Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Problem with Hollywood.

Every so often, the entertainment media posts dire predictions regarding the state of American moviemaking, quoting statistics about slumping box office receipts, decrying a dearth of films for older audiences and showcasing a general lack of enthusiasm for what’s playing in the multiplex as harbingers of an eventual celluloid death knell. But all those factors can be traced back to one source. And it’s not Michael Bay.
It’s youth. Youth is the problem in H-wood.
That’s because producers—who are all either septuagenarians or one knish away from being septuagenarians—all think fresh ideas can only come from kids. The thinking here: young adults are a sought-after demographic, and who better to tap into their zeitgeist than other youth? So, a majority of movies today are written by 20-year-old guys. No lie.
And that’s the problem: think about the average 20-year-old. He doesn’t have enough life experience to figure out how to pay the bills or have a real conversation, let alone craft believable dialogue or situations. But on the other hand, the average 20-year-old has a kick-ass collection of X-Men action figures. And a healthy fantasy life—one involving Ferraris, women who are basically playthings and swank situations choreographed to a hip-hop beat. And that’s why movies look the way they do.
Because of these “fresh” thinkers, you’re showered with scenes in which characters walk slowly away from huge explosions without ducking the debris.  Or ADD action sequences devoid of logic. Or scenes where the middle-class, sixty-year-old father of a character shows up at dinner with a smoking 20-year-old girlfriend. A smoking 20-year-old girlfriend in a tube top and Daisy Dukes.
Think about it. It’s a 20-year-old’s wish fulfillment, written out in Final Script format: “Bro! When I’m, like, ancient, I’m gonna have a totally hot young babe! In Daisy Dukes!” And, given that uber-rich producers actually have 20-year-old girlfriends, they greenlight this stuff, thinking every guy stands a similar chance. But, really. Can a 60-year-old actuarial in Des Moines bag a Megan Fox-alike? Riiiight.
That twentysomething sensibility also extends into movies with strong older female characters. As in, there aren’t any. The typical screenwriter’s only contact with an older female is his mom—and she’s been nagging him for years to shave off that ridiculous goatee. So what are the chances that he’s going to craft a drama with older (read: real) women? Slim, unless that woman carries a flamethrower to wreck havoc on an alien brood.
So what’s the antidote to all this celluloid silliness? One step could be exploring the talents of older, more diverse writers. It couldn’t be worse than what’s playing at the slumping box office now, where the return-on-investment is sorely lacking.
And, perhaps Hollywood could take a page from successful films like The Kids Are All Right, which boasted a female creative team. Or maybe it only means looking as far as this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay for a model screenwriter. That guy was 70-years-old. And he didn’t bring a smoking 20-year-old girlfriend in a tube top and Daisy Dukes to the awards.
She wore a backless dress.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Oprah = Death.

Mega-mogul Oprah Winfrey is a lot of things. Media doyenne. Magazine publishing dynamo. Bestower of Favorite Things. Book club tastemaker. And, as it turns out, accessory to murder.

As part of a retooling of her self-named television gabfest, Winfrey created a panel of BFFs, allowing them to carry the show while she orchestrated the proceedings, sitting back like a benevolent dictator. That’s how the world came to know Dr. Oz and Gayle King and Bob Greene. And that’s when Jenny McCarthy became a semi-regular annoyance, braying on about this and that while Ms. Oprah clucked and chuckled like a fat hen overseeing the roost.

A little background on Our Gal Jenny. She shot to fame on the strength of her pictorial in Playboy, one where she wore her actual uniform from her actual Sout’ Side Chic-a-gah catholic high school. And as we all know, nothing screams success in the media mainstream like a naughty catholic schoolgirl. The spread—pun intended—led to roles in game shows and forgettable movies, proving the adage that we like our naughty catholic school girls, but not so much that we’d pay for a movie ticket to see them.

Her star fading, Jenny then made a splash as an advocate. That’s right, another cause-oriented celeb. Her take, though, was personal—she was advocating against autism. Scratch that. She wasn’t advocating against autism, but actually against common childhood vaccines, because she believed they gave her young son autism.

She showcased research by a UK physician who claimed definitive proof that a component in the MMR vaccine (Measles, Mumps and Rubella for all you folks out there without ankle biters in your household) actually triggered autism in otherwise healthy children. His evidence: a study he conducted with a small cohort of adolescent children. Conducted at a kid’s birthday party. Which probably was still more fun than a party clown.

Armed with this research, Jenny was off to the races. She held rallies. Wrote books. Trotted out her son to events. And used the airwaves on Oprah to beseech parents not to inoculate their children. Over and over and over again. Oprah, for her part, didn’t provide an expert with a dissenting voice.

Because if she did, she wouldn’t have to look too far. That’s because the medical community discredited the original research as flawed, finding no correlation between the vaccines and autism. At the time, the medical community cited the researcher’s methodology, since test subjects were culled from toddlers attending the birthday party and not a random sample. To boot, the parents, all friends, were paid to participate and fill out the medical background dockets on each participant, skewing the findings toward the desired goal.

In fact, some independent experts questioned whether McCarthy’s son actually had autism to begin with, since all the footage of all those rally appearances showed no outward signs of autistic behavior. An aside: prior to latching onto the my-son-has-autism-caused-by-vaccines position, McCarthy claimed the boy was an “Indigo Child.” Unfortunately, that wacky assertion would take far too long to explore here.

Because of all the hullaballoo, McCarthy’s tireless self-promotion and Oprah’s media, ahem, weight, parents started to decline giving their children the vaccine. What’s more, McCarthy claimed she miraculously cured her son by changing his diet. Which meant a whole new round of Oprah appearances, where McCarthy discredited actual medicine and science, touting “mom science,” some sort of intuitive, I-just-know-what’s-best-for-my-child thing.

Problem was, pharmaceutical companies had removed the questioned component from the vaccines years ago, and new cases of autism hadn’t decreased. In fact, they actually rose, meaning the component definitively wasn’t the cause. And then, as they say, the other shoe dropped.

That original researcher? Seems he had a business deal with a set of attorneys who wanted to bring suit against vaccine makers and needed a good case study. And he wanted to develop his own vaccine to replace the MMR—which could only be done if the original vaccine was discredited and banned. So, he concocted the whole thing for personal gain, giving voice to a crackpot contingent. People like Jenny McCarthy.

And here’s where things get sad. Since McCarthy’s campaign, thousands of young children have died from the diseases they weren’t inoculated for—all because moms dialed into Oprah and heard a Playmate centerfold foist official-sounding claptrap on them about the supposed dangers of vaccines.

It gets worse. Thousands of other children, too young to get the vaccines, have gotten ill because they’d been exposed to children who had those diseases because their moms dialed into Oprah and heard a Playmate centerfold foist official-sounding claptrap on them about the supposed dangers of vaccines.

Thousands of kids have died. Needlessly. Autism is devastating for families. But the lack of proper inoculation can also be devastating for communities. And the world. Because diseases that were, by and large, eradicated are making significant inroads back.

When asked about her part in all this by reporters a while back, Ms. Oprah pulled her pashmina shawl tightly around herself and yapped, in that fake British accent of hers, about how her show of course provides a forum for ideas, and how her audience of course doesn’t take her word as fact and of course they do their own research into the issues brought on during the hourly show. Of course.

Except, of course, they don’t. When Oprah sez jump, they jump, whether it’s to push a novel to the top of the bestseller charts or to buy the latest gizmo featured as a favorite. So the next time you see the star of stage, screen and satellite radio pontificating about her trip with Gayle to Mt. Everest or somesuch, just whisper to yourself, quietly, quickly: murderer.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Saint Ron.

This past weekend, hundreds of big and small celebrations took place across the nation, celebrating the 100th birthday of former president Ronald Reagan with speechifying, fond memories and even a cake or two. By all accounts, a great time was had by all … except for the birthday boy himself. Because, well, he’s dead.

It may seem strange to have birthday blowouts for a President who’s shuffled off this mortal coil. After all, you don’t see people breaking out the party hats when Roosevelt’s birthday rolls around, or someone getting a six-foot sub for the gang coming over to honor Millard Fillmore’s. Although, it would be pretty cool to celebrate Nixon’s birthday, because Party City still has a bunch of leftover pentagram decorations from Halloween.

But here it was, the 100th birthday of the Gipper and people across our great land were partying like it was 1999. Or 1982, to be more precise. Folks were getting positively misty with 80s nostalgia. Maybe even a Frankie Goes to Hollywood record or two was played. And all sorts of politicos were tripping over themselves to be the first to extol the virtues of The Great Communicator.

So why all the hubbub? Because these days, conservatives are being assailed from all sides. First, That Black Guy is in the White House. And that was a bitter pill to swallow.

And the Republican Party is a fractured mess, with Tea Party activists holding politicians’ feet to the fire on a whole bunch of issues. Like earmarks. Taking lobbyist payouts. Corruption. You know, the stuff the Grand Old Party has championed for years.

It’s no wonder that Republicans want to reminisce about a kinder, gentler (to/for them) time. And so, all the glowing praise for a President who tripled the national debt, supported apartheid, slashed education and mental health spending, increased peacetime defense budgets to unheard of levels and made foreign policy a mess. Oh, and he ignored AIDS. Didn’t even mention it by name in the first six years of his presidency.

But perhaps the most egregious action: he palled around with terrorists. Long before Sarah Palin was a mayor, let alone a half-term governor, Reagan traded arms to Iran for hostages, funded death squads in South America (anyone remember Oliver North?) and rubbed elbows with dictators with death squads. So, is it ironic that a certain female Alaskan made the equivalent of stump speeches to resurrect Reagan’s memory? You betcha.

While the golden glow of nostalgia is still wafting through the media and the Right, I think I’ll add my own personal recollections. I was in college (go Blue Demons!) when Reagan took office. One of the first thing he did: get rid of those nasty entitlement programs. Like education and scholarship funding. So with my college grants shriveling, I had a couple of choices. I could take out student loans. Except all the President’s economic acumen caused interest rates to skyrocket. And I’d probably still be paying off those loans. At age 50.

Another option: quit school. But as a member of the lower (really lower) middle class, college was a way out of a dismal punch-clock life.

Third option: work full-time and go to college. Scrambling, I found a job working the night shift at a local hospital, toiling as a security guard in the E.R. It was the DMZ between various gang turf, so most nights consisted of fistfights and handcuffing someone to a gurney.

Best of all, Ronnie also slashed mental health funding, so psych wards regularly disgorged people who really should have been under lock and key back onto an unsuspecting populace. And those wayward souls all somehow wound up making the trek to my E.R.’s front door.

That taught me valuable people skills. Like talking down a hulking psychotic who was threatening a doctor with a metal pole. Or convincing an Angel-dusted gangbanger to let a nurse start an I.V. Or cajoling a suicidal teen to step into an ambulance for transfer to a secure facility. All good traits for my eventual life in advertising and beyond.

Heck, all this reminiscing is getting me all misty, too. I might even have to break out my old Duran Duran albums. Damn you, Ronnie.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Starring Steve Buscemi's teeth.

A while back, I had a regular assignment writing columns about television shows for an entertainment magazine. It was, as they say, in my wheelhouse, since TV practically raised me like an electronic wolfpack. Maybe that’s why I keep expecting a laugh track as I go about my day. Or at least a theme song. Something cool, with a driving bass line that announces : “He’s a man of action!”

Anyway, I’d get previews of various network shows sent to me, I’d pop ‘em in the ol’ DVD player and then comment about them for the magazine. Kinda what everyone does around the water cooler, except I got paid for it.

Some shows were good, some were bad (I’m looking at you, Charlie Sheen…) and some were just plain unwatchable. Like the sitcom about the really fat people. Or the reality series about the really, really fat people losing weight. Or the docudrama about the really, really, really fat people who have to be craned out of their houses to get a gastric-bypass.

And then there were the head-scratchers, the what-were-the-development-executives-thinking shows. These weren’t bad shows per se. It’s just that they were created in a vacuum called Production Reality. Shows about New Yorkers aimed at the 99% of the country that doesn't care about New York. Sitcoms that identify characters from Chicago because they always wear Cubs hats. Dramas where all Blue Collar folk are the salt of the earth. Side note: I worked at U.S. Steel while I was paying my way through school. Trust me, the Blue Collar folk I met were the most racist, mean-spirited and paranoid people you’d ever come across. Unless you wandered into a Tea Party rally.

Watching these previews got me to thinking: How hard could it be? Sure, the in-the-know Hollywood dealmakers make up an arcane insider language to make it seem like what they’re doing is special, but really. How hard could it be? If I were a network development executive, I’d immediately greenlight these gems:

Survivor: Mishawaka. The next installment of this long-running hit pits 20 hipster Manhattanites against the “elements” in this small Indiana town. Thrill to the spectacle of Survivors vying for jobs at the local Kroger’s, armed only with their advanced degrees in comparative literature or existential philosophy! Gasp as they try to find free trade coffee in the No-cachino Challenge! Weep as they realize clubbing consists of Tuesday Karaoke at the Holiday Inn lounge! Of course, the winner will be the one who can outlast, outplay and…oh, who are we kidding? The winner will be the one who doesn’t hightail it back to Gotham in less than a week. Added bonus: John Mellencamp sings the theme song.

Stalker. In a modern twist on the old hunter-and-prey theme, this reality show challenges teams across the country to track down and photograph celebrities who are filming on location, armed only with a pocket digital camera, a GPS, a Greyhound bus ticket and $26.10. First duo to not get coldcocked by Mickey Rourke gets a immediate free pass to the finals, where they face the ultimate challenge: trying to get Robert DeNiro to smile. This one has, in industry parlance, legs. Think of all the sponsorship opportunities. Nikon cameras. Flip Digital Video. Us and In Touch magazines.

Fanboys! Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg and Jonah Hill star as a hapless trio of lovable losers who work at a comic book shop, passing judgment on a cast of characters and the topics of the day in a know-it-all, sarcastic fashion. Hijinks ensue when a coed cutie mistakenly wanders into the shop, looking for a spray tan. Written and produced by Diablo Cody. A very special episode will introduce Suzanne Somers as the coed’s wacky aunt. Or grandmother, depending on whether the show is shot in HD.

Nit-twit. A gameshow with a twist: contestants must undertake increasingly more stupid challenges tweeted by folks in real-time on Twitter. It’ll be a first—a program celebrated and simultaneously derided by the mainstream media as a sign of the apocalypse.

Uncle Stevie’s Chopper Chums. This Saturday morning Kartoon Kavalcade stars animated versions of actor Steve Buscemi’s teeth—a ragtag band of wacky enamel (The odd one! The small one! The goofy-looking neighbor!) who introduce a series of cartoon shorts from inside the indie icon’s mouth.

Ultimate Big Brother. Lock the contestants in with Steve Guttenberg. No challenges. No immunity. No contests. Just a test of wills. And continual rebroadcasts of Cocoon and the Police Academy movies, with running commentary from the star. Last person standing wins. And don’t forget about the webcast—Gute After Dark!

Any execs reading this? Call my people. We’ll do lunch.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The real problem with America.

Bowling is destroying the moral fabric of our country. More specifically, children’s bowling parties are destroying the moral fabric of our country.

Here’s how: Every year or so, the trend for children’s birthday celebrations shifts, according to some mystical celestial calendar. Or proclamation from InStyle magazine.

When my daughter Claire was a tot, the hot ticket invite involved signing a waiver and trucking over to BouncyLand, a warehouse filled with inflatable Moonwalks—the perfect place for the ADHD set to let off steam after the cake and ice cream. As years went by (and motor skills progressed) the In Party involved pottery painting at Lots-o-Pots. Then lanyard making at Beads N Things. And build-your-own-stuffed-animal extravaganzas at the mall.

Then we got this year’s spate of invites. And they all were located at the Bowl-a-Rama.

Which made for a head-scratcher. In my daughter’s age group, the kids were barely big enough to pick up a Carmine Salvino Signature Striker, let alone heave the ball down a lane.

On the appointed day, we trekked over to the alley, weaving past the league players to lane three, which was decked out with streamers and balloons. The kids made a beeline for the ball racks, picking their weapon based on color instead of weight or finger hole size.

“Isn’t this great!” Mom-in-Charge said. “And here’s the best part…” She pushed a button at the scorer’s table and bumpers rose up from each gutter, creating a chute toward the pins. The first paste-eater ran up to the lane and rolled his ball with all the two-handed strength he could muster. It banged against the left bumper. Then the right. Then, improbably, the right bumper again. Then the left. Two excruciating minutes later, it slowly rolled into the pins, knocking down one.

“You see,” Mom-in-Charge said, arranging the goodie bags. “This way, everybody wins.”

“But isn’t the whole purpose of bowling to build and test your skill—you know, to see if you can make a strike or pick up a spare?” I asked.

She blinked. And blinked again. “But this way, everybody wins,” she said.

Fast-forward: the “Everybody Wins” credo pops up again, this time at my daughter’s elementary school quarterly award ceremony. Back in the day, these affairs celebrated the studious among us, bestowing “honor roll” status to the kids that focused, worked and achieved.

But nowadays, those folks share the stage with a host of other award winners. The On-a-Roll recipients, who get an A for effort and a D+ for actual coursework. The Good Citizen winners, which means they were the only ones not trying to knock down the kindergartners during recess. The Really Trying achievers, honoring mouth-breathers who either were really trying the teacher’s patience or really trying to stay awake. And so on.

After two dozen or so different awards, the principal stood for a few words. “As you can see,” he said with a sweep of his arm toward the hordes on stage, “it’s just as important to try as it is to do.” Parents in the audience nodded vigorously.

And therein lies the problem. We’re raising generations of tryers, not doers. In this not-so-brave new world, there are no losers, just uber-winners and regular winners. Or, to paraphrase a line of dialogue from The Incredibles, if everyone is special, that means no one is special.

That need to make everyone the same—a winner!—does more harm than good. Just look at a political process that values the plain vanilla Regular Joe-ness of candidates —“Look Marge, that candidate is jes’ as clueless as me! I’m gonna vote for him!” It even affects our national pastime.

News out of New Haven, Connecticut tells of one Jericho Scott, a nine-year-old pitcher who’s been kicked out of his youth baseball league. For being too good. Seems the league thinks his natural talent for 40-mile-an-hour fastballs makes for an unfair advantage. Now mind you, this isn’t a case of an 18-year-old playing in a Little League game on a forged birth certificate. It’s a matter of a nine-year-old who happens to be a doer—a doer utilizing talents at an extremely high level. And that’s something that should be celebrated, not equalized by kicking the poor kid out of a sport he undoubtedly loved.

This trying vs. doing dilemma puts us, as a nation, on a slippery slope toward inertia—that is to say, not doing leads to not trying and not trying leads to a nation sittin’ around. That means we’ll focus all of our dwindling effort into wearing foam Number One fingers and shouting “We’re number one!” than actually going out there and making sure that we are. Number one, that is. And “out there” doesn’t have to mean an international stage. It could as easily be the workplace.

Case in point: an editor friend met me for drinks the other day, looking haggard. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

“It’s these new hires,” he said. “Seems like a generation ago, you hired someone and they thanked you. Then they would hunker down and get to work, learning and striving and growing. Now, all the young folks I hire immediately ask when the next promotion will be, when they’ll get a bigger office, when the next raise will hit. It’s like there’s a huge sense of entitlement these days.”

And there is. Years of awards for so-so work and an “everyone’s so special” mantra have created a workforce that thinks it is special—without actually having to accomplish anything. And that’s what’s really tearing apart our country.

So go ahead. Blame our ills on the economy. Or globalization. Or the media or videogames or a divisive election or regulation or deregulation.

Me, I blame bowling.