Monday, May 31, 2010
This week marked the end of Simon Cowell’s reign on “American Idol.” Everyone says that the show will be over without him, but the truth is, it’s been losing audience size, excitement, and relevance over the last few years, even with him there. He just knows when it’s time to leave the party.
Most of the conversation has been about who could replace him, which is not a difficult to figure out—no one can. No matter who replaces him, or how many people replace him, it will be a disappointment. So this is a really good time for the producers to rethink the whole concept, rather than just sit back as it slowly sinks to the bottom.
The truth is, watching unknown young people attempt to sing their parents’ songs is looking pretty tired in the age of “Glee,” and the show no longer has much to do with finding American Idols either. The concept of the show was pretty exciting at the beginning—the first season launched a bonafide pop star in Kelly Clarkson. Since then, aside from one true superstar in Carrie Underwood, for the most part the Idols have been pretty lackluster. Meanwhile, the internet gave us Justin Bieber, who, like him or not, is a true pop star in a way that Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook, Kris Allen, or the current Idol, Lee DeWyze, will ever be. Bieber performed on the show, as did Perez Hilton’s internet “discovery” Travis Garland, and Hillary Scott, the lead singer of the chart-topping country music trio Lady Antebellum, who tried out for “Idol” twice and never got on the show. Another YouTube wonder, Greyson Chance, was signed by “Idol” judge Ellen DeGeneres to her new record label. I hope DeGeneres will also sign a few “Idol” rejects, but it is still more than a little ironic that a judge of America’s leading talent competition will make the first artist on her label someone who never tried out.
The failure of “American Idol” is based on the lie that Simon or the judges or the TV viewing audience have anything to do with who wins. The real choices are made by the producers of the show. They’re the ones who listen to the tens of thousands of people who crowd the stadiums. They make their selections, and make sure that half of them are tone deaf, so we can all enjoy laughing at them. Simon, Ellen, Randy and Cara just choose from that group. Who knows who never gets the chance to enter their audition room? And after that, there is all the nonsense of forcing everyone to perform music that they are unsuited for, and letting 8-year-olds text the most talented ones out. A lot of people watch and enjoy the program, but if the idea is to find the best , then it doesn’t seem to be working.
On the other hand, any kid who puts up a series of videos on YouTube, has the chance to get noticed for being a good singer with charisma. It’s a long shot, sure, but at least they can play their own kind of music--they don’t have to make an ass of themselves on Sinatra or Country nights.
The internet has plenty of its own competitions. Singer/songwriter Kina Grannis made a video of her song “Message From Your Heart” and entered it in a YouTube contest. A few months later, it aired during the Super Bowl and she got a record deal. Having begun her career through a contest, Grannis is now doing a contest of her own: “Cowrite with Kina,” a chance to contribute lyrics to one of her songs.
For the hell of it I decided to enter Kina’s contest and sent in a first verse for her song. To do this I had to listen to her sing her lyric-less first verse over and over, as I made numerous revisions. I knew I could never write anything that would suit her style, but it was an interesting exercise, one of those oddly personal-but-not-really experiences that only the internet can offer.
While the “Idol” contestants are thrown into the media mosh pit with photo shoots and interviews and then tossed out once the show is done with them, people like Grannis are cultivating the tools that will enable them to build and hold onto a fan base.
If “Idol” wants to stay current, it needs to do more with the internet than to have YouTube pop stars play on the show—they need to integrate YouTube into the show. Perhaps there could be two roads to getting on “Idol”: one would be the traditional way, and the second would be through the kind of internet contest that Kina Grannis entered. An internet contest would give an advantage to the people who have been making videos for years and who have developed followings. If they achieved that, they will have earned that advantage.
Simon Cowell is irreplaceable, but what needs to be revived on “American Idol” is the belief that winning the show actually means something, something that is slipping away year after year.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
I don’t think there is anybody around who is more of an Apple admirer than me. I’ve owned four of their computers, three iPods, one iPhone, Final Cut, Logic, and lots more. I pressure everybody I know to make the Apple switch, because I think that would make their life better. When Bill Maher recently said on his show that what this country needs is Jobs, as in Steve Jobs, I called out “Yesss!” But then I thought about it. Really? Would our government be better if it was run by a genius like Steve Jobs? It sure would seem that way. But still, Steve Jobs? The man does have has a few pesky qualities, to say the least.
1. Secrecy: Guarding against industrial espionage is a high priority for all sorts of companies, as is controlling the timing of new product announcements until the most advantageous time. But I believe it is fair to say that no company protects its secrets more than Apple. Workers are forbidden to talk to outsiders about what happens at work, including relatives. In Cupertino most Apple employees aren’t allowed to go to other areas where other projects are in development.
Today, North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world—it guards its borders tightly and no travel is allowed without a Soviet-style “escort.” People from South Korea are rarely given visas and no journalists are allowed in on tourist visas. Still, you’d have to score this one for Kim, because there are North Korea tours and no Apple office tours, even for the people who work there.
2. Antipathy to Journalism: When secrets are vital, then journalists must always be the enemy. There can be no other way. Within what is possible in your world, you must do everything to stymie them or stop them outright. The North Korean Constitution theoretically protects freedom of the press but only if serves the interests of the government. Journalists aren’t allowed into North Korea with tourist visas. Despite this some western journalists have managed to cover the country. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were only near North Korea when they were jailed, setting off an international incident. The point that Kim was making was to set an example and discourage others.
Nearly all requests for interviews with Jobs are refused, and it’s fair to say that the ones that are aren’t particularly hard-hitting, and Time Magazine sent a non-journalist, British actor/writer Stephen Fry to cover the iPad launch. Apple super-fan Nicholas Ciarelli created a website, “Think Secret,” a website dedicated to finding out about Apple’s hidden plans, when he was 13. Over the years, Ciarelli received numerous cease-and-desist letters from Apple, until they filed a lawsuit against him and he was forced to shut the site in 2005. As has been widely reported, Gizmodo did a story revealing the new iPhone when an Apple employee left it in a bar. Days later, California’s Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team entered editor Jason Chen's home without him present, seizing four computers and two servers. So what we have is a journalist who has presented all his information in a public way to the world, being treated in the same way as a hacker, a terrorist, a collector of child pornography—all people who are engaged in heinous illegal activities. The point is to make an example.
3. Cult of Personality: Per the current North Korean constitution Kim is now the “Supreme Leader,” although he is also referred to as the “Dear Leader” and the “Great Leader.” He receives the standard totalitarian dictatorial goodie bag enjoyed by Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Hussein, and so many others—giant posters, massive statuary, military parades, the whole shebang. His image is familiar the world over: big glasses, “Eraserhead” haircut, and Mao-chic matching gray pants and shirts.
Jobs’ personal power comes first from being brilliant and creating some of the most wonderful products ever. He has an adoring following because he totally deserves it. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who disagrees with that is either uninformed, a moron, a jerk, or all three. I am not joking. Bart Simpson deserves a spanking:
Secondly, you don’t see or hear from him much and that adds to his mystery and our excitement when he does appear. There are very few photos of him for a man of his stature. We generally see him when he’s onstage presenting a new Apple product, which he does with such skill that you want to sign on to all the secrecy that enabled the show. His uniform is a black turtleneck, jeans and sneakers, which he wears at every Apple presentation, and legend has it, every day period. But I’m not trying to make cheap shot, comparing his outfit to totalitarian garb, as it is not an unusual thing for highly focused creative types--Stanley Kubrick did the same thing.
4. Affection for 1984 Iconography:
5. The Will to Go it Alone: Kim Jong-il created devastation, including a terrible famine by cutting off relationships with long-time trading partners like China and Russia (and obviously, South Korea).
Steve Jobs has a tendency to create his own standards rather than use the ones that have been established by others. Legal MP3 downloads from all other companies will play on an iPod or iPhone, but nothing that’s downloaded from the Apple store can be played on a non-Apple product. The iPhone only is available from AT&T, so if I talk really fast, 5% of my calls don’t cut out—but that’s okay, I love my apps. Anybody can have a phone that makes calls. Currently, he denies users of the iPad access to nearly all the video on the web, by making it unable to function with Flash. It has been reported that he is developing a Flash alternative called Gianduia. Unless he budges on Flash, iPad users will go to their graves without ever having access to the web that every computer has. But if any of them want to call me to complain about it, they should make sure they use my land line.
6. Hard-Knuckled Management Style: Both are pretty tough cookies. Suffice to say, neither of them have seen much point for carrots when there are so many sticks lying around.
The Contrast: Despite the six points I have enumerate above, there is an important difference between the two of them. Kim is a psychopathic monster who has brought devastation on millions of people, and with his nuclear arsenal, is one of the biggest threats the world currently faces. On the other hand, Jobs is a super-talented guy who has brought much wonder and joy into the world.
Despite everything I’ve written in this post,I wish my life had gone differently and I had had the chance to work for Steve Jobs. He might have yelled at me but that wouldn’t have bothered me one bit. I’m a big boy, and I’ve worked in the film business for thirty years, for Chrissakes. But all my best teachers in school and life have pushed me to do my utmost. They accepted nothing less. I know that he would be just like that. I’m sure I would be a much better man today if I had worked for him, and it would give me a lot of pleasure to know that I had played a role in Apple.
I started this post attempting to sort out in my mind whether it is better to have democracy, or to have an effective, superb leader, even if kind of autocratic. You can disagree with me, but I’d go with Jobs any day. Democracy, as it currently exists in this country is an abject failure. What is going on in Washington today bears the same relationship to what the founding fathers created as of acts of child rape do to Jesus’s words. Every single one of these “politicians” is corrupted by their weaknesses--for power, for money, for the adulation of the crowd, for the childlike need to have their egos constantly buffed, and increasingly, to manipulate their staff members to have sex with their ugly-ass selves. That is to say, they are all too human, and it just makes everything worse to have a big f*cked-up porridge of them. But how about one benevolent king?
Imagine going into the House and Senate and throwing every single one of the bums out. Then let Steve Jobs come in with his crew. I bet that in no time at all he’d have cleaned up the BP oil spill, provided Health care with a public option, provided real reform for Wall Street, and eliminated global warming. Plus there would be apps! Maybe he would be mean sometimes and make inexplicable decisions, and probably it would be arduous for everybody, but at the end of the day you know what? He would be right most of the time. And our country would be in much better shape than it is today.
It sure as hell would look better.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
It’s hard to believe there have only been 118 hours of “Lost.” Considering how many episodes I’ve watched repeatedly, I’ve spent at least 250 hours watching the show. That’s just a smidge over eight days. But as every die-hard fan knows, watching the show is only part of the fun. You have to discuss it with your friends, read about it online, come up with theories, and so on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been introduced to a stranger at a party, and before I know it the two of us are talking about “Lost.” Talk too loud at a restaurant and somebody at the next table chimes in. “Lost” is ultimately a social experience. I’ve probably spent over 500 hours on my obsession with the show. That still doesn’t seem like much, so I’m probably estimating it on the low side.
Now there are only 3 ½ hours left, and there will be no more new episodes. Of course people will continue talking about what the finale meant, but that’s just not the same. After the hoo-hah about the inconclusive conclusion of “The Sopranos,” it gradually receded in memory and people went on with their “Soprano”-less lives.
As this is my last chance to prognosticate about the show, I’m going to use this blog post to express my current theories. I hope that some of them will be right, but I know that a lot of them will be wrong. That’s what I love most about the show, the way it continually surprises me.
Anyway, if you don’t want to think about what might happen, then you should stop reading right now.
The story is shaping up as a pretty simple battle of good versus pure evil. So, good has to win, right? The producers aren’t going to send us away with all our characters dead and the world coming to an end, right? On the other hand, having goodness prevail is a little too easy, and the writers have never taken the easy path. And that is why I believe they have introduced the so-called “Sideways World,” the one where flight 815 didn’t crash, and where certain details were different, as for example, Desmond was on the plane.
We know a few things about the Sideways World. Number one, the island is under water. To me, this means that in the Sideways World, The Man in Black has won, the island is gone and he is now off the island and about to wreak havoc on the world. Number two, the Sideways World is “real,” in the sense that the people in the Sideways World have awareness of their lives on the island.
So I think good and evil both win. There is the world on the island where evil loses, and there is the Sideways World where he wins. But after The Man in Black is beaten on the island does that mean that the Sideways World will dissolve into pixie dust? I don’t think so. Again, it’s too easy.
I think The Man in Black has to be beaten twice.
But who is he in the Sideways World? Ben and Locke are too obvious. Will The Man in Black look like himself or will he take the form of one of the other characters? And who’s going to beat him? Well there is one main character we haven’t encountered yet in the Sideways World, and that is Juliet, who will be revealed as—BIG SURPRISE!—Jack’s wife. I think she’ll play an important role.
And obviously Desmond will be vital to the defeat of the Man in Black on the island. No way did Sayid kill him. And a lot of members of the main cast will walk the plank soon, but that’s not exactly a big deal when there’s only three and a half hours to go. And even if they die, they still got another life in the Sideways World, so it’s not like they’re off the show or anything.
Finally, I believe the show ends as it began, with Jack’s eye opening and him lying on the back on the woods…and him running to the plane crash on the beach. I have believed this since the producers started messing around with time and space on the show. I have believed this as soon as the characters began waking up in some other time zone or place with a close-up of their eye, that was it for me. I had no idea how the producers would get us there, but it always seemed the most poetic way to end the show. So now I know what the deal is: this time Jack won’t get to the woods via flight 815 of Oceanic Airlines, he’ll get there because he is now Jacob’s successor and the new protector of the island. And we’ll understand that everything that is about to happen to the characters on the plane from this point forward will be different. This will leave the continuing story open, but our understanding of the overall meaning of the series will be satisfied.
Another bonus will be that most of the cast members who were off the show will be back for this scene, which will be great news for all the Ian Somerhalder and Maggie Grace fans.
I realize that there are countless story issues with my theory—Jack was on the plane, for one thing—but it is the richest and most poetic resolution for the story. The writers will provide explanations for all the inconsistencies in order to make such a beautiful conclusion possible.
What do you think? There’s only a few days left for you to tell me I’m wrong, before Sunday comes and the producers prove I’m wrong.
Still, my fingers are crossed for a spin-off. I’ve heard that ABC is talking to Terry O’Quinn and Michael Emerson about “Ben and Jerry,” where O’Quinn reprises his best-known role before “Lost,” Jerry Blake in “The Stepfather.” (What is it about O’Quinn and knives?)Imagine the havoc those two could wreak if they came to a small town! Ben would betray everybody and Jerry would kill his family. And then they’d move on to a new town and a new cast for every season! That would be a pretty good show. I know I’d watch it.
POSTSCRIPT: Well I actually got the close-up of the eye part right, even though I missed how it would be closing, not opening. Aside from that the only thing I picked right was Juliet as Jack’s ex-wife, a commonplace prediction on the web. I knew my prognostications would be wrong, but it was nice to have one final chance to make a prediction before the show’s beautiful conclusion, which I am still thinking about, and I’m sure will think about for a long time. It was great to witness what is certainly one of the great events in TV history, and maybe the first time something like that was followed in such a worldwide communal way through social media.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
Yesterday I went to see “Iron Man,” and as usual—SLAM!—there were -- BLAM!—a lot of—CRASH!—trailers. It was almost a relief to see the “Grown Ups” trailer. At least the lame jokes weren’t ear-splitting.
As assaultive as it can be to watch a string of these cacophonous trailers, they have to be effective or they wouldn’t be used on nearly every film. So it got me wondering if these kinds of sonic explosions might pep up the trailers for more subtle fare. And maybe some synthesizer music beds wouldn’t hurt either. By the time I got home I had devised an experiment.
I was going to create a new soundtrack for an art film trailer and I was going to do it in the most slapdash way possible. If I worked on it for days, it wouldn’t really prove anything, as my natural instinct would be to keep polishing it and polishing it and making it as good as possible. In order to find out what the result would be if a bunch of noises were thrown together without any serious consideration, I set myself some rules. Number one, I would only spend an hour or so on it. Number two, I would only use the sound files from two sample sets I bought years ago from film composer Jeff Rona, out of a series he created called “Liquid Cinema.” One is called “Cinematic Ambiance,” and one is called “Cinematic Impact” (It appears Rona doesn’t sell them anymore.) I wasn’t going to hunt through my sample library looking for the perfect sounds or create any of my own, I was just going to quickly audition the samples on Rona’s discs, drag them into my music program, Logic, and see what happened. Mostly I did it right on the cuts, or as editors say, “Mickey Mousing” it. I didn’t have time to do it any other way.I chose Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” for my trailer re-mix, because it is one of my favorite films and it was the most unlikely film I could think of for this kind of thing. I didn’t look at a single other trailer.
Of course the impetus for this project was easy mockery, but at the same time the process surprised me. Although my booms are intentionally dumb, sometimes Jeff’s music beds and ambient noises sounded really good to my ears. It didn’t matter which ones I used, they all did, particularly one at the end that sounded vaguely Middle Eastern to my ears. If you took out the booms, it might have even been pretty good, but booms were the whole point of this exercise. Here’s the original Zeitgeist trailer:
And here’s my remix. PLAY IT LOUD!
Sunday, May 02, 2010
By this point I’m assuming most people are sick of hearing about the new “Show Me Your Papers” law in Arizona, so I thought I would annoy you with it one more time. (If you are just coming back from a long hike in the Adirondacks and don’t know what I’m talking about you can get a roundup here.)
The thing that fascinated me about this is that everyone is looking at this law from the perspective of WWII Nazi movies. This idea was popularized by Seth Myers of SNL’s “Weekend Update”:
I couldn’t help thinking, that WWII Nazi movies aren’t the only ones where they ask you to show your papers. A recent one that came to my mind was “Amreeka,” about a Palestinian family. In that movie, I felt not just the humiliation of going through a checkpoint, but made me think about the hassle of it. Checkpoints mean traffic jams. You’re going to get home late. You are going to sit in a sweaty car. And there is always implicit danger if you happen to get a hot-headed soldier or one who has had a bad day.
Imagine you are Latino citizen on your way home from a Cinco de Mayo parade. You may have all the ID in the world, but you aren’t going to get home in time to watch “Lost.”
The whole idea of being asked for my ID makes me sick to my stomach. Cops have always unnerved me. They make me stupid. I remember once being interrogated by a customs agent. He asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was a film publicist. So he asked me what movies I was working on and I had no idea. If I lived in Arizona and they asked me for my ID, I would probably get so nervous that I would give them my Banana Republic charge card. “Wise guy, eh? We know what to do with wise guys like you.” I could have my passport and driver’s license in my front pocket and I’d get tasered anyway.
Anyway, I was thinking, why not a “Raising Arizona” film festival dedicated to the best “Show Me Your Papers” movies? What are your favorites? Please put them in your comments.
I don’t remember if the aliens in “District 9” had to show papers. If they had papers, I don’t know where they’d put them, as they didn’t wear pants. But I doubt they would have let those gross-looking guys out, even with papers.
Any fondly remembered apartheid movies? I don’t remember if anybody had to show papers in “Cry Freedom.”
Berlin? There must have been a lot of people who had to show papers at Checkpoint Charlie.
Help me out here, folks.