Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Let The Right One In

I saw this movie last night. It's good and different, but in a good way. You should see it.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Media Viewing Preferences

A very hot topic on the festival circuit right now is alternative forms of distribution. Translated, this means - "What is the best way for your movie to be seen by the most amount of people?" Theatrical distribution for most films is not an option, and probably shouldn't be for a lot that do get it. Even if one does have a theatrical release of a film, distribution is still an area of great interest and concern, post its theater run. The goal is to get the film seen by as many eyes as possible while extending the life of the film. Currently, the hottest solution to this problem is digital distribution. This is basically online distribution with video on demand (VOD), via sites like YouTube, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes and Tivo. Digital media companies (ie: b-side, Cinetic Rights Management, and IndieFlix) assist filmmakers trying to secure digital rights for their films and offer the filmmaker an audience they would never get theatrically. The selling point is the ability to get the movie in front of eyes around the entire world - literally - via the aforementioned internet sites and various other mediums.

Online viewing is by far the easiest and possibly most cost-effective way to reach the masses. But, I honestly don't think online movie viewing (of feature films) is going to be very successful, when viewed from one's computer screen. I think this for a couple of reasons: 1) People prefer to watch feature-length movies with others (making it a shared experience) and, 2) The computer is an interactive device (which is counterintuitive to movie watching).

Movie Viewing is a Shared Experience
While people do watch movies alone, I feel like the preferred method is to do it with others. Entertainment (movies, plays, etc) is usually enjoyed in pairs - or more (a pair of tickets). Watching things with other people enhances the storytelling and story-receiving experience. When watching a show or movie with family and friends, it's common to look at each other after hearing the punchline of a joke, or after a tragic turning point. Watching alone removes that experience and sense of connection with the other person, or people, and possibly even from whatever it is being watched.

While online media sites like YouTube and iTunes work incessantly to improve the quality viewing (specifically for movies), in hopes more people will watch their content from their computers, they cannot change the viewer's environment. This is where TV and computers differ. TVs are created to go into rooms that allow for, and usually invite, multiple people. The computer monitor, is typically attached to a laptop (note the singularity of "lap") or a stationary desktop ( again, designed for a single user), designed for offices or work spaces - a much less friendlier environment for movie watching.

While computers now come equipped to watch DVD's and access the internet - enabling a laptop or PC to act as a TV - it is still primarily designed for a different purpose and for a single user. Having access to internet sites that allow the user to watch a movie online, streaming or via download, doesn't change the singularity of the event. How many times have you moved a chair over to a friend's computer monitor to watch a feature-length movie? Short movies, TV shows and user-generated snippets rule for online viewing.

Computer Monitors vs. TVs
Computer monitors/displays are attached to computers - which also come with a keyboards/mouse/printer, etc.. This is an interactive single-user device. The act of viewing a movie is meant to be a passive one, allowing the viewer to access the imagination via the story by simply watching and absorbing it. Watching a movie on a computer tempts the viewer with access to other items (email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc) and subliminally suggests multi-tasking.

I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to just sit in front of laptop and not interact with it - even while watching something short. I can have multiple windows open at once and "multi-task." I can "watch" an old video clip of George Carlin on YouTube while I write a blog. This is not quality viewing. If I were a filmmaker, I would want the audience to be fully engaged in my movie, and not just look up when they hear story-altering music or laughter. While some people might be able to fully engage in an online feature without checking their email, or updating their Facebook status, I am not one of them (nor are most of the people I know). Dividing one's attention across multiple media at a single time compromises comprehension of the media being put out (movie) and also the ability to optimally perform the additional functions (email, letter, etc).

The Convergence of Interactive Media
In October, I blogged and reposted an article from the New York Times announcing that Netflix HD Streams Coming to XBox. The article's title aptly describes its contents. This is an example of an interactive product (XBox) converging with a non-interactive product (TV) and producing a desired result - shared movie watching experience.

Also in my post, I mentioned the HDTVs designed to stream online videos on-demand, without the additional use of a set-top box (ie: XBox, cable box, etc). The technology making this possible is tru2way. October ushered in Panasonic's first tru2way HDTV retail stores in Chicago and Denver. According to the press release, "These tru2way HDTVs will allow consumers to access all digital cable services such as electronic program guides and the full range of interactive and video-on-demand programming – all accessible directly via the television’s remote control - without the costs or clutter associated with a traditional external cable set-top box." This is a joint effort for Panasonic and Comcast.

Earlier this month I attended the International Film Festival Summit and listened to a panel discussion on this topic: Distribution Revolution or Evolution? , moderated by Mike Jones of Variety. The panel's conclusion (my takeaway): It's a toss up and the filmmaker needs to make his/her own decision based on what s/he thinks is best for the film.

A couple of weeks after the conference, Cinevegas' Roger Erik Tinch wrote a blog, "Distribution and Consumption in 2009," sharing his thoughts. His conclusion: "Ultimately it’s all about harnessing the speed, accessibility and virality of the internet to bring home viewing content back where it belongs: on the T.V."

I agree with Tinch. Shorts are fine to be loaded and viewed online in hopes of viral takeoff. Features should follow a different model. Online trailers are great and are necessary to inform, but the feature-length movie itself should be watched in comfort, with people paying full attention. If it's not in the theater, then the next best place is at home, on TV.

One of my goals for 2009 - Get Woody

Instead of making a New Year's Resolution that would resolutely go unresolved, I've decided to set a couple of goals for myself. One goal: Watch all of Woody Allen's films.

According to IMDB, there are 39 (not including the one that just completed & not counting TV) films to see. Now, I'm trying to figure out a strategy in which to watch them: chronologically, ad hoc, etc... Any ideas or suggestions you might have will be gladly accepted and appreciated. Thanks to IMDB, below are all of his films (directed) from the most recent.

1. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
2. Cassandra's Dream (2007) ... aka RĂªve de Cassandre, Le (France)
3. Scoop (2006)
4. Match Point (2005)
5. Melinda and Melinda (2004)
6. Anything Else (2003)
... aka Anything else, la vie et tout le reste (France)
... aka Vie et tout le reste, La (France)
7. Hollywood Ending (2002)
8. The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)
... aka Im Bann des Jade Skorpions (Germany)
9. Small Time Crooks (2000)
10. Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
11. Celebrity (1998)
12. Deconstructing Harry (1997)
13. Everyone Says I Love You (1996)
14. Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
15. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
16. Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
17. Husbands and Wives (1992)
18. Shadows and Fog (1992)
19. Alice (1990)
20. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
21. New York Stories (1989) (segment "Oedipus Wrecks")
22. Another Woman (1988)
23. September (1987)
24. Radio Days (1987)
25. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
26. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
27. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
28. Zelig (1983)
29. A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982)
30. Stardust Memories (1980)
31. Manhattan (1979)
32. Interiors (1978)
33. Annie Hall (1977)
34. Love and Death (1975)
... aka Guerre et amour (France)
35. Sleeper (1973)
36. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)
... aka Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (USA: short title)
37. Bananas (1971)
38. Take the Money and Run (1969)
39. What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966)

Another blogger, Sujewa Ekanayake (DIY Filmmaker Sujewa), turned me on to Good Small Films: A cinematic blog about Woody Allen, which turned out to be really cool. You should check it out.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Synecdoche, NY - or any other town where depression lives

I'd been wanting to see Charlie Kaufman's latest movie, Synecdoche, NY, before it left the theaters and I finally did Friday night.

I write this blog without reading any other reviews of the movie. That said, I'm sure there are several points of the movie that I will miss - simply because of the film's complexity. The movie is existential at its core. The first theme I see in the movie is Nietzsche's thoughts on Eternal Reccurence. The overly simplistic premise of this theory is that time is infinite, but matter is finite. We are finite beings, and as opposed to actually dying and/or being reincarnated, one lives the same life over and over again (because there is a finite amount of matter - meaning us- in an infinite span of time). So, the takeaway here is: if your life is infinitely cyclical, make it the life you'd want to live again and again, forever.

The movie starts by dropping us into the lives of the Cotard family. Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an overweight, thirty something sycosis-suffering husband and father. Caden's wife, Adele, played by Catherine Keener, is an unhappy woman, around Caden's age, longing for a more bohemian-type lifestyle, or just some other life and lifestyle than she's currently living. The couple share a four-year-old daughter, Olive, who suffers from her own obsession with the color of her poop, but still oddly enough appears to be somewhat of a normal kid. The family is an artistic one - Caden a live-theater director and Adele a painter. The couple seem to be on a continual search of something other than what they have, although neither know what it is they want.

We attend a regularly scheduled marriage-counseling session with Caden and Adele. Caden sits on the left side of the couch in somewhat of an upright position while Adele is on the right side, slouched down and leaning over the side - illustrative of any 15 year old teenager forced into therapy that she "obviously" doesn't need. Adele confesses to the therapist, played by Hope Davis, that she's fantasized about Caden dying so that she can start over again without feeling guilty. Caden doesn't appear shocked by the confession. We know their separation/divorce is inevitable and kind of hope for it, so both of these people can experience some sort of long-term happiness.

Caden wraps rehearsals of his latest apt production, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and returns home to share the accomplishment with Adele. Adele is happy for Caden, but informs him that she will not be able to attend opening night due to another engagement. Caden is clearly disappointed. It's obvious that Adele does care for Caden and vice-versa, but you realize that it's only a legal relationship at this point. Adele does manage to make it to the second night of the play, but it lacked the specialness of opening night. Hazel, the box-office attendant, played by Samantha Morton, readily and eagerly fills the vacancy on opening night. The two share a mutual attraction but Caden remains committed to his emotionally absent Adele.

The table turns when Caden is anticipating a trip to Berlin with Adele and Olive, where Adele will premiere her latest artwork. As the couple huddle over their kitchen bar for breakfast, Adele announces that she thinks only she and Olive should travel to Berlin. Caden is somewhat taken aback and Adele apologizes for hurting his feelings. Adele leaves with Olive and we are left with Caden, and all of his pustules - literally. Here is where the movie changes and somewhat resembles Being John Malkovich, also written by Charlie Kaufman.

Time passes but Caden doesn't seem to notice. He receives a fellowship grant that will allow him to produce his magnum opus. He rents a huge "stage" large enough to hold a city, which is a good thing because that is exactly what Caden proceeds to build, albeit unintentionally. Caden starts pre-production of his play, which he never titles although he tosses around lots of potential titles. The problem is that the play is only a reproduction of his life with Adele. Life continues to happen around and to Caden and he even thinks he's actively engaged in it, but he is not. (For example, Caden finds himself in a relationship with an actress named Claire, played by Michelle Williams, but only mechanically - he's not at all enganged in the relationship - even though the two produced a daughter, Ariel, whom he often calls Olive.) He is on an unknowingly mission to find the vanishing point in his and Adele's life. The actors in his plays take on the earlier life of Caden and Adele, but only starting at the point in which we are dropped into the picture. The movie continues to evolve like this and eventually catches up to itself and then surpasses it, with actors portraying Caden and the others involved in his life moving directly in front of Caden and the real "others" in his life. The movie ends when Caden becomes the directed instead of the director.

So many things happen between the time Adele leaves Caden and the end of the movie. It would take me several days, perhaps weeks, to intelligently write about the many complex layers in the movie so I will only focus on just the one. First, meet Sammy Barnathan - a very odd man who we see early on in the movie but don't find out that he is a real person (as opposed to someone in Caden's imagination, for example) until Caden is casting for his masterpiece. Sammy, claiming not to be an actor, auditions for the role of Caden and admits to following Caden around for years, taking notes. He knows the way Caden thinks and can accurately anticipate and predict Caden's actions and reactions.

Second, note that Hazel is still around. Granted after giving up on Caden ever reciprocating her feelings, she moved on, bought a house (that stayed on fire during the entire movie), married a decent man and had three boys (although she only admits to having twins). However, several years pass and Hazel loses her job at the box office and calls on Caden. She is once again sucked into Caden's controlling vortex and ends up losing her husband and children, although she doesn't seem too disturbed by it.

Caden proceeds to develop his play and uses cast members to portray himself, Claire, Ariel, extras in his real life and eventually Hazel. The only two people not cast are Adele and Olive. He is recreating his life and when one thing doesn't seem as it should, he starts from the beginning again. This is the rehearsal that never ends - hence, the Eternal Recurrence reference above. The characters (real and projected) age. However, they never evolve into anything other than themselves. What's interesting is that the actors playing the real people (ie: Sammy and the actress playing Hazel) actually begin to make their own decisions outside of the rehearsal. For example, Sammy and the actress playing Hazel actually do get together and truly enjoy each other's company, but Caden gets jealous and tries to intervene. Naturally, Hazel submits to Caden's advances and loses Sammy. This is where the play catches up to itself and changes again.

In an effort to wrap this very long blog and not scare away future readers, I will say this: Go see the movie. Then see it again, and then a couple more times. Charlie Kaufman spent years preparing the script and then shooting the movie and crafting it just right. The least we can do is spend a few hours watching it, a few more hours thinking about it, and then hopefully a lifetime seeing how it applies to our lives.

Think about Eternal Recurrence. If you are doomed to live your life over and over again, what things would you change right now?

I leave you with the trailer: