Monday, June 21, 2010

More televised vapidity?

"Can't get no music on my MTV / Can't tell my emotions from reality ..." —The Silver Seas, "The Best Things in Life," 2010

People my age have long complained that MTV doesn't show music videos like it used to, concentrating on reality programming like The Real World and Jersey Shore instead. I used to complain right back at them that it does, just not during prime-time hours or anytime when they happened to be watching. But at some point I stopped paying attention, and this year the network finally dropped "Music Television" from its logo, which implies that they really have given up on videos.

Does this mean the network will stop airing its ultrahyped Video Music Awards telecast each year? Of course not! As long as videos are still shown between 3 and 9 AM each day, MTV can justify throwing a party to honor the best of the year.

It will, however, begin producing more scripted programs, according to the June 14 Wall Street Journal, in an attempt to move away from its recent glut of disposable reality shows. (It'd be fun to compile a list of how many MTV has churned out in the past decade—I'd guess most didn't make it past ten episodes.) Naturally, it's taking baby steps to begin with: the Wall Street Journal reports that "in 'Warren the Ape,' the title character is a poorly behaved celebrity who hopes an MTV reality show will revive his career."

Like AMC, formerly known as American Movie Classics, and TLC, which was once the Learning Channel, MTV is now just an acronym that means nothing. Some would say that makes it FUBAR, but any channel that can survive for almost 30 years in a rapidly expanding cable universe deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

stirring the pot

In January of last year I read that DVD sales of Monty Python's Flying Circus spiked 23,000 percent (!) once Python-approved clips of the show started appearing legally on YouTube. DVDs of the influential 1976-'84 sketch-comedy series SCTV, which are packaged and distributed by Shout! Factory, have reportedly never sold well, but if potential buyers could see sample sketches on YouTube, especially clips from 1981 to '83, when SCTV was firing on all cylinders as part of NBC's late-night lineup, I bet they'd consider spending $50 on a five-disc set.

I e-mailed Second City executive vice president Kelly Leonard, who spoke with CEO Andrew Alexander, one of SCTV's original executive producers, but his reply seemed to indicate that several different companies have rights to the show's footage, thereby creating a lot of red tape to sift through. However, a few months later I noticed that SCTV clips were appearing on YouTube that weren't immediately being taken down through cease-and-desist orders.

The clips that are up on YouTube aren't coming from Second City or Shout! Factory, but it's possible the companies decided to relax their policy on the unauthorized posting of their copyrighted material.

Am I to thank for that? Yes. Yes, I am. But there was a price to pay.

One of the few SCTV-related clips I could find on YouTube in January of '09 was made by a 13-year-old boy doing impressions of his favorite characters from the show, including station owner Guy Caballero (played by Joe Flaherty) and station manager Edith Prickley (Andrea Martin), in costume. I first saw SCTV when I was around that age, so I loved watching this middle schooler's take on the characters. It reminded me how much I adored the show when it aired on Nick at Nite in the summer of '89. And if this teenager gets the humor, which didn't rely that much on topical references aside from popular TV shows and celebrities of the late '70s and early '80s, it seems obvious to me that others would, too.

Sadly, when I went back to YouTube this morning to watch his video again, I found the following message instead: "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by The Second City." Well, what about all those clips from SCTV that are now available on YouTube (remember—all because of me, and you're welcome)? There isn't any copyright claim on those? The 13-year-old fan got screwed because his video wasn't helping to sell DVDs?

In that case, I'm sorry I got involved. You can still thank me, of course, and send me money through PayPal as a sign of gratitude, but my mission was never to hurt the little guy. I feel like a morally indignant Bill Needle right now, but what I see in the mirror is a greedy Johnny LaRue.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I read books!

Correction: I own lots of books, but I'm a slow reader. My books sit on my shelves and silently mock me for being a word turtle. If they don't cut it out, I'll have to read Fahrenheit 451 to them—slowly, of course, but my point will have been made.

I am, however, going to be starting classes next month in the University of Illinois's Graduate School of Library and Information Science as part of its "distance learning" program, meaning I'll be taking all but one of the classes online from Chicago. Graduate school requires a lot of reading, yes? It might be time to retrain my brain.

Meanwhile, here are some recently completed posts with lots of pictures and little text (whew!):

2/28: Coming up with awesome book titles takes practice.
4/18: tiny weirdness on Facebook
5/4: celebrity smiles

Friday, June 11, 2010

Help us, Roger Ebert. You're our only hope.

On June 9 a reader who identifies himself as "kLO" left the following comment on the Hollywood Reporter's website under Kirk Honeycutt's negative review of The A-Team:

Dear Kirk Honeybutt. Why do film critics, ahem… sorry, I mean hacks, such as yourself always piss and moan about movies like these? I'm really convinced that the bulk of your Ebert aping colleagues (who are largely failed screenwriters themselves) time and time again, overlook or purposely gloss over what a film this is MEANT to be: Entertainment. They're not trying to say 'something' or change the world. It’s not meant to be deep and meaningful. It's meant to entertain people. It's a **** action movie for crying out loud. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. Maybe you need to go back to film school and learn film. If you don't get the A-Team (because clearly you don't) then why someone is paying you to have an opinion when it's clear to me, you have no **** clue about what an action movie is designed to do, is really astounding. Don’t quit your day job, Kirk. Actually, scrap that – yes, do quit your day job, because you’re no good at it. You’re no more a film critic than my left nut sack.

I thought the male human anatomy came with just one sack, but maybe mine is special. Regardless, what does Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, the one critic kLO seems to respect, have to say about Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper's newest film?

"The A-Team” is an incomprehensible mess with the 1980s TV show embedded inside. The characters have the same names, they play the same types, they have the same traits, and they're easily as shallow. That was OK for a TV sitcom, which is what the show really was, but at over two hours of Queasy-Cam anarchy, it's punishment.

Well, ain't that a kick in the sacks.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

It's not the stars that are falling, it's the skies that hold them in place.

Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but after seeing another TV ad for Jonah Hex last night, I feel like it faces an uphill battle:

1. It's a western. It's also an action movie with big guns and explosions, and it's got supernatural horror-movie elements, but mostly it's a western, and that genre hasn't produced many successful films in the past 40 years (or, if you'd like a less sweeping generalization, since Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven in 1992).

2. It stars Josh Brolin, who's a handsome guy, but as Jonah Hex the right side of his face is disfigured after he's cattle-branded by bad guy John Malkovich, who probably took this role to pay for some renovations on his Tuscan villa.

3. It's based on a comic book. Normally that'd be a good thing, at least as far as Hollywood bean counters are concerned, but Jonah Hex is a DC title that already seemed old and unhip when I was reading comic books in the '80s.

Jonah Hex opens June 18, the same day as Toy Story 3. That sequel should do very well with family audiences, but it's also being targeted at college students who were toddlers when the first Toy Story opened in 1995. Disney and Pixar even screened the first two-thirds of the film for college kids earlier this year, whetting their appetites for the final third in theaters this summer. 

This Friday sees the debut of The Karate Kid, a remake of the hit film from the '80s, and The A-Team, an adaptation of the hit TV show from the '80s. Neither one looks promising to me, though I'd guess the former will fare better than the latter because it'll appeal to family audiences before they jump ship for Toy Story 3 the following weekend.

Richard Corliss has a good article on Time magazine's website about the fact that most of Hollywood's big films so far this summer haven't been as big as predicted. He chalks it up partly to the predictors raising box office expectations too high, but he also points out that ticket prices have increased once again. I paid for my girlfriend and I to see Splice on her birthday last Sunday afternoon—not our first choice, but it'd gotten good reviews (which I now disagree with)—and it cost $19. What happened to matinee prices?

One of the most interesting points of Corliss's article is about the number of movie tickets that are actually sold these days:

The five years from 2005 to 2009 showed remarkably consistent ticket sales, all in the range of 1.39 billion to 1.42 billion, according to movie-stats blog the Numbers. Indeed, in 2009 moviegoers bought no more tickets (1.42 billion) than they did in 1997; the 62% increase in box office revenue, from $6.51 billion to $10.65 billion, was entirely due to the gradual hike in prices. But the bust could be real: if current trends hold, the number of admissions this year will be 1.27 billion, the lowest since 1996. Historical note: None of the recent years comes anywhere near the 4 billion tickets sold in 1946, back before TV gave Americans a free, at-home option for watching entertainment. That's three times the tickets, when the U.S. population was half what it is today.

Seeing those figures reminded me of an Associated Press clipping I'd saved from the fall of 2007, when the Farrelly brothers' remake of Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid was released. Reporter David Germain wrote:

“The Heartbreak Kid” [opened in] 3,229 theaters, about 1,000 more than “There’s Something About Mary,” which still managed to pack in far more viewers [in 1998]. Based on today’s higher ticket prices, “There’s Something About Mary” pulled in nearly 3 million people over opening weekend, compared to just over 2 million for “The Heartbreak Kid.”

Two million ticket buyers translated to $14 million over the weekend of October 5, 2007. By comparison, the number-one show on TV, American Idol, averaged 24.7 million viewers per episode this season.

Just as movie attendance ain't what it used to be before TV came along, network TV ratings have taken a hit over the past quarter-century thanks to cable TV, VCRs, home video-game systems, DVD players, the Internet, and DVRs. Dallas averaged 34.5 million viewers in its 1980-'81 season, which began with the episode that answered the question "Who shot J.R.?"; that alone attracted 83 million viewers, the highest rating for any non-finale episode in history.

Eighteen years later, the top-rated show was ER, with 17.8 million viewers on average. As many media watchers have reported (over and over and over) this year, American Idol's ratings have dropped every year since 2006, but 24.7 million viewers a week is still better than 17.8 million a decade ago.

When ER finished its 1998-'99 season with that number, George Clooney had recently departed the show after five seasons. He'd honored the contract he signed in 1994, but he was also interested in pursuing movie roles, and today he's one of the most popular and respected movie stars around (the Ocean's Eleven franchise, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air).

It can easily be argued that when Clooney was on ER he was much more visible and popular than he'll ever be on a movie screen, yet movie stars are still held in higher esteem than TV stars, and whenever a TV star generates a lot of buzz, like Katherine Heigl on Grey's Anatomy or Steve Carell on The Office five years ago, the question becomes "When are they going to make the leap to movies?," as if big-screen work legitimizes small-screen actors.

Screen size does have something to do with it, of course. I believe it was Clooney who once said in an interview that when he was on ER people would casually approach him on the street and say hello, but once he'd left the show and was doing movies, fans would keep their distance. His reasoning was that when you're a TV star you're invited into viewers' homes each week, and because TV is "the small screen," you're thought of as a regular person. But when a star is on "the big screen," he or she stands 20 feet tall and is gazed upon by an entire room of people, much like congregants in a church.

TV stars are friends, but movie stars are gods. (Speaking of which, Friends's Matthew "Chandler" Perry is one of many TV stars who will forever be known by the name of the character they played on the hit series that made them famous.) And that's how the stars will continue to be aligned, no matter how few people are buying movie tickets or turning on their televisions.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

As the Blagojevich corruption trial begins ...

When Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested and charged with corruption on December 9, 2008, clearing the way for his impeachment and removal from office the following month, I still had the November 28 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times in a stack of newspapers at home. Inside was the headline "Let Ryan Go, Gov Says." The story starts with these two paragraphs:

Gov. Blagojevich, who for years has blasted corruption under his predecessor, George Ryan, said Thursday "it would be a good decision" for President Bush to let the 74-year-old Ryan out of prison early.

"I always err on the side of compassion," Blagojevich said during a Thanksgiving visit to the Chicago Christian Industrial League on the West Side.

The soon-to-be former governor added, "I think people make mistakes," and reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika noted that "Blagojevich was elected governor in 2002, promising to end the corruption that happened under Ryan." Were his comments a signal that he hoped the court would go easy on him?

The story printed next to that one, also by Ihejirika, speculated about who Blagojevich would choose to take president-elect Barack Obama's empty seat in the U.S. senate. (Blagojevich's alleged plans to auction the seat to the highest bidder are what got him arrested on December 9, after all.) At the Christian Industrial League event, the governor said of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), who was believed to be in the running for the seat, "I know that he is a good, decent man, and you don't find a lot of that in politics." Because people make mistakes, of course.

Then, on December 9, shortly before the governor was arrested, the Sun-Times published a short article with the headline "Blagojevich: 'It smells like Nixon.'" The governor, responding to a Chicago Tribune report that he was being secretly recorded by the federal government, said, "It kind of smells like Nixon and Watergate. But I don't care whether you tape me privately or publicly, I can tell you that whatever I saw is always lawful."

He continued, "The good news is, if they're going to those lengths and extents—if in fact that's true—that would suggest that all the past has been pretty good." At the very least, the past would turn out to be much better than the governor's immediate future.

Speaking of Richard Nixon, David Greenberg wrote in his 2003 book Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image that Watergate "validated fears of secret government activity. A cycle took hold: popular distrust of authority spawned inquiries into government misdeeds; and the wave of exposés, in turn, amplified the distrust."

The author then mentions a column that former Nixon speechwriter—and future actor and game-show host—Ben Stein wrote in 1984 (sorry, I don't have the source) that argued Watergate wasn't "such a big deal" in hindsight—all politicians and presidents lie—and that the outrage over it made the American public numb to future political scandals. "But the column's logical conclusion," wrote Greenberg, "was the reverse: that while the press might be running wild over third-rate Watergates, the public—inured by Nixonism and subsequent scandals—no longer expected consistency or even integrity from its leaders." Except when it comes to making mistakes.

It's no secret that Rod Blagojevich has idolized Elvis Presley from a young age. So did John Lennon. In the April 11, 2004, edition of the New York Observer, Anna Jane Grossman wrote about Leon Wildes, the immigration lawyer who defended Lennon in the 1970s after President Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Senator Strom Thurmond spearheaded an effort to deport him for a drug conviction—possession of cannabis resin, or hashish, to be exact—from his years in England.

"In 1972, President Nixon was a little paranoid," Grossman wrote. "It was the first year that 18-year-olds could vote, and because it seemed that American 18-year-olds liked rocker/activist John Lennon, and Lennon's politics were left of Nixon's, 18-year-olds might therefore not vote for Nixon. Thus, to prevent such a crisis, Lennon should be kindly removed from America, thank you very much."

The tipping point, according to film critic J.R. Jones in his 2006 Chicago Reader review of the documentary The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, was when "Lennon and radical activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin began planning a concert to coincide with the Republican convention in Miami ... the prospect of a concert to mobilize the youth vote was apparently more than Nixon could tolerate."

In his various interviews since his arrest, Blagojevich has come across as a guy whose grip on reality might not be as firm as his lawyers would like. Perhaps Rod thinks he's being persecuted because he's a rock and roller like Presley and Lennon.

Or because he's black. In January of this year Esquire published an interview in which the former governor, chatting about his former profession, said, "It’s such a cynical business, and most of the people in the business are full of shit and phonies, but I was real, man—and am real."

As for President Obama, he complained, "This guy, he was catapulted in on hope and change, what we hope the guy is. What the fuck? Everything he’s saying’s on the teleprompter. I’m blacker than Barack Obama. I shined shoes. I grew up in a five-room apartment. My father had a little laundromat in a black community not far from where we lived. I saw it all growing up.”

Is that why, when the Illinois House of Representatives voted whether or not to impeach Blagojevich on January 9, 2009, state representative Milton Patterson—who's black—was the only member of the House to say no? "I went by my own gut feeling, simple as that," he told the Sun-Times, explaining that his vote didn't mean he supported Blagojevich.

However, as Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who's also black, wrote in the paper two days later, "African Americans are a fiercely loyal group when it comes to supporting those in political leadership. I know that is a sweeping generalization ... but it is rare for the black community to turn its back on a politician who is viewed as 'inclusive.'" She added, "Too many black families have been nearly bankrupted trying to defend loved ones against false charges."

In other words, Blagojevich is innocent until proven guilty, even if he has made lots and lots and lots of mistakes.