Monday, July 14, 2014

Triggers

Film history is revisionist and reactionary.  Most people writing about the classics or about "the golden age" weren't even there - they have only the reviews and the evidence of the careers before and subsequent to place any film or trend in context.

I've heard more than one person amazed why no one liked Carpenter's The Thing when it came out. They don't understand what it was like to see that shit back in 1982. (I know that disparaging words against The Thing get some people apoplectic. Consider that a trigger.)

So let this post be a kind of primary source for Kathyrn Bigolow's Strange Days (1995) which was highly anticipated, had a great pedigree at the time and should have blow our minds, we know we wanted it. And it was a film that opened in the large theatre where I worked in the '90s and I was there for the opening nights.

The reaction and the word-of-mouth was quite different than that which has come down to us through the years. A puzzle piece that's lost but may explain the career trajectories of some of those involved.

Strange Days was co-written and produced by James Cameron, who was hot off of True Lies (1994) and Terminator 2 (1991) and the ex-husband to Bigelow, whose last film was the equally testosterone-y (but more fun) Point Break (1991), only beginning to grow the street-Keanu-cred on it that it would enjoy in subsequent decades. Yet Strange Days is practically a lost film. Seemingly prescient, taking place on the cusp of the millennium and posing a hip blue-lit future out of Philip K. Dick or the Wachowski brothers (they were brothers then), it also has that Doors resonance (I taste The Lost Boys in there; people are strange even in your peripheral vision).

The action centers around a device that records your actions, sharing them virtually (this was barely a buzz word then) with headgear and a demonstration near the start turns out to be a recording of a rape. They get ahold of the tape but can only watch that crime from the recorded POV - you "experience it" but still can't quite get the evidence you need.

A lost film I have the feeling the filmmakers would rather stay lost. A novel, rather edgy techno- nerdy idea (well, not so new after all, a similar device was used in Brainstorm (1983) and was the fodder of much speculation then - if you could "read someone's thoughts" the first thing that came to mind was.... Rule 34 and all that. A provocative but ultimately flat and homogenized Hollywood film (it was directed, after all, by Douglas Trumbull) the buzz on it was taken over by the untimely death of Natalie Wood and how the film became a pale compromise of a more bold original (they had no idea the trouble Vic Morrow or Heath Ledger would foment in the coming decades)).

Starring Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List!), Angela Bassett (Tina Turner!), Vincent D'Onofrio (The Player!, Orson Welles in Ed Wood!, the donut guy in Full Metal Jacket). And of course, the huge balls of Cameron and Bigelow each seemingly trying to out cock each other with their arrogance, sci-fi savvy, hubris and my-heart's-not-broken.

Thing was they throw in a rape. Not just a rape, as like - a past event to motivate a character, but instead it's a rape you see played out from 1st-person perspective. One that's subjective, that doesn't signify the bad guy as bad guy but as something the viewer experiences as it's happening. As a bit; as a kind of thrill.

(Ebert complained about this kind of thing when he disparaged the Friday the 13th films (wrongly I feel). If you don't position the killer as "other," cinematically you end up putting the audience in sympathy with the killer. With being the killer. With being the rapist. To what end? You know you want it. Indeed.)

Here's where I learned an important film-making lesson. How much the topic of rape takes a film hostage. Irreparably and inexorably. When the first rape scene came on, in first person (it's evidence of the device's effectiveness and we experience the perp raping his victim), easily a dozen people hit the lobby - angry and in no mood to negotiate. Some of the women were in tears; most demanded their money back. They felt violated - tricked. The sense of outrage was palatable and scary. The men were red around the ears, protective or accusing us of crimes and irresponsible citizenship.

You see, you don't treat a rape scene as entertainment.

That arrogant cocky Cameron/Bigelow attitude had gotten to them. This adolescent rape sequence, a provocative dare had added insult to invisible injuries, salt in unknown wounds.

The film's word of mouth was vitriolic and moved quickly. The film doesn't really work anyway, as science fiction or as detective story. (Maybe as a cautionary tale.) Trying too hard to be cool but with an elitist view of the poor and desperate, and by having (and this was not the first or last time Cameron fell in this trap) too much resources at his disposal they didn't attempt to be empathetic or smart, just brazen, colorful and daring.

It blew up in their face.

Rape is a trigger. Some people simply won't take it fictionalized or treated without the highest level of respect. (You're not going to make me tell you the Schindler's List story are you?)  Certain topics are off limits. You don't hurt animals, you don't casually throw child abuse into your story, and you sure don't use rape as a "plot point."

It kills your narrative dead and demanded you stop everything and lower your voice in those politically correct, victims-first times.

This was not a niche indie. This was a major 20th Century Fox production. The film was gone within 3 weeks as I remember and everyone's career experienced a speedbump. Whether because of this film, the decision to be in this film, or the fact they'd all graduated to big-Hollywood cocaine-sized budgets and trailers, Fiennes, Bassett and D'Onofrio's careers seemed to stall or got murked by less high-profile projects. Maybe no one trusted them anymore, maybe audiences had a bad taste in their mouth.

Maybe the paydays were big enough so they all went arty.

Cameron has always earned a begrudging respect, people enjoyed his films in spite of themselves (the racism in True Lies and is so weirdly accidental, not even intentional it makes it more distasteful. Avatar is already past its sell-by date (lucky by its timing) and his films never have real people in them.). Bigelow would continue to have trouble getting projects off the ground although she'd eventually have two good years 15 years later with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Two war films that are heavier on the art side and a little more careful with the moralizing.

I think that big budget films are way too careful and well, I guess they have to be. Strange Days is an abject lesson lost to time but that many Hollywood types probably still remember.

Bad movies don't kill careers. Triggers do.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Blue

It's rumored, half the time Ridley Scott spent updating and mastering the most recent "last" Final Cut of Blade Runner was spent figuring out if Deckard was a replicant or not ("Do I have any coverage of that?") and half the time he spent taking out the wires and cables that were suddenly visible in the new hi-definition formats.

Film is a different medium than digital, and has grain, 24 images per second, moves through the projector and each image is distinct, different, contrary - the inherent blur tends to soften sharp distinctions between shots. Just ask ILM.

Blu-ray imagery is sharper and doesn't move - it's an algorithm that reveals anything the original film could pick up and holds it still for our eye. In hi-def 4 times as sharp for our edification. And in its crystal clarity lies the rub.

The mechanics of film is forgiving and tricks the eye. When lit properly rear-and front-projection screens look real in their soft-focus background. Matted shots blend more smoothly with the hard surface of the foregrounds. Cables that held the helicars up disappeared in the smoke, but Scott had to have them digitally removed for the blu-ray.

Tom Savini's make-up effects, intended to go by in single-digit frame-flashes in the old Friday The 13th movies convince even less than they did then.

Movie theatres used to be large dark rooms and the light, this big at its source, would be expanded and diffused through the hundreds of feet it travelled to the movie screen, by 1000% or more. Effects were engineered and designed to work as well as they needed to. They didn't need to stand up to intense scrutiny.

You could get away with the flying horse in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. There's a reason why it hasn't been upgraded to blu-ray. It would look too shabby. That film's been denigrated enough.

Blu-rays reveal the flaws of the source. And at a certain point you get diminishing returns. The beginning 15 minutes of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddysey appearing to be shot on the veldt of prehistoric Africa was actually shot on a soundstage with large front-projection screens behind the rocks and the men-in-suits.  On a large screen it's entirely convincing, as is the small cut-ins of people moving in the windows of the model spaceships on the moon.

Yet, finally, on the beautiful blu-ray I recently acquired (what could go wrong?) there are clear panels marring the prehistoric sky. The resolution of the blu-ray reveals the folds in the fabric that is hanging behind the sets; the clear "sheetiness" of it, hell, I swear, even the remnants of old western landscapes that seem to have been painted over or obscured that would have been, at most, a blurry trace when filmed and projected.

Deep and nuanced and not quite visible, like the past it depicts.

The tolerances built into the old systems have been decalibrated and the nuances are now hammer blows. The film, so much of its time (1968) is built as best it could be then, with paper cut-outs and fake backgrounds.

A blu-ray upgrade has made me strangely sad.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Free Money

Long-time readers, or those who are curious enough to do their research, will know I produced and directed a film, "Usher," around 2004.

I curried favor and collected everyone I could to pitch in. Actors, cable pullers, drivers and bagel buyers. A true indie production, currently available here.

I went into debt making the film, because who listens to the advice of not using your own money, or believes their idea isn't better than the others that don't get sold, or realizes how expensive post production (especially on film) really is. I did get it in the can, and while the film never made it to DVD (the indie DVD market was falling apart already by then) I got my soundtrack on iTunes and CDBaby and have actually sold a handful of tunes for about a dollar each.

That and some pocket change would buy you a pocket. The yearly checks I got were good for buying a case of beer for the Christmas holiday. All those streams on Spotify and Rdio added up to about $20 over the course of a year, a penny at a time. CDBaby struck a deal with Rumblefish in 2012 in which they would monetize any use of the songs they held on YouTube, identifying it and collecting a bit of money for every view.

About .000635 cents for each view.

This works 2 ways. People who upload something and need a song can use their huge database and pick my song (assuming they find it, or hear it and think it appropriate for their needs). A "Buy it now" button is added to the clip description. More pennies for me (the answer to the question who buys the song they hear on a YouTube video we'll save for another day).

Or, anyone who had already grabbed one of the songs is warned to replace it or share in the wealth.

The bad news was Rumblefish kept trying to block the music on our own upload, then allowed it thereby gaining 50% of the funds for any plays. (Not that there were any funds before it was licensed).

The surprising news was, I just found out my soundtrack guy (Jeff Lunzaga aka Desciple) had used one of my cuts (or one similar enough for software) in another film he scored the same year, "Gangsta's Paradise" and it was recently identified by Rumblefish as belonging to me (I have the contract right here, Jeff).

This film's been watched many more times than "Usher," and in the last 10 days alone has been watched over 103000 times.

That's 3 cases of beer.

I don't know the deal Jeff made with the producers of "Gangsta's" but by virtue of being first to CDBaby and Rumblefish with the music, I inadvertently find myself in the position to start to pay off that debt with this inadvertent revenue trickle.

Just in time for July 4th!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Two Detectives

When I think of Sleuth, I think of blue.

They hired Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter to remake Anthony Shaffer's 1972 original in 2007. Based on a limited-character chamber piece written for the stage, it starred scene-chewing Lawrence Olivier as the older man and a smoldering Michael Caine hot off "Alfie" and "Get Carter." Both actors got Oscar nominations.

35 years later, Caine played the older man, still smoldering while the young and upcoming Jude Law played the role Caine had been in, also (to further the cultural echo) hot off his own "Alfie."

Branagh's take was colder and more self aware to the point of being arch. The joie de vivre and loose playfulness of what is basically an adolescent game of the original had been rendered sterile. Hell, the set design was hypermodern, all glass and chrome. And everything was blue. Having Pinter adapt the play this time didn't exactly warm things up either.

And the film stock they used for the prints had an additional problem. I worked in a theatre when this came out and the polyester print would slowly shed particles of plastic as it ran through the projector. Perhaps all prints do to a certain degree (Schindler's List had this problem as well, we seemed to think it had to do with the way the color stock had been processed to make it black & white). But Branagh's Sleuth gave off blue. A fine layer of dust got into every crevice of the projector, behind the lens and along the film path. Thank god for us it only lasted a week.

The next film had a slight twilight glow to it we jokingly ascribed to Branagh's directorial vision (even though his film had left the premises a week before).

DVDs are falling on hard times and they are no longer demanding full price. I was able to pick up (at two different places) both versions of Sleuth this week, each for under $3.00. A shame really as the first is possibly the best mid-'70s puzzle-box play based on character, a post-Christie whodunit/thriller that proves a trick ending need not disappoint or be entirely unexpected.

And the second, as cold-hearted and mannered as it is, in part I suspect to protect against claims of being old-fashioned or obsolete, may serve as the best example of how a different sensibility and cultural circumstances can recast (oops, wrong word) and transform for all practical purposes an identical piece.

The stunt casting (which would work anyway even if it weren't such a delicious stunt) only adds to the resonance between the two films. Viewed one after the other you're seeing a new work, yet also have the benefit of seeing the same work again (which is what film schools always tell you to do - see a film to discover what it's doing, see it a second time to discover what it isn't doing, see it a third time to see how it does what it is (and isn't) doing).

It's a match made in heaven. Have your cake then eat it. See two films for the price of one; one film for the price of two.

I can hardly wait for the next remake, due in about 25 years. Doing the math, it's likely the young actor, who will play against Jude Law who will take on the role of the older man, hasn't even been born yet.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Frozen

Disney's new animated feature "Frozen" continues the development of generally hyperrealist CGI films for children and not only embraces the tension between a fantasy world and tools that make them as real as possible, the tension now informs and deepens the film.

There's always been that conflict between the family-friendly accessibility of animated films and the sometimes transparent pleas to adults who are charged with sitting with (and paying for) the children they bring in.  It manifests itself either with gentle double-entendres only adults "get," covers of classic rock songs during the credits, or clumsy attempts at more progressive "Princess" gender politics so we're not quite as offended.

But Disney films have been hopelessly stuck in the past, starting with their over-reliance on creaky public-domain fairy tales and mythology but also in their apparent inability to update their story model or embrace the sensibility of a post-Pixar era.  They've seemed lost since "Hercules."

"Tangled" (2010) was a hit but felt like 1985, a quick-cutting update of the princess model that "The Princess and the Frog" couldn't sell with its flat 2-D animation: hip, colorful, highly accomplished and retro in all the worse ways.  Computer-rendered plastic Barbie skin was the wave of the future.

"Frozen" is just another princess tale; more exactly a sister tale.  You know, a dysfunctional pair of orphans looking for love and maybe their true destinies along the way.  Actually it's about the sidekicks who nudge the heros(ines) into each other's arms, more or less by the end.  "Aladdin" with girls?

What's striking about the art design and animation of "Frozen" is it introduces the backstory of magical powers for the character Elsa that has no basis in reality or prior mythology and really only is possible to render in this age of computer animation.  Blessed (cursed?) with the ability to wave her hand and create snow and ice sculptures out of thin air, as beautiful as they are imposing, the weather effects and self-generation of complicated crystalline structures unfolds with the visual shorthand of a Prius commercial.  Effort and premeditation have given way to the surreal ecstasy of 100 conceptual artists without physical constraints.  Like Pixar's "Finding Nemo" it's simply too beautiful to criticize.

Rather than an aggressive hypermodernism or chancy avant-garde impulse, this only grounds the film, as "cool" as its surface is, in a 30-year-old animation tradition.  Witness the snowman Olaf, the best side-kick in 10 years who steals the film, and his loose-limbed (snow-balled?) animation in which his various round pieces float and revolve around each other without connection.  A throwback to the gravity-based physics of Pacific Data Images tests for animation festivals back in the mid-'80s.

Repurposing old and obsolete techniques (or characters) into new and knowing ways is the classic "fish out of water" scenario that also drove last year's "Wreck-It Ralph" to gross $200m.  "Frozen" seems to know it's a Disney princess story stuck in an old industrial model and tries to reinvent how to tell such a story with tools unappreciated up to now, mostly due to Pixar's success with hyperrealism (talking dogs notwithstanding).

And by new I don't mean so new ("Hercules") that audiences don't recognize it anymore.  There's something comforting in seeing old techniques shined up and exploited.  Instead of resisted, or ignored.

This agenda is made clear by the old-style Mickey Mouse cartoon that proceeds it, in small-screen black-and-white like the oldest of artifacts before it opens both wide and out in a self-referential post-modern rip in filmic reality, a 3-dimensional struggle between old and new, monochrome vs. color, flat and round, the clean vs. the profane.  Between analog and digital.

The cartoon is titled "Get A Horse," a phrase people yelled at Model T drivers when their new-fangled technology would fail them in traffic.  The conflict between the frozen past and a dynamic future is foregrounded in the cartoon, and while the answer isn't resolved, it's finally become part of the discussion.   As Peg-leg Pete's car-horn proclaims, make way for the future.


 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Billion Dollar Business

A dozen people forwarded the article (from Hollywood Reporter) to me when Spielberg and Lucas gave a talk earlier this month at USC predicting the movie industry was headed for an "implosion." (No need to click on that link: just Bing "Spielberg" and "implosion" later.)  I read it.  Spielberg could barely get Lincoln funded but perhaps it's hard to be sympathetic - he's still functioning in a post-WWII John Ford model [1] anyway.  He even still edits on film - the nerve.

The point was that the digital dilemma [2] has affected even the biggest players in the field, from Spielberg who at one point could have gotten funding to direct a phonebook - to George Lucas who first embraced digital (with those later - earlier Star Wars films) (a link to another article about digital in 1999 when Lucas tried to push it down our throats for the The Phantom Menace release has been removed, 'cause you already know he did that) but still can't write a decent 3rd act [3].

About a week later Lynda Obst wrote in Salon (article, June 15, 2013, no need for a link; I'll just stick the citation in) saying that the industry was completely broken; another high-end Hollywood player saying we're in trouble, no really [4], that the people in charge could no longer do the math.  It all no longer added up.

For once someone was talking sense. It all has to do with the DVDs.  In a development suspiciously similar (3 links, each word to a different one, that go to different books about how the music industry missed the digital revolution; that's one way to get a bunch of background citations out of the way) to the baroque go-go CD era of the '80s of the (now dead) music business, the new format was the way to print free money.  Everyone wanted to own films and with the explosion of home video most films nearly doubled their grosses [5] through DVDs and VHSs.  And it was all gravy - they didn't have to make the film again to reap the profits, just sell it on .90c discs in .50c plastic covers.

Hollywood didn't know what to do with all that money.  People bought everything rather than wait for it on cable.  The sense of ownership was too intoxicating.

But as we all now know DVD sales plummeted for 5 years in a row now. [6]  People are finally shaking off the hangover and reconsidering the reasons to have a copy of The Town (this link: a review of The Town; why am I pointing you in a direction you can already find yourself? Because I happen to agree with this one (and it's well written) and now I don't have to use any extra words in my post here discussing The Town for my back story) [7] in the house - they'll never watch it (certainly not through to the end(s) [8]. They don't need any copies of Pitch Perfect [9] or Fast and Furious 2,3 or 6 [10], or even all four (5?) editions of the Lord of the Rings (no footnote here - suffice it to note each word links to a different configuration of the trilogy - no need to click unless you want to get pissed off at how many versions of LotR you have to buy) trilogies, each with a different and essential set of extras.

There's so much content out there through Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, HBOGo, YouTube or bittorrentting people think there's no need (this links to the reason why you should horde content at home [11]) to horde content at home anymore.

The gravy went away.  No one could predict how much money a film would make during the critical years of 2008 - 2013, a time when the highs were very high (The Passion of the Christ, or Alice In Wonderland) and the lows were lower (John Carter (is he from Mars or not? (don't click on this link, just reports Andrew Stanton explaining why they dropped the word "Mars" from the title. And note that I "answer" the question I ask in the hot-linked words; nice, huh?), or Battleship).  All bets were off and limos were traded in for towncars, espresso bars were replaced by coffee urns and administrative assistants were told to become script girls or get on their knees and start charging for different services.

Now a film made as much money as it was likely to in the theatrical release, increasingly wider and shorter and that was about it. No long tail and studios were trading their analog dollars for digital pennies as Obst warned.  This is the direct analog to the music industry where once people got a taste of free on the Internet they didn't care about quality; quantity and choice trumped scarcity.

Profits halved, an amazing number. And if it's a $10 billion dollar industry 3 years ago [12] (and that #'s only the gross at the B.O.: possibly only 20% of that is free-and-clear profit) that means as little as $1 billion is actually still clearing the checking account or the funny accounting.  And as Spielberg and Lucas pointed out polite enough not to name any names when a handful of large budget films fall on their faces this year (After Earth, budget $130m+, marketing $100m [13]; The Lone Ranger, budget $250m+, marketing $150m+; Jack the Giant Killer Slayer, budget $190m, marketing $70m+) you just heard that billion in profit simply disappear.

Films come out faster and faster and the hits are merely doubles. Even a Pixar movie costs $200m (this link references someone who estimated the total amount, no official source so it may not have "earned" a footnote (so much for the internet link ecosystem. Dude gets no respect)) and they don't have to construct any sets (only software).

After marketing, it'll have to reach $600m to break even.  And it won't be doubling that on home video like in the old days.

There are no home runs.  Like the music industry Hollywood is now not so much the road to easy money.  People would do anything to be in show business.  Now that the stupid crazy money isn't a given, you gotta be into it - just to be in it. 

*   *   *

[1] Rather than giving you another link (which probably would have been to a review of War Horse in NYT) I did this footnote instead.  I wanted to make a point about Spielberg's recent retro style but a link would have sent you away faster than it had the time to suggest the underlying idea. So see what I did there? "John Ford" manages to be an short-hand review of Spielberg's latest films (Lincoln literally (almost hid another link there, to Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (and would you have just thought I linked to the wrong film on accident?) and I also got in "Ford model" as a kind of nod to his throwback technological processes, which might have demanded another link (or a footnote (here? within the footnote?)) to Spielberg's penchant for still editing on film.

[2] This link - if it had been put in - would have referenced an article about the loss of old rep screens that can't afford the conversion; on Indiewire, Feb 23, 2012.  A footnote proper would have listed the title and complete information, and probably have included the online link.

[3] This clever link goes to the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Red Tails. I'm also including this footnote so you don't have to click to find out where it goes.  You probably thought it would be for Return of the Jedi, (and some bloggers make it a point to link to IMDB for every film they mention as if they have to cite and prove the film exists (their existence on IMDB not necessarily conclusive proof (that would have been where I would have linked to a couple fake or non-existent films to prove that point - which is that IMDB is no reliable source)).  If any reader needed to look up a film on IMDB I would like to think they could to that without the link to push them in that direction. Sheesh.) which also doesn't have a satisfying third act but you very well might have clicked just to make sure and I would have lost you.  Don't click on it, it'll just distract you and you'll start reading movie reviews.

[4] To emphasize "no really" the writer might have included the following link to those words: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120521/01542518984/why-hollywood-is-doomed-it-takes-sensible-advice-like-make-good-movies-turns-it-into-screed-about-piracy.shtml hoping you would have visited after you were done reading here, which talks about how piracy is bad.

[5] This footnote to a link (which is probably now starting to piss you off) notes that the citation linked above backs up the author's contention that DVD grosses increased profits, would in the old days normally would have been handled only as a footnote. Now it's a link within the text and you can't reference it until you click on it (and only if you doubt me) which means you'd leave the main page and probably never be coming back.  Proceed accordingly - or just take my word for it.

[6] That claim probably should have had some kind of citation to back it up.

[7] Longtime readers will note how much I avoid using extra words.

[8] This link is tied to a single letter (in this case to a site explaining the extended endings of The Town (no IMDB link needed, right?) which gets the point across (the added ending letter of the word - the added footage/alternate end of the movie.  But if you left to see, you never came back again).

[9] Cute story about trying to download Pitch Perfect for his kids, here.  (There, now I have a link in the footnotes that have been complaining about the links in the main text.)

[10] Link to the first 5 F&F films in a boxed set. Also, too many numbers.

[11] This is the page of OOP Criterion titles; don't click here.  It would just frustrate you that you didn't buy these when you could. You're welcome.

[12] I really need to stop footnoting my links.  It's hard enough avoiding linking my footnotes.  This link is a discussion of increasing profits of Hollywood which is ironically and perhaps significantly on a website devoted to online piracy.

[13] Here are some actual hard numbers and the citations should actually be supplied.  Here in a footnote.  Details from NYT: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/will-smith-and-after-earth-have-dismal-opening/  And if I had put the link up there you probably would have ended up reading movie reviews from the New York Times.  My plan worked.

N.B.: Rather than properly cite my sources I've been seduced by common practice of the Internet to link to the appropriate virtual digressions as needed inline, a new kind of Internet economy of attention - or authenticity - or verification, and one that likely sent you away from here never to come back to finish my article.  So note, at least, that there are references and read through to them only if you really needed the goddam proof of my suppositions.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hooray For Hollywood

My favorite genre, presuming there is a specific type of book I would automatically pick up in a used bookstore, is the Hollywood expose.  Not the over-heated fictionalized biographies of Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand but the melodramas that take place in a palm-lined, dream-world of West LA, collecting types and accomplices inside and outside the gates of the studios, and depicting misguided sexual unions, stirring up dashed dreams and broken promises and lying agents in an always sunny, often depressing, hard-edged and hardboiled beat prose.

The genre bloomed early in the 20th century, fomented by the grousing of those East Coast writers like Ben Hecht coming to the promised land to make their fortune writing for the talkies (and who probably saw themselves in the water reflecting the bright sunshine).  It culminated in the ’40s with “What Makes Sammy Run?” (introing Sammy Glick) and “The Day of the Locust,” (pace Homor Simpson) both dark turns that illuminate the unspoken Faustian deal that seems to lurk at the heart of fame.  The genre had found a new lease and angle in the early ’60s, with non-classics such as Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (specifically about outsiders) and Fitzgerald’s “The Pat Hobby Stories” (also pointedly about an outsider (and first collected in 1962, perhaps finally of its time)) leading the way towards a more existential outlook that suggests while no one is innocent no one is particularly guilty either.

6467717-MMaritta Wolff’s “The Big Nickelodeon” (1963) seem inspired by “Peyton Place” more than any real thing and her reluctance to go full-bore in the milieu she must know existed – she was invited to Hollywood to write screenplays after the success of her “Whistle Stop” – is mitigated by her valiant attempt to introduce a wide and decadent swath of characters – from divorcees trying to break into the movies to rentboys parking cars on Sunset to cops finding bodies on the beach.

Three girls in HollywoodThat same year “The Surprise Party Complex” by Ramona Stewart follows a trio of young women in various states of denial and undress having moved to Hollywood and trying to negotiate auditions, parents who don’t believe in them and horny next door neighbors.  Mentioned earlier, Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (1965) elevates the corruptible outsider to literature following two small-town rubes who move with big dreams of success (or in the case of the wife, not) and how expectations and morals are confounded by intangible seductive powers more in the air and due to fate rather than to any malicious antagonist or force.

Wolf Mankowitz’s “Cockatrice” (also 1963) focuses on an anonymous assistant to an arrogant big-time producer who will steal talent, ideas, and girlfriends to make a picture and a name for himself.  You become what you despise.  What makes this one more insightful may be that Mankowitz worked with Broccoli and Saltzman during the beginnings of the Bond franchise. Yet even this insider expose has more winks than tooth.  He’s along for the ride as much as any of the girls he beds.

The cockatrice is a fanciful nasty birdSomething happened in the late ‘50s and early ’60s.  TV had officially been declared not-a-fad and Universal was bought by MCA, the biggest deal involving talent, land, a back catalog and the potential to rewrite the future of show business before or since.  20th Century Fox, meanwhile sold 3/4s of their lot to developers giving rise to Century City for $43 million.  The worst real estate deal in history and making public the voracious appetite of the glass teat, the money at stake, the careers made and broken and only brightened the allure of a career in show business.

Part of this also has to do with the economics of paperback books being widely available and exploiting a cultural unease after the Eisenhower ’50s before the sex-and-nothing-but trade supplanted these innocent tomes.  But these cycles of books, a clutch of forgotten potboilers that seemed to peter out around 1970 as Hollywood players felt more comfortable not hiding their confessions behind fictional names and projects (“Play It As It Lays” being the avatar of the milieu of behind-the-scenes disasterpieces), freeze in amber a cultural moment in which Hollywood was incredibly alluring, dangerous, innocent of its faults, and success was still possible.  Make no mistake, in none of these books does anyone succeed on sheer talent or without selling out their most closely held morals.  At the conclusion of at least one, characters lay dead in a burning mansion.

But the “watch out – don’t let this happen to your daughter” panic of the 1930s and ’40s books (including those hammerhead noirs by West and McCoy) have softened as more and more writers realize that the business of show is as disfunctional as any paper-printing corporation.  No one’s in charge, and no one’s stealing any daughter’s virtue that isn’t already for sale.

Image from vintagesleazepaperbacks site.And they all use ripe metaphors as their entrypoints – the cockatrice is a fanciful dragon/griffith with a colorful plume and a poisonous bite; one of the characters in “Surprise Party Complex” keeps expecting someone to bust in and yell “surprise!” – the reward for always being ready, always photogenic, on the constant edge of expectation; “nowhere city” and “love-jungle tigress” speak for themselves.

The ’80s would bring the breezy Jackie Collins beach reads that seem strangely unplugged from show business reality we’d learned by that point from TV.   And the Leonard and Ellroy meta-noirs “Get Shorty” and “L.A. Confidential” (both 1990) are more affectionate pastiche than scathing attacks.

In spite of the dark heart of most of these books, they seem at the time to be ceding the post-depression anxiety of an earlier age and embrace the Kennedy era and go-go promise of the ’60s.  By the end of the decade UHF would increase the # of channels on the dial to over 50.  A new world in which the possibilities have become a foregone conclusion and resistance is futile.

These are sexy yet moral, chaste and yet trashy.  Deliciously seductive, in spite of good intentions they can’t quite keep their hands to themselves.

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A version of this post appeared on my other writing-centric site, On Or Around Roger Leatherwood.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Who Wants Nostalgia Anymore?

Over to the right there, in the margin is a link to one of my favorite film sites. See it?  Lower, in the Film Sites section.

To SwanArchives.org, which is devoted to the 1974 film "Phantom of the Paradise," and it is the best site for any film, official or otherwise, EVER.

The guy who runs it (Ari, whom Paul Williams wants the trust of) became a fan of the film after seeing it on a double bill (with "Young Frankenstein" no less and there's no better argument for the great loss we've suffered culturally by not wanting to see 2 films in one night anymore), and he began to collect the various emphemera, stills, international posters and magazine articles related to the film over the next 20 years.  In the era before VHS and DVD and their attendant behind-the-scenes features this was the only way to capture the experience of a film vicariously absent having a copy yourself (which he would also purloin, a 16mm print intended for the college rental market). In the process he amassed over 400 items, including previews, radio spots (on reel-to-reel tapes), lobby cards, concept drawings and even outtakes from footage abandoned in a lab.

Yeah.  A goddamn archive, more complete than any other, devoted not only to one film but to an entire production and marketing process of a typical cult, mid-level hit from the '70s.  That it's a sci-fi musical with elements of horror, rock 'n' roll, and directed by Brian De Palma who would go on to much greater things adds to the delicious fortuitousness of his foresight.

In 2006 he put photos of his collection online and wrote over 20,000 words on the production, themes and complicated subtext of the film.  A labor of love and the sign of an obsessive fanboy stuck in the past but us beggers can't be choosers and he's done a fabulous job, bringing the joys of the film to a new international audience - and arguably increasing the long-term value of the film for those who own the rights.  There is no better discussion of aesthetics and a critique of the industrial process of building and marketing such a complicated and nuanced piece of popular culture, putting it into context.

Thing is the rightsholders don't seem to care.  They held no archival material for the film and when a French company wanted to put out a DVD they had to go to Ari for the trailer to put on as an extra.  20th Century no longer held such obsolete objects.

Ari's efforts, exhaustive and extensive, bring up important questions about how archives and curation will manifest in a new digital age.  From an age in which films came and went over the course of a few weeks - often only to be found on late-night cable after their initial theatrical runs - "Phantom" now lives online in a comprehensive deconstruction, including a history of last minute edits to erase the "Swan Song" logo illustrated by outtakes, and a careful chronology of marketing campaigns and film quotes.

The archive is no longer behind closed doors.  The curator is now the tourguide, leading you through a primrose path of materials arranged just so.  And he's a stone amateur.  He makes no money on this and has set up shop in the inner sanctum of archivology without permission.  20th Century Fox and Harbor Productions don't even mention the film on their websites, and although Ari posts image after image of their intellectual property they seem to have ceded all archival responsibility to him.

A thousand other films from before 1980 did not make it to a new generation of fans and didn't enjoy an obsessive teenage nerd with time on his hands to collect every related element or magazine mentioning its makers and stars.  They weren't borne during the internet age of dedicated websites.  If they never showed on late night TV or made it to VHS they're invisible to us now.

If not for Ari this one would be lost as well.

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Postscript 5/3/13: An extended article I wrote about Ari's website and its archival ramifications was accepted by the esteemed online journal Bright Lights Film Journal, and just appeared in the May 2013 issue here.



Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Film Is Heavy

Side By Side, the 2012 documentary that compares digital film-making process with celluloid aesthetics and the cultural repercussions of this, seems to locate the shift to the moment in which Avatar, How To Train Your Dragon, and Alice In Wonderland all did boffo in 2010 and changed the industry's perception, profit potential, and go-big-or-go-away attitude.

Barely real himself Keanu Reeves interviews various movers and shakers in the push to digital, from godfathers George Lucas and James Cameron (arguably sounding more like IT guys than film directors, and can actually get companies to build new cameras for them) to relative unknowns like Bradford Young and Lena Dunham who are using the democratizing effect of ubiquitous digital equipment to capture more than has been able to be captured before.

The film, measured and fair as it goes, sounds practically like the authorized version, and like most authorized versions is at only 6 months old already out of date (film is deeper in the grave than suggested - Kodak would shortly file for bankruptcy and stop making film) and reveals darker undercurrents than the participants quite recognize.

There is painful little (but enough) lip service to how digital materials can possibly manage to survive past a couple years without aggressive curation and constant cloning and migration.  (Christopher Nolan is quoted as saying "There are no meaningful archival digital formats" and I believe Michael Ballhaus says everything we're working on will be gone in 50 to 100 years.)  Rich filmmakers who have the infinite support of studios like David Fincher and George Lucas and Stephen Soderbergh and Cameron (or so they think) are sure their works will be kept and preserved, that digital looks much better, and that the cameras are so much smaller and lighter.

Another hidden subtext of Side By Side is how the realm of cinema production turned many of its practitioners by necessity into technical experts, taking some power and aesthetics (earned or not) from cinematographers and directors and the art of patience (per Scorsese) into the hands of IT gurus.  When the IT guys are calling the shots (I'll say figuratively) different decisions are made and different money is spent.

The film avoids the pointless argument of which is "better," and Keanu as avuncular (if barely real) host and producer keeps the proceedings engaging and conversational with only a minimum of hand-wringing.

It is not a film about the democratization of art (although that's mentioned).  It is not about the aesthetics of hand-held or 3-D (although a lot of cinematographers are talked to).  This is an extended discussion with serious filmmakers about their decisions regarding how they will be making films from now on and as such is skewed toward those who have had the resources to take full advantage of the shift.  It's heartening to see that Reeves at least sought out Lars Von Trier and David Lynch, although they both don't seem as interested in talking about their technology as their stories.

And even Mr. Fincher admits that much of his commercial work from 20 years ago is orphaned on obsolete tape technologies that can no longer be played back.  If that's okay with him I guess it's okay with me.  But for the 1000s of other filmmakers who have less resources than him, what are they to do when the studios don't answer their calls?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Master

 
Paul Thomas Anderson has done an audacious and a foolish thing.  He shot "The Master" completely in 70mm (a rare event for a narrative, having last occurred in 1996 for Branagh's "Hamlet"), and it opens in a very limited engagement of 70mm prints, a total of 8 or 9, in which actual 70mm projectors had to be installed in the theatres.  

Theatres can't show 70mm anymore.  This format is absolutely obsolete and has been for 15 years.  I'm not sure people realize this.  Anderson's box office mojo is not near the level of Christopher Nolan's, who shoots on 70mm as often as he can (at least for the action sequences) and calls it IMAX, but the general audience is confounded by what that actually means, nowaways often only meaning that the screen is bigger.  While the negative may have been 65mm (plus 5 for the soundtrack) actual 70mm IMAX projection is rare and appears in only specialized venues; while the quality is more impressive than 35mm (and has what can only be described as "impact" far beyond normal digital imagery) the dilution of the IMAX brand by IMAX themselves who are trying to spread the brand has muted the general audience's appreciation for the gesture. 


So Anderson, beyond Nolan (who merely marshals the means to create a more impressive experience), is reviving and embracing an archaic and obsolete mode of production as well as of distribution, practically limiting the access through an enforced technological scarcity of the platform, insisting (or allowing?) the film (at least for now) to only be presented in theatres that can show 70mm.  This understandably will serve the film better than any wide release ever could and in the process demonstrates a Luddite insistence to carry the analog torch even past some of the film-brat generation you would have expected it of; Spielberg, Scorsese, and De Palma seem to have made peace with the tension between digital production and analog content with their recent attempts to revive or reflect on "the old days."  (Lucas link goes here.)


The striking aspect of "The Master" is that this in no way an "IMAX" movie (a pure spectacle or gravity-defying documentary) or even in 3-D, but rather a (-n ostensively) conservative historical fictionalized biopic - a period piece in which cultural details and the question of physical existence in struggle with some larger higher (in perhaps more than one sense) or spiritual (dare I call it) virtual meaning play a critical part in its subtexts.  In the era in which digital is perceived as clearer, cheaper, easier, better; doesn't scratch or fade or break, moving the industrial headlong to this mode of distribution (and distribution is what it is ultimately about, not content, not warmth, not flicker or scratches) creates an anxiety not just for how films are made but how they move and resonate in the larger culture.


You can't steal a 70mm print.  You can't stream it or hack it.  It is performative, like all films that run through a projector at a measured speed over sprockets in order and show, one time completely before starting again, in many respects an index of the performances that the original negatives captured on set to be conveyed in pieces put together just so.  As over 75% of all theatres in the US are now converted to digital and will reach 90% in 2 years, film prints are the scarce objects Hollywood was built on and are so anxious about they embrace filmmakers who try to eulogize or mythologize their passing, their meaning, a murky past receding so much faster than we can grasp (ergo, "The Artist" (a clumsy if good-natured remembrance) and "Hugo" (more mediated that nevertheless seems (if inadvertently) corrupt).

"The Master" exists initially and solely as 70mm prints, as sacred object that must be carefully handled, shepherded, installed and displayed, and moves the discussion from on the screen to in the booth.  It's no longer just a story of a seduction, free will, power, or something more personal about power (or what ultimately lurks within the text), but instead a meta-textual performance of nostalgic hubris, a kind of elitist Marxism.  The fact that Joaquin Phoenix stars whose recent career is a kind of performance art itself adds to the irony.


The aggressively analog nature of "The Master" can be perceived as a last gasp, just past the "use by" date, of the film print as spectacle and a defiant gesture against digital and its conveniences, forcing audiences (at least those who remember (or imagine) how things used to be) to go to the work rather than having it delivered to them, to meet the artist (at least) halfway. 


It's a masterstroke.  And Anderson has reached the point in his career where we no longer doubt his decisions but instead must discover their intent.


And I anticipate with a certain amount of dread when some hapless projectionist inadvertently puts a perfect yellow-red scratch down the middle of one of these $50,000 70mm beautiful objects and the blogs fire up again about what the value/cost/aesthetic trade-offs are with film vs. digital distribution.

That scratched print will become the single most famous and important film print/ philosophical relic of the 21st century.