Category: YouTube

Last Train Home (2009)
“Documentarian Lixin Fan follows a couple who, like 130 million other Chinese peasants, left their rural village for work in the city, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents. The husband and wife return only once each year, on an arduous 1,000-mile journey. But their homecoming is not a warm one, as their now teenage daughter, Qin, makes her bitter resentment known and debates pursuing a factory job herself.”

From Zeitgeist films, two things struck me about this epic film – the incredibly personal footage that the filmmaker captured amidst the pandemonium and sheer size of this movement, and the insight it affords into one of the most powerful but least understood countries in the world. In spite of its scope, it focuses on the individuals and tells a powerfully intimate human story.

Last Train Home – official US trailer:

Sweetgrass (2009)
“As much a work of cultural anthropology as it is a documentary, this unique film traces the path of a family of Montana sheepherders as they drive their flock down from the treacherous and beautiful Absaroka Beartooth mountain range. With no guiding narration, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor let the natural images speak for themselves, capturing the danger, pathos and humor in this haunting elegy to a bygone way of life.”

If there is a thing that links the five films I have selected together, it is the ability of the filmmakers to render from seemingly abstract subjects, legitimately engaging stories focused on the people inside of their contexts. On the surface, Sweetgrass may appear a remote subject to city dwellers, and yet it works as an analogy that in spite of the incredible feats of which we are capable, the greatest obstacle is often within our own minds. An awe-inspiring document of a reality leaving the modern world perhaps forever.

The trailer for Sweetgrass:

The Cool School (2007)
“In the late 1950s, when Pollock and de Kooning were being hailed as revolutionary artists in New York, Los Angeles was still dealing with a blacklist that gutted creativity in all media. This is the story of the two men who changed all that. Recording a pledge on a hot dog wrapper to open a cutting-edge gallery, Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz took the West Coast art world by storm, embracing artists from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol.”

Los Angeles is a city like no other. It is a lens and a megaphone, a magnet to the luminaries of so many small villages scattered around the world that transforms and ignites their minds. And yet it is often looked upon as a vapid cultural cesspool. In The Cool School we explore the transformation of a dustbowl into a hotbed of cultural significance that would be exported and impact perceptions of popular culture irrevocably.

The Cool School trailer:

Superheroes (2011)
“Filmmaker Michael Barnett takes on the ultimate odd job in this eye-opening documentary about real-life “superheroes,” ordinary people who don capes, masks and alter egos in their spare time to right wrongs and make criminals pay for their actions. Among other characters, you’ll meet a tight-knit Brooklyn foursome that tackles tough cases as a squad dubbed the New York Initiative and a San Diego security officer who calls himself Mr. Xtreme.”

We collectively pay a lot of money into the blockbusters centered around the fantastical comic book heroes that raised us. Some take these examples of benevolence, courage, public service and yes, pageantry to heart, and in a quest to emulate them, find ways to substantiate their obsession by attempting to make them real. Beyond the rubber-necking curiosity that these real-life characters may elicit, comes a poignant message about being proactive and taking the risk to make a change in the world as opposed to a passive onlooker, judging their often dangerous lifestyle from the sidelines. A parable about taking responsibility and not simply being an innocuous voice of dissent.

Here is the trailer:

Samsara
“A nonverbal film described by the makers as a “guided meditation”. The film uses very high quality images, scenes of nature and mankind to stimulate the viewer. The film contains no plot or actors, although there are several performers in the film. Samsara is Ron Fricke’s 2011 follow-up to Baraka.”

In the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words spirit of Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi, “Samsara” affords us yet another lovingly executed, desperate look at our beautiful planet. At present, Samara, which had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival is awaiting distribution. You can help coordinate a screening at the official site.

samsara monks



march_of_the_penguins - Realtime webI remember reading the Premiere magazine article about Mark Gill buying March of the Penguins and wondering, marveling even, at the significance of taking a French documentary and repurposing it for an American audience. This was something of a revelation; understanding that the message, even of a universally adored nature film, isn’t necessarily universal but rather highly targeted; if Miramax’s iteration worked better on a global scale, it may be because an American perspective and sensibility has been so successfully exported internationally.

I recently wrote a paper for a marketing and distribution class at UCLA concerning the outlook shared by Gill and a year later James Stearn on the health of independent cinema and the movie industry as a whole.  Gill offered a sobering reality check having to do with the glut of films that flooded the increasingly frugal marketplace whereas Stearn saw opportunity for improving the quality of the films as the best would rise to the top.  What follows are my reaction to their positions.

While I appreciate Gill’s sober stance on the realities of the industry, one that became even more dire in the subsequent year when EndGame’s James Stearn took his place at the lectern, particularly due to the fact of the perfect storm that was the collapse of the global economy and the indie equivalent of the dot com bubble bursting, I feel Gill’s take on the music industry and why it collapsed is not only smug but fundamentally flawed and somewhat dangerous. It would behoove the movie industry to bear in mind that they had a ten-year grace period due to the fact that bandwidth for showing high quality video was ten times larger than that of music. The “Movie Industry” didn’t get things right where the “Music Industry” got it wrong – they just had more time to sit back and get a sense of what the massively disruptive technology that was the Internet was really going to mean to the bottom line.

Nonetheless, the music industry blew it in that they forgot that they were part of the Entertainment Industry and not singularly the Music Industry. The hubris and competition amongst these industries is often their Achilles heel. Rather than laud Sean Fanning, creator of Napster, as the solution to distribution in the new model, Fanning was sued right and left and ostracized like Alan Turing.

I found it astounding that Mark Gill points out the 5,000 entries to Sundance in 2007 versus the 500 it had fifteen years prior. Then only a year later, James Stearn submits that the number of entries in the subsequent year was closer to 9500. If this is correct, that means the number of entries to Sundance doubled in one year!

Not only are the good people of the world making more movies at home (and this during the economic meltdown) but they are becoming increasingly cognizant of marketing, distribution and monetization opportunities. Of course, this doesn’t mean there is more audience of more money, in fact it creates an even deeper glut of film, but it does mean that not only will quality matter in order to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, but so will how and where and why things are marketed and distributed as the competition in these areas becomes stiffer and more accessible.

James Stern is correct in highlighting the virtue of the short-form film and responding to the Millennial Boomers with the format. Attention Deficit Disorder is not a function of age but of the times. We are all real-time curators and tastemakers and should be targeted at the micro-niche level. A person I spoke with who works at Live Nation constantly expressed his chagrin at the fact that marketing to a general demographic (for example 18-24) is utterly myopic. Among those 18-24 year-olds are, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s terminology, Tastemakers, Mavericks and Connectors. They need to be isolated and the systems to delineate them must be supported, not battled in court. In fact, doing so openly, like Netflix does, is a far more rewarding effort, than doing it covertly through cookies and trackers and 3rd party data collection apps.

That film, as Gill puts it, allows us to target highly specific demographics in one part. Delivering high quality, thoughtful, engaging and memorable content is second, but making it bite sized and a la carte is paramount. We are waiting for the Kubrick of YouTube to arrive. Where is the Spielberg of Vimeo?

The app store effect is not a function of Apple but rather an effect of the widget economy. We are all master chefs in Kitchen Stadium [a reference to popular Japanese cook show Iron Chef] selecting the finest ingredients to concoct our tasty masterpieces on the fly.

From Netflix and E-Bay account piping into a sandbox aggregator like Squidoo, alongside Facebook’s status updates and Twitterstreams, we are irrevocably moving into the era of the real-time web; it is not the tomato we care about but whom the person will be that uses it most creatively. It is no less a tomato as a result, but it is merely a color with which the master will paint and, we will mash-up, mod and repurpose the content to ultimately render the portrait of our essence, personality, our souls. A portrait, whose real meaning will emerge when we cross our tired eyes slightly and gaze upon it like a magic eye.

NOTE: I originally wrote this draft in October.  At that time, I read a Tweet from Mashable that Google Wave is going live to 100,000 pre-registered users. The realtime web is not a theory or conjecture, it has literally arrived and nothing will ever be the same.

UPDATE 12-07-2009 – It’s a little strange that I am publishing this article after the one I posted earlier this morning about Google’s announcement of Realtime search.  GoogleWave now seems like an ancillary to the central eye-raising explosion of technologies that Google has innovated in bring all content to our eyeballs at near light speed.