Radiohead’s radical “pay what you like” experiment for their In Rainbows album shook up the industry and is already one of the biggest music biz stories of the year. But after some number crunching, reports are coming back (see this Comscore article) that the vast majority of people who downloaded the record didn’t pay squat for it. Does that mean that this idea was a flop?
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It’s hard to ignore it, especially if you’re a student of the medium. Film, while still the number one format for most fledgling auteurs, is losing ground. Slowly but surely, at the fringes of the industry and within the outsider dominion, celluloid is being replaced by the binary. Thanks to DVD, advances in computer technology, the shrinking cost of moviemaking equipment, and an eager pipeline of cinephiles desperate for something different, a punk-like DIY spirit has gripped the wannabe Welles of the artform and has turned everyone – from the most accomplished visionary to the most horrifying hack – into their own determined De Mille. While some would argue that the art form is undergoing one of the most important revolutions since sound sunk the silents, the camcorder has a long way to go before it can claim a coup.
As an example of truly independent filmmaking, the current breed of homemade artisans isn’t really achieving anything novel. For decades, individuals with Super 8 cameras, friends in local universities or rental outlets, or perhaps a basic videotape set up, have been crafting cinema – or something close to it. They’ve relied on imagination, determination, and a collective ideal that sees the like minded gang up to give the format an infusion of necessary new blood. While the cost could be controlled, there were other prohibited measures that kept many from making their stand. With the death of exploitation (a genre where almost anyone could get a week long run at some Podunk passion pit) and prior to the birth of the affordable VCR, there were very few ways to get a film distributed. Even worse, if you were lucky enough to find an acquiescing shill, months (or even years) of hard work could be marginalized, and then MIA, in the breech of a contract.
The growing popularity of the VHS format changed some of this. Suddenly, the creation of a crude, movie-like entertainment could be achieved. Though aesthetically limited, the beginner could simulate cinema without having to jump through the nepotistic hoops and technical specifications of an actual career in the industry. Even better, the cost was commiserate to what many would-be directors could afford. While the equipment was bulky and hard to maintain, and the end results paled in comparison to even the most poorly shot stag film, the first volley in the soon to be salvo against the Hollywood mainstream mentality was in place. Even better, home video opened up an important public perception. It let the everyday individual, someone not possessed of their own projector or screening room, determine when and how they were to be entertained.
The VCR indeed began the democratization of film. It removed the “see it now or never again” sense that surrounded most Tinsel Town fare. Granted, the result of such a surge in retail revivalism meant that the medium was simultaneously celebrated and diluted. The ability to revisit an old favorite in the comfort of one’s home led to a greater appreciation of the classics. But with studios slow to embrace the change (based in nothing but money, naturally) and the independent’s seeing a legitimizing light at the end of their travails tunnel, the entertainment equilibrium was destroyed. From the moment you could buy a copy of Star Wars for $120 at some high end New York specialty emporium, people outside the business felt empowered. In the war for the art form, magnetic tape was the Gatling gun.
In that regard, the digital versatile disc became a multi-megaton nuclear bomb. An offshoot of the CD and the growing Asian fascination with the video version – or VCD – of same, the purpose of the new format was simple: use the increased storage space and clarity of the analog-less transfer and deliver theater quality images to a hibernating home theater crowd. When DVD came along, VHS sales were flat. Laserdisc had proven that there was an audience (albeit it a rather elitist and picky demographic) for replicating the big screen experience. Almost instantaneously, film fans dumped their clunky collection of fading, glitch-ridden tapes and embraced the sleek, sci-fi like system. Within 10 years, the VCR was officially a dinosaur and even the most cinematically stunted was celebrating the little aluminum disc’s wealth of wonders.
The importance of DVD cannot be overstated. It arrived on the heals of home computing’s power, a strength supported by the MP3, the introduction of localized broadband and cable Internet access, and the ever, extending scope of a PC’s internal power. Where once, memory was measured in mega-bite, the gig was becoming the norm, and as the think tanks tricked out their desktops, finding ways of turning their tunes portable, the focus slowly shifted to film. Once again, the digitization of information in combination with a drop in price made technology more accessible than ever. And once you have the ability to use a new toy, you naturally want to expand its range of realization. Thus laptop editing and other post-production software started cropping up. The stage was set for a Bastille storming celebration.
Of course, there was a significant factor missing from the discussion – talent. There are many who believe, rightly or wrongly, that access hinders the gifted, that if only given a chance, almost anyone could succeed within the proper symbolic support. On the other hand, there is another argument that states, rather succinctly, that skill and acumen always win out. Call it the proverbial cream rising, but without a gift, mainstreaming of any art leads to mediocrity. When filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Lloyd Kaufman argued that technology would save cinema, they had a very valid point. But without actual artists behind the newfangled lens, the same old junk would end up in the DVD-R drive.
That’s why, so far, the digital revolution has been one of quantity, not quality. Since anyone can buy a computer, a camcorder, and a rack of recordable medium, the movie monopoly middleman is no longer necessary. Yet one of the functions that the unenlightened suits regularly performed was the mandatory thinning of the ranks. While DVD lets anyone who wants it access to the corridors of creative power, the sad fact is that many making their way down said hall have no business being there. In fact, with very few exceptions, the art form’s digital dissidents have failed to make much of a splash on the big stage. Instead, they have so far only managed the most middling of victories.
If compartmentalizing genres into their easily micromanaged basics and preaching to a purposefully determined demographic (horror fan, sex farce aficionado) can be considered a triumph, then this neo-revolution can claim a minor sense of accomplishment. Unless you consider that famous Hollywood filmmakers like Michael Mann and David Lynch have embraced the sleek, ambient look of millennial medium, digital has been so far reduced to a delivery system. Filmmakers like George Lucas and Robert Zemekis have stated that, until theaters are equipped with special projectors that replicate the celluloid experience without the need for analog transfer, celluloid will remain the moviemaking model for decades to come. And this is from men who fully believe in the new guard.
Ability, however, will be the definitive deciding factor. The public will determine digital’s viability, and right now, the pickings are slim to say the least. Currently, most outsider artists tend to replicate their favorite film style – horror, comedy, horror, drama, horror… - and do so in a way that simply substitutes handheld cinematography for a big screen sense of scope. They’re not out to set trends or buck the system so much as make a name for themselves and get a window seat on the plane ride to fame and fortune. Distributors are more than happy to help them along said rose-colored path. A company like Lionsgate will buy up almost any hackneyed camcorder macabre, re-title it, slap a snappy bit of cover art on the case, and advertise it as the “new face of terror”. Of course, once the poor sucker who bought/rented sees what’s inside, that overwhelming sense of being conned creeps in.
The problem is obvious. For every Giuseppe Andrews, actor turned auteur who is deconstructing cinema in a manner similar to Godard and Truffaut, there’s a billion Blair Witch wannabes who think that moviemaking is as simple as playing the lottery – and DVD and its technical ease of access have rigged the results in their favor. Sadly, the truth is far more telling. Even avant-garde antagonist Lynch was raked over the coals when his INLAND EMPIRE proved to be nothing more than a director’s home movies strung out for nearly three hours (at least, that’s how some saw it). If innovation and imagination can’t accompany access, then there is no hope for real change. Audiences will grow antsy no matter the format – overstuffed celluloid blockbuster or naval gazing camcorder crudity.
So it looks like the revolution will be digitized, if and when the rebels catch up to their ambitions and intentions. There are some marvelous examples of the medium out there, movies like The Legend of God’s Gun and The Blood Shed that really capture the daunting DIY spirit and channel it into something truly astounding. These are films that find their insurgence in ideas, the new tech specs are just a way of delivering their creative conceits to the masses. It’s not the medium that’s making the change, it’s the minds behind it. It was true a half century ago, and it’s true now. CDs didn’t make popular music better, or more culturally relevant. They just gave greater entrance to those outside the cocooned conglomerates. Whenever a new voice is finally heard, it is rarely judged on its entrance. The power to change is inherent in art. Getting into the gallery and access to paints are only the beginning of the battle.
The Economist had a brief piece about tourism in North Korea that wanted to do the classic journalistic move of mocking the thing its reporting on and those who would care about it while validating at the same time the inherent interest of the thing being dismissed by bothering to publish a story about it at all.
Global capitalism has worked many wonders, but where in the free world can one see 10,000 children dancing in synchronisation, dressed as eggs? Such weirdness makes North Korea, a basket-case state, a must for a certain sort of backpacker.
This image helps give a sense of what they’re talking about:
Now, I’ll admit to being that sort of backpacker in my imagination, and I know I shouldn’t be; it doesn’t do to be snickering at totalitarian regimes as if these egg dances are the worst indignities the people who suffer under them have to endure. It’s easy to laugh and forget about the starvation, surveillance, deprivation, fear of random imprisonment and ceaseless propaganda that makes life a cynical grind. It’s easy to want to commodify that experience and consume it from a far:
It seems that the tourist board realises the ironic appeal of such things: painted replicas of some of the most over-the-top bits of propaganda are for sale, and a post office does a roaring trade in stamps depicting mighty fists crushing Western imperialist aggressors.
Those are some grim souvenirs when you think about it; what makes them kitschy for their target market is the fact that they are imposed on the miserable people who are not free to laugh at them. Owning such propaganda items as an American is a way of consuming our own freedom as a gloating entitlement, a way of celebrating it to the degree that it comes at the expense of others. Look at us, we’re free to laugh at the emblems you must fear. Ha-ha.
Still, I enjoy reading this kind of article, imaging myself as the correspondent staring out the window of the “Alcatraz of fun” where Western tourists are consigned during the Mass Games and idly contemplating with great detachment the economic misery of others. I imagine this would make me feel more alive, like I was less living in a bubble of prosperity, preoccupied by small-scale personal issues. Maybe the sight of such misery would blot out awareness of any such personal problems; this might be the appeal of this kind of magazine article, for that matter.
It was a back and forth battle but in the end, the Eagles rule at the top of the Billboard charts this week, beating out Ms. Spears. It was a squeaker though and not a slight one either.
Upon reflection, it’s interesting that the WGA – the Writers Guild of America – has decided to go on strike. It’s not that these studio scribes don’t have their rights, and the ability to properly execute them, in order to protect their Union and their honor. And no one would argue that the new media – the Internet, downloads, DVDs, and future formats – need their residual and fee structures reviewed and settled. But there’s a bewildering lack of vision here, something that goes to the very heart of what’s happening to cinema in general. While it may seem harsh to say it, somebody needs to – screenwriters are screwing up the artform.
Now part of this is proactive. Mediocrity can be found all over the movies, from journeyman directors who wouldn’t know creativity if it bit them in the Rob Schneider cameo, to underage actors who lack the life experience to successfully tap into their supposed sense memory. But even the most accomplished and rewarded A-List performer can be paralyzed by directionless dialogue, pointless plot twists, and incomplete thematic elements. The late, great Gene Siskel once said that a vast majority of the bad film he experienced failed in the script stage – and by the look of many in 2007’s underachieving cinematic class, it’s the reason large entertainment ambitions have resulted in such mediocre motion picture product.
First, a clarification. Only the most naïve of film fan believes that a writer’s words arrive onscreen unscathed. Between studio input, director vision, actor interpretation, pre-production doctoring and punch-ups, onset skirmishes, focus group fine tuning, test screening comments, last minute reshoots, and MPAA mandated cuts, it’s hard to imagine how anything someone puts on paper makes it to celluloid unaltered. Insider stats have illustrated that approximately 40% of what the author of a screenplay creates lasts until the final phases of moviemaking. And while that number might seem high, the truth is that it takes into consideration the writer/director combo that uses such a status to protect their work. Without them, the number is rumored to be closer to 20%.
So, sometimes, it’s not all the scripts fault. But let’s take a look at the notion of film writing from a bigger perspective. When a political thriller like Rendition is greenlit, someone obviously sees the potential in the project. They read the words of an untried, unproven Kelley Sane, and start to do some immediate mental casting. Two years later, Reese Witherspoon is carrying her post-Oscar baggage as your lead, Jake Gyllenhaal is your hunky CIA scrub, and the entire Arab world is a group of flash paper fanatics just waiting for the right religious rationale to suicide bomb the planet. Toss in some gratuitous torture, a subpar subplot involving star-crossed Muslim lovers, and the pitch meeting prose practically creates itself.
Too bad Sane didn’t let the screenplay do the same thing. While the jumbled narrative approach taken by director Gavin Hood couldn’t have helped matters much, one senses it was part of this scribe’s original intent. After all, when we learn the truth at the end, and realize the actual time frame of the events we’ve been watching, there’s supposed to be some manner of emotional and intellectual epiphany. Unfortunately, it all ends up playing like one giant joke, a gratuitous gag that treats the audience as children. Apparently, viewers can’t handle a straightforward story of Middle East policy failures and citizen torture. The tale has to be gussied up with unimportant tangents to keep the pea-brained viewer in constant check.
It’s a similar situation with the sappy and stupendously maudlin Things We Lost in the Fire. Foreign filmmaker Susanne Bier took the scattered script by feature first-timer Alan Loeb and tried to distill as much meaning and emotion from it as she could. But there is no doubt that when looking at the reality of a widow and her late husband’s heroin addicted best friend shacking up under one overpriced roof, the mind behind Fox’s one hour drama New Amsterdam failed to fully grasp the psychological or logistical flaws in such a set up. Disconnected, overflowing with pointless flashbacks, and dizzying in the number of motivational inconsistencies, it was as if Loeb looked up the worst facets of melodrama and decided to incorporate each and every one – and do a piss poor job in the process.
From El Cantante, which took the biopic format and then stupidly shifted the focus away from the central subject (salsa superstar Hector LaVoe) to Feast of Love, where big picture pronouncements about love and life were weirdly wedged into a Terms of Endearment tearjerker, scripts undermined many a Hollywood heavyweight. But there are also incidents where a screenplay suffers from the opposite problem. Instead of being insufficient indicators of a story’s true intent, they are overwritten maelstroms that fail to make their point in profound – or even an appreciable – manner. In the case of these purposefully pompous efforts, the more words and ideas on the page, the less success the end result.
Take the upcoming Lions for Lambs. If polemics were pastries, every attending audience member would be in danger of instantaneous obesity. Robert Redford directed this dopey debate like the stagiest play in the history of one set theater, and then made it even more bombastic by turning a liberal leaning eye on the entire Iraq/Middle East equation. Of course, The Kingdom scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan apparently decided to reverse the fine work he did on said Peter Berg directed action thriller. Instead of enlivening his preachy monologues with some manner of movement, he simply wrote his screeds and let the filmmakers find a way to make it sizzle. In Redford’s mind, this meant keeping everything inert and absolutely sedentary. Even our army men spend the majority of their screen time supine.
Sadly, something that could have been a significant anti-war statement comes off like Vietnam for the easily impressed. Toss out a few figures, give the characters enough personal history to soften their manipulative moralizing, pepper it all with “We Hate Bush” blame, and the end result should look like Platoon from the politician’s point of view. Instead, it’s a horrible unfocused mess – just like the deconstructionist Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In a genre that’s seen more reinvention than Madonna in mid midlife crisis, this adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel by Australian Andrew Dominik is like a mini-series micromanaged down to John Jakes sized scribblings. It’s so desperate to capture every facet of the book upon which it was based, and the era when it is set, that it ends up marginalizing the myth it is hoping to create.
It’s not that the movie doesn’t have its moments, it simply has far too many of them. When we realize that Dominik’s take on the material will be more 19th century fame whoring and stalking than hammy horse operatics, our heart leaps. But then we are bogged down with side characters, ancillary subplots, tangents that never pay off, and an ending that literally forgets the meaning of that word. While some have championed this effort as a thoughtful, expressive look at the celebrity of the day, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is fifteen films all vying for cinematic relevance. Only half of one manages to maintain its position.
Certainly each example described can be argued over and supported. There are critics who claim that Lions for Lambs is a pointed and balanced presentation of the War on Terror, while Things We Lost in the Fire is an amazingly deep and affecting story of hope. Yes, that voice you hear in the background is indeed the late Jim Jones, and he’s got a supersized Kool-Aid Slurpee with your name on it. The truth is, ever since Akiva Goldsman became the bearer of Oscar Gold, when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were given the same Academy consideration, when Paul Haggis can pull 47 intertwined clichés out of his tuckus and still be considered the cream of the crop, there is something wrong with this print picture.
Perhaps if the writers were striking over aesthetics instead of cash, they’d gain more sympathy. The industrial unions figured this out in the ‘80s. Now, when they go to the mat during negotiations, it’s over USA friendly facets like job security, trade protection, imports and tariffs, and the scourge of outsourcing. If a few extras greenbacks result from such bait and switch strategies, all the better. Honestly, if a spokesman for the WGA got up and said something like “we demand that management recognize the autonomy of the author”, if they went on to whine, “We want failed SNL comics to stop adlibbing their own lame lines. We seek redress for every instance when a clueless bunch of demographically specific viewers alter our narrative arch. We want a halt to all script doctoring and authorship by committee. We will except nothing less than the same respect and creative control you give your best directors, your superstar performers, and your high profile producers.”, they’d have our hearts and minds. Currently, it’s pennies for DVDs.
Writers have always been the third class citizens of the creative conspiracy known as film. Harlan Ellison often argued that the reason he stayed away from all forms of visual media was that, the minute you signed the contract, the studios saw the exchange of cash as the end of the writer’s worth. Even in arenas (Star Trek, Babylon 5) where his input was appreciated, he was viewed as a pushy, persistent pariah. While their paychecks might not reflect it, at least not since the rightly named Greed Decade made the screenwriter as marketable as the movie itself (Joe Eszterhas! Shane Black!), what the members of the WGA really need is a boost of artistic integrity. As long as they keep churning out chum, any call for more moolah will seem like the blind leading the avaricious. And they control the core of the artform. Maybe it’s the audience that should stage a walkout.
// Moving Pixels
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