SpringBoardMedia: the year's top ten stories that matter to indie filmmakers. Includes stories relating to copyright, media regulation and changing modes of distribution; #1 is net neutrality.


Andrew O'Hehir in Salon surveys the terrain of indiewood, which in business terms he accepts as "a side strategy of the Hollywood conglomerates" (this is from a quote from Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse). O'Hehir observes that "'independent film' has hovered on the edge of meaninglessness for many years, in fact, and 2006 might be the year it finally fell off the cliff." And still, he is enthusiastic about the year's releases and offers a top ten stacked with off-Hollywood entries.
Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun on Dreamgirls:
[Bill] Condon was hyper-conscious that, to fashion a musical for film, "you have to take into account the fact that there are people unaware of these musical-comedy conventions or really actively resisting them."

He dreads audiences thinking, "The people onscreen are singing again, now I'm going to have to wait two minutes for the story to pick up." So Condon tries "to weave story through a song. The basic rule becomes the characters should wind up at a different place from where they began."
Why would people go to see a musical if they resist its conventions? And is there any other genre in which filmmakers are so conscious of trying to please viewers who are predisposed against them?
David Rakoff is blogging the Woody Allen retrospective at Film Forum. Here's a sample, a description of Mighty Aphrodite:
Michael Rappaport, who is not uncharming, exudes natural dunderheadedness of an eye-watering intensity. He's like one of those freshly unwrapped taxicab pine tree air fresheners in Stupid fragrance.
via The Reeler

30 Rock, My Boys, and the New Sit-Com

If two is a trend, one TV trend this season is the sit-com about a girl surrounded by guys. Of all the Fall '06 class of programs, I get most excited to watch new episodes of 30 Rock, Tina Fey's SNL-inspired backstager on NBC. Another one worth checking out is TBS's My Boys, a group-of-friends show set in Chicago and led by Jordana Spiro playing a sportswriter (you can watch episodes online, but not on a Mac.) Both of these shows take existing elements from classic and contemporary iterations of the sit-com genre and put a fresh spin on them. When genres revive, as I agree is happening with the sit-com, it's usually because of a combination of the old and new, of things that still work in the genre's arsenal and things that are innovative, that haven't been tried before. 30 Rock and My Boys are especially good illustrations of how new TV shows appeal to audiences by offering imitation with variation, by fitting our expectations of what a particular kind of show should be like, but also by introducing bits of novelty. Most good shows begin not as revolutions of form or meaning, but as evolutions that modify existing models in subtle ways.

Not that long ago, the situation comedy was among the most popular and the most formally predictable of television genres. Sit-coms were shot on video on a limited number of standing three-walled proscenium sets (a workplace or living room) with multiple cameras and bright, flat lighting. The basic pattern of scene development was setup-punchline, setup-punchline, and a laugh track made clear whether a joke was merely amusing or full-on hilarious. Music was reserved for credits sequences, transitions, montages, and laugh-free message moments as when on Happy Days, Howard would offer Richie one of his wise lessons. The basic sit-com structure was good at showcasing both verbal and physical comedy and it encouraged a broad, theatrical performance style characterized by sweeping gestures, exaggerated facial expressions, loud and often obnoxious voices, and bold entrances and exits. It exploited the talents of great comic artists from Lucille Ball and Don Knotts to Roseanne Barr and Jerry Seinfeld. Lazy movie reviewers might compare film comedies unfavorably to sit-coms (search Google for "Kissing Jessica Stein" or "Little Miss Sunshine" and "sitcom" and you'll see what I mean), but the sit-com formula was until recently remarkably productive. Shouldn't it be an honor to compare films to a genre that has produced great shows like All in the Family and Cheers?

The past few years have seen both an explosion of the sit-com form and a decline in its significance. In terms of ratings, the genre is a shadow of its former self. But in terms of artistic inventiveness, the sit-com has been undergoing a renaissance. Just about every one of its basic conventions has been overturned in one way or another, to the point that in today's American TV schedule, comedies using multiple cameras and laugh tracks are no longer the norm. NBC's new Thursday night lineup of My Name is Earl, The Office, Scrubs, and 30 Rock offers two hours of comedies with nary a laugh track or proscenium set among them. The anti-sit-com has become the new sit-com.

But the anti-sit-com has its own standard elements, and now these are starting to seem familiar. In place of the video, three-camera, three-walled setup, we have a single-camera film aesthetic that makes television seem more cinematic and less theatrical. This is universally perceived to mean a step up in artistic ambition (interesting considering that in the 1950s TV would have seemed more artistic for being theatrical). In place of a laugh track, we often get an ironic first-person voice-over and aggressive, sometimes zany musical cues, as on Everybody Hates Chris, Scrubs and Arrested Development. In place of a theatrical performance aesthetic with longish scenes, entrances and exits, and scene-ending coups des théâtre (picture Jack Tripper's expression as we cut to a commercial), we get lots of very short scenes. Some anti-sit-coms offer lots of cuts to absurd visual jokes offered as characters' wild fantasies or as preposterous alternate-universe flashbacks and flashforwards. In place of setup alternating with punchline, every bit of dialogue is meant to be funny and the absence of a laugh-track means there is no need to pause between jokes. The laughs-per-minute tally can be amped up and up, like everything else in the style of contemporary media. Faster, more impact, more energy, more edge. It used to be enough to be incisively funny; in the anti-sit-com, it's necessary to be outrageous. Once The Simpsons, a cartoon, had become the ultimate in contemporary comedy, many live action shows started to seem more like cartoons, defying the conventional sit-com's limitations on space, time, and scenography. Meanwhile, South Park, Family Guy, and Comedy Central's stable of programs continued to push the edgy envelope.

Alternatively, there are anti-sit-coms that defy the laughs-per-minute formula in the other direction, preferring to be smart and observant rather than depend on jokes and gags. The Larry Sanders Show pioneered this tradition, using dry, dark humor that flatters us by not making jokes too obvious, and amuses us in part by making us feel uncomfortable. The British and American versions of The Office and Larry David's magnificent Curb Your Enthusiasm are in this tradition, and in its own way so too is Sex and the City, which is also is a key text in the other major innovation in the past decade of TV comedy: serialization. All of these anti-sit-coms have in common with many TV dramas that they tell arcing stories that stretch across episodes and seasons, and this trend has suffused the formally traditional sit-coms too, the shows like Friends. All of these arc sit-coms shift some of the emphasis away from the comic situation and onto to the character's ongoing romantic entanglements, and in doing so also shift the narrative emphasis to some degree against traditional, episodic sit-com storytelling. Weeds is another good example of a show in this mold.

My Boys and 30 Rock offer new permutations in the sit-com form that take the anti-sit-com formula and add or subtract elements so as to seem novel as of Fall '06. My Boys at first seems like a Sex and the City clone (which perhaps is partly a function of airing on the cable net that airs Sex reruns): it has a pretty young woman introduce each episode with a breezy voice-over dominated by cutesy analogies, and its plots center on relationships. My Boys's P.J. is a baseball reporter, so her metaphors come from sports and are all subsets of "life is a ballgame": having a new boyfriend is like signing a free agent slugger; some players upset the clubhouse chemistry; etc. Like many other anti-sit-coms, My Boys is a single-camera show with a voice-over but no laugh track. But its freshness is its restraint. Scenes play out over a minute or two as in shows from twenty years ago rather than the dozen seconds we often get on many anti-sit-coms. Long scenes are so unusual on television today that the pace of My Boys seems pleasantly relaxed compared with that of other shows.

My Boys is also visually refreshing. Most unusual for a comedy, My Boys avoids the bright, high-key lighting that has been standard for decades, even in vanguard shows like Arrested Development.

On My Boys, we often see shadows on one side of a character's face (as on P.J.'s, above), showing more contour and volume. Interiors are lit more like the domestic spaces on hour-long shows like Gilmore Girls than those on a typical half-hour show. This has an effect of realism and sophistication, and it effectively distinguishes My Boys from all the other sit-coms on television. Compare the lighting on two other shows, Will & Grace, a half-hour comedy with the typical bright, flat look, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, an hour-long drama shot more low-key with moody shadows and lots of contrast, as is the style for prime-time dramas today. The look of My Boys is somewhere in between these two examples, perhaps a shade more like Studio 60. This might seem like a minor shift, but it is a notable departure in sit-com style.

30 Rock likewise uses the cinematic single-camera approach with no laugh track, but it eschews voice-over narration. It's a dysfunctional-workplace comedy with Fay's Liz Lemon as the only normal person surrounded by "characters." Like The Office, the comedy is often the product of absurd or deadpan moments as opposed to setup-punchline jokes. In one episode, we see Liz at home alone singing to herself "Maybe" from the "Annie" soundtrack, a cheesy song that makes her seem comically pathetic, but also the sort of tune that gets stuck in a person's head even twenty-five years after seeing "Annie." This is Simpsons-style humor, what writers sometimes call a 2% joke: one that they expect most people to miss. (Actually, 2% jokes are jokes that people are supposed to think that most people will miss so that it can make them feel superior, but which are actually not so hard to get.) 30 Rock's style of comedy is based on tight storytelling, verbal humor, and character-revealing situations, like the great sit-coms of any era. But it is short on cartoonish visual jokes, wacky musical stings, and ironic observations delivered in voice-over. It's not that Scrubs and Arrested Development and Sex and the City went too far in exploding the sit-com form, just that by offering new, more restrained variations on the single-camera/no-laugh-track style, 30 Rock and My Boys now seem fresh--at least for now.

As a comedy about a self-possessed single woman in a big city who works in television and has to deal with an arrogant male boss, 30 Rock is in the tradition of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this way its novelty is also its retro quality, its revival of an oldie-but-goodie quasi-feminist formula in an era of post-feminist sexy girliness. The show-within-a-show on 30 Rock is semi-ironically called "The Girlie Show" but Liz Lemon is the antithesis of a girlie-girl, a point underscored in the episode in which her boss, Jack, mistakes her for a lesbian. My Boys and 30 Rock both have strong female leads, both of them women negotiating their way through a man's world. Although these shows' gender politics, which I find to be generally progressive, is not really the topic of this discussion, it's worth noting that in both of these programs, a woman is the figure for our identification. The female-centered sit-com has been a standby on TV since the 50s (recent times have also brought The New Adventures of Old Christine, which formally is traditional), but lately the genre seems to be dominated by a certain kind of masculinity, by competitive how-clever-can-we-be? boy humor. It's refreshing to have women's voices in half-hour comedies, and it's a testament to the talents of Tina Fey and Betsy Thomas that their shows are succeeding in an industry dominated by men.


For their new video, "Phantom Limb," The Shins invited fans to shoot their concert using cell phones and digital cameras, and nearly two hundred fans uploaded clips to the Current TV website. The video uses at least a frame from every one. (See also Wired.)


Virginia Heffernan has an engaging year-end multimedia feature on the NYT site about the television trends that ended in 2006. These include "the death of the sitcom," reality TV, parent-child bonding shows like Everwood and Gilmore Girls (which VH has pronounced dead even as it continues on the CW), and network news.
Wim Wenders gave a speech recently in Berlin on American and European cinemas and cultures. The ideas are familiar but their transcription in verse gives them a kind of epic profundity:
Why is it that today, not only in Europe,
but all over the world,
"going to the pictures"
is synonymous with
"seeing an American film"?!

Because the Americans realized long ago
what moves people most
and what gets them dreaming.
And they radically implemented that knowledge.
The whole "American Dream"
is really an invention of cinema,
and it is now being dreamed by the whole world.

I don't want to discredit this,
but merely ask the question,
"Who is dreaming the European Dream?"
Or better: How are we encouraged to dream it?
via A&L Daily


"The Greatest Song Ever Filmed" cries the headline over Jody Rosen's piece on Jennifer Hudson's Dreamgirls showstopper, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." Some excerpts:
It is by far the film's most riveting scene—the one moment, in this musical about music, when a song really grips your emotions.
And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is an amazing piece of music, which will be blowing back listeners' ears long after Jennifer Hudson marches off with her inevitable Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Even Judy Garland's most iconic on-screen ballad performances seem small compared with the last lingering shot of Hudson, the camera whirling overhead as she blasts out a final "You're gonna love me!"
the greatness of the song is the transcendence it offers, to those who know Effie's pain firsthand, and to everyone else. Hudson's voice booms, huge and bright, rippling with grief but bringing ecstasy. At the screening I saw, the audience gasped and applauded throughout the song, a first in my movie-going experience. "No, no, no, no," Hudson sings. Sitting in a darkened theater, you want to cry, "Yes, yes, yes."

Meanwhile, The Carpetbagger thinks the LA Times's hyping of the film (here, here, here, here) has something to do with the fact that David Geffen, the film's co-producer, might soon become the paper's owner.

And, naturally, some people don't even think Dreamgirls is a very good film.


A new trailer for the Taranriguez portmanteau extravaganza Grindhouse, via (a breathless) Cinematical.
Alessandra Stanley on the "man-in-the-Moonves theory of programming" at CBS, which is supposed to explain the similarities (redundancies?) among the CSI shows, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Shark, and Without a Trace:
All the top CBS dramas are alike.

They showcase an omniscient, workaholic and male boss on the dark side of 50 who is surrounded by young, eager-to-please acolytes.

The template is so unvarying that Bill Carter of The New York Times and other television writers subscribe to a man-in-the-Moonves theory of programming: Leslie Moonves, the 57-year-old chief executive of CBS, has an Ozymandian hold on his network that ensures that its top shows pay subliminal homage to his leadership.
CBS’s older men have luxuriant heads of hair and are single and married to their work, which allows young, beautiful women to fall in love with them without tainting the sexual tension with the stain of adultery.

Mr. Moonves recently married Julie Chen, an anchor of CBS’s “Early Show.” Several CBS dramas deal with the issue of nepotism, perhaps signaling concerns buried deep in the network’s unconscious.
The unconscious of TV networks is a topic Freud unfortunately never contemplated.
At age 85, Jonas Mekas is initiating a new project. Beginning January 1, 2007, he will begin 365 films, uploading a short video every day for a year. In November, Mekas was interviewed on NPR (Amy Taubin appears too, praising the video iPod as an ideal delivery system for avant-garde cinema); now here is another interview in Wired. According to Mekas, new digital technologies (like the iPod) are making the experience of cinema more intimate, like reading: it's just you and the image.


"A man who is completely sure of his art": Philip Glass on Woody Allen, from an entry in The Reeler's compendium of Allen tributes.
Boing Boing 2006 Videos: sublime, ridiculous, etc.

On Year-End Lists

This is a comment I left at the chutry experiment, on a post about the virtues and deficiencies of year-end lists, and in particular lists of best web videos.

Top ten things I don't like about year-end lists:

1. They leave too many good things off.

2. They include too many things that don't belong.

3. They are a form of narcissism: hey, come admire my good taste!

4. There are too many of them and one tires of reading so many (this obviously doesn't apply to web video lists, of which there are only a few...[and here I self-promoted a little]).

5. They make me feel bad about having missed so many things that other people caught and loved.

6. They pretend to total knowledge--only someone who has seen every film released during the year should be qualified to compile a list of its best films, and no one has seen every film.

7. They almost always aim not for simple bestness but for representativeness. Your best music list has to have some mainstream pop to balance your esoterica. Film lists can't totally avoid Hollywood or you will seem like a snob. So the list is not so much a reflection of your true taste as it is a projection of how you would like others to see you.

8. They seem to spring more naturally from the minds of boys and men (see High Fidelity) and thus very well might be a tool of the patriarchy, which would totally suck.

9. They segment different forms of media in ways that reinforce existing aesthetic hierarchies...why not make a list of all of one's audiovisual media experiences of the year instead of keeping film in its special place?

10. They're just too, you know, listy.


Recent NPR listening: David Lynch interviewed ("he'll never go back to shooting with celluloid again"); Ricky Gervais on Fresh Air discussing, among other things, differences between the British and American Offices; a contemporary movement in visual arts calling itself neo-realism; an ongoing Morning Edition series on how technology influences art, e.g., changes brought about by paint in tubes and 78 RPM records.


Lost Rhapsody II: Electric Bugaloo: a fanvid by Robert Montjoy mashing up Lost and Weird Al using Flash and rotoscoping (like in A Scanner Darkly). I haven't seen anything like it. via
Variety on "fanboy" sites like Ain't It Cool changing the face of film criticism: "the panoply of online film reviewers has grown so large and variegated that authoritative voices seem in danger of being swallowed up by the deluge of blogs and kaleidoscoping niche sites."
"The Physics of the Buffyverse uses the characters, concepts and plot lines of two popular television series—Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its successful spinoff, Angel—to illustrate a wide range of fundamental concepts in the physical sciences: everything from sound, electricity, materials science, and thermodynamics, to concepts of time (and time travel), wormholes, black holes, and string theory." (See also The Physics of Star Trek.)

Television's Visual Appeal

What is the difference between film and TV? A few weeks ago, Jason Mittell wrote in response to a Dave Kehr article on The Good German about differences between prevailing modes of viewing film and television. Jason makes a number of related points that I think are worth considering in detail. I agree with some and disagree with others, but in general I find the topic of comparisons between film and television to be almost inexhaustibly interesting.

Kehr, and in response to him David Bordwell, discuss Soderbergh's new film in terms of its adoption of classical-era conventions of visual technique, especially camerawork, staging and composition. In David's blog entry on the topic, he goes into considerable detail about norms of lens use and staging that have changed in the decades since the demise of the old studio system. Jason observes that this line of discussion is different from how most people ordinarily talk about television:
in reading these articles, it becomes clear that Soderbergh, Bordwell, and NYT critic Dave Kehr have an intiuitive mode of engagement with cinematic style - as they watch a movie, they see the camera & its lens, not just the image being captured. I don't have that visual acuity, or at least I have to work hard at it to notice such details as focal length, perspective, offscreen space, and staging composition. My default mode of viewing focuses on narrative techniques, genre, and sound, and I thus often enjoy films whose visual style is not particularly compelling or even effective.
Jason observes as well that he thinks of himself as
a "better" critical viewer of television than film, as the medium seems to play to my strengths of formal engagement. What do these distinctions mean for our understanding of the differences between film & television?

I would argue with anyone willing to listen that contemporary American fictional television is much better than contemporary American cinema, both on average and at its peaks. My lines of attack would be trumpeting the superiority of television's strategies of complex narrative, thematic sophistication, originality of ideas, depth of performance, and effective use of music. But I wouldn't even engage a discussion about visual style[...]this is not why I watch TV. Even shows that I'd argue "look good" (Lost, Six Feet Under, Alias) or use their particular styles to good effect (The Office, Battlestar Galactica, Scrubs) seem not to be in the business of dealing out particularly visual pleasures. There's a long list of reasons for why television has historically rarely focused its creativity on visual style - tight production schedules, tight budgets, creative control by writers rather than directors, small screens with poor resolution, norms of multi-camera studios, ephemeral nature of series - but many of these norms have changed or at least loosened.


Critics make bad seers into the future, but my hunch is that this medium divide will more likely deepen rather than blur - cinema will remain the home for compositional beauty (as well as fart jokes and big explosions), while television will thrive on its writing and acting (with fart innuendos and smaller explosions). And I think I'm okay with that.
I see here 3 claims about differences between TV and film: 1. Jason (a television scholar) doesn't pay attention to the same things in TV that film critics and scholars pay attention to in films; 2. Television does not reward attention to visual qualities as much as cinema does; 3. Television does reward attention to non-visual qualities as much or more than cinema does. (There is also the claim that contemporary American television is better than contemporary American film, but this is a matter of aesthetic judgment rather than of diverging modes of viewing.)

1. It makes sense that people who study TV would have a different mode of engagement than film scholars because their training is often different. Jason and I are graduates of the same department, Communication Arts at UW-Madison, but he studied in the area that used to be called telecommuninications and is now called media and cultural studies, while I studied in the area called film studies. Although we took courses with some of the same professors (he with David; I with John Fiske), our scholarly orientations are the product of our training. As Jason himself once mentioned to me, it's emblematic of the difference between film and TV studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that Bordwell's best-known book is called Film Art and Fiske's is called Television Culture. The emphasis in studying television in our department was cultural; the emphasis in studying film was aesthetic. (It's true that art is a kind of culture but you get the idea.)

My sense is that writing about television and film in the popular and trade press follows the distinction Jason draws. Film critics more often refer to a director's visual signature and to elements of cinematography (e.g., Variety makes references to production design and "lensing" a standard component of its film reviews but typically ignores these visual elements in its TV reviews). As the aesthetically more respectable of the two media, cinema must seem to warrant closer scrutiny as a form of visual art.

If Jason approaches cinema as a television viewer, I approach television as a film viewer. When I watch TV (which these days I watch much more often than film), I do intuitively see the camera and lens. I see choices of how to stage and compose the image, how to light the sets and figures, how to cut the scene. And I do find that my attention to these things is rewarded, which brings me to the second claim.

2. Veronica Mars is one show that consistently uses distinctive and compelling visual techniques, especially cinematography and staging. One of its signature styles is the short-lens shot with distorted perspective and accentuated depth. In the first season, this technique underlines our sense of Veronica's distance from the other kids at school, who ostracize her because of her father's mishandling of the investigation into the murder of her best friend (he was the Sheriff).


In the classroom shot above (like all of these VM caps, it's from ep 1.1), the overhead framing and the use of a short ("wide angle") lens emphasize this isolation. The image's skewed perspective allows us to take in the various gazes of Veronica's classmates and also functions to pluck her out of the crowd as the main character and fasten our attention on her.

Aggressive depth staging, in combination with voice-over narration and a mystery plot, helps give the show its noirish tone. Shadowy deep space is associated with hard-boiled Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s and Veronica's use of a similar visual style harks back to those movies and puts us on similar thematic terrain (crime, seduction, moral ambiguity, etc.). In this shot, the neon waves and "no vacancy" sign and the rain-slicked night street scene also work in this tradition. (The car in the distance is Veronica's as she pulls up to stake out Jake Kane.)


In its first season, Veronica Mars uses regular flashbacks to fill in the story of the murder, which is a mystery that runs through the whole year of episodes. Rob Thomas and his crew mark these off using various techniques of framing, lighting and post-production effects, not only clarifying the patterns of storytelling but also giving the past events an horrific aura. For example, consider this shot of Keith Mars standing over Lily Kane's body, with its dramatic tonal contrast and its effect of characters unnaturally aglow against the black of night. The scene is shot from a canted angle to show an extreme situation that sets us off kilter, and it pushes low-angle depth to an uneasy point reminiscent of the ending of Touch of Evil. Stylization like this not only engenders strong emotion effects, but demands to be noticed.


It may seem that Veronica Mars and other "quality" programs would be better candidates than most television shows for aesthetic appreciation, but I wouldn't be so quick to assume that. Some of the most impressive technical achievements in television style are in the reality genre, which few critics regard as TV's best. Laguna Beach, for example, offers up a steady succession of bikini tilts, aerial shots swooping down over the beach, real estate porn, and golden sunsets. Consider these shots, some of which are interstitials used in transition from scene to scene.

Laguna Beach 1.11

If there is not art in these images (and if you think there isn't, why not?), at least there is beauty. One key appeal of this show is its displays of the luxe life enjoyed by its gorgeous rich kid "characters." This magic-hour scene from the finale of Laguna's first season (into which some of the images above are cut), when Kristen and Stephen break up while staring out at a dramatic sunset, offers us not only the red and golden hues of the ocean sky, but also the contemplative pretty faces of our youthful TV friends (or TV nemeses?). The appeals of Laguna Beach are many; some of them are undoubtedly "compositional beauty" and "visual pleasures."

Laguna Beach 1.11

3. I am in complete agreement that television has appeals that cinema lacks. The one that seems most significant to me is extended characterization. Not only are television texts much longer than films (some stretch into the hundreds of hours), but our experience of their narratives is continual. We track them week by week, season by season. We get to know the people so well, we feel we know them like our friends and family. Thus one commentator remarked of the most recent Gilmore Girls episode, in which Emily tells Lorelai that she must take her new marriage seriously, that this "will no doubt give Lorelai a lot to think about over the holidays." In my English major days I was admonished not to talk about fictional characters as though they are real people, but this kind of thinking is practically the norm in discussions of television characters.

Still, I don't see any reason to think that investment in character (or the other appeals Jason lists) trumps visual pleasures. There are lots of reasons to love television, but I don't think it profits those of us who want to take TV seriously in aesthetic terms to cede to cinema the whole visible realm. TV's means of representation are visual, and television's makers invest great time and resources in getting their shows to look the way they want. Television stars are handsome and beautiful--so handsome and beautiful, many of them also have successful movie careers. Many prime-time television shows also boast flashy visual design, as in the gadget fetish imagery of some procedurals, the multiple screens of 24, the jittery vérité of Friday Night Lights, and the extravagantly stylized Cylon ship of Battlestar Galactica. Finally, conventions in visual style flow not only from film to TV, as in the adoption of classical continuity editing, but also from TV to film, as in the style of cutting credited to MTV videos, the two-camera style of Homicide: Life on the Street using shots that cross the 180-degree line, and the "energized" walk-and-talk technique on shows like ER and The West Wing. (All of these are trends that Bordwell discusses in his book The Way Hollywood Tells It). Although their production practices differ as do some basic conventions of storytelling, Hollywood films and prime-time network television shows (and original cable series) share not only an apparatus but also many standard visual techniques.

These two media--if indeed they are distinct media--have so much in common that it's hard to assess their differences. I hope to have more to say about this in future posts.


"It's a half-hour multi-camera comedy, baby!" Amy Sherman-Palladino interviewed in TVGuide.com on her Fox pilot, The Return of Jezebel James. When she says she's not watching Gilmore Girls this season, you might start to cry. As for Warner Bros.: "All those suckers can bite my ass."
Terry Zwigoff on the new director's cut DVD of Bad Santa, which is three minutes shorter than the theatrical release and contains more than 1,000 changes, including subtracted voice-overs and a revised ending.


Amanda on ABC: Amanda Congdon, formerly of the daily Rocketboom, debuts her new videoblog on ABC.com. Virginia Heffernan reviews it very favorably in the NYT.
Now in the warm embrace of the mainstream media, this onetime indie figure is making online video segments on eclectic subjects. And ABC is meanwhile promising its groovy young girlfriend that she won’t have change a bit, even for corporate events: no first-lady suits, no hot-roller hair, no mannequin makeup. Ever. On her first minishow, which became available yesterday on ABC’s Web site, Ms. Congdon shows up in a taut Steely Dan T-shirt and opens with her trademark girly casualness: “O.K., this is weird.”
"A Year in Review bastard pop mix" of mashups from Stereogum by artist team9. Collisions include Thom Yorke with The Beatles, Wolfmother with Gnarls Barkley, Yeah Yeah Yeahs with Diana Ross...
On the making of Lasse Gjertsen's remarkable YouTube video Amateur in the WSJ. via, previously


Play MeeVee's "Name the Show" quiz: identify the TV shows in their frame grabs. I scored in the 66th percentile.
Two new efforts at engaging the audience: Lars Von Trier's Lookey (lookey.dk), Conan O'Brien's Horny Manatee (hornymanatee.com). In case you haven't heard: media interactivity is, like, in.


Charlie Brown Christmas - Performed by the cast of Scrubs, a holiday mashup.
Borat is a runner-up for the NY critics' award for best documentary? via
"30 Rock is the funniest new show on television," writes Heather Havrilesky in Salon.
Liz is not just the antidote to the smug, self-important, melodramatic boy-men of "Studio 60, " she's also the antidote to every adorable, perky, good-natured heroine on TV. That's right, I mean you, Calista Flockhart and Anne Heche and Sarah Paulson, you with your deeply feminine values and your giggling fits and your cute little button noses. Liz not only isn't adorable and sweet, she's irritable and sort of weird and she always settles for less. Whether she's dancing like a sad honky to Chamillionaire in the writer's room or making the racist assumption that another actor on the show, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), can't read, Liz makes mistakes that are far more pathetic than sympathetic. Liz is the human embodiment of a bad hair day, and so naturally I love her like a sister.
"Hosting events in Times Square, advertisers said, is like buying product placement in a TV show or a movie — except the cameras are held by consumers and the placement is on the Internet." NYT on a new kind of marketing.


Web Videos of 2006


In some ways the Long Tail era should be inimical to the creation of these year-end lists. One great thing about video on the web is that there is so much of it and that it is so various. But YouTube and other sites for viewing online video are not only an essential component of the new niche culture of sundry oddity; they are also engaging a common culture, a water-cooler culture. The significance of many of the videos below hinges on their wide dissemination. The whole idea of viral video, which I hope people will stop talking about soon, is that a wide audience is tantalizingly within reach given a winning combination of talent, zeitgeist, and good luck.

Like all such compilations, this one is cut to the measure of my idiosyncratic tastes. I don't claim that this is the best or top ten videos, just ten I think are worth recording as remarkable in some way. Most of all, I think they will be worth remembering in the future. Some have been seen by millions, others by only thousands. They are given here in no particular order.

"Let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." American politics might not have been truly transformed by Sen. George Allen's strange speech addressed directly to the videographer he insultingly dubbed Macaca. But many people's perception of the effect of technology on politics was shaped by this seminal moment in the YouTubification of American campaigning. And a Senate seat was lost in part because of the ease and accessibility of viewing video on the internet.

Lonleygirl15 was the first web-based serial narrative to gain wide attention and even acclaim. Some called it a new art form. If nothing else, it demonstrated the ease with which amateurs might be able to mount impressive narrative constructions and gain wide distribution for them on very limited means. Also, before the big reveal, it was a both a great story and a great metastory.

The Show With Ze Frank is a one-man production that airs five days a week. Frank not only conceives and performs his topical show, a sort of short and cheap version of Stewart/Colbert, but also shoots and edits it and writes and records original music. A show conceived as "a conversation between the host and the viewers of the program," it has inspired a rabidly loyal following of "Sports Racers," who supply Frank with intro videos and material to discuss, and occasionally script a segment or episode using a wiki. Of all the artists, amateurs, and eager kids producing content for the internet, Frank is indisputably the brightest, cleverest, and most consistently amusing. Is there anything on the internet better than The Show With Ze Frank?

Male Restroom Etiquette is a parody of an educational film of the 1950s or 1960s, with the requisite stentorian voice-over and preposterous slippery-slope reasoning. This is also an example of one of the most compelling forms of fan folk culture, the video-game-based homebrew animation called machinima. This video was produced using captures from The Sims 2. Unlike many instances of machinima, this one was made to be accessible beyond the fan community, to bridge the videogame and machinima subcultures to the larger online video audience. It won the best writing award at this year's Mackies (the Oscars of the form).

It has been on the "air" for more than two years, but Rocketboom, the daily program seen by as many as 300,000 viewers (this is a matter of some controversy), continues to be the standard against which videoblogs are measured. Its first host, Amanda Congdon, departed in July after a dispute with her partner in creating the show, Andrew Baron. She was replaced by the very funny and talented Joanne Colan, formerly a VJ on MTV Europe, who has only improved what was already a formidable franchise. After the split, Congdon did her own thing, Amanda Across America, traveling the country with her camera and microphone to interview some of the bigger personalities in web culture (Craig Newmark, Jeff Jarvis) among others. After that she signed on with HBO and ABC to do her new-fashioned thing on that old-fashioned medium, television.

Galacticast is a sci-fi parody videoblog by Rudy Jahchan and Casey McKinnon, the Nichols and May of web geek-chic. Galacticast's production values, although still crude next to, say, Lord of the Rings, are a dozen notches above most of the amateur content online. Jahchan and McKinnon have a green screen and aren't afraid to overuse it, and McKinnon is especially adept in front of the camera. Galacticast has goofed on everything from Dr. Who to Superman II and although it helps to be as big a sci-fi fan as they are, their videos are worth watching just to see what industrious and talented media producers can do within DIY parameters. (Jahchan and McKinnon were recently profiled on ReelPop.)

Jonathan Coulton is a singer-songwriter who makes his songs available for anyone to use in making videos. Several of them have been set to slideshows of images from the photosharing site Flickr that are remixable under a Creative Commons license. The first of these, Flickr.mov, is about Flickr itself--about all of the things one can find among the millions of photos posted to its pages. Neither the song nor the images are really outstanding, but the combination of the music and photos is a fascinating collaboration among hundreds of strangers. Of all of these videos, this one seems most emblematic to me of the aesthetic potential of the grassroots culture promoted by web evangelists. (Also see the Coulton videos Over There and Ikea.)

USA Today has called OK Go's treadmill video, "Here it Goes Again," "the YouTube Age version of Michael Jackson's moonwalk." Like so many of the things that get linked like crazy on the web, "Here it Goes Again" depends for its impact on being utterly astonishing, something we have never seen before, and utterly authentic, something made without the gloss, polish, fakery, and spin of the typical mass media productions. Like instances of early cinema (from the medium's first decade), which scholars have described as appealing with an "aesthetic of astonishment,"[1] many of the best early internet videos are short, diverting, and incredible.

The Fucking Short Version of The Big Lebowski is a prime example of one essential genre of contemporary short-form videos, the parodic remix. This one takes what is perhaps the most beloved American film of the 1990s and removes from it everything that isn't "fuck." The delight in watching is that of getting the whole narrative (assuming you've seen the movie in the first place, but if you haven't, why would you watch the parody?) in the form of characters muttering, shouting, bleating, breathing fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. A more common subgenre of parodic remix in 2006 was the trailer-mashup, best exemplified by Brokeback to the Future, which gets all of its power from Gustavo Santoalalla's haunting Brokeback Mountain score. All of the Brokeback trailer parodies depend for their comic effect on perverting what was once the interpretive practice of an oppressed group, a queer reading, to turn it into something comfortingly mainstream.

YouTubers is a compilation video, set to melancholic music, of bits from dozens of confessional videoblogs posted to YouTube . So, so, so many young people turned on their camcorders in the past year to reach out to the strangers out there, to the YouTube community, and so many of them were rewarded with conversation and camaraderie. Their faces and voices, their emotions and experiences, are nowhere captured better than here.

Honorable mentions:
-Amateur by Lasse Gjertsen. A new kind of musical virtuoso, his instrument is video editing software.
-Zidane headbutts Matarazzi. Soccer even Americans can understand.

[1] Tom Gunning, "An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the [In]Credulous Spectator," in Viewing Positions, ed. Linda Williams (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1995), 114-133.