Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The GifGif Project at MIT

I have a weird fascination with animated gifs, something I may have spread to my classmates in grad school since two of them made animated gif Tumblrs for a spell. I presented on the topic of animated gif Tumblrs last year at a conference, on a session centered around the TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000. So I am excited about the GifGif project at MIT that is attempting to "map the emotional language of gifs" and create a way for people to explore and search for gifs based on emotions rather than tags (or perhaps even a certain show, film or video).

The emotions are pretty simple so far. The site is run on a voting system where visitors vote on which of the two gifs best expresses a particular emotion. When the site was first promoted a month or so ago, I voted on over a thousand gif pairs...because it was a slow day at work. It's an addictive and easy way to pass the time.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Grad School Residue: Found Footage Horror Project: Cloverfield

As always, written in the Spring of 2012 for an independent study...This one ends kind of abruptly, but oh well.

Cloverfield is an anomaly within the subgenre of found footage horror, despite fitting into a few tropes. With a budget of $25 million and distribution by Paramount Studios, it has a considerably higher budget than most found footage horror films. Writings on the film are split between its placement within post-9/11 horror and its advertising campaign, which was based around an alternate-reality game (ARG) – a form of viral marketing. Before the film was released, clues as to what the film was about exactly were left around the internet for spectators to view and speculate on how it pertained to the film. I am more concerned with Cloverfield’s placement within post-9/11 horror rather than its marketing. While the marketing for the film is fascinating, it seems a bit odd to look at four years after the film was released and after repeat viewings.

The traits of post-9/11 horror tends to concern imagery similar to that of 9/11 coverage by mainstream and amateur media (fallen or shaky cameras; people fleeing on foot by running or walking slowly en masse; rubble, dust, debris, papers flying; shots of other citizens filming or taking pictures), lack of a government presence, nihilistic endings, and mourning. Cloverfield has all of these things in varying degrees, but contained to Manhattan. Most famously, the head of the Statue of Liberty is used as a bowling ball, but skyscrapers are partially demolished, the Brooklyn Bridge is destroyed, and a tanker is overturned in the Hudson River. The mainstream media is just as confused as the citizens. In the scene in the electronics store, all of the TVs are set to a news channel except for one – it is showing a fish newscaster on Spongebob Squarepants. Unlike previous found footage horror films such as Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Witch Project, there is no mass drive to film the events. Hud, the character who is taping the events, is the only character who sees some sort of value in documenting the night of the monster’s attack. Cloverfield is perhaps the first found footage horror film that is supposedly filmed using a consumer camcorder by an amateur, not a filmmaker. There is little government presence within the film – the president is mentioned over the radio once. The soldiers in the film seem to be just as confused as the citizens, except for knowing what happens to people who are bitten by the creatures that fall off of the monster. Despite the fact that there seems to be no effort towards pulling people from the rubble of buildings or the Hudson River, and the other soldiers seem to be deterring such actions, one kindly soldier allows Rob, Lily, and Hud to retrieve Beth from her building in mid-town Manhattan. While there is not a long stretch of mourning in the film, the brief scenes of mourning for Jason and Marlena are longer than your average disaster or horror film. Homay King writes that the occasional cut-ins to Rob and Beth’s day at Coney Island a month before the attack also serves as a form of mourning in the film. The cut-ins are a part of the film’s aesthetic that Hud is taping over their day at Coney Island by accident, adding to the amateur technique.  King, as well as Kevin Wetmore discusses the final scene in Central Park, where Rob and Beth say their final words to the camera before the military bombs Manhattan. They mourn the loss of their friends lives as well as their own and others. It is debatable just how nihilistic the ending for Cloverfield is. There is one survivor amongst the group of friends the film follows – Lily. While some applauded the film upon its release for having a woman of color as the Final Girl, Lily’s survival is completely by chance. She did not defeat the monster, she was just forced onto the helicopter that was not attacked by the monster. Wetmore, Aviva Briefel, and Sam Miller all write that the attacks on 9/11 were random, as was who survived the attacks, and this is reflected in horror films in the past decade.

Daniel North writes that producer J.J. Abrams intended to create a post-9/11 monster that is the United States equivalent to Godzilla. Homay King writes of the murmurs in the film of the monster’s origins, apparently of a Japanese company (the company that manufactures Slusho, who Rob works and is moving to Japan for) drilled too far into the ocean. King sees this as a reversal of the Godzilla storyline, where Godzilla was created by the US dropping atomic bombs on Japan. Others speculate that you can see something falling from the sky and into the ocean in the footage of Rob and Beth at Coney Island. Within the film, the origin and fate of the monster is unknown. Some believe that there are actually two, even three monsters in the film. This is understandable because the monster that attacks the helicopter and the one that is at Central Park at the end of the film do look different. Cloverfield is not only some combination of monster, disaster, sci-fi, and horror films, it is also a quest narrative according to North. Rob walks through Manhattan with his friends to retrieve the injured Beth from her apartment building that has been partially knocked over by the monster, just so he can profess his love to her.

There are some odd qualities to Cloverfield. The timestamp from the camcorder disappears from the footage about ten minutes into the film, only reappears when there are cut-ins to the Coney Island footage. The military almost always seems to be in off-screen space. The strangest example is after the Brooklyn Bridge is attacked, and Rob decides to go find Beth. As he, Marlena, Lily, and Hud walk through the streets, they suddenly come upon the monster further up the street. It is not until the military starts shooting that we see that they have apparently been walking behind the group the entire time. This occurs again towards the end of the film when Hud sharply pans to his left to show the monster stepping on a tank and more soldiers. North discusses the monster rarely being seen or caught on camera, but I disagree to an extent. Hud and occasionally the media catch more footage of the monster as the film goes on. It may be quick footage, but it is almost enough to understand what the monster looks like.  Kevin Wetmore briefly discusses Marlena’s death as being that of a “monster suicide bomber,” although it is unknown whether or not she killed the medical staff that dragged her into the quarantine tent when she exploded.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Grad School Residue: Found Footage Horror Project: Diary of the Dead

My response paper on Diary of the Dead from my Spring 2012 Independent Study is below, complete with bibliography this time (my professor sometimes asked for one, sometimes did not). This is also somewhat where I began to look at the more formalist elements of Found Footage Horror.

There appears to be no solid terminology to describe Diary of the Dead. The film typically is considered a found footage horror film, but unlike Cannibal Holocaust, The Blair Witch Project, and Cloverfield, there is no framing device stating that the footage has been found upon the demise or disappearance of the characters. The film-within-the-film has been uploaded to the internet, and there are mentions made throughout the film of uploading it to Youtube in pieces as it is being edited. Randy Laist, speculating on what “the Dead” in the title Diary of the Dead could refer to, comments that perhaps “the Dead” means that the three survivors shown at the end of the film are dead, that they died sometime after Debra uploaded the-film-within-the-film, “The Death of Death.” But even with this speculative idea, is footage purposefully uploaded to the internet by the filmmakers for the public to see “found footage”? If so, wouldn’t that make the vast majority of online videos “found footage”? Adam Lowenstein calling Diary of the Dead (as well as The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield) “camera confessional” films is no better. The term “camera confessional” seems better associated with reality television shows or films about reality television, since the majority of reality television shows have “confessional” rooms for contestants to express their feelings or complain about other contestants to the camera. Diary of the Dead rarely features confessional scenes. Jason, the film student making “The Death of Death” only makes his friends speak their names and feelings about the new situation to the camera early in the film. Succeeding that, the characters are often bickering or whining while on camera when they are not fighting or running away from zombies. Their disdain for Jason in particular is not secretive, as they complain about his actions (or lack thereof) to the camera that is attached to his face. Jason never turns the camera on himself, but the final scene of the film does feature Jason in front of the camera, perkily giving his mission statement for documenting this new situation of the dead rising. His upbeat attitude is disturbing, but it is hard to determine whether this sequence is an afterthought or not. This late inclusion of Jason being on screen doubles as both an “in memoriam” sequence and an ironic sequence, as Jason is rarely seen in the film, and most glimpses of him do feature him with a camera to his face. However, there are DVD extras for Diary of the Dead that do feature “confessionals” by the characters. Kevin Wetmore alternates between referring to Diary of the Dead as a “first-person camera pseudodocumentary,” “metacinema,” and “citizen filmmaking.” He only comes close to justifying the “pseudodocumentary” comment, by discussing how “The Death of Death” is a construction by Debra, Jason’s girlfriend and editor of the film upon his death, and that documentary films are just as constructed as narrative films. Wetmore claims that we do not see the events as they happened, and the editing occasionally points out what has happened off-camera or left out of the film. Randy Laist’s article comes closest to supporting the idea that Diary of the Dead is a piece of “metacinema,” despite the humorous allusions to both Jason and George Romero as cybernetic beings because they have cameras attached to their faces. He mentions scenes of “cameras filming cameras filming cameras,” and hearkening back to early writings on cinema, when cinema was seen as a way of having life beyond death:

As a visual representation, the zombie personifies the living death of the filmic image. As a filmmaker, the zombie movie cameraman becomes a participant in the conversion of living subjects into living-dead ghouls. As a viewer, the zombie movie filmgoer experiences both the vicarious zombieism of sympathizing with the events on the screen and the immediate zombieism that creeps up from within as a result of his participation in a videotaped mass-culture defined by moving pictures; inanimate things brought to post-biological life, living subjects Internet-facilitated culture of consumer generated video content in which everyone is always simultaneously subject, filmmaker, and audience (104).

This later supports Laist’s suppositions of what “the Dead” in the title of the film refers to: the shown survivors of Debra, Tony, and Professor Maxwell (who may be dead after the films are over); the zombies – as Diary is supposed to be a re-boot or re-imagining of the Dead series, complete with a somewhat new origin story for the disaster; all the characters; dead in the “abstract sense” while making the film; “…the filmic reanimation of our heroes”; death itself. The W.J.T. Mitchell piece on “metapictures”, while concerning two-dimensional works of art, discusses how “metapictures” thrive on multistability and the ability to be viewed several different ways. The multistability of Diary of the Dead is its saving grace, as it can be easily read as an unsubtle allegory for the dangers of an overmediated society.

The majority of the footage in the film is constructed, but it comes from a variety of sources: Jason’s footage, footage the characters found on the internet (including the opening scene of the film from a news cameraman), security camera footage from two sites visited in the film, constructed news footage, and footage found on a camera that was found in the hospital the group visited for help. All of the footage is digital. But amongst all the constructed footage is real news footage, primarily news footage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This is the film’s single foothold in the current world and the world where the films’ spectators will come from. This footage is watched within the film on a variety of sources: laptops, the cameras themselves, televisions, and a flip phone. So not only are there multiple ways to create media in Diary, but unlike Night of the Living Dead, there are multiple ways to consume this media. It is not just an issue of finding a television or radio anymore in times of crisis. The internet appears to be given more privilege in Diary than any other medium, although it is debatable as to whether or not the internet would remain up for very long in an international crisis. The cell phone coverage is realistically spotty in Diary, not just because of the crisis, but also because the characters are driving through rural Pennsylvania for much of the film.
Surveillance footage or security in general plays a small part in Diary. The warehouse compound of Stranger, the ex-National Guard member and his community is full of surveillance cameras, as is the mansion belonging to Ridley’s parents. The house of Debra’s parents does not have surveillance, but she has to disengage the security alarms upon entering the house. There is no surveillance recounted from Debra’s dorm or the hospital, places that would logically have security cameras. But in Diary, surveillance is used to protect things and property – it is never used to find zombies. After one of Stranger’s people dies of a heart attack and disappears, they have to find him to put him down. They never use the security cameras as a way to find him. It is merely implied at the end of the film that Debra, Tony, and Professor Maxwell finally use the extensive security camera system at Ridley’s to figure out where the zombies are and how much time they have to shut themselves into the panic room. And although Diary exists in a world where no one has ever heard of zombies (any jokes about horror film clich├ęs are directed at horror films in general), no zombies approach Debra or her parent’s house before she disengages the security alarms. The general reasoning in zombie media is that zombies are attracted to loud noises.

Audio also comes from a variety of sources, although Debra has voiceovers over the majority of the audio: film, constructed news, radios featuring celebrity voice cameos, internet, the CB radio in the hospital, and even audio news footage from the original Night of the Living Dead. It all serves as a form of static, almost as something that can be easily ignored because it is not visual. Since Debra speaks over most of the audio pieces in the film, it is as if she is treated as the voice of authority amongst even reports that may be valuable or at least more interesting to listen to. One of the major points of Diary is how the media will play up or downplay a situation on any particular whim. But as “citizen media” is portrayed as not much of an improvement either, what are the characters to do? They appear to have an incomplete moral compass or a lack of survival abilities. The first response or idea many of the characters have to the situation is to want to go home to their parents.

Randy Laist brings up the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity in Diary. The opening scene is unedited footage from the news cameraman at the scene of the apparent first sighting and zombie attack. He uploaded the footage online, of course. Debra edits “The Death of Death” to make it a horror film, complete with horror music cues. She claims that “The Death of Death” is meant to scare “you” and to show you to not make the same choices that their group did. This brings up two questions: Could Debra be a stand-in for Romero? Or is Romero covering his bases because he is making a film, a (somewhat) commercial product in the horror genre?

Bibliography – Diary of the Dead

Laist, Randy. "Soft Murders: Motion Pictures and Living Death in Diary of the Dead." Generation            Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture. Ed. Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and, 2011. 101-12. Print.

Lowenstein, Adam. "Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film." Representations 110.1 (2010):       105-28. JSTOR. Web. 23 Mar. 2012.    <>.

Mitchell, W.J.T. "Metapictures." Picture Theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1994. 35-82. Print.

Shaviro, Steven. "Diary of the Dead." The Pinocchio Theory. Steven Shaviro. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.            <>.

Shaviro, Steven. "What Is the Post-cinematic?" The Pinocchio Theory. Steven Shaviro. Web. 13    Apr. 2012. <>.

Shen, Sigmund. "Issue 18: Film Reviews: Diary of the Dead." Scope. Department of Culture, Film and Media, University of Nottingham. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.          <>.

Wetmore, Kevin J. ""Isn't That What We're Doing? Pretending to Be Alive?": Land, Diary, Surviving and the World of the Dead." Back from the Dead: Remakes of the Romero Zombie Films as Markers of Their times. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and, 2011. 201-25. Print.

Quick Notes on Representation and Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, Dir. William Klein) is centered around an American fashion model in Paris named Polly Maggoo, of course. The film never quite settles on what is fantasy and what is reality until the end of the film. It is also hard to say what type of P.O.V. the film is taking. Third person? A documentary of a TV documentary crew? Klein builds Polly as a construct from the beginning and Polly sees herself as a construct of sorts. The TV crew and especially the producer follow her around just because she is not being forthcoming enough, all the while constantly editing her piece in a positive, negative and almost irreverant fashion depending on their feelings towards her. One crew member is bent on depicting her as a Cinderella story while at the same time showing the darker version of the fairy tale and connecting it to the fashion industry.

The fantasy storyline concerns Prince Igor, a European prince who pines for Polly just based on her photos and apparently some Hollywood-based notion of what American women are like, msotly based in Classical Hollywood musicals (Shirley Temple, Ginger Rogers...although I have no idea where the brief shot of Polly chained to a wall wearing a leather bikini means or comes from in terms of Classical Hollywood musicals).

The TV producer, full of self-loathing (while directing some loathing towards Polly) performs some pop-psychology tests on her asking what type of plant she would be, etcetera, who she would rather have sex with (lists various historical figures), "reading" her face and walk. He seems no closer to understanding her, and she tells him so. He, and the rest of the documentary crew keep insisting that she does not know who she is - that is debatable because we rarely see Polly alone partially because of the crew that follows and stalks her.

The ending sets up Polly's fall, at least her "public" fall - the magazine editor sees her as a "Cinderella"-type, not a "rocket"-type (although Polly claims on her test that she would like to be a rocket) and hires a different model behind her back. Prince Igor arrives to Polly's apartment moments after she leaves, meets Polly's similar-looking neighbor and instantly falls in love with her. People on the street do not find Polly's pictures attractive. The TV producer stops hating himself, professes his love to Polly and turns into a prince, but that is not mentioned at the very end, where Polly is roaming the streets happily with the crowds who are awaiting the arrival/parade for Prince Igor. Titles at the end feature a sad song about Polly's end.

Again, this is her fall in the eyes of the public, while Polly is very happy with herself because she is not under scrutiny anymore. This film is bizarrely progressive in this matter.

PS - This film is available on Hulu+ under the Criterion Collection. And yes, the opening scene is referenced in the video for "No You Girls" by Franz Ferdinand.