Friday, May 30, 2008

The Current State of the Cinema

Kevin Kelly: State of Cinema address
(MS note: What follows is the State of Cinema address Kevin Kelly offered on Sunday, May 4, 2008, at the San Francisco International Film Festival.]
The SFIFF is America's longest presenting film festival, and the 61st edition just concluded continues its reign as the premier film festival in North America.. First, it IS San Francisco, after all, and it has retained the signature quality that makes it also the most important film exposition in the country, and maybe even North America. (Toronto, New York, Sundance. even Telluride all have their own claim to the cinematic crown). This year Kevin Kelly gives the State of the Cinema Address, and while I witnessed Peter Sellars incredible vision of what the cinema is all about, last year at the 50th edition of SFIFF, here Kelly gives his own sense of just what the cinema means to our culture and to the future of the arts. Read on. That is, if you give a damn. And, you must. If you don't, then the hell with you.- MS

Welcome, welcome, welcome! This lovely theater here got dark and I thought, "Oh, great! It’s a movie! I can just sit back." I completely forgot that I have to give a talk. I would just love to sit here. Thank you to the San Francisco Film Festival for inviting me to speak on speculations on the future of where motion pictures are going. My role, I think, is to describe what I see as a little bit of an outsider. My method for doing this is very simple: to come [at it] as an outsider. We’re sitting here in a fantastic movie theater, but in fact more people see movies in airplanes than watch them in theaters. Airplanes and portable DVDs. But the movies aren’t made, usually, with that in mind. So what I’m trying to do is listen to the technology. Carver Mead, a technologist said, "Listen to the technology; see what it wants to say." And for the next 45 minutes, what I’m going to try to talk about is what I think the technology is telling us. The technology around moving pictures, motion pictures. Then we’ll have a chance to have questions and answers, which I look forward to, and hopefully I’ll take you to a place that I think is one possible scenario.
So, first of all, if I showed you an image on a screen [he points to slide] and I asked you, "Is that a movie being shown? Is it a TV [show]? Or is it a game?" We can’t tell right now. It’s actually very hard to tell because these things are kind of converging. What I wanted to talk about is the ways in which this media is spreading into everything. For a very long time, there were basically two screens. We had a movie screen, and we had TV. What’s happening right now is that it’s starting to spread everywhere. So we’re seeing larger and larger screens at the same time as we’re seeing smaller and smaller screens. And the screens are being distributed, and they’re being plastered everywhere in our lives.
We have things like the iPod. Not just the iPod. We have other handhelds that people are actually—much to my surprise—watching movies on. Not only movies but some hi-def movies. What’s interesting about the mobile phone, of course, is that it’s two-way. Most of them have cameras, and two years from now Nokia is going to put a high-definition movie camera in a camera phone. So not only will it play movies but it’s actually going to film movies. I’ll come back to that later.
We see this mushrooming expansion of the screens, and we see them everywhere in our lives. We see them in the grocery stores at checkouts. We see them in airport waiting rooms, even the gas pumps and ATMs are starting to have little screens. Anywhere we’re waiting, there are screens. So it’s almost like a life force that’s penetrating into all the possible variations of the environment. And big screens. Big screens that work. Big screens that are not a piece of wallpaper or chart. This [he points to slide] is actually a big screen, and people are working in front of larger and larger screens, [at] kind of a mid-distance, sitting back rather than closer up. And, of course, in Minority Report Tom Cruise is in front of this wrap-around thing and he’s gesturing, interacting with the screen. By the way, you have different thoughts when you stand up and work than when you’re sitting, and I think this is going to change the workplace a little bit as we have these kinds of large screens.
At the small end, there are these little tiny screens that are being put onto eyeglasses and nice frames, and there are actually dozens and dozens of examples already. These [he points to slide] are just a couple, where you actually have a personal movie screen in your eyeglasses. In some cases, these are overlaid, and I’ll come back to that—where you have an augmented, overlaid screen on top of your normal vision. But they’re getting smaller. This is how small they can get. And this [he points to slide] is how big they can get. This is in Shanghai, along the Huangpu, and we’re seeing—this is Times Square and beyond—we’re seeing screens the size of buildings. As LEDs become cheap, organic LEDs, they will start to cover larger and larger surfaces, and some day most buildings will probably have an outdoor display, change their skin, their color, particularly at night, maybe even during the day. So the screen is unlimited in terms of what we can imagine. The best way, I think, to imagine it is just to imagine all surfaces in our lives becoming potential screens.
These [he points to slide] are some prototype personal projectors. Little things about this big and they project, so when you don’t have a screen, you can actually make a screen by carrying around one of these. You have your personal projector. At the other end [are] of all these [he points to slide] screens here. This is a state-of-the-art home theater. Why do we go to theaters now? Because of the projection and the sound system. But there’s a whole underground of fan groups, hobbyists, who make state-of-the-art and even better home theaters, and that’s catching up, although it never catches up [entirely], with the state-of-the-art professional theatrical environments. But you have to ask yourself, will people in [such] homes [ever] go to theaters?
Well, what’s interesting about that is that in India and places like that people go to the theaters. In India and places where there’s rife piracy—you can get any kind of a movie you want for almost a dollar or less—why do people go to the theaters? They go to the theaters because they’re air-conditioned. So they’re buying air-conditioning and getting the movie for free. I think there’s always something ahead in the Western developed world; that’s probably going to be 3-D. These home theaters that I just showed don’t have 3-D. Three-D is the next thing that wants to bring people into the theaters. There’s Dolby [and] a couple of other companies making it, and there are 60 major features slated to be released in 3-D in the next five years. So they’re betting that this is something that will move people into theaters, away from their very elaborate home theaters where you can get almost anything you want through Netflix [and] now Blu-ray. And, of course, these home theaters will catch up. This [he points to slide] is a Samsung HD/3-D TV going out in big-screen. Always behind the theaters will be the home theaters trying to catch up but never quite catching up.
The other place that we see the expansion of [the] motion picture [environment] is in [terms of] time. It’s in the duration. Long ago, the timeslots in which such things were made were dictated by the venues, by the distribution opportunities, and we had things like shorts—15 minutes or so—and we had commercials, which were kind of mini-stories, and we had 90 minutes on average for a movie. But what’s happening now is that, because distribution is wide open, there are many, many more possibilities for the length of films. So we see this kind of YouTube thing of two to four minutes taking off. And we see longer and longer films in terms of serials, particularly those that have a continuous narrative, like Lord of the Rings was 12 hours. I think we’re seeing the beginning of a new era of extremely long films like Lost. Lost, when it’s done, will be a 100-plus–hour movie. It has a single story. Very complicated. In fact, this [he points to slide] is a diagram of one of the episodes and all the fans around it. The complexities of these things challenge even the greatest novel. We haven’t seen how long some of these will be. And it’s been developed because we have the ability to rewind them, to restudy them, to see them at our own schedule. You can’t play a 100-hour movie in the theaters—it’s impossible—but when you can look at them when you want that makes these very long narrative stories possible.
There’s another way in which the motion picture is expanding its environment. I call this one "quality." At the high end you have, of course, the Hollywood-produced, the professional, the state of the art, the [artisanal] masterpiece and at the other end you have home movies. That was basically the range. You made home movies or you made real movies. What’s happening is that we’ve opened this up—and I don’t disparage them; I’m just trying to say that there’s a continuum between the two ends. So we have in the middle, this hard middle of things [where] the quality is sort of in between. It’s more than a home movie and it’s less than a masterpiece. There’s a huge range in there, and it’s not clear oftentimes where things are. Because what’s really interesting is that we’re coming up to the point where the tools used by the amateur and professionals are basically the same.
We shouldn’t be surprised by that because that’s what we have in writing. Writing requires some tools, but the tools that J.K. Rowling uses are exactly the same as any of us could use and it’s all about what they produce. For a long time the tools for making film were much different. There will always be more expensive, state-of-the-art technology, but nonetheless there’s some level at which a basic set of tools that you can use to make a presentable motion picture will be available to most everybody and then the quality difference is really not tool-based or distribution-based but really [dependent] on the talents and skills and ambition of the artists. This center area is really where most of the exciting work is happening in the future of motion pictures.
There are only about 600 major, studio-produced films made in a year. There are billions and billions of these [nonprofessional films]. The scale of [the] quantity produced is startling. And in this area, more is different. It actually makes a difference when you have so many things being produced. I think one of the problems that TV had for a long time was there wasn’t enough bad TV. It was mostly mediocre. The costs of making it and the distribution channels were so constrained that you couldn’t make really, really horrible stuff because nobody would let you, nobody would fund it. So most of it was made in the middle, [and was] mediocre. And it also prevented anything really great being made. One of the correlatives to having really, really great stuff is you have to allow a lot of bad stuff, a lot of really horrible stuff. So that’s what we’re getting right now, and that gives us actually a chance to have some fantastic stuff being made because it’s wide open and anything is permitted and anything is possible. It’s not just sort of rough, coarse quality—which YouTube is mostly right now—it’s very rapidly again going to go into the area where we have the full high-quality experience. Hulu is one of the earliest sites that’s now giving you a sense of what online video quality can look like. They’re trying, again, to explore different models.
Perhaps my last example of the expansion of this world into the environment is in the way that we consume it. Traditionally, in the new media, there were two stances: You were either leaning back in a movie theater and having the story told to you, or you were leaning forward into the screen and you were interacting with it in the computer. In one, the narrative was paramount, and in the other one, the environment was really what you were engaged in. I think now we’re seeing [something] in between. Again, it’s turning into a continuum rather than a binary, polar world. There’s everything in between. We’re seeing it with some of the games, like Grand Theft Auto, where there’s a narrative going through it, and the production values and the intensity, and the attention to that is very, very strong. They say you can expect to play about 60 hours to finish the game. It’s not a 60-hour motion picture, but it’s 60 hours of something that’s very related to that and has some of the elements in it. So there is again a blurring between those media. [Another example is] Cloverfield, which is J.J. Abrams’ movie about a monster where you don’t see the monster. But it really wasn’t [about] the monster. The movie was a ride because it was so immersive, and the narrative, again, was not really the central aspect. It was more [about] being in this world. So there was a sense of it being an experience rather than being a story.
I think what all this is leading to is the way in which computers are changing the nature of motion pictures. There’s a field called computational photography, which is about how you can do a lot of the things that the eye does with computers. This is really the crux of what is happening. This is listening to the technology. This is where I’m looking—how this technology, between computational photography and filmmaking, is changing and how the technology will change our culture. One of the things that we see with computational photography is the fact that the more traditional way of making a movie is you film lots of scenes on analog film, little linear strips of things, and then you have to edit that into a longer narrative story. The computational process flips that around and says we can start with a minimum amount of film and we’ll just computationally take it apart into its elements and then reassemble that into many different things. You could actually take a film, extract out the person, which we do with blue screens and green screens, and then reassemble that to make the story that you want.
In some sense, animation [films]—like Ratatouille and others—have taken this to the apex. That’s what they’re doing. They make everything and they’re starting with just numbers. They’re reassembling these numbers into the scene that they want. But, in fact, even some of the live action films are to a certain [extent] being animated because they’re being constructed and manipulated almost frame by frame, and all the ingredients in those frames, all the layers, are being generated and they’re being assembled in a certain way, Star Wars being a great example. It looks like it’s live action but it’s really not. The set is not real. The figures are not real. The light sabers aren’t real. Everything is being taken from a few bits and being generated into a film. As there’s color correction going on, there’s actually very few parts of any frame that won’t be manipulated in some capacity with computers.
There’s even some new things coming out. There’s something called a depth camera. This is based on a chip called ZCam for the Z-dimension, and it’s not a stereoscopic 3-D, it’s actually a single-lens camera that has a chip in it that actually measures the speed of light coming back [and therefore] can tell how far away things are. It generates a 3-D depth image with a single camera. So you now can make 3-D images on a cheap webcam, and as that moves into movie cameras you’ll be able to, again, start to layer and un-bundle the image before you into its parts.
Already people who use Avid and Final Cut Pro, they’re dealing with a million little pieces when they’re making a movie. All these pieces are becoming more and more elemental. They’re being unraveled into smaller and smaller individual primeval elements, and then they’re being recombined into the linear narrative story. Each step we go in this digital adventure unravels these bits more and more down to an object that’s a naked object. Then you can add the lighting that you want, then you add the location, you can add textured skin, you can change the colors, you can do everything with it. So you end up with a set, a database, of very small elements.
Now, when we think about films, we normally think about the masterpieces. What I would call the handcrafted [artisanal] films. The films that people come here to see. But what I want to remind people is that in the great scale of motion images, this [he points to slide] is a very small, tiny, tiny little apex. A tiny part [at] the top. Most of the images in our lives that we see, that we’re swamped by, that we’re surrounded by, are not those. And that base is becoming bigger and bigger and larger and larger. While the story will never go away, and the importance of the story in the narrative-driven film won’t go away, the fact that it’s surrounded by a greater and greater ocean of other visual motion pictures influences [the top] and has an effect. It has an indirect effect on that.
What I’m talking about is in a certain sense the rest of the visual world, directly. I make the analogy that it’s a little bit like writing. Again, if we think about our lives, even in this darkened theater, of course, there’s text on the screen right now. I see some text back here. You can open up [the program] and see printed material. We’re living in an ocean of text around us and there’s so much of the written word and the alphabet around us that we don’t even see it anymore. But that makes our culture. That’s what our culture is based on, and it’s everywhere. We have a lot of tools that we’ve evolved, and skills, to work with that literate culture that we’re swimming in without even perceiving it. We can parse things. We can index them. We have all these ways to search and browse text, manipulate and annotate things, and re-sequence. And that’s just for using it; that’s our response to it. We have all these tools [to] cut and paste and other things to actually write text. Of course, it’s ubiquitous. But that’s the important thing. We both read it and we write it, and we write a lot of text just for ourselves. A lot of the writing that we do is written for the audience of one. Just us. We’re steeped in this environment of the written word.
What I’m suggesting is that that’s where we’re going with the visual world, with moving pictures. It becomes ubiquitous in our culture, and what we’re trying to develop—what we will be developing, what we’re just beginning to develop—are these tools that will allow us to index things, browse them and search them and manipulate them, annotate them. That the moving image becomes as ubiquitous in our culture as the written word was until now. OK?
I call that the Gutenberg Shift. We’re going through the Gutenberg Shift in the visual world, in what I call “vizuality." If you saw the Harry Potter movies and *The Daily Prophet*—when [Harry Potter] takes out the daily newspaper—the images on the newspaper are moving. We’re going to do that. We have already e-ink. We see some of the e-ink in the Kindle and these readers. Eventually, we’ll get to the point where we’ll have electronic digital ink on a book page, a flexible book page that you can turn, or a newspaper. You have your favorite newspaper and it changes all the time. If it can change the news, it can certainly support a moving image on the page, and there’ll be moving images on your newspaper. The moving image will become part of our literacy. That’s already happening.
Here’s [he points to slide] an example of Seesmic, [a] Web site where you post videos. The way you comment on the videos on this site is you make another video. So you have videos commenting on other videos. It’s a video conversation. That’s only possible because it gets easier and easier. You have built-in little cameras in your laptop. As you make these tools more ubiquitous, that kind of facility for making a video as easy as typing something, that’s where we’re going. That’s what we want, in a certain sense.
What are some of the ways we can do this indexing and parsing? One of the problems with the moving image, the motion image, is that it has a penalty, a temporal penalty, which means it takes a long time to watch it. You can have a book or an article, and we have something called the abstract. You can read the abstract of the article. What’s the equivalent in film? What’s the abstract of a film? How can you browse films? How can you search films? That’s what we’re talking about. That’s what’s happening in the labs right now, and these [he points to slide] are some examples of different experiments in trying to summarize, to condense, to digest, to in some ways abstract a clip or a frame or a small movie.
We see that YouTube has one way, which is they take the center frame in the exact middle of the clip and that’s what shows up, so that gives you some idea but it’s kind of elementary. Here’s another one—they took a center slit in all the frames and they compressed those together. That’s the one on the top. Then another one is you can just do a little storyboard. You just do every nth frame and show that as a storyboard. Another experiment just took, again, slits of the frames and maybe one image, the standard image, a kind of Cubist attempt there. There’s another one called a collage. They took all the frames—this is a pan going across—and then showed just a little edge of it, so you get a collage view of this section of a scene. There’s another one that’s really hard to see. It’s almost like a time-lapse, where the camera is on a tripod and isn’t moving, so you have all the movement on one still. These are some experiments in trying to do this.
Here’s another. It’s called a salient still. There’s actually a company that does this, where they compress a movie into one image. This is my most interesting one—MIT Media Lab—where they actually made an extruded volume of an image, of a motion picture. So you can actually see the bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, in different ways. Or you can see there are sailboats on the lower left, and there’s a crew on a river in the lower right. It’s a way to begin to get this tool, this literary tool that we need to browse and abstract motion pictures. These are some of the other ways that we can do that right now. We can have a cover poster of a film, gives you some idea of what it is. You can have a storyboard. You can have a slideshow. You can have collage. And there’s actually a way you can fast-forward. People have been trying to see how fast can you watch a film and still understand it. It turns out that you can go up to 200 times faster. It can just go by so fast and you still get some comprehension, about 30 to 50 percent, of what it’s about at 200 times. Or you can have a skim or trailer. A trailer is actually a very crafted version of the film, and you could imagine some computational ways to actually make trailers automatically out of films. So that’s one way.
What I’m trying to give you is a sense of how this medium is going in the direction of becoming our new literacy. One of the things that we want to do is be able to annotate things within a film. There actually is software now that has face recognition. A computer can look at a film frame and say, “Here are the faces." They can do that now. What’s coming up now is true visual search. If you’re searching for something right now—the way Google searches works is it finds the words associated with that picture, but it’s not actually looking into the picture. But that’s coming. To actually say, “Find me a rabbit" and it will go and recognize rabbits in the images rather than just ones that were tagged by humans. What can you do with that? Well, right now, maybe you could link to a film, maybe you could link to a little clip of a film, but it’s very hard to link to a frame in a film and it’s almost impossible to link to something within the frame itself.
But that’s what you want to be able to do if you want to have this new “vizuality." If you’re doing something about fashion [and] you want to be able to link to bow ties [he points to slide], you want to be able to bring the hyperlink right into that. Or if you’re looking at a fez [he points to slide], you want to be able to point to it not in just that one frame but as it goes over an entire scene, as it’s moving, so that you follow that. Or, if you’re interested in old pianos [he points to slide] and you actually wanted to annotate that piano. So those kinds of things—within [a single] frame and things across frames—is what we’re headed towards. There are again some experiments trying to figure out the [right] language and the mechanism, so we can actually do that [kind of] annotation as things are moving through [a scene] and we can actually point to something that is temporal as well as in a frame.
All the things that are now kind of out there in YouTubeland—sampling and remixing and mashups and appropriating, and this new idea of generating things—these are all part of the new Gutenberg language, this Gutenberg syntax, grammar, for dealing with motion pictures. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what we see happening. And it’s this liquidity that’s actually the great attraction. A lot of people who were concerned about file-sharing in music and the reason why people were going to the free music, were confused. A lot of the reason why free music was very important was not because it was for free—that was only part of the story. The main thing that was happening with the free file-sharing music was that it was liquid—you could do stuff with it. You could take, like in iTunes, [and] you could make your own playlist. You could reconstitute an album. You could take parts of the song and do things with it. You could make lists. You could make it into a database.
It was that fungibility, that liquidity of the parts that was the great attraction. And that’s what’s happening now in motion pictures. We’re taking it apart. It’s now become this very malleable medium. It’s so malleable that it actually bleeds over into things like painting. Photoshop is really fantastic in this sense. Some of these things are less of a photograph and more of a painting. You’re seeing the same thing happening again in the medium of motion pictures, where it can become painterly. If you think about 300, the movie 300, it’s as if it was painted. It was so graphic, like graphic-novel graphic, that it was in some senses a kind of art, painted art.
So we’re seeing this thing and we’re also seeing it with text. It used to be that the division between a frame and text was very severe. We didn’t meld the two. It was very hard to read things on a TV. We didn’t want to interrupt [the images] because you couldn’t stop to pause, to do the things you want with reading. You couldn’t go back. So they were kept separate. But now, when we have a bit more control and the resolution is fine, we can actually bring text into the medium as well. These [he points to slide] are just some examples of a Web tutorial, and credits on a movie, and some hip-hop videos and some DJ stuff, where text is now part of it. As we imagine The Daily Prophet, and we imagine the world where all these high-resolution screens are, there’s no reason why the text should be divorced from motion pictures, why it can’t be part of it and bleed over into it. That’s all going to be possible. In fact, that’s one of the things we tried at Wired, was assuming the text and the still picture shouldn’t be separate, and we’ve already seen them come together. What’s happening now is the motion picture is going to do the same thing. I call this TV that you can read. We see that in commercials and movie credits and that kind of stuff. And we’ll see more of that—motion pictures that you read.
Maybe it’s not happening a whole lot in the story-driven narrative. But it will happen a lot in the rest of this huge, huge thing of “vizuality." One of the biggest movements in our culture was the movement from oral culture, orality, to literacy. Gutenberg. The impact of the printing press and literacy and the word and the written text and books made Western civilization. That was the foundation. We’re going, basically, through the same thing right now—another transition, from the written world into this “vizuality" world. That’s the big thing. That’s really what we’re talking about.
As I was saying before, it’s the combining of a little bit of text—and we’ll have plenty of music, so it’s audio and aural in that sense, there’s no real film without soundtrack. There’s also another level in which we can take that layering of information in films and project it on top of the world that we see—it’s called augmented reality—through our little glasses. That’s yet another way in which these things are combined. Some people call that the metamedia. Meaning it’s the larger media. Or even—and I like this word—the intermedia. It’s the media of all media. This intermedia is what this new “vizuality" is really about.
Let me just tell you briefly, in my remaining few minutes, [about] the environment in which this intermedia is happening. First of all, this intermedia is a copy machine and anything that can be copied will be copied. Once it’s copied it will flow, like super-distribution, on wires, and never be eradicated. So there is this supra-intermedia, the copy, where the copies become so abundant that some people call it the free economy. People are really concerned about, you know, things being free. How do we make movies when things are free? What do we do? The business model is a big, big factor in this shift. When you have this superabundance of copies and they’re really worth not very much, the only things that have value are things that can’t be copied.
What kind of things can’t be copied? Well, immediacy. If you wait long enough, you can get a copy of this film, but if you want it right now as soon as it comes out you can pay. And you will pay. People will pay. They’ll pay for the immediacy of getting it now. Or personalization. Yeah, you can eventually get the soundtrack or the new Coldplay album, but if you want it customized or personalized to the acoustics of your living room, OK, go pay. What about authenticity? If you buy a piece of software—you can get free software anywhere, but you’re not really concerned about that; you really want to make sure that it’s the authentic version of it. So it’s worthwhile to you to make sure that it’s the right one. Maybe there’s a knockoff band that does something, but you want the authentic one, so you can be willing to pay because authenticity cannot be copied. It has to be generated. So this personalization has to be generated for you. It can’t be copied.
Patronage is another one. Lots of times, people want to have a relationship with the creator. They don’t care about the copy. They want to patronize, they want to support the creator, so they will pay in that sense. And then there’s interpretations. There’s the old joke about software: The software’s free, the manual’s $1,000. To interpret it, to actually maintain it, to use it, to figure out how to use it, you pay. The copy’s free but you’re going to pay for this interpretation. Accessibility is another one. OK, it’s all free but you can’t find it. Alright, well, you’ll pay for someone to direct you through, to bring it forward, to have access to it 24 hours, seven days a week, whatever it is. The copy’s free, but the accessibility costs. Or embodiment. We see this with singers. Copy’s free, but if you want to see me perform, embody the music . . . Or, you can get the text, PDF, for free, but some people like the artifact, the embodiment of the book. They’re going to pay for the book, even though they can get a copy for free. And findability—I think I mentioned that already. It’s not quite the same as accessibility, but it’s very similar.
So these are generatives. These are things that aren’t copyable. They have to be made at the time. Therefore, those are the things that will become most powerful in this economy. The only scarcity, really, in this abundance of copies, is things that dwell and focus around attention. A lot of people are concerned about the new media economics, but I can say very, very surely that wherever attention flows, money is going to flow later. That’s what we see happening right now. People don’t read newspapers, they’re reading online, so the money for advertising is moving online. [It’s] the same thing wherever attention is generated. And stories have a fantastic power to hold our attention.
This is a world in which we have all the screens going out into our environment, piling up, and what’s interesting about these screens is that they’re all connected in some ways. They’re all online more and more. Even our phones are connected to each other. It’s not too hard to imagine all these screens, all these computers and all these gadgets, form one large machine, as if my cell phone is just a little transistor in a larger computer. When all these things are connected—and what’s happening is everything we make is being connected online, so we’re basically taking these things and they’re forming the little parts of a very large computer, of one machine. And it’s all running on the Web, and basically if it’s not on the Web, it’s not there. And all these screens are literally windows looking into the same machine. Basically they’re all looking, we’re all contacting the same one machine.
That is now being called cloud computing, which means that a lot of times, in the future, we’re not going to be doing our computing on this machine. It’s probably just going to communicate with computing that’s done elsewhere, where our movies are stored and our music is stored, and we won’t even have to carry [much] around. It’ll just be a little interface, like the cell phone, to everything in the cloud. Eventually, in the goodness of time, every single bit that we produce will go onto the Web. I like to think of the Web as this black hole. It’s just absorbing everything that can come down to it. Every little gadget we make is being Web-ized and it’s on the Web. If it’s not, it doesn’t count. It becomes the center; it becomes what happens; it becomes the platform that everything is done on.
Every little thing that we make—everything in that picture, for instance—is beginning to have a little chip as smart as an ant but no smarter. Dumb as an ant, but it’s connected, and that makes, like a hive, something smarter than the parts. Everything is being connected to everything. Literally, we almost have an Internet of things. Right now, we have all these words and documents linked to each other but we’re going to do it with visual motion pictures. All the parts of motion pictures will be connected to each other in this new literacy. The parts won’t be separate. It’s almost like a database. It’s like the World Wide Database. The World Wide Database of things and film parts. There’s actually a guy, Lev Manovich, at UC San Diego, who calls this Database Cinema. You unravel everything into a database and then you reassemble it from the parts. You have a million billion parts.
What’s interesting is these parts don’t have to be parts that you made. It can be other people’s parts. That’s the important thing. Movies become like software, software programs that you compute from your database of parts. All possible shots of everything and every lighting will be in this database. Again, you’ll be using things that you don’t necessarily make yourself. When we write a novel, we’re using words that are common to everybody. We may make up a few words, but most of the words are just coming from words that are out there. We’re using other people’s words and we’re recombining them. Right now on Flickr—I just looked—there are 151,000 shots of the Golden Gate Bridge. There’s every possible shot. In fact, you don’t need to take a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. It has been done in every possible way. Right now they’re tagged. We don’t have a really good way to find what we want, but that’s what I’m talking about, those tools that are coming.
But imagine everything covered like that, and not just in the still photograph but actually a little movie done by you. Here we have the Google 3-D Warehouse. It’s not just the things that exist, but it’s also these wire-frame 3-D models, all for free. The complete Shanghai waterfront buildings were all done. Every city in the world. You can get the full 3-D rendered, ready-to-use version for your film. It’s already done. That’s out there. Eventually every house will come that way, too. By 2010, there’s going to be four billion camera phones in the world. Those are four billion eyes recording everything. And they’ll be in high definition. That will be going into the database, the cinema database, and you—this Time Magazine “you"; what I call the Wikipedia “you"—will be sharing all this stuff. We’ll be making films from all this stuff together. A lot of people will be making films together. That is where we’re going.
Like words in a book, these parts are going to be reassembled and remixed and read and cogenerated by others, and then annotated and quoted and owned by us. So everybody will soon be making films and motion pictures, in that sense of just [being] something we’re doing. Sometimes we’re making one big movie. It’s one big movie, basically all these parts and one big movie with six million edits. That’s what we’re going to. A lot of people think, That’s impossible! You’re just making this up. It’s craziness. It’s so far away. However, I want to remind you of just one little thing as I end here. One little thing. This [he points to slide] is the Web. The Web has changed our lives. All the things we have. It’s only 5,000 days old. The Web is hardly 5,000 days old. All this stuff—Google, [iPhones], Flickr—it’s all less than 5,000 days old. I was around when we started talking about it, and people said there’s not enough money in the world to make the Web happen. It was literally impossible. It was inconceivable. All this stuff could not happen. There’s not enough money to actually make it work. But here it is. It’s possible. It happened. I think one of the things this is telling us is we have to get better at believing in the impossible. Wikipedia was impossible [yet] there it is.
What’s going to happen in the next 5,000 days? The main thing that’s happening is that we’re moving from being people of the book to people of the screen. Right now, you’re looking at this little screen here. It has some pictures and there’s text. It’s in a movie theater. It’s part of this new culture of the intermedia of the screen.
And I thank you for your attention.


Apocalypse in the Oceans

With 150 dead zones in our oceans, some the size of Ireland, author Taras Grescoe argues that there's been a massive die out of sea life. The state of the oceans has never been more dire and "Bottomfeeder: How To Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood" is a gripping tale worth telling, if not eating. -MS

By Anneli Rufus,
In pictures, on CSI Miami, and to the naked eye the sea looks the same today as it ever did: blue, green or blue-green, rolling in glassy crashing curls, tormented then serene. It will look this way tomorrow, next year, arguably for eternity. No matter what freaks us out on earth, our species takes great comfort in knowing that the sea always looks exactly the same.
From up here.
But not down there. Not underneath. Under the swells and the sparkles and the froth, fathoms down, the globe's oceans have transformed over the last several decades, transforming even as we sit here into wastelands, ghost worlds, desolate deathscapes that could be filmed in situ for sci-fi films about the post-apocalypse. You won't find this out from a day at the beach. The smiling sea captain depicted on the fish-sticks box is keeping mum. But Canadian food journalist Taras Grescoe tells all in his important new book,
Bottomfeeder (Bloomsbury, 2008).
"Rather quickly, the oceans are becoming environments unlike any we have ever known," Grescoe agonizes, giving as his first example the North Atlantic, where he watches Nova Scotian fishermen exulting over a new lobster boom while apparently neither knowing nor caring about its probable cause: human greed.
Yes, climate change plays a part but it's marginal compared to the massive overfishing required to supply restaurants and stores in a world that stuffs itself on tuna sandwiches, salmon steaks, shrimp cocktail and sashimi.
"The shallow waters off Nova Scotia used to be full of swordfish and bluefin tuna, as well as untold numbers of hake, halibut, and haddock. Cod in particular were the apex predators in these parts," Grescoe writes. (Later in the book, he quotes early observers describing "cod mountains" off a once-rich Newfoundland coast where the fifteenth-century navigator John Cabot reported cod populations so thick that they actually blocked his ships' passage.) Cod, Grescoe writes, once "prowled the gullies offshore in dense shoals, using their powerful mouths to suck up free-swimming larvae, sea urchins, and even full-grown crustaceans. But the cod were fished to collapse in the early 1990s. With the cod gone, stocks of lobsters and other low-in-the-food-chain species exploded." By wiping out predator species, the fishing industry screws up ecosystems. As sea creatures high on the food chain disappear, their populations more than decimated in the last half-century, a lobster boom "may just be a tiny blip on a slippery slope to oceans filled with jellyfish, bacteria, and slime."
Meanwhile, overfishing has created some 150 "dead zones" -- oxygen-free patches of ocean that can sustain no life -- around the world: Some of these patches, Grescoe tells us forebodingly, "are now as large as Ireland." In search of seafloor-dwelling species such as the trendy monkfish -- long ignored, then popularized singlehandedly by Julia Child in 1979 -- bottom-trawls weighing more than 26,000 pounds each rake and flatten wildlife-rich undersea peaks, leaving a paved-looking flatness in their wake. Oh, and a large percentage of coral reefs worldwide are dying or already dead. Oh, and those bluefin tuna and halibut steaks you like? Say it with me: Mercury. Those jumbo fried shrimp battened on pesticides and antibiotics in bacteria-riddled Chinese farms, their decomposing flesh treated with borax? How's your health insurance?
It is happening right this minute but not quite right before our eyes. This is exactly the sort of thing our species prefers not to think about. What kind of catastrophe is it? Take your pick. Ecological. Medical.
And ethical: Grescoe started this project as a diner, "a fish lover, but … no fish hugger" who has caught and eaten seafood eagerly all his life. But knowing as he does "that ours might be among the last generations in history able to enjoy the down-to-earth luxury of freshly caught wild fish," his fantasies of sampling Japanese pufferfish and Chinese "drunken shrimp" slam hard against reality:
"I draw the line," he resolves, "where the pursuit or cultivation of my dinner obviously damages the environment, where cruelty is involved, where pollution or adulterants make it unsafe to eat. I would get no pleasure from eating a nearly extinct songbird, wine made from tiger bones, or the last few grams of beluga caviar from the Caspian. For me, a pleasure that diminishes the experience of everybody else on earth is no pleasure at all."
Fair enough. So in this spirit of sad apprehension he set out around the world to report on the state of some of humanity's most celebrated seafoods and the communities surrounding their consumption: from Chesapeake Bay oysters to Japanese sushi to English fish and chips and beyond. Part detective, part adventurer, part whistleblower, he reveals underhanded practices, such as Japan's "scientific" whale fishing, and outright crime, such as tons of cod harvested illegally, exceeding official quotas, during their spawning season by Russian ships that offload their catch to other ships at sea in order to evade detection. (Greenpeace calls this "pirate fishing.") The results end up in myriad English "chippies," doused with salt and vinegar.
And we learn about "finning," the practice of slicing off just-caught sharks' pectoral and dorsal fins -- destined for soup -- with hot metal blades. "Kicked back into the ocean, alive and bleeding," it can take the sharks days to die. Nearly forty million are killed this way annually. Seventeen countries, including the US and Canada, now ban finning, but China and the EU are among the world's remaining avid finners; Grescoe identifies Spain as the most avid of all. Although shark hunting is technically forbidden in Galapagos National Park, a vast marine reserve, some 300,000 sharks are caught there every year. Until the 1960s, whitetip sharks were "the most abundant large animals on earth," Grescoe writes. "Forty years later they have all but disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico," where they once thrived. "Up the length of the Atlantic coast, the story is the same: since 1972, bull, dusky, smooth, and hammerhead shark populations have all been fished to one percent of their former levels." Who cares? Well, it's all about the ecosystems. Sharks eat skates and rays. Sans sharks, skyrocketing skate and ray populations are eating scallops and clams into extinction.

(Ed. note: In another recent interview, with, Grescoe says this about what fish to eat and what to avoid: What's the most important thing fish eaters should take away from your book?
The message is contained in the title. You should probably stay away from fish at the top end of the oceanic food chain right now. Big fish like tuna, swordfish, shark -- these are traditionally middle-of-the-plate proteins in the world's best restaurants, and they're actually a lot of the riskiest ones in terms of having things like mercury and, in the case of salmon, persistent organic pollutants. If you really want to do some good for the oceans, start exploring the pelagic fish -- whiting, for example; the schooling fish like sardines and anchovies; things that we don't even really cook right now but are quite popular in other countries.
OK, so we can eat sardines, anchovies ...
Oysters, pollock -- it's got a terrible name, but that's the stuff that goes into [McDonald's] Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. It's very abundant. There's trout, which isn't a bad fish. Sablefish and Arctic char are currently quite abundant. I love herring, and there's herring off the Pacific Coast as well. Try to the best of your ability to buy things locally.

And which big fish are we supposed to stay away from?
Avoid big predator fish -- shark, swordfish, Chilean sea bass, tuna, with the exception of skipjack, which is pretty abundant light tuna. Avoid farmed carnivorous species like shrimp, salmon and bluefin tuna. Avoid imported farmed seafood because domestic standards are a lot higher. The exception to that is [domestically farmed] salmon, which is terrible.
Can you explain what's so bad about salmon farms?
Salmon from these farms tends to be full of persistent organic pollutants, [some of which] are highly carcinogenic. Salmon farmers grind up smaller fish like anchovies, sardines and anchoveta to make the pellets -- all of which should be going to feed humans, not making deluxe fish, especially in the context of food riots -- and salmon farms have been proven to spread disease and parasites like sea lice to wild fish populations, among them sea trout in Ireland and wild salmon in British Columbia.
Some farmed fish aren't so bad: trout and Arctic char, which are raised inland so there's no risk of spreading parasites to wild fish; tilapia and carp, which are herbivorous species; and of course oysters and mussels, which actually help clean the oceans of their excess plankton.
Back to Alternet review:

This book is a veritable eulogy. For ecosystems. For the toxic, dead water. For sea creatures. And for many of our fellow human beings, although honestly it's hard to care much at this point about anyone who would eat sharkfins or whale: "Every year, twenty thousand tons of heavy metals and eight hundred tons of cyanide end up in Chinese waters," Grescoe reveals. Unsurprisingly, two years ago cancer has been the leading cause of death in China. Massive quantities of cheap seafood from pesticide-suffused Chinese fish farms is exported worldwide; only a fraction is tested or inspected. Much is infected with salmonella and listeria. Most has lived its life in water thick with fecal bacteria, human and animal: "The fish, in other words, were bathing in shit."
It's also a eulogy for lifestyles, for old-fashioned fisherfolk in those seafaring communities that spent centuries supporting themselves by catching, processing, selling and eating species in the wild: scallops in North Carolina, oysters in Chesapeake, hake in Namibia, shrimp in Tamil Nadu, India. On one hand, you could say, Hey, they did it to themselves: got too greedy, maintained certain tactics that became unsustainable. On the other hand, you could say it's sad -- that these communities fell victim to intrusive large-scale foreign operations, as fishing has gone from local to global: As an example, Grescoe visited a huge Nova Scotia processing plant that used to handle cod from Canadian waters but now gets its cod from Russia, its salmon from Chile, its catfish from Vietnam. The factory outsources labor-intensive tasks, such as skewering salmon, to China. The finished product is labeled "Product of Canada."
You could say too that the residents of these communities are relatively powerless over such government-controlled decisions as the 1.5 billion gallons of urban sewage that pour into Chesapeake Bay every day. Grescoe sympathizes with the Tamil Nadu fisherfolk who, put out of business by industrial shrimp farms, tell him: "Our village is going to die." But an encounter with a Yorkshireman who blusters angrily after being arrested for catching more than his legal share -- and who blames declining salmon and cod populations on "horrible, sliming, stinking, eye-watering bloody seals" -- leaves Grescoe cold:
"This kind of attitude lies at the heart of the problems facing the oceans," he seethes. "It is the ongoing plunder of the seas, done in the name of keeping a boat afloat for another season, and multiplied a hundred thousand times in all the ports of the world .... If this were still the age of inexhaustible cod mountains and endless salmon rivers, such a display of spirit might be admirable. It is the essence of the indomitable, short-sighted, buck-passing Atlantic fisherman: an independent, almost lordly working-class hero, romanticized to death in our culture. As long as there is a single jellyfish left in the ocean, he will be ready to go out and catch it." And jellyfish, down at the foot of the food chain, will be the last edible species out there in a not-too-distant future when our great-grandchildren, Grescoe half-jokes, will eat "peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches" and "jellyfish and chips."
He agrees with the scientists and activists who now advocate a "slow-fish" movement. It would entail banning destructive fishing methods such as bottom-trawling; "revalorizing" earlier techniques such as hook-and-line; protecting overfished species; and drastically reducing aquaculture -- that is, fish farming -- (photo, below, salmon farming in Chile) as well as government subsidies to fishing fleets. And while Grescoe doesn't suggest never eating any seafood again, he now chooses his intelligently: avoiding the farmed, the faraway, the overfished, and those large, long-lived, high-on-the-food-chain species such as halibut, tuna, shark and swordfish whose meat is infused with mercury and other chemicals known to cause eventual nerve damage. Instead, he suggests sardines, sea urchins and squid: In other words: Become a Bottomfeeder -- at least until, and if, the seas stop dying.
Anneli Rufus is the author of several books, including "
Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto."
© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.View this story online at:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Not Keeping Up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class

In one of the most griping portraits this year about the current (and declining) status of the middle class in American society, Nan Mooney writes how stagnant wages, debt, and escalating costs for tuition, health care, and home ownership are jeopardizing today's educated middle class.
The first book to exclusively target the struggles of the professional middle class-educated individuals who purposely choose humanistic, intellectual, or creative pursuits-Nan Mooney's (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents is a simultaneously sobering and proactive work that captures a diversity of voices.Drawing on more than a hundred interviews with people all across America, (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents explores how stagnant wages, debt, and escalating costs for tuition, health care, and home ownership are jeopardizing today's educated middle class. Teachers, counselors, nonprofit employees, environmentalists, journalists, and the author speak candidly about their sense of economic-and hence emotional-security, and their plans and fears about what's to come.With up-to-date and accessible research, including a short history of the middle class, Mooney explains what it has meant historically to be middle class and how these definitions have changed so dramatically over the decades. She shows that social programs once aided the growth of this class but shifts in policies and labor practices-and increases in fixed costs, such as health care, housing, education, childcare, and household debt-are making it increasingly difficult for families to retain their middle-class status.Throughout the book, Mooney uses real people's stories and an analysis of the new economic reality to put middle-class struggles in perspective: College tuition has increased 35 percent in the past five years, and while the average college undergraduate's debt is $20,000, earnings for graduates have remained stagnant since 2000. In addition, only 18 percent of middle-class families have three months' income saved, and 90 percent of those filing for bankruptcy are middle class. Finally, raising one child through age eighteen costs a middle-income family around $237,000, while the costs of housing, health care, and education are all rising faster than inflation.Despite this difficult reality, Mooney offers concrete ideas on how individuals and society can arrest this downward spiral. Reigniting a sense of social responsibility is crucial-this ranges from improving government-backed education, health care, and childcare programs to drawing on successful models from individual states and other countries. Intimate personal accounts combined with Mooney's incisive analysis will make (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents resonate deeply for America's professional middle class.
Listen to Nan Mooney on WBUR's On Point
Read about Nan Mooney and the middle class in an interview with
Read about Nan Mooney and the Pew Center Report on the middle class in Newsweek
Read about Nan Mooney in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
"What happens when the center cannot hold? With great empathy and infectious alarm, Nan Mooney charts the travails of America's middle class in this important book."—Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt
"If you’re wondering why, in our age of plenty, the financial treadmill keeps moving faster and faster for America’s increasingly educated—and increasingly insecure—middle class, you owe it to yourself to read this book. It’s all here: the big trends, the compelling portraits, the ideas for personal and political change, and the call to arms we so desperately need."—Jacob S. Hacker, author of The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care and Retirement and How You Can Fight Back
“A book for the distressed and confused because their life plan has gone to pieces. Mooney illuminates what has happened to them—and why.”—Nicholas Von Hoffman, columnist for NY Observer and regular contributor to The Nation
“This is the kind of book that you wish was fiction. But, as Nan Mooney's incisive new book shows, the fact is that this generation has inherited an economy with too many low-paying, no benefit jobs and an eroding middle class. Millions of young families wonder where they went wrong when, in fact, their economic problems are largely the result of policies that generated higher incomes for a select few and rising economic insecurity for the rest of us. In this timely book, Ms. Mooney pushes us to demand an economy that works for all of us, not just the very wealthy.”—Heather Boushey, Senior Economist, Center for Economic and Policy Research
"We hear a lot about the runaway wealth of American professionals. In this important book, Nan Mooney reminds us that most have no such luck. Working in jobs they love provides a sense of moral worth, but doesn't cover the bills for teachers, legal aid lawyers, practicing artists, and others. Something has gone wrong in America and this book gives us a grip on the crisis."—Katherine Newman, coauthor of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America and the Forbes Class of 1941 Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton

The Worst is Yet to Come for the U.S. Economy

By Mark Weisbrot, Huffington Post
Since the U.S. economy showed positive growth for the last quarter, some commentators in the business press are saying that we are not necessarily going to have a recession, or that if there is one it will be mild. This is a bit like the proverbial story of the man who jumped out of a window 60 floors up, and then said "so far, so good," as he passed the 30th floor.
The United States accumulated a massive, $8 trillion housing bubble during the decade from 1996-2006. Only about 40 percent of that bubble has now deflated. House prices are still falling at a 20 percent annual rate (over the last quarter). This means that the worst is yet to come, including another wave of mortgage defaults and write-downs. Even homeowners who are not in trouble will borrow increasingly less against their homes, reducing their spending.
President Bush (moron at left with upside down phone) says we are not in a recession. One commonly-used definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of declining output (GDP). The first quarter of 2008 came in at 0.6 percent, although it would have been negative if not for inventory accumulation. So by this definition we cannot say with certainty that the recession has started, although it could well have started this quarter. Of course, for most Americans it has felt like a recession hit some time ago, with real wages flat since the end of 2002, and household income not growing for most of the six-and-a-half year economic expansion.
The National Bureau of Economic Research will eventually decide on the official onset of the recession, but even its definition is arbitrary. All the indicators of a serious recession are swirling around us. The economy has lost jobs for four months in a row, which has never happened without a recession. Consumer confidence has dropped to a 28 year low -- a level not seen since Jimmy Carter was president. Home foreclosure filings are up 65 percent over last year. And now commercial real estate prices are heading south, dropping 6.2 percent in the first quarter.
With oil prices hitting record highs, and the Fed beginning to worry more about inflation, more restrictive lending practices and other fallout from the credit crunch, the near-term economic future looks even dimmer.
Some look to exports to lead the recovery, but these are only 11 percent of GDP, and consumption is about 70 percent. Still, the fall in the dollar over the last six years is helping -- making our exports more competitive and reducing the subsidy that we have been giving to imports for many years. In a sign of how economic illiteracy prevails in the United States, most people (thanks largely to what they hear and read in the media) see the dollar's decline as bad economic news.
We are facing the prospect of millions losing their homes, their jobs, their retirement savings, their health insurance, and their livelihoods. (photo, r., by Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline)
This serious economic situation greatly raises the stakes of the 2008 election. What will the government do to help the victims of economic mismanagement, to provide health insurance, and to restart the economy? Is it really more important to spend billions each week on the occupation of Iraq?
So far the government hasn't done much. The stimulus package now taking effect, at about one percent of GDP and much of it likely to be saved, is quite small. The major legislation that Congress is considering for the housing crisis would mainly bail out lenders and investors while doing little for most underwater homeowners.
The voice of the people has yet to be heard on these questions in the halls of power. It had better get a lot louder, soon.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.
© 2008 Huffington Post

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

TEN Films from Cannes to Watch If You Have a Cinema Worth Its Salt

The French venerate their cinema and herald the current Cannes spring offerings with a rich mix, some of which we may see in the coming year, several of which we may not, depending if your local cinema can secure distribution, or rather, the films can lock in a US distributor, first. Here, this post from Salon film critic Andrew O'Hehir highlights ten selections and his incisive insights ont he state of the cinema.
Clockwise, from top left: "Che," "The Class," "A Christmas Tale," "Gomorra," "Hunger," "Lion's Den," "The Pleasure of Being Robbed," "Tony Manero," "Two Lovers" and "Waltz With Bashir."
CANNES, France -- Staying in town after the film festival that bears this city's name has closed up shop is always an odd, bittersweet experience. (I got a much cheaper flight home by waiting an extra day.) All the badge-festooned buyers and sellers and publicists and journalists have abruptly vanished, their outdoor tables seized by hordes of underage Scottish girls caterwauling karaoke versions of mid-'90s hits. Cannes almost instantly reverts to its year-round form as a jet-set resort run slightly to seed, where would-be fashionable people from all continents come to get blitzed, get sunburned or get laid, or at least to watch other people doing so.
Along the Croisette, the enormous billboards for international co-productions that may never be made, let alone seen by the paying public, will quickly come down. This year's most ubiquitous and puzzling ad was pushing an Egyptian-made thriller (or something) called "The Baby Doll Night," featuring a tank on a ruined street with a woman's slip hanging from its cannon. It asks: "Can one night of pleasure mend 60 years of pain?" Well, I'm just not sure. Another total baffler was a film called "The Seven of Daran: The Battle of Pareo Rock," which appears to feature a baby giraffe, two kids, a helicopter and the slogan "A myth never been told." (Fellow blogger and Cannes drinking buddy Glenn Kenny prefers the tag line for the Jason Statham vehicle "Transporter 3": "The rules remain the same. Except some changes.")
Those films and thousands of others were for sale in the vast Cannes film market, which runs concurrently with the festival and, from an economic point of view, is far more important. By most accounts, the market this year was almost as dismal as the damp Riviera weather, especially for American buyers working with the magical melting dollar. With the recent demise of Picturehouse and Warner Independent, IFC has become almost the only American independent distributor shopping for art-house films. Its acquisitions here have included Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale," Ari Folman's "Waltz With Bashir," Steve McQueen's "Hunger," Josh Safdie's "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" and Olivier Assayas' "Summer Hours," with several more rumored to follow.
On the other hand, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Magnolia and the Weinstein Co. all went home, as far as I know, with nothing but their souvenir tote bags and duty-free wine from the airport. (Sony has the United States rights to Atom Egoyan's competition title "Adoration," but that deal happened before the festival.) Several major Cannes titles leave here with no U.S. distribution deal in place, including Steven Soderbergh's two-part "Che" ("The Argentine" and "Guerrilla"), James Gray's "Two Lovers" and Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York."
I'm sure that's disappointing to the people involved, but it's hardly calamitous. Those films will find their audiences eventually, and in all honesty the U.S. has become a marginal market for serious-minded cinema. Kaufman's and Gray's films could well make more money overseas than at home, and "Che" certainly will. I can only hope that Soderbergh has the self-confidence to resist any U.S. deal that requires him to edit his two films down into one standard-length biopic. Messy as it may seem, the four-hour version of "Che" has an elliptical, asymmetrical structure that is entirely purposeful, and matches the film's breadth and daring.
Disentangling art and commerce at Cannes is virtually impossible -- such is the nature of the place -- but when you back away from the gloomy business-speak this was a strong festival, full of dark, strange and personal filmmaking. Before I punch the clock on another year here, spend a few inflated euros on cute French clothes for my kids and crawl aboard a plane, here are my top 10 films from the 61st Festival de Cannes. First and foremost they're movies I liked, but they're also films that come out of here with some critical momentum, and that ought to show up on art-house-type screens all over the world in the coming year. I've tacked on a handful of more problematic films that didn't thrive here but deserve a second look, away from all the overcaffeinated, underslept craziness of Cannes. (Both categories are listed alphabetically and not otherwise ranked.)
A couple of words about films not on my list. "Indiana Jones and the Time-Traveling Martian Mummies" definitely doesn't count, and Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" (or whatever it may be called), while perfectly OK, didn't wow me and doesn't need my help. Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" might be his most commercial effort in years, but it has all the problems of late Woody Allen films. Egoyan's "Adoration" and Wim Wenders' "Palermo Shooting," along with Fernando Meirelles' "Blindness," were big disappointments. I didn't see the competition films "Serbis" (with its apparently memorable boil-bursting scene), "My Magic" or "Il Divo," and I also missed several smaller films I heard were terrific, including "The Desert Within," "Tulpan," "Liverpool," "Four Nights With Anna," "Better Things" and "Lake Tahoe."
"Che" How will posterity judge Steven Soderbergh's two-part, four-hour, resolutely non-psychological Che Guevara epic, which was made quickly and on a relatively low budget under arduous circumstances? When and in what form will American audiences get to see it? (As planned, it will be released in Europe as two separate films, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," scheduled four to six weeks apart.) Those are questions without answers. But I'll tell you this: Seeing the premiere of "Che" as a double bill here made the trip worthwhile all by itself, and forced me to readjust my opinion of Soderbergh.
Benicio del Toro won the festival's best-actor award, playing the ruthless, brilliant physician-revolutionary with prodigious grace and consistency. It's a role so demanding and physical it leaves no room for showboating. Even when facing defeat, capture, torture and death, his Che seems absolutely confident, as if he understands the secret of history and other people don't. By hewing so closely to verifiable, historical fact and actions, Soderbergh, del Toro and writer Peter Buchman thrust the burden of interpretation entirely onto us, which I think made some viewers uncomfortable. From our pseudo-enlightened perspective we may choose to view Che as a rebel prophet or a misguided fanatic, but the movie has no preachifying and, almost miraculously, no ironic distance from its subject.
With this mesmerizing but almost journalistic portrait of Che's greatest success and greatest failure, Soderbergh's indie-experimental side and Hollywood-craftsman side have come together as never before. This movie has already launched spirited political and aesthetic debate, in itself a noteworthy accomplishment. Nobody would expect this film to be universally loved, but the naked hostility of a few prominent reviewers is puzzling. "Che" seems to have galvanized a reactionary and mean-spirited element in some corners of the film world, which apparently objects to the subject matter, the approach and even the underlying ambition. As Soderbergh said here last week, critics often complain that movies are all the same, but when a prominent director tries to do something unusual, he's vilified for defying convention. If it's true that no publicity is bad publicity, the tides of backlash and counter-backlash should carry these movies around the world.
"A Christmas Tale" This star-packed, talky, tragicomic family drama from French art-god Arnaud Desplechin was embraced by local critics, but dissed by Sean Penn's jury, and will end up as a niche art-house film outside the Francophone world. (Desplechin's "Kings and Queen," arguably the critical fave-rave French picture of this decade, grossed just $350,000 in U.S. release.) Catherine Deneuve plays the leukemia-stricken mom whose three adult children come home to the provincial city of Roubaix (Desplechin's hometown), partners, kids and rejected former lovers in tow, for a rocky Yuletide reunion. Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni, Anne Consigny, Melvil Poupaud and Emmanuelle Devos are all terrific. Those with the patience for Desplechin's wild shifts in style and tone, along with all the introspective chatter, will find this a richly rewarding experience across multiple viewings. And yes, in its own incomplete, painful and utterly distinctive fashion, this really will be a tremendous Christmas-season movie. (IFC will release in the U.S.)
"The Class" ("Entre les murs") Screening on the last day of competition, after many journalists and executives had already fled the dreary Riviera weather, may have limited the buzz on Cantet's collectively improvised drama set in an inner-city Parisian high school. But it didn't stop Penn and company from awarding this film the Palme d'Or, and for once there was little controversy about the choice. "The Class" was the most immediately gratifying film in the festival, and (along with "Waltz With Bashir") perhaps the only foreign-language title that ought to do killer box office in the United States, if correctly marketed. Starring a multi-ethnic cast of actual high-school students -- playing fictional characters they developed themselves -- alongside writer and former teacher François Begaudeau, Cantet's portrait of conflict, tragedy and triumph across a single school year achieves an effortless clarity that's far more convincing than most of the talky, self-conscious documentaries about similar subject matter. Dramatically rewarding, often hilarious and ultimately heartbreaking, "The Class" has international hit written all over it.
"Gomorra" Matteo Garrone's chaotic, engrossing drama about the world of the Neapolitan criminal empire called the Camorra will no doubt frustrate as many viewers as it thrills, but it might be one of the rare Italian films that can penetrate the U.S. art-house market. Winner of the second-place Grand Prix award, "Gomorra" definitely isn't a "Godfather" or "Sopranos"-style crime opera, in which the lords and lieutenants are developed as complex characters. Garrone just flings us into the middle of five separate subplots focused on various Camorra footsoldiers and employees, which ultimately add up to a portrait of a society poisoned from root to branch. Shot by Marco Onorato, "Gomorra" is a tremendously assured, often stunning film, which takes us from the appalling slums of suburban Naples to the city's high-fashion ateliers. If Antonioni had ever made a Mafia film, this would be it. (No U.S. distribution has been announced.)
"Hunger" I've already written about English artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen and his semi-experimental film that's sort of, kind of, about Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army prisoner who died in a 1981 hunger strike. In a way, the strengths and problems of "Hunger" are similar to those of "Gomorrah"; the historical value of McQueen's film is limited, but it's a harrowing cinematic experience, plunging you into a world of paranoia, terror and violence that is both specific and almost eternal. McQueen won the Caméra d'Or for best debut film in the festival, and "Hunger" is bound for art-house play all over the world -- and will surely incite controversy in Britain and the U.S. (IFC has acquired the American rights.)
"Lion's Den" ("Leonera") Argentine director Pablo Trapero's marvelously crafted drama of prison motherhood got this festival restarted after the tepid reception accorded "Blindness" on opening night, but it was thrust in the shadows a little by the more adventurous pictures that followed. I still think it was one of the better films in Cannes competition. While "Lion's Den" might sound on its face like a conventional drama about a woman's fall and redemption, it's a lot more complicated than that. Trapero is a director of tremendous skill and subtlety, and avoids any judgment or pop-psychoanalysis of Julia (Martina Gusman, his off-screen wife), his damaged, angry central character. While the picture is certainly about a human being reawakening to the possibilities of life, it's also about the unknowability of human character, and about freeing oneself from the prison of the past. (No U.S. distribution as yet.)
"The Pleasure of Being Robbed" By turns delightful, exasperating, goofy and opaque, this debut feature from New York writer-director Josh Safdie and the collective known as Red Bucket feels like the Amerindie breakthrough of the year. "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" has been called a mumblecore film, but either that's totally wrong or the term means nothing beyond an inexpensively made indie about people in their 20s. Nobody sits around talking about relationships in Safdie's film, and in fact most of the talk in the movie consists of lies, misdirections and driving instruction. His main character (Eléonore Hendricks) is either a kleptomaniac or a semi-professional thief, and as such is constantly in motion. She's both an appealing, wide-eyed gamine and a borderline sociopath; viewers who insist on a likable protagonist (or who assume that Safdie is celebrating her behavior) may be displeased. Shot guerrilla-style on the streets of New York and Boston, "The Pleasure of Being Robbed" is both a fresh, original work and one that bears the marks of New Wave-era art cinema. I have been asked not to reveal the "special effect" fantasy sequence near its conclusion. (IFC will release via video-on-demand and a few big-city theaters.)
"Tony Manero" Under the Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s, a 50ish Chilean finds solace in his dream of becoming his country's leading Tony Manero impersonator (i.e., slavishly mimicking John Travolta's dance moves from "Saturday Night Fever"). Pop culture can bring hope and beauty to downtrodden lives, right? Up with people, right? Not exactly. This pitch-black comedy from young Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín falls decisively on the down-with-people side of the spectrum. If this story of a demented psychopath (Alfredo Castro, in a brilliant and disturbing performance) willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to fulfill his Manero fantasies has any message to deliver about the power of pop culture, it isn't an uplifting one. One of the biggest surprises at Cannes this year, this Directors' Fortnight entry has definite midnight-movie cult potential. (No U.S. distributor yet.)
"Two Lovers" James Gray, the 39-year-old New York writer-director who's become something of a Cannes regular -- this was his third premiere here, after "The Yards" in 2000 and "We Own the Night" last year -- remains an enigmatic figure in American film, neither a top-line Hollywood director nor a beloved indie auteur. With this romantic drama about Leonard (Gray regular Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged 30ish Brooklynite living with his parents, who must choose between a nurturing, socially appropriate girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw) and a drugged-out, unavailable shiksa goddess (Gwyneth Paltrow), Gray adapts his obsessions with fate and destiny to a new genre. I liked "Two Lovers" a lot, partly because it's an uneven, unsettling film that's not entirely realistic and subject to multiple interpretations. Still not the great movie Gray is struggling toward, but a fascinating experiment. (No U.S. distributor as yet.)
"Waltz With Bashir" This haunting, dreamlike animated film by Israeli writer-director Ari Folman, based on his own struggle to remember what he saw and did as a young soldier during Israel's ill-fated early-'80s occupation of Lebanon, was among Cannes' biggest surprises. It's a profoundly personal film, aimed first and foremost at an Israeli audience, that transcends those origins to become a riveting and universal fable about the pointless cruelty of war and the untrustworthy nature of memory. This film should have a long international afterlife, and the testy but respectful exchanges it sparked here between Arab, Israeli and Western journalists provided an example of Cannes at its finest, as a cultural United Nations where all forms of political cant and dogma are open for discussion.
Honorable Mentions, or Four Films I Need to See Again
Film festivals are both the best and worst places to see films, and every year at least a few movies premiere at Cannes that are ill-served by the experience. This is especially true for films that demand the audience's concentration, or that defy conventional audience expectations, or that require some stillness, space and time around them to be appreciated. One perfect example is "Birdsong," a new film by Catalan minimalist Albert Serra ("Honor of the Knights," aka "Quixotic"), nominally a story about the Three Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem but better described as an experiment in near-total cinematic abstraction.
French underground filmmaking legend Philippe Garrel came to the Cannes competition for the first time with his semi-supernatural romantic fable, "Frontier of Dawn" ("La frontière de l'aube"). It's a half-cracked reworking of Garrel's 1990 "J'entends plus la guitare," mired in French mythic thinking about love and haunted by a horror-movie ghost. Even Garrel's fans admit it's nowhere near his best film. But the black-and-white cinematography of William Lubtchansky is spectacular, and the performances by Garrel's son Louis, Laura Smet and Clémentine Poidatz are terrific. Garrel retains his poetic affinity for the hypnotic rhythms of youthful infatuation and alienation, and there's no way this film deserved the boos and whistles heard at its press screening.
As I've already written, the hostile response here to Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's "The Headless Woman" only served to illustrate the movie's point. How strange: A subtle, elliptical fable about the invisibility of class privilege sailed right past an audience of woozy, hung-over globetrotters on the French Riviera!
As for Charlie Kaufman's overwrought and ultra-ambitious directing debut, "Synecdoche, New York," it suffered from being the next-to-last film shown in competition and utterly failing to provide the comic relief many exhausted festivalgoers were hoping for. I haven't written anything about it until now because, in all honesty, I'm not sure what to say. My original response was that it was an enormous folly and almost a total failure, but in succeeding days I've been viewing it more generously, as one of those enormous, bizarre, original "Baron Munchausen"-scale projects that brushes against transcendent greatness without quite getting there.
Critics have been comparing "Synecdoche" to Fellini's "8 1/2" and Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," but Kaufman says he's never seen either film. I don't know whether he's seen "Hardcore" or "The Matrix" or "2001: A Space Odyssey," but those are in the mix too. Beginning as an exaggerated satire about a beleaguered small-town theater director (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose marriage and physical health are imploding, and who no longer notices the passage of time, it gradually expands into a nightmarish, worlds-within-worlds parable about a man so immersed in his artistic creation that he loses all connection to the real world.
Unless it's about the existential notion that we all create our own worlds and there is no objective reality, or about the idea -- expressed by Arnaud Desplechin, while talking about his own film -- that art is an orderly realm that's preferable to life. It's definitely about aging and loneliness and decay and mortality and the ungraspable transience of everything, and, boy howdy, is it grandiose and depressing. For now, I'm arguing that it's Kaufman's version of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," only without the little cookie that makes everything seem OK, and that trying to accomplish that in a two-hour movie is an impossible task. Like I say, I need to see it again.
― Andrew O'Hehir

Monday, May 26, 2008

Director Sydney Pollack has died at 73

By Michael Cieply
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
LOS ANGELES: Sydney Pollack, a Hollywood mainstay as director, producer and sometime actor whose star-laden movies like "The Way We Were," "Tootsie" and "Out of Africa" were among the most successful of the 1970s and '80s, died on Monday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 73.
The cause was cancer, said a representative of the family.
Pollack's career defined an era in which big stars (Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Warren Beatty) and the filmmakers who knew how to wrangle them (Barry Levinson, Mike Nichols) retooled the Hollywood system. Savvy operators, they played studio against studio, staking their fortunes on pictures that served commerce without wholly abandoning art.
Hollywood honored Pollack in return. His movies received multiple Academy Award nominations, and as a director he won an Oscar for his work on the 1985 film "Out of Africa" as well as nominations for directing "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) and "Tootsie" (1982).
Last fall, Warner Brothers released "Michael Clayton," of which Pollack was a producer and a member of the cast. He delivered a trademark performance as an old-bull lawyer who demands dark deeds from a subordinate, played by George Clooney. ("This is news? This case has reeked from Day One," snaps Pollack's Marty Bach.) The picture received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and a Best Actor nomination for Clooney.
Pollack became a prolific producer of independent films in the latter part of his career. With a partner, the filmmaker Anthony Minghella, he ran Mirage Enterprises, a production company whose films included Minghella's "Cold Mountain" and the documentary "Sketches of Frank Gehry," released last year, the last film directed by Pollack.
Apart from that film, Pollack never directed a movie without stars. His first feature, "The Slender Thread," released by Paramount Pictures in 1965, starred Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft. In his next 19 films — every one a romance or drama but for the single comedy, "Tootsie" — Pollack worked with Burt Lancaster, Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Nicole Kidman, Streisand and others.
Sydney Irwin Pollack was born on July 1, 1934, in Lafayette, Indiana, and reared in South Bend. By Pollack's own account, in the biographical dictionary "World Film Directors," his father, David, a pharmacist, and his mother, the former Rebecca Miller, were first-generation Russian-Americans who had met at Purdue University.
Pollack developed a love of drama at South Bend High School and, instead of going to college, went to New York and enrolled at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. He studied there for two years under Sanford Meisner, who was in charge of its acting department, and remained for five more as Meisner's assistant, teaching acting but also appearing onstage and in television.
Curly-haired and almost 6 feet 2 inches tall, Pollack had a notable role in a 1959 "Playhouse 90" telecast of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," an adaptation of the Hemingway novel directed by John Frankenheimer. Earlier, Pollack had appeared on Broadway with Zero Mostel in "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and with Katharine Cornell and Tyrone Power in "The Dark Is Light Enough." But he said later that he probably could not have built a career as a leading man.
Instead, Pollack took the advice of Burt Lancaster, whom he had met while working with Frankenheimer, and turned to directing. Lancaster steered him to the entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman, and through him Pollack landed a directing assignment on the television series "Shotgun Slade."
After a faltering start, he hit his stride on episodes of "Ben Casey, "Naked City," "The Fugitive" and other well-known shows. In 1966 he won an Emmy for directing an episode of "Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater."
From the time he made his first full-length feature, "The Slender Thread," about a social work student coaxing a woman out of suicide on a telephone help line, Pollack had a hit-and-miss relationship with the critics. Writing in The New York Times, A. H. Weiler deplored that film's "sudsy waves of bathos." Pollack himself later pronounced it "dreadful."
But from the beginning of his movie career, he was also perceived as belonging to a generation whose work broke with the immediate past. In 1965, Charles Champlin, writing in The Los Angeles Times, compared Pollack to the director Elliot Silverstein, whose western spoof, "Cat Ballou," had been released earlier that year, and Stuart Rosenberg, soon to be famous for "Cool Hand Luke" (1967). Champlin cited all three as artists who had used television rather than B movies to learn their craft.
Self-critical and never quite at ease with Hollywood, Pollack voiced a constant yearning for creative prerogatives more common on the stage. Yet he dived into the fray. In 1970, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," his bleak fable of love and death among marathon dancers in the Great Depression, based on a Horace McCoy novel, received nine Oscar nominations, including the one for directing. (Gig Young won the best supporting actor award for his performance.)
Two years later, Pollack made the mountain-man saga "Jeremiah Johnson," one of three closely spaced pictures in which he directed Redford.
The second of those films, "The Way We Were," about a pair of ill-fated lovers who meet up later in life, also starred Streisand and was an enormous hit despite critical hostility.
The next, "Three Days of the Condor," another hit, about a bookish CIA worker thrust into a mystery, did somewhat better with the critics. "Tense and involving," said Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun-Times.
With "Absence of Malice" in 1981, Pollack entered the realm of public debate. The film's story of a newspaper reporter (Sally Field) who is fed a false story by federal officials trying to squeeze information from a businessman (Paul Newman) was widely viewed as a corrective to the adulation of investigative reporters that followed Alan Pakula's hit movie "All the President's Men," with its portrayal of the Watergate scandal.
But only with "Tootsie," in 1982, did Pollack become a fully realized Hollywood player.
By then he was represented by Michael S. Ovitz and the rapidly expanding Creative Artists Agency. So was his leading man, Dustin Hoffman.
As the film — a comedy about a struggling actor who disguises himself as a woman to get a coveted television part — was being shot for Columbia Pictures, Pollack and Hoffman became embroiled in a semi-public feud, with Ovitz running shuttle diplomacy between them.
Hoffman, who had initiated the project, argued for a more broadly comic approach. But Pollack — who played Hoffman's agent in the film — was drawn to the seemingly doomed romance between the cross-dressing Hoffman character and the actress played by Jessica Lange.
If Pollack did not prevail on all points, he tipped the film in his own direction. Meanwhile, the movie came in behind schedule, over budget and surrounded by bad buzz.
Yet "Tootsie" was also a winner. It took in more than $177 million at the domestic box office and received 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture. ( Lange took home the film's only Oscar, for best supporting actress.)
Backed by Ovitz, Pollack expanded his reach in the wake of success. Over the next several years, he worked closely with both Tri-Star Pictures, where he was creative consultant, and Universal, where Mirage, his production company, set up shop in 1986.
Pollack reached perhaps his career pinnacle with "Out of Africa." Released by Universal, the film, based on the memoirs of Isak Dinesen, paired Streep and Redford in a period drama that reworked one of the director's favorite themes, that of star-crossed lovers. It captured Oscars for best picture and best director.
Still, Pollack remained uneasy about his cinematic skills. "I was never what I would call a great shooter or visual stylist," he told an interviewer for American Cinematographer last year. And he developed a reputation for caution when it came to directing assignments. Time after time, he expressed interest in directing projects, only to back away. At one point he was to make "Rain Man," a Dustin Hoffman picture ultimately directed by Levinson; at another, an adaptation of "The Night Manager" by John le Carré.
That wariness was undoubtedly fed by his experience with "Havana," a 1990 film that was to be his last with Redford. It seemed to please no one, though Pollack defended it. "To tell you the truth, if I knew what was wrong, I'd have fixed it," Pollack told The Los Angeles Times in 1993.
"The Firm," with Tom Cruise, was a hit that year. But "Sabrina" (1995) and "Random Hearts" (1999), both with Harrison Ford, and "The Interpreter" (2005), with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, fell short, as Hollywood and its primary audience increasingly eschewed stars for fantasy and special effects.
Pollack never stopped acting; in a recent episode of "Entourage," the HBO series about Hollywood, he played himself.
Among Pollack's survivors are daughters, Rachel and Rebecca , and his wife, Claire Griswold, who was once among his acting students. The couple married in 1958, while Pollack was serving a two-year hitch in the army. Their only son, Steven, died at age 34 in a 1993 plane crash in Santa Monica, California.
In his later years, Pollack appeared to relish his role as elder statesman. At various times he was executive director of the Actors Studio West, chairman of American Cinematheque and an advocate for artists' rights.
He increasingly sounded wistful notes about the disappearance of the Hollywood he knew in his prime. "The middle ground is now gone," Pollack said in a discussion with Shimon Peres in the fall 1998 issue of New Perspectives Quarterly. He added, with a nod to a fellow filmmaker: "It is not impossible to make mainstream films which are really good. Costa-Gavras once said that accidents can happen."