Thursday, May 13, 2010

Are You Fed Up With Today's Films?

We've come a long way from the days when one film a month would be released to the public. Today there could be anywhere from two to 20 films released on a single weekend, but this overflow of film has led to a general dilution of the quality out there (Did the Chipmunk movie really need a "Squeakquel"?). And with the advent of home entertainment in VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, it's harder to get away from the truly terrible movies that flood the big screen. Even if studios and producers feel that a movie won't make the big bucks in theaters, they may bank on DVD/Blu-ray sales to roll in and throw it out there anyway.

Film producer Lynda Obst wrote an interesting op-ed for the Atlantic last week that was humorous but still, sadly, all too true. Obst opines that the poor quality of scripts selected for production is to blame for why you hate the movies you watch. She even runs down a list of reasons why a script sells (it has Shia LaBeouf, Taylor Lautner, Zac Efron, or a hot boy under 24 attached) and why it doesn't (it is intelligent or otherwise hindered by nuance). Film buffs may be entertained and casual movie-goers may be enlightened, but that still doesn't change the problem of Hollywood's unreliable trigger finger.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Downfall of Fair Use on YouTube

The amount of videos on YouTube can sometimes be mind-boggling, and the popularity of certain ones even more so. It can be pretty amazing how quickly a video can go viral and get 1,000,000 views these days. For every Chocolate Rain or All the Single Babies there are often dozens of parodies trying to pickup on the success of the latest "big hit". While the term "parody" should probably be used with caution (knockoffs or fan videos may be more appropriate), it's hard to ignore that YouTube gives the average computer savvy user a chance to view a popular video, record their own version/parody/knockoff, and post it for the masses to see.

The quality of these parodies is often suspect and more often than not just frustrating to wade through in order find the original favorite. For what it's worth, I think my favorite franchise of videos on YouTube has to be the Downfall parodies. Downfall being the German film (Der Untergang) about Hitler's last day's in a bunker, waiting for the end of the Third Reich. The film itself is excellent, and Bruno Ganz's portrayal of Adolf Hitler is scary good. Tim Cavanaugh's April 21 article, "First They Came for Hitler...", in Reason magazine describes the parody videos better than I can:

"If you're unfamiliar with these parodies...Der Untergang...features a scene in which a bunker-trapped Hitler harangues his inner circle (in German) as the Russians close in on Berlin. A few years ago, some inspired genius put on new subtitles in which the F├╝hrer ranted about getting banned from Xbox Live rather than about the 11th-hour desertion of his generals. Because Hitler has been bringing the laughs at least since the Beer Hall Putsch, the result was pretty funny, and it spawned a vast genre...There's even one where the dictator is mad about all the people making Downfall parodies..."

As it turns out, not everyone finds these videos hilarious. Constantin Films, the German production company that owns the rights to Downfall (from which the rant clip originates), has filed copyright claims, resulting in many of these parodies being taken down from YouTube. While artists and filmmakers have a right to protect their copyright, these less than 4-minute clips are certainly not infringement. Although these works are clearly transformative, parodies, and under the protection of Fair Use, YouTube continues to remove them.

YouTube is often forced to act in order to protect itself by muting videos that feature copyrighted music or removing videos that are clearly pulled from copyrighted material and posted online for free viewership, and I understand YouTube's fears over being brought into court over copyright infringement, but the Google-owned site often acts too hastily before reviewing some of these copyright claims to see if they are valid. Yes, it's party of the site's policy and posters agree to its terms and conditions before they can post, but maybe it's time YouTube re-examines some of these policy before another, more savvy competitor pushes it by the wayside.

In the meantime, here are two of my favorite Downfall parodies:

  • Hitler's response to last fall's Virginia Tech/Nebraska football game. (I grew up a Virginia Tech fan and my brother-in-law is a Cornhusker, so its close to home, but football fans in general may be able to enjoy it.)
  • Hitler pissed at Kanye West for ruining Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMA's. (self-explanatory)

Enjoy them while you can.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fronting the Final Frontier

There's been plenty of chatter recently about President Obama's space plan and the effect it will have on NASA, a manned-Moon or even Mars mission, and the immediate future of US space travel in general. I'm lucky enough to have an aerospace engineer for a friend who is much more knowledgeable and has a much better grasp of the pulse of the industry right now. With next week's expected launch of the privately owned SpaceX's new rocket, I thought it might be nice to air out some of his thoughts on the new space plan.

On the retirement of the space shuttle and its effect on related jobs:
The people who complain about losing their jobs because the shuttle program is ending dont really have much to complain about since they've known for 5+ years that this was going to happen in 2010. More than most other people who lose jobs, and there's really no way around it -- the shuttle has to be retired, and their jobs go with it.

Giving "local" space missions to privately owned companies:
I really like the idea of giving up the low earth orbit missions to private companies. People complain a lot about America losing the edge to other countries, but isn't capitalism and entrepreneurship our strong suit? Those companies (Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and like 10 others) are ready to go solve the problem of efficiently getting to the ISS [International Space Station] cheaper than their competitors. Its just too bad we didn't task them with this 5 years ago, so we don't have the gap in between the shuttle and their solution.

And on NASA's possible role in the future:
[NASA is] still needed, just not for the low-earth orbit stuff. It is immensely more expensive to go to the Moon, much less Mars, and those [private] companies don't have the ability to do something like that. NASA's job should be to lead the way into the frontier, show that it can be done, and come up with crazy awesome inventions like Tang and Velcro along the way.
[Note: he actually said the part about Tang and Velcro]

So what's the future of American space travel? It looks as though it's hard to come up with concrete projections right now, but next week's launch is just the first step, and its success or failure will probably give us no better idea than we already have right now.