JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

Activism

Media’s international reach and new kinds of citizen interventions via cell phones and the Internet have affected political activism internationally. In this issue are striking case studies of how new media has had an impact on political life everywhere. Discussing the Chilean Student Movement of 2011, Matt Losada demonstrates how student leader Camila Vallejo appeared on a Chilean talk show where she gave a polished rebuttal to each conservative panelist in turn. The video then appeared on YouTube, where it garnered a long list of viewer comments before it was removed by the request of Television Chilevision. Similarly delineating the use of YouTube for political resistance, Jennifer Malkowski contrasts two deaths captured by cell phone cameras and distributed widely on YouTube: the 2009 killings of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California and Neda Agha-Soltan in Tehran. Malkowski does a formal and political analysis of the visual and audio material generated both at the moment of killing and later as the material was regenerated artistically and judicially in political life. She raises the question of how in today’s visual culture, saturated with “atrocities, corpses and their documentary traces,” certain images of death become legal evidence and other become emotionally impactful, and she concludes that the most socially memorable images seem to be those that capture the moment of death and those that show the person dying looking at the camera, in close up. In a complementary way, Lyell Davies reviews three books about new media and politics. In particular, his discussion of the book Tweets From Tahrir: Egypt’s Revolution as it Unfolded, in the Words of the People who Made It parallels Daniel Miller’s analysis of two activist documentaries that incorporated media such as Tweets and cell phone video into their films: Julia Bacha’s Budrus from Palestine and Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave from Iran. Miller, himself a documentary filmmaker, did extensive interviews with the documentarists he writes about and describes Budrus as follows:

Budrus focuses on the story of the ten month non-violent protest movement in Budrus, Palestine against the building of a partition for the Israeli Security fence there and the wholesale destruction of ancient olive groves, grave yards, buildings, roads and even school yards it required. To tell the story, director Julia Bacha, who heard about the demolitions several years after the fact, had to reconstruct rather than film events directly…”

Bacha searched for social participant media and found hundreds of people willing to contribute footage and eye-witness interviews for her film. Furthermore Bach has now developed an activist distribution plan and web site that make her work with Budrus a model for other activist media makers. The Green Wave is about a movement in Iran of the same name that did not have success but resulted in a counterwave of state-sanctioned violence. Again the filmmaker was making a documentary after the fact, but in this case director Ali Samadi Ahadi could not ask eye witnesses to testify to the camera in an identifiable way. He did have access to the many blogs, vlogs, tweets, and other social media posts, and the film also uses animation to tell the story of violence in an emotional, often elliptical way.

Dealing with environmental issues specifically in the United States, Robin L. Murray and Joseph Heumann continue their studies of film and the environment by analyzing the rhetorical strategies, informational aspect, and audience appeal of two documentaries about toxic materials used in home building: Blue Vinyl, which takes up the issue of polyvinyl chloride, and Libby, Montana, which deals with asbestos and the mining of its main component, vermiculite. They find that both films fail to deal with the government’s Superfund for cleaning up toxic sites, its underfunding, and its priorities, since more sites might be even more toxic and dangerous that the ones described in these films.

Race and ethnicity

Providing in combination a unique set of perspectives are the articles in this issue of Jump Cut that articulate and reframe a critical discussion of racial and ethnic representations in film and television. For example, a special section on the work of Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés provides both some of this well-know director’s own theoretical writings on the relation of what he calls the “Andean sequence shot” to Andean concepts of community and time, and also a close formal examination of that shot’s use in the film The Hidden Nation (La nación clandestina). Other authors in this section raise the question of how mixed race vs. indigeneous imaginaries have played a role in the politics of the Bolivian nation.

Analyzing U.S. media, a number of other essays provide an excellent précis of essential critical writings on racial formation and racial representation in the United States, including writings on whiteness and on racialized sexuality. Dealing with whiteness and its relation to culturally marked ethnic and racial identities are two essays, one about white female characters and one about white male characters. Kendra Marston analyzes the narrative trajectories of two films that depict young women rebelling against social norms, venturing into the unknown, and setting a new course for themselves. However this freedom for the women protagonists becomes possible only in a space “which at first seems almost anarchic and at least certainly borderless, non-civilized and decidedly non-white.” Thus, the stories, which seem to have refreshing roles about women who find their hidden strengths, also mask power structures that privilege whiteness. Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles draw our attention to a very different kind of figure, the white male geek, both as he appears in film and in the culture at large. The authors give a brief cultural history and definitions of geeks, slackers, dorks, etc. in popular culture and note how these figures are often represented according to the white male fantasy of a put-upon status, a markedness somehow equivalent to that of marginalized identities, what the authors call “simulated ethnicity.”

Continuing with an astute discussion of racial formation and the factors that influence how people think about both ethnicity and immigration, Marina Wood demonstrates how Machete, directed by Robert Rodriguez, had such a striking, over-the-top storyline and visual style that it led viewers to write into Internet sites to propose specifically that skin color, language, and cultural differences were indeed factors they considered when evaluating state immigration policy. In particular, Wood details the discussions of Machete on four Internet web sites concerned with issues of race and immigration, both conservative and liberal. In contrast to Wood’s finding progressive elements in a seeming “exploitation” film, Katherine Fleishman critiques a film that many found a “progressive” Hollywood treatment of black history, The Help. She points out the limits of this melodrama and demonstrates how it encourages audiences to identify with its black characters via its young white woman protagonist, who will leave her Southern birthplace at the story’s end to become a successful author and journalist elsewhere while having made her mark by writing the exposé The Help.

And finally, implicitly related to racial representation is Dennis Broe and Ken Cohen’s visual essay and conversation about the video game LA Noire. They point out that this pioneering game, and gaming in general, visually recreate advertising signs, architecture, and details of storefronts of neighborhoods, but do not explore what ethnic groups lived in a neighborhood, its usual patterns of life, or what collective experiences were to be had there. Instead, interactions with characters within a game are for questioning people and gaining information. The game’s user quickly drains each scene of meaning and then moves on. In this sense, video games are about surveillance, about patrolling neighborhoods to control them, even a kind of training for military domestic action.

History

Along with the essays on Hollywood film history in the table of contents under the rubric “History,” a number of other essays also make a major contribution to our understanding of media history from various perspectives. In addition, the images in these essays give additional insights into films the reader may not have seen or historical periods they may not remember or be familiar with. In the “History” section proper, Peter Steven provides not only a book review but a visual essay of class in Hollywood films of the 70s; Diane Waldman also reviews two books of feminist film history. In the same history section, Stanley Corkin takes up New York of the 70s and draws a parallel between how New York recast itself as a world city and facilitated film production there and the feature fiction films that took place in Hollywood, including Saturday Night Fever and Network. Clay Steinman reviews two contrasting contemporary books on the Blacklist and provides images that are a visual reminder of the period. And finally, in the history section, Kevin Esch takes a look and provides a visual analysis of the creation of celluloid nostalgia in Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, double feature that was an homage to the drive-in and grindhouse movie; Esch also analyzes how the cheesiness and look back at exploitation genres are here used in a campy and even more critical way.

Elsewhere in Jump Cut are other contributions to recent media history. Peter Lehman has an interview with the late Zalman King, in which the director of the television series Red Shoe Diaries looks back on a career of making erotica that appealed to women. King was important in opening up regimes of sexual fantasy depicting women with agency as well as desire.

In a very different vein from King’s reminiscences, Robert Alpert details another aspect of media history in the making. Alpert, himself a copyright lawyer as well as media teacher, explains in detail the lawsuit Jeffrey Sarver, the alleged model for Hurt Locker’s character William James, brought against the film’s director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. Alpert wrote this essay as the lawsuit was going on and has revised it with new rulings in the case. It is a study of the vicissitudes of the little guy taking on the establishment, especially after the case was moved to California, which has laws more favorable to the entertainment industry. Also documenting contemporary history is Isabel Pinedo’s comparison of memorials to 9/11 on U.S. television ten years after the event. Pinedo also provides an introductory visual essay showing how the event was originally depicted. In discussing the memorials ten years after the event, Pinedo notes how all the television programs tried to construct a redemptive narrative but that many of the programs reduced the collective trauma of 9/11 to the level of the individual and his/her sacrifice and suffering, which is severely limiting when the attack and its consequences are so overwhelmingly social.

Two studies of documentary film also take up a consideration of activist media in the past, especially when it has had a powerful voice in movements for social change. Jean Walton considers the effect of the Canadian National Film Board’s Challenge for Change Program in 1970s Vancouver which was tied to a relatively long lasting community activist group that had an impact on land use planning. Of particular interest to us, since Jump Cut editor Julia Lesage was involved in second wave feminist organizing in the United States, is Shilyh Warren’s analysis of a large swath of realist documentaries closely tied to feminist organizing through conscious-raising in the 70s. Warren analyzes the rhetorical strategies of two collectively made films, The Woman’s Film and Self-Health, and discusses them in terms of how they elicit audience identification and present aspirational political fantasies of women’s empowerment and solidarity. She also discusses the limitations of consciousness-raising as a political strategy since it was based on similarity or sisterhood and repressed key differences among women, both as individuals and as subject to other experiences and forms of oppression such as disability, class, age, and race.

Stylistic and narrative analyses

Although most of the essays in Jump Cut rely to a certain degree on stylistic and narrative analyses, several stand out for their unique approach to the films or genres they choose to focus on, new approaches that could be fruitfully applied to a range of other films. For example, Giovanna Chesler brings a filmmaker’s eye and ear to analyze two of Frederick Weisman’s observational documentaries. She analyzes in detail how Weisman constructs his soundtracks and uses editing to provide a seemingly continuous narrative flow, similar to that of fiction film. She also demonstrates how these films set up a gendered objectification of the girls and women in it. The analysis could well be taught to production students since Chesler foregrounds techniques common to many documentaries.

Considering an autobiographical film, William C. Wees describes how Su Friedrich’s art within her film, The Odds of Recovery, returns to an embroidered tapestry tracing her multiple illness during her adult life as both a summary and a surmounting of what she has experienced. Just as Friedrich uses many kinds of documentary images/audio along with this tapestry to explore the impact of illness on her identity and life, the film achieves what Susanna Egan has described as representing “subjectivity not as singular or solipsistic but as multiple and as revealed in relationship.” Su Friedrich is one of the foremost U.S. experimental video makers and her comprehensive web site and modestly priced DVD box set make her a model for other feminist artists. Wees’ essay is a welcome addition to the essays about her work, many of which are collected on her site.

Another woman experimentalist is seen in a new light by Caroline Guo, who studies both the representations of work in Marie Menken’s films and the way these films make clear the amount of work that went into Menken’s own (camera)work. As Guo puts it, as Menken explores ties between filmmaking, labor, and modern society, the filmmaker reiterates in film after film that “nothing appears to come naturally.”

Turning to fiction film, in an extensive study of two very different films by director Claire Denis, Beau travail and Vendredi soir, Ian Murphy argues for a new understanding of certain feature fictions that privilege tactile and auditory modes of spectatorship, creating “a rhythmic form whose material structure is closer to music than the language of narrative cinema.” Murphy draws on the writings of Laura K. Marks about haptic cinema and the aesthetic philosophy of Susanne Langer to draw attention to aspects of cinematic construction that are often ignored in writings about the structure and effects of narrative film. Also dealing with narrative film from a philosophical perspective, Allan Cameron offers an analysis of the latest Batman film, Dark Knight Rises, from an Hegelian perspective about the master/slave relation, and he offers a close analysis of the villain Bane’s voice and Batman’s mask and what those mean for the evolving power relations in the film. In a similar philosophical vein, Todd McGowan reviews a book on atemporal cinema, that is, feature films with achronological, multilinear narratives, often set in parallel “worlds.” McGowan critiques the reductionism inherent in the concept “the spatialization of time” and indicates other ways to approach such films. Finally, also bringing a new approach to recurrent cinematic narrative structures, David Andrews uses a scientific rather than philosophical theorization to analyze the recurring trope of rape revenge in narrative cinema. Drawing examples from a wide range of films, rather than doing a close analysis, Andrews uses biocultural theory to explain why this motif is so prevalent and long lasting, and why there might be evolutionary investments in revenge, just as there is an evolutionary persistence of rape.

From its founding, Jump Cut has sought to examine deeper questions than journalistic consumer-oriented essays typically investigate. At the same time we’ve tried to open up specialist and academic knowledge to a wider audience by broadening the usual critical discourse. This issue stands as an achievement of those goals. And we hope you find it as interesting and enlightening as we did in bringing it together.


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