Friday, March 22, 2013

Film Friday: Don't Call Me Shirley

Some things you hafta pass on. 

A few weeks ago, we made our kids sit round the fire and watch one of the formative comedies of our youth.  Airplane!, the surprise hit of the summer of 1980, remains for my generation of the most hilarious films of all time.   With its plot cribbed from an old action thriller from the fifties, Zero Hour, and allusions to the Airport cycle of disaster films from the seventies (and reference to dozens upon dozens of other contemporary cultural expressions, from basketball to coffee commercials), Airplane! became an instant classic. 

I'm not going to blather on about the film, because I'd only end up quoting the entire thing.  (I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.)   There are two basic strengths of Airplane!: one is the relentlessness of its sight gags (yes, shit really does hit the fan) and language jokes ("nervous?" "Yes." "First time?" "No, I've been nervous lots of times.").  The other is the presence of veteran actors not necessarily known for comic parts, like Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and especially Leslie Nielsen, who would spend the rest of his career playing the fool.   But what keys the film so effectively is that many of the jokes resonated with the audiences of 1980.  If you're going to pass on a cherished cultural object to the next generation, you better be sure they can handle it. 

My oldest was amused by the film, but not thrilled by it.  The younger kid liked it more, but won't spend the next month quoting lines like my sister and I did for the rest of that summer.  And remember: this is 1980; we saw the film once, maybe twice in the theater.  We didn't see it again on home video, and I don't recall its first appearances on cable tv.  But the film was so imprinted on our memories that we could quote almost the entire film verbatim. 

I found myself explaining some of the jokes, which usually is a dumb thing to do, but you want kids to appreciate how damn funny a movie is.  If you have to explain that "well, there was this movie called Saturday Night Fever..." it kind of ruins your own enjoyment of the flashback in the seedy bar.  It's very funny that the Hare Krishnas tell some hippie types begging for donations, "no thanks we gave at the office," but since our kids have never seen anyone soliciting at the airport in a post-9/11 world, we have to pause the video. 

I do this all the time with them anyway, playing the role of professor.   But when it comes to the classics, I just want them to grab them and have fun.  I don't want to have to drag them along.  I've had much success with the good stuff: they've seen some of the silent masters, and the Marx Brothers, and Abbott and Costello.  So I'll keep plugging away.  I just hope I don't develop a drinking problem.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wanna Sell your e-book? The digital marketplace and the reinvention of book-owning

This piece was inspired by the following Times article that appeared about two weeks ago.

Before digital media, textual artifacts (see Bernie Gendron, "Theodor Adorno Meets the Cadillacs") were produced onto tangible material objects (paper, wax records, plastic discs, film strips, etc.) that could be bought, sold, and traded pretty much at will.  If you got tired of the books that sat on your shelf, you could try selling them at a local flea market, bring them to a used book store to see what you could get, or if you just wanted them out of your house, you could donate them to a library or any other charity.  (Replace "books" with "records" or "videos" and you have pretty much the same thing.)  Bookstores might get rid of their stock by putting unwanted material up for sale.  The second-hand book market is not as big as it used to be, but in big cities like New York, there are still plenty of places to go for them.  Many of the beloved books on my shelf came either from the legendary Strand bookstore or from the guys who set up tables right in front of the NYU library on Washington Square South.  

Of course, once you sold the book, it was gone.  You'd have to get another copy if you wanted to read it again.  Same for records, at least until the era of "home taping," but in such a case, you're making a second copy of a textual artifact before selling it.  (You could of course copy an entire book, but in some cases to make photocopies of a large book would be almost as long a task as reading it. And unless you were using copy machine at the office -- which pretty much constitutes theft -- such a move wasn't really cost-effective.)  And the courts decided long ago that the owner of a physical book/s had the right to sell it/them as he/she saw fit.  This is the essence of the secondary book/record/etc. market.

But digital technology has blown this whole concept up and brought us back to some fundamental questions about ownership and copyright. When we own a book, what is it that we own?   The courts have basically said that we can own the specific medium that contains the book, that the ideas contained belong to their creator (that's a protection against plagiarism) and the medium itself belonged to the purchaser.  But two things have happened in the digital age that make content-creators (publishers, authors, record companies and recording artists, etc.) very very nervous.

First, the on-line flea market.  It's one thing for a guy to schelp a vanload of books around the Village.  It's another thing for that guy to sell tons of books for cheap via e-bay et al.  The on-line used book market has freaked out publishers, who obviously don't get any of that revenue.   Used books aren't just for college students anymore; everyone can buy them, and anyone can sell them.  Titles are less hard to find than they used to be (except for one important element, which I'll get to later).  When Amazon started selling used books, the publishers had a shit-fit.

Second, the digitization of content.  Once it became easy for recordings and books to be available digitally, the kinds of logistical restrictions created by the need for material goods like paper and plastic were theoretically irrelevant.  With instantaneous delivery of content to a computer, an entire network of manufacture and distribution became unnecessary (and another one --for the new hardware of computers and tech toys -- became popular).  The music industry had to respond first, because once programs existed that could rip CD audio files to compressed formats like mp3, sharing of recordings was a piece of cake, especially after Napster was developed.  The RIAA sees file sharing as piracy, as we know, and there are a number of famous cases of people being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars over a handful of files shared.  (I will refrain from commenting on the evils of this association, a contempt that I have had since the days of home-taping.)  But once digital books were marketed, the publishing industry has followed suit, and they are working hard to figure out a way for people to share and sell books without dooming the industry.

Authors and publishers are very much afraid that there will be no content anymore, since how can an author make any money writing if it's so easy for people to access content for free?  Public libraries offer free access to digital content, and borrowers will never have to worry about fines; when their right to read/listen/view is up, the file can be automatically deleted from the borrower's digital device/s. As companies work to develop a mechanism whereby a consumer can sell a digital copy of a book (and thus lose the ability to read it on his/her own devices), the industry fears that it will be too costly to continue to publish.

I'm very much of the belief that information should be as free and as free-flowing as possible.  The insane copyright regulations -- which allow Disney to hold on to the image of the Mouse nearly a hundred years after he was first drawn -- are a detriment to the distribution of content.  One of the problems of extending copyright protection to books is that publishers won't bother publishing long-out-of-print books still under copyright, and many items simply will disappear from library shelves and other archives.  That's the drawback of the digital age; it's also the age where copyright protections are extended beyond any degree of fairness to the public at large.

I go back to the point that John Perry Barlow made ages ago: the group he wrote lyrics for, the Grateful Dead, allowed fans to tape concerts.  Despite having only one top 40 hit in twenty years, they remained a top-grossing concert act every year from the early seventies until Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. That popularity is related, directly, to the passing and sharing of tapes of shows that inspired fans to come out and see them.  You might have a hundred concerts on tape (or digital file), but there's still nothing like seeing your favorite act on stage.  Creative artists will have to continue to express themselves in unique ways and that uniqueness will bring the crowds.

To get back to books and ownership.  We don't consume books and other cultural products the way we do ordinary commodities.  As Gendron notes, if I like how Comet cleanser cleans my sink, I can buy more Comet when my can is empty.  But if I like a particular book, I'm not going to buy multiple copies of the same book. I have to find other books like it.  (That's part of Amazon et al's algorithms: if you like this book, try this; people who bought this book also bought...) But now books and movies are not bound to their material form; there isn't a material artifact we can hold.  As such, regulations should be created to allow the freest flow of information as possible.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sympathy in Steubenville...for the rapists...?

Two members of the Steubenville, Ohio, football team were found guilty of raping a girl at a party last August.  You can find all the details wherever you choose.

Here's a clip from The Onion, created in 2011, about a fictional college jock and his trouble with an arrest for rape.

College Basketball Star Heroically Overcomes Tragic Rape He Committed

I remind you: The Onion is satire.   But considering the media coverage of the Steubenville case, you might consider otherwise. 

Nowhere on CNN's coverage of the verdict was any sympathy expressed for the 16-year-old victim.  It was all about how these two young men's lives were ruined.  And the other media outlets weren't much better in their commentary.

I didn't follow this case as closely as I should have.   But the Onion video resonates very clearly.  The media do tend to look for ways of excusing talented male athletes for doing horrible things to women, if there is any possibility of doing so.  It's not about "legitimate rape." It's about legitimizing rape.  Rape is first and foremost about control.  And let's not kid ourselves about how willing men are to give up any of it. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In Memory: The Big East 1979-2013

As I write this, the final twenty minutes of the Big East men's college basketball championship are about to be played, and it's probably fitting that the head coaches of both schools are two old friends and opponents.  Jim Boeheim was the head coach at Syracuse when it agreed to join the new conference being created by a number of Catholic basketball powerhouses in 1979.   Rick Pitino, now coach of the Louisville Cardinals, who trail at half by 13 points to Boeheim's Orange, was coach of Providence in the mid-eighties, and took a team to the Final Four in 1987.   But both Boeheim and Pitino will be leaving the Big East, eventually landing in an expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, a basketball power with several excellent football programs.   And the Big East, which has always been first and foremost a basketball-dominant conference, will be broken down and rebuilt. 

I won't spend a lot of time on the history of this conference; you can find many places to look for such stories.  And of memories, here's a nice one about one moment back in 1987, the year St. John's Walter Berry seemed to come from nowhere to block Syracuse's Pearl Washington to preserve a conference title for Lou Carnesecca's Redmen (now called the Red Storm).   I'm just speaking as a guy who came of age in the heyday of the Big East, who spent four years at one of its schools watching some great players, and how disappointing it is to see it all in pieces. 

I've had associations with three different Big East schools.  My brother went to St. John's, and I remember how thrilling their unexpected run to the Elite Eight was in 1979, featuring a win over Duke in the regional semifinals.  That was the last season before the Catholic school from Queens got together with Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, Boston College, the University of Connecticut, and Syracuse to form the Big East, whose primary sport would be basketball rather than football.  (Getting Syracuse to join was a big deal; they had a successful football program with a new facility, the Carrier Dome, and some fairly impressive history: Jim Brown played there.)   A few years later, three Big East teams were in the Final Four.   I went to college at the University of Pittsburgh, which joined the Big East in 1982.  Many an uphill walk I took to the Fitzgerald Field House to watch the Panthers play in and out of conference games.  We had one year where we could have made some noise, but lost to Will Purdue's Vanderbilt team.  I worked at Seton Hall University a few years ago, long after most successful years in the late eighties, but the team could still fill the Prudential Center in nearby Newark. 

The in-conference rivalries were fierce ones, the most famous being Georgetown-Syracuse, but I know that when it came time to the NCAA tournament, I wanted all the Big East teams to do well.  Pitt and West Virginia were rivals in football more than basketball; I wouldn't like to lose to the Mountaineers on the hardwood, either, but come March, you want all the kids to go out and represent.  And boy it seemed like they all could.  In its relatively short existence, the Big East managed to win 6 NCAA titles, and five championship runners-up. 

There are a lot of important players in the success of the Big East.  Boeheim's teams have been models of consistency over his legendary career.  John Thompson and Lou Carnesecca had great battles with their top teams, including a famous game in 1985 when St. John's was Number 1 hosting Number 2 Georgetown at Madison Square Garden, and Thompson came out wearing a copy of Carnesecca's famous lucky sweater. (It was about three sizes large, of course.)   UConn's hiring of Jim Calhoun in 1986 changed the entire future of the University, not just the basketball program: Calhoun won three national titles, and his counterpart on the women's basketball side, Gino Auriemma, has had even greater success.  But put all the big movers and shakers aside, including founder Dave Gavitt, the conference's first commissioner.  The most important decision made to join the Big East was made by an 18-year-old Jamaican-born kid from Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

When Patrick Ewing signed his letter of intent to go to Georgetown in 1981, the Big East was destined to be on the map.  Ewing played four seasons there, and in three of them the Hoyas were in the championship game, winning once in 1984.  He was a defensive force; in the 1982 final against North Carolina, the Tar Heels' first two baskets were actually goaltending calls against Ewing.   The Hoyas have had some good teams since Ewing went on to a Hall of Fame career in New York, though they have never dominated the conference as they did. 

The Big East had a few expansions and shakeups in the past decade, and it was hard to follow the conference with 16 teams in it, as what happened in 2005.  Ultimately the difficult relations between the schools with football programs and those without them broke under the pressure of television money, which is driven by the latter despite the enormous popularity of March Madness.  Syracuse and Pitt's decision to leave the conference sealed its fate.  Other football schools followed, joining wherever they could.   The "Catholic 7" schools that remain -- original teams Providence, Seton Hall, Georgetown, and St. Johns, along with 1980 joinee Villanova and 21st-century members DePaul and Marquette -- have secured the rights to the name "Big East" and will form a basketball conference  for the upcoming season, with the remaining teams who have not yet fled elsewhere creating a new conference.  It may be great for those teams, and maybe they will matter again as they once did, in my youth, but it won't be the same.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Film Friday: Remakes are not always Fakes

This week, a stage production of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's is in previews on Broadway.  Naturally, people are curious, and will compare Emilia Clarke's performance as Holly Golightly to Audrey Hepburn's.  While critics might debate whether Hepburn really was the right actor to play Holly, being too classy (and therefore not a "real phony," to use O. J. Berman's classic phrase) for a girl who takes money for sexual favors (which are smoothed out by Hollywood into "trips to the powder room"),  the image is indelible: the tall thin brunette in stunning Givenchy dresses and a footlong cigarette holder.   (Likewise the image of Frankenstein's monster is forever associated with the make-up job on Boris Karloff for James Whale's version of Mary Shelley's novel.)

Clarke admits it: you can't top perfection.   One of the things about a visual text like a film is that it creates icons, larger than life as the cliche goes, and they are hard to replace.  How many times have we heard or even uttered the phrase, "I can't believe they're remaking..." 

But how many different versions of classical myths do you think the ancient Greeks saw? How many different versions of various historical kings and queens did Elizabethan groundlings see? Why should we get bent out of shape when remakes come out? (Yes, of course many do suck, but usually they suck anyway, regardless of comparisons to an "original.")

Consider this: in 1936 Alfred Hitchcock made a film about a man falsely accused of murder who travels across a nation to clear his name and find the spy ring that's plotting to export a serious national secret (and that was responsible for the murder).  It was called The 39 Steps.  A few years later, in America, he makes the same kind of film, but set in America instead of England and Scotland: Saboteur.  Finally, a little less than twenty years later, he makes the story yet again, this time having the man travel North by Northwest, which is of course the film's title, taking him from New York to Mount Rushmore.   This last version, starring Cary Grant, Eva-Marie Saint, James Mason, and a cropduster, has become an acknowledged classic of the Hitchcock canon.  Which film is really "better"?

And speaking of Hitchcock, this week will also mark the beginning of a new series on A&E, Bates Motel, a "prequel" to the Master's masterpiece Psycho, about Norman Bates as a teenager, living with his mother, who has an actual name!  What's interesting is that the series is set in the present-day, rather than in the fifties.  This allows the producers to focus on what really matters, the mother-son dynamic, rather than getting the period details right. (Save that for Mad Men.) 

Since so many films are adaptations of books anyway, it's hard to point to a single authentic representation (a real phony, as it were).   The actors who headed up the Hogwarts case of the Harry Potter series will remain important for at least a generation, especially Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, but some time a new Potter will emerge (especially if those who retain control also pay attention to numbers).   Think of the various reboots of comic book heroes, especially Spiderman.  John Wayne's Rooster Cogburn is an emblem, but the Coen Brothers still made a beautiful version of Charles Portis's True Grit.   Warner Brothers made two versions of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon before Humphrey Bogart played the lead part and made it part of our "code of honor." 

Remakes can allow us to re-think the "source" text one again, and even perhaps to question the notion of an original source.  Psycho is a good example, it being based on a novel that itself was based on a true story. The great comic team of Zucker-Abrams-Zucker took about an old action film Zero Hour and turned it into Airplane!, the definitive comedy of the early 1980s.  A real phony, indeed. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Nanny" Bloomberg and the Soda Rebellion

As you know by now, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his Department of Health were foiled in their absurd scheme to ban giant-sized sugary drinks.  As this blog noted recently, the bureaucracy behind the move was maddening, especially in the realm of coffee drinks.   A few interesting points worth continuing discussing. 

First, it was interesting to observe Bloomberg's comments on the issue of obesity in poorer neighborhoods in the city, neighborhoods with less access to healthier food choices.  Basically, he told the public that such poor people have to be looked after because they are unable to look after themselves.  Now, I know what he means, but it sure comes across as condescending.  What he means is that in these economically depressed neighborhoods, with higher rates of crime, higher rates of high school dropouts, and limited opportunities, poor people will make the easier choice of ordering a Number Five from McCrapola with a Super-Sized Soda.  It may or may not be true, but I suppose it's easier to take away such options instead of, well, making sure that public school kids have adequate phys ed classes instead of cutting them down

Yep that's right.  The Mayor is concerned about kids' obesity, but providing more gym classes -- and hiring more gym teachers -- is not an option. Banning the super-size is. 

Second, I'd like to respond to a video post from my friend over at the Lancaster Newspapers, Gil Smart, who commented on the soda snafu this week.  

In his video, Gil mocked conservatives who are outraged at Bloomberg's nanny-like position on the soda ban.  And it's true that this is evidence of government run amuck, and yes, if they can take away our super-size drinks, then taking away our super-sized weaponry can't be far behind, I'm sure.  The New York Post ran an image of Bloomberg as Mary Poppins after the ban was defeated, and we all know that the beverage industry lobbied hard to get the public to tell the Mayor where to go on this deal. 

But I know more than a few liberals who also thought this ban was a stupid way to solve the problem of obesity in the city.  And some of them aren't soda drinkers, either.  They just see that this kind of approach is only slightly more rational than Prohibition.   (I also hate to see something like this passed because it only further strengthens the anti-government nuts' arguments about intrusive public policies, and I'd rather they not have any rhetorical ammo.)

The thing that makes the soda ban absurd its uneven application. As I noted last post, convenience stores are exempt from the ban, and you can still buy the two-liter bottles of soda at a grocery store or supermarket, while Domino's can't deliver you the same amount of soda with your pizza.   So some businesses will benefit from the ban, and others will be hurt by it.  (Restauranteurs went crazy over the smoking ban, afraid they'd lose business, especially from foreign tourists who love to smoke. I suspect that those businesses that have gone under in the last five or ten years did so because the economy took a bad turn, not because Europeans refused to come to New York.)

While Gil mocked the conservative cry of "freedom!" over the right to have a 48-ounce Mountain Dew, he also says that he understands the anger they feel over the "nanny state" that the soda ban represents.  But in a general sense, a government is supposed to protect people from all kinds of troubles, from terrorism to tuberculosis.  Right now, there's an issue about horse meat being sneaked into our beef supply.  The government's role is to investigate this, as it would about bacteria.  (Only the meatpacking industry owners might like to go back to the days before Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.)  Obesity is a problem, as is diabetes.  And national and local departments of health should be trying hard to solve these problems as they would for other illnesses that may not be connected to lifestyle but by genetic chance. 

Remember this:  one of the really despicable behaviors of the tobacco industry was to bury concrete evidence linking smoking to cancer.  The other was manipulating levels of nicotine in the product to keep people hooked.  Imagine if the government hadn't come down on the industry like it did, and that people were smoking cigarettes not knowing about these manipulations and machinations.    Sure, people might be the ones who choose to light up, but the playing- and knowledge- fields are not equal; the pusher from tobacco country knows that cigarettes are cancer sticks and that the nicotine levels are altered to keep the smoker coming back for more.  Imagine the auto industry without government pushing it to provide better safety measures.  You get the idea.

As Gil points out, we often end up paying for people's poor food choices anyway, as we did with people's poor smoking choices.  Employers lost productivity from workers and paid lots of health care costs related to smoking employees, and taxpayers also provide health care through their taxes for people who can't afford health care but smoke and drink too much soda.  But one solution adopted regarding cigarettes can and should be adopted regarding sugary drinks: tax the shit out of them. (Gil says "hell" but I've been saying "shit" from the first day I heard about this ban.) 

Right now, most of what people pay for cigarettes is in the form of taxes.  Those funds go directly into public healthcare insurance.  You may be funding your own lung cancer treatments next time you light up.  And that's what should be done with sodas. Tax the shit of them.  You can hit pretty much everyone, supermarkets, groceries, and restaurants.  (oh, I'd also tax the diet sodas, because that NutraSweet crap is really really bad for you.)  The revenue generated could go to fund low-cost health-insurance in the city and/or state, as tobacco taxes are.  This is an important economic philosophy: when calculating cost, you ought to calculate its long-term effect.  If we taxed cars made with internal combustion engines the way we tax cigarettes, Detroit would be making only electric cars by now.   

I'm glad the ban didn't go into effect.  I doubt very much I will be ordering a super-size soda anyway.  I too looked at my pictures at my high school reunion -- standing right next to Gil in one or two of them -- and I'm trying to lose the damn weight too.   But the method of solving a serious problem by banning certain size, to borrow from Frank Zappa's comments on labeling music for its content, is kind of like solving the problem of dandruff by decapitation. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

(No!) More Sugar??? Is Mayor Bloomberg Kidding????

Tomorrow the silly soda ban begins in New York City:  restaurants will not be allowed to sell sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces.  Customers will be allowed to refill their drinks, or have their drinks refilled.  (Yes, since normally a 32-ounce drink is cheaper than 16-ounce ones, then customers who like their soda are going to pay more.)   Deliveries will be affected, since restaurants will not be allowed to sell large sized bottles of soda.  (Domino's is really really torqued off by this thing.)

But the real idiocy will happen at your local barista.   If you want a coffee larger than 16 ounces, be aware that if you like it very sweet, that server at Dunkin' Donuts will only be able to put a certain number of sugar packets in that coffee of yours.  Of course, you can put as much sugar as you want, but the restaurant can't do it, or face fines up to $2,000 bucks.

Simple question:

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

This is just plain silly.  There's a whole set of guidelines as to what kind of drink is allowed a certain amount of sugar.  Lattes are not held to this standard because they have lots of milk, which is still nutritious (until we start letting aspartame in the milk and still call it milk).  Zero-calorie sweeteners of course are exempt, so you can have your barista put in all the sweet and low and splenda and the aforementioned aspartame you want.   But why is the city making it so complicated for people?

There is a lawsuit against this ban, and who knows if the next mayor of the city will keep the ban, if it does survive the lawsuit.  I tend to be supportive of the idea that government is actually a generally decent thing: I think it's good to have the food industry regulated to keep disease from my food; I like that drugs have to be federally approved before being sold on the marketplace; I like having roads; I think having authorities make sure the water is clean is pretty nice.  (Worth noting: the Clean Air and Water Act was signed into law by Richard Nixon.)   But this seems like a really ridiculous intrusion into consumer preferences.  It treats the consumer like a child.  Worse, my tax dollars are being spent to have people figure out how much sugar is supposed to be in this or that coffee, and health inspectors are going to have to spend extra time trying to make sure the Starbucks barista hasn't overdone it on the sugar instead of checking for botulism or rodents in the Dunkin' Donuts.

Let's face it; soda is really bad for you.  Too much sugar is bad for you.  If you want to tax the hell out of such products, and use those funds to help fund health care in the city, that's fine with me.  (That's where a lot of the taxes on tobacco products go.)  But simply to take the choices off the menu is petty and wasteful for everyone.

From the Archives: An Amusing Music Index Entry

A while back I posted an entry from an old Music Index blog I was constructing.  Here's another one; I must admit, I liked this short entry:

Sypro Gyra is to jazz fusion what Gerber is to vegetables: crushed, pureed, mashed up product designed for a market that can't digest the real thing (only Gerber's is a tad more nutritous).  Not really terrible, but not really engaging stuff.  The kind of thing you hear at art gallery openings by people who don't know much about music (or for that matter, art).

Friday, March 8, 2013

Film Friday: An Old Movie Giant continues to "slim down"

One of the most amazing symbols of the enormous growth of the internet was the merger between America Online and Time Warner, which was really a case (Steve Case?) of AOL buying out Time Warner, though key Warner executives would remain in positions of authority.   That an internet company had become so powerful that it could buy out one of the largest media conglomerates in the world was impressive enough.  It was the first indicator of the ways that traditional and new media were being combined to create a new kind of mass media content. 

But this wild diversification of Time Warner has created an unwieldy monster.  Before the decade was over, AOL had been spun off From Time Warner, and after a deal with another publisher fell through, Time Inc, the magazine end of the media conglomerate, will be spun off into a new, publicly traded company. (Note that this also comes after Time Warner got rid of its interests in record labels.) 

Let's face it: magazines are in deep trouble, even as Warner honchos insists that Time Inc will greatly benefit from the spinoff.  (I'll talk about how the death of print may be a bit premature in some other post.)   So by slimming down its peripheral assets, Time Warner is returning to a fundamental approach to entertainment provision; they are going to be a company that produces film and tv shows and also provides cable television service.   Their primary purpose will remain as a distributor of audiovisual content, which is what they've been since almost the beginning.

The Warner Brothers -- Jack, Sam, Harry, and Albert -- opened their first movie theater in 1903, and a year late began distributing films and opening more theaters.  Eventually they became involved in production, ultimately buying out First National pictures and releasing some of the earliest sound films in Hollywood, most famously The Jazz Singer.   This move vaulted them into being one of the five major studios in the old Studio System: they had facilities to produce films, they could distribute them and show them in theaters that they owned. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court decided that this vertically integrated practice violated Constitutional law, forcing the major studios to sell their theater chains.  (Think of movie screens the same way you'd look at all the other screens in your life: they're all part of the package.)  But since deregulation, Time Warner is able to devour other media sources and get involved in cable tv.  That era has already become part of the history, alongside the original names.   One veteran executive, speaking in the 1970s of the difference between the "new Hollywood" and the classical Hollywood era, said, in those days we made pictures; today we make deals.   With the spinoff, Time Warner is going to be back to what it knows what to do: make and sell movies. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Holy UK Joker! Man Dressed as Batman brings in his crook friend!

My dad used to tell me about the old Batman movie serials of the forties: silly stuff, and because they hadn't yet developed the kind of tights that emphasized the musculature, Batman looks fat in those serials! Seriously, take a look and you'll see that this serial makes Adam West look like the Terminator.

Well, apparently someone decided to pay homage to the old serial films, as this story tells it:

Who's this joker?

The British media is going batty over footage of a chubby crime-fighter bringing a wanted crook to justice while dressed in an old-school Batman costume.

The Caped Crusader stunned cops at the police station in Bradford, West Yorkshire, on Feb. 25 when he showed up with a track suit-wearing thug in tow.

 "I've caught this one for you," the masked vigalente told cops, The Telegraph newspaper reported.

The 27-year-old suspect was a two-bit thief wanted for burglary. He's due in court on Friday, according to reports.

Meanwhile, the vigilante -- whose baggy gray getup and yellow emblem recalled Adam West's TV Batman from the 1960’s -- "promptly vanished into the night," a police spokesman said.

The costume is the Adam West era, but it's worth noting that West's costume is similar to, if better fitting than, the serial Batman's costume.  

Interestingly, this caped crusader has taken off his cowl to reveal the truth! Seems that he went to a football match in the costume -- which actually makes perfect sense -- and while at the match he got a call from a friend who was wanted for burglary and wanted to turn himself in.  Our hero -- in real life a  39-year-old Chinese food delivery guy -- agreed to turn him in after he came home from the match, at about one in the morning. (His drive home from the stadium is a long one, about three and a half hours.)   Rather than change out of the costume -- or, quite sensibly, simply take the suit off and wear the tracksuit that he had on underneath it for warmth -- this guy, Stan Worby (a great alter ego for a costumed superhero, doncha think?), kept it on, and I guess he and his burglar friend thought it'd be funny if he brought him in as Batman. 

As it turns out, they were right.  It's very funny. 

Worby blames the "fatman" look on that tracksuit, which he wore to keep himself warm at the football match.   He's not very amused at all the jokes the video of his "heroics" has inspired.   I hope Adam West sends him a note.  I hafta check twitter, see if he's already said something about this!

William Carlos Williams and some French "Portraits"

In 1920, William Carlos Williams published a poem called "Portrait of a Lady."   It has nothing to do with the Henry James novel of the same name.  Its central theme is the efforts of the speaker to describe his passion for a lady with references to the French rococo painter Jean Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), but fumbling over himself and also referring to another, late-rococo painter Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806).   Here is the poem:

Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady's
slipper. Your knees
are a southern breeze -- or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of man was Fragonard?
-- As if that answered
anything. -- Ah, yes. Below
the knees, since the tune
drops that way, it is
one of those white summer days,
the tall grass of your ankles
flickers upon the shore --
Which shore? --
the sand clings to my lips --
Which shore?
Agh, petals maybe. How
should I know?
Which shore? Which shore?
-- the petals from some hidden
appletree -- Which shore?
I said petals from an appletree.

My first advice: Ladies, if a guy compares your thighs to appletrees, run the other way.

In very general terms, we might imagine that this poem is either a dialogue between the speaker and his "lady love," or it's the speaker trying out lines of praise and correcting/sabotaging himself.  The questions being asked throughout -- "which sky?" "what sort of man was Fragonard?" "Which shore?" "How should I know?" -- undermine the speaker's efforts.  

One way of understanding the poem is to look at two paintings, one by Watteau, one by Fragonard, whose titles are both usually translated the same into English: The Swing.  Here's the Watteau:

It's a crappy image, but you can see the kind of pastoral texture: the soft, "perfect" sunlight, the bucolic setting.  It's an image of innocent love.

Now for the Fragonard:

It's a bit naughtier, eh? First you have a "threesome"! The man on the left has, shall we say, a rather interesting view.  So, interestingly do the cherubs in statuette, from behind the woman's, er, behind. This is no idyll: it's a very bawdy parody of the Watteau.

Williams first introduces the Watteau in answer to the "which sky" question: "The sky/Where Watteau hung a lady's/slipper." Except, the speaker is wrong: look at the Fragonard, and you'll see the lady's slipper hanging in the air, and evidently having just been kicked off her foot, in a suggestive manner.  Later, the rhetorical question appears: "Agh!what" sort of man was Fragonard?/ --As if that answered anything." Again, is this another speaker? Is this the poem's speaker?  By mentioning Fragonard, we can see that the speaker -- or perhaps Williams, though I doubt it -- is conflating the two paintings.

One way of reading the poem is that while the speaker may have as his spoken intentions the innocent romance of the Watteau, the poet's "true" intentions are those represented by the Fragonard.  It's worth noting that all the imagery of the woman herself refers to her lower half: thighs compared to apple trees, knees to a southern breeze, the ankles to tall grass.  The trope of comparing the female body parts to things found in nature is an old one; it was a popular convention during the Renaissance, for example.  But the constant interruptions on the part of the lady -- or of the speaker himself, struggle to write a love poem -- completely undermine the attempt at romance, and place it squarely where the meaning lies: below the waist. The reference to the two paintings helps the reader to get to the heart  of the matter...or rather, the thighs of the matter.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Beast that Killed Beauty

My friend Bryan, who blogs at “that’s what I was going to say,” posted a piece commemorating the 80th anniversary of the release of King Kong, the original, classic adventure film directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoesdack.  He asked that I weigh in on the film and his assessment of it, and so here goes.

I must at admit it’s been ages since I sat through the whole thing, possibly not since childhood. Because WOR in New York owned the back catalog of all the great RKO films, the channel regularly broadcast that catalog on the weekends, and on their “8 O’Clock movie” almost every night (when they weren’t broadcasting Mets games).  Kong was in regular rotation, more frequent than Citizen Kane or even the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films.  By the time I was watching the film, it was already a classic deemed suitable for children, when in 1933, so legend has it, women fainted in the aisles at its premiere.

Of course the film thrilled me then.   The Big Ape was an amazing, tragic figure: exploited by commercial opportunists and never fully understood.  And as a kid, when most of your life is very much controlled and plotted out for you, it’s always fun to see a  good deal of wholesale destruction: the attack on the elevated train is aesthetically remarkable and, for a child, psychically satisfying. Kong’s fall from the Empire State Building is perhaps less impressive, but given the narrative of Kong’s end, it delivers a real sense of tragedy.  

In thinking about the conditions of my viewing the film, I realize that Kong was one of many monstrous animals who came across my tv screen in the seventies.  Audiences in 1933 never heard of Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah the 3-headed monster, Gamara the giant turtle, etc. Nor had they seen the Americanized animal victims of nuclear activity: the Deadly Mantis, or the giant ants of Them! (which still terrorizes me).   Audiences would soon of course get their fill of sequels like Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young.  But forty years after the original, I was watching Kong in that context: indeed one of the most hyped up films from the sixties was King Kong vs. Godzilla; watching it in the seventies, we couldn’t help draw analogies to the great heavyweight fighters of the era: Kong was Ali to Ken Norton or Joe Frazier’s Godzilla.  ( I know, Ali called Frazier the “gorilla” before the thrillah in Manilla, but Ali was our hero, as Kong was in the fight against the Big Lizard.)

One way of looking at all the monster films coming from Japan in the fifties and sixties is to compare them to the original Kong.  It’s an unfair comparison; most of the Japanese films were cheapies intended for that younger audience, while Kong was a prestige picture.  The Japanese monster films did have allegory on their side: the relationship between the emergence of the monsters and the atomic bombings was obvious enough a theme.  That doesn’t change the obvious fact that Kong is a beautiful film, with special effects that far outpaced the Japanese competitors and a narrative with a real emotional core.  Carl Denham may be a greedy impresario, but his characterization of Kong and Ann Darrow is dead-on: it’s a love story.   Except that it’s a pretty obsessive love story of a guy who, forgive me, goes ape over a pretty girl.  I think Bryan’s assessment is on target.  

That said, when I think of the way we did compare the monsters to those great fighters in the boxing ring, another discourse opens up, one that has been articulated by scholars and critics alike: that of race.  

Legend has it that Fay Wray was asked by the producers, “how would you like to work with the tallest darkest leading man in Hollywood?”  Now, in those days, to refer to a man as tall and dark did not necessarily refer to his ethnicity.  But the producers were obviously talking about Kong, who in reality was an 18-inch miniature brought to amazing life by Willis O’Brien’s special effects.  It really isn’t much of a stretch to see the giant Kong as a metaphor for the white people’s anxieties about black masculinity; that racist stereotype goes back to the antebellum south and was spreading to northern cities, as the Black population increased.   An interesting essay from the Journal of American Culture relates Kong to Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, published seven years after Kong.    The allegory of slavery is also obvious: Kong is captured in a faraway land and brought to America in chains.  (Is it coincidence that less than a year after the 1976 remake of Kong, ABC produces its adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots?)

It’s also worth noting that the film was made just a few years after the famous “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, where the ACLU challenged state law by getting a volunteer teacher, John Scopes, to teach evolution in a biology classroom for the purpose of his getting arrested for violating a law prohibiting teaching Darwin.   The notion of man’s descending from apes was a popular one, the subject of debate and also of ridicule.  One of the more nefarious aspects of the popularization of Darwin’s theory was to give fuel for racists who saw Africans as closer to the ape and chimp end of the simian spectrum than Caucasians.   The reference to Blacks as apes and monkeys has become a politically incorrect rhetoric.  

It’s also fair to point out that while Kong may subconsciously reflect those white anxieties, Kong himself is the most complex character in the film.  As most critics point out, he is in many ways more human than the rest of the characters around him.   His love of Ann Darrow is intense, but it’s not the stereotype of the Black man shouting, “hey where are the white women at?”   The stereotypes can be found in the portrayal of the “primitives” on Skull Island, grass-skirt-wearing “darkies” who chant and dance and pay homage to King Kong.  They are the subjects of the kind of documentary Carl Denham might otherwise make were it not for Kong, and they would be represented in a condescending manner.  

Yes, it’s “only a movie.”  But I know better than that.  Movies don’t exist in a vacuum.  We bring to them our own histories to them, and society brings its.  I don’t think it’s possible for me to watch King Kong without that awareness. But I ought to try soon, and then follow it up by watching Django Unchained.  

Friday, March 1, 2013