The Vanity Pic

I used to be of the impression that, if you had a great talent, you should give it free reign. For example, I disagree with a lot of Steven Bochco’s ideas: I think the networks should have concentrated on stability and stayed away from cheap shots like foul language, graphic violence, nudity and so on. (I have nothing against foul language, graphic violence or nudity, but there’s no way they can compete with the virtually unrestricted cable channels.)

Even so, I would have given Bochco free reign to do what he wanted because he was that good.

In retrospect, I’m less sure of this position than I once was, to phrase it in a mealy-mouthed, “I was for it before I was against it” sort of way. And the thing that makes me less sure is the rise of the vanity pic.

A vanity pic is precisely what I suggest above: A situation where a previously successful talent is allowed to do whatever he or she wants.

Think the second two Matrix movies.

Or Peter Jackson’s King Kong, a three-hour (or 3:20, if you want the extended cut) monster flick where you could run the original 1933 film in the time it takes for Kong to appear.

Or Grindhouse, which is, in fact, two vanity pics rolled into one, that even with the missing reels is about twice as long as it needs to be. And now each released separately with the extra reel added in because, yeah, we were all thinking, “We need another 12 minutes of dialogue, Quentin” or “We need another 12 minutes of confusing plot, Robert”. (You can read my full review here.)

Atonement strikes me as a bit of a vanity pic. Yes, it’s only two hours, but a good deal of that is, for example, these gorgeous shots of James McAvoy wandering through Dunkirk. (For those of you just tuning in, war is, apparently, hell.) This is a beautiful, beautiful movie with no mercy whatsoever for the poor filmgoer.

A description that has long stuck with me is John Gardner’s of Mozart as “the great white shark of music”. You know who the Great White Shark of movies is? Christopher Guest.

That’s right. Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis. Spinal Tap. The Six-Fingered Man. The guy who makes all those mockumentaries.

When he makes one, he shoots dozens of hours of film. Dozens! When he’s done editing, the movies come down to about 90 minutes, and great stuff is lying on the cutting room floor. Nothing is left in if it doesn’t show the characters from a new and important angle or advance the plot.

And this bit of what should be common sense coming from a guy who directs comedies. At the end of which, you’re never tired. You usually want more.

Leave ‘em wanting more! Where have I heard that?

I’d love to see Guest take a hatchet to most of these recent big-budget fiascos. Then maybe I could sit through them without getting pissed off.

The Chick Flick

In the Atonement comments, Trooper got me thinking about chick flicks.

I formulated my personal definition of “chick flick” in 1999, during a viewing of Hilary and Jackie. It was after the Academy Awards showed a clip of Emily Watson where she’s in Russia, making funny quips to people who can’t understand it. It looked like a light-hearted romp.

About a third of the way through the movie I realized I had been duped. That scene, taken in context, was desperate and sad. And worse, this was a chick flick.

I believe that good movies are good movies. There are niche movies, sure, that not everyone can appreciate. (Like, I dunno, maybe Tron is too techie or was at the time. Or The Passion of the Christ was too Jesus-y to capture the atheist audience.) But I sort of resist the notion that a good movie geared to one sex isn’t going to resonate with the other. I mean, after all, you either are a chick, or you’re dealing with them all the time, right?

Romantic comedies, for example, aren’t (or shouldn’t be) chick flicks. Howard Hawks couldn’t have made a chick flick if he’d wanted to, but he could direct Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Same for Michael Curtiz (Casablanca and Elizabeth and Essex).

And since I know plenty of chicks who hate so-called chick flicks, I’m going to stick with the idea that chick flicks target a particular type of chick.

So, for me, a “chick flick” is one about woman making each other miserable. Then, one of them contracts a terrible disease, and the other(s) all rally around supportively, sometime prolonging the misery to the actual death scene. If men are involved, it’s usually as comic, loutish and/or completely clueless characters.

That’s Hilary and Jackie. Jackie is a jerk. This is apparently due to her multiple sclerosis. Hilary coerces her husband into having sex with her, and then gets pissed when he does.

Beaches. Bette Middler and Barbara Hershey treat each other like crap and then one gets cancer.

The message seems to be “Life is miserable. Men are useless. Women are catty, but they’ll be there for you when you die.”

So, by my definition, Atonement doesn’t really qualify as a chick flick. (But you know, it probably does qualify as another kind of pic, which I’ll comment on shortly.)

However, La Vie En Rose (the biopic about Edith Piaf) has a very similar message, without the positive part about women. It might be a new subsection of “chick flick” with the added message of “Women are catty, and you’ll die alone.”

Stay In The Phone Booth With The Gorilla

In Robert Newton Peck’s useful and straightforward Secrets of Successful Fiction, one of the chapters is called (something like) “Stay In The Phone Booth With The Gorilla”.

“Bob was making a phone call when suddenly a giant 400 lb. gorilla barged his way in, fangs bared, hot breath on Bob’s face….

It reminded Bob of his times at the sea, when his mother would put zinc oxide on his nose and the hot breeze would blow his hair…

Which of course had been badly butchered by crazy aunt Amelia, who had flunked out of Beauty School and gone completely mad…

Madness ran in the family, and–”

To belabor the obvious: You’ve put the reader in the phone booth with the gorilla, have the decency to tell him what happens.

In modern cinema, the violation of this rule seems to come in two forms. One is the Peter Jackson violation, where it takes an hour to get to the freakin’ gorilla in the first place, when your movie is supposed to be about a freakin’ gorilla.

However, the more common form these days is the time shift. Remember Memento? That clever and suspenseful story that’s told entirely backward? That was great, wasn’t it?

Once. And it’s already been made.

If you can get motion sickness from time shifting, that might partly explain my nausea over La Vie En Rose, where at some point they seem to completely abandon linear time and the constraints it tries to place on them.

In Atonement, we get this bouncing about in time which has one legitimate use: To show the same scene from two different angles. (Rashomon it ain’t, but this is legitimate. We need to see how the 13-year-old sees it versus how it actually was.) After that, let the story play out in sequence. Don’t show us a scene, then flip back six months earlier, than go forward three weeks, then branch off into an alternate reality.

Just don’t. OK, you can do a flashback at the end to clarify.

You can, Saving Private Ryan style, bookend your movie so that the whole thing is a flashback, though a lot of people felt that was hack sentimentalism. You can, to a limited degree, do an Awake style flashback, where you’ve presented the seeming end of the story at the beginning to get a twist at the end–but that’s really hack, and you better not be relying on that to carry your film. (Remember The Sixth Sense? Good movie, eh? Even Shyamalan can’t pull another rabbit like that out of his hat.)

Time shifting is generally another way to not stay in the phone booth with the gorilla, or a confession that your story, told in linear fashion, just isn’t very interesting. The audience will not be fooled. It may be confused however.

The “Buffy” Factor.

Just as What Dreams May Come got it through my thick skull that audiences don’t like it when the same characters are played by different actors (for metaphysical reasons, presumably showing the effects of age is okay), I formulated an important theory–humor me, it would be “important” if I actually made movies or if anyone listened to me–from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

No, no, not “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer”, which is a TV show, but the movie Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, with Rutger Hauer, Paul Reubens, Kristy Swanson as Buffy, and Luke Perry at the height of his popularity.

The lesson was this: You can’t make a successful movie where you mercilessly mock the target audience.

Buffy was, in essence, about the triviality of high school life. All those girls who wanted to see Luke Perry got treated to a lesson in how stupid they were. Buffy herself transcends her situation out of necessity, but opportunities for the average teen to do so are relatively scant.

The series took a much gentler approach all around.

I’ve seen this mistake made a number of times: The under-rated Last Action Hero, for example, ruthlessly mocks the tropes of action films, while itself being an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. (The first half does, the second half suffers a little crisis of conscience, and tells us it’s all real, potentially–a position which lacks much credibility after the first half of the film.)

More recently, Josie and the Pussycats overtly trashed the consumer culture and trend-following of teens. It, of course, broke the record for number of on-screen product placements, something which is pretty funny in a “meta” way. But really, does the audience want to be told they’re brainwashed morons?

Not usually.

You can mock your audience, presuming they have a sense of humor. You can’t do it while insulting their intelligence, however. A good example of doing it right is the mild Galaxy Quest, which roundly mocks the sci-fi fan. Science-fiction fans, for all their obsession over trivia and ability to take their childhood passions to the grave, are (broadly) smart and self-deprecating in their humor.

For example, this sketch. (Can’t believe there’s not a better version online.)

Still, if you’re going to deconstruct Sci-Fi tropes, you generally need to replace them with better ones. Sci-Fi fans aren’t really interested in people saying “That’s not the way things are.” They know that. They’re interested in the way things might be.

The choices that Galaxy Quest makes are telling: The Kirk-figure, played by Tim Allen, is a kind of true believer himself (something I doubt of Shatner). In addition, the aliens are geeks themselves, gawky, ungainly engineering types who move awkwardly because–I guess because they’re not comfortable in the human forms they assume. (This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, now that I think about it, since it seems to be an illusion versus an actual changing of shape, but we’ll roll with it.)

Of course, the little TV show saves an entire race by serving as a model, and a fan saves the crew from destruction with his knowledge of trivia. In the end, the show is even renewed with the original cast.

When I put it down in black-and-white, it almost seems like pandering.

By contrast, you could look at This is Spinal Tap: a movie which tried to mock heavy metal fans, a great many of whom don’t seem to realize they’re being mocked.

Games I Loved That Everyone Else Hated: Afterlife

It’s a little harder to talk about games that you love that everyone else hated, since a bad game actively interferes with your ability to interact with it and get to the good stuff. I suppose it’s not, in the abstract, different from a bad movie, but in practice a bad game is frustrating on the personal level–something few movies can achieve, and something which games have to work hard to avoid.

“Afterlife” would fit into the category of “games I liked that no one else did”. (Which Althouse got me thinking of in the context of What Drams May Come.) This was a SimCity clone with excellent artwork (for the time) and great writing–but a whole lot of micromanagement which caps off the fun too soon. (You can only get so good before you have to do a lot of pointless clickwork.) And yet, I’ve played this more than I’ve played all four SimCity games combined.

I was amused how much they did to avoid controversy. You didn’t play “God” or even “a god” but one of Plato’s “demiurges”. (Which, I suppose, was the Gnostics’ Old Testament god.) It wasn’t humans you were dealing with but EMBOs (Ethically Mature Biological Organisms).

But they had initials for the various beliefs which worked well as religious satire. Since you could believe that you had one life or many, that you only went to heaven or hell, or that you went to both, etc., from a spoiler:

A HOHOSUSAALFist would believe that upon his death, he would travel to either Heaven Or Hell Only. Once there, he would be rewarded or punished based upon his one predominant virtue or sin, and that he would be there forever.

That’s almost a Monty Python sketch, right there.

You could do things like boost lust on your source planet to increase the number of people living there (there’s a great, funny hint about that), and then boost rage to get them to kill each other and thus increase the profitability of your Afterlife.

The other highlight of the game was the descriptions of the rewards and punishments, based on the sin/virtue being exercised (exorcised?). Dante should’ve been so creative.

Great music, too.

You can download a demo here.

Movies I Loved That Everyone Else Hated: What Dreams May Come

Ann Althouse casually dissed one of my favorite movies on her blog, which provoked in me a great idea for a forum topic/series of blog posts: Movies I loved that everyone else hated.

My tastes are not perfectly in line with the…uh… Well, okay, that should be obvious. Tastes are inherently idiosyncratic. Even if some are more offbeat than others, we none of us march to the exact same beat.

I’m used to this most prominently with black humor. Not African American comedy but stuff like Very Bad Things, Drop Dead Gorgeous, The Wicker Man and Psycho. (Yeah, lots of people like Psycho but Hitch viewed it as a comedy, as do I.) So it’s a little strange to have a Romantic-Drama in the field of MILTEEH. Especially one with Robin Williams, who is not particularly to my taste.

Summary: After a series of tragic events taking the lives of his children, Robin Williams dies and goes to heaven, only to find his wife isn’t there, because she took her own life after he died. He then embarks on a journey to save her.

Sort of a reverse Orpheus, if you will.

So, why do I like this movie? Probably, in part, because of an unrepentant Romantic strain. And probably, in part, because I think there’s a lot of philosophical truth behind it. The afterlife, in this movie, is pretty much what you make of it–not unlike life itself, but with a lot more freedom, since you’re not dealing so much with this recalcitrant stuff called “matter”.

Further, the “Hell” that Annie (Annabella Sciorra) goes to isn’t a place she’s assigned to by some bureaucratic angels, it’s a place she herself has created through her grief. In other words, Heaven and Hell are made of the same stuff, just not by the same people. It also seems to be far, far away from Heaven, which reminds me of St. Augustine’s notion that “Evil is distance from God”.

The people in Hell of course don’t realize that. In a more abstract sense, you could say people in Heaven were Cause and people in Hell were Effect. (Though perhaps we could bring in Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn to explain how the people in Heaven were privileged by the narrative….)

So, why didn’t people like this movie? The CGI is hot-and-heavy, showing a fluid, shifting afterlife (that reminds of Annie’s painting), so that may have been part of it. I’d hate to think that people just didn’t like the message, preferring instead the dull, steam-cleaned angels-and-harps of a more traditional Heaven.

One thing I have learned (from such movies as Chances Are and several others) is that movie audiences are very uncomfortable with multiple people playing the same character in a film. In What Dreams May Come, Annie and Chris’s children are played by children in life, but in death but relatively famous adults. This is done with one of Chris’s teachers, as well, though I can’t recall if we see him in life.

I’ve found, though, when a movie says, “Surprise! I’m that other character you knew from before now played by a new actor,” it seems to piss people off. (And it can be a cheap stunt.) Two out of the three times it’s done in this film, it’s necessary to the plot.

Then again, maybe it’s the whole premise people reject. I don’t know, but I rank it among my favorite films.

The Future History of the World

Andy Marken has put up as a Google Document an amusing little “History of the World” for laptops, inspired by the One-Laptop-Per-Child’s XO.

The XO is a fascinating exercise. On the one hand, you have guys like Nicholas Negroponte and guru Alan Kay (whose Dynabook concept was surely an inspiration) trying to change the world in a fundamental way. (OLPC’s Wiki sheds a lot of light on the project.) On the other, you have–well, almost everyone else, tending to be puzzled or cynical or outright hostile.

I’ve followed the OLPC as it has evolved because it uses a version of Etoys, which is a way I’ve introduced my kids to the computer as a learning tool. I see a lot of misconceptions that I myself had when starting out. In fact, just check out Slashdot and you can see all the misconceptions made every time, on every story about the OLPC. Or for a particularly stupid and hostile editorial, you can always count on John Dvorak.

As Negroponte says, it’s an education project, not a laptop project. In other words, the laptop factor is incidental. That laptop can hold a number of textbooks–even if it couldn’t do anything else–and the $100 target for the laptop was set to make it comparable to x textbooks. (I’ve forgotten what x was.) By that metric, even at $188, the machine will cost less and last longer than the textbooks it will replace.

But of course, the XO can connect to the ‘net. Which makes it better than anything anyone had in any school 20 years ago. If they learn how to use the XO to really understand and model “powerful ideas” in science, math and engineering–well, I get a chill just thinking about it.

Andy’s essay brought to the fore some thoughts that had been percolating since both Intel and Microsoft attacked the project. The XO is an educational project, yes, but it directly crosses the business of computing–in much the same way as if you were teaching poor people to farm, you’d be crossing the business of selling food to the countries they live in.

Few things are as aggressive in this world as corporations with significant market share trying to protect that share. Keep that in mind if you ever think of the Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation as a charitable one. Robber barons will give away anything except the power that allows them to be so rich in the first place. (If I’m right, the first credible threat to Google will see their “Do no evil” motto go directly out the window.)

So the big vendors have gone from “That’s a stupid idea” to “Me, too, only with the products the world craves”. But all they can do, really, is lower the price of the metaphorical corn. They can’t teach people how to farm without threatening their business model.

One of the key elements of the XO (carried over from the Dynabook) is that it’s meant to be completely open. Curious as to how something works? Click a button and the XO shows you how. Something not working? Whether it’s software or hardware, you’re empowered to troubleshoot.

This is both good education and practical: Supporting the millions of XOs out there is impossible under the current paradigm of “phone a call center” and “take it to an authorized service rep”.

But, seriously, is Microsoft ever going to do that? Of course not. If Windows were open, it would be far too easy to work around it. They learned that back in the DOS days, Digital Research was turning out a far better DOS than they could manage, even with all that money. They rely on obscurity to maintain their choke hold. Well, that, and tons of money and a willingness to do anything to crush anything even remotely perceived as a threat.

This will, ultimately, lead to their downfall, I suppose. But not before they take down a lot of good ideas with them. I hope the XO isn’t one of them.

A Guilty Conscience And A Broken Heart

I went to the morgue today to see you,
I knew you’d end up there right from the start,
The coroner he told me,
You died of natural causes,
A guilty conscience and a broken heart.

The irony of Loudon Wainwright III writing and singing this is beyond compare. I guess he can play someone other than himself. (This is from the “Undeclared” DVD extras.)


Here’s a noisy version from his latest tour, which also includes him singing Peter Blegvad’s “Daughter”.

Free & Easy

Check out the free movie downloads from “Pubic Domain Torrents”:

The cult classic A Boy and His Dog (from Harlan Ellison’s novella) is there.

Along with some Buster Keaton! (There’s also a bunch of Charlie Chaplin! And the much maligned Fatty Arbuckle!)

Dario Argento’s brooding horror classic Deep Red.

Here’s a dull little Psycho rip-off that was advertised as being TOO SHOCKING to be rated by the MPAA: Funeral Home. It’s straight PG.

If you’re Ed Wood, how do you follow up your autobiographical classic, Glen or Glenda? With a little Jail Bait!

I used to tell people about this movie and they accused me of being a liar: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter.

Though Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck’s movie Dead People was butchered, it still contains some of the most persistently spooky imagery in the horror canon. I’ve always felt that the Jennifer Lopez flick The Cell was influenced by this.

The best version of Dracula.

Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with William Holden.

Frank Sinatra in Suddenly.

Lots of MST3K fodder, cartoons, serials, early Hitch and Roger Corman (including the classics Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors)!

(via Retromedia Forum)

If I Were King Of The Forest….

…not queen, not duke, not prince.

I was thinking lately about the copyright problem. If you’re wondering “What copyright problem?” I find it hard to believe you’re actually using a computer. But here. In a nutshell, content providers (the music, film and book industries) are trying to maintain archaic business models in a world where content consumers (thee and me) can download their stuff freely from the Internet.

There are a lot of monkeys in this particular wrench of course: Content providers have been progressively extending copyright beyond any reasonable level; the line between provider and consumer blurs as the means to produce and distribute content drops drastically; content consumers have gone from a relatively black-line situation of being able to copy content for personal use or backup, or for review or parody, to a world where the rules are vague and the punishments severe.

And so on.

All the while, increasingly draconian methods by providers continue to fail and to actually encourage piracy. The writing is on the wall and has been for decades, though we should not underestimate the ability of those whose business models are threatened to fail to read said writing till they are nearly out of business.

If it were me–if I were king of the forest–I would create a library with every film in it ever made. And I would charge precisely $1 for any film, highest quality print available and no attempt to lock it down. (No DRM or “digital rights management” as it euphemistically called.)

“But Blake,” you say, “one dollar isn’t very much. How can they make their money back at one dollar a pop? And won’t every one steal their stuff if it’s not locked down?”

To which I’d reply that you’re competing with free (which Jack Valenti famously and incorrectly said was not something that could be competed with). The point isn’t so much to provide the files (though being a reliable source is a selling point) as it is to store, index, recommend and serve said files.

I mean, think about this, even if storage were free (and cost will be a significant factor for years to come), if you maintain your own library, you’re doing a fair amount of work–hardware and software.

I used the original Napster on precisely one occasion–to make a mix CD of songs I already had Why? It was far easier than going through my library, taking out the CDs (or God help me, the vinyl) ripping a track, burning it, etc.

Now that was a service! It was easier for me to use that service than to use what I had already purchased. That’s value.

As for theft, it should be apparent now that it’s inevitable. By locking down media, you sell your customers a worse product than they can get for free. (I can’t tell you how many games I’ve been unable to play because of a problem with a DRM system.) The logic is apparently “because there are criminals, we are going to treat you, the paying customer, as one of them.”

But, get this, at $1 a pop, with easy access and good search, why would you bother storing stuff
locally? You’d have a few favorites, but in most cases, you’d pay a buck for whatever you wanted and then drop it (or let it cycle out) when you were done with it for a while. Then, if you decided you want it again, you’d shell out a buck to look at it again.

And for a buck? You’d take a few risks here and there. Back when there were bargain theaters, we used to go to them to see movies we figured weren’t very good. It was fun, and at $10 a movie has to be a lot better than it does at $3.

For a buck, what wouldn’t you try?

Songs could be cheaper (because they’re shorter and the volume people consume is much higher), maybe a dime or a quarter. Books are interesting because they can (and are) had for free from a library. But I think the principle is still the same:

Make it so easy and so cheap that the legal venue provides the best product for the exchange (of time and money). Yes, people will still take without paying. But I would bet your overall volume of sales would go up so much–much like the introduction of the hated (by providers) videotape created revenue streams they couldn’t imagine–you’d enter a new realm of profitability.

And you could include tons of free stuff as well as work with the independents who would benefit from being in your library. Eventually, the roles would change, so you’d be a pure distributor. Why spend millions making a pop star when they’re out there making themselves at no cost or risk to you?

It won’t happen peacefully, of course. Change is frightening, and probably all the more so when it’s inevitable.