Monday, October 10, 2011

The Black Power Mixtape: review

The new film "The Black Power Mixtape" is a bit of a disappointment to me as someone who was raised with an awareness of the civil rights era. I had hoped that the film would truly give some insight into the Black Power movement, but overall it is a very loose collection of very brief snippets of interviews with black power representatives.
There's a director attributed to it, Goran Olsson, but he's much more of an editor here than a director: the film is a collection of interviews done by Swedish television between 1967-1975, interviews looking at the changing civil rights movement, and influential black figures between those years.
I was hoping to get a better knowledge of Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and others in the movement, but instead the film gives short historical narratives rather than character study.
Does it have any value apart from my enjoying it or not? It has some value as a historical record, but again only in snippets. There's a section on 1974 Harlem that looks at the drug problem there and the growth of the Nation of Islam under Louis Farrakhan that holds some interest. There's a powerful interview with a former prostitute, a black bookstore owner, a Vietnam war veteran struggling with drug abuse, and some horrific shots of emaciated babies of drug victims. Actually, in terms of documentary work, this holds some of the most powerful raw footage in the film. However, it feels again like a chapter in a narrative that doesn't really have a trajectory.
I'm reminded of the latest film by Michael Moore, "Capitalism: A Love Story," in which Moore railed against global capitalism by means of a few separate stories. However, the stories never really coalesced into a coherent narrative. The same thing here.
It's also a rather strange documentary in another way: the filmmakers have voiceover commentary by poets and others who reflect on the footage in the film, just as we're seeing it. It feels almost like one of those DVD commentary things, and removes you a little bit from the footage.
Some of the commenters actually were of greater interest to me than the footage: I knew nothing about Talib Kweli before this film, nor of John Forte, Sonia Sanchez, or Abiudon Oyewole. Their commentary in many cases interested me more than the footage I was watching, which was often quite generic.
If the filmmakers had gone between these historical scenes and shown the modern-day life of people like Belafonte, Davis and younger people like Kweli and John Forte, I think it could have been a fascinating comparison-contrast film. As it is, unless you're totally new to learning about the civil rights era in the States, it won't expose too much new material to you.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Diary of A Shipper

“The morning ends
I think about you
I talk to friends
I think about you
And do they know
It's like I'm losing my mind
All afternoon doing every little chore
The thought of you stays bright
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left
Not going right…”
-“Losing My Mind,” Stephen Sondheim

In November of 2010, I became obsessed with a fictional relationship. It started the Thursday before Thanksgiving when channelsurfing out of boredom I stopped to check out the NBC sitcom “Community.” I’d only casually glanced at the show before that night, and I’d mostly dismissed it as too silly. The scene I turned on that night was a wild gunfight that ended with what I thought was the line, “She really took to inception.”

Thinking that they were mocking Inception, and being a huge fan of the movie, I went on Hulu to watch the episode, only to find out I’d misheard the quote. The episode had no relation to Inception at all.

What it did have was Jeff and Annie, and that’s where my problem began.

People often say that they’re “addicted” to their favorite shows. And more and more programs are meant to get you addicted- if you miss one episode of Heroes or 24, you can easily lose track of the plot. But a TV show addiction can go beyond just watching every episode, like Star Trek fans who learn to speak Klingon, or the Lost fans who spout theories all over the Internet about what caused the crash of Oceanic Flight 815.

I came from a family with a history of addictions, and I knew I was vulnerable. I had an addiction to running as a teenager and gotten bone thin before my doctor talked sense into me.

And I’d been addicted to TV shows before, like NBC’s show “Heroes.” I watched it religiously, visited the website for bonus videos, and I’d walk down the street imagining scenes in my head. But even that was never more than a fun distraction. What happened with NBC’s “Community” was a completely new level of addiction.

On “Community,” the talk show host Joel McHale plays Jeff Winger, a handsome and sly lawyer in his mid-30s. Jeff is disbarred after his colleagues find out he faked every degree since high school. To get back his degree, he agrees to head back to school at a local low-rent community college. It’s an absurd premise fitting the show’s wry sense of humor. The show centers on Jeff’s life at Greendale Community College, where he gradually makes friends with the campus’ misfits and weirdos, especially those in his Spanish study group.

It’s there that Jeff becomes friends with Annie Edison, a straight-laced teenager and former Adderall addict. Annie’s a Type A personality, proper, modest, conservative and dedicated to her studies. She was kicked out of an Ivy League school after a nervous breakdown in which she jumped out of a classroom window screaming “Everybody’s a robot!” As she struggles to put her life back together, like Jeff, she finds common ground with Jeff.

I didn’t know any of this before I turned on the show that November night. In that episode, Annie and Jeff had teamed up to solve a mystery on their campus, which culminated a fake gunfight. There, Annie told Jeff she loved him but couldn’t stand how he’d rejected her after their kiss the summer before. Then she shot him twice in the chest. With blanks, of course, but it still got me interested.

So I googled “Jeff Annie kiss” and found one on YouTube, from an episode where they had teamed up to lead Greendale’s debate team against another College. At the end of the debate, Annie passionately kissed Jeff, though it turned out to be a ploy Annie used to win the debate for the school.

Even with a huge difference in age and temperaments, there was electricity between them. And in further searching, I found the other kiss, the one Annie’d referred to, a longer and deeper one than the one before which was real for them both.
I realized then that I was getting kind of hooked on Jeff and Annie’s story, on whether they would or wouldn’t end up together. And I wasn’t alone: 72,000 people had watched the debate kiss clip, and another 23,000 the finale kiss. I found at least 15 different Jeff/Annie fan videos on YouTube, each with thousands of viewers.

Part of the reason for the intense online fandom was that Jeff and Annie were not the couple that the show’s producers seemed to have in mind when they wrote the show. In the beginning, all signs were that Jeff’s main romantic interest on the series was supposed to be Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) a activist type with a heart of gold beneath a steely exterior, with a very similar sarcastic attitude to that of Jeff.

The writers had written the debate episode intending to play the Jeff and Annie kiss for laughs, but instead as the actors themselves said, an unexpected chemistry emerged. And with it, thousands of fans started pouring on the Net, expressing that they now preferred a Jeff/Annie pairing to that of Jeff/Britta. Sites like Facebook, Entertainment Weekly, the IMDB, were all filled with cheers from fans writing “JEFF AND ANNIE ALL THE WAY!” and “GO TEAM JEFF/ANNIE!” or ‘GO JEANNIE!” for short. I found it all silly, but pretty soon I found I was posting cheers along with them.

That’s when I discovered there was a name for my new passion: “shipping.” Wikipedia defines it as a fan who develops an emotional investment in a fictional romantic relationship, whether in a book, movie or tv series. Usually, shippers are especially drawn to relationships that are unlikely to be consummated or face obstacles. If you ever met an X-Files fan who would argue for hours about why Mulder and Scully should be together, you’ve probably met a shipper.

If you’ve heard of women rooting for “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob” in Twilight, you’ve heard about shippers. You can usually tell if there’s a “ship,” a group of people shipping for a certain couple, if there’s a Team (with a capital T) for the couple. Team Harry/Hermione, Team Mulder/Scully, Team Jack/Kate from “Lost” “or Sawyer/Kate, also known as Skate.

Shippers are most recognizable by their online activities. Many create YouTube fan videos, music video tributes that show their couple in slo-mo at their most romantic moments, typically with a girl rock or emo soundtrack. Some create fan blogs like one “Community” fan’s blog “Fuck Yeah Jeff and Annie!” which tracks the show each week for signs of the Jeff/Annie relationship blooming. Other fans write short stories or “fanfic” where the couple finally consummates their relationship, in x-rated detail.

And just about every shipper at some point posts comments online when the show or the actors are mentioned on a website, as a sports fan would do when there was a game coming up for their team.

Shipping for Jeff and Annie seemed innocent enough at first. I’d put up a “GO JEFF AND ANNIE!” comment or two on entertainment blogs after they reviewed the latest episode of the show, and I joined a “Britta vs. Annie” debate on Facebook. However, mostly thinking about Jeff and Annie was a fun distraction from work.

But slowly I began taking the two of them home with me. I imagined scenes between the two of them on my ride home from work, or as I made breakfast and changed clothes in the morning. Then they started showing up in places they didn’t belong.

On December 5, the first Sunday of Advent, I brought Jeff and Annie with me to church. As I knelt in my pew, the preacher stood at the altar preparing communion, and my mind wandered back to Greendale, going over the evidence that Jeff and Annie were destined to be together.

“It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give you thanks Lord…”
He danced with her that night at the Halloween party in Season 1…
“Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and earth…”
And that look he gave her in Episode 15, at the study table. You could tell he wanted her…
“Because you sent your beloved son to redeem us from sin and death…”
But then he had that drunken makeout with Britta last week. What was that about?
“For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory forever…”
I wonder if they'll do anything in the Christmas episode...

My fandom soon became an ongoing argument in my head about why Jeff and Annie were a perfect match, in spite of their age differences. They had become in my mind what the shippers call the show’s OTP: “one true pairing,” the pair that was meant to be together.

I started seeing Jeff and Annie in every romance on TV. Anywhere a jaded cynic was falling for a young romantic, I saw Jeff and Annie. Anytime a brunette and a brown-haired man looked into each other’s eyes, I saw Jeff and Annie.

Then there was the music. Every time I heard a love song, love unrequited, forbidden love, eternal love, twisted love, I thought about Jeff and Annie.

I also felt myself getting more attracted any woman who showed a hint of Annie-ness, a youthful curvy figure, long black hair, or a winning smile.

As with any addiction though, there were the lows along with highs. If I watched an episode during primetime, I’d lie awake at night thinking about Jeff, Annie, and on the bad nights, Britta. Any episode that hinted at a Jeff/Britta hookup left me feeling like I had been cheated on.

I probably should have realized things had gone too far when I began looking online for Team Annie merchandise. When I searched NBC’s site, and found nothing, I began looking for other “Team Annie” goods online, even if they had nothing to do with “Community.”

I found a family in Minnesota that had started selling “Team Annie” bracelets and t-shirts to raise money for cancer prevention; their Annie was a relative who’d died of breast cancer. When I emailed them my request for a “Team Annie” bracelet, they asked how I had known Annie. When I said I didn’t, they asked why I wanted the bracelet, and I probably should have lied and made up a cancer survivor friend of my own. My honest answer about wanting to represent for Jeff and Annie while helping to cure cancer never got a reply.

The turning point came one Saturday night in January, when I started trying to make a Jeff/Annie music video. I took downloaded scenes from the show and used the soundtrack from the movie trailer for “Blue Valentine”. After about two hours, I couldn’t quite get the images and the audio to sync up right, and I was getting quite frustrated.

Then I had a flash of insight. These music videos could take hours if not days to make, and people all over the world were dedicating their free time to this, to making videos about fictional romances. And what I and others were dedicating ourselves to would never really pay us back; even if Community's creators listened to my prayers and put Jeff and Annie together in the end, then what?

I and the other shippers would spend some time congratulating ourselves and replay the moments in our heads, but what then? Did Jeff and Annie offer anything besides distraction?

I resolved that night to try to stop my shipping. After reading a passage in a self-help book which talked about imagining a dialogue with your demons, I decided to hash it out with Jeff and Annie, specifically Annie, on whom I had been the most fixated.

I told her that I had had to give up shipping, because I knew she and the show were fantasies, although sweet ones. Annie, being the sweet young woman she is, politely apologized for having taken up so much of my time.

I've since gradually tried to stop watching the show, which has since taken on a new tack of creating a relationship for Annie with another, more age-appropriate character. Part of me grieves and is angry at the creators for the switch. But most of me realizes that as soon as this became this important, I needed to stop watching the show completely, which thankfully I have.

When I started shipping, I thought to myself that it was at least better than watching porn. But now I question that. Whatever its addictive potential, when I or others watch porn, we're not likely to form an emotional attachment to the pair on screen. We know we’re watching fantasy, a product meant to manipulate and excite them. We can get our jollies and then go on with the rest of the day.

With shipping, I became emotionally invested in something just as fabricated as porn, but seeming at times to mean more. There’s a danger giving way too much emotional weight to a 22-minute distraction mostly meant to sell advertisements.

I still think about Jeff and Annie sometimes, and I occasionally Google the show to see where the plot's left off. But for the most part, I no longer spend my waking life obsessing over them. When I eat, change clothes, ride the train, or pray to God, my mind is back to obsessing over normal things- how I look, why my job sucks, and where to take my girlfriend for dinner.

Though I've not forgotten Jeff and Annie completely, I've at least accepted the need and the benefits of giving up my ship. It's good riddance to what is possibly the best rubbish I've ever had.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"MOSCOW" by Mikhail Kaufman

I just watched Kaufman's propaganda film Moscow. First off, I should remember next time that when they say these films are silent, sometimes they mean COMPLETELY silent, no score behind it or anything, which was the case here.
There were some fascinating moments. A lot of it was the little stuff. Somewhere between Les Halles Centrales and this film, I really got the sense of hustling and bustling markets. Open air markets. Sewing machines. People creating clothing. People selling clothing.
The telephone switchboard operators, linking up all the different calls.
The butchers and people hauling sacks of vegetables.
The electric lamp factory workers.
Lots of shots of vendors and merchants, and people heading to work in industrial settings or markets.
Transportation-there were a ton of shots of transportation, some gorgeous shots of Moscow's parks, and bikers going through there, a few on motorbikes, but mostly on bicycles.
It was interesting how the film seemed to become least enticing when the shots were of things that are hard to film: meetings of elected leaders, meetings of commercial groups, how in the hell in a documentary film do you make a sit-down meeting look interesting?
The film felt very didactic though, very much like a lesson. Besides some playful moments messing with forward and backward motions around people diving and swimming, it was mostly very straightforward.
Liked the shots of children in public orphanages- bathing, eating, in cribs.
Liked the shots of the amusement park carousel- that was actually inspired.
The shots of the homeless children in the streets.
It was basically a very straightforward praise of Moscow in the time of Stalin, and an interesting introduction to the city. I've never been there before, but the film makes me interested. How different would it look now from the city of then? Back then it was all streetcars, bikes and horse-drawn wagons. I wonder how much that's changed.
Playing chess in parks- that still goes on.
The zoo and museumgoers, taking in the sights.
There were some good shots of horse races as well. That was quite beautiful, though overlong.
The cuts were super-quick though, and in some cases the camera was moving so much I felt like I was back in the Blair Witch Project. It was like the Moscow chase scene in Bourne Supremacy, without Bourne or any supremacy.
The film did best when it stuck with the lives of common people. Had some nice shots of workers' villages springing up near town.
It really painted Moscow as a place where the poor were coming to work from other parts of the USSR and Asia, the same way we here in America like to think about New York. There was even a building back then called "The Stalin Bureau for Oppressed Peoples".
So much of the stuff that was being done there, the manufacturing especially, seems invisible here. But if I was to do a documentary about a month at a supermarket, I wonder...could I get that kind of access?