What I'm Watching
Sunka Simon, Associate Professor of German Studies
The Fall (2013)
This being the most flexible time of the year for faculty to indulge in screen-time, I finally had the chance to catch up on some TV I missed over the course of the semester. Thanks to Netflix, I binge-watched BBC's The Fall which finally brought back one of my favorite actors - Gillian Anderson from The X-Files - in a thriller series that alternates between police, future victim and serial killer point of views. Similar to Dexter, the educated killer is more complex than your run-of-the mill psychopath. He has loved ones (two kids and a wife in this case) and truly cares for them, all the while stalking intelligent, beautiful career women. It is another great show that explores what I have termed "white masculinity in crisis" (e.g. Breaking Bad, Californication, The Sopranos, Dexter etc.). Unlike the strong female leads who play wives in some of those shows, Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is unattached, holds the power of her office, and breaks one gendered cliche about beautiful smart women after another. Her refreshing retorts to stereotyping and sexist assumptions (from women and men) hail from serious and hilarious feminist script-writing, not to mention that her side-kick officer, played by Archie Panjabi (who is Kalinda on The Good Wife) and her have developed a certain chemistry by the end of the mini-series (hopefully, only the end of season one). What is intriguing and disturbing at the same time is that viewers get close and personal with the victims' lives, their social networks and professions, usually not from the killer's direct p.o.v. but from the side, from other media (like iPhones and surveillance cameras), as if the social media here were being implicated in the obsessive invasion of privacy and actually apprenticing at the side of our antagonist. In the context of the NSA scandal these past few months, which has most of Europe in an uproar, The Fall raises more questions about democracy and the technology of communications than most U.S. shows like to pose. And, of course, it makes viewers suspect the "softer side of masculinity" as a cover which has lulled the killer's wife and many feminists to sleep - Stella Gibson prods women to wake up and get ready for another round.
Bob Rehak, Associate Professor of Flm and Media Studies
A hard movie to write about without dropping massive spoilers, Christopher Smith's Triangle belongs to the family of puzzle films, genus time-loop tales, species psychological thriller - putting it in the same category as 2007's Timecrimes/Los Cronocrímenes and 2004's low-budget marvel Primer. Such brainteaser plots, whose origami-like layers and folds scramble conventions of classical cinematic narrative such as causality and character motivation, are often bleakly existential in their outlook, and Triangle is gloomier than most in its portrait of a young single mother (Melissa George) whose sailing trip with friends becomes a maze of multiplicative murder when their boat capsizes in a freak storm. If the film's first 20 minutes give little hint of the metaphysical mayhem to come, the final 20 bring unexpected gravity to the gamesmanship, as the protagonist escapes one kind of trap only to find herself confronting another in her role as caregiver to an autistic child. Triangle left me thinking for days afterward, and while I'm not sure its nautilus-shell logic holds up, the domestic drama at its center remains a beautifully tragic ruin: the fall of the house of Escher.
Tim Burke, Professor of History
My gaming attention continues to be focused on Minecraft and on various 'open-world' games like Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas as I try to track where the desires and expectations that were once bundled into "virtual worlds" have moved as enthusiasm for standard massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft has waned. I'm also very engaged at the moment with the intersection of visual culture and social media in photography-based sites like Flickr, 500px and 1x. The continuing evolution of superhero narratives on film and in comics also interests me: the evolution of cinematically-styled interface designs for reading digital comics in apps like Comixology in particular seems to me to have a lot of potential for altering both the content and experience of sequential art, and to contribute to other convergences between cinema, games and comics clustering around superhero themes and properties.
Erbsen auf halb 6 (2004)
Since I'm currently in Berlin, I've been investigating quite a few German movies recently. This has of course included some great German classics like Die Mörder Sind Unter Uns, Der Himmel Über Berlin, Run Lola Run, and Goodbye Lenin, among others, but I've also found some unexpected treasures, one of which is called Erbsen auf halb 6, which translates to "Peas at half-past five." It's a beautifully filmed piece about two blind people finding each other, and it's wonderfully aesthetic. The visual theme of water is really well used throughout, and the sound track is absolutely incredible. There is even a sound version of the movie made for the blind, which I found particularly interesting as an artistic concept. Normally I don't tend to fall for romantic movies, but this one is an exception, if only for its artistic merit.
Miranda Stewart '15
Doctor Who (2005-)
Several of my friends had been recommending Doctor Who to me for months before I finally picked up the first season of this addictive BBC sci-fi television series, and its expansive fan base is well deserved. A continuity-respecting reboot of the original Doctor Who serials that aired in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the show follows the adventures of the Doctor, last of the Time Lords, as he travels through time and space in a blue box called the TARDIS. Endearing characters and engaging stories combine with excellent world-building to spin a universe that is at once fantastic and fundamentally real. A wacky sense of comedy balances the deep issues the show addresses, from violence and genocide to loss and fear and the nature of time. With compact story-telling and editing that manages to fit extraordinary amounts of content into each episode's 45 minute period, the show keeps viewers riveted while watching, and tantalizing hints leave them puzzling and wondering for hours afterward. The reboot finished its seventh season this spring, and returns to television in November for the show's 50th anniversary special. .
Sasha Rojavin '15
Featuring a semi-impressive cast of voice actors (with names like Susan Sarandon and Brad Dourif), Bethesda Softworks' Dishonored, considered to be one of 2012's best games, took me on a journey through Dunwall, a darker and edgier version of an industrialized London/Edinburgh crossover. The game is reminiscent of the old Thief series (1998-2004) with mechanics taken from Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (2006) and a nostalgic helping of stealthy fun from Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell (2002). Despite suffering from a few drawbacks that most Bethesda games have to deal with-namely uninteresting characters, a predictable narrative, and the disconcertingly inhuman zoom-in on NPCs during dialogues-Dishonored benefits greatly from an un-Bethesda-like narrative linearity, very appropriate level design, and incredibly versatile, fun, and mod-friendly mechanics. As I made my way through the game, trying to overcome the ignobility thrust upon me during the game's onset and the restless rat-carried plague that infested the city, I found myself, somewhat unexpectedly, having a good time in Dunwall. I grew to enjoy blinking from rooftop to rooftop or possessing an unsuspecting rat to sneak through a crack in the wall. Dishonored allows you great freedom in your journey, and demonstrates Bethesda's willingness to try something unlike the Elder Scrolls (1993-2012) or Fallout 3 (2008).
Zac Wunrow '14
Touching the Void (2003)
Whether it be Marvel's latest flick or a hyper-violent Liam Neeson vehicle, mainstream Hollywood, in seeking to produce fiction captivating enough to sell tickets, bombards the modern filmgoer with thrills. Yet if there is any filmic testament to the power of fact in activating your fight-or-flight response, it may be Kevin Macdonald's docudrama Touching the Void (2003). No large, angry green humanoid is to be found here . . . this is a story of human survival at its most improbable. As two climbers descend the summit of a 21,000 foot mountain face in the Andes, they encounter a violent storm and an unexpected sheer drop. In order to save his own life, Simon Yates (Nicholas Aaron) cuts the rope on his partner Joe Simpson (Brendan Mackey). Landing on a ledge in a steep crevasse, Joe is left for dead, with a broken leg, no food or water, and no choice but to go deeper into the abyss below him. Featuring a strong dramatized re-enactment of the legendary 1985 mountaineering incident, Touching the Void has the filmgoer gasping on sub-zero air between parched lips - contemplating the limits of the human body and the endurance of the mind.
Erica Cho, Visiting Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies
Visual research is one the most important process of filmmaking, whether documentary, narrative, experimental. My narrative short film Golden Golden is visually inspired by Farm Securities Administration (FSA)-era photography, works by artists such as Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange, whose images of farmers and other poor Americans have become iconic representations of the Great Depression and whose documentary work extended beyond the FSA. For example, in 1942 the War Relocation Authority hired Lange to photograph the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WW II. Her images document men, women, and children assembled within desolate prison conditions, in horse stalls and tar-paper cabins, a contrast from the proud family portraits before the internment. From all the censored photographs, however, I was especially struck by the images of young men in their coiffed 1940s style, strong resemblances to my actor Zumi Mizokami, whose real life family experienced the camps. This photo by Lange shows two college boys at an Assembly Center in 1942 before being moved to a camp. The second is a still from my film with actors Mizokami and Reina Rey Fukuda.
Leah Foster '14
In Blancanieves, a silent adaptation of the Grimms' Snow White, our heroine lives in Seville under the cruel thumb of her stepmother-until the fateful walk in the woods with the huntsman. That's the point where she becomes a bullfighter, which, if I may break tone for a moment, is unspeakably awesome. There is no genteel, white, able-bodied prince to save the day. But there is an incredibly romantic young dwarf as the love interest, and there is our protagonist Carmen slicking back her hair and fighting bulls in full toreador getup. Encarna, the wicked stepmother played by Maribel Verdú, steals the entire movie, though, taking the melodramatic cliche of jealous older woman vs. beautiful naif and twisting it to show Encarna's human complexity and her real cruelty. The depth is in the details. Encarna does everything the wicked stepmother in the Grimms' story does, but isn't really obsessed with the youth and beauty of her gorgeous stepdaughter. Her most awful moments are when she performs the everyday sins of an abusive caretaker to a powerless charge. Blancanieves is shot beautifully in black and white, suitable for a fairy tale, but twists it into a funny, pervy, recognizable human story.
Patrick Hackeling '14
I've enjoyed a good deal of media this summer. In early July, I revisited The Sopranos (HBO, 1999) in full after the passing of its star, James Gandolfini. I don't know if this "act" was out of appreciation for the man's skill, the moroseness of now knowing there will never be a Sopranos movie (no matter how much I would have loathed it if there ever were), or something else, but I tuned back in from season 1-6 - a most certain binge - for a solid month.
After that, I moved on to what I guess I'd refer to as "literary cinema". I'd been reading a good deal of Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski throughout June and July, and after finishing off their penned works I paid a visit to their offspring, their filmography.
For Thompson, it was: Where the Buffalo Roam (Linson, 1980), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998, Gilliam), and The Rum Diary (Robinson, 2011); and for Bukowski it was Barfly (Schroeder, 1987), Factotum (Hamer, 2005), and the 52-short interviews (compiling 3 hours and 51 minutes) he held with Barbet Schroeder published in 1987 (also, rumor has it James Franco is in the process of adapting Buk's Ham on Rye, so I'm most definitely excited for that... because it's a Bukowski book, not because of James Franco... well, not entirely).
Lastly, and the second most pertinent reason why it's taken me so long to scrawl out this write-up (aside from pure, summer sluggishness), I've willfully re-immersed myself in the Breaking Bad (Gilligan, 2008) scene. I felt it would be only appropriate to wait three episodes (and a good many hours of YouTube surfing and rehashing) before adding the show to this list of media I'm enjoying and borderline obsessing over.
And I can't wait for Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010), It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX, 2005), and Eastbound & Down (HBO, 2009) to start up again in September! Although, looking back on a blog I wrote for FMST: Television and New Media in Spring 2012, I'm a little peeved Eastbound sold out for thirty pieces of silver when they forsook their "three-and-done" mentality and came back for a fourth season. Oh the pitfalls of quasi-literal, commercial capitalism.
Maya Nadkarni, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology & Anthropology
Good Bye Lenin (2003)
I have been re-watching some nostalgia films from the former Soviet bloc as I prepare for my course on "Memory, History, Nation" this fall. My favorite, Wolfgang Becker's Good Bye Lenin (Germany; 2003), portrays the upheavals of East Germany's transition from communism in 1989/1990 through its coming-of-age story of Alex, a young man desperate to protect his sick mother from knowledge of the political transformations. Fearing that the shock would kill her, Alex instead stages a series of elaborate deceptions to convince his mother that nothing has changed. He recreates their apartment's socialist interior, hunts down the East German products that have vanished from the grocery store shelves, and even produces a set of fake television news broadcasts that gently re-narrate the end of the Cold War as the victory of communist values, with West Germans fleeing across the Berlin Wall to escape the brutal struggles of capitalist competition. In so doing, Alex discovers a new appreciation for an era he had been eager to leave behind. "The GDR I created for my mother," he realizes, "was increasingly becoming the GDR I might have wished for myself."
A hit in Germany and well-received abroad, Good Bye Lenin was part of a broader wave of socialist nostalgia that insisted upon the value of relics and experiences now banished to the dustbin of history. By paralleling its story of national rebirth to Alex's tale of filial loyalty and loss, the film pays tribute to what had gone unmourned in the triumphant march towards German reunification. Watching it now-a decade after the film's release and more than two decades since the end of state socialism in the region-I admire how the film memorializes not only the lost values of the past, but also the past's lost dreams of the future: whether the utopia promised by communism or the bright hopes of the postsocialist transition itself, now disenchanted by the disappointments of capitalism.