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MEDIA UPDATE: Watching June 27, 2008

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Love Songs (2007; Dir. Christophe Honore) – Though it’s been in New York for a while, the movie just came to Philly. Movie musicals are hit or miss, and this one is a hit, albeit with a few misses to start.

A French story of romantic entanglements (some obvious, some unrequited and unspoken), Les Chansons d’amour gets off a rough start. This isn’t really the film’s fault. It simply takes awhile to get used to Honore’s musical style: in the vein of Once, but a bit less natural. Still, as other reviewers have pointed out, Honore has a touch for the sentimental and knows how to draw subtle performances from his actors, adding emotional weight to the otherwise ridiculous act of singing in the street.

What saved the movie for me, however, is personal. Halfway into the film, Honore flips the narrative into one of finding love in unexpected places. I won’t reveal the end, because it’s absolute magic — the final shot is a touch of genius. But I will say the movie contains — arguably — the best gay sex scene I’ve seen on film. And I’ve seen a lot.

To fall in love with Love Songs, I had to cast off my cynicism. I gave up and said to myself: “this is about the loneliness and romance of Paris, in Paris, and of the young. There’s nothing more, nothing less.” Just love it.

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RESEARCH UPDATE: Conference on Ethics and Technology June 27, 2008

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Oscar Gandy, keynote

I went last week to the Netherlands for the first time! I attended the Ethics, Technology and Identity Conference in Delft and the Hague (Den Haag). Rather than focus on specific speakers, I’ll let you know what topics and ideas grab my attention (based on my own interests).

Second Life/MMORPGs: Keynote speaker J. David Velleman (philosophy, NYU) gave a wonderful presentation on how to consider identity on Second Life. In a very intelligible talk, he sketched out an intricate schema about how to think of a person’s relationship to his/her avatar and virtual worlds in general. He called Second Life “virtual play,” as opposed to “child’s play” or “imaginative play” (like when children play “make believe”). On Second Life, because the avatars are operating in a defined world (i.e., not subject to the whims of players), they are following rules/scripts, meaning they are confined to socially imposed restrictions, unlike in make believe. Moreover, in SL, avatars are assumed to be proxies for real-world persons — the actions, words, etc. are all assumed to be, in some sense, sincere (not “true,” although sometimes that as well). This is how people can fall in love on SL, and why one Stanford study showed people operate spatially in SL as they would in real life. I’m oversimplifying Velleman’s thesis, but needless to say he provided a clear framework for how to think about virtual worlds (indeed, life in general). His argument might have legal implications, making it easier to prosecute/hold people accountable for their actions in SL.

Morality and systems: Many presentations centered on whether the existence of databases of information and the structure of digital worlds had moral implications. Oscar Gandy gave a provocative and cogent keynote address on the need for informed, moral (constitutionally moral) arbiters to intervene on the behalf of those who are unfairly treated by systems (algorithms, systems analysis, statistics: like the machinations that approve mortgages, define credit scores, etc.). Others focused on what rights individuals have to control their information. Everyone mostly agreed that systems/databases are inevitable and useful, but no agreement could be reached on how we can empower people to lobby for control over their information, or decide which institutions see which kinds of information (cell phone numbers, health information, gender, etc.). I’m not sure if there will ever be consensus on this, but certainly robust database projects like the UK’s DNA database are too far-reaching and extreme to promote individual liberty. The American “voter files,” owned by private institutions and bought by politicians create much fuzzier moral terrain.

Facebook: While there weren’t too many talks focused on Facebook specifically, it was referenced a lot, and it’s easy to see why. Unlike MySpace, its less-regulated competitor, Facebook is powerful for its relative accurate information about individuals — perhaps one of the largest databases of people’s interests, politics, religions, sexualities, etc. Facebook knows this, and has been making very un-MySpace attempts to legislate truth: the latest by demanding people pick a gender, but also by taking down profiles they deem false (and occasionally messing up by taking down profiles of people who have weird last names, like “Money”) and retaining individual’s information without (informal?) consent. The motive is money: the more accurate the information, the more valuable to marketers. But what are the ethics of selling people’s identities (kinda like selling souls, no?)? And what does it mean for people to have increasingly limited options on how they express themselves (Facebook offers no MTF, FTM options, for instance)? With Microsoft’s recent investment and Facebook’s subsequent billion-dollar valuation, the website stands to be — perhaps besides Google — the largest corporation who’s asset is identity. Indeed, investors speculate that an expected Facebook IPO would be bigger than Google’s. So it’s important to be on our toes about it.

That’s all for now! I might have more later! Pictures from the Netherlands will be on my Facebook page. :D

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Dispatch from NewFest June 15, 2008

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OMG/HaHaHa (2007); Dir. Morgan Jon Fox

Once again, I feel no need to beat up on the little guy. Sure, the camerawork is a little cooky, lacking a solid perspective, and the film doesn’t really posit any clear themes or ideas. But OMG/HaHaHa is, however, a self-proclaimed experimental film, an exercise in non-narrative cinema for the digital age, so that’s kind of an excuse. Other experimental directors Morgan Jon Fox lists as inspirations — Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant — manage to make their films look singularly authored and coherent, even in chaos (especially Korine, who’s films are the trippiest of the three). This kind of sophistication is rare, so I don’t fault Fox too much.

The movie was born fragmented. Fox and a friend wrote the script (as I’m sure most movies are written today) across cities – New York and Memphis, where the film is set. They wrote random scenes, moments they imagined or observed that seemed meaningful and put them together in a “collage,” as Fox said after its world premiere at NewFest.

A collage it is. A meaner person would call it a mess, but that’s shortsighted. In fact, OMG/HaHaHa’s reliance on digital culture to communicate its story makes the collage work, sort of. The random stories and characters, loosely connected through friendships and familial relations, work like a kind of onscreen social network. The film’s a mess because the digital culture is messy (life is mess, Fox would say.)

OMG/HaHaHa’s best device is the use of “text” on top of the video. Lots of emoticons — :P, :-), <3 are the main ones – and commentary – “i love you” primarily – pepper the narrative. Sometimes the effect is ironic and humorous, although mostly its earnest and literal, underscoring deep, introspective moments. The scattered text, in all different colors, shapes and sizes, keeps OMG/HaHaHa alive, so I was surprised to learn they were added as an afterthought, during post-production, a year after filming had completed and by a person the director had met through Livejournal (networked film!). The vlogs and MySpace pages in the film were also added in postproduction.

The reason why the text is so important is it places the film’s many tiny narratives* into a larger metanarrative: the digital world where personal problems can be publicly aired. Inner feelings are underscored. Declarations of “i love you” bind people in disparate situations. Serious problems – abortion – are equated with smaller ones – freeing a turtle.

The texting also underscores an important point: people, or at least Americans, narrativize their own lives. This happens in very lonely and solipsistic ways, so people fail to realize their own problems are similar to others. (The movie twice implies that if people would get off their iPods and cellphones they would hear the emotional cries of those around them and their own plight in them: once in a café as a coupled argued about their goals while the angry father who yells at his own wife listens to his iPod; and once again as that same tells his own problems to his friend and that friend picks up his cell to talk about seeing a movie with someone else.)

The Internet allows all these stories to be broadcast and allows us to see ourselves in others. In OMG/HaHaHa the most obvious Internet broadcasting example is Derrick, the boy learning to tie a tie, who can’t seem to figure out what to say on camera – but who, when he cries on camera, admits (in text!) that crying on camera gets more comments (he’s think of it as “business.” I love it!). But in truth, most of the movie is “broadcast” as if we were sitting at a computer (my idea of “networked film” is once again at work, couple this with the fact that most of the film’s music is local). There are a lot of close-ups, as if it was being captured on webcam, and the confessional nature of the “texting” gives it the feel of chat session or commenatry on a social network profile.

Like other digital movies of its time (Swanberg’s work, primarily, along with other Mumblecore flicks), the film is largely apolitical – with the exception of the abortion epside – and instead seeks to make personal problems grand. Race and sexuality are not core issues to be dealt with but rather are hinted at (there’s a frequent image of the book “The Prophet” in the interracial gay couple’s house; and one of those character’s is semi-estranged from his family because of his sexuality, but this is all subtext.) Instead, the film strives for a more productive, “humanist” optimism. Problems, even when crises of sexuality and gender, are framed as crises of the self (people are filmed alone and in close-up, for one, and the movie poetically juxtaposes these crises in a random, non-discrimatory way). After one scene involving the pensive and melancholy Owen, a :-( morphs into a <3, which is probably the most succinct summation of the movie a person could ever get.

**Tiny narratives include: the main character, Owen, who’s mother had died and who has decided to release the turtle he got after she was diagnosed with cancer; the estranged gay son and his Arabic? kover; the woman getting an abortion (we find that out real late); the young homophobic father who fights with his wife; the bulimic gay boy, Hunter, who spurned Owen, who loved him; the vlogging boy, Derrick, bored and a bit narcissistic, whose father left him and is learning to tie a tie; the woman (who either has diabetes or is transitioning to F), who works with kids; Lily, the owner of a gay-friendly café who listens to people’s problems — like Autumn’s – even when they’re boring; Owen’s two friends who even in their early teens are cynical about life; the guy who’s wife left his son because he surrounds himself with hedonistic slackers; the lonely old woman, sitting on her front lawn with rabbit ears on her head, who’s probably senile and who’s only company is Owen — I told you, it’s a lot.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Dispatch from NewFest June 11, 2008

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Imri Khan as Imri in Japan Japan

Japan Japan (2007) –

I’m a nice guy, so I’m not going to beat up on a low-budget movie from overseas. Japan Japan is a bit of a mess, though. A NewFest program coordinator introduced the movie as “experimental.” That it is.

The movie is filmed with what seems like various cameras of various resolutions (though I’m sure it’s the same one, but with varying degrees of clarity depending on the setting). Director Lior Shamriz shoots from various angles – really all over the place – making the film seem frenetic. Maybe I was dehydrated from the heat, but I started to feel ill.

Still, the film’s randomness fits in with a theme – and that’s what saved Japan Japan. The movie follows a young Israeli gay boy planning a trip to Japan that he cannot afford; it also tracks his relationships: friends, family, lovers. Because of its youthful protagonist, Japan Japan seems to be about how young people, in loneliness, connect with the world, dream about the world and contextualize their lives in globalization.

Japan Japan is pretty smart about this. Throughout the movie, Imri, the protagonist, watches video blogs from his friend who is living in New York (she films touristy things and dresses up like a Chinese girl), he watches Japanese porn and anime as a way to connect with the place he wants to live, he visits various places in Israel, including the wall being built on the West Bank (the film’s last scene, which includes a shot out to Banksy).

These are, to be sure, superficial connections, and Shamriz, with his awkward and fast editing, seems to think the same thing. In an interesting scene, Imri visits the home of a Turkish man (a hookup?). After hearing the older man talk at length about Turkish culture, Imri, an Israeli, calls him pathetic and bolts out the door. Clearly there are limits to cross-cultural interaction if you aren’t open to it.

But young people are also stars of their own movies. Twice during the movie the plot is interesting by a sharply edited roll of credits introducing the characters and the title of the movie: Japan Japan. The idea is that these people know they are being filmed, their lives are movies (which explains the first line of the movie: “Cinema is dead.” Who needs cinema when life is cinema? YouTube anyone?). Shamriz underscores this point when he introduces an impromptu music video starring two of the main characters. The characters are also named after the actors.

Hasn’t everyone had that dream before? Your life on TV!

Note: even though I saw this movie at gay film festival, I have to say the gay themes aren’t too strong. Which I could argue is a good thing!

ALSO SHOWN WITH JAPAN JAPAN:

“Tá” (short, 2007, Dir. Felipe Sholl): Funny, clever and hopeful. Two boys flirt in a bathroom, as one talks about getting up after smoking coke. He does a line, the other boy asks if he’s hard, so they try various methods of achieved arousal: sucking, poking. Finally, they kiss. Nice. I think I missed some cultural references.

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching June 8, 2008

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“Greek” – I’m writing about a TV show this time and not a movie because I’ve just watched a completely-unplanned 5-hour marathon of “Greek.” And I have to say, even though I hated fraternities and sororities in undergrad, I love this show! What drew me in was obviously the black gay character, Calvin Owens, who I’ll talk about in a minute. But it also happens to be a fairly well-written show (frequent references to literature and history, easy references but smart ones).

What I like:

-Calvin Owens: I like this character in part because I kind of hate him. He’s a cute, black, all-star athlete and openly gay legacy at the campuses most prestigious fraternity. ABC Family clearly had some fun with him. The twist in his story is not that he’s uncomfortable with his sexuality, but that he wants people to “get to know him” before knowing he’s gay (because then he’s in a box). It’s a semi-believable excuse for staying “in the closet,” but at least it’s new! Also, his dad is totally cool with his sexuality, (weird!), but will only pay for tuition if his son pledges. Owens seems to like being in the snotty, deeply heterosexual fraternity (as opposed to the more loose, lowdown, gay-friendly one), which makes me kind of hate him. Radical queer politics would have him exiled, but the fact that he feels comfortable there and comfortable with his sexuality (not 100%, it’s clear) is both disconcerting and refreshing. It challenges me. Sometimes I yell at the screen: “leave those assholes and be fabulous on your own!” But brotherhood means something to him — and to a lot of people on the show. I don’t get it, but he’s such a strange character and unusual representation for TV I have to applaud both him and ABC.

-Utopia: You can subtle and not-so-subtle hints that this is the utopia in which young people live today. The show boldly proclaims that young people can bridge all divides. Black gay Calvin makes nice with a Southern Baptist with a Confederate flag. Rusty, a freshman pledge, also makes nice with his Moral Majority roommate who hates frats. Many characters date interracially. The main conflict in the show — a Montague/Capulet type battle between the presidents of two frats, the slacker one and the preppy one — has a subtle class overtone, the only real macro-political battle that seems unbridgeable.

-Plot: The show keeps it interesting by giving every character their own plot line and weaving the stories together.

-Empathy: Greek is really good at taking the frat/sorority worlds on their own terms. Most of the rituals I could care less about, and the things they obsess over would normally bore me, but the script helps you understand why the little things matter. While I would have never, ever, ever pledged a frat, I could actually imagine hanging out with the messy, beer-guzzling, babe-hounding boys of Kappa Tau (the gay-friendly scrappy frat). Making me like the greek system? Now THAT’s an accomplishment.

I recommend you catch Greek on Sidereel or iTunes! It’s a fun show!

MEDIA UPDATE: Watching: Sex and the City June 1, 2008

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Sex and the City:

(Warning: some spoilers in this review)

I liked the movie. It met my somewhat high expectations.

But Sex and the City is the nightmare of men and Marxist-feminists alike, and that’s quite a feat. To understand why it makes men and women shriek, the answer lies not so much in the movie itself – we’ll get to that – but in the audience’s reaction.

Let’s go through some key moments, observed from inside a Friday night showing on the Upper East Side:

-In the opening scenes, we see Carrie in her closet reaching for something. The audience sees her abs and instinctively they all gasp at how thin (i.e. “great”) she looks… They do the same when they see her in bed with Big. When there’s a joke about how “fat” Samantha has gotten, they all buy into the joke – no one screams, “hey, the woman is 50 years old and she’s barely fat!”

-Then there’s the oohing and ahhing over all the clothes. When Carrie gives Jennifer Hudson an expensive Louis Vuitton bag, the audience cooed. When Big unveils Carrie’s new closet, the audience gasped as if we’d seen the second coming. Real estate, bags, shoes: the audience loved it all!

-Everyone sighs with relief when Miranda takes Steve back (how dare she move out of her home and into her own apartment in Chinatown! Did she think she didn’t need a man!) When Big finally proposes to Carrie “the right way,” for a **second** time after leaving her at the altar the first, there’s no bemused silence – “why is she marrying him again? Why must marriage be the answer?” — there are , instead, “awwws.”

[By the way, the final marriage is my only really serious problem with the movie, but I understand why it was there. I, however, would’ve preferred the ending of Ira & Abby.]

Not to mention the incessant cooing over babies, toddlers, even dogs. The movie is all schmaltz, and, save a few murmurs I heard from a woman sitting behind me, cynicism is not allowed.

Of course, feminism is all about cynicism – or at least you can interpret it that way. But women today aren’t asking the same questions as the women in the 70s. It’s no longer “why do I need a man or this pair of pumps?,” it’s “how can I get a man and retain some sense of self? Or how can I buy this pair of shoes, be attractive to men, but not be seen as a slut?” There’s a lot of negotiation taking place. The women in Sex and the City ARE independent, I would argue: Carrie insists on owning a piece of her new apartment, Samantha thinks she’s sacrificing too much for her beefcake, Miranda (not Steve!) moves out of the house when their marriage dissolves over cheating, even Charlotte rarely utters her husband’s name. So, yes, they’re independent, but they also want Prince Charming, they want “the fantasy.” Many of the women I know, some ideologically feminist, feel the same way. Why are we so scared of that?

This is sticky territory. The women in Sex and the City, and their female followers, are too independent for men – the men in the movie are still accessories, Samantha ends the movie single and 50 – but too in love with capitalism, marriage and men for old-line feminists. This explains the bad reviews.

I don’t see anything wrong with it. I don’t fault the movie. SATC gives us excess: excessive glamour, excessive marketing, excessive schmaltz (how many times did they say “love”?), excessive materialism and, above all, fantasy. These are all important things – and all pretty camp, by the way. Women clearly like this stuff, so if anything we should be criticizing them, not the show or the movie.

I don’t care that it’s not representative of New York – it’s the fantasy of the New York that rings true (it’s the anti-Taxi Driver). It’s the New York many people want – glitzy, gentrified and whitewashed. Let’s acknowledge this is now the New York we will have, if not now, soon enough. If we all hate it, let’s change it, but let’s be honest: no one earnestly complained when Whole Foods opened on Houston. Or when Deitch opened a gallery in Long Island City.

Sex and the City is a culturally important phenomenon – to dismiss it as fluff is to skirt the surface of its meaning. It’s very much a movie of its time. It’s about the thoughts many women now have, whether we like it or not (the cooing, oohing, aahing, and gasping). It’s about the New York we now have. Above all, it’s about the power of fantasy, which is not something new. Men have their fantasies – the sports dramas, war movies, Iron Man, There Will Be Blood, Wall Street, Reprise, there are hundreds that are similarly divorced from reality but receive glowing reviews.

Give women (and gays) theirs.

ANALYSIS: Critical Reception of SATC June 1, 2008

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I’m usually not surprised by critical reception of movies. Indeed, I knew Sex and the City would receive mixed to negative reviews. But what’s interesting about this is the gender differential. I thought — silly me! — that female critics, needing to prove how impervious they are to highly-gendered movies (i.e. how “serious” they are), would pan the movie. They would, as they have on other films, join the male establishment and rally to the butch cause.

The opposite happened. Female critics mostly liked the movie. Male critics were lukewarm at best.*

The Times’ Manohla Dargis is the one outlier — the only female to give a bad review. My guess is the lone female critic at the nation’s most prestigious newspaper couldn’t bring herself to like such schmaltz. Other critics could afford a little more indulgence, to take the movie a little less seriously. Dargis was vicious though, so much so it calls to question whether she was — consciously or not — sharpening her criticism to show she can’t be won over by silly feminine things. She’s a “real” critic. She only likes stuff it’s okay to like, serious French movies like The Valet, for instance.

*I used Metacritic because it filters through the critics more than Rotten Tomatoes and has a more nuanced scoring system.