Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Deconstruction of Hugo Cabret

Big movie theatre chains aren't just opening larger and larger megaplexes, to take over your independent film-viewing choices and the cultural landscape. They're also closing older, less popular venues as they become obsolete, out of fashion, through competition or through fashion.

I happened to notice today while walking in town that the Avco Center Theaters in Westwood, owned by AMC since the '90s, was closing. This was a state-of-the-art glass-front triplex built in 1972 that showed all the "Star Wars" films, etc., until multiplexes took over. The new 15-screen AMC Century City 1 mile away killed any chances the Avco Center would last much past its lease expiring.

So I went in and saw "Hugo" on this theatre's last day open. This is the new Martin Scorsese picture (although you could hardly tell) based on the book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," about a boy around mid-1920s Paris (the date isn't clear) who lives in the clocks in the main train station and has a broken robot his dad worked on he's now trying to fix. There's a grumpy toy-shop owner who makes knick-knacks and a sinister police officer who got crippled in the war and has a metal brace on his leg. The film actually isn't about Hugo so much as that toy shop owner, who ends up being the forgotten and bitter George Melies, whose artificial and magical constructions of films fell hopelessly out of favor, and how the boy, his father's incomplete robot, the magic and the keys and the clockworks, all tie in to help "fix" things - and mal-functioning people - and the past and their broken hearts.

All very neat, and the "big finish" as it were is a showing of some of Melies' original films, here found and for an audience, color tinted (as they originally were) in digestible bits and brand new eye-pleasing 3-D.

It's really a film-nerd film - no wonder Scorsese signed on - and beyond the obvious lavish attention to period and authentic posters and film-making trompe-l'oei, the backgrounds of Paris and grand 3-D setscapes are all so obviously fake, camera moves and snowflakes generated artificially way after the fact, Sasha Baron Cohen's mannerisms hopelessly sitcom, set in a train station of the imagination paying lip service to artistic landscapes and potential lost to the ravages of progress.

The subtext, barely hinted at in the book and absent from the film, seems to be an anxiety over how the industrial revolution both enabled and limited our ability to move in unfettered directions. In the late-era Westerns the "coming of the railroad" signalled progress - new modes that sped the domestication of the outlaw and the end of the West. This film's texture uses all manner of technological legerdemain to fetishize the display of gizmo-logical prowess; I think it's unconvincing, if unintentionally so.

A miles-long CGI zoom-in over the rooftops of Paris into the train station is less impressive than that dolly behind Ray Liotta through a real club down real stairs in "Goodfellas."

The heartbeat of the story is Melies' inability to remain resonant and relevant. Tarting him up with 3-D and color tints seems insincere if not downright dishonest. It seems the very opposite of how Michel Hazanavicius took on his similarly themed "The Artist," and how odd that Scorsese, one of our few remaining and working "old school" directors, employs up-to-the-moment 3-D and rendering tools to make a sentimental and retrograde tale that is undermined of its analog joys and transgressive potential by those very tools.

And also ironic that I saw this in a theatre the last day it was open, closing after 30 years, a victim of progress and its own corporate parent's competition.

* photo by Hollywood90038 via Cinema Treasures.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dead Trees

After 2+ years of working on this blog, I feel an argument or two has been made. Or at least alluded to.

In fact it's possible I never quite got to the bottom or the end of a thought, owing to the nature of blogging and that it is a continuous and personal series of entries closer to a journal than to journalism. I started this project as a way to investigate and track my own troubled relationship with film moving to a digital world. Online, virtual and without the physical, noisy and organic charms I grew up with. Yes, I'm talking about scratches and that vinegar smell.

I, along with much of the world, was conflicted and anxious about the loss of the indexical link between a performance and the photo-chemical artifact that ran through the projector, one at a time, once at a time and in order. In a rush to look forward we seemed to be more interested, as a culture and as an industry, in ease of delivery and portability, abandoning the hardship and commitment that discreet objects forced us to go through in the past.

Digital ubiquity translates into wider exposure for many new (and some archival) works, but when something is available so easily, doesn't it lose some kind of value? Being scarce is the benefit of physical objects, existing in only one place and as sacred as they are unique. Streams in the cloud, infinitely duplicatable and perfect, aren't anywhere at all.

These discussions are familiar to those who followed this blog, particularly from its inception around mid-2008 to early 2010. That span started with the rise of 3-D and film projectors being replaced in many multi-plexes to the triumph of "Avatar" and Netflix as a primarily streaming service.

I was studying archiving at UCLA and questions about the physicality of actual film, for preservation purposes, shifted to questions about the quality of engagement with digital audio-visual images, for cultural concerns.

Things moved fast in the last 36 months. And I graduated with a master's degree pointing towards some kind of library discipline. While I wrote about other topics such as history and teenagers, this blog has to a certain extent served its purpose, and as a way to draw a line around the initial motivation and close a chapter that remains very much open and part of an ongoing debate, I have chosen 64 of the earlier posts that follow and fill in the thread above.

Is digital the end of cinema, or just the end of film?

These ramblings, with a minimum of editing, have been arranged into a book self-published and available on Amazon, here. I deline* the fall of analog in movie theatres, the rise of digital, reporting on the discussion in the news of the day, dropping occasional topical digressions but including all philosophical musings on ruins, reception studies, and Ken Russell as it relates to archiving and librarianship, as appropriate and at a whim.

The collection, a curated distillation of what has appeared already here online, is printed on demand by the experts at Amazon, and is not yet available for your e-reader.

I thank you all for reading and for the support over the last couple years.

_ _ _ _ _ _

*the active plu-perfect tense of "delination."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Pictures From the Past

As I walk to UCLA almost every day, I'm reminded of the rich cinematic history of the area being used in films, including Paul Schrader's "American Gigolo" (1980), which I just recently rewatched.

The shots of Julian (Richard Gere) walking through a different-looking Westwood reminds me that a Hollywood film as "recent" as 30 years old still holds important historical evidence of how places have changed.

Weyburn Ave, approx. 10925

The Bruin Theatre marquee is visible at the end of the block:

In 1980 the window reflected a hardware store across the street:

Now a Red Mango yogurt place:

Alcove of the Bruin Theatre:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Google Had a Video?

4.24.11: Google has
announced they will hold off on deleting their videos - for now.

- - - - - -

Google Video will be no more, as of May 13th. Post their announcement, the somewhat snarky commentary online suggests that if an online service that no one used anyway disappears, did it ever make a noise?

The digital echo we'll hear after the collapse of Google Video is unclear. Google Video simply didn't get the traction that YouTube, a very similar service, was able to (and Google went ahead and acquired them in 2006 for $1.2 billion).

One factor may be that Google Video started, in terms of toucan years, a decade or so too soon (a generation in computer years, early 2005 compared to YouTube's April of 2005. Yes, you read that right. A mere 3 months earlier. YouTube, if only due to lack of resources, developed more slowly and therefore organically). The selection hosted on Google was quickly and overpoweringly a motley amalgam of old and obsolete news and advertising clips, educational fillups and full-length documentaries with no other distribution or market value. That's why they were on Google Video. There was nothing compelling I ever found, and admittedly the low rate of return and high signal-to-noise ratio prevented me from ever searching very long or very deep.

In other words, the perception was that it was a bunch of junk. Obviously a last-stop channel. While the content was for the most part unique and unavailable elsewhere, it wasn't useful. Clips that users uploaded themselves were lost in the shuffle.

That made it at best quaint.

YouTube, by contrast, though also quickly filled with content that was not available anywhere else, but was also driven by that aesthetic, also offering simple discovery and tag tools - and the ability to participate without logging in or registering. That made it social. It was a destination. While Google Video was a one-way conversation, a replacement for the top-of-the-dial UHF public-access channels, YouTube was a two-way conversation, a new way to filter the content online, and indeed to contextualize as well as respond in kind.

That also made it political.

Google hasn't been accepting uploads since May of 2009, and seemed to have quickly decided they were more interested in indexing video at other sites and pointing users there. As seems to be their value strategy, it's more useful to discover (and exploit) information about what people are searching for, rather than to actually host it. They admit they're finally ready to put us (and their tech staff) out of our misery.

They warn those who have content up to download it (and perhaps re-up it onto YouTube (they assume you already have).). In spite of amateur archivists rallying ad hoc to try and download the scarcer and "most interesting" of the over 2.8 million videos rumored to live there it's likely most of it will be gone in the digital shadow of the Internet.

How would one go about saving and archiving such a unique collection as that on Google Video? A dynamic collection formed by chance, demographics, and the tyranny of changing technology and audience interaction. Most poorly or mis-cataloged (sometimes on purpose to prevent finding it). And what does this say for the permanence of a corporation's goals, while professing to interconnect all the world's data, when some data is too needy to keep at the party.

Ultimately the longevity of all that data in the cloud is not in our hands. Imagine when YouTube becomes obsolete, or supplanted by some other service or upload/download service? Where will all that stuff go? Most of it may be transferred, and it may be automatic. But a lot will not be, and whether or not it's unique, important, curated or active will not have a lot to do with it.

Curators and archivists are not making the decisions, and the cultural fallout of an unknown, unique and now lost collection becoming extinct bears out two truths:

--Google Video was not the first chapter in what was supposed to be the new story of video on-line, rather it was the last of the older tale. On to new models.

--The take-down of Google Video may be the introduction to another kind of tale (it'll probably be an e-book, actually), one that explores what happens to culture when our audio-visual objects are so ephemeral, fleeting, and out of our control that they can't be depended upon to be around (especially when they're rare and forgotten, especially when they stop existing anywhere else except a furtive digital upload years ago ) when - just in case - they are more important than suspected. To someone somewhere eventually.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Dog In The Fight

Seems the landscape for what you watch and where you watch it is getting more dangerous by the week. New announcements counteracting and contradicting the previous ones fly as different companies are stepping on each others' toes to get to the customers anyway they can.

Comcast and Times-Warner announced their intent to go wide with TV Everywhere, a computer-based streaming service (press release here). They want to stay in the business of delivering the content no one is going out to theatres to see anymore, before Netflix or Hulu figure out how to completely own the space. (The studios are already nervous about Netflix intruding into the lucrative realm of more current programs rather than just those less attractive that are already available on DVD.) About a moment later the AMC and Regal Theatre chains announced their joint-foray into distribution, acquiring independent and orphan films not only to screen on their small under-utilized theatres but to distribute in other venues including video, cable, and any other method of wireless as well. (reported here ).

They've all come to realize the big sexy blockbusters don't assert their presence for very long in the old ways - they may open on over 4000 screens opening week but by the 2nd the gross has fallen 50% and there's a lot of empty seats. No one makes any money showing a movie to an empty seat. Seats don't buy popcorn (nor are they swayed by ads). Filling those seats with indie product, easily portable and translatable to the smaller screens, won't take up too much room and sometimes it plays for weeks - or months - demonstrating and proving the concept of the "long tail" with a minimum of outlay.

Now just last week DirecTV is fighting the old/new model with their own "premium VOD" (here). It's shaping up to be a dogfight and who wins will depend on whose dog is the biggest.

AMC and Regal have both declared they won't play ball with any studios that share their content on DirecTV's VOD model (intended to make films available for as much as $30 as little as 4 weeks after opening in theatres). AMC and Regal insist on keeping the theatrical model intact, in spite of their own dog in the race, their small yapping foray into on-the-fringe distribution of under-the-radar titles, a low-profile attempt to nibble at the crumbs the studios leave behind that can't be ignored.

AMC and Regal, the #1 and #2 largest theatre exhibition companies, have most at risk in the short term. Comcast and DirecTV are looking at the long term. No one knows what will capture the public's fancy with increasing amount of content being consumed on tablets and phones. Staking out their claim with talky independent films (which are shorter and scale "down" visually) may translate well from the empty screens at the multiplex to home, where AMC can still take 60% of the revenue.

Predicting what people will pay for is a fool's game. The LA Times article quoted above reminds us that this is similar to the fight over Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" last year, when Disney wanted to shorten the time from theatrical opening to DVD to 3 months. Marketing was no doubt trying to mitigate the likely dramatic fall-off of business for a title they predicted (and not without precedent) would have no legs.

They'd seen the movie. It wasn't very good.

Disney backed off when the theatre chains threatened to boycott the film, and subsequently and surprisingly, "Alice" continued to play to curious and hood-winked audiences, partially due to the confluence of 3-D still being new and unburnished by "Clash of the Titans" and "Piranha 3-D," the very fecundity of the idea of making Alice a sexually stirring post-adolescent in the remake, and the promising if half-baked potential of Depp as the Mad Hatter, a conceit ultimately not exploited in the film but no matter. "Alice" grossed $330 million in the US and $690 million more overseas, making it even more popular than those Pirate movies.

An early release of "Alice" to home video (in any format) would have quenched curiosity, shortened the run (over 4 months domestically) and suppressed the upper reach of its gigantic receipts.

Everyone is in a rush to bite the hand that feeds them, while the old saw that content is king still proves itself out, in potent and unexpected ways. The fertile potential of good films is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room that still drives people to what they want to see, wherever they have to go see it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Estimates in the Mid '80s

Scanning the shelves in a video store (in the old days, meaning about 16 months ago), or browsing through Netflix's seemingly bottomless catalog both emphasize a sense that there is an inconquerable amount of movies to watch. No one could get to it all in a lifetime. Movies you never even heard of starring people you'd never recognize, produced by studios long since bulldozed.

Hundreds of television series are lost to the sands of time, except someone had the master tapes and they've been re-mastered and released to DVD. For those nostalgic fans who still remember, wherever they may be now, when they first saw the show during its short run. And to generate new fans and maybe drum up interest in the Hollywood remake next summer.

Those film masters were stored somewhere and its likely at one point someone wanted to throw them away. They took up valuable space in a vault that was already too full of negatives, dupes, episodes of programs that someone actually were requesting. and as institutions move, are sold or consolidate, the heavy and dusty remnants of its past, embodied in papers, legal files, boxes, media and master tapes, are all expensive afterthoughts. There are stories of Hollywood studios dumping their old negatives into landfills and into Santa Monica Bay rather than pay to store them any longer.

Things sit around in corners and get rediscovered years later, only because they were forgotten and didn't have a chance to meet with misfortune.

Films go through a messy and rather reverse-exponential process of birth. Multiple camera negatives, dupe negatives and interpositives, work prints, optical and magnetic soundtracks, including stereo and foreign-language separations, M&E tracks and other manners of layers are created, duplicated and laid upon one another in the process of ending up with the "master final." All those building blocks are kept in case the producers or creative talent want to go back and redo some iteration.

This process doesn't just occur for union Hollywood productions - every independent short, television program, pilot, news program and industrial creates in its wake the detritus of at best 5 or 10 times the amount of content actually needed for final distribution. By the time they're not useful anymore the people involved have separated and are working on 10 other projects and proper and measured disposal is put off until the final custodian whose garage it ended up in because his name was on the cardboard boxes passed away and the grandkids want it cleared out so they can resell the house in a falling real estate market.

These elements may end up in an archive somewhere, and barring the unlikely event that someone has to reconstruct a film or program from its constituent elements they remain untouched until they deteriorate, asserting their physical uselessness beyond the until then merely philosophical.

Archives are challenged daily when a donation comes in from a family that has prints or elements that haven't been run through a projector in 30 years (and are likely in better shape than the ones in the archive). Inevitably these donations come with boxes of outtakes and unfinished copies no one (including the producing studio) wants, but in order to get the good they accept the whole motley pallet.

The other challenge is that no one can predict what will be valuable or useful in the future. As filmmakers, genres, actors, and modes of representation fall into and out of fashion, those titles that no one seemed interested in in 1990 suddenly gain a new cultural currency in 2010. The public and researchers see something on YouTube in degraded video quality and go searching for the high-quality masters in a curated archive to reclaim it for the greater good.

So libraries and archival institutions whether official or de facto tend to err in the direction of taking in more than they think they want or need, in the interest of expediency and in the interest of being complete. It delays the decision-making process ("What do we actually want in our collection?") from input to some later era ("What are we gonna do with all this stuff?"). You can't predict what will be used in the future anyway, what will turn out to be unique and therefore more valuable, and besides, funding may increase and you can build that new wing.

Very little is ultimately used. In any archive or library, less than 5% of the items generate 90% of the use, and it's estimated that 80% of the items never get requested or viewed at all.

So it sits forgotten, in a curated and protective environment instead of a garage or the bottom of the bay.

Someone's gotta keep it.