Friday, January 30, 2009

I Think This Is The Good Part

This scene from Ken Russell's "The Who's Tommy" (1975) shows something you haven't seen in any other film before (probably). Ann Margaret is being inundated by baked beans, flowing out of a broken television. It's a visual rhyme, of course, to the cover of their earlier album, "The Who Sell Out."

Ann Margaret was nominated for an Oscar for this role.

The '70s were a very different time.

This is the type of promotional shot that can create a high level of interest for some viewers. Films are successful sometimes only based on a couple of great moments; if you can stick your award-winning actress in a pile of baked beans you got a scene people are going to talk about.

Ken Russell was good at putting those kinds of scenes in his films, often when they wouldn't fit. Nowadays even the most conservative films need at least one show-stopper, or at least something to talk about as you make your way home. Even a rather mannered remake like Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" created an inordinate amount of buzz by adding the heart-tugging emotional sinkhole of Wonka's wacky father, an appropriate and resonant addition to what at first seemed like a bad idea for a remake.

A genre film delivers generally exactly to our expectations, and anything it may do to surprise us is part of the texture - not really a shock so much as comforting. ("I just knew they were gonna poke that guy in the eye.") But the above shot from "The Rats" (2002) has a visual shock of the familiar and the uncanny – a special effect (that in real life may turn out not to be very special at all), combining the common place, spectacle, and production value (a wide underwater-lit pool and a girl in a bathing suit) demands that you seek this out – if just to see that good part.

One scene, or a plot point, that captures our imagination. Such a thing can inordinately drive ticket sales. "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" (2009) features Kevin James riding around on a Segway which has a certain amount of charm and daffiness, but when he hits that double-glass door and does a John Candy fall (not once but twice in the trailer), I was sold.

I said to myself, "I have to see that."

And apparently, so did a lot of America as well. The #1 movie two weeks in a row. Much less people paid to see the blue vampire movie.

Besides, that was a prequel - those aren't ever any good.

Monday, January 26, 2009

High Finance

Information is moving to us at a rate that is impossible to filter and make meaningful. We've moved beyond wondering what is valuable, and now merely stop at what's good enough.

You couldn't find what you wanted to, even if you had the time. Google shouldn't be helping us to search for interesting things, it should be helping us weed it all out.

Writer C
lay Shirky calls it “filter failure.” The model of one producer creating content for a million (or more) consumers has been supplanted by the rise of an age in which a million consumers are producing content - for everyone else. The problem with this is that no money changes hands. It’s all free labor, and hard if not impossible to monetize.

If you
can grab it for free, what is the financial motivation to supply it? How do you create value for an audience that has so much at its disposal that there is no apparent incentive to look for something out of the way?

You can't get them to pay for it. So much is deliverable to your desktop, the object-based/ widget-selling/ limited resource model is about over.

s the secret is traffic? That doesn't translate into money changing hands on the back-end, either. Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube all claim the vast majority of traffic for their respective market niches, yet seem to be losing money on each individual transaction. They've functioned in the red since their inceptions, yet behind the scenes, these properties become more and more valuable each time someone leverages a golden parachute or stock's traded for ownership stakes.

Amazon isn't interested in selling books at a profit, but rather in having a piece of every book that sells; used, new, or digital. Wanna buy a Kindle? $350. Yet a download of "Treasure Island" costs 10c. It's the opposite of the razor blade rubric.

The value of these companies have been in the larger philosophical IPO realm up to now, outside the normal capitalist circles most of us understand, and that have been doing so well by the stock market lately.


When the cost of providing access far exceeds the possible profits from supplying content (let alone creating it), it's no wonder everything old is new again. Why spend any time developing or convincing audiences that there's something new under the sun.

It even says in Ecclesiastes that there's nothing new under the sun. And that was a long time ago. It will take you 10 lifetimes to get through what's already out there. They tried to get your interest by going deep into the vaults and releasing all the old catalog on DVD. Now we've figured out that the Long Tail is an elegant concept that doesn't actually play out in the real world. 99% of the people really do purchase only 1% of the content.

Still. Providing content is a blockbuster-driven business, and the infinitely democratic promise of the Internet actually makes it more so now than the pre-Amazon/bricks-and-mortar days of the '80s.

There's so much shit out there, you have to look at the lists, the diggs, the del.ici.ouses (del.ici.i? del.ici.eaux?) to see what everyone else is interested in. There's no other way to filter it.

It's information overload.

Traffic in itself is a virtual presence, a mob-acknowledgement to popularity which subscribes value to something as well. Maybe the joke is true - they lose a dollar on every transaction but make it up on the volume.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Border Between Calm and Catastrophe

There is a deeply ambivalent feeling about the rise of digital among the hardwired film fans I know. (And I am one of them.)

The prevailing wisdom is that digital is taking over in all avenues of media, that film as a production medium is dead, that all film will be forgotten, including the very experience of watching film.

That's actually all likely. Most t.v. and all major motion pictures are created on digital media and edited, colored, adjusted and outputted by computers now. There is no "negative." There is no physical object that is worked as an artisan in the old sense of the word might do, or have done for the last 100 years of Hollywood's history. Indeed there is no original object by which we can ever go back to "restore" or save from the dustbin of time.

Digital is so resolutely and stubbornly of the now, and has no reverberant history or meaning beyond its present tense of today's transmission. No remnant of history, but rather just a shiny but shallow reflection, of what it captures. And, in many ways, of the industry itself.

But digital imagery is so pretty. The images are clear in a way that goes beyond mere photographic indexical capturing - hobbled and abstract as it tends to be. Film does not capture everything in front 0f it- only a trace, the light traces. The "art of film" has always depended upon what aspects of that light (the reflections on the street, the highlights in Garbo's eyes) that the filmmakers choose to capture.

HD manifests clearly a bit-streamed millions of colors at a level that goes (at least 1%) beyond the human ability to discern differences in the subtlest shades in the palette. When digital is presented by a carrier that can accurately (that is, electronically bit by bit) address and convert all the information of a hi-def moving-image to a screen or display, the images transform to a hyperreal, hyper-present, and hyper-modern reflection of what happened in front of the camera lens.

It has an intoxicating assertiveness that goes beyond any deconstructive arguments about the indexical limits of a photo-chemical filmed image. Digital is culturally savvy, it is urgent, and it is portable. It is anonymous, democratic, and non-empirical.

It is crystal clear. It's transparent.

To insist in the old modes of production creates a kind of self-imposed obsolescence. So we find ourselves rushing to embrace the beauties of digital cinema and the new modern mode of spectatorship that it engenders.

The unexpected, yet unmourned fall of the previous 100-year reign of film troubles us. We "know" how to do film, and find comfort in its relatively conservative cache. Yet the glitz and glamour of digital seduces us.

So do we follow our worst (or is it best) impulses? Do we allow ourselves to be seduced by what we want over what we know? By what makes us comfortable? Or do we engage the future, even though we're understandably suspicious we'll regret it? And will have lost our innocence and what we don't even know is important until it's gone?

Do we jump?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Worked Matter

(A continuation of the ideas in the post, "The Real and the True.")

This still is from the Buster Keaton film "Doughboys" from 1930, a couple years into his sad and drunken decline at MGM. It's a cheaply produced programmer, and what joys it has revolves around Keaton gamely (but ultimately unsuccessfully) mouthing and falling over material way beneath him. They worked him hard and spit him out. You can see it in his eyes.

He's not in the south of France. He's in Culver City. MGM made a half-hearted attempt to recreate a WWI war scene on their backlot, and the forced perspectives in the backdrops, the on-cue smoke machines and fake explosions entertain as they show how the littlest of effort could go a long way to set the stage.

While certainly not convincing, it was all staged for the camera and edited competently to convince the viewers then (and now) just enough to go along with the gag. Film writer Stanley Cavell notes that while a painting may create a world on a canvas, photography is ever only of the world. It shows only what it is pointed at. It records, not creates.

Film - as an artform - is more than its parts. It an amalgam of worked objects, primarily of photographed shots. Photography has an intimate relationship to the real world - what is shown to it is revealed, yet what isn't is lost forever. These concrete and hyperreal, yet specific and limited, objects are then manipulated by the artist. Or artists. Or the process.

Photography approaches a kind of allographic art - a (captured) index of a preexisting object that is re-presented, rather like a song that is written then subsequently performed, creating a new work to be considered. Film (cinema) requires a series of arts and artisans working to create a new fictional, specific and virtual object. This craftwork is not separatable from the film - while you can measure the skill in a song, regardless of a bad performance, the "performance" of a film demonstrates and manifests the art. The cutting, acting, photography, or music used in unison with closeups, etc. all are made tangible only in its complete presentation.

The (film) object also has the property that it is not the actual artifact by which the artist(s) worked on. It is merely a representation of the final product, a duplicate (except in the rare instance in which you may actually handle the original nitrate print that Chaplin edited himself, or perhaps the original lithograph in which Andy Warhol spread ink onto, the one from which all the subsequent silkscreens derived (lending credence to the idea of an artist's aura remaining on the original artistically-worked object, and not on the subsequent copies. Regardless of the artist's intentions.).).

A film print is the manifestation of the history at its own making and of its subsequent remaking. Digital film- and image-making, on the other hand, does not preserve its historical roots; the images aren't worked so much as created - or re-created - by computer algorithms. The process redefines the original photographic pieces-of-the-world. And while the images may be astounding or spectacular, they no longer have a relationship to previous events of the world.

Such recent animated comic books as "The Spirit" or "The Dark Knight" demonstrate the unreality of surfaces that don't convince so much as suggest (it is still only the primal performance of Heath Ledger, surrounded by madness as much as manifesting it (extra-texturally as well as narratively), that still elicits comment - (so far) 6 months after that film's release). Such "unwanted" traces as a shoddy set, a hung-over actor, explosions with no sound (or jokes with no punchlines) are not the texture of the new media.

The raw footage isn't "historical" - it is fluid, and therefore has no specificity in time or history.

It's "faked," and the spectacle of the presented material moves to a kind of painting, creating a world but not being of the world.

The Keaton film remains a problematic document of a specific time in Keaton's career, and demonstrates (while it simultaneously suffers from) a specific mode and circumstance of production. Yet regardless of its "importance," it is a unique and historical reflection, in its parts and in total. The flaws create (and alter) its meaning.

The dinosaurs in "The Lost World" or the post-apocalyptic Earth of "Wall-E" are profoundly convincing, yet lack the visceral force of, for example, Dennis Rodman's performance in "Double Team" (1977).

The spectacle of Rodman's presence before the camera illicits a lurid fascination with the tragedy of humanity (and perhaps sympathy for the director) that digital lederdermain, for all its chicanery, can never hope to accomplish.