Category Archives: Media: TV, movies, journalism, etc.

Rainbow warriors

Rainbow Pam and I are here in the Pacific Northwest, chasing rainbows. We have a van outfitted with all the latest gear. 

Traveling with us is a small team of dedicated meteorologists, all of them hardened by years of doing the weather on TV. 

Pam is playing the role of Dr. Jo Harding.  I am playing the part of Bill Harding.  It is nice to have literary inspiration when the going gets tough.   

It is, as I am sure you know, incredibly dangerous, but, as you can see, the rewards are spectacular.

discontinuous innovation and the mysteries of Roger Ebert

Life_aquaticI saw The Life Aquatic Life (TLA) on Sunday.  Afterwards, I looked up the reviews.  Here’s what Roger Ebert made of the film.

My rational mind informs me that this movie doesn’t work. Yet I hear a subversive whisper: Since it does so many other things, does it have to work, too? Can’t it just exist? "Terminal whimsy," I called it on the TV show. Yes, but isn’t that better than half-hearted whimsy, or no whimsy at all? Wes Anderson’s "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" is the damnedest film. I can’t recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it.

Whimsy?  This movie is governed not by whimsy but a sensibility that installed itself in mass culture sometime in the 1990s and remains influential (and under construction) in the present day.

Whimsy is an aesthetic category for cultural artifacts that do not quite conform to, but do not fully violate, the rules of contemporary culture.  Whimsy is licensed departure.  It makes free with cultural conventions in a way we find charming, funny, winsome and sometimes freeing. Whimsy is chaos on a leash,  departure that may not stray.   

The Life Aquatic is several things but it is not whimsical.  TLA is an affectionate investigation of a beloved form, not a play upon it.  To call it whimsey is to  miss the point of the exercise.

This is a serious charge.  Let me make the argument as precisely as I can.

TLA is the kind of filmmaking that can happen when most of your (age specific) audience  understands a good deal of the art and craft of film making.

When the audience is sophisticated in this way, they have a deep affection for genre films.  The documentary genre invested here, the one from Wild, Wild World, Jacques Cousteau and Geographical Societies (national or otherwise)  was particularly well chosen.  It is almost elipsed  in practice but still alive in memory. 

This trebles the shock of recognition.  We know genre.  We know this genre.  We know these executions of the genre.  We are grateful to see the genre again with its charmingly amateur production values, the random color registers, voice-overs that veer between the familiar and authoritative,   scientific exposition that must share the stage,  Oscar and Felix-ish, with seahunt drama, and, not least, the transparent set ups, do overs, and looped dialogued. 

We can’t but relish every appalling second of this undertaking, but we do not patronize it.  This is because we grasp what the genre was trying to accomplish, we feel the pain of its contradictions, we admire the sheer perserverence.  We may laugh at Wild, Wild World until soda issues from our nostrils, but we do not claim superiority.  We know what is happening here, and we respect, even as we find humor in, the undertaking.  Whimsy is for children’s books and tourist advertising, and film critics unaccumstomed to the aquatic life…that is to say, those who suffer moments of cultural, not technical, discontinuity, and find themselves,  suddenly, out of their depth.

There are deeper pleasures.   First, what I like to think of as the good company of bad television, that delicitious sense that we are watching something so fully formed by genre that there are no surprises…except for that one, and that one, and that one.  The better we know the form, the quieter and more treasurable are the surprises.  ("Oh, look, they used a dissolve.")  This is what  connoisseurship looks like in a popular culture. 

Second, genre film making is deeply reassuring when you are pursued by the furies of  skepticism.  There is something about knowing a genre inside out that create the illusion that there must be something real and substantial on which we stand.  How could we observe in this way were it not for a platform?  Naturally, there remains a sneaky voice of skepticism that insists someone finds us as predictable and formulaic as TLA, but as long as there is soda issuing from both nostrils, it doesn’t seem to matter.  This Nietzschean peak-a-boo is a great little game, and possibly the real point of the exercise.  Now you see it, now soda issues from your nose.  This is a much better way of dealing with the furies (call it serial amnesia) than licensed departure because the latter is so darn managed (call it chaos LITE).   

But listen, I do not want to suggest that Wes Anderson’s genius may be reduced to the genre of boarding genres and remembering everyone on board.  The funniest moment of the film for me was the moment that Zizsou is commenting on the a schematic of the ship and refers to the compartment that contains the scientific equipment.  The tone tells us that he has no knowledge of and interest in scientific matters, that he is a tragic figure abandoned (or never taken by) (t)his passion.  He is Hemingway, hold the scribbling.  Pirates?  Perfect!

There are moments when things are played too broadly: as when the crew wears its red toques to a formal event or when the Belafonte’s electrical system keeps shorting out.  But otherwise, this film is about loving observation and the great comforts of recognition.  Whimsey is in fact the death of this kind of film making.  It is too light hearted, too patronizing, much too far away.  Whimsey keeps its distance.  This filmmaking is much more intimate.

But here’s the really odd thing.  The sensibility in question was installed, as I say, in the 1990s, and it was installed largely by the movies of this decade, most of which Mr. Ebert had to have seen.  I mean,  it wasn’t as if he spend the 90s practicing dentistry.  And so you wonder, was this just a bad moment?  When you watch hundreds of films a year, you can be forgiven lots of bad moments.  Or could this be a cultural version of Christensen’s discontinuous innovation, that moment when culture changes but the critic doesn’t. 

Certainly, we could say, "well, Roger is entitled.  He has been the patron saint of a better, more interesting, more capable Hollywood."  And this is true and he is a man who has singled handedly improved contemporary culture.  But I think we also have to note that TLA barely made its budget back, and some of that must be laid at the door of the man who called it whimsy.

post script:

The Internet Movie Database ( asks website visitors to rate films.   Here are the ratings by age for TLA.  I believe these support the contention that younger viewers are more likely to "get" this film (because they have undergone this fundamental shift in their film-viewing sensibility).  (I don’t know how old Mr. Ebert is.  Fortysomething?)

AGE                  RATING (out of 10)

under 18:          8.1
18-29:                7.5
30-44                 6.9
45+                      6.1


Courtney Love and the Mennonite drug lords

There was Courtney Love on David Letterman a couple of weeks ago—an accident no longer waiting to happen. First, she flashed the stage hands, then Paul and the band, and finally Letterman himself. In a calm, genial manner, Dave said, ‘thank you very much.”

Old Colony Mennonites live in Canada and Mexico. They are hard working, devout, world renouncing, low church Protestants who wish to be left alone. Recently some of them set up a drug ring. By the late 1990s, they controlled 20% of the marijuana market in Canada. They now traffic in cocaine and methamphetamine, sometimes working with biker gangs to do so.

We think we know what is going on with Courtney Love. Once credible, or at least interesting, Ms. Love can feel herself falling from the celebrity heavens and she must now engage sensationalism to maintain altitude. We know she knows this will not help, that the slide is inexorable, that this accident will happen in slow motion, and that the kindest thing that can happen to her is that she will be reduced to a Sally Kellerman character who waits on the edges of the red carpet of Oscar Night, hoping, sometimes pleading, for an interview. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make famous.

What is happening in the second case is harder to say and we might resort to something biblical. The devil is ingenious. He found a way in. There are more sociological explanations: a drought, a devalued peso, and new trade rules hit the Mexican community. The Mennonites became drug lords to remain simple farming folk. (Where is my Advil.)

But we cannot see the larger pattern here if we focus only on conspicuous players. Let us take the case of Neko Case, the singer who began her musical career in a punk band, and now sings Country and Western? Or a friend of mine who started out a sports writer and is now a museum curator. Or another friend who began as a radio personality and now runs a start-up. Or the case of Donald Trump who started out a short fingered vulgarian and eventually became…well, not everyone changes.

There is no evidence that our culture has come to terms with this new modality. I think most of us believe that we can have the right of self authorship without stepping onto a dance floor strewn with ball bearings. This is to say we want the modernist right of self authorship without the postmodernist outcome of a slippery world. Most of us shake our heads at Courtney Love. I don’t know anyone who nodded and said, “Yes, that’s what transformation looks like.”

in fact, the argument that explains the Mennonite drug lords should explain Courtney Love as well. After all, the Mennonites, in their 125 years in North America, did divorce themselves from the real world, and this makes their disaster a kind of “systems” problem. Once they began to engage with the real world, there were almost no checks, no antibodies, no instincts, no precedents, no lessons in place to protect them. Their culture was missing an important piece of code. The long slide into drug trafficking was not inevitable, but once it started it was exceedingly difficult to stop.

We act as if Courtney’s difference was her opportunity, and that her failure is therefore her fault. Unlike those poor, clueless Mennonites, Courtney was a product of a culture that knows all about the corruptions of fame. More than that, she, and it, know about the perils of self transformation. How many entertainers preceded her down the path of self destruction? (Michael Jackson, Jim Morrison, um, Kurt Cobain, the list is long.)

But in fact Love’s culture is not much better prepared than the Mennonite one. When it comes to personal transformation, it’s not clear than we have more checks, antibodies, instincts, precedents in place, lessons to protect us from the rough air of personal transformation.

In a more robust culture (more or less postmodernist, it’s not clear which), there would be a well established body of understandings of what transformation is and how it must be managed. We would understand it as well as we do city planning or smoking cessation. (Five days and counting.)

What we would not do is shake our heads reproachfully in the face of another Icarian descent. We would react to Courtney as we do to the news of the Mennonite disaster: with astonishment, sympathy and a deep curiosity about this could have happened. Because, honestly, we not know in either case.

For the next installment of the Courtney Love episode, see her appearance on the Jay Leno show scheduled for April 15.

Details on the Old Colony Mennonite community from:

Mitrovica, Andrew and Susan Bourette. 2004. The Wages of Sin: How God-fearing Old Colony Mennonites –’the plain people”—have become some of Canada’s biggest and most dangerous drug smugglers.” Saturday Night. Vol. 119. (3): 29-36. (sorry, not posted on the web.)

Lasn outs Lasn

Lasn “did not expect” the intense criticism and cancelled subscriptions with which the world replied to his Adbuster’s essay “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?”

“This has made me feel like I am the victim,” he told the National Post. Cancelled subscriptions made Mr. Lasn feel like a victim? Mr. Lasn has published a list that evoked memories of 1930s Germany. And now he claims he has been made “the victim.”

I know there are people in the world as stupid and insensitive as this. I just didn’t realize they had their own magazines.

Stinson, Scott. 2004. B.C. Magazine Sparks Outcry by “Outing” Jewish neo-cons. National Post. April 2, 2004, p. A5. (sorry, no link possible, NP online is subscriber only)

Lasn outs Jewish neo-cons

Controversy surrounds Kalle Lasn. The current issue of his AdBusters has an article entitled “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish.” This is accompanied by a list that details the “50 most influential neo-cons in the U.S.” Twenty-six of the names have black dots beside them.

This confirms that a self appointed critic of the media is an idiot. Mind you, there wasn’t much doubt here. If his argument weren’t so very fashionable, poor Lasn would not ever have been given his own soapbox.

But the article suggests Lasn is something much worse than an idiot. Let’s file this in the “look what just crawled out from under a rock” category.

A list with black dots identifying Jews? Really? Shouldn’t a “media critic” have guessed that the world might take exception to this? Don’t you think a man with even trace elements of historical or cultural sensitivity might have thought this through?

Mr. Lasn, put my name on that list. Add a black dot, if you please.

Adbusters: Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?

Matrix Reloaded

Ah, released from bondage and just in time to comment on the film of the moment. I think I’ve spotted a contradiction in The Matrix, one that will keep it from fulfilling its real intellectual and artistic ambitions.

When people speak in this film, it is always in grand, rhetorical flourishes. Lawrence Fishburn is the worst offender. He never actually says anything at all. He always declaims, a little like Jon Lovitz’s “actor” on Saturday Night Live. There’s no humor, no subtlety and no nuance.

Some of this comes, I would guess, from the directors’ devotion to comic books. After all, how many words can you get into a bubble? How many bubbles can you get into a frame. Language had to come in short sharp shocks.

But here’s the problem. The Matrix Reloaded has intellectual ambitions. It wants to take on big questions. It also wants to explore emotional relationships. But, wedded as it is, to this compacting rhetorical style everything ends up sounding a bit ludicrous, as if shot from a cannon.

The Matrix is supposed to be for Hollywood “the One,” the project that leads it into the glorious new future of film. But in an odd way it ends up reproducing Hollywood’s long standing difficulty: technical mastery unsupported by real narrative or dramatic finesse. Could it be that just as Hollywood is freeing itself from the limitations of the old models, the Matrix boys mean to reimprison it? Maybe the Matrix isn’t The One at all. Maybe it’s the Matrix.

second thoughts on Ben Affleck

I can’t believe no one called me on the treatment of Ben Affleck. The counter-argument is of course John Cusack. And my counter counter argument is that the studios didnt own and control Cusack as they do Affleck. Cusack appears to have opened up an intermediate space between studios and the indies. A thought only.

Must see TV: CBS meets CxC

Please could I ask the readers of this journal to do something for science and watch CBS this monday night (December 23rd) from 8:00 to 10:00.

This means you’ll be watching The King of Queens, Yes, Dear, Everyone Loves Raymond, and Still Standing. Hey, it’s for science.

I believe these four programs are helping to change the way we think about guyness. The gender duet continues. Feminism, in some forms, may be moribund. But it has set in train a male reaction that continues and intensifies.

Your assignment: observe what notion of maleness you see played out on Monday night. My comments, and, I hope, yours, Tuesday.

Ben Affleck, pop culture quiz

Adam Sternbergh asks the right question. Why is Ben Affleck such a big star? His career has not been distinguished by great films, or even by very popular ones. Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, his predecessors in the parthenon, had big hits and several of them. Ben’s stardom is much bigger than his middling career seems to warrant.

But Sternbergh boots the answer! What is missing here is Oscar night 1998. This was the year when Ben and Matt won for Good Will Hunting. But what was more telling than the award was that they showed up to receive it.

It was left to Joan Rivers to sum up the obvious. “You are the only guys here your age! We’re glad you’re here!” And indeed Ben and Matt where the only ones under the age of 35 in attendance. They had come from an award but, as Joan pointed out, really, they were the prize.

It felt as if something generational was happening. Ben and Matt had agreed to show up and Hollywood, always sensitive to demographic realities, was eager to give them an Oscar for their trouble (and, oh yeah, that film, whatever). It was no cynical payoff. Ben and Matt were genuinely pleased to be there but it was like a visit from royalty. They were making a gesture, generously, happily, but it was a gesture nevertheless.

The reason Ben and Matt were such a hit, the reason they got Oscars for showing up, is the story of the 1990s. This began with the demographic exclusion that took place in the very late 80s, it matured into the great Seattle refusal of the opening years of the decade and it became by mid decade the great indie alternative in film–a development so robust it could make Steve Buscemi a household name without any studio work and see to the rehabilitation of the career of Harvey Keitel–an event most thought impossible. The 1990s may have started with the wrenching discovery that Generation X was not wanted on the voyage and by mid 90s it turned out that it was Hollywood that had missed the boat.

People under 35 weren’t at the Oscars because they had been refused in the first case, refused to come in the second, and were just much too busy to make it in the last.

Everything that Sternbergh says is no doubt true but this, I think, is the real reason Affleck is such a big star in spite of his not so stellar record. He didn’t exist, so Hollywood had to invent him.

[for the Sternbergh article in question, go here]

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.

Continue reading

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, 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.

Phatic TV

Hello Goodbye (as seen on TV!)

There’s an exceptional amount of time and attention given to greetings in the cops shows of the moment: NYPD Blue, Law and Order, the Canadian Da Vinci’s Inquest, and the immortal Homicide.

Everyone’s always coming and going, and with each arrival and departure there is a ritualized greeting. Often this carries the weight of the scene in its few words and simple gestures. We can tell exactly what Andy thinks of the captain by the way he says goodbye to him.

But a lot of these greetings are a kind of phatic texture, meant to show that these are real people and not TV robots. Some of the “gritty authentiicity” of the cop show comes from the minimalism of these gestures, as if (and this may be true) the middle class viewers of the show are obliged to offer greetings are bigger, brighter, more enamelled and gregarious. Any show that features these tiny, grudging greetings must be very authentic indeed.

Still it is odd that so much “action television” should consist in the frequent repetition of words, phrases and gestures that are, after all, not so very demonstrative, animated or active. Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s only for trained professionals on a closed course.

Vin Diesel, endangered?

I picked up the latest Entertainment Weekly to figure out why and how Vin Diesel has become such a big hit. (Yes, I saw Fast and Furious. I still didn’t get it.)

Here’s what they say:

“What’s going on,” explains one Hollywood agent, “is that there’s a shortage of action stars in Hollywood.”

How could Hollywood run out of one of its staples.

I figured this would be a good problem to put before popular culture experts not least because it cannot be (well) answered with the usual platitudes about Hollywood. You actually have to know something the industry and the moment in the industry.

Second, this is a genuine wobble in popular culture, something truly anomalous. It satisfies the anomaly test: “If someone had written an essay 10 years ago saying that Hollywood would someday run out of action stars, would anyone have taken it seriously?” The answer here has to be no.

So what happened? How and why fail to produce more action adventure stars?