The new movie Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the tracking and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden, has received several Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), but it’s attracting another kind of attention as well: several writers, including Jane Meyer at The New Yorker and Peter Maass at The Atlantic, have accused it of condoning or even glorifying the use of torture by US intelligence agencies.
Since at least the days of Birth of a Nation (1915), Hollywood has turned to history for material. A quick survey of this year’s Academy Award nominations shows that this is as true now as ever, with five out of the nine nominees for Best Picture – Argo, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and odds-on favourite Lincoln – based in history in some way. Their approaches vary, of course, with the history-as-backdrop approach of Les Miserables, the revenge fantasy of Django Unchained, the academic character study of Lincoln, the docudrama of Zero Dark Thirty and the history-as-thriller of Argo.
People who make their living producing images, such as photographers, stylists, publicists, directors and pop idols, learn how to use those signs to convey the impression they want to make. Although teen girls who are trying to send a signal to their circle of friends and pop music producers who are trying to send a signal to an audience of millions are working on different scales, the principle is very much the same. Depending on your audience, you need to tailor the signals you send out very carefully. Even your age can have a certain amount of wiggle room when dressed in the right signs.
Someone encountering the Internet for the first time might be forgiven for assuming it was created specifically for teenagers. Indeed, the Internet could reasonably be said to have been aging backwards since its birth – the domain first of scientists and the military, then of university students in the 1990s and now children and teenagers.
Teachers who include media literacy in their classrooms often face issues that don’t arise in other subjects. Nothing illustrates this better than the issue of diversity in media. It’s not unreasonable for teachers to see the topic as a can of worms and be concerned about offending students and their parents – not to mention worrying about what the students themselves might say. At the same time, it’s a topic that is simply too important to be ignored: what we see in media hugely influences how we see others, ourselves and the world. As a result, an ability to analyze media depictions of diversity is not only a key element of being media literate, it’s essential to understanding many of the social issues and concerns that we face as citizens. That’s why Media Awareness Network has developed That’s Not Me – a new online tutorial for professional development to help educators and community leaders approach this issue through key concepts of media literacy.
Media educator John Pungente’s series Beyond the Screen, airing on Bravo!, now has its own Web site, where teachers can find resources and tips on integrating the series into their classrooms. Father John Pungente, a longtime media educator and founding Board member of MNet, planned the series as a follow-up to his acclaimed Scanning the Movies. Like its predecessor, Beyond the Screen is intended as a way of teaching viewers to “read” movies. In Beyond the Screen Pungente uses clips from current movies and interviews with cast and crew to shed light on filmmaking techniques, genre, and theme. The Web site offers showtimes and previews of upcoming episodes and links to teachers’ guides. (So far the only guide that’s been posted is for Speed Racer, but the guide for The Dark Night should be up shortly; upcoming episodes on Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince should be popular as well.)
Halloween is perhaps the most contradictory of the major holidays. Though born in Ireland and other Celtic regions, today it is almost exclusively observed in the form that developed in North America; though closely associated with the imagination, it has been thoroughly commercialized, becoming an opportunity for children to buy costumes and then acquire candy (today it is the second largest commercial holiday in the US, after Christmas); and finally, though it is the holiday most closely associated with children, it is also one that has, traditionally, been all about fear.
The most anticipated movie of the year, at least in some circles, is opening on March 6th: Watchmen, the adaptation of the 1986 comic book of the same name. The original, which won a Hugo Award for science fiction and was named one of Time’s top 100 novels of the twentieth century, tells the story of a group of retired superheroes investigating the death of one of their colleagues; the mystery leads the reader through the alternate world their existence has created, in which heroes with cosmic superpowers overawed the Soviet Union and in which Richard Nixon is still president in 1985. Though time will tell how successful the film will turn out to be, the buzz around its launch gives an opportunity to look at comics and how they’re adapted into other media.
Last year in this space we wrote about how summer movies serve as advertisements for various kinds of merchandising. The success of 2007’s Transformers and its sequel this summer point to a different but similar trend: making movies that are actually about the toys companies sell.
Will the recession depreciate Oscar gold? Promises of a leaner, more entertaining Academy Awards ceremony have come to be as reliable as the first robin of Spring, but viewership continues to fall. Each year something new is tried to shake things up, in this case giving the actor Hugh Jackman the hosting duties. This is a role traditionally given to comedians, with the idea that there would be no conflict of interest as they were unlikely to be nominated for any awards. (Long-time host Bob Hope made a joke of this, saying that at his house they referred to the award ceremony as “Passover”; more recently the role has often been given to talk-show hosts such as Jon Stewart or Ellen DeGeneres.) The decision to give the job to Jackman was no doubt made in hopes of luring back female viewers, who have always been the event’s core audience.