Movies, Formulas, and the End of Culture?

Anyone interested in film, psychology, and turning Americans into a nation of mindless consumer zombies (…turning?) must read Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the 10/16 New Yorker titled “The Formula: What if you built a machine to predict perfect movies?” It’s a classic piece of Gladwell’s work that considers the quantification of social and cultural phenomena. Only this one is a bit more relevant . . . and frightening. . . for film lovers.

When he says “perfect movies,” he’s referring to top-grossing movies, not platonic ones. Like, “favorite” not “best,” right? Though business people see no difference, of course, but that’s nothing new. What IS new is using computers to analyze patterns in movies and in consumption to see where they intersect, ie. to see what makes a blockbuster. In short, they’re getting close.

Anyway, read it. It starts off and ends kind of slow, but the middle part will impress. If it doesn’t impress you with the predictive powers of computers and algorithms, you are clearly ill prepared for a robot invasion. And by robots, I mean your neighbors.

Here’s a scenario for the near future: once the entertainment industrial complex perfects the ultimate entertainments, culture will cease to develop. There will be no experimentation, no independent productions, there will only be a few formulas and big profits. Americans will never be confronted with anything new. They will be supremely entertained, relatively comfortable (when not working 40-70 hrs/wk), and will begin to detach more and more and more from the world around them. They will fear and avoid anything different, build a wall around the country, lose interest in their government, and become totally oblivious to world events. Sorry, maybe this isn’t so new after all.

Well, the publisher just came into the room and called me naive and ungrateful, after scalding me with hot espresso and saying, “In some countries, that’d just be plain coffee, you scholarship ingrate.”

New Film Website of Note

Well, since the office has been overrun with film submissions, phone calls from politicians (Bill Clinton, just yesterday), and wild raccoons making a mess of everything, no one around here has sat down to summon a post in a while, so I’ll pass along something I’ve been meaning to mention for a couple of weeks. JSF friend Stu VanAirsdale in NYC has gone independent and launched The Reeler as a website about New York City film. His longstanding and excellent blog of the same name—which previously was hosted at IndieWire and then Movie City News—is still a main feature, but there are other contributors to the site, as well. This is what they aim for—“The Reeler is a paean to and an unofficial resource for news, happenings and gossip emerging from the world of New York City cinema.” The website provides plenty of good reading, good info about the festival circuits, and info about NYC-based short film, of which, judging from our PO box, there is plenty.

The Reeler has also been hosting an excellent series of screenings lately, including films like Half Nelson, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, and Jesus Camp, always attended by the directors.

press release: The Journal of Short Film releases Volume 5

for immediate release

The Journal of Short Film
releases Volume 5 (Fall 2006)

Columbus, OH (October 24, 2006) The Journal of Short Film released Volume 5 (Fall 2006) today. This volume celebrates the one-year anniversary of the Journal and maintains its commitment to diversity, experimentation, and independent work.

The JSF is a quarterly DVD providing its subscribers collections of exceptional, peer-reviewed short films. It was the first DVD publication to make the Top 10 list of BEST MAGAZINES in 2005 in The Library Journal.

The biggest news surrounding Volume 5 is the JSF’s focus on a single location of vibrant filmmaking—Philadelphia. Many of the volume’s filmmakers come from Philadelphia, and the collection demonstrates that exciting work is happening in different communities all over the world.

Joining the editorial board for Volume 5 was Lucy Raven, NYC-based filmmaker and co-creator of The Relay Project. The volume’s ten films come from veterans, students, and a variety of artists in between. Genres like “narrative” and “documentary” fail to describe the diversity of visions found in this collection.

1. LITTLE THINGS – James Twyford and Alex Feakes (2005, 4:45) Everything’s a game when you’re four. Until you get caught. 2. DIRT – Chel White (1998, 4:00) A fractured tale of one man’s strange obsession. Dark and humorous, DIRT is an ecological parable for the 21st century. 3. GRAND LUNCHEONETTE – Peter Sillen (2005, 5:00) This film documents the final days of Fred Hakim’s unforgettable 42nd Street lunch counter. 4. THE LEGEND OF BLACK TOM – Deron Albright (2005, 16:00) When a freed slave fights for the British bare-knuckle championship, he faces not only his opponent, but an entire nation. 5. NOEL – Hope Tucker (2005, 5:00) A songwriter’s identity remains as obscure as his motives for penning an American holiday standard. 6. THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF EXILE –Sara Zia Ebrahimi (2006, 12:00) A contemplation of the connection to family in a globalized world where fewer people live where they “came from.” Filmed in Iran. 7. YOU, STARBUCKS – Jennifer Levonian (2006, 2:05) Set in the mundane environment of a Starbucks, a couple engages in unspoken communication. 8. Something Rubber, Something Glue – Jen Schneider (2006, 14:30) Sibling warfare erupts over the only bathroom in the house: a private theater for role-playing, mirror confessions, and practicing for the “real thing.” 9. BAND OF SISTERS – Joel Fendelman (2005, 8:00) A group of 1.15 million women and men march through Washington, D.C., in the largest march in U.S. history. 10. REVERIES FROM CISTAE MEMORIA – Phillip Hastings (2005, 10:35) A delicately woven dream-journey through fragmented and reconstructed memories. Nostalgia for what may or may not have ever happened.

Recent rumors of the acquisition of the Journal by Google proved to be unfounded, earlier this month. Despite Google’s acquisition of the online video service YouTube, the JSF remains steadfast in maintaining that short film deserves a better medium than the Internet.

The JSF continues its open submissions policy and will welcome Sam Green as a guest editor for Volume 6 (Winter 2007). Sam’s Academy Award-nominated film The Weather Underground sometimes overshadows the fact that he is a renowned short film maker. The Journal is happy to have him on board and is excited to enter its second year publishing great independent filmmakers.


Indie Music and Short Film Converging Further. Plus, YouTube Sells; We Don’t Tell You What It Means for You.

A few things have coincided to push me to write about music and short film again—the release of the new Beck album, an update on the Film2Music competition, and an email exchange with John Brophy of Gingerbread Patriots—a band we learned about via short film, sort of, and whom we definitely like a lot.

1) The new Beck album The Information comes with a DVD of music videos for each of its songs. For months, the tracks and videos were slowly leaked on his website. Now, when you buy a single track, you automatically get a video download, and so on. Said Beck recently, “We’re moving into a time when the song and the imagery and video are all able to exist as one thing.” First, we know, Beck can hardly be called “indie,” anymore. And second, . . . really?

So, is this a big deal, or not? Some kind of film renaissance or DV revolution? Is it maybe just a renewed interest in music videos created by the new interest in short film, the proliferation of nifty/viral/buzz-creating videos on the internet, and 10+ years of MTV sucking? Beck isn’t the first to do this; we’ve seen Sean Lennon and Death Cab for Cutie do similar video album projects this year, too.

What, you didn’t think we were answering questions, here, did you? By the way, did you hear that Google bought YouTube for $1,650,000,000, yesterday? Seems relevant, somehow.

2) The Film2Music competition, started by composer Kubilay Uner, is still on until Nov. 1st. He has invited filmmakers to create films to accompany his latest music and has offered significant prizes for the winners.

Clearly, musicians see some gain in having images accompany their music.

3) Which is why I was interested when some filmmakers I knew about drew attention to some indie music that they had used in their work. It seemed like a reversal: filmmakers talking about finding cool, independent music to score their films; i.e. music making their images complete instead of the other way around. Here are the details, with appropriate links in case you need to kill an afternoon exploring some rich indie soil—the filmmakers in question were Arin Crumly and Susan Buice, two young, soulful artistes making the film Four Eyed Monsters. While attending Sundance and trying to get a distributor for their film, they were making video podcasts, each of which was a fairly elaborate, earnest, behind-the-scenes-ish short documentary, complete with heartfelt voice-overs, arty animations, and some of the hippest music you’ve heard in a while. There are eight podcasts, to date. Eventually, they started crediting the music at the beginning of each podcast, but from the start they had discussed the music on the “Music” part of their website (the website, remember, made to promote the feature film but which is half full of podcasts and related info, . . . the podcasts definitely by now having a life of their own and, i wonder, starting to perhaps become more interesting than the feature film itself; i can’t tell, since their film still doesn’t have a distributor, and i haven’t seen it yet.). Infact, they’ve even created a myspace page for the podcast music. It’s their fourth myspace page, alongside one for Arin, Susan, and the film. We can’t stand maintaining the JSF’s single lame-ass myspace page (not even gonna link to it), so we are fairly in awe of their industriousness.

But back to John and the band. Arin and Susan wrote about how they got in touch with the band (HERE), how they acquired the music, and how much they loved it. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for everyone. (disclosure/endorsement: all of this led us to get their latest cd, Wax Lips & Hummingbirds, which has become a regular listen around the office.) But a couple months passed, and I started to wonder if anyone really benefited from the hook up. Surely the filmmakers did, since the music made their promotional stuff (ie. the good and somewhat arty videos, which, let’s face it, were/are pure promotion) much more cool. But I emailed John and asked if the band saw any kind of concrete benefit to the relationship, other than just the normal warm fuzzies of sharing art.

He said that they originally lent the music just to be nice, but that it ended up benefiting them some, too. He, too, thought the music helped the filmmakers’ work, but was also happy to see their own music in a video format, which was the first time that’d happened. They liked how the well-cut video could make the songs come alive. He said the opposite was true, too: the music could be mismatched with an image and could really deflate the music, which happened once.

I found this remark interesting, too:
we did gain a lot of exposure from the collaboration. i guess in this age of ongoing a/v stimuli i.e. video ipods, you tube,… there are a lot of people that have difficulty sitting through an unfamiliar song in its entirety unless it’s paired with visuals to hold their attention through the unfamiliar audio territory. we had people writing us in swarms about how they loved the track after only one viewing of the video but normally it takes quite a few listens to get the same response from our myspace player or our cd.

He said they are now more interested than before in making some videos and invites filmmakers to contact them.

And so perhaps we’ve come full circle.

In other GP news, they say they’re working on a new album. If you want to see them live, it’d help to live in Portland, OR, it seems.

Screening: Neil Ira Needleman, Berkeley, CA, Oct. 6-8

Neil (JSF, Vol.2) is an invitational guest filmmaker at the Berkeley Video & Film Festival this weekend. His recent work is in documentary, experimental film, and lots of ground in between.

In describing his film that appeared in Vol.2 (Once Upon a Time in Brooklyn), this blog used a word—kvetchumentary—that now appears as a Google singularity, a single search result. We have to take our victories where we can get ‘em! But it’s Neil’s film that’s so unique and that deserves all the credit. I’m not sure if that film is playing in Berkeley–they’re showing “assorted videos by”–but stop in if you’re in the area.

And speaking of small victories, HERE is a bit of good press that appeared in the Chicago Tribune during our hiatus.