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Public and Visual Anthropology (Research Update)

Snapshots of upcoming guest lecture for a section of the Sex Roles in Cross-Cultural Comparison course at the University of Florida:

The problems with women and Hollywood include massive underrepresentation (TV, however is ahead of the curve, and certainly the better for the likes of Fey and Rhimes), a body-image obsession that pigeonholes actresses and largely limits positive roles to “sexy” roles, the assumption that movies need to be drafted for and marketed to each sex, and poorer odds for women to move into executive positions, financially or creatively.

Some films count on a female vote and aren’t ashamed to show it. Consider the fuzzy yellow trailer for “The Help” featuring witticisms by the black leads and a plucky score (a far cry from the actual tone of the film), or the sexy, glittery trailers for “Magic Mike” and “Sex and the City 2”; others are projected to attract men but include images of shirtless men in their trailers, presumably to encourage the wives and girlfriends to come along. Obviously, the equation of female moviegoers’ interest with their desires for friendship  with women and sex with men is as problematic as the equation of female actors’ and filmmakers’ success according to their perpetuation of female stereotypes of personality and social worth. Either way, there are significant economic and psychological impacts on those women who love film. They are neither as uniform in their approach nor singular in their interests nor small in number as andocentric Hollywood would suggest.

Edit: See the final presentation.

See also my essay on institutional sexism and feminism over at Confluey, and my prezi on violent female characters.

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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.

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The Art of Immersion: Found Footage and Classical Film

The “found footage” genre (style?) of filmmaking was wildly popularized for the horror genre beginning with the (in)famous Sundance entrant “The Blair Witch Project,” and judging by the apparently exhaustive list here, horror has become its home; one might even describe such films as “Paranormal Activity,” “V/H/S,” “The Last Exorcism,” as part of a subgenre of horror. All the films present themselves as a recording of horrific events—some “intentionally” done as a documentary, some as a loose narrative involving some supernatural terror. Most revolve around young people who mirror the films’ demographic: the share-all, tech-obsessed Generation Me.

Beyond this style’s obvious reflection in the rise of YouTube artists, confessional “reality” TV programming, and emphasis on social media as a means of establishing relationships, the “found footage” style marks a new type of filmmaking, one that eschews special f/x and big names of modern cinema, but also the grand art and epic tales of classic cinema.

In fact, reading recently about French New Wave cinema and Francois Truffaut’s skewering of the literary, artificial cinematic tradition in “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” I couldn’t help but think that a similar paradigm shift is taking place now in the United States. Of course, the range of U.S. films includes the emotional indies, the riveting biopics, the sweeping historical pieces, the wide range of comedy, the disturbing drama, the provocative speculative fiction pieces, and the grandiose adventure tales. Even in the  next few months, we have “2 Days in New York,” “Lincoln,” “Argo,” “Bachelorette,” “Compliance,” “Looper,” and “The Hobbit.” None of these are in the “found footage” format.

However, to compare the construction of certain classic films with these new styles reveals several interesting similarities. To begin with, I will discuss two exceptional found-footage sci-fi movies. The first, “Cloverfield,” was released in 2008, directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Drew Goddard, one of his “Lost” writers and one of “Buffy’s” and “Angel’s” latter-season writers. The film is presented as a tape found at the aftermath of an attack on New York City, and uses the “film-within-a-film” device to contrast the lives of its subjects before the attack, with the horror they experience. (The beginning of the tape, which is preserved before one of the characters accidentally records over it with footage of a party, followed by full documentation of their attempted escape, provides a rather clever means of exposition.) This approach allows for a very natural exploration of character and a very relaxed method of storytelling: pure causality, in that the characters are shoved into one situation or another according to primarily external factors, but with the overriding impulse of the central character to save his girlfriend. By using a handheld that was partly operated by one of the actors, the wonderfully blunt and sometimes inappropriately funny T.J. Miller, we are given a greater sense of realism than we do with the self-elected documentary style. Rather than filming what’s “important,” and thus destroying the illusion of the film (which is a problem that I had with “The Blair Witch Project”), the camera is simply always on, with only some necessary cuts made when Miller’s character is forced to turn off the camera. This film has no mark of being a “film” in name, but by its fast-paced, unforgiving, accidental documentation of the monster and its associated terrors, of the trauma experienced by the characters, and the general horrific atmosphere, is so convincingly “found” that we lose ourselves in it. We become immersed…and scared.

More recently, “Chronicle” (2012), directed and written by “The Kill Point” creator Josh Trank and co-written by horror TV scribe Max Landis, appears to be in the found-footage style but takes it to the next level: rather than limit to one camera and present itself as a found recording, it is told entirely through cameras that we are made aware exist. While one would expect that this would produce a distracting barrier, it accomplishes the opposite.

Firstly, since it can be told through multiple cameras, the story may be told through different points of view. This may sound obvious, but consider the tremendous bias given by true “found footage” movies. When the actors are the cameramen (or when the cameramen adopt only the POVs of the actors), it limits the audience’s involvement. The viewer enjoys being in a privileged place of knowing more than the actors do; it’s actually surprising that this style is popular with horror movies since the viewer loses the privilege of shouting “Look out!” Imagine the classic horror films in found-footage style: there would be no sense of dread as the shadow of Norman Bates appears beyond the shower curtain, no sense of doom as the Alien unfolds behind Brett, no sense of panic when the shark edges up to the skinny-dipper’s legs. What is more frightening than something unseen?*

Yet “Chronicle” manages to frighten by going in the opposite direction: freed from the documentarian bias and couched in the entirely realistic exploits of three teenagers who happily videotape themselves engaging in various mischief courtesy of their newfound telekinesis, it oversaturates us with endless videos of their (sometimes harmful) pranks, then at the climax, when the powers are (of course) all-consuming, turns the requisite “movie media” into unwitting storytellers (as they are…). The plethora of cameraphones, security feeds, news cameras, and personal camcorders all capture this tremendous event from a dizzying number of perspectives, edited together so randomly, with unheard-of perspectives as the equipment falls and flies, and completely sucks in the viewer. We are so aware that we are watching it through cameras, but it is so overstimulating that the illusion is reverse-engineered: we cannot help but believe what we are seeing.

In a completely different genre and decade, we notice a similarly collective approach. In fact, this same philosophy applies to many films whose common denominator is their use of multiple perspectives and ambient emotion. Quentin Tarantino’s and Wes Anderson’s films are a prime example. Recently for a class, I watched Otis Preminger’s “Bonjour Tristesse” and was fascinated by the use of subtle nonverbal acting, the construction of the main story within an uneventful night in the central character’s life, and the extensive use of wide perspective and long takes. Moreover, much happens in the film that is not directly related to the central plot, which details a teenage girl’s initial support for her father to take up with a woman she has admired, and its turn into a plot to expel her supposedly wicked new stepmother from her life. The minor stories surrounding this main plotline have no impact on those events, nor do they all concern the central characters. However, they express themes or reveal character such that we have a strong sense of who the central characters, who they are not, who they are pretending to be, and in addition what we’re supposed to be considering while we watch the drama unfold. Preminger’s style is very detached, very deliberate, and very skeptical, yet immerses us in a world in which we can watch (and criticize) characters’ choice.

Despite the complete difference in genre and topic, the same thing is accomplished in Tarantino’s and Anderson’s films, among others, and in “Chronicle.” This phenomenon certainly points to humans’ complicit construction in viewing a story, and may have implications for research into story therapy—perhaps the new immersion therapy?

*As Stephen King wrote in Entertainment Weekly #1001 (2008):

“Horror is an intimate experience, something that occurs mostly within oneself…the event films that pack the plexes in the summer…blast our emotions and imaginations, instead of caressing them with a knife edge. […] Horror is not spectacle, and never will be.”

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Linkblog Double Feature: “Bully”

Okay, I admit, I might be a little disappointed that someone beat me to creating a major documentary film on bullying. But truthfully, there can never be too many, and my project takes a different tack than Bully, Lee Hirsch’s devastating portrait of the blind-eye teachers, school administrators, and bus drivers who don’t see the pain and torment within their walls. The film has become a hot topic in Hollywood thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s campaign to overturn its R rating…a debate that has, more clearly than ever, revealed in the MPAA the same stilted values and black-and-white thinking that allows for bullying.

Marlo Thomas writes an impassioned plea for your ticket money:

Adults may be horrified by what they see in Bully, but the kids know this world all too well. Directed by Lee Hirsch, the film captures the wrenching drama of schoolyard bullying — the hitting and harassing, the tormenting and tears, the grave suffering — in unflinching detail, as it zooms in on the daily battles waged by five bullied children, two of whom ultimately commit suicide. But sitting through the film will be worth every harrowing minute, especially to the children, whose only hope against this ever deepening crisis is the visible and vocal support of the adults in their lives.

Consider me convinced of the film’s worth.