Tag Archives: movies

Personal artistic patronage – the next phase of TV….?

What do these people all have in common?

Spot the millionaire

They appear in some of the greatest works of art in the history of the world – because they had a) money and b) taste.

For centuries, the only way to get your art made was to make it for the Church, or in some cases for the Court. One of the key elements that spurred the great artistic reawakening was the pure economics of the situation – a new wave of more worldly masters, mainly merchants and venture capitalists. Of whom the undoubted rockstars were the Medici.

Out of love of glory bound together with love of art, they empowered artists, writers and poets to broaden their horizons, to explore the secular, and to express themselves on the grand stage.

Closer to the present day, we have this:

Now Richard Branson is no Medici (thus far.) But he is a representative of something we are all familiar with, whether as professionals or as irritated film goers – that as the commercial models of the past video industry crumble, we see increasing roles for businesses in funding (and appearing in) entertainment content.

It’s easy, and perhaps right, to be pretty suspicious of this force, particularly as it migrates to a more subliminal level, and to the screen in your living room rather than the public forum of the cinema.

They really could have leveraged the space on his forehead more effectively to improve brand recall...

But the fact is that the economics of the world of TV are changing. This will definitely mean a more integral role within the world of TV content for brands and companies. I would argue that there is also a potential role for individuals, and that the day of the great patrons will return. Why?

In the past, there were 4 things that gave you power in the world of TV, and that made the TV channels and networks powerful (loosely quoting Andy Lippmann, of the MIT Media Lab.)

1. Access to a mass form of distribution

2. Money for and capability at promoting content

3. Venture capital to invest in creative projects

4. The taste and expertise to act as a curator and editor

What is interesting about this is that we sit at an interesting turning point in the world of TV, where the first two are changing beyond all recognition.

What an Apple TV almost certainly won't look like

Distribution is through the internet or wireless connection – and YOU own and pay for that. And promotion…well, increasingly, you do that too, because the recommendations you and your friends make to each other are much more powerful than any advertising campaign.

So that leaves two aspects: venture capital for creative projects, and the taste and expertise to choose the right content and support the right talent.

Which sounds an awful lot like artistic patronage. Add this to an app-led, tablet-style interface and the chances of watching the Bill Gates or the Madonna channel seem more and more likely. Especially as Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus increasingly condition us to expect a Web of content organised around people, rather than topics or channels.

This wouldn’t be anything brand new – CurrentTV feels near as dammit like the Al Gore Channel.

Current TV. Good, but ahead of its time.

And it won’t necessarily be individuals…it could be collectives (like the Coppolla/Bogdanovich/Friedkin ‘Directors Company of the 1970s)

The Directors Company - good, but ahead of their time (and generally mad and power-crazed)

But in the next phase of TV, artistic patronage could come back in a big way.

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There is no Them. There is only Us.

People have always defined themselves by what they aren’t as much as what they are. It gets passed on from group to group: the Brits defined (and continue to define) themselves by difference to the French, and in turn Americans by difference to the English.

This person simply will not pay duties to the hated English without due representation.

Otherness is a fundamental source of inspiration and aggression. Men and women, we are told, are from different planets. National pride and xenophobia continue their uneasy see-saw relationship, despite living in an age of global media, global business and global pandemics. As soon as the psychological power of the boundary between Lancashire and Yorkshire begins to lose its power, it is replaced by the power of the psychological boundary between environmentalists and Clarksonites. Everyone needs a Them.

Them has been one of the great subjects of the rise of the popular media. In particular, from the satirical pornography of the French Revolution to the neon Schwarzenneger epics of the 1980s, via rather a lot of good protest and faux-protest music in the 1960s, raw and paranoid rage against the secret machinations of those in power has been one of the driving forces of the development of what we know as popular culture.

Apparently, the presence of this hot material in Paris in the 1790s is what made revolutionaries feel it was OK to remove this woman's head

This format has been endlessly rehearsed, and forms the plot of roughly 25% of serious TV drama and 50% of Hollywood’s entire output. For me, it reached its nadir in the execrable Adjustment Bureau, on which I expended 2 hours of a recent flight that I could have better spent waiting in the endless, awkward queue for the world’s smallest bathrooms. The Adjustment Bureau was full of a ‘They’ that were all powerful and yet at the same time totally bloody hopeless.

If you haven’t seen the Adjustment Bureau, it is a longer and less good version of this trailer:

Now I realise that power continues to be distribute unevenly and unjustly, and that governments like to get away with doing things they shouldn’t be doing (or at least haven’t asked permission for, like removing the tyrannical leaders of countries.) But as I watched the Adjustment Bureau, I couldn’t help but think of the material I had read from Wikileaks, and for the most part how unbelievably banal and even mostly well-intentioned it was.

The ability of the internet to scale discoveries at lightening speed and the ubiquity of the rolling news camera have largely laid bare the secrets of government. Those that remain buried are, unfortunately, deeper buried than ever. But, for the most part, we have see all the rough edges and hidden errors of our leaders. And frankly, they mainly seem like people we would generally sooner pity than fear. FDR was able to act as President of the USA for 12 years and only two pictures were known to have been taken that showed him in a wheelchair. Whereas with Dubya, we got a pretty constant serving of this:

Now was I thrilled that this guy had his finger on the nuclear button? No. But I knew he wasn’t really a monster, because I do stuff like that all the time.

But that merely moves us from the theatre of fear to the theatre of pantomime. It takes a real work of art to remind us that we aren’t in a theatre at all, and that if we are it certainly isn’t a paranoid retro-futurist conspiracy thriller. This is I think why the Wire is such great drama – not just because of its entertainment value, but because it achieves the almost unique attribute of making every single character rounded and worthy of empathy if not always sympathy. Everyone is trying, everyone is flawed, and everyone is connected.

He allows homicidal drug dealers to die worrying about their hair:

And he allows cynical politicians to express their intentions…which are, at their root, generally positive, no matter how the system may pervert them:

This is a recognition of the reality of the world that we live in – that it is not the puppet show of shadowy cabals or machiavellian geniuses, but a totally interconnected system in which everyone, actively or passively plays their part and affects every other part of the system.

And as the world we live in begins to run on a track of behavioural data and social connection networks, the reality it that more and more the world is becoming a great big human system, in which every one of us is a working part. And the structure of that system is as fragile as it has ever been. It is harder than ever to keep any part of the system secret or separate. And the system itself is much more fragile than it looks.

It has never been so easy to round up a posse

This is a positive thing and a negative thing. It is a danger and a responsibility. It enables some people to break long-standing taboos in the name of humanitarian action, and it enables others to create a pattern of chaos and looting without a cause. But ultimately it is all a reminder that the human system is there, and that everyone is connected.

In this context, it feels like we have taken ourselves down a blind alley and created a worldview that is far too centred on the idea of ‘Them’. You can’t get rid of a sense of otherness, nor should we try. But sometimes it feels like because of Watergate, and Hackgate, and Expensegate, and because of a moviegoer-level understanding of Orwell and Dick, and because of Grand Theft Auto and gang violence and all these things that seem not to translate across generations, we are really prone to devolving to a facile games of Us and Them – which is a dismissal of both hope and responsibility.

We don’t live in the Matrix. Rupert Murdoch isn’t a Bond villain. The TV screen is not the Newsscreen of 1984. We live in the most empowered and interconnected period in history. We all have to ability to reach out to other parts of society at any moment, or at least give their point of view. We have unlimited outlets for self-expression, and a legal system that fights bitterly for our right to use them.

It took mankind a lot to get us to this point, where we have so many tools at our disposal to feed our empathy and impact on our governance. And to watch the modern world slip by us like a bad sci-fi movie or a cartoon Lord of the Flies is a terrible waste of all that effort.

 

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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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technological progress – good or bad?

there’s only one way to find out…FIGHT!!!

this was the closest i could get to working out the moral of the story of Iron Man 1, which i had the pleasure of catching most of on flights to and from Toronto. the trailer is here. if you can’t immediately deduce it from this trailer, the hero of Iron Man is an engineering genius who is deeply conflicted about the effects of technological innovation. not immediately obvious from all the it where he making everything blow iup.

(though the problem with flying to Canada is that all the passenger announcements are in English and French, which means they last twice as long, which means to don’t get much viewing time on a 1 hour and a bit flight. so technically i’ve missed the last five minutes of Iron Man, in which I am sure that everyone who survived became a better person and further adventures were broadly hinted at.)

Iron Man just about pulled off the ‘deeply conflicted about progress’ approach, despite being primarily an intense and weirdly anachronistic love letter the arms industry, because it featured robert downey junior, who could make a traffic warden quirkily loveable.

he had also made a very convincing positive case for innovation and technological process in sherlock holmes actually. which if you haven’t see it is certainly better than you think it is, dare i say it maybe not even in spite of guy ritchie but because of him. even this movie culminated in some strange meta-morality about chemical warfare (and a fight atop the Tower of London) but generally the moral of Sherlock Holmes was that invention, innovation, and, well, thinking, is good.

maybe somehow this is easier when a movie is set in the past. ie – technology that got us from victorian london to modern london is good, anything further is a bit dubious. it seems to be morally brave at the moment to suggest that technological progress is good. if Iron Man was brave in anything as a movie. it was in at least having the courage to be conflicted, and not downright dismissive, towards technology.

much more par for the course nowadays is avatar. described, quite aptly, as ferngully in space, it made without a trace of irony the case that advances in technology were inexorably and irrevocably destroying hand craft, spirituality and cultural diversity. which considering the fact that avatar will probably make $3bn in all formats by the time it is done and has created a scenario in which a dog smelling its own bum could break through the $1billion barrier as long as it was in glorious 3D.

i should point out that at the time i quite enjoyed avatar, much in the way that i would enjoy, say, a ballbearing hovering in space thanks to the power of magnetism. it just wasn’t a very good movie. of course james cameron being who he is, i can’t link to any avatar footage, because it is locked in a cavern under the sea. but you can listen to the destruction of ‘hometree’ if you like…

but, at the risk of being preachy, i come back to my central point. i am glad Iron Man didn’t make arms dealers look like heroes more than was absolutely necessary (though, the character being who he was, it was quite necessary.) but i would love to see some optimistic explorations of the technological future. the 1980s was full of them, from the ridiculousness of Top Gun to the chaotic good heartedness of Back to the Future.

maybe now, in a time of fuel crisis, and oil leaks, and post-recessionary economies, and financial crisis, and the surveillance society, would be a good time to start creating some good dreams about what technology could accomplish. and i tend to believe that the movies are a pretty good place to start.

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time to go back to the future

these are negative times we are living in. conservatism is up, investment is down. innovation is drying up, and even apple are reduced to trying to make us want stuff we clearly don’t need. the future is a bleak wasteland. i’m excited.

why? because it seems like it is always intense discomfort with the now that creates our most exciting leaps into the future. but it always seems to be preceded by an desire to look backwards. i remember the same thing happening when i was young, in the early 1990s – and it seemed to be follow by an avalanche of innovation – cultural, technological, everything. i think the same thing happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and looked what happened then.

i think now we are in the phase of looking back. of collecting our thoughts. of trying to rediscover our identity – where we have come from. what we NEED is for our leaders – artistic, business, political, technological, to start telling a compelling history of that past, of how we arrived where we are. because i think it is only when you get that sense of perspective, that you start feeling optimistic about the future.

where did this though come from?

firstly from reading a biography of lincoln, ‘team of rivals’ (much recommended by me and by Obama, another man who really needs to get people excited about the future again.) lincoln’s genius was to simply tell the american story, in a way that was simple and accessible and almost mythical, but made people instinctively excited about the potential of the future. david cameron sure as hell ain’t no lincoln. the way things are going, neither is obama.

david cameron sure as hell ain't no lincoln

but mainly it comes from one of my favourite scenes in the movies – the mall scene in bill & ted’s excellent adventure. definitely one of the formative texts of my world view (sadly.)

here it is, in al its glory. see beethoven discovering synthesizers. joan of arc discovering aerobics. and socrates trying to get laid.

beethoven discovers synthesizers

this scene reminds me that however drab the current moment might seem, it is so much easier to see the potential in the things around us when we have just a little perspective.

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where is my total recall ‘instant beauty’ TV channel?

in which it is obvious that only the bad bits of Total Recall have come true, and that if people will listen to birdsong, they will definitely watch Eyjafjallajökull erupting

you may not remember Total Recall quite as well as I do, but one of the scenes that sticks most in my mind is one where sharon stone and arnie argue over the tv remote. she wants to set the tv (which, this being the future, takes up much of the apartment wall) to an incredible sunset, arnie wants to watch rolling 24-hour coverage of industrial unrest on Mars. she of course turns out to be an evil conspirator in the wiping of his memory, but i was with her on the channel choice.

ok, if we can't agree what to watch, i'll just shoot it.

what spurred this journey into the sci-fi adventures of the 1980s was watching this quite stunning time lapse video of the eruption of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcano by Sean Stiegemeier…reminding me that this event was not just an inconvenience to aviation, but one of the most spectacular and beautiful phenomena in the natural world.

why, oh why does my TV, with its several thousand channels, not simply have one that i can visit to access beautiful, real imagery of the world whenever i want it. in this always-on, on-demand broadcast world that we live in, why does every single channel assume that what i want to watch is a ‘programme’, preferably lasting half an hour and with the pre-recorded sound of ‘humans’ laughing forcible inserted into it.

i don’t know if it still exists, but when digital radio was getting started in the UK i know they were experimentally transmitting a station called ‘birdsong’ (you can guess what the programming schedule looked like) – and it was strangely very popular. in fact various online services were launched off the back of it. check it out. it will make you happy.

http://www.birdsongradio.com - ok, you can have enough of it, but it's nice

surely there is a gap in the market for a broadcasting equivalent? possibly funded by an advertiser or a collective of advertisers with a stake in travel, beauty and inspiration? all you would have to do is to collect what exists already, from all around the world, and put it on the big screen.

i would watch it, at least for a moment, every day of my life.



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