Thursday, April 24, 2008

Newseum: "I-Witness in 4D" and many other short films

The Newseum in Washington DC offers a variety of short films, enough to make a short documentary film festival.

The showpiece is “I-Witness News: 4D Time Travel Adventure,” about 18 minutes, shown continuously in the Annenberg Theater, from Cortina Films. The film itself is shown on a curved screen that approximates Todd AO, with an aspect ratio of about 2:1. There are mild “sensurround” effects, with chairs rocking, mist sprays, and even a rat tug on one’s trousers. (Visitors can sit further back and avoid the extra effects). But the content of the movie is what matters. It summarizes the history of the press, with focus on three episodes. First Isaiah Thomas reports on the opening shots of the Revolutionary War. Then, late in the 19th Century, Nellie Bly becomes the world’s first female undercover investigative reporter as she becomes an “MP” in an asylum (including straightjackets and rats). Then in the last segment a reporter provides live radio coverage from London during the Nazi bombings during the Battle of Britain in 1940. The episodes are connected with spherical bubbles with embedded images of other events that flow out of the screen to the viewer in 3D.

The second most important film is “The Big Picture” in “The Big Screen Theater” on level 5, on super wide screen (like Cinerama) with a run through of all the news since World War II through 9/11 and later. Leonardo DiCaprio appears in an Earth Day rally.

On Level 3 there is a thirty minute short “The Rise of TV News” which traces the history of television news from the time of ten minutes a day on Dumont in 1947 through Huntley-Brinkley in the 50s, through the political conventions, and the unrest of the 60s. In 1950, 9% of households had television, by 1960 it was almost 90%. During the 50s, the idea that television could cover news as well as entertain people (in contrast to radio) took hold. Television coverage exposed the military problems in Vietnam before print news did. Lyndon Johnson tried to get CBS to remove an overactive reporter from Vietnam, and it refused. Finally, Johnson said, “if I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost America.” The film has an appendix about the development of the Internet (from Arpanet) to its sudden release to the public in the early 1990s. By the late 90s, average people were interacting with the media outlets in such a way that major media companies took note of them, and in time bloggers became a major source of down-to-earth information about ordinary life. Bloggers are replacing journalists in the ability to provide “the first rough draft of history.” The enclosure for this film had too much light, and needs to be more sheltered.

On Level 5 there are numerous shorts. In one auditorium there are three inter-related films: “Sources” “Bias” and “Getting it Right”. The changing policies on anonymous sources are covered; it’s easy to talk off the record if you don’t have to account for what you say. “Bias” questions whether the media tend toward liberalism, although conservatives have their own niche. But “Getting It Right” covers the importance of journalistic fact-checking and accuracy. Mistakes happen rarely because of deception, but more often because of deadlines and the “rough draft” problem. NBC got the Florida projection wrong in the 2000 Election (“what the networks give, the networks take away”) and I remember hearing about the reversal while driving to an election party in Minneapolis, while stopped at a light. It’s funny how you remember things like that. The mishap with the Olympic Park incident in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta is covered, as is the erroneous reporting of a mine rescue and the heartbreak caused to families. Reporters also erroneously reported President Reagan as unhurt in the 1981 assassination attempt at first.

Another auditorium has “The Power of the Image”, and still another has “45 Words: The Story of the First Amendment” with a history of pamphleteering, the Bill of Rights, and the Sedition Acts. The 9/11 exhibit shows “Running Toward Danger,” as journalists cover the catastrophic events of that morning.

The Orientation film in the Hearst Auditorium downstairs is "News Wanted" (7 min) and provides a summary of the news business with many quick images.

Next door, there is a sports film theater, and documentary film theater. "The Pulitzer Pictures: Glimpses of the Past" (25 min) shows the work of the journalist photographer, starting with a fruit train journey. It proceeds to show historic photos from the past, such as the JFK assassination (Jack Ruby's shooting of Oswald on camera), the space program, and the controversial nude photo of victims in Vietnam.

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