Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Video Killed The Radio Star

It's been a busy, irritating few weeks and time got completely away from me. Of course, I've also just started watching Doctor Who so I've got four seasons of THAT, so maybe I was watching season one instead of doing a blog post.

Cut me some slack, gentle readers.

I have about six unfinished blog posts just hanging around but they all sound a bit ranty and that's getting old, even for me. So here's something that's part observation, but with some ranty bits in the middle. Because you can't completely do away with it, right? I'll get to comments next time as well.

A few months ago (which is how long this post has been percolating), Kodak announced that it would no longer be producing Kodachrome film, thus relegating the Paul Simon song to the dustbin of history. I mean, can they just DO that? Since everything's digital, sure. Because digital is the wave of the present and the future. Look at television -- no more analog. All digital. Soon, they'll stop making videotape. There are little attempts to reclaim the warmth and individuality and singleness of the pre-digital age. Records, for one. But the fucking things are twice as expensive as the iTunes downloads.

People have become digital, too. Technology is good, progress is necessary, and while none of it may benefit actual people, it will benefit something. Eventually. I don't know what yet. More technology? The ultimate leap to transhumanism? That looked silly fifteen years ago, but now it just seems like something Apple would present -- iHuman. And I'd be first in fucking line. Trust me, I'm not proud of it.

Faster and higher-quality delivery systems aren't making the world any better, however. The Internet invites us to see the World of Warcraft freak-out kid, where our reactions have primarily to do with our sense of superiority superiority (if that were my kid, he'd NEVER behave that way), or the whole "fact or fiction" debate that drives YouTube -- that can't possibly be real, can it? It gives us Facebook and Twitter and MySpace, where we can see, unfiltered, what every other person on the planet is doing. Back in the pre-digital age, you had to actually TALK to people to find out what they were up to. And people had filters, too. Remember when we actually had to be attentive and connect with someone to know what they were feeling or thinking? The world didn't used to be one big advertisement for success or plea for sympathy. There are no natural barriers anymore. It all comes at you instantaneously. Rather than pick and choose what to pay attention to, everybody tries to pay minimal attention to everything. We're fragmented. The way we watch movies and TeeVee and listen to music is fragmented, too. Remember buying an album (a vinyl record, children), bringing it home, taking it out, putting it on and then sitting on the floor and reading the liner notes while you listened to the album?

You don't? Then you must love the present.

I've been watching the Larry Sutherland videos, which is a little weird because I'm watching them on my computer, having downloaded them from archive.org. So the films are digital, but the film grain and quirky sound is analog. They are absolutely charming films. Clever, beautifully animated, and full of life and imagination. The opposite of Transformers, which every being on the planet has now seen. And Transformers, with its apparent groundbreaking technology (auteurbot Michael Bay goes on at great length about how many more pixels are in each frame of this film than there were in the first, which automatically makes it a better film), should be the best movie ever made. However, its story and characters appear to be digital, too. Not an analog moment anywhere in the film. Beautifully made, I'm sure. The CG must be remarkable. But the part that the audience can really identify with, the part that makes them appreciate the technology? Gone baby gone.

Of course the distressing question that can't be answered with any certainty is whether or not an audience even wants characters or a story anymore. Maybe being raised on the fragmented dementia of the Internet, an incoherent mess of a film with wall-to-wall explosions and pretty, gormless robots -- oh, and there are the transformers, too -- constitutes a good movie to the now-public. They certainly saw the shit out of it. And they seemed to enjoy themselves. But is that because they're just used to letting pretty CG forms slide past their eyeballs?

I didn't see Transformers. I saw Moon. If you actually like science fiction, that's the movie for you. Going by an estimate of a $200 million dollar budget for Transformers, you could make Moon forty times over. Yes, FORTY. Moon cost five million. The optical difference between Moon and Transformers is staggering. Moon has an analog look to it while Transformers, ostensibly set on Earth, actually makes Earth look expensively digital. Not that I've seen more than the trailers, because there is no fucking way that digital bint Megan Fox is going to pass my eyeballs. Ever. Anyway, Moon has a story. A tight, perfect, human story. Genre works best when it's illuminating the human condition, which makes Moon science fiction and Transformers CG action. It's funny how digital films like Transformers work so hard to look three-dimensional that they come back around again and just look fake. The set design behind Moon, on the other hand, gives it a 70s NASA look. And everything in Moon feels three-dimensional and real. There's actual real dirt and dust and grime. Moon is a tactile movie in the way that Transformers is not. And that extends to the story. It exists first. It isn't created to fit some CG robot fight.

But digital success is the new black, and analog success doesn't reach the ears of the corporate overlords. As successful as Moon is, it will be deemed successful at an industry level. But does it need to? Does its success mean that others with modest amounts of money make films because they were so taken with the story, and not necessarily with the monetary compensation? I hope so.

At least District 9 opened well this weekend. District 9 is the marriage of technology to story. But unfortunately, the wrong lessons will be learned. Because they always ARE, aren't they? District 9 opens, and they announce a Lego movie. Then Hasbro is starting a film studio. And we're back to where we started.

With the revelation that the present isn't doing us the shiny favors it tells us it's doing, I'm beginning to miss the analog creaks and flickers. I want to hear a cassette tape warble. A record popping. The audiophiles are right. There's a warmth there that doesn't exist in today's digital world.

There was an article awhile back in TV Week, which is apparently a broadcaster's wet dream of a magazine, where the following appeared:

From NBC's point of view, CBS wouldn't talk so loud if it had a different set of media properties -- such as basic cable networks -- to play with. Meanwhile, NBC feels it's taking proactive steps and keeping costs in line as consumer habits shift with technology. "We absolutely believe in the future of broadcast TV," NBC Universal said in a statement. "But to be truly successful we need to take into account the contemporary media environment and all the different ways viewers today are watching TV."

From CBS's perspective, NBC's recent maneuvers result partly from its inability to muster the kind of ratings it did when it ran fare such as "E.R.," "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Frasier." Meanwhile, CBS sees a solid business in producing, promoting and distributing programs that bring broad crowds under a single media tent. "CBS's programming strategy is based in the assumption that ratings and popularity with our many audiences ultimately produces the best revenue and profit," the network said in a statement. "We believe that the future of any business is dependent on its popularity with the various customers it serves, along with a fundamental belief in the business itself. Both in the short term and the long term, we think that operating strategy will prevail."

The two companies' reactions to current market forces are partly driven by their mixes of assets and by the personalities of their chief executives. NBC is less dependent on broadcast and can enjoy the dual revenue stream -- advertising and subscriptions -- that comes with owning cable outlets such as USA and Bravo. And Mr. Zucker has developed a reputation over the years for tweaking established models. This is the man, after all, who in 2001 talked up a decision to extend "Friends" to 40 minutes in an effort to combat CBS's "Survivor" on Thursday nights.

CBS depends on its broad-reaching TV network not only to generate revenue from advertising but also to garner enough attention for its shows so they move on to reap rewards in domestic and international syndication. Mr. Moonves is renowned as one of the most talented programmers in the TV business. Not only did he help launch "E.R." while at Warner Bros., he has helped take CBS from shows for the Metamucil set ("Murder, She Wrote," anyone?) to reliably performing procedurals.

It took me three tries to make it through without falling asleep or glazing over (although I did giggle at "dayparts," which they REALLY need to rethink). If you read that and you still don't understand what's wrong with TeeVee, read it again. See the disconnect between the broadcasters/ratings wonks, and the people actually making the content. Not to say that the wonks are idiots or anything. There's just a fucking chasm that seems larger and wider than it ever has before. Number are more accurate, apparently, because there are more of them. You know. Like pixels. And more numbers means more consistency in the product.

More numbers, sadly, never tell us if something actually connects with people. Because that's an analog way of thinking, and this bitch is going digital.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Helter Skelter

Forty years ago this weekend, America got a look at what absolute control could make people do. Charles Manson convinced his followers to murder seven people. Aside from The Tiger Woman in 1922, there hadn't been many notoriously violent female killers. And even the Tiger Woman ostensibly killed for love (but really, I think she just had a claw hammer she was dying to try out). The Manson girls killed for Charlie. They looked feral and violent doing it, and then went totally insane carving swastikas into their foreheads and chanting for Charlie during the trial.

It's wild that we could have the Moon landing in July, with all of those heroic, square-jawed men, and then the Tate-LaBianca killings less than a month later, with prom queens transformed into murdering monsters. 1969 must've given people a proper headache.

Historically, it's been tough to believe that women could be that violent. Even that they could kill without a reason, the way many male murderers do. People tend to believe women when they claim innocence. Look at Susan Smith and Karla Homolka. People were shocked -- SHOCKED!! -- that they were actually guilty of their crimes. With Karla, her defenders claimed that good old crazy motherfucker Paul had turned her into a killer. Because a woman would NEVER do THAT unless she had some man behind her.

Earlier this week, writer/director John Hughes, the architect of our teenage years, died suddenly. Although Hughes had essentially left the business and hadn't produced anything since the early 90s, his films -- Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink, in particular -- defined teenage angst in the 80s. Hughes' kids were relatable (back before that word was overused to the point of losing all meaning), but they were also fantasies. Hughes' movies dealt with the American class structure and also the microcosm of that -- the class structure within the walls of a high school. And the characters acknowledged this. Hughes gave a voice to kids who couldn't find their own. And the movies paved the way for My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks. Angela Chase and Lindsay Weir would have fit in well at Shermer High. And they couldn't exist without it.

But Freaks and Geeks aired in 2000. Nine years ago. And since then, something's happened to female-driven drama: Those characters have been transformed into ass-kickers. Don't get me wrong; Buffy, in particular, is a landmark series and Buffy is obviously more than just her slayer skills. But even Buffy went off the air in 2003. Six years ago. Then there was Sydney Bristow. Much more than her ass-kicking ability, but not nearly as much as Buffy. Unfortunately for Sydney, her grounded moments all had to do with her romantic life. A pity, that. And even Alias has been off the air since 2006.

Beyond TeeVee, where have all the female-driven romantic comedies gone? Hughes was equally adept creating male characters, but it was his female characters that, like "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret," spoke to a generation of girls. I'm not a movie computer, so maybe I'm missing out on some crucially important recent female-driven films. But the only one I can really think of that made an impact was Juno. Since then, romantic comedies or relationship movies are either fun but fluffy fantasies (Confessions of a Shopaholic and Enchanted) or (especially this year) male-driven, with a male point of view.

The Apatow and Apatow-inspired movies are aggressively male-driven. Knocked Up is not a realistic film for women. The far-superior Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models and Superbad have male points of view. Even The Proposal, designed to be as light and fluffy as possible, is from the Ryan Reynolds' character's point of view. If you're looking for a female point of view, you're talking about trifle like Julie and Julia. And it's best not to talk about The Hangover. The idea of women in that movie makes me want to de-ball everyone who had anything to do with it. Which, ironically, would make me a character in a Judd Apatow movie.

And then there's the lovely, lyrical 500 Days Of Summer. This is completely, thoroughly and utterly from Tom's point of view. The male writing team that wrote the film, and the male director who directed it, give the film a great deal of honesty. But free-spirited Summer is, frankly, kind of a bitch. That's fine; the movie works in spite of it. But in the climate of either ball-busting GI Janes or shrill Apatow bitches, well... I miss the point of view that John Hughes' movies gave us.

There are, thankfully, a few exceptions. The women of Mad Men, for sure. Sookie Stackhouse has her moments (although not nearly as many as she should). Glenn Close and Rose Byrne of Damages.

Geez, I thought there were more. Hmm.

Network TeeVee doesn't seem to be giving it to us. All I see on network are female characters created the way men think they are, rather than the way they really are. And it's not like I'm saying only women can create female characters. That's obviously bullshit. But why are so many of the female characters created by men just exactly the same? Where are the male writers who can create those wonderful female characters? And where are the FEMALE writers? Nobody seems able to grasp or understand the myriad internal lives of women. Instead, they graft quirks onto them, quirks that usually involve their wombs in some way, and always end with the unimpeachable fact that these women are FUCKING BEAUTIFUL. I just don't buy these women. At all. But the problem is that if you're pitching a realistic female character, you're talking to executives or producers who have come to believe in the quirky ball-buster who's just looking for the right guy. Women don't have to be whores or former strippers. Their hurdles don't all have to be sexual.

And because these people are the gatekeepers, a real, honest portrayal of a female character is going to have a tough time getting on TeeVee.

Other rant-worthy things happened this week, most notably the repulsive decision that the Emmys will not broadcast the drama writer award live. The comedy writer awards WILL be live, because Tina Fey will probably win, and she's actually ON the TeeVee. But the Academy is treating people who only make their living writing like such shit that even the DGA went, "Um... that is totally unfair." Writers only RUN television shows. You fuckers want to diss writers? Good luck keeping the shows on pattern and on time. Go ahead. Try it. You fucking idiots.

Some comments, because I promised.

Tha Darkside Vibe goes:
Loved this blog, very well said. I was wondering do you remember the brilliant show Brimstone that was on FOX, then was picked up by SyFy for a bit? I thought Reiff & Vorus did some excellent work with that show.

I DO remember Brimstone, and VR.5 (which predated Brimstone by three years), another fun, bizarre genre show. That was back when Fox would order genre. But what's been happening is the networks are only ordering EVENT genre. So a show that's entertaining and involved and dark? That doesn't work for them unless it's HUGE. I think Dollhouse wants to be that kind of a show, and Sarah Connor did, too. But TeeVee doesn't have an appetite for that type of show anymore. What's sad now is that if they DO attempt genre, it always has to have a huge procedural element. I think the Fox execs like genre but America... not so much. The audience will watch anything with a morgue scene or dancing. Probably not both, but you never know.

So Past Life and Human Target (which isn't technically genre, but it's as close as they're going to get) are primarily procedurals. They tried to turn Dollhouse into a standalone procedural show last year, which totally fucked the show up. So Dollhouse will be an interesting experiment this year. Can it succeed, even last, by being true to itself?

Anonymous sez:
Guess we can both venerate and blame George Lucas for releasing the marketing monster with Star Wars.

I don't blame Lucas because he didn't make Star Wars just for the marketing. That was a by-product of what happened with the film. I blame marketing executives taking over movie studios.

Stephen Gallagher opines:
In Europe we recognise a split between the fandom that traces its lineage back to those days when readers started getting together through the letters columns of the pulp mags, and the 'media fandom' that got started around Star Trek and really took off with Star Wars.

When you sign up for a con you can pretty much spot from a distance which group it's going to fall into. Usually because our reader-driven cons are so f**** small and some of those who show up are so old! But it's the scene that spawned Neil Gaiman, and Clive Barker, and Terry Pratchett, and a fair few others who aren't out of place on either side of the media/lit divide, so let's not start writing it off.

I don't want to write it off, I want it to get healthy again! What I noticed at Comic Con was the new generation of fans, which has been raised purely on marketing. I think there's too much stimulus. There's no chance to really chew something over, which is what fandom is (IMO) all about. So given that, what endures?

Tyler, oh Tyler!
I enjoyed your rant, but it gets derailed a bit when you attack his work without having read it. His books may be overwritten and dull--but, then again, they may not be.

In a way, he strangely comes out on top in your rant because he's (ostensibly) read the authors he's critiquing, while you haven't read his books but have no qualms suggesting, in a public forum, that he "doesn't know how to tell a story" and his work is probably "far less clever than he thinks he thinks it is".

Coupla things. One, this isn't a contest. We're not in a cage match, so there's no winner. Two, my rant has nothing to do with whether or not I've read his books, because I never criticized him for NOT reading the books he was railing against. So your complaints are moot.

And surely you can't be suggesting that since his books haven't registered a high Amazon ranking or amassed a certain number of Amazon reviews, his opinions are somehow unworthy of consideration.

Nope. But you have to be careful when you're as frank as he was. Because it's easy for people to assume that he's a bitter, jealous motherfucker. And there's an easy way to assume that. That was the point.

He sounds like a douche, yes, and I'd rather his opinions be scoffed at because he's a douche, not because his last book only ranks 409,628 on the Amazon sales chart. If that's how you rank the worthiness of literary perspectives, then Glenn Beck has the second-worthiest say in bookdom. I'd rather wade into the bayou and let the alligators tear my spasming, bloody limbs off than agree to that.

If that's what you think I was saying, then you didn't read closely enough.

Aren't you backing up his argument, in a way, by claiming that popularity determines merit? I agree that you shouldn't dismiss books because they're popular, but you also shouldn't laud them just because they are. Have you tried to read a Twilight novel?

I'm not claiming that popularity determines merit. And I'm not lauding anything because it's popular. However, I DO think that there are people who have earned an informed opinion, and then there are people who haven't. Adam Roberts hasn't earned that. Harlan Ellison, for example, has. Or are YOU suggesting that Roberts' opinion is MORE valid because he ISN'T popular?

In his wayward, semi-insulting way, Roberts has a decent point: shortlists and awards are a great way for little-known, talented authors to find their way into the limelight to become better known, talented authors. If big-name, but potentially stagnant authors hog up the space on these lists, then readers miss out on unearthing a new author and expanding the pool of quality, popular science fiction.

Yeah, those bastards. How DARE they deliberately take a position on those lists? Except they don't, do they? Sure, there's a lot of terrific little-known stuff. Tim Powers should live in a fucking mansion. But Tim Powers also doesn't blather obnoxiously about shortlists he's not on.

But, of course, that argument comes crashing down because he's lambasting the Hugos, an award that is decided by fan votes. Popular books are popular because they have fans. Fans that vote. So, ultimately, his argument doesn't work. But there is a glimmer of logic to it buried deep.


As for not-American literary people looking down their noses at our writers, Roberts should apply to be on the Nobel Literature prize committee. At least they acknowledge their bias.

And on that, we completely agree.

np -- Del Mar on TVG, anticipating Zenyatta's twelfth start.