Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Mr. Smith Fallacy: Was screening Frank Capra's classic the true nuclear option?


In the absence of any other logical explanation, I conclude that what nudged the Senate back from the brink of a "nuclear option"—the majority-driven rule change disallowing the use of filibusters against judicial nominees—was the prospect that both Democrats and Republicans would screen Frank Capra's 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, last night in the Capitol.

As I've explained before, I believe that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist should have taken his "nuclear option" one step further and eliminated the filibuster not only for judicial nominees but for legislation, too. This isn't because I favor the appointment of judges hostile to a woman's right to choose abortion; I don't. Rather, it's because I believe the filibuster is an inherently reactionary tool that, over the long term, has impeded and will continue to impede activist liberal government by imposing a 60-vote supermajority requirement on virtually every bill that comes before Congress. People would have an easier time grasping this if it weren't for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

In Mr. Smith, the idealistic Sen. Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, uses the filibuster to block legislation to build the Willet Creek Dam, the true purpose of which, we are told, is to line the pockets of political bosses. That sounds like a plausibly liberal goal today, when environmentalists routinely argue that dams destroy delicate ecosystems. And it seemed so during the last week of October 1972, when I, age 14, attended a screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington at Pomona College with my older brother Peter. Capra was there to answer questions from the audience afterward, and Peter's hand was the first one up. "Mr. Capra," asked my brother, "can I assume, based on what we just saw, that this Tuesday you'll cast your vote for George McGovern?" Capra looked balefully at his shaggy-haired, bearded interlocutor, whose political views, he knew, were shared by nearly everyone else in the audience. Then he mumbled, "Uh … no."

Capra idealized the common man, but he was nobody's idea of a liberal. And back when Mr. Smith was released—a mere six years after the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority—liberals were not the dam-haters they are today. New Dealers considered the building of federally funded dams vital to maintaining struggling family farms and to bringing electricity to the homes of the rural poor. Seen in its historic context, then, the fictional bill that the fictional Mr. Smith blocks is what today would be called "progressive legislation." It therefore fits right in with the sort of bills that filibusters have nearly always been deployed against in real life. Thanks to the filibuster, President Roosevelt was never able to pass anti-lynching legislation. More recently, the filibuster kept the Clinton administration from overhauling a century-old mining law that makes it impossible for taxpayers to block environmentally harmful giveaways to companies mining federal land. Today, the filibuster guarantees that the United States won't pass legislation extending health insurance to all its citizens. And saving it is a great liberal cause?

Another fallacy inherent in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the notion that the modern-era filibuster has anything to do with what Sen. Robert Byrd (citing Mr. Smith in a March 1 floor speech) grandly calls "the deliberative process." As Byrd well knows, contemporary practice eliminates the speechifying part of the filibuster altogether; these days, whenever a filibuster is threatened, the Senate majority will typically calculate whether it has the 60 votes necessary to cut off debate, and if it doesn't, it won't bother to bring the legislation in question to a floor vote at all. (Byrd, I should note, filibustered—the old-fashioned way—14 hours against passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That's the law that banned discrimination in public facilities! So forgive me if his views on the subject don't command my full attention.)

It's ironic that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has become an argument-stopping sacred cow in Washington, because when the film premiered in 1939 at Washington's DAR Constitution Hall, it got an overwhelmingly hostile reception. Here's how Capra remembered it in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title:
"By the time Mr. Smith sputtered to the end music, about one-third of Washington's finest had left. Of those who remained, some applauded, some laughed, but most pressed grimly for the doors. … [At the reception afterward,] I took the worst shellacking of my professional life. Shifts of hopping-mad Washington press correspondents belittled, berated, scorned, vilified, and ripped me open from stem to stern as a villainous Hollywood traducer."
In an interview with Richard L. Strout of the Christian Science Monitor, Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley, a Democrat (he would later be Harry Truman's vice president), changed the subject from the debate over entering the war in Europe to Capra's film. Barkley called Mr. Smith "as grotesque as anything I have ever seen. … At one point, the picture shows the senators walking out on Mr. Smith as a body when he is attacked by a corrupt member. The very idea of the Senate walking out at the behest of that old crook! It was so grotesque it was funny. It showed the Senate made up of crooks, led by crooks, listening to a crook. … It was so vicious an idea that it was a source of disgust and hilarity to every member of Congress who saw it. … I did not hear a single senator praise it. I speak for the whole body." 

A fascinating index of how our politics have changed since 1939 is that back when Mr. Smith came out, it didn't occur to members of the Senate—or even the press!—to identify with the film's authority-defying protagonist. Today, it would never occur to a senator—even a member of the Senate leadership—to identify with anyone else. Maybe that explains why the filibuster is proving so hard to kill. - Timothy Noah

How Yamaha's new electronic piano improves upon a 300-year-old instrument.

There are nine pianos squeezed into the back of Yamaha's music salon in the old Aeolian Building in New York, and between them they represent an abridged history of technology's assault on the instrument. Against the wall you'll find a majestic 9-foot grand and two of its 6-foot cousins—not an electric bone in their bodies. A few feet away is a modern player piano, the Disklavier Pro, which is still an acoustic piano but is outfitted with gadgets that can resurrect Art Tatum if you insert the correct 3½-inch floppy. (Think Darth Vader: still human but with a lot of gizmos for extra functionality.) And over by the door is the newest addition to the Yamaha family, the just-released AvantGrand. It doesn't even have strings.

The AvantGrand is at the cutting edge of electronic piano technology, though you wouldn't know to look at it. It looks like a small baby grand, 4½ feet deep with the usual folding lid. In place of strings, it has four speakers, but if the lid is down, the only obvious sign that this isn't an acoustic piano is a small control panel that tucks neatly under the keyboard. More important, it actuallysounds like an acoustic grand piano. Since the timbre of a piano is derived in part from the way the instrument itself vibrates as the sound resonates inside, the Yamaha engineers sampled notes from a variety of locations inside the 9-foot concert grand they used as their model. When you play note on the AvantGrand, you're basically triggering an extremely high-quality recording of a concert piano, adjusted in volume depending on how hard you hit the keys. 
The lengths to which the designers have gone to replicate the experience of a top-notch grand piano are almost absurd. Each key is attached to a hammer that, while it has no string to strike, imitates the kick you get when you hit a traditional piano key. Two resonators under the hood cause the entire instrument to vibrate subtly the way a real piano does when the sound is resonating inside—an effect that is solely meant to imitate for the player the physicality of a real piano. A Tactile Response System even replicates the way the pedals vibrate a little when you're really hammering away. (It's kind of like the Nintendo 64's Rumble Pak.) The pedals are also precisely calibrated to the variable resistance of a real piano. Yamahahas the graphs to prove it.

What all this means is that the bottom 95th percentile of the world's pianists will not notice much difference, if any, in the tone and quality of this piano as compared to a traditional one. In fact, the AvantGrand probably sounds considerably better than the baby grand in your living room.

I got a chance to try the AvantGrand for myself recently. A gaggle of Yamaha employees gathered round to explain the piano's virtues while I moved them all to tears with a little Rachmaninoff. (Actually, Magdalena, my handler, helpfully pointed out the correct chords as I honked my way through a prelude.) Despite my clunky playing, I found the AvantGrand entrancing, more responsive than even the expensive pianos I'd tried in college, the ones you had to get a special key from the music department to play.

Which is why it's a little odd that Yamaha isn't giving itself more credit for this remarkable product. The company seems desperate for acceptance from traditionalists—the crowd that doesn't think a piano should ever have to be plugged in. The press materials insist that the AvantGrand is virtually identical to a concert grand, only cheaper, smaller, and always perfectly in tune. (The AvantGrand goes for $20,000; there is also an upright version which sells for $15,000.) Testimonials from concert pianists extol its virtues. In essence, the company is doing the same thing Les Paul did when he debuted an early model of a solid-body electric guitar: namely, dressing it up like its acoustic forebears. Paul glued the wings of an Epiphone guitar on the sides of the pine 4x4 he was using for his prototype, which he called "The Log." Yamaha's hammers, resonators, and lid are a little more sophisticated and functional than those Epiphone wings, but the emphasis is still on verisimilitude.

It's a shame, because Yamaha has done more than capture the soul of a grand piano in an electronic device. They have improved on a 300-year-old instrument. Keyboards come with all sorts of dubious bells and whistles, but some are genuinely useful: The ability to record your playing very precisely and play it back, say, or to make simple adjustments in how responsive the volume is to the force you use striking the keys. The most obvious advantage is that digital instruments are always precisely in tune, which is especially important when you're forcing your young child to take piano lessons. (Even if perfect pitch turns out to be genetic, it's probably a good idea to start ear training on an instrument that plays the right pitches.)

An instrument like this could actually change the way all pianos are tuned. Contrary to what you may have learned in Disney's Donald in Mathmagic Land, choosing exact frequencies for the notes in a scale is far messier than tuning the strings to the neat fractions of thePythagorean scale. Tuning an instrument very exactly to one key using the standard ratios between notes makes it out of tune in every other key. (There's a very good, non-animated summary here.) The modern scale simply splits the difference between every key so that they're all equally out of tune.

The AvantGrand can instantly retune itself to a variety of tunings, or "temperaments," from Donald Duck's Pythagorean scale to those that were standard during Bach's lifetime, which is very titillating for baroque-enthusiasts. Those wishing to precisely re-create the tuning that Bach used can hit a few buttons on the control panel, and the pitches of the notes will revert to the asymmetric tuning used in the very early days of the piano, when different keys had different personalities, since they weren't all equally corrected. 

Are you a devotee of the 17th-century organist Andreas Werckmeister? You can set the piano to his preferred frequencies if you like. The AvantGrand even has a harpsichord setting that, like a real harpsichord, produces the same volume no matter how hard you strike the keys.

There are, of course, plenty of purists who will insist that an acoustic piano's sound is far superior to the AvantGrand's. But it is not necessary to win these people over for the AvantGrand to change the way we think about the piano. This instrument represents a psychological victory for the electric piano, which no longer feels merely like a better tuned or more tech-savvy alternative to the real thing. This is a really good piano. I would train my kids on it—whether they liked it or not. - Chris Wilson

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More Distro Chaos

Presented with the option of buying a film on disc or just renting it, it practically goes without saying that springing to purchase a a film sight unseen must happen far less regularly than just plumping for a hire. This situation will also be exacerbated by Netflix-style postal services and VOD. It isn’t any wonder, then, that the studios are considering a plan that would give sell-through discs a window of their own, a protected chance to tempt consumers into a more profitable course of consumerism. I’ve read a report from The LA Times (found courtesy of Screen Rant) in which Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is quoted as having made the following claim during a conference call: "The studios are wrestling with declines in DVD sales while the DVD rental market has been modestly growing. One of the mitigating steps some are considering is introducing a DVD retail sales-only window for a few weeks."

Already, 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. have pulled their discs and gone to court with Redbox, the $1-a-night robo-kiosk people. The studios argue that Redbox are devaluing the product at that price, and they may have a point. As a collectormaniac consumer, I’d love to see the prices on both rental and retail discs continue to drop (and drop and drop) but as a film lover, I’d hate for this to create a climate of fear that sees the studios less willing to invest in risky (read: not utterly banal) films.

Dare I dream of a future world in which the studios have become extinct and the film culture is no longer shackled to profit and investment but the labour-of-love work of people settling for reasonable wages and looking to express themselves? Imagine a world where a film director earns, say, $90,000 for a year’s work and an actor bags $45,000 for a four week stint on set. It’s bizarro economics, and might sound more like a burger joint than the supposed dream factory of Hollywood but it is films getting made, and I’m sure just as many of them would be good. Can we even fantasise the film industry as existing in a completely different strata of the economy? And if not, why not?

Back to the rental question. Hastings has identified a silver lining to the proposed rental delay, and related it in the same call: "If we can agree on low-enough pricing, delayed rental could potentially increase profits for everyone."

And for the consumer? A greater tendency to borrow discs from friends maybe and perhaps even a huge rise in piracy. Time will tell. - Brendon Connelly

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Zombie Wedding Cake

Industry Gives Hollywood Film Festival Free Pass

I am surprised by the film industry and the media’s continued willingness to give a free pass to entrepreneur Carlos de Abreu’s Hollywood Film Festival, a cannily constructed facade which honors stars, filmmakers and craftspeople and lines the pockets of de Abreu.

He’s created an awards show timed perfectly at the height of the awards season, which he presents inside the context of a film festival. While it is not considered to be a bonafide quality film fest curated by top programmers, like Telluride, Sundance or New York, and its premieres are often less than stellar, Hollywood players participate because it supports the award cause. It gives vying award season contenders yet another opportunity to grab attention. If de Abreu gives an award, why wouldn’t any self-respecting self-promoting player show up for their five minutes of PR? This years award winners include Hilary Swank (Amelia), Robert DeNiro (Everybody’s Fine) and Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds).

Having served as a second lieutenant in the Air Force in Mozambique before being forced out of the country in 1975 by the communist regime, de Abreu came to Hollywood after he got tired of being a marketing director for the jeweler Cartier. He studied screenwriting at UCLA. He got a foothold in the film industry by putting on conferences every two months to let screenwriters pitch Hollywood buyers. He started giving out the Hollywood Screenplay Discovery Awards, and co-wrote with Howard Smith a book for Random House called Opening the Door to Hollywood. He sent scripts to agencies, and in 1996 Ted Kotcheff optioned two of the winners’ screenplays.

De Abreu got involved with the internet in 1994, started a website, and collected over 3000 domain names, all related to Hollywood, including the Hollywood Film Festival, which he launched in 1996. Married to TV actress Janice Pennington (The Price is Right), de Abreu worked his way up the Hollywood social ladder, throwing dinner parties and becoming friendly with the likes of Kotcheff, Mark Rydell, Sherry Lansing and Mike Medavoy (a Hollywood Film Award winner for the flop All the King’s Men).

While de Abreu took advantage of his social contacts with agents and studio heads when he mounted the festival, it wasn’t taken seriously until he hired the powerhouse PR firm PMKHBH (now he hires different agencies every year) and in 2002 brought on their client, respected producer Paula Wagner, a former CAA agent, as his co-chair. Her producing partner Tom Cruise then attended the screening of their presentation Narc. After Cruise, many more stars such as Harrison Ford followed him down the red carpet, either as presenters or award winners. They include Clint Eastood, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ron Howard, George Lucas, Diane Keaton, John Travolta, Goldie Hawn, Naomi Watts, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Aniston, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Nic Cage and Benicio del Toro.

De Abreu moved the festival from October to August and back to October again to best capitalize on the awards season. He recognized that if you give someone who is campaigning for an Oscar an award, they will come. That was all he had to do.

The actual programming of some 80 films tends to be light also-rans left over from other fests. The screenings serve as a backdrop for the big awards night (this year, October 26) when everyone walks the red carpet to accept their prize. De Abreu admits that he can do whatever he pleases, with no oversight.

There is no organization, no philanthropic goal behind the Hollywood Film Festival, beyond de Abreu’s stated hope that he is bridging the gap between established Hollywood and emerging talent. This festival is a business enterprise, selling tickets, VIP passes, sponsorships (this year, Starz) and studio tables. How much money does it make? De Abreu tells no one.

Off-Topic: An Input/Output Device for the Brain - Made of Light, Algae, and Bacteria

Michael Chorost, author of science autobiography Rebuilt, has a great article in Wired this month about a biotechnological breakthrough that could result in functional cyborgs. Using this biotech, people could access the internet with our brains.

Chorost's article is about the dawning of the age of "optogenetics," a field where scientists stimulate neurons (such as those in your brain) to fire or stop firing by genetically-engineering those neurons to respond to light. Thus, optogenetics: optics plus genetics. An inserted algae gene makes neurons fire when exposed to blue light; an inserted bacterial gene stills them when they're exposed to yellow light. Imagine being able to make the neurons responsible for chronic depression or Parkinsons stop firing with the flick of a switch. That's the dream of the scientists who are working in this field.

You've probably heard about a few optogenetic experiments over the past couple of years. Chorost describes one of the more famous ones, where students got a mouse to run counterclockwise by exposing a few neurons in its brain to blue light using fiber optic wires. He writes:
The counterclockwise-running mouse was something new - a triple fusion of animal, plant, and technology - and the students knew it was a harbinger of unprecedentedly powerful ways to alter the brain. For curing diseases, to begin with, but also for understanding how the brain interacts with the body. And ultimately for fusing human and machine.
Mice with Parkinsons symptoms who underwent optogenetic treatment also saw dramatic improvement.

And Chorost is quick to point out that Parkinsons treatments are just the beginning. Optogenetics open the door for two-way traffic between computers and the human brain. He explains:
No matter how good they get, one-way prostheses can't close the loop. In theory, two-way optogenetic traffic could lead to human-machine fusions in which the brain truly interacts with the machine, rather than only giving or only accepting orders. It could be used, for instance, to let the brain send movement commands to a prosthetic arm; in return, the arm's sensors would gather information and send it back. Blue and yellow LEDs would flash on and off inside genetically altered somatosensory regions of the cortex to give the user sensations of weight, temperature, and texture. The limb would feel like a real arm. Of course, this kind of cyborg technology is not exactly around the corner. But it has suddenly leapt from the realm of wild fantasy to concrete possibility.
Of course, there are darker fantasies that lurk here too, of perfect mind control and memory suppression. Indeed, optogenetic devices could one day lead to the consumer-grade memory-eating devices in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or to Google implants in your brain.

You have to read this mind-blowing, brilliantly-written article:

Off-Topic... Cylons are even closer than we think... so is Luke and Anakin's "sensational" hand.

Current prostheses allow individuals who have lost a hand to grasp and hold objects, but regaining their sense of touch has been out of the question. But a new robotic hand is giving its wearers a new tactile sensation.

A team of scientists in Italy and Sweden have been developing a sophisticated robotic hand, with fingertip sensors that feed directly into the arm's nerves. The overall look of the hand may be more like Nina Sharp's in Fringe than Luke Skywalker's in The Empire Strikes Back, but it does allow the wearer to actually feel the objects the hand touches. Just as the brain transmits data to robotic limbs — ordering them to grasp and release — so do the receptors feed data back to the brain. It not only returns to the wearer the sensation that they had lost, it likely also makes grabbing and manipulating objects an easier and more precise task.

You can see the robotic hand in action below, as a 22 year-old who lost his hand to cancer tries out the hand and its sensitive fingertips for the first time:

Michael Bay Explains Why You Don't Need A Script To Start Making An Awesome Movie

As you might know, the writers' strike forced Bay to start work on TF2 without an actual script — all he had was an outline by writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. So a lot of the movie's early designs and ideas came about without a real script, and when Orci and Kurtzman came back to work after the strike, Bay was able to tell them which robots he wanted in the movie. As he says in this clip, all of that pre-visualization work and brainstorming with artists actually informed the movie's script, once it finally had one. You probably have your own ideas about whether that was a good thing.

The Weather Channel = Movie Channel?

I opened up my inbox and saw and saw an e-mail subject line that read “Weather Channel Adds Feature Films to Network Schedule”. I immediately clicked on the headline thinking iI would find a link to another brilliant parody from The Onion, or maybe a video from FunnyOrDie or College Humor. I was surprised to discover that the e-mail was not a joke, but an actual press release.

That’s right, The Weather Channel is going to start airing feature films, movies which are in some way weather themed, beginning with The Perfect Storm. Remember the days when you could turn on MTV and see music videos? Well it appears the days where you could tune into the Weather Channel for weather forcasts might be soon behind us as well. Not that I care that much. If I need a weather forcast, I’ll go online, or turn on my iPhone and open the Weather app (yes, there is an app for that too…). I think it’s more of the principal that bothers me, the idea of it all. And who is really going to tune to the Weather Channel to watch Misery? Really… - Peter Sciretta

A Movie adaptation of "Cages"... we're okay with that.

There’s only one Dave McKean feature film out there in the world so far, and that’s Mirrormask. Doesn’t seem right that such an auspicious debut wouldn’t have been followed up more rapidly, or even very regularly. I feel hard done by.

I reported earlier in the year on McKean’s continuing attempts to get ass-kicking kitty picture Varjak Paw off of the ground. Now it seems he’s also taking meetings about an eventual big screen rendering of his epic, ambitious Cages comic book.

Here’s what the man himself tweeted on the matter:

Great first meeting about Cages film; a long term possibility, but good to know all interested parties are on the same page.

Cages is rather widely considered to be McKean’s masterwork. Like Varjak Paw it hinges on the comings and goings of a cat, but the similarities pretty much dry up right there. Originally serialised through the first half of the ’90s, it really came into focus for me when collected as a single volume in ‘98. I guess it didn’t help that the early pages, while looking astonishing, read rather badly.

At least those awkward opening scenes gives McKean something to fix in the mix when bringing the story over to the cinema, amidst the more major travails of something so perfectly attuned to one medium work as well in another.

The book’s narrative, or more properly narratives, resist easy summary because each episode concludes rather swiftly, making it hard to describe them without spoiling too much. We have angels and housewives, painters and writers, all in their own stories taking place in the same building and linked together pretty much only by a wandering black cat.

I can’t see a Cages film being big box office, and neither can I see it being big budget. I’m sure, however, that it would be rather high quality.

Besides being a source of news about the man and his work, McKean’s Twitter feed is also a rather fun source of film criticism. I think he pretty much nailed The Invention of Lying, and I was not surprised to see him giving some love to The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. - Brendon Connelly

Disney Tech Project ‘Keychest’ Would Let Buyers Play All Media on All Digital Devices

Disney is looking into new technology that could help DVD take a few more steps toward obsolescence. Currently dubbed Keychest, the system would allow users to purchase a piece of media one time, then access it instantly on (ideally) any of their devices, whether that be phone, iPod, computer or On Demand cable system.

The Wall Street Journal carried the first story about the tech yesterday, and dubbed it ‘Ditch the DVD’. The theory behind Keychest is simple: use ‘cloud computing” — essentially a technique to stream media — to allow movies and TV shows to be stored on remote servers and then accessed from any device. Users buy a single access pass to that piece of media, then in the example given, could end up watching part of it on their phone, part at home and the rest at someone else’s house, all using the same access pass.

Cloud computing is a great thing, so long as the cloud remains intact. T-Mobile’s Sidekick devices rely upon a cloud to retain user data such as photos and address books. Recently the cloud went down, and a great deal of customer data was lost. In the case of Keychest, one would expect that purchased access codes would not be easily lost, and at most there might be periods where movies and shows were inaccessible. But even that is a problem; if I’ve paid for any-time access to something, I want any-time access.

That’s not the only problem facing the tech. Getting content rights holders on board is one issue. Getting devices to be compatible is another. In this case, given that Steve Jobs is a primary Disney shareholder, Apple could likely be on board. And, as is so often the case, there is already a competing standard. Sony is part of a project called DECE that similarly aims to change the ways in which consumers purchase and store media.

But Disney’s goal is admirable: “Our vision for the future is that consumers won’t have to think about where they bought [a movie], how they bought it, or when they bought it.” Having just gone through the process of moving, I’ve realized that I am 100% done with owning DVDs, so I’d add one more thing to that pile of intentions: I don’t want to think about where my movies are kept, or how to store and move them.

What do you think? Are we close enough to an all-digital media future that a project like this has a chance of success? - Russ Fischer

Monday, October 19, 2009

Anne Thompson finally gets it.

I'm not saying it hasn't occurred to her before, as she has mentioned the theories behind the pathos behind "Paranormal Activity" and its marketing campaign, but she dove into it a bit more than any of her Mainstream Hollywood Peers have in the past year.

From her Blog:

Paranormal Activity‘s $20.2 million gross ($26,530 per screen) on 760 screens marks a sea-change, a new way of looking at the $35 million that studios tend to spend on a wide opening. With the coming reduction of pictures in the marketplace—The Film Department’s Gill predicts that less than 400 will be released in 2010—perhaps it’s time to reexamine the marketing and distribution rules and regs that have developed over the years. Are they all necessary? Wide openings are not the only way to go. Paranormal is at $33.7 million after a month, with less than $10 million in advertising.

Those who say Paranormal Activity could have had a number one opening are missing the point. This is not the old paradigm: take the number one slot at any cost by blasting ads at a mass audience. It’s a new approach: build buzz and anticipation slowly, and foment a sense of low supply and high demand so that audiences are clamoring for the picture. Oren Peli’s cheap vid-thriller goes from 760 screens this weekend to 1800 next. And yes, Paramount couldn’t just snap their fingers and score 1000 screens. Next weekend, they will double the screen count.

Now Paramount’s marketing people are offering parties at the first ten local cinemas that sell out on the midnight show on Thursday night/Friday morning October 23. (AICN’s Harry Knowles announced this, so naturally his local theater, The Alamo Drafthouse, was the first to sell out.)

The point is, you don’t have to pay for a wide release—as long as you have a good movie. And it doesn’t have to be a cheap genre film. It just has to be something that audiences can get enthusiastic about. They could have done Whip It (which Searchlight previewed) or Zombieland or District 9 this way. Yes the studios spent plenty on advertising those movies. But what if the studio didn’t have to spend as much as they thought?

With fewer movies in theaters and less clutter, maybe there’s more room for playing around in the margins. The reason the studios have built up these huge spends is fear, basically—-make a lot of noise and take no chances. The actual number of theaters that are necessary for proper returns on movie is really more like 800. Seriously.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Maurice Sendak To Concerned Parents: Go To Hell!

If you're worried about taking your kids to see Where The Wild Things Are after reports of crying children having to leave screenings of the rough cut, halfway through, then Maurice Sendak has a message for you: "Go to hell."

A story in the Oct. 19 Newsweek contains this classic exchange:

What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?

Sendak: I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate.

Because kids can handle it?

Sendak: If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered.

Jonze: Dave, you want to field that one?

Eggers: The part about kids wetting their pants? Should kids wear diapers when they go to the movies? I think adults should wear diapers going to it, too. I think everyone should be prepared for any eventuality.

So apparently I was wrong about Michael Bay being the film-maker most eager to have us all wear diapers to the movies.


Richard Whitehurst is a Columbus-based artist who made his mark on the Ohio scene by showing at the William Strunk Jr. Museum of Contemporary Art in Akron and internationally regarded galleries such as Alexandria Asheton Gallery and Seward Projects Space. He was the 2006 recipient of an Akron Culture Committee fellowship and has quickly become a seminal figure in the often overshadowed Rustbelt regional art scene, rapidly moving from sculpture and installation to more challenging situational based work that would make Nicolas Bourriaud’s head spin.

In fact, his new controversial work, THE RAPE TUNNEL, which is set to go on view at Columbus’ 4D Gallery on October 30th, has come under fire from Columbus-based feminist groups not to mention, local law enforcement officials. The artist plans to place himself in a room, the only entrance or exit being a 22 ft long plywood tunnel constructed by Whitehurst himself. Then he says that for the duration of the gallery’s opening (from 7:00 p.m. to midnight) he will rape anyone who travels through the tunnel into that room.

On a recent trip to Ohio, nearly all art-related conversation stirred wildly around Whitehurst and his tunnel, with half the people hailing him a vastly important figure to keep an eye out for, while others regarding his work as cheap and exploitative – not to mention very dangerous.

We’ll let you readers decide. The following interview was conducted on September 22nd via e-mail correspondence.

Please describe the project.

In the 4D Gallery main room, I’ve constructed a 22 ft tunnel out of plywood that leads into the project room. There is no way in or out of the project room except for this tunnel. As you travel through the tunnel, it gets smaller and smaller, making it so that you have to crawl and put yourself in a submissive position in order to reach the tunnel’s destination. At the end of the tunnel the subject will find me waiting in the project room and I’ll try to the best of my ability to overpower and rape the person who crawls through.

Why rape?

Because as an artistic gesture, it’s one of the most impactful I can think of. For the past ten years Ohio’s art scene has been largely centered around a string of alternative spaces in Akron’s warehouse district, where people had been putting on art shows. At the beginning I happily participated along with everyone else but then I started to feel like it wasn’t going anywhere. It dawned on me that if the work we created had never existed the world would be no different than if it had. None of it mattered to anyone outside of our small and insignificant circle of peers. I wanted something that would have more impact.

I started to think differently about my work. In 2007 at the Seward Projects Space in Columbus, I had my first breakthrough with an installation that was to be the prototype for this current one. It was called THE PUNCH-YOU-IN-THE-FACE TUNNEL. It was the same set-up as THE RAPE TUNNEL except at the end of the tunnel I’d punch the subject in the face instead of raping him or her. The impetus was completely reactionary to the current state of art, and motivated by pure frustration.

As it turns out, I ended up breaking the nose of the third person to crawl through the tunnel, an aspiring model. She went to the hospital and eventually sued me. Her modeling career was put on hold. The civil case was long and drawn out and the matter still hasn’t been resolved. To this day she still has unpaid medical bills. The point of this long aside is that all this took place two years ago, and I’m still having an impact on this young lady’s life, something not many other artists could claim about their work.

Rape seemed like the next logical step.

But rape is way more extreme than a punch to the face. Is your intention to ruin people’s lives?

Possibly. I’m not necessarily concerned with the positive or negative effects of this project so long as there is some effect on people’s lives. I’ve merely set up a situation where there is potential to impact people in meaningful ways. Maybe I won’t be able to rape everyone who crawls through the tunnel, but the door is open for all kinds of scenarios; rape, serious injury, maybe even death. I might even get arrested.

Right now the installation isn’t even complete, and I’ve riled up a substantial portion of the local population. The installation as an idea is powerful enough itself.

By “substantial portion of the local population” are you referring to people that have been protesting this event?


How do you feel about the protesters?

I’m fine with them. They have the right to speak out against this installation. The project would be an utter failure if it didn’t create this kind of open dialogue.

Are you pro-rape?

Not really. I personally think rape is morally reprehensible and something that should generally not be allowed in our society. Most people feel this way, which is why the act is exploitable for the purposes of my work. If people were not so repulsed by rape then this project would fail.

Does this mean you’re willing to go to jail for the sake of your work?

I am. The local authorities are already threatening to have this exhibition shut down. Caroline Miffen [4D Gallery director] to her credit has hired a team of lawyers working hard to ensure that THE RAPE TUNNEL will proceed as planned. At the end of the day there’s a disclaimer on the door so people know what they’re getting into.

It would seem that what you are proposing to do will not technically constitute rape for the obvious reason that whoever enters into the tunnel is acting of their own free will, therefore making the act consensual. If you aren’t really raping anyone, doesn’t that undermine the credibility of the project?

First of all, I want to make it clear that I plan to make the experience as unpleasant as I possibly can to anyone who dares to crawl through the tunnel. I will try to the best of my ability to make them regret their decision.

Secondly, rape is not always a black and white issue. The definition is argued almost everyday in courtrooms around the country. The woman who gets too drunk one night and regrets having sex the next morning, was she raped or not? There is no easy answer. I hope some of that ambiguity will manifest itself in this project.

Do you have any limitations on the kind of person you’ll rape?

None whatsoever. It could be men, women, old, young, fat, thin… anyone.

What if a police officer crawls through the tunnel?

Then I will probably go to jail. But before that I’ll try my very best to sexually assault him or her. The tunnel is constructed in such a way that it gets smaller the closer you get to the project room. The bigger you are, the more difficult it is to comfortably crawl out. And trust me, I have a lot of secrets up my sleeve to ensure that I can overpower anyone that comes through the tunnel.

Where do you go from here then, a “Murder Tunnel”?

No. That would be too much like repeating myself. I’ve thought about this long and hard.

I’m in danger of painting myself into a corner here and I fear that the sensational aspects of my work might overshadow my ultimate message. If I could somehow cure some disease in the name of art, that would be interesting.

The problem with most of today’s art is that it’s being created for a world that doesn’t want or need it. So many other lesser modes of expression have taken the place once held by art in the culture. I’m trying to totally reconfigure art’s importance in the world and make it meaningful. The process will take a long time. I’m not really sure what the next step will be. I’d rather concentrate on the current project. This text was contributed to ARTLURKER by Sheila Zareno.

The Return of "ARAYA": Interview with Margot Benacerraf

In 1959, Venezuelan filmmaker Margot Benacerraf was one of two winners of the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her feature “Araya” – the other was Alain Resnais for “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Benacerraf was the first Latin American filmmaker to be honored at Cannes.

However, her success was fleeting. “Araya,” a visually striking non-fiction study of the salt miners in the Araya peninsula of northeastern Venezuela, has barely been seen during the past half-century. The film didn’t play in Venezuelan cinemas until 1977, and relatively few Americans caught it when it was part of a touring 1987 retrospective of Latin American films. “Araya” is only now in U.S. theatrical release, in a beautifully restored print, through the distribution auspices of Milestone Film & Video.

"Araya" had its premiere at Cannes in 1959, but it was not theatrically released in Venezuela until 1977. What kept the film out of theaters for two decades?

“Araya,” for it’s own characteristics, has always been a difficult film to distribute even having been awarded numerous times and celebrated in so many festivals. Since the beginning, “Araya” was marked for its particularity. Inside the distributors/exhibitors pre-established categorizations, “Araya” didn’t fit in any genre and it didn’t feature any international stars.

After the enormous and unanimous critical success at Cannes and other festivals, people talked with more formally of “a cinematographic account” of “a grand composition”, of “a painting told with a poetic rhythm”, and so on, “like a poem”, but even so the distributors didn’t go for it in those moments, and later for various and differing reasons the co-producer and I didn’t put in the effort until as soon as the opportunity presented itself in 1977.

When you were shooting the film, how did the salt marsh workers react to having their daily labor captured on camera? And have you ever been contacted by the men and women in the film about the production?

The salt-makers collaborated a lot because I lived with them before filming so that they became familiar with me and the presence of the camera wouldn’t interfere too much with their actions. I should say that they accepted my requests with goodwill and patience. They had never seen a camera and didn’t know exactly what it was all about, but they trusted me. I’ve returned to “Araya” various times during all these years and we’ve always continued maintaining very warm relations.

"Araya" had several U.S. playdates in 1987. What was the reaction by audiences at that time?

Very good, but without any consequence.

Prior to Milestone's release, have you ever been contacted by a U.S. distribution for the film's theatrical release in the American market?

I was contacted by Latin American Video Archive (LAVA) in 2005, but then they ran into economic problems they had to close their doors and cancel all of its activities by the end of that year, “Araya” was referred to Milestone by LAVA’s director Roselly Torres, who was interested in its distribution.

How is "Araya" appreciated today in Venezuela?

For the past 50 years, no other Venezuelan films has had the prestige, nor obtained the prizes that “Araya” has received. With that, I am able to say that in Venezuela it is considered an icon. A little bit ago in the month of May, the 50 years of the Cannes Festival awards were celebrated with the projection in various theaters, and now there will be other projections and other various ceremonies in the country’s universities. - Phil Hall

Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Paranormal Activity" earns record numbers.

Filmmakermagazine's blog has some great news for the indie world:

Paramount's grass-roots Internet marketing of Oren Peli's low budget horror Paranormal Activity looks to be working. According to Variety, the film pulled in $7.1 million over the weekend at 160 screens, beating the 22-year-old record of the highest weekend grosser at 200 locations or less, held previously by Platoon ($3.7 million at 174 locations). The film also grossed the weekend frame's highest per screen average of $44,163, edging out An Education ($40,595 per screen).

Without question the film has turned into the hottest ticket for not only the horor fan but college kids who've been constantly clicking the DEMAND IT button on the film's site, created by Paramount to gauge the interest for the film throughout the country. According to the studio over 1 million people have demanded it so they will now release the film nationwide.

One person I know who went to the AMC Empire 25 in New York City to see the film last night said that what makes the film great is the energy from the audience. "Everytime a scene in the bedroom came up people were just yelling 'not again.'" I was told. "I haven't been to a movie in a while where people were screaming and yelling at the screen."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sepinwall on why Jim and Pam's wedding is good for TV Comedy

Today's Star-Ledger column, about the current season of "Fringe," is one I'd kind of like a mulligan on, which is why I haven't posted it on-line. It's not that it's bad. It's that I was up against a tight deadline, scrapping for something I could write about quickly, that I resorted to a trick I've used on occasion: assembling bits and pieces of various blog entries about the show into a "new" column. It's fine for the print-only readers, but in this case I wish I hadn't done it, because there was a more obvious topic - albeit one where I would also be recycling thoughts previously expressed early and often online.

In retrospect, I really wish I had written about how happy I am that Jim and Pam's wedding is happening tonight on "The Office," and what I hope that wedding will do for other TV shows, but fear it won't. Fortunately, the blog has more flexible time and space restrictions, so I can write that now.

There has been a school of thought in TV for a few decades now that any show built around Unresolved Sexual Tension (UST for brevity's sake in the rest of this post) will be ruined the second the UST gets resolved and the couple gets together.

This school of thought is misguided at best, idiotic and self-destructive at worst.

The theory is based on the idea that "Moonlighting" died as soon as David and Maddie got together, but as I've pointed out in the past, and as Linda Holmes did a good job of summarizing recently, that's completely incorrect. By the time David and Maddie got together for real, "Moonlighting" was already dead. If anything, I'd argue the show might have kept some of the viewers who wound up fleeing if they had just given everybody a David/Maddie relationship earlier, since the comic dynamic between the two characters would have been about the same.

And before there was "Moonlighting," there was "Cheers," which put together its own UST couple, Sam and Diane, by the end of its first season with no one objecting. Now, "Cheers" would spend the next four seasons frequently breaking those two up and putting them back together, but the writers never artificially tried to delay a hook-up because they felt the audience wasn't ready for it yet.

But because of The "Moonlighting" Fallacy, far too many TV writers and executives have come to believe that resolution=doom. "NewsRadio" creator Paul Simms more or less destroyed his relationship with NBC by having Dave and Lisa sleep together in the show's second episode - they wanted him to tease it out forever, so they'd have an angle to promote - even though he wound up getting several seasons of material out of their affair.

"Ed" was a show more or less destroyed by its belief in The Moonlighting Fallacy. Its creators were so terrified of having Ed and Carol Vessey hook up long-term that they kept throwing one increasingly stupid obstacle after another in front of them. That show betrayed two separate misunderstandings of "Moonlighting." Beyond the obvious one, it ignored the fact that Dave and Maddie, like Sam and Diane, were interesting as a UST couple because they were so seemingly incompatible, yet had an irresistible attraction for each other. Chemistry aside, they made each other miserable and probably shouldn't have been together (and Sam and Diane ultimately weren't), so the constant delaying made sense on some level, even if the show dragged it out too long. Ed and Carol, on the other hand, were two perfectly nice people who got along well and had common interests and temperaments. There were no sparks when they fought, and no logical reason for them to not be together once they were both unattached, and the increasingly-contrived reasons to keep them apart made that show's middle seasons more or less unwatchable. In the final season, they were together, and the show just treated their relationship as a fact of life while telling other, more amusing stories, but by then too many viewers had left out of impatience.

Which brings me to Jim and Pam. Because it took "The Office" writers a while to figure out how to write for their main character, Jim's yearning for Pam quickly became the show's ongoing hook, and the subject of many an NBC promo. (NBC loves to promote its comedies as if they were soap operas.) And based on previous experience, I feared Greg Daniels and company were going to drag out their inevitable coupling beyond all good reason.

And though it took until the end of the third season (really, the end of the second, since season one was only six episodes) for them to get together as a for-real couple, the waiting period never felt forced. Pam was in a relationship with Roy (inspired by the Dawn/Lee relationship from the British show), and then when by the time she wasn't, Jim was plausibly so hurt by her rejection that he moved to Connecticut, and into a relationship with Karen, and the writers mined some good comic and dramatic tension from Pam and Karen having to work together. It felt real, and it felt right.

More importantly, in the two-plus seasons since Jim and Pam started dating, then got engaged, then began preparing for a baby, "The Office" has not been ruined. Jim and Pam didn't stop being funny, or interesting, just because they were together and happy, nor did they begin to dominate the show. There was good material about their (understandable) desire to keep things a secret from their co-workers, and we've seen the staff either resent or make jokes about their relationship, and we've even seen on occasion Pam and Jim competing with each other in spite of their one true love.

And that's why I'm not worried that they'll suddenly become boring after they're married, or after the baby comes. Anyone who's been in a long-term relationship knows there are plenty of things about it to make fun of, and plenty that's dramatic. Keeping two meant-to-be characters apart for a long time isn't just misguided, it's lazy. It's born of the belief that anticipation is always more interesting than fulfillment, or that getting together is the destination, rather than a continuing part of the journey.

So I'll be very happy to watch the wedding episode tonight, not just because I've become attached to these two kooky, fictional kids, but because I hope some writers of future TV series are watching, and taking notes, and thinking, "Hey, maybe I don't need to keep my two main characters separate forever and ever and ever." - Alan Sepinwall

Picture This! Files for Bankruptcy

Picture This! Entertainment and its sister label Picture This! Home Video have shuttered, closing its doors on September 29 according to a message posted to its website. Doug Witkins founded film company DW Diversified 25 years ago and entered the distribution market with off-shoot Picture This! thirteen years ago with a gala launch at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival. His aim was licensing North American independent LGBT films to distributors and networks around the world. In 1998, the company established its domestic wing, which has released almost 100 features and shorts theatrically via home entertainment and TV in North America.

The labels championed gay genre films as well as “coming-of-age” stories, including “Garcon Stupide,” “Come Undone,” “Clara’s Summer,” and the “Boys Briefs” series. It is unclear as the company navigates bankruptcy court what will be the fate of its library.

I am sad indeed at the recent turn of events,” DW Diversified founder Witkins told indieWIRE via email Thursday. “With the company thriving independently for 25+ years, I honestly thought we could continue forever our mission of bringing quality independent feature films and shorts to North American audiences.” Witkins said the general state of the economy was to blame, as well as shifts in the general market.

“Major studios can erase an art house division, redouble their efforts in brand development through the establishment of more tentpoles and carry on,” added Witkins. “For an independent like us, however, the erasure of art house product leaves nothing on the page. Over the years, I have leaned toward foreign language films because of their higher production value made possible mostly by European film subsidies.” He added that the after-DVD market for such titles has become “much tougher to exploit” if a company does not also own its own channel. Though the company has faced these shifts for some time now, it had sought to distinguish its products with special offerings in order to maintain its fanbase.

We established a faithful core of fans who regularly bought our new releases, which were usually chock-full of special features like filmmaker and actor interviews that we created ourselves, in-house. We wanted to provide a quality, collectible product that people would want to keep, and I think we accomplished that.”

Witkins also told indieWIRE that he hoped with the shake-ups and shifts still underway, that the kind of films they offered will still be available through new mediums.

“As the filmed entertainment business model now changes to digital, VOD and soon 3-D, I hope there is still a place for foreign, gay and coming-of-age art house product like we brought to market - films that push the envelope, challenge the viewer, and are not afraid to tackle controversy.”

Despite the disappointment of heading into bankruptcy, Witkins offered up some thanks with those he has worked with for a quarter-century. “I am very grateful to members of the press, the film festival community, sales agents, producers, actors, theatres, wholesalers, retailers and fans who have supported us throughout the years.” - Brian Brooks

Monday, October 5, 2009

Off Topic - Blood Bulb (Humanity's Failsafe)

The Light Bulb That Runs on Human Blood

This new lamp requires some of your blood to keep the lights on, because it uses luminol, a chemical that reacts with the iron in blood to create the glow. Thus giving the robots one more reason to revolt.

We seem to find more and more uses for ourselves these days.

read more:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

God Is Our Space Pilot: Does every Sci-Fi show need Jesus now?

(warning, spoilers ahead for many scifi shows)

Science fiction TV shows used to be about scientists playing God — now our intrepid heroes meet God, instead. The overt religious discussions on Battlestar Galactica stood out as unusual, but now every SF show brandishes a bible. What happened?

Oh, and there are some spoilers for upcoming TV shows here.

We can't help noticing the odd religious moments in a lot of the fall's biggest SF TV shows, and how shoehorned-in the references to God or the Bible often seem to be. Unlike Firefly, which featured a man of God as one of its major supporting characters and naturally sparked theological discussions, or BSG, which took place during an apocalypse, the newest crop of shows seems determined to mention God even when it doesn't make that much sense.

Take the scene above from the season opener of Fringe, where FBI agent Amy Jessup goes through all of the Fringe Division's cases and compares them with Bible verses — it's all in the Book Of Revelation! (Thanks to Meredith for suggesting this one.)

Or FlashForward, whose pilot includes one character who randomly questions whether God gave everyone on Earth a glimpse of the future as a punishment. Leaving aside the fact that clairvoyance seems like an odd shape for divine punishment to take. There's also the fact that the slutty/Christian babysitter just happens to be making out with her boyfriend (while the girl she's looking after is asleep) and thus feels guilty — so she decides that God gave the entire world a future vision just to punish her for making whoopie on the couch. Make sense? Absolutely not. Unless you think that some studio exec in a meeting said, "We need a religious angle here. There oughta be one character who decides that this was all God's doing. Because that'll play well in the God states."

And then there's V, which — spoiler alert — has aliens visiting us and claiming to be benefactors, who've come to help us. Plenty of people are suspicious of these allegedly enlightened visitors, but then we meet a Catholic priest who's decided to preach that these aliens are "God's creatures," with the implication being that they're sent by God. And the priest tells his underling, Father Jack, that he must preach the aliens are divinely sanctioned — or else. It's even sort of implied (if I remember correctly) that the Vatican has made support for the aliens official policy. WTF? Why would the Catholic church come out in support of random aliens that we know nothing about? It's one of the few moments in the V pilot that literally makes no sense whatsoever, and it inspired much head-scratching when we saw it at Comic Con.

And then there's Stargate Universe, which — spoiler alert again! — has a character experience weird religious visions for no discernable reason in its second episode. (Or third, if you count the two-hour pilot as two episodes.) It's never entirely clear why one character, stuck on a weird, inhospitable planet, is having visions of being in church and talking to a priest, and it seems partly designed to give us a chunk of this character's backstory. But it also feels like a quick-and-dirty way of conveying that this character is having a spiritual wandering-in-the-wilderness thing, without actually having to create any real religious/spiritual content to go with it. It feels a bit cheap: he's in the wilderness, and he sees some churchy stuff. Oh! So that means it's deeply symbolic or something.

And of course, Dollhouse gave us the ultra-stereotypical "Christian cult with guns" in one of its first-season episodes — the one where Echo gets turned into a blind religious zealot with cameras in her eyes, and everybody's sorta Amish and sorta Mormon.

Honestly at times, watching current SF TV it's hard not to feel like someone watched too many early John Woo movies and thought "church with birds in it — deep!" Or maybe too many early 1980s New Wave videos, where Duran Duran dance around pews and it randomly turns black and white. (And yes, I know that those videos are directed by Highlander auteur Russell Mulcahy.) But it also feels like a bit of pandering to a Christian nation that's perceived as being a bit suspicious of science-y stuff.

The Genesis of religion in SF TV

Once, it seemed like religious iconography and rhetoric was rare in science fiction — the original Star Trek confronted Captain Kirk and his crew with Greek gods, as well as godlike aliens who just wanted to toy with our heroes. You might have a hysterical crewman babble something about "If God had wanted us to go into space, etc," and the Roman episode did end with Uhura staring at the camera and saying the rebels were worshipping "the son of God." But these were just grace notes. (We won't get into Star Trek V, since that was a movie, and it came much later, and it makes the head hurt.)

After Trek, you certainly had the occasional SF program where the good guys were confronted with bog-standard space gods, who were notably free of any religious dogma that people on Earth could recognize. In fact, one reason why space gods are so often ridiculous and campy is the fact that they're trying so hard to be ecumenical. One common SF trope, over the decades, was the "meeting the real-life alien behind the ancient Earth myth — but this was usually the creature who inspired the Aztecs or the Egyptian religions, not the Judeo-Christian deal.

But in general, when television SF did grapple with religion prior to recent years, it was to reveal religious icons as aliens, using high technology to impress the superstitious. It wasn't until the final couple of seasons of Stargate SG-1 that this "superstitious humans worshipping aliens" storyline seemed to be an overt critique of organized religion. The show suddenly introduced a new antagonist for our heroes, a set of "ascended" (non-corporeal) aliens called the Ori, who encourage humans to worship them and preach from the Book of Origin. Writes blogger Chris Bateman in his 10-part essay on religion in science fiction:
It is almost impossible not to interpret the Ori as a paper-thin parody of Christianity... Much of the shallow critique of Christianity occurs between Claudia Black's ex-Goa'uld host Vala Mal Doran – who takes over Richard Dean Anderson's role as comic relief in the later seasons and fulfills this role magnificently – and her Ori-worshipping husband Tomin. Vala and Tomin square off in debate after Tomin reads incessantly to her from the Book of Origin, with Vala accusing him of taking a bunch of stories about how to live well and using it as a justification for war and murder. The scene serves a narrative purpose – Tomin later witnesses a Prior blatantly distorting the meaning of one of the verses in the Book of Origin, causing him to question his faith – but it also reads as a clumsy attack on contemporary Christianity.

Bateman theorizes that the producers of SG-1 were aghast at the Bush Administration's war in Iraq and wanted to satirize what they perceived as a right-wing Christian crusade against Islam. To some extent, The 4400 also seemed to be taking jabs at organized religion on occasion.

But before SG-1 introduced the Ori, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took a huge leap forward in introducing religious themes to SF, with the Prophets, aka the "wormhole aliens." For most of DS9's run, you could choose to believe the secular theory that the Prophets were merely interdimensonal aliens, who lived outside space/time and saw future and past as the same thing. But towards the end of the show's run, the messianic overtones around Benjamin Sisko made it harder and harder to sit on the fence. And meanwhile, Babylon 5 won praise for including characters of faith (including a Catholic commander, and a group of Catholic monks who come to live on the station) as well as including religion in many of its storylines.

Most recently, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles included Agent Ellison, who's frequently shown to be a Baptist, and religious references became more and more predominant in the show (which is about the actual apocalypse, so it does make sense to bring it up.) Most fans of BSG would agree that the show's monotheist/polytheist divide made it a much richer experience than a simple robots-vs-humans show would have been otherwise — regardless of how you may feel about the Baltar Cult, and the hand-wavy "Starbuck turns into ZZ Top" ending. And it's pure blasphemy to suggest that Firefly would be better without Shepherd Book.

The rise of Space Jesus?

Lately, though, it's seemed almost required to have some kind of religious discussion among a TV show's themes — and it's more likely to be Christian rather than some kind of vague Space Religion (TM) or misty spirituality.

Religion is part of society, and including religious points of view makes your world seem more realistic and three-dimensional — it would seem odd if science fiction on television never included a religious viewpoint, just as it would if people never mentioned politics at all. At the same time, there are ways to include religion that make sense (Firefly and T:SCC come to mind immediately) and ways to include it that feel gratuitous and weird (the Vatican is endorsing the aliens!)

And yes, when you throw in religion in a nonsensical way, it either feels like you're going for a cheap effect, or like you're pandering to religious people. Add to that the fact that scientists and people who use pure empiricism to deal with problems are far and few between — Walter Bishop and maybe the twisted Topher on Dollhouse are our only real avatars of tech nerdhood that I can think of off the top of my head. It's become a taboo in televised science fiction to show people doing science.

The show that's handling religion in the most fascinating manner right now is Supernatural, which is modern fantasy rather than science fiction. In the last year or so, angels have joined the show's long-standing demon characters — and now Lucifer himself is roaming around. And there are lots of hints that we'll actually be meeting God this season at some point. Theological discussions over why God allowed all of the horrors of the 20th century to happen are automatically more fascinating when they come out of the mouths of actual Angels, and the fact that the Archangels believe that God is dead makes for fascinating viewing.

So consider this a plea for more thoughtful portrayals of religion in science fiction — and fewer random, thoughtless, kitchen-sink inclusions. People who watch science fiction are smart. We can tell when we're being pandered to, and when we're being spoonfed religious ideas just because it makes your show seem more "mythic" or "relevant." Religion can make your science-fiction story feel like it takes place in a world we can relate to, and it can deepen your characters and add another layer to your story — or, in the wrong hands, it can feel like a random piece of baggage, tacked on to your story for spurious, external reasons. We can usually tell the difference between the two. - Charlie Jane Anders

George Romero to Write His Definitive Guide to Zombies

Filmmaker George Romero birthed the modern zombie, and now he's finally ready to reveal all the secrets of the walking dead. In his first novel, Romero will explain the full capabilities of the undead and how the zombie plague began.

UK publisher Headline has signed Romero for a book delving into the mythology he helped create, simply titled The Living Dead. The book will explain what zombies can and cannot do, and will finally give us Romero's take on the origin of zombies and how the world at large reacts:

It starts in San Diego, where a corpse sits up and begins to walk during an autopsy, while a reporter from Atlanta shows viewers "glimpses of increasing chaos from around the globe."

Headline will publish The Living Dead in July 2010.

"Internet influences film audiences".... duh! (but good to know anyway!)

If marketing mavens want to reach younger moviegoers when promoting their films, they need to embrace social networks or risk being ignored.

That was the overall message of Moviegoers 2010, the first report on moviegoing habits produced by Stradella Road, the entertainment marketing firm founded by former New Line Web guru Gordon Paddison that hopes to assist film marketers in determining how to reach consumers over the next decade.

The study found that teens and twentysomethings are especially focused on being able to customize entertainment and are quick to share their opinions with others digitally -- especially as usage of the Internet, mobile devices and DVRs has become more widespread. An estimated 94% of all moviegoers are now online.

The younger demo is especially key in spreading word of mouth, with 73% of moviegoers surveyed having profiles on social networking sites.

It's a point that's been made a number of times as sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have grown in popularity. But the study is one of the few to break down specific age groups and how they consume movies and the marketing messages leading up to their releases.

-Teens (age 13-17) are "all about sharing information and group thinking," the report said, with social networking a critical communication tool. They go to movies in large groups and are heavily influenced by their friends' opinions. They also prefer texting over having phone conversations. More than 70% also surf the Web and text while watching TV, and 67% of them socialize with friends online.

-Twentysomethings (age 18-29) "are digital natives that have grown up with technology" and are more likely to go online for movie info and to share what they think about movies via social networks (58% socialize with friends online). They use the Internet to find any kind of information and place a high value on online consumer reviews and sites that aggregate reviews.

-Auds in their 30s are time-constrained, with parenthood dominating their decisions. They split their moviegoing trips between their children and their spouses. They "spend the highest number of hours online and rep the highest use of technology (Internet, broadband access, DVR ownership and cell phone)." They also view the most recorded TV and skip the most ads via their DVRs.

-Those in their 40s embrace traditional media like magazines and newspapers, with moviegoing dominated by special family occasions and influenced by teens.

-And fiftysomethings avoid crowds, prefer matinees and "skip ads because they think there are too many commercials on TV."

Given the increased influence of websites on which consumers buy movie tickets, AOL, Facebook, Fandango, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo were enlisted to supply data for the study.

Study was conducted by surveying 1,547 moderate-to-heavy moviegoers over eight days in July, with an additional 2,305 questioned by phone or online during July. Nielsen NRG managed the research fieldwork.

Although many moviegoers are going online to get info on upcoming releases, TV still dominates as the leading tool to generate awareness for films, with 73% of those surveyed saying they first heard about a movie by watching a 30-second spot. In-theater trailers were close behind with 70%, followed by word of mouth (46%) and the Internet (44%).

Most films are now considered critic-proof, especially among the younger set, with 84% of moviegoers saying, "When they make up their mind to see a movie, it doesn't matter what the critics say about it."

It may depend on who's giving them the thumbs up or down, however.

Of those surveyed, 75% said they trust a friend's opinion more than a movie critic; 80% said they were more likely to see a movie after hearing a positive review from other moviegoers, while only 67% said a thumbs up from a professional critic had the same weight.

Yet only 40% said negative reviews from their peers would dissuade them from seeing a movie, while an even lower 28% would be kept from theaters because of a critic's opinion, meaning that at the end of the day, negative word of mouth doesn't have as much influence.

While 62% now get their reviews online, only auds over 50 rely on newspaper reviews.

The results hardly give Hollywood anything to worry about. The box office is so far up this year and looks like it will be strong for years to come despite the current recession, the study said.

That is mainly because 79% of those questioned said, "Going to the movies is a good escape from everyday life." - Marc Graser