Faves, 2008

As always, at the end of the year one has trouble remembering anything that happened in the early months. I don't know if I even saw any new movies before the spring (aside from the Oscar-season movies of '07 seen last January, which we certainly don't need to think about now), and the writers strike killed much of the TV season. Film consumption in '08 for me was mainly older movies I was writing about, and much of the TV consumption was binges of seasons several years in the past (mainly The Wire and Six Feet Under). I am not one of those cinephiles or completists who waits until seeing all the late fall Oscar bait before making a list, though I expect at least a couple of the releases to come this season will impress me.

Many of the following appeared previously at Fraktastic.

And the short version of what follows is: my favorite thing of '07, Mad Men, is also my favorite thing of '08.


Rachel Maddow's new TV show. I don't watch to watch very much of it, and like reality TV competitions, cable news is exasperating without a DVR. The phoney visuals of TV news (the fakey-fake hair and makeup, the conservative wardrobe which she likens to an assistant principal's) make her seem like she's playing dress-up, which works in her favor because we sense a more authentic self beneath the facade of official appearance. See how much more natural she seems on Leno (where many guests seem not natural).

FFFFOUND!, the invitation-only social image bookmarking site, is the place I most eagerly spend open-ended lengths of time when I'm at my computer and don't feel like doing what I should be doing. Here are some gorgeous or cool, random-ish images I found just now (ish b/c each is within a handful of links of the next): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

The Visitor despite its bizarre representation of academia (is there a representation of academia in movies and TV that is not in some way bizarre?). A message movie that isn't preachy, and a very sad one.

The Boston Globe photoblog The Big Picture, e.g., sets of the Olympics opening ceremonies, Obama campaigning, Mumbai under attack. The size of a photo matters a lot online. (Some longtime fave photoblogs are Daily Dose of Imagery, which I like in part for its Toronto content, and The Sartorialist, who is an institution.)

This Recording
, e.g., impersonating Devendra B, recapping Gossip Girl amidst references to Baudrillard, Mulvey, and The O.C. and 90210, reviewing The Wackness in a way that makes you appreciate how much better the review must be than than the movie (I haven't seen it). TR is a masterpiece of blogging as its own critical and aesthetic form, integrating images, text, links, music, and ideas in a way no other medium can. More importantly, it has established a voice and style of its own despite being a group blog with contributions from a large number of writers. It is hip without being snobby and clever without being too cute or at all snarky, and it offers an excellent snapshot of the tastes of the contemporary young cultural elite, which range from celebrity culture and TV melodrama to indie rock to the traditionally legitimate arts.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, one of the few good things to come of the strike as far as I can tell.

Fleet Foxes
, the new music I have been listening to most obsessively in the past few months, rich with vocal harmonies and acoustic strumming. They remind me most of all of Crosby, Stills and Nash but I cannot imagine them ever singing anything as earnestly hippyish as "Teach Your Children" or as simply pretty as "Helplessly Hoping." Also check out the Swedish artists First Aid Kit covering the FF song "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" on the YouTubes.

Wall-E. For weeks after seeing Wall-E, Leo and I would call and respond, "Wall-E!" "Eve-uh!" "Wall-E!" "Eve-uh!"

The Wire season five. The representation of the news biz was a disappointment (fraudulent reporters out for personal gain aren't among the really big problems facing the press) but the storytelling as ever was state of the art. I rate Wire seasons, first to worst: 1, 4, 2, 3, 5. I admire the show's social and intellectual mission but the characters make it great.

Stuff White People Like
, incl the book. E.g., "White people hate stuff that is ‘mainstream’ - so they go to film festivals where they see movies that every other person in their demographic wants to see. It’s a pretty sweet way to rebel." And, "White people love ethnic diversity, but only as it relates to restaurants." And, "The number one reason why white people like not having a TV is so that they can tell you that they don’t have a TV." And, "Regardless if you are vegetarian, vegan, or just guilty about eating meat, all white people love Sushi. To them, it’s everything they want: foreign culture, expensive, healthy, and hated by the ‘uneducated.’" And, "The most horrific recent example [of irony] is Trucker hats, that shockingly went from mainstream in the 80s to Ironic in the early 2000s back to mainstream, at which point they are no longer rare or unique. Once something reaches this stage, irony cannot be restored for 10 years." And, "Being in graduate school satisfies many white requirements for happiness. They can believe they are helping the world, complain that the government/university doesn’t support them enough, claim they are poor, feel as though are getting smarter, act superior to other people, enjoy perpetual three day weekends, and sleep in every day of the week!" Some say it was better when it was called the Preppy Handbook. But every generation deserves its own instance of precious self-mockery. The genius of SWPL is the very quality some people find to be its biggest flaw: that it is not actually about white people per se, but about an elite segment of the North American population that is young, affluent, and especially rich in cultural capital. It's part of the faux-naive voice of the blog and book, which comes on earnestly how-to, that it mistakes this demographic group for white people. Satire is all about finding the voice. (Honorary mention here to Hipster Runoff, another satire of stuff white people like, e.g., future of the music video.)

The whole family of Google products has a central place in my life (the original Google, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Book Search, Google Scholar, and of course Blogger and YouTube). When I encounter people using alternatives to Google, like Mapquest instead of Google Maps or Hotmail instead of Gmail, I admit feeling a little disappointed, though I'm not a confident enough snob to give them my opinion. I have faith in Google, though I also have doubt about my faith. My faith is that Google will continue to improve my life, and wants mainly what I want, which is easy access to information. My doubt is that Google knows everything about me and one day this will spell doom, or perhaps some form of humiliation. An excellent overview of Google's achievements in comparison to those of their rivals, especially Microsoft and Yahoo, is Randall Stross's Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan to Organize Everything We Know.

FiveThirtyEight for a few weeks in October and Early December.

This American Life
on the housing and financial crises.

NYT interactive graphics, e.g., Olympics medals through the years, home prices, Presidential election voting.

Rachel Getting Married
, the wedding scene with the Neil Young song and the return of Debra Winger, and especially Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt (Midge from Mad Men season 1) as sisters with a troubled relationship.

Michael Pollan in the NYT mag on food and politics.

Girl Talk, Feed the Animals. Useful to listen at least once or twice with its Wikipedia entry nearby, but certainly not on the first go, when at least half the fun is the recognition game. My favorite bits in Girl Talk are always the combinations of classic rock riffs and raunchy hip-hop lyrics, like Styx singing about the long arm of the law while Dr. Dre responds, "Bitches ain't shit but hoes and tricks." It's like GT has access to rock's racial and sexual unconscious, which is expressed in the rap idiom mashing up against the melodies and harmonies of popular song forms.

She & Him
. I see that Paste has called this the best of the year. They must have a bigger crush on Zooey Deschanel than the rest of us.

Vapire Weekend in general, "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", song and very retro video in particular.

La Blogotheque: direct cinema vs. MTV.

Devendra Banheart's "Carmensita" video with his ex-squeeze Queen Amidala.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, and of course, 30 Rock. "I want to go to there."

Weezer, "Pork and Beans" video, a lovely little mash note to the tubes in its native idiom of affectionate quotation. (Related: I am aware of all internet traditions.)

Beyoncé, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)", song and video.

Jezebel's WWJJD (What Would Judge Judy Do?) entries.

Most of the election-themed viral videos made me want to turn away but some were really funny, esp It's Raining McCain and the McCain's Brain series. In other words, sincere videos about my candidate didn't do it for me. Mocking videos about his opponent did. (Related: Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle.)

Literal "Take on Me." The genius of this is that it acknowledges how far the meanings of the visual video narrative exceed those of the song, and reverses the anchoring function of sound in relation to image. I could do without the subtitles, but on first viewing they emphasize the silliness nicely.

Muxtape, RIP.

Hulu, long may it live. (YouTube in HD is nice too, but it's still YouTube: disorganized, ugly, vulgar, and where the people are.)

In Treatment. A novel concept in some ways, but that only gets you so far. What makes this show work, aside from the repetitions of little details here and there day after day in that same therapist's office, is the conflicted protagonist played by Gabriel Byrne, at once so good at listening to other people's problems and so bad at facing his own.

Mad Men, a show whose episodes can only be deleted when the DVDs arrive. Every character gained dimensions in season two, especially Don, Betty, Pete, Peggy, and Joan. Don became a real bastard without losing our sympathy, and Pete became likable enough that in that incredible scene between him and Peggy in the finale, we almost wished she hadn't told him what she did. It also became clear that, despite the title, it's a show about women. My favorite episode was "The Jet Set," when Don runs away in California and encounters the characters of Bonjour Tristesse and Antonioni. That was audacious and beautiful. My favorite moments would make a very long list, but here are a few: Jimmy insults Mrs. Utz, Don does that violent thing to Bobbie Barrett, Betty pukes in Don's new Caddie, Joan is raped by her fiancé on Don's office floor, Bert Cooper tells Harry what to make of his Rothko, Peggy gets an office of her own, Kurt comes out, Father Gill sings the folk song, and oh I must stop. Every scene and episode is still its own exquisite object to admire. My fave intepretation of the show is the illustrations by Dyna Moe. Someone you know would probably love to receive her 2009 Mad Men calendar.

Favorite things I haven't experienced in 2008 -- I believe they would be my faves, I just haven't encountered them yet.

Dexter, Weeds past season 1, Californication (no Showtime here); The Shield (no excuse).

Kanye West's music, blog, etc.

The most recent crop of superhero movies.

Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, the book about Laura Bush. I haven't read it but I love it, based on what I have heard.


Previously: last year's faves.

Bonus linkage: Film Studies For Free offers an A to Z of scholarly film and moving image blogs.

Question to ponder: why do people feel the need to memorialize a year before it has ended?

Final thought: slow blogging is awesome.


Bronze Fonz

I have a column in the new issue of Flow about the new statue of Arthur Fonzarelli here in Milwaukee, WI. This gave me the opportunity to write about (at least) three things I have spent a lot of time thinking about: Happy Days, Wisconsin culture, and the politics of taste. And you've probably already seen this video in which Ron Howard and Henry Winkler reprise their roles to help the Obama campaign. Further evidence that Happy Days lives, at least in the hearts of those old enough to remember it.


Fall TV diary

As usual, television has been filling my late evenings. This fall so far has been remarkable for offering so many genres of programming to compete for my attention. Our household rarely tunes into the cable news channels, and I long ago stopped being a serious sports fan, but the incredible election campaign and our baseball team dramatically making the playoffs have renewed my interest in channel surfing. The debut of so many new shows (Dr. T watches each one at least once) has put our TV-on-DVD binging on hold completely and filled our DVR with unfamiliar titles. So here are some notes (in alphabetical order) on what's been flickering from our screen.

(For my thoughts from this time last year, see this post called "Most Will Fail".)

B is for Baseball in HD, a pleasure no matter who's playing. Ditto watching with a four year-old, which gives me the opportunity to try to explain the rules of the game in the clearest possible way. We've been working on the difference between a fair and foul ball for several months. Fastballs vs. breaking balls will have to wait till next year. The thing that interests Leo most is usually the names of the teams. He's good enough with lettes to be able to read "RAYS" and he certainly recognizes the Milwaukee Brewers.

and Brothers and Sisters, which has the best wasted cast you can imagine, so many of them more vivid and memorable in earlier roles.

C is for Chuck, which didn't impress me much its first go-round. I assigned its second-season reboot as an example of an hour-long TV show in my intro to media course. Chuck seems emblematic to me of the trend in network shows toward episodicity, which disappoints me more than the more significant general decline of the networks. It also seems too broad and comedic for an hour-long show, another trend I deplore. Two years ago when the networks overdosed on serials in the Lost mold they had obviously overdone it. Now the pendulum has swung back too far in the other direction. The whole wish fulfillment geek/hottie love match scenario, which afflicts American entertainment like a vile, hideous plague, has really got to stop. (I include here the otherwise charming Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.)

D is for Dancing With the Stars, which like most reality, can only be watched with a heavy thumb on the ffwd. Warren Sapp, a retired defensive end of enormous girth, is the delight of this season. And on results nights when the prepubescent kids dance, you can't skip that.

and Debates, good Lord, which I would gladly watch in their entirety even if they were nine hours long. I constantly hear Sarah Palin's lines in my head ("we're a team of mavericks, what do you expect?") and picture McCain wandering in the background as Obama answers questions. But the real-time pundit scoring on CNN is distracting and irritating, and the postgame analysis is unbearable.

E is for Easy Money,
a rare show about people who aren't filthy rich. Except, surprise! They are!

and The Ex List
, My Name is Earl meets HIMYM meets Sex and the City, or something to that effect. Cutesy, forced humor. Appealing lead. Don't expect it to last.

F is for Friday Night Lights
, which you can only see now if you have DirecTV (or if you know some other way of getting the new shows, wink), and which has returned to the camera and storytelling styles of its bravura first season. A pleasant surprise, but it's hard to forget the dumb crap they pulled last year.

and for Fringe
, which at least held me through its first episode and almost ten minutes into its second. The show has characters, like the one played by Pacey from Dawson's Creek, that it doesn't know what to do with. It turns up the horror/suspense masterfully for a minute or two, then has scene after scene of clunky exposition and bogus conflict. It blew a huge wad on a fancy pilot but obviously won't sustain the style. The serial mythology is in the background and it's emphasizing episodic plotting. Yet another show with a bland young woman in the lead and a goofy complex sci-fi mysterybackstory to unfold little by little, which one senses the writers have figured out almost not at all. IMHO, J.J. Abrams peaked with Felicity.

G is for Gossip Girl,
which has at least one or two fantastically campy moments per episode, usually featuring Leighton Meester. Way overrated, usually by New Yorkers, but not without its charms.

H is for The Hills,
which is running out of story to tell, and is sadly no longer the gem it once was. The Spencer-Heidi part of the show is bankrupt and the Audrina story would be good if only Audrina were the least bit engaging. They're spinning off a new show for Whitney, which doesn't sound promising since Whitney has never been much more than a person to listen to Lauren recap the events of her life.

K is for Kath & Kim,
which could be a success if not a hit. The style, the cast, and the tone are all really good. The writing will need to find a formula to make the characters lovable. Molly Shannon was born to be a TV star, and Selma Blair does a good job of selling a stupid character without making her too grating. Love the scenes shot at the Burbank Mall.

L is for Life on Mars,
a high prestige effort with big stars (Harvey Keitel!) and elegant period detail. But Mad Men has set the bar so high for period, and I fear this one won't match it. They are shooting through a filter to effect a period look, and the stylization is forced. Lisa Bonet and Clarke Peters are in the first ten minutes but then when the main character is transported back to the 1970s they're left behind, big pity (ok, it seems Lisa Bonet will recur a la Richard Jenkins in Six Feet Under in ghostly form). The music in the pilot is pretty fantastic (Bowie, The Who, Rolling Stones) but who knows if they can afford to keep this up. Emblematic of a current trend: location shooting in NYC. Movies have been shooting in NYC for so long it's too familiar, and I'd be more excited to see location shooting in someplace we don't see so often, e.g., Milwaukee. And no, I didn't watch the British version.

M is for Mad Men, which retains its status as my favorite thing. So many astonishing scenes and episodes in season 2, clearly keeping up the high standard of season 1. The female characters are the show's strongest suit, but every aspect is top-notch, from the writing to the sets and costumes to the performances. Special props to the writers and actors for their handling of the closeted character, Sal, and for being so deliberately slow in unfolding the backstory of what happened between seasons 1 and 2.

P is for Project Runway
, which like many of these competish shows, only gets good in the last few weeks when the contestants become characters. I'd like to see a reality show try to begin with a smaller cast and get rid of the convention of eliminating one contestant each week. My favorites of this bunch are Kenley and Leanne (who has an Etsy store you might check out). I appreciate this show for teaching me a lingo for talking about ladies' clothes.

R is for Rachel Maddow, the only talking head in prime-time I would seek out. What a fresh new face and voice! She smiles, she's smart and funny, she acts natural, she seems like people I know. For the first time since Aaron Brown left CNN I feel a connection to one of these bloviators (and yes, they are all bloviators).

T is for True Blood, the best new show I have seen in the past couple months. It suffers from the standard Alan Ball afflictions of inconsistent tone, cheesy subjective sequences, and overcooked thematics. I like melodrama, though, and I admire audacious gore. Anna Paquin is rare among the younger generation of actresses in conveying depths of feeling in her face. The storytelling is consistently gripping, especially the cliffhanger episode endings that pick up right away in the next week's installment. And I'm not fascinated by vampires but this show makes them pretty sexy.

and V is for Valentine, totally preposterous but a must-see at least once...I liked it better when it was called The Love Boat.


Fall 08

Long time no blog!

A semester has begun. Today was cool and rainy in Milwaukee, summer no more. I am teaching two courses:

Intro to Mass Media, our 101 course with hundreds of students (previously).

And Indie Culture, a graduate seminar.

I like reading a syllabus. Every time a Republican compares Sarah Palin's experience to Obama's, my first thought is, well she's never written a syllabus.

One more thing: via my delicious network, "Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?"


Notes on Cult Films and New Media Technology

The bunny in Donnie Darko, a DVD cult film.

I've been writing for the past few weeks about indie films that make prominent formal play or certain kinds of complexity that rewards repeated viewing. Many of these films are hard to understand in a fully satisfying way the first time through. They have scrambled temporal structures or ambiguous levels of subjective/objective narration. (These include Pulp Fiction, Mystery Train, Donnie Darko, The Limey, Memento, Primer, and The Nines.) Along the way I have had to consider that many of these films have attained cult status, and that the difficulty they present for first-time viewers might encourage audiences to form fandoms around these films that can organize knowledge about them, especially through the social networks of the web. The official Primer discussion board, for instance, includes lots of aids to interpretation including detailed descriptions of the film and timelines of events represented (and implied). I have found this material really helpful, since even after three viewings there is lots about this film that I still cannot fathom.

It strikes me that new media technologies have significant effects on the history of cult cinema. (I'm not sure how original my insights about this will be here, but they're new to me, so I'm offering them up.) My basic point is that the availability of films to own on videotape, disc, or computer file marks a transformation in the way audiences engage with the film text, and that this transformation makes the cult mode of film experience much more typical, more available to more viewers and to more movies. Cult media used to be pretty marginal, and it prided itself on its marginality, which was essential to the identity of the cultist as outside of the mainstream. Now I think it is much less so. This would seem to fit with the Henry Jenkins /Convergence Culture idea of fandom becoming more of a mainstream practice, and one which the media industries actively cultivate in audiences.

The idea of cult media is old (though Wikipedia claims the term "cult film" entered usage only in the 1970s). Matt Hills cites a William James article from more than 100 years ago describing a cult of Walt Whitman. There were cults around opera singers and stage actors in the 19th Century, and in some cases there still are. The Astor Place Riot of 1849 was a product of a class conflict between fans (they wouldn't have been called that then) of different actors and styles of theatrical performance. The first instance of a discussion of movie cults usually given is an article from 1932 by Harry Alan Potamkin about French cults of American movie stars like Chaplin. In the studio era movie cults were probably organized more around stars than films. This was the form of fandom encouraged by the industry in publications aimed at the audience for movies, and fashioned through studio publicity departments. It would make sense that the star rather than the film would be the object of adoration for cultists in this era, since one had much less opportunity to see films repeatedly and much more opportunity to see stars repeatedly.

The essence of cult status is repetition. Cult movies are movies people see again and again, and recreate in various ways, as in the quotation of choice lines of dialogue ("these go to eleven!"). The cult ritualizes the viewing, adds theatrical elements as in participatory experience of Rocky Horror, and excerpts favorite parts (lines of dialogue, character costumes) for extra repetition.

Rocky Horror Picture Show performance at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, December 30, 2006, photo by Flickr user JaMmCat (used in accordance with its Creative Commons license).

In the studio era, the audience for movies was ensured of seeing their stars again and again, often many times a year. Stars would appear in the press, on the radio and later the television. A contract player might easily appear in half a dozen pictures each year.

Eventually cult movies were appreciated by viewers of television and audiences of repertory theaters. The Wizard of Oz, Miracle on 34th Street, and It's a Wonderful Life became cult films by being shown on TV in an annual ritual. Humphrey Bogart became a cult actor when retrospectives of his films were screened in the 1950s and 60s. Midnight movies made cult hits of films like El Topo, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, and Rocky Horror. My introduction to cinephilia was at repertory theaters in Toronto and Montreal in the early 90s (the Bloor and Revue in Toronto, the Paris and Rivoli in Montreal) that always seemed to be showing something by the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Sergio Leone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Lynch, or John Waters, and then slightly later in the mid-90s, Hong Kong action films like Hard Boiled. I wasn't aware of these films being cult, really. I thought cult meant specialized knowledge that I probably couldn't access. I just thought the films were classics, and that if I had seen them I could appear to be more literate and worldly and be able to impress people or at least not feel the emptiness and shame that come with never having seen Taxi Driver or Dr. Strangelove.

Before home video came along, the repetition of films was still largely out of the audience's control. You could catch your cult favorites when they were being replayed at the rep house or on TV, but someone else was programming the slate. Sure some cultists collected films and projected them at home, and campus film societies and college courses programmed films too. But the typical, everyday experience of cinema was of an ephemeral text. You could see a film as long as it was playing in your town. If you really liked it you could return to see it again and again. Star Wars is the first movie I remember seeing and I went twice when it came out. But the text was not yours to own, not yours to repeat on your whim. The power to program films was in the hands of gatekeepers, not the people.

Today things are so different. Now you can walk into a Target or Wal-Mart and buy hundreds of different movies to own, each for less than $20 and many for less than $10. You can download thousands for free using BitTorrent, if you don't mind violating the DMCA a little, and store them on hard drives. You can record them off the air to watch again and again if you have a VCR or a DVR or a DVD burner. This makes the repetition of movies so much more available and accessible, and makes the ordinary viewer more likely to engage with their favorite movies as cultists do. The cult films of the past two decades have attained their status not so much by being seen on TV or in rep houses, most of which have closed (there are no commercial repertory theaters where I live unless you count "budget theaters" which are just 2nd-run multiplexes), but by the second life they enjoy on video. Donnie Darko, for instance, was a flop in the theaters, but a cult hit on DVD. From Spinal Tap to Showgirls to Office Space to Primer, the cult films of recent years have been largely home video phenomena.

Now we don't think of movies (and TV of course) as ephemeral. As David Bordwell has written, DVDs make movies more like books. You can keep a movie on your shelf to return to it whenever you like, and it's yours--you own it. You can experience only parts of it. You can start at the end or the middle. You can experience it again and again, or lend it to a friend. Of course few people use movies and books this way, but that's not the point. Now the medium affords a different kind of experience.

The difference between ephemeral media and collectible media is hugely significant, especially for the way media experiences may be repeated. It has certainly influenced the way movies and TV shows are made (Jason Mittell has written about the latter ), and will undoubtedly continue to do so. In addition to certain textual forms (jokes you get only the second time around, temporal structures that offer a very different experience on second viewing once you know what to expect), the collectibility of media makes possible a more cultish mode of engagement. Cult films don't need TV stations or repertory cinemas or campus film societies to program them in order to gain their audience. Every film comes out on DVD, which means that any film might be a cult hit. The ubiquity of commentary tracks and other DVD extras encourages the formation of knowledge communities around films, and commentaries only exist on the assumption that viewers want to watch a second time--they have extended a cult/ cinephile mode of reception out into the general public. Maybe this makes for a world in which we approach the audiovisual text with expectations of passionate engagement rather than "mere" entertainment and diversion. Maybe it makes movies matter to more viewers in a way they didn't as often before--maybe it makes possible a more attentive, obsessive, even worshipful mode of viewing. Academic film studies and cinephilia are both forms of cultishness. But even outside of scholarly and cinephile circles, people are doing with movies what cults have always done, ritualizing an experience by repeating it again and again, and finding heightened significance in the details and the process and the shared knowledge that circulates among cultists.

Of course, cult TV is different now too, but that's a story for another day, and perhaps another blogger.

PS Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (cult written all over it--and I've watched twice already) is totally awesome, but you knew that.


Matt Hills, "Media Fandom, neoreligiosity and cult(ural) studies" The Velvet Light Trap 46 (Fall 2000), 73-84; also reprinted in a very useful new anthology edited by Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, The Cult Film Reader (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 133-148.

Harry Alan Potamkin, "Film Cults," in Mathijs and Mendik, 25-28.

J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies (New York: Harper and Row, 1983).

Extra Links:

Wikipedia: Cult Films.

Danny Peary's Cult Movies List (from Peary's books of the early 80s).

Scott Tobias's New Cult Canon series at the A.V. Club entries on Primer, Donnie Darko.

Further Reading:

Mark Jancovich, Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003).

Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home (Berkeley: U of California P, 2006), esp chapter 4 on repeat viewings as practiced by the kids these days.


Mad Men Links

Mad Men's first season has just been released on DVD and the show returns to AMC for a second season July 27th. I have a longest-blog-post-ever appreciation in the works, which I have been writing sporadically since last summer. In the meantime, links:

-The NYT mag cover story has lots of Matthew Weiner E! True Hwd Story deets.

-Alan Sepinwall reviews the new discs.

-Michael Beirut at Design Observer gushes, esp over the show's representation of pitching at clients.

-Basket of Kisses, an unofficial Mad Men blog, delightfully obsesses, and pretty smartly. Their celphone photos of the NYC subway car promotional campaign are nice, which is to say I stared at them for a whole afternoon.

-Ad Age has a special 16-page Mad Men section, a 1960 pastiche featuring Sterling Cooper, which is reproduced online (the image above came from it, via Pop Candy).

-This video of Don Draper pitching Kodak's new slide projector, the Carousel, seems to be a favorite clip of the show online:

-But I think this devastatingly satiric, expository Joan-and-Peggy scene from the first episode sells the show even better:



Gary Hustwit's 2007 documentary about the midcentury sans-serif typeface Helvetica seems at first blush like it might turn out to be of parochial interest only. We expect documentaries to tackle weighty and substantial topics like labor disputes (Harlan County, USA), genocide (Night and Fog), corporate villainy (Roger & Me), and environmental degradation (An Inconvenient Truth), or at least expansive ones, like a day in the life of a city (Man With a Movie Camera), or emotionally moving ones, like the everyday struggles of an Inuit family in the arctic (Nanook of the North). The range of topics available to non-fiction filmmakers is virtually infinite, and yet to find an audience and a topic worth spending large sums of money and long stretches of time on, filmmakers need to seize on matters of clear public interest, whether because of their storytelling appeal or their importance to civic culture. The triumph of Hustwit's film is that, surprisingly, Helvetica rises to this level so effectively and convinces even the design-naïve viewer of the huge significance of typography--a significance that increases as ordinary people become more involved in the production of visual media.

Helvetica manages to accomplish this in several ways. The standard interview format of talking heads and cut-aways sells the message of a perfect, neutral, modern typeface, the culmination of a stylistic progression toward simpler and more universal forms which in the 1960s became the visual identity of numerous corporations. Among the corporate identities surveyed in the film, we see the names American Airlines, Crate & Barrel, National (rental cars), Toyota, Target, and Panasonic, all spelled in Helvetica. We see Helvetica in ads for Coca-Cola, on the billboards in Times Square, on office buildings and taxis and subway cars. It always looks at once official and unremarkable. One of the voices in the film compares Helvetica to air: it's everywhere you go, essential and easy to ignore.

The casting of designers and writers who appear in the film's interviews gives special focus to those who speak with extraordinary passion and articulacy. The profession of designer would appear to demand flawless presentation in all aspects of a person's outward appearance, and the talking heads in this movie, like Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones, Michael Beirut, Rick Poynor, Stefan Sagmeister, and Massimo Vignelli, speak and look the role. The sense of their investment in surface appearance, in its significance for the ways meaning is communicated, helps sell the film's message. These bright, genial, careful design folk all seem quite convinced that type matters a ton, and one cannot help but find sympathy with well-spoken figures who look and sound so appealing. (That some of them despise Helvetica for being inexpressive or for being an excessively corporate style adds interest and demands even more careful consideration of the film's topic.)

But what makes the film especially effective is its presentation of type within ecological contexts, i.e., in the places one finds it in real life: on signage, on consumer products, on apparel, on posters, on vehicles, especially in the street, where many of Helvetica's best shots were taken.

The film's meaning is anchored by the words spoken in its interviews, but the argument is really made in the images seen in cut-away shots accompanying voice-over sound. The principal effect here is noticing: in particular, noticing details of the lived environment that had previously eluded notice. If one function of art is to train our perception of the world and make us more sensitive to its textures and forms, watching Helvetica is a kind therapy for living a more attentive life.

I often wonder why creative people who are interested in exploring non-fictional topics choose to make documentaries rather than to write articles or books. My prejudice as a verbal sort of person is for writing over moving images. One can make a better argument in writing; writing demands more ideas and words and tends to be more rigorous intellectually. If this were not so, perhaps academics would typically make documentaries instead of writing prose. I think I generally learn more from reading a good New Yorker article than I do from watching a documentary (for instance, check out this one from the current issue about itching), and the interview style that dominates documentaries today often subsumes the voice of the filmmakers under the voices of the subjects. Of course there are brilliant documentary artists like Errol Morris who do things only movies can do, and motion pictures tell us an infinite number of things that can never be described in words. I prefer documentaries that don't rely too much on their talking heads, that exploit the power of audiovisual representation.

Helvetica succeeds by using the techniques of visual media to its advantage. I could as easily learn about designer's attitudes toward Helvetica from reading a good article about the typeface. But the movie really does exploit the moving image; it uses visual forms to reveal the ubiquity of Helvetica, and to encourage the audience to appreciate this ubiquity. In the early minutes of the film, we see many dense images of public spaces in which our task as viewers is to find the important detail.

When we watch ordinary films and TV, we tend to know where in the frame to look: at eyes, at narratively significant details. There are habits of viewing that develop over a lifetime of spectatorship. In many segments of this film, rather than human forms or narrative details, the eye scans for letters and numbers, and when it finds them the mind must judge if they're Helvetica or not. In the shot of the American Apparel billboard, we need to realize that we're being asked to consider the font in which "American Apparel" is printed rather than the model's figure, her strange attire, or the bubble on her face. Each shot's duration functions like a ticking clock, encouraging us to get the right answer before time is up. This technique forces the viewer to become sensitive to details of the environment that were not previously a focus of attention. Indeed part of the film's point is that Helvetica blends in so well, it is such a default kind of typeface, made not to be noticed.

The film also gets tricky on us. We see images with more than one typeface and have to determine which is the type we are looking for.

Or we are invited to compare not only one font with another, but designed type with handwritten (or spray-painted) letters.

Then occasionally there is a shot without any Helvetica! And we mark its absence and its difference from other typefaces.

In some cut-aways we see images without Helvetica and wonder why we are looking at this shot at all, only to have the type revealed somehow. In one shot, customers entering a Crate & Barrel store obscure the signage in the door and only after some of them have passed do we see the type.

In my favorite shot in the film, we see an overhead view of a New York street shot from several stories above. Nothing in the frame seems to include any easily discernible type (there is the UPS truck but its text is barely legible). And then, a city bus enters the frame from the right, and as it does we see that the bus's number painted on the roof is in Helvetica.

This film not only asks us to notice the number painted on top of a city bus, a view we don't typically see, but also to appreciate the choice of Helvetica as the typeface. And the point of this is not merely to serve as a device along the way of making some other point; it is to appreciate the form of Helvetica. I smiled when I saw that.

It doesn't surprise me that the film was received well by designers. They're an easy sell for a documentary inviting the rest of the world to appreciate their often obscure craft. But Helvetica also has the potential to help the rest of us negotiate a new world in which everyday people, i.e., non-designers, increasingly make choices about design which were previously unavailable to us. Take this blog for example. When I set it up I chose a theme, fonts (including size and weight), colors, layout, widgets, etc. Yes, many people choose to leave the default setting intact, but this is also a choice. Making choices like these doesn't make us designers. Few non-professionals are inventing new fonts or anything remotely like that (there are tools for this if you want to give it a try, as this NYT article describes.). But DIY tools like blog templates (and myspace pages, which the film references, and so many other graphic components of web 2.0 apps) are still opportunities for creative expression; they function to fashion identity and project it outward into the world. Learning a bit about how designers think, where they pay attention and how they judge, what criteria they apply and when and why, can help us figure all this out.


Since seeing Helvetica, I can't stop noticing type. The film has made me see the world differently, to notice things I hadn't cared about before, to put myself in the mind of the person who chose the font and wonder why they picked the one they did. I see Arial, a clone of Helvetica (which you are reading right now), and feel disappointed. I see Helvetica and get excited, even just by my ability to recognize it.

I took this photo in an airport the other day. There is more going on in it than the type, but when I look at it that's mainly what I see. I would like to think it could pass for a still from the movie.



Advice Column

I am trying to work on a book and find myself drawn away from it by a number of things, especially the constantly changing, updating, world-improving, timesucking, doesn't-love-you-back internet. It's a challenge to avoid its call. Some strategies I have been trying...

1. Don't use a computer. This doesn't do it for me unless I'm reading a book.

2. Go work somewhere that doesn't have internet. I like the Alterra coffee shop on Prospect Ave., which charges for WiFi after 12:00 pm. I get a lot done there. Downside: it takes 10 minutes to drive each way, which wastes time and gas. Also, they sell really good, high-calorie baked goods. Yet another downside: sometimes I have my camera with me and I start taking pictures when I should be doing something else, e.g.,

Pink Umbrella

And another: there's an Urban Outfitters down the street and I always browse in there when I have the chance.

3. Use WriteRoom, the word processor that blacks out everything but your words (screenshot). This is good for writing a first draft but if you need to use footnotes or formatting or to work with your research online, it's a drag.

4. If you use gmail, enable the "take a break" option (from the gmail labs menu under settings). When you click "take a break," it deprives you of access to your email for 15 minutes. Along the same lines, if you're logged into gmail, choose "go invisible" in that chat window so that no one will start IM'ing with you just when you have begun to be productive.

5. Disable any email alert sounds. I did this years ago.

6. Remove Facebook from your bookmarks. This doesn't work for me because it's not that hard to type "facebook" into the address bar.

7. Don't blog. Sometimes I write something for this blog just to "get myself writing." Does Not Work.


"That cat who lives in a garbage can should be out demonstrating and turning over every institution, even Sesame Street..."

Here are a few fragments of the historical reception of Sesame Street that I came across in some research I have been doing on the history of the concept of the "attention span" as it relates to moving-image media. (The research is for a talk I am giving this weekend at the conference of the Society for the Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image in Madison).

Brief background: Sesame Street was begun as an effort to bring pre-school education to disadvantaged children, especially black kids in the poorest neighborhoods of America's cities. The people at the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), lead by Joan Ganz Cooney, hoped that by reaching these kids through the television, students might arrive at first grade more ready to learn how to read and add and subtract and, more generally, to succeed in school and life. Kids were already watching a ton of television, so why not teach them where they already are? Thus the multi-ethnic cast and the urban setting, and the focus on teaching the most basic concepts like letters and numbers. By adopting the progressive agenda of late 1960s liberalism, the show aimed to create a more diverse and egalitarian society.

The character of Oscar the Grouch, who was orange before he was green, was supposed to teach young viewers that the world is "not made up of sweetness and light" according to the CTW, and that kids "had better start getting used to that." (Francke) He would afford an opportunity for children to encounter and experience negative emotions . As everyone knows, Oscar lives in a trash can by a front stoop and complains nonstop. Jim Henson apparently found the inspiration for Oscar in an extremely rude waiter. Carol Spinney, the puppeteer who also plays Big Bird, modeled his Oscar voice after a New York City cab driver.

When Sesame Street debuted in 1969 it was greeted by almost universal acclaim and great excitement about the possibility of finding a noble purpose in a medium which, at the time, was considered moronic and perhaps also dangerous. But within a couple of years it had begun to receive some negative, critical notices as well, by educators who objected to its teaching style and its adoption of formats of commercial television, including advertising ("brought to you by the letter Y and the number 2") and the "magazine style" of variety comedy shows like Laugh-In, with many brief segments mixing live action shot on location or in the studio, animation, and puppetry.

A New York magazine article in 1971 added another dimension to the show's criticism: the author, Linda Francke, interviewed a number of African-American viewers in NYC and found that many were hostile to what they perceived as the show's middle-class values. They found fault with the show for failing to represent the reality of life in poor neighborhoods. These lines of thought didn't surprise me very much when I read them yesterday because the same thoughts have occurred to me before. But the stuff about offense taken in particular to Oscar the Grouch was more novel; it had not occurred to me that anyone would ever find anything but delight in him.

Francke claimed that the African-American community was unified by its hostility to this character: "There wasn't a black I talked with who did not single out Oscar as one of the things they found so painfully wrong about Sesame Street." It continues:
Grace Richmond, director of education at the West 80th Street Day Care Center, got right into Oscar. "I react to the garbage-can character because that to me is the inner-city character. He's the one who's bottled up, and who compensates for it by saying he likes to live in a garbage can. That's really like saying it's all right to live in a dump. I don't agree with that. And the kids call it phony."

Dorothy Pitman Hughes, director of the West 80th Street Day Care Center, agreed. "That cat who lives in the garbage can," she said, "should be out demonstrating and turning over every institution, even Sesame Street, to get out of it."

A black minister, who didn't want his name used, said, "Sesame Street is telling a black kid that it's perfectly normal for you to live in a garbage can if you keep it clean. The Man is perpetrating the idea that that's where you're going to live and you out to be happy living there."
Francke clearly thought that these criticisms would sting the CTW folks, so eager to improve the lot of those who reacted so negatively to their work. The article continues:
I mentioned these reactions to Mrs. Cooney, and for a moment, she was speechless. Then she said, "It hurts me to hear that blacks think that. It tells me so much about the damage that 300 years have done that they think they're Oscar. We don't think they are Oscar. I don't understand that. Why would Oscar be them? Lord, I wouldn't dream of identifying with Oscar the Grouch. I'd be embarrassed as a human being. I mean...why...they're saying that they must feel that way. That they feel they're Oscar. Well, that's a whole different issue because that means anyone you could show, any grubby creature, anything, they'd say, 'That's me and I wish you'd take him off the air.'" That didn't seem to be the point, I said. It was the fact that Oscar wasn't trying to get out of his garbage can. "Well," she said with relief, smiling, "there's no evidence that the little black kids identify with Oscar any more than they identify with anybody else. Ernie has emerged much more as the character they identify with. That tells you a lot about the health of kids rather than the mental ill health of adults!"
One thing especially worth noting here is that Francke quotes adults rather than children, but that Cooney gives herself the authority to speak for the children in her audience. This underscores the extent to which adults mediate children's culture for them, framing media texts and giving them context, choosing what children will experience and how they will experience it. At the same time, adults who presume to speak for children's reception are liable to impose their interests on kids, to see what they want to see rather than what children actually see.

Oscar was not the only muppet singled out for criticism over the years; a bright but trouble-making, "jive-talking" African-American character, Roosevelt Franklin, was eventually dropped from the show because of concerns that he was a negative racial stereotype and a bad example for children.

A certain affinity between Oscar and African-Americans seems to have persisted over the years, despite my inability to find much in the way of formal criticism since the New York article in 1971. The most recent instances I have seen occur in online remix culture, where the muppets, as a touchstone of several generations' youth, frequently appear. For instance, I have previously here linked to this video mashing up the muppets and Pulp Fiction. More recently on Fraktastic I posted this video mashing up the muppets and Woody Allen's Manhattan. The supreme oddity of Bert is Evil is well known to memesters and students of convergence culture.

A number of remix videos have taken audio from a David Chapelle standup bit about Sesame Street and a segment on Chapelle's Show ("Kneehigh Park", a parody of SS) and combined them with video from Sesame Street. Chapelle's Oscar riff from his 2000 TV special Killing Them Softly makes clear that he sees him as more urban than other muppet characters (transcript as follows from Wikiquote):
Have you ever watched like a cartoon that you used to watch when you were little, as an adult? I was sittin there with my nephew. I turned it on Sesame Street. And I was like Oh good. Sesame Street. Now he'll learn how to count and spell. But now I'm watching it as an adult and I realize that Sesame Street teaches kids other things. It teaches kids how to judge people and label people, thats right. They got this one character named Oscar. They treat this guy like shit the entire show. They judge him right to his face. 'Oscar you are so mean. Isn't he kids?' 'Yeah Oscar, you're a grouch!' He's like 'Bitch I live in a fucking trash can! I'm the poorest mother fucker on Sesame Street. Nobody's helpin me.' Now you wonder why your kids grow up and step over homeless people, like 'Get it together, grouch. Get a job, grouch'
The line "Bitch I live in a fucking trash can!" is one especially ripe for remixing. One video I have seen (YouTube has taken it down) strings together a bunch of innocuous Sesame Street scenes of Oscar talking to human beings, inserting "Bitch..." for Oscar's dialogue.

In this very foul clip, a segment from "Kneehigh Park," the whole joke is that Oscar is from the 'hood.

Ghetto Oscar

This gets remixed/mashed up in this vid of Oscar cussing out the Teletubbies, with the Grouch portrayed through the audio-track as black and the Teletubbies as white, despite the fact that neither Oscar nor the Tubbies have conventional markers of ethnic or racial identity.

Indeed, one of the things I have always found especially endearing and distinctive about the Muppets is the way they confound or confuse identity categories like child and adult, white and non-white, human and non-human, etc. (For instance, who exactly are Ernie and Bert?) I remember being a bit surprised to learn that the puppeteer who performs Elmo, Kevin Clash, is black--surprised more than anything by my own reaction, catching myself in the assumption that an adorable red furry monster would have or lack any particular ethnic or racial markers.

This point of this discussion obviously is not to point out that Oscar (or Elmo) is coded black (or not), that he is a racist representation, or that there is something offensive about how the CTW characterized him. I don't buy any of these ideas, though I respect the fact that others might. What I think is worth taking away from these bits of reception and interpretation and appropriation of one piece of the enormous Sesame Street text is the distance between the way the show has always represented a progressive ideal of community (Jennifer Mandel calls it "beloved community") and the way that the minority community that the show's creators aimed to reach found its own meanings in it, a product of their own contexts of experience.


Linda Francke, "The Games People Play on Sesame Street" New York (April 5, 1971

Jennifer Mandel, "The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street's Answers to America's Inequalities" The Journal of American Culture 29.1 (2006), 3-11.


Lessons From the Class Blog

Now that my semester is ending I am leaving teaching behind for a few months of writing, but I wanted to blog here about something I have been doing in the classroom. When I began having my students contribute to a group blog in a Principles of Media Studies class in September, 2006, I thought of it as an experiment. I didn’t know what the students would be like or whether they would be invested in the assignment, and I didn’t know how blogging would fit within the course. After four semesters now, I have collected some ideas about how a class blog works and doesn’t work that I thought would be worth sharing.

When I began the class blog it was my first semester teaching the course and the topic, but I was by then an experienced blogger. Although Zigzigger began only in December of 2006, I had previously blogged without using my full name on topics largely unrelated to my scholarly interests (I’m not going to link to that blog from here, but it’s not hard to find if you have Google). I knew the appeals and affordances of blogging (quick, personal response to ongoing events; membership in a community of bloggers) and thought they would add a lot to a class that would often be concerned with recent media and current events.

The purpose of my class blog is for the students to keep a public media consumption diary. This is supposed to make them more aware of the media in their lives and to prompt them to reflect on their significance. I tell the class at the beginning of the semester that it doesn’t matter if they write well in the blog or if they have a point to make. The students get credit for each entry regardless of content, as long as it’s 150 words long and media related. The assignment is to blog ten times during the semester for a total of 10% of their final grade, and they can post no more than once a week. (Each week begins and ends on Friday at noon, which means that most weeks the largest number of entries are posted on Thursday afternoon and evening and Friday morning.) Comments are encouraged but not required; the same goes for hyperlinks, photos, and videos. The class usually has about 25 students, which is a manageable size for a group blog. A much bigger or smaller class would not work as well.

I have read about other people’s class blogs, and it seems everyone prefers to do it slightly differently. Some people have each student create his or her own blog. Some require comments in addition to posts. Some give students topics to blog about or encourage them to respond to one another’s entries or insist on links or bullet-point lists or embedded video. I think a group blog works best because it makes the students more likely to read each other’s posts, and it makes the blog into a communal space like the classroom. I don’t like the idea of requiring comments because it makes it harder for me to track their participation and because I think voluntary comments have more value than mandated ones. (I got this sense from flickr groups where you post a photo to the pool and have to leave a comment on someone else’s; the comments on these photos tend to be pretty superficial.)

There have been some semesters when students did not blog as much as I hoped. I thought that giving them ten free points for writing anything at all was being really generous and making it easier for them to succeed in the class, but some students would just forget about blogging or not care enough to do it. This really frustrated me when students who could have gotten better grades by blogging regularly ended up with worse grades because they didn’t blog enough. I have wondered whether access to computers is an issue here. Students who do not have a computer at home (there are some in every class) are at a disadvantage. So are students who are less familiar with the participatory internet. (The idea that anyone born since the mid-1980s is a “digital native” is way overstated.) I learned early on that I would need to spend time at the beginning of the semester walking the class through every step of blogging, including where to type the content of a post, how to insert a link or photo or embed a video, how to publish a post, and how to comment on someone else’s. Any student who had not successfully blogged the first week would have to come to my office for a one-on-one session at my computer. Many things that are obvious to me about blogging, things that seem simple and intuitive, are not so to people unfamiliar with the format of the blog. I have found that some newcomers to the participatory web need special care and attention at the beginning of the semester if they are to become comfortable with these new experiences. Even taking these steps, however, is no guarantee that everyone will blog like you want them to. I still don't know how to solve the problem of the student with limited computer access blogging less than the student who has broadband and a laptop. My sense is that this is often a class (and race) issue, which is to say it's the product of a larger structure of inequality that makes it harder for some students to succeed in school.

A class blog really works only if there is an incentive greater than a grade to contribute to it. If you are going to have the class blog, the most important thing is to integrate the blog into the class. This motivates contributions, and good ones. The blog must not be merely supplemental. This is a challenge because the content of the blog comes from the students, and you as the teacher have little control over what they do on it. Indeed, the point is that this part of the class is pretty much their domain. It works better this way. How do you integrate the blog into class? I do it by setting aside time, usually at the beginning of class, to talk about one or two recent entries. I make a special point of doing one of these “something from the blog” discussions on the second day of class. By then usually a handful of eager students have posted their first entry, and I choose one to read to the class (I paste entries into a word document so that I’m not reading off a screen). When I do this, I am careful to appear impressed by the student’s writing, and I praise the entry for both its form and content. I say things like: “I like the way you raise a provocative question” or “It really works that you are responding in a personal way to something you find interesting in the media.” I overdo it a little with the positive reinforcement, but at the beginning of the semester this sets the kind of tone I like in the classroom. The point of this exercise is to give the students the idea of what a good blog entry looks like. (I am especially effusive with praise for properly inserted links and embedded videos.) More importantly, it makes students aware that someone is reading their writing. It gives them an incentive to write good blog posts: I might choose theirs to bring into class and single it out for praise.

As the semester goes along, I try to do something from the blog at least once every third class (Principles of Media Studies meets twice a week for 75 minutes). I try to spread the love around, so that by the end of the semester just about everyone’s writing will have been considered by the group. I sometimes don’t read the entries word for word, but instead just refer to them and ask the student to talk about what they have written. I always give the student who wrote the post we are discussing the first opportunity to talk about it. Sometimes I disagree with students’ points or question them in a gently challenging way. Then I open up the discussion to others. Sometimes these sessions take five minutes, and sometimes it’s more like fifteen or twenty. If a student posts a video, we might watch it.

A couple of times a semester, I also like to give the students the opportunity to talk about blogging, about the blog as a medium and a component of the course. I like to get their feedback about the blog as an assignment to know if they consider it a nuisance, to see if they read each other's entries, to get a sense of their idea of what blogging is and what it can be. Usually there are some skeptics and some enthusiasts. I have yet to hear anyone say that I should stop having students blog at all, but maybe that's something you wouldn't say even if you felt that way. When we talk about participatory media like fan videos and Wikipedia, having the class blog gives us an opportunity to use blogging as another example of "user-generated content" that everyone is very familiar with. The comments I most appreciate in these discussions are those that point out how having to blog regularly affects your experience of the world. Many students over these four semesters have said that blogging has made them pay attention to things they might not have otherwise (to get ideas of things to write about). It has made them more aware of the pervasiveness of media in their lives and of the significance of this. I would like to think that it has encouraged them to think analytically about their experiences. And that being in the habit of writing for an audience has made them better at expressing themselves in a style of writing which, while pretty casual, is still more formal than texting, IM, and Facebook wall posts.

Depending on the course’s topic in a given week, the blog entries might actually relate to the material we are covering. I don’t always try to get the blog discussion to relate to our class’s topics, but often there is a connection I can make. I can talk about an idea anticipating something we are going to discuss in a few weeks, or recalling a topic considered previously. Sometimes students get ideas for a blog post from class. For instance, after a class in which we talked about children’s television and read about and watched Blue’s Clues, a student posted some clips of Yo Gabba Gabba, which gave us the opportunity to compare the two shows and revisit and reinforce a couple of key points from the previous day. I like to think that this kind of repetition with variation often helps people learn better.

Integrating the blog discussion into the class does a number of things. It gives the students an incentive to blog and blog well. It encourages the class to see itself as a group of people with common interests having a conversation rather than as individuals listening to me and writing down what I say. It acquaints students with one another in a way that isn’t possible in the classroom setting, and gives me a window into their experiences which helps me understand them better. Many students share things in the blog that they would not in the classroom. They feel that their contributions to the blog are lower-pressure than their contributions to class discussions. Some students who are reluctant to speak in class say that the blog offers them an opportunity to participate. (I hope they don’t see it as a kind of alibi for keeping quiet in class, though.)

There’s one more thing I like about having a group blog in a media studies class, and it might seem obvious but I think it’s worth stating: I learn from the blog. I get links to viral videos and news about celebrities and condemnations of sensationalist local news. My students write recaps or little reviews of television shows I’m not watching or videogames I'm not playing or movies I’m not seeing or websites I'm not reading. Even when they write about media I do know, my students articulate perspectives that are different from those I might encounter otherwise. Having access to these experiences and perspectives helps me teach my students better by giving me more of a sense of who they are and what they’re like. This is partly, then, a selfish benefit. I like to know about cool new stuff. But it’s also a benefit to students when the teacher speaks their language, and a class works best (in my experience) when its participants feel that they know one another and are engaging in the pursuit of a common purpose. When integrated well into a course, a blog can afford this kind of feeling.


The Hills Is Too Real

Everyone who watches it knows on some level that The Hills is both real and fake, authentic and inauthentic, true and false, fictional and actual, honest and flimflam. People call this its fauxreality. Whatever its producers's intentions, an appreciation of these contradictions is a central appeal of the show. It exploits them in a way that is original and exciting, that makes the show into an object of intense fascination and wonder. I have blogged about this before and it's not news either to readers of Dr. T and Songs About Buildings and Food. In some ways, the balance has been skewing more toward artifice and contrivance and away from believability as the show was become more popular and its characters more savvy about how they function as agents of storytelling. At the same time, it is only because the characters are not actually fictional characters but real people that this kind of artifice is possible in the first place.

Among the fakeries typical of The Hills, perhaps the most audacious is the rigorous omission of any mention that the characters are in a show on MTV. Not only do we have no sense of the existence of a crew, which is usually true as well of Survivor and Project Runway and more or less every reality show, but we also never hear any reference to the show in dialogue. If you can imagine watching the show without knowing anything about the context of its production and reception (this is an impossible thought experiment), you would never know that the characters are famous, and that the very show we are watching is the cause of their fame. Contrast this with American Idol, for instance, which is all about nobodies being transformed into stars. Contrast this with other competitions like Dancing With the Stars, in which contestants regularly credit the show with providing an opportunity for personal growth and self-improvement. If Lauren or Heidi ever mentioned the existence of a program on television on which they regularly appear, the effect would be like a rupture in the space-time continuum. The first rule of The Hills is, you do not talk about The Hills.

In choosing to represent the narrative world in this way, The Hills departs from a convention of the reality genre: the confessional "on-the-fly" interviews that producers use to shape and craft storytelling and anchor meanings for otherwise ambiguous events. The confessional interview typically includes an address to the camera, a technique that aligns reality TV with the tradition of documentary film and television and with journalism. Some shows, like Big Brother, also have segments with an interviewer present to get the characters talking about their experiences. In BB's case, this person is even a journalist (Julie Chen, aka the Chenbot). Most forms of fictional cinema and television, by contrast, prohibit actors from acknowledging the camera, a convention often observed in the breach, as in comedies when the comedian appeals directly to us, breaking the "fourth wall". Godard and Woody Allen do this pretty effectively, and it always makes an impression because we are so unused to seeing this violation of stylistic orthodoxy in a dramatic fiction film. Mockumentaries get away with interviews and direct address because they make clear their terms of address as pseudo-reality.

The combination of avoiding all mention of The Hills and also of avoiding the direct address technique of the interview (aural and visual) has made The Hills (and before it Laguna Beach) distinctive all along. What has changed is not the textual approach, but the context in which the show is experienced. Now the show is a megahit, a pop culture phenomenon. Its characters appear on talk shows and in paparazzi photos and on the cover of Rolling Stone. John McCain and Barack Obama have mentioned Lauren and Heidi and people who would otherwise never watch MTV or reality TV know them by name and face. And now, much of the story is being told extratextually. In a sense, the US cover a few weeks ago spoiled the final episodes of season 3, alerting us to the growing rift between Audrina and Lauren. Their appearances on TV shows like Live with Regis and Kelly showed us that Heidi and Spencer were still a couple even as they seemed on the show to have split up. The lag in time between the appearance of Hills items in the news and the appearance of these same events on the show requires that we keep a story order straight in our minds even as the plot is presented through these different sources of narrative which we encounter temporally out of sequence. Thus we are constantly aware of the multiplicity of sources for narrative info and of their relative importance.

This tail-wagging-the-dog dynamic might have begun two years ago, when Lauren and Jason's breakup happened offscreen but was reported in the tabloid media. This was duplicated a year ago with the sex tape episode between seasons two and three (more on which in a moment). The crucial events in these narrative developments are the reality out of which the show crafts its drama, and the exposure the characters get in the extratexts functions not as publicity and promotion (well, not just) but as narration across platforms. These events set our expectations of getting our story about the show from sources other than the show. Amidst all the talk of fakery, the fact that The Hills can keep telling its story through these other means is evidence of its reality--of the real relationships and identities at the core of the show's narrative.

I propose that we can understand the significance of all this by looking to film and narrative theory, and in particular two concepts: reflexivity and diegesis. In classical cinema--movies that follow conventional Hollywood formats of storytelling and cinematic technique--reflexivity is generally avoided in favor of a kind of realism (in the 70s it was called "classic realism") that makes no reference to its own fictional and textual status. The literary analog of this is the 19th century realist novel. Diegesis, often defined as "story world", is a term that captures the sense the viewer has of a reality represented onscreen in three dimensions plus time, fully formed and internally coherent, like the real world. Of course this diegesis is a construct of cinematic (or media) production. Devices like synchronized sound and continuity editing stitch together a diegesis that seems seamless, and offer viewers an experience of this fictional space which they can believe exists when they lose themselves in the story. This is why the classical style has often been called "transparent" whether in literature or cinema: it never seems like the fiction is being presented or represented; it just is. I'm not going to get into the way this style was understood in 1970s film theory to function ideologically by positioning the spectator as subject who masters the space of the diegesis, misrecognizing himself (it's a male subject position) as the origin of the image before him. This is not a position many film scholars tend to buy these days. The point is to recognize the usefulness of the concept of a diegesis to capture the experience of a movie or TV show that represents a seamless, transparent world. Reflexive and diegetic are on some level opposed concepts, as devices of reflexivity threaten the coherence of the diegesis as self-enclosed and realistic.

The Hills as a television series aims for classic realism, working toward a diegetic effect while minimizing reflexivity. In avoiding mention of the characters' status as celebs and the techniques of reality TV, the show prefers instead to present itself as classically cinematic (the producers say they're after the look and feel of a film), using many traditional techniques including continuity editing and scene dissection (beginning with establishing shots, then cutting in closer for shot/reverse-shot sequences), clear scene transitions, and redundant dialogue to remind us of earlier actions and future plans. The reflexive techniques of documentary and political modernist cinema and of many non-fictional television genres are totally missing from the style of the show, a sort of "structuring absence" that is especially significant for being avoided.

And yet the sense the producers seem to be trying too hard to achieve of realism and diegesis is constantly undone by the show's success. Because of this, the characters are celebs, and their stories are told in the tabs and talk shows as much as on the show. They offer commentaries on events, and occasionally even criticize their representation by the producers (e.g., Lo complaining during last nite's season finale aftershow about being made into a villain--did she go off message?). It is totally unbelievable that they don't talk about the show and their celebrity, and we might reasonably assume that when the cameras aren't on, they talk about little else.

Our knowledge of Spencer and Heidi's self-fashioning as entrepreneurial Hollywood stars (fauxbiz!) and Spencer's self-casting as villain constantly distract us from the coherence of their characterization in the show, which seems several degrees more bogus than the way Lauren and her crew are represented. The artifice of the setup of Audrina and Whitney and now She-Pratt as friends for Lauren make us more aware of the authenticity of her friendship with Lo. Articles in the LA Times and Rolling Stone and US Weekly fill in details we would never learn from the MTV broadcast. The diegesis is constantly being constructed contextually as incomplete and insufficient, and because the characters are real people, it is possible for their characterization to continue through multiple media and more or less perpetually.

The relative authenticity or inauthenticity of these people on the show is made irrelevant by all of these contextual discourses, all of which presuppose that the characters on the show are continuous with the people in the magazines and on the talk shows who share their identities. Even the more fakey-fake contextual moments like Spencer and Heidi's insistence that the sex tape really existed remind us that the characters on The Hills are also persons of flesh and blood and feelings. Even if they're lying (of course they are!) Spencer and Heidi are acting out real motivations---of pursuing fame and wealth and success in entertainment. Even the rumor that Lauren and Lo's house is actually a set and not their actual place of residence presupposes that the same Lauren and Lo who are characters on the show also live somewhere in Los Angeles. The extension of these characters and relationships beyond the diegesis forces us to question the coherence and stability of the text as narrative, reminding us of the reality that cannot be contained in the weekly 22 minutes of TV time. Thus the realism attempted by The Hills is constantly undermined by the underlying reality from which it draws the materials of its representation.

It's my sense that the sex tape is what really forced us into this terrain of instability, caught between the appeal of the show's diegesis and our excess of knowledge about the reality that it fashions into drama. The sex tape and the actions surrounding its ambiguous existence constituted an event or non-event between seasons, whether real or imagined or merely rumored, which directed the narrative into one of intense passion and drama--a real soap opera. The fact that no one can say if it exists makes the sex tape into the perfect emblem for The Hills as text and object of intense cultural significance--it is at once too real and not real enough. Presumably, if it exists, the sex tape is the mediated representation that could never be questioned in terms of its authenticity--it would be the true evidence of people's intimate lives. A sex tape, an amateur porn recording of Lauren having sex with Jason, made by them and not by MTV, not by paparazzi, not by TMZ, would promise to be more real than anything we have seen on MTV or in magazines or on Letterman. We can only imagine it, of course, and like Spencer we might think we prefer not to. Let's imagine that it's underexposed, unedited, framed so you can't quite see some things you might like to, that there are fragments of speech that don't easily make sense. Let's imagine it has those amateur qualities that guarantee authenticity. These characteristics, only hinted at or assumed or projected onto it as products of fantasy, are those of a true document of desire, untainted by dramatic performance and slick cinematography and editing and the pop hits of the next five minutes and the whole bag of tricks that MTV uses to make us at once so wowed by the magic of moving images and so suspicious of their manipulative powers.

Or maybe it was part of an aspiring famewhore's quest to be another Paris Hilton...