The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law

I get very upset about US copyright law. It is so labyrinthine that a person can do all he can to be honest and forthright, but still step on legal toes.  It’s even worse that people claim to own rights they don’t own, and other people deny rights to films that they actually do own.

The whole thing reminds me of the Tootsie Frootsie routine from A Day at the Races (1937), in which Chico cons Groucho out of a wad of cash. In case you haven’t seen it, you can see it  here.  Inspiration struck me, and this skit was born.

I’m in favor of copyrights, and paying fees when necessary.  I do want to remind you that the constitutional founders wanted limited terms, and Congress has extended the term of copyrights at least three times.

As silly as this seems, all of the law in here, to the best of my knowledge, is exactly correct.  There are a lot of lawyers out there who are every bit as unethical as Chico.

Films are dying because of this foolishness.

Groucho: Hey, Ravelli, I found a couple of old movies.  I think one of them is yours.  How much do you want me to pay you to show it?

Chico: Oh, no.  That’sa mine.  I sue you.

Groucho: I found it in the trash!

Chico: Hey, thatsa right.  I throw it away.

Groucho: So you want to sue me for showing something you threw away?

Chico: You guess it.  I sue you.

Groucho: Well, I could buy it from you.  How much?

Chico: I no sell it.

Groucho: How about if I give it back to you, and then we show it?

Chico: OH, NO!  I no want it.

Groucho: Maybe I could just pay you to show it once.

Chico: I no want you to show it.  I sue you.

Groucho: You realize it would cost more to sue me than it would just to take my money.

Chico: OH, NO!  I sue.  Trusta me, I sue.

(Harpo comes out, dressed in judicial robes, and passes out pieces of paper saying CEASE AND DESIST.)

Groucho: You know, just retaining that shyster lawyer there costs more than this film is worth.

Chico: You’re right, but I sue justa the same.

Groucho: Why?

Chico: Thatsa whadda we call precedents.  If-a I sue you, then I’ve make a precedent, and then it make-a it easier to sue the next guy and-a win.

Groucho: So you’re suing me for wanting to show something that you threw out, you don’t want, and it’s not worth the money that you’re spending to sue me.  I can’t buy it from you and you don’t want it back.

Chico: I do this just-a because I can.

Groucho: It doesn’t matter.  I found another movie too, and you don’t own that.  I’ll just show that one instead.

Chico: You can’t do that!  It’s a copyright!

Groucho: How do I find out who owns it, then?

Chico: Well… justa by accident, Pinky and I, we own a law firm.

Groucho: Why I am not surprised?

(Harpo comes out again with cards saying “Ravelli and Pinky, Attorneys at Law.”)

Groucho: OK, I’ll bite.  How much does it take to look up the copyright for this film?

Chico: I can’t tell you.

(Harpo whistles and shakes head.)

Groucho: I thought you were a lawyer.

Chico: Thats’a why I can’t tell you.

Groucho: What would it take so that you could tell me?

Chico: Well, I need a retainer.  Money.

Groucho: I knew it.  How much?

(Harpo holds up five fingers and whistles.)

Groucho: Five dollars?  Well, that’s reasonable….

Chico: No, he’sa not got enof fingers.  Fifty dollars.

Groucho: All right.  You know, Custer wasn’t even scalped like this.  (He hands him money.)

Chico: Atsa fine.  Now, if the film was-a registered with the Library of Congress, then it’s a copyright.  But that’s OK, the copyright, she expire after 28 years.

Groucho: Great!  This movie is more than 28 years old, so I’m in the clear!

Chico: Not-a so fast.  Congress, she pass-em a law that lets the owner renew it for another 28 years. But sometimes they renew, and sometimes-a, they no renew.

Groucho: Dandy.  I suppose there’s some sort of published master list of renewals somewhere?

Chico: Ooooooh, no.  You gotta find em!

Groucho: And where might I do that?

Chico: Well, just-a by accident…

(Harpo holds up a card saying, “Pinky’s Copyright Research.”)

Groucho: Then I don’t need your law firm anymore!

Chico: Sure ya do!  I tell-a him what to look up, he goes to the Library of Congress to look it up, and then I certify it.  That’s a called “due diligence.”

Groucho: How much will that be?

Chico: At’s a thousand dollars!

Groucho: A thousand dollars?  Why?

Chico: Well, ya gotta fly him out to Washington, put him up in a hotel for a day, and then fly him back.  Atsa thousand dollars.

Groucho: Why can’t I just send him out by car or train?

Chico: Then ya gotta feed him.  You’d lose on the deal.

(Harpo opens mouth ravenously.  Groucho cowers.)

Groucho: I can hire a local attorney to do it, and then save all that money.

Chico: You think you can find an attorney more honest than me?

Groucho: I’d hasten to think so.

Chico: In Washington?

(Groucho rubs neck and thinks.)

Groucho: I never thought it would happen, but you made a persuasive argument.  Are you proud of yourself?

Chico: I’m proud of this wad of cash I got from you.

Groucho: Hypothetically speaking… you do know what hypothetical means, don’t you?

Chico: Sure.  That’s the long part of a triangle.

Groucho: No, you’re thinking of a needle the doctor uses to immunize you.

Chico: Hey, the judge gave me immunize to testify against Pinky!

Groucho: Well, I can see I’m not going to get anywhere this way.  Let’s say this: imagine that I paid you the money, and imagine that Pinky went to do the research.  Imagine that there’s a renewal.  Then can I run the film?

Chico: Well, you gotta pay the guy who owns the film.

Groucho: Won’t that be stated in the renewal?

Chico: Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Sometimes a guy renew-a film that he no own, and that’s a void renewal.  Sometimes-a he sell it to someone-else, and that might not be recorded in the papers at the Library of Congress.

Groucho: Then how do I find out who owns it?

(Harpo holds up a card, “Pinky’s Copyright Detective and Genealogy Service.”)

Groucho: And how do I find out if the renewal is void?

Chico: You need a lawyer for that.

(Chico smiles and offers card again.)

Groucho: All right then, I can just wait until the second term of copyright expires.

Chico: Oh, no, you can’t do that.

Groucho: I’m certain of that.  But tell me why anyway.

Chico: Well, Congress, she’sa pass another extension.  You see, if you register once…

Groucho: For 28 years…

Chico: Yes, and if they renew…

Groucho: For another 28 years…

Chico: Yes, well, Congress, she’s a make the renewal period 47 years.  Then shesa change her mind again.  Now it’s 67 years.

Groucho: That makes the total copyright period 95 years.

Chico: That’s it!  You guess it!

Groucho: There’s no possible way I could make enough money from showing this film to offset the costs of finding out who owns it.

Chico: That’s what I discovered.

Groucho: I wanted to show it for preservation purposes.  For an old time movie.

Chico: Oh, that’s a no good.

Groucho: It’s a lot less work just to throw it away.,

Chico: Now you understand why I threw mine away.

(Groucho tosses print away.)

Chico: That’s what you call film preservation.

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The Quick, Quick, Slow Cut

One of the criticisms I hear of older films is that they are slow-moving and boring.  The editing of newer films is supposed to be faster.  This is simply not true.  The editing of modern films is different.  In some ways, it’s even slower today.

Hollywood today is frightened to death of dialogue and plot.  They fear it might get in the way of a good chase scene or fart joke.  The problem is that a great number of films jettison so much dialogue and plot that they become basically two-hour chase sequences, and that’s boring.  When you have no idea who is doing what to whom, and there is no characterization left to let you know it, then all you can do is sit back in your chair and wait until something interesting happens.  Sadly, it seldom does.

Editor Peter Hunt (a pause now in silence for one of the greatest editors of all time) used to say that an action sequence in a film should never be more than five minutes long, or else the audience gets bored.  He pointed to Thunderball (1965) as a movie that annoyed him a bit, because he’d cut the scenes the way they seemed to flow most efficiently, and the three producers on the shoot kept overruling him. “Oh, that shot is too good to throw out.  Put it back in.”  And as a result, he thought Thunderball was draggy in places.  He was right.  Still, Thunderball’‘s opening fight sequence is one of the slickest and most efficient in film history.  It still works today.  Don’t believe me?    Check this out.

OK, the rocket pack at the end is too silly.  But let’s contrast this with a newer Bond film, Casino Royale (2006).  Due to legal snags, the original Fleming book couldn’t be adapted as an official Bond film until this was released.  The book is a little sparse for a two-hour film.  So what to do?  They grafted on three chase sequences with just a hair’s breadth of plot to combine them.  And each chase sequence was about 15 minutes long.  The first one was a foot chase, which was at least pretty compelling, but it was followed by a truck chase inspired by (or stolen from) Raiders of the Lost Ark and then a chase through an airport taken from Die Hard 2 (if they’re going to steal from Die Hard films, can’t they at least steal from a good one?)

As a result, Casino Royale has been running for about 45 minutes before the story really starts, at which point I’ve pretty much ceased to care.  It gets worse, because the plotline that Fleming used, which was intense and psychological, is cut to the bare minimum.  We can’t have too much of a plot, because we might bore 15-year-old boys who come to see things blow up.  It was only due to the fact that I know the book, and I know other versions of the story, that I could follow it.

In case you just missed it, I cited an example in which an older film actually moves faster than a newer one, and it was a film that the editor thought was too slow!  The idea now, and increasingly, is that the story doesn’t matter at all, so we need to pad out the action scenes.  This means that the video game based on the movie is probably going to be very cool.  I guess no one has realized that video games and movies are different media.  I’m not terribly excited about watching a two-hour video game in which I can’t participate.

So I’ve ranted enough about the slowness of today’s cutting, and how scenes go on too long.  That’s not what most people go on about when they talk about old films being slower.  What they’re talking about is that each shot is often longer in older films.

I’m not against fast cutting. You’ll note that the cutting in Thunderball is actually pretty fast.  I am against cutting a movie so that you lose a sense of geography in the film.  For over a hundred years, we’ve cut movies according to rules.  These rules help us understand what is happening in a film.  A fight should start with a long shot, which gives us an idea of where everything is located.  We might then cut to a closeup of a punch, and then to a medium shot back to a reaction by someone.  Establishing shot, insert, reaction…

There are a lot of people who don’t do that anymore.  We shoot everything in extreme closeup.  I’m not sure why we’ve gone to this, but we have.  Some people think it’s because TV is lower resolution and closeups register better with the audience.  This means that the filmmakers really are shooting for television even though we may see a theatrical release.  Other people say it gives us a sense of immediacy with the action.  In my humble, ranty opinion, it does none of that.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of an epileptic seizure.  We have no idea what is happening, and it’s nothing but disorganized movement.  If we combine this with the trend for longer action sequences, then basically  it just gives me the urge to sit back in my chair and yawn until something coherent shows up.

I know I’m opening myself up for a criticism that I don’t like anything that’s new.  Not true.  I want to see good, strong storytelling.  Editing is part of that.  For example, I was delighted to see Inglourious Basterds (2009).  The opening sequence of that film is a thing of beauty.  I won’t give it away, but it centers on a German officer (Christoph Waltz) trying to discover the location of some Jewish refugees.  The editor stretches out some takes to make us uncomfortable sitting in our chairs.  What is he thinking?  Why is this scene going on so long?  The tension builds masterfully.  It’s as good as any scene you’re likely to see.

On the other end of the scale, watch the chase between Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage in The Rock (1995).  It’s cut too fast, with too few establishing shots and too many closeups.  You can see it here, although I apologize for the squished aspect ratio (and the language is not appropriate for kids).  I’ll be blunt here: I love Sean Connery, I love Nic Cage, I’ve visited San Francisco and driven down these very streets.  I hate this sequence.  I can’t tell what’s going on.  It makes no sense; the camera is too shaky, the cutting is too fast.  Director Michael Bay made it on to my “banned for life” list because of this film.

You wanna see a good chase scene shot in this same area?  Here’s one:” It’s from What’s Up, Doc (1972) made by Peter Bogdanovich.  Notice that he uses long shots so that we know what’s happening.  It’s not slow (it may be a bit long), but it works.  The guy knows how to make a movie! Yeah, I know that the point of the two scenes is different.  The Rock is a serious chase with a little comedy and What’s Up Doc is a comedic chase with some thrills.

My point is that the cutting is completely different, and that’s due to what the editor used and what the director gave him.  I think it’s insane to make a generalization that older films are slower.  Some are, and some aren’t.  And you have to figure whether long scenes are slower than quick cuts.  It’s hard to measure.  Editing is an important and little-understood art.  It’s something I’m going to come back to on this blog page.  One of my pet projects is a re-edit of a scene from Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I’ve contended for years that the worst problem with that film is editing. Stay tuned.

On the Trail of Blamire’s Screaming Forehead

One of the things that gives me hope about the viability of Dr. Film is the cult following afforded Larry Blamire.  If you don’t know who he is, I’d recommend having a look at his Bantam Street site,  So far, Larry’s films have been witty spoofs of older genre films.  His cult favorite, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (released theatrically in 2003), is part Roger Corman and part Ed Wood, while being delightfully silly for its entire length.  Dark and Stormy Night (2009) was also a funny spoof of a type of film that was rampant in the 1920s-1940s, in which a bunch of people are locked in an old spooky house while someone starts bumping them off one at a time.  What I love about Blamire’s work is that it demands something of its audience: you have to know something about what he’s spoofing in order to get all the jokes.

I’d heard for some time about the great, missing Blamire epic, Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  It was slated for a 2007/8 release when its cutting was, well, circumvented by an executive producer.  We might compare this to what almost happened to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), albeit on a much smaller scale.  The abortive cut has surfaced on Independent Film Channel a few times, but bears little resemblance to the original concept.  Happily, Larry has been able to wrest the footage away from the miscreant, and we are now able to see the director’s cut of Trail. Like Gilliam before him, Larry has been trying to drum up support for the film by doing late-night showings at conventions.  Blearily, I am happy to report that I was in attendance at the first of these screenings, and that it went wonderfully.  (I say blearily since I had to drive for about 3 hours to attend the screening, which required the same return trip.)

I am loath to give up much of Trail’s plot, which is one of those things that unravels itself like a mystery.  It’s intended to be that way, in much the same way that most of the 50s invasion movies were.  Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a tribute to Don Siegel and Douglas Sirk in the same way that Lost Skeleton had been a tribute to Corman and Wood.  Shot with deliberately garish colors (like so many films of the era), and full of stereotype characters, Trail also boasts cameos from great 50s stars, including HM Wynant, the late Betty Garrett, Dick Miller, and the late Kevin McCarthy.

Larry Blamire can write campy dialogue with the best that ever did it.  His lead actors are now familiar repertory players in his company.  They are all able to read deliberately clumsy lines in a convincing yet slightly bewildered way.  It’s hard to do, and I respect them all for it.  They don’t make it wooden, and they don’t do it winking at the camera in the way Adam Sandler would do.  I laughed heartily all the way through the film, as did most of the preview audience.  I’m glad to see that most of Blamire’s cast is now getting work in other productions.  They deserve to.  In Trail, I’d like to single out the performance of Andy Parks, who is a real master of the reaction shot.  There’s a scene in which HM Wynant mistakenly thinks Andy has been taken over by the alien foreheads (no, I’m not kidding), and Parks does a take over his shoulder as if to ask, “Are you talking to me?”  It’s an age-old gag, but Andy brings such conviction to it that I had to laugh.  Parks hasn’t worked in a mainstream film for years, and Hollywood is a poorer place for it.

Am I completely glowing with praise?  Well, mostly, yes.  Those of you who know me also know how picky I am.  As a hyphenate (a guy who does more than one job in a film), Larry Blamire sometimes has a problem.  The Editor Larry sometimes is too in love with dialogue that the Writer Larry wrote. That sometimes lets the pace of the film drag a little.  I thought that The Lost Skeleton Returns Again had some slow moments in the middle, as did Dark and Stormy Night.  This does not seem to be the case with Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  There are a few carpy things I could say, such as the fact that I was confused about Jennifer Blaire’s motivation when she fried the foreheads in one scene.  I thought her rendition of the title song was a bit out of place in the middle of the film (I’m not complaining about her singing, which is great, but rather the placement of the song).  Incidentally, Trail of the Screaming Forehead has a loopy title sequence, done by Manhattan Transfer in great 1950s style.  My complaints are but small issues.

OK, I give up… I know that someone is going to want a plot synopsis, but I warn you that it’s not something you want to read about… you should see it.  A scientist (Fay Masterson) discovers that the forehead, and not the brain, is the seat of all human knowledge.  In order to further her theories, she isolates the formula for foreheadazine and injects it into a colleague (Andy Parks).  His forehead and intellect grow to enormous proportions.  Meanwhile, evil alien invaders, which are disembodied foreheads, invade the Earth and begin plastering themselves on local townsfolk.  Can the world survive?  Who will stop them? Can I stop laughing long enough to hear the plot unfold?

I’d love to see Larry Blamire get to do more films.  He’s got a lot of talent and great ideas.  He’s starting to get shoehorned into doing Lost Skeleton movies, and that’s fine, but it would be great to see him get backing to do things like his interesting-looking Steam Wars project.  Regardless, I’ll keep watching what he does.  It’s great to see someone else out there who loves old movies as much as I do.



A Certain Madness…

No one cares about old movies.  I was horrified recently to read the introduction to Leonard Maltin’s book 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen.  He focuses on movies from the last 15 years!  Leonard Maltin!  The mind reels.  That kind of limitation is like hiring Bill Clinton to write a book called 100 Sexiest People and then telling him he’s only allowed to write about men.

I understand why Leonard did it, though.  I don’t want to trash him: he’s a great guy, and he’s a great friend of old films and preservation.  Leonard is really one of the top film people in the world. Importantly, though, Leonard is not crazy, and he knows that people won’t buy a book about films made in the 1920s.

But, you see, I am crazy.

I am not crazy because I love old movies.

I am not crazy because I collect and preserve film prints of movies that no one cares about, just so I can see them.

I am not even crazy because I share my collection with audiences.

I am crazy because I think you should at least give old films a chance.

It seems to me that no one cares about old movies anymore because no one ever sees them.  A friend of mine said that when cable TV came, they took all the old movies and put them on one channel.  Then they filled the rest with junk.

Let me tell you, folks, about the days BC (before cable).  Infomercials were illegal by rule of the FCC.  At 11:30pm, after the news, only one station had a talk show.  That was Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.  He murdered the competition, so the local stations left him alone.  If Carson had bad guests on a particular night, the you could just flip channels and see a great movie on any of the 5 or 6 other channels you might get.

In the summer, when my parents used to annoy me (which was most of the time), I would stay up until 3am most nights watching movies on TV.  One station had a show called Summer Film Festival with a host who introduced a different film five nights a week!  Another station had a festival called When Movies Were Movies with another host.  There was even a great monster movie host every Friday night, and a Science Fiction movie every Saturday night.

The era of hosted movies died with cable.  It used to be that nearly every station had one, then one or two stations held out, and finally, all movies were hosted on Turner Classic Movies by Robert Osborne.  And again, I’m not here to trash Mr. Osborne, because he does a great job.  Osborne is unlike the movie hosts of old.. he’s all classy and slick.  Most local hosts were shot on a shoestring, and some of them were deliberately silly and over the top.

The single holdout movie host, who does it like it was done in the old days, is Elvira, also known as Cassandra Peterson.  God bless her for sticking in there. But Elvira is one of the hosts who always runs bad movies and snickers at them.  That’s fine, and an outgrowth of her stuff is the guys of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

This is where I come in.

Or rather, where I don’t come in.

Not only do I miss the old days of movie hosts, but I also think that we don’t do them anymore because no one watches old movies.  And I think that no one watches old movies because they don’t see them on every station anymore.  And, because no one sees old movies, no one understands them.

I’m just crazy enough to invent my own show, patterned after the shows of the old days.  It’s called Dr. Film, which is the subject of this web site.  It’s intended to be just the same as the hosted shows used to be: a little educational, but silly enough to appeal to a broad audience.

The trailer for Dr. Film (see the home page of the site) says that the title character is an eccentric genius with a plan to change the world–by showing old movies.  I do hope to change the world by showing old movies.

I hope to get a few more people interested in films that were made in black and white.  I hope to show people that editing styles have changed, not that older movies are slow.  I hope to show people that the majority of a film doesn’t have to come from a computer in order for it to be worth seeing.

I encourage you to check out the Dr. Film site.  We’re still hoping to sell the show to some network.  But first, we have to get enough people to care about the project so that a network is convinced it’s worthwhile.

I know the project is worthwhile, but then I’m crazy.  Come be crazy with me.  Let’s change the world by showing old movies.