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MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Medicine for Melancholy April 26, 2008

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UPDATE: 9/15/09: Since writing this, Medicine got the attention it deserved, including nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, a small bit of distribution and a DVD deal (purchase here).

medicineformelancholy_large

ORIGINAL: This movie was so good I thought it needed it’s own post. I already posted this on Facebook, but here it is again.

The film doesn’t have a distributor yet. Get thee to a film festival and watch this film! Below is an email I sent a reviewer friend:

http://www.strikeanywherefilms.com/: Medicine for Melancholy is the story of two twentysomethings who spend 24 hours with each other after a one-night stand, in San Francisco. The film explores 21st century questions of race, gentrification and digital connection so subtly and so well, it deserves indie distribution.

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I loved it. I admit, some of this is personal. My interest, research-wise, is in contemporary realism, specifically focused on young people, and after seeing movie after movie of uninteresting white people, I have to say this was a breath of fresh air. I’m not usually one to complain about the preponderance of whiteness in a movie – heck, my top 10 fav movies are all predominantly white, with a few Asian thrown in – but for “mumblecore”-esque movies specifically, the imbalance is fairly pronounced. Not to mention that it was beautifully shot, and that, personally, this movie is very similar to the life I lead – so that’s a big caveat.

For me, the movie was more than just “black mumblecore” or “black Before Sunset” or anything of the other obvious film-historical references he was making (Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have it, even French new wave, right?). It was a movie fundamentally of its time – in terms of black history, urban history, generational history. The conversation on blackness and authenticity is one that young black people like myself – especially those of us who listen to indie rock and have lots of white friends – grapple with on a regular basis, and that’s really only happened within the last ten years or so (to question the notion that “black” may be just a label is fairly new in the grand scheme of American race history; once again I could also bring up young people and Barack Obama). I thought the movie handled this pretty realistically– the conversations that happened around race and gentrification are ones that I’ve had literally dozens of times with friends, black and white, mostly black though.

Not to mention that the movie took the stylistic conventions of mumblecore – overuse of close-ups, handheld camera work, poor sound quality and sometimes stunted dialogue – and reinterpreted with a message of some social import. In mumblecore, the fact that people communicate so poorly (can’t express feelings, etc.) is somehow related to this general inability of people my age to communicate, which I don’t think is true. But in Medicine that inability to communicate (at least at first) has a whole lot to do about our inability to talk constructively about race and class, which is true, and it’s particularly hard for young urban, semi-privileged black people. It was also refreshing to see people move around a city and actually examine and assess its significance – as opposed to other young, urban movies in which the city is a mere backdrop (exception: Quiet City).

The narrative on digital media was brief but significant. The title character looks up his one night stand on MySpace before meeting her — her profile is titled, “Cahiers du Cinema,” and we later find out she makes t-shirts with the names of female filmmakers (the director’s, Barry Jenkins’, fav directors are women). While in his own apartment, the girl later looks up the guy’s MySpace. This is where she discovers his ex-girlfriend was white, a revelation he never offers (and never does) but subtly shapes the texture of his character throughout the movie. Such a small discovery, made through online media, and perhaps only possible through online media, underscores some of the films biggest themes (the lack of black people in the indie scene, the complex nature of any individual’s racial universe, the truths we hide from those we hope to love, etc.). In a world where we’re, supposedly, all performing all the time, it’s profound that online spaces add more texture to a person’s life fabric.

What a rich and simple movie.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching April 26, 2008

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Just saw Priceless Hors de Prix with  Audry Tautou and Gad Elmaleh (The Valet) last night. It was exactly what I needed: frivolous, stylish, French fluff with pretty clothes and pretty people. Very fun to watch, the perfect end-of-the-semester getaway.

Watching Baby Mama next, not so optimistic.

MEDIA UPDATE: Listening April 26, 2008

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In a stressful time of year — both school and the presidential campaign — Erik Satie really helps bring my blood pressure down.

Aldo Ciccolini. Satie: Gymnopedies.

Listen to it!

FIRST ENCOUNTER: Bakhtin and the Carnivalesque April 25, 2008

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So last night after an exhausting day — 4 hours of class, a presentation, preparing to teach today, starting a paper on realism — I came home in the mood for reading. I selected a random essay in the Cultural Theory and Popular Culture reader, and I’m so glad I did! Here is my take on my first reading of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Carnival and the Carnivalesque:”

My favorite quote comes early, it’s what woke me up last night:

“Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectactors. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. Carnival is not contemplated, and, strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it, they live by its laws as long as those laws are in effect; that is, they live a carnivalesque life.”

Bakhtin goes on to discuss how the carnival — primarily a Renaissance phenomenon — opened up a space where social distinctions become blurred, hierarchies suspended, free contact between people became possible, and parody allowed for open critique, “an entire system of crooked mirrors elongating, diminishing, distorting in various directions and to various degrees.”

There’s a lot more there, but I want to focus on these concepts. I know there is tendency to take Bakhtin and run with him in all sorts of direction, but I cannot help but think of parallels to the current new media environment — and perhaps a large part of contemporary youth subculture.

Let me break it down.

There’s been this fantasy in new media studies that the Internet collapses boundaries and distinctions. We can think of the now infamous 1997 MCI commercial made famous by Lisa Nakamura: “there is no race.” “there is no gender” “there are no disabilities” online. It seems foolish now, but perhaps we can salvage the thrust behind the campaign.

I’m studying the performance of camp on YouTube right now, and, despite the prevalence of homophobia, one of the interesting things I notice is the amount of “normalcy” the performers confer to their vlogging. On YouTube, they just “are.” (“I’m just being me,” I hear often.) There is a sense of marginality, but it’s usually discussed as if it’s something that only gives the performers more agency, not less.

There are so many “weird” people on YouTube that hierarchical distinctions from the “real world” matter a bit less. It isn’t MCI’s utopia (or Cisco’s “Human Network” or the Washington Post’s “OnBeing”) but it’s this sense of finding a place for oneself in democracy’s individualist, neoliberal framework, in ways that begin to transform the definitions — individual, citizen, male, female — themselves.

Bakhtin, a favorite of postmodernists, talked a bit of “disruption” in the carnival. But perhaps we can see the new media carnival not as “disruptive” per se, but progressive and inclusive instead. A colleague of mine, C. Riley Snorton, talks about the “radical politics of hope” (before Obama, mind you), and while he’s never explained this to me in detail, I suspect this is somehow related. In other words, rather than lament the system, decry “power,” people online are finding ways of articulating their own kind of power, in ways that seek to remake the “system” from within, in ways that blur the lines between performers (agents) and spectators (subjects). (Think: can there be anything more neoliberal than YouTube?)

Perhaps I’ll write more on this later. This was just my stream-of-consciousness thoughts on my first reading of Bakhtin.

FIRST ENCOUNTER: Michele White, The Body and the Screen April 20, 2008

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The first First Encounter! This is a small reading, Michele White’s chapter on webcams, “Too Close to See, Too Intimate a Screen,” from her book. For a review of the whole book by people more attentive than I see RCCS. (the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies is a brilliant resource regardless).

White’s chapter will be invaluable to all the papers I’m writing now — two on YouTube, and one on mumblecore. What works best in her argument is her suggestion that traditional critical scholarship doesn’t really work online. The deconstruction/psychoanalytic paradigms of the 60s–>80s often cannot take into account the complexity of online spaces and the power the individual (yes, the individual) has over his/her own representation. Moreover critical scholars fail to realize that theories about media arose during the mass media model, which we’re still under today, but which is being challenged as we speak. It was once assumed that no one deconstructed or thought critically about the media, academics had to do it for them. With websites like Obama Messiah, I think a lot of people — not all but a lot — have the agency to break down representations themselves (PS – I heart Obama).

This is exactly what my YouTube art project is about. What happens to critical theory when a person, long thought to be powerless, can deconstruct, construct and reconstruct their own self-image? Michele White says we need new theories. I think she’s right, though some good theories are out there (including classics like Michel de Certeau).

HIGHLIGHTS:

– White calls webcam broadcasters “operators,” to imply that they have some control. She then goes on to show how women empower themselves, by revealing themselves in ways they think are appropriate, by refusing to be identified in the audience’s terms, and even by insulting the audience, “resisting” representation — or construction by others. [This is, in fact, subject of a talk I’m giving this summer in the Hague: see paper here (on top, “Agency…”)]

-Operators often “don’t really care what anyone else thinks,” the kind of positive solipsism explained well, in my opinion, by Geert Lovink (chapter 1).

-Webcam operators talk about their own and other webcams in terms of them being “real,” “live,” etc., dismissing the mediated nature of it al;: “Webcam sites rely on our willingness to connect digital images with photographs and to believe that we are receiving unmediate traces of the real or a virtual body that is still made of flesh.” (74). I don’t see any problem here, and it’s not specific to webcams! In studying anonymous blogs that were only text, there were still efforts to “embody” the text. But our physical reality can be just as fake, so we should stop mourning the real. Everything is open to interpretation, so we can be free! Let it be, I say.

-Viewers can be seen as props of the person broadcasting him/herself (79). So “to be looked at” is not the same as “to be disempowered.” An important point. In my own study, bloggers really treated the audience ambivalently, using them when necessary to make points but disregarding them when they disagreed.

– Visual media do not need to be part of an objectifying process. The binary can sometimes break down.

CHOICE QUOTES:

“The privileging of a distant male subject position, which is figured in such media as traditional Hollywood film, is becoming less viable as computers and close viewing experiences are increasingly incorporated into varied situations.” (58.)

“The webcam spectator is situated in a place where voyeurism is constantly promised and yet theoretically unattainable because there is no distanced position.” (84) In other words, you’re too close to the object of your viewing to objectify them. Profound!

I glossed over a lot of things, so I apologize. But I liked White’s chapter. It proves that theories often don’t reflect lived experience (Hello Geertz!), that ethnography can have redemptive power and the Internet is complex thing.

My only minor problem is her — only sometimes! — insistence that this is a distinctly gendered experience. I think, in fact, this is how it is for almost every Internet producer* (except you, Kathy Sierra). White nods at this occasionally, but I would’ve preferred it be part of her larger point.

*PS – obviously we can critique whether or not online producers (or users, or prosumers, or produsers) are a biased sample, that diswwww.empowered people — disempowered for whatever reason — simply don’t produce online. I think that’s a fruitful question.

FIRST ENCOUNTERS April 16, 2008

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This week I’ll start what I hope will be the main part of this blog: FIRST ENCOUNTERS!

With FIRST ENCOUNTERS I will give my casual thoughts on articles and books I’m reading for my papers. Most of these I’ll be reading for the first time, so I won’t be an expert, but I’ll try to give as much personal and intellectual context to the responses as is necessary. Hopefully, this will keep me reading and will also be a resource to anyone interested in literature related to film, new media, cultural analysis, and art.

I’ll post the first one soon. Enjoy!

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching Listening Reading April 16, 2008

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Every once in awhile, I’ll write a post updating you on what I’m consuming. Here goes!


MUSIC
: I move glacially slow on music, so this might change not much.

—–LISTENING: Mikel Rouse (Como Eu Estive Cegu, How I Stayed Blind); Rachael Yamagata (Be Be Your Love), Kevin Bewersdorf (My Heart Still Beats).

—–ANTICIPATING: Nico Muhly (MotherTongue)!


MOVIES
:

—–WATCHING: Medicine for Melancholy (pray it gets a distributor and a DVD), Baghead (realist-horror-comedy, okay), Help Me Eros (great imagery, good narrative), How Do I Look

—–ANTICIPATING: The Tracey Fragments; Synecdoche, New York; Vicky Christina Barcelona; Sex and the City


READING
:

—–EVERYTHING: New media, performance, queer theory, film theory.

Me April 11, 2008

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I’m a graduate student who does other things. Here are some other things.

Artwork: I dabble in art, translating conventional video art practices to an online space.

AtomCultureAtomCulture AgainQuarterlife

Popular Writing: I’ve staffed for a lot of publications. Here are samples: …

Washington PostNewsweek Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Networking:

MyspaceYouTubeLinkedIn

Blog and Blog Title April 11, 2008

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I’m not very creative, some would say, and the title of this blog is probably proof.

“Atom culture” relates to something many smart people have pointed out: the “atomization” of culture in the digital age.

The long tail, convergence culture, infotopia, and other new media catchphrases are related, but atom culture is mostly about empowering people to realize their full potential, however that is defined. Individual power is limited — as is institutional power — but there is always the promise of equity and justice. Good things.

It describes how humans have always been. We are all atoms, carrying our own experiences and perspectives, but connecting still with others, people and things. Some travel in couples, some bind to large structures, some try to go it alone, but in the end, we all make up this thing called the world, and that’s a comforting idea: autonomy and collectivity, good things.

So this blog will explore media, new media, big ideas and small ones: all related to trying to preserve some sense of self in a diffuse and collective world.

Enjoy, my fellow atoms.