Monday, February 28, 2011

Mr. Representation

Mr. Representation

Now that the Sundance class is over, I'm putting together a little series of film showings that will allow us to examine portrayals of hyper-masculine, unattainable, "male beauty" in 80's and 90's action movies.

If you are interested in participating, let me know!


Revolutionary Documentary Films

I am currently working on my senior thesis for my Integrated Studies degree and wanted to pose a question to the group and hopefully get some feedback-

Since each student took this class because they at least have a remote interest in film and/or documentary in specific, I was hoping some of you might suggest some documentary films that you have seen that might work for what I am arguing in my thesis. Without delving into too much detail, I am looking for docs that were impactful enough (for whatever reason) that they made you as a viewer want to go out and do something about the issues they address. These could be environmental, social justice, health, economics, personal interest, or any number of other topics, just as long as they for some reason, made you want to take action or educate yourself on the topics presented. Also, they don't have to be recent docs, as I am coming at the topic from a somewhat historical angle. So, if any of you know of films that had influence in a specific time period or movement, those would be great as well.

I'll be watching a panoply of docs over the coming weeks looking for films to analyze and include in my thesis, so any suggestions that will help me shed some light on my seemingly blind venture are GREATLY appreciated!

Either comment in this post or shoot me an email at uvurikki [at] gmail dot com

Thanks in advance! I hope to see you all around campus!


    While I was writing my paper, the thought came to me that the director of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 Göran Hugo Olsson made the documentary with an assumption in mind that hindered the potential of the film in my opinion. The assumption I believe he had was that the audience is as familiar with Black culture and history as he is and in some instances he thinks we aren't as knowledgeable as him.

    As for me, a part of that audience, I do know about Black history but culture is a different matter and because of that, I did take issue with some aspects of the film. The parts of the film that had to do with history, I enjoyed and was able to take something home from it. The culture parts (commentators) of the film were harder for me to grasp.

    Now, Olsson tells us the documentary is that of the Swedish perspective and that may be true, but the film certainly gives us Olsson's views. During the Q & A with Olsson, he sort of gave me the impression that he wanted to shock and surprise people with this footage as if we Americans don't know anything that took place at that time. That may just be my opinion. Olsson seems to be somewhat naïve when it comes to American perspective. This is a big country and it's nothing new that different parts of the country have different perspectives on topics. I have the 1990's White Southern Californian Girl perspective which is pretty much Olsson's perspective-the outsider, except he grew up at the time all this was happening which has an advantage. My perspective hasn't changed over the years; it's just become more informed. Olsson's film didn't provide any new information for me; it did show me images I hadn't seen before, but not different types of images, if that makes sense.

    Anyway, I think I've rambled on. So for those of my fellow classmates who had difficulty with some of the ways this film was made, I think this is the underlying cause to all those issues, not that it changes anything.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Butt Naked handout

The "Redemption" of General Butt Naked


Joshua Milton Blahyi used to be known as General Butt Naked. Since his conversion to evangelical christianity, Blahyi has been trying to redeem himself for the deeds committed under his former moniker. The film follows Blahyi as he confronts former subordinates and victims to ask for forgiveness, as well as a fact finding comission, who does in fact exonerate him, even after his admission of being responsible for 20,000 casualties. When Blahyi flees the country fearing reprisal for his commission testimony, his supposed redemption is called into question. Can he be redeemed? Or is he the same man he's always been?


The problem with this film for me is two-fold, and the first problem is compounded by the second. Firstly, the film rarely if ever questions the extreme or unbelievable circumstances that surround the forgiveness Blahyi receives. Worse even than the times that Blahyi forcibly extracts an apology from his target is when that apology comes without the need for extraction. Again and again, Blahyi is given forgiveness, seemingly without earning it. From Senegalese, the guardsman he permanently disabled when he shot out both his kneecaps and left him to die, to a young woman whom he pistol whipped as a child and who now has vision problems, to the truth commission itself. He receives forgiveness, and the question of "why" is rarely broached.

This leads to the larger problem of the film, which is the direct cinema mode in which it operates. From my paper:

"Direct cinema as a style is often associated with cinema verite. In fact, Bordwell and Thompson (2008), in their text Film Art: An Introduction (8th Ed.), use the terms interchangeably (340). But a more nuanced understanding of the differences between the two comes from Erik Barnouw (1993), in his seminal text Documentary. He writes of direct cinema and of cinema verite:
The direct cinema artist aspired to invisibility; the Rouch cinema verite artist was often an avowed participant. The direct cinema artist played the role of uninvolved bystander; the cinema verite artist espoused that of provocateur. Direct cinema found its truth in events available to the camera. (255)

For Barnouw, the direct cinema documentarian is a fly on the wall, trying to make himself unnoticed so as to allow his capturing of events to unfold as they naturally would. Barnouw would have recognized this technique in full force in Redemption."

Contrast this with the BBC story on Blahyi, a portion of which I showed in class. Here are the links to the full story:

From the 6:00 minute mark of the second video, and on through the third, they begin to ask the questions that were thrundering through my head throughout most of "Redemption". And in those videos, it doesn't even take much of the "voice of God" style narration to raise these questions. But what it does take is a breaking outside of the Blahyi experience, to ask outside of the general's circle of influence. And that's something that never happens in the film which is made the worse because of this stylistic purity.

Film List -- Related films:

Deliver us from Evil (2006) – An “Apology-flick” about a Catholic priest wanting to apologize and meet the all grown up kids he molested. [Description from Van's handout!... thanks Van]
The Redemption of General Butt Naked (2011)
"The Vice Guide to Everything" Liberia/Huayno Music/Call Centers (2010) - Part of the "Vice Guide to Travel" series, includes interviews with Blahyi. Touches on his cannibalism, something not brought up in the film.

Works Cited:

Barnouw, E. (1993). Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film - 2nd Revised Ed.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2008). Film Art: An Introduction - 8th Ed. New York:

Connected Presentation Handout

Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death, and Technology

Run time: 82 min. | U.S.A. | color & b/w

Directed by Tiffany Shlain

Narrated by Tiffany Shlain and Peter Coyote

Film Website:


Found on Sundance website:

“With wonderful heart and an impressive sense of scale, Tiffany Shlain’s vibrant and insightful documentary, Connected, explores the visible and invisible connections linking major issues of our time—the environment, consumption, population growth, technology, human rights, the global economy—while searching for her place in the world during a transformative time in her life. Employing a splendidly imaginative combination of animation and archival footage, plus several surprises, Shlain constructs a chronological tour of Western modernization through the work of her late father, Leonard Shlain, a brain surgeon and best-selling author of Art and Physics and The Alphabet Versus the Goddess.

With humor and irony, the Shlain family life merges with philosophy to create both a personal portrait and a proposal for ways we can move forward as a civilization. Connected illuminates the beauty and tragedy of human endeavor while boldly championing the importance of personal connectedness for understanding and coping with today’s global conditions.”


Narrative and Narration

Connected is broken into two narrative strands, with a separate narrator for each. Peter Coyote provides “voice of god” narration for segments dealing with the history of human beings from the Pleistocene to the present. Peter Coyote is never seen, his narration is entirely voice-over.

The other narrative strand is provided by Tiffany Shlain and focuses mainly on her family history, especially her father’s brain cancer diagnosis and his death. Shlain’s narration is delivered as voice-over but also as direct address to the camera, lending it a more personal feel than Mr. Coyote’s narration.

Both narrative strands combine to discuss what Tiffany Shlain sees as the interconnections between current social problems and patriarchal attitudes. Shlain informs us that these patriarchal attitudes were -- in her father Leonard Shlain’s book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess -- in turn connected to the development of written language which, theoretically, made humans shift from having balanced use between their “feminine” right brain and their “masculine” left brain to having a dominant left brain. Connected concludes by stating that modern technologies (specifically the internet, text-messaging, and social networking) will restore the balance between brain hemispheres and result in a globally connected, virtual central nervous system, and egalitarian social relationships.


Most of the scenes in Connected are displayed with rapid pacing, with visuals strung together in a stream of consciousness, associational style. This gives little time for the viewer to contemplate the on screen action or to consider whether or not the factual claims being made are accurate.

Interestingly, the pacing of the film slows down exponentially during scenes that deal with Tiffany Shlain’s family history and especially her father’s illness and death. Effectually, assertions of fact are made quickly without giving the audience time to process them, while emotionally charged information is given more time to sink in and have an affect on the viewer.


Connected is composed almost entirely of stock/archival video footage, cgi, and animation. Pacing is so rapid during most of the film that the images seem to turn into collages. It is difficult to remember any particular sequence from this film. The most notable exception is the sequences dealing with Tiffany Shlain’s father. During these scenes, pacing slows down and stock footage is replaced by interview footage presumably filmed by Shlain.

Ethics / Criticism

As discussed during my presentation, I view this work as homage to Tiffany Shlain’s father. I think this work is intentionally emotional, a part of Tiffany’s grieving process, and not meant to be read factually. However, this film is a documentary (not a feature-length fiction film) and the filmmakers gave no disclaimer regarding the factuality of their work. So, it seems important that some of the “facts” presented in this film be examined with closer scrutiny than what the rapid pacing of the film allows. Below are a few of the claims in this film that I noticed are in need of further research or that don’t seem to support the rosy view of technology advanced in this film:

· The associations between right brain/ left brain and, writing, and patriarchy + the assertion that a virtual central nervous system will bring about an egalitarian balance are so speculatively grounded that they really should have been supported in-film with actual data and citations. The same holds for most of this films non-personal claims.

· Near the opening of the film, Tiffany Shlain repeats the often used quote: If the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live.” The honeybee becomes one of Connected’s motifs, visually repeating again and again. Yet, there is no record of Einstein ever making this claim or that the claim is accurate. See and

· Shlain makes the claim that social networking technology can bring us closer together by releasing oxytocin, what she calls “the cuddle hormone,” in the brain. If this is accurate, it would be good for Shlain to also include studies that found oxytocin to be linked to “in-group favoritism and, to a lesser extent, out-group derogation” (De Dreu, CKW) and that it also increases feelings of envy and schadenfreude (S.G. Shamay-Tsoory et al.)

· The film claims that the internet, text-messaging, and social networking sites, release the neurotransmitter dopamine. And that dopamine plays a role in the brain’s reward system, novelty seeking behavior, and addiction formation. When addiction occurs, the brain has developed a kind of dependency for the dopamine release. The film seems biased to explore only the positive potential of our technologically created central nervous system, and its virtual connections, while not focusing on what the reality of people being addicted to virtual relationships with each other would result in.

· Finally, during the Q and A, Tiffany Shlain was asked whether she is concerned about teenagers playing x-box (video game console) all day long. Tiffany responded that she watched TV all day long as a kid and that she turned out fine. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests video games (specifically violent games) decrease empathy in the person playing the game. A 2010 study published by the American Psychological Association found that “evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior.” (Anderson et al.) Conversely, a 2009 study reinforced earlier finding that “Readers of fiction tend to have better abilities of empathy and theory of mind.” (Mar, et al.) This is interesting an interesting commentary on old technology vs. new technology.

Connected is so full of unsupported claims that it is difficult to take it seriously on a factual level. Yet it seems that when a documentarian tackles a certain topic they should be responsible to conduct a review of the latest research regarding that topic. Maybe that is wishful thinking on my part. We’ve discussed the decentering of truth elsewhere on this blog – does the decentering of truth also mean that we should stop making an attempt at understanding the world we exist in? What are the ethical responsibilities, if any, for the documentary filmmaker in the post-modern era? If we can just as well lump all films into the fiction category, what does it mean to call one film a documentary and another a work of speculative fiction?

For me, this lack of a good-faith effort to be factual is one of the crucial problems with the thesis of Connected. Yes, the internet and the rise of modern techonologies may indeed give all humans a shared central nervous system, but it will be a system where anybody can publish anything, regardless of expertise, factuality or ethical implications. This may not be a problem for Shlain, especially if she agrees with her father’s thesis that factuality is a left brain, masculine, patriarchal phenomenon. The idea that the internet creates a shared central nervous system must be very emotionally appealing for Tiffany, as she is about to lose her father to brain cancer. After all, her father was a neurosurgeon working on a book about Leonardo DaVinci’s ability to balance, in concert, the right and left hemispheres of his brain. For Tiffany Shlain, the idea that the internet has the capability to create a similar harmony between brain hemispheres must have great emotional resonance.

Works Cited:

Anderson, Craig A.; Shibuya, Akiko; Ihori, Nobuko; Swing, Edward L.; Bushman, Brad J.; Sakamoto, Akira; Rothstein, Hannah R.; Saleem, Muniba. “Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review.” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 136(2), Mar 2010, 151-173.

De Dreu, Carsten K. W., Lindred L. Greer, Gerben A. Van Kleef, Shaul Shalvi, and Michel J. J. Handgraaf. "Oxytocin Promotes Human Ethnocentrism — PNAS." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Web. 10 Jan. 2011.

Delaplane, Keith. ""On Einstein, Bees, and Survival of the Human Race" | Honey Bee Program | CAES Entomology | UGA." Home | Entomology, at CAES | UGA. Web. 5 April 2010.

Raymond A. Mar, Keith Oatley, Jordan B. Peterson. “Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes.” Communications. Volume 34, Issue 4, Pages 407-428. Web. Dec. 2009.

Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, Meytal Fischer, Jonathan Dvash, Hagai Harari, Nufar Perach-Bloom, Yechiel Levkovitz. “Intranasal Administration of Oxytocin Increases Envy and Schadenfreude (Gloating)” Biological Psychiatry. Web. 30 July 2009.

" Einstein on Bees." Urban Legends Reference Pages. Web. 21 April 2007.

"Sundance Film Festival 2011 : Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology." Sundance Film Festival 2011 : Home. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.

Filmography (from imdb)

Director (3 titles)

Related Films:
This REALLY depends on which issue from the film you want to choose to branch out from - Connected touches on so many, but doesn't really go into depth about them.
  • A film with a similar visual style is Koyaanisqatsi.
  • Connected mentions a "Texas sized mound of floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean," which may connect with the recent film, Wasteland.
  • Discussion about global warming could connect to any number of films on that topic, An Inconvenient Truth and The 11th Hour come to mind.
  • M. Night Shyamalan's feature, The Happening, has a scene where the main character of the film (played by Mark Wahlberg) tells a classroom of students to honeybee quote misattributed to Einstein.
  • There are also feature films that deal with the emergence of social networking and its speculative effects on relationships, The Social Network, and Catfish, are two good examples.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Social Network

So, I really enjoyed the class, and part of that was hanging out with all of you guys. So yeah, feel free to add me on facebook, or twitter or whatever, and let's keep in touch.

Anyone interested in doing the same, post your info in the comments here. Good luck re: grading!

Rob Steffen
kurdtrs [at] gmail dot com (spelled out to avoid spam).!/uvschism

Take care guys, nice to meet those of you I met this semester.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I would like to take this last opportunity to express more carefully what I was speaking of in class. The question is why we so desperately want documentaries to be true. Already from the beginning of the class we talked about the definition of documentaries. What came up was partly that they are subjective takes, that they bear a claim to truth. That is as far as it goes. There is a claim to truth. History books have long laid a claim to objective truth and they rarely cite sources. But, we have absolutely no problem, as academics, to point out false accounts and distortions of what happened. We know that they tell one side, that not every part is “truth.” The same goes for all texts we use, and it shows in our writing. That is why we say “according to,” “claims,” “says,” “argues.” We are taught as critical thinkers to not take any information at face value, but interrogate the unstated assumptions, biases, sources etc. Just because a film claims to hold the truth, or maybe not even that, but the only way we know how to classify it is by saying that it is a documentary, does not mean that we can just relax and take everything at face value. I think it is important that Mark pointed out that some of the things claimed in Connected were not in accordance with scientific claims. But are we surprised that they didn’t? Why? Why do we so desperately want them to be true? Is it because we are so unsettled by the theoretical decentering of truth that we so desperately want to hang on to something as steadfastly true? I’m just wondering,