Monday, July 21, 2008

Shine A Light

One good thing that comes of working in movie theatres, is hanging around all those 20-somethings, far younger than me (I'm old enough to be their...older brother) and learning what's culturally hot, and what's the latest and coolest.

What's old is new again. They're making films of "Transformers," "Get Smart," and "Charlie's Angels." These kids are buying tickets to all of them, and downloading the remixes of old Monkees tunes.

I'm not so sure they've even seen the originals. Or need to.

Some of the old culture has survived, and still survives. This is not just a triumph of marketing. It amazes me to see what's still seems relevant.

But what isn't relevant, apparently, is the Rolling Stones.

For some reason the train of cultural memory has left the Stones on the platform. The kids aren't listening to them, and have only a cursory knowledge of their greatest hits. It could be that the Stones have never been very easy to deal with when getting the rights to their songs, thereby preventing future generations from hearing them in every MTV promo, Adam Sandler film, and iPod commercial for the last decade.

It could be that the Stones stopped developing artistically after 1969 and haven't been worth listening to since then (but that's beyond the scope of this post, and this blog).

What the kids are listening to are the Beatles. Still. And they're all really into Bob Dylan.

They're not into the Doors at all. There was a film a while back, but the piqued interest was only momentary (Oliver Stone tends to do that to you.). They peaked musically after only a couple of albums, and Jim Morrison turned into some other kind of lizard cuff-link icon that had little or nothing to do with rock 'n' roll, America, or even drugs that you smoke. Their music is most identified nowadays with some Marlon Brando Vietnam movie, and who wants to watch that nowadays?

And while I see Ramones t-shirts everywhere, I've found no one's actually heard one of their songs. They've sold more t-shirts than copies of all their records combined in the last 10 years.

That's too bad. Nice logo, though.

But the Beatles and Bob Dylan have both managed to remain in the public consciousness, and their songs continue to be downloaded, mashed up, and copied and stolen by the new generations of taste-makers and consumers.

This could have something to do with how the Beatles' music (and the Beatles) have been packaged over the years, or Dylan's constant touring, but the Stones are no slouches in either department. Dylan's career arc is revealing. Every 5th or 6th record, he makes a left turn that confounds, angers, and ultimately excites critics and his audience. Coming out of his first post-folk stage, in the era of "Sgt. Pepper," he has the nerve to come out with the stripped-down country-fied "John Wesley Harding" in 1967.

Right when we all thought he was going psychedelic. Audacious and career suicide. Except that it goes platinum, as does the following "Nashville Skyline," in the midst of the the Summer of Love.

Almost 10 years later, after a run of successful albums with the Band, he enters his born-again period (which sells less records but certainly gets a lot of press). And in the '90s, after a handful of stubborn but heart-felt return-to-roots records with no production values (one mike, Dylan alone in a room; take that) and songs that are older than the hills (or Bob Dylan by that point), he accidentally hits big again with "Time Out of Mind" which reaches the top 10 (the first time in almost 20 years) and shortly thereafter "Modern Times" (certainly not a very modern-sounding record) which reaches #1.

So by the time Todd Haynes's film "He's Not There" is released, any damage it can do has been mitigated by 40 years of street cred.

Culturally, I think Mr. Dylan's recent (or continuing) resurgence has a lot to do with Scorsese's 3-hour plus "No Direction Home" for PBS in 2005. This film, comprised of archival and rare footage, much of it never seen before, revealed Dylan as a cutting edge cultural iconoclast to all the kids of the aging hippies who kept saying "See, I told you so!"; kids who began to figure out that indeed, the pumps don't work.

The release of Murray Lerner's "Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival" collection 2 years later sealed the deal.

So the Stones hire Scorsese to direct "Shine A Light," and maybe he can do the same thing for the self-proclaimed "Best Rock Band In The World." But it doesn't help their (or Scorsese's) career.

Because it's made up of new footage. It's just another concert film, like at least 5 other Stones films over the last 30 years.

No archival footage of the bad boys of rock, no retelling or revealing of some great lost anarchist mission we're relieved to be reminded the Stones stand for. No legendary or seminal concert footage, like "No Direction Home"'s Royal Albert Hall in London with the gone-electric booing. Assuming there ever was a seminal concert (Altamont notwithstanding, which was already covered by the Maysles Brothers anyway).

How cool would that have been? A real documentary on a band who's image is more cinematic and confrontational than any other band who've been around since the mid-'60s.

A film like that would have sold a lot more Rolling Stones downloads into the next couple of decades.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Charlie Don't Surf

(This is an unofficial continuation of the previous post, “Hollywood Ending.”)

On the opening day of "Iron Man" last month, a 20-year-old co-worker of mine came into work with a copy of the film on his iPod.

In the old days, and by that I mean about 4 years ago, if you wanted to watch a film (or own a copy, and who in their right mind ever wanted one of those?) you had to play by the Hollywood studio's rules.

This meant going to the theatres that had the film booked and pay your money, knowing that most of it (90% if you went the first weekend) went back to the studios. Or wait for the video or DVD, which also was controlled and managed by the studio, so that when you bought it (or rented it) some portion of the revenue trickled back to the them, so they could keep making more films, for all our enjoyment.

It was a monopoly - not so much as in the '50s, when the studios actually owned the theatres. But it worked, and helped to drive up prices, as more people paid higher prices for bigger special effects, more expensive stars, in louder and longer films.

Now there's a problem. Access has been democratized. Anyone has for all practical purposes free access to films as soon as - and in some cases before - they're officially released.

The new generation of media-consumers (I was going to say “film-goers” but it isn't always film anymore, and they don't need to “go” anywhere) is the exact demographic that most Hollywood entertainment is geared towards - the 16 - 30 age range, who have disposable income, disposable free time, are culturally and socially involved and savvy, and don't have enough experience or taste to avoid the obvious crap. And they all don't seem to realize that it's not okay to steal.

By that I mean they have grown up in the new burgeoning internet age of YouTube, BitTorrent, and Napster, in which the vast majority of visual entertainment is digital, free, and duplicatable. They've grown up in a “creative commons” atmosphere in which “information wants to be free.” Yeah, I know. I want it to be free too, and there's nothing we can do about it. But this begs the question - is the new “Harry Potter” film just information?

Hollywood has been trying to instill in this generation the idea of “intellectual property” with no success, with little ads at the beginning of the dvds they rip from Netflix (“You wouldn't steal a car, would you?”), and public service ads in movie theatres. What these well-meaning but prehistoric messages don't acknowledge is that most of the bootlegged films aren't being filmed on a camcorder from the back row of a theatre anyway - they're inside jobs. Good ones, too. They come from farther up the foodchain from somewhere in the studio. Films are worked on in the digital realm so much now (and don't make it back to film until very late in the process) it's obviously simple for someone to thumbdrive a copy (wow, that's a verb now) and walk out of the building with it in their pants - or better yet, just email it to themselves.

The kids who download these copies know that, and justify the copy on their computer with the fact that someone who knows better did it. Someone within the industry. “I'm not the one who stole it - someone else did!”

When I try to explain intellectual property, that it costs money to make, produce and distribute, I hear “But they already made so much money; they made $200 million the first week.” An argument which tries to justify the theft of one copy by virtue of the fact that so many other people paid money. Of course, the real question is, would the film have done better if it wasn't so available so quickly to anyone with a DSL connection and a mild curiousity (no doubt piqued by all the marketing, which costs more than the film in some instances)? It's a commitment to go out to the movies, park, pay money, choose what you really think you might like. You have a different relationship to a film you download overnight, “just to see what it's like.”

Don't want to waste my money, do I? And hey, if you want a copy let me know.

Might the film have done 10% better if it wasn't on the internet by opening day? 15% better? Not to mention the fact that the economic theory of the “long tail” suggests the film has a lifespan far beyond the 3 weeks it's likely to be in theatres, with DVDs, cable, and yes, even internet streaming, but for casual demand being satisfied so quickly.

I've also heard these kids admit that they weren't going to pay for it anyway - “it didn't look worth it. “ Well, foresight is 20/20. And this suggests that morality is somehow tied to aesthetics. (Now there's an intriguing concept worth pursuing at some later date....)

The most troubling rhetorical position I've heard (I don't make this up, I just report it) is, "But I already saw it once in the theatre." Like that $10.00 admission price (assuming they paid to get in in the first place) is the magic infinity ticket, which entitles them to all subsequent access in all forms to the film forever, from DVD rips to internet downloads to email trading.

Hollywood doesn't know what to do about this. The old business model, based on discreet and individualized (the prints are coded visually - patterns are placed in action shots for single frames at a time to identify which print gets duplicated and uploaded) copies that are projected in controlled and measured environments, with funds collected for each patron, is becoming obsolete. Access is no longer controlled - and revenue is no longer measurable. What the kids surf for on the internet isn't what they'll pay for.

The music business is struggling with how to generate revenue when the music itself is so easily stealable. Hollywood has to figure out what these tech-savvy and immoral 16 - 30 year olds are surfing for and downloading on the internet, and try to attract the dollars in their paypal accounts some other way, than selling them movie tickets.

Thank goodness for all the people over 40, who don't care to or know how to rip DVDs for home. They still appreciate the movie theatre experience...the one time a year that they actually go out to the movies.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Lieing Man

A creative partner of mine and I put together a short animated film in Flipbook early this year, and posted it directly from Premiere onto YouTube. (It was part of an on-line video/animation contest.)

The film - animated - doesn't use pencils or paper. The basic layer is a scan of a painting, with some creative dissolves and sound effects. Only 40 seconds long, and an abstract, nearly avant-garde experiment, which animation seems to do better than any other format.

There's no film print of this, indeed there are no drawings. We have the original computer file, which, by dint of being available on YouTube, is available to anyone with a computer. Access to the film is free of charge, infinite, unmanaged and unmanageable. This is called "multipliable on demand" (MOD to those into acronyms, and suggests there's no need to "archive" this film further).

As long as it's available on the net (and this posting creates a second download to view), its current accessibility seems to render back-ups irrelevant. As long as short work like this is intended and designed to be consumed exclusively on-line, casually, and fleetingly, no analog or physical version is needed. A high-quality original is not required.

So, am I done? Isn't the internet more robust than my hard drive, which will be replaced or crash in a couple years? Or the dvd-r I burned it to, which will also soon become lost or fail from age?

This seems a daring gamble on how we'll consume and keep information in the future.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Text Vs. Texture

Most people who talk about films never go beyond "what it's about." In other words, the plot, which usually involves a cop, a love-sick woman, or some other misfit that needs to learn that what they are fighting against may actually be their destiny (and will facilitate them saving the(ir) world in the process (see "Iron Man," "My Best Friend's Wedding," or any other "mainstream" Hollywood film of the last 30 years)).

But films reveal other pleasures beyond the text of the plot. We're engaged not just by chapter and verse of the story (what happens), but how the story is embroidered and colored in the telling (what happens while it's happening).

In other words, the texture.

Some films are best experienced when you allow them to simply wash over you. Some films aren't about "whodunit" but rather, "howsthatmakeyoufeel?" I didn't like "Blade Runner" the first couple times I saw it, but without that narration - and no longer worried about whether or not it made cop-story sense - the "texture" of the thing got under my skin. It illustrates how some films should not be paid attention to - at least not in the normal 21st century way of seeing things.

Some other older examples best illustrate this. Perhaps because they don't make films like these anymore. Terrence Malick became an arthouse legend with his early "Badlands" and "Days Of Heaven," two films suspended in a perfect balance between incidental plot and fetishistic attention to random background detail. The texture overwhelmed - indeed was a more important part of - the text. (Both "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World" suggest star-casting somehow destroys the delicate balance.)

Stanley Kubrick increasingly embraced a background-over-foreground aesthetic, most completely in "2001: A Space Odyssey," reducing obvious plot beats to thematic subtextural (damn nigh subliminal) nuances. By the time of "The Shining," he was much more interested in the way Jack Torrence walked across that carpet than in cutting for standard horror-film shocks. (Frederic Raphael, co-writer of Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" admits the ending of "Eyes" was about nothing so much as that red-felt pool table. What was the film about? A walk downtown, really. Sure, nothing happens, but it's the way it doesn't happen.)

The textures is the world in which the plot happen. It's the indulgent camera moves that caress a baroquely designed set, it's the attention to the poetry of language that a (good) Mamet or Tarantino script wallows in, in spite of the scene supposedly at hand; it's the stream-of-consciousness, psychedelic cutting of Nicholas Roeg, not understandable in a narrative sense, but in an impressionistic one, one best viewed while under the influence of some mind-altering substance (wait - that's another post).

It's the background in "Blade Runner," that only comes to light and can be properly relished when the narration (which delineates a tangible and straightforward plotline in defiance of and in contrast to the subtleties of the piece) is stripped out (in any number of versions) to let the film breath.

Texture is the perfectly (and over-) rendered futuristic world of "Wall-E" in the first 45 minutes, with the glow of the sunset illuminating the detritus, before it becomes (strangely) more "earthbound" once it goes up into space; it's the lived-in feeling of the surroundings in Fellini's "I Vitteloni," and the lived-out attitude of Alberto Sordi, who is stuck there, never to escape.

It's the extra 45 minutes added to "Apocalypse Now" with a more relaxed rhythm to explore and deepen the compelling and fatal journey down the river, with all the stations visited before finally finding Kurtz.

This isn't to say that a film addresses either text or texture. The texture, ideally, enhances the text. Every film has a different balance between its text and its texture. Once you're able to discover how much a film is telling you a story, and how much a film is showing you a world, you'll meet it on its own terms.

The studios today don't seem to trust the audience - or the films - to go on a journey that isn't specifically driven and motivated by character arcs, plot turns, or explicit explanations of each action beat.

Almost every film reveals some magical texture that goes beyond the literal plot. I remember seeing (the original) "The Love Bug" (1968) which created for me an enchanting and coherent tapestry in which a Volkswagen listened to what Buddy Hackett told it.

I was young. I don't remember how that film ended (text)(probably someone realizes his destiny was what he's fighting - etc.), but I still remember enjoying watching Dean Jones riding in the car while it followed Michelle Lee with no one in the driver's seat (texture).

A scene that may not have been on the strict spine of the plot, but that captures the world in which the film created.

Films I saw as a kid have contributed more to this concept than any other thoery or academic text I've read, or lecture I've heard. I used to "go with" films more when I was younger.

I wonder if I didn't enjoy them more.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Nice Things Destroyed

In 1922, Buster Keaton produced a short film called “The Blacksmith” (he was about 1 year away from making his first feature) in which an inept garage mechanic inadvertently ruins a white Rolls Royce with the oil on his hands, smearing it all over the brand-new paint job.

The joke apparently didn't get a laugh in the theatres, and later Keaton was quoted as saying the reason was that audiences didn't like to see nice things destroyed. This from the filmmaker who famously would drive a perfectly recreated Civil War-era train locomotive into a river in Oregon in “The General.” Again, not to much comedic effect at the time, but to subsequent critical acclaim years later.

Why is archiving important? Is archiving old films important anymore? Nowadays the newest generations of film-goers, the ones whose tastes define what makes money and therefore what gets produced, see as many films on-line, either streamed or BitTorrent'd (stolen) than in a movie theatre. People watch films – or pieces of films – on YouTube, and on their iPods, a big 2 ½ inch wide. How's that Johnny Depp performance in “Pirates of the Caribbean” come across like that exactly?

Clearly the quality of the image isn't important. The go-getter techno-plugged-in crowd occasionally has the opportunity to see the opposite, of course, when the summer films are released in digital 3-d Imax formats, with high frame-rates, deep-focus silver screens, multiple stereo tracks, and fetishistic special effects. But these films are closer to acid trips than actual stories. These $20-a-ticket handjobs are all dazzling and tarted up without a single thought behind their pretty lipstick-smeared faces.

I've talked elsewhere about the “plastic” quality of film. Film's a physical and tangible collection of discreet photographs that documents a specific performance, and – here's the leap into the industrial age of mechanical reproduction - is specifically mediated (by editing, music, shot choice) for the optimum aesthetic or emotional impact (Brett Ratner will tell a race riot story to different effect than John Singleton). The physical aspect of it – the “sculpture” of the thing, if you will - is the plastic. In a post-modern, pre-Semiotic art-as-object, not-a-bundle-of-interpretations way. I'm in over my head. I'm coming back in.

And finally, it's infinitely duplicable. Both the print and therefore the showings for every audience are exactly the same, each and every time. The film can show forever, for as long as someone wants to see it, and there's a print available.

But who's happy when it goes digital? Goes on-line? Sure - it's now widely available (in that library-hit-by-an-earthquake jumble called the www. If you don't know it's there, can you ever find it (I'm with Nicholson Baker on the whole “art of card cataloging” thing)?).

The irony is – digital is more susceptible to loss, not film. Film is surprisingly stable. Despite all the “nitrate can't wait” articles we've read (and it can't), if it has been stored properly, apparently the stuff has a lifespan not yet decided by empirical evidence – it's now believed it may last as long as 200 years (if it's not gone already that is).

You can find a 90-year-old reel of Charlie Chaplin and put it on a projector and figure out what it is. I bet you can't get a computer file from 10 years ago to boot. I bet you don't even have the proper machine to do it.

And goddamn it, it costs money to transfer these old chemical-plastic things to digital format. If there's no perceived value (if no one's gonna pay for the DVD), many old films go untransferred, copyrights get unrenewed (and the films go orphan, which is a whole 'nother kettle of legal wax), or the few remaining prints simply are sold off, cannibalized, or thrown away.

Not even recycled.

So what's lost isn't just the film prints, on 35mm or 16mm film, but the actual experience of seeing these films as they should be seen. Wondrous joys from the past, never to be repeated (because there aren't any audiences who know they exist, and no prints are available anymore anyway) and doomed to be forgotten. Forever.

Nice things, indeed.

(The author thanks Bruce Fletcher of “Dead Channels” for concepts discussed in this post.)