Thursday, December 18, 2014

Helpful Collection of Media Industries Articles

The Media Industries Project at the Carsey-Wolf Center maintains a very helpful database of academic work related to media industry studies. When floundering, go here and read something!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nichols and May on the Quiz Show Scandal

This excerpt is from The Fabulous Fifties, a true "spectacular" from CBS in 1960. Hosted by Peter Fonda, it featured a variety of established stars, films by Ray and Charles Eames, and sequences with new up and coming comedians Mike Nichols and Elaine May. In this one, which is the sort of improvised dialogue they were becoming famous for, the two discuss the TV quiz show scandal.

Moral issues, still beat real issues.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Tough, But Fair: A Message to My TV Criticism Students

Here's a conversation you might want to have with yourself:
Did I remember to italicize the title of the TV show I wrote about in my column?
If yes: Of course, that's what I was told before and it is an easy rule to follow (or look up if I am unsure). I'm going to get on with my weekend!
If not: Why is it I cannot remember to do this?
What impact will this have on my grade?
What does this potentially signal about my future, that I can't take care of this small thing, the neglect of which seriously undermines my writing?
What can I do to remember to italicize the titles of TV shows next time?
I don't know. But I hope I can remember.
Something to think about.
Have a good weekend!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

If Game of Thrones "The Mountain and the Viper" was Pee Wee's Big Adventure

I finally caught up with this week's Game of Throne's episode, "The Mountain and the Viper" last night. I more or less woke up thinking about the final scene. But then I began thinking about the similarities the whole episode shared with one of my favorite films from the 1980s, Pee Wee's Big Adventure. It made it all a little less traumatic.

The similarities grow as it goes along, starting with the blooming but must be doomed romance between Grey Worm and Missandei. Grey Worm is bathing and thinking thoughts you didn't think unsullied thought. He watches Missandei and she notices and covers herself but not after standing up to give him a full view. Dany and Missandei talk about those thoughts everyone thought unsullied didn't think, but Missandei says no I'm pretty sure he was thinking what you're thinking.

Then Missandei and Grey Worm share a moment. It's clear these two have the hots for each other. Everyone can see it. But Grey Worm isn't just unsullied. He's a loner-- a rebel.

Meanwhile, Ramsey Bolton uses Theon to convince Moat Cailin to surrender (and get flayed). Will this be the trick that finally gets this particular bastard his dad's approval?

Dad asks him...


He says Ramsey Stone, but dad says, "Ramsey Bolton!" It is a tender moment.


Back in the Vale, Little Finger is getting questioned about the mysterious decision of his new wife to jump out the moon door. He's like, "I loved her but she was mixed up," and they are like yeah whatever let's see what Sansa says.


Then Sansa shows up and says she's going to tell everything and Little Finger is worried but then Sansa backs up his story and he's like YES!


Also, Sansa now has cleavage.

Nearby, sister Arya arrives in the custody of the Hound who has brought her to get a ransom from her Aunt Lysa Arryn. But then he finds out he came all this way for nothing--Aunt Lysa is dead!

There's no basement at the Alamo!


 Arya laughs, and the Hound is more like "Doh!"


Finally, it's time for the event we've been waiting for all: Oberyn vs. the Mountain. Oberyn is drinking and dressed light. The Mountain is the Mountain. But Oberyn says he's not going to die today, he just has a gymnastic routine that doesn't allow for wearing armor.

For a while, he spins around while the Mountain chases him around the ring.

Oberyn makes it clear he is out to avenge the death of his sister and for a while the fight is really going his way.

But then Oberyn's mouth gets him in trouble. The Mountain grabs him and with a gentle squeeze...

He makes Oberyn's head look something like this:

Tywin Lannister jumps to his feet and gloats, pronouncing the verdict of the trial by combat. Finally, he gets to execute his son!

The end.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My Column on Portlandia as Slacker Therapy

I wrote about Portlandia for the Baffler Blog. I'm a fan of the show, and I think it's interesting to think about how it satirizes its own audience, to some extent. It's a short piece, but here's a quick excerpt anyway:

In the late 1980s, ABC’s Thirtysomething turned Yuppie Baby-Boomers’ struggles with marriage and parenting, and their hand-wringing over how they’d compromised their 1960s ideals, into primetime melodrama. Portlandia, which airs its season finale tonight, is the Gen-X analogue, gently satirizing the cultural pretensions and political preoccupations of its audience throughout its four-season (and Peabody award-winning) run. This “slackersomething” satire is therapeutic to its audience at home; it works less to directly criticize or promote change than to help the audience “work through” what they’ve become.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Watching a Movie - Elite Eight Playoffs Edition

This week in my introduction to film studies course (COMM 1305 Film & Culture), I switched things up at the last minute and had my students conduct a playoff to determine the best way of watching a movie. The idea was to get them talking about how they like to watch movies and the advantages of different devices. The students (about 50) are not film majors, and only a few I would characterize as hardcore film fans. About 90% of them are 18-19 years old, with a few under the mark and a few over the mark.

I came up with this playoff bracket literally about 15 minutes before the start of class. The idea was that they would talk for a couple of minutes with their neighbors about the pros and cons of each pairing, then we would vote and discuss as a class. They loved this, and it was definitely successful at getting the students to talk about the different ways they watch movies and what they value in different ways of watching movies.

Here's a screen grab of the bracket I put together:

The big takeaway for me was that the students very, very much valued the traditional going-to-the-theatre way of watching movies much more than I anticipated. Even better, the kind of "movie watching" that probably elicited the most dramatic response was...wait for it...DRIVE-IN MOVIES. This blew me away. About half of the class had gone to the drive-in, and the other half expressed jealousy at not having the opportunity.

Game #1: At the theatre vs. on TV "live": this conversation got the basic dichotomy of movie watching out: the community, public "doing something" vs. the comfort and choice of personal viewing. Going to the theatre was the overwhelming favorite, with only 3-5 saying they preferred watching on TV live. By that I meant watching whatever movie might be on without the ability to fast-forward through commercials, etc.

Game #2: DVD vs. DVR. DVD was the big winner, with students saying they like the choice of being able to choose different versions and watch special features, but also the idea that this was portable: they could bring the DVDs to a friend's house, etc. Also, about 75% of the class said they still bought DVDs. I told them this would make the movie companies very happy.

Game #3: Phone vs. Tablet. Most of the class was outraged that anyone would choose phone over tablet, though there were a couple of passionate evangelists for the intimacy of watching a movie on a phone...that is, holding it close in bed, or surreptitiously when they should be doing something else. Only one person pointed out the greater ability to stream through the phone when not on Wifi. Tablet won, but pretty soon lost.

Game #4: Laptop vs. Desktop. I knew laptop would win but I needed eight "teams." This wasn't even a contest worth talking much about. Maybe "drive-in" ought to go here?

Game #5: Theatre vs. DVD: Theatre won. Knowing that they had laptop to cover personal screenings, there weren't too many siding with DVD. More and more they emphasized the quality of the "cinematic experience" of the theatre, referring to the better image and sound--what I would call it's more immersive qualities--in addition to the public components.

Game #6: Laptop vs. Tablet. The consensus was that the tablet was a luxury, and far less desirable than a laptop. With a laptop, you could multitask more easily. In both cases you could watch with friends, but viewing in general was more cumbersome than on a laptop. Also, you could download movies with a laptop--but this really came up at the very end when it came down to...

Game #7: Theatre vs. Laptop. By this point, it was obvious that we were talking about two very different kinds of movie-watching experiences (and class time was almost up!). The class was split, even when I said if they had to choose only one of these ways for the rest of their lives.

Bottom line, students love the activity of going to the movies more than watching a particular movie. They spoke highly about how going to the theatre could really be a great experience, but also how if it was dirty and lousy, it wasn't worthwhile. They want experiences, and it was clear to me they would keep paying to go to the theatre (or the drive-in!) rather than just stay at home.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Dying a Dot-Com Death in 2001

From the comfort of 2014, I sat on my bed watching the live stream of Coachella 2014. Nostalgic, I searched my Mac for the entry I wrote for my blog (we called them "webzines" then) on Coachella 2001. The big draw that year had been Jane's Addiction. A lot has changed.

Instead of finding that chronicle of the early days of Coachella, I found the essay I wrote when I was laid off from my dot-com job the following week. I'm posting it here, because I thought it was lost forever. I had decided at the time not to post it on my webzine. But there's a heckuva lot of water under the bridge since then--like, all of my 30s.

I give you, from the early months of the George W. Bush administration...

The Day I Lost My Dot-Com Job

They say the first sign you’re going to lose your job is your ass is sitting in an Aeron chair. Mine’s been lounging in one since last June, and indeed, it’s been a long, slow, sometimes painful death. It all came to an end in the early workday hours of Friday, May 4.

Somehow, despite all the signs and the knowledge that anyone at any dot-com could go at any moment, it still seemed a shock. Maybe because we stopped referring to ourselves as a dot-com a while back. (Too many negative connotations for VC--venture capitalists, not Viet Cong.) We had weathered the storm for a while, and it seemed our benefactors were committed to the company.

Still, a day or two before the ax fell, a coworker (also axed) was discussing the general climate, and the fact that you’d have to be seriously out of it not to see things couldn’t last much longer. Our head of production had set a goal of around 6000 registered users. Instead, we had maybe seven. That’s a single digit, my friend, not thousands.

The chain of events went something like this:

Around 9:15 I saw the head of production in my boss’s office with the door shut. I do not think that I have ever seen the head of production talking in my boss’s office. I do not think I have ever seen the head of production talking to my boss, period. This was clearly not a good sign.

I returned to my desk and logged in to my Outlook email box. A message from the CEO sent to everyone read: there is a staff meeting at 1 pm. Please plan to be there. We have not had a staff meeting in a month or so, and those are usually on Tuesdays. I remarked to a coworker nearby about this. Could be “the” meeting I said. Shit, I don’t want to be fired today, she said.

And she wasn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. After this remark to my coworker, I returned to my office and sat down. I don’t believe more than two minutes passed before my boss stuck her head in the office and asked my officemate and I to come speak to her.

Okay. We’re getting some sort of warning, I thought. The situation doesn’t look too good. We ought to start looking for other options in case our portion of the site was closed. I brought my coffee. I would be relaxed, despite what was definitely going to be some serious discussion. And besides, I had just poured the dang thing.

So we sat down, and I sipped some coffee. My boss was looking mighty somber. But before she could say anything, or there was any uncomfortable silence while we waited for her to say something, the CEO flew  into the office, sweeping the door shut behind and pulling up a chair.

I know that there’s been some rumors going around recently about lay-offs, she said. Have you heard these rumors?

No, I said. More of a general feeling that things were not going well.

Okay, well, unfortunately, there are going to be lay-offs, and you two will be some of the ones let go.

And that was that. This discussion went on a while about not being any reflection on our personal performances, etc. She explained our severance package, and then I signed something saying I would not disclose any trade secrets or proprietary information, and that:

“In accordance with normal ethical and professional standards, you agree to refrain from taking actions or making statements, written or oral, which disparage, defame or negatively reflect on the goodwill or reputation of the Company, its directors, officers, executives and employees, or which could adversely affect the morale of employees.”

My favorite part of that is the capital “C” for “the Company.” Hey all you Christians out there, when Jesus kicked out that one disciple, did he force him to sign something that said he would not say anything that would “negatively reflect on the goodwill or reputation of God”? Maybe that’s where this gem of legalese came from…

I have no intentions of defaming the company. I am fairly certain that our funder’s stormtroopers of death would swoop down on me if I dared disparage the big “C.” And I think they’re all decent people. They mean well.

The company is actually doing a pretty good job of handling this, giving us another week of “work” which we aren’t really expected to show up for, and an additional two weeks of severance pay. Thing is, that three weeks puts me one week away from my one year anniversary, at which I would be entitled to my 10% bonus, that everyone within the company has pretty much received just for lasting that long. And I would receive a third of my vested stock options (HA!) in case this company ever amounted to anything. Which it won’t.

And then, immediately after being fired, before the CEO got up, we were told that there might be some contract work coming in that we would be needed for. So we could be fired, then re-hired to come right back here and work, sans benefits or bonuses. Doesn’t that sound great! That would be a little weird, don’t you think, I asked. You don’t have to accept the contract work, I was told.

Funny thing is, this mirrors the situation when I was hired. I was offered my job a mere minute or two before I was assigned to jury duty. When the company found out I might have to serve on a jury, they began to have second thoughts: maybe we don’t want you, maybe we do want you, maybe we don’t want you. It was all very unprofessional, and typical of a start-up without any human resources liason. Again this was happening, and it wasn’t the fault of conniving, mean-spirited administration, just benign incompetence.

The sort of benign incompetence that works very hard to keep employees on in any way possible, but doesn’t do the fundamental things to make the company a success. Things like having a workable business model; okay, there are not many of those floating around for web sites like ours. But how about our “Field of Dreams” marketing approach? It goes like this, spend all your money on expanding the company and developing your site, but NONE on advertising. You don’t need any. If you build it, they will come. Oh, why don’t they come?

To be fair, we did spend a bit on advertising, but that was only because we committed to it long, long ago. Our advertising ran at the end of last summer, and it was brilliant: we took out a full page ad that utilized a royalty-free photo, the sort anyone can buy generically rather than shooting themselves. Guess what? Someone else bought it (one of our “competitors”) and ran it in an ad (in the very same magazine). Nevermind that no parent (no one period) I know reads family computer magazines like the one our ad ran in.

But back to my day. I decided it might be fun to hang around, despite the fact that I was told I could leave. I was interested to attend that staff meeting. Unfortunately, I stepped out for some air with a fellow laid-off person, and came back to find everyone in a bumped-ahead meeting. Maybe they were waiting for us to leave the building, I don’t know. I stuck around, whittled down my MP3s, and ate another free lunch. Portabello mushroom sandwich. Those free lunches probably kept me from quitting of my own accord long ago. The day before we were canned, the company spent almost $500 on sodas. (Your friends are gone, but think about all the free Mountain Dew!) Smart folks, in some ways.

I finally headed home, but not before the CEO popped in my office letting me know she was close to landing a contract deal for more editorial work. She is really trying hard! I do not think she wants to fire me! But this is not working! Not any of it! I really have to leave; I cannot hang out any longer waiting for the “good” news. I go home, and my boss calls me frantically. She wants me to get excited about this potential contract work. She doesn’t want to fire me either. She is genuinely upset about all this. But it is no use. I am not interested in treading water with this company any more. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s been real, and it’s been fun, but—

The last month or so I had thought about the final statement I would make when my time was up with the company. An email message sent out to the entire staff with Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It,” perhaps. But, no, I think I won’t do that. Instead, I will leave with the words of another great redneck, Davy Crockett. It was Davy who once said:


And maybe I’ll die there like Davy. But that beats a slow drowning in a Century City office building. See ya.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Comedy Histories: Beat it, Kid!

I'm always on the lookout for satiric pop culture from the past. A couple of weeks ago, I picked up this comedy photo book at an estate sale. It consists entirely of photos from early in the 1968 presidential election, paired with satiric dialogue balloons. It's a simple book, cheaply assembled, but it was made by an impressive editorial line up: compiled by Harvey Kurtzman, with the help of Chuck Alverson, Lynn Ashby, Burt Bernstein, Dick Gibbons, Larry Siegel, and Gloria Steinem. Yes, that Gloria Steinem.

In 1968, I was still five years away from being born. Looking through this book, it is really striking to think about what would occur that year, especially the assassinations of RFK and MLK. Judging by the satiric content of this book, it's obvious such events were incomprehensible then as well.

A couple of things become clear about the editorial staff's attitudes toward the various Democrats and Republicans as you read through the photos. 1. They thought Bobby Kennedy was going to win. Unfortunately, one reason we know this is because there are several photo/jokes made about LBJ wanting to shoot him. So, this is also a book that ultimately ended up being in much worse taste than it ever intended. In fact, I'm sure the publisher quickly destroyed what hadn't already been sold.

2. They thought Richard Nixon was a joke. 

Ah, well. History. You can find a whole lot more of these photos on my comedyhistories tumblr here.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Emily Nussbaum on Bunker and 'Bad Fans'

Here's an excellent piece for reading (and class use) by Emily Nussbaum on All in the Family and the politics of TV characters.

"But television’s original bad-fan crisis did not, as it happens, concern a criminal bad boy, or even take place on a drama. It involved Norman Lear’s right-wing icon, Archie Bunker, the loudmouthed buffoon who became one of TV’s most resonant and beloved television characters."

Monday, March 24, 2014

How do we make the past visible?

Thoughts on media historiography generated by making a documentary and attending some great conference panels:

Visualizing the media archive and historiography...There will always be logistical roadblocks to accessing artifacts (images, documents, film, video)—but what do we do once we get them? From newly indexed collections in brick and mortar archives, to “official” digital sources like the Media History Library, to so many Tumblr streams, there is an expanding universe of historical artifacts that we can access. What do we do with those artifacts once we copy, photograph, or download them? What are different ways of organizing those artifacts, not just to manage them, but “see them” in ways that stimulate the making of connections? How do we publicly (or not so publicly?) share them to see them in different ways? How, then, do we make the past visible in the scholarly products we produce? Let's avoid the also-always-present institutional and legal hurdles, to consider possibilities for making the archive publicly visible. What models (from online interactive projects to long-form documentaries) should we embrace in a world where we can do much more than publish an article with the single best photo we think helps us “see the past”?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Sick of Superbowl Ads Already?

I know I'm definitely sick of those teasers with Arnold as Bjorn Borg (or is it Luke Wilson in the Royal Tenenbaums?).

Here's a good column from Ian Crouch at The New Yorker on the logic of debuting Superbowl ads before the Superbowl. While this practices is helpful in my Advertising Criticism class, I agree it undermines the pleasures of TV's liveness, the annual summit of which is the Superbowl.

"It remains one of American culture’s great live events, and there is something cheering in the idea of being confined in a moment with millions of other viewers. As more companies circumvent the constraints of time with built-up preview campaigns and the early release of full ads, there is something to be said, from a viewing perspective, and, perhaps, even from a business one, for those that continue to value the dramatic possibilities of surprise."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Friday, January 17, 2014

Thoughts on Oscar Docs: The Act of Killing and Dirty Wars

The Act of Killing is an extraordinary film, and it’s even better when paired with fellow Oscar-nominated doc, Dirty Wars. (Links to the Oscar Docs here.) While the second film is a more typical doc in form and content, the two resonate powerfully. Though only one explicitly deals with the US-lead war on terror, both are about the stories we tell ourselves about what happens, how it happens, who does it, and why.

The Act of Killing bears Errol Morris’ and Werner Herzog’s names as executive producers, and I have no idea what direct roles they played in this film’s production, but it is obviously influenced by those filmmakers. The film takes reenactment to an entire new level, along the lines suggested by Herzog’s work even more than Morris’s. One of my favorite docs is Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which Herzog made and later adapted into the feature film Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale. In that doc, Herzog has Dieter Dengler reenact what it was like to be run through the jungle at the wrong end of an AK-47 after being shot down in Vietnam (things got worse from there). At one point, Dieter says something along the lines of “Okay, this is getting a little weird now.” I’m paraphrasing, but in that film you see how reenacting while incorporating the actual subjects into the dramatization isn’t just about making the past visible. It can be a transformative act for the subject, producing something new.

The Act of Killing is a large scale project of such reenactment, but it turns things on their head by having the perpetrators of violence doing the re-enacting. I apologize for the “head” comment, but there’s a lot of bad things going on with heads in this film. The key subject of the film, Anwar Congo, perpetrated many of those things in the sixties by garroting supposed “communists” in Indonesia (he only killed 1000, we are told again and again). But the movie is about how this reenacting, which he seems to think may exorcise what emerging reservations he has about those acts, ultimately puts him in the places (and heads) of those victims.

The filmmaker isn’t visible but we do hear his voice, and Anwar and others talk to him and discuss their decisions about representing themselves and what and how things happened. The Act of Killing is has an incredible premise. But what is extraordinary is how Anwar is slowly revealed to be coming apart, contrasted with how the many people around him seem to be what keeps him together and keeps him from reflecting or taking responsibility for his actions. One is left with the clear sense that it is important for the public at large that Anwar not have regrets.

Which gets us to the larger story the film tells, as if it needed to. The filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, does quite a balancing act when it comes to his film being about something that happened in Indonesia, and how it is made sense of in Indonesia, and the bigger story about the west and what role the US had in supporting the military regime that commissioned these killings. This is a story about governments that commission paramilitary groups, who commission gangsters, to do their dirty work. That callousness with which that work was done pales when seen in comparison with the revelation that it is still today (from what we see at least) still seen as justified and necessary. The paramilitary Pancasila Youth (who played the key intermediary role between the military government and the gangsters) are ever present in the film in striking black and orange uniforms. I found this had an odd effect of constantly marking them as exotic or other.

What goes unsaid is the extent to which their acts in the sixties were another proxy US/Soviet war. I actually was glad that that angle wasn’t pressed. The politics of this film are observational, even if its mode is more participatory and performative. As I said to start, this is a film that obviously resonates with activities going on all over the world. The Act of Killing examines what has happened in the past, and how those acts are processed by the people committing them. Those killings were committed up-close, and ultimately at least one of the killers can’t escape the space of those killings.

The officially sanctioned killing in Dirty Wars is supposed to be much more sanitized, committed surgically by drone or elite strike force. (Recent stories about drone pilots with PTSD would suggest otherwise.) The film is a more typical documentary approach, following Jeremy Scahill, a heroic journalist (I don’t mean that to be insulting, but that’s very much the mode—a brooding, eyes-cast-down turn on 60 minutes. Check out the poster. Uhg.) Cahill attempts to report the story on the ground of the effects of US drone strikes and attacks on terrorists and insurgents vs. the official versions and attempts to suppress such reports. Dirty Wars is, essentially, the updated report on how “acts of killing” of are now committed in the name of the war on terror. Appropriately, it focuses more on reportage, but the similarities between the mechanics of killing in both films are right on the surface. That is, war lords in Somalia play the same role as the gangsters and paramilitary in Indonesia. US policy is central. This isn’t someone else’s bad behavior.

The ideology that enabled the killing in 1960s Indonesia and continues to justify and obscure it today is central to the individual story told by and told of Anwar Congo. In a week when my university is celebrating officially being designated a center for “unmanned flight” research, this documentary is necessary context. There’s a line in Dirty Wars where a source describes the Joint Special Operatives Command (JSOC), having come to prominence and publicly celebrated after the successful killing of Bin Laden, as now being a “hammer looking for a nail to hit.” These two documentaries are powerful reminders that the stories we tell about what is happening in the world, what we are told by those in authority we need to do to change that world, and how we choose to imagine those things working out, are ever-present stories we can’t stop examining. 

Because, you know, it's not good to flail around with hammers.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mystery of Netflix Genres Revealed (Except Raymond Burr)

How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood is absolutely essential reading on Netflix from The Atlantic on how it generates your recommendations, and genre recommendations in particular. Wedding this research process to its original productions is what will make Netflix such an interesting producer of content and potent force.