Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club: June 22, 2007


Editor's note: Those of you who missed the blog post might want to know that we've created an Ask The A.V. Club launch page, where you'll find the last several months of columns laid out for your reading pleasure, plus randomly generated picks from the archives. "Ask The A.V. Club" is now a dropdown option under "Features" on the top navigation bar on the home page. Or just click on "Ask The A.V. Club" to the right, under the "more" list of keyword tags. And now, back to your regularly scheduled A.V. Club asking.

Blockbluster Moralizing

My father and I are trying to convince my mom that Blockbuster is evil so she'll buy a Netflix subscription… but we lack convincing evidence. Pretty much all I have is an anecdote from a friend who worked for the company while in high school and some unsourced blog rants. Apparently, The New York Times once reported on Blockbuster's censorship procedures, but the article was published 11 years ago. That seems too long ago to be relevant (and I would have to pay to read it online—no way, New York Times. Nice try.) Can The A.V. Club help me with my selective moralizing? Am I right to boycott Blockbuster?


Kate Pezalla

Scott Tobias certainly thinks you are:

Back when I was a young cinephile in college, circa 1991, I was so incensed by Blockbuster's policies that I cut up my card and mailed it to them, along with an angry letter. The source of my complaint is probably common to Blockbuster haters everywhere: The chain, under pressure from Christian coots like the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, decided to keep Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ off its shelves nationwide. At about the same time, the NC-17 rating was introduced to distinguish serious adult-oriented fare like Henry & June from the sort of smut that bypasses the ratings board altogether. So what did Blockbuster do? It banned all NC-17-rated movies. But it kept the unrated softcore, under 18+ or YRV ("Youth Restricted Viewing") labels. So you couldn't see Henry & June, yet you could see some vapid nude aerobics video, or Ed Wood's Orgy Of The Dead.

As you might imagine, my one-man letter-writing campaign did nothing to change corporate policy—apparently, I needed some lessons on fiery rhetoric from Rev. Wildmon—but there have always been gaps in the system, and those have only widened as the years have progressed. From the start, individual franchises (usually in progressive markets) have quietly thumbed their nose at corporate, and just as quietly, those policies have gradually disappeared. There was a time when films like Bad Lieutenant would be hacked down to an R rating in order to make it into Blockbuster, but now, the often imperceptibly raunchier "Unrated" versions of studio films like American Pie, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and The Girl Next Door can easily slip through that longstanding policy loophole. And if you do a search over at Blockbuster Online—the company's feeble attempt to compete with Netflix—you'll find that The Last Temptation Of Christ can be added to your queue, as can such NC-17-rated titles as John Waters' A Dirty Shame and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. For all intents and purposes, the old reasons for hating Blockbuster are dead.

But hey, if you're looking for reasons to hate Blockbuster, here's another one: Last year, Blockbuster inked an unprecedented "rental exclusivity" deal with The Weinstein Company. Under the deal, Weinstein titles like Shut Up & Sing, Sicko, and Grindhouse can only be rented through Blockbuster stores and Blockbuster Online, for a three-year window. In exchange, the individual stores are spotlighting Weinstein products through special displays. The idea was, of course, to put the screws to Netflix, but the customer is the one getting the shaft. Not to worry, though: Hilariously, a fairness protection law called the "First Sale Doctrine" has allowed Netflix to slip right around the exclusivity deal and rent Weinstein titles anyway, though the discs include the ominous (yet harmless) message "This DVD Is Intended For Sale Only."


All of which brings me to another reason to convince your mother to join you in a Blockbuster boycott: schadenfreude, that wonderful German word for delighting in another's misfortune. In recent years, the once-monolithic company can't seem to do anything right. The affordability of DVDs has taken a big bite out of its rental business, its sluggishness in responding to the Netflix/DVD-by-mail revolution has cost it precious market share, and its "No Late Fees" policy has been poorly implemented, sparking a lawsuit that Blockbuster eventually had to settle. On top of all that, the disembodied voice behind the Blockbuster Total Access commercials is the same disembodied voice that called his daughter "a rude, thoughtless pig." For years, Blockbuster has been supporting policies that have been antithetical to the art of cinema, its stores have contributed to the depressing homogeneity of modern-day America, and it has driven smaller, quirkier ma-and-pa operations out of business. So make it a something-other-than-Blockbuster night.

The Ideal Copy(right)

This is more of an opinion question than a fact-based one: What do the folks at The A.V. Club think of the current U.S. copyright laws? Obviously copyright is a good and necessary thing, in that it enables artists to make a living. But too much of a good thing can be bad. As people like Lawrence Lessig have pointed out, too many copyright restrictions can have the opposite effect, stifling creativity, and thus artists.  Do you think these laws need a major overhaul? Slight tweaking? Is Lessig's "Creative Commons" the answer? Or are the current laws simply a necessary evil?


Emily Pugh

Emily, you've touched a nerve with Noel Murray:

Like you, Emily, I understand the necessity of copyrights, which are designed to make sure that creative people get duly compensated for their creations, which in turn is meant to encourage creative people to create. It's the same logic behind patent law. Make inventing lucrative, and more people will invent.


There are two problems with that logic, though. First, the creative impulse isn't quite the same as the inventing impulse. Artists—the great ones, anyway—are going to write books, sing songs, and paint pictures whether anyone pays them or not. Second, artists also want—need, really—to comment on their times, which requires using pieces of what's out there in the culture.

The major problem with copyright law today isn't so much the law itself—although the government does too quickly renew some copyrights that should've long-since fallen into the public domain—but the way that the mere threat of legal action has frightened some artists away from playing the "fair use" card, and testing how far the courts will let them go. We've all heard the anecdotal horror stories about Disney sending menacing letters to day-care centers with Mickey Mouse murals, and the NFL muscling sports bars that offer "Super Bowl Specials." Knee-jerk legal actions like this prevent documentarians from using whatever pieces of old movie footage they need to tell their story, or TV producers from making the case that 30 or 40 seconds of a popular song in a scene shouldn't require clearance (or rights fees).


Between the threat of legal action and the proliferation of exclusive product-placement deals, we've increasingly been getting American movies and television shows that barely acknowledge the culture as it is. Watch just about any of the docu-reality shows on MTV, and nearly every T-shirt, hat, poster, soft drink, and billboard has been blurred out. I mean, when you can't even show the actual environment of the subject of a documentary, then I don't know what the hell "fair use" means anymore.

As for Creative Commons, I applaud the effort, but for it to solve the problems above, more of the big media conglomerates will need to sign on, and that's unlikely. It usually comes out that when, say U2 sues Negativland for appropriating "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," it isn't really U2 suing, but one of the many birds dipping a beak in the U2 well. And they're usually doing it without even looking or thinking about the facts of the case, or consulting the entity they're representing. Until artists fight back for their rights to sample and comment—and prove in court that appropriating an image or sound for a distinct artistic purpose does not necessarily devalue that original image or sound—the tyranny of U.S. copyright law is going to continue to be more theoretical than actual.


Stairway To Heaven, Escalator To Hell

Hello. I was a film major and had the opportunity to take a class on experimental film. One film I remember really enjoying featured about 10 minutes of watching people going down an escalator, staring into the camera, which doesn't move. Fun, right? But then the credits start, and every single person gets a credit describing either the people themselves or how they died. I remember it being very strange and funny. It was in black and white. I've tried looking on various video sites, but the word "escalator" doesn't do much. If you could shed some light on this, I'd appreciate it. Thanks.



Donna went straight to a light expert on your behalf:


Actually, for a certain warped sensibility, watching almost 10 minutes of escalator riders randomly culled from the 1970 population of Manhattan is big fun. Or at least irresistibly anthropological. That, rather than the incongruously wacky concluding credits, is the major appeal of "Necrology," an experimental film by Yale professor Standish Lawder. And if, like me, you're the kind of person who gets wrapped up in the faces, hair, glasses, suits, and dresses worn by business folk four decades ago, then you're in luck. You can see the entire film on YouTube. If you want context, you can get it from this Google Video version, which includes a televised interview with the filmmaker and clips of other works. (The 15-minute video is a preview for the entire 90-minute program, which can be purchased from Documentary Educational Resources, or downloaded in a hi-res version for $19.95. Necrology starts around the 5:45 mark and plays until the end, with the last minute or so cut off.)

The show was The Screening Room, and it aired in the '70s on Boston's ABC affiliate, hosted by Harvard professor Robert Gardner. It's a treasure trove of independent filmmakers, especially from the avant-garde; Jonas Mekas, Bruce Baille, Michael Snow, Robert Breer, and many others appeared during the show's long run. On this particular episode, film writer Stanley Cavell joins Gardner and Lawder, and they screen several of Lawder's films, including about half of the stunning "Color Film," a depiction of brightly colored celluloid winding through the innards of a film projector to an acid-rock soundtrack. The complete program also includes Lawder's structuralist short "Corridor" and a test print of his Intolerance, in which the filmmaker experiments with rephotographing a finished film on a homemade optical printer.

"Necrology" was made by training a camera on an escalator running down toward the ground floor of the Pan Am building as its denizens left work for the day, tightly zoomed so that each rider passes through the frame in medium shot. The long single take runs backwards, giving the effect of a crane shot slowly descending the world's longest staircase. Most riders are stationary on their stairs, looking blankly into space, while dirge-like classical music plays. The last two minutes of the short scrolls the "cast of characters" over jaunty band music, with roles like "Corvette Owner," "Girl Who Looks Like Joan Baez," and "Fugitive, Interstate."


Now if the film major who asked this question didn't know what this movie was, how are we pop-obsessed fly-by-nighters at The A.V. Club, notoriously distracted by shiny objects and indie rock stars, supposed to find out? We may not know much, but we do know whom to ask. In this case, the go-to guy is our good friend Jeff Lambert at the National Film Preservation Foundation, the publishers of Rick Prelinger's essential Field Guide To Sponsored Films and the embarrassments of riches that are the Treasures Of American Film Archives box sets. Avant-garde aficionado Jeff identified the film from questioner Jeff's description, located a 16mm print in the rental catalog of The Film-Makers' Cooperative, and then went the extra mile by finding the YouTube and Google Video versions, as well as a British DVD compilation of short films that includes it. When he isn't doing my job for me, Answerer Jeff helps the NFPF fund film-preservation efforts all over the country and make many of the less commercial products available to consumers.

If you're intrigued by Lawder's work—and based on these two shorts and my admittedly odd taste, he's some kind of genius—you'll be glad to know that "Necrology" is undergoing preservation at the Academy Film Archive under the direction of yet another genuine American hero, Mark Toscano. And if you care at all about the brief but bright history of the moving image, including the parts that never played at our local bijoux, support the NFPF with your donations and your patronage.


Board Walk

About 10 years ago, I recall seeing a very well done short film, done in stop-motion animation. The action seemed to take place with two antagonists balanced on a chessboard, and as the two characters moved about, the balance would shift and the board tilted. In the end, one of the characters succeeded in knocking the other off the board, but then he himself fell to his death. Some sort of message there about the ultimate futility of conflict, I suppose! I believe it was Eastern European in origin, if that helps. (Sorry, not much to go on!) I love your feature. Keep up the good work.


Jeff Broderick

Tasha Robinson keeps up the good work:


It's been a long-winded week for us here at Ask The A.V. Club, Jeff, so I figured we could use something short, sweet, and simple to cap it off. Besides, this short is one of my all-time favorites, and I can't resist a gratuitous chance to point readers at it. It's called "Balance," it was made in West Germany by twin brothers, it won the Best Animated Short Oscar in 1989, and you can watch it here. You can also learn more about the creators, see images from their commercial work, and watch their show reel at their website. Enjoy. (Well, don't enjoy that robot-ants Coke commercial. That thing's just weird and disturbing.)

Next week: Critical bias, monolith monsters, and more. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.


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