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Book Review: Zona by Geoff Dyer

Zona ukOne of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen is Stalker, which I wrote about here, calling it the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film. Not many people have seen this movie, but Geoff Dyer not only has seen it many times, but has written an entire book about it. Entitled Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), this book is the most fascinating critical approach to a work of art that I’ve ever read.

On the surface, this book is simply a commentary to the film. Dyer says, at one point in the book, that he had “intended breaking this little book into 142 sections [...] corresponding to the 142 shots of the film,” but it works better with his beer-in-a-pub approach, discussing the film as it goes on without any formal structure. I had the feeling, reading this book, that Dyer was sitting next to me, riffing on this movie that obsesses him so, and which I, too, have loved since I first saw it 30 years ago.

Zona us Dyer is, at times, very serious, quoting people like Žižek and Wenders, but is also very funny, as he shares his feelings about the movie. Stalker is – to sum up very briefly – the story of one man (the Stalker) leading two others (Professor and Writer) to a Room, where one’s innermost wish may be granted. The Zone was created either after a meteorite struck somewhere in “our small country,” or after an alien visit (which was the case in the original novel, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky).

Remember that number, 142? That’s the number of shots in the movie. At 156 minutes, that’s more than one minute per shot. Stalker is the movie of slowness, where the journey is far more important than the goal. And the journey through Dyer’s book is so entertaining, it’s nothing like one would expect from a tome discussing a classic art film.

Dyer brings this movie down to earth, if I can use that expression, sharing both his insights after seeing the movie many times, and his own personal experiences, such as doing LSD, wishing he could have a threesome, and traveling in many different countries (including one where he lost his knapsack).

This may sound self-indulgent, but with Dyer’s captivating voice, and his sardonic comments and footnotes, this book is hugely entertaining. You may not appreciate it if you haven’t seen Stalker, but, hey, this is a good chance to see one of the best science fiction films ever made. (And one that really doesn’t have much science fiction in it.)

Learn more about Stalker.

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The Problem with Content Channels on Set-Top Boxes and Smart TVs

Amazon yesterday released its Fire TV, a set-top box designed to stream Amazon Instant Video, along with other services. You can use it to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services. But you can’t use it to access the movies and TV shows you bought from the iTunes Store.

On Apple’s side, their Apple TV lets you access Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services, but not Amazon Instant Video. I have a smart TV; it’s smart enough to let me watch Netflix, but not Amazon Instant Video. I also have a Blu-ray player: a Cambridge Audio 651 BD, a high-end, multi-region, CD, DVD and Blu-ray player. This is an expensive device, but it’s designed for quality playback, and doesn’t come with apps for streaming services as cheaper Blu-ray players do.

So what’s a guy to do? I would like to watch Amazon Instant Video, which was recently introduced in the UK, where I live, but the only way I can currently do that is to either stream it from my Mac or iPad, using AirPlay, or get some kind of device that has this “channel.” I could buy Amazon’s Fire TV, but; oh, wait, it’s not available in the UK yet. I could buy a cheap Blu-ray player; that might actually cost less than Amazon’s Fire TV (when it’s released in the UK), but I would use it for nothing than than Amazon Instant Video, or maybe also use it for Netflix, instead of using my smart TV for that.

I understand that there’s a lot of competition among the different companies whose devices act as conduits for entertainment channels. But this is getting out of hand. If you want to watch a specific service — other than Netflix, which seems to be available on every device that connects to a TV — you may or may not be able to do it with your TV, Blu-ray player or other device. And things like smart TVs and Blu-Ray players rarely get updates with additional channels. So that Panasonic TV I bought last year, because it has a good picture, and was available at a good price, is well, a good TV, and not much more. If Amazon Instant Video had been available last year, I would more likely have looked for a TV that offered this service. But I’m not going to change TVs just to watch Amazon videos.

The sort of channels, or apps, that you get on smart TVs and set-top boxes should be available on all devices, if you so desire. All this fragmentation does — and, of course, this is the goal — is incite people to buy more devices. But we don’t need any more; our homes are full of devices that connect to TVs and computers. We need the One True Device that will allow us to access all these channels. Just as TVs can display all the channels available in a given area, these other devices should be able to do the same thing. They should be easily upgradable, so, when new services arrived, we can add them, in order to end this war between different companies.

The content providers would love this, of course. My guess is that some companies include specific channels, such as Netflix, because they know these channels are popular, but others content providers have to pay to be present on a set-top box or other device. Apple is, of course, one of the culprits, because they refuse to allow any non-Apple devices to display any of their content, whether it’s a video or e-books. (I only buy Kindle e-books because I can read them on just about any device with a screen.) One of the main reasons Apple pushed to drop DRM on music was because of anti-competition investigations in Europe, alleging that this DRM prevented interoperability. It’s time to do the same thing for content channels.

It’s in the interest of consumers that this tangled web of channels and apps becomes less of a headache. It’s in the interest of content providers that anyone with a device capable of playing this type of channel be able to do so. And, finally, it really is in the interest of companies selling devices that they allow as many channels as possible to be present. After all, wouldn’t Apple sell more Apple TVs if you can also watch Amazon Instant? Wouldn’t Amazon sell more of their Fire TV if you can also watch movies from the iTunes Store? We consumers are the losers in this game; it would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about which channels are available on all these different devices so we could buy just one and use it to watch what we want.

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CD and DVD Copying to Be Legal in the UK on June 1; Finally

As crazy as it sounds, it’s been illegal in the UK to rip CDs and DVDs. New copyright regulations which take effect on June 1, now make this legal:

Personal copies for private use

3. (1) After section 28A(4) insert——

“28B Personal copies for private use

(1) The making of a copy of a work, other than a computer program, by an individual does not infringe copyright in the work provided that the copy—

(a)is a copy of—
(i)the individual’s own copy of the work, or
(ii)a personal copy of the work made by the individual,
(b)is made for the individual’s private use, and
(c)is made for ends which are neither directly nor indirectly commercial.

[...]

(5) In subsection (1)(b) “private use” includes private use facilitated by the making of a copy—

(a)as a back up copy,
(b)for the purposes of format-shifting, or
(c)for the purposes of storage, including in an electronic storage area accessed by means of the internet or similar means which is accessible only by the individual (and the person responsible for the storage area).

Finally. I won’t be breaking the law when I rip my CDs and DVDs.

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How Much Space Do You Save by Downloading 720p Movies Instead of 1080p Movies?

I’d been wondering about this. My bandwidth is somewhat limited: I have a 50 GB per month limit on my satellite internet, and my DSL is only 2 Mbps. So I had switched iTunes to download 720p movies instead of 1080p. (You can do this in iTunes > Preferences > Store.)

But I saw today that the iTunes Store has the the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy in HD for only $30. I don’t have them on disc; I used to have the Blu-Rays, but gave them to my son.

I wanted to buy them, and was curious to see how much difference there is between the two different qualities. Here’s the 720p version:

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And here’s the 1080p version:

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A difference of 1.4 GB; or about 5% more to get the 1080p versions instead of the 720p versions. And that affects not only your download size, but also the amount of storage you need.

I used to recommend to people to get the 720p versions if they’re strapped for bandwidth or storage; now, it seems like it’s a moot point. I haven’t looked at a lot of movies, but started noticing this recently with other movies I’d bought or rented.

Update: I’ve found out why there is less of a difference. As Ars Technica explained two years ago – wow, it’s been that long? – Apple is using better H.264 compression, meaning that these videos are only compatible with the 2nd generation Apple TV, the iPhone 4, or iPad 2, or later. If you have an older device, you’ll need to grab SD versions. The Ars Technica article says that the 720p videos are compatible with older devices, but the Apple article I link to above says that HD videos are not compatible. I don’t have any older devices to check; of anyone does, feel free to post in the comments to say whether or not the 720p videos will sync.

I only remember noticing the difference in the past few months, but that’s probably because I have a bandwidth cap on my satellite internet; before, I didn’t care.

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Amazon Instant Video Comes to the UK; Amazon Inflates the Numbers

Amazon Instant Video is (finally) now available in the UK, and is free with an Amazon Prime membership. Initially £49 a year, this has just increased to £79 a year. I got a Prime membership in January, so I benefit from “free” streaming, and if I renew next year, I’ll pay the new price.

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Amazon has been promoting this for the past week, saying that one can “Enjoy unlimited streaming of more than 15,000 movies and TV episodes.”

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But when you look at the full catalog, the numbers are very different. There are currently only 2,269 movies, and 938 TV series. Granted, they’re counting every TV episode in the 15,000, but that number makes you think there’s a lot more content than there really is.

Also, if you don’t have kids, then your available content dwindles. About one-third of the TV series are for children, and one-fourth of the movies.

It looks like there’s some interesting content, but there’s far less than Netflix, and there’s much less variety. (Granted, most of what’s on Netflix is crap…) There’s also much less HD content; only 258 HD items are listed.

As long as it’s free with my Amazon Prime subscription, I’ll check it out. But given the limited content, I’ll need to see a lot of new movies and TV series there to get me to renew my Prime subscription next year. I got the Prime subscription because I wanted quick delivery of purchases; I’m happy to pay the £49 a year, but I doubt I’d want to pay £79 for that service. If they can’t split the two, then I’m unlikely to want to continue.

Update: As I’ve been browsing through the selection, I did find one classic movie that’s a must see: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, with Paul Muni. This 1932 film shows how a man is wrongly convicted for a robbery and ends up in a chain gang. It was a very important film in its time, having exposed the way prisoners were treated. Also, it has one of the best last lines in the history of cinema.

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The Committed Podcast Talks to Robyn Miller, Creator of Myst and Riven, and Director of The Immortal Augustus Gladstone

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01In the latest episode of The Committed podcast, we meet Robyn Miller.

Robyn has been creating stories for decades. After the wildly successful Myst and its sequel Riven, he set out to become a filmmaker. His first feature film, The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, has been released digitally.

Join me with Ian Schray and Rob Griffiths as we chat with Robyn about his experiences in the video game and film worlds in this week’s episode.

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, the Great Existentialist Science Fiction Film

It’d been years since I had seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent science fiction film, and I watched it last night. For a science fiction movie, Stalker is certainly an oddity. Released in 1979, loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and directed by Tarkovsky, the masterful Russian director who lived too short a life, it tells the tale of a part of Russia that has been visited by an odd event. It may have been a meteorite that fell, or it may have been an alien visitation. But the event created the Zone, a dangerous area which was cordoned off by the police, and where few could go.

A Stalker – a sort of guide who takes people through the traps in the Zone – meets up with two men who want to visit the Room, a place where wishes come true. One is a Professor, a man of reason, and the other a writer, a man of inspiration. The Stalker is a man of belief. Very little happens in the movie, which lasts more than 2 1/2 hours, except for their trip to the Room, and their discovery of what they want from it.

Stalker is science fiction only in its premise; there are no aliens, no magic, nothing that would be noticed as science fiction. It is a slow movie; very little happens, and some of the shots are several minutes long. It’s a science fiction movie as it would have been written by Samuel Beckett. Yet it’s a brilliant existential examination of the desires of men and women.



At first, the film begins in sepia-toned black-and-white, but once the three characters reach the Zone, the film changes to color. Just as Oz was in color, so was the Zone. The Zone is located outside an industrialized city, and is full of the detritus of modernity. Yet Tarkovsky films these banal, cast-off items with the plastic beauty that he showed in all his films. Some of the shots are breathtakingly haunting, yet there is nothing special in them.

In a prescient shot, near the end of the movie, the Stalker can be seen returning to his home with his wife and daughter, and, across the river, a nuclear power plant is seen. The Zone could be the area surrounding Chernobyl. There is no devastation, simply signs of nature taking over some human artefacts.

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List of Shakespeare Films on the iTunes Store

If you like Shakespeare, you may like to watch the many filmed adaptations of his plays. You may want to buy them, to add to your collection, or you may simply want to rent a movie of a Shakespeare play to watch one evening.

Here is a list of all the Shakespeare adaptations I could find on the iTunes Store. I started making this list for myself, but realized that others might find it useful. The links are to the US iTunes Store; other country stores may or may not have all of these films, and others countries may have films that are not on this list.

I’ve put the names of actors, and, in some cases, directors under each graphic. I’ve also put star ratings next to the ones that I’ve seen, and, in some cases, links to reviews on my website.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Antony and Cleopatra


Charlton Heston, Hildegard Neil, Eric Porter, 1972

As You Like It


★★★★ Brendan Hughes, Naomi Frederick, Laura Rogers, Dominic Rowan, Philip Bird, Jack Laskey, 2010 (Globe Theatre stage production)

The Comedy of Errors

Coriolanus


★★★★ Greard Butler, Ralph Fiennes, Harry Fenn, Jessica Chastain, Vanessa Redgrave, 2012

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