Categorized: Film

The Internet, The Long Tail, and the End of the Video Store Clerk Effect

The “Internet” gets riled up about a few things from time-to-time that, in the great scheme of things, don’t really matter. Earlier this month, the Internet got mad that Netflix was apparently closely examining its customers’ viewing patterns to produce this tweet:

The Internet’s outrage was due to one of two factors, or in the case of some people, probably both:

  1. People just now realize that Netflix actually tracks and stores what we watch on Netflix. To those people, I say, “well, duh!”
  2. People dislike the tone that the Netflix social media team took with its users and what they watch. Let’s call this the “video store clerk effect.”

Spotify did something similar in the past, where it made a tongue-in-cheek ad based on its customers’ music listening.

While I appreciate the point that @xor makes by reminding us that our VCRs and record players didn’t make fun of us, allow me to remind all these analog dweebs what it was like to visit a video store or a record store. Part of me dreaded visiting these kinds of stores because of the clerks who worked there, passing judgement on what I movie I was renting or what CD I was buying.

Perhaps, I should have been less self-conscious and been proud of my cultural choices. Or maybe were it not for those clerks, I would not have curated my hipster tastes more carefully.

Nonetheless, when I first got on the Internet and bought a CD through CDNow in 1995, I really liked this experience because…

  • the selection was much more diverse than what I could find at a local music shop, or what Chris Anderson refers to as the “long tail.”
  • there was an impersonal anonimity in that I could buy whatever I wanted

I don’t remember what I bought and if it was all that embarrassing, but I seem to recall that I was programming a radio show on KCSB at the time, which likely meant it was something hard-to-find in the Santa Barbara–area.

To be sure, I know that my personal preferences, listening and viewing data, and my shopping habits are all tracked by a multitude of companies. However, I also don’t remember those algorithms making fun of me whenever I brought something to the counter. And, as far as I know, no algorithm ever its friends that I would see around town about what I music or movies I like.

Finally, the whole Internet backlash against Netflix might have been overblown. I heard one theory that the @netflix social media team just might have fabricated that fifty-three people had watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past two weeks.

If that’s the case, it’s not creepy, it’s comedy.

However, Swarm/Foursquare did something similar and reported on some extraordinary streaks that its users have made.

Given that Swarm/Foursquare offers almost no benefit other than reporting check-ins, I would avoid annoying its users, lest they feel they’re being judged for liking donuts and sandwiches.

UnionDocs is Looking for Winter-Spring Interns, Apply by November 17

UnionDocs, the Williamsburg, Brooklyn–based center for documentary video production, is looking for interns who work in “some aspect” of film and video: curation, production, or film theory. Interns help with realizing UnionDoc’s mission to foster nonfiction media, programming, events, production, and storytelling.

Interns would have responsibilities that including:

  • event documentation
  • event planning
  • social media marketing
  • programming support

Interested students can read more about it on the UnionDocs website and complete an application. The Winter/Spring internships run from mid-January through mid-May. The deadline to apply is Friday, November 17.

Apply by November 17

J. Hoberman Presents “Against Riefenstahl” at Light Industry

It’s been a while since I’ve linked to an event at Brooklyn’s Light Industry. That’s partly because I don’t live within a two-minute walk, and I have an evening class on Tuesday nights, which is when their events are usually scheduled. If I can’t attend, how can I reasonably expect you to attend?

But this coming Tuesday, October 17, there’s a pretty special event. Celebrated film critic J. Hoberman will be at Light Industry to present three World War II-era film in a program titled “Against Riefenstahl.



The first film is an abridged version of Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 cinematic love-letter to Adolph Hitler and the Nazis as they consolidated power in Germany. The notes on the website detail how the film reached the attention of American film viewers, including Iris Barry, the first film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. The films that Barry curated are considered the first canonical works of film scholarship. MoMA edited a 45-minute version—a kind of “documentary of the film itself”—that circulated throughout the US in the 1940s.

The film apparently caught the attention of Hollywood film director Frank Capra. According to the screening notes, Capra regarded the edited version of Triumph as the “most impressive propaganda movie he had ever encountered,” incorporating material from the film in his own Why We Fight? series of propaganda films made for the US military between 1942 and 1945 to train newly enlisted and drafted US soldiers.

The film also caught the attention of Charles Ridley, of the British Ministry of Information, who edited a print from the British Film Institute to create a satirical look at Hitler and the Nazis: The Lambeth Walk (1940). This short film that includes and manipulates segments from Triumph and sets it to a song from the time to create a humorous “dance” film, where Hitler and Nazi soldiers appear to “dance” the Lambeth Walk, a popular dance of the time. Having screened this film in class several times, the films retains its sharp comedic and critical bite, nearly eighty years after it was made.

The program will look at these three “derivative works” created from one of the most notorious films ever made: an extremely beautiful and well-made film that celebrates the most evil and murderous regimes in history.

Against Riefenstahl

  • October 17, 2017
  • Light Industry, 155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
  • $8.00

Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision is Again Available in Print

Cover art for the 2017 republication of Metaphors on Vision, by Brakhage

If you’re looking for more reading on experimental film, Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision, which was out of print for forty years, is again available for purchase in a new edition.

As one of the most celebrated and prolific American experimental filmmakers Brakhage not only understood how to technically make films, he had a deep philosophical understanding on what he wanted to with filmmaking. Metaphors on Vision is the manifesto that explains the lyrical and profoundly personal filmmaking that Brakhage created throughout his life.

Republished by Anthology Film Archives and Brooklyn’s Light Industry, two institutions that I have often reference on this site and respect greatly, the new edition features the original book design by George Maciunas and many corrections and revisions overseen by renown film scholar P. Adams Sitney.

The book has a street date—if that’s what it’s called in the bookselling game—of September 26, 2017, for a list price of $40.
It’s also for pre-order through Light Industry at a 15% discount.

Go Back to School with Anthology Film Archives

Anthology Film Archives is arguably one of the most important institutions for film in New York City, and with the back-to-school season upon us, Anthology Film Archives is offering a substantial discount on one book relevant to their mission as a home of experimental and avant-garde cinema.New and renewing members can purchase one of the following four books at a 50% discount:

Support Anthology Film Archives, get free admission to Essential Cinema screenings, and enjoy discounted tickets to all screenings by becoming a member. Regular memberships start at $70 and student/senior membership cost $50. Also, student members will receive two bonus months of membership for free.

A Letter to the World: Experiments in Essay Filmmaking, Workshop at UnionDocs, September 8-10

The folks at UnionDocs is offering a three-day intensive workshop on the essay film, called A Letter to the World: Experiments in Essay Filmmaking, between September 8 and 10, to enable artists to articulate their ideas and explore new methodologies in crafting their work. The workshop will be led by filmmaker Lynne Sachs and will feature guest instructors Alan Berliner, Akosua Adoma Owusu and Roger Beebe, with scholars Timothy Corrigan and Nora M. Alter, co-authors of the book Essays on the Essay Film.

The workshop is open to filmmakers, students, artists, scholars, etc.

The workshop is currently sold-out, but you can join the waiting list at https://uniondocs.org/event/2017-09-08-explorations-essay-filmmaking/.

New York City 2017 Bike Map Pays Tribute to Bill Cunningham

I finally had a chance to see the New York City 2017 Bike Map, and it took me a while to realize that the cover pays tribute to longtime New York Times fashion photographer and cultural icon Bill Cunningham. Cunningham was a well known bicycle enthusiast and was known to enjoy riding his bike to photograph New York street life in his weekly “On the Street” columns for the New York Times.

Film still from Bill Cunningham New York. First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films.

There are a few giveaways that show the cover illustration depicts Cunningham:

  • it’s an older, white-haired man on cruiser,
  • he’s snapping a photo from his bike,
  • he’s wearing his trademark blue jacket and grey pants,
  • most obviously, the map indicates a credit of “Cover illustration of Bill Cunningham, used with permission of the Estate of William J. Cunningham.”

Bill Cunningham passed away at age 87 a year ago today. He was extensively covered in the 2010 documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, which as of today, is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

NYC Bike Map 2017 Inset Pays Tribute to Bill Cunningham

Today, the Clock Strikes Thirteen

Today, over 200 art-house and independent movie theaters in the United States are screening 1984, the 1984 film adaptation of George Orwell’s novel directed by Michael Radford. The theaters are doing so to stand up for “freedom of speech, respect for our fellow human beings, and the simple truth that there are no such things as ‘alternative facts,'” according to the United State of Cinema website.

I bought tickets to screening at the Loews Jersey in Jersey City and am going tonight. However, I later realized that there were plenty of other options closer to home, including the Nitehawk (sold out), Anthology Film Archives (buy at the box office), the IFC Center (also sold out) and even the newish Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Brooklyn (yup…sold out). The Film Society of Lincoln Center is screening it for free, but you should expect a throng of cheapskates waiting to get in.

If you can’t get to a screening near you, you can stream it on Amazon.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. Shopping through that link will kick back a referral fee to me. Thanks for your support!

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film at New York University

Partly to torment my students with a long reading, but also to perhaps have them reflect on contemporary issues, I assigned Siegfried Kracauer’s “Mass Ornament” essay to my students in my History of Film class this week.

By a great stroke of luck, Nicholar Baer is delivering a lecture about Kracauer’s writings and film on Wednesday, February 15, at the department of Cinema Studies at New York University. The students in my Tuesday class may get a chance to hear this lecture, but the students in my Wednesday class will not. Our class meets at the same time as this lecture.

The announcement from NYU Cinema Studies is reproduced below.

Abel Gance's Napoleon Playing at Apollo Theater

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film

This presentation will examine how Siegfried Kracauer addressed the relation between history and poetics in his film-theoretical writings. I will argue that insofar as Kracauer came to define the medium’s “basic aesthetic principle” in terms of engagement with the singular and transitory occurrences of physical reality, he obfuscated Aristotle’s opposition between history and poetry, paradoxically locating the poetics of film in its potential as a historian of contemporary life. Notably, however, the genre of the historical film was problematic for Kracauer, given its efforts to visualize a past that is by definition no longer present. Rather than showing “how things actually were,” in Leopold von Ranke’s famous words, the historical film can only envision “things as they could have happened.” An examination of Kracauer’s extensive writings on the historical film will shed new light on his film theory and illuminate significant developments in his thought from Weimar Germany to 1960s New York. Not least, Kracauer’s texts will provide an occasion for considering cinema in relation to historical-philosophical debates on the dissolving distinction between empirical reality and fictional construction, the history and the story, and the true (das Wahre) and the verisimilar (das Wahrscheinliche)—issues of renewed concern in our own “post-truth” era.

Nicholas Baer: Siegfried Kracauer & the Historical Film

  • February 15, 2017
  • Michelson Theater, 721 Broadway, 6 Fl
  • Free

Roots of an “Imperfect Cinema”

About a week ago, film professor and documentarian Michael Chanan posted an excerpt from his documentary film The New Cinema of Latin America (1983). The excerpt includes an enlightening interview with Cuban filmmaker Julio Garcia Espinosa. At the time, he was the head of ICAIC, the Cuban Film Institute founded by the Castro regime after the 1959 Revolution, but he is perhaps best remembered for writing the essay “For an Imperfect Cinema” in 1969.

Espinosa’s interview highlights two very compelling issues of the post-1959 period of filmmaking and, apparently, his own thinking about “imperfect cinema”:

  1. The filmmakers were influenced by the European New Waves and documentary. Espinosa describes how Italian Neorealism was a model for quality filmmaking and recalls how someone criticized his early film work for ignoring this important movement. He also notes the influence of Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, as well as generally referring to the documentary work that grew in the decades after World War II.
  2. The filmmakers were determined to create their own cinema. Espinosa discusses how filmmakers had adopted many tricks to mask the racial markers of Afro-Cubans, but they were determined to forgo that practice in favor of representing the Cuban people in their truest light.

The New Cinema of Latin America (1983) is hard to find. It is available on DVD for institutional purchase and on VHS, for the rest of us, at a library near you.