Friday, July 24, 2009

Eric Goldman's Final Repose

Just recently, I engaged in a bit of auditory experimentation, doing something that I’ve never done before: I listened to Channel Surfing, IGN’s television podcast.

Listening to podcasts, in general, of course, is not a new phenomenon for me; I’ve been doing so for the past three years, since my computer became my best friend during early morning ironing in Japan. And I’m certainly no stranger to IGN, having been a regular at the site since its birth in the distant year of 1997. What constitutes the new experience, then, is listening to Eric Goldman and his fellow editors’ musings on the television world’s happenings.

And what an eye-opener. The episode I downloaded was a special podcast dedicated exclusively to the final installment of Battlestar Galactica, and, hidden amongst the analysis and remembrance of great moments past – par the course for IGN’s editorial content – was a little nugget, an epiphany buried just off the road and waiting to go off on unsuspecting travelers like an IED.

Nothing exists in a vacuum; there is an approach to art that frames every thought and molds each word. All narrative examinations and thematic investigations exist within a context: literary assessment, author’s intent or biography, historical placement, comparative analysis with other like-genre stories. And the context erected for the Channel Surfing podcast was… fanboys.

It’s one thing – and quite valid – to interpret a work of art in terms of its audience, of reader interaction for texts or viewer participation in film; it’s quite another to weigh every story development or couch every evaluation of narrative quality on what certain segments of the audience may or may not appreciate and whether or not it may go over their heads. And yet this is a consistent – and deep – vein running through the TV crew’s discussion from beginning to end, the fundamental mentality that defined their entire approach to Battlestar Galactica’s entire series. When you sit at home and watch a series privately, for pure enjoyment and not as part of your editorial duties at work, and your response to a particular scene is “[t]he first thought in my mind was, ‘Ohhhhh – there’s going to be a lot of bitching about this,’” as Dan Iverson did, you know that there is a problem, and it is a systemic one.

The dialogue, the actors’ performances, the cinematography, the score – all of it was overshadowed by the thought that the scene might be alienating to some viewers. That’s a pretty momentous sentiment and statement both, and it only begins to scratch the surface of the situation at hand. Art is art. Its value may initially be found ontologically, by the very virtue of its existence as a venue of artist(ic) expression, but that is only its genesis; its true significance and quality lies in its composition. The brushstrokes of paint, the performance on the stage, the beauty of its coding, the intersection of plot and character and theme – they are the singular consideration of quality, the sole metric of success. While all else may still be of (some) substance and relevance, there is no ingredient as vital or necessary.

The proof, of course, is in the putting, and there’s no better putting than history. Hamlet is not a masterpiece of literary craftsmanship because of its initial reception by Elizabethan crowds (which, incidentally, was quite warm); 2001: A Space Odyssey is not a superb cinematic achievement thanks to its box office take (which went from abysmal to stupendous). Conversely, the Kill Bill films will not last the test of time, passing from scholar to student to general storytelling vernacular, predicated on the sole basis of its success in the popular culture of the early twenty-first century (in the wake of artistic competence, this is the strongest consideration going for it).

The danger of evaluating art based on wanton external factors is a far more dangerous affair than may initially meet the eye. As this becomes a bigger trend amongst the so-called fan community, the penny pinchers that ultimately control all of the levers in the film industry fall more under its sway, as well. As Hollywood comes to rest on the sole concern of whether or not its wares will appeal to the masses – and the masses as increasingly defined by the disproportionately vocal forum goers and Facebookers and podcast hosts – the studios outdo one another in pandering to the lowest possible common denominator. And as this lowest class becomes more base, an entire society props up around it, finding sustenance on the deluge of nearly identical pop culture and clamoring for more. The circle is then complete and the process starts all over again, an increasingly downward spiral that consumes all in its path. Everyone suffers – most particularly the artists themselves.

And all because of one small, subtle shift in the structure of art. Of all the forms it can take, all of the roles art can play and effects it can produce, entertainment is just one of them – and by no means the most fundamental or the most imperative. When this structure is inverted and entertainment is made king of the hill, with expression relegated to a subservient status, an individual’s relationship dramatically transforms: gone is the mandate for him to work for understanding and insight and to apply himself to the subject matter presented; it now has to mold itself to his standards, to his judgments and his lack of attention span. The world goes topsy-turvy, and now the single most important attribute a multi-year narrative saga has is whether its conclusion will be found pleasing enough to an audience used to constant self-pleasure.

With such an attitude hovering amongst the Channel Surfing podcast like fog over a swamp, barely obstructing some patches but choking others out completely, the inevitable question must inexorably be asked: was it still entertaining? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes, although that is ultimately a subjective query with a subjective answer.

But, more importantly, was it full of quality?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tribute II


Karl Malden was not the most handsome fellow you might run across in Hollywood. He wasn’t an action hero, he wasn’t a spectacle of a human being turned actor. He was a brilliant actor and he died at the age of 97 years old. Someone wrote to me about my memorials to Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon thanking for including the memorials to recently fallen soldiers alongside them and said, not every life was iconic, but every life is important. And I completely agree. And Karl Malden is a perfect example, he was a brilliant actor, in a field of talent, celebrity and spectacle. Not everyone has the talent who is beautiful, not everyone can hold your interest such as a person who is more spectacle than anything else. But talent for acting will make you a sought after actor, and the extreme length of Malden’s career attests to that fact.

The list of films he was in that were brilliant is amazing, it includes On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, Patton, How the West was Won and many more... But, there is more, he became perhaps more famous as the veteran cop in The Streets of San Francisco, and later as the pitchman and voice of American Express, with the famous catch phrase slogan, “Don’t Leave Home Without It”.

He will be missed.