Zen and the Art of Data Input

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I’ve been typing movie info into SpeedCine six days a week since May.

Believe it or not, it’s not so bad.

For me, it’s like wading through my life in the cinema. I’m amazed by how many of these films have such direct connections to my life. Talk about “Six Degrees of Separation”? That film isn’t in the SpeedCine database, but I was the publicist on it. Typing this stuff is very dramatic for me: here’s a film I took to some festival long ago, it played badly and the director screamed at me; here are several that won the top prizes at Sundance; here’s one that was directed by a legendary director who canceled all the interviews I had spent weeks arranging; here’s one where I gave some comments to the director in the editing room, he took them and now they are in the movie; here’s the one that sold for an insane amount of money, and didn’t make any: here’s the film I smoked very potent weed every night with the star; here’s a film where the star complained about me to the studio and tried to get me fired; here’s the film where I actually did get fired; here’s the one where I met someone who became one of my best friends of my life: here’s the film where I made a super-colossal enemy;  here’s the one where the director fired somebody every day, and after he fired me, we went out to dinner that night:  here’s the one where I broke my foot; here’s one that features an actress I went out with for a while; here’s the film the studio decided to dump, I conspired with the director and producer to rescue, and which was dumped anyway, as was I;  here is the presence of all the glorious people I worked with who are no long here; here’s the film that was the biggest success of my career, and which bankrupted me, broke my heart, and shuttered my company.

After a day of this, I need to take a moment to clear my head, and it’s not because my hands are tired.

When you go on Amazon you see either the trailer or the first two minutes of the film. So I have seen either the trailer the first two minutes of over ten thousand films within a few months. How many people can say that they’ve seen had so many bite-sized samplings of so many movies in such a short time? The films I’ve loved, the ones I hated, the ones that were “eh?” have been parked in my head for ages, and watching all these cinema-bites has opened the garage door wide. With 100,000 films available on Netflix, it’s just too overwhelming to think about which one I might ever revisit, but I found time to watch the first two minutes of “Killer Klowns From Outer Space.” In case you’re wondering, there’s nary a trace of a Killer Klowns in the first two minutes. But I wait out the clock, hoping I will see at least one Klown, even if he’s a red herring, non-deadly Klown. Many directors can be very sly about not showing their hand in the first two minutes. But nothing will deter me from watching the entire two.

Often it’s the exploitation films that grab my interest, not the classics. Some of them have such great titles that I laugh out loud. Having been burned by my 2-minute sampling “Killer Klowns,” I eagerly watched the trailer of “Cannibal Killer Clowns on Dope,” which I found wonderful in a self-consciously-trying-to-be-so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. Of course when I got to “L’avventura,” it was “Next!” I’ve seen that film three times, and I doubt I ever will again, and certainly not on my computer. But I may check out a dangerous clown movie at some point.

What’s much more dangerous are free sites like Hulu and Crackle. I can get hooked on pretty much anything. Recently, Hulu put up an Israeli film without subtitles. I couldn’t believe that they would have the chutzpah to do that—they didn’t mention it anywhere. So I watched it for a while in Hebrew, but nobody said anything I’d heard in temple like “Baruch, Attoh, Adenoi, or sang“Adon Olom,” so I turned it off.

And the comments! Before I started this I didn’t know there were so many ways to say that a film was the worst ever made. Netflix is my go-to place for angry consumers. You will find as many good reviews as bad there, but I love the anonymous ragers. I find the emotion that gets stirred up by bad movies to be exhilarating.

Also the world of online video is dominated by films that are in the public domain and which anyone in the world can download a legal copy of from the Internet Archive. Hulu doesn’t have any more rights to “Night of the Living Dead” than you do. But people sell this stuff! It’s a very high percentage of what’s for sale and rent online. I’m not talking about when a company like Kino does a restoration.  Some of the public domain prints are pretty good, but most are scratchy, grainy, faded,and blurry, with barely discernible sound. And I speak with authority, as I have seen the first two minutes of so many of them. I’m just starting to go to where they got them and index the Internet Archive too. Let’s just say that Criterion shouldn’t lose any sleep about them.

By the way, a big Hollywood studio was launched by a public domain movie. In 1971, Keith Stroup from NORML went to the library of Congress and for $297 bought a print of a 1936 film with a lapsed copyright called “Tell Your Children.” A guy named Bob Shea marketed the film, retitled “Reefer Madness,” to every college campus in the country. Convincing people pay oodles of money for something Shea got for free gave birth to the mighty edifice that is New Line Cinema. It is indisputable that pot-smoking paid for “The Lord of the Rings,” just as pot-smoking increased the enjoyment of watching “The Lord of the Rings.”

There are many versions of “Reefer Madness” available online. There is also a company I found that will sell you a DVD for $19.99, along with a full catalog of $19.99 other DVDs that they got from Internet Archive. It’s a very surreal world, public domain. I can kind of understand why Roger Corman wasn’t paying attention to the paperwork (there’s a Corman festival going on now at Anthology Film Archives, but you can program your own here), but not William Castle—he was a master marketer, why would he give away the store? Another public domain film you find everywhere is “Carnival of Souls.”  I’m always intrigued by the movies that make it to the archive.  There’s a glorious arbitrariness to public domain and it’s always a delight to discover that the rights to some of these wonderful films are free for everyone. There are a zillion things you can use, video mash-uppers! Head to the Internet Archive right now and stop fighting lawyers.

Strangely enough, inputting all this data input has refreshed my enthusiasm for movies and every kind of movies.  I’m no longer numbed by the overwhelming glut of movies available on video. I am compiling a list of must-sees, and someday I will watch them all.

If I can ever stop typing.