Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sky-High Picture Show

My wife and I bought our first computer in 1998. The purchase set us back $3,500. A huge budgetary dent but necessary because she needed the machine as a tool for teaching college-level 3D animation.

The computer was, at that time, a powerhouse of a machine - a Gateway desktop with 256 MB of RAM running on Windows 98. The monitor was a 19-incher and bigger than my first television. We accessed the Internet via 56k dial-up, which made that funny, cool squelchy sound when hooking up. We had an America Online account.

I jumped on the web and found that it fueled my passion for film with countless movie websites. But many of these sites were either ponderously academic or just plain wonky. Graphics were low-resolution and video wasn't even a consideration. Designed using frames, dark backgrounds with nearly unreadable fonts were the flavor of the day for many movie websites.

I wanted to write about film in the worst way and thought the web would be a great portal leading the way to becoming a working film critic. So I purchased a website content management software, did some basic design using Photoshop and came up with, which would focus on B movies and grindhouse flicks of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s.

The site's tagline was, "An in-depth, mostly accurate guide to drive-in movies from the '60s, '70s and '80s." The "mostly accurate" phrase was a way for me to weasel out of the countless inaccuracies that plagued my writing for the site at that time (more on this in a minute). 

I was inspired by Steven Puchalski's magazine, Shock Cinema, which is still the definitive print resource on all things regarding grindhouse cinema. Puchalski's writing (as well as the style of the magazine's stable of writers) was funny, insightful, knowledgeable and analytical, giving the dubious nature of these films rarefied legitimacy (I was published - briefly - in the magazine but never became part of the stable). I wanted to have similar stock.

I obsessed over the site's design - I attempted to make it look like an online magazine - and while I couldn't reach that level of artistry, it ended up looking cleaner than many of the film sites that were out there. I believed in white space, minimal graphics and easy-to-read fonts (I was fond of Times New Roman). I dabbled in Flash but not too much because Flash was relatively new in '98 and most Internet users didn't support it. I designed for Internet Explorer and Netscape to make sure the site was compatible on both browsers.

During the site's tenure, I reviewed over 100 films, analyzed trends and dipped into DVD culture as that format started to take off. DVD releases of the types of films I was reviewing were becoming more and more prevalent. It was easy to find obscurities like The Awful Dr. Orloff, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, They Call Her One Eye, Ms. 45, and so on. Plus there was a local Mom and Pop video store nearby that had tons of VHS copies of some of the grindiest grindhouse this side of 1970s 42nd Street.

It was fun to watch these movies and write about them but it was also a lot of work. It required analytical thought and writing with clarity, which was (and is) difficult. At first, I wanted my style to be snarky but I didn't have the skill of a Michael Medved a la his hilarious book The Golden Turkey Awards. My attempt at snark sounded arrogant and uninformed.

I moved toward playing it straight, took seriously the films I was analyzing and my writing became more clear. I ocassionally turned a decent phrase and I would accidentally stumble upon something close to profound. One review I wrote for the film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia relayed a brief personal journey and focused on the psychology of the main character as presented by Sam Peckinpah, the film's director. Not a great review but there was something in the writing that approached actual thinking.

Sky-High Picture Show was even featured in the Daily Herald in a weekly column that highlighted "websites of the week." The piece was complimentary and stated that Sky-High Picture Show was a site "to watch."

But, more times than not, writing for the site was dispiriting. I wrote a misguided review of a book called Celluloid Mavericks, that actually caused the author, Greg Merritt, to contact me via email. He made the statement that I didn't read his book closely and that my reactions to it were (correctly) "knee-jerk." Then he (rightly so) gave me a drubbing that I wasn't prepared for.

One reader took me to task for a review I wrote about Smokey and the Bandit. The reader was a fan of the film and I wasn't. But my ill attempt at writing with a corn-pone voice was offensive and hardly funny. The reader stalked me via email for months, with each correspondence growing angrier and darker.

I eventually pulled the site in 2004 with the idea that I'd convert it to a blog someday (which I haven't - yet). And, honestly, I'm glad I killed it but I'm also grateful for the attempt and experience.

So why the nostalgia now for Sky-High Picture Show? Well nothing ever really dies on the web and, thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I recently found myself perched over the decomposing remains of my site here.

And I have to say, it truly is an embarassment of riches.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

To Facebook or not to Facebook?

It really is a Shakespearean dilemma isn't it? I'm debating jumping on the Facebook train (not that you really care if I'm on Facebook or not) but I have my trepidations.

The tipping point for me to join may very well be based on an interview that I saw on 60 Minutes with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, which highlighted  the site's updated, new interface. And that new facelift looks like, well, a helluva lot of fun.

My main issue with joining: logging into it a lot more than I really have time for. Yes, there's potential addiction issues here.

And, of course, the self-serving nature of Facebook and the compulsion to become even more self-absorbed is always a danger (isn't this the very thing that people do find appealing about Facebook...friends, what friends? - its all about me, right? Isn't that really the deal?).

So here I am - stuck with this Shakespearean dilemma.