upon a time (August, 1999, to be exact) aficionados of popular culture
conjured a dream. They envisioned a “Jukebox in the Sky” — a colorful,
shiny, neon-bedecked contraption that would allow them instantaneous,
universal access to all the music that had ever been recorded during
the entire history of the world since Thomas A. Edison started
scratching nursery rhymes into wax cylinders. And lo, it came to pass.
From Napster and the Creative Jukebox to eMusic and the iPod, if your
life needs a soundtrack, you can find it, program it, and wallow in it.
course, for some of us, that only whetted our appetites. What we really
wanted was the Film Forum-in-the-Sky. And creating it is how I spent my
holiday break… and my holiday heartbreak.
Look, let me admit
it right off the bat: My cultural predilections are… aberrant. I
loved the Napster phenomenon from the get-go not because it allowed me
to steal popular contemporary tracks, but because it enabled me to
reach across the globe to pull in my obscure, idiosyncratic objects of
adoration, the love that dare not speak its name. The Les Baxter
Orchestra. Julie London. Vic Damone. Spike Jones. Crooners. Lounge.
Elevator music. I was hooked from my first search (the Cab Calloway-Al
Jolson novelty number I Want to Sing-a, if you must ask).
And so, too, in film. Sure, sure, my list of favorites includes the standards — Citizen Kane, The Third Man, Hitchcock’s Notorious. We spent New Year’s Eve watching the Fred & Ginger Marathon on TCM. But what I really crave are psychotronic movies.
The word psychotronic was coined — in the way I use it, at least — by Michael J. Weldon
who, back in the day, owned a small video store in the East Village of
New York City that specialized in renting… well, psychotronic movies.
It was the only place in Manhattan (to cite a special, personal
example) where you could lease a copy of The Manster
(businessman is injected with serum by evil Japanese doctor, grows a
second head on his shoulder), unseen in these parts since Chiller
Theater went off the air. As that example should indicate,
“psychotronic” translates — uneasily and incompletely — into: Cult.
Compelling. Odd. “B” movie. As Amazon.com notes, in an entry about Mr.
Weldon’s remarkable 1981 book The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film
the word “stretches to encompass horror flicks, spaghetti westerns,
low-budget quickies, exploitation films of all stripes—in short,
anything disdained by the critical establishment.”
Those are the
films I love. And while they’re increasingly available by mail order,
what a true fan really wants is instant gratification. Hence the Film
Forum-in-the-Sky — the infinite repertory cinema. Every movie you’ve
ever wanted, the moment you want it. Time-travel Tivo. Netflix Now. The Manster
the years since Napster teased us with the prospect of such immediate
pop-culture satisfaction, various technologies and devices have taken
us closer to the ideal. The Bittorrent protocol and the file-sharing
ecosystem that’s developed around it have made an Alexandrian Library
of cultural detritus available to diligent searchers (although I’d
never recommend breaking copyright laws to get it). XBox Live, Apple
TV, and TiVo Series II are among the devices that can retrieve, store,
and stream They Saved Hitler’s Brain
(Nazis in South America scheme to use the preserved head of Der Fuhrer
to guide them as they launch World War III) to the living room screen.
One-terabyte hard drives can hold 700 or 800 Roger Corman exploitation
films (although I don’t think he made that many) for under $300.
Together with the exploding number of online guides to genre films —
just today, I learned from the new io9 sci-fi blog
of a new site, bmovies.com
which streams dozens of the best and worst psychotronic films — they
make the Film Forum-in-the-Sky a tantalizingly real prospect.
New Media Literacy
So near, but so far. For here’s what I learned during my attempt to jerry-rig a home media server filled with cult movies:
- Too many codecs spoil the fun. There
simply are too many ways to encode movies and sounds, and no one
serving solution currently can take them all. Xbox 360 does a great job
streaming MP4’s and some XVID’s. Other XVID’s will freeze the system
and require continual reboots. Apple TV will only handle MP4’s —
forget about DIVX.
- You need to be 12 to figure this stuff out.
Working through the encoding/streaming incompatibilities took the
better part of a week and visits to several score Web sites — most of
which speak only Windows or Mac, few of which speak both. It’s easy
enough to learn that the VLC Player will play most codecs on your PC,
and that the Videohub app can transcode most formats into most other
formats. But after that, you’re on your own. I spent four hours over
the weekend trying to figure out why iTunes can change the metadata on
some MP4’s, while others it corrupts and renders unplayable in
Quicktime. The answer? I DON’T KNOW! That’s the point.
- Stuff clogs.
While Apple’s done a great job making media accessible to the masses,
Mac’s move into movies has been more than a little confusing,
especially when it comes to organizing libraries. Front Row — Mac’s
media center application — sources from one set of folders, iTunes
sources from a different set of folders, Apple TV appears to source
from yet a third set. Before you know it, you can have five or six
different versions of the same film floating around various hard drives
(and taking up the limited space on the stingy Apple TV hard drive).
- Beware the bit rate. A 256kb bit rate may be perfectly adequate for streaming The Indestructible Man
(a faulty electric chair turns Lon Chaney Jr. into a monster who cannot
be killed), but it looks awful blown up for a 55-inch screen.
- Creatures crave features.
Fed by iTunes, music set a high standard for cultural gluttony. Music
collections would almost miraculously self-organize, pulling metadata
and album-cover photos from the CDDB, building playlists almost at
will. No such luck with film. There’s an open-source media center program for the Mac called Centerstage,
currently available in alpha, which pulls film descriptions directly
from the Internet Movie Database. Alas, it was among the several things
(including my permissions, damn it!) that didn’t survive the upgrade to
My dream? One box, one simple box, that will search, retrieve, label, organize, store, and
From the Web (not from a closed system). Which will handle DRM (for
everything out there). And — very important — that will eliminate the
terms “codec,” “bit rate,” “transcode,” and others akin from the
lexicon of entertainment.
I’ll wait. In the meantime, I’m going home to watch Glen or Glenda