Category Archives: film

freedom of expression -? free nyc screening jan. 31

If you’re in the New York City region, this is worth checking out (features Institute fellow Siva Vaidhyanathan):
From Free Culture @ NYU:
In 1998, university professor Kembrew McLeod trademarked the phrase “freedom of expression” – ?a startling comment on the way that intellectual property law can restrict creativity and the expression of ideas. This provocative and amusing documentary explores the battles being waged in courts, classrooms, museums, film studios, and the Internet over control of our cultural commons. Based on McLeod’s award-winning book of the same title, Freedom of Expression® charts the many successful attempts to push back the assault on free expression by overzealous copyright holders.
In cooperation with the Media Education Foundation and La Lutta, Free Culture @ NYU is screening Freedom of Expression®: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property at 9pm on Thursday, January 31.
Narrated by Naomi Klein, the film features interviews with Stanford Law’s Lawrence Lessig, Illegal Art Show curator Carrie McLaren, Negativland’s Mark Hosler, UVA media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Free Culture @ NYU co-founder Inga Chernyak, among many others. This 53-minute documentary will be preceded by selections from Negativland’s new DVD, Our Favorite Things, and it will be followed by a Q&A with Freedom of Expression® author and director Kembrew McLeod and co-producer Jeremy Smith.
Freedom of Expression Screening and Q&A with Creators
Sponsored by Free Culture @ NYU, NYU ACM, and WiNC
Free and Open to the Public (bring ID if non-NYU)
Thursday, January 31, 2008
NYU’s Courant Institute
Room #109
251 Mercer Street b/w Bleecker and W. 4th
On the film’s site, I found this very clever (if slightly spastic) DVD extra, “A Fair(y) Use Tale”:

coming soon to a laptop near you

What makes me think 2008 will be a big year for the future of the book?
Last night in London we went to see the movie of The Golden Compass adapted from the excellent Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. Imagine my surprise when all three trailers shown were about films about books – not just film adaptations but movies in which the book itself stars.
Number one: Inkheart. “Maggie and her father had a special gift when it came to reading stories… but there’s one book they should never have read… ” It’s based on the novels of Cornelia Funke.
Number two: Spiderwick, based on books by artist Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. ‘Their World is Closer Than You Think’.
A child reads: ‘Do not dare to read this book for if you do but take a look…”
The trailer ends with an evil monster growling, “Give me the book!”
And finally, for the adults, Nicholas Cage in National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
Quotes from the trailer: “I need to see the page – there’s a symbol… it’s the
President’s secret book, it contains all the conspiracies…The book exists!”
it’s the Search for the Code of the Bride of Harry Potter & Da Vinci.
Meanwhile I loved The Golden Compass, which has been less compromised by Hollywood e than I’d feared. When the movie was launched I was horrified to hear a radio debate in New York about the dangers of Pullman’s philosophy contaminating innocent children – nobody voiced the view that kids deserved more atheist messages not less.
But I thought the least successful element was the tricksy way they showed the all knowing althiometer at work: swirling dust revealing fuzzy orange images. Only in text can you convincingly describe what it would feel like to know the future.
Will this fascination with the secret world of reading lead to increased sales for conventional tomes or is this the beginning of the final battle between page and screen?! And will it lead to more interest in new ways of mixing literature and image to make networked works of staggering genius?
This Spring experience: IFBOOK! ‘It’s a novel, Bob..but not as we know it.’
Happy New Year

the novelodeon

This past April, as the final season of The Sopranos hit the airwaves, with seemingly the whole country bracing for impact, I’d still never seen a single episode. Gradually, my indifference turned to concern. It felt like every talk show, news culture section and conversation on the street was about the fate of Tony Soprano -? a latter-day American anti-hero, a titanic figure with the air of myth about him. I began worry that I’d missed out on something big. A cultural touchstone of rare proportions.
So, as the end drew near, I took a deep breath and decided to start from the beginning.
Six months, 86 episodes, and over 70 combined viewing hours later I’m finally done, and while I may have missed out on The Sopranos as a broadcast event -? seven seasons of weekly appointments with Tony, Carmela, Meadow, AJ and the whole crumbling world of New Jersey gangsterdom -? I got to experience something perhaps more satisfying: a hyper-concentrated, solitary viewing experience, curled up nightly in bed with my laptop. Episodes flowing into each other almost seamlessly like chapters of a book. The pause button like a dog-eared page or bookmark inserted as my eyelids began to droop. An experience not unlike reading a big novel.
Book lovers frequently insist they could never get in bed with a computer, but it seems that this is happening all the time. Any of you who have indulged in a multi-season TV binge can probably attest to this -? hours spent prone, the laptop huffing away, plowing through disc after disc (Bob made a similar observation a while back). Substantively too there’s something that recalls leisure reading. It has oft been remarked that The Sopranos heralded a major shift in television into terrain once solely occupied by the novel: serial dramas that transcend their episodic structure and become a new kind of literature. Big cross-seasonal plot arcs. A broad social canvas. Intricately interwoven narrative. A large cast of deeply drawn characters. Not to mention a purchase on the country’s imagination that recalls the popularity of the great serial fictions of Dickens a century and a half ago. With the spate of high-caliber TV serials originated by HBO and then proliferated by channels across the television spectrum, film has moved onto the novel’s turf, matching not only its narrative scope but its expansive dimensions. Stories as big and sprawling as novels can now be told in moving pictures, and thanks to a host of new individualized distribution channels, experienced as intimately, on a laptop or iPod.
Of course I’m not suggesting that film and prose fiction aren’t very different things, just that their roles seem to be converging. From its early days, film has been in conversation with the novel, frequently operating on canvases as vast as Anna Karenina or Great Expectations, but it necessarily has had to compress, select and distill the worlds it shows into something in the vicinity of two hours. When a film edges toward the three-hour mark it is considered epic. Simply in terms of duration of story and investment of time by the viewer/reader, movies and novels have always been very different kinds of fiction requiring very different sets of commitments from their audiences.
The shift arguably began with the multi-episode adaptations of classic books pioneered by the BBC in the 70s -? shows like I, Claudius, on through the 1995 hit rendition of Pride and Prejudice, right up to last year’s Bleak House. Here, television began to stretch out novelistically. And indeed, novels were the source material. Still, the solitary “reading” element was absent here. These were broadcast events, viewed in living rooms at an appointed time set by the channel, with little or no control by the spectator. Soon enough, however, VCRs entered the home and television audiences became time shifters, capturing and bending the broadcasters’ schedules to fit their own. From there the die was pretty much cast. A parade of new “narrowcast” technologies -? DVDs, TiVo, personal computers, iTunes, bit torrent -? imbued these shows with book-like qualities: reader-driven, personal, portable… an intimate cinema of one.
Immediately upon finishing The Sopranos, with the pangs of withdrawal already setting in, I found solace in Wikipedia, which has extensive articles on each episode and character from the show. With the help of the external links, I soon found myself on a strange digital dérive through various arcana: press clippings, blogs, and an forums debating the show’s ambiguous ending, personal web pages of supporting cast members such as Joseph R. Gannascoli, who played the gay mobster Vito Spatafore, and from whose site one can purchase such fine collectibles as t-shirts emblazoned with “I Love You Johnny Cakes.” Through the drifts of trivia, I eventually dug up several interesting quotes from contemporary authors ruminating on the novel’s place in American life and the increasing overlap with television. The first bits were from John Freeman, president of the National Book Critics Circle, who published a piece in The Guardian during those fevered months surrounding the Sopranos finale entitled “Has the novel been murdered by the mob?”

From coast to coast, from white-wine sipping yuppies to real life mobsters, The Sopranos has had Americans talking – even those of us not familiar with the difficulty of illegal interstate trucking or how to bury a body in packed snow. While the New York Times called upon Michael Chabon, Elmore Leonard and Michael Connelly to resurrect the serial novel in its Sunday Magazine, critics were calling Chase the Dickens of our time. The final episode roped in some 11.9 million viewers. One major question, though, remains. Has Tony Soprano whacked the American novel?
….America’s most powerful myth-making muse long ago moved in to Hollywood (and the White House press room), so the ascendancy of
The Sopranos to the level of quasi-literary art should have been expected. Indeed, this wouldn’t be troubling were Americans reading other, actual novels. But they’re not – at least not in the numbers they once did.

Freeman cites two authors, Gary Shteyngart and the late Norman Mailer, both of whom have discussed The Sopranos as a story of novelistic proportions. First, here’s Shteyngart, in a Slate dialogue last year with Walter Kirn:

Our time…is more mutable. Change occurs not from year to year but from day to day – ?the fiction writer’s job of remaining relevant has never been harder. And I don’t think this will be true only of the present age. I think we are entering a period of unprecedented acceleration, of previously unimaginable technological gain that may be derailed only by the kind of apocalypse found in Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel.
The Internet, I both fear and hope, is only the beginning.
But the emotional need to connect with a story remains. One of the folks behind the popular HBO series
The Wire recently said that he sees each season as a novel, with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. The Sopranos, which may one day be acknowledged as the definitive fiction of the early 21st century, puts an emphasis on detail, setting, and psychology in a way that could resonate with a reader of, say, A Sentimental Education.

And here’s Mailer, in a 2004 interview on Poynter Online:

The Great American Novel is no longer writable. We can’t do what John Dos Passos did. His trilogy on America came as close to the Great American Novel as anyone. You can’t cover all of America now. It’s too detailed. You couldn’t just stick someone in Tampa without knowing about Tampa. You couldn’t get away with it. People didn’t get upset if you were a little scanty on the details in the past. Now all the details get in the way of an expanse of a novel.
You can take a much broader canvas with nonfiction … and Americans want large canvases because America is getting so confusing. People want more information than you can get from most novels. You can read a novel about a small subject like the breakup of a marriage, but that’s not a wide enough approach for some. It takes something like “The Sopranos,” which can loop into a good many aspects of American culture. As I said, I don’t think the Great American Novel can be written anymore. There will be great novels … forever, I hope … But the notion of a wide canvas may be moving to television with its possibilities of endless hours.

I think it’s this element of time that lies at the heart of this over-drawn analogy. The storytellers of television are driving a golden age of magisterial fictions roomy enough to capture the full flow of time. TV serials used to be a way to kill time: repeatable formulas, the same story told again and again, a tradition that’s alive and well in shows like Law & Order. You can check in, check out, it doesn’t really matter. TV has always been sort of timeless in this way. Whereas prose fiction has long had a special relationship with time. Time, in its fullness, takes time for the author to convey, and the time it takes to read book-length fictions is I think equally part of the reward -? it’s an endurance sport, long-distance running. I always assumed that only a book could show me the landscape of time in this almost bodily way, but my recent odyssey with the Soprano family appears to have blurred the usual distinctions.

shock treatment

I’ve never been a fan of book trailers, but this disturbing six-minute agitprop piece promoting Naomi Klein’s new book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is genre-transcending. It doesn’t hurt that Klein teamed up with Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who made what was for my money the best major release picture of last year, “Children of Men.” Here, Klein and Cuarón are co-writers, Cuarón’s son Jonás directs and edits, and Klein provides narration over a melange of chilling footage and animation that sets up her central thesis and metaphor: that free market capitalist reforms are generally advanced, undemocratically, through breaches in the social psyche created by political, economic, environmental or military shocks. It’s a shocking little video. Make you wanna read the book?

national archives/amazon agreement released

From Rick Prelinger:

In a rapid FOIA response, NARA has released the partnership agreement between them and Amazon’s CustomFlix (now CreateSpace) subsidiary. It’s downloadable here (I’m responsible for the poorly derived PDF). I’ll be reading and analyzing it soon.

audiovisual heritage double play

Two major preservation and access initiatives just reported by Peter Brantley over at O’Reilly Radar (1 and 2):
1. Reframe (set to launch in September ’07)

The Reframe project is a new initiative of Renew Media in partnership with Amazon and with major support from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which promises to offer exciting solutions for the dissemination of important media arts and the preservation and accessibility of our visual heritage.
The Reframe project will help connect audiences of independent media to a robust collection of media arts via an integrated, resourceful website. Reframe will aggregate content from individual filmmakers, broadcasters, distributors, public media resources, archives, libraries and other sources of independent and alternative media. Serving as a both an aggregator of content and a powerful marketing tool, Reframe enables content-holders to digitize, disseminate and make available their content to a vast potential audience via a powerful online resource.
Renew Media will create a specialized Reframe website, which will interact with the Amazon storefront, to assist institutions (universities, libraries or museums) and consumers of niche content in browsing, finding, purchasing or renting Reframe content. Reframe website visitors will find it easy to locate relevant content through a rich menu of search and retrieval tools, including conventional search, recommender systems, social networking tools and curated lists. Reframe will allow individual viewers to rate and discuss the films they have seen and to sort titles according to their popularity among users with similar interests.

2. Library of Congress awards to preserve digitized and born-digital works

The Library of Congress, through its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), today announced eight partnerships as part of its new Preserving Creative America initiative to address the long-term preservation of creative content in digital form. These partners will target preservation issues across a broad range of creative works, including digital photographs, cartoons, motion pictures, sound recordings and even video games. The work will be conducted by a combination of industry trade associations, private sector companies and nonprofits, as well as cultural heritage institutions.
Several of the projects will involve developing standardized approaches to content formats and metadata (the information that makes electronic content discoverable by search engines), which are expected to increase greatly the chances that the digital content of today will survive to become America’s cultural patrimony tomorrow. Although many of the creative content industries have begun to look seriously at what will be needed to sustain digital content over time, the $2.15 million being awarded to the Preserving Creative America projects will provide added impetus for collaborations within and across industries, as well as with libraries and archives.

Partners include the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the American Society of Media Photographers, ARTstor and others. Go here and scroll down part way to see the full list.
One project that caught my and Peter’s eye is an effort by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to address a particularly vexing problem: how to preserve virtual environments and other complex interactive media:

Interactive media are highly complex and at high risk for loss as technologies rapidly become obsolete. The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games, electronic literature and Second Life, an interactive multiplayer game. Second Life content participants include Life to the Second Power, Democracy Island and the International Spaceflight Museum. Partners: University of Maryland, Stanford University, Rochester Institute of Technology and Linden Lab.

privatizing public goods (our tax dollars at work)

The National Archives is at it again. After announcing in January its exclusive agreement with to digitize and offer priced access to millions of public domain historical records, NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) has now inked a deal with Amazon to distribute significant parts of its vast archival films collection commercially on DVD and online.
As reported by the Cumberland Times News:

The arrangement allows Amazon – and a subsidiary, CustomFlix Labs Inc. – to copy National Archives films and video onto DVDs, and sell them to the public via the Internet.
The Archives will initially make available its collection of Universal Newsreels, dating from 1920 to 1967. Thousands of other public-domain and government films will be made available later.
Included in the initial offerings are events as diverse as the famous 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and footage of a youthful Fidel Castro after the communist revolution in Cuba. Newsreels that will become available later include coverage of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the end of World War II, and the royal wedding of Princess Margaret.
National Archives officials said the arrangement will greatly expand the availability of the collection. Previously, such films could only be viewed and recorded at the Archives facility in College Park.

No doubt NARA should doing everything in its power to digitize and increase access to its vaults, but locking materials down through commercial partnerships is no way to run a public trust. In a more commendable move, NARA put up a draft of another digitization/distribution agreement it has in the works, this one with the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU), and they’ve even opened it up to public comment. They ought to do the same with the Amazon deal, and while they’re at it, offer less antiquated mechanisms for the public to make their voices heard. As it stands, comments on the GSU draft can be submitted in the following ways:
* fax
* postal mail
* hand delivery or courier
Hey, why not use CommentPress?

darker side of youtube

There’s a good piece in Slate by Nick Douglas, a writer and video blogger out of San Francisco, that casts YouTube as the Hollywood of web video – ?purveyor of bite-sized crap with mass appeal, while the smaller, more innovative “independents” (the Groupers, Vimeos and struggle in its shadow. YouTube’s dominance, Douglas argues, leads viewers to expect less of a fledgeling cultural arena that could become the leading edge of filmmaking but instead has been made synonymous with shallow, momentary titillation.
Douglas’ critique is on target, and it’s vital to keep questioning the so-called diversity of the mega-aggregators who increasingly dominate the Web, but I wonder whether serious video producers really ought to be looking to YouTube and its competitors as the ultimate venue. As promotional and browsing sites they work well, but a networked, non-Web video client like Miro could be a better forum for challenging work.

promiscuous materials

This began as a quick follow-up to my post last week on Jonathan Lethem’s recent activities in the area of copyright activism. But after a couple glasses of sake and some insomnia it mutated into something a bit bigger.
Back in March, Lethem announced that he planned to give away a free option on the film rights of his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Interested filmmakers were invited to submit a proposal outlining their creative and financial strategies for the project, provided that they agreed to cede a small cut of proceeds if the film ends up getting distributed. To secure the option, an artist also had to agree up front to release ancillary rights to their film (and Lethem, likewise, his book) after a period of five years in order to allow others to build on the initial body of work. Many proposals were submitted and on Monday Lethem granted the project to Greg Marcks, whose work includes the feature “11:14.”
What this experiment does, and quite self-consciously, is demonstrate the curious power of the gift economy. Gift giving is fundamentally a ritual of exchange. It’s not a one-way flow (I give you this), but a rearrangement of social capital that leads, whether immediately or over time, to some sort of reciprocation (I give you this and you give me something in return). Gifts facilitate social equilibrium, creating occasions for human contact not abstracted by legal systems or contractual language. In the case of an artistic or scholarly exchange, the essence of the gift is collaboration. Or if not a direct giving from one artist to another, a matter of influence. Citations, references and shout-outs are the acknowledgment of intellectual gifts given.
By giving away the film rights, but doing it through a proposal process which brought him into conversation with other artists, Lethem purchased greater influence over the cinematic translation of his book than he would have had he simply let it go, through his publisher or agent, to the highest bidder. It’s not as if novelists and directors haven’t collaborated on film adaptations before (and through more typical legal arrangements) but this is a significant case of copyright being put to the side in order to open up artistic channels, changing what is often a business transaction — and one not necessarily even involving the author — into a passing of the creative torch.
Another Lethem experiment with gift economics is The Promiscuous Materials Project, a selection of his stories made available, for a symbolic dollar apiece, to filmmakers and dramatists to adapt or otherwise repurpose.
One point, not so much a criticism as an observation, is how experiments such as these — and you could compare Lethem’s with Cory Doctorow’s, Yochai Benkler’s or McKenzie Wark’s — are still novel (and rare) enough to serve doubly as publicity stunts. Surveying Lethem’s recent free culture experiments it’s hard not to catch a faint whiff of self-congratulation in it all. It’s oh so hip these days to align one’s self with the Creative Commons and open source culture, and with his recent foray into that arena Lethem, in his own idiosyncratic way, joins the ranks of writers shrewdly riding the wave of the Web to reinforce and even expand their old media practice. But this may be a tad cynical. I tend to think that the value of these projects as advocacy, and in a genuine sense, gifts, outweighs the self-promotion factor. And the more I read Lethem’s explanations for doing this, the more I believe in his basic integrity.
It does make me wonder, though, what it would mean for “free culture” to be the rule in our civilization and not the exception touted by a small ecstatic sect of digerati, some savvy marketers and a few dabbling converts from the literary establishment. What would it be like without the oppositional attitude and the utopian narratives, without (somewhat paradoxically when you consider the rhetoric) something to gain?
In the end, Lethem’s open materials are, as he says, promiscuities. High-concept stunts designed to throw the commodification of art into relief. Flirtations with a paradigm of culture as old as the Greek epics but also too radically new to be fully incorporated into the modern legal-literary system. Again, this is not meant as criticism. Why should Lethem throw away his livelihood when he can prosper as a traditional novelist but still fiddle at the edges of the gift economy? And doesn’t the free optioning of his novel raise the stakes to a degree that most authors wouldn’t dare risk? But it raises hypotheticals for the digital age that have come up repeatedly on this blog: what does it mean to be a writer in the infinitely reproducible non-commodifiable Web? what is the writer after intellectual property?

jonas mekas has a plan

Jonas Mekas was mentioned in passing on this blog last week, which seems fortuitous timing. Mekas has just announced (by video, of course) a plan to release a short film every day next year. All will be formatted for the video iPod; however, video formatted this way doesn’t need a video iPod for playback.

jonas mekas playing the accordianSome background: Jonas Mekas is primarily an experimental film maker, having used film to document his life for the past fifty years. Along with Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty is one of the twentieth century’s great works of biography. He’s one of the most respected Lithuanian poets of the last century. And he’s also been a central force for avant-garde film culture in New York. Anthology Film Archives, his current cinema, presents an incredibly wide range of historical and contemporary film. It’s one of the great things about living in New York: the vast majority of what’s shown there simply isn’t distributed, and is inaccessible any other way.

Mekas has been taken in by the Maya Stendhal Gallery, which is currently hosting an exhibit of forty of his recent films (“recent” defined rather loosely). I spent an hour or so at the gallery yesterday; in the darkened space, flat-screen monitors present Mekas’s films on repeat. The selection of films at Maya Stendhal is tilted to the celebrity: there’s Andy Warhol at work, Salvador Dalí and Gala clowning about with broken-down cars somewhere in Chelsea, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in in Montréal, Jackie Onassis at home, the elderly Carl Jung carving stones.

velvet underground dancingIt’s a nice experience, but it’s difficult to actually watch the films there: the monitors are installed in series, so while watching one you can’t help but be distracted by what’s going on to the left and right. Mekas’s private epiphanies (Stan Brakhage making an enormous pile of pancakes for his children, for example) are interrupted by famous faces. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this exhibit isn’t actually going on in the gallery itself: the Maya Stendhal gallery is presenting the forty films online for public downloading. Currently, they’re available in iPod format – 320 x 240 pixel QuickTime files – but a few are available in high resolution: I downloaded a 665Mb file of the Velvet Underground’s first public appearance, at a psychiatrist’s convention in 1965. This is DVD quality: 720 x 576 pixels.

george maciunas, yoko ono, and john lennon on a fluxus cruise up the hudsonMekas’s films aren’t free, but they’re relatively cheap: $3.99 for iPod quality, $6.99 for high resolution. The money isn’t going straight to Mekas: it’s going through the gallery. But there’s something that feels exciting about this: an artist taking over the reigns of distribution. This isn’t work that the general public is interested in; neither the artist nor the audience would be well-served by a regular distributor. Here there’s a more direct connection. Mekas curates an enormous library of film at Anthology Film Archives; it would be a tremendous achievement if that could be made available online.

Mekas’s upcoming project to make a film a day and present it online is also interesting as an experiment in networked culture. Working online will create a much faster feedback loop for Mekas: there will almost certainly be a much greater role for the audience, not dissimilar to what we’ve been examining with our Thinking Out Loud series.