Hollywood Squared

Tim Cavanaugh reviews Pithemovie.com, a movie Web site that puts Hollywood to shame

Topics: Movies,

If there’s one thing less inspired than a Hollywood movie, it’s a Hollywood Web site. Considering how cheaply a good Web project can be done, compared with the amount of studio money that gets lavished on making sure Leo has the right selection of mints on his pillow, it’s unforgivable that the vast bulk of movie sites are little more than repackaged press kits.

So it’s somehow fitting that one of the more interesting Web projects
out there has been devised by a handful of independent moviemakers.
“Pi,” the much-discussed feature by Darren Aronofsky, is a case study in how to transcend, rather than merely stretch, a $60,000 budget. The film — a high-contrast black and white milange of vague math theory and sharp conspiracy theories, corporate espionage and cabbalistic hints of
divinity — has spawned a Web site that puts most studio Internet projects to shame. Sean Gullette, the movie’s star and designer
of the site, calls Pithemovie.com “a cocktail party primer on the topics
raised in the film.” To that end, the site offers thumbnail lessons
on chaos theory and
other subjects covered in the movie; where most movie sites wouldn’t dare to
direct viewers to more informative sites, this one provides numerous
links to sites that will provide more insight on, for example,
cabala and
numerology.

The site’s content richness is impressive if only because it’s so rarely done (compare “Pi’s” examination of the stock market with, for
example, the “Titanic” site’s vague gesture at
historical
context
). It doesn’t take anything away from Gullette’s achievement
to point out that the movie provided him enough ideas to go on;
content-based Web sites have always been aimed at inveterate time-wasters,
but even that demographic would get more mileage from “Pi’s”
conspiratorial
intricacies
than from, say, Sony’s “Mask of Zorro”
role-playing
game.

Gullette acknowledges that the success of the site results partly from
the movie’s oddball strengths. “A Web site allows you to experience the world the way Max [the screen-gazing math genius Gullette plays in the movie] experiences it. The movie is about paranoia and cabala, and since the Internet is a paranoid and intertwined medium, it’s well-suited to convey those ideas. That’s why the site would suck if the movie were about big wave surfing, because the Web is a particularly poor medium for expressing ideas about
big wave surfing.”

It’s a particularly good medium, though, for expressing ideas that are
tangential to, or even absent from, the movie itself. After seeing the
Free Truman site, you might have
had high hopes for the movie version of “The Truman Show.”
Paramount took some trouble to make the site look spontaneous, with a
bogus bulletin board, a
collection of grainy photos and the sort of amateurish design usually
reserved for “Free Tibet!” or “Macedonia is Greek!” sites (not that this
stopped various Web geniuses from trumpeting
their discovery of Big Brother’s invisible hand behind the site). But
the site’s real dodge lies in leading its readers to believe that the
“Truman Liberation Front” (never mentioned in the film itself) was something integral to the plot of the movie.

If there’s some doubt about the movie’s substance — and there usually
is — an online promo is an excellent place to flesh out the bones of a
High Concept. Last year’s $95 million “Starship Troopers” was a wheels-within-wheels cycle of satires — a seamless hybrid of action movie, Web-style infomercial and fascist
recruiting film, all playing on the idea that fascism may actually be
the right model for future leadership. But it was easy to miss the sly
achievement in the thickets of the movie’s relentlessly arch tone and
absurdly awful acting. The “Starship Troopers” Web site — a total immersion in the movie’s newsreel propaganda –
nicely underscored the pungent facetiousness that most viewers and
reviewers missed. Another Paul Verhoeven
picture — the universally maligned “Showgirls” — spawned a celebrated
early example of the better-than-strictly-necessary movie Web site.
Featuring slithery prose and an automated chat routine whose clumsiness
kept hyperborean
wiseacres
amused long after the movie had shuffled off its mortal G-string,
“Showgirls” online was, like many theatrical trailers, better than the
movie itself.

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But the formula of theatrical trailers (buildup, intertitle, punch line, title, second punch line, premier date and
credits) is impossibly rigid. To the average moviegoer — fussing with
the pre-feature ritual of spiking a medium no-ice Coke with a
smuggled-in bottle of rum — the trailer for “Lethal Weapon 4″ can seem
barely distinguishable from the one for
< href="http://www.salonmagazine.com/ent/movies/1997/11/14wings.html">“Wings of the Dove.”

A promotional Web site, on the other hand, can spin a movie in any
direction. With its ample storage space and endless content sprawl, the
Web offers unique opportunities for false advertising. The colossal promo page for “Titanic” offered an extensive catalog
of histories, myths and legends to make up for the wealth of Titanic lore that the movie failed to use (the designers were smart enough to split the site into “history” and “movie” sections, so that fans would
lose no time in finding the Leo pictures). The site for Disney’s “Mulan” goes on at such length about the project’s debt to Chinese art and literature that we don’t know whether to feel relieved or ripped off
when the movie features Confucian dialogue like “Who spit in
her bean curd?” and “Call out for egg roll!”

Even godzilla.com, despite a dearth of content, was livened up by its
bulletin board, which became so inundated with hate
mail
from disgruntled fans that thin-skinned producer Dean Devlin began counterflaming with posts bragging about the size of his paycheck, and Sony was forced to shut the bulletin board down June 5. If there was
any way on earth to enjoy “Godzilla,” this was it.

But even the most ambitious movie sites at this stage are still little
more than expanded press kits. If freetruman.com is important at all, it
is as a pointer toward the final Boba Fettishization of cinema.
Dry-mouthed observers of the “Star Wars” phenomenon will recall how fans
mysteriously built a cult around “Boba
Fett,”
an insignificant character from the series who occupies the screen for no more than a few minutes, forcing the Lucas empire to respond by giving Mr. Fett his own line of merchandise and adventures.

Whether the Boba Fett phenomenon was a stealth maneuver by Lucasfilm or a spontaneous fan cult, this raising of even a movie’s insert shots to mythical status points us toward a truly win-win future, and a
fulfillment of the “content rich” hopes that characterized the Web’s early years. Imagine a future in which every movie, from “Secrets and Lies” to “Monkey Trouble”, can sire its own little “Star Wars” universe of spin-off
novels, favorite characters and lunch boxes. After all, why should it be left to obsessed writers of fan fiction to spin lurid curlicues on
cinema’s lesser moments? Who knows what gold Hollywood might strike with
a Web site that give the back story of every crowd scene extra in “Meet
the Deedles?”

But before you can twist an idea, you need an idea, which may be why a
no-budget art-house flower is setting the standard not only for
thoughtful filmmaking but for clever, high-buzz marketing.
Significantly, “Pi” has already bred its first spin-off, a graphic
novel that will come out next month. In the week before the movie’s New
York premiere, the city was peppered with “Pi” symbols. And
Gullette, whose risumi includes founding the fabled but short-lived
magazine KGB and several years of Web design, has compiled that guerrilla
marketing theory into a first-rate Web site. In a summer that has seen
the most
colossally
futile
movie ad campaign in history, “Pi” — the movie and
the site — offers a Godzilla-sized promise of a product that does more than just take up space.

Tim Cavanaugh is a freelance writer and the editor of the Web magazine the Simpleton.

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