Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Natural History Museum reopens at college named for William Jennings Bryan

Somehow unnoticed by America's late-night comics was the "grand reopening" on November 3 of the Henning Museum.

A "natural history" museum.

At an evangelical college named for William Jennings Bryan.

In Dayton, Tennessee, less than a mile from the site of the infamous "Scopes Monkey Trial."

Yes, Dayton has a Bryan College, inspired if not quite founded by the "Boy Orator of the Platte." I doubt there's a Clarence Darrow Law School on the other side of town, though. We Southerners never build monuments to people on the right side of history. We're stubborn that way.

One corner of the reopened Henning Museum, dedicated to current faculty research, features a photo of old man Bryan, who more than eighty years after his death still provides the museum's guiding philosophy: The Bible, now and forever. So, gentle reader, would it surprise you to learn that this particular "natural history museum" doesn't teach natural history at all? Instead, it serves up a steaming pile of young-earth creationism, which contends that the earth is only about ten thousand years old. Heck, some creationists don't even believe that -- probably because the age of the earth (4.5 billion years) is neither a theory, nor a hypothesis, but unvarnished scientific fact.

Other museums in the country promoting young-earth creationism include the Museum of Earth History in Eureka Springs, Arkansas (at least they don't claim it's "natural history"), and the Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. There's an old-school roadside attraction in Pensacola, Florida (which the county recently shut down amid charges of tax fraud and unsecured building-use permits), and a rather attractive museum in Santee CA which is undergoing no legal trouble at all. But most creation "museums" are situated in barns, churches, garages and storefronts. They tend to be run by evangelical eccentrics, who often assemble their amateurish exhibits out of garage-sale clutter.

And they are about to experience some real competition. Next year, a slick 50,000 square foot "Creation Museum" is slated to open just outside Cincinnati, Ohio -- where I suppose it will vie with the nearby National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for the title of "America's Worst Museum." (Alas, nobody cares enough about "old-earth creationism" to build a museum in its honor. "Old-earthers" -- who believe that our planet is no younger than science proves it is -- are something of a fig leaf in the creationist movement, covering the naked ignorance of their inerrantist brethren.)

Creationists have every right to waste their time and their money building phony museums to tout their screwball agendas. And the rest of us have every right to laugh at them. But don't forget that some people seriously believe this stuff -- and at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, they even try to pass it off as science.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

E-tailing the Movies

The more I think about Chris Hansen's Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, the more I think this is the sort of movie that film festivals were made to promote. If the Virginia Film Festival offered an audience award, or award of merit, I'd be rooting for this particular film. Last year, the festival tried to do somthing like that, by screening six undistributed films and offering a cash prize and a New York-area playdate to the winner. It didn't seem to do much good: One of those films has gone straight to DVD, another (which made my ten-best list for 2005) has received an extremely limited distribution deal, and to my best knowledge the others -- including the festival winner -- continue to wander the festival circuit.

What to do, then, with these cinematic orphans?

Leave it to God -- a.k.a. Morgan Freeman -- to offer a possible answer: His latest movie, 10 Items or Less, is an eighty-minute, two-character comedy shot on digital video for less than a million dollars. It will be released in a few arthouse theaters on December 1, like many films of its ilk. But in two weeks the film will be available online via Clickstar, an entertainment website co-founded by Freeman's production company and the Intel corporation dedicated to creating downloadable content for individual home consumption.

So far, so good: Anything that draws larger audiences to smaller films -- and, by extension, away from blockbuster multiplex fare -- will probably be good for the cinema as a whole. But the current distribution system is a finely tuned marketing machine, graudally developed over several decades, and experiments to change that basic system have almost always failed. The first Left Behind movie attempted to whet Christian filmgoers' appetites by offering a DVD prior to the theatrical release -- a bad idea, since the DVD sold so well that theaters stayed empty. (The producers took the not-so-subtle hint, bypassing any theatrical release for the Left Behind sequels.) More secular projects have fared even worse, of course. Steven Soderbergh's neorealist trifle Bubble has gained an undeserved reputation as one of the more notorious debacles of the information age. The film itself is excellent, but a "day-and-date" release strategy meant that it hit theaters, television and DVD more or less simultaneously. The "Bubble" burst far more rapidly than anyone expected, perhaps because filmgoers weren't especially interested in a grim, slice-of-life drama about Midwestern factory workers, and didn't care to see this film regardless of where or how it was presented.

10 Items or Less may avoid this fate to some degree: Most reviews consider the film charming if slight, and Morgan Freeman's name has serious marquee value for the arthouse crowd. Considering the modest production cost, it's difficult to imagine this film not making a profit -- until one factors the Internet into the equation. The Internet has a way of turning even well-trafficked sites into charity cases; with so much free video content, and so much of that content high-quality, it's difficult for Web users to justify forking over their hard-earned cash for online movies. Unless, that is, we're talking about something like "Raw Naked Sluts III."

I don't think Clickstar's original content is necessarily the way to go for an Internet video-on-demand service: Their content is expensive to produce, but more than that, their organization is much too centralized. The great success stories of the Internet haven't been sites where a small group of people control content -- they've been sites like YouTube, Blogger and Ebay, where users upload and download the material they choose. It would seem that ultra-independent filmmakers, the ones without access to distributors or theaters, could do something similar for their work: They could create a website where they can upload their feature films, and have other users download them for a flat fee (with the site receiving a small percentage of the take). Add a little viral marketing, and voila! After a few thousand web downloads, a semi-professional movie made for, say, $30,000 could actually see a healthy return on its production costs.

Of course, hugely profitable films would be relatively rare, and the site's success would ultimately depend on the luck, business savvy and perseverance of the filmmakers involved. Still, internet distribution could offer a real alternative to the standard procedures for film and DVD, one with fewer middlemen and perhaps greater opportunities. Most importantly, a website would provide yet another link (with a minimum of mediation) between people who make small, interesting films and those of us who would like to see their work.

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