Archive for June, 2011

Analog Dreams

Somewhat belatedly, I’ve joined in Nick Rombes’ latest cinematic project, Do Not Screen. The project was conceived when Nick, searching in an abandoned barn, came across a stash of film frames cut into strips of 12 from an old 16 mm movie. Each strip, then, constitutes essentially half a second of screened time. Rather than reassemble the film himself, Nick, with the support of the University of Waterloo’s Critical Media Lab,  has sent out dozens of strips to film scholars, critics, bloggers, and others with an activation code. Once that code is activated, the piece of film goes live on the Do Not Screen site, where participants can see or comment on their strip of film.

Nick also included several other artifacts in each envelope, and in my case, I received what appears to be a billing statement listing billable hours for activities such as “general repairs” or “unloading filling” or a brief notation saying “Sunday not working.” Some of these documents inclue a brief typed message, “DO NOT SCREEN,” in my case in all caps. As Nick notes, the film seems to depict some kind of ceremony or gathering, and the strip I received shows musicians–a pianist in particular–playing (unheard in this silent clip) music that is amplified by speakers on a pole. There is always something fascinating about coming across an old movie clip like this. Given the inherent fragility of film strips and the transition into digital, any found film seems like a message from a lost and (potentially forgotten) past.

I look forward to working with other film lovers in reassembling sore version of that past, however incomplete.

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Tuesday Links: Hulu, Arcade Fire, UltraViolet

More digital delivery news stories as I slowly settle back in to book writing mode:

  • While I don’t always (or, maybe, ever) agree with the political views over at Big Hollywood, John Nolte is asking some of the right questions about UltraViolet, the new digital distribution initiative put together by the major studios. One assertion he gets wrong, sort of, is the idea that Hollywood isn’t making “good” movies anymore, but that’s kind of beside the point here. Nolte is responding to a recent article by Brent Lang in The Wrap discussing UltraViolet’s upcoming launch, which raises the even more crucial point that Apple, which controls 60% of the digital download market still hasn’t signed on with UltraViolet.
  • New Tee Vee reports that Arcade Fire and Spike Jonze’s short film, Scenes from the Suburbs, which was set to premiere this week on Mubi.com, has been geo-blocked in the United States, Germany, Australia, and Canada. The short film was intended to serve as a promotion for a limited edition copy of the Arcade Fire album, The Suburbs. One reviewer who caught the film before it was geo-blocked came away impressed, and the trailer itself looks engaging, but the band’s manager chose to make the film unavailable until the August 4 release of the album/DVD.
  • On a related note, Jason Mittell discusses his attempts to plan how he will continue to consume American media, even while spending a year in Germany.
  • New Tee Vee also discusses MoviePass, which would allow people to pay up to $50 a month to see an unlimited number of movies in theaters. A second pass for $30 a month would allow people to see up to four movies per month. Given that many frequent moviegoers are teens who tend to plan spontaneously, I’m a little skeptical about this idea. Also, unless you’re seeing 3D movies exclusively, you’d probably have to see five or six movies a month to make the $50 pass worthwhile, something that seems like a stretch for anyone other than a theater employee or a movie critic.
  • New Blockbuster President Michael Kelly tries to make the case that physical media, such as DVDs, continue to have advantages over digital delivery and kiosk services such as Redbox. Oddest moment: Kelly emphasizes that you can watch DVDs in your car.
  • Peter Kafka explores some of the changes Hulu may make in the near future.
  • Finally (via The Valve), just for fun, Nina Paley’s anti-plagiarism video, “The Attribution Song.”

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“Reading Dante” and Video Games

I don’t have time to give this case the attention it deserves, but I’m more than a little intrigued by the results of the recent Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association, in which the Supreme Court declared a California law that would ban the sale of violent video games to minors unconstitutional. The ruling was a little unusual in that Justice Antonin Scalia joined the typically liberal Justices Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, while Justices Breyer and Thomas were the dissenting votes.

I think the case will provide quite a bit of fodder for media studies and free speech scholars, especially given the nature of the rulings (this Daily Kos posting offers a solid overview of the different statements written by the justices). Notably, Scalia compares playing violent video games to “reading Dante,” and while he insists that it is indisputable that literature is ore “intellectually edifying” than playing a video game, Scalia points out that there is no “constitutional” difference. He goes on to argue that protecting children is not enough of a concern to enact a new set of “content-based regulation.” There is some speculation, that Scalia is supporting free speech here to provide cover for his ruling on Citizens United, but I’m not sure if that’s a fully justified critique.

Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, takes the defense of children to fascinating extremes, arguing that

The practices and beliefs of the founding generation establish that “the freedom of speech,” as originally understood, does not include a right to speak to minors (or a right of minors to access speech)  without going through the minors’ parents or guardians.

Thomas grounds this argument in the idea that the founders believed that parents had absolute authority over their children. Breyer’s dissent is actually more interesting, grounding itself in social science research that discusses the potential harm of violent video games (I’m not sure I agree, but at least there is some justification). There is quite a bit more here that I can’t cover in detail now, but I am always fascinated when the Supreme Court justices play the role of media scholars.

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Monday Links

Here’s what I read or watched over my second cup of coffee this morning:

  • Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, not content to release his latest installment of the Spy Kids franchise in 3D, is going into the fourth dimension….with what he calls “Aromascope.” Basically, moviegoers will be provided with a series of numbered scratch-and-sniff cards that correspond with specific scenes in the movie. Of course, incorporating scent with movies isn’t entirely new, with Smell-O-Vision dating back to 1960 and John Waters using Odorama for Polyester. The Los Angeles Times has a brief interview with Rodriguez in which he tries to argue that Aromascope will enhance the moviegoing experience.
  • TV set-top boxes are huge energy hogs, according to the New York Times, mostly because many of these boxes are powered on 24/7, even when people aren’t watching.
  • The streaming rental service Zediva continues to test the limits of copyright law. Citing the First Sale Doctrine, Zediva has argued that once they purchase a copy of a DVD, they have the right to rent it out, in their case, renting it via streaming video. The First Sale Doctrine is what permits rental services such as Blockbuster, Netflix, and Redbox to rent physical copies of a DVD or video, but streaming quite obviously blurs this line, given that Zediva’s customers never actually take physical possession of the video being “rented.” Will be interesting to see how this case plays out.
  • Something to keep an eye on: Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has been added to the board of directors for Facebook.
  • With Hulu up for sale, there has been quite a bit of discussion about potential changes to the service. New Tee Vee (citing the LA Times) reports that Hulu may soon be expected to verify that users of the free service are cable subscribers before they can watch recent episodes of current TV shows. David Poland suspects that Hulu will be a difficult sell. Amanda Natividad offers a useful timeline of the history of Hulu.

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Make it a Blockbuster Night

To celebrate the end of an unexpectedly long blogging hiatus, here is a collection of Blockbuster Video advertisements from what I assume to be the early to mid-1980s. As Matt Dentler points out, today’s world of streaming video, DVD-by-mail, and video-on-demand must look like science-fiction from this particular vantage point. I’d forgotten that Blockbuster had cassettes with just previews on them so that you could make more informed movie selections, but it’s fascinating to see how VHS rentals looked when they were relatively new. Here is the video:

By the way, in the days since my last blog entry, I got married here, went on a honeymoon to Costa Rica, and then spent the last few days revising and proofreading several articles, which all magically had the same deadlines (most of them should be coming out soon).

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Friday Links

Huge collection of links since I haven’t blogged in a while, thanks to wedding, writing, and other forms of busy-ness:

  • Girish has a contribution to the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Project: New Cinephilia, a roundtable discussion of the new forms of cinephilia inspired by the web. The whole discussion is worth reading, and it’s an engaging example of how festivals can be extended to the web.
  • David Poland expands on his recent arguments that the 3D bubble has burst. The National Organization of Theater Owners, citing an article by Scott Mendelson, would beg to differ. Anne Thompson, pointing to a New York Times article, echoes Poland’s argument that 3D has been overused.
  • Poland also looks at the digital future of inexpensive downloads and concludes that theatrical will becoming increasingly important.
  • Anthony Kaufman considers whether the crowdfunding service Kickstarter has revolutionized the indie film business
  • A new indie film service Flicklaunch is using Facebook as a platform to distribute independent films
  • Roger Ebert has an article bemoaning the latest “attraction” in some theaters: D-Box, a device, in which seats move, rock, and heave viewers. So far, according to Dan Craft’s Pantagraph.com article, only 80 theaters are equipped with D-Box devices, and viewers can shut the devices off if they don’t enjoy the ride (note: I may revisit this story soon).
  • Netflix CEO Reed Hastings discuses the future of TV in an interesting New Tee Vee article.
  • In other news, Hastings reports that Netflix is “finally beating” piracy site Bit Torrent. Hastings adds that Netflix has become instrumental in helping some shows find a (paying) audience, offering the examples of Firefly and Dexter.
  • In big news for video mashup creators, YouTube has adopted Creative Commons licenses, making it easier for users to find content they can remix or repurpose.
  • Matt Dentler also has some good news for people who consume streaming video, especially in Canada and the UK. On a related note, Hulu (following their acquisition of Criterion rights) has purchased streaming rights to Miramax’s catalog.

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