Archive for April, 2011

Redefining Television

In his most recent Flow TV column, Australian scholar Graeme Turner has some interesting reflections on the ways in which media scholars define television. On the one hand, Turner points out the ongoing tendency for TV scholars to devote chapters and essays to answering the question of what counts as “television,” once we move away from that “box in the living room.” What I like most about Turner’s argument is that he emphasizes continuities between older (the box) and newer (various computerized forms, including mobile devices), rather than differences, an approach I’ve tended to emphasize in my own research.

Turner isolates two general principles that are relatively common to definitions of television: “liveness” and  “sharedness.” For Turner, as for most TV scholars, liveness refers not only to the capacity to show live events (although that capacity is important), but also to the aspects of televisual flow that have been transformed for decades by our ability to time-shift, originally through VCRs and DVRs, but more recently through menu-driven consumption through iTunes, Hulu, and other online sources. Of course, liveness persists as a mode of consumption: sporting events and breaking news stories compel live viewing, and devoted fans typically (though not always) consume favorite programs as they are being broadcast. Live-tweeting of major TV events encourages this practice, even if only a small percentage of viewers are watching in this way. Even so, the computer and mobile platforms are increasingly inviting “live” forms of viewing, a shift illustrated by YouTube’s recent foray into providing more live content.

Our notion of “sharedness” may be changing, but I think Turner is right to suggest that it persists, even in a modified form. Although the ability for TV to address a national community may be diminished due to audience fragmentation, the sense of a shared media culture is still there, whether through the practice of sharing clips (via Facebook, embedded video on blogs) or other collective forms of watching. Facebook and Twitter may be the new water-cooler, the place where we express aesthetic and political solidarity by passing along favorite TV shows and clips. For Turner, social media is where “the imagined co-presence [of media consumers] becomes both visible and specific.”

There is a third category that I think is worth considering, and it shapes both the television and movie industries, and that is the control of rights. I’ve been discussing the conflict over VOD quite a bit lately (including in a recent links post), especially as it pertains to the interests of movie theater owners and the studios that distribute films, but similar conflicts are shaping the TV content and delivery industries, as illustrated by the dispute between Time Warner Cable and Viacom over TWC’s iPad app. The changing modes of access–getting TV through a computer rather than the box in the living room–are shaped by these conflicts over rights, complicating how, when, and where we watch.

Still, I think Turner’s article is helpful in illustrating the ways in which digital delivery actually extends many of the historical definitions of television, rather than overturning them.

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Sunday Links

More film and media stories I’ve been following this weekend:

  • Time Out London has an article discussing the transition to digital projection and its implications for projectionists. It’s a pretty solid piece, and although it discusses the nostalgia for film, it also notes that the financial incentives for digital projection likely mean that the traditional projectionist is an endangered species.
  • Flow TV has a new issue out, and Randall Livingstone’s article on the “Get a Mac” ads, featuring John Hodgeman and Justin Long as PC and Mac, respectively, is well worth a read. One of Livingstone’s key points is that the laid back everyman, Mac, is presented as easily accessible: “The myth employed in these ads tells us it is easy and straightforward to be this person—to become Mac; it’s a myth that supports the dominant ‘classless-society’ thesis and hides the real societal hurdles that such a personal movement would have to navigate. Livingstone’s article also explores how the rhetoric of the Mac/PC campaign permeated other advertising campaigns.
  • Dawn Hudson has been selected to be the new CEO of the MPAA. David Poland offers one of the most thorough analyses of the transition.
  • Jason Sperb, while acknowledging his appreciation for the original Tron, explores some of the reasons Disney decided to relaunch Tron as a franchise now and successfully grounds that in Disney’s longer history of marketing nostalgia, exploiting technological innovation, and producing transmedia properties. I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about Tron for a project I’m doing, and Sperb’s comments offer a nice overview of the logic behind Tron: Legacy.
  • The National Association of Theater Owners cites several more articles that criticize the studios’ decision to release movie on video-on-demand after a 60-day theatrical window. The most prominent comes from Avatar director James Cameron, who describes his opposition to VOD as “enlightened self-interest.” The AMC Theater Chain has also released a statement against premium VOD.
  • Thompson on Hollywood has an interview with Barbara Kopple, who is promoting her latest film, Gun Fight, which is about the ongoing debates over gun regulation. I will be seeing Kopple’s film at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, so I’ll have more to say later, but for now, I wanted to mention that I recently taught Harlan County., U.S.A., her 1976 documentary about a coal mine strike, and my students and I were blown away by the film’s immediacy and power.
  • Finally, in maybe my favorite post of the day, Richard Brody reports that the Chinese government has banned time travel films because they “disrespect history.” Apparently the genre is currently quite popular in China, but the concern is that time travel is the source of simple “culture shock” amusement and that “the producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.” Maybe it’s time to dust off some of my research on time travel movies, after all.

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Sidney Lumet, 1924-2011

Like a number of other film bloggers (including David Lowery, among many, many others), I was deeply saddened to learn that film director Sidney Lumet passed away yesterday. Although Lumet was often overshadowed by some of the other prominent directors from the film school generation, such as Coppola and Scorsese, Lumet’s films offered a powerful engagement with the everyday: with the ethics of law enforcement (Serpico), the implications of racial bias (Twelve Angry Men), and the politics of populist spectacle (Network), often while presenting us with deeply flawed, but fully human, characters.

Like Matt Zoller Seitz, my favorite Lumet film is Dog Day Afternoon. I saw the film while a graduate student, and it quickly became a touchstone film for me because of the way in which it seemed to mix a heightened sense of immediacy and topicality with a much deeper sense of the broader social and historical forces at play. As Matt points out, the opening credits, featuring Elton John’s “Amoreena,” help ground the film in the everyday of 1970s New York, until Sonny (Al Pacino) quite literally bursts onto the scene, stepping into the bank he plans to rob, and setting in motion the hostage crisis and media spectacle pivotal to the film. It’s difficult to account for the sense of immediacy I felt when watching the film–most of the cultural references, including the Attica prison riots–are nearly forgotten–but the film, especially the scenes in which Al Pacino rallies the crowd against the police, seemed to tap into a sense of political urgency.

Some of this sense of urgency, I think, is connected to Lumet’s ability to capture a sense of time and place. As Glenn Kenny puts it, in his blog post, “He lived, functioned, and made films in the world, the world we live in, not in the exalted far-off fantasy land that any number of puling mediocrities who make a show of turning up their noses at ‘paycheck gigs’ insist their favorite artists inhabit.” Although he is discussing Lumet’s willingness to take a “paycheck gig” (somewhat rarely), Kenny also taps into something central, for me at least, when it comes to Lumet: he and his films were engaged with the everyday, with the concrete challenges and problems we face. Like a number of film fans and scholars, I find myself wanting to revisit some of Lumet’s films.

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Poetic Transmedia

Although I haven’t been able to track some of the more innovative uses of transmedia storytelling over the last year or so–too many other obligations–I have to admit that I find myself transfixed by the powerful use of web video to introduce viewers to Terrence Malick’s latest film, Tree of Life. Although the website offers little conventional material–unless I’m missing something, there is no mention of the cast or a plot summary–it has succeeded brilliantly in increasing my anticipation for the film and for seeing it on the big screen.

As you enter the website, it invites you to follow one of two forking paths, the father’s way or the mother’s way, while a haunting, almost mournful score plays in the background. Once you choose, you encounter a split screen with half the screen filled by a semi-circle of video clips and the other a white space with some cryptic text that evokes a moral parable. Below that are some of the social media responses to the website, and although many of them are direct expressions of fandom, others emphasize the aesthetics of the website, Malick’s characteristic use of slow pans and subtle camera movements. None of the video clips offer any dialogue (unless I missed something), meaning that the images and score tell us the entire story. Contemplation prevails over plot summary. Included in the white space is a small flash video player that shows the clip the user has selected. Choosing the opposite path–going from the father’s to the mother’s path–offers a mirror image: the semi-circle of video clips is now on the opposite side, suggesting that the two halves complete each other.

As a result, the website seems, at once, to offer a compelling depiction of the film that Malick has created and to critique the typical film website that places emphasis on narration and character. As one of the social media comments cited on the website suggests, “so glad that someone has really gone for it and made a movie trailer that evokes the atmosphere of a film rather than a head ache inducing compression of the entire plot.” And, yet, I am also aware that, like the media franchises that are implicitly criticized in this comment, the Tree of Life website is also involved in producing its own culture of anticipation, its own community of fans.

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Wednesday Links: Cinematical, Blockbuster, Harry Met Sally 2

Shifting back into project mode, but first, here are some links:

  • There has been quite a bit of discussion today about the “implosion” taking place at Cinematical. Until this morning, I’d missed the story, but Movie City News brought my attention to the fact that Erik Davis, a longtime writer and editor for the site, had tendered his resignation. Meanwhile Mary Ann Johanson offers a more detailed explanation of why Cinematical, a long-running film blog that dates back to 2005, may be seeing its last days as a prominent source for film news: the Huffington Post-AOL merger. As Johanson reports, the new management at AOL/HuffPo sent out an email to their freelancers telling them, “You will be invited to contribute as part of our non-paid blogger system.” That’s awfully kind of them, isn’t it? I am sad to see Cinematical coming apart like this. When I was writing my book and for many years since, it has been a major go-to site for impassioned coverage of the film industry, but I think it also shows the fragility of the professional film and media blogosphere.
  • New Tee Vee asks a really interesting question: why is Dish TV willing to pay $320 million dollars to take over Blockbuster Video? They don’t really come up with a clear answer, but one partial answer might be that Blockbuster owns streaming rights to a number of movie titles.
  • Speaking of rights issues, the MPAA is planning to urge Congress to take up legislation banning “rogue” websites that are pirating Hollywood films. With former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd now leading the MPAA, it will be interesting to see what happens with this kind of lobbying.
  • One reason why piracy is so important: Convergence Consulting Group is estimating that streaming TV will be an $800 million business within two years. Tech Crunch has a pointer to some recent reports they have produced, including “Battle for the North American Couch Potato.”
  • Home Media Magazine is speculating that Redbox may partner with Hulu in its effort to launch a streaming video service.
  • Ted Striphas explores the implications of the latest Wired jargon, Culturomics, comparing it to his own attempts to read what he calls “algorithmic culture.” Wired’s Jonathon Keats discusses the term here and Brandon Keim mentions it in this blog post on the data-crunching possibilities found on Google books.
  • Finally, just for fun, the very amusing Funny or Die video, When Harry Met Sally 2. I don’t want to give anything away, but stick with the video. It gets much funnier about 2 minutes in.

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Return of the Political Parodies

Now that the 2012 Presidential campaign has started in earnest (sort of), we are beginning to see the first shots fired, via the medium of web video. We can start by taking a look at the Obama campaign’s launch video, “It Begins With Us:”

The video, which deploys a documentary style, is notable for several aspects: first, Obama barely appears in the video itself. He is seen only from a distance while Obama supporters discuss the importance of the grassroots campaign, of getting involved in helping Obama get re-elected (as one supporter explains, Obama “has a job to do,” so he won’t have time to campaign, unlike most Republican candidates). We see shots of campaign volunteers going door-to-door, accumulating signatures on clipboards, and contributing to the cause. The suggestion is that it’s “our” campaign, that our contributions are essential to Obama’s (and the country’s success). Shots of the heartland–Ed (from North Carolina) on his front porch, Gladys from Nevada at her kitchen table–attempt to ground Obama as the candidate of everyday people.

By comparison, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has a parody ad that mocks Obama’s campaign and seeks to parody the president’s (ostensibly self-proclaimed) reputation as a uniter:

As Nancy Scola at Tech President observes, the video is currently getting more play than the actual campaign announcement, and the NRSC is rewarding high-profile linkers on their website, inviting even more traffic to the video. It’s difficult to read the tea leaves when it comes to video views, especially given that parody videos often tend to attract more traffic than straight-forward, politically earnest videos, which indicates to me that Ben Smith of Politico is probably a little too hasty in his attempts to read into the distinctions between the two campaign cycles. I do think that the NRSC video works relatively well, especially for true believers, hammering him on the deficit and on his promises to create jobs (the concluding shot of Obama riding off on a unicorn while leaving a rainbow trail, in particular, mocks the Obama brand of utopianism). More powerfully, the video (however fairly) seems to imply that the political energy is now with the Tea Party, signified by marches and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Obama has united the country in anger about his policies, while millionaires and billionaires clink champagne glasses.

Finally, the video seems devoid of some of the worst excesses of Obama hatred. Unless I missed something, the ad avoids indulging the spurious attacks on Obama’s birth certificate, for example, which allows the ad to use the populism of the Tea Party without accepting all of its actual beliefs. Although it is primarily designed to reach conservatives, I think it may also have an eye on disaffected independent voters. More than anything, I think these videos point to the changing positions that the two parties now occupy. Obama, as an incumbent, may have a more challenging position rhetorically than the Republicans who can depict themselves as the insurgent party.

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Monday Links

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

  • A few more responses to the news that several studios are planning to release films via premium video on demand, just two months after they appear in theaters. In the first of two posts, David Poland looks back at the history of changing distribution models and begins to explore the potential consequences of premium VOD, mostly in response to an interview with Fox executive, Jim Gianopolous.
  • There has been quite a bit of discussion of Tribeca’s continued attempt to reinvent film festivals using digital media. In particular Anne Thompson expresses some skepticism, but dutifully points to several early posts on the Tribeca “Future of Film” blog, including a welcome post form festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, film producer Peter Guber (who as Thompson points out is also promoting his book), and 2929 Entertainment’s Todd Wagner.  Social media blog Mashable also chimes in.
  • Via Chris Becker, who has compiled an amazing list of media links, The Wrap reconsiders the place of the art house theater in the age of digital distribution. Chris’s post offers a wealth of liks about TV and film distribution, as usual.
  • Fox executive Bill Mechanic expresses some skepticism about the 60-day VOD plan. Not surprisingly, the National Association of Theater Owners is arguing that the VOD window will be incredibly harmful to their bottom line.

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Source Code

When I was in graduate schol, I did my dissertation on films about time travel, alternate realities, and other time-bending narratives, a project that grew out of a seminar paper on Twelve Monkeys and Strange Days. The project ended up not working quite as well as I would have liked, as I got lost in my attempts to classify films according to the direction of time travel. But I found myself thinking about that project last night while watching Duncan Jones’ Source Code (IMDB), a follow-up to his trippy debut film, Moon. In particular, I reflected on the degree to which the film’s plot device has been naturalized to the point that audiences need little explanation to grasp what is happening, and although I found the film to be somewhat flawed, it functions well enough as a psychological thriller that engages with questions of fate, destiny, and free will.

Source Code depicts the experiences of Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wounded Afghanistan War veteran who is sent back into the body of a passenger on a train bound for Chicago that is about to be destroyed in a terrorist attack. Stevens wakes up in the body of a high school teacher named Sean just eight minutes before the explosives are set to go off, killing everyone on board and must figure out the person who planted the bomb to prevent a later terrorist attack from happening. We are given a typical pseudoscientific explanation from the film’s mad scientist, Dr. Rutledge (a cheerfully excessive Jeffrey Wright). As Roger Ebert points out, the scientific implausibilities don’t really matter, because for the most part, it’s clear that the explanation serves a different purpose: we are given a set of narrative rules–Colton has eight minutes to solve the problem, in this case finding the bomber–and then watch as Colton attempts to complete the task he has been assigned.

As a result, Source Code seems to be the latest example of a series of films that follow what Alex Galloway, in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture,  has described as the “algorithmic form” of many contemporary narratives.* Although Galloway refers primarily to what he calls “films of epistemological reversal,” such as Fight Club or The Matrix, in which our existing understanding of how the world works is undermined, Colton’s quest in Source Code isn’t significantly different than the quest of completing a level of a video game, to the point that Colton, almost immediately, begins to identify specific patterns of repeated activity: a spilled soda, a conversation with the beautiful girl across the aisle. Even the logic of the behavior of the train’s passengers is constrained by how thy are already programmed. Given that the explosion “has already happened,” the train passengers are ostensibly dead, and therefore, Colton’s interactions with them don’t really matter. Much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Colton begins to see the train as a system, one that can be manipulated by a skillful “player” or user. The film’s paranoid depiction of time and fate–and their relationship to crime prevention–also has affinities with movies such as Minority Report and Twelve Monkeys.

And this is where I think Source Code ultimately “cheats,” to use a gaming term [spoilers follow]. As we learn early in the film, Colton is being sent back in time by a mysterious military organization, one that Colton is able to trace back to a base in Nevada. He receives instructions from Dr. Rutledge and a more sympathetic assistant, Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who communicates to him through a computer screen. Colton is told that he is physically dead other than some mild brain activity, but during his visits to the past, he falls in love with a passenger, Christina (Michelle Monaghan as the pretty girl), and desperately hopes to keep her alive, even though he is repeatedly told that the attack has already happened. In one version of Colton’s “game,” he pulls Christina from the train before it explodes, believing he has rescued her, but that reality doesn’t really exist, so he is pulled back to begin the game anew. However, those who have seen the film will know that the narrative resolution “cheats” this logic of time or narrative rule. It’s a typical cheat of time-loop narratives, however: why does the time loop stop once the crime has been solved? Perhaps more telling, Colton is able to prevent the terrorist from ever committing a crime in the first place, which means that the military agency that sends him wouldn’t have any need to send him back, right? Although, I suppose it is entirely possible that the final sequence (when he does prevent the accident from happening) is entirely imagined.

These logical implausibilities don’t undermine the film completely. As Aaron Hillis observes, Colton’s compassion for the train’s passengers is seductive. Even if we are told (somewhat misleadingly) that the attempts to rescue the passenger are doomed, Colton’s “loyalty” make him a likable protagonist (a sense of intimacy that Manhola Dargis also recognizes in her NYT review). At the same time, it’s a film that succeeds in synthesizing a wide range of cinematic, video game, and narrative texts, one that recognizes the ways in which audiences engage with and accept the place of algorithms within cinematic narratives.

Update with Spoilage: One other point worth considering, raised in the comments of this Hollywood Elsewhere post, is that the film allows Colton to essentially take over the identity of Sean Fentress, the mild-mannered teacher/train passenger, whose body Colton inhabits when he travels back in time into the train. Thus, as the film ends and Colton continues to live in Fentress’s body, starting a new life with Christina, Fentress’s entire life history is effaced. Des he have a family? Friends? What about his students? The film can only do this, of course, by making Fentress basically a cypher with little actually personality.

* Another good reference here is Kristen Daly’s recent Cinema Journal article, “Cinema 3.0: The Interactive Image.”

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How do Movies Matter?

In Reinventing Cinema (and in probably half a dozen blog posts), I addressed the frequently-repeated discussion of the death of film criticism. Typically the complaints focused on the decline in the number of professional film critics working for major newspapers, a decline in jobs that is by no means trivial. However, a number of other critics also suggested that newspaper readers were also ignoring the advice of film critics and seeing Hollywood “dreck,” rather than watching more obscure movies that were more favorably reviewed, as if the goal of film criticism was to serve as little more than a consumer guide. I’ve generally responded to these complaints by pointing out that much of the best film criticism has migrated to the web and that many of the most influential critics have a much wider audience than ever before, thanks to online distribution. More crucially, these online conversations often contain a level of engagement that would be difficult to match in the limited column space in a physical newspaper. But there is another variation to this argument, one that shows up in a recent article by Stewart Klawans, in The Nation, where Klawans argues that cinema itself has been outmoded and that motion pictures no longer have the same political currency they once did. Given the recent changes in audiovisual culture–most notably the fragmentation of media choice–Klawans offers a tempting argument. But I think Klawans overstates the degree to which movies no longer have the social relevance they once did.

Klawans, a critic I typically enjoy reading, is responding to the recent publication of David Kehr’s When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, which Klawans reads as “a chronicle left by a vanished civilization,” documenting the lost cinema culture of the 1970s (I haven’t read Kehr’s book yet, but I hope to do so). In addition, Klawans defines film rather oddly, as “movies projected in public spaces large enough to accommodate a crowd.” Although theatrical moviegoing continues to be a common social activity, most of our movie consumption now takes place elsewhere–in our homes, on our computers, and even on our cell phones and iPads. All of this makes me think that Klawans (I won’t include Kehr in this argument) is looking in the wrong places. Rather than looking at the images on the slightly tattered screen in the half-empty theater at the local strip mall, doesn’t it make more sense to measure how movies matter by looking at how they circulate? Instead of offering a somewhat indifferent close reading of another disappointing indie film (as Klawans goes on to do with Tom McCarthy’s Win, Win), shouldn’t we be thinking about the ways in which the concept of cinema is circulating through all of the new distribution, exhibition, and reception channels out there?

Klawans’ comment about “movies projected in public spaces” does reflect an ongoing change in the film industry, especially as studios turn increasingly toward digital distribution and toward closing the “window” between the theatrical release date and digital distribution (VOD, DVD, etc).  The most recent shift entails current plans to offer films via video on demand just two months after their theatrical debut, albeit at the relatively hefty cost of $30 per rental. As Cinematical reports, Home Premiere is set to launch in the immediate future, with the Liam Neeson film, Unknown and the Adam Sandler flick, Just Go With It, serving as the first two films to be made available. For the most part, Cinematical addresses these issues primarily in terms of consumer choice: will viewers be willing to pay a premium to see a recent theatrical release? Or will audiences simply wait a month or two and see the film more cheaply? David Poland has a much more extensive take, one that traces out the implications not only for consumers, but also for theaters themselves, as well as the unionized employees who stand to lose financially due to the new distribution models. These debates about how movies will be distributed seem to to illustrate that movies do continue to matter, not simply because of their content but because of the “content” of the industry itself, the ways in which the movie industry seeks to capitalize on our continued fascination with audiovisual culture.

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Angry Birds and Big Pigs

Tama Leaver alerted me to the fascinating viral video, Three Big Pigs, an Angry Birds/Disney mashup video that satirizes the political situation in the Middle East. The video was produced by Russian mashup satirist Egor Zhgun. Ethan Zuckerman offers one of the most thorough discussions of the video and Zhgun’s prior work, much of which satirizes Russian politics, and points out the video’s status as part of a globalized media culture: “There’s something very 2011 about a Russian video using a soundtrack from American cartoons and characters from a Finnish mobile phone game (based on an English fairytale) to satirize North African politics.”

I’ll admit that until I read Tama’s blog post, I knew very little about the Angry Birds game (which probably kills my current hipness quotient), but even with little background in the game, at least some of the humor translates, and as Zuckerman also notes, Angry Birds has become a part of the lexicon when it comes to political satire, as this video commenting on the Israel-Palestine negotiations suggests. Finally, Zuckerman raises some interesting questions about whether the video will be threatened with a takedown notice, given that it uses the soundtrack to an old Disney short. Videos like these make me want to revive my somewhat-dormant research on online political satire.

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