Thursday, August 26, 2010

Nexus Analysis by Ron and Suzie Wong Scollon (2004): A review

I have been reading on research methodologies that are potentially relevant for researching web series. Unfortunately, due to the care required for doing valid research, and then for the cross checking of peer reviewed publications, such research is always behind the eight-ball when it comes to developments in new technologies. What follows is a review of the book, and will probably only be of interest to a very select group of web series fans.

I have just read Nexus Analysis: Discourse analysis and the emerging internet by Ron and Suzie Wong Scollon,  London and New York, Routledge, 2004, which is a kind of classic text in the field.  It really continues the kind of approach to social research that I have followed for quite a while: i.e. puts researcher biases and interests up front as part of the research process; requires that the researcher is a participant in the area being studied; is focused on making things better for a group/s of people who are marginalised or disadvantaged in some way; and is doing research in the hope of making some positive contribution to change.  (My interest is in the relatively poor provisions of women-centred and lesbian-themed stories in mainstream serialised screen fiction, and the hope that web series may find a way to provide better stories and for a fairly wide audience.)

Scollon and Scollon see the contributions to change, coming as much from the questions they raise for people active in the field being researched.  They don’t think the researcher can make hard and fast conclusions of the way forward, but can throw some in-depth light on the processes involved in the activities being studied.

This book provides a detailed analysis of Scollon & Scollon’s own research into education of native Alaskans, comparing traditional courses and online, distance learning. It has an extensive fieldguide in the appendix, which looks pretty useful.
When it comes to researching interactive web series today, some of the major problems are the shifting and continually changing nature of the Internet and the complex networks that operate through it. 
Nexus Analysis provides a way to manage, potentially unmanageable material around three axes:

selected scenes (locations, or sites of interaction – this is the main focus of any nexus analysis);
the interaction order (the structure, format and organisation of interaction eg in pairs, groups; informal rules developed by participants);
body history of participants (i.e. how do past experiences of individuals, and the discourses that they have engaged, with influence the ways they interact in the selected scenes).

They also provide guidance in how to expand the range of discourses from the main area of study to the wider society – so in the case of lesbian-themed series, it would require looking at the kinds of discourses of sexuality in mainstream TV, in various web series and then in the wider society.

In order to do nexus analysis, it’s recommended that a mixture of methods is used as a kind of cross check: this would include, observation, participant observation (of interactions and the media involved in, or related to the interactions), interviews, surveys, focus groups.

The weakness of this method seems to me to be:

1) Research selections could be a bit random: because online networks are so extensive, it requires the researcher to make choices about what is relevant.  Although, Scollon and Scollon also recommend that the main participants are asked for their views on what is relevant to the research.  Consequently, there should be flexibility in shifting the focus of the research, based on  input from the main participants in the study.

2)      This research was done in educational settings and at the turn of the century.  It consists of relatively small networks, and since then the multiplicity of media and social networks now available online make everything so much more complex.

3)      Scollon and Scollon focus on educational practices and discourses of ‘race’ ethnicity, and my interest is more in identities, especially gender and sexual identities.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Filming Venice, @bidforvenice, and Web Series Interactivtiy

I like the interactive element that can be built into a web series.  There are different kinds of interactivity, and with Venice interactions between producers and fans tend to focus on people & personalities.  Some of the online social networking facilities and web sites are ideal for this.

The second season of Venice is being filmed at Venice Beach, California this week, with people involved providing a steady stream of tweets and tweetphotos,

 plus the official blog 

and vlogs posted during the days of filming.

It's so cool that bidforvenice scored a part in the show & is tweeting and reporting from the set.  "bidforvenice" is Anita Crisinel, an expat kiwi actor, now based in London.

During the first season, she started pitching for a part in Venice on the VComm forum on the official Venice website and on her own website, as well as making good use of Twitter and youtube videos.

Like many of the Venice cast and producers, she has a lively and fun kind of personality that thrives on these social networking platforms. 

Interesting also to see that Anita did her apprenticeship with an appearance on Shortland Street,  short films and various parts in plays in Auckland theatres.

Looking forward to see what her part is like in the show.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Butching the Femmes: US & UK (web) soaps/drama - VENICE & FAR OUT

Web soaps/dramas and lesbian representation

From Guiding Light to Venice
In the final months of the long-running US DayTime soap Guiding Light, I got hooked on the Otalia same-sex romance.

When the show was coming to an end, I became an instant fan of a web show in-the-making, hooked on Crystal Chappell's highly public approach to creating the web series Venice.  I liked that she and her co-producers used social networking as a way to connect with and get feedback from fans, and were aiming to cater to a perceived unfulfilled, international desire for realistic, lesbian-themed drama.
And I liked the premise of the show: centred on Gina (Crystal Chappell), a successful interior designer, her family and relationships within a network of people living in Venice Beach, CA. (MindSchmootz has a great review of the premier episode.)

Venice Fan Expectations: supportive energy or conflicting demands?
Now it seems many fans had/have different expectations of the show, and they may be pushing it in a different direction from what I had anticipated.  Unlike many fans, I have had no expectations of seeing another same-sex pairing played by the Otalia actors, Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia.  While I do favour watching some actors more than others, my interest tends to be more in specific characters and their stories. Knowing which actors will be paired for an on-screen romance amounts to a massive spoiler - and I am SO anti-being spoiled in any way.

But here I seem to be out of step with the majority of posters on the forums, who have filled long strings of topic threads speculating on future hot-romantic couplings, often enflamed by any hint of any spoiler that drops off their cyber-screens. Many fans are happy to have had their requests fulfilled with Venice's latest addition of promo/teaser clips a week in advance. But to me it just taps into a culture of never-fully-satisfied desires, where instant gratification is accelerated into the future - a place where there will always be new desires to be satisfied.  My main satisfactions come from taking more time to enjoy any (often unexpected) pleasures that I come across, by discussing what's actually IN an episode.

Hot or Not?  Desire & lesbian representation?
However, I guess I'm not totally free from the infectious giddiness of the expectation of unfulfilled desires: I had thought that FINALLY Venice would be the show that integrated lesbian and heterosexual stories while including characters of diverse ages, and not only ones who are conventionally pretty.  Yet, there seems to be a trend amongst fans, and supported by the producers of Venice, to celebrate the appearance of youthful and conventional feminine attractiveness. But for me the promise of an excess of "pretty" (as often tweeted by the Venice producers) was more a turn-off than an incentive to watch. Conventionally feminine & pretty women are not always the hottest, or the most charismatic on-screen.

Unlike many fans, I'm quite enjoying the flirtation between Gina & Tracy (played by two talented and experienced 40-something actresses, Chappell and Lesli Kay).  Many fans complain about the lack of "chemistry" between the two characters.  (Please, can that word be banished from the soap fan lexicon? Over-use breeds aversion!)  The "chemistry" can be created in the writing and directing, as much as by the actors.  Often the focus on Allan's (Michael Sabatino) story in the same scenes, sucks some heat from the Gina-Tracy flirtation.

Having seen some of the excitement that preceded the first appearance of Lara (Nadia Bjorlin) in Venice, I wonder how much the intense speculation about some (potentially hot?) pairings, eg the Ani (Jessica Leccia) & Lara one, influences people's perception?  And, in spite of my attempts to avoid speculation, did I get caught up in some of the excitement?

On first viewing, I really liked both parts of episode 9. I particularly appreciated the fact that, for the first time in Venice, we get to see a (potential) couple meet, and meet "cute" - as we are very used to in mainstream productions.  And the cuteness level is raised a little by some snappy repartee (Ani: "Do you take a Metro card?" & "I'm usually so together." Lara: "Yeah, I can see that." - the show could do with more of this).

While I tend to to be turned off by a whole cast of pretty, Lara has a major dose of it, and it is mesmerising. In episode 9 she has a strong screen presence that goes beyond a conventional feminine prettiness: it hints at a restrained but powerful personality, and a quirky kind of fun.  But, on re-watching episode 9,  I'm just not feeling a gay vibe in the Ani-Lara interactions, expecially not from Ani.  Leccia plays a very charming, down-to-earth Ani, one who successfully conveys many emotions - hurt, caring, frustration and deep attachment, for instance.  But I'm not seeing any (woman-to-woman) passion or desire in her feelings for either Gina or Lara.

US Glamour: UK 'realism' - Desire, diversity & lesbian representation?
Perhaps I'm a bit out of step with much of the Venice fan energy because I have more of a background in watching and enjoying British soaps and dramas, which lean more to 'social realism'.  US soaps have tended to focus on excessively perfect people in an enticingly glossy world. In contrast, British soaps tend to create a familar, everyday world with characters that engage because of they are very like the viewers - and with varying degrees of the 'pretty' and the 'plain'.

Hot, exciting & 'real': can we have it all?
Maybe different viewing histories at least partly explain the differences amongst lesbian and bisexual fans, in the ways we want to see lesbians portrayed on the screen?  Some want to see conventionally feminine & pretty lesbian characters, because they undermine the stereotype of 'unattractive' mannish lesbians. Others, including me, want to see lesbian characters more like ourselves and ones we know, and/or that have a less gender-conventional kind of sex appeal.  We ask, why is it that the standard idea of female attractiveness lies within traditional femininity?  When will we get more lesbian soap/drama characters with the sex appeal and/or magnestism of
 Rachel Maddow,                     or Jeanette Jenkins, or Queen Latifah.

The pilot epsiodes for the British web series Far Out,  (created, written and directed by Faye Hughes: Inner Sanctum Productions Ltd.) makes a strong contrast with Venice, in being more within the British social realist tradition.  The characters are not especially glamorous or overly pretty. I have seen them described as ugly and poorly acted on afterellen forums. However, this show has potential.  As with Venice, I like it's premise and cast of characters.

But also like Venice, the faults are more in the execution and the details of writing, directing and cinematography, than in the main ideas and stories.  I wasn't surprised to see that the Far Out actors have had more stage than screen experience. The show comes off as quite stagey, which makes it seem 'over-acted'.  But I do feel that, at least, one character has an attractive screen presence (Jen Stuart - played by Fliss Waldon - seen in the pic above leaning against the wall in a dark suit and specs), even though she isn't conventionally attractive.

On the other hand, the Far Out cast is largely young, unlike Venice with its appeal to my no-longer-very-young self. And HOW GOOD was it, to see Gina and Guya (Hillary B. Smith) playing so well off each other without a lot of  glamourising make-up and Dos?  They looked so delightfuly trashed and playful, enjoying a bit of 'everyday' fun and interaction that cuts across some genre-dependent, screen stereoptypes of women.

Some say Venice's frequent inclusion of booze and profanities jar.  They see them as an immature attempt at rebellion, unrealistic for characters of their age - throw backs to college days that they long ago left behind (ah, but weren't they some glorious times?  And did we have to leave all the pleasures and progressiveness of those days behind in order to be, what is often regarded as, staid, mature and grown-up?)  I like that the Venice creators are trying to take a little walk on the wildside rather than stick to the more conventionally femininised decorum of US soaps. And the swearing and booze don't seem out of place in my world.  Growing up is SO over-rated (and I never said I wasn't contradictory - like most people!).

So I will be interested to see how much these two very different web shows engage me in the future.