Sunday, April 22, 2012

Pay the Writer

Previously, I expressed my desire to defuse the idea of a 'war on copyright' because it creates an artificial polarity that does not help to further the necessary discussion and debate that needs to take place on this increasingly important issue.

I pointed out that the only people impacted by restrictive and intrusive DRM are legitimate users, who pay an over-inflated price for an inferior product. 

I suggested that these self-defeating practices that are impoverishing the creative industries might be rectified by lowering the price of digital goods (the nominal distribution cost of which is zero) and removing the DRM that more and more closely resembles malware and spyware. 

Digital abundance

In this second article, I would like to backtrack a little and explain where I stand with respect to copyright, and why I think it is so important for creators to receive suitable recompense for the products they create, online or otherwise. 

My understanding of copyright is quite straightforward. I am no lawyer and I have no special knowledge on the subject - please let me know if I have anything wrong if you know more than I - but, as far as I understand it, copyright is a protection against plagiarism that enables creators to earn a living. That is it. I am sure that there are all sorts of complicated legal precepts with which copyright is associated and I know that there are hundreds of different licenses under which works can be copyrighted, but, as far as I am concerned, the notion that creators be paid for the products of their hearts and minds is perfectly fair and reasonable. 

Some argue that the 'digital revolution' and resulting information abundance has made copyright irrelevant, that the concepts of propriety and freedom are antithetical in a digital world. This strikes me as wrong. Propriety is surely an important part of freedom. 

Why it matters

One of the most eloquent and informed writers and speakers on the subject of copyright and digital distribution is Corey Doctorow. He earns what appears to be a very good living as a science fiction writer, technology journalist and public speaker. Having worked as a computer programmer, he knows about the technical realities of modern computing, and, having worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, he is very well informed about modern copyright law. I would not dream of contradicting him about any of the finer details of what are called the copyright wars, but which, I think, need a new name. As I am about to outline, I agree with him in almost every respect, but one. Creators should be paid for digital products. 

If you will allow me to paraphrase, Corey Doctorow says that the copyright wars are the front line of a coming war on general-purpose computation. Corporations and control freaks like the idea of turning general-purpose computers - as embodied by the PC (probably running Linux) - into tethered media appliances with limited functionality and spyware as standard, all in the name of security and convenience. Computing devices that match this description are already available on the market - you may well be reading this article on an Apple iPad, probably the most prevalent of this new vanguard. The fundamental point is that DRM is a slippy slope towards more authoritarian forms of control that might limit access to digital information. The solution therefore is for people to reject DRM in all its forms - and I agree with all of that. 

However, removing DRM and weakening copyright does not necessarily improve the likelihood of creators to be paid for their work online. 

The copyright industries

I have do far been very polite and attempted to choose my words very carefully to avoid any sense of prejudice on my part. But I feel like it is time to put my cards on the table and declare where my interests lie.

SOPA and PIPA were notionally promoted by the MPAA to protect the interests of its members - Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Sony, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and The Walt Disney Company - all of which are either subsidiaries of or in themselves transnational corporations. This was an industrial response to what is essentially a creative problem, or to be more specific, a problem for creators. Personally, I could scarcely care less about whether the Big Six survive the digital transition. They have made themselves culturally irrelevant by rigid adherence to a franchise filmmaking formula  aimed almost exclusively at young boys and their families, and they have made themselves financially precarious by only making films with the insanely large budgets. Personally, I think I can live without another Transformers sequel or Spider-Man reboot. 

My interest and my concern is for free-spirited and independently minded creators. The problem of digital distribution is a problem for creators not corporations. Several years ago - maybe 15 or 20 - cyber utopians promised that the Internet would usher in a new era of pluralism and creativity, eliminating boundaries to entry for new writers/musicians/filmmakers/programmers. That was true enough, in the sense that millions of people were given a platform to publish what they wanted - everything from new political treatise to the ever popular cat picture. But, the utopians failed to anticipate the profoundly destabilising impact the Internet would have upon previously stable professions. 

The most readily reported (ha!) is probably journalism. Thousands of jobs on local and national newspapers have been lost because of the advertising dollars that were lost to the Internet. Maybe that was necessary. Maybe those people were not producing anything of any value and the papers in question are now better. I do not know. But I am worried. 

The money that previously went towards paying journalists did not then go towards paying the bloggers who nominally replaced them. Those jobs were lost, not to be replaced, while the vast majority of bloggers (even the good ones) continued to work for nothing, earning money elsewhere. This deprofessionalisation of journalism is starting to occur in other industries - music, films, games. Practically everything that the digital magic wand touches. People in low-cost manufacturing had better watch out because as soon 3D printers go mainstream their jobs will be subject to the same market forces. 

A false economy 

Into this confusing cacophony of amateurs struggling to make a living, working elsewhere and indulging their passion in their spare time, enter Google, with an offer for creators. You can publish your text, music and video on our platforms - Blogger and YouTube - for free, provided that we keep the logs. In return, we will place targeted advertising around your content, earning us dollars and you cents. And, put simply,  it sucks. Creators do all of the work so that the companies that own the servers that host the content can make almost all of the money. I think can do better. I think we need to try to create a business model that puts creators in control of their own works and enables them to earn a living.

Corey Doctorow seems to propose that creators should give their works away for free over the Internet in order to attract sales in other media. He gives away free copies of his e-books and his audiobooks without DRM via his website and seems to make a very good living from physical books sales and his speaking engagements. He says that most author's biggest problem is not theft but obscurity. This may well be true, but there is only one Corey Doctorow. If I have misrepresented his position, I would love to hear from the man himself. 

He may be right. It is not possible to control the distribution of digital content without DRM, but I would like to think it is possible for creators to earn a living in a digital world. Surely it should be easier, in fact. Imagine the possibilities; instead of being impoverished, creators could be empowered. Creative people do not need or want to make millions, only enough to cover their costs, with a little bit extra to support their lifestyle while they work on their next project. Simple. I  think that the best way to achieve this is probably through some form of direct payment. In this context, paying for what one wants to read, watch and listen is a social act, one that enriches society as a whole, as opposed to an elite minority of executives to whom people begrudge payment. 

Exactly what such a system might look like is difficult to determine, but I feel like I am gradually grasping towards an understanding. I may need a bit of help putting the bits and pieces together. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

More Good News

This is how to make a viral video. The music and Fassbender's performance are exemplary. Anybody who has ever watched a corporate video aimed at executives will immediately recognise the soft lighting, the high production values and the even, but ever so slightly passive-aggressive tone. The moment when David tells us what what makes him sad - “War, poverty, cruelty, unnecessary violence” - then, as the tears roll down his cheeks, explains, “I understand human emotions, although I do not feel them myself”, is wonderfully unsettling.

For the first time I am excited by the prospect of watching Prometheus in the cinema. None of the teaser tailors or theatrical trailers were particularly engaging, and the Guy Pierce TED Talk was badly misjudged. I would have been willing to give Guy Pearce a pass on his English accent if he hadn't been directed to give his speech in full on evil-rich-bastard mode to an amphitheatre of what looks like roughly 40,000 people. TED Talks today tend to be given by very fluent, very personable professionals in relatively small venues that hold no more than 2,000 people – usually less.

So, well done, the marketing guys got it right this time. I just hope Ridley Scott is up to the very difficult task of finding something new to say and telling an enertaining and surprising story with the Alien franchise.  

They Got My Memo

At least some people are still trying to make interesting science fiction films based on original subject matter.

A spectre is haunting the world

David Cronenberg is a past master at this sort of thing. He has a core audience of dedicated film fans who will watch almost everything he makes, regardless of subject matter. But, when he turns his hand to a sleazy techno thriller about sex, money and power in the 21st century, their cup runneth. The idea of Robert Pattinson's core audience being corrupted by Cronenberg and Don DeLillo's subversive vision gives the entire enterprise a nicely sadistic edge as well.

Mirror, mirror

Rian Johnson is probably best known for his first feature film - a moderately successful independent production called Brick, about an American high school where everybody talks like characters in a Raymond Chandler novel. His second feature film was the stylish but muddled, The Brothers Bloom, about a couple of con men played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrian Brody who set out to trick but eventually end up falling for a dotty English heiress played by Rachael Weisz. I think I am one of about a dozen people who saw that one in a cinema. 

Financial success (or the lack thereof) notwithstanding, somebody clearly likes Johnson's style.

The premise for his latest feature film is a doozy. Joseph Gordon Levitt is scarcely recognisable as a time-travelling assassin - or Looper - who kills people in the past in order to eliminate them from the future. He is living the high life until he is hired to kill someone who has no place in his present: his older self. Bruce Willis plays the older assassin and if this combines the guns and explosions present in the trailer with the quirky sensibility of Johnson's two previous two cinematic outings, we may well be in for a treat.

Keeping it Simple

The copyright industries claim that DRM is necessary to prevent copyright infringement.

Yet, copyright infringement continues.

What solution do the copyright industries propose? Even more restrictive DRM!

Albert Einstein said, the definition of madness is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.

Legitimate user experience

It goes without saying that the only people who are impacted by DRM are legitimate users. 

What do these conscientious and law-abiding citizens get for their troubles?

No.1: A higher price 

The company that produces the music/film/game is likely to try to covers the cost of the expensive R&D that created the DRM that monitors and restricts legitimate use by setting a higher sale price for legitimate users. 

No.2: A worse product

The legitimate user who pays money for a copyright protected game with DRM may not be able to play the game without first registering her name, address and current account details with a remote host who is only then in a position to verify that she is indeed a legitimate user. 

The legitimate user who pays money for a copyright protected song with DRM may not be able to play the song on the MP3 player of his choice because the proprietary file format is not supported by the device. 

I have deliberately chosen examples at the milder end of the DRM spectrum, but the annoyance and resentment these restrictions engender are nevertheless real and genuine.

Meanwhile, the legitimate user's friend downloads the same game with no DRM and for no cost via BitTorent, she does not have to provide any personally identifiable information with a third party, she does not have to connect to the internet every time she wants to play the game, she does not have to have her use of the game monitored, time-stamped and data mined, and she is nor forced to download periodic updates and patches. The resemblance between certain types of DRM and malware/spyware is striking.

After a couple of months of being bullied and spied upon the legitimate user might think, 'Hang on a second, I am getting a raw deal here. Next time, I'll just download it off the Internet!' and the cycle of higher prices and an inferior user experience for legimate users perpetuates, driving more people to engage in copyright infingement, sending the copyright industries into a death spiral.  

This malaise is wholly avoidable, if both sides of the debate are willing to counternance a few home truths. This is not to endorse copyright infringement. But, if one is going to attempt to solve the problem, one has to at least try to understand from where the problem stems.

The social contract

There is an active debate in certain political circles at the moment about ending the 'war on drugs'. One of the few areas of agreement in that debate is that the rhetroric 'war on drugs' has not been helpful. Creators, publishers and technologists should avoid making the same mistake. Calling something a war is likely to polarise people and create entrenched positions on both sides. It is much more productive to talk about what is clearly a problem from a position of openness in order to engage in rational debate. I feel like I need to clarify these self-evident propositions because of the way in which language is so often rendered toxic by political debate.

In a spirit of reconciliation, I would like to point out what both sides are doing wrong and how to make a change in behaviour more likely.

Enlightenment thinkers used to talk about something called the 'social contract' which says that in a civilised society people should be willing to give up certain 'freedoms' in order to live more prosperously together. In the 'state of nature' described by Thomas Hobbes as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short", I am free to steal from whomever I want, whenever I want. But in a civilised society, the citizens agree to cede that freedom so that others will do the same. Individual citizens have a responsibility to behave in a way that accords due respect to the social contract that binds them with their fellows citizens.

As I have already outlined, the relationship that exists between individuals and the copyright industries is not equitable and it is therefore in their power to reverse the self-defeating practices that are driving still more people to engage in copyright infringement, costing them still more money. 

I would propose two changes. Both are simple. 

No. 1: Remove the DRM. 

As Corey Doctorow points out, "DRM is broken in minutes, sometimes days. Rarely months". It is ineffective, intrusive and only impacts legitimate users. 

No.2: Lower your prices. 

CDs and DVDs are comparatively inexpensive to produce and a digital download costs even less. Yet, iTunes charges 80p per song and Amazon charges upwards of £8.99 for an e-book, the same as a paperback copy. 

Avoid a pirate's charter

Lowering the price and removing the DRM would immediately make legitimate purchases of digital goods a more attractive proposition. And what is the best way to win customers in a competitive market place? By convincing customers your product is better than your competitor's product. Every executive in the copyright industries should be looking to promote their foremost competitive advantage to its utmost. What is that advantage? Legitimacy. Don't laugh! Illegitimate users run the risk of downloading all manner of malware and spyware, which is why it is so stupid for the copyright industries to argue in favour of greater surveillance to protect their products. SOPA, PIPA and ACTA are a pirate's charter writ large! Users do not want that and the copyright industries should not want it either.

I don't expect the problem to vanish over night. The swamp of resentment created by the heavy-handed practices of media conglomerates is not going to subside in an instant. A minority of people will never be convinced. Over time, however, a more reasonable price and the freedom of people to use the goods they purchase as they desire would give the copyright industries a chance to survive and thrive. My hope is that, for the vast majority, if it is in their rational self-interest to buy a legitimate copy, they will.

If that does not work, we need a new system of production, payment and distribution, and I have got a few ideas about that as well.

This is the first post in a new series of articles about copyright. I am not pretending to have anything like all the answers, but in writing these articles I hope to tease out some of the subtleties of the arguments on both sides and in so doing move the debate forward. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

J'aime le film de Gainsbourg

The lover of the pop biopic has been well served in recent years. The Americans have given us solid, sturdy narratives with exceptional performances - Jaime Fox as Ray Charles and Joaquin Phoenix as The Man in Black. The Brits have produced quirky, independently-spirited impressionist oddities about outsiders and desperadoes like the gay, half-deaf, occult obsessed 1960s record producer Joe Meek in Telstar, and Polio-striken punk word smith Ian Drury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. The French, however, have been less well served, largely because, let's face it, the French were pretty short of pop stars to begin with.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and Serge Gainsbourg was a notable exception, as is the film that carries his name that is ostensibly about his life. In contrast to recent American efforts, first-time director Joann Sfar is scarcely interested in the emotional peaks and troughs of Gainsbourg's journey through life and much interested in capturing a sense of the outlaw spirit of the man's music. Sfar said he wanted to "avoid the burden of making a museum piece" and just have fun making a movie, an approach that would have likely found favour with the film's laconic hero.

The one time cartoonist achieves this in a number of ways, most notably through the creative use of puppets and long-limbed Guillermo Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, who lends his unique physicality to a grossly exaggerated caricature of Gainsbourg's favoured public image - La Gueule - an elegant anarchistic lothario with an enormous nose, who time after time leads Gainsbourg astray. When Gainsbourg finds himself uncertain about whether to pursue a musical or an artistic career, La Gueule takes his guitar in hand, lights his head with a match and dances around his counterpart's studio, burning precious artworks and engulfing the entire room in flames. When the fire is extinguished, nothing of Gainsbourg's life of an artist remains.

It is not a subtle film. Characters are invariably what they seem and all details are painted in broad, colourful brush strokes. There is hardly any consideration given to narrative - once the small Jewish boy has escaped from the shadow of what he calls his Ugly Mug - another live-action puppet - the film moves rapidly from one Euro Pop musical number to the next, Gainsbourg bedding beautiful woman, one after another - Greco, Bardot, Birkin - and La Gueule inviting him to elope lest he settling down. Eric Elmosnino is exemplary in the leading role, surly, sarcastic, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth at all times.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is the film's full title, intended as an ironic in-joke I presume. The film plays out a male fantasy about being the bad boy that at times resembles so closely a parody of a French hero, I can only assume the director is having a bit of fun by calling the film that. Gainsbourg, as depicted in the film was the kind of selfish bastard best avoided in real-life, but its good fun to indulge in two hours of his company via the medium of film. Far from perfect, but the lie is a good one. 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend'.

Bravo! C'est tres bon!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Early 21st Century Disaster Fiction

The 'situation on the ground' in the first decade of the 21st century was far stranger than even the most visionary 20th century science fiction writers ever imagined. As described by William Gibson in The Paris Review: "Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilising the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq."

Climate change and the looming environmental disaster that scientists like James Lovelock warned about with such urgency did not really start making headlines, however, until the middle of the last decade. Hence, Hollywood - a cultural barometer for so many American societal issues - was, arguably, slightly ahead of the curve in its depiction of impending climate catastrophe. With a global box office take of more than US$500, The Day After Tomorrow was the most financially successful environmental disaster fiction of all time. Though certainly not a pioneering disaster movie - Hollywood has been entertaining America with stories about the end of the world since Cecil B. DeMille started making biblical epics in the early 1920s - The Day After Tomorrow was significant in the sense that it was possibly the first film to introduce the concept of imminent climate catastrophe to a mass audience. Al Gore's portentous PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2006, thereby demonstrating the desire of the Hollywood elite to be associated with fashionable causes. But, with only US$50 million at the global box office, it was The Day After Tomorrow that had a bigger impact on the general public. The political siren being sounded by the likes of Al Gore ahead of global climate talks by the G20 in Montreal in 2005 made the reckless destruction of New York by rampaging snow and ice seem reasonable - and cinema-goers bought into that fiction in their millions. The Day After Tomorrow will be remembered by me for an hilarious sequence in which Donnie Darko runs away from a fast-moving frost, only to escape a fate worse that frost-bite by locking the door! The message seemed to be: get better insulation.

Following Al Gore's reasonably successful polemic, earnest documentaries like the Leonardo DiCaprio backed, The Eleventh Hour, and the tactfully named, The Age of Stupid, preached to the converted (and alienated mainstream America) about the dangers of man-made carbon emissions and suddenly the end of the world didn't sound like nearly as much fun as it had done; apparently, remembering to turn the lights off and half filling the kettle wasn't going to be enough. Faced by insurmountable odds and lacking the power to directly affect the policies that govern power stations and the use of fossil fuels, political pressure waned, as did audience numbers and Hollywood interest in the subject. By 2008, the global political elite had bigger fish to fry in the form of a banking crisis, and, lacking direction and leadership, the environmental lobby seemed to flounder, struggling to find a cohesive, consistent narrative. That struggle for identity is exemplified by M. Night Shyamalan's well meaning, but confused and confusing 2008 film, The Happening, which wanted to say that 'nature will find a way to rid itself of irresponsible caretakers', but was so badly plotted it would have taken a Bertrand Russel to discern that message.

By the end of the decade, Hollywood, like the general public it seems, had moved on from climate change. This left the field open for more thoughtful and politically minded independent filmmakers, such as Australia's John Hillcoat, whose 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, The Road, is about as bleak a film as one could ever wish to see. About a boy and his father, struggling to survive in an Apocalyptic landscape, following a catastrophe - presumed to be environmental, although never specifically stated - there is no hope, there is no redemption. That story of desperation and despair did reasonable business in Europe but, perhaps unsurprisingly, failed to find much of an audience in the United States. It is a film that would never have been made in Hollywood today. But would a mainstream audience be willing to listen to its brutal message?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width

Headhunters is the kind of slick, empty nonsense that would be ridiculed for its two-dimensional characters, unbelievable plotting and seemingly bottomless sadism were it not for the fact that it is set in Oslo, as opposed to LA, and the actors speak in Norwegian, not English.

Not to say that the film is without charm or pleasure, but, why is it that whenever English critics review a film with subtitles, almost all sense of proportion goes out the window and everything is suddenly imbued with meaning?

Certainly, Hollywood doesn't do itself any favours. Having largely abandoned grown-up audiences (by which I mean anyone over the age of 16) to make films aimed at those with a mental age of less than 16, Hollywood has opened the door for European filmmakers to try to fill the gap. The film, which is about an manipulating, narcissistic headhunter and part-time cat burglar who comes a cropper when he makes enemies with a CEO and former soldier who is used to a seven-figure salery plus benefits, thinks it has something to say about corporate greed and moral bankruptcy in 21st century northern Europe, but its insights are ultimately trite and simplistic.

The film fares better when it comes depicting those, odd uncomfortable details that so many Hollywood thrillers gloss over - weighting a body with rocks before pushing it into the water in order to ensure that it sinks to the bottom, befocomming progressively more dishevelled and pains as wounds are allowed to fester. But the film also has a pretty poor line in black humour that was ill-considered at best - climbing into 5' 6'' of sh*t while using a toilet role as a snorkel, impaling an attack dog on the spikes of a tractor-mounted tool - and really do not fit the chilly, 'realistic' schema from which the film draws inspiration.

On the evidence of this passable but uneven thriller, Scandenavian filmmakers are not yet able to match Hollywood at their own game - a game that Hollywood filmmakers have laregly abandoned - but with the likes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Killing TV series, there are not likely to be a shortage of these things for at least the next few years.

An Iranian Film

As we are introduced to him at the start of this film, Jafar Panahi is a middle aged, middle class man living with his wife and daughter in a beautifully furnished flat replete with flat screen TVs, laptop computers and all of the other electronic consumer goods one might expect to see in a typical Western household. When he wakes up, his wife has already left for the day to deliver a New Year gift to her parents, but she still finds the time to leave a message on the answer phone reminding him to water the plants and feed their daughter's pet iguana.

Roughly 10 minutes into the film, he breaks character and reveals to the audience that he has so far has omitted one crucial detail. Jafar Panahi is presently under house arrest in a Tehran tower block facing a six year jail term and a 20 year screenwriting and filmmaking ban. This is Not a Film documents his attempt to 'tell a film' over the course of a single day and it is one of the saddest, most heartfelt, but ultimately uplifting films I have seen in a very long time.

Like the surface details of Panahi's life, the film is about much more than is immediately apparent. There is censorship writ large - Iran is a country where filmmakers must have their scripts approved before proceeding to production, and even then the risks associated with personal expression are significant. At one point, Pinahi recounts the secret police raid that led to his arrest. But the overall tone of the piece is boldly humanist.

As he sets about the task of describing scenes from his unmade film script he becomes enthused, his passion spilling over as he maps out on the floor using yellow tape the outlines of the locations he had in his head. The unmade film about a lonely girl was intended to be shot entirely in one house - and Panahi has wonderful ideas for how the scenes might have played out, including camera angles and framing devices. However, he soon realises - the moment of revelation is captured perfectly, painfully on screen - if one could tell a film, why would one make a film? The quiet desperation of his plight is encapsulated in that phrase; this man, who feels compelled to tell stories on film has been barred from doing so.

Then Panahi starts to show the audience scenes from his previous films and describes how the truly cinematic moments in those films are the details that he could not have directed or planned, things that were contributed by the actors or the location.

I know that sounds like it is probably stifling and oppressive, but the political aspects are all subsumed in a rich, subtle human story - and, without wanting to downplay the tragedy of his situation in any way, by the time that Panahi is conversing with a young university student who is collecting the rubbish to help out his sister, one feels that there is hope.

The film ends with the epitaph: 'Dedicated to Iranian filmmakers'.

If it is playing near you, I highly recommend you check out This is Not a Film.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Stop This Now

I just came across a terrific interview with science fiction author and futurist Bruce Sterling (Involution Ocean, Islands in the Net, Heavy Weather) from a couple of years ago in which he discusses Hollywood science fiction cinema - and it put me in mind of the big film release from Universal Studios at the end of this week.

Super-hipster Bruce refuses to be drawn on what he likes and what he does not like about modern American cinema and instead focuses on what he finds interesting. Asked if he thinks there is anything truly exceptional about modern science fiction cinema, Sterling deadpans: "Yer, the ancillary rights. The light sabres, the puppets the plastic dolls. I am not kidding, these things are worth billions of dollars. The Star Wars properties are some of the biggest entertainment properties in the world. There are Star Wars dairy products, there are Star Wars clothing products. You never would have seen that in the fifties, the sixties or so forth. It is really a major industry."

I do not think it necessarily accurate to apply Sterling's jaundiced schema to every Hollywood science fiction film, but Battleship - possible the first film to be supported by both a NASDAQ-listed games company and the US Navy - practically demands such a cynical appraisal.

At this point, I think it is important to clarify that I have not seen the film, nor do I have any intention of ever seeing it. I know it is a dangerous road to go down, but there are exceptions to every rule, and I have no hesitation slamming this sort of exploitative trash on purely ideological grounds. I feel sorry for the genuine innovators involved (the special effects guys and gals), your efforts deserve a better vehicle than this brainless brand management masquerading as cinema.

It is the corruption of innocent childhood adventure that so offends. The fact that Battleship is a film based on a children's board game is a crime against cinema, but the crass corporatism and unabashed militarism of the entire enterprise makes it all the worse. I suppose writing about Hollywood cynicism is about as effective as stamping ones feet about death and taxes but here goes.

Battleships is a game that is best played between a pair of people using two sheets of paper and a couple of pencils - the fact that Hasbro markets a set with little model boats one can affix to a plastic board is really by the by - the vast majority of the action takes place inside the players' head. Here, quiet and strategic reflection is inverted, turned into bombast and noise in the service of a derivative, hyperthyroid blockbuster with Transformers-style space ships, Iron Man-inspired aliens and enough explosions to make Michael Bay weep envious tears. Worse still is the fake Hollywood moralising and ham acting plastered over a badly disguised advert for the video game pleasures of modern military-industrial-drone warfare, with no wit, irony or satire to rescue it from complete moral oblivion.

Enough is enough. Last year saw the release of more film sequels than any previous year in the history of recorded cinema. Nine out the top ten biggest box office films of the year were sequels - Harry Potter 8, Transformers 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Fast and the Furious 5, Mission Impossible 4, Twilight 4 , Kung Fu Panda 2, The Hangover 2, Cars 2. The only film in the top ten that was not a sequel was The Smurfs...

Hollywood films play to a narrower spectrum of people than ever before and draw their ideas from a narrower range of sources than ever before: sequels, comic books, computer games, theme park rides and now children's board games. As Bruce Sterling says: "When I see these properties I see industrialists trying to do two things. First they are trying to advance the state-of-the-art in graphic representation, and second they are trying to sell puppets, dolls, bumper stickers - and, at those two goals, they are succeeding splendidly."

Well, that's as maybe, but I am not yet ready to give up the ghost. Not that I expect or even want Hollywood to start making European Art Films. But the rot, the cynicism, the hollow, dead-eyed corporatism was never this bad in the past. The original Star Wars was a proper film, with a story and some characters. In fact, it was only relatively recently that Hollywood decided it no longer to even attempt to make innovative and entertaining movies in order to make money.

For what it is worth, my advice, therefore, is to avoid this film. Don't be tempted by the camp/kitsch appeal of watching macho mega-millions spent on an alien invasion; ignore the thought of Liam Neeson embarrassing himself with lines of dialogue like "boom" and "hit"; avoid the allure of Rihanna dressed in battle fatigues getting all hot and sweaty and shouty. I'm serious, the only way this sort of thing is going to stop is if people like you stop going to see it. And if you made if this far, I certainly mean you.

This has been a public service announcement.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Going Hungry

The Hunger Games is a young adult novel with a massive teen following. If you hadn't heard of it until the film hit theatres, it is because you are officially old. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but it is best that you get used to these things sooner rather than later.

Cards on the table. I have not read the book. Nor have I seen the Japanese film Battle Royale, with which The Hunger Games has drawn comparisons. Despite the protests of the author - Suzanne Collins says that she had not heard of Battle Royale until somebody else pointed out the similarities between it and her own novel - the shadow of Kinji Fukasaku's movie still hangs heavy over The Hunger Games.

The film tells the story of the unlikely named heroine Katniss Everdeen and her life in District 12 of Panem, a society in which children between the ages of 12 and 18 are offered up as Tribute to the Capitol to compete in the annual Hunger Games, a Running Man style fight to the death, televised nationwide. Katniss' life is changed forever when her very young sister's name is pulled from The Lottery and she volunteers to compete in her stead. This means a trip to the decadent Capitol, a place where Viviane Westwood inspired outfits, ham acting and very dodgy CGI meet, after which Katniss and her 23 competitors enter the arena.

First things first, the camera work is a problem. When Steven Spielberg innovated the shaky-cam style for Saving Private Ryan, it was an attempt to re-create a sense of the horrors of war and senseless death of the Normandy Landings. Since that time, the technique has been used as a shorthand by action movie directors attempting to borrow some of the visceral power of those sequences, minus the political context. The Hunger Games does this too excess. Early sequences recall scenes from the Extermination Camps in a way that is completely unearned and inappropriate for the movie. Then, once the action starts, it is almost impossible to follow.

As a whole, the tone is far too po-faced, given the lightness with which the films apparent subject matter is touched upon. There is a sense (and it is always tricky to apply a sense of moral agency to a film, but here goes) that the people involved in the making of The Hunger Games think that they are saying much more profound than they actually are. If one wants to take the idea of kids killing kids for sport while adults and parents watch on stupefied seriously, the film would need to much more bleak than it is - and even then I would suggest that no parent, regardless of their desperation would stand for it. Alternatively, the film might have been much more satirical and biting, Battle Royale is shot though with dark, violent humour - The Hunger Games is almost bereft humour.

Also, I'm not sure if I am allowed to say this - even the negative reviews I have read praised the performance of Jennifer Lawrence in the lead - but I found her sullen and one-note throughout. She does scared quite well (when she is about to enter the games), brooding and focused. But her line in tenderness and affection is much less convincing.

Some of the manipulations by the media, and the sense of the contestants being slotted into their predetermined role, regardless of character, was good. But I still can't get over that premise (or perhaps, its poor execution) - its ludicrous isn't it?