Indie Film Bloggers Revisited

Quick note: I’ve kept this post up in something close to its original form, but as I began writing and reviewing the post, I found myself growing increasingly ambivalent about it.  I think that writing about a film in which I’m a participant has led me to confront a couple of thorny problems in terms of thinking about how I talk about film here. I’ve considered deleting the post (and I still might), but I’m leaving it up for now precisely because I think it might introduce some useful questions about film blogging.

Like several other film bloggers (and a small number of others), I attended the world premiere of Sujewa Ekanayake’s documentary, Indie Film Bloggers Road Trip (IFBRT). Sujewa invited me up, and not wnting to pass up an oportunity to visit New York, I took him up on the offer.  The opportunity to catch up with some friends and family and to check out the Anthology Film Archives–where the screening was held–were also nice bonuses (please note: because of my own second thoughts, I’ve revised these comments to some extent–sometimes I shouldn’t hit the publish button so quickly).

So it’s somewhat disheartening to have to express some disappointment in IFBRT.  In my original “reaction” to being in the film, I tried to keep my criticisms somewhat muted, simply because I wanted to provide the film with the opportunity to stand on its own merits without its reception being overly shaped by one of the participants.  I did say at the time that I would have made the film much differently while acknowledging that there is a useful story to be told about the history of film blogging (and here I’m in some disagreement with a couple of other people who reviewed the film).  Unfortunately, I don’t think that Sujewa’s film tells those stories effectively enough or frames them in a way that might be compelling for non-bloggers, something that I think may explain some of the stong negative reactions to the film.

A number of film bloggers may have seen Christopher Campbell and Michael Tully’s harsh reviews of the film, and I have to admit that I think their reviews are relatively fair (although I’ve begun rethinking this point a little: see below).  Tully’s is couched in a series of disclaimers that illustrate the occasional problems caused by the insularity of the film blogging community in its current form: Sujewa invited him to be in the documentary and Tully declined.  It’s hard to know what the protocols are for writing about films made by people in your circle.  It’s even harder when you prefer to write only about films that “get you excited in a positive way,” as Tully puts it.

Still, at the risk of piling on, I’m going to be a little more direct in saying that IFBRT lacks a clear narrative arc.  It’s not fully evident what Sujewa’s thesis about blogging might be or why he chose us for his film (and not ten other bloggers).  Many of the segments last too long, and subjects are sometimes introduced awkwardly, and I think Tully is correct to point to some of the problems with the framing–I didn’t notice Brandon Harris’s dirty socks, like he did–and the lack of camera movement.  Again, I think there are some relevant narratives in the film.  Gabe Wardell and Anthony Kaufman raise some important points about the fact that bloggers don’t have editors and how that might affect the quality of writing and reviews.  Melissa Silverstein and Noralil Ryan Fores discuss the gender disparities in the blogosphere (and in the director’s chairs of big budget Hollywood productions). But these ideas are not tied together in a fully coherent way.

I’ve struggled with writing these comments for a while (as my multiple updates suggest).  Because I recognize that a negative review or even negative word-of-mouth on a low-budget (or no-budget) film can likely do a lot more harm than a similarly critical review of a mainstream film, I had originally decided to refrain from being too critical.  But like Tully, I think it’s important to identify a film’s gaps and flaws, as well as its sterngths, when we see them. That being said, after I published this post the first time, I fin myself being self-critical and recognizing that while the film needs work, it’s also worth fostering some of the conversations that Sujewa sought to bring up by making this film.

Update: All of that being said, I think it is worth pointing out that I think the project of making sense of the current moment in film blogging practice is worthwhile.  Given the massive changes in the film journalism ecosystem over the last few years, conversations about how films will be reviewed, how bloggers interact, and how blogs may exclude some participants are worth having.  The film gestures toward those conversations but never quite addresses them in an accessible way.

Update 2: After a private conversation with a friend, I want to re-reconsider some of these comments.  I still think the film needs work, and my understanding is that Sujewa is working on a stronger cut of the film (one that would address their complaints about the music, for example).  As this person pointed out, the reviews, Campbell’s in particular, suggest that the writers found the film’s topic uninteresting, and that’s not a valid reason by itself for criticizing the film.  But as I review (and re-review) my own comments, they sound wrongly, unnecessarily harsh, and I think that grows out of not really knowing what would be an appropriate approach to the film.  I think that some of my comments about IFBRT may, in fact, be masking some form of self-critique about how blog reviews function, especially within a relatively narrow circle of readers and writers.

Update 2.5: Sujewa has responded to many of Campbell’s complaints in a blog post of his own and raises a number of valid points about the goals of the film.  I’ll conclude by saying that while I think there are some stylistic problems, I probably overreacted in my original version of this post.

8 Comments »

  1. The Chutry Experiment » Indie Film Blogger Road Trip Said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

    [...] I’ve written some further reflections on IFBRT after seeing the film a second time at its world premiere at the Anthology Film Archives [...]

  2. tully Said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 12:36 am

    Chuck, there is a level-headed nobility to your writing on this subject that is truly commendable. I have been called out by a few others as well and I thought I should clarify that I do, in fact, think an at least *somewhat* relevant, engaging, and stimulating documentary could be made about this subject. IFBRT has flecks of insight–coming from the minds and mouths of the interviewees themselves (yourself included)–that made me think, “Now we’re getting somewhere!” But they weren’t ever pursued by Ekanayake, to the point where the most casual observer couldn’t help but wonder, “Why is this person making this movie?” At that point, the film’s topic has nothing to do with it, it really doesn’t. I feel bad enough about my dismantling of Ekanayake’s effort already, so I won’t keep peeing on a drowned mouse.

    One last thing: don’t feel bad about being honest. You’re in a very tough spot. I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just humbly suggesting that the healthiest thing for you to do at this stage is to try to put the subject to bed. I don’t know you, but I can glean from your words here that you’re a decent, thoughtful person. Free your mind, Chuck, you deserve it!

  3. Chuck Said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 6:32 am

    Yeah, I wrote the review after spending several hours on planes, trains, or in cars, so I think I was a bit tired. Once I revisited some of my conflicted feelings about what I’d originally written, I think I also became interested in the multiple positions I occupy here as a blogger: reviewer, academic, friend, etc. Add to that being a subject of the film and I began feeling like I was in a hall of mirrors.

    A night of sleep has given me plenty of distance on it. So I’m pretty much done with the subject other than responding to whatever comments show up.

  4. Darren Said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 9:33 am

    Chuck, this post sounds like the comments I imagine you leaving on the last page of C paper in a freshman comp class — encouraging of the few good but undeveloped ideas in the essay; critical of the author’s use of primary sources and his poorly organized argument. As in the classroom, you are an expert opinion here, both in terms of content and form, and, so, you shouldn’t have any qualms about expressing your honest misgivings. If you can do it in a way that is encouraging and instructive to the filmmaker, so much the better.

    I guess my metaphor breaks down a bit, though, when we consider that this “essay” wasn’t written for a freshman classroom but for Anthology Film Archives, a professional venue. If the film isn’t good, then critics have to say so.

  5. Chuck Said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    Funny, at some point I found myself thinking about some of these comments in a similar way. As I mentioned in the comments, the version we saw was a rough cut, so I think the final version could be quite a bit stronger.

    On his blog, Sujewa makes a reasonable case for why he made some of the narrative and framing choices that he did. I won’t replicate that argument here, but his comments do suggest a much more deliberate approach than the other reviews allow.

  6. The Chutry Experiment » Second (or maybe third) Thoughts Said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    [...] in the process of putting together some thoughts about the recent dust-up over the relationship between film blogs and the DIY film community that grew out of the reviews of [...]

  7. dave Said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    All this drama made me curious, so I went to the IFBRT website and watched the first part of the film. It’s pretty dreadful. Reading through the filmmaker’s blog, I can see how his attitude/ego would tempt some to go after the film critically rather than just dismiss it as an amateur’s endeavor. I have no dog in this fight, so i’ll leave it alone. One thing I will say is this: I have many academic friends who will not appear in documentaries because they are afraid of being taken out of context, used to further someone else’s argument or idea, or simply placed in something that ends up looking like a student film (and unfairly, reduces their credibility as a professional). On more than one occasion i’ve shared a bottle of wine with someone who, head in hands, regrets the day they let that scrappy filmmaker into their office to frame them up against a wall of books and wax on importantly about some issue in their field.

  8. Chuck Said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

    I’m not going to talk about my specific case with IFBRT, but I’ve certainly seen documentaries where I cringed on another academic’s behalf because they seemed to be depicted out of context. It’s not a perfect example, but I’m thinking, in part, of the science scholars who appeared in Expelled and were depicted in unflattering ways. There have been some excellent documentaries that have used media historians and scholars rather effectively. IIRC, Kirby Dick interviewed a couple of film scholars in This Film is Not Yet Rated to good effect.

    I think it’s a matter of choosing the public venues wisely, and I’m not sure that I’ve always done that. I would hope that most audience members, especially other scholars, would have the critical skills to understand that participating in a film doesn’t always imply any kind of endorsement. But yeah, it’s probably wise to be a little more cautious about these things.

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