Archive for October, 2010

Requiem 102 Project #1

This blog post is the inaugural post of the “Requiem for a Dream // 102 Project,” conceived by Nick Rombes as form of collective, distributed film criticism, modeled loosely on his 10/40/70 project, in which Nick “reads” three screen captures from a film taken at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks.  In this case, Nick has invited 102 contributors from across the film criticism spectrum to look at one frame from each minute of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, a movie that unsettled many audience members when it was first released to theaters ten years ago.  For more about the project, check out the 102 Project’s “About” page and follow it on Twitter.

Requiem for a Dream famously offers one of the most visceral treatments of drug addiction in recent screen history.  When I first saw the film with an old girlfriend, on VHS, over a decade ago, we both were so unsettled by the experience that we immediately left my apartment for an hour-long walk, despite the cold Illinois weather.  These reactions can be attributed to the film’s visual and aural style, which becomes gradually more disorienting as the addictions of the four major characters deepen, emptying them out–physically and emotionally–in the process.  By the end of the film, all four of the characters seem to be falling apart physically or emptied out emotionally, to the point that Marian’s makeup serves as a kind of mask hiding the natural self.   The process of getting high is depicted as a series of flash cut images and sounds: a bag unzipping, drugs cooking, eyes dilating. Rush as routine.  But all of the characters are seeking a fix in what seems like a lifeless world.


Although this shot is not a split-screen, the visual style here seems to echo the split-screens from earlier in the film when Harry (Jared Leto) and his mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn) have been arguing over Sara’s ancient TV set, which Harry plans to sell to a nearby pawn shop in order to buy some heroin. Both of them know that Sara will go and retrieve that same TV set from the pawn store owner to satisfy her own addiction to a surreal self-help show, making the fight seem like an oddly choreographed dance, but the split screen helps divide mother and son from each other, despite their overlapping addictions.  As Harry remarks later to Marian (Jennifer Connelly), “I asked myself, what’s her fix? Television, right?”  Again, the frame seems to be split in half.  In this case, we see Harry and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), partially obscured by the metal railings, pushing the old TV set, a relic with rabbit ear antenna and a seemingly without a remote, down the Coney Island boardwalk during what was one of the film’s few quiet moments, while the roller coaster sits quietly on the opposite half of the frame.

The shot invites contemplation, and viewing the screen capture out of its narrative context, I found myself reading it as I might a painting or still photograph, looking at compositional balance and other details.  It’s impossible to look at the shot without seeing the sense of decline or collapse creeping into the shot, a sensation that will only deepen as the film unfolds.  The boardwalk is empty, except for Tyrone and Harry, and Coney Island, a place typically associated with innocent, if slightly tacky, fun, is abandoned.  The lines of the boardwalk also lead our eyes to the roller coaster, stationary in both the still frame and the movie itself, that fills much of the left-hand side of the frame, reminding us again that the park is, or appears to be, closed.

But in looking closely at this still I find myself entertaining a couple of other readings: first, the rejection of TV as addictive seems like a typical extension of the same old rivalry between movies and TV: television is addictive and dangerous and leads to Sara’s self-destructive use of diet pills later in the film.  Sara’s addiction seems all the more painful given that she is forced to use such a shabby, old TV set with a tiny screen.  More crucially, however, the boardwalk–and the sightlines in this frame–seem to be leading us to the roller coaster in the corner, perhaps reminding us that film in general has been compared to and identified with roller coasters and the cheap amusements associated with locations such as Coney Island.  Movies were often shown at amusement parks (see Anne Friedberg’s Window Shopping for a wonderful account of this history), and parks such as Disney World and Universal Studios are now devoted to celebrating motion picture entertainment.  Movies themselves can be a roller coaster rides, and this film in particular, with its aesthetic innovations and its treatment of drug addiction–itself a kind of ride–will also prove to be a kind of roller coaster as well.

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Watching the Rally

Due to time constraints, I was unable to travel to the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on the National Mall today in Washington, but I did watch most of it on Comedy Central this afternoon.  In addition to being a welcome break from a dismal afternoon of college football–at least if you’re a Purdue fan–it was also an entertaining media event, one that powerfully illustrated the power of comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to draw a crowd in support of their politically-themed humor.

It was fun to watch musical performers such as Jef Tweedy and Mavis Staples singing together, while Yusuf Islam and Ozzy Osborne had a humorous mock music competition.  But of course the main purpose for the rally was to serve as an antidote to the Glenn Beck 8/28 rally that appealed to the politics of fear and divisiveness.  As Stewart himself said during an earnest concluding speech, “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” a message that seemed to be echoed by the crowd that stretched across the Mall.  And as an alternative to the comments from Juan Williams (and NPR’s awkward response), Bill O’Reilly’s blow-up on The View, and countless political ads, the rally came across as a means of embracing more healthy forms of political participation, a point illustrated by Stewart’s embrace of Velma Hart, who calmly and rationally challenged Obama on some of his policy choices.  It’s a position consistent with other comments made by both Stewart and Colbert in other venues, including Stewart’s famous Crossfire appearance and Colbert’s speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

But it’s a position that seems to be absent from many, if not most, of the comments about the rally, even those that seem to be enthusiastic about it.  Will Bunch, a media columnist for the Los Angeles Times reads the rally as an attempt to “elevate ironic detachment to the level of a political manifesto” before worrying (somewhat insincerely, if I’m reading him correctly) that the rally could undercut their reputations as comedians who speak truth to power.  Similarly, Alexandra Petri argues (favorably) that the rally is the ultimate example of Millennial posturing, calling it “the ultimate anti-protest. It’s a Facebook group in the flesh.”  Meanwhile, Carlos Lozada worries that the rally will shatter Stewart’s status as a sideline satirist, turning him into something more earnest.

What we saw instead was something other than mere “ironic detachment.”  The satire performed by Stewart and Colbert has long been rooted in principle, and the rally is simply an expression of that, part of the “Stewart [and Colbert] lore” that Lozada worries will be undercut by the rally.  The comments from Bunch and Petri both seem to underestimate the political power of satire, albeit with different investments.  Petri seems to imply that Millennials are committed to little other than ironic self-expression, while Bunch worries that the rally signifies that we are laughing into “oblivion” (to echo an old anti-pop culture remark from Neil Postman).

Instead, the rally was a reminder that we can and should do better when it comes to the institutions that shape our politics.  Although the rally avoided explicit commentary about some of the more insidious factors that have affected our politics–the Citizens United decision to name one example–it did offer, through its embrace of Velma Hart, an alternative to the heated cable news programming that Colbert and Stewart have been parodying for years.

Update: Here is the video of Stewart’s speech summing up the purpose of the rally.  Here is the transcript for easy quoting.

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Choice Fatigue: Television vs. Film

Australian media studies scholar Graeme Turner has a fascinating post in the most recent issue of Flow TV, where he discusses his experiences with the proliferation of choice in American cable TV systems, where we have countless TV stations, not to mention video-on-demand and online options such as Hulu, Netflix, and iTunes.  Turner borrows Jack Ellis’s (2002) concept of “choice fatigue” to describe this phenomenon and raises some thoughtful questions about how audiences engage with that diversity of choice and whether this kind of choice is truly democratizing.  He’s posing some valuable questions, not just for TV and media scholars, but also, I’d argue for people interested in the new digital distribution channels available to independent and DIY filmmakers.

Turner views this television landscape as an outsider, in much the same way that British media scholar, Raymond Williams, holed up in a Miami hotel, was able to deduce the concept of “flow” to describe the constant stream of images that were the substance of television broadcasts.  So his ability to see the U.S. system not as a natural outgrowth of media technologies, but as a product of industry and consumer choices, is beneficial, and something I’ve been mulling myself after my recent participation in the Colombian Film Week, where I got my own crash course in how several Latin American film industries operate (more on that in a subsequent post, I promise).  Turner initially reports a sense of confusion about the wide choice available to him via a Philadelphia cable TV system, an experience I shared when I first moved to Fayetteville after going several years without cable.   Like him, I was initially open to exploring and, in some cases, sought advice from students and other TV or media scholars, but soon found myself settling on somewhere between 10-15 channels that were semi-regular visits and even a smaller number of channels where I did any focused viewing (such as my nightly updates from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert).

This issue of choice likely wouldn’t matter much, Turner seems to imply, if it weren’t also tied to issues of national, regional, and local identity.  Turner writes, “I am interested in this because I have been examining the recent mutations of television with a view to understanding how, if at all, television might still play what was once seen to be virtually its primary cultural role – constructing a local, national or regional community.”  He goes on to add that some post-broadcast cultures, such as those in the UK and Mexico, still address a national community, but wonders whether such forms of address are still in place in a relatively fragmented U.S. system.  There really isn’t an easy answer here, but I think that Turner is right that we need a better understanding of how choice informs both consumer and citizen practices.  After all, TV is not just involved in the production of audiences; it is also involved in the shaping of citizenship, in how we participate in and understand our political system (as the Colbert-Stewart rallies attest).

But I have to ask how and under what circumstances, this seemingly unlimited choice is experienced as “fatigue.”  My fiancee is a die-hard Boston Celtics fan, and having access to virtually all Celtics games through NBA TV, for her, is actually quite energizing, or at least exciting (and I’ll try to catch as many Hawks games as I can).  But I think that these questions of choice and democratization may have a different valence when it comes to movie distribution.  Many of the same questions that Turner asks remain in place: Given the dozens of movies available through video-on-demand, one of the ongoing conversations that independent and DIY filmmakers have been having is the issue of curation: how will people find the movies they want to see?  Obviously, the Netflix and iTunes recommendation algorithms have sought to address this, but a sea of titles on a VOD menu might not work as well.

A more crucial question, however, is how unlimited choice fits within debates about media democratization.  There is certainly evidence that fragmented movie distribution cultures will help to reinforce political divides.  Movies such as the anti-Obama I Want Your Money can circulate just as widely as anything produced by Brave New Films (and likely with little overlap between the two, except among film critics and some political bloggers).  During a mid-term election characterized by unusually heated rhetoric, the power of this on-demand movie culture cannot be underestimated, and in most cases, it seems to be reinforcing difference in ways that may not be healthy for our politics, although I think that’s a potentially debatable question.

However, in other ways (especially from the perspective of the artist), choice may not be a cause of fatigue but of energy, a point underscored in some of the discussion of Edward Burns’ latest film, Nice Guy Johnny, which is now available on iTunes and through VOD.  I’ve been fascinated by the “homage trailers” that Edward Burns created to support  Nice Guy Johnny, a DIY project in pretty much every sense, and in a recent interview with Michael Tully of Hammer to Nail, Burns offers a thoughtful, but pointed, defense of the DIY approach, comparing his form of independent filmmaking to “a Cassavetes model,” in which Burns supports himself by working on commercial projects in order to make the kinds of movies that he wants.  It’s a model that isn’t available to everyone–Burns’ unexpected, but well-deserved, success with The Brothers McMullen opened doors for him unavailable to others–but I think it’s a good illustration of the ways in which choice, although a crucial keyword to media industry analysis, remains a difficult concept to grasp.

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Wednesday Links

Recovering from a cold, but hoping to put together a more substantial discussion of my trip to Bogota soon:

  • Jeff Deutchman’s crowdsourced documentary, 11/04/08, which assembles footage of people’s reactions to the election of Barack Obama as President, had a simultaneous premiere in approximately 20 cities the other day. The film will soon be available from Amazon, YouTube, and other online retailers.  Matt Dentler and Christopher Campbell have the details.  I missed the premiere because of travel, but I have to wonder how the documentary looks nearly two years after Election Day through the political lens of ongoing political and economic uncertainty.  Hoping to watch it soon.
  • Barack Obama joins Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, addressing bullied and isolated gay teens with a message of comfort.
  • The LA Times has an interesting discussion of the reemergence of consumers choosing to rent rather than purchase movies on DVD (or in streaming formats).
  • David Poland cites the Kickstarter success story, Blue Like Jazz.  One of the commenters suggests that Jazz’s success may be tied to its appeal to Christian audiences.  No matter what, raising over $300,000 online for a movie is an impressive achievement.  Hoping to have more to say about this project soon.
  • Anthony Kaufman’s latest “Industry Beat” column discusses the ongoing indie crisis, with one indie producer, Michael London, suggesting that making independent “movies has become more a hobby than a livelihood.”
  • Fun video of the day: an indie director and Charlie Chaplin fan comes to the conclusion that he has spotted a time traveler on a cell phone at the premiere of one of Chaplin’s films.  Needless to say, commenters at Cinematical are skeptical.
  • Scary video of the day: Citizens Against Government Waste uses race-baiting fear tactics to persuade us that progressives are in the process of destroying the American economic empire.  The video plays like a cross between the Apple 1984 ad and the sequel to Red Dawn.
  • Netflix is investing bigtime in streaming content, with a tab that might exceed $2 billion (h/t Chris Becker).

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The Speed of Information

It probably says so0mething about how quickly information travels (or at lest how busy I’ve been lately) that I learned about the Atomic Tom story while sitting in a conference room in Bogota on Saturday.  If you haven’t heard, the band Atomic Tom had their musical instruments stolen a few days ago.  In response, the band put together an improvised concert using music apps on their iPhones in the New York subway system.  The creative bit of street (or subway) theater was, quite naturally, filmed on an iPhone and posted it to YouTube where it immediately became an international sensation and garnered the band a whole new audience.  The audience reactions in the video are priceless:

More on my trip to Bogota later this week.

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Here and Elsewhere

First, I just wanted to mention that my In Media Res post, “Learning from The Elders: Crowdfunding, Transmedia, and Documentary,” in now online.  I’ve been turning over the concept of a “platform” quite a bit lately, so the opportunity to write for IMR during their “New Platforms” theme week was a cool one.

Also, just wanted to mention that I will be giving a talk in Bogota, Colombia, next week as a part of their Colombia Film Week.  The event is sponsored by the Colombian Ministry of Culture (Wikipedia), so I’m very flattered to have been invited and equally excited to have an opportunity to learn about filmmaking practices in other environments than those I typically study.

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In Media Res Themed Week: Transmedia: New Platforms

Here’s an early reminder that I have a post coming up for MediaCommons’ In Media Res series.  This week’s theme is “Transmedia: New Platforms” and was organized by Elizabeth Strickler of Georgia State University. Here are this week’s posts:

Monday, October 11 – Janet Murray (Georgia Tech) presents: Inventing New Conventions for Digital Storytelling

Tuesday, October 12 – Henry Jenkins (University of Southern California) presents: Harry Shum Jr.: Dancing With and Without Glee

Wednesday, October 13 – Chuck Tryon (Fayetteville State University) presents: Learning from the Elders: Crowdfunding, Transmedia and Documentary

Thursday, October 14 – Christina Dunbar-Hester (Rutgers Universitiy) presents: 646-833-0759

Friday, October 15 – Jeff Watson (University of Southern California) presents: Games of Nonchalance

Looking forward to your comments!

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The Social Network

David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network (IMDB) is a seductive film, one that promises a kind of history of the present, one that seeks to contextualize our socially networked era and to deconstruct the cult of the dotcom wonder boys.  It is a film that is rich in details of place and period–Harvard final clubs, Hotornot.com–but one that seems more obsessed with exploring how the social ineptitude of Mark Zuckerberg (at least as he is depicted in the film) made possible the site that, for better or worse, now plays an important role in structuring, or at least shaping, social relationships.

Zuckerberg’s lack of social graces becomes apparent from the opening scene of the film when we see him arguing with Erica, a girlfriend who is preparing to dump him.  Jim Emerson reads this scene beautifully as an introduction to the film’s fascination with “code.”  Exasperated at Mark’s inability (or resistance) to communicate clearly, Erica remarks, “Sometimes, Mark — seriously — you say two things at once and I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to be aiming at…. It’s exhausting.”  Bitter about the rejection, Mark rushes back to his dorm room, and in a manic, and drunken, burst of code writing produces “facesmash.com,” a website based on the algorithm of Hotornot that allows Harvard students to rate their female classmates in terms of who is hotter.  It’s the first instance in which Zuckerberg begins to realize that people want to see their friends on the internet, and it’s also the moment that the film introduces us to (or participates in) the sexism that permeates the cultures of privileged elites at Harvard and, eventually, in Silicon Valley.  The fact that Zuckerberg finds time to write a drunken, misogynistic blog entry mocking Erica reinforces much of this anger.

Although Zuckerberg’s desire to create Facebook seems to be driven largely by his anger about being dumped, we are also reminded that it is rooted in his fascination with and resentment toward the culture of elitism symbolized by the final clubs that refuse to provide admission to a frumpy middle-class computer geek (one who also happens to be Jewish in a supposedly WASPy culture).  This WASPy culture of privilege is personified by the Wiklevoss twins–tall, blonde, muscular, and privileged beyond belief–who recognize Zuckerberg’s coding skills and invite him to work on a project that they’ve been entertaining, Harvard Connection, a kind of Facebook for elites, which they propose in the bike room of their Final Club, the only room Zuckerberg is allowed to enter.  It’s also suggested by the busloads of Boston-based coeds who seem eager to strip down to their undies and gyrate on tables and make out with each other for the visual pleasure of a bunch of overgrown trust-fund guys.  And it’s unclear whether Mark resents being excluded from the power and connections such final clubs promise or whether its the girls.  Later, of course, Zuckerberg, along with Sean Parker (played with seductive bravado by Justin Timberlake), who had “completely transformed,” as Parker himself brags, the music industry, heads to Silicon Valley, where Parker, in particular parties non-stop, doing coke lines off the stomachs of eager California co-eds.  The programming world of Facebook also seems to me an all-male affair, something that isn’t true of the actual website (as Salon reminds us).  This is where the film’s attempts at critique started to become muddled for me.  Why oversimplify the company’s (and Silicon Valley’s) gender dynamics?  Is the film criticizing the elite Harvard grad for his not-so-hidden sexism? Zuckerberg for wanting entrance to that world? And to what extent is it offering the dancing girls for “our” pleasure?  Although the film seems to be criticizing the culture of masculinity at Harvard and in Silicon Valley, in places, the film seems to be cutting both ways.

As the film unfolds, we become more deeply ensconced in the hubris that begins to drive Zuckerberg.  He clearly becomes seduced by Parker’s flippant anti-authoritarianism and his superficial charm, rejecting the loyalty of his roommate and friend, Eduardo (who becomes involved with a stereotypically seductive, but eventually incredibly jealous, Asian girlfriend).  In some sense, I think, the film can be read as a love triangle between these three men: Mark, the talented misanthrope who stumbles onto social networking because he is anti-social; Eduardo, the loyal friend who seeks to support a project he thinks will work; and Sean, the rebel who seems to provide Mark with a way of getting back at all of the wealthy and powerful people who have rejected him, putting together what seems like a political allegory of sorts.    This is where I begin to find Alex Juhasz’s critique of The Social Network as a “boomer morality tale” convincing.  Zuckerberg sacrifices friendship and loyalty out of a personal desire for revenge, but that desire seems to be deeply rooted in the class antagonisms and resentments in place at Harvard (at least as it is imagined in Sorkin and Fincher’s flashy moralism).

It’s clear that the film wants us to be ambivalent about Zuckerberg, but I found myself with little to no sympathy toward him.  Throughout the film, Zuckerberg is alone–often in isolating long shots and even extreme long shots–when his biggest achievements are reached.  While Parker and the co-eds pop champagne corks in Facebook’s tiny apartment office, Zuckerberg is outside beyond a sliding glass door in the dark.  Although The Social Network has been compared to Citizen Kane in its depiction of an idealistic young man turning sour due to sudden wealth, it was hard for me to believe that Zuckerberg, unlike Kane, could have been a “great man.”  Instead, he remains a victim, one who sits alone in a sterile office tower with glass walls, the kind meant to suggest openness and warmth, obsessively refreshes his old girlfriend Erica’s Facebook page after sending her a friend request.

The film carries us along at a breakneck pace.  Roger Ebert compares the rapid-fire dialogue to screwball comedy, and that sounds about right, especially if the romance is between Mark, Sean, and Eduardo.  And the film is framed around an elegant flashback narration set in various deposition rooms as lawyers shoot questions back and forth, fighting over whether Zuckerberg owes Eduardo and the Winklevosses any money.  To that extent, the film seems more obsessed with the trappings of money and power, and Facebook itself seems to matter little.  We rarely see anyone actually using Facebook and are not given any sense of its appeal, no matter how flawed.  Sorkin himself, it is widely reported, doesn’t really use Facebook (although he reads blogs, Ken Levine’s at least), and as Richard Brody seems to imply, this pushes Sorkin’s seeming distaste for the site and his unwillingness to engage with it except as a site designed by a couple of socially inept geeks.

Thus, The Social Network is a film about  a significant transformation in mediated culture (I’m not willing to call it a revolution) that does little to engage with what those transformations might mean. As Brody puts it, in response to David Denby’s review, “Sorkin and Fincher’s Zuckerberg didn’t dream of becoming a Facebook user; he dreamed of not being a Facebook user.”  As I watched the film, I found myself developing the dawning realization that Facebook, which now seems like a “natural” part of Internet culture has only been around since 2004 or so.  I recall setting up my first account when I taught at Catholic University, well before Facebook access was available to anyone with an “edu” address and certainly before it was available to everyone (and used by almost everyone).  It has fed into and shaped a rapidly evolving net culture, one in which conversation is less likely to take place on blogs and more likely to unfold in the rapidfire comments on Twitter or the protected spaces of Facebook, a change in the media ecosystem that Laura at Geeky Mom explained recently on her blog.  The Social Network touches on these themes, but seems to not quite know what to do with them.  In that sense, the film’s biggest resentments seemed not to be directed at the wealthy, WASPy clubs that excluded Zuckerberg–at points, even “the Winklevii” seem more sympathetic than Zuckerberg–but at the changing media culture that seems to be reshaping our relationship to an older audiovisual culture moment by moment.

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Mickey Mouse Reacts

Mickey Mouse tunes into Glenn Beck’s show to learn that someone has been remixing Disney cartoons to make a political point:

A pretty creative response to the totally awesome Donald Duck video from the other day.

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Crowdfunding “An Affair”

A friend of mine (and a talented filmmaker), Chris Hansen (here are my reactions to his previous two films, Clean Freak and American Messiah), is currently planning his third feature-length film, An Affair, a drama that explores what happens when two married strangers meet up at a lonely motel and develop an instant attraction.  Like many indie filmmakers, Chris is seeking to raise support for the film through Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website, where filmmakers can pitch their ideas and seek donations from people who are interested in seeing the film get produced.  You can check out Chris’s pitch below.

According to Chris, An Affair was scripted in a highly-collaborative fashion with the two lead actors.  Also worth noting, the film itself will be produced in part by his students at Baylor University.  It looks like an engaging movie, and Chris has promised a number of gifts to thank you for your donation, so if you’re a fan of character-driven indie film, give Chris’s movie (or any number of Kickstarter projects) a look and consider supporting his film.

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Monday Links

What I’ve been watching, reading, and thinking about over the weekend:

  • Via Henry at Crooked Timber, Donald Duck Meets Glenn Beck, a brilliant remix of dozens of Disney cartoons from the 1930s to the ’60s.  Let’s hope Disney’s lawyers respect this as an example of a transformative work, one that falls well within the boundaries of fair use.
  • Since I haven’t had time to see the real “Facebook movie,” I thought I’d revisit the YouTube Movie trailer parody instead.
  • Spotted via Christine Becker’s News for TV Majors, Eric Deggans reflects on whether satire TV (of the Stewart-Colbert variety) can fix what ails our political system.
  • Hunter Weeks of 10 MPH discusses what he’s learned about DIY movie distribution.
  • With the planned release of 3D versions of Star Wars and Titanic, the LA TImes asks if studios are going too far with the gimmick.  Hollywood might just kill my desire to go to movie theaters after all.
  • The makers of the ElfQuest graphic novel have gotten behind a fan-produced and crowdfunded 1-3 minute internet trailer based on the novel (the rights to a film is currently held by Warner).  Not only have they given the filmmakers their blessing, they are donating artwork and promising personal phone calls to anyone who donates at the VIP level.

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Freakonomics Review

Although it’s an engaging book, written with a great deal of wit, I’ve always found myself responding skeptically to some of the key insights in Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics.  Like many pop social scientific books, its argument–that unexplained phenomena might be understood once we identify the hidden incentives of the key players–never quite held together for me across all chapters.  And in some cases, their conclusions seemed to be based on some pretty fantastic logical leaps.   But given the documentary all-star team, including Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, lined up by Seth Gordon to direct the various segments of the film (official website; IMDB page), I couldn’t resist watching, in part because the film is now available through video-on-demand, several weeks before it is due to arrive in local theaters (if it shows up at all).

As Dan Kois of The Village Voice observes, much of what makes Freaknomics engaging as a movie is the opportunity to watch several top-notch documentarians treating Dubner and Levitt’s analysis.  Although I’m reluctant to share his sneering remark that the sequences resemble a “quartet of uneven TV pilots posing as a full-length documentary” (I guess movies are still better than TV, even when that line is increasingly fuzzy), Kois describes the tone of each sequence relatively well.  Spurlock’s “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” plays to the filmmaker’s advantages with getting candid, humorous on-the-street interviews in confirming the unsurprising conclusion that names have racial and class associations that shape how they will be perceived in the job market.  Gibney’s section, which treats corruption in sumo wrestling, is perhaps the most insightful, especially when he draws connections between the incentives to throw a sumo match and the “trust” placed in Wall Street executives such as Bernie Madoff that allowed him to build an illusive financial empire.

Like Kois, I also found myself uncovinced–less convinced than ever, in fact–by the argument in the film’s third segment, Jarecki’s “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” which argues that the legalization of abortion, through Roe v Wade in 1973, is responsible for the dramatic drops in crime rates during the early 1990s, presumably when the unborn would have been teenagers or young adults.  The logical problems with this segment have always bothered me, in particular the conflation of causation and correlation: can we assume that there is a causal relationship here or is it just a coincidence?  Worse, the film dismisses, almost as an afterthought, some of the race and class critiques that have been brought up against Levitt and Dubner’s argument.  If the film provides them with a chance to engage seriously with those concerns, they certainly don’t take advantage.

Grady and Ewing’s segment, which traces the role of financial incentives in getting students to improve their grades is probably the strongest, in part because it has the strongest narrative component, but also because of their talents as observational filmmakers willing to let things happen in front of the camera, their openness (perhaps) to alternative conclusions.  Their segment follows two students from a Chicago high school who are participating in a program that promises $50 to any student who pulls all of his or her grades to a C or higher.  One clearly bright student who improvises a tattoo wand out of an electric toothbrush and a needle continues to struggle, while another, seduced by the opportunity to ride in a Hummer limo, seems to to turn things around.  Their segment seems to remain agnostic on whether these financial incentives work (and on what amount might be enough to encourage more students to buy in), making it, by far, the most circumspect and reflective of the film, in some places working against what seemed like the film’s barely submerged smugness about incentives and causality.

That being said, the distribution practices associated with the Freakonomics movie have been a fascinating study of film promotion and the incentives that drive people to make choices about when and where (and how much they are willing to pay) to see a movie.  Although the movie has been available on-demand for several weeks at $10.99, I waited until last night, when it was $6.99, I think, to watch.  This may have been partially deliberate: $10.99 is a lot of money to pay just to see a movie, even if it allows me to jump into the conversation about the movie a bit earlier than others might.  I’d considered going to see a movie in theaters last night, but tired after a long day of travel, it seemed more convenient to watch at home (plus my fiancee wants to see The Social Network, giving me an additional incentive to wait to see that one).  But as Catherine Rampell reports, Magnolia, in the spirit of the film, has continued to play with the distribution timing for Freakonomics, in part by making it available both on-demand and through iTunes before it hits theaters, an experiment that was likely possible only because of the Freakonomics brand, which includes a bestselling book and a New York Times column, that relied on viewers’ familiarity with the material.  This branding also is arguably supplemented by the all-star cast of documentary filmmakers, which were a bigger draw for me, at least.  Magnolia also toyed with a one-time only pay-what-you-want screening, allowing people to pay anywhere from one penny to $100 to see the film in ten cities (as long as you fill out a social media survey).  The average ticket price ended up being about $1, but, as you might expect, a large number of people out of the 5,000 or so tickets sold never showed.  Finally, as Rampell notes, the film might also lend itself to any number of re-cuts, given its segmented, fragmentary nature.  This isn’t new, of course.  There are countless examples of omnibus films and documentaries that lend themselves to being reappropriated, but the economic logic at work here may allow us to be more self-conscious about how this process works.

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Flow TV Book Has Arrived

Like Jonathan, I am very happy to have finally received my copy on Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence, edited by Michael Kackman, Marnie Binfield, Matthew Thomas Payne, Allison Perlman, and Bryan Sebok.  My contribution, “Representing the Presidency: Viral Videos, Intertextuality, and Political Participation,” attempted to make sense of the evolving strategies being used by political participants of all types to engage with the 2008 U.S. Presidential election through the production of videos that infused politics and popular culture, following up on a short essay I’d written on the ground-breaking “Vote Different” for Flow’s online journal and a co-written article with Rich Edwards that found its way into First Monday.

Although the book “took its sweet time” navigating the path to publication, as Jonathan puts it, the delay may have served me well in that it allowed my article to serve as a coda to some of the research I was doing at that time.  It also makes me want to revisit how the grounds have shifted when it comes to political video: what happens now that the Democrats are no longer the insurgent or oppositional party?  How have the Tea Partiers mobilized the powers of popular culture to support their opposition to the Obama administration?  I began to hint at some of those questions by looking at Mike Huckabee’s use of Chuck Norris to give muscle to his campaign, but there is much more work to be done.

The collection itself is a fantastic one, with essays very nicely juxtaposed to speak to questions about the implications of media convergence, and I’m pleased to be included in such good company, with essays by Jason Mittell, Derek Kompare, Heather Hendershot, John Corner, Hector Amaya, and many others.  I only wish I could have been at this year’s Flow Conference to toast the book’s launch with the writers and editors who helped put it together.

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