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 and YouTube, and soon Sezmi and

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.