Hollywood warms to Transformation

Steven Spielberg and DiCaprio are about to release a film called Catch Me If You Can, a treatment of a con man who works his con by transforming himself into a succession of characters.

Transformation (the book on this site) argues that Hollywood shows more and more interest in transformational themes, especially when it takes the form of a character who plays many characters.

I use these films as my cases in point: Sliding Doors (1998, Peter Howitt), Multiplicity (1996, Harold Ramis), Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), eXistenZ, (1999, David Cronenberg), Passion of the Mind (2000, Alain Berliner), The Family Man (2000, Brett Ratner), Me Myself I (1999, Pip Karmel), Down to Earth (2001, Chris and Paul Weitz), Possible Worlds (2000, Robert Lepage), The One (2001, James Wong), The Bourne Identity (2002, Doug Liman), Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)

The thing about Hollywood and a lot of popular culture is that, because it is governed by the market place, it represents more than an act of imagination. Any given film is a bet. When the bet is wrong, studios lose money, stars lose some of their brilliance and directors, some of them, never work again.

So far transformation has been a risky bet. Many of the films on my list have failed or “underperformed.”

But Hollywood continues to make the bet. If you add up all the budgets for these films, the bet now comes out to $447 million.

We can also say that the following actors have bet a chunk of their careers: Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Demi Moore, Nicolas Cage, Rachel Griffiths, Chris Rock, Tom McCamus, Jet Li, Matt Damon, and Leo DiCaprio.

The way to think about it anthropologically, I think, is to say that Hollywood can hear transformation has a new imperative in popular culture, but, like the rest of us, it is having a hard time figuring out how to treat the theme.

a conversation with Maria on what makes a good blog

a discussion about what makes a good blog

that turns on the idea that good blogs might come from a single, consistent persona on the part of the blogger OR from the multiplicity of the blogger, OR possibly from both.

Thanks to Maria for giving me permission to quote her.

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Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe is a convention is some ways, a puzzle in others.

He is one of the journalists, now directors, who is particularly good at treating contemporary culture both as observer and participant.

He’s a puzzle because he seems to have an invisble centre of gravity. How for instance did he managed to cover the counter culture of the 60s without tipping into it. How did he, at 15 no less, manage to keep the company of rock stars on the road without beginning to see his profession and his paper (Rolling Stone) as the corruptions the age now scorned.

He did the same same thing with the movie Say Anything (1989). Here he was reporting Seattle culture (before it was official). This too was a counter culture that treated Hollywood as a corruption, the very thing alternative values were designed to encourage us to repudiate.

So the mystery is this: how did he get close enough to capture without getting close enough to repudiate the media (rock journalism and hollywood movies) he was capturing with.

Is it something to do with being a Californian…so persuaded that popular culture is it that you persevere with it even in the face of values that reject it?

Rules Broken

From today’s email version of PC Magazine

“You can learn a surprising amount by taking just a moment to read what one of the most influential voices in our industry has to say. Editor-in-chief Michael J. Miller weighs in on this year’s technically excellent products…”

This piece of popular culture reveals a rule of popular culture…by breaking it.

1) “just taking a moment.” There is something simultaneously pleading and patronizing here. And the pop culture rhetoric says, never plead and never patronize. You can’t appear to need the reader and you especially can’t appear to know better.

2) “you can learn a surprising amount.” Never tell the reader what’s good for them. They will decide this for themselves.

3) “one of the most influential people in the industry.” Be careful how you self promote. They will decide Miller’s standing for themselves.

At the very least, this rhetoric turns on a delicate negotiation of standing. Writers may not dare to plead, patronize, or know better. They must respect the autonomy of the reader.

Hack

Hack, the new prime TV drama for CBS is in trouble. They’ve decided to give it some time to take. It’s going to take awhile.

Hack has the advantage of having David Morse as its lead character. Here’s an actor who works the small facial gesture with virtuoso control, every tick and grimace and smile and shrug of unhappiness tied to the scene, and so transparent of the character’s emotional life, that it’s worth the price of admission, and carries the rest of the show.

The damp napkin, the one on which someone sketched out the original vision of the show, is still visible: gritty plus heartwarming, new age hopefulness meets street-slick, mean-street, cynicism. An angel from on high dressed up in low end noir.

The trouble is that the show is obliged to be more new age than noir. Nothing bad can happen here. This is the new age “promise” as this has been inscribed in a number of pop culture productions (e.g., Highway to Heaven, Touched By An Angel). This means that a show that has opened up dramatic opportunities by its inhabitations of the mean streets of Philadelphia and actors of the standing of Morse and Andre Braugher, must confine itself to the happy and the heart warming and the reassurance that, really, the universe is inhabited by forces of goodness.

TV has got a little better at exploring the complexity and contraction of its characters. Dennis Franz is one obvious case in point. Tony Soprano, an another. And this year we have seen a couple of shows (i.e., The Shield) in which the protagonist is obviously flawed. And “noir” was dedicated to this premise, one of the first pop cultural productions to escape the “niceness” trap of mainstream entertainment.

Hack is, finally, a tragic figure, not on the screen but in the script, the captive of a contradiction. The interest of the show comes finally from watching it wrestle with its demons. And this is one of the interesting things about popular culture, that we are engaged as much by what we imagine off screen as we do what’s on.

Eddies in the mainstream

How cold is it in Montreal? It’s so cold many of us will not survive the night. This may be my last journal entry.

A couple of weeks ago (see entry for Oct. 3), I was surprised to learn from Entertainment Weekly that Vin Diesel was being heralded as the new action star to some extent because, as an Hollywood agent put it, “there’s a shortage of action stars in Hollywood.”

Then a couple days ago, a NYT article by Cathy Horyn called “Young Stars of U.S. Fashion Can’t Seem to Find Right Fit.” (December 7, 2002). The title of the article is misleading because the gist of the piece is that there is now a shortage of young fashion designers.

“Since 1998, when Isaac Mizrahi closed his doors, a succession of promising stars have gone out of business – Daryl Kerrigan, Pamela Dennis, Todd Oldham and last month, Mr. Bartlett, who in 1997 was the industry’s top men’s wear designer.”

A shortage of action stars and fashion designers? Is this the historical outcome of the great exclusion that happened in the very late 80s? People raised with Michael J. Fox expectations (Beemers, law school, yuppie riches) found themselves shut out. It wasn’t really until the dot.com thing got rolling in the mid late middle 1990s, that they were let back in…and nothing in this new regime encouraged people to think about action adventure or clothing design.

It’s 12 years later. Hollywood and the design world look for the next generation…and parts of it are missing. Some of this is the work of exclusion. But some of it is the result of refusal. The alternative values of the 1990s scorned action stars and fashion design, one for its preposterous gender constructions, the other for its self aggrandizing vanity. And some of it was both: those who learned to disdain action and fashion were disinclined to enter it.

But the larger question: is there a hole in the demography? Are parts of Gen X still missing?

pre fab culture

David Blum recently wrote  "Tired joke or cultural touchstone: The sitcom clam." The clam, he said, is a joke from Friends, say, that has found its way into daily life. There are lots of them.

"Too much information!"
"Don’t talk to me, talk to the hand."
"I’m not going there."
"That’s why they pay me the big bucks."
"You think?"
"It doesn’t get any better than this."
"Good times."
"Did I say that out loud?"

The last was delivered by Cliff Clavin on Cheers. It is now in wide circulation.

Writers hate clams. They see them as lazy, pre-fab humor. But they are obliged to use them. It’s as if they have been taken hostage by their own work. These lines are now so much a part of everyday speech, they are sometimes the mot juste. Not to use them can compromise a scene.

But the rest of us are less conflicted. Clams are the stuff of speech. They come to us unbidden and they score. I was fielding an odd comment from a student in a class room. He asked, for some reason, what I thought about those moments when cocaine is suddenly not available. I could hear the class come unhinged. A carefully crafted teaching plan now hung in the balance. "I hate it when that happens," I heard myself say.

Big laugh. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t made it up. Indeed it was funnier because prefab. We are happy to have our jokes ghosted by comedy writers. And why would we not be? (You have heard people tell their own jokes? How about professors?)

It is, generally, a good thing to be scripted. We deliver better lines, and our "audience" is ready for us, cued as surely as if an applause sign had just lit up.

This is not always true. I recently did a pub tour, looking for the ghost of Mordecai Richler (Looking for M. Richler, November 7, 2002, below). The evening was going pretty badly, when suddenly the door blew open and in came a man yelling "Yeah, baby," his tribute to Austin Powers, which he liked so well that he repeated it over and over till I felt obliged to leave.

A Budweiser ad armed perfect idiots with the right to say "whazzup" until this clam was finally put to rest by the people at www.tinyriot.com. A little clam can be a dangerous thing.

Clams may come from sit com writers, but they belong to us. A friend of mine was struck by the new maniacal laugh of a friend of hers. My friend was surprised to hear this laugh again in the movie Mars Attacks (1996, Tim Burton). And when she saw her friend next, she said,
"so that’s where you got it."

"What?"

"That laugh!"

"What laugh?"

"That one you got from Mars Attacks."

Her friend was mightily offended. She may have got the laugh from Tim Burton’s movie but now it belonged to her. Something in us supposes, apparently, that we deserve some of the credit for these performances.

Our skill with clams comes from media exposure. I went to a wedding a couple of years ago in which every member of an otherwise pretty typical family stood up and delivered "A" material as part of their roast of the groom. I was stunned they should be so good. The only moment of real creativity came when one of the brothers got up and said, "I’m the odd one in the bunch" and proceeded to do a satirical treatment of the Catholic minister who had performed the ceremony. This was so funny that people were actually shouting at their plates with laughter.

But the rest of the time we were co-conspirators in a reproduction of popular culture. "A river runs through us," I thought. (I’d had a lot to drink.) We have all of us absorbed so many media feeds. We have bathed in so many comedian routines, we are now pretty good at them.

If we were in a diminishing mood (and this is the tone of a lot of pop culture criticism), you could say that we have been reduced to participants in that famous comedian’s convention in which all the jokes are so well known they have been identified by number. You only have to say "57" to get a big laugh. Culture has been flattened. Creativity has been diminished. We have been turned into robots, thoughtlessly reproducing bits and pieces from the stream of popular culture that passes constantly through us.

But I’m not in a diminishing mood. Clams are consistent with a lot of what we see now in popular culture: "Like" talking, air guitar, Lip sync, Karaoke, Flight Simulator, Sim City, fanfic, Blade Runner (the game), Goth theatre in the streets of San Francisco, MUDS, MOOs, Virtual Worlds, Rotisserie baseball, and HSX.com (reviewed Transformation, pp. 287-296). People are taking the theatrical resources that come to them from TV and movies into their own hands. They are using these props to step into someone else’s personae (real or fictional). Clams are perhaps the smallest moments of transformation. We can insert them, just in time, in a little space in the conversation.

And in that moment we appropriate the humor of a TV character, and we dress ourselves up in humor funnier than any thing we could manage on our own. We are not naive about this, neither are our listeners. But we are not without our standards. We can’t just say "57." The line has to be well chosen, well timed, and well delivered.

This is a shift we see more and more. That virtually everyone has moved from being a consumer of culture to being one of its, unofficial, producers. Even when this is borrowed production, it is still production. And this should be enough to discourage the "dupe" argument that says contemporary culture has turned us into, well, dupes. We have shown ourselves increasingly voracious in the consumption of clams. And increasingly skilled in the way in which we recreate this comedic material in everyday life.

It turns out, contrary to the Frankfurt school, Stewart Ewen, Stuart Hall, and other social scientists too numerous to mention, the culture that comes out of commerce is actually quite inclusive and participative. It does not "dumb us down." Quite often, it smartens us up.

Now it remains to do the anthropology. What is a clam exactly? Why do some sit coms lines make it into popular culture and others not? How long do they stay in circulation? Do they "diffuse" like other cultural innovations? Do people characteristically chose certain clams and avoid others? How do clams change social performances? How do clams change the social construction of the self? How much and what kind of traditional humor has been supplanted by clams? A few questions for us to contemplate.

Thank you, David Blum, for the article.