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Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny (Part One)

April 20, 2017 - 8:56am

This is the third in a series of posts showcasing outstanding work of students who participated in my PhD seminar in the fall focused on theories and histories of the debates around medium specificity. Mina Kaneko is a PhD candidate in Comparative Media and Culture (in the Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture program) at USC. She works on contemporary Japanese and Anglophone comics, literature, and cinema.

Framing Dreams and the Technological Uncanny

by Mina Kaneko


From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, by Winsor McCay.

In his essay “Re-newing Old Technologies,” Tom Gunning writes about the extreme pleasures and anxieties we feel when we encounter new technologies, which present us not only with “convenient devices,” but transform the ways we perceive and interact with the world (51). At the same time, inevitably, we grow used to them, adjusting our habits to accommodate them into our lives until they become everyday banalities. Gunning uses Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s analysis of the railway as an example of this interaction between novelty and habituation, describing how early train commuters were both consumed by “a gnawing fear of death through accident” and thrilled by the “novelty of traversing space at un-heard of speeds” (46). Such strong reactions seemed to subside when new cultural practices were introduced—reading on the train, for example—and train travel became second nature. However, Schivelbusch and Gunning suggest that those initial feelings of awe and fear were “camouflaged but not eliminated,” and buried deep into the unconscious (46). The moment the train breaks down, or any other such trigger, the “repressed material returns with a vengeance”—a phenomenon Gunning, evoking Freud, calls “the technological uncanny.”

Schivelbusch’s example may be about Western urbanization and industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century, but Gunning points out that it resonates today in our so-called Information Age, in which we’ve seen a similar proliferation of new technologies; he writes that “the two ends of the Twentieth Century hail each other like long lost twins” (51). With this in mind, I’ve decided to look at two bodies of work that allude in some way to the idea of the “technological uncanny”: the first being Winsor McCay’s comic strips Dream of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-1913) and Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1914), and the second Satoshi Kon’s anime Paprika (2006). Though each is distinctive, they seem to be in conversation with one another in interesting ways (many thanks to Henry for giving me the idea to compare the two side by side!)—if not as twins, then perhaps as cousins, from opposite ends of the century and from across the globe (U.S. and Japan, respectively).

These works use the subject of dreams as a space to explore fascinations and horrors about technologically advancing societies while also self-consciously reflecting on their own processes of mediation. In them, comics and anime seem to offer a symbolic language apt for representing fantastical, surreal worlds and helps provide critical distance by which to think about technological change. What’s particularly striking is that both McCay and Kon share a preoccupation with the “frame” (as in the comics frame, or the frame of the screen), which they frequently play with to call attention to mediation. First, I’ll take a look at McCay’s work, in which the frame is used to contain and order dreams in which anxieties about technology appear, and which he often deconstructs as a tool for reflexivity. Then, I’ll look at Kon’s Paprika, in which dreams are a kind of metaphor for media itself; the film uses ideas of “immediacy” and “the frame” as tropes to express ambivalence about a media-saturated world. While there are a number of subjects I’d like to explore further—such as the cultural contexts and time periods in which these texts are born—this is an early draft and the beginnings of a larger project I hope to develop. I’ll start primarily with a close-reading of the texts themselves to begin to speculate about some of the connections between dreams, comics, anime, and technology.

 

Winsor McCay’s Dream of the Rarebit Fiend & Little Nemo in Slumberland

Let’s start by looking at Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which appears to allude directly to the idea of the technological uncanny described by Gunning. Rarebit Fiend was a weekly comic strip first published in 1904 in the New York Evening Telegram, a kind of evening counter-part to the New York Herald. After that, in 1911, McCay moved to media company Hearst, where he published an adaptation in the New York American before returning to the Herald in 1913, when Rarebit Fiend had a brief revival. While the subject of the strip changed from week to week, it had one recurring theme: someone eats a Welsh rarebit before bed, and consequently has an outrageous dream. Often, these dreams are terrifying and bizarre, reflecting the dreamer’s anxieties—in the last panel, the dreamer consistently awakes, blaming their indulgent bedtime snack for their fitful sleep.

Cover of the Dover edition of collected Rarebit Fiend comics, depicting a man trapped in cheese.

As several scholars have noted, many of the dreams in Rarebit Fiend reflect the stresses of an increasingly industrialized and overworked society. In Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit, Scott Bukatman says the strip is about a middle-class “queasiness about the modern world” (51). Similarly, Katherine Roeder, in her book Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay, writes that the strip “investigated the impact of modern life on the individual psyche,”focusing in particular “on the nervous strain caused by the intense stimulation of the metropolis,” and the “increasing threat of bodily peril caused by newer, faster, and more dangerous forms of transportation” (161-162). Indeed, while some strips are more whimsical and less direct in their concerns (in one, a woman is eaten by her alligator purse, which has turned into an actual alligator; in another, a woman ponders the mysterious ingredients of “hot dogs” and is subsequently chased by a pack of dogs) the “nervous strain” brought about by urban life and the “threat of bodily peril” by new modes of transportation figure prominently in the weekly strip. Automobiles and trains are frequently out of control, inciting death or at least, severing limbs; new medicines are excessively effective as to become ineffective, as is the case with a hair-growth elixir that causes a bald man to become a mass of fur and the subject of a public spectacle; bodies are rife with ailments both physical and emotional, as seemingly small injuries (a corn on the foot, uneven leg lengths) stretch and overwhelm to the point of incapacitation. As Bukatman notes, “for the rarebit dreamers…sleep offers no respite from the day’s demands; they can only struggle on” (57).

Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, 1878
. Source: Library of Congress

In these comics, McCay often relies on a “fixed perspective” and a generally uniform frame size, which Bukatman says recalls chronophotography like that of Eadward Muybridge in the late 1800s (50). He also suggests that the ordered, repeated, sequential framing evokes the “mechanization of the Fordist assembly line”—a uniformity McCay “resists” by “replacing orderly process with a comedic progression toward chaos and/or death” (Bukatman 23). In other words, McCay uses the evenly spaced time intervals represented by the consistent boxes to map the sequential progress of chaos (or devolvement), something that is further accentuated by the static point of view—thus, we witness clearly “the change that occurs from one panel to the next, as objects and people variously grow and shrink, morph and transmogrify” (Bukatman 50).

For example, in one strip from June 28, 1905, a rarebit dreamer drives with friends, and discovers that all four car tires have deflated; seeking another friend’s help, they replace the tire rubber with cheesy rarebits (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay.

As they journey onward, their car spins increasingly out of control, as the cheese in the tires lose their shape, frame by frame. The size of each panel is consistent, marking regular intervals of the cars progression towards breakdown, a “gradual, if accelerating, metamorphosis” (Bukatman 62). Furthermore, because we view the car from a fixed side-view, we witness the radically “transmogrifying” cheese, which becomes an amorphous and stringy mess that overtakes the penultimate panel; the commuters scream, “Help! Save us! Oh, save us! Help! Oh!” The juxtaposition of the ordered, “Fordist” nature of the frame and the surreal invasion of the cheese represents “orderly process” being replaced with “a comedic progression toward chaos.”

In a more gruesome encounter with transportation from October 26, 1904, an elderly man tries to cross Broadway (fig. 2).Fig. 2. From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by Winsor McCay.

He is first run over by a horse-drawn carriage, losing his arm; then, he is run over by a water wagon, a trolley, and finally, an automobile, each time severing another part of his body. In the final panel, we see that this is an anxiety dream of the man’s wife, who says to her sleeping husband beside her, “Oh! There you are. I’m glad he’s home from New York. I’ll eat no more rabbits, Oh!” Like the previous strip above, this narrative utilizes the uniform grid to map a “progression towards death,” juxtaposing its chaos within the “orderly process” that confines it. Each frame captures a different moment of the man’s mutilation, which we view from the side of the road where he stands. At the same time, this comic maps a sequence of technological advancements in transportation: the horse-drawn carriage, the water wagon, the trolley, and the automobile, an order which Roeder says is intentional and serves as a kind of “mini-history” of urban transit (175). Thus, the frames also serve to show a historical progression, with each new mode of transportation contributing more and more to the demise of the dream’s poor protagonist.

The lack of movement in the frames seems to symbolize the way the dreams in Rarebit Fiend are grounded in the mundane, for the chaos that ensues takes place in everyday settings. As Bukatman notes, in contrast to Little Nemo, there is “no ‘consistent unreal world,’ no Slumberland on the other side of the journey, no place but the place of the quotidian, newly deformed” (Bukatman 60). Indeed, as we see in the strips above, many of the dreams occur in worlds that seem to mirror the dreamers’ reality, with the fantastical and surreal imposed onto the real. There is no “consistent unreal world” of marvelous characters and imaginative dreamscapes—and the comedic tragedies that occur, occur in the most mundane of moments, such as a drive in the city, or crossing Broadway.

Rarebit Fiend evokes the technological uncanny by contrasting these banalities of everyday life with the fantastical visions of peril that emerge only when the sleeper is dreaming. Using the dreaming state as a space in which fears manifest themselves, McCay seems to play with the Freudian concept that understanding dreams is the “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind” (604). (It should be noted however, that whatever Freudian themes seem to be at play in McCay’s work, The Interpretation of Dreams was not translated into English until 1913, and The Uncanny still later, I believe in 1925; from what I know, McCay was likely not to have read or been aware of Freud’s work.)

It is in dreams that “gnawing fear[s] of death through accident” appear, “return[ing] with a vengeance” to the sleeping middle-class American worker, showing that such emotions have only been “camouflaged, but not eliminated” in waking life. The dreamers return to the normalcy of consciousness with relief, grateful for the reality in which such fears “lapse[d] into oblivion,” and instead bread and cheese are cause for blame (Schivelbusch qtd. in Gunning 46). The juxtaposition of a constant frame and “fixed perspective,” which signal the Fordist order and repetition, and the transmogrified embodiments of anxiety depicted within them, visually reinforce the negotiation between novelty (here, primarily terror) and habituation.

Cover of Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! Vol. 1 by Sunday Press Books.

A similar treatment of anxieties about technology and transportation can be seen in Little Nemo, though the dream world presented is an entirely different one. While initially inspired by Rarebit Fiend, Little Nemo is primarily a departure in that it was designed, in McCay’s words, “to please the little folk” (ix). It too appeared as a weekly comic strip in the New York Herald, but in its Sunday color supplement from 1905-1914, printed on a full-size newspaper sheet that measured approximately 16 by 21 inches (Like Rarebit Fiend, an adaptation was published in the New York American until 1913, and experienced a brief revival in the Herald, from 1924 until 1927). Little Nemo charts the dreams of a young boy as he finds himself in various adventures in enchanted lands; the strip is sometimes fearful, often delightful, and, like Rarebit Fiend, consistently ends with Little Nemo waking to reality.

Unlike the “mundane” spaces of each rarebit dreamer’s lives, Slumberland is presented as fictional realm outside of reality, or a “consistent unreal world,” with recurring characters and developing stories. In this way, Bukatman writes that Little Nemo offers “immersion” rather than “resistance,” in which “the malleability of space, world, and body dominates the strip, investing the solidity of objects with plasmatic possibility” (23). In Rarebit Fiend, elasticity marks the absurd—tires made of uncontrollable cheese, a corn in the foot growing larger than the body—and dramatizes situations of stress in an otherwise “realistic” setting. In Little Nemo, however, it is the dream world itself that is elastic—fluid shapes and vibrant colors create a magical world in which anything is possible, which we view through the eyes of a child. Furthermore, as bed legs stretch and grow (fig. 3), so often do the comic frames containing the image,

Fig. 3. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay

giving the impression that the boundaries that cordon off that other world are just as fluid as the land depicted, as though perhaps they could continue to grow large enough for us to step into. The frame that expands and transforms presents itself like a window through which to peer into the other side (a metaphor which articulated by many scholars and a theme that is also taken up in Paprika). Slumberland, like Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, is a place of enchantment and mystery, and McCay invites us to enter (see fig. 4).

Fig. 4. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

At the same time, however, there remain similar expressions of wariness about the industrial age as those we see in Rarebit Fiend, and they employ a remarkably similar use of the uniform frame as we see in the former. While they may not be cause for gruesome deaths, the automobiles and railways in Little Nemo similarly frequently malfunction or spin out of control. Take this strip from September 6, 1908, in which Nemo’s companion Flip calls upon him to a take a ride in his passenger train (see fig. 5). In the following panels, Flip manages to run through the picket fence lining Nemo’s family’s home, back up straight into a brick building, topple over a horse-drawn carriage, as well as a trolley, and ultimately crashes into a river. In the final panel, Nemo wakes up thrown from his bed onto the floor.

Fig. 5. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

In a strip from November 29, 1908, Flip causes another such ruckus when he takes Nemo for a ride in his new automobile. Here, Flip shows off his car’s tricks: first by driving up a staircase, then up the side of a tall building, eventually driving back down the building and plunging into a river, again careless of the various objects and monuments he runs over. As he does, Nemo pleads him to stop, saying, “Let’s go back home, Flip, come! This is too dangerous for me!” to which Flip merely brushes him off and encourages him to embrace the adventure. Interestingly, both strips employ the “chronophotographic” model of movement, mapping the progression of chaos by showing the incremental differences contained in the constant frame. It also uses a fixed perspective, consistently positioning the viewer to the side of the car or in front of the approaching train. This is a departure from the elastic windows that stretch and grow with the expanding berries or the moving chair — but rather, reflect the “fixity of the dreamer” and that same Fordist repetition (Bukatman 60). This preoccupation is expressed more explicitly in another strip, where Nemo, Flip, and Imp take “a bath” on Mars; after asking a Martian how one keeps clean on his planet, the three are fed through a “cleaning machine” in which they are flattened by large cleaning rollers that Tim Blackmore, in his essay “McCay’s McChanical Muse,” says resemble the cylinders of the printing press. Flip says, “It’s the first time I was ever dry cleaned like a carpet and the last!” while Nemo exclaims, “Oh! We’re being ironed out like a shirt front Oh! I’m mad now!!!” Nemo and Flip liken themselves to a mass-produced commodity created in a factory, through which they emerge flattened, and are subsequently hung and dried on a clothesline. McCay uses the fictional fantastical world of Nemo—and Mars—to introduce an alien (or alienating) and dehumanizing mechanical process, while visually alluding to the technological mechanism with which the comic itself is mass-produced.

Perhaps one of the most pleasurable, if not most significant, aspects of McCay’s comics lie in such instances of self-reflexivity. In both Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo, characters will refer to their own existence as a comic strip, or otherwise to the author himself. For example, in one Rarebit Fiend comic, a man dreams he is a “pen and ink drawing,” calling attention to an ink splotch above his right knee—as the comic progresses, he becomes covered in more and more ink stains, and the man continues to comment on the way he is “not drawn carefully.” Similarly, in an episode of Little Nemo from 1909, Nemo and Flip walk through the countryside, which is drawn as a minimalist, black and white line drawing distinctive from the aesthetics of their own bodies—Nemo says, “I’m going home before I change into a bad drawing” (see fig.6). In these, McCay calls direct attention to the “strongly stylized, hand-drawn quality” that Silke Horstkotte says characterizes many cartoons in his essay “Zooming in and Out: Panels, Frames, Sequences.” By introducing different aesthetic styles and explicitly naming “incomplete”

Fig. 6. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

or “badly drawn” figures, McCay exposes the ways in which these figures are indeed drawn by the subjective hand of a specific artist.
Additionally, McCay often experiments with the collapse or breakdown of the frame as a way to direct attention to its own mediation. For example, in another Rarebit Fiend strip, a count attempts to court a young woman, only to be met with rejection; upon discovering she is in love with the cartoonist “Silas” (McCay’s penname for Rarebit Fiend), the man begins to rip apart the comic in which they exist as an act of defiance, until in the end, there is only a pile of “shredded comic” before the dreamer wakes (see fig. 7). Similarly, in a Little Nemo strip from November 8, 1908, Flip invites Nemo into his uncle’s bakery (see fig. 8). As Nemo, Flip, and Imp attempt to take some baked goods, the ink in each pastry begins to disappear, leaving behind the paper beneath it. Slowly, each pastry disappears one by one, until the background is merely the inkless paper; soon the floor disappears, and Flip and Imp fall out of the frame, until only Nemo is left—as Nemo tries to hold on, the frame around him beings to fold, collapsing around him in a heap. He exclaims, “Look what the artist has done to me oh!”

Fig. 7. From Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, by Winsor McCay.

 

Fig. 8. From Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay.

As Greg M. Smith points out in “Comics in the Intersecting Histories of the Window, the Frame, and the Panel,” the “frame” in comics is neither bound by a physical frame (in the case of the painting) or by a mechanical apparatus (as in the case of TV or cinema) –rather, it is a hand-drawn construction for organizing a story (231). McCay’s decision to deconstruct the frame further reminds us of his own subjectivity—that the dreams, characters, and objects we see are fictional constructions, where even the window through which we observe them can easily be removed or altered. Such self-reflexivity reminds us of the specific medium with which McCay is working and highlights the way comics themselves require no technological apparatus except pen and paper. In her book Disaster Drawn, Hillary Chute describes drawing and comics as a kind of “counter-inscription” to other highly technologically reliant forms of inscription or mediation, and I think the term particularly apt here. Rather than “emphasizing a story-level similar to the actual world,” as Horstkotte says, comics “serv[e] to highlight the discursive qualities of the narrative representation” (33). By collapsing the frame and erasing the characters on which we rely to read his images, we are forced to see the materiality behind that illusory, imaginative world for what it is: Nemo and our dreamers are but ink on paper. At the same time, McCay acknowledges that the newspaper comic strip itself was transformed by the new technology of the rotary presses in the late 1800s that allowed for mass production and distribution; by removing the ink from the Little Nemo strip above, for example, he makes visible the “direct, palpable relationship between the newly mechanized press and the art form of the comic strip” (Blackmore 17). In a time when cinema and photography were popularizing art forms with a certain sensational quality (such as films like the Lumière brothers’ 1985 Arrival of a Train that wow’ed viewers with its “closeness” to reality), McCay’s use of the medium can indeed be thought of as a kind of counter-inscription to photographic recording of physical, existing objects. While photographs and films are themselves merely representations, comics’ discursive qualities dismiss themselves of this evidentiary expectation to begin with. As much as McCay enchants and entices us in some moments, he also frequently deliberately distances us to reveal the construction of his own representations, a reflexivity and call for critical awareness that goes hand-in-hand with the cautionary, if humorous, wariness of technology depicted in his comics.

 

 

Works Cited

“Oedipus and the Sphinx ” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., n.d. Web.  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/21.134.1/ Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.

Baudrillard, Jean, and Sheila Faria. Glaser. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: U of
Michigan, 2014. Print.

Blackmore, Tim. “McCay’s McChanical Muse: Engineering Comic-Strip Dreams.” The
Journal of Popular Culture 32.1 (1998): 15-38.

Booker, Marvin Keith. Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Santa
Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood, 2014, pp 234.

Bolter, Jay David & Richard Grusin. “Remediation.” Configurations, vol. 4 no. 3, 1996,
pp. 311-358.

Bukatman, Scott. The Poetics of Slumberland: Animated Spirits and the Animating Spirit. Berkeley: U of California, 2012. Print.

Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 2016. Print.

Friedberg, Anne. “The Virtual Window.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of
Transition, edited by David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 337-354.

Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Interpretation of Dreams.
New York: Basic, 2010. Print.

Gunning, Tom. “The Art of Succession: Reading, Writing, and Watching Comics.” 
Comics & Media, edited by Hillary Chute and Patrick Jagoda, University of Chicago Press, 2014, pp. 36-51.
– – -. “Re-newing Old Technologies.” Rethinking Media Change: The
Aesthetics of Transition, edited by David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 39-60.

Horstkotte, Silke. “Zooming In and Out: Panels, Frames, Sequences, and the Building Of  
Graphic Storyworlds.” From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to  
the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, edited by Daniel Stein and Jan-Noel Thon, Walter de Gruyter, Berlin, 2013.
LaMarre, Thomas. The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota, 2009. Print.
McCay, Winsor. Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: The Saturdays. West Carrollton, OH: Checker Book Group, 2007. Print.
– – -. Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend. N.p.: Dover Publications, 1973. Print. Dover Humor.
– – -. Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Vol. 1. West Carrollton, OH: Checker Book Group, 2007. Print.
– – -. Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. Vol. 2. West Carrollton, OH: Checker Book Group, 2007. Print.
Ndalianis, Angela. “Architectures of the Senses: Neo-Baroque Entertainment Spectacles.”
 Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, edited by David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, MIT Press, 2003, pp. 355-374.
Paprika. Dir. Satoshi Kon. By Satoshi Kon, Seishi Minakami, Brian Beacock, Doug Erholtz, and Michael Forest. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007.
Roeder, Katherine. Wide Awake in Slumberland: Fantasy, Mass Culture, and Modernism in the Art of Winsor McCay. 1st ed. Mississippi: U of Mississippi, 2014. Print. Great Comics Artists Ser.
Smith, Greg M. “Comics in the Intersecting Histories of the Window, the Frame, and the Panel.” From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels: Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative, edited by Daniel Stein and Jan-Noel Thon. Walter de Gruyter, 2013, pp. 219-240.

Thorburn, David, and Henry Jenkins. “Introduction: Toward an Aesthetics of Transition.” Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2003, pp. 1-16.

 

Categories: Blog

Westworld Compressed: Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose…

April 18, 2017 - 9:55am

 

 

Today, I present a second project representing the work of  the spectacular students in the USC Media Arts and Practices Program. In this case, Noa P. Kaplan applied her media manipulation skills to do an imaginative critique/remix/compression of Westworld, last fall’s cult media phenomenon. Think of this as a contribution to the growing movement within media studies to produce video essays.

Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose

by Noa P. Kaplan

In the first episode of Westworld, Dr. Ford attributes Peter Abernathy’s obscure and threatening language to “…Shakespeare, John Donne, Gertrude Stein. I admit the last one [Stein] is a bit of an anachronism, but I couldn’t resist.” Why not? Only vaguely familiar with Stein’s role as an art collector and tastemaker in early twentieth century Paris, and slightly less familiar with her hermetic writing practice, I took it upon myself to read up on the historical figure in parallel with the Westworld series. Each newly released episode seemed to play off of her literary tactics—reappropriation, repetition, the continuous present. Episode four, Dissonance Theory, underlines how central her discordant style is to the series: “Stein’s own compositional idiom is not different in principle from jazz polyrhythms, or two times going at once…Stein, of course, has long been associated with cognitive dissonance in literary circles…” If all of this was not enough to convince me that Stein is more than a fleeting reference, her professional and social rosters sealed my certainty.

 

Growing up in California, Stein was influenced by the Feminist thinker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman; at Radcliffe, she studied under William James. Stein received scathing reviews after she contributed artworks from her collection and accompanying criticism to the controversial 1913 Armory show in New York, but Teddy Roosevelt publicly defended the exhibition: “The exhibitors are quite right as to the need of showing to our people in this manner the art forces which of late have been at work in Europe, forces which cannot be ignored.” The editor, Ford Madox Ford, facilitated the serialization of Stein’s The Making of Americans for his publication, The Transatlantic Review: “Miss Stein’s work will better bear division than the story of Mr. Coppard and, fortunately, Miss Stein kindly allows us to divide her up, which is more than many authors will.” Four frequent attendees of her Parisian salon were Elsie de Wolfe, Thérèse Bonney, D.H. Lawrence, and Arnold Rönnebeck, a modernist sculptor, best known for his abstract figure, Grief. Finally, one of Stein’s dearest friends, Bernard Faÿ, was a Vichy official who offered her immunity during WWII so that she could live safely in France despite being Jewish and openly homosexual. Her mentors, publishers, interviewers and friends are the namesakes of other Westworld characters as well, with the exception of Dolores, Maeve, Clementine, and Armistice. I could not locate these four in Stein’s inner circle.

 

Why do the female cyborgs defy the pattern? To get a clearer picture of these four mysterious characters I began an obsessive process of de-interlacing their narratives. I captured and recut each character’s story arc so that I could watch each uninterrupted. But their names were still denied clear parentage, neither anchored in Stein’s biography nor explained within the science fiction series, just floating in a contextual void, as if arbitrary. All I had were their names, so I used them as starting points, queries to unearth their historical and cultural backstories.
The first installment focuses on Dolores. Of the ten hours that make up the first season, three are devoted to Dolores, more than any other character. In order to identify behavioral patterns and thematic trends, I sped up the aggregated footage, condensing it to ten minutes in length. Superimposed on this timelapse are my findings, two times going at once. The result is a polyrhythmic pseudo-cyborg perspective, evolved from the gunslinger’s reductive computer vision used in the original 1973 feature film. The resulting juxtapositions produce more explosive significance than I could possibly articulate in words.

Noa P. Kaplan is a visual artist based in Los Angeles, California. She received her BA from Yale University and her MFA from the Design Media Arts Department at UCLA. She is currently working towards a PhD in Media Arts + Practice at USC.  Kaplan’s artwork examines the impact of technology on production processes, material structure, and scale. She also has a deep interest in collaborative curation and fabrication. She has worked on visual and scholarly projects with several museums including Yale University Art Gallery,  MassMOCA, Getty Center, and the Hammer Museum.

Categories: Blog

Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy

April 13, 2017 - 8:32pm

Over the next few weeks, I am going to share several projects produced recently by my amazing USC students! Today, I am showcasing the work of Emilia Yang, who is a PhD candidate in the Media Arts = + Practice program in the USC Cinema School. Students in this program have to demonstrate cutting edge skills as media producers but also the capacity to think and write theoretically. My role in this program is to teach a course which combines media theory and history and is organized around issues of medium specificity. Yang chose to write her final paper exploring some of the issues raised by one of her own recent media projects, and I felt the paper was a great illustration of what is emerging from this innovative program. I was also interested, given last week’s conference at MIT revisiting the original From Barbie to Mortal Kombat event, that she was engaging so productively with Marsha Kinder’s Runaways and Brenda Laurel’s Purple Moon games, both of which featured heavily at that event.

 

 

Downtown Browns: Interactive Web Series, Intersectionality and Intimacy

By Emilia Yang

The context of this work is the United States of America. 2016, the year in which Donald Trump ran for the presidency of the United States under a white supremacist, nationalist, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic campaign, and won. White supremacy and patriarchy have always been around, displaying racism and gender specific violence in all aspects of the US society, but the main focus of this essay is media. We are aware that these attitudes have characterized Hollywood ideologies since DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). Various scholars have described, named and deconstructed the portrayal of women in film and various form of stereotyping of minorities in films¹. Recently, this imminent ideology has been made visible  and contested in Internet popular culture under the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, calling attention to the lack of representation on screen and behind the camera as well as the quality of the stories represented². Other forms of media such as television and videogames also show a systematic over-representation of males, white and adults and a systematic under-representation of other groups (Williams et all 2009).

Even though there have been valuable efforts to diversify Hollywood and other forms of media, as an academic, media creator, advocate for social justice,  anti-discrimination and diversity (for lack of a better word), and latinx woman with an intersectional identity, I have tried to author media and media criticism about the things I want the most and experience the least, a type of media and analysis that centers marginalized minority groups and their experiences, questions dominant narratives through alternative voices, and sees the World with a historicized memory, informed by inequalities of power and knowledge.

For these reasons I allied with a team of radical women of color from various backgrounds and creative practices (game design, gaming, tactical media, documentary, social criticism) based in Los Angeles to produce an interactive series called Downtown Browns, winner of the “Diversity Challenge” organized by Tribeca Film Festival, Interlude and Games for Change. The three episodes series highlight the decisions faced by women of color in Los Angeles. Our themes were directly drawn from issues discussed during the presidential campaign. They are an homage to the families separated by deportations, to those vilified by islamophobia and to those who hit glass ceilings because of the color of the skin, highlighting their achievements (see section where we review some events that motivated each episode theme).  Each episode follows a different storyline, showcasing a bright woman of color making their way through a unique situation as presented in the log line:

“Interactive decisions, mini-games, and perspective shifts are utilized to build an intimate understanding of the complex dynamics at play in city life”.

We took care of casting and writing diverse characters, and perhaps more importantly, we also made an active decision to try and build an all-women-of-color-crew, knowing that our collective sensibilities and experiences would strengthen the diversity of perspectives represented in the series.

Fig.1

The main goal of the series was to produce a thoughtful interactive film experience that promotes intimacy and understanding with women of color. In this article I am interested in using the series as a way to discuss the potential of interactivity as a medium to accomplish this goal, and our thought process while crafting fictional representations of women of color. In order to accomplish that, I have set out in this paper to consider how to elaborate a critical analysis of interactive films that will simultaneously pay attention to what is represented in them, how they operate, and what they are intended to do. To develop this approach, I follow Gonzalo Frasca’s approach in Videogames of the Oppressed in which he states that simulation authors (game and toy designers) – and as I argue in this case interactive film makers – are ideologically responsible for the creation of three levels of evaluation. The ludus creator not only has to design the rules that make the simulation work (paidea rules), but also defines what is the ultimate goal of the game (ludus rules)³.

The first level is representational and Ludus incorporates two extra ideological levels. Level 1 – It is related to scripted actions, descriptions and settings and is shared with traditional storytellers.

Level 2 – It has to do with the rules of paidea, the rules that model the simulated system.

Level 3 – The third level is the ludus rule. It states what is the goal of the ludus and defines a winning, and therefore a desirable, condition (Frasca 2004:47).

Fig. 2

Frasca uses these categories as a framework to analyze The Sims. In order to elaborate a critical analysis of Downtown Browns, framed as an interactive film series that shares characteristics with videogames, I will divide my analysis in these three levels, considering what the project represents, simulates and is intended to do. The first section discusses the motivations and implications of the use of the identity marker of ‘Brown’ as an overarching identity of women of color. I ask: What does it mean to use interactive media to explore the lives of women of color? How do you represent this complex association in a responsible way?

The second section discusses the simulations enabled by the medium. Here, I will attend to classic debates in game studies between agency and structure, focusing on how limiting the agency in the player achieves a double function in our case: to do a spatial exploration of the characters’ environment and to build an argument about structural issues. The third section discusses the desired condition (our goal), framed as the fostering of intimacy to construct an alliance with women of color.  I articulate an argument on the role of ‘intimacy’, instead of the commonly deployed ‘empathy’ in media for social change, as a form of relationality that could foster consciousness raising with equal footing in the midst of antagonistic relations among races, classes, and genders. I sketch here a theory of intimacy as a form of proximity that requires identification, acknowledgment and allyship. Framed as a political gesture, I draw from political theorists to talk about this move. In a revised version of this essay, a fully historicized account of the emergence of the discourses of empathy around interactive media and intimacy in sociopolitical contexts discussed in the paper would be necessary. The purpose here is merely to outline what are potential fields of inquiry, and the potential benefits of thinking across them. Before I proceed, I will state the relationship between interactive film and videogames, as a justification for using video games theorizations to approach interactive film analysis.

Interactive film and games

Interactive media encompasses various forms of information display and storytelling, and usually refers to artifacts on digital systems that respond to users actions by presenting linked content such as text, moving image, animation, video, and audio. Interactive media has been theorized as a family of evolving forms of narrative media with previous mediums such as literature (Aarseth 1997) and theatre (Laurel 2014). Meadows defines interactive narrative as a time-based representation of character and action in which a reader can affect, choose or change the plot (Meadows 2002). Commonly known forms of interactive media are interactive narratives, websites, films, documentaries, video games, and virtual reality experiences.

Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) describes the computer as a medium that allows the expansion of storytelling towards new expressive possibilities. Her analysis covers video games along with other digital artifacts such as hypertext, web series and interactive chat characters. Even though many game critics are against the notion of lumping interactive films and games together (Adams 1995) since the hard rails of the plotting can overly constrain the ‘freedom, power, and self-expression’ associated with interactivity (Adams 1999 cited in Jenkins 2004) (Jenkins 2004), others state that the insistence on both similarities and differences between games and movies is growing shriller, in both popular press and cultural theory, as the convergence between these two forms increasingly appears inevitable (Kinder 2002:119).

The idea of interacting with media content, could be traced to the 1966’s Francois Truffo’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which Linda interacts with the Family Theater, a TV program. We see her invited to participate with the prompt “Would you come play with us?”. Her answers to the questions the characters on the screen pose to her become part of their conversation. Even though this interaction is staged, it proves how the idea of interacting with the content we watch was already taking place at the time.

https://youtu.be/T0bVqgBSZHk?t=837

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

The increase in the availability and use of video online in recent years has made it easier for creators to develop interactive films. An example of this is Eko, the platform in which Downtown Browns was developed. The company website describes their labor as “pioneering a new medium where viewers shape the story as it unfolds. The result is streaming digital interactive video that allows our viewers to affect, control, and influence narrative live-action entertainment.” As the description of Eko’s platform evokes, interactive film, in a choose-your-own-adventure film style, claim to give the audience an active role in the construction of the plot. I will further discuss this notion, and our use of agency, in the section on simulation. In the following section, I discuss why and how we are centering women of color in the series.

Level 1: Representing an intersectional approach of Brown articulation

Downtown Browns is part of a recent movement of media made by women of color of intersectional identities that have emerged in United States’ popular culture as diverse creators have had more access to tools and audiences. As Viola Davis stated, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” (Viola Davis, 2015). An inspiration to Downtown Browns and a common reference is The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl and Insecure, comedy web series created by and starring Issa Rae as J. Another similar series is Brown Girls, a web-series centered on the friendship between two women of color. In order to consider what it means to explore the lives of women of color through an interactive film, this section discusses what women of color theorists have said about the particularities of a shared subjectivity. It also considers the complexity and challenges we faced when trying to represent that subjectivity, highlighting bell hooks’ problematization of racial representations, a concern of being dressed up and dumbed down for mainstream consumption.

The articulation of a women of color subjectivity traces back the response to essentialism in white feminism, articulated by various of feminists of color delineated by Chela Sandoval, in her landmark essay “Third World Feminism in the US” (1991). Even though I believe most our team would call ourselves postcolonial feminists, in our current context we identify as women of color because the “peculiar brand of U.S. racism” (Alexander and Mohanty 1997) that characterizes our experience in this country. Sandoval sees women of color as embodying a type of ‘differential consciousness’ that engages other oppositional ideologies selectively and weaves “between and among them” in a tactical way (Sandoval 1991). Anzaldua identified this coalition as one of women who do not have the same culture, language, race or ideology, but are capable of having a collective struggle. She argued that the recognition, visibilization and mobilization of this tactical subjectivity, through writing and media creation, is a form of political work that inverts cultural norms.

Acting in similar fashion of both weaving, presenting and mediating the women of color subjectivity, the series presents itself as a collection of multiple intersectional consciousness: women, queer, Latinx, Middle Eastern and Black. This process is represented in the multi-diverse composition of our crew and through the development of our characters, Miranda, Fati and Yetunde as you get to know each character, their motivations in life, and their relationship with others and their cultural differences. Miranda, the  protagonist of the first episode, is a smart Chicana who is accomplished in school. While exploring Miranda’s world you see many traces of latinx, and specifically Mexican-American (Xicana) culture. She talks about her economic struggle, her side job, her “quinces” dreams and the role of her family.

Fig. 3

Fati is the protagonist of the second episode and she is a Middle Eastern Muslim nurse student who wears a headscarf, speaks Farsi, and loves music.  Both of them speak in other languages sporadically, which we decided to use to place the viewer in a discomforting position.

Fig. 4

Yetunde, our third protagonist,  is a pop culture enthusiast, certified nerd, and young black queer woman who advocates for a social media safe space for WOC. Yetunde’s project is Queen.ly an app made specifically for women of color that both Miranda and Fati use in Episode 1 and 2.

Fig. 5

This intersectionality allowed us to represent multiple levels of oppressions: state, cultural, professional and social (discriminatory encounters interactions between white and brown characters, and brown and brown characters across both genders). For example, Fati in episode two encounters a recent feminist (Trish) who is discerning how to help her because she considers she is “oppressed” by wearing her headscarf. We hear Trish comment: “I would love to talk to her about feminism, but where?” (See Fig. 6) Hearing Trish assume Fati is not a feminist, and has no choice but to follow traditions that are against her interests as a woman, demonstrates how an intersectional representation of women of color is required, since not all violence comes from men, but also from white women.

Fig.6

Furthermore, the series does not negate the violence that also exists within interactions between women of color, since Fati encounters another women of color, Tay, and Tay judges her (Fig 7).  Anzaldúa has discussed solidarity within Xicana culture “To be close to other chicana is like looking on the mirror” (1987), as well as Audre Lorde in Sister Outsider in which she expresses that “the harshness and cruelty that may be present in black female interaction so that we can regard one another differently, an expression of that regard would be recognition, without hatred or envy” (1984).

Fig. 7

In episode three, we also show how complicated relationships can be among people of color of different genders. When Yetunde talks to Darren, the other black person in the office, he thinks Yetunde “blames everything on being black,” which we characterize as “Mansplaining” 4 (See Fig. 8).

Fig. 8

The representations of the three characters shows the nuances and the experiences that divide them from each other according to their own culture and gender specific intersectional identities; examining the incidents of intolerance, prejudice and denial of differences. We also expand and recognize their shared experience as social and systemic, trying to reframe experiences that are often perceived as isolated and individual. By doing this type of media, we are trying to bridge between the spaces we inhabit, while centering women of color, similar to the move made by this bridge we call home radical vision of transformation, in which Anzaldúa and Keating (2002) envision new forms of communities and practices inviting both women of color and white people to discuss their collective visions.

Remarkedly, we highlight  bell hooks’ questioning the move to represent difference in mass culture. She states that if the desire for contact with the other -which she sees as rooted in the longing for pleasure from white culture- can act as a critical intervention that challenges and subverts racist domination is still an unrealised political possibility:

I talked to folks from various locations about whether they thought the focus on race, otherness, and difference in mass culture was challenging racism. There was an overall agreement that the message that acknowledgement and exploration of racial difference can be pleasurable represents a breakthrough, a challenge to white supremacy, to various systems of domination. The overriding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate- that the other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten (1992).

hooks states that we cannot take these representations uncritically and I agree with her. We further attempt to address this by limiting the degree of agency we enable the users to have, which I will discuss in the next section.

Level 2: Simulating agency and structure

“A long time ago there were no toys and everyone was bored. Then they had TV, but they were bored again. They wanted control. So they invented video games”

(Kinder 2000).

It is a common misstatement that videogames are about user control. Janet Murray, talks about the agency granted by interactive media as the capacity of the medium to allow the user to perform actions that affect the represented characters, “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices” (1997:24). For her, one of the main pleasures of digital artifacts is discovering the possibilities of the system through manipulation. Similarly,  Laurel has stated that computers’ “interesting potential lay not in its ability to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent action in which the humans could participate” (Laurel 1993).  Frasca (2004:38) cites Aarseth (1997) explaining that the manipulation of the system is not trivial since it requires that the player get engaged into a process of decision-making that will affect her experience of the system. For Frasca the process of manipulation is what renders possible the interpretation of the multiple facets of a simulation. The participative gamey aspect of the series, the rules of paideia allows for the user to simulate of agency via emotional choices,  explore intersubjectivity through perspective switches, and the exploration of the main characters’ environments as spatialized storytelling. As I will develop in this section, it is only to demonstrate how little choice WOC have in most situations.

Simulating agency

A common reference for our series, with similar interactive decisions, were Brenda Laurel’s Purple Moon games, built based on gender difference and self-construction. These charming experiences were part of the Games for Girls Movement that started more than 20 years ago and brought to the game studies discussions by Jenkins in From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: gender and computer games (2000). Tonia, our uniting force and co-creator, mentioned them in an interview as an inspiration and her first “girl game”. Purple Moon games portrayed a suburban white junior high girl’s experience that allowed players to choose the emotional states that Rockett, the main character would make in order to relate with others, framed as a friendship adventure (See Fig 9).

Fig.9

Similar to Purple Moon, episodes one and three of our series invite people who might not be familiar with the realities of women of color to participate in helping the character decide the emotional reactions they will have in the face of adversity as well as more mundane situations as they move through the day. In this sense, the series is pedagogical in that it was designed to be inviting for non women of color to approach our perspective and experiences. However, we are sensitive to how women of color are often expected to act as bridges and translators, bearing the responsibility of educating white America about systemic racism, misogyny and other forms of oppression. The series gives protagonists the choice to refuse bearing this burden at all times. As Donna Kate Rushin’s Bridge poem eloquently states “I’m sick of seeing and touching. Both sides of things. Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody” (1981). In episode three, Yetunde must decide at times whether to let things slide or to correct or confront people and their micro-agressions. At times, refusing to explain why something might be racist is the only way she can sustain her energy and focus on her goals.

Intersubjective experiences

Marsha Kinder’s Runaways project is another relevant example, since it gave users the ability to select the identity of its avatar, which determined how other characters respond to it based on ethnic difference. The developers of this experience saw it as an opportunity to deal with the social consequences of these choices and the issue of stereotypes and gender play. The game placed you in the uncomfortable role of being treated as a stereotype and having other characters make all sorts of false assumptions about you (Kinder 2000) (See Fig. 10).

Fig. 10

Downtown Browns does not allow user to customize their avatar, since for us an accurate representation of women of color is eminently needed, as represented in level one of this analysis, but we make use of switch of parallel perspectives in episode two (See Fig. 11) in order for people to understand how stereotyping weighs into discrimination in daily life. In this episode the user gets to hear what others are thinking of Fati, while they can also hear what Fati is thinking about them. There is almost no dialogue in Episode 2, but the internal dialogues show how some of the bystanders exotify, some sympathize, and others fear Fati, while she is missing her family or documenting her experience. Users choose which perspective prevails by curating their own personal experience of the film.

Fig. 11

Spatialized storytelling

The series is also meant to be pleasurable experience for people of color who play them. Some of the interactive decisions allow POC to identify aspects of life as a women of color by exploring their space with things we find interesting, cool, necessary and aspirational (See Fig. 12). The interactive decisions in which the user gets to explore content in a spatialized way are a form of “environmental storytelling”, as described by Jenkins, “game designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces… and they fit within a much older tradition of spatial stories, which have often taken the form of hero’s odysseys, quest myths, or travel narratives” (2004). In this case the sheroes are women of color and you explore their closest intimate environments and you are able to identify specific things of their culture. Ian Bogost refers to this as “emotional vignettes” that characterize an experience and is often used to inspire empathy rather than advancing the narrative (2011). Later in the essay I will take issue with empathy.

Fig. 12

Adding to the interactive decisions, the narrative branching structure offers multiple endings in each episode, but Downtown Browns refuses to offer happy endings in which characters singlehandedly make their own destinies. Instead, we are confronted with how, despite character’s reactions and decisions, the things that happen to them are mostly beyond their control as they respond to broader systemic problems in our society. This tackles issues like blaming WOC for their impossibility of advancing, “she is not working hard enough” or “why didn’t she just do this?” and focuses on understanding both their underlying motivations of WOC, the constant quickness needed to react in the different systems of discrimination that take place and whose role is it to call out racism.

Sherry Turkle, as cited by Frasca (2004), identifies three attitudes towards simulations: “simulation denial” which is a rejection of simulations because they offer a simplified view of the source system and “simulation resignation”, that accepts them because the system does not allow to modify them. However, Turkle imagines another possible kind of relationship, “it would take as its goal the development of simulations that actually help players challenge the model’s built-in assumptions. This new criticism would try to use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. (Turkle 1995). Even though one is left with a feeling of impotence, by acknowledging that the system is unfair to each one of the characters we use simulation as a means of consciousness-raising. We tried to show the system whose core assumptions are not visible if you do not experience them as a WOC. Turkle states that understanding the assumptions that underlie simulation is a key element of political power.  When simulations are sufficiently transparent, they open a space for questioning their assumptions.

Level 3: Desiring intimacy against empathy

“Flush yrself down the toilet if you think you’ve ‘learned empathy for trans women’ by playing dys4ia.”

Ann Anthropy on Twitter

Since our goal was to promote intimacy and understanding with women of color as a means of conscious rising (ludus rule), through accurate and positive representations as well as simulation by showing the system of oppression, I will make an argument for the reasoning behind our use of intimacy instead of empathy. First, I will define empathy and trace some of its philosophical underpinnings, then I will present how it has been used in games and how intersectional creators have challenged this notion. Finally, I will discuss how intimacy, as a process of feeling-with rather than feeling-for, serves as the purpose of conscious raising and bridging of cultures that we entail to do in the series.

Commonly understood, empathy “refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain” (Bloom 2014).  Empathy as part of identification traces back to Adam’s Smith and David Hume’s (1896) use of sympathy as a necessary mode of identification between people, predicated upon our ‘natural’ ability to read the signs of the other’s affect, in which they base many of their ideas of liberal governance. Others have elaborated in it’s role in the construction of various forms of power-relations, as a “technology of race and gender,” and its role in new evangelical social movements such as abolitionism and missionizing (Rai 2002). Some researchers see it as a physiological endeavour, ‘seeing like others’, others see it as an emotional one, ‘feeling like others’, and others see it as cognitive process, that entails ‘thinking like others’. Michael Bloom states that most of the discussion of the moral implications of empathy focuses on its emotional side. He also states that empathy it is not the only force that motivates kindness, and people naturally have less or more empathetic abilities, and that does not conflict with their sense of justice. He makes an argument for rational thinking instead of empathy since for him empathy is narrowed, biased and individual.

In the gaming world, the term “empathy game” refers to a speedily expanding genre of games “designed to inspire empathy in players” (D’Anastasio 2015), which in turn are part of a broader genre identified as “serious games” or “games for change”. News outlets and game conferences have covered their arrival on the market with enthusiasm and optimism (D’Anastasio 2015). This new category of games ranges different forms of interactive experiences, and supposedly are intended to make allies out of gamers, since they mostly focus on developers’ personal experiences, placing the player through the developers’ more difficult life milestones. D’Anastasio cites as examples of this are dys4ia an 8-bit flash game that Ann Anthropy made to evoke her experience with hormone therapy, and other such as Depression Quest. Anthropy, as stated in her tweet and blog posts, is now challenging the idea that a digital game can confer an understanding of her lived experience, marginalization, and personal struggle. She states that being an ally takes long work. Other game developers, such as Colleen Macklin, have discussed the perils of trying to convey empathy through games; because some games have shown through their mechanic that agency is all is needed for people to change their circumstances (Parkin 2016). Ian Bogost in How to do things with videogames devotes a chapter to empathy stating “one of the unique properties of videogames is their ability to put us in someone else’s shoes” (2011).

Bringing back hooks’ fear of “eating the other;” Downtown Browns seeks to promote another way of relating with us women of color, which requires the work of both groups’ people of color and white people, not just emotional tourism or empathetic arousal, nor calling again for centering the white dominant. Samia Nehrez (1991) as cited by hooks (1992) talks about how decolonization can only be complete when it is understood as a complex process that involves both the colonizer and the colonized. This reframing requires another type of labor, one that is not constituted in further displacement, and one that does not remove the body and consciousness of women of color of the frame, but bridges between our experience and others’ while acknowledging this bridging needs both sides.  

Creating Downtown Browns allowed us to think, what would be a good form of encounter?  We required to frame it as another form of identification and recognition that entails a more equal grounds. Empathy gives priority to the viewer, assuming that the other is in disadvantage. Even though in the series we share vulnerable situations and emotions, we do it with the acknowledgement that is under our own terms. Multiple times we have heard after people play the series, that they want to know what happens to the characters. Lauren Berlant states that intimacy “involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out in a particular way” (1998).  In an intimate environment I am acknowledging you and allowing you to know me, but you have to do an active decision to value me, not talking for me, not try to think you have solutions for me. Only in those instances we can negotiate a shared space and shared life. Even though we are aware this might not always be the case.

As outlined in the introduction, I focused this essay on the potentials of interactive film as a critical medium and to craft an analysis that simultaneously pays attention to what is represented, simulated and hopefully accomplished. I trace historical references of brown articulation from radical women of color in the United States that inspired us, as well as historical uses of computer simulation for demonstrating experiences of others crafted by female creators as highlighted by De Laurel’s and Kinder’s work. Going back to the graphic I presented earlier of Frasca’s model, I map the relationship the series represent between form and content, simulation and experience, as well as the implicit theories about ideology, representation, identification, and interactivity that shaped the choices we made as creators.

Fig. 13

Reading the graph the other way around from right to left, intimacy is fostered via the simulation of decisions women of color make, that allows others into our space and shows them how the system operates in relationship to our specific race, gender and sexualities, by conceiving a thoughtful representation of women of color’s multiple subjectivities. By opening these experiences and showing these spaces to other groups of people we hope we foster and intimate understanding, a shared story, an initial conversation about the negative and positive things we experience in U.S society. I leave the arrows as a continuum, since I must include the conversations and discourse (such as this) the series have allow us to have as part of its’ work. As Jeff Watson, theorist, maker and friend told me one day, “games and media are just a pretext for context”.

As I stated above, intersectional creators cannot promise and should not be interested in people inhabiting their subjectivities, nor should they try for dominant groups just to empathize, and neither should they take the burden all by themselves. Instead we should try to engage meaningfully with each other’s lives, invite other people of color and white people to walk with us, to be next to us, to be real allies. It is by listening, by working together to change the type of socializations imposed by media, by building solidarity and respecting difference that we will accomplish any progress or social change. I extend special thanks to Henry Jenkins’ thoughtful and constructive comments and to my Downtown Browns squad that with multiple conversations around these topics have challenged my thinking and approach to socio-political and cultural issues.  

About the author

Emilia Yang is an activist, artist, and militant researcher. Her work has been interconnected with digital communications, performance, and public art. Her research focuses on participatory culture and its relationship to media, arts, and design. Yang is currently pursuing a PhD in Media Arts + Practice at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. She is interested in how transmedia storytelling and postcolonial new media practices can foster social change and civic engagement. Her art practice utilizes site-specific interactive installations, documentaries, fictions, games, performances, and urban interventions to engage participants in political action and discussion. She is a HASTAC 2015-2016 Scholar and member of Civic Paths at USC.

Footnotes

  1. (Mulvey, 1989; Hall 1997; hooks 1992, 1996, Kareithi, 2001; Wilson and Gutierrez 1985, Roman, 2000; Chavez, 2013, West, 1990 – the list is extensive).
  2. A 2016 University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) study found minorities remain underrepresented in Hollywood on every front (nearly 3 to 1 among film leads and directors) and that audiences are seeking diverse film and television content. McNary, Dave “Hollywood’s Diversity Problem Potentially Costs Industry Billions (Study)”.
  3. As cited by Frasca (2004:6), Caillois (1967) uses the term ludus, the Latin word for game, to describe games which rules are more complex. Paidea and ludus could be associated with the English terms “play” and “game”, respectively.
  4. Mansplaining is a portmanteau of the words man and explaining, defined as “to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing”.

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—————2007. Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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Jenkins, Henry. 2004. Game Design as Narrative Architecture. First Person. Massachusetts: MIT Press. Accessed November 20, 2016 http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/firstperson/lazzi-fair

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Categories: Blog

Whose Global Village?: An Interview with Ramesh Srinivasan (Part Two)

April 12, 2017 - 6:50pm

You return to some core concepts, such as appropriation and participation, which have been foundational to contemporary cultural studies work on new media communities and practices, but which get redefined and reimagined through your collaborations with more diverse communities. Can you say something of what you see as the limits of western conceptions of these concepts? How did you modify your understandings of these processes as a result of your engagements with people in the Middle East, in India, or in Native American communities in the American west?

Work on appropriation, subversion, and participation is very important in media and cultural studies and certainly relevant to the many stories I share within the book from across the world. That said, we need not think of the technology user as inherently detached from the systems and tools that are provided to them. I make the argument in the book that we can start to re-think the very ‘codes’ of how technology is designed and developed to start with the voices, values, and knowledge practices, or ontologies, of grassroots users. Thus, the book tells stories of how grassroots digital storytelling can shape development and mobilization in Southern India (chapter 2), and how social network and cultural heritage systems can be directly designed by diverse indigenous and user communities (chapters 3-5).

As native Americans and First Nation people in Canada work to build digital archives which preserve and protect their own cultural heritage,  what new approaches are they embracing? What assumptions are they questioning? Do these different assumptions about knowledge, pedagogy, cultural authority, tradition, etc., these different ontologies and epistemologies, mean that there can not be shared archives between people with different cultural backgrounds or do we need to design archives that reflect multiple ways of knowing and help us to think about compromises that might allow diverse communities to coexist in an ever more interconnected world?

There is fantastic work underway, described both in my book and across scholarly and activist research, whereby indigenous technology users have begun to assemble their own technology networks and systems in line with the values and beliefs they hold. I describe many examples of this in the book and am currently working with the wonderful Rhizomatica project located in the Oaxaca, Mexico region where indigenous communities have begun to develop, design, and own their own cell-phone networks. These networks and systems are designed with a different type of logic, one that at times may be at tension with Western frameworks. For example, the Oaxacan case is powerful because it empowers the sharing of knowledge orally through indigenous languages that have rarely if at all been written. I also describe in chapter 4 the power of a system that is not a container of knowledge but instead a catalyst for traditional, non-digital ways of coming together to share, reflect, and learn.

There is a deep loss in our world of linguistic and cultural diversity, with nearly half of the world’s 7000 languages to vanish within the next century. I am interested in how we think of connectivity while acknowledging and supporting the very different ontologies that are fundamental to diversity. There are powerful times when we need to come together around global issues such as climate change or human rights. But we cannot govern, collect, or connect diversity through systems that are written according the voices of the few.

You note that researchers and designers partnering with groups outside their own cultural background can justly expect to encounter deep distrust about their motives and how they may be profiting from such cross-cultural encounters. You offer some brutally honest accounts here of how you confronted and worked through some of this distrust. As you moved into the field, what are some of the ways that you found your own preconceptions tested, questioned, challenged by the communities you worked with?What advice might you have for other designers who want to do work across cultures and in particular with groups around the world whose cultural contributions have often been marginalized or dismissed by other westerners?

Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned over the course of the partnerships and projects this book describes is the importance of thinking about design as a process of listening, learning, and giving up power. I describe the importance of collaborating with a spirit of losing one’s ego as a ‘master designer and instead seeing our efforts in line with the ethic of praxis. Part of that has involved putting the timelines that I had around research deadlines to the side and instead following an intuitive path that trusted those with whom I worked to teach me how to best develop our initiative together. It is so important for me also to only work with communities where I am directly invited for collaboration and also to have the academic and public outputs of our project to be shared in authorship, if of interest to my partners. It also recognizes that what we create together will hopefully long outlive the limited time-scale of a funded research ‘project’, and that understanding the meaning of our collaborations may only come over time.

The book underscores the power of starting collaboration by acknowledging our differences rather than flattening them via shallow participation into existing systems. In the respect of difference can come an opportunity for a shared space to emerge, one where what is created is greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of simply accepting Internet technologies that opaquely monetize our data, we can remember that online communities from Facebook to the WELL started as just that: communities. It is time to get back to that understanding now.

 

Ramesh Srinivasan studies the relationship between technology, politics and societies across the world. He has been a faculty member at UCLA since 2005 in the Information Studies and Design|Media Arts departments. He is the founder of the UC-wide Digital Cultures Lab, exploring the meaning of technology worldwide as it spreads to the far reaches of our world. He is also the author of the book “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World” with NYU Press.

Srinivasan earned his Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard; his master’s degree in media arts and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He has served fellowships in MIT’s Media Laboratory in Cambridge and the MIT Media Lab Asia. He has also been a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Design and Department of Visual and Environmental Design at Harvard.

Categories: Blog

Whose Global Village?: An Interview with Ramesh Srinivasan (Part One)

April 10, 2017 - 1:22pm

Whose Global Village?: Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World, an important new book, raises fundamental questions about the ethics and politics of digital design and implementation. Its author,  Ramesh Srinivasan, brings more than 15 years of experience in developing collaborative media design project with indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, Latin America, the Middle East, India and Eurasia, among other locations. I was lucky enough to know the author when he was a master student at the MIT Media Lab and it has been a great pleasure to watch him develop into an essential thinker about media and globalization.

In this book, he shares what is learned across these many years of practice and uses these experiences, sometimes painful, sometimes rewarding, to reflect on what goes wrong when Western technologist import culturally-specific paradigms and technologies into other people’s  worlds. In this highly reflective book, he questions much of the established wisdom about so-called global villages, insisting that local particularity needs to guide and govern such  projects. Digital archives require different interfaces depending on the degree of protectiveness that local communities feel is necessary as they guard their traditional practices and knowledge from outside interference. What could be seen as democratization or participatory culture in the West may disrupt important hierarchical distinctions that enable these cultures to survive in the face of genocide and disruption. Cross-cultural collaborations offer powerful opportunities to question established wisdom and ill considered thinking but only if the participants are modest enough to actively listen to each other and respond in an ethically thoughtful manner.

I was asked provide a blurb for the book at the time of its release. Here’s what I have to say:

Whose Global Village? invites us to question some of the sacred narratives that have grown up around digital and networked technologies in the west—first among them, the idea that digital technologies follow some universal path of development. This book is a powerful corrective to various forms of cyberutopianism, even as it reimagines core concepts—from agency and voice to participation and appropriation.”

This interview will provide some glimpse into his thinking process as he represents a soft-spoken and insistent conscience for the digital design realm.

For those of you who would like to meet him, come to the upcoming Transforming Hollywood Conference, which will be held at UCLA on May 5. For more details, see this blog post.

Your book begins with a provocative sentence, “The new technology revolution is neither global nor cross-cultural.” Here, you are challenging several decades of writers who saw new media as perhaps transcending old geographic divides, from the concept of the “global village” a la McCluhan to the more recent argument that the “world is flat.”  What did these earlier writers misunderstand about the ways that digital media and networked communications might relate to core inequalities in the distribution of wealth and power?

There is some robust research out there that shows that mere access to the tools and systems of Silicon Valley does little to combat the inequalities we face within our nation and across the world. This is because the wealthier and more powerful are better equipped to exploit these systems given their already existing resources. It is also because the building-blocks of technology, from interfaces to algorithms, often reflect the opaque perspectives of a corporation rather than the multiplicity of publics that may use their systems. Expanding naive access to technologies produced by Western corporations merely expands their user bases, adding powerful information that they can monetize. For us to start to confront the profound inequalities we face we must start by first thinking about the concerns, voices, and agendas of grassroots user communities and then consider how to design, adapt, or innovate with technology. My book is full of examples where we attempt to do exactly that.

You write, “My goal is to reimagine the concept of “global village” so that technologies can support a range of practices, visions, priorities, and belief systems of indigenous and non-Western cultures across the world.” So drill down into that “global village” metaphor — what are its limitations and why has it been such a persistent part of the ways we imagine media change?  What does it mean to move from an abstract concept of a global village back to a focus on particular villages, the people who live there, their traditional ways of life? Can we hold onto this metaphor’s emphasis on interconnectivity across dispersed peoples while still respecting local knowledge and traditions and seeing the potential conflict zones between diverse “villages” all over the planet?

It’s easy to give into the myth of digital universality, the mistaken sense that our experiences and interactions with the Internet and new technologies in the West are mirrored by people across the world. What we don’t take for granted however is first, that access to technology is hardly uniform or straightforward, and second that what whose systems, networks and platforms we use may reflect the perspectives of a far more limited number of voices than its global users. So in that sense, not only is the notion of the global village epistemologically problematic, in that is presumes that the world wishes to be a village connected via the tools of the West, but it blocks us from an alternative way of thinking about technology, as created for and by diverse peoples and communities to support their visions, belief systems, and knowledge traditions. We can do better – we can think about how platforms and systems can be authored, owned, and designed by local communities and cultures otherwise left marginalized by top-down digital-divide projects.

 

Much of this book draws on your own personal experiences doing collaborations around the development and deployment of new information technologies in a range of different local contexts. Can you share with us some of your personal journey across these projects? What has led you to this focus on indigenous communities? How do you situate yourself as a media designer and scholar in relation to these distinctive communities where you have worked?

 

I learned the hard way while in graduate school that innovation does not occur in our laboratories when we have seemingly infinite resources, but instead when people and communities face conditions of constraint. Viewing the incredibly different perspectives on how a designer in a laboratory sees a system versus a user in a rural or indigenous community forced me to reckon with the reality that there is great distance between most places and institutions of privilege where Internet technologies are developed versus the realities faced by many of its users across the world. In that process, I also became concerned with the presumptions, values, and ethics that went into the design of technology.

We know that technologies reflect the world-views of their creators. Yet when these technologies are designed with particular assumptions around how data is collected or information is retrieved, they may come into tension with the cultural values of their diverse users. This really comes to a head with indigenous communities, with which whom I have collaborated for over 15 years. Many of our assumptions around what information is made available to whom and in what manners are at tension with how these communities operate. For example we have a myth that ‘information wants to be free’ that comes out of Western liberal circles yet may be at tension with the perspectives of people whose stories I share who believe in guarding access to information to not only preserve their traditions but also spread blessings to the world.

As a scholar and designer, I am committed to a digital world that respects and supports the multiplicity of its diverse user communities rather than the opposite. With the well-founded concerns we have today around the black-boxes of technology, from echo chambers to filter bubbles, it is time for the cultures of the world to exert more power and voice over how technologies are developed and deployed.

 

Ramesh Srinivasan studies the relationship between technology, politics and societies across the world. He has been a faculty member at UCLA since 2005 in the Information Studies and Design|Media Arts departments. He is the founder of the UC-wide Digital Cultures Lab, exploring the meaning of technology worldwide as it spreads to the far reaches of our world. He is also the author of the book “Whose Global Village? Rethinking How Technology Impacts Our World” with NYU Press.

Srinivasan earned his Ph.D. in design studies at Harvard; his master’s degree in media arts and science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering at Stanford. He has served fellowships in MIT’s Media Laboratory in Cambridge and the MIT Media Lab Asia. He has also been a teaching fellow at the Graduate School of Design and Department of Visual and Environmental Design at Harvard.

Categories: Blog

Reflections on My Involvement with Game Studies

April 7, 2017 - 8:43am

I am reaching a point in my career when people seem to want to start giving me some life time achievement awards. My usual response is to put on my best Monty Python impersonation and proclaim, “not dead yet.” But, where game studies is concerned, I have started to accept the premise that, at least for now, I’ve made the contributions to this field that I am going to make and that the legacy of what we accomplished in the early days of this field is worth preserving. So, I was much honored when I learned that the Comparative Media Studies and Women’s Studies Programs at MIT were hosting a conference, Diversifying Barbie and Mortal Kombat, which acknowledges the continued relevance of the book — and conference — I co-organized with Justine Cassells about gender and computer games. Kishonna Gray, the organizer of this event, asked if I would do an interview for the conference website reflecting back on my contributions to the establishment of games studies as a field, and we thought the resulting interview would be of interest to the regular readers of this blog, so I am cross-posting it here. It’s an unusual situation for me to be interviewed by someone else on my blog, but I hope I will be forgiven this indulgence.

 

Kishonna: Thanks Henry for agreeing to chat with me. As you know, it’s been almost 20 years since that seminal text was released, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. But before we started researching games most of us played games. Looking back, what got you into gaming?
Henry: I was a first generation gamer, having owned one of the original Pong machines for home consumption, and having played Atari games while hanging out with my then girlfriend (now wife) during our undergraduate years. I paid very little attention to the games during my graduate school days but they reentered my life when my son asked us to buy him a super Nintendo system for Christmas. I remember turning on Super Mario Brothers for the first time and I was blown away by how dramatic the progress is been over the past decade. What had seemed like a novelty had grown into a medium while my back was turned.

 

Kishonna: I bet games now just blow your mind! They are sooo real life! LOL. Well how did you get into studying and researching games?

 

Henry: I looked around the usual academic circles to see who was paying attention to this and found very little scholarship on games, especially given how central the medium had become in people’s everyday lives, how large the industry has grown and the spectacular performances it offered for creative expression. I ended up writing a review of Marsha Kinders’ Playing with Power which was one of the few books at the time which adopted a sympathetic humanistic perspective on the place of computer games in people’s lives. My graduate mentor John Fiske was another early writer on the game arcade, though he read them through the lens of moral panic and struggles over time and resources. Finally, I was lucky enough to have regular contact with Brenda Laurel who would be one of the leaders of the girls game movement of the early and mid-1990s.  I ended up flying to San Francisco to consult with Purple Moon, especially focusing on how to build up the fan following and transmedia strategies.

 

Kishonna: Many of us see the text, “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” that you edited with Justine Cassell as the seminal text in gaming. How did that text come about?

 

Henry: The MIT Women’s Studies program at the time was running a series of gender in cyberspace programs intended to acknowledge what was widely perceived as a gap in women’s participation in digital spaces. I consulted with the women’s studies program on this lecture series, bringing a range of speakers at MIT in the process drawing me toward a stronger focus on gender and technology issues. Justin Cassell and I met through some women’s studies functions and decided that gender and computer games would make a timely and original focus on MIT-based conference. We billed “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” as the first women’s studies conference “with demos” but this is almost certainly not the case.

 

Responses to the conference were so enthusiastic that we immediately began discussing with the MIT Press the possibility of turning some of the conference papers into e-book anthology. But the demos presented their own kind of challenge, since seeing cutting-edge work in computer games have been the primary appeal of the original conference. We discussed the prospect of adding some kind of computer disc, which would feature demo versions of the games themselves, but we were well ahead of the technological curve for this proposal. So we dispatched our graduate students – – Shari Goldin and Jennifer Glos – – to go out and interview some of the leading designers and entrepreneurs within the girls game movement. Along the way, Goldin called our attention to the girl gamer movement, which was offering some highly pointed critiques of what girls games meant within the industry discourse, and featuring some of their writings became the last feature we added to the collection.

 

Justine Cassell and I had flown to San Jose to promote the book and ended up having dinner with Brenda Laurel the very sad night that she had learned that Mattel was acquiring and scuttling Purple Moon.

 

Kishonna: Oh ok! I don’t think I realized the conference led to the anthology. Well after the anthology, what direction did you go into? What path did your research and academic career take?

 

Henry: As a very early example of game studies, the book insured that I was on the list of scholars the press called on when they wanted perspectives on the medium. As a consequence of invitations, I found myself exploring games from range of different vantage points.

 

One strand of my early research was focused on formal aspects of games, in particular the idea that games might be read as spatial stories or narrative architecture. My interest in space based storytelling drew me into an emerging conflict between American scholars, sometimes labeled naratologists, and European-based scholars, primarily based in Scandinavia, who preferred to be defined as ludologists. This debate has been mythologized as it has helped to shape the first generation of overviews of game studies as a field, but from the start, I was perplexed by being used as the fall guy in an effort to institutionalize and fund a particular version of game studies within the European universities. We really were speaking past each other much of the time. Ironically, I would’ve argued that my interest in space within games would’ve aligned me more closely with scholars like Espen Aardseth and Jesper Juuls, if they were not so invested in pushing back against any encroachment of narrative theory and media studies into this new and emerging domain. By the time I had a public conversation with Aardseth, neither of us had any clue about what our points of disagreement were.  I saw little value in creating a new field by throwing out the baby with the bathwater, attempting to understand what lessons can be learned for the emerging field of game studies through comparison with earlier forms of expression, especially those that might seem to be in the peripheral of dominant forms of media studies. What would it mean to create a narrative/performance experience through features of space rather than through events that unfolded within time? In some ways, this work anticipates our current fascination with world building as an aesthetic and industrial practice across multiple media platforms. I remain interested in how details, often in the background of mise-en-scene, can be made meaningful in entertainment experiences, and I’ve been lucky since moving to Los Angeles to have a chance to learn more about production design and Imagineering through contacts I’ve made in the Hollywood industry.

 

Kishonna: Your work hasn’t just been rooted in classrooms and lecture halls. Talk about the impact that you’ve had on the industry and other non-academic spaces?

 

Henry: Around the same time, I was invited to participate in a workshop that the Electronic Software Association was hosting to introduce game scholars to each other and provide us with some background with current industry structures and practices. There I fostered a relationship, which would ultimately lead to us co-hosting another such conference at MIT, focusing on the creativity displayed in contemporary game design. My keynote address at that event centered on games as a new lively art and would eventually evolve into my essay that playfully considered what Gilbert Seldes would have to say about games nearly 21st century. My willingness to define games as an emerging art form drew me into conversations with leading art critics, many of whom had been slow to recognize games as an expressive medium, and from there, to consult with the museum curators who would develop the first exhibitions around games as art at places like the Barbicon and the Smithsonian.

 

An invitation to testify before the Senate commerce committee in the wake of the Columbine shootings pushed my interest in games in yet another direction. I had been frustrated by my experiences in Washington and wrote an email to my students describing the experience, which went viral overnight and was reprinted in Harpers and a range of local newspapers. My testimony itself ended up being published in several magazines aimed at educators, while my voice was remixed into a techno song critiquing the hearings as “goth control.”  It was becoming clear that moral panic around games violence could threaten the development of games as an expressive medium. I felt those of us who knew and cared about games needed to speak up. So I found myself going through the literature on games violence, trying to explain what a counter perspective grounded in cultural studies and anthropology might look like.

Some of this work led me to try to define what might make representations of violence in games more meaningful and thus more defensible in the realm of public policy. I became interested in mapping the ethical potentials of computer games: this work was more targeted to game designers than at games critics. This work led to me speaking at a range of different public policy events, including the law schools at Harvard and the University of Chicago and getting involved with a range of free-speech advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union. My efforts to explain these nuances to the general public was much more hit or miss, resulting in a public drubbing by Phil Donahue which I parlayed into a satirical piece for Salon. (You can read that piece here: http://www.salon.com/2002/08/20/jenkins_on_donahue/)

 

Kishonna: Well, you have to admit that any exposure and publicity is good, right? I mean it led to the creation of CMS?

 

Henry: My increased visibility as a game advocate coincided with the birth of the comparative media studies graduate program at MIT. William Uricchio and I bore the burden of launching an ambitious research agenda, which we could use to help fund graduate students. Games research ran across many of our core projects. I was one of the early participants in the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative, which brought me into contact with games based learning experts such as James Paul Gee. Games were thus part of our work on new media literacies, though I was more interested by this point in questions of play and participation rather than interactivity which tended to dominate the game studies realm.

 

Kishonna: I became very familiar with James Gee’s work while completing my PhD at Arizona State. What other kinds of ‘games for learning’ initiatives were you a part of?

 

Henry: Microsoft Research visited MIT in hopes of finding people who could make the case for designing video games to support learning. Alex Chisholm, the program’s development officer, had been a key person pushing us to do more within this space and has continued to be a pioneer in thinking about games for learning and training. We ended up putting together a successful proposal, hiring Kurt Squire who was then ABD at Indiana to become our research director, and putting together a team of graduate students who would do thought experiments exploring different genres and models for what an educational game might look like. Those conversations led us to Eric Klopfer who was doing work on augmented reality games. When Squire left MIT to be hired by UW Madison, he was replaced by Scott Osterweill, a professional game designer; he brought a much more applied focus to the project. (Kurt and I ended up writing the “Applied Game Theory” column together for Computer Games magazine for several years). Our conceptual prototypes had been so vivid that we received many requests from educators who wanted to use them right away in their classes. By the end of the first year, Microsoft research was pushing us to move into the design and implementation phase on some of our concepts. As this happened, the original Games to Teach project morphed into The Education Arcade.

 

Kishonna: Ahhhh gotcha. And in comes Philip and the creation of the Games Lab!

 

Henry: Yes, Philip Tan had been one of the graduate students on the games to teach team and he stayed on as part of the staff from the Education Arcade. Tan brought with him a rich understanding of games and all of their various forms, including having done his masters thesis on the MIT Assassins Guild. He had overseen a project to model colonial Williamsburg as a mod for Neverwinter Nights. When the Singapore government approached MIT about building a partnership, Uricchio and I were successful in getting funds to launch the MIT Singapore GAMBIT Games Lab. Each summer, students from all of Singapore’s universities and polytechnics came to MIT to work with our students to prototype innovative games and the lab served as an incubator space, launching entrepreneurial projects that fed the creative industry back in Asia. GAMBIT achieved what was for me an ideal blend of theory and practice, hosting critical conversations with game theorists and designers to critique and inform the prototypes, even as the students were working as teams under tight deadlines to explore the creative potentials of the games medium.

 

By this point, my own interest in games and game studies, however, had started to wane. I saw my role as a senior scholar as helping to pave the way for game studies as a field, laying down some broad foundation for what the study of the medium might look like and lending institutional support to get it off on solid footing. I’d spent the better part of a decade speaking at games related events and hosting games conferences both at MIT and at E3. But I was never very good as a gamer and I spent less and less time playing games. I looked around me and saw generation of younger scholars, many of them my former students, who had grown up with games and knew this medium inside and out. They could discuss countless titles in the ways that I could talk about film, television, or comics, but I never felt at home in games in that same way. Moreover, I was feeling increasingly burnt by being caught in the crossfire both between the narratology and ludology crowds and within the debates about games violence.

 

Kishonna: Many in the field feel that when you left MIT, you left game studies. Is that a fair assessment?

 

Henry: Yes. When I left MIT, I left games and game studies behind. I certainly maintain social relations with game studies faculty at USC and I’ve ended up helping a few graduate students along the way. My own focus has shifted much more onto comics as a medium at a time comic studies is emerging as a field, onto Transmedia entertainment which sometimes does include games in its remit, and on to the role of media in activist campaigns, increasingly focused on the civic imagination as a way of understanding the blurring lines between politics and entertainment.

 

Kishonna: You mentioned your relationship with the industry earlier. Talk a little more about that. What kinds of relationships were developed between MIT and the gaming industry?

 

Henry: As we were beginning to explore what game studies might look like in the MIT context, we had a unique opportunity to foster dialogue between the Academy and the games industry. Thanks to the vision of Bing Gordon, Electronic Arts, then as now a major player in the games industry, agreed to sponsor a creative leaders program, which would bring some of their most ambitious designers together periodically to explore some key aspect of games aesthetics. On my side, I was bringing core faculty and graduate students, some who had never encountered games before to share what they knew from the study of film, television, literature, and the fine arts with these game designers. Sometimes the dialogue was highly generative. I recall a particular session where dance scholar and choreographer Tommy DeFrantz was teaching a room full of slightly pudgy game designers how to move their bodies and in the process helping them to think about the physicality of character design games. Other sessions explored what the vocabulary of melodrama might contribute to developing “games that make us cry” or what games might learn from the visual storytelling of silent slapstick. Sometimes the group spoke past each other with the MIT faculty having difficulty letting go of cultural hierarchies in order to explore common ground with the game designers. Sometimes what we proposed was too far out and generated some immediate backlash from EA folks as having little or no applicability in their industry. But from this process of working through differences, I sharpened my understanding of how game designers thought and different models of the creative process within the industry.  I know that my own writing about games gained much greater specificity as a result of these exchanges.

Another key development in those days was a series of workshops we ran through MIT’s Independent Activities Period focused on translating existing media texts into games — a workshop we ran for many years with the support of the late and much missed Sande Scordos and her colleagues from Sony Imageworks. The week long intense workshop was organized around a pitch competition, with students working in teams to develop transmedia and interactive strategies which might expand the potentials of films, television shows, books, comic books, and other media texts. Local games industry people gave guest talks, our graduate students served as teaching assistants, our faculty developed ideas about narrative, character, world building, etc., and on the last day, students shared their creative visions and got feedback. Often, our students anticipated major shifts in the games industry several years before they occurred because of their ability to extrapolate key trends. Many students who participated in the workshop have gone on to play major roles in the games industry. I have adopted aspects of the workshop into my teaching at USC and I know it also informed the development of game studies classes at MIT.

 

Kishonna: You’ve accomplished a great deal. You have enabled many to accomplish even more. Reflect a bit on all that. You and others created this field for us! But in your own words, talk about what you feel are your direct contributions to media studies?

 

Henry: I am very proud of what I accomplished in the early days of game studies. My work helps to map a number of important debates within the field, including the relationship of space and narrative, gender and computer games, the aesthetic status of games, games ethics, the impact of media violence, and games based learning.

 

Kishonna: What do you think of game studies today? Do you think we’re still having the same conversations now as y’all did then?

 

Henry: As my own interests have shifted elsewhere, I have paid less and less attention to what game studies looks like today. So I don’t feel qualified to critique the current state of research. My hope is that game studies continues to foster dialogue between academics, industry insiders and fans. From the start, game designers have theorized their own practice and engaged openly with academics attempting to do the same. Maintaining such conversations ensures the groundedness and accessibility of academic research.

 

My other hope is the game studies remains committed to promoting diversity and inclusiveness, experimentation and innovation, as games continue to take shape as an emerging and evolving medium. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than the idea that the work we did on games and gender has been taken up now by several generations of younger researchers as a rallying flag for more inclusive games culture. Such research is even more important today that it was early on, especially in the face of the # Gamergate thugs and bullies. And it seems all the more important to me today that such research should extend to factor in other kinds of identity, including issues of racial and ethnic diversity, queer and transgender perspectives, and the like.

 

Kishonna: We now have entire programs dedicated to studying video games. Is that crazy to you? Did you anticipate we’d be here? And are we doing enough?
Henry: Courses in game studies and design have taken root on many college campuses, including at MIT and USC, so it is hard for me to escape awareness of the institutionalization of this field and the growth of students taking such courses in hopes of breaking into a global games industry. Our focus should never be simply preparing people to work in the industry and complying with established norms and expectations about what games are and what they can do. As academics, we should always be pushing forward, advocating for groups who were left out of the existing market, insisting on experimentation with genres and affordances that have not yet found their killer app. We need to keep pushing the limits of industry thinking on all fronts and prepare students who will be forces of change whether as game designers, consumers, or critics.

 

Kishonna: Looking back, what has been some of your highlights? Any regrets? Do overs?

 

Henry: I am happy that some of my early essays remain part of the canon in the field. I was fascinated to get to know so many of the creative artists who shaped games as a medium – – from Will Wright to Brenda Laurel, from Peter Molyneux to American McGee. I was fascinated to watch some of these artists play through levels of their games and describe to me the creative decisions which shape them. If I have a regret, it is that we did not do a better job of documenting such processes. Imagine if we had records of DW Griffith and Edward S Porter discussing the decisions that shape the early films. At the time we had an acute sense that we were watching a key moment in media history emerge around us. We wrote as fast as we could as we tried to document the core debates and discuss pivotal titles as they emerged. Heaven only knows what anyone will make of our scribblings several decades from now.

 

Kishonna: I tell you, those scribblings got me to MIT! So many of us are doing plenty with them, Dr. Jenkins. Trust me.

 

For more information on the “20 years later celebration”, visit www.equityingaming.com/dbmk.

 

Bibliography: My Selected Writings on Computer and Video Games

 

This list does not include columns for Technology Review and Computer Games magazine.

 

“Foreword: Play, Play, Play,” in Pilar Lacasa, Learning in Real and Virtual Worlds: Commercial Video Games as Educational Tools (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2013).

“Considering the Situation,” in Karen Schrier and David Gibson (eds.) Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play (New York: Information Science Reference, 2010).

With Matthew Weise, “Short Controlled Bursts’: Affect and Aliens,” Cinema Journal 48(3), Spring 2009.

With Brett Camper, Alex Chisholm, Neal Grigsby, Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweill, Judy Perry, Philip Tan, Matthew Weise, and Teo Chor Guan, “From Serious Games to Serious Gaming,” in Ute Ritterfeld, Michael Cody and Peter Vorderer (eds.) Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects (New York: Routledge, 2009).

With Clara Fernandez-Vara, Neal Grigsby, Eitan Glinert, Philip Tan, “Between Theory and Practice: The GAMBIT Experience,” Bernard Perron and Mark Wolf(eds.), The Video Game Reader 2 ( New York: Routledge, 2008).

 

With Justine Cassell, “From Quake Grrls to Desperate Housewives: A Decade of Gender and Computer Games,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.) Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). 

With Kurt Squire. “’Applied Game Theory’: Innovation, Diversity, Experimentation in Contemporary Game Design,” in Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and Ralf Stockman (eds.) Computer Games as a Subcultural Phenomenon:Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).

“Games, the New Lively Art,” in Jeffrey Goldstein (ed.) Handbook for Video Game Studies (Cambridge: MIT Press).

“The War Between Effects and Meanings,” in David Buckingham and Rebkah Willet (eds.), Digital Generations: Children, Young People, and New Media (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2006)

‘The MIT Games Literacy Workshop,” Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, Spring 2005.

In Conversation with Will Wright, “Buy These Problems Because They’re Fun to Solve,” Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, Spring 2005.

“Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (eds.) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, Game (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004).

With Kurt Squire and Walter Holland, “Theory by Design,” in Bernard Perron and Mark Wolf (Eds.), Video Game Theory (New York: Routledge, 2003).

With Kurt Squire and Philip Tan, “You Can’t Bring That Game to School!: Designing Supercharged!” in Brenda Laurel (ed.) Design Research: Methods and Perspectives (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003).

“Enter the Education Arcade,” co-authored with Eric Klopfer, Kurt Squire and Philip Tan, Computers in Entertainment, October 2003.

With Kurt Squire, “The Art of Contested Spaces,” in Lucian King and Conrad Bain (Eds.) Game On (London: Barbican, 2002.)

“Lessons from Littleton: What Congress Doesn’t Want to Hear About Youth and Media,” Independent School, Winter 2000.

“The Uses and Abuses of Popular Culture: Raising Children in the Digital Age,” The College Board Review, January 2000.

“Professor Jenkins Goes to Washington,” Harper’s Magazine, July 1999.

With Janet Murray, “Before the Holodeck: Tracing Star Trek through Digital Media,” in Greg Smith (ed.) On a Sliver Platter: CD-ROMS and The Promises of a New Technology (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

With Justine Cassell, “Chess for Girls?: Gender and Computer Games,” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

“’Complete Freedom of Movement’: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).

“Voices from the Combat Zone: Game Grrlz Talk Back,” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
“x Logic: Placing Nintendo in Children’s Lives,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 14, 4, (August 1993): 53-70.

 

Kishonna L. Gray is currently the MLK Scholar and Visiting Professor in Comparative Media Studies and Women & Gender Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is also serving as a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard and as a Faculty visitor at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

Her 2014 book, Race, Gender & Deviance in Xbox Live: Theoretical Perspectives from Virtual Margins, has been referred to as a groundbreaking text by gaming and internet scholars. She has published in a variety of outlets and her work has been featured in public outlets such as NYTimes, LATimes, and BET.

Follow her on twitter @KishonnaGray.

Categories: Blog

Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part Four)

April 5, 2017 - 9:00am

You quote a critic of Zack Snyder’s work who suggests, “he cared more about the appeasement of fanboys” than about narrative coherence. To what degree is stylistic remediation in comic book films a form of fan service? To what degree is it shaped by the stereotypes nonfans have of what a comic book looks like and how it tells stories?

 

I think it’s both a manifestation of fan service and filmmaker interest in comic art and/or rethinking film language. When you read interviews with Ang Lee during the production of Hulk or with Warren Beatty and his team while making Dick Tracy, they seem legitimately taken in by the work they’re adapting. Ang Lee, I think, has long been interested in utilizing new technology in the service of furthering film language. Life of Pi has some of the best 3D compositions that we’ve seen and his latest film – Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – uses high frame rates in a way that makes reality alienating (I’ve not seen it, given how few theaters have the technology – so I’m going off of what I’ve read). When he sat down to do Hulk, he stated that he wanted to make a film that undermined how films direct our attention. In one interview he says that young children are now faced a multimodal environment in which they’re always multitasking and that, to him, reminded him of that unique quality of comics that Scott McCloud discusses – “you choose what to see,” Lee says.

 

The irony, of course, is that while Ang Lee and Zack Snyder often make films that “look” like comic books, their stylistic embellishments often do not quite function in the same way that they do in comics – so I also think your latter point about the stereotypes one makes of a medium’s style is also true, particularly when these filmmakers have to create a remediation that compromises the languages of both media. Let’s look at Hulk for a moment. Lee wanted to use split-screens to produce film compositions that function the same way multiple panels on a comic book page do. Lee says this is what he wanted to achieve, his track record of experimentation makes it unlikely that he’s blowing hot air or just providing lip service to Marvel fans. But how do those split screens function when compared with comic book panels? In comic books, panels are linear in time. We read one panel at a time, left to right, top to bottom, and make certain leaps in comprehension. Split screens in film – as in Hulk – are often simultaneous in time. The moment David Banner starts the reactor in Lee’s film, we see compositions that portray multiple views concurrently – he’s making a De Palma film, not remediating a comic. Even his design team gets this fundamental aspect of comics wrong. Garson Yu, one of the visual designers, noted that Lee “wanted to develop a concept that incorporated how we normally read comic strips. He wanted to present the film in one giant comic page” but that it was “difficult to show multiple events simultaneously.”

 

So while there may be an appreciation of comics art in many of these directors and a willingness to sincerely try to replicate it, I’m not sure they completely understand the grammar of the medium they’re paying homage to. Hell, I’m still surprised by how many of my friends – who have read far more comics than I have and can tell you far more about the intricacies of the Marvel and DC Universes than I can – who have yet to read McCloud’s Understanding Comics. So I’m not even sure if those aesthetic stereotypes you mention are limited to nonfans.

 

Many critics of the television series, Gotham, have complained that it does not feel like a Batman story. Does this suggest that media makers can push too far in abandoning the process of stylistic remediation, creating works that are distracting because they do not seem to belong within the same narrative universe as the source material?

 

I must confess that I haven’t watched Gotham yet, partially because I’ve heard that it isn’t particularly rewarding as a Batman narrative. That said, and again I can only go by what I’ve read and been told, I’m not sure that has to do with stylistic remediation as much as it does with some of the narrative conceits and how they challenge canon.

 

But to return to your question, can a work be distracting or alienating because of its remediations do not seem to take place in the same narrative universe? Absolutely. I think we can see that if we turn back to Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, which of course did draw from the universe of the comics, just not the era that most fans wanted to acknowledge or cared for. Again, Will Brooker’s work on this has been extremely helpful for putting the scapegoating of “campy” Batman into a larger context. Or Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit, which produced some extremely puzzled and often angry reactions amongst fans of Will Eisner’s book.

 

The recent Deadpool movie came out too late to be included among your books case studies. Does it teach us anything new about the forms stylistic remediation might take in comic book movies?

 

What I find the most fascinating about Deadpool is it’s success where so many other self-conscious and post-modern superhero movies have failed. On one hand, Deadpool is – from a narrative standpoint – a deconstruction of what superheroes are. He isn’t a “good” guy, he’s a sociopath in a costume. How does this differ from Watchmen and why was Deadpool successful while Watchmen was not? Both films are rated R, so it’s not as if a predominantly adult audience changed the equation. Both films are extremely violent and feature stylistic remediation to a strong degree (the opening of Deadpool really captures the subjective temporality of reading a comic). Obviously, one is a ninety minute comedy and the other three hour dramatic tone poem, so that’s undoubtedly a factor. But I’d also hypothesize that some of Deadpool’s success stems from timing.

 

Let’s think back to the history of American comics for a minute. Like most genres, the superhero comic evolved towards a state of baroque self-consciousness and it took about forty years to get there. You can only really understand Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns and Grant Morrison within that historical continuum. Without a baseline knowledge of the different ages of Batman, you would be relatively lost reading “Batman R.I.P.” Now, let’s look at when films like Watchmen, Kick-Ass, and V for Vendetta come out – from 2006 to 2010. Think about that for a moment. The Raimi Spider-Man films, the Singer X-Men films, and Nolan’s Batman films are all coming out at roughly the same time. In terms of genre and time, that’s like reading golden age comics simultaneously with the works that critique them. The critiques require context and a bit of an education – a history that the audience unfamiliar with comics but well-versed in their screen adaptations didn’t really have five to ten years ago.

I make a similar argument about stylistic remediation in the book. It has appeared (look back at Batman 66 and Dick Tracy), disappeared in the late 1990s, reappeared in the early 2000s (think Sin City, 300), and largely disappeared again after the financial implosion of Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass in the 2010s, washed away by the inoffensive house-styles of the DCU and MCU. Might films that remediate comic book style – like Deadpool – be more successful now that audiences have more of a familiarity with the form and its genres? Well, they have a familiarity with the genre because of films, and contemporary films do not often remediate the style of comics anymore. And that audience isn’t reading comic books. And many comic book properties are largely controlled by conglomerates that aren’t terribly thrilled about dailies that – to quote former Paramount executive Peter Bart – “look like a series of comicstrips.” So I’m not terribly optimistic that the success of Deadpool and the evolution of the genre will make stylistic remediation a mainstream form of filmmaking practice. But it may foreshadow that the practice might make a limited resurgence like it did in the 2000s. If the Marvel films are getting more visually ambitious, I think that’s a fair possibility. At least, I certainly hope so.

 

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism.  He is also the author of the  book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.

Categories: Blog

Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part Three)

April 3, 2017 - 9:29am

You use Bolter and Grusin’s concept of remediation but have less to say about their distinction between immediacy and hypermediacy, terms they use to describe both the rhetorical choices and spectator response of different media practices. Might this terms be useful to describe what happens when fans and for that matter, nonfans encounter one of these texts which have become highly stylized as they seek to remediate their sources in comics?

 

That’s a great question and something I wish I had thought more about when I was writing the book. In many ways, I think the relationship between immediacy and hypermediacy in Bolter and Grusin is perhaps the most difficult concept to grasp (at least that seems to be the case whenever I teach it). The idea that new media layers on additional remediations of old media (hypermediacy) in order to “disappear” before the viewer’s eyes (immediacy) is, as the authors say, paradoxical. The film that ended up helping me grasp the concept was Wall-E. Specifically, there’s a section in that film where he’s in a grocery store and is outrunning some runaway shopping carts. There’s a moment where the camera bobbles, zooms into the distance, goes out of focus, and then rack focuses back into view. Think about that for a moment – this is all computer animation. It is a medium based on being formally precise. Yet, we’ve seen in films like The Last Starfighter that the lack of photography’s imperfections – motion blur for instance – alienate the viewer. So in order to appear “there” for the viewer, computer generated imagery has to remediate the artifacts of the photographic apparatus.

So how does this relate to my topic? I’d hypothesize that a viewer well-versed in comic book visual vocabulary would be less aware of stylistic remediation and the experience of watching a film like Hulk or American Splendor or Dick Tracy would veer towards the immediate end of the spectrum. That viewer knows what a comic book looks like and might assume that a comic book movie can or should look similarly. The uninitiated viewer of 300 – on the other hand – might register the remediations as being self-conscious or foreign. Not necessarily in a negative way, just that they’re more aware of it because they may not have that expectation or visual primer going in. Of course, a lot of this depends on what media these folks are consuming in general and I’d hesitate to make any definitive claims about it without doing further research.

 

What might we learn about stylistic remediation by discussing, in parallel, the careers of Alan Moore, who has long argued that his comics should not be adapted for the screen, and Frank Miller, who has repeatedly sought to shape cinematic adaptations of his works?

 

Very broadly, I think the disjunction between Moore and Miller has to do with how we view the relationship between formal vocabularies of two visual media. A lot of filmmakers, executives, journalists – hell, a lot of people in general – view film and comics as being one in the same. “Well, aren’t comic books just storyboards?” Sure, both film and comics are visual media that have certain stylistic norms that – in some ways – overlap and were born from one the same family trees – the graphic arts. But cinema owes a lot to theater (staging in depth, the cinema of attractions) and comics owe a lot to literature. Moore, I think, was always troubled by the equation between the two and the role comics play in “feeding” the more culturally valued medium of cinema. Moore values the comic’s ties to literature and tends to equate cinema to Hollywood and commercialism, which he views as limiting the types of stories he can tell. Miller, on the other hand, often strives to make his comics cinematic and expects his films to reflect that intermingling. From embracing noir visual tropes to a “widescreen” aspect ratio in 300, he does not hesitate in trying to test the limits of those aesthetic points of contact.

But, and I’ll get at this later, that does not mean that the comic panel functions in the same way the filmic frame does. As Scott McCloud says, films are narratives told through time and comics are narratives told through space. One medium is based on subjectivity and caricature, while the other is based upon the photographic apparatus that Andre Bazin saw as being separated from human intervention. So I think if the philosophical difference between Miller and Moore tells us anything, it’s that the formal connective tissue between the two media is relatively superficial and there are some pretty heavy compromises one has to make in order to make a film look like a comic book or a comic book look like a film. Fittingly, as Rorschach once said, “Never compromise. Not even in the face of armageddon.” That seems to be his creator’s artistic credo as well.

 

You write, “To produce a comic book film without dealing with its unique formal devices is like adapting a musical and neglecting to include the music; it may work but it also fails to realize what is fully unique about the original form.” Can you elaborate on this, especially given your claim elsewhere that comic book adaptations have tended to be more successful when they abandon comic book style for a more cinematic approach?

 

This gets back to the question of what audience we’re talking about. I think comic book readers – myself included – appreciate the visual imagination of a film adaptation that remediates the style of the comics. Comic art can be beautiful and thrilling – Jack Kirby’s work should be in the collections of most modern art museums (look at those Fantastic Four photocollages!) – and the style of most contemporary action films, especially the house-style of the first couple phases of the Marvel films, is so generic and forgettable. So for fans and readers, I think there is something unique about seeing those remediations on screen.

 

Yet, as I noted earlier, readers are dwarfed in number by non-readers, so Hollywood is faced with a bit of a quagmire. How do they keep the fans on board without going over budget on comic book transitions and/or alienating a wide audience? There is no doubt that the Marvel films and the Nolan Batman films, adaptations that do not remediate comics, have been extremely successful both financially and with critics. But stylistic remediation is not necessarily an albatross to bear if the costs are kept in perspective – Sin City, 300, and Deadpool – have all shown that it isn’t a kiss of death. Hell, Ang Lee’s baroque Hulk film cost and made almost the same amount as its rather generic followup The Incredible Hulk.

 

You discuss throughout the ways that transmedia style is shaped by “the perpetual motion machine of synergistic properties.” So, can you be more precise about the marketability of stylistic remediation?

 

When we look at examples like Scott Pilgrim and The Matrix, we can see how prevalent their respective styles played in the “high concept” marketing of the films and how they took on their own meaning. In the case of The Matrix, bullet time became a cultural commodity of its own. Movies like Scary Movie and Shrek parodied it. Video game franchises like Max Payne – unaffiliated with The Matrix – attempted to co-opt it as a core game mechanic. Commercial directors cribbed from it. Players of Enter the Matrix wanted to experience bullet time for themselves.

 

In the case of Scott Pilgrim, Universal attempted to use Bryan Lee O’Malley’s aesthetic gumbo of video games, manga, and music to make its tie-in content seem more organic. The best example of this is how Edgar Wright utilized the 8-bit rendering of the main character that Scott Pilgrim game designer Paul Robertson produced in the film (8-bit Scott appears as the one-up icon during the climax and makes a second appearance in a post-credits tag). This design work was the basis for the tie-in game, which notably does not take its aesthetic cues from the film but the comic and the games the inspired it. Then, it came back around when Oni Press repackaged the comics as a box set – complete with a beautiful 8-bit sleeve designed by Robertson. Essentially, that style spread across the different platforms as a visual hook that solidified their branding. I make a similar case for how Warner Bros. used the unique design of Heath Ledger’s Joker – specifically his “Glasgow grin” – as featured iconography in DC Comics leading up and following the success of The Dark Knight.

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism.  He is also the author of the  book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.

Categories: Blog

Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part Two)

March 30, 2017 - 7:11pm

As I read through your various examples across the book, it is clear that the concept of making a film look like a comic book means something different to different filmmakers, as comic-bookness gets conveyed through a range of different aspects of cinematic style. No one seems to try to capture every aspects of comics — hard to know what that would even look like — so what factors shape the choices of techniques to be foregrounded in any given adaptation?

 

That’s a great question and one that I could easily answer it by going the other way. What if a comic book artist wanted to make a “filmic” comic book? Would she produce a panel breakdown akin to the quick cutting and intellectual montage of Sergei Eisenstein or try to find a way to use splash pages like Jean Renoir or Jacques Tati might? I think of Chris Ware’s tribute to Yashiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story or even the fantastic graphic novelization of Alien by Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson. The Ware piece pays tribute to Ozu’s knee-high framing, his use of reoccurring images, and the graphic simplicity of his images. In three images, we experience the profound loss of Tokyo Story – a husband loses his wife to the forward march of time and technological development in post-war Japan. Alien, on the other hand, uses an alternation between splash pages and complex multiframes with a fury of smaller panels to capture the varied temporal rhythms of Ridley Scott’s film – between the deliberate contemplation of the early scenes of the Nostromo to the more traditional “haunted house” sequences that come towards the end.

In short, I think the methods vary because the strengths, weaknesses, and preoccupations of the comics writers and artists vary. Most of the filmmakers seem to be asking themselves “What are the key characteristics of this comic?” Sometimes, the filmmakers in question are profoundly wrong in interpreting the source material. I think Frank Miller’s adaptation of The Spirit is a prime example. He has almost no interest in capturing Eisner’s style (the film looks more like Sin City than the graphically and tonally varied strips Eisner produced). While I think it’s naive to expect “faithfulness” from an adaptation in the way that term has come to be used (every narrative nook and cranny from the books must appear in the film), I think a general faithfulness to – in this case – the spirit of the work is what most filmmakers strive for and what most audience members expect (which brings us back to Nolan – it’s not as if his films were lambasted for not being “faithful”).

 

Often, remediation involves borrowing prestige from an older media form, such as the use of the leather bound book in the opening credits of film versions of literary adaptations. But in the case of comic book films, most of us would agree that the cinema has established a much higher cultural status than “graphic novels” have to date, and there’s often a hint of disdain in many of the quotes you provide here of the film’s producers when they discuss the story’s comic book origins or fan base. In this context, does stylistic remediation constitute a form of slumming it?

 

You’re exactly right – there is a cultural aspect to remediation as well. I think in the 1970s and 1980s, remediating style was viewed in relation to the 1960s Batman television show. The garish colors, the onomatopoeia, the canted angles all came from the comics. Will Brooker does a fantastic job in Batman Unmasked on tracing these aspects back to the 1960s comics, dispelling the scapegoating of the television program for introducing camp and baroque stylization to the “gritty” and “serious” world of Batman. But the legend became fact and the cultural legacy of that television show cast a long shadow over comic book movies. When you read about the production of Donner’s Superman, you can absolutely see that cultural prejudice against the comic book. The Salkinds and Richard Donner wanted to distance that project as far as possible from its “cartoon” origins, so they hired Oscar winners like Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman to star in it and trendy screenwriters like Mario Puzo and the team behind Bonnie and Clyde to write it.

 

But as graphic novels helped comics come to cultural prominence in the 1980s, I think that tide began to shift. It also helped that many of the directors brought on to do these projects are fans of the original texts and relish the opportunity to strike up collaborative relationships with the writers and artists while adapting the properties – folks like Guillermo del Toro, Robert Rodriguez, and Zack Snyder.

 

That being said, I think there’s a certain paradox now and Snyder’s evolution – if we want to call it that – is indicative of it. Films that remediate comics rely on a certain amount of familiarity with comic books and their form. If the readership isn’t there – as I mentioned in an earlier answer – what stylistic primer does the audience have to appreciate a film like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? So these filmmakers are torn between making a film that represents their interests in the property and their affection for the artwork while balancing it with a budget overruns for such stylistic embellishments and walking that line between a niche and a wide audience. Notice that Snyder’s last two films – Man of Steel and Batman v Superman – look nothing like 300 or Watchmen. They’re pretty strongly in the “realistic,” “gritty,” and “serious” Nolan/Marvel camp. And there’s an aesthetic loss in serving the master of manageable budgets and appeasing a large audience – which is one of the main reasons I think so many contemporary comic book adaptations are visually boring. As fun as Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers are, I cannot remember one action sequence from those films with the vividness of the finale of 300 or the race sequences in Speed Racer. Although Ant-Man and Doctor Strange were certainly a step in the right direction!

 

Throughout, you distinguish transmedia style from transmedia storytelling, noting that the first constitutes “intertextual references” but not necessarily “narrative embellishment.” Can you say more about this distinction here? What do you see as the advantages of transmedia style? How might it be related to the concept of High Concept, as explored by Justin Wyatt?

 

Transmedia storytelling requires a certain experiential buy in from the audience. As you’ve noted, in order to fully grasp the Enter the Matrix video game, you have to have seen the first film. In order to understand some of the pivots and characters in the second film, you have to have played the game and watched The Animatrix. Stylistic remediation, on the other hand, can benefit from previous knowledge but does not require it to be comprehended or appreciated. This conflicts slightly with the answer I just gave when I said that Scott Pilgrim cannot be fully appreciated without previous knowledge of the comic book, but hear me out.

 

300 is a perfect example – Frank Miller’s comic was a bit of a niche title that lacked the visibility of his work with DC or Marvel. Yet, it outgrossed more than Batman Begins. In fact, aside from the first Men in Black film, it’s the only non-DC or Marvel adaptation in the top thirty grossing comic book adaptations (and remember, 300 was rated R – not PG-13). If you go back and look at reactions to 300, a lot of the energy and excitement around the film had to do with its visual style. Like The Matrix, Snyder found a aesthetically unique way to remediate Miller’s style and that provided the Warner Bros. marketing team with a striking visual hook – the sepia toned watercolored skies and the “flat” ink splatter blood effect. This is where you can see some overlap with Justin Wyatt – the idea that there’s a strong linkage between visual style and marketing in films made after the 1970s. The advantages of transmedia style are that it provides ammunition for the marketing departments to help rope in new viewers while appeasing fans of the books. It doesn’t alienate consumers the same way transmedia storytelling can, which makes folks feel like they have to do homework before coming into the room.

 

Yet, what makes 300 and Scott Pilgrim differ is the cost of their remediations. 300 cost $65 million, Scott Pilgrim was somewhere between $85 and $90 million (both without marketing costs accounted for). Essentially, 300 was a relatively niche comic book and the film and was budgeted accordingly (at the time, $65 million was about the average for a Hollywood film and $200-250 million is the average for a superhero film). The visual hook aided it in breaking through to a popular audience. Scott Pilgrim, on the other hand, was a niche comic book that ballooned well beyond the average for such a film. It also didn’t help that Universal showed the film for free, numerous times, throughout San Diego Comic-Con. Needless to say, the disadvantages to transmedia style are that it can be a costly investment (Universal spent $1.5 million just on comic book transitions for Ang Lee’s Hulk) that take budgets for smaller properties well beyond their ceiling faster than a speeding bullet.

 

You use Batman 66 as an early example of stylistic remediation that has since been repudiated by many fans and critics as “camp,” a term which had a different cultural status in the 1960s than it does now. What do you make of the resurgence of interest in Batman ‘66 both through the comic series and the direct-to-video feature film recently released? One of many things that seems to be going on here is a re-engagement with the particular stylistic choices associated with the original, now being remediated back into comics.

Allow me to get a little autobiographical for just a moment. I was drawn to the Batman 66 series and film when I was a kid because of Tim Burton’s 1989 film. Yet, at the time, the series was relatively difficult for me to see. I think it ran on syndication on some local network. If memory serves, Will Brooker does a great job of tracing how DC distanced themselves from the property and suppressed it for decades because of its negative cultural stigmas. Now, they’ve recently changed direction. Needless to say, once the Burton films and the fantastic Animated Series took off, I spent a good period of my life planting my flag in the “Batman is grim and gritty! He’s serious – not campy!” trench.

 

Then we got “serious” Batman. We got him in the comics for at least 30 years. We’ve had him in the movies for the better part of 25 years. And you know what? I’m getting really bored with “serious” Batman. I awaited Batman v Superman with dread and the end result felt like I had been forced to drink the sourest of lemonades. I respect it to a certain extent for being so profoundly unpleasant, for linking Bruce Wayne to Trump (although that rings a whole lot differently now than it did last spring), and for focusing on the physical consequences of superhero action (the opening and the Scoot McNairy character), but it is not a film I look forward to re-visiting anytime soon. I never thought that after getting a Batman tattoo that I would be apathetic about an upcoming Batman film, but the DCU has gotten me there.

 

But you know what? I rewatched Batman 66 when the Blu-Ray release came out and bought the first couple issues of the comic. It’s not a flavor of Batman I want all the time, but it is a lot of fun because of its self-consciousness. The art of the comic, as you note, owns the dutch angles, onomatopoeia, cheesy puns, garish colors, and even the ben-day dot printing process that inspired the Pop Art movement that was evoked by the show. The variant cover galleries at the back of the trades are some of my favorite pieces of contemporary Batman art. They’re refreshing and I appreciate the multiplicity of Batman interpretations now. I think that’s why there has been a bit of a resurgence – something that was formerly forbidden or disavowed has made its way back into the cultural ecosystem at a time when every flavor of Batman has the same level of peatyness. Now if only we can get Warner Bros. to do a proper Blu-Ray release of Mask of the Phantasm and The Animated Series!

Categories: Blog

Remediating Comics for Cinema: An Interview with Drew Morton (Part One)

March 29, 2017 - 9:17am

Shortly after I arrived in Los Angeles, I was asked to serve on her dissertation committee at UCLA for promising graduate student named Drew Morton. Morton was putting together a committee that included that only myself but also Janet Bergstrom,  John Caldwell and Denise Mann. This committee tells you something about this range of methodologies and perspectives Morton was trying to bridge through his work. Morton’s project was trying to understand the kinds of stylistic and narrative remediation taking place as more and more comic books and graphic novels were being adopted for the cinema.

Mortin’s work was bold, original and rock solid, adding real insight to our understanding of the significant intertwining of the film and comics industries in recent years. He approached this topic with consideration of industry trends and developments but also with the formalist eye towards its impact on cinematic language, genre evolution, and authorship questions. He moved forward through a series of compelling case studies, exploring particular formal practices as they were deployed in specific films and comics. In the process, he developed a much larger framework for thinking about the remediation process more generally. In some cases he dealt with adaptations  such as Watchmen or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World but  he also dealt with more implicit influences such as the way to the comic book version of The Dark Tower may been informed by the wide-screen practices of Sergio Leone. His closing discussion of motion comics represented perhaps the most thoughtful discussion I’ve read of this new set of digital production practices which remain highly controversial among comic book enthusiast because of the way that they overwrite core aspects of the sequential art.

Morton represents a new breed of comparative media scholars who are as comfortable describing the panel breakdown or comics page as they are discussing  camera work and editing in contemporary blockbusters.  His work is deeply grounded in contemporary film and media theory and it has also been shaped by his success at reaching out key practitioners and decision-makers within the two industries. His interests are at once historical spanning back to early cinema in contemporary dealing with films of the past few seasons. He seems equally at home on the floor of the San Diego comic con as he is at the podium at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. As such he’s been able to build a solid network around his work and his emerges a major advocate for the video essay as an emerging form of scholarly discourse.

Late last year, Morton published Panel to the Screen: Style, American Film and Comic Books During the Blockbuster Era, a book which built on an extended his dissertation research. I was asked to write a blurb for the book which sums up my assessment of its contributions to the field:

“At a time when superhero blockbusters dominate the box office, we need to know much more than we do about the formal and institutional factors shaping these films. In Panel to the Screen, Drew Morton provides a nuanced account of why these films look the ways they do as producers adopt a range of strategies for the cinematic remediation and translation of comics, and in turn, he considers how comic artists absorb devices from Hollywood which make their books seem that much more screen-ready when read by studio executives. This groundbreaking book moves from one rich and compelling case study to the next and will be essential reading for anyone interested in comics, films, and the relationship between them.”

Today, I am proud to share the first installment of an interview with Drew Morton about comics and film, one that is far-reaching in its scope, touching on many of the case studies from the book but also updating the argument to describe more recent developments such as the Deadpool movie and the revitalization of Batman 66. Enjoy!

You begin the book with a basic distinction between adaptation and remediation, noting that many more superhero movies, say, are adaptations and extensions of comic book sources than seek to perform the kinds of stylistic remediation that is central to your book. Explain this distinction more.

 

First off Henry, thanks for asking me to do this. I really appreciate the mentorship you’ve provided me with while I was working on this project.

 

This is a great question – given its centrality to the book and its ambiguity. Whenever I teach remediation and adaptation in my courses, I find that it takes my students quite a while to work through the difference. If I remember correctly? It was a hard concept for me to grasp the first time I read through it. Needless to say, examples tend to help.

 

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a loose adaptation that lacks remediation. If we look at the narrative borrowings of his films, we can easily find correspondences between Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One in Batman Begins. The film focuses on Bruce’s training, why he wants to protect Gotham City, and his relationship with the officer who will become Commissioner Gordon. The Dark Knight borrows from The Killing Joke and The Long Halloween while Rises takes its central conflict from Knightfall. As I said, these are loose adaptations that broadly take plot points, characters, and themes from the original books. Most comic book adaptations do this – the “faithful” adaptation seems to be incredibly rare.

Yet, Nolan’s films owe more stylistically to film noir than they do to comic books. He does not remediate – re-represent – the comic in the film. Unlike say Ang Lee’s Hulk, Nolan doesn’t fracture the frame into a bunch of panels. He does not use speed ramping like Zack Snyder does to capture the subjective temporality of reading. His film, unlike Dick Tracy or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, does not highlight the representational artifice of cartooning. Nolan borrows the iconography and some narrative pieces, but his films owe relatively little to their original medium.

 

As we think about the emergence of the comic book movie as a major factor in film production, one could argue that comics and film needed to be ready for each other. Comics had to gain a certain stylistic self-consciousness, thematic maturity, and cultural status and films had to acquire the technical capacity to make us believe a man could fly. Would you agree with this broad strokes analysis of the factors which led to the rise of the comic book movie?

 

I would agree with this to a certain extent. If we look back at how Hollywood treated comic book properties in the 1970s and 1980s, on the cusp of the cultural renaissance that came with the graphic novel, we can see a certain amount of dismissal. In today’s climate, it seems insane that DC Comics and Warner Brothers would sell off the rights to Superman for an independent film and yet, in the 1970s, it seemed perfectly reasonable for a number of reasons. First, as you mention, the special effects technology wasn’t there yet. The Christopher Reeves Superman films went horribly over budget. Secondly, Hollywood wasn’t sure if there was a large enough audience to cover the budgets of such costly films. The Comics Code of the 1950s had recast the American comic as a medium almost exclusively made for children.

 

The irony, of course, is that comic book sales peaked in America in the 1940s and – because of competition from television, video games, and other media – have never come close to recouping. So while comic book films are incredibly financially successful, those dollars do not necessarily migrate back to the comics. Whenever I talk about comic book movies in my classes, it astounds me to find how few of my students have actually read the comics. For most consumers, the films seem to be enough for them to call themselves DC or Marvel fans.

 

Your chapter on Scott Pilgrim begin life as a video essay, a form you have been deeply invested in cultivating and promoting. So, what did you learn through this process of, in effect, adapting this essay between two different delivery platforms? What could you convey through the video essay that was hard to achieve in print and vice-versa?

 

The Scott Pilgrim chapter was a bit of an odd beast. When I planned on including Scott Pilgrim, I was in the midst of the first draft of the book and I thought it was just strictly going to be another formal analysis case study. Then I was asked to cover the film for a entertainment outlet that summer and I was given behind the scenes access. Thanks to that, it evolved from what I initially thought was going to be a forgettable chapter to one of the centerpieces.

Thanks to the interviews I was able to conduct with the creators, the chapter was really exciting to write but it was not, as I found when I initially tried to turn it into an article, terribly exciting to read. Sure, the insights from Edgar Wright and the behind the scenes anecdotes gave the chapter some life, but formal and stylistic analysis can be really hard to write well due to the confines of prose and academic publishing in general. A picture can do a lot, but we deal in moving images and texts that are – to borrow from Raymond Bellour – “unattainable.” We cannot quote a film in an academic monograph the same way a English lit scholar can quote Shakespeare or an Art Historian can duplicate a Pollock painting. So I thought I would roll the dice and take an important section of my book and turn it into a video essay, which allowed me to provide a commentary over moving images. The end result allowed me to compare and contrast the book with the comic in a way that was much more dynamic (a little music can go a long way) and I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of the large audience that was drawn to the piece (thanks to the social media savvy of Edgar Wright, Matt Zoller Seitz, and yourself!).

 

That being said, the process of adaptation was much more complicated now that I have the benefit of hindsight. The Scott Pilgrim video essay was the third or fourth video piece I had made and came after a long sabbatical from video editing, so I look back at it now and wish I had made certain adjustments. Primarily, the voice over is too dense and I talk way too fast for some of the more complicated ideas (like the adaptation vs. remediation distinction) to take root in non-academic viewers.

 

Yet, the process of making the video essay also taught me how to hone my voice in prose in ways I had not expected. I think a lot of young academics think that scholarship needs to read intelligently – there is a certain vocabulary and toolbox of jargon that comes with academia – and I found I was hiding fairly uncomplicated concepts behind complicated prose in order to sound Professorial. That type of voice doesn’t tend to fly when it comes to video essays; it’s too stilted and dominates the argument. The ideal video essay should let both the audio and the video deliver the argument (which is why I’ve experimented with text only videos in the past); it’s not a conference paper.

 

I tell colleagues and students that a good video essay owes more to a journalistic or broadcasting style. Sentences should be concise, clear, and should roll off the tongue easily (the video essay voice over is a form of performance, after all!). I also tell them that the best “first step” to take is to take the blueprint for your video (which might be an article or a conference paper), throw it away, and ask yourself how you might explain your subject to your mom or dad – someone uninitiated in the language and concepts of Media Studies. That does not mean the ideas articulated are simple or lacking in scholarly rigor – they’re accessible. Fittingly, I have always thought of your voice as being a prime example of this model. I believe, if I remember correctly, that you once practiced journalism and I think that tends to be a really productive background for academics to have because it helps us produce work that can be approached by folks outside the Ivory Tower. So the video essay ended up helping me re-write the prose version into something much more dynamic.

Dr. Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication at Texas A&M University-Texarkana and the co-editor of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal focused on videographic criticism.  He is also the author of the  book Panel to the Frame: Style, American Comics, and Blockbuster Film.

Categories: Blog

Announcing Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” UCLA May 5, 2017.

March 27, 2017 - 8:49am

The following is a hold the date announcement for the next Transforming Hollywood conference. Some speakers are still being confirmed as we post this. I will add their details as they get resolved.

 Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” UCLA May 5, 2017. Co-directors, Denise Mann, UCLA and Henry Jenkins, USC 

Overview: Transforming Hollywood 8: “The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture,” reframes Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted essay about technology’s double-edged sword: mechanical reproduction fundamentally alters the original artwork’s unique auratic properties but makes it accessible to the masses. According to Ted Striphas, “…the growing prevalence of recommendation features such as those you find on Amazon.com [signals the] displacement of human judgment into algorithmic form [which] raises all sorts of questions about taste aggregation — questions with which scholars in the humanities …have only begun to grapple.” Streaming on-demand services grant consumers greater choice and democratic access to media content (letting us choose what to watch and when to watch it); however, the terms of this exchange is unfettered access to our consumer impulses via sophisticated surveillance tactics that track our online activities 24-7.

 

Ted Hope, the newly appointed head of Amazon Studios’ film division, lays out the implicit pact we’ve forged with the major tech platforms: “Amazon Studios’ flood of investment in the movie business is designed to revive a market for independent films….” However, at the same time, he observes wryly: “At Amazon, to quote Jeff Bezos, we make movies to sell shoes. The movies are essentially advertising for the (e-commerce) platform.” Welcome to the future of art (as advertising) in the age of algorithmic culture.

 

While Netflix has received the lions’ share of press and notoriety for disrupting traditional Hollywood given its $6 billion investment in original content and its global expansion to 190 territories, the “big four” tech platforms—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA)—have infinitely more capital (and data) to spare when it comes to the risky business of growing a media and entertainment industry. Each has its own core business to fall back on: Google has search and advertising; Apple has its hardware-software business; Facebook has social and advertising; and Amazon has its ecommerce business. Media, it turns out, is the ideal lure to keep users inside of their powerful digital ecosystems as long as consumers accept datavaillance as the price of admission.

 

As Hollywood and Silicon Valley battle for supremacy, the current crisis in media stems from an unmanageable sea of online content made available by competing subscription-based (SVOD) and advertising-supported (AVOD) streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube Red, Vimeo, Seeso, Crackle, CBS Everywhere, HBO Go, CW Seed, Verizon Go90, and so forth. The streaming music services, such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and Tidal, have also joined the original content derby, with Apple’s repurposing of James Cordon’s Carpool Karaoke and Tidal’s exclusive streaming of Beyonce’s Lemonade being prime examples. Compounding the surplus of data-driven content churn are the millennial-facing online news formats, such as Vice, Buzzfeed, and Mic; each is disrupting legacy news organizations, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, once revered for their veteran editors who curate the news and seasoned reporters who research all sides of complex issues. The backlash that followed the recent election cycle prompted Wired to report: “There’s a very dark mood in Silicon Valley right now…. Google and Facebook also seem to be feeling a need to grapple with the role they have played. Both have undertaken highly visible initiatives to curb fake news….” While the platforms were able to scale rapidly by giving unfettered access to all forms of third-party-generated content, in their new role as original content producers, the tech founders are starting to reflect on their social responsibility to curate culture.

This year’s conference examines the legacy of Netflix and YouTube as influencers, creator-entrepreneurs, and engineers all contribute to the seemingly endless flood of scripted series and short-form, snackable content that vies for our attention. One question looms large—will flesh and blood experts or data-driven algorithms ultimately control the production, delivery, and reception of our shared cultural knowledge going forward? Welcome to the age of algorithmic culture.

 

THE PANELS: 9:00-9:15AM: Introduction: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithmic Culture.

Welcome by Transforming Hollywood by co-directors Denise Mann (UCLA) and Henry Jenkins (USC).

 

9:15-10:20 AM: Keynote Presentation by Ted Striphas, “Algorithmic Culture.”

 

10:20-10:30: Break 10:30-12:00: Panel One: Playing with Snackable Content in Virtual Marketplaces

moderated by Denise Mann, Professor, School of Theater, Film, Television, UCLA.

 

Description: Peak TV’s premium quality TV series may be grabbing headlines, but new, addictive forms of “snackable” content have become one of the preferred ways for brands to access millennials and Gen-Z’ers—digital natives whose facility with multitasking across mobile screens means they prefer images, short videos, and emojis over lengthy (con)textual exchanges. Charles Eckert’s essay, “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” reminds us that Hollywood was always inextricably linked to consumer culture since the first cameraman pointed his camera at actors standing in front of a shop-window in the 1910s; however, it is important to recognize the massive shift underway as the new “social media logic” associated with the 21st century effaces the “mass media logic” that dominated in the 20th century.

The corporate gatekeepers of the tech economy are engineering innovative user experiences (UX) and user interface (UI) features, such as touch, liveness, and VR/AR, to keep us happily engaged on their platforms for extended periods of time. Hence, we are encouraged to click, like, share, and comment on an arsenal of new, addictive, forms of online entertainment, which include: Pokemon Go, Snapchat filters, Amazon Twitch, Facebook Live, Instagram Shop Now Buttons, and Pinterest Pins. Today’s panelists represent key stakeholders whose in-depth understanding of UX/UI design elements is facilitating new forms of algorithmic culture designed to enhance our sense of play inside 24-7 digital ecosystems.

PANELISTS:
  • Rob Kramer, Founder/CEO, Purpose Labs
  • Ted Striphas, Professor, Colorado University
12:00-12:15PM Break 12:15-1:45 PM Panel Two:  “Fake News and Struggles Over Circulation”

Moderated by Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism; School of Cinematic Arts, USC.

Description: Sensationalism is scarcely new in the history of American journalism, and the circulation wars of the early 20th century contributed to the rise of “yellow journalism,” as William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitizer and the other media tycoons of the era fought for the eyeballs of an expanding American readership. Today’s “fake news” also has its roots in new struggles over circulation, though in this case, the circulation of news through social networking sites. The role of “fake news” in the past presidential campaign has been hotly contested, with the current administration accusing CNN and the New York Times as publishers of “fake news,” while others point to the role which Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms played in blurring the line between reliable and questionable media sources.

 

Fake news thrives because it is often more emotionally targeted than traditional journalism: because it is designed to shock and outrage its readers, because it often conveys what people living in filter bubbles already believe to be true about the world. Fake news is news which has been manufactured to spread like wildfire without regard to its accuracy or its consequences.

 

What do we know about fake news and the people who produce and consume it? What does it tell us about the place of journalism in the era of algorithmic culture and social media? What efforts are being made by the social media companies to take responsibility over their role in the spread of misinformation? What alternative models for journalism are emerging within the same environment to insure more trusted curatorship over news and information? How are the struggles over what constitutes “fake news” shaping our current political realities?

 

PANELISTS:
  • Mark Andrejevic, Associate Professor of Media Studies, Pomona College
  • Brooke Borel, a science writer and journalist; contributing editor to Popular Science.
  • Hannah Cranston, guest host & producer, The Young Turks; host of FoxTV’s Top30TV; host and EP of ThinktankFeed.
  • Jon Passantino, deputy news director for BuzzFeed News, Los Angeles.
  • Laura Sydell, Correspondent, Arts Desk, NPR.
  • Ramesh Srinivasan, Associate Professor, Department of Information Studies and Design/Media Arts.
1:45-2:45 Lunch 2:45-4:15 PM: Panel Three: “Music Streaming & The Splinternets: The New, Competing, Cultural Curators”

moderated by Gigi Johnson, Founding Director, The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

Description: Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, and Google Play Music are the current leaders in the subscription-based and advertising supported music streaming derby—having locked down the majority of artists through massive licensing deals with the major music labels. The current crisis facing the streaming tech giants is the glut of choice available to consumers, who are drowning in an endless supply of things to watch, read, or listen to online. As a result, the streaming giants have enlisted “an elite class of veteran music nerds — fewer than 100 working full-time at either Apple, Google, or Spotify — who are responsible for assembling, naming, and updating nearly every commute, dinner party, or TGIF playlist on your phone,” according to Buzzfeed‘s “Inside the Playlist Factory.”

Apple Music started the trend in 2014 when it acquired Beats’ along with co-heads Jimmy Iovine, Dr. Dre, and Trent Reznor, as their ultimate marketing weapon to challenge Spotify’s lead. Iovine insists that the tech corporations use the human music experts to guide tech engineers, and not vice versa, stating:“fans can smell the difference between a service where much of the product is dictated by algorithms or charts and one that is guided by more knowledgeable but equally passionate versions of themselves.”

This panel focuses on the growing industry of cultural curators who organize playlists “by reading endless music blogs, tracking artists before they have been discovered, and by maintaining contact with artists’ managers, producers, and label representatives.” Needless to say, the economic driver of this on-demand streaming culture is consumer data analytics targeting advertising brands. Feeling lonely after a particularly bad break up? Try listening to Adele while stuffing your emotions with a quart of Ben & Jerry’s and a diet Pepsi.

 

PANELISTS:
  • Rocío Guerrero Colomo, Head of Content Programming/Curation & Editorial, Latin Global, Head of Latin Culture, Shows & Editorial-Content Programming, Spotify
  • Alex White, Head of Next Big Sound at Pandora
4:15-4:30 Break

 

4:30-6:00: Panel Four: Creating Binge-worthy “Streaming Web TV.”

moderated by Neil Landau, author of TV Outside the Box and The Showrunner’s Roadmap.

 Description: Most credit Netflix with launching the 21st century “web TV” revolution and with it “peak TV” by introducing the phrase “binge-watching” into the lexicon and by fundamentally altering the way we watch and access television online. Everything changed, according to Thomas Schatz, when Netflix “…barged into the high-stakes original series programming derby in 2013 with House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.” Never have so many buyers prompted so many creators to step up and pitch original concepts. FX conducted a study and determined that in the years 2009 to 2015, the number of scripted series went from 200 to 400+.

In 2016, Netflix produced 600 hours of scripted TV and in 2017 it said it would spend $6 billion on both scripted and acquired series. The good news is the excitement associated with this ramp up of creative opportunity; the bad news is that in the current world of overabundant online content, consumers are swimming in series they’ll never see once, let alone watch in their entirety. As in previous eras, writers, actors, and showrunners with credits under their belt are in high demand and earning large salaries to attach their names to lesser known creators. At the same time, untried writers, actors, and comedians are staking their futures on self-financed webseries productions using personal funding from part-time jobs, crowdsourcing, and by promoting themselves on social media—all in the hopes of catching the lightning in a bottle success associated with Broad City, Insecure, and High Maintenance. Streaming TV is grabbing lots of attention (and subscribers), but the question remains: “Will the current boom cycle continue indefinitely or has ‘peak TV’ peaked?

PANELISTS:
  • Jessie Kahnweiler, creator, The Skinny (Hulu)
  • Zander Lehmann, creator, Casual (Hulu)
  • Dawn Prestwich, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon)
  • Nicole Yorkin, co-executive producer, Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon)

 

6-8PM Reception

You can register here for the event.

Categories: Blog

How Did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part Three)

March 22, 2017 - 10:05am

You and your interview subjects have a lot to say about genre across the book. Is genre still important as a means of marketing specific programs and targeting specific audiences? Are new genre categories emerging in this era of experimentation and differentiation? What genres do you see as most characteristic of the current television environment?

Marketing executives like to classify and categorize shows in order to package and sell them.  It’s often an easy “pass” (rejection) when a series doesn’t fit into one genre.  The network execs usually say: It’s too all over the place. But now we have some phenomenal half hour dramedies that defy classification — and that happens to excite me: Atlanta, Baskets, Better Things, Louie, Insecure, Orange Is the New Black, Casual, Derek, Master of None, Transparent, Fleabag, Better Call Saul.  Even M*A*S*H blurred the line between comedy and tragedy, but was always known as a comedy series (with accompanying laugh track). Are they comedies or dramas?  I say: who cares.  Just watch and have your mind blown. They don’t always go for the joke. They push their characters to the edge. They make us cringe and/or recoil. But I, for one, can’t look away. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt broke the traditional sitcom mold, in my humble opinion; it’s created a new genre unto itself.  Ditto: Baskets.  Ditto: Atlanta which features, in random measure, dark and light, funny and serious, and magical realism. It’s winning accolades and praise and deserves them all. I don’t watch TV to see the same old, same old.  I want to be surprised!  I don’t want to fall asleep to my TV.  I want it to wake me up. We’re also seeing more historical series (from long ago to the more recent past) and science-fiction series that defy our expectations: The Crown, The People vs. OJ, Stranger Things, Westworld.  Game of Thrones is such a game changer because it demands viewer engagement in a multi verse, and viewers of all ages are addicted to its story lines and cast of thousands. There’s an interactive component to these out of the box genre-bending or genre-transcending series; we don;t just watch them, we discuss them. They’re in the zeitgeist.  They’re part of the national and global conversation.  It used to be that I’d ride the subway and everyone was reading a book or newspaper; now everyone is watching TV content on their smart phones, headphones on, fragmented attention spans processing. Multitasking has become like breathing. We can consume content faster than ever and store that data for our social interactions; maybe it’s because we’ve freed up our memory by not needing to memorize so many facts and figures anymore; it’s all stored on our iPhones and available in a matter of seconds via google.  We’re distracted, addicted, restless, and need constant stimulation or else we’re bored. Familiar genres tend to increase boredom, but familiar genres with a fresh spin can engage us in new and exciting ways.  True Detective (season one) was a tried and true detective series (the most prevalent genre), but it was an existential detective series.  Bloodline (on Netflix) isn’t just a family ensemble drama/soap opera; it’s a new genre: family noir. Mr. Robot provides us with an unreliable narrator and revels in destabilizing its viewers; the show dares us to guess what’s going to happen next.  The Leftovers (on HBO) is also it’s own genre: the rapture drama, inviting us into a world that defies explanation.  The season two opener offers a teaser that’s astonishing and rapturous.  Damon Lindelof knows what he’s doing, even though it’s not a show for everyone.

Alongside genre there is the question of format. At places, you and your subjects suggest that the procedural will die out with the generation which grew up on the broadcast networks. Why has serial television become so central to the new media economy and ecology you are documenting here? And what do we make of the return of anthology series, such as Black Mirror, or of series with short story arcs, such as American Crime Story and American Horror Story?

I covered this one above, too.  I should have read all the questions in advance, but I enjoy the spontaneity.  Sorry!  Suffice it to say, that audience engagement is stoked by the audience’s relationship with the characters.  If it’s a limited series, that relationship needs to grip us right out of the gate (such as with the exceptionally engaging The Night of on HBO). Longer serialized shows translate to long term relationships, involving shifting allegiances, and often a love-hate dynamic.  Sometimes we root for Frank Underwood, sometimes we root for Claire. The same applies to unscripted documentary series.  Making a Murderer was a limited series but I kept changing my mind as to Steven Avery’s guilt.  Ditto: The Jinx.  And this also applies to scripted series like The Night Of.  Give me a complicated mystery that’s smart and airtight and I’ll follow you anywhere. The Affair on Showtime destabilizes us with multiple perspectives of the same event, Rashomon style. Sure, it’s a narrative trick, a device, but it works beautifully and pulls you in.  UnREAL also provokes and destabilizes.  It’s pitch black comedy and satire and soap opera and reality TV all rolled into one.  Black Mirror (which I refer to in my book as “The Twilight Zone on digital crack”) is just so damn disturbing because it’s not wholly science-fiction; it’s already happening, or will possibly happen soon.  It’s both prescient and portentous.  I can’t get enough. Yes, it’s problematic that we have to wait so long for new episodes of some of our favorite series.  Between seasons of ambitious, expensive shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and House of Cards can take more than a year.  Due to Donald Glover’s busy acting schedule (hello: Star Wars), we won’t be getting new episodes of Atlanta until 2018; it’s a disruptive show that’s being disrupted.

One of the bigger surprises in recent years has been a resurgence of radio formats and genres through podcasts. Can we see the success of Serial and its successors as a byproduct of the same sea changes in production, distribution, and consumption you discuss here primarily in terms of television?

I can certainly foresee a TV version of Serial and other podcasts.  These radio programs are now valuable IP with built in audiences, and they’re also based on the irresistible allure of a great central mystery with twists and turns.  They’re both interactive (whodunit?) and voyeuristic, like the best of so-called “unscripted” TV.  It takes us inside the world of the crime and behind the scenes of the painstaking investigation. BUT ALL WITH A SLOW BURN. Broadcast network procedurals tend to offer crime and punishment in one closed-ended episode, fast resolution, easy justice.  These serialized podcasts engage us and keep us on the edge of our seats but don’t offer black and white resolution.  The investigation usually just leads to more questions.  Justice is elusive.  These podcasts and true crime stories are grounded in realism, and hook us in based upon the vicarious thrill of both being there and re-experiencing the crime, or even by putting us in the position as viewers/listeners and thinking: What if this happened to me?

Critics describe these breakthrough programs as possessing distinctive voices or perspectives, a shift that we can see as closely associated with the rise of the Showrunner as a kind of television auteur. Many of the folks you interview are showrunners, so what insights might we get from reading the book about the emergence of author-based television production?

Great showrunners have all the power in the TV business — whether they originally created the show or have been brought in to run the operation.  Their sensibilities, leadership skills, and vision have brought them hard-earned reputations that they can and will deliver a high quality TV show on time and within a prescribed budget.  A fresh, original idea is good.  Being able to execute that idea in an exciting, authentic, visionary, accessible way is invaluable. And several of our more famous show runners choose to run several shows at the same time: Chuck Lorre, Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, Greg Berlanti. I don’t know what drives them, but running one show is arduous and requires incredible stamina.  Delegation is key. But these show runners have stories to tell and characters to birth. They are their own brands.  We trust them to deliver on the promise of the premise.  I asked Norman Lear how he’d managed to run multiple shows.  How did he handle all the stress?  He wisely replied: “Yes, it was incredibly stressful.  But there’s such a thing as good stress.”  Those were the days….

Several of the new players you discuss in this book are moving away from the pilot process that shaped old television production. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Why?

  I’ve covered the wisdom behind this above.  Ted Sarandos has condemned what he calls the idiotic, fiscally irresponsible, wasteful, inefficient pilot process.  I tend to agree with Ted (hey, you can’t argue with success).  One hour drama pilots can cost upwards of $5 million — and never air.  That’s unsustainable and nutty. But there is value in looking before you leap.  But in today’s on-demand, binge-viewing TV landscape, the demand for fresh new content exceeds the supply.  If you’re a TV network or platform, better to be first with a new series than a day late and a dollar short.  In other words, everything is moving much too fast to calculate catching lightning in a bottle. There is no magic formula to a hit series, no matter how much a network retools an ostensibly “broken pilot.”  Mr. Robot got on the air because the assistants at USA Network and NBCU rallied for it; at first, their bosses just didn’t get it.  But the inner-office fandom was overwhelming.  Most groundbreaking shows had and have a rough road making it on the air.  But shows from All in the Family and Breaking Bad to Black Mirror and Atlanta beat the odds and entered the zeitgeist.  The rest is history.

 

 

 

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT.

His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle.

Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release.

In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy).

From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.)

Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

Categories: Blog

How Did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part Two)

March 20, 2017 - 5:23pm

Your opening section pays attention to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle, and others who have produced television style content for the web. In what ways have these networks become game-changers in terms of what we think television is? In what ways are broadcast and cable networks responding to the alternative models they represent?

Serialized content used to scare the broadcast networks because if you missed an episode or two, they were afraid you’d never come back.  But in an on-demand landscape, no one misses anything; the modern scourge is the spoiler. I love the paradox of today’s TV landscape in which people try to watch everything but it’s impossible due to the number of shows. So when you start to tell someone about a great new show that they haven’t seen, they usually stop you with: “I can’t wait to see it. Don’t tell me anything!” Sony Crackle is advertiser supported, but they circumvent the pilot process and go straight to series (and then offering all episodes all at once for the binge viewing experience.  Hulu started as a second window platform, but soon realized they could only compete if they offered original series of their own.  Netflix and Amazon both complete for exclusivity and originality, but there’s a big difference between their business models; while Netflix is a media company, Amazon in a retail company.  They’re each making their own programs now and aiming to cut out the middle man studio. But Amazon Studios exists as a magnet to their online shopping mall experience (with free shipping for Amazon Prime members).  Netflix needs to keep its subscriber base happy so they keep paying their monthly dues.  Streaming and premium cable depend on subscriptions and are considered utilities versus broadcasters, giving the subscription networks much more freedom from censorship. The broadcast networks and basic cable networks still need to please advertisers, necessitating Standards and Practices (a form of censorship) to avoid any content that’s too edgy or morally objectionable and could taint an advertiser’s brand. The subscription networks are only beholden to their subscribers.  And so edgier, more provocative content on streaming and premium cable has pushed the broadcast networks to improve the quality of their shows; we now see riskier shows, niche shows, and bolder choices being made across all platforms. Mr. Robot has helped redefine USA network.  It might not appeal to your typical zombie-loving fan base of The Walking Dead, but it’s certainly darker, edgier, and smarter than most basic cable shows.  Consequently, all networks are raising the bar: This Is Us (on NBC), Animal Kingdom (on TNT), UnREAL (on Lifetime?!), American Crime (on ABC) to name a few. And with niche content attracting viewers on streaming and premium cable, we’re also seeing greater diversity and authenticity in casts, plot lines, and in writers’ rooms.  

Many of the storytellers you interviewed spoke of the differences in producing series which are meant to be binged watched. What are some of the core insights to emerge about this new form of media consumption?

When you circumvent the pilot process, you’re removing some of the fine tuning and audience testing checks and balances in the system. And when all or most of the episodes are written in advance of even starting production, the show runners have less opportunity to course correct.  Re-shoots are costly and time consuming.  To create a show that’s intended for the full episode drop for binge viewing requires a more visionary show runner than ever before.  They have to see the whole season in advance, as opposed to finding the show throughout the season and adjusting according to audience response, chemistry among actors, and latent discoveries made.

You map a complex media ecology throughout the book. How much movement is there between the different levels of media production? For example, many of us are watching Issa Rae, who you interviewed, bring Insecure onto HBO after years of being a web television producer. Are there things we can observe there which may help us anticipate further movements of this kind in the future?

The audience is in control in the on-demand world.  But the content creators are also much more in control of their destinies if they can think like creative entrepreneurs.  Issa Rae made Awkward Black Girl at her own expense; it’s funny, authentic, and she writes, directs, and stars in it.  Issa knew she had something to say and an audience who wanted to tune in. She spent her own money to make her web series, which served as proof of concept.  It wasn’t a huge leap of faith for HBO to green light Issa’s hilarious and superb series, Insecure; she already had a substantial fan base and three seasons of Awkward Black Girl under her belt. Yes, it’s always a risk to produce and distribute a new show, but the smart money was on Issa: her authentic voice,  grace, style, and talent. High Maintenance followed a similar trajectory (from self-financed web series on Vimeo and i.am.other to HBO series.  In the old days, you had to start off at the bottom of the food chain as a freelancer or staff writer and work your way up the ladder.  Now, first-time creators are rapidly becoming show runners.  Look at Sam Esmail (Mr. Robot) and Zander Lehmann (Casual).  Unprecedented.

Throughout, you have much to say about struggles over diversity, inclusion, and representation in the contemporary television landscape. This is clearly a core issue at the moment — thus our recent Diversifying Entertainment conference. What did you hear from the industry insiders that might shed light on how they are thinking about this issue? In some ways, the question has to do with rapid expansion of minority-cast programming and its audience share over the past few seasons, but as you also note, some of the issue has to do with how under-represented minorities and women are both in front of and behind the camera. What factors are determining the speed with which these changes are taking place?

Before the recent Presidential election, I was getting optimistic on this subject.  Now… it’s anybody’s guess. We could be entering a new era of ALT RIGHT, white-washed, unobjectionable and/or purely escapist shows.  I hope not.  I think we need a national catharsis, so I’m rooting for edgy, provocative shows that stir folks up — both audiences and content creators (aka writer/producers).  We’re not going to have a cultural revolution if everyone is sitting home watching Dancing with the Stars and Big Bang Theory. Actually, the current political climate (it’s only Trump’s second week in office) could usher in a new creative Renaissance.  Only time will tell.  But I’m an optimist.  Shows like Atlanta and Mr. Robot give me hope.  It’s not that I believe all shows needs to address the ills of our society (racism, greed, climate change), but I want to be challenged to think about my place in the world when I watch a great TV series. I don’t want to just be a complacent couch potato.  We don’t want our country to turn into WALL-E.  We must engage, question, and resist formulaic story tropes and stereotypes.  The first question I asked Norman Lear was “Does TV reflect our lives or do our lives reflect TV?”  His response was a little bit of both, but now more than ever there are shows that reflect myriad perspectives and lives. And TV is a global business.  Netflix is now in every country except China and North Korea.  More and more shows are being distributed in their original language with subtitles.  This also gives me hope because when we are able to get a window on people in other parts of the world, it can engender compassion and empathy.  I like to believe that storytelling can not only inspire, entertain, and delight — but also it can change the world.

One of your section headings proclaims “niche is the new mainstream.” Is that true? How would you characterize the relationship today between niche and mainstream program? As the media market fragments, is there anything that can be characterized as mainstream programming?

I addressed this above, but Orange Is the New Black is a great example of a niche series (about women in prison) that has multiple entry points to attract a wider audience.  There’s Piper, the Caucasian blond protagonist, but then there are people of color, male guards, social worker, and wardens, and many ways to connect.  Theme is also a way for showrunners and creators to broader their niche appeal. House of Cards is not a show about politics; it’s a show about powerTransparent is not a show solely about a transgender woman, it’s a show about identity.  Theme is universal and can take what might seem like a niche show and make it go mainstream.

 

 

Neil Landau (’85), teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT.

His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle.

Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release.

In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy).

From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.)

Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

Categories: Blog

How did We Get So Many Great Television Shows?: An Interview with UCLA’s Neil Landau (Part One)

March 16, 2017 - 9:26am

When was the last time anyone you know spoke of television as “a vast wasteland”? Certainly, television today is as vast as ever was, actually probably 100 times more so, but there more outstanding television series available to us each week can we possibly could watch.

Some are describing the current moment is the era of peak television or the age of too much great TV. A complex set of factors have contributed to wave after wave of creative experimentation, often involving idiosyncratic personalities, genre bending narrative strategies, and appeals to niche audiences. First premium cable and then streaming platforms challenged the dominance of broadcast and basic cable, pushing innovation outward even to the most conservative players. The challenge has become directing attention and ensuring access to all of the innovative new content. 

Neil Landau’s TV Outside the Box offers an essential guide to the opportunities and risks facing  the creative industry at the current moment. Longtime industry insider as well as a professor at the UCLA Cinema School, Landau seemingly had access to anyone and everyone he wanted to talk to. The book includes cogent, concise, lively and thoughtful interviews with network executives and show runners alike. Right now, the book provides the back story we need to understand what’s happening with this expansive medium and in the future, the book will be time capsule that preserves a transitional moment in television history. What I would give to have an equally vivid snapshot of television’s innovators in the 1950s or 1980s.

I was lucky enough to have lunch with Landau in the fall and was immediately taken by the depth of his knowledge and passion for television as a medium. We spent the entire meal tossing off one new title after another as if playing Stump the Band. This guy knows everyone, watches everything. He understands the contours of this changing landscape like no one else I have ever met. The interview that follows will give you some simple taste of his insights into contemporary television culture.

Landau is working with UCLA’s Denise man and I plan for the next Transforming Hollywood event, coming up in early May. Watch here for further details coming soon.

You seem to have been able to interview all of the key players reshaping television at the current moment. Can you provide us some sense of the scope of different players represented in the book? What can you share of the process of getting all of these folks to speak with you?

I began my research more than 3 years ago (in 2014).  I could see how the TV business was changing the way the music industry changed, first with Napster and then, of course, iTunes.  I also saw parallel “on demand” tracks in transportation (Uber) and accommodations (AirBNB) and a little voice in me said: jump on this and track where this is going to transform the TV landscape.  Honestly, I began my research with the naive idea that I was simply covering the new platinum age of great TV series.  I started out with “beginner’s mind” and decided not to draw any conclusions until I went out into the field to gather data and multiple perspectives.  I knew I wanted to interview not only trailblazing showrunners (Jenji Kohan, Beau Willimon, Jill Soloway), but also network/studio executives (Ted Sarandos, Roy Price, Andy Kaplan) and a few icons (Norman Lear, Tom Fontana, Elliot Webb) to give the whole thing a historical perspective. What I quickly came to realize was that this project was going to be much bigger than what I’d originally pitched to my publisher.  I could foresee a Digitial Television Revolution.  Being that TV Outside the Box (TVOTB) was my 4th book, along with my pedigree as co-director of the UCLA MFA Screenwriting Program and the book’s sponsorship by NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives), these interviews were relatively easy for me to secure (despite the scheduling and resheduling of several incredibly busy people). I’d first met one of my idols, Norman Lear, at the NATPE conference in Miami in 2014, and he immediately agreed to participate.  Beau Willimon was a friend of a friend, and we became fast friends. Beau strongly encouraged me to include the legacy perspective and introduced me to Tom Fontana (Oz, Homicide Life on the Streets, Borgia); Oz was HBO’s very first scripted one-hour drama series. Tom Fontana’s influence over TV content cannot be overstated. He’s the original trailblazer (along with Steven Bochco and Norman Lear). The toughest interview for me to secure was Jenji Kohan whose a total workhorse and would rather write than talk about her process; but after a cold start (and fighting exhaustion), she warmed up to me.  Dan Harmon (Community, Rick & Morty) was the most entertaining interview that took place in a seedy bar in Eaglerock and involved several cocktails.  Ricky Gervais (The Office, Derek) was the most surprising because he was so gracious and kind (and hilarious).  Charlie Brooker & Annabel Jones (Black Mirror) was the most fascinating and scary for me due to their prescient stories.

TV Outside the Box traces the contours of what you describe as “the revolution.” What characterizes the dramatic shifts in the nature of television, its content, its platforms, and its audiences your book seeks to document? What were some of the first signs that a revolution in television was taking place?

The on-demand nature and scope is what’s most revolutionary to me.  The audience is now in control and can dodge or completely avoid commercials.  The sheer volume of scripted TV content was and continues to exponentially rise. When I was a kid, we had three TV networks and maybe 30-40 shows on the air, scheduled in time slots.  Now we have over 440 scripted series across too many platforms to mention here.  Are we currently in a “content bubble”?  Sure.  But I’m not sure that choice is ever a bad thing.  Is it sustainable for the studios and networks: probably not.  I see a natural form of attrition happening. The bar keeps rising on high quality, engaging, fresh content, so the mediocre shows won’t last.  In the book I refer to this phenomenon as “digital Darwinism.” Binge viewing is also a touchstone of the digital TV revolution.  Not only can we watch what we want, when we want, without commercial interruption, we can watch the whole season of series offered on Netflix and Amazon. I can foresee HBO, Showtime, and Hulu eventually following suit. I also saw the decline of the TV industry’s reliance on the overnight Nielsen rating system — to the point where the overnight rating is virtually an irrelevant metric of a show’s success.  Most younger viewers don’t want TV content on televisions anymore, and they absolutely don’t watch anything in its prescribed time slot — unless it’s live sporting events.  To me, the only reason linear TV still exists is for live events. We’re still in a TV ecosystem in which viewership is segmented by age and older viewers still tend to watch their favorite series in their time slot, for free, with commercials. But the younger generations are either agnostic (they find their favorite shows and don’t care what network it’s on) or they’re only watching highlights from shows on YouTube. A summer TV landscape dominated by reruns is also going away.  Networks and platforms always need fresh, buzz worthy, exclusive, original content — or they’re toast. The other enormous shift in the TV landscape has been its focus from broadest and safest shows to series that might appeal to a small, but fiercely loyal and dedicated audience; a subscription, on-demand streaming network needs lots of choice, not just a series that appeals to the widest possible audience, but multiple shows that may appeal to different slices of the audience.  One of the main theses of the book is: Niche Is the New Mainstream.

You characterize appointment television as an anachronism. I’ve argued that appointment television is giving way to engagement television, which places more emphasis on the choices that audiences make about when, where, and how they chose to watch television. Engagement has been a buzz word of the industry and crops up often across your interviews. What insights can you share about the ways television producers and executives are thinking about engagement?

Audience engagement is one of the programmers biggest challenges. With so many choices, how do you break through all the noise (the glut) and actually attract an audience?  If a show is great, it will generate buzz.  But what generates the buzz is a fresh, authentic experience, something new — and it’s going to have to be provocative and controversial (aka noisy) in order to get attention from the media (critics and social media influencers). It used to be that the major networks could program a new series in the time slot immediately following one of their biggest hits. Now the platforms need to find different ways to engage the audience via new marketing trends and via transmedia.  Some great TV series take time and patience for the audience to connect. Breaking Bad, for example, was only a modest performer when it premiered on AMC, but it turned into a cultural phenomenon when it premiered on Netflix.  Shorter episode orders and limited/anthology series (The Night Of, Fargo, True Detective, American Horror Story) have also made it possible for big movie starts to commit to doing a TV series. Working in TV used to be considered a form of “slumming,” but that’s also changed.  Once David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, and Martin Scorsese jumped into TV, it leveled the playing field.  Now everyone wants to work in TV — but the true icons mainly want to work on premium and high quality cable and streaming.  Showrunners now have a direct relationship with their show’s fan base.  Like our new president, they use Twitter and Facebook.  They live tweet during the episode.  What was once the office water cooler conversation the night after a show aired has transformed into the global water cooler via social media.

 

Neil Landau  teaches in the M.F.A. screenwriting and producing programs and serves as the associate director of screenwriting for television at UCLA TFT. His writing credits include the 1991 teen comedy feature Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, starring Christina Applegate; the Pax TV series Twice in a Lifetime; MTV’s Undressed; CBS’ The Magnificent Seven; Fox’s Melrose Place; Nickelodeon’s The Secret World of Alex Mack; ABC’s Doogie Howser, M.D.; and one-hour drama pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, Lifetime and Freemantle. Landau’s 2012 3D animated feature Tad: The Lost Explorer (Las aventuras de Tadeo Jones) earned him a Spanish Academy Goya Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. He is currently working on its sequel, as well as the screenplay for Paramount’s upcoming 3D animated feature Capture the Flag. He is also working on a new animated film, Sheep & Wolves, for Wizart Animation (The Snow Queen), slated for a 2016 release. In 2013, Landau’s original screenplay, Flinch, was optioned by Avenue Pictures’ multi-award-winning producer Cary Brokaw (Closer, The Player, Angels in America, Shortcuts, Drugstore Cowboy). From 2004-2007, Landau worked as a script consultant for Sony Pictures Television International (2004-2007). In 2010, he consulted on the Goya-award-winning Lope (for Warner Bros. and El Toro Pictures, Spain) and Bruc (El Toro/Universal Pictures). He has also worked extensively with screenwriter/director David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Angels & Demons.) Landau is the author of the bestselling book 101 Things I Learned in Film School (Grand Central Publishing, 2010). Focal Press has published his new books, The Screenwriter’s Roadmap (2012) and The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap (2014).

Categories: Blog

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Six): Everyday Wonders

March 13, 2017 - 1:08pm

Everyday Wonders

I decided to call this installment Everyday Wonders because each of the podcasts I’m discussing here take as their core subject matter the practices of everyday life. They managed to turn subject matter that we take for granted into stories that are fascinating and engaging. In part this has to do with the skills of their hosts as storytellers and investigators. These podcasts also popularize some of the core insights of cultural studies: the culture is ordinary, that humans do not involve themselves in activities that are meaningless, and that looking beneath the surface of everyday life may help us to understand hidden assumptions and values that shape who we are and how we see the world.

I’m a huge fan of the Kitchen Sisters who were early entrants into this podcast game and they have continued to explore new subject matter in imaginative ways. I would flag two series produced by the Kitchen Sisters. The first is called Hidden Kitchens and is a global exploration of the place of cooking, food, and the kitchen. Sometimes the series takes an historical approach as with an episode devoted to the impact of the internment camps on Japanese-American cooking or a study of the bake sales held to support the Montgomery bus boycott. Other times the series explores the history of familiar objects such as Tupperware, Rice-a-Roni, or the George Foreman grill. Other episodes may deal with specific groups of people and their relationship to food — for example, the chili Queens of San Antonio.

The second Kitchen Sisters series, Fugitive Waves deals with the history of recorded sound and often brings to our attention long-lost treasures recorded on vinyl or audio tape. I first discovered the series via an episode called “Bone Music” which dealt with the underground circulation of western pop music in Cold War Soviet Union. Pirated music was recorded on on old x-rays, with the result that underground music became known as bone music. One of the first episodes in the series dealt with the ways Thomas Alva Edison promoted himself and his phonograph. Another shared some informal recordings that Tennessee Williams made goofing around one Midsummer afternoon. One of my very favorites explores the storytellers and musicians who were hired to amuse the workers at cigar factories in Havana and Miami. This series is consistently imaginative and self-aware about its own audio strategies.

I discovered the “Bone Music” episode thanks to a crossover with 99% Invisible, another long-running podcast series. 99% Invisible deals with the history of design, in particular the design of things that we take for granted in our immediate surroundings. Episodes deal with the architecture of McMansion, the history of the NBC chime, how food gets photographed for advertising, the evolution of the Monopoly game, and the conventions surrounding the design of superhero costumes. Some episodes may explore specific historical locations like the Stonewall bar, the site of some of the earliest gay-rights uprisings or the kind of fusion architecture that shapes Chinatowns in major American cities, understood here as reflecting the complex politics of racial assimilation and exoticism that has marked the history of Asian Americans.

Nate DiMeo, host of The Memory Palace, may be the best storyteller in the contemporary podcast medium. One can imagine a history of revolutions in radio storytelling that takes us from Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion to Ira Glass on This American Life to Nate DiMeo on The Memory Palace. In each case, a distinctive personality establishes a style of delivery, a rhythm, a narrative structure, and a particular voice that sets them apart from what was there before and provides a model for the next generation that will follow. The Memory Palace, as the title suggests, is fascinated with the nature of history and popular memory. Its stories are at once personal and shared. There is an overarching sense of nostalgia and yet a willingness to debunk the past at the same time. Often we are revisiting the past to discover outlaw figures who might belong in another time and place, such as the protagonist of “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted,” the story of a cross-dressing woman in the 19 century. So much can be gleaned about the tenor of the Memory Palace by reading the titles of some of their best episodes. “Notes on an imaginary plaque to be added to the statue of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest upon hearing that the Memphis city Council has voted to move it and exhumed the remains of Gen. Forest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forest.” “50 words written after learning that the Arctic bowhead whale can live up to 200 years.” “Six scenes in the life of William J Saitus, wonderful boy.” “A brief eulogy for consumer electronics projects.” Don’t these sound like stories you’d like to know more about?

Sleepover starts out like a reality television series brought to podcast, something like an audio version of Big Brother. Three people from radically different backgrounds, each struggling with some personal challenge, are invited to spend the night together at a sleepover in a hotel room, during which they are encouraged to provide each other with life advice and emotional support. The strength of the series lies in its casting – the characters are always three-dimensional and we are given a chance to get to know them over an episode dedicated to each. Although personal revelations occur throughout, the series never feels voyeuristic or exploitative, in part because of the host Sook-Yin Lee’s remarkable ability to bridge across differences. I leave each episode with a sense of hopefulness about our ability to overcome some of the polarization in contemporary culture. I’m especially touched by the producers willingness to treat children’s experiences alongside adult’s, and the willingness of the adult participants to treat the young ones as their equals as they work through issues together and as children offer insights well beyond their years.

Mystery Show and Heavyweight suggest the emergence of yet another potential genre in the podcast world – mystery shows where detectives deal with everyday dilemmas. Heavyweight is interested in the emotional dynamics and the psychological consequences of digging up chapters of our lives that might’ve been closed years ago. The pilot episode bring together Buzz and Sheldon, two quarrelsome brothers in their 80s who haven’t spoken to each other in decades; the host Jonathan Goldstein goes along for the ride, sometimes rattling their cages, sometimes throwing a lifeline but ultimately interested in seeing whether they can overcome a lifetime of differences. Another episode deals with Gregor who has loaned his old friend Moby a cd of American folk music and whose built up resentment over the years that the techno composer never returned his record. Sometimes Goldstein revisits his own past as in an episode where he reconnects with his first girlfriend. “Julia” explores the issue of childhood bullying and what both bullies and victims remember and forget through the ears.

Mystery Show is more interested in the detecting process as a young woman, Starlee Kine, tries to solve some very complex questions having to do with popular culture, such as figuring out what happened to a video store that seemingly disappeared overnight a decade before, tracking down the owner of a distinctive belt buckle found in the streets, or figuring out what’s going on in a particular cryptic picture on the side of the Welcome Back Kotter lunchbox. Kine is dogged in her shoe leather work and imaginative in her use of social media to solve each challenging question. The episodes are as interested in the wrong turns and red herrings as they are with the final solution, though both are of interest because of the insights they shed on the world we live in. Kine reminds me of Veronica Mars if she was given a chance to host an NPR show. Both Heavyweight and Mystery Show are a lot of fun, not the least of all because of the vividness of the characters depicted, as compared to the suspects on a television procedural.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of contemporary podcasting — having said nothing, for example, about the revival of radio drama there, a topic to which I hope to return before much longer.

Categories: Blog

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Five): Minority Reports

March 10, 2017 - 7:53am

My interest in the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture also led me to the Still Processing podcast. Each week Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, both African-American, offer their perspectives on current events and especially popular culture. The contents might range from an in-depth interview with RuPaul to a frank discussion of our culture’s ongoing obsession with the black penis. But their strongest episode to date describes their first impressions of the new Smithsonian Museum and culminates with an extensive interview with one of the Museum’s curators which helps us to understand the logic by which the Institute set out to build and display this remarkable collection. Having gotten to know the hosts over more mundane matters, it was all the more moving to hear them describe the impact this new Museum had on their sense of themselves and their appreciation of their own history.

Given how often discussions of race in America center only on the black-white divide, I was excited to discover Code Switch, which has brought together a whole generation of young journalist of color currently working for National Public Radio. Code Switch brings a multiracial and often intersectional perspective to current events. For me, the highlight so far was an episode entitled “A letter from a Young Asian American to Her Parents about Black Lives Matter”, which was surprisingly frank in exploring historic divides between African-Americans and Asian Americans. A special holiday episode had reporters of various ethnicities describe traditional foods that cause them particular discomfort. Following the Orlando shootings, Code Switch explored what the events meant to GLBT, Latino, and American Muslim residents of the city. More recently, they launched a series examining Obama’s legacy. In the first episode they dug deep into the ways racialized rhetoric consistently shaped critiques of his public policies, including the ways that his critics crossed the lines traditionally protecting children from such public discourse. Yet they also talked about their own divided loyalties since many felt Obama had not gone far enough in addressing issues of civil rights and immigration reform.

In our recent book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, my co-author Sangita Shresthova provides an overview of the political lives of American Muslim youth. She tells us that these young Muslims were politicized in the wake of 9/11 whether they wanted to be or not: they are often forced to defend their cultural and religious identities. She describes a range of storytelling projects in the American Muslim community where these young activists find their voice and express their perspectives on changing times. Podcast are one of the many ways that we can begin to listen to what these young people have to say. #Good Muslim, Bad Muslim represents a particularly vivid example. Tanzila ‘Taz’ Ahmed is a LA-based activist and storyteller and her cohost Zahra Noorbakhsh is a San Francisco comedian actor and writer. These two young women share intimate aspects of their lives with their listeners as they describe their shared experience as Muslim women living in California. They explain the program’s title:

“To the Muslim community, we are “bad” Muslims – we listen to music, we don’t pray regularly, we date or get married to white men (Zahra), identify as punks and radicals (Taz), we perform and share our lives with comedy and writing. So we are bad. So so bad. To non-Muslims, we are “good” – we don’t drink, we don’t do drugs, we are not criminals, we are social justice activists and community leaders. We are successful, published, accomplished. But then of course, on the flipside, because we are brown Muslims living in a post 9/11 islamophobia funded world, we are also villanized by Western society, too. No matter how you look at it, we are bad Muslims. There’s no winning!!!! As Muslim American women, we are walking this fine line between what it means to be good and bad. “

What they share is funny and alarming in equal measures and that’s part of the point. Often they are turning the words of Islamiaphobes against themselves:they declare Fatawa against mundane aspects of the world around, showcase what they call Creeping Sharia — examples of support from unexpected corners, or share awkward conversations with the non-Muslim world and debunk common microaggressions directed against them.

Another useful podcast for gaining some insights into the American Muslim experience is See Something, Say Something. I especially enjoyed a series of episodes dealing with what it is to be an American Muslim fan, including one devoted to the recent Star Wars films entitled “Wookies are Muslim.” Other recent episodes of interest focused on memes as a means of challenging dominant representations or another centered on how Muslims decide whether or not to celebrate Christmas. All of these speak to the challenges of living as Muslims in a country that often wants to declare itself emphatically Christian – how to maintain your own identity while embracing aspects of the culture around you.

How to Be A Girl is perhaps the most intimate of the podcast identified today – – told from the perspective of a young mother with a transgender daughter. The podcast lacks the technical polish of the NPR podcasts but for that reason it often has an authenticity and sincerity that is refreshing as we engage in debates around gender and sexuality. We sometimes hear the young daughter’s rambling stories told into a tape recorder alongside her mother’s attempt to provide a fuller context of what it means to grow up transgender in the current public education system. A great episode has her grilling her friends with the questions she most often gets asked about how she knows her daughter’s gender and what she will do if she changes her mind later. Along the way, the mother becomes more and more of a public educator and activist around transgender issues, but she never stops being a dedicated and proud mother who was there to support her daughter during her first steps into an unfamiliar territory. Thanks to Jonathan Gray for bringing this particular podcast to my attention.

Making Gay History is an extraordinary resource for any of us who want to understand the changing sexual politics of this country. Historian Eric Marcus shares recordings made decades ago with some of the leaders and founders of the GLBT movement as part of his research for the book, Making Gay History. Each episode to date has been a treasure — a voice from the past — which provides a immediate sense of the struggle which has had to be fought to reach the current moment and how much work still remains to be done.

Categories: Blog

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Four): American Voices

March 8, 2017 - 8:04am

In the wake of last year’s divisive election, there’s never been such an urgent need for Americans to be listening to each other. America is in the midst of a dynamic and dramatic demographic shift which is been building over the last several decades and extends into the horizon.  America is becoming a more diverse nation, one which will be minority – majority in a few more years. Some segments of the population have embraced these changes but others have been left out of this conversation, are less certain what the future holds for them, and were encouraged by this election cycle to react with fear and uncertainty. In this context, I feel an urgency to help build bridges between different communities. There is a classic story of Mark Twain hearing about the invention of the telegraph and being told that for the first time the people in Massachusetts would be able to speak to the people in California. His response was to ask what the people in Massachusetts had to say to the people in California. Today we might well ask what the people in Mississippi have to say to people in California. I’m very interested in the infrastructure and social capital that still holds the country together in the face of some of the sharpest ideological divides Americans have faced since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

It seems a terrible burden to place all of this on the back of podcasts, but because podcasts are such an intimate medium and support such diverse perspectives, they offer a unique opportunity for us to read each other’s mail. That is to say, podcasts allows us to listen into conversations that would otherwise be closed to us and as a consequence, hear perspectives we would not otherwise access. The podcasts I’m exploring today are ones that I use to bridge various cultural divides, to do my homework on race, gender and sexuality in America today, and otherwise broadened my access to minority perspectives.

Podcasts have been at the center of the movement over the last several decades to rediscover the dying art of storytelling. Alongside various forms of digital storytelling, they supported various communities interested in hearing stories of everyday life. Not since the mass observation movement in Britain during World War II has there been such a concerted effort to capture the details of how people live and make sense of the modern world. There is some tension here between podcast that emphasized the art and craft of storytelling and those which are trying for a more documentary style grittiness.

Those which emphasize highly professionalized and well-crafted stories – such as This American Life, The Moth and Snap Judgmentare often among the best-known examples of podcasting. Each has developed a distinctive voice and format but what they have in common is a fascination with the spoken word. On the other in the spectrum, I would play something like Story Corps, which sets up booths at various locations to collect more naturalistic accounts of everyday people’s experiences. Story Corps is at its best when the stories are organized around larger social themes and categories, such as an extended series they did several years ago about veterans returning from recent wars or their efforts to deal with the experience of transgendered people or any number of other projects which tackle questions of race, gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity. We learn something about the value Story Corps places on voice and personal narrative by examining their standards mission statement: “StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.”

After the election results, many of us woke up the following morning with the strong sense that we didn’t fully understand America as well as we thought we did. Red America and Blue America were talking past each other, might’ve been doing so for many years. One of the best resources I’ve used to work through some of those feelings is a podcast that originates in West Virginia called Us and Them. This podcast explores the faultlines in American cultural and political life. It’s host Trey Kay models what I would describe as ethical yet critical listening. A progressive, he never the less is seeking out conservative voices with the goal not of knocking them down but of exploring why conservatives think what they do. He certainly doesn’t let anyone off the hook for misinformation or faulty logic. But he remains open to alternative vantage points and tries to provide some historical context for how they emerged. I was drawn to the podcast by his extensive reporting on the debates around the Confederate flag and its continual role in southern civic life. Us and Them has also done outstanding reporting on the textbook struggles in Texas, the so-called “war on Christmas”, addictions to opiates in rural America,gays living in small and rural towns, Islamaphobia and the experiences of recent refugees moving to middle America, and many other topics. I have been raving to anyone who will listen about Us and Them as a model for what other kinds of meaningful interventions might look like that bridge between different American realities. Often when people speak about the need to listen more fully to rural and working-class America – almost always read as white America – there is an anxiety that this will mean the displacement or marginalization once again of minority perspectives. This podcast continually shows shows us the importance of bringing multiple perspectives together as we try to unravel the complex history of the current culture wars. Along a similar vein, I might recommend Home of the Brave which comes from a westerner’s perspective and has been doing a fantastic job covering debates around environmental preservation and especially around native American politics. Thanks to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl from the National Writing Project for calling this one to my attention.  Both have done some compelling episodes interviewing everyday Trump supporters.

For me, as a native Southerner, part of this process has involved in thinking more deeply than I have in a long time about the American South, its culture, its politics, and its history. As I do so, two podcasts have emerged as essential listening. The first Gravy comes from the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group that “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. Our work sets a welcome table where all may consider our history and our future in a spirit of respect and reconciliation.” In many ways, food is what South gets right: southern cooking bridges between different racial, ethnic and economic groups each of whom call call the South their home. My all-time favorite episode, “Southern Fried Baked Alaska” asks some core questions about what makes southern cooking southern and how “fine dining” has emerged as the South negotiates a more cosmopolitan identity. Gravy often examines the historic emergence of so-called “white trash” cooking, examining the history of particular dishes or ingredients, specifying the distinctions between different states and regions, or dealing with the history of institutions such as Coca-Cola. But Gravy offers us a vision of a multiracial South, exploring not only what black Southerners brought to the table from Africa or their experiences of slavery, but also factoring in the various foods brought to the South by immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

The second is the Smithsonian’s Folkways Sound Sessions, one of a number of podcasts that have emerged from the Smithsonian Institute in recent years. I know of no other cultural institution which has made such a deep commitment to the podcast. There are probably a dozen or more podcast representing the different museums and collections at the Smithsonian. I’ve sampled a number of them and they seem consistently strong and interesting – ranging from short videos for children about the animals found at the nation’s zoo to short docent talks about specific works found in the National Portrait Gallery. The Folkways Sound Sessions draw from a rich archive of folk music collected going back to the 1930s. I grew up listening to some of the Folkways recordings on vinyl records which I checked out of the Atlanta Public Library so some of the materials presented here are very old friends indeed. Each episode’s focuses on a specific artist, their work, and their contributions. I take great pleasure listening to their in-depth explorations of Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. But I’ve also discovered new artist such as Ella Jenkins, Doc Watson, and Jean Ritchie who would not been on my playlists otherwise. Only rarely does the podcast extend beyond American regional traditions and tap into the extensive holdings the Smithsonian has in world music. Here, we get podcast dedicated to Oud music or the music of the Silk Road. Just as Gravy allows us a deeper appreciation of what food says about the region, here we learn about the ways that music has expressed the struggles of the working class South.

While on the subject of the Smithsonian, I wanted to do a shout out to the podcast they created around the opening of the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Historically Black. As part of the process of building up that museums collection, the Smithsonian reached out to everyday people in hopes that they might share family treasures that shed light on his the social history of black America. Beyond putting these objects on display, the museum also collected the stories behind them and share some of them through this podcast series. For me one of the most moving ones centered around a bill of sale as a former slave purchased his wife and children. Another must listen episode recounts the story of NASA’s human computers and provides valuable background for the current film, Hidden Figures. The others range geographically and chronologically including accounts of fiddle music in Missouri, a photographer capturing the Harlem Renaissance, and the Million Man March in Washington DC. My only regret is that the series was a special event rather than ongoing outreach. I loved every episode here but I’m sad that there were so few.

 

Categories: Blog

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Three): Television, Fandom and Popular Culture

March 6, 2017 - 9:08am

Television and other popular culture

Maureen Ryan is quite simply the smartest person writing about television today. Her tastes are refreshingly eclectic ranging from “quality dramas” like Rectify to genre series like Killjoys without any signs of High-Low bias. She fearlessly champions the interests of television fans, which is all the more remarkable given Variety‘s history as a spokesman for the television industry. She brings a feminist politics to such topics as the representation of sexual violence on HBO dramas like Game of Thrones or the female gaze into Outlander. She has been especially vocal in advocating for more diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera. And no one can take down an overrated series like she can, as she demonstrated in a long rant  about the final episodes of Westworld. So when I want to get an engaging reading on new and old shows in the era of peak television, I search out the latest episode of Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan. Here Maureen Ryan is joined by Ryan McGee for a lively discussion of contemporary television landscape. As it happens, I’ve gotten to know Maureen Ryan through our mutual involvement with the Peabody Awards Committee and I’ve never met McGee but listening to this smart series brings all the pleasure of spending time with several friends who share my passions for the medium.

Rob Cesternino has parlayed an appearance on Survivor: the Amazon into a minor podcast empire. Rob Has A Podcast is essential listening for all fans of reality television. Originally, the podcast covered only Survivor with interviews with each contestant after they were voted off the island, detailed speculation and critical commentary on each episode, and ongoing exchanges with current and former contestants. Here we get a sense of what takes place behind-the-scene: being a reality’s contestant becomes a point of entry into a larger social community. Given that I have never missed an episode of Survivor in its many years on the air, this is the place I go to really geek out about a series that is off the radar for most of the rest of the viewing public. Rob Has a Podcast has expanded its coverage to incorporate a range of other reality programs including Big Brother, Celebrity Apprentice, Amazing Race, Hunted and The Bachelor franchise, as well as a podcast that picks up on oddball current events and popular culture.

I would love to be able to recommend to you a really top-flight podcast about comics and graphic novels. There certainly is no shortage of podcasts out there featuring middle-aged fan boys talking about the guys in capes, which reproduces the experience of hanging out at your local comic shop. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any of them whose tastes come anywhere near what’s on my current pull list. My tastes in graphic storytelling are eclectic but lean toward the margins. I certainly read some Marvel and DC material every month but I like the more offbeat titles there such as Hellcat or Squirrel Girl or Ms. Marvel or She-Hulk, even Silver Surfer. More often I like comics that combine genres storytelling with a more independent flavor (think Sex Criminals or Timberjanes), Saga or Papergirls). So if any reader out there knows of a good comics podcast, I’d love a recommendation. For the moment, the best match I found has been Word Balloons, an interview program which features long – and I do mean long – interviews with top comics writers and artists. Its host John Suintres wisely allows guests to dwell on their current obsessions and offers behind-the-scenes insights into why the comic business operates the way it does. I particularly enjoyed episodes where Brian Bendis discusses his experience at the Peabody awards for Jessica Jones or Kelly Sue DeConnick discusses the feminist politics behind her amazing Bitch Planet series.

I’m still making up my mind about The Comics Canon podcasts. Here, the hosts – again two middle-aged fan boys – explore one graphic novel per week, some old and some new, to explain their impact on the evolution of the superhero genre. If you want to understand why Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, or Frank Miller matter, this is the place for you. But, With the exception of Fun Home, they don’t branch very deeply into the independent comic scene.

More recently still, I’ve stumbled onto Comics from Grownups — their selection of materials skews much more towards the works being published by Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, and other independent comics publishers. I’ve grabbed a bunch of recommendations from them already and it is doing the job of helping me find interesting titles, but oddly, I am finding what they have to say about these books less interesting than which books they select to talk about, so this has not yet found its way to the top of my list yet.

Imaginary Worlds is my favorite podcast dealing with science fiction film, television, and literature. As its title suggests, the focus here is on world building which means we may explore the construction of a Nazi 1960s America in The Man in the High Castle one week, political allegory of the Death Star the next, different theories of magic in contemporary fantasy fiction the following week. Most episodes involve interviews with writers, both academic and popular, as well as fans and creative artist. I don’t know of any podcast that gets as deep into the underlying logic of fictional worlds as this one does. Imaginary worlds has dedicated long series of episodes dedicated to various aspects of Star Wars and Harry Potter, but is also done one offs on everything from Octavia Butler, The Golem and the Jenni and The Wizard of Oz. It helps that the host Eric Molinsky in this case came with a history of having worked at Pixar and brings an insider’s take on the creative choices shaping our favorite franchises. And lately, he’s been exploring issues of race and representation in popular media, stepping aside to allow guest hosts of color to describe their relationships to, for example, Last Airbender on their own terms.


Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
features Casper ter Kulle and Vanessa Zoltan, two theologians in training from Harvard, working their way through JK Rowling’s books chapter by chapter and finding a surprising array of spiritual allegories. The two hosts are knowledgeable about the fantasy genre and its fandom and they take the books seriously in terms of exploring why they have been meaningful to so many people. On the one hand, they use the discussions of the books to explore debates about theology and moral philosophy, applying a range of different interpretive strategies just to see what will work. On the other hand, they are moving through the books in a more systematic fashion than any book club would with the result that we come away with much deeper understanding and appreciation of what Rowling accomplished with the series.

Making Oprah is a three-part series which traces the emergence of Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. It touches on all the high points of Winfrey’s career for her debut on local television to her provocative dialogue with a room full of racist whites from Forsyth County, Georgia, through the debut of her highly influential book club, the mass giveaway of automobiles, and her turn toward more spiritual content. This limited series interviews many of the people who shaped Oprah’s career including an unprecedented level of access to the star herself. I’ve never considered myself an Oprah fan but I found myself consistently fascinated by the documentary series’ insights into the rise and fall talk television.

No podcast out there provides as rich and as varied a depiction of contemporary fan culture and politics as Fansplaining does. I may be biased since one of the two hosts, Flourish Klink, is my former student and my son’s professional colleague. But this is where I go to keep abreast of new forms of fan culture and emerging figures in fandom studies. I will be featuring an interview with the two host on my blog later this spring. An underlying strength has been the podcast’s ongoing coverage of the politics of racial diversity within the fan communities, with guests including a fair number of fans and acafans of color. I’m also impressed by the podcast’s ongoing coverage of research dealing with historical roots of today’s fan culture. And Fansplaning has done valiant efforts to expand the range of phantoms under consideration, dealing with fans of sports, games, and popular music alongside fans of genre fiction. Both of the hosts grew up to fandom and maintain strong identification with various corners of the fan communities. Flourish Klink now consults with the media industry as they think through new strategies for interacting with their fans. Elizabeth Minkel is a working journalist often covers fan-related topics during her day job. The result is less polished or rehearsed than some of the more professionally produced podcasts, but it comes from the heart and more importantly from the community.

I am just discovering Black Girl Nerds but so far I’ve been impressed by the scope of the topics it covers and by the originality of perspective it brings the bear on even the most familiar science fiction series. I first encountered it in a search for good discussions of Afrofuturism but my favorite episode so far have been interviews with creative artist such as Marjorie Chiu, the woman behind this years critically acclaimed Monstress series, and Riz Ahmed, the American Muslim actor gaining visibility for his appearances in The Night Of and Rogue One. In both cases, the use of critical race theory brought out aspects of these artists’ work that I’ve not seen in other conversations. Politics of diversity remains a hot button issue both within fandom and fandom studies. Most of the news has been focused on white male backlash against “politically correct” casting decisions. This focus allows the industry to go slow in embracing inclusion for fear of alienating their core market. But one doesn’t have to look far to find discussions like those on this podcast where fandom is way out of front of the creative industries in its call for greater diversity of representation within popular media.

Categories: Blog

A Few of My Favorite Podcasts (Part Two): Cinema

March 3, 2017 - 9:42am

This is part two in a six part series pimping my favorite podcasts. I am happy to hear further suggestions from readers.

 

Popular Culture

It will not surprise anyone who knows me well that I listen to a large number podcasts focused around popular culture, media, and entertainment. The one ring to rule them all is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, which feels like a bunch of really smart and witty friends who get together every week to talk about their most recent discoveries and passions. My personal favorite segment is when they each share “what’s making them happy” that week. This can include anything from a small budget genre film, a pop song, a young adult novel, or an offbeat televisions series. The hosts are unapologetic about the pleasure and joy pop-culture brings them — no “guilty pleasures” here. Don’t get me wrong. These guys can pontificate with the best of them but they do not need to justify or explain away their passion for popular culture. These people know their stuff. My personal favorite is Glenn Weldon, NPR’s resident comics and SF, enthusiast, was published book length studies of Batman and the rise of nerd culture, Superman, and Roger Corman. If you want to hear the program and best, check out their special episode long discussion of Hamilton. For a more typical example, see their discussions of Jane the Virgin and My Crazy Ex-girlfriend, two of my favorite television series. Every so often they do what they call smallbatch episodes which are more focused, often interviews with people like Amy Schumer, Stranger Things‘ Duffer Brothers, The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah, or UnReal‘s Sarah Shapiro. But this also might include their field reports from San Diego comic con, their reactions of Pokémon Go, or something else that just can’t wait.

Cinema

In The Next Picture Show, Keith Phillips, Tasha Robertson, Scott Tobias, and Genevieve Koski, the former editorial team behind The Dissolve, provide a biweekly series focused around contemporary movies and the older films that help to inspire. I hesitate to call the older films classics since they rarely go back before the 1970s. Perhaps we can use the Turner networks phrase — “the New Classics.” The core of the program is in these juxtapositions between old and new. Some are predictable, inevitable, but still fascinating such as the Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Lalaland, Suicide Squad and The Dirty Dozen, or the old and new versions of the Ghostbusters. Some take more reflection such as Memento and Finding Dory. Once they’ve been disdained tackle television as a trace the similarities between the film and television versions of Westworld. These critics go deep with hour-long discussions for each film covering history, technique, genre, characters and themes. The hosts are well-informed and thoughtful without being stuffy or overly technical. They won’t talk over your head but I managed to leave each episode with new insight and often an urge to dig out my DVD versions of the New Classics.

The Cinephiliacs is willing to take things in a much more ponderous direction. Its center of gravity is the realm of academic film studies. The quality of the episodes has everything to do with the quality of the guests, many of whom are old friends and colleagues of mine, such as David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Scott Bukatman, Leah Jacobs, and J Hoberman, though they might also include media makers who have a deep knowledge and passion for their medium. The host Peter Labuza annoys me at least a few times every episode, sometimes coming across as a precocious undergraduate too eager to impress. Once you get to interviews, he does his homework and talks us through interactivity jump key insights and their lifelong love affairs with the cinema. Each interview culminates with an in-depth discussion of a classic film. Here he’s not afraid to go to older and more obscure works. This is where you can enjoy serious conversations about The Tall T, Out of The Past, Daisy Kenyon, How Green Was My Valley, and Only Angels Have Wings.

Somewhere in between is The Canon. Each week the hosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson propose a new title for inclusion on their list of all-time favorite films, providing some justifications for their choices, and allowing their audience to determine the outcome. Sample titles might include The General, Blazing Saddles, or Stand By Me. In short, selections are old and new but nothing that won’t be familiar to the average person with a Netflix account. The discussions are engaging but on the surface as in an extended debate about whether we could make a film like Blazing Saddles in today’s politically correct times or another about the relative virtues of Ringo Starr or George Harrison.

If you want to learn more about film history and in particular Hollywood’s dark and sordid past, let me recommend You Must Remember This which is ever so much better, more substantive, and better informed than we have any right to expect. Keep in mind that I loath the pompous old windbags in armchairs that introduce film classics on television. They generally repeat mythologies that could be disproven by anyone with an undergraduate film studies degree and access to Google. Once my eyes start rolling three or four times per minute, I put them on mute until the movie starts. So I was skeptical when my son shared his excitement about the host Karina Longworth and her hour-long episodes about Silver Screen legends. However, I’ve only caught her in a few howling mistakes – mostly when she tried to describe films she hasn’t seen and no one else has either — for example the sound films of Buster Keaton or the non-horror films of Val Lewton. For the series at its best, check out the season-long 16 part account of the Hollywood blacklist which offers juicy tidbits of gossip one moment and a deep dive into Cold War American politics the next.

I have to confess to being a lifelong obsession with the Oscars. I get much deeper into the weeds about industry buzz than most. I am often the ringer who wins your parties prediction pool year after year.  Little Gold Men is my favorite Oscar prediction podcasts. It is created by the entertainment reporters at Vanity Fair. They use the Oscar prediction frame to focus attention on a broad range of contemporary releases, dealing with everything from the sexual assault charges that largely destroy the chances for Birth of a Nation to the films that won the hearts critics and audiences at the Toronto film Festival. While they focus on the top five or six categories like everyone else, they’re willing to spend time on documentary, animation, or technical categories and if you want to stay competitive, this is what separates the newbies from the pros. They also can provide back story on the negotiations around eligibility such as why Moonlight is competing for best adapted screenplay, why Viola Davis is up for best supporting actress for Fences, or why Arrival was disqualified for musical score.

The Talkhouse Film Podcast is in a league of its own. Each week it brings together two filmmakers, mostly from indie circuit, to engage in a serious but freeform conversation about anything they want. The host get out of the way and let the gas guests interact with each other. So you can geek out with Joe Dante and Max Landis, do some female bonding between Amber Tamblyn and and Aisha Tyler, go goofy with Paul Rubens and Kid Cudi, ponder the nature of the universe with Laurie Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, debate media violence with Abel Ferrara and Gasper Noe, or sound world-weary with Allison Anders and Wim Wenders. Here the quality of the episode rests with the guests and as my descriptions suggest, the tone varies dramatically week by week. Thanks to Jocelyn Kelvin for introducing me to this one.

Film Comment was one of my favorite magazines when I was an undergraduate: every issue yielded intense lunchtime conversations with my cineaste friends as we debated various claims made about the state of contemporary cinema or the value of particular films. I was so happy when Virginia Wright Wexman told me that they had a podcast. This one is full of love of movies, new and old, and there’s an atmosphere of passionate friends getting together to replay old debates and score new points. I am just digging into it, but it is a last minute addition to this post.

I am also now digging into the Aca-Media podcast, produced by the Society of Cinema and Media Studies. Here, the focus is decisively academic, including information about archives and new research initiatives, but along the way, you get to hear smart people sharing their insights about film studies, broadcast history, sound studies, cultural studies, comic studies, game studies, transmedia studies…  I particularly enjoyed a recent oral history interview with Constance Penley, an old friend and an important voice in feminist media studies.

Categories: Blog

A Few Of My Favorite Podcasts (Part One): Intro and Politics

March 1, 2017 - 10:38am

This is the first of a Six Part Series.

Like many of my friends, I became fascinated several years ago with the pleasures of longform audio storytelling as represented by the successful Serial. When that series ended, I found myself searching for other examples of podcasting as an emerging media form, a search that is only intensified as I’ve ended up reviewing a range of podcast and my roles as the jury member for the Peabody Awards. This fall the series of health setbacks left me with more time on my hands, I have fallen even more deeply down that particular rabbit hole. Since I want to share with my loyal readers some of my personal favorites — some of the best examples of contemporary podcast across a range of different genres.

As I reflect on my favorites, I’m still trying to decide what makes a podcast good. People in public radio talk about the driveway moment – times when you have gotten so caught up in a particular story that you do not want to turn off the car engine and come inside. This analogy emerged because of the ways that so many of us listen to radio while driving. We tune into a particular network in search of compelling content as we move around the city and we listen until we reach our destination in most cases. We may form a relationship over time with a particular network or host but for most of us, radio is not an appointment based medium.

The podcast, on the other hand, is an engagement based media. We actively seek out specific series, often searching for them by name at the iTunes Store – which makes it imperative that the podcast offers us something fresh and distinctive, something we will not find anywhere else, something that we will want to return to on a regular basis. In some cases, we are pulled towards niche content, shows that address underserved audiences, shows of narrower but more intense interest than can be supported on broadcast radio. This focus on specialized interest reflects the relatively open market of podcasting today. There are growing number of companies such as Panoply that focus on podcasts. Podcasts are emerging from public institutions such as the Smithsonian Institution which has made a major commitment to public outreach. NPR and PRI are developing podcasts as extensions of their existing programs and as a farm league for emerging personalities. But there also a wealth of grassroots and independent producers working in the space. I’m especially interested, for example, in various fan communities as early adapters and active users of this platform to share content that thrives here but would never reach the airwaves. And we’re seeing rich examples of podcast producers that serve the needs of racial ethnic and sexual minorities including for example American Muslims.

Not only must the podcast provide me distinctive content that I will actively seek out on a recurring basis but the host has to be someone with whom I want to establish a more intimate relationship. The radio host comes to the speaker in my car. I tend to listen to podcasts through my ear buds as I ride the bus, as I walk around downtown Los Angeles, as I’m laying in bed next to my sleeping wife during my frequent bouts of insomnia. For me to want to engage them in this way, the host has to adopt a different tone of voice and a different kind of address than a broadcaster might. I don’t want deep booming voices — I want something that is more casual and conversational. I will listen to a single person tell me a story via podcast in a way that I expect multiple voices and perspectives on a typical radio broadcast.

Each of the examples I am sharing here the six cell by these two criteria – distinctive content and a compelling host that I enjoy spending time with.

How do you identify good podcasts? Well, apart from personal rec list like this one, you can sample from the featured podcast from top charts at the iTunes Store. I certainly try to be aware of the shows generating the most buzz at iTunes but many of my favorites are lower ranking shows that I would never find by that means. A fair number of the shows referenced here were brought to my attention by The Big Listen, an NPR podcast which showcases other podcasts. Each week its host Lauren Ober showcases 5-10 different programs, each organized by shared interests. Sometimes she interviews the host of top-rated programs and ask them to recommend other interesting shows in their space. She also offers her own reviews of programs she finds engaging. Her tastes are eclectic but also refined. I’ve ended up sampling two or three programs from most of her episodes and I found many of my favorite off the beaten path examples in this way. So The Big Listen is an ideal starting point if you want to explore the variety the contemporary podcasting offers.

Politics

Through the fall, a good portion of my podcast listening was bound up with the election. I sought regular updates from NPR’s Politics podcast, which during the closing weeks of the campaign was posting new episodes every night, offering contexts for today’s top stories but also going beyond the headlines. A strength of the series is its responsiveness to listener questions, which often encourages the reporters to provide a fuller explanation of how the political system operates than what we found on the evening news. A common complaint is that American journalism offers few points of entry for first-time voters. I can’t say that this podcast fully addresses that problem but it goes a long way towards offering a more transparent version of the US political system while also digging deeply enough to provide new insight for us more hard-core politicos. The podcast output has slowed down twice a week through the transition and the early days of the Trump regime. But they offer more intense updates when breaking stories demand them.

Some of the best podcast this past year provide in-depth interviews with key political figures, not only the candidates but also their campaign managers and advisors and score journalists and commentators. My favorite was Politico’s Off Message. Veteran reporter Glenn Thrush (who recently left the series) digs deep through interviews with key players from both the Republican and Democratic parties. I stress this ideological diversity because so many podcasts like blogs or online news sites start with partisan bias. But here, my favorites are often conservative figures such as Donald Trump’s current Atty. Gen. nominee Jeff Sessions, Trump advisor Roger Stone, House Speaker Paul Ryan, right-wing talk show host Hugh Hewett, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. His interviews help me to understand who these people are and what motivates the positions they advocate, even where we fundamentally disagree. Thrush’s questioning is rigorous but also cordial and open-minded. The picture that emerges could not be more different from the shouting matches many of these figures engage with on cable news networks. Thrush also explores emerging figures on the left – from current Democratic National Committee chair candidate Keith Ellison to the Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, from rapper Chuck D to New York Sen. Kristin Gillibrand. He also takes us behind-the-scenes to get to know other journalists such as Nate Silver better.

There are other great interview podcast in the political space – for example check out The Axe Files with Obama adviser David Axelrod. Axelrod has great conversations with cultural figures such as Hamilton‘s Lin – Manuel Miranda or Van Jones. But Axe tends to focus on left of center guest and thus I find fewer surprises here then on Off Message. The number of conservative and Republican guests has picked up a bit since the election season.

Another interview series I would recommend would be Candidate Confessional which features in-depth briefings with former presidential and Senate candidates about what went wrong for them on the campaign trail. Among my favorites here are exchanges with Martin O’Malley, Howard Dean, Anthony Weiner and Michele Bachmann, each of whom are much more frank on this podcast that I’ve seen them in other venues.

For those of you who are interested in the history of American politics I have two recommendations – Presidential and Whistle Stop. Across the past year Presidential‘s Lillian Cunningham from the Washington Post has produced a profile of each of the countries presidents down through Donald Trump. For each episode, she interviews key archivist especially the Library of Congress and draws insights from the deep bench of political reporters and history buffs at the Post. Cunningham is at her best when digging into some of the characters than most often are overlooked in our history classes. So check out her account of the disputed election that brought Rutherford B Hayes to the White House, of the complex and secretive emotional life of James Buchanan — our only bachelor president, of the tragedy that surrounded the administration of Franklin Pierce and so forth. She often ask historians what it would’ve been like to go on a blind date with these guys which can seem awkward and inane but often yields rich insights into their personalities.

Slate’s Whistlestop shares an in-depth account of a key moment from the history of presidential campaigns. Host John Dickerson often selected his stories to draw parallels to the contemporary campaign. So for example he uses Ross Perot, Barry Goldwater, and George Wallace to explain the rise of Donald Trump. He prepares us for the debates by discussing Gerald Ford’s biggest gaffe in debate history. He dipped into 19th century campaign history with for example accounts of the disintegration of the Whig party or of the charges that Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child. But he’s at his best when he can fold in a few soundbites as he does effectively in his account of Mario Cuomo’s status as the front runner who refused to jump into the race, of John F. Kennedy’s attempts to address concerns about his Catholicism during the West Virginia primary, or the prolonged struggle at the Republican national convention between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Dickinson is such a compelling storyteller that you listen with baited breath to accounts of events you already know well. He offers insights into cultural context also — for example, how Betty Ford emerges a feminist First Lady. As the campaign concluded, the pace has slowed but he’s beginning to share stories of presidential administrations, again using history to provide background for current events.

Next Time: Cinema

Categories: Blog

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