Friday, August 18, 2006

Chinese to Produce Film on Rape of Nanking

Rape of Nanking book cover artReuters reported on Monday that a Chinese film producer has announced plans for a $25 million film about the 1937 Rape of Nanking, a truly horrific atrocity in which Japanese troops brutally murdered tens of thousands of Chinese civilians.

The soldiers went on an appallingly vicious rampage through the captive Chinese city, and the things they did show the very worst of what human beings are capable of doing, including countless rapes, tossing live infants into the air and catching them on the ends of bayonets, and other such astonishingly barbaric behavior. The incident has been documented thoroughly by historians, but the subject has never received much attention. This movie should remedy that. As Reuters reports,

The movie of the massacres of tens of thousands of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops will be based on Iris Chang's bestseller, "The Rape of Nanking," Xinhua news agency said, adding it would involve a U.S. production company and British investors.

"We hope we can make the film a classic on a massacre in the Second World War, just like 'Schindler's List' about the miserable experience of Jewish people during the war," Xinhua quoted Gerald Green, the American producer of the movie, as saying.

China says 300,000 Chinese men, women and children were slaughtered by invading Japanese troops in war-time capital Nanjing, formerly known as Nanking.

Japan claims that the death toll was about half what the Chinese say, but either way it consitutes an extreme outrage. Chang's book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, is a very impressive document of the events and the mindset that was put into the soldiers who commited the atrocities.

Reuters reports that the producers are going after some big-name performers to tell this story:

China actress Zhang Ziyi and Malaysia's Michelle Yeoh, stars of Oscar-winning martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," were on the investors' wish list, Xinhua said.

The movie is scheduled to start shooting in "weeks to come" and would debut in China next year, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, Xinhua said.

This is a piece of history that more people should know more about, in America as much as anywhere else. It is a measure of what human beings in groups are capable of doing to one another, and as such it is something we really need to know.

From Karnick on Culture.

Audiences, Critics Disagree on Summer's Superhero Movies

X-Men 3 poster

The Hollywood Reporter observes that audiences and critics differed greatly on the merits of the two big superhero movies of this summer:

As summer nears its end, "X-Men: The Last Stand," which nabbed middling reviews, seems to have exceeded expectations with a $441 million worldwide gross, while "Superman Returns" -- though it earned a strong, positive ranking of 76 percent on RottenTomatoes.com -- has yet to break the $200 million mark domestically.

I agree with the audiences on this one. X-Men: The Last Stand was not exactly profound, but at least it kept things moving and had some interesting characters. The makers of Superman Returns clearly tried very hard, but the film had no charisma whatever, disastrously poor chemistry between the lead performers, and no charm at all. The Christian imagery was an interesting touch and made the film deeper thematically, but the entertainment and artistic value did not match up with it. And the idea of Superdude having had a child with Lois Lane while she married another man is just the sort of clever concept that filmmakers ought to know better than to do. No wonder, then, that audiences thought it OK but not a must-see or a must-see-twice.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

The (Temporary) Democratization of the Media, Through Technological Change

A viewer looks at the YouTube Web site on computer screens in New York, Aug. 17, 2006. YouTube is a video sharing service that already claims more than 100 million video views per day and more than 65,000 video uploads daily. (AP Photo/Cameron Bloch)It's all too common for writers and analysts to characterize the internet as reponsible for pretty much everything that happens today, but it is true that new information technology is making significant changes in how we gain access to culture. Video-sharing services such as YouTube, for example, definitely constitute an important new channel for information and entertainment programming, and one that younger persons find particularly appealing.

Lots of people are visiting YouTube, as AP notes:

Officially launched last December, this video-sharing service already plays more than 100 million clips per day with more than 65,000 video uploads added to its mammoth inventory. And those rates are skyrocketing.

The significance, of course, is that as the cost of making motion pictures is now a minuscule fraction of what it was during the previous century (and is approaching zero), and the cost of distributing them is now essentially zero, everybody can get into the act. As the AP story puts it:

Where does it end? "As more people capture special moments on video," its Web site declares, "YouTube is empowering them to become the broadcasters of tomorrow."

YouTube (slogan: "Broadcast Yourself") isn't the Internet's only video-sharing service. But it's the reigning brand, the talked-about phenomenon, and a mighty good example of the multiple roles now greeting yesterday's couch potato. These are get-up-and-do-something roles as artist, journalist, pundit, self-promoter, exhibitionist, prankster, weirdo and wag.

Now you, too, can be a TV producer and a TV programmer. Scheduling? That's in your hands on the receiving end, since clips are on demand, arranged in categories or searchable by various "tags." And you can be a distributor: E-mail any clip to your friends.

Ratings? Instant. Every clip appears with a running count of viewings, as well as how many viewers deemed it "a favorite." Not that anything is canceled for not being a hit. Unlike a network constricted by its two or three hours of prime time per night, the capacity of YouTube would appear to be boundless. No need here for one thing to be dropped to make room for another.

YouTube and other such sites constitute a quintessentially Omniculture phenomenon. In the Omniculture, everything happens, and now everything appears on video. AP notes:

So what can you see? Make no mistake, a 10-second video aptly titled "Bunny the Dog Rubs Her Butt Against the Ground" isn't the stupidest, skeeziest or even briefest clip available. Nor is "Cockroach-Controlled Mobile Robot" the most whimsical. Or two pairs of fingers dancing to the tune of "Get Down Tonight" the most charming.

You find video testimony, as well. Katrina-themed clips from hurricane victims. Lebanese and Israelis supplying their images of war.

Meanwhile, broadcast images are being plucked off the air and granted an on-demand afterlife. The impromptu back rub that President Bush gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G-8 Summit last month? It's right here, for screening anytime. So is co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck having a hissy fit on ABC's "The View." A search of "David Letterman" turns up more than 1,000 clips.

YouTube and other such sites are even influencing TV programmers' decisions. As I noted earlier on this site,

Forthcoming TV programs are increasingly appearing on peer-to-peer networks, evidently without the owners' permission. Pretty much everything ends up on these file-sharing networks, so it's no great surprise that yet-to-be-aired TV programs are turning up, but the downloads, and the underground publicity surrounding the programs, are actually affecting TV networks' programming decisions, the Wall Street Journal reports:

. . . In June, a TV pilot called "Nobody's Watching," which the WB network had passed on, was leaked to the video-sharing site YouTube. It generated enough of an audience online that NBC decided to pick up the show for development.

Half a million people watched the program on YouTube, which naturally caught the NBC programmers' attention. This will surely become more common as the media recognize the value of free sites as testing grounds. As the AP story notes:

At about the same time, NBC and YouTube forged a strategic partnership that, among other things, lets NBC hype its fall shows on YouTube. What more proof do you need of new media's appeal than when the mainstream media jumps on board?

NBC is learning one of the new rules YouTube has showcased with its free-for-all policy: Exposure, not payment, is what counts. Spreading it around is key.

And NBC, along with the rest of mainstream media, will have to abide by a new cultural reality as set forth by Chris Anderson in his current best-seller, "The Long Tail": "A once-monolithic industry structure where professionals produced and amateurs consumed is now a two-way marketplace, where anyone can be in any camp at any time."

This truly is a time of greater democratization of the communications media, comparable to the period in Europe immediately after the invention of the printing press. Nonetheless, the reality is that such new technologies are harnessed for political and social control as soon as possible. As with the invention of the printing press, the outcome will include both enjoyment and turbulence, and the world will change greatly.

If history is any guide, the democratization and liberty of the 'Net will ultimately be harnessed by governments and corporations for their own benefit, but as with the printing press, there will be effects that they can neither control nor predict. And that is all to the good.



From Karnick on Culture.

Sports Writing—If Only It Were About Sports!

Babe Ruth

Way back in the olden days before wall-to-wall coverage on television, highlights programs, and home video recording devices, sports writers wrote about sporting events. That is to say, they described the events for those who had not seen them and as a way of reliving the events for those who had seen them. Writers used a good deal of imagination in describing what happened on the field, indulging their desire to be real writers, not just newspaper schlubs. The best writing in the newspaper was often in the sports section—vivid, powerful, dramatic, and accurate. The latter was so because numerous people actually witnessed the events the writers covered, and hence errors would be quickly exposed.

The best sports writers would do a superb job of describing the ebb and flow of a game, its dramatic ups and downs, and its place in the context of the season. The story was the game itself, and the personalities of the players were important only to the degree that they fit in as characters in the bigger story on the court or on the field.

Writers such as Red Smith, Damon Runyon, and A. J. Liebling made sports journalism as interesting as a well-written novel or short story, because the drama on the field was real and they were willing to bring all their skills to bear on telling that story.

Events off the field were occasionally brought to bear, but they were largely kept out of the story unless they clearly and directly affected the performance on the field. Hence injuries were important to mention, but marital problems and contract status weren't.

San Francisco Giants player Barry Bonds addresses his admiring publicThat has changed since TV has made sporting events so accessible over the past three or four decades. Aware that their audience could easily see the games if they wanted, sports writers and their editors increasingly concentrated on the interactions among players and those between players, coaching staffs, owners, and the public. The personal lives of the players and other team personnel came to be seen as a legitimate news topic in that one could say that it does affect play on the field. Similarly, sports "analysis" have moved away from critiques of the on-field or game-preparation decisions of coaches and players, to a greater emphasis on how teams are put together, with personality conflicts and personal conduct as central areas of interest.

Hence, it is a real treat when one finds a story or analysis that is actually about on-field events and strategies, as in Gregg Easterbrook's ESPN.com American Football Conference preview. Easterbrook's entire analysis concentrates largely on the on-field strengths and weaknesses of the teams. In so doing, he mentions personal items where appropriate, which means when the truly affect what the team does on the field, as when he notes new Kansas City Chiefs' coach Herm Edwards's contract squabbles with his erstwhile employers the New York Jets last year (which certainly appear to have affected the team's performance) and the suicide of Indinapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy before the team's only playoff game last year (which they lost, to eventual Super Bowl champs the Pittsburgh Steelers.)

Gratuitous photo of San Diego Chargers cheerleader Casie

Easterbrook does bring in a few silly sidelights to keep it fun, such as his reports about team cheerleaders, but the emphasis is remarkably strong on analysis, and it is very good analysis indeed. As an example of what a real sportswriter can do, consider the following excerpt on the convergence of offensive strategies in the league on a single style. It is one of the most useful and insightful things I've read on any sport in a while:

This time of year, many NFL teams are crowing about the new offense they are installing. Teams installing a new offense for 2006 include the Bills, Dolphins, Jets, Lions, Rams, Redskins, Saints and Vikings. Often "new offense" means that instead of saying "power 80 slide quick," the quarterback will say "blue X-under 247." Both translate as "square out right" -- much of the installation of a new offense boils down to new terminology for standard plays. But there's a larger trend. In recent years, NFL offenses have converged toward a homogeneous product where everybody runs roughly the same stuff, hybridizing previously distinct offenses.

As recently as 15 years ago, some teams were power rush, some teams were run-and-shoot (no tight end, three small receivers running complex crossing patterns), some teams were West Coast (most passes short), some teams were Bart Starr classic (don't throw much but when you do, throw deep), some teams were hurry-up -- there were distinctly different philosophies of offense. Now everybody's using a little of everything. For instance, the five-wide, empty-backfield set, which a decade ago only a few teams were willing to show, is now in every NFL playbook. It's now in every high school team's playbook! The "bunch," which in the early 1990s only Minnesota was using, now shows up everywhere. Once only Buffalo and Cincinnati would go no-huddle before the last two minutes; now most teams show this tactic occasionally. And with the exception of Arizona and Philadelphia, everyone's run/pass ratio has converged. Nobody in the NFL has tried the Texas Tech offense yet: very wide splits from the linemen, emphasis on throwing lanes. But otherwise, in recent seasons every team has sampled a little of every offensive philosophy.

The kickoff game this season is Miami at Pittsburgh. Twenty years ago that game would have matched distinctly different offensive philosophies: power rush versus an up-the-field passing game based on the post and sideline fly. In 2006, the Dolphins and Steelers likely will show a similar mix of formations and plays. Everybody's trying a little bit of everything. It is, after all, the 21st century.

Unlike most sportswriting, after you read Easterbrook's analysis you actually know more than you did before. That is what good writing is supposed to be all about.

From Karnick on Culture.

Two Way Street

Mr. Furious: Rage... taking over...
Casanova Frankenstein: Yes, yes, we've heard that before.
Mr. Furious: No. Rage... REALLY taking over...

- from Mystery Men


Among the more useless ideas that we’ve had to endure over the past five years has been the notion of the monolithic Arab “street”, poised to explode at any moment over any slight that might come their way. That said “street” has been more prone to erupt over cartoonist musings than during infidel invasions has done little to diminish such thinking. This is not to say that they are impotent or irrelevant – far from it. But insurgent movements and the “street” are not the same thing, and the past has shown that not all Arabs are ready to accept that their destiny as jihadi cannon fodder.

And yet the “street” remains ever at the forefront. At the onset of the Israel’s decision to enter Lebanon, many questioned whether such a move was prudent. The difficulty of fighting guerrillas was well known, and many feared that the political costs of the collateral damage associated with pursuing Hizbollah would be too high. World, and perhaps more importantly Lebanese, opinion – the vaunted “street” – might dramatically turn against Israel.

So it should not have been a surprise to anyone that Israel looked a little unsure of itself during the initial phase of the invasion. One certainly gets the sense that it was not a surprise to Hizbollah. Consider the following statement by Hassan Nasrallah made shortly after the hostilities began:

It (Israel) has a nuclear weapon and the strongest air force in the region, but in truth, it is weaker than a spider web.

Hizbollah had calculated that Israel was not in a position to seriously threaten its position within Lebanon and welcomed the fight. They were prepared to do what was necessary in a heads we win, tails you lose quagmire in which Israel would be handcuffed by humanitarian concerns. All they had to do was hold out long enough for a draw, and they would be able to claim victory over Israel.

And they got their victory. Despite claims by the Israelis that their strategic goals were achieved through the cease-fire, the reality is that Nasrallah & Co withstood the Israelis and are now legends throughout the Arab world. Its popularity has never been higher, receiving praise from both Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Yet despite all of this, their success may be short lived. Lost in the celebration is the fact that Hizbollah was dealt several blows from which it may never recover.

From a tactical standpoint, they have lost the element of surprise. Whether you believe the Israeli Defense Force was held back by political uncertainty or was hampered by a lack of military intelligence, the size and scope of Hizbollah’s operation in southern Lebanon has now been exposed. The IDF will be able to review everything from Hizbollah support structures to the proper integration of ground and air power. The Home Front Command, which did quite well in shielding civilians from thousands of surface-to-surface rockets, will become even more adept at countering such future bombardments. All in all, the Israelis have gained far more information regarding its enemy than Hizbollah did, and can be counted on to put that knowledge into practice much sooner.

But the real loss is more strategic in nature. For starters, the world is coming to see them for the fundamentalist threat that they really are. Paradoxically, their cause has been hurt by their very strength. They are no longer viewed as the darling resistance movement relative to a powerful IDF. World leaders have begun to realize that Hizbollah success against Israel could be easily exported around the globe. Never has the world been so quick to condemn the actions of Hizbollah (granted that it equivocated some later), and they showed unprecedented understanding of Israel’s invasion into Lebanon.

Most significantly, however, may be the part that this resistance has played (along with the ineptness of the Olmert government) in the rebuilding of an Israeli consensus. The Israeli “street” – earlier referred to as weaker than a spider web – has regained its conviction and has supported actions that heretofore would have torn the country apart. The invasion into Lebanon itself was a rather bold maneuver, considering that Israel had withdrawn for that territory only a few years earlier. Perhaps more tellingly, Israel has overcome much of its reluctance to target civilian locations that shield terrorists. They will no longer allow their concern for human life to be abused by such tactics. And the trend here is more, not less, likely to continue in that direction. The cease-fire agreement, whatever you may think of it, will have the effect of making the Lebanese government responsible for actions committed from within its territory. This will make Israel less likely to hold back in any future confrontations.

So congratulations, Hassan. Your brilliant exploitation of western fear, guilt and doubt has earned you a historic victory, and you have gained unprecedented favor among the Arab “street”. But I hope you’re prepared for what comes next. Your greatest asset has always been a disillusioned West, and I fear that you may have just thrown it away. The tactics you chose to rally your side of the "street" may have been just enough to awaken the Israeli side to the true nature of the existential threat that it faces.

Good luck with that.

Depp, Burton to Make "Sweeney Todd" Film

Actor Johnny Depp and writer-director Tim Burton will combine their eccentric talents on a film version of the Steven Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd scheduled to reach theaters next year.

According to the Reuters report:

In "Sweeney Todd," to be released in late 2007, Depp will play the murderous barber of the same name who seeks his own brand of razor-slashing revenge against a judge who wrongfully imprisoned him. . . .

The legend of serial-killer Sweeney Todd is rooted in British lore, and has given rise to numerous earlier plays and films, including a 1936 film called "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," and a 1998 TV movie, "The Tale of Sweeney Todd," starring Sir Ben Kingsley.

The new movie, which will be co-produced by DreamWorks and Warner Bros., will be adapted from the modern musical thriller "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," with songs originally composed by Sondheim. That version became a Broadway hit in 1979 and won 8 Tony awards.

Depp and Burton have worked together on several films that have been very successful with audiences and have received critical acclaim as well. Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, and The Corpse Bride stand out as very interesting and entertaining films.

Sleepy Hollow DVD cover

Sweeney Todd was revived onstage in England two years ago and on Broadway last year, where the production won a Tony award. It has not yet been announced whether the musical numbers will be included in the film, but I would guess that they would.

Given the consistent themes of Burton's and Depp's past work together, one suspects that the two see Sweeney Todd as the story of another strange and disturbed but goodhearted underdog caught in violent and disorienting circumstances outside his control which make him act out in ways other people just don't understand. Whether a serial killer can be seen as fitting that description well is a matter to be resolved when we see the film.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Help! The Kiwanis Club Just Hijacked My Airliner!

Our newish and welcomed commenter Francis W. Porretto quoth essays from his excellent blog, Eternity Road, here and here as to the nature of Islam and particularly Islamicism. (Those quoted in turn include at least one actual Muslim.)


Mr. Porretto illustrates why Islam, conceptually and historically, is a rare---indeed unique--- bird. It is both a religion and a politics---a comprehensive divine plan for mankind, according to its adherents. Just ask them. We appreciate the contributions of our other commenters, but one cannot discuss Islam and its relation to the current crisis without actually learning of Islam, and so we must. It is not the Kiwanis Club. We, the children of Rousseau (and the materialist Marx, let's face it), have been under the impression that one size fits all.

As human truth, that may be true at its most basic, and we hope it is, that human nature is universal and not, say, racial and particular. But as Aristotle points out (and even Rousseau would admit), acculturation and habit help create the human being, too. There has been a concentrated effort in the Muslim world over the last 50 years, both Sunni (the Saudis' evangelization of Wahhabism) and Sh'ia (the Iranian Revolution), to inculcate the worldview that I attempted to describe in my original essay below, if we can remember back that far.

(I'm fascinated by the etymology of the word "inculcate"---to put your foot on someone's throat. I believe it's accurate and probative in this case.)

It cannot be merely the luck of the draw that there were no Hindus arrested recently with a grand plot to bring down 10 airliners---Pakistani and Indian alike suffered identical indignities at the hands of the British raj. And the history of the United States is full of visiting like indignities on Central and South America, yet still they don't conspire to mass murder to any observable degree. Even Hugo Chávez just wants to tweak our noses (and perhaps we have it coming), not kill our wives and children.

The challenge of the present age is not a question of politics or economics---the answer must lie elsewhere. We must begin to look for it.

Buying Off the Bear

"It is a general rule of human nature that people despise those who treat them well, and look up to those who make no concessions."---Thucydides, c. 400 BCE

And that's the problem, as it has been since BCE: not history, not politics, but human nature. We of the touchy-feely West wish Thucydides were wrong. If only reason and good will could solve this. If only we could drop some Marshall Plan and a trillion or two on the Middle East and buy our way out of all this.

Even if the animosity between Middle East and the West is political, it is nearly 1400 years old, far beyond George W. Bush's or our own poor power to add or detract. And neither is Islam as a politics an easily reducible geographical problem, as it was when Charles Martel halted the advance of the Umayyad Caliphate into France in 732, or when the siege of Vienna by the Suleiman the Magnificent's Turks was finally lifted in 1529. (Yes, Islam as a politics got pretty damn far, and oh yeah, they came back on Vienna in 1683.)

Because in the semi-borderless flow of people to and fro in the 21st century, we cannot give political Islam want it wants. Which is everything.

The problem is no longer western imperialism, but that when Arab countries, the Arab street if you will, express themselves democratically, the results are enough to scare the bejesus out of any westerner, because they vote for Islamic authoritarianism and, frankly, war with the non-Muslim world.

This was the miscalculation of not just Bush and the neocons, but the West as a whole. We are largely materialists: we want peace, freedom, and prosperity.

But that apparently isn't what the "Arab street" wants, whether that street is in Karachi or London, and so, absent following Thucydides, we are left with trying to placate the implacable.

Our failure is in understanding the Muslim mind---peace and prosperity can only come with the "freedom" that is Islam, which means, literally, not "peace," but "submission." A fascinating philosophical dialogue between the West and Islam indicates that although the West has largely embraced Rousseau's rather rosy view of man and shunned Thomas Hobbes' view of human nature as craven and operating purely out of self-interest, Islam, even on the philosophical level, has not:

...the origin of the world “politics” gives us good insight into this difference. In Arabic the word siassa means “to care, to control.” On the other hand, for Anglo-Saxons, the word “politics” finds it origin in the Greek word polis (city), and means “to run a city.”

In the Muslim view, man, without guidance from the transcendent (that would be Allah, through the Qur'an, the only perfect rendering of the Divine Mind in human history), is no more than an animal, and that animal must be controlled. Shar'ia, the literal Law of God, is the only way it can be done. The best way to "lead us not into temptation" is to remove all temptation. Hence, the burka.

And so, per Thucydides, those who would compromise, who would treat those who transgress against God's Law well, surely do not possess Divine Truth. Only those who do not and cannot compromise with other men possess it. "Tolerance," which has been elevated to the highest of all virtues in the modern West, is the tool of the seducer, not of the righteous.

Whether or not we agree with Hobbes' view of man, it makes no difference---Muslims do. And to them, it is the Qur'an, and only the Qur'an, that makes man anything more than a mere beast. Tolerance, or "improving man's estate," the materialistic and self-declared goal of the western Enlightenment, has as much meaning to Islam as offering a quickie or a new washer-dryer to the bear that's about to eat you.

Film Critics Under Fire

An article in today's Los Angeles Times observes that the reputation of the American film critic appears to be at an all-time low:

The new trailer for Paramount's upcoming numskull comedy "Jackass: Number Two" is full of quotes from reviews of the first movie. There's just one tiny twist: The studio uses the vitriolic reviews attacking the first film ("A disgusting, repulsive, grotesque spectacle" says an aghast Richard Roeper) to promote the new picture.

With a sly, leering note of triumph, the narrator intones: "Unfortunately for them, we just made 'Number Two.' "

All in all, it's been a rotten tomato of a summer for America's embattled film critics. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" broke box-office records left and right, despite a yowling chorus of negative reviews. M. Night Shyamalan cast Bob Balaban as a persnickety film critic in "Lady in the Water," then gleefully killed him off, allowing a snarling jackal-like creature to do the dirty deed. . . .

It's no secret that critics have lost influence in recent years. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 3% said reviews were the most important factor in their movie-going decision making. Older audiences still look to critics for guidance, especially with the smaller, more ambitious studio specialty films. But during the summer months, with studios wooing audiences with $40 million worth of marketing propaganda, critics appear especially overwhelmed, if not irrelevant.

Groening cartoon: How to Be a Film Critic

The article goes on to suggest a number of reasons for this disdain for film critics, ultimately opting for the one thing that explains everything these days, the Internet:

The media have been full of stories questioning the relevance of print critics in an Internet era that has ushered in a new democratization of opinion. The prospect of babbling blogmeisters being the new kingpins of cinema has left many critics in a sour mood. Reviewing a collection of critical essays by the long-time Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins, Time film critic Richard Schickel contrasted Giddins' work with "history-free and sensibility-deprived" bloggers who regularly "blurb the latest Hollywood effulgence." . . .

According to New Line marketing chief Russell Schwartz, "younger moviegoers want the immediacy of text messages or voice mail. A review from one of their peers is more important than a printed review from a third party they don't know, which is how they would describe a critic."

When in doubt, blame technology. Certainly the changes in information delivery have altered the way we approach things, and even how we see them. In particular, the breakdown of media hierarchies—the declining influence of the top-circulation newspapers and three TV networks—has flattened the playing field and made it possible for a pajama-clad blogger to reach as many people as a large media organization, or more. That observation has already become a boring truism. However, the phenomenon surely has had an effect of "democratization," but it is interesting and important to note how the process works: it simply reduces a sense of authority and forces writers to earn their readers' attention with everything they write:

What we're seeing is not so much the death of criticism as the death of the culture of criticism, the culture in which a critic such as Pauline Kael — despite writing for a small circulation magazine like the New Yorker — could have a huge trickledown influence, not just with the chattering class, but with filmmakers and executives who hung on her every word, either in agony or ecstasy, depending on the verdict.

What today's film critics have to deal with that Pauline Kael didn't have to worry about is truly serious competition. Kael could pontificate her nonsense from her safe haven at the New Yorker, and her obedient claque of followers at newspapers and magazines around the country would duly parrot her views, and nobody could gainsay them because, as has been wisely said, freedom of the press is for those who own one.

Kael won her following through networking and bluster and because her worldview fit the tenor of the times perfectly. Her militant leftism, atheism, intellectual elitism, advocacy of hedonism, obsession with novelty and hatred of tradition and formulas, belief in the primacy of emotion over reason in the arts, and the rest of her odious, fatuous opinions were cultural Red Bull for postwar American pseudointellectuals. I'll write more about Kael some other time, but for now the important thing to bear in mind is that Kael was influential regardless of whether her reviews made any sense. (They didn't.) Kael's goal was nothing less than to contribute to social change by undermining what she saw as outmoded, irrational, bourgeois values.

The influence of Pauline Kael has been huge, and the smugness and elitism she brought to the world of film criticism have only begun to be eroded, largely by critics from the political right. Naturally, Kael's influential followers and their descendants are livid about it, as exemplified by the furious salvoes against Debbie Schlussel fired off earlier this year by Roger Ebert's web editor on Ebert's website.

Ebert vs. Schlussel

The absurdity of Ebert's assistant characterizing Schlussel and Ann Coulter as "pundits" is absolutely astounding. Ebert has made millions of dollars as a TV film pundit, giving his opinions on why he likes or dislikes this film or that, but let an attractive, right-wing female venture into the sacred territory of film criticism and we find that having thoughts about what movies actually mean is a contemptible thing.

That is the real problem with film critics today: Their complacency and lack of contact with either their audiences or their ostensible subject matter. When critics attacked Dead Man's Chest (which I thought was a terrific film), they didn't just disagree with the audiences. They were wrong. There is plenty of meaning in Dead Man's Chest, and the fact that the criticisms focused on superficial matters (such as the amount of money it cost to make or whether the film brought anything "new" to the series) shows a positively grotesque and unacceptable ignorance of the basic principles of the aesthetics of narrative art. Audiences clearly understood that Dead Man's Chest was well worth watching, even if most people could not have articulated the film's themes or deeper meanings. But they understood intuitively that the film was meaningful, for without meaning there is no comedy nor adventure.

A reasonably intelligent critic will recognize that narratives are all about testing and revealing the character of imagined human beings, and the sensible critic will approach a film or novel from that perspective, seeking out what it tells us about ourselves and how the aesthetics of the form are being used to achieve these things. In so speaking to us, films, dramas, books, and other narrative art cause us to identify with their characters, sympathize with them, puzzle out their motives, and critique their actions. Most major film critics today, however, still follow the Kael formula, seeking to foster social change by pushing their readers to films that will "challenge" them, meaning movies that will undermine the principles of the bourgeoisie. That is why critics push filmgoers away from movies like Dead Man's Chest and toward Brokeback Mountain. It's all about changing the world by changing people's minds.

Although often doing so in the guise of being neutral but highly informed consumer guides, film critics of today typically use their positions as platforms for criticizing the values and ideas their audiences hold dear.

That is why the public can't stand them.

From Karnick on Culture.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Thomas Kinkade Moves In

The Thomas Kinkade company reports that a new development in Columbia, Missouri, will feature homes modeled on the popular artists' paintings:

Thomas Kinkade- inspired homes will be featured in a new master-planned community in Columbia, MO, announced HST Group, LLC, the Northwest-based real estate development firm in charge of the project. About 100 luxury homes will feature architectural designs inspired by the artwork of Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light(TM)" and world-renowned artist.

"The homes will be reminiscent of Thomas Kinkade's charming cottages that are found in many of his works," stated Rann Haight, Director of Architectural Design for HST Group. "We will also be concentrating our efforts on creating a village atmosphere and neighborhood streetscapes such as those found in Thomas Kinkade's painting, Lamplight Lane."

The 85-acre community, named "The Gates at Old Hawthorne," will be the second in the country to feature the Thomas Kinkade - Masterpiece Homes brand of design. The finished homes are anticipated to be valued between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Construction is targeted to begin in the fall of 2006 with the first home complete in July 2007. HST Group will design, build, and sell the homes in The Gates at Old Hawthorne.

Those are some expensive houses. This is the second Kinkade development. The first broke ground recently in Idaho, and the houses there are even more expensive.

HST Group has seen a tremendous amount of interest with its first community featuring the Thomas Kinkade - Masterpiece Homes brand. "The Gates of Coeur d'Alene" in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, broke ground in June 2006, and will feature five custom homes with designs replicating the look of manors and cottages found in Thomas Kinkade paintings. The luxury homes, which overlook Lake Coeur d'Alene, will be 5,800- to 11,000-square feet with values starting at $4 million.

What a "tremendous amount of interest" in five houses translates to is anyone's guess, but evidently Kinkade's plan to take over the world is beginning to work. Certainly what he and his paintings stand for is nice and pleasant:

"The Thomas Kinkade brand stands for the values associated with home and hearth, peace, joy, faith, family and friends. Partnering with HST in the creation of homes inspired by the artwork of Thomas Kinkade delivers on what collectors tell us inspire them most about Thom's work -- that they wish they could step into the world created in the painting. The Thomas Kinkade Company is pleased to align itself with such a visionary home builder," said Dan Byrne, CEO of The Thomas Kinkade Company.

But the paintings are so exaggerated in their presentation, they tend to make their subject matter seem a bit silly and weird. Kinkade makes Norman Rockwell look like a psycho by comparison. Still, people certainly like Kinkade's paintings, so his intense evocations of simplicity and striving for transcendence obviously serve some powerful need in modern-day Americans. Kinkade is important not so much for his actual aesthetics as for the values he sells.

From Karnick on Culture.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hold 'Em Or Fold 'Em

Well, now, I've poked my head above ground briefly, and I see that the jackbooted thugs, aka the federal government, have arrested some Brit in a U.S. airport during a layover between the UK and somewhere south of the equator. It seems that this poor soul is, or was, the CEO of some online gambling site, and gambling is a terrible thing, unless conducted by the government itself or one of its interest-group allies, and the existential threat from the Islamic fascists is too trivial to merit a shift of resources by the federal nannies, and, boy, am I happy to see my tax dollars at work.

But something's missing. Can't quite put my finger on it. I bet, in a manner of speaking of course, that it'll come to me. Wait! I see it! Something I've never seen before! It's the ineffable Bill Bennett, moral conscience of a great nation, with his mouth... closed! Not a word about federalism. Not a word about the rights of adults to use their own resources in a manner that they see fit. Or, alternatively, not a word about locking the gambling scoundrels up to teach them a lesson. Not a word about, in a word, anything. Oh, wait, I remember: It was Bennett who was happy to see untold thousands put in the hoosegow for their vices (green grass, so to speak) while he made excuses for his own (the green felt tables). Come on, Bill, speak up. Enlighten us with your wisdom. Save us from evil. Prevent us from becoming the Great Satan.

What a coward and hypocrite.

Ramsay's TV Nightmares

TPromo shot of Gordon Ramsayhe two-hour, season-ending episode of the Fox TV program Hell's Kitchen airs tomorrow night beginning at 8 EDT. It's a reality program in which a dozen contestants vie to become the head chef of a multimillion dollar Las Vegas restaurant that is in the process of being built in a new resort.

The program stars English celebrity chef enfant terrible Gordon Ramsay, and the gimmick is that Ramsay verbally abuses the contestants as they try to cook dinners in his Los Angeles restaurant named Hell's Kitchen. Nearly all the contestants are grotesquely unsuitable for any work at all, and, frustrated by their ineptness, Ramsay spews profanities and calls his charges stupid donkeys and says that they should be working in a garbage dump and other such choice criticisms. Ramsay is loud, angry, obnoxious, and most important of all, he's right. These people are incredibly complacent, sloppy, lazy, ill-mannered, ignorant, self-indulgent, and blithely unaware of the most basic standards of achievement and decorum.

It's rather compelling television, for what Ramsay is asking these people to do is simply to work hard, learn, and accomplish what they set out to do. Their failure to do so is often quite mindboggling—if you were competing to win the job of managing a multimillion dollar restaurant, you'd think you would try to learn a little bit about how restaurants operate and venture to do exactly as the head chef tells you, right? Not these people....

Ramsay is clearly not from any sort of privileged background himself, and therefore there is no excuse for any of the contestants not to work hard to do exactly what he has done and rise above their origins.

Ramsay has appeared on several programs on British television in recent years, and the difference between his British programs and the American one is quite revealing. In the English programs, including Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, several episodes of which are running on BBC America this afternoon and in the coming weeks (schedule here), Ramsay visits poorly run restaurants and advises their owners on how to make them work. Typically that includes simplifying the menu, getting the staff to work together as a team (which often involves snapping the head chef out of an utterly demoralized condition), matching the style of food to the location and restaurant's history and decor, using food ingredients economically, and generally looking at ways of making the place run profitably.

The show, it should be clear from this description, focuses on teamwork, a characteristically English concern, and on improving entrepreneurship, an area in which Britain is not nearly so strong as the United States. Hell's Kitchen, by contrast, concentrates on development of personal character and skills. This, too, makes sense. Entrepreneurship is certainly a strength of American society, but our education system is very poor, and concerns about personal character have been at the forefront of the national discussion in recent years. The snotty, overly self-confident, or lazy contestants are eliminated quickly, and the ones who remain are those who have a bit of talent for the job and who begin at least vaguely to recognize that Ramsay's standards of quality are unlike anything they have ever experienced or, in some cases, even imagined. To be the best, Hell's Kitchen makes clear, you have to try to be the best. Coasting won't get it done.

There is a further lesson here. The contestants in Hell's Kitchen are learning to serve other people. As Ramsay continually points out, they have to concentrate on their work and nothing else while on the job, and they have to leave their egos outside the kitchen and serve. The only way to succeed in Hell's Kitchen is to recognize that you're not good enough yet and that your job is as a servant to others. Ego is not an option.

Fox's Hell's Kitchen is a variation on an earlier, British program of the same name starring Ramsay, and the difference is interesting. In the British version, Ramsay had two weeks to train celebrities into becoming Michelin-star chefs. It's something of a lark, of course, and the fact that his students are already celebrities means that the emphasis is on learning a new and unfamiliar skill set, not on developing the personal character necessary for worldly success. In the American version, the emphasis is strongly on the contestants' unsuitability for high-level work and on the amount of improvement they will have to make both in skills and, more importantly, in how they approach the job and life in general, before they can hope to make anything of themselves.

The entertainment attraction of Hell's Kitchen is in awaiting the next disaster and Ramsay's explosively frustrated reaction to it, but there is much more to this reality program, and much to learn about what it takes to make it in this world. As Hell's Kitchen shows every week, success is no accident, and those who want to get ahead have to pay their way like anybody else. The real success in Hell's Kitchen as in life in general, is for those who learn to serve others.

From Karnick on Culture.