May 2011 Archives

Roger Ebert has often written negatively about 3D - he believes it's basically a mistake and audiences don't care about it.

But this is interesting: apparently the advent of 3D projectors is severely cutting the amount of light that reaches the screen because projectionists are not changing out the 3D lenses for 2D screenings as they should. (There are also, as Ebert writes in his blog entry on the subject other reasons: theaters deliberately reduce the wattage to projectors thinking the bulbs will last longer). The result is dim, murky images, reducing still further the reasons to choose to go to theaters to see movies rather than stay home and wait to see them on DVD in a setting you can control. Either that, or you go to Roger Ebert's Film Festival because the screenings there are the best in the world.

But this bit from that entry, quoted from Ty Burr in the Boston Globe struck me as a great example of the issues we frequently talk about in security and usability.

Ty Burr writes: "So why aren't theater personnel simply removing the 3-D lenses? The answer is that it takes time, it costs money, and it requires technical know-how above the level of the average multiplex employee. James Bond, a Chicago-based projection guru who serves as technical expert for Roger Ebert's Ebertfest, said issues with the Sonys are more than mechanical. Opening the projector alone involves security clearances and Internet passwords, 'and if you don't do it right, the machine will shut down on you.' The result, in his view, is that 'often the lens change isn't made and audiences are getting shortchanged'."

Hollywood is making a trade-off here: believing that 3D and digital are the new technologies that will get people back into theaters BUT believing that anything not locked down will be copied and redistributed without payment, the studios et al have opted to secure the projectors. Understandable. But in doing so, they've made it difficult for the people running the projectors to do their jobs properly. So they don't, and the long-term consequence will be the alienation of customers and loss of revenues. I'm sure there were better solutions to how to design projectors securely, but, as so often, when the designers developed the projector's security, they failed to consider who would be using it, their level of technical capabilities, and their own internal risk model ("If I do this complicated and difficult thing and make a mistake the projector will lock up and the screening will have to be canceled and I'll probably get fired.") The upshot is poor design that defeats the purpose. We see this all the time in security systems, where by imposing security requirements that make it harder for people to do their jobs they come up with workarounds. Normally the consequence is poorer security - the guy who props the access-coded door open because otherwise he has to keep getting up to open it, or the post-it notes with passwords written on them pasted to doors and computer screens. In this case, the consequence is unhappy customers and, likely, eventually, loss of business. (For which they will blame file-sharing.)

So in this case, Hollywood's threat model of losing revenues through unauthorized copying and redistribution overpowered its *other* threat model of losing business to home entertainment systems and Blu-Ray. At the projector level, I'd have thought the latter was the worse threat.

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.


Short cuts. Four movies yesterday.

Sometime in the 1960s, a retired schoolteacher in Sweden decided to join a program set up to sponsor the education of children in Kenya. Hilde Back was herself originally German, a Holocaust survivor who was granted German residence in 1940. People in Sweden helped her, she explains in A Small Act (2010), and so she thought it was only right to help by sending up to $15 a month to pay for a Kenyan child's passage through secondary school. That child was Chris Mburu, and he went on to go to university and Harvard Law School, and now works on human rights and ending genocide for the UN. Somewhere around 1979, he and his sponsor lost track of each other. In 2003, grateful for the life her generosity had granted him and convinced that an ignorant populace is one that can be exploited and pushed to violence and conflict, he decided to set up a foundation to do what the Swedish sponsorship scheme had. He named it the Hilde Back Foundation. And then set about looking for his benefactor.

The film is a multi-layered story that begins with this search and their reunion and then moves on to follow the fortunes of three top primary school students from Mburu's home village and their struggles to compete for the few scholarships the foundation could afford to offer in its first year. (Then it was ten; since the success of the movie, there are 160 this year, 200 next.)

The filmmaker, Jennifer Arnold, noted that she began work on the documentary during the Bush administration, when it seemed particularly hopeless to her that a single person could have any impact or effect any meaningful change. When she came across this story, she realized it showed the opposite: that what starts as a small act can spread like waves in a pool to change the lives of many, many people.

Yes, it sounds like the kind of story Hollywood might produce as a feel-good tale. But a) it's actually true; and b) it was put together by two people in a garage who, with very little budget (a recurring theme at this year's festival), shot two weeks in Europe and three months in Kenya through the election and subsequent conflict.

The director, Oliver Schmidts, says that the terrible denial and fear of AIDS that has the community in Life, Above All afraid even to say its name was more characteristic of the Mbeki years in South Africa. The 13-year-old actress (now 14 and a half) who played the lead role, Keaobaka Makanyane, said that she and her friends were very well educated about HIV/AIDS. In the country where denial, ostracism, whispers, and echoes of Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" are common, the girl with the courage to speak truth is taking an enormous risk.

There were a lot of classical and poetry references I missed in Leaves of Grass, but this was the most fun of the movies we've seen since My Dog Tulip, and the writer/director/actor Tim Blake-Nelson was the most articulate and erudite of all the guests in describing the way the many references were like echoed colors in abstract art. Don't let that deter you: this is quite a romp whose end is only predictable because of the principle that no one who leaves the small American town they grew up in to reinvent themselves in a better (possibly more ordered) life and achieves great success by doing so, who is then forced to go back for a quick, unwanted visit - ever manages to leave. But the journey that gets this character there is full of many bizarre turns. Who knew that death by crossbow was a thing in Oklahoma?

"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is in fact much more true of women - partly because they do a lot more of the cooking. I blame the prawns for this romantic tragedy in grand Italian style. If 45365 is folk music, I Am Love is opera.


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