Tuesday, March 13, 2007

More on Manufacturing

Today on IFC TV's film blog, there is a review of the anti-Michael Moore doc, Manufacturing Dissent that I wrote about recently. First, a couple of disclaimers/caveats/what-have-yous:
1. The IFC TV film blog is one of my favorite blogs around. It's combination of snark and links to a variety of fascinating links makes it a daily must-read.
2. I still haven't seen Dissent. But, I'm willing to take the blog's word for its description of it until I do.

The review's overarching theme is one of dismissal. And for many of its examples-- the film's descrying of Moore's desire for money, his failings at Mother Jones-- that seems accurate. But, there are other more disturbing examples of Moore's behavior, such the interview with Roger Smith that wound up on the cutting room floor and faking his mic being cut off at a GM meeting, that the review similarly dismisses. A sample is below:
The slippages and falsehoods amongst Moore's films are unfortunate, but not a stunning revelation in these days of reality show techniques. That Moore's films are manipulative is not a new idea either — back in 1989, when "Roger & Me" made its US premiere at the New York Film Festival, Vincent Canby observed, gleefully, that "Mr. Moore makes no attempt to be fair." We can't speak for everyone, but we've always regarded Moore's work as a series of pragmatically entertaining and blatantly one-sided attempts to inflame a passive liberal population. He may be a blowhard, he may be a provocateur, but we don't think he ever made the claim for being a practitioner of journalistic remove.
Look, I am not pretending to defend the quality of Dissent, a documentary that I have never seen. But, to me, these revelations are stunning. While Moore never claimed objectivity, indeed reveled in his lack thereof, but I do think his work is greatly diminished, if not wholly discredited by outright falsehoods. His work, after all, always seeks to occupy a certain moral high ground over the subjects he attacks. Now, he has lost that. With these revelations, he is not the op-ed journalist his defenders claims he is, but something closer to, well, Geraldo.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Danger of the Digital Age


In an AP article on Wired's Web site, John Rogers reports that Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Entertainment and a company called Digital Cinema Implementation Partners are working on
a new digital film delivery system that, if successful, could give theater operators the flexibility to put a popular movie on an extra screen as quickly as the demand for it arises. At the same time, theater operators could boot out a surprise stinker and even book in for a day or two an art-house film with a small but devoted audience.
Everyone quoted in the article sees this as a boon for the little guy. Art house movies can be booked more economically and with greater flexibility. Imagine how much wider David Lynch's Inland Empire would have been distributed if he didn't have to travel with the prints from city to city like an old-fashioned record promoter (Lynch told me in an interview for the current MovieMaker that digital exhibition would have cut down on his costs tremendously).

These points are valid, I concede that. But, I view this development with greater trepidation. To me, this system could actually benefit the big studio behemoth more than the little-film-that-hopes-to-break-out. With the ability to add a screen without shipping a new print, exhibitors are more likely to elbow the little movie out of the way in favor of the latest blockbuster. In the past and present situation, indies-- the ones lucky enough to guarantee screen space-- could at least rely on screening for the week they had booked at a given theater. Now, they won't even have that comfort.

To me, there are two possible scenarios that could emerge from this and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that in-demand will ghettoize more and more indies to the small screen, either through set-top delivery or other pay-per-view services or through Web sites like GreenCine. The second is that indie theaters like Landmark will implement this on-demand delivery as well. Then indies and art house flicks will be able to be distributed to more art house chains (in the foreseeable future independent theaters likely won't be able to afford this technology) with greater efficiency. In both scenarios, independent films will be relegated to niche exhibition avenues, making them less likely to cross over. But, perhaps more of them will be able to be screened. One can imagine a scenario where an art house chain used this technology to show several different films on one screen in a given day. The downside: less showings per film. The upside: more films shown.

But, the fear for indies is that art house chains will act like conventional multiplexes and use the technology primarily to privilege the bigger hits, not to give screen time and space to the more obscure titles. I would be hard to imagine a Little Miss Sunshine giving ground to a Kill the Poor.

Look, I'm all for technology that cuts down on costs of exhibition. That can only help everybody-- ticket prices for consumers (though I have my doubts about that) and distribution costs for cash-strapped (and even self-distributing indies). But, I'm just worried that this technology could be used to help those that don't need it at the expense of those who do.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Silent Choice


I read an interesting article in Wired about a resurgence-- well, let's call it a renewed interest in niche, arty circles-- in silent cinema.

The article is compelling on its own merits, as it describes the way that the Adelaide Film Festival in Australia is trying to recreate the experience of watching silent cinema, replete with an orchestra.

I think that's a great idea and sounds like a fun evening out. But to me, what prevents us from fully recreating the experience of watching silent cinema is the element of choice. When people initially watched a Chaplin film, they weren't marveling at his decision to forego sound. That's just the way things were. But, for us, when we watch a silent film with an orchestra, we are confronted by the absence of something-- sound-- and we can never remove the fact that we chose to watch a movie without sound, instead of the countless others that have it.

I'm not sure what the point of this is, other than to elucidate the difficulty of trying to experience something-- the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis, FDR's fireside chats-- from another era in the way that it was meant to be experienced. Sure, we can recreate the details, but not the experience itself.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Inconvenient Truth About Michael Moore


I have long been a proponent of Michael Moore's. While his methods are often questionable-- ignoring inconvenient truths and tampering with chronology-- he brings issues (the closing of a GM factory, gun control, etc.) to the forefront that the powers that be would rather be swept under the rug. For that, his films have unquestionable and lasting value. I never bought the "his movies are op-eds, not traditional documentaries" argument. I think that is a self-serving defense (or offense) and anyone exercising intellectual honesty (I might not agree with McCain's politics, but I love that term) would admit that audiences go into a documentary expecting an adherence to the truth. Yes, facts are bent to prove a point. But, outright deception is another matter.

In that vein, this piece in Sunday's New York Times, was profoundly disturbing. It detailed a new documentary about Moore, called Manufacturing Dissent (the film premieres March 10 at SXSW), by a Toronto-based couple. The article describes how the filmmakers, Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine, were initially firmly pro-Moore, but through the process of discovery in the making of the film, they came to feel much more ambivalent. They discovered what the Times referred to as numerous sins of omission and commission on Moore's part in all of his films.

To me, the most damning example was the fact that Moore had actually interviewed Roger Smith in Roger & Me, but left the interview on the cutting room floor. To me (and, admittedly, without having seen Dissent) this undercuts the very premise of the film. Moore presented himself as a goofy populist, representing the people, as he tried to get an explanation for the closing of the factory, but being thwarted at every turn by the heartless Smith. The fact that Moore actually got a sit down with Smith, while it changes nothing about the destruction of Flint, strikes at the credibility of Moore. Wouldn't anything Smith had to say-- or just the very fact that he agreed to the interview-- have been relevant? Then, why didn't Moore show it? Was it because Smith said something that didn't dovetail with Moore's thesis? Did Moore botch the interview? Or would it simply have interfered with the charming structure of the movie, built on his inability to get to Smith?

I don't want to condemn Moore without hearing his side of the story. But, here's the (possibly most disturbing) thing-- Moore refused to talk to the filmmakers. According to the Times piece, Moore's sister even shoved their cameras out of the way at an event. Moore's films, his persona, his popularity, are predicated on his doggedness at trying to expose those who try to hide their secrets from a victimized public. But, now, Moore appears to be acting just like those that he condemns.

Hopefully, the time will come when the filmmakers can have their sit-down with Moore. And here's betting they won't leave it on the cutting room floor.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Movie Place Resurrected...Virtually


Back in December, I wrote a piece for The Reeler, detailing the demise of a neighborhood institution: The Movie Place on 105th St. and Broadway on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The store-- an indie video shop-- was a neighborhhod institution. The New York Times profiled its life and impending death, a cinephiliac kid tried to protest, but it was all in vain. Now, the place is gone. No more can people come in and here the store's owner opine about movies or recommend an offbeat title to fit your mom (like a community doctor, he was).

Well, now Dennis is trying to bring his personal touch, his sensibility to the Web. On his site, he offers his commentary and criticism on some of his favorites. The purpose, he writes is to fulfill the promises to "his legion of fans that his movie advice and commentary will always be available on his website and blog."

A glance at the site is reassuring. His love for and knowledge of film infuses his writings. For example, his review of an obscure Bogie film, In a Lonely Place, offers insights into this forgotten passion project of his hero and how it paved the way for Hollywood's cinematic critiques of itself. His commentary on Harry and Tonto is dotted with personal memories:

"The movie begins on the Upper West side. This is were Harry and his deceased wife raised their children. Harry does not want to go. It is amazing how some things do not change. What is amazing is how much the neighborhood is in the movie. I vividly remember watching them shoot the film, a good chunk of it on 111th and 112th and Broadway. There was an elderly couple who owned the newstand that still exists in the westside of Broadway and 108th street. The husband, Arnold, got himself in the movie and had dialogue with Art Carney. When Harry buys a paper from Arnold, he asks him “who’s Vice President this week?” Arnold replied “who cares”. Of course the day after I saw the film I had to go into Arnold’s store and ask him that very question. I always wondered if Art Carney improvised the exchange because Arnold was no actor."

It reminds me of being in his store. For him, his personal connection nd the film itself are inseparable.

My hope is that with his site, he'll be able to create a virtual community of film lovers the way he did in his store. In the faceless environment of the Web, it will be more difficult, but I'm certainly rooting for him. Creating a film community online-- a real, personal connection based on the love of film, an online neighborhood-- is what people are alwways saying the Web should be about. We'll see. Fingers crossed.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Self-Promotion Alert II

My first article for The Reeler is up on their site. For those of you not familiar with The Reeler, you should get to know it. Devoted to the NYC film and culture scene, it is an entertainment site with intelligence and wit and utterly devoid of sycophanting. The Q&A is worth checking out, not because of my overall brilliance, but because the subject, Walter Mirisch is an important Hollywood figure. He and his brothers established an independent production company that worked with the studios, primarily UA, becoming a forerunner for Focus, Miramax, etc. He fostered long-standing relationships with Billy Wilder, John Sturges and many others to produce intelligent mainstream hits across all genres. Okay, that's it. If you want to know more, check out the piece.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Dead Schembechlers


Earlier this year, while working on a story for Wired, I came across a punk band known as the Dead Schembechlers. The only band spawned from a college football rivalry-- OSU vs. Michigan-- the quartet claims to have emerged from Columbus' "Wolverine hatecore" scene. All four are named Bo, after the hated Schembechler, but dress like their hero, Woody Hayes. The reason, front man Bo Biafra told me, is to "represent the inner conflict in all of mankind because we all have a bit of good and a bit of evil in us." Performing annually on the weekend of the big game in Columbus, the Schembechlers rally the Buckeye faithful with songs like "I Wipe My Ass With Wolverine Fur" and "Bomb Ann Arbor Now." They claim to have been injured almost every year, in post game riots and on stage, as when Biafra bit off the head of a live wolverine during one show and it bit him back. They have inspired loyalty in Columbus and hatred in Ohio with their rants about "the International Wolverine Conspiracy to enslave mankind." Biafra claims that that the Wolverines have never actually beaten the Buckeyes and that those who believe otherwise were placed under mind control. After Maurice Clarett was arrested this summer, he left me a message stating that the former RB, under mind control, had been sent to assassinate the band.

As the band's rants and rage have increased every year, so has their following. This year, they'll be playing at the Newport Music Hall, where luminaries like Elvis Costello have performed. The show will feature a Woody Hayes look-a-like contest. Check out their site for more details about their show and the International Wolverine Conspiracy.

Some people think the Schembechlers are joking, others take them seriously. But, one thing is for sure, in Columbus, when it comes to the Buckeyes, there is no room for kidding. I love the Schembechlers because, whether intentionally or not (I'll let you be the judge), they hold up a fun house mirror to the rabid excesses of the world of college football fandom.

Recently, I interviewed Biafra for Penthouse (on newsstands now). Unfortunately, the piece is not online accessible, but maybe I'll be able to post a pdf on this blog. Yesterday, I saw an interview that Pat Forde did with Biafra for espn.com. I wanted to jump up and down and shout that they had gotten the idea from, but that's unlikely. Really, I'm just happy to see the band get national pub.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Another One Bites the Dust

Recently I learned the sad news that my favorite book store in Manhattan, Coliseum Books, is going under. They're going to try to last through the holidays, but they're not sure if they'll be able to. The store, which died before, in its original incarnation on 57th street and Broadway, seemed to be successfully revived (God, will this metaphor ever end?) at its second locale on 42nd street across from the north end Bryant Park. For four years I worked on the south end of the park and would often walk through the park on my lunch break to browse through the store.

I'm going to miss Coliseum. The staff is knowledgeable about books of all types and their selection has both breadth and depth. Hopefully, it will have another incarnation, somehow, somewhere. For Coliseum's goodbye in its own words, go to the store's Web site.

But, I don't want this post to be purely an ode. While I am sad that Coliseum is going away, it brings up a larger question-- do independent bookstores serve any purpose? If you believe Slate, the answer is no. Joyce Carol Oates, according to a recent article (I can't recall the publication), loves to browse in the mega book chains.

I, however, would argue that these independent stores are worth preserving. First of all, for the benefit of the customers, each industry needs small book stores to keep them honest. If stores like Coliseum didn't stock obscure titles, the Barnes and Nobles of the world would have no compelling interest to do so and we would lose out. While used and obscure titles are much more readily available via e-tail, there is a culture of literacy, of sheer of books that the Slate article dismisses. There is value to being in a store where the employees know books and love books. On a practical level, they can help you find the right title, even if you can't remember the title or the author. There is nothing more maddening than getting a blank stare from a clerk at Barnes and Noble when you try to describe the book you're looking for. But, on a more intangible level, this atmosphere has value, even if can't be precisely quantified. If atmosphere mean nothing, why would be people value a restaurant's ambience instead of just settling for spartan-looking joints with quality food?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dana Carvey: Your Show of Shows


A while ago, a former coworker and I were discussing the amazing, obscure phenomenon that was The Dana Carvey Show. Looking at the imdb page of the short-lived—seven episode—talk show and we realized the incredible talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Listed among the writers were Dave Chappelle and Charlie Kaufman, with Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Carvey, and Robert Smigel (the man behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) doing doing double duty as writers and performers.

My coworker said that is was the greatest assembled group of talent since Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows. Now, I wouldn't take it that far. This group doesn't quite match up to Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, but given the subsequent success of so many of them, it's surprising that this phenomenon has gone unnoticed.

I must confess that I have never seen the show (who among us has?), but it seems like an ideal candidate for a DVD release. Who wouldn't add it to their NetFlix queue just for the curiosity factor of seeing an early Carell or Colbert sketch or to find out if Kaufman' surrealist lunacy had bloomed yet. At the very least, you'd think the producers would sneak a few clips onto YouTube and see what the response was like.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Self-Promotion Alert

Recently, I interviewed AJ Schnack regarding his new documentary, "Kurt Cobain About A Son." The Q&A is really insightful-- not because of my shining brilliance-- but because of what AJ has to say about Kurt and about his aims with the film.

To hoist myself onto my soap box for but a moment, in a climate where everyone is trying to make the sensational out of the ordinary (a botched joke by a humorless senator comes to mind), it is refreshing to see someone take a figure who is inherently sensationalistic-- Kurt Cobain-- and try to demystify him. Rather than tap into the tabloid furor that still exists about Cobain (and has been explored ad nauseum in other films), AJ wants to explore his ordinariness. Or, as he says:

"...the film isn't about the bigness of him, it's about the humanity of him. The film is not about what it was like to write "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or be on the road with Tad in Europe. It's about who this one particular man was. "

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Glory of Moyers


The other day, I was riding along the Hudson River on my bike [A quick aside: for those who don't live in Manhattan, there is perhaps no greater joy on a nice day than riding a bike along the Hudson. The sight of the river-- and its accompanying breeze-- only feet away makes you feel like you're on vacation. The aside is now over.] and listening to Bob Edwards on XM Radio. Edwards was replaying an interview with Bill Moyers from April.

Moyers was nothing short of inspiring. Sure, he's inspiring to journalists for all the obvious reasons-- his uncompromising integrity, willingness to dig for the truth and, let's face it, his ability to survive and thrive for so damn long. But, in a way, some of his comments seemed most inspiring, most apropos for filmmakers, particularly those interested in telling more intimate, human stories. The truth, he said (and I am bitterly disappointed that I don't remember his exact words), is what people don't want exposed; the rest is just publicity. When talking about the power of interviews, he said that the greatest production value, in his opinion, was the human face-- the truths that the wrinkle of a nose, the twitch of an eyebrow, the curl of a lip could impart. Discussing a series of surprisingly popular interviews that conducted years ago with Joseph Campbell called Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Moyers said that the power of storytelling lay in the ability to see your story in someone else's, implying the ability of stories to serve as a connective tissue, as common ground for people. To this notion I would add that stories impart possibility, by showing its audiences the reality and vitality of a life other than their own.

Sadly, I don't know Moyers as well as I should or would like to, but this interview with Edwards makes me want to know more, definitely makes me want to check out the Campbell transcripts.

Moyers' humanism-- his belief in the truth that comes out of simple human interaction-- is something that can embolden filmmakers and journalists alike.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Passion of the Docs

I was thinking recently about an article I wrote for MovieMaker earlier this year called “March of the Indies.” (By the way, is there anything more precious than a writer writing about his own work? I promise that there is a point here and that I am not gazing into a mirror as I type this) In the piece, I wrote that, in the face of the overwhelming, wearing sameness of Hollywood product, indies were making a comeback. But, what I realized the other night is that almost of the films I referred to as crossover hits—March of the Penguins, Mad Hot Ballroom, even smaller scale hits like The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill—were documentaries.

Much has been made of the increasing popularity of documentaries in recent years. The reason that people often site is that it is an unexpected, positive byproduct of reality TV. Much as I hate to credit reality TV for anything, I suppose there is an element of truth to it. But, the larger question is why we are suddenly attracted to the “real.” I do believe that a lot of the credit (or blame, as it were) lies with Hollywood. Movies have become increasingly bigger, louder, more formulaic and, most importantly, harder to relate to. Audiences are looking for something to identify with on screen and they seem to be finding it in the genre of the real. If “real” is in fact a new genre, then reality programming and docs are subsets of it, serving different purposes for their creators, but perhaps not for audiences. Reality programming often seems like nothing more than a cheaper way for networks to create formulaic programming while documentaries are associated with being more personal, serious-minded works. But, for viewers—and filmmakers—perhaps this line has blurred. The work of Morgan Spurlock is a prime example, and I don’t mean that in any sort of negative way. In any case, documentaries and reality TV seem to offer audiences easier access, a way to identify more directly with the material.

But, the question, to get back to documentaries, is why does it seem that more filmmakers are attracted to making documentaries. The reasons, I believe, are many: I’ll list the all in no order of importance:
1. They are cheap to make. True, the same can be said of a low budget fiction film, but it is even more so with a doc.
2. The rules are there are no rules. With documentary still young as a mainstream commercial force, there is no formula (not yet, anyway) for how to tell a story. Look at the different structures for films like Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins, Super Size Me and Capturing the Friedmans. The formula for Hollywood movies (and to an extent, even fictional indies) is etched in stone, but with doc, as long as you can find a subject that engages an audience, you are free to tell your story any way you like.
3. It is a form that invites you to make a personal film. In fact, that is what the audience expects, even demands, a greater sense of intimacy with the material. Hell, even a studio veteran like Sydney Pollack to make the doc Sketches of Frank Gehry about his friend, the architect. Pollack even shot the thing himself with a little digital camera to ensure a greater connection with his subject.

Documentaries have been a breath of fresh air, offering more original and often more risky products (it doesn’t hurt that they try to entertain as well). It remains to be seen if the studio system will come to view this as a challenge and try to make more personal films or if they will retreat further into a formulaic cocoon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Could MTV Kill the Movie Star Too?


A June 27th item in The Hollywood Reporter by Tatiana Siegel caught my interest:

"In a move that signals MTV's commitment to making full-length movies for the smallest of screens, MTV Films production veteran David Gale is segueing to the newly created post of executive vp new media and specialty film content at MTV Networks."

Gale, who oversaw films like Hustle & Flow, Election, Napoleon Dynamite and Murderball, will now be in charge of bringing MTV's narrative presence to the Interney and other new media. As the article suggests, it is ironic that the network that made its name through short-form content-- the music video (remember when they showed those?)-- now looks to lead the mainstream charge in bringing long-form content to media that people associate with shorter segments.

However, it actually makes a lot of sense. MTV caters to a youthful demographic, one that is already comfortable and familiar with viewing content on the Internet, their cell phones, iPods, etc. For them, it would not be such an alien experience to view a 60- or 90-minute program in one of these formats.

I will be interested to see what kinds of content Gale develops for these formats. What type of programming does he (and the higher ups at MTV) think will be appealing in these formats? Will he try to tell different types of stories? Will they have a different visual style? How daring will it be?

If successful, MTV could help blaze a new trail for filmmakers looking to create content in these forms. But, best not to wait for MTV to set the standard for this type of content. Opportunities are better when it's still wide open-- like the Old West.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

High Tech Hams


Satellite radio DJs and programmers offer perhaps the best example to artists and other creative types looking to take advantage of the new technologies of their respective media. Earlier this year I spent the day at XM Studios in Washington D.C on a magazine assignment. On one floor there is a hallway, about a football field in length with roughly a hundred studios on each side. Ironically, with the state of the art technology at their disposal, most DJ/programmers, act as one-person production units. The stripped-down approach and the removal of ratings as the ultimate barometer for success has freed them from the strictures of content and format that plague conventional radio. Each DJ/programmer can program more personal playlists and, as a result, connect more directly with their audience. Who could resist the appeal of Tom Petty or Bob Dylan just sitting down and spinning some of their favorite tunes? These guys are capturing the spirit of the old ham radio operators, only with better equipment. They are channeling radio in its purest form.

Filmmakers could take a page out of their book, looking for ways to use digital technology (and, to beat a dead horse, online distribution) to inspire us to see the form in a new way, to find new ways to tell stories. Or simply to allow us to tell more personal, intimate stories. There are moviemakers who have already done this, but few have taken as wholehearted a leap as the satellite radio folk. True, they work in a corporate structure that provides them the safety net with which to do so, but the way they have embraced technology as a surce of artistic liberation is a strong example for all of us.