Sunday, March 22, 2009

Basic Cable Breakdown

I would review the two movies I saw over the weekend, but instead I feel like I need to write about something that's been bugging me for far too long. I'm not sure where to begin, so I'll just jump right into the quagmire.

Right now, AMC has two Emmy award winning shows: Mad Men and Breaking Bad. TV Land occasionally shows movies. MTV rarely ever shows actual music videos (or music anything) anymore. Cartoon Network has a number of live action shows in rotation. TNT (of "We Know Drama" fame) occasionally runs comedies. TBS (of "Very Funny" fame) occasionally shows action movies. Seeing a pattern here?

I can remember a time when cable networks actually stuck to their central concept. MTV and VH1 ran music videos, or at least shows about music. AMC ran nothing but American Movies (generally the Classics). TV Land played nothing but old TV shows. The Weather Channel only reported the weather.

When exactly did cable networks decide it was ok to program their schedules counter to their own demographic? It seems as though the trend began with the advent of reality television. I've done little research to confirm this, but near as I can guess, this entire trend started when MTV unveiled one of the most poorly named shows on television: The Real World. In theory, the idea is a sound one. Cherry-pick a diverse handful off MTV's most loyal viewers, force them to live together and capture the ensuing drama for all the world to see.

Then something started happening. The show took off, ratings grew, and the network started rolling out similar reality shows. More or less the same thing happened to a number of other networks. Even channels like The Discovery Channel aren't immune to this. As entertaining as shows like Survivorman, Deadliest Catch, and Cash Cab (technically a gameshow, but whatever) are, there's little getting around the fact that these are reality programs repurposed as documentary/infotainment.

Several networks have this problem, some moreso than others. FOX frequently shuffles around it's original programming to make room for sports programming and reality TV shows. It's meant the death knell for many a unique series. But that's an argument I surely don't need to dig back up.

The other culprit in diluting the programming pool is the easy out that is the motion picture. Got a gap in your schedule? Stick in xXx, Blazing Saddles, Groundhog Day, or one of hundreds of films doomed to wander the basic cable wasteland for all eternity. It doesn't seem to matter anymore if a given film has anything to do with the network it's airing on. AMC, a network whose initials once actually stood for American Movie Classics, now airs 21st century garbage like Catwoman, Reign of Fire, and Ocean's Twelve. And if it's not something recent, it's an older film that nobody in their right mind would ever consider a classic. Sure, a decent film slips in every once in a while, but more often than not it's Hellfighters followed by Terminator 3 followed by a marathon of Breaking Bad.

I guess what I'm basically trying to get at here is that in diluting a network's central selling point, many of these channels are starting to run together. Instead of having separate channels for sci-fi, education, or anything even vaguely manly, you might as well just watch Spike. There, you can get your fix of Star Wars, MANswers, pro wrestling, et al. Gone are days of a dedicated network. There's just no such thing anymore as a channel dedicated to airing nothing but old TV shows that actually shows old TV shows.

The closest you can get these days are TCM, VH1-Classic, ESPN-Cl....You know what? Pretty much anything with 'classic' in its name goes without saying. These networks basically work off the notion that you want to watch what you've been watching for years. And I do. Sure, it's fine if the programs themselves change, so long as the format stays the same. If you want consistency in a TV network, you're best bets are ESPN, QVC, The Weather Channel, pretty much any channel without actual original programming. At least then you can be sure that they'll never try to shoehorn in reality TV or tangentially related movies.

You should probably take everything I've just said with a pretty large grain of salt. I don't really watch all that much TV in the first place. Though it's mostly because of the very things I've been talking about here. So....yeah.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Warner Bros. Owns (Some of) You

So last night, thanks to the kind folks at the SXSW film festival and, I watched Josh Koury's documentary We Are Wizards. It's a fun little documentary; not very well structured, but it paints an interesting picture. Most people might watch this and see how a book can change a person's life. And while that's certainly one of the themes running throughout the film, I feel like I came away with something a tad more sinister.

If you want to get technical, yeah, that's pretty much what the movie's about. But look at the individual case studies they present. Graphic artist and uber-funnyman Brad Neely loved the movies so much that he created his own fake book-on-tape version: Wizard People, Dear Reader. A couple of guys in a toolshed created a tribute band, dubbing themselves Harry and the Potters. A pair of kids, inspired by the band, create their own Harry Potter music. Melissa Anelli, proprietor of The Leaky Cauldron, a Potter fansite, takes it upon herself to chronicle the experience of living in the middle of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Other tales are told, but the idea eventually emerges that JK Rowling's series is the primary catalyst in these people's lives, and without it they'd be seemingly lost.

Again, you could argue that the film sort of becomes a thesis on the positive effects of fan culture. Maybe this is just the cynic in me, but I kinda see it as a cautionary tale about how consumer culture has irrevocably implanted itself into people's lives. Not even a cautionary tale. That would imply that it hasn't happened yet. But it has. Without Harry Potter, the unifying catalyst in these people's lives would be gone. This documentary wouldn't even exist. Late in the film, Neely makes the observation that without Wizard People, he'd never have landed a job working for [adult swim]. And of all the people that the film highlights, he comes across as the one person who truly gets how ingrained pop culture is in his life, and everyone else's.

There's no doubting it, the corporations have already won. Chances are, if you're a Harry Potter fan, Warner Bros. already has your money. When the Potter theme park opens, you'll probably go. The same is true for any company. McDonald's, Microsoft, Disney, Viacom, etc. Our ultimate choice, as consumers, is the corporation with which to align ourselves. You can support Warner Bros. by going to see the next Harry Potter movie; you can support Viacom by watching MTV or going to see Transformers 2; you can support Nintendo by buying a Wii instead of an Xbox 360. And so on. And so on. And so on.

I know that sounds pretty grim, but isn't that what's ultimately at the heart of fan culture these days? Without the artist, there'd be no intellectual property. Without the corporation, there'd be no promoting the intellectual property to potential viewers. Without the viewers, there'd be no fan culture. Sure, the fans do have some say in what gets support and what doesn't, but when it comes to the point where the fans are so starved for more that they start bending the property inward and regurgitating it themselves, where does that leave us?

Look, I support fandoms. I've been a Star Wars fan for years upon years. I own my fair share of X-Men action figures. As I type this, I'm wearing a Blue Sun t-shirt. I get it. You become a fan and you wanna show your support. That's awesome. But what I don't get is the gi-normous fan fiction community, the cosplayers, the people who make it their life's work to take their fandom of choice and attempt to make it as palpably real as possible. I just don't understand it. I respect it, but I don't get it.

Why not use that very same motivation to try and create something new? Why not create something that others might one day build a fan community around? That's the thing that gets me about We Are Wizards. The film shows us all these people who've been influenced by Harry Potter to go out and create, and yet the only person who seems able to acquit himself of the books (or in his case the films) is Brad Neely. Melissa Anelli, webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron, comes close as well. However, even though she's branched out and written her own book, that book is still a reflection of the Hary Potter fan community.

I don't know. It feels as though the film addresses this problem, however subtle that address might be, but never ventures to suggest any solutions. Well, it does, but it's in the form of a right-wing Christian naysayer, and it comes off as too obviously antagonistic. Sure, this is just a documentary about one particular fandom, but I never read any of this into films like Trekkies or Ringers or Heart of an Empire or Done the Impossible. I'm not trying to suggest that the problem is exclusive to Harry Potter, because it absolutely isn't. I'm just wondering why nobody's bothered tackling the issue before now.

Ok, I'm going to just shut up now before my fandom license gets revoked.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Possible spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

My initial gut reaction to Watchmen was a strange one. It is a good film, I definitely appreciated how they adapted most of the material. Parts of the film I felt worked fantastically. Other parts, not so much. While it's an easy film to appreciate, it is definitely not an easy one to enjoy. Like the book, the film is a dark, almost mournful thesis on the state and direction of our civilization. Overall, Watchmen is a very difficult film, and one that refuses to be dismissed lightly. And I think that's a good thing. One thing director Zack Snyder certainly cannot be accused of is selling the film's soul to Hollywood. The heart of the film is very much intact and, as anyone who's read the book can tell you, that heart is a heavy, distressed, and disconcerting heart.

The film takes place in an alternate universe where masked vigilantes are a matter of fact. The timeline delineates with the arrival of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a physicist granted immeasurable powers thanks to an experiment that goes haywire. Thanks to Dr. Manhattan, and the presence of other crimefighters, Richard Nixon is still president (in the film's present, 1985), the US won the Vietnam War, and is inching ever closer to nuclear war with Russia. That's the climate in which the film's story takes place.

The plot proper revolves around Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a sociopathic crimefighter investigating the murder of his colleague The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Their team, Watchmen, have long since disbanded and fallen out of practice, but The Comedian's murder, prompts Rorschach, along with his fellow Watchmen -- Nite Owl/Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson), Ozymandias/Adrien Viedt (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter (Malin Ackerman), and Dr. Manhattan -- to solve the case before World War III erupts.

Of course, this is the briefest possible description of what takes place in the film's 163 minutes. The film takes great pains to incorporate as much of the graphic novel's dense material as it possibly can. And just like with Lord of the Rings, many fan favorites had to be left out. Dr. Long, Rorschach's psychiatrist, is present, but his story is not. Bernard and Bernie, newsstand vendor and comic reader are present, but again, their story is not. "Tales of the Black Freighter", the comic Bernie reads in Watchmen, is nowhere to be seen (though, to be fair, it will be released in the coming weeks and reinserted in the film on DVD). There are many other parts of the book that are alluded to, but never given full consideration.

The film works perfectly fine without any of these things, though I might argue that it loses a bit of the flavor that made the book such a rich experience. Then again, Zack Snyder and his team acquit themselves well of creating their own rich experience. Whereas Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used the book as an opportunity to play with the telling of a comic story, Snyder pushed a few filmic boundaries, and brings the story to life in a way that only a film can. The greatest example of this is in the opening credits, a sequence in which we see the entire history of masked vigilantes in a series of moving tableaus, from rise and fall of the Minutemen of 1940 to the formation and eventual collapse of the Watchmen, all set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-changin'". It's a wonderful way of bringing image and song together to create new meaning but, sadly, the film rarely reaches such heights again.

Thematically, the concepts that Moore dealt with in his story are all mostly present and accounted for. The problem is that Snyder only presents them, never following through and exploring them. We get that each of the masked crimefighters have their own demons, that none of them (even Dr. Manhattan) are perfect, but it's left to the viewer to decide what any of it means. Snyder's film feels like a teenager retelling the comic's story but never quite grasping what Alan Moore was trying to say. Is the murderous, yet righteous, Rorschach supposed to be the film's moral center? Are Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan right in their assessment of mankind? Or should we side with Dan and Laurie and just try to concentrate on our own lives? In refusing to take sides, the film comes across as sort of nihilistic, even afraid to commit to one ideology. Then again, the same can be argued of Moore's original story.

The ultimate conundrum is that this is a lot of baggage for what is being marketed as a $100+ million action movie. People going into the film expecting more of the same from "The visionary director of 300 and Dawn of the Dead" are in for a rude awakening. Yes, there is quite a bit of action and gore. Yes, the film has a fantastic aesthetic to it. And yes, it's every bit as successful in its adaptation as Snyder's previous films. But rather than being energetic, Watchmen plays out more like a requiem to a genre that may have seen it's last hurrah.

Ok, ok. I've talked a lot about the big issues surrounding Watchmen. And you've probably guessed that I found a lot to enjoy about the film. So, in a nutshell, what works? Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. The visual effects. Snyder's choice of pop songs for key scenes. The (mostly) slavish faithfulness to the book.

What doesn't work? For one, I can't tell if the aging makeup on Richard Nixon and Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) was meant to be cartoony or not. It's painfully obvious. Like most people, I think the plot falls short in the final 15 minutes. The change made to the film's big twist may be less ridiculous, but that doesn't mean it works any better. It raises its own red flags and illogicalities that are just too big to ignore. Also, the film is long, and occasionally feels it. Even if you've read the book, you may find yourself waiting for the next action beat, because certain scenes just seem to drag.

Overall, Watchmen is a faithful adaptation to what was once considered an unfilmable book. Given the legal struggles, narrative hurdles, and numerous false starts over the years, it's a small miracle that the film even exists in the first place. It is definitely a sight to behold, and an experience that I look forward to having again soon. However, it is not at all uplifting or life affirming. It's a brave film with a morally ambiguous ending, and even though the ending might not be great, the journey to get there is thought-provoking and engaging.

Watchmen is definitely not for everyone. Those with a strong stomach, a keen eye for detail, and a working knowledge of literature (not just comics) will get more out of Watchmen than those just looking for a good superhero yarn.

4 stars (****) out of five.