Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Monday, November 23, 2009
It’s time I came out of my book-buried retirement, at least temporarily, to cover the St. Louis International Film Festival, one of my favorite local events of the year. Showing remarkable restraint, in my own opinion, I saw only 13 screenings. I’ll do capsule reviews of them over the next few days.
This year’s festival had more than 250 films and my guess is that it was the best-attended year yet. Most screenings I attended were pretty packed and almost every major film and even some not-so-major films sold out (good for the festival, bad for audiences). I was too slow to get tickets for “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” which goes on my list of regrets along with accidentally missing the undistributed “The Headless Woman” due to my own clerical error. In retrospect, I also wish I’d seen “Beeswax” by mumblecore icon Andrew Bujalski, but I’ll look for it on DVD.
The best films I saw were “Terribly Happy” (a highly engrossing dark-comedy noir) and “Three Monkeys” (a Turkish masterpiece also of a noirish persuasion). Nothing I saw this year was particularly bad, though my least favorite is the current metacritic darling “35 Shots of Rum.” I lived up to the goals I laid out about a year ago: I saw documentaries (“24 City,” “We Live in Public”), shorts, local St. Louis work (“Edgar Allen Poe’s Ligeia”), the latest by several great directors (Jia Zhangke, Claire Denis, Nuri Bilge Ceylan) and a film from a country whose cinema I’ve never seen before (Ecuador).
For the first time in three years, I did not see or predict the winners of the main festival prizes. “Precious,” which I actively avoided (I am willing to admit I may have been wrong, but it was coming out in regular theaters the very next day so there was no rush), took the top prize. “Marcello, Marcello,” which I actively avoided because it looked overly cute and corny, took the ‘Best International Feature’ award. Best documentary went to “9500 Liberty.”
As usual, the commercials were the only really bothersome aspect of the festival, especially odious to viewers like myself who have to see them repeated 10+ times (maybe I wouldn’t be bothered if I watched more TV). Stella Artois continues their theme of misguided pretentiousness, Metromix St. Louis has not backed down from (or even changed) their loud and obnoxious ad claiming that St. Louis has a nightlife and SLIFF’s Coolfire Media spots again focus on genre movies (although to be fair they had many more this year and the ad was much better), but the standout newcomer is a cheesy promotion from some St. Louis culture center which has the gall to suggest that a weekend in St. Louis is the equivalent of touring the great cities of Europe. Incidentally, a live volunteer came out before each showing to ask that we all thank these and other sponsors. So, um… thanks.
Anyway, it really was a good time. Three of my friends from out of town stayed with me for the first weekend and we kept up a pretty constant diet of fine films, delicious food and erudite conversation (like whether Hugo the Hippo could beat Razorback in a fight). I was satisfied with the films I saw without exhausting myself utterly. I look forward to next year!
Friday, July 31, 2009
As my last post alluded, I’ve been overwhelmed by a rival hobby: books. I’ve always been a reader to one extent or another, but the last few months my excitement about literature has been at an all time high. For one thing, I’ve been struck full-on with the realization that there are a lot more major works of literature than film that I have yet to experience. My current personal project is to try and read at least one work by every author I’ve ever been curious about, famous or obscure, and with the breadth of my interest it’s no small task. I truly wish I was better at moderation and could control my all-consuming manias, but they seem to run me ragged through no premeditation of my own. Then, too, I can’t deny that they’re a lot of fun along the way!
I doubt if I’ll ever stray very far from my core cinephilia nature. I’ve had other wave of obsessive interest in areas like cryptography and videogames, not to mention programming projects and disc golf, but film has been an enduring passion throughout. I’m confident that I’ll return to blogging as before and when I get back I should even have read the origins for several adaptation I’ve reviewed. In the meantime, I’ll be running a bi-monthly film night here in St. Louis. I also intend to post whenever the whim strikes me even on break, but I make no promise of regular updates for at least a few months.
The Film Walrus has never had a very large audience, but that’s all the more reason for me to thank the readers and commentators that have shared my love of film, read my digital scrawl and made me confident that there will always be an audience for great cinema.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
I tend towards prolonged binges (I cite my peak obsession periods with gialli, Czech New Wave, animations as examples) and my reading habits are no exception. During high school I read for leisure voraciously, while in college almost not at all (recreational reading had little appeal with all the assigned reading to deal with) and I can feel myself entering a renewed upswing. I blame my friend and fellow literature-lover Josh for enabling my born-again bookworm habits.
So I thought I’d spend some time on something I’ve rarely done on this blog: looking at works I’ve read and participating in the growing buzz surrounding their cinematic adaptations. My specific goal today is to infect a few readers with my enthusiasm for contemporary sci-fi, both in book and (upcoming) film forms.
The most rapidly approaching of what I’ve recently read is “The Road” (written 2006, release date Oct 2009) by Cormac McCarthy. I had to read McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” (1992) back when I was in high school and I pretty much hated it, perhaps because of my mild aversion to westerns or my strong distaste for works “exploring issues of masculinity” or the pedantry of my teacher. But a slew of “Year’s Best” awards, followed by a Pulitzer prize (the only science fiction book to yet receive one!) convinced me to give McCarthy another try. I was quickly won over.
“The Road” is the seemingly futile journey of a man and his son, the latter of which was born shortly after an unexplained disaster that has put an end to civilization. A miserable decade or so has passed in the meantime and all plant and animal life has been extinguished. Only a few human survivors are left wandering a nightmarish landscape of desolation, despair, hunger and fear. McCarthy’s prose, blunt and stripped down but endowed with a poetic precision, was born to describe canvases of post-apocalyptic debris and intimations of abhorrent inhumanity. As an enthusiast of the end-of-the-world subgenre, I can acknowledge that “The Road” isn’t particularly original, but Cormac’s writing blesses it with greatness.
I watched the movie trailer shortly after finishing “The Road” and was a bit torn. There is a chance, looking at the grim imagery, that the film could capture the bleak atmosphere, arguably the most important element of the book. Less promising is the role of Charlize Theron. I admire her acting, but I’m skeptical of her character’s implied screen time: in the book, she only appears in a handful of brief flashbacks. Viggo Mortensen has the lead role, and I’m more than a little excited about that, especially given his recent successful collaborations with Cronenberg.
Interestingly, “The Road” wasn’t even nominated for a Hugo award, often considered the premier prize for SF literature. (Incidentally, “Spin,” by the shockingly yet-to-be-adapted Robert Charles Wilson, won the 2006 prize and would make a fine film.) However, 2008’s Hugo winner “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” (which also swept the Nebula and Locus Awards) is slated to be directed by the Coen brothers, perhaps sometime in late 2010. What’s odd about this book winning these particular prizes is that “YPU” isn’t really SF at all. It’s alternative history. Here’s the premise:
In 1940 a proposal was circulated to grant a portion of Alaska to Jewish refugees fleeing WWII and the Nazi genocide. In real life, the idea never came to fruition, but in Michael Chabon’s novel, Sitka, Alaska is now a bustling Jewish metropolis while Israel lacked the manpower to maintain itself. Meyer Landsman is a down-and-out, divorced and drunken detective who wanders the urban milieu of “the Frozen Chosen” trying to find the killer of a junky/chess prodigy/messiah before the city reverts back to US control. The utterance on the lips of every character is apt: “Strange times to be a Jew.” The style is hard-boiled noir, the writing flowery and liberally sprinkled with Yiddish (a glossary is included) and the plot well-laden with cynicism, conspiracies and revelations.
It makes a neat little circle to consider that the Coen brothers recently adapted Cormac McCarthy with “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t also make a cinematic masterpiece out of material as strong as “YPU,” too. My biggest concern is that the plot’s first half is so dense with groundwork and setup that it really tends to drag (though it all becomes important later). The first action scene is about 180 pages into the 400 page book and mystery doesn’t start to reveal itself until well after that, though it’s a pleasure to soak up the charming language and witty metaphors in the meantime. The Coen brothers will likely have to rewrite the complicated story if they want to get a more conventional modern-noir pacing, though they’ve got enough fame, financing and natural iconoclasm to defy Hollywood’s expectations. Whatever they come up with, I’m confident it will be compelling.
Michael Chabon will probably see his works adapted quite often (his “Wonder Boys” (2000) already initiated the trend) given that he’s such a well-regarded contemporary writer of the “serious” vein while simultaneously a pioneer and champion for popular genre literature. He’s also supposed to be at work on the script for the Edgar Rice Burrough’s (“Tarzan”) adaptation of “A Princess of Mars” titled “John Carter of Mars.” If it meets its 2012 release date, it will hit the centennial of the 1912 planetary romance novel, which was a major inspiration to the golden age SF writers and several NASA members, but which is a thoroughly awful book by contemporary literary and scientific standards. I’m encouraged only by the prospects of a major rewrite and the selection of Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E”) as director.
But coming back to more recent (anything after 2000 being recent on my scale) SF novels, I noticed that Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” (written 2005) is being set for a 2010 adaptation. The premise involves children being raised at an isolated boarding school where mysterious incidents hint at a disturbing purpose. I read it after Time magazine included it amongst the top 100 novels written since 1923 (it was one of the most recent to make the list) and, despite a twist that may intentionally elude no one, it is quite stirring and strangely satisfying. Ishiguro is a stellar writer who has already gotten acquainted with adaptations: “The Remains of the Day” and “The Saddest Music in the World” being brilliant films that emerged from his work.
Mark Romanek (“One Hour Photo”) is in the director’s chair and I’m happy to see the great Charlotte Rampling as one of the teachers. I drew back with fear when I saw that Keira Knightley headlines the cast, especially considering that she doesn’t have the lead role. I don’t consider Knightley to be a particularly strong performer, but I’m willing to cross my fingers and see how the whole thing goes.
All told, I’m pretty excited about the potential SF we could see hit theaters in the near future. I’m sure I’m missing plenty of other novels on their way to the screen, but my SF specialty is really more grounded in the 1950’s-1970’s, decades that haven’t been treated particularly kindly by recent adapters. Anyway, please chime in on the comment section if you want to alert me to other SF you’ve been anticipating.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
One day the war is over. That’s when Albert Dehousse decides to retroactively join the French Resistance and become “A Self Made Hero” (1996).
His turning point comes when he breaks off his former life just after the armistice and heads to Paris. There he meticulously learns everything he might need to rewrite history. He insinuates himself into a veterans society and his encyclopedic knowledge of major and minor resistance figures combined with his non-specific affiliation to any particular political faction makes him a popular consultant with top officials. Soon he’s given a lieutenant-colonel post rooting out former collaborators who’ve assumed false identities in Germany. Unsurprisingly, he’s an ace at his job, but his ever thickening web of lies and the responsibility of executing men not unlike himself begins to fray his psyche.
Dehousse is a fascinating character and the backbone of “A Self Made Hero.” He’s a dreamer, not naturally gifted, and a boy who desperately wants a chance to prove himself. It’s questionable whether Albert is deprived of his chance, or simply lacks the bravery and initiative to create an opportunity. He gradually does become intelligent, cultured, witty, charismatic and inspiring, everything he ever hoped to be, but all in the service of a colossal lie. Because the truth is not on his side, he has to work twice as hard as the honest men who come to respect him. We see Albert endlessly rehearsing facts, quips and anecdotes in front of his mirror, many stolen from men he admires and overhears. In a lovely throwaway shot near the end of the film we see one of Albert’s insecure subordinates imitating him.
Novelist Jean-Francois Deniau, director Jacques Audiard and actor Albert Dehousse all work together to make Albert a relatively sympathetic, yet conniving anti-hero. He’s part pathetic delusional and part mastermind conman, but his face always wears a level of pleasant innocence that makes us want to believe him. We cheer for his rise to fame and power, yet it’s somehow sad, since his ability to fool (almost) everyone, only allows himself to continue fooling himself for long enough to become addicted. When his world starts to fall apart, as inevitably it must, he ends up charged with an ironically lesser crime. The film’s sardonic ending montage gives us a dizzying glimpse of the rest of Dehousse’s life, one even more cynical and still wholly uncured.
Jacques Audiard shows a talent for creating historical atmosphere without drawing attention to it. The audience is invited to get lost in Albert’s opportunistic and frequently nerve-wracking ascent, rather than the period detail. The nostalgic music by Alexandre Desplat and the bright cinematography by Jean-Marc Fabre help create an alluring tone for the film, that recedes easily into the background at the needs of the story and declines to dictate our emotions.
Audiard decides to use a documentary-type framing device, chronicling the real life of Albert Dehousse from a modern perspective. It contrasts nicely with the wartime backdrop and makes the brilliant conclusion possible, but the interspersed contemporary commentary and interviews are a little underdeveloped and don’t really add much information. The wonderful Jean-Louis Trintignant (“The Conformist,” “Death Laid an Egg,” “Red”) is cast as the surviving now-aged Albert , but his acting talent is underexploited and his recognizability compromises any intended illusion that the story is based in fact (a thematic and clever device, nonetheless).
“A Self Made Hero” manages to be strangely funny and yet strangely stirring, thrilling, well-made and well-acted throughout. It’s not quite daring, but it’s still a trenchant examination of the flexibility of history and biography when they’re put in the fallible hands of desires, dreams, memories and assumptions. The film shares with “Mother Night” (1996) and “The Memory Thief” (2007) a lesson about the temptations of fictional identities.
Mathieu Kassovitz likely benefits from having been on both sides of the camera (his work includes directing “Hate” (1995) and appearing in “Amelie” (2001)) and turns in a performance that really should have won something. This was one of Jacques Audiard first films, who is perhaps best known for his Cesar-sweeping “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005) (I like “A Self Made Hero” better). His eagerly-anticipated latest film “A Prophet” (2009) won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes this year, and will hopefully get released soon.
Walrus Rating: 9.0
Sunday, July 5, 2009
First off is my 2008 year-end list. I've seen more than a dozen 2008 films since then (I've had time, what with 2009's output merely sputtering along) and it's been enough for me to upgrade my assessment of the year. There are now excellent films like “Doubt,” “Milk” and “The Dark Knight” that I didn’t even have room for on my new top ten, whereas before I didn’t have a shred of anxiety about what to cut. In retrospect, I think “Synecdoche New York” was easily the best film of the year, and I’ll never doubt Charlie Kaufman again. I missed it in theaters because I’d read some negative reviews, by critics who I will utterly ignore in the future.
Here is the updated 2008 year-end top 10. Scroll to the bottom of it for the new material.
The biggest change has been to my year-by-year list of favorite science fiction films (The Golden Walruses: SF Edition). I’ve added more than 60 new films, bringing the total well over 500, and updated the rankings accordingly. The most noticeable batch is under 2008, which is now officially open. I’m also still [vainly] hoping to get some ballots from readers, so if you’re into SF and want to put together a list, I’m pathetically eager to peruse it!
I’ve also made watching films by female directors my latest obsessive focuses, and I’m looking forward to a potential blogathon on the topic near the end of August (to coincide with the anniversary of the 19th amendment). I’m made a bunch of updates to my list of personal favorite films directed by women, found at the end of this semi-recent post.
Some of the best new-comers include “Take Care of My Cat” (I stupidly missed a chance to see for free during a South Korean film series), “Fat Girl” (which manages to combine a bittersweet realist tone and an in-your-face controversy-courting attitude) and “Madchen in Uniform” (a 1930’s film that’s at least 40 years ahead of its time and gorgeous looking even on the scrappy transfers that survive). I also put “After the Wedding” on the list, as even though it might not be a masterpiece, Susanne Bier definitely strikes me as a director to watch. I’ve had a few disappointments: I was absolutely sure I would like Marguerite Dumas’s well-regarded but rarely-seen “India Song” (1975) and Samira Makhmalbaf’s brave “Blackboards” (2000), but neither really connected with me.
Lastly, for those who tolerate my sense of humor, I wrote a Grump Factory post a while back on one of the worst (or best?) videogames ever made.
Anyway, I hope everyone’s year is going well. And for those American readers out there, enjoy the holiday!
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
It takes a special type of talent to turn a tax auditing bureaucrat into a charismatic supercop lead, but trust director Juzo Itami to pull it off. “A Taxing Woman” (1987) was his third film and is instantly recognizable to fans of the director: it wears a charming grin, stars his wife Nobuko Miyamoto and skips along with understated cleverness and comedic ease. The result feels much like a hybrid of “Out of Sight” (1998) and “Ikiru” (1952), gently tuned by Itami’s particular camerawork and staging.
“A Taxing Woman” begins with an extended opening montage in which Hideki Gondo (Tsutomu Yamazaki) exploits every trick he can think of to evade taxes, from tucking away profits in a secret vault to paying off nurses to seduce patients into signing off on dummy corporations that can be used for laundering his money. Gondo is a sly and slippery businessman who runs love hotels, cooperates with the criminal underworld, sleeps with a bevy of mistresses and enjoys threading tax loopholes just for art’s sake. For all that, he’s a strangely compelling figure, a concerned father and a man driven more by gamesmanship than malice or even greed.
“A Taxing Woman” couches a social message that warns us of plummeting integrity and widespread greed, but Itami knows that he’s making a comedy and not a polemic. In keeping with this, his camerawork focuses on the minutia of interpersonal tension – sometimes just the nonverbal play of casual gestures, expressive looks and slightly silly gaits – more so than action, violence or seedy atmosphere.
Itami’s sense of humor isn’t exactly subtle, but it also isn’t loud in the sense of discrete setups and pithy lines. He has a knack for simply depicting things in a way that brings out their amusing side, often times through Tati-esque choreography.
I don’t think “A Taxing Woman” is quite as funny or original as Itami’s better-known “Tampopo” (1985), but the director makes better use of Tokyo, diving in and out of a buzzing metropolis defined more by its crowds than its architecture. It’s a city Itami depicts as burdened by too many minor corruptions for every crook to be collared, but not plagued by the type of big ticket crimes that would compromise his underlying optimism.
Katie and I disagreed about the upbeat rubbery jazz theme, which she seemed to consider garish 80’s trash. I rather liked it, though I’m not sure what defense I can offer. It’s repeated too often and doesn’t spin off far enough to get interesting, but somehow it captures the spirit of both Gondo’s cheek and Ryoko’s pluck.
Juzo Itami is pretty much a style and movement unto himself, a light-hearted, more compassionate voice than is found in most Japanese films from the last decade and a half. You owe it to yourself to see at least “Tampopo” or “A Taxing Woman,” if you haven’t already. I’ve found myself surprised that Itami’s entire filmography is not more readily available, but I’ve reaffirmed my interest in tracking down more of his work even if Netflix can’t help me. Many consider his only sequel, “A Taxing Woman Returns” (1988), at least as good as the original, and that might be the direction I head next.
Walrus Rating: 8
Friday, June 26, 2009
I’m going to try and make a distinction about what’s legal and what’s ethical based on my own knowledge and experience acquiring non-mainstream films and writing about them. I’ll finish by discussing some of the iffy “grey zone” questions I've had to ask myself.
What pop-culture has to say
First of all, let’s talk about the most common case, which is downloading a movie from the internet. Let’s assume this is a relatively recent (last 30 years) movie made in America by someone or some company that has not divested its copyright prerogatives and that it is widely available from a distributer on a modern format like DVD. The way I understand it, this describes most movies that are pirated. There is no question, none whatsoever, that downloading such a film is illegal and unethical.
I don’t think most people pirating movies have any doubts that what they’re doing is illegal, but they still manage to rationalize it. Downloading media has become so widespread that there is an “it’s OK because everybody’s doing it” atmosphere. It’s like drinking during prohibition, right? As I was attending college various techniques like direct connect and torrents became ubiquitous and many, many students I knew, otherwise ethical in other areas of their lives, had no qualms with amassing huge collections of illegal works. Most of my cinephile friends have downloaded a film at least once.
But doing something that is wrong just because lots of people are doing is about the worst logic I can think of and shows a weakness of character and general cynicism that it pretty contemptible. That’s why almost anyone who regularly violates copyright usually convinces themselves that what they are doing is not actually wrong. Perhaps illegal, but not particularly unethical. “Nobody gets hurt except maybe some corporate fat-cats.” Some of the rationalizations I hear people spout make me madder than if they’d just admitted they didn’t want to fork over their money.
A Chinese coworker of mine once explains how I should actually be on his side (pro-piracy), because bootlegging only hurts the big studios (who I’m always pillorying) and helps the common man see more movies (which I’m often advocating). In this popular self-serving fantasy, video pirates are technological freedom fighters committing heroic revolutionary acts. “Down with oppressive capitalism! Up with communal sharing of artistic works!”
Right. I’m sure self-interest never even enters into it. Much as I mistrust the rich and powerful, I don’t have much love for self-proclaimed Robin Hoods who steal from anyone who has what they want and give to themselves. If anyone, it’s the uploaders and free download sites who could claim to have society’s greater good at heart (though their substantial banner ads and popups make me think otherwise), but let’s at least not pretend downloading is about anything other than wanting to see a free movie.
What the law has to say
Any work, as soon as it is recorded in a fixed form is immediately protected by copyright. Films made for studios are considered “works for hire” and the rights belong to the producer and/or studio, not the director or screenwriter. No registration necessary. No copyright logo (©) necessary. No FBI warning necessary. These three things are included by major studios and distributers solely because they provide additional leverage when suing violators.
The copyright is held for 70 years after the author’s death (if made independently), 95 years from first date of publishing or 120 years from creation (whichever comes first).
In essence, you can not copy, distribute or display a film without permission if the rights are still in effect, subject to fair use. Fair use is a nebulous concept that takes into consideration the purpose, portion and influence on profit that a reproduction incurs. For instance, the screenshots that I take for use on this blog are explicitly protected because they are used for the purpose of a review, are not exploited for my money and represent a tiny fraction of the film in question.
But don’t get the idea that copyright is a simple matter. It is the realm of lawyers and complicated exceptions and elaborate flowcharts. (Though who doesn’t love a law that distinguishes separate treatments for parody and satire?) It can take a great deal of research to discover if a film’s copyrights have lapsed, putting it in public domain. I recently bought a 12-movie collection of silent “public domain” Hitchcock films from Best Buy. I’ve since discovered that most of them actually do have rights retained on them, but if the distributer, Best Buy and a reasonably sharp film blogger like myself didn’t know, can Joe Consumer be expected to do the research?
Well, copyright law does make provisions for people who commit what is called “innocent infringement” if the person was not aware and had no reason to believe that the work was still under copyright. You’d only be liable for about $200 per work. Willful infringement (most of what goes on online) is another matter, and if the work is registered, could result in as much as $150,000 per work. The law is much harsher on those who make a bootleg than it is with people who knowingly buy a bootleg. Downloading a film, by the way, counts as making an illegal copy. “Time-shifting,” recording a film off of TV to watch later, is covered by fair use.
There is no active agency that enforces copyright, which is one reason why most people get away with it. A complaint has to be issued from the authentic rights holder who must send a cease and desist letter and press suit themselves. If the work in question is not registered, they can only hope to recover the loss of profit they suffered, which often makes the effort worthless. If the work was registered, they can hit you for the numbers mentioned above.
Now here is something I want all the free film revolutionaries to pay close attention to: because the big studios register all their works, monitor a lot of internet sites and possess an army of lawyers with decades of experience, they are the ones mostly likely and most able to enforce their copyrights. They go through a lot of trouble to ensure that they do not lose profits because of piracy. They hire lobbyists to secure laws in their favor. They hire lawyers to sue companies and individuals. They raise the prices on DVDs to help recoup their losses.
They might still do these things to some extent even if piracy was not such a problem, but the more piracy goes on, the more they will react with aggressive business strategies. The bottom line is that when you score a point against a big studio by downloading one of their films, they will just take it out on people, often times the ones who are paying legally. It is the little companies and independent filmmakers, who are less able to defend themselves, that actually get hurt. Even if these victims are interested in fighting to enforce their copyrights, they have to pay court fees and waste time that could have gone to their continued creative output.
What ethics has to say
So if you actually care about making artistic works available to a wider audience then there are productive and ethical ways of championing that cause that are more credible than self-interest motivated piracy:
1) Support movements to change copyright law.
2) Help research and publicize lists of films that have not been renewed and are in the public domain.
3) Research films that are not available and not in public domain and organize campaigns to request those movies be released. When a large enough fan base makes itself known, there’s a much greater financial impetus to distribute unavailable films.
4) Support studios, distributors and filmmakers who make quality films available at reasonable prices.
5) Politely contact rights holders for permission or carefully utilize fair use provisions to present films in a non-profit, educational environment.
6) Make your own creative works and get them out to the public.
Complicated as copyright law is, the ethical questions surrounding the issue are even more slippery. At least in today’s culture I suspect that people are much more likely to obey their own judgment than the law, so talking about the ethical standpoint might be more convincing. If someone says they don’t believe in copyrights, they aren’t likely to hold back just because a rarely-enforced law says so.
So let’s look at some fundamental premises that copyright law takes for granted:
1) An artist’s work belongs to the artist or whoever commissioned the work and took the financial risk for it.
2) Artistic works such as film have value.
3) The person(s) in (1) has the sole right to modify, sell, exchange or license the work and to otherwise obtain the financial value they believe it to be worth.
I know a lot of people who claim to disagree with one or more of these ideas. For example, you might say that a responsible government has a duty to provide free access for its citizens to at least some of their culture’s creative heritage much the same way as it should ensure universal education and medical care for the poor. You might argue that fixing a price for a work of art is subjective, or disagree over why producers/studios have exclusive rights while the crew has none or quibble about the exact extent of the artist’s moral rights to their work (an area where the US trails a bit behind Europe).
I understand these and similar disagreements, but if you just plain don’t accept any of the basic premises above, you probably can’t be convinced of the need for copyrights. But if you’ve at least thought about the issues and developed and a worldview that isn’t merely self-serving, than at least you’re not obliviously taking bootlegs for granted.
Believe it or not, copyright law did originally have the public good in mind. It’s a balancing act: on one hand, you want to protect an artist’s copyright so that it is profitable and sustainable to create artistic works and on the other hand you want as many people as possible to have access to these works.
The original copyright act of 1709 issued rights for 14 years with a one-time optional renewal for 14 more years. This has since been extended to a rather ridiculous 95 years since its first publication (in our case, screening) which accounts for pretty much the entire history of cinema. I doubt if most people could even name a feature film from before 1914. Clearly the law has come to favor the rights holders over the public. Not coincidentally, those rights holders are largely giant media corporations with Washington influence. Indeed, supported by special interests groups like Disney, a succession of laws derisively called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” has continued to push back the expiration date indefinitely.
At least with film, where a huge proportion of the profits are made within the first weekend of the release and most of the money even from rentals happens within a couple of years, I consider the lifetime of copyrights to be irrationally out of control. But if a studio or distributer continues to make their films widely available for reasonable prices and on modern formats, I still think it’s tough to violate copyrights and still allege the moral high ground. Especially these days with library’s stocked with classic films that are freely available to the public.
To me, the ethical question of rather it is OK to violate copyrights only really gets interesting when you look at films that are not widely or reasonably available or which aren’t available at all.
What I have to say
This is where I come in and start talking about my opinion on the ethics of unauthorized film distribution. It suffers from my own rationalizations and compromises, but I try to be honest about it and to hold myself to high standards, common sense and best intentions. I do think pretty much every film should be available to the world at a reasonable price (say, ~$50 or less), and in that sense I am guilty of my generation’s renowned sense of entitlement, but I’m not asking filmmakers or distributors to give something for nothing.
Solipsistic as it may sound, I’m going to conduct a Q&A with myself. That way, if anyone else wants to, they can copy just the list of questions and answer them based on their own convictions or present them to others as discussion points. Both might make for good exercises.
Q: How do you feel about borrowing movies between friends?
A: If money doesn’t exchange hands, I’m all for it. In fact, it’s one of my favorite ways of shaping cinephile converts.
The strict wording on some FBI warnings I’ve seen implies that you can’t even watch the film with your extended family. I think that’s just ridiculous.
Q: How do you feel about showing films to clubs or other organizations?
A: I think screenings of legal copies in small, non-profit clubs and educational organizations is fair use and utterly grand (obviously, considering my film club history). My college gets permission to show DVDs and 35mm prints to the community for free in exchange for not advertising the screenings, while my brother’s college runs licensed, low-cost screenings that have permission to advertise. I think that with anything smaller than those venues, especially if you’re showing something that most of the audience wouldn’t have even known about otherwise, you’re not cutting into anyone’s profit.
Q: Should you avoid bootlegs (from here on to include downloads and any other unauthorized acquisition of a film) even if there is no other option?
A: There’s a lot of circumstances I try to take into account. The simplest case, where a film is not available in any home format and is not shown on TV in your country, is one where I easily approve of bootlegs (presumably sourced from tapes of foreign TV airings). You are still responsible for confirming that the movie is not available.
Q: What if a film sometimes plays on TV, but isn’t otherwise available?
A: Wait for it to play on TV and watch or record it. If it requires cable/satellite that you wouldn’t otherwise buy, having a friend record it has never seemed a cardinal sin to me.
However, if a station owns the rights for a film and never (or almost never) plays it, do what you want and make your own peace. Previously I would give TCM (who owns an enormous amount of the unreleased films out there) about 6 months to a year to play a film before I sought other means, but if TCM follows through with their plan to make their entire library available on DVD by request, then I no longer need to make furtive back-alley deals.
Q: What if a film is available only on an old format like laserdisc?
A: Personally, I keep a VHS player around so that I can still watch the huge number of films that are available on tape but not disc. For films only previously marketed on obsolete formats like laserdisc, check whether the distributer is still around and considering a rerelease. Failing that, I generally seek out bootlegs sourced from the obsolete format.
Q: What if a movie is only available from another country, in PAL format and/or with incompatible region codes?
A: I found that a great investment is a region-free, any-standard DVD player (which are perfectly legal) that can play movies from anywhere in the world. Since region encoding is not backed by law – it is purely a way to increase profits by giving higher prices to wealthier regions – I never feel bad buying the film and stripping the silly limitations off with computer software (the distributor still got their money).
That said, I think that this is a case where the rights owner stupidly limited their own profits by not giving you a fully authorized option to pursue, and so I understand if people feel that getting a bootleg isn’t harming the company more than they harmed themselves.
Q: What if a movie is only available in another language?
A: You can often times find free subtitle files, which are legal to create and distribute. Minimal tech savvy is required to apply subtitle files to movies viewed on your computer.
Fansubbed bootlegs are illegal, but I still consider them a reasonable option if the current rights owner has no plans to provide a version in your language. I consider people who provide high quality fansubs to be doing a service to the cinema community.
Q: What if a film is only available for an exorbitantly high price, like a 35mm rental fee of or a festival/promotional/educational purposes price?
A: I’ve seen a lot 35mm rentals as high as $1000, without even taking into account the cost of the equipment you would need to project it. Festival/promotional/educational copies, which often pertain to experimental films, tend to be in the $100 to $250 range. That’s a sign that the distributor is doing outdated celluloid copies not intended for the general market. Sometimes you just have to wait for them to get their distribution branch in order for the price to drop.
If the rights owners posses digitized copies of these films that could be written to a DVD-r with little hassle, I consider the prices quoted above to be unreasonable and beyond the means of the general public (though exceptions exist). I have occasionally resorted to bootlegs in that situation, but often I just ignore these films.
If a movie is just plain expensive, like a Criterion release or the latest Blu-ray blockbuster, that doesn’t count as unreasonable in my book. You need to just commit to the price tag or wait for the cost to fall and used copies to become available.
Q: What if the rights owner wants to restrict who sees a film or how it is displayed?
A: If the rights owner in this case is the original author (preferably the director), then you should listen to their explanation, if one is given, and preferably respect it. I don’t usually agree that a film must be seen in theatrical conditions (as some filmmakers and critics insist) to be correctly understood and fully appreciated, but that is one expression of an artist’s moral rights over their work.
Sometimes I give in to moments of weakness and watch bootlegs of these films anyway, but I promise myself that, even if I don’t like it, I will give it a proper chance on the silver screen given the opportunity.
If the rights owner is a special interest group or religious organization that has acquired the rights for the purpose of preventing distribution and suppressing the original artist’s message, I side with the artist.
If the rights owner is a company utterly unaware or uninterested in distributing the film and unwilling to sell the rights to someone who is, I look for a bootleg. I’ve heard that the rights to some Peter Greenaway films went through several bankruptcy and repackaging sales and are now bundled into some obscure Japanese investment holding. If that’s true, then it’s a good example of a copyright not serving anyone’s idea of the public good.
Q: What if you think a film is in the public domain?
A: If it really is in public domain then it is legal to download and copies sold by anyone can’t be considered bootlegs. However, you should do at least some research into the matter. If I can’t find any glimmer of extant copyrights for a film during an hour of internet searching, I’ve satisfied my own conscience. The United States Copyright Office will conduct a semi-conclusive search for $150, or if you live near D.C. you can search their records for free. I’ve never gone that far.
Just because a film is in the public domain, though, doesn't mean it's not worth paying for. Most free and budget releases of public domain films are god-awful lazy transfers. I've found myself paying extra to get a definitive edition in more than one case.
Q: What if a film is only available on the grey market?
A: The grey market is usually meant to refer to internet sellers, called dealers, who sell movies that no one else has actively asserted copyrights for. Sometimes rights are not renewed, get trapped in limbo by a legal dispute, disappear with a distributor who goes out of business or get sold piecemeal only to specific countries. Dealers often times have a message like this one on their websites:
“The United States Berne Act states that: Films unreleased in the United States, including original version of films altered and/or edited for release in the United States, are not protected by American copyright; thus, they are considered public domain.”
That’s BS, although for years I believed it, mostly because I wanted desperately to believe it and never bothered to check. Having since read the Berne Convention Act and related copyright laws, I can safely say that it states the exact opposite: Movies copyrighted in foreign countries (or at least the majority who signed the Berne Act) are fully protected by U.S. copyright law.
Still, if you have decided for whatever reason that this is the best way to get the film, then it is less illegal than downloading the film since the lion’s share of the liability is on the shoulders of the dealer. Most of the dealers I’ve worked with are good people and will immediately withdraw items from their catalogue if you can show that another entity owns the rights.
Q: What if you acquire an unauthorized version of a movie when nothing else was available and then an authorized version becomes available?
A: My personal code of ethics is that I have to buy the authorized version when if it becomes available. This is really hard for me if I didn’t even end up liking the movie when I saw the bootleg.
The same philosophy has served me well with videogames. In college, I downloaded emulated roms (bootlegs of old videogames that run on a computer) from obsolete systems, but now that Nintendo makes many of these available legally on the Wii’s online store, at very reasonable prices, I’ve squared myself with the company.
Q: Is it OK to make copies of rented material?
A: Generally, no. I have at least two friends who rip all their Netflix movies to their computer so that they can send the discs back the same day. The way I see it, if you watch the film multiple times on your computer or lend it out, you are getting all the benefits of buying the film at only rental prices. If you are just watching the films at a later time and then deleting them, that’s probably just fair use time-shifting.
Q: Be honest, how many unauthorized movies do you own?
A: If you’ve tried to get a movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, odds are good that it was suspiciously absent from Netflix or Amazon. I’ve bought a bit over a hundred grey market bootlegs, most of which I can justify in keeping with the answers I’ve given above. I really do try to make sure that the artist and/or rights owner is compensated for their work whenever reasonably possible. I plan to be even more careful in the future.
The one black market bootleg I own, “Kill Bill Part I,” was purchased in the Philippines by a roommate and given to me as a gift. I keep it around because the creative English subtitles are hilarious, and probably constitute an original work in themselves.
The conversation continues, with particular emphasis on the anime community, over at The Grump Factory. John shares some his own thoughts and reactions on the issue of downloads and bootlegs.
Monday, June 22, 2009
This makes for a film that isn’t particularly smooth and cohesive, but somehow Suzuki never lets it devolve into the type of postmodern pastiche where the humor comes from random non-sequiturs and anachronistic juxtapositions. He unwisely includes a weak subplot that breaks up the flow of the romance, music and adventure, but he makes the right decision to eschew manic editing. The craziness is contained, if just barely, and everything fits comfortably into Suzuki’s overarching vision, though his is a dreamlike vision divorced from ordinary reality.
Suzuki preoccupation with beauty is also addressed thematically within the narrative. Beauty is shown to be a powerful force independent from morality; a force capable of both good and evil. The prince’s father, for instance, is fatally consumed by pride in his beauty, while vanity hampers the budding romance between Amechiyo and Princess Raccoon. But the film also shows how beauty is an inspiration, a cause for celebration and a foothold for love. The film is neither particularly original or deep in what it has to say on the topic, but it’s self-aware about its superficiality.
The eclecticism in the art design is shared by the music numbers. Suzuki bounces around the world and across history with everything from traditional poetic pieces and show tunes to rap, tap dance, ska, hymnals, hard rock, opera and children’s choir. Like Hollywood musicals of old, the songs are funny and buoyant and more about having a good time than about demonstrating raw musical talent.
Suzuki’s biggest flaw in his musical numbers isn’t the questionable vocal training, but his limp choreography. He never quite manages either the graceful precision of geisha dancing or the effervescent energy of a Hollywood showstopper, though some of his concepts are intriguing, including dancing duets of women giving birth and sumo wrestlers who play drums on their massive bellies. Suzuki has always been better at composing static images than at capturing motion (it’s part of what makes his action movies so startlingly different), causing the dancing to feel poorly directed and less spectacular than the backdrops.
Walrus Rating: 7.5