Archive for October, 2012

“Binders Full of Women:” 2012 and the Image Macro Election

Last night’s debate left us with two or three comments that will endure throughout the election season and beyond, but none will likely have the staying power of Mitt Romney’s remark that when he was seeking out job female applicants his staff brought him “binders full of women.” On one level, it’s easy to read Romney’s remarks as a slip of the tongue, but on another the comment seemed to confirm the viewpoint that Romney is a jerk who is oblivious to women’s needs. In her debate post, Amy Sullivan details the ways in which Romney (“Mitt the Man”) came across as insensitive to women, and the binders comment–which only came out when Romney was trying to avoid answering whether he supported the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act–has provided a shorthand for expressing that sentiment. Within minutes of of the comment (as CBS News reports), there were Twitter feeds (@RomneyBinders had 33,000 followers by Wednesday afternoon) and Tumblr accounts where many of the Romney binders images were posted, suggesting that the comments provoked a fair amount of outrage.

In keeping with the current election-year rhetoric, many of the Romney binders relied upon existing internet memes in order to make their political points, ranging from The Most Interesting Man in the World to a revival of the “texts from Hillary” meme (via That Wren Girl) and even a riff on the Ryan Gosling meme (borrowed from MoveOn’s Facebook page). Many other posts from the Binders Full of Women Tumblr use images of recognizable celebrities in order to mock Romney or tie his comments to misogynistic aspects of contemporary culture. In one image, Romney’s comments are aligned with Hugh Hefner and in another with John Cusack, and in probably my favorite, with the movie Dirty Dancing. Although these posts may not constitute an entirely politically coherent response to Romney’s remarks, they do help to make visible Romney’s lack of concern for a number of women’s issues (including his non-answer on the Lily Ledbetter question). Further, because of the popular culture associations–with TV, film, and other internet memes–many of these political expressions are instantly accessible.

In addition, these images help to reinforce the idea that the 2012 election’s media format is that of the image macro, a picture superimposed with text, usually with humorous intentions. If 2008 was the “YouTube election,” then it might seem odd that static images would make such a comeback, but I think there are a few reasons that this is happening. First, the role of Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook in this election eclipses what was happening in 2008. More people are sharing political information than before, and thanks to Twitter’s associations with micro-celebrity, more people are attempting to create clever responses to debates and other political events in order to achieve (very) temporary fame–a tendency that The Onion beautifully satirtized in a post anticipating the second debate. Second, image macros are more instantly accessible than video mashups, even while using some of the same principles of montage and associative editing that Richard Edwards and I discussed in our article on some of the more popular mashups from 2008, including “Vote Different.” Image macros are fleeting; they can be viewed more easily than videos. Richard and I argued that mashups created meaning through the clash (or meshing) of popular and political culture imagery, and most image macros follow this same logic. More crucially, they have a much lower barrier to entry in terms of their production in that virtually anyone can go to a Meme Generator site, post or (more likely) borrow an image, and then add the necessary text to create their contribution to a meme. Video editing, on the other hand, requires a much more significant investment of time on the part of the creator. Thus, rather than taking several hours to painstakingly piece together multiple clips from a movie with a political speech, meme participants can get something posted literally within minutes, shaping the response to a debate even before it has finished.

This might produce some anxiety about critical distance or a fear that we may be relying too much on snap judgements about who “won” a debate. But I would argue that these fleeting political comments actually open up the debates to greater scrutiny than ever before. And the “Romney binder” meme has, in fact, opened up Romney’s record for hiring women, and it turns out that his record isn’t that great. It’s difficult to predict whether a political meme will endure. Eastwooding seems to have faded relatively quickly even though it was able–briefly at least–to integrate itself with older, more established memes. Still, as a moment of crystallizing a political truth, these populist forms offer a fascinating, lightning-quick mode of expression.

Update: Tama Leaver gave a talk at this year’s Internet Research Conference that mentions this post–talk about up-to-the-minute research–and makes a useful distinction between “trolling,” which he defines as disruption for the sake of disruption, and “image macro politics,” which can work as a form of online activism or engagement. But even as I review Tama’s presentation, I find myself wondering whether “meme election” might be better, especially given elements such as the Paul Ryan Gosling Twitter account, which borrows heavily from the logic of “remix politics” but also makes only limited use of images or image macros.

 

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Knuckleball

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary Knuckleball introduces us to the tiny fraternity of major league baseball players who have made a career out of throwing the sport’s most confounding pitch. Unlike the guys who can throw blazing fastballs or curve balls that seem to drop off a table, knuckleball pitchers seem to defy all of the metrics–especially pitch speed–that we use to evaluate major legue talent. In fact, throwing a knuckleball, which involves releasing a pitch so that it has absolutely no spin, requires an astounding level of trust in factors that these pitchers cannot control, especially the wind currents that carry the slowly floating pitch in utterly unpredictable directions, leaving many of the pitchers to talk about their skills in terms that seem to have a Zen-like embrace of “letting go” of the pitch as it enters the world. This discussion of how the pitch works is fascinating by itself, but what fascinated me the most was how Stern and Sundberg were able to provide such a rich understanding of this tiny group of men, linked together across history and even across rivalries, because of a pitching talent that defies almost everything conventionally associated with major league pitching.

Knuckleball is structured around the 2011 seasons of two knuckleballers, Tim Wakefield, who was reaching the end of his long career, and R.A. Dickey, a former hard-throwing phenom who was reviving his career after discovering the knuckler during his 30s. Both men, along with Jim Bouton, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, and Wilber Wood, discuss the mechanics of throwing the pitch, but what comes across throughout the film is the uncertainty that both men face. Instead of the typical locker room jocularity, both Wakefield and Dickey are presented as contemplative family men, reflective about their unique status in baseball and the difficulty of playing a sport where their talents are often misunderstood and mistrusted. Wakefield acknowledges that even the most trusting managers and pitching coaches are quicker to give up on a knuckleballer after a few bad starts, but he is hanging on, hopefully just long enough to earn his 200th major league win.

Dickey’s story serves as a reminder that the knuckleball is often seen as a pitch of last resort–the pitch that minor leaguers will pick up when their talents have failed them and there seem to be no remaining options. In Dickey’s case, a deformity in his pitching arm scared off scouts who’d previously offered him a six-figure bonus after he led his University of Tennessee baseball team to the College World Series. Wakefield has a similar story. When he started his career, he’d been projected as a power-hitting first baseman but found that he couldn’t adjust to professional pitchers and, almost by chance, had a pitching coach notice his ability to throw a knuckler. Just a couple of years later, he was in the major leagues with the Pirates, nearly leading the team to the World Series. But like the floating, darting pitch, within two years, Wakefield was on a different path, released by the Pirates and picked up as a gamble by the Red Sox, where he would play for nearly to decades. Even Hall of Famer Phil Niekro suggests that he picked up the pitch only because he could never have thrown a big league fastball.

Because of this outsider status–a pitch based upon unpredictability and less dependent on traditional metrics–Dickey and Wakefield seem most comfortable with their small fraternity of knuckleballers, and Stern and Sundberg capture some fascinating and fun moments when most of the living knuckleballers get together and talk about their experiences. In other scenes, Dickey is shown seeking counsel from Wilbur Wood while visiting Los Angeles rather than discussing the pitch with his pitching coach. In addition, the film spends quite a bit of time looking at Dickey and Wakefield’s lives outside of baseball–their interactions with their wives and children, even on the road–reminding us that their successes depend in part on the families that supported and encouraged them–even when that meant living on $800 a month and moving dozens of times to minor league teams all over the U.S. If the knuckleballer is a solitary figure in the locker room, he is also a family man, older than most of his teammates.

The film culminates with Wakefield paying tribute to the others in his small fraternity, one that forever seems to be on the verge of extinction, given the small number of players that throw it. At the same time, Dickey’s success–he has blossomed into an ace pitcher since the film was produced–holds out promise that this small Zen-like fraternity will endure as yet another player seeks out another backdoor path into the major leagues.

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Looper

More than any film in recent memory, Rian Johnson’s future-noir time-travel film, Looper, has stuck with me long after its final credits rolled, in part because of its dramatic final sequence, one that genuinely shocked me (and which I’ll only discuss in detail below the fold to avoid spoiling it for others). But as Roger Ebert notes, the final scene displays a scriptwriting ingenuity that shows that Johnson has thought carefully and creatively not only about the paradoxes and logical problems of time travel but also about our psychological fascinations with it, about the desires and regrets that come into play when we entertain the possibility of confronting an older–or younger–version of ourselves. Add on Johnson’s rich appreciation of film history and genres and the movie’s subtle political sensibilities, and the result is a fascinating and compelling film that I plan to revisit soon.

Johnson has devised a relatively original time-travel premise: in the year 2044, young Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper,” a hired gun paid by a futuristic organized crime syndicate to murder people sent back in time from the year 2074 and to dispose of the bodies. Strapped to the back of all of the victims is the payment for their services: a set of silver bars (Judas’s 40 pieces of silver come to mind) that are, in turn, converted back into cash by Abe (Jeff Daniels) who has traveled from the future to direct his team of loopers. Eventually, when a looper shoots a victim and discovers that he has gold strapped to his back, he realizes that he has shot the older version of himself and that his contract as a looper has been completed. The victims typically arrive wearing handcuffs, hoods and in some cases orange vests, which as the Film Doctor points out, causes the victims to resemble detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.  These discoveries lead many of the loopers to experience varying degrees of dread and shock as they discover that they have essentially witnessed their own (future) death. The twist in young Joe’s case is that when old Joe (Bruce Willis) arrives, he isn’t wearing the hood and young Joe recognizes himself, hesitates, and eventually is unable to pull the trigger, allowing him to confront the older man he becomes.

This drama is set against a futuristic world that is quite obviously commenting on our own. Like many futuristic noir films (Blade Runner, Strange Days), the problems of the future can be seen as having roots in the present. Cities are industrial wastelands in which the young a wealthy loopers luxuriate in the excesses of their wealth, partying at a strip club and driving expensive cars while others are left to dystopian city streets or to survive off the land like Sarah and her son. It’s as if we are hurtling back into a world in which basic survival appears to be our only option At the same time, the film seems to revel in its cinematic allusions–cream swirling into a cup of coffee recalls Godard; a beleaguered and battered Bruce Willis evokes his performance in Twelve Monkeys, another film that reminds us that time travel–and the possible confrontation with our past selves–would likely be the source of profound trauma; and of course, North by Northwest, with its magnificent, if somewhat wilted and dying cornfields. But there’s also a heavy does of the western, especially The Searchers. These references and the overall world of the film help to set up that Johnson has more on his mind than action formula. Instead we get a film that engages with some pretty profound ideas through the psychology of the time-travel confrontation [note: spoilers may follow].

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Are We “Bored” with 3D

Somehow I lost track of the fact that my interview with Craig Lindsey about “3D Boredom” was published in Raleigh’s Indy Weekly. I think Craig asked some really good questions and did an excellent job of paring down a thirty-minute conversation into a good discussion of the issues. I still find myself going back to one or two basic observations about the place of 3D in the entertainment economy:

First, I still see it playing a key role in driving the transition to digital projection in theaters, both in the United States and especially abroad. That’s going to continue for a while, especially as the number of 3D screens in China increases dramatically over the next decade or so.

Second, in terms of consumer interest, I think we’ve reached the stage where consumers and studios alike will be making cost-benefit analyses to determine if the 3D will be worthwhile. For consumers, in particular, they are beginning to ask if the extra $3-4 per ticket worth it. The answer, I’d argue is far more complicated than simply an aesthetic appreciation of 3D or a decision about whether a film “needs” 3D (although those are factors).

In general, though, I’ll say that the conversation with Craig was a fun, engaging, and productive one, and I hope you enjoy his synthesis of it.

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