Script Clearance and Research: Unacknowledged Creative Labor in the Film and Television Industry

The importance of script clearance and research to film and television production—from the classic Hollywood era to the present day—has long been uncharted territory for media scholars. Fortunately, UCLA alumnus Michael Kmet has begun thoroughly examining not only the everyday realities of this type of work but also the greater importance that firms such as de Forest Research have had on the overall structure of creative content both past and present. The scope of this project, including a substantial amount of primary research at archives around Los Angeles, requires more than just one researcher, and I am very pleased to state that I will be assisting Michael in the expansion of his already impressive research.

This blog post is an overview of the research Michael has already conducted as well as a discussion of the project’s future trajectory.  I am looking forward to assisting Michael with his fascinating and exciting project, and I will be posting updates to the Mediascape Blog as our research progresses.  —Jessica Fowler

Historically, the world of primetime commercial fictional television has been described as “the producer’s medium.” Since the mid-2000s, for example, television producers of programs as diverse as Gossip Girl (2007–2013), Battlestar Galactica (2003–2009), and Eureka (2006–2012) have recorded online podcasts in which they assume creative responsibility (as well as creative credit) for the television programs they produce.1 However, as many subscribers to the auteur theory of motion picture authorship (especially the kind popularized by the late film critic Andrew Sarris) have discovered, such individualistic conceptions of authorship are problematic when it comes to the collaborative nature of the film and television industry.

To date, little attention has been given to the critical (and, as I will argue, creative) role performed by script clearance and research departments working in both film and television production. Script clearance and research has been the subject of only a handful of newspaper and magazine articles, has been marginalized or totally ignored by popular “making of” books, and has never, as far as I’ve been able to determine, been the subject of a dissertation or an academic essay. The purpose of my project is twofold. First, I want to begin to map out the history of script clearance and research in the film and television industry, focusing on de Forest Research, the most dominant research firm. Second, I want to argue that script clearance and research is an act of fundamentally creative labor, and it should be recognized as such by media scholars. Continue reading “Script Clearance and Research: Unacknowledged Creative Labor in the Film and Television Industry” »

Review: ‘Killer Joe’

Matthew McConaughey

When Matthew McConaughey first struts into Killer Joe as the titular renegade-detective-for-hire, the editing dissects him as a carefully composed individual. Close-ups on various parts of his ensemble compartmentalize him, including the obligatory but encapsulating wide-brimmed hat. Long and black, it can consume and mask Joe’s face in the kind of shadow that comes to reign metaphorically over the film as a whole. Killer Joe is a darkly comic crime saga of dumb, unlikable people doing horrible things to each other; it’s a succulent bit of Southern shlock that affords plenty of opportunity for director William Friedkin and his talented cast to show just how hideous they can get. It’s more fun than it has any right to be, if you don’t mind despising every character on the screen.

Killer Joe is Friedkin’s second collaboration with playwright Tracy Letts, who penned the play the movie is adapted from as well as the screenplay for Friedkin’s 2007 film Bug. While Killer Joe is tonally different from that reality-questioning psychological thriller, it is similar in its claustrophobia, its lingering sense of evil, and its grounding in pulpy narratives driven by actors navigating the space between completely serious and mentally unhinged. After this second collaboration Friedkin and Letts feel like kindred spirits, respecting each other’s craft while bringing out the best in each other. Continue reading “Review: ‘Killer Joe’” »

The Mis-shelved Book

Image 1: The Library of Babel, a possibly infinite network of galleries

Editors’ note: Occasionally we’ll run a blog post because its ideas are good, even if it may not seem to be explicitly about media studies. While reading this post, consider how categorization and record-keeping matter to film and television, particularly in the age of digital media. One example might be the possibility (or impossibility) of cataloging the huge number of film festival submissions, especially those that are not chosen to compete and never reach the public.

Anxiety surrounding libraries seems to be a recurring theme in the discussion of human knowledge. Bowker and Starr offhandedly reference the scenario of “a library book shelved under the wrong Library of Congress catalogue number”1 in establishing beyond a doubt the importance of classification systems. Gleick, in his discussion of the long tradition of TMI, cites Augustus De Morgan, whose sentiments that “the library cannot be rummaged also drive toward the same fear: that the library represents the perpetual threat of information glut, precariously kept in check by faith in a perfect and wise system of categorization. None of these figures would advocate for the dismantling of the library as an institution, yet their preoccupation with miscategorization and unsearchability reveal fears that the institution is greater than they or any intelligence, and that its very mass poses a threat to human knowledge. Continue reading “The Mis-shelved Book” »

Interview with Steve Wiebe of ‘The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters’ (Part 1)

Steve Wiebe is the underdog protagonist of the cult documentary The King of Kong (2007), which chronicles his quest to capture the Donkey Kong world record from his eccentric and scheming rival, Billy Mitchell. Andrew Myers recently had the chance to conduct this phone interview with Wiebe about his participation in the film.

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Andrew Myers: How did you get involved in the film? From what you were told when you agreed to be filmed on this journey, what were your expectations about how you would be portrayed and how the film would affect your life?

Steve Wiebe: My friend who appears in the film, Mike Thompson, is a screenwriter and he’s pretty savvy on what is material for movies or stories. We’d have barbecues and get-togethers and I would tell him all the current happenings in the Donkey Kong world. When I explained that the guys came to my house to check out my machine [an early plot point of the film], he couldn’t believe that it had reached that extreme. So he thought this has got to be a story that can be told. And he knew some documentary people that were doing a documentary on the New York Dolls and they were finishing it up—they were in post-production, doing all the editing and basically looking for new material—so he left. His name was Ed Cunningham, and he went to the University of Washington. I didn’t know him personally but I went to the University of Washington too. So he told Ed about my story and Ed was intrigued. Then they started rolling a few months after that. Continue reading “Interview with Steve Wiebe of ‘The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters’ (Part 1)” »

In Her Majesty’s Public Service: The Queen, James Bond, and the Pop Culture Nation

In some respects, London’s Olympics opening ceremony was a lot like an Oscars opening number. Amid the theatrical take on the industrial revolution and the National Health Service were a giant Captain Hook puppet, James Bond, hundreds of Mary Poppins look-alikes, and Sir Paul McCartney. Pop culture in all its forms—from brief film interludes to live musical performances—were used to help define what it means to be “Great Britain.” The dominance of culture in the show makes sense, given that Oscar-winning filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) served as ceremony director; his influence was certainly felt in the filmmaking style of a number of brief pre-recorded skits and the kinetic percussion stringing the ceremony’s phases together.

Yet if the Olympics are regarded as a kind of sacrosanct, globally “high culture” experience, we should try to understand how the inclusion of so much “mass culture” iconography might speak to a more multi-discursive concept of “the nation.” While the first half of the ceremony stuck to a linear, almost one-dimensional story of Great Britain’s history, the pop culture-infused segments speak to a history and an identity built from many kinds of figures and forms. If anything, this points to Boyle’s conception of the show as postmodern. I speak of postmodernity here as, in part, the intermingling of “icons” from high and popular culture to reconfigure the meaning of high culture, and culture in general. Certainly, pop culture has seemingly consumed sports as a whole: look no further than the Super Bowl, which is as famed for its musical half-time show and advertisements featuring celebrities and movie trailers as it is for the actual football game. But the Olympics, by the very nature of their quadrennial status, global scope, and multi-millennial heritage, have largely resisted a similar conception. Even pervasive advertisements from corporate sponsor Visa portray a literally gold-hued reverence for the athletes and the global unity of the Games. Continue reading “In Her Majesty’s Public Service: The Queen, James Bond, and the Pop Culture Nation” »

“A Curious and True and Dramatic Film”: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Forgotten Village’

The Forgotten Village (1941)

During UCLA’s 2011 Festival of Preservation, Jeffrey Bickel presented a beautifully restored print of a little-known John Steinbeck film: The Forgotten Village (1941). I was deeply touched by the film’s poignant depiction of poverty and generational conflict, as well as the naturalistic, almost raw quality of the cinematography and performances, anticipating post-WWII Italian Neorealism films such as De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948). Unable to shake the power of the film’s message, I became inspired to research the genesis of the film, its role in Steinbeck’s career, and its place in American history. I never could have imagined the wide variety of commercial motivations and political agendas that shaped every frame of the film. —Jessica Fowler

The Forgotten Village is an ethnographic documentary centered on a small, poverty-stricken community in rural Mexico. The film showcases the struggle of one young man, Juan Diego, as he tries to persuade the elders of his village to embrace modern medical technology and put an end to the dangerous healing ceremonies of the past. Despite being classified as a documentary, The Forgotten Village is in fact a highly fictionalized piece of propaganda that was intended to strengthen the bond between the United States and Central and South America against the growing Nazi threat in the early 1940s. Written by John Steinbeck, the film began production amid increasing anxiety regarding the conflict overseas and the potential impact on the Western Hemisphere. Continue reading ““A Curious and True and Dramatic Film”: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Forgotten Village’” »