Media Diet

If the surfeit of commercial real estate suddenly available throughout Sonoma is any indicator, I’d say the economic downturn has arrived in the valley. Clearly, I’m not an economist (if I hadn’t married an MBA, my accounts would drain the world’s supply of red ink), but the effect is like looking at a beautiful face whose smile is missing teeth. The shuttering of local businesses doesn’t seem to have stopped on the street. Pseudo-locales like post office boxes seem similarly effected. When I last went to retrieve my mail, I found the amount of vacant boxes staggering. How did I know they were vacant without committing a federal offense? Each was tagged with an invitation that read: “This Post Office box is available,” below boldly-printed propositions like “value,” “convenience,” “privacy” and “security.” If I didn’t know better, I would think the postmaster general was trying to sell me a condo.

To bolster my personal cash reserves, I’ve decided to tighten my belt and go on a “media diet.” Ironic, perhaps, coming from a media maker, but not unlike dining in when one’s a chef. What to cut: Giving up cable television is like the vegetarianism of media consumption. You miss it until the thought of it becomes repulsive (moreover, the product of Hollywood is like sausage – it’s better not knowing how it’s made). Other trims: Since the Wall Street Journal says little more than “your industry is tanking” when I peruse its otherwise informative Media & Marketing section, I canceled it. Ditto the New York Times, with which I once luxuriated, Sundays in bed, with a cup of shade-grown, fair-trade, French-pressed coffee. In recent weeks the Times has been nothing more than three pounds of pulpy guilt wrapped in blue plastic. I don’t have time for the Times, what with all the hustle I’ve got going in anticipation of the sprout. Likewise, I’ve nixed Netflix, which has used my checking account as an ATM every new moon. If I need a flick, I can support the local economy and rent from Movie Merchants – so there. Presently, I read the news online and stay tuned to NPR. I’d support the local affiliate (as I have in years past) if it would stop repeating “Prairie Home Companion” so goddamn often. Though I have the utmost respect for Garrison Keillor, et al, I one can only gorge on so much American pie before the bloat sets in.

So, how does one get the thrills and chills the human spirit seems to crave, Mr. Howell? Glad you asked, brilliant and sexy reader. I, for one, have seen a play – my first in years: Fred Curchack’s “Milarepa,” billed as a “fantastical tale of magic, murder and redemption,” admirably deployed at the Cinnabar Theater. I learned more about the human condition in 84 minutes of stage time than I could in a year of commercial television (and I’ve got no quarrel with commercial TV – back in L.A., it used to be, if not my “meal ticket,” at least a hearty “food stamp”).
I’ve become a voracious reader, albeit only of marketing and branding books, but I’m reading nonetheless. And when the words don’t twist themselves into anagrams, I can generally make sense of them. What makes the most sense, however, is requesting one’s desired tome online from the Sonoma Valley branch of the Sonoma County Library, which will alert you via email when your book or DVD is available and awaiting you. If there’s a tome one must simply have here and now, visit a local bookstore (there are more than you think) and pluck it from the shelf.
File the above activities under “use or lose it.” Sonoma is more than a pretty face, gappy smile notwithstanding.

Cheech and Chong

Before Harold and Kumar?s parents smoked their first joint, mainstream consciousness had been permanently altered by stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong. Reunited after a quarter-century hiatus from their partnership huffing and puffing and bringing down the house in their live act, comedy albums and films, the alliteratively-named sketch act is back on the road and receiving national nods such as a New York Times profile (loaded with multimedia extras).

I?ve had the pleasure of interviewing both Cheech and Chong, whose cinematic oeuvre I inhaled as a preteen, up late watching HBO. The chat with Cheech Marin coincided with the release of Pixar?s Cars and the interview with Tommy Chong was printed in FineLife Sonoma Magazine in July of 2008.

Glad to know they’re still smokin?.

Then Video Killed the Movie Star

A big chill passed through the Sundance Film Festival and it didn?t come from the Park City ski slopes. According to Boston Globe scribe Ty Burr, who covered the annual ?indie? festival cum market conference, the entertainment industry remains verklempt over distribution issues in the age of digital downloads, shrinking marketing budgets and an audience whose mantra might well be ?It?s my way or the superhighway,” which is likely one and the same.

Writes Burr:

Everyone agrees that the standard models of indie theatrical distribution and exhibition are broken; everyone at Sundance and in the industry is grappling with how best to replace them.

Some are even sure they have answers. Consultant and panelist Peter Broderick touted a brave new world of “hybrid distribution,” controlled directly by the filmmaker that combines website direct sales, video on demand, Internet and TV deals, cellphone distribution – and, yes, a theatrical release when and if necessary. Much of this is already in place, Broderick pointed out, and, in some cases, has proven successful. What look like microprofits to a studio can be extremely macro to an independent director.

The most unsettling thought, though – the real game-changer – is that the movie theater audience may have gone away for good. Said panelist Mark Gill, head of the independent production company the Film Department, “My son doesn’t care what format [a movie] comes in. He cares how fast he can get it and if it can come to where he is.”

That may be the hardest lesson to take in at the close of Sundance 2009: That everything learned in the past quarter-century means absolutely nothing going forward.

Indeed, such thoughts betoken a coming renaissance for independent filmmakers, who have long possessed the means of production (thanks to technologies such as the one you?re using to read this) but have often been stymied when seeking traditional theatrical distribution. Moreover, as studios continue to slash their ?indie? divisions, indie acquisitions will flat-line. Fortunately, the revolution can be downloaded. It bears repeating: ?You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.?

Apple 1984 Mac Ad Turns 25

January 24, 2009 marks the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Macintosh personal computer ? a brilliant, world-changing phenomenon in its own right, but January 22 might be equally important.

Before author John Hodgeman became a beloved anti-PC pitchman, before Apple encouraged us to ?Think different,? if ungrammatically, there was Super Bowl XVIII and a 60-second commercial break in the third quarter that instituted a cultural narrative that continues to inform the world of personal computing, advertising, cinema and consumers? perception of themselves.

Apple’s epochal ?Big Brother? commercial endures as one of the most memorable (and discussed) television commercials ever broadcast. The spot earned estimable kudos for Apple marketing man Floyd Kvamme, director Ridley Scott and writers Steve Hayden and Lee Clow of ad firm Chiat/Day, including an eventual nod from Advertising Age, which declared the spot ?Commercial of the Decade.?

You recall that the spot featured athlete-turned-actress Anya Major as the busty, golden-haired Olympian who outpaces riot gear-clad thought-police and liberates a docile citizenry from the specter of an unnamed authoritarian (journeyman actor David Graham, a veteran of Doctor Who among other gigs). This is accomplished, of course, with the fortuitous introduction of a sledge hammer to a big-screen TV (more of this should happen). The commercial ends with the spoken coda ?On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ?1984.?? Indeed, the spot?s afterglow of vague wonder was more Kubrickian circa 2001 than Orwellian ? but you, you know, without the maniacal AI and dead astronauts.

In Electric Dreams: Computers in American Culture, Georgia State University communications professor Ted Friedman points out

?1984? was never broadcast again after the Super Bowl, adding to its mystique. Unintentionally, Chiat/Day had invented the phenomenon known as ?event marketing,? in which a high-visibility commercial garners mountains of extra free publicity. ?1984? also inaugurated the phenomenon of showcasing commercials on the Super Bowl. And, most importantly for Apple, the ad brought consumers into the stores??

Interesting that Apple now has its own stores ? but more to the point, its flagship product continues to empower individuals who use Macs to create everything from movies to music, as well as much in between and beyond. Not to mention the occasional fawning blog.

Smile, You’re on Ultrasound

Among other professional considerations, newspaper columnists and criminals also share the mugshot. I’ve had my share. The first came after a thwarted attempt at grand theft auto at age 15, another at 19 for boozing on a college campus, followed by yet another after my failure to appear in court and finally, when I went legit, the moon-faced photo that floated above my byline in the Petaluma Argus-Courier in my early 20s. Given my proclivity for changing my appearance (nearly perfected in the four years between arrests, but only nearly), I’m presently on my third mugshot (see above) at the Sonoma Valley Sun. Some may call this vanity, but I call it accuracy, though I’ll compromise and call it “accuracy in vain,” or just “accurately vain,” if you prefer.

Another photographic phenomenon associated with this gig is the staged “photo op,” proffered by publicists and mutually loathed by both subject and shooter. The abbreviation of “photograph opportunity” was apparently coined in the early ‘70s, when an aide to Nixon’s press secretary thought it was a pithy way to usher photogs into the Oval Office for their daily dose of saccharine. Of course, history later revealed such moments gave new meaning to “camera obscura,” but until then, the administration was all smiles.

The first person ever captured on film was apparently not ready for his close-up – or even knew it had occurred. In 1839, photography pioneer Louis Daguerre focused his camera on a Parisian street scene. A gentleman ambled into the frame and stopped for a shoeshine, where he stood still long enough to have his figure captured by the 10-minute exposure. One-hundred-seventy years and a googolplex of photographs later, the voyeuristic imaging of others continues to evolve, including bastard forms like the stolen moments of paparazzi and the pixilated perceptions of surveillance cameras. In this light, the title of once-popular reality show forerunner,“Candid Camera,” is something of a misnomer – the camera wasn’t candid at all, it was the people, flummoxed and humiliated, who revealed the human spirit and beguiled with their candor. When Allen Funt revealed his ruses with “Smile, you’re on ‘Candid Camera,’” the rubes would invariably smile – in relief, surely, but also from the Pavlovian tug at the lips inculcated from a lifetime of saying “cheese” or “Hi, Mom!” in the presence of a lens.

There are very few candid photographs of me. My dad spent the better part of my youth as an amateur photographer, consequently, I developed a kind of sonar for whenever the shutterbug bit. From about the age of five onward, I can be seen striking a pose in most photos. By 11, I’m an intolerable ham and by 14, I’m a dramatic, sullen wastrel. A decade later and all of this posing and posturing was channeled into my first, official “mug.” Of course, I approached the procedure as if all my prior vanities were suddenly reframed as rehearsal for the moment at hand – a moment that would last less than a second, but was imbued with a sense of the eternal. I didn’t smile. I should start, lest the coming generations think I’m a punk.

I have great love for these future voyeurs, who someday will peep into our past. Somehow, we’re already gazing back. I had this sense last week, when my wife and I peeped into the future with the aid of an ultrasound. There, somewhere within the herky-jerky shadows flickering like a Lumiere, was an image not of us, but of someone quite like us, sparkling like a prism and a mirror all at once. Through this keyhole, this phantom aperture, like a proud pair of peeping toms, we spied the squirming sprout that will be our child. Baby’s first mugshot.