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 (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.

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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?