now, in some cases, online), a relatively common form of movie consumption for cinephiles in the digital age.  Girish followed that up with a fascinating post tying Internet-based cinephilia to Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “mediators.”  Essentially, mediators allow us to get caught up in forces larger than ourselves; applied to Internet film criticism, film writers on Twitter, Facebook, and in the blogosphere “carry [us] from one idea to another, one film to another, one spark of curiosity to another.”  Girish goes on to say that he can experience a dozen “encounters” per day that might inspire him to add a film to his Netflix queue or to read up on another critic.  This seems similar to my own experience–and anecdotally, others have said the same thing–and Girish sees “the dizzying, accelerated frequency of our encounters” as opening up “rich possibilities whose only drawback is their super-plenitude.”  To be sure, not all blogs (or all film blogs, for that matter) have this kind of journey of open-ended discovery as their aim, but I think that blogs have the potential to sustain these encounters.

Girish’s comments seem to undercut some of the assumptions about digital media provoking fragmented selves who lack the ability for sustained attention (see Nicholas Carr, Maggie Jackson, and Mark Bauerlein, among others).  Instead of placing emphasis on a medium’s purported ability to undermine our concentration skills, Girish sees the blogosphere as potentially pointing “outward” to other media forms–books, essays, films–where we can focus our energies.  Thus, if Andrew is correct in his assessment that the mission of cinema is “to discover, to encounter, to confront, and to reveal” (xviii), then there are few places today better than the film blogosphere for sustaining those journeys of discovery, for providing us with the framework for making new connections.

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I Will Survive: Auschwitz

Scott Macauley of Filmmaker Magazine tipped me off to one of the more fascinating YouTube videos I’ve seen in a while: a video of a Holocaust survivor and his family dancing at various concentration camps in Poland and Germany filmed by Australian Jewish artist Jane Korman.

As Scott points out, the video has elicited quite a bit of controversy, which is perhaps unsurprising given the solemnity typically associated with representations of the Holocaust and the kitsch connotations associated with the Gloria Gaynor disco anthem, but others, such as Tanner Ringerud of Buzzfeed, have defended the video as being “the most heart-warming Holocaust memorial ever displayed” (assuming Ringerud is being sincere), while the discussion at The Atlantic recalls Groucho Marx’s spontaneous dance on Hitler’s grave in 1958 for a small audience of friends.

Korman herself defends the video in an article in Haaretz by stating that it is meant as an affirmation of her family’s survival in the face of Nazi brutality: “it might be disrespectful, but he [her father] is saying ‘we’re dancing, we should be dancing, we’re celebrating our survival and the generations after me,’ – the generation he’s created. We are affirming our existence.”

I think it’s worth watching the video all the way through to get what the video is trying to accomplish: Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” fades into Leonard Cohen’s far more melancholic “Take This Waltz” and then, against a black screen, Korman’s father talks briefly about the miracle of survival and the need to celebrate that, with the defiance of Gaynor’s song shifting into something a little more introspective. Still, it’s a little unsettling to see the family dancing in places that were sites of mass murder. I’m also curious about how authorship functions here: the video wouldn’t likely “work” if it didn’t include at least one survivor, but I’m wondering how Korman’s status as an artist affects our interpretation of the video, if at all. No matter what, “I Will Survive: Auschwitz” raises some compelling questions about representation.

Update: The video series actually consists of three parts (Parts two and three have been viewed far less frequently). Part three, in particular, depicts Korman’s father touring Aushwitz and reflecting on his experiences in the camps.

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Sunday Links

I’m still getting my thoughts together for the promised “Part Two” to my “Cinema, Video Games, Art” post.  Some of the questions I addressed there are brushing up against an essay I’m currently writing, but hopefully I will be able to get my thoughts together soon.  For now, here are some film and media links:

  • This story has begun to receive quite a bit of national attention, but it sounds fascinating: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Kevin McDonald (Last King of Scotland) are teaming up to make a crowdsourced documentary using footage recorded on July 24 and uploaded to YouTube.  It’s an attempt to create a day-in-the-life snapshot of global culture via the global center of user-generated video, one that is very much in keeping with utopian characterizations of the site as a networked community of everyday people (such as the Where is Matt phenomenon).  People who contribute footage will be credited as co-directors, and the filmmakers are working with Against All Odds Prods, an organization focused on delivering cameras to remote locations.  You can submit your footage at the documentary’s YouTube page starting on July 24.  Mashable also has an interesting write-up on the film.
  • The Documentary Tech blog has an interesting discussion of how to crowdfund your documentary.  It’s a pretty solid assessment, one that addresses the possibilities and limitations of using a resource such as Kickstarter.
  • Documentary Tech is also discussing another intriguing YouTube project, this one spearheaded by the Guggenheim, which is calling for submissions of videos that demonstrate the creativity of user-generated video.  The Guggenheim will post approximately 200 videos to their channel on YouTube, which will then be reviewed by a panel of experts who will choose a selection of 20 for display in the Guggenheim Museum in New York alongside of simultaneous presentations at other Guggenheim Museums in Berlin, Bilbao, and Venice.  You can submit a video at their YouTube Play channel.
  • David Poland responds to half of Ted Hope’s “38 Reasons the Film Industry is Failing Today” list.  Poland is obviously far more skeptical about the “truly free” model that Hope has been championing.  There are some points I’d like to discuss in detail, especially point #8, where Poland takes Hope to task for suggesting that film’s greatest strength is its ability to function as a “community organizing tool” (Poland’s phrase), with Poland instead arguing that film’s greatest strength is its ability to “make people feel things.”

Hoping to revisit some of these ideas later this week.

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Two Weeks in Spain: Gibraltar and Seville

After spending an afternoon in Tangier and a second night in Tarifa, we spent the next day in Gibraltar.  I’ll admit that I was originally somewhat skeptical about going there, convinced that it was little more than a giant rock that overlooked the Mediterranean–albeit a much-contested one–but it proved to be one of the most memorable places we saw.  Entering Gibraltar can be a rather tedious process.  If I visited again, I’d consider parking in Spain and walking across, in part because passing through the border, but driving up does provide a number of impressive views of the limestone rock.  And on an amusing note, the peninsula is so small that its only runway actually crosses the main highway into the city.  If I’m not mistaken, we were held up briefly while a small plane landed on the runway in front of us.

After a little investigation, The Best Girlfriend Ever and I decided to join a tour–it was almost as cheap as taking the cable car and seemed to offer a little more leisure time to visit some of the location’s other attractions.  There were stops to visit some of the macaques that live on the peninsula (go to Facebook for pictures of us posing with them), where the guide explained some of the territorial behavior of the different packs.  And while we weren’t taken quite to the pinnacle of the rock (where the cable cars would have gone), we did get some impressive views close enough to the top for our purposes.  More impressive were the St. Michael’s Caves, a network of caves inside the rock.  Perhaps the most striking element of the cave was the small natural amphitheater located inside where concerts are held for as many as 100 people.  Also worth checking out were the Siege Tunnels, nearly 40 km of tunnel built into Gibraltar beginning in the 18th century during the War of American Independence.  There is a good history of the tunnels here, underscoring the military importance of Gibraltar, as well as the impressive achievement of building a makeshift hospital and installing cannons inside the mountain.

After our time in Gibraltar, the rest of our trip moved quickly.  We drove from there to Seville, where we dropped off our rental car and were guided into the city center by a kind elderly gentleman who politely directed us to the correct bus and then to the light rail system in the center of the city (I think we gave him two euros for what would have been a five or six euro trip).  We found our hotel, which was just a couple of blocks from the Cathedral in the center of the city, and which we visited on our last full day in Spain.  After arriving at our hotel and resting briefly, we explored the city for a few hours, wandering through the dimly-lit alleyways where restaurants, still open late into the evening, provided scents of grilled seafood and sounds of clanging dishes and idle chatter.  Eventually we had a lovely meal at the Restaurante Bar el Atun, thanks to the suggestion of our concierge, where we had an incredibly satisfying dinner.

Because it was one of our last nights in Spain, we decided to use the occasion to have a quiet commitment ceremony on one of the bridges overlooking the river.  The ceremony itself involved the exchange of a few promises, spontaneously composed vows, many of which we’d already said a dozen times before.  But it was also the moment when we exchanged rings–they’d spent the last two days buried in my pocket–providing us with a physical symbol of what we already feel and know: that we are happy to be committed to each other for the rest of our lives.

Our last day in Seville consisted of more touring: cathedrals, gardens, the Jewish Quarter with its narrow “kissing lanes.”  We also did a little bit of souvenir hunting before finishing the evening by watching a flamenco performance at the Casa de la Memoria, where a group of talented students performed some traditional flamenco in an open-air 19th-century patio.  It’s a great introduction to flamenco for those who are unfamiliar with it–cheaper than some of the professional shows but impressive nonetheless.  After that, we returned–mildly exhausted at this point–to our hotel where we prepared for our journey home, our return from the intoxicating sensory excitement of travel.

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Cinema, Video Games, Art, Part I

I’ve been fascinated by Roger Ebert’s ongoing reflections, conveyed via his Twitter feed and blog, about whether video games can be art.  The debate intrigues me not only because it demonstrates the vibrancy of a public culture focused on issues of media criticism but also because Ebert’s questions address debates that have engaged scholars for decades: What is cinema? How is film different than other media? Does this change in an era of digital production and distribution? Can movies (or video games) qualify as art and under what circumstances?  These are all “big” questions, and to my mind, they put to rest any suggestion that public film criticism is “dead.”  If anything, it shows that these debates about the social role of art and entertainment, films and video games, matter for cinephiles, video game players, and many others.

The debate about whether video games can be art has a relatively long history (and I’ve worked through it in detail here: feel free to skim).  According to a timeline assembled at the Independent Gaming website, Ebert’s original complaints about video game aesthetics date back to an October 2005 review of the movie adaptation of the popular video game, Doom, in which Ebert compares watching the movie to watching someone else (“some kid”) play the video game rather than playing yourself, introducing one of the key themes that will play into debates about art, and film art, in particular: the question of interactivity.  Significantly, Ebert is clear to emphasize his admiration of the SF genre in his condemnation of Doom, even defending his positive reviews of Ghosts of Mars, Red Planet, and Total Recall, in order to make clear that the video game storyline is the film’s problem.

From there, as the Independent Gaming blog points out, Ebert defended his initial review of the film, first by asserting that books and movies are better mediums than video games, without any significant evidence other than the lack of critical consensus on what should be included among the canonical games, and later, on the grounds that video games lack the “authorial control” that films and novels have, a position implied in his initial comment about books and movies, in which he cites the great authors/auteurs of film and literature (Scorsese, Ozu, McCarthy, etc).  Here, Ebert’s emphasis on interactivity becomes even more explicit when he argues that “video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”  What gets lost here is the fact that a well-made video game can structure player choices in complicated ways, creating a story world or game narrative that can inspire reflection.  It also grounds artistic expression within the individual genius, or in the collaborations of a pair of filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, rather than in collective or collaborative authorship, a point that is reinforced in a response Ebert wrote to Clive Barker several years after his original claims about video games (note: Jason Rohrer criticizes this point in his response to the Ebert/Barker “debate”).

While the emphasis on authorial intent is problematic, the definition of what counts as art is ambiguous.  As Rohrer notes, Ebert uses adjectives such as “complex, thoughtful, empathetic” to describe high art, leading Rohrer to respond that he gained more “profound insights” from playing Super Coumbine Massacre RPG than he did from watching a documentary and feature film about the event.  Rohrer’s read on Ebert’s comments (as of 2007) is worth checking out in full and approximates my own skepticism about Ebert’s attempts to differentiate video games from film and novels.

Skipping forward to 2010, Ebert revisited this position in April after watching a TED talk by game designed Kellee Santiago (which I still haven’t seen, but Ebert seems to characterize it fairly enough).  Ebert maintains his assertion that works of art are the expressions of individual artists, adding that collectively produced objects, such as cathedrals and tribal dances, originate in the genius of an architect or choreographer, a position that, to my mind, wouldn’t preclude an individual video game designer from sketching out a game that was assembled by others, including video game participants.  Ebert goes on to dismiss games by suggesting that they have “rules, points, objectives,” but isn’t it true that quite a bit of interactive art entails a similar process of negotiation?  More crucially, Ebert acknowledges that Santiago’s definition of “art,” which she describes as “a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging” is ambiguous to the point that pretty much any text might qualify.  But Ebert’s response, rather oddly, seems to deny the very practice of criticism by arguing that “you can perform an exegesis or a paraphrase [of a work of art], but then you are creating your own art object from the materials at hand,” a position that seems contrary to many of the texts that he cites as works of art.  After all, Picasso, Beckett, and Eliot (three of the artists he cites) are engaging with the history of their respective media (painting, drama, poetry) in their works.  Picasso’s “Las Meninas” paintings, to cite just one example, are an extended series of citations and recitations of an earlier painting in an attempt to engage with the history of art.  In a way, Picasso’s work is not just art; it’s a form of art criticism. Ebert concludes this blog post by asking why it matters so much to gamers that their medium be potentially considered as art, which seems like an odd question to me.  Given the power of art to offer legitimacy to a form of expression, it is a way of recognizing that video games are important and worthy of study.

Ebert later responded to the avalanche of comments–some 4,599 and counting the last time I checked–in a series of blog posts and tweets, one of which offered an admittedly unscientific survey in which his readers asserted their preference for a great video game over Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.  By the end of his second post, Ebert is willing to concede not only that his argument about video games was ungrounded (due to his lack of experience with them) but also that his prior definitions of art may have been too ambiguous.  And in his most recent post on the topic (as of July 9), he reports the results of his “meaningless poll” as a lead-in for asserting the importance of reading literature, which he ties to the ability of great works of art to promote empathy with alternative points of view.  Again, gamers could easily respond that a carefully-crafted game could easily produce similar feelings of empathy, forcing a player to reconsider deeply-held assumptions.

I’ve rigorously avoided offering my definition of art in my deconstruction of Ebert’s positions, if only because I’m less invested in asserting that video games or films are art–why shouldn’t they be?–than I am in considering how media (and our responses to them) function within a larger social and political arena, a logic that informs much of my work on political mashup videos that not only challenge the positions of specific politicians but also seeks to challenge the legitimacy of political discourse as it is currently constructed, offering a populist critique of the influence of the rich and powerful on political speech.  But I am interested in mapping some of Ebert’s arguments onto recent film theory debates about the role of the digital in shaping definitions of cinema (in the narrower sense of film as art), a question I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been reading Dudley Andrew’s recent book, What Cinema Is! (Blackwell 2010), at the suggestion of a fellow media scholar, but since this post is running a bit long, I’ll return to that in a separate post.

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Tuesday Links

Starting to get caught up on all of my reading and hoping to get back into a more consistent blogging schedule soon.  Here are a few links I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • This summer has been marked by ’80s movie nostalgia (and maybe anti-nostalgia).  Just a few of the flashbacks from my teen years include: the Karate Kid remake (which I’m still refusing to see), the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future, the John Hughes tributes, and soon, the Footloose remake.  Maybe the most fascinating response to this 80s nostalgia overload has been the collaborative project, Our Footloose Remake, a do-it-yourself project where over 30 directors combined to direct one scene each from the iconic Kevin Bacon flick.  Each scene features its own Ren McCormick (the character played by Bacon) and its own distinct style, according to the NewTeeVee report (where you can also see the trailer.  The film is starting to circulate in theaters in New York and LA, beating the Paramount version by several weeks.  If I ever have to see Footloose (a film I saw way too often on our battered VHS copy in the 80s) again, this is how I want to see it.
  • NewTeeVee also has a discussion of Apple’s decision to “skip” Blu-Ray and go straight to streaming video, with Jobs comparing the format to “high-end” audio formats that sought to replace the CD.
  • David Cox of the Guardian weighs in on the use of 3-D in the final installment of the Shrek franchise and concludes that the technology will not “save cinema.”  Although I appreciate his skepticism, I’m intrigued by the assumption that cinema needs to be “saved,” especially when he concludes that “If cinema is to flourish, it’s to these qualities [story, character, etc] that it must look, not to technological doohickey.”  I’m always intrigued by these crisis narratives about cinema/Hollywood/moviegoing, but what’s less clear to me is what cinema needs to be saved from.
  • David Poland has one of the more sensible takes I’ve seen on Hulu Plus, the new Hulu pay service, and feeds into some of the issues I’ve been mulling over when it comes to how we’ll access various media in the future.  If people are willing to pay $10 to access certain content (which continues to feature ads), where, exactly does that take us?  Poland’s sobering answer: “It’s all connected. The long tail is destined to be a series of shorter tails, sewn together. And ‘Free,’as a concept… is not only bullshit (outside of promotion), but is dead.”
  • On a related note, Phillip Lenssen provides us with a “guide” on how to access the internet in 2025.
  • Nikki Finke and Sharon Waxman weigh in on the news that Netflix has secured a deal with Relativity, allowing Netflix exclusive rights to stream Relativity’s films, rather than selling broadcast rights to a pay-TV network such as HBO or Showtime.  Although Finke seems to dismiss the deal because of Relativity’s catalog of films, I think it’s pretty significant that an internet streaming service is making this kind of deal, with the “pay TV window” now essentially moving online, at least for one company’s slate of films.

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Two Weeks in Spain: Tangier and Tarifa

I’ve had a lot of immediate deadlines in recent days, but I’d like to finish up some of the narratives about our trip to Spain.  After Toledo, we headed south by train to Seville, where we picked up a rental car that we would use for the next leg of our journey: a short trip down to Tarifa, and from there, an afternoon trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco.  In my next post, I’ll describe on afternoon trip up to Gibraltar and our short stay in Seville, where we ended our journey.

By this point in our travels, we were somewhat overwhelmed by all of the cathedrals, castles, and art museums that we’d seen over the last week or so, making Tarifa and Tangier a nice break during the second half of our journey. Tarifa is mostly a beach town, known primarily for its excellent windsurfing, but it also has a charming, old downtown.  The city itself is walled, and typically we would park just outside the gate of the city and walk through, down the short, narrow street leading down to the beach and port areas.  Like a lot of Spanish cities we saw, there were some  lovely plazas, and Tarifa ended up being one of my favorite food cities: on our first night, we shared a delicious tuna salad and a grilled squid (inspiring our own, failed attempts at grilling squid); and on the second night, we had our best experience with paella, thanks I think, to being somewhere a little less touristy.  Our Barcelona paellas were often too bland, and worse, contained almost no seafood (maybe 4 tiny shrimp and a couple of clams).  Tarifa also provided us a chance to spend a relaxing afternoon and evening on the beach at a location that marked the boundary between two seas, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and in many ways, two continents, Europe and Africa.

Our day trip to Tangier was, if nothing else, a learning experience.  We wavered between making the trip over solo and going with a tour group.  Because it was actually more expensive to take the ferry without a guide, we chose to go with a guide, which probably turned out to be a wise decision.  We were fortunate that our group consisted of only two other people–a young couple from Toronto–who seemed to share some similar interests.  The “tours” in Tangier often consist of being led about to not-so-thinly disguised sales pitches, usually including an invite for a camel ride (we declined), a carpet store, a pharmacist (who also sold spices), and lunch at an “authentic” Moroccan restaurant (where all the customers are non-natives).  The guide will usually make some effort to mix in recent and ancient histories of the city.  Tangier once was an incredibly run-down city, apparently, but the current king, whose portrait appeared in nearly every business we visited–has a fondness for the city and has been in the process of revitalizing the city in order to build tourism there.  But the major emphasis is on providing some of the local businesses with captive audiences for “crazy deals.”  Even so, as the Best Girlfriend Ever observed, the tour was likely worth the mild aggravation simply because having a tour guide likely protected us from being approached by other people desperate to sell stuff to tourists with lots of money to blow.  In fact, on several occasions, our guide had to angrily chew out local merchants who were trying to sell us stuff.

There were a couple of intriguing moments for me: stumbling across a movie theater in the downtown area, where, I was told, Bollywood (and some Hollywood) films were shown; hearing about my girlfriend’s past experiences in Morocco and her comparisons between Tangier and the other places she’s visited.  I’m not sure that I’d go back to Tangier unless I had some kind of specific project or purpose, but the Tangier and Tarifa part of trip proved to be an unusually memorable part of our trip.

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