29 April 2013

at the top

There was a time when I could remember the name of the game, and even one when I could pinpoint the location, if not the tree in question. That time has passed.

As I walked outside today, I briefly considered tree climbing. Not that I would climb a tree today, since a recent rain had dampened things considerably and I am wearing work clothes I would like to keep clean; but instead my tree climbing in general. Have I spent enough time and effort on my gym's climbing walls that I could, again, climb a tree.

I didn't ponder that for long, instead thinking back to my teenage years, when, once, I played a game outside that involved running and chasing and hiding and was probably a thinly-veiled variant of freeze tag just interesting enough to catch the fancy of teenagers. The group was divided in two, some manner of roles were doled out (one player was a code-keeper, and 'capturing' him or her would gain eventual victory points, or something), and then we were left to run out into the plains and woods to elude each other and score points somehow.

Within minutes I was alone, and decided to hide out in a tree. I climbed higher and higher, probably about two or three stories up, and was within an arm's reach of the treetop*. There I sat, surveying the park around me, occasionally seeing other teens running around in pursuit or otherwise, and even had a pair of them (I assumed from the other team, but did not climb down to check) hiding on lower branches of my tree without them noticing me.

Eventually dusk began falling, and it was apparent the game was over. I descended, and returned to base camp to find whether we had won or lost. Since I had myself not been captured, it was easy to consider this to be a victory for me if not for the team.

I forget if "we" won. At the time, I certainly thought I was triumphant.

Thinking about it today, though, I wonder if maybe I hadn't won that day, after all. Not whether my team was victorious -- that I've long since forgotten. Instead, did I lose by not engaging with the other players? I was a decent sprinter at the time (at least, when aided by adrenaline), and probably would have evaded capture in a chase, and had been just as beneficial to my team's success as to my own enjoyment (and, I suppose, done a little bit of exercise for fitness, too).

Was the "victory" of climbing so high worth the cost of not playing with the others? I'm not sure it was, anymore. But the win or loss is all in the telling of the tale.

* I briefly searched for a more "botanical" name for the top of a tree, almost settling on "capitulum", before finding a certain satisfaction in the apparent fact that there is no better word for "top of a tree" than "treetop".

16 October 2009

collected thoughts about movies

Looking up at my shelves of DVDs, I see the results of a lot of poor decision making, misjudgment, and silly impulsiveness. And the occasional good film.

I could count them now, but what would be the point? At last count they numbered close to two hundred, but there's really no need to quantify them exactly. We're talking about art here, right? It should be a matter of quality, not quantity.

I didn't always think that way, I suspect. For a long time I was important to me in some way to know, to a single digit's precision, how many movies I owned on optical discs*. That, in itself, wouldn't be so significant if I hadn't spent so much time, and to some degree, money on acquiring so many of them with such frequency as to need websites and a Palm Pilot to accurately count my collection.

My rationale for buying many of them, collected together on the same shelf, oddly enough, was that I couldn't otherwise see the movies easily. I speak primarily of my thirty-odd Criterion Collection DVDs, which, back in the early years of the twenty-first century, were rare and exotic, but primarily rare enough, such that a person could conceivably be able to own, or at least watch, every one of them. Back in those days I aspired to be such a person.

Prior to college, I'd watched movies, but more or less in the same fashion as any teenager with little else to do than opt for the easy out when looking for something to do with friends. My friends weren't the sort to regularly see things opening weekend, so I'm sure to have missed out on some briefly popular turkeys, but at the same time I do recall seeing more than a few movies in an otherwise empty theater.

For some reason, a year after I'd started college I started taking a greater interest in movies. Part of it may have been that I was a projectionist in the student center, but I approached that more as a social opportunity and a job than as some gateway to becoming a cinephile. The beginnings of my DVD question had nowhere near as lofty a goal, to be sure. An avid bargain-hunter, I stumbled across an un-refusable deal to buy movies for a quarter apiece... from the notorious low-rent film studio Troma Entertainment, well known to fans of messy splatterfests and cheesecake exploitation flicks, and entirely unfamiliar to me. Not knowing anything about the movies (though I'd heard of The Toxic avenger, the cornerstone of their catalog) I picked some twenty of them, more or less at random, paid a higher-than-necessary shipping charge, and patiently waited two to three weeks for the box filled with movies I had no way to watch.

I didn't have a DVD player, you see. My dorm didn't even have a DVD player, though I think some of the more students with more well-to-do parents did. I certainly wasn't going to hang out in somebody else's room to experience Rabid grannies for the first time.

This was a bit before I was known, by some, for having a taste for bad movies.

The Troma movies were bad movies. I may well have overpaid, even without considering the shipping. But they were more than just eighteen randomly selected movies (two had been out of stock and they sent VHS tapes I quickly traded away as substitutes). They were an excuse to buy myself a DVD-ROM drive, so I could at least play movies on one of my computers.

There was a brief time when I had more computers in my dorm room than DVDs. And such was still the case when first my eighteen discs arrived, unfortunately. The only one that mattered, though, was the one inside which I installed my first-ever DVD drive and its accompanying hardware decoder--computers not being powerful enough to decode the digital movies on their own back then--and could consider such a shrewd move because the real players were still hundreds of dollars more.

Also, I had no television, so I saved the money not buying that too.

Once I bought the drive, I was able to finally watch the movies, and it wasn't long before I realized I needed some better movies in my collection. A co-worker of mine did me the favor of having a couple of the discs stolen while he borrowed them, and I replaced those with a few "real" movies I bought on eBay.

The online auction site quickly became my primary source for new and used DVDs. My early purchases were less than consistent - I bought The Matrix and Contact around the same time, even though I was less than impressed with the former and didn't particularly need to watch the latter another time. I think I bought The Matrix because everybody who had a DVD player owned it. I'm fairly certain I bought Contact because it was an early example of a studio's labor of love, as it contains considerable supplemental features including an unprecedented three commentary tracks.

I was a sucker for supplemental features. I think it was their appeal that prompted me to buy my first Criterion Collection movie. It was Terry Gilliam's Brazil, about which I'd only read, and generally the DVD set itself was lauded more than the film. So I bought it, the first of many movies I bought hoping I'd like them, and as with almost all of them I was quite right.

I did love the movie. The attention Criterion had lavished on it, providing not only Gilliam's cut, but also the butchered studio version, struck me as very promising for the future of DVDs, and quite possibly set me on my path of seeking films that ended up a little outside of the mainstream.

More immediately, though, it made me want to make more of the Criterion Collection part of my collection.

In retrospect, had I known I could watch pretty much any of them, as well as a whole lot more important movies, by visiting the school library, I might've saved a lot of trouble.

For that matter, had I not been too cheap to pay the buck or two the town library charged for borrowing their discs, I might not have 'needed' to spend twenty bucks a pop (on sale) to buy my Criterion discs from Borders.

Seems a bit silly, that, when I think about it now. Especially for how many of them I bought without having seen the movies first. I'll never know if I'd consider myself a fan of the movies of Luis Buñuel if I hadn't bought Criterion's Discreet charm of the bourgeoisie for its interesting cover art and good price (considering it was a double disc).

I did the same, more or less, with the movies of Jacques Tati, when I bought Mon oncle, though I can't recall quite why I had done so, though I am of course now quite happy I did so.

Those were not the only films I bought for less than rational reasons. I bought several movies (Repo man and the original Wicker man among them) because they came in unique cases.

That's how I ended up seeing Akira for the first time, in fact. I'm almost suprised now that I never picked up other limited edition tin-cased movies like Supergirl, attributing that to either sheer chance, or perhaps some tiny bit of common sense.

Shiny collections also caught my eye. I bought Fox's collections of the Die hard and French connection films, and was yet again pleasantly surprised to enjoy them.

For every French connection or Conversation (also purchased unseen!) I own, though, I've got an Antitrust or a Swordfish.

Along the way I picked up about ten movies from BMG, picked as much based on value for the money as for me wanting to own (or see) them. That's how I finally got to see most of the movies of Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy being a Criterion disc, and one of the most widely available, I already owned it). BMG also fortuitously introduced me to the TV series The Prisoner, a series I am proud to own even now as it is available for free to watch online.

As I write this I keep glancing back up at the shelf. I can only wonder how many other collections feature The Prisoner alongside Knight Rider and Boston legal. When I started writing this I meant it to be a rumination on what I could possibly do to begin culling the collection of stuff I don't really need to own (like the forgotten Killer elite pitting rival hitmen Robert Duvall and James Caan against each other, or my Dutch imported Raging Bull (special edition) or Things to do in Denver when you're dead, neither of which really do much for me, but neither of which are playable to most normal people here in the US). I meant to touch a little on how I ended up with multiple editions of Highlander and Starship troopers and The meaning of life, but somewhere along the way I seem to have lost track of what I was doing.

Which, now that I think about it, is as good an explanation as any for many of the discs being up there on those shelves.

* For the sake of sticking to close to a single line of reasoning, I'm not going to even mention my large laserdisc collection.

19 August 2009

on theft and stealing

Three months ago* I watched two foreign films, though they were not totally unfamiliar to me. They shared a title, Ghajini, and a plot.

You see, they're both about a guy. He's the CEO of a growing telecom company, but finds himself thinking less about business and more about love when he meets a wonderful, outgoing girl who constantly surprises and delights him. She's a model-slash-actress who hasn't taken on any substantial roles, and he's letting her believe that he's also trying to break into show business or modeling. She's not the only person being fooled - in fact she's lying to the whole country, claiming that some telecom CEO has fallen in love with her, and the two are dating, even as she's more or less dating, unknowingly, that very same guy.

So, we can tick a few things off already - mistaken identity and a love story, love under false pretenses, even. Given we're talking about a Bollywood and a Tollywood movie, here, there are a few song and dance numbers, too.

But I neglected to mention something in the plot. The girl gets into some trouble. You see, she's got a heart of gold. she goes out of her way to help people, and incurs the wrath of some gangsters when she helps out some women on a train who would otherwise be headed for a life of slavery or worse. They come after her, murder her, and almost kill the guy, who happened to be nearby when the thugs show up. He was about to come clean about his deception, too. So the guy's beat up pretty bad, and the blow to his head left him with a terrible malady: he can't hold any new memories in his head for more than fifteen minutes. In order to keep track of anything he carries around a Polaroid camera that beeps every fifteen minutes for him to take a picture and record what's going on, who he's with, and what's he's doing. He has covered his body with tattoos with all the important details he knows about the girl's killer, and he's working on tracking him down for vengeance.

Oh yes, I know what you're saying. Polaroid didn't make a camera with an alarm, that's just ridiculous!

Or were you thinking the plot sounds awfully familiar. It's obvious that this Ghajini is inspired by Chris Nolan's Memento. Both of them are - remember there are two films here.

The one I watched first was the Bollywood one, starring Aamir Khan (better known for his starring turn in the period cricket blockbuster Lagaan). It dispenses with some of the more clever mechanics of Nolan's film, namely, showing scenes in reverse order, and adds cliche Bollywood touches like the songs and extra hour of love story, but the result is nonetheless enjoyable. With all its similarities, some would consider it a complete rip-off, even with those differences. It's more accurately considered a remake.

But it's not a remake of Memento. It's a remake of a remake of Memento. It was remade first in Telugu (Tollywood instead of Bollywood), and up until the ending, the two films are very, very close.

Without giving anything away, the two endings are different enough to make seeing both of them worthwhile.

But it's a fair assumption many people outside of the India wouldn't watch one of them, let alone both, due in no small part to the connection to Memento.

What brought this to mind, though, was something I read, about Warner Brothers taking out a full page ad in The Times of India. They were threatening legal action against any movies made "either in English or Hindi or other language, having a similar script, screenplay or story line or character sketches or interplay of characters or sequence of events" to Benjamin Button.

That struck me as a little bit odd. I know it's fairly common for there to be Bollywood movies borrowing pieces, or plots, or sequences of events from popular Hollywood movies (and, heck, some that aren't so popular*. I remember watching Partner and wondering how they could've gotten away with such a close ripoff of Hitch.

Well, it turns out in that case some legal action was threatened, and there may well have been some sort of settlement. But it made for some interesting quotes:

Producer Parag Sanghvi:

Seven hundred films are made every year. Can all of them be original?

Director David Dhawan:

It’s rubbish. How many producers can they sue? Five hundred films are made here that are inspired by Hollywood films.

I can't imagine Sony and Will Smith lost out on too many rupees from Indians paying for a version of their movie, in the local language, rather than buying the DVD of Hitch. But what do I know?

I do know that Hollywood producers work through official channels to secure the rights to remake popular foreign movies, and can get in trouble when they don't.

But, from an artistic standpoint, what's the harm? Is the original film somehow damaged by the existence of the copy? Did Johnny Cash's excellent rendition of "Hurt" in any way diminish the artistic merit of the Nine inch nails original?

Where do you draw the line? Innovations get copied. Watch a movie like Citizen Kane or A hard day's night or any number of groundbreaking films (hell, even The matrix. Sure, you can think back on other movies that have copied those techniques. Sure, some of the derivatives are equally as interesting, if not better. But does it make the originals any less great?

Well, maybe not The matrix. Influential and great aren't necessarily always the same.

* At least I think it was over three months ago I had the idea. That's when I'd dated the draft, but sometime in between I lost my train of thought, as well as the motivation to write the article. All that I'd written was "Ghajini, Ghajini, and Memento. Also, Coming to America." and I've tried to remember what I meant to say about them. Looking at the dates, that's when I'd just watched Coming to America, and the other two, two weeks previous.
** There is, from what I have read, a Bollywood remake of Who is Cletis Tout?. I recently also enjoyed Maalamaal Weekly which bore eerie similarities to Waking Ned Divine.