michael z. newman 


 Argues that American independent cinema since the 1980s has in common with other forms of "indie" culture its construction as an authentic, autonomous alternative to mainstream media, and that "indie" is contradictory insofar as it serves at once to oppose the dominant culture but also to produce cultural capital that distinguishes its consumers.

Initiates a poetics of Web video by considering the central features of one kind of video on the Web, the amateur videoblog, in terms of its functions, which include various affordances of use, and constraints, which include economics, technology, and viewing conditions.

Proposes a theory of characterization in audio-visual media based on social cognition, the way people make sense of other people's psychology in everyday interactions, including considerations of folk psychology used to infer beliefs and desires, attribution of personality traits, and reading emotions from faces, voices and other cues.  Supports theoretical claims through an analysis of Todd Solondz's 1995 film.

  • "From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative" The Velvet Light Trap 58 (Fall 2006), 16-28. (download pdf)

Considers prime-time serials on American television in terms of their basic storytelling conventions, including breaking episodes into short scenes (beats), four-act episodic structure with considerable closure, and multi-episode or season- or series- spanning arcs.  Argues that commercial constraints of an advertising-driven industry create aesthetic benefits to best please audiences and keep them tuning in week after week.

  • "Character and Complexity in American Independent Cinema: Passion Fish and 21 Grams" Film Criticism 31.1-2 (Fall/Winter 2006), 89-106. (download pdf)

Part of a special issue on narrative complexity, argues that films with complex story/plot structures do not necessarily have other kinds of complexity, such as complexity of character.  Compares the relative complexity of two independent films, one of which has a complex story/plot structure (21 Grams), the other of which does not (Passion Fish), and argues that the latter has more complex characterization.  

Commentary at the Media Commons website's daily video page on a hip-hop music video, part of series of entries on guilty pleasures.

Commentary at the Media Commons website's daily video page on a Volkswagen TV spot, "Milky Way," directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also made Little Miss Sunshine

Article in an on-line journal of television and media culture about a web-video sensation on YouTube and its implications for participatory culture.

recent conference presentations

Argues that widescreen television and single-camera comedies promote the upscaling of television aesthetics by seeming to make TV more cinematic, and that this is connected to the cultural legitimation of television in the post-network era.
  • "The Community as Artist: "The Show with Ze Frank" (download pdf/ppt) MiT5, April, 2007 
Describes the popular web video series in terms of its collaborative and DIY aesthetics and argues that its participatory fan experience, afforded by new technologies, makes possible the integration of viewers into the production of primary media texts (rather than secondary appropriations and re-circulations).  This sugests that the production of art by a network of cooperation is becoming more egalitarian.
  • "Indie Culture: In Pursuit of the Authentic Autonomous Alternative" Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Chicago, IL, March 9, 2007.  (download pdf/pp)

Argues that "indie" culture is based on a contradiction between its alternative impulse to oppose the mainstream and its status as a taste culture.  Includes a case study of the controversy surrounding the release of Happiness (1998), a film that was dropped by its distributor for being too edgy.

Explores the forms of videos made for the web in terms of the constraints and affordances that shape their creation, including their functions as brief diversion, their production by passionate amateurs, and their engagement with the internet's architecture of participation.


  • Characterization in American Independent Cinema (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2005).

Both a theory of cinematic characterization as a process of social cognition and a consideration of American independent cinema as a mode of filmmaking that makes character a central appeal.  Argues that characterization depends on real-world skills and habits for making sense of other people and draws on research in social psychology and related fields.  Also argues that, counterintuitively and for specific aesthetic ends, characterization in independent films is often shallow rather than deep and static rather than changing.


  • Indie: An American Film Culture, in progress.

Considers independent cinema from the standpoint of the audience's viewing strategies, including seeing characters as emblems of their social identities, taking challenging form to be an invitation to play, and reading oppositionally.  Locates independent cinema in the context of its institutions and analyzes films by directors including Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen brothers, and John Sayles.