Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Books of My Life: Down and Dirty Pictures

Given that I had earlier read Peter Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls it was inevitable, I suppose, that I would read his sequel or follow up to that muckraking book, Down and Dirty Pictures Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004), at some point.  Down and Dirty Pictures is, as Biskind states (p. 1), a sequel to Easy Riders Raging Bulls because the independent cinema of the auteur as independent artist, was, to some extent, one of the legacies of the movie brat auteur oriented cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s, the cinema Biskind explored in Easy Riders.

Down and Dirty Pictures tells the tale of the rise, success, and decline of the American independent cinema of the 1990s and early 2000s. At the heart of the book, as the subtitle to the book makes clear,  is Miramax, the Sundance Institute with its filmmaker labs and film festival, and a host of other initially independent film "studios" of the era. In Down and Dirty Pictures Biskind argues that Mirimax, in particular, which began as a buying or acquisition house and distributor of independent films, transformed movie making in the US in the 1990s. Mirimax, Biskind contends, led the way in transforming film distribution in the American cinema of the 1990s, arranged the shotgun marriage of independents and big corporate studios, created the infrastructure of the American independent film industry, and brought American independent films, as a result, to a broader audience including those audiences who went to see films at America's cookie cutter mall based film chains.

Where Mirimax led, others--think Max Weber and isomorphism--like October and New Line, followed. By the mid and late 1990s once independent institutions like Mirimax, had become part of the studio system. Disney, for instance, bought Mirmax in 1993. October was purchased by Universal in 1997. New Line became part of Turner in 1994, became part of Warner Brothers when Turner and Warner's merged in 1996, and was merged with Warner Pictures in 2008.

Success, as it often is, was, as Biskind makes clear, a double edged sword for American independent film industry. Mirimax now part of a larger studio, was able to bid more for the rights to distribute independent films and increasingly moved into the film production business and began to produce films, just like the studios, created around Hollywood stars with their big salaries, all of which drove up the cost of "independent" film acquisition and film production in the process. By the 2000s independent cinema, particularly mid-budgeted "independent" cinema, was on life support, the now studio owned independents were increasingly struggling, and it became increasingly clear that these studio owned "independents" were of limited interest to the studios who owned them. The studios proved to be more interested in film by the numbers of comic book films, broad comedy films, sequels to both, and nostalgic reboots of 1960s and 1970s TV shows, all of which continue to dominate Hollywood studio big budget equals big profit oriented filmmaking today. As a result low cost independent auteur films were almost back to square one.

Biskind's book doesn't neglect the dark sides of the captains of the American independent film industry. Harvey Weinstein, co-owner and  head of Mirimax with his brother Bob, is shown for the angry, intimidating, back stabbing, film editing (not always wrongly), user of completed films as leverage, bullying and belitting of employees, directors, producers, journalists, virtually everyone and anyone, make money at all costs flim flam man Weinstein was and is as recent events have shown once again. Redford is shown to be inconsistent and indecisive. Jockeying for power with its almost inevitable back stabbing is shown to be at the heart of American film corporate culture just as it is in broader capitalist corporate culture today.

Recommended particularly for those interested in how film making really works. Annoyance: Descriptive passages that read more like a work of fiction than a work of non-fiction.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Books of My Life: Star Trek

I have a vague recollection of watching Star Trek sometime in either 1967 or 1968 on WBAP TV, NBC, Dallas, Texas. It must not have done much for me because, for whatever reason, as I didn't continue to watch it. I really began to watch Star Trek, or as it is not called, Star Trek: The Original Series, in reruns sometime in the 1970s and 1980s. I found it interesting though it never became an obsession of mine. In the 1980s, while I was living in Athens, Ohio, I began watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 thanks to a Parkersburg, West Virginia TV station and came, particularly after the third series, to like it a lot. I watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine pretty religiously after it debuted in 1993. It remains today by far my favourite Star Trek series of all time. By the time Star Trek: Voyager debuted in 1995 and Enterprise hit the airwaves in 2001 I was Star Treked out so I only watched Voyager on rare occasions and never watched Enterprise beyond the first episode. In the intervening years I have watched episodes of both and have come to like both though not as much as I like TNG and DS9. I still, by the way, hate the theme song of Enterprise and hope you do to.

Recently, I read Ina Rae Hark's book on the Star Trek televison franchise (Star Trek, BFI Film Classics, London: BFI, 2008) and quite enjoyed it. Hark, a fan scholar of Trek does an excellent job of putting the Treks in their context: The Cold War for the first series, the end of the Cold War for the second, postmodernism for the third, fourth, and fifth, and liberal humanism for them all. Given these different histories, as Hark points out, each of the Star Trek series have somewhat different themes. TOS, for instance, focused on the Kirk, Spock, McCoy dynamic, emphaised the need for embodied consciousness of both the rational and emotional kind, and focused on a fear of human stagnation. TNG focused on its professional Starfleet officers of both the empirical and intuitive kind who, at least in part, went around the galaxy engaging in diplomacy, conflict resolution, mediation, statecraft, and, here is where some condescension comes in, determined who was ready for Federation membership and who was not. DS9 emphasised relationships, power and its assymetries, religious tensions, military tensions, and the darkness at the heart of the Federation. It is, as Hark notes, not a surprise that DS9 mirrors a world of increasing ethnic and religious tensions. Voyager emphasised that life, this life, was too short not to stop and smell the roses. Enterprise went back to before the beginning and explored the tensions that were present between those peoples who would form the Federation, the big government that works, of the Star Trek universe.

Thematics are not the only thing Hark explores in the Trekverse. Hark does an excellent job of pointing out the different things different writers brought to Trek. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the show, saw intervention and war as sometimes necessary. Gene Coon, who ran TOS for much of the second and third seasons, put a greater emphasis on diplomacy and peaceful coexistence. Brannon Braga, particularly in his years as showrunner of Enterprise, was more a plot than a character kind of guy. Hark does an excellent job of noting the differences between the shows. TOS, TNG, Voyager, and Enterprise went where no earthling had gone before on state of the art military, scientific investigation, and exploration oriented spaceships while DS9, which was more gritter, darker, and less utopian than the other series, took place largely on a immobile space station. DS9 had more arcs and character development than the other series.

As I said, I quite enjoyed Hark's book. I remain, however, more of a Whovian than a Trekkie or Trekker. Recommended.

Friday, August 10, 2018

The Books of My Life: Seinfeld

I didn't watch much television in the early and mid-1990s. I didn't have a telly until 1991 while between 1993 and 1995 I was travelling and hiking my way across the Canadian and American Wests with my then friend Lea Danielsen. As a result I didn't see Seinfeld when it debuted on NBC in 1990 and I didn't watch Seinfeld when it was at its height of popularity as one of the shows that was part of NBC's Thursday night "Must See TV", shows that helped make NBC America's top network for a time, from 1992 to 1998. In fact, I didn't, in fact, watch Seinfeld until it was in reruns in the mid-1990s.

I liked Seinfeld. I still do. I also enjoyed reading Nicholas Mirzoeff's critical study of Seinfeld (Seinfeld, BFI TV Classics series, London: BFI, 2007. Though Mirzoeff's book is not grounded in interviews with the shows creators--Mirzoeff says it makes one less critical of a text, which is a fair cop--and is like so much television, film, and literary criticism today, text centred, Mirzoeff has a lot of interesting things to say about Seinfeld.

Mirzoeff, drawing on Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, Raymond Williams concept of flow, Aristotle's theory of comedy, Sigmund Freud's theory of displacement, Gustav Faubert's realism, Harold Pinter's theatre of the everyday, and the history of Jewish comedy, argues that Seinfeld is visually traditional and verbally innovative, that Seinfeld was meant to make money through advertising revenue for NBC, that Seinfeld is a comedy of manners, a comedy of social rules and social behaviour, a comedy of relationships, a comedy of the absurdiities of everyday life, a comedy of spite, not a romantic comedy like most other American situation comedies, and a comedy heavilly influenced by vaudeville and the Yiddish theatre that is focused around "four adolescent infants" trying to figure out the social rules of everyday life in the era of the Oslo Accords. This "too Jewish" comedy reflects, Mirzoeff asserts, the Jewish movement into the White American mainstream beginning in the 1950s and a late twentieth century concern about masculinity and gender. It depends for its comedy, Mirzoeff maintains, on its audience getting the get, as he calls it, filling in the social and cultural intertextuality or references, in other words.

One of the things I though about as I was reading Mirzoeff's book was television and film theory. As some of you may know television and film theory has been grounded, at least in part, in Freudian theory and Lacan's reworking of Freudian theory, thanks to the common notion in academia that television and films are akin to a dream that can be decoded by the in the know analysand. I have never found Freudian theory and its Lacanian variant particularly compelling and I have never believed that television and film are actually or akin to a dream. I take a more sociological approach to television and cinema. It is obvious that, sociologically speaking, all societies, their culture, their forms of socialisation, of which the media is one, are socially and culturally constructed and all reflect the social and cultural ideologies, the civil religion, or the myths, at the heart of that society and culture. It is obvious to me that these ideologies, this civil religion, and these myths have been fetishised by specific societies and cultures. It is thus not surprising, therefore, that the media, including television, mirrors these societies and cultures and, on occasion, the fractions--class, gender, ethnic--within those societies and cultures. We don't need Freud or Lacan to tell us this. We need Marx and Weber and their heirs to help us understand this.

As I said, I enjoyed Mirzoeff's book and recommend it to intellectuals and scholars interested in American television and American situation comedy. I do have not only theoretical but also historical quibbles with it, Historically speaking it helps to put Seinfeld within the context of earlier "too Jewish" television shows like Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950-1954) and The Dick van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-1966, which was created by an alumni of Your Show of Shows. The Dick van Dyke Show, in particular, had elements of the comedy of relationships, the comedy of manners, the comedy of the absurdities of everyday life, and the workplace comedy in it which it shared with Seinfeld.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Books of My Life: Cracker

I have been watching British television since the 1960s. One of my favourite British TV genres has long been the crime or detective genre, a genre that British TV seems to have perfected over the years. I have long been a fan and have had an intellectual interest, for instance, in ITV's Inspector Morse, ITV's Prime Suspect, ITV's Lewis, and in ITV's Cracker, all of which number among my favourite TV shows of all time.

Cracker, the subject of Mark Duguid's excellent monograph in the BFI TV Classics series Cracker (London: BFI, 2000, whose three series ran on ITV between 1993 and 1995, and which had specials broadcast in 1996 and 2007, starred Robbie Coltrane as Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald, a psychologist who helps the Greater Manchester Police investigate and solve a series of difficult and heinous murders in that city. "Fitz" is not only a gifted psychologist, as Duguid notes, but is also an arrogant, self-centred, and selfish gambling and alcohol addict, who, because of his narcissism and addictions, is not only a genius of Holmesian proportions but who also, as a result, has a sometimes difficult and disastrous relationship with his wife Judith (Barbara Flynn), his two children Mark and Katie, and the other cops he works with.

As Duguid notes Cracker was created by producer Gub Neal and Liverpudlian writer Jimmy McGovern, both of whom were interviewed by Duguid for his book. During its run McGovern wrote six of Cracker's 9 episodes and two specials. Paul Abbot, later the creater of Clocking Off (BBC), State of Play (BBC), Shameless (C4), and Hit and Miss (Sky), who became a producer on Cracker in series two, wrote three episodes of Cracker including the "White Ghost" special.  Cracker, Duguid argues, is centred around the themes of justice and injustice, Catholicism--"Fitz" like McGovern is a lapsed Catholic--moral choices, the impossibility of pure motives, and confession, in both the criminal and Catholic senses. In Cracker, as Duguid notes, ordinary people are often driven by circumstances, by hopelessness, despair, poverty, grief, and resentment, to commit  heinous crimes that reveal the dark recesses of their souls, dark souls that only "Fitz" seems to comprehend and understand.

Cracker proved popular during its run on ITV not only with viewers but with critics. The show rose from almost ten million viewers during its first episode to a high of 15 million in later episodes. Newspaper critics on the left, in the middle, and on the right praised the show when it was first broadcast though its occasional explicit violence, its occasional political incorrectness, its sometime lack of realism, and its emphasis on social issues, including the Hillsborough tragedy as seen through the eyes of a grieving and angry working class Liverpudlian socialist (someone a bit like McGovern himself), were condenmed by some groups, some critics, the police, and the punditocracy at the Daily Mail. Over its initial run Cracker was nominated for 14 BAFTAs winning seven including BAFTAs for best drama and three consecutive best actor BAFTAs for Coltrane.

I highly recommend not only Duguid's book but the television show itself. If you haven't seen it go watch it as soon as you can.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Books of My Life: Star Wars

I first saw George Lucas's film Star Wars in the fall of 1977 in Muncie, Indiana when I was taking classes at Ball State University. By the time I saw it I had seen several Alfred Hitchcock films, several Howard Hawks films, Forbidden Planet, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. To put it bluntly I was not impressed with Star Wars, which seemed like kiddieporn to me. I was never into film or television serials. Nor was I impressed with the cult mania surrounding the film.

Written some thirty years after Star Wars debuted in American cinemas Will Brooker's Star Wars (London: BFI, 2009), argues that Star Wars needs to be taken seriously echoing a point made by Robin Wood about Alfred Hitchcock some forty-four years earlier. In the book Brooker compellingly argues that too many critics have seen Star Wars and Lucas's earlier film American Graffiti (which I did and do like) and Lucas's college and post-college experimental films as too dissimilar and discontinuous. Brooker notes, as have others before him, that Lucas borrowed or referenced several other films in Star Wars including David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, World War II flicks, which Lucas and company used as a guide for the dogfight sequences in Star Wars, Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress, and even Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. Booker notes that Star Wars is much less optomistic when seen from the vantage point of all the sequels and prequels. Brooker compellingly argues that Star Wars reflects in its rebels and its Empire Lucas's split personality of rebel with an undermine traditional Hollywood cause and emperor of the assembly line that became Lucas's film company.

So why did I read a book about a film I really have little aesthetic interest in? I wanted to see what Brooker would make of Star Wars. Brooker's Star Wars was a quick read and his assertion that the two sides of George Lucas is represented in Star Wars itself is an interesting argument. I also agree with Booker that Star Wars, like any significant and influential artifact of popular culture, needs to be explored by historians and social scientists.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Books of My Life: Easy Riders Raging Bulls

"Love is the leech sucking you up/Love is the Vampire drunk on your blood...", Concrete Blonde, "The Beast"

Peter Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs 'n Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (London: Bloomsbury, 1998) is a muckraking exposé of 1970s Hollywood. Based on oral histories Biskind exposes the megalomania, egomaniasm, narcissism, backstabbing, misogyny, and drug abuse of those rebel directors, writers, actors, and producers like Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Towne, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, Leonard Schrader, Paul Scrader, and Steven Spielberg, who vowed to change Hollywood for the better from within and from without in the 1970s.  Ironically, as Biskind makes clear, these rebels did change Hollywood but only for a brief time. In the end these rebels ended up, according to Biskind, helping to revive the old Hollywood of producers and actors and helped to bring into being the new Hollywood, reflective of what was happening economically in America at large, of high level bureaucrats, mid-level bureaucrats, and mega blockbuster movies. They helped bring into being, in other words, a Hollywood that pursued mega profit over art.
There were a number of things that ran through my mind as I read Essy Riders Raging Bulls. I thought that Easy Riders Raging Bulls should undermine the romantically grounded criticism of auteurists and anti-auteurists auteurists alike but that it won't since both approaches are primarilly text centred and, as such, averse to exploring the broader production and cultural contexts that Biskind's book explores and both approaches see the autuers or anti-auteurs they are studying in romantic hagiographic hues. I found Biskind's exploration of the close polemical and apologetic ties between the rebel auteurs and critics like Pauline Kael fascinating since it shows that criticism is largely grounded in a kind of romanticism. It seemed to me that Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 film Tucker can be "read" as a romance about his own artistic failure in a Hollywood of corporate suits who don't care about innovation and what is better for consumers.

Not everyone, by the way, has praised Biskind's Easy Riders Raging Bulls. Some critics have condemned the book for its gossipy muckraking, a cliched and fornulaic criticism of exposés at this point. Others have noted that many of Biskind's oral histories were done with those who might be taking revenge on their subjects for a variety of reasons and thus should be taken with more than a healty grain of skepticism. Other critics have noted that Biskind's book is characterised by errors of fact. Joseph McBride in his New York Times review of the books, for instance, notes that Biskind asserted that ''up to 1975, no picture cost more than $15 million'', In reality, however, the epic film Cleopatra cost $44 million to make in early-1960's while the eight-hour Russian War and Peace (1966-67) cost around $96 million to make. Regardless of these criticisms I still recommend Easy Riders Raging Bulls if only as a means to deromanticise the views of the American movie making business many have.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Books of My Life: Everyday Stalinism

In the wake of World War II the USA and the USSR emerged as the world's only remaining great powers left standing. Though they had helped win the war together they never really trusted one another. The US had a history of anti-leftist and anti-Bolshevik ideology that stretched back to the October Revolution and World War I. The Soviet Union had been invaded by the USA along with others just after World War I and saw the US as the embodiment of late capitalism and capitalist imperialism and saw the US as a threat to the survival of Soviet communism.

In the wake of World War II with tensions between the two great powers on the rise again a culture of anti-communism which saw the USSR as the very embodiment of the communist threat was on the rise again. This anti-communist culture was grounded in manichean antinomies. For many Americans and many elite Americans the USSR was a "totalitarian" land of terror where the powers that be brainwhashed their subjects and kept them in metaphorical and actual chains, the very opposite, of course, of "free" and "democratic" United States.

This manichean tale of good and evil, good "democracies" and capitalists and evil "totalitarians" and "commies" was never, of course, accepted by all of the American population anymore than a predatory US was accepted by all Soviets. Some Americans of the more apologetic as opposed to polemical persuasion, for instance, saw the Soviet Union as an expression and embodiment of a utopia to come. Additionally, in the wake of the countercultural florescence of the mid 1960s and 1970s some American academics began to break with the dominant manichean tale of good and evil that was dominant Sovietology in the US. Sheila Fitzpatrick's Everyday Stalinism, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) is one of the many books that attempts to replace the manichean and polemical passion play approach to the USSR with an empirically grounded one.

Fitzpatrick's book, like reality, is more complex and nuanced than those of either the apologetic or polemical manichean schools. Fitzpatrick lets the facts of urban life in Russia during the 1930s do the talking, facts derived from Soviet archives opened after the fall of communism and the rebirth of Russia. In eight heavilly documented chapters Fitzpatrick explores the omnipresence of the Soviet state, the shortages common during the era, how the Russian urban population dealt with these shortages, the utopian ideology of coming plenty that was at the heart of Soviet culture, the situation of outcasts in urban 1930s Russia, the impact of the power of the state and shortages on Soviet families in urban Russia of the 1930s, the attempt by the Soviet state to make new Soviet men and women in urban Russia in the 1930s, state surveillance and denunciations in urban Russia in the 1930s, and the impact of periodic purges against the privileged of the "old regime", the "bourgeoisie",  "kulaks", and eventually Soviet officials and the Soviet intelligentsia in 1930s urban Russia.

What struck me while reading Fitzpatrick's book was how much Soviet culture, like national cultures in general, see the civil or civic religion of the US, for instance, were and are meaning systems, meaning systems akin to another meaning system, religion. The Soviet state had its sacred mission, it preached the gospels of a radiant future of plenty and Soviet communism as the end of history as humans knew it with a missionary zeal. It had its own symbols and rituals such as the red flag, the Internationale and May Day. It had its sacred scriptures such the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Josef Stalin. It had its sacred catechism, the Short Course of the History of the Communist Party of the USSR. It had its heroes such as its Stakhanovites and the heroes of a variety of socialist realist novels. It had its heretics and demons including "foreign counterrevolutionaries", the "bourgeoisie", "kulaks","wreakers", and "enemies of the people". It even had its millenarianism, the golden age that would bring in the radiant future which would bring Edenic plenty with it.

Very highly recommended. The best book on Stalinism I have read.