2nd Law

a blog by collegiates from around the purple nation (though mostly living in NYC) in the midst of transitioning to the real world

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Flexing Fair Use

The Politics of Film: NYU's Free Culture's 2006 Film Remix Contest

Some of you may remember a hilarious film clip that circulated like a viral video on the Internet earlier this year. For those who missed out, Stanley Kubrick's 1980 classic horror film, The Shining, was transformed into a trailer for a touching feel-good comedy. In it, Jack Nicholson, usually the perfect pyschotic, embodies a struggling writer who falls for a widowed Shelly Duvall and her young son. With love and family, Nicholson casts off his writer's block, Duvall and boy find a father, and everyone is tearfully happy. All the while being played to Peter Gabriel's sickingly inspiring "Solsbury Hill."

The remix was an enormous sucess. Its creator, Ryan Ryang (a recent Columbia graduate, no less, with a double major in pyschology and film), had entered a film remix contest sponsered by the New York chapter of the Association of Independent Creative Editors. The contest asked participants to take any film and turn it into a new genre, such as from horror to comedy. Ryang won the contest and posted the clip on his modest blog. Unsuspecting of its popularity, Ryang was in for a surprise. In one week, the clip had been downloaded 12,000 times. Not only that, but it had circulated on major blogs and film websites. Ryang was even scouted by a Hollywood film agent. With a five minute trailer, and minimal production and distribution costs, Ryang had achieved the envious accolades of the film industry: fame and employment. For those curious, and with a sense of humor, check it out below:

At the time, the story was spun as one of success. The NYTimes covered it triumphantly: the creative college film major makes it big against the mainstream currents, riding only on his talent and the Internet. But others have seen deeper and more troubling implications in Ryang's story, implications regarding the future of media and its relationship to copyright.

Enter the concept of fair use. In the world of copyright, fair use is the idea that there are reasonable limitations to the breadth and reach of copyright. That is to say, while Kubrick (or more likely the studio that produced him) may own exclusive rights to The Shining, this does not prevent people such as Ryang from using The Shining freely for the purpose of parody and/or criticism. Fair use also allows for the reproduction of works for the purposes of commentary, news and reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. This is why a college film professor can screen a movie without hassle, or why a documentarian can insert a film clip without worry. Or so we hope.

Fair use no longer stands as robustly as it was once believed it could, due to two heavy pieces legislation enacted in the last decade. Much of it, unsurprisingly, in reaction to the ways in which digital technology and the Internet has facilitated the possibility of infinite reproduction and distribution of any work capable of being digitized. For example, when a teacher purchases a DVD of Kill Bill, and wants to burn it onto his computer in order to make a series of short film clips for his class that illustrate the influence of Japanese anime on American cinema, he is participating in the principle of fair use. But according to something like the DMCA (which we have covered before here, or here), this professor is breaking the law. (For those of us unfamiliar with the DMCA, it makes it illegal to circumvent a copy-protection measure on copyrighted work. This would apply to almost every DVD, and some CDs.)

A helpful metaphor is to consider digital technology (as only one example of a medium for copyrighted works) as a type of tool. Let's pick the crowbar. In most instances of day to day life, using a crowbar is perfectly legal. A volunteer might need it to gut a house in New Orleans. Or, a grandson may need it to open a family heirloom chest. This does not mean, however, that the crowbar can be used illegally. A thief could use a crowbar to break into a building. Legislation like the DMCA makes the tool illegal, when in fact, it is certain uses of the tool which are. By outlawing the crowbar, and not certain violating acts that involve it, the law has effectively limited other productive and helpful ways in which the tool can be used.

This is why we need to flex the princple of fair use. Copyright law is challenging the way we interact and use material creatively. But we still have the means and the creative power to actively resist the future implications of the DMCA. Ryang's short film is an excellent examle of this. Which is precisely why FreeCulture NYU - a student group committed to copyright issues - has decided to hold its own film remix contest this April. The group invites anyone in the world to take a trilogy (The Matrix, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings) and remix it into a five to eight minute parody film. They promise to screen the winning remixes in real life at the end of April, 2006. For the full details (and much more legal history), check out their page here. Is anyone up for the challenge?

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia; YouTube; Minhembio.com; Yatpay.net; Fred Benenson)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

viral video

The New York Times published an article today on the media phenomenon that has been blowing up the web for a while, and is strategically plowing its way into cable television: viral video. For those of you that haven’t been e-mailed “Brokeback to the Future” or others of you that awkwardly smile and nod away the fact you STILL haven’t seen Tom Cruise’s couch-hopping lovefest on Oprah when it comes up in conversation (it always does), viral video is a term for any video that gains popularity through internet sharing. They can be found on a number of websites like ifilm, or more buzzed right now, youtube.

The most popular video on youtube of all time is a music video of two guys in their room lip syncing to the Pokemon theme song. Some of you may also remember the star of the Numa Numa dance video that made the rounds last year. Here’s an example of someone whose face has become culturally imprinted in the netscape by practicing what has become a common trope of the viral video- the lip sync. Average citizens like you and me enter the canon by turning on a webcam and capturing the magical combination of too much free time and poor musical taste. How is it, then, that I sit here now with the Pokemon theme song in my head? Viral videos, on one level, make us feel a little better about ourselves. We would never waste our time making them, but we are, for some reason, not opposed to watching them if someone e-mails, IMs, or blogspots the link. On another level, and probably more intensely, viral videos fulfill Andy Warhol’s prophecy that we will all have our fifteen minutes of fame.

The New York Times article tracks VH1 and Bravo as they attempt to bring the viral video phenomenon into basic cable programming. Carson Daly is getting a show that will create viral video stars, which basically opens up the premise of reality television to exhibitionists of all kinds. Ah, democracy.

There is a lot of reality television programming, we know this. Every other week it is something new (check out “The Housewives of Orange County” on Bravo). With viral videos, the move is clear- what viral videos will do is relieve network executives from having to deal with the arduous task of doing their job- creating programs from the ground up. With viral video, the program makes itself, the audience becomes the show, they bring their own equipment, their own crew, and all these guys have to do is sit around and bank off--- while exploiting the shared fantasy of fame, harbored by millions. These networks will depend on it, and undoubtedly it won’t let them down.

I am pretty sure what all of this means is that manpower/labor is serving technological growth, instead of the reverse. So long as we are promised our fifteen minutes, because let’s face it, the world would be pretty lonely without the Numa Numa guy.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Interview with Momus, Part I

Nick Currie waxes philosophic on culture, politics, and The American Night

Two weeks ago, Thessaly and I had the privilege of interviewing our favorite blogger, Nick Currie (or Momus), between his rounds as an “unreliable tour guide” at the Whitney Biennial. Although we love him for his blogging, Currie is also a musician, artist, and journalist with a following throughout Europe, the US, and Japan. After being introduced to Currie’s blog Click Opera a few years ago by my friend Ezra, both Thessaly and I have been regular readers and were thrilled that Currie was leaving his home in Berlin to do the Biennial in New York.

On Wednesday morning, anticipating a line, Thessaly and I set out for the Whitney at the early hour of 10am. Forgetting that as “members” (i.e. Columbia students) we didn’t have to wait in line, we had plenty of time to circle through the Whitney before meeting our interviewee. Thessaly had emailed Currie the night before to arrange a time to meet, but as it turned out, he had stopped for a snack and arrived later than we had expected, giving us time to pick up (or perhaps the reverse is more accurate) a new friend along the way. We sat in the lobby chatting with our new friend, Matias, for a few minutes before we spotted Momus who, looking like a dashing uncle in a Gatsby hat and gold-buttoned blazer, graciously took us on a “tour” before the interview.

The theme of this year's Biennial is "Day For Night," which is borrowed from the American title of Francois Truffaut's 1973 film, La Nuit Americaine. The title refers to the cinematic technique of shooting night scenes during the day using high contrast and a blue filter to create the illusion of night. At this year's Biennial, the phrase becomes a metaphor for the state of contemporary American culture and art. Curator Chrissie Iles described the theme as follows, "'Day for Night' explores the artifice of American culture in what could be described as a pre-Enlightenment moment, in which culture is preoccupied with the irrational, the religious, the dark, the erotic, and the violent, filtered through a sense of flawed beauty." Indeed, the exhibit, as well as Currie's commentary, was filled with subtle (and not-so-subtle) criticism of Western culture. From the fake obituaries of personalities like Nicole Kidman, Jeff Koons, and Bill Clinton, to the giant black and white portrait of what looked to me like an aging mafia Don lost in contemplation, the show seemed keen to expose the darker underbelly of mainstream American culture.

Currie’s technique was to surreptitiously glide through the gallery, darting out “like a white rabbit” to deliver philosophic witticisms through a muted bullhorn, then slip around the corner before his presence in the room could solidify. His commentary ranged from the playfully humorous, (“I went to the doctor and said, ‘doctor, I have this disease where everyone can hear my thoughts.’ He told me, ‘that’s not a disease, that’s a bullhorn’”) to the politically trenchant (“There are too many people talking at you through bullhorns, so I’m going to leave this room now”). In the elevators, he informed people about the possibility of hopping from biennial to biennial all over the world, “It would take exactly two years. Then you could start at the beginning again.” Reactions generally fell somewhere between amusement and confusion, but perhaps the most positive responses were from the security guards who seemed very appreciative of the entertainment.

After the tour we went down to the café for a cup of tea and an interview. Currie was very eloquent and graciously tolerated our slightly haphazard interviewing technique. Despite his mildly objectifying description of us as "blog babes" on Click Opera the next day, we found him on the whole quite likeable and were especially charmed by his lovely accent. Because the interview was quite long (and even this version is abridged considerably), Thessaly suggested that we divide it into two posts. So here is Part I:

Thessaly La Force: What have you thought of the Whitney Biennial so far?

Nick Currie: Well that’s a touchy question. That’s probably the toughest question to ask. In a way, it would be the ideal situation if I didn’t like it too much because I have to criticize it. I have to be a little bit sarcastic and use it as raw material. If I was really in awe of how wonderful everything was I would probably be a bit toothless; I wouldn’t have the critical distance that I need.

TL: Are most of the artists American?

NC: Yeah, this is the first year they opened it up to Europeans as well. I’m a European artist, but I only ever show in New York. I don’t have any art reputation in Europe at all. I’m kind of almost an American artist.

TL: Do you think a European audience would respond differently to your bullhorn technique?

NC: I don’t know. But I do think, especially in the last five years, America has become a place where everybody has a lot of keys dangling from their belts; they’ve got bullhorns and they’ve got guns, there’s a certain kind of authoritarianism that’s crept in. People are used to being shouted at. There is this kind of paranoia with which bullhorns fit in quite well. And I’m kind of playing on that.

TL: You mentioned how America has changed. We were curious, having lived in New York for pretty much four years straight, but also having come from other parts of the country previously, how have you seen New York change in the past half decade or so?

NC: I feel like it’s changed faster than anywhere I’ve ever been. The first time, coming here in 1996 after living in Paris, the whole thing – reading Wired magazine, being interested in the digital culture thing – was the future of humanity, as far as we could see in the nineties. And globalization of course, as well. Those two things: the Internet and globalization. Huge budget surpluses and all the rest of it, the richest country the world had ever produced with the biggest profits. And then, suddenly it plunges into huge deficits, war, Bush, corruption, a kind of fascism-lite. So I feel profoundly uncomfortable here now.

TL: You don’t really seem to have very much of a strong national identity. You live in different parts of the world and you don’t seem to identify with the nation-state. In our education we hear a lot about how things like globalization are eroding the nation-state; but at the same time, I think the nation state is still a very pervasive and real factor – they’re what build the roads for people, they’re what provide schools for people. We were just wondering what you thought of that debate.

NC: I do feel quite Scottish. I mean I don’t feel particularly British, but I do have a micro-national identity, which is that Britain is made up of Scotland, and Wales, etc. But I could also say that I identify with Celtic culture which could be Scottish or Irish or it could even be north French- the Celts went all over. Or else you could say I have an elective affinity with Japanese culture, so that’s my culture of destination.

I think when you leave your country you can pick and choose the things you want to remember, but you can also selectively replace your culture with elements of someone else’s culture. So I now feel like I’ve Japan-ized myself - selectively. I’m just building a synthetic supra-national identity. But, that does depend, paradoxically, on there being fixed national identities that don’t change very much. So in a way it’s a privilege: 10%, maybe 20% of people can do that, but we do rely on the 80% of people who don’t do that to stay at home and keep an identity which is national. It’s a difficult balance you know, if it was just a huge melting pot you would lose national identity, you would lose national cuisines for instance.

I keep coming back to this idea of essentialism; I’m quite positive about essentialism. I like the idea that you can say something about Jewish people, Scottish people, Japanese people and it would kind of be true. Although, of course, for any given Japanese person it might not be true. In a way, every culture aspires to being easily stereotyped. And there is a lot of reaction against stereotypes. A lot of people think that you can be whatever you want to be as an individual, and that we’re all the same as humans. Those two levels, the level of the universal ‘everybody,’ and the level of the particular, are fine. But anything between those two levels, people are very nervous about and start to use this word “essentialism”.

In the early days of identity politics the whole point was to say, ‘we are a group, here’s our flag, here’s our movement, here’s our agenda, we are gay people, we are black people, we are whatever.’ That was identity politics. But then the second stage of that was to say, ‘lets not talk about our differences.’ And that threw away the bad difference, it threw away some of the stigma which was attached to those movements, but it also threw away the idea of the good difference.

I’m really interested in this idea of the ‘good difference’ and how it operates on a group level. I think it’s a danger that we throw away this idea of there being groups which are good because they’re different. And that sometimes gets described as exoticism or orientalism, depending on who you apply it to, because it’s a romantic idea that there are groups who are different and from whom we can learn. The idea that we can learn from other people, from their culture which they have arrived at collectively, is unfashionable –well it’s unfashionable in the US. I guess the American experience has been that culture is synthetic and there are all these different groups which lose their group identity slowly, over time. I think the Europeans have a different idea of there being recognizable cultures that keep their identity over time. Anyway that’s one of my pet subjects.

(Photos: Jeff Goldberg, Libby Rosof, Eremi Amabebe, Promotional Cover, Libby Rosof)

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ali Farka Touré, 1939-2006

Earlier today, the Malian Ministry of Culture announced the death of one of my favorite musicians, Ali Farka Touré. Touré was a blues singer and guitarist as well as a rice farmer from northern Mali, whose work was influenced both by traditional Malian music and by American blues and soul artists like John Lee Hooker and Otis Redding. Despite a nearly 60-year musical career and more than two decades of international acclaim, Touré always humbly referred to himself as a farmer rather than a musician.

Touré died last Wednesday after a protracted battle with cancer and was buried in Niafunké, the town where he lived and worked. Touré was one of the few blues musicians to recieve acclaim in his home continent; he rose to inernational prominence in 1987 with a debut self-titled album and solidified his reputation in 1994 with the Ry Cooder collaboration, Talking Timbuktu. Feeling that his international acclaim had distanced him from his African musical roots, he took a hiatus and returned to his hometown. In 1999, he released Niafunké, which returned to more traditional African sources for inspiration.

The following is a site with samples from Touré's albums. One of my favorites is the last track on Niafunké; it takes its name from Pieter Botha, the staunchly pro-apartheid President of South Africa during the 1980s. This song has always stuck out on my mind because it takes a hard subject- the leader of one of the most oppressive authoritarian regimes in modern Africa- and handles it with lyrical beauty. I grew up hearing a lot of songs about apartheid in South Africa, and although I heard this one for the first time several years later, it is the only song I can remember which treats the subject with such grace.

For clips, click here.

Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy

Reporting from LA: Censored Brokeback, the musical
By Sophie Sharp

None of you know who Drew Lachey is. Those of you who do will demurely deny it to preserve your credibility. All this is fine. Mr. Lachey is best known for the following accolades: He was a member of the boy-band 98 degrees; He is brother to Nick Lachey, the former Mr. Jessica Simpson; He was, up until last previous Sunday, living out the twilight of his c-list fame (oxymoron?) competing in an ABC television show called “Dancing with the Stars.”

Incidentally, Mr. Lachey won this competition. But what I found interesting, as did ABC, was the exchange that occurred directly after Mr. Lachey completed his winning freestyle dance. Mr. Lachey and his dance partner, professional Latin ballroom dancer Cheryl Burke, completed a rousing western-themed dance to the song “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” by Big and Rich. At the completion of the dance, Mr. Lachey and Ms. Burke stood to get commentary from the judges.

Giddy with the excitement from the performance, choreographer judge Bruno Tonioli blurted out, “You are ready for Brokeback Mountain, the musical.”

In response to this, a smiling Mr. Lachey took the cowboy hat from Ms. Burke’s head, turned around, covered his rear with the hat, and swaggered a few steps away. Laughing reaction shots from Nick Lachey and Drew’s fiancé in the audience followed, and the judging continued.

But all was not well at the network. ABC edited the ass-covering and subsequent stagger out of the west-coast broadcast of “Dancing with the Stars.” The west coast edition goes from “Brokeback Mountain, the musical” straight to a guffawing Nick Lachey and fiancé. What gives?

Internet conspiracy theories are already circulating. Lachey is homophobic. ABC doesn’t want to alienate what is likely a sizable gay audience for the show. Lachey was actually sort of knock-kneed in his walk, and was therefore paying subtle homage to bottoms everywhere.

I was an intern at MTV when Janet Jackson’s nipple overshadowed everything else that happened at Superbowl XXXVIII. After watching a network-wide fallout at MTV following the unfortunately titled “Nipplegate,” this is my take. Lachey’s completely un-explicit reference to homosexual anal sex was a little too PG-13 for an overzealous network standards department in the FCC equals Big Brother age of media.

Thanks to the modern marvel of YouTube, you can view the unedited video for yourself. Spend time as I did, mentally comparing the wobble in Lachey’s legs with the smile on his face. Do you see undertones of homosexuality, homophobia, or any thing else potentially offensive or relevant? Apparently ABC did. Watch here.

Friday, March 03, 2006

An Invitation to Experiment

Finding the Female Gaze: Meera Vijayan responds to Tom Ford and Vanity Fair in a reconstructive rant.

Dear Friends:

I am writing this out the simplest rage and exultation that comes with a call to arms, to those that I know this will interest.

I am sure many of you have read or heard about or seen the new issue of Vanity Fair, which features Keira Knightley and Scarlet Johannson nude, erotically enframing Tom Ford as he nestles into Keira Knightley's ear, fully clothed and in command of the representation that is being put forth. From where I am sitting, it seems as if the biggest battle that images present us with today is the almost aggressive assault of images that fetishize the female body (music videos, fashion magazines, cinema, you name it). We all know this, we bristle, we read the theoretical rants, we sigh a breath of relief that it has been articulated, and we move on. You've read Laura Mulvey's article "Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema," dig it, if you haven't, you will, and we all know there is a male gaze that has shaped the history of cinema since its inception (from the pornographic kinetoscopes to the laughable Vanity Fair spread this month, we haven't come very far, have we?).

There is a feminist art history of body in performance that has tried to fight back by reclaiming ownership over the female body, by pointing out the desperate circumstance through exaggerated (and often mistaken) critique. What I am saying here is that perhaps this has not been enough, that a discourse that relies only on critique has failed, and that perhaps it has come time to fight fire with fire. DISCLAIMER: THIS RANT WILL BE FOR THE PURPOSES OF HETERONORMATIVE RECONSTRUCTION, if only to simplify a course of attack on the male heterosexual gaze through the female heterosexual gaze, to assault the male body with its own image, as women are done on a daily basis.

This is not to say the male body has never been eroticized. This is to say that the language of it has not been demonstrated as aggressively as has its reverse.

This is presupposing that fantasies are based in images, to eradicate the notion that the heterosexual male fantasy is more easily fulfilled by images of nude women that the heterosexual female fantasy can be by images of nude men, that images and fantasy are always inextricably linked (Freud) and that we can not be led to believe otherwise. This is a musing on experimentation, on activating the heterosexual female fantasy into the cinematic plane, and refusing to allow the fetishization of the body, if it must occur, to remain unilateral.

It is the goal to create a language of fetishization for the male body that "Hollywood" (a neat word that really signifies the male gaze) has neglected to offer. This is to say, to every lingering shot up the back, for every smooth cross of the legs, for every invitation that a sultry, pouty mouth can give, there lies a male corollary, a hip bone, a jaw line. i propose establishing a set of visual cues, compiled and investigated through your help in offering to concretely visualize your fantasies, that can be utilized to finally do what has been so far elusive to the convention of images: to eroticize, decontruct, and objectify the male body. Equalize the playing field, male bodies as persistently erotic as female bodies, we just need to find the

So I propose a photographic project, enabling the creation of such a language, through the sharing of fantasy-ridden possibility, through a series of exchanged and established evaluations through which we can collectively discover, articulate, and distribute the elusive but (and this I can not stress enough) present female gaze. I am absolutely positive of its presence, that in between the myth and reality of the male gaze there was a process of construction, and so this is why I write this e-mail, to urge you all to construct, to photograph, to visualize, to answer to the persistent eroticization with persistent eroticization.

All I'm saying -- equalize the playing field. Frame your fantasy for mass consumption. That's how we got here in the first place. In the end, then, to write it down, film it, get others addicted enough to film it, to make it on billboards, to make problems.

Hit me back with ideas, enthusiasm, rage, disappointment, unbridled reactions, and lists of adjectives,

Meera Vijayan