Friday, April 1, 2011

Art and Hoax

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to Michele Meek, a Rhode Islander whose C.V. is far too long to collapse into a single introductory paragraph. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, the above image is Michele teaching English to Buddhist monks in Thailand in 2006. When she’s not teaching, studying or overseeing, which she started, Meek writes about cinema, food and travel. She most recently presented her new paper, Art and Hoax, at last month’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference in New Orleans.

SS: How did you come to write about the marketing of Exit Through the Gift Shop in the first place?

MM: My husband actually wanted to see the film, so he, my brother and I all went to see it at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence in May 2010. I've seen a lot of documentaries throughout the years, but this time, I was totally surprised. Unlike most contemporary documentaries that tell you what to think, this film made you think. On the surface, Banksy is exposing the contemporary art world as a sham. Yet there is another meaning to be uncovered about the documentary genre itself and the struggle between subjectivity and objectivity, truth and interpretation, auteur and subject. Perhaps even more ironically, Banksy profits from both his art and the film, again blurring that line between art and commerce.

After seeing the film, I was hooked. And after researching their strategies for reaching an audience, I knew it was worth further study.

SS: How did you end up presenting at the SCMS and what was the experience like?

MM: I've been a member of SCMS for several years, and last year, I attended my first conference in L.A. Of course, anyone can submit a paper for the conference. I've presented numerous times on panels at writing conferences, film festivals and at universities as a guest lecturer. Still, I was anxious since this was my first academic presentation. Ultimately, it went well, and I did feel prepared to answer questions that came my way. But I've long since learned that you can't know everything, and it's all right to say you don't know something. In fact, that's much better than pretending to know something you don't.

Since I'm relatively new to academia, I decided to propose something that was more industry-oriented and related to a subject where I had some expertise—so I proposed a paper for the panel Arty and Indie in America. Since I had seen the industry from both sides as a independent filmmaker and a reseller (I had run, a community to buy and sell independent films, for nearly a decade), I felt that I had a unique perspective to bring to the subject. The paper I presented "Art and Hoax: The Viral Marketing of 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'" discusses the unconventional (and remarkably successful) distribution and marketing strategies behind the film.

SS: Can Art and Hoax be read online anywhere?

Not yet, although I'm happy to send it to anyone who is interested in reading it and providing feedback! I'll be editing and expanding it over the next few months, and then will submit it for publication. Ideally, it will find a place in one of the peer-reviewed film journals.

SS: Tell me a little bit about, its history and your involvement, past and present.

MM: I started in 1997. I was finishing my MFA in screenwriting at Emerson College and working at a magazine in Boston and had the idea to start a magazine for the regional film community. But then I realized how expensive print magazines were. So my husband (boyfriend, at the time) recommended I start it as a website, and I figured I'd do that until I could switch it to a print publication. But when I saw how successful it was online -- so much more interactive and timely then a monthly print publication -- there was no going back. Eventually, we built out other features in addition to the magazine like the industry directory and most recently, the online film festival. There's a timeline at where you can see the progress through 2004 (I guess I need to update that!) Anyway, I still oversee the site, but I do have a small freelance staff to help out at this point.

SS: You're a Ph.D candidate in English at URI. When you began looking at programs, was that an easy decision for you or were there several other disciplines on the table like, say, Film?

MM: There are so many factors that go into a decision like this. Since I had already gotten a Master's in writing, I had more of a head start with an English Ph.D. And since I have a family, I wasn't really willing to move anywhere in the country which also limited my options. And then there's that little matter of only being able to go where you actually get in. But ultimately, I am interested in both literature and film and hope to write a dissertation that reflects that.

SS: Was there a clean transition from your interest in screenwriting to your interest in academic writing or does one inform the other and vice versa?

MM: I'm honestly not sure there's a logical transition between any of the things that I do. When I look at my C.V. even I wonder how (or why) I've packed in all of the disjointed things I've done. That said, I've always taught -- filmmaking, screenwriting, and writing. And of course, I've always loved to write, and over the years, I've written poetry, fiction, and screenplays, in addition to writing blog posts and magazine articles. Still, in my opinion, there's not much in common between writing a screenplay and a piece of journalism and a poem -- except that every word needs to belong. Each type of writing, I approach differently. With academic writing, I find myself thinking much more critically. In journalism, you can be lazy and make generalizations like "It's getting harder for independent filmmakers to distribute their films." But in academic writing, you can't state something like that without knowing how it's getting harder (what are the numbers?) and why it's getting harder (what are the forces causing the industry changes?). Or maybe you're supposed to do that in magazine writing too, and I've just been doing it wrong all these years.

SS: In addition to film and culture, you've written quite a bit about food and travel. Are there any subjects you haven't tackled that you think you might want to explore in the near future?

MM: I don't think I've written about the space program -- yet! No seriously, there are many subjects I haven't tackled. I simply write about the things I love -- mostly film and travel. My blog is an outlet for the lighter writing I enjoy. For both and my blog, I only write about things that stand out -- I'm not in it to pan anyone, so if I go to a restaurant I hate, then I don't write about it. Since I'm fairly picky, this makes it so I often have nothing to write about.

I'm still not quite sure where my academic interest will lead me. I have an article being published in the upcoming Tennessee Williams Annual Review about the feminist subtext in the 1956 film "Baby Doll," which is obviously much different than my conference paper on "Exit Through the Gift Shop". But ultimately, I'd like to somehow leverage both my industry experience and academic training to create a study that would be useful for a more general filmmaking audience. Also before starting the Ph.D. program, I was working on a book in the genre of literary nonfiction about my experiences living in Paris for a year, and at some point, I'd love to make time to finish it.

SS: What's your dream job and what are your plans for after URI?

MM: I don't think I can say that I have just one dream job (maybe that's my whole problem). I'd love to be a serial entrepreneur since I love creating something out of nothing. On the other end of the spectrum, I would love to be able to write and teach and somehow make money doing that. Basically, I'd like to do something I love (and change what that was as I wished) and be paid well for it -- but who doesn't?

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