On Hobbits, Hiro, and Other Matters

Today, I wanted to call attention to several online resources which will be of interest to the Aca/Fan community.

Hoping for Hobbits

A week or so back, I got an e-mail from Kristin Thompson telling me that she and her oft-times collaborator and my graduate school mentor, David Bordwell, have launched a new blog. Together, Bordwell and Thompson have written and continually updated what is certainly the most important textbook in cinema studies, Film Art: An Introduction. If I got started describing the full range of their contributions to cinema studies, I'd be here for a long long time: this dynamic duo, individually and collectively, are enormously prolific, cranking out a big scholarly book about once a year, and between them, they have expertise on the entire world cinema. Whatever they turn their attention to, they master thoroughly and break dramatic new ground. In fact, I am teaching a contemporary cinema class at MIT this term primarily as an excuse to dig deep into Bordwell's most recent book, The Way Hollywood Tells It. So, I will be reading what they have to say in their blog about cinema and other media matters with great interest.

So far, they have tackled a range of topics, including some really provocative comments by Bordwell on Scorsese's The Departed and its relationship to Internal Affairs, the Hong Kong film upon which it was based, and by Thompson about contemporary cinema and the push towards interactive narrative, to cite just two examples.

Thompson is in the process of putting her finishing touches on a forthcoming book about Peter Jackson and the making of the Lord of the Rings trilogy called The Frodo Franchise. I was lucky enough to read an early draft of the book and found it an absolute treasure. Thompson had access to pretty much every key contributor to the LOTR films: she turns out to be a very engaging storyteller but also is able to put what happened into a much larger context of shifts in the contemporary film industry -- including some very good writing about the ways Jackson courted the fans of the original Tolkien novels and the forms of fan cultural production which have grown up around the franchise. (In a recent post, Thompson struggles with whether or not she is an aca/fan in the ways that I have been using it here but she is certainly someone with a fan's mastery over the books and films and with a long standing passion for the content. When she tells me about going behind the scenes in New Zealand to meet with the production team, you do get the sense that there's a fannish tingle going up her spine.) I will be doing an interview with Thompson about the book once it is released in 2007. But she is already updating her account, using the blog to share some great insights into the announcement the other week that they will indeed be producing a film based on The Hobbit and that Peter Jackson is currently considering whether to direct it. She takes us back through the complex history of negotiations around the rights for the film, describes all of the many Peter Jackson projects that have been announced in recent months, and pulls together many of the scattered interviews with Jackson which shed some clues about his thinking in regard to the timing of the various projects.

Here's some of what she has to say:

Could someone that busy take on The Hobbit as well? Jackson's talking as if he could. In a long interview posted on Ain't It Cool News September 16, he said that no one had contacted him about making the film, but he was already tossing out ideas about bringing back some of the characters from LOTR to fill out the plot. A week later, Jackson chatted with EW.com, sounding even more enthusiastic and brushing aside the idea that his current lawsuit against New Line (over DVD payments) would be a factor: "I'd love to make another film for New Line. And certainly The Hobbit isn't involved in the lawsuit." He also pointed out, "We've still kept the miniatures of Rivendell in storage, and the set of Bag End, Bilbo Baggins' house, has also been saved" ("Action Jackson").

So how could he do it? Whether with an eye to a possible Hobbit project or not, Jackson has organized his projects in a remarkably flexible way. Halo (to be distributed by Universal in North America and Twentieth Century Fox abroad) and The Dam Busters (co-financed by Universal and StudioCanal) are being directed by others, and an executive producer doesn't necessarily have to do a whole lot of hands-on work. As Jackson pointed out to his EW interviewer, Steve Daly, "That's one of the reasons we're producing a number of things now rather than directing. Producing is fun and it's not as all-consuming."

As to the "Temeraire" series, that is a long-range project that Jackson speaks of putting into pre-production when Halo and The Lovely Bones are substantially finished. He's not sure yet whether he'll direct the resulting film or films. The Lovely Bones is not all that far advanced, either, with Jackson, Walsh, and co-writer Philippa Boyens having only recently finished a first draft of the script. The rights for both of these projects are owned entirely by Jackson and Walsh, with no studio yet attached--which means they have no deadline. In another remark that sounds calculated to encourage MGM and New Line, in the same interview Jackson remarks, "We're not imposing any deadline on ourselves with all these projects. They'll take as long as they need to until we're happy with them." It sounds a lot like he's hinting that they could also be put off if another attractive project comes along.

It sounds an awful lot like this was written by an aca/fan to me.

Holding Out for a Hiro

In Media Res is another great new online resource which will be of interest to the aca/fan community. In Media Res is being organized by the editors of Flow and by the Institute for the Future of the Book. As their FAQ explains:

In Media Res plucks fragments out of the media stream and revolves them in a critical conversation.

Every week, a different media scholar will present a 30-second to 2-minute clip accompanied by a 100-150-word impressionistic response. The goal is to promote an online dialogue amongst media scholars and the public about contemporary media through clips chosen for either their typicality or atypicality in demonstrating current narrative strategies, genre formulations, aesthetic choices, representational practices, institutional approaches, fan engagements, etc.

Jason Mittell and I were asked to provide content for the launch of the site. I chose to focus on the segment from Heroes when Hiro, superfan/superhero, teleports from Tokyo to Times Square and discovers that his experiences are already being enshrined in a comic book, 9th Wonders. You can watch the clip and read what I have to say at the Media Commons site. I will just note that I wrote about this series here midsummer, after getting a sneak look at the pilot, and Heroes has more than lived up to my expectations for a television show which takes an indie comics slant on the superhero genre. It has emerged as one of the most popular new series this season with good reason.

Jason, who is a sometime reader and contributor to the blog, focuses on a telling moment from 30 Rock which he suggests both parodies and enacts the synergies that are defining contemporary media culture.

A fan friend described the 100-150 word essays as an academic form of drabble. Drabble is a highly condensed form of fan fiction where writers take on the challenge of conveying a complete story in just a few hundred words. I know that I found it very difficult to say anything original and interesting about the clip in such a tight word count: I ended up cheating and going to around 250 words -- this is probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog.

In Media Res is taking a bold stance on intellectual property rights:

MediaCommons is a strong advocate for the right of media scholars to quote from the materials they analyze, as protected by the principle of "fair use." If such quotation is necessary to a scholar's argument, if the quotation serves to support a scholar's original analysis or pedagogical purpose, and if the quotation does not harm the market value of the original text -- but rather, and on the contrary, enhances it -- we must defend the scholar's right to quote from the media texts under study.

This goes well beyond, for example, what MIT's lawyers have allowed on the Open Courseware initiative. I know many of us are going to be watching closely to see what happens here and keeping our fingers crossed.

Check It Out...

It's been a while since I have reported back on the various colloquium events we have been hosting through the CMS program but I wanted to remind folks that we are preparing our events for download as podcasts this term. I heard from some people at the Flow conference that they are finding these to be useful resources or just interesting things to listen to while jogging. Here's a few of the events I haven't linked to here before.

Chris Boebel and David Tames talk about MIT's new efforts towards video podcasting, a project called Zig Zag.

Scott Donaton, associate publisher and editorial director of the Ad Age Group and author of Madison & Vine talked about why user-empowerment is the key trend in business, and the ways marketers are adapting to it, including the rise of branded entertainment.

A roundtable discussion on New Media and Art put together by my MIT colleague Beth Coleman and featuring Lauren Cornell, director of Rhizome.org; and Jon Ippolito, media