Movies Get the ‘Boot?

Tales from my catch-up reading part deux: a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly [which, indeed, comes weekly, and thus creates quite a pile up if you don’t stay on them] describes a number of film franchises slated to come back from the dead. While the public at large might describe some of these as exhausted or played out, Hollywood execs are willing to greenlight them, and are calling them a “reboot” of the series.

Reboot? Seriously?! A computer expert I’m not, but is this a term still in the common parlance? It reminds me nothing so much as eighth-grade computer class, where our terminals would freeze half-way through and we’d be told to reboot the balky machine, which now seems primitive in comparison to the kinds of computers we work with every day.

Perhaps therein lies the power of this particular term in Hollywood vernacular. If you scan the series that are slated for production in this category, you see titles like Terminator, The Hulk, The Bionic Woman. Far off in the distance is the spectre of Star Trek. [The latter sends chills down my spine, and not in a good way. I don’t care if J.J. Abrams is at the helm. I don’t care if  David Foster Wallace writes the script. Let the series live on solely in syndication perpetuity.] Even with the potential camp value that most of these embody, they seem like the equivalent of our 1985 Texas Instruments motherboards all gussied up in a bright shiny Apple housing. Pretty, but not particularly effective.

Despite this rather disappointing news, EW does suggest a reboot game that I’ve been playing all week. It offers a number of series that are deserving of said reboot, and attempts to cast them. Fun for the whole family! One of their suggestions is the transcendent Thin Man series, with Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles—detectives and heavy drinkers. Now THIS is a reboot candidate! Still crackling, and old enough that at least two generations will be ignorant of its existence. If you haven’t seen them, and particularly the first one, run, don’t walk. It’s difficult to articulate their heady mix of banter, slapstick, and cool, but all of the elements are there. They’re some of the few films from the 30’s that don’t raise my feminist hackles (although once the Charles’s have a child, it’s less fun). But Nora is a quite a dame—a Rosalind Russell sort, but with a sweet edge, while Nick’s suave, debonair wit is second only to Cary Grant. EW proposes that a Thin Man reboot could feature Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, but I don’t feature it. Witherspoon maybe, but not Gyllenhaal. Both seem a bit too young and unselfconscious. My vote for Nick would be Joseph Fiennes, he of Shakespeare in Love fame. Whatever happened to that guy, anyway? Casting Nora is a bit of a sticky wicket–she’s a particular stripe of innocent and knowing, and she’s got to wrap her mouth around some significant dialogue. And there we have it: Lauren Graham. Hell, Gilmore Girls is over; this might just be her ticket.

More nominees for reboot status? And any entries into the casting game? Polls are now open!

What’s New in the Rest of the World?

Now that the summer class is over (sweet glory hallelujah!), I’m trying to cull back through the last three weeks of blog posts. So, whatcha all been writin’ about?

Right off the top, via Will Richardson is a promo describing MIT’s new program Scratch. Like many things coming out of MIT right now, Scratch is free, and is deeply invested (so say the designers) in allowing young people to become active creators of media. The sample projects run the gamut from games to animations to essays. From the informational videos (available on YouTube), the interface seems incredibly intuitive; it’s based on a system of “blocks” that the user snaps together to integrate sound, picture, movement, etc.  [For the record, there is nothing I love so much as an intuitive interface.  This may come from being a long-time Mac user, but I really resent having to read directions for things.  Learning Photoshop last summer drove me absolutely batty.]

One of the questions that programs like Scratch engender is the fluid relationship between media outside the classroom and inside it.  During the promo video, designer Jay Silver states: “I like the idea of a tool that can be used in schools, but ultimately suggests to the learner that I can use this autonomously.”  Yes!  Absolutely!  This comes with a bundle of caveats, of course.  First and foremost, any use of something like Scratch in the classroom would mean developing some smart pedagogical applications that would actually inspire students to return to it.  In other contexts, people have argued that bringing interactive media (e.g., blogs, wikis) into the classroom domesticates them,  robs them of their potentialities for free use and independent knowledge production and thinking.  It seems to me that we could begin to think seriously about how particular pedagogical praxis would situate new media in such a way as to enable later autonomous use, as opposed to scholastic domestication.

What would this pedagogy look like, exactly?  Hell if I know.  Having just come out of the personal essay filmmaking class, it occurs to me that producing media is a thoughtful and painstaking process; what I’m most interested in as a teacher and as a media critic, however, is hearing about the choices students make in those productions.  Why this transition?  Why this particular shot here instead of this one?  I think I may have officially drunk the Compositionist Kool-Aid (Kompositionist Kool-Aid?), but I want to see analysis and reflection driving production, or at least intersecting with production in some way.  In a class, we can do this with writing (and all praise to those programs that include sections for notes—dedicated spaces for attention to these processes).  But what happens to these processes when production goes autonomous?

Personal Essay Filmmaking, Round 2

This is a whirlwind summer class, I’ll tell you what. We’re now officially half-way through the course, and we’re having a number of realizations about the complex product that we’re asking students to create in a 2 week period.

Perhaps one of the more curious elements of this course is the way in which it was conceived: when we first got the itch to teach it, we were thinking about how someone with some background in film studies and filmmaking and someone with expertise in writing and the personal essay could pool their knowledge to guide a class through making a personal essay film. It stands to reason, of course, that a team-taught approach would engender rich projects.

What I think we hoped for, and are now only starting to see in concrete form, are all of the ways in which these two genres (film and writing) intersect, propel, and complicate each other. There are any number of points to elaborate on here, but let’s stick to the most burning one. Question of the week: does the visual work as a process?

Like any good writing professor, my colleague will tell you that writing is a process for thinking. By guiding students through a number of experiments and prompts, we teach people how to use writing to enrich their thinking about a topic, an argument, an idea. In teaching students to make films, I’ve always intuitively asked them to use visual images (still or moving) in the same way. How can a particular shot, a leitmotif, a editing effect help you think about the narrative arc of your film?

But is this really the same thing? Do our brains work with images in ways that they work with writing? More than “does the visual work as a process” the better question is “how might the visual work as a process?”  Right now, we’ve been talking with the students about the ways in which particular scenes in personal essay films work with abstract images.  Our constant callback is a scene from Ozeki’s documentary, in which she tells a story about her grandmother returning to Japan from Hawaii, thinking that she has a stomach tumor, only to find out later that she’s pregnant.  On the screen is extended black and white footage of a bird in a cage.  What’s the relationship, we ask, between the image and the story?  Does it represent it in some way?  Does it have an ironic relationship to it?  How does it evoke a tone?

It’s a significant jump from analysis of that scene to creation and implementation of your own abstract  images in film, however.  How does one locate such an image?  Then, how do you film it?  Then, how do you edit, juxtapose it with other images, add sound or narration?

These kinds of questions, it seems to me, highlight the ways in which filmmaking becomes a significant synthetic process that combines multimodal reading, analysis, and application.  The trick, however, is how to help students make the move from analysis to application.  A move, I hear, that is much like one lauded in writing courses.

More notes from the field to come.

Architect of Exhaustion; or Back in the Saddle

My, my, my. Long time, no blog, eh?

Once the MIT5 conference ended, I was hurtling through the final two weeks of classes, with all of the teaching, grading, and coaching through assignments that that time period entails. I just submitted grades on Thursday evening, and so had all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday to…plan my summer course, which began today. Thus, the title of this post; I am the architect of my own exhaustion, made so by thinking that it would be fine to turn around and begin teaching a new class mere days after the semester ended.


More relevant information, however, (or at least information that reeks less of sniveling and more of content) is that the course is a two-week “summer immersion” course on personal essay filmmaking. I’m lucky enough to be team-teaching with my colleague and partner-in-crime, Megan F. We hope that the course will optimize the intersection of our individual pedagogical interests/proclivities: film and personal essay, respectively.

As we began to plan this course, we were greatly influenced by two particular resources: the Center for Social Media at American University and the Center for Digital Storytelling located in Berkeley, California. Both offer descriptions and definition of this genre, as well as extensive pedagogical and theoretical tools/strategies to initiate, shape, and create a personal essay film. We’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how we want to name the products that our students are going to create. No one quite seems to know what to call this genre. Names include everything from “digital story” to “auto-documentary.” The advantage of personal essay film, we hope, is that it gestures toward a form that students and readers might be familiar with, and this allows us to draw upon work that they’ve already done—a step that’s particularly crucial because of our very short time together.

Already this morning, we’ve read John Price’s short essay “Good Workers” and viewed Ruth Ozeki’s short film “Halving the Bones.” Both, we thought, would be good examples of particular moves that personal essay writers/filmmakers do: they set up scenes, they use details, they introduce evidence that imparts authority and authenticity, they use symbols, etc. [These are all points that our students came up with as they read/viewed. Smart, right?]

So there you have it in a nutshell; why I’ve been off the map for so long, and where I’m going to be for the next two weeks. I imagine that I’ll update here with some “notes from the field” of teaching a new class in a new genre. Hopefully, I’ll also have a minute or two to write about the films I’ll be prepping (Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves? Moore’s Roger and Me?), as well some stuff about the ever-elusive “summer reading” category. Heck, maybe I’ll ever blog something interesting. You never know. Stay tuned.

**[Wow. She who doesn’t blog for weeks gets a bit rusty, no?]**