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Showing posts from 2015

Visible Evidence CFP: Sound Design in the Feature Documentary

I am pulling together a panel on sound design for Visible Evidence XXIII, to take place in Bozeman, MT , August 11-14, 2016. I encourage anyone interested to let me know!
Panel Proposal/Call for Papers VISIBLE EVIDENCE XXIII
Sound Design in the Feature Documentary
One of the focus themes for the 2016 Visible Evidence Conference is “Sonic Frontiers,” acknowledging the increasing (and long overdue) critical attention to documentary sound. In this move, documentary studies is responding to sonic experiments in contemporary documentary. By substituting source sound with electronic scoring (Rebecca Baron) or foley sound (Loznitsa, Ujica, Voignier, and Mansky), and by exploring the aesthetics of silence, contemporary nonfiction filmmakers challenge the notion of sound as a transparent conduit of information. Similarly, the boom in scholarship on the essay film has underscored the importance of the sound track as a crucial aesthetic and intellectual component of the nonfiction film.
As impor…

CFP: Rethinking Popular Documentary (anthology)

CALL FOR PAPERS

Rethinking Popular Documentary

The renewal of documentary over the past two decades has taken place across significant social, environmental, cultural, technological and geopolitical climate changes.  More than ever, in a time of proliferating voices, documentary may be said to function as a global commodity, its distribution enabled by the rise of digital and video technologies, the dramatic increase in “specialty” cable channel programming (Discovery/History/Biography Channel, Animal Planet, etc.), social media and, of course, the Internet.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, critical attention to “popular” documentary is relatively underdeveloped in the burgeoning field of documentary studies.  When media studies, film studies and cultural studies have expanded their objects of analyses so widely and productively, why have documentary studies scholars tended to ignore popular documentary in favor of films that are (arguably) more formally innovative, ideologically…

Conferences Winter 2015-16 Edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post throughout the winter. (The NECS call should be online soon.)
Closed calls: MLA - Austin, Texas, Jan 7-10, 2016 [website] SCMS - Atlanta, Mar 30-Apr 3, 2016 [website] ICA - Fukuoka, Japan June 9-13, 2016 [website]
Current calls: due date: Dec 15, 2015 Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Cornell Univ, Ithica, NY, June 1st – 4th, 2016 [website | call] due date: Dec 15, 2015 The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada May 31 -June 2, 2016 the University of Calgary, Theme: “Energizing Communities” [website | call] due date: Jan 10, 2016 Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 24-26, 2016 [call] due date: Jan 15, 2016 Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016…

CFP: Visible Evidence XXIII

CALL FOR PAPERS

Visible Evidence XXIII
Bozeman, MT
August 11-14, 2016

[website | call]

Visible Evidence, the international conference on documentary film and media, now in its 23rd year, will convene August 11-14, 2016 in Bozeman, MT. Hosted by the School of Film and Photography at Montana State University, Visible Evidence XXIII will address the history, theory, and practice of documentary and non-fiction cinema, television, video, audio recording, digital media, photography, and performance, in a wide range of panels, workshops, plenary sessions, screenings, and special events. Drawing inspiration from our Montana setting, we challenge participants to think about new frontiers in documentary theory and practice. While panels, presentations and screenings may address any aspect of documentary screen cultures, histories and practices, proposals related to the following themes are especially encouraged: Environmental Frontiers, Political Frontiers, Social Frontiers and Experimental Fro…

The Meta Ethical Documentary

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Field Niggas dir. Khalik Allah, 2014 Genre: Poetic/observational currently showing theatrically in New York
I need to watch and reflect more widely, but I am not sure I've seen all that many documentaries aligned with portraiture photography. There are certainly portrait docs, both as a genre and as a mode, I would argue, but I am referring to documentaries that intersect with the operational aesthetics of still portraiture photography. They exist, certainly, but the examples elude me.
Field Niggas inhabits this intersection. The director Khalik Allah is a still photographer extending his street photography into cinema with gorgeous HD videography. Of course, high-definition digital cameras can make lovely images easy to capture, but even though I've gotten used to the proliferation of aestheticizing shooting in documentary, the work in Field Niggas is stunning. 
But the portraiture aesthetic is more than prettiness. I am thinking too of the photographer-subject rapport (import…

Fake Inductive Structure

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The Search for General Tso dir. Ian Cheney, 2014 Genre: Quirkumentary/Cultural documentary Streaming on Netflix, available on instant video
For some reason it is hard for me to pinpoint the genre of The Search for General Tso, even though it is similar to many mainstream feature documentaries and even though the film fits pretty neatly with what I call postclassical documentary narration. The film, a cultural history of the Chinese-American restaurant staple, is a mix of expert testimony, interviews, B-roll, and illustrative animation graphics. In this sense, it is a formally safe rather than innovative doc, but is pitched as such, to a general interest audience. On these terms, the documentary does a terrific job of seeing the big picture in the small, by using culinary history as a hook for an exploration of Chinese diaspora, US immigration policy, and a series of secondary issues. 
The film presents itself as a detective story (the search for origins) and unlike some investigative …

Medium Term Scales of Innovation

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Costa da Morte
dir. Lois Patiño, 2013
Genre: poetic documentary
Not currently in wide distribution

There is currently an excitement that generates a lot of documentary work that is in a similar vein. Static shots, locked down camera, often in telephoto or at least long shot, digital cinematography, and sound design done in "close up." I thought of these when watching Costa da Morte, a poetic documentary about the Galician coast and the villagers' relation to their landscape. I do think that Lois Patiño has a distinctive eye and that Costa da Morte activates the tropes of contemporary poetic doc for interesting thematic ends. And at times (such as the passage of the seasons), it departed from a strictly contemplative pace. But in so many ways, it feels like one example of a larger genre and hews fairly closely to that genre.

Which makes me wonder about the time-scale of aesthetic innovation. I still think the poetic approach seems fresh, in part because so many technologi…

Documentary Taste Formations

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Maidan
dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2014
Genre: experimental/observational
on home video from Cinema Guild, via VOD, and on Netflix (US)

I have been reflecting a lot of just what I am trying to do with documentary criticism, both in my research project and on this blog. I am not a documentary critic and am not trying to be one, strictly speaking. I write as a scholar, with a scholar's perspective. At the same time, film studies has reenergized by a dialogue with film criticism, and it's something I've been mulling over. And most of all, the documentaries themselves are driving my interest, and I want to grapple seriously with what they do, and that's a process that's not too different than film criticism.

I still don't have a full answer, but I think one difference is that I have a different relationship to the evaluative than film critics do. I have judgments and they inform what I do, but I am trying not to be invested in what I see as sometimes narrow polemics of w…

Personal Documentary and the Collective Subject

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Do I Sound Gay?  dir. David Thorpe, 2015, US Genre: Personal, issue documentary currently in theaters in the US; available cable on-demand (US)
After watching Do I Sound Gay? I wondered if I saw the same film that Clayton Dillard did for his Slant Magazine review. On a literal level, yes, but I had a very different take than this impression: Do I Sound Gay? is another link in an increasingly tiresome chain of navel-gazing think pieces posing as personal documentary.... Thorpe's approach is less historical or experimental than staid and solipsistic, as his own biography, which includes growing up in South Carolina and not acknowledging his own homosexuality until reaching college, is dutifully presented as a series of facts and tidbits which are meant to substantiate the film's interest in cultural norms regarding homosexual behavior and self-acceptance.  Part of me understands where the review is coming from. I'm not always fond of personal documentaries and for instance di…

Conspiracy Documentary as Puzzle Films

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The Forecaster
dir. Marcus Vetter, Karin Steinberger, 2014, Germany
Genre: Issue documentary
available German DVD (amazon.de) and on VOD (for $50!)

I've been following the Greek crisis as it unfolds, and since the US news outlets have been frankly doing a miserable job at covering other than in the business press, this means a few overseas websites and lots of Twitter. One thing that is striking is how the situation seems to illustrate ideology in Mannheim's sense - a scattershot of versions of reality based in social situatedness. And, broadly speaking, there is the oddness of witnessing this from overseas. On one hand the crisis has brought out international alignment of right and left sentiment along the battle lines of austerity and anti-austerity. On the other hand 
I bring this up because I keep thinking back to the screening of the Forecaster that I attended at Transilvania Film Fest. The documentary is about financier Martin Armstrong, a fund manager who was convicted …

The Touristic Gaze of Festival Documentary

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The Domino Effect (Efekt Domina) dir. Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosołowski, 2014, Germany/Poland  Genre: Character-Driven
There are so many critiques that festival documentaries can and do face, and my impulse as a scholar is to take seriously these critiques but also think if there can be fresh ways to frame the aesthetic and political problems at stake. An overriding criticism of these documentaries is that they compromise their politics for a global (privileged) spectator, yet I think there is not a sufficient case to be made for the complexity of transnational spectatorship. I don't have a workable theory of this idea, but the answer may lie in the “touristic” shot common to documentaries.
The Domino Effect is a good example. It is a character-driven documentary about a mixed-nationality couple in the breakaway region of Abkhazia - not recognized as an independent country but not functionally integrated with Russia, either. The protagonists, Natasha and Rafael, feel the strain in …

Documentary Personality vs. Biography

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Stream of Love
dir. Ágnes Sós, 2013, Hungary
Genre: Character-Driven Observational
Not currently in distribution

There is something that strikes me as typical of Stream of Love – typical of a distinctly European approach to television documentary that’s pitched somewhere between observational and character-driven forms. From its editing to its composition and approach to transitions, it exemplifies the well-made doc in many ways. In my research, I’d like to tease out how I see these are ultimately different narrational approaches that happen to overlap in a continuum of popular practices in documentary today.

Setting aside the issues of categorization, though, I find Stream of Love instructive for what it says about documentary character. The documentary follows a number of Hungarian-speaking peasants living in Transylvania, Romania as they discuss romance and sexuality. Again, we have a film at partial battle with its (justifiably catchy) logline:
Love and desire fill the minds of vi…

The Non-Circuit Festival

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This week I am attending the Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It's part of my goal to attend more film festivals - I'm a newcomer to festivals and festival studies - and the dates lined up for me for this one. Also, I have seen a couple of very strong Romanian documentaries and am curious how nonfiction might be in dialogue with recent Romanian New Wave  films.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me has been how local this festival feels. Unlike Sarajevo Film Festival, which is split between a local audience, regional industry participants, and members of the international film circuit, TIFF (not to be confused with Toronto, of course) draws an overwhelmingly Romanian audience. At some screenings, in fact, I have been the only non-Romanian in attendance. This is not to deny the national significance of the festival (it's the most important one for Romanian fiction film) and the international nature of European coproduction and distribution. And…

The Radicality of the New Archival Doc

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A German Youth (Une jeunessse allemande)
dir. Jean-Gabriel Périot, 2015, France/Switzerland/Germany
Genre: historical compilation film

There's been a lot of exploration lately within the historical documentary that has opened up the archival footage to function in different ways than a typical recollective documentary, which subsumes the meaning of the archival footage to a rigid historical idea. In one direction, documentaries have understood the document as an artifact to be highlighted and explored for its own meaning, its own historicity and texture - I'm thinking for instance of the home movies in Our Nixon. In the other direction, the found footage film has an influence on documentarians who want to resignify official history by treating archival footage differently, obliquely - Loznitsa's or Forgacs's work comes to mind.

But what if we push both directions simultaneously? A German Youth does just that and in the process raises the question of how we apprehend th…

Conferences Summer 2015 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post throughout the summer.
Closed calls: ICA - San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 21-25, 2014 [website ] Console-ing Passions - Dublin, Ireland, June 18-20, 2015 [website] The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada - June 2-4, 2015 Theme: “Capital Ideas” [website] Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Jun 17-20, 2015, Birkbeck, University of London [website] NECS - Łódź, Poland, June 18-20, 2015 Theme: "Archives of/for the Future" [website] Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 26-28, 2015 Theme: "Screening Animals and the Inhuman" [website] Visible Evidence XXII - Toronto, Aug 19-23, 2015 [website] UFVA - American University, Washington, DC, Aug 4-8, 2015 [website]

Mallwalkers

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Mallwalkers
dir. Sean Clark, 2014, US
Genre: Observational Short
Not currently in distribution

Mallwalkers has a straightforward topic: the (mostly) older Minnesotans who powerwalk though the Mall of America in the morning. The film intercuts between four sets of "characters," and perhaps inevitably walks the line between ironizing humor and humanizing portrait. There's such a palpable sense that the documentary imagines an audience who is socially distant from the Midwestern subjects, but Mallwalkers does not overly exploit.this dynamic. It's poised to be a festival audience hit while also functioning as a small-scale observational piece.


The counterpoint would be the opening and closing shots, whose carefully composed view of the mall spaces contrasts with the moving and following camera of the observational footage.

The Second Game

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The Second Game dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, 2014, Romania genre: experimental documentary French-release DVD (French subtitles only) available from amazon.fr
To me, one of the more exciting trends lately has been the convergence of the documentary world with experimental approaches that could be considered akin to structural filmmaking. I don't know if Porumboiu is explicitly influenced by or in dialogue with structural film. Maybe something about the slow cinema project of the Romanian New Wave arrives at similar ends from another route. But The Second Game would suggest that something beyond simply durational art cinema but rather a spectatorial experience of being distanciated from the very basics of the medium, the very split between sound and image. 
The concept is simple enough: a 1988 soccer match refereed by Porumboiu's father between two of the major football clubs (Dinamo and Steaua) plays without original commentary while the Porumboius, father and son, discuss the mat…

Tourisme International

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Tourisme International dir. Marie Voignier, 2014, France genre: experimental documentary available streamed at Doc Alliance (free through May3)
Tourisme Internationale is a fascinating experiment in documentary sound. Other precedents like Loznitsa's and Ujica's work have used foleyed sound to give a sense of presentness to archival footage. Voignier instead takes present-day footage--of an international tourist visit to North Korea--and removes almost all spoken word in favor of foleyed sound effects and ambient sounds. The effect is an uncanny play on presence and absence, on documentation and the fantastic. 
One clear role of the move is as a power play between a government which wishes to control images and a filmmaker who refuses to allow the government's version to stand. By putting the voices under erasure, Tourisme Internationale obliquely gets at a portrait of contemporary North Korea that it otherwise cannot access. In the process, too, it figures the missing voic…

Soul Food Stories

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Soul Food Stories
dir. Tonislav Hristov, 2013, Bulgaria / Finland
genre: observational
not currently in distribution

I don't know how often a film's log line gives a bait-and-switch for a film, but I have to say that Soul Food Stories was not exactly the film the description set me up for:
“Soul Food Stories” is a 70 minutes long observational documentary that tells of a place where practices of food and the rituals around the table have not been changed in the last centuries. The film consist of a series of vignettes, each one telling different story. The protagonists Djamal and his wife Aishe are Pomacs (a Slavic Muslim population native to some parts of Bulgaria). Their parents and grand parents have been always living from the land. They produce everything - from the cigarettes they smoke and the clothes they are wearing to the milk and cheese on the table. During the Communist regime, Djamal and Aishe had to change their names, the way they dress and speak as part of the …

Hand Gestures

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(photo courtesy the filmmaker's Twitter)
Il Gesto delle mani/ Hand Gestures dir. Francesco Clerici, 2015, Italy genre: poetic/observational not currently in distribution
I do wonder if there is a documentary equivalent of the heritage film, dedicated to celebrating national aesthetic and historical traditions. Hand Gestures would probably fit the bill and is in fact produced by a century-old firm specializing in bronze sculpture, the Battaglia Artistic Foundry. On a literal level, the film could be seen as an advertisement of sorts for the Foundry and for Velasco Vitali's sculptures. But it easily transcends this as a creative documentary with both formal rigor and a clear aesthetic eye for the process of art creation.
There has been a recent cycle of documentaries about artisanal crafts, but what immediately strikes me about Hand Gestures is the adoption of certain aspects of the poetic-doc form rather than a more familiar character-driven format. It's not a slavish fit wi…

Sweetgrass

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Sweetgrass dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, 2009, US available on DVD or via iTunes
My list of shame is long, and I am a late comer to the entire Sensory Ethnography Lab work, and I have to admit some trepidation approaching Sweetgrass. After all, I have had a tendency to be underwhelmed by some of the critical favorites in recent documentary (Stories We Tell, Act of Killing, and others). Yet, I was blown away by the film, I believe because it confounded my expectations in two ways: it did not fully fit the mold of the contemporary poetic documentary, nor did it exactly play the role of slow cinema in the way I thought it might. 
The key to both is that Sweetgrass does not restrict itself to static long takes shot at a wide distance. Indeed, those shots are there, but camera movements (handheld and controlled) and close shots balance the shooting style. My understanding of Sensory Ethnography is that it balances the objective poetic-observational shots with strategies that …

Classical Cinema SIG for SCMS?

On Twitter, I tossed out a quick idea that maybe it's time for there to be a Scholarly Interest Group (SIG) for SCMS geared toward those of us who work on classical cinema. There is a good reasons there hasn't been one up until now: SIGs have emerged to champion emerging research areas or those historically overlooked in the fields of US- and Canadian-based cinema and media studies. Classical Hollywood in particular was the canonical and culturally dominant hegemon at the center of film studies stretching back through the history of the Society, going to the SCS days. Why carve out a interest group niche for something that was already established and widespread?

I think there are two reasons it's time to do just that. First, it's hard for me not to see SIGs gaining in importance in SCMS. There's currently not anything like the divisions at the MLA Convention, neatly organized along clear subdisciplinary lines. Maybe they'll never have that rigidity or clarity. …

SCMS2015 Reflections

It's remarkable to go back and read my posts after previous SCMS conferences because some things are still the same for me, and others have changed. This year, I embraced the conference as specialized tracks rather than attempt a generalist sampling. In all, I felt much happier doing this, though I am sure I missed terrific papers that way.

Terrific online schedules. I used the Guidebook app and loved it. The Sched website version is also great. I appreciate the work of the conference organizers in providing these and getting them out in advance.

Conference is too long. I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The conference is too long. Yes, I know people can go for only part of the time, but that's actually a problem. Gone is the sense of a shared conference experience. In a 2 day conference I end up seeing more papers than in a 5 day. This is because SCMS is about more than papers, certainly, but it's also because the exhausting schedule is not as conducive to t…

SMCS 2015

I'm heading to Montreal tomorrow for the SCMS conference. As always, I look forward to a rewarding time catching up with colleagues and getting (however partially) about the best snapshot of the field I could imagine. 
I will be contributing to the SCMS general conference twitter feed. The idea this year it to have a feed less about live-tweeting panels and more about general observations. 
My panel will be at Saturday, at 1:00pm. I'm excited to be in great company.

Film Festivals and the ‘Creative Turn’ in Documentary
Aida Vallejo (University of the Basque Country)  “A Niche for Creativity: Defining Documentary in the Festival Circuit” Ezra Winton (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) “Documentary, Film Festivals, and Distribution of the Sensible” Maria-Paz Peirano (University of Kent) “Expanding Boundaries: Film Festivals and the Emergence of ‘Creative’ Documentary Filmmaking in Chile” Chris Cagle (Temple University) “Character as Aesthetic Problem in the Festival Documenta…

Workingman's Death

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Workingman's Death dir. Michael Glawogger, 2005, Austria available on DVD or via iTunes
This film is now a decade old and therefore less contemporary than others I am watching for this project. But it's been on my list of shame for a while and moreover, I feel it's worth adding some films more readily accessible from time to time. 
Glawogger was, before his untimely death, a prominent documentary auteur and very influential for a vein of poetic documentary popular today, at least on the festival circuit. Workingman's Death resists the kind of documentary meaning we might expect out of the difficult, challenging subject matter we see. Critic Michael Atkinson writes, "Glawogger's film may be thematically loose-jointed, but Wolfgang Thaler's cinematography is the glue." However, the film does have thematic resonances, even if the spectator has to do much of the work for them. And, thematically, too, the refusal of certain explanation is itself meaningful…

Autofocus (2013)

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Autofocus dir. Boris Poljak, 2013, Croatia genre: observational short not currently in distribution
Autofocus is an observational documentary but with more of a candid-camera approach. Rather than having close interaction between camera and social actor, director Poljak places fixed cameras on a landmark church (St. Nicholas at Nin) and records the tourists who come to visit the sight. The tight framing and distanciation are somewhat reminiscent of Scott Stark's Posers, but rather than comment ironically on its subjects, Autofocus gives a humanizing portrait of the various anonymous visitors.
One of my ongoing polemics is that documentary critics and especially scholars misread what observational cinema does because they filter the genre through the realism debates of post-1970s film theory. This polemic will take more work to flesh out, but for now I'll point out one way contemporary observational cinema can play with narration. There's a kind of question-answer game, wher…

MLA 2016 calls for papers

The 2016 MLA Convention will take place in Austin, Texas, January 7 to 10. The deadline for submitting through pre-constituted panels is coming up, as soon as this weekend, so I wanted to highlight a number that might be of interest to film studies scholars. In culling this list I have overlooked a lot: many panels are open to both literature and film as objects of studies and other touch on new media studies. The panels below have a majority focus on film.

Due dates are March 15, unless otherwise noted.

1968 in Global Cinema [call]Adaptation in World Cinema [call]Austin Plays Itself [call]Cinema and Cultural Memory [call]Cinema and Public Spheres in Franco's Spain [call] (Mar. 18)Francophone Media/na/tions [call]The Ideological Space(s) of Italian Cinema and Television [call] (Mar. 20)Latin American Film and Nation in the 21st Century [call]Out of the Past: An Examination of Jewish Characters in Contemporary Romanian Cinema [call]Trauma in Recent Cinema [call]Women and Recent Fran…

Contemporary Documentary Project: Beep

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Beep
Kim Kyung-man, 2014, South Korea
genre: experimental documentary
not in general distribution

Beep is a short experimental documentary; actually, I would probably classify it as an essay film. Beep compiles South Korean anti-communist government films from the 1960s and 70s and adds a found soundtrack of a nonfiction account of a boy martyr who purportedly because he resisted North Korean soldiers. It's easy to use such material ironically, as fodder for camp, but I am impressed by how Beep is purposive with its historical material. Rather than using the found footage to signal an "then" to contrast with "now," it wants to trace a lineage of South Korean jingoism and propaganda that, I believe the film to imply, never fully went away. I'm not always a fan of Foucauldian genealogy, but this is genealogy in the best sense.



Actress (2014)

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Actress dir. Robert Greene, 2014, USA genre: self-reflexive portrait documentary available on iTunes or via Cinema Guild on-demand  (DVD release presumably forthcoming)
I saw Actress only after reading director Robert Greene's manifesto about the "renaissance in documentary culture" which has seen "collapsing walls between fiction, nonfiction and art cinema." After his pronouncements and the many critical accolades (Bilge Ebiri calls it one of the best documentaries he's ever seen), I have to say I came to the film with higher expectations. Yes, I noticed the self-reflexive commentary on documentary performance in this portrait of Wire actress Brandy Burre; Burre is indeed a remarkably self-confident and camera-aware documentary subject. The value of Actress is that asks the spectator to evaluate the effect of this kind of self-consciousness on documentary, pitched somewhere between dramaturgy and Erving Goffman's performance-of-self. The tight framing o…