Archive for August, 2005

The End of Time

Via McChris: a WSJ.com article about a US proposal to the United Nations to “simplify the world’s timekeeping by making each day last exactly 24 hours.” essentially, the US wants to eliminate “leap seconds,” which are added every few years because the earth takes slightly longer than 24 hours to fully rotate. As the article notes, adding leap seconds can often be a big hassle for computers that were not programmed to accept 61-second minutes, and because some computer programmers assert that such imprecision can be costly, the leap second may become a thing of the past.

This change would, of course, also have its costs. Sundials and sextants would no gradually lose their accuracy, although with GPS, that concern has generally been dismissed. It would also lead to teh sun rising later and later, a problem the US argues could be avoided by adding a “leap hour” every 500 years or so. Others, including the Earth Rotation Service’s leap-second chief, Daniel Gambis, of the Paris Observatory, are concerned about removing time’s representation from its ground in the earth’s rotation: “As an astronomer, I think time should follow the Earth.” His comments are echoed by astronomer Steve Allen, who comments, “Time has basically always really meant what you measure when you put a stick in the ground and look at its shadow.” Gambis’s concern also has financial implications. Re-setting telescopes to the new time would cost thousands of dollars each. And, of course, the sun would set on the role of Britain’s Royal Observatory in establishing universal time, poetntially setting off a plot that only Joseph Conrad could have imagined (thanks for the Conrad tip, McChris).

The WSJ article is right that the question is essentially a philosophical one, or perhaps more precisely, a representational one, raising questions about what, exactly, time represents, and in some sense, the removal of the leap second might seem to represent an increased abstraction of time, moving it away from the “natural” rotation of the earth. Of course, even universal time (Greenwich Mean Time, now relaced by Coordinated Universal Time, measured by atomic clocks) is a relatively recent phenomenon, as Stephen Kern explains in The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (has anyone read Kern’s new preface?), one largely connected to increasing industrialization and faster transportation in Eurpoe and the US.

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Return of the Death Spiral

Part 2 of Edward Jay Epstein’s “Hollywood Death Spiral” appeared today in Slate (check out part one plus my response). The basics of Epstein’s original argument: the “window” between the theatrical relase date and DVD release date is shrinking, allowing consumers to wait for the DVD release rather than seeing a film on the big screen. With less people seeing the movies in theaters, the window shrinks even further (and so on). I’m a little less convinced by Epstein’s argument than I was last week. While home theater technologies and industry distribution practices have likely affected movie attendance, this cause-effect relationship seems far too easy. Tim’s comment about “displays of consumption” (scroll down to comments) should certainly be part of the equation, but I wonder if there aren’t other factors (increased emphasis on family life? increasing cynicism towards movies as media events?) that are driving people to stay at home. In short, it’s not just about a new technology or even a new economic practice, although those factors are certainly relevant.

But I’m willing to take Epstein’s claims at face value, at least for the duration of one blog entry. In Part Two, Epstein considers the solutions for such a problem, noting that some studio executives have even considered eliminating the window altogether, releasing films to theaters, video stores, and pay-per-view on the same day. Like Epstein, I think theater chains, whose profits almost entirely derive from concession sales, might have something to say about that. I do think that theaters could make themselves more attractive by offering better and more varied concessions (Landmark’s coffee has become part of my theater-going routine, and their desserts are generally tasty, too). Other potential solutions include studios taking a larger chunk of the box office take in exchange for keeping the DVD window at five months, but that’s probably not going to make theaters very happy.

But as Green Cine Daily points out, Epstein doesn’t really offer a solution (maybe he wants us to buy his book). Ultimately, Epstein suggests that studios will likley take a wait-and-see approach, and that’s pretty much his best guess, too. I’m not really in a position to predict what’s going to happen, so maybe I’m copping out, too (of course I never promised a solution). Given the degree to which the Hollywood hype machine has been saturating TV, the Internet, billboards, and other media spaces, I’m wondering if studios might find themselves redefining how movie releases are “media events.” I’ve seen so many ads for a certain movie based on a certain 1970s TV show that I actually believed the movie had already been released several weeks ago. I also feel like I’ve already seen the movie, even if I don’t have the foggiest notion of its plot (other than lots of stunt driving). And I had a similar experience when I watched Wedding Crashers last week. There was not a single moment in the film that the previews had not already anticipated for me. In other words, I wonder if one of the problems of the studio system is that they’ve oversaturated our airwaves with ads for the big summer movies and that by the time the movies get to theater, watching the film itself feels like an exercise.

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Wedding Crashers

Stephanie Zacharek owes me $9.75 plus $2.70 Metrofare. I went to see Wedding Crashers (IMDB) for two reasons. First, I’ve really been worried about the big Hollywood studios lately. I figured that maybe I should buy a pity ticket, just to keep things going. I’m always happy to help. Second, reviews like Zacharek’s led me to believe that the latest Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughan collaboration would be at least a slight departure from Hollywood’s formula comedy factory.

Zacharek praises Wedding Crashers as “that rare contemporary mainstream comedy that seems to have been made without parental supervision.” In other words, I was prepared for a film that didn’t moralize about its characters’ rock-and-roll wedding-crashing lifestyle. But after a relatively brief, and mildly funny, wedding-crash montage, the film quickly shifts into the narrative expectation that these guys need to grow up.

To be fair, it’s not entirely Zacharek’s fault. Debra Dickerson, also of Salon (did they get a kickback from New Line?) celebrated the film for its willingness to be a litte raunchy: “‘Crashers,’ at least in the beginning, wasn’t about love. It was about making multi-orgasmic lemonade on love’s fringes until it was your turn to star in a wedding.” She later criticized the film because the entire opening montage, set to the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (which I thought was a weak touch, anyway), showed Wilson and Vaughan at dozens of weddings, none of which featured African-American characters, though other ethnicities were represented (a fair criticism, Dickerson’s argument is well worth a read). Dickerson’s reading of this montage as “a celebration of sex, carnality and the feminine ideal” and “the lion-tamer aspect of being a straight chick” wsn’t teribly apparent, either, although I’ll acknowldege that Isla Fisher’s performance as Claire (the clingy woman from the ubiquitous previews and commercials) was entertaining.

Ultimately, what bothers me about the hype for Wedding Crashers is that the film has been described as risky or edgy simply because it received an R rating and shows Vaughan and Wilson shagging lots of women at weddings where they weren’t invited. Now, to be fair, I didn’t really expect the film to endorse their behavior, nor would I want that, but Wedding Crashers seemed to feel somewhat guilty about its premise, jumping way too quickly into its efforts to redeem Wilson and Vaughan. This is particularly evident when Will Ferrell, who continues to strke me as remarkably unfunny, cameos as Vaughan’s mentor, a legendary wedding crasher who is now in his 40s, living at home with his mom, and has now taken to crashing funerals. Basically, Ferrell serves to remind us that when wedding crashers reach a certain age, their behavior is no longer charming, but grating and embarrassing instead.

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NEH Docs

Via my Site Meter referrals: a National Endowment for the Humanities press release announcing grants for 16 documentaries, including ten that have been named We the People projects.

Projects include a two-hour documentary on the life of Walt Whitman, a four-hour doc on Andrew Jackson, and a two-hour TV documentary on the life of Helen Keller by Straight Ahead Pictures. Also cool: two Filmmakers Collaborative projects, one on Louisa May Alcott and another on the Ellis Island immigrant hospital.

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Dusty Fossils and Dead Media

Ken offers an important challenge to the “hype narratives” associated with the emergence of new media. Basically, as Ken notes, the narrative goes as follows: “a new medium will remove [or] replace an older, related medium, and in so doing send that old medium to the junk bin of history.” These naratives often turn out to be false, of course, as Ken illustrates. Typewriters haven’t killed writing. Hypertext hasn’t killed the practice of reading books. Ken’s making this claim in response to a Rob Pegoraro Washington Post article investigating hype that podcasts “will turn radio into a dusty fossil,” but I think that Ken’s comments also apply to the current claims that cinema is being replaced, or maybe displaced, by the Internet and video games.

Ken argues that these claims are often incorrect because they confuse “the current function of the medium with the medium itself.” He adds that these claims also ignore “the importance of temporality in assessing mediation.” To use Ken’s podcast-radio comparison, radio’s liveness is something that podcasts cannot emulate. I’d add here that there are “industrial” factors as well. Radio, film, and the publishing industry are powerful industries that are very interested in sustaining their profitability and may, in fact, also have an interest in perpetuating the illusion of crisis.

Still, there are certainly “dead media” out there, including many “proto-cinematic” visual technologies such as the camera obscura and magic lantern that now exist solely as curiosities more than anything else.

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