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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – But Who Cares?

Friday, November 28th, 2014

The first “teaser trailer” for the new Star Wars film is here, and I have only one question – who cares?

Talk about playing to diminishing returns – this film reunites a bunch of the cast members from the original 1977 film, which was quite a fun piece of entertainment, even if deeply indebted – by design – to the Saturday morning movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, but hasn’t this whole franchise been done to death? At least one of the original participants – now deceased – wasn’t happy with the film from the start, though he shrewdly realized it would be a huge hit, and negotiated a percentage of the profits as part of his salary, which paid off handsomely.

As Keir Mudie reported in The Sun on May 3, 2014, the gifted actor Sir Alec Guinness, forever after typecast as Obi-Wan Kenobi, called the first film “fairytale rubbish” with “lamentable dialogue” and complained during the shooting that ” [I] can’t say I’m enjoying the film… rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable” though he noted after Star Wars was completed that “it’s a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.

But must we keep beating it to death with one useless sequel after another? Aren’t there better things to do with our lives? Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t come out until December 2015, and people are already talking about the film as if it’s a must-see event. Personally, I can’t think of any less imaginative or duller way to spend an afternoon – and even though the original film earned Guinness “more than £56million in royalties, a best supporting actor Oscar nomination and global stardom,” I have to agree with him – it is sheer rubbish. The follow up sequels are even more tedious, while the first film, at least, had some energy. But now that Disney owns the rights to the franchise, and plans to to put out a new film every year for the foreseeable future, I’m sure that, just like the endless chain of James Bond films, there will be a Star Wars film playing in cinemas from now until the end of time.

Indeed, Guinness disliked the film so much – which pretty much erased all of his previous work in a single stroke in the public consciousness – that he threw out all of the fan mail that came to him associated with Star Wars, and when confronted by a young boy who told him enthusiastically that he had seen the film 100 times, tartly responded “well, do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?” If only it were possible, but unfortunately, the franchise grinds on – with the only possible upside being that it supplies work for an army of technicians and extras, and will certainly draw crowds to theaters. But when I think of all the excellent films that will be completely ignored in the stampede to see this latest iteration, well, it makes me more than a bit sad.

Isn’t it time to just drop the whole thing, and move on to something new?

Essay on Fisher’s To The Public Danger (1948) by David Cairns

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

Here’s another Terence Fisher film worthy of a second look – if you know it at all.

Well, having just discussed the restoration of The Devil Rides Out, up pops another Fisher rarity. In my book length study of Terence Fisher, The Charm of Evil, I devote considerable space to this deeply undervalued film, which was Fisher’s second directorial effort after his debut “curtain raiser,” Colonel Bogey. When I wrote that book, I had to travel to the British Film Institute to see a 35mm print of the film; now, here it is on YouTube, in a very good version, too.

It was posted there by David Cairns, who also wrote an essay on the film for Mubi, which notes in part that “1948 was one of the great years of British film, with Powell & Pressburger, David Lean and others on top form. Terence Fisher, later to make his name at Hammer (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, etc.) was only just beginning his career, but he began it well: soon he would co-direct the gripping Hitchcockian yarn So Long at the Fair (1950), but before that came 40-minute short subject To the Public Danger, a thriller revolving around drunk driving.

As four characters meet in an English roadhouse and begin the kind of inebriate evening people fresh from WWII seemed to take in their strides, recklessness and arrogance leads towards inevitable doom, with the boozing accompanied by bullying, seduction, class prejudice, cowardice, paranoia and a slew of other unattractive qualities. The result is not so much mounting tension as an oppressive, agonizing sense of suffocating anxiety and unpleasantness.

This is the world of writer Patrick Hamilton, specialist in psychological torment (Gaslight), nerve-shredding anxiety (Rope) and alcoholic madness (Hangover Square). Few other writers can abuse their protagonists, and their public, with such merciless cruelty, while displaying at the same time a pained compassion for life’s victims.

To the Public Danger is adapted from a BBC radio play by Hamilton, and abounds in sharply-drawn detail, mostly delivered as dialogue: it must have made a gripping listen, and if the film has a flaw, it’s that nearly every effect is achieved by sound and voice. Still, Fisher serves up some nice nocturnal joyriding, all via rear projection of course, but with some intense low angles from under the steering wheel.

The premise may make the film sound like a Public Information film about highway safety, and it does have a socially redeeming function, but derives its power from the vicious interplay of its quartet of dysfunctional character.

Dermot Walsh is the loathsome Captain Cole, ex-army snob, manic boozer and bully; Susan Shaw is the beautiful blonde with a heart of brass; Barry Letts her milquetoast mark who must locate his backbone amidst the drunken maelstrom; and Roy Plomley the utterly sloshed Reggie, whose main contribution is adding to the general confusion. The script very sharply delineates their varied reactions to an apparent hit-and-run accident during which Shaw was holding the wheel while Walsh, in the driving seat, was lighting a cigarette . . .

Fisher’s style tended to be straightforward, blunt, at times crude, suiting him to Hammer’s penny dreadful approach. While British cinema was supposed to favor restraint and discretion, Fisher dealt with things head-on, however unpleasant. The impressionistic flurries of montage with which he suggests car accidents here, all screaming and flash-cuts and onrushing trees, suggests the savagery that would eventually birth Christopher Lee’s mush-faced Frankenstein creature, looking, as one reviewer wrote, ‘like a road accident.’”

This is another remarkable film that deserves more attention; see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Here’s a brilliant book on the intersection of science and romantic culture.

As the publisher’s website for this book notes, “in the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.

Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination.

At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.

The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.”

This is an absolutely remarkable achievement, managing to effortlessly synthesize science and the arts – two supposedly polar pursuits in the modern era – and demonstrates that each cannot function without the other, and that all of us are interconnected by both areas, which are of equal importance in the creation and continuance of our shared cultural heritage.

I’m still digesting this marvelous work, which took the author fully 20 years to complete, with some interruptions, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more attention – but perhaps that’s because the text’s message of inclusiveness is not one that’s currently popular.

Williams argues convincingly, without being strident about it, that without the Romantic instinct we will never really fully comprehend our human condition, and at the same time, provides a thorough yet concise outline of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne – who despite his futuristic fantasies was not all that taken with the notion of what was then considered “progress” in the industrial era – and the author William Morris, whose work clearly needs wider attention.

The result is a fascinating and altogether indispensable book, which I urge you to read at once.

John Huston’s Lost Film – In This Our Life (1942)

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

In This Our Life is John Huston’s forgotten film — click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer.

. . . and it doesn’t deserve to be. Though star Bette Davis was critical of the project from the outset, and caused all sorts of problems during production, and even more problems when Huston had to leave to serve during World War II, and the gifted Raoul Walsh took over to finish the film, In This Our Life is a brutally corrosive look at American society in the early 1940s, about the things that power and money can buy, about race relations in the United States during the era, and affords all the stars of the film a chance to do something more than make a conventional melodrama – something Warner Bros. excelled at during the era.

But with its hints of incest, frank references to racial prejudice, the unexpected suicide of a major character, and a fatal hit and run accident added to the mix, In This Our Life showed that behind the placid exterior of the white picket fence houses of the rich there lurked a world of almost complete moral corruption, highlighted only by a few bright spots of decency that pop up with distressing infrequency.

Needless to say, the film didn’t get the critical attention it deserved when first released, and Bette Davis’s public bad-mouthing of the film also did little to help its then-contemporary reputation, but with the passing of more than seven decades, it’s clear that this film has much to say about the time in which it was made – more so than Huston’s other slick entertainments of the period, especially his first film, the crowd pleasing and utter unoffensive detective thriller The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Don’t get me wrong; The Maltese Falcon is a stunning directorial debut, but it’s really more of an escapist puzzle than anything else – an above average mystery with superb performances all around. In This Our Life is something much more – a study of a family and of society in collapse, undone not only by the dissembling of Davis’s scheming central character, but also the weakness of the film’s more thoughtful protagonists, who nevertheless fail to act until it is almost too late.

As TCM notes of the film, “Ellen Glasgow’s novel won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. According to a Los Angeles Examiner news item dated February 27, 1941, the studio paid $40,000 for rights to the novel. A February 27, 1941 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that the film was to star Olivia De Havilland and Errol Flynn. Warner Bros. was named to the Honor Roll of Race Relations of 1942 for making this film because of its dignified portrayal of an African-American, although, according to a September 8, 1942 Hollywood Reporter news item, Warner Bros. cut scenes which treated Ernest Anderson’s character [who is framed in the film for a hit and run accident he had absolutely nothing to do with] in a ‘friendly fashion’ in order to avoid offending viewers in the South.

In 1943, when the film was examined by the Office of Censorship in Washington, D.C. prior to general export, it was disapproved because ‘only by the effort of a conscientious white man in whose law office a Negro boy is studying law is the young man saved from a charge of murder…recklessly made by a white woman….[who] claimed that the Negro and not she, was driving the car at the time of the accident and so strong is the race feeling in this Virginia community that the young Negro was practically condemned in advance. It is made abundantly clear that a Negro’s testimony in court is almost certain to be disregarded if in conflict with the testimony of a white person.’ Actor Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father, appears briefly in the film in a cameo role as a bartender.”

With its brutally frank commentary on the sad state of racial inequality in the United States, especially in the South, the film was bound to cause a good deal of trouble. It seems to me that even today, people are more than willing to sweep it under the rug, and favor Huston’s more frankly commercial efforts, such as Key Largo or even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (both 1948) – again, excellent films, but productions that are much more frankly genre efforts.

But here, as in Sam Wood’s similarly themed indictment of small town American society, King’s Row (1942) – though that film takes place in the 19th century – the foremost concern is social commentary, on both the personal and larger level. Everything about the world that In This Our Life inhabits is wrong from the start, and suggests that there was a corrosive cancer in American society that was about to burst into full view in the postwar era – something that we’re still contending with now, albeit on a much larger scale. Yet In This Our Life is almost never singled out in retrospectives of the director’s career – which is a shame. It’s a strong, honest piece of work.

In This Our Life deserves to be much more widely seen and appreciated – it really is John Huston’s lost film.

New Article – “Turn It Off!” – Sound and Silence in 1960s British Gothic Cinema

Friday, October 31st, 2014

I have a new article out today in Film International, on the use of silence in 1960s British horror films.

As I write, “it’s Halloween once again, and as one might suspect, American cable networks are offering a cornucopia of horror films, past and present, though the Universal films of the 1930s and 40s which started the entire horror cycle in America are now missing from most playlists. Val Lewton’s superb RKO gothics got better treatment from Turner Classic Movies, which ran a whole stack of them this year, and the British films produced by Hammer and Amicus in the 1960s were also well represented on the channel, albeit run at two and three in the morning, not exactly peak viewing hours.

The Hammer films, once ‘X’-rated in Britain upon their initial release, now seem like quaint fairy tales, which is what Hammer director Terence Fisher always claimed they were – ‘fairy tales for adults.’ These are films I know well, have seen many times, and have written about on numerous occasions. I no longer watch them all the way through; instead, I dip into them, keying in on certain scenes that I admire, and then switching to another film with much the same purpose in mind.

But as I sampled one Hammer and/or Amicus film in this fashion in the past few days, something hit me more forcefully than it ever has before in this particular subset of films – the use of silence, and a lack of dialogue, is a trait that nearly all of these films share. The most effective of these films operate through the power of the image alone, in concert with the movements of the actors, and the music of Elisabeth Lutyens and James Bernard, the two most accomplished composers who worked on the Hammer and Amicus films.”

You can read the entire essay here – Happy Halloween!

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

And while I’m in a Welles mood, what about his true lost masterpiece, the uncut The Magnificent Ambersons?

While it will be interesting, no doubt, to see what happens with The Other Side of the Wind, the true lost Welles masterpiece is the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which was taken away from Welles and recut by RKO under the supervision of Robert Wise, up to the point of having 45 minutes or so of footage chopped out, and a “happy ending” substituted at the last minute. To add insult to injury, the film was ultimately released on the bottom half of a double bill with Leslie Goodwins’ distinctly downmarket film Mexican Spitfire Sees a A Ghost - essentially dumped in the marketplace.

By this time, as has been well documented, RKO had undergone a change of management, and the critical praise that the director’s first film Citizen Kane had garnered notwithstanding, the studio was no longer in a mood to give Welles the creative freedom he had enjoyed on Kane. He had simply caused the studio too much trouble, and the new management was only interested in one thing – money. To make matters even worse, RKO ordered the destruction of all the negative trims and outtakes of the complete version, so that a later reconstruction by Welles would be impossible.

To this day, historians and theorists continue to hope that a complete copy of the film will turn up somewhere, in some long forgotten vault, and since Welles was in South America working on his abortive project It’s All True during Ambersons‘ editing, there is the faint – very, very faint – possibility that a complete version of the film was sent to him there, but this is the stuff of legend.

I’m reluctant to say that the complete film is absolutely gone, simply because while Kane dazzles, Ambersons is a much darker, more complex film, about the collapse of memory and social change, in which the world that one lives in is subject to the constant whims of “progress.” But while I can hope, I have to be a realist. It seems that the complete Ambersons is truly lost to us – forever.

If Kane is is a thunderbolt of a film, Ambersons reminds me of the work of Henry James; complex, convoluted, richly layered and deeply introspective. The destruction of the complete version of the film by RKO remains one of the great crimes of cinema history – a crime which it seems it impossible to undo. In the meantime, we have the 88 minute version, which still shows what the film was gesturing at, and what it might have been. In the end, I’ll come down on the side of Ambersons over Kane as Welles’ most deeply felt film, even in the current mutilated version.

We may never see the complete Ambersons, but what remains is still one of the masterworks of the cinema.

Joseph Losey’s Classic Film “Accident” Released by the BFI on Blu-ray

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Joseph Losey’s masterpiece Accident now has a superb new Blu-ray restoration from the BFI.

As Frank Collins wrote in a brilliant 2013 essay in the web journal Cathode Ray of Accident, “the film opens with a formal shot of the exterior of Stephen’s country house. The camera begins to track in towards the house. What strikes you immediately is the use of sound – an aircraft overhead, screeching owls, dogs barking and the tapping of typewriter keys – to augment the thick, primordial atmosphere, where sound becomes another character in the film and signals, with the deafening sound of the car crash, the emotional wreckage from which the rest of the film spills out.

Losey’s use of sound booms and telescopic rifle mikes adds sonic highlights to a film in which he plays with sensual memory, including the ticking engine of the crashed car, footsteps, farmyard noises, water trickling, children playing, kettles, busy offices, frying omelettes et al in the structuring of Stephen’s memory. A fascinating aspect of Stephen’s recall is how Losey manipulates the flashback to obscure certain moments, his embarrassment at falling into the river or his reluctance to play the mock-rugby game at Codrington Hall, for example. What’s missing is just as important as what is evident.

Sound as a ’sonic flashback’ is vital when the film narratively comes full circle and Losey returns to his formal shot of the house, tracks back and repeats the sound of the car crash just before the end titles. In a sense we are entering the present moment of the crash, then travelling back with Stephen into the past to understand what happened to the victims, how it occurred, having them return to its squalid aftermath and reemerge into the light of day by the time the film ends.”

One of the most trenchant films ever made about power, class, and the halls of academe; a must-see.

Why Pan and Scan Wrecks Films – Watch This Video And See

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Pan and scan wrecks movies when you see them on TV – click here, or on the image above, to see why.

When American Movie Classics, as it was then known, first went on the air, it had a half-day schedule, and split its satellite time with another network, and had a somewhat limited playlist. Nevertheless, all the films it ran were uncut, commercial-free, and presented in their original aspect ratio, whether Academy, widescreen, or CinemaScope (and their related formats). In time, American Movie Classics became a 24 hour network, running commercial free, uncut classic films, and I watched it all the time.

Then, as everyone who loves movies know, American Movie Classics “rebranded” itself as AMC, started running commercials, and hacking their films to ribbons (they’re all still complete, mind you, just intercut with hundred of commercials to completely ruin the film’s impact). I never watch AMC anymore, and in fact, regret it when I see a film I love advertised as forthcoming on the channel; I know I won’t watch it, I know it will be shredded with hundreds of ads, and I know it won’t be a movie at all, but rather an excuse to sell commercial time.

The Independent Film Channel, for many years, also ran films uncut and commercial free, but then they recently began running ads — while still advertising the films they present as “uncut” — but once again, you’re not seeing the movie you want, but rather the movie you wanted to see intercut with ads urging to you to buy this or that product, and so now, I don’t watch IFC anymore.

This could be because IFC wants consumers to move to their IFC in Theaters service, which I use quite frequently anyway; first run films presented on cable for a per-film fee the same day they open in theaters in “selected cities.” These commercials are uncut and commercial free, and presented in their original aspect ratios, and you pay for each one, but that seems fair; it’s cheaper than going to a theater to see them, especially when the nearest theater running the film is 1,000 miles away or so.

But now, there is only one basic cable service left that really runs feature films uncut and commercial free, in the original aspect ratio their makers intended; Turner Classic Movies, or TCM.

Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the set of TCM’s The Essentials

TCM runs classic feature films and shorts 24/7, with absolutely no commercials (except for DVDs of the films they screen, promos for upcoming films, and self-promotional blurbs, inbetween the films, but never during), and, as hosted by Robert Osborne, who is insanely knowledgeable about films, is arguably the finest “repertory house” the cinema has ever known, with an enormous collection of MGM and UA films, and a lease on numerous Columbia titles as well, to say nothing of their excellent catalogue of foreign films.

And one other, very important thing: TCM nearly always runs the films they screen in their original aspect ratio. If it was shot in CinemaScope, you see it in CinemaScope, with the signature black bars at the top and bottom of the screen; if in widescreen, then with slightly smaller bars; and if in Academy, in full frame. This is something you can’t say of HBO, Showtime or the other so-called “premium” channels, who as a rule screen “pan and scan” versions of CinemaScope and widescreen films, so that up to one half of the original image is lost, all in the name of “filling the entire screen” with an image, even if it’s only half of the original image the director photographed.

Demo: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in “pan and scan” format

“Pan and scan” is, as Martin Scorsese has said (see this link here), tantamount to “redirecting the movie” — the sides of the frame are cut off, backgrounds eliminated, characters chopped out of the frame, all in the service of presenting a “full screen” image. But as Scorsese and others have pointed out over the years, with “pan and scan,” while you get a “full frame” with no black bars at the top and bottom, you’re not seeing the whole film. You get less, not more. HBO and the other “premium” channels do offer what they term “wide” versions of the some of their films in their on-demand section, but for their regular offerings, pan and scan is the rule.

When you watch a film in pan & scan format, you’re not seeing the whole movie!

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point To Be Re-Released in the UK – But Not The Original Version

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point has always been a problematic film.

After the success of his English-language, British made film Blow-Up (1966), Italian master director Michelangelo Antonioni could pretty much write his own ticket. Blow-Up was for MGM, and so MGM agreed with Antonioni when he decided to do a film about the American counter-culture of the period, but the result was, from many points of view, a disaster. I was working for Life Magazine at the time, and remember vividly Life’s coverage of the final scene in the film, pictured above, in which Antonioni deliberately blew up a huge glass and stone house especially constructed for the film, as a metaphor for the supposed collapse of hypercapitalism, scored to music by Pink Floyd. The sequence, which runs about ten minutes in length at the end of the film, remains an absolutely stunning achievement, as the house explodes again and again from various angles, and then Antonioni moves in for super slow motion close-ups for television sets, refrigerators, and closets full of clothes disintegrating in an unforgettable montage.

But, in all fairness, it must be said that the script, cobbled together by the extremely unlikely group of Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe is resolutely clueless in its depiction of the language and values of the era, and while the film remains a visually stunning experience, the narrative and dialogue seem distressingly out of touch, particularly when one considers how well Antonioni did with conveying the ambiance of the mid 1960s London pop scene in Blow-Up. Stars Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin both had almost no acting experience, and it shows, but Frechette is dead, Halprin has moved on to new concerns, and, of course, Antonioni himself is now no longer with us, or able to protect the artistic integrity of the films he once directed.

So it makes it all the more distressing to read the news that there is now a planned re-release in the United Kingdom of Zabriskie Point in the works, but from this article in Variety, it would seem that the distributors of the film plan to release MGM’s recut of the film, rather than Antonioni’s original version. The tip off comes from the brief reference to the film’s soundtrack listing Roy Orbison as being among the numerous pop music artists whose work is featured in the film. I have nothing against Roy Orbison, but his work on the film was done at the behest of MGM, who saw the original cut of the film, hated it, and searched desperately for some way to make the film more commercial, and in doing so, tacked on a song by Orbison, “So Young,” at the end of the film, rather than reprising Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” over the end of the film.

I saw the original version, and whatever other faults the film may have – and they are numerous – the ending seriously undermines the film as a whole, and most importantly, is not what Antonioni intended. While the MGM recut was a hot topic back when the film was first released, generating numerous news stories, most of the coverage of the re-edit has seemingly vanished, except for sites such as this one, at The Criterion Forum, in which one commenter decries the distribution of the recut, noting that “there is a perfectly acceptable film print circulating with the proper music at the end. I’ve seen it about five times in as many years in Vancouver – twice at the VIFC, once at a Cinematheque Antonioni retrospective, and once at the same venue as part of the VIFF [Vancouver International Film Festival] . . .  [MGM] should have educate[d] themselves in this matter and discover[ed] that there are alternate cuts, one vastly preferred by cinephiles and Antonioni fans.”

Are there more important things going on in the world today? Absolutely! But for those of us who care about the cinema, and about the original intent of those who created films that still – more than 40 years after the film’s first release – have the power to amaze and delight viewers, it’s a matter of some concern that this isn’t even being mentioned – especially when the re-issue of the film in UK theatrical sites is designed to tie in with a forthcoming, and supposedly final Pink Floyd album – Antonioni’s cut includes more Pink Floyd than the recut! So why not do the the right thing, get the right print, and put it out there the way the director intended?

You can watch the final destruction sequence in Zabriskie Point by clicking here, or on the image above.

History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s clearly polemical book nevertheless raises many serious questions.

First published by The British Film Institute in 2001, when the digital revolution was just beginning, with a preface by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently republished in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, Usai’s text asks a number of deeply important questions about the headlong rush to digital, for as he writes, “it is estimated that about one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999, twice as many as a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, one hundred billion hours of moving images will be made in the year 2025. In 1895 there was just above forty minutes of moving images to be seen, and most of them are now preserved.

Today, for every film made, thousands of them disappear forever without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, public and private institutions are struggling to save the film heritage with largely insufficient resources and ever increasing pressures from the commercial world. Are they wasting their time? Is the much feared and much touted “Death of Cinema” already occurring before our eyes? Is digital technology the solution to the problem, or just another illusion promoted by the industry?” – this, of course, is the crux of the problem.

In my recent article on the increasing global reach of Netflix, “Netflix and National Cinemas,” published in Film International, I noted that “under the headline ‘Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,’ Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that: ‘Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in.

This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release. This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed.  Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through ‘pre-sales’ on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.

The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors.  Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix.  Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line.  Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.’

The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces. This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that.

What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else. He embraces the Hollywood model of filmmaking – ruled entirely by commerce, and nothing else – and that’s that. It’s probably true, as Moore says, that ‘worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors’ but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.”

And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue, “Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.

Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.”

It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis. People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

But beyond this, the problem, as many have noted, is that while Netflix pushes into streaming only territory, literally hundreds of thousands of films on a worldwide basis are simply not being distributed at all. The dream of having acesss to everything in the digital era is being steadily undermined by a bottom-line mentality that focuses on profits and nothing else.

This is the “blockbuster only” model of filmmaking, which has effectively defined the marketplace for the future – indies shifted off to the side on VOD, and for the mainstream, mass merchandising, saturation booking, and literally endless franchising. And for the classics – maybe Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – mainstream Hollywood films all – but for Antonioni, Fellini, Ozu, Dreyer, Godard, Lupino, Arzner, Blaché, Akerman, and too many others – it’s marginal distribution, or none at all.

As John Talbird, a former student of mine who now teaches in New York, wrote me in response to my article, “at first, I liked Netflix, but now I’m beginning to realize it’s just another evil empire. Who cared about the demise of Blockbuster? But all three of the quirky independent video stores in my neighborhood have shut down in the ten years I’ve lived in Brooklyn. And Netflix isn’t even as good as it used to be. A lot of the Criterion titles which used to be available for streaming are no longer available. Also, their DVD titles aren’t as extensive as they at first appear. I’ve got six titles in my cue with ‘Very Long Wait’ next to them. More and more, the only alternative to Netflix is the public library or buying the DVD.”

To which I responded, “but the kicker is that soon DVDs and BluRays will be obsolete, as everything goes streaming. Netflix and the rest of the conglomerates don’t want you to own anything; they just want you to rent from them, eternally. And the visual quality is much, much poorer. My students are running into this problem too. Netflix doesn’t even have Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game – [universally acknowledged as one of the indisputable classics of the cinema] on streaming.”

So the issue here has multiple dimensions. As I discussed at length in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the very idea that there is such a thing as digital archiving is a myth. Nothing could be more unstable, or more uncertain. The major studios routinely make 35mm fine grain negatives as backups for all their productions, and store them in their film vaults, because they know – as I document in the book – that digital archiving simply isn’t reliable – there are too may ways that files can become corrupt. As Michael Cieply wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be. The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2014, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin? And what about the relentless mercantilism and Hollywoodization of filmic culture?

What do we do when physical materials disappear, and independent visions with them, to be replaced by a wilderness of solely commercial content? Wikipedia defines the term “Digital Dark Age” as “a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format.”

But I would argue that this is only a very, very small part of the problem. A more pressing concern, it would seem to me, for books, films and music, is that the works of the past created in analog fashion won’t survive in the future because they’re not deemed to be commercial enough. If there’s only a niche market, then why bother? The digital databases of the past can be retrieved, but what happens when a nitrate negative decomposes – as 50% of all films before 1950 already have. That’s 50% – a shocking number.

This is an issue that will continue to expand in the years to come, and something to seriously think about.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website, wheelerwinstondixon.com

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