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"The impact on the audience is actually quite deep because the images of the film, the characters, the plot, the music, the dance, the way of dressing, all have an impact - not only on the mind, but also on the the construction of fantasies. So the meaning of 'Who am I?' in relation to life also comes from films. A man told me that he was in love with a girl he met in the city of Bhopal. He went rowing with this girl on Bhopal lake. He rowed to the middle of the lake, stopped there and burst into a song and then proposed to her. When he told me this I was laughing, but he was deadly serious. He said that was the best way to propose."

- Bombay psychotherapist Udayan Patel in Bollywood: The Indian Cinema Story

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ARCHIVES:

06.03.02 - 06.09.02
06.09.02 - 06.24.02
06.25.02 - 07.02.02
07.02.02 - 07.10.02
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07.28.02 - 08.01.02
08.04.02 - 08.09.02
08.12.02 - 08.16.02


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LISTS:

MOVIES NOT ON DVD:

1. Once Upon A Time in the West
2. Desk Set
3. If...
4. Portrait of Hell
5. Sons of the Desert

5 REALLY OBVIOUSLY GREAT SOUNDTRACKS:

1. Once Upon a Time in the West (Ennio Morricone)
2. Superfly (Curtis Mayfield)
3. Paris, Texas (Ry Cooder)
4. American Grafitti (various)
5. Ascenceur pour L'echafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) (Miles Davis)

5 LESS OBVIOUS BUT STILL GREAT SOUNDTRACKS:

1. Sweet Smell of Success (Chico Hamilton & Elmer Bernstein, out of print)
2. Mishima (Phillip Glass)
3. In A Savage Land (David Bride)
4. The Hot Spot (Jack Nitzsche, Miles Davis & John Lee Hooker)
5. O Lucky Man (Alan Price)

VA-VA-VOOM:

1. Myrna Loy in any Thin Man film
2. Bonnie Bedelia as Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney in Heart Like a Wheel
3. Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels
4. Teri Garr in Young Frankenstein
5. Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

FIVE MORE FILMS NOT ON DVD:

6. The Conformist
7. The Loveless
8. The Palm Beach Story
9. Topper
10. Mr. & Mrs. Smith
 
 

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#0071 - AND YOU DON'T THINK SOME SMARMY ASS AT VARIETY WILL CALL IT THE TOWERING INFERNO? - Deena Burnett, the widow of one of Flight 93's passengers, has already had at least three offers from producers wanting to buy the rights to her story. That she's turned them down doesn't mean that the movie won't get made, with or without her permission. (Production has apparently begun on a TV movie.) The Flight 93 story - passengers revolt against highjackers, sacrificing their lives to prevent a fourth terrorist attack - is far too tempting, as are any number of 9/11 movies, based on any facet of that day, so let's not pretend that somehow good taste or respect will erect a barrier around the events of a day that's already overwhelmed Pearl Harbor for anyone under sixty.

It took about twelve years for Hollywood to make From Here to Eternity, the first "quality" picture about Pearl Harbor, and just under two more decades for a second shot at the subject - the stiff but mostly faithful Tora! Tora! Tora! - to get made. Three more decades passed before Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor, but I'd like to think that embarassment will reduce that awful piece of ahistorical tripe to footnote status as soon as the deluxe, four-disc DVD set is out of print. The point I'm making is that there's no reason to imagine that every generation won't have its 9/11 film, but there's no point even speculating about it since they've already been made.

You can already choose from a small selection of 9/11 DVDs, footage of the day itself, most of which will form the basis of whatever CGI masterpiece attempts to re-create what we've already seen, ourselves, over and over. But we might have to wait a few years, maybe a decade or more, for the big-budget 9/11 epic, by which point the movie industry as we know it might have utterly changed. No matter, since the first fictional 9/11 films - The Guys, about a fire captain coping with the aftermath, and the starkly titled 11'09"01 - are already here, the latter having debuted at the Venice film festival last week before its premiere here at the Toronto International Film Festival, on the first anniversary of the attack.

Now as I've said, I've effectively cut myself out of the Festival loop this year, exhausted and indifferent after two decades of festival-going, so I haven't seen the films. I can only rely on newspaper reports and reviews for a sense of the what they're about, such as this one, posted from Venice, in the Guardian. Hardly the epic, three-hour blockbuster of the day, the action-packed Flight 93 film, or the "morally ambiguous" low-key indie film about the terrorists that will, surely, all eventually make their way into theatres, 11'09"01 is a French-financed omnibus film, where eleven directors from eleven different countries were asked to produce a short film exactly 11 minutes, 9 seconds and one frame long, each for exactly the same small budget. The directors range from celebrities like actor Sean Penn, international festival favorites like Ken Loach, Mira Nair and Claude Lelouch, to lesser-known names like Alejandro Inarritu (director of Amores Perros, and probably not so unknown in about a year or so), Egypt's Youssef Chahine, Iran's Samira Makhmalbaf and Burkina-Faso's Idrissa Ouedraogo. Not surprisingly, the Guardian reports that the film is somewhat anti-American in tone.

"It's garbage," reports Il Foglio, an Italian newspaper. "The French financiers recruit 11 well-known and some unknown directors ... They (then) explain to us how the United States deserved what happened." Variety attacks the film for being "stridently anti-American". They aren't wrong, from the sound of things, such as this Guardian review, published the day the film debuted in Venice. "I wanted to invite reflection," said producer Alain Brigand, "respond to the mass of televisual images with other images." He got it. Ken Loach, a director whose largely old-school leftism is well-known, notes the coincidence that it was on a Tuesday, Sept. 11th in 1973 that an American-backed coup in Chile overthrew the government of Salvador Allende, and has one event speak to the other through the character of Pablo, a Chilean exile living in London. Almost three thousand people died at the World Trade Center, but Pablo notes that 30,000 Chileans died after "your leaders set out to destroy us."

Loach is working under the assumption that it's difficult, probably impossible, to deplore the Nixon/Kissinger CIA-backed coup and to find the deaths of innocent people in a catastrophic terrorist attack worthy of retribution. I frankly support Christopher Hitchens' public crusade to see Henry Kissinger in the dock to defend his actions in a court of law - though, realistically, I can't imagine that it will ever happen. What I don't support is the idea that the two events are somehow explicitly equivalent, linked outright in some kind of Heath Robinson-esque causal machinery of international historical dynamics, making the US government the moral equivalent of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the various Islamic theocracies and neo-Stalinist governments that support them. To do so seems like a kind of moral idiocy.

It's a kind of anti-logic that only looks logical from the inside, from an uninformed or paranoid perspective. It reminds me of a theory, once put forward by a friend of mine, that having slept with a woman who once slept with Henry Rollins, he had effectively slept with Henry Rollins, whom he admired greatly (at the time). For some reason, this appealed to a somewhat amorphous sexuality he was dallying with, as well as a strange but common post-adolescent male obsession with speculating on our heroes' sexuality. Let's have another example: I once had a girlfriend, a Serbian Muslim, whose father was an economist in Tito's government. Tito knew Stalin. Stalin knew Hitler. Therefore I am linked, explicitly, with Stalin and Hitler. You can stop reading this blog in a fit of righteous disgust now, if you wish.

I have no love for the government of George W. Bush. As a Canadian, I can express this opinion without the expectation that any of my fellow citizens will take umbrage, or that anyone else from anywhere in the world should particularly care. My biggest problem with the "War on Terrorism", besides its basically quixotic nature, is that the men (and women - let's not be sexist in my dislikes) in charge of prosecuting it are either explicitly incompetent - in charge thanks to political skills more than any other (Tom Ridge, John Ashcroft) - or patently implicated in the kind of negligent decisions and short-sighted policy that made the attacks possible, going back decades, to the Reagan and Ford administrations (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld). It's not that I don't want them to destroy the terrorist networks and their supporters, but that I don't think they're capable of doing it, that they're too compromised by their business connections, by their ideologies (if they have them), and by their politics, in the most mechanical sense of the word.

Louis Menand, in the latest New Yorker, analyzes the intellectual response to the attacks, in particular the notion - seemingly popular everywhere in the world but in the US - that they were the latest example of Malcolm X's concept, expressed after JFK's assasination, of "the chickens coming home to roost", simply evoked by knowingly using the word "blowback", and "intended to carry moral weight" whenever it's uttered. When writers like Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy refer to the attacks as a "wake-up call", they think they're being profound, the classic debating trick of using an event as proof:

"Wake up to what? The fact that the United States is involved in the affairs of other nations? If that is a problem, we are left with only two alternatives: isolationism or conquest. Anything in between is bound to produce results that Americans do not like but could not have foreseen."

In an interview with the Guardian, Ken Loach uses the blowback concept, with the usual, bludgeon-like purpose, to explain the logic of his contribution to 11'09"01: "...to point out the irony of the situation that on September 11 1973, the United States had inspired a terrorist attack. In fact, there is a case for saying that the major terrorists of the second half of the 20th century have been the Americans." Loach, like Alanis Morissette, needs a bit of a tutorial on the use of the word "ironic". It is not ironic - tragic, definitely, an example of hopeless human brutality as far as I'm concerned - that 3000 Americans died in one morning while, a decade or more earlier, 30,000 Chileans died under the hateful regime of Augusto Pinochet, just as "Americans" are not a nation who have been relentlessly propagandized to support the slaughter of innocent people for self-serving political ends. If Ken Loach wants to see those kind of societies up close, he has more than enough places to visit, but I doubt that he'll find anyone like himself, able to make a long, unmolested career out of educated dissent. Now that's ironic.

Frankly, I find the description of Youssef Chahine's contribution offensive: "an imaginary encounter between an unnamed film director, a US marine killed in Beirut, and his fundamentalist assassin", where "the 'millions of victims' of US foreign policy, from Vietman to Somalia" are enumerated, and the protagonist (presumably not the dead marine) admonishes that "America should propogate its values; instead it destroys civilizations." I don't even know where to start with this kind of evil fantasy, except to ask Mr. Chahine just what kind of civilization he'd like to see in America's place; one represented by either unnamed filmmakers or fundamentalist assassins would, to my mind, hardly be an improvement.

I'm much more intrigued by the description of Idrissa Ouedraogo's segment, in which a young boy, forced to leave school to make money selling newspapers, and his friends follow a man they swear is Osama bin Laden from the marketplace to the airport, dreaming of what they could do with the $25 million bounty. As he takes off, they cry; "Osama, come back! We need you! We need that money!" It might not be that ironic, but it sounds funny and sad, as clever a way of addressing the desperate poverty that will always create an unhappy context for American wealth as I've heard in years. It's also the first cinematic example of the creation of a mythic Osama bin Laden, but hardly the last. I can only imagine the list of Osama cameos and character roles that some future film writer will collect in some future film history, ranging from his first appearance (Eminem as Osama doing the "Running Man") to distinguished turns by respected actors, "browned up" and bearded like Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia.

(posted 12:25pm EST | 09.11.02)

#0070 - THE FUTURE - Shekhar Kapur, director of Bandit Queen and the upcoming The Four Feathers, writes in The Guardian that the future of the global movie industry lies in the east, where two giant demographics - China's and India's - will eventually combine with Hollywood to produce a superindustry. He's not talking about some distant future, but imagines this happening within a ten to fifteen year time frame. It's probably the most radical thing I've read about the movies in years, mostly because it has a ring of real truth.

"Fewer and fewer films are being made in the US, and fewer and fewer films are being funded by the US," Kapur writes. "Last year, one third of all Hollywood product was funded by German banks. In 10 years time, most of the funding will be Asian. And the next big studio will be Asian." The overseas market is the only place where Hollywood can see the considerable returns on expenditure it needs to stay in business, and the numbers are much more appealing outside of Europe and North America. The three leading Asian markets - Japan, China and India - already do most of their business in that part of the world - Southeast and South Asia, East and North Africa, the Middle East - where 80% of the world's population resides. "Almost 60% of the population of India is under 30," Kapur writes. "the demographics of Asia are much more in line with the demographics of the entertainment industry..."

I think Kapur's numbers - and quite a few deeper qualifying factors not easily enumerated - bear examining, but he does a good job of dispensing with the major drawback that's always brought up to disqulify the viability of Asian markets: piracy. He describes the Bombay shopkeeper who came to his home almost a decade ago to sell him illegal cable services: "...he used to run a video rental store, and now he is one of the biggest cable operators in Bombay. He's gone legit. But his first thing was piracy. He put up a little dish, and he started to run these wires everywhere. But then other people started to get in on the act, then there was a turf war and people got killed. But by the time Star TV came in, it found that pirates had already covered the last mile. The only thing it had to do was make the pirates legit. So now they are Star's biggest partners."

Kapur has little time for the great shibboleth of globalization - the "dominance of the western media", which he regards as "a non-issue": "What happens when countries like India and China become the biggest subscribers to cable TV? Whal will CNN do? CNN gets 10% of the Indian and Chinese markets. Ultimately the only reason you will get a western point of view is if you are western-owned. But your advertising is not going to be western any more. Television is governed by advertising...Indian cricketers are now the highest paid in the world: cricket survives because of Indian advertising. You have to get an Indian into Formula One racing now, to get the sponsorship from tobacco companies. Where are the big tobacco markets? China and India."

What Kapur is talking about is assimilation - still a dirty word in some political circles, but the basic theme of our age - and the notion of slow but inevitable transformation. A decade ago, film freaks (I like the word "aficionado", personally) "discovered" Chinese mainland and Hong Kong cinema. Today, Jackie Chan makes films in Hollywood, and directors as different as Ringo Lam, Ang Lee, John Woo and Chen Kaige are working in the west. Right now, the same crowd of film-hungry fanatics has discovered Bollywood, and the process has started again, even more aggressively from the Indian side, whose diasporas in the UK, Canada and the US are transforming themselves from satellite markets to branch plants. The first great product of the synthesis of Chinese and Hollywood films was Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which only resembles a Tsui Hark film when you squint hard.

Kapur sees Bollywood as a great model of assimilation and adaptability: "Hindi cinema is the dominant cinema culture in India. It's the only national cinema in India, yet it has never been able to wipe out Tamil cinema and other local cinemas because, like Hollywood, in order to appeal to everybody it is slightly rootless. So Hindi cinema, which had become very fantastical, has started to go back to something a little more real." For Kapur, Bollywood "is already a compromise...Assimilation is what is great about Bollywood. Because India has been conquered so often, assimilation is a part of our culture. It's also the strength of the philosophies of India, the strength of hinduism: it refuses to define itself."

America, and American cinema, is in a constant process of self-definition, however, so the changes to Hollywood product will, by necessity, be gradual, deliberate and much deliberated. It is, I'd like to think, the beginning of an exciting time, but also an insecure one, with the promise of convulsions and reactions that might not be entirely pleasant. The change, however, will be entirely worth it.

(posted 01:10pm EST | 09.05.02)

#0069 - THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY - Sergio Leone's filmography lists eleven films as a director, but let's be frank; when you discount early sword and sandal epics like The Colussus of Rhodes and Sodom and Gomorrah, and "ghost-directed" films like My Name is Nobody, only six really count. There are the three films in the "Man With No Name" series - A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - with Clint Eastwood, all happily available on MGM DVDs, alone or in a set. There's his masterpiece - and probably my favorite film of all time - Once Upon A Time In The West, which is unavailable on DVD, though Paramount has been hinting that it might see release by the end of this year. The local company rep didn't know anything about that when I talked to her last month, but she did tell me all about the DVD reissue of Grease that they expect to sell bales of this Xmas. There's A Fistful of Dynamite, also known as Duck, You Sucker, which is also unavailable on DVD, stuck in a limbo of disputed rights, with no hints of a reissue anytime soon. That's fine by me - I'll wait until I'm drawing a pension, provided they release Once Upon A Time In The West before my kids go to college.

And then there's Once Upon A Time In America, a film which is either Leone's last masterpiece, or a really awkward rip-off of the second Godfather film, depending on your perspective. I can see both sides, but I adore Leone, and I can be afford to be a completist with his six essential films, so imagine my surprise when I found a DVD of the film sitting at Eddie's, the record store near our office, last week. It looked suspicious as hell - no studio markings, or distributor's stickers anywhere on the package, which had a notable cheapness, an hour's worth of Photoshop sort of an air about it. That didn't stop me from buying it, however. Hey, I've got a job - it's my obligation to stoke the economic engine, in lieu of serious participation like home- or car-owning.

This is not, it has be said, anything like a definitive reissue of Once Upon A Time In America - not even close. Leone was probably one of the greatest widescreen directors ever, in the same select group as Hitchcock and David Lean, so whoever decided to put out a pan and scan print of the film - the 226-minute "director's cut", but formatted for television - obviously didn't care much about Leone's fans except as eager marks. There are scant extras - a trailer and a few badly programmed onscreen biographies of Leone, Robert De Niro and James Woods - and the disc has no regional coding, making it playable anywhere in the world, a plus for quick production runs. A quick web search shows that this version has been available in Europe for a while now, but isn't sold at either amazon.com or Barnes and Noble's website. While the VHS version - still available, apparently - was relased by Warner Home Video, nobody takes credit for the DVD anywhere on the packaging.

Leone was notorious for the complex financing deals he cut to make his films, which spanned countries and continents, and have made reissuing his work a legal nightmare. Over a decade passed between Duck, You Sucker and Once Upon A Time In America, most of which was spent putting together the backing for what would be his first (and last, ultimately) official American film. The producer's credit for the film utlimately went to Arnon Milchan, the Israeli multimillionaire arms dealer who also produced The King of Comedy and Pretty Woman, among almost a hundred other films, and who made a cameo in the film as a chauffeur. It's easy enough to imagine one of Milchan's companies behind the disc, squeezing precious cash flow from Milchan's "properties" in a random, faintly desperate way. It's been my experience that men like Milchan, while richer than you or I by a factor of hundreds, are often cash poor, and addicted to liquidity if only to maintain their lifestyle. It's amusing to think that my money might have paid for a fraction of a helicopter rental or a minute percentage of a glass of Chateau D'Yquem in some palatial hillside chateau.

But I'll be glad to flog the disc for a fraction of what I paid as soon as someone sees fit to put out Once Upon A Time In America the right way.

(For the record, the first copy I bought was defective, and froze during Burt Young's hilariously obscene monologue. You pays your money, you takes your chances.)

(posted 08:18pm EST | 09.04.02)

#0068 - THE NEXT BIG THING - As the Toronto International Film Festival gears up for opening night, the Globe and Mail has this sobering - and painfully true - article on the money-losing consequences of festival hype, contrasting the very different fates of two films that screened at Sundance in 2000 and 2001, Christopher Nolan's Memento and Gary Winick's Tadpole.


Tadpole director Gary Winick at Sundance, 2001.

The first film was made for US$5 million and, after no distributor would pick it up, the producers formed their own company to distribute it, earning US$25 million in North American box office and two Oscar nominations. The latter film was the subject of a furious bidding war after a rave Sundance screening, was bought by Miramax for US$5 million and made barely US$2 million at the box office. "Memento is going to go down in history as one of the great mistakes," Glenn Kenny of Premiere magazine told Simon Houpt, the writer of the Globe piece. "It's a testimony to how the kings of indie distribution - i.e. Harvey Weinstein - have sort of lost their edge."

Kenny describes how a film like Tadpole - a smart, funny, but decidedly less than brilliant piece of work - can blow away a critic stranded at Park City, Utah for the duration of Sundance: "Up at Sundance you're starved for laughter. You're also starved for the company of real human beings, as opposed to automatons on cellphones. So a really minor film like Tadpole that just makes you laugh is like Christ coming down from the cross."

Kenny also explains the rather outsized critical response to In The Bedroom, in the context of festivals like Sundance, and provides perhaps a bit more information than the average reader wanted to know:

"The film is long, it's got really great performances, and it's definitely something that is conscientious. You walk out of there and it's dark and it's cold, and you're thinking about how profound the movie is and the fact that you're staying at a (bad) resort, and you think about how lonely you are, and about the human condition, and how you don't have anyone to be in the hot tub with."

Such is the sorry life of the roaming movie critic and his sad and weary expense account.

The Globe article provides a rundown of other films that caused a great sensation at film festivals past, but ended up without an audience when released, or slipped onto the market straight to video: Happy, Texas, Dancer in the Dark, Two Family House, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Cherish, Three Seasons, Tears of the Black Tiger, Rosetta, The Son's Room, and Slam. I'll be honest - I haven't even heard of some of these films (Two Family House? Three Seasons?), reviewed one as a promising half of a film with a loser of a follow-through (Cherish), and actually really liked just one (The Son's Room), though I didn't imagine for a second that it would attract any kind of an audience (too rigorously downbeat).

The Globe piece partially exempts the TIFF from the Sundance/Cannes hype effect due to an audience-choice award that has a pretty good record of picking hits (Amelie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, American Beauty). Which doesn't mean that a lot of films aren't arriving here already glowing with critical hype (The Good Thief, Tuck Everlasting, Spider), causing desperate rushes for tickets among filmgoers, and sharp-elbowed fights for interviews among the press.

Normally, I'd be in there myself, fighting for access and rushing to screenings, but for a variety of reasons - some logistical, some entirely personal - I'm managed to almost completely avoid the "festival experience" this year. It's a novelty for me - I've been going to the festival since high school (that's twenty years, folks), and covering it as a writer and photographer for almost as long. It's been a few years since I felt myself souring on the often vicious atmosphere in the press suites, and the unhappy mindset foisted on low-level members of the local press, that of a grovelling courtier expected to be happy with the table scraps of access left over from the big foreign media.

Two years ago, I plunged in for what, even then, I suspected was probably the last time. I provided all the festival coverage - photos, reviews, interviews, party shots - for a predecessor of the paper I currently work for, where the woman who is currently my wife was entertainment editor. I had the use of a cellphone for the first and only time in my life, and I was part of a small group of critics that helped "discover" and hype Sexy Beast, a festival hit that year. I turned a four-minute interview with Ang Lee into a feature. It was gruelling work, and when we left town for a cottage weekend as soon as it was done, I apparently did nothing but nap.

A year later, some behind-the-scenes political machinations at the newly-merged paper ended up giving the job to a recently unemployed local hack who was friends with the outgoing editor, but I was supposed to be his photographer for the festival, but then 9/11 happened, the festival - and most other entertainment stories - was shoved to the sidelines by real news, and I ended up strangely, guiltily grateful for the chance to think about something else, for a change, in the first weeks of September.

This year, I just don't feel like going back, for a lot of reasons. I not longer have a burning need to add celebrity portraits to my portfolio - frankly, these days I'm more interested in shooting old corner stores or back alleys than yet another glancing encounter with a brittle egomanica - and there are, no doubt, more relaxing ways to watch movies than at crowded press screenings or in theatres full of festival patrons, a collection of otherwise reasonable citizens that the film festival somehow renders both smug and abject. I've been spoiled by regular morning press screenings, advance cassettes, my regular Friday afternoon matinee, and the joys of DVDs. I'm happy to let other people - such as the hype-addled critics and movie executives described by the Globe - suffer the paroxysms of discovery and act as my filters. I don't know if I'd call it a plateau of maturity - I don't know whether I'd call it anything but the onset of burnout, in fact - but the prospect of letting the film festival noisily transpire without my participation fills me with a kind of joy.

(posted 07:43pm EST | 09.03.02)

#0067 - IN EVERY DREAM HOME A HOME THEATRE - The DVD revolution is happening at a faster pace than anyone anticipated, according to this NY Times article, which predicts that "American retailers have shown the first major signs of making a permanent shift to DVDs from videocassettes, much as they did from vinyl albums a decade ago."

It's hard not to see why, especially as prices of DVDs and their players have fallen so dramatically in the last few years, but unlike vinyl LPs, which have retained a following (and can actually still be bought for boutique titles - at prices far exceeding their CD versions) there are no quality issues or even nostalgic reasons to inspire movements of VHS fanatics or collectors. Like the audiocassette tape, VHS cassettes were a peculiarly unlovable medium, tolerated but never regarded as anything but convenient, the only game in town for far too long. Circuit City has stopped selling videocassettes and, according to the Times, Wal-Mart is rumoured to be next in line, dealing what will, no doubt, be the fatal blow.

Nevertheless, I went out a couple of weeks ago and bought a new Sony VHS player when our old Toshiba player went all bulimic on me, spitting out tapes every time I fed them in. (It might have been fixable if I hadn't lost my temper and tried to force-feed the Toshiba, which resulted in a cassette lodging permanently in the mechanism. I plead temporary insanity.) The new player was cheap, has a far more elegant and silent mechanism, and came loaded with features that I probably couldn't have afforded - or hadn't been invented - when I bought the Toshiba almost five years ago. I probably wouldn't have bothered replacing the old machine at all except for two things: taped television programs and the VHS "advance screeners" I'm regularly sent by movie distributors for review purposes. The inevitable appearance of cheap DVD recorders and DVD screeners will eventually make the Sony a dust-collector, but I suspect that's at least a year or two in the future.

I'm one of the DVD consumers mentioned in the Times piece, who've gone from buying an average of five VHS tapes a year to fifteen DVDs. (Truthfully, I'm much worse, having collected almost thirty discs in the six months since I bought our player, this despite all the free review copies that arrive at the office every week. People like me should be given some kind of Christmas bonus by the movie industry - I can guarantee I'll double my DVD buying habit if some nice studio saw fit to enhance my viewing experience with a wide-screen plasma screen. Seriously. I have my price.)

For once, the industry can take credit for their success, dropping prices on titles as they've made extra features a virtual necessity. "The initial release of the motion picture in movie theatres is becoming, to a large extent, little more than a preview trailer for the subsequent purchase of the DVD," Martin Greenwald of Image Entertainment told the Times, and he's right, especially considering the dismal quality of the cinema experience on offer these days, as documented semi-regularly here. The Times is hopeful, seeing the added features, and particularly "behind the scenes" documentaries and the occasional, intelligent director's commentary track, as "creating a vast new pool of information about how movies are made that, many hope, will have a positive effect on dwindling film literacy." That would be nice, wouldn't it? In the meantime, there's money to be made.

(posted 12:10pm EST | 08.27.02)

#0066 - ON LOCATION - The longstanding exodus of movie production to Canada was a big enough deal to inspire a Whoopi Goldberg joke at last year's Oscars, but even funnier is this Guardian article, about Vancouver prostitutes and beggars seeking compensation for work lost when film units take over neighbourhoods like the seedy but apparently picturesque Downtown Eastside where they ply their trade.

"Sex trade workers must be compensated for displacement they experience at your hands in the same manner you would compensate a business if you were to use their locale during operating hours," reads a letter sent to thirty production companies by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. "The same must be true for homeless people you push from beneath a bridge or doorway and drug users you move from a park." It's all very Canadian, and more to the point, very, very Vancouver, a city that's considered loony left even by public healthcare-addicted, social welfare-obsessed Canucks.

(posted 11:27am EST | 08.27.02)

#0065 - REMAKE, REMODEL - Movie critics tend to know a little bit about a lot of things, most of which they learned from movies, so it's nice to read someone like artificial intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil review the new Al Pacino film Simone, which is (as I'm sure you're all aware) about a digitally-created, virtual movie star.

In spite of the radical, basically total, changes that virtual actors (or "synthespians") would bring to the movie industry, Hollywood continues to be utterly fascinated by the concept, in what amounts to a kind of lingering death wish. If you think the digital video handycam "revolution" bodes portentous omens, imagine the possibility of realistic-looking movies created almost entirely on desktop computers - with production budgets slashed to negligible numbers, the only issue for filmmakers would be access to the technology. On the other hand, this is the same radical transformation that techno threatens the mainstream music industry with, and yet the commercial music industry lumbers on, wounded and belligerent, but hardly dead. Time will tell, however, and we'll probably find the world of entertainment looking very different in twenty years.

Kurzweil's primary problem with the film isn't technological but an echo of the critical consensus. "Simone" (or "Sim One", chortle, chortle) is supposed to be, in the words of Catherine Keener's character, a mix of "the voice of the young Jane Fonda, the body of Sophia Loren, the face of Audrey Hepburn combined with an angel, and the grace of Grace Kelly", which sounds as incredible as it is, and Kurzweil remarks that "although the audience (in the movie) has little difficulty accepting it, she has none of these purported qualities." From the stills and clips I've seen so far (I've been on vacation, and haven't seen it yet, natch), there's little of Fonda, Loren, Hepburn or Kelly in evidence, but rather more of the kind of willowy, leggy, ice-blond model-type of generic Nordic beauty that seems to be valued highly by male movie executives in the market for a trophy wife, a kind of Lara Croft for men with platinum Amex cards.

Simone is, in fact, played by a model named Rachel Roberts, whose work went uncredited for what seem like laughably disingenuous reasons, and New Line and Warner Bros. appear happy to deal with the mildly indignant fall-out from this poorly-kept secret "as any publicity is good publicity". To Kurzweil's keen eyes, "all we have is the very real Rachel Roberts with a bit of pixelation during a TV remote, some defocusing of her mouth, a few alterations to her eyes to give them an ethereal look, alterations to her voice, including splicing together the voices of multiple actresses, and a few other simple techniques." Kurzweil relates his own experience creating a virtual female avatar of himself two years ago, with a staff of twenty trained technicians, and marvels that Al Pacino apparently creates Simone all by himself. Of course, it's essential to the plot that Simone is uncritically accepted by millions of fans, and Kurzweil is grudgingly willing to let this go: "...we are told to accept a lot of things that strain credulity, but the film nonetheless achieves some gentle humor."

I imagine that Kurzweil is merely grateful that his lifelong obsession - artificial intelligence - is, however haphazardly, being put in front of the kind of potentially vast audiences that can only help to increase the profile of his work. More maddeningly, he recalls dialogue between Pacino and his creation that sounds, on paper at least, like an arch lunge for meaning, the kind of piffle that you'd expect in a student film: "he (director Andrew Niccol) provides (Pacino) with such pithy insights as 'you're more authentic than the people who worship you,' 'the scales have tipped in favor of the fake,' and 'our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it.' He has Simone say 'I am the death of the real'. The movie does not dwell on these concerns, however, and I agree with Ty Burr, whose review in the Boston Globe describes these thoughts as mere 'bullets on a PowerPoint presentation.'"

Incredibly, what no review has explored is the seeming inability of filmmakers - or the technology they employ - to create a synthespian with the peculiar and very un-universal appeal of, say, Simone co-star Catherine Keener. Keener, with her gap teeth, widely-spaced eyes, flat chest and twitchy, neurotic, spiky persona, is the kind of actress no computer program would create on its own, using the kind of horny, hopeful algorythms that Hollywood seems to favor, yet she exercises a kind of wry but fervent appeal on too many men of my acquaintance. Other very definitely flesh and blood actresses in this select category include Frances McDormand, Susan Sarandon, Isabelle Huppert, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Geena Davis and Laura Dern, each of whom have a dedicated following among the kind of bright, obsessive, occasionally unhappy, no-longer-young men who inhabit city downtowns, stumble into relationships as accidentally as they leave them, and make up the ranks of movie critics.

(posted 11:10am EST | 08.27.02)


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