Thursday, July 27, 2006

User Generated Content

Well, today I am feeling no better than I have been. The weather has turned hot and muggy again. Worse yet, I still feel like my life has become a Queensryche album. Either that or I have become Thomas Veil from the TV show Nowhere Man. Or maybe Pip from Great Expectations. At any rate, I am not happy. But enough about me. On with the show.

Among the buzzwords one hears these days about the World Wide Web is the term "user generated content." The term essentially refers to any content that is produced by users of websites rather than the mass media (television networks, movie studios, magazines, et. al.). The term is rather all encompassing, as it can be used of virtually any content generated by web users, everything from blogs to online auction sites. Regardless, user generated content became big news in 2005. Newsweek, The New York Times, the BBC, and several other media outlets have done stories on the phenomenon. Of course, like so many things on the Web that the media are just now discovering, user generated content is nothing new.

Indeed, it has been many, many years that most ISPs have offered their customers free web space for their own web site. I have had my own web site since 1998! Even if one's ISP didn't offer free web space, one could set up his or her own web site on GeoCities (which has been around since 1995), Tripod (which has been around in some form or another since 1992), or one of the other free webhosting services. eBay was founded in 1995, introducing the concept of the online auction, in which users could place items up for bid on the eBay website. Of course, the ultimate example of user generated content may well be blogging. Blogs have been around since 1994, although their popularity was greatly enhanced in 1999 with the creation of Blogger, Diaryland, and other blogging services.

That having been said, it does seem as if websites dedicated to user generated content have taken greatly increased in the past three years. Perhaps the most popular of these new user generated content sites is MySpace. MySpace is technically a social networking website, not exactly what comes to mind when I think of "user generated content." But then MySpace is not quite like any social networking websites that came before it. MySpace offers the user profiles that one would expect of a social networking website, but it also offers blogs, photo sharing, groups (sort of clubs for MySpace users), and even its own internal email system. Essentially, MySpace is a combination of blogging services like LiveJournal, photo hosts like Flickr, and social networking websites like Friendster. It also allows the user to customise his or her MySpace profile in ways that one never could his or her LiveJournal. That might explain its popularity. Founded in 2003, it has become the fourth most popular website in English. Of course, MySpace has seen a good deal of controversy in its short lifespan. There was a case in which a student set up a MySpace account claiming to be the principal of his school. And there have been the widely publicised cases of sexual predators using MySpace to find young victims. As a result MySpace has beefed up its security of late, particularly with regards to those under 18.

Another up and coming website that depends upon user generated content is Flickr, founded in 2002. While there were photo sharing websites prior to Flickr, there had been none that allowed users to so easily organise their photos. The degree of organisation found in Flickr is also reflected in the ability of users to apply tags (a keyword or term which helps identify an item). The user's ability to organise his or her photos is greatly aided by Organizr, a web application which greatly eases the user's abilities to organise photos into sets (groups of pictures that fall under the same heading), modify descriptions, modify tags and so on. The end result of all this is that Flickr permits users to find photos related to any given subject much easier than they ever could before. Besides making organising photos easier, Flickr also allows its users to control the access to their photos. Photos can be private (that is, they are only viewable by one's friends and relatives) or they can be public (accessible by anyone). One of the social networking aspects of Flickr is that users can joing groups dedicated to specific sorts of photos (say, photos from sci-fi conventions, for example). Quite simply, users can add their photos to the group's pool of pictures and even limit access to those photos to members of that group alone. In many respects, Flickr is as much an online community as it is a photo sharing website.

Given that photo sharing websites have long been a part of the web, it was probably only a matter of time before a video sharing website would arise. YouTube was founded in 2005. YouTube allows users to upload, view, and share videos. YouTube uses Adobe Flash for the format of its videos. This allows for content on YouTube to be easily embedded on blogs and other websites through a video feed. Like many of the newer user generated content website, YouTube has some aspects of social networking websites. Each user has his or her own profile though which other users can communicate with him or her through an internal email system. As might be expected, the profiles also include a list of videos the user has uploaded to YouTube. Another social networking aspect of YouTube is that users can leave comments on any given video. Like MySpace, YouTube has seen its share of controversy. While QuickTime has long been a favoured format for video on the web, QuickTime videos do not adapt well to YouTube, ending up with poor synchronisation. I might also add that, in my humble opinion, when compared to such technologies as Quicktime and RealAudio, Adobe Flash loads much, much too slow. A much greater source of controversy as been the uploading of copyrighted material to YouTube. While YouTube has restricted this from the beginning, users have done so anyway. This has resulted in companies from Turner Media to Sunrise (the anime company responsible for such classics as Cowboy Bebop and Witch Hunter Robin) having to ask that certain copyright protected material be removed from YouTube.

The current trend towards user generated content has even resulted in a website that allows users to post their own content for cellphones (ringtones, wallpaper, and music). myNuMo is brand new, just having come out of beta. Its format is similar to that of Flickr and YouTube. Each user has his or her own profile (although they are much simpler than those on Flickr and YouTube) showing what ringtones, wallpaper, and music they have created. myNuMo differs from both Flickr and YouTube in that users cannot comment on ringtones or wallpapers, although they can rate them from 1 to 10. Being relatively new, it is difficult to tell how popular myNuMo will become, but if the success of Flickr and YouTube is any indication, it might prove very popular.

Even the traditional media have embrassed user generated content to some degree. The magazine Entertainment Weekly allows users to comment on the movie and television reviews on their sites; essentially they can review the reviews. Channel 4 in England has a service called 4Docs, through which users can upload their homegrown documentaries. Of course, Yahoo snatched up Flickr and added it to its myriad services.

Of course the ultimate queston is precisely how signifcant user generated content really is. Often times the idea of user generated content brings to mind Sturgeon's Law (the adage coined by sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon): "Ninety percent of everything is crud." I have yet to find a blog on MySpace worth reading. And the only video on YouTube I have watched (even though took forever to load...) has been the promotional film that introduced Batgirl from the Sixties Batman TV show to ABC executives. While I have found very little worthwhile material on the new generation of user generated websites, however, I must say that I am over all in favour of user generated content. True, ninety percent of it may be crud, but then there will always be that ten percent that is actually interesting. Indeed, since I have started using Blogger there have been those blogs I keep finding myself returning to.

While I am in favour of user generated content, I must also say that it must be closely supervised. MySpace and YouTube have both learned this the hard way. In the past the service has been plagued by students setting up false teacher/faculty profiles, sexual predators surfing the website for victims, and even plans for a Columbine style attack posted to the website by a few Kansas teenagers. It seriously makes me wonder if MySpace should not raise the minimum age for usage of the site to 18. While YouTube's problems don't seem to me to have be nearly as severe, they have had a problem with copyright protected material being uploaded to the website. Moreso than any other part of the web, it seems to me that user generated content requires greater security and more supervision of what is being posted to websites.

If I sound at times overly critical of some user generated websites, I must point out that I have used them in the past. Like any long time web user I have used Geocities and eBay. Of the recent user generated websites I have used Flickr to share photos with my friends and family (all of my pictures are marked as private). I do have a MySpace profile, but I use it to primarily promote both my writing and my blog (being fairly private, I am not interested in social networking...). I do then have some experience in creating my own user generated content.

At any rate, if the current boom in user generated content is not a fad, it looks as if it could be more common in times to come than it has been in the past. In fact, the time may come when MySpace outdistances both Yahoo and Google. Whether this is ultimatlely a good or bad thing I think only time will tell.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Robert Cornthwaite Passes On

It seems as if this month of July has been one for celebrity deaths. The latest celebrity to die is veteran character actor Robert Cornthwaite. Cornthwaithe is perhaps best remembered by audiences as scientist Dr. Carrington in the original version of The Thing. He died of natural causes at the age of 89 on July 20.

Cornthwaite was born in St. Helens, Oregon on April 28, 1917. He became interested in acting as a teenager. At Reed College in St. Helens he made his first appearance on stage in a production of Twelfth Night. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps.

After the war Cornthwaite resumed his acting career. He made his film debut in 1950 in an uncredited role in the movie Union Station. Ironically, his first major role would also possibly be his most famous. In 1951 he appeared as Dr. Carrington in The Thing. Cornthwaite most often played the role of the learned professional, most often scientists, physicians, and lawyers. In 1952 he appeared as Dr. Zoldeck in the classic comedy Monkey Business. He also played Dr. Pryor in the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. He also appeared in the films Colossus: the Forbin Project, Futureworld, and Matinee. His last appearance on film was in the low budget comedy The Naked Monster as, fittingly enough, Dr. Carrington.

As the Fifties progressed, Cornthwaite started appearing more and more often in television. In fact, he is perhaps one of the most seen faces on television. Making his television debut in 1953 on Cavalcade of America, he would continue to work in television as late as 1996 (in an episode of The Pretender). With a television career as long and prolific as his, Cornthwaite appeared on several classic shows. Among the shows he made guest appearaces on were Studio 57, Disneyland, The Rifleman, Maverick, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Thriller, The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, The Monkees, Ellery Queen, Beauty and the Beast, and Cheers. He was a regular on the TV series The Adventures of Jim Bowie and Picket Fences. In all Cornthwaite appeared in over 250 movies and TV shows.

I always liked Robert Cornthwaite. With his silver mane (he went grey while still young) and aristocratic mien he was perhaps the ideal actor to play scientists and physicians. What is more, his talent was not limited to those sorts of roles. During his career, Cornthwaite played in everything from comedies to Westerns. He even played the chief henchman to the villainous Archer (played by Art Carney) on the Sixties comedy Batman! Quite simply, Robert Cornthwaite was literally one of a dying breed, a talented character actor with the versatility to play a large number of different roles.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Action Movies of the Late Eighties and Early Nineties

In the very late Eigthies a new cycle of motion pictures emerged, led by the likes of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. These action movies generally featured law enforcemnt officers (police officers, FBI agents, Federal Marshals, Texas Rangers) as the protagonists or, at least, very well trained amateurs (such as Steven Seagall's cook in Under Siege) in those roles. The plots were often larger than life, featuring over the top stunts, plenty of action, and plenty of violence to boot. Although this was not always the case, in many cases they also featured some sort of gimmick (terrorists taking over a skyscraper in Die Hard is a perfect example).

To a degree these sort of movies were nothing new. The late Sixties saw the emergence of a new sort of police drama, with over the top action and a fair level of violence. Thge first of this sort of film may well have been Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen and released in 1968. The movie centred on Lt. Frank Bullitt, a no nonsense police officer who must find the man who killed a witness in his charge. Among other things, it featured what may be the greatest car chase in the history of film. Bullitt was very influential, so much so that other films of its type were soon released. The most notable of these is probably Dirty Harry, released in 1971. Dirty Harry starred Clint Eastwood as Inspector Harry Callahan, a San Francisco cop who would just as soon shoot criminals as arrest them and who almost never went by the rules. The movie went well over the top, with more violence than was even in Bullitt. In the end it would produce a number of sequels, perhaps more than any other police franchise. Between Bullitt and Dirty Harry, the Seventies saw a wave of police action movies, including such classics as The French Connection and Serpico. Eventually it seemed as if every actor in Hollywood had played a hard nosed cop. Even an aging John Wayne, well beyond the age of retirement for most police departments, played one twice!

By the early Eighties the number of these police action movies had dwindled to only a few a year. Released in 1982, 48 Hours had the unique take of teaming a police officer with a convict. The film was very successful, but did not create a rush towards similar films. Beverly Hills Cop, released in 1984, was a comedic take on police action films. It too was extremely successful, but it failed to generate a rush towards police action films as well. All of this would change in 1987 when several police action movies would come out of nowhere. One of these was Extreme Prejudice, directed by Walter Hill. The film focused on a Texas Ranger at odds with a drug lord. The film did well neither with critics nor audiences. Stakeout was a good more successful, featuring yet another pair of buddy cops on, as might be expected a stakeout. Beverly Hills Cop 2 also came out that year. It actually did as well as the original, but was nowhere near as good. Of the police action movies of 1987 it would be Lethal Weapon that would make the most noise.

In some respects Lethal Weapon was nothing new. There had been buddy cop movies done well before its release. Even its spectacular stunts were old hat to some degree. But Lethal Weapon took the unique course of teaming a reasonable, sane police officer (played by Danny Glover) with an officer who made Dirty Harry look positively sane (played by Mel Gibson, I suspect beating culprits black and blue was nothing unusual for him...). The formula worked and the movie was a resounding success. It would not only produce a number of sequels (three in all--sadly, only the first was any good), but a number of imitators as well. It was in part responsible for starting the cycle towards police action movies that lasted well into the Nineties.

The other film responsible for that cycle would be released the next year. Die Hard was something which had never been seen before on the screen. In the movie terrorists take over a brand new skyscraper. Unfortunately for them, a New York police officer (played by Bruce Willis) happened to be in the building when they siezed it. The movie then becomes a battle of wits between the heoric cop and the villains. In addition to a totally original premise, the movie featured one of the most memorable screen villains of the Eighties, Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman--now best known as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies). Die Hard proved extremely successful. Not only did it produce two sequels, but arguably it created a whole new subgenre of action films in which a lone hero must battle villains who have siezed a confined space. Under Siege, Sudden Death, Passenger 57, and several other subsequent action films owe their existence to Die Hard.

The success of both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard led to a remarkably large number of action movies which featured both officers of the law and sometimes talented amateurs fighting crime in films with spectacular stunts and a good deal of violence. Sadly, most of these films were fairly unremarkable and largely depended upon some gimmick more than realistic characters or a good plot. Next of Kin, released in 1989, featured a Chicago cop who is aided by his hillbilly brother in avenging another brother who was murdered by the mob. The concept had possiblities, but it was very poorly executed. Trespass, released in 1992, pitted two corrupt firemen, who wanted to loot an abandoned building, against the mob. The action is routine and, worse yet, there really isn't anyone to root for in the film (the firemen are about as appealing as the mobsters). Sometimes the plots of the films were just plain ludicrous. Point Break centred on a young FBI agent who goes undercover to nab a group of bank robbing surfers (perhaps I should not point out that two of the aforementioned films starred Patrick Swayze...).

This is not to say that some good films did not emerge from this cycle of police action/amatuer crimefighter films. Although many of Steven Seagal's films are virtually unwatchable in my humble opinion, I must admit that I really liked Under Siege. Okay, it is essentially Die Hard on a battleship (the U.S.S. Missouri, nonetheless). Okay, Seagal still cannot act. Okay, it is a bit predictable. But there is plenty of action and the plot features some interesting twists. What is more, it doesn't feature quite so many gaps in believability as other Die Hard imitators. I must also admit to having always liked The Last Boy Scout. For one thing, it is a buddy cop movie without the cops. Bruce Willis plays a cyical, down on his luck private eye, while Damon Wayans plays a former, faded NFL quarterback. The chemistry between the two is fairly good (and neither of them is crazy, so the film is hardly a Lethal Weapon imitation...). The film also features some of the best dialogue of any films in its genre, not to mention some spectacular action scenes.

Now I certainly would not say that either Under Siege or The Last Boy Scout are classics, but they are enjoyable popcorn movies that are better than many of the films in their genre. If a classic emerged from the late Eighties, early Nineties police action films, it was one that came about rather late in the cycle. Speed was released in 1994 and had a premise as original as that found in Die Hard. Quite simply, an archvillain (played marvelously by Dennis Hopper) has placed a bomb aboard a bus that will go off if the vehicle goes over 50 miles per hour. It is then up to a LAPD cop (played by Keanu Reeves) to save the day. The film featured some great performances from the aformentioned Dennis Hopper and, as the understandably stressed bus driver, Sandra Bullock. As to action, Speed is essentilally one long action sequence. It is rarely that something is not happening. What is more, despite its premise, the film never stretches the bounds of believability.

It is worth noting that this cycle did create its fair share of stars. Bruce Willis had seen success with cult TV series Moonlighting, but it was arguably films like Die Hard and The Last Boy Scout which turned him into a movie star. Although the Mad Max movies had made Mel Gibson a star, it was arguably Lethal Weapon that secured him film immortality. And while the cycle made many actors stars (or at least bigger stars than they had been), it was the primary means of support for some actors. Neither Steven Seagal nor Jean Claude Van Damme have really had a career since the cycle ended.

The police action/amateur crimefighter action movies of the late Eighties and early Nineties peaked in the years of 1989 and 1990, when more films of those types were released than most other years. It was perhaps a sign that the cycle was coming towards its end when, in 1993, a parody was released. National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 really is not a particulary good movie, but it did serve as a sign of the times. Any time a genre has been done as much as the police action/talented amateur films of the late Eighties/early Nineties had been, that genre is often seen as ripe for parody. And when that time comes, it usually means the cycle had grown worn and tired, and is more than ready for retirement. The following years would still see several more films of this type released. The cycle was still ongoing as late as 1995, when Broken Arrow (another good film of this type, directed by the master John Woo) and Die Hard With a Vengeance were released. But the cycle gradually faded away, to be replaced by big budget, special effects bonanzas (such as Independence Day) and, still later, superhero movies. Given the continued popularity of the Dirty Harry movies, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard, I rather suspect the genre will return to the big screen soon.