Questions of Ownership

This is a weird one. But it’s a legitimate quandary, and I’m not sure I can resolve it my own, hence why I’m tapping it out on a public platform. It won’t be as controversial as renaming CHAZ to C.H.U.D., but it’s a question rooted in a changing world.

As online retailers — or any retailers — have the right to do when people raise enough ruckus to signal their virtue, online platforms have the right to decide what they want to stream. After all, it’s on their servers and their service, they should have the right to decide what to sell.

I’m presuming there’s some level of agreement with that statement. After all, a Catholic bookstore shouldn’t be obligated to carry a copy of the Communist Manifesto or The DaVinci Code. At least, I think that’s common sense.

There are also occasional pushes for retailers to stop carrying items that have fallen out of favor. Amazon stopped selling the Confederate battle flag, as did other retailers, and everyone agreed that was okay for them to do. I don’t own one, and I never planned on purchasing one.

Sure, Amazon still sells the Bonnie Blue flag, but people would have to know history to know much about that one. Probably a safe bet no one will raise a stink until they do.

But plastic discs are so bad for the environment!
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Digital Copies

By way of my convoluted thinking, I thought about people who have purchased digital copies of movies. I know I own a fair amount.

When you find a deal for $4.99, you tend to jump to it. Since I’m not a huge fan of owning too many physical copies of anything despite a current taste for expanding my collection again, digital copies are a wonderment.

I can watch a movie I like whenever I want, without having to take up space on a shelf. I also get to watch it without generating more Future Garbage for the dump when I die.

(Speaking from my own experiences, almost all of your stuff is going to get thrown out when you die. You’re just kicking the can down the road to someone else who will decide to throw it away. The most cherished items will be retained, but largely you’re just holding onto literal Future Garbage right now.)

I’m not trying to be a downer. I’m just trying to have a practical talk with you.

The Mechanics of It

So here we get to where I’m going with this.

A person who’s purchased a digital copy from a company merely has paid a fee for lifetime access to their copy. They can watch it whenever they like. But they don’t own a physical thing, What they’ve paid for is a digital license.

Since online retailers and streaming services are, as most agree, free to decide what to host on their services, where do they stand when people stand have a digital license to a film later found to be odious by a loud plurality of people. (Note: I’m still going to use the term “own(s) a digital copy” just because it’s the commonly accepted term.)

If the company decides they no longer wish to carry something deemed offensive, they have the right to stop offering it for sale. Again, no retailer is required to carry something.

In the case of digital copies, I’m wondering if that extends to their right to rescind access for the purchaser.

I’ll also say that vinyl albums are incapable of transmitting your usage data to a faceless conglomerate leveraging your personal data for financial gain.
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An Example

Let’s start with a movie that garnered some attention in 2015.

Short Circuit has not aged particularly well, given one of its character portrayals is a white actor in brownface. Short Circuit 2, costarring Michael McKean, hasn’t aged well for the exact same reason.

It’s entirely conceivable that at some point in the future, a retailer would decide to stop selling it. It’s conceivable that the production company would stop producing copies of it altogether.

We would all agree the retailer has the right to do that. We would all agree that the production company has the right to do that. No matter what someone’s emotional attachment is to a work, no one is obliged to sell it.

What if, though, someone has a copy of Short Circuit or Short Circuit 2 in their digital collection? If the film is now judged too controversial to sell, I think it’s conceivable that there would be pressure for it not to be streamed, or even sold in the digital format at all. After all, if a retailer isn’t obligated to sell it, they’re also not obligated to host it on their servers.

While it’s hard to envision anyone being too upset about Short Circuit evaporating into the digital mists, where does that leave Orson Welles’ Othello? What if someone owns a digital copy of Triumph of the Will, the monumental propaganda piece directed by Leni Riefenstahl for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party party?

It is unquestionably odious. It’s literally lauding men who are some of the greatest monsters of the 20th Century.

But it is important. The construction of Triumph of the Will influenced students who studied it in film school. It’s influenced documentaries and fictional film with its innovative use of camera and shot selections. It was directed by a woman at a time when female directors weren’t common.

This is getting heavy, so here’s a pic of who they should cast in Star Wars: Episode X as the Drunken Jedi Master.

Reasons

It’s conceivable someone would own a copy just for the sake of being an amateur film historian. They may want to show it to people to show the dangers of popular movements and fiery ideologies.

It might be something they own because they understand its place in film history is as important as The Birth of a Nation, an equally-consequential work that is equally reprehensible in its content. Forrest Gump even uses a digitally-altered clip of it in acknowledgement.

No Conclusion

And so I’m left curious.

Obviously, if Amazon Prime’s leadership decides it no longer wishes to stream Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they can stop. My question is simply where the line is.

After all, if the point is to halt the advancement of things/portrayals/ideas that are distasteful in the extreme, it’s arguably imperative to remove access to all copies. Someone could easily argue that so long as no one is barging into someone’s house and taking someone’s physical copy, they’re simply rescinding a digital access license as is their right; or again, in some cases, their “duty.”

Further, it extends to all sorts of digital “ownership,” including the “right” to rescind or edit books without the user’s express consent. For that matter, there’s some music that was purposely made to be controversial; as the taste for tolerating controversy has lessened, so too might digital copies of that music be altered with the same reasoning.

To be clear, I’m not taking a position. I’m merely framing the argument I could see.

They could issue a refund as a goodwill gesture. They could give the customer a credit to replace it with a different movie or two.

This one got heavy and I’m not sure how it resolves now or in the future. Fortunately, I have one all set for tomorrow that isn’t such a bummer.

Reorganizing my Movie Collection

Lately I’ve been buying physically copies of movies again. There are a number of reasons why, none of which are worth going into in this moment.

The point of this blog is to discuss openly the challenge of reorganizing my movie collection. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a penchant for reorganizing things. It is almost as if I live to reconfigure things. (You know that now, too, which means now that anyone who reads this blog knows it.) I rearrange my posters, my furniture, my collectibles, my books…you name it, I’ll rearrange it.

I can’t fully explain why I do it. It brings me a certain sense of peace. I like to experiment with the way things look. Some stuff remains at rest, but most things should be regarded as changeable.

It’s all a puzzle, man!
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The Question of Movies

And so we come to my movie collection. It’s not nearly as voluminous as some might presume. I still live under the self-imposed directive that, if I die, all of my personal possessions should be able to be cataloged and removed within 48 hours.

My personal possessions like movies or books, or records, or toys, aren’t family heirlooms. I also don’t have many of them (anymore) and I’ll always keep myself in check with regards to purchasing things. They’re going to end up in a junk heap someday no matter what I do do.

Trust me, I am completely comfortable with that.

Back to the Movies

But how to rearrange my now-increased physical copies was the question at hand. I’ve arranged them alphabetically in the past, which is boring. I’ve arranged them by series and collection within the alphabetical heirarchy, which is fine but also a little lackluster.

I think that I’ve settled on arranging them by date that I watched them. So, for example, Star Wars would be first. It’s chronologically first and so it goes to the front of the line. But what comes after wouldn’t be The Empire Strikes Back necessarily. It would be whatever I best recall as having seen in the gap between, if I possess the film in question.

It’s for this reason that Masters of the Universe would come before It’s a Wonderful Life, though Capra’s classic was released decades before Courtney Cox teamed up with Dolph Lundgren to defeat Frank Langella in heavy makeup.

It’s also a fun challenge in memory as I try to recall whether I saw The Game before or after I saw Cool Hand Luke for the first time.

Do I further sub-categorize based on whether I saw it in the theater or at home first?
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Where Then Does a Boxed Set Go?

The challenge becomes if I have something that exists only in a box set. I have Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (his Batman movies) as a boxed set only, since I’m still not the type of psychotic fan who needs every edition of a release if it’s just the same film.

But it creates the problem that I can’t exactly split those up to place them into individual spots. I saw plenty of movies between each of Nolan’s Batman films, including some of his own.

There are also challenges of working different types of packaging into the flow of things. Certain editions of individual films are boxed sets unto themselves, with elaborate packaging that does not fit easily between the typical individual sizes of single-release features. The terrific packaging on the version of Solo: A Star Wars Story that I own accounts for an actual booklet about the production that they included.

For a visual compulsive like myself, can I live with that sort of random irregularity? Heck, there are editions of films I own that are still on DVD, that alone doesn’t blend with later packaging for BluRays.

This is not what it all looks like. I don’t share photos of my domicile on here.
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And That’s How It Goes

Now you can see, hopefully, not just what a challenge it is to reorganize in such a way that it satisfies me, but why I’m constantly shifting things around.

It’s an inconsequential and silly thing to go on about, but I felt like being silly and inconsequential today. I didn’t even go on about my Bookshelf of the Banned. That features a collection of items that I started buying over time, in the anticipation they would inevitably be banned once the voices on one side or the other got loud enough.

We seem to be approaching the point that even pompous old acquaintances I knew who, in the past, were known to cheaply use that Voltaire quote about defending anyone’s right to speak, are on board with wholesale bans and cancelations. It’s weird, and what I started as a lark makes me feel prophetic now.

It could be cute to arrange it by what I think is most likely to get me thrown out of social circles for possessing it. Maybe I should arrange that by known date of the first call for banning, which puts some items naturally at the head of the pack. The real fun is that calls for bans can transcend time and sensibility in question. Just ask Kurt Vonnegut!

That’s a thought for another time, I guess. One where I’m in a less silly and inconsequential mood.

What Do I Rate This?

I love the services letterboxd and GoodReads. I enjoy keeping track of my watching and reading, something I’ve previously done manually. I’d write down books and movies, simply keeping tabs on what I’d consumed through a year. It’s fun, as a way to remind yourself of what you’ve seen and note the ebb and flow of your viewing habits.

Perhaps keeping a hand-written record of movies and books I read is an indication after all that I am, in fact, a nerd.

As I was rating a recent book, I realized the conundrum we all encounter each time we log something.

What Do I Rate This?

The first prompt is to give the entertainment you just endured/enjoyed a rating.

It can seem flattering that they care. It lets you know that people want to know what you think is worth their entertainment time!

Of course, while that may be true, most likely it’s mainly just app data leveraged by Amazon to improve their sales algorithms’ ability to market to you (GoodReads).

Letterboxd, while a welcome shelter from the ongoing Rotten Tomatoes Wars, indubitably has their eye on a marketing prize. I’m skeptical enough of all online services (thanks to the liars at Google, Twitter, and Facebook) to believe that I’m just not aware of how they’re using it to their benefit.

Not to be fatalist, it’s only a question of time until it figuratively catches on fire. Netflix can’t even give us the option of star ratings anymore, just the simple binary like/dislike.

As a pal pointed out, letterboxd isn’t a movie troll battlefield yet because Rotten Tomatoes is higher profile to the point where their “freshness seal” is used on marketing. I think GoodReads has a better shot at remaining fun because it’s not like the book community is vicious.

Ah well, nothing I can do. Perils of the modern age.

Back to the question at hand, as I debated internally with what to rate Song of Spider-Man, a truly fun and well-written memoir by Glen Berger, I asked myself why I was bothering to rate it at all.

Writing a review is one thing. As you can tell, even before letterboxd, I loved to write reviews. I love to write them still. I even wrote book reviews for this blog on occasion.

always-two-anakin-skywalker-obi-wan-kenobi-tall
Related question: Did the Jedi go to the movies? Did arguments turn some to the Dark Side?

Star Ratings as Oddly Pointless

As I pondered that book, though, I started to think that maybe a star rating is an oddly pointless task.

We can kid ourselves that it’s a jumping off point, and that people will read a review or know us well enough to contextualize our rating. That’s not being honest with ourselves, though. We know it’s going to be the main thing at which someone looks.

The reason I’ve started wondering if it’s helpful, is because everyone’s criteria are different. We may be forced to operate on the same scale, but we’re not the same.

Five Stars for one person may be “more attainable” than another. Five Stars could mean “all time classic to be remembered so long as filmmaking stands athwart the shifting sands of time,” or “it’s perfect but, as all things, is destined to fade and be forgotten even by those who loved it.”

One friend of mine uses other films as a comparison metric to determine if a new film “rates” the same as the classics of the past. “You gave it the same number of stars as The Godfather?” is a question in conversations like that.

Well, yeah. I rate things based on individual merit. I don’t care where that places it, even in relation to my personal favorites. That doesn’t mean I’m better or that my scale works for others, but then it doesn’t have to work for anyone else.

I suppose it was easier to navigate that when only “official critics” posted their ratings. You still had to get a feel for whether you were dealing with Jeff Craig or Roger Ebert, though.

He just read your reasoning for your rating.

Vagary and Validity

I wonder if, once you’re aware of people viewing your ratings, it influences your habits. It’s not exactly a news flash that people are conscious of the judgment of their friends and neighbors. Perhaps it says more about my circle of friends than the world at large, but I’m aware that anything I publicly rate will be open to scrutiny.

It’s one reason I’m such a fan of my friend B-Shea: He makes no apologies for loving and rating things highly. I’ve taken him as an inspiration point to embrace the idea of loving things freely and unabashedly. I’ve encountered plenty of people who confuse “being harsh” with being “more valid” in some way.

The Internet Tribunal prepares to pass judgment on the intent, and competence, of a group of filmmakers.

In Conclusion

Of course I’m still going to give things star ratings. Of course I anticipate it will continue to cause discussions where people question my “ability” to review movies.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because this blog entry is totally worthy of a five-star rating.

#StarWars: Thrawn – A Review

I just finished the latest entry in the Star Wars “Expanded Universe” books, Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn.

For those unfamiliar with Zahn, a respected author in his own right, the short version is this: he kicked off the 1990s Star Wars merchandising explosion by writing three well-received sequels to Return of the Jedi, set five years after the original trilogy and featuring a brilliant new villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Thrawn didn’t survive that series, but he was so beloved his shadow hung over the Expanded Universe for its entire existence. He was a constant comparison for future villains and storylines.

When the Expanded Universe was scrapped in favor of the new films, Thrawn was one of the few characters that was universally mourned. Even people like myself, who were thrilled with the reboot of the timeline, talked about how we would miss him.

So They Brought Him Back

They’ve always been up-front about their willingness to “resurrect” characters eradicated with the old Expanded Universe. If the raw material is there, why not?

So they brought Thrawn back, which delighted the old timers like me. First it was in Star Wars Rebels. The show itself has had its issues finding its footing, but Thrawn’s introduction seemed to give it real focus. He’s a cool villain, and putting him in the timeline of the originals was a great move. He belongs there.

Then they brought back the writer who created him, the aforementioned Timothy Zahn, to write a new origin story for him.

I mean, really. How cool is that? They gave the guy who created a character the opportunity to reboot that same character.

And It Was Good

Star Wars: Thrawn is really good. It meets the general criteria I have for heaping praise on any Star Wars ancillary book: it would be enjoyable even if it was just a sci-fi/fantasy book not based in the Star Wars galaxy. It lives and breathes on its own terms and the characters are all intriguing and clever.

Zahn even makes an improvement to the character development by pairing Thrawn with an original creation who, like the audience, is trying to get to know him throughout the book. As a result, more pain is taken to guide you along with Thrawn as he makes his conclusions. If there was a knock on the character’s appearances before, it’s that his reasoning process seemed semi-magical and a bit of a cheat at times to get the character where he needed to go.

Zahn redresses that here by creating a character who is methodical and observably brilliant. You are rooting for him, despite the fact that you know he’s working for a ruthlessly tyrannical government that represents the death of light.

You root for him because that part of the conflict not only seems not to matter to him, it’s that he’s taken a longer view of life than a single man’s rule. I don’t want to spoil anything, as I think you should read the book; what I will say is that his reasoning is so consistently and ruthlessly non-emotional that there are hints of Spock about him.

I’ll also say that Zahn’s writing style has matured in such a way as to make this a truly grand addition to the lore. The Heir to the Empire trilogy of the 1990s has its flaws, writing style being one of the more-watery parts of it. Zahn’s refined his style over time, though, and it pays off here.

Well-written and infused with style, if you’re a Star Wars fan with an interest, I highly recommend this book. If you’re not a Star Wars fan of particular note, I still recommend it. It’s worth your time.

Worthy read.

Forget the Movie, I’ve Already Read the Sequel to “Blade Runner”!

I remembered one time that there was a sequel to Blade Runner released as a book in the 1990s. Being me, I hunted it down via a used bookseller with a simple mission in mind.

How could I turn this into a bit?

Well, this one blossomed wonderfully. Written by K.W. Jeter, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the book. It’s  worthy sequel to the film while at the same time being appropriately respectful of the themes that exist both in Phillip K. Dick’s work on which it’s based, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

While reading, I was unsure why the name K.W. Jeter was so familiar to me, but it turns out he’s one of the regular authors from the heyday of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, having written a number of the pulpy bits that I enjoyed but ultimately forgot.

While Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human isn’t necessarily a work on the level of Dick’s Sheep, it’s got a serviceable plot that’s very ably written. This is essentially “Expanded Universe” done right; it reintroduces the characters well, doesn’t skimp on the descriptors and exists ably as its own work.

It also has an ending that’s delightfully executed, and an engaging take on the characters. The expansion of the story feels organic and welcome as opposed to forced. In short, I could have seen this as a film sequel to Blade Runner.

Is it Shakespeare? No. But it’s a hard-boiled detective novel in the cast of the film, with a well-written narrative and compelling questions about identity. I recommend picking up a copy if you can, and enjoying the ride.