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Monday, Feb 11, 2008

If we are to believe the whispered scuttlebutt (since confirmed by major media outlets), the four month old strike by the Writers Guild of America against motion picture producers and studios is about to be settled. No major fanfare. No glorious announcements of victory or statements of solidarity. As public interest waned (actually, it peaked about two days after the walkout was announced) and individual sweetheart deals were brokered, the erosion of purpose finally signaled a surrender. It was never a question of who blinked first. Instead, it became a battle of wits between two entities undeniably bereft of same. The corporate conglomerates wanted to sit on their never-ending pile of profits. The writers wanted to up their residual ante, if only a skoosh. In the end, it looks like both sides got what they wanted - sort of. Since there is more than enough money to go around, who cares about a few percentage points, right?

There were some indirect repercussions, however, reflections and indicators that exposed the transparency of motives on both sides. All deadlocks between management and underlings usually revolve around dollar signs - either in amounts paid out or paid toward other benefits. Squabbles over working conditions and the like are usually reserved for the manufacturing sector, or overly ambitious novels by historically hewed authors. Only sports figures finagle over agency, allegiance, and aftercare. The WGA demands - and the recent Director’s Guild deal and upcoming Screen Actors action - were all about revenue streams: where they are, how much there could be, and the potential payout once the ephemeral wildcatting had begun. Yet after all the accounting, after audits and attributions are made, there are some leftover lessons to be learned. While not inclusive of everything the Writer’s strike showed us, they may be the most lasting impacts.

Nobody Cares About the Golden Globes Anymore
When the completely out of touch Grammys usurp you as a primary, palpitating concern amongst overprivileged superstars, it’s perhaps time to hang up your self-congratulatory backslapping once and for all. The fake front Hollywood Foreign Press Association saw the WGA give them the picket line kibosh, and the resulting press conference crudeness proved how totally irrelevant the award now is. With neither Best Picture winner geared toward an Oscar duplication (Sweeney Todd wasn’t even NOMINATED by the Academy, mind you), it was the pointlessness of the entire concept that caught everyone’s eye. Without the fancy dress dinner and star powered ambience, without the awkward banter between presenters and equally uncomfortable speeches, without its typical place as the premiere indicator of future trophy triumphs, the Globes looked decidedly low rent. No wonder the other shows cancelled or caved at the bargaining table. The last thing these other Emperors need is another example of their underwhelming and irrefutable nakedness. 

The Art of Negotiation is in Fact Fingerpainting
Back in the days when management hired plank carrying goons to break the spirit (and the heads) of striking workers, backdoor deals in the dead of night were how compromise was accomplished. But in the months since the writers took up the placard, most of the wheeling and dealing has been done in very open, very inappropriate forums. From newspaper columnists with “exclusive” rights and insight into the process to YouTube videos and other viral elements meant to explain positions, very little actual talking took place. Anyone who wonders why the strike lasted so long can view this peculiar parley’s scattered approach and realize this ain’t no Pirates of the Caribbean. Captain Jack Sparrow and his buccaneer brood aren’t arriving anytime soon to smile and wink their way through the bargaining. Serious negotiations call for serious attitudes and approaches. Apparently, the new business model is to whine and walk away. Then you can do both in public, over and over again.

The Digital Age = The Death of Unions?
Harlan Ellison used to warn that, once a writer started undervaluing his or her efforts, there was no stopping the exploitation of the work by publishers and producers. This has been the cornerstone of the WGA’s position - the new online entertainment domain, with its multiple permutations for delivering content, has the potential to rob the creative element of their rightful ownership, copyright, and residuals. But there’s a catch many don’t realize, a blowback that offers little comfort - the medium they are marching over is inundated with unpaid “professionals”. From bloggers to recently ‘retired’ print critics, the Internet survives on, and for the most part thrives on, the use of genuine ‘free’-lancers. So how do highly paid scribes, already sitting on ever-fattening paychecks for their initial efforts, convince a compromised audience that their point is valid? In essence, they don’t. As long as their coffers are covered, few outside the fold care. It’s like the ritzy Lexus owner pulling into Wal-Mart. They’re happy to support the cheap and easy access to what they need. But they’ll be damned if they’ll take up the cause of the underpaid employee delivering it.

TV Will Still Love It Some Reality
Even as many “popular” shows close shop, waiting for the day they can bring back their double digit script squads and pay them outrageous fees to come up with feeble sitcom fodder, couch potatoes are proving that they prefer the tangy taint of non-fiction foolishness. Shows like The Moment of Truth and Bad Girls Club have been far more buzz worthy in recent weeks, while the return of a surefire stalwart like Lost felt like an anticlimactic afterthought. When push comes to weekly drama shove, audiences will turn over to see whores (both male and female) acting inappropriate time and time again. This month alone offers another Survivor, more American Idol, a pre-summer return of Big Brother, another Flavor of Love (a show now intentionally mocking itself), more balding Brett Michaels, and enough variations of all the above to keep your typical TV addicted Nielsen family in faux reality hog heaven for the next few weeks. By then, the writers will be back doing what they do best - not that anyone will notice.

Film Writing Will Still Suck
Let’s face it - none of this is about quality. Writers are not worried about delivering coherent characterization or inventive narrative concepts to your next Cineplex jaunt. Instead, we’re back to square one in the aesthetic battle - money - and the last time anyone checked, the size of the payout had very little to do with the quality of the script. Studios don’t buy screenplays based on how wonderful they are artistically. Nor are they purchasing product they feel will appeal to a limited segment of the often marginalized movie-going population. Filmmaking is a gamble, and only high rollers get the massive box office returns. So studios love to hurl large quantities of cash at the most mediocre of ideas (or worse, journeymen who’ve managed to luck into a leftfield hit or soft market moneymaker) and nothing the WGA is doing will change that. Instead, this is just about that cold hard cash coming out of your wallets - which by the way is the only say we have in this upper crust pissing match.

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Monday, Feb 11, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Son Lux
Break [MP3] (from At War with Walls and Mazes releasing 28 February)

Son Lux - Break

Cheb i Sabbah
Qalanderi [MP3]

Buy at iTunes Music Store

Puerto Rican Jukebox [MP3] (from 14kt God releasing 22 February)

Basia Bulat
In the Night [MP3]

Skeleton Man [MP3]

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Monday, Feb 11, 2008

I found these charts, courtesy of economist Aaron Schiff, interesting. They chart the growth in traffic at the social networking duopoly:



Schiff’s conclusion: “Social network traffic grows exponentially for about two years, and then follows a random walk.” For me, that confirms my sense that social-network users are perpetually migrating to new sites that they feel are more exclusive, and then when the ordinary folks catch on they move elsewhere. It’s sort of a small-scale model of Veblen’s theory of emulative consumer behavior. And it also points to the fact that advertisers shouldn’t get their hopes up about the potential locked-in quarry of users that the social networks promise, as this BusinessWeek article details.

Social networking was supposed to be the Next Big Thing on the Internet. MySpace, Facebook, and other sites have been attracting millions of new users, building sprawling sites that companies are banking on to trigger an online advertising boom. Trouble is, the boom isn’t booming anymore. Like Heritage, many people are spending less time on social networking sites or signing off altogether.
The MySpace generation may be getting annoyed with ads and a bit bored with profile pages. The average amount of time each user spends on social networking sites has fallen by 14% over the last four months, according to market researcher ComScore. MySpace, the largest social network, has slipped from a peak of 72 million users in October to 68.9 million in December, ComScore says.

The article searches for evidence of its thesis that suers are mainly turned off by the ads, collecting mainly some anecdotal evidence in the form of quotes from random users. It’s not hard to imagine, though, that people don’t want their friendships sponsored by corporations. It seems entirely possible that people will be able to build ad hoc social-network like tools for keeping in touch with friends that aren’t under the auspices of big corporate brand. At that point, Facebook and MySpace will more clearly be seen as the beefed-up versions of that they really are, useful as places to search for people you once knew on a whim. But for other functions, they will seem like the second-coming of AOL, weirdly gated versions of the internet at large. Eventually even the late adopters and the technophobes will be comfortable enough to cut out such middlemen, when they see the value added isn’t worth wasting time and effort with evading the ads.

Update: This article from Spiked Online details the privacy issues with Facebook, all the more reason to eschew it for direct internet access. Facebook really is digital sharecropping:

read the terms and conditions for sign-up. These clearly state that Facebook owns all the data users add to the site: ‘By posting Member Content to any part of the website, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license to use, copy, perform, display, reformat, translate, excerpt and distribute such information and content and to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such information and content, and to grant and authorise sublicenses of the foregoing…’

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Monday, Feb 11, 2008

Zadie Smith is the headline grabber of the day, with her comments on the Willesden Herald web forum slamming literary prizes. Smith is quoted in the Times:

Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature. They are really about brand consolidation for beer companies, phone companies, coffee companies and even frozen food companies.

Her clear dismissal of the Whitbread, Orange, Costa, and Booker prizes comes following her inability to select a winner of the Willesden Herald short story competition. According to Smith, of the 850 entries, not a single one enticed her enough to give away the 5,000 pound prize.

Further comments on the forum suggest entrants pandering to Smith. The Times quotes her again:

To be very clear: just because this prize has the words Willesden and Zadie hovering over it, it does not mean that I or the other judges want to read hundreds of jolly stories about multicultural life on the streets of north London.

The post concludes (not quoted in The Times):

Nor are we exclusively interested in cutesy American comedies, or self-referential post-modern vignettes, or college satires.

Of course, not everyone appreciates this sort of to-the-point honesty. Ion Trewin, organizer of the Booker Prize, criticizes Smith for lambasting literary awards while accepting their financial benefits (Smith is a former winner of both the Whitbread and the Orange Prize). Author Joanna Trollope says Smith is utterly incorrect in her evaluations, noting that such prizes often dig better books out of potential obscurity, which makes it all worth it.

Good points, both. But Smith has a point, too. I can’t help but appreciate her honesty. Responders to her post are shocked and appalled that not even a shortlist could be culled from the Willesden entrants, and Smith has been chided that she’s simply incapable of being impressed. Read her comments a little more closely and what starts out as a bit of a catty backslap to the entire literary community becomes an impassioned plea for wannabe writers to immerse themselves a little more in research. To read better in order to write better. More from the Willesden post:

For let us be honest again: it is sometimes too easy, and too tempting, to blame everything that we hate in contemporary writing on the bookstores, on the corporate publishers, on incompetent editors and corrupt PR departments—and God knows, they all have their part to play. But we also have our part to play. We also have to work out how to write better and read better. We have to really scour this Internet to find the writing we love, and then we have to be able to recognize its quality. We cannot love something solely because it has been ignored. It must also be worthy of our attention… We got into this with a commitment to honour the best that’s out there, and we feel sure there is better out there somewhere.

We must do better. I don’t think this is a bad thing to say. I don’t think it’s particularly rude. If the entries weren’t up to scratch, try again. It shocks me that we all talk about finding truth in literature, in the moments, in the thoughts, and sensations, but when, in “real life”, someone decided to speak their personal “real life” truth, all hell breaks loose.

I only hope her frustration pays off, and those who submitted to her competition do try again, and do get better, rather than turning away in some kind of hoity disgust. We writers are sensitive folks, you know.


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Monday, Feb 11, 2008

OK, maybe I was a little harsh before but let’s face it- even most music fans reluctantly watch the Grammys.  If you’re a pop music junkie, you need to see it or maybe you need to root for your favorite artist but otherwise, you probably have better things to do with a few hours of your life.

Looking back, last year’s broadcast was actually pretty good (not great though).  But this year?  The Foo Fighters were good though that orchestra part and the American Idol rip-off were tacked on pretty clumsily.  Amy Wino deserved the kudos (even if the State Dept won’t have her) and she actually delivered a good performance which means that she should stop saying no, no, no to rehab. Aretha sounded in good voice though it seemed like they were trying to shove as many gospel acts on stage as they could after a while.  Other than Kanye (the tribute to his mom was moving and you gotta love the Daft Punk pyramid), Fogerty/Little Richard (though not poor Jerry Lee) and Tina/Beyonce (who tipped their hat to Ike whether they like it or not), the other performances were pretty snoozy.  It was nice to see Prince and Stevie up there but it would have been even better to have them perform instead of just presenting. 

The real news was Herbie Hancock upsetting not just Wino but also Kanye (can’t wait to hear his rants) and snagging the big prize- he looked genuinely surprised (as I’m sure most people were).  It’s a nice album and Herbie’s always been a great musician (for proof, check out not just Headhunters material but also his 70’s sessions with Miles and his early album Maiden Voyage, not to mention his early/mid 80’s hip-hop phase with “Rockit”- quite a varied career).  This particular album, his tribute to Joni Mitchell with guest shots by Nora Jones, Tina Turner, Leonard Cohen and JM herself, seemed OK to me when I first heard it but not extraordinary- basically, it’s good lounge jazz record aimed at the adult contemporary market.  Listening to it again, I still think the same way but I don’t see how it adds a lot to any of the original material.  Yet because it serves the AC market so well, it probably snagged enough votes from the Grammy constituency’s older crowd to beat Kanye and Wino, both of whom made better albums.  Which is not to take anything away from Herbie- I think it’s great that he nabbed a big award and certainly deserves the recognition (not to mention the inevitable sales boost he’ll get).  It makes me wonder about the academy voters though and when a younger (and MAYBE hipper) demographic will dominate there and be reflected in the voting choices.

Otherwise, it was actually a little more boring than I feared and longer than I thought but at least, it’ll be another 12 months before it comes back…

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