I had never heard of a poetry slam: it's performing self-penned poetry as a competitive sport. Louder Than a Bomb is a city-wide Chicago poetry slam for high school students that was created after and partly in response to 9/11. The movie Louder Than a Bomb follows the fortunes of four teams the filmmakers, Jon Siskel (Gene Siskel's nephew) and Greg Jacobs picked out of dozens they encountered in doing their research. The kids work incredibly hard at the language and performing style they use to tell their stories, and unlike many competitions even the losers attend all the bouts to be around the people and experience what they do. I am notoriously tone-deaf to poetry but the language and performing passion on display here are breathtaking.
Some random thoughts about this year's festival:
- In about 1995 I went to an open day at the MIT Media Lab, at which people talked enthusiastically about the ability new technology was granting them to pull together a crew in the morning and just roll. A little later, a Hollywood producer challenged the audience to toss out some good ideas, No one spoke, and I think the producer went away satisfied that his industry was safe from the wave of amateurs. No more: easily half the movies at this festival were produced on very small budgets; at least two were the work of only two people working at home; at least two were first features. Granted that Ebert is well-known for championing films that might otherwise die of obscurity (the number of filmmakers who come to his festival and thank him for early support that made their careers), I sense that the promise of 15 years ago is bearing fruit.
- Copyright is still hampering these efforts. The biggest expense facing the couple who made My Dog Tulip was the $100,000 the estate of JR Acklerley demanded for the rights to the book. The filmmaker was astonished: the book was hardly known any more, and who else was interested in it? The makers of 45365 can't afford to release their movie commercially because they can't afford to clear the estimated $30,000 to clear the music. This situation benefits no one. In a reasonable world, the filmmakers could perhaps work a deal where they paid over time as they sold DVD copies or the film made money. But in this world, Hollywood has engaged in "creative accounting" for so long that no one trusts anyone who makes a movie not to make a fortune and never pay up. A system of mechanicals for music use in movies similar to that which applies to recordings would help 45365, It's hard to know what could help the makers of film based on old, obscure books since from the rights holder's point of view there's the opportunity cost of tying the book to one team. Granting non-exclusive options might be an interesting approach but the big-budget guys will demand exclusivity.
- Ebert is building a very interesting future for what was once just a career for himself. The festival, the roster of young filmmakers he showcased this week and the young critics he's recruited for the new TV Show, Roger Ebert Presents, will, I think, build a community that will outlive him. It's a fine effort and a fine way of using his considerable influence.
- The Virginia Theater is the finest place to view a movie and spoils you for almost all other theaters. The huge screen, the perfect focus, sound, and projection, and, during the festival, the best-behaved full house all make the experience extra-special. Movie theaters have self-destructed in the last couple of decades by slicing themselves up, putting the screen at the wrong angle, and setting the projectors to auto. They need to come to Champaign-Urbana to see how it's done.