Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Old New

My latest piece at Splitsider recalls The New Show, Lorne Michaels' 1984 sketchfest that flopped after nine episodes. It was a weird show -- first-rate talents producing some baffling comedy. But that was probably intentional, an ironic/meta take on baffling comedy.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Jubilee As A Verb

I know: this once bustling space has fallen mostly silent. I've explained why, and the reasons haven't changed. Not that you need or desire an explanation, but still . . .

Work on my written projects continues. Yes, I said projects. They are different yet interrelated. Not twin volumes but familiar enough. More about these exciting developments as news warrants.

I'm currently in Michigan to see my son. After readjusting to city life, suburbia seems deader than ever. At least here. Feels like ten lifetimes ago when I slogged through this world with everyone else. It saddens but also makes me anxious. Michigan put a dent in my consciousness. Whenever I visit I keep expecting another blow to the head.

I haven't fully written about that period of my life. Perhaps at some point I will. It's not a terribly funny story, but then what's funny these days?

As for this space, check in weekly for relatively new content. I'm not abandoning it just yet -- certainly not in this All Important Election Year Ever (Part XVIII). But if you must know what's on my mind between posts, follow my Twitter feed. One hundred forty characters in search of meaning, or at least semi-digested punch lines.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lost In Amber

The Magnificent Ambersons faded in fiction as it was mutilated by Hollywood. Orson Welles' adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel remains an enigma to cineastes, the ultimate What Might Have Been.

A handful of people saw Welles' 132-minute version before RKO slashed it to 88, then slapped on a re-shot "happy" ending. A minor industry has tried to find and piece together the original cut, with few results. What Welles wanted us to see is gone. Only some stills (the above shows the deserted Amberson mansion) remain.

It's a tribute to Welles' talent that the existing cut is as remarkable as it is. I can't think of many films that could withstand what The Magnificent Ambersons did and still be considered classic. RKO assaulted Ambersons, yet it kept moving; its pace compromised but not thwarted.

That experience made Welles appreciate Citizen Kane even more. He had final cut and Kane never previewed. If RKO had its way, Welles was convinced that Kane would have been tarnished as well.

Yet Welles' creative saga is not what attracts me to Ambersons. I'm drawn to its theme of lost time and altered lives. I first saw it in 1980-81 at the Irvington Theater in Indianapolis. I'd seen Citizen Kane, but Ambersons wasn't shown all that much back then -- certainly not in central Indiana. I went with a couple of friends, and as Welles' opening narration took hold, I forgot they were there. I was lulled into a world I knew little about, young eyes wide, eager.

As much as I enjoyed and respected Kane, Ambersons felt deeper, richer. Kane dazzled; Ambersons caressed. Lighting and staging appeared similar, though Welles used a different director of photography for each film.

But Ambersons gradually unfolded, moving in late-19th century time. You became intimate with the Amberson mansion. Its long dark corridors and winding staircases home to hushed emotions and hurt feelings. The family drifting in shadow and muted sunlight. A cavernous refuge doomed to oblivion. Lives soon to be irrelevant.

The advent of the automobile is considered the main culprit, revealed in this tense exchange at the dinner table:

But cars were merely the harbingers of hated change. Information technology was right behind the gas engine, and as Joseph Cotten's Eugene stated, there was no stopping it. It's pointless to despise the inevitable, much less fear it. Yet you can't escape a certain sadness, or at least I can't. Perhaps my primary current weakness.

And that's the chief emotion I felt re-watching The Magnificent Ambersons recently. Not for the onscreen family, nor for Welles' artistic pain. But for my personal displacement over time.

When I first saw this film, I was 20-21. Filled with ambition, hunger. Ambersons inspired me to do more than just write jokes. It lit my heart while sharpening my desire. I saw it twice more before it closed and thought of ways to approximate its texture in my early work. I didn't come close, but I was too young to be dissuaded.

Watching Ambersons now reminds me of that period. Three decades on and I still feel that ache. My outlook is different, but that young writer remains in me. He had everything in front of him. He was inspired by and absorbed so much. Moreover, he was fearless -- at least when it came to the work.

This is what happens when you reflect on a half-century of life in a reactionary state of mind. It's one area where radicalism not only doesn't appeal to me, it feels like a threat. An aging house crumbling under the weight of time, covered by cheap cement.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Got To Let It Show

You knew that Obama would toss his long-suffering liberal fans election-year crumbs, and he did, right on cue.

Naturally, his lib fans went berserk with glee, wetting their fingers to catch every speck. Praise unto Our President! they shouted from the floor. History shifts once again!

I don't recall liberals praising Dick Cheney for taking the exact same position on gay marriage. You'd think they'd be more impressed with a oil-soaked reactionary's pro-queer turn.

But no: Cheney remained an evil war criminal who belonged in prison. Who cared what he personally thought about gay rights? His other positions negated that. Fuck Dick and his weak opportunism.

Now comes Obama, saying precisely what Cheney said, only this time the heavens parted, earth trembled, the cosmos aligned in a more progressive direction. It didn't matter that this was Obama's personal, not political, opinion.

Nor was the fact that Obama leaves gay marriage to the states particularly troubling. Indeed, facts meant relatively nothing to the faithful. It was all about feeling, projection, wishful thinking. In other words, nothing's changed.

As with everything he says, Obama's statement was calculated. He conferred with pollsters, advisers, and handlers before taking the Cheney step, knowing full well that his liberal base would come crawling. (You have to love the bit about consulting his "neighbors," as if he was weeding the backyard and struck up a gay marriage conversation with the woman next door while she hanged her laundry to dry.)

He also knows that younger voters overwhelmingly either approve of gay marriage or maintain no strong opinion about it, and that's where the future lies. Older white reactionaries see Obama as a foreign-born Islamo-commie, so nothing he says pro or con will affect their outlook. Plus, that demographic is fading away, which doubtless accounts for their increasingly crazy views. Overall, Obama played it perfectly.

Now, you might point to Obama's murderous foreign policies, his expansion and strengthening of the surveillance state, his aggressive support for the Drug War, his coddling of corporate power, etc., and wonder how his gay marriage stance mitigates all that. Well, it doesn't.

As recent polls have shown, a large percentage of liberals support many of Obama's horrid positions, particularly his increased use of drones (which are coming to a city near you). Obama's reelection image is Warrior President, tougher than Romney, ballsier than the entire GOP. Mix in some pseudo-populist rhetoric, rail against the very corporate forces that keep him in power, play the gay marriage hand right down the middle, and a second term is all but inevitable.

Romney has a lot of work ahead. I don't see how he lines up with, much less defeats, Obama in November. Anything's possible, but Romney doesn't strike me as a come-from-behind maverick. Then again, that's my personal opinion. I'll leave it to the states to decide.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Market Zero

Advertising appeals to the worst in us. It's corrosive, intrusive, toxic. It's ceaseless distraction. It fucks with our frenzied minds.

Advertising is boring. Tedious. Obvious. A piece of processed food you choke on. Swirling debris.

Yet many people can't see a world without ads. Myself included.

I watched the first two episodes of The Pitch, AMC's bid to capitalize on Mad Men's allure. Only there are no Don Drapers or Peggy Olsons, at least so far. The ad people shown are more cogs than creative forces. Wires in the persuasion machine.

Ideally, The Pitch performs a valuable service. It shows how mediocre most ad pros are. Limited vocabularies. Pinched imaginations. Maybe this will dissuade others from entering the profession. Jesus knows that there are more agencies than a healthy society needs.

Then again, I tend to misjudge desire. I'm sure there are young writers watching who romanticize the game. Who want to get paid to make sandwiches dance. Babies talk. Leggy models purr over deodorized spray.

I've seen them. Worked with them. Beaten my head against exposed brick dealing with them. Not that I occupied higher ground. I was in the same room, after all.

Clients share much of the blame. It's an ad cliché that apart from the clients, marketing is a great business. But lovelies, it's more true than not.

American business isn't known for its conceptual acumen or sense of humor. Bottom lines flatten creative appreciation. Clients tend to go for broad ideas that cost them little. In a propaganda culture, they know they must add to the noise.

Yet oftentimes they're lost, confused. This makes them timid, unsure. They'll commit to a certain approach, then abruptly change their minds without warning. Ad creatives, many of whom wing it in the best of times, become gun shy. The process gets constipated, which explains the expressions on ad peoples' faces.

If you ponder why most advertising is awful, that's a major reason. But pedestrian talents on the ad end don't help either.

The Pitch offers a glimpse at this compromised arrangement. It doesn't dig deep. I suppose we should be happy with that. Some of the brainstorming sessions are wince inducing. You wonder how someone so bad gets paid. Then you go online, open a magazine, or channel surf and are immediately reminded why.

The Pitch inspired me to watch Art & Copy, Doug Pray's 2009 documentary about the rise of modern advertising. The older creatives featured speak an alien language compared to those on The Pitch. More colorful. Literate. At times lyrical. They weren't shaped by advertising. They tapped a variety of sources. They gambled with ideas.

Of course, when you interview George Lois, Mary Wells, Hal Riney, Lee Clow, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, interesting stories and industry insights are guaranteed. But for all of their groundbreaking work, there's a level of rationalization that suggests they understand all too well their societal purpose.

Lois, whose covers for Esquire in the 1960s remain the most iconic in American magazine history, talks a lot about "revolution." How he dragged clients by the balls to his way of thinking. How he despised the establishment and sought to undermine it. And yet Lois helped to bring Tommy Hilfiger to prominence, something he's quite proud of. So it depends on how you define "revolution."

Mary Wells is no less self--flattering. Given her struggles and successes in 60's advertising (she was the mind behind Braniff Airlines' makeover), this is understandable. But when she says, "I think what you can do is manufacture any feeling you want to manufacture. You can create any feeling you want people to have," Wells admits that formulating desire was her chief task. She frames it as a social good, but there's a mercenary angle to her earnestness.

Jeff Goodby, who coined Got Milk?, puts it simply: advertising is "art serving capitalism." Like others of his generation, Goodby poses as the corporate rebel. I'm certain he's sincere, and being extremely successful doesn't hurt. This gives him the freedom to beautify his social role.

If the first two episodes of The Pitch are any indication, we're not going to see the next Lois, Wells or Goodby. I doubt that they exist. The industry has no use for outsized personalities, which should make advertising less attractive. But for semi-ambitious worker bees, cubicle hives tend to be interchangeable. Their discordant buzz our common soundtrack.