Tag Archives: hollywood

Why basing a movie on a media tycoon is unlikely to win you an Oscar

Is The Social Network the new Citizen Kane? They certainly have one big thing in common – both probably should have won big at the Oscars, but didn’t.

Citizen Zuck

This blog has written before about the great difficulty of making the internet dramatic, whether as theme or plot device (http://wp.me/pR2Nu-c). But the genius of The Social Network was that it defiantly wasn’t the movie I feared it would be – a eulogy to/apocalyptic vision of the world created by Facebook. To paraphrase Zadie Smith’s great review, it was written by the wizards of 1.0, not 2.0 hipsters, and concentrated on the compelling central figure that a movie mogul can present.

As a result it inhabited the same territory as Kane – they are both the story of young men, with masses of talent and ambition to change the old order, who are transformed by the experience of building a media empire. Both stories hinge on a craving for love, that warps into a craving for attention. Both mix the adrenaline of triumph with the tragedy of megalomania.

In fact there are scenes that are pretty similar, and character dynamics too. Swap the dusty newsroom of the early twentieth century for the glossy funk of a San Francisco nightclub and there is not a lot different between this:

And this:

The Oscar reward of both of these movies ended up focusing on their screenplays – both, in another similarity, fictionalised accounts that were pretty close to the bone. In the Social Network’s case, this is hugely deserved. Personally, I find the screenplay of Citizen Kane one of its least appealing aspects – whereas the failure to recognise the brilliance of the direction is more of a mystery. After all, shots like this were not common in cinema at the time…

But when it came to the big gongs, both fell short. In the case of Citizen Kane, this has generally been laid at the door of William Randolph Hearst, whose influence in Hollywood was huge and who was not amused at seeing himself in Kane. There have been few whispers about similar influence by Mark Zuckerberg, so I’m not going to invent a conspiracy theory here (but, maybe…?)

Certainly the competition for Best Picture this year was unusually hot. Citizen Kane on the other hand lost out to John Ford’s turgid exploration of the politics of Welsh mining culture, How Green Was My Valley. Heavy-going stuff.

When you look at the movie that did win this year, however, you see an interesting parallel. The King’s Speech, like The Social Network, uses as its dramatic backdrop the rise in power of a new medium – in the case of the King’s Speech, the radio (again written of before in these pages.)

There is something intangible about The King’s Speech that somehow makes it much more Academy appropriate. It is much easier to feel comfortable with the heroic struggle of a man to rise the the challenges of using the medium, rather than being the person who creates it. Quite simply, it is much more straightforwardly heroic – and the Academy loves heroes.

Media tycoons on the other hand are not viscerally lovable characters. Both in fiction and in real life, they tend to be egotistic, obsessed by attention and a strange kind of power. At the best they are complex heroes – and my feeling about The Social Network is that whilst it is a sceptical movie, it is not a cynical one. It felt a little sad…but to me ‘Zuck’ felt like a better man at the end of the movie than the start, which makes him at least a kind of hero. Which obviously cannot be said of Kane.

And in someways his journey to self-discovery, happening as it did in the full glare of the world during a period of adolescence, is what gives this movie its strange power.

But one suspects that giving a body like the Academy a movie about a media tycoon to judge is never going to end well. One suspects they are somehow more comfortable with another kind of movie media tycoon – the straightforward villain. Not that this performance by the otherwise excellent Jonathan Pryce really troubled the scorers…

But I still think The Social Network is the most compelling movie I have seen in a long time. It is great in all those conventional ways – script, humour, music, emotional core etc – but it is also a movie that encapsulates our time in a way that is far more compelling than the ‘Facebook movie’ I feared would have done.

And for me, this is specifically because of the difference in its treatment of the very same subject matter that helped make Kane such a landmark film. The media tycoons of our age may be geeks craving social success, they may be megalomaniacs just like all those other grizzled veterans  - but they are also young guys who really want to create things that people love and that haven’t existed before. And that doesn’t make them villains – in fact it makes them imperfect but compelling heroes.

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The Gilded Cage: Why inside every Apple user is a Charlie Sheen waiting to get out

It’s just possible that there a few people out there who think that being Charlie Sheen would be really great.

I certainly wouldn’t mind a crack at it for an evening, or maybe as a short weekend break. But ultimately, we can collectively agree (once we’ve finished pointing, staring and giggling) that overall Charlie Sheen is a figure worthy of pity rather than amusement.

Why?

After all, he is rich. And (just about still) good looking. And he knows lots of people that you would like to know. And talented (I’m no 2 ½ Men enthusiast, but I wouldn’t have minded being in Wall Street, or Platoon, or, for that matter, Young Guns.)

The fact is that Charlie may be rich, and good looking, and talented, but mainly nowadays he is defined by the kind of experiences he has (decadent, unrestrained, medicated) rather than who he is or what he does.

As a result, right now he is just FAMOUS. He is pretty much just a professional celebrity, and that is a pretty terrible thing to be. Because being a celebrity mainly means that people look at you all the time, and report what you do to others.

The people that have most in common with celebrities, therefore, are maximum security prisoners. Constantly observed, logged and restricted in movement.

Hollywood is no Alcatraz. It is a place of almost unrestricted money and pleasure (as well as a place where a lot of creative people do a lot of great work.) But when you reach the Charlie category of celebrity, Hollywood is a cage. A Gilded Cage, but a cage nonetheless.

Alcatraz - good location for a rehab facility?

And over the long haul, doesn’t pretty much everyone want to break out of the Gilded Cage?

An interesting question…and by no means an easy one to answer.

Politically, this is one of the most interesting long view questions out there. Until a couple of decades ago it was relatively usual to see the arc of history as a long march to political freedom, through economic and military hardship.

This has fallen out of favour during the last few years…though current events in the Middle East and the fate of Gaddafi are an interesting crucible to see where we are going next.What is certain is that the assumed link between wealth and political liberality is by no means certain. In fact it is not uncommon to see ‘progressive’ politicians like Tony Blair openly question the old paradigm of liberalism – effectively to assert that in a modern inter-dependent economy and society, it is out of date. In his infuriatingly readable memoirs, he asserts that it is about the social quality of your experience of life, not your absolute freedom.

Personally, I would say that freedom never goes out of date. It’s just the conversation that changes (as explored by my friend Ben Wilson in this excellent book.)

Good question, good book.

This conversation was always a lot simpler when it came to the Internet. The argument was that online users would always break out of the cage, no matter how gilded.

Having worked with AOL through its heyday as an ISP in the UK, I watched this in slow motion as its ‘Walled Garden’ approach became an anachronism in the digital economy – no matter how much content or how many services they created, no-one would accept life in the Gilded Cage.

Here we find ourselves, in 2011, gasping with anticipation at the launch of the iPad 2, giddily in love with Apple and all its shiny things. Apple is the most admired company in the world for the sixth year running, and the second most valuable.

And yet isn’t Apple’s model just another Gilded Cage? It is beautifully designed, wonderfully tactile, intuitively mobile, but isn’t Apple’s ecosystem basically a prison of corporate control and cross-sell?

Like many sane people, Charlie Brooker both loves and hates Apple

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/28/charlie-brooker-pfroblem-with-macs

I’m just a month into my relationship with my iPhone, so for me the jury is out on the overall experience (it isn’t until you have at least two Apple devices that they really start getting to work on you.) But there is certainly something irritating, and, dare I say it old fashioned about their attempts to fence me in.

Certainly at the moment, the online world seems to be a balance between user freedom and the feel of the experience. New fault lines are breaking out, with Google appearing more and more the standard bearer of freedom and functionality, vs the curated experience of Apple.

Does this mean I think there is a crazed Charlie Sheen inside every Apple user, desperate to escape? Do I believe Steve Jobs is cowering in fear at the insurgency to come?

Of course not. Ultimately the technology user won’t choose between experience and freedom. They will demand both. So in the long term, I can’t see the Gilded Cage of Apple looking as secure in 10 years as it does now.

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Filming the Jump: #2 Wayne’s World

I know it’s not normally seen like this, but as a 13-year-old in 1992, Wayne’s World felt like a moment of triumph – when the young, funny, irreverent and fun-loving took over the establishment of TV. Mike Myers’ Wayne was the monkey in charge of the banana factory. He was funny. He was rude. He listened to good music. And he was a thousand times funnier and more compelling than anything else on the corporate-driven TV networks.

Wayne’s triumph over the TV moguls was the real story of the movie. They tried to screw him, but he triumphed, by being funny, talented, and having an unbeatable group of friends. All culminating in a full rectal examination of the very creepy Rob Lowe…

Rob Lowe - post Brat Pack, pre rectal probe

Without taking the symbolism too far, it is interesting to look at the counterpoint between Mike Myers and Rob Lowe. Lowe was the poster child of the previous wave of youth empowerment…the Brat Pack. But Rob Low, and Molly Ringwald, and Emilio Esetevez had been part of an apparent wave of teen power that was in fact the old school movie system in new clothing. They were pretty to look at, and served up a convincing product of teen rebellion. But they were very much in front of, not behind the camera. Wayne’s World was about the kids (albeit, in Mike Myers case, a 29 year-old in a baseball cap) taking over the medium.

In a time when the big networks’ grip on broadcast was being broken by the proliferation of TV stations and the rise of cable and satellite technology, this seemed very plausible. Kids had gone wanting their MTV to wanting to run their own show. The kids were taking control of the airwaves, of the interaction, making it more real and direct, and they were bringing the audience with them.

Flip forward a couple of decades, and it is clear that this hasn’t happened.

It feels like there is less live music than pretty much ever before. MTV, the bedrock of teen culture for quite a while, is content to churn out reality TV and docu-soap that is more appealing to 20-somethings looking to vegetate with a hangover as it is to angry young kids.

money for nothing, and chicks for free

There are a couple of exceptions that prove the rule – Skins, for example, continues to fly the flag, particularly in the US where its launch has entranced teenagers and predictably outraged sponsors. South Park manages, just about, to sustain a balance of rage and gross out comedy. But overall, TV feels more and more like the playground of professional adults and corporate interests.

But this isn’t a rant about the sell out of TV to ‘the Man’…the point of course is that there is another show in town – the Internet. Why bother to try to seize control of the airwaves, and the means of cultural production, when all you need to create your own space and audience is upload to YouTube or set up your own online record label? When there is a media option that is so much more vital, immediate, interactive and sociable, why bother with TV?

The leadenness of TV is particularly clear when you see its attempts to feed from the internet. Behold the horror of Tosh.O.

The problem with all of this is that without the active participation of all the smart, funny kids in the world in the future of TV, we are missing out on a lot. We are missing our chance to create inspiring pop culture movements at one moment in time. We are under-selling the potential of the box in the corner, which can be interactive and vital, but is almost always generating passivity. And we are missing out on the sense of empowerment that each new generation gets from taking over control of the institutions of the previous generation.

And the fact remains that with production and distribution getting ever cheaper, media consumption fragmenting, the chance to make Wayne’s World come to life is greater than ever. It would be great to see someone do it – and as a 30-something marketing guy…to see it and feel like it WASN’T designed for me…

betty rubble has aged somewhat better than Madonna...

Instead, we have this. A Wayne’s World sketch on Saturday Night Live. 15 years after it ceased to be relevant. Actually it’s not unfunny. But it might be good to see something new…

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Filming the Jump: #1 Sunset Boulevard

When the movies went from silent to talking, who got left behind? How did it change the movie industry for the people in it? How did the change in the medium affect the world? That is the single-minded obsession of a film of obsessive, singular greatness – 1950′s Sunset Boulevard.

One very scary lady

The melodramatic black hole of a performance by Gloria Swanson in the lead, and the obvious symbolism of the title, draw you into a speculation on the end of something. But it is important to remember that at the core of this film is also the beginning of something – in fact of what you would normally consider the ‘Golden Age of Hollywood’.

The era of Norma Desmonds’s seclusion after all is the era of Bogart, of Gone with the Wind, of Howard Hawks. This was an era where the script and the dialogue was king, where people went to the movies to hear people talk, and where the dialogue comes so thick and fast that it feels (perhaps rightly) like audiences at this time weighing their ticket price vs the volume of words and making their judgements accordingly. Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Lauren Bacall…all not only great actors but phenomenal when judged on words per minute…

Sunset Boulevard is thick with distaste for the world of words that seemed to have been unleashed by the new age of movies – and by implication, TV too. Its lead, lent almost-sympathy in the dramatic trick of making him narrate from beyond the grave, is profoundly unsympathetic as a word-churning writer. In fact writers across the board seem like a pretty tawdry lot, pumping on second-rate variations on formula, filled with plausible verbiage.

The chattering fast talk of journalists and writers alike is thrown into sharp relief by the Norma Desmond’s dramatic delivery and physical expressiveness. The intense drama of her declarations of affection are played off against the facile verbal fencing of the writer’s love affair. And the most powerful character, Butler/Director Max, is a man of very few words.

It’s also a movie in a grand tradition of pieces in which ‘I love you’ is held cheap. There is only one person who seems to mean it when they say it, if for all the wrong reasons – and that’s Norma Desmond. Particularly when she has it engraved in gold.

What we can feel in this movie is not so much a harking back to the golden days of the silent screen – much as you hanker for them as Buster Keaton flits across the screen – as an underlying unease about the world of chatter, of too many words from too many people signifying too little. And this was in 1950. Project this forward to the modern age of ubiquitous video, and you begin to get a sense of how much psychological pressure and acrobatic effort is placed upon the human mind by this deluge of words.

To end with a huge diversion – this line of thought leads me to reconsider what I consume with my ears, just as I do (sometimes) what I eat. On this subject, a great talk from the ever great TED. Maybe it is worth considering how to ration the chatter that we absorb every day – and to weigh and ration each word as people did when they first saw the Jazz Singer…and consigned Norma Desmond to a slow death of madness.

Fittingly, Sunset Boulevard also has two lines of dialogue, terse and perfect that are amongst the greatest in cinema.

“Mr De Mille? I’m ready for my close up.”

and, most appropriately…

“I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

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when mickey mouse met stravinsky – whatever happened to innovative cultural fusion?

today it is 70 years since the launch of fantasia, in which walt disney reinvented classical music for a new generation through mickey mouse and a lot of hand drawn animation.

it is an incredible film. we are fortunate to live in an age of incredible animation that has produced the first 45 minutes of wall-e, and the first five minutes of up (still the most emotionally satisfying exposition of character that i’ve seen in years.)

but despite the technical wizardry, incredible heart and storytelling craft of the pixar gems, nothing quite matches the insane bravery of making a film which was essentially a music video to bach, stravinsky and tchaikovsky, in which the boundaries of hand-drawn animation were broken several times every day during production. it is a great example of the incredible innovation that comes from combining two seemingly irreconcilable forms of culture – with spectacular, transformational effects.

i’ve just finished re-reading, for the fourth time or so  i think, ‘easy riders, raging bulls’ by Peter Biskind. if you haven’t read it, it is a phenomenal examination of the reinvention of hollywood in the early 1970s. i recommend it highly…if you haven’t got time, here is a snippet of the accompanying documentary to whet your appetite.

again, what is remarkable about this period, in which hopper, beatty, scorcese, coppola, friedkin, lucas and spielberg rewrote the rules of cinema, is not extraordinary technical progress, or even extraordinary originality, but an incredible facility in blending together generations, cultures and styles. in particular, each of these directors in their own way was obsessed with applying the cerebral style of the french new wave to new, pop culture genres – the western, the gangster story, the detective story – again changing the medium in the process.

this of course isn’t limited to movies. it underpins many other fields – like the stages of bob dylan’s progress, particularly the seminal moment when he linked the traditional folk music of the american midwest to the electric ryhthm and blues of new york – in itself an innovation so powerful that large sectors of the transatlantic folk community wanted to lynch him. which he took with his usual wacky humour.

there are a million other examples, from the distant and elevated (ancient rome meets renaissance florence) to the recent and humorous (clueless merges beverley hills 90210 and jane austen’s emma.) but i can’t think of any recently.

i have a couple of thoughts on why this might be, both of which are coloured by the marketing world that i operate in.

the first has been the inexorable rise of the mash up. bringing together different times, different cultures through music and images, is almost too easy now, too commonplace. it has become the province of the joke, or the statement of cool, rather than the statement of art. (though this, featuring snow white, feels quite magical to me…)

the second, i think, is related to the world of marketing. at its best, modern marketing is very good at focusing on the authentic, the pure, the ‘usp’. this kind of focus is what i see in some of the braver films of recent time – where the fashion has become the ‘redux’, the ‘more original than the original’, rather than the skewed retelling for another age. at its worst, modern marketing is all about having as predictable a set of demand as possible – which you get by creating sequels, or creating genre pictures – which may not necessarily break the mould of cinema, but do provide much more predictable box office (crucial to an industry with huge marketing and infrastructure costs in advance of release, and small profit margins.)

this film made perfect marketing and commercial sense...

but more generally it feels like we have reached a place culturally where we are uncomfortable with the idea of reinvention, or remixing, as a serious artistic statement. and as a result it feels like we are in a somewhat conservative place – at best lots of slavish devotion to original text, at worst lots of repetitive, formulaic product.

maybe it would be nice to see things being mixed up a bit again…?

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