RIP: A remix manifesto

Last weekend I saw RIP: A remix manifesto, a new documentary about remix culture and the war over copyright. The movie is fantastic. It has interviews with Lawrence Lessig, with Mary Beth Peters, head of the U.S. copyright office, with Bruce Lehman, architect of the DMCA. This documentary is not a script put to film. It is a movie, with all the sound and imagery that make that such a powerful medium. It doesn’t just tell how remixing can improve society: it shows how the freedom to create has liberated poor Brazilians from a lifetime of violence. It shows remixing in action, and it is a remix itself. Just brilliant. Anyone who gives a damn should see it.

One interview in particular was shocking. Lehman explained American copyright policy in the 1990s. He said America made a deal with the world: the U.S. would open its borders, allowing other countries to supply it with consumer goods. In exchange, American IP laws would be imposed elsewhere. He seemed bitter about the failure of the policy, saying the U.S. had kept its part of the bargain, but the Chinas and Indias of the world had not.

Here’s the important bit: Lehman described the U.S. policy in terms of exporting industrial jobs in exchange for high-margin information work. Now I’m a computer programmer, so I’m happy when governments take knowledge work seriously, but I know that’s not for everyone. To read between the lines, they wrote off Michigan, they wrote off Ohio, they wrote off the industrial heartland of their country. They wrote off the people who can build a car but not program a computer or film a movie. I find this outrageous. On top of that, the payoff was to be the imposition of coercive controls on culture and ideas around the world, effectively preventing competition by poorer countries.

In some circles this is pretty much a standard critique of the U.S. policy. It’s another thing entirely to hear it from the horse’s mouth. This was presumably filmed before the financial crisis, but I’m still amazed that Lehman would put a statement with such obviously explosive implications on the public record. Today GM and Chrysler flirt monthly or weekly with bankruptcy, depending on huge cash infusions from the government. A major information-based industry (finance) has cratered, taking the economy with it. Copyright warfare makes outlaws of an entire generation. Nice policy.

2009-03-15

Moviemaking and Authority

Last Friday I attended “The Age of Immersion”, a talk about cinema by two famous names in Hollywood – Walter Murch and Matthew Robbins, moderated by Professor Andrew Feenberg. And I thought, these moviemakers are on one side of an issue, and I am on another. The nature of authorship and authority is changing. Their belief in their authority as creators lies so deep in their souls that they do not even realize it is challenged.

This is perhaps understandable. It was clear that these two men love movies. Robbins spoke of losing himself in a favorite film clip despite watching it on the tiny screen of an iPod. But then he is self-selected – he chose film, he made films and became them, he devoted his life to them. He isn’t just immersed in a video clip; he is enveloped in a culture and in his own life. It means more to him than it does to me or to most people – and it should.

As I said, the talk was about immersion. These men, Murch and Robbins, are so close to it – so immersed in it – that they do not see the outside. When they talked about immersion, it was a technical problem of realism and simulation. They spoke of the control offered by digital media, and about some of the costs of that control. The discussion revolved around computer effects, animation, how these things are done and how they are perceived. Script wasn’t mentioned. Symbolism wasn’t mentioned. Character appeared only as the features and mannerisms of animated characters. The audience was barely discussed.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

In the nearly twenty years since I first heard those lines (from a teacher who dismissed them) the image has never left my head. The words aren’t realistic. They need no technology. They need only an author – and me, the audience, to imagine my personal vision.

Someone asked about the Internet and the proliferation of amateur movies. Robbins was dismissive of the tremendous quantity of poor attempts online, alleviated only by the tiny fraction of one percent who might become brilliant filmmakers. Murch responded that in attempting to make films, amateurs could learn about the challenge of filmmaking and better appreciate quality. It took Professor Feenberg to point out that participation can have its own rewards.

Robbins and Murch are so secure in their belief in the division between audience and creators that for them the freedom brought by low-cost production is the freedom of an audience to experience their films, the freedom to see their films. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees: that hundreds of thousands of amateurs are making movies because they want to create. They want to express themselves. Whether their efforts are objectively bad is largely beside the point.

What is the noblest achievement of film – or of any creative product? Is it entertainment? Expression? Truth? Immersion? Does it matter whether there’s a product at all? I realized afterward the question I should have asked:

Is it more immersive to watch a film – or to make it?

2007-11-28

Tolkien, Prime Suspect, Green Mile, Hanging Rock

Last summer, having barely watched TV for months, Cindy and I finally cancelled cable. The Internet and books have taken over. Now we subscribe to zip.ca (a DVD-by-mail service), so we see quite a few movies. Here are some brief reviews.

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

I skipped this in the cinema, partly because I couldn’t bear to give money to thugs in Hollywood who are tearing down our culture (the thought tends to hurt the movie-going experience). Apparently I didn’t miss much.

When I was little, I was both fascinated and bored by the books. Twice I failed to complete The Two Towers. When I finally did finish the series, I was underwhelmed by the one-dimensional characters. The women were actually zero dimensional – i.e. single points! The movies were excellent adaptations of the books: beautiful but empty. I am sick and tired of action and special effects.

Prime Suspect 5

Soon after Return of the King, Cindy and I found Prime Suspect 5 at the library. It was night and day. The British produce their dreck, but they also make the best television in the world (I think TV is capable of being superior to film, so that’s saying something). This had a taut story, excellent pacing, a sense of place, brilliant characters and acting. I’ve seen it before in Cracker, but I was still amazed at how they took a two-bit gangster and made him fascinating, despicable, and scary. Wow.

The Green Mile (spoilers)

This one came highly recommended; having seen the decent but over-rated Shawshank Redemption I was suspicious. I’ve also noticed Stephen King’s affection for some kind of bizarre syncretic Christian mysticism which entirely escapes my understanding. What I know of assorted pagan mythologies (from the Greeks to the Aztecs) makes a whole lot more sense than this stuff.

Worse, at its core the film was (in our view) inherently immoral. It held up a patriarchal society of sissies and real men. The honor of these guys is the honor of gangsters: what happens on the mile stays on the mile. Morality is not justified by right and wrong, but by the fear of hell and the instrumental justification of ends by means. Coffey was not a real human being. Using him to cure the wife’s illness proceeded without his understanding or consent (the fact that he gave these later does not justify failing to ask him). His death was wrong not because he was innocent, but because he was a miracle of God. The film was a distillation of the worst stereotypes of American society.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

How very odd. A mystery that is no more resolved from its revelation in the first frames to the epilog before the credits. A story in which very little happens, but at times is enthralling and terrifying; at others it seems aimless and contradictory. Is it about the shock of modernity? Sexual repression? Madness? Our unwillingness to face the terrors and realities of life? Did we see the truth, or was it hidden from us by the participants in the tragedy? Cindy and I spent half an hour dredging the Web for understanding. It seems we will have to watch this again. I guess that means this is a good movie; I have no better judgment for now.

2005-12-25

Serenity

The Firefly movie leaves me with two reactions. First, it confirms my bias for good television over good cinema. Second, it really does remind me of the old BBC show Blake’s 7. (Warning: major spoilers follow.)

I have described previously how much I enjoyed the Firefly TV show. Before its cancellation, it promised to develop a complex collection of fascinating and sympathetic characters. This is probably the great strength of television: it has the time to build up depth and familiarity. Serenity‘s couple of hours couldn’t hope to compete. The plot suffered too: the discovery of Miranda lacked the impact it could have had if it had built up over weeks and months of cliffhangers. Forced to trade plot and character dimensions for glitter and action, it was inevitably disappointing: a decent film, but nothing special.

Serenity did, however, remind me of the Star One, the season two finale of Blake’s 7. This is not to say it is any sort of rip-off, more an echo. Firefly has often been compared to Blake’s 7 anyway:

  • Blake’s 7 was the anti-Trek. The Federation is an evil hegemon; the heroes are a gang of crooks and political prisoners on the run in a spaceship, committing crimes and fomenting rebellion. The situation in Firefly is virtually identical1.
  • Star One, like Miranda, is a secret planet on the edge of space: few know of its existence, and its location is hidden.
  • Star One houses the critical computer complex of the Federation. It is also an outpost guarding against invasion from a neighboring galaxy – an invasion that shows up as the protagonists arrive. Serenity‘s Miranda is a major Alliance government research experiment; it is also the source of the marauding Reavers, who are led by the heroes to attack the Alliance.
  • When the protagonists reach Star One, its crew have been murdered. Similarly, Miranda’s population is all dead.
  • Blake faces off against his arch-nemesis in a battle around a circular pit on Star One, and dispatches him into it. Mal fights his battle against his antagonist on a platform over a circular pit in Serenity.
  • Star One ends with an emergency message to the Federation and the heroes facing off against the alien invasion. Serenity concludes with a battle with Reavers, then the truth being broadcast to the Alliance.

I loved Star One when I saw it as a kid. If there is any of it in Serenity, I congratulate Joss on his influences.

Notes

1 The word “rebellion” is too strong for Serenity, and some of the characters were losers in a civil war rather than political prisoners. And the Alliance, although definitely a repressive hegemon, is presented with some sympathy.

2005-10-14

House of Flying Daggers

Well that was disappointing, especially after Zhang Yimou’s excellent Hero. I thought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also much better, whatever the criticisms of my Chinese friends. All of that talent wasted with a script missing in action. Although I won’t reveal major plot points, if you plan to watch it you may not want to read on.

It started well. The echo game at the beginning was wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the fights up to the battle in the field. One scene has Jin and Mei surrounded by soldiers with shields and swords; they flow back and forth through the waving grass. I suddenly thought: synchronized swimming, and laughed. The best scenes in other action films – the fight at the calligraphy school in Hero, the wall fight in Crouching Tiger – are like that: their cleverness makes me smile with surprise.

And then the film faded. Our heroes ran and fought, ran and fought again. Finally they reached somewhere; then revelation followed revelation rather than fight following fight. The secrets were forced, inorganic, ex machina. The fighting recommenced. Blood and violence overtook the beauty of the dance. By the ending (in another nameless field – the film is beautiful, but lacks all sense of place), which tried so hard to tug on emotions, the audience laughed at the absurdity of it all. The story was bare; it was all pointless in the end.

2004-12-18

Brutal Sentimentality

I just saw X-Men 2. Again I am disgusted by the brutal sentimentality of Hollywood film – values which place the life and death of a single person above the murder and mayhem which surround them. Nevermind that the other characters – good, bad, innocent – have suffered. Never mind that enemies have been killed without a second thought merely because they are enemies, and the innocent left to die because they somehow end up on the wrong side of a law which says the heroes are inviolate, and all who stand between them and success worth nothing.

Then a hero dies, and everyone is tears and sadness as if only then they realize life can be lost. But they remain blind to the world; their minds never pass over the suffering they cause.

Glory in death if you must. Don’t pretend it is something better.

2004-08-21

Movies from the Library

The local library was rebuilt a couple of years ago, and it is absolutely beautiful. Raised up on stilts with parking beneath, floor-to-ceiling windows look out across a sports field and picnic area where men play bocce, kids play soccer, and all sorts of people walk and jog around the running track. Beyond, the north shore mountains rise up, their peaks touched by snow.

It’s a lot prettier than Blockbuster. But that’s not why the library has out-competed the video store. The real reason is variety: their single aisle of movies has a great collection of wonderful old Holywood movies, and the best from around the world: Japanese films, French films, Chinese, German, Russian. The best bit is you can just grab a handful that look interesting, and only watch the good ones.

When I discovered the library I went mad, and in one spring had an education in film. I’ve dug my comments out and included them below.

Movies I Really Liked

All About Eve

A bit slow, but the characters are very well done. Far better than the overrated Sunset Boulevard.

The Bicycle Thief / Bicycle Thieves

Wonderful post-war Italian movie with the best movie title of all time. Although it crossed my mind at the time, I wish I’d heard this hint before I saw the film: Watch the boy. He’s there for a reason.

The Big Sleep

Fantastic Bogart flick, best of the noirs, and my favourite from the local library. How did they get all that innuendo past the censors? Never mind it’s perfectly crawling with beautiful women. But whatever you do, don’t try to follow the plot. I thought I was stupid until I checked the web and found that no-one has ever fully figured it out.

Casablanca

I figure this should be on the list just for reference. It’s my favourite film of all time.

Chinatown

All you ever need to know about L.A.

Chungking Express

Okay, so I didn’t get this one from the library and it really isn’t that old. But I do love it, and in my books it’s second only to Casablanca. It’s quirky story of love – two stories really – and needs to be watched more than once. Don’t worry, if this movie is for you you will need to watch it again, and you’ll love it even more the second time. Whatever you do, don’t give up in the first half, and don’t watch the second half alone. They need each other somehow. (It suddenly occurs to me that the movie mirrors its subjects.)

La Dolce Vita

A classic Italian film full of memorable scenes. I can see why the director is famous, but the three hours do drag on. If you do see it, watch it for the art and for the perfect snapshot it gives of a place and time. After reading a bit more about it, I can see there is probably more here than I noticed the first time around. That is, if I ever take the time. One angle to watch for is the role of spirituality and religion in the modern world.

From Here to Eternity

Army flick with a (deservedly) classic sex on the beach scene. The rest of it isn’t bad either. And as with many old movies, the characters are honest-to-god adults.

Grand Hotel

Nothing terribly special, but I enjoyed it.

Lost Horizon

About Shangri-la. I didn’t think it was that good until I found it stuck with me. Haunting.

The Manchurian Candidate

Who knew Angela Lansbury was so evil?

The Night of the Hunter

Old horror flick that isn’t so horrible, but the dreamy cinematography is to die for. Actually most of the movie is like a dream sequence (apparently inspired by German expressionism).

Rear Window

Brilliant Hitchcock film about a guy who has a broken leg and spends all his time looking out his window at other apartments around a courtyard. He thinks he witnesses a murder. Thoroughly enjoyable, and his GF rocks.

Seven Samurai

The Kurosawa film. Intelligent and brilliantly directed. Obvious precursor to modern action flicks.

Tampopo

Excellent & fun Japanese movie all about a woman learning to be the best ramen chef. Full of perfect little vignettes about food.

The Uninvited

A ghost story every bit as good as The Others. Better really – I find the few modern stories I’ve watched have let me down.

Other Worthwhile Films

The African Queen

Straightforward but fun adverture story and romance. Different in that the love interests are middle-aged.

Double Indemnity

Well done story, but suffers from an unsympathetic lead character.

The Ipcress File

I watched this because I have a book of games that discusses strategy for a defunkt game called The Sigma File, based on the spy films of the 1950s and 60s, and which mentioned this movie by name. Don’t ask me why – there appears to be no connection whatsoever. What this 1950s spy flick does have is loads of funky 50s music and crooked-angle camera shots than you can shake a stick at. The director’s overenthusiasm is most entertaining (though I bet it was tedious at the time).

Kagemusha

Subtitled “The Shadow Warrior”, it’s Kurosawa’s film about a thief who becomes the double of a great lord. Unlike most such films (The Prisoner of Zenda, Dave, et. al.), it takes the subject matter seriously, and brings up some very interesting questions about identity. Unfortunately, despite having lots of time (it’s slow at nearly three hours) it doesn’t follow up as much as I would have liked. Watch it for its beauty – for someone so famous for black and white, Kurosawa was truly gifted with colour. Incidentally, I’m certain this is where the designers of the computer game Shogun: Total War got their inspiration from.

Metropolitan

Walt Stillman (Barcelona, Last Days of Disco) somehow always manages to be so promising but somehow a little unfulfiling. It’s amusing how his characters are always the same.

The Picture of Dorian Grey

I haven’t read the book, but the movie was quite good.

Il Postino

Sweet Italian film about a shy guy. Well, maybe that’s what it’s about – I’m not convinced, and suspect it was really about the old communist. Anyway, I found it a little unfocused. Watch for what I believe is a reference to the scene where the rich folks are talking philosophy with a tape recorder in La Dolce Vita.

The Shanghai Gesture

How on earth could anyone think that lady looks Chinese? Nicely cynical.

Taxi Driver

Somehow this film reminds me of La Dolce Vita. It has the same theme, the same sense of a place and a time. The famous “Are you looking at me?” scene also made me think of The Vanishing. It’s beautifully made; unfortunately I found I didn’t connect with the main character.

The Third Man

A decent if over-rated Orson Welles flick. Post-war Vienna is the star of the piece. Great directing and a mesmerising credit sequence at the beginning.

Tokyo Story

Touching and universal.

Trop belle pour toi (Too Beautiful For You)

The French always seem to make interesting films. This is not one of their best efforts, but it’s different nonetheless. Most films are bound together by their plots, and the scenes show what really happens. That’s not the case here. This movie is concerned with emotion and truth, not plot and reality. For that it’s worth watching. Otherwise, if you’ve been mixed up in an affair it might mean more to you than it did to me.

Vertigo

Supposedly Hitchcock’s masterpiece. I preferred Rear Window, but still this is very good. Look out for the funky camera angle from the bell tower.

Films I Didn’t Like So Much

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

An intriguing silent film with art deco (I think) sets. Unfortunately, I find silent films about as accessible as American football. But it is interesting if you have the patience.

Citizen Kane

Nearly as dull as its reputation. Ah well, I don’t appreciate Shakespeare either.

Dodeska Den

Kurosawa’s first colour film. It was just too arty for me, but my parents liked it.

The Hidden Fortress

Kurosawa’s film that inspired Star Wars. Pretty slow going for the first half, although it does pick up a little and there’s a fantastic samurai sword fight midway through

Possessed

An old love story. But I didn’t care much for the characters.

Sunset Boulevard

Starts wonderfully, but ends up being a little bit too clausterphobic and predictable. You just want to take the main character by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into him.

Topkapi

A heist flick set in Istanbul. Nothing really special.

2004-04-25

Don't Look Now

The second half of the movie left me cold, but the first is a beautiful delight. Cindy pointed out it’s like a Tarkovsky film with water and the sound of rain, a white horse in a field, and mirrors everywhere. The way the film intercuts scenes, or shows a bit of the future mixed in with the present, is simply joyful. But most of all, the sex scene is rightly famous. There are only two genuinely good sex scenes I can remember seeing in film, and this is one of them. It has that seventies naturalism of real people. Their undress is intercut with them dressing afterwards for dinner – he picks a tie, she pulls on her pants, she is standing in the bathroom as he walks past the door. You see them in their unguarded moments, and the relationship between them is so clear: their sadness, how their presences mix and they share space in a room. I think it is the most intimate sex I have seen in a film.

The other best sex is in Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. As the couple retires to a loft we can hear their moans, and the camera makes love to the curves of a sixties house.

2004-04-18