Archive for category Film

The Gilded Age of Television

The television landscape may be doing some pretty great forms of entertainment, but the severe lack of diversity has been more problematic than critics seem willing to admit. Why?

I feel bad for Lena Dunham. The creator and showrunner for HBO’s Girls has gotten a lot of flack for the lack of racial, social and/or sexual diversity in her critically-lauded show, and it’s not really her fault. She has no responsibility to speak for an American society that now has more minority babies than Caucasian ones, or for the scores of homosexual people concerned over the future of marriage. The onus is really on the executives to greenlight and schedule shows that involve minorities, as well as promote them with the same rigor that they would their flagship shows. Girls have been receiving the backlash primarily on two fronts: 1) its very premise and characters make it impossible to deal with the real – and complex – issues plaguing the modern twenty-something, and 2) its pedigree have been exalted so much by both creators and critics that they seem unwilling or incapable of criticizing the very problem that the so-called Golden Age of Television represents. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that borderlines on conspiratorial; critics praising shows of a singular and narrow vision for their jobs encourage creators to create shows of a singular and narrow vision for critics to praise, and so on. This problem has extended from the AV Club to even our beloved Hulk.

Points 1) and 2) are noticeable in the promo photograph for Girls:

Girls Promo Photo

(Check out the parody here, which touches upon the larger point, even though I don’t quite agree with it.)

Look at it. Just look at it. Not a single person of color or minority – and this show takes place in New York, so no one will deal with the pressures of casual racism. Not one of them is gay, so they’ll never deal with the issue of coming out (or “passing”). Hell, not one of them is geeky or fat or even different in anyway, which are all real issues twenty-somethings deal with. This photo alone showcases such a strange and narrow vision of expectations, and the show, from what I’ve heard, only confirms it. Please don’t get me wrong. Denham has no responsibility to “speak” for those outside her singular vision (although this is a serious problem with auteur theory that critics fail to address – more on this later). But everything that is endemic about TV today is encapsulated right there.

We’re not in a Golden Age of Television. We’re in a Gilded Age of Television, an era that professes a greatness that masks the numerous issues that are facing the TV landscape. There is great television out there – from Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to Community and Happy Endings, to even shows like My Little Pony and Adventure Time and Regular Show. It’s stuff I truly enjoy watching, but even with this sample we can see how the “macronarratives” lean towards the heterosexual, WASP vision of the world.¬† (Yes, even MLP – Take a look at the comments section on Youtube for any showing of the episode “Over a Barrel.” And I know that a Youtube comment section is the seventh level of hell, but I still recommend looking because it did foster a debate worth having.)

The issue, as I see it, has always been concerning auteur theory, an ideal but extremely flawed method of thinking about collaborative forms of art that ties distinctive styles and techniques to a singular person. In the broadest form, it’s a fine way of thinking about film or TV, but over the years the inherent flaws of auteur theory – the danger of discounting those “other people” who worked on the film; the limits of tying inherently “free” techniques to one (often straight, male, white, and American) person; disparaging different forms, styles, ideas, and media as having intellectual merit over others – completely fell by the wayside. Critics were careful to note these problems at the beginning of auteur theory formulation; now, it’s as if these dangers were mere trifles. There are those creators that are defined “great” and those that aren’t, and it’s odd that those “great” people are mostly, well, similar to their physical and sexual traits, defined within intellectual paradigms.

Nothing represents that most distinctly then Roger Ebert’s takedown (and subsequent non-apology) of video games as art. It’s not that I agree or disagree with him, but it’s sad, borderline embarrassing, how Ebert frames his argument, then follows all that up with some arbitrary poll when his readers can vote whether they would rather play a game or read Huckleberry Finn. As if this whole thing amuses him, the masses of people with their over-the-top and implied-uneducated-and-therefore-unworthy opinions, because of course he’d never actual, maybe, sort of, kind of, think about the issue a little. This is the modern form of criticism. It’s no longer informative, debatable, self-aware, and cautious; it’s direct, declarative, non-ironic, and bold.

And even in regards to Murray’s misappropriated essay from above, after the general disappointment and backlash against it late in the comments section, you would think there would be some sort of re-thinking of the approach the issue of “micronarrative” representation over at the AVClub and in criticism in general. But in a recent Girls review, head editor Todd VanDerWerff posts the following comment in response to the continuing Girls backslash:

“People seem completely unwilling to extend this show even an inch of intellectual/critical charity, as if every minor deviation from their own reality on the part of the show’s reality is somehow a huge failure. It’s just fucking wearying.”

Which threw that idea out the window. (Which goes doubly so for this screed on a recent Girls review, at least the second half of it.)

I know Todd and met him a few times in New York and in Los Angeles. He is a very nice person and definitely has a solid head on his shoulders. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to come off glib or dismissive, but hearing “it’s just fucking wearying” is irritating. As if we’re supposed to, once again, follow that auteur theory road that Dunham is a part of, and play their game of television art and be satisfied, because those who don’t or refuse to or even have legit reasons for their dislike is “wearying”. Poor Todd and critics like him, forced to think maybe other people have a point.

This, I believe, is the inherent reason to the internet’s backlash to people like Ebert or to shows like Girls or to places like Cartoon Brew. They simply do not, or in many cases will not, acknowledge the flaws in their criticisms or attempt to explore, legitimately, the criticisms of other places. They will not participate in those debates in any meaningful fashion; not to say they need to at every single occasion, but it’s that they don’t even bother. I have my issues with people like Jim Sterling at Destructoid or Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe (aka Jerry Holkins) or Kevin Smith, but their willingness to mix it up with the average person and willingness to explore ideas garners more points from me (and most of the internet) than most critics these days.

If more critics fall to honestly explore the problems with modern television (well, in entertainment across the board), then this Gilded Age will only grow worse, these opinions will become “rules,” and criticism will no longer be the critical thinking/exploration method like the days of old, but the biased preference of “universal” rigidity of today – which is really, really male, straight, and white.

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Digitial vs. Disks

Tasha Robinson over at the AVClub writes about defending DVDs and their proliferating existence despite a general corporate ideology hellbent on getting rid of them, in favor of streaming and online downloads – in particular, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ ill-advised price move and failed secondary company geared to take care of the DVD-by-mail division. She links to a CNET article, here, which suggests that Netflix was attempting a bold move to strike early in destroying the physical media market, in essence forcing the switch by consumers.

What struck me about the CNET write-up was the rather disingenuous analogous claim that Apple killed floppies. I understand the metaphor – Apple struck early at a dying format before it was considered dying – but I don’t think he, CNET, and the proponents of such an idea understand history – or real history outside the manner in which we think about it. Malcolm Gladwell implied it strongly here, but history is not about crazy icons making ballsy decisions, but shrewd observers understanding general changing trends that naturally occur in progressive history. These observers/innovators understand social history, the broader sense of people’s changing tastes and ideas, instead of following titans and big names. In the case of Apple, Jobs was a keen insider (Gladwell also writes about his excitement over the first prototype of the mouse), always taking what was already circling the waters and making it accessible. While floppies were still around and used, so were flash drives, Zip Disks, CDs, early DVDs, and storage drives. He knew the floppy would die on its own with its limited capacity, and producing a computer without a floppy disc drive sparked outrage, sure, but not to the extent the CNET article implies, since Apple was such a small share of the market. It could afford the miss, save money, and bide its time.

Netflix mistakenly doesn’t have that freedom, at least not yet. John August agrees with Hastings about dropping DVDs; too bad no one else does, as shown by the Netflix fallout. The company does not have the under-the-radar corporate foothold like Apple did, and by forcing a change no one wanted or was ready for, was forced to pay the PR price. August, the CNET article, and even Robinson miss a fairly basic point; it has to do with the public’s accessibility over entertainment in general. It’s not that we want it now; we want whatever, whenever, now included. Let me put it like this:

I stream movies.

I also watch DVDs.

I also game, watch live TV, and go to movies, and read both books and ebooks. I do both, and roughly in equal measure, if one takes in consideration borrowing DVDs, Netflixing, Gamefying, and buying them. The switch may be inevitable, but the infrastructure is not in place, both in a physical one (streaming quality, bandwidth, caps on data usage, complicated ownership issues and online selection) and a consumer one (direct willingness to drop to streaming cold turkey). The former will be ready maybe in about 10 years, the latter in about… 25 years. I’m not being a Luddite here, I’m being realistic. And it’s not that people hate change, it’s people have to be ready for it, willing to pay for it, and able to troubleshoot it when that all fucks up for whatever reason.

John August in particular makes a dubious claim: “shiny discs are going to go away at some point, so why not now?” I suppose you could make the same argument for gas-powered cars, by the mere fact that fossil fuel is finite and the current course of action is globally unsustainable (which is ironic, considering he uses a climate change metaphor himself). But, again, the infrastructure is not in place physically (solar/electric stations across the country, selection, price) and consumer wise (willingness to switch, ability to manage repairs). Why not now? Because history, social history, deems it not ready. Hastings may be a “big man” as history is concerned, but all big men of history were only as functional as the time period warranted.

[Concerning piracy; iTunes already proved that music could combat it with a simple, intuitive setup, and the same thing with Steam; to imply there’s a straight-forward system in place that’s for film and TV is somewhat questionable, especially with Netflix losing streaming rights and the full extent of certain shows and movies spread across so many different formats. It’s purely inefficient and costly and limited. Too many choices and avenues exist to acquire content while media companies are struggling with copyrights, finances, and so on. Why should the consumer care? It’s their problem, and until they fix it, they’ll get there content the way they like without the BS.]

Are DVDs going to go away? Of course. But not fully until we have a distinct infrastructure in place to handle it, a simple, almost guaranteed method that when I click play on a streaming service, it plays in high quality video AND sound with no hiccups, that the selection is wide and varied and accessible anywhere in the house or on the road, and I can access the cool cover art and special features that the best DVDs have – and here’s the kicker – that all films, TV shows, and games can possess. A PS3 or XBox 360 owner likes the idea of gaming and watching movies on it and streaming with it; so does PC owners, and in time, TV owners. It’s hilarious that the hardware itself is distinctly ready for the transformation of accessibility but media companies and the software isn’t. It’s also fairly funny that film/TV viewers are complaining about this issue, but gamers aren’t (not as vigorously) since they have Steam, Origins, and ease to access discs. We at TMB really strive to think about entertainment outside the walls of strict media limits; if other people did the same, we could be solving this problem quicker than we have been so far.

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Accolades with an Asterick

 

The Black Luigi

Andre 3000’s hit single “Hey Ya!” is a gleefully hyperactive song, fusing a classic rock sensibility with a modern, funky chic. It exploded on the scene in 2003, in a strange moment, when Outkast, a duo with a string of underrated, entertaining albums from¬† Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to Stankonia, decided to release separate ones. They weren’t splitting; they were exploring different things. Speakerboxx/The Love Below was the outcome. At the time, critics marveled over Andre 3000’s The Love Below’s eccentricity and random energy, and casually accepted Big Boi’s Speakerboxx. What makes this particularly weird is that Speakerboxx was inherently the better product, a fact that’s much more obvious today by most mainstream musicphiles. The Love Below is a nifty experiment, but there’s a really blatant truth here, which is most obvious on “Hey Ya,” but has yet to be quite understood: Andre 3000, while a great rapper, isn’t a good musician.

“Hey Ya” bounces and rolls with the immensity and grandeur that a great pop song can be. It works well in clubs and parties, and brightens the spirits as it bounds through its synths, basses, and fake guitar/xylophonist melodies. It’s great as a wonderful 50s-esque rock homage; not so much as a modern rock song. Andre 3000 cut his teeth as a rapper, so his voice is barely registering in this song (mainly due to the fact he can’t hit the notes, choosing to drown his voice out instead). I don’t hate “Hey Ya” (although I never loved it). It’s good, but it’s good with an asterisk.

The middle of aughts was a really, really strange period. It was around that time that Youtube REALLY hit its stride and entertainment across the board started to pick up. Artists were finding success in niches, and it seemed that executives were trying to find the formula for recapturing the splitting markets. Options? Catering to new demographics was an idea – Desperate Housewives, The Sex in the City movie. Another option was experimentation. It worked in the early 90s, when animation ripped into the TV landscape with new, bold stuff. And in desperate times, why not try it again?

Lost was such an experiment, the ABC, 6-season mindfuck that, well, didn’t turn out to be a mindfuck. A moment in time, the perfect moment for a drama to break the landscape for what could be shown on TV. It was, essentially, an art film as a TV show. Expertly acted, crafted, designed, and displayed. A buffet of skilled workmen behind the scenes, who, despite what the most hardened critics say, left viewers and audiences unsatisfied. Period.

What happened in the post-Lost TV world was, well, nothing. The real TV-game changers were The Office, Adult Swim and 24. The Office defined Thursday night comedy for NBC, and while not a ratings-smash, defined new niche comedies that a network could expunge. Adult Swim opened the niche of singular voices in animated and non-animated comedy. 24, while ridiculous, pretty much defined serial television, showcasing the ability to not possess self-contained shows to be a hit. In the advent of DVRs, Netflix, streaming, and torrents, it seems strange that television is still marred in the classic mode of storytelling. Although, it is starting to break.

The truth is, Lost did not end well. It failed to tie in its plot lines, it failed to define a followup (some people suggest Fringe, although that’s more akin to X-Files), and, well, even as a casual fan of the show, there’s no desire to go back to it. The strange thing is, Lost, like “Hey Ya,” had so much raw impact at an individual level, but came to mean nothing in the end. “Hey Ya” falls in being sung by a not-good singer on a weird but not-that-great of an album. Lost, with no strong narrative and no real endgame, failed as a TV show. Good, but with asterisk.

I also humbly submit Pan’s Labyrinth as the film equivalent of good, asterisked media. Guillermo Del Toro is an craftsman director, a visionary into the heart of creations and monsters – a modern day Henson, more or less. And while Pan’s Labyrinth had the rich fairytale rhythms and acting that hit all the right notes, it was a not-so-consistent story. The “fairytale” theme became more of a gimmick, an excuse for characters to randomly act out of character. Looking back on the question of its dream/non-dream settings, I keep wondering why and how the film managed to get to certain points without acting wildly out of sync. I can’t imagine re-watching this without a rub of the chin and a cock-eyed expression. Who has it in their top fifty films? What did we really like about this again?

The asterisk is there because I want to be clear: this is different that the typical cultural embarrassment that we’re usually engaging in. This isn’t the Macarana, 80s power rock ballads, bland raunchy comedy, 60s animation, or other forms of entertainment that was terrible content-wise AND media-wise. “Hey Ya,” musically, is solid, just as Lost was masterful television and Pan’s Labyrinth visually arresting. But as “music,” as “game-changing TV,” as “the cinematic experience,” these three mid-2000 reeked of some missing element, a lack of commitment to the real core issue – entertainment that was aggressively “forest for the trees.” In other words – Andre 3000 can’t sing, Lost failed to have an endgame, and Pan’s Labyrinth’s characters made too many uncharacteristic decisions.

Today’s entertainment seems to have taken the lessons ultimately learned from this and created… well, not better-quality material, but better contained material. Although if Terra Nova, the DC comic reboot, and Thundercats (more on this later) are the norm, then we may just be coming back full circle.

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