I’ve spent the last month working on an essay called “Videographic Criticism as Digital Humanities Method” for the second edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities. The full essay should be online soon for open peer review, but I want to share three excerpts that feature numerous video examples, as the blog is an easier site to embed and control the layout, and I am including more examples here than will be in the book version. Plus these are presented as “conversation starters,” so I hope they provoke some comments here!

The first excerpt frames the mode of “research experiment” that videographic work can do, via the PechaKucha form that I previously presented as part of our summer workshop – here it is:

Where the possibilities of videographic method get most intriguing is via the combination of the computational possibilities of video editing software with the poetics of expression via sounds and images. The former draws from scientific-derived practices of abstraction that is common to digital humanities: taking coherent cultural objects like novels or paintings and transforming them into something less humanistic, like datasets or graphs. The latter draws from artistic practices of manipulation and collage: taking coherent cultural objects and transforming them into the raw materials to create something more unusual, unexpected, and strange. Videographic criticism can loop the extremes of this spectrum between scientific quantification and artistic poeticization together, creating works that transform films and media into new objects that are both data-driven abstractions and aesthetically expressive. I will outline three such possibilities that I have developed, using case studies of films that I know well and have used in the classroom, hoping to discover new insights into familiar texts.

The model of poeticized quantification that I am proposing resembles the vector of literary analysis that Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann call “deformative criticism.”[1] Such an approach strives to make the original work strange in some unexpected way, deforming it unconventionally to reveal its structure and discover something new from it. Both Stephen Ramsay and Mark Sample extend Samuels and McGann’s model of deformances into the computational realm, considering how algorithms and digital transformations might create both new readings of old cultural objects and new cultural objects out of old materials.[2] This seems like an apt description of what videographic criticism can do: creating new cultural works composed from moving images and sound that reflect upon their original source materials. While all video essays might be viewed as deformances, I want to explore a strain of videographic practice that emphasizes the algorithmic elements of such work.

One way to deform a film algorithmically is through a technique borrowed from conceptual art: imposition of arbitrary parameters. From Oulipo, the collective of French artists who pioneered “constrained writing,” to proto-videographic artworks like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho or Christian Marclay’s The Clock, to obsessive online novelties of alphabetized remixes of films like ARST ARSW (Star Wars) and Of Oz The Wizard (The Wizard of Oz), artists have used rules and parameters to unleash creativity and generate works that emerge less from aesthetic intent than unexpected generative outcomes. We can adopt such an unorthodox approach to scholarship as well, allowing ourselves to be surprised by what emerges when we process our dataset of sounds and images using seemingly arbitrary parameters. One such approach is a concept that Christian Keathley and I devised as part of our workshop: a videographic PechaKucha. This format was inspired by oral PechaKuchas, a form of “lightning talk” consisting of exactly 20 slides lasting exactly 20 seconds, resulting in a strictly parametered presentation. Such parameters force decisions that override critical or creative intent, and offer helpful constraints on our worse instincts toward digression or lack of concision.

A videographic PechaKucha adopts the strict timing from its oral cousin, while focusing its energies on transforming its source material. It consists of precisely 10 video clips from the original source, each lasting precisely 6 seconds, overlaid upon a one-minute segment of audio from the original source. There are no mandates for content, for ideas, for analysis—it is only a recipe to transform a film into a one-minute video derivation or deformance. In doing videographic PechaKuchas ourselves, with our workshop participants, and with our undergraduate students, we have found that the resulting videos are all quite different in approach and style despite their uniform length and rhythm. For instance, Tracy Cox-Stanton transforms the film Belle du Jour into a succession of shots of main character Séverine vacantly drifting through rooms and her environment, an element of the film that is far from central to the original’s plot and themes.

Or Corey Creekmur compiles images of doors being open and shut in The Magnificent Ambersons to highlight both a visual and thematic motif from the film.

In such instances, the highly parametric exercise allows the critic discover and express something about each film through manipulation and juxtaposition that would be hard to discern via conventional viewing, and even harder to convey so evocatively via writing.

I started using this exercise in my teaching last semester – in a narrative theory course, students were asked to make a PechaKucha of one of the films we had viewed together in the course, with the only requirement that they not try to retell the same story as the film presents. For a sense of the range of possibilities, here are two PechaKuchas for Barton Fink, created by different pairs of students:

Such PechaKuchas follow arbitrary parameters to force a type of creativity and discovery that belies typical academic intent, but they are still motivated by the critic’s insights into the film, aiming to express something. A more radically arbitrary deformance removes intent altogether, allowing the parameters to work upon the film and removing the critic’s agency. I devised the concept for a videographic PechaKucha randomizer, which would randomly select the 10 video clips and assemble them on top of a random minute of audio; Mark Sample and Daniel Houghton executed my concept by creating a Python script to generate random PechaKuchas from any source video. The resulting videos feel like the intentionally designed PechaKucha videos that I and others have made with their uniform length and rhythm, but the content is truly arbitrary and random, including repeated clips, idiosyncratic moments from closing credits, undefined sound effects, and oddly timed clips that include edits from the original film. And yet they are just as much of a distillation of the original film as those made intentionally, and as such have the possibility to teach us something about the source text or create affective engagement with the deformed derivation.

Just as the algorithmic Twitter bots created by Mark Sample or Darius Kazemi produce a fairly low signal-to-noise ratio, most randomly generated PechaKuchas are less than compelling as stand-alone media objects; however, they can be interesting and instructive paratexts, highlighting elements from the original film or evoking particular resonances via juxtaposition, and prompting unexpectedly provocative misreadings or anomalies.

For instance, in a generated PechaKucha from Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice touts the accuracy of Stormtroopers as the video shows a clip of them missing their target in a blaster fight, randomly resonating with a popular fan commentary on the film.

Another generated PechaKucha of Mulholland Drive distills the film down to the love story between Betty and Rita, highlighting the key audio moment of Betty confessing her love with most clips drawn from scenes between the two characters; the resulting video feels like a (sloppy but dedicated) fannish remix celebrating their relationship.

A generated PechaKucha of All the President’s Men is anchored by one of the film’s most iconic lines, while the unrelated images focus our attention on patterns of shot composition and framing, freed by our inattention to narrative.

There are nearly infinite possibilities of how algorithmic videos like these might create new deformations that could help teach us something new about the original film, or constitute a compelling videographic object on its own merits. Each act of deformative videographic criticism takes approximately two minutes to randomly create itself, generating endless unforeseen critical possibilities.

Next time: a videographic take on another film studies deformance, Nicholas Rombes’s 10/40/70 project.

[1] Lisa Samuels and Jerome J. McGann, “Deformance and Interpretation,” New Literary History 30, no. 1 (1999): 25–56.
[2] Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011); Mark Sample, “Notes towards a Deformed Humanities,” Sample Reality, May 2012, http://www.samplereality.com/2012/05/02/notes-towards-a-deformed-humanities/.

One of the outcomes for the Scholarship in Sound and Image workshop we hosted in June is a forthcoming book, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image, that Christian Keathley and I are writing/editing. I’ve written a chapter focused on copyright and fair use issues, which I have posted below for open commentary and feedback before we send the book to press. I’d appreciate anyone who is interested in videographic criticism or remix video to let me know if this chapter covers your questions about copyright, as well as copyright experts letting me know if you think anything should be clarified or changed. Thanks in advance!

[Note: this post has been updated following thoughtful feedback from Steve Anderson and Kevin Ferguson. I will continue to update it with any revisions to maintain it as a useful open resource.]

But Is Any Of This Legal?: Some Notes About Copyright and Fair Use

There comes a time in any discussion about videographic criticism where the question of copyright comes up.  As with any form of culture that involves making something new out of materials created by others, videographic criticism raises key issues around notions of ownership, authorship, originality, and ethics.  We cannot be comprehensive in such a short volume, and luckily there are many useful resources available to educators and scholars listed at the end of this chapter — including a videographic exploration of the topic, Eric Faden’s ‘A Fair(y) Use Tale’, which explains copyright and fair use via an assemblage of clips from Disney animated films.  This chapter provides only a brief overview to the topic, hopefully reassuring videographic practitioners and teachers that what they aim to do is (probably) legal.

A few important caveats.  First and foremost, we are not lawyers and this is not legal advice!  As with any practice that might tread into thorny legal areas, it is up to you to decide how much risk you are willing to take, and research the particular issues that might arise in consultation with experts.  We will note that for those videographic makers and teachers working at universities, institutions tend to be quite risk-averse, so you should know that if you ask your university lawyers or copyright experts if what you are doing is legal, odds are they will say ‘no’.  Likewise, you could always ask permission to use copyrighted material in videographic work, but in most instances (especially if the original is owned by a commercial media company), the answer will be to decline the request. It is debateable as to whether proceeding with what might be considered a fair use after the rights holder has refused permission strengthens or weakens a fair use claim: asking permission might be viewed as an act of good faith that is important to establish in legal proceedings, but it also puts your transformative work on the radar of a rights holder, who might be inclined to pursue costly legal action to suppress your work.  We also should note that our experience and knowledge is based in United States copyright law, where ‘fair use’ is a legal exception to copyright; few countries follow that exact model, while a number have similar ‘fair dealing’ provisions but with significant variations from each other.  If you are producing videographic criticism outside the U.S., you should explore any relevant national laws.[1]

Within the United States, most videographic criticism falls squarely under the provisions of fair use, allowing you to reuse copyrighted materials without permission, with some important exceptions.  Fair use is vague by design, requiring a judgment call (by a judge in court) as to whether it violates copyright law based on four interrelated factors: the nature of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the extent of the original being used, and the impact the use might have on the market value of the original.  None of these factors override each other, and all are judged on a spectrum of degrees, rather than a simple ‘yes or no’ binary.  In fact, almost no works are ever formally evaluated to be fair or infringing uses, as that requires an actual court case, which rarely happens.  However, a knowledge of fair use guidelines is helpful in assessing whether a use would likely be judged as allowable in the rare case of actual lawsuit going to court, and can be asserted as a defense to any pre-trial actions. Generally, most videographic criticism would likely be seen as fair rather than infringing uses on all four factors, although there are often wrinkles involved in some cases.

The first factor concerns the nature of the use of copyrighted materials. A videographic essay is by definition a transformative use of original material, aimed at providing commentary, criticism, and/or parody that fulfills the spirit of fair use.  Additionally, it is often noncommercial and educational, which also leans toward fair use; however, some videographic essays have been distributed commercially, as with supplements to DVD releases, so there is no single mandate that fair uses must be noncommercial.  However, not every element in a videographic piece might fall under fair use, an issue that often arises with music. Consider the epigraph exercise created by Jason Mittell as mentioned earlier in the book.

This video uses three copyrighted sources without permission: footage and sound from the film Adaptation, quotations from Michel Foucault’s essay ‘What Is an Author?’, and music from the song ‘I Should Live in Salt’ by The National. The film clip and textual quotation seem both to be clearly transformative in nature, aimed at critical commentary.  While the use of the song is transformative by creating a sonic loop from its opening 15 seconds, there is no commentary or criticism implied in its use — in fact, the primary reason for its use was that the mood it evoked felt appropriate, suggesting that it borrows something from the original without transforming it.  For that reason, the music would probably fail the ‘nature of use’ factor, but that does not necessarily mean it would be ruled an infringement.

The second factor concerns the nature of the original copyrighted work(s) being used without permission.  Typically, works that are more original and creative are given more protection than less original works.  This is not a judgment of quality, but of process and intent, as incorporating shots from a news report showing a public protest would be regarded as less protected than incorporating an original monologue from a fiction film.  This factor is typically the least significant in videographic criticism, as most sources are from original fictional materials (or highly original documentaries).  All three sources in the Adaptation epigraph qualify as original protected works, thus raising the bar for the other three factors; if the music were replaced by a copyrighted recording of crowd noise, then it would likely be accorded less protection than an original musical piece like The National’s song.

The third factor concerns the extent of the use of copyrighted work, focused on the quantity and quality of the portion used.  There is a misconception that there is a magic percentage that is allowable, such as 5% or 10% of the original, but this is untrue.  Like all factors, extent is a judgment call that considers both how much of the original is used, and to what degree that use repurposes the ‘heart’ of the original.  Most videographic criticism about feature films or television programs use only a small portion of the originals — the Adaptation epigraph incorporates 30 seconds of a 114-minute film, three sentences from a 20-page essay, and 15 seconds from a four-minute song, all of which are clearly very small portions or their originals (approximately 0.4%, 0.7%, and 6.2% respectively).  Additionally, none would be considered the most essential parts of those originals, as the looped instrumental guitar riff is the most pared-down element from the song, and neither the quotations nor film clip would be regarded as essential.  However, imagine a videographic essay focused on a short film or an epigraph that quotes a large portion of a poem — such uses would be more likely to be considered infringing. Likewise, some transformative works can reuse the entirety of the original, such as Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho or Matt Bucy’s Of Oz The Wizard, an alphabetized remix of The Wizard of Oz—these would certainly fail the third factor, but potentially still be upheld on the other three.

The fourth factor considers how the use might impact the value of the original, especially concerning the effect on its commercial possibilities. While a videographic essay that offers a highly negative analysis of a film might arguably suppress its commercial viability, the transformative critical role would override that, in the same way that a negative review that quotes a book might discourage sales but that doesn’t make it a copyright violation.  The more relevant question is whether the transformative use would effectively usurp the original’s commercial value, leading consumers to avoid the original in lieu of the derivative work.  This is hard to imagine for most videographic work; if anything, transformative reuse of materials as in this Adaptation video would more likely inspire people to seek out the original film, essay, or song to understand their broader contexts.  However, if a videographic piece did potentially curtail the market for a similar derivative work produced by the original rights holder, such as an analysis of a film scene that might be included as a special feature on a DVD, it might be regarded as an infringement.

As mentioned above, fair use is primarily understood as a legal defense that can be asserted in court if a copyright holder sues you for infringement, and these four factors would come into play in such hearings.  However, this rarely actually happens, as most cases of accused infringement never proceed to formal legal proceedings or they get settled before rulings are issued; as of 2015, only one case involving videographic work or video remix has yielded a legal ruling (and it was determined to be fair use).[2] Given how unlikely that formal legal proceedings will result in directly judging each of the four factors on their merits, it is probably not worth getting bogged down in those legal particularities. Another approach is to follow the “best practices” of other videographic work, as these are the more common precedents of creative transformative uses that have not been found to be infringing—in most cases, rights holders do not object to transformative reuse, and thus we should consider the many instances of videos being published without objection as establishing community norms of best practice. The Center for Media & Social Impact has documented best practices in fair use for a number of different types of creative and critical practice, including the most relevant Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video. Based on these best practices, nearly all videographic works clearly fall within the purview of fair use.

Just because legal proceedings are rare doesn’t mean that infringement accusations do not occur in the videographic realm. The most common situation is when somebody posts a videographic work on a sharing site like YouTube and receives a takedown notice, such as the publicized case of prominent videographic critic Kevin B. Lee versus YouTube.[3]  Such sites have automated ‘bots’ that search new videos for copyrighted material, and when there’s a match with such footage or music, the system will disable the video.  There is no analysis for fair use or consideration of the various factors that might override potential infringement, and some automated takedowns are ‘false positive’ hits for non-copyrighted material (especially music)—however a recent court case did put a burden on sites to analyze fair use possibilities before taking down a video, although it is unclear exactly how that will impact these automated systems.  If your video has been flagged and taken down, you can file an appeal, dipping into a legal realm that few video makers are familiar with.  Even if your fair use claim is upheld by the site (which they often are), the chilling effect is to discourage video creators to transform copyrighted material out of uncertainty and fear.

In actuality, the risks for posting a video using unauthorized copyrighted material are quite low.  The most common outcome would be a takedown from a video site, which would require either appealing or moving the video to another site. CriticalCommons.org is a nonprofit site designed for academics to share videos for teaching and research purposes; they have no automated takedown system, are strong advocates for fair use, and thus are a useful site to post videographic work to minimize fears about potential takedowns. Regardless of the hosting site, it is extremely unlikely that any action would proceed beyond a takedown request or cease-and-desist letter, as the upside for a rights holder to sue an academic videographic creator would be minimal.  In fact, the potential negative press coverage and reputation damage could be ultimately more harmful to a company, and the last thing that a media corporation wants is for a court ruling that helps further establish and reinforce fair use rights.  However, the potential fear of getting a threatening letter from corporate lawyers can be sufficient to make an independent video maker withdraw their work and stop posting videographic work, even if the legal threat is not substantive.

In the United States, there is another level to copyright concerns beyond fair use.  The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) added another key obstruction to videographic and remix work: the anti-circumvention measure.  The 1998 law made it illegal to override copy protection systems on DVDs as well as other forms of digital rights management (DRM), whether or not the use of such tools was fair use or even if the DVD was of a non-copyrighted film; additionally, circumventing DRM was made a criminal rather than civil offense, even if it was done following fair use.  Thus even if a videographic essay is clearly a fair use or draws from authorized material, it was made criminal to circumvent the copy protection on a DVD to be able to create clips and remix the footage.

Thankfully, the law allows for the Library of Congress to establish exemptions to this provision, and since 2010, such an exemption has made it legal for critics, scholars, remixers, and students to override DVD protections to edit clips for scholarly and educational purposes, including videographic criticism.  This exemption was expanded to include Blu-ray discs in 2015, meaning that it is no longer illegal to ‘rip’ a DVD or Blu-ray in order to create videographic criticism, regardless of fair use ruling.  However, many university technologists and copyright authorities are still reluctant to allow for these exemptions, fearing potential litigation, so it is important for academic video makers to assert our own rights and those of our students.  Additionally, technologies of video distribution are changing faster than the laws, so many source materials may only be legally available via online streams or digital downloads, which are not exempted from anti-circumvention laws and might prompt lawsuits for violation of Terms of Services to subscribers or purchasers. Additionally, fair use is predicated upon transforming lawfully-obtained material, and thus the rise of illegal file-sharing might tempt videographic critics and student creators to use illegally downloaded videos as source material, which would greatly weaken any fair use claims (as well as opening you up to other legal action).

It is clearly vital to follow and participate in the legal updates, as the exemptions need to be renewed every three years, and new technologies pose new obstacles to the otherwise legal practices of videographic criticism. Fair use has been compared to a muscle that will atrophy if not actively exercised—videographic criticism is some of the most vigorous exercise that scholars can offer their fair use muscles.


Resources on Copyright and Fair Use

The Center for Media and Social Impact has many resources available for understanding fair use, including “best practices” guides for a number of relevant realms, including online video and documentary filmmaking: http://www.cmsimpact.org/fair-use

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has aggressively defended fair use rights and transformative works, with details on case law and resources for defending against takedowns: https://www.eff.org/issues/intellectual-property

[in]Transition collects and updates resources for videographic criticism, including fair use and copyright: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/resources

Steve Anderson, “Fair Use and Media Studies in the Digital Age,” Frames Cinema Journal 1, no. 1 (2012), http://framescinemajournal.com/article/fair-use-and-media-studies-in-the-digital-age/.

Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi, Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2011).

Peter Decherney, Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Eric Faden, “A Fair(y) Use Tale,” Online video, 2007, http://cyberlaw.stanford.edu/blog/2007/03/fairy-use-tale.

Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy (New York: Penguin Press, 2008).

Jason Mittell, “Letting Us Rip: Our New Right to Fair Use of DVDs,” ProfHacker, July 27, 2010, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/letting-us-rip-our-new-right-to-fair-use-of-dvds/25797; Jason Mittell, “How to Rip DVD Clips,” ProfHacker, August 12, 2010, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-to-rip-dvd-clips/26090.

[1] For a good overview of comparative international fair use and fair dealing provisions, see The Fair Use / Fair Dealing Handbook, http://infojustice.org/archives/29136.

[2] Northland Family Planning Clinic, Inc. v. Ctr. for Bio-Ethical Reform, 868 F. Supp. 2d 962 (C.D. Cal. 2012).

[3] See Matt Zoller Seitz, “Copy Rites: YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee,” Slant Magazine, January 13, 2009, http://www.slantmagazine.com/house/article/copy-rites-youtube-vs-kevin-b-lee for a discussion of this case.

Every year, WordPress sends users a Year-in-Review email highlighting all of your blogging over the past year. For 2015, my blogging consisted of… four posts. This made me sad.

So even though I don’t typically do them, I’m making a New Year’s resolution to blog more. I’m not going to wait until I have a fully thought out post to share. I’m not going to avoid posts that are just sharing links and random thoughts. In other words, I’m going to try to blog as if Twitter didn’t exist. My goal is at least one post every two weeks – I’ll strive for one a week, and settle for once a month.

I do have two things to share that deserve the more archived presence of a blog post than just an ephemeral tweet. Both grew out of the topic of my last blog post (from six whole months ago!), our summer workshop on videographic criticism. The direct outgrowth is a special issue of [in]Transition that I co-edited with Christian Keathley, featuring five new practitioners of videographic criticism that developed their create at our workshop. It’s a fabulous group of videos, highlighting a range of approaches and topics; additionally, each video features two thoughtful peer reviews that do a great job advancing the conversation over how videographic work functions as scholarship. I’m quite proud of this issue and the work that my colleagues produced.

The second publication to share came out last month, and was an indirect byproduct of the workshop. One of our participants, Tracy Cox-Stanton, edits the journal The Cine-Files, and she invited all of us to contribute to a dossier on teaching specific films. I asked if she’d bend the “cine” focus of the journal to consider a piece about teaching The Wire, and she obliged. The resulting essay, “Teaching The Wire,” relays an anecdote from 6 years ago and explores the course I discussed back when I was an active blogger. I’m proud to be part of a great dossier of pedagogical reflections, even if I’m the lone teacher of television represented.

Okay, back on the blogging horse – so more to come soon!


The last two weeks were some of the most exciting and energizing of my academic career. My colleague Chris Keathley and I hosted an NEH-sponsored digital humanities workshop at Middlebury, called Scholarship in Sound & Image, focused on producing videographic criticism. We define videographic criticism as creating videos that serve an analytic or critical purpose, exploring and presenting ideas about films and moving images via sounds and images themselves. This workshop flows directly from the journal of videographic criticism, [in]Transition, that Chris and I co-founded (with Catherine Grant, Drew Morton, and Chris Becker) – and which recently won an Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award of Distinction from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. It also connects with my own work as faculty director of Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Initiative.

This post does not aim to recap the entire workshop, nor share everything that we did – Chris and I are working on another way to capture that material. But as I and others have been posting about the workshop on social media, people seem really interested to know more about what we did. Additionally, my role in the workshop was a hybrid of facilitator and participant, as I produced my own videos alongside other attendees, who were faculty from other institutions across the U.S. and Europe – prior to this workshop I had no direct experience making videographic criticism, so this marked my own transition from theorist to practitioner. And as is my wont, when I make something, I want to share it. So here are the videos I produced for the workshop, framed within the assignments we gave participants – this should provide a good taste of the type of work we undertook.

Our approach is based on a couple of core principles. The first is to learn by doing – even though more than half of our participants had virtually no video editing experience, we had them start making projects in the very first day. Luckily my colleague Ethan Murphy is fantastic at teaching the tools of video production, so he gave them a crash course in Adobe Premiere on day one, and then everyone learned via practice. Our mantra in the first week was Make First, Talk Later – a distinct challenge for a group of academics!

Our second principle is that formal parameters will lead to content discoveries – instead of asking participants to make a video that serves a particular content goal (such as criticism, analysis, comparison, etc.), we created exercises with very strict formal requirements, but open to whatever content people were interested in. To facilitate this process, each participant selected a single film or series to serve as their source text for a series of five exercises to be produced in the workshop’s first week; this produced a strong focus for experimentation, and allowed participants to come to know each others’ films as the exercises accumulated. I chose the film Adaptation, as I am writing a short book about the film this summer (for this book series) – while I am interested in making videographic criticism about television, I correctly guessed that working with a source text as long as a television series would be far more unwieldy than the contained length of a film.

Below are the parameters for each video exercise that we assigned, and my own creation for the assignments. Remember, these are formal etudes rather than motivated works of scholarship; however, I and many of my fellow producers did create videos that were meaningful and effective explorations of the films we were working on, especially if you are familiar with the original film.

Continue reading ‘Making Videographic Criticism’

I was recently invited by The Conversation to write something for their site exploring some of the arguments of my new book for a general audience. I like reading The Conversation to see academics writing in a journalistic voice (something that some are better at than others) and support their embrace of CreativeCommons licensing and open republishing. So in that vein, here’s the piece below the fold – the arguments will be familiar to regular readers of Just TV, but hopefully worth sharing regardless.

Continue reading ‘Why has TV storytelling become so complex?: A journalistic take’

I’m holding in my hand a copy of my new book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling.

Complex TV selfie

Every book is its own unique journey. This one feels like the longest (which it was) and most significant, at least intellectually if not professionally. I presented the earliest version of the ideas that would eventually form the spine of the book over ten years ago, at a colloquium at Middlebury College, where my friend and colleague Michael Newbury made the hugely influential suggestion that I check out Neil Harris’s concept of the operational aesthetic as a parallel to what I was describing about television storytelling. I published the first essay that would chart the book’s vector in 2006, as “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” which definitely came out at the right time and place to generate a lot of enthusiasm and momentum for this project.

Even though over the past 10 years I wrote a different book and edited another, Complex TV has been the project that has occupied most of my thinking, that fueled my work during my wonderful year in Germany, and that framed my identity as a scholar. The overthinking pessimist in me thinks about the hole that its completion creates, the absence of scholarly identity and drive that has yet to be filled. But the rest of me shouts that side down, as I’m eager to celebrate the book’s launch at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference this week in Montreal and enjoy the sense of completion.

I want to briefly focus on the book’s paratexts, as I am as proud of how the book has been published as I am of the content. As many of you know, I wrote the book in public, posting each chapter to MediaCommons and soliciting open peer review throughout 2012-13. I’m happy to say that the MediaCommons draft of the book will remain online for the foreseeable future, serving both as an open access version of the book’s ideas and evidence of the writing process. Hopefully this will help demonstrate that making a book’s content available online for free helps rather than hurts a book’s sales. (Feel free to add to that evidence via NYU Press, Amazon, or your favorite bookseller!)

MediaCommons hosted the pre-print paratext, but I have created another site for the book, collecting supplementary videos of scenes that I reference and discuss in the book. The videos are hosted on Critical Commons, which is an essential site for sharing fair use video content. But the supplementary site is published in Scalar, an incredibly rich tool developed at USC for multimedia interactive publishing. I’m really happy with how the site turned out, combining quotes from the book and videos via a number of interfaces. I particularly like this gallery view, representing the book in thumbnail form.

Complex TV video gallery

So now my work is done. I leave it to the readers to explore the book and its paratexts, and please let me know what you think!

I have two new book chapters out that I want to share. The first is an essay called “Lengthy Interactions with Hideous Men: Walter White and the Serial Poetics of Television Antiheroes,” published in a brand new anthology, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives, edited by Roberta Pearson and Anthony Smith. The chapter, which is largely about Breaking Bad and antiheroes, is adapted from the Character chapter in Complex TV, so I won’t reproduce the content here.

The second is unrelated to television narrative altogether (or at least was, before I got hold of the topic and started off with a diversion into television studies). A couple of years ago, Mark J.P. Wolf invited me to contribute to a book he was editing about LEGO. I declined to write a chapter, as I was knee-deep in finishing Complex TV and couldn’t commit to an original research essay on a new topic, but I was interested in the topic and offered to write an afterword for the book.

It evolved into something a bit more pointed than a typical afterword, and I want to share it here now that the excellent book has been published as LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon and hopefully inspire people to read the whole book. I post it on the day that a crime against LEGO, against art, and against humanity itself was perpetrated: The LEGO Movie was snubbed in the Oscar nominations. It’s small solace, but I offer this essay in appreciation of how The LEGO Movie inspired my own thinking about how we can both build things up and tear them down productively.
Continue reading ‘D.I.Y. Disciplinarity — (Dis)Assembling LEGO Studies For The Academy’

This is not an organized or ranked list. This is a collection of the cultural things (mostly TV, but not exclusively) that I most loved in 2014, presented in alphabetical order. There are many things not on this list – they are absent because either I did not love them or I did not consume them. (If it is a movie, it’s probably the latter, as I saw almost no new films this year.)

The Americans – one of those odd series that I always fall way behind on, but always love when I watch it. I still have a few episodes left to finish the second season, which is completely inexplicable.

Andre Braugher’s performance on Brooklyn 99 – I enjoy the series well enough, but Braugher cements his status as one of television’s all-time most indelible performers with his supporting role. Has any sitcom ever been so defined by a purely deadpan character before? He never says a joke, but is always the funniest person on-screen. If I could find a video of his monologue from “The Mole” online, I’d provide it as Exhibit A for how to create humor without being funny.

Bob’s Burgers – I find myself taking it for granted by now, but Bob’s might be the greatest animated series since The Simpsons, and still completely unpredictable in its fifth season.

The Colbert Report – he went out in style, embracing both the egomania of the title character and the sense of gonzo absurdism that has always made the show more than just a satire of punditry.

Fargo – there was no reason to expect this would be anything but a failure. Instead, it took full advantage of its form, providing intertextual pleasures with the film, while functioning on its own as a delightfully dark morality play.

Girls – I still love it, and when it’s on target (like the beach house episode), nothing is quite like it.

The Good Wife – consistently the best show on television. Doing everything that makes both network and cable drama great, and getting better every season.

Hannibal – the first season was a dark romp; the second was pure madness. The finale was probably the most sustained example of avant garde filmmaking I’ve ever seen on television.

Her – released late last year, but I only saw it this summer, and I loved it too much to have it go unmentioned. Spike Jonze has directed four features, all perfect in their own ways.

Jane the Virgin – I love whimsy so much, and Jane nails its tone perfectly.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – taking the Daily Show model forward by embracing the long-form investigative comedy structure that the weekly non-commercial format allows.

The Leftovers – a searing season of television that was imperfect, but so powerful. Carrie Coon’s performance was probably the best I’ve seen this year, with this moment from the finale burned into my retinas for months:

The LEGO Movie – while I saw very few films this year, I’m pretty sure this would be one of the best I saw regardless. The first 3/4 are a pitch-perfect blend of action, comedy, and satire, while the final act makes it into a heartfelt postmodern masterpiece.

The LEGO Movie Videogame – my son and I play LEGO videogames together regularly, and this is my favorite. Besides nailing the tone of the film (and adding many more jokes), it’s the best implementation of the game series’s mechanics and gameplay yet.

Olive Kitteredge – one of the great untapped potentials of American television is creating miniseries adaptations of interesting novels, unfettered by the time constraints of film. A few years ago, Todd Haynes set the bar with his brilliant Mildred Pierce miniseries, and this year HBO succeeds again with Lisa Cholodenko’s wrenching miniseries. Amazing performances and sense of place.

Review – prior to this, I knew little of Andy Daly, but soon discovered his brilliance in a masterful comic performance. The scene in outer space was the most I laughed all year.

Serial / This American LifeI’ve been writing about Serial for Antenna, where I chart out many of the issues I have with it, especially its uneven use of its serial form. Nevertheless, it is great audio storytelling that has rightly garnered attention. But I hope it will inspire people to listen more to This American Life (from which it spun off), which still does thoughtful nonfiction audio better than anyone – probably my favorite podcast moment of the year was this story about a man leaving a Utah cult with his kids, featuring heartbreaking music from Stephen Merritt.

Solforge – despite having taught a videogame course this spring, I played very few traditional console or PC games this year, and nothing notable (except LEGO Movie Videogame). But I played a lot of mobile games, and by far my favorite is this collectable card game that takes full advantage of its native digital format—think Magic the Gathering but not constrained by the material limits of cards. I’ve tried the far-more-popular Hearthstone, but Solforge has more imaginative gameplay and interesting mechanics. Like all CCGs, it takes awhile to get into it, but if you sign-up via this link, I’d be happy to send you some cards to help build decks.

Transparent – in a year with many great new series, I think this was my favorite. Despite having no characters who are conventionally likeable, it exudes warmth and affection.

Sharon Van Etten, “Are We There” – “Tramp” was my favorite album of 2012, so I was skeptical that this year’s follow-up could match those heights. “Are We There” might even be better, working as one of those albums that I simply cannot stop listening to.

Veep – I’m uncertain with the direction the plot took this season, but no series is more consistent in generating laughs.

The Wire scholarship – Although it is widely regarded by academics as peerless television, scholarship about The Wire has been pretty erratic. 2014 saw the publication of two excellent and accessible (and short!) about the series, both of which I had the honor of reviewing pre-publication: Frank Kelleter’s Serial Agencies: The Wire and its Readers is a compelling take on the cultural circulation of the series, while Linda Williams’s On The Wire is an impressive analysis of the series in the framework of melodrama. Both are highly recommended for Wire fans & scholars alike.

You’re the Worst – again, no expectations helped make this comedy into a surprising little gem, with far more of a soul than its misanthropic premise might suggest.

One final trend to mention is that this seems to have been the year when television direction began to eclipse (or at least match) its writing. There have always been series whose style and tone help distinguish them, but so many of my favorite series this year (Fargo, Transparent, Hannibal, Girls, The Leftovers, Olive Kitteredge) were notable for their innovative and striking visual and sonic sensibilities. Even series that I didn’t love this year, like True Detective, Louie, Game of Thrones, Gracepoint, and The Missing (and some I haven’t watched yet, like The Knick and The Honorable Woman), stood out more for their excellent direction more than writing (at least this year). It will be interesting to see how this plays out going forward, as TV’s production model still privileges writers over directors, but perhaps this is shifting, as per The Knick.

Finally, one of the worst elements of 2014 was how bad I’ve been in terms of blogging. I really hope to post more frequently in 2015 – see you then!

[I know this has been a dormant site for months, and I have a draft post called “Too Busy to Blog” explaining why & what I’ve been up to, but I’ve not had time to finish it! But I just had some thoughts that are TLFT (too long for Twitter) that I wanted to throw out there. So here you go…]

I have been following the so-called #GamerGate story fairly closely (for strong overviews/analyses of what this story is all about, read this or this or this). In large part, my interest stems from having taught my first videogames course last semester, where we watched the Feminist Frequency “Tropes vs. Women” videos and read about the first wave of backlash against creator/critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as exploring games & writings by women critics & independent developers. In that class, the reluctant and defensive reactions from some of my male students, and the resulting frustrations of some of my female students, was a pedagogical minefield that I tried to navigate effectively, but never felt like I fully engaged the issues sufficiently. Although my students never ventured into hate speech and misogyny, some of the less hateful GamerGate discourse feels like it comes from a similar place, with a palpable anxiety and discomfort in reaction to a feminist critique of games and presence of women within game culture – that type of anxiety rarely gets expressed when I explore similar issues about television and film.

What I find inexplicable about such anxiety, which has triggered verbal violence, digital vandalism, and serious threats of physical harm, is why challenging gender representations and calling to broaden the types of games that get made & praised should matter so much to consumers of the current mainstream. Obviously, outright misogyny should be condemned rather than explained, but I do think there is something to be gained by trying to understand the more mild and less overtly hateful GamerGate expressions—not to justify the movement in any way, but to try to figure out how we might engage in conversation and education. Sarkeesian’s excellent videos are quite measured in their approach to games as a medium, and clearly aim to educate over censoring. And yet so many people react as if they are being personally attacked, or if somehow Sarkeesian or other feminist critics are legitimately threatening to take away their toys. While there’s nothing rational about misogyny, I don’t think the defensiveness I saw in my students came from that hateful place, nor do I think all people supporting the idea of GamerGate are motivated by misogyny (although those who are attacking Sarkeesian, Quinn, Wu and other women in gaming clearly are). Why would people get so worked up about such critiques to warrant such activism, spending a massive amount of time and energy to campaign for something as ultimately pointless as “improved ethics in game journalism” (especially since there are so many more pressing ethical issues in gaming)? Why does it matter to them so much?

Here’s my current working theory: these gamers are blinded by taste privilege.

What do I mean by “taste privilege,” a phrase I’ve not seen referenced elsewhere (but please let me know if you’ve seen similar usage, as this is a concept I’d like to explore more in my research)? There are many different ways to define and conceptualize privilege, but one that makes sense for me (as a person of privilege) is that privilege is the freedom to not notice difference. In most contexts, I’m perfectly able to imagine that my experiences are shared, commonplace norms, rather than defined by my identity in ways that other people would experience differently. There is rarely a consequence for me to assume that other people see the world as I do, sharing the same access, rights, and freedoms. Basically, privilege is the freedom to ignore your own privilege.

It seems pretty obvious how such privilege operates over axes of difference like gender, race, sexuality, and class – the U.S. works with an assumed norm of straight, white, men with economic means. As someone who fits that bill, it’s easy to ignore the way that other people are disenfranchised by our system, while those outside that norm notice those barriers and structural obstacles all the time. So if you have privilege, the default is to be simply unaware of it – that’s not an act of malice, but one of ignorance. It takes lots of ongoing work and education to recognize your own privilege, and even more work to see the world outside your own experience.

So what does this have to do with taste? If you’re part of the dominant norm and your cultural tastes are either mainstream or affirmed by a sizable & valued group, you have taste privilege – you are free to ignore that other people experience that culture differently. Popular culture is structured by taste privilege, where the privileged audience is targeted and others are taken for granted, or given marginalized options. For instance, children’s media has long been guided by the assumption that girls will watch boy-centered texts, but boys will not watch girl-centered ones; thus girl viewers must learn to find places for themselves in boy-centric media, while boys with taste privilege never need to learn that skill. Similarly, television has frequently offered highly successful programs or channels targeting African-American or Spanish-speaking viewers—taste privilege is the ability to claim to be well-versed in mainstream television without acknowledging or even being aware of the huge popularity of Tyler Perry’s programs or Univision. While writing this post, I found another great example of taste privilege in reactionary action: although he doesn’t use the phrase, this piece by Arthur Chu hits at similar concepts quite well, focused on the parallel between GamerGate and the anti-disco movement of the late-1970s.

Because both privilege and intense commitment to your taste breed righteousness, the commonplace reaction when people who disagree with your privileged taste is dismissal, writing them off with “they just don’t get it.” But what happens when that disagreement expands into outright critique, and other forms of culture feel like they are getting more attention and validation than your own? Dismissal can morph into defensiveness, communal reinforcement of your shared tastes, and lashing out in anger toward those who seem to be “threatening” your privilege to be unaware of difference. If such anger clusters into a community, it will attract the truly hateful violent voices like those who have committed acts of terrorism and abuse in the name of GamerGate.

There is no rational reason that gamers would see positive reviews of experimental games like Depression Quest or Sarkeesian’s critiques of gender representations in gaming as a legitimate threats to the dominance of mainstream male-centered games within the marketplace—any more than gay marriages “threaten” straight marriages or women getting equal pay to men “threatens” male employment. Certainly my first reaction to reading GamerGate griping was “why on earth does this matter to you so much?” But we need to remember that all of these cultural shifts or policies make privilege visible to the privileged: when your unspoken norm is spoken, it loses its assumed, invisible status, and this feels like a threat. That revelation of privilege can hurt, as people with such privilege have not had a lifetime of experience processing the role of difference and inequality, so it can feel like a sudden shock to the system and disruption of your assumptions. You put that sense of shock, threat and hurt into a community defined by a love for a medium foregrounding violent simulations, anonymous smack talk, and demeaning representations of people outside the dominant norm, you get GamerGate.

Here’s the good news: education and experience help. I’ve seen this with my students, my friends, myself. We should remember that acting on privilege is not an neither an act of malice, nor an excuse for acting with malice. Engaging the conversation with people who are willing and able to listen is the best hope we have for freezing out those who are not, as evidenced with some examples linked from this piece. That’s why I think Sarkeesian is a hero: in the face of hatred, violence, and threats of physical harm, she continues to educate and engage the conversation.

In that spirit, I welcome productive, civil conversation below.

At the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in Seattle, I am part of a workshop on “Making Digital Scholarship Count,” where we are discussing how to frame digital projects for hiring, tenure, and promotion. One of the points that I am making is that external reviewers in the tenure process are important figures in framing a candidate’s digital work as part of a scholar’s portfolio. But until you are asked to do these reviews, you never see examples of the form, and once you do write them, they disappear into a locked black box of internal use only.

So I have decided to share some of this hidden genre of writing, offering some quotations from external letters that I have written about tenure and promotion candidates’ digital work. I have obscured the identity of the scholars, and I believe that in each case the promotion case was successful. I hope these examples provide models and frames of reference for other reviewers, for junior scholars putting together dossiers to frame their own work, and for T&P committees to see the type of benefits for doing digital work within media studies (or other fields). I’ve sequenced the excerpts in order of prominence of the digital within the portfolios, from lesser to greater.

This excerpt is about an assistant professor who was a blogger:

I do also want to mention X’s work on his blog, XXX. The rise of blogging within media studies, especially among untenured faculty talking about their research, pedagogy, and critical response to contemporary culture, has been a key development over the past few years, and X has been an active participant in that community. While he is not the most frequent poster, his comments are invariably thoughtful and detailed, and I believe his blog has helped him establish a solid reputation within media studies as an emerging scholar. While self-published commentary is not “tenurable” work per se, I do believe it is part a broader part of a scholar’s commitment to disseminating knowledge and promoting critical engagement with culture, and as such should be commended and encouraged.

This next candidate was an even more active blogger whose online writings helped establish her academic identity and reputation:

In addition to her more traditional scholarship, I believe it is important to consider X’s online writing in assessing her place in the field. Her blog is written in a casual and humorous tone, and certainly makes no claims to be formally academic. However, the quality of her insights into film and other aspects of popular culture shine through the humorous tone. In fact, reading her blog before seeing any of X’s scholarship made me want to seek out her formal publications and read what she contributed to sites like Flow, as I was impressed with the depth of thinking and quality of insight within blog posts. Additionally, I firmly believe that within the contemporary media environment, the best way for a scholar to boost their reputation is to maintain a vibrant online presence, putting their work and ideas out there for people to discover and engage with. X does this in a way that allows her to explore various writing voices and get feedback for ideas in progress, as well as developing scholarly networks across subfields and different regions. I have no doubt that without her active online writing, X would have a less significant reputation and it would take longer for readers to discover the value of her formal scholarly publications.

This next excerpt comes from a candidate who ran a significant scholarly website—I was specifically asked only to review her online materials (not her formal published scholarship), which I took as a good sign that the committee was trying to evaluate her work on its own terms, not treating the digital work as just a “side bonus project”:

In looking at X’s work on XXX, it is tempting to try to compare the website to a more traditional form of scholarly communication. I could certainly highlight how it resembles a well-regarded journal (with an excellent editorial board and regular publication of scholarship that has been edited and reviewed), or a scholarly conference (with ongoing conversations in response to authors presenting academic material). However, I think XXX is best understood as a scholarly community, hosting multiple platforms of publication and conversation, and fostering a growing population of contributors and readers around shared interests and expertise. The efforts to develop and maintain such a community, while ensuring high-quality content and active participation, are enormously difficult, and thus she must be commended for the consistent quality of the site’s content and active level of participation of its readers and authors. It is a unique resource within the broader field of media studies, and one that I would like to see other subfields emulate… Within media studies, scholarly communication is increasingly conducted digitally and XXX is a model for how to create a high-quality, rigorous, and academically validated venue for online scholarly discourse.

I would like to single out one of X’s posts as indicative of the strengths of both her scholarship and the site that she edits.  The essay itself is an engagingly written, effectively illustrated piece that opens up numerous questions through a close analysis of [topic]—it is not a full-fledged research article, but a 2,000 word piece of critical writing that is poised to engage a broad array of readers better than a longer research article. The 17 comments on the essay highlight the nature of open peer review better than nearly any example of online scholarship I have seen—commenters range from highly supportive to skeptical to hostile, with some referencing other source material and others engaging in constructive debate. Given that [the topic] frequently raises the hackles of readers resistant to cultural criticism, and [the subject] often prompts defensive posturing from fans, I was not surprised that the discussion got heated; however the heat became productive via constructive dialogue, with X contributing clarifications of her argument and other scholars joining to support her claims. In short, this type of dialogue and debate is what scholarly review should look like when conducted in public, providing a range of perspectives for readers to use in making sense of academic discourse and argumentation.

Finally, this candidate’s dossier was fully immersed in digital projects, both born-digital scholarly pieces and creative digital work:

X has demonstrated a commitment to publishing his work in open venues, whether via open access journals, books with free online versions, or via his blog as public scholarship; I share his belief in such open access publishing, as it reinforces how faculty should make our work serve more than insider academic conversations or acquiring another line on a personal C.V., but actually be read and disseminated across a wider range of readerships. As a member of [his program], such a commitment to open access is particularly important to spread and share the work that comes out of the collaborations between your faculty and students…

His creative works… all use digital techniques to explore new forms of creative expression and critical commentary. Such experimental work is difficult to situate in a tenure dossier, as it lacks peer review and often is not even framed as a scholarly act. But X’s online presence… models an attitude that embraces experimentation and boundary crossing that can produce scholarly insights and critical reflection…. While such experiments might not merit tenure on their own right, I think it is important to include such experimental work as part of X’s scholarly profile and recognize such creative explorations as a vital part of the professional output of a scholar of digital media.

For me, the takeaways of these excerpts is that framing matters, and the job of the external reviewer is to give departments and committees references and analogues that are more familiar, while highlighting what makes digital scholarship unique and important. I always try to imagine what skepticism or confusion might arise, and preemptively explain those elements away without becoming defensive or hostile to skeptics.

I hope these excerpts are useful to people in various capacities – and I encourage discussion in the comments about issues they raise, further questions, or other examples that might help illuminate this highly secretive and anxiety-saturated process.

Like many HBO viewers, I was excited for last night’s finale of True Detective. I found much of the season compelling and captivating television, creating a stylized sense of place, a foreboding mystery, innovative narrative techniques, and two engaging characters played by masterful screen actors. I am enthusiastic about the hybrid form of the serial anthology, with short seasons each telling a stand-alone story under a shared creative banner. However, nine hours before the finale aired, I tweeted the following:

Trying to think of a season finale with as much weight as #TrueDetective has. The resolution could make season anything from OK to perfect.
3/9/14 12:02 PM

I did not mean to suggest that a bad finale would make the series bad, as nothing can retroactively invalidate the enjoyment found in watching previous episodes. However, a finale can invalidate certain open-ended issues about which a serial demands we withhold judgment until they are resolved—thus for Battlestar Galactica, a problematic finale takes little away from the entire series for me, but it does make the final season’s plotlines and Starbuck’s character arc seem weaker and more disappointing. In large part because it was designed as a single authored miniseries, True Detective had an unusually large number of these open-ended issues waiting to be resolved or confirmed in the finale. And I found pretty much every choice that the finale made disappointing enough to undo most of the good will I had granted it for the previous seven episodes—and infuriating enough to fuel an insomniac twitter rant last night. Spoilery fleshing out of that rant beneath the fold.

Continue reading ‘True Disappointment’

Recently, I looked over the preliminary program for the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in March, so I could book travel arrangements for Seattle. Normally this would create excitement—I’ve been to most SCMS conferences since 1996, and it’s usually a great event to see old friends, meet new people, and hopefully hear some interesting research. But looking over this program caused flashbacks to last year’s conference, which was probably my least favorite ever. I left Chicago last March thinking that the status quo of SCMS conferences needed some major changes, and this year’s program seems to be more of the same, making me wonder if the current model is stuck in stone, or able to be improved with a few reforms (that I brainstorm below). Note that my perspective might be an outlier, as the survey following the last conference seems to suggest more broad satisfaction than I felt, so take my critiques as no more than one person’s opinion, but perhaps others can weigh in via the comments.

I have a personal policy of not griping about something within an organization that I wouldn’t be willing to help try to fix. So I’m not trying to suggest that other people should do their jobs better. Rather, I think we need to have a deeper discussion as an organization as to what the conference is for, who it’s meant to serve, and how to best accomplish those goals in an era where anyone can post a lecture, a paper, or a discussion online (while travel costs rise and funding dries up). I also know that I write from a position of extreme privilege: I am an SCMS “insider” who feels pretty confident that my proposals will be accepted, and I have ample funding and the familial support to be able to travel without scrambling for childcare or going into debt to attend. The hardships that the current conference model creates impact me far less than most members, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not proposing changes primarily out of self-interest, but rather sustaining broad interest in the organization.

For me, the goal of a conference is to host engaging conversations about research, teaching, and related academic issues. Last year’s Chicago conference seemed broken to me because it generally failed to generate such conversations (at least in my presence). Many of its flaws stood out in contrast to the MLA Convention I attended (for the first time) two months previously. Even though MLA has a reputation for being a massively overwhelming experience, it actually struck me as more efficient, more streamlined, and more engaging than SCMS (with the caveat that I was not involved in any job searches, so I didn’t have to endure that anxiety). Much of that efficiency stems from MLA being a larger and richer organization (thank you, style guides!), so they can afford to invest more in conference planning and can use their muscle to negotiate better hotel & facility deals. A big problem with the Chicago SCMS was the inadequate facilities at The Drake Hotel, as most of the rooms I saw sessions in were completely inappropriate to the size of the audience or poorly laid out for a panel. Maybe addressing those issues are insurmountable due to our size and resources, but there are other changes that seem more feasible, as I detail below.

Continue reading ‘A Few Thoughts on Improving the SCMS Conference’

I saw Gravity this weekend, and like many viewers and critics, I loved it. And as a sign of that enjoyment, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. As I always do when I encounter a piece of culture that I love, I’ve been reading about it, looking for critics who can explore some of the ideas I’ve been obsessing about. The review that best captures my feeling about it is Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece, highlighting the juxtaposition of grandiose visual splendor and simple narrative intimacy. Even more thought provoking is Christopher Dole’s impressive analysis of Gravity‘s narrative structure, thematic focus, use of stars, and visual style—if you’re going to read one piece on the film, that’s the one I’d recommend.

But none of the criticism I’ve read direclty tackled the topic I was most interested in: the film’s use of narrative scope and limits to deliver a new take on its genre and augment its emotional impact. Probably the closest I found was Film Crit Hulk’s take on the film’s simplicity, but that doesn’t draw the connections I want to explore. So I’ll take a moment to violate this blog’s title and offer a little bit of film criticism—spoilers after the fold.

Continue reading ‘Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits’

HtWTVI am quite excited to announce the publication of my latest book, How to Watch Television. Of course, in this instance, “my” should really be “our,” as the book was edited by me and my friend Ethan Thompson, and features 40 essays by an all-star line-up of media scholars young and old, familiar faces and new names. I’ve been itching to share my own chapter, about Phineas & Ferb, so you’ll find that essay previewed below the fold. But first, here’s some background on what we were trying to accomplish with the book, and why you might want to read it.

The idea (and title) was Ethan’s, and he approached me as a potential contributor to a volume that would be designed for the undergraduate classroom, with short essays each focused on a specific television program to model a critical approach within television studies. Too often, students lack models for how to write smart, accessible, engaging works of academic television criticism—most journalistic examples lack historical context and scholarly argumentation, and most academic examples are too long, too dense, and more often focused on larger theoretical arguments than close analysis of television texts and contexts. I was so taken with the idea, and excited about how it might dovetail effectively with my introductory textbook Television and American Culture, that I signed on as co-editor. Ethan & I spent months in 2011 soliciting essays that span a wide range of genres, historical eras, authorial perspectives, and authors in different stages in their careers. We ended up with a remarkable table of contents featuring 40 (!) original essays by great writers on an array of topics, arranged by broad categories of television analysis. The line-up really needs to be seen to be believed:

I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style

1. Homicide: Realism – Bambi L. Haggins

2. House: Narrative Complexity – Amanda D. Lotz

3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation – Christine Becker

4. Mad Men: Visual Style – Jeremy G. Butler

5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music – Ben Aslinger

6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television – Jason Mittell

7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling – Sean O’Sullivan

8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy – Jeffrey Sconce

II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics

9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes – Evelyn Alsultany

10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering – Jonathan Gray

11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race – Christine Acham

12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings – Quinn Miller

13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences – Hector Amaya

14. Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives – Ron Becker

15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism – Elana Levine

16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing – Susan J. Douglas

III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest

17. 30 Days: Social Engagement – Geoffrey Baym and Colby Gottert

18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor – Laurie Ouellette

19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire – Nick Marx

20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk – Jeffrey P. Jones

21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy – Noel Murray

22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum – Heather Hendershot

23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology – Roberta Pearson

24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia – Daniel Marcus

IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures

25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News – Anne Helen Petersen

26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer – Miranda J. Banks

27. Modern Family: Product Placement – Kevin Sandler

28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity – Victoria E. Johnson

29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation – Jennifer Holt

30. Onion News Network: Flow – Ethan Thompson

31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes – Matt Hills

32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television – Derek Kompare

V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life

33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video – David Gurney

34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content – Suzanne Scott

35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste – Michael Z. Newman

36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies – Louisa Stein

37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television – Dana Polan

38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling – Abigail De Kosnik

39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing – Jiwon Ahn

40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics – Henry Jenkins

It’s a remarkable line-up, and everyone managed to produce essays that run counter to many trends of academic writing: tightly focused, clearly written for general readers, jargon-free, not too long, and submitted on time! After a editorial and publication process, we’re thrilled to announce that New York University Press is now shipping the book at an incredibly reasonable price of $29 (for a well-designed 400 page book of original content!). You can order it at the NYU Press website, along with previewing the introduction or requesting a review copy for faculty thinking about adopting it in a class. You can also order it on Amazon, where the already low price is even more discounted or the Kindle version is even cheaper (note that Amazon says it will be released on Monday, but I think they might already be shipping it). Or please request it at an independent bookstore near you, if you’ve got one.

Even though it was designed for classroom use and I’m quite excited to teach it in the spring, we’re happy that the essays do not read as academic homework—our secondary goal was to create public-facing intellectual criticism, demonstrating what some of our smartest colleagues and friends have to teach anyone about television. If you’re a television scholar, this is the book you show your mother to explain what it is that you do! And if you’re not a television scholar, I hope this book gives you a sense of what the field has to share with a general readership.

For a taste of that type of criticism, a few of us contributors who are regular bloggers will be sharing our chapters online. Mine is below, offering an account of one of my favorite children’s programs, Phineas & Ferb; see also Henry Jenkins writing on The Walking Dead, Anne Petersen’s piece on Entertainment Tonight, and Jonathan Gray’s piece about The Amazing Race. If you like my essay, remember that the book has 39 more chapters of similar work. (And if you don’t like it, I guarantee you that many of the other 39 are better…) I hope you read the book and enjoy!

Continue reading ‘How to Watch Television: Phineas and Ferb’

I’m sure most readers of this blog know full well that Breaking Bad returns for its final run of episodes this Sunday. My excitement and anticipation for the new season can hardly be contained – although technically the final eight episodes are the continuation of the fifth season (for contractual/economic reasons), given that it’s been almost a full year since the last new episode aired, this definitely feels like & is being hyped as the final season. One benefit of this short final set of episodes is that the finale feels closer on the horizon, not drawn out over many months as is typical for highly hyped final seasons, meaning that the advance excitement generated for the new episodes can hopefully sustain over the next eight weeks, even if it does mean that it will be over sooner.

I don’t have that much to say about the coming season beyond some other excellent preview posts I’ve read, from critics Donna Bowman, Zach Handlen, Andy Greenwald, and Todd VanDerWerff. I will be writing weekly breakdowns for Antenna, much like I did for the final season of Lost, so check in on Mondays for the next eight weeks. This preview post offers some predictions and anticipations for what is to come, although I’m happy to be taken for whatever ride the series offers, as narrative surprise is one of Breaking Bad‘s most powerful weapons.

Having just rewatched seasons 4 and 5a, I’m struck by how steady Walt’s arc toward kingpin status has been, slowly building up power, allies (and disposing of potential enemies), and most of all, hubris. In the last episode, “Gliding Over All,” Walt finally secured his hold on his empire – and the series fast-forwarded through his reign at the top over the course of a single, glorious montage sequence. The final act of the episode showed Walt walking away, growing tired of the crown and deciding that the giant stack of money was enough. (Although we have no proof that his line to Skyler, “I’m out,” was the truth, it felt like it was motivated by his own exhaustion and lack of enjoyment of being the king.) And I think this decision to retire might be Walt’s final, and most fatal, act of hubris yet.

As Walt repeatedly told Skyler, walking away was never an option, as too much money was at stake, the demand for Heisenberg Blue too great, for him just to be allowed to leave the game. When he was working for Gus, this was a direct threat, as his boss would likely kill him (or his family) if he didn’t cook compliantly. But now that Walt’s the boss, he feels like he controls his own fate – which, given the moral logic of Breaking Bad, is never possible. Walt’s fate was sealed back in the pilot when he started down this path, and every choice he made drove him deeper into the drug world. He is too bound by his previous actions to just walk away.

The obvious connection binding him to Heisenberg is Hank’s revelation at the end of the last episode, but I expect that numerous other ties to the drug game will come back to haunt him as well. He’s making so much money for Lydia that she and her Madrigal allies are unlikely to let the supply just dry up. His deal to provide product for the Phoenix dealers is presumably still in place, so they have reason to push him back to the lab. Todd may be a loyal assistant, but his uncle’s crew seems like they would be willing to use their muscle to keep the money flowing. In this most dangerous form of capitalism, high demand trumps a temperamental supplier, so Walt’s decision is due for some market corrections.

During my rewatch, I thought of one more loose end that has never been tied up. The Mexican cartel would not kill Gus because of important connections in his Chilean past. Breaking Bad‘s storytelling logic never leaves threads dangling like this, so I’m expecting that delayed Chilean retribution might be coming across the border toward the man who did finally kill the chicken man—which could also facilitate a great curtain call for Giancarlo Esposito to return in a flashback. All of these loose ends coming back to tie Walt’s hands and potentially cause his downfall fits with a key theme of the show: you are never able to escape your actions and their consequences. Just like Stringer Bell failed to put his violent past behind him on The Wire, Walt’s belief that you can rise high enough in the game to be able to escape it will be his downfall—or like the parable he told Jesse, if you fly too close to the sun, you’re going to get burned.

So that’s my big expectation for the final episodes: that Walt will be brought down less by Hank (although that chase will be fun to watch), and more by the lingering consequences of his evil actions, perhaps via a coalition of Mexican, Chilean, German & Southwestern criminals who exiled him to New Hampshire and inspired him to defend his turf with Chekhov’s machine gun. But what do I really want from the conclusion?

I go back and forth about whether I want Walt to die, or to be forced to live with the moral reckoning of the pain he’s caused his family and community. My investments are less in what happens to Walt, and more focused on those whom he victimized and compromised, especially Jesse, Skyler and Hank. I yearn for an episode that functions as a de facto sequel of “The Fly,” where Walt is trapped in a room with those three, forced to own up to his actions—after feeble attempts to rationalize it all away—while Jesse, Skyler and Hank all work through his sins enough to let go of their anger and just regard him with shameful pity. They all deserve more than resorting to violence, and the greatest punishment Walt could receive is the disdain and disgust of those whose opinions matters most to him, and to have his legacy be one of shame and dishonor. Of course, such an episode might not be as dramatically compelling as I imagine it, but Walt deserves to be confronted in a forum where his lies and rationalizations have lost their potency.

I agree with arguments made by the critics I link to above, that Breaking Bad‘s ending feels both more predestined and less essential than other contemporary series, as the gears of moral judgment have been grinding away for years. But more so, I have unyielding faith in Vince Gilligan and his team to pull it off—as I discuss in my chapter of Complex TV on Authorship, we regard the creators of favorite fictional universes as deities that inspire reverence, faith, and occasionally renunciation. Breaking Bad is not a religious series, but it is one possessed of a deeply moral order and sense that it is being controlled by knowing, powerful forces willing to crash two planes together to judge a man in a rain of holy fire. So while I care deeply what happens in the next eight episodes, I am not obsessed with a series of unanswered questions as with Lost, or yearning to check-in with departed characters as with The Wire. Instead, I am fully content in letting Gilligan et. al. deliver what they will, passing dramatic judgment on Walt, his colleagues, and their storyworld, and providing the ending that both the characters and their fans have earned. Bring it on.

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