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.)