Archive for August, 2012

Eastwooding, Or Old Man Yells at Chair

Given my interests in the intersections between politics, humor, popular culture, and social media, I found the responses to Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, ad-libbed campaign performance art at the Republican National Convention to be completely irresistible. In case you missed it, the Hollywood icon (whose movies I admire) gave a 10-minute speech supporting Mitt Romney in which he lectured an empty chair meant to represent current president, Barack Obama, asking “him” questions about why he has failed to deliver on his campaign promises. From a conservative perspective, there’s probably a valid point embedded in the speech–Obama as empty suit or whatever–but the impromptu nature of the talk has made it the subject of widespread mockery on the political web.

To some extent, the mockery derives from the fact that Eastwood’s performance before the RNC departs so radically from his star persona as a tough-talking Dirty Harry-type. Instead, the bit accentuated his age, a perception that was probably reinforced by his slightly disheveled hair and by the fact that he was ad-libbing and often seemed to be searching for the right words. The performance also departed radically from the rest of the RNC, which appeared to be tightly scripted, a perception that is mocked in this Photoshopped image from The Simpsons showing an altered headline in which Abe Simpson “yells at a chair” (the original if I recall says “cloud” instead of chair).

But as Chris Becker documented in an indispensable post on her News for TV Majors site, there were literally hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts that showed up within seconds of Eastwood’s appearance. One of the most notable was the appearance of the Invisible Obama Twitter feed, which was created during Eastwood’s speech and which now has 45,000 followers less than a day after the speech (one of “his” best tweets: “Someone should tell Marco Rubio he’s standing on my foot right now”). Eastwood’s speech also provided an excuse for celebrities to weigh in with both supportive and humorous content, all of it documented by Entertainment Weekly. Among the best remarks was Seth Myers’ “props” to Eastwood for bringing down Twitter. Even the Obama campaign got in on the act with an amusing, if slightly smug, tweet showing Obama seated in the Oval Office, saying “this seat’s taken.”

But one of the more common responses has been the practice of having a picture taken of a person pointing to an empty chair and acting as if the subject is lecturing it–a practice that has quickly become known as “Eastwooding,” although many of them feature pets and even children. Ana Marie Cox has identified this picture as the “original” Eastwooding image, but in any case, the empty chair has now become a key signifier in the political blogosphere, one whose meanings will probably take some time to settle into place (although I think the Abe Simpson image probably tells us the direction this is heading).

Finally, there is another Invisible Obama meme, one that features a photograph of Eastwood gesturing toward the empty chair with a red, white, and blue background. The Meme Generator allows people to enter their own text to create captions that comment on Eastwood or use his performance to make a commentary on politics. On a brief glance at most of the images that have been generated, they are generally anti-Romney or anti-Republican. My favorite so far actually makes reference to another popular meme, the “Most Interesting Man in the World” images that mock or make use of the character from the Dos Equis advertisements. The Meme Generator is especially interesting to me in that it readily invites the participation of others who may have limited coding or video editing skills. It also fascinated in that, like Twitter, it benefits heavily from verbal dexterity, even while participants have the ability to riff of a specific image, creating an incredibly low barrier to participation (although, in an odd sort of way, it doesn’t seem that remote from the longtime New Yorker contests inviting readers to provide captions for its cartoons). Facebook and Twitter users can also share and comment on many of these images without having to create new ones themselves, so that provides another important layer of participation.

I’ve been fascinated by political memes for a long time, in part because they invite citizen participation, but also because they allow untapped political meanings to gain expression, often through coded language associated with popular culture. Most of these Eastwood memes show a fluency with popular culture that invites sharing–they’ve also attracted the attention of George Takei, which never hurts–so it’ll be interesting to see how the Eastwood meme plays out over the next several months.


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Streaming Flow

One of the characteristics normally associated with on-demand programming is the idea that it is menu-driven, rather than being driven by the continuity of television channels. Even so, a number of people who use streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu used these services to engage in binge viewing practices, where they would watch several episodes of a show in sequence by clicking through ordered menus. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about this practice, one that points out some of the industry ramifications–most notably the fact that binge viewing cuts into traditional revenue models based on advertising and syndication–but it also touches briefly on how this changes the culture of TV viewing (notably one Netflix executive discourages the use of the term “binge viewing,” suggesting that it makes the practice sound “pathological”). But as these practices have evolved, it is interesting to see Netflix attempt to program binge viewing into their streaming video service using a feature they call “Post-Play.”

The feature, which has been available on the laptop and PS3 versions of Netflix was recently announced on their official blog, and essentially the feature is set up so that the credits are minimized and the following episode will be cued up in another corner of the screen. If the viewer does nothing, the next episode will automatically start. As a result, binge viewing becomes the default option rather than something viewers have to actively create. In a sense, this brings us to a new version of what Raymond Williams referred to as “televisual flow,” in which TV is structured or organized in a way that is deliberately designed to keep us watching (and in Williams’ case, designed to keep us watching the same channel).

But what I find fascinating about the announcement is the reaction to the feature in the comments. Hating Netflix has become kind of an art form, where bloggers, commenters, and others complain about some aspect of Netflix (often in a manner that seems excessive, given the relative novelty of streaming video), but in the comments, you can also begin to see a fairly sophisticated discussion of how on-demand movies and TV shows are contributing to an evolution in viewing practices. Some commenters complain that the feature makes it more difficult to view the credits, while others state that having the new episode start right away disrupts the sensory pleasures of savoring an episode while the credits and music play. Others suggest that the feature should be opt-in so that viewers who want to continue watching an episode don’t have to hit a button to continue watching. Finally, many viewers point out that extra scenes are often embedded deep into the credits so that a viewer may miss an important scene. These comments point to valuable questions about how viewing practices and interfaces are constantly in negotiation in the current moment of media in transition.

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Reflecting on Blue Velvet

As some of my recent posts have suggested, I’m currently in a moment of transition, both in terms of my writing projects and in terms of the blog. For many years, I used the blog to review or reflect upon virtually every film I saw in theaters, but that eventually became too difficult given some of the demands on time. But like many other people, most of my energy the last several years has been directed toward short-form social media such as Twitter and Facebook where, rather than writing more extended entries here. To some extent, that’s out of laziness. I usually have Facebook or Twitter open and can post quickly, often automatically, much to the consternation of my politically conservative friends.

Looking back at my archives, I can see that many of of my posts were short and involved a link with a quick commentary, and these posts often turned out to help build toward larger arguments, so with that in mind, I’ve decided to start writing here again on a more frequent basis. One of the reasons I’m going to try to make a greater effort to write here is due to a nice mention of my blog in this interview with Nick Rombes, author of the fascinating Blue Velvet Project, in which Nick stopped the film Blue Velvet and offered a reflection or observation about each moment in the film. Nick’s discussion of how the project evolved and how it was shaped by critical theory is fascinating and well worth a read.

In writing this post, I realize that I may be making an unfair distinction between productive internet time (the blog) and unproductive time (social media), but formats and genres matter, both in terms of the kinds of expressions and practices they encourage and in terms of their archivability.

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Remembering Chris Marker

I’m late to the countless tributes that have already been posted about French filmmaker, Chris Marker, the cine-essayist behind La jetée and Sans Soleil, as well as dozens of other films, but given Marker’s role in shaping my own interests in film and digital media, I’d like to add to those who’ve emphasized Marker’s insightful reflections on movies, history, and memory. I’d initially become engaged by Marker when I was thinking through Anne Friedberg’s discussion of cinema as a “time machine” when I stumbled across La jetée, almost by accident, reading about it (I think) in an issue of Entertainment Weekly before tracking it down. Twelve Monkeys came out around the same time–I think I saw Gilliam’s film first–and questions about memory, remaking the (cinematic) past, and narrative–immediately became more meaningful.

A few months later, I discovered that the same video store had a copy of Sans Soleil. During the opening sequence, in which Marker shows a group of Icelandic children and describes his attempts to link it to another image, I was immediately hooked–even pausing my VCR to gasp at the ideas he was exploring. Many years later, I attempted to work through some of the questions Marker introduced for me in an essay published in Rhizomes. It’s a youthful essay in that I think it tries to hard to attach Marker to current critical theory, but what I think is implied throughout the essay is my own fascination with Marker’s meditation on the possibilities of cinema.

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