Archive for April, 2011

Premium VOD Reactions

There has been a lot of discussion of the studio push toward premium video on demand (VOD) lately. A small number of studios have made plans to experiment with releasing films on VOD at $30, just two months after their theatrical premiere, essentially creating another window where studios can seek to profit from controlled access to their films. This approach was given its initial test run this week when Sony released the Adam Sandler comedy, Just Go with It (an oddly appropriate title, given the circumstances), despite significant complaints from theater owners, who feared that premium VOD would cut into their profits.

Now that Just Go With It has been out on premium VOD for one weekend, we have a small baseline for thinking about how this might work. As Daniel Frankel at The Wrap points out, Sandler’s film grossed about $200,000 this weekend on 265 screens, a 26% drop from last week’s gross. Of course, such a comparison tells us little. Given that the film debuted before the new VOD window was announced, audiences couldn’t have predicted how quickly it would be available for home viewing, and once it was known when it would be available, it’s unclear how many people delayed seeing it so they could view it at home. Matt Dentler suggests in his reading of the numbers that the impact was “non-existent,” but I think that reading relies too closely on looking at one small set of numbers. I think we need to see how audiences respond once they become conditioned to the new windows structure before we make any real conclusions about the potential impact.

Further, as David Poland observes, this is likely only the first stage of experimentation with price points and windows for premium VOD. Noting that DirecTV did little to promote the premium release of Just Go With It, Poland predicts that the $30 price point will decrease, while the window between theatrical and premium VOD will shorten, as well. Thus, it seems significant that MPAA head Chris Dodd is reaching out to theater owners regarding the conflict over premium VOD, stating that the industry doesn’t make movies for “the small screen,” not so much because Dodd said anything of substance, but because it’s an acknowledgement that our perceptions of film as a medium continue to evolve to the point that we may have little reason to refer to those giant boxes out by the mall.

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Streaming Ebertfest

While finishing my dissertation, I lived and taught in Chamapign, Illinois, and one of the coolest annual events there was Roger Ebert’s yearly festival, the “Overlooked Film Festival,” now known simply as Ebertfest. Few public figures have ever given their hometown such a cool gift: a weekend of old and new classic films projected in a genuine movie palace, the Virginia Theater, whose stage Ebert mentions once played host to performances ranging from the Marx Brothers, Donald O’conner, and even Houdini. Champaign’s Art Theater will also host “encore” screenings of many of the films. In addition to screening some fantastic movies, the festival attracts a number of the actors, screenwriters, and filmmakers for Q&A sessions that were always informative and engaging.

I’m too far away and too busy with end-of-semester work to make the trip up to Champaign this year, but the festival is doing us all a service by making those Q&A sessions available online through a Ustream channel. Although this practice has become much more common with festivals, Ebert has assembled a great line-up of filmmakers this year, so I think the videos with be worth your time (maybe I’ll play it in the background while I’m grading some freshman comp or film papers).

Ebert has a thorough discussion of this year’s lineup, so I won’t repeat that here, but some of the highlights include 45365, a film that has truly grown on me over the years, the Italian film, I Am Love, and a restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. There are several others, including Lena Durham’s Tiny Furniture, that I’d love to see. If you’re in the neighborhood, check them out, and then stop off for a martini at Boltini’s on the way home.

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Branding Documentary

I’ve been fascinated by the promotion for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I haven’t seen the film yet, but Spurlock has been conducting a number of interviews and engaging in a number of promotional activities for a documentary that is about product placement. The promotional materials capitalize on many of the qualities that Spurlock displayed in Super Size Me: his characteristic laid-back, even self-deprecating, wit mixed with a gently critical edge that comments wryly, in this case, on the role of product placement in Hollywood entertainment.

As Spurlock notes in this interview with David Poland, the film is designed to build upon the publicity he generates. In fact, Pom Wonderful has agreed to certain incentives that will pay even more every time their beverages are mentioned alongside of the documentary, generating an amusing bit toward the end where Spurlock imagines mentioning the drink at the Oscars and, therefore, generating hundreds of millions of “media impressions.” At the same time, Spurlock himself becomes attached to certain brands, welcoming customers to flights on JetBlue and to stays at Hyatt Hotels or, even more oddly, smiling from soda cups sold at Sheetz Convenience Stores (which I may try to track down when I pick up my fiancee at the airport, since there is a Sheetz nearby). There are also financial incentives for Greatest Movie if it plays in over 250 theaters or, I think, if its box office achieves a certain level.

Toward the end of the interview with Poland, Spurlock even points out that when he “the meta-narrative could continue on–it will definitely continue on into the DVD at least.” He adds that if the movie were to play overseas, he could seek out new sponsors that would be more appropriate to that audience, joking that “you’d have to get a beer sponsor in England.” Whether such comments are tongue-in-cheek or not, Spurlock has, in fact, managed to use his documentary–and the publicity surrounding it–to provoke a useful conversation about the role of product placement in TV and movies, a role that has changed somewhat now that audiences can either fast-forward through ads or avoid them altogether by watching online versions of the show. To that end, I enjoyed reading the New York Magazine interview with Spurlock, in which he lists the five “worst” incidents of product placement, including the scene from Heroes that inspired the film, in which Hayden Panettiere’s father gives her the keys to a Nissan Rogue. The camera pans, quite blatantly across the front of the car, which gets name-dropped something like four times. And as the father hands her the keys–in soft focus–it plays just like an automobile ad. The New York Magazine article has the added bonus of pointing out that product placement is nothing new. Edison was notorious for it in his early films, and the novelist Jules Verne engaged in the practice as well.

There is, of course, a fuzzy line between Spurlock’s form of critique and his own complete immersion in the practices of product placement, but in much the same way that Super Size Me helped spark a conversation about fast food, it will be interesting to see what sorts of reactions Spurlock is able to achieve with this film. And of course, in writing this post, I am acutely aware of the fact that I am participating in the process of promoting not only Spurlock’s film but also some of the products he has included in his documentary project, and this degree of product placement could be the source of dystopian anxiety, as we see in M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel, Feed, or it could also breed cynicism, a response that even Ralph Nader seems to express in the film’s trailer when he suggests that “sleep” is the only escape from branding. But hopefully the film will find another approach, one that allows us to engage with these marketing practices in slightly more complicated ways.

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Friday Links

I’m putting the finishing touches on my presentation for the Media in Transition conference at MIT (which, I’m hoping, will also quickly turn into a journal article). I had a great experience at MIT 5, and I’m looking forward to going back. This year’s theme, “Unstable Platforms: The Promise and Peril of Transition,” is perfectly aligned with some of the research I’ve been doing, which should make the event even more productive. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how mobile TV and movie platforms are being marketed and the implications of those promotional techniques. For now, here are some links:

  • Via Chris at News for TV Majors, TV Guide’s discussion of the decision by many TV stations to place show-specific Twitter hashtags in a bottom corner of the TV screen to encourage live viewing (and discussion) of the shows.  The TV Guide article states that the first channel to display a Twitter hashtag during its programming was Comedy Central during the Donald Trump roast.
  • Nielsen has an interesting report on trends in media viewing. One aspect that surprised me was that TV viewing among African-Americans is significantly higher than any other ethnic group. Other surprising details: spending on TV advertising actually increased by 8% over the last year.
  • Hulu is expanding into Australia, and the Sydney Morning Herald anticipates that it will “shake up” TV viewing practices in that country.
  • Both New Tee Vee and Home Video Magazine discuss a recent report by Google researchers, “A Window into Film,”  which argues that interest in viewing movies on Netflix has increased dramatically, while searches for pirated movies have actually declined. Without seeing the report myself, it’s hard to know what the data reveal, but both articles offer similar conclusions that interest in owning DVD copies of movies has declined considerably.

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Tim Hetherington’s Diary

As many readers will no doubt know, acclaimed filmmaker and journalist Tim Hetherington, best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo, was killed in mortar attack in Libya. I was unable to catch his most recent film, Diary, when it played at Full Frame, but via the cinetrix, I see that it has now been posted online in its entirety.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

As the Full Frame page for the film reports, “Diary is a highly personal and experimental film that expresses the subjective experience of my work, and was made as an attempt to locate myself after ten years of reporting. It’s a kaleidoscope of images that link our western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.”

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Wednesday Links: Magnolia, HBO apps, and Future TV

I’ve been caught up in Full Frame and several end of the semester and end of the year activities, but as usual, there is plenty to tak about in the world of film and TV distribution:

  • One of the bigger stories, from my perspective, is the fact that Mark Cuban has put up Magnolia Picture and Landmark Cinemas, both significant participants in the current world of indie film distribution, up for sale. In Reinventing Cinema, I credit Cuban with being an early champion of day-and-date and other practices that are now commonplace, not only for independents but even major studios. If the properties are sold, it could alter the landscape of indie film in significant ways. Anne Thompson (in the link above) states that there may be a buyer for Landmark. David Poland also speculates about Cuban’s motivations.
  • Inside Redbox cites a study that indicates that Netflix’s content costs could approach or exceed $2 billion next year, suggesting that the costs of streaming rights may exceed the expenses associated with Netflix’s typically efficient DVD-by-mail system.
  • On a related note, Netflix is looking into creating “family plans” that would allow two or more users associated with a specific account to watch content at the same time. According to the NewTeeVee article, they are also trying to come up with plans for integrating Netflix with social media sites such as Facebook to create more interactive viewing experiences.
  • NewTeeVee also discusses DishTV’s plans for Blockbuster, suggesting that it is more interested in owning the company’s rights to digital content than it is in the struggling bricks-and-mortar stores. Blockbuster is now down to 600 or so stores compared to its peak of more than 4,000.
  • HBO is also launching its iPad app, which will also work on Android systems. As NewTeeVee speculates, this provides HBO with a new way to compete with Netflix, Hulu, and other subscription services.
  • Michael Stroud discusses some of the recent predictions about the “future” of television, which likely includes more a la carte programming and limited use of 3-D. I’m still skeptical about 3-D TV, even for spectacular programming such as live sports.
  • Poland offers further assessment of why he thinks premium VOD won’t work, pointing out, in part, that only a tiny fraction of movie consumers watch movies this way and that currently, only about 1% of revenue from Hollywood films comes from VOD (I’d imagine that the percentage for indies is probably higher, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).
  • Finally Poland provides an extended video interview with Bill Mechanic about many of the issues related to the digital delivery of movies.

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Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

The filmmaker Roger Corman occupies a unique–and somewhat complicated–place in Hollywood history. He is perhaps the master low-budget exploitation film director and producer, with several hundred titles credited to him. His ability to produce visceral thrills through action and horror have become a template for the modern tentpole film. Movies like Jaws owe a tremendous debt to Corman’s style of filmmaking. Rather famously, Corman’s sets provided an early testing grounds for many of New Hollywood’s most significant actors and directors, including Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Jonathan Demme, and Ron Howard, all of whom are interviewed here, an apprenticeship system that Bruce Dern aptly described as “The University of Corman.” All of these complications emerge in Alex Stapleton’s engaging and (thanks to its liberal use of scenes from Corman’s films) incredibly fun documentary, Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, about one of cinema’s truest rebel figures.

The film opens with Corman, now in his mid-80s, continuing to work, directing a grisly attack scene from his latest film, Dinoshark. Corman’s affect while directing–and throughout the film, really–approaches bemused detachment. It’s clear that he enjoys making movies and making them on his terms, using a low budget and shooting very quickly. In fact, David Carradine remarks that Corman would rather “shoot a film in three days” than take a larger budget to create a film with more elaborate special effects. Corman’s World then flashes back, following Corman’s career roughly chronologically, from his early career working behind the scenes of the Hollywood film, Gunfight, before launching out as an independent when the studio neglects to give him credit for contributing to film’s story.

Eventually, Corman launches an independent film career, at a time when such careers were incredibly rare. he started with a three picture deal at American Independent and worked there for a while before launching his own New World production company.  Corman also discusses his attempts to create more aesthetically meaningful films, in particular an anti-segregation film, The Intruder, which he shot in the segregated south, often at some personal risk. Although the film was well-received, it failed at the box office, and Corman began considering more overtly commercial (and often exploitative) subjects, even while working in what he called “subtextual” messages into many of his films. Many of these included his depiction of the Hell’s Angels in Wild Angels, a film that helped pave the way for Easy Rider. As Tom Elrod notes, Corman’s World seems to imply, in fact, that many of Corman’s low-budget films were essentially repurposed, with bigger budgets, only to become big box office hits. The film also places slight emphasis on the fact that Corman was responsible for helping to distribute many of the European masters that came to shape modern Hollywood filmmaking, helping to introduce American audiences to Kurosawa, Truffaut, Bergman, and Fellini, showing Corman’s influence in that arena as well.

But the tone of the film becomes a little more wistful when it covers the industry shift in the 1970s toward blockbusters and entertainment franchises. In a characteristically understated fashion, Corman recalls that, “When I saw Star Wars, I said, ‘this is a threat to me.'” Nicholson, who displays a tremendous fondness for Corman is even more blunt, asserting, “I hated Star Wars,” in part because he recognized that it signified a turning point in the production of film. These reflections are punctuated with archival footage of factory workers assembling Star Wars toys and memorabilia, and the message is clear: Hollywood has become a factory for manufacturing products rather than making movies, and Corman and other independents and rebels like him are left out in the cold. Finally, as Elrod notes, Corman modestly, though rather bluntly, questions the massive budgets required to make Hollywood spectacles, arguing that a then-large $25 million budget would be better spent rebuilding a slum. Although such an opposition might be somewhat false, Corman’s attachment to the little guy and to his principles of low-budget filmmaking come across clearly.

Corman’s World offers what amounts to an engaging recuperation project, providing a fun introduction to a director who has shaped Hollywood, as well as independent filmmaking, in complex ways. the fact that Corman is a quiet, unassuming gentleman making what appears, on the surface at least, to be B-movie schlock makes his story even more enjoyable.

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Like many of Errol Morris’s subjects, Joyce McKinney, the “star” of his most recent documentary, Tabloid, has a fascinating screen presence, playing on an earnestness that may be a mask for a more troubling pattern of obsessive behavior, while offering turns of phrases that only a former southern beauty queen could make believable. When asked at one point whether a woman could rape a man, she comments that “it would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.” For those who are unfamiliar with McKinney, she was a one-time beauty queen who notorious became involved in what was known as “the case of the manacled Mormon,” a story that was widely discussed in the British tabloids and involved, depending on who you believe, McKinney traveling to England to stalk, kidnap, and even rape an ex-boyfriend, Kirk Anderson, or the boyfriend getting whisked away and brainwashed by a secretive religious cult, with McKinney heroically trying to rescue him.

McKinney’s descriptions of her life–and the gossip reports that catapulted her to tabloid stardom for several years–become the fodder for several of Morris’s most significant pre-occupations, most notably the difficulties of resolving competing narratives. Is McKinney the innocent woman she portrays when she protests that she was a virgin when she slept with Kirk for the first time? Or is she the high-priced escort who posed nude and in bondage gear for dozens of underground men’s magazines? Or is the truth somewhere in between? As Morris notes, in this interview with Anthony Kaufman, it’s almost impossible to tease out the full truth of what happened, based on all of the conflicting accounts we are given. A private pilot tells us that McKinney hired him and a bodyguard to travel to England to track down Anderson. McKinney doesn’t deny this, emphatically stating, “I did what any girl would do [after he ‘disappeared’]–look for him.” But the pilot adds the detail that she asked him while posing nude on the beach for a gaggle of photographers. When she travels to England, it’s either a rescue or a kidnapping. McKinney remembers Kirk going voluntarily, enjoying the cinnamon oil back rubs, while court testimony suggests that McKinney chained him to the bed.

Naturally, these lurid details and McKinney’s quirky public performances make her story irresistible for the British tabloids. One Express reporter acknowledges that she was paid 40,000 pounds for her story and then describes a bizarre story in which Joyce, having skipped bail, meets the reporter at the Atlanta Airport Hilton with a companion wearing a disguise to make her appear to be an Indian woman “from Calcutta.” Meanwhile, a rival tabloid, The Daily Mirror manages to obtain hundreds of pictures of McKinney nude or in bondage gear, along with advertisements inviting sexual services. An acquaintance of McKinney’s confirms some details, and other photographers remember her, primarily because she was always accompanied by her pet dog, Millie.

Throughout the film, these questions about media sensationalism and Joyce’s own relationship to the tabloid press remain unresolvable. McKinney claims to have developed agoraphobia and complains about being stalked by paparazzi even years after her story left the tabloids, and yet, years later, she makes a dramatic return to the media fray when she spends thousands of dollars to get her beloved dog, Booger, cloned by a South Korean doctor. Morris isn’t afraid to dive into the lurid details here. As he himself puts it (in a statement quoted at Full Frame), the film is a return to “one of his favorite genres: sick, sad, and funny.” In places, in fact, the film seems to risk complicity with the tabloids in perpetuating the virgin/whore opposition that is used so often in the portrayal of women in the media, with McKinney serving as a slightly more predecessor to someone like Britney Spears. But I think that Morris is going after something deeper here. The film is a meditation on how we get a handle on the truth about ourselves and about the world around us, how the tabloids shape the news and engage our attention. As McKinney herself puts it at one point, “you can tell a lie long enough ’til you believe it.”

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The Interrupters

Steve James’ The Interrupters tells the story of Chicago’s CeaseFire organization, a group of activists who are attempting to reduce inner-city violence through a potentially dangerous approach: they seek to intervene in the midst of conflicts as they are happening, quite literally interrupting people before they commit a violent act. Their methods are certainly controversial, but the film seems to show that in many cases, the group is able to stop people from acting rashly, and in some cases, to provide them with an alternative to the gangs and violence that are damaging their community.

The film documents a year in the life of the organization and follows three principal interrupters, Cobe, Ameena, and Eddie, all of whom have backgrounds in street gangs. Ameena, in fact, is the daughter of a well-known gang leader, and although their histories command respect with many of the youth in Chicago, the Interrupters also gain power through their commitment to helping others. We follow the three of them over the course of one year, as they insinuate themselves in a variety of potentially violent situations and, in some cases, work to form relationships with the people they help. The film opens with one such conflict, with Ameena stopping a teenage boy who plans to avenge a violent act. Ameena successfully takes him away from the situation, and we begin to see that in many cases, the people who commit these violent acts are often reluctant and, in some sense, are waiting to be stopped from acting.

This is most evident with “Flameo,” a young man who is threatening to get revenge. He tosses his phone angrily, yells, curses, but when Cobe starts talking him down, he begins to slow down. When Cobe offers to take him to dinner, he stops for a beat: “You mean right now.” Cobe responds, “yeah, right now.” And this simple gesture gives Flameo enough time to check his anger. We also see situations where the Interrupters struggle to help people break bad habits. Ameena spends countless hours trying to counsel a troubled teen, Caprysha, often with limited success. Eddie works with local schools in order to use art projects to reach troubled youth, creating a bond with a Latino family who lost a teenage child to gun violence. There is also a powerful scene when a teenager goes back to a barbershop he robbed in order to apologize to the victims, and it’s difficult not to get swept up in the emotional lives of the people whose lives we follow. Cobe, Eddie, and Ameena are all reflective about their past lives, the wrong choices they have made, and we seem to be constantly patrolling the city, riding in cars as the Interrupters seek to break up yet another conflict.

In many ways, the film reminded of Steve James’ breakthrough documentary, Hoop Dreams, in its grand-scale structure and its Chicago setting. The documentary gains remarkable access not only to the CeaseFire group but also to the lives of the many people they encounter. James also has a talent for capturing small gestures–characters nervously twitching their fingers, for example–that reveal a lot about the characters’ emotions. In places, the film did seem to run a little long, and the film did raise some important questions for me. Although there were some elliptical references to the negative effects of gangs–one Interrupter remarks at a funeral that most of the teens are wearing red, a local gang color–The Interrupters could have been a little more forceful in addressing some of the larger systemic causes of violence. Overall, though, it is a challenging and engaging documentary, one that should be used to deepen our conversations about how to reduce violence.

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Page One: Inside the New York Times

Prominently displayed in New York Times Media Desk editor Bruce Headlam’s office is a French poster for Citizen Kane, perhaps the most famous film of all-time about a journalist. Although Headlam tells us that he loves the improbable graphics of French movie posters, it is impossible not to draw a comparison between Welles’ film about a newspaperman and the documentary we are watching, Andrew Rossi’s engaging and often humorous Page One: Inside the New York Times, which follows the work of several Times reporters working at the paper’s newly created Media Desk. The role of these reporters–including the perpetually boisterous David Carr and the energetic new media whiz Brian Stelter–is to document the changing state of the media industries, even while the Times itself, like other newspapers, is undergoing rapid change. Rossi and his production partner, Kate Novak, had incredible access to the work of Stelter, Carr, and Headlam, watching as they adapt to a range of new media tools, even while they seek to preserve the journalistic standards associated with their paper.

Rossi and Novak followed the Media Desk for approximately fourteen months, using a hybrid cinema verite and talking-heads style, and the film is essentially framed by the newspaper’s complicated attempts to engage with Wikileaks, Julian Assange’s notorious website where whistleblowers could post state secrets. As Stelter observes early in the film, Assange essentially sees himself as an activist working on behalf of radical government transparency, a goal that is vastly different than that of a journalist, but the exchange with Assange does illustrate the changed landscape when people can go public through Wikileaks rather than through a major newspaper like the New York Times, and the film spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the ethics of publishing Wikileaks documents, and later, on what it means that the Times partnered with Assange to release other documents about the war in Iraq.

Inevitably, the film spends quite a bit of time meditating on the changes to the Times’ business model as a result of the changes introduced by social media. To some extent these positions are articulated by Web 2.0 champions such as Jeff Jarvis claims in the film, that “newspapers are dead.” Page One also quotes Clay Shirky as stating that because “anyone can publish,” we have achieved something approximating a “revolution” when it comes to media. To some extent, Jarvis and Shirky come across (somewhat unfairly) as wild-eyed futurists, especially when paired with images of Arianna Huffington brusquely defending the practice of aggregating articles from other news sources. At the same time, Brian Stelter, in particular, defends the role of social media in gathering and sharing information (even the more traditional David Carr becomes a somewhat reluctant convert).

Ultimately, the film is at its best when it observes David Carr at work, talking with his father, or generally enjoying life. I’d never seen him speak before, and he has a raspy voice, one that conveys the many challenges he has faced–including drug addiction and being a single parent on welfare–and his toughness comes through very clearly, but he’s also incredibly funny and generous with his younger colleagues. In places, the film does feel a little like an advertisement for the necessity of The New York Times. The film, which must have been completed only very recently, mentions the Times’ decision to create a paywall that requires readers to pay after they have read more than twenty articles in a month, and I found myself contemplating paying for an online subscription. The Times newsroom is often romanticized, especially when we see Carr mentoring Stelter or when Headlam encourages one of his journalists to pursue a story.

But beyond that, the film is a reminder of the importance of an energetic and critical news media. One reporter remarks on the fact that most news services have cut back on the “press gaggle” that follows the President around the country because of the expense involved, while Stelter points out that despite our nostalgia for print, the crucial issue in saving newspapers is the importance of “original sources,” of gathering the information necessary to make sense of the world. To that end, Page One is a Participant Media film, and the “cause” identified with the film is “the importance of knowing the original source of the news you read, watch, hear and tweet and the difference between original reporting and commentary.” This is, no doubt, an easy message to sell at a festival dedicated to documentary, but I hope that Page One will have a wider impact, allowing us to reflect on the changing media distribution landscape and the ways in which that affects the practices of journalism.

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The Loving Story

A recent poll found that 46% of Mississippi Republicans believe that interracial marriage should be illegal, and although such a poll may only have limited implications, it does show that attitudes about race and sexual desire remain contested in contemporary American culture over four decades after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that state laws forbidding interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The arguments about interracial marriage have reverberated for decades, and it’s not too much of a stretch to connect those taboos to more recent debates about gay marriage, and while many of these present-day complications reverberate within Nancy Buirski’s documentary debut, The Loving Story, what Buirski offers is not a simple talking-heads exploration of the ideas that informed the debate but a more profound and poetic exploration of the people who were somewhat reluctantly at the center of this national debate: Richard and Mildred Loving, a white construction worker and an African-American and Cherokee woman, who were convicted, briefly jailed, and forced into exile, because they chose to marry.

Buirski takes the unexpected and striking approach of allowing home movies and other archival footage to do much of the “talking” in the film. Both Richard and Mildred Loving have passed away–in fact Richard was killed by a drunk driver only a few years after the Supreme Court case–so their voices seem to come from beyond the grave, with most descriptions of them being provided by their daughter. What emerges from the archival footage is a portrait of a gentle, affectionate couple, with Mildred quietly elegant and Richard appearing somewhat shy. Shots of Richard resting his head in Mildred’s lap at home or of the couple subtly touching each other’s hands while walking into one of many court rooms shows their affection for each other. Both emerge as relatively unlikely activists: Richard’s crew cut and his penchant for racing cars and Mildred’s reserve make them seem less political, but after Mildred write a letter about their situation to Robert Kennedy, who recommends that they contact the ACLU, they are thrust into the spotlight.

The lawyers who took the case, Philip Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen were also unlikely heroes. Hirschkop, in fact, had only been out of law school for a couple of years, while Cohen had been out of law school for three years. Watching them talk publicly about the case in the 1960s was also quite powerful, an contemporary interviews with Cohen and Hirschkop help to ground the film narratively. I’m still contemplating some of Buirski’s formal and storytelling choices, but I think the film reflects the quiet gentleness of the figures at the center of the case. When Cohen asked Richard Loving if there was anything he wanted to tell the Supreme Court, Cohen tells us that Richard said simply, “Tell them I love her.” Through the archival materials, gently interwoven with contemporary interviews, Buirski relates a powerful ove story that has left a powerful mark on American culture.

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Gun Fight

Given the polarized viewpoints associated with the issue of gun ownership, Barbara Kopple’s latest documentary, Gun Fight, which I caught at Full Frame but also happens to be playing on HBO, will almost certainly be misunderstood. Gun rights activists who have commented on the film suggest Kopple is using the Virginia Tech massacre to “push” a gun control agenda. Meanwhile, Spout blogger Christopher Campbell mistakes Kopple’s decision to interview several gun right activists as an attempt to conform to the tendency in non-fiction film to be “objective” by presenting all (or at least multiple) sides of the gun right issue. Both of these readings misunderstand the complexity of Gun Fight’s underlying arguments about the place of guns and gun legislation in the United States, and although the film stakes out a position that we do need stronger gun laws (and stronger enforcement of those laws), the film is at its best when exploring the complex psychological status of gun laws and ownership in the United States.

Kopple’s film opens with footage of the Virginia Tech massacre taken on a shaky cell phone camera, the gun shots echoing in the near distance, interrupted by frightened gasps and piercing screams. News reports remind us of the number of victims while showing us haunting pictures of Seung-Hui Cho, the mass murderer who obtained all of his guns legally, despite his history of mental illness. The massacre is narrated by Colin Goddard, a student at Virginia Tech who survived being shot four times but witnessed several classmates getting killed. Goddard describes his wounds while expressing relief that he remembers very little of the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and as the film unfolds, he becomes one of our primary guides through the debate. Motivated by the shooting, he becomes an intern and eventually begins working for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The other major interviewee is Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist famous initially for publicly defending subway shooter Bernard Goetz. Feldman now has more recently moved on to lobby for the gun industry instead, in part because he has sought some middle ground with some sensible gun legislation, such as childproof locks on guns. Others discuss the traumatic physical effects of getting shot. A physician at the trauma center at UC Davis talks to a woman who still feels the effects of getting shot in the neck 40 years after it initially happened. We see a star high school football player who was shot several times after he was mugged, likely ending his sports career, positioning us to recognize the devastating consequences of gun violence.

Of course, to address these problems of gun violence, Kopple does allow gun owners to speak, possibly leading to Campbell’s mistaken observation that the film is trying to be falsely “objective.” A graduate student at Virginia Tech claims that if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus, Cho would have been stopped sooner, but Kopple answers this by showing a segment from ABC’s 20/20 that illustrates that having a student with a concealed weapon, even one that is adequately trained, likely would have led to more violence, not less. More crucially, Kopple shows how easy it is to obtain powerful guns without any background checks from unlicensed sellers at gun shows. In fact, Goddard goes into a gun show with a hidden camera and manages to conduct several transactions, even joking with one seller that he likely wouldn’t pass the background check.

To some extent, this is familiar territory. There have been discussions of closing the gun show loophole and of enforcing background checks ever since Columbine, calls that were recently raised again during the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. To that end, one of the strengths of the film is its attempt to make sense of the power of the gun lobby in shaping the legislative and political process, and this is where the film seeks to explore the passions of gun rights advocates, a very narrow segment of gun owners. On a purely pragmatic level, Feldman speculates that Al Gore probably “lost” the 2000 election, not (just) because of Ralph Nader but because many labor Democrats were more worried about Gore taking away their guns than they were about George W. Bush’s record on labor (although it’s worth adding that the Supreme Court probably helped here). He also points out that even the threat of a Democratic president or of a law calling for restrictions on guns feeds the outrage machine of the NRA, allowing them to fundraise based on people’s fears.

To that end, Kopple draws from arguments raised by Scott Melzer in his book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, which argues that the NRA’s appeals are rooted in an evocation of nostalgia for frontier masculinity and a very specific version of patriotism, one in which gun ownership is a means of holding the federal government in check. To explore this point, we see figures like Larry Platt talking about the importance of militias and gun rights rallies where guns are raffled off as a demonstration of spite against any federal regulations on gun ownership. Although these activists are far from representative of all gun owners–there are an estimated 80 million gun owners and 300 million guns in the United States–they often drive the passions of these single-issue voters. And although these groups are often rooted in white masculinity–both Melzer and the UC Davis doctor link the fringe of gun rights activists to Neo-Nazism and pro-Confederacy positions–we are also made palpably aware of how this culture of fear also permeates inner-city African-American men as well, when two young black men show us their apartment, which is stocked with a gun quite literally in every room.

Although the film offers some pragmatic legislative solutions, it also directs us to what seems like a bigger challenge, and that is: how do we engage with the politics of fear? During the Q&A, Colin Goddard acknowledged his own ambivalence about appealing to fear, while his father sought to redefine freedom not as the right to carry a weapon but as the right to move freely without fear of getting shot. In some ways, these responses aren’t completely adequate, and I think this is reflected in the reluctance of many Democrats, especially Obama, to take up legislation restricting gun ownership. I don’t think this inability to think beyond the “politics of fear” is a flaw in the film, as much as it is a potential limit in our current political imagination. Kopple’s film is likely to polarize. Gun right activists will surely see an “agenda,” while some viewers may share the film’s stance on “common sense” legislation, even while wishing for something more assertive in staking out an anti-gun position. What Kopple has given us, instead, is a film that shows that the politics of guns, are indelibly complicated.

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Guilty Pleasures

Over the last two decades, thanks to scholars such as Henry Jenkins, the study of fandom has become an integral part of media studies. My own work on film blogging and YouTube remix videos was an attempt to engage with this scholarship, especially as it played out within the cultures of cinephilia. What Jenkins and other scholars have pointed out is that fan practices are far more complicated than they might appear to outsiders and that cultural forms, whether romance fiction or genre television, should not be dismissed as “low” forms, in part because of the cultural work they are doing. Because of that background, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with Julie Moggan’s Guilty Pleasures, the Opening night film at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a documentary that follows the lives of a carefully selected group of people whose lives are affected by their role in producing or consuming Mills and Boon romance novels.

The reading culture around Mills and Boon novels is massive. Pre-credit titles tell us that a Mills and Boon novel is purchased somewhere in the world every three seconds. Roger, an older male author who writes under the name, Gill Sanderson (because male authors apparently aren’t well received in the Mills and Boon audience), speculates that his novels have been translated into a dozen languages, while Stephen, the handsome but flighty male model, estimates that he has graced the cover of over 200 romance novels.

Meanwhile we are introduced to three readers, each from a different part of the world, and each with her own sense of emptiness that the Mills and Boon novels ostensibly fill. Shirley is a British woman who shares a life with her husband, Phil, who at the beginning of the movie, at least, seems to show more affection to his do-it-yourself guides and tool belts than he does to his wife. Hiroko reads her Mills and Boon novels on the Tokyo subway and fantasizes about being swept away by her ballroom dance instructor, while her somewhat impassive husband admits that he lacks the grace to sweep her of her feet on the dance floor. Finally, Shumita, an Indian woman reads the novels and longs to be reunited with her ex-husband who left her, in part he says, because she became a “militant feminist” for reading Erica Jong and Gloria Steinem. In some sense, reading the books seems to hold Shumita in an unhappy cycle: she longs for the happy ending and spends much of the film worrying about her appearance, getting facials and worrying about her weight, all for a guy who seems more fixated on his car than anything else in the world.

Thus, rather than really being about the culture of romance reading (or even romance writing), the documentary is really trying harder to be a “real life romcom,” as Tanya Gold observes in her Guardian review, one that explores the cultural desire for romantic connections, while using the Mills and Boon books as a platform for exploring that. Thus, for people who are romance studies scholars, the  film will likely be a big disappointment. By looking solely at the Mills and Boon universe, the documentary misses out on literally dozens of other subgenres of romance, while also playing into practically every conceivable stereotype of romance readers. At one point, Moggan cuts to Shirley eating bon bons and sipping wine in bed while reading a Mills and Boon. Similarly, Shumita is often shown curled in bed reading, the books an apparent escape from her romantic solitude. Finally, the choice of two male figures, Roger and Stephen, to stand in as the producers of Mills and Boon novels seems odd given that virtually all romance writers are female. Although that is hinted at briefly when we see that Roger is the only male author at the Romance Writers convention, the lens for looking at this culture seemed a bit too narrow.

To be fair, Moggan seemed less interested in doing an anthropological study and more inclined to create a narrative involving each of the five major characters. At one point, Roger, echoing the recommendations of many creative writing teachers, remarks that all major characters must undergo a change by the end of the book, and Moggan seeks to follow the trajectories of Shirley, Shumita, and Hiroko, as they negotiate their domestic and romantic lives. Meanwhile Stephen, at the beginning of the movie comes across as charming but also narcissistic, obsessed with food and seeking out his “twin flame,” a partner who will be just as beautiful as he is. Roger, meanwhile, seems to have a quiet existence, just the opposite of what you might expect a writer of passionate romances to have.

But even these stories seemed to play into, rather than critiquing, the stereotypes of romance readers (and here, I do want to point out that Gold’s assessment in The Guardian of most of characters seems a bit harsh and ungenerous). During the Q&A Moggan commented that she was trying to explore the distinctions between appearance and reality through the characters. Roger is not the female author he claims to be. Stephen, far from having a glamorous lifestyle, tends to spend a lot of time at home in his relatively spartan apartment. Shumita desperately seeks out the happy endings provided in the romance novels, to the point that she is blind to her ex-husband’s shallowness. Hiroko reads about ideal worlds while riding the subway or while hanging out at home with her geeky husband who dreams of fathering an entire baseball team. It’s a familiar hook, but one that misrepresents romance readership, casting it primarily as a form of escape. Even so, some of the characters do make the effort to change, in ways I’ll avoid spoiling here.

To some extent, I think the documentary could have benefitted from some kind of meta-commentary, someone who could comment on the complications of romance readership. Moggan mentioned during the Q&A also that she had not been a reader of romance fiction prior to making the film, and I think that was evident in a couple of places, especially when she plays into the worst stereotypes of passive, wine-sipping female readers.

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Documentary Traditions

During the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Opening Night screening of Julie Moggan’s Guilty Pleasures (my review should be posted tomorrow), it occurred to me that I have been attending Full Frame for five years now. Ever since I began teaching at Fayetteville State, I have seen Full Frame as both an end of semester escape–a break from the rigors of teaching and grading–and an engaging way to catch some of the year’s best documentaries.

In some ways the event has become routine for me: I know the downtown Durham neighborhood and can navigate the Convention Center and all the screening locations quickly and easily. I even recognize many of the regulars, whether the guys who serve souvlaki or coffee, or even some of the regular attendees. And yet, at the same time, the festival is an escape from routine. Tonight, as I rushed from my afternoon class at Fayetteville State through rush hour traffic, I found myself nervously worrying that I would miss the opening night film and all of the rituals associated with the unofficial launch of this year’s festival. As it happened, I collected my press pass at 6:45 and managed to squeeze into the 7 PM screening just in time, thanks to some lucky parking, but in retrospect, it made me wonder about why I felt such an urgency to get to the festival when I did.

Part of the answer, at least for me, is that festivals seem to offer one of the more engaging sites of genuine collectivity and novelty associated with film culture. Festivals offer the pleasures of discovery, of finding out about that new filmmaker, of sharing in the collective pleasure of interacting with the filmmakers and subjects who make these films. They also offer the opportunity to be among the first people to encounter that film, the ability to be “in the know” (Charles Acland has made a similar argument about opening night screenings). I will add that the films that play at Full Frame never cease to engage me. Every once in a while I find myself weighing the possibility of cutting back on the number of movies I see, and yet, very year, I find myself spending hours standing in lines, walking into darkened theaters, before walking out blinking into the afternoon sun, jotting notes, and blogging about what I saw.

It’s almost impossible to believe that it has been five years since I first saw films like The Devil Came on Horseback, but Full Frame remains a vital and engaging part of my year, a spring ritual of anticipation, entertainment, and engagement.

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An Unsolvable Problem

I find it incredibly odd that the National Organization of Theater Owners (the other NATO) has the following video prominently embedded on their website, and not just because I’m not a big fan of The Big Bang Theory. Am I wrong in reading this scene as implying that going to movies in theaters is too complicated, especially if you are in a large group? Not to mention the fact that one of the characters promotes smuggling beverages into the theater.

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