Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Watch Instantly

Netflix isn't just about getting the new hot hits on DVD. The Psychotronic Netflix page on Facebook, post by post, and the increasingly indispensable Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog, in more complete list form, researches and reveals the various obscurities, off-the-radar gems and lost or forgotten films becoming available through Netflix's burgeoning streaming service.

Many of these films have not been available before in any format since VHS, and some never made it to DVD. "The Keep" (Michael Mann), "Citizen's Band" (Johnathan Demme), "92 in the Shade" (Thomas McGuane), "Cul-de-sac" (Roman Polanski), "How I Won The War" (Richard Lester), "Harry In Your Pocket" (Bruce Geller), "Inserts" (John Byrum), "Hickey & Boggs" (Robert Culp), and "Grindhouse" (Rodriguez/Tarantino (the original theatrical hash) are all examples of films I saw in theatres, in some cases travelling many miles past my neighborhood venue, titles not currently available on regular DVD ("Grindhouse" recently escaped on Blu-ray) and can now only be seen by looking at my computer screen by myself, alone.

DVD rights to such titles are murky, undervalued and considered (or actually) not worth pursuing. But these films seem to be part of some out-of-date late '70s-early '80s cable bundles that didn't make it to the DVD publishers during the go-go era of Blockbuster and Erol's, packages that Netflix has purchased to beef up their offerings, from Starz (for a steal, it turns out) or elsewhere.

Netflix doesn't want to be in the mail-order business. The more that people stream films over their t.v.s, phones and handhelds, the less they have to manage, ship and replace thousands upon thousands of discs in the mail which are prone like all objects born of atoms to wear, get lost and suffer other misfortunes of human clumsiness. DVDs break and have to be replaced. When films can be streamed over air, the economics of digital delivery manifest themselves.

This is a long-term strategy - the financial benefit won't bear fruit for a while. Netflix may intend to eventually save the estimated $600m a year on snail-mail postage, but the cost of acquiring this content is suddenly astronomical - over $1.2 billion in the next year alone by some estimates.

The math has changed. I've talked about how Hollywood will insist on regaining control of their content online before. Netflix isn't buying savings because Hollywood has decided they want to be paid to let people look.

Netflix is only leasing the films, for increasingly short periods of time. 3 films in my "instant" queue disappeared last month, as deals matured and were not renewed at the old rates. Netflix has some work ahead as it decides whether (and how) to have the best, the widest, the newest or the deepest selections.

For now they have all the eyeballs. Reportedly over 80% of films watched online stream through Netflix, and they're responsible for over 20% of all internet traffic. This is an enviable position they welcome. Netflix has always had a long term strategy - they aren't called "MailDVDs" after all. Reed Hastings always knew the future of movies was online.

New consumer plans going into effect this week prove they would rather give you unlimited movies on the web than helping you arrange that list of DVDs to mail. People have been using their queues as memory aides - you aren't really going to get to all 500 of those films in this lifetime. As of this fall they report that more of their content is delivered online than by mail, in terms of hours watched. It used to be they mailed DVDs, but also streamed some movies too. Now they stream movies but mail them too if you really want.

They hope that adding that extra dollar to each account nudges you in the right direction. It will also help pay the bills.

In the meantime, while only about 20% of their current content is available for streaming some of it is only available that way. It sits there behind a low-res window of laptop watch-instantly tempting us. I could spend months watching these low-rent forgotten '70s and '80s late-night channel 44 fillers, but the majority of viewers won't want to watch "Fast Food" with Michael J. Pollard and Traci Lords. *

If Netflix wants to offer all the new films and latest shows, it will pay dear for the privilege.
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*Although I heartily recommend it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Remembering and Forgetting in Hollywood

Having peeked inside various archives in Los Angeles for the last couple of years and doing time there instead of merely looking over the fences I've become aware of a trend overtaking the curation of films. In the minutia of deadline day-to-day decisions the philosophical dicotomy between digital and analog, invisible to the audience, is inexorably influencing the industry by stealth and infultrating practice; amid short-sighted budgetary edicts the tipping point's been reached where either something is committed to digital or it remains in analog format.

In effect, this assigns assets either to corporate balkanization or to cultural extinction. It has much to do with what is old and with what is new. It will be an irreversable decision as time goes foreward.

The vast majority of content is not only being produced on digital formats now but also being post-manipulated and delivered by digital means. TV shows and "films" - no longer films really; let's call them AV events - are captured and fed directly into computers to be put together virtually, configured for however and whereever the end product might need to be received. The more flexible the basic building blocks of any material are, from aspect ratios and frame-rate formats to language tracks and bit-rates, the easier it is for studios to shake and bake the right-sized product to however the buyer will want it - a digital satellite feed, a cable TV master, a phone-app or uncompressed HD digital cinema package (DCP).

Final analog 35mm prints occupy only one corner of the buffet table. They're increasingly less relevant to the larger mediasphere and no original negative elements are stored to be later referenced, free to be forgotten and one day re-discovered. The suggestion belabors the insult that the rights holders 1) intend to forget their content, and 2) shouldn't have, and have pre-planned for a future in which their own disregard is remade whole, their lack of foresight to (with with foresight can) be ridiculed.

It's either gonna be saved or it's not. The new digital versions arrive clean. They don't involve messy use-once-throw-away chemicals or manifest accidental scratches or unintentional grain, something more and more audience members express they have no tolerance for. Once digital masters are at the point in their lifecycle to be duplicated and delivered to theatre spaces (some of which are indeed still theatres), they're much cheaper to duplicate and deliver, living on proprietary hard drives that are wiped and reused rather than on 160 lb. celluloid prints that become boat anchors or landfill, once a title leaves its initial run.

Digital archival "prints" don't remain in the world to temp pirates. Proprietary drives work only in the intended venue and self-destruct once the run is over or even if it's plugged into the wrong keyed server. These copies aren't vaulted - they have no half-life.

Titles are rebuilt, on demand, at the studio level by digital means. There will be no going back to the negative or having to find masters after many years, which may not be close at hand.

The sense of objects lost and then found will disappear. There will be nothing to be discovered. If it's not there, it's not anywhere.

A whole new world of archiving is being created before our eyes in which IT experts, server management, copyright maintenance and metadata are more important than the old skills of rolling through reels, shot-by-shot comparision, chemistry and detective work. Searching through vaults, often in the side of a mountain somewhere, or digging through 100-year-old show business magazines for release info, deteriorating or off-limits or hidden in a library not sufficiently staffed to allow access, is labor intensive.

The search will become increasingly pointless. Numerous older titles released on VHS in the 1980s, when that format seemed to to revive entire back catalogs in the go-go days, have not made the transition to DVD. They never will now. Most of the classics and cult items that have been mined now comprise the new "cult" canon. There's no financial reason to re-release "The Devils" or "Sonny Boy" or "American Hot Wax" or "Kafka." The Warner Archives program, along with Sony's recent entry to reanimate some of Columbia's forgotten back catalog, are last ditch efforts to skim what remaining cream is left, at inflated prices although on DVD-rs (shelf life: less than 10 years). These feed on the last good will of jaded collectors who will still pay for films as the studios abandon the DVD business.

The 1000s of titles that did made it to DVD won't make the transition to streaming. The real problem is invisible without your long glasses on. So much new content is being readied to be served up online or on your iPad. Those digital masters are being shepharded and under the legal custodianship of the studios. The studios keep everything safe for as long as its apparent financial lifespan. And no longer. These new and future digital masters are digested and reabsorbed into the studios' virtual clouds of content out of sight, out of mind and out of the culture.

The older realm of films already on prints, almost everything made prior to 1999, will remain in the thousands of archives worldwide, unavailable except to those museum and theatre spaces that still show film from film.

They're kept in cool conditions, and with a minimum of fuss they will last another century. They will sit. These two schools, digital vs. analog, move farther apart as theatres, museums, film festivals, free tv, and all the other modes in which film continued to live are slowly replaced.

The "print" people, who work with objects and artifacts and do research in dusty basements, are already irrelevant to the "digital" people who sit in front of computers and scan and code metadata.

Our historical memories will become divided between the sexy shiny 3-D stuff that we look as it goes online (and no longer when it goes offline), and the plastic objects that still exist because they were able to be left behind.

Monday, August 16, 2010

His New Job

The release of the almost complete (33 of the 34) Chaplin Keystone films (all 1914) from Flicker Alley, remastered from the best surviving elements over the course of decades and international boundaries, is cause for celebration, if only to allow a truer tracking of his character and development of film-making techniques. It also allows us to discover what intangible qualities insinuated his nascent tramp character into the cultural consciousness so quickly and so completely early into the century.

Chaplin occupies a unique place in film history, a young but polished stage performer who knew the tricks of pantomime and embodied an everyman underdog persona to early film's limited techniques to full advantage while other blustery, broad and 2-dimensional performers as Ford Sterling and Harry Langdon would end up being mere footnotes in Kevin Brownlow books. Popular film-going had been around for almost 20 years when Chaplin hit the scene. Filmmakers like Mack Sennett had already codified the limits of the common get-rich-quick business model that was ripe for expansion, either by advanced story-telling (soon to be exploited by Griffith), marketing (Zukor's "Famous Players" and Vitagraph's "Broadway Star" series), or more nuanced character work. Here Chaplin stumbled upon, in a self-knowing as likewise likely accidental manner, the assumed and effective traits that even as he built his popularity upon them, often in cahoots with his audience willing to be seduced, he would set an eye to abandon by the coming of sound a decade later.

The Keystone films have been hard to find in clear watchable versions, and their charms are obscured by scratches, random jumpcuts and generations of dupiness. This release allows us to put the beginnings of his career into perspective. Starting quite early in his career he was already starring in short comedies that took place in movie studios, pointedly early in each new contract with a new studio ("A Film Johnnie" at Keystone, 1914; "His New Job" at Essanay, 1915; and "Behind the Screen" at Mutual, 1916). Clearly such a setting was already familiar enough to audiences by 1914, a familiarity with the backstage mechanics of film-making common enough to set Charlie loose with antics to thereby ensue.

The comparisons between them are instructive, each only a year apart with the missing Keystone pieces as ... well, the keystones. Less than a month after he started with Mack Sennett, "A Film Johnnie", taking place at the Sennett studio with cameos by Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Ford Sterling, demonstrates our hero at odds with an establishment that doesn't welcome or appreciate him, oddly enough populated by the very film workers who are making the film we're watching. (Sennett does not make an appearance.)

The film is, for lack of a better term, primitive. Filled with smoking, shoving and smirking, it shows the speed of prevailing slapstick traffic at the time with the fleeting pleasures of showing the Sennett studio in an occasional background shot, between business with rugs, fake backgrounds, a bombastic director and a pretty girl. Chaplin already knows how to play to the camera rather than to his co-actors, his first and best secret from the legit stage, but the wonders of film-making are still situated within the mise-en-scene, particularly in a sequence in which the backdrop is built and changes behind him as he pines over the girl unaware, a surprisingly modernist moment for 1914 and an impulse Chaplin generally avoided.

By comparison, the following year's "His New Job" (which not-too-subtly announces Essanay's success stealing him from Keystone, for an increased salary presumably going from about $150 to $1250 a week) depicts Charlie's persona as social irritant so comfortably developed and acceptable that the plot mostly hinges on bits about extras being pushed through doors and funny costume gags rather than exploring any potential a film studio or Charlie, as an increasingly sympathetic character, lost within it might reveal. It does feature the questionable benefits of Ben Turpin as another job seeker that Charlie steps over (and on), and also includes a couple of moving shots in which the camera rather insistently dollies in when the film-within-a-film is being shot.

This foregrounding of the apparatus of image-making is self-aware and unexpected in an otherwise typical entry. The studio setting is ultimately a throwaway, even as character accents proliferate, such as Charlie's distracted and immodest glances at a half-draped statue, allowing him to show a conflicted chivalry that must have struck a nerve with him or his audience. The turn reappears in "Work" and in "A Night In The Show" and elsewhere, almost making it a leitmotif of characterization through his early period. As an affectation it's slightly vulgar, but it shows Charlie's heart is in the right place.

The Essanay films are simultaneously more competent and less desperate. By the time of "Behind the Screen" (1916) for Mutual, 2 years after beginning in cinema and 50 short films later, Chaplin as a character has been developed enough and his takes, ticks, and turns familiar enough to risk having him kiss Edna Purviance while dressed as a boy on the mouth (claimed by some to be the first American mainstream "gay" joke). That detail and others, including the porcupine he makes of himself with a dozen chairs on his back and the prevalence of outsize but hollow columns, flour sacks and rubber swords, embrace a truly surreal understanding of making films, finally addressed head-on by Chaplin.

The naked statue he can't keep his roving eyes off of also shows up. A creature of habit (personally as well as professionally), Chaplin knew intimately how to create and milk little moments that had power and meaning beyond their apparent triviality on screen. Much of his training on stage taught him how to size and time little moments that most other screen actors of the era had no idea how to finesse.

A most telling premonition of Chaplin's long career capturing the attention of the world is manifest as early as his 2nd film, "Kid Auto Races in Venice" (1914), shot for Sennett one afternoon during a soap-box derby on the streets of Los Angeles. Here Chaplin acquires a tramp outfit for the first time, by accident and presciently similar to the one he would adopt months later, and the bulk of the show (a scant 6 minutes) is his curious and intrusive tramp walking in front of the newsreel cameras trying to film the race. Chaplin mugs, poses, gets pushed out of the way, and keeps vying for our attention, the audience, while the hapless filmmakers turn the camera away, push him aside, and generally pretend he isn't there.

He is magnetized by the camera lens, and he won't get out of the picture. The force of Chaplin's character and his insistence on being seen and recognized as something interesting, as photogenic - as newsworthy - ignites a fuse of recognition, not only of one man's vanity, though he may be clearly down on his luck (a tramp even!) but in the power of cinema to promise something larger than life out of normal everyday events and accidents.

Even in early 1914, Chaplin was injecting his own wry, winking personality into throw-off shorts already aware of a meta-narrative of films about films. Something that illustrated their potential power, even then.

Charlie kisses a "stagehand."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Soylent Green Is Made Of People

More houses used to have libraries. Books used to be objects on every shelf - and heir to decay, tearing, browning at the edges, silver fish and mold.

One collected books in order to become "learned." They manifested a physical amalgam of your own knowledge, souvenirs of previous interests and areas of study, arcane statistics and insights - a kind of memory adjunct. They're there because you need them to look something up every so often - you can't memorize everything and there's comfort in knowing at least what can be found in them, pleasure in knowing where to find something.

Of course you must be familiar with them to be able to get your hands on what you're looking for. Someone famous said, "Who wants a library full of books you've already read?" Well, that is a different kind of library. That's a want list acquired, weighing down and intruding on your future free time.

Now books are moving en masse to digital form, and are acquired by download spontaneously and often at a whim. Formatted files sit on Kindles and Nooks owned by increasing layers of demographic, and are not burdened by the physicality of real books or the potency of having been read and displayed. No, instead they have become lighter than air and are infinitely more portable, especially in numbers.

An electronic device is still useful for reference - it's not very cool to pull out an OED in the bar when a trivia question about past-pluperfect inflections arises (again). If that's your idea of a good time in a bar maybe you're not as cool as you thought - or you're in the wrong bar - or maybe you do want to pull out an OED. Digital books can be taken anyplace. They can be downloaded and searched everywhere and yet are no where. They are files, in the cloud. We rent the ability to view them, through the phosphor screen, rather than getting the thing delivered for us to put on the shelf - to tease us over how much future free time it means.

We certainly can't copy or move them from device to device. And every so often we are reminded that someone else controls the content as when Amazon deaccessioned all the digital copies of 1984 from afar, an unfortunate irony and strangely prescient considering the title. Google Books only allows you to look at one page at a time based on your search term, rather than let you view an entire copyrighted work. They don't give it all to you for free online - and they shouldn't. They're protecting content by denying you the ability to refer to it meaningfully - but there you go.

And your digital files won't move to any other device, and will eventually become technologically obsolete.

We are awash in cultural artifacts but we simply don't see anyone's books anymore. We can't keep them or hold them. We can't check the dude out by what books he's got - or by what LPs are on the turntable. Books are no longer valued as objects with impact, as objects worth seeing. Owning. Having. Newspapers are already gone, and magazines are next, and that iPad subscription to Sports Illustrated won't keep you warm at night in 5 years. Even on BART, if someone's reading Gibbon's Decline of the Roman Empire on their iTouch, you'd assume they were FourSquaring (must everything become its own verb?). Proponents insist that there's no room for the 10,000 books available and now in your back pocket on a Kindle. You can pull them out anywhere. There's no room on any shelf for that many. No room in a house, or 2 houses. Break the tyranny of the dusty page.

I say we make room. Make room to display the value books assert in their very existence - heavy and aging at the expense of something else. That is what gives them value. To make room is to admit their worth and that a decision was made. That they are here instead of some other object. These books are here because I read them and I know what's in them and they represent who I am.

If they're in the air and they're infinite and they are all around us, and invisible, they're like a watered down soup. Just filler and not worth the space they take up.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Kiss of A Spider Woman

Perhaps you heard the New York Times have reported that the owners of all the original materials of the film "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985, directed by Hector Babenco) are up for auction - not as a film or even as an archival collection manifesting some larger meaning or artistic importance by its breadth and depth of materials and provenance. The lot includes scripts, 35mm outtakes, camera negatives, papers, and the rights themselves.

They're not selling this to some cultural institution, like the MOMA (who's not interested and doesn't know how to do such things anyway) or the UCLA Film Archives (who as a public entity only takes donations, thank you very much). They're selling this instead as a "work of art."

The collection of film isn't being sold as a cultural entity so much as a physical pile of objects. A beautiful one. The idea is that the whole amalgamation is its own artistic statement.

The move is audacious and smacks of performance art. The film, no slouch itself and a major art-house hit for the time, snuck up on me on cable years later when I wasn't sure what I was in for. It had its own pedigree, co-written by Paul Schrader's brother Leonard ("Blue Collar") and novelist Manuel Puig and starring William Hurt in a game of chicken with his career poised after the avant-garde hipness of "The Big Chill" (1983) and before the cold and depressive "Accidental Tourist" years (1988-present). Raul Julia, who did his best to fight against type-casting his whole career yet ended up cast (perfectly) as Gomez Addams and in "Street Fighter" movies right before his death, is his cellmate who becomes obsessed with the spectre of the Spider Woman in the films of Hurt's dreams.

Get this straight. They are auctioning off a collection of raw and production elements, wishing to declare, position, and profit from the larger idea of detritus as cultural value, an evidence of unique process important and illuminating. Hollywood doesn't appreciate its own products, David Weisman, one of the original producers, suggests, and thinks the art world may appreciate the "object" more properly. This stretches the concept of what is actually art (here we go again), which ultimately will be in the eye of the holder.

Will the new purchaser re-release the film with new sequences never before seen, envisioned, or even scripted? Will the outtakes be digitized and turned into a 360-degree museum installation without beginning or end? How much value does the "asset" still have? The film made about $17 million and went on to generate more interest after a Broadway version. It's not like the collection can be displayed in a Manhattan summer house above the divan, not easily, and it will have storage issues to sort out as well. But so do original canvases by Picasso and Modigliani.

And yet, neither can any actual film, artifacts manifesting the most successful artform of the 20th century, be displayed easily for casual and immediate appreciation and critique. Analog though they be, they must be projected on an arcane projection device, with a lens, bright light, seats and a blank white wall. They don't reveal their secrets to the naked eye and visual inspection. You must "present" them.

Cinema is the only artform in which you turn your back on the object and look at a shadow of the original, shone and reflected against the opposite wall. Which is the source of its power, a caress we stare at of movement and images, light and sound, carefully worked and seducing us to get closer to something we can never seize, never possess. Film only reveals its secrets by proxy, entraping us without us knowing what hit us or exactly how it did it - this collection of frames and shots.

How do these objects possess us and make us obsess over how they were built up; manufactured? Cast their unique spell when we give over to their charms? The quoditian objects created around the production of "Kiss" have been re-conceived as an objet d'art, but may serve better as archival summary to be mined by some future historian. Perhaps by keeping the panoply whole and identifying it as a "work of art" with value all its own, some one some day may get to the bottom of it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Who's Cow Is It Anyway?

While arguably, the digital cat is out of the analog bag, Hulu which streams the most amount of television shows online (legally) announced they were going to start charging for much of their premium content. You could still get some of the old stuff for free, but in order to sate your appetite for "Gossip Girl" or "30 Rock" you'd have to $10 a month to get it on your iPad. And that's still with the forced salad dressing commercials. (All of "Rockford Files" and "Banacek" are still available. I guess a new generation doesn't consider them "iPad"y.)

In the shift to online-only editions, Time Magazine is also moving to a paywall strategy - the newest issue's articles are shortened and only older (and less relevant) news is available for free. This is an effort to protect its content from freeloaders on the web, who don't pay their way and cost relatively little to deliver to, but are troublesome in that they demand more and more content in real time, something print-based magazines are still having a hard time figuring out how to do. Paywalls are confusing and controversial. But it seems the last way to save the dying print industry, in a race with music to the bottom and without deep-pocket patrons to soften the fall.

20th Century Fox has snuck a pay-subscription model by us for mobile phones (called Bitbop) without fanfare to test the pay-for-tv model in your pocket. They will offer the same t.v. shows as Hulu and soon full-length motion pictures. You kids can go make your lol videos, we're going to stream stuff you want to pay for. Because it's actually scarce.

Turns out it costs to create content, in time and in money. Ipads and iPhones have changed how we get this stuff; now people would rather watch once than own and store what they have to hide when polite company comes over. Why the hell do you have a copy of "Beverly Hills Cop 3"? Apple, famously open in the beginning and increasingly more closed, is turning into the best friend of content providers. If the pipeline is singular and controlled (and works through an already-in-place payment system, like, say, the one for iTunes) paying for content just might work.

Now it's a contest to get as much out there as possible. Simply start limiting access moving forward and let the old stuff remain open, languishing in its diminished "free" ghetto. Things are changing, folks. The internet is omniverous. They're praying the long tail model wags the new stuff into a tsunami of micropayments. There may be less value in the back catalog, unless of course producers try to charge for that as well.

After all, it's first run till you've seen it. Disney for one knows you don't want to buy DVDs anymore, and intends to start supplying their content in the future through internet access that we pay for, without ever delivering actual discs, files or copies to us. Their old stuff will be handled this way as well - you'll be paying for "Dumbo" and "Hannah Montana" for the rest of your life. Their plan is called "Keychest," and they will supply access to their shows and their movies for a fee and hold the keys, as well as information of our renting and buying habits to sell to other providers.

That's one way to have your cake and get hit in the face with it as well. Why do I have the feeling I'm on the wrong end of the baked goods?

Friday, July 2, 2010


One of the most film-geeky sequence in Truffaut's "Day For Night" in the one in which the young Jean-Pierre Leaud steals a still of "Citizen Kane," his fetishistic totem to a mode of American studio movie productions, and a purloined souvenir from the unobtainable mysteries of film appreciation in an age (1973) when you had to watch everything at a local repertory house or late at night on t.v. when the local station happened to program it.

Series of books were released in the late '60s and '70s that discussed film and produced goldfish-scale black-and-white stills, miserly and like manna, such as the breadcrust-size A. S. Barnes series that revealed Bunuel, French cinema, Dreyer, or the Marx Brothers. The "Focus On" series, also defunct, edited by Donald McCaffrey focused on Chaplin, Welles, science fiction, D.W. Griffith, Bonnie and Clyde, the western or Blow-Up.

Where did such enthusiasm for publishing go? Did we really have a cultural hunger and imperative to read about such seemingly generic or specific topics? Playboy published "Sex In The Cinema" issues every November, using the excuse of grabbing stills of cinematic transgressions with naked people to suggest the mysteries popular films really held. "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea" (1976) was about much more than Sarah Miles with no clothes on.

Films had a limited availability, not easily viewable after they disappeared from theatres. An entire subculture centered around stalking and tracking down elusive showings, late at night or at conventions, or unannounced on the bottom of double bills. The stills and second-hand reviews that were published had the power of discovered evidence, skeletal relics outlining the details of the bodies of the texts, the nuances of the photography and players, the sensual pleasures held within the time spent with the actual film, unspooling in real time, one time only, a late night rendezvous.

They were poured over like a Maxwell Demon gatefold, being undecoded as best they could until we could unlock the mysteries the films ourselves, in person, face to face. Until then, we had to take Baxter's or Clarens' or Hoberman's word for it. I read every word Kael wrote in the '60s and '70s, in part to ensure myself that I could trust her.

The days of discovering films through all these secondary ephemeral stills and critiques is over. It used to be hard. Movies are so easily accessible through the Internet through streaming or bit-torrenting under the radar, or from video-on-demand from the studios themselves, often before theatrical release, which is suicide, that they have lost their aura as events.

Films have lost their aura as important. Any title is available almost anyway you want, almost as soon as you want it. Television distributors have already given up trying to get us to make appointments to drive us to their product. They'd much rather throw it at us any way and place we might pay attention, an act of desperation and promiscuity. We have Hulu and Netflix and NBC.com and YouTube, and soon Sezmi and Zillion.tv.

Seeing films used to be work - you had to pay attention, pour over the listings and be aware of the rep houses who might have a quirk in their scheduling that would schedule "Transatlantic Tunnel" (1935) or "The Wild Party" (1975) because the bookers read the same articles in Cinefantastique you did. ("Tunnel" showed with "Phase IV" in a mad programming strategy.) Now they show up without announcement or explanation. Who rented "Anti-Christ" (2009) from Time-Warner Cable thinking it was an "Exorcist" rip-off from Italy? Films will be delivered digitally to all 3 of your screens and they will be in bite-size pieces and ubiquitous.

No longer sacred or special objects that we must travel to in order to enjoy. We don't have to leave our couch, and so they are no longer objects to be revered. To have access at your fingertips is to not feel the need to steal those stills from behind the grate, to decide what is worth the risk of getting slapped.

It used to be hard to publish opinions about films as well. Even writing zines required patience, a certain design sense - or specific lack of one - explicitly applied, and pages and staples to be lined up. Photos to be chosen from the delicious few available for your lustful duplication.

Now there's no more friction. Now all is instant, ubiquitous and promiscuous. We've lost the need and the value of having to wait to see what the secrets are to be revealed by films, carefully and in their own time. Even if they are worth working for. It devalues not only the work in making them but in the work in viewing and enjoying them as well.

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The author acknowledges the contributions to this discussion of Bruce Fletcher, of Dead Channels and of SF Film Club, which we don't talk about.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Arbitrary Walter Benjamin Reference

After Cannes last week, Mahnola Dargis, Roger Ebert and then even Cinematical piped in on whether or not the august film festival should be showing films digitally, whether or not we can tell the difference, whether the filmmakers care, and what if anything, exactly is lost by this.

It is a conversation fraught with anxiety, nostalgia, knee-jerk conservatism, and nerdy one-up-manship. There's a sense in the air that the age of film is dying before our eyes. Buyers aren't buying at the festival, and sellers aren't coming anymore. There were no US films there except for "Robin Hood," which doesn't even seem to have a presence in America. It's not even really made by Americans. Godard, Ebert reports, is now finally and culturally irrelevant.

I think they're really nostalgic for a community that was worldwide and was dependent upon meeting face to face to see art and discuss marketing and sales. Do people really still care about watching films on film? Doesn't it scratch? Wear? Fade? How high is hi-resolution? Isn't everything already done digitally nowadays anyway?

The question should be reframed. To engage in the question of the value of a film print as a unique format for art to be preserved and shown in its native state is not a question that has anything to do with the filmmaker's motive or intent. The vast majority of the production and industrial habits and processes are ingrained in the capitalistic infrastructure and the artist has no input into the end result. We read about and discuss outliers like Spielberg, who may insist on cutting on film with a flatbed because he likes the "feel" of the cuts, and is allowed to because he's rich enough to be this eccentric, but even he can't stop "Raiders 4" from being digitally projected in most venues (or prevent the analog stunts in "Raiders 3" from looking fake). Fincher insists he can fix it all in post, because his post started 2 years before filming, but that freedom (and distraction) is the worst thing that happened to him. His grosses are a lot lower but the studios are more than happy to have him experiment on making Brad Pitt younger, on-the-job research for when the real Brad Pitt isn't around anymore and they still want to make Brad Pitt movies.

And yet Fincher's upcoming remake of "Reincarnation of Peter Proud" will be struck to film and projected at the local Galaxy theatre, possibly out of focus. Digital effects be damned.

Nor should we accuse poor film showing environments as damning of the medium en toto. Too many times proponents of digital point out that it doesn't scratch. Yet digital fails unexpectedly in different ways, and it's presumed divorcement from the mortal coil of physicality only replaces the problems of inertia, dust and time; it does not make it invincible. Every venue and every showing is different - film will scratch and bulbs will dim and hard drives will skip and the white balance won't be properly recalibrated. Not to mention human error.

To decide that film or film theatres suck because we had a bad experience when a showing of "Sex and the City" broke 2 years ago is to confuse effect with cause. Theatres haven't had union projectionist in their booths for 10 years - those new fancy digital projectors will manifest the same inability to keep going without constant and expensive upkeep soon enough.

Instead we should consider the nature of film projection vs. the nature of digital delivery in a utopian and ideal environment and what the medium, or should I say "format," conveys phenomologically rather than anecdotally. It's a question of reception rather than in the transmission contingencies in the first place.

Film, rather famously, is indexical; that is, it is a one-to-one representation of what the makers created, a print off the negative which was cut/edited from actual strips of film in a camera that was on the set in front of the famous (or infamous) actors there. The line of provenance from object to object is clear and possesses a tangible value as an artifact of a specific time, a place, a method by which it was worked, and its travel through space to arrive behind you as you sit. Light bounced off Ringo Starr and landed on the emulsion in the camera in 1965, in which negatives were printed from. Those negatives were the actual source of the 100s of prints that were sent to theatres. The light shines through it and you see the shadow of those grains of chemical, a kind of apparition of history rewritten on the wall in the glance of light 24 times a second.

The one-to-one-to-one direct lineage is perhaps more important philosophically than cognitively. But the sense that you're watching the same film that has been seen by thousands of others when you see a distressed print of "Help" gives one pause. It creates an awareness of the extra-narrative context over time.

Digital delivery packages, conversely, are translated information from data and output electronically. It is not indexical and has no one-to-one provenance from the original event. It is an electronic construct, and re-constructed. Digital files capture images and events by math. Not by chemical proximity. This material shift from object to data may mean the image is as perfect or as degraded as it has been programed to be. It can be smooth, and has a creaminess that film with its 24-frames-a-second grain can't duplicate. It doesn't manifest scratches. It glows and "feels" perfect.

It doesn't age with experience. Each showing is a new event, a unique performance without previous history.

We respond differently to the flicker of film, some people suggesting it creates a dreamlike fugue state in which the dark between the frames, upwards of 70% of the time, lulls us into a more forgiving right-brain epileptic engagement. Digital streams at 60 or double that frames a second, and commands our attention like a shining inheritance. It's a florescence compared to film's incandescent shimmer, exciting our senses without rest.

Our minds process and get tired watching digital. Certain films work much better that way, insistent and quirky and of the surface. That image up there, the film-strip dress, will not keep her warm at night. It's something else - it looks tactile and has a visual pleasure that barely hides as much as it reveals. It only suggests, promising what it can deliver. The question is whether or not we prefer the shot to be clear and even. Or do we like the evidence of those 24 frames? Does that comfort us, or do we want an image entirely and continually as smooth as milk?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Red Dessert

Like R. Knight, I too have a thing for Monica Vitti and the surreal and alienating wonders that Antonioni has managed to slip into the culture, unseen and now inoperable. Criterion is releasing "The Red Desert" (Il deserto rosso (1964)) in blu-ray and it seems too little too late, especially when we read that sales of DVDs are down 30% more this year from last year's already alarming 30%.

People aren't buying catalog titles anymore, and they're barely buying the new stuff ("Avatar" is an exception and an outlier, and should be discounted for more than one reason. What are you people thinking?). What does a 45-year old art-house avant-garde visual tone-poem, Antonioni's first color film that so aggressively fucks with the palette to make it seem more finger-painted than choreographed, corrupted rather than blooming, have to offer a generation raised on perfect and digital hi-def hi-res imagery?

"Rosso" is poised between the hip and minimalist "Blowup" (1966) and the stoic and elitist (and to my mind perfect) "L'eclisse" (1962). Circling around a popular mode of film-making after overly existential narratives influenced but never embracing the populism (or socialism) of neo-realism, Antonioni seemed genuinely hurt by "L'avventura"'s critical drubbing in 1960 at Cannes. It's a tough movie. Not of this time, and I'm not sure of any time. Conceptually more fun to talk about than to watch, I think very few people have given it a chance, really, at least until the (seemingly) only camera move in the whole film, that slow push-in on the empty street showing us... nothing. It's indulgent, arrogant, yet transcendent. It opens up the film ontologically as well as metaphysically. Yet it happens a good hour in, and trying to explain that to anyone is a fool's errand, like telling someone to hang with Warhol's "Empire" - a bird flies by in hour 6.

Ergo, "Rosso." Antonioni seemed insistent in making an art piece. That looked and felt like art-capital-A. Reportedly set decorators painted walls red and leaves green to give the film a palette more impressionistic than realist. The acting, as was the speed of prevailing traffic in Europe at the time, is conveyed mostly with words spoken to the table rather than at the people in the room, looks out windows and walking across the industrial sets to strike a pose, framed within and sometimes dwarfed by the manipulated (if intentionally) ugly sets.

It displays the best things about Antonioni, as well as the worst. It's too much and yet not enough, a recipe of elements that don't quite bake together. The existential ennui drowns the narrative momentum in a manner that points ultimately to the explosive and resonant failures of "Zabriskie Point" (1970). Vitti, game if done, finally becomes what had never happened before, a decorative detail, a directorial flourish, just an undigested element in the set design, caught between existential malaise and the director's obsessive blindness.

I can't wait. "Rosso" had a sub-standard DVD release in 1999 that didn't properly master or balance the color or aspect ratio. I'm guessing the Criterion DVD blu-ray will, at the least, go back to original reference materials to make it look as close to the original release as possible, regardless of how out-of-date and stale it might be to current audiences. It's the missing link in Antonioni's 1960s oeuvre. It's like a cake that's a little too dry to go down, but you can't stop nibbling at.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Drips, Thousands of Them

Last month the Library of Congress took the bold and inevitable/ inenviable move of deciding to preserve all of Twitter's feeds since its inception in 2006. This was cause for concern in many cultural circles - the corpus of "tweets" are famously inconsequential, brief (140 characters means they have to be as concise as haiku and they don't even rhyme) and so very much of the moment.

They exist outside any context beyond the immediate, without footnotes or backstory, disconnected to meaningful singular or tracable threads.

Or not. It seems like so much digital noise, either seldom serious or way too personal. I imagine the anxiety in some quarters has to do not with the content as much as the size of this archive. How is this possibly going to illuminate any future historical research?

The problem isn't necessarily in the weight of the corpus - millions of small and disjointed tweets about who and god knows what. They refer to timely and ephemeral cultural events that fade as quickly as they rise in the search-fed trending charts. A cursory look at Twittter's own page of trending topics ("Right Now" vs. "Today" vs. "This Week") reveals the distorted view from the rear view mirror of historical perspective. Objects are closer than they appear.

A bigger question is how are we'll know who wrote these tweets or why. These terse, clever, obscure koans are anonymous to the larger population - the usernames are often pseudonyms, synonyms, acronyms, homonyms. Is that being archived as well, Twitter's proprietary user backend with ISP#s and geo-locations embedded? What if users disabled that feature? Is there a privacy issue at stake? Who is represented geographically and who is anonymous?

And who's tweets will have greater historical weight in the future? Which ones will be more heavily researched simply because they have more surrounding context? Spelled things correctly? Levels of "impact," re-tweet factor, rate of followers, whatever?

Many news stories broke on Twitter in "real time" including the widespread dissemination of Michael Jackson's ride to the hospital in the sky - there are legit reasons to track what's discussed in this skewed and auto-democratic forum. The Iranian election protests in June 2009 on the streets caused 200,000 users to change their avatar green (and some are still are). What does this say about Iran... or about the average Twitter user - that they're politically committed or that they forgot?

It's a new level of discourse, outside journalism and academia. The importance of this LOC archive if it lasts - if it's actually maintained - won't be in what people say in those 140-character text-bubbles but how.

Language when repressed or limited expands in strange and revealing ways. People express themselves differently if they think they're anonymous and if they got no time to finesse. When Twitter goes away, and it will, this collection of immediate inconsequential snapshots, these text notes under the bed, will reveal a time and a place in which, facilitated by mobile devices and the attention spans that all the new toys of our age engender, will show us as a community digitally connected in ways never thought possible, still trying to say something meaningful to the people around us.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Contracted Cinema

One of the larger Barnes and Noble stores in the San Francisco area closed recently, and I realized that I missed browsing in a bookstore.

I also miss browsing in libraries, seeing what's next to what. Now it might be too late. So much of our research is in finding what you (think you) want online and ordering it for delivery or to having the local branch hold it. Get an email, drop in and check it out and leave. No time to search, since it's not local anyway.

It was over 10 years ago when I first read about the bookstores complaining about Amazon. How people would go into their stores and browse, figure out what books they wanted, hold them, fall in love with them, then go home and order it online for 25% less.

This drain would put the smaller bookstores out of business unless they could get their inventory into exlibris.com (itself bought by Amazon) or had room for a coffee shop in the back (which kept the Borders' open in my neighborhood). Now with Google Books you don't even need the book. You search by keyword and it brings up the section of the page that it shows up in. It doesn't show you the whole page, let alone the whole book; that's for copyright reasons - don't want to give it away for free. There's your citation. So you never see the page, the book, or the books sitting next to it that might be as relevant, more relevant, or at least instructive.

In the old days you might go to the Animation section to look for a book on Donald Duck but you would see 25 or 30 others including ones on Warner Brothers or the Fleischers or Windsor McKay. Some were old and some were new; even if you never picked them up you had an idea of what the scope of the field might be, from "Z for Zagreb" to "Expanded Cinema," sitting there daring you to figure out what they were. They somehow had to do with animation, and when the topic came up a year later you were familiar.

I must have seen 200 copies of "Expanded Cinema" in my life but I never bought it or had one in my house. I didn't need to. It was everywhere. By picking it up every so often I know it's about the avant-garde/video scene in the late 60s and early '70s, about verite and experimental animation, and Buckminster Fuller was involved somehow. The fact that there are so many copies indicated that this mattered at some point. The fact that it was such makes it culturally important, even if its 40 years old now and technology may have made some of its practical insights historically quaint.

A hard-cover on Amazon now goes for over $70 bucks - the paperbacks are still around for $20, a relatively high price for something that was a dime-a-dozen in the '80s. If you look up "Animation" or even "Experimental Animation Books" in Google this book doesn't come up. No one's linking to it and no one's selling it.

The only way to find it is to go to an old used bookstore that has been in business long enough to have acquired a copy 20+ years ago and still has it next to novelizations of "Myra Breckinridge" and books by Amos Vogel. Those two are at the far end of the alphabet as well, and are entryways into expanded cinema of their own.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

You can also read about the joys of browsing here.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Halls of Montezuma

In the half a dozen laboratories I've visited in the last year, not only are there hallways of clean tiles and closed-off pneumatic doors between you and the chemicals, there are boxes and boxes of films lining the halls.

Cardboard boxes and metal Goldberg cans. Carefully poly-ed and sieved reels and also rusted-shut boat anchors. Film is everywhere. The backlog is overwhelming. While new film is dead (everything new is being produced on digital and tape-less formats - you can't get film if you wanted it (for example)) there are still linear feet of old film; boxes and Martian tons of film cans, negatives and magnetic masters that haven't gone away.

They're stacked in corners and behind water fountains. Unfinished or abandoned projects, clean and marked, others dusty, crushed and forgotten. Many have to be transferred to a more portable medium, that is, a digital file that can be manipulated in the DaVinci. Optical negative tracks must be married to picture elements.

In the go-go era of 3-D and flip-of-a-switch turnaround, these physical smelly and embarrassing objects clutter up the place. The labels are coming off, they're misspelled, they are incomplete. The archives are full.

Prints of films that have already been transferred to VHS and now (or soon) to DVD are as good as orphans. The studios dumped every possible title onto VHS in the '80s, but many of them didn't sell well, except to fill out the inventories of Blockbusters. They were telecine'd at full-screen and with bitched-up timing. No matter, who wants to see "Crimewave" with Paul Smith? Who wrote or directed it anyway? And "White of the Eye" has... who in it exactly?

Each iteration of technology leaves a percentage of titles behind. Of the 10,000s of films produced in the the last 50 years, a mere half of them made it to video, a format in which you could take home rather than waiting for the broadcast on network t.v. or local cable, late at night, before that real estate was taken over by info-mercials and reality. Once DVDs took over, only the cream of that crop was remastered and released.

They stopped showing up on TV too. After years (decades) of giving old film away all night on late-night UHF stations, the studios began to take them back. That Saturday morning, late Tuesday night film school that afforded me the entire back catalog of Hollywood was taken away from future generations in the '90s. "The Wizard of Oz" will no longer be shown yearly at Thanksgiving. The unexpected and unknown joys of "The Brinks Job" or "Crashing Hollywood" can no longer be stumbled upon accidentally.

Someone's holding on to those, wanting to monetize them somehow, although no one has a business model anymore to do so.

So as DVD sales stall the Corman Poe films go out of print. The masters will be in the vault, waiting for a future format that may require going back to the originals to digitally scan. Blu-ray reveals flaws in the camera negatives that can't be hidden - and perhaps shouldn't be. We'll have to send money on that. One of these days. That's why "Taxi Driver" hasn't been released to blu-ray. It's too gritty - all that grain would be rejected by the "cinephiles" who want their demo-discs clean without the hi-res evidence.

Hi-def 3-D TV will make it worse.

But every 7 years there will be a new release of "Snow White." "Casablanca" and "Gone With the Wind" and "Blade Runner" sell perennially and will be remastered perennially. The rest of the catalog isn't worth the shelf space it's printed on right there, and there's those other copies out there. Why are we keeping them?

Studio archives aren't in the business of keeping their unwanted objects. But how to make room for the new films, the 3-D files from the horror remakes last year?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Free Vodka

Film festivals are easily parties more than they're cultural events. They often get started as home-grown affairs, attempts by the Chamber of Commerce to create a curated art happening that lasts a weekend or a whole week; get visitors into a sleepy borough in the off-season and rent some hotel rooms.

It's easy to find promotional partners to pitch in screening spaces and printing costs for the program, all with the lure of peeling off some of the Hollywood sexiness and glamour that comes from showing half-indie premieres (like "The Cooler" (really "indie"? Like "Juno" is indie?)) and having media louse up the place and maybe get some gift-bag bling.

Festivals inevitably attract submissions from desperate filmmakers, corporate marketers looking to get a laurel leaf on their DVD box, and actual artists that get lost in the fog of late-night activity and the ghetto of a 9:00 am showing on Sunday morning. But the nicer the location (the south of France, or Bermuda) the more visitors come to spend money and only occasionally see an actual film. The theatres are for shit anyway. If they're even theatres. Half the films aren't shown on film - they're shown digitally, from betacam or DVD.

Who's watching? The good films were already bought and the undiscovered gems can be had by screener.

It's a social scene with local dignitaries and any actor or filmmaker with a new straight-to-video feature they could lure with a free room, a date with the local prom queen and free booze from the current hipster vintner to do a Q&A after the screening. Michael Madsen is doing the festival circuit for "The Killing Jar." It's more fun to hang out with him than sit in the dark watching the thing - it'd only kill the conversation at the opening night party.

Palm Springs, Nashville, Mill Valley, and Carbondale pull from all 4 corners of the globe. They use promotional partners, offer half-off dinners at local restaurants, and advertise bars that are open late (and early). They also give away ball point pens, iPods loaded with the opening-night movie, and hats saying "Lionsgate."

The films are just an excuse. The appreciation of independent cinematic art can be sated nowadays with a subscription to Netflix and judicious searching on a bittorrent site. With 450 film festivals in the US last year, you may wonder why so many people are still going.

Don't they have plasma t.v.s?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Lights. Camera.

"Avatar" won the Oscar for Best Cinematography a few weeks ago, and the immediate reaction was to wonder how much of the look and composition is due to cinematography and how much is due to computer programming.

Cinematography, it seems to me, is rather pretty intricately linked to cameras and lenses. It's the art of doing what you can with the equipment you have at your disposal to enhance the director's artistic vision and create/emphasize a mood.

There's not room for programming. It's the artisianal use of the indexical quality of film and cameras to make what you point your camera at as emotionally resonant. "Writing with light," as Vittorio Storaro would insist.

J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars" is as guilty as writing with software as "Avatar" is. This discussion quotes Mr. Abrams' artistic enthusiasm for adding lens flares to the film to create a subtext of an overflowing future. I guess that's writing with "light" too. This use of added visual icing to create some sense of "reality" was foregrounded in Lucas's fourth (or is it the first)"Star Wars" film, shot entirely digitally and a busier film on the surface (covering over a disconcerting lack of cake) I've never seen (including the "Matrix" pie-fights). "Phantom Menace" is a film fingered in post-production to re-appropriate the artifacts of film-based and "conservative" and traditional camera work, such as adding lens flares, camera shake, focus rack-ins (all documented in the extensive and strangely disconcerting making-of featurette on the first DVD release).

There's of course an irony to shooting everything in perfect digital and then adding the accidental and (formerly unwanted) visual anomalies. They give us comfort, especially when we realize they aren't there. I imagine "Phantom Menace" as cold and pointless until the "warmth" was added, this in one of the most backward-looking retro films of recent memory. ("Grindhouse" comes to mind, which also takes its inspiration from previous narrative-making modes and is guilty of a similar attempt to "add" authenticity.)

All these digital manipulations are in the interest of making things "real." Even "Avatar"'s hype about changing the way movies will be made also ensures us that the techniques make things more real than real. Actors have nothing to worry about; they aren't obsolete.

See how "easy" it is to add flare:

The other nominee was "Transformers." They photo-shopped out Megan Fox's tattoos in her scenes so they wouldn't distract us. That's a little too real for the story they were trying to tell.

Now that's acting.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Did You Know Mike?

The Warner Archives' press-on-demand DVD series has gone deep into their forgotten catalog and slipped James Bridges' "Mike's Murder" (1984) past us with no fanfare. But it's a lost gem that deserves rediscovering, not only for its strongly evocative tone capturing the post-70s corruption of urban life, but for the many small and powerful pleasures possible in a studio film that was withheld, recut, dumped and then abandoned by the studio (the Alan Ladd Co.), itself becoming a victim of test-screenings and marketing pressure.

The film, titled disarmingly with the straight-forward "Mike's Murder" to have us believe this is simply a whodunit, is anything but. Betty (Debra Winger) has an on-again-off-again relationship with Mike (Mark Keyloun) a tennis coach who seems to be slipping in and out of trouble with drug deals with characters we - and he - never quite get to see or know. They meet by accident over the course of a year or so (without the amount of time being clearly defined, but that's part of the dreamy momentum) and by the time Mike is murdered (off-screen) we've been slowly investing so much emotional baggage on them getting together that Betty's ambling search for the truth of the murder, and of Mike, takes on a fated urgency.

Ultimately the film is really about the inability to know who people say they are, the world around us, who we can trust. Betty, in the center, is a cypher who hasn't quite been paying attention to the various vacuous influences around her but "likes" Mike. A lot. Yet except for the opening romantic montage in which we see them play tennis then dissolve into falling into bed, they actually spend more time together on the phone making and breaking plans to meet than actually going out on dates. Mike, even before he disappears from the film, slowly comes into focus by various photos of him by friends (Sam, his drunk older mentor, and Randy at a record producer's house up in the Hollywood Hills).

Indeed the story shorthands the obvious broad strokes and is aggressively ambiguous in its details, more interested in the nuances of conversation, looking, and even composition. It's formal but strangely cocaine-inflected. Anxious yet non-causal. The phone calls are often shot in one take, without intercutting to the other person, a sly and troublesome affectation to withhold information, even if it's simply the look on the face of the other person.

The ambiguity spreads to the sexuality of the various relationships as well, which we are left to ponder along with Betty, not only starting with the unexplored relationship between Mike and Sam, but most enticingly in the Hollywood Hills where Phillip the record producer (played quietly and strongly by a slightly swish Paul Winfield) begins to suggest a more polymorphous network of alliances and debts among him and Mike's friends before Betty stops him, not wanting to know more. Details are withheld. The camera stays its distance, not revealing anything out of turn.

Ultimately it all boils down to drugs. And yet the film never gives a face or range to the forces against Mike (and against his surviving buddy, Pete, who gets the closest to Betty finally, uncomfortably so). The film seems to take the drug subculture as so obvious that it doesn't dirty its hands by explaining it. It merely permeates the film. The cocaine world in the film is populated and partaken in by the upper middle class, white collar businessmen with no foreign, black or sinister inflections in sight. Phillip, the black record producer, is only seen to drink cranberry juice although there is cocaine around. The entire business is portrayed as efficient and omnipresent, invisibly and peaceably coexisting with the characters.

The film is unable or unwilling to reveal the unexplored corners of the world Betty travels in. Mike's world is dark and less knowable.

The film has no center. It's perfect. Presumably Bridges originally conceived the film as being told in a jumbled or even "backward" timeline, akin to "Memento" (per Ned Merrill in his fine write-up on Obscure One-Sheet blog here) as Betty tries to uncover the mystery, in fragments. If the original cut still survives (and there is a rumor it's still out there) it's not likely forthcoming. The original trailer's tagline "No one is innocent" is quite different and ominous than the final's "The mystery that led her into a world of incredible danger." No doubt before its time, and a hard thing to pull off in any case, the film was recut and reformulated by the studio, appearing 2 years late.

If the film was that altered, it survived well. Those elliptical scenes of Mike making deals would serve equally well as visual evidence in flashbacks, yet fold in well in strict chronological order. The sense of lost time and uncapturable memory, underscored by such moments as when Mike sees Betty in her car and notes "It's been 6 months" or later, when he calls her and she says "It's been 3 months", take us by surprise. Late in the film, when Betty has visited various people she says to a friend that the murder happened "last night" and we are equally surprised that only a day has passed.

The original trailer, available on the Warners' DVD (and here), suggest a more rigorous investigation into the mystery of "Mike." There are more shots of bloody knives and violence (all of which may be stock footage and not originally part of the film) as well as Betty and him in romantic soft-focus shots (and she is implicated in the drug-taking in an apparent sharing of a joint). Instead the Morricone-esque plaintive music (by John Barry, added to replace Joe Jackson's original score) every time Betty is on screen centers the tale on her.

The film only suggests the theme of how we know someone only by how they're reflected in others, and formulates an uneasy truce over the heartache when we confront inevitable loss.

The final confrontation between Pete and Betty is a neo-noir red herring. But the film offers other profound and authentic pleasures such as watching Debra Winger in profile driving a VW Rabbit down Sunset Blvd, phone conversations that play out in one-sided real time, and an LA filled with trees, concrete, chain link fences and late model cars, all alternately too dark or bathed in the warm diffused aura of the setting Southern California sun. Visible and yet unknowable.

Monday, February 15, 2010

We're Breaking Up

Film theory has shifted in the last 30 years as it's matured, moving from primarily text-based analysis (what did John Ford really mean?) to unpacking more psychological gender and racial-imperialistic tendencies in certain modes of production (what do John Ford films say about the studios he worked for?). By the '80s theorists are bringing up Lacan and semiological post- modern readings (what is the audience bringing to the text, regardless of what the studios or John Ford intended?)

Now the breaking wave of film analysis seems to be moving towards Reception Studies. Academics are analyzing the ephemera and messages, covert and overt, surrounding a text, a film, a moving image "event" that encode and inflect its address to the audiences. The extra-textural, if you will. Stay with me. Cable specials and star power influence and infect how we like or disregard a film's intentions; what culturally surrounds the experience influences the ways audiences receive and perceive the work. It's impossible for the studios to control and sometimes it's simply hype. (A certain blue cat movie comes to mind.)

"Blade Runner" in 1982 doesn't (and didn't) work after "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." But our relationship to Harrison Ford changes after "Presumed Innocent" and "The Fugitive," and 25 years later, even if you haven't seen those, "Blade Runner" is an "instant classic." Hitchcock's "Frenzy" turns our stomachs in 1972 with its droll sick sense of humor, 12 years after "Psycho" (12 whole years!), but when his entire career is all crushed to a convenient weekend of renting on demand and random access, suddenly themes and touches resonate brilliantly all the way back to the original "The Man Who Knew Too Much," through to "Vertigo," as early as "Blackmail" and up again to "Marnie," which may not be so bad after all.

Bowie's "Station to Station" is less discordant and incomplete when it's fit so smoothly between "Young Americans" and "Low," pointing the way to Berlin and later to shiny-chrome disco.

All these attempts by artists to try something new meet with derision and confusion, only to become clearly the first steps in strong and appropriate paths with hindsight of the longer more historical view. "The Cable Guy" still doesn't get a pass.

How does the theatrical experience influence how we appreciate films? It starts with a trailer we see 4 months or so before the movie opens that raises our awareness, in the very theatre where we will eventually see it a season later. We finally go on opening weekend, or at least in the couple weeks before it leaves, firmly in the time continuum and cultural window in which it is born and lives with an audience, all like-minded and motivated to go pay money to see it. The long lines outside "Matrix Reloaded" inflects our experience inside differently than the half-empty "Matrix Revolutions" 6 months later.

Something is irrevocably lost when we chose to watch films at home, later, by ourselves or on our electronic devices. Without the lines, without the need to see it on opening weekend, we lose not only our personal connection to the excitement of the event status of a moving image presentation, we don't get it.

As films become personal, individualized, and casual, we become unmoved by their circumstance. We don't have a community. We don't fall in love with the text because it's a good date and a good night out. The upside is that any analysis of a film must return, by default, to purely textual. But it also strips it of cultural context and important situational meaning.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The New and Improved French Connection

Robert Harris (yes, that Robert Harris) was involved in the new restoration of William Friedkin's "The French Connection" early last year, and it's worthy of revisiting (Friedkin is doing a Coppola - since he isn't producing mainstream films on note anymore (I haven't seen "Bug," so I'm reserving judgment), he might as well restore the old triumphs). And perhaps to be expected, there are concerns about the results of the updating, seen here on the Home Theatre Forum website (here).

Apparently they've moved from the original 1971 film stock color palette and "reimagined" the look, making it more in tune with a '40s Technicolor look, "denaturalizing" the original and sharpening the contrast. While not in the ballpark of Lucas changing plotpoints in his reissues of "Star Wars," this again brings up the responsibility of a filmmaker working in the 21st-century blu-ray aesthetic.

Mr. Harris himself notes that it is not the film that won the Oscar 35 years ago anymore. It's now a 2009 version of a '40s look applied to a '70s film's version of the '40s. No iteration of which is authentically, intentionally or completely of its time.

I was happy to have seen this film in its new digital glory, but will no doubt never have a chance to see the "original" '70s version again.
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An earlier version of this post originally appeared on the AMIA UCLA Student Chapter blog in 2009.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Blue Cat People

Gaspar Noe is now on record as saying he thinks "Avatar" is amazing (here). I think he used the term "cat's pajamas." Manohla Dargis muses that the success of the film highlights the very nature of film and filmgoing changing before our eyes (here). Like "Titanic," "Avatar" arrived surrounded by clouds of doubt, negative buzz and poisonous PR right up to the time that it became the 2nd-highest grossing film IN THE WORLD - sometime last week.

Whether it costs $220 million or $600 million, it's a hit, and indeed will change the face of cinema. The anxiety over the coming digital revolution has been assuaged for the moment (documented earlier last year).

Hollywood has always been a popularity contest. Incredible three dimensional hi-jinx and digital delivery have been lauded as the lifesaver for theatrical film exhibition ever since about 70% of the $90 million gross of "Meet The Robinsons" (2007) came from the handful of 3-D screens it continued to play at throughout the summer with no other digital or 3-d competition and the worst reviews since "Chicken Little." Filmmakers from Robert Zemeckis to Pete Docter didn't merely jump on the bandwagon. They were pushed.

2009 has posted the largest box office numbers in years, not because of rising prices (which is the usual reason why annual box office goes up) but because actual attendance actually increased. In the failing economy and double-digit falls in DVD sales and record levels of unemployment, with echoes to the depression in the '30s, people are going to movies again, if only to pack up their troubles and brother can you spare a dime. Never mind that much of these numbers are related to films as "The Blind Side" and "The Hangover," two conservative and pretty old-school films that you could name (which arguably "Avatar" is as well).

What if "Avatar" had fallen onto its blue face? Hollywood would have understood that and actually been a little okay with it, and continued constricting and moaning, waiting for the new savior of the industry to be born or some unexpected film or trend or angle to present itself as a pleasant and exploitable surprise. And Cameron would maybe have been put in his place. But this isn't a Leno-at-10 situation. The studios and pundits have put so many eggs into the "Avatar" basket that its success is an uneasy relief. As well as a mixed signal.

So now, 3-D, and Imax, and science fiction, and even Robert Downey Jr. are going to inflect many films put into development this year. People are going to movie theatres again - because they have to. Who wants to see "Avatar" on their iPod? Except a dozen companies have now announced technologies to put 3-D into your home at the recent Electronic Expo (link) and soon you won't have to go to the Arclight after all to see it as if it were happening in front of you.

Millions of dollars will be spent on the infrastructure, new televisions, glasses and devices to stream proprietary content. All to get your eyeballs on their intellectual packages. Hollywood is gripped with a new hope, and a new panic, and finally something new to get to work on. This new technology will throw out 100 years of standards and the theatrical experience, newly reinvigorated, will speed faster to its inevitable decline. Companies will invest in the wrong standards, go bankrupt, won't have content even if their system does work, and then....

...some little $15k film will surprise everyone and do a ton of business. Like "Easy Rider" in 1969, which was inadvertently ruinous to the studios in the '70s when they threw all kinds of money at the youth movement, spending high on low culture, throwing out the old rules and selling the libraries and handing the keys to the kingdom to young turks who wanted to - and almost did - tear the edifice down, not understanding what they were investing in or where the future lied (link).

Recapturing the "Blair Witch" or "Easy Rider" or "Paranormal" magic in a bottle is hard. It's a lot easier to merely spend tons of money on giant loud blue cat people movies. "Avatar" may ruin the business after all, not because to replicate it comes at a dear cost, but because it was so damn successful and Hollywood is scared enough to try.