Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Departed

Finally managed to catch The Departed before it disappeared from the big screen. I'm not sure what I think of it. Having seen and enjoyed Infernal Affairs in the cinema, there was nothing quite as startling in Scorsese's film.

Having read several reviews, I think I'm with J. Hoberman in Village Voice. The Departed is much longer than Infernal Affairs but it doesn't do a great deal more. It is, of course, extremely well-made and very enjoyable as a genre film, but tight and lean it isn't. It also lacks , for me, real interest in characters. I was prompted to think of a movie I love a great deal -- Donnie Brasco (1997) in which Johnny Depp plays the undercover cop and Al Pacino the low grade mafioso who becomes his surrogate father. By packing The Departed with the likes of Jack Nicholson and Martin Sheen, Scorsese seems to be going for depth in the playing, but Nicholson can't for me achieve the force of Pacino and Depp is leagues ahead of Matt Damon, DiCaprio (one of his better performances) and Mark Wahlberg (an odd and well received performance). I worry that it is my own old man's view and also possibly my arthouse snobbery, but no-one in The Departed gets within ten miles of Tony Leung, so cool he is frozen.

I think Marty got caught between two stools with this movie. It should have been shorter, tighter and more generic without big stars or more psychologically profound/more melodramatic (I did like Vera Farmiga, whose part could have been expanded).

So, I enjoyed the film but it could have been more. Rather like Michael Mann with Miami Vice, Scorsese knows so much that when he doesn't blow your socks right off it is a little disappointing. It is probably flying in the face of all reason and most polls, but I found both Gangs of New York and The Aviator to be more exciting in terms of watching a great filmmaker stretch himself.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Digital comparisons

First chance last week to compare, on a big cinema screen, a new digital print with its 35mm celluloid version. In 1986 I was lucky to work with the newly restored National Film Archive print of Black Narcissus (1947). We made slides directly from the print on a Steenbeck in the basement of the BFI. I certainly got to know the print well and so I was fascinated to see the digital version. Overall, the digital print is beautiful, clean and bright. But perhaps it is too clean and too bright? I particularly noticed three examples of 'over clarity'. There are many close-ups in the film, especially of Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh. Her eyes sparkle with reflected light but it gets a little spooky when the shot is faded out and two sparks of light remain as a kind of afterglow, long after the rest of the image has gone to black. Much more disturbing is the way that the digital print exposes all the matte work so that the imaginary kingdom of Mopu, with its palace perched on a shelf above a vertical drop, looks just like a studio set joined together by flourescent turquoise cement that pulsates gently drawing even more attention to the join. Finally, I noticed that the painted still images of the mountains now look exactly that -- painted images, seemingly with some damage from the ravages of time.

Black Narcissus is one of the most beautiful films ever made (a double Oscar winner for colour cinematography and art direction in 1947) so a process that exposes some its magic is not all good news. On the other hand, it won't deteriorate any further in the near future. The jury is still out on digital.

(The image is from a first generation DVD copy of the film.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Red Road

Kate Dickie (left) and Natalie Press in Red Road (image from Verve Pictures -- see below)

I'm often knocked out by movies, so I shouldn't be surprised by Red Road. One of my evening class students raved about it and I can see what she means. Fortunately, I didn't read anything about it first (although I was well aware of its basic scenario and had followed the triumph at Cannes). I was able to watch the film without any preconceptions and it worked a treat.

Since it is part of a Lars von Trier project, it shares a great deal with the Dogme aesthetic. In fact, perhaps because I haven't seen that many Dogme films, I thought it was very similar in impact to Festen. Apart from having a widescreen aspect ratio, I don't see why it couldn't be a Dogme film.

It so refreshing to see a film which simply introduces a character without explaining everything about them. We have to work it out from what we see and hear – appropriate really for a film about a woman who watches CCTV screens all day long. The pace in the beginning is slow but builds to a terrifying sequence -- built largely on characterisation, camerawork, editing and mise en scene.

I was disappointed by Sight and Sound's review. The reviewer assumes a distanced rather superior stance. She starts from the premise that as a viewer, she knows everything and therefore criticises the film's ending. But the way to approach this movie is to invest in Jackie, the lead character, and feel what she feels. I'm sure most audiences will do this and will react to the ending of the film from within a confused state of relief, exhilaration, anger or whatever other emotion is evoked for them.

The IMDB User Comments and Bulletin Boards are interesting. Several users seem upset by the explicit nature of some sex scenes. That's understandable, but not the comments that the two leads are unattractive. They are both excellent and believable. There is also some discussion of Glasgow as a location. I don't know Glasgow that well, but it always strikes me as both invigorating and desperate, a fun place and a fearsome place. It's a great city and the film uses the setting very well. I'd urge anyone to see this film. Well done Andrea Arnold, cast and crew and well done Verve (see website for images and production notes) for getting the film out on 38 prints in the UK. Things are looking up for real British films.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Holidays and Bollywood

2006 has offered a boost to the marketeers of Bollywood films in the UK -- and provided film and media students with a good example of how film distribution works. The Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr celebrates the end of Ramadan, which because it is part of the lunar calendar occurs approx. 11 days earlier each year of the Gregorian calendar. In 2006 Eid was celebrated on 23/24 October in the UK. This coincided with the Hindu festival of Diwali, which also moves in relation to the Gregorian calendar, but always occurs at roughly the same time of year. This year it started on October 21 and lasted for several days.

The coincidence of the two festivals meant that both of the two major UK Asian communities were looking for family celebrations at the same time. The Bollywood distributors held back major releases so that there was nothing playing in Bradford last week, in order to concentrate on the holidays this week when they opened two big films, the romance Jaan-e-maan and the action film Don (a remake of a 1978 Amitabh film with Shahrukh Khan in the lead). An interesting short piece in the Guardian G2 on Monday October 23 by Saima Raza describes how Bradford Asian families now see the Eid festivities as the perfect time to go to the movies.

I went into Bradford yesterday and it was buzzing on an afternoon with changeable weather. Since it's half-term as well, Cineworld was packed and I gave up trying to get a ticket, going to see Zinedine Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait instead. Since the Hollywood offer is pretty dire at the moment (with the exception of The Departed), the two Bollywood films could take up to five screens out of fourteen at various times of the day. It will be interesting to see how the two films fare in the weeks Box Office Top 15.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Not Cashing In

I enjoyed the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line very much. It had some of the best sound of any Hollywood films that I've seen /heard -- the opening sequence at the prison was sensational. I've long been a Reese Witherspoon fan -- Election was a revelation -- and I was equally impressed by Joaquin Phoenix. It was only a few weeks afterwards when I reflected on the BBC4 documentaries on Cash that I started to have some doubts, not about the quality of the film but about the story. Johhny's daughter from his first marriage, Rosanne, was critical of the film and what she thought was a misrepresentation of her mother, Vivian. Rosanne's sister Kathy was also critical, feeling that the film gave the impression that her mother had been a drag on Johnny's career.

This had an impact for me because although I've always liked John R. Cash as a performer, I've always been a bigger fan of Rosanne. After his death in 2003, I bought some albums from the Cash back catalogue and got into him again, but my passion for Rosanne's music from the 1980s had cooled a little. Then I discovered how easy it was to digitise my vinyl LPs. Suddenly I was back into Rosanne's music in a big way (and that of one time husband Rodney Crowell, who produced a lot of her best work). I then debated whether I should acquire her latest album, Black Cadillac. I knew it was written at a time when she was reflecting on the death of not only her father and stepmother June Carter in 2003, but also her mother in 2005 and her step sister. Could I cope with an album completely focused on the death of loved ones? In the end, I was convinced by the reviews and I got the album. What an astonishing piece of work. Deeply moving, but not at all maudlin. It has some of the best melodies and lyrics I've heard for a while and sounds as good as 'Seven Year Ache' or 'King's Record Shop', my favourite 80s albums. Perhaps I'll consider the 90s albums next.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Zinedine Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait

This is 90 minutes (of course) of sheer hell when I saw it - even for my football (if Burnley counts) consultant who I took with me - so boring, at times, that a collective gnawing of arms seemed tempting to suggest. However, it was interesting in its attempt to profile an iconic modern footballer (its release almost as fantastically timed as his head-butt to generate useful publicity).

The film-makers have art/arthouse credentials, and there is an intense focus on his every move, following throughout the match (Real Madrid/Villareal). He obliges the directors by being sent off near the end - but even this has a strangely passive quality that infects all the action, since he gets randomly involved in someone else's argument.

It's coming round to The Cornerhouse on 29th September. I'm definitely going to send any of my students who are thinking of doing the Sport and the Media research option (OCR, similar to AQA's Independent Study) - not because I don't like them (!) but because I think it has enormous potential for discussion as far as sport and celebrity is concerned. Having seen Sam Taylor-Wood's portrait of Beckham in National Gallery (a really, far superior analysis of sports celebrities AND our relationship to them), the Zidane film is limited in its own 'intelligence' but something they can use as a case study.

I notice on imdb that it's compared to 'Football as Never before' about George Best - I wonder whether there are any other useful companion pieces this new film could be put with?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Digital update

Seems I was a little unfair re the heat output of these projectors -- turns out it was the ventilation system in the box that was at fault. Having completed two screening events using the projector, I can see that there are some 'running in' problems. The projectionists are taking some time to come to terms with the machine. Each film, which arrives on its own disk drive, needs to be loaded and can't be activated without a separate security key -- the return of the 'dongle' that used to bedevil desktop computer users!

Actually loading and preparing the projection script for a new film takes a fair amount of time. More or less 'real time' for a feature on on 'HD' and more than 'real time' for a JPEG2000 film. There is not so much physical work for the projectionist compared to 'making up' a 35mm print. Once the loading begins, it is more or less automatic, but it does mean that late arriving digital prints could be a problem. As someone who has often been faced with a print arriving on the morning when I have an event starting at 10.30, this is not good news. At least with a 35mm print, you could get something onto the screen in the next hour or so, but the digital print has to be fully loaded. It's these 'little things' that are really important when it comes to actually using the prints. On the other hand, once loaded it is ready to go whenever you need it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Digital Projection Box

Squeezed into a projection box last week to get my first look at one of the JPEG2000 digital projectors installed in cinemas as part of the UK Film Council's Digital Screens Network.

What a monster! If your idea of digital media is an iPod or a tiny digital camcorder, you are going to be shocked. It's big and squat and worst of all exudes enormous amounts of heat, requiring its own ventilation system. (I understand there are two different models, so this might have been the bigger of the two.)

What used to be a 35mm film in several large metal canisters is now a small black box housing a hard drive. A film 'print' is now 60-70 Gb of digital data (i.e. about ten times more data than a DVD). It still needs to be 'prepared' by the projectionist for screening, so perhaps they won't be made redundant quite as quickly as we feared.

I couldn't stay to watch the print, but it seemed to cope alright with my laptop presentation. As I left, the projectionist commented on the one advantage digital prints clearly offer – every screening is potentially the same. There shouldn't be any scratches, visible reel changes etc. I'm sure this is a good thing but I'm already nostalgic for those old scratchy prints when, on a third or fourth viewing, you could look forward to spotting the scratches.

Watching the detectives

Several years ago I enjoyed a fantasy in which English Literature disappeared from school curricula and was replaced by something much more inclusive. When I saw some of the suggestions in the English Orders (I'm talking about 2000?), I could see the possibilities of different kinds of work, investigating genre fictions across media. I thought it might be fun to study Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins as authors and explore both their influence on crime fiction and the adaptations of their work in films and on the stage.

Fat chance, eh? The thought police seem to be on the prowl again, attempting to restrict what KS4 students read. If Film and Media students can study Pirates of the Caribbean and sitcoms, why can't literature students study crime fiction or science fiction? John Mullan has recently had a couple of interesting Guardian pieces exploring Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close as part of the Guardian's Book Club. It's OK to do things like this at degree or postgraduate level -- why not at 14 or 17?

Studying genres in literature would enable students to learn more about narrative structure, about typing and about social context. (I think I've learned a lot about different milieu from reading crime fiction.) I suspect that the range of reading students do at school is narrower than it needs to be.

The other great advantage of genre fiction is that it can be universal. I've enjoyed crime novels written in many languages. Having read most of the wonderful Henning Mankel novels from Sweden, I enjoyed the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo's The Devil's Star this summer. A good translator allows access for readers of popular cultures across the world and I think I could argue that this is as important as introducing students to foreign language cinema. And why stop at crime? A good dose of vintage 1950s P.K. Dick would be good for most students.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna: New Bollywood?

I love Bollywood, but I’m a real starter when it comes to knowing about the films, so it would be great to hear people’s responses to Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. (Director: Karan Johar). I remember Lagaan seemed to promise the first Indian cross-over success, but KANK is far more modern. Not your typical Bollywood product, it's set in New York and deals with divorce and infidelity. The characters drink and there is a definite lack of the trademark Bollywood music and dancing, given the ‘hero’ is an injured football pro. Any musical numbers are modernised and often set in discos.

I’d made a mental note to discuss it with my students who are Bollywood fans, but saw (Screen International 1/09/06) that is has had the biggest box office opening in territories other than India, for a Bollywood film. It has some of the brightest stars of Bollywood, such as Shah Rukh Khan, not for the first time tackling a quite unsympathetic hero. The film is pretty tortuous - there’s loads more dialogue than usual – and some of it pretty dreadful!

I’m not sure how far it represents a true Bollywood film for the global market though – although it seems it might be targeted at younger viewers. It certainly is different from Johar’s 2004 film Veer Zaara (which had three out of the four leads) which was far more traditional, particularly in gender representations.

I’d love to know how it fits in with other, earlier Bollywood or how younger people (i.e. students) have responded to it? Or any other films that people think make ‘westernised’ Bollywood, for the global market? (I’m thinking particularly about A2 Film and Media options re World Cinema, and for teaching institution, generally?)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Media Exam Results, August 2006

I'm not sure why, but it has been more difficult to find the whole range of media results this year. They weren't listed in all the papers. I eventually tracked them down on the website of the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).

I've aggregated all the listed exam results and come up with a figure of around 136,000. This includes GCSE, AS/A2 and GNVQ Intermediate/VCE. These are all the film and media qualifications which report in August. It doesn't include the vocational qualifications from BTEC (National Diplomas etc.) and City & Guilds which might take the total up to 140,000 plus. We'll include a full analysis in itp next month, but here are a few 'headline' findings:

GCSE Media is forging ahead with a massive increase this year of more than 20% up to 57,521 from 45,685

AS (film and media) is up by around 4% from 41,309 to 43,018

A Level (film and media) is up by nearly 10% from 28,261 to 30,964

The increase at A Level follows on from a big AS increase last year. Perhaps the surge at GCSE will have some impact on AS next year?

The gender splits are interesting. The general commentaries don't seem to notice that Media Studies has been one of the new subjects that has attracted young women in large numbers. At GCSE the gender split is roughly even, but at AS and A Level, the female entries are clearly ahead of male entries. At 16, more girls than boys opt for AS. As a consequence the percentage of "all male entries for AS" taking Film and Media is actually higher than the percentage of girls (4%) -- even though the number of girls taking Film and Media is actually higher. At A Level, the figures suggest that overall the number of boys progressing to A2 is less than for girls. In Film and Media, girls maintain their 3.9% of the total A2 entry, but for boys it drops to 3.8%.

Any surprises in these figures?

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Sexual violence

An interesting reply to Nick's letter to Ofcom, but the announcement yesterday that the UK government is going to legislate against downloaders of representations of 'sexual violence' is also worrying. (See:

I don't like the idea (or the practice) of any kinds of violent acts towards men, women, children or animals, whether for sexual motives or any other and like most people, I'm sure, I feel for the mother who lost her daughter because of the actions of a violent man. However, as any media student ought to know, deciding on the meaning of media representations of any actions is a complex business. Who is going to do it? There are plenty of people who engage in consensual acts of simulated sexual violence and some who actually get pleasure from receiving pain (and who therefore need others to adminster it). Are they going to be imprisoned for exploring their fetish? It is going to be difficult to distinguish real from simulated violence. I just hope that legislation isn't passed on the basis that it is too difficult to distinguish between consensual and forced 'sexual violence'.

On the whole, I think the BBFC now does a pretty good job in classifying films and responding to public tastes. However, I'm a little baffled by the decision to make The Notorious Bettie Page an 18 Certificate film. Mary Harron's film is not what some audiences expected and it might be criticised for leaving out some aspects of the Bettie Page story, but what she did decide to present is not likely to corrupt anyone in my view. I guess it must be because the subject matter includes fetish material and that this must be kept away from 16-17 year-olds? If the movie does anything (and I think it manages quite a few ideas) it satirises American society's attitudes towards sex in the 1950s. Perhaps we will need something similar if the criminalisation of sexual activity is extended in the UK?

Governments, especially this one, are prone to create new legislative powers without thinking very long or very clearly. I hope they get this one right.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Tom and Jerry

One of the most disturbing events this summer was Time-Warner's agreement to cut smoking out of 'children's' cartoons after Ofcom requested them to do so, apparently after one parent's complaint. I can't find any info on Ofcom's site regarding this ludicrous decision; Tom apparently rolls a cigarette in order to impress a 'dame'. No doubt the parent's nipper(s) was so impressed by this that they will go on to become a smoker: the 'effects' theory is alive and having an undue influence on policy still (my guess is Tom's ploy failed and so if the 'effects' theory is correct the child would not have become a smoker).

I think this amounts to an Orwellian rewriting of history and am going to complain to Ofcom.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Suez, the media and its aftermath

I can just about remember Suez, but only as a few images in a Sunday newspaper as I was only a small child at the time. I guess that for my parents it was a very worrying time as they knew that my brother would be called up for National Service in the next couple of years (he was actually in one of the last intakes of National Service in 1958 and went to Aden which, fortunately, did not become violent until 1962/3). My cousin was a few years older and he was in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of 1953-4. In 1956 virtually every family in the UK would know somebody who had been close to danger in the 1939-45 war, either at home or overseas, or in any of the subsequent conflicts to which UK National Servicemen were sent such as Palestine, Indian Partition, Korea, Malaya etc. One of my other childhood memories is of the man next door, who I never saw but knew would never recover from his experiences in a Japanese POW camp.

I mention these memories simply because they emphasise the difference between 1956 and 2006, in terms of a general direct connection/experience with war and access to media representations. I'm not sure how my parents discussed how they felt (and they always kept any overtly 'political' views to themselves) but they were certainly not exposed to the kinds of 'personalised' human interest stories delivered as 'news' that we get today. Perhaps the major example of this was the 'streaming' list of missing people running underneath the main image of Sky News during the tsunami disaster in 2004/5 (which is covered in more detail in The Media Student's Book, 4th edition). Sky were criticised for much of their coverage, but the general use of 'personal statements' by people faced with the terrible news of the loss of loved ones is now so common that perhaps it is acceptable to most of the audience?

The other big difference between 1956 and 2006 is the role of the press, including the range of titles available and the impact they have on readers. Suez was a crazy act of folly which was nevertheless supported by the Times and the Telegraph. The principal objectors were the Manchester Guardian and the Observer (now both controlled by the Scott Trust, but then separate entities). The Guardian celebrated its principled stand with several articles in July, but I was struck by a letter which appeared in response to a reference to the death of the News Chronicle. This Liberal paper was our daily paper up until its demise in 1960 when it was taken over by the Daily Mail. We were forced to switch to the Daily Express (we already took the Sunday Express). I was miffed mainly because I lost a daily dose of the I-Spy column then very popular with children.

In retrospect, I wonder what damage I sustained by seven years of Empire Loyalism from Lord Beaverbrook. Would I have had a better popular education if the News Chronicle had survived? With the demise of the Daily Herald (after it had changed its name to The Sun and then been sold Rupert Murdoch in 1964) the UK lost a middle market paper with anything other than a right wing perspective. Media studies often queries whether the press has a significant affect on public opinion, but it's an interesting question. How would the Falklands and the Gulf War have gone down without the Sun and with two leftish papers in the middle market to contradict the Mail and Express?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Brokeback Mountain and the Twilight Western Part 2

People often make very interesting points in discussion, but if you are leading the group in a teaching context it is often difficult to remember all the points that are being made. I'm glad this weekend that I did remember a very interesting observation. This was the suggestion that the decline of traditional cowboy employment prospects post 1945 was similar in effect to the decline in mining communities in the UK (and much of the rest of Western Europe) in the last thirty years. A distinct working-class community with a particular way of life and a rich culture felt cast by the wayside. I wonder how a film about two gay miners coming to terms with modernity would have gone down?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Media Education Association is born

On Saturday June 17 2006 the Media Education Association was formed at an inaugural meeting in London. All the people present, comprising delegates from regional meetings and members of the original steering group, agreed a Draft Constitution and the appointment of an Executive Committee to organise membership and plan the initial activities of the Association. Those present at the meeting (and presumably the other delegates who couldn't be there) make up the initial 'Executive Council'.

Congratulations to everyone involved. Information about MEA is available from the MediaEducation Association blog listed under the links opposite. A dedicated website is one of the first tasks for the Association's communications team.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Media Education Association Update

The regional meetings designed to enable consultation on the proposed Media Education Association took place over the last two weeks. Each meeting was asked to produce two delegates to take part in a final planning meeting on June 17. This meeting should formally set up the association and 'take over' from the Steering Group. The new association should be up and running from September 2006.

I chaired the meeting in Manchester which had 19 people present and a further 8 apologies. The meeting had to be business-like to get through the agenda, but there was plenty of enthusiasm and a fair amount of discussion. Two delegates were chosen. The group agreed to meet again in July at FACT in Liverpool to hear what happened on June 17 in London and plan for further developments in the North West.

The Bradford meeting chaired by Nick Lacey had slightly fewer people, but still enough to make progress and they are meeting again on July 11.

If you live in the North West or Yorkshire, leave a comment here and I'll email you details of what is happening. If you live elsewhere, go to this link to see the details of the May regional meetings with contact dates.

It looks like something may really be happening, so thanks to all of those who have volunteered to work on this venture.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bradford Riots

It's over a week since the local elections and since Channel 4's broadcast of The Bradford Riots. I'm surprised that there has been relatively little mention in the national press of the local results in Bradford, where Labour actually did well, taking seats from the Tories and reducing the BNP's seats. In Keighley, Labour won all three seats, including one for an Asian woman – a significant success, I think.

The Bradford Riots is a 'realist drama' based on the events in July 2001 when a National Front march was proposed for Bradford and Asian youths took to the streets to defend their territory. The independent production company stated that they could not get permission to restage the events in Bradford so the film looks a little bizarre to the locals with key scenes shot in parts of Liverpool.

Some of the national critics have complained that the central character is not 'typical' because he is a university student. But from what people tell me the story sticks pretty closely to 'real' events. It was researched, written and directed by Neil Biswas. He is, I think, from the Bangladeshi community in Whitechapel, the location for his first feature, Second Generation in 2003. He does a good job and the film is well worth watching. At the end, I was moved and angry on behalf of the family at the centre of the drama. But that was mostly because I knew the story was 'true' - by which I mean that what happened to the characters actually did happen to real people.

It's very difficult for realist television drama to do more than that, but the day before I went to see Jean-Pierre Melville's L'armée des ombres (Army in the Shadows) What a movie! I love Melville and this a digital restoration by a French archive of a 1969 film. The colours are muted and the film is relatively slowly paced over 145 mins. But Melville is in complete control. I wish I could think of easy ways to introduce this kind of filmmaking to younger audiences. There are no car chases and little direct conflict in this story about the French resistance, mostly based on Joseph Kessel's novel, but also on Melville's own wartime experience. The action as such comprises an escape from custody, a reluctant execution, another escape from a firing squad and a 'mercy' assassination. Between these dramatic highs are long periods of tension building,with marvellous performances by the likes of Lino Ventura and Simone Signoret.

Melville is an expressionist rather than a 'realist', but I was convinced of the 'reality' of the situations that faced the resistance fighters. I particularly enjoyed Lino Ventura's flight back to France from London. Prepared to jump from an RAF plane with his parachute harness over his overcoat and suit, our hero has his glasses firmly taped to his forehead with elastoplast. It's those touches of humanity that make this a great film.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Media Education Association

The proposed 'Media Education Association' (a provisional name) is now at the 'lift-off' stage with a series of regional consultative meetings being held in the last two weeks of May. The meetings are at 'twilight time' after school in various locations. Go here to download a pdf with all the information.

As one of the original working group, I'm chairing the regional meeting in Manchester at Cornerhouse on 24 May and Nick Lacey is chairing a Bradford meeting on 15 May. There are ten more around England and Wales, so there will be one within travelling distance for many of you. The aim of these meetings is to discuss the work done so far in setting up a 'paper organisation' and to widen participation and take in new ideas. So far, it has been a handful of media educators, mostly outside classroom teaching, who have done the leg-work. Now we want the proposed teacher-members to take over and drive the Association forward through recruitment and development of policy. We hope therefore that the regional meetings will each produce two representatives who will be able to attend a London meeting on June 17 which will formally set up a committee to found the Association. (These two 'representatives' are not already decided, anyone can put themselves forward.)

If you are really keen to get involved, get to your nearest local meeting and make your voice heard. We do have some funding to pay travelling expenses for delegates to the London meeting and to get the Association started, but after that it will be up to the members to grow it.

If you can't make the meetings, please make sure you have registered your interest by going to the weblink here. This is an exciting initiative and I hope it sees a new generation of committed media teachers working together to move media education forward.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Vocational Media Courses

Preparing for an event discussing vocational media course in schools and colleges, I'm becoming increasingly aware of the 'market pressure' for new courses and the way they are exploiting government policy towards 14-19 education. Last summer I was alerted to the threat of DiDA -- ICT courses at Level 2 that include digital media production. Is anybody in a position to say how these are working in schools and if media teachers are involved?

Now comes a suite of'iMedia' qualifications from OCR offering more digital media production qualifications at Levels 2 and 3 as part of ICT provision . Where Edexcel goes, OCR must follow, it seems. It was disturbing to see a reference to 'media education' in relation to these new qualifications. 'Media techniques' yes, but they do not cover any media education key concepts. iMedia website.

Finally, I've been reading about 'Vocational Advantage', an idea for supporting centres wanting to develop vocational courses in schools at KS4 coming from Edexcel in partnership with the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). Media is one of the first areas to be supported. See flyer here.

Edexcel is owned by Pearson Education and seems to be getting ever more entrepreneurial. DiDA involves selling a lot of Macromedia packages at huge discount to schools. Par for the course I guess these days. It's time to look closely at what is going on.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Looking Over Brokeback Mountain

I'm intrigued by the success of Brokeback Mountain. In fact, it has to some extent restored my faith in audiences. Several of the people I have discussed the film with are not fans of the Western and were surprised when I suggested that Ang Lee's triumph was to so skilfully make use of the conventions of the Western genre – and specifically those of what some have termed the 'Twilight Western'. This term can be used to describe either Westerns set in the dying days of the 'Old West' (i.e. 1890-1910) or in the post-1945 period when the Western lifestyle began to feel more and more out of tune with contemporary America. In the main, Twilight Westerns have been produced by Hollywood (and independents) since the late 1960s, although earlier examples include The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray 1952) and Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah, 1962).

I've been running an evening class with the title 'Looking Over Brokeback Mountain' at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford for the last few weeks. So far we've watched The Last Picture Show (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) and extracts from a range of films including Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) Johnny Guitar (Nick Ray, 1953), Hud (Martin Ritt, 1962), Junior Bonner (Peckinpah, 1972), Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985) and The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993).

We've discussed gender in the Western in both the traditional 'mythologised West' and the more realist 'Twilight West' and this week we look at a little-seen Twilight Western, Stephen Frears' 1998 film, The Hi-Lo Country. I wonder how it will look in 2006 after the success of Brokeback? Billy Crudup and Woody Harrelson play the two young men, but this time they fall out over Patricia Arquette.

The course has also prompted me to read Annie Proulx's short story collection and I've enjoyed all the stories so far – I'm saving up the Brokeback story for the last week of the course.

Digital Projection

Although I haven't yet (to my knowledge) seen a digital print as screened under the UK Film Council's current scheme for improving access to 'specialised films', I have seen demos and they looked impressive. This week the Film Council announced that 50 projectors had been installed in UK cinemas as part of phase 1 and that 190 more are scheduled for phase 2 starting May 2006. I know one is being installed at Pictureville in Bradford so I look forward to seeing what it can do. Anybody got any feedback on digital screenings at their local cinemas?

The Film Council press statement (as reported in Screen International 13/4/06) suggests that the predicted problems were evident in Phase 1, but that they are being overcome. The biggest problem is that distributors need to make both digital and analogue prints during the long transition period. 25 films have had digital prints made in the UK so far. The second issue is compatability of equipment and prints. The Film Council concedes that some fitted projectors need upgrading to what is now being touted as an industry standard – JPEG2000 (see the Digital Cinema website ).

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Is youth culture dead?

Interesting post by Mark Ravenhill in today's Grauniad: "I am down with the kids". His argument is that youth no longer can control its own popular culture with parents downloading The Arctic Monkeys and playing the latest videogames. Ravenhill, who has been doing interviews for his 'teen' play Citizenship, thinks that there is nothing for youth to 'own' anymore. Bizarrely he suggests that what youth needs is a form of National Service – not to give them a "short sharp shock", but to provide them with a chance to get together and discover things that their parents wouldn't like – to become rebellious again. He argues there is little chance of that in middle-class youth culture and points to the colonisation of black culture by white kids looking for something that their parents won't understand.

Ravenhill is on to something, but I'm not quite sure what. He makes me think of an article by Joe Eszterhas in Rolling Stone in the 1970s in which he argued that the 'baby boomers' of the late 1940s would control popular culture for the next 40 years until they died out – not just because they were such a populous generation, but because of the conjuncture of changes in society, in the economy and in popular culture that took place in the 1960s. Eszterhas has been proved correct in many ways – witness the extraordinary amount of coverage of the recent tour by Bob Dylan. As the age profile of Europe in particular shifts upwards, we might see a split in popular culture with the 30 and 40-somethings looking to stay 'young' and embracing 'youth culture' as something still appropriate for them, whilst 50 and 60-somethings stick with what's left of the 'Counter Culture' and its heroes.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

New Media Studies A Levels

It's not that often that I change my mind during arguments/debates. I tend to spend a long time developing new ideas or attitudes, so I was intrigued by the debate about 'coursework' and 'practical work' for A Level Media Studies on the OCR Exam Board mailing list for media teachers. It is being driven by a wide range of positions, often (but not always) cogently argued. I find myself agreeing with both those who want to expand coursework (my own general position) and those who are worried about too much 'production work' and not enough core theory. There is still time to join in the debate by registering and visiting the mailing list (see link).

Spike Lee: Inside Man

Spike Lee certainly upsets people. I can understand the charges of misogyny and even the complaints of those who can't cope with any kind of expressionism or melodrama. I can agree that he is an uneven filmmaker, but surely it's obvious that he's one of the most important filmmakers in Hollywood? Not to Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian. I've never come across a reviewer so annoying as Bradshaw. He's obviously intelligent and perceptive and seems to have seen a wide range of films, but he has no sense of judgment. One star for Inside Man and dismissal of 25th Hour. Nuff said!

Inside Man
is terrific entertainment. The cast is to die for – I think I could cope with anything that put Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster in the front line and supported them with Chiwetel Ejiofor, rapidly becoming a Hollywood regular. I was also impressed with Clive Owen – thankfully not to be wasted on Bond films.

Is Inside Man more than 'just' an 'entertainment'? It struck me during the film that it seems to draw heavily on the treatment of suspects at Guantanamo. The plot means that a large group of hostages in a bank heist are dressed in 'coveralls'. The police are unable to distinguish the 'witnesses' from the 'crooks' and ship them off in a bus. Given jokes about Bin Laden and a Sikh witness' complaint at being addressed as an 'arab' and the references start to pile up. Added to this Spike has chosen as opening and closing music the song 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' written by the maestro A. R. Rahman for Mani Ratnam's Dil Se. Dil Se features Sharukh Khan as a journalist who falls in love with a 'freedom fighter' from Assam. To add further significance, the version of the song that closes the film includes the Coventry rapper Panjabi MC delivering lines in a distinctive West Midlands accent. If you've seen the Revolution Films production of The Road to Guantanamo about the Tipton Three it doesn't take too much to make the connection.

I've no idea whether this is what Spike intended, but it worked for me. Panjabi MC is the third UK creative talent on the roster. Chiwetel manages something approaching an American accent, but Clive Owen, like the rapper, is distinctively British – weirdly noone comments on this.