When it is time to leave film criticism

The other day, I saw a tweet from film writer Chris Webster that got me intrigued:

As someone who recently tried to direct a film, I felt like I understood what Webster was talking about. When you try to go through the process of making a film (even a tiny indie film), it changes your perception of movies altogether. It makes the great ones seem even more miraculous, and the terrible ones feel more tragic.

I contacted Webster to see if I could get him to talk more about his decision to leave film criticism. He agreed to answer a few questions via email. You can follow Chris on Twitter or at places like Screen Anarchy and Quiet Earth.

David: How long have you been reviewing movies (in print or on the internet)?

Chris: The first time I was paid to review a film was in 2005 when Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (aka. A Fistful of Dynamite) was re-released through the arthouse circuit. I was writing a film news column for a local weekly called SEE Magazine and lobbied to be allowed to review it as I was a big spaghetti western buff and was desperate to see the film on the big screen.

I remember the photo that was published along with the review was from a completely different film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as I recall, and for some reason I was crushed when I opened the paper the following Tuesday morning on my way to University, thoroughly convinced that readers would assume I was responsible for the gaff and my days as a cineaste would end prematurely.

That weekly paper folded two years later which is when I started investigating the online world, reading sites like Ain’t it Cool News, Twitch Film (now ScreenAnarchy), First Showing, Slashfilm, Bloody Disgusting and others. I was immediately impressed by the relentless pace and scope of the coverage that was possible when you assembled a team internationally and hit most of the major festivals. It was clear that you didn’t need to expend a lot of travel costs for instance, just ensure you made connections with contributors in crucial locations.

I threw myself in and joined the founder of Quiet Earth on a mission to emulate that model. And for a few years we did a decent job growing the team and readership as well as making some great friends in the community along the way. I also have the pleasure to be writing at many of those sites now.

Why did you decide to get into movie writing in the first place?

Look, everyone loves movies, but there’s a limit to how long your friends and family will sit and talk with you about them. I’m sure most of us who have gravitated to blogging about film have faced this and it’s pushed us to find other ways to keep the conversation going. Writing about movies, podcasting, that’s what we’re doing, keeping the conversation going ad infinitum.

Do you make money from writing reviews? What portion of your personal income does it contribute to? Do you have a full-time/day job?

The money I make from writing about movies fluctuates as it’s based on various revenue streams including affiliate partnerships, advertising and commission work. If you’re not staffed full time at a big site, the trick seems to be writing for multiple sites. Since the monthly figure is generally in the hundreds of dollars it doesn’t make up a significant portion of my income. For that I rely on a full-time job in marketing/communications.

Is there a movie review or a moment in your writing career you’re particularly proud of?

As you know, there’s nothing more important than being FIRST! in the online world, so I would say my firsts have been my some of my proudest moments.

For example, I had the opportunity to publish the first English review of Switzerland’s first science fiction film, Cargo. With my permission, Io9 ended up re-publishing the review, which was a nice surprise and I was glad to have been able to help that film get some exposure. It’s very ambitious and beautiful and the director is a really cool guy.

Reviews where I have been extremely positive on a film also seem to stand out as well. My review of Kevin Smith’s Red State for example sticks out because I was able to attend one of the director’s roadshow screenings and the film completely rocked the house. I was floored by that movie and that whole experience definitely helps the review I subsequently wrote stand out in my mind.

I could go on, but I’ll stop at two.

What made you decide to stop writing reviews?

In 2010 I made the choice to try writing a screenplay, just to see if I could. Finishing that 100 page script was incredibly challenging, but also insightful. I sent it around and managed to attract an established director and a producer of movie video game tie-ins. Development hell, as they say, ensued and that project eventually fell apart. But I had caught the bug, so I wrote another one which lead to some time working with an Australian producer, which in tern lead to working on another project with a well known Canadian director. Most recently, I’ve worked on the upcoming series, Dark/Web, from the producers of last year’s Circle.

Once I had gone through development on a number of feature film projects that experience started to warp my process of reviewing films until it became a totally unrecognizable endeavor.

Knowing how the sausage was made on a creative level alerted me to the fact that there was some investigation missing when it came to truly understanding the intention and considerations of a writer and his/her collaborators, which debilitated discussing a film completely. I began losing my ability to write about movies from an emotional perspective, while at the same time, I became frustrated by how I saw others writing about films.

Everywhere I looked, critics seemed willfully unwilling to explore how movies were made in any significant way to enhance their writing. And I started to think, ‘In a world where VICE will go live with terrorists in Iran, or whatever, to bring a level of authenticity to their reporting, I don’t see any movie critics really willing to gain a rich understanding of what it’s like to produce a film from script to screen.’

I believe if more film critics went down this investigative path, tried to write a film or work on a set, it would radically change the profession and the discourse. Because what I see in the space now are critics proclaiming reasons a film isn’t working with very little content to back it up. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, the script was terrible, some of that dialog was on the nose,” which you read all the time, because what are you even talking about exactly? Did you read the screenplay? A screenplay isn’t just the dialog; it’s everything from what we hear on the soundtrack to how the characters are costumed to the tone and pacing. It’s a thousand considerations, each of which will go on to be compromised in some small way by each person who comes along after it’s written to help bring it to the screen. Nobody sets out to make a bad film. For that reason, I think great films are miracles and the idea of reducing this rich and collaborative art form to 500 snarky words seems preposterous to me.

And look, what I am suggesting happens in the film industry as well. I just realized that watching a lot of movies doesn’t necessarily equip you with a robust enough understanding of how films work, or should work, and I realized I was likely doing more disservice to filmmakers than good by bringing more uninformed criticism into the world.

I’ve noticed that many of our critic colleagues who have gotten into producing have quietly moved away from reviewing films altogether. I won’t name names — people can do their research — but I suspect it’s because writing reviews began to feel like a strangely disingenuous exercise for them. Now that I’ve discussed my own decision here, I think I’ll ask them about it. And who knows, maybe they’re just too busy.

Which brings up another reason: it takes a lot of time to write about the work of others when I could be focusing on my own work. Ben Wheatley’s recent comments about not understanding the desire to criticize rather than create hit me right in the gut. It made me consider all the time I had invested in writing bout other people’s creativity and how I wished I had some of that time back to invest in my own endeavors. A very intelligent filmmaker friend of mine takes issue with Wheatley’s sentiments and has suggested that criticism is a critic’s art. After about a year of mulling his opinion, I have decided to respectfully disagree. It’s okay though, we’re still friends.

The final reason I’ve lost interest in reviewing films is that I believe criticism is moving in a very toxic direction where films are being used as political lightning rods to discuss identity politics by some people I would suggest have little interest in movies. I think the market has dictated this. Conflict has always generated clicks, but what this preoccupation with whether or not La La Land is racist [Editor’s note: Um…] has done is drown out those discussing the movie and movies. And I miss that.

On a recent episode of The Canon podcast, critics MTV’s Amy Nicholson and indie Wire’s David Ehrlich discussed the 1998 Academy Award winner Shakespeare in Love. Both of them marveled at how, when going back to read through criticism of it from the time of its release, there was barely any talk of how the film represents gender. They went on to imagine how the film would be put through the think-piece meat grinder if it were released today which struck me as incredibly sad. Gender is a topic worth considering in the film, no question, it’s not that, but it reminded me that we used to sit on films, let history do its thing before assessing their place and relevance in the culture, using context and perspective as an important ally. Now we sort of speed date with movies, savage them with judgment and move on to the next table.

The problem with Louis CK

I tried to articulate some of my issues with Louis CK’s new special, 2017, on the latest episode of the /Filmcast. I used to feel that CK was poking fun at politically correct people — that there was a broader purpose to trying to rile people up with his humor. Of late, I’ve lost that sense and started to perceive his humor as merely inflammatory, rather than commenting on comedy that is inflammatory.

Here’s his recent opening monologue for SNL:

Other people have deeper issues with his humor. Here’s Jeff Ihaza, writing for The Outline, about 2017:

We often look to comedians for philosophical advice or digestible interpretations of our current moment. (President Obama once quoted, and was later criticized for, a Chris Rock joke in a speech about race.) For fans of C.K., who has been accused on multiple occasions of sexual misconduct with women comedians, there are more pressing ethical quandaries and clear limitations of his endlessly cynical worldview. As the writer Vinson Cunningham pointed out in The New Yorker, “In Louis C.K. 2017, he acknowledges the fundamental absurdity of the standup’s recent designation as a purveyor of sociopolitical opinion. ‘Here’s what I think,’ he says, almost rolling his eyes at himself, as he eases into a finely parsed opening routine on abortion.”

Perhaps it is the fault of the modern age. Comedians like Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle — whose similarly timely Netflix specials premiered last month — were seen as soothsayers once upon a time, able to vocalize their fans’ anxieties and make them laugh. Today, there seems to be a deficiency of such voices. Louis C.K., whom I once considered an insightful, if absurd, philosopher, seems like too much of the wrong thing. In the context of the current mood and with the knowledge that he might be a predatory person, his style betrays something darker than mere self-deprecating wit.

SNL and the logic of interviewing Kellyanne Conway

SNL delivered a mixed bag of an episode with guest Alec Baldwin last night, but there were a couple sketches that really stood out. The first is the cold open with Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, which continues to be a highlight. The second is this bit about Jake Tapper and Kellyanne Conway:

I was surprised the Conway/CNN kerfuffle had risen to the level of SNL parody, but it is an interesting one to me: CNN passed on having Kellyanne Conway on “State of the Union” last week, a fact that Conway disputed. Why? Because the journalistic value of interviewing Conway has become suspect.

Jay Rosen has been on the anti-Conway warpath for awhile, and he makes some pretty astute observations about how journalists should treat Conway. In an interview with Recode, Rosen lays out his reasoning:

I don’t think the people interviewing Kellyanne Conway know why they’re doing that, meaning that the journalistic logic of it is growing dimmer with every interview […]

The logic is, “This is a representative of the president. This is somebody who can speak for the Trump administration.” If we find that what Kellyanne Conway says is routinely or easily contradicted by Donald Trump, then that rationale disappears. Another reason to interview Kellyanne Conway is our viewers want to understand how the Trump world thinks. If what the end result of an interview with her is is more confusion about what the Trump world thinks, then that rationale evaporates.

 

Melissa McCarthy’s impression of Sean Spicer on SNL

McCarthy’s impression was funny, but I’m more curious about what impact this will have on our actual politics, and on the White House’s relationship with the media. In saner times, Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin showed it could re-shape the popular perception of a vice presidential candidate from a major political party. That was before we had a president who actually seems to watch SNL somewhat regularly and complain about it on Twitter.

I appreciated Emily Nussbaum’s take on it:

It seems possible that Spicer, already a target of Trump’s occasional anger, may face some kind of reckoning for it.

Five Lessons on Virality from Felix Salmon’s Epic Jonah Peretti Interview

It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.

Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:

Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:

Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.

As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.

The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog…It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.” We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:

[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.

As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.

Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.

You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”

In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.

Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.

Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”

“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:

[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.

The Travails of a Wannabe Screenwriter

Man, I adored this piece by Stephen Harrigan about his struggles trying to (or not trying to?) make it big in Hollywood as a screenwriter (via Matt Singer):

I had wanted to be a screenwriter since 1962, when I walked out of the Tower Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas as a very different 14-year-old boy than when I had walked in. The movie was Lawrence of Arabia, and watching it was like being sucked into a wormhole and delivered to an alternate universe. The unworldly disorientation I experienced was due in large part to David Lean’s direction, to his unprecedented sense of scale and pace and purpose, and to the Maurice Jarre score, which half a century later was still so haunting to me that I sometimes use it as the ringtone on my cellphone. But Lawrence of Arabia had another dimension, one that I had never really noticed before. For the first time, I was aware that movies were written, not just somehow fortuitously assembled. It was obvious that the dialogue—“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts” or “What attracts you personally to the desert?” “It’s clean.”—had to have been set down somewhere in cold print, not just thought up on the fly. And it was more than the dialogue itself that made me take notice of the name Robert Bolt; it was the wordless action as well, the way the scenes steadily built and drew upon each other to produce such a satisfying impression of momentum and coherence.

How To Make a Hit Basic Cable Network

John Landgraf is the president of FX, a TV network that rose from the rubble to become one of the most exciting ones in existence. I found his recent interview with Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business to be hugely insightful and fascinating. In particular, Landgraf reflects on his decision to pass on Breaking Bad, a decision that he doesn’t necessarily regret, but one that he certainly would have done differently today. Check out the whole thing below (the interview begins 6 minutes in):

 

One of my favorite bits occurs when Landgraf discusses the uselessness of focus groups:

People don’t always know what they want. That’s the problem with research and the problem with focus groups. I mean, what group of people could tell you “What we really want is Avatar,” or “what we really want is South Park” or “What we really want is The Simpsons“? Those things didn’t exist in anything like that form before they existed, and people love them. So, creative people’s jobs is to imagine the existence of things that don’t exist, and people can’t always tell you what they want and they’re often confused by really innovative work. Until they’re not. 

The Hard Knock Life of a Filmmaker

I’ve written about Bobby Miller’s film Tub before, but the short film randomly went viral on Reddit the other day. With his newfound fame, Miller took to Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” section to answer some questions. Miller’s always a fun guy, but I particularly liked his answer to one Redditor asking, “Would you recommend going into film?”:

This is a legit question and a hard one… I think if you choose any kind of art as a career, it’s going to be tough. I’ve struggled with money before TUB and after TUB. The last few years I’ve done a lot of digital content for companies like MTV, Next New Networks, and the Collective. And that’s what’s put a roof over my head. When it comes to jobs, you really just have to work your ass off on your first one and make an impression. Because every single job I’ve had past that first one has come from the first one! No one looks at resumes, they look at your work. And if it’s strong (or you bribe them money), they’ll hire you. Would I recommend going into film? I’d only go into it if there’s literally nothing else you can do with your life. If you go to bed dreaming of making movies and waking up with those same dreams, then unfortunately you’re screwed and you should join the filmmaking community!

The First 30 Days

What is one year like in the life of David Chen? We’re all about to find out.

Earlier this year, a woman named Madeline released an interesting video on Vimeo. She had shot one second of video for every day of her life during the year 2011. I found the result to be unexpectedly inspiring and moving.

Several months later, /Filmcast listener and all-around awesome dude Cesar Kuriyama took to the stage at TED to unveil his own “one second every day project“, which he’d been filming every day for the 30th year of his life.

Kuriyama is passionate about the project and believes everyone should engage in it. I think the final result is fascinating, a seemingly endless series of context-less images. Context-less, that is, to everyone but the filmmaker. It’s a compelling snapshot of one’s life, a video that is evocative for the creator and intriguing and enigmatic for the viewer.

So, I’m pleased to announce that I am also undertaking this project. My birthday this year was May 20th, right around the same time I uprooted my life from Boston and moved to Seattle. Starting on that day, I have filmed one second of video every single day. Around this time next year, I’ll plan to publish the result, a chronicle of my first year here.

In doing this project, I’ve made a few observations about how best to approach it. First of all, I think this project works best when the second that you record is somehow representative of the day that you had, or at least, how you want to remember that day. In practice, this can get a bit tricky; often times the most interesting that happens to me is an interaction I have with someone else. While I can frequently “anticipate” when a good “second” will arrive, it’s often inopportune to whip out a camera and start recording. Secondly, it’s useful to record multiple seconds for each day, giving you the option to choose from a number of them. As a result, it’s also important to have a robust cataloging system for all of your “potential seconds.” Finally, I don’t have experience with this yet, but it sounds like it’s useful to create a master file for the final video, then stitch the videos together intermittently and continuously add them to that file, as opposed to doing them all at the end. Alternatively, one could also create videos for each month, then bind them all together in the end. I may end up going this path because it will allow me to release regular video content, but it also robs the final video of some of its uniqueness. We’ll see. 

As a proof-of-concept, I’ve stitched together my first 30 seconds, representing my first month here. You can find this video below:

When I began working on the project, I asked Cesar Kuriyama, “What if you do this every day for a year and the resulting video ends up being incredibly boring?”

Kuriyama responded, “That’s good! Because then you’ll look back on how boring your life was and you’ll resolve to change things.”

Not a bad point, that. I don’t know what the end result will motivate me to do. I can only hope it will show a life lived full, with love, laughter, and friends, a humble aspiration for the beginning of my new life.

[I am indebted to Cesar Kuriyama for his counsel and for helping me to establish a workflow for pulling these clips together. Be sure to check out his other work.]

Vulture’s Great Aaron Sorkin Interview

Great Sorkin interview by Mark Harris, with tons of memorable excerpts including this one, on the advantages of making a show for premium cable:

[T]here are no commercial breaks, so you’re not, every eight minutes, building to a sort of phony climax. Fewer episodes per season, so you’re able to do a better job on each episode. There’s another advantage that nobody ever talks about. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. And it’s end credits. Why are end credits a big deal? Because no matter what you write, the last moment is meant to resonate. And with HBO or any of the premium cable channels, it does. You have music playing, you have end credits rolling, the audience has a moment to sit there and just kind of feel the way the storytellers are hoping you’ll feel. On network TV, the last line of the episode can be, “Mrs. Landingham’s dead.” And then we cut immediately to a Nokia commercial. And so I always felt like the episode was getting punched in the face right at the end.

Unfortunately the first reviews for The Newsroom are already out and they’re not pretty. Here’s Emily Nussbaum’s take:

The pilot of “The Newsroom” is full of yelling and self-righteousness, but it’s got energy, just like “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” and his hit movie “The Social Network.” The second episode is more obviously stuffed with piety and syrup, although there’s one amusing segment, when McAvoy mocks some right-wing idiots. After that, “The Newsroom” gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping. The third episode is lousy (and devolves into lectures that are chopped into montages). The fourth episode is the worst. There are six to go.

A Case Against File Sharing

The Trichordist (via Matthew) responds to a blog post by Emily White at NPR, in which White grapples with the ethics of file sharing:

“[S]mall” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love”. And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions. It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically. We have to do that ourselves.

Aaron Sorkin’s Self-Delusional NYTimes Interview

David Itzkoff recently conducted an interview with Aaron Sorkin about his upcoming new HBO series The Newsroom. I’m super-psyched about the show and hope it’s a return to form for Sorkin, who’s been on a roll after winning a Best Screenwriting Oscar for The Social Network.

Itzkoff does a good job at getting at some of the issues that Sorkin faces in creating a television show, but it struck me from reading the interview that Sorkin is either a skilled deceiver or he’s deluding himself when he makes some of his statements. Here he is discussing The West Wing:

I have no political background, and I have no political agenda. All of my experience has been in theater and writing. But I just thought it would be fun to write about a hypercompetent group of people.

Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that Sorkin’s band of flawed but ridiculously noble political figures was Democratic? To be fair, Sorkin also had solid Republican figures on the show too (e.g. Ainsley Hayes, Glen Walken), but I could never shake the feeling that they were perfunctory characters, put in there to demonstrate how “balanced” Sorkin was. “Alright, so Democrats are the unquestioned heroes in this show, but we also have this super attractive and intelligent blond woman, see?!” I’m not saying that there aren’t any super attractive and intelligent blond female Republicans out there (in fact, I think their existence is well-proven by now), but taken in this context, these characters almost feel condescending through their very existence.

These issues are easily encapsulated in the promo for The Newsroom:

Linda Holmes has already brilliantly deconstructed this trailer:

Gender dynamics are a serious problem in nearly all of Sorkin’s writing, and here, we open with a condescending lecture from a wise man to a stupid woman who says something (“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”) that represents a real phenomenon he’s trying to get at, but which is an utter straw man in that it’s not typically expressed in that sort of “hit me, I’m a pinata” kind of way.

Sorkin seems to have trouble finding a balance between “extremely smart” and “extremely dumb” on his shows, and to use one or the other is to inevitably condescend to one side or the other.

Here’s Sorkin again:

It’s funny that you brought up “Studio 60” because Matthew Perry once said, “I think that if you wrote this under a pseudonym it would still be on the air.” With “Studio 60,” there was a thought that I was writing autobiographically when I wasn’t.

Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that that show’s protagonist, Matt Albie is a flawed but ridiculously noble writer dead set on changing the world through his writing? Nathan Rabin has a great piece on Studio 60 where he delves into this very issue:

In premise and execution, Studio 60 was a work of unbearable, overweening arrogance. It began with making the lead character of Matt Albie both a clear Sorkin surrogate and a writer so ridiculously romanticized even M. Night Shyamalan might say, “Get over yourself, dude. You’re a fucking writer, not Jesus’ younger brother, the one God really likes.” 

I could go on but I think you get the point. Aaron, you are one of my heroes and one of the most gifted writers on the planet. OWN IT. Own your own opinions. And maybe understand that sometimes your point of view might leak out into the world through your work. We’ll forgive you for it.

Is the TV Business Collapsing?

Here are two competing points of view about how quickly the TV industry is collapsing. The first comes from Henry Blodget over at Business Insider, who argues that TV industry trends mirror the collapse of the newspaper industry:

[L]ots of newspaper companies went broke or almost went broke. And the stock of The New York Times Company, the country’s premier newspaper, fell from $50 to $6. In other words, newspapers were screwed. It just took a while for changing user behavior to really hammer the business. The same is almost certainly true for television.

Former Blodget employee (and all-around great writer) Dan Frommer points out that market forces in the TV industry are drastically different:

The reality is that, yes, the TV industry will change over time. Some of today’s winners will become tomorrow’s losers, and new entrants may grow to dominate. But barring some unforeseen technical or creative revolution, it’s going to happen a lot slower than you think. It is easy to complain that the cable/telco/satellite-dominated TV distribution system is inefficient, too expensive, or “ripe for disruption”, and many do. But that model is actually still very strong.

I tend to agree with Frommer here. Yes, the way we watch TV will soon change forever. But the entrenched forces are so intense that they aren’t going to go away nearly as quickly. Just look at how HBO has recently had to fight off willing payers with a stick. It will more likely be a slow and painful decline. Look forward to it.

Plot Holes Big Enough to Drive a Space Ship Through

Frank Swain (via Annalee) does a spectacular job deconstructing the scientific flaws of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. SPOILERS in the article:

The scientific techniques carried out during the movie are a bit hit and miss. Conceptually, items such at the moving arm scanner on the hospital bed, and what I will only refer to as the “coin-operated vivisection chamber”, are ace, and a good extrapolation of emerging technology. They’re swish and smooth and white and very much like Apple products. And like Apple products, the people using them don’t really seem to know what they’re doing.

Retaliation in March

The big news in the entertainment industry yesterday was Paramount deciding to move back one of its major summer tentpole releases until March 2013. I’m only tangentially covering the industry at this point but my guess is that this probably sent shockwaves through Hollywood. The ad campaign for G.I. Joe Retaliation was already in full swing. I’ve seen trailers in front of movies. Paramount spent millions advertising the film during the superbowl. I saw a giant banner for this film in Bellevue the other day, unfurled right next to one for Men In Black 3. In an industry where so much of a film’s success hinges on the first three days, squandering all of that advertising feels like madness, with maybe a hint of desperation.

Why did Paramount do it? Ostensibly it was to give the film time to be converted into 3D, thus generating increased revenue worldwide. I don’t doubt that a quality 3D conversion could be completed in that time, but seems like some pretty poor planning to decide that this late if you ask me
Spinoff Online has some interesting conspiracy theorizing about why the move. My best guess? The suits at Paramount saw the returns on Hasbro’s disastrous Battleship and got cold feet. Companies have been ended for smaller flops. Maybe give viewers time to warm up to the idea of a toy-based film again? 
Throughout all of this, my heart goes out to director Jon Chu. I was really rooting for him to break out into mainstream success with this film. He’s no slouch, to be sure: his past films have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. But Retaliation had the potential to single-handedly reach grosses in the hundreds of millions and cement him as a go-to action director with the chops to deliver a major blockbuster. This decision can’t have been an easy one for Chu (and I’m sure he didn’t make it, nor was he pleased with it – his Twitter account has been strangely silent, save for a cryptic photo that may have been unintentionally ironic). 
Also check out this Hollywood Reporter interview, in which Chu talks about how liberating it was to shoot in 2D. Curiouser and curiouser…
(Thanks to Peter Smith for hooking me up with some of these links)

Sci-Fi and Reproductive Rights

Annalee Newitz from io9 is so damn smart. Here’s a recent piece by her in which she describes what science fiction tells us about our fears and hopes about the future of human reproduction:

If everything from technology to politics will be different in the future, then so will human reproduction. That’s why so much science fiction deals with the question of how humans make babies — or don’t make them — in alternate worlds that are often quite close to our own. It’s also why reproduction is a political issue. After all, a political campaign represents the promise of a new kind of future.

Fascinating and insightful.

Anatomy of a Joke

From the New York Times comes a detailed analysis and evolution of a joke by comedian Myq Kaplan:

Looking back at the joke’s various incarnations, Mr. Kaplan said it was heartening to see improvement. Yet nothing was more fun than the first time. “When you introduce a joke into the world, and the audience laughs,” he said, “it’s the most invigorating, thrilling thing.”

What If ‘The Sopranos’ And ‘Seinfeld’ Had Switched Endings?

I enjoyed this brief profile of Mad Men creator Matt Weiner in The New York Times, but the best line in it comes from Sopranos creator David Chase, who reflected on how his show ended:

It’s just very difficult to end a series. For example, ‘Seinfeld,’ they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that’s the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner.

I can’t tell if Chase is speaking tongue-in-cheek here, or if he actually has regrets about the maddening final scene from The Sopranos.

Either way, I think he’s right.

Two Hollywoods

Bill Wyman, on the problem with the Oscars these days:

There are two Hollywoods now. One makes those cacophonous entertainments, which kids flock to see in noisy multiplexes each weekend. The other makes films for adults, which we see in the calmer art theaters or in the comfort of our own homes on home video, Netflix, or on demand. They don’t make much money, so they leverage what influence they can. One of these has been their efficient hijacking of the Oscars race each year. If you don’t overspend in production and play the awards-season game well, you can do all right financially.

Someone Like You

The WSJ breaks down exactly why Adele’s “Someone Like You” is such an effective tear-jerker (there are scientific reasons!):

Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an “appoggiatura.” […]

“Someone Like You,” which Adele wrote with Dan Wilson, is sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas. In addition, during the chorus, Adele slightly modulates her pitch at the end of long notes right before the accompaniment goes to a new harmony, creating mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution, said Dr. Guhn.