Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Geek in Aspic

Once 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.

Of 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.

Psychotronic Mania

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 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, On-Demand.

In 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,, 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 Leopard.
My dream? One box, one simple box, that will search, retrieve, label, organize, store, and stream. 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.

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