R. Colin Tait – Antenna http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 Vivisecting The Knick http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/10/22/vivisecting-the-knick/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/10/22/vivisecting-the-knick/#comments Wed, 22 Oct 2014 16:11:38 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24816 The Knick, has become a critical darling, called the best in a new era of director-centered television. Kristen Warner, Lisa Coulthard, R. Colin Tait, and Andrew deWaard weigh in on its critical accolades.]]> 3-promo-teasers-for-steven-soderberghs-the-knickMuch has been made of Steven Soderbergh’s move to television and his direction of Cinemax’s new series The Knick. The show has experienced near-universal acclaim from the critics who have held it up as the best in a new era of director-centered television. But what is it about the show that has warranted these accolades? Four scholars weigh in here:

The Knick’s Clinical Style

Andrew deWaard

The Knick - Poking a Dead Horse

Poking a Dead Horse

Regarding the original script for The Knick, Steven Soderbergh “knew that if [he] said no, the second person who read it would say yes.” In fact, the critical reception of the show seems to find the only flaw to be the script and clunky dialogue, whereas the directing is considered, by Matt Zoller Seitz of New York Magazine, to be “the greatest sustained display of directorial virtuosity in the history of American TV.” We might consider, then, that perhaps the script itself wasn’t necessarily the attraction for Soderbergh, but the opportunity it presented to channel so many of his cinematic preoccupations and skills into one formal package.

Like his early, then-controversial experiment with a multi-platform day-and-date release for Bubble, a practice that has since become common for indie films, Soderbergh is again innovating at the margins of the industry by fronting all ten episodes of a prestige television series, a method that will now be employed by David Fincher and David Lynch as well. True Detective, a show which shares a production company (Anonymous Content) with The Knick, received much acclaim last year for its similar use of only one director, though not to the same degree of singular vision employed by Soderbergh and his many pseudonyms. As Peter Andrews he is the cinematographer and camera operator; as Mary Ann Bernard, the editor, a system he has employed for more than a decade in his filmmaking, as well as his first foray into television back in 2003 for the underrated K-Street.

Like the color-coded storylines in The Underneath and Traffic, as well as the expressive use of yellow in The Informant!, The Knick presents its hospital scenes in a stark monochrome with (literal) splashes of red, its wealthy interiors in bright, claustrophobic decadence, and its underclass exteriors in drab, underlit earth tones; each color palette plays a representative role. The use of natural light with a digital camera is another aspect of Soderbergh’s cinematography that has been honed over the years, from the early miniDV experiment Full Frontal and the HDNet-produced Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, to the frank, digital depictions of violence in Haywire and pandemic in Contagion.The reasons are technological (Soderbergh was an early, vocal proponent of the now common RED camera), financial (quicker, less costly setups), and performative (less stoppage means more fluid acting), but at The Knick, the lighting is both a literal and figurative concern, from the electrification of the hospital to the dynamics of power and enlightenment that energize the characters.

This visual scheme is also befitting of Soderbergh’s aim to sully the prestige of the period picture through formal means. Like The Good German, which uses only the filming equipment of the era but none of the constraints of the Hays code to present its tale of post-WWII American duplicity, or Che, which focuses on the day-to-day realities of revolution, Soderbergh’s approach to depicting history is to shine a natural light on the process, rather than the spectacle. The opening scene of The Knick features a child poking a dead horse; the rest of the series will graphically demonstrate in clinical detail how the history of technological progress, and early medical experimentation in particular, is not too far removed from that image.


After The Knick, Television Has No Excuse to Not Make Race Meaningfully Visible

Kristen Warner


A look at the professional and personal lives of the staff at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital during the early part of the twentieth century. Andre Holland and Clive Owen.

Having not noticed the marketing or promotion for the premiere of The Knick, I was unaware of Andre Holland’s presence and was pleasantly surprised to see him on screen in the pilot episode. Holland’s character Dr. Algernon Edwards arrives at the Knickerbocker hospital without much fanfare. The Black Harvard trained surgeon, just returning from a prominent residency in Paris, arrives at The Knick in search of Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery who he imagines will heartily welcome him to the hospital. Expecting a clichéd, superficial “race” conversation, I watched the first meeting between he and Thackery with mild interest. However, my mild interest became obsession once I witnessed Thackery realizing he had been fooled into hiring a Black man.

Edwards: I’m beginning to think you weren’t told everything about me. You envisioned something different I take it. Something…lighter.

Thackery: I did. And to be frank Dr. Edwards, I only agreed to this meeting as a courtesy to Ms. Robertson but I am certainly not interested in an integrated hospital staff.

Edwards: My skin color shouldn’t matter.

Thackery: Well if it doesn’t matter why was that information held back from me?

Edwards: You’ll have to ask Ms. Robertson.

Thackery: It’s also nowhere to be found on your credentials.

Edwards: Is your race listed on yours?

Thackery: There’s no need for it to be.

The conversation is a rarity for television because it cleverly allows for race and racial discrimination to exist both at the level of institution and at the individual. Thackery’s reservations about taking Edwards on are not solely bound to his personal feelings but also to the systemic structures that suggested Edwards’ Blackness would operate as an economic hardship for the already struggling hospital. What’s more, that the scene occurs with dark skinned Black coal workers in the background only adds to the layers of privilege Thackery comfortably rests on AND Edwards simultaneously distances himself from.

What’s more, the conversation seeds a larger idea of what Thackery and Edwards’ relationship will be forged upon—economics and efficiency through entrepreneurship. It is only after Thackery discovers Edwards’ underground clinic and learns of the inventions he has created that his Blackness takes a back seat to innovation and he is allowed to exist as more and yet still not enough because his demonstrable title and skill set are only permissible within the confines of the hospital.

Throughout the season we watched Edwards navigate his classed and gendered space between the equally classed and gendered worlds of whiteness and Blackness—because he can never truly belong in either. Cultural specificity as well as questions of racial self-fashioning, repression and respectability are carefully sutured into the text. Where to begin with the richness: Edwards’ Black cohabitants in his hotel whose dignity is tied up in pride and jealousy of what they don’t have, or those he brawls with because he can’t fight the white men, or the Black seamstresses who become surgical nurses (OMG!!) or the Black coal workers who become security for his clinic or his chemistry with my only issue in his storyline: the magically 21st century, post-racialized yet terribly naïve, white love interest Neely? It is rare—as in NEVER—to have such precision and intelligence and depth with regard to Black folks on television, let alone within one season of a series.

This leads to my final point: watching The Knick, I was reminded of the other television historical drama I watch: Mad Men. Years ago I wrote here that while early seasons of Mad Men may have had justifiable reason to strategically exclude Blackness from its text, I believed at some point the series would explicitly include race as part of its frame. As of yet, that still has not happened. Thus that The Knick, a tale of turn of the century New York City can find ways to make Black bodies visible and their experiences meaningful in a time and space they are not normally represented in media without resorting to hindsight smugness and Mad Men, a tale of 1950/60s New York City would not, is quite revealing.


“Pretty Silver Stitches”: the Sounds of Surgery in Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick

Lisa Coulthard


In his influential The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, R. Murray Schafer comments on the phenomenon of disappearing sounds in our acoustic environment — that certain sounds such as leather saddlebags, school hand bells and razors being stropped will someday be extinct and unknown. From the clop of horse hooves and wooden carriage wheels on brick roads to the glass and metal clink of medicine vials and hypodermics, representations of endangered sounds carry with them both a sonic nostalgia and a sometimes uncanny sense of the acoustic dead coming back to life. What is so intriguing about the soundscape of Steven Soderbergh’s circa 1900 New York in The Knick is the way it thoroughly and unambiguously rejects this sonic nostalgia, while at the same time adhering to and celebrating a degree of acoustic historicism. Many have commented favorably on the anachronism of the synthesizer and electronically based music of composer Cliff Martinez (a longtime collaborator of Soderbergh’s), noting that it offsets expectations and avoids clichéd citations of operettas, ragtime, classical or other music one might associate with the era. The complex music for the show instead emphasizes droning minimalism, electronic software synthesizers, and rhythms and tones more resonant of musique concrete than televisual scoring. In particular, the use of the baschet cristal, a mid-century friction ideophone favored by musique concrete composers indicates the musical ties are in not only anachronistic but in direct opposition to the period presented.

But the use of synthesizers and instruments such as the electric guitar or baschet cristal do more than merely distance The Knick  from its historically based setting. Stressing sounds more than distinct musical pieces, and blurring effects into music (via heartbeats or similar rhythms), Martinez’s music weaves through the series in an integrated way that, as Jed Mayer suggests, “does not so much accompany scenes as insinuate itself into them.” With no conventional credit sequence or series song, Martinez’s music occupies a pervasive rather distinct presence in The Knick. And yet, with titles such as “Pretty Silver Stitches,” “Son of Placenta Previa,” “Abscess,” and “Aortic Aneurysm junior,” Martinez’s music tracks stress the particular importance of music in the operating scenes. In the same way that Martinez’s use of electronic music and the physical vibratory tonalities of the baschet cristal highlight organic/inorganic binaries, so does the combination of music and sound effects in the surgery scenes. Heavily scored, these surgery scenes are also acoustically graphic – emphasizing the drainage of blood through hand cranked machines or vacuum suction, the spurting flow of fluids, the thud of blood soaked sponges, the metal and glass tings of surgery implements, the sounds effects of the operating room highlight the coming together of organic and inorganic materials in the act of twentieth century surgery. The anachronisms of the music are thus less shocking than one might think – engaged with organic and inorganic materials, blending sonic rhythms with music, and integrating into the action, Martinez’s music works in concert with the historically accuracies of the sound effects to create a split acoustic space, drained of the nostalgia for lost objects discussed by Schafer, but resonant with the coming together of bodies and machines that define the birth of modern surgery, which is after all The Knick’s central drama.


Clive Owen’s Dirtied Star Image in The Knick

R. Colin Tait


In Emily Nussbaum’s original New Yorker pan of The Knick, she stated that her biggest problem with the series is that it relies on cliches that have come to populate the latest iteration of the Premium Cable era of TV. Most offensive of these tropes to Nussbaum is the antiheroic figure of William Thackery — the brilliant, troubled, (ahem…racist) and cocaine-addicted surgeon played with particular fury by movie star Clive Owen. However, Thackery does not merely represent “more of the same” for TV’s era of “Difficult Men,” nor is this type a recent phenomenon. Nussbaum could just as easily be complaining about Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, Macbeth or King Richard the Third as examples of a well-worn type — complex characters whose moral ambiguity is a draw for both audiences and actors alike. Indeed, tragic complexity is nothing new, nor should it be treated as such.

Owen’s portrayal of Thackery is a revelation within his career for several reasons, partly due to the long-form seriality of the series and partly due to his collaboration with Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh has often coaxed career-best performances from his actors. Since he directs, shoots and lights all the scenes himself, the result is a remarkable sense of intimacy with his actors on the set. Second, the director often employs actors to work against their type – as in Matt Damon’s role in The Informant! where the actor gained forty pounds, or, more recently, where Michael Douglas refashioned himself in an Emmy-winning turn as flamboyant superstar pianist Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. Third, Soderbergh employs open framings, long-takes, and shoots little extra coverage, ensuring that the performance in front of the camera is solely the actor’s responsibility and that they bring their best as soon as the camera rolls.

Owen’s performance of Thackery – ranging from his cocaine-inspired megalomania to his pathetic, desperate moments trying to kick the drug – also conforms to a ‘modernist’ streak within Soderbergh’s work, where the actors effectively work so far against their star persona that it becomes “dirtied.” There is almost something of a Brechtian distanciation effect as we watch Owen perform Thackery, and it is impossible to separate the sensation of watching his performance from the sensation of watching the actor wreck their star image.

For Owen, playing Thackery allows the actor to do something that his film roles only partially allowed him to. Indeed, the most memorable Owen parts are the ones where he plays complicated, flawed characters (think Children of Men and Closer here) or where he was a handsome, blank slate (The Hire, Croupier). These characteristics have not always gelled with Hollywood stardom and have ultimately led to Owen only ascending so high as a leading man.

However, the new emphasis on flawed protagonists within cable television allows Owen to sit in his sweet spot. Playing Thackery affords the actor much more leeway to emphasize the traits that made him famous in the first place, ruggedly handsome, taciturn and intelligent instead of the ill-fitting action roles that he has sometimes been shoehorned into as a result of being a leading man in Hollywood.

What all the roles of the cable drama era have in common with Shakespearean drama – ranging from Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in Breaking Bad, to Michael Sheen’s portrayal of William Masters in Masters of Sex, to Owen in The Knick – is they separate the actor from their stardom, distilling each performance down to the specifics of their complexity and allowing the actors and their audiences to revel in the dirt.




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Steven Soderbergh: Television’s Latest Showrunner/Auteur http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/08/12/steven-soderbergh-televisions-latest-showrunnerauteur/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/08/12/steven-soderbergh-televisions-latest-showrunnerauteur/#comments Tue, 12 Aug 2014 17:12:00 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=24345 The Knick, resulting in a very heavy ride on the Steven Soderbergh bandwagon.]]> At the KnickTaking no time whatsoever between his retirement from film and his move to television comes Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick — a period medical drama starring Clive Owen and released on HBO’s less reputable sister station Cinemax. Soderbergh’s unique signature is fully on display in the series, not simply in terms of his distinctive color palette and fly-on-the-wall camerawork, in his alternating timelines and flashbacks, or the show’s association with a star who often gives the performance of their career (as Owen delivers here), but with his preoccupations with themes of social justice, atheism, race, social class and the institutions where these ideas intersect.

Because the director is also his own cinematographer and editor (under the pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard) the final product is a distinctive Steven Soderbergh experience — something in-between a medical procedural and an art-film. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the ambient score of longtime collaborator Cliff Martinez, whose anachronistic synth score makes the series all the more remarkable. It is precisely this fusion of cinema, television and personality that has critics resounding with near-universal praise for the show, resulting in a very heavy ride on the Soderbergh bandwagon.

Curiously enough, Soderbergh has actually received some of his highest praise for his work on The Knick. Reading the reviews, one almost forgets that only six years earlier, critics stormed out of Che at the Cannes Film Festival, beginning the filmmaker’s long and slow departure from the film industry. Soderbergh’s other engagements with history have barely registered in the critical canon. More accurately, they were all panned. Soderbergh’s second film, Kafka, with its concern with the 19th century, bad science, mad doctors and their experiments on live subjects fared so poorly that it has yet to be released on DVD. Nevertheless, The Knick and Owen’s Dr. Thackery share DNA with this early film. Likewise, The Good German was so poorly reviewed that it shares the same Rotten Tomatoes rating as Paul Blart: Mall Cop (both at 33% fresh).

As someone who has studied the filmmaker-cum-TV-showrunner for some time, this is the most fascinating part of this story, for me, as Soderbergh’s reputation has been rehabilitated entirely —  to the point of retrospectives emerging which praise movies that were universally accepted as failures (even Solaris!) as few as several years earlier.

So, what accounts for the change in opinion? Well, as Andrew deWaard and I argued in our volume The Cinema of Steven Soderbergh: indie sex, corporate lies and digital videotape, the director has always been ahead of his time and oftentimes ahead of his critics and audiences. Thus, his direction doesn’t always match with the moment that his films are released, nor with the critical climate in which they are received. But when Soderbergh wins, he wins big — as evidenced by his Oscar win for Traffic in 2001, his Palme D’or for sex, lies and videotape in 1989, and his recent Emmy win for Behind the Candelabra (2013). Similar to the indie moment ushered in with sex, lies and videotape, (coincidentally, almost 25 years ago to the day of The Knick’s release) the series marks the director’s return to the spotlight at a moment when conversation about American culture is shifting away from “cinema” and towards quality TV. Not only does it presumably mark the arrival (or legitimacy) of television as an art form, but arrives as a sort of art-film/quality television fusion. The Knick lands at a moment when debates about TV include calls by critics such as Matt Zoller Seitz to consider television’s aesthetic qualities and studies by academics such as Michael Z. Newman and Elana Levine’s, who chronicle television’s ascendence as a “legitimate” cultural form.

The Knick is, finally, an example of Soderbergh’s business savvy and his investment in his personal brand. Though Soderbergh has always pushed at the borders of creativity, industry, technology and commerce, his move to Cinemax (rather than HBO, even though he had the opportunity to) has certainly bought him more leverage and exposure with this series — not to mention control of the way it is being received. Soderbergh’s doubling down on the medium has him executive producing two more shows for upstart networks – one an anthology series based on his 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience for Starz, and another, Red Oaks, a series pilot for Amazon directed by his longtime collaborator and 1st Assistant Director Gregory Jacobs.

We’ll see how The Knick fits into the director’s ongoing and storied career after the series rolls out but I think that it’s safe to say that Soderbergh’s signature and influence will pop up in other unexpected places on the small screen for some time to come.



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Roundtable: The “Implosion” of the Blockbuster? http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/06/18/roundtable-the-implosion-of-the-blockbuster/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/06/18/roundtable-the-implosion-of-the-blockbuster/#comments Tue, 18 Jun 2013 13:00:40 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=20531 Mainstream critics have traded in the narrative of Hollywood’s “end times” for as long as film has existed. However, the recent adoption of this trope by retiring filmmaker Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco Film Festival and blockbuster pioneers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas at the opening address of the Lucas-funded USC School of cinematic arts building, warrants our asking whether their positions as filmmaker-producers somehow makes these claims more legitimate or whether they are merely echoing these oft-repeated sentiments within an industry in transition.

Among some of Lucas and Spielberg’s predictions are the assertions that the Hollywood blockbuster model has become unsustainable to the point that several failed tent-pole releases will cause the industry to go bankrupt, that movie prices in the future will resemble the $100+ ticket Broadway theatre model, and that television and video game narratives will eventually become the only place for creative types to display their creative talents.

What are we to make of these assertions? To answer that question, Antenna has indulged me in the assembly of a ‘blockbuster’ team of scholars and historians (Brenda Austin-Smith, Chuck Tryon, Tom Schatz, and Alisa Perren) each of whom has their own take on the recent events. Instead of allowing the increasingly uniform view of the “Implosion” of Hollywood to take hold, our intention is to generate more conversation to frame these rather dire pronouncements within their proper context.

We invite your comments and look forward to your contributions to the evolving conversation.


Where do We Start?  Brenda Austin-Smith

There are so many points of entry into this discussion—where do we start? First off why would the industry adopt a Broadway model, when the point of Broadway is the physical presence of the performers, and the unpredictability of performances? The expectation of nuance, interpretation, and difference—response effects between audience and performers–is a lot of what makes Broadway work. It’s not just about sets and costumes.

The ‘implosion’ claim, based on the prediction of a few major failures, belies the kind of marketing strategies that John Sedgewick studies in his work on the economics of film. Studios tend to treat films as items in a portfolio. Big films can fail, but these failures are often hedged by several other minor successes, and studios can re-direct marketing resources rapidly to capitalize on early box office returns. The shift to the all-eggs-in-one-blockbuster-basket mode of production doesn’t sound like a credible business practice, though it makes for dramatic copy.

The comments about gaming intrigue me. Prestige games like Bioshock and Dishonored do indeed tell complicated stories, and empathy has never been the only emotion bonding viewers to fictional characters (think Shakespeare; think Norman Bates and the car we all worry won’t sink into that swamp). I think that in many games, the affective impetus is not so much empathy as it is anxiety over the survival of one’s avatar, which is pretty powerful as an engine of attachment to the workings of a game. Having to keep your virtual wits about you jacks your adrenalin (horror films can work this way too) and you imprint on the experience. Some games ask you to take responsibility for your choices, to face up to what your avatar has become, or to refrain from an action in order to make something of yourself. These are not simplistic psychological or emotional moves. The slight against video games in favor of films misrepresents both why we watch films (its not always about whom we like or feel for) and why we play games.


Lucas’s and Spielberg’s Crocodile Tears?  Thomas Schatz

Are those crocodile tears or what? Spielberg is worried that films like Lincoln won’t get a proper release? Soderbergh stepping away is one thing – and he’s actually stepping away. But listening to the two most powerful men (and of course they’re men) in Hollywood lament the state of the industry is more than a little frustrating, since both are in a position to actually do something about it. Soderbergh jokingly suggested that a studio give him the cost of producing and marketing a high-end tent-pole movie – a half-billion dollars, say – and let him use it to produce a slate of films. This is chump change for either Lucas or Spielberg; maybe one of them might oblige.

Perhaps the answer partly lies with the scheme Soderbergh thought of in cahoots with Mark Cuban. That day-and-date deal that he and Soderbergh cooked up several years back makes more sense than ever now. The real problem is that the antiquated model keyed to a domestic theatrical launch is working better than ever. Spielberg’s speculation about the studios releasing a string of mega-budget bombs and changing their ways is a pipe dream and he knows it. He and Lucas taught the majors all too well how to engineer global entertainment machines.


Spielberg, Lucas, and The Blockbuster Mode of Production — Chuck Tryon

As someone who has been thinking quite a bit about movie distribution, I found myself asking a number of questions about Spielberg and Lucas’s USC comments, in which Spielberg predicted that a cycle of box-office bombs could lead to an “implosion” of the Hollywood model, a claim that Lucas quickly endorsed.

First, it’s worth asking whether the imagined future they were describing—what Lucas called a “Broadway” model featuring $100 tickets and movies lingering in theaters for over a year—had any basis in reality. Like many other scholars, including Geoff King, I’m skeptical.  Thanks in part to the films of Spielberg and Lucas, the blockbuster mode of production has been successful for several decades now. Even when studios face a summer with tepid U.S. box office, they benefit from post-theatrical sales (cable, DVD) and from ancillary products (toys, video games, etc). Furthermore, this blockbuster model has only been reinforced by its expansion into overseas markets, creating a situation where Iron Man 3 might play in Beijing, China, several days before it arrives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Studios are not going to disrupt this model with expensive tickets that will alienate their core market: teenagers and young adults with limited budgets (not to mention the capability of pirating those movies if ticket prices get too high). Allowing movies to remain in theaters for several months would also be a non-starter. Studios and theaters alike depend on rapid churn. They need movies to circulate out of theaters relatively quickly so that those same teenagers will return to fork over ten bucks (twelve with the 3D surcharge) for the pleasure of seeing something else on the big screen, usually involving astounding special effects. If anything, theatrical windows are narrowing, as studios work to have their films available on DVD or on VOD as quickly as possible, a shift that Edward Jay Epstein documented several years ago.

Hollywood blockbusters routinely fail to meet box office expectations—Disney’s 2012 film John Carter, for example, is now a distant memory. But in the blockbuster era, there are always more options at the multiplex, especially as movies circulate through the theatrical window at an even faster pace than ever before.


Soderbergh, Spielberg and Lucas: Filmmakers at the Crossroads? — R. Colin Tait

What intrigues me about the statements from Soderbergh, Lucas and Spielberg is that they were even spoken aloud at all. On a basic level, these high-profile proclamations seem wildly out of step with the industry’s practice of upbeat self-promotion. Instead, the impression these statements produce is that it is no longer fun to make movies in Hollywood anymore.

And maybe it’s not. Soderbergh’s departure follows the frustrating experiences of his being fired from Moneyball and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and his difficulty securing studio financing for Behind the Candelabra. Similarly, Lucas and Spielberg faced similar bumps with the commercial failure of Lucas-produced Red Tails (after which he sold Lucasfilm to Disney!) and the somewhat disappointing cultural impact of Lincoln, which failed to garner sufficient Oscar traction in the wake of Argo’s momentum.

So, while it is impossible to quantify whether these assessments about Hollywood are correct, there is something about these statements that feels true about the state of the cinema, particularly relating to an individual director’s ability to marry art with commerce. There also seems to be something true about the creative freedoms of television, not to mention the presumed sophistication of those audiences which Soderbergh, Lucas and Spielberg all covet.

Lucas’s, Spielberg’s and Soderbergh’s statements evoke a general sense of anxiety in the wake of Hollywood’s new paradigm, which may or may not also include a generational shift. Instead of ushering in the New Hollywood or Indie Cinema moment – as they did several generations earlier – Lucas and Spielberg have become the grumpy establishment figures they themselves sought to replace, while Soderbergh remains a transitional figure wedged between the old and the new.


Spielberg, Lucas and the Popular Press — Alisa Perren

As interesting as Lucas and Spielberg’s comments may be, I am especially intrigued by the press coverage of their remarks. This coverage largely has perpetuated the notion of TV as a culturally inferior form (HBO excluded, of course) as well as reinforced an idealized notion of cinema, tying its “value” to the theatrical experience.  In addition, the growing challenges to the film industry’s business model frequently are being conflated with the creative output of that industry (and beyond). The quality of the films and the state of the film business simply are not the same.

What I have found most intriguing is that, thus far, no one has situated these filmmakers in relation to their generation. Yet as I read the coverage of the USC event, I couldn’t help but imagine Peter Biskind rushing off to write a dramatic new coda to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Jason Bailey of Flavorwire sees their remarks as the epitome of hypocrisy. He asks how the two filmmakers who are arguably the most responsible for setting in motion the current blockbuster system more than thirty years ago could now attack it so vociferously. One answer is that people like them – as well as Lynda Obst, who issued her own ideas on the “broken” state of the business in Slate over the weekend – are now objecting to current conditions because they are finally being adversely affected by the technological, economic, and cultural shifts that have been in process for quite some time. Only now are those who were most senior, most financially successful, and most insulated within the Hollywood structure (i.e., bubble) apparently facing head on what everyone else working at lower levels of power or outside the system altogether have faced for years, even decades. And when the biggest names are affected (and talking), the press can’t help but cover it. As Geoff King observes, this situation opens a space for scholars to intervene and provide the context often lacking in the breathless media reports.




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Steven Soderbergh’s Spectacular Un-Retirement http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/05/30/steven-soderberghs-spectacular-un-retirement/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2013/05/30/steven-soderberghs-spectacular-un-retirement/#comments Thu, 30 May 2013 13:00:25 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=19982 Behind the Candelabra will be his last, the director has been busy at work setting the stage for his second act as a TV/stage director-painter-novelist-t-shirt entrepreneur and headphone designer-hyphenate.]]> behind-the-candelabra-steven-soderbergh-michael-douglas2

Since announcing his retirement from filmmaking, Steven Soderbergh amped up his famously prolific output, releasing a staggering eight films between 2009 and 2013. This phase contains some of the most-successful and best-reviewed works of his career, including Contagion, Magic Mike, Haywire, Side Effects, and the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last week.

With the airing of Candelabra – the highest rated film for HBO since 2004  – Soderbergh announced that while he sees this as his last movie, this does not mean that he is retiring from artistic ventures per se. Instead, the director has been setting the stage for his second-act as TV/stage director-painter-novelist-t-shirt entrepreneur and headphone designer-hyphenate.

Some of these roles are obviously on the traditional side of art and industry, as are his plans to direct for the Broadway stage – several plays that screenwriter partner Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion, and Side Effects) wrote – and two musicals. The first of these is the inevitable stage adaptation of Magic Mike, slated for Broadway next season and which could feature audience participation in the form of lap dances. The director plans to stage his long-gestating Cleopatra musical, possibly starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.

The director’s recent statements at the State of Cinema Address at the San Francisco Film Festival seemingly provide his rationale for leaving filmmaking. In the 45-minute speech, Soderbergh described the new conservatism of Hollywood Studios. In the current economic climate,  these risk-averse studios will not even fund pre-sold properties with A-list stars such as Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. According to the director, every studio turned Candelabra away, because the film was deemed “too gay.”

Given the film’s extremely positive reviews, its bravura performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon and its big numbers for HBO, Soderbergh may not simply be having the last laugh, but is leaving the film industry on a high note and under his own terms.

Citing the creative possibilities of the medium and the sophistication of TV audiences, it may not be too surprising that the director announced that he is migrating to the medium. First up, he will be making a ten-part series, entitled “The Knick” – a series which takes place in the Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the 20th Century for HBO affiliate, Cinemax. Soderbergh is also adapting John Barthes’ cult 1960s novel The Sot-Weed Factor into a 12-episode series that he intends to either distribute through television or via Netflix.

Soderbergh is also exploring the creative possibilities of the Internet. One such project is his live-tweeting a spy novella entitled “Glue” via his twitter handle @bitchuation. The novella is distinguished by way of its second-person narration and is occasionally accentuated by pictures of its European setting.


Perhaps even more strange is the release of Soderbergh’s new website Extension 765 (itself an obscure reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation). The site is billed as a “One-of-a-kind marketplace from Steven Soderbergh” and fans can not only purchase souvenir items from his various productions (such as the clapboard from Erin Brockovich) but can also buy one of Soderbergh’s new film-savvy line of T-Shirts, each of which contains an obscure reference to a canonical film.

Strangest of all is a page related to the director’s enterprise as a would-be Bolivian liquor salesman – which consists of some purple prose describing the drink, a bizarre poster of Soderbergh as spokesman, and a brief video of a roller derby team in motion, rendered in the director’s signature style. To my mind, the page and the website verge on the territory explored by Banksy in Exit Through the Gift-Shop and I would not be entirely surprised if, given the director’s proclivity for experimentation combined with dry wit if the whole Bolivian liquor venture turned out to be the director’s attempt to synthesize advertising, enterprise and art.

Soderbergh Bolivia

While many artists have famously crossed into other arts and enterprises and back again, what seems unique in this case is how determined Soderbergh is to free himself of the constraints of studio filmmaking at the height of their conservatism and find a new sandbox to play in. Perhaps one of the most distinguishing features of the director’s career is his uncanny ability to be on the cutting edge of new technologies (which may also account for his desire to collaborate on a headphone line with the makers of the RED-one camera) and to ride ahead of the crest of industry trends. Perhaps even more ironically, Soderbergh’s new role as a media polymath and industry soothsayer seems to have given Soderbergh some the best press of his career, not to mention the auteur status that has largely eluded him for most of his time as a filmmaker.

Clearly, Soderbergh is not going anywhere. Instead, he may simply be migrating to where he believes his audiences are, finding the best ways to interact with them — whether by way of television, via twitter or by simply inventing his own marketplace from scratch.


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When the Magic Kingdom Ate the Galactic Empire http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/11/02/when-the-magic-kingdom-ate-the-galactic-empire/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2012/11/02/when-the-magic-kingdom-ate-the-galactic-empire/#comments Fri, 02 Nov 2012 14:54:12 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=16161 For many, the announcement of the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for over four billion dollars may have come as a shock. My feeds were abuzz not only with skepticism for the deal, but with questions about what this means for the larger Star Wars universe. This was especially true of critics, captains of industry and creative types, all of whom weighed in on what this might possibly mean for the series’ continuing relevance, market, including Andrew O’HeirAlyssa Rosenbergbusiness typesdirectors, and other superfans.

On top of it all, Disney released word that they will be rebooting the franchise – making the sequels for films seven through nine, as well as aggressively merchandising and monetizing all of the Star Wars material through its international distribution wings. Lucas went so far as to say that in another life, Disney might have made the Star Wars franchise, especially given their innovative practices in marketing and monetizing their characters.

For Disney, the deal is a no-brainer. After acquiring Marvel in 2009 (also for $4 billion) we can see how the conglomerate is actively pursuing opportunities to expand its TV, movie and theme park domination, as well as ensuring that they are catering to the purchasing needs and desires of children – especially tween and teen boys. Moreover, the deal gives the studio the ability to market to their parents by way of nostalgia for the cultural touchstones that has always been a key to Disney’s success. The acquisition of Marvel and the Star Wars empires are natural fits for a company that already dominates the tween girls side of the market.

Conglomerates are always on the lookout for any new franchise possibility, which has become ever-important to a studio’s bottom-line. Disney is one of the few studios without a successful live-action franchise, having been burned by their experiments with The Chronicles of Narnia series, their recent attempt at launching a John Carter franchise, and the subsequent flops of both. More importantly, perhaps, Disney has not been successful in generating new intellectual content for some time outside of its TV efforts. Instead, the secret to company’s success in the past 30 years has been acquiring talent and properties through buyouts after a company proves its success, as in the cases of Miramax (1993), The Muppets (2004), Pixar (2006),  Marvel (2009) and now Lucasfilm to name only a few of these savvy deals.

For both companies, this is a win-win scenario. For Disney, they get an already tried and true film franchise, and Lucas has already signed off on the sequels and all of the “treasure trove” of spin-off material that he has assembled through the years. For Lucas, he gets to retire, pocket a lot of cash, and divest himself of the responsibility for the Empire (and, if we are to believe him, settle down to make small, experimental movies, as well as to engage in philanthropic enterprises).

This deal also seems to me to have been in the works for some time now. As someone who has been on multiple trips to Disney’s Orlando parks in the past several years, the shifts in Disney’s Hollywood Studio (formerly Disney’s MGM Studio) has increasingly depended upon Lucas-driven products to fill its park. Facing increasing competition from Universal Studios Orlando (and its Islands of Adventure sub-park, which features Marvel characters – whose licensing will likely have to be renegotiated in the wake of Disney’s takeover of those properties), and having lost the right to use the MGM name, the Hollywood Studio seems to be in the most need of a clear identity within the stable of Disney parks.

My guess is that it has been increasingly obvious to the folks at Disney that Star Wars was the property that Disney had always hoped would fill the void here, especially given the complicated licensing of the Marvel characters, and they have already made inroads into producing a revenue stream via their re-vamped Star Tours ride (remade with Lucas’ personal touch) as well as their now-annual Star Wars Weekends.

Having accidentally attended this year’s incarnation of the Star Wars weekend, one can see the huge potential for both Lucasfilm’s and Disney’s bottom line. The already packed park was super-packed with patrons, all of whom were able to interact with incredibly authentic characters from the films as well as purchase products ranging from lightsabers to full-sized reproductions of themselves in carbonite.

To me, one of the more interesting things about the announcement was the way that fans and internet types went ahead and started mashing up the images from the two corporations. However, this seems to me to be a case of where Disney is actually well ahead of the game, having already married their characters and properties to the Star Wars merchandise, as seen in some of these various combinations.

More to the point, all of these wares are on sale in “Darth’s Mall” during the weekend and the sheer variety of products can be seen in this fan video:

While there have been various reactions throughout the twitter-sphere, for fans, this is definitely a win. There is already speculation as to what the content of the new films will be, and I think that most people will agree that getting Lucas away from the tight reins of control is probably beneficial to everyone – especially anyone looking forward to innovative new works in the ever-expanding Star Wars universe. No matter what ends up happening, we are clearly in for another wave of hype, which is perhaps the most valuable commodity that Disney bought in this transaction.


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The Beastie Boys’ Full Court Media Press http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/04/28/the-beastie-boys%e2%80%99-full-court-media-press/ http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/04/28/the-beastie-boys%e2%80%99-full-court-media-press/#comments Thu, 28 Apr 2011 05:30:41 +0000 http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/?p=9123 Rather than predictably fade away, the music video’s migration from TV to the internet has actually created an even stronger form of media, ushering in a renaissance of works where music artists have embraced virality and consolidated their power as producers and directors of these short works. The Beastie Boys’ new short film “Fight for Your Right Revisited” is one of three recent entries of this trend, capping off a season that included Kanye West’s “Runaway”  and Arcade Fire’s upcoming “Scenes from the Suburbs.

Because the Beastie Boys – Adam Yauch (MCA), Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) – have been at it longer than anyone (except maybe Weird Al) their new short film “Fight For Your Right Revisited” encapsulates all of these issues; pointing back to the Beasties’ own significant contributions to the medium, while simultaneously embodying the new convergent logic of viral videos and contemporary advertising.

The announcement of the video made its way across the official and unofficial channels of viral advertising where facebook links to this preview clip managed to garner 2.5 million views in the two weeks since it was released on youtube alone. As of this Saturday (4/23/2011), the film and an album preview were simultaneously released, reflecting a ‘full-court digital media press’ from the band, appropriately debuting their album “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” with a live stream of a boom box at centre court of Madison Square Garden.

An oral history of the band in New York Magazine only reinforced a marketing campaign reliant on ubiquity and virality. The film simultaneously debuted on hulu.com and the Palladia Channel, the latter an HD outlet for concert videos and the site where the 30-minute length of these films actually makes a lot of sense. These short films are even more appropriate to the needs of cable TV, where they can be played as half-hour blocks of programming rather than being incorporated and subsumed into the larger flow of a VJ’s mix. Since Saturday, the band has also provided the entire album for free streaming online, as a reaction to, or against, the illegal downloading of it, stating,

…as a hostile and retaliatory measure with great hubris we are making the full explicit aka filthy dirty nasty version available for streaming on our site.

“Fight for Your Right Revisited” works slightly better in its “preview form,” promising many stars jammed into a video, as well as the shock at seeing Danny McBride, Elijah Wood, Seth Rogen as the “younger” version of the band as they face off against the “older” version played by Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Jack Black. It works well within the confines of the funnyordie.com genre or your average internet meme, piquing the viewer’s interest and prompting them to share with their friends accordingly.

The film, on the other hand, seems predisposed to reward insider knowledge of the band, so that their characteristic backwards tracking shots and slow-motion replays – not to mention wealth of pop-culture references that litter their videos and songs – creates a weave of familiar elements from dummies flying through the air to iconic imagery and visual style. Produced by MCA’s film company, Oscilloscope Productions, and directed by Ad-Rock, it is an example of how the Beasties’ operate as their own cultural producers, originating film and music content. All of this indicates the larger corporate structure of the band, and the convergent logic of which the video is only the tip of the iceberg.

The film is both insular and points outward. It is both a playful reflection on the band’s meaning and travels within the past 25 years, as well as a text that indicates the Beasties’ influence within a larger cultural net of references, fandoms, stars and other texts. The presence of the “Beastie Boys” in iconic garb from a long-lost era indicates the barest glimpse in this hall of mirrors, just as the presence of Will Ferrell playing the cowbell not only evokes the idea of his own famous “more cowbell” sketch as well as the Beasties’ own “Hey Ladies” video, complete with Mariarchi cowbell player.

Each of these images, stars and texts act as palimpsests throughout the piece, making the lines between original, extratextual, paratextual and hypertextual difficult to discern. In fact, the film is the sum total of all of these references as well as a hub which points outward to many more.

At the same time, it is almost impossible to view the film without watching the original video, suggesting that the film, video and its use of the many, many stars is a much larger affair than it originally appears. It not only embodies the logic of a new tendency within music and video, moving beyond the confines of the TV network, but a larger strategy which elevates the group to the role of director and producer. The music video’s transformation into film and migration to the internet is actually a stronger vehicle for artistic autonomy writ large, where the former network restrictions regarding content have eroded, and the agency of the spectator can actually engage with the material at their leisure, rather than waiting for the network to air it.

All of which is to say that the link between consumer and producer (the artists) is even more robust and that the video, or film, is very much alive and well 25 years later. The Beastie Boys continue to fight, but instead of their “rights to party,” they fight for new products controlled and distributed by them, and for new ways that we can consume them.


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