Thursday, May 10, 2012

Finding the perfect video on YouTube

The quest to find the perfect video to accompany your story.

There was a short period of time in the late '90s when a few small groups of people had an idea for the future of cinema.  With ever-advancing computer technology, the advent of digital moviemaking, and this newfangled internet thingy that had only recently risen to prominence, they thought the future of cinema was 360º photography - videocameras with lenses that could capture data from a complete 360º, leaving the viewer to decide what to watch, and when, by controlling the framing from a computer while the movie unfolded.

This was a very stupid idea.  I remember downloading a 360º movie from either or -- two pioneering websites for independent short film distribution, neither of which exists anymore -- and confirming what I'd already expected: this was not a good way to watch a movie.  The camera just sits immersed in a scene, completely static, while things happen all around it.  And somehow you, as the audience member, are supposed to know where the interesting thing is taking place.  It was difficult to control and, in those days of ultraslow internet, took way too long to download.

Filmmakers are always looking for a way to draw the audience into a story, and get them to engage with what they're seeing.  This was not the way to do it.

But every good technology has its place.  For example, Google uses 360º cameras for their Street View app.  But the first time I ever saw a smart use of a 360º camera was back in 2001, when Three Rivers Stadium was imploded.  Now there's a situation where having the option to look in any direction at any time is going to be useful and interesting.

When I was writing about the Three Rivers Stadium implosion, the first video I thought to include with it was the 360º camera as covered by the local news at the time.  But since I was writing from a very specific first-person perspective, I figured it made more sense to use a video from outside the stadium - the way everybody saw it happen.

There was plenty of video to choose from on YouTube.  Every news channel, of course, had an aerial view of the implosion.  There were also long views.  Here's a really good angle from Station Square with absolutely no interference.

But most of the footage you find of the implosion is from far away, and either slightly or greatly elevated.  I got it in my head that I should really find video with the on-the-ground perspective that I was writing from.  Video from right there in Point State Park would be ideal.  That's where most people, including myself, were standing when it happened.  And I'm told (though I strongly question) that 20,000 people were there that day.  There ought to be a ton of video from Point State Park.

Nope.  I ran search after search after search on YouTube, trying all sorts of word combinations to find a video that someone shot from the ground, inside the crowd, at Point State Park.  There was a pretty good in-the-crowd angle that I found easily, but it was shot from the North Shore, the complete opposite position from where I was that day.

Then there were these dipshits, really doing a great job of representing Pittsburgh to the rest of the world:

Yeah, thanks, guys.  Confirming every negative stereotype of Pittsburgh that the outside world has.  *sigh*  I'd like to think that's not what my friends and I were like back in college; but if I saw some vintage video of us, who knows?  I might be disappointed.

It took a very long time and a lot of YouTube searching, but I finally found exactly the video I was looking for.  It was at ground level, from Point State Park, had a clear view of the proceedings, wasn't too shaky, and even did a little bit of panning over the crowd.  It was perfect!  Given the fact that I didn't shoot any video myself that day, I couldn't have asked for anything better.  So that's the video I included with my story.

And, as of the moment I'm writing this, this video has less than 100 views?!  Come on, people!  This is the single best look at the Three Rivers implosion.  Let's get that view count up!

(20,000 people witnessed the stadium implosion, and this is the only video from Point State Park?  I really question that number.)

A very special thanks to cocotut23, whoever you are, for providing this excellent video.  It really made my story complete.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Facts of the Three Rivers Implosion

It's so easy to look up information these days.  Yesterday, I recounted my first-person perspective of the demolition of Three Rivers Stadium.  Today, after looking up some facts of the event, it seems memory isn't the most reliable historical record.

For one thing, history records that the stadium implosion happened at 8:03 AM.  That seems WAY too late.  My memory had it happening not too long after dawn.  If the stadium didn't come down until 8:03, then I must have been awake for a long time.  Pretty close to 24 hours, especially after I'd taken the time to eat breakfast before going to bed.  Wouldn't be the only time in college I was awake for over 24 consecutive hours, but it's still rare enough to comment on.

They say it was 21 degrees Fahrenheit that morning.  That sounds about right.  Score one for Joe.  And the exact date was February 11, 2001, so I'd narrowed it down pretty close.

Now, according to Wikipedia, over 20,000 people viewed the implosion from Point State Park.  I do not believe this.  Can someone check those numbers?  I think you may have meant to say 2000, and even that is pushing it.  Dude.  There could not have been 20,000 people in the park.  I'll never believe that.  I don't think there's enough landspace for 20,000 people to fit in Point State Park.  That place is small!  And there are things inside the park that take up additional space, like a big ol' fountain that I doubt people were allowed to stand inside of that morning.

Here's the thing: I don't remember being squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-back with strangers that morning.  I remember having space to move around.  If you say the implosion happened at 8 AM, fine.  That seems late to me, but fine, that's what happened.  But there were not 20,000 people standing in that park with me.  No way.

Show me 20,000 people fitting in there.

Here's a fun fact: apparently Cincinnati had a ballpark called Riverfront Stadium, which not only shares two thirds of its name with Three Rivers Stadium, but also happened to look exactly the goddamn same, and also happened to be imploded less than two years after Three Rivers.  In fact, if one were to search YouTube for footage of Three Rivers Stadium being imploded, YouTube might return a few results from Riverfront Stadium, and one might think he or she were watching the Three Rivers implosion when, in fact, one happens to be watching the Riverfront implosion.  I'm not saying that happened to me.  I'm just saying it's possible that it could happen to you.  But definitely not to me.

(According to Wikipedia, Three Rivers was one of many stadiums built in the '60s and '70s that all basically followed the same design.  They were known as "cookie-cutter ballparks" because of this.  So I'm going to let myself off the hook with the whole Cincinnati thing.)

Speaking of watching footage of the implosion, here's another fun fact: I was a film major in college!  Remember when I mentioned that yesterday?  So obviously I saw the implosion for what it was - a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to utilize my training, take advantage of the professional-grade equipment at my disposal, and create a one-of-a-kind record of a historical event.  So I bought a roll of 16mm Kodak film especially for the event, signed a Frezzolini out of the equipment office, and took the most beautiful footage that my family and friends have been enjoying ever since.

Hm?  What's that?  Oh, I didn't do any of those things?  No kidding.  Didn't even plan on showing up to witness the implosion in the first place?  Gotcha.  Take that, posterity!

But you know if the iPhone had existed at the time, I would've been all over that.

Thankfully, many people had the forethought to shoot some video that day.  And it's all up on YouTube, from just about every possible angle... even from Cincinnati!  I've combed through every clip I could find, and the one below (the same as yesterday's) is the closest to the way I saw it.  In fact, this person must have been standing very close to me.  Who knows, maybe I'm actually visibile when he pans over the crowd.

And speaking of him panning over the crowd... take a careful look.  Does that look like 20,000 people to you?

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Day They Brought Three Rivers Down

Paul was my best friend during college, and remains so ten years later now, even though I don't get to see him nearly enough these days.  He's the one who discovered Point Park College in the first place, and attended it for a year himself before convincing me to transfer there, which I did at the beginning of my sophomore year.  Paul and I were both night owls, and spent many, many long nights at his off-campus apartment watching countless movies, playing countless hours of video games, and drinking countless liters of Bacardi.  We'd get into endless conversations, often about movies (we were both film majors), but really just about life in general.  Politics, religion, philosophy; the kind of things college students talk about that make them feel really deep and intelligent.  (Which we were, of course.)

Toward the end of 2000 -- right in the middle of my college experience -- Pittsburgh was abuzz with the impending demolition of Three Rivers Stadium.  I had only been inside the stadium a couple of times in my life; but the Steelers had always been my family's team, so I felt a connection with the place.  And, though I hadn't planned it this way, my choice of college placed me just across the river from the stadium. It was a very short walk from campus to Point State Park, where the stadium was always in clear view.

So as the calendar flipped to 2001, and January gave way to February, everyone at PPC was discussing their plans for watching the implosion of Three Rivers.  We Point Park students had every advantage; we were the only people who actually resided in downtown Pittsburgh (aside from what I believe was a halfway house, but never mind that).  For us, it was just a short walk up the street -- three, four blocks -- and then right back to our warm, comfortable beds when it was over.  Everyone else would have to drive downtown, pay for parking, fight with the crowd, and then deal with event traffic when it was over.

Despite the ease and simplicity of it all, I had come to the conclusion that I would not be attending.  It was happening early.  On a weekend.  As I already mentioned, I was a night owl.  By the second semester of my junior year (which was when the implosion was happening), I had successfully transitioned myself away from any morning classes; I never scheduled a class before noon.  That meant that my full-time schedule -- weekdays as well as weekends -- I could keep a night person's schedule.  I was one taxicab away from becoming Travis Bickle.  So waking up early on a Sunday, dragging my ass out of bed and stepping into the bitter cold dawn of a dead winter's morning to watch 20 seconds' worth of explosions sounded like the absolute last thing I'd want to do.

So firm was my decision to skip the stadium implosion that I never bothered to find out the exact date or time it would be happening.  I was confident that once it had happened I'd hear plenty about it, and that would be that.

I'm sure you can see where this is heading.  I wouldn't be telling you all of this if I didn't end up going to see the implosion.  So here's how it happened.

I went to Paul's one Saturday evening; one of many.  I don't remember the specifics of what we did that night.  It was just the usual -- probably watched a movie or two, played some video games, perhaps listened to some Bill Hicks, definitely did some drinking, and did a whole lot of talking - one of our classic marathon conversations that went to three in the morning.  And then four.  And then five.  Eventually the sun came up, and we were still going strong.  But when it started to get full-on-daylight bright, we forced ourselves to wrap up the conversation, and Paul drove me back downtown so I could sleep in my dorm room.

As Paul drove off and I headed inside, I noticed all these people headed out.  This early?  On a Sunday?  Ah, so this was the day of the stadium implosion.  I'd nearly crossed the threshold into the dorm building, but I hadn't yet, realizing I could just... stay out at this point.  I mean, I was already awake and outside.  And it was right there, just a short walk.

So I went.

It was freezing, but it was a nice, clear day, which is abnormal for a Pittsburgh winter.  I found some people I knew (though not too well) from school to stand and bitch about the temperature with.

The wait was longer than I had anticipated.  Long enough to make me consider calling it quits and running back to my warm dorm room.  But, come on, I had to stick it out at that point.  Besides, I had a really good vantage point.  I'm tall enough to see over most people's heads, and I had a clear, straight view of the stadium across the river.

My only relief from the cold was a Zippo lighter Paul had given me a month or so ago after he'd gotten a better one.  I'd strike the lighter and let the flame lick the metal cap for a few seconds, then close it up and stick it inside my gloves to give my hands some extra warmth.  It worked great!  If only I could have done that for my whole body.

We waited.  The park gradually became more crowded.  And we all kept waiting.  Longer.  Too long.  Anticipation grew to the point that, finally, a group of people a distance off started counting down from ten.  I was skeptical.  Who had prompted these people to start a countdown?  Did it come from someone official?  I didn't see anyone who looked official.  Folks, just because you arbitrarily decided to start a countdown doesn't mean the demolition crew will press The Big Button when you get down to zero.

Sure enough, the countdown ended and nothing happened.

Then I started to hear people clapping in unison.  Sort of like the stomp-stomp-clap of a stadium full of fans doing "We Will Rock You" during a game.

Now that really irritated me.  It was too cold, and too early for this kind of crap.  Didn't these people realize how long I'd been awake?  How tired I was?  I'm glad you're excited, but enough with the countdowns and the clapping.  Could you please just settle down and be patient and let everyone experience this moment in their--

Oh, the stadium was collapsing!  When did that start?

It turned out that the "unison clapping" I heard was actually the series of explosions going off inside the stadium.

And that was it.  In less than a minute, the whole thing came down.  And in the next minute, everyone standing in Point State Park started to realize that the air current was bringing all the dust and debris directly toward us.  I'm sure the people running security were thrilled.  This would be an easy way to convince the crowd to disperse.

And disperse we did.  And as I'd known all along, the greatest part for me and my fellow students was that we were already home.  I stopped for some food at the cafeteria so that hunger wouldn't interrupt my sleep and then, at long last, I fell into bed.

Anyway, that's how I remember it happening.  Tomorrow, we fact-check this story.

Additional reading:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Anatomy of a Critical Darling

I am a TV snob.

I sometimes like to pretend that's a joke.  "I don't actually care what other people are watching," I tell myself.  "It's just funny to act like I'm judging them based on what they watch."

But it's no joke.  I'm judging you based on what you watch.

Now the thing about snobbiness is that it doesn't necessarily equal independent thinking.  Snobs, like other groupings of people, tend to latch onto what other snobs are snobbing about.  If there's a critical majority saying a movie or TV show is good, the insecure snob is going to trend along with that, lest they lose their snob credibility.  Unless, of course, there's a snobbish dissenting camp, in which case you can safely join the opposition while retaining your snob credentials.  (Titanic is perhaps the paragon of this.)

In the case of "Girls," the new(ish) HBO series from Tiny Furniture's Lena Dunham, there was no dissenting critical camp.  In the months leading up to the show's debut, every critic and cultural commentator was extreme in praising the show.  Not a single newspaper, magazine, talkshow, or website deviated from the narrative: "Girls" was awesome, incredible, the best thing to happen to TV in a long time.  Every single critic, from the top on down, made it a point to be vehemently outspoken about "Girls."  Everybody cool was going to be watching this show, and it was going to knock our socks off.  How could a snob like me pass up an opportunity like this?

The phenomenon of the "critical darling" is nothing new.  Critics, to the extent of their power, have always championed the shows they love.  Of course, that's their job.  But they've always reserved that extra bit of zeal for shows that needed a helping hand.  Such was the case with "The Wire," a show that ran on HBO concurrently with "The Sopranos."  When "The Sopranos" assumed the mantle of "best show on TV" in audiences' minds (thanks largely to the championing of critics), "The Wire" got brushed aside and was largely ignored.  So, late in the game, the critical community shifted gears and started directing as much attention as they could to the final two seasons of "The Wire."  It was too little too late, as "Wire" creator David Simon has lamented.

But in the case of "The Wire," critics were championing a show with a track record and a history of being ignored by audiences.  When "Girls" debuted, the advance critical buzz was at -- or possibly even beyond -- the level of those final two seasons of "The Wire."  This for a show that hadn't yet had a single week to establish its initial audience.  Obviously critics were impressed by this show, and wanted people to know that it was something special.  But why were they going at it with a fervor usually set aside for a show in danger of being cancelled?  It hadn't even begun yet.

Which is what led to the inevitable internet backlash.  Now, the internet was going to hate on this show no matter what.  That's what the internet does.  (Haters gonna hate.)  But the extreme proselytizing of the professional critics led to an equal and opposite carpet-bombing by the internet.  If the critics were working so hard to shove this show down our throats, then the internet was going to work extra hard to swat this show away from our faces.  And all of this hate was coming from people who hadn't seen advance previews the show.

At long last, on April 15, "Girls" began its HBO run.


I didn't like it.

How could this happen?  How could it not be good?  I wanted to love it!  I wanted to join my snobful brethren in lauding a beautiful gem of a show that the wretched plebs would never be able to appreciate (the fools!).  But it wasn't happening.  I was one of the wretched plebs!  The critics had outsnobbed me.

And since I had no single piece of cogent criticism to back me up (internet backlash is nothing I wanted to ally myself with), I was on my own to answer the question: Why didn't I like this show?

Why?  Well, it didn't pull me into its world, and I wasn't interested in what was going on.  I didn't find the characters to be consistent with reality (which the show is definitely trying to achieve) or even with themselves.  I didn't find the show's worldview to be insightful or amusing.  And neither in my mid-20s nor at any time in my life did I know anyone (including women!) who acted remotely like these people.  I simply didn't buy it.

But the critics and cultural commentators had different ideas about why I didn't like "Girls."  First of all, I was sexist and I just couldn't handle a woman's point-of-view.  Second, I was jealous of Lena Dunham's success, which I despised because of the nepotism involved, and also because I'm sexist.  Third, I've simply forgotten what it's like to be in my mid-20s, and certainly couldn't comprehend what it's like for a woman in her mid-20s, because I'm sexist.  Fourth, I have bad taste and wouldn't know quality if it were tying me down and castrating me, which it should, because I'm sexist.  And fifth, that I'm sexist.

Yes, that's it.  It's not that the show has actual flaws worth discussing; it's that I'm a terrible person.

But it is a flawed show.  And that's fine, by the way!  Lots of shows are flawed.  In fact, can't we pretty much agree that every show is flawed?  That there's no such thing as "perfection" when it comes to a TV show?

Because the fact of the matter is, "Girls" is not a bad show.  It has a lot going for it.  But it's flawed, and that ought to be acknowledged.  There are things about it that are not good.  There's room for improvement.  But the passion that this show has inspired in critics has forced people like me into a corner; I either have to agree with the majority that this show is the most amazing and perfect creation of the past decade, or else I'm just another jealous, sexist, misogynist, tasteless slob spewing venom and bile in the comments section of unsavory websites.


There are two recent developments that give me hope.  One is that I'm finally starting to see some -- though not much -- rational, level-headed criticisms of the show.  After the first episode aired, veteran TV writer Ken Levine, citing the disproportionate critical love "Girls" is receiving, assessed the show as good but not great.  Then, after the second episode aired, Hillary Busis, writing for Entertainment Weekly, cited several of the same issues I had with that episode.  So I'm not crazy!  You don't have to be a hater to take issue with the show.  Now we're getting somewhere.

But even better is the second development.  The third episode of "Girls" was good.  Objectively good!  It was true to its own reality.  The humor was spot-on.  It was interesting.  It was insightful.  The characters felt like real people I knew in my mid-20s.  Finally, I was seeing something close to the show critics had geared me up to expect all along.  I wasn't drooling all over myself the way they led me to expect I would.  But still.  What I saw in the third episode was a show I want to watch.  Hopefully it will continue in that direction for a long time to come.  I now have a reason to be optimistic.

And that's what I wanted all along, frankly.  A show that is enjoyable, and promises to become more enjoyable.  That "Girls" took three episodes to get to that point is no sin at all.  Many shows -- most shows -- take a while to find their rhythm.  "Parks and Recreation," one of my current favorite sitcoms, took at least three times that number of episodes to get to that point.  This is normal.

Which brings me back to my original point.  There was never a problem with "Girls" itself, or with Lena Dunham, or with HBO, or with my own personal gender biases.  It was the skull-crushing enthusiasm of the critics.  They said far too much far too soon about this show, effectively overwatering their favorite new plant, nearly killing it in the process.  They were the problem all along.

So.  Would I recommend "Girls" to you?  Yeah.  It's a pretty good show.  But be aware that you might find yourself annoyed with it at first.  And that's all right!  I give you permission to be annoyed with it, which is more than the vast majority of critics were willing to allow.  Just stick with it through the third episode, and I think you'll start to enjoy it.

But if you don't end up enjoying it at all... well... I give you permission for that too!  You don't have to like it if you don't want to.  And it's nice to hear that you're not required to like every single critically acclaimed TV show, isn't it?

Especially coming from a snob!