My new splitscreen:

Split Browser

I have been experimenting with Firefox's Split Browser add-on as a way to watch videos online while doing other things at the same time. Before today I was often clicking on other tabs while listening to the audio from a vid clip. This way, I keep keep an eye as well as an ear on what I'm watching when my attention is divided. You can split any tab off right, left, above or below by right-clicking on the tab and calling up a "split tab" menu. The open tabs can be expanded or shrunk quite easily. Lifehacker notes that this add-on would be especially useful for people who have ample "screen estate" (i.e., really big monitors).

The pages you see above are an article at TeeVee about how some current shows are adding extra scenes of this season's episodes for viewing online (eps of The Office are available in extended versions from iTunes; Battlestar Galactica has an extra scene of its most recent ep up on its website); and a video of sand art by Dato and Ilana Yahav on YouTube (via MeFi).


Expanded Cinema is a blog curated by Joao Ribas that collects videos of short films, mostly avant-garde/experimental. (via Girish)
What's new in new media?

Rupert Murdoch: "News Corp. will try to concoct the next YouTube on its own." Good luck!

YouTube 2.0: We're going to rape your eyes and ears with advertising! We're going to share our revenue with you!

MTV is now, among other things, a 3D virtual social network. (Yeah, the NYT had this story four months ago.)

A kind of manifesto-cum-rant on "vernacular video": "the vernacular domain is a noisy torrent of immense proportions." Can't argue with that.

Some people are making money from web video. Some are even managing to be funny.

Fun with Amazon! ZonTubeß mashes up Amazon (music) and YouTube; Amapedia is Amazon's new wiki.

Does the Long Tail apply to the television industry? A debate begins.


Studio B on Wilshire Blvd.

From The Soup on E!. (via)

The first episode of the CBC sit-com Little Mosque on the Prairie (previously) is online. It has the same earnest, multi-culti sensibility that makes Degrassi seem so endearingly Canadian. And it's the only contemporary instance of North American pop culture I can think of that makes a Muslim woman in a headscarf and long sleeves seem sexually alluring. This pilot episode is full of double-entendre terrorism jokes and there's no way they can keep up that kind of humor, but the writing and acting are both competent and there's a sizable audience watching, so the show should be given a chance to find its groove. I hope to see more.

A review in the Vancouver Courier makes the point that the non-Muslim characters are hardly recognizable as small-town Canadian prairie folk--they come off as rubes. Well, rubes hardly bother me in a sit-com. Actually, the realism issue that I found confusing is that the Muslims in the show come in too many ethnicities. Some are white, one is black, and others are shades of brown. Some seem Middle Eastern, others South Asian. One central role is played by Carlo Rota, the same Canadian-English-Italian actor who is Chloe's BF in the current season of 24, fighting Muslims in one show while playing a Muslim in another. Of course Muslims do come in many ethnicities, and this is a good point for the show to represent, but it seems preposterous that one small community of Muslims in Saskatchewan would be so diverse. Some socially progressive representations (including Degrassi) sacrifice certain kinds of realism in order to promote a positive message.

(For more detailed thoughts about the first two episodes' writing and execution see Dead Things on Sticks, a blog by a Canadian TV writer.)


Woody Allen appeared on The Dick Cavett Show on October 20, 1971. These clips are from the Cavett "comic legends" DVD which I haven't seen, and are probably out of order.

In this one, Woody discusses the upcoming shooting of Play it Again, Sam and the writing of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. "I like my movies to be sloppy." But he likes his writing "to be "perfect." Talks about whether movies are art or not. Names three artistic films that rank with any other art form: The Seventh Seal, L'Avventura, and an Andy Hardy film, which gets a laugh. Cavett says that when he asked Welles the same thing, he answered Grand Illusion. It's a bit astounding that people had this conversation as recently as the 1970s, fifty years after the European avant-gardes of the 1920s and in the heyday of auteurism.

In one segment, Woody plays clarinet, bluesy, for laughs. It's so gratifying now to watch him please an audience. Then after a commercial he plays seriously and passionately.

Dick and Woody talk about food and health offers a kind of diet humor that seems totally unfunny now. Woody knocks over a table, then talks about avoiding cholesterol. Reminds me of the scene in Annie Hall when Alvy, out in L.A., orders a bowl of mashed yeast.

"Dick and Woody Debate Particle Physics" is the continuation of the last segment. Woody: "I would marry again, I think..." Yikes. Dick asks if Woody has a type. "I like pretty girls...and earthy looking...straggly earth mother sexual kind of animal disgusting types..." Then after the commercial: "My ex-wife is suing me because I made an amusing comment about her." This part is offensive by today's standards, which makes it all the more delightful as an object of nostalgia. Near the end Woody describes visiting Freud's house in Vienna.

The next clip picks up with Woody's discussion of his thirteen years of Freudian analysis, real intimate stuff. And a clip from Bananas. And Woody talks about being a college dropout, having failed out of NYU's motion picture production program and then City College's.

Then Woody plugs Getting Even. Lots of casual sexism in this one.


More Cavett:

Groucho Marx in 1969 singing "Lydia the Tattooed Lady." His lascivious eyes didn't suffer with the passage of time.

Mel Brooks is introduced as "one of the world's weirdest men." He discusses his Oscar, his mother, his wife; does a bit of his borscht belt act (they call the Catskills "the mountains"), and around 5:30 does a little Man of a Thousand Faces. In another clip after the commercial break, Mel calls Dick an "extravagant Gentile" and does bizarre impressions: Humphrey Bogart's sister, James Cagney's Aunt Hilda. Then he sings an impression of Sinatra doing "America the Beautiful" which is as good as it gets (just the song part is here).

John Lennon and Yoko Ono is quite odd. Cavett speaks Japanese, Lennon speaks Yiddish. That's chapter 2 of the DVD. Another clip offers the true story behind "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Happiness is a Warm Gun." Yoko doesn't talk a whole lot. In another episode, John discusses the origins of "Woman is the Nigger of the World," and he and Yoko perform it with their band. You can find other segments if you poke around.

Cavett interviewed by Charlie Rose in 2001. At 12:41 they roll a clip of a very young Cavett doing The Ed Sullivan Show. At 16:45 he talks about why he loved Groucho and then we get a clip of Groucho being interviewed on Cavett's show. 20:38 brings a clip of Katherine Hepburn talking about not wanting to be interviewed on a talk show. Around 24 minutes Cavett starts talking about stalking Greta Garbo. At 29:20, a clip of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer being nasty to one another with New Yorker writer Janet Flanner and Cavett in the middle. Flanner blows Mailer a sarcastic kiss around 31:05 and Cavett starts to laugh one of those genuine private laughs you don't often see on talk shows. Then Mailer calls the other three "intellectually smaller" than himself! What a shmuck! He patronizingly tells Cavett to ask the next question on his question sheet, and Cavett comes back with a perfect line: "why don't you fold it five ways and stick it where the moon don't shine."


Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica Podcast for "Rapture" (which aired Sunday, January 21) contains all manner of insights into the mechanics of television narrative. Moore discusses how telephone calls can cover for patches in exposition (a Hitchcockian trick), how plot points have to work around production constraints (avoiding location shooting in favor of studio shooting), and how scenes are moved around during writing and editing to get a good rhythm and avoid having acts shorter than six minutes. He says that the teaser and first and second acts are extended to keep audiences from changing channels during commercials (though DVD viewers won't care about this), so later acts end up being short. At the same time, every act ideally should culminate in a cliffhanger act-out, with the third act-out having the strongest moment of suspense. (I have found that many shows have weak third-act endings, but this observation is totally casual.) The podcast humbly points out various ways that the episode could be stronger and many of his points address the ways that writers have to manage audience expectations. Some plot inconsistencies he mentions might be the sort of thing that most viewers won't catch, but "if you're listening to the podcast," he says, "you want to know how the sausage was made."
In an interview on Fresh Air, Guillermo Del Toro discusses his interests in fairy tales, magic and fantasy, the Spanish Civil War, insects, monsters, dreams, his childhood, symbolist painting, and other topics. I saw Pan's Labyrinth a few nights ago and was wowed by the power of its storytelling and the imaginativeness of its visuals.


I have been collecting sources on The Daily Show for a point I want to make in my ongoing project on videoblogs. So here they are. If you know of interesting scholarly discussions of fake news that I don't mention below--especially from cultural/media studies approaches--don't hesitate to send them my way. (Basically I'm interested in the way that some videoblogs adopt conventions of fake news: adopting a parodic tone of mock seriousness; using comic techniques like when Jon Stewart has a conversation with news clips, answering politicians' sound-bites with critical retorts; functioning as a filter for the day's stories.)

-Wikipedia: The Daily Show. All Wikipedia entries should be so comprehensive.

-Ars Technica: "The Daily Show is as substantive as the 'real' news." This is a report on a study by Julia R. Fox, who teaches at Indiana University, of coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign. Fox found that TDS showed longer campaign-related segments and devoted more of each half hour program to campaign issues than the network news shows.

-A.V. Club: interview with Steve Carrell about various topics including the process of working as a "correspondent" for TDS.

-Columbia Journalism Review: interview with Jon Stewart from 2003, mostly about appealing to young people. Ends with this zinger: "I think you can make really exciting, interesting television news that could become the medium of record for reasonable, moderate people. And I think it hasn't even been tried, quite frankly."

-Transcript of Bill Moyers's interview with Jon Stewart: Moyers asks whether TDS is an old form of parody and satire or a new form of journalism.

-The Daily Show and the Reinvention of Political Journalism (pdf) is a conference paper by Geoffrey Baym, who later published a longer version as "The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism" in Political Communication 22: 259-276. Baym argues that rather than accepting the notion that TDS is "fake news," we should think of it as a form of alternative journalism that allows for greater criticism than standard news formats and promotes deliberative democracy.

-Entertaining Politics: New Political Television and Civic Culture by Jeffrey P. Jones, a book about TDS, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and Dennis Miller Live.



Frontal reactions of girls getting waxed mostly is much too pedestrian a title for this montage of women framed head to mid-torso as they lean back in the salon chair in preparation for having their pubic hair waxed, and then as the wax is torn from their flesh. Their faces express their feelings with vividness and intimacy and a swinging electronic dance track makes their fear and pain seem a little less awful. It was directed by the British music video director Matt Kirkby, who also made Basement Jaxx's U Don't Know Me, starring Queen Elizabeth II.

How to Poop is a Japanese potty-training video starring animated cats and a dancing cartoon turd.

Parcheggio perfetto is four-plus minutes of the worst effort at parallel parking you have ever seen, with hilarious (unintelligible to the non-Italian speaker) commentary by the people around the camera, perched on a balcony above the street. Around 2:00 the driver has a shouting match with someone offscreen and the people by the camera crack up.

The Ten Stages of Opening a Jar is another comic short film by Aaron Yonda, of Madison, WI, one of the talents behind the celebrated Chad Vader series.

All the James Bonds sit at one poker table in this inspired remix called Casino Royal II - Let's Play Again by JMY. This would be a good one to show if you ever happen to teach the Kuleshov effect the same week that you teach fandom and participatory culture.
This interview in Written By with the writers of Borat includes discussion of how the film was conceived as a narrative rather than just as a string of improvised scenes. Every bit was staged with a plot point in mind, and Cohen had lines for various alternate scenarios during each encounter, to use depending on how the "real" people responded to his provocations. At the end, they also talk about how each talk-show appearance during the film's promotional campaign was scripted.

See also:

-Kristen Thompson's discussion of Borat's creation and her earlier comparison of Borat to Snakes on a Plane.

-Deleted scenes: Borat in a supermarket, at a doctor's office, trying to adopt a pet, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and talking with a police officer who "don't high five nobody."


Last Thursday's musical episode of Scrubs fits well into the patterns I discussed recently in writing about contemporary film and TV musicals. "My Musical" motivates the numbers by having a patient with a neurological condition that causes her to hear singing, thus confirming for the audience that there is something odd about song and dance. The musical numbers are all available on YouTube. "Guy Love," sung by J.D. and Turk, brings the sexual subtext of their relationship to the fore (as often happens on Scrubs). The group number "Everything Comes Down to Poo" is cheerfully scatalogical. And Dr. Cox's Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque" Rant Song" shows off John C. McGinley as the showman he is. Also worth checking out: Bill Lawrence's interview in TV Squad. Among many fun tidbits, we learn that the "jocky" writers on the show are actually secretly "metrosexual" musical theater lovers.


A long interview with Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars, has appeared at TV w/out Pity. (Aside: when will TVWP make its website act like it's 2007? Loading 20 pages to read one interview verges on obscene.) I haven't read the whole thing yet but RT begins with a discussion of how each episode is written. This relates to an article of mine about television storytelling called "From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative"; here is a pdf). Thomas talks about working backwards from suspense-building "act outs" (the scenes that end with a commercial break), which is something I discuss in my article. In a nutshell, I argue that TV storytelling exploits television's need to break for commercials to craft norms of exposition and dramatic development around the commercial breaks. The medium's detractors might consider the commercial breaks an aesthetic liability; I argue that television writers have turned this constraint into an opportunity to make their stories more engaging.
Zeitgeist monitor: a diagram of "is the new" phrases like "non-fiction is the new fiction" and "Laguna is the new O.C." and "RSS is the new www" and "digital is the new film." Of course, the largest number of things are the new black. (via Language Log)


Listen up: podcast-interview with David Bordwell at Zoom In Online on film blogs, web video, academic film studies...
MySpace pages of Idol rejects from this week's episodes: Tuesday, Wednesday. I wasn't going to watch until it was down to the twelve finalists but...well, you can figure out the rest. (via)
Ze Frank is going Hollywood. Specifically, feature films.

When I have a quick reaction to this kind of news (in this case, mixed feelings), my impulse is often to keep thinking it over. Blogs thrive on the fact that many seem to have the opposite impulse. To wit:

Ze is Internet famous. Not MySpace royalty, but he hosts a vlog show that attracts about 25,000 viewers a day. Now he's going all Hollywood, has agent-ed up, and is trying out extensions in to the big and small screen.
“There was a pilot with CBS that almost went to deal, but we had to kind of pull out of that,” said Mr. Frank. The show had been a sitcom with a “tie-in to online space as well.” So Mr. Frank has decided since then to focus on feature films for his first foray into the mainstream. But don’t worry, netizens! He swears he’ll never ditch the Web.
At least until he can figure out how to farm out his vlog hosting duties to an intern while he makes the shift to a screen Americans actually know how to navigate. Which will happen in exactly never years and not a chance months.
The Observer profiles Ze Frank and reports that he is going Hollywood with an agent and a plan to break into movies. I’m a fan and wish he’d stick with the small screen. Ze had created his own unique visual voice and his own comedy HQ; too bad he’ll be abandoning both in March.


I've seen the first two hours of this season's 24, a show I have quit watching at least five times. My thoughts are pretty much the same as The Nation's Jon Wiener's: "The show is much more successful than the White House at making the case for torture."
What everyone else seems to be talking about in the world of audiovisual technology:

-Netflix to offer streaming video service, "free" to subsribers (with a time limit, a limited library of available titles, on Windos/IE only...).

-The bloom is off the iPhone.

-Joost, formerly known as The Venice Project, is to be a rival to YouTube (it hasn't been released yet except to an exclusive group of beta testers). NewTeeVee has a few screenshots and last week had background info including lots of techie details I don't really get about how the thing is supposed to work. (The new site: Joost.)

-HD-DVD has the edge on Blu-Ray, say the tech-trackers, because the porn industry likes HD better. Here's an interview with porn director Robby D. The favored historical analogy is Beta and VHS: Like Beta, Blu-Ray is Sony's format and Sony is apparently threatening to take away licenses from replicating houses that do Blu-Ray if they do adult.

Notes on Web Video Form

I have been thinking a lot about the form of the new web videos, especially The Show With Ze Frank. These are some of my notes. My ideas are in a formative stage, so any thoughts you have in response are most welcome.

When I say “web videos” I am first of all talking about short-form streaming videos from free-upload hosting sites like YouTube, Revver, and blip.tv. I am not talking about long-form streaming video on TV network websites, videos shared using BitTorrent, or TV show or movie downloads on iTunes. For the most part I am talking about videos made for web distribution rather than content whose primary distribution is not on the internet. (The exception is user-uploaded clips of movies and TV shows, to which these observations should apply.)

(In referring to these short-form streaming videos, I am generalizing about a huge category and trying to make some sense of it by identifying some key features. Like any generalizing, this emphasizes some aspects of the category over others and might seem to leave some examples out. I think this is how we generally use categories. Some instances of short-form streaming web video might be peripheral to the discussion, but our notion of the category’s contours is shaped more by prototypical instances than by outliers. For more on this notion of categorization see this Wikipedia stub.)

Three key characteristics of recent web video, all of which are points of contrast with mass media moving-image forms like movies and TV shows:

1. Web videos are ideally short and “sweet” (in the slang sense): they have to fit into their viewers’ patterns of internet and computer use, typically characterized by scarcity of time and attention. Many are video blogs and like blogs they tend to be brief, personal, and topical. Web videos seem eager to please, to appeal to viewers and engage their attention right away. The ideal length might be around three minutes. This is what I like best about these videos (the good ones, anyway): they capture my attention, make me go Wow, and never let me go until they’re over. E.g., Ask A Ninja Question 29 "BBQ".

2. Web videos are produced not only by creators but also by communities. Web videos are an instance of participatory culture: viewers are also creators, or at least potential creators. Because of their episodic nature and the frequency of newly updated material appearing online (practically continuously), creators are able to respond to each other and to their viewers more or less in real time. This has been essential in many of the most talked-about web videos, including lonelygirl15 (which presumably pursued the occultish elements of the story in response to viewer interest in them) and The Show With Ze Frank, which according to Frank takes the form of “a conversation between the host and the viewers."

3. Web videos have an amateur aesthetic. They are made outside of the major media industries -- even if they are remixes of mass media -- and by people who lack not only formal skill and training but also the technological and economic means available to professionals. Their production is artisanal rather than industrial. Like punk and other DIY movements, web video has a democratic spirit that insists on authenticity and is suspicious of anything that looks too good. Amateur means not only non-professional or untrained; more importantly, it means passionate. An excellent statement on the amateur aesthetic comes from Ze Frank's defense of his ugly MySpace contest. Frank reclaims "ugly" as a quality that's "pretty cool" in the hands of amateurs teaching themselves to use media authoring tools. He celebrates the anyone-can-do-it mentality as essential to the new participatory culture.

Why do web videos have these characteristics? Two concepts I find useful in answering this question are functions and constraints. Form tends to follow function and I see the short-and-sweet form of web videos as a response to the function they have of offering their users a diversion from some other activity. Much blog reading and web video viewing occurs in the context of work--in the context of what corporate America calls “stealing time”--and so videos function as little breaks from studying or crunching numbers or doing whatever it is people in offices do all day. It’s for this reason that some people refer to watching these videos as “snacking.” The viewer wants something fast and dirty and doesn’t have time to watch something ten or twenty minutes long. If it’s a clip from The Colbert Report, it’s just the best few moments. Thus web videos are an interstitial form--they are for filling in time between other activities.

Another way of thinking about functions is as affordances to the user. New media scholars often talk about the internet’s social affordances: e.g., social networking sites afford people the opportunity to make friends. The internet, as a network of users rather than a channel that sends media only in one direction from producer to consumer, affords interactivity. This means that YouTube videobloggers can post response videos that have a link from the video to which they are responses. And in the case of Ze Frank, the audience can become a collaborator in producing content for the show: introductions that fans shoot and upload to the site, projects they participate in like making an earth sandwich, and even a whole episode that the community scripts collectively on the site’s wiki. Fans of mainstream media poach and remix and some movies and TV shows allow for a kind of minimal fan input, but the participation going on with web videos can be of a different kind--there may be considerably more of it, it has the possibility of occurring in real time during the process of production and consumption, and it is built into the very structure of the distribution channel. Web moving-image media affords community in a way that other forms do not.

Constraints come in many varieties: economic, technological, cultural or social. Conventions of form (like genre conventions) are also constraints. The maximum running time on YouTube videos is ten minutes; that is a technological (and for YouTube an economic) constraint. The consumer-grade apparatus and budget available to many creators is a constraint. The convention of amateurism is a constraint, too. What’s most interesting about constraints on creativity is how they are made into opportunities, how working within them produces something good. Web videos are short and sweet because people who make them don’t have unlimited time (after all they can't pay their rent making web videos), aren’t professional media producers and don't have the means available to professionals, and want to produce a regular output for episodic release online rather, as in the professional mode, than working for a long time to produce one long video. A constraint becomes an aesthetic advantage when the short-and-sweet form produces the Wow response and the tightly seized attention.

The web itself might also be a constraint because of how people use it. When I watch videos online I am typically doing a number of things at once. At any given time I typically run three or four applications (Word for writing, Firefox for web browsing, NetNewsWire for tracking RSS feeds, iTunes for music, and sometimes Photoshop or PowerPoint or Preview for reading PDFs). In Firefox I generally have multiple tabs open: e-mail, news items or blogs I opened but didn’t get to read, etc. The typical online experience involves multi-tasking, and if my attention for a video flags I might click on one of those other tabs as I continue to listen in on the audio track. Since web video creators are also users, they know about how users’ attention is potentially divided; this feeds back into their assumptions about how to make their videos. Again: it creates the conditions for short and sweet.

A lot of talk about these new web videos is about their potential to be a threat to big corporate mass media's domination. A lot of talk is addressed to the potential for user-generated media to create a democratic revolution of media production by anyone and everyone. While I share the hope of the new media evangelists, my interests as a scholar run more toward analyzing what already exists than fantasizing about what might come to pass. I'm interested in figuring out what makes this new form compelling much more than in trying to divine its implications for the future of society.

I expect to share more of this work here in the near future. Stay tuned.


Recent faves of the web vids:

-World Freehand Circle Drawing Champion--I love little movies shot in classrooms.

-Silent Star Wars--eps 4-6 condensed and silentized.

-Season 4 of 24 in 2mn30sec--24 frames play simultaneously; eat your heart out Mike Figgis.

-101 Impressions--in four minutes!

-Puehse Twins Skateboarding--eight years old, mad skillz.

-Windows 386 Promo Video--skip to around the 7 minute mark.

Bonus: one way to feed your hunger for all this stuff is the aggregator site vidmeter, but you have to be willing to be your own vulgarity filter (or--better yet--not!). Another good way is The Daily Reel, which exercises taste and judgment rather than ranking by popularity.


+Apple: Kottke rounds up the iPhone buzz on the web. Pronounces the Zune dead, bitches (persuasively) about the sorry status quo for celphones, asks some provocative questions, and links all over.

+Annals of globalization: new Bombay movie Guru is having its world premiere at Toronto's Elgin Theater (where Cats will always be playing in the Toronto of my idealizing nostalgia), with top tickets at $500. (via Cinematical)

+On the indie trail: Sundance is the hipster's Disney, reports Wired News (what else is new?); The Hwd Reporter rounds up a year of "seismic changes" in independent film--hits, misses, new kids on the block, money money everywhere; Variety reports that IFC will move away from independent film, toward original programming--its first drama, Pornopolis, "revolves around an average family in the L.A. 'burbs -- whose parents happen to run a porn business." (That sounds like something I've heard before--have I?)

+Telly: Les Moonves says that CBS is transforming itself into "an audience company"; in an apparently unrelated story, CBS's sit-com The Class will offer live video of its table reads online.

+Futurology: Robert Scoble predicts that Netflix will be killed by new, improved p2p video delivery using Flash; The Truetalk Blog describes how YouTube is having a hard time maintaining a good community...loyal users are turning away...some say YouTube can't last.


Today I finalized the syllabus for my Principles of Media Studies course, which is an introduction to basic issues in the field. I'm offering it to you here because I have benefited from reading other people's, e.g., Chuck Tryon's Technology and the Language Arts Curriculum (tentative at the time) and Cory Doctorow's Pwned, on copyright in the digital age.

(I decided to make a course website using Google's page creator instead of using the university's "Desire 2 Learn" software partly because I don't like D2L's interface and partly because I wanted the site to be accessible to anyone. Someday perhaps I will learn how to design for the web for real, but for now Google will do--it's free and easy.)
Here is a video shot, edited, and uploaded to a blog using nothing but a Nokia N93 phone. The topic, of course, is shooting, editing, and posting using nothing but a Nokia N93 phone. The camera is the star. (Bonus: an ad for the product; a thorough review.)
Ad Age: "a year ago this would have been every TV executive's nightmare." CBS will encourage viewers to put clips of CBS shows online.
Since I hate spoilers, I have not read this interview with Battlestar Galactica honchos Moore and Eick. But I am eagerly awaiting reading it when I am no longer spoil-able. Apparently, it contains details of a straight-to-DVD BSG movie to be released between seasons 3 & 4. Read at your peril.
What's new in bar and bat mitzvahs?
CONCEPT VIDEOS: Today's teens are forgoing the traditional video montage and channeling their inner reality star by creating concept videos. With themes like the Academy Awards or the Olympics, these preproduced videos reflect the child's personal interests and feature creative cameos from their closest friends and family. After guests are seated for the party, a screen (or screens) will emerge and a video plays introducing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child into the room. What a way to make an entrance!
(via Ypulse)


Apple's new widescreen media player, which is also the new iPhone:

Lots more pics at Engadget; flashy demo at Apple's website.
Stephen King in EW--in the snazzy 24 pull-out section--gives us the formula for high-concept serial TV:
24 is a perfect example of why some serial TV works and some doesn't. The audience will come along for the ride, but it requires certain things as a quid pro quo. One is an element of believability (which ABC's Invasion never supplied). Another is what producers sometimes call ''a clear through-line.'' What this high-toned bit of jargon actually means is simplicity (NBC's Kidnapped threw that out in the first five minutes of its abortive run). Another is a high emotional temperature (which ABC's The Nine managed for exactly one week before lapsing into soap opera torpidity). Continuing stories have to run hot. How 24 has managed this kind of heat for six seasons is beyond me.

Last — and here's the genius part — continuing series must provide some degree of closure; the audience must feel they are getting somewhere. One of the reasons Lost may have suffered in the ratings this season (although suffering in TV is relative, and many struggling shows would kill to have Lost's ratings) is because it somehow misplaced that sense of things rushing toward some sort of conclusion. Even Fox's Prison Break (a column on this wonderful and hilarious show is forthcoming) provides that sense of closure; at the end of the first season, the main characters broke out of prison (well, duh). Now that the actual prison break's over, season 2 should be titled Show Me the Money.


eFilmCritic: film reviewing blurbwhores of 2006, exhaustive. The long, long lists of inane praises are a kind of found poetry.
I Tube:

Classical Music: Adam Fulara plays a Bach Prelude and Fugue tapping on two necks of a guitar. (via)

Indie music: This Sony Ad uses the song "Heartbeats" by The Knifes covered by José Gonzalez. The Knifes released Pitchfork's album of the year, which includes the original of the track. (via)

Sports: "That does not belong in the National Hockey League!": Ales Hemsky scores for the Edmonton Oilers with two seconds left. I love that I can appreciate the beauty and drama of sports on YouTube without being a sports fan, without having to watch entire games, without having to read the sports section, and without suffering the obnoxious voice-overs and music on ESPN.

Lonelygirl15: I stopped watching after the big reveal (here's an article about lg15 I wrote at the time for Flow), but this recent episode, "Bree's Dad is Dead," is quite haunting in its combination of music and images.

Paranormal rom-com: "Love Corner," by the Boston-based comedy troupe Zebro. (via)

Memento lite: Previously, a short murder mystery that actually goes backwards--not in reverse order, but in reverse. Winner of four awards in a 48-hour film competition.

Musicals Classic and Contemporary

In which I show American Idol more love than Dreamgirls

Every few years a Hollywood musical attracts unusual fanfare and some enthusiasts hope it might mark the genre's return to significance. In 2001 there was Moulin Rouge! and in 2002 Chicago. This year it's Dreamgirls. But a real return to the way it was seems like awfully wishful thinking, and none of these big films really aims to revive the style of the classic musical which was, in its day, the equivalent of our summer blockbusters, raking it in at the box office by offering spectacle, melodrama, and the biggest stars in the stratosphere.

The problem with making Hollywood musicals today is the audience. The core ticket-buying group for American movies, young males, does not just dislike musicals but is apparently made uncomfortable by them. Some spectators titter at the moment characters break into song. One guy in the front row at the Dreamgirls screening I saw last week in Toronto got up and wandered out of the auditorium a few times when characters began to sing. When I used to screen Meet Me in St. Louis on the first day of a film history class, some of my male students would exhale loudly and shift uncomfortably in their seats as the numbers were beginning. I asked one group of students why people had that response, and some earnestly answered that it's just not realistic for characters to sing. Not realistic for characters to sing! This from a generation that has grown up on South Park, Star Wars prequels and first-person shooters!

What's really going on, I surmise, is that musicals have become a challenge to heteronormative masculinity. Over the past few decades, gay male culture has made showtunes into a signal of gayness, and as gay culture has gained visibility so has the musical as its emblem. According to a widespread cultural cliché, there is no better evidence that a man is in the closet than a stack of Sondheim cast recordings. As a generation has grown up more aware than in the past about "alternative lifestyles," it has protected itself from seeming gay by disavowing its comfort with the genre. Some high schools apparently now can mount a musical production only if all the parts, male and female, are played by girls. And let's give gay culture some credit: among the things gay men like about the muscial are its overwrought theatricality, its heightened mode of performance, its intensity of emotion. These qualities are the opposite of those associated with straight masculinity in contemporary western societies (and probably in many others too).

Many new musicals seek to defuse the problem audiences have with the genre by tinkering with the way that the numbers are worked into the story. This is a clear case of an aesthetic program being dictated by a social constraint, a sense filmmakers have that audiences prefer certain kinds of representations. As Bill Condon says in his interview with Michael Sragow, the spectator has to be eased in. In the process of easing us in, the makers of many new musicals are giving up the distinctive character that gives musicals their appeal. In particular, they are sacrificing the convention of characters breaking into song, singing rather than speaking their thoughts and words. These new musicals are compromising some of the pleasures of the genre.

The musical has always exploited a tension between its two modes of performance, drama and song-and-dance. When one shifts into the other, the audience is supposed to experience a kind of lift, an emotional charge. The moment when a number begins can be transformative. The challenge for filmmakers is to manage the transitions from one mode to the other, from narrative to number. How do you combine the two? Many early musicals had a revue format in which the songs were not well connected through an overarching narrative, but the genre coalesced around movies in the 1930s that departed from that convention and integrated song and story together, much as forms of musical theater (opera, operetta, singspiel) had done for many years. The point was not to subordinate the song to the drama but to achieve a balance between them and ideally to make them mutually reinforcing by having numbers that arise organically out of narrative demands and that also reward the drama by developing plot, character, or theme through music and dance. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's RKO pictures are often thought to be the epitome of the "integrated" musical, and in their numbers they often continued to tell their movies' stories about boy-girl romance through flirtatious, competitive, quarreling, or making-up songs like "I Won't Dance," "Pick Yourself Up," "The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance," "Never Gonna Dance," "I'll Be Hard to Handle," "They All Laughed," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Even Busby Berkeley films--often thought to put spectacle way ahead of narrative--have narrative integration, as Patrick Keating argues in a recent article in The Velvet Light Trap (no. 58, pp. 4-15), "Emotional Curves and Linear Narratives."

In various ways, recent film and television musicals have found alternatives to having characters who feel a song coming on. Chicago has numbers as Roxie Hart's subjective fantasy sequences, which makes clear that in the narrative world of the film, characters do not break into song. There are many precedents for these psycho-numbers. Fosse himself also used them in All That Jazz. There is a dream sequence number in Oklahoma! Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective is full of fantasy numbers, too. Another option is that of Moulin Rouge!, which makes the narrative seem so outlandish and fantastic that having characters sing doesn't seem like a "break" into a different register of experience. In Moulin Rouge!, characters singing and dancing doesn't come off as a departure from dramatic realism.

There are still other novel devices that can ease the audience's negative feelings about characters breaking into song. "Once More, With Feeling," the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has the characters sing only because they are under the spell of a demon. They would prefer not to find themselves stuck, as Willow says, in a "wacky Broadway nightmare":

Another TV example, High School Musical, bases its plot around a character who is reluctant to sing and dance because those things aren't considered cool. By making him gradually warm to the idea, and eventually even be comfortable for his friends to know about it too, the audience is also encouraged to accept the form of the musical and be tempted by its charms (though this audience seems to be predominantly female, so perhaps it is really being encouraged by a fantasy that cute boys might be so tempted). In sum, many recent musicals make their integration of musical numbers an issue; they are not comfortable to adopt the classic musical's basic convention of integration.

The solution Bill Condon has found in Dreamgirls is in some ways the least satisfying of all. For about half of the movie's numbers, he adopts what seems to me to be an original alternative: he cuts away from the singer(s) to montages, some flashing forward and others showing contemporaneous events, that link the ideas from a song to events in the plot. In Dreamgirls, as the characters sing we see images of their rise to stardom. This helps the audience feel that the numbers aren't putting storytelling on pause, Condon says . Unfortunately, it also has the effect of taking the audience's attention away from the music and performance. The signature appeal of the genre, watching virtuosic performances of song and dance, is missing for much of the movie. I kept saying as I was watching: this film has no numbers!

How strange to think that the audience's attention would wander during the songs. This is the exact reverse, presumably, of what many audiences experienced during the musical's heyday, when the plot was often seen as a vehicle for motivating the numbers. I remember being taken to stage musical productions as a kid (My Fair Lady, Guys and Dolls) and being bored during the dramatic portions. Anyhow, in a well made muscial, every few minutes of performance are hardly pauses in the narrative. Narratives are constructed so that the numbers will have significance not only as something to command our attention, but as a way of presenting characters and their interrelations, as when Esther sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis, expressing her feelings--and ours--about her family's imminent separation. Numbers introduce and develop characters and settings (e.g., "Jet Song" in West Side Story), clarify conflict ("America," "Gee, Officer Krupke"), deepen emotional expressions and effects ("Maria," "Tonight"), and resonate with a film's themes ("Somewhere"). If the songs are good and appropriate, there is no earthly reason why a director should need to add additional narrative appeals. Taking the camera away from the character singing takes us away from our connection with their story. The characters in Dreamgirls seem flat for various reasons, but not least because their intense expressive moments, during their songs, are often offscreen while Condon flashes his montages. It also doesn't help that Dreamgirls itself, source material and execution, is mediocre: forgettable music (especially compared with real Motown), clumsy exposition, weak performances (especially Beyonce's but also Jamie Foxx's unvarying sourness), and a plot that consistently neglects its main character, Jennifer Hudson's Effie.


The cast credits at the end of Dreamgirls give Hudson a certain pride of place, putting her last and giving her a title that reads, "And Introducing Jennifer Hudson." This is ironic considering that not that long ago, Hudson was seen on TV by millions more viewers every week than will pay to see Dreamgirls in theaters. Her apparently slam-dunk Oscar performance as a big black girl who gets passed over for the pretty, skinny one is the happy ending to a story of rise and fall on American Idol, from which she was eliminated unexpectedly early. Hudson has earned the film's loudest raves and it is intensely satisfying to see her "introduced" even as she needs no introduction. Her performance of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" is the opposite of Condon's montage numbers--engrossing as a solo performance, full of rage and yearning, and full of close-ups that betray no reluctance to stay with the singer and song. And her acting is of a different kind than the other women in Dreamgirls. It invites empathy. Hudson makes us root for Effie. Indeed, if she is being promoted in the supporting category for Oscar consideration, the film's producers are repeating the slight done to the character, making Hudson seem like a second-fiddle performer in the movie in which she is undeniably the main attraction, the brightest light, the biggest voice, the most magnetic performer. (This injustice was duplicated when Hudson was left off the D'girls Vanity Fair cover.)

But the ultimate irony is that this role, this Hollywood debut, is supposed to mark Hudson's proper arrival when it should be plain to anyone who likes to be entertained, has a populist-egalitarian sensibility, and watches television that American Idol is in almost every way a more satisfying musical experience than Dreamgirls. Idol isn't a musical in any strict sense, but it does offer many of the genre's pleasures. And despite its obscene product placement and thick layers of musical cheese, Idol is often the most compelling show on television. We get to know the kids trying to make it, cheer them on or love to hate them, and worry as we wait to learn their fates. When a favorite Idol contestant sings well, the audience can feel proud of them. Musicals might be out, but American Idol is the most popular culture in America (with the possible exception of the Left Behind novels). And the central appeal of American Idol is the performances, the singing. Unlike Dreamgirls (and for that matter, MTV), Idol has faith that the audience wants nothing more than to give its full attention to music. You can now tell what parts of a TV show people really like by looking at what they upload to YouTube. Like this clip from the season just past, of Elliott Yamin (just a kid from Richmond, VA, diabetic, deaf in one ear, crooked teeth, worked in a pharmacy, loves his mom...) singing Donny Hathaway's "A Song for You":


Sacha Baron Cohen interviewed on Fresh Air talks about the origins of his "undercover" comedy style, the importance of his personae seeming foreign and stupid, the inspiration for Borat...


Little Mosque on the Prairie is a sit-com about Muslims in Saskatchewan premiering next week on CBC. It has been the beneficiary (?) of an avalanche of publicity: CBC, NYT, CNN, and more. Torontoist reports that to promote the show, the network is giving away 100 kilos of halal chicken shawarma in downtown Toronto. But will any of this matter if Little Mosque doesn't bring the funny?
Variety interviews four high-profile cinematographers on the advantages and disadvantages of shooting with digital cameras and links to fifteen more informative articles about how recent films (including most of the awards season favorites) were shot. (via bigscreenlittlescreen)
David Denby rounds up the usual suspects in an article on the American film business in The New Yorker. The studios make expensive, mass market films for young men and families. They make most of their money from home video and ancillaries, but they're still focused on the big opening weekend. The mini-majors make more sophisticated movies on smaller budgets for an urban élite. Teenagers and young adults often prefer the internet to the multiplex. The experience of movies in the theater can't really be reproduced at home or on an iPod--it is in some ways diminished.

The article contains various false notes. Denby makes it seem like it's a new thing that people watch movies on small screens, but this has been going on for half a century. He describes most movie theaters as rotting relics of the 1970s, neglecting the boom in theater construction in the 1990s and early 2000s that has perpetuated and exacerbated opening-weekend mania. And he suggests at the end of the article that one savior for movie theaters may be having trendy cafés in the lobby, which have been fixtures of upscale exhibition for many years.

Denby is best when comparing film and digital projection/viewing experiences in terms of qualities of images and sounds in the various formats and spaces used to experience them. His description of the sound experience using headphones as opposed to sitting in a room with speakers is a good point I hadn't read elsewhere. These observations make the case for defending film better than his more lyrical and nostalgic passages. For example:
At home, watching an old movie that once engulfed us, we yearn for more emotion, more color, more meaning. If we can’t get it, we have to fill it in from memory, the way someone listening to a beloved piece of music on the beach will fill in instrumental color and rhythms wiped out by a roaring surf.
Who is this "we"? I know what Denby is talking about, but this isn't always my experience. Repeated viewings on video often increase my affection for old films, and the many films I have seen only on video have often moved me emotionally in a way that didn't leave me wishing for more.

(See more discussion + links at the chutry experiment.)

EXTRA: Denby more or less demolished by the Bagger, who links to the NY Observer's Deep Impact to the NYer's Armageddon.


The Boston Globe on the TV season to date: too many serials, too little time. But don't most shows fail every year? If there are going to be lots of any kind of show, most of them will fail. It also compares The Office to The Mary Tyler Moore Show; you know I think 30 Rock is the better comparison. (via Convergence Culture)