film&theatre resumé 2020

Ethnography Photography of the Wild West [PHOTOBLOG]


Check out this gallery of photographs by photojournalist Timothy O’Sullivan, who documented the interactions among settlers and Native Americans in the Old West. O’Sullivan’s ethnographic style and eye for detail are impressive, and most importantly, he made an important effect to be authentic:

O’Sullivan was famous for not trying to romanticise the native American plight or way of life in his photographs and instead of asking them to wear tribal dress was happy to photograph them wearing denim jeans.

Image from Dailymail.co.uk
via The American West as you’ve never seen it before: Amazing 19th century pictures show the landscape as it was chartered for the first time | Mail Online.

film&theatre resumé 2020

Cultural Exchange through the Movies (LINK)

Americans may feel privileged to have such access to films and television. Indeed, we’ve reached (perhaps even surpassed) a saturation point in entertainment media. What we forget is that audiovisual media is a major cultural conduit—or rather a network of connective fibers that generate and shape our social consciousness—and its immersive qualities are well suited to cultural exchange. A few months ago, I attended a screening on campus of a film about HIV, filmed and produced by the Datoga in partnership with anthropologists. The film is particularly ethnographic in a grassroots sort of way, in that its target audience elected its own informants, those the community deemed trustworthy, and used prevailing cultural symbols and expressions to communicate the often Western-centric rhetoric of HIV/AIDS awareness. (The film is here.) The idea of a shared cultural consciousness permeating its works was a hallmark of Straussian structuralist anthropology, but in a post-postmodernist age, the understanding of the lattice effect of structure, ritual, symbol, and ethos has proved particularly fruitful in applied visual anthropology. While the Datoga project was an example of applied visual ethnography, with an explicit educational purpose, a recent NYTimes article discussed the approach from a different standpoint: culturally applied filmmaking.

What [the Iraqi filmmakers] definitely don’t have at home is a film industry, something being addressed, at least to a degree, by the nonprofit International Film Exchange. The exchange brought the students over from Baghdad where, several weeks before, the filmmaker Bill Megalos of Los Angeles had conducted a 10-day workshop on storytelling and editing. The exchange is devoted primarily to cultural give and take and international understanding. But in the case of the Iraqis, it may help create a base of knowledgeable filmmakers, a “crew” as the young men themselves called it. Since the economic sanctions imposed after the first gulf war, making films in Iraq has become all but impossible.

“It was my family business,” said the bearish Salam S. Mazeel, 35, whose mother was a sound designer, and who wants to be a cinematographer like his father. “But in the ’90s, everything stopped. We go to the hard times. No money, no hope.”

After his father died, his mother quit the business to raise her children; there was no cinema anyway. “That’s how it was,” Mr. Mazeel said. “Now, maybe something is different and we come to America and there are a few things in our minds. Like how to apply American rules to Iraqi movies.”

The article goes on to discuss how Iraqi films could take a cue from Hollywood movies and move away from the previous emphasis on style that European cinema demonstrates:

Years ago, Iraqi filmmakers would regularly attend VGIK, the Moscow film school; Iraqi film was influenced far more by European than American cinema. In Los Angeles, the Iraqi visitors were being advised by almost everyone to make their stories clear, to emphasize narrative over style.

That’s an interesting thing, considering the woefully incomplete or slapdash plots seen in much Hollywood fare. But truth be told, the expressionistic, avant-garde philosophy, seen in Soviet cinema and developed in later German and French films, has been relegated to the indie circuit in the U.S., the fortress of solitude for disillusioned American film buffs. The interest in plot in the United States derives partly from the well-made tradition that was popular in Britain and the U.S. around the same time the film industry was developing, and partly, I believe, from a capitalist ethos. But that’s a topic for another blog.

What’s intriguing about Megalos’ workshop for Iraqi filmmakers is its prescriptive purpose. It is a shade of the cultural imperialism the U.S. holds around the world. Are our films successful overseas because of their effective narratives, as the article suggests? Or because of the corollary economic influence? And films are products, as we know. Moreover, after congratulating ourselves on bringing democracy and peace to Iraq (at least for a moment or two), it seems an echo to claim artistic benefits to them as well.

However, the infusion of the Iraqi filmmakers’ films with their distinctive ethos, under the auspices of Hollywood economic,  political, and aesthetic structures, is not only the product, but the method, of cultural exchange. It is a new kind of ethnographic filmmaking, in which the individuals’ culture is writ large through collaborative works, nestled within a historical portrait of fluctuating, overlapping sociocultural conditions. It is why films are of interest to anthropologists, and why anthropologists continue to use films to communicate ideas. It is probably clear to the International Film Exchange; thanks to the U.S.’s economic power, Hollywood has the tools of the trade to empower all filmmaking cultures, with the end goal being understanding of humanity, not imperialism.

 

Related: Activist Filmmaking

film&theatre resumé 2020

‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (LINK)

Fascinating example of the interaction of social biases, art, and politics.

When the Art Guys married their sapling, “the whole thing was an environmentalist gesture,” The Believer expressed in their profile of the duo. Yet critics of the work refused to see how the act could exist separate from the heated climate of the gay marriage debate, even though both artists were already married to women. Many accused the work of belittling gay marriage and encouraging homophobic logic, namely former Houston Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt. In his review, Britt, who himself is gay, argued the work “reinforces the ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.”

Britt was so offended by the work he created a performance piece of his own to show, in his words, “what really marrying for art, not pretending to, could look like.” For his piece, “The Art Gay Marries a Woman,” Britt found a straight woman he had never met via Twitter, married her at a gay strip club, and changed his last name to Britt-Darby.

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

via ‘The Art Guys Marry A Plant’ Removed From Menil Collection Under Mysterious Circumstances (PHOTO).

film&theatre resumé 2020

The Internet vs. the Studios in the Success and Marketability of Movies

In the golden age of Hollywood, movie producers were largely responsible for obtaining funding and personnel for productions; within the confines of the studio system and without a big-name producer (or a member of the United Artists), a screenplay would rarely be realized into a movie. From the mid-1940s to the present, the output of independent filmmakers has increased tremendously, and the dissolution of the studio system allowed more people to break into the industry; films produced independently could even be distributed by a major studio.

Sadly, the same thing has not happened for television. There, producers are still largely responsible for creative output; a pilot script must be pitched to network executives, if not coming from within the company, and production remains in the company’s hands. Worse, a show’s success is largely determined by Nielsen ratings, an increasingly flawed measure of consumption (and, implicit in sustained numbers, enjoyment).

Naturally, with the rise of video publishing websites and social networks, there are a number of Web shows that are independently produced and distributed. Some, like “The Guild,” are highly acclaimed and well-suited to their medium.

There have been a few experiments in crossover: in 2008, during the writers’ strike, producer Joss Whedon went indie with “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” After streaming as a web mini-series, the show was distributed by iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, and eventually on DVD through Amazon.com and New Video Group. This summer, the show was picked up for rerelease on the The CW network. Despite high consumption online and in DVD sales, the rating for the broadcast, on Oct. 9, 2012, was a paltry 566,000 viewers. While it may be said that fans of the show already had digital or hard copies and didn’t need to tune in, it’s more likely that “Dr. Horrible” was simply more suited to viral distribution. It does raise questions about the marketability of network TV shows in the reverse direction.

Or for that matter, of studio projects to viewers before their production. Acclaimed director David Fincher is attempting to recruit the media-hungry Internet masses to an avenue traditionally not open to the public: funding a movie production. Unable to get studio backing for an adaptation of The Goon and unable to fund it himself, Fincher has turned to Kickstarter to crowdsource the funds:

So far the project has just shy of 2,500 backers raising about $162,000 with 19 days left to raise the funds. In response to the question of why Fincher does not just fund it himself, Miller said: “Hollywood is filled with the ‘vanity projects’ of successful movie stars and producers. It really is not as easy to get a film made no matter who you are.”

If Fincher succeeds, the line between the studio-made and the homegrown will be irreversibility blurred. TV, however, remains firmly stratified.

film&theatre resumé 2020

Activist Filmmaking

The Amazon rainforest, the sweaty locale of many films, both entertainment and documentary, has many connotations: mystical, dangerous, exotic, native, prehistoric, medicinal, potent, endangered. It is constructed, often as an important area of concern to ecologists and anthropologists, in both news and entertainment media. Some examples of the latter, like Anaconda, have little to offer to society beyond cheap entertainment; others, like Fern Gully, are blatantly pro-environmentalism and conservation (“hippie propaganda,” as one of my more cynical friends puts it). The Amazon certainly deserves special consideration and protection: it is not only a garden of extreme biodiversity, but an important medical and bioregulatory source, and, of course, the home of many peoples.

The Amazon’s size and wealth has called itself to the attention of both those who would exploit it and those who would exoticize it. A prime subject for the curious ethnographer, the Amazonian natives live off the land, showing great mastery of their complex environment, and moreover have shown remarkable political interest and talent. Terence Turner is hardly the only ethnographer to explore the latter; in the early 1990s Joe Kane lived among the Huaorani in Ecuador, and gave voice to one named Moi, who traveled to Washington, D.C. with Kane to speak for the Huaorani whose homes had been devastated by oil development and spills. (Incidentally, Moi also visited my university by request of my professor, who had met him through a colleague.)

The documentation of the problems of damming, deforestation, oil extraction, poaching, and drug trafficking in the Amazon has been shared by anthropologists, biologists, human rights activists, and journalists; yet this essential information, while well-distributed, seems to have not yet supplanted the dual exoticization of and disengagenement from the Amazon. From informal observation of my conversation partners, even people who identify as “eco” or “concerned” aren’t aware of much going in the Amazon besides “deforestation” and “it’s big.”

Although the eco-minded family movies of the 90s and early 00s (Fern Gully, Free Willy, Finding Nemo, to name just a few) have given way to disaster and apocalyptic movies with an ecological twist (The Core, The Day After Tomorrow), the impact of either type of film is something to consider. The label of “hippie propaganda” might not be inaccurate (and I certainly wouldn’t consider it a bad thing).

From a post by Turner:

[I]n a march in Brasilia on April 12 [2010] that targeted all the government ministries implicated in approving the plan for Belo Monte [a new dam in the Kayapo’s region], and called for the cancellation of the project […] they were joined by James Cameron, the producer of Avatar, and members of the cast of the film.

There are clear parallels between the battle of the fictional indigenous people against the attempt by a giant corporation to extract precious minerals from their planet, modeled on the Amazon rain forest, and the struggle of the inhabitants of the Xingú valley against the damming of their rivers to generate power, much of which is intended for the production of minerals such as aluminum for export. In both cases, the collateral damage of the extractive projects threatens to destroy the ecosystem and way of life of the native people, and in both cases, they resist.

Cameron visited the site of the planned Belo Monte dam, and some of the indigenous villages that it would affect, in March of this year, and was so struck by the similarities in their situation with that of the Navi of his film that he committed himself to support their movement against the dams. His return to Brazil with members of the cast on April 12, 2010, to take part in the march in Brasilia, was a public affirmation of his support for their cause. Sigourney Weaver, of the Avatar cast, later led a similar march in New York against the Xingú dams.

One might dismiss the stars’ involvement in such causes as mere face time, an attempt to shine their images, but that Cameron borrowed from generic struggles of the Amazonian people, and then found his (very heavy-handed) eco-propaganda film validated to the point that he was moved to further action, is a very nice conflation of life and art. Avatar, once linked with a real-world corollary, moved from an alien fantasy to a de-exoticized pseudo-documentary (a similar treatment was more intentionally given to District 9, a human rights parable and pseudo-documentary of South African apartheid, wearing the skin of a sci-fi flick).

Cameron’s involvement, as well as Weaver’s, can only help the cause, even if it cannot stop Belo Monte (the construction of which was just reinstated by the Brazilian Supreme Court). As for would-be eco-propagandists, a good rule is to get as close to the real-world while being as unreal as possible, because I’m guessing it sometimes takes talking animals and giant blue people to get people out of their head.