A Brief History of the Mustache in Cinema

Sad to report that our documentary film, A Brief History of the Mustache in Cinema, has been shaved from the development slate of upstart cabler The Hair Channel.

Collaborator Cary Carpe and I had been tapped to track the mustache through cinema for the new channel (a sort of E! for all things follicular) after producers had seen my short mumblecore fest flick Beardo, which I shot entirely using Instagram and took atop Cupcake at the Park Slope Hootenanny + Regatta.

After inking the development agreement last month, I Photoshopped a one-sheet from Dadaist Marcel Duchamp?s famed first fit of anti-art ? the graffitied mustache on a Mona Lisa postcard (merci, Marcel!) and began querying potential interviews. Right off, our initial research yielded a plucky tale of cinema, facial hair and entrepreneurship we instantly slotted as the foundation of our film. Continue reading “A Brief History of the Mustache in Cinema”

Sonoma International Film Festival Cometh

Daedalus Howell

Daedalus Howell

Come every April, there are four words that get uttered here in Sonoma – “the film festival returneth.” Well, no one actually says it quite like that, but the annual cinematic juggernaut is such a transformative presence on the town that it deserves biblical-sounding lingo. Or at least something vaguely Shakespearean, like:

“Is this an independent film which I see before me?”

“What light through yonder projection booth breaks?”

“Friends, Sonomans, cinefiles, lend me your eyes.”

Or, from the programmers, “To screen or not to screen? That is the question.”

I could go on all day, but I won’t. I’ve got a four-day film-going itinerary to plan. I know – who am I fooling? It’s actually the party plan that’s most pressing – I attend the films only when I need a cool, dark place to sleep off the revelries. I’m kidding. Mostly.

Ever year, since early in the last decade, I’ve written a piece about the Sonoma International Film Festival. Even when I lived in Los Angeles, I’d make the annual journey north to pen a few hundred words for the San Francisco Chronicle and when I repatriated to wine country my tradition continued to our local papers. I’ve written about nearly every aspect of the film festival experience as well as the experience of writing about the festival, which I realize I’m beginning to do again, so I’ll stop. Right. About. Now.

The trick, you see, is that the festival hasn’t happened yet and I’ve done this long enough to know that every iteration is a unique experience unto itself. To anticipate how it might take shape, its various contours and nuances, would be like assessing a newborn’s career path based on the appearance of its belly button.

At best, it’s tea leaves, at worst, it’s wrong (and sometimes, eerily, right). That is to say, we must treat it with all the openness and love with which we’d treat an infant, mewling and puking. And if you happen to find me in that state, thanks in advance for holding my hair and calling Vern’s Taxi.

This is a hazard for me since the festival is an amalgam of at least two of my passions: cinema and wine. Both have stolen entire afternoons from me, whether at a matinee or the girl and the fig (ditto my third passion but I’m too gentlemanly to share). The festival’s wino-ism is not lost on its planners, who, after all, made a mascot of a talking bottle named Tipsy. I was going to make a gag about “delirium tremens” but the bottle warned me not to.

Which brings me to a point of consideration when attending the festival – though many of the festival’s venues will be pouring wine, returning to the bar during a screening is considered gauche, as is stocking up by attempting to bring several glasses of wine to your seat at once. Sure, the bottle jock might buy your lame shtick about bringing wine to your pal – the first time – but he’ll cut you off when you return, not least of which because you’ll likely have spilled a substantial portion on yourself when juggling the first round.

Do this instead – buy a bottle from one of our local bottle shops, guzzling it in the Plaza where it’s legal to do so, then tuck yourself into a seat at the Sebastiani, wait for the projector to flicker to life and wait to see what dreams may come.

• • •

Daedalus Howell will read from and sign copies of the paperback edition of “I Heart Sonoma: How to Live & Drink in Wine County” at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 19 at Readers’ Books, 130 E. Napa St., Sonoma. DHowell.com.

Magic 8 Ball Sees its Future in Film

Toy Stories


In the early days of the web, circa 1997, there was a plethora of Magic 8 Ball applications online that enabled users to make queries about the future without risking a repetitive motion injury from shaking the real deal. Among them was Marin-raised Jake Donham’s incarnation, which received a “cease and desist” notice from Tyco Toys Inc., then makers of the octo-oracle. “The purpose of this letter is to advise you that the use of the trademark Magic 8 Ball and of the game marketed by Tyco under ‘Magic 8 Ball,’ whether online or by any other means constitutes willful infringement of our trademark, copyright, trade-dress and other intellectual property rights,” read the letter. Donham, a computer science grad from Yale who created the application as a lark to demonstrate common gateway interface scripts, was not impressed.

Instead of kowtowing to a company that printed vagaries on icosahedrons suspended in purple water, the programmer, in an act of sublime simplicity, rotated the ball 90 degrees and rechristened it the “Magic Infinity Ball.” For kicks, he added a link to Tyco’s legalese. Soon, thousands of Magic Infinity Balls littered the Internet.

A decade later, those who want to prognosticate about the future can now use their iPhones?yes, there’s an app for that?though none are officially licensed Magic 8 Ball apps. There’s the Fortune Ball, the Magic Banana and even a Magic Toilet, which one flushes for one’s fortune. (Apparently, there’s a crap for that.)

None of these knock-offs, however, could predict that Hollywood would start raiding the toy chest to slake its voracious thirst for the “high concept.” Thus, coming soon to a theater near you, Magic 8 Ball?the movie.

Remember when the toys would follow the release of a successful film? At worst, marketing dollars were leveraged across channels with toys and sundry other choking hazards licensed to the purveyors of Happy Meals? These days, toys are more apt to precede their movies, arriving onscreen as vetted properties with existing market awareness, ready-made for adaptation.

Hasbro, the multinational toy and board game company, raised eyebrows, and its stock price, with the roll out of several toy-themed film franchises in recent years. Among them were the profitable Transformers flicks and the recent G.I. Joe origin myth. It stands to reason then that Mattel, which acquired Tyco in the late ’90s (after dropping a bid to acquire its “perennial rival” Hasbro, according to the New York Times), would also stake its claim in the sandbox. As the producer of the beloved Barbie and Matchbox lines, Mattel’s gambit would seem a no-brainer. But the Magic 8 Ball? No one saw it coming.

Thank Hasbro for setting the bar so low. After having shot its wad with its A-list properties, it reached deep into the collective closet of American youth to bring Candy Land, Battle Ship and (gulp) a Ridley Scott?directed Monopoly to the silver screen.

“Well, Stretch Armstrong will probably be our first movie out,” Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner told media and tech blog Collider.com last year. Since then, principal cast has been announced with teen-wolf Taylor Lautner of Twilight fame playing the fantastic elastic dude for a Universal Pictures release in 2012.

Meanwhile, Paramount, who partnered on Hasbro’s aforementioned G.I. Joe and Transformers and perhaps felt a tad jilted, doubled back and joined Mattel on the Magic 8 Ball movie. Meanwhile, Shady Acres, the company that brought you middle school marvels Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty (and their respective sequels and spin-offs), has had its own “Magic 8 Ball” film listed in development since September of last year. Is this the same film? Or will they have to turn it on its side and produce the Magic Infinity Ball film instead? In which case, has anyone called Jake Donham?

Donham says no, so it seems the ball is in Mattel’s court. Fortunately, a film about an oversized fortune-telling billiard ball couldn’t be any worse than Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, in which a foreseer opined, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” Or as the laconic ball might say, “You may rely on it.”

Great video About a Pitch going down, step by step…

You Are What You Watch

The red envelope, please....
The red envelope, please....

I’m a browser by nature. By that, of course, I don’t mean I’m Firefox or Explorer – at least not until I wet-wire into the neural network (Then you’ll see! You’ll all see!). Rather, I’m a great reader of spines, those on books, those on DVD cases, those that are shelved alphabetically, vertically and occasionally with a fine patina of dust. I’m a lover of bookstores and video stores alike, so it is with some trepidation that I admit I also enjoy clicking through the endless loop of titles one can scroll through on Netflix.

Thanks to the Los Gatos-based company’s finely-tuned algorithms, the online, movie-rental site can predict my interest in a prospective rental within a single degree of separation, meaning, if I don’t like it, Flash Lely will. Good for him. This week, however, while trolling the “Watch Instantly” section because I’m too impatient for the red envelope to arrive in the mail (yep, just another way the Internet is sticking it to the post office), I discovered the “Local Favorites” section. What is Sonoma watching? Moreover, whose watching Sonoma while it watches what’s it’s watching? I had to ask.

“Netflix sources data from a pretty complex database that’s managed by a group of brilliant Netflix software developers who make it their business to tell us what we and our neighbors are watching from Netflix,” said Steve Swasey, vice president of corporate communications at Netflix, via e-mail.

“‘Local Favorites’ is simply a list of the movies that folks are watching in their community more than folks in other communities. It’s not a top 10 list but an indicator of how tastes vary by region.”

Relieved that some hybrid of Big Brother and Roger Ebert wasn’t quietly patrolling this corner of the Internet, I proceeded to source some intelligence on local viewing habits.

At present writing, Sonoman’s seem enthralled with “Up The Yangtze,” which, I learned was not as salacious as its title first suggested: “When the Three Gorges Dam makes life hard for the Yu family, daughter Yu Shui must take a job aboard a cruise ship, where she enters into a dizzying microcosm of modern China…” This sort of rental, a documentary and a foreign film in one, is consistent with the viewing patterns Movie Merchants proprietor Joan Reibli has tracked at her West Napa Street video store, where Sonomans often seek higher-minded fare. “I do really well with foreign films and documentaries,” she says, then added that her most popular rentals are usually the releases. “It’s always whatever came on Tuesday,” she explained.

Had I not learned Riebli’s release schedule, by the titles alone, my armchair analysis of Sonoma’s collective psychology would infer a pandemic of paranoia – this week it’s “State of Play” and “The Informers;” last week was “Duplicity.”

Online, however, the top ten Sonoma rentals are docs and foreign flicks, except for, inexplicably, “Mad Money,” a comic caper starring Queen Latifa and Diane Keaton, which is number 9. Okay, Sonoma, who slipped?

Number one in Napa is “My House in Umbria,” in part because they probably have a house in Umbria and the movie rental counts toward their homeowners insurance as video surveillance. Last week, Sonoma’s favorite flick is “Humboldt County.” Enough said. In Eureka, the seat of Humboldt County, the top flick is also “Humboldt County.” So much for cinematic reciprocity.

The 2004’s merlot-hating wine film, “Sideways,” is number 13 in Santa Inez, in Santa Barabara County, where the film takes place. The 2008’s “Bottle Shock,” the locally-produced seriocomic docudrama about the 1976 Paris tasting is number 5 in Napa (it’s currently number 21 in Sonoma, where much of it was shot).

What Netflix does with all the rental data it accrues on us I do not know. I do know, however, that Byron, the Dark Lord at Movie Merchants, is kind enough to “believe” me when I blame the rash of chick flicks I’ve rented this past month on the Contessa.

And that, dear readers, is priceless.

Then Video Killed the Movie Star

A big chill passed through the Sundance Film Festival and it didn?t come from the Park City ski slopes. According to Boston Globe scribe Ty Burr, who covered the annual ?indie? festival cum market conference, the entertainment industry remains verklempt over distribution issues in the age of digital downloads, shrinking marketing budgets and an audience whose mantra might well be ?It?s my way or the superhighway,” which is likely one and the same.

Writes Burr:

Everyone agrees that the standard models of indie theatrical distribution and exhibition are broken; everyone at Sundance and in the industry is grappling with how best to replace them.

Some are even sure they have answers. Consultant and panelist Peter Broderick touted a brave new world of “hybrid distribution,” controlled directly by the filmmaker that combines website direct sales, video on demand, Internet and TV deals, cellphone distribution – and, yes, a theatrical release when and if necessary. Much of this is already in place, Broderick pointed out, and, in some cases, has proven successful. What look like microprofits to a studio can be extremely macro to an independent director.

The most unsettling thought, though – the real game-changer – is that the movie theater audience may have gone away for good. Said panelist Mark Gill, head of the independent production company the Film Department, “My son doesn’t care what format [a movie] comes in. He cares how fast he can get it and if it can come to where he is.”

That may be the hardest lesson to take in at the close of Sundance 2009: That everything learned in the past quarter-century means absolutely nothing going forward.

Indeed, such thoughts betoken a coming renaissance for independent filmmakers, who have long possessed the means of production (thanks to technologies such as the one you?re using to read this) but have often been stymied when seeking traditional theatrical distribution. Moreover, as studios continue to slash their ?indie? divisions, indie acquisitions will flat-line. Fortunately, the revolution can be downloaded. It bears repeating: ?You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.?