Faves, 2009

A decade's end brings on excesses of listmaking and nostalgia for the present and recent past. I am not very tempted to join in this aughts-defining frenzy, which gives unnecessary weight to an arbitrary period of time (though I concede I have a hard time understanding the past without carving it up into arbitrary periods of time), assumes that the present and past can be judged together (like it makes sense that 2000 and 2009 can be evaluated comparatively right now at the end of 2009), and seems with rare exceptions to confirm present prevailing wisdom and taste rather than to challenge it. So we hear now that this was the decade of cable dramas and viral videos, Pixar and reality TV, J.J. Abrams and Beyoncé, as if we didn't know that already! And yet I have, despite my intentions to avoid them, been reading these lists pretty avidly. Some friends of the blog have been making their own, or aggregating those of others (like Jonathan, Jason, Amanda, Chris), and I admire the long view and comprehensive attention these tasks require.

I have been collecting annual faves for a few years now on this blog, and the above reservations on the occasion of the end of the decade give me a bit of pause this time. But I am going ahead partly because I've been saving up these items to share with you and don't want my effort wasted, and partly because I'm a fan of lists, both the making of and the looking at, in spite of what I see as their ideological functions. I don't propose these are the best or most important of anything, they're just the things I like the most. I didn't see very many new movies and I read hardly any new books this year, so I hope you won't think I've lost interest in these beloved old media. (Many of my favorite movies of 2008 are ones I saw in the first few months of 2009 as they made it to the theaters in my town, or were released on video, and I'm expecting something similar to happen again this time.) I also haven't been discovering much new music, and what I have liked I don't think of as my favorite of anything, though I do really admire Taylor Swift's songwriting and vocals, and Lady Gaga's videos amuse and even fascinate me. Finally, I don't offer myself as a critic who has seen everything and picked the best of it all -- I'm glad that's not my job!

As in years past, these are offered in no particular order. (Previously: faves 2007, faves 2008.)


Media scholar blogs: the field has developed to the
point that there are a good number of well-written and topical blogs,
and it's great to have them. These are some I read regularly and
always look forward to: Just TV, The Extratextuals, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, The Chutry Experiment, Judgmental Observer, Media Industries (and other stuff), Ludic Despair, News for TV Majors, Antenna, Category D, and Flim Studies for Free. Of course, Confessions of an Aca/Fan and Observations on Film Art are monumental, models for scholarly blogging in the humanities.

The White House photostream on flickr (also The Awl's annotations thereon -- for that matter, The Awl is a big fave too.) It's hard to take a photo of Obama that doesn't tell a compelling story. I especially like the casual, downtime images of the Pres as an extraordinary ordinary guy, like this shot of the Obamas and guests wearing 3D glasses while watching a commercial during the Super Bowl, and this one of the Obamas, accompanied by a Stormtrooper and a Chewbacca, greeting trick-or-treating children on the North Portico steps.

Fan Secrets, a tumblr site of fan-submitted images, à la Post Secret, confessing secret shippings and OTPs (one true pairings).

Greeting Card Emergency, a series of videos which make me appreciate the literary and visual art of the greeting card.

My Parents Were Awesome, another community-driven tumblr of snapshots of the parents of generation Y back before having children and advancing age drained them of cool. (Also see Awkward Family Photos.)

Fuck Yeah tumblr sites like Fuck Yeah Anne Hathaway, Fuck Yeah Dresses, Fuck Yeah SNL, Fuck Yeah Polar Bears, you get the idea. Kind of random.

Shit My Dad Says, the most genius use of Twitter yet. Fake AP Stylebook is a runner up.

Know Your Meme, e.g., episodes on Auto-Tune and Imma Let You Finish ("Imma Let You Finish," the phrase/meme as recycled into jokes is another fave, e.g., the tweet from @fmanjoo "Yo Barack, I'm really happy for you and imma let you finish, but Morgan Tsvangirai was one of the most peaceful dudes ever.")

Old Jews Telling Jokes, an online video series preserving a dying art. (Do you are anyone you know regularly tell jokes at parties, over dinner, etc.? Why has this essential form of conversation come to seem hokey, passé?)

This Recording, especially their Mad Men recaps. I would like to blog more like TR, with the same approach of combining images, links, brief observations in a knowledgeable and sophisticated but not pretentious tone, and music.

Of course Mad Men is still among my very favorites -- it's by far my favorite TV show of the moment -- and The Footnotes of Mad Men are pretty good too. I didn't think season 3 had any bad episodes, and I enjoy the ones that are slow-paced, where character relationships are set up for future scenes weeks or months away. I wasn't sure where the British ad agency storyline was going, but it resolved masterfully in the finale. "My Old Kentucky Home," an episode with several song or dance scenes including a devastating blackface number, was particularly brilliant, and "Guy Walks Into an Ad Agency" had the most shocking and darkly comical scene of the series so far captured in the Mad Men Animated GIF for the ages). I could list favorite moments forever, but a few more in addition to those above: Sal singing the Ann-Margaret number, the Maypole dance, the scene where Betty confronts Don about his secret, Peggy smoking pot, any scene with Sally, and anytime Don cooks or prepares drinks.

Letters of Note, a blog of old snail mail that makes me wish I wrote and received more personal correspondence the old-fashioned way, with ink and paper.

The trailer for A Serious Man, with its brilliant rhythmic soundtrack and editing. Haven't seen the movie yet, but at least I can admire the trailer. I'm confident that if I had seen it, it would be a big fave. (Honorable mentions of tantalizing trailers for movies I haven't yet seen, but really need to see very badly -- trailers that make me want to see them all the more: Inglorious Basterds, Where the Wild Things Are.)

30 Rock, a show some people seem to think has declined in quality, which I totally fail to understand. I fall over from laughing during every episode, and the cleverness of the dialogue and situations is undiminished over the seasons. The second-funniest comedy on the air.

Curb Your Enthusiasm, the funniest show on the air (very subjective, I know -- I mean the one that makes me laugh the most), which continued mining the most outrageous human foibles for comedy. What startles me most about Curb is how unlikable Larry is, and yet how much sympathy he garners. The Seinfeld reunion arc was very well executed -- it worked both as a Seinfeld revival, reminding us of how much we miss its sensibility and characters, and as an arc for Larry and Cheryl.

Glee, the most exciting new show of the year. I really hope it becomes a huge hit when it gets American Idol's lead-in in the spring. It does have some fairly well documented flaws (musical overproduction, clunky situations that take too long to play out), but I gladly overlook them because the musical comedy pleasures are so intense and rewarding. And Rachel, Mr. Schu, and Emma have fast become some of my dearest TV friends.

Modern Family, which I look forward to for its satirical take on contemporary bourgeois roles and mores, and in spite of the smug mockumentary conceit and style, which is my least favorite thing in contemporary TV comedy.

American Idol, which served up an electrifying golden-voiced gay glam rockstar god in Adam Lambert. I don't like the music on Idol very much, and to me its appeal is much more in the mishmash of variety show entertainment, criticism, and delicious schlock aesthetics, but the biggest reason to watch is to see nobodies transformed into stars by us, the audience.

Up, another enchanting Pixar
masterpiece. I also liked Coraline a lot.

(500) Days of Summer, which some people seem to have disliked on account of its quirky, cute sensibility and its calculated appeal to hipsters and cool kids. Which is like hating a horror film for trying to frighten you! I thought it had a brilliant script and sweet performances by a charming, attractive cast. I even liked the parentheses and the scene where he draws on her arm. My second-favorite summer comedy was The Hangover (and we still need to see Brüno).

I Love You, Man, the best film Judd Apatow never made and the dictionary definition of bromance, a hot cultural trend.

The Beatles Rock Band, which we have not played through entirely, but which is a fascinating blend of commercial promotion, documentary narrative, game, and musical performance. I'm no connoisseur of video games, but the visual design of this one, blending animation and photography, strikes me as pretty inspired. I'm also a fan of Rock Band/Guitar Hero vids (and videos of people playing video games more generally). Individually they don't make such a big impression but when you watch an hour or two of them, the effect adds up. E.g., here is one of a guy playing the drums in "The End" by The Beatles. Such casual perfection, at once show-offy and totally ordinary.

Pre-Makes, a form of remix video culture that knows of a cinema that existed before George Lucas.

The one-sheet poster for The Girlfriend Experience with its mysterious out-of-focus and the surface play of colors and shapes suggesting both voyeurism and formalism. (I did find the film interesting, but not enough to call it a fave. I really didn't buy the premise of rich guys paying Sasha Grey to tell her about their idiotic problems.)

Hipster Runoff, a hilarious example of sociological culture criticism by Carles, a well-honed persona of fauxthenticity.

Maira Kalman's NYT blog And the Pursuit of Happiness, mixing illustration, handwritten lettering, prose, and photography in a way I have seen on no other blog -- the handmade quality is what I admire most -- and inspiring a welcome liberal patriotism. (I also like Chris Neimann's NYT blog.)

Phineas and Ferb, an animated show on Disney Channel aimed at older preschoolers and tweens, with original character design (all of the heads are based on shapes -- Candace is a circle, Phineas is a triangle, Ferb is a rectangle), outrageously convoluted, Simpsons-esque plotting and references, and brilliant original songs. In the tradition of Sesame Street, a show that tries to offer something for the parents as well as for the kids. Check out this "Squirrels in my Pants" clip, a big fave in our house (this is a bit of a cheat since the episode is from 2008).

And last but not least, my iPod touch, which was not new this year but which I learned to use in new ways, with new apps (news, games, TweetDeck, and so on) and new habits of reading and consuming many forms of media. Since having a baby on November 20th we have been up at all hours and even during daylight have been reduced to one-handed navigation of the world. Being able to read the morning news at 3:00 am without turning on a light, paging around with only a single thumb while cradling the baby in my other arm, is pretty nice. So is keeping tabs on friends by mobile Twitter and Facebook. And playing games, which Leo likes as much as anyone else in the household. I'm not generally the kind of dude to go nuts for gadgets, but this one is really, as they say, life-changing. (More on the beauty of one-handed computing and the media habits of new parents is at Kottke.org and more on the virtues of an iPod as a nighttime e-reader is at this highly recommended New Yorker article about the Kindle by Nicholson Baker, which just might be my favorite piece of prose I read all year -- I also liked everything I read in the NYer by Ariel Levy, like this Nora Ephron profile.)


Reading Myself Twittering

This post by Jeff Jarvis has me thinking about the relative merits of blogging and twittering.  For me and many in my internet circles, it seems some of the functions of blogging have been assumed by Twitter -- especially linking to and discussing current things as they occur.  Twitter is so much easier to use than any blog application, and its rewards tend to be more immediate.  Another big advantage seems to be that we are much less likely to feel that Twitter is a time suck, since no tweet takes longer than a moment to compose or read.  Blog entries by comparison typically demand more time and energy.  I was interested to note that some of my tweeps have said that they're not blogging until a writing project is complete, and I am basically in their boat (say what? I guess am off the boat temporarily).  Interesting that we have not suspended our twittering as well, or our Facebooking for that matter.  It's not like they are not also a public display of time spent doing something other than our most important business.

Maybe a shift from blogs to tweets is not entirely for the best?  I can think of a few things better about blogs aside from the obvious -- many ideas cannot be expressed in brief.  One big one is that Twitter has no effective archive, and exists mainly in an ephemeral present.  This blog gets traffic every day from people looking for writing on television style and photos of VHS tapes.  On the right-hand side are archives by date and a "greatest hits" link section of previous entries I like to think represent the work I have done here.  The writing on a blog comes up in a Google search and it can be found easily by anyone who seeks it.  Old tweets, by contrast, are much harder to locate and there seems to be little effort to preserve them in any useful way.

Thinking about the temporality of Twitter made me want to look through my old posts, which is not all that easy to do.  You can't easily access the tweets from specific dates or look them up by keyword.  You just have to keep clicking "more" at the bottom of the page to get to older and older material.  So here are some of the things I have said on Twitter -- things I might have said here if it weren't for that easier but also more temporary alternative to a blog.  The point is to reflect on the form, but also to save some of the statuses I like in one place.

12/22/06 I'm writing a letter.  This is my first tweet.  I had no followers when I posted it.  My first follower was @chutry, and he was my only one for a few months.

3/22/07 why do people watch 4x3 content distorted on 16x9 screens? are some people "visually dull"? graphpaper.com.nyud.ne... I would post this again today.  I still have the same thought all the time.

5/15/07 Yes, it's hard to say goodbye to Rory, Lorelai and the good citizens of Stars Hollow. We'll miss them all, a lot.  It surprises me that my Twitter days overlap with Gilmore Girls.  Twitter seems to be of the present, and GGs seems to be of the past.

6/20/07 So, The Good German was pretty much as I expected, a failed pastiche. But it wasn't terrible and I had fun watching it.  This one freaks me out, as I have no recollection whatsoever of watching this movie.  I can't picture it at all.

7/16/07 Did some major gardening today. Not my usual thing. I can see why rich people pay poor people to do it. A new homeowner tweet.  Now that gardening is part of the routine I no longer reflect on it this way.

8/6/07 8:00 garage door won't close. 8:02 Google "garage door won't close" 8:04 problem solved.  I do love the internet.

12/6/07 thinking I might start paying attention to the presidential races...talk me out of it!  I can't believe anyone was paying attention so long before the election.  Seems like a pretty stupendous waste of so many people's time.  I started tweeting more about the race around now, with the primaries in clear sight.

12/27/07 holy shit, Roger Ebert is talking about me! http://tinyurl.com/2z6ezz/2... It doesn't happen every day!

1/15/08 trying to explain to Leo what I do for a living  Certain topics I have tweeted about a lot, like American Idol, hold almost no interest for me now.  I'm not saying they weren't interesting when I wrote them, but that their appeal is ephemeral.  Every mention of the boy, though, is a precious little nugget of lost time recaptured.

1/27/08 Idea for a twitterstream: Obama campaign reporting by Rory Gilmore  It could have been good!

2/14/08 McCain called to ask for my vote next week. He sounded bored and tired. He could work on his vocal variety.  That was a one-percenter for people who have taught public speaking.

2/27/08 Amazon thinks I might like to buy Das Kapital. That or the Laguna Beach second season DVDs.  Basically, a slice of life as a media scholar.

2/28/08 why twitter is so good: no spam or trolls? russellbeattie.com/blo..  Ha ha, no one would say so today.

4/5/08 I don't care what the snobs say, I still love iceberg lettuce  Some tweets have no quality of timeliness.  I don't know why I said this on April 5, 2008.  I could have said it any day in the past 10 years.  After a year or two of creating content on Twitter I could come up with a random tweet generator, and instead of coming up with new material every few hours I could just recycle one of these gems from the archive.

4/21/08 Heidi has Down and Dirty Pictures on her bookshelf, maybe she thinks it'll help her break in to the indie film biz I could not have imagined then that Heidi would one day be among my Twitter followers!

5/5/08 TJ's caramel yogurt is basically candy, but you look healthy when you're eating yogurt and this improves your sense of self Many of my favorite old tweets to read are about food.  I often hesitate to tweet about food because it's a cliché of a boring oversharing online topic.  People mock the bloggers and facebookers who broadcast every cheese sandwich and pancake breakfast for their self-absorption and inability to distinguish interesting from mundane.  I internalize some of this judgment, but actually I find food and eating to be among the most interesting things people talk about online.

5/12/08 Leo sez there are only boys and girls in this world, but some children are boys AND girls. For a while, the phrase "in this world" was big in our house.  E.g., "there are no monsters in this world."

5/18/08 my Milwaukee wishlist: Ikea, dim sum, Hockey Night in Canada  Still true, thought I think you can get HNIC if you subscribe to one of those expensive DirecTV packages.  I want it over the air, like real TV! 

6/29/08 Explaining twitter to Leo (age 4) who thinks I should twitter: "Hi I love you I'll see you soon"  Interesting that I would have given his age.  Now I expect everyone knows, partly because more of the people reading my tweets are friends offline as well as on.

(I stopped Twittering during the summer of 2008.  I felt like I wasn't getting enough in return for what I was giving.  I returned after many more friends joined up, not to mention TV stars and journalists and spammers.)

4/30/09 neither Judaism nor flu panic will come between me and my pork cutlets One of the first tweets after my return.  Timely.

5/10/09 Chipotle is called Barburrito here http://barburrito.co.uk/ and they should definitely use this as their jingle: youtube.com/watc... Writing from Liverpool, the point, as with travel writing in general, was to notice things that are similar but different.

5/15/09 guy next to us at this coffee shop is reading a Kindle, it's our first time seeing one, and we want to reach over his shoulder and lick it There are many varieties of tweet -- jokes, links, complaints, minute details of one's own daily routines, etc. I think my favorite is this kind, the observation of something striking or novel.

6/9/09 a typewritten letter from Costa Rica has arrived and although dated 2009 I'm pretty sure it came from the middle of the 20th century I still have to reply to it!

6/12/09 just watched the noon-hour digital transition on WTMJ, where the phones are reportedly ringing off the hook! Historians of the future will be cursed with so much evidence of our daily experiences.

7/7/09 Up is great, esp if you like dogs, children, faces, voices, aviation, sentiment, and color Not convinced yet that Twitter is a suitable medium for reviews of movies, music, etc.  Maybe it could be.

8/7/09 summer 2009 is when Gen X nostalgia overtook Boomer nostalgia I think this has been my most retweeted post to Twitter.  I like the idea that you could take the content of an essay or blog entry and make it just as informative in a very brief burst.  It has to be the outline of an idea that the reader can fill in for him or herself pretty easily.

8/28/09 Fun times @ the Adam Lambert concert! (The 9 others were there too, Matt & Allison rocked & the hometown crowd screamed loudest for Danny) I wanted to include something to do with American Idol here, just to make this sample representative.

9/2/09 my unscientific data tell me that when you make your syllabus available online but not on paper, many fewer students read your syllabus I often resist the urge to post teaching thoughts on Twitter, because I know some students are reading it.  This is an exception.

9/19/09 Uncle Fred's bowling team isn't giving high fives after strikes, etc., this year. Don't want to spread germs. Sometimes they bump elbows.  This is the kind of thing I like to read when I look at Twitter.  It's a 140-character story about social trends put in terms of personal experience, a citizen journalism equivalent of a "the way we live now" story.  I'd like to write more tweets like this.

9/25/09 seeing "flickr from YAHOO!" is like waking up to find that Nike put a little swoosh on your Converse All-Stars I might have blogged about this two years ago.  It would never occur to me to do that now.  Twitter for the win.

Polanski's supporters manage to combine sexism, anti-Americanism, romantic auteurism, elitism, and disregard for rule of law, yuk  Of course Twitter is a conversation.  The best change since it was introduced was formalizing the @___ function so that it would link to that person's page. 

11/5/09 on Miramax and "the end of the large-scale tarting-up of independent film" salon.com/ent/mo... nice quotes but I predict more tarting up  The last thing I Twittered before I wrote this blog post.<


Failure! or, Jezebel James returns again

The new issue of The Velvet Light Trap has the theme of Failures, Flops and False Starts and I'm pleased to have a short piece in a dossier called "Perspectives on Failure" consisting of brief articles on that theme. Other contributors include many scholars I have long admired, including some friends and blog readers. My contribution, on the short-lived Fox sit-com The Return of Jezebel James, is based on ideas I first formulated right here on this blog. I have pasted it below, with links in place of references where possible.

If you're signed into Project Muse through your institution, you also read my contribution here and the entire dossier here without bothering with any of those annoying pdf downloads. The full citation is, Michael Z. Newman, "The Return of Jezebel James," The Velvet Light Trap 64 (Fall 2009), 77-78.)


Admirers of Gilmore Girls (The WB/The CW, 2000-2007) were largely disappointed by Amy Sherman-Palladino's subsequent effort, The Return of Jezebel James, which ran for three episodes in early 2008 before the Fox network killed it. (As I write in early 2009, all seven completed episodes can be viewed online at Hulu or downloaded from iTunes.) Reviews were scathing and ratings were low when Jezebel James, a half-hour comedy starring Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, first aired on a Friday night in March. Among its most despised aspects was the sound of audible laughter from its studio audience. A critic for the New York Times compared it to peanut butter on pizza. It was the show's misfortune to have arrived at a moment in television history when most of the aesthetically advanced comedies had abandoned the audience laughter (real or fake) that had been part of the sitcom format since radio days and that Brett Mills calls "the convention which has traditionally most simply and effectively defined the genre" (38). It was the curse of Jezebel James to aim to be too classy, and its failure is in part a testament to the fickle arbitrariness of taste standards as they change over time.

While it has suffered a decline in mass popularity, the sitcom genre has enjoyed a creative renaissance in the aughts, largely a function of having cast aside many of its most enduring conventions. In addition to the laugh track, many sitcoms jettisoned the three-wall set, the live studio audience, the pattern of verbal setup/punchline humor, and theatrical entrances and exits. (The shorthand distinction between old and new styles is multi- versus single-camera, though "single-camera" shows like The Office might shoot with multiple cameras.) New sitcoms replace audible laughter with wacky music and ironic voice-over narration, as in Scrubs (NBC, 2001-08, ABC 2009-) and Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-06), or awkward pauses, as in The Office (NBC, 2005-). Many shows interpolate hyperclever, ultrabrief fantasy or flashback scenes that would be impossible to include when shooting in front of the traditional live audience. New sitcoms forgoing the three-wall stage would thus appeal as more cinematic and less theatrical. The absence of audience laughter would likewise signal a move away from a theatrical style that has been essential to the sitcom aesthetic throughout its history.

When Jezebel James debuted in 2008, the multicamera sitcom had not vanished from the scene. Indeed, the most commercially successful sitcoms on the networks, including CBS's Two and a Half Men (2003-) and The New Adventures of Old Christine (2006-), were shot in the multicam style. Hannah Montana (Disney Channel, 2006-) had recently launched an impressive tween brand using the multicamera sitcom as a base. But between the original premium cable shows like Entourage (HBO, 2004-) and Weeds (Showtime, 2005-), whose visual style is hard to distinguish from a prime-time drama, and the upscale, critics'-darling, single-camera network shows like 30 Rock, it was clear that the adult "quality TV" half-hour comedy had largely cast aside the cluster of conventions that had made mass-appeal hits of shows from I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951-57) to Friends (NBC, 1994-2004) in favor of something ostensibly more visually and narratively sophisticated.

It was Jezebel James's misfortune to attempt to fit into the old-style set of conventions that had worked so well for classics like Cheers (NBC, 1982-93), which Amy Sherman-Palladino named as an influence on the show. By 2008 these had become too familiar, especially after having seen them so effectively defamiliarized by a new generation of television comedies that eschewed theatricality. In many ways Jezebel James came across as aiming for aesthetic sophistication. It was a product of the same creators who had made the beloved screwball dramedy Gilmore Girls, renowned for its smarty-pants writing and engaging characters. Gilmore Girls had become many viewers' favorite, and expectations were thus high for its successor, which mimicked the Gilmore fast-paced, culturally literate verbal style. But as well, the casting of Lauren Ambrose, veteran of HBO's family melodrama Six Feet Under (HBO, 2001-05), and Parker Posey, identified so much with indie cinema, suggested that Jezebel James would be highbrow TV. The associations the creative team's previous work evoked would not seem to jibe with the conventions of the traditional sitcom, a genre wanting in cultural legitimacy.

With TV series, success and failure have so many dimensions. Shows start out weak in some respects and adjust over time. Audiences become familiar with characters and feel strong affection for them but rarely in the first few weeks of a show's airing. Pilots are notoriously unlike typical episodes, so we must be willing to stick with a show to figure out what it will really be like in the long run. Commercial and creative successes often are misaligned. After watching all seven episodes that will ever exist of Jezebel James, I found myself wishing there might have been more. I was just getting to like it. By the twelfth or fifteenth episode it might have been pretty good, and by then we would have become accustomed to its laugh track along with the rest of the show's quirks and mannerisms. Maybe eventually people would have felt as warmly toward it as they did eventually toward Cheers and Gilmore Girls. Not likely, but we will never know.

Work Cited:
Mills, Brett. Television Sitcom. London: BFI, 2005.


My Week Without Internet

I took a vacation from the Internet, which coincided with a vacation plain and simple, from August 15 to 22. We were in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a resort town on the Atlantic coast, with my parents, my sister, and my brother and sister-in-law. I would love to spend many more pleasant summer weeks by the ocean, but I don't think I want another long stint offline.

The week disrupted my usual media diet in numerous ways, as often happens when travelling. When we are with my parents the TV is often tuned to CNN or MSNBC, and without a DVR there is a fair bit of muting and channel changing to avoid commercials . Our usual ways of television viewing are different -- we watch almost no news, and almost nothing when it airs. Cable news generally makes me either disappointed or exasperated, especially when there is no compelling big story unfolding like a war breaking out or a tight national election race, and during our week away I did my best to ignore it when it was on, preferring to read novels (like Michael Connelly's unputdownable legal thriller, The Lincoln Lawyer). One of the few unambiguous benefits of no internet, for me, is that I spend more time reading books. When I wake up in the morning with Leo and he watches a kid show, instead of reading blogs as I would at home, I read fiction.

At home we listen to the radio every day, always our NPR member station WUWM. I hear "From NPR News in Washington, I'm--" and I know it's "Lakshmi Singh" before she has a chance to say it. There was no radio in the kitchen of the house we were renting (the kitchen is where I do most of my listening), and I never bothered to find an NPR frequency in the car.

My dad went out every morning to buy the NYT, so there was news to read. But after a few years of accessing news online, I avoid the paper paper. The ink comes off on my fingertips. I have to browse through page after page of ads that don't speak to me to find an article I want to read, and if it bores me after a few grafs there is no back button to easily navigate to something else. The paper Times is missing some of the best parts of nytimes.com, the blogs like And the Pursuit of Happiness and the most emailed articles list. Most egregious, my parents (who I love dearly!) have the unbreakable habit of abandonning sections left turned to whichever page they read last, so that you might pick up a crumpled rectangle of grey paper folded to page 9 and not know whether you're even holding Business or Arts. If you don't immediately get why this ruins the whole experience of becoming informed about the world, I'm not sure I can explain it to you.

I noticed how profoundly this disruption to my regular intake of factoids was affecting me one evening late in our stay when Elana and I were walking home from a coffee shop where she but not I was able to access the internet. (Her new MacBook's airport is better at sucking WiFi from nearby sources, in this case a Hooters blasting Kool and the Gang -- inside maybe it was all celebrate good times come on, but where I was sitting it was just another twenty minutes without internet.) She said she noticed I had been pretty quiet lately. I realized it was because I had not learned any significant new information for six days! Without the internet, I had nothing to talk about. I was hearing tidbits of current events from my father, reporting on his NYT reading. I had heard that the terrorist who bombed Pan Am Flight 103 somehow managed to return to Libya to a hero's welcome, that our governor, Jim Doyle, will not seek reelection, and that some new point-and-shoot cameras were coming out with LCD screens on the front as well as the back. Ordinarily I would have known about these things half a day before he did, as I scour news sites at night hoping to read articles that the chumps stuck reading the dead trees won't see till morning. Now I was the chump.

But the worst thing about being without the web is the inability to look things up. On our first day at the beach I took my Motorola Razr for a swim, and I had no easy way of finding out if it's possible to rescue a cellphone that has been immersed for three minutes in salt water. After returning home six days later I read online that it's a good idea not only to remove and dry the battery right away (which I had done) but to immerse the phone in fresh water to clear away the mineral content of the ocean as soon as possible. It's weird to see a phone sitting in a bowl of water, but that is where mine is right now. It's probably too late, but who knows?

On the flight to Baltimore, congestion from a cold caused my ears to suffer a worse than usual crackle and pop as the air pressure changed on ascent and descent. After landing they didn't return to normal and my hearing was impaired (still is). I didn't have an easy way of looking up this unpleasant condition, which the internet now tells me is called airplane ear, and involves a blockage of my Eustachian tubes. I tried decongestants and thought I could figure out what was really wrong when I got home. This Ask Metafilter thread is a typical mix of helpful (go for the Sudafed with pseudoephedrine, the kind they keep behind the pharmacy counter because it can be used to cook up crystal meth) and ridiculous ("NEVER EVER EVER FLY WITH A COLD"). I wished I had read it a week earlier.

I know that we had ways of finding things out before the web came along, and that they still exist. There's a public library on the main drag of Rehoboth Beach, and I could have wandered over there (probably to use the internet, mind you). But what all of this makes me wonder is, why would I think of a week away from the network as something to look forward to? Why an internet vacation, rather than, say, an internet fast? I used to go without food each year on Yom Kippur. We would have dinner around 5:00 pm one day and go without food and water until about 7:00 pm the next day. My memories of fasting on Yom Kippur include more fatigue, pain, and depression than atonement for the year's sins. A ritual fast is a test of endurance, an exercise in introspection, and a communal experience of deprivation. It's no vacation!

Upon returning to my usual Firefox tabs a few days ago, the first place I went was email. I actually did manage about five minutes of email access midweek during the fast, enough time to learn that a grad school friend had become a mom (mazel tov!), among other bits of news. That was exciting. But my overwhelming sense was that very little of importance turns up in my inbox during the third week of August. Barely a dozen messages demanded any kind of action, like a reply or an entry on my calendar. Maybe I'm just not that important a person, but it would seem like one benefit of the fast was the recognition of how much time is ordinarily wasted checking in, monitoring the horizon for new stuff.

There was no way I was going to catch up on a week of Twitter and Facebook and Google Reader, three tabs I ordinarily keep an eye on all day long. When I made it to the top of the email inbox and migrated over to these other sites I found an overwhelming glut of words and pictures. I decided to basically start fresh, to look at the most recent items and forget about the rest. There are probably controversies and memes and curious items that I will never know about, permanent gaps in my knowledge of media and technology and pop culture and politics that result from my absence from it all for those seven days in August. I guess this makes me realize that none of it is very important. I can live without it. It also makes me realize how much I thrive on the sense of being connected day by day to all of these sources of information. When I looked in on Twitter and Facebook the sheer triviality of most of what I saw there impressed me most. On the typical day, I must pay attention to way too much trivia. But of course the point of all of this isn't to be found in the significance of each bit of info, but rather in the feeling of connection with others.

I know why I liked the idea of an internet vacation. It promised to free me from all that obsessive checking in, the wondering about whether someone wants something from me, or has commented on something I posted, or discovered something I need to know about. I guess I got some respite from that. It was welcome, and I'm glad for it. But goddamit, I missed my information! After we watched the season premiere of Mad Men last Sunday I wanted so badly to go online and see what people were saying about the episode. It was pretty good, wasn't it?


Embedding with Google Books

Google Books has unleashed some new features today. Among the changes: they have made it possible to embed pages of a magazine or book in a web page, much as we have been doing with YouTube clips for several years now. This post is just to give me and you a sense of what this looks like in a blog. (This article about the decline of Elaine's restaurant as Woody Allen's favorite place to eat dinner was published in New York magazine in 1987. Imagine if Gawker had been around then to mock it!)

I don't know how readable these stories are in the embed window. The type is a bit small for my eyes, and although it can be enlarged by clicking on the plus-sign magnifying glass icon it still irritates me to see text too small to read. But it's surely a good thing for the culture of print for us to be able to easily excerpt and recirculate snippets of published prose online. It could serve to introduce books more easily and fluidly into online discourse.

Google book search has been an indispensable research tool for me in the past few months. Instead of tracking a book down on one of my shelves or at the library when I know what I'm looking for, I can find quotations and page numbers so easily using book search. The next step, in terms of making my life easier, will be making possible copying portions of text to the clipboard for easy quotation.


Indie Culture

New work: "Indie Culture: In Pursuit of the Authentic Autonomous Alternative" Cinema Journal 48.3 (Spring 2009), 16-34 (pdf; I gave a portion of this paper at the 2007 SCMS in Chicago). Abstract: American independent cinema since the 1980s has in common with other forms of "indie" culture its construction as an authentic, autonomous alternative to mainstream media. "Indie" is contradictory insofar as it at once serves to oppose the dominant culture but also to produce cultural capital that distinguishes its consumers.


Under the Idea Tree

In which I want to avoid becoming a video-games scholar.

The biggest thing to happen in my media experience this year has been the acquisition of a video-game console, a Nintendo Wii, on February 12th. This is the first console I have ever owned. I wanted an Atari in the early 80s but my parents wouldn’t get me one. Of course, I played lots of games at the homes of friends and family, and had some handheld games as well. (Digital Derby, and a pinball game whose name I can’t remember, were two I played a lot.) In the early 80s I used to walk to a convenience store in the neighborhood with friends or with my brother to play Tron, Ms. Pac-Man, Tempest, and pinball, and later we used to go to a place on Bathurst St. near Wilson called Video Invasion for birthday parties.

I used to understand Tempest.

By the time I was university-age, I had pretty much lost interest in most gaming but I did like to play Ms. Pac and Pole Position for old time’s sake at the arcade near my Montreal apartment called the Palais d’Amusements, where my roommate Mark bought hash and played pool with a small-time dope dealer named Claudio.

I wished I could be Ricky Schroeder so that I would live in a house with arcade games.

There was that one undergrad semester when I played too much Tetris on my PC (a 286 IBM clone) and dreamed of falling shapes set to Russian music, but I deleted it from my hard drive before the full extent of academic damage could be done. If very casual games count, I guess I too have wasted a few dozen hours now and then with Windows’ Minesweeper and Solitaire and Facebook’s Scrabulous. I once played a GTA game for an hour or two at Jason’s house, and more recently I’ve played a few rounds of Guitar Hero with my brother-in-law. And this was pretty much the extent of my experience as a gamer until February 12, 2009.

Sweet emotion! (not the author, obvs)

For the past week, all I have really wanted to do is play Mario Kart Wii, a driving game featuring the most popular characters in the history of electronic gaming. Part of my interest in the Wii in general, and in Mario Kart in particular, is how well suited it is to family play. Our five year-old son, Leo, is the house champion in bowling and he is improving at Mario Kart, though to do really well he has to sit on my lap and let me help steer. Like watching football and American Idol, we get a huge value added from playing games with Leo, amused by his strong reactions and emotional investment. He dances to the songs he likes on Idol and gives his own judgments of performances before Randy et al. give theirs. Now he is building racetracks out of Hot Wheels and Thomas train gear on the living room floor to mimic the ones he sees in Mario Kart. His play is our delight.

Mario drives a Kart

But my more intense motivation is to master the game, which requires discovering all of its intricacies and possibilities. This would appear to demand patient dedication over many weeks of regular play. This is quite a personal endeavor, and while I love to play socially, I might get even more out of the solitary pursuit of advancement through the various courses and levels and characters which define the experience of Mario Kart.

Wheel by steveyb on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license

I also feel motivated to understand the game, the console, and the wider context of gaming not just as an ordinary player but also as a media scholar. I know a bit about games already from having taught video-game-related topics in various capacities as a quick-learn non-expert. I have to do this all the time in my teaching, as when I cover topics like media effects theories and the history of advertising. Much of my experience of teaching undergrads has been one of keeping a week or two ahead and hoping nobody notices the gaps in my knowledge.

But now I worry that I might want to become a scholar of games. Mario, for instance, seems like a perfect topic for in-depth research on media franchising, global flows of capital and content, game texts as narratives, and the history of game design. I think, someone ought to study that! Maybe someone has? I don’t know, but now I sort of want to.

Yeah, on a t-shirt.

Which brings me to the title of this post. Where do our ideas come from? I don’t mean just any ideas, but the ones we use in writing about film, television, video-games, websites, and whatever we study. Do they come from sitting under the idea tree and waiting for the fruit to fall? If not, then how do we select topics we want to research and know more about? In what ways is this systematic, organized, and logical, and to what extent do we simply follow our capricious trails of interests? Of course, this activity is bounded by social and scholarly conventions. I have to address topics I believe will interest the community of scholars, that will impress my colleagues and those who determine my tenure, etc. But whether I study American movies or television shows or Japanese video-games would seem to be largely up to me.

If I were a real gamer, I would know why this is funny.

My experience as a scholar until now has been marked by some shifts in my areas of interest. My PhD dissertation and the book I have been adapting from it are about American independent cinema. Since my dissertation I have written about prime-time television serials, web video series, the history of the concept of an “attention span” as it relates to American media, the cultural legitimation of television during the era of media convergence, and BitTorrent as a way of watching movies and TV. These topics were all products of specific experiences in my life. In some sense, then, my interests are dictated by my interests.

Pole Position was the last driving game I played regularly. I sucked at it.

I wanted to write about indie cinema because the films I was interested in analyzing had been important to me. I worked in an art house theater as a teenager, and after university I spent a lot of time at the Angelika and Lincoln Square theaters in NYC watching new American films. Movies like sex, lies, and videotape, Do the Right Thing, Reservoir Dogs, and Night On Earth made a big impression on me. They were a significant formative part of my life.

My interest in TV came from being married to a television scholar, but even more than that, I think, from being the parent of a young child. I was Leo’s primary caregiver during half of the working week when he very little, and I started recording shows to watch while he was playing in the living room late in the mornings when he was too young to care what was on screen. I watched the entire run of Judging Amy this way (except the final season) on cable reruns, which got me interested in studying the form of serialized television narratives. I suppose I could have been watching movies, but that regular installment of my favorite show filled that time especially well, developing into a habit. And I have always preferred to watch TV shows on TV and movies in theaters.

If we got these Tetris shelves, would my dreams of falling shapes return?

I have a story for each of my projects to explain where idea originally came from. They generally came from specific life experiences. Watching Sesame Street with Leo was part of what got me interested in the history of the attention span. The present phase of my life, being the parent of a five-year-old child, might push me in the direction of studying gaming. Part of me hopes it does not; I need to keep working on the projects I have already begun and I don’t feel like I have room for new ideas at the moment. It would take a while to read enough and play enough to feel competent to write about games. Sometimes the most exciting part of a research project is the initial enthusiasm of discovery, and this can make it appealing to launch into new areas of interest without recognizing the time commitment that will be involved. It’s dangerous under the idea tree, but the ubiquity of media makes it hard to find anyplace else to sit.

A Mario cake for your next birthday?


P2P TV, etc.

I have a new column out in Flow about watching television using BitTorrent: "P2P TV: Ethical Considerations." This is my final of three columns. (Earlier ones were about the Bronze Fonz and Binge TV.) I'm working on expanding my work on the file-sharing of TV and movies into a conventional journal article, so comments are much appreciated.

Elsewhere in the tubes:

Fan Secrets has been my favorite blog for the past week or two. I'm also still loving This Recording, though I don't read every post.

NYT makes me want a Nintendo DSi.

How to make lectures go twice as fast. As someone who lectures for a living, I'm not sure whether to be frightened or delighted by this way of making my work more, I don't know, efficient?

3D movies, why they give you headaches, eyestrain, and nausea. I saw Coraline in 3D a couple of weeks ago and felt fairly uncomfortable, ocularly speaking, but I liked the movie enough not to mind much.

Alisa Perren on the end of ER. I was astonished by how moved we were by the final episode, and by how different ER now seems from the dramas we watch -- much schmaltzier, way more pathos and melodrama. I miss that.


This is CNN

We were in Washington on Friday and an old friend who works as a producer at CNN's D.C. bureau, Adam Levine, gave us a tour. Photos and some thoughts are at my Flickr.


Obama's Movies, piracy, etc.

Our Pres gave the British PM a gift of 25 Hollywood movies on DVD. (/film has a list and it's pretty canonical stuff.) Unfortch, the discs are region-coded so Gordon Brown can't watch them. IP's a bitch.

Related: John August on the movie studios' strategies for preventing privacy: one is to delay release in territories where cam versions often originate.

Another is releasing more 3D movies, about which many details can be found in this USA Today article. (via)

if:book on e-books and e-readers: "Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone...And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in 'proper' book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong."

Some compare the SciFi-->Syfy rebranding to Tropicana's FAIL. But after an initial negative gut reaction, I am liking "Syfy." The image of those four curvy letters protruding from their background works for me; it pleases me to look at it. And this is what cable channels do all the time: start with one identity, then move onto another when the original concept is seen as too constraining. Thus we have numerous channels named by letters that no longer stand for what they once did (entertainment and sports programming network, music television, American movie classics, the learning channel, etc.). "Imagine Greater" is a still a loser of a tagline, though. (Perhaps I should disclose that I'm not much of a Science Fiction fan.)


Britney, etc.

SFJ on Britney's Circus tour. The gender ratio in the audience is 100 to 1 and the subtext is, Britney is ok. (I would love to see Britney if she came to my town and the tickets weren't crazy expensive.)

Ars anticipates The Beatles: Rock Band, which will cost $250 when it is released next fall.

Hilton Als on Milk in the NYRB. Compares the life of Milk with the movie of the life, picks on some stereotypes, and argues that the film communicates its message better by avoiding the first forty years of the subject's life. (via I Hate The NYer)

Harper’s Island is a CBS murder mystery show to begin in April. Harper's Globe is "an online show and a social network where you can watch and participate in an exciting story and fully immerse yourself in the mystery event, Harper’s Island." From the folks who brought you lonelygirl15 (Wikipedia). If you're confused you can go to the HG page and follow the instructions. Nowadays our pop culture is so complicated we need a manual to instruct us out how to enjoy it. (via @d_kompare)

Last nite's Idol: Adam's "Ring of Fire" was my favorite song of the season so far. This year Leo (age 5) is watching, and he likes Adam too.


Sitcom map, etc.

NYC Sitcom Map by Dan Meth. (via)

Christoph Niemann's "My Life With Cables" in the NYT diagnoses a pervasive info-age problem in vivid pictures.

A review of Objectified, the new film about design from Gary Hustwit, who previously made Helvetica (previously), from the SXSW fest: "...throughout the film it's tough not to keep a running inventory of the featured products: Got it, want it, want it, want it, got it...ooooh, want it!"

Rockville, CA, the new web show from Josh Schwartz, can now be seen at The WB. The first episode has a lot of Seth Cohen banter and a decent meet cute.


Stringer, etc.

Idris Elba, Stringer Bell from The Wire, interviewed on Fresh Air. (To appear on The Office.)

The Watcher on the much-anticipated sixth episode of Dollhouse, which is supposed to introduce a different, more Whedonesque, tone compared to 1-5. Seems unfortunate to start with more than a month of not-so-hot episodes (actually I have liked most of them), but we all must Trust Joss.

Analysis of the Kindle as it could affect the book biz. (sez MR: best piece on the topic so far)

Suzanne Vega on the significance of melody. Includes link to the delightful video for the catchy number, "You Cant Spell Smart Without Art," performed as testimony at a New York State Senate hearing in Albany, for real.

New-to-me blog: Sociological Images, intended for classroom use. Much media-related content. (via MeFi)

Kuitman Mixes YouTube is a link I have seen in a dozen places now. It's as good as all that. Click already!

And no link here, but a quick Idol update: totally over Kara, who slows things down without bringing anything the others don't offer; sad about Jorge; rooting for local boy Danny and Adam; and loved Simon Cowell's line, "It's fine to be artistic, just not on this show."


Google, etc.

Google's Marissa Mayer on Charlie Rose about where Google's ideas come from and what to expect in the future.

Maybe not news to you, but you can learn incredibly random crap from checking in now and then with Google's Hot Trends.

Why Facebook fears Twitter.

Online Fandom predicts the future of the music biz.

The Atlantic on music games and the future of rock and roll.

Reason to go to NYC: Lauren Graham on B'way in Guys and Dolls.

And I have switched to Google Reader, which means I now have Shared Items and you can share yours with me, too. My most recent ones are on the right sidebar if you're reading this at zigzigger.blogspot.com rather than in a reader.



One of my favorite shows right now is Damages, on FX. It's funny that I like it because I find the plot really hard to follow. Sometimes at the end of an episode I have no idea what happened. The characters' motivations are often obscure. Characters seem totally central to the season's narrative, like the one played by William Hurt earlier on this year, only to completely disappear for weeks at a time, suggesting that the story has gone in some other direction and making us wonder what their purpose was to the larger narrative. There are frequent flashforwards to tantalizing moments two or three months away in story time, but no clues about how present and future will connect up. This pistol will fire at some point, but that's about all we can be sure of right now.

The writers like to feint and tease. For instance, we were led to believe that these FBI agents might not really be cops at all, but then they revealed that really they are FBI after all. And yet something still seems not quite right.

I love the actors, especially the ones playing lawyers and corporate types with their restrained performances and classy, professional attire. Like I said, I have trouble keeping straight what all these folks are up to, but they're still fascinating to watch. This gives the show a surrealistic appeal, like a cut-up, a bunch of scenes from a show that does make sense with some of the meaningful parts redacted. I enjoy the dramatic moments as dramatic moments without having a clear sense of what exactly makes them dramatic. For instance, Ted Danson as a white-haired scoundrel trying to mend his ways, adopting an Eastern spiritual path but still having trouble managing his anger. That's just awesome.

Tate Donovan, Jimmy Cooper from The O.C., plays a lawyer who dresses really sharp. He almost makes me want to go to law school so that one day I might wear suits like his.

The main character, Ellen, played by Rose Byrne, is a sort of empty vessel. She has suffered a lot, and harbors deep grudges, but she has few scenes where she expresses strong feelings because her subordinate and investigative roles require that she keep things inside. The actress is good at giving meaningfully neutral looks that express depths of emotion.

Two actors from The Wire, Clark Peters and John Doman, play energy company no-goodniks. It's very strange that these two are in cahoots on this show. Knowing them so well from that other show makes me invest less of my emotion in the narrative. But I appreciate them so much as actors.

Glenn Close is a powerhouse. She looks out over those glasses an awful lot, always oozing intelligence and calculating judgment. Patty Hewes scares the pants off of me.

Every once in awhile Close shows us an intense, almost horrified face. You can sense her eyes starting to water up as she is seized with despair. Which we fear might drive her to God knows what acts of rank inhumanity.

The most fearsome villain is this dirty cop with ginormous glasses played by David Costabile, another veteran of The Wire (also a goofy T-Mobile commercial). The specs and beard make the performance. In this scene he tells Wes, who under false pretenses has wormed his way into our heroine Ellen's life, earning her trust and going to bed with her, that his next task is to take her out. He's not talking about a date.

More: Ken Tucker in the NYT on the appeal of the show's acting ensemble.