Archive for the ‘Media Darling’ Category

Reflections on a Golden Gong

Monday, February 28th, 2011

If you had asked me a week before the Oscars if I thought James Franco would be a good host, I’d have given you a ‘maybe’. He can be funny, and he certainly seems confident, smart, and proud of what he does. If you had asked me again a day before the Oscars, after his prissy response to Ricky Gervais in which the actor lectured the comedian about what is or isn’t funny, and I’d have given a more confident answer. He was going to suck, because he thinks that his business is too important to be mocked, and the Oscars isn’t entertaining if it isn’t a roast.

It’s easy to joke that Franco looked stoned, but of course it isn’t a joke. With his eyes half closed and his face slack, he brought down the energy in the room every time he appeared, and that was a big room with a lot of uppers going on. Even when he strode on to the stage in Marilyn drag, it was more stunt than gag, with no payoff or punchline.

younghiposcarYounger, hipper Oscar

Anne Hathaway was better. She was by no means good, and I doubt she’ll ever be invited back. I thought she would be a total non-presence, but next to Franco’s sleepy stiffness she had a gushing affability, like this was the superest gymkhana that daddy had ever taken her to.

Every Oscars gets dubbed the worst Oscars ever, and it is hard to remember a good one, but no-one watches the Oscars because they expect the whole show to be good. It’s the moments that matter. What made this such a bad show was that it had so very few moments. Taken as a whole, the Oscars are never good. People speak fondly of the Billy Crystal years, but when Billy Crystal hosted I always felt like I was watching a daytime game show. Yet I admit that his brief appearance was one of the scant few highlights. Melissa Leo’s bad language was another. I’m struggling to name a third, as I found Kirk Douglas’s stroke-afflicted mumbling more frightening than charming.

None of the speeches stand out in my memory. Colin Firth’s speech was good for the first half hour, but it waned as the leaves turned. I would have enjoyed Aaron Sorkin’s speech more if he had delivered it while walking to and from the podium. Christian Bale’s speech ought to have been spectacularly mad, but in the end it was only remarkable because he forgot his wife’s name.

Lowlights were many, mostly in the form of the hosts’ strained attempts at banter, delivered with all the art and dexterity of a Slap Chop, but all their horrors paled next to the holographic ghost of Bob Hope, an exploitation of the dead that seemed to drag on much longer than the too-abrupt In Memoriam package.

Who should host the Oscars next year? The job usually goes to comedians - stand ups and talk show hosts. Hugh Jackman two years ago and Franco and Hathaway this year have been failed attempts to do something that’s both new yet conversely a little more ‘old Hollywood’. Last year’s Alec Baldwin/Steve Martin double act bridged the actor/comedian gap, but failed to live up to its promise. If an actor is picked again next year, it needs to be someone with enough wit and charm to win over audiences both in the theatre and at home, and preferably someone heavyweight, yet able to laugh at themselves. Robert Downey Jr, George Clooney and Kevin Spacey spring to mind.

If they go back to comedians, Tina Fey would be a laudable choice. Ricky Gervais would be too untamed, and the Oscars probably wouldn’t want the Globes’ cast-offs. Perhaps Ellen DeGeneres deserves a second chance, and Jimmy Fallon might deserve a first chance, except that he’s on the wrong network, which makes the most plausible contender for the job one Jimmy Kimmel.

On second thoughts, James Franco might do better next time, right?

Music Music Music (Video)

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

I feel like music videos have a renewed cultural importance these days, because watching short videos of all kinds has become a major way for people to entertain themselves, especially when they should be working. When I was a kid I had to tune in to The Chart Show on ITV every weekend in the vague hope of catching a good music video, and I was frequently disappointed. Now good music videos find you, because people want to share the videos that they’ve enjoyed.

So after years of MTV-imposed exile, music videos have a renewed presence in the Zeitgeist. Just as plants make their berries look extra delicious so that passing birds will propagate their seeds, so videos need to resonate with their audience to ensure that they go viral. For that reason, music videos may be a better barometer of our culture today than they ever were before. (It does also help if the music is good.)

One trend I’ve noticed in recent music videos is that there’s an increasing presence of gayness. I don’t mean the gay sensibility or the camp aesthetic that have informed pop musicians for as long as there have been pop musicians; I mean actual gayness. I mean same-sex relationships.

It’s not unprecedented, of course. Christina Aguilera showed boys kissing in the video for Beautiful more than seven years ago, and even she was not the first. But Aguilera’s video was edited on most TV broadcasts, and fear of having their music kept off our screens steered most artists away from exploring gay relationships in their videos. Now we live in a world where Cee-Lo Green’s video for Fuck You has had over 25 million views on YouTube; the old rules no longer apply.

Our Friends the Divas

As Christina’s example suggests, one place where there’s always a chance of some man-on-man action is in videos by modern pop divas, who know which side their bread is buttered. If the gays don’t love you, you’re nothing.

Examples from the past few months include videos from Pink (Raise Your Glass), Kylie Minogue (All The Lovers), and even sometime opportunist homophobe Katy Perry (Firework). If there isn’t a gay kiss in the videos for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way next year, I will eat a goat.

Of course, these videos have also been edited or blurred somewhere in the world, but the censors are less relevant every day.

The Gay Artist

Interestingly, I don’t remember seeing any gay relationships explored in videos by The Scissor Sisters or Adam Lambert, the foremost chart-troubling gay disco acts of our age, possibly because it’s tougher for actual gays to push the envelope. Only Nixon could go to China. Only a tiny straight Australian woman can writhe on a rising tower of omnisexual orgiastic naked bodies in the middle of the street.

The first Idol winner, Will Young, has been making music videos for the best part of a decade, and his videos are usually tremendous short films - but they’re never gay love stories, at least not explicitly. It took four albums before Young dared to even mention a male lust object in a song.

But Will Young is part of the old system, the big music label system, which still runs scared from the idea of teen girls ripping posters off their walls in horror at the idea of their favourite singer batting for the other team. It’s now easier and easier for small label artists - or no label artists - to make and circulate videos that don’t play by those rules.

One example is gay musician Tom Goss’s video for Lover, about a man waiting for news about his soldier boyfriend, and featuring real soldiers discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Another example is Ice Cream Truck by gay rapper Cazwell, which became a viral hit this summer precisely because of its risqué uber-gay go-go boy response to booty-shaking R’n'B videos. I should warn you now that it’s not entirely safe-for-work.

The Shameless Tease

Then there is Robbie Williams, who has never been afraid to flirt with the myth  (probably) of his own gayness. This year, in his reunion with Gary Barlow, he crossed a Rubicon of gayness with his Brokeback Mountain-themed video, full of lingering looks, bromantic shirtlessness and homosensual tension. It’s tongue-in-cheek, and there’s certainly no kissing, but for any straight (probably) male major recording artist to make a video like this feels like a watershed moment.

The Dream

When is a music video not a music video? This clip from Glee wasn’t made as a video, but it served the same purpose. It was released a week before the episode aired, and spread like wildfire across gay blogs and entertainment blogs. As a result the show’s 113th single (113th!) became its biggest seller, even outperforming its very first single.

This is a slightly bigger deal than you might think. The video shows one gay teen serenading another gay teen with a song about love, skintight jeans and going all the way, and the core of the song’s appeal - besides the delightful harmonies of the Tufts Beelzebubs - is singer Darren Criss’s flirtatious enthusiasm and Chris Colfer’s bashful, enchanted reactions. This single didn’t scrape its way to the top in spite of the video’s gayness. It distinguished itself from a crowded field because of its gayness.

The Sweet Love Story That Is Older Than The Sea

I thought Glee’s Teenage Dream would be the peak of the year, gay-musically speaking, but the last week has brought something that might be even better into my life.

Like Robbie Williams, Cosmo Jarvis is (apparently) a straight singer with a gay-themed video. As with the Glee clip, Jarvis has created buzz by showcasing a same-sex relationship. Like Cazwell, he made the video on the cheap, without major label support. And like Kylie, he put some gay kissing in there.

But Jarvis has gone one further than any of them, because his Gay Pirates is a whole gay love story in song. It sounds like a cheeky sea shanty, but it has something to say about homophobia, and it’s surprisingly sweet, sad and tender.

Gay Pirates has scored almost 90,000 hits on YouTube in just over a week. That’s not bad for a singer you’d probably never heard of.

The internet has led to the democratisation of creation. We don’t need MTV any more, and our media consumption is no longer constrained by conservative standards. In among the Kylie flash mobs and the videos of waxed twinks lip-syncing to Miley Cyrus, there is room in our media for gays to fall in love. If these are videos that people want to share, then maybe one day they actually will stop blurring out the kisses on TV.

As Cosmo Jarvis sings; “We deserve much better than we’ve had”.

SDCC 2010: The Vindication of Dr Wertham

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Over half a century ago, psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham warned about the corrupting influence of comics. He drew special attention to the ‘injury-to-the-eye’ motif, a common comic trope showing eyes being threatened by sharp objects. It was Wertham’s belief that such gruesome images were encouraging delinquency in America’s youth. “The injury-to-the-eye motif is an outstanding example of the brutal attitude cultivated in comic books”, wrote Wertham, adding, “it causes a blunting of the general sensibility.”

soti-eyemotif

It took about 55 years, but yesterday, one nerd finally stabbed another nerd in the eye. If only Dr Wertham were alive today to see the promise of his fearmongering realised!

The incident happened at the San Diego Comic-Con, and reports are fuzzy, but it seems that two nerds were fighting over seat-squatting in the big hall where the major movie panels take place. And they weren’t even good seats! The police said it was off to the side of the hall! The good news is, the attacker stabbed the victim in the eye with a pen, so comics can still be tied to a culture of literacy in America’s youth.

It will be tempting for the nerd blogs and forums to read far too much into this incident over the next few days. Questions will be asked about security at SDCC (no more pens at book signings!), about the ethics of seat-squatting, and about whether rooms should be cleared between panels - though those questions are raised every year anyway.

There’s also bound to be some attempt to define and expand upon the phenomenon of ‘nerd rage’, and to link this incident to the sort of frothing, intemperate anger that manifests on online message boards, where fanboys in the comfort of their homes thoughtlessly and senselessly hurl out violently invective at writers and artists whose work they don’t appreciate.

These people are not representative, they’re just loud. There’s an inclination in some professional quarters to dismiss all online criticism because of this vocal but unpopular minority, and that’s a shame. The crazies are easy enough to identify, and their impotent anger should easy enough to dismiss. Let’s remember all the people at San Diego this weekend who have never stabbed anyone in the eye.

godhatesnerdsPhoto source.

This incident is the second brush with real-life news at this year’s Comic-Con. The first occurred on Thursday when the bigots from the Westboro Baptist Church went through with their promise to picket the convention. I’m told they lasted about half an hour, and photos reveal that they were substantially outnumbered and outclassed by the counter-protesters, who revelled in their sin of idolatry with signs boasting, ‘All Glory to the Hypno-Toad’, and, ‘Magnets How The *?*! do they work?!’ Nerd pride!

In terms of actual comics news, I’ve been disappointed by how little of interest seems to have seeped out of the convention. Last year’s big announcement from Marvel was that they had acquired the rights to Marvelman - and what an exciting rollercoaster of Marvelman comic releases we’ve had since then! This year, Marvel was a little more stealthy in hinting that it will be bringing CrossGen books back into print.

CrossGen was a publisher with promise. It boasted of having the money to present a serious challenge to the market dominance of Marvel and DC, and it offered up an interestingly diverse slate of titles. Of course, the money thing turned out to be an exaggeration, and the line folded in 2004. Disney acquired the assets in bankruptcy court, and with Marvel now owned by Disney, there was already some speculation about a CrossGen revival under Marvel.

Hopefully that’s what we’re going to get, and if this means new CrossGen books, that’s great. If it only means reprints, that’s also kind of great, just not as great. One thing that I’d really like to see the major publishers get better at is repackaging and republishing old out-of-print material - both their own and other people’s. And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to buy some more Marvel trades that don’t have ‘Dark Reign’ or ‘Siege’ on the cover?

The big ‘other media’ news yesterday was the formal unveiling of the frighteningly handsome Avengers movie cast.

avengerscast

That’s Robert Downey Jr, that SHIELD agent guy, Scarlet Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, and writer/director Joss Whedon. More pertinently, it’s Iron Man, that SHIELD agent guy, Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Nick Fury, Hawkeye and the Hulk.

This is a much stronger cast than I think anyone ever expected, for a movie that seemed unlikely to ever get made. It should be manageable, though, as all the characters bar Hawkeye will have been introduced by other movies (and even Hawkeye is likely to cameo somewhere, probably in the Captain America movie). It also seems plausible that the Hulk (now played by Mark Ruffalo) could be one of the threats in the story, in keeping with Marvel tradition.

Two things jump out at me about this cast. First, there’s no Don Cheadle/War Machine. That actually makes sense; what’s the value of having two Iron Men in an already crowded ensemble? On the other hand, that makes it a very white cast, but it’s fair to say that the Avengers have always tended a little towards the Aryan. As great as it would be to have Black Panther or Luke Cage in there, I’d rather they were introduced in their own movies first.

Second, there’s only one woman. I would hope that they can add at least one more to the roster, and given Joss Whedon’s penchant for nerd madonnas, I’m sure he’ll find the room. Whedon has confirmed that Ant-Man won’t be in the movie, but Wasp still could be, and as Thor already brings magic into this world, it wouldn’t bend the genre to introduce the Scarlet Witch. Ms Marvel could be a lot of fun - I don’t think ladies with the basic Superman power set have been shown on-screen since Supergirl. I assume they’ll save Mockingbird for a Hawkeye spin-off.

I also have a couple of reservations about this movie. It’s going to be released in 3D, but there’s no word on whether it will be shot in 3D or converted. I’ve yet to see a live action 3D conversion that worked, and besides, I’m already bored of 3D movies - I suspect I won’t be the only one by the time this movie comes out in 2012.

I’m also reticent about Whedon as writer/director. Like Avengers comics writer Brian Bendis, Joss Whedon is very talented, but like Bendis, he has a very distinctive voice as a writer, one that tends to overwhelm the voices of the characters. I don’t think Bendis’s idiosyncracies serve an ensemble cast very well, and though Whedon has had better luck with ensembles, he still feels like an awkward fit for the Avengers.

Of course, Bendis’s Avengers books have been a big success for Marvel, and Whedon’s Avengers will likely be a huge hit as well. That’ll be one in the eye for me.

Airbender: The Mickey Rooney Club

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

M Night Shyamalan’s new movie, The Last Airbender, is not getting much praise from critics or from audiences. As of this writing, it’s averaging 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, 20/100 on Metacritic, and a 4.7/10 user rating on IMDB. Those are seriously awful notices; even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had ratings of 20%, 35/100 and 6/10 respectively. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra scored 35%, 32 and 5.8. Even Sex & The City 2 fared better.

The movie will probably perform well at the box office this weekend, even up against the titan of a new Twilight movie. It should even make its money back in the long run, and I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of sequels. Even so, Last Airbender will be hailed as one of cinema’s great critical turkeys, alongside Oliver Stone’s Alexander (15%/39/5.4), Halle Berry’s Catwoman (10%/27/3.2%), and John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth (still worse than Airbender, at 3%/9/2.3).

airbenderlogo

This critical floppage is The Last Airbender’s second claim to infamy. I talked about its first back in one of my first posts to this blog back in January of last year. The Last Airbender is based on the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, set in a fantasy world that draws heavily on Asian culture. None of the characters in the series are Caucasian, but all of the actors picked to play the four central roles were Caucasian. Fans were inevitably outraged, and they protested, and one of those four key roles - that of the main villain - was re-cast with an Anglo-Indian actor. This did little to quell the protests.

I don’t know to what extent the movie’s critical drubbing is informed by disgust at the cast whitewashing - it’s mentioned in many reviews, but the movie seems to struggle under a weight of other problems, including soulless performances and forced 3-D. At the very least, I suspect the race controversy preconditioned critics to be unsympathetic to the movie’s flaws, and served to ensure that many of the cartoon’s fans - who ought to be the movie’s greatest cheerleaders - would be its loudest opponents. This video from ReelzChannel shows people dressed as characters from the cartoon lining up to say that the movie “sucked”. (Fans can be notoriously critical of adaptations of their favourite works during production, but they usually come around when they actually see the movie, if it has any redeeming qualities at all.)

Shyamalan responded to the race controversy in an interview published at IndieMoviesOnline, opening with a familiar gambit; “As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it.”

This is the minority author as the sole arbiter of minority identity. Last time we heard that response, it was from Torchwood writer Russell T Davies on the subject of Ianto’s death on that show, and that time it was even less elegantly expressed; “We’re talking about issues in my entire life here, not just one small television program. … [Critics] should simply grow up, do some research, and stop riding on a bandwagon that they actually don’t know anything about.”

Never mind that critics of Davies were often gay, and critics of Shyamalan have often been Asian; because Davies is gay and Shyamalan is of Asian-American, it is the audience’s ‘misunderstanding’ that’s to blame, and no reflection on the author or director’s insensitivity.

shyamalan

Shyamalan’s justifications don’t improve thereafter. He insists that the villainous character recast from white to brown is “the actual hero of the series”. Last time I wrote about Avatar: The Last Airbender, I admitted that I hadn’t seen the show. Now I have, and I loved it - I would say it is easily one of the best TV shows of the ’00s - and unless Shyamalan has changed the story radically, I know which roles the characters play.

When he says, “They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect”, he’s being disingenuous. Fans of the show know which characters are the villains, and it happens that all the major villains in the movie are dark-skinned, though all the dark-skinned characters are not villains. Some of the villains do go on journeys towards heroism, and ultimately commit some of the most heroic acts in the story, but they can’t steal the title of ‘hero’ from the guy that kids know is the hero; the one whose role is to save the world.

The second justification? “What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid.” Ringer is the white actor picked to play the Tibetan-looking lead character. Judging by reviews, there are in fact other actors in the world who could have played Aang at least as well. Shyamalan’s hyperbole is not a convincing defence.

Third justification: There are four tribes in the series. Shyamalan cast three of them as non-Caucasian and one as Caucasian, so his world is one-quarter Caucasian, which he considers very fair and balanced. Of course, one of those tribes is extinct in the series, so his world is really one-third Caucasian. Eithier way, the real world is less than one-fifth Caucasian, so Shyamalan gave white folks an upgrade. More crucially, his defence here is that he cast the background characters as non-Caucasian. As a response to the criticism that he made the three heroic leads Caucasian, it’s hopeless. Aang should appear Asian; Katana and Sokka (below) should appear Inuit. All three are played by white Americans.

katarasokkaWhite People.

Shyamalan also says, “The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time.” Well, that’s nonsense; I doubt there’s an ethnicity you can name that James Bond hasn’t run through a crowd of.

Fourth: “The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion.” Here, Shyamalan has a point, sort of. Avatar isn’t anime, but it is influenced by Japanese animation, and the simplicity of character design in animation - and in line drawing in general - does allow people to see themselves in characters regardless of ethnicity. They can say that a character is ‘just like me’, and pretend to be him or her in the playground.

Movies don’t allow for that sort of ambiguity, so Shyamalan had to pick a side - and he picked white kids. This was a movie that kids from non-white ethnicities rightly thought they would be able to own, to identify with without having to reach for it, and Shyamalan chose to take that gift away from them and give it to the white kids. Non-white kids have long had to look for heroes they can identify with regardless of skin colour, because they’re not being served and they don’t have a choice. White kids, it seems, will never be asked to stretch themselves in that way.

Shyamalan also says, “If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.”

This is not right at all, but it’s a common enough trap, and one that I’ve fallen into myself in the past, before learning more about anime and manga. Because drawings are easy to identify with, we tend to see the familiar elements and ignore the unfamiliar ones. Many people have said that the lead character, Aang, ‘looks white’. His skin is pale and his eyes are wide.

lastairbendercastNon-White People.

Aang does not ‘look white’ if you’re Asian. Anime characters do not look Caucasian if you’re Asian, unless they’re meant to be (in which case they’ll probably have big ugly noses, because that’s how Caucasians are often viewed by Asians).

It’s ignorance and presumption to say, ‘if I can see my race in this character, this character can only be my race’. This video brilliantly (but rather hurriedly) skewers that presumption by pointing out exactly how Anime characters look Asian if you’re Asian. Anime characters have rounded Asian faces and Asian bone structure; their round eyes are an animation convention that doesn’t signify any particular race; and plenty of Asian people are pale-skinned.

Japan does prize pale skin as an aesthetic ideal, but that has nothing to do with aspiring towards a Caucasian look, any moreso than white people getting tans is due to ethnic insecurity in the West. Sailor Moon is not white. Ryu from Street Fighter is not white. Aang is not white.

But Aang is also not Tibetan. None of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are actually Asian, or Indian, or Inuit. Avatar is set in a fantasy world; the characters could look like any ethnicity, so why shouldn’t they be white?

This is the most willfully pig-headed justification anyone could offer for the movie’s casting, and Shyamalan is wise enough not to lean on it, but others have made the case. The setting of the series is explicitly inspired by Asian (and Inuit and Mesoamerican) cultures, from buildings to clothing to calligraphy to iconography to hairstyles to weapons to fighting styles to codes of conduct to matters of faith. This isn’t a secret, and it isn’t disputed, so you would need to make a compelling case to explain why the culture should be heavily Asian but the people should not be. That case has not been made.

The case against making that change is simple; Why take heroes away from minority kids in the West who don’t have a lot of heroes in Western culture that they can aspire to? Why make that change at all? There isn’t even a sound business explanation, as none of the actors cast have any box office cachet. The business argument may simply be that audiences are inherently racist, but that will surprise the makers of the hugely successful new Karate Kid movie, with its black and Chinese leads.

It’s true that sometimes characters in fiction are changed from Caucasian to another race, and few people complain, but the clear difference is between adding to the diversity of our entertainment culture, and taking away from it. Caucasians have little cause to protest the former; non-Caucasians have good cause to agonise over the latter. That pained reaction is exactly what we’ve seen from the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, and the outrage is entirely merited.

A lot of fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender will be celebrating the movie’s critical excoriation this weekend, and praying that it under-performs at the box office. Even if the movie meets expectations, the message has been sent that fans and minority groups will not take this sort of thing quietly, and movie studios will do well to show more sensitivity in future. Hopefully the studios and the filmmakers will listen. More likely, they’ll just keep making poor justifications.

Roman’s Holiday

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

It’s been a terrible year for lauded monsters, mostly because they’ve been dying. Notorious alleged nonce Michael Jackson went and got himself killed. Reckless drunken womanslaughterer Ted Kennedy died a hero’s death (he did at least let his crime inspire a lifetime of good intentions, which is the Democrats’ version of good works). And now they’ve only gone and arrested poor long-suffering child molester Roman Polanski, whose only crime was to drug and rape a 13-year-old girl and then skip the country so he wouldn’t go to jail.

The reaction to this arrest of a criminal fugitive has been extraordinary. Normally rational and intelligent people have been crying foul. Polanski’s peers - including Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Mann, Terry Gilliam and, perhaps ill-advisedly, Woody Allen - have signed a petition demanding his release. And I’ve been scratching my head and wondering why. Why do these people want Polanski to evade justice? What have I missed? And I’ve read around, looking for answers, and I haven’t found any that convince me.

Anne Applebaum at the Washington Post gives a particularly peculiar rundown of the justifications, stating that Polanski “has paid for the crime in many, many ways”. She points to notoriety, stigma, lawyers’ fees - none of which seem like an undeserved burden for a man who committed a crime and then fled from justice. Polanski’s ‘punishment’ has seen him living in the land of fine wine and finer cheeses for 30 years and swanning from villa to villa while making a living as a respected and successful director with actors like Johnny Depp, Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford.

Applebaum adds that the victim of Polanski’s rape, “now 45, has said more than once that she forgives him, that she can live with the memory, that she does not want him to be put back in court or in jail, and that a new trial will hurt her husband and children”. That’s interesting to note, but it’s not binding on the law, and most criminals do not get the benefit of a thirty-year time-out to give the victim the time to rebuild his or her life.

Film journalist John Farr at The Huffington Post gives his own wet defence of Polanski, pointing out that he had a tough life. He grew up in the Krakow ghetto; his mother died in a concentration camp; his wife was murdered by followers of Charles Manson. As extraordinary a life as Polanski has lead, what does that justify? It seems that Farr believes one collects pain and misery stamps through life that one can trade in against the right to inflict pain and misery on others. Farr also bizarrely claims that, as a married man of 76, Polanski is “probably reformed by now, don’t you think?” Why would I think that? Do 76-year-old men lose a child-raping instinct that Farr believes is natural and endemic to 44-year-old men? A year after fleeing the US, Polanski claimed that “everyone wants to f— little girls”. Should we take it on faith that he no longer holds this view?

Also on Huffington Post, supposed women’s equality activist Joan Z Shore notes, “Arresting Roman Polanski the other day in Zurich, where he was to receive an honorary award at a film festival, was disgraceful and unjustifiable”. The petition strikes the same wailing chord, stating; “It seems inadmissible … that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary film-makers, is used by police to apprehend him”. Are we really meant to believe that Polanski should not have been arrested as a question of etiquette? The police should not have arrested a child abuser because it was rude?

The Polanski case is being framed by his defenders as philistine America versus art-loving Europe, and that’s scary to me. As a drippy liberal European fagola, I’m an ardent believer in the need to defend creative freedom from the censorious right. I don’t want to have to think that my side has been secretly pro-child abuse all this time. That’s exactly the sort of crazy that the right likes to paint artists as being, and it’s up to the creative community to act as its own conscience. People like Scorsese and Gilliam should not be lining up to defend a man who committed an atrocious crime. (Thank God for Luc Besson, who refused to sign the petition, pointing out that his daughter is the same age as the girl Polanski raped.) Creative freedom does not include the freedom to rape little girls and get away with it.

Inevitably with stories like this, the question is asked, should a man’s art be viewed through the filter of his conduct? I don’t think it should. I think Polanski is a gifted director who has given us many excellent films, and the value of those films is not diminished by his crimes. But if art and conduct should be treated separately, then art and justice should also be treated separately. If we do not condemn the man’s art because of his conduct, we also cannot forgive the man’s conduct because of his art.

I realise that there are complexities to the Polanski case. There are accusations of judicial misconduct. Though Polanski was never sentenced, his lawyers claim that the judge intended to renege on a plea deal that they had agreed to. Even so, if you elect to work in or even visit a country, you consent to abide by its laws and you make yourself subject to its system of justice, and if you feel there has been a miscarriage of justice, you appeal through the courts. You cannot simply elect to place yourself above the law, even if you are brilliant, wealthy and free-spirited.

Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old girl and ran from the consequences. Now, hopefully, he will be extradited to the US and those consequences will catch up with him. If he has suffered enough, as his defenders insist he has, that will be for the courts to determine, and not Monica fricking Bellucci.

Two Houses, Both Alike in Dignity

Monday, August 31st, 2009

The House of Mouse is buying the House of Ideas. If you don’t speak cutesy corporate nicknames, that means Disney is buying Marvel - but you knew that already. You’re on Twitter. You’re on the internet. This is not the first blog you’ve been to today. Nerds are flopping all over the place about this one. This is big news!

There have been three main responses that I’ve seen. The first is a dropped jaw, because this has come completely out of the blue - even people working at Marvel have been taken by surprise. The second response has been to identify humorous synergies between superheroes and cartoon characters and chortle about them, because Disney produces neutered entertainment for unsophisicated audiences, and Marvel… hey now wait a minute…

The third has been to ask in shocked tones, ‘but what does this all mean?’ And because the gag reel is best left to Twitter these days, I’m going to dwell on that third option, although this is all rootless speculation on my part, and responsible people will tell you not to listen. With that caveat in place; what does this all mean?

It might mean nothing at all. At least, that was the official line this morning from Marvel editor CB Cebulski on Twitter; “We’re told it’s like when Disney bought Pixar… everything Marvel stays as is.” So, don’t worry, everybody! Disney spent four billion dollars on Marvel (four billion dollars) because they plan to leave everything exactly as it is! And, in other news, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true!

The Disney/Marvel deal is not going to be the same as the Disney/Pixar deal, wherein Pixar’s Steve Jobs became a major shareholder in Disney, and Disney’s animation arm was eaten by Pixar. (If Disney’s comics get eaten by Marvel, that won’t be quite the same shiny plum.) Disney brought Pixar in because they wanted Pixar to provide creative vision for Disney.

Marvel is not going to exercise that degree of leverage. The best Marvel can hope for is that it retains creative control over Marvel. Walt Disney President Bob Iger says that this is indeed the plan; the philosophy is, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But who gets to say what does or doesn’t constitute ‘broke’ in the world of comics publishing today? It’s quite a broken industry.

A lot of the online speculation says that this is about movies - a field where Marvel characters have enjoyed unprecedented success in the past decade. Yet the X-Men franchise remains at Fox, the Spider-Man franchise remains at Sony, and the Avengers franchise (including Iron Man, Thor and Captain America) remains at Paramount. If Disney wants a big Marvel movie franchise, it’ll have to build one from scratch, and without any of Marvel’s biggest brands. All existing third-party licensing deals are being honoured, including video game deals.

(There is talk - from John Lasseter himself - of Marvel and Pixar doing something together, which is sort of exciting, except that it would be Pixar’s first foray into licensed properties, and that sort of isn’t exciting, that’s sort of compromising.)

The official press release says that the plan is to “significantly build” both Marvel and Disney through this acquisition. The investor call went further, stating that Disney wants to develop Marvel’s catalogue of lesser-known characters “across multiple medias and territories”. (Yes, they said “medias”, at least they did according to my datas.)

If Disney doesn’t get the hit movies and isn’t going to touch the comics, where does that growth come from? Well, it’ll come from theme park rides and consumer products, according to the PR storm. All I know about theme park rides is that I like them; I don’t know how much of a role character branding plays in convincing people to go on a rollercoaster. Do spider-webs on the car maketh the ride? Given that there are already Marvel-themed rides at Universal Studios, how much demand is there for Aunt May’s Amazing Stairlift-O-Tron?

As for consumer products; a search for ‘disney consumer products’ took me to disneyconsumerproducts.com, where you can read about Disney pyjamas, Disney dolls, Disney bedding, Disney laptops, Disney Eggo waffles, Disney Princess dress-up sets, Disney furniture sets, and even Disney wedding dresses. Now imagine all of that with X-Men logos all over them, or flocks of Silver Surfers. Maybe you too will soon be able to buy the fishtail fluted wedding dress that Mary Jane Watson wore when she married… on second thought, maybe that’s not the best omen.

Even if Disney can now put Spider-Man on a hot water bottle, it presumably can’t put the movie Spider-Man on a hot water bottle, and isn’t that the one boys want? If Disney’s stategy really is to develop second-stringers into merchandisable brands, I’m fascinated to know how they’ll manage it, and to what extent it will rely on Marvel’s pool of creative talent over Disney’s. One wonders if Disney got roped in on the line about Marvel’s impressive stable of 5,000+ characters, when what that really amounts to is a lot of obscure Spider-Man villains that can’t be used because they’re Spider-Man villains.

And of course, if Disney does want to make the characters marketable, how can it not touch the comics? How can they not bring in content guidelines? The obvious parallel to the Disney/Marvel deal is Warner Brothers’ ownership of DC, and it’s no secret that Warner has been nanny-like in its protection of DC trademarks. Can we expect a lighter whip from the company that didn’t want Aladdin to have nipples because nipples are too racy? Is Emma Frost going to have to put on a coat?

Honestly, I think we might be surprised. After all, I was being unfair (for hilarious comic effect!) when I implied that Marvel and Disney only put out neutered entertainment for unsophisicated audiences. Even on Disney’s family entertainment channel, ABC Family, you can currently watch an interracial teenage male-male relationship unfolding on Greek, and that’s consdierably more progressive than anything Marvel has ever put in front of a family audience. And this was a TV channel that Disney liberated from the grisly talons of Pat Robertson! So long as Sleeping Beauty’s castle isn’t on the packaging, Disney can be quite a broad church. Dogma and Kill Bill were both produced under the Walt Disney umbrella. Disney really might leave Marvel alone to do its own thing.

Corporate ownership might even free Marvel up to be bolder than it has been in the past. The notion that you need to be indie to innovate is passé in a Pixar world, and Disney is not Warner Brothers, and Spider-Man is not Superman. The security of having a major company at its back - and the reach that such a company can provide - could actually push Marvel to flex its creative muscles more liberally than before.

CB Cebulski followed up his earlier twittering by adding, “From all I’ve heard up here these past three hours, Disney merging with Marvel is a VERY GOOD thing for us”. I hope so, and I can believe it, and not just because the editors have probably just had their health insurance upgraded, or because freelancers might finally be getting a comp box.

What Disney brings to Marvel is a media machine that vastly outstrips what they’ve been used to, and if that means the talents of folks like Skottie Young or Stuart Immonen might now be exposed to a wider audience, or that Marvel will have more money and resources to scout and develop talent, that’s terrific news.

And maybe that’s the real benefit that Disney gets out of this deal. We already know that comics have become a form of R&D for other media, but that need not only apply to stories and characters; it could apply to creators as well.

(For the record, my favourite joke from a long, grinding morning of Disney/Marvel mash-ups on Twitter, came courtesy of Andy Khouri: “No more muppets”.)

All The Pixel Ladies

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

I watched Pixar’s new movie Up at the weekend, and I think I now have a new favourite Pixar film. Previously that sought-after accolade went to The Incredibles, but Up is so wonderfully eccentric and unexpected, and so beautifully heartfelt, that it may have edged The Incredibles out. There aren’t many movies that can make audiences cry with laughter and sadness in the same 90 minutes.

It seems extroardinary that a story about an old man and some balloons should be so compelling, but this is Pixar. Though they’ve only released ten movies in fourteen years, their hit rate is astonishing. All their movies are either near-perfect (The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Toy Story 2), brilliant (Ratatouille, Wall-E, Finding Nemo), or… Cars. (Cars is terrible, but even it made money, so now they’re making another.)

Their films are so good that I hadn’t even noticed what they were missing. Women.

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OK, Pixar movies do have some well-rounded female characters, like Toy Story 2’s Jesse, The Incredibles’ Elastigirl, or Ratatouille’s Colette. But how many Pixar movies have a female character as the principal lead?

None. Out of ten. Woody, Flik, Woody, Sully, Marlin, Mr Incredible, Lightning McQueen, Remy, Wall-E and now Carl Fredricksen; all male. That’s a poor score. Compare that to Disney, which has given us numerous female leads from Snow White to Lilo by way of Cinderella and Mulan, and it looks really bad. Admittedly Disney has had seventy years, and its perepetuation of the princess-waiting-for-a-prince ideal is not the best message to promote, but at least they’re in the game, and wouldn’t it be nice if another animator was out there putting out a different message?

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Even in the secondary lead roles, Pixar peforms badly. Disney gave us the likes of Perdita, Lady and Miss Bianca (all animals, but still female), while Pixar has given us Buzz, Atta, Buzz again, Mike, Dory, Elastigirl, Mater, Linguini, Eve and Russell. Most of Pixar’s females exist only to inspire the hero, with sleek, silent Eve being the best (or worst) example of this, though it’s also prominent in Up.

Dory is one of the only gender-blind roles Pixar has ever created, where the character could have been a man but happens to be a woman, and apparently that’s because the part was written for a man. Even Dreamworks, which favours ensemble casts, scores better when it comes to making its women independent actors in the story.

There are plenty of explanations one can come up with for why women are underrepresented in Pixar movies. The most obvious one is that computer animation is a boys’ club, and these guys write about what they know. As more of the boys become fathers to little girls, we may see their focus change.

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Then there’s the anti-Disney thing. A big part of Pixar’s philosophy seems to be that it doesn’t want to be Disney, relying on musical versions of old fairy tales with slapstick sidekicks and hero princesses. Girl heroes are the collateral loss. (That said, Pixar is releasing a movie with a female lead in 2011, and the hero is… a princess.)

Pixar also favours buddy stories over love stories, which could equally be an anti-Disney thing or a boys’ club thing, but the end result is that most of its movies are about an all-male odd couple. None of these explanations is meant to suggest that Pixar is sexist, and I absolutely do not think they are; they’re just a bit oblivious.

Regardless of why Pixar movies are so male-dominated, there is also the question of whether it’s actually a problem. The movies are still good, right? We don’t want to ruin them with a lot of politically correct nonsense.

But why shouldn’t there be more women in these stories? Sure, the girls in the audience can identify with male characters as well - they can love racing, or monsters, or robots or, gasp, cooking - but why shouldn’t they have the chance to see more characters like themselves on screen?

Lack of representation is a problem that a lot straight white men perhaps don’t understand. If you’re one of them, trust me when I say that, if you’re forever presented with a vision of the world that does not have you in it, where you can’t see any options or get any idea of where you might fit in, it does have an impact. And maybe if you’re, say, a redheaded guy, or a nerd, or a Canadian, and one day you see a hero up on screen who shares those qualities with you, then maybe  you do understand the difference it can make, at least a little bit.

Segel, the Albatross

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Bloggers are getting very excited about the new Vanity Fair issue, with a photo portfolio of Hollywood’s big comedy stars. One photo sees members of Judd Apatow’s comedy troupe - Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd - recreating the famous Vanity Fair Hollywood issue cover featuring a fully clothed Tom Ford getting all gay pimp on pale and naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson.

Aside from a change in personnel and the presence of some flesh-coloured bodysuits, see if you can spot the other big difference between the two images. Here’s the original:

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Mm, smell that haughty English actress, Tom. Smell her good. What does she smell like, Tom? Roses, lavender and Jammy Dodgers?

And here’s the comedy remix:

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So, here’s what I’m wondering; did they actually invite Jason Segel to the photo shoot? What we’ve got here is perennial comedy bridesmaid Paul Rudd, man-of-the-moment Seth Rogen, and rising star/chubby sidekick Jonah Hill. And then there’s this Jason Segel chap, who is still not a recognisable name or a recognisable face even after starring in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. He just doesn’t look like he’s meant to be there, does he?

I’m probably projecting my own prejudices here. I’m seeing something that isn’t there. Jason Segel is as deserving of a place in that company as any man could be! The same four guys also appear on the cover of the issue, so there can be no doubt that he was meant to be at that photo shoot, and he was meant to be in these images. Look, see:

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Oh. Do we have a barrel for Jason Segel, guys? Did anyone… we didn’t bring four barrels? Right, right, we thought we only needed three.  Jason, would you mind standing at the back, there? Maybe a little bit further back than that? A little further still. You see the fire door over there? How about you go stand on the other side of that?

Austen Powers

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single author in possession of a good following must be in want of a zeitgeist. Or something. Look, what I’m saying is, that bitch Jane Austen just will not die.

All of her completed works have been adapted at least twice - four of them in just  the last two years! She only wrote six of the damn things! Only Emma has enjoyed any period of dormancy of late, having not been touched since the mid ’90s, when it was adapted three times - as a movie, as a TV series, and as Clueless. Now even the unfinished novel Lady Susan is getting a BBC Four series.

And then there’s Pride & Prejudice. Adapted six times for television; three times for cinema; at least six times for stage, frequently as a musical. (I’m still haunted by the terrible lyrics to the title song of the dreadful Pardon My Prejudice, which my sister appeared in many years ago.  ”Pardon my prejudice, pardon my prejudice, if you can; I’ll pardon you, if you pardon me, you proud, proud man”.)

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All of that is without counting Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Jane Austen Book Club, Bride and Prejudice, or the recent TV series Lost in Austen. And now things are getting really strange. Having seemingly exhausted Austen proper (at least for now), and having apparently also exhausted the modernisation angle, those seeking to further plunder the Austen franchise for gold are now looking to cross-breed the Hampshire hussy’s work with other concepts. 

Lost in Austen was an attempt to put a girly twist on Life on Mars (Life on Venus, if you will), with a modern day gal finding herself magically transported into the book. Such is the appeal of the concept that it’s being remade as a movie by Sam Mendes.

Then there’s this thing:

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Two tired slices of zeitgeist wheezily leaning against each other for support as they stagger ever onwards. And now comes news that Elton John’s production company is making a movie called Pride and Predator - in which, yes, an alien crash lands in 19th century England and tears a bloody swathe through genteel country society. It is probably not a witty and well-observed study of social manners and mores.

Worryingly, even the new TV spot for this summer’s Wolverine movie shows Young Wolverine discovering his powers in a quaint period setting with puffy sleeves and waistcoats (taking a misguided cue from the dreadful Wolverine: Origins comic, which saw the rough and tough action hero starting out life as Little Lord Fauntleclaws). Admittedly it looks more Bronté than Austen, but the fact that I’m even using those words to describe a Wolverine trailer is a bad sign.

With any luck we’re now coming to the end of the Austen Translation period, and eventually the Godzilla of English literature will return to her dormant state. However, just in case there’s cash in the old girl yet, here are some ideas you might want to adopt and adapt for your own Bastard Austen project. 

Pirates & Prejudice: The Bennet household is all atwitter when Netherfield Park is boarded and raided by pirates and dashing Cap’n Jack Darcy comes raping and pillaging in Pemberley.

Sense & The City: The Dashwood girls come to modern New York and experience the pitfalls of internet dating, ‘bad boys’, and not knowing how soon is too soon to call. Alternative title: He’s Just Not That In Want Of A Wife.

Dark Persuasion: Anne Elliott’s former fiancé comes back into her life, only now he’s a sexy brooding vampire with pale skin and attractively messy hair. Yearning. achingly tender sexual awakening ensues.

Emma Mia: Just like regular Emma, but with the songs of Abba. 

Mansfield Planet: Fanny is a human raised in a family of aliens on a strange foreign planet. Can poor Fanny fit in and find love in a world where she knows she does not belong and everyone looks down on her as an inferior race? And is handsome and reprehensible Henry Crawford secretly a treacherous Cylon? (Yes.)

Harry Potter and the Abbey of Northanger: The money pretty much prints itself. As does the cease-and-desist order.

For the record, if you successfully adapt any of these ideas, I want half.

Follow That Gorilla

Monday, January 26th, 2009

What makes a great ad? I’m not talking about success, which is boring, but greatness; a great ad is one you talk about at work the next day. A great ad is one you stop and enjoy every time it comes on. A great ad is one you actually look for on YouTube because everyone tells you how great it is.

Take, for example, the Skoda Fabia cake ad, or just about any Guinness ad, or the sublime Honda ‘Hate Something, Change Something‘ ad with Garrison Keillor, which I would quite happily put on my iTunes. Even the ‘Ambassador’s Reception‘ ad for Ferrero Rocher must surely qualify as a great ad (and a successful one), albeit by a slightly different standard of greatness.

The trouble with great ads is that they raise expectations to levels that the creative agencies then struggle to reach. Guinness and Honda are two brands that have managed to do surprisingly well at keeping things interesting in their ads, but even then, Guinness’s massively expensive ‘Domino‘ ad felt disappointingly like old ground. Look, it’s like that one Honda ad, filtered through all the Stella Artois ads! Turns out my fascination for the quirky pastimes of gap-toothed provincial beer-drinkers only extends so far!

Cadbury has also struggled to follow up on an iconic ad, namely the prize-winning Gorilla ad, which was so widely talked about that I think I heard it described three times before I ever saw it. I was thus unreasonably excited when I happened to be in the right place at the right time for the debut of the follow-up, Airport Trucks. And I watched, and I waited, and… the advert ended. It was just some trucks! Where was the twist? So boring!

In retrospect the Airport Trucks ad is not as bad as all that; it’s just no Gorilla. And now we have come to the third ‘Glass And A Half Full Production’; Eyebrows.

What do we make of this one, then? It feels like an attempt to recapture the Gorilla magic - unexpected behaviour with a musical flavour - but does it work? The CGI on the eyebrows put me off, but I’ve come to realise that a lot of people are pretty blind to ‘natural’ CGI, so that may only bother me. This may be another Airport Trucks - it’s certainly no Gorilla - but I will say this; the balloon is brilliant.