Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Is the Sci-Fi Blockbuster Frozen in the Early '80s?

Those who have paid any attention to film history know how high concept and the action/science fiction blockbuster arrived in Hollywood in the mid-'70s, and in the subsequent three decades virtually swallowed up the market. (Because so many of the suck-up poptimist critics immediately "Nuh-uh!" any such claim, I afford some hard numbers about this here that should turn that pathetic "nuh-uh" into a spluttering "But, but, but . . .")

Looking back, I'm struck by the extent to which not just this broad trend, but the specific franchises date back to that time--and along with them, the common touchstones in discussion of science ficion film. Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator. (Indeed, it often seems that our hack journalists can't have a single discussion of artificial intelligence or robotics without bringing up an Arnold Schwarzenegger B-movie from 1984. Am I really the only one who finds this pathetic and tiresome?)

This past weekend we got our tenth live-action Star Wars feature film, while the last three years saw brand-new, high-profile, big-budget installments in each and every one of these franchises. Our thirteenth Star Trek feature film in 2016 (while the franchise has also returned to TV--I hear, in debased form as Discovery), our sixth (or if you count the two Alien vs. Predator movies, eighth) Alien film last year, a Blade Runner sequel a few months after that, a fifth Terminator movie back in 2015 with the promise that the franchise had finally come to an end quickly broken when Kathryn Bigelow's ex-husband put off the sequels to the much more profitable Avatar yet again to reteam with his other ex-wife and the septugenarian former governor of California for what will apparently be an all senior citizen reboot of the movie they made back when the author of this post was too little even to know about R-rated movies.

Basically, it seems, Hollywood in that early, post-Star Wars boom period when high-concept and sci-fi action blockbusters were new amassed a certain number of properties and concepts that we can call "creative capital." To a great extent this side of its production has been living off that capital ever since, very little not connected with it in some way, coming from the same people, using its images, following in its footsteps. (Avatar, for instance, was a James Cameron production.) The principal exception would seem to be the comic book superhero-based blockbusters, which also had a crucial precedent in this period--the original Superman, somewhat ahead of its time, but with the slowness to tread the same path more than made up for in the enthusiasm that has left us up to our ears in movies based on comic books that are a half century old or older, with one Marvel movie barely leaving theaters before the next has arrived in them (indeed, the #1 position passed directly from Avengers 3 to Deadpool 2 this month, before passing again to Star Wars this weekend), and DC Comics failing to match Marvel but still taking a big bite out of the market in the process. (That disappointing Justice League movie was still the #10 hit of last year, while Wonder Woman, the champion of the previous summer, was #3.)

This is partly a testimony to how salable all this has been to a public extremely susceptible to brand name and nine figure marketing budgets, and very tolerant of repetition of the same material, even the same CGI imagery, far, far past the point of diminishing returns, but also a testimony to the sheer determination to keep milking an old IP, as the flops show. According to the figures over at, the last really impressive commercial performance by an Alien movie was in 1986, when Cameron's Aliens was #7 in its year at the American box office, and a very big hit internationally as well. Alien 3 was only #28 in 1992, Alien: Resurrection #43 in 1997, Prometheus a better but still less than stellar #24 in 2012, and last year's Alien: Covenant just #42, with room for doubt about whether there was any real profit in it. Compared with the colossal success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was also a less than stellar performer, while Terminators 4 and especially 5 were real disappointments. (Hence the reboot.) But to high concept-minded executives, hey, following up a string of underperformers or even outright flops with more of the same beats actually giving a new idea a chance. And the fact that government tax breaks, product placement, merchandising and foreign moviegoers to whom the experience of Hollywood's offerings are still more novel helps them get away with this approach by reducing their out-of-pocket expenses and relying less on the readiness of those moviegoers who have seen it all before to fork over twenty bucks to sit in front of a big screen in 3-D glasses.

For now.

Thoughts on Alien: Covenant


I recently saw Alien: Covenant.

I didn't expect much. I got even less.

To be fair, the Alien series has not been a favorite of mine. I appreciate the place the first two films have in science fiction film history (and I did enjoy the second movie in particular, as a shoot 'em up from a period when that kind of thing was still fresh), but my interest in it was limited all the same, and it soon came to seem yet another instance of a series dragging on way, way too long mostly because Hollywood studios are so adamant about keeping every single established IP going for as long as possible.

Besides, I was dubious about the film's predecessor, Prometheus, for reasons John McCalmont described fairly well at the time of release. It raised fairly commonplace, trite (to me, silly) questions, and then didn't try to answer them, instead giving us a plot that "is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters' faces by a cruelly indifferent universe."1

Rather than "playful," it was hateful.

I grant that this sort of thing might--might--have meant something, once. But after three generations of smug postmodernist "subversion" (itself, really just a recycling of a tradition of misanthropy elites have promulgated for self-serving reasons going back to the ancients), do we really need more of this?

I say that we don't.

But I got a vague idea from some of the discussion of the movie that it had something to say about the mysteries--what the deal was with those alien "Engineers." So I gave it a chance.

Instead we got a typically pretentious opening in a huge white room with a grand piano in it (does no one else notice this cliche?), Billy Crudup's character whining about people of faith being discriminated against in an atheist world (that must be that "liberal Hollywood" at it again), and more Frankenstein complex inanity as yet another robot created in our image decides to turn on us, and once again actors look terrified as pieces of rubber (or were they CGI?) jumped on them and members of the crew splashed blood all over the set, because instead of dropping the xenomorphs from the film, like was apparently discussed at one point (and like I would have preferred), the movie pretty was mostly xenomorphs attacking people, all on the way to a final "twist" that even the dumbest viewer of such movies must have seen coming prior to a pretentious close where David has to declare to us his own choice of soundtrack as he heads off to wreak interplanetary havoc.

After seeing this film I wasn't terribly surprised to see that Transcendence's Jack Paglen had been involved (Frankenstein, Frankenstein, Frankenstein, groan), and that John Logan had his hand in this too (groan again).

Allegedly the moviemakers involved with the next installment (this film wasn't such a moneymaker that such an installment could be taken for granted, but, hey, sequel) are again thinking about not spending so much time on the xenomorphs, but I wouldn't hold my breath for that. Simply recycling the stuff of a forty year old movie is a lot easier than actually doing anything seriously interesting. And I expect that when that movie inevitably comes out, having learned my lesson, I will take a pass on it.

1. I'd link back to McCalmont's original piece on the film, which is well worth a read, but apparently the trolls have driven him to turn Ruthless Culture "private." Yes, what you asswipes do does have consequences.

Remake, Remake and Remake Again

Hollywood has always been quick to remake movies. Astonishingly it made three versions of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon between 1931 and 1941. (It's actually the third, John Huston-Humphrey Bogart movie we generally remember.)

Still, Hollywood was different then. The remakes were part of a far higher output of feature films, a major studio like MGM putting out one movie a week. And film was seen as nearly disposable back then, a bit more like how we view TV than movies, the more so because of how rapid changes were seen as making older material unsalable. With the talkies, "no one" wanted silent movies, while color and widescreen changed the terms yet again. At the same time the more straitlaced "Hayes' Code" meant that a lot of older material made in a freer period was no longer screenable--while if you were going to screen something to which you would have to sell tickets in competition with brand new movies, why not have new stars in it when they were what people wanted to see? All this was reflected in, and itself reflected, the fact that the studios didn't work very hard to old onto older material, much of it literally lost over the tumult of these decades, while the relaxation of censorship later meant that old stories which were presented only in bowdlerized fashion could get more faithful adaptation. (This was, in fact, a justification for the flurry of remakes of noir classics in the '70s and early '80s--The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice.)

None of that applies now. The output of feature film is limited in quantity, each film representing a bigger proportion of the whole. The medium is no longer going through such flux as it did earlier, and the same applies for the bounds of censorship. We no longer think of films as disposable--each and every one treated as representing precious Intellectual Property, to be clasped tightly until the end of time. In fact, far from competing for ticket sales because it is the only way that one can see movies, TV, the Internet and the rest mean that audiences have never had cheaper, easier access to older movies. In the process, much of the justification for remakes has disappeared. Accordingly, it was possible to justify three Maltese Falcons over the '30s in a way that it does not seem possible to justify not three Spiderman movies but three Spiderman franchises in a decade of the twenty-first century (2007-2017). That Hollywood insists on doing it anyway is solely a matter of a critical (or is it uncritical?) minimum of people being willing to come in and see the resulting product, as has undeniably been the case. In commercial terms, high concept remains a success. And so long as that remains the case, it too will remain with us, no matter how much film critics and cultural commentators complain.

E.H. Carr and William Haggard

One of the classics one becomes familiar with studying International Relations is E.H. Carr's The Twenty Years' Crisis, widely considered the starting point for modern "realist" thought.

Appropriately the book is no narrow discussion of billiard-ball-type politics among nations, considering a good deal else, with one issue I find myself returning to every now and then what Carr referred to as the problem of the "Intellectual and the Bureaucrat." The intellectual inclines to theory, reasoning, principles, and what is good and right, and it is from this that their tendency to be involved with radical movements derives.

The bureaucrat--the civil servant--by contrast, "recoils from written constitutions and solemn covenants, and lets himself be guided by precedent, by instinct, by feel for the right thing," a feel guided by experience that leads them to claim "an esoteric understanding of appropriate procedures . . . not accessible even to the most intelligence outsider," and the superiority of bureaucratic experience and training to the most brilliant intellect or refined theoretical understanding in these matters. And whether one sees this as self-serving, obscurantist nonsense or not, it carries carries serious political implications. That "practical practice" by which they set such store "easily degenerates into the rigid and empty formalism of the mandarin," with "politics an end in themselves," adding to the implications inherent in their position. More than just about "any other class of the community," the bureaucrat is "bound up with the existing order, the maintenance of tradition, and . . . precedent as the 'safe' criterion of action.'"

Recently recalling Carr's comment on this "antithesis" I found myself thinking of William Haggard's Colonel Russell novels. I can think of no other works of spy fiction that treat the opposition between the two types so directly or extensively. Nor of any that, in treating that opposition, is so vehement in taking a side.

Where political life is concerned, Haggard is as hostile to intellectuals as anyone you might care to name. In Slow Burn Haggard had the latter to say of scientists:
Take a clever boy . . . and put him into a laboratory for the next seven or eight years. What emerged inevitably was a materialist . . . a man who would assume without question that the methods of science could be applied to human societies.
In short, in the eyes of this particular right-winger, they were a bunch of damned crypto-Communists, all too likely to turn traitor. And indeed, one of them (not just a leftist, but "no gentleman" either) did prove to be the traitor Russell spent the novel ferreting out.

In The Power House, Haggard bashes a type of intellectual to which one would expect him to be even more hostile, not the physicist who dares have an opinion about politics, but those whose principal concern is the social, economic, political order, in his depiction of the hapless Labour MP Victor Demuth. A "fossil," espousing "doctrines as archaic for a modern left-leaning party as the Divine Right of Kings was now archaic to the Right," Russell held the man's attitudes to be a mark of deep personal failure, resulting from deep defects of what a certain sort of pompous person would call "character." Despite a background of great privilege, which combined with a genuine intelligence and determination "equipped [him] to compete at any level he'd cared to aim at," the Prime Ministership included, a lack of confidence and inclination to "flinch from conflict" made Demuth "slip . . . into the security of protest" instead.1 Ineffectual protest because, as another character in the novel reflects, "The Time of the Left would come perhaps, but it wouldn't be . . . the intellectuals, the professional washed-out rebels, but ruthless and determined men" who made it happen, ruthless and determined men who, whatever else they happened to be, would not be mere intellectuals.

By contrast Haggard's hero, Colonel Russell, is the consummate civil servant, and not merely by virtue of his title or pay grade, but his being an administrator who, unlike most spy chiefs in spy novels, actually administers, and plays his main part in the story by administering. However many times Fleming calls Bond a civil servant, what we usually see is Bond playing commando. And even as he ascended to a fairly senior level in Central Intelligence, Jack Ryan's adventures tended to have him caught up in heroics of some kind or another--in Clear and Present Danger this Acting Deputy Director of the CIA personally flying down to Colombia in a Pave Low and manning a minigun with which he mows down drug cartel soldiers in the course of rescuing an American special forces team inserted into the country. (I repeat: Deputy Director shooting lots and lots of people with a gatling machine gun as if he were Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Such black bag work and gunplay as the Haggard stories offer, however, Russell leaves to others, while he navigates the system, and in doing so "saves the day" in dramas that, like no other, celebrate the Bureaucrat as Hero.

Of course, in continuing his series over the next few decades Haggard did eventually start playing up the action, with Yesterday's Enemy an example of this. Still, this is how they started, and tended to run. In Yesterday's, certainly, what drew Russell into his more conventional spy adventure was in fact his old, legendary reputation as Super-Bureaucrat Extraordinaire.

In hindsight, it is an additional way in which these largely forgotten books were and remain unique within this genre.

1. To round out the right-wing cliche, we also see the upper-class leftist portrayed as a snob and a bigot, disliking his niece's suitor, allegedly, for his being in the casino industry, unintellectual, Catholic and therefore "a reactionary fascist beast."

Monday, May 28, 2018

Notes on High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, by Justin Wyatt

Picking up Justin Wyatt's High Concept I (like most people who pay much attention to this sort of thing these days, I suppose) already had a fairly good idea of what the term denotes. As Wyatt explains it, in great depth and yet concisely, it is a "straightforward, easily communicated and easily comprehended" narrative whose themes and "appeal" to a broad audience are "immediately obvious" (8). The project that sounds good to an executive in a 25-word "elevator pitch"; that they can be persuaded at least has the potential to look good in a 30-second TV spot or even a poster.

The ease of communication and comprehension is simplified in the case of a "pre-sold property" with a "built-in audience," like a sequel to a prior hit--because not only is there a proven past success, but because the job of selling the product has already been done, and all one has to do is remind the audience of it. It helps, too, for the film to have other, pre-sold features--"bankable" stars (however shaky this concept is), a soundtrack capitalizing on already popular hits (sales of which are, in turn, helped by the movie), a compelling look that in itself is the subject of the sale, integrated with and even overwhelming the narrative. (Fast! Flashy! Sleek! Ultra-modern! Maybe there's nothing much to "see" here, but you can't stop "looking" at it, can you?)

A high-concept movie is a movie that looks good in a commercial, or a promotional music video, because in contrast with a classically made movie it is essentially a very long commercial or music video, in part because it was probably made by a director whose background, at any rate, is in directing commercials or music videos. (Wyatt cites Adrian Lyne, and the Scott brothers Ridley and Tony, and one can spend a long time listing those who have entered filmmaking in similar fashion since--David Fincher and Michael Bay and Simon West and Alex Proyas and Spike Jonze and Dominic Sena and Antoine Fuqua and McG and Gore Verbinski and Zack Snyder and Tarsem Singh and and and . . . while by this point such directors have so long dominated the medium that even a director who learned their craft actually studying movies probably can't help being influenced by their practice.)

Still, Wyatt's book did have some surprises for me, the biggest of which was the range of cinematic concepts to which he saw this as being applicable. Looking at the cover's array of images from major films of the '70s and '80s I am unsurprised to recognize a shot from Jaws. But I am surprised to see shots from Flashdance and Saturday Night Fever above Jaws. Where the actual text of the book is concerned, Wyatt begins not with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but Grease (and specifically, a comparison of that critical flop and commercial success with the diametrical opposite in All That Jazz).

And this is, I think, a reflection of profound change in the business over the years. We think of the late '70s as the era which saw the rise of the blockbuster, the '80s as the rise of the Hollywood action movie as a staple of the market. Still, the action movie was a comparatively small part of the market back then. Where out of the top ten films of the year in the '80s at the North American box office there were apt to be a couple of action films, in the twenty-first century the figure was more likely to be five movies--half the list--and often more. At the same time the rest of the top ten list was apt to be dominated by a kind of movie which did not make Wyatt's cover at all--the big-budget, Disney or Shrek-style animated movie, which in the 2010s have averaged three of the top ten annually. Which means that between one and the other, they have accounted for eight of the top ten hits year in, year out, with the other movies on the list likely to be of closely related types (the live-action version of the animated Cinderella, for instance). And since action movies and cartoons are what you make if you want a blockbuster, they comprise a much larger share of the market overall than any other one or two such distinctive styles of film ever have before.

As a result, one would not think of many other kinds of movie as high concept (even if musicals, for example, are occasionally popular and profitable). However, as Wyatt shows through a much deeper development of the concept of a film as an ad than I anticipated, movies were not just ad-like in their aesthetic or feel, but ads for a "lifestyle." (Beverly Hills Cop was about the fantasy of what it is to be rich in "Beverly Hills" as much as it was about the adventure of the "Cop.") I do not think that this is quite as prominent in film today, the use of "lifestyle" in it different. Certainly luxury is common currency in today's commercial filmmaking, anything remotely resembling actual middle-class life or working-class life or poverty generally banished from the screen, but a movie, while expected to depict an "attractive lifestyle," gets a lot less mileage out of doing so, enough so that a movie principally selling lifestyle seems unlikely to earn $1 billion in ticket sales and surcharges. (Tony Stark's high-end consumption in the Marvel movies is part of the package, but it is backdrop, relatively less important to the movie than in a comparable film from the '80s that would have luxuriated in it all a great deal more, more noticeably amid the slighter special effects and slower cutting.)

Still, if Wyatt's profuse discussion of blockbuster as lifestyle ad seems a bit dated now, his discussion retains a relevance for other aspects of pop culture, like music--exemplified by Ted Gioia's observation that, in the course of its swallowing up everything else, "Music Criticism Has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting."

As Gioia remarks (finally, other people noticing this!), "During the entire year 1967, The Chicago Tribune only employed the word 'lifestyle' seven times," but today "newspapers have full-time lifestyle editors," while coverage of all the rest of life from weather to business is construed in lifestyle terms ("your commute," "your money"), and certainly, pop culture, with music "treated as one more lifestyle accessory, no different from a stylish smartphone" and "music journalism . . . retreated into a permanent TMZ-zone." Indeed,
if you force pop culture insiders to be as precise as possible in articulating the reasons why they favor a band or a singer, it almost always boils down to: "I like fill in the name because they make me feel good about my lifestyle."
A still bigger irony would be if most consumers of music actually thought in the same way. After all, they don't have lifestyles to feel good or badly about. They simply can't afford lifestyles.

But that reality doesn't save them from the delusion they do.

Groan, groan and groan again.

Finally, Some Grounds for Optimism?

NOTE: I penned this piece last summer but have only got around to publishing it now. While some of the details have since dated, it still seems to me worth sharing because its purpose, after all, is reflection on the trend of a decade--the decade between the 2006-2008 period when I was researching and writing a great deal about energy issues--and the present, and this still seems relevant.

A decade ago when considering the problem of fossil fuel scarcity and the prospects for alternatives as a way to fill the gap, I was consistently struck by the fact that fossil fuels were only cheap because of the externalization of so many of their environmental and other costs, and on top of this, consistent, massive state support. I was struck, too, by how despite these ways of lowering their apparent cost, the trend was in the direction of their deceptively low market price rising anyway. At the same time it was impossible not to notice how much less support renewable energy had had by comparison, the steady progress many forms of renewable energy were making in terms of price and energy return on investment in spite of this lack of support, and the sheer range of plausible concepts that held out the hope of far better results (at least some of which might amount to something)—all of these indicating enormous untapped potential.

Between the rise in the cost of fossil fuels, on the one hand (especially when one looked past the obfuscations of market prices); and the increasing productivity and cheapness of at least some forms of renewable energy; it seemed likely that the latter would become competitive with the former. It also seemed that this could be greatly accelerated if states were to shift their support from fossil fuels to renewables, and strive for energy efficiency—the reduction of energy consumption involved bringing the target of 100 percent renewable energy production within easier reach—in a focused, massive program.

I did not assume that the 2003-2008 oil price shock represented a new plateau, but I also did not expect that prices would stay as low as they have since then. (That the average annual price of a barrel of oil has, for almost a decade, not gone above $100 again, that the price touched $27 in 2016 in 2008 dollars—is a surprise to me.) At the same time, the switchover of state support from fossil fuels to renewables has simply not happened, the opposite actually happening in the United States and elsewhere by many measures, the subsidies for fossil fuels actually grown more lavish. Meanwhile progress on energy efficiency has been underwhelming, especially when one looks beyond the more simplistic and misleading measures.

Still, the installation of renewable energy-based electrical production capacity proceeded much more rapidly these past several years than it had before the crisis, in the process lowering costs. In 2016 the headline went that the electricity produced by photovoltaic solar cells became cheaper than electricity generated by the coal-fired plants that were recently the cheapest of sources. To be sure, this is not yet the case everywhere in the world, under all business conditions, according to every method of crunching the numbers—as career detractors of renewable energy never miss a chance to remind everyone. Nonetheless, many a reading of the market indicates that in much of the world, and certainly much of the Western world (the central and southern U.S., for example), a new solar energy-based power plant can viably produce cheaper electricity over its lifetime than a new coal-fired one. And the math is robust enough that the change is touted not merely by environmentalists given to advocating renewables because of their ecological benefits, but by thoroughly mainstream business news outlets that, if anything, are prone to the opposite bias, like Bloomberg and Fortune.

Especially given the unpromising market conditions and policy circumstances the world attained this milestone rather faster than I expected. And unlike the great majority of what is reported about energy and the environment, this was welcome news—and a significant boost to optimism about rebuilding the world's energy base along more sustainable lines. Certainly it has demonstrated the enormous, untapped potential of a technology derided and dismissed by so much mainstream opinion. (Simply put, Goldman Sachs was wrong and Greenpeace was right.)

Additionally, it seems very likely that this trend will continue through subsequent years, to the advantage of photovoltaics over fossil fuels. And not only is it expected that within the next decade or so its price advantage will become a global norm. It is widely expected that even without rises in the price of fossil fuels that advantage will go on deepening. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), which has tended to be conservative in its past estimates, forecasts that the cost of solar-generated electricity will fall to a third its present level by 2040. According to one projection, well before that date, perhaps in the early 2030s, energy companies will find it cost-effective not just to opt for solar over coal in building new plants from scratch, but to actually junk an old coal plant on which they are only paying operating costs in favor of building a new solar plant. Another, still more aggressive projection by Ray Kurzweil has solar energy providing 100 percent of the world's electricity by then, simply by sustaining its recently observed rate of growth in its share of the energy mix for a mere decade.

Given that no one seriously expects solar to carry the burden alone, that long-established hydroelectric power already contributes over a tenth of what the world uses, and that comparably cheap wind installations are also making rapid progress (up 13 percent in 2016 over the prior year according to the Global Wind Energy Council), the date at which all electricity is generated by renewables would come well before the arrival of 100 percent solar. And, in contrast with many of the forecasts for which is so well-known, he is far from alone here, our producing 80 percent of our electricity from renewables by 2030 now a subject of serious debate.

Of course, in considering such expectations, certain caveats have to be remembered. The most significant is that even if the expansion of renewable energy production has been very rapid, the world is still dependent on fossil fuels for five-sixths of its energy. Additionally, of the one-sixth derived from renewables, long-established hydroelectric energy is still the principal contributor (supplying two-thirds). By this measure, not very much has changed from before. It might be added that the recent woes of the coal industry have been due not to the drop in price of solar or other renewables, but the expansion of that last hope of the fossil fuel industry, natural gas. Meanwhile coal production and consumption appear to be bouncing back after the drop of the prior year, not only in the United States, but China and India as well.

Additionally, some parts of the transition will make the matter more complicated than a straight extrapolation from observed growth rates. It remains far easier to phase out a coal-fired electric plant in favor of photovoltaics, or wind turbines, than to shift to renewable energy-based vehicle fleets, even just looking at ground transport, rather than the more difficult matters of ships and aircraft. (Sales of even electric private cars are, if fast-growing, still a very small share of the sale of new vehicles, at the same time that the American taste for large cars has gone global.) The efforts to develop alternatives to fuel oil, like algal biofuels, sadly, cannot point to equally dramatic progress, while simple math demonstrates that even should we fully electrify transport, it will mean that much more demand for electricity, delaying the point at which we get 100 percent of our electricity from renewables. (Indeed, as the situation stands it is worth remarking that the consumption of oil as well as coal has been rebounding recently in the United States and elsewhere.)

Moreover, the possibility that the transition will be resisted politically rather than just in the marketplace has to be taken seriously, given the dismal record of governments during the four decades since the energy crisis of the 1970s forced the question. Certainly the career fossil fuel-boosters and renewables-bashers continue to blanket the media with specious arguments about the unworkability of renewables on a large-scale, from dubiously calculated figures on Energy Return On Investment to straw man arguments about grid unreliability to sanctimonious ranting and raving against any and all instances of government support for renewable energy by those who turn a blind eye to Big Oil's vastly larger support to silly charges that from an ecological standpoint renewables can only ever be a curse "worse than the disease." (And of course, accompanying all this are plenty of Cornucopian promises of fossil fuel superabundance and climate change denial directed against the two most significant non-price arguments for a shift away from fossil fuels.) Even if it increasingly looks like a rear-guard action, the extent to which such an action can slow down the desperately needed transition ought not to be slighted given how much longer it has taken to reach this point than was hoped by the more forward-thinking in the 1970s. Indeed, the recent direction of policy in several of the principal energy-consuming nations has been less than encouraging, with this going even for the nations which have so often been looked to for leadership in the area of energy and climate, particularly Germany and China.

All the same, the current press regarding Big Oil's hopes for a "golden age" of natural gas carries with it considerable qualifications and doubts not merely about its grossly exaggerated attractiveness from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, but even its price-competitiveness. At the same time many observers suggest that this year's spike in coal prices and output is a temporary, short-term shift that ought not to distract from the long downward trend (peak coal possibly behind us already).

Additionally, thorny as the problem of transport may be, transportation accounts for less than a third of energy consumption, such that slower progress here does not eliminate the reality of enormous gains if electricity production is effectively shifted to renewables. And even the hints of backtracking in national policy have been judged by many to be of less enduring significance than alleged—with even the more bullish predictions regarding the coal use of China and India appearing less inconsistent with their longer-run commitment to reduced fossil fuel use and carbon emissions when their policies are examined comprehensively.

Still, even the most optimistic reading of the situation underlines how complacent and wrong-headed it would be to trust merely to the progress of one or two technologies to wholly transform the energy base. It would be complacent also to trust to market forces—or more accurately, the current combination of market forces and policymaking. Instead there is a need for ambitious policies at the local, national, regional and global levels committing governments to locking in and accelerating the deployment of renewable energy production of all types to the greatest extent possible, not simply by encouraging the expanded installation of photovoltaic solar and ground-based and offshore wind, but investigating and developing the fuller range of options in this area. The next generation of solar cells (thin-film cells, etc.), holding out the prospect of greater efficiencies, also hold out the possibility of lowering costs and enlarging capacity still more rapidly than the BNEF analysis suggests, while there are, too, new ways of deploying these technologies that may expand capacity and reliability are well worth examination (like airborne solar and wind generation). The same goes for other sources scarcely exploited to date (tidal energy, wave energy), while algal and comparable biofuels remain worthy of continued interest.

These policies should facilitate the fullest possible use of the energy produced, with power generation more widely distributed at one end (with net-zero and net-positive buildings as the goal), and grids more integrated at the other (perhaps working toward a resilient global smart grid), while improving storage capability through support for the development of more cost-effective batteries and biofuels. They should devote attention to the special problems of transport based on renewables. (Equipping those most voracious of oil-burners, large commercial ships, with SkySails-style kites could be just the beginning.) They should encourage a more efficient use of energy at the demand end, interest in which seems to have sadly declined after the post-2008 oil price drop, despite unending demonstrations of the capacity of properly designed goods from housing to vehicles to electronics to provide meaningful savings in energy consumption without compromising (and even improving) economic productivity or living standards. (While more novel, more dynamic and therefore less certain, the same can be said for changed approaches to the production and delivery of goods and services, from telecommuting to 3-D printing to cellular agriculture.) And of course, the more affluent and technologically developed nations should do all in their power to promote and facilitate the implementation of these technologies in those poorer and less developed nations still building their infrastructures.

Indeed, robust policies promoting the full gamut of potential contributors to the solution, developing the options with which too little has been done, and searching out the possibilities scarcely thought of now is likely to be essential to turning the target of a 100 percent transition to renewables inside the next generation from a pious wish into a reality—a goal all the more desirable given how even the most rapid progress envisaged by today's optimists is still less than what the climate crisis demands.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Thoughts on Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film, by Peter Biskind

Shortly after reading Peter Biskind's Seeing is Believing and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and being very impressed with those two books (for quite different reasons, their accomplishments differing), I turned to his history of the independent film boom, Down and Dirty Pictures.

The book, in its journalistic reconstruction of the making of a movement within the film industry rather than close-reading the movies it produced for their social and political content, is much more like Easy Riders than Seeing in its objective, structure and feel. However, I have to admit that I didn't find it nearly so interesting a read as Easy Riders, though I should also that I don't blame Biskind for that. Easy Riders was a memorable read because it simply had a more memorable subject. Even moving past the romanticism and the confusion surrounding it, New Hollywood remains a far more interesting subject than indie film, in part because the confluence of cultural forces was so much more fertile and dynamic (as Biskind himself points out, these guys were products of a far more conservative time, far less conducive to critical thought), the filmmakers more convincing as genuine artists (the ambition, the daring, the bet-it-all-on-my-vision--the guys in the '70s had it, the guys afterward didn't), in part because the best of their films really were great films. (At one point in Down and Dirty Biskind quotes Edward Norton saying that Sex, Lies and Videotape was his generation's The Graduate. I was appalled by that. As one growing up in those same years, my Graduate was the actual The Graduate, my first viewing of which was an experience to which all of the films of the '90s rolled together could not even begin to compare. If anything, I have only felt more confirmed in my opinion since.)

In fact, after the first ninety pages or so, I started skimming. And didn't stop skimming until I got to the end, because I was never tempted to stop skimming and start properly reading again. Which is why this is just a little post and not a proper review such as I wrote of Mr. Biskind's two other books.

That's it, my whole comment on the book.

You thought I was going to say something about Harvey Weinstein, didn't ya?

If you're disappointed that I didn't, well, tough.

Peter Biskind and Star Wars

In telling the story of Hollywood in the '70s in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind cannot avoid discussing Star Wars.

Alas, in doing so Biskind not only repeats the charge that Star Wars "ruin[ed] movies," "obliterating . . . aesthetic self-consciousness and critical reflection," and eliminating any possibility of other kinds of films getting made, and lengthily citing what seems like half his cast of characters to that effect--Pauline Kael and John Milius (who called it a cheap amusement park ride) and William Friedkin (who compares Star Wars to McDonald's, after which "'the taste for good food disappeared,'" "'devolution,'" "'everything going backward into a big sucking hole'") and Martin Scorsese ("'They're not subsidizing anything else . . . They're smothering everything'") and Robert Altman (looking back on a visit to the multiplex in the summer of 1997 as not offering a single "'picture that an intelligent person would want to see'"). He even cites George's then-wife Marcia, confessing that she was "disgusted" by the current state of the American film industry, that part of her thought Star Wars "'partly responsible for the direction the industry has gone in, and . . . feel[ing] badly about that.'"

Biskind also makes Lucas look foolish for even attempting to argue in Star Wars' defense. (He declared that the blockbuster revenues created a space for less commercial fare; Biskind terms it "a Reagan-era trickle-down spin on the situation," not implausibly but at the least unkindly, while sandwiching Lucas' defense between those paragraphs of denunciation.)

In fairness, Biskind's history of the period has sufficient scope and sufficient detail to make one see that the story is much larger than a single movie (or two, or three). He makes clear that Lucas was far from the only commercial-minded filmmaker in the bunch. Biskind makes as much as anyone else of the mistakes of the New Hollywood superstars that were to cost them and the bigger movement so dearly (Friedkin, and Scorsese, and a good many others getting in way over their heads, blowing big budgets on failed projects, losing their capital that way). He tells of the rise of "high concept," brought into film production by Barry Diller from TVland, and refined by his cohorts, even before Spielberg and Lucas had their hits. Still, he does not connect the dots here so illuminatingly as he might have, the New Hollywood myth winning out over the more complex facts of the situation.

Review: Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, by Peter Biskind

Peter Biskind's history of the New Hollywood, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, is notorious for its repleteness with unflattering details about what one might think of as the "principal characters" in the drama he presents of the time. He has Dennis Hopper more egomaniacal and violent than the villains he would later play (and yes, weapons are involved); Paul Schrader (despite being an exceptionally unlikely protagonist for a Balzacian drama) trying to sleep his way to a directing job with astonishing lack of subtlety; the sex life of Steven Spielberg and Amy Irving as a tissue of neurosis and manipulation and betrayal (which I'm sure made many of those who think Steven Spielberg's uneasy with sex in his movies say "I knew it!").

All of this has naturally got the book a lot of readers, but also seen it attacked ferociously. (Spielberg's biographer Joseph McBride, whose book presents a very different of the Spielberg-Irving marriage, was not flattering in his review of the work for the New York Times.)

Personally I don't care enough about all this stuff to spend one second trying to figure out who really said what, or slept with whom. But even as one who ordinarily finds this sort of thing distasteful, I do have to say that the book cannot be dismissed as the sleazy tell-all so many make it out to be. Whatever the accuracy of the individual stories (and Biskind fully owns to the fact that many of the principals deny what others have said of them), it is relevant to his discussion of the work these people did as artists. Biskind goes into, for example, Peter Bogdanovich's involvement with Cybill Shepherd in such depth because that affair had its significance for his career as he analyzes it--the split from a wife who had been a hugely important collaborator damaging his moviemaking, and his decision to build around Shepherd films for which she was unsuited (like Daisy Miller), no trivial factor in the decline of his career after Paper Moon.

Indeed, the significance of these episodes extends beyond these individual stories to the bigger story Biskind tells about all of them together, the Tragedy of the New Hollywood, presented as a brief but wonderful moment the artists had the power, and gave us a burst of creativity such as Hollywood has not seen since. But alas, nemesis clobbered hubris (to borrow Brian Aldiss' phrase). Much as the cliche would have it, it is a tale of people of talent ruined by success and the temptations that it brought--callow youths getting "too much, too soon," the nerdy and repressed kids and poor kids who didn't get invited to their party having the biggest party of all time and going nuts, the Artists getting the creative freedom to go nuts and doing that. The sheer nuttiness or toxicity of the counterculture, the '70s, the Hollywood scene, and all three together, or just the destructive effects of excess generally.

Certainly those inclined to buy into this sort of thing can find plenty of substantiation for their views in the specific incidents Biskind relates--in egomaniacal artists making enemies and alienating people, like Hopper's or William Friedkin's over-the-top personal rudeness to industry veterans and executives; in projects pursued because of a personal whim, like Friedkin's Sorcerer, and not always an artistic whim, like Bogdanovich's would-be Cybill Shepherd vehicles; of artistic arrogance that led to a chaotic production process, like Martin Scorsese's cavalier attitude toward scripting and editing during his cocaine-fueled making of New York, New York, or the notoriously out-of-control production of Francis Ford Coppola's far more ambitious Apocalypse Now.

The artists were never so powerful as is so commonly believed (or as they believed, to go by such remarks as a young George Lucas' echo of Marx after Easy Rider became a hit that "the workers have the means of production"). Rather what happened was that with the breakdown of the old censorship (goodbye Hayes' Code) and a measure of uncertainty among the Suits about just what would sell (per capita ticket sales plummeted from thirty a year to just four a year in the two decades surrounding the proliferation of television), they had a greater measure of freedom than before. Not a free hand to create by any means, but just enough discretion that, if they fought tooth and nail for their visions, they could get somewhere, especially if they were prepared to gamble their careers on those visions, with the winnings from successful gambles letting them raise the stakes the next time around . . .

Some gambled big, and won big. Francis Ford Coppola had a triumph for the ages with the original The Godfather. However, almost from the very start those who gambled poorly paid the consequences, with Hopper ruining his career with The Last Movie (yeah, never heard of it either 'til I read this book), while even if the effects on their careers were less totally devastating, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman and William Friedkin all suffered for making costly movies that failed to go over well with audiences (New York, New York, Sorcerer), even if they went over well with critics (Nashville), while the gambles of Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino, if since recognized as worthy efforts, are remembered as having ended an era (Apocalypse Now, and above all, Heaven's Gate).

Moreover, even that margin in which to fight for a vision and gamble a career was accorded to only a relatively small part of Hollywood (alas, Biskind gives the impression that the handful of figures on which he focuses were the whole place), the rest still the Old Hollywood churning out the disaster movies and musicals and backlash culture crime movies and exploitation films for which the era is also well known, the Old Hollywood that even at Oscar time could walk away with the big prizes. (Let us not forget that in 1976, when the era was supposed to have still been flourishing, not Network or Bound for Glory or All the President's Men or Taxi Driver walked away with Best Picture, but Sylvester Stallone's old-fashionedly inspirational sports story Rocky.)

It was also just a temporary matter, which would have come to an end much as it did, as ticket sales stabilized (we have never stopped going to the movies four times a year), in part because the studios, too, were innovating, if in ways film critics damn rather than admire. The trinity of Barry Diller, Don Simpson, Michael Eisner ushered in the age of "high concept," blitzes of TV ads to pave the way for ultra-slickly packaged wide releases, and Jaws, and Star Wars, pointed the way to the kind of product that could make the best use of such backing. This has, of course, led innumerable observers of the scene to excoriate Lucas and Spielberg (Biskind certainly does so, enough for this to warrant its own post, here), but had they not done it, someone else would have. After all, virtually every feature of the blockbuster, from the mechanics of the action movie to aggressive merchandising, had been perfected in the '60s by the Bond movies--and that it took Hollywood until the late '70s to really assimilate their precedent just shows it to have been a slow learner (while the artistes who damnned Star Wars had scarcely been less commercial, Friedkin making The French Connection and The Exorcist, and John Milius serving up throwbacks to '30s-era swashbucklers like The Wind and the Lion, while the Salkind brothers backed the colossal Superman: The Motion Picture).1 All as the counterculture that doubtless made the New Hollywood a more interesting and daring place proved a very fickle thing, no match for the global turn to the Right that, amid so much else, turned the hippies into yuppies lamely insisting that "they're still cool" . . .

Still, if Biskind's allowing Myth to get the better of the historiography, leaving it less illuminating than it might otherwise have been, this telling of the Myth is so rich in information and commentary (others' as well as his own) that there is plenty to interest those who doubt the essential line, even in the illusions so many of the players had at the time. Reading what young filmmakers in that period thought about the potentials of portable lightweight cameras for letting aspiring filmmakers "shoot their movies in the street," and still more, the colossal but in the end spectacularly pointless investments that Coppola and Lucas made in building a counter-Hollywood up in the San Francisco Bay area--American Zoetrope, Skywalker Ranch--is an antidote to the eternal hype that some new wonder is about to bring on the millennium by liberating the Artists from the control of the Suits for good and all. (Biskind, certainly, applied a good many of the lessons to his analysis of later times, most of all when he recognized that for all the hopes put in it, the indie filmmakers were in no position to live up to the example or standard of their predecessors, least of all in their capacity for looking at the world critically.) The result is, for all its flaws, a book that seems to me indispensable for anyone interested in American cinema in this crucial period.

1. As usual, the Bond films' role doesn't get a mention in this book. Which is why I covered it not just in my writing on that film series, but my study of Star Wars, Star Wars in Context.

Seeing Star Trek: Voyager Again

In reruns the later iterations of Star Trek have been less conspicuous than the original series, and the franchise's relaunch on television with The Next Generation. By and large their appearances as regular programming have been fewer, briefer, further between.

Star Trek: Voyager, however, has recently returned to the air on BBC America, and the new H & I.

Seeing many of the old episodes again I have had some occasion to rethink my earlier assessment of it.

After all, the show came right on the heels of two fairly well-received editions of Star Trek--some two hundred episodes in a little over seven years, with the second of those shows, Deep Space Nine, the more obviously unique with its space station setting. And those two shows, moreover, were part of a larger boom in TV space opera such as has not been seen before or since--the years when we got shows like Babylon 5 and Lexx and Stargate and Farscape. Simply standing out was that much more of a challenge in that very crowded field, where shows unencumbered by their attachment to an established universe, an established franchise.

Additionally, the show seemed to be trying to do things that Trek had not been great at in the premise it served up, the characters it presented--this crew of mixed Federation and Maquis who had to get along. The Trek shows generally do best when focused on dashing captains and charming exotics, not the regular human drama of which we got more than usual this time around. (Where The Next Generation is concerned, fans fondly remember Picard, Data, Worf--not Riker, though he did, at least, inspire Steak Starbolt.1)

I still think Voyager was not, could not, have been as original, distinctive, fresh as a B-5 or a Lexx, that in many ways it did feel and sound a lot like the other Trek shows that previously covered much of the same ground in more compelling fashion. (Making the big speeches, this ship's officers just didn't seem to have the same gravitas as their predecessors.) And my favorite character, the most consistently sympathetic and entertaining and interesting, remains the Doctor, an opinion in which it seems I'm far from alone.

Still, I find myself more generously disposed to it, more inclined to enjoy those things it got right and more charitable in appraising those things it got wrong.

1. I have a recollection of Riker being told by a woman that he's "seasoned," and replying "Like a good steak?" I haven't been able to trace the precise exchange, and I admit that my memory may be faulty here, but it does seem that Deanna Troi did refer to him as seasoned in Part One of "The Best of Both Worlds" and he replied that "It's a horrible thing to say to a man."

Revisiting The City on the Edge of Forever

I recently revisited White Wolf's edition of Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever, which not only presents his various scripts for that episode, but includes his version of just what happened between him and the production team during that process, and after.

Essentially Ellison thunders at those he believes wronged him for sixty straight pages. One doesn't see much of that sort of thing--few writers dare. And part of its considerable entertainment value is the extreme novelty of one of those figures Hollywood cannot do without but is so notorious for mistreating, its writers, getting his own back.

Much of what Ellison has to say seems persuasive, but I am less interested in making a judgment about who said or did exactly what than in what seems in hindsight the sheer oddity of the match-up of Trek and Ellison. I am an admirer of both. But they were a mismatch, pure and simple. That did not prevent Ellison from writing a memorable teleplay that, even if much modified, provided a basis for one of that influential series' most celebrated episodes. Still, Beckwith and his jewels of sound really had no place on the Enterprise; while if Kirk's dilemma is more intellectual and less personal in the final version than in the original, it is exactly the kind of thing that science fiction is uniquely equipped to deal with in ways and to a degree that other sorts of fiction tend not to do, if not its reason to be.

In fact, the interaction and its frictions strike me as replicating in miniature a major division within science fiction at the time and since. On the one side was science fiction, narrowly defined, whose traditions were not limited to but certainly had at their center a humanistic and rationalistic consideration of the world in which we live, and extrapolation from what is to what might be--and with them, utopianism in the best sense of that term. On the other was the New Wave, whose writers and editors brought a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and talent to the writing of science fiction, but lacked any appreciation for it as a genre doing different things by different rules from the Modernist literature they wanted it to be so much more like. In some ways it has made the genre a more interesting place, but that division has had its risks and costs as well.

Remembering-or Not Remembering-George Bernard Shaw

People still like to quote George Bernard Shaw, but as is usually the case with those who throw around words attributed to Famous People in the hopes of borrowing their prestige and authority, it's usually a matter of people quoting things they haven't actually read, things that they know at best secondhand.1 In fact, I suspect that Shaw would not be remembered as anything but an epigram-generating machine were it not for one of his plays having been turned into a popular musical (Pygmalion, turned into My Fair Lady).

It seems to me that much of this is due to the same reason that H.G. Wells is remembered principally as a science fiction writer. He was a socially critical philosopher-artist, inclined to rationalism, leftishness, socialism. And both those writers were more interested in writing about something, and "ventilating the point at issue," even at the price of explicit dialogues where the characters explained themselves and the world, than in abiding by the canons of "good form" as propounded by the conventionally minded, who insist on "Show, don't tell" and a firewall between art and "politics" (and especially, those politics that discomfit the genteel, those sorts that don't discomfit them not noticed by them as politics at all).

This means, basically, tose who worship at the altar of Henry James and the Modernists. Who have dominated "highbrow" opinion for the last century, and have not been very well-disposed to the Wells' and Shaws. And the standing of these two writers has suffered for it.

Very, very badly. (If unfamiliar with this, I suggest you check out Mark Schorer's classic of the New criticism, "Technique as Discovery," the damage from which Wells' reputation is still reeling.)

Still, if Wells and Shaw were much alike, there were noteworthy differences. Reading Shaw I at times get the sense of a guest at a polite salon trying to impress his hosts--and, when trying too hard, serving up irony for irony's sake. Not unlike Oscar Wilde that way. Still, if I find this irksome, both those writers did have more substantive things to say, and said them well enough that they deserve to still be read today--in Shaw's case, rather more than he is now.

1. In case you're curious about where the little epigrams come from, my impression is that most of the quotation seems to be derived from the play Man and Superman.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Farewell, IROSF

A decade ago I was a fairly regular contributor to the Internet Review of Science Fiction. I enjoyed the site both as a science fiction fan, because it put out so much interesting stuff, and as a writer, because it was a particularly pleasant site to write for--with the two not unrelated. IROSF gave its writers broad latitude with regard to subject matter and length, offered quick (two weeks--and they really meant it) and personalized responses even when rejecting unsolicited material, and by the standards of such markets, high pay rates. And the work it put out was read. (My article "Of Alternate Nineteenth Centuries: The Enduring Appeal of Steampunk" got me onto the blog of the Science Fiction Writers' of America--I was not even a member--and into the pages of Japan's most prominent science fiction magazine, Hayakawa S-F, in translation.)

I eventually published nine pieces there (seven are gathered together in my essay collection After the New Wave, a substantial part of that book, while one more is appended to my history of the field, Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry), and had it remained a going concern I would have been pleased to go on writing for them. Alas, IROSF did not last, the site posting its final edition in February 2010. The site did remain up, but went offline this month. However, like everything else on the Internet, you can still check out its full contents via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Looking Back: "The Golden Age of SF Television"

Back when I wrote "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at SFTV During the Long 1990s" for the Internet Review of Science Fiction, I didn't quite follow every science fiction and fantasy show on TV all the way through from beginning to end, but I did see a very big chunk of it, especially the more widely-seen and noted material. That was my basis for writing that article, and more generally, my attempts at broad assessments of the genre in that medium.

I certainly haven't attempted to follow science fiction television in such a comprehensive way since. This has partly been a matter of inclination. After several years of heavy reviewing and writing, I was a bit burned out, and when I got back to writing about science fiction, I simply didn't approach it the same way. I was more content to be interested in some things and not pay attention to others, with the second list constantly growing. (I've lost all patience with the Frankenstein complex cliche Hollywood relentlessly serves up, which means no Westworld--a remake of a project by Michael Crichton, groan--no Humans, no lots of things for me.)

But it has also been a matter of sheer mass. Today there are more channels in the cable package than ever, for which more original content is being produced than ever before, and it isn't just a matter of TV channels now. There are all the online services--Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and I'm sure three billion new ones between the time I started writing this post, and the time you're finally reading this.

Even just covering Marvel's superhero stuff, for instance, means signing up with multiple services over and above a premium cable package--because in addition to all their TV stuff, on ABC (Agent of SHIELD), FOX (The Gifted), FX (Legion) and Freeform (Cloak & Dagger), and the web shows like WHIH Newsfront, there is also Runaways on Hulu, and six different series' on Netflix alone (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, the Defenders, The Punisher). And all this is without considering children's television (five different animated shows on Dinsey XD).

It doesn't help that TV is so much more arc-oriented than it used to be, making casual viewing or late entry, less worthwhile than before. The tone doesn't help either. While a large amount of '90s television was hokey, it was easy viewing, easy to just leave on because you were busy with something else or not really in the mood to get into anything or just unable to find anything better, in contrast with today's TV writers and directors and producers, ever desperate to show off how intense and "edgy" they can be--which is, more often than not, a matter of showing off how pseudomature they can be in that obnoxious indie movie maker way. (Remember Deadpool? Groan again.) It also doesn't help that the sheer crowding, the abundance of short seasons, the too risque-for-syndication-even-with-heavy-editing content makes many of them unlikely candidates for the kind of rerun arrangement that lets a casual viewer see a whole show from beginning to end without going out of their way to try (the way I did with The Pretender, Angel, Charmed and Smallville on TNT).

In fact, I gave up on Game of Thrones in the fourth season, and haven't gone back. I don't think I will, either.

But I will probably eventually get around to picking up The Winds of Winter.

If it ever comes out.

Which it won't be this year.

A fact which has contributed to his fans being so starved for a continuation that the trumpet the mere mention that Martin is "working on it," the slightest hint that perhaps the work has already been completed, is trumpeted as "good news" by the Express.

Retiring Bond?

The place of the Bond novels in the history of spy fiction is their being the vehicle for the transmission of the old-style clubland adventure tradition to the post-war world.

This was partly a matter of its adroitness in adapting it to new realities. Britain was no longer the dominant power in the world it was in the day of Duckworth Drew, or even Bulldog Drummond, but he could still see Britain as a world power by way of its partnership with a U.S. bound to it not just by a common heritage or values, but the Cold War. In service to that Britain Bond was no longer a gentleman of leisure with too much time on his hands, but inserted in the bureaucratic reality of a modern security state, while reflecting a more egalitarian era, the element of luxury is a "semi-aristocratness" smuggled in by the back door (in Kingsley Amis' phrasing). And conservative that he is, Bond cannot be so content with that earlier international standing, or entirely at ease with the post-war order he is defending; and perhaps not wholly untouched by changed attitudes toward nationalism, empire and the rest; his conservatism is both reactionary on the one hand, and carries it with a certain freight of ambivalence and irony on the other (such that while one can see Bulldog Drummond here, one can see Maugham, Ambler, Greene too).

The Bond films updated the concept yet again, while broadening its appeal, playing down the politics, embracing the Playboy era, loading up on gadgets and gimmicks. In the process it did much to define, or redefine, the spy as an updated clubland hero for a new, and global, generation of filmgoers.

Even more consequentially, they invented the action film (its particular structure and pacing, its use of set pieces, their essential range of types and scales, the techniques for editing and photographing them), and the blockbuster as we know it (not only making franchises out of such successes, but using massive publicity and wide initial releases to front-load the grosses, while raking in additional dollars through shameless merchandising). Hollywood did not really master, let alone improve, on the practice until the mid-to-late '70s, with Barry Diller-Don Simpson-Michael Eisner high concept, with the TV ad blitz that preceded the release of Jaws, with Spielberg and Lucas' stream of adrenaline-oriented hits (Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones).

But at this point, not only has the novels' update of clubland become a historical curiosity, but so has the update of the update by the films. Additionally, if the Bond films, even after ceasing to be really innovative (this ended with the '60s), remained relatively unique (until Star Wars), this was decreasingly the case. Instead the Bond movies, with more or less competence, traded on brand name and past good will, while sporadically reinventing themselves after the fashions set by others. There has been enough money in the game to keep it going up until now. Yet, that is a far cry from there being a point to it all for anyone but those who collect the profits.

What do you think? Do you look forward to new Fleming-era Bond novels and the continuation of the reboot? Or, defying the poptimist fashion, do you agree with Stuart Heritage that the best next James Bond would be no James Bond at all?

You are cordially invited to get in your two cents here.

Los Angeles in the Action Film

Looking back at the action films of the '80s, and even the '90s, one is struck by how much they used  Los Angeles as a setting.

Classics like Beverly Hills Cop (and its two sequels), and The Terminator (and its first two sequels), and Commando, and Lethal Weapon (and all three of its sequels), and the original Die Hard--they were all set in L.A.. So were Blue Thunder, and Speed. And along with them a slew of less celebrated films, like To Live and Die in L.A., and Cobra, and Tango & Cash, and Hard to Kill, and Predator 2, and Point Break, and The Last Boy Scout, and The Last Action Hero (appropriately, given its being a compendium of action movie cliche), and Demolition Man, and Volcano, and Face/Off, and Rush Hour, and Gone in 60 Seconds, and, and, and . . .

It seems fair to say that if an action movie was not pointedly set abroad (like the second and third Rambo films), or in a fantasy world or outer space (like Conan the Barbarian or Aliens); and especially when our heroes, as was so often the case, were big-city cops fighting criminals; L.A. was not just the most popular setting, but the default setting, such that the car chase through the Los Angeles River became a cliche of the genre.1

One doesn't see L.A. in such movies nearly so much now.

Of course, an obvious explanation is that L.A. was where the movie industry was, and so a logical, convenient place for writers to write about, and for crews to shoot in. That industry has since sent its production away--to Vancouver, to Atlanta (where the local Pinewood Studios franchise became the locus of the Marvel movie machine from Ant-Man forward), and any other locality where the government is willing to foot part of the bill for the megabudget blockbusters.

But I don't think that's the whole story, especially given that the film industry often enough used other locations prior to that (not least, San Francisco and New York for those founding cop-action movies, Bullitt, The French Connection, Dirty Harry and 48 Hrs.), and has never stopped playing the game of shooting in one place while pretending that it's in another. (That a lot of movies are shot in Vancouver and Atlanta doesn't mean that we have a lot of movies actually set in Vancouver and Atlanta. Indeed, some of the $400 million reportedly spent on the last Avengers film was devoted to making Atlanta look like New York.)

And as it happens, there was plenty of reason not just to shoot in L.A., but to say they were doing so. After all, by the 1980s Los Angeles was the country's second-largest city (just overtaking Chicago then), and, fast-growing in its fast-growing region, the Sun Belt, the West coast, the Pacific coast on the verge of what everyone said would be the Pacific century, looking more dynamic, more like the future, than the older metropolises in the older Northeast and Midwest (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston). Unsurprisingly L.A. seemed to incarnate more than other American cities the dreams and fantasies of the age, and at the same time, fear that that dream was souring. Beverly Hills Cop played up the luxury and glamour and sunshine (a striking contrast with Axel Foley's hometown of Detroit)--while in Predator 2 urban decay and crime gang problems turned it into a blighted war zone as appealing to the Yautja as a place for sport hunting as the Central American jungle from the first film.

Something of this remains with us. Just as it was natural for Baywatch to be set in L.A., it wasn't just a dubious faithfulness to or nostalgia for the original that made the inevitable feature film version also an L.A. production.

But at the same time, the action movies changed. The paramilitary action genre that made the LAPD officer chasing a drug lord through the L.A River seem so obvious a choice of theme got tired, its associated neuroses grew less compelling, while American film became more thoroughly unmoored from and less interested in addressing any kind of American reality in general (even in the silly, backward way action movies tended to do). At the same time action movies scaled up beyond the natural limits of what cop-and-criminal car chase and gunplay could accommodate (already the helicopters and international villains of the Lethal Weapon movies, the James Bond gadgetry and massive vehicles of Tango & Cash, reflected a certain imaginative strain), while the disaster movies to which the L.A.-as-future-disaster area theme played also became less salient, since the escalating mayhem meant that just about every action movie was a disaster movie.

Spy-themed action endured a bit better, but that was usually set abroad, and to the extent that cops and street hoods were still on the big screen, they increasingly acted like superspies. (Thus did Rush Hour go foreign for its sequels, to Hong Kong, to Paris, while the Fast and Furious escalated from car theft to superspy action complete with missile-firing submarines, and even the Bad Boys, who had never been in L.A. at all, had the big finish of their second film in Cuba.) Superhero-themed movies exploded, but superheroes are New York, not L.A. (explicitly so in the Marvel films, implicitly so in the D.C. Comics movies), while the proportion of films not set on anything even pretending to be contemporary Earth shot way up.

And so while Hollywood remains in L.A., one would be less likely to suspect it looking at today's movies, and certainly its action movies. In fact (and this is a decidedly unscientific impression), looking at the film of recent years L.A. never seems so conspicuous as it does in crummy independent movies about people trying to make movies--almost as if actually shooting your film in Los Angeles just shows that you haven't made the big time yet.

1. The only exception among the really top-rank, classic '80s action movies of this type would seem to be Robocop, which was set in Detroit, an even more pointed choice for a story of urban decay.

Sociology and British Sitcoms: Remembering Are You Being Served?

I first watched that PBS staple, the BBC sitcom, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft's Are You Being Served? (1972-1985) what feels like a lifetime or two ago.

If you've never seen it, it is about the salespersons in the clothing department of an old-fashioned British department store.

Reading the Wikipedia article about it recently I noted that much of the commentary on the show's content (all too predictably) concentrated on the sexual humor. However, as the article also acknowledges,
The main humorous base of the series was a merciless parody of the British class system. This permeated almost every interaction and was especially evident in the conversations between the maintenance men and the ostensibly higher-class store personnel.
And indeed, what stands out most about the show in my recollection is the sociological insight it showed in this parody--in such things as the workers' conception of their jobs, their perception of their standing within their firm and within society more generally, and the ways in which they related to people of other classes above and below theirs within the British social hierarchy (like "the maintenance men").

Years later, reading works like Daniel Bell's The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society or C. Wright Mills' White Collar, I found myself thinking that I'd already learned much of what they had to teach--in reruns of that TV show. The pretensions and prejudices, the illusions and delusions, the fantasies and realities that Bell, Mills and others wrote about (the boundaries of that vexed term "middle class," the differing attitudes toward organized labor, etc.) were all amply dramatized there. Simply watching Mr. Mash bicker with Captain (Corporal?) Peacock was the equivalent of a master's class in these matters.

How many situation comedies can you say that about today?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Steven Poole Reviews the New Bond Novel

The Guardian's Steven Poole has just reviewed Anthony Horowitz's Forever and a Day--the next Bond novel, which is notable for two features. One is that it is the first time since Raymond Benson that an author has had a chance to pen a second of the Bond continuation books. The other is that it represents yet a new wrinkle in that series by offering a prequel to Casino Royale.

Poole remarks that Horowitz's novel serves up "disappointing" bits of exposition (like where we get his preference for his dry martinis shaken, not stirred, and even "the name is Bond, James Bond"), and "prose throughout is more verbose and cliched than the brutal efficiencies of Fleming." However, he also praises the choice of villain, remarks that Horowitz is "good at the action scenes," and declares the book on the whole "still an enjoyably compact thriller, with an absolutely killer last line . . . [with] some pleasingly echt Bond moments."

It seems a rather plausible assessment as far as it goes, given my impressions of Horowitz's prior effort, Trigger Mortis (which you can read about, here)--though Poole, perhaps predictably, skirts the issue of whether there is a point to his having made it a prequel (could the adventure have been just as satisfying as another '50s era entry in Bond's adventures?), and whether there is any point to writing more novels in a series where so much is modified (Poole acknowledges, among other things, the gender relations, again predictably, and Horowitz's apologies for the extent to which he carried forward Fleming's attitudes, even while, as Poole's observation suggests, exaggerating that extent). The book hits the market next week in the UK, but arrives in the States in November (according to Amazon, at least).

I expect to get in my two cents then.

Monday, May 21, 2018

John le Carrè and the Bestseller List

Recently going through the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly bestseller lists with an eye to the performance of spy fiction over recent decades for a recent paper, I must admit that what the hard data did was mostly confirm my more casual impressions—that the genre had done very well commercially in the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and then became much less conspicuous in the '90s. (Predictably given not just the inevitability of changes in commercial fashions, but the damper the end of the Cold War put on the genre, but notable all the same.)

Still, it was something of a surprise just how well one of the bigger names sold—namely, John le Carrè. As the tables appended to my paper show, he was commercially on a level with such titans of the "airport novel" as Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Going by the PW lists (the information from the year-end editions of which are conveniently gathered together by Wikipedia), from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (the top-selling novel of 1965 in the United States) to The Russia House, just about all his spy novels were among their year's top ten sellers.

This adds up to a quarter of a century at the very top, an extraordinary run, especially back in those days when the uppermost ranks of the publishing world saw rather more flux than they do now.

That his sales were quite so strong is all the greater given that, reflecting his comparatively greater acclaim by critics, he was anything but a producer of the kind of crowd-pleasers that made those other authors such big names. Not only were his stories slow-paced and lacking in action, decidedly unglamorous and preoccupied with moral ambiguity, but they were so obliquely told that I suspect anyone who picks up anything by him from The Looking Glass War on and does not feel bewildered by the goings-on can count themselves a highly accomplished reader.

Indeed, I find myself wondering—is this a case of audiences having become less tolerant of such writing, or is it the case that people were buying his novels and just pretending to understand them, or even just pretending to read them, because it seemed fashionable to do so? All those copies of the volumes detailing the adventures of Smiley and company, merely purchased to make the buyer look sophisticated by sitting on their coffee table or their bookshelf?

Any thoughts?

Review: Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the '50s, by Peter Biskind

Today it seems that Peter Biskind is better known as journalist than academic, on the strength of his history of the "New Hollywood" of the '70s, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, and his more recent history of the post-'70s independent film movement, Down and Dirty Pictures. However, Biskind's study of Hollywood film in the '50s, Seeing is Believing, is not a chronicle of tinsel town in that period, but a more conventional piece of film criticism, close-reading a selection of the period's cinematic classic (from The Blackboard Jungle to 12 Angry Men, and from My Darling Clementine to High Noon, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to On the Waterfront), and a sprinkling of less celebrated films (like Hell or High Water, or Underworld U.S.A.).

Biskind's examination of film in this decade (the '50s here are defined as extending between the end of World War II and the flowering of the 1960s as a recognizably different area) is deeply informed by his reading of the ideological balance of that period. Key to understanding his book, it is also one of the most incisive discussions of that topic I have ever run across, which makes it seem doubly worth discussing here at some length.

Central to Biskind's analysis is what he reads as the mainstream, centrist position, which he terms "corporate-liberalism." This was formed by the recognition of the increasingly large scale and complex character of modern life (the liberal recognizing the importance of the national and international above the local, the age of Big Organizations and of atom age, jet age, space age technology); by the dark view of human nature suggested by psychologists like Sigmund Freud, and the theory of totalitarianism propounded by figures like Hannah Arendt; and by the prestige that New Deal reformism and psychoanalysis/ psychotherapy enjoyed then as never before or since. Its response to this mix of influences, experiences and challenges was a view of the country as consisting of an array of diverse interests, all equally valid, and which it thought just had to get along with one another on terms of (to quote Daniel Bell) "pragmatic give-and-take rather than . . . wars to the death." It also held that the problem of doing so had been substantially solved already by the advent of the Affluent Society.

However, making the arrangement work required not amateurs (identifiable with the ignorant, panicky, demagogue-following mob) but technocratic professionals able to understand the complexities of the situation, and devise pragmatic solutions, implementing which required consensus among the group. Consequently, from this "pluralist" view many of the changes so often discussed at the time—the replacement of the rugged individualist by the "organization man," the "inner-directed" by the "outer-directed" personality, the self-interested, combative "Protestant Ethic" William Whyte described by the "Social Ethic," the classic tough guy by the Sensitive Man—were positive changes in keeping with the new reality.

In line with its dark view of human beings and suspicion of the prospects of radical change, the valorization of the status quo as having already largely solved the "social question," and the stress on everyone getting along (which made it at best uneasy with even discussing social class, class conflict, social power, social alternatives; with even fights over principle inclining the participants to "war to the death" rather than "pragmatic give and take"), the corporate-liberal viewed "ideology" as such with suspicion.1 Of course, one might ask how they could take this position when corporate-liberalism, clearly, was very obviously an ideology. The surprisingly simple answer is that they viewed their own position as not an ideology at all but as simply "facing the facts" in a value-free, pragmatic, "realistic" fashion, in contrast with the value-minded, principled "extremist." And corporate-liberalism's approach to building and maintaining that highly valued consensus reflected this "anti-ideological," technocratic outlook.

In line with its affinity for psychology (and its rejection of more radical views) it tended toward the treatment of dysfunction, and even simply disaffection with the status quo, as something akin to mental illness, requiring "therapy" (or, in Biskind's blunter language, manipulation). This entailed bringing others around to its understanding of the world by subtly inculcating its outlook in them, such that it would seem to them their own outlook (an "internalization of social control"), a practice further facilitated through a mobilization of peer pressure. They expected that the delinquent and even the "extremist" could be brought around in this manner, much more often than not. Where the real incorrigible had to be confronted, however, the corporate-liberal recognized that there might be no alternative to that use of force with which they were uncomfortable, tended to view as damaging to the user of force as well as its victim, and regarded as necessarily tragic, but went along with anyway on the presumption of TINA (There Is No Alternative)—reflected in its propensity for militant anti-Communism at home and abroad.

The other lines of thinking can be defined in relation to this (rather conservative) liberalism, with which they tended to compromise to one degree or another.2 Those to the right of center were militantly anti-Communist not because it was ideological or "extremist," but because it was contrary to their own ideals. They favored the rugged (and "Average") individual over the expert, over the Organization and its imperative of consensus, and trusted to laissez-faire-style private interest as not only the essence of freedom, but the surest way of maximizing the benefit of all. This did not mean their altogether dispensing with notions of community, but they preferred the small scale to the large, the small town to the big city, the local to the national (let alone the international). The dysfunctional and the disaffected were not seen as sick and in need of therapy, but as simply bad, and conservatives had far fewer qualms about using force against them. Indeed, the liberal's hesitation to use force was in itself suspect to them, their readiness to try to persuade or negotiate rather than fight faintly traitorous.

Nonetheless, there were profound differences not just with the liberal center, but to its right as well—the more moderate and "sophisticated" conservatives ready to align themselves with the corporate-liberals in the punch, while those to the right of them took the harder line. (Think the college-educated Fortune 500 executive graciously heeding the advice of an academic consultant, cordially negotiating with a union boss and accepting the New Deal as a necessary evil, as compared with a George Babbitt-style small-town small businessman for whom such a thing would be anathema.) Biskind terms the former "conservative," the latter "right-wing."3

Biskind has less occasion to discuss the left, simply because one could not make an overtly left-wing film in the Hollywood of not just the Hays' Code, but McCarthy, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the blacklist. Still, his clearing up the confusion about just what, exactly, "liberal" meant does much to clarify this as well. The embrace of ideology rather than its denial, the preference for Marx over Freud, the position that there are such things as class and class conflict and power elites, the search for social alternatives at home and reserve or opposition toward anti-Communism abroad, the suspicion of Organization Man and Organization and the therapeutic society on these grounds rather than those of the right, and all with which these things are associated (the ideas of, for example, a Mills), clearly situate a filmmaker or a work on the left—and peering through the cover lent by science fiction trappings and historical periods, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and High Noon give him occasion to analyze a leftist work.

Impressively, Biskind manages to convey this sophisticated analysis in a highly accessible manner, succinct and happily jargon-free. Of course, Biskind's work is, ultimately, a piece of film criticism rather than social history or social science in the narrower sense of these terms, and so his doing even an excellent job with this subject matter would mean only so much within a book that is not only about film, but overwhelmingly devoted to close reading of its collection of films—not only in its conception, but its use of the available space. At least where his selection of films is concerned—by no means small or unrepresentative—his discussion of '50s politics proves an excellent lens for understanding these movies. As he shows, while the hard-driving individualist, the tough guy, remained the darling of the radical right—Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead or The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell—elsewhere they were giving way to the more social, sensitive man better-adapted to the world of organizations than the old tough guys (neurotics or monsters or just out of date), like Montgomery Clift in Red River, heir to a John Wayne who built up his empire under old rules that no longer applied. Likewise Wayne's hard-driving commander in the conservative Flying Leathernecks had a corporate-liberal counterpart in Gregory Peck in Twelve O'Clock High, while that actor later went on to become an icon of the change as the executive who chooses family over career in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

On occasion Biskind may seem to overreach. For example, I am not entirely sure that 12 Angry Men is more interested in consensus than it is in justice. Still, even here I have found his argument hard to dismiss, so that a long time after first reading it I still find myself thinking about it—not only as an exploration of these films, but of the era that produced them. As Biskind makes very clear, that era did not last, could not have lasted, given the contradictions of its characteristic outlook, which by the 1960s could no longer be ignored or papered over the way they had before. Both the right and the left were to make themselves more strongly felt in the years that followed—and the center was no longer able to hold under that pressure, with film quickly reflecting this, not least in Anthony Perkins' career. One of the archetypal Sensitive Man leads in the '50s, the type was shortly presented as really a Psycho behind the Nice Guy facade in a role that quickly blotted out his earlier screen image—while Hollywood followed up its celebration of Billy Mitchell with its satire Dr. Strangelove. All the same, there has been continuity as well as rupture, enough that Biskind's analysis seems helpful not just in understanding that formative, earlier period, but the present as well, more so than the oceans of drivel we are apt to get about pop culture, politics and the link between the two today.

1. Where C. Wright Mills wrote of "the power elite," denied the existence of any such thing, democracy and the market diffusing power so much that the concept had no salience.
2. In its dark view of human nature, qualified confidence in reason, and aversion to social change, it seems philosophically more conservative than liberal, and rather conservative in many of its objectives as well. Indeed, it can be taken for a conservatism that, in line with the conservative intellectual tradition, was not about freezing change for all time, but making concessions to unavoidable change as life went on its way (one reason why it managed to get along with the modern big business conservatism described here, in contrast with the traditionalist kind).
3. Others have used different terminologies. In Mills' New Men of Power, the first category was dubbed "sophisticated conservative," the second "practical conservative."

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