Sunday, October 25, 2015

Wanted: A Librarian of Congress who actually gives a s—t about the Library of Congress

This summer, after several stories in The Washington Post about widespread negligence and a lack of support for various information-technology initiatives, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, announced he would resign his position. Billington had been appointed into the position by President Reagan, and his resignation allowed the chance for President Obama to make the newest choice for Librarian of Congress in almost 30 years.

This opening provides President Obama with an opportunity that will help define his legacy, because as Billington just proved, a choice for Librarian of Congress can be one a president’s lasting legacies in terms of personnel in Washington. As one of our most intellectual post-WWII presidents, Obama has been more thoughtful and open on who to consider for the job running the world’s biggest (and perhaps most important?) library. The list of people he’s apparently considering for the job include writer Walter Isaacson (who has removed himself from consideration); Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive; David Ferriero, the current Archivist of the United States; and various university presidents and librarians of other prominent libraries.

But more so than famous names and flash credentials, something Obama needs to consider is leadership, leadership with a vision that can and will take the Library out of a long funk and towards a bright and beautiful future.

Billington, for all the good that he did in the first half of his tenure (including the creation of the National Film Registry, the creation of the program called THOMAS which includes the complete online historical records of the US Congress, as well as doubling the size of the Library), earned a reputation for negligence in the latter half of his career. Earlier this year, Billington was called out by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for what The Washington Post called a “lack of leadership.” According to Politico, "The Library has, under Billington,struggled to meet its technology needs, such as digitizing the nation's cultural archives and supporting the U.S. Copyright Office, which is housed at the Library and is at the center of debates between the tech and entertainment industries about digital content.” 

In fact, Billington’s reluctance to hire a head of IT development for the Library can be traced back to the year 2000, when the National Academy of Science suggested he do so only for the suggestion to fall on deaf ears. The New York Times reported that in addition to concerns about copyright and digital initiatives, “in a 2013 audit, the library’s inspector general warned that millions of items, some from as far back as the 1980s, remained piled in overflowing buildings and warehouses, virtually lost to the world. The Times also reported that "in interviews [with] current and former library employees and others who have worked with Dr. Billington over the decades say they no longer recognize the charismatic, energetic librarian they once knew. They say he has slowed down so much that he rarely comes in before noon or works a full week in his majestic office overlooking Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court. Co-workers say that he does not use email and that they often communicate with him through a fax machine at his house.”

Perhaps more controversially, Billington became more known for swanky parties and jet-setting vacations due to his relationship and association with the James Madison Council, an organization he helped to found to help finance and support the Library. According to another Washington Post article, Maureen Moore, a former employee of Billington’s at the Library, said “[Billington] likes to associate with rich and famous people,” and that to her knowledge, the James Madison Council “never put money toward anything useful.” When it was announced that Billington would retire this summer, Moore said “It’s a great day for the library. The man has had 27 years to do good things, and he hasn’t.But the ecstasy is tempered by worry that Obama will appoint someone else who isn’t a librarian, someone who doesn’t have management experience or another megalomaniac.”

So, now we stand at the crossroads, anticipating Obama’s decision for who will lead the Library. But I think there are larger issues at play. Politico recently published an article with the provocative headline "Can Anyone Save the Library of Congress?" I think, because of everything I pointed out, credentials and experience doesn’t matter as the one thing Billington seemingly didn’t have towards the end of his run as Librarian: passion. Billington’s widespread mismanagement and negligence not only is cause for concern, it can well be said that it hindered the progress of bringing the Library into the 21st century and the digital age. It shows a flippancy to which the actual texts the Library owns are disregarded and unavailable to the public who supports the Library through taxpayer dollars. It is an outrage that a federal institution was allowed to fall for so low simply to satisfy one Librarian’s longevity in the position.  Having a Librarian who seems qualified is only step one. We need a Librarian who actually takes his position seriously, and uses this opportunity given to him or her not just merely as the top step of the corporate ladder of academia and federal cultural institutions, but to leave the Library better than when they found it, which, given the information out there right now, one might be reluctant to say of Billington. Having a leader who is actually passionate about the Library can help restore the former grandeur of the institution, as well as bringing it to where it needs to be so that it, and the United States as a whole, can stay competitive in a rapidly-changing intellectual and technological environment.

So, President Obama is interested in university presidents and more tech-oriented people. I don’t doubt his and his administration’s ability to choose someone well-qualified for the job. But more important than that is the question of whether they can care for the Library to the extent that it needs to be cared for after the negligence of its previous leader. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why I Miss Roger Ebert -OR- (Youtube) Video Killed the (Film Criticism) Star

Why I Miss Roger Ebert
(Youtube) Video Killed the (Film Criticism) Star
by Will Mann

I remember exactly where I was when I heard Roger Ebert had passed away.

I was in my college dorm room, checking the Internet when the news popped up. I let out an audible gasp, and probably an “oh, no!” I remember I had a big lump in my throat for the rest of the day. Ebert was the gatekeeper when it came to my interest in cinema. His reviews were easily accessible on the Internet, and I had done my fair share of Google searches to find out exactly what he said about all of my favorite movies and late-night Youtube binging of old episodes of Siskel and Ebert.

I think if I could explain why I felt such grief at Ebert’s death, it would because I felt like there was an emptiness, a hole that didn’t used to be there before. What would fill that hole in his absence? Who would, or even could, replace Ebert? Was film criticism destined to decline in the absence of such an influential figure?

Now, some two and a half years after his death, it looks increasingly like film criticism as we know it, and as Ebert knew it, will change forever. Suddenly, with the rise of social media, the old expression “everyone’s a critic” is more truth than fiction at this point. Youtube critics, or non-professional film reviewers, have risen to prominance, and with that comes some problems that are worth discussing. With the pace of changes in our cultural climate so rapidly exceeding, we need time to reflect on just how much popular film criticism has changed since Ebert's death, and what it means for film criticism as a whole.

Part 1: In Which Two Youtube Critics Start a Campaign of Hate Against an Oscar-Winning Movie

Among the more popular Youtube Critics are RedLetterMedia. RedLetterMedia emerged in 2009 with a 70-minute review of Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace that became exceedingly popular. This was because the review was done by a character named Mr. Plinkett, a bizarre sociopathic, perhaps homicidal old man who said as many funny lines as he did give insight into why the movie failed. The review spread, earning accolades and attention from film aficionados and Star Wars fans, leading to follow-up reviews of the second and third Star Wars prequels.
The man behind these reviews, Mike Stoklasa, launched a series where he and his close friend Jay Bauman would review contemporary film releases not as the Mr. Plinkett character, but as themselves. Their news series, Half in the Bag, debuted in early 2011 and have been releasing episodes in regular intervals ever since then.

In summer of 2014, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood came out. With a 98% Rotten Tomatoes score and many critics from all across the country proclaiming it to be a landmark, groundbreaking film, it earned a respectable $44 million worldwide, and received Golden Globe and BAFTA awards for Best Picture, as well as six Academy Award nominations, including one win for Patricia Arquette in the Best Supporting Actress category. 

Shortly after the film debuted, Half in the Bag reviewed Boyhood, with both Bauman and Stoklasa coming out overwhelming against the film. They said things like, and I am quoting directly from their review, that Boyhood “sucked,” “sucked so bad,” “sucked,” “fucking sucked so hard,” that it was “manipulative,” and that “by the end of it, you just want to die.” They said it was “a betrayal” or “like watching paint dry,” that it suffered from “really bad, corny acting and flat scenes,” that Richard Linklater’s drama was “laughable” and that the script was “very, very, very bad” and “stale.” They critiqued it for not having enough melodrama, seemingly missing the entire point of the film. They remained woefully ignorant of Linklater’s other work, with Stoklasa admitting he had only seen Slacker out of all of the films in Linklater’s 20-year spanning filmography. They lambasted it for a scene where a young character says the phrase “true dat,” seemingly irrelevant to the overall quality of the film.

Rather than admitting they might have gone overboard in their dislike, they followed up with a video where they made fun of what they viewed as the overwhelmingly positive reception of the film.

Closer to Oscar season, they ridiculed the film again in a similar sarcastic manner, making fun this time of the film’s promotion for it having been filmed over the course of 12 years.

They similarly encouraged their fans to lambast the film on social media, which is apparent when you see the comments section of their Facebook page when an article relevant to Boyhood was posted.

Similarly, on Oscar night, their vitriol was not cooled when Boyhood was in a surprise upset loss to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman.

It used to be that the purpose of having two critics discuss movies is that they could disagree with one another, or call each other out when appropriate. Consider Siskel and Ebert, like when Gene Siskel called Ebert out for seemingly liking the children’s film Benji the Hunted more than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket:


Or when Siskel adamantly disliked another Oscar-winning classic, 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, and Ebert defended it and asked Siskel to consider things he hadn’t before:

Debate between two movie critics can be informative, for them and for us, the viewer. In contrast, Stoklasa and Bauman only reinforce each other’s worldview. Moreover, all the attention they gave towards what I’m calling a “hate campaign” against a film that is so well respected by industry insiders, critics, and seemingly the general public (with the exception of RedLetterMedia’s fans, apparently) over actually-bad films that deserve scrutiny is truly baffling.

Part 2: In Which Youtube Critics Intentionally Dumb Down the Level of Discussion

Compare RedLetterMedia’s rhetoric (including use of simplistic vulgarities like “it sucked” in articulating why they disliked Boyhood to the rhetoric of Ebert when he talked about a movie he didn’t like, in this case 1994’s infamous children’s film North starring Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis:
“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it. I hold it as an item of faith that Rob Reiner is a gifted filmmaker; among his credits are This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally, and Misery. I list those titles as an incantation against this one. North is a bad film - one of the worst movies ever made. But it is not by a bad filmmaker, and must represent some sort of lapse from which Reiner will recover - possibly sooner than I will.”
Note the difference of Ebert saying how disappointed he was in Reiner for making North considering his impressive filmography, in contrast to RedLetterMedia’s relative ignorance about Richard Linklater’s filmography in their review of Boyhood.

Or consider how Ebert talked about a film he loved. This is a review of the 1997 film Contact, both one of my favorite movies and Ebert reviews (this comes from his revisiting of the film for his series The Great Movies):
"Contact is a film that takes place at the intersection of science, politics and faith. Those are three subjects that don't always fit easily together. In the film, an alien intelligence transmits an image of three pages of encrypted symbols. It is clear where the corners of each page are. It is also clear that the three corners are intended to come together in some way to make single image. Scientists are baffled in their attempts to bring the pages together. The solution, when we see it, provides an Eureka Moment. It is so simple, and yet so difficult to conceive of. It may be intended as a sort of intelligence test…. The strength of Contact is in the way it engages in issues that are relevant today, and still only rarely discussed in the movies."

Compare Ebert’s exquisite insight on Contact to popular Youtube film-reviewer Jeremy Jahn’s perspective on a film he was very fond of, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road:
“It’s a pretty simple premise for the movie: it’s an escort mission from a video game… Now, this movie’s crazy. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s out of its mind. It’s George Miller’s Mad Max doing George Miller [sic] Mad Max things on a bigger budget. At a point, you look at it and you’re like 'This is movie is like a cartoon version of its crazy post-apocalyptic self.'”
Jahns, on top of other prominent critics like RedLetterMedia, YourMovieSucks, Chris Stuckmann, etc. utilize simplistic language and quick edits to get their point across. They mostly exclusively review genre movies, and show little to no interest in the independent or dramatic film genres. Most of the time, their reviews boil down to the most basic levels of “this was good, this was bad, this could’ve been better” rather than tackling the film as a whole the way Ebert used to. Sure, Ebert was not above using repetition and emotion in his reviews (his “I hated hated hated hated this movie” is evidence that he most certainly did) but when he did, it almost always had a point. Moreover, it was fun to read and listen to. Youtube critics almost always use a mix of hyperbole and language intentionally dumbed down for your everyday layman in order to get their points across. Because of that, in this humble writer’s opinion, the entire genre of film criticism suffers.

Part 3: In Which Professionalism Dies a Slow, Painful Death...?

When I think about Roger Ebert, I think about how insightful he could be. I think about how many books of essays I have in my bookshelf, the reviews I can just pull out and read, the recommendations Roger wanted, no, insisted that you know he considered the best of all time.

I began this by referring to late-night binges on Youtube of Siskel and Ebert. The easiness of accessibility to those older reviews and episodes he did is probably a big reason why I consider myself to be such a big fan of Ebert’s.

But, with Ebert gone, who would the young me choose to listen to if he was coming of age today? Remember, all these Youtube film critics are just as, if not more, accessible to young viewers as those Ebert reviews were to me. Young viewers, who are just coming into their own cinematic tastes. They, like I was towards Ebert, might be susceptible to older, more experiences voices, and align their tastes with these tastemakers. Does that mean that there are young film fans out there today who will never see a Richard Linklater film because RedLetterMedia told them to? Or that there is a young fan who will avoid anything out of the hyper-masculine genres of superhero films, action films, and horror films simply because Jeremy Jahns doesn’t look as excited when he reviews a drama than when he reviews the latest Marvel movie?

These are questions we need to ask ourselves.