Posts filed under 'Essay'

June 11th, 2017

The Fourth Wall — The Baker’s Dozen!

Hey folks — we just finished our 13th edition of The Fourth Wall for CHIRP Radio. Come check out fellow scribe Clarence Ewing and me discuss all sorts of cinema topics! From the recent James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro to technolove in Her… and everything in between. You can access the entire archive here.

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January 12th, 2016

Essays! Trailers!

Here’s a trailer I cut last summer for the ReelAbilities film festival here in Chicago. The annual festival is “dedicated to sharing the human experience of disability through art and film.” As you can see, there were a slew of amazing independent films showcased… and on a related note, I was inspired to finally watch the 1989 Oscar-nominated picture My Left Foot, based on the real-life story of artist Christy Brown. An incredible story (and film) to say the least.

Some of you know that I’ve contributed a number of essays to Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government collegiate textbooks over the years — here are a few of my latest:

Cinema As Political Advertising

Hollywood and Global Politics

Campaigning in the Digital Age

The Murky World of Think Tanks

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January 12th, 2016

The Murky World of Think Tanks

[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain

So, you’re listening to the radio — correction, your “portable electronic device” — and catching up on the news when you come across a story offering a recent scientific study stating that, surprisingly, smoking cigarettes isn’t all that unhealthy! So says the “Tobacco Institute,” anyway. A few facts and figures are tossed out for your edification, and the program moves right on to the next item. Seems pretty official, right? After all, an Institute released that study.

Obviously, the public today is quite well-educated on the dangers of smoking, but this wasn’t always the case… and up until 1998, there was a real Tobacco Institute that published a myriad of reports citing “expert” analysis that downplayed the risks of smoking. Coincidentally enough, this organization was both founded and funded entirely by cigarette manufacturers, which understandably had quite a vested interest in keeping Americans from viewing cigarettes as Public Enemy No. 1.

Would listeners have gotten that sort of disclaimer if they’d heard the story on television or radio back in the ’60s? Perhaps… but probably not. Broadcast news is typically a much-abridged version of what you might find in print, and often, the labeling of such “think tanks” gets brushed aside in the interest of brevity. Do most Americans know that the Cato Institute examines issues from a libertarian perspective? Or that the Center for American Progress is a liberal-leaning research organization? When you hear about findings from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, are you aware of its close ties to pro-Israeli lobbies?
In 2010, NPR conducted a study of their own news coverage, and found that far more often than not, think-tanks were not presented to its listenership in any context; in particular, the Brookings Institute was cited over 100 times without a single mention of its politics. While Brookings is considered to be one of the more centrist research organizations on Capitol Hill (see the attached footnote), how aware is NPR’s audience of this?

Yet another wrench in the works when it comes to think-tanks is the practice of deceptive organizational names. Often, policies and legislation are saddled with titles that introduce a level of awkwardness for any would-be opponents. (See: “Fairness Doctrine” and “Patriot Act.”) The same is true for some new think-tanks — the findings of the Americans For Prosperity seem much more palatable than if they had come from the “Koch Foundation” (the conservative Koch brothers are the ones funding AFP), and a similar analogy can be drawn for the George Soros-backed Open Society Institute (representing a liberal perspective). All the more reason for news consumers to keep a close eye on sources that are cited — and to seek out a variety of different viewpoints.

Sources:

http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/groseclose/pdfs/MediaBias.pdf

http://www.npr.org/blogs/ombudsman/2011/04/22/134229266/what-to-think-about-think-tanks

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January 12th, 2016

Campaigning in the Digital Age

[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]

Well, I was disappointed again this year in our inability to come to grasp the issues on the daily broadcasts, on the evening news.” — Walter Cronkite, 1976

Get there firstest with the mostest.” — any journalist, 2014

Technology has increased the pace of political coverage to such dizzying speeds, you have to wonder what the newscaster known as the “Most Trusted Man in America” would think about present-day campaigns. Back in 1988, the presidential race between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis was notable for its debut of the TV “sound bite,” while the use of fax machines (remember those?) by Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 was seen as revolutionary at the time. Skip ahead eight years to 2000, and the power of the internet first manifested itself in the form of instant fundraising power for GOP primary challenger John McCain, while two election cycles later in 2008, Facebook updates were all the rage for any and every aspiring elected official.

But the name of the game today? Twitter. More than four out of five people between the ages of 18-29 own smartphones, and nearly half of that cohort gets their news through Twitter, the 140-character messaging application whose popularity has skyrocketed from 100K tweets per quarter in 2008 to over 500 million a day in 2013. The immediacy of Twitter’s real-time reporting and opinion-framing has shaken the foundation of journalism — even venerable institutions such as the New York Times now see themselves as much more than a newspaper; with round-the-clock web-based updates, the Times is more akin to a radio or television station. If Cronkite were around today, he’d likely have his own Twitter feed — there’s no way he’d stay relevant if people had to wait until the evening news for his thoughts on a story.

Few would argue against the value of up-to-the-second news, and Twitter has excelled at opening up the political world to voices beyond the entrenched Washington press corps. However, to its detractors, Twitter is also a cauldron of immediate soundbite commentary — the result of which has helped to not only further polarize the American public, but also drastically reduced the quality of the coverage of electoral campaigns. Gone are the days when seasoned reporters would “ride the bus” with candidates and discuss policy with them over dinners; with every reporter hungry for a gaffe that they can promote as a newsworthy story, campaigns have predictably begun to insulate politicians from the mainstream press.

In addition, with people naturally gravitating towards the tweets of those already in their ideological camps, Twitter serves as an “echo chamber” for all involved, particularly when it comes to subjects about which people feel passionately. If one is strongly in favor of gun control or the right to bear arms, it’s a safe bet that they will also receiving news “commentary” from those who reinforce said beliefs in their Twitter feeds — resulting in a disconnect between shared Twitter circles and public opinion. This may be giving people exactly what they want to hear… but does it improve the quality of discourse?

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/7297541/Twitter-users-send-50-million-tweets-per-day.html

https://blog.twitter.com/2013/new-tweets-per-second-record-and-how

http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/mobile-technology-fact-sheet/

http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/8-key-takeaways-about-social-media-and-news/

http://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/d80_hamby.pdf

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January 12th, 2016

Hollywood and Global Politics

[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]

So, try to envision the following big-budget Hollywood film: a couple of American journalists travel to Beijing… and along the way, are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Chinese president Xi Jingping, in retaliation for threats against American allies in the Pacific. To add insult to injury, Xi is portrayed as a reckless buffoon who is prone to fits of violence — and serves as the repeated butt of jokes throughout the adventure.

Can’t imagine this movie ever getting released? It’s doubtful Hollywood executives could either. But if you swapped out Xi for neighboring North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, you’d have the 2014 comedy, The Interview. Rest assured, North Korea was not amused; its foreign ministry stated that “making and releasing a movie on a plot to hurt our top-level leadership is the most blatant act of terrorism and war and will absolutely not be tolerated.”

This wasn’t the first time that North Korea has been targeted as Public Enemy No. 1 in recent years. In 1984, the Cold War action flick Red Dawn told the story of a surprise invasion of America by a joint Soviet-Cuban military force. When MGM decided to remake the film 25 years later, the Iron Curtain had long since collapsed, so it was determined that China — conveniently, still a Communist country in name if not spirit — would serve as a replacement nemesis. The only problem this time was that, from a business angle, vilifying China could have been a disastrous financial decision. In the late 1990s, Disney was threatened with an embargo on its future films after the release of Kundun, a movie which featured the Dalai Lama and Tibet, both of which have long been sore points with Beijing. Rival studios faced similar warnings in subsequent years, and late in the production stage of Red Dawn, MGM executives began to panic. A decision was reached — spend $1 million to digitally swap out the Chinese villains of the film for North Koreans. After all, how many American films are screened in Pyongyang? (Answer: not very many.)

China’s presence as a global film market has skyrocketed in recent years, and today it amounts to $3.5 billion annually, roughly 10% of the worldwide box-office take. That sort of financial muscle has translated into political “soft power.” Even without deploying a single soldier, China is able to reach across the Pacific and have a significant impact on how it is perceived around the world. While the Red Dawn remake was panned by critics for its highly-improbable premise and cartoonish action, what will happen when a filmmaker wishes to make a serious film that casts China in a negative light? Will she or he be censored, not by Beijing, but by corporations in this country?

While Hollywood might be a tough sell, there is still an avenue for those who still wish to make political films that aren’t afraid to ruffle the feathers of the powers-that-be — the world of documentaries. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, a 2012 documentary about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, garnered much acclaim for its candid depictions of the repercussions of standing up to Beijing, and The Gatekeepers (also 2012) made waves with its candid assessment of Israeli policy regarding Palestine. The “barrier to entry” for documentaries is much lower than that of a fictional feature. A budding filmmaker doesn’t need a major studio’s financial backing to get the wheels rolling — simply a camera, microphone, and editing software will suffice. Add in the ease of online distribution, and certainly today’s documentary environment is one that’s much more welcoming to voices from around the globe.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-28014069

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-china-red-dawn-20110316-story.html#page=1

http://blogs.indiewire.com/sydneylevine/mpaa-report-on-the-growth-of-the-global-box-office-international-film-business

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January 12th, 2016

Cinema as Political Advertising

[Originally appearing in Dr. Alan Gitelson’s American Government textbook, 2014]

At what point does a biographical film turn into political advertising? For a variety of reasons, fictional politicians often seem more appealing than the ones inhabiting Washington. They’re played by charismatic actors, shot from cinematic angles, and able to passionately deliver compelling diatribes — often with a majestic score in the background. It’s an impossible bar for any actual elected official to live up to, especially when arguing over corn subsidies on C-SPAN. But what about Hollywood depictions of real-life politicians — do biopics lend them a certain cachet with the public?

This was recently the concern of the Republican National Committee after hearing about a proposed NBC mini-series on former Democratic Senator (and possible 2016 presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton. The RNC feared that the series, which was to star Diane Lane, would equate to an “extended commercial for Secretary Clinton’s nascent campaign,” and threatened to bar NBC from broadcasting future primary debates. The series was ultimately shelved, as was a CNN documentary on Ms. Clinton, though CBS in 2014 debuted Madam Secretary, a fictional series about a female Secretary of State — which may or may not be loosely based on Clinton.

The Clinton family was also the basis for 1998’s Primary Colors (adapted from the book by Washington insider Joe Klein), with the presidential campaign of “Jack Stanton” serving as a thinly-veiled model of the actual Clinton candidacy, replete with insinuations of sexual dalliances. While Klein’s book made waves throughout DC — partly because of his decision to credit the novel to “Anonymous” — the film generated little buzz, save an Academy nomination for supporting actress Kathy Bates. Interestingly, in the case of two recent Hollywood films about modern political leaders, W (George W. Bush) and The Iron Lady (Britain’s Margaret Thatcher), filmmakers seemingly made a point of avoiding partisan attacks. About W, the first American film about a sitting U.S. President, director Oliver Stone (whom many had expected to pillory Bush) commented, “I’m a dramatist who is interested in people, and I have empathy for Bush as a human being.”

It’s one thing for studios to produce a film or TV show about a sitting official… but it’s quite another for a government to have a hand in lionizing its sitting chief executive on the big screen. Such was the case with Lula, Son of Brazil, a 2009 rags-to-riches film about the life of departing Brazilian president Lula da Silva. The cost of the critically-panned picture was largely financed by contractors who did direct business with the Brazilian government, while union workers were offered tickets at steep discounts. The film, which painted da Silva as something of a folk hero and was largely seen as propaganda, aimed to not only repair his tarnished image (he was under investigation for corruption) but also to propel his chosen successor, Dilma Rouseff, into office in 2010.

While it’s doubtful that Lula changed the ballot leanings of many moviegoers, films like these might have an impact on the level of enthusiasm of a candidate’s supporters. Brazilians who opposed da Silva weren’t likely to watch, but those who did support the incumbent might have felt more motivated to participate in campaign activities and/or make donations. In this sense, they’re largely akin to the celebrity music tours that often accompany today’s American campaigns… rallies as opposed to ideological arguments.

Sources:

http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/08/05/gop-blasts-cnn-nbc-for-hillary-clinton-programs/

https://fds.duke.edu/db/attachment/1662

http://variety.com/2008/film/news/oliver-stone-votes-for-bush-project-1117979349/

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March 4th, 2009

Essay: Life's Much Easier With a Mr. Fusion By Your Side

So, I originally wrote this essay about time-travel a year ago for the online pop-culture mag The High Hat, but they’ve been experiencing technical difficulties for quite a while, and… well, I wanted to put it out there before too much more time (no pun intended) had passed. Enjoy!

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February 10th, 2008

Essay: Gone, but not forgotten… the world of Supreme Power

 A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay for an online magazine called The High Hat about an incredible comic-book series called Supreme Power. Written by J. Michael Stracyznski, Supreme Power — a darker remake of the 1980’s series Squadron Supreme — was basically a postmodern look at superheroes. How would the United States government realistically deal with the arrival of a Superman-esque force? How tempted would they be to use such super-powered individuals to advance their own agenda? And how would those those individuals act once they realized that they themselves were far more powerful than the folks they were serving? 

I was generous with my praise of the book after having read the first dozen issues, but in truth, I probably didn’t recommend it as strongly as I should have… which is to say that I should’ve labeled it the best comic I’ve ever read. The next six issues were magnificent and ironed out the (very minor) flaws that I felt populated the series at the time, and after SP reclaimed the name of Squadron Supreme in a toned-down format — Marvel felt the graphic nature of the book stifled the potential size of its audience — Stracyznski was in the midst of building towards a cataclysmic showdown. In the most recent issue, Hyperion and Redstone, the two titans of the book, had locked horns in a brawl that had all but leveled Los Angeles. Reinforcements for Hyperion had arrived, Round 2 vs. the sadistic Redstone was about to commence, and then…. Nothing.  

It’s been over a year since that last issue, and outside of the Ultimate Power miniseries (where characters from the Supreme Power and Ultimate Marvel worlds collided — who knows when it was placed chronologically?), there’s been not a peep from Marvel about when the book might resume. It’s one thing to put a book on hiatus at the end of a particular story arc, but right in the middle of a major battle? Shame on you, Marvel Comics. Shame.

 Anyway, here was my initial take on an incredibly amazing story, complete with enough endnotes to make David Foster Wallace proud.

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Kevin Fullam is a writer and researcher, with extensive experience in fields ranging from sports analytics to politics and cinema.

In addition, he has hosted two long-running radio series on film and culture, and taught mass media at Loyola University.

Episodes of his two shows, Split Reel and Under Surveillance, are archived on the Radio page.