Friday, December 26, 2008

Vintage Cars


There's something so damned familiar about "Gran Torino" - and that seems to be the main source of pleasure in it. Not least of which we get to see Clint Eastwood in the not-too-subtle familiar mode of his heyday, the laconic aging hardass that won him an Oscar for "Unforgiven" and that stretches all the way back to the "Dirty Harry" era.

Eastwood has struggled with this persona his entire career. The spaghetti westerns in the '60s were themselves responses against what was considered a used-up and tired genre, given new life (he claims by his own hand) by the world-weary "Squint." When he began directing himself, the films he seemed to have his heart in were closer to Bertrand Tavernier than to Don Siegel. But Eastwood knew to remain a good studio asset, and mixed the personal films with the action ones over the years.

In retrospect it seems that Eastwood has always been conscious of his legacy as time passes. The "Dirty Harry" films get more progressive in theme as they go along (even as the filmmaking technique regresses (but a meta-nod to "The Dead Pool," which seems to be about being Clint Eastwood)). He made sure to be in charge of his own fate, and tried constantly to retool his persona rather than retread it (vide "Tightrope" or "Every Which Way You Can"). There was a bad fallow middle period during the 1990s (from "The Rookie" to about "Blood Work") in which his own worst impulses resulted in flaccid and sloppy films having little to do with his previous urgency as an icon. But he began to return to (or develop a refined) form with "Mystic River," then "Million Dollar Baby," and finally the 2 Iwo Jima films of 2006.

I don't consider any of these particularly great, but they are well-regarded. He has outlasted his critics, and keeps doing what he knows how to do. Now it seems there is always a Clint Eastwood film around Christmas time (2 this year), and they're never the big, grand epics other directors strive for. Even "Sands..." a war picture, didn't feel epic. Eastwood's technique is disarmingly simple, and practically nonchalant. His blocking and direction of actors often seems rushed and uninvolved.

Yet sometimes it's perfect for his theme. I think "Mystic River"'s award-winning performances stood out exactly because the film surrounding them was so slipshod. But the overly-relaxed "Honkytonk Man" and "Bronco Billy" (neither of which delivers on any kind of '70s-style Eastwood-esque "moments") are brilliant examples of restraint and sensitivity.

These smaller productions also means he can make more films. Such previous prolific stalwarts as Coppola and Gilliam struggle to get each film funded and finished (and that's without any stars dying). Even Brett Ratner, god help us, has priced himself out of regular commissions now that he got himself attached to X-Men-sized projects.

Eastwood apparently isn't interested in going that route. He might not be capable of it. As a wise man once said, the man knows his limitations.

There's a humility to Eastwood's direction that is unassuming, undemanding, and seems stuck in the past. It would be easy to catch "Gran Torino" on cable in a year and not be entirely sure it was 1, 5 or 20 years old. By not being of the moment, it approaches a kind of timelessness.

Eastwood is working with similar material here as in "Unforgiven," the out-of-time warrior unable to find his place in a changing world. The sense of outrage has been replaced by one of stubborn inevitability. Is Eastwood considering his own mortality, one film at a time?

Our knowledge of his previous career only helps. And with the resonances to other roles, from the haunted agent in "In The Line Of Fire" to the widower in "Bridges of Madison County," "Gran Torino" feels solid as a well-kept automobile.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Girls on Film


We are the ultimate voyeurs when watching films. We are allowed to watch whatever is shown, completely anonymously, and we're safe to enjoy what is revealed.

It is passive, yet some would accuse the gaze of being an aggressive act. The ultimate site of our visual pleasure is glamour, either embodied by stars, Hollywood artifice and spectacle, or extra-textural context. We enjoy and yet have no culpability in watching and dreaming.

Fantasizing and yearning. The people up on screen do not know they are being watched. Those on display are being objectified.

We give ourselves over to the storytellers. Camera placement, and every edit was decided by someone else, and presents us with images, information, and anticipation as the film unspools in a specific manner. We are in thrall, yet powerless.

At least, so the more adventurous and experimental filmmakers would have us be.

If we leave the theatre, or the room, the film continues and we miss something as it continues. It's unaware and uncaring that the observer has left. The film exists on its own, regardless of who regards it. Running in its own endless forward movement. With the rise of video, and the internet, not only can the viewer now pause, or even rewind scenes, they can interact with the story.

The film is now at the mercy of the observer, who can negotiate the experience themselves. Not just decode it. But write it. Branch like a videogame from scene to scene, or change the configuration of the elements. Zoom in or edit. Move heads. This interaction is no longer spectatorship. It is participation.

We don't respond to moving images in the same way when they're in our control. We have the urge to manipulate, and change, just to see what might happen if a color is added, or the music is changed, or sped up. Or a scene from one show is put into or on top of another.

We consume it as we find convenient, rather than as how it was intended. The constantly changed and reconfigured art piece is no longer a film but a performance object. The feedback loop is for our own feedback. Evidence of our presence and actions upon the piece.

Instead of looking anonymously at the figures up on the screen, presented to us - as common cultural currency, presented by personal or industrial configurations that have sociological meaning - we are now looking directly at ourselves.

It puts ego back into the process. And it makes impossible the surrender to the caress of cinema.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Elvis Lives and Breathes. Apparently.

You may know about the new "Elvis Duets" CD (released November '08), that features duets with Elvis and current artists created in the studio by using digital tools (when Bono sang with Sinatra in 1995 without ever meeting in the same studio it was news). Martina MacBride has gone one better, and offers this "remix" of Elvis's performance of "Blue Christmas" from his '68 "comeback" special.

video

This is problematic. I don't call myself the biggest Elvis fan, but the integrity of this footage has been profoundly changed in order to sell us a new singer. This isn't just cutting to (or into) archival scenes, it's intrusion into historical documentation. People familiar with this televised concert knows it has a historical and cultural context outside the mere depiction of Elvis singing a couple songs. His nervousness, the intentional staging in close quarters with his fans, the general status of his career previous to this, and band members who were positioned as equals rather than mere backup, all say volumes about what gave this event and the footage its power.

His performance and demeanor are irrevocably altered by the intrusion of a singer standing next to him who was not there (or here on earth) 40 years ago. This is a step closer to the "bringing Humphrey Bogart back to life" future that James Cameron is salivating for.

I understand that new generations have a different relationship to this footage than people who actually lived through it. They may have similar concerns in 40 years when someone is painting a digital moustache on their cultural icons in 2048.

Or, they may not. Because their cultural icons may not exist in some original pristine and culturally specific state. Their meaning may be in flux through the stream of culture and of time, and any additions or deletions will be considered acceptable and expected wear (let's call it patina) as new generations and technology reappropriate old material to make it new.

Well, not new. But different. In a way, Elvis did the same thing back in 1955 with blues music.

_____

A shorter version of this post appeared on the AMIA Students of Westwood site: http://amiastudentsofwestwood.blogspot.com/).

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Real and the True


Realistic modes of representation are being subsumed by the age of digital. By this I don't mean that digital is "less realistic" (although I feel it is); I mean that Hollywood films are no longer interested is showing us what actually exists in the world.

The magic and the lure of cinema from the early days, and through its history, has been to show audiences something they can't otherwise see, whether it's a train pulling into a station in Paris, a flight to the moon, or a dinosaur attacking its own creators (whether he's a scientist or an animator). And the very artifice of film is constructed by photographic units captured in order and manipulated into pieces of story, that's told sequentially piecemeal, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Many intangible elements go into film's power to persuade us, to move us to laugh, cry, fall in love or to stomp out. To fall into a dream state, either through dreamy rapture or droning boredom.

Businessmen have always attempted to offer more spectacle when audiences were swayed to other forms of entertainment. The Roman emperors offered bread and circuses to the plebeians who might otherwise riot if not for those distractions. 3-D and Cinemascope were born of desperation in the '50s when audiences moved away from the downtown centers and discovered television did pretty much what the movies could do.

The new technology of digital image making is creating worlds, people, and devices that can't possibly exist in the real world. We revel at such sophisticated constructions as the aging Brad Pitt, the shuffling Jar-Jar Binks, or the orcs fighting Harry Potter. We regard the sheer craft and consider the computing power, and walk out confounded, thinking "How did they ever do that?"

(Coppola had the same problem in the '70s. How did he get that blood to shoot out that way?)

Yet we know it is not real. It is the spectacle of arrogance. It defies us to believe it all, and no matter how seamlessly integrated, there is an uncanny feeling that your pocket is being picked.

The dichotomy between the quest for hyperrealist special effects and the aesthetics of old-school techniques of classic Hollywood is unchallenged. To do so seems downright retrograde and luddite. Isn't a hyperreality better? Why settle for that clear sky when a clouded one works so much better for the mise-en-scene?

The obvious artifice of films, with extreme musical cues and impossible camera shifts, from extreme lighting to randomly occurring rainstorms, is the texture of the stories being told. They're fake, told with and by artifices. Even the mistakes are meaningful. From mis-matched inserts to cover unseen action (Benazeraf) to guileless stop-motion animation (Karel Zeman), there's a hand-made and mediated construction that's closer to a story-teller stumbling over his words and regaining his thought than a film running off the gears. It's human and humane. And it's more endearing.

Audiences have an innate ability to get what the film is trying to get at. Eisenstein used to situate his close-ups in a defiantly non-continuous space. He wanted you to know what the film was doing - no "invisible editing" for him. Hitchcock insisted on those faded rear-projection scenes well into the '60s, when techniques were advanced far beyond that 40-year-old method.

Now scholars have finally decided there's method to his madness. Was Hitchcock being lazy or did he know something we don't?

Realism isn't all that audiences are demanding. Perfection is overrated (and unobtainable). We do like watching people (actors or not), in real sets, or carefully constructed ones. But it's the way those building blocks are used that give us pleasure. The handmade aspect of film is its own performance art. The extravagant spectacle of the old Hollywood Roman epics are beloved exactly because they are from Hollywood. The senators talk with British accents, and the streets aren't covered with dog shit. There's pleasure and comfort in the way Hollywood creates these alternate worlds, that we pay 50c a matinee for.

The puppets in "Nightmare Before Christmas" are fake. The giant ants in "Them" are clearly constructs (manipulated from just off-screen by 2x4s). Yet they exist, like the egg-yolk monsters in Ridley Scott's "Alien." The fact that the creature is a live human, on the set (in a costume), creates a photo-chemical reality (on film) CGI can never convincingly portray. Jar-Jar Binks was ever only 60 or 70% realistic, in spite of any photo-realistic surface. Because it's outside of reality, only a visual trick; a piece of math, not a piece of meat, not actual analog material.

On material (that is, film).

No one's going to be talking about Jackson's $300+million remake of "King Kong" in 70 years beyond the footnote that it ultimately is. It is a magic trick, a prestidigitation. With all the shaky push-ins, painted plates, and swimming fur from the fingers of the animators, the original ape (only this tall in real life) still moves us to tears.

It's not very real. But it feels true.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ruins


The preservation and appreciation of old films is specifically tied to the concept of what's been forgotten. This is not just a nostalgic attempt to regain, or at least relive, some fading past that has been discarded by the modern Now. There seems to be a fetish to discover (sometimes literally unearth) some old or bitched-up reels of cast-aside films that were forgotten, discarded or abused. The more bitched up the better.

Physical decay asserts itself upon each showing of a film. Each run through a projector harms and leaves its traces on a print, subtly or catastrophically. These remnants of having lived a full projected life, these battle scars, are the marks of a survivor.

These ruined traces are evidence of films having been released and shipped to theatres, shown 3 or 6 times a day for who knows how many dozens or hundreds of patrons. These young and impressionable (perhaps) audience members will remember the films decades later when they encounter them on late night t.v. in their retirement. They may even remember a jarring cut, when two pieces had to be spliced together to repair an unknown previous break.

That edit will become part of the cultural memory. The analog remnant of that print's misfortune becomes encoded in hundreds of people for the next 50 years.

The age of new media has turned away from visible and unpredictable wear on its moving images. Spots and blemishes are erased and replaced by computerized tonal modularities (unless a retro-hip director wants to re-create an "old film" look by putting digital scratches on his music video). The suturing of image cut to image, the artifice creating a narrative foreground text and background texture, is more seamless than ever. Now we don't see the construction (or deconstruction) of the artifact before us - the dinosaurs and fake Humphreys are so believable we stop and mediate on the amazingness of the non-real materials ("materiel"). The virtual suture.

The "perfection" creates a cognitive dissonance more jarring and uncanny than any Hitchcock rear-projection or Eisenstein montage edit. There's something to be said for all the errors and scratches, the physical plasticness of film. It's mechanically produced and reproduced. The embodiment of realism defies its very nature.

It does not stand in witness to actual dinosaurs, poised for le plan americain. Film's an index to reality, not reality itself. The information contained between (yes between) the cut from long shot to close says more than Fincher's perfectly rendered 360 teacup-zooms.

A new (ironically) aesthetic has reappropriated the analog plastic surface of film in all its imperfections. Tarantino's and Rodriquez's "Grindhouse" not only embraces the low-tech production techniques of a fading industrial-corporate business model, it actually physically mars the surface of the film as a reverential remnant homage to the physicality of the prints as they took on wear and damage on their way to ruin.

Tarantino reportedly took his interpositive out to the parking lot and ran it behind a motorcycle. Rodriquez used the latest digital tools to create his damage.

The film as artistic object is what creates a transcendence. Films are artifacts from the past. Remainders. Further philosophical manifestations (or do I mean "physical mediations"?) of the decay of film are seen in Bill Morrison's "Decasia" (2002) and Peter Delpeut's "Lyrical Nitrate" (1991), two full-length compilations that take pieces of old decaying nitrate film and edit them together to create a new, aggressively atrophied narrative of ghost images related only by the sheer beauty of their photo-chemical deterioration of images, right before our eyes.

The ruin is fading evidence of another time, lost forever but suggested by broken and crumbling artifacts. Run through a machine that is in itself becoming obsolete. For an aging audience that will one day also be ruined and dust.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Art Vs. Artifice


Looking without seeing. This academic-sounding exploration of genre is not necessarily backed up by deep insight; it's inspired by the fact that half the time I'm not sure if what I just saw was intended....
_ _ _

We respond to films (and most art in general) by what we're familiar with. Genres allow us to categorize certain works easily, to expect what is likely to happen, and to be pleased and comforted by what comes to pass in the plot.

For example, westerns use as their standard thematic landscape moral tales of forces of right and wrong, of tension between progress, morality, and historical tradition (or more pointedly, nostalgia). Science fiction films place their plots in an alternate world, either in the future or past, or in some other realm in which a different use and/or sense of scientific inquiry is at work, in order to investigate man's place in a hyper-facilitated environment (often at the expense of the human spirit; otherwise why set them in a science-itized (not a word) future?).

These thematic artifices serve to allow the genres - and their inherent strengths - to address effectively (and serves also to let us anticipate and appreciate) the rhetorical arguments the films intend to be engaged in. The plot machinations delight us as they unfold, and may even surprise us. But only to a degree.

We don't like to be too surprised. We want a musical to have singing. If it's a Superman movie, we want to see him fly. Pornography has naked people, and violent movies have the color red.

Yet we should resist being fooled into thinking a work of art is meaningful merely because an expected depiction of an element is appropriate. In an age of increasingly self-reflexive art, it's increasingly easy to identify - and "cooly" accept of the Haskell Wexler sort - something that is little more than artifice. Window dressing. Visual name-dropping. Is putting a red plastic nose on the man in a nightclub identify him as the entertainer?

The whiz-bang surfaces of films today stun and narcotize (a word), and in the process may bypass deeper thematic meaning - if there is one. The thrill comes at the expense of permitting or expecting us to mediate upon the artifices. The props by which we categorize and codify a work of art aren't enough to simply be represented.

They must represent.

They must be exploited, through story, through use as texture (background or characteristic iconography) or as symbol or thematic talisman. Sometimes the tools fail the filmmakers when they're so overwhelmed by a virtuoso ability to create craven images available to them nowadays.

The power of film is that generic tropes, tricks, and devices that make up a detective film or a musical represent specific subtextural outlooks. They're not arbitrary. They're constructs which are (must be) planned. There are schedules, lights and microphone wires that have to be hidden. Actors that must recite scripts, while a camera records. Film must be developed, transferred and edited in an appropriate way. Music is added. The images are manipulated with effects to create narrative and pacing.

All this is artifice, in service (we presume) of the artistic statement to be made.

The post-modern surface of films, and of "film" in general, now more foregrounded than ever with behind-the-scenes, cable-channel exposes, and outtakes over the credits, may prevent us from reflecting back to ourselves what the artistic thrust of any work of art may be trying to show us.

Are we merely responding to the cultural cues, rather than a deeper resonant meaning?

The how of the thing is getting in the way of the why.

The shiny surface of something - the pretty glamour gimcracks and fuzzy dice - may disguise the fact that some of these entertaining articulated robots have no souls.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

30 Frames A Second


Digital cinema uses as its source a computer-based file that is comprised of bits, a(n often) rather massive file for all the information that photographic films carry in each frame. It's been estimated that each frame of 35mm film, frames that are "this" (see how close together my fingers are) small, have the equivalent of 40 mg of information - multiply that by 24 frames a second, then 60 seconds per minute, 120+ minutes per film, and you the the idea of the burden of projecting such a file smoothly without hiccups.

Of course the beauty (and curse) of computer files is that they are compressed where detailed information doesn't need to (or can't) be captured. Digital cinema projects at a higher rate as well, 30 frames or even 60 frames a second (the new 3-d processes double this, with the smart glasses to address each eye).

Digital images can capture an amazing amount of the information from a photo-chemical original, but something happens when it's transferred to a higher-rate of presentation. Everything, including scratches, shutter movement, grain and the "slow" flicker can be scanned out. Color tones notwithstanding, the sheer "perfect" evenness of it is uncannily unlike film.

Cinema has unique qualities - it's a physical carrier with pigments, light-absorbing (and light-enhancing) molecules by which a bright light (carbon arc or xenon-based bulb) shines through onto a large reflective screen. It jerks through the projector 24 times a second, and the unique qualities of each frame, often visible by the grain in skies or even unmoving fields are distinguishable by the eye, even if just below the conscious level, as well as the discrete details of the action, captured by the original camera, which also ran at 24 frames a second, grabbing only a fraction of the activity in front of it, serially but incomplete. The actors kept moving as the shutter closed for a split second and reopened, to take another photograph, a moment later, millimeters shifted, and even blurred as the shutter opened again, closed, opened.

The mechanical reproduction of action, tied to the methodical re-presentation of it in a theatrical environment, creates the magic of a transcendental conveyance of the original experience. The art of good editing is famously about what to leave out, and those gaps between frames are like discreet and elliptical question marks. The frames are montage, images juxtaposed in Eisenstein-ian collision, 24 visible frames per second.

We respond to film, projected as such, in a different way than the 30-frames-per-second even-stream (I'm coining a word) of digital projection. I've seen digital restorations of old films (originally film) projected digitally - for example the recent high-end restoration of "Cool Hand Luke" and was surprised to discover it had a haunting lack of "filminess." This isn't a question of image quality - the actual look was clean and clear (I'm still not sure about the blacks) - but of the lack of fluttering juxtaposition of images in a determined perceptible and mechanical rhythm.

The quality of actual film projected creates some sense of urgency. Our gaze is excited and drawn forward in an active way - the gaps are in a way as important as the images in sequence themselves.

It is not a passive medium, like television and its visual drone of perfect even-stream, as first documented in the '60s.

Some of this may have to do as well with being in a large dark room, looking up at the flickering screen, being presented with pieces of a story we put together on a literal as well as symbolic level. The experience is akin to the tribal shaman in ancient times telling the myths of the people in front of the fire at night. There's the flicker, the dark, and your imagination filling in the gaps.

I began thinking about this issue when I saw Pixar's "Wall-E" this year, both digitally and "photo-chemically" projected 2 different times days apart. The source is originally digital of course, and has no "grain" or visual imperfections (intentional lens flares notwithstanding) but was manipulated to recreate movement as film would capture it. (95% of all theatres worldwide do still project film.)

The digital presentation was brighter, more even, and the color palette was declarative to the point of arrogance. The film presentation was darker, demonstrated grain... but seemed somehow "warmer" and more engaging.

Was it just because of the flicker? A story about a robot surrounded by failing technology seemed to benefit from an analog aesthetic that engaged a cognitive sense of perception, not just in its creation, but in its subsequent presentation. My impression of the analog "Wall-E" proves my impression of the digital "Cool Hand Luke." Digital is too concerned with the shiny and perfectly rendered surface.

Not with what the audience may make of it. It's a failure to communicate.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Forget it, Jake


I spent a certain amount of my time about 15 years ago defending Robert Towne's and Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." It had become the new "Citizen Kane," newly familiar to an increasingly savvy and curious film-geek community who had read all the get-rich-quick-screenwriting books and would rent it on VHS or DVD, wondering what all the fuss was about.

It's hard to put your finger on. It's slow, and too confusing. Nicholson is in that post-Five Easy Pieces/pre-Witches of Eastwick period where he's still poised between being the new Marlon Brando and the pre-Jim Carrey he became in the '80s. It's a period piece, overly slavish to authentic detail, and who cares about LA's water? And who's idea was it to cast John Huston, who can't read a line properly?

What the last 3 generations don't understand, can never again understand, is that it's a movie theatre movie. It's the last breath of the old system, embracing all the beautiful and hard things that films used to do. It exploits, and even depends upon your confusion as it unravels. You listen and it doesn't talk much, in spite of its reputation as the most "writerly" of mid '70s screenplays. The dialogue, sets, cars, and clothes are high fashion, as if from the MGM studio era. Nothing is dirty or looks lived in. Even Faye Dunaway comes across as a starlet, groomed and modeled to be the site of our visual desire (indeed she was, having come off such films as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" in that mode). Even Huston is an echo back to Bogart (by way of "The Big Sleep" and "Treasure of Sierra Madre", which we in 1974 would have still known).

The film doesn't explode. It seethes. Audiences nowadays laugh at the "She's my daughter and my sister" bit, and don't laugh at Burt Young, a tension-reliever and breather as I remember the first time I saw it (in a rep theatre). The dialogue is full of exposition that doesn't sound or feel like it - you're getting information by osmosis. The central metaphor of the film, that dark heart of Gittes' past that will eventually and painfully have to be revisited, is as powerful as "Apocalypse Now"'s, but not nearly as flamboyant.

How do you convince someone that something so underwhelming is overwhelming in the sum of its parts? The film seems to me to be pitch perfect, and full of nuance that is too subtle, strangely and refreshingly European in tone, which makes sense considering Polanski was at the height of his power and game at this point. The film has a million details, but barely a set-piece or action sequence. Water comes out of a stormdrain. He walks around with a bandage on his nose for the 2nd half.

What today's generation also won't understand is that this is a Watergate movie. No doubt developed before those events came to light, it still captures a mood building in the country and culture. It's about corruption, and feeling like you're in over your head, and that nothing you can do matters. It's the opposite of "Casablanca," which is about the same things, but at the end of that Rick does to the right thing, and even preserves his own broken heart (a personal possession he values and probably can't live without). In "Chinatown," which both celebrates and eulogizes what LA has become and what it gave up to be that way, Polanski, Towne, and Robert Evans illuminate the last traces of possible decency, while demonstrating the highest level of craft that Hollywood was capable of.

It's a last gasp, in a dustbowl of despair, and came out the same year as "The Godfather II" and "Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia." Something was going on then. And audiences today can't see it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I Love LA


In Thom Anderson's fascinating (and illegal) documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself," he compiles hundreds of film clips that show Los Angeles, and builds a philosophy of how the city in which the vast majority of entertainment imagery and stories comes out of portrays itself.

Most of the subtext these films generate - from corrupt cops to smoggy flatlands to evil and unaffordable modernist houses up on the hills - isn't intentionally misleading or malicious. The films are motivated first by the need to be picturesque, then in reflecting the modes and means of production, easy to access or manage (financially or physically). The cheaper films will be set near Venice or the forgotten hills of deep LA downtown (Bunker Hill in the '20s and '30s).

Films with bigger budgets will position their villians on the hills overlooking the hills of Hollywood. And their heroes in a fashionable beachhouse - both no doubt for rent far beyond the pay their characters would afford, even in real life.

In Anderson's glorious cacaphony of appropriated clips - which is a self-created gordian's legal knot, no doubt not likely ever to be untangled or released - we are overwhelmed by what we recognize, what we don't, how much landscape, landmarks, fixtures and real life are in the periphery of every film ever made.

That LA (stubbornly "Los Angeles" to Anderson) is so memorable and recognizable is a testament to the unity in its apparent promiscuous appropriations of styles and fashions. There's a nostalgia infused in all of Los Angeles, with public works, bridge embankments, and neon signs high above 100-year-old hotels to remind us of previous times, glories, and periods that are, for one, not that far off. (Los Angeles and Hollywood are actually less than 100 years old - you may see old Chaplin films from the late teens and see that Sunset Blvd, the monster strip of today, was still a muddy street without curbs then.)

For two, its previous glories are documented. Well. We know the Roosevelt Hotel, and Bunker Hill, and the Santa Monica pier, and the Bradbury Building. The remnants remain, and are sometimes boarded up but not necessarily levelled. But then that leaves its own traces.

"Los Angeles Plays Itself" ends up documenting LA's combination of old nostalgic charm and misguided progress, gently and not maliciously butted up against each other, in conflict as the dramas of the day (whether it's paranoid class struggle in the '60s or corporate anxiety in the '90s). Much of it, although photographed well, isn't particularly photogenic - it's not gussied up to look as good as possible, because maybe it already has the power to provoke without it.

My main complaint with Anderson's collection, running at over 2 hours 45 minutes, is that it - wait for it - isn't long enough. He seems to begin in the late '30s and the vast majority of his clips are from the '80s and '90s. No death of material, but I would have liked to see how LA looked in the silent era, to really get a sense of how it built itself, and became the character before it eventually became, as Anderson demonstrates, the actual subject of much of these films.

The continuum continues. "Lakeview Terrace," "Collateral;" I can only imagine when someone tries to do this for New York. Or Chicago. Our relationship to a place has a lot to do with what others say about it. Los Angeles, with its history of outsiders coming in to comment on it, seems to be a good place to start.

I love LA - or, at least, what they show me of it in the movies.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Back Up


The long-reported and slow-in-coming massive digital roll-out in actual movie theatres has moved one important step closer this month. Five Hollywood studios have agreed to help defray the costs of installing digital projectors in as many as 20,000 movie theatres across the nation in the next couple of years.

(Story as reported by LA Times is at http://www.latimes.com/technology/la-fi-studios2-2008oct02,0,1993700.story, and also here.)

That's about half the screens out there. The costs will reach $1 billion. That's only one of the reasons that theatres weren't willing to jump from 35mm film to digital technology.

The studios love this. If 20,000 screens receive solely digital content, it can save the industry as much as $3 billion. A year. It costs money to make and ship all those prints of films. Especially when they only last in theatres a week or two.

A long time ago, before video, DVD, and the Internet, popular films would play a year or more in theatres. "Star Wars" in 1977 played an average of 10 months in theatres. "Revenge of the Sith," 30 years later, earned 75% of its $380m gross in 2 weeks, and was off 90% of its screens in 8 weeks.

The large theatre chains seem fine with all this - they'll receive a per-print fee of about $800 each to defray costs - presumably about as much as it costs the studios to develop, dupe, and ship a physical print the old-fashioned way.

This is a lie. It costs at least $3000 per print, by current insider estimates - the studios are short-changing the exhibitors.

(No word on how much it costs to create, duplicate, beam/upload, and manage a digital print, but presumably it's a lot cheaper. We "presume" only because there are no physical elements to create. The management of these prints will create new challenges however, as they are complicated digital assets that aren't created or behave like physical stable objects, including being more prone to electricity and magnetic fields, and allowing themselves to be duplicated for "free" if not properly protected.)

So the more digital you book the closer you are to paying for your d-projectors. And you won't have to pay that last 19-year-old kid to run the booth anymore, or make up and break down films. There won't be any more scratches on prints (assuming they last long enough to get scratched (and they do, they do...it only takes one showing)). Suddenly the math makes sense; it's likely to create a large installed user base of digital projection within just a few years.

AMC, Regal, and Cinemark will leave the smaller chains in the dust, who won't have access to the digital content Hollywood wants to offer. And will exclusively, probably before long. The bigger productions will favor the large chains that can squeeze the largest grosses out of the prints. (Studios won't need to be as promiscuous with print runs and clearances to get high grosses as they have been in the last 20 years, although with digital duplicates being "infinitely" duplicatable they still can be... as long as they keep installing more d-projs.)

Studios will also have more control over each copy before, during and after playdates (Digital projectors can be individually addressed, and "prints" can be locked. They'll know if someone at the theatre scheduled an extra midnight show and collected money without reporting it to the studio).

(People don't copy 35mm prints (they'd need an optical printer, illustrated above), they just show them without telling the bosses (see a previous post, "Fin de Cine" here). This began happening approximately 1 week after projecting film was invented, in 1898. Lot of people got rich this way (including some of the future heads of what would be the Hollywood studios in the '10s and '20s - they all began in exhibition and opened movie studios later). Digital "control" means studios don't have to remain concerned about what happens to the old 35mm prints because they no longer have to track physical assets they can't exploit, and frankly don't want to be bothered with storing.)

Hacking and copying, which has already moved away from the theatre level and now lives within the studios, will move closer to rocket science. Studios in one single swoop are both attempting to bottle and tempting the illegal duplicates devil with one technological carrot.

One minor problem not addressed is the maintenance. What do you do when your $80k+ projector - which has no moving parts, has no user-accessible panels, has highly-proprietary soft- and hard-ware, and hasn't been street-tested over 100 years like 35mm projectors have - goes kaput? You call the $200-an-hour technician, that's what. This is problematic. These machines aren't fool-proof.

A major problem will be with history. In the past there were upwards of 1000 (if not 4000) stable 35mm prints that would ensure some level of redundancy when looking to revisit a recent film. Digital films are ephemeral - you can't put your hands on it and store it safely away. Like all sophisticated computer files, it must be continuously upgraded, tested, re-formatted and in general baby-sat over the course of its life. How will you watch Zemeckis's 3-D version of "Beowulf" (assuming you will want to) in 10 years? The equipment it was created for (and on) is already obsolete, and unless someone spends money to upconvert it, it will become as lost as that Wordstar document you wrote back in 2001.

This is not a robust technology, nor likely to be a legacy one. "Beowulf", as well as the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus 3-D concert film, "Best Of Both Worlds," are both important technological and historical chapters in the development of the new wave of digital exhibition. Yet they're already unavailable in the original format they were intended to be seen. (The blu-ray 3-d approximations are just that: approximations, technologically hobbled, and only emphasize the unexamined rush to overly baroque and expensive digital exhibition.)

Finally, the reliance on digital delivery will sacrifice timelessness for timeliness. Film, physical and stable, is transportable, over space and over time. Its standardization (as well as its high quality of image capture) is not something to be dismissed out of hand. Digital files are less flexible. The current "conversion" is gu-estimated to be paid for over 10 years. Do they really think the current digital standards and technology will stand still for that long?

Where will the next $10 billion come from when the current specs become obsolete? Oh, say, in about a year? I worked at an AMC with an obsolete digital projector that was only 16 months old sitting in the corner of the booth - the techs were taking pieces off it to jury-rig other newer projectors. A $100k+ boat anchor.

Which venues won't be updated and therefore obsolete, either "frozen" (doomed to show films produced before 2008) or unable to show anything (because they junked the 35mm projectors)? How many screens will close for lack of product?

What will audiences in the future support? What will be produced to take advantage of a new digital IMAX 3-D technological aesthetic? Which most agree is a technological fad itself?

Will it be able to watch it years later? In what form? A museum endowed with old 21st century "digital projection" machines, perhaps?

The exhibition film industry is going to be sorry for their short-sightedness. It won't last. There won't be any affordable back-ups.

What will be saved then?

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Wave Of The Future is a Stream


It's been about 100 years since going out to the movies had become a - arguably the - significant cultural ritual among Americans.

This was a predominantly bottom-up migration of art, unlike most developing artforms. Classical music began in the parlors of the kings, and in well-heeled concert halls. Slowly with the democratization and spread of instruments and delivery systems (records, for example) did "high" music finally arrive down to the untrained and unwashed masses.

Likewise, literature was originally the sole provence of the well-educated. Film, in large part because it didn't have the barrier of a specific language in the early age, and also because the visual is a powerful seducer, connected first with the "common" crowds of immigrants - those willing and needing to bundle together in unsafe public places to share in a larger-than-life, undiscriminating communal experience at the turn of the century.

These common shows in fact kept the uptown folks away... for awhile. The movie industry grew and thrived on the multitudes in large public theatres. Most of the inventors of the Hollywood studio systems - Mayer, Loew, Laemmle - actually began in the theatre/nickelodeon business, and moved to production in order to have product for their movie houses.

Dozens of industries, in addition to the ways in which we judge ourselves, individually and as a country, were formed by the movies. Our inner dream lives are haunted by what we've watched in the dark. Strangers, both in the same auditorium and by those across the country, saw the same film, under similar circumstances.

Movies built communities of shared experience; their influence flowed across borders.

But the age of theatres has been under stresses for 40 years. There are powerful financial forces at work moving to make film-going and enjoyment a personal rather than communal experience. Delivering content individually to consumers allows it to be more measurable, addressable, discreet, and billable.

Technological advances, along with industry attitudes (including fear of being left behind) has made this possible, acceptable and unavoidable. The audience has contributed to this creeping deterioration of quality and value, because, in fact, we demand it.

IPhones (do you capitalize that?), iPods, (I'm only suggesting that Apple is merely the messenger, not the harbinger of the apocalypse) and other personal devices have finally convinced enough consumers that portable and personal is better than inconvenient and public. The problem with that binary equation is that the question of quality is not addressed. No one's asking what's "better," only "easier."

Easier for whom?

The format wars over Beta vs. VHS tapes in the '80s were initially and fatally about the convenience of the extended recording time on VHS, regardless of the higher quality of Beta. (This war was fought and lost in the age when the only possible application was to record 3-hour football games (who'd want to own or tape a t.v. show or movie?).) By the time Beta had caught up with the 4-hour limit, there was too much of an installed user base to turn the tide. Beta was better, and it died.

70mm film was phased out in the '80s. An expensive film format, it was twice as large as regular 35mm film prints, with double the grain (and its resultant increased sharpness when projected). It also had 6-track magnetic soundtracks, which were expensive to duplicate and attach to the films, being a separate process and having to be copied closer to "real time" than the newer digital DTTS, DTS, and Dolby's digital formats, which could be duplicated at high-speed, along with the film image.

Much hay was made of these new and improved digital soundtracks ... while completely ignoring the fact that the image part of the equation - 70mm - was being dropped and we'd no longer have the benefit of 100% more clarity, detail and nuance on screen.

Of course, the screens are smaller now.

I was able to see 70mm next door to 35mm of "Titanic" in a theatre I worked at that had two prints. "Titanic"'s original negative was 35mm, and the difference was still shocking and striking.

We don't seem to be insisting on quality anymore. Satellite cable looks like hell, with pixelation and drop-outs, and gray blacks and gray whites. The mp3s on your device have been compressed by 40%, and sound worse than a stereo at the local Goodwill playing the radio. The in-your-ear compensates for the full-breadth needed in a room, with other humans around you.

We've been making fun of aging hippies who insist on playing vinyl, and repairing their tube amps instead of moving to transistor-based electronic instruments.

So it is the same with films, which as an analog chemical-and-light based delivery system with a lot of moving parts is being squeezed out and replaced by the digital perfection of a bit-and-chip-based system.

One day they may get digital to exactly duplicate the look of film in a theatre. But the 24-frames-a-second flickering image, with the subliminal mechanical reproductive projection aspect, will be lost. Digital projects in a stream, sometimes as much as 60 frames per second, in order to look more "real."

Film does not look "real." It is not perfect. The bright light that flashes on and off in quick succession is like the fire at night in front of which the shamen of old would tell the stories of the tribe to the listening peoples, hearing the historic myths and grand fables that made up and formed their culture.

The flicker is an important part of how we receive and cognate the story and its thematic and subtextural meanings.

The future of film delivery will not flicker. It will stream, probably on an electronic device that you control yourself.

The access to the images of the past will change and become easier in many ways, but the very nature of the images will be different. We will consume them differently. Alone. Not in the dark. On the go, and in pieces, not captive.

The age of film is ending. (I've already outlined the declining use in the industry of actual film, in the post "Fin de Cine," here).

The new age is a stream. It's the new wave, and it's a torrent. It can't be stopped.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Little Picture


When I was going to movies in my teens, every so often I would hear about or read an article on some fantastic movie that wasn’t playing nearby.

I’d have to figure out how I was going to see the damn thing. This was in the nascent days of cable, when not everyone had 100 channels (promises to the contrary) and not every film eventually ended up on pay t.v. …or on home video 6 months later.

I tracked down “Hollywood Blvd.," Joe Dante's whacked-out ode to low-budget filmmaking for Roger Corman, on the bottom half of a double bill at a rep house a couple of years after I read about it in Cinefantastique. I drove 30 miles to see it at the Fine Arts, a half-assed ‘60s conversion of originally been a liquor store, a bank – or a slaughterhouse. It was billed with "Joyride," and I came in half-way through that in time to see a sequence in which the teenagers drove topless in a convertible down the road. I was too young to see R-rated films, but somehow this one got a PG, and it allowed me to see the much racier "Hollywood Blvd."

It's appropriate that I saw "Hollywood Blvd." in an exploitation theatre on a double bill.

The Fine Arts is gone now, coincidentally now a bank branch again.

I tracked down the horror film "Ruby" with Piper Laurie on the last Thursday night it was showing at the TuVu Drive-in (yes, a 2-screen drive in). "Ruby" is a supernatural rip-off of "Carrie," with elements of "The Exorcist" thrown in - the main action takes place in a drive-in, haunted by ghosts of murdered gangsters. How cool is that to see a possessed drive-in movie - at a drive-in?

I would catch glimpses of the film showing over on the other screen, wondering what was happening over there, so big and so confusing without dialogue or music, on the large colorful board in the night sky on the other side of the corrugated fence.

The other half of that double-bill with"Ruby"? Some cheerleader movie. 45 feet high.

The TuVu drive-in is gone and the area now holds office buildings. Pretty much all drive-ins are gone now. That's not the point.

These are two exploitation films that take place in the world of, and embrace an affection for theatrical film exhibition. The initial release in theatres, especially for quirky or independent genre films, was the primary if inefficient option by which people would see something outside the major studios.

When I was growing up I had to search the listings and check reviews, to make sure I discovered that rare showing before it might disappear from the cultural landscape forever. I didn't have Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB or BitTorrent to fall back on.

And if I showed up late, I couldn't rewind it. I missed the first 5 minutes at my own peril - and forever. It was in charge of me, instead of me being in charge of it.

Now the industry has been taken over by the multiplexes, which don't devote any screens to the smaller films, the quirky or challenging. Certainly now you can find all that off-the-grid fare on Netflix, the Internet, or cable - months, days, or minutes after you've heard of it.

That's likely the only places you can find it.

A whole new generation of filmgoers don't need to do all that work. There's less commitment, less effort. It's no longer a calculated risk, a matter of faith to check something out. Heck, with so much stuff on the internet, why even watch movies?

I don't think people are falling in love with going to the movies anymore. When going to the movies isn't so important anymore, will movies seem not so important either?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Evidence By Which A Work Of Art Is Remembered


(Being the continuation of the history of my film, "Usher.")


The circumstances by which a work of art is produced is often as revealing as the work itself.

Sometimes more profound, and generally more lasting is the evidence left behind by which we remember and can reconstruct the work, both to its original artifact (the film) as well as the cultural traces it has left. The tangible evidence, in the form of prints, original materials, reviews and even subsequent artistic references (both explicit and discrete) contribute hints how it was presented, perceived and is (to be) remembered.

For "Usher," we ended up with about 12 hours of raw film on 16mm, over twice as much as expected. It planned as a 90-minute feature, and we intended to go back to the negative once we had cut the footage by transferring it into a computer and working electronically. The program would give us code to conform back to the negative, by which we may be able to make prints if someone would pay for that.

These decisions were made back in 2003, when the ease of shooting and post-production on digital media was more tenuous. Within the first 3 weeks of shooting the film, there was a money crisis - the producers's funds were no longer forthcoming in the way they had been, with vague contingencies and personal explanations that probably boiled down to some version of "oh, shit."

We proceeded to follow the time-honored (and idiotic) solution of putting it all on credit cards. This is usually when most small productions get abandoned. You likely end up with only half your film, undeveloped in a stack of reels in the basement, slowly turning to vinegar.

We thereby changed our shooting strategy to reflect the change in resources. As the rental charges on the equipment added up, the crew slowly abandoned the production to go get their life back (and some sleep). In the last couple of weeks, we devoted our time to pick-ups and close-up inserts with a 3-person crew in true indie style. We dropped whole scenes from of the script, and restaged complicated 3-page indoor dialogue scenes as single back-and-forth scenes (2 reverse angles; a musical sting; done!).

Most of the major action sequences were shot silent. Not having to set up for sound allowed us to barrel through dozens of short shots those nights; the lack of resources is also reflected in the Godard-ian montage cutty aesthetic we adopted.

I grabbed every insert and reaction we needed to use as visual bandaids to replace shots that would never be realized.

That's why the film ended up being filled with all the elegiac and nearly fetishistic close-ups of the theatre in odd locations, like a wandering eye that can't stay on the action, but drifts to inspect the decaying edges of the carpet or plaster muralwork.

Regardless of the shortened production schedule, we ended up with 12 hours of footage - twice as much as anticipated. The free editing suite in LA didn't come to pass - we had the footage transferred to BetaSP tapes, which we then fed into a computer at our studio.

Actually it was his basement.

We spent a year editing it, between working and other commitments, and eventually ended up with an 88-minute version, conceived as, and basically delivering on, a rather French inspired art/detective story concept: this in part because Jean-Pierre Melville films were being re-released around that time; and with no stunts (or stuntmen), we didn't make a full-on action/thriller to begin with.

That was beyond our means.

Our main character, a young hitman who messes up a job with the mob, goes to work in a movie theatre. He doesn't fit in.

We treated the theatre like a hallowed church - a place of "art," although baroque and decaying. Those long tracking shots that filled in blanks helped; they caress the decadent pallor of the decor like a lover gone to seed. They're akin to Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad" embalming his hotel setting.

(The official website here has more.)

We made copies and sent it out. We caught some small interest, and showed in the small Telluride Indiefest in Colorado, as well as in Nashville, and Silver Lake in Los Angeles (to, regrettably, only about 15 people). We also got a couple nice reviews.

We tried to sell it to a DVD company, but sales agents we talked with couldn't place it - the independent film industry was changing before our eyes (and is). DVDs, Tivo, and streaming are changing what and how people will be consuming content in the upcoming years.

At one point we were asked for a 5.1 mix, and we had a professional do that over a weekend. I wasn't happy with some of the editorial decisions made by the sound mixer (who was only trying to help - he moved and replaced some effects to achieve an overly realistic tone I didn't initially strive for). This version went out but wasn't accepted. We also signed with a company in NY last year, and they cut 8 minutes and changed the music around. That version almost got onto a local PBS station. I'm not sure they cut the right 8 minutes, but that's besides the point.

There are probably half-a-dozen copies of that edit out there somewhere. There are 4 versions, all slightly different; this brings up issues of "authorship" I won't go into now.

The rights are are back to me now, and over the last 4 years the film has migrated from 16mm to BetaSP to digital files, been cut and copied onto DigiCam and MiniDVs and BetaSP (again), VHS and DVDs. There are Pro-Tools files, time-code discs and edit lists.

I'm not entirely convinced the film is even finished. Once it's officially "released" I'll have to finally let it go. But for now I've got 3 big boxes in my garage of the original camera negative - 12 hours total, 74 reels, still unedited, and 2 bigger boxes of all the takes on Beta, in the same uncut order, a high-quality transfer, which can be worked on again if need be.

At least as long as there is a BetaSP deck to be had, a format quickly becoming obsolete.




The original Orinda theatre (a tri-plex, a fact hidden in the film, which is ostensibly about the end of an old-time single-plex) has been doing poorly of late. A couple of megaplexes opened within 10 miles of it in the last decade, and the theatre is up for sale.

I continue to try to sell my film, and have meantime given it an indie release on Indieflix (here); the Orinda Theatre itself tries to find a patron. If the building doesn't retain its protected landmark status, it will be likely be torn down for development sometime in the future.

It turns out my 12 hours shot in and around the Orinda Theatre may be a rare kind of historical document - pure raw footage of a classic deco theatre.

The kind they don't make anymore.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Circumstances By Which A Work of Art is Produced


This is the poster of the film I wrote and directed. You haven't heard of it, because, although finished, it never got released. This is an example, as good as any, on how an independent film comes to be.

I'd always wanted to make films - not just work in a movie theatre, showing them.

That's why I began working in movie theatres, after all. Most of my theatre friends and I would talk and dream about the films we always wanted to make. About 4 years ago I worked in a theatre with a projectionist who owned his own 16mm camera. One thing led to another, and I ended up making a feature, shot on film.

This was not a small undertaking. By design. The marketplace for short films was astronomically competitive, even then (YouTube was still only a glimmer in someone's cathode ray tube). You posted your shorts on AtomFilm (for free), to be lost in the noise that even then had become legend in the Internet age.

If I got a feature together, I thought I'd have a better chance of getting attention.

A good way to be successful at such an endeavor is to show people what they haven't seen before. A good way to not go broke is to use the resources at your disposal.

So my producer and I figured out a way to shoot a movie in the movie theatre where I worked - and it took advantage of both these strategies. I worked at a beautiful '30s art deco theatre, We planned to film at night after we closed, from midnight to 6 or 7 am., throughout the ornate building; no having to go out into the streets or worry about permits, having complete control. The theatre afforded us a variety of locations (the lobby, the auditorium, the attic, the offices, the roof, even the back dumpster pit).

My "one-set" film wouldn't be so claustrophobic, and the theatre gave us instant production value - a $1 million set.

No matter where you work, someone thinks, "They should make a movie about this place." Sure, most places have a story, but the secret is to make it interesting to the rest of the world. My co-writer's inspiration was to have a hitman get a job in a movie theatre.

A hitman in a movie theatre. Then you could make a genre film with guns, guys in trench coats (and tap into the Tarantino mania that was already subsiding by 2002), as well as have all that post-modern self-referential film stuff film buffs love to put in their first films. Especially my film.

It was called "Usher." I brought all the info I learned about films and filmmaking to bear, and planned a film simple, thematically engaging, and easy-to-shoot.

A lot of people told us we should make a horror movie, but I didn't see the challenge in that (I was wrong; I since understand the profound challenge of doing that properly). We were also told we should shoot on digital to save money. But "Usher" was a film about movie theatres - it had to be shot on film.

(Digital didn't have the look or flexibility - in a mere 4 years, it has become much more resilient, but not profoundly less expensive.)

Regardless, our film budget was only about $20 thousand, with another $10k for post - my producers thought they'd be able to get an editing suite in LA for free, making post very inexpensive.

Our schedule was for 8 weeks, mostly nights and some days on the weekends, so we could continue to go to school or work. I would work in the evenings, then shoot from midnight on, staying up all night. The people we needed would come in in shifts, so not everyone had to stay up all night.

Except for me and my cameraman. But we were artists. Committed.

Our actors were local, and cast to type - the quiet one had no lines, the goofy guy was charged with acting goofy.... Smart, right? We bought 6 hours of raw stock, intending to shoot at a ratio of only 4-to-1. No more than a couple takes of each shot, and no wasted footage. Time is money, film is expensive, and being underprepared was the worst crime we could commit.

I came up with a simply-told drama about a hitman who suppresses his true violent nature, working around the teenagers in a movie theatre, while exploring a more thematic concern of how an "artspace" (a movie theatre, after all, is basically a museum, in which you are surrounded by man's art: films, architecture, design) can change your outlook on life.

He slowly becomes morally confused then finds himself lost in a teen-centric environment.

We didn't intend to have any big action sequences or gunfire (just a little). It wouldn't be that kind of movie. Yeah, it is a little too pretentious. But doable. We boarded and shot-listed everything. I knew exactly how it would all cut together. We had 2 read-throughs, which served as rehearsals...and to get the most awkward parts of the script changed or deleted.

A staff of almost 100 people ended up volunteering for various functions. But people, like machines, don't always do what you expect them to do.

On the first day of shooting, my cinematographer's car battery died and he was late to the first night's set-up.

(To be continued.)


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fin de Cine


(Being an unofficial continuation of the discussion "Where Were You in '92?" about the disappearance of films - on film.)

In the '80s many t.v. stations stopped showing 16mm sources and converted to videotape technology. They sold off their massive 16mm film libraries, mostly to private collectors. The market was flooded with 16mm copies of almost every conceivable movie and t.v. show, and they were going - for a while - for about the cost of a VHS tape (e.g.: a 16mm print of "Demon With A Glass Hand" for $20.)

These 16mm prints had no perceived value in the marketplace, since VHS had become the de facto home-viewing option.

A few years after that the largest 16mm rental house, Film Inc. (which predominantly rented to schools and military bases) went out of business as well, holding a public auction. 25 years later, the original rights holders of these films can't supply museums, festivals, or theatre chains with film prints - 35mm or 16mm - of their films. Warner Brothers can't supply programmers with "A Clockwork Orange." They don't have them (I presume they are out there somewhere, in private hands).

Warners' advice - rent the DVD and project it that way.

Just because something has been on DVD doesn't mean it's been properly restored or archived. Many of the gray market/foreign prints of otherwise out-of-print titles that crop up online are actually from video elements - Secam or BetaSP tapes acquired from some fire-sale seller; sometimes even from a pan-and-scan VHS tape.

Perhaps the only film copies of many titles are in the hands of private collectors, on 4th-generation 16mm t.v. prints.

Film preservation has moved closer to being a computer expert recently than being a librarian. Rather than collecting and managing the original source materials, it's conceivable that a preservationist may never actually lay his hands on a piece of film; instead they scan and manipulate "digital assets," furthering a myopic digital groupthink.

In the old days (before, perhaps, 1980) film preservation meant being a hoarder. You would get your hands on any and all pieces of film you could lay your hands on, usually (and if extremely lucky) at critical historically advantageous periods. Like when sound came in in the early '30s, and all the silent films were discarded or recycled for the silver content.

Or during the late '60s, when all the videotapes of old made-for-television movies or old episodes of Johnny Carson were erased to make room for the tapes of new shows.

Natural hoarders thrived in this environment, but weren't turning around to exhibit the treasure - they lived a somewhat subterranean life for fear of being arrested for owning something that wasn't theirs (in spite of the fact it may have been found in the dumpsters behind the Sunset-Gower studio vaults). Hoarders can be stingy on allowing access - the stuff they covet is the most rare; in fact the more degraded and discounted the better. It took work and devotion to find it, and it may be unique; they fancy themselves collectors, not curators.

Henri Langlois, of the Cinémathèque Française, was famously indiscriminate and promiscuous in his acquisition procedures (yet failed miserably to record what - and how - he had what he had). Kevin Brownlow has spent his entire adult life tracking down the apparently endless outtakes and versions of Gance's 1927 "Napoleon" (to increasingly diminishing returns).

The studios have abandoned maintaining and managing their 35mm prints - that burdensome privilege goes (for now) to independent contractors like Technicolor Delivery (a subsidiary of the old color-processing company) and Theatre Transit, two truck-based delivery services that are becoming increasingly obsolete as digital delivery slowly, expensively, but exonerably gains a foothold in exhibition.

(The video and digital masters, meanwhile, often less carefully managed since they're not the "originals," often fall into the hands of grey-market entrepreneurs who sell them to foreign dvd and cable distributors, irregardless of where the rights might lie, over and over again. Vide the many conflicting releases of "Bloodsport.")

Meanwhile, the studios have a new challenge - to save and possibly archive all the miles of "digital" footage created by new productions, who think that since they're no longer yoked by the chemical burden of developing film, they can keep the camera(s) rolling far beyond normal or useful parameters.

As the new age of DVD restorations proves profitable, the methodology of resurrecting films - often to exploit commercially by adding value with outtakes or deleted scenes - has changed what's saved, and how. Will preservationists seek out these hoarders, with their neo-ludditian affection for celluloid (or polyester...or acetate)?

Will future restorers have access to the lost footage, alternate European or t.v. edits, discarded outtakes and other ephemera such as trailers which may have footage not in the film but which reveals clues to other deleted scenes?

Eventually there will be a tipping point, maybe as soon as 5 years in the future - maybe in 10. And the theatres, in full concert with the studios, will finally abandon film and go entirely to the "convenience" and "security" of digital delivery.

It will mean no more scratches. And it will mean no more new films projected from film. No more chemical-based (as opposed to "bit"-based) backups.

In 5 or 10 years, no more film.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Modern Problems


Cheech and Chong films of the '70s and '80s were cultural milestones, and wildly successful, in spite of their unavoidable looseness of structure and limited production values.

Hey what do you expect; they're dope movies.

They're on DVD, but in plain-vanilla versions with no extras. They've been effectively dumped. (Universal must somehow be embarrased by their irresponsible content. Which is why they're so perfect for their times.) They're not available for midnight shows either - no 35mm prints are in circulation, and possibly aren't in existence anymore.

John Landis's "Animal House" in 1978 started a whole wave of rude college-age adolescent films, and great hay of being irresponsible. "Animal House" owes much of its frission to the fact that everyone is supposed to be in college and above such antics by then.

That was a booze movie.

Films about drugs don't seem to be popular in the modern culture so much anymore. The grosses of "Harold and Kumar," "Half-Baked," and arguably "Pineapple Express" bear out the fact that stoners don't tend to go out to see themselves depicted in movies. It's tempting to say that they aren't clued in, but that's a cliche' - they're all over the shit. They simply don't get around to seeing it before it leaves theatres. Like most of us.

(Of course, the DVD impulse buys 6 months later at 7-Eleven makes up.)

Is pot humor no longer relevant? I'm not so sure; at least 75% of the adults I know do or have smoked pot (maybe I'm running in the wrong circles). It's not like cocaine, which seems to have receded into the been-there-regretted-that revisionist phase of the past. It's so '80s.

Being politically correct has ruined humor in films. When's the last time you were really shocked in a comedy? Judd Apatow's films have their share of rude humor, but I'm cautious of their lurching half-assed gentleness that's disguised as pants-down adolescent confession. His films, even the excessive (on the wrong levels) "Superbad," blithely sidesteps the angry base heart of more socially aware "slob" comedies like "Animal House," with everything from handjobs to dead horses to dean's wives, or real counter-culture smartbombs like Ralph Bakshi's "Coonskin" or "Heavy Traffic" (which demonstrated 30 years ago a truly subversive disregard for boundaries I don't think Bakshi quite understood or could ever harness again).

These films - these comedies - seemed somehow dangerous. The new generation of "American Pie" films don't - they're closer to the fart jokes of old Mel Brooks. Sure, they get the parents into the act. Why should the teens have all the Porky's fun? But it's grade school softball. The Mary's hair gel bit in "There's Something About..." is only 30 seconds long. They didn't know what to do with it.

Eddie Murphy used to make us nervous - until he began talking to the animals in Anthony Newley remakes.

Even John Landis couldn't remain irresponsible forever. He killed Vic Morrow and a couple of Cambodian kids, and his career (which was meteoric if short) thereafter hit the "Old Boyfriends" brick wall of "Oscar." "Three Amigos" already had us gunning for him anyway.

But in that dark period he did sneak "Into The Night" past the thought police - which may be the ultimate "up all night" film. It stars a gimbel-limbed and sleep-deprived Jeff Goldblum, our lady of the cocaine-mistress Michelle Pfeiffer, a hopeless spy subplot, and is fueled by a speed adrenaline that's relentless, seductive, and hypnotic.

It's not just content - it's attitude. It not only depicts transgressive behavior - it personifies it to its core. There's something peculiarly Michael Milken/Wall Street takeover about it - ruthless and material. "After Hours" and "Miracle Mile" are two more late '80s cocaine up-all-night films which, if viewed through the right rose-colored glasses, may seem like precedents to Apatow/Rogan's "Pineapple Express," with drug-informed meditations on being "up," being out of control, out of your element and surrounded by excess.

"After Hours" disguises itself as a romantic comedy. "Miracle Mile," perhaps more revealingly, turns into an apocalyptic nightmare.

The difference between those 2 and Apatow's/Rogan's "Pineapple..." is that the later is a pot film. The others are cocaine films. There's something personal, intense, and paranoid about cocaine that the laid-back feeling of pot doesn't quite translate when drug dealers are being shot 100 times right next to you and bleeding all over your serge suit.

Rogan thinks its a right joke. Landis and De Jarnatt are stone serious.

Cheech and Chong were of their times. They reflected the age, and the audiences that partaked in them. In the old days, you could actually smoke pot in movie theatres. I grew up in a simpler, less uptight movie-going age. The security guards didn't come crack a flashlight upside your head when you lit up back in the midnight movie years. All they were worried about was someone sneaking in the side exit. (Now they're worried you'll steal the movie. You already did.)

The moving-going experience is different now. Since you can't fire up while the film's going on, you might as well wait until the DVD or Tivo it on PPV and have the party at home.

In 1981, Chevy Chase starred in "Modern Problems." He develops supernatural powers, and wrecks (and reeks) havoc with his neighbors and bosses. At one point he snorts a 15-foot-long line of "demon powder" (talk about art mirroring life) and masturbates Patti D'Arbanville "telekinetically" to a wild orgasm.

Just another party movie. This got a PG rating. The kids could come. It was directed by Ken Shapiro, a NFL cameraman who hit it big on the midnight circuit with his "The Groove Tube," the most memorable scene of which involves an actual talking penis facing you on the big screen for about 4 minutes.

This wouldn't come across the same way in this age of video, iPods and home screens. You'd just have to be there, seeing it at midnight after a couple of 40 oz.'rs or a shared spliff, with 100 other impressionable college students. Seeing it at home, by yourself with access to a remote, seems a bit cold and pointless.

They don't make 'em like they used to.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Where Were You In '92?



The current state of film preservation seems mostly to be concerned with finding old prints of films considered lost. That's all well and good - with an estimated 80 to 90% of silent films before 1930 deteriorated or gone, there's a lot of work to do.

(It wasn't until the advent of t.v. in the '50s that films really began to be saved more methodically, if only to show late at night. Now they want you to pay for it, by renting or selling you the DVDs. Of "The Lucy Show," no less.)

But there's a new generation of films - from the '80s and '90s - that have slowly and quietly been lost as well.

Dozens of small and medium-sized production companies that were created in the early days of VHS and cable, that struck deals for any and all independent films that suddenly had international audiences and portable assets, found themselves facing hard times as DVDs, the internet, and true "100 stations" finally came to fruition in the '90s.

Companies such as Hemdale, Vestron, Working Title, Miramax, Trimark, October Films, Live, ThinkFilm and Handmade all found their business models challenged and undermined in the last 20 years. All these companies have been sold off, cannibalized, or simply shut down.

In many cases their libraries were sold to the highest bidders, often to pay off creditors. Most of the films should have been sold to VHS or shown on cable stations, and many of them were. Ever see "The Reflecting Skin"? An early Viggo Mortensen psycho-drama that screwed up a whole generation of kids in the early '90s who caught it in its short cable life.

The rights to these films, usually a tangled web of foreign contracts with varying terms, deals, and rates were left alone and forgotten. The "assets" themselves, the films (never in the same place), have also changed hands uncounted and untracked.

These companies were responsible for hundreds of films, many of them from independent, foreign, and culturally important filmmakers in the last half of last century.

You can't find them anymore.

There's a whole generation of Ken Russell films that aren't available. He's still alive, you know, and been making films, but almost his entire late '80s and '90s output is out of print. Doesn't "Crimes of Passion" or "Whore" count for something? We used to rush out to see every Ken Russell film because...well, because it was Ken Russell. "Gothic" and "Salome's Last Dance" both have at best grey-market pan-and-scan releases. In legal limbo and not likely to rise to the surface again.

(And why are "The Devils" or "Listzomania" - two of his early and most hysterical classics - also not available in any format, including 35mm prints from the rights holders? I don't think this has to do entirely with Ken Russell (although no one ever really known what to do with him in the first place).)

Many films during the go-go era of the last 2 decades have gotten lost not through policy, but through neglect. Not just the prints, but the original elements, promo materials, and the rights themselves have gone untracked and forgotten as companies looked forward rather than back. The vaults themselves that held the assets (assuming they were held in vaults in the first place) have been sold, and possibly torn down or converted to condos.

Miramax owns various domestic rights to hundreds of foreign and domestic independent films, many of which had very limited or no theatrical releases. In the legal limbo when the Weinstein Bros. were put asunder from Disney, these films are now unobtainable.

(And it continues - Tarantino's and Rodriguez's ode to '70s film "Grindhouse" in its original form - with the shorter runtimes and fake trailers - is no longer available... in any format. It's for all practical purposes a lost film. Miramax isn't in the business of maintaining libraries for rent of 35mm films they own.)

Have these films been abandoned?

By example, Jeff Lipsky's October Films, an important distributor in the '90s, was bought and turned into USA in 1999. Later it was merged with Gramercy, and later Universal folded it into Good Machine (after buying them out) and renamed the skeleton Focus Features. Of course, each change further confused, diluted, and scattered the previous agreements. The original October library has been cherry-picked over the years, but such items as the post-"Bad Lieutenant" Abel Ferrara films and Pedro Almodovar's "Kika" are MIA.

(Interestingly, Mr. Lipsky appears to be lost at the moment as well.)

The foreign DVDs you may be able to find online are not from prints, but from video elements, sometimes from old VHSs.

The irony is, most of these small companies are bought for their libraries.

In the rush to commodify the new culture, the films have been treated like so much deodorant, bought and sold like cans of baked beans. Their shelf life has been prematurely shortened.

Can you hear me?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Smart Agent


In the old days, there were only a handful of channels by which you could watch shows on t.v. They showed classic movies, and I got the vast majority of my early film history from watching whatever they showed in the afternoon on the weekends ("Attack of the Mushroom People") or late at night ("In A Lonely Place"). You had to choose from a very limited list what you most wanted to watch.

"I hear Hitchcock's a good director. Maybe I should check that out."

Now that there's 100s of stations and 1000s more on the internet, it's easy for the new generations to see what they want to. Too easy.

They won't end up discovering Nicholas Ray because it's the only thing on. And they'll never make it a point to sit through Orson Welles because it's only shown once a decade again. Infinite access to all things makes those things less valuable. It's supply vs. demand; scarcity creates value. Now you don't have to "earn" the experience. Anything is called up at a click.

Now such films aren't even shown. Sure, Bogart's films are still out there. But they're lost - absolutely buried in all the other options out there. The good stuff used to be "pushed" towards me. Now, I have to "pull" it to me if I want to encounter it.

So the old classics are lost in plain sight, undetected in the stacks of libraries - online and physical. (It's not enough that the negatives of the films lost in the Universal fire are stored elsewhere - what good do they do when there are no accessible prints in existence?)

The only way their secrets will be revealed is if the new audiences are directed to them, by search bots - smart agents - that collect your personal interests and extrapolate what you would be interested in, what you should be looking at.

In the www age, we need smart filters to push pertinent info to us more than ever. How many times have you found yourself lost while trying to look something up online? It's like being in a library that's been hit by an earthquake - with all the books in a pile on the floor with no way to find what you want.

Our cultural memory is diluted. Used to be they'd show old films on t.v. all Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Now it's infomercials (why give it away for free?).

Which means, 90% of people under the age of 25 has never seen a frame of black-and-white film.

Those cool MTV videos don't count.

Mediators - teachers, mentors, or coaches - can lead the new generations towards what they should watch. Archives and museums should continue to curate art worth knowing, not just the new and the now, but the influential, the historical, the unique.

Otherwise, the future custodians of culture, infinitely distracted by the latest Hollywood gimcracks, the newest handheld technologies, the firewire downloads, will never know what was and what should be.

Having it available isn't enough. These kids need to be slapped around a little, have some sense knocked into them. They need to be told what's what.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Once Bitten



A married print is one that has the soundtrack "attached" to the film, so it plays (as it should) in a projector.

When a film is in previews, and by that I mean they're showing it to audiences before it's entirely done to see if what they got is what they think they got, the soundtrack isn't yet married.

A gaggle of studio technicians will come into the theatre where you're working and install a special interlocked device to play the soundtrack in one projector at exactly the same rate as the film as it goes through another projector. (A drift of a mere frame per minute can turn into mis-syncing within 5 minutes. An audience can tell if the sound isn't coming out of the mouth the way it's supposed to.)

Back in the late '80s, the Samuel Goldwyn company came into the theatre I worked at to test-screen the new Lauren Hutton vampire comedy, "Once Bitten" (which also starred Jim Carrey, before he would explode into stardom with "Ace Ventura"a year later). They were worried (they weren't sure how the film was really going to play, in its rough state) and had 2 unannounced screenings, a couple months before it was released, one at 6:00 and one 9:00. They recruited a young crowd for the 6:00, telling them only that it was a "comedy" from a major motion picture company, and they found out what they already knew: that the film wasn't working.

It was a rough cut, admittedly, and some of the sound wasn't finished and transitions weren't very elegant. It was a work print, and the actual splices were still in this copy. (They expressed concern that they had all be checked to make sure they didn't break during projection. It would wreak havoc ("Reek"? "Wreck"?) with the sound syncing playback.)

They ran a hand-held sound mixer with a wire back to the booth to the middle of the auditorium, and a sound guy sat there through the film adjusting levels depending on the way the mix sounded in the crowded auditorium.

The film ran over 2 hours. There was one sequence in particular that stopped the film dead, about 40 minutes in. It was some talky scene in which someone (not Mr. Carrey) talks about their motivation or backstory with someone else, and from that point on nothing seemed to work until the end. It was as if the scene sucked all enthusiasm or ability to laugh out of the audience.

It had to go.

After the first show was over and the audience response cards were read, the technicians in the booth found the spot in the film, in reel 3 and held the film up to the light. They then took a scissors and cut the film and dumped it into the garbage can.

A hundreds of feet of the stuff. About 5 or 6 minutes of film. It was amazing. And across the booth, another pair of technicians dumped the corresponding soundtrack-ed reel sequence into another trashcan.

It was the epitome of high-level crunch-decision Hollywood editing at its finest.

The 9:00 show went much better. Later, as they were packing up, I asked if they intended to keep the deleted scene they had in the trashcans.

They said they were taking it with them, to burn.

Friday, August 1, 2008

OBJECT/SUBJECT


I've written elsewhere (here, in fact) on how actual prints of films reflect the history and the wear they've acquired as they've travelled through the world, through many projectors, and many hands. Each showing of a film, by dint of its physicality, is different than the one before. Different tolerances, different age and conditions, and slightly (if you're lucky) different wear. And that doesn't even take into account the audience watching, and their response each time.


A film showing to an empty theatre brings up philosophical questions about spectatorship, mechanical reproduction, and semiotic phenomenology that I don't have the space, inclination, or ability to go into here.


Professor Paolo Cherchi Usai has the inclination - he teaches film at University of Rochester in NY, and champions archiving and preservation, especially forgotten silent films. He's gone further than most, however, by suggesting a discipline that looks beyond merely restoring some "perfect" or original version of the film, and considers each copy of the film to be its own unique variant - that reflects the age and treatment its received, changing and veering away from the original state (assuming there is an "original" state of any work of art, which is another phenomenological barrel of wax).


Each print becomes a version - damaged and repaired, spliced or edited, altered for regional, legal, aesthetic, or personal reasons. The usual suspects are film workers, projectionists, and censors, but also may include museum curators, collectors, and even film fetishists. (Pace the numerous prints of "Blow-Up" from 1966 that had frames of Vanessa Redgrave nudity surreptitiously cut out.)

This aesthetic embraces and celebrates the plastic nature of film - the actual physical surface of the stuff, made up of images captured chemically. It's sculpture, and is not "committed" to a final state once released into the world. Each print becomes an interactive and ever-changing and never-completed alternate. Which challenges the concept of "restoring" a film.


Digital restoration processes traditionally remove flaws to recreate a "pristine" copy. But it's not the original, only a representation. While this is useful for access and distribution, it ignores the issues raised by the state of the primary source (or sources).


This entire outlook directly challenges our relationship to physical objects. Are we preserving /recreating a copy that is only an idea of what it "should" be, or should we preserve the actual artifact?


Usai argues that it no longer matters. The original print, no matter how bitched-up and fingered, is an actual source. And the actual state of the variant should be preserved as a historical palimpsest.


This actually isn't as daft as it may first seem. I've heard of this before - many horror films of the '70s and '80s, particularly of European descent, often had different versions tailored to the markets. Trashy films like Lucio Fulci's "Perversion Story" or Franco's "Female Vampire" had violent cuts, or sexy cuts, sometimes even having hardcore scenes cut in by some unknown hand (making the "restored Continental versions" more highly prized to the underground bootleg horndog market).


But this also comes up in the documentary on the recent Kino DVD of Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin." The restorers found a negative of the film in Germany, dating from the late '20s, in the best shape they'd seen by far, but shortened by many shots. They began recreating the film from this censored print, until research discovered that this version was cut by Eisenstein himself to conform to the censorship requirements in pre-Nazi Germany at the time. In other words, a rare (and apparently unique) variant by Eisenstein himself, as valuable as the original.


So the next time you see scratches on a print of the latest Adam Sandler film at your local multiplex, consider it history wrote in celluloid.


(Those interested may find more to read here:)