Sunday, September 27, 2009
This week is a change of pace for me. Instead of writing a blog, I’ve made a video. It will be the first of many SpeedCine Videos.
This one is about experimental filmmaker and painter Jeff Scher. I’m fascinated by the various ways that filmmakers and other artists have used the internet to market their work, and Jeff is certainly a sterling example--but that’s just a pretext for why I made this.
The real reason was that I have known Jeff for decades and I have always been awed by his talent. If you don’t know him yet, I hope that this video will send you scurrying to Jeff’s New York Times series, “The Animated Life,” for more. You can also buy a DVD that has a selection of his “Animated Life” films in full quality on his website, and some of his other movie can be seen on YouTube (with Jeff’s permission). I also recommend the website of his wonderful collaborator, composer Shay Lynch, where you can full versions of of Lynch’s music cues for Jeff’s films and those by other filmmakers, as well as all-too-brief clips from songs like “Stand By Me.” (Probably a rights thing. Our loss) While Shay provides “Noises and Knobs” for the band The Problems, he hasn’t brought out his own CD, which is too bad. Hopefully that will change.
I wanted to get more into Jeff talking about Shay’s contribution, as well as the fact that the Times gives him back full rights to the film after a month, but a six minute video is already pretty long. It was hard enough to give a thumbnail portrait of who he is and show how having his films on the Times web page has changed his life. And Jeff said some interesting things about his process in creating “Summer Retreat,” which can’t be shown anywhere but the times until October. So I plan to make a slightly longer version and put that up in a few weeks.
Monday, September 21, 2009
The guy on the phone wanted to know if I could set up a private screening for Jacqueline Onassis. I said sure, but why does she want to see Werner Herzog’s “La Soufrière”? Is she a Herzog fan? “Mrs. Onassis recently traveled to Guadeloupe and went hiking on La Soufrière, the man said. “When she heard about the film, she was very interested to see it.” Wow, I thought. Jacqueline Onassis is coming to New Yorker Films. Better tidy up the screening room.
At first it seemed an odd conjunction to me, Jackie O. and Werner H. But when I thought about it, who was more marginal than Jacqueline Onassis? She pushed the outer limits, just like his characters, albeit on the luxe side of the cosmos. There were all the people in the world, from the homeless and the untouchables to the heads of states and movie stars, and then there was Jackie, a universe of one, floating above them all. It wasn’t far-fetched at all that they would turn up in the same place, like Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” They both had damned good reasons to get as far away as possible from densely populated areas.
La Grande Soufrière is the tallest mountain on the Island of Basse-Terre (in the cluster of islands that is Guadeloupe), as well as an active volcano. When it was set to blow in 1976, the entire island was evacuated, but reports came out that one man refused to go. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Herzog—with his typical fearlessness-- went there to talk to him. He did interview the man (and two others!), filmed the spookily empty streets, and he and his crew, including my friend, cameraman Eddie Lachman, journeyed up to the open mouth of the volcano. I don’t know what Ms. Onassis had heard about this eerie and powerful film, but she was certainly going to get her money’s worth.
When the day came for the screening, something very peculiar happened. Our doorman, who had never previously displayed any signs of insanity, got into the elevator with her and started following her. I was so focused on escorting Ms. Onassis and her friends to the screening room that I didn’t notice him tagging along behind us. Before I knew it, he brushed past me and went right up to her. And there he stood, tranced out like a Val Lewton zombie, his glassy eyes trained on her face. Her fame was so overwhelming and irresistible to him that it short-circuited any sensible judgment he might have had before she turned up. It seemed to me he stood there for quite a while, but I realize we must have pulled him away pretty quickly. Seeing a previously sensate man suddenly thrown into hypnosis is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen but what was even stranger was that the sheer weirdness of it all didn’t throw Mrs. Onassis a bit. I guess people turning into zombies in her presence wasn’t all that unusual. Hence the appeal of a place like an isolated archipelago in the eastern Caribbean sea.
She immediately started telling me about Guadeloupe and asking me questions about the film. I gave her a little background on Werner and his other movies. She definitely knew how to set you at ease. I was particularly struck by the sound of her voice. It seemed girlish to me, something I didn’t remember, and found totally disarming. In fact, I couldn’t remember anything at all about what her voice sounded like. In retrospect that’s not so strange--I was eight years old when she was conducting those TV tours of the White House—but I was couldn’t stop thinking, “I’m chatting with the most famous woman in the world, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard her voice.”
Also, when you think about it, while the Jackie O image was as iconic as Mao’s or Che’s, whether captured by Avedon or Galella or silk-screened on a Warhol canvas, it was largely a silent, frozen one. We didn’t hear her voice nearly as often as we looked at her. In a sense, she was our last great Silent Film Goddess, a startling achievement considering her heyday was a time as clangorous as the sixties.
And what a voice! As I said, it sounded girlish to me, and I couldn’t place the accent. Southern? (Maybe now, with a few productions of “Grey Gardens” under my belt, I might just have called it Bouvier.) Despite all the incredible accomplishments she had achieved in her life before she ever set eyes on Jack Kennedy, Jackie had learned how to project that debutante thing and baby, she still had it! I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from her, but definitely not that. I flattered myself on not letting celebrities intimidate me, but I had prepared myself to meet somebody regal and what I got instead was somebody who was--I don’t know how else to say this--fun.
While I’m sure she would have liked nothing more than to continue her conversation with me for hours, out of politeness to her friends, I begged off, dimmed the lights, started the film, and went back to my desk to work. Hello, Real Life. Later on, as I brought the lights up after the screening ended, Ms. Onassis asked if it would be okay if they stayed and ate their lunch in the screening room. I said, “No problem, just don’t leave a lot of crumbs.” (No, I didn’t say that, I said something like “it would be my pleasure.”)
After watching them whip out their brown bags for their “picnic,” I walked away contemplating the exorbitant operating costs of fame for someone on her level. The things we all take for granted, getting something to eat when we are hungry, going to the bathroom when we want to go to the bathroom—none of these things are easy or even guaranteed for someone like her. A restaurant visit takes some planning: a special reservation, a private room, transportation arrangements. Everything she did, no matter how banal, was newsworthy. And of course, as confining that was for her, it was nothing like it is now. These days reality stars need three-person security details, but Jackie O. strolled into New Yorker Films in the late 70s with two friends.
A few days later, I received a thank you note. Realizing that it was the kind of thing you need to hold on to, I promptly lost it. It’s out there with my original Spiderman #2 comic, my lengthy correspondence with Louise Brooks and all the other intensely eBay-able items that might have gotten me through some tight spots. All I have left is the memory of my extremely brief meeting with her, which has been rejuvenated through the process of writing it down.
Monday, September 14, 2009
There was a Citibank MasterCard bill in my mailbox on Monday, August 31st, When I took it upstairs and opened it I saw that I had been charged a $39.00 fee for late payment, plus some interest. While checking my records showed that I thought I had paid the bill, going online proved that I hadn’t. Something probably distracted me. Maybe the phone rang. Anyway I plead guilty to not going on the site and making the payment. But I figured I was a good customer and I thought maybe they’d give me a break. Here’s my record of payment to MasterCard, as provided by TransUnion--48 Months of payments made on time:
As I went through the various voice menus to find a human voice, the computer informed me that my credit card had been shut down and I was in big trouble. As I had only found out about the problem a few minutes ago, and Citibank hadn’t made any attempt to reach me by email or phone, I thought this was kind of harsh. So I wasn’t in a good mood when I finally was transferred to the calm out-sourced customer service rep. He didn’t respond to my anger, and just told me that my good payment record wasn’t an issue and in any case, all I had to do was go to the website, pay the bill and then call them back. Citibank would refund the $39 penalty and any interest charges. When I got to the site, I saw this:
On the next page were a series questions that I had to answer before Citibank would allow me to pay my bill
Either I had to lie and say the statement wasn’t received or I was traveling (that’s an excuse?) or I had to say that I was in deep financial trouble. Their point seemed to be that I could pay all my bills in full for four years (at least) until once I couldn’t come up with $20 for a minimum payment?
Here’s the next dropdown menu:
As I was hoping to be allowed to pay the bill in a few minutes, I estimated that my current financial situation would last 0-6 months, although quite a bit closer to 0 months than to 6 months.
As it was currently 8/31/2009, my ballpark estimation was that I could resume making my regular monthly payments in 08/2009.
I had to really study this one for a while. 401(k)? Disability Checks? Life Insurance Policy? Liquidated Assets? Public Assistance? Student Loan? I couldn’t put in “Paycheck,” as I’m a freelancer. Even “Savings” seemed a bit dirty, like I was raiding my nest egg for a $20.00 minimum payment.
Finally, it looked like I was going to be able to set up my bank transfer and pay my bill. But:
Wow! I transfer money all the time, but I’ve never received a warning like this. Any problem and they were going to assess me additional fees! I was trying to pay them because they assessed me ridiculous fees. But if there’s any hitch I would be assessed more ridiculous fees! Worse, I would not be eligible to enroll in another plan. I assumed that by “plan” they meant a way to renegotiate my payments and get out of penury, but I could forget about anything like that if something went awry with my transfer from my Citibank Checking account to my Citibank MasterCard account. If there were any glitches, there might not be a second chance for me. Soon I would have to sell my home and live in a van by the river.
I called again and went through the voicemail system again, until I reached someone who identified that the payment had been received and that I would be notified soon about my refunds. And sure enough, when I checked my account online the next day:
Soon after that, the refunds were visible on my account!
I got my $64.60 back! It would seem that Citibank had accepted the notion that forgetting to make one minimum payment didn’t necessarily put you millimeters away from homelessness. But then I got this:
This is a lie. I had never inquired about them increasing my APR for a very good reason. They had never told me about it before this.
It was time to break out the scissors. Citibank had finally convinced me--after over 35 years of using their card—to cut it up. It felt good. As you can see above, I recorded the occasion for posterity. But then I got another email:That was it! If you want to get email notifications from Citibank, you must face up to the “Sophie’s Choice” of Paper versus Paperless Statement. On one hand you have something that you generally receive and find handy for balancing your checkbook; on the other hand is something that might go into your junk mail box. But if you choose Paperless, from their point of view you would “eliminate the risk of statements being lost or stolen in the mail.,” and thus triggering their rip-off scams. But Paperless would be good for the environment and it makes me feel all toasty inside when I think about Citibank saving money on postage. Had I not cut up my card, what would I have done. I think $64.60 would have sealed the deal with me. This was a protectionist racket for Paperless Statements: Give up your envelopes or empty out your pockets, muthah!
At this point you’re probably thinking that I have a lot of nerve kvetching about this. Don’t I know that other people are getting really screwed by the credit card companies? People who are actually in financial trouble? But that’s the whole point. Citibank and companies like them have brought this country down by their greed and incompetence, forcing us to bail them out with our tax money. Now directly because of their actions and those of people like them, people are losing their homes and their jobs. So Citibank steps into the fray to steal money from the very people whose lives they have ruined. But that isn’t sufficiently cruel for them. They want to humiliate people too. Where is the fun in pushing people to the ground if you can’t kick them too?
My understanding of the credit card business today is that it operates like a partnership: one partner is a drunken driver that mows down pedestrians each day; the other one is an ambulance chasing lawyer pushing business cards into bloody hands. Nice work if you can get it.
To my friends at Citibank, thank you for asking for my feedback. Here goes:
You are causing more harm and more agony and more destruction to America and our way of life than Al Qaeda ever has done and ever will. You are traitors, and I don’t care how many congressmen you pay off so you can make your sociopathic attacks on America legal.
I’m about as religious as Bill Maher, but this almost makes me want to be. Then I could believe that all of your executives would burn in the fires of hell for eternity. That would be a start.
Have a nice day.
Reid K Rosefelt
Chase Visa Cardholder in Good Standing
One more chapter in Citibank’s never-ending correspondence:
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
In the early 80s, I was convinced that the next big thing in home video was going to be Widescreen TV.
But how to do it? Instinctively, I thought of the 16mm anamorphic lenses I used for my college film society screening, and I start fiddling around with ideas about how that could be transferred to TV. Making anamorphic VHS tapes didn’t seem to be an impossible task; it would actually be cheaper to transfer an anamorphic film directly than to pay to have someone pan and scan it. But how to spread the images out?
My solution was to get someone to create a round sheet of a specially-made plastic that could be mounted in front of any TV. When you adjusted the wheel, it would spread out the VHS tapes into widescreen images. That was the plan. But the more I thought about my stroke of genius, the more impractical it sounded. I realized the only way to make a proper Scope TV was with a wide screen tube—a niche product for rich people. As I would have to raise millions to manufacture something like that,I gave up on the idea. Some might say that my idea is now a reality with HDTV, but not in my book. Not even with letterboxing. But it does seem that, after over 20 years, Philips has finally done something closer to the original Rosefelt specifications. Last August I discovered another movie thing I wanted that didn’t exist. When I wanted to watch a legal online movie, I looked it up in Google, and discovered it really wasn’t much help. You might find out a title was available on Amazon on the first page and from a second company on the third page, but it could be available on a lot of sites that Google wouldn’t find at all, the most notable being iTunes. (I figured it was hard for search engine crawlers to find films that were hidden inside software like iTunes.)
So you wouldn’t know if you could rent it or not unless you looked it up separately in Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, Jaman, EZTakes, IndiePix Films, Hulu, SnagFilms, Fearnet, babelgum and all the rest.
The only way to quickly find any movie you wanted to see on Google was to not pay for it. Google made locating Torrent files a breeze. This seemed crazy to me. How were we ever going to get people to pay for movies online if we couldn’t do something as basic as show where they were?
As with widescreen TV, it was something I wanted, so I thought there would be others who would want it to. But this time I didn’t need millions of dollars and a factory to create a product. The internet had changed that. But still…you needed some money. And I didn’t have it.
I called up my friend Bob Harris in San Francisco. Bob and I had been good friends in Madison, Wisconsin as teenagers, and we had re-established our friendship in recent years. I knew that he was very successful working with computer databases, but I hardly thought he would want to get involved in something as speculative as my idea, and certainly not without getting paid for it. But he saw the potential in the idea too, and despite his heavy workload, he signed on. By the time Labor Day weekend was over, he had created a functioning prototype of SpeedCine. I figured we could get it online by October, or maybe November at the latest. It took eleven months.
SpeedCine was created by two guys working in their home offices in their spare time from their day jobs. We never once laid eyes on each other during the entire year. While most movie sites are Hollywood productions, created with tens of millions of venture capital, ours was a no-budget independent, made with sweat equity and less than ten thousand dollars.
Bob devoted an entire year of his life to helping me realize my dream, while also doing extremely demanding work on his other projects. Obviously, without him, SpeedCine would never have happened, but he contributed so much more than programming. The site might seem ridiculously simple today, but it emerged from literally thousands of hours of discussion. It didn’t start out simple; it started out very, very complicated. Early on, SpeedCine had so many features and options that for all practical purposes it was worthless. It took a long, long time for us to realize that it got better every time we took something out of it. Generally it was Bob teaching me these lessons. I started out the movie and graphic design guy; he was the technologist and philosopher. Gradually, these roles blurred. I’m not going to say that it was always an easy collaboration, but I learned a lot, and I think he did too.
As we got nearer the launch, we hired a second programmer, Ben Amada, to assist Bob. A few weeks ago, Bob decided to leave SpeedCine to focus on his other business responsibilities. Only when he knew that I could carry on without him did he allow himself to bow out. It’s a big loss to me personally that he’s no longer with the site and it’s a bigger loss to SpeedCine.
This might seem like a very odd analogy, but lately I’ve been thinking about that story about late-career Dietrich, working on one of her post-von Sternberg movies. Leaving the set, she was once heard to say, “Joe…Where are you?” I feel like that a lot.
Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich