Monday, 7 February 2011

Sky Atlantic

I wonder if anyone with a senior role at the BBC had a moment of guilty self- realisation  on seeing the home of HBO spring into life last week. Sky Atlantic may be another cynical purchasing coup by the Murdoch empire, but like the Premiership, like movies, it has ended up owning the best of a genre.  Meanwhile the Big British Castle is busy fighting its imaginary battle with ITV.  From the astonishing leaps in broadcasting that it once made, it is now self parodic, to the point of parodying its own self parody.   (The One Ronnie?) Back when there was just 3 stations, of which 2 were BBC, I watched in awe Kenneth Clarke's 'Civilization'.  A medium  for triviality and light entertainment  pulled back a curtain to reveal long slow tracking shots of cathedral ceilings accompanied by Bach and Purcell.  Dr Who was created out of the imaginations of viewers as much as of its writers, so bad were the sets, but still in stark difference to the gurning ineptitude of American TV.  That standards have lowered at the BBC is too humdrum a fact to explore.  That US standards have risen so high is not so humdrum.

Let's take what we in the UK hold up as excellence in film-making skills.  Our soaps seem to be the high water mark of drama output, with a few freak tides where something of outstanding class breaks through.   That would be, presumably, the remake of Sherlock Holmes, the remake of Dr Who, the occasional Stephen Poliakoff play or breakout comedy.  Last year's BBC Bafta winners included Kenneth Brannagh in Wallander, Julie Waters playing Mo Mowlem and various awards for The Thick of It.

What do we learn from that estimable line-up by comparing it to a standard week's viewing on SkyAtlantic?  Of course there's Boardwalk Empire, Blue bloods, Curb your Enthusiasm, Mad Men, Entourage, Re-runs of Sopranos, 6 feet under,   new Specials - You don't know Jack, When the Levees broke.  And now the amazing Treme. 

I've watched a few hours of both lists and it amounts to nothing less than a 'how to create great TV' education, with the BBC so-called award winners presented as a risible 'How not to do it' section of the lesson, to warm up the audience before a serious and brilliant step by step guide from the HBO programmes.  Indeed, imagine the scene at a night class for aspirant writers in a college in Anaheim.   Tired from their exertions at the pizzeria or waving in a Mickey costume during the day, the students settle and focus on the projected screen as the tutor plays a montage of British TV writing.    'I love you Denise.  I can't stop finking about yer'.  Pause.  The chuckles die down.  The tutor says,  'OK.  what do we know about what's happening in this scene? Anybody?

'He loves Denise'.  Laughter all round.  'OK' says the tutor.   'And here's the biggie, how do we KNOW he loves her?'

'He fuckin' tells her. '  Big laugh.

How do we tell that Al Pacino's character loves his wife in 'You don't know Jack'.   He rolls the tape.
It's the moment Jack emerges briefly from his concentration on his plan to allow terminally ill people to end their lives with dignity and says to his wife thoughtfully 'Is that a new wig?  She acknowledges the compliment,  not by saying 'Hey I can't believe you noticed!' but by smiling touchingly and saying 'It's rum n raisin'.(A hair tint, I inferred.)

In every facet of that simple exchange there is craft at work, as there is in almost every exchange in every scene in every one of those above-listed US dramas. As a viewer we can project backwards the nature of the characters' marriage. It is long, it is loving, that he is gallant and caring, if obsessive, she has suffered, perhaps through illness, but that she is an optimist and loves her husband yet fears that he is becoming distant as he throws himself into his final cause, haunted by his own mortality. We learn about their peculiar modern American milieu in which wig tints are described in terms of ice cream flavours. All this from the words alone. The casting, lighting, framing, editing are telling their own stories. The tiny simper of pleasure the wife feels is lingered on, because it means everything. Not just that he she was once beautiful and always enjoys it being noticed, but still feels it when her husband notices. That gentle expression of love is the entire theme of the mercy killing drama.

A comparison by Prospect magazine between The Wire and a Uk equivalent last year found that the former had 17 concurrent plot lines to the UK drama's 4.

Considering Sky's motivation is to make an arse load of cash and the BBC is to lead the world
In TV excellence and costs us 4billion quid a year I actually don't mind the Tories laying into them.

The guy who wrote the Wire confirmed in the article that he could never have done it at the BBC.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

TED GLOBAL: Powerpoints of the Gods

I could not run a thought-leadership organization.  I'd get my founding principles muddled, my symposia would break out into workshops before I was ready.  But much as I admire TED in some ways,  I cannot like TED.  (Technology.  Entertainment.  Design. ) 

I returned to the tainted pool this morning to watch a few of the speakers on YouTube.  Once again, (see previous blog) it was all twitter and internet and awe.  But the quick shots of the audience were what I noticed this time.  A smell of hegemonic white flesh seemed to pervade the academic auditoriums of Oxford, England and wherever the fuck else these things are held.

Sure, there are some clever people (sorry, amazing guys) in attendance and delivering the presentations.  There is certainly some impressive work on display.  Correction, there are some minor incremental advances on display that are extrapolated into an an amazing future for our grandkids (never grandchildren).

But that seems to be the TED working definition of 'an idea'.  The optimistic exaggeration of existing phenomena.  For example, the speaker who showed a way of making the internet more portable by projecting it onto things from a dongle hanging round your neck (is that even practical?) didn't present it as it was.  i.e. a projection device.  It was described as a sixth sense.  Now call me Victorian.  Call me a dinosaur, but I  had sight down as one of my main five.

The point is that I love ideas. Hydroponics.  Texting. Distance Chromatography.  But I can't help feeling that some kind of God-complex is getting in the way and arsing about with the ideas on show.  I feel I'm watching an audition for something, as if the world needs someone to take credit for how great the internet is.  (Almost every subject boils down to the simple increase in connectivity occasioned by the internet, yawn.)   It is this attempt to make a religion, or at least an orthodoxy out of beautiful, natural human endeavor that resides so purulently on my tits throughout any given speaker's presentation. 

The orthodoxy of this coolocracy is expressed through its language.

First,  the pronunciation of 'Technology' itself.  Whatever country you are from this sacred word is to be spoken as Bill Gates himself intones it,  half thrown away,  with a long second syllable, tailing off with a downward inflexion.  Practice it.  Tech- naur - logy.  Keep that central 'o' right at the back of the mouth, like you were drinking this stuff with your mother's milk.  Tech - nauhhh- logy.  Bit more arrogance?  Tech - nauhhhhh- logy.  That's it. We're growing.

Secondly, there is an important list of secondary words that connote your membership of this elite.  Obviously, nothing should be expressed as experimental, highly original or prototypical because your  terminology needs to be informal and non-precise.  It's cool, it's stuff, it's a whole new way, it's a shift, it's amazing.  We use sloppy-joe words and phrases,  relaxisms like 'enough already', 'uber', 'genius', 'OK'.   We say, 'right?' at the end of a sentence.  We say 'So' at the beginning of a sentence.  We punctuate with 'actually'.    We create, we innovate, we are global, taking a path, in a hotbed, laddering up. 

Thirdly,  to show your willingness to give yourself to this religion you must open your presentation by divesting yourself of your old, national or racial identity.  If you are English you make a faux-awkward reference to your lack of interpersonal skills, if American you take a sideways crack at US foreign-policy,  Eastern European speakers must allay fears that they are backed by state sponsored criminality.  Being able to distance yourself from your national stereotype indicates that you are ready to board the TED spaceship and fly off to populate the universe with intelligent cool people.

Fourthly, the future is great.   If you for one minute imply that the future is very likely a shitstorm in which everyone is fucked over by big pharma and international capital movements, that democracy is so last century and that the internet is 90% porn, you'll find yourself on the receiving end of a geeky moccasin and not invited back. 

Fifthly, while you and your audience are very clearly a well paid elite, you must make it look like the opposite.    This morning I watched a social media revolution guy gush about the large numbers of African Americans using twitter.  And that Brazilians twitter in greater numbers than anyone else, and it's not even in English.

Non-whites using twitter?  Fuck a bus!  And there was me thinking Brazilians lacked opposable thumbs.   The saddest moment for me was the speaker who showed how the internet had taught a shanty town in Nairobi how to recycle rubbish.   OK.  That's great.  Recycling rubbish?  I'm sure they'd never have thought of that.    But then, the Coup de Teatre.

Up came the live video link to the poor kid in Nairobi running the project who spoke directly to the audience boasting that his community was now 'A hotbed of Innovation'.   TED had made him use the special words.  Innovation?  Hotbed?  He'd learned the language of TED!  The white-bellied elite in the hall rose to their feet as one man, like a missionary seeing God's work done in Africa without the bother of putting together an expedition.

Amazing, right?