Monday, December 19, 2011

2011: The Year in Review

A week early, but why the hell not? I don't expect anything exceptional to happen next week. In no particular order, my best and worst of 2011:

Best Movie You Almost Certainly Didn't See -

Meeks' Cutoff

The story: During the mid 1800s, a party of migrants are moving westward. They hire a guide, who leads them astray with promises of a shortcut. They are lost. They are hungry. They have almost no water left. All they can do is keep walking.  A visual and emotional feast. If you're in it for chase scenes, a soundtrack, and a big, obvious story, don't bother. This quiet movie (there is almost no dialgoue) is all about the getting there. Or, to be more accurate, the NOT getting there. 

Bruce Greenwood, a vastly under-appreciated actor, has never been better. Michelle Williams is as good as ever, turning in what may be the most honest portrayal of a strong woman I've seen in years. In many ways, it's a feminist film. It is a thing of a beauty. I'm willing to bet almost no one who reads this actually saw it. That's a damned shame. It really deserved to be seen on a big screen.

Book Most Likely To Break your Heart, and Maybe Mend It -

Joan Didion's Blue Nights

Joan Didion's life has revolved around loss for well over two years, now. A prolific writer, she turns to the tools of her trade to deal with this loss. Blue Nights, which picks up, so to speak, where The Year of Magical Thinking left off, is a collection of Didion's reflections on the life and death of her only child, on her efforts to keep grief at bay, on the many people who have moved through her life in in the last 77 years, on aging alone, on her own mortality. On realizing that, no matter what our losses, we have only two choices: to keep on living, or to die. Beautifully written. Anyone who has suffered a loss will feel this one. As empowering as it is heartbreaking.  

Piece of News that Did My New York Heart The Most Good

Same Sex Marriage Becomes Legal in New York

The photo says it all. Bless their married, lesbian hearts. I've never been prouder to call myself a native New Yorker.  To date, no less than four people from my high school graduating class of under 200 have legally married their same sex partners in NY. Now, if only we could get a federal ruling that had teeth.

Funniest TV Moment-Cum-Internet-Meme -

Rum Ham

You kind of had to be there. If you were, it was funny as shit.

Best and Biggest Campfest on TV -

American Horror Story's Gays

When Zach Quinto comes out of the closet, he really comes out of the closet

Most Annoying Character on A Most Promising New Show -

Amy Jellicoe, Enlightened 

Laura Dern's Amy Jellicoe has been to rehab and back, and she's got all the answers. A great show. A main character I want to strangle, even as I root for things to work out her way. Just shut up, Amy.

Most Original Villain -

Gillian Darmody, Boardwalk Empire

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Boardwalk Empire isn't really about prohibition. It's all about the women. And no woman loomed larger in season 2 than Gretchen Mol's Gillian Darmody. Gillian is no paper cut-out. She's got dimension and a past...a past that includes horrors perpetrated against her, and horrors she's perpetrated against her own son. We all saw it coming - the incest - but did anyone see that scene and not feel shock, revulsion, and fury? By season's end, there were two women holding the purse strings that control Atlantic City, and one of them was Gillian. I, for one, am stoked. Bring it. 

Worst TV Trend -

Whitney Cummings Taking Over the World of Network Television

More annoying than those asshole kids from Glee. That's saying a hell of a lot. I refuse to post a clip. 

Best New Music - 

Alabama Shakes

Yes, the singer sounds very Janis Joplinesque. She's good. She's damned good. The whole band is good. Her voice is like Joplin, but the band has a sound all its own. And she's not another Madonna clone. Lady Gaga, I'm looking at you.

Performer Whose Talents Are Most Wasted on Crap -

Lady Gaga 

Yeah, I said it. Her pop music is crap. Her persona is annoying as hell. But listen to that voice. Why is she pretending to be Madonna, when there's so much real talent that's all Gaga? If only she'd make this kind of performance her mainstay. I might have to start liking her. 

Most Inconsequential Sporting News -

If New York or Boston Don't Win A Pennant, Does The World Series Really Matter?

Most Satisfying Sporting News -

New Zealand Wins The 2011 Rugby World Cup

Not just because I'm a proud Kiwi citizen who'll always have a warm spot in my heart for New Zealand. Not just because the All Blacks are majestic. Not just because they won it at home. Mostly because kicking French ass at anything makes everyone feel good. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Striking a Nerve

Yesterday's blog post, about the shadiness of Prospect Park's efforts to "circumvent the unions" and bring ABC's recently cancelled shows to the web without having to deal with the bother of paying actors, camera operators, writers, wardrobe people, etc. fair wages,  obviously struck a chord with people. I've never received so many private messages, Tweets or Facebook comments about/links to a blog post as this one. Nor have any of my previous blog posts ever received so many hits in so short a time.

I know I didn't write The Great Gatsby, or say anything remotely original. In fact, I think the reason so many people have read that piece, and passed it along to others is that I didn't say anything revolutionary. I think a lot of people heard the news about Prospect Park considering bringing in an overseas partner and bypassing the unions and felt the same way I did: that this would be just plain wrong. It flies in the face of what so many people are fighting for, these days: workers' rights, basic benefits, the end of the huge inequity between the 1% and the 99%. I believe a lot  of people read about PP's on-going negotiations and thought, "This is wrong."

Interestingly enough, of all the communication I've had about this blog entry, only one party has come out in favor of Prospect Park, and the move to squash existing union rules. I won't name the party, because I'm not interested in giving free publicity to an outfit that supports union busting. what I will say is that it's a new media production company. I'll also say that their arguments in favor of PP's efforts are as "ridiculous" as they labelled my blog post.

According to this party, working within a new media should abolish baseline union standards that were developed for television. A new medium, according to this party, calls for a whole new set of rules. This party likens the unions involved to the unions that protects the person employed to raise the curtain at Broadway theaters - these days, the curtains are opened and closed electronically, yet union rules still call for a curtain raiser to be paid a full salary. Pretty ridiculous. I agree. But it's a comparison that makes no sense. This party argues that a new medium calls for new negotiations and new contracts. That's double speak for "we think it's ok to pay people less money and cut their benefits, if we want to, because this isn't tv, where budgets are big."  If this isn't One-Percent-Speak, I don't know what is.

This was never about having to pay a curtain man, even though the function had become automated.

Quite the opposite: it's about expecting the curtain man to show up and do his job, as usual,  but only get paid as if his job was mostly being done by a machine.

New media IS a different animal from television. That's why it was "ridiculous" for Prospect Park to promise the public the same production quality, the same casts, and the same frequency of programming. Since the media is new, what needs to be renegotiated first shouldn't be how much the actors or writers or crew earn. What needed to be negotiated from the very beginning was - HOW COULD THESE SHOWS BE CHANGED TO REALISTICALLY BE DEVELOPED FOR WEB VIEWING?  Instead, Prospect park thought backwards - they promised the whole enchilada, and then figured they could buy it at the rate of a questionable 99c Taco Bell taco.

The party that came out against my blog called it not only "ridiculous", but "unfair."

That's rich. Prospect Park is trying to bilk workers out of their hard-earned union rights, and I'm being unfair.

The Case For New Media 

In case anyone is wondering, I'm the last person to be against web-based programming. If anything, I'm excited by it. I think it's the future of entertainment. I think it's a shame that the most widely talked-about new media venture these days is Prospect Park's attempt to bring OLTL and AMC to the web, because it's a mess, and it's not representative of what new media can be. Neither are the ridiculous and unfair arguments made by the unnamed new media operation mentioned above.

Successful new media ventures have been the ones that haven't tried to simply lift a television or cinema model and stick it on the web. I'm not a fan of Venice: The Series, but at least the people who developed it had the presence of mind to create something that didn't require 15 elaborate sets. What I saw of the series used only two or three sets that were existing structures: restaurant scenes filmed in an actual restaurant. hotel room scenes filmed in a hotel room, living room scenes filmed in someone's living room. A lot of what I saw on Venice was a mess, but at least they got this right.

Tello Films produces original, successful programming that's been specifically developed for the web. No one-hour, daily shows with a cast of 30, and a 52-week schedule. Their programming works on the web because it was specifically developed, from the ground up, for the web. They don't promise or claim to recreate the television experience; they offer a new and different programming experience.

And this is the root of Prospect Park's debacle. They thought they could lift two established television programs that cost an enormous amount to produce, and just drop them, as they were, onto the internet. In their screwy, stupid and greedy minds they figured, "Same shows, same frequency, same amount of work...but if people are watching on smaller screens we can pay people less to make them."

Now THAT is ridiculous and unfair.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Occupy Your Conscience

Today, We Love Soaps announced that Prospect Park is still talking about picking up One Life To Live and All My Children and turn them into web-based programs. We all know - some of us always knew - that this is a financial impossibility, based on what it costs to produce each hour-long, daily show, 52 weeks a year. And that's what Prospect Park promised. When this whole, hair-brained plot was made public, PP wrote a check they couldn't cash: they promised to keep producing hour-long episodes, of the same production quality viewers were used to, with the same cast, to run every day, 52 weeks a year. Those of us who stopped to think about that for half a second knew it would never happen. We knew it COULD never happen. Not like that. Of course, we were taking for granted that "the same high production values" implied using the same, union labor. Last week, when Prospect park quietly let go of the idea of taking these shows online, there was a lot of talk of union negotiations having fallen apart.

Stop and think about this for a minute - if PP is saying that the only think keeping them from moving these long-running shows to the web was a union issue, what they're really saying is, "We wanted to cut people's salaries and benefits, but we expected the same amount of work, and the same caliber of work from them."

Over the last 10-15 years, budgets for daytime drama have plummeted. Everyone has taken massive pay cuts - even the most bankable actors. Production costs have been slashed to the bare bones, and we've all read about how actors no longer even have rehearsal time - too expensive! And PP wanted to move in an make further cuts?

If this weren't a television production we were discussing, but a construction project, how would you feel about this proposition? If I said to you, "I want to build a skyscraper, but I want to save money. I know the construction workers used to make $50 an hour, and that they've gone to $40 in the last few years, but I'm thinking I'll pay them $30 an hour. Maybe cut their lunch hour down to 30 minutes, and make them buy their own hammers and nails. And I'll expect them to put up a building as quickly and as well as I would have expected at full wage and with full benefits and the best equipment." - what would you think? If someone presented that proposition to me I'd think they were a cheap bastard looking to exploit labor, and I'd make a note to never go into their building, because I'd have some serious doubts about the quality of the construction.

Prospect Park's "negotiations" with the various trade unions are no different. Because of this, I was glad the announcement was made last week about the abandonment of this project. I would have liked to have seen these shows continue, but not at the expense of workers' rights.

Today, We Love Soaps announced that PP may well still be in discussions about their plan to bring OLTL and AMC to the web. Instead of dealing with the unions, though:

"Prospect Park is said to be considering bringing in an overseas firm to turn the shows into a co-production. That may or may not allow the shows to circumvent the unions, which couldn't come to terms with Prospect Park on compensation for talent on both sides of the camera."
Take that in: "may allow them to circumvent the unions."

Just to make sure we're on the same page, I'll spell this out for you: "circumventing the unions" is a nice way of saying "fuck the workers, fuck their union protection, fuck their minimum wage, fuck their benefits, fuck their job safety." It's a way of saying that, if trade unions won't fold and give up whatever protections they've fought long and hard to secure for their members, Prospect Park will gladly hire scabs who will do the work cheaper. It's even saying they'll be happy to pick up these projects and film them elsewhere, where union rules don't apply.

I don't care how much you love these shows,
In an economy where the little guy is getting fucked over in every way possible,
For writers, actors, and technical crew people who deserve fair wages and benefits,

If someone came into your workplace and tried this, you'd be livid. And you should be. Because this is bullshit. I've loved soaps my whole life but, for the love of God, how can anyone think it is ok for the big, bad PP to muscle in and tell professionals that their services are worthless, that the employment rights they've fought for are meaningless, and that they can be easily replaced with cheap labor? Forget this is a tv show we're talking about. Think about it happening in a store, or a school, or a hospital, or any other workplace. This is the same shit that pisses people off about American corporations setting up shop in Thailand and paying pennies for labor that, under American union rules, would and should cost dollars. Forget these are tv shows - they're businesses. Workplaces. Forget these are writers and actors and camera operators and editors and makeup men. They're workers. Labor. They work, and they deserve a fair wage and benefits.

Check your conscience before being happy about this development. Is your love of soap operas really worth fucking over the concepts of fair compensation, workplace security, and union protection?