Tag Archive: film


The Implosion of Film

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You possibly heard about it: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted an implosion for the film industry in the upcoming years when even proven talent can’t get their movies in the theaters. According to Paul Bond, some ideas from young filmmakers

“are too fringe-y for the movies,” Spielberg said. “That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

The remarks of Spielberg and Lucas provoked mixed reactions from film critics. Most interesting was the number-crunching verdict of Laremy Legel, who predicts that big budget movies are here to stay but smaller dramas addressing an adult audience appear as financial risks:

An “implosion” is definitely coming, but it’s not going to happen because of the $250 million dollar flops, it’s going to happen because of the mid-level flops, which, in the aggregate, are much more devastating to a studio’s bottom line.

And further:

The major studio systems now have a playbook they execute each time out. Sure, they tinker around the edges, but true innovation is routinely watered down with focus groups or preferably avoided altogether. If it’s not going to play overseas, to a generally “English as a second language” crowd, then it has got to go.

This reminds me of a lament written by Mick Harris on the occasion of the release of Christopher Nolan’s mega-success “Inception” in which he states that

it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.

“Inception” was the perfect blend of smart, intelligent but nonetheless blockbusting entertainment, still it owed its existence only to the huge success of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, which gave the director enough bargaining power to talk the studio bosses into putting money in his “fringey” idea before he would finish the next Batman movie. “Inception” would have been never realized if Nolan would have been an aspiring young film maker with no commercial success in his vita. Instead, studio executives throw money at

an adaptation of a comic book. A reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a TV show. A sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. A sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a cartoon. A sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a young-adult novel.

The pattern is similar in other cultural areas and is one of the complicated and twisted ways in which digitization influences the cultural industries: users and amateurs are empowered to enter a before closed marketplace (they win), big mainstream media concentrates even more on globally marketable and easy to sell products (they sometimes lose, but in the long run they always win), only the middle class of professional and independent artists and producers, who actually embody cultural diversity and innovation, finds itself in an environment where it is harder and harder to make a living from their art.

At this point, many would point at arthouse series like “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad”, “Homeland” and others produced by Pay-TV channels. In the before mentioned talk, George Lucas called cable television “much more adventurous” than film nowadays. But it is crucial to understand that this “new golden age of TV” is based on a monopoly as Adam Davidson writes in his piece “Mad Men Economic Miracle” for the “New York Times”:

Secure in their quasi-monopolistic dominance, cable providers have found that they can steadily raise rates and not lose too many customers. The average cable bill has more than doubled over the past decade, and viewers currently pay nearly $90 billion a year for their service. This is more than enough to support a profitable system in which networks can afford to broadcast expensively produced shows. Everybody profits, everybody wins (even viewers).

In this system, cable-TV is some kind of black box, where viewers without subscribing to them are actually cross-funding HBO, AMC and others investing in quality series aimed at niche audiences. HBO and AMC on the other hand are able to raise their prices since the cable-providers can’t afford to lose series with a small but strong and devoted following. This black box has led to a quality war which is “built on a brilliant (and maybe evil) business model”. But this business model is slowly dying since younger generations are not willing to pay steep bills for cable-TV and will stick to online streaming. Adam Davidson finishes his analysis with a rather bleak prospect:

Competition is obviously preferable to a monopoly. Yet without the existing system, it’s hard to imagine that the quality war will rage on. Will there be enough content providers willing to gamble on expensive programs with big stars, lavish wardrobe budgets and huge overhead — only to sell episodes online for less than a dollar? If there are no oligopolistic profits, no cartel monetizing our eager anticipation, will there be as much great stuff to watch? For people, like me, addicted to not only “Breaking Bad” but also “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Killing,” “Homeland” and others, this future is scary because the answer is probably no.

The streaming service Netflix is now challenging HBO with its own quality series “House of Cards”. The company’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos boasted recently that “the goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” In a profile, GQ quotes Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings:

Within the next decade, probably the next five years, he figures, ours will be a seamless, multidevice on-demand world, a place where services like Netflix will be so fat with content that the idea of paying a $150 monthly cable bill for a bundle of unwatchable crap will seem as quaint as gathering around the Sony Trinitron with Ma and Pa on Tuesday at 8 p.m. for All in the Family.

But if Netflix is able to turn high quality story telling into a profitable business model is as questionable as their Google-like mission statement about their own entrepreneurial culture. GQ again:

Giants from Amazon to Apple TV to Hulu are throwing money at their own streaming services, driving the cost of licensing exclusive content into the ozone. Amazon and iTunes charge per episode or movie, which means they’re able to stream newer stuff. (Subscribers to Amazon’s $79-a-year Prime shipping service get free access to a growing selection of content.) Meanwhile, Netflix hasn’t been able to add subscribers at the swift pace it promised shareholders lately, a trend that could make it much harder to establish the “virtuous cycle” it’s chasing—that is, subscription fees enabling Netflix to acquire content that in turn attracts new subscribers, which will pay for more content.

There is possibly an implosion to come, but it is still unclear how it will turn out. More and more consumers want to watch movies and quality TV on the day it is released. Many want the Hollywood studios to get rid of their theatrical windows at all and  “let consumers watch movies at home for a higher price rather than trek to the cinema“. But movie theaters are not owned by the Hollywood studios and theaters could fight back if one of the studios would first start releasing their films online. Being boycotted by the movie theaters is no risk any of the major studios is willing to take. For the time being, Hollywood will continue to throw its money at the next sequel to a sequel to a reboot of an adaptation of a comic book. Until an implosion happens. 

 

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Dies ist die Geschichte eines Mischpults und der Musik, die durch dieses Mischpult auf eine besondere Weise zum Klingen gebracht wurde. Es ist die Geschichte von verschwitztem Rock’n’Roll und einer Ära, in der Tonstudios noch eine Aura des Heiligen hatten aufgrund der legendären Platten, die in ihnen aufgenommen wurden. Zu Beginn der 70er Jahre kauften die Betreiber des Sound City Studios in LA für 74000 US$, damals ausreichend für einen Häuserkauf, eine der weltweit an einer Hand abzählbaren Neve 8078 Konsolen des britischen Audio-Gurus Rupert Neve. In Kombination mit dem für fette Drumsounds prädestinierten Aufnahmeraum entwickelte sich Sound City zu einem der gefragtesten Musikstudios in Amerika, von Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Foreigner, Rick Springfield bis Barry Manilow kamen alle, um in den miefigen und chaotisch geführten Studioräumen an ihren Platten zu arbeiten, Sessions zu spielen und auch einmal “in die Ecke zu pinkeln”. Sound City stand für einen ehrlichen, unverfälschten und warmen Sound, der in den 70er Jahren auf der Höhe der Zeit war. Als sich in den 80er Jahren die Sound-Ästhetik der Pop- und Rockmusik änderte - digitale Technologie trat in den Studioalltag, Drum Machines und Sequenzer ersetzen Studiomusiker und das Spielen zu einem Clicktrack wurde zur Gewohnheit – geriet Sound City in finanzielle Schieflage, die Aufträge blieben aus, da viele der Top-Produzenten in modernere Studios abwanderten.

Anfang der 90er Jahre stand Sound City vor dem Bankrott. Die Studiomiete war so günstig wie nie, als eine damals noch unbekannte Band namens Nirvana von ihrem Label in die Sound City Studios geschickt wurde, um ihr zweites Album “Nevermind” aufzunehmen. Der Rest ist Rock-Geschichte. Dave Grohl, damals als Drummer gerade neu zu Nirvana hinzugestoßen, ist heute der Überzeugung, dass Nirvana ohne das Aufnahme-Studio Sound City nie zu ihrem Grunge-Stardom gelangt wären. Als das legendäre Studio 2011 tatsächlich Pleite ging, war er es, der das Neve-Mischpult kaufte und in das Studio der Foo Fighters schaffte. Durch ein paar Videoaufnahmen über den Transport animiert entstand die Idee, eine abendfüllende Dokumentation über das Mischpult und das Studio zu drehen. Yes: Dave Grohl hat seine erste Regiearbeit abgeliefert und dieses Jahr beim Sundance Film Festival vorgestellt. Seit Anfang Februar ist der Film “Sound City” online erhältlich.

Was kann man über Dave Grohl als Filmemacher sagen? Aus dem Blickwinkel eines Cineasten oder anspruchsvollen Dokumentarfilmers ist der Film purer Trash: Dave Grohl agiert zuerst als Interviewer, der viele der legendären Musiker, Produzenten und Techniker um das Sound City Studio befragt und in MTV-Manier zu einem bunten Bilderbogen montiert. Er ist so geflasht von seinem Thema, dass er alles in seinen Film packen will: die technischen Details der Analog-Technik, die musikgeschichtlichen Highlights der Sound City Produktionen, die persönlichen Schicksale der Studio-Angestellten, ja selbst der Kampfhund von Rick Springfield bekommt seinen Eintrag ins Poesiealbum. Nach 70 Minuten endet der historische Teil der Doku und eine andere Doku beginnt, in der Dave Grohl selber zum Mittelpunkt wird: er hat im letzten Jahr mit Mitgliedern seiner Bands Nirvana, Foo Fighters und Queens of the Stone Age mehrere der Sound City Legenden zu Sessions in sein Studio geladen, um dem Neve-Mischpult zu Ehren ein Album aufzunehmen. Der Film ist wie eine großartige Rockband ohne Produzenten als Korrektiv: sprunghaft, grob, anmaßend. Aber genau das ist vielleicht das reizvolle und sympathische an der Dokumentation: sie atmet in ihrer Vermittlung eben jenen Geist des Rock’n’Roll, den sie zum Thema hat. Und für alle Gear Slutz unter meinen Freunden ist der Film eine absolutes Muss: kaum eine Rock-Doku hat der technologischen Seite der Musik so einen hohen Stellenwert eingeräumt. Und wenn das alle Technik-Phobiker abschreckt: es gibt genügend Gänsehautmomente, wenn man mit der Grunge-Musik der 90er Jahre aufgewachsen ist und einem Bands wie Rage Against The Machine, The Pixies, Trent Reznor von Nine Inch Nails oder auch der Produzent Rick Rubin nicht vollständig egal sind.

Das Studio stand in den 90er Jahren für eine Rückbesinnung auf den ehrlichen, handwerklichen Begriff vom Musikmachen – “24 Track Mentality”, wie James Brown (der Produzent, nicht Musiker) es nennt: die kleinen Fehler und Ungenauigkeiten, die entstehen, wenn ein paar Musiker gemeinsam spielen, die 24-Spur-Bänder, die sich nur sehr mühsam im Vergleich zur digitalen Technologie editieren lassen und die Musiker dazu zwingen, Stücke in einem Take aufs Band zu bringen. “ You commit to what it is. With Pro Tools you are not forced to make decision, you don’t have to commit.” Entlang des Analog-Digital-Schismas wirken viele der Rockgrößen wie Öko-Fundies, die ihre biologisch-dynamische Landwirtschaft verteidigen. Aber neben allem wertkonservativen Analog-Fetischismus stellt Dave Grohl auch wichtige Fragen nach den sozialen Aspekten der Rockmusik, die im Zeitalter des digitalen Laptop-Studios verloren zu gehen scheinen. Mick Fleetwood sagt in der Doku: “I think the downside these days is thinking: I can do this all on my own. Yes, you can do this on your own. But you will be a much happier human being, when you do it together with other human beings. And I can garantee you that.” Bei aller Nostalgie steckt ein Wahrheitskern in solchen Aussagen: zu viel Musik wird reißbrettartig am Bildschirm entwickelt und erst danach von Musikern eingespielt, wenn überhaupt. Das Produzieren von Musik über Kontinente hinweg ist Segen und Fluch zugleich: Musiker spielen gemeinsam Songs ein, ohne sich jemals gesehen zu haben, was großartige Möglichkeiten eröffnet. Aber gleichzeitig wird das Spontane und Unwiederholbare einer Live-Session immer häufiger durch enge Produktionsetats unmöglich gemacht. Der Größenwahn des goldenen Studiozeitalters ist definitiv vorbei. Die digitale Revolution hat aber nicht nur die Produktion sondern auch die Distribution der Musik grundlegend verändert. Auf diesen zweiten Aspekt kommt Dave Grohl in seiner Doku gar nicht erst zu sprechen, denn bei dem Thema kann man sich leicht die Finger verbrennen. Die digitale Distribution von Musik hat zu einem enormen Wertverlust von Musikaufnahmen geführt, “recorded music is dead”, heißt es, oder zumindest befindet sich der Preis für aufgenommene Musik in einem “race to the bottom” und jedes Label wird sich genau überlegen, wieviel Geld es in Studioaufnahmen stecken will. Auch das ist ein wesentlicher Grund für das große “Studiosterben” im ersten Jahrzehnt der 2000er Jahre.

Muss man deswegen über die Digitalisierung lamentieren und der Meinung sein, dass früher alles besser war? Dave Grohl gibt zu Beginn seiner Doku selbst eine Antwort darauf: “When you are young you are not afraid of what comes next, you are excited by.” Digitale Technologien haben das Musikschaffen von vielen wirtschaftlichen Zwängen befreit und einen riesigen kreativen Schub verursacht, der vor allem darin liegt, dass heute so viele Musiker Zugang zum Musikmarkt haben wie nie zuvor. Das hat nicht unbedingt zu besserer Musik geführt, aber heute liegt die Punk Attitude eben nicht in ein paar Gitarrenakkorden sondern vielleicht im Wobble Bass des Dubstep oder dem nächsten heißen Scheiß. Das Studio als Instrument und kreativer Raum für Musiker ist eine “Kulturtechnik”, die auch in Zukunft relevant sein und sich mit der rechnerbasierten Produktion ergänzen wird. Heute ist für die meisten Musiker selbstverständlich, sich das beste aus beiden Welten zu nehmen, wofür beispielhaft Trent Reznor in der Doku steht. Und ich bin mir ziemlich sicher, dass eine Menge junger Kids in Dave Grohl ein Vorbild sehen und ihm nacheifern werden wollen in seinem Feldzug für die gute alte Analogtechnik – so wie Dave Grohl von seinem Idol Paul McCartney inspiriert war, den er zu den Neve-Sessions als weiteren britischen Import in sein Studio einlud und der in seinem fortgeschrittenen Alter den Jungs um die Foo Fighters so richtig einheizte…

Foto von der Sound City Movie Webpage.

I recently came across Peter Jukes complaint from last year about UK television drama’s creative decline  “Why Britain can’t do The Wire” and it reads like a template for the current situation in German TV. He blames the centralisation of power and a small clique of people at the public service broadcasters picking their favourite creative staff leading to a stale and mediocre output with a too narrow spectrum of tastes and approaches in drama programmes. Though many aspects of the TV industry in the US are not comparable with the situation in Britain and Germany – after all, HBO, the producer of “The Wire”, is a paid subscription niche broadcaster and has therefore more freedom to invest in cutting edge drama instead of catering for majority interests – it still remains a puzzle why the BBC and the German public service broadcasters produce so little quality in terms of genre and style in the high end range compared to their huge budgets from public funding (though I have to say that I always envied British TV for idiosyncratic programmes like “Skins” or “The Mighty Boosh”).

Now if German TV ever came close to the degree of sophistication achieved in a show like “The Wire”, Dominik Graf’s mini-series “Im Angesicht des Verbrechens”,  premiered at this years Berlinale and broadcasted this spring on German TV, will be the only competitor. The series is obsessed with detail, full of exuberant story lines that revolve around the Russian mafia, German police officers of Jewish ancestry and the human trafficking of sex workers. The 10 episodes come as a highly addictive experience – one can feel that the production of the series already brought the staff to the limits. The production company was bankrupted because of sky-rocketing costs and endless overtime caused unrest in the team. But the endresult marks some kind of turning point in German TV history with the pondering question of: will we ever have something of such quality and intensity again or will we regress after this last effort because it proved to be too expensive and too exhaustive?

The director Dominik Graf might be completely unknown to the english-speaking world since he predominantly works for German TV after some of his earlier brilliant genre feature films failed to find an audience and left him with no place in the German cinematic industry. Now he is responsible for some of the most artistically challenging and still intelligble TV productions of the last 10 or 15 years. Thanks to the magazine “sense of cinema” a first very long interview translated in English is now available with Dominik Graf. One of the key points in this interview is his year long interchange with and criticism of the so-called Berlin School of cinema which is also portraid in the same issue of the magazine in form of a written collage. Two of the Berlin School most important proponents are Christoph Hochhäusler (read this interview in the same magazine or visit his blog “parallel film” written in German) and Christian Petzold (read yet another interview by Marco Abel, this time in the magazine “cineaste“) with whom Graf had a very long email exchange about their different aesthetic approaches.

One main difference between Graf and the Berlin School directors is that Graf stresses the role the screen writer plays for him. The script and the plot are the most important parts in his film making while the Berlin School directors often speak about the image, the sheer moment of watching, being the crucial aspect of their work, often embodied by the work of cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider who shot many of the Berlin School films. It is a dichotomy that was expressed by Christoph Hochhäusler in the email exchange with Petzold and Graf as “experience versus story telling”: the Berlin School clearly favours experience over story telling, in Hochhäuslers words, the story often contaminates the image, uses it and hierarchizes it. Therefore in many films of the Berlin School dialogue is more something like a noise, what is said is not of uttermost importance. Or as the collage article in “sense of cinema” summarizes these ideas: “If one were to formulate the topmost commandment of the Berlin School, it would consist of a proscription of manipulation – of reality and of the observer. From this, everything else follows: a commitment to observation, a prohibition of intervention (which could also mean intervening against false interventions), a concept of representation which wishes to cure actors of acting, the camera of autonomy, montage of becoming authoritarian and narration of lapsing into topoi and clichés. Almost throughout, extra-diegetic music as a means of underscoring images is regarded as illegitimate: original sound. It is the world that should appear: original world. Reality is fetish, its fair representation is “beauty”.

Dominik Grafs answer to this argument would be, as expressed in the interview with “sense of cinema”: “The point is: I first have to invent reality anew for my scenes so that the film, the cinema, will once again be able to resemble a possible reality somewhat more! This is part of my debate with the Berlin School directors.” He also “accuses” the Berlin School directors of some kind of mannerism or formalism: “In my experience—whether this is in music, literature, film, or wherever—if artists foreground their desire to be an artist to such a degree that they feel like they must mark each and every decision with their own will to art, then the result always ends up being less creative. In my view, an active embrace of ‘artistic genius’ has always foreclosed more than it has opened up.” Grafs way of dealing with such questions is to stick to certain genres in which he can work as some kind of guerilla film maker underneath the radar of the main stream “while nevertheless remaining unyielding and resisting any political correctness.” Here lies the reason why Graf is nearly unknown to the international film scene while Petzold and Hochhäusler next to Angela Schanelec and other filmmakers slowly receive some recognition among cineasts. One can even track back the aesthetics of the Berlin School in “The Wire” of which the first three seasons have been photographed by German cinematographer Uta Briesewitz, who started studying film at the DFFB in 1990, just the same film school Petzold, Schanelec and most of the other directors of the Berlin School came from.

The series “Im Angesicht des Verbrechens” is – for the time being – available to watch via you tube:

I saw Gus Van Sant‘s movie “Paranoid Park” on TV recently. Van Sant is well known for his controversial cinematic endeavours between mainstream success like “Good Will Hunting” and arthouse cinema as in his “death trilogy” comprising “Gerry”, “Elephant” and “Last Days”. What ever one might think about his film work, from a sound perspective those films of the trilogy and “Paranoid Park” offer really interesting insights since they are the only movies to my knowledge utilizing sound art works for dramaturgic reasons in a pertinent manner. The subject in all those movies is the alienation and solitude of younger people in modern society. In “Elephant” and “Last Days” the steadycam follows some of the characters on their walks through schools and parks while we hear sounds that obviously are not part of the natural surrounding. The sounds can be easily mistaken as displaced sound effects, but they are actually soundscape compositions of Canadian composer Hildegard Westerkamp. In both films her pieces “Beneath the Forest Floor” and “Türen der Wahrnehmung” are used to highlight the strangeness in which the main characters are situated. Randolph Jourdain writes about Van Sant’s films that they “employ the disenfranchising of sound from conventional relationships to the cinematic image as a foundation for exploring the cultural environment of disenfranchised youth.” In his article for “offscreen” he also asked Westerkamp about her view on the use of her works in the films of the “death trilogy”. 

In “Paranoid Park” the compiled soundtrack is even more strange and at odds with what we would expect in a movie about young skaters. Nino Rota’s score for Federico Fellini’s masterpieces “Amarcord” and “Juliet of the Spirits” is set against the young protagonist walking down the street or drowns his girl-friends rant against him. But there are some sound art works hidden in the movie as well. I couldn’t spot a part of Bernard Parmegiani’s “Dedans Dehors” which is credited at the end, but Frances White’s “Resonant Landscape No. 2” is clearly recognizable under the shower scene where the young guy washes down his guilt from the incident which lead to the death of a police officer. Most appealing though are the Ethan Rose tracks from his release “Ceiling Songs” underlying the grainy Super-8 shots in the skater hangout called Paranoid Park that dives the whole spot into a mystical scenery. I wish more filmmakers would be as courageous as Van Sant in their use of sound. Check this excerpt from “Paranoid Park” with music of Ethan Rose:

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