Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Skyfail?

I am thanking people again for voting for our IdeaBoost project because we won!!! We were actually chosen by the CBC Media Lab! Us!!! Chosen for something!

We're very excited.

Not sure what our next step is yet but here are some links in case you don't want to rely on my wildly unreliable blogging schedule to get updates:

Creative room:
The gold circle of mailing lists, where you get to interact with the production team. Which includes us!

Testers:
 Like technology and social media? This is the list for you!

Observers: 
Not sure if you get a fedora or not with this list. This is for basic updates. No time travel.

One way or the other, we are going to get a Goddam fairy project off the ground.

For your reading pleasure, a rant. As I've no doubt mentioned a thousand times before, I devoured Heinlein and Asimov when I was a kid. I probably read Number of the Beast a few years before I should have, in fact. But the Foundation books really stuck with me because the ideas in them were so ground-breaking. Now, I think, psychohistory can be boiled down to what Nate Silver does, which is both cool and kind of depressing. The robot novels, particularly The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Stars Like Dust, were riveting. J'adore. And why they're not a television series will remain an eternal mystery. The Heinlein juveniles were books I read over and over again. Particular favorites are Have Spacesuit Will Travel and Citizen of the Galaxy. I wrote an absolutely horrible story in the vein of The Rolling Stones back then. Hopefully I no longer have it. However, when I went back to Asimov and Heinlein later, I realized that although Asimov had broken so much ground on ideas, his characters were pretty much ass. His prose style was, to put it kindly, minimal. I remember Susan Calvin and Hari Seldon and particularly the Mule as unbelievably well-drawn. Not so. And Lije Bailey? Dear God, man, SHUT UP ALREADY.

NOT the world's greatest prose stylist. But the ideas still work. Heinlein was a much better actual WRITER, but his ideas went over my head all those years ago, so that was something to get used to.

IT WOULD NOT BE A BLOG POST UNLESS I HAD A SUPER LONG RAMBLING PROLOGUE.

This leads me to the new James Bond movie, Skyfall. Basically, I do not want to argue about this movie, which is why I'm writing a blog post about it instead of talking to people. Because eventually, I would be forced to yell at people and call them stupid and that way lies madness. It boils down to this -- I FREAKING LOVED IT, and almost everybody I know sniffed and went, "It's not a James Bond movie," in much the same way they did about the JJ Abrams Star Trek movie. "I don't know what that was, but it wasn't Star Trek."

I am not a Bond aficionado in the way that people know every single thing about all the movies. I've seen all the movies, several times. I appreciate the format, i.e., Bond chases a megalomaniac around the globe, fucks women with fuck-me names, is pithy, drinks martinis, makes M roll his/her eyes, never has to fill out an expense report. But the dude's been in movies for fifty years. And it's been clear that, over time, hewing so closely to the formula hasn't done the franchise any favors. Hell, even the brilliant The Ipcress File needed to deconstruct Bond, and that was still in the early days of the Bond franchise.

IT'S NOW BEEN FIFTY YEARS.

So we got Pierce Brosnan Bond, which unfortunately stuck to the same tried-and-true formula even though the movies that were coming out around them made those movies look antiquated. The Brosnan movies just weren't good, y'all. I enjoyed them, but I wanted them to be MOVIES and they weren't. Were they Bond movies, though? Apparently yes. Right down to the formula. I don't consider the new Bond movies (or any Bond movies) reboots because it's BOND, not 21 Jump Street, and Bond's been around long enough that it has to be accepted at this point that Bond will ALWAYS be around and using the word "reboot" is ludicrous.

So the new Bond, then. It seems like the one thing everyone can agree on (after all the pfumfering over Daniel Craig being blonde OH DEAR GOD NO ANYTHING BUT THAT) is that Casino Royale is a fantastic movie, and Craig is a great Bond. Does it adhere to the formula? Well... kinda. But what I love about Casino Royale is the awareness of character. It isn't enough to have Bond chase some psycho, or fuck women, or drink martinis, or do what M tells him to. The question with Casino Royale was, What kind of a man DOES this? What does it mean to be licensed to kill? And what kind of a boss can readily send an assassin on his way, to take a life because intel says to? Casino Royale was aware of all of this, and also aware of the the climate in which it was made. Bond really did exist in a vacuum, but Casino Royale changed those rules. Bond had to be of the time, and he was.

Then there was Quantum of Solace, which again we all agreed was a piece of utter shit, mostly do to the writer's strike and Marc Forster, WHO IS NOT BRITISH, nor is he a visual director with any style whatsoever, and he never should have been chosen WTF.

And now, Skyfall, which seems to be splitting viewers. I find THAT interesting, because mostly we agree on how good or bad a Bond movie is. But this is a little odd. There are complaints that it's a reboot, that it's not a Bond movie, that the villain isn't trying to take over the world (the lack of mission on the part of the villain is apparently considered a bad thing, unless you actually PAY ATTENTION to the movie and discover that the villain DOES have a laser-focused agenda, which maybe isn't quite as fun as sharks with frickin' lasers on their heads, but which is driven by character and by the entire premise of the series, which I find particularly enervating).

Bond prior to Casino Royale is very British and very proper and mostly very fun, but we take a lot for granted. Bond is quite well mannered, almost always in control, ready with the wisecrack and seduction line. He goes into M's office and gets his assignments, flirts with Moneypenny... we've all seen it, over and over. This Bond, from the get-go, was different. And in this film, he doesn't go to the office and get handed a file... not right away. He hulks in the shadows of M's home, haggard and red-eyed, and she isn't even surprised to see him. She tries to put him off with their usual pithy banter, but he isn't having any of it.

From the first time you see them in Casino Royale, their relationship is different. It's not boss/hireling. It's more... crime boss, hired gun. Bond is the physical manifestation, the killing machine, of M. That's the ENTIRE POINT of Skyfall. M makes a bad call, which we discover is not even close to being the first bad call she's made. There are Consequences, which nicely puts the movie in the realm of, you know, the Real World. Bond, though, doesn't even seem to hold her accountable for it. He's given himself over to her, to be the king's hand, so to speak. Silva, though, has a little bit of a problem with it, and he tries to pull Bond into his web but Bond won't play. He is never even tempted. And that's Silva's downfall.

As we learn throughout the movie, Bond was made into the person he was when his parents died. So however M shaped him as a killing machine, she didn't change him. He was already changed. I just really responded to the character development in this movie, to the emotion. And the reason I mentioned the Asimov and Heinlein I read as a kid is because re-reading it, I could see what I'd missed. A little bummed to realize that Asimov spent most of his time musing instead of developing character. How does that connect to Bond? Like Abrams' Star Trek, I felt that a lot of the Skyfall criticism is from people who saw Bond when they were kids and have, in that child's mind's eye, a firmly fixed view of who Bond is. The idea that anyone would delve into what makes that character tick doesn't make sense to them, because their entire notion of Bond rests on nostalgia. I'm sure I said this in my similar rant on the Star Trek movie. People who were drawn to Star Trek for intellectual and not emotional reasons HATED the Star Trek movie. Their nostalgia was being threatened.

Gentle readers, this is stupid. It's one thing to have issues with Skyfall and another entirely to condemn it because it's not exactly the same formula as the others that have come before. With regards to the plot, Bond doesn't accomplish his goal - saving M. Criticism noted. But with regards to the character of James Bond, he finally shakes off the darkness that made him this character. He destroys that childhood and maybe the symbolism is too much for you, but I personally love it. He makes a CHOICE to come back, to be 007. And the last scene has everything new again. A fresh start. Not a reboot, exactly... but a clever and touching homage to the 50th anniversary of this most enduring character. A character who has been parodied so much, and is so recognizable by his traits that it doesn't seem possible to make him new again. But John Logan, Sam Mendes and Daniel Craig accomplish that by finally going, "Hey, why IS this guy licensed to kill? What kind of a person would go kill people when ordered? What kind of a guy sleeps with any woman he sees?" The answer seems to be, a guy who had everything taken away from him and probably has been feeding off survivor's guilt ever since. A guy who really is alone in the world and will take any opportunity to make a human connection, even if it involves fucking anyone in an evening gown. And a guy who lets himself be turned into this suave, slick creature, who can waltz around the world using his name and not creating an alias or a legend because he is either that damned good, or is waiting to finally be caught and put out of his misery.

By the end of the movie, the simplicity of the franchise has returned. We've got M and Moneypenny, refreshed. They're not ciphers, either. They're characters we follow throughout Skyfall, and they earn their place.
How that's not fascinating, but still James Bond, is a mystery to me.

I could go on and on about all the great character work in Skyfall, about the logical conclusion to the relationship between Bond and M and how this new Bond is going to treat the job as a job and not as penance. But I won't. This is already long enough.

Lastly, though, I will offer up some criticism. Adele? Meh. She couldn't clean Shirley Bassey's shoes. This is the Great Hope Of All Music? Sigh. Next time, Muse or Noel Gallagher, OR WE ARE GOING TO HAVE WORDS.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Branded to Death, Inc.

John Gaines created the Breeders Cup as a World Series or Super Bowl of horse racing. On the first telecast in 1984, he said, "We're here to celebrate the beauty, the character, the indomitable courage and the majesty of the Thoroughbred, with everyone who has eyes to see."


He would be rather horrified to see what's come of his vision, but then maybe he'd be horrified to see what's come of the world, too. The Breeders Cup has been so corporatized that it's not even about the horses anymore. I won't bore you with the specifics of what went on this past weekend.

(you are welcome)

But just as one example, the place at the walking ring where I always stand at Santa Anita cost $400 to get into on Breeder's Cup day. Each day, actually, so that would be $800 for a spot that is normally the price of admission ($5) on any other race day. What was truly sad was that there were never more than ten people in there, and not one of them ever looked at a horse. At the past Santa Anita Breeder's Cups, this was not the case. But since 2009, they have gone batshit corporate crazy. Racing, like other sports, has had sponsors for some time. You put up with this because corporate interest in horse racing can't possibly be a bad thing. The sponsorship of these companies means that they may mention the Breeder's Cup in their advertising. But when you have to see "The Kentucky Derby, sponsored by Yum Brands," it makes you throw up a little.

A lot.

The Breeder's Cup is a celebration of racing, and there are going to be some very, very high-end folks there, titans of the racing industry (OGDEN PHIPPS WAS THERE THIS WEEKEND) and of other industries, too. Even the Governor came. So did our mayor, but he's a gigantic whore so no big surprise to see him where there's a camera. He also hilariously tried to know a thing about racing and screed it up so badly that Randy Moss even commented on it. It makes sense that the Breeder's Cup and the sponsors want to make these folks happy. What doesn't make sense is this pervasive targeted marketing at a specific, apparently coveted segment of the population that I do not understand.

You've seen the types if you've ever been to a club opening or a hip restaurant: Vacant, skinny girls in too-tight gold lame outfit, tottering on impossible heels. Their boyfriends, in either suits or (usually) those Goddam big shorts like they're twenty-year-old skateboarders and not grown-ass men. These guys apparently have money to burn, because the high-end sponsors (Mont Blanc and Lalique among them) go apeshit to market to them.

The problem with people like this is that they don't actually give a shit about anything. Their only passion is to have fun. I know this because all of the marketing was so obviously targeted this way. When any of the corporate spokesmodels were asked how their brand represents the Breeder's Cup, they vomited forth a marketing press release about how Mont Blanc/Lalique/Grey Goose/John Deere was all about fun, and that's what the Breeder's Cup was about.

Well, not to its founder, who couldn't have been more eloquent when he talked about the horse. Yet the lowly horse, the whole REASON for the Breeder's Cup, was seen nowhere in any of this targeted marketing. Because corporations lie. That's their business. They don't care how they get you. They just want to get you. If you're a corporate CEO (could there BE a more worthless job?) and you haven't fucked anyone over, gone bankrupt or asked the government to bail you out at least once, then you're either a failure or a liberal.

I said on Twitter that if you wanted to know what Romney's America would look like, come to the Breeder's Cup. Because this is where we are now. We are a tiered society. The more money or power you have, the higher tier you can purchase. Look at data plans. Cable plans. EVERYTHING is about metering out a little bit at a time, then charging people more if they want or need more. Sure, this is business. I get that. But it's also overkill. Creating demand has gotten out of control. The way they carved up Santa Anita, to literally create envy and anger and demand amongst the crowd, was horrifying. This was not the fan-friendly Santa Anita I'm accustomed to. People couldn't even get over to the saddling enclosure to watch the horses being saddled without dropping hundreds of dollars on a whole different pass. And not surprisingly, it was so confusing that nobody who worked there had a clue what was going on. But that's corporate life. The right hand doesn't even know there IS a left hand. Memos must be sent. E-mails exchanged. Meetings held. Just to talk to someone.

In the fascinating documentary The Corporation, the premise revolves around the idea that corporations are sociopaths (which, I suppose, lends credence to the dumb-ass idea that corporations are people). Corporate marketing this narrowly targeted, this dishonest, is exactly what a serial killer does. Serial killers have types. Serial killers are predators. They seek out the right type, and then find a way to make them vulnerable. You know... like a focus group. Ted Bundy used a cast and an excuse to lure his victims into his van. He used vulnerability, because his study of a particular segment of the population told him that that would be effective. Like corporations do with targeted marketing. Serial killers, sociopaths, need to control the fantasy. They create it. They control it. At all costs. That's not too different from how corporate marketing works, except for the whole murder part of it. And corporations do this because it works. They need to satisfy the board and the shareholders. So they create a narrative. It's never a true narrative, though, because it's not about being creative in that way. It's a false narrative. Sometimes it's a super damned lie. But because corporations control everything, it's very easy for them to create and control a narrative. The first thing they must do after deciding upon their narrative is control the passion and emotion associated with it. So your passion and emotion don't mean anything unless they conform to the corporate narrative. Because passion that is specific to only one person is suspect. It's dangerous because it can't be controlled.

The corporations, which include the corporation of the Breeder's Cup, have taken the horse right out of the equation. There were people walking past me who were wondering how to bet. WTF? Forget all the food tents and Westfield Mall hat contest (I can't even) and the celebration of the sluts on parade, of the pretty, vapid girl who is so malleable that all the corporations fight for her cash. What about the teenagers who love horse racing and came to their first Breeder's Cup only to discover that they couldn't even stand by the walking ring? Or go anywhere near the winner's circle, because that too had a sponsor and a velvet rope? This was a perfect opportunity to get people interested in racing, to teach them about it, and they had chopped up Santa Anita into so many little sponsored pockets that they didn't even have room for ANYTHING having to do with horse racing. Breeder's Cup history? Forget it. Nowhere to be seen. Even the magnificent Zenyatta statue, visible when you first enter the gates, was dwarfed by food tents and a tent bar where the Grey Goose was flowing.

So instead of possibly growing the brand of the Breeder's Cup, WHICH IS ABOUT HORSES, Breeder's Cup decided to woo the party girls and boys who will never be back again. I guess it's an easy choice for them, since the Breeder's Cup is a once-a-year event. But for Santa Anita, for the tracks who are now stuck hosting this thing, it doesn't afford them the opportunity to use the biggest two days in racing to generate any further interest. And as someone who's watched since the first Breeder's Cup, that's a damned shame. There are so many fantastic stories over the two days but the Breeder's Cup no longer uses that narrative. The sociopath has been unleashed. One thing that struck me was how many idiot women the commentators talked to, while at the same time a woman with an actual skill, Rosie Napravnik, was winning her first Breeder's Cup race aboard Shanghai Bobby. And Kathy Ritvo was the first woman to train a horse in the Classic and just missed with Mucho Macho Man.

But America doesn't care about women making it in a male-dominated industry. America doesn't like its women hard-working, dedicated and talented. This insipid wooting over hats and rad chicks is just as destructive as the idiotic notion that stripper classes empower women. And yes, this Female Correspondent, Michelle Beadle (@MichelleDBeadle), said RAD. Like it's thirty years ago. This is peddled to the American consumer. The corporations want little girls to WANT to be these women because that's always going to be the target audience for their marketing. But there were a lot of little girls who wanted to be Rosie Napravnik this weekend, who wanted to be Kathy Ritvo or Julie Krone or Barbara Livingston or Donna Brothers or Tammy Fox. There was just nowhere at the Breeder's Cup for them.

I mean really, the prettiest woman at the Breeder's Cup was Royal Delta.

I didn't talk to one person who wasn't furious about how the general admission fans were being treated. Security was full-on nasty and obnoxious. Communication, which is always a problem with corporate "events," was non-existent. And there appeared to be enmity between Santa Anita and Breeder's Cup, which is amazing when you think about it because Santa Anita is owned by a massive corporate whore so odious I would kneecap him if given the chance.

At the end of the day, the timeless tradition of horse racing does not mesh with the party-at-all-costs idea of a marketed event. But that didn't matter to Breeder's Cup corporate folks because there was an easy solution -- just ignore what the event actually IS. Ignore the initial reason, the heartfelt idea, that went into the creation of this event which, by the way, was incredibly unpopular at first. We obviously can't fight this juggernaut. Corporations have us, guys. We have to live with it. Most of the time it's not that hard. You can ignore the dumb shit. This, however, was unbearable. I thought about writing letters, etc, but corporations have the customer-complaint contingency built in. You can't bother them that way. The only way you can bother them is with a face-to-face.

It is going to happen, corporate overlords. One day, I will see one of you, and you will spend a very uncomfortable five minutes listening to an actual person who isn't the end result of your marketing department. And that, for me, will be enough.

Hell, at least I got to meet Laffit Pincay and Bill Mott.

The owner of Santa Anita is Frank Stronach who, like that asshole Frank McCourt, knows better than to mingle with people who want to kill him. One guy I talked to the other day said when Stronach bought Santa Anita, this poor guy cried.

The correct reaction.

Frankie's on Twitter @frankstronach, but has never tweeted. Anyone surprised? No? Currently, the CEO of Santa Anita is Mark Verge. If you've ever tried to rent an apartment in Los Angeles, you have been forced to give money to this huckster. He owns Westside Rentals, another corporation that has monetized something that should be free. He's on Twitter: @markverge. It also appears as if Stronach is trying to get Gene Simmons to help market racing.


Yes. THAT Gene Simmons. Because what Santa Anita needs MORE THAN ANYTHING is more marketing from someone who knows shit about racing. Genius move, Frank. GENIUS.

Lastly, I wanted to list the Breeder's Cup Board of Directors. I don't know exactly how the corporate strategy works but if you know anything about racing, the people on this list should know better. The CEO is Craig Fravel. Since he's been the CEO for a year, it's my guess that he was the guy who decided to make all of this happen. He doesn't appear to be on Twitter (shocker) and has two LinkedIn profiles (idiot). Barry Weisbord, who does NOT like Regular People, is on Twitter: @barryweisbord, and LinkedIn. We would have an interesting conversation. Tom Ludt is too clueless to be on Twitter but is on LinkedIn. He's also the president of Vinery.

Tom Ludt (chairman)
Jerry Crawford (vice chairman)
Helen Alexander
Antony Beck
William Farish Jr.
Craig Fravel (president and CEO)
Roy Jackson
Bret Jones
Robert Manfuso
Clem Murphy
Satish Sanan
Richard Santulli
Oliver Tait
Barry Weisbord