Talking Head

Back in September, a reporter at Cheddar named Antonella Crescimbeni emailed me to ask about the reasons why the movie industry had moved from New Jersey to California. She wanted to interview me for a video—part of the Cheddar Explains series of explainer videos—to learn why the American film industry had migrated from New Jersey to Los Angeles.

We talked over Skype in mid September, and the video was finished and posted to YouTube some time in October. I’m finally getting around to writing about this video.

You can watch the video on How Hollywood Got from New Jersey to Los Angeles. And, yes, that’s me giving an interview as a talking head.

One of the things Ms. Crescimbeni asked me was whether it was true that US filmmakers moved to Hollywood to escape Edison’s patents and to escape to Mexico if Edison’s lawyers sued filmmakers who might be infringing on his motion picture patents. This has been a widely circulated myth about the move to Hollywood that is almost as old as the movie colony itself. Lewis Jacobs wrote in his 1939 book, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History that “the safest refuge [from Edison’s trust] was in Los Angeles, from which it was only a hop skip and a jump to the Mexican border and escape from injunctions and subpoenas” (85).

It’s funny how those two parts of the story have persisted, although there’s little truth to that. There are two main reasons why filmmaking moved to Southern California. The first was because of the dry and mild climate that allowed for year-round production. The second reason is because there exists a lot of different terrains close together: a filmmaker could shoot films set in a desert, in the mountains, on a beach, in a city, and at sea. In fact, the other members of Edison’s cartel had filmed in Southern California; it wasn’t just the scofflaws that didn’t license Edison motion picture equipment.

For those wondering how Ms. Crescimbeni found me, she said that she found a lesson plan on my website about the Motion Picture Patents Company (sometimes referred to as “The Trust” or “Edison’s Cartel”) and the Independents who defied this patent pool, making films and then ultimately taking over the whole industry once feature films came to be.

Pour One Out for the TV Listings in the New York Times

This is the final TV listings ever printed in the New York Times.

Over the summer, I swapped my subscription to The New York Times from a digital-only to an old-fashioned home-delivery print subscription. One day, my neighbor picked up a copy and was amazed that the TV listings were still printed every day.

In yesterday’s print edition, the Times announced that it would stop printing TV listings, something the paper has printed since 1939. The reasons for discontinuing the listings are obvious to anyone today: most everyone I know watches TV asynchronously. We don’t need to know what’s on TV tonight any more than we need the paper to find a job, a used car, or a secondhand couch. Also, this gives the Times more space to write about—not simply list—television programming, of which there is more than ever.

Today, in the Sunday, August 30, edition of the Times, we see the final run for tonight’s TV listings. Curiously, today’s listings were printed in the Metropolitan section, which home subscribers like me received yesterday, as part of the Saturday delivery. It is perhaps one of the most succinct—albeit unintentional—messages that speaks to the anachronous nature of timely news still being delivered in print in 2020.

It’s 2020, and I Again Started Getting the Newspaper Delivered at Home

IMG 1936

Earlier this month, I did something rather unusual for 2020: I switched my subscription to the New York Times from a digital subscription to an old-fashioned home-delivery print edition.

I have had a subscription to the New York Times, in some one form or another, for as long as I can remember, even before I moved to city in 2001. While still living in Santa Barbara in the late 1990s and at the urging of one of my college professors, I subscribed to the New York Times at the same time I was receiving home delivery of the Los Angeles Times. Let’s just say that my recycling bins were never so full as they were during that era. I continued the subscription when I moved to New York, and it followed me from one apartment to another. Finally, in 2010, while living in Long Island City, I frustratingly gazed at my overflowing paper-recycling bin and decided that my print-news era was over. I switched to a digital subscription.

Yet in 2020, when almost every aspect of my life exists in “cyberspace,” I decided to restart home delivery of the print edition. Let this sink in: I am now paying someone to bring over many sheets of paper to my home just so I can get the news, as if there was no other way to get it.

Here are some reasons why I switched to home delivery of the print edition:

  • Over the summer, I often go to the beach and prefer to read the news in print. I can’t read my phone or tablet under the bright, hot sun.
  • No stores in my East Williamsburg–Bushwick neighborhood carry the New York Times anymore. Only a handful of bodegas even sell newspapers, but those few only carry the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and/or a Spanish-language daily.
  • I have access to a 50%-off academic rate, otherwise this would be completely unaffordable.
  • It comes with two bonus digital subscriptions. I gave one to my dad and another to a bartender in the neighborhood who used to do the crossword everyday until “all this happened.”
  • It’s a much more pleasant and focused experience to read the news in print than it is to drink from the proverbial firehose that is getting news online, especially on social media and especially in “these times.”
  • I had money in my Subscriptions budget after cancelling my AT&T TV Now “skinny bundle.” I soured on the package once it had swelled from an affordable $10/month package in 2016 to a bloated $35/month, including subsidies for the right-wing news outlets as One American News Network and Fox News.

Earlier today, after a month of receiving the paper on Saturdays and Sundays, I upgraded the subscription from weekends-only to seven-day delivery because I have enjoyed reading news in print so much. Also, in the age of the virus, where I don’t have to leave my apartment for work anymore, going downstairs to fetch the paper every morning seems like a nice healthy ritual.

All I need now is just a bigger recycling bin.

The Internet “Broke” into the Movies Twenty-Five Years Ago

The proprietors of Screen Slate have curated nifty film series at Anthology Film Archives. Screen Slate is, among other things, a website and daily newsletter of New York City independent, repertory, experimental, and artist-focused film and video screenings and exhibitions.”

The series, 1995: The Year the Internet Broke, brings together mostly-American films about the Internet that were released in 1995. The idea was to look back at Hollywood’s view of the Internet just as it was becoming a mainstream communications platform and “cyberspace” became a trendy buzzword. The series starts today, March 5, and runs through Thursday, March 12.

Some films in the series include Hackers (Iain Softley), Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii), Johnny Mnemonic (Robert Longo), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow), and The Net (Irwin Winkler). I’m planning on watching Virtuosity (Brett Leonard) on Friday night.

1995: The Year I Became an Internaut

I first went on the real Internet in 1995, and, holy hell, that was 25 years ago!

Back in 1995, my friend Paul was well-versed with computers and introduced me to some early Internet applications beyond email that I could use through my university’s UNIX account. He showed me Usenet newsgroups, anonymous FTP for downloading shareware and freeware programs, and uuencode/uudecode to convert 8-bit binaries to 7-bit ASCII files suitable for transmission through ZMODEM. He also introduced me to the World Wide Web through the Lynx text-based web browser, skipping the menu-based Gopher altogether.

I should note that I accessed these applications through a shell on a university computer; I dialed in to the modem pool to get a terminal. I searched for a graphic to illustrate what this looked like, but I couldn’t find anything. Twenty-five years is a long time ago.

By summer 1995, I had learned how to configure SLIP and later PPP connections so that I could put my computer—a Macintosh Quadra 640—on the Internet. It could run Mac applications for FTP (Fetch), mail (Eudora), and a graphical web browser (Netscape). My life quickly evolved to integrate my computer and these Internet applications. I would say that 1995 marked the end of the Analog Stage of my life.

A lot has changed over the last 25 years. We now access the Internet on pocket and wearable devices, not just on computers. We now use many more Internet applications, including ones that control our light bulbs. And we now have weaponized the Internet for all kinds of nefarious actions, like spreading political propaganda and all kinds of misinformation. We’ve come a long way from hoping it would be a tool for peace, community, and education. Oh well.

And yet, over the last twenty-five years, my only regret is that I couldn’t get the term “Internaut” to catch on. It sounds so much cooler than “users.”

Remembering Edward Branigan

Professor Edward Branigan at the 2005 SCMS Conference in London.

Over the weekend, I learned that Professor Emeritus Edward Branigan had passed away on June 29, succumbing to leukemia. During my time as an undergraduate at UCSB, I took only one class from him—Film Studies 192A: Classical Film Theory. The class was one of the most intensive classes I took at UCSB, although it would be unfair to characterize my other classes as easy.

The Classical Film Theory course was very different from most other college film courses. First, there were no film screenings. There were only readings, and there were a lot of them. Second, the class met three times a week, for a hour each day, plus a discussion section with a TA. Third, the class was not actually about film. It was a philosophy class about film. So rather than stressing concepts like aura, montage, or realism, the course was based around concepts such as ontology, epistemology, and aesthetics. And we used those to understand not just how to criticize a particular film—but to understand the nature of all film—those that had been produced and those not yet even imagined. Many students struggled in this course, but I was managed to stay afloat largely because I had already taken an experimental film course. And that course helped me understand that film was much more than we see at the movies.

The Department of Film and Media Studies posted a memorial tribute to on its website. It chronicles many major milestones of Branigan’s life and catalogs his many achievements in film studies. He lived a rich life, serving in the military during the Vietnam War era and practicing as an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood before transitioning to academia in the 1980s.

One accomplishment from that tribute that I would like to highlight is his developing Film Studies 146: Advanced Film Analysis, a class that “weeded out” the students who could not keep up with the major. For those of us that remained, it was an important part of crafting film scholars. Professor Branigan didn’t teach 146 when I took it: Donna Cunningham did. But now that I think about it, it is clear that this was a “Branigan class” in that it was not like the other film classes.

Unlike Classical Film Theory, we did screen films, but only ten of them. We met three times a week—once on Monday afternoon, again that same evening, and once more on Wednesday afternoons. On Monday, we would watch a film and study how it employed a specific narration technique: such as space, time, and sound. We talked about it some more on Wednesday. Then, the following Monday afternoon, we would screen a different film—which would be unknown to the class—and be asked to write an eight-page paper on the film’s narrational techniques by Wednesday afternoon. We would repeat this pattern four times throughout the semester. If anything, it taught me to quickly identify the “moral” of the film and to outline how the film communicated that moral through cinematography, editing, sound, mise-en-scène, etc.

The last time I saw Professor Branigan was in 2005 at the SCMS Conference in London, which is where I snapped the above photo of him. I was at NYU at the time. My friend Scott, from our UCSB days and who was studying at Berkeley, was with me. Scott and I approached… no, we cornered… Edward at an evening reception on the conference’s first day. The Film Studies department at UCSB in the 1990s was pretty small, and the students had a very close relationship with the faculty: we even called our professors by their first names. I believe Scott asked him about his new role as the department’s Director of Graduate Studies. I feigned surprise and brashly asked Edward, “Wait! They put you in charge of the graduate students?” Everyone was aware that Edward had married one of his former graduate students, who herself passed away in 2016.

He responded with a smirk on his face, with a tone of sarcasm, and in his distinctive raspy voice: “Oh, I like graduate students.”

Rest in Peace, Edward.

Update: David Bordwell wrote a touching and personal memoir of Edward Branigan, one that spans decades and maintains close contact throughout that time. Because of the Independence Day holiday, I didn’t keep up with Observations on Film Art as closely I usually do. I only found out about his passing from the UCSB Alumni newsletter.

Remembering Agnès Varda, Considering Kenneth Anger

Show a film in the basement of a century-old library and the filmmaker dies.

This might resemble the premise of a horror movie, but it’s something that actually happened last Thursday after I screened Agnès Varda’s 1962 film, Cléo from 5 to 7 in class last week. The doyenne of the French New Wave passed away last Friday at the age of 90.

My History of Film class at Pratt Institute meets in the basement of the Pratt Brooklyn library. The library was built in 1896 and is a pretty exquisite building. It is one of the oldest buildings at the Clinton Hill campus, and it features Tiffany stained glass throughout the building. Another ornate feature is that the book spine labels in the stacks are handwritten in a pretty distinct yet clearly standard style.

The day after I screened Varda’s best known film I heard on KPCC’s The Frame radio program that Varda had passed away in Paris.

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Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 is an existentialist exploration in life and death.

When our class met this past Thursday, a student remarked that he had heard that Varda had died, and it struck him that he was familiar with her work due to our screening Cléo in class days earlier. The timing was eery for him and for me.

This past week’s class involved a survey of eight American experimental films, and sensitive to the timing of Varda’s death, I noticed that of the eight films, the filmmakers of seven had already died. These are the films and the filmmakers:

Manhatta1921Charles Sheeler
Paul Strand
Rose Hobart1936Joseph Cornell19031972
Meshes of the Afternoon1943Maya Deren19171961
A Movie1959Bruce Conner19332008
Wonder Ring1959Stan Brakhage19332003
Bridges Go Round1958Shirley Clarke19191997
T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G1968Paul Sharits19431993
Scorpio Rising1964Kenneth Anger1927

As you can see in this list, of the films I screened on Thursday, only Scorpio Rising‘s filmmaker Kenneth Anger remains alive today.

Symbols of death recur in Anger’s best known film, Scorpio Rising.

Being a superstitious fellow, I worried that we would somehow curse Kenneth Anger. He is far from a young man, aged 92 years old and as old as Scorpio Rising is, he actually completed his first film in 1947.

So far, forty-eight hours after our class, Anger appears to be alive, and I wish him many more years.

In Journalism, Objectivity is not Balance, it is Truth

Earlier today, the technocratic and industry-captive news curators at TV News Check linked in their morning newsletter to an opinion piece by Accuracy in Media’s Carrie Sheffield. Sheffield commented on the recent interview by Lara Logan and retired Navy SEAL Mike Ritland.

Sheffield writes in The Hill:

In order to unify our country and rebuild our civic fabric, we must address this lack of trust in the media that Logan identifies. Trump calls out media bias and is the strongest industry watchdog that conservatives have had in decades. This in part helps explain his sky high approval ratings among Republicans. Even if journalists dislike him, they owe it to the American people to respect and give a fuller picture of his policy approach. They need to quit playing the role of activist and stick to the role of reporter.

I disagree with her premise that reporters owe us a “respectful” and “fuller picture” of Trump’s policy approach. Both Sheffield and Logan imply that a full picture means providing what conservatives call “balanced” coverage. That for every critical story or aspect of a story, a reporter should also include a positive piece as well. That is not what a trained journalist should aspire to do.

Christiane Amanpour says as much in an interview with Preet Bharara on his Stay Tuned with Preet podcast, explaining the difference between truth and neutrality. The latter seems to mean something similar to what to Sheffield and Logan regard as”balanced.”

I don’t think it should be confusing. There’s the truth, and there are facts. And there’s empirical evidence. That’s truth, (and that’s being truthful when you seek and report in those parameters.) Neutrality is often confused by people for objectivity. People sometimes think that our golden rule, which is objectivity, means neutrality. It does not.

Neutrality is when you essentially put two opposing thoughts on the same platform, and give equal weight to two opposing thoughts. Now sometimes you can, but often you cannot. And let’s just take genocide for instance, which is where I learned my craft. There is no moral or factual equivalence between the gross violation of humanitarian law and mass killing of people based on their ethnicity or their religion. There’s no equating the perpetrators with the victims.

Emphasis mine.

As I’ve written before on this site, trained journalists work like trained clinicians. They follow a set of procedures and practices to produce an accurate story—or diagnosis—lest the public suffer harm due to such negligence. They should be able to put aside their individual biases and contexts to do a professional job.

Sheffield and Logan note: there are “many courageous truth telling journalists who want to serve the public, and our hats are off to them as they inform and inspire us.” However, Sheffield dismisses the rest of the press entirely by referring to others as “mainstream journalists.” As we know, “mainstream” is code for the cadre of reporters who, according to Sheffield, conservatives, and right-wingers alike, “do not provide balanced and accurate information regarding [Trump’s] administration.”

Let us remind Sheffield that “balanced” and “accurate” have been co-opted by the right to sully the reputation of the professional, trained journalists who seek out the “truth” and “work in the public interest,” but may publish something critical of the president. Ultimately, that is what reporters owe the public: holding truth to power.

Pardon My Dusty Experimental Film Course

From L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930).

Over the last year or so, a few people have told me that they stumbled upon the syllabus for my Experimental Film at Pratt Institute and have adapted it as the basis for their own similar courses. I imagine that for each person who has gotten in touch, there must be some order-of-magnitude more that have used the syllabus but didn’t alert me to that fact. Let me be clear: I don’t mind anyone using my syllabus. This is why it’s available on the open web, and not hidden behind some walled-off LMS.

However, I would like to know how others have used this syllabus so that I can improve my own course. As I’ve noted before, the syllabus for this course draws heavily on an undergraduate course I myself took in the 1990s, taught by Constance Penley at UCSB. I made a few adjustments in designing my own course. For example, I added more New York-centric films to reflect the fact that I teach these courses in New York City. Another change is dealing more directly with the early days of video art. This in turn was to reflect what I learned in a graduate course on video art at NYU, taught by Chris Straayer. Ending the class with video art allowed me to wrap up one major narrative thread about my approach to studying experimental film: video in the 1970s was like film in the 1920s, generating great enthusiasm among artists to create new visual works that were previously impossible with other forms of art.

As much as I like the narrow focus of the course, especially in its one-semester, weekly format, I feel there are many improvements that I can make, and I’d like to know how others have approached teaching this material. First, I know there is a ton of great work that has emerged since the 1970s—nearly fifty years ago at this point—that should factor in to a survey course like this one. Second, there are a lot of titles in my current syllabus that are similar to each other. I would welcome some diversity to this course. Third, how should I incorporate experimental “film” that is born digital? This question has nagged at me for decades now, but honestly, there’s so much work out there—of varying quality and subjects—that the mere thought of figuring out how to summarize even some of it seems overwhelming. For example, does Fortnite count as a born-digital experimental work? (It doesn’t, but these are the kinds of questions that haunt me in revising this course.)

In the spirit of academic collegiality and cooperation, I request anyone who has used my Experimental Film syllabus to please contact me and share your syllabus with me. You reach me via email or via the contact form on this website.

The Criterion Streaming Channel is in a Kind-of Soft-Launch Beta

The Criterion Collection gained an almost divine status in the film world, at least to me, at the dawn of the DVD age. As DVDs were being dumped on to an insatiable DVD-buying public, the overall quality of some titles, particularly those that catered to a small audience hungry for classic, arthouse, or non-US fare, were sadly of dubious quality. Some were poor transfers. Others offered no “bonus features,” which was a bit of a waste of the multi-title DVD format. And some non-English titles displayed English-language subtitles that were burned into the image.

Criterion changed this. When you bought a Criterion disk, you knew you were getting a high-fidelity transfer, at least one bonus feature—such as filmmaker’s or a film critic’s commentary—and at least one set of removable subtitles and captions, often in multiple languages.

Criterion quickly adopted to the streaming-video age by making many of its titles available on a number of services. I seem to remember some Criterion titles available on Netflix for a while. Then for a long time, Hulu Plus became the exclusive home of Criterion Collection. And beginning in 2016, the Criterion Collection moved to the nascent FilmStruck video service. That ended last November when AT&T Warner Media abruptly shuttered the service to many cinephiles’ sorrow.

Shortly after FilmStruck’s closure, Criterion announced that it would be launching its own streaming service—The Criterion Channel—in 2019. They posted a signup page for Charter subscribers, offering them an extended free trial and a discounted membership. I entered my email and with the holidays and new year, promptly forgot about the service and hadn’t thought about it since.

Earlier this week, I received an email with a teaser. It featured a close-up shot of an envelope with a brief “Here’s your key. Bye” message written on it.

The email challenged us to identify the source of the close-up with a link to the new Criterion Channel website. The landing page allows Charter subscribers to stream this film. (The close-up image, by the way, is from Wong Kar Wai’s Chun-King Express.)

Currently, the service is in a kind-of soft-launch beta until its actual launch on April 8, 2019. Between now and then, Charter subscribers are allowed to stream one movie a week through a web browser or through some Internet-connected TVs.

I tried to stream the film from my iPad to my Apple TV and again from my iPad using a Lightning-to-HDMI adapter. It didn’t work.

However, despite this technical limitation, I was still able to watch the film on my iPad. The website promotes that the Criterion Channel will be “available anywhere” on “desktop, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, iOS, and Android devices.”

In addition to getting early access to the Criterion Channel, Charter subscribers will also get $1 off a monthly subscription or $10 a yearly subscription for as long as their account stays active. A Charter subscriber will also get an extended 30-day trial. Presumably a trail starting after April 8 will be a shorter 7-day—or 14-day—trial.

After AT&T Warner Media shut down FilmStruck, a few thoughts came to mind. First, why didn’t Apple buy the Criterion Collection and offer that as part of its forthcoming streaming service? Second, why didn’t I get FilmStruck? Now that it’s gone, I predict that it will attain the reverence and cult-status similar to that of the Z Channel’s demise in the late 1980s. I won’t be able to share in the nostalgic melancholy of having it ripped away from me.

Although I didn’t get FilmStruck and can stream a lot of Criterion films through other venues, I love early-adopter deals like these and already signed up as a Charter subscriber. You should too.

Note: After posting this story, I was able to figure out how to stream to my Apple TV, but I think it’s a secret, and I won’t reveal it here. Yet.

The above links to Amazon are affiliate links. If you buy something through those links, I will earn a commission fee.

Help Light Industry Fund Their Fall Lineup

Near the Projection Booth at Light Industry

Light Industry launched a campaign to raise funds to program their fall lineup. Donate at least $10 and receive passes for you and a guest to one of their upcoming events. So far, the Tuesday night events look promising. Already announced are the following events:

I have fall classes on Tuesday, except for September 11 and September 18, so I’ll try to make one of these events on those dates.

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