Legitimating Television – book report

Can highly recommend Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status by Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine (Routledge 2012). OK, it’s not about film let alone indie film, but there’s strong continuity between this book and Newman’s Indie: An American Film Culture in the focus on discourses through which particular kinds of value are prescribed to texts that to which various notions of ‘quality’ are ascribed. Newman’s work on indie film has paralleled mine in some key respects (including a very similar analysis of the way in which the status of Juno was disputed in some indie discourses, something he examines in Indie and on which I focus in one chapter of Indie 2.0). When he gave a paper on this dimension of Juno at a conference on American independent film at Liverpool a couple of years ago, we both had a sense that the other was picking our academic pocket in some way (I remember Michael suggesting that I must have gained access to his hard drive after I made my contribution as one of the keynotes; I felt the same way!) although we had developed our similar ideas quite independently.

So now I’m starting a book on the ‘quality’ film in contemporary Hollywood – something I’ve not yet posted about directly but it was the context of the post on Williams below – and I pick up his book about quality in TV; so we’re both at it again (or, he’s beaten me to it again, if in a different arena). Some of the underlying issues here are very close to what I’m currently working through in the context of Hollywood, so it couldn’t be more timely for me. Studies of the notion of quality in TV – mostly focused on recent or relatively recent American output – aren’t short on the ground, but this is the best I’ve read so far because it really interrogates the concept at various levels. The key argument of the book is that all of the focus on certain privileged quality series – The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and progenitors such as Hill Street Blues – is predicated on an implied denigration, still, of all of the rest of TV, to which lower cultural status remains ascribed. A strong thread of this book is also devoted to the identification of the extent to which this is rooted particularly in genderized hierarchies through which quality is articulated in terms of ‘masculine’ dimensions that exist in opposition to long-standing conception of ‘ordinary’ TV as essentially ‘feminine’ both in character and dominant assumptions about modes of consumption.

Newman and Levine offer useful background material on notions of ‘golden ages’ in television, followed by an examination of the extent to which the ‘quality’ label is dependent on the identification of ‘auteur’ showrunner figures. Additional text-based chapters focus on distinctions between different forms of sitcom and the extent to which notions of quality can be understood in many cases to be based on the marking of difference from soap opera. The latter is a key point in relation to the gender characteristics attributed to different forms: such differences are asserted, the authors argue here, despite the fact that some key dimensions of the long-form ‘quality’ drama have their roots in daytime serials as much as in the more elevated forms with which they’re usually compared. It is of the ignoring of such links that Newman and Levine are particularly critical and it is in this kind of argument that they go beyond most existing studies of this kind of TV.

In addition to the analysis of particular TV series, and responses to these, they also examine within the same frame a number of broader issues relating to the cultural position of TV, including literally the situation of the set in the domestic or other spheres. A key component of the manner in which TV has been legitimated in recent years, Newman and Levine suggest, is through the changing image of the television set itself, in its recent ‘high-tech’ flatscreen HD incarnation. They chart here a shift into a ‘masculine’ sphere of technology and ‘mastery’ that mirrors the gender characteristics attributed to quality TV texts themselves. The same goes for their understanding of new modes of consumption, particularly those that permit more active agency on the part of the viewer, from the advent to VHS to DVD and DVR, and the discourses through which such technologies have been advertised.

The final chapter turns their attention to the role of academia in contributing to these various dimensions of legitimation – in the constitution of TV studies as a discipline in its own right (not entirely solidly established as yet) and through academic studies of quality TV, many of which, as they suggest, remain implicated in the same hierarchies of taste and value as those articulated in broader cultural discourses. It’s excellent stuff throughout, to the credit of both authors. I’m glad to see that Newman’s now researching a project relating to videogames, as that’s not somewhere I’m going anytime soon (although I have co-authored a book on the subject in the past). Please, Michael, don’t tell me you’re currently also writing about notions of quality in relation to Inception

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‘Django Unchained’ will no doubt contribute to growing strength of Weinstein Company

The growing strength of The Weinstein Company (see previous post), after its slow start following the departure of Harvey and Bob Weinstein from Miramax, will no doubt be confirmed by its release of the new Quentin Tarantino film, Django Unchained. Not surprising that Tarantino has remained loyal to the brothers, who played a key role in building his career, just as Miramax profited greatly from his presence during its heyday under Disney. TWC is wasting no time in trying to build expectation for the film, either, with a teaser trailer now released, many months before it’s due to open at Christmas. Some more details about the film can be found on a blog at The Guardian. It’s already provoking some debate about its handling of issues relating to race, following past Tarantino controversies in similar territory, as reported by Indiewire. Notable, though, that it’s a co-production with Sony/Columbia, rather than solely a TWC venture. The deal involves a typical split, with Sony co-financing and distributing overseas and TWC handling the US release.

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BBC news report on crowdfunding films

BBC news has an interesting, if quite brief, report on crowdfunding of low-budget indies from the Tribeca Film Festival, one I missed at the time in April. It’s certainly the case that crowdfunding is starting to have more impact and that films are appearing at festivals such as Tribeca, Sundance and SXSW that were financed wholly or partly in this way. Kickstarter in particular has started to gain a real presence at these events, having had 17 films at this year’s Sundance and as many as 33 at SXSW. And, yes, you guessed it, this is something I write about at some length in my upcoming book Indie 2.0.

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Moonrise Kingdom to achieve cross-over?

Be interesting to see how far Moonrise Kingdom goes at the box-office after its per-screen record breaking start, which was followed up by a strong second week at the US box office (it’s also filling art-house screens in the UK as well). Will it achieve the cross-over success to become a hit on the scale of the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno? Would be quite an achievement if it were to do so, given the rather different nature of the film. Little Miss Sunshine and Juno are full of quite overtly ironic material, but mixed in these cases with very much more conventional emotional melodrama (I’ve written about these two dimensions of each film at length in Indie 2.0). Moonrise Kingdom also invites us to identify emotionally with the two main runaway protagonists, but on balance remains much more distancing in its use of typically arch Wes Andersonisms throughout, even as it moves increasingly into a ‘dramatic chase’ format in the latter stages. This would usually be expected to limits its constituency and the degree to which it’s likely to be able to cross into a more mainstream audience.

The world of the film retains the feeling throughout of being a construct, a storybook world in some ways akin to those of the tales read aloud by Suzy (Kara Hayward) to Sam (Jared Gilman) during their adventures. A  highly mannered impression is created from the start, in the tracks and pivots of camera-movement used in the initial exploration of Suzy’s family home and in the nostalgia-drenched props, costumes and the tone of the cinematography. This is, very firmly, another alternative Anderson universe, one that might not appeal to as wide a viewership as that of the two examples cited above.

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Indie Inc & Hollywood’s Indies: book reviews

A major boost to research on the indie-oriented Hollywood speciality divisions comes in the shape of two new books on the subject that I’ve now had the chance to read: Indie Inc: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s by Alisa Perren (University of Texas Press) and Hollywood’s Indies: Classics Divisions, Speciality Labels and the American Film Market by Yannis Tzioumakis (Edinburgh University Press). I’ve got a few  quibbles with the arguments of both of these, but there’s no doubt that they are a useful addition to scholarship on this subject, a crucial part of the broader indie sector, especially from the 1990s. This is a rather brief, outline sketch review of the two which doesn’t claim to be a definitive or anything like exhaustive account.

The appearance of these books at much the same time is rather fortuitous as they complement each other nicely. Tzioumakis offers a survey of all of the speciality divisions except Miramax, including earlier studio dabblings in this territory during the 1980s, while Perren focus on the most influential, Miramax. There are swings and roundabouts for each in the choice of focus. The choice of Tzioumakis not to include Miramax can’t help seeming a slightly perverse one. His rationalisation is partly that Miramax should be seen more as a ‘mini-major’ than as a speciality division, which I don’t find convincing: it was a speciality division and crucial to the broader development of these, even if one that eventually got to grandiose in some of its ambitions than was acceptable to its parent, Disney. Tzioumakis does not entirely ignore Miramax, as that would be pretty much impossible in writing about the others, the strategies of which at some moments were partly responses to the dominating role played by the Disney division, but it does seem odd for it not to have its own chapter. The other argument is the very fact that Perren’s book was in the pipeline, so there’s an extent to which the relative coverage of each wasn’t just happenstance. Focusing on just one example gives Perren more space to consider the broader media-industry context than is the case in the Tzioumakis, which adds to the extent to which they work together as a pairing.

What these books most usefully offer is plenty of good, close detail about the operations of these entities. Tzioumakis offers a detailed account of the various differences of strategy that can be identified from one to another. Perren stresses the variety of material embraced by Miramax, including the importance of its genre division, Dimension, and the role of overseas imports of various kinds as well as ‘quality’-type American indies. Developments that come through from each include a gradual shift in this territory from a primary focus on overseas imports to US indies and English-language imports, accompanied by an increased emphasis on production as well as the acquisition of completed titles that was the initial basis of such operations. The broad lines of this are quite familiar from previous accounts, but there is a wealth of closer detail here.  In some of these areas, what these books offer is perhaps more a filling in of such detail than the provision of substantial new insights. At times, in my view, both books claim to be doing something new, or offering new perspectives, a bit more than is really the case, but I’m perhaps not a very neutral judge of this having written on such subjects myself. Perren also, for me, somewhat overstates quite how much effect the strategies of Miramax had elsewhere. They certainly were very influential in various ways, but I’m not sure they ‘revolutionised’ the whole of cinema in the manner that she suggests rather sweepingly in places.

The focus of both is primarily on the industrial dimension, so there’s not much in either about any of the films themselves other than in very brief and passing characterisation. That, again, is a matter of what can be achieved in any one text and isn’t really a ground on which to criticise either author. Perren does on occasion claim to be going to look at the films themselves rather more than she does in any great detail. Tzioumakis ends up producing lists of titles some of the time, rather than giving us much sense of what sorts of films are entailed. This can come over as a bit dull-but-dutiful in places, but that again is really just the inevitable outcome of what can be fitted into one volume that seeks to cover so many divisions and to give a sense of the shifts of strategy, and reasons for this, in each case. A more detailed case study is offered for each chapter on a single division but that just left me wanting a bit more about more of the films themselves – more of a flavour of what kinds of films were encompassed by these entities. I offer much more detailed and sustained close textual analysis of case-study examples in my Indiewood, USA – but doing that, of course, limits the space for exploration of other dimensions. So you do get what you pay for in all of these cases.

I disagree with some of the arguments of each of these two about the nature of status of ‘indie’ as a category. Perren insists on using that term only for the domain of the studio divisions, which seems unhelpfully restrictive to me, missing much of the broader cultural resonance of the term (for more on that, see Michael Z. Newman’s Indie: An American Film Culture). She also separates out ‘independent’ as referring to the 1980s and ‘indie’ as referring to the 1990s, which also seems unduly reductive and an oversimplification of that is more generally suggested by such terms (Tzioumakis offers a similar although somewhat different periodization in his chapter in our forthcoming collection American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond, in which he separates out separate ‘independent’, ‘indie’ and ‘indiewood’ periods). This isn’t to argue that there were not significant shifts from one decade to another, but to suggest that they were not quite so clear cut and aren’t best characterised by such a usage of those terms in this manner. I could go on about this at great length, but won’t here! I also fail quite to understand Perren’s suggestion that ‘indie’ came to an end, which doesn’t seem right to me in either her definition or the wider usage I’d give to the term (there’s certainly no suggestion that the closure of some speciality divisions from 2008 led to the complete end of that part of the sector).

I’m similarly unconvinced by the suggestion by Tzioumakis that the term ‘independent’ has lost it’s meaning as a result of over-use, including the appropriation of the term for marketing purposes. Yes, these might have made the term contentious and embattled; but to suggest that it as a result became meaningless seems to me to miss to the point about the nature of such terms, which is that they are precisely always likely to be fought over and subject to appropriation, attempts to re-define, rescue, etc. I’ve got this far without yet plugging my forthcoming book, Indie 2.0, but this is a dimension of the discursive notions of indie/independent I explore there. Such terms are messy and subject to various forms of contest, but isn’t that one of the things that make them so rich a subject of study, rather than seeking to put them into narrow boxes or dismiss their continued relevance? We’ll continue to argue about this, I’m sure!

Overall, though, these remain essential additions to any library of studies of recent/contemporary indie film. They are both clear, well-argued accounts of considerable substance, whatever disagreements I might have on some specific points. Might only be for libraries at present, given their hardback only availability, but hopefully they’ll be out in paperback before too long.

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The Future, mini-review

Recently caught up with Miranda July’s much-awaited second feature, The Future, which offers an interesting example of the mix of qualities that typifies many indie films – and further demonstrates the continued presence of such films, despite various rhetorical claims about the supposed ‘death of indie’ in one way or another. There are some ingredients here that might seem characteristic of what is often denigrated as being an affectedly ‘quirky’ kind of indie approach, most notably a strand of narration supplied in a squeaky voice by July that represents the musings of a cat recovering from injury at the vet’s, while the main action of the piece proceeds. The two leads, July herself as Sophie and Hamish Linklater as Jason, are also familiar indie types in their rather gawky and awkward manners. But The Future also offers some less expected/familiar turns, most notably the injection of something like a sci-fi dimension involving the stopping of time. And all of this is the basis for a quite awkward and uncomfortable examination of a series of relationships – and I mean those terms in a positive sense. There’s no danger here of slipping into a cosy version of quirkiness of the kind that the cat-narration-device might at first suggest (to underline the point – spoiler alert here – the poor old mog doesn’t make it to the final credits). All in all, a promising sign of the continuance of a number of core indie characteristics. Which isn’t to say that getting such films made is an easy business (which it never was), given the gap between this and July’s previous feature, Me, You And Everyone We Know, released in 2005. July confirms here the important role played by a number of women filmmakers in the maintenance of a prickly variety of relationship-based indie film (other leading figures including Nicole Holofcener and Rebecca Miller), but it seems to remain a fact that they find it even harder to get their films financed and/or released than some of their male counterparts. There’s a good essay on the distinctive contributions made by some of these by Michele Schreiber in the forthcoming collection American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond, edited by myself, Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy.

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Indie 2.0, last read-through

I’m having the slightly weird experience of doing a really final read-through of my forthcoming book Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity in Contemporary American Indie Film – quite some months after originally delivering the ‘completed’ manuscript. It turned out recently that the book hadn’t yet gone into to physical production, so I was able to work in one or two little bits and pieces to update the material in places. This has been useful, particularly in relation to some of what I’m writing about various new web-related initiatives such as crowd funding. Some more successful examples of this exist now than did when I originally wrote the relevant chapter or last read through the whole manuscript last Autumn. Not that any fixed writing is really able to keep up with all the detail in this arena, in which there’s a danger of always being that important bit out of date – one of the perils of writing about very contemporary matters. I might be tempted at some point to publish directly on this website, rather than in a conventional book at all. Maybe; but then, again, I like the physical book (being no Kindle reader!) and there might be implications in such a move from the point of view of how much weight is given to academic research published in one place or another. More likely is to use this site as a place to do some updating once the book is out, in the form of short additional pieces that could be read alongside the main text before perhaps being integrated into subsequent printings. I’d also like to provide some advance teaser material from the book here, but the publisher is rather wary of that. Maybe something, at least, nearer the time of publication…

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Moonrise update

That straight-from-Cannes strategy seems to have worked with Moonrise Kingdom, then. Scott Macaulay of Filmmaker magazine tweets: ‘Wow! Half a million dollars on only 4 screens. “Moonrise Kingdom,” our print issue cover, is biggest limited release debut of all time.’

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‘indie’ blockbuster franchise??

‘Indie blockbuster franchise’ is not an oxymoron, argues Kristen Thompson in a detailed blog entry about The Lord of the Rings films, the Twilight series and The Hunger Games. It’s a useful piece about the industrial provenance of these titles. But I wouldn’t call any of these films  ‘indie’ in terms of the qualities of the films themselves, even if they might be the product of entities independent of the major studios (but only this even in some cases, given the status of New Line in this era as clearly a mainstream-oriented part of the Time-Warner empire). This is all up to debate, of course, and depends on difference usages of the term. For me, ‘indie’ isn’t just a short-form of ‘independent’ and isn’t usefully employed to describe any film that comes from a company that is strictly independent of the major studios (as has been pointed out before, otherwise we have to include in this category the last three films in the Star Wars series). I prefer to use indie to signify a particular range of independent practice – films, the institutions surrounding them, the basis of their reception – rather than as a contraction for any kind of independence (for a bit more on this see the definitions page elsewhere on this site; and for another similar definition of indie see Michael Newman’s excellent Indie: An American Film Culture). Definitions employed very widely that ignore the qualities/types of actual films involved seem too broad to me and not helpful; not, at least, for anyone for whom films themselves rather than just business practices are of substantial interest (which isn’t, of course, to suggest that the business dimension isn’t also a crucial part of the picture if we’re to understand any forms of cinema).

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Straight out of the Cannes

Notable that two high-profile films premiered at Cannes in the last two weeks are opening almost immediately in the US and/or UK. Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is already showing in both countries while Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share opens in the UK on June 1. Used to be that major festival screenings would often come months before commercial release, as part of a gradual process of establishing critical/artistic credentials for indie, art or other speciality films of this kind. Strategy here is moving in the same sort of direction as mainstream studio releases in recent years, towards quicker and wider openings. The reason’s not hard to see, such films seeking to capitalise more immediately on the large amount of free publicity they can gain at prestige festivals. Why have all that coverage and then wait months before having to crank it up again? But maybe this will only be the case with what are seen as the more commercial of such titles, or early openings in particular markets for particular films (such as Loach in the UK). Distributors might be slower generally to roll out the likes of the critic-splitting Holy Motors, for example, a French production the only current release dates for which are July in France and Belgium and Russia in October. We might have to wait a bit longer for our own opinions on that one!

Coming soon

Coming later...


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