film – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Hindi Cinema: Coming Soon To A Tweet Near You Thu, 13 Aug 2015 11:00:51 +0000 Post by Sripana Ray, The Telegraph, Calcutta

This post continues the ongoing From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor, Sripana Ray, completed her PhD in the department in 2014.

BVRosieAs part of my current job, I recently did an ethnographic study, looking at how young, urban, middle-class Indians—the target audience group for the entertainment portal The Telegraph is about to launch—engage with online spaces. The two key conclusions that we drew from the several interviews we conducted in cities such as Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore were that India’s young, urban media consumers only look for instant information and that they use that information to realize their aspirations for a better lifestyle. As several of the respondents stated, that information—whether on politics, sports or films—is chiefly consumed on laptops, tablets and smartphones. There is no denying that with the proliferation of media technologies, this is the age of instant gratification–instant download, instant messaging, an Instagrammed world that needs to be made instagood.

The producers of contemporary Hindi commercial cinema have accommodated this generation’s immediate needs by reaching out through various online channels, especially social networks. Online discourses, particularly the ones conducted by film stars, give consumers of Hindi films a sense of belonging to the carefully constructed “real world” of these stars, feeding and fostering consumers’ aspirations.

Promotions of Hindi films routinely occur on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms. Strangely enough, in the promotion exercise, there is a sense of fragmented gratification. The process has several stages, starting with the unveiling of the first look, usually a poster, followed by the release of the soundtrack and trailers. For some films, as was the case with Piku (Shootjit Sircar, 2015), a trailer is produced for the trailer—both of which were released on social media first. Thus, the Hindi commercial film becomes, to modify Tom Gunning’s term slightly, a cinema of staggered attractions.  (To view the clip below, click on the link to YouTube that appears after hitting the play button.)

The prefigurative route of assigning meaning to films, diverting from a strictly textual approach, has been a subject of growing interest among scholars. Martin Barker, in his article “News, Reviews, Clues, Interviews and Other Ancillary Materials,” notes that prefigurative materials or secondary texts, which include posters, trailers, reviews and interviews, “shape in advance the conditions under which interpretations of films are formed”[1]. These materials can give the audience a preview of what they would see and thus generate “expectations of pleasures,” or they might help form opinions about a particular film. These expectations and opinions, in turn, contribute to the construction of meaning of cinematic texts. The teaser of Piku, which shows the protagonists bantering about the quality of the upcoming trailer, gives viewers a hint about the characters’ personalities and the relationship they share, which is the premise of the film.

A central factor in the promotion of a Hindi commercial film is the star. In India, a film is labelled a blockbuster even “before the camera rolls,”[2] according to Andrew Willis. This means that the expectation of success determines the blockbuster status of a film. The elements that inspire such expectation include the director, the producer and the music composer, but most importantly the actors. The use of stars as a vehicle for promotion has evolved with time, primarily because of the public exposure stars get on television and online. The traditional methods of marketing a film, which included publishing and broadcasting sketchy information and gossip about film stars, have given way to a proper and more personal dialogue between actors and their audiences, abetted by the stars themselves. Through their Facebook and Twitter profiles, they talk about the films in which they star and give details about their personal relationships. In this sense, stars’ role in film prefiguration and promotion has now become much more direct. It is as if the stars have stepped out of the big screens to form an alternate narrative through an online discourse with fans that offers a glimpse of their “real” lives—the “reality” that these stars choose to reveal. It is a virtual transmission of projected reality.

Another strand of the promotional machinery becoming increasingly evident is the enmeshing of film stars’ virtual and real lives. Stars change their Twitter handles to the names of their characters in films–for example in Bombay Velvet (Anurag Kashyap, 2015) and Dil Dhadakne Do (Zoya Akhtar, 2015).

Bombay Velvet

Anushka Sharma tweets about Bombay Velvet and displays her film character’s name prominently.

The Bombay Velvet trailer was released on Twitter, as was the soundtrack. As displayed in the image above, the film’s lead actress, Anushka Sharma, put the name of her character, Rosie Noronha, above her Twitter handle. The lead actor, Ranbir Kapoor, does not have a Twitter account. But his father, Rishi Kapoor (also an actor though not part of Bombay Velvet), ensured Ranbir Kapoor’s presence on the social network by continuously tweeting about him.

Actor Rishi Kapoor tweets about his film-star son.

Actor Rishi Kapoor tweets about his film-star son.

For viewers, the public preview of stars’ private lives stimulates what Barker calls “expectations of pleasures.” However, the process of generating these pleasures is almost exclusively geared towards English-speaking audiences in urban India, especially with the Internet’s rising importance in this process. While the Internet can increase direct, close contact with the audiences, the interaction is meant for a particular section of the audience. Blogs, social networking and online gaming are all designed for urban audiences with Internet access and a requisite knowledge of English, since the web discourse is conducted solely in English.

The increasing use of English in discourses surrounding Hindi commercial cinema appeals to its consumers’ global aspirations. English proficiency constitutes symbolic capital that aids in the exhibition of urban, middle-class status and in gaining access to it. The cultural currency of education in, or at least knowledge of, the English language has emerged as a primary tool shaping middle-class identities and aspirations. It is also one that the Hindi commercial film industry increasingly uses as an essential mode of signification as it actively tries to draw the urban middle classes.

According to Janet Staiger, “the reception of the film by the spectator is determined by the object, not the spectator.”[3] But how does the object function at a particular time and for particular people? Staiger argues that a specific object, in this case a film, cannot be consumed in the same way by a group of viewers since “individuals have multiple (albeit socially constructed) identities.” But these self-identities are shaped by certain historical and social agencies such as nationality, class and gender that homogenize certain facets of identity, which in turn creates a collective consciousness. In developing India, the way secondary texts affect processes of viewing and the collective consciousness of Hindi commercial-cinema audiences is being recast through a continuous modernization exercise.

[1] Martin Barker, “News, Reviews, Clues, Interviews and Other Ancillary Materials — A Critique and Research Proposal,” Scope, February 2004 (

[2] Andrew Willis, “Notes on the Hindi Blockbuster, 1975 to the Present,” in Movie Blockbusters, ed. Julian Stringer (New York: Routledge, 2003), 257.

[3] Janet Staiger, Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 51.



Ongoing 3.11 Disaster and Recovery and Japan’s Mediascape Mon, 22 Jun 2015 16:40:44 +0000 3-11

Post by Rayna Denison (University of East Anglia) and Hiroko Furukawa (Tohoku Gakuin University)

This post is part of a partnership with the International Journal of Cultural Studies, where authors of newly published articles extend their arguments here on Antenna. 

On the morning of March 12th 2011, we awoke in the UK to news of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that had swept across the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu the previous day. From there, the news worsened with an unfolding nuclear disaster, as the Fukushima nuclear power plant was revealed to be in meltdown, requiring the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the surrounding area. Whole towns simply disappeared. Nearly 20,000 people are now known to be dead with thousands more missing, and hundreds of thousands of people have been left without homes. Amidst this devastation, our article asks how Japan’s fiction media producers responded to the mood and needs of audiences across the Japanese archipelago.

The 3.11 disaster, as it would come to be called, has been the fastest and perhaps most highly mediated disaster in Japan’s history, and the extensive news coverage has be paralleled by the attempts of media producers to just as rapidly tell stories about, and help with the healing process around, the earthquake and its aftermath. We therefore investigated the importance of Japan’s story media to audiences struggling to deal with the consequences of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 3.11.

himizu 1We have found an ongoing discourse about trauma, healing, and recovery in media ranging from manga to anime and film. Although this in itself may not surprise, the speed with which Japan’s media producers and creators have moved from issues of disaster to those debates around healing and recovery is remarkable. The disaster physically changed Japan’s media, causing everything from paper shortages to necessitating new, ad hoc cinema construction. It also shifted attention towards new media production, with popular manga including Weekly Shōnen Jump being made available online in new experimental ways. Beyond problems in production and distribution, the 3.11 disaster also highlighted the growing importance of social media in Japan, with popular Tohoku-region manga artists and filmmakers announcing their survival via Twitter and personal websites.

The story worlds of Japan’s media were also reshaped by the disaster. Broadcasters re-edited popular anime television shows to remove potentially upsetting content, while filmmakers like Sion Sono scrambled to re-design the content of their films to reflect the impact of the disaster on Japan’s mediascape. Sono was one of the first to include real footage of the tsunami-struck northern areas, making them part of the psychologically-scarred landscape of his film Himizu (2012). Likewise, media producers attempted to raise awareness and help with relief by synergistically combining popular releases with exhibition and performances in the affected region. For example, Japan’s biggest animation company, Studio Ghibli, did advance screenings of their film From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) within the disaster-stricken areas, and many pop stars put on free concerts to raise awareness and provide relief for those affected.

storiesSince those early moments, though, there have been increasing numbers of film documentaries attempting to reflect on the disaster, and there have been numerous manga that have also acted to document personal accounts of disaster and recovery. Some media producers, like those behind the multiple volumes of Stories from 311 are actively helping to raise funds for the relief effort, whereas other manga authors are providing “iyashi-kei” or healing-style accounts of the events. In these ways, Japan’s fiction-oriented media producers have inherited the work of the Japan’s news media, and are continuing to produce media with the aim of keeping the 3.11 disaster, and relief efforts associated with it, in consumers’ minds. A good example would be Ryoichi Kimizuka’s film Reunion (Itai: Asu e no Tōkakan, 2013), a populist film about the treatment of the dead in the wake of the tsunami, which was produced by powerful television executive Chihiro Kameyama. Based on news stories from the time, the film both recounts the disaster as memory, while emphasising the disaster’s ongoing significance within Japan’s national culture.

[For the full article, see Hiroko Furukawa and Rayna Denison, “‘Disaster and Relief: The 3.11 Tohoku and Fukushima Disasters and Japan’s Media Industries,” published in International Journal of Cultural Studies, March 2015, vol. 18 no. 2:]


Monty Python’s Life of Brian, British Local Censorship, and the “Pythonesque” Thu, 07 May 2015 11:00:51 +0000 Post by Kate Egan, Aberystwyth University, UK

K Egan Image 1 Life of Brian posterThis is the sixth installment in the ongoing “From Nottingham and Beyond” series, with contributions from faculty and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media. This week’s contributor, Kate Egan, completed her PhD in the department in 2005.

In the last five years, there has been a new burst of research activity around British film censorship (Barber 2011; Kimber 2011; Kramer 2011; Simkin 2011; Lamberti 2012). Much of this work has benefitted, in terms of primary source material, from the recent opening up of the British Board of Film Classification’s files from the last century. This post illustrates what can be learned about the – to date – under-explored area of British local censorship through consultation of British film-related archives (the BBFC archive, as well as local newspaper resources at the British Library). I will focus here on the British local censorship history of a film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), that has been consistently lauded, by critics and audiences, as one of the best comedies of all time, but which was given extensive –possibly unprecedented – levels of coverage in the local British press in late 1979 and early 1980.

In August 1979, the BBFC decided to grant Life of Brian an AA certificate (suitable for age fourteen and over) without cuts, a decision made after the BBFC had obtained legal advice on whether the film might be legally blasphemous. This issue was of particular concern after the British publication Gay News was prosecuted for blasphemous libel in 1976, but the BBFC had received reassurance that Life of Brian was not blasphemous in a legal sense. Indeed, in a BBFC bulletin sent to local councils throughout Britain in early 1980, the BBFC defended and explained its decision in relation to the social role and license of comedy, noting that the film’s potential to induce “a degree of irreverent scepticism in its audience” was “surely permissible in a democratic society.”

According to documents in the BBFC archives, however, by mid-1980, eleven councils had banned Life of Brian from their constituencies, 28 had altered the film’s certificate from an AA to an X Certificate, and 62 had screened the film but eventually decided to uphold the BBFC’s AA certificate. Consequently, and as Sian Barber has illustrated in Censoring the 1970s (2011), this flurry of local activity, controversy and debate around Life of Brian led to the film becoming an illuminating test case for the effectiveness of local film censorship in the UK at the end of the 1970s.

Over the last five years, after consulting newspaper clippings in the Life of Brian file in the BBFC archives I’ve been searching for further local newspaper articles, news reports, editorials and readers’ letters from areas of the UK where the film was banned or considered for banning. This post draws on issues that have emerged from this initial research, relating to debates in five local newspapers in particular:

  1. The Harrogate Advertiser, which covered the process and reactions to the banning of the film unseen by Harrogate Council’s Film Selection Sub-Committee in November 1979;
  1. The South Wales Evening Post, which covered the banning of the film by Swansea City Council in February 1980;
  1. The Dudley Herald, which covered the process whereby the town’s Environmental Health committee watched the film and then upgraded it from an AA to an X certificate in February 1980 (ultimately leading it to be banned in Dudley, as the film’s distributor, CIC, refused to allow the film to be screened in localities where a change to the original BBFC certificate was requested);
  1. The Exeter Express and Echo, which covered the process whereby the film was viewed by the city council in March 1980, but then kept its certificate at an AA;
  1. The Thanet Times, which covered the process whereby the film (in Thanet and Margate in Kent) was first banned unseen by the council in December 1979, before having its AA certificate reinstated in February 1980.

What comes through clearly when exploring these press debates is that the local controversies around the film could be seen – drawing on Annette Kuhn’s arguments in Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality (1988) – to have a number of productive consequences. Indeed, the local censorship fuss around the Life of Brian issue was hugely beneficial in generating heightened publicity for the film. Feeding into this was the fact that local people in areas where the film had been banned, or where it was likely to be banned, were organizing hired bus trips to adjacent areas where the film was being screened. K Egan Image 2 Thanet TimesAfter the film was passed for screening in Exeter, for instance, the Exeter Express and Echo noted that screenings of the film in one Exeter cinema were attracting full houses every night and that the film was likely to run for fifteen weeks or more. The cinema’s manager attributed the crowds to the publicity the film had received and the consequent busloads of people coming to Exeter screenings from East Devon and Plymouth, where the film had been banned (April 24, 1980, p. 17). This also led, according to the Harrogate Advertiser, to the film being promoted in some areas as “the film that’s banned in Harrogate” (December 1, 1979, p. 3). In cinemas in the Thanet district, the film was promoted, after the initial council ban was overturned, with the slogan “Have you seen Monty Python’s Life of Brian – Thanet District Council Have!” (Thanet Times, June 17, 1980, p. 10).

The local furor over Life of Brian had other kinds of productive consequences. It is evident, on analyzing local newspaper reports across the first half of 1980, that, while the initial debate related to the film’s potential to be seen as blasphemous or to offend those in the local community with strongly held religious convictions, ultimately the split between those who wanted to ban the film and those who opposed a ban was characterized, in the local press, as a split between the old and out-of-touch and the young and cine-literate. Consequently, the decision to ban Life of Brian unseen in areas such as Harrogate was deemed – by the local newspaper, certain councillors, and those writing to the newspaper to protest – as illustrating the outmoded, bureaucratic, archaic values of the council members who had the power to make such judgements on local public morals, values and taste relating to the cinema.

For a letter-writer in Dudley, the council had shown, through its decision, that it was “out of touch with the needs of teenagers” (Dudley Herald, February 22, 1980), while in a Harrogate Advertiser report, a teacher in Harrogate noted that the local ban had aroused resentment among “quite serious and intellectual sixth formers in Harrogate” (March 22, 1980, p. 1). Indeed, what is particularly revealing about this old/young split in the Life of Brian debate was that local young people’s protests against local councils tended to cross religious and political lines. According to the Thanet Times, for instance, the group (pictured below left) protesting against the council ban on the film included the chairmen of, respectively, the local Young Conservative and Young Socialist groups (January 22, 1980, p. 1), while this picture (below right) shows Swansea’s young liberals protesting the Life of Brian ban outside Swansea City Council (February 19, 1980, p. 3). In addition, the Dudley Herald published a letter from a Dudley West Young Conservatives representative, who noted that they had formed their own protest group against the ban, with the name SPAM: Society for the Prevention of the Abolition of Monty.

times+evening post

Also revealing is the way local press reports draw on a form of Pythonesque humor as a resource to highlight the anachronistic, undemocratic or bureaucratic nature of local council decisions. This humor manifests itself in two key ways. Monty Python is frequently used as a reference point to highlight the farcical nature of council decisions. For instance, in response to the news that Dudley Council’s decision to upgrade Life of Brian’s certificate to an X meant that the distributors would bar the film from being shown at all, a Dudley Herald editorial noted that the local saga around the film “had developed into a bigger farce than the film itself” (February 15, 1980, p. 4). The fact that the banning of the film locally had led many to go to see the film in other areas is also frequently related to Pythonesque humor. As one letter-writer noted in the Harrogate Advertiser, “perhaps the Committee could spend a little time conscience-searching and ask themselves how many of the young people who have travelled to other towns to see this film did so because of the excessive publicity given by their inept bungling of the whole issue. Monty Python would be highly amused” (February 23, 1980, p. 3).

A second tactic was to write letters to local newspapers in the Pythonesque satirical mode of, to quote Marcia Landy, a “disgruntled, morally offended patron.”[1] For instance, a letter to the Harrogate Advertiser noted that “I write in praise of our great and good councillors for their splendid and timely action in banning Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Not since the Emperor Nero has such a threat been posed against Christianity as presented by this film, which I have not actually seen. There is no doubt that, were it to be shown in Harrogate, Christian Civilisation as we know it would vanish overnight, old ladies would be sold to white slavers, there would be human sacrifice on the Stray, and blood-crazed mobs of perverted young people would burn our churches to the ground. Only the brave action of our council, which knows what is best for us, has saved our community from universal chaos” (November 24, 1979, p. 12).

In terms of the impact of such tactics, as the local furor around the film began to die down in July 1980, the BBFC sent a letter to all local councils expressing concerns about what the issue had revealed about the UK’s local censorship system. In 1979, the Williams Committee report on Obscenity and Film Censorship had proposed the scrapping of local authority censorship powers in Britain (a news item subsequently debated at length by the local newspapers I’ve consulted). This illustrates the way local protests about ill-informed, out-of-touch councillors, and the use of Pythonesque humor to pinpoint their ineffectiveness and inefficiency, impacted on national conceptions of the local censorship process at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.

In Marcia Landy’s discussion of Monty Python’s cult status, she notes that Monty Python’s Flying Circus had “used television […] to satirize […] social institutions,” including “the state’s administration of social life,” and that this had occurred at a time, the late 1960s, “of worldwide cultural transformation, opening the door to critical approaches to authority and to gendered, generational, sexual, national and regional identity.”[2] In this sense, the processes and events I’ve outlined illustrate how the Python members themselves – and their role in providing tools for the critique of systems of authority, established thought and their potential hypocrisies – performed a crucial social and political function for protestors of the Life of Brian ban throughout the UK at this time.


[1] Marcia Landy, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” in David Lavery (ed.), The Essential Cult TV Reader (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), p. 172.

[2] Ibid., pp. 166-167.


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On Tim Burton’s Dumbo Thu, 19 Mar 2015 14:00:57 +0000 Burton DumboLast week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Tim Burton would direct a remake of Dumbo (1941) using a mix of CGI and live action. Of course, this isn’t the first time Burton has remade one of Disney’s animated “classics.” Alice in Wonderland was released in 2010 to critical indifference and a box office bonanza of $1 billion; a sequel is planned for 2016. While the Dumbo pairing thus makes obvious commercial sense, it has occasioned eye-rolling humor (the obvious joke, that Johnny Depp would play the titular elephant, was retold ad nauseam on Twitter) and reactionary outrage at the sullying of a beloved classic. It has also renewed a widely-expressed concern that Burton, the object of a fervent cult for his “dark, gothic, macabre, and quirky” films, has become terminally compromised by his association with Disney and his fixation on remakes. The A.V. Club lamented that a “director once known for his startlingly original vision” is “now known for his limp adaptations of existing properties.” But putting the question of creative decline aside, Burton’s “vision”—or more concretely, his three-decade career—is defined by a synergy of two broad trends: filmmakers’ devotion to pop-cultural allusions and media corporations’ equally obsessive recycling of intellectual property in an effort to create and sustain franchises.

For the past half-century, American directors have stuffed their films with citations of other films, television shows, and pop-culture artifacts. In his 1982 essay “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond),” Noël Carroll argued that allusion “has become a major expressive device” in American cinema, with many popular films employing a “two-tiered system of communication” in which a subset of the audience appreciates the work as much for its knowing references as for its more familiar “action/drama/fantasy” pleasures. While much American film and television continues to operate on these two levels, subsequent decades have seen a kind of democratizing of allusionism, such that a large portion of the contemporary audience has come to expect and appreciate a weave of cross-references in their popular media. The intricate interconnections of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” no less than Quentin Tarantino’s bricolage testify to this.

BurtonPriceOver the years, Tim Burton’s films have helped to tutor the mass audience in the pleasures of allusionism. His earliest works, even those with “original” premises, rely almost entirely on allusions for their meanings and effects. His stop-motion short Vincent (1982) concerns a boy’s fascination with Vincent Price, particularly the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made for American International Pictures in the 1960s. The live-action Luau (also 1982) pastiches several genres of 1960s drive-in movies. Burton’s first features are less pure instances of allusionism, but only slightly. His breakthrough, Beetlejuice (1988), is a horror-comedy dense with references to The Wizard of Oz, The Fly, and The Exorcist. Edward Scissorhands (1990) might have been pitched as Frankenstein Meets Beauty and the Beast. Mars Attacks! (1997) is a parody of Cold War alien-invasion films.

Adaptations and remakes arguably represent one end-point of this reliance on allusion, and Burton took this short leap early in his career. His critical cachet and attraction to cultural recyclables made him an ideal director for studios’ efforts to revive valuable intellectual property. In 1986, for a rebooted Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Burton re-filmed the 1964 teleplay adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Jar.” Warner Brothers’ Batman (1989) was a landmark in corporate synergy for its integrated marketing and merchandising and for its legacy of comic-book blockbusters. Fox’s Planet of the Apes (2001) was a failed effort to reboot a franchise. Even outside of a blockbuster context, Burton has been drawn to familiar stories with prominent cinematic or televisual intertexts, from Sleepy Hollow (2009; it owes as much to the 1949 Disney animation as to Washington Irving’s story) to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005).

Skeleton DanceBurton’s association with Disney goes back 35 years, to his origins as an animator for the company in the late 1970s. Vincent was, in fact, a Walt Disney Production. His work has exhibited a scholarly devotion to Disney history, as in Corpse Bride‘s quotation of the 1929 Silly Symphony “Skeleton Dance.” The first feature Burton made for the company was Ed Wood (1994), distributed by Disney’s “adult” imprint Touchstone. Although the stuff of Ed Wood’s no-budget films would seem worlds away from Disney’s ethos, Burton’s biopic lightly sanitizes its subject, effecting a willfully ahistorical transformation of what Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Wood’s “miserable, abject failure of a career” into a postmodern “celebration” whose affected innocence is paradoxically a function of the film’s (and tacitly the audience’s) knowingness. In other words, Burton Disney-fies Ed Wood. This operation is akin to the remaking of Uncle Walt himself in 2013’s relatively edgy—for Disney—Saving Mr. Banks, which engages its audience’s knowing skepticism about Disney only to revise and revive his myth, as Mike Budd argues in a recent essay for Jump Cut.

Alice in Wonderland was thus not just a joining of two bAlicerands but a reunion, one that Dumbo will extend. It was also an especially profitable instance of the ubiquitous corporate practice of recycling intellectual property. The Walt Disney Company helped to popularize this strategy in the mid-20th century and has relied upon it more than ever in the 21st; witness their recent acquisitions of the Muppets, Marvel Entertainment, and the Star Wars franchise. Within this broad program of recycled properties is a systematic campaign, often credited to Walt Disney Pictures’ Sean Bailey, to reinvigorate interest in their “legacy” films through a new series of high-profile features. In addition to remakes of Alice, Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Pete’s Dragon (2016), and Dumbo Disney has produced a “re-imagining” of Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent, 2014) and a fictionalized “making-of” Mary Poppins (Saving Mr. Banks). There are a host of other, slightly more ambiguous cases in the works. These films not only generate or promise huge profits. They also turn the settings and characters of discrete stories into franchise fodder. In this context, allusions allow intellectual properties to exfoliate: Sleeping Beauty spins off Maleficent, which spins off a Disney Channel series, and so on. Films like Saving Mr. Banks and Maleficent also serve as feature-length advertisements for Disney’s film library, which had historically been subject to carefully-spaced-out theatrical revivals and then limited DVD and Blu-Ray editions. This new cycle of remakes and other franchise-extenders is, among other things, Disney’s response to a stagnating home-video market.

Disney has sought to validate its remake of Dumbo by reference to Tim Burton’s body of work. The WSJ report, no doubt inspired by a Disney press release, made sure to note that “[c]ircus motifs have been a favorite of Mr. Burton . . . going back to the Red Triangle Circus Gang in his Batman Returns.” This tenuous association appears quaint in light of the deeper connection that Burton has to Disney and the process that has governed his career for at least a quarter of a century: the aesthetic logic of allusionism converging with the corporate logic of franchising.


Interstellar: It’s About Hope, Not Just Science! Tue, 25 Nov 2014 15:00:04 +0000 [Significant plot spoilers for the film Interstellar below.]

Director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar opens with a poignant pan across a bookshelf, showing heavy dust falling atop a toy NASA spaceshuttle, symbolic of the near-future world of the film, where climate change has wrought havoc and people have turned their backs on science. “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are: explorers, pioneers; not caretakers,” pilot-turned-farmer protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) laments. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Perhaps because of this quite clear dialogue with contemporary politics, many critics have attacked Interstellar’s scientific credibility. Nolan has also weighed into this debate, largely defending his science, and scientific advisor Kip Thorne. But picking the film apart for its lack of fidelity to quantum theory or astrophysics is doing the experience of Interstellar a great injustice.

The film is far from perfect. For such a gifted visual storyteller, Nolan frustrates as he insists on joining the dots with unnecessarily clunky dialogue. For all the visual nods to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan refuses to follow Kubrick’s lead and let the cinematography or visual effects speak for themselves. And there’s something about a misunderstood heroic white man from Middle America saving the human race that looks all too familiar.

But Interstellar’s real value is as an exploration of memory, of hope, and of the power of dreaming of a better tomorrow for our kids.

Let’s take the none-too-subtly named Dr Mann (Matt Damon), for example. Continually referred to as the best, brightest, and bravest humanity has to offer, his improbable appearance in the latter half of the film is one of the first truly hopeful moments, only for that to come dramatically crashing down. The fall of Mann provokes a rather chilling conclusion: it’s not just what’s on the inside, but fundamentally human sociality that keeps us who we are, or at least the version of ourselves compatible with contemporary ethics and values. Staring into the abyss long enough and it’s not the abyss looking back: it’s the realisation that extreme solitude and loneliness breaks even the best of us.

The question of what happens in the final moment of life refracts through the film, and it’s how this moment unfurls for Cooper that shifts the meaning of the film.

One interpretation is, of course, literal: that enabled by future-science so far removed from our understanding it’s incomprehensible, Cooper is able to communicate across the barriers of time and space to his now grown daughter and send her the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe, and save all of humanity. And in an improbable footnote, he also somehow finds his way back to her.Interstellar2

Alternatively, if we can give Nolan’s science the benefit of the doubt long enough to get Cooper into the black hole, then that entire final sequence may just be the adrenalin induced final spark of human imagination before it ceases to be. For a film about the power of imagination, what more satisfying reading can there be than the idea that we get to experience futures where we resolve the differences we’ve had with our children, and along the way play a central role in saving everyone?

Science fiction author Arthur C Clarke once noted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”; the magic in Nolan’s film is not science, it’s the imagination.

One of the most heartbreaking early scenes comes as Cooper is chastised by schoolteachers because his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), refuses to accept their ‘updated’ textbooks which explain that the Apollo missions were faked, to trick the USSR into a fatally bankrupting space race. As someone who dreamt of going to the moon, and beyond, as a child, Nolan’s film feels like a total immersion in that exact youthful sense of wonder. A sense of wonder a new generation might just be sharing as they watch the Philae lander touch down on a comet hurtling through space.

Interstellar’s insistence on looking upward, to the stars, to the future, beyond the confines of what we concretely know: this makes the film more than worth your time.

In the final sequence, Cooper awakens in Cooper Station, and presumes it’s named after him. It’s not. It’s named after his daughter, Murphy Cooper. Murphy and Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughters of the supposed great men, are the real heroes of the film. They make the scientific data work, and they save humanity; it’s their dreams which ensure our future. Or, at least, that’s the hope.


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Drive-Ins, and the Stubborn Usefulness of Film Nostalgia Tue, 11 Nov 2014 15:00:11 +0000 drive in theater

Interstellar (2014) made its well-known debut last weekend. In Chicago, the film (yes, we can still call it that) screened in its “intended” format of 70mm at the Navy Pier IMAX. Its appearance there and at other such venues was predictably celebrated by old school cinephiles as yet another defiant declaration of celluloid’s continuing value in a culture of cinema that has increasingly done away with the old medium. Meanwhile, just across the border in the nearby state of Wisconsin, the so-called “end of film” was also marked that same weekend by a very different, less celebrated, event—the closing of the Keno Drive-In in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for the season, and most likely, permanently. In many ways, this was a more apt snapshot of film today—as well as the value in fighting for it—than Christopher Nolan’s high-profile blockbuster.

The arrival of Interstellar did little more than reiterate that celluloid’s use going forward will largely be as a high-end, niche phenomenon (confined to museums more than IMAX). And the rhetoric around film’s aesthetic superiority, frankly, obscures as many important questions in the digital age as highlights (a debate which will continue being pointless given the endlessly shifting technology). But the closing of the Keno—one of hundreds closing down in the last month or so across the United States—is more representative of the digital transition’s impact on the economics of film. Like many independent theatres, drive-ins often cannot afford the expense of converting from older 35mm projectors to digital ones (to say nothing of imminent maintenance costs)—an issue the studios and several major chains have forced by going almost exclusively to distributing movies as Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs).

Honda-Project-Drive-in-Logo“Of the 366 Drive-in theatres left in the United States,” Variety reported in 2012, “only a handful have converted to digital projection; another 10% are expected to convert before this summer.” Last year, this led to “Project Drive-In,” a campaign funding by Honda to provide the funds necessarily for digital conversion to the rare few drive-ins that won a nationwide voting contest (a drive-in in nearby McHenry, Illinois, was one such lucky recipient).

The Keno wasn’t nearly as fortunate—though its situation is admittedly somewhat different. While the operators of the drive-in were willing to cover costs, the shift to DCP is forcing the issue of land repurposing (including the persistent rumor of a certain “Big Box” retail mega-store). The repurposing means that The Keno is a business which risks having a projector—but no screen.

Still the value of the many closing Kenos of the world are worth exploring further—and beyond just the reassuring nostalgia offered by loving tributes such as the Going Attractions (2013) documentary. The digital conversion reveals at least one darker truth underlying the too-often-utopic rhetoric of digital cinema—innovation is not making things “easier” or “cheaper” for most people involved in the many aspects of the movie business today. Studios save considerable expenses on distribution costs, of course. Lisa Dombrowski highlighted how the “digital [conversion] will produce an 80 per cent savings on direct releasing costs [. . .] (a digital print costs between $100 and $300, while a 35mm print averages $1200 to $2000 more).”

Yet these savings have not “trickled down” to the smaller theatres dependent on 35mm—or to the audiences that pay an increasing premium on all tickets. The same can be said of independent filmmakers and others who may benefit from short-term savings in production and distribution, but will also find it increasingly difficult to get recognized or obtain a livable wage. In short, as with all market shifts in the age of late capitalism, this is simply an unsustainable long-term, financial situation.

So, it’s easy enough to look at the rampant nostalgia today surrounding the drive-in’s imminent demise—where all but a small handful will soon be Wal-Marts—and dismiss it as little more than a wistful longing for a bygone era of Americana that’s neither here nor there. Indeed, that does seem to be the city of Kenosha’s “brand,” as it were—a former auto town, with its historic Women’s Professional Baseball League-era stadium, its four museums in a twelve-block radius, its boxcar diner, its countless drive-in restaurants, or its still functioning Streetcar system. But there is also value in how the nostalgia for New Deal liberalism can be less about returning to the past, and more about using that utopic sense of history to shape something better, something more viable, still to come.


Popular Culture and Politics: The Hunger Games 3-Finger Salute in Thai Protests Wed, 04 Jun 2014 13:52:07 +0000 On June 2, 2014, news about protesters in Thailand holding up the Hunger Games 3-finger salute began proliferating across news networks and websites like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Global Post, Quartz and others. Across the coverage, reporters and commenters seem unsure of what to make of political action that draws inspiration from a fictional story. Drawing from my research on popular culture, rhetoric, and fan-based civic engagement, I offer a contextualization for the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In a blog post over at Rhetorically Speaking, I examine how the protesters appropriate the 3-finger salute to signal resistance and critique. Here, I want to offer a framing of the Thai protester’s use of the 3-finger salute by articulating the relationship between popular culture and politics and by placing the Thai protests within a history of fan-based civic engagement.

blog post katniss 3-finger salute

Journalists covering this story have struggled to frame the protests within a broader relationship between popular culture and politics in the real world. Elizabeth Nolan Brown at says, “If I say the phrases Hunger Games and ‘life imitates art’ in the same sentence, you might start to worry. But this is actually an inspiring appropriation of the practices of Panem.” Ryan Gilbey at The Guardian points toward critics’ concerns that films inspire violent copy-cat behavior. Both Brown and Gilbey frame popular culture as a causal mechanism, but in doing so they undermine the agency of actors. This is particularly problematic when popular culture is connected to political action. In these cases, we ought to understand popular culture as resources. We must recognize that popular culture does not cause political action, while also recognizing the incredibly important role popular culture plays in offering up the choices we have for political resources.

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Reporters also seemed to position the Thai protesters’ use of popular culture as relatively uncommon. Gilbey from The Guardian says, “You’d have to go back to the film adaptation of the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, to find a comparable crossover between on-screen behaviour and widespread political iconography.” But the use of popular culture in politics is actually quite common. In fact, Thai protesters aren’t even the first to utilize the Hunger Games 3-finger salute. In 2013, Senator Miriam Santiago from the Philippines used the 3-finger salute in a speech lambasting Senator Enrile in the Senate. The Harry Potter Alliance used the 3-finger salute in its Odds In Our Favor campaign, which critiqued economic inequality, particularly in the US.

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 9.03.51 AMPopular culture has always functioned as resources for politics. For example, Nan Enstad describes how American women factory workers at the turn of the century used dime novels, films, and fashion to come to see themselves as both ladies and workers, and thus as deserving of fair working conditions. These women staged labor protests in unexpected numbers. Today, we see examples ranging from Harry Potter to football. In January 2014, Chinese diplomats used Harry Potter metaphors to make arguments about regional power in Asia. In the fall of 2013, the TeamMates’ Coaches Challenge campaign invited Nebraskan citizens to volunteer to mentor by connecting mentoring with being a Nebraska football fan, beating Kansas, and joining the Nebraskan team. During 2012 and 2013, DC Entertainment led a campaign named “We Can Be Heroes,” calling Justice League fans to donate money to charities working to end hunger in Africa. These are just three examples from this academic year alone. Indeed, there are many more.

What I hope this contextualization provides is a framing that enables us as audience members, reporters, and citizens to take seriously the Thai protesters’ Hunger Games salutes. While not all political appropriations of popular culture are necessarily ethical, desirable, or effective, we cannot dismiss such uses of popular culture out-of-hand. Jonathan Jones at The Guardian takes this problematic approach when he asserts that the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute “reveals something about the bankruptcy of political beliefs in the 21st century.” But Jones is missing the point because he’s got the context all wrong. The protesters aren’t claiming allegiance to the Hunger Games. They are using the symbol of resistance in the Hunger Games as their own, imbuing it with democratic meaning and critiques of the Thai government. Popular culture is a resource, combined and recombined with other resources, appropriated and changed through various performances. This framing is absolutely necessary to understanding the Thai protesters’ use of the Hunger Games salute in a complex and full way.


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I, Reboot (Part II) Tue, 20 May 2014 13:25:31 +0000 Casting off my weak and overused metaphor of a motor vehicle for a moment, I will tell the story of a “word,” and how it semiotically multiplied into a conceptual hubbub of meanings, and why. My thesis deconstructs the reboot term and I shall share with you what I have uncovered. It is not often, if ever, we get to see a word, a single, linguistic seed, evolve from the neologistic birth canal into a semantic formation.

And before you get your knickers all twisted up in a poststructuralist knot, it is necessary to construct definitions before we can even begin to analyse, examine and debate how cultural processes operate. The idea that concepts can be interpreted any which way possible is to misinterpret poststructuralism that suggests that language.

Let’s get down to brass tacks here. The term “reboot” – as in rebooting your computer – is only forty-three years old, its birthday being 1971. Relatively speaking, that’s a squealing, squawking baby! If words could grow legs and arms, reboot couldn’t even clench a fist, let alone walk or run.

ac1Etymologically, a reboot-as-narrative-analogy is even younger, a foetus, a seedling even (1989 is its birthday according to the Oxford English Dictionary). Many have commented that the reboot narrative concept comes from the comic book medium. Indeed it does. But this is where the problems begin, you see? This is where the genre process and rebooting get all entangled and entwined in a Gordian knot of conceptual hodge-podge. Comic books have been rebooting for decades, since “minute zero,” as Michael Chabon calls the publication of Action Comics #1 which introduced the world to Superman in 1938.

Not true.

To be sure, comic books have always sufficiently engaged in periodic revisions, regenerations and reformations. As Geoff Klock has argued, one of the principle reasons why long-running vast narratives, such as DC and Marvel, have managed to expand and enhance their brand “life” is by delicately dancing the dialectic between standardisation and differentiation to great effect as an elemental part of their survival code, a kind of Darwinism, a natural (textual) selection.

This is how all texts operate and not a description of the reboot process. “Mere repetition would not satisfy an audience,” claims Steve Neale. I concur, Steve. For Derek Johnson, “product differentiation is the key to profit.” Well said, Derek. Or, as Stringer Bell would no doubt say: “word” (which is cool-talk for “definitely,” or so I am led to believe).

What, then, is a reboot, I hear you ask?

In 1986, DC Comics sought to purge their labyrinthine story-program of continuity errors and a narrative history that deterred potential “newbies” from jumping on-board. Sales had been declining rapidly for over a decade and Marvel “ruled the roost.” A twelve-part mini-series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, was the answer to their problems. Annihilate the DC Universe and start over from scratch. In short, reboot the system. Wipe away a publication history and begin again with a new story-program.


To be sure – and I do not mince my words here – engaging with the DC comic book hyperdiegesis at that time could not have been helped by three PhDs in Quantum Physics, a Macarthur Grant and a five-year long sabbatical from life, the universe and nutritional necessity! Douglas Wolf describes fans who can successfully navigate the chaotic contours of the DC and Marvel hyperdiegetic continuities as “super-readers.” I think this does them a disservice. Comic book readers of the 1980s who consumed and understood the continuity are nothing less than geniuses, gurus, veritable professors of alternate realities and monstrous geographies. I say award them MBEs, each and every one of them. Stick ‘em in a laboratory and watch them create the time machine. Hell, throw in a Delorean, let’s see life really imitate art….

spider-manThe notion that comic books have been rebooting since its inception is misleading and fallacious. One technique which DC and Marvel have adopted over the years is that of the “ret-con,” an abbreviation of “retroactive continuity.” A ret-con retroactively changes continuity by altering the details of an event in the past to make sense of a current storyline. Sometimes this technique can be extreme, such as the Spider-Man arc, One More Day, which ret-conned Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s marriage out of continuity – and created a fan backlash in the process for good reason: it was just too darn silly!

It is not only comics that engage in ret-conning. If anyone remembers Dallas, and the infamous season where Bobby Ewing is killed and is miraculously resurrected the following year. How did he return? It was all a dream! This ret-con wiped away an entire season’s worth of episodes in one fell swoop. Of course, it was all downhill from there and Dallas had “jumped the shark.”

bobby ewing

A ret-con is not a reboot. A reboot wipes away a publication history or, in film or television, a screen history and begins again with a new syntagmatic layer.

Of course, rebooting can never truly wipe the slate clean. The slate is a palimpsest and contains all the traces and ghosts of previous incarnations. However, we can see (hypothetically) intertextuality and dialogism spiralling along a horizontal axis – the paradigmatic – and the story itself unfolding sequentially along a vertical axis which is the syntagm. Intertextuality may “destroy the linearity of the text,” as Laurent Jenny argues, but linearity is still preserved. I prefer to understand narrative as a dialectic between linearity and non-linearity, chaos and order, paradigm and syntagm. Intertextuality vandalise the text while at the same time readability is guaranteed. As Mark J.P Wolf states, “without causality, narrative is lost.”

Next time, I shall illustrate how the reboot terminology has been marshalled by academics and journalists in ill-conceived ways, one which has birthed a buzz word – fuzz-word even – that has set in motion a range of non-sequiturs.


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I, Reboot (Part 1) Thu, 08 May 2014 14:00:09 +0000 Following the completion of The Dark Knight Trilogy in 2012, director Christopher Nolan stated: “It’s a sign of how quickly things change in the movie business. There was no such thing conceptually speaking as a ‘reboot.’ That’s new terminology.” Au contraire, Mr. Nolan! Seven years earlier, on the eve of Batman Begins’ worldwide release, co-writer David S. Goyer said that after the catastrophic failure of Batman and Robin (which effectively forced the film series into cultural purgatory for eight years):

[I]t was necessary to do what we call in comic book terms “a reboot”… Say you’ve had 187 issues of The Incredible Hulk and you decide you’re going to introduce a new Issue 1. You pretend like those first 187 issues never happened, and you start the story from the beginning and the slate is wiped clean, and no one blinks…So we did the cinematic equivalent of a reboot, and by doing that, setting it at the beginning, you’re instantly distancing yourself from anything that’s come before. (Goyer, quoted in Greenberg, 2005: 13 – 14)

Upon closer examination of Nolan’s statement, however, we can see that he expressly states that a reboot is “new terminology” in the “movie business.” To some extent, then, Nolan is correct. The principle of rebooting did not exist as a film concept prior to Batman Begins which influenced other producers to follow the conceptual conceit. It was burrowed deep within the cultural ghetto of the comic book medium.

What is a reboot, then? This is the overarching question of this series of articles and one which I have been wrestling with for six years or so (yes, I possess nothing you could unequivocally describe as “a life”).

i reboot

A reboot is an economic and narrative strategy that ignores or disavows a pre-established series of texts to inaugurate a new narrative sequence, a beginning again. Despite what journalists, academics, and other commentators would have you believe, a reboot is not a prequel, a sequel, or a remake. A reboot can also be a remake or an adaptation – all reboots remake or adapt, to a greater or lesser extent; but not all remakes or adaptations are reboots. Prequels, sequels, and other derivations are all part of an “already-existing narrative sequence” (Wolf, 2012). Simply put, if new episodes in the story architecture are installed onto an “ongoing, aggregate content system” (Johnson, 2013), then this is not rebooting. Conversely, then, a reboot is a syntagmatic disconnect (with the proviso that reboots always enter into dialogic relations with other texts along the paradigmatic axis).

Over the past six years or so, I have been researching the reboot phenomenon in comic books and film; firstly, for my undergraduate final dissertation – which was also my first peer-reviewed publication – and then extended into a PhD thesis which I am putting the finishing touches to as we speak. My first encounter with the reboot terminology came in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins as the word came to be increasingly used in popular film and TV magazines in the UK, such as Empire and Total Film, to describe an array of contradictory texts, many of which did not qualify as reboots at all. Indeed, the study of reboots has been made all the more frustrating by a kind of semantic fashion which I have tracked and mapped by consulting journalistic paratexts over the course of the past fifteen years to examine precisely when the terminology came to be in vogue. Following the success of Batman Begins and, more notably, The Dark Knight, the reboot terminology semantically exploded as a buzz-word, a fuzz-word even. This may sound like hyperbole, but let me assure you, I have many more examples populating my hard-drive than can be fit within the confines of a single book.

Reboot_BooksI also signed up for Google Alerts, an online service that sends weekly reports to my e-mail account detailing when the term reboot had been used, where and in what context. Since The Dark Knight was released in 2008, I have witnessed the emergence terminological “virus” as the term was first picked up by film journalists, TV critics, console game reviewers, industry personnel, and (the horror! the horror!) academics – and, then, on into the cultural vernacular of the everyday: Obama is rebooting the Presidency; Alex Ferguson is rebooting Manchester United; Reboot your wardrobe, your sex life, your business, your brain, your diet… and so on and so forth ad nauseam.

If I may be so bold and candid, one of the principle reasons why I set out to deconstruct the principle of rebooting was because I was irritated. That may not be the most praise-worthy or legitimate rationale for embarking on a research project that (let’s be honest here!) eats into a significant chunk of your life, if not consuming it in one hearty calorific meal.

Why was I irritated? Well, these journalists (and eventually scholars, too) were using the terminology incorrectly and incoherently. So I decided to look under the hood of the car, and investigate the engine, the cultural and linguistic mechanics, to see what was going on. The premise of this series of articles is to explain what I discovered “under the hood.”



Exploring True/False Tue, 18 Mar 2014 18:41:57 +0000 True/False Festival Artwork Each winter, as February becomes March, Columbia, Missouri transforms itself into a grand stage for the True/False film fest, a four-day international nonfiction film festival. The fest has grown enormously since it began in 2004, gaining support from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences and building a strong reputation that draws filmmakers and audiences from around the world. This year, Indiewire called True/False “one of the most vital festivals in America;” the A/V Club insisted, “True/False is really one of the great American film festivals, coming close to the platonic ideal of what that term should imply;” and the Dissolve heralded T/F as, “one of the world’s more innovative, well-curated documentary festivals.” The 2014 fest screened 40 films in 8 venues over four days and sold 42,500 tickets. Many of us who reside in Columbia live for T/F weekend: it’s an emotionally-exhausting experience to watch multiple documentaries a day for four days, but you’re guaranteed to leave the fest thinking more deeply about what is true, how cultures evolve, and the strength of the human spirit. A few weeks after this year’s T/F experience, I’m still ruminating about a few films that engaged my curiosity about media influence and impact.

Still from Captivated

See a short interview with the director of Captivated here.

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart was the first film I saw this year. Directed by Jeremiah Zagar and produced by Lori Cheatle, the film blends archived news footage, court room video, a juror’s audio recordings, and contemporary interviews to tell the story of the media fanfare surrounding the 1990 murder of Greggory Smart, and the 1991 trial of his wife, Pamela. The Smarts had only been married for one year when Greggory was murdered; Pamela, 22 at the time, was a media coordinator at the Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire. The investigation of Greggory’s death revealed that he had been killed by three boys from the high school, one of whom Pamela had been sleeping with. The documentary is less about Pamela’s guilt or innocence (she is serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole for being an accomplice to first-degree murder and for conspiracy to commit murder and witness tampering) than it is about her trial’s media coverage.

The story was eagerly covered by local news reporter Bill Spencer (WMUR), who fed off of (and likely abused) Pamela’s enthusiasm for being in the media spotlight. The twists and turns in the case also drew regular national media attention, which evolved into the made-for-TV-movie Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Wojas Smart Story (1991), starring Helen Hunt and Chad Allen, and Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), starring Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon. As Captivated’s title suggests, the film explores how the nation’s fascination with this case contributed to the growth of reality television, and Court TV specifically. Overall, Captivated is an engaging examination of an important TV moment. The documentary will air on HBO later this year.

still from happy valleyHappy Valley, directed by Amir Bar-Lev, echoed a number of Captivated’s themes through a contemporary case with which many Antenna readers are familiar. While the general public may have had its fill of the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal (especially given Dottie Sandusky’s recent appearance on the Today Show), this documentary does not rehash all of the gruesome and disturbing details of the allegations against Sandusky, but focuses instead on how the football culture in College Park, rooted in the cultural icon of Joe Paterno, influenced the way Sandusky’s crimes were understood by Penn State fans. The film builds its story with interviews with Paterno’s sons and widow; an interview with Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt; news footage of the student riot that ensued after Paterno was fired; footage of fans at Joe Paterno’s bronze campus statue, a famous College Park mural, and Paterno’s home; and an interview with a die-hard Penn State fan who chose to transfer to another school after the NCAA imposed unprecedented sanctions against Penn State. Happy Valley takes Sandusky’s guilt as fact, but raises questions about how Penn State’s football culture both enabled Sandusky to continue to abuse young men years after he was reported to Penn State administrators and emboldened fans to support Paterno (“JoePa”) despite his own complicity with Sandusky’s terrible actions. The film ultimately paints a complex portrait of fan culture in the aftermath of a crisis.

I could continue describing the other fabulous films I saw at True/False this year (if only their was space to discuss Cynthia Hill’s Private Violence, Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s Rich Hill, Kitty Green’s Ukraine is Not a Brothel, and Errol Morris’ Unknown Known!), but suffice it to say that each year, the film fest’s offerings, like the great tradition of documentary film-making, question, provoke, disturb, and transform its audiences—and keep us coming back for more. Although you may be unable to travel to Columbia to participate in True/False, you can still seek out the documentaries screened each year. All but one of this year’s nominees in the Academy’s “Best Documentary Feature” category were screened at T/F in 2013 (including the winner), and this year’s offerings are destined to be just as impactful–and, of course, next year’s films are still to come!