Media Earth

My neighbors were having a party on their porch last night, making it almost impossible to concentrate on the work-intensive task of web surfing.  I turned on the TV for some white noise, and ended up catching about an hour of the Live Earth spectacle.  Spanning seven continents (I’m not quite sure how that’s possible, to be frank), the concerts were broadcast virtually everywhere.  Or, as the Alliance for Climate Protection states:

Live Earth will reach this worldwide audience through an unprecedented global media architecture covering all media platforms – TV, radio, Internet and wireless channels.

By all accounts, it was masterful piece of organization.  From the bit that I saw, it seemed clear that the musicians and the audiences were fired up; a number talked about the environmental movement as a new “revolution.”  This, I fear, remains to be seen.  I’d love to believe that each of the two billion people (I’m not making up that number–see the website) who witnessed Live Earth are going to go home and rally for environmental change.  Bring it on!  In the meantime, a few reflections on the use of media during Live Earth.

First as the various television stations cut between different concert venues, they showed short films about the environment (you can see a few of these here).  Running the gamut from sincere (“The Mermaid”) to tongue-in-cheek (“Super Power Bloke”), the films served as a delightful break in the wall to wall concert footage being served up.  I’ve never been one for concert films, so I’ll admit my bias freely.  But I can’t help but think that the served as a kind of palate cleanser: they broke me out of the monotony of watching an artist on stage, for one thing.  More importantly, however, they were making direct statements about the causes of environmental degradation and possibilities for social reform.  This is a bit more on message than “If you love the earth, I want to see you jump up and down to this song!”  But perhaps this displays the media savvy of Kevin Wall and Al Gore.  You can’t ask people to absorb information all the time.  Get them to a concert, and then, when they’re not expecting it, hit them with some knowledge!

Second, and more randomly, I watched the Madonna segment with awe.  Sister can still throw down, I gotta say.  She’s playing her own guitar now, and she’s very smartly moved “Ray of Light” down half an octave so that she can hit the high notes in a live performance.  The perplexing media moment came at the end of her set, however, when she made her way down the runway for the ubiquitous crowd-sing.  As she prompted various parts of the audience through the chorus to “Hung Up” (sing it with me–“time goes by…so slowly”), she crouched down and held out the mike.  So let’s try this as a hypothetical: Madonna is on stage in front of you, holding out a mike, urging the crowd to bounce and sing.  What do you do?  Well, if you were like 40 other audience members, you would stand, immobile and silent, holding your video camera/cell phone up to record the moment.   The old fogey in me wants to tell them: “Live in the moment, man!”  The other part of me, however, wants Live Earth to go all Beastie Boys artsy, and find a place for fans to upload their own videos of the performances.  A kind of “Awesome, I…Shot Live Earth!”  At least in the second version, participation happens in the aftermath.  But do I misunderstand the concert experience, whippersnappers?  Is recording the performance the new way of holding up your lighter during the encore?

Shot for Shot

My friend Erich, a monster of pop culture, recently sent me links to the SNL piece “Lazy Sunday” on YouTube. I have a vague memory of seeing the sketch on tv, but was totally unaware that it had reached such prominence (as evidenced by its Wikipedia entry). Erich was kind enough to send along not only a link to the original (with the caution “Watch this as soon as you can because they try to delete as soon as someone posts it”), but also a version of the video made by Bryant Fisher and Max Sitnikov. Bryant and Max’s video is one among an enormous archive of “Lazy Sunday” homages. One of my very favorites, for the record, is this “Lazy Sunday–Chinese Version” in which the boys go not to Magnolia Bakery for cupcakes, but rather to Chinatown for baozi (buns). The impressive, and to my mind, fascinating hook of Bryant and Max’s video, however, is their recreation of the original. It is, as E. says, practically a “shot for shot” remake.

On the surface, this kind of remake sounds a lot like plagiarism. After all, they’re taking the everything that makes the original unique. In the realm of copyright law, there’s no way these two could argue that they were critiquing or parodying this piece. Despite all of that, my first thought on seeing the video was this: good grief, those two would have to know and learn a goodly amount about film in order to recreate this video. Shot-for-shot recreation is no joke: they’d have to study that film, mark out places for the actors, frame the shots, etc. [If you doubt it, just ask Gus Van Sant, as his shot-for-shot recreation of a classic is a bit of a running joke.]

I’d argue here that copying, or what looks like plagiarism, changes across media. There seems to be little, if anything, to be learned about plagiarising, word-for-word in writing, particularly at a time when you can cut and paste a paper. Here, you don’t even have to consume the content, you simply plop it into another version of the same medium. With film, however, we’re talking about a much different process. In order to copy, you need to watch and watch carefully; learn lighting, setting, framing, different shots; a variety of editing techniques; acting; etc. In essence, with film, to copy, shot for shot, is to learn. Where does copying fall on the hierarchy of interactions in participatory culture?

The pedagogical angle here is interesting as well. What are the ramifications of asking students to reproduce (is that different than “copy”? I think so: “copy” in common parlance is to use technology to get a version of the original for your own use.) a scene from a favorite movie, shot-for-shot? In what ways does it teach them filmmaking and analysis in a different way? And just for all you naysayers out there, does it implicitly support a culture of illegal reproduction of originals?

Celebrate Independence!

Sure, some people barbeque and remember our illustrious (?!) national history. For me, there’s no better way to commemorate America’s independence from Britain than to watch the Eddie Izzard marathon on BBC America (1-6 p.m. today). Post Brit transvestites riffing on world history? Hi-larious! Better than sparklers and hot dogs any day.  [As we speak, he’s riffing on the Trojan War.  His take on the most fearsome warrior in Greek mythology?  “You mean my name is Achilles and I have an Achilles heel?  I’ll be laughingstock!]

Sadly, I promised J. that I’d send her a working draft of my part of our Coetzee project today. Sigh. No EI for me.

Enjoy the holiday, y’all.

Syllabus Depression

The time is nigh, says the gentle bookstore manager. If I want books in time for fall classes, I have to order them this week. I know, I know. All of you probably ordered books in April, when bookstores request this kind of information. But choosing texts for a class always sends me into a tizzy, even when I’ve taught the course before. There is a beautiful moment before the books are ordered, when the course is ephemeral and perfect; it can be anything and it has a million possibilities. Putting in a book order always feels like foreclosing on those possibilities—like locking in the destiny of the class.

In the fall, I’ll be teaching a course to the English majors on Postmodernism. Cripes, but I love this course. In the past, I’ve taught it as an introduction to the various definitions of the era. (In point of fact, I’ve always wanted to call it “What the hell is Postmodernism?”, but have always been discouraged by the idea of that appearing on the students’ transcripts.) I like to play the Jameson definition off of Lyotard, Hutcheon off of Baudrillard, and wrap up with the move toward cultural studies. I also have experimented with using a variety of texts, so in the past we’ve done a fair number of novels (DeLillo’s White Noise, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama), as well as photography (Cindy Sherman and Nikki Lee), as well as film (Cronenberg’s Existenz and Fincher’s Fight Club), as well as architecture (Learning from Las Vegas), and a graphic novel (Watchmen, my old pal). Strangely enough, the students often find themselves leaving the course without a clear handle on the postmodern. Jeez, I can’t imagine why!! [That last part was sarcastic, yes?]

So, this time around, I think I’ve got to stop with the freewheeling ride through the postmodern amusement park and create some handholds. Hello, mixed metaphor! But how do you choose? Because the handholds you pick determine the definition, and the texts you end up teaching. So, I could go with the old favorites: epistemological and ontological uncertainty. That would encompass a great deal, and I could do some old favorites (historiographic metafiction, for instance) and some new favorites (Memento, anyone?). That’s a bit broad, however. So how about a thematic handful of ideas: subjectivity, aesthetics, politics. All three can be found together in any number of texts (for the record, Watchmen is the perfect piece here–it’s a triple whammy. At least 6 of the students registered for the class have already read it, however, so I just can’t make myself do it. Rats.). But then how do you structure the course? Chronologically? Randomly?

The real biter here is that the thing I’m really interested in is the idea of postmodern love. I found this the last time I taught the class—it’s everywhere. It’s in the graphic novel (which I won’t name here again); it’s in Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse”; it’s a major player in the DeLillo novel; in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; in Barnes’ History of the World… Essentially, it’s in all the texts that I want to spend a working on with students. What happens to love in the postmodern era?

In an essay from the 80’s (“Reflections on The Name of the Rose“?), Umberto Eco wrote:

The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, ”I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, ”As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.”

Are we still here? Can we only articulate love via irony? My instinct says no. If anything, I suspect that authors, filmmakers, etc. are becoming more and more invested in a rhetoric of love as salvation (Barnes) or damnation (Memento), or something else altogether (the new Sundance fave Crazy Love). Laura Kipnis is writing Against Love. Hell, there could well be a nice tie in to Leslie Fiedler’s seminal Love and Death in the American Novel. I’m so excited about this idea that I could spit. Sadly, I don’t have the wherewithal to pull this all together by fall semester, and I certainly can’t put off the book order any longer.

Alas, poor Postmodernism class. I don’t know it, though it seems like an infinite jest and excellent fancy.

[Just thought I’d do a little Shakespeare mangling there at the end for kicks…]