Friday, February 27, 2009

Alone, Or With People

The Archives Trilogy - Part Two

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There's a social network that surrounds the showing of films. The coming together of people into a dark and cavernous place, anonymously and at the mercy of a loud and oppressive spectacle, shaping what you will feel emotionally for 2 full hours. It's a bit ominous.

There's waiting in line and eavesdropping on other conversations, eating and drinking before and after - if you're lucky there's something to talk about. And someone to talk about it with.

And of course, there is the battlefield in the parking structure, where patrons jockey for position and prestige, capital investments are parked or scratched, or fights break out - substances are consumed. Sometimes girlfriends are found. Or lost.

That social sphere was very much a part of finding and seeing a film, sometimes miles away, sometimes once a decade. There was a physical, financial, and temporal commitment. It helped to be able to talk your friends into it. Don't you want to come with, see if this thing is any good? I don't want to go by myself.

These modes of consumption has been taken over by the Internet. The social network that surrounded film-going has moved away from theatres, and from archives, which now remain stranded as the last bastion of curatorship for our cultural filmed heritage.

The old purpose of museums were to create a space in which archival behavior was kept and displayed for the edification of the public and scholars. It was a public trust, and a social space grew around them. It might involve Q & As with filmmakers, entire programs surrounding themes to create context and expert meaning. Sitting around coffee, ice cream, tuna melts or wine while talking about the film you'd just seen (often with strangers you met in the lobby, people who had worked on the film sometimes (they were there to see it again one more time as well), or even that cocky know-it-all usher) is a social network all itself, centered around that shared experience, shared together.

Such networking created an emotional context around and beyond the film itself. It was a community. And it added meaning.

But the shift to the www has moved these social behaviors away from brick-and-mortar coffee-hutches. Out of the bookstore alcove. What museum-spaces traditionally used to do - that is, collect and present the detritus and leavings of society, for a new and motivated audience to research - they're doing alone and empty.

They've found their role as arbiter of cultural memory, as the privileged altars of higher learning, stolen by the allure of online social interaction, easier, quicker, shallower but more far-reaching.

No one's in their playground anymore. The idea of being a gatekeeper has been blown off the hinges. There is no more gate, there is no need for a keeper.

The digital realm houses the new social fabric surrounding the presentation of moving images.

Without the social sphere to support it, any institution is doomed to deteriorate.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I'm An Oilman

It's been a year since Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" was released, and it seems it's aging well in only that short a time. It's nice to be so far from of the maelstrom of the hype. I now find it much better than the Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men," the other end-of-year "western" that it was so aggressively compared to during awards season and found wanting.

"Blood" is appearing on the UK best-of-the-year lists since they got it in early in 2008 - and I've revisited it recently. I think it's fairly brilliant, more so than I thought the first time (my experience was unique - because it was close to 3 hours and I worked at a theatre where it played, I ended up seeing it in sequential 30-minute segments, which only emphasized the (perhaps) intentionally baroque tonal shifts as the plot lumbered along, not least of which was the bowling alley non-ending. (Or is it?)).

12 months later the difficulty with that ending as well as the hate heaped on the soundtrack seems so completely misplaced. Jonny Greenwood's electronic (but not atonal) foreboding (but not industrial) underscore is as appropriate and conservative as "Atmospheres" seems during the final trip in "2001" nowadays.

By contrast, "No Country For Old Men" in retrospect seems only ultimately to be about a haircut, and a couple of shots that they seemed to have left out in an effort to make us fume about the ending... or lack thereof. I haven't read the original book, but it now seems obvious that Josh Brolin's character got away with the money - the scene in the hotel room and the open grate isn't about something so mundane as who is or isn't behind what door, or whether evil is everywhere or nowhere... it's trying to tell us that Chirgurh hasn't found all the cash. Moss still has it, and that shot of him upside down "dead" on the carpet isn't Josh Brolin. It's another guy in his place - he bought 2 shirts after all. Oops, I guess I probably should have had a spoiler warning on this.

(But maybe I'm reading too much into what's just bad shot composition, or the perverse lack of a CU when he's laying on the slab in the morgue (as Jones tries to recognize him). It reminds me all of the meta-excitement around the ending shot of "Jagged Edge" back in 1985 - remind me to tell you that story sometime. And why else add 3 codas that seem to be just character beats, outside the narrative. The Coens usually know better.)

All in a row, "Blood" unfurls with a level assuredness we don't associate with Anderson. While he ultimately resorts to various baroque convulsions of plot, they don't seem unmotivated, just unexpected; his themes are judiciously and deliciously fingered, and simmer in a measured way he wouldn't have pulled off if he didn't construct this as such an arid and linear setpiece and have Daniel Day-Lewis to tease every nuance from an otherwise hidden subtext. (I half-think the film would have worked as well as a 95-minute thriller.) There's a thousand minuscule decisions that reinforce rather than confound its relentless progression. It's ridiculous and unnecessary to ask why he does what he does. It's too enjoyable and fated to doubt.

And as for the ending, I love when Sunday/Dano returns, looking the same age (only now completely different). They needed each other and both fell to ruin out of each other's influence. The meat, the repeating of lines, the bowling pins and the water/blood/oil/milkshake merged metaphor all give the film a physicality that, after Plainview's intangible drift away from his own salvation, grounds it in our own mortal world.

I guess I should have had a spoiler warning on that as well. The film's apparent sparseness, love for long takes and quiet mise-en-scene fooled some observers into invoking Kubrick (right down to the last-act mannerism). But Anderson, as in "Boogie Nights," even in "Magnolia" and his early "Hard Eight" (with its absent exposition), is primarily concerned with family and teasing out the ramifications of an extended - or absent - one.  Regardless of how broken.

Anderson is really a sentimentalist. And his trust in letting the small details carry the weight of the story reveals him to be less arrogant, more curious, and increasingly more masterful than he has revealed ever before.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I miss the film repertory houses that I spent so much time in during my formative movie-going years. It was my film school, and the curriculum was created very much haphazardly. I was pretty much on my own to see what I chose.

It's not just the films, which for the most part are now available through Netflix or online (although a healthy percent are still MIA). That is part of it - getting them at the exact (or near) moment you find out about them isn't the same as going to a repertory theatre, where what they program may be something you know about or have an idea of what to expect, but can't entirely be sure of. You had a change to find out once a year, if you were lucky.

You were at the mercy of the programmers and the program, and if it was on that calendar (issued 9 times a year - or less) there was probably a reason. It was up to you to make the trip if you dared.

The setting was just as important. They were usually dingy single-screens on their last legs, made obsolete by television in the '60s, and now playing old artistic or foreign fare for the college 2 miles down whose cinema department still supported the theatre. The first runs were all in malls now (3 theatres, under one roof!). These old prints sitting in the exchanges were more than happy to rotate out the films that television generally weren't interested in; the foreign, the racy, the difficult or the academic. Repertory would get them at reduced or flat rental rates, an early example of an attempt to generate income down the long tail.

They'd show Fellini double bills, and early Altman. Woody Allen and science fiction. Bergman one night, Ed Wood the next. Most of the films you'd never heard of, and you'd only plan on seeing a couple. But after reading about "Deep End" or "Solaris," you started to wonder. What are those films like? Was I missing something? When "King of Hearts" kept showing up once every 3 months, it was a powerful motivator. You couldn't look it up on IMDB back then. Film magazines were so much more important then. To study, keep, and pour over. I would fall in love with stills, right out of "Day For Night." My love affair with Nathalie Baye started with a still.

The calendars were the primers on what had been culturally important in previous decades. Quotes from dinosaurs named Crowther and Gilliatt, Reed or Williamson. Everyone has stories of the brilliant double bills and magical discoveries they made on accident at the local movie house. I saw "Nashville" years late and was underwhelmed, while "Rancho Deluxe," the second feature I knew nothing about, changed my life. (I still think the link had to do with Rip Torn, who's in neither film. I'm sticking with that story. And what book are you going to read that in?)

There was a seemingly endless catalog of unknown and vaguely familiar gems. There must be some arcane and invisible art to creating such a wide selection for such a limited audience. The programmers for these theatres would create clever or playful double bills, using the familiar matched with the unknown or transgressive to generate conflict, curiosity and a sense of elitist purpose and rebellion. The right program, or the unexpected choice, would create an urgency to see (and try to deduce why it was there). (I grew up in Southern California, so the nascent Landmark theatre chain was an important part of this, but there was also the Academy, the Capri, and the Fine Arts. All demolished now.).

A rep house was where I finally saw Stacy Keach in "The Travelling Executioner," a t.v. movie that still isn't available anywhere. John Byrum's "Inserts" was worth it alone for seeing Jessica Harper in one of her few post "Phantom of the Paradise" appearances (and I wouldn't recommend it except to Harper, Byrum, or Dreyfuss completists - and you know who you are). It was doubled with "The Day of the Locust," which is enough to cure anyone of wanting to be in show business.

I learned about Truffaut's oeuvre from the calendars as well, although ironically I never went to see any of them. I went to "Slaughterhouse-Five" for Valerie Perrine and left a fan of Vonnegut. An evocative image from Makavejev's "WR- The Mysteries of the Organism" stayed in my mind for 20 years before I finally caught up with that one. OMG. That was worth the wait.

But people's habits were hard to predict. They'd show up for "In A Lonely Place" but leave 5 minutes into "Casablanca". They'd sit through "200 Motels" but leave from "Casino Royale" (the first one, but why?). The age of TNT, Bravo, and TMC was upon us, where most of it was ending up, until DVD exploded and completely sated the appetite for old classics and new, rendering the repertory theatres obsolete. The last gasp of money seemed to be made on the Asian martial arts films, coming into vogue in the early '90s and still not quite widely available through mainstream channels.

Things like Schroeder's "The Valley," Perry's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," and Haines' "Steppenwolf," all from in the heady age of the '70s were revived, if only for a night, in the '80s; now they've all come to DVD in the 21st century. The bigger hits with the bigger stars always seem to be available, but when I happen to notice that one of these more obscure films have been released, I realize - I've actually heard of it. I remember them because they were at the rep houses, listed with a small inch-by-inch image and a 100-word write-up.

Those repertory house may not have generated much income for the films that showed (less than 100 people a night, at only $6.00 apiece paying back maybe 60%?), but they helped save the films from oblivion. By being in circulation and on that calender, they remained in the canon. I was directed, unintentionally, to so many more films I could never discover on Netflix, never even consider if I saw in a video store, and would probably not drive the half-mile to see down at the 8-plex.

I often think the infinite availability of stuff on the Internet isn't doing us any favors.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Pointlessness of Authenticity

The famous "Surgeon's Photo" of the Loch Ness Monster, from 1934, revealed to be a hoax over 60 years later. By that time the image has become well-known and evocative of something wonderful and mysterious.

It was better than real. The "shared" memory of the creature was so prevelant and widespread that it had become a cultural lynchpin, an event of history... not of something so quodition as a prehistoric creature in the water, but of a larger happening everyone appreciated, valued, and "remembered."

There were (and are) over 500 reported sightings of Nessie since and thousands of snapshots to go with many of them. There's nothing like photographic evidence to back up your claim.

In 1995, found alien autopsy footage, along with some reconstructions, was aired on Fox, produced by the famously suspect Ray Santilli. The show was broadcast in 30 countries, and half a dozen television and cable specials followed in its wake, analyzing and investigating the veracity of the footage and visits by aliens. I was able to find 20 websites specifically devoted to the original footage. Millions of viewers have seen and chimed in on this show, special effects experts and film archivists alike.

Now it has a life as a historical event that reverberates through popular culture. The authenticity of the original is not important - the effects of that broadcast continue to be felt in the culture at large, in the dialogue we have with documentaries and with "reality" television shows. Is it real? Is it entertaining? Are other people talking about it? Should I know about it?

The existence of discourse out in the mediasphere, where reporters, bloggers, or citizens are talking about popular culture events, creates as much content as hard facts about who won the Grammy or got kicked off the island. (And their level of authenticity is as much in doubt as ever.) "Buzz" is enough to create meaning for events that are not technically "historic" - simply popular. It is easier to pretend to be important nowadays because on the Internet it is so easy to merely exist.

The binary relationship between document and mockument has been diffused, both by the inability to discern the nuance between them and a frank lack of concern about the difference.

With the infinite duplications possible in the digital realm, there is no more original anyway. There is no need to revert to the original source when there's copies everywhere. And nowadays, what people adopt as their folksonomies is creating a forceful authenticity all its own.

It doesn't matter that it's "fake."

We all just want to enjoy the ride.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Panic Hardware

The Archive Trilogy - Part One
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You can find almost anything on the Internet. You can find a friend that loves just that one janky Darin Morgan episode of "The X-Files" only you appreciated among your classmates. Even though she lives in Indonesia, you've now found a soulmate.

You can find the answers to tomorrow's test. The teacher didn't know how to protect her usenet account. You can find the secret to true happiness. (And Oprah will sell you the book if you like.)

You can find clips of the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup." It's not being streamed on - they want you to buy it. It is available on DVD but someone's illegally ripped it and uploaded it to YouTube and elsewhere. They were able to find and take down only the most obvious infringers. Hint, don't name your file "Duck Soup" - or "illegal rip."

You can do whatever you want with it as well. You can edit it down, cut new shots in, play it backwards, or change the music and the dialogue.

It's the new avant-garde. New media is being fueled by appropriation of somebody else's intellectual property. It's the wild wild west, all right, but the robbers are using laptops instead of horses and pistoleros.

And then they post their crimes right up again, for a million people to enjoy and comment on what they've done.

The Internet is different than radio, or television, or even satellite. It's more than an infinitely larger distribution stream for all kinds of media. It's 2-way. All the previous modes to deliver content were controlled and fed by big companies, which depended upon managing access to their assets. The public had to go get it, and paid for the privilege.

Once a film had exhausted its theatrical run, the film traditionally (that is, until about 2 years ago) travelled through the various ancillary streams, from cable to home video to network t.v., a dollar or 2 changing hands every time, eventually ending up on the schedule of a rep house or in an archive, for when someone wanted to do a retrospective. Or a paper. Or a remake.

The Internet and the digital age has changed all that. Now there's a rend in the chainlink fence - that hardware on the exit doors is broken, and letting hundreds if not millions into the back door of the theatre. And the digital tools at our disposal now allow us to grab and re-use the content. I'm not just talking about re-mixing "The Simpsons" with "Scarface" dialogue. It also engenders much more innocent and appropriate uses.

Like watching "Gossip Girl" on my phone. Or studying mid-period Sergio Amadio for that paper that's due in Italian Film next week. Or old "Burke's Law" episodes.

Maybe I'll lay the Christian Bale soundtrack over my home videos of our family picnic.

Access to the material is becoming increasingly valuable and desirable, because its use has skyrocketed. Infinite access is a powerful seducer. So is infinite adaptability.

The archives are online. On YouTube, through BitTorrents, or on the online Moving Image Archive. It's the site of artistic, uncontrolled, academic and downright transgressive behavior. It is unregulated and unregulatable. And that's why it's exciting.

While the traditional archives were concerned with whether or not they should move their old film holdings to some kind of digital format to create access copies, anxious that these weren't the high quality traditional scholars or historians might like, suspicious that digital stripped the originals of their priviledged and ritualized modes of presentation (and in hushed tones), the rest of the world was quietly uploading everything of interest and streaming it.

Shortening it or cutting it into clips. Adding music and adding commentary. Sending, uploading, downloading, copying - stealing the clips to share, study, and rework.

Archives, as physical buildings housing materials, are becoming obsolete. The materials that are culturally relevant today - the researchers and artists - aren't there anymore. In large part because what's relevant needs to be outside. Not behind lock and key.

What's culturally relevant is now in the hands of the public. Along with the tools to appreciate it.