Archive for February, 2011

The Company Men

Watching John Wells’ The Company Men (IMDB) against the backdrop of the ongoing union protests was a fascinating experience. In addition to the week-long protests taking place in Madison, where workers are fighting to retain the right to bargain collectively, there were solidarity marches in all fifty states on Saturday. In addition, as Frank Rich notes, there have been threats of a government shutdown that would potentially cut off access to food stamps and Social Security checks, while Governor Scott Walker cheerfully chats with a reporter impersonating billionaire David Koch about laying off state workers. Although The Company Men was produced well before these more recent labor crises, it gave the film a startling timeliness, one that makes its relatively invisibility–I’ve seen little advertising for or discussion of the film–a little startling.

Like Up in the Air (my review), a film that has been a frequent point of comparison, The Company Men grounds its narrative in the historical world. While Up in the Air used talking-head interviews with actual unemployed workers interspersed with unemployed workers, The Company Men opens and closes with an audio an video montage of news reports on the unemployment crisis, the bank bailouts, and the stock market, drawing (perhaps overly obvious) connections between the experiences of its central characters and the corporate downsizing.  This conflict is addressed through the psychological experiences of three executives from GTX, an amorphous conglomerate that originated in shipbuilding but now seems to make nothing in particular, while pushing papers across desks in a furious attempt to bump up stock prices before an anticipated merger.  Each of the men belongs to a different class background and generation. The primary point of identification is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a youngish sales executive, who has a high salary, but has overextended himself, buying a McMansion, a Porsche, and paying for expensive country club dues; Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), who lovingly built the shipbuilding company and now watches cynically as it loses its manufacturing base; and Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), a man of working-class roots who rose from the factory floor to become an executive, although he experiences this status awkwardly, his graying hair and bland demeanor coding him as an outsider within the world of high finance.

All three of the characters are unceremoniously fired at various points, and the film traces their efforts to find work–and to regain a sense of lost dignity after being fired and falling short of their role as breadwinners. In this sense, the film becomes an exploration not merely of economic issues, but also of the masculinity crisis that  Bobby, Phil, and Gene face in various ways (a point addressed most effectively by Karina Longworth in her insightful reading of the film).  At first, Bobby is reluctant to allow his wife, a nurse, to take on more shifts and assumes that his job search will be brief. But as the search drags on, Bobby must give up many of the trappings of success and must endure a sometimes humiliating job search, a point underscored by Bobby’s experiences in a job placement firm where bossy (and emasculating) employment coaches direct him in goofy “empowerment” chants, while Phil is forced to endure a variety of humiliations: his wife demands that he not come home until 6 PM to keep up the illusion that he is employed, while a job hunter counsels him to omit any reference to any work before 1990.

At first, I was ambivalent at best about the fact that the film focused solely on the experiences of unemployed (but relatively wealthy) men and that the only prominent female workers were Bobby’s wife, Maggie, and Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello), a GTX executive responsible for carrying out most of the firings. Maggie’s work is generally undervalued–her status as a worker is rendered insignificant compared to her role as a wife and mother. And Sally is often just inches away from falling into the stereotype of the dominant female executive who has stolen power away from men (a la Demi Moore in Disclosure). But I think the film is trying to make sense of how these economic changes might be affecting us on a psychological level, and as Karina concludes, it “offers a multifaceted glimpse at what can happen when the connective tissue between a man and his source of income is cut, and rarely suggests that it could be anything less than excruciating to stop the bleeding.”

The film is also savvy enough to recognize that the economic challenges extend well beyond those who wear suits and ties to work. After some time, Bobby reluctantly accepts a job working for Maggie’s brother, Jack (Kevin Costner), a carpenter who hires Bobby as a laborer and then promotes him to carpenter, subtly overpaying him, even though his own business is in some jeopardy. As Andrew O’Hehir observes, the film risks romanticizing working-class production, both through its depiction of Jack as a crusty, salt-of-the-earth guy and through its celebration of the revival of manufacturing as a way out of the unemployment crisis, with Gene lamenting the days when GTX used to build things. But as the aborted stimulus package illustrates, there is some value in building and repairing “things,” in giving our aging infrastructure a much-needed boost, and although the film’s ending is somewhat trite (I won’t spoil the specifics here), it allows us to think about the sterile world of high finance in contrast to the gritty and grubby world of making stuff, a comparison that is spelled out sharply through Roger Deakins’s cinematography.

Finally, to some extent, the film seems to have been implicitly criticized for being “too televisual.” The director, John Wells, has a background in TV production, working for ER and The West Wing, and many of the narrative moves in The Company Men feel like TV storytelling. However, rather than treating this as a fault, I think Wells uses these techniques well in order to crosscut between the experiences of the three or four major characters, in order to build up a consciousness of how the unemployment crisis might be resonating on a psychological level. At the same time, watching the film in the midst of the events in Madison reminded me of the fact that none of the characters mentioned unionization or collective bargaining, and to a great extent, being unemployed becomes an individual, and not a collective, crisis. To be sure, Bobby and several of his friends at the job placement center begin to work together, but they do so for the most part by operating within a system they find to be corrupt without really questioning how that system should be changed.

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News Media and Political Change

Right now, this is a quick pointer to a couple of articles that are addressing the role of various media in documenting and potentially fostering political change. The first is an article from a British newspaper reporting that Al Jazeera English is currently in talks with a number of cable providers about carrying the network.  I’ve been fascinated by Al Jazeera ever since I saw Control Room, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary about the Qatar-based cable network back in 2004 at the Atlanta Film Festival, and like thousands of others, I have tried to follow the live feed of Al Jazeera English on the web (with little success in my case because my flash player keeps crashing), but given the complications associated with gaining access to what is happening on the ground in places like Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, this seems like a useful way of using our cable bandwidth to help people become more informed about these events. I’ve already contacted my cable provider to ask that they carry AJE and would encourage you to do the same.

On a related note, there is a New Tee Vee article arguing that Libyans “are turning” to YouTube and other sources to get around media blackouts.  The authors point to a CNN report stating that Libyan security forces are destroying cell phones and other recording devices at border checkpoints. But despite these crackdowns, literally thousands of videos tagged “Libya” have made it to YouTube, allowing users (presumably mot of whom are outside Libya) to see what is happening there, with YouTube working with Storyful to try to offer a more meaningful curation of all of the raw video that is being produced.

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Documenting Wikipedia

I am currently in the midst of the most recent version of my Wikipedia Project in my composition classes, and as usual, I’m pretty excited about the level of reflection that my students are bringing to their analyses of crowdsourced information production. When teaching the project, I have sought to adopt a “Wikipedia neutral” position, explaining that I see Wikipedia as a complex artifact within web culture. But now that I have done the project three (or maybe four) times, it is starting to feel a little stale.

Thankfully, a new documentary, Truth in Numbers, looks like it will offer a fresh–and highly accessible–perspective on the widely used encyclopedia.  I haven’t yet seen the film–although given that is available via streaming access, I will soon–but the trailer addresses one of the concerns that many of my students only partially grasp, and that is the question about anonymous users. While they recognize that anonymity potentially harms the writer’s credibility, they are less attentive to the idea that individuals or corporations could edit information on the site in a way that supports their own financial or ideological interests.

As Cinematical notes, the film also traces Jimmy Wales’ role as a “benevolent dictator” in shaping the editorial policy of Wikipedia.  For those of you interested in Web 2.0 issues, this might be worth a look.

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Monday Links

Some of the links I’ve been thinking about as I gear up for another week of classes:

  • Like a lot of people, I’m still having some difficulty wrapping my head around the protests and uprisings taking place all over the globe. I am heartened by President Obama’s expressions of support for the right to unionize in Madison and tentatively hopeful about the democratizing forces, but I’m also fascinated by the role of personal media technologies and social media tools in shaping how those events are represented (for lack of a better phrase). Of course, it’s not accurate to say that social media tools (or cell phones for that matter) caused any of these events, but I think it’s worth sampling some of the recent reflections on the intersections between documentary, mobile video, and social media tools. To that end, Jennifer Preston and Brian Stelter of The New York Times discuss the role of phone cameras, through which “the protesters upstaged government accounts and drew worldwide attention to their demands.”  James Katz of the Rutgers Center for Mobile Communication Studies describes these tools as the “dagger” that will help to topple oppressive regimes.
  • On a related note, Jonathan Gray traces the role of popular culture in informing many of the signs created for the protests of Government Scott Walker’s anti-union efforts  in Madison. Like Jonathan, I think the use of intertextual references can be helpful in framing a message about an issue, and the humorous references to Star Wars, Harry Potter, and other popular culture texts are humorous ways of engaging an issue and creating solidarity.
  • Brian Stelter discusses the role of Twitter and Facebook in directing attention to TV events such as awards shows and all-star games, which have been bucking the trend of lower ratings. Stelter discusses the ongoing efforts of the Oscars to facilitate “two-screen viewing.” But in my own experience, much of my consumption is based around Twitter and the show itself on TV–I rarely engage the “behind the scenes” stuff on the web, such as the “backstage” thank-you cams.
  • Documentary Tech, inspired by the website for Life in a Day, explores the potentials of YouTube in fostering the growth of “mosaic documentaries,” in which there is increasing conflict between the database of online content and the attempts to craft a linear narrative.
  • Matt Dentler discusses some ongoing shifts in theatrical distribution and VOD windows.
  • Anthony Kaufman points to the ongoing Iranian Film Blogathon, a “tribute … to Iranian film in support of sentenced filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rasoulof,” taking place at The Sheila Variations.

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Video Stores in the Age of Access

Lance Mannion has a fascinating reflection on the cultural role of video stores, one that was inspired by Lance’s discovery that his local video store would be closing. A glimpse at the interior of the store suggests that it is a chain store, possibly a Blockbuster, but Lance’s post offers a nice antidote to some of the more celebratory accounts of the digital distribution of films.  Although I rarely stepped into a Blockbuster for years until meeting my fiancee, who had a family member working for a nearby Blockbuster, itself now closing, I think the cultural role of the video store, the ability of a video store to become a “place,” to use Lance’s terminology, should not become trivialized as we shift toward VOD, streaming, and other forms of online access.

Lance starts by acknowledging that streaming access, itself, can offer forms of social pleasure. A viewing of Superman at his household prompted an impromptu screening of several of the Fleischer Studio Superman shorts produced between 1941 and 1943, allowing him and his son to dig a little deeper into history of the comic book hero.  And streaming access may help to enable spontaneous screenings inspired by a current event. In teaching and doing research on film, I’ve found streaming access indispensable.  One day when the DVD player in my film classroom wasn’t working, streaming access on Amazon allowed me to continue a lecture on North by Northwest with little interruption.  Now, as David Poland points out, we can even use a Warner Brothers digital distribution app to watch not just Warner movies, but also supplemental features, as well. Direct digital delivery. All of the supplemental aspects that have been a part of DVD culture, right in the palm of your hand.

But as Lance points out, video stores aren’t merely sites of access to movies and TV shows; they also function as “places,” where interactions with clerks and other customers offer some of the value. Even as more and more online movie hubs develop recommendation engines and seek to aggregate reviews–note that Hulu is now working on developing their version of a personalized recommendation engine–Lance captures how some of these conversations may be lost when video stores no longer serve as social hubs.  Lance’s arguments reminded me of Ted Striphas’s chapter on big box bookstores in The Late Age of Print. Seeking to counter assumptions that big box stores were always “villains” threatening to crowd out independent booksellers, Striphas examines the conflicts over a Barnes and Noble built in between Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to show how these stores can become community spaces, with the potential, in this particular case, “to redress some of [the region's] racial inequities” (74).  To be sure, other forms of community can always spring up. Lance points out that we’ve been told dozens of times over the years that moviegoing itself was obsolete, and yet local multiplexes continue to attract large audiences on Friday and Saturday nights. Now, a number of Borders bookstores in the Triangle area are closing, leading to changes in the ways in which a number of local communities and groups will be able to organize themselves. And although these stores may offer only a limited form of community (which is at least partially assured through the purchase of heavily marked-up coffee and desserts), the best bookstores and video stores can leave room for informal interactions.

Lance’s post also reminded me of just how fleeting video stores have been in the cultural landscape, sprouting up like mushrooms in the early 1980s, often as small businesses, only to see the rise of the franchises in the latter part of that decade. Now, just a couple of decades later, many of these same franchises seem to be on the verge of disappearing, and with it, certain forms of engagement with movies and television. Lance points out that, even with Netflix and other forms of access (Amazon and iTunes are often significantly underestimated as sources of video content), this shift may exclude a wide range of viewers from full participation in film culture, including those who don’t have a credit card and those without broadband access. People who don’t wish to invest large amounts of time skimming through online catalogs may also find themselves left out of this digital utopia, as well.

Lance’s post is well worth thinking about, especially as it seeks to challenge some of the common assumptions about our media consumption habits and bow they might be affected by online distribution.

Update: Edited to add a reference to the Raleigh News-Observer article on the closure of the Cary, NC, Borders.

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Friday Links

Here are some of the stories I’ve been following the last couple of days:

  • University of Wisconsin media studies professor Jonathan Gray has one of the more thoughtful discussions of the pro-union protests that have been taking place in Madison over the last few days, with a promise to offer more posts in the days ahead.
  • Patrick Goldtsein looks at the attendance for Oscar contenders such as Black Swan, The King’s Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network, and True Grit and attempts to address why adult moviegoers have been returning to the box office this year. My sense is that there probably isn’t a simple causal explanation, although it helps to have relatively marketable directors (Fincher, The Coens) and stars (Bridges, Wahlberg, Portman, Firth) involved in some of these projects.  True Grit is a “remake” of a familiar film, and others fit into or engage with familiar (and well-liked) genres.
  • Via The Film Doctor, Mark Harris’s GQ column about Hollywood’s reluctance to make movie dramas.  Harris offers a checklist of sequels, prequels, and comic book adaptations to imply that the studios have abandoned these kinds of films, but even though 2011 apparently promises a record number of sequels, that does not preclude the existence of other films.
  • Liz Losh considers whether blogging itself is becoming dated, comparing her practices of teaching it to “teaching Latin.” But she adds that she still learns quite a bit about the students in her relatively large classes from the blog posts that they write. But to me, asking whether blogging is dead sounds an awful lot like a conversation we’ve been having about film criticism for some time now.
  • Although I’ve been writing primarily about the digital distribution of movies, I’m also aware that the questions about VOD also have important implications for TV. With that in mind, I found ESPN’s discussion of their “multipltaform distribution” practices interesting. Especially notable was the claim that online distribution does not cannibalize traditional viewing on cable.
  • On a related note, Advertising Age discusses the distribution turf wars between Google TV and Hulu (among others).

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Time Lapse

When I first started writing about film, my research focused on cinematic representations of time. This research centered on various forms of time travel films (broadly defined) and rested on some of Walter Benjamin’s theories about how film, with its inexorable flow of film stills through a projector, echoed the rhythms of industrial capitalism, as we might see in features such as the assembly line or the railroad.  I was intrigued by ideas about how time travel films engaged with the linear flow of time, but underlying that research was an interest in how films depict the passage of time or our engagement with time. That research faded as I became more interested in the political economy of film distribution, but that original research interest, which led to a couple of publications on Dark City and Sans Soleil, sometimes re-emerges in unexpected ways.

With that in mind, I am incredibly fascinated by this BBC report about Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a fascinating film installation, which plays non-stop for 24 hours a day showing clips from movies in which that particular clock time is depicted on screen.  Thus, if it is 11:19 AM, as it is while I compose this entry, the film shows a scene from a movie in which a clock or watch flashes that particular time on screen. As the BBC reporter points out, the film makes the viewer incredibly conscious of time, well after they walk out of a (presumably partial) screening. On another level, this seems like the kind of project that becomes much more viable in an age of compilation videos on YouTube, in which massive amounts of movie content remains available in a giant cinematic database, waiting to be cited and recited, configured and reconfigured as we seek to navigate our way through visual culture.

The Clock is playing at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York until February 19, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has watched it to get a sense of your experiences with it.

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Streaming Cinephilia

The news that Hulu has acquired streaming rights to over 800 Criterion titles is a couple of days old by now.  Cinematical has the basics: 150 titles will be available to Hulu Plus subscribers almost immediately, with about 800 total within just a few months. Non-subscribers will be able to see a narrower selection of titles through Hulu’s free service, but for a brand typically associated with television content, a clunky video interface, and disruptive ads, this is kind of a big deal, one that seems designed to attract cinephiles away from Netflix. At the same time, it illustrates that digital distribution models are far from settled, with some potentially interesting implications for internet-based cinephiles.

It’s worth noting that, if New Tee Vee is correct, the Hulu Plus-Criterion deal is exclusive, which means that Netflix will no longer be able to stream these titles (although it’s less clear from what I’ve read whether they would have access to renting and mailing the physical DVDs). This type of deal suggests that, despite claims about a giant celestial cineplex in the (computing) cloud, in which we will have comparatively easy access to the history of film, what we will have instead is something closer to a range of competing miniplexes, each with access to a limite range of content, with frequently changing marquees depending on what content is available at what price at any given time.  Even with this Hulu deal, Criterion continues to emphasize DVDs as “their core business.” At the same time, streaming video makes it feasible for Criterion to offer films that have been too expensive to market as DVDs, making the deal even more appealing for internet cinephiles.

The Criterion films on Hulu will not be interrupted by advertising, and as Matt Singer at the IFC blog surmises, Criterion’s standards for streaming quality are typically very high–note the current quality of streaming Criterion titles currently appearing on Mubi.com–and the service also plans to make some of Criterion’s popular supplemental features available online, something that typically hasn’t been available through other VOD services. I’d imagine the value of streaming these supplemental features is significant.  Because I’ve been using Netflix on my Wii, I’ve missed out on supplemental features for some of the films I’d normally watch on DVD, and I’ve wondered how (or if) those kinds of features–director’s commentary tracks, making-of videos–would become widely available.  I’d be tempted to withhold some of this content on streaming sites to entice people to buy the DVD, rather than streaming, but my guess is that offering at least some supplemental content online makes sense (in fact, as a commenter on the Criterion blog points out, this kind of content might be “ideal” for some of the smaller screens).

Both David Poland and Scott Macauley consider the industrial implications for this deal, with Poland, a frequent critic of Netflix’s business model, suggesting that Netflix has overreached in its pursuit of TV and major studio content, paying too much for content that is likely to age quickly. Poland adds that there is little “customer loyalty” online, which means that people will migrate to content they desire rather than remaining loyal to a specific platform. I think this is basically right, although I think some consumers may remain with Netflix out of laziness rather than loyalty.  Macauley essentially agrees, reflecting that he’ll remain loyal to Netflix for now but speculates that if Hulu bought the rights to IFC films, he might switch services (I’d imagine that at least some people are already or would end up paying for both).

For now, one of the more significant aspects of this deal is the degree to which it alters Hulu’s place in the digital distribution ecosystem, changing it from a service primarily defined by its TV holdings to one that is at least somewhat focused on fostering (and profiting from) internet cinephilia.  At the same time, it indicates that many of our favorite movies are simply shifting from one celestial multiplex to another one down the street.

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Wednesday Links

I’ve got a separate post on the Hulu-Criterion deal brewing, but for now, here are a few links:

  • Interesting film history note: Cinematical has an article about Australian filmmaker Phillipe Mora’s discovery that a crude version of 3-D filmmaking was developed in Nazi Germany, sometime around 1936.  Mora has found at least two films that use 3-D imaging.
  • Scott Rosenberg has a thoughtful post on some of the complaints about The Huffington Post’s practices in paying (or not paying) for much of the content that appears on its site. I think that what is especially notable about Rosenberg’s post is his discussion of the role of (paid) platform designers who design the code that allows sites like HuffPo and Google to operate.
  • Jim Emerson’s post reminded me that The Self Styled Siren’s For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon is up and running.  There are already dozens of insightful links, and it’s all for a good cause, film preservation, too. Write, link, donate, if you can.
  • More discussion of the fact that customers are choosing to rent, rather than own, digital content, at least when it comes to movies.
  • Liz Shannon Miller reports on a talk by Intel futurist Brian David Johnson’s predictions about the future of television. As a number of us have been saying for a while, there are important social aspects of television viewing, which means that some form of liveness will persist (if only so we can live-tweet the Oscars and Super Bowl).
  • Radiohead is releasing a new album, but they’ve decided to skip the “Radiohead model” of inviting buyers to pay what they want this time. Scott Macauley considers the implications for the film industry.
  • Catherine Grant has compiled some links on “film festival studies” for her indispensable Film Studies for Free blog.

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“Arnold is Very Clever”

Now that former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is contemplating a return to acting, it only makes sense to highlight a video featuring one of the Governator’s biggest fans (goodness knows he doesn’t have very many in his adopted home state right now).  The video, which was recently highlighted on Boing Boing, features nine-year old Alex, a Tanzanian boy who recites, point-for-point, the plot of Arnie’s schlock classic, Commando. And although my scholarly inclinations make it difficult for me not to cringe at the entertainment economy that allows such a movie to become one of our most visible imports, it’s almost impossible not to smile when Alex cheerfully describes Arnie suiting up for battle in the fight to get his daughter back.

But even though the video offers all kinds of goofy fun, it also has a larger pedagogical purpose.  It was posted by the folks at Mama Hope, an organization devoted to breaking stereotypes about Africa (and its many millions of residents), with the hope of building more sustainable communities there.  As the video reminds us, Alex is healthy, he’s not a victim, he’s not a child soldier. He’s energetic, enthusiastic, bilingual (and well versed in Hollywood high-concept narrative style).  In fact, it’s Alex who initiates the discussion of Commando when he learns that the video makers are from California.  The video is a fascinating attempt to “re-humanize Africa,” to tell different stories about it, even ones that overlap with schlocky Hollywood movies.

Update: To see more videos that explain the goals of Mama Hope, check out their YouTube channel. I’m also told that Alex’s original narration of Commando ran for nearly fifteen minutes but was edited down, so if you’re looking for key plot points, he probably mentioned them.

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Blue Valentine

The trailer for Blue Valentine (IMDB) features a scene in which Dean (Ryan Gosling) is attempting to seduce Cindy (Michelle Williams) by playing a song on a ukelele and singing along in a goofy voice and inviting her to dance along as he sings.  He has stopped her at night in front of a downtown storefront, where the interior lights perfectly illuminate her, and the scene, played out of context, seems like a sweet early moment in a relationship, as the couple begins to find each other’s inner beauty.  But there is also a hint of melancholia in the scene as Dean sings, “you always hurt the ones you love,” a sentiment that permeates throughout the film and of the ways in which Cindy and Dean will hurt each other.

But rather than telling this story of the dissolution of a relationship in chronological order, Blue Valentine, as directed by Derek Cianfrance, starts just as the relationship is about to end.  A gate has been left open, and their beloved family dog has escaped.  The couple’s daughter, Frankie, discovers this and first wakes Dean from the sofa, and later Cindy sleeping in their bed, a not-quite-subtle reminder that the couple has drifted apart.  The film then intercuts between the events of this final day (a school assembly, discovering their dog dead by the side of the road, a road trip to a nearby hotel for a weekend getaway) and the early days of their relationship when the couple first meets and begins to fall in love.

Dean is immediately enamored, while Cindy is tentative at first, before becoming seduced by his charms and by his willingness to support her through a personal crisis.  He works as a mover, and she sees him as he helps an older gentleman as he begins to settle into a nursing home, decorating his walls and seeking to make an older stranger more comfortable.  The intercutting between these two moments is effective, with the past shot in brighter colors, and Cindy’s hair longer and more freely flowing, while the later scenes typically rely on darker lighting.  The film is also relatively frank in its depiction of the couple’s sex life, shifting from the excitement the couple feels when it first meets to Dean practically forcing himself on Cindy during their last-ditch attempt to re-kindle things in the “sex hotel,” ironically in the “Future Room.”

In her review, Karina Longworth faults the film for providing the male character, Dean, with a rich interior life while denying any depth to Cindy, and I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that Cindy’s story is somewhat eclipsed by Dean’s.  Worse, for Karina, is the suggestion, during a scene at a women’ clinic, that Cindy may have been, to use Karina’s phrase a “tempestuous slut,” due to her past number of partners.  But I’d like to believe that our perceptions of Cindy were more subtle than that, and I found myself sympathizing with her frustrations with Dean and his inability to really understand his wife, with her recognition that things weren’t working and her attempts to hold things together, even during a chance encounter with an old flame.  I did find some aspects of the film to be a little forced.  Parts of the backstory with a violent old boyfriend and a judgmental father seemed contrived, as AO Scott observes.   But I appreciated how the film managed to navigate between the present and the past in engaging and thoughtful ways.

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The Fighter

While we were watching The Fighter (IMDB) last night, I caught my fiancee, a native of nearby Quincy, squirming several times at the depiction of Lowell, Massachusetts, the depleted industrial town that boxer Micky Ward (played by Mark Wahlberg) called home.  The broken down cars, shuttered buildings, the trash-strewn streets, and even the big hair and sharp accents all reminded her of a town her mother warned her about, one that the film manages to capture relatively authentically, even down to the accents (though Melissa Leo and Amy Adams slipped a few times).  It’s that kind of hardscrabble realism that saves what might have otherwise been a somewhat hokey sports character drama.

Many of the town’s residents have fallen into hard times, and we learn that Micky’s brother, a local boxing legend, Dicky Eklund, has become a deeply deluded crack addict, one who is convinced that an HBO crew documenting his daily routine is planning a movie about his professional comeback–not his addiction.  Of course we learn, well before Dicky realizes it, that the film is High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, a harrowing, and shockingly intimate, account of three Lowell residents who have developed addictions to one of the most powerful drugs out there.  The documentary is available through Snag Films, and it’s fascinating to watch, both for its depictions of addiction and for the documentary portrayals of the characters in The Fighter.

A look back at the documentary shows that Melissa Leo has perfectly captured the coiffed-up pretensions of Micky and Dicky’s mother, her ability to deny the fact Dicky is addicted, even while attempting to control the lives of her sons.  And Christian Bale’s gaunt features reflect the emptied out face of Dicky during the era when he was addicted.  For the most part, The Fighter avoids directly depicting the original documentary, instead re-enacting some of the scenes involving Dicky, but it’s fascinating to see the intertextual relationship between both films, to see how The Fighter revisits that earlier material.  This documentary subtext is reinforced through a storytelling device in the film, in which the filmmakers are ostensibly interviewing Micky and Dicky about their experiences.

This is one of those occasions where an Oscar nomination (or five) encouraged me to check out a film that I otherwise would have missed.  Boxing is a brutal sport, one that I don’t particularly enjoy, but the recognition made me just curious enough to watch, and I am glad that I did, especially after recognizing the relationship to High on Crack Street (which in many ways, is a far more brutal film).  It’s clear that the film struggled a little to work against sports movie cliches, especially given that Micky’s story conforms to many of those cliches, but as an attempt to construct a realistic depiction of Lowell, Mass, it’s fascinating little film.

Update: For the curious, here is an embed of High on Crack Street, the 1995 HBO documentary that plays a key role in The Fighter, courtesy of SnagFilms:

Watch more free documentaries

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Sunday Links

Still in the process of transitioning to my next project.  Here are some of the things I’ve been reading and thinking about this weekend:

  • Laura R. Walker and Jaclyn Sallee make an argument for funding public broadcasting in a Washington Post editorial. One noteworthy statistic: an estimated 170 million people make use of some form of public broadcasting every year, well over half the U.S. population.  Their series Frontline and P.O.V. have been significant supporters of documentary film, as well, so even if the films are not watched on PBS stations, their financial support for these films is still crucial.
  • Anne Thompson, Erik Kohn and Leonard Maltin continue their Three Critics series with a roundtable discussion on the “Forces of Change” in Hollywood in 2011.
  • Volkswagen jumps the gun on the Super Bowl advertising attention sweepstakes with their Star Wars-themed ad.  As Patrick Goldstein observes, it’s a clever bit of messaging for Volkswagen in its efforts to imbue “magical” powers to a mid-sized sedan.
  • Ted Hope works with Lance Weiler on exploring transmedia extensions of Weiler’s latest entertainment project, structured around Weiler’s film, Hope is Missing.
  • Echoing the philosopher Michel Foucault, Andrew Keen warns us that “sharing is a trap.”  Keen builds upon the ideas behind Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon to suggest that social media produces a new form of visibility, one that can control (or at least profit from) our actions on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites.  Keen implies that participation in these sites is essentially inevitable, which is probably an exaggeration, and (correctly) points out that our practices of sharing will lead to the data being sold to advertisers.  Keen’s discussion, however, seems a little too dismissive about the pleasures of sharing via social media, the enjoyment many of us get when hanging out at the digital water cooler.

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Documenting Remix Culture

Pretty much everyone has been linking to the second installment in Kirby Ferguson’s outstanding series, Everything is a Remix. But I think it’s worth highlighting Ferguson’s work, in part because he is a keen observer of how the practices of remix and adaptation permeate popular culture and even scientific inquiry. He also is a skilled editor, adept at producing juxtapositions between two related texts.

Everything is a Remix Part 2 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

The second part of the series touches on the role of (Hollywood) filmmakers in adapting material from older texts in order to tell new stories. In particular, Ferguson traces the influence of older films and texts (including Joseph Campbell’s discussion of myth) on Star Wars, a discussion that I wish I’d had a few weeks ago when I was writing an artcile on fan films and adaptation. Ferguson’s broad definition of “remix” allows him to define genre elements as a remix practice, which allows him to show that Avatar, far from being a completely “original” film stands upon and reworks older, familiar material. But, essentially, as Ferguson’s title for the series suggests, “everything is a remix.” And far from diminishing the “originality” of these stories, Ferguson recognizes these remix practices as creative acts that can potentially take us in new and unexpected directions. Philosophically, these ideas may themselves not be new. Literary and cultural critics have recognized the permeable boundaries of texts for some time, but I think Ferguson presents these ideas in an accessible, engaging, and entertaining format. I’m very much looking forward to parts three and four.

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Cinephilia, Blogging, and Time

I’ve been spending the last couple of hours reflecting on Girish’s thought-provoking essay on “The 21st Century Cinephile,” part of a dossier on “slow criticism” sponsored by the Dutch film magazine, De Filmkrant. Girish starts by making the case that the practices of film criticism have radically changed due to two related factors: our mobile, shrinking screens and our expansive, web-based film discourse.  As usual, Girish offers a concise, detailed (and non-judgmental) assessment of these new viewing conditions, readily identifying as an “internet cinephile.” He has also challenged to try to think through some of the ways in which these new viewing conditions interact with older forms of conversation about film.

First, Girish points out that our viewing practices have changed considerably since the days of the Nouvelle Vague: instead of submitting to a set of viewing conditions controlled by others (a darkened theater, pre-arranged seating, a projector), we now frequently watch films in home theaters or even in mobile settings.  We can stop, rewind, fast-forward through, or eject a film.  We can sample movies through compilation videos on YouTube or track down key scenes.  To be sure, many of these activities have been possible for decades, thanks to VCRs and later DVD players, but today’s platform mobility offers a relatively unprecedented ability to control the viewing experience.  As an example, Girish asks us to imagine watching Chantal Akerman’s seemingly interminable Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles on a laptop, stopping the film and starting it again at our convenience, perhaps during lunch breaks.  Could such a film have nearly the same impact as it did when we watched it on a big screen, as I did during a feminist film theory class in college (when at least one of my classmates walked out of the film in frustration)?  Perhaps not, but these same tools that allow films greater mobility might ensure that a wider audience gets to see it and engage with it.

Girish’s more crucial point, however, focuses on the changes in cinematic discourse, as social media tools become a more pervasive force in shaping the ways in which we communicate.  As Girish notes, blogs have become a powerful tool for cinephiles, who often enjoy talking (and arguing) about films almost as much as they enjoy watching them.  Provocative blogs posts (and articles like Girish’s) can echo for days, reverberating around the globe. But with our conversations often spilling out into Twitter feeds and Facebook news feeds, Girish adds that many of these conversations have the potential to disappear.  Given that Facebook and Twitter do not offer an effective means of archiving posts, these conversations have an ephemeral quality, one in which “the past evaporates almost instantaneously.”

Girish adds quickly that this isn’t a particular concern.  In fact, he emphasizes that we should instead strive for a dialectical balance between the long-form attention associated with film scholarship and criticism and the fragmentary attention associated with social media chatter (in fact, Girish’s discussion of his daily engagement with film and film criticism illustrates the value of the fragmentary).  And while I don’t disagree with Girish’s conclusions, I think it’s worth adding that this dialectic seems inherent in film criticism prior to social media–instead, it might make more sense to suggest that social media has simply heightened our awareness of it.  Facebook and Twitter comments typically echo the rhythms of conversation itself: here, look at this video I found; the ending of True Grit was perplexing; what’s going on today?  These tools deepen our ambient intimacy, allowing us to connect, to share, and (hopefully) to listen.  These conversations took place long before Twitter, but Twitter makes them visible, while also deepening the pool of potential participants and dispersing them geographically.  They also, despite the ephemerality of the messages themselves, provide some of the means by which ideas are preserved.  Although an individual tweet may disappear into the cloud, I discover much of what I read through social media, and I’m guessing others have a similar experience.  I can then bookmark or blog those ideas and return to them at my convenience and, in the best cases, use that as a launching point for reading and writing scholarship.  That being said, my Twitter feed typically serves as a reminder for how much I haven’t watched (I’ve been ignoring most posts about Sundance for that very reason).

Blogging, Twitter, Netflix queues, platform mobility: all of these tools change our engagement with film.  We have fleeting conversations that disappear into Facebook’s vast databases.  We start and stop movies at our leisure, perhaps in line at the grocery store, but more likely at the dinner table or in bed.  We rate a movie on Netflix and get recommendations from an algorithm, we blog and read about films we haven’t seen, reinforcing a culture of anticipation (something that film festivals are specifically designed to create), producing orientations not merely to the past and present, but also the future.  I’m still puzzling over some of these issues, I guess.  When I first wrote about film blogging in Reinventing Cinema, I think Twitter was relatively new, so the issue of real-time (or close to it) conversation on Twitter wasn’t as relevant for me.  Ultimately, I think what struck me most about Girish’s post is that it provoked me to try to think more carefully about some of my own reflections on media change and how those changes might be affecting how we watch, think about, and talk about film.

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