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December 01, 2006

A Regional Cinema?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've been having a good time following "Something to Be Desired," a Pittsburgh-set and Pittsburgh-made web-based dramedy about a group of young and funky media kids. It has twisty storylines, saucey and vivacious performers, lots of well-observed, satirically-portrayed behavior, and scrappy-fun production values. It's absorbing, perceptive, and amusing in equal measure, and it works well on a three by four inch computer window. Watching it is like watching a cross between "Sex in the City" and "The Office" performed by your friends. Episodes even arrive complete with extras and outtakes.

Despite its many virtues and charms, what "Something to Be Desired" mainly has me thinking about is the future of movies.

Context-setting time: A frustration shared by many movie fans throughout the years of the traditional cin-e-ma was that movies were so damn centralized. Such a beautiful, lavish, and promising artform ... But wasn't it a terrible pity that it depended so much on money and industry that movies were produced in a mere handful of locales? In the U.S., for instance: How bizarre and distorting always to see ourselves through the lens of LA and NYC. Wouldn't it be liberating and exciting to have a New England cinema, a Texas cinema, a Puget Sound cinema, a Finger Lakes cinema?

Now that a thousand such micro-cinemas are finally in fact blooming -- which is great, of course -- the question arises in my mind: Does it make sense to refer to these creations as movies at all? I remember wincing when, early in the iMovie days, Steve Jobs referred to edited-together iMovie videoclips as "movies." "No they aren't," the longterm moviebuff in me huffed. "Movies are an art and entertainment form with a history and language all their own. These are just ..."

Well, what are they exactly? More important: Why look down on them? In the last few years I've found myself far more fascinated by developments in the edited-together-amateur-video world than in the pro/ trad-movie world. YouTube ... Playing with iMovie myself ... Videoblogs ... Emailing clips to friends ... Video playlists ... These creations and phenomena may not emit stardust or come wrapped in a dream-nimbus. Yet they have their own virtues. And what's not to be dazzled and amused by? Perhaps convenience, accessibility, and informality can have their own poetry.

But what to call this new work? "Something to Be Desired" isn't "a movie" or "a TV show" in any traditional sense as far as I can tell. In fact, I confess I don't have any brilliant suggestions. To myself, I think of all this stuff as "audiovisual-through-time entertainment," a term I agree is severely lacking in the catchy department.

I also find myself musing: Hmmm, perhaps what made traditional movies so stupendous and hypnotic -- in fact, so movie-like -- was a consequence of everything the radicals (myself occasionally among them) bemoaned: the money, the effort, the hierarchies, the industry ... Perhaps even the geographical centralization. God knows it was hard for real people to get their hands on the means of production. Yet perhaps all those barriers and hurdles served an intensifying purpose. Perhaps all along Hollywood wasn't getting in the way of movie-movie bliss. Perhaps what Hollywood was delivering was as close as we'll ever get to movie-movie bliss.

These days the barriers are down and the floodgates are open. Audiovisual-through-time material is coming at us from more places than we're even aware of. But does it make sense to call what's swamping us -- cool and desirable as it is -- "movies"?

Here's an organization promoting and helping Pittsburgh filmmakers. The best way to get started with "Something to be Desired" is here. The gifted "Something to Be Desired" gang themselves wonder how to label their creation: "a web series, or web video series, or webcom, or webisodes?..."



UPDATE: Longtime musician Shouting Thomas compares today's recording technology (a mike, a Mac) with yesterday's elaborate and cumbersome gear, and reflects: "For the artist, this is a unique moment. The means of production and distribution are in the hands of the individual. Making a living in the arts will, I think, become increasingly difficult, but it will become increasingly easy to distribute ideas."

posted by Michael at December 1, 2006


I grow increasingly chagrined: you're the second out-of-town blogger that I read regularly to write about this series and I haven't seen a single episode yet! I'm bumping this up a few rungs on the ol' to-do list...

Posted by: Horbal, Andrew R. on December 1, 2006 10:29 PM

Thanks for the mention. Glad you're enjoying the show. We've definitely wrestled with terminology. I like to call us a "web series". I've also heard "sitdotcom" (which I think is clever), and Entertainment Weekly has dubbed the trend "web TV". The thing is there are so many different shapes and sizes when it comes to internet-based entertainment (yet another phrase), that there isn't a one-size-fits-all catchy phrase yet. You can't really say we're doing the same thing as "Ask A Ninja" or "Homestar Runner".

Anyway, yes, the idea of micro-cinema is exciting. It's amazing the leaps and bounds that technology is advancing by, giving "regular" people a chance to express themselves. It's very democratizing.

Posted by: Erik Schark on December 1, 2006 11:01 PM

There have been several local narrative series that I've watched over a period of time. One was a rather elaborate "soap" along the lines of "Dallas" that was a cooperation between Quebec and Paris TV. The production arrangement more or less came to blows over the issue of whether a mistress was a normal part of the family or not. The actresses in question were intriguing enough that one sympathized with the man's fondness for both. The other was about a female detective in Portland, OR, always in the rain, which prompted me to say it was not crime noir but crime gris. They ran out of funding and the heroine was shot, the blood blossoming on her white suit while in the background Mt. Hood shone pristine in sunshine. Images from both of these stay with me.

Scenes from radio shows that we listened to in the car in the 1940's are still brilliant in my mind and the minds of lots of others. (This time of year I go around singing, "I'm the Cinnamon Bear with the shoebutton eyes..." which was a strictly local Christmas program in Portland, Milwaukee, and a few other places.)

I think narrative in whatever form, even snatches of conversation, catches human beings as surely as honey catches bears. I can remember so vividly watching acting scenes done for a class, interrupted, resumed, sometimes catching fire into transcendence. Far beyond anything those same people did in their later professional lives. The first time I saw a reader's theatre performance -- in which the actors sat in a row and just read the lines -- was so intense it made me shake.

I think the local newspaper is like a narrative with chapters and subtext and feedback from the director printed alongside the play. So all that is the context I would have for "Something to Be Desired." I think it fits right in. I hope to figure out how to see it.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 1, 2006 11:33 PM

Your article got me thinking about the future of movies, too, but in a slightly different direction. I'd never heard of this witty small series until I managed to stumble across your page at random and see it was your most recent post. Would I have managed to come across it in the future anyway, or would I even have bothered to check it out had it been recommended by some teeny tart's MySpace? How many potentially enlightening or educating works of art am I missing, and will I ever get to see - let alone hear of them - all?

I don't know. The age-old dilemma of consuming as much of our cultural foundation in a lifetime has always been with us, and yet it seems ever larger and more impossible with new net-dominated, independent entertainment. Don't get me wrong; this is an obviously good thing for art and new talent, but I can't help feeling it's a bad thing for someone who wants a community to share in art.

The Movies as we know them will probably continue to survive in some diminished form like the novel, but where then are the cultural touchstones of the future? Such a future might include all the great art never to be seen in a single lifetime - you watch "STBD" and I'm hooked on celebrity parodies and the reader above watches a "'Dallas'-like" soap and the discussions we all should share will slowly fade away. Sure, we'll still have them on these posting boards, but there is a passion and feeling lost by not interacting with other flesh.

And where will the cultural quotes come from if there are no public personalities to voice them? It's a lot like the plight of the video-gamers; they have all this knowledge of very familiar storylines and characters in their games and no one other than fellow gamers to voice them to for recognition.

I know I'm freaking out here with all the doomsday scenarios, but despite all the wonderful benefits of new media, there's an empty feeling that comes with it for me.

Posted by: Bryan in Japan on December 2, 2006 8:21 AM

The fare at this locale becomes more and more fast food, masquerading as gourmet.
Sort of like "thai seafood salad" at Wendy's.

Posted by: Tat on December 2, 2006 12:35 PM

Andrew R. -- Time to get on the the ball!

Erik -- Congrats to you and your crowd for being pioneers along with everything else. Didn't I see that you've pulled together more than four hours of content so far? That's a lot of dedication and work. Do microcinema types from various places stay in touch with each other? Maybe the time has come to hold a Congress of Microcinema Creators ...

P. Mary -- Narrative is everywhere, isn't it? Gossip, celebs, political news, TV careers, friends, etc. Sometimes makes me wonder why anyone bothers actively creating more, let alone doing it in more-formal settings. Why not just point out what we already have, as you just did with your comment? Not that such a question is going to stop me from doing so, of course ...

Bryan -- I think those are all real and substantial concerns. How will people connect? How will they find out about things? If everyone is entirely concerned with figuring out ever-better ways to get their own buttons pushed, how will anyone connect, let alone compare notes? I'm assuming new forms and ways of interacting will develop (could be wrong here). I wonder what they'll be. Maybe stopping by blogs will be part of it!

Tat -- I'm not sure it's a recent development. Early on we were told that we were "the talk radio of culturechat."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 2, 2006 1:46 PM

Thanks for the mention, Michael.

I'm amazed by the daily advance of technology. No matter how hard I try, I can't keep up.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on December 2, 2006 8:20 PM

Thanks for the compliments, and for the thought-provoking essay as well. As the creator of STBD, I've never known what to call it as far as genre goes, so I presume the public will decide that name for me. Currently, we find ourselves labeled "podcasters," though we've actually been online longer than there have been iPods...

Incidentally, there are localized meet-ups of web media producers in cities across the country (and beyond), called PodCamps -- essentially "un-conferences" of bloggers, audio and video creators and other new media folks who get together to share ideas and swap insights. Thankfully, the medium is new enough that we currently appreciate the "we're all in this together" mentality that encourages us to help each other in order to grow the medium outward. As a direct product of the "Web 2.0" boom, I'd like to think the aspect of community that these types of media engender will continue onward even as the media themselves becomes marketplaces.

For more information on PodCamps past and future, please visit

Posted by: Justin Kownacki on December 2, 2006 9:25 PM

Some great comments here. Dig your readership.

We've recently tried to address the alienation question with a gathering called PodCamp. The first ever was in Boston, then here in Pittsburgh, and PodCamp West was just held in San Francisco. They're now popping up literally all over the world. What it is is a free meet-up for bloggers, podcasters, and people interested in new media. I got to rub shoulders with the likes of Andrew Barron of Rocketboom and Brian Conley of Alive in Baghdad along with many local bloggers and podcasters, and it really helped me feel like I am part of a community, even if we are spread out across the globe.

As for sharing experiences, I totally agree. There's nothing like all of your friends having seen the same movie or TV show (or play or musical, I'm a bit of a stage rat), but I get tons of e-mails of things to check out, and a number of my friends watch the same web shows as I do, so we do still in fact have shared experiences. I think as the distribution of this medium grows, the cream will rise to the top, and there'll be as many people who know a Ze Frank reference as an "Office" one. It'll be like during the first season of "Seinfeld" when finding someone who knew it was a real bonding experience.

At least, that's my hope.

I also hope this board takes html code in posts, or this one's going to look pretty confusing.

Posted by: Erik Schark on December 2, 2006 9:27 PM

In reference to the "thai seafood salad" comment above, I actually agree, there is a lot of crap floating around the internet, but I think that's actually true of pretty much every media. What percentage of television would you say is quality? Or what percentage of films that are released are worth seeing? I won't even get into Broadway, which I'm sure you'd appreciate.

The bottom line is that since the price of admission to this medium has been lowered, just about anyone can join, and much of what's produced will be inferior in quality. However, it's a young medium, and I think a lot of people are still finding their way, and the general quality will improve. And even right now, if you look for it, there's a lot of great stuff to be found.

Posted by: Erik Schark on December 2, 2006 9:49 PM

In the words of recent cinematic profanation, "There is dinner jacket and there is a Dinner Jacket".

Posted by: Tatyana on December 2, 2006 10:08 PM

Michael: "How will people connect? How will they find out about things?"

I've discovered more good pop music through Hype Machine in the last six months than through all the friends I've ever had in my entire life.

(My friends are so unhip it's a wonder their bums don't fall off. Econ majors, mostly.)

Posted by: Brian on December 3, 2006 8:50 AM

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