Friday, February 20, 2015

Music of the Spheres: An experiment in interactive storytelling

A pious woman who cuts out people's tongues; a mysterious man who has aligned with the enemy to save his wife; a frustrated professor who is looking to capture real power at any cost; a desperate father with a death wish who is stuck in a time loop; and a replica who is as loving as she is brutally cruel.  They are all standing in the way of Angela as she searches for the 9 blades that make up the mystical ancient weapon developed by Pythagoras called the Music of the Spheres; a weapon, that when fully assembled, can completely alter space and time.

All that and the viewer has control over the story.

Award-winning filmmaker Ruth Gregory has launched a Kickstarter campaign for “Music of the Spheres” an interactive, female-centered, sci-fi web series to be shot this summer in Washington state.

“I decided that after producing ‘Maikaru’ [which one best documentary short at the Seattle International Film Festival making it Oscar-eligible] that it was time for a new challenge,” Gregory said, “I’m a huge sci-fi fan and have always wanted to take the plunge in that direction as a filmmaker.  This just seemed like the right time.”

But an interactive web series?  How does that work?

“The net is a great communication tool so why not invite your audience into the creative process instead of just presenting your show like we’ve done for years on network television,” Gregory states. “I was thinking about it in a very formalist manner – as mediamakers no one has really tried to maximize what you could do with media on the a platform like the internet and I wanted to explore the possibilities.”

The “Music of the Spheres” episodes will be freely available on the web, but the pay community that surrounds the show – the Order of the Spheres – will financially and creatively support the show as it moves forward.  “We wanted to give our pay fans the opportunity to be a part of the show in a unique way.  And you can’t get much more intimate that becoming a part of the creative process!”

The cast includes a bevy of Washington talent including actors who’ve been on television shows like Syfy’s “Z Nation” and NBC’s “Grimm” as well as high-profile movies like Wild and Safety Not Guaranteed.  Rosalie Miller is attached to play the main character, Angela.  The primary cast also includes Wonder Russell (Betty), Tony Doupe (Dan), Lowell Deo (Scott), Jennifer True (Petra), and Jodie Harwood (Pam).

The “Music of the Spheres” Kickstarter campaign is live until 10pm on March 1at

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Progressive Masculinity in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

I am always intrigued when a sequel is able to rise above the 60% mark on Rotten Tomatoes.  Thus, with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows hovering in the low 60th percentiles and, therefore, acquiring the status of "certified fresh" I figured I would give it a go.  I must say that I wasn't disappointed either.  But, as I tell my students, just because I liked the film doesn't mean that I can't critique it.  So let the fun and spoilers begin.

In this installment of the continuing sagas of Sherlock Holmes the detective is manic about a professor named Moriarty... or is it really something else that has got Holmes all in a huff?  At the beginning of the film Watson stops by Holmes' apartment to find the detective in a manic state.  True, Holmes is on the trail of Professor James Moriarty, but Watson is there to celebrate his stag night before he weds and cares little for Holmes' new venture.  With Watson's marriage looming Holmes' manic state seems to be worsening; as Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, points out he's been recently subsiding on coffee, tobacco, and cocoa leaves.  Now it is nothing new to say that the Guy Ritchie versions of the Sherlock Holmes saga are full of innuendo between Robert Downey, Jr.'s Holmes and Jude Law's Watson.  There are so many different critics and bloggers that have commented on this:

[Holmes]... more or less sabotages Watson's bachelor party, makes something of a comedy out of the marriage ceremony itself, then invades the couple's honeymoon train-compartment dressed as a woman. He tosses Mary off the train, and -- in torn dress and smeared lipstick -- falls bare-chested to the berth, commanding, 'Lie down with me, Watson.'  - John Beifuss

And I am not here to argue with them.  The bromance between Watson and Holmes is alive and well in the second installment of the series.  My interest in how the latent love between Watson and Holmes, coupled with the surprising attributes of the other male characters, makes for a stunningly progressive take on masculinity in an action film.  These men aren't your what-is-bigger-my-pecs-my-gun-or-my-ahem-masculinity sort of men.  These men are smart, they cry, they are crafty, they have strange phobias, they love women, and they love other men.  They have, in some ways, broken out of the box of stereotypical masculinity and they've done so in an action film.  This is no small feat.

First, let's look at Holmes nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, played by Jared Hess.  Moriarty is ruthless and uses his intellect to devise a plan to make money by selling weaponry after igniting a world war.  Moriarty is smart, cunning, and uninterested in women in the film.  In most action films he would be made to seem effeminate and exude homosexual vibes since real men, well, penetrate in all aspects of their life.  However, if you contrast Moriarty with Holmes, there isn't much of a difference between the two.  Holmes is smart, cunning, and more interested in Watson then women.  The one thing that divides Moriarty from Holmes is that he wants to profit off his wits and, to do so, he's ruthless and cunning.  The differences between the men is so slight that it opens up new possibilities for the cinematic other -- they can be evil because they choose to be evil, not because there are anything but white, heterosexual, and male like our protagonist  (see my other blogs on the cinematic other to see what I'm talking about).

Also, interesting in this film is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother, played by Stephen Fry.  Mycroft is your stereotypical latent homosexual character.  He is effeminate, clean, and has a man servant with him at all times.  He is a committed bachelor who wonders around his house naked while telling the newly-minted and decidedly perturbed Mrs. Watson that he "might grow to enjoy the company of a person of your gender."  In your typical action film Mycroft Holmes would be the antagonist, he's everything a real-man is not.  But he's not the antagonist of this film.  In fact, he has a lot of power working in a unspecified job in the higher levels of the English government.  It is extremely unusual to see a character like Mycroft be so integral to the success of the main character in an action film and, also, live to see the end credits roll.

Allowing men to show compassion for another man (Watson and Holmes hold hands) and a series of personality quirks (Holmes hates horses and Mycroft doesn't like to touch other people) are newer contributions to the acceptable characteristic given to male characters in the action genre.  This expansion of the masculine box is the type of progress I am happy to report.  Now if only there were good things to say about the female characters in the film...  Oh well, one step forward, one step back.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Social Justice, Technology & The Humanities: THATCamp Pacific Northwest Style

I had no idea what THATCamp was all about when I signed up to go. The description of what would be going on was a little cryptic:

THATCamp stands for “The Humanities and Technology Camp”, where “camp” implies a participant-driven “unconference.” Check your papers and suits at the door, and just be ready to talk about the work you’re doing, the work you want to do, how you might collaborate with others, and how you can help and be helped by a community dedicated to the intersection of the humanities and technologies. THATCamp was created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. You might also know CHNM as the institution behind Zotero and Omeka. CHNM supports this and other regional THATCamps.
I figured as someone who primarily teaches in a Digital Filmmaking department, has a higher degrees in Cultural Studies and Film and is dabbling in new media that there might be something of interest to me at this "un-conference" especially since the Pacific Northwest THATCamp was focused on technology and social justice.  Going in my hope was that I would come out of THATCamp with some new technological tools and platforms for getting my students psyched about the possibilities of digital domains in my more history/theory centered classrooms.  I was also hoping that these tools would be relatively easily to implement so that I wouldn't have to devote lots of class time to get students to a relatively basic level of competency (which I feel obligated to do when I have students make video projects).

I wasn't disappointed either - THATCamp delivered. I find out about a whole litany of technological tools that other professors and grad students were using in their classrooms: Jing (screen-capture software), DiRT (standing for Digital Research Tools), and Storify (a way to create stories using social media posts), etc.  I attended workshops on how one professor used Omeka (a digital archiving platform) to chronicle the DIY music movement and how the University of Washington - Bothell is creating a Facebook game to educate the wider community about their wetlands restoration project (a beta version can be accessed here and I am already totally addicted to it).

However, the thing that was most interesting to me was not the sharing of the techie tools, but rather a conversation that erupted around the acceptance of the digital in the teaching of humanities in an "un-conference" session about Curriculum Development. Since I primarily teach at a community college, the push to teach students employable skills is forcible and consistent. But to some of my colleagues in graduate school and those teaching at the university level, there is less of a concern pedagogically regarding the real-world applicability of their classes. This brought up a lot of questions for me, ones that weren't necessarily answered during the day I spent at the PNW THATCamp, but things I will definitely be thinking about for awhile:
  • Can we teach Humanities and not teach it in a digital fashion and expect our students to be employable when they exit the academy?
  • Why is teaching digital "trade skills" in the Humanities frowned upon?  Especially since there are disciplines like engineering and computer science that do teach how to use technology in their curriculum.
  • With newly-graduated college students accounting for some of the highest numbers of unemployed and underemployed in our faltering economy is is prudent for those of us who teach Humanities to turn a blind eye to teaching them to be as technologically proficient as they will be theoretically?
My point is not to dramatically shift the conversation away from the initial purpose of a liberal arts education - to create informed and well-rounded citizens.  I believe this is an important component to the philosophical underpinnings of our higher education system and for society in general.  I would rather like to tweak the Enlightenment principles behind this philosophy slightly. Many students expect to get a job after earning a higher degree. Most of us (including professors like me) are not independently wealthy and we need to work to survive. So why are we continuing to be elitest about what we teach at the collegiate level and how we teach it? Why are we privileging certain types of trade-centered knowledge (like computer programming) over others (graphic design)? Does this help or hurt our students as they attempt to step out into the working world in the worst economy since the Great Depression?  Ultimately, I do not see why being taught to be technologically savvy and acquiring critical thinking skills are considered mutually exclusive in classes and colleges where the focus is more on the historical and theoretical considerations of knowledge. 

The most interesting thing to me is that when you dissect the concept of Digital Humanities there is an obvious privileging of the Humanities side of the phrase over the Digital.  As someone who primarily teaches technical "trade" skills - video production and editing - at a community college I would like to see more discussion at future THATCamps about incorporating the wealth of what Humanities has to offer into the Digital-based classroom not just what those of us who work and create in the Digital trades can do for the Humanities.

For more information about THATCamp check out:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tiny Furniture

Tiny Furniture is an independently made film directed by and starring Lena Durham about a young woman named Aura who is dealing with life after college while staying in her Mom's Tribeca loft. She's just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend and graduated from a unnamed college in Ohio with a degree in film theory.

The film has made a deep impression on me and not just because Aura's journey is much like my own (substituting the hip Tribeca loft with the not-so-hip rural Washington digs). The way that the film really stood out to me was that it didn't pass the reverse of The Bechdel Test; it had two men in it with names, but they never spoke to each other. Almost all of the primary case of characters in the film are women. I was completely struck by the lack of male presence in the film and the large amount of fully fleshed out female characters.  After getting over my initial shock I was saddened to think that I was surprised at the amount of women in one film at all.  Is it really so rare that there are large casts of women in a film?  I would sadly say "yes."  So I started thinking about how many films I could name that I've seen in the past couple of years that had more than two women in the main character cast:
  • Bridesmaids
  • The Help
  • Thor
  • Tiny Furniture
  • Burlesque
  • Black Swan
And that's it.  Can anyone else think of films with more than two women in the main character cast that have come out recently?  This list is pathetically short.

More info about Tiny Furniture is here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

White Men Are the Best at Everything: Mapping the Birthplaces of the Directors of American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time

My original map is on Google. You can link to it by clicking here.

In 1997 the American Film Institute issued its first list of the top 100 films of all time entitled “100 years… 100 movies.” This was to commemorate the first 100 years of the existence of motion pictures – 1896 – 1996 (Why these dates, I am unsure. Most scholars go back and forth between 1894 and 1895 for the start of the motion pictures). In 2007 this list was revised and republished. Both lists were created from the input of 1,500 “…leaders from the film community (me, not being one of them). Gone from the second list were films like The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer which had characters performing in blackface and, though, technically significant to the history of cinema, were wrought with controversy surrounding their content. Added were films like Do The Right Thing and The Sixth Sense which seemingly added diversity to the list due to the fact that their directors – Spike Lee and M. Night Shaymalan – are men of color. The purpose in mapping where the directors of AFI’s 100 greatest films of all time were born along with a poster of their acclaimed film(s) is an attempt to show that while the new top 100 list attempted to expand the range of films and filmmakers incorporated into it, that the perception of excellence in motion picture production is still from a very white European-American male perspective. Thus, the list reinforces the idea that American films are the best films in the world and the only visual stories that matter to the cinema canon are feature-length fictional narratives.

This is not to say that mapping the locales of the director’s births did not provide any surprises. I was surprised that so many of the directors were European by birth. I was also surprised to find that legendary Hollywood directors Billy Wilder and Frank Capra were not born in America, but rather Italy and Poland. Capra immigrated to the United States around the age of four while Wilder came to the United States after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and took over the film studio where he was working. When clicking through the map the juxtaposition of images of these very iconic American stories – like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – with Europe is interesting and jarring at the same time.

Also surprising was that John Ford, who is so well known for his Westerns, was originally from Maine. Spike Lee, who is known so much for his urban stories set in New York City, was actually born in Atlanta. What this showed me is that you do not need to be from a certain place or necessarily embody a positionality similar to the characters in your film to tell stories that resonate with audiences and critics alike.

However, with that revelation came the issues of all the things that are missing from the list and from the map. First, there are no female directors on the list. There are no documentaries or experimental films. None of the films are non-feature length. None of the films are foreign produced or in a language beside English. All were made within the studio system in Hollywood. This seemed quite odd to me until I looked at the voting criteria on Wikipedia:
  • Feature length: Narrative format typically over 60 minutes long
  • American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production from the United States
  • Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media
  • Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds, and major film festivals
  • Popularity Over Time: Includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals
  • Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements
  • Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance
The reason why I used Wikipedia as a source was that this information was not available on the American Film Institute’s website. Buried in the text on the AFI website is the fact that they were only considering the top 100 American films, but the tagline on the webpage simply says “AFI reveals the 100 greatest movies of all time” which continues the deception that this list might encompass more than just American fare. Also not mentioned is the fact that the leaders of the film community were only given a list of 400 nominated films to choose from. Who chose those films and if they used the same criteria listed above in their selection process is unknown.

This exploration and visualization really helped me to think about the naturalization process that is such a big part of the cinema history canon. The fact that AFI failed to prominently mention that they were only considering American feature narratives for their top 100 list is telling of the different ways in which other modes of cinematic production are othered in critical discourse. For instance, at the Oscars there are categories for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film, but the grand prize – Best Picture – lacks any qualifiers. A more appropriate name for the award might be Best English-Language Fictional Feature. Additionally, the inclusion of the work of several European born directors – Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, etc. – shows whose creative input we value in the American studio system. In fact, only four directors on the list – M. Night Shyamalan (India), Peter Jackson (New Zealand), James Cameron (Canada), and Norman Jewison (Canada) – were born outside of the United States or Europe.

Primarily, I think the map brings up fascinating points about immigration; who we allow into our country to pursue the "American Dream." Aside from Capra and Wilder there were several other directors on the list that immigrated to the United States. While the rhetoric surrounding immigration is very anti-Latin America at the moment, because they will "steal our jobs," it is telling that we've allowed multiple white European film directors to immigrate and to hold one the most exclusive jobs in the country and then revered their work as the crowning achievement of what can be achieved in their profession. It says a lot about what we value in American society.