Among my summer projects are two book chapters, an article, and a move into a new house (just around the corner, but still). One of the book chapters is about the Coen brothers, so perhaps there will be Coen brothers blogging here in the next couple of months. But my attention has been elsewhere lately and will probably continue to be elsewhere for a little while. In the meantime, here are some links.

TV Squad has a description of the opening scenes of Veronica Mars season 4 that the producers shot for The CW to check out. The description suggests that Veronica would have been the only character on the reboot version of the show, basically an FBI procedural.

Tickle Me Elmo on Fire is disturbing.

Wikipedia on film noir is pretty good.

Jason has been blogging up a storm. Here he is on The Wire, Lost, the TV season's ratings, and Hollywood box office figures.

Henry Jenkins offers a Cultural Theory of YouTube.


The unjustly maligned sequel is the topic of a virtual roundtable at the Bordwell-Thompson blog in which I am a participant along with other students and alumni of the film studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We answer such questions as "Are all sequels in the arts automatically second-rate?" and "Do sequels automatically equal predictability?" and "Are sequels part of a larger trend toward serial narrative?" In short, no, no, and yes, but please do click over and read what we have to say. Here's a portion of my contribution.
In the contemporary era of media convergence, serialized storytelling is becoming a mainstay across media and genres. Serial narratives supposedly facilitate spreading franchises out across multiple platforms. The media franchise demands long-format storytelling that can be spun off in multiple iterations. The rise of sequels is a much larger issue than a bunch of directors trying to make lots of money or audiences having unadventurous tastes–sequel/serial franchises are a central business model in the media industry today, supported and encouraged by the structure of conglomeration and horizontal integration.


100 Movies, 100 Quotes, 100 Numbers. I'm terrible at these things but they're lotsa fun. I love when Clint Eastwood says, "blow your head clean off." That's #44 if you feel like ffwding.

Flickrvision is awesome.

Wikipedia: Films Considered the Worst Ever. Like much of Wikipedia, this entry has a strong bias toward the recent and the present, but this is still fun to look over.

Piz, a fictional character on Veronica Mars, is now a music critic for Pitchfork, as fluxblog points out. This has something to do with Piz's offer of an internship at p4rk in this week's ep and the show's being mistaken about the location of the website's offices. Also, Veronica is indeed dunzo. It was once great, and I have missed that Veronica for many months already. But seriously people, come September there will be dozens of new shows to watch, and at least a few of them won't suck.

Jonathan Gray in Flow: TV shows are boys and girls even before they're born.

The Onion: Professor Sees Parallels Between Things, Other Things.

"Indie Minute" is a newish column at College Humor: "It's pretty corporate to be indie- just because everyone is doing it. So, if you really want to be indie, you have to start shopping at Hollister, eating at Red Lobster and seeing movies at Showcase Cinemas." (via 'fiddle)


Jason Sperb at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope has written a review of an essay by Julia Lesage in Jump Cut about web 2.0 tools for film and media scholarship (especially social bookmarking and blogging.) I left a comment there, so click over if you want more thoughts on that.

Chris Cagle (whose own blog is Category D) has responded in a separate post at Dr. Mabuse with some thoughts about blogs, including a taxonomy of the functions of academic film blogs: 1. Scholarship; 2. Popularization; 3. Heterodoxy; 4. Film Culture. Scholarship refers to blogging that is basically the promotion of traditional work, or that takes its form. Popularization presents scholarly work to a non-expert audience. Heterodoxy uses blogging as a way of exploring scholarly concerns that don't find a place within established institutions of scholarly discourse. And film culture engages with cinema on lay terms, i.e., on the same terms as non-scholarly blogs.

I would add another kind of taxonomy: in general blogs combine two features, prose and links. As prose, blogs can take the form or reviews, polemics, expository writing, etc. Scholarly blogs can adopt the prose style of scholarly These forms can include links, but blogs can also function in a way that makes the links the main event. Blogs function as filters when a blogger makes a habit of scanning news, blogs, calls for papers, viral videos, whatever, and blogs the ones he or she finds interesting. Some people find this stuff more useful than others (I can't get enough of it), but just about all bloggers do it sometimes. I see filtering as potentially scholarly (calls for papers) and potentially "film culture" (passing along news items) and often a cross between the two, especially when one studies such things as viral videos and the contemporary media industries. (You might think of this entry as filtering since its main purpose is to point out a pair of blog posts elsewhere.)

In addition to these categories, I think it's useful to see the function of blogging in terms of what it offers us that other forms of publishing do not. Scholarly blogs do several things better than journals, conference presentations, and books:
  • they respond to current events as they happen and follow no schedule but the blogger's
  • they have the potential to speak in a more authentic, spontaneous voice
  • they allow for the cultivation of an individual's persona and allow for the reader to follow that persona day by day
  • they are networked to other writers by hyperlink
  • they have comments and links that allow for instant reader feedback
  • they are not subject to any formal process of editing or review
  • they are available to anyone who is interested for free
As scholarship or conversation or filtering or personal journal, blogs by academics have the possibility to do things that traditional publishing can't do. But one thing that really excites me about blogging is that it can bridge the gap between scholarly and popular writing. As it happens, people who study media professionally and people who write about it professionally or just for kicks have many common interests. Blogs allow us to explore them together, and this has the potential to extend media scholarship beyond the often insular world of academia and assert its relevance. It also allows the scholar to write in a less formal style, and it's fair to say that scholarly writing stands to benefit from this.


Gilmore Girls says goodbye tonight. The buzz about the final episode is bad. This NPR story is appreciative but pretty superficial and a little patronizing. Todd VanDerWerff at The House Next Door is much more thoughtful; he calls GGs "a vision of what we might like America to be -- a kind, loving place where everyone’s got something funny to say."

WSJ: the media industries are currying favor with bloggers in hopes of positive publicity. A nice description here about the producers of The New Adventures of Old Christine inviting "mommy bloggers" to their set. This would be the flipside to the controversy (prev.) about blogs challenging traditional criticism. Oh, those blogs! (via ehlevine)

CinemaTech: YouTube should share revenue with everyone, not just the A-list.

Top ten Star Wars t-shirts. (I like Chewy as Che.)

And if you're in Williamsburg, NY, in June you might want to look in on the Brick Theater's Pretentious Festival ("the most important theater festival on earth"), which is to include a production described as follows:
The Children of Truffaut thrusts eight characters drawn from 70's Continental cinema into a game of arousal, angst, bluster, pontification, and whimsy. Godard, Fassbinder, Fellini, and Tarkovsky each provide the atmospheric starting point for a male/female unit. Once the pairs are spawned, though, pretty much anything goes, especially transgression, nostalgia, and love. This ain't yer momma's arthouse—unless your momma is the lovechild of Marcello Mastroianni and Hanna Schygulla. In which case, I'd like to meet her. (75 min)


The OMG of the week is this French YouTube video of people throwing cans in the trash. The "it's fake!" response doesn't diminish the OMG effect very much for me. So what? See also Guy catches glasses with face.

Big Love will air three flashback shorts in anticipation of its new season, first on On Demand and later on the web and on the regular HBO. My question for all such things is, if they are inessential for understanding the narrative of a series itself--and they have to be inessential because HBO is not going to risk the vast majority of viewers' incomprehension--why should I watch? I watched the BSG miniature New Caprica episodes and didn't know what to do with them. This kind of storytelling seems to be so much more driven by the desire to try out new distribution systems and media platforms than by a need to tell certain kinds of stories.

A review and appreciation of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation at PopMatters makes clear just how impressive this work is, a shot-by-shot fanvid remaking Raiders done by kids in the early 80s without the aid of a VCR. They relied on memory and research and found many creative solutions to problems of recreating a blockbuster using the resources available to amateurs.

And two blog threads I meant to link to earlier in the week...better late than never:

1. I haven't read all the comments, but a number of posts at Kristina Busse's blog about fandom, fanfic, gender, and related topics make clear how passionate media scholars are about their objects of study (see especially the one that got it started about a gender divide in fandom studies and a subsequent one about the validity of fanfic that gets pretty bitchy at the end of the comments).

2. Chuck has been tracking a discussion about whether film blogs are a threat to critics/professional writers or even whether they are just changing things for the worse (1, 2). Similar discussions have been going on for several years in various quarters. Foodbloggers have changed the way the public gets info about restaurants, especially in big cities. Litbloggers are killing book review sections. Lawprof bloggers jump on Supreme Court opinions the moment they are issued, bettering the analysis offered by journalists and rendering law reviews, which have slower publication schedules, irrelevant. If this is a fight, my money is on the bloggers. They write for free and with great passion, are networked to each other, engage directly with their readers, and have few of the limits on their creative output that constrain mainstream media. Indeed, the mainstream media may succeed by co-opting many of the bloggers' forms and functions.


Friday Night Lights has been picked up for another season.

5/11: The Watcher has a few useful tidbits to add here. 1. She responds, "Yesssssss!" 2. She reminds us that repeats will begin airing May 27 and that the whole first season can still be viewed online. 3. She encourages loyal viewers to proselytize on behalf of the show. So here goes: This show is awesome and I guarantee that you will love it if you just give it a chance!


Television Endings and the Infinity Model

Update 5/10: The Hollywood Reporter sez Veronica Mars is likely to get a 4th season flashing forward four years, as previously rumored. This resonates with my point at the end of this post: shows about teenagers have a tough time transitioning to post-adolescence. This kind of series reset would be a novel solution to that problem.

Update a while after that: obvs, this didn't come to pass. Too bad...or maybe not.

Some TV news in the past week--Gilmore Girls is finished, Lost has an endgame--has seemed to confirm again that the aesthetic and economic goals of television production can be at odds. Both will end at least in part because they have come, or will have come, to a point at which the story profits more from concluding than continuing. But from the perspective of the networks, there is never any reason for a good show to end. Jason has called this the "infinity model" of television programming, and I like that term a lot. It's what I meant when I wrote a few weeks ago, in relation to Veronica Mars, that fans want their favorite shows to be love affairs that last forever and a day. Here fans and networks sometimes have a common interest in never having to say goodbye.

But of course there are other interests, namely those of the people who make television shows. In the case of both GGs and Lost, the network might not have wanted to see an end point, but the producers hold the power here. Network TV earns its income from selling ads, so it always needs content to attract viewers. But the creative labor, the cast and crew of a show, earns its income from a contract with a production company, and contractors have to decide what work to take on the basis not only of what will pay, but also of what will benefit a career and provide satisfaction. Satisfaction comes not only from earning income but also doing good work. The decision to end these shows is a product more than anything of this creative decision-making. But this also follows business logic. For TV producers, success is measured in profit from syndication, and both GGs and Lost will go off the air with a handsome syndication package. For whatever reason, the industry still believes that 100 episodes is the magic number for syndication. Lost will pass that benchmark in its final season. Gilmore Girls will conclude with a syndication package of more than 170 episodes. In both cases, the creative personnel who decided that ending the show would be preferable to continuing it made a business decision, not just a creative one. They have decided: this has earned us, or will have earned us, enough. Time for something else. (And yes, the new media landscape includes other revenue from online distribution and DVD sales, and in the case of Lost, all kinds of ancillaries. But we don't really know yet the extent to which these sources are significant economically relative to syndication.)

Jason makes the good point that having a finite narrative structure can be aesthetically advantageous in the kind of contemporary complex serialized narratives he has written about, of which Lost is a key instance. But the same might be said of shows like Gilmore Girls, which is not a mystery-fantasy-sci-fi program, and which doesn't really need to end to be dramatically satisfying. Shows like GGs that center around kids might benefit from having a finite narrative structure because their basic thematic material has to shift considerably when the characters grow up. Gilmore Girls was a show about a precocious 15 year-old and her hip single mom who are more like BFFs than mother and daughter. On a fundamental level, the show lost this cute, appealing premise when Rory grew up, moved away, and started getting drunk and stealing yachts and having sex. It was possible to extend the narrative into her young adulthood and it would be possible to keep it going until she gets old and dies. The visual style, the acting, the dialogue, the supporting characters are all still there, more or less. But it may not be aesthetically desirable to keep it going when the main characters are no longer the same. Likewise, Veronica Mars was much better when it was about class division in a high school setting. The show has lost its dramatic center in this third season as the characters have shifted to college and the conflict has lost its core meanings. This problem will always affect shows about teenagers. They have to renegotiate the contract with the audience in later seasons as the characters become adults. We still watch and they can still be watchable, but something is lost in the process. As I have said before, this is one reason My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks live on so purely in our memories. They never had to face this inexorable progress of time, and remain fixed in their original states.

At the top of my wishlist for Fall '07 is another full season of Friday Night Lights. But I fear for FNL if it gets too successful. The actors already look old to be playing teenagers. (This is a basic convention of American television, but still.) The show is about high school football and won't shift very naturally to college. Much as I love it, I don't know that it could still be good after several more years. Still, I'd like to see for myself.

Characterization in American Independent Cinema

A couple of years ago I wrote a PhD dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called Characterization in American Independent Cinema. In it, I argued that characterization in cinema is a process of social cognition, much like our ordinary process of making sense of others in our everyday lives, and further applied this approach to thinking about characterization to an analysis of how indie films make character a central appeal of their storytelling. I'm now in the middle of turning this into a book. In the process, I am losing much of the theoretical discussions of characterization and adding some new parts about independent cinema's forms, institutions, and culture. I hope to make the cognitivist characterization portions into another book someday that is broader than just indie cinema (and broader than just cinema, for that matter), after I get the chance to do more systematic research into issues in social psychology that I still need to know more about. I decided to focus more on the indie stuff now mainly because it seemed that way more people are interested in it, and it excites me more to write a book that people want to read.

Occasionally people ask me to send them chapters of the diss, and I thought it might be a good idea to publish it on the internet, especially since the more theoretical portions aren't going to see the light of day in any other form in the near future. So I have uploaded the chapters to Scribd. Here are links, with brief additional info:

Title page

Chapter 1: Introduction (Headings: pg. 1 Independent Cinema and Character; pg. 4 Character, Person, and Self; pg. 17 A Cognitive Theory of Characterization: Intuitive and Counterintuitive; pg. 21 Character and Characterization; pg. 27 What About Subjective Narration?; pg. 34 Making Sense of American Independent Cinema [I would start reading here if you're into indie cinema but not so much into cognitive film theory]; pg 36 Auteurs, Spririts, etc.; pg. 39 Hollywood/ Off-Hollywood, Art Cinema/Independent Cinema; pg. 43 Viewing Strategies; pg. 66 Conclusion.)

Chapter 2: Typing (This chapter is about how we categorize characters into myriad types; Headings: pg. 77 Traits and Types; pg. 85 Stereotypes; pg. 93 Social and Genre Types; pg. 99 Typing in Process: Passion Fish; pg. 112 Conclusion. Some of the ideas in this chapter turn up again in an article I wrote for a special issue of Film Criticism on complex narratives, "Character and Complexity in American Independent cinema: Passion Fish and 21 Grams" [pdf].)

Chapter 3: Mindreading (This chapter is about how we predict and explain the behavior of characters by inferring mental states such as beliefs and desires--some experts call this mindreading. Headings: pg. 116 Mindreading: Character Psychology Inferences and Judgments; pg. 121 Folk Psychology; pg. 135 Causal Attribution; pg. 151 Heuristics of Social Judgment; pg. 157 Conclusion: Mindreading in American Independent Cinema.)

Chapter 4: Emotion Expressions (This one begins with a quotation from Fritz Lang that I really like, which reads in part, "Film has revealed to us the human face with unexampled clarity in its tragic as well as grotesque, threatening as well as blessed expression." Headings: pg. 163 Character Emotions; pg. 164 The Face; pg. 169 The Voice; pg. 172 Emotion Expressions: A Closer Look; pg. 176 Problems in Expression Recognition; pg. 182 Emotion Expressions in Film; pg. 186 Facial Expressions in the Construction of Character: Welcome to the Dollhouse and Hard Eight; pg. 196 Conclusion: Combining Appeals. Some of the ideas in this chapter, along with some of the preceding one, found their way into an article in Film Studies: An International Review, "Characterization as Social Cognition in Welcome to the Dollhouse" [pdf].)

Chapter 5: Characterization in Style (I argue in this chapter, among other things, that all audiovisual technique in a narrative film can be understood to have a characterizing function. I doubt that my advisor really buys this idea but he never put up a fuss about it. Headings: pg. 203 The Challenge of Style; pg. 204 Style and Character in History; pg. 212 Characterizing in Style: Story and Self; pg. 226 Levels of Characterization in Style; pg. 242 Style and Character in Todd Haynes' Safe; pg. 260 Conclusion.)

Chapter 6: Infinite Variety: Variables of Characterization (In this chapter I offer a typology of characterization variables along three axes, depth, complexity,and change. I argue, counterintuitively, that independent cinema characters or characterizations are often shallow rather than deep, straightforward rather than complex, and static rather than changing. One way of creating interesting characters is by keeping the audience at a distance from them, forbidding us access to their psychology, and refusing to have them follow the typical Hollywood hero's trajectory toward self-knowledge and revelation. Headings: pg. 268 Round and Flat; pg. 274 Narration and Characterization; pg. 277 Variable 1: Depth; pg. 294 Variable 2: Complexity; pg. 310 Variable 3: Change; pg. 324 Conclusion.)



Lauren Graham talks to TV Guide's Michael Ausiello about deciding to end Gilmore Girls. If you love the show, prepare to shed tears. She talks about her mixed feelings about this season, about the loss of Amy Sherman-Palladino from the creative team, about romantic-triangle storytelling, and about her feelings about cast members. She's very candid, very Lauren Graham.

Meanwhile, we will soon know more about next fall's schedule. If you just can't wait for it, see Deadline Hollywood's scoop-y, dish-y prime-time pilot handicapping. (No mention there of The Return of Jezebel James--is it for midseason?)


Irony, Sincerity, and Fountains of Wayne

In the video for "Someone to Love," the first single from Fountains of Wayne's new album Traffic and Weather, the tropes of early MTV are reheated with that mix of affectionate nostalgia and gentle mockery that has come to define so much of contemporary culture as it re-circulates the images, sounds, and narratives of the past. The video for "Someone to Love" tells a story about a boy and a girl--exactly the story told by the lyrics. When Fountains sing of a woman spending an hour in the shower or a man working as a lawyer, that's exactly what we get. For the choruses the band lipsyncs on a television in a character's apartment against stylized colored lights, and that's about as cheesy a device as you'll find in music video. Like the band's only real hit, "Stacy's Mom," the video for this new song tries to play to two audiences: young people with no memory of the first crop of MTV videos, for whom the text plays straight, and aging hipsters of the band's vintage who get that they're a stylish, knowing knockoff of the early 80s new wave pop sound and recognize the slight goofiness of these video homages--especially the excessive Lolita-meets-Fast Times iconography of "Stacy's Mom." In an interview about "Stacy's Mom," Schlesinger talks about the very specific early 80s sounds they're after, including Rick Springfield and The Cars. He even calls it ripping off, though he obviously means that in the nicest possible way.

Fountains of Wayne's music is a perfect blend of sincerity and sendup, with moments of honest pathos passing imperceptibly into revival style that goes a bit too far. On the new album, the rhythm guitar over the percussive piano line of "Yolanda Hayes" is straight out of a Joe Jackson intro ca. Stepping Out, while the panting vocals over a sexy bouncing synth line in "Someone to Love" might segue any second into "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" (...baby right round round round). Adam Schlesinger is an ace at dreaming up songs that make you smile even as you cringe a little, as he has done in composing for films like That Thing You Do! and Music and Lyrics. The whine of Chris Collingwood's voice works well with Schlesinger's sad sack suburban themes in songs for Fountains of Wayne. The lead characters in "Someone to Love" are lonely twentysomething New Yorkers who need each other but fail to connect. The narrator of the wistful "Hackensack," off the band's previous effort, Welcome Interstate Managers, pines for a high school classmate who became successful in showbiz while he remained stuck in his hometown working for his dad. I'm sure Schlesinger doesn't mean to be putting anybody down, but his portraits of post-adolescent white middle-class angst are basically about what his life might have been like had he not found himself some success as an indie rocker. In other words, they can come off as gloating.

A tension between irony and sincerity is a tone that we find now too frequently in rock music, television, film, and other pop culture. All forms are indebted to the past, but in a genre like indie music where authenticity counts for a ton, reviving an old form with low authenticity, like early 80s AM radio pop, requires a smirking suggestion of being in on a joke. (This is different from, say, Billy Joel adopting 50s doo-wop style in "Uptown Girl"--these two things were on the same level, more or less, authenticity-wise.) And yet Fountains of Wayne clearly adore the music of their youth. They don't love it in spite of its cheesiness--either they don't find it cheesy, or more likely cheese is part of what they love. The influential Tarantino school of cultural appropriation exploits a similar contradiction between affectionate and parodic relations toward one's nostalgic fixations. To some leftist critics of corporate culture (e.g., Naomi Klein), the ironic consumption of corporate kitsch is an exercise in bad faith. But the acceptance of debased commercial entertainment as aesthetically legitimate can be quite liberating. It allows for the honest appreciation of the things mass audiences really love even when they are "guilty pleasures" and it celebrates the people's taste. Further, it decouples critical appreciation of culture from a kind of economic formalism that dictates that the creative output of corporate culture industries are less authentic or legitimate than other kinds of culture simply by virtue of their origins in exploitative business practices.

"So bad it's good" is a put-down. It's an arrogant, cynical stance. The key to appreciating a culturally delegitimated form is to own it, to insist on appreciation that avoids mockery or derision, to stand up for your taste. In a better world there would be no guilty pleasures-- just pleasures. I think the Fountains guys get that. I don't know if their fans do, too, though. Popular sentiment seems to be that the band could be doing so much more with their talent (e.g., a 3.0 rating Pitchfork review--which might actually be evidence of artistic triumph). I hope this isn't code for "stop reviving early 80s crap."


At the end of this Techcrunch article about Flickr replacing Yahoo! Photo, it mentions that Flickr users will soon be able to upload videos. Not sure what to make of this at the rumor stage, but it could mean some pretty significant changes for both Flickr and web video. Imagine how different YouTube would be with Flickr's interface, its greater/better social affordances, and its generally more civilized community standards. Stay tuned.


Gilmore Girls is cancelled. The statement issued by The CW and Warner Bros. television reads, "This series helped define a network and created a fantastic, storybook world featuring some of television's most memorable, lovable characters." That's true. Seven years is enough and the show has gone off the rails from time to time this season, but it will be hard to say goodbye to our friends from Stars Hollow. The last ep airs May 15.


My So-Called Life to return to DVD, but what about the extras? (via)

The CW: has the sum been less than the parts?

Does 24 need reinvention?

Do sweeps periods still matter?

Google: ready for a fight?

Perez: past the tipping point?

American Gladiators nostalgia, anyone?

Finally, this map of online communities is my favorite thing of the day.


Pulp Muppets! Ok, so John Travolta is the logical Kermit and Uma Thurman can only be Miss Piggy. But I wasn't expecting Bruce Willis to be Beaker. (via MeFi) Bonus: Beaker sings "Memories."