By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more Star Systems will slip through your fingers.”
—Princess Leia to the Grand Moff Tarkin in the bowels of the Death Star
When Thom Andersen’s acclaimed documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself screened at the Egyptian Theater four times over the course of a week in late April, marking its second extended run in its eponymous city, there was very little media fanfare. The distributor didn’t take out full-page newspaper ads. The publicist didn’t wrangle magazine or TV coverage. There were no plans for a DVD tie-in. It almost seemed like a well-kept secret that the filmmakers finally, reluctantly, were forced to tell.
The reason was simple: the 206 separate film clips — one for every bone in the human body — incorporated into Andersen’s 169-minute essay about Hollywood, its physical and psychic environs and the distance separating the two. Although there is no way to know for sure, since Andersen didn’t bother to ask, the cost of licensing all of these clips for commercial exhibition, TV broadcast and DVD sales (domestic and foreign) could easily stretch into the millions of dollars.
A CalArts film professor whose previous film, Red Hollywood, remains unreleased for similar reasons, Andersen was inspired to create his latest work after seeing L.A. Confidential in 1997. (Although critical of the film on many counts — beginning with its use of the diminutive “L.A.” in the title — Andersen found it redolent of the period it explores, particularly in its attention to geography and architecture.) Beginning work in earnest in 1999, Andersen finished Los Angeles Plays Itself in 2003 and premiered it at the Toronto Film Festival that fall. The film then showed up on critics’ 10-best lists throughout 2004 and 2005. But if you want to see it today, good luck finding it on Netflix.
“Copyright is a form of property — intellectual property — and that means the holder has certain rights, but also certain responsibilities,” says Andersen. “Movies are obviously part of the collective memory of us all, but the people who hold the copyrights don’t seem to recognize any responsibilities.”
These parallel dogmas — free speech and intellectual-property rights — through corporate intervention and governmental abdication, are now on a collision course, and may in fact collide next month with the theatrical release of Kirby Dick’s incendiary This Film Is Not Yet Rated. A jihad against the Motion Picture Association of America, movie studios and the corporations that own them, Dick’s documentary plans to get around the prohibitive costs of copyright licensing by employing a “fair use” defense — a safeguard built into the Constitution but largely untested in the courts. Like the last time a foreign body slammed into the earth’s surface, disrupting gravitational orthodoxy, watch for sea changes, atmospheric gloom and toppling dinosaurs.
Published by Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Bound by Law? (Tales From the Public Domain) is a brief history of intellectual property and the public domain in comic-book form, written by Duke law professors Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins and available both on the Web and in print from Soft Skull Press. (Lawrence Lessig, whose 2001 book The Future of Ideas presents the definitive account of the battle over copyright, appears as the Statue of Liberty, holding a camcorder in place of a torch.) As explained therein, the standard copyright term has grown from a flat 28 years a century ago to the current “life of the author plus 70 years,” thereby creating an important revenue stream for movie studios, which own an estimated two-thirds or more of all copyrights.
Moreover, a sliding scale of prices and arbitrary access to clips make the clearance process seem mercurial to even the seasoned observer. Codirectors Arnold Glassman, Stuart Samuels and Todd McCarthy’s 1992 documentary about the history of cinematography, Visions of Light — which relies on some of the most ravishing moments in the history of Hollywood filmmaking to help tell its story — has been widely available on video for years, while access to Mark Rappaport’s seminal Hollywood-centric clip-driven essay films has been spotty.
“There are lots of documentaries about filmmakers that employ film clips, but they also have this pious tone that prevents them from saying anything,” says Andersen, who cites Rappaport as a primary influence — particularly his revisionist history of the gay subtext in Rock Hudson films (Rock Hudson’s Home Movies) and his speculative biography of Jean Seberg (From the Journals of Jean Seberg). Rappaport, who practices a recombinant form of close reading, video mashup and metatheory, admits today that he never cleared any of the voluminous film clips that informed his bastard genre.
“John Waters advised me not to even bother seeking clearances,” he says via e-mail from his home in Paris. “I was prepared to offer $10,000 for a blanket clearance of all the Universal Rock Hudson movies, even though I didn’t have the money, with some proviso saying I would never show the film outside of festivals or not-for-profit venues. Well, the negotiations didn’t go very far. The [Universal] guy thought the film was, and I quote, ‘disgusting.’ Of course, if I were John Waters, I’d have put that into the ad campaign and insist it be on every marquee.”
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