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It’s a safe bet that on any given day in Hollywood, the studios are awash in litigation. No major business can function without frequenting the court system now and again. Sure, we always hear about the stars that find themselves knee deep in no good, a tabloid mandated trip into rehab preventing the swift hammer of justice from marking them with that professionally inconvenient criminal record. Heck, Harvey Levin wouldn’t have a lifestyle without them (in either of his so called careers). No, the rarity is the blazing of big guns, company vs. company, usually complaining about money, who made it, and how it was managed. Since most of Hollywood is run by bean counters, business school graduates, and their JD partners in pilfering, actual lawsuits tend to be few and far between.

But within the last month, Tinsel Town has been rocked by three rather high profile civil hissy fits - which, again, isn’t all that unusual. The intricacy of any international commerce basically demands it. But in all three cases, the issue under contention seems like one the parties should have worked out long before a visit to the clerk of the court. It’s hard to imagine that these people get paid what they do and yet fail to cross such “T"s and dot such dollar intensive “I"s. Of course, no one can predict every facet of a major deal. Sometimes, unseen aftershocks can result from such seismic financial matters. But in the case of The Watchmen, Tommy Lee Jones, and Disturbia proceedings, bad things do occasionally happen to powerbrokers. 

Looking at the most recent pleading first, it was only a matter of time before the Shia LeBouf hit was called out for the Rear Window rip it appears to be. After all, substitute Jimmy Stewart for the aforementioned rising young star, Raymond Burr for David Morse, and a proto-Pinkberry suburb for a metropolitan apartment building courtyard, and you’ve seen either effort. So when the Sheldon Abend Revocable Trust, owner of the rights to the 1942 short story “Murder From A Fixed Viewpoint” by Cornell Woolrich tagged Dreamworks, Viacom, Paramount, NBC, Universal, producer Stephen Spielberg, and anyone else with blockbuster-imbued deep pockets, it was less of a matter of “WHAT?” and more of “what took you so long?”

There’s no denying the similarities between the properties. While Disturbia could never be taken for Hitchcock’s classic suspense thriller, that’s really not the issue. Mining the same subject matter or source is SOP for the studios. No, what the lawyers for the late Abend contend is that Universal (specifically) has a long established pattern of ignoring their ownership of the property. Hitchcock and company did gain the proper permissions, but the planned DVD release from a few years back was delayed when the Trust had to, once again, thrust themselves into the process to protect their rights. While it may seem like nitpicking, the difference is very clear. Those representing Abend aren’t angry that Disturbia resembles “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint” - they are pissed that no one told them that the work would again become the basis of a new film.

Of course, this is why the case winds up in court. Someone suggests that a film follows the pattern of a source they own. Another says it was an original effort. Disturbia‘s reliance on the plot contrivances of “Murder” make for a strong case of copycatting. But is it fair to fault someone for merely being inspired by another work. Movies have long “borrowed” content, from directorial homages to outright steals. But the case the Trust will have to make is that Disturbia is SO similar to Murder that it might as well be the same thing. Without the story available to base an opinion on, one has to imagine that the big wigs will take this matter all the way to the bar - unless, of course, a few mill will make it all go away.

That seems to be the case with Tommy Lee Jones, who recently filed suit against the producer of No Country for Old Men for breach of contract and close to $10 million dollars in allegedly owed back end money. According to published reports, the Oscar winner took legal action when his claim for his agreed upon bonus was negated by those in power. They argued that a renegotiation and a misunderstanding over document language prevents the payment. Seems somewhere in the morass of legalese and micromanaged mumbo jumbo that comes with hiring and firing talent, the studio suggests Jones waived his right to said cash. Of course, if the original contract and the new one under contention are both signed, sealed, and delivered, the plaintiffs are going to have to prove fraud. Stop laughing - it’s not necessarily a given in La-La land.

It’s obvious that both of these cases hinged on box office success and the availability of certain amounts of money. No one would be suing the Disturbia gang if it had made Bangkok Dangerous dollars over its theatrical run. But when it comes to the most highly contested lawsuit to hit the wires, we are dealing with potential, not pat results. For decades, fans have been wondering if Alan Moore’s award winning graphic novel, Watchmen, would ever make it to the silver screen. Crammed with a clever combination of social satire, old school comics characterization, and the British author’s cutthroat commentary, it long stood as the Holy Grail of potential cinematic skyrockets. Over the years, several filmmakers have famously failed to realize their goal of giving this project life. As recently as two years ago, it looked like it would never get the greenlight.

Then Zack Snyder went and turned Frank Miller’s Spartan spectacle 300 into one of the most buzzed about films of the last five years, and in combination with his success circa the Dawn of the Dead remake, he had enough commercial carte blanche to make whatever movie he wanted. Watchmen was it. As geek nation looked on with suspicion and overbearing scrutiny, Snyder went about his business. Last month, he unveiled a trailer and some clips at Comic-Con to much fanfare, and uber-nerd Kevin Smith even got a sneak peek of the entire project. His verdict - it more than lives up to the source material. Along with his love of the new JJ Abrams Star Trek take, the Clerks commander has already confirmed that Watchmen is great.

Naturally, Warner Brothers was ecstatic. Having coughed up the cash to make this risky title, they were happy to hear that early talk was so outwardly positive. Then Fox stepped in and spoiled their giddy good time. Suggesting that they had first right to any Watchmen work, they marched out a supposed standing agreement with producer Larry Gordon, arguing that for the last 17 years, they owned the ability to make the movie. While it would be nice to claim that Fox was merely coat tailing the Comic-Con success, the studio actually filed their lawsuit seven months ago. It simply took until this amount of time for the judge to rule on a Motion to Dismiss by Warners (he denied it). 

Still, the case raises interesting questions about timing, talent, and how both are mismanaged and manipulated by individuals desperate to keep their careers intact. If Fox is right, and Gordon agreed to make his Watchmen with them involved, then Warners wasted a whole lot of cash on a movie that will garner them very little. In the end, they will have taken the risk while another reaps part or all of the rewards. On the other hand, if Fox is flawed in its understanding, if they really don’t have the rock solid stance reports suggest, then they are clearly blackmailing Warners for being themselves too weak kneed to make their own version. While it’s always about money (and Watchmen appears poised to make oodles), this could be a clear case of what lawyers like to call “legal nuisance”. Both sides might be willing to work out a financial settlement to make it all go away.

But again, it seems strange that a finished film with almost seven months to go before hitting theaters (Watchmen bows in March 2009) would be worth such a snit. Imagine what will happen if Smith is wrong, and Snyder delivers a bomb instead of a box office hit. Will Fox be foaming then? Similarly, had No Country for Old Men been a typical Coen Brothers effort - critically lauded but commercially inert - would Jones be jockeying for his so-called cut? At least the Disturbia case turns on something more solid than cash - though financial payback is the only means of addressing a violated copyright. If anything, all three cases show that Hollywood occasionally trips over its own ambitions in pursuit of payment. Apparently, cash is the only cure for the ‘Sue Me, Sue You’ blues. 

A lesson learned from kids that know how to rock to Andrew Bird.

The rush of kids toward the stage was fantastic!

It came near the end of Andrew Bird’s Chicago show. And as I watched the youngsters sprint from all areas of the venue and down the aisles toward the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, I was reacquainted with a sense of innocence that I’ve either been missing, avoiding or choosing to forget about when enjoying a live show.

Those kids did what is often harder to do as you get older, which is not suppress that freely unashamed and spontaneous expression of joy when something is so exciting and you’re being yanked by your heart and mind to move outside of the normal mold of what’s “okay” to do in public, especially at a concert where there are more seats than open standing space near the stage. 

And for some reason I don’t fully understand yet, we push this spontaneous urge down, bottle it up and sometimes even thrown it away as we get older, deeming it immature or unacceptable.

But it was so fun to watch those kids run down the aisles and jump around up like miniature pogo sticks to Bird’s operatically rocking “Fake Palindromes”. 

I saw a few older folks shaking a leg, and yes, after the second chorus came around the whole crowd was on its feet, but it was those kids that started all the blissful ruckus.

So who were these kids? 

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing they were probably related to the fundraiser for the night as a block of tickets for a Meet and Greet were being auctioned off benefitting local non-profit Rock for Kids.

I’ll end with this.

Bird has written in his New York Times blog that “writing songs and performing live have with time become almost the same process for me. The improvisation and conversation with the audience from show to show keep the songs fluid and alive. On the other hand, making a record is like a show that gets drawn out over a year or more, but with no cathartic resolution.”

Well, the show was definitely alive and fluid and I think those kids (and the adults, too) let loose enough cathartic resolution and had a wonderful time communicating with tracks from Bird’s Armchair Apocrapha (2007) or Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) and some new tracks, to make recording a live album seem a lot less drawn out and arduous than a normal studio version.

We couldn’t get the camera out fast enough to capture the kids, but Colleen did shoot what built up the urge and caused the kids to bum-rush the stage.

A few ideas derived from the Ewen’s Channels of Desire, a look at the history of using images to stoke consumerism.

1. The core thesis: “The mass media and the industries of fashion and design, through the production and distribution of imagery, have reconciled widespread vernacular demands for a better life with the general priorities of corporate capitalism.” In other words, consumerism becomes the solution to the political threats that might have otherwise arisen from inequality; consumerism deals primarily with images, the goods end up being somewhat secondary to what they are purported to represent—i.e. the good life.

2. Images can be disseminated widely and cheaply, and technology assures that they are never scarce. Access to such images comes to stand in for actual lived experience of the life represented in the images. Digitization of culture allows more of the world to function as images; in fact, “image” in the Ewens’ usage may be reinterpreted to mean “digital culture,” which has become as cheap and ubiquitous as images were in earlier decades. We can all possess the symbolic representations of things that prompt satisfying fantasies of the good life, of a richer self with a greater range of reference points through which to express itself. Tallying and cataloguing the images/digital cultural goods we possess becomes a shorthand way of conducting our life. We gather ersatz experiences, and then we struggle to defend these experiences as authentic. The consequence of this may be that we see the presentation of self as image as the essence of life—life is a project in which we attempt to perfect our user profile.

3. The book hints at the role of consumerism in healing the wounds of hegemonic rationality—the disenchantment of the world by scientism and industrialism and the cash nexus. The gist is that capitalism tends to make money the measure of all things, eroding the sentimental value of things and traditions. But consumerism works to reenchant the social realm in a manner suitable to capitalism—reviving magical thinking in a commercial context. (The recent series of posts at 3 Quarks Daily about philosopher Akeel Bilgrami’s “Occidentalism, the Very Idea: An Essay on the Enlightenment and Enchantment” explores the fate of enchantment in Western culture at great length.) To reduce the argument to a platitude, shopping functions as secular religion. What we end up with after our shopping pilgrimages are just souvenirs of our spiritual quest, with little inherent usefulness in and of themselves. Of course, these goods have objective, practical functions, but those functions—usually a matter of helping us get on with everyday life, or enabling us to have some type of experience through their use—are being degraded or occluded by the spiritual, identity-fashioning aim. So the depth and breadth of our everyday life and lived experience is suppressed in the very acquisition of the goods meant to facilitate it.

4. The Ewens cite soapmaker Benjamin Babbitt as an innovator in the creation of branding. Babbitt figured out that you sell the soap wrapper, and the soap itself is ultimately incidental. “Babbitt—and other innovators like him—wrought massive changes in the daily life of Americans. Taking a staple of home production and turning it into an attractive marketable commodity, he established a basic principle of American marketing—masking the ordinary in a dazzle of magic.” This tends to be the thrust of the Ewens’ critique throughout, which seems to unduly champion the drudgery of home production and the dignity of what’s “ordinary.” They acknowledge that Americans may have embraced brands to escape ordinariness, to spend less time making things at home that bear little stamp of individual creativity. Consumerism thrived on the promise of beauty and ease—the “substance of style.” The trouble is that the pendulum swung too far, or worse, the pendulum metaphor doesn’t apply, and we have shifted permanently into a world where passive consumption and perpetual self-branding through goods are the default life experiences for most Westerners.

5. A few 1890s-era quotes from Simon Patton, whom the Ewens describe as an “apostle of industrial consumerism,” captures the logic behind why consumerism is basically an addiction to images, not things in themselves:

So cheap are many kinds of pictures that they are largely distributed as means of advertisement. Everywhere the homes of the poorest people are full of beautiful objects, many of which have no cost; and when their taste is improved by contact with these objects, others more suited to the new condition can be obtained at a slight increase in cost.

Consumerism hinges on this question: Is it possible to enjoy the implications of the images without their being activated by acquiring the objects advertised? One of the promises of the internet is to keep our supply of images teeming without our being subjected to the slight increases in cost. If the functions of objects are made irrelevant by the enhanced accessibility and functionality of images, will we be able to do away with material possessions altogether? That probably makes no sense, but I’m thinking of how I no longer have a physical music collection; chances are I won’t have a book collection once they are digitized and portable electronic-book readers become more prevalent. At that point, the space I inhabit will have about 90% less objects in it. Will there be a counter-trend that emerges to preserve our physical habitat? Will my apartment come to resemble a museum of self even more, when the objects seem to have even less practical necessity? If I got rid of things I don’t really use (but only fantasize about being the sort of person who uses), how much would be left?

The other Patton quote: “The standard of life is determined not so much by what a man has to enjoy, as by the rapidity with which he tires of the pleasure. To have a high standard means to enjoy a pleasure intensely and to tire of it quickly.” An odd definition of standard of living, in that it’s based on opportunities to shop rather than the usefulness of what is owned. If you can consume something faster, it’s better, because then you can move on to the next thing. Something that must be understood slowly is less “intense”, and bogs consumers down. This sets up the justification of convenience as a virtue—convenience increases consumption throughput, which allows for more shopping, which is where the real pleasure lies. But isn’t increasing consumption throughput a defensive measure—a desperate and futile attempt to keep up with new things that is then reconceived as pleasurable? Increased throughput only serves the positive interests of manufacturers. The quote also speaks to the consumerist ideology of novelty as a virtue in its own right, and the pressure that places us under to refuse to return to familiar things. The assertion that novel pleasures are “more intense” seems purely ideological. It seems just as valid to argue that familiar pleasures are deeper because our past experience with them enriches the possibilities in them. Novelty and boredom are the key concepts of consumerism; any effort to beat back consumerism must invalidate boredom and repudiate novelty for its own sake. The arbitrary fashion cycle would have to be a fundamental target. We follow the fashion cycle to keep up with what people around us seem to know; we don’t want to fall behind and into irrelevance. But what pleasure is to be had in the cycle itself? It just imputes boredom to a populace and then offers its arbitrary variations as the cure. But people aren’t bored; they are worried boring others by being conversant in what’s happening now.

by PopMatters Staff

9 Sep 2008

Tanya Tagaq
Fire - Ikuma [MP3]
     

Elbow
The Bones of You [Video]

Travis
J. Smith [Video]

Langhorne Slim
Restless [MP3] [Video]
     

Brightblack Morning Light
Oppressions Each [MP3] (from Motion to Rejoin releasing 23 September)
     

Grayson Capps
Back to the Country [MP3]
     

Mr. Lif
Presidential Report Vol. 2 [MP3]
     

Passion Pit
Sleepyhead [MP3]
     

After recently hearing for the first time the manic Beatles song “It Won’t Be Long”, I realized that I needed to absorb their entire catalogue and write about it. So this is my attempt at it, beginning with the start of Please Please Me and ending at the conclusion of Let It Be. Wish me luck.

+ + +

It’s only appropriate that the opening song of the Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me starts with an iconic moment. Paul McCartney’s lively count-in (“one, two, three, fahhh”) puts “I Saw Her Standing There” energetically into motion, and what follows are two-plus minutes of joyous pop electricity. Several of the touchstones of early-period Beatles are at work: jaunty riffs, unison vocals, high-pitched “woohs”, and, most delightfully, hand claps (all of which reappear with frenzied effect on the album closer, the untouchable “Twist and Shout”). 

The songcraft is economized and straightforward, if not a bit underdeveloped. Paul’s bass line (which evidently came from a Chuck Berry song) tugs and struts along, and blends with John’s rhythm guitar rather seamlessly. Ringo offers a simple-sounding percussive shuffle while George’s guitar work, especially his erratic solo, reveals a burgeoning talent that still isn’t sure how to creatively occupy all its designated space. Combined, it’s the sound of a spirited young band that wants to tweak and refine the templates of rock ‘n’ roll into something distinctly its own.

Lyrically, Paul projects an innocence that isn’t surprising of early ‘60s pop. This was a period when, in song anyway, a mere exchange of glances could spawn love. As Paul sings, “Well she looked at me/ And I, I could see/ That before too long/ I’d fall in love with her”. How carefree and seemingly puritan. He even vows that this squeeze will be his one and only. Yet examine those lines once more. If you’re swooning over someone after only looking at him or her, the draw is purely physical. And I must confess that my instinctive response to the song’s introductory lines “Well she was just 17 / You know what I mean” is “No, Paul, I’m not quite sure what you mean”. It’s uncertain how cryptic and suggestive he’s aiming to be. So perhaps Paul was smuggling touches of sexuality into what seems like a sweet, if hasty, courtship. It’s also possible that the lines simply work as efficient pop couplets and are not intentionally fraught with matters between-the-sheets.

So the subtle intrigue of the lyric is amusing. But the rousing rock ‘n’ roll sounds are clearly the magnetic attraction of “I Saw Her Standing There”.

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