Archive for February, 2012

Navigating Nostalgia

There have been dozens of articles that argue that this year’s Oscar race indicates that Hollywood is feeling nostalgic. Some of the leading contenders for Best Picture, including Hugo, The Artist, and even Midnight in Paris all offer plots about returning to the early days of cinema or recovering some other lost past. There’s probably some validity to this point, but I’m a little more skeptical when we address the question of what this trend means, what it says about Hollywood, movie audiences, or others who might be caught up in this wave of nostalgia. Neal Gabler’s Los Angeles Times column is most explicit in tracing this trend, arguing that even films like The Descendants evoke a filmmaking style more akin to ’70s character studies, making them fit into this trend.

First, I wonder if the nostalgia trend is anything new. Last year’s Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech, fits perfectly within this idea of nostalgia, even to the point of celebrating an “older” media technology, radio, for its ability to unify a nation, something that now seems impossible in the era of media fragmentation. Other nominated films include True Grit, a remake of a classic western, Toy Story 3, a sequel to an animated film that many young adults grew up watching repeatedly on DVD, and The Kids are Alright, a character film similar to The Descendants. In a sense, I think Gabler stretches his concept of nostalgia too thin here by including these ’70s-style character dramas, in part because there are usually several that come out annually, and some get nominated while others (such as The Ides of March) don’t.

Second, I’m growing increasingly skeptical about what anyone means by the term, “Hollywood,” especially to suggest a group of people who share a distinct set of tastes or beliefs. A glance at industry reports will show that the studios, once managed by the moguls that Gabler has discussed so eloquently, have been replaced by so many competing interests and production practices. So, even while Gabler acknowledges that “Hollywood’s executive suites are occupied by Ivy Leaguers and MBAs who report to giant international-minded media conglomerates,” it’s really difficult to generalize about how taste is cultivated within these groups.

But I think where Gabler seems to misread the nostalgia trend is when he argues that these films reflect a “self-loathing” in the industry. That doesn’t seem quite right to me. Instead, I’d argue that Hugo is not only a celebration of the magic of Georges Melies but also a retelling of cinema’s origin story, turning film (or, more accurately, the movies, in this post-celluloid age) into a special effects medium from its very origins. Even the Lumiere Brothers’ first public screening, which included a film of a train coming into a station, becomes a special effect, especially as it is touched up with 3D technology. It is certainly a celebration of cinema’s past (in much the same way that The Artist might be), but it also seems to be about how those early films helped foster a love of movies and moviegoing that continues to this day.

But if there is a connective tissue between these films and others that are marked by this type of nostalgia, I think that Matt Zoller Seitz is closer to the truth when he argues that many of these films are nostalgic for an era of tactile media. Noting the continued fading of film as a medium, and even of physical storage media such as CDs and DVDs, he points out that these films  (and TV shows) reflect “a fear that the virtual world is displacing the real one.” There are other issues at stake as well, including the sense that an era of recession and austerity has produced a sense that we are living in degraded times (a point that Matt touches upon), but I’m skeptical of the idea that this is tied to a self-loathing about the present moment of entertainment culture. Instead, there seems to be a recognition that something is in the process of being lost without any clear sense of certainty about our cinematic futures.

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MoveOn House Parties, Documentary, Political Activism

One day after hosting a half dozen neighbors for a screening of Charles Ferguson’s powerful documentary, Inside Job, I’m still reflecting on the experience and what it says about the role of documentary in contributing to forms of political activism. These questions matter to me for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that, like millions of others, I see an economic system marked by increasing instability and inequality and want to see a more just, balanced system. But I am also trying to make sense of the role of MoveOn and other online groups in using documentaries as organizing tools, both in some of my recent scholarship and in a course that I am teaching. After hosting the MoveOn screening and listening to (and participating in) the incredibly informed post-movie discussion, I continue to find myself evolving on the relationship between documentary and activism.

Upon watching Inside Job for a second time, I found myself reacting a little differently than I did when I first saw the movie about a year ago, before Occupy Wall Street began to, well, occupy public spaces and news media attention. If you care about your money, it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of betrayal or outrage at the behavior of the large banking, loan, and insurance firms that created elaborate financial schemes to line the pockets of a small number of very wealthy people. This mirrors Ferguson’s own outrage, particularly when Frederic Mishkin bumbles through a half-hearted defense of the lack of financial regulation. But, much like last time, I found that the movie ended without offering any clear alternatives for political action. It’s clear, from the movie’s pointed critique of Obama’s economic appointments (which include Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, among others), that Ferguson is skeptical about the power of voting alone to enact political change, a position that now seems even more deeply entrenched after the Citizens United decision. Inside Job still has an oddly sterile feel to me, given that it operates almost entirely within the sites of power. We hear from critics of deregulation, including Eliot Spitzer, but rarely do we see the actual effects of sub-prime mortgages (other than some stock footage of houses with for-sale signs out front). This may or may not increase our levels of outrage, but it makes it difficult to identify a single point of identification within the film. That being said, Ferguson’s film hammers home its arguments with tremendous authority, using visuals well to track changes in our economic system. Seeing bankers and regulatory officials squirming in their seats also offers a form of enjoyment.

But after Ferguson’s powerful Oscar acceptance speech, in which he reminded us that not a single financial executive had gone to jail for his or her responsibility in the financial meltdown, the film seemed to disappear. For that reason alone, I was glad that MoveOn picked it up as a part of its house party series. It’s worth noting that the current home video ecosystem likely contributes to that. The documentary was distributed by Sony Pictures Classics and through Sony’s Home Entertainment division, and (because of that?) it is currently unavailable for streaming on Netflix. None of the Blockbuster Video stores in the area had the movie available for rental. And when I called one local video store to ask for Inside Job, the clerk stepped briefly away from the phone, came back and gruffly asked, “do you want the adult version?” The movie was also unavailable through Redbox kiosks, which ultimately meant that we had to purchase a copy for our house party. I don’t think this is a specific “conspiracy,” just that our current distribution model provides much greater potential for independent and low-budget films to “disappear” from public consciousness and even easy (or at least inexpensive) access. As a result, even hosting a screening now seems like a valuable contribution to the wider political discussion.

But of course it’s worth asking about how to translate Inside Job’s outrage into meaningful political action (whatever that might look like). There is a degree to which everyone in the room was already not only predisposed to agree with Ferguson’s arguments but also prepared to anticipate many of them, with some of our guests calling out terms before the narrator (Matt Damon) could say them. Although this might seem like a version of “preaching to the choir,” I think it’s much more complex than that. The narrative behind the banking crisis is incredibly complicated, and even if we grant the fact that most MoveOn viewers already agree with many of Ferguson’s positions, putting them together into a coherent narrative is helpful. More crucially, it provides house party attendees with something tangible to structure our deliberations about both localized and national forms of political action. In fact, the credits were barely rolling when the first guest spoke up to create an argument for how to put an end to economic injustices depicted in the film.

And this is where I think some of our most crucial questions about documentary, online media, and activism come into play. Our reception of Inside Job was framed not only by our unique house party situation but also by the framing materials that accompanied the event. MoveOn sent out several emails and promoted the film on its website. For hosts, they provided us with a short script and fliers that would guide attendees into specific forms of action. There is a long history of this sort of political organizing, so it’s hardly new, but in some ways I found the responses to be relatively tepid, given the politics of most MoveOn members. Most notably, they encouraged attendees to “Move Your Money,” something most of us had already done. A more promising activity was the MoveOn Council idea, which would leverage the energy of localized teams to enact change on both the local and national levels. It’s difficult to judge what kind of impact a house party screening has in its immediate aftermath. There was no moment of crystallization when a light shined down from the progressive heavens and convinced me that we had (or that we would) make a difference, whatever that might mean. That being said, I think the critique of consumerism in this particular house party event runs much deeper than some of MoveOn’s most trenchant critics might suggest. Micah White, rather famously, attacked MoveOn for turning activist energy into a muted form he called “clicktivism.” These house party forums are not necessarily going to produce identical results across the board. On the one hand, it is certainly possible to walk away from a house party event and to feel some degree of cynicism and powerlessness about the possibility of effecting change, especially when MoveOn only offers relatively loose structures for directing forms of activist response. And yet, I would be reluctant to embrace a more top-down model. We need room for the critical thought of the thousands of people who attended screenings and know their local communities and the actions that are possible within them.

There are no easy answers when it comes to documentary activism. But I am energized by the fact that the house party model could help to revive the outrage, energy, and passion of Ferguson’s Inside Job, allowing it to gain new life in the era of Occupy Wall Street and the We are the 99% movements.


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Hosting the 99%

Andrea and I are hosting a screening of Charles Ferguson’s scathing, Oscar-wining documentary, Inside Job, on Sunday, February 12, at 6 PM, as part of their movie party series. I’ve never hosted a MoveOn screening before–although I have attended several house party screenings in the past–so I’ve been intrigued by how excited I am by getting involved in this way. I’ll be interested to see if my reaction to the film changes on a second viewing, given that I felt slightly overwhelmed by Ferguson’s arguments when I watched Inside Job the first time. But more than anything, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to contribute to the wider conversation about the relationship between corporate deregulation and the “We are the 99%” movement. If you live in or near southern Wake County, you can find out more information about our screening here, but if not, perhaps you can seek out a screening in your own neighborhood. There are several hundred planned for this weekend across the U.S.

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Pushing Mobile

Breaking my blog silence to mention a report on a study that I received via email the other day from Greystripe, which bills itself as the “largest brand-focused mobile advertising network.” The sample size for the survey seems rather small to me, especially compared to the much richer studies conducted by Pew and Nielsen, but I think that part of what attracted my attention was their specific focus on emphasizing the ways in which mobile devices, whether smartphones or iPads, contribute to the practices of movie consumption.

To some extent, I agree with their arguments, although the basis for my agreement is probably at least partially anecdotal. One of the arguments they are trying to push is that mobile users are likely to seek out information–trailers, cast, showtimes–about movies using mobile devices, and there is probably some validity to this argument. Three of the first apps I downloaded to my iPhone were Flixster, IMDB, and The Oscars. The first two of these directly offer reviews and showtimes that I could use to find out when and where movies are playing, while The Oscars offers at least some information about nominated films. Their findings seem to confirm that one of the most common “entertainment activities” uses of smartphones is to check movie times or to find a nearby movie theater. They also place emphasis on the fact that mobile apps still function primarily to point us to other screens through advertising and promotion, encouraging users to watch trailers or other video advertising.

But there are places where their framing of mobile seems disingenuous. First, they use data that shows that 44% of respondents saw 1-3 movies per year in theaters and another 25% saw 4-6 per year to conclude that “almost 70%” of respondents watch as many as 6 movies per year, when a more honest way of reading these numbers would have to acknowledge that nearly 85% watched six movies or less in theaters per year (given that only about 16% said they watched more than six). These numbers don’t seem completely consistent with other numbers that I’ve seen, but they hardly paint a rosy picture of mobile users being frequent moviegoers.

They also seek to point out that half of all mobile users claim to decide what to see based on movie ads, but what’s left unstated here is whether these mobile users saw these ads exclusively on mobile devices, and I’m guessing the answer is no. More than half stated that peers were a major influence, and it seems notable that the survey pays little attention to social media as a factor.   Movie reviewers may be relieved to know that, especially for iPad owners, they continue to hold at least some influence, if these survey results are to be believed.

I’m addressing this survey for a couple of reasons: First, I’m becoming a little more attentive to the methodology behind surveys and survey questions, especially as I plan to immerse myself in more of that kind of research. These kinds of surveys–even at the small scale conducted by Greystripe–can provide keen insights, but their questions are too transparently focused on pushing mobile advertising to be believable, especially given the proliferation of screens and sites where we might encounter movie advertising. The Nielsen study cited above shows, in fact, that most people still spend significantly more of their time watching “traditional TV” than staring at tiny, mobile screens. But the survey–and others like it–seem dependent on pushing the idea of an emerging model of mobile spectatorship that seems greatly exaggerated, especially given that many people have a great deal of dissatisfaction with their mobile phones and are often leery of exceeding costly data caps on their phone service. In essence, we need much more rigorous conversations about what it really means to be mobile.

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