Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It's Final Project Time!

Our final projects are due tomorrow, and we're supposed to write a summary as our last official blog post. So here it is: for my project, I created a website called "Educational Resources for Studying Disabilities in the Media."

The web address is

My intent was to make something that could be a resource for people teaching disability studies, or media studies, or anything in between. It's sort of a fancy annotated bibliography, in that in that I've listed a whole bunch of websites, movies, tv shows, books, and articles that might be relevant to educators, with occasional comments or suggestions about possible class activities. I linked to several existing resources on this topic on the main page, and I also included brief introductions to the concepts of disability studies, media studies, and neurodiversity; but the bulk of the site is devoted to media representations of different areas of disability. I fully acknowledge that organizing the site in that way is problematic, because it defines people in terms of disability labels (buying into the "medical model" in some ways). However, I feel that for pragmatic purposes it is the most straightforward way to initiate the site. I am completely open to the idea of rearranging it at some point in the future. Indeed, I hope that I can keep the site active, adding to it, changing it, reorganizing it as I discover new things or get suggestions from users. (I don't know if there will actually be any users, but I can always hope!) In this way I see the site as a work in progress.

In addition to presenting the site to my classmates tomorrow, I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to share it on Friday with the U of M's Interdisciplinary Graduate Group on Disability Studies, which is currently working to develop a Disability Studies graduate minor. I expect I will get lots of useful feedback from both of these audiences, so the site should get off to a dynamic start right away!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Local News Analysis Part 2

This could also be called "Part 1," since the post I wrote before was describing the latter half of the newscast... but that would just be confusing.

There was only one commercial break in the first 19 minutes of the Friday night KARE 11 newscast I watched. Here's how it broke down:

10:00 Northstar Commuter Rail story
10:02 U of M bar has to close for 3 days as a penalty for serving alcohol to minors
10:03 Petters trial progress
10:04 Changing air traffic control procedures for reporting problems to the military
10:04 Daycare and H1N1 vaccine
10:05 County H1N1 vaccination clinics
10:05 Story about a dairy farmer who's had a run of bad luck & a benefit being held
10:07 Preview before commercials
10:08 Commercials: Sleep Express, Tonight Show/Late Show, Star Trek DVD, Gillette Children's Hospital, Ashley Furniture, WalMart, Empire Carpet
10:11 Water discovered on the Moon
10:11 Eagan U of M student breaking records as Paralympic swimmer
10:13 British rowers finished crossing the Pacific
10:14 Weather
10:18 Preview for Monday story on Vancouver Olympics
10:19 Preview before commercials

Whew. So there were seven stories in the first five minutes; and the only things even approaching world news were roughly 30 seconds (combined) about water on the moon and British people rowing across the Pacific Ocean. Coverage of the weather was twice as long as any other story.

'Nuff said. I think I could glean the same amount of information in three minutes of web browsing as I did in 19 minutes in front of the TV, with fewer commercials and MUCH broader scope. My habit of listening to NPR and avoiding TV news whenever possible (except for The Daily Show and Colbert Report, of course) has been suitably reinforced.

Film Adaptations

This week's assignment is to talk about how we would integrate media adaptations into our teaching. If I were teaching a class where this type of thing was appropriate, I can imagine a couple fun projects.

#1 Shakespeare.
Shakespeare offers rich opportunities for this kind of thing because so many versions of various plays have been created. We did the classic Romeo & Juliet vs. West Side Story thing way back when I was in ninth grade. A couple similar things would be to have students watch either the Laurence Olivier or Ian McKellen version of Richard III and then watch Al Pacino's Looking for Richard. The latter is a sort of meditation on the play, including scenes from it as well as interviews with the actors about the play itself, its history, and what's involved in performing it. The students could then discuss how Looking for Richard serves as an adaptation of the play and/or as a commentary about it, and to what degree they benefited from having seen the whole play before watching Looking.

Another fun Shakespeare adaptation is a version of Macbeth called Scotland, PA, which satirically transposes the story to a fast food restaurant in 1970s Pennsylvania. Students could watch the 1948 Orson Welles version, followed by Scotland, PA. This would give them an opportunity to discuss adaptations that change the tone of the original: is it a "faithful" adaptation if it's now a comedy? Where is the line between adaptation and parody? Students could then come up with their own original take on the story: instead of a fast food restaurant in the '70s, where else could the story of Macbeth be made to work? What themes - as well as characters and plot points - are intrinsic to the story that make it so "universal"? (This type of exercise could be done with any work that's had this kind of makeover, such as Emma Clueless, or Taming of the Shrew10 Things I Hate About You (or Kiss Me Kate, for that matter), though arguably the tone of those examples is not significantly altered from originals to adaptations.)

#2 Book ≠ Movie.
I find it interesting that, while I enjoy some movies because they are such faithful adaptations of their source material, I enjoy others despite (or because?) they are distinctly different from whatever book they're based on. For example, the adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is notorious for its dedicated in its attention to detail. In contrast, this year's Where the Wild Things Are is equally famous for being a 101-minute movie based on a book that's only 48 pages long (and mostly pictures). Other examples of adaptations that turned out quite different from their source books while still being arguably "good" are Wicked (the musical is based on the book) and Jurassic Park (movie based on book). Watching and reading these pairs of works will give students the opportunity to discuss (similar to the first activity) what makes a "good" adaptation; and what themes, characters, plot points were kept or changed from one version to the other and (perhaps most importantly) why. They could also do an activity where they have to adapt a book they have read into a less-than-two-hour movie: what elements do they think would be crucial to keep? What would they change? Would they rather do a page-to-screen transfer a la Harry Potter or a more abstract interpretation like Wild Things, and why?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Post About Music

This week's assignment is to talk about our music preferences and pick a song that illustrates those preferences. This is difficult for me - I'm a lot less knowledgeable about my music tastes than about TV, movies, or books. I grew up with - and have played and sung - a lot of classical music, so I often like that. With pop music, I tend to like things more as they become more familiar, and there's not a lot that I really don't like. I will often think I really like a song without ever bothering to really listen to the lyrics, and then feel disappointed when I actually learn what it's about... I tend to like things with tight harmonies, clever lyrics, and/or catchy melodies. My main Pandora station is seeded with people like Coldplay, U2, Dar Williams, and Dido.

I definitely have emotional associations with a lot of different music. There are certain songs that I associate with particular periods in life because they were playing on the radio a lot at that time. For example, I might not usually care for a song like "Meet Virginia" by Train, but it was on the radio my senior year in college so I always think fondly of my dorm room when I hear it. And one of my friends in Peace Corps had Dido's album No Angel, so when I hear songs from that album I usually think of the dilapidated CD player we had at our house.

One song I picked to exemplify my musical tastes is "Young James Dean" from Girlyman's Little Star album. Back in 2005 or so, my roommate and I got tickets to a Dar Williams concert (I think it was at Macalester or something). I almost never go to concerts, but my roommate loved Dar Williams (she's from Iowa, though of course that's not the only reason) and I liked what I'd heard of her, so I was happy to go. But before she came onstage, this band called Girlyman opened for her. We were a little skeptical at first, but they totally won us over with their energy, charisma, tight harmonies, and clever lyrics (as I mentioned, things I tend to like in my music groups). So I actually bought their CD! And now every time I hear one of their songs, I remember the great time we had at that concert.

This particular song has interesting lyrics and imagery, plus great harmonies and a catchy tune. Here are the lyrics (sorry I can't link to the full song - the band only has samples posted online). (Note that there's an added dimension of complexity because the song is sung by a woman).

In the back of a camouflage truck
They locked me in once with the materiel
I was full of a rage no one could handle
I was a private in the army
All the real girls with their backs turned called me crazy
Called me crazy

I worked for a while at a diner
Manager said I had to wear that little uniform
Said I was part of the problem
But I was in love with that blonde girl
She kissed me twice behind the counter
But when I asked her to get into my car
She called her man, said 'don't bother her'
She called her man, said 'don't bother her'

I guess I'll feel less than real all my life
With these feathers I made
Under me lifting me up
But I was a young James Dean
With a way with ladies
All the real boys in their black jeans called me crazy
Called me crazy
Called me crazy
Called me crazy

I could go on and on, or write a whole other post about musical theater, but I won't (at least not for now).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Disaster Movie Addendum

A friend just forwarded this link to a hilarious montage of destruction called "Hollywood vs. New York." I like the way it uses the soundtrack for dramatic pacing and extra touches of humor.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Documentary analysis

The assignment for the week of Nov 19 was to analyze a documentary. I was away at a conference, which is why I'm just doing the assignment now.

I decided to watch the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, directed by Alex Gibney and written by Fortune magazine reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (based on their book). I've been wanting to see this movie for a while, so our assignment provided a good excuse. The movie tells the story of the rise and fall of Enron, once the seventh-largest company in the US, which declared bankruptcy on December 2, 2001.

The film was awarded Best Documentary Feature at the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for an Oscar as well. I can see why: it is lively and engaging, and is structured as a compelling story with plenty of greed, tragedy, hubris, and even strippers.

One of the stylistic things that I think worked both for and against this movie is its use of supporting visuals. For example, when an interviewee talks about how Enron was gambling away all of its money, the film shows footage of dice rolling, or a roulette wheel spinning. This was mostly a harmless technique that prevented the movie from becoming just a string of talking heads, but I thought it was taken a little too far with extensive video of BMX bike racing (played over a discussion of how Jeff Skilling liked to take colleagues on adventure vacations); and quite explicit images of strippers accompanying the explanation of how Enron Energy Services CEO Lou Pai enjoyed strip clubs and eventually divorced his wife to marry his stripper girlfriend. I personally thought the story was plenty sordid without having to actually watch several minutes of topless pole dancing, but perhaps the filmmaker took the idea of "making finance sexy" a little too literally...

One of the main things that struck me while watching this was that, as much of a punchline as Enron became, and as much as everyone came to understand about the rampant greed and fraud and permissiveness that allowed it to do what it did, nevertheless two years after this movie came out we had our gigantic financial system collapse based on some of the very same issues. As Sherron Watkins put it (she was a vice president at Enron who was arguably the main whistleblower for the case), "It's all about the rationalization that you're not doing anything wrong." That kind of rationalization was rampant throughout the mortgage industry (and the investment industries precariously based on it) leading up to the fall of 2008, including deregulation, short-sightedness, manufactured demand, black-box accounting, and any number of other parallels with the energy industry at the time of Enron. And yet, apparently, nobody in a position to do anything about it actually learned from Enron. I guess they figured (if they thought about it at all) it was somehow an isolated case. And the people who did want to learn from it weren't the ones in a position to make any widespread changes.

It's all pretty disheartening, unfortunately.

Back to analyzing the movie: overall I think the filmmakers did an excellent job of interweaving interviews, news footage, archival photos, and limited narration to piece together the story of how everything that happened, happened. They make no pretense of being "even-handed": they show footage of people like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling giving congressional depositions, but they do not interview them separately for the film and it is clear that from the perspective of the film, they are mostly lying. I think this approach makes perfect sense, though, since by the time the movie came out there had already been various criminal convictions for fraud, conspiracy, etc., so bending over backwards to represent more of their side of the story would have seemed disingenuous.

I thought some of the most interesting material was about the corporate culture of Enron, how it was extremely aggressive and competitive (at least for a while, they had a policy of firing the "worst" 10-15% of their employees per year, just to foster a competitive atmosphere). The other really foundational thing that most amazed me was the concept of mark-to-market accounting, wherein (if I understood correctly) the company could base its financial statements on the profit it expected to make on some idea or endeavor, and completely disregard any actual performance. On the one hand this is astonishing to me, and on the other, it again reminds me of the recent mortgage crisis, partly based as it was on things like No Income No Asset mortgages...

Overall I would definitely recommend the movie, as an educational and enlightening view of how Wall Street can work, and as a reminder that our country's current situation is absolutely nothing new. By the end, I came to realize that the title is meant at least half-ironically: while Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, et al. were indeed very smart, and knew it, and people like Lou Pai got away with hundreds of millions of dollars, this "smartness" led to the perpetration of elaborate frauds and the ruination of thousands of people's pensions, savings, careers, and even lives. The movie is bookended with discussions of Enron executive Cliff Baxter, who committed suicide in January 2002.

We're also supposed to develop a short activity for students about documentaries. I would encourage students to choose some recent event at their school and propose two different documentaries about it, told from two different perspectives. For example, a change in lunch prices could be portrayed entirely from the perspective of disgruntled students (a protest against unfair charges), from the perspective of harried lunch workers (a protest against unfair student complaints), from the perspective of heroic administrators (a positive story on how the school is working to raise more money for its programs), or a more complex fact-finding news story (with various perspectives given essentially equal weight, and pro and con opinions voiced by each demographic). By considering how they would structure each "version" of their documentary, students would get a sense of how storytelling and editing play a role in documentary filmmaking, and how as filmmakers they have choices to make about what kind of story they are going to tell.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Local News Analysis

This week's assignment was to watch a half-hour local news program (5, 6, or 10 o'clock news) and to keep track of every story and commercial as well as how much time was spent on them.

Naturally, I put off doing this until the night before it was due (tonight), because I had a recording from back in September of an episode of news that I thought had something interesting on it. Lo and behold, I had made a mistake in my recording, so I only got the last 14 minutes of the program (from 10:18 to 10:32). I will have to analyze the first 18 minutes of a news broadcast another day, but for now I'll just report my findings for the segment that I had.

I watched an episode of the 10:00 news on KARE 11, our local NBC station. KARE 11 is owned by Gannett Broadcasting, which also owns things like USAToday,, and the Gannett Healthcare Group.

Here's how the evening progressed (and I apologize if you become as bored reading about it as I did watching it):
  • 10:18 - pre-commercial teaser for a story tomorrow about etiquette breaches when using electronics; teaser for post-commercial story about a baseball player getting hit in the head with a baseball
  • COMMERICALS - Dekalb crop insecticide, Crest toothpaste, Gander Mountain clothes, Acura cars, Hefty odor-neutralizing garbage bags, Bryant hearing & cooling system, Home Service Plus/Centerpoint Energy
  • 10:22-10:26 - National League baseball scores (visual only), anchor discussing baseball scores, Twins game summary (including the player who was hit in the head), Vikings rankings with clip of coach press conference, Wild game summary, two high school "atheletes of the week" with clips and interviews, and information about online "crowd-please" poll of what team viewers think KARE11 should film next week
  • 10:27 - banter among the anchors about online voting, pre-commercial teaser for story after commercial about a Fergus Falls newspaper "confession" and the night's lottery numbers
  • COMMERCIALS - Cadillac cars, Empire carpets, U of M Amplaz Children's Hospital, Comcast sports lineup, personal injury law firm, NBC - Tonight Show & Jimmy Fallon, - bipolar depression information, Twin Cities Hyundai
  • 10:30 - Anchors admit they don't really have the lottery numbers, "Before we go" segment about a photo in the Fergus Falls newspaper that ended up on the Jay Leno show
  • 10:32 - closing banter, ad for
Whew. All told, I calculate that I spent seven minutes watching the "news," such as it was, and seven minutes watching commercials. That's a pretty miserable breakdown, and I didn't even get to see the segment that I'd originally tried to record!

The only obvious connections I saw between who holds power over the station and what content was shown were the NBC programming ads during the second commercial break, and the Fergus Falls newspaper story about the Jay Leno show. I probably wouldn't have noticed the latter as being an NBC "product placement," so to speak, if we hadn't been doing this assignment.

On the subject of news, the death of newspapers, the 24-hour news cycle, etc., I just encountered a really interesting concept in a letter to the editor written to my alumni publication, the Pomona College Magazine. The letter writer, Betty Fussell (class of '48) of New York, NY, wrote (in part):

"Just as fast food is its own kind of beast, so fast journalism, with its gulp-it-down-quick-and-move-on news, does one kind of thing but not another. Slow Journalism recognizes the deep pleasure in lingering over double-page spreads, leafing pages forwards and backwards, letting fingertips respond to the texture of glossy paper, examining at leisure the significance of photos and illustrations... At whatever speed fast journalism moves in its takeover, it may displace but it can never replace the slow, any more than a Coke and fries can replace the experience of a slowly cooked and savored meal, where time is one of the essential ingredients."

I don't know if Ms. Fussell invented the term "slow journalism," but as soon as I read it it made perfect sense to me. This is the kind of journalism found in the New Yorker, the Smithsonian magazine, The Atlantic , etc. etc. Here's the link to an Atlantic story about the "journalism" behind some of the background stories about Justice Sotomayor when she was nominated to the Supreme Court. Just about any good investigative journalism (the kind people get awarded Pulitzers for but can't afford to work on anymore) qualifies as "slow journalism," and just about anything you get on CNN at the airport or on the news page does NOT.

Personally, I definitely find slow journalism more satisfying (the analogy to fast food can be extended with the point that fast journalism may be tasty to consume at first, but eventually gives you indigestion and has poor nutritional value). I think a lot of the stuff on NPR qualifies, which may be one reason I enjoy listening to it.

Anyway, back to our main topic: the assignment of the week. We are also supposed to make a list of all the media we generally consume during a week, and who owns it, the point being how few companies own so much of the content we consume. In my case, it breaks down something like this (and here's the handy-dandy website that is the source of a lot of this information):
- TV: various shows, mostly on ABC (Disney), NBC (GE), CBS (CBS Corp), Fox (News Corp), and USA (GE).
-Reading: Entertainment Weekly (Time Warner), Star Tribune (Avista Capital Parners[?]), books (Simon and Schuster is owned by CBS, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, etc.)
-Radio: NPR (public, but with corporate & non-profit sponsorships announced on air)
-Internet: (GE), (Time Warner)

Finally, we are supposed to develop an activity "for teaching critical analysis of news." Inspired by the above-mentioned Atlantic article, I would have students pick one recent national story (e.g. the passage of the House health care bill; the Heene family balloon escapade, the aborted Afghan runoff election, etc.). Then I would have them compare as many news stories as they could about that one event: multiple examples of network news coverage, radio, internet stories from various sites, etc. I would have the students discuss how similar or different the stories and images are, whether they think the journalists did independent research or were all drawing from the same sources, and what those sources were.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Advertising Analysis

Our assignment this week had several parts: first we were to pick a specific type of advertising to analyze; then we were to create our own example of that type of ad (either a true example or a parody); and finally we were to develop a class activity for teaching about a TV or magazine ad.

Part 1: Analysis
I decided that it would be fun to analyze movie one-sheets (advertising posters), but I quickly realized that I had to drastically narrow the topic in order to do anything coherent. So, having been annoyed by recent advertising for the movie 2012, I decided to look specifically at one-sheets advertising end-of-the-world disaster movies. Here's my VoiceThread analysis:

Part 2: Example
Of course I had to do a parody here. I used GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program), which looks to be much more powerful than I have time for at the moment, but served my purpose anyway. I made a poster for a movie, trying to include several of the elements I discussed in my VoiceThread: blue color scheme, vertical compositional elements, a tag line, and familiar landmarks being destroyed. And Sir John Gielgud was just the least likely action star I could think of at the moment...

Part 3: Activity
For this activity I would have students choose some product that they like: a video game system, a type of food or drink, a clothing brand, etc. I would have them search for as many ads as they could find in a short time (10-15 minutes), including any medium. Once they have a collection of ads for their product, I would tell the students to analyze the messages of the ads. For example: Who seems to be the target audience for the ads? What values are the ads portraying? What do the ads promise to people who buy the product? Finally, I would have students think about why they like this product, and what relationship (if any) their liking has to the product's advertising campaign. Does analyzing the underlying messages of the advertisement change their opinion of the product at all?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Genre Analysis: Horror

This week's assignment was to work in pairs putting together a presentation about one genre. My partner and I chose to talk about horror films: here's our presentation. The assignment was to discuss themes, typical roles, settings, value assumptions, etc. We came up with a number of sub-categories within the horror genre, including teenage slasher, horror-comedy, and torture porn... It was interesting to think about some of the recurring themes and values that crop up across these movies; for example, the good-verus-evil dichotomy, and the idea that the characters somehow cause their own problems...

The other part of our assignment was to develop an activity to teach about an example of a film or TV genre. Here are the instructions for my suggested activity:
Pick a genre that you do not usually like or watch for your analysis. Interview some of your fellow students and read online reviews to find out what fans of this genre like about it, common themes, etc. Based on this information, choose two examples of the genre to watch (two different films or episodes of two different TV shows) and write a review that includes discussions of the following topics (your review may be submitted in writing or as a video blog):
- why you do not or did not like this genre.
- why fans of this genre do like it.
- common themes found in this genre, including typical characters, settings, values, etc.
- how the two examples you watched were or were not representative of the genre, including brief synopses.
- whether watching examples of the genre did or did not change your opinions about it, and why.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Media Ethnography:

This week’s assignment was to write a brief media ethnography: an exploration of some specific media-consuming audience, their community, rituals, hierarchies, etc. Example topics included a group of friends getting together to watch a sports event, a group playing videogames together (in person or online), a fan group, or a book club, among others.

I chose to write my ethnography about, self-described as “a community weblog discussing the work of TV maker Joss Whedon.”

The way the site works is that members post links to anything newsworthy related to the works of Joss Whedon. Posts range from newspaper and blog articles that analyze or mention Joss’s work to casting calls for current productions to announcements of the upcoming projects of actors who have featured in Joss’s shows to webcomics… and on and on. Since its founding in June 2002 by Caroline van Oosten de Boer, there have been a total of over 18,500 posts to the site. But the posts themselves are only the beginning: each post may have anywhere from zero to 300-some comments, and it is these comment-conversations, I would argue, that make WHEDONesque a community and not just a user-generated news service. In a bit of internet meta-media (or something), there is even a Wikipedia entry about WHEDONesque, which is where I found some of the information in this essay.

Anyone can sign up as a member, but sign-up times are restricted (perhaps due to server or bandwidth issues). I had been reading the site for a while before I was able to register as a member in December 2005. Since then I have checked the site on average once or twice a day to keep up with the gossip and read some of the interesting and/or amusing comment threads. My user profile tells me that I’ve posted 105 comments in the last four years! I know that I’ve very much enjoyed participating in the site, and I feel like I’ve gotten familiar with some of the regular posters as well. I e-mailed a few of them who had their e-mail addresses posted in their profiles, and they were kind enough to answer some questions about what WHEDONesque means to them. It is a small sample, and not meant to be random or representative – I specifically e-mailed people whose usernames I recognized as frequent posters, and obviously the selection was limited to individuals who displayed their e-mail addresses in their profiles.

Continuity and consistency:

One person I e-mailed said that she had been involved since 2002 (the very beginning of the site); the others, like me, joined more recently but “lurking” on the site before registering was common. In general people reported checking the site regularly, from every-other-day to multiple times per day. Not surprisingly, one main reason people mentioned following the site was liking Joss’s work (usually specifically his writing), and relying on WHEDONesque as a consistent source of news. One respondent noted that he will occasionally “post a story if I find something online that miraculously hasn't been posted yet.” In other words, very little seems to escape the notice of WHEDONesque’s collective attention.


One thing I personally like about the site is that it is well moderated with a strong sense of etiquette, which means that discussions are not allowed to devolve into incivility or pettiness. Moderators will warn commenters if their comments are inappropriate, and will block them if the warnings aren’t heeded. Posts with spoilers are carefully marked so readers can avoid them (or seek them out) if they wish; self-referential posts are not allowed (though people are allowed to include links to their own work in comments if it is relevant to the discussion).

In addition to wanting news about Joss and his projects, the appeal of the WHEDONesque community is something mentioned by multiple respondents as an appealing aspect of the site. As one person noted, “folks tend to be (for the most part) bright, sensitive & articulate. Members have [a] wide variety of points of view, interests, and political perspectives, and [WHEDONesque] has neither the (off-putting to me) conservative/libertarian political bent of some of the Firely/Serenity online groups, nor the relentlessly snarky/superior attitudes of some other Whedon-related fandoms.” Discussions do often relate to politics or other sensitive subjects (which is inevitable when you have fictional works that touch on topics like human trafficking, the role of government versus individual rights, and gender and sexuality; not to mention character relationships that can get controversial among emotionally-invested viewers). But thanks to the “culture” of etiquette (and occasional enforcement by the site admins) even the most vigorous comment threads maintain a basically civil tone.

In addition to communication within the site, several survey respondents mentioned engage in other ways, including meeting in person at conventions or parties and communicating on other websites, including other fan sites and Twitter.

And on top of everything else, Joss himself occasionally posts to the site! This was mentioned by several people as being an important reason why they like WHEDONesque - while it is user-generated, sometimes the users include the actual topics of conversation themselves! Joss has no "official" website, so his posts to WHEDONesque add to its sense of "legitimacy," status, coolness, or what-have-you.


The vast majority of posters have equal “status” on the site, except for natural deference to members who are known for their consistency, inside information, or expertise. But there are two groups of posters who are considered different, which is signaled by those individuals’ names appearing in different colors. The names of admins (moderators) appear in orange, and the names of Joss and other people directly involved in his work (writers, actors, etc.) appear in purple. This is convenient on a practical level when a reader is scanning a 300-comment thread to find the Joss post reportedly buried there.


Having Joss’s name appear in purple has also led to some WHEDONesque-specific language, such as referring to Joss as “his purpleness” and his posts as “purple prose.” Other idiosyncratic language has emerged over time. For example, acronyms are widely used to refer to common titles. Also, rather than talk about “panicking” whenever even potentially negative news is posted, people have started to joke about “picnicking” in the comment threads. And what is a running joke but a form of ritual shared by a group of people? This “picnicking” ritual arose especially in regards to the TV show Dollhouse and some members propensity to see cancellation around every corner. A related Dollhouse ritual involves weekly analysis (dissection) of the show’s ratings, both immediately after the episode airs and then when DVR numbers are released a few days later. Other ritual postings include birthday announcements for Joss et al., monthly Q&A links for certain actors, and convention transcripts.

In summary, is a vibrant, diverse community of people who contribute to each others’ enjoyment of creative work. I have enjoyed being a part of it, and look forward to continuing my participation in the future. Many thanks to those who answered my survey questions!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Voicethread: Portrayal of Women Scientists

Our assignment this week was to put together a Voicethread about media representations of some group. The idea is that we would find photos from the Creative Commons - sort of "found photographs" that we could use to illustrate commentary about media representation. I decided to look at images of women scientists... but I unfortunately didn't find much interesting among the creative commons images :( So I went ahead and found images mostly from TV shows and movies (credited where I could find a source, but since this is a work of criticism/commentary I figure it's fair use regardless).

We were also assigned to come up with a classroom assignment, so here's mine:

Choose one group or concept with which you identify (e.g. male, student, Buddhist, cheerleader, waiter, etc. etc.). Find an assortment of visual representations of this group from a variety of sources, including fictional and non-fictional portrayals. Develop two different Voicethread presentations using the images you find, with two different arguments about what the representations show. For example, you could create one presentation arguing that mothers are generally portrayed as happy, unflappable "super-moms"; and a second presentation arguing that mothers are portrayed as harried, flustered, overwhelmed professionals. The purpose of this assignment is to increase your awareness of the messages conveyed by media representations, and also to alert you to how selective or subjective analysis can be used to manipulate findings.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Video Clip Analysis: The Mentalist

Our assignment for this week was to take two different analytical approaches to a video clip of our choice. The array of analytical approaches included Marxist, feminist, psychological, deconstructionst, racial, rhetorical, postcolonial, etc. The possibilities being almost endless for this assignment, I settled on analyzing something I saw quite recently: a scene from last week's episode of The Mentalist. The clip is here (sorry if there's a commercial at the beginning).

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, the blonde man is the title character, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), a civilian consultant who works with the fictional California Bureau of Investigation. The woman in this clip is Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), the CBI team leader; the other guy's role is pretty self-explanatory.

Let's start with a race-oriented analysis. The main characters in this scene, as in most TV shows, are white; their race is pretty much never commented on. (One of the other series-regular characters is Korean, a fact that has been portrayed as relevant to his life a few times over the course of the show.) The third character initially speaks in Spanish-accented English, but then switches to unaccented English partway through the scene. (In this case I think language serves as the only clear racial marker for the character, since his physical appearance seems racially ambiguous.) The character uses a non-native accent to reinforce his low-status facade; once it is clear that he has power relative to the other characters, he drops the accent. This is actually a somewhat layered situation, in that it is a choice of the character, the Fixer, to play on stereotypes in his portrayal of a harmless, blend-into-the-background janitor. However, this being fiction, the choice of the character is ultimately the choice of the creators; I don't know whether the language change was written into the script or was a contribution of the actor, but nevertheless it was a deliberate choice. By switching to the same speech register as the main characters, the Fixer demonstrated that he believed his accented speech had caused them to underestimate him. If non-native-accented speech did not serve to reduce perceived threat, the character would not have bothered to assume it as part of his disguise.

A slightly less convoluted interpretation is that the language shift simply served as an additional signal to the audience that the Fixer was totally different than he appeared. He was not simply a janitor who had been paid to snoop at the office, for example. In other words, it could have been used as a practical short-hand in a busy scene to make sure that the audience could understand what was going on. But even so, the underlying implications about status, power, and language remain pretty much the same.

For my second analytical approach I'll take a feminist perspective. I was actually pleasantly surprised by a couple things in this scene. In the bad old days of TV, it would've always been the woman who was physically menaced by the bad guy, while the male hero watched anxiously and/or attempted to save her. In this scene, however, it is the male lead who is placed in direct physical jeopardy. The Fixer threatens Jane in order to disarm Lisbon, whose gun made her a specific physical threat. The interactions in the scene are primarily defined by the characters' roles: i.e. cop, civilian, and criminal, rather than by the characters' genders. This continues throughout the rest of the clip, as Jane hesitates to chase the dangerous guy after he leaves, and Lisbon is the one to run up to the car after the crash. From a feminist perspective this seems very refreshing: it's not that the characters' genders are ignored or suppressed, just that they are somewhat irrelevant compared to the other dynamics at play in this particular scenario.

There are other aspects to consider with regard to gender portrayals, such as Lisbon's hairstyle and choice of clothing, but relative to other TV shows The Mentalist seems pretty egalitarian. For example, Lisbon generally wears practical shoes rather than heels, and Jane's coiffure is at least as impressive as that of the female regulars.

The second part of this assignment is to describe how students could apply our two analytical approaches to other related films, tv shows, etc. Here's my idea:

Each student should watch at least ten different previews for procedural/legal/mystery TV shows. These could all be for one show, or for multiple different shows; they could be from past and/or current shows. Students should make note of the race, gender, and apparent role (e.g. police officer, attorney, suspect, victim) of each character that appears in the previews. Are there any patterns within or across shows? If the shows are from different time periods, are there any noticable changes across time? Is it possible to draw any conclusions about the portrayal of race or gender in these shows from such short samples? Students should examine features such as clothing, use of language, lighting, music, body language, etc. to discuss how characters are portrayed. This is also an opportunity to discuss how TV previews are created: what choices are involved in putting together a preview, and what do these choices say about the creator, the audience, etc.? This assignment could be done individually or in groups, either during class or as a take-home assignment.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Adventures of Bagpipe Llama

Our in-class assignment today was to learn how to use iMovie. We were asked to bring in a few photos and little movie clips, with no particular content, just to play around with in iMovie. I had a nicely eclectic collection, including clips of my brother's dogs, my mom's bagpipe band, last night's pasta on the boil, etc.

Unfortunately, the classroom Mac I borrowed for the evening did not like the .mov files I had, and refused to import them into iMovie! My very nice neighbor was able to convert one of the clips to a different kind of .mov using his copy of Quicktime Pro, which made iMovie happy. I didn't want to impose on the neighbor by asking him to convert all of my clips, so I just stuck with the one.

The upshot is, I had about half an hour to create a little movie using one short video clip and a couple random photos that I'd thrown on the jump drive last night. I had been thinking that I would work on the movie much more at home, incorporating additional clips, dialogue/title cards, etc. etc., but our instructor said not to bother - we should just post whatever we'd finished in class.

So, knowing the context, I hope you enjoy the movie - I'm sure whatever narration or dialogue you imagine while watching will be at least as amusing as anything I would've come up with.

This one's dedicated to you, Sarah :)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Activity for teaching film

Our assignment this week was to create a short activity for teaching film. There's a class wiki where students in previous semesters have posted their ideas; it also has a bunch of useful external links, such as a New York Magazine article on becoming screen literate. So, here's my contribution:

Activity for Teaching Film: What makes a good movie?

Instructions for student groups: Pick a year and find out the five films that earned the most at the box office that year, as well as the films that were nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. For example, in 2008 the top five earning films were The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Hancock, and WALL-E. The five Best Picture nominees were The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire.

Discuss the similarities and differences among these films. Features to discuss include budget, use of special effects, cast, director, genre, length, marketing (both for the original release and for the Oscar competition), and any other factors you can think of. If you choose a year that is not very recent, discuss which of the films you have seen or heard of – does either award nomination or box office success seem to predict longevity? What criteria do you think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are using to select nominees? What criteria do you think determine the financial success of a film? Why do you think various criteria do and don’t overlap in the two categories? What are your personal criteria for a “good” movie?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Survivor: Samoa, week 2

Well, I skipped watching the premier of Flash Forward so I could see the second episode of Survivor. I'm hoping I can catch up with FF online...

Survivor continues to be disappointing. The person kicked off tonight was one of the people I liked best: a police officer who totally saw through to the sleaziness of the loathsome villain guy. But people kept referring to her as the "weak link," implying that because she was "old" (maybe mid 40s?) she somehow wasn't an asset to the team. I would FAR rather have her on my team in one of these challenges than the tiny soft-looking twenty-somethings (although I suppose I risk dismissing them as rudely as Mr. Villain by referring to them that way...)

My hope that there would be Samoan cultural references related to the rugby-game challenge was not fulfilled, unfortunately. There were rugby-shaped balls and some scrum-like activity, but the word "rugby" was never uttered, much less any references to Samoan culture. Oh, well. I don't think the show is going to hold my attention much longer -- it's too dissatisfying on too many levels.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

VideoANT: analysis of a Volkswagon commercial

Our class assignment for this week was to take a video clip - part of a film, a commercial, whatever - and annotate it using this cool U of M program called VideoANT. Here's what I did:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Survivor: Samoa

I've decided that since this is a media blog, I'm going to blog about media stuff whenever I feel like it, in addition to writing for class assignments.

Having been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Samoa, I was morally obligated to watch tonight's season premier of Survivor: Samoa. Things started off ok, with the contestants paddling to shore in traditional outrigger canoes. Also, a fair amount of the set decorations have at least vaguely Samoan-looking patterns on them. However, of the few Samoan words that were used, most were mispronounced. Saying the name of the country with an American accent is one thing, quite understandable; but one of the two main team names (i.e. a word that will be repeated many, many times throughout the series) is egregiously mispronounced by everybody. The word is "galu." The host - and consequently everyone else - pronounces this "ga LOO" with a hard /g/ as in "gap." Now, in the Samoan language, the letter "g" is pronounced "ng," as in the last sound of the word "sing." (If only I knew how to get an IPA font on Blogspot!) In addition, almost universally, the second-to-last syllable in a word gets the emphasis. So the word in question should be pronounced "NGA loo." It seems to me that it wouldn't have been terribly difficult to ask someone about this before filming... on the other hand, the show makes it look like the country is completely unpopulated aside from the contestants, so maybe asking a local for help with pronunciation would've ruined the illusion.

(Galu means "wave," by the way; the other team name is Foa Foa, which means "conch shell." They didn't say this in the show - I had to look them up in my Samoan-English dictionary, which I imagine is not a resource that most CBS viewers have readily at hand.)

There were some very pretty establishing shots of the rainforest, coastal blowholes, and lagoons. Again, no indication of any local inhabitants. This is the first time I've ever watched Survivor, so maybe it's their standard operating procedure to use their locations merely as a physical backdrop rather than showing any interest in language, culture, history, etc. On the other hand, this was only the first episode - in the preview for next week it looks like they've got some variation of rugby going on for one of the challenges, which is definitely culturally relevant.

But will I watch next week? The reasons I've never watched before still hold true: I do not find the individualist-competitive-cutthroat premise to be entertaining. In fiction, sure, but when "real" people are involved I would much rather watch something that rewards teamwork and resourcefulness (not to be confused with deviousness).

On the other hand, I am tempted to see if they manage to incorporate anything of Samoa into the show, beyond superficial design motifs and insultingly mispronounced team names (I mean, come on, if they really cared wouldn't they at least TRY to get it right, or take two seconds to explain why the names were chosen?). Also, there is an utterly loathsome "villain" participant whom I would very much like to see kicked off the show. He established clearly that he is there to manipulate and betray people. He actually called himself the "puppet master" to the camera, and refers to most of his female teammates as "dumb girls." His expressed purpose in participating is to demonstrate how easy it is to win the show with his strategies. I find myself thinking that if he wins this competition, it will prove once and for all that the universe is unjust... which provides pretty strong motivation to keep watching. No wonder this show is still on the air.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

my first vlog

Rather than trying to come up with an interesting way to talk about myself, I decided to do a little movie review... and it turned into 5 1/2 minutes, for which I apologize. I hope it's not tedious!

Also, apparently I've got something wrong with my coding, because the video covers up the last paragraph of this entry :( Don't worry, there's nothing that scintillating that you're missing, but I still need to get the glitch figured out.

And by the way, I'd also like to complain that my Logitech webcam seems only capable of recording in windows movie format! This wouldn't have been that big a deal except that the nifty freeware video editor I found can't open those files. Oh well, some kinks to be worked out of the system. I shouldn't whine too much because we do have Vegas editing software in the lab so it wasn't even that inconvenient for me to do the editing. It's just that I had all these lovely plans about being able to play around with editing at home... it still might happen, we shall see.

Friday, September 11, 2009

vlog review

Before I jump into my vlog review, I want to say that I was really impressed with the video diaries from the Christel & Sullivan CD. They were interesting (visually, compositionally, storytelling-ly) and thoughtful and overall very well done. However, I thought they were better examples of short films than vlogs. They were the culmination of a semester's worth of planning, whereas typical vlogs (it seems to me) have to be constructed on a much shorter timescale.

Anyway, the vlog I want to review is the Karen Alloy piece about 2012 that was embedded in the MinnPost article about Minnesota vlogging. I'm not sure about the demographics of her intended audience; she has over 16,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel, so presumably she is mostly addressing them, as well as general viewership that's given her feedback over time; and other people that she would like to recruit as subscribers. I was impressed with the amount of information she managed to cram into her five-minute vlog, though my academic side was dismayed that she didn't cite any sources. (Come to think of it, that would be a problem in the field of journalism too, not just in academia. Interesting question - this makes no claim to be a news or academic vlog, but does the author have any responsibility to cite sources, etc. anyway?)

As for technique, Alloy demonstrated impressive energy and charisma in the vlog, using lots of jump cuts (I think... this is where knowing more filmmaking vocabulary would help) to liven up her five minutes of "talking head" footage. However, I found myself frequently wondering when she was going to stop for breath! I felt her pacing was frenetic rather than appealing. I imagine that this, along with her casual speaking style, is designed to appeal to a young audience (it's hard to judge how old Alloy is, but I'm guessing that she is targeting her age-peers).

Overall this was a polished, well-prepared presentation. Alloy never appeared to be reading, despite the large amount of text she had to get through; my complaints about pacing aside, she did appear engaged and comfortable throughout. Probably a good role model in many ways for wannabe vloggers.

video library

Seeing all the great DVDs in class on Thursday made me think it would be fun to offer my own collection up to the class for loan. There are a few things from the UK that are DVD region 2, which means they can't be played on normal US DVD players; I'm not sure if they'll play on a computer or not, but you're welcome to try! Here's the list; let me know if there's anything you'd like to borrow.

About A Boy
Alien Nation (complete series)
Angel (seasons 1-5)
Around the World in 80 Days (miniseries)
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
A Bit of Fry and Laurie (seasons 1 & 2)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (seasons 1-7)
The Anton Chekhov Collection (BBC productions of Platonov, The Wood Demon, The Proposal, The Wedding, The Seagull, An Artist’s Story, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.)
The Colour of Magic (miniseries, region 2)
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog
Dollhouse (season 1)
Firefly (complete series)
The Fugitive
Ghost World
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
High Fidelity
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (series)
Hogfather (miniseries, region 2)
Hot Fuzz
House (seasons 1-5)
The Incredibles
Keeping the Faith
Life on Mars (complete UK series, region 2)
Love Actually
Monk (pilot episode)
The Mummy
Neverwhere (miniseries)
Northern Exposure (seasons 1 & 2)
Pirates of the Caribbean
Pitch Black
The Princess Bride
The Quick and the Dead
Rain Man
Remington Steele (season 1)
Shaun of the Dead
The Shawshank Redemption
Sliding Doors
Sports Night (complete series)
The Terminal
This American Life (season 2)
Titan A.E.
When Harry Met Sally

New Blog

Welcome to my new blog! I'll be posting regularly this fall in the context of CI5472: Teaching Film, Television, and Media Studies. Topics will vary, but it's a safe bet there'll be a lot about media and media literacy. Enjoy!