History Repeats Itself

3d spectaclesIt seems the latest 3-D movie boom is over, and with it the boost to box office receipts that Hollywood was counting on to bolster their income against falling video rentals and DVD sales. The same rejection of 3-D happened the first time the technology was introduced in the 1950s, and again with the brief flowering of 3-D in the 1980s, with audiences getting tired of wearing the glasses (or not being able to wear them if you’re colour blind), and paying extra for tickets for 3-D movies.

In 2011, audiences have started to buy tickets for “flat” (or 2-D) versions of the big movies being released in 3-D. Whether this is because they baulk at the price of tickets (which can be anything up to $20), or because they prefer watching movies with a traditional depth of field is not known. However, the numbers are clear:

Ripples of fear spread across Hollywood last week after “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which cost Walt Disney Studios an estimated $400 million to make and market, did poor 3-D business in North America. While event movies have typically done 60 percent of their business in 3-D, “Stranger Tides” sold just 47 percent in 3-D. “The American consumer is rejecting 3-D,” Richard Greenfield, an analyst at the financial services company BTIG, wrote of the “Stranger Tides” results.

One movie does not make a trend, but the Memorial Day weekend did not give studio chiefs much comfort in the 3-D department. “Kung Fu Panda 2,” a Paramount Pictures release of a DreamWorks Animation film, sold $53.8 million in tickets from Thursday to Sunday, a soft total, and 3-D was 45 percent of the business, according to Paramount.

3-D (or stereo vision) has been around since 1894, so it’s not going to disappear anytime soon. However, as happened in the 1950s and the 1980s, many of the movies currently being shot in 3-D may only ever see a 2-D theatrical release. Will we lose a classic 3-D experience because of this? Hitchcock shot Dial M For Murder in 3-D in 1954, and included some sophisticated and innovative use of the technology, especially in the scenes with Grace Kelly wielding a pair of scissors that bring a whole new level of tension to the narrative. Unfortunately, this came at the end of the 3-D boom, and the move was eventually released as 2-D (although there are occasional screenings held of rare prints of the 3-D version).

Will the studios keep pushing 3-D onto audiences? This time, 3-D TV has a part to play, as those who have invested in 3-D sets will demand content to justify their investment. However, the signs are that 3-D 2010s style is just as much of a short-lived gimmick as its predecessors, until the next Avatar comes round to spark interest in the format once more.

3-D Starts to FIzzle, and Hollywood Frets – New York Times
A history of 3-D cinema – The Guardian

Angels & Whores

AdeleAfter Adele topped the Guardian‘s Music Power 100, her label boss, Richard Russell, attributed her success to the focus on her voice rather than her looks, which, he believes, puts her in stark contrast to other female pop artistes.

“At the level it is at now, it is radical,” he said. “It is clearly about the music and the talent and the things it is meant to be about. I think there has been a certain amount of confusion, and it’s resulting in garbage being sold and marketing with little real value to it. I think Adele is a good thing to be happening.”

That a strong female performer is gaining success without bowing to pressure to conform to a certain body type or being over-sexualised, is “unbelievable”, he said.

“It’s just so boring, crass and unoriginal,” he said, adding that the problem goes “way beyond” the music industry.

While it is good to see diversity, and to think that a talent like Adele’s can find an audience without being dressed up in a sequinned corset, Russell’s remarks reek of old-school patriarchy. He describes watching female popstars on MTV as “faux-porn” and says it made him feel “a bit queasy”. This suggests he is unnerved by the idea that women might feel empowered by and even enjoy raw sex, the kind that has had the ties to love, romance, marriage or reproduction stripped away. The kind of random, no-strings-attached sex that men have been allowed to enjoy (and discuss) for centuries.

Flamboyant sexuality has been part of pop music from the very beginning; lyrics have always contained innuendo and slang references to the sex act (rock ‘n’ roll being just one). From Elvis Presley’s hips to Mick Jagger’s lips, the defining moments of male pop artistry have always been about celebrating sex appeal. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, whether you’re a glam rocker stripping down onstage to reveal a chiselled torso circa 1976 or hip-hopper humping air in a 2011 music video. However, these displays of male sexuality don’t tend to be critiqued as “faux-porn” or make anyone feel sick.

Russell’s righteous indignation suggests that he has missed the point. Pop music is pretty much the only area where a female performer can take control of her sexuality and use it to communicate a message, or spark a discussion. Against a backdrop of abstinence-only sex education, and generally repressive attitudes towards reproductive rights, pop music might offer the only open forum in which to debate the anomalies of the human sexual spectrum. Rihanna’s recent embrace of S&M allowed her to discuss her past experiences of abuse, and explain how playing a specific role in the bedroom allowed her to overcome that. Lady Gaga has used her Little Monsters tour as a platform for discussing the problems faced by LGBT individuals.

By positioning Adele as a Good Girl, one who is more talented and more deserving of acclaim because she diminishes her sexuality, Russell is tarring Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry et al with the Bad Girl brush, making the judgment that because they rock’n’ roll as part of their act, they are of less value as performers. The suggestion is that because Adele conforms to Russell’s idea of propriety (she sings, nicely, and doesn’t do anything that would scare a man or make him throw up), she should be rewarded more than the out-of-control Bad Girls. This is a division old as time, when Lilith (so ancient Jewish legend goes) was cast out of Paradise (and wiped from the orthodox version of the creation myth) for insisting on being on top during sex. It seems the Angel/Whore dialectic, that tired Victorian trope, is being perpetuated in today’s pop music.

Adele Can Change How Music Industry Markets Female Acts – Guardian
Female Sexuality Is Not A Pandora’s Box – Stephanie Vega

More Dead Island

If the fantastic “backwards zombie movie” trailer wasn’t enough for you, take a look at this:

How Does A TV Pilot Get Picked To Go To Series?

It’s pilot pick-ups week! As various bright ideas (A Wonder Woman reboot, anyone?) bite the dust, the WSJ has all the answers about the rather arcane pilot development process used by the US Networks.

The nuts and bolts are simple:

The development process starts with writers making pitches in early summer, submitting first drafts in the fall and revisions at Christmastime. In January, writers hear if the network has ordered up a pilot. If a pilot is picked up in May, there is a mad dash to hire writers, build sets and write additional episodes before a show airs in the fall.

Simple, but expensive, with individual pilot episodes costing millions of dollars to produce. And, if the show is not ordered to go to season, there is no way to re-coup the loss. Even if a show is picked up in May, it can be cancelled by October. Networks have to guarantee a certain number of viewers to advertisers prepared to take a punt on a new show, and if the show doesn’t reach the specified audience, it gets cancelled.

All kinds of things can turn a promising idea into a flop. Casting may not click. A story line that made for a compelling pilot can’t hold an audience’s interest for 22 episodes a season, a fate that befell ABC’s “FlashForward.” Overly acquiescing to focus groups can lead to a bland finished product, producers say. Last season didn’t lead to a single breakout success.

It’s a very hit-and-miss process: throw stuff at the wall (of viewers) and see what sticks. But all facets of the entertainment industry take this approach, according to David Madden, president of Fox TV.

Executives say any artistic pursuit comes with long odds. “Most movies fail, most books fail, and most albums aren’t that good, whether they’re by committee or solo practitioners”.

According to the LA Times, this year will be more competitive than ever, with only 5 of the 22 selected new series expected to run into a second season. TV Dramas have to find their narrative footing – and their audience – with lightning speed if they are to go the distance.

Part of the problem, explain producers, is that digital-age audiences don’t just focus solely on their screens these days. Like traffic cops dealing with distracted drivers who text and blab on the phone while sailing down the freeway, networks executives are facing viewers who are often fiddling with their computers, phones or iPads.

“Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs,” said Laurie Zaks, executive producer of the ABC mystery “Castle.” “If you don’t capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don’t have a chance.”

So for all the writers, directors, actors and crew attached to shows that got rejected, the wait and anxiety is over. For those whose livelihoods depend on their show being a success in schedules in the autumn, the nail-biting is just beginning.

The Math of A Hit TV Show– Wall Street Journal
TV Dramas Are Losing Favor With Busy Viewers – LA Times

Judas

Lady Gaga has released the music video for Judas with her usual fanfare, especially as we build up to the May 23 release of Born This Way. Like Madonna before her (a sentence which seems to apply to many of Gaga’s exploits), she seems to be aiming for the blasphemy dollar, representing Jesus as the leader of a gang of LA bikers, and herself as Mary Magdalene – decked in some fantastic costumes. Like Born This Way, it’s full of luxuriant symbolism (a gun that shoots lipstick!), and rewards repeat viewings.

Gaga has done a lot of careful explaining for this video. To E! she said:

“I don’t view the video as a religious statement. I view it as social statement. I view it as a cultural statement. It’s a metaphor. It’s not meant to be a biblical lesson.”

To MSNBC she said:

“The theme of the video and the way that I wanted to aesthetically portray the story was as a motorcycle Fellini movie where the apostles are revolutionaries in a modern-day Jerusalem… And I play Mary Magdalene leading them into the town where we meet Jesus and I will leave the rest for you to see. But it’s meant more to celebrate faith than it is to challenge it.”

The video and the lyrics are very respectful of Christian mythology, although there is some sly commentary about the importance of Mary Magdalene to the original Christians. From her first purple-clad appearance (purple is traditionally the color of kings and bishops) she’s shown as the center of the group, the one making all the decisions. Then she gets washed away – much as Mary Magdalene was rinsed out of Christian re-constructions of events.

We’re seeing an evolution in Lady Gaga’s star persona here, thanks in part to the fact that she directed this clip herself. The studded leather bikini is now the bottom, instead of the only layer to costumes, and make up, hair and lighting enhance her visage as weeping, yearning, human, rather than the ancient goddess of Born This Way. She’s asking for acceptance, not forgiveness, however (“In the most Biblical sense/I am beyond repentance/Fame hooker, prostitute wench, vomits her mind”). The narrative suggested by both the song and the images is of a woman who wants to do the right thing, but is drawn towards dark thoughts (‘Jesus is my virtue/And Judas is the demon I cling to’) – a basic binary opposition.

While Born This Way was compared to both the images and music of Madonna’s Express Yourself, Gaga seems to have resorted to musical cannibalism (Judas seems eerily derivative of her own Paparazzi). But, inevitably, the video invites comparison with Madonna’s seminal take on Catholic myths, Like A Prayer(which can be found here). Did Gaga have to do a religious-themed video that follows Madonna’s lead? Probably not but – a) she’s riffing on the same preoccupations about love and the way religion allows women to do so that Madonna did and b) the column inches expended on comparisons aren’t doing the advance publicity for the Born This Way album any harm.

Madonna’s music video, directed by horror movie doyenne Mary Lambert, has a much more complex narrative involving racism and an averted lynching. Although the video espouses similar messages of acceptance, it seems much less about self-indulgent angst and more about championing the underdog. While Gaga courts controversy by cavorting in a large gilt crucifix and hot tubbing with Judas and Jesus, nothing she can do matches the shock value of Madonna dancing on a lawn full of burning crosses, small crucifix round her neck, kissing a man many identified as a Jesus figure, and displaying stigmata on her hands. In 1989, these were outrageous things for a female pop singer to represent herself as doing, and it seems that not even Gaga will go that far now.

When it comes down to it, I still prefer this version of Gaga’s song, stripped of all the pomp and posturing. Perhaps she does herself, as she tweeted the link to all her fans?

“Better than nothing”

The New York Times’ chief film critics discuss the recent spate of female-led action movies (Hanna, Suckerpunch, Kick-Ass, Let Me In) and whether or not this marks a cultural shift when it comes to the representation of women on screen. While there’s an uncomfortable patriarchal slant to a lot of these action femmes (Hanna and Hit Girl are both “run” by their fathers, and the women of Suckerpunch live in fear of their pimp/orderly), any female-driven movie has to be embraced as a type of positive. As Dargis says:

Bottom line: It used to be easier to make movies with women. You could put them on a pedestal and either keep them there (as revered wives, virginal girls) or knock them down, as with femmes fatales. If that’s trickier to pull off today, it’s partly because, to quote the great Kim Gordon, “fear of a female planet.”

I don’t see a shoot ’em up like “Hanna” challenging those fears, but at least it has female characters who do more than smile at the superhero or the guys having a swell bromance. It’s better than nothing.

Gosh sweetie, that’s a big gun – New York Times