Brad Lichtenstein’s blog

Behind the scenes of What We Got: DJ Spooky’s Journey to the Commons

Posts Tagged ‘Indie Filmmaking

Almost Home Film in BROOKLYN!

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Almost Home aired back in 2006, but that was just the beginning…

We saw how the film spoke to so many people either afraid of dealing with aging issues, or overwhelmed with the care of their parents or a loved one.

We’ve been working all over the country to put the film to work — screening it with community audiences, then following up with discussion groups facilitated by local experts who can answer questions and point people to help right nearby.

The topics usually include caregiving, changing the negative culture built up around aging, and end of life.

Now, I made the film, so of course I think its great.  (But rest assured, a lot of people have said the same).  So come for the film, stay for the discussion, leave with a clearer sense of how you can deal with issues that aging may present to you in your life now, or down the road.

Saturday, March 13th

Park Slope United Methodist Church (6th avenue and 8th street)

7pm-10pm

For more info, directions, etc….

Sunday, March 14th

Union Temple (at Grand Army Plaza)

10am – 1pm (with some food served)

For more info, directions, etc….

Hope to see you there…..and please, spread the word.

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Written by Brad Lichtenstein

March 8, 2010 at 11:01 am

My presentation on Cultural Commons that I gave at the NAMAC conference

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Joaquin Alvarado touts public tv 2.0 at Namac.  He's the new Senior Vice President for Diversity and Innovation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joaquin Alvarado touts public tv 2.0 at Namac. He's the new Senior Vice President for Diversity and Innovation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

(thanks are due to Jay Walljasper for some kind edits and augmentations)

The commons describes a social practice that unleashes people’s capacity to create things together and take their lives and livelihood into their own hands. It is a social form that has long lived in the shadows of our market culture, but which is now on the rise.

But how does the commons relate to questions of culture and creativity, which we tend to think of as individualistic pursuits. What do we mean when we talk about cultural commons?  First, we mean something that we create together, whether we are talking about wikipedia, which participants research, write and manage together on-line, or ancient traditions forged and passed along by a particular group such as, say, the Hopi nation.    Secondly, we mean a way of creativity that embraces values like sharing, community and stewardship as opposed to privatization, enclosure and exploitation.

The founders of the United States embraced the ideas of the commons when it came to ideas.  They understood that the best fresh ideas are generated out of  previous ideas, and therefore should remain in the public domain (a cultural commons).  Indeed, copyright and patent law in the early days of the nation expressly aimed to move new cultural creations into the public domain as soon as possible.  Today’s long terms for copyright, (as much as 70 years beyond the life of the original creator) are a relatively new phenomenon.

It’s only very recently that the rise of intellectual property law has tipped the scales toward private ownership of every conceivable aspect of what we create, from breakthroughs in science and other academic fields to traditions in art and pop culture.  Today people are attempting to claim exclusive rights to spices, healing herbs or yoga poses that have been used for centuries. Compare that to Benjamin Franklin, one of the founders of the U.S. Patent Office, who  refused to patent the famous Franklin stove.  Why?  Because he said he was merely building on ideas of stoves that came before.

Novelist Jonathan Lethem documented how the free exchange of ideas works in art in an essay for Harper’s Magazine, “The Ecstasy of Influence” in which he traced patterns of borrowed influences through music (Delta bluesman Son House to Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters to British rock bands), animation (without Fritz the Cat, there would be no Ren & Stimpy Show), literature (Pyramus and Thisbe is the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which in turns was the the inspiration for West Side Story).  To prove his point about the mutually collaborative nature of new ideas (as opposed to “eureka” theory, in which ideas are concocted out of thin air), he strived to footnote the influence of every line of his essay.

The Scientific Commons

A great example of a cultural commons from the field of science is the Human Genome Project, a massive collective effort on the part of scientists around the globe to decode human genetics.  New information discovered in the project was shared for all to use and to improve upon in their own research. The project was competing with a private venture that sought to decode the genome, and then sell the data that was produced.  The private venture didn’t succeed, and thankfully so because the high cost of their data may have stymied many subsequent scientific and medical advances.

The Human Genome Project used a commons approach that was based on two assumptions: 1) genes are part of nature and thus belong to all of us;  and 2) that sharing and collaborating information would be more productive than privatizing it.

Busting Out of the Market Mindset

Many of us in the U.S. have grown up in a time that when market economics and privatized ownership were hailed as the formula for all progress, innovation, and prosperity.  Private wealth is worshipped, while our common wealth has been dismantled. If something is not owned by an individual, we are told, it will fall prey to misuse, disuse, or overuse—the tragedy of the commons. Many people today have lost sight of the common as both a practical way to share things valuable to all of us and as a cooperative model of how we can relate to one another as creators and users of culture.

Examples of thriving systems managed according to the principles of the commons, rather than the privatized market, exist all around the world today, from fisheries off the coast of Greece to forests in Tanzania and Indonesia, to the open source software movement.

But most of us have been taught that the commons began to fade away in 17th and 18th century England, when private landowners claimed and enclosed (literally with fences) land used by commoners to graze livestock.  Yet the commons endures to this day throughout the British countryside in form of legally-protected rights of way that entitle anyone to cross private property on tens of thousands of miles of paths throughout England, Scotland and Wales.  This is also true in the cultural realm, where we make imaginative journeys thanks to stories, songs, ideas, knowledge and research belonging to all of us.  It is not trespassing to take advantage of the creativity of Plato, Buddha, Leonardo daVinci, Shakespeare, Bach, Darwin, Florence Nightingale and many others.

Those fences of the 18th century England give us a powerful image and metaphor for the “enclosure” of culture going on today at an alarming pace. Here are a couple of examples.  Media companies want to slow down your access to websites that don’t pay a premium fee for their place on the internet,  a troubling violation of the commons principle of  net neutrality that will allow huge enterprises to dominate the flow of information.  Another is example is the Walt Disney Corporation, which has built its empire on appropriating and ultimately copyrighting material from the public domain—from The Little Mermaid and Robin Hood, all the way back to  Mickey’s first cartoon “Steamboat Willie,”  which was taken directly from Buster Keaton’s character Steamboat Bill. But try using an image of Mickey Mouse in your own work, and you’ll soon hear from the Mouse’s lawyers.

Creative Commons Licenses

No one wants to deny people the chance to make an honest living off their creative work. But the recent proliferation of copyright and intellectual property privileges means that many artists, scientists and other creators are denied access to material they need to do their most valuable work—an even graver threat to their livelihoods, and to the needs of society as a whole.  The Creative Commons license was created to address this dilemma, allowing sharing, remixing and reuse that is not possible within the more restrictive copyright framework, but still protecting creators’ opportunity to realize profits when their work is bought and sold.  I’m making a film called What We Got:  DJ Spooky’s Journey To the Commons to highlight all that we share, from air, water and land to our art, culture and discoveries.  I want to practice what I preach by sharing the movie we make online so that others can remix and repurpose it under the terms of a Creative Commons license.

Adapted from a presentation given at NAMAC

Day 4 of writing retreat

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Day 4 was fab.  Finally broke through the loss of the Fiji scene (I know, what’s the big deal?) and wrote all the way through Act 2.  I feel the argument of the film and the narrative are joining nicely.  This film won’t be for everyone, but frankly, who cares about that, now?  I think its going to be good, and I trust some others will, too.  I wrote Samir’s final speech, a unity of the natural commons and created commons, and the joy of a bright, somewhat unknown future guided by the commons-esque notion of a gift (a la Lewis Hyde).  Knowing more about the end informs the rest of the script.  I also feel I have a handle on the documentary/fiction blend within scenes.  The whole is something that needs to be examined more closely, but I’m not ready for that, yet.  I did figure out that a scene Jason wrote that takes place in a great commons – an AA meeting – is going to be near the end and in a way deal with Samir’s addiction to repeating old mistakes.  In the room are archetypes of all kinds of people representing “recovering” institutions that want to steer a new path in the bold “share economy” of the future and not be doomed to repeat past mistakes.  I know that sounds rather vague or silly or incomplete — so, you’ll just have to read it.  I’ll post a draft of the script in a month or so, once its been revised and a few trusted souls feel it is ready for your feedback.  Just an hour or so before I leave to rejoin my family “up north” (as they say here in Wisconsin).  My goal:  get the new outline up on the white board so that I can attack acts 3 and 4 next week.  Act 5 (the final act) is in pretty good shape.

I love my notecards and white board.

I love my notecards and white board.

Day 3 of writing retreat

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This was a frustrating day.  For a long time I thought that there was a delicious irony in Fiji exporting their boutique bottled product while a good portion of their own population wanted access to clean water.  For a long, long time that scene has been in the script.  But I realized that Fiji’s problem with access to clean water is not only, or even primarily, the result of privatization and export of their water supply.  It probably has more to do with bad government than anything else.  Thus, it doesn’t fit my needs at this point in the script.  What I need is a case in which water is privatized, resulting in restricted or no access for people.  I wanted an example of water being treated as a commodity rather than a commons, or basic right.  And examples abound.  But it took the entire day to come to terms with this change, and then to read and research the alternatives.  So, the train was stuck in the station for most of the day.  As I sat, frustrated, I found Fiji’s PR person and follwed him on Twitter.  His name is Rob Six, and his Twitter handle is @RobSix.  Follow him.  He seems like a good guy, if a little enthusiastic about bottled water — which is still a global problem, by the way.  More later…..photo

Day 2 of writing retreat

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I returned to the studio on Tuesday after a break on Monday for obligations like screening scenes for the Hmong film my students are making and a quick shoot in Janesville for a new film. It was a very good day. I finished structuring with notecards, moving on if there was a gap that I couldn’t solve at this level. Then I dove into the rearranging and writing on Act 1. Jason’s script v.4 spent 26 pages in mostly live-action with actors until the crazy DJ Spooky effects start to whisk Samir off into a tumble of a magical journey to discover “the commons.” My focus was to reduce that amount of live action drastically both to avoid too much of the directing of actors, something I’ve barely ever done, and to get on with the journey as quickly as possible. Now the journey more or less starts on page 15. I’ll be able to reduce that even more on a second pass. I’ve also decided that the journey progresses from almost normal but strange to really wacky. In that light, I’m working on a scene in which Samir is on a plane to Fiji (where there is a bottled water documentary scene). While flying, a Michael Crichton book “talks” to Samir about the privatization of genetic material. Crichton was a critic of such privatization, and his last published book, Next, is about the issue (in part). Anyway, I’m on to day 3, now. Fun, fun, fun……

And, because these things matter: I FINALLY got a male/male mini-stereo cable so that my super sweet Audio-Technics no-noise headphones will work. My last cable was cutting in and out.

Good headphones make for good work

Good headphones make for good work

Day 1 of Writing Retreat

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I’ve broken Jason’s script into its component scenes and put the scenes on notecards.  I’ve taped them to a white board to try to see the script’s structure.

I’m feeling thankful for the creation of Samir (protagonist) and his invention, a way to cross match an individual’s DNA with the Human Genome Project’s DNA databank and use the information to concoct microbrew treatments for diseases too small for mass market treatments and cures.

There are some strong scenes, like Ben Franklin telling him he doesn’t have to patent everything, or Mickey Mouse encouraging him to infringe. (Really, Mickey should tell him to “open it up”).

But the central issue for me is that the argument of the film — that there is such a thing as commons and that we need to protect them — does not come through.

We’ve all been keenly aware of the difficult nature of this project.  We’re dealing with a concept and it’s hard to make a story out of a concept.

I think I have a solution:  a three stage argument regarding Samir’s invention that would, if patented, privatize DNA.  First, DNA is a natural commons and can’t be privatized any more than anyone has the right to privatize the sky or our water.   Second, what we know about DNA we know because of the publicly-funded open source Human Genome Project — a created commons.  Third, and finally, there is an alternative to enclosing DNA by making the invention intellectual property.  The more innovative, 21st century way is a commons-based approach in which the invention is open-sourced,  shared, and improved as a result.  Still, Samir can make money by supporting the invention — like Linux and countless other open-source solutions.

That’s where I’m at…..

Here is What We Got in the form of notecards on a wall - the structure, scene by scene.  Yellow is live action.  Blue is documentary.  Green is animation or effect.

Here is What We Got in the form of notecards on a wall - the structure, scene by scene. Yellow is live action. Blue is documentary. Green is animation or effect.

Science Commons – check this video

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If creativity wants to be freer than copyright allows, science wants to be freer than patents allow.  Check this video and let me know your thoughts.  Science Commons!

[blip.tv ?posts_id=1326014&dest=-1]