Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Disney's new animated feature "Frozen" continues the development of generally hyperrealist CGI films for children and not only embraces the tension between a fantasy world and tools that make them as real as possible, the tension now informs and deepens the film.

There's always been that conflict between the family-friendly accessibility of animated films and the sometimes transparent pleas to adults who are charged with sitting with (and paying for) the children they bring in.  It manifests itself either with gentle double-entendres only adults "get," covers of classic rock songs during the credits, or clumsy attempts at more progressive "Princess" gender politics so we're not quite as offended.

But Disney films have been hopelessly stuck in the past, starting with their over-reliance on creaky public-domain fairy tales and mythology but also in their apparent inability to update their story model or embrace the sensibility of a post-Pixar era.  They've seemed lost since "Hercules."

"Tangled" (2010) was a hit but felt like 1985, a quick-cutting update of the princess model that "The Princess and the Frog" couldn't sell with its flat 2-D animation: hip, colorful, highly accomplished and retro in all the worse ways.  Computer-rendered plastic Barbie skin was the wave of the future.

"Frozen" is just another princess tale; more exactly a sister tale.  You know, a dysfunctional pair of orphans looking for love and maybe their true destinies along the way.  Actually it's about the sidekicks who nudge the heros(ines) into each other's arms, more or less by the end.  "Aladdin" with girls?

What's striking about the art design and animation of "Frozen" is it introduces the backstory of magical powers for the character Elsa that has no basis in reality or prior mythology and really only is possible to render in this age of computer animation.  Blessed (cursed?) with the ability to wave her hand and create snow and ice sculptures out of thin air, as beautiful as they are imposing, the weather effects and self-generation of complicated crystalline structures unfolds with the visual shorthand of a Prius commercial.  Effort and premeditation have given way to the surreal ecstasy of 100 conceptual artists without physical constraints.  Like Pixar's "Finding Nemo" it's simply too beautiful to criticize.

Rather than an aggressive hypermodernism or chancy avant-garde impulse, this only grounds the film, as "cool" as its surface is, in a 30-year-old animation tradition.  Witness the snowman Olaf, the best side-kick in 10 years who steals the film, and his loose-limbed (snow-balled?) animation in which his various round pieces float and revolve around each other without connection.  A throwback to the gravity-based physics of Pacific Data Images tests for animation festivals back in the mid-'80s.

Repurposing old and obsolete techniques (or characters) into new and knowing ways is the classic "fish out of water" scenario that also drove last year's "Wreck-It Ralph" to gross $200m.  "Frozen" seems to know it's a Disney princess story stuck in an old industrial model and tries to reinvent how to tell such a story with tools unappreciated up to now, mostly due to Pixar's success with hyperrealism (talking dogs notwithstanding).

And by new I don't mean so new ("Hercules") that audiences don't recognize it anymore.  There's something comforting in seeing old techniques shined up and exploited.  Instead of resisted, or ignored.

This agenda is made clear by the old-style Mickey Mouse cartoon that proceeds it, in small-screen black-and-white like the oldest of artifacts before it opens both wide and out in a self-referential post-modern rip in filmic reality, a 3-dimensional struggle between old and new, monochrome vs. color, flat and round, the clean vs. the profane.  Between analog and digital.

The cartoon is titled "Get A Horse," a phrase people yelled at Model T drivers when their new-fangled technology would fail them in traffic.  The conflict between the frozen past and a dynamic future is foregrounded in the cartoon, and while the answer isn't resolved, it's finally become part of the discussion.   As Peg-leg Pete's car-horn proclaims, make way for the future.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Billion Dollar Business

A dozen people forwarded the article (from Hollywood Reporter) to me when Spielberg and Lucas gave a talk earlier this month at USC predicting the movie industry was headed for an "implosion." (No need to click on that link: just Bing "Spielberg" and "implosion" later.)  I read it.  Spielberg could barely get Lincoln funded but perhaps it's hard to be sympathetic - he's still functioning in a post-WWII John Ford model [1] anyway.  He even still edits on film - the nerve.

The point was that the digital dilemma [2] has affected even the biggest players in the field, from Spielberg who at one point could have gotten funding to direct a phonebook - to George Lucas who first embraced digital (with those later - earlier Star Wars films) (a link to another article about digital in 1999 when Lucas tried to push it down our throats for the The Phantom Menace release has been removed, 'cause you already know he did that) but still can't write a decent 3rd act [3].

About a week later Lynda Obst wrote in Salon (article, June 15, 2013, no need for a link; I'll just stick the citation in) saying that the industry was completely broken; another high-end Hollywood player saying we're in trouble, no really [4], that the people in charge could no longer do the math.  It all no longer added up.

For once someone was talking sense. It all has to do with the DVDs.  In a development suspiciously similar (3 links, each word to a different one, that go to different books about how the music industry missed the digital revolution; that's one way to get a bunch of background citations out of the way) to the baroque go-go CD era of the '80s of the (now dead) music business, the new format was the way to print free money.  Everyone wanted to own films and with the explosion of home video most films nearly doubled their grosses [5] through DVDs and VHSs.  And it was all gravy - they didn't have to make the film again to reap the profits, just sell it on .90c discs in .50c plastic covers.

Hollywood didn't know what to do with all that money.  People bought everything rather than wait for it on cable.  The sense of ownership was too intoxicating.

But as we all now know DVD sales plummeted for 5 years in a row now. [6]  People are finally shaking off the hangover and reconsidering the reasons to have a copy of The Town (this link: a review of The Town; why am I pointing you in a direction you can already find yourself? Because I happen to agree with this one (and it's well written) and now I don't have to use any extra words in my post here discussing The Town for my back story) [7] in the house - they'll never watch it (certainly not through to the end(s) [8]. They don't need any copies of Pitch Perfect [9] or Fast and Furious 2,3 or 6 [10], or even all four (5?) editions of the Lord of the Rings (no footnote here - suffice it to note each word links to a different configuration of the trilogy - no need to click unless you want to get pissed off at how many versions of LotR you have to buy) trilogies, each with a different and essential set of extras.

There's so much content out there through Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, HBOGo, YouTube or bittorrentting people think there's no need (this links to the reason why you should horde content at home [11]) to horde content at home anymore.

The gravy went away.  No one could predict how much money a film would make during the critical years of 2008 - 2013, a time when the highs were very high (The Passion of the Christ, or Alice In Wonderland) and the lows were lower (John Carter (is he from Mars or not? (don't click on this link, just reports Andrew Stanton explaining why they dropped the word "Mars" from the title. And note that I "answer" the question I ask in the hot-linked words; nice, huh?), or Battleship).  All bets were off and limos were traded in for towncars, espresso bars were replaced by coffee urns and administrative assistants were told to become script girls or get on their knees and start charging for different services.

Now a film made as much money as it was likely to in the theatrical release, increasingly wider and shorter and that was about it. No long tail and studios were trading their analog dollars for digital pennies as Obst warned.  This is the direct analog to the music industry where once people got a taste of free on the Internet they didn't care about quality; quantity and choice trumped scarcity.

Profits halved, an amazing number. And if it's a $10 billion dollar industry 3 years ago [12] (and that #'s only the gross at the B.O.: possibly only 20% of that is free-and-clear profit) that means as little as $1 billion is actually still clearing the checking account or the funny accounting.  And as Spielberg and Lucas pointed out polite enough not to name any names when a handful of large budget films fall on their faces this year (After Earth, budget $130m+, marketing $100m [13]; The Lone Ranger, budget $250m+, marketing $150m+; Jack the Giant Killer Slayer, budget $190m, marketing $70m+) you just heard that billion in profit simply disappear.

Films come out faster and faster and the hits are merely doubles. Even a Pixar movie costs $200m (this link references someone who estimated the total amount, no official source so it may not have "earned" a footnote (so much for the internet link ecosystem. Dude gets no respect)) and they don't have to construct any sets (only software).

After marketing, it'll have to reach $600m to break even.  And it won't be doubling that on home video like in the old days.

There are no home runs.  Like the music industry Hollywood is now not so much the road to easy money.  People would do anything to be in show business.  Now that the stupid crazy money isn't a given, you gotta be into it - just to be in it. 

*   *   *

[1] Rather than giving you another link (which probably would have been to a review of War Horse in NYT) I did this footnote instead.  I wanted to make a point about Spielberg's recent retro style but a link would have sent you away faster than it had the time to suggest the underlying idea. So see what I did there? "John Ford" manages to be an short-hand review of Spielberg's latest films (Lincoln literally (almost hid another link there, to Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (and would you have just thought I linked to the wrong film on accident?) and I also got in "Ford model" as a kind of nod to his throwback technological processes, which might have demanded another link (or a footnote (here? within the footnote?)) to Spielberg's penchant for still editing on film.

[2] This link - if it had been put in - would have referenced an article about the loss of old rep screens that can't afford the conversion; on Indiewire, Feb 23, 2012.  A footnote proper would have listed the title and complete information, and probably have included the online link.

[3] This clever link goes to the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Red Tails. I'm also including this footnote so you don't have to click to find out where it goes.  You probably thought it would be for Return of the Jedi, (and some bloggers make it a point to link to IMDB for every film they mention as if they have to cite and prove the film exists (their existence on IMDB not necessarily conclusive proof (that would have been where I would have linked to a couple fake or non-existent films to prove that point - which is that IMDB is no reliable source)).  If any reader needed to look up a film on IMDB I would like to think they could to that without the link to push them in that direction. Sheesh.) which also doesn't have a satisfying third act but you very well might have clicked just to make sure and I would have lost you.  Don't click on it, it'll just distract you and you'll start reading movie reviews.

[4] To emphasize "no really" the writer might have included the following link to those words: hoping you would have visited after you were done reading here, which talks about how piracy is bad.

[5] This footnote to a link (which is probably now starting to piss you off) notes that the citation linked above backs up the author's contention that DVD grosses increased profits, would in the old days normally would have been handled only as a footnote. Now it's a link within the text and you can't reference it until you click on it (and only if you doubt me) which means you'd leave the main page and probably never be coming back.  Proceed accordingly - or just take my word for it.

[6] That claim probably should have had some kind of citation to back it up.

[7] Longtime readers will note how much I avoid using extra words.

[8] This link is tied to a single letter (in this case to a site explaining the extended endings of The Town (no IMDB link needed, right?) which gets the point across (the added ending letter of the word - the added footage/alternate end of the movie.  But if you left to see, you never came back again).

[9] Cute story about trying to download Pitch Perfect for his kids, here.  (There, now I have a link in the footnotes that have been complaining about the links in the main text.)

[10] Link to the first 5 F&F films in a boxed set. Also, too many numbers.

[11] This is the page of OOP Criterion titles; don't click here.  It would just frustrate you that you didn't buy these when you could. You're welcome.

[12] I really need to stop footnoting my links.  It's hard enough avoiding linking my footnotes.  This link is a discussion of increasing profits of Hollywood which is ironically and perhaps significantly on a website devoted to online piracy.

[13] Here are some actual hard numbers and the citations should actually be supplied.  Here in a footnote.  Details from NYT:  And if I had put the link up there you probably would have ended up reading movie reviews from the New York Times.  My plan worked.

N.B.: Rather than properly cite my sources I've been seduced by common practice of the Internet to link to the appropriate virtual digressions as needed inline, a new kind of Internet economy of attention - or authenticity - or verification, and one that likely sent you away from here never to come back to finish my article.  So note, at least, that there are references and read through to them only if you really needed the goddam proof of my suppositions.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hooray For Hollywood

My favorite genre, presuming there is a specific type of book I would automatically pick up in a used bookstore, is the Hollywood expose.  Not the over-heated fictionalized biographies of Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand but the melodramas that take place in a palm-lined, dream-world of West LA, collecting types and accomplices inside and outside the gates of the studios, and depicting misguided sexual unions, stirring up dashed dreams and broken promises and lying agents in an always sunny, often depressing, hard-edged and hardboiled beat prose.

The genre bloomed early in the 20th century, fomented by the grousing of those East Coast writers like Ben Hecht coming to the promised land to make their fortune writing for the talkies (and who probably saw themselves in the water reflecting the bright sunshine).  It culminated in the ’40s with “What Makes Sammy Run?” (introing Sammy Glick) and “The Day of the Locust,” (pace Homor Simpson) both dark turns that illuminate the unspoken Faustian deal that seems to lurk at the heart of fame.  The genre had found a new lease and angle in the early ’60s, with non-classics such as Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (specifically about outsiders) and Fitzgerald’s “The Pat Hobby Stories” (also pointedly about an outsider (and first collected in 1962, perhaps finally of its time)) leading the way towards a more existential outlook that suggests while no one is innocent no one is particularly guilty either.

Maritta Wolff’s “The Big Nickelodeon” (1963) seem inspired by “Peyton Place” more than any real thing and her reluctance to go full-bore in the milieu she must know existed – she was invited to Hollywood to write screenplays after the success of her “Whistle Stop” – is mitigated by her valiant attempt to introduce a wide and decadent swath of characters – from divorcees trying to break into the movies to rentboys parking cars on Sunset to cops finding bodies on the beach.

That same year “The Surprise Party Complex” by Ramona Stewart follows a trio of young women in various states of denial and undress having moved to Hollywood and trying to negotiate auditions, parents who don’t believe in them and horny next door neighbors.  Mentioned earlier, Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (1965) elevates the corruptible outsider to literature following two small-town rubes who move with big dreams of success (or in the case of the wife, not) and how expectations and morals are confounded by intangible seductive powers more in the air and due to fate rather than to any malicious antagonist or force.

Wolf Mankowitz’s “Cockatrice” (also 1963) focuses on an anonymous assistant to an arrogant big-time producer who will steal talent, ideas, and girlfriends to make a picture and a name for himself.  You become what you despise.  What makes this one more insightful may be that Mankowitz worked with Broccoli and Saltzman during the beginnings of the Bond franchise. Yet even this insider expose has more winks than tooth.  He’s along for the ride as much as any of the girls he beds.

Something happened in the late ‘50s and early ’60s.  TV had officially been declared not-a-fad and Universal was bought by MCA, the biggest deal involving talent, land, a back catalog and the potential to rewrite the future of show business before or since.  20th Century Fox, meanwhile sold 3/4s of their lot to developers giving rise to Century City for $43 million.  The worst real estate deal in history and making public the voracious appetite of the glass teat, the money at stake, the careers made and broken and only brightened the allure of a career in show business.

Part of this also has to do with the economics of paperback books being widely available and exploiting a cultural unease after the Eisenhower ’50s before the sex-and-nothing-but trade supplanted these innocent tomes.  But these cycles of books, a clutch of forgotten potboilers that seemed to peter out around 1970 as Hollywood players felt more comfortable not hiding their confessions behind fictional names and projects (“Play It As It Lays” being the avatar of the milieu of behind-the-scenes disasterpieces), freeze in amber a cultural moment in which Hollywood was incredibly alluring, dangerous, innocent of its faults, and success was still possible.  Make no mistake, in none of these books does anyone succeed on sheer talent or without selling out their most closely held morals.  At the conclusion of at least one, characters lay dead in a burning mansion.

But the “watch out – don’t let this happen to your daughter” panic of the 1930s and ’40s books (including those hammerhead noirs by West and McCoy) have softened as more and more writers realize that the business of show is as dysfunctional as any paper-printing corporation.  No one’s in charge, and no one’s stealing any daughter’s virtue that isn’t already for sale.

And they all use ripe metaphors as their entrypoints – the cockatrice is a fanciful dragon/griffith with a colorful plume and a poisonous bite; one of the characters in “Surprise Party Complex” keeps expecting someone to bust in and yell “surprise!” – the reward for always being ready, always photogenic, on the constant edge of expectation; “nowhere city” and “love-jungle tigress” speak for themselves.

The ’80s would bring the breezy Jackie Collins beach reads that seem strangely unplugged from show business reality we’d learned by that point from TV.   And the Leonard and Ellroy meta-noirs “Get Shorty” and “L.A. Confidential” (both 1990) are more affectionate pastiche than scathing attacks.

In spite of the dark heart of most of these books, they seem at the time to be ceding the post-depression anxiety of an earlier age and embrace the Kennedy era and go-go promise of the ’60s.  By the end of the decade UHF would increase the # of channels on the dial to over 50.  A new world in which the possibilities have become a foregone conclusion and resistance is futile.

These are sexy yet moral, chaste and yet trashy.  Deliciously seductive, in spite of good intentions they can’t quite keep their hands to themselves.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Who Wants Nostalgia Anymore?

Over to the right there, in the margin is a link to one of my favorite film sites. See it?  Lower, in the Film Sites section.

To, which is devoted to the 1974 film "Phantom of the Paradise," and it is the best site for any film, official or otherwise, EVER.

The guy who runs it (Ari, whom Paul Williams wants the trust of) became a fan of the film after seeing it on a double bill (with "Young Frankenstein" no less and there's no better argument for the great loss we've suffered culturally by not wanting to see 2 films in one night anymore), and he began to collect the various emphemera, stills, international posters and magazine articles related to the film over the next 20 years.  In the era before VHS and DVD and their attendant behind-the-scenes features this was the only way to capture the experience of a film vicariously absent having a copy yourself (which he would also purloin, a 16mm print intended for the college rental market). In the process he amassed over 400 items, including previews, radio spots (on reel-to-reel tapes), lobby cards, concept drawings and even outtakes from footage abandoned in a lab.

Yeah.  A goddamn archive, more complete than any other, devoted not only to one film but to an entire production and marketing process of a typical cult, mid-level hit from the '70s.  That it's a sci-fi musical with elements of horror, rock 'n' roll, and directed by Brian De Palma who would go on to much greater things adds to the delicious fortuitousness of his foresight.

In 2006 he put photos of his collection online and wrote over 20,000 words on the production, themes and complicated subtext of the film.  A labor of love and the sign of an obsessive fanboy stuck in the past but us beggers can't be choosers and he's done a fabulous job, bringing the joys of the film to a new international audience - and arguably increasing the long-term value of the film for those who own the rights.  There is no better discussion of aesthetics and a critique of the industrial process of building and marketing such a complicated and nuanced piece of popular culture, putting it into context.

Thing is the rightsholders don't seem to care.  They held no archival material for the film and when a French company wanted to put out a DVD they had to go to Ari for the trailer to put on as an extra.  20th Century no longer held such obsolete objects.

Ari's efforts, exhaustive and extensive, bring up important questions about how archives and curation will manifest in a new digital age.  From an age in which films came and went over the course of a few weeks - often only to be found on late-night cable after their initial theatrical runs - "Phantom" now lives online in a comprehensive deconstruction, including a history of last minute edits to erase the "Swan Song" logo illustrated by outtakes, and a careful chronology of marketing campaigns and film quotes.

The archive is no longer behind closed doors.  The curator is now the tourguide, leading you through a primrose path of materials arranged just so.  And he's a stone amateur.  He makes no money on this and has set up shop in the inner sanctum of archivology without permission.  20th Century Fox and Harbor Productions don't even mention the film on their websites, and although Ari posts image after image of their intellectual property they seem to have ceded all archival responsibility to him.

A thousand other films from before 1980 did not make it to a new generation of fans and didn't enjoy an obsessive teenage nerd with time on his hands to collect every related element or magazine mentioning its makers and stars.  They weren't borne during the internet age of dedicated websites.  If they never showed on late night TV or made it to VHS they're invisible to us now.

If not for Ari this one would be lost as well.

*   *   *

Postscript 5/3/13: An extended article I wrote about Ari's website and its archival ramifications was accepted by the esteemed online journal Bright Lights Film Journal, and just appeared in the May 2013 issue here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Film Is Heavy

Side By Side, the 2012 documentary that compares digital film-making process with celluloid aesthetics and the cultural repercussions of this, seems to locate the shift to the moment in which Avatar, How To Train Your Dragon, and Alice In Wonderland all did boffo in 2010 and changed the industry's perception, profit potential, and go-big-or-go-away attitude.

Barely real himself Keanu Reeves interviews various movers and shakers in the push to digital, from godfathers George Lucas and James Cameron (arguably sounding more like IT guys than film directors, and can actually get companies to build new cameras for them) to relative unknowns like Bradford Young and Lena Dunham who are using the democratizing effect of ubiquitous digital equipment to capture more than has been able to be captured before.

The film, measured and fair as it goes, sounds practically like the authorized version, and like most authorized versions is at only 6 months old already out of date (film is deeper in the grave than suggested - Kodak would shortly file for bankruptcy and stop making film) and reveals darker undercurrents than the participants quite recognize.

There is painful little (but enough) lip service to how digital materials can possibly manage to survive past a couple years without aggressive curation and constant cloning and migration.  (Christopher Nolan is quoted as saying "There are no meaningful archival digital formats" and I believe it was Michael Ballhaus said everything we're working on will be gone in 50 years.)  Rich filmmakers who have the infinite support of studios like David Fincher and George Lucas and Stephen Soderbergh and Cameron (or so they think) are sure their works will be kept and preserved, that digital looks much better, and that the cameras are so much smaller and lighter.

Another hidden subtext of Side By Side is how the realm of cinema production turned many of its practitioners by necessity into technical experts, taking some power and aesthetics (earned or not) from cinematographers and directors and the art of patience (per Scorsese) into the hands of IT gurus.  When the IT guys are calling the shots (I'll say figuratively) different decisions are made and different money is spent.

The film avoids the pointless argument of which is "better," and Keanu as avuncular (if barely real) host and producer keeps the proceedings engaging and conversational with only a minimum of hand-wringing.

It is not a film about the democratization of art (although that's mentioned).  It is not about the aesthetics of hand-held or 3-D (although a lot of cinematographers are talked to).  This is an extended discussion with serious filmmakers about their decisions regarding how they will be making films from now on and as such is skewed toward those who have had the resources to take full advantage of the shift.  It's heartening to see that Reeves at least sought out Lars Von Trier and David Lynch, although they both don't seem as interested in talking about their technology as their stories.

And even Mr. Fincher admits that much of his commercial work from 20 years ago is orphaned on obsolete tape technologies that can no longer be played back.  If that's okay with him I guess it's okay with me.  But for the 1000s of other filmmakers who have less resources than him, what are they to do when the studios don't answer their calls?