Posted by: wolferiver | December 19, 2010

Twenty Minutes Into The Future

This week SyFy canceled Stargate Universe, and now there is no longer a space based science fiction show anywhere on American TV. (Doctor Who still lives on air, but he’s British import.) I may not have cared much for the franchise, or for the Battlestar Galactica show, but at least they both depicted humans exploring their galactic frontiers.

Of course, science fiction doesn’t have to be space based. The central question of any science fiction story is “what if”. The question of what if aliens lived among us is equally as scifi-ey as what if we could travel in space.  What if ancient creatures were cloned so that they could live again? (Check out Jurassic Park.) What if the old gods never went away, and still roamed among us? (Check out Neil Giaman’s American Gods.) What if we all lived in a fascist society, where our every living moment was watched by Big Brother? (Check out George Orwell’s 1984.) What if books were illegal and had to be burned, and instead we all were forced to watch TV? (Check out Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.)

It would be too easy to bash SyFy for their tame lineup of shows featuring freaks on earth, pro-wrestling, and reality shows chasing after paranormal phantasms, but they’re merely giving their audience what they’ll settle for. They have also proudly announced a new joint venture with Universal to make feature films. That’s “real” movies, which presumably will appear in megaplexes around the nation. No mention is made about what sort of movies they plan to make. Perhaps Mansquito 2 on the big screen is something we can all look forward to. (What if a man and a mosquito were combined?!?! Wouldn’t that be AWESOME!)

In their previous life, when SyFy was just the Scifi Channel, they used to do promo spots featuring “if” in “scifi”, but now that no longer works for them. “Yf” just sounds fey and stupid.

Inventing Our Futures

Good science fiction, like any other great dramatic work, is both immediately entertaining, and and also universal in that it stands up well over time. But really good science fiction also shows us our future. H.G. Wells predicted the atom bomb, and transplants. Jules Verne predicted submarines and the trip to the moon. Star Trek’s “cloaking device” is on its way to reality, as is its replicator. Unfortunately, we now seem to have lost our nerve and our imagination, and almost all scifi in any media has been reduced to freakish superheroes and doltish villains.

Max Headroom. Not a freakish hero nor doltish villain, but surprisingly prescient.

Twenty some years ago one television show predicted what things would come to. Max Headroom, despite the title character’s smart-alec ubiquity at the time, showed us a world dominated by mega-media-conglomerates, blip-verts, a black market for body parts, blanks (people off the grid), and some sort of proto-interconnectivity of digital devices remarkably like the internet we know today.

To quote Blank Reg (a cyberpunk character from the show):

“Welcome to Big Time television, all day, every day, making tomorrow seem like yesterday. And remember when we said there was no future? Well, this is it.”

Max Headroom: The Complete Series is available from Shout!Factory.

Posted by: wolferiver | December 12, 2010

Adios Mis Amigos

FX cancels Terriers, and then a network suit troubles himself to explain why. Unsurprisingly, it’s because no one watched. Except me, that is.

I guess a detective show featuring two charming and low-key losers trying to turn their lives around while scratching out a living sniffing out secrets in a beach side town was not what American viewers wanted to watch. Instead, the unvarying parade of earnest cop shows, featuring handsome young people and gruesome special effects having to do with startling and outlandish murders, will continue unabated. (I weep for you, America. I guess you’ll never figure out the difference between a dumb show and a smart show.)

At least the series had a self-contained story arc, and an ending that was fitting, not like The Riches, who were left forever frozen, in a seemingly insolvable jam. So if Terriers ever becomes available on DVD, go take a look at it.

Posted by: wolferiver | November 25, 2010

Brickbats Flying

I get my Sunday NYTimes on my Nook and I spend the whole week reading it in between other activities. So it wasn’t until today that I noticed an item about HBO airing a Martin Scorsese documentary on — ta dah! — Fran Lebowitz.

Yes, it’s about time.  If there was ever a documentary crying to be made, it’s the one about this famous-in-every-household interviewer for Interview magazine. You know, the same Interview magazine that sits on coffee tables and doctor’s waiting rooms throughout the land, with its self-absorbed, never ending conversation about the all-important nexus of fashion and culture.

Actually, sarcasm aside, I’ve been a long-time fan of Ms. Lebowitz. I first read her work in Glamour magazine (which was many more years ago than I care to think about). Among all the beauty and fashion advice her voice was a welcome if incongruous dash of mordant wit, not unlike as if Oscar Levant had risen from the dead and decided to write strictly for teenaged girls.

Variety magazine, in its review of the documentary, decries it’s top-heavy, single note examination of the subject, but also admits that:

“Given the number of dunderheaded pundits holding forth nightly, Lebowitz does feel like a throwback to a wittier era.”

I already missed the several airings, but I think I’ll trouble myself to catch a repeat. 

Posted by: wolferiver | September 11, 2010

Weird Wide Web


WWII on Facebook:

I grew up in a Volkswagen family. Here’s a break down explaining one of the greatest print ads ever:

From the And-You-Thought-Your-Boss-Was-Bad department, get a load of these 1970’s vintage office memos from the owner of The Tiger Oil Company in Houston. (Thanks to the Letters Of Note blog.)

Finally, I had no idea that there were so many beautiful libraries all over the world. Here’s a smorgasbord of them, from Stockholm to Salamanca to St. Petersburg,
to the Sorbonne, and to the State Library in Victoria, Australia, and all points in between. (To paraphrase Craig Ferguson, you remember what a book is? It’s a sort of very long blog with paper in it.)

Posted by: wolferiver | August 22, 2010

Schmucks With Underwoods

Picture of an old Underwood typewriterFrom TakingNote blog comes a story about Isaac Bashevis Singer’s typewriter — as well as the blogger’s own magic pencil.

That should put a smile on anyone’s face.

I suppose nowadays screenwriters would all be called schmucks with Macs.  Or perhaps more universally, schmucks with Final Draft pro.

Posted by: wolferiver | August 7, 2010

Halfbaked Oversimplification

The Technology Liberation Front posted a piece called “How To Make A $200 Million Movie”. It’s a sarcastic comment on the high cost of making movies, using a 5 minute short film which the maker said cost $800 to make, and was shot with a relatively inexpensive digital camera. Techdirt picked up the story, adding commentary to the effect that “it’s the story, stupid.”  The premise clearly is that just because some Hollywood producers seem to believe that a typical movie ought to cost in the neighborhood of $200 million, doesn’t mean that they’re correct.

I can’t disagree with the sentiment, but I think it needs a little unpacking, particularly in light of the many comments by readers at Techdirt, who all blamed runaway movie costs on “Hollywood excesses.” Overpaid union workers and wasteful executives are very convenient scapegoats.  Both articles simplify the issues by implying that all one needs is a cheap digital camera and a good story, and voila, you have a “successful” movie, conveniently ignoring any definition of what “successful” means. (Achieving a certain level of artistic merit? Gaining a large audience? Earning financial payback? All of the above?)

I completely agree that the most important thing about a movie is whether it tells an interesting story, and that it need not cost $200 million to tell a good story. Lord only knows how many dreadful movies there are that had huge budgets. But let’s not forget there are some expensive movies that are fun to watch — the James Bond franchise movies, or the Bourne movies are just two examples that come to mind. The added stunts and visual effects, or the charismatic leading men, add an extra dimension to their stories which goes beyond what their book versions can provide — although, those, too, are entertaining.  There are also dreadful independent movies that rightly languish on a shelf.  And does anyone seriously believe that the cheap movies made by Roger Corman have significantly enriched our collective cultural consciousness?

Consider the short movie that led to this pontificating. Uncle Jack is a cute and fun short movie, and the film makers (cast and crew) are clearly skilled at their craft.

I also watched the “making of” video where the film maker said actual shooting took about 3 days. Although he talked about his inspiration for the script, he said nothing about the time that was put into writing the script, not to mention the time spent securing a stage and the props, time spent securing the talent – both acting and crew, and the time spent preparing and planning for the shoot. (The actors and crew didn’t all just show up one day only to loaf around while the director figured out where they should stand, what bit of action they should do, and where he should plant his cameras. He had to have put some thought into that ahead of time.) Also, there weren’t many stunts, but they still took time to plan and rig up. And what about the post production work? How much time went into editing, the sound mixing, adding the visual F/X, and doing the compositing?

The film maker implied that most of his cast and crew signed on virtually for nothing. (If so, for 3 days of shooting, probably no one missed being paid. Try getting such free labor for 30 days.) I don’t know if his budget included renting the studio that he shot in, but somehow I can’t imagine that his $800 budget included 3 days of sound stage rental.  (Or,even one day of sound stage rental, for that matter.) Maybe it did, but then, how did all those wonderful props (the purple troll, for example, or the skeletons) get into the picture?

Did he need special lights? Or did he shoot using ambient lighting? Shooting night scenes doesn’t require as many lights as trying to simulate daylight, but it still needs lights. The audience needs to clearly see the actors and their actions. Studio sound lots, on the other hand, usually don’t come equipped with lights; you have to bring them in yourself. Oh, and why shoot in a studio? Because you can control the sound better. No inadvertent background noises which would require time-consuming re-recording of dialog.  Did the film maker already own the camera and the lenses? Because if you rent them, those are going to cost you some $$, too.

While I don’t doubt that this director’s out-of-pocket expenses for this particular shoot may likely have only been $800, I think he’s vastly underestimating the value of the time others spent on this film, or his own time in writing, directing, and editing, or the value earned by the likely horse trading that may have gone into obtaining free resources.

Read More…

Posted by: wolferiver | July 6, 2010

Recent Observations Regarding Web Series

I’ve almost given up on the web series format.  After gamely attempting to review a few web series, I’ve limped to a halt.  Most of what I see is lame at best, and not worth the bandwidth it takes to stream them.  After seeing too many half-baked webcasts it seems clear that talent, time, skill, and perseverance are no less important in this new dramatic format than in any other art form. 

What is less clear is the financial model that this nascent web-based medium needs to use to be successful.  Despite the low cost of entry, a web series needs writing, acting, and production talent to be effective, none of which is easy to find for cheap.  However, I’ve also observed that deep pockets and the availability of industry professionals doesn’t necessarily make for a better product.  And the means of finding an audience is uncertain, depending almost entirely on viral marketing, which works rather uncertainly from a producer’s point of view. 

Since webisodes are generally very short, what works the best is short, sharp, humorous pieces that illustrate a simple situation.  Dark dramatic pieces usually need more time than a 3 to 5 minute segment can provide to build up to their proper impact, and so they tend to look overly melodramatic and lame.  As for action pieces, they simply need more resources than what anybody in this business is willing to pay for.  Most of the webcasts I’ve seen resemble what you could see in the early days of television, which often had shows with limited sets and stilted writing, or more simply, a man standing in front of a camera desperately ad-libbing.  The most successful webcasts still feature candid events filmed accidentally and then posted on YouTube.  It all adds up to nothing worth an investment of my time.

Still, regardless of what I think of drama for the “insufficiently evolved” masses, some web series become fairly popular.  While I think lonelygirl15 is a deeply boring series about self-centered and vacuous teenage girls (yeah, I know it’s not real, so don’t bother to comment), hordes of horny guys are endlessly fascinated.  An average of 3 million viewers enjoy each episode of The Annoying Orange with it’s sophomoric Beavis and Butthead style humor.  In show business you can’t argue with popularity, although how that translates into profit is less clear to me.  Yes, these shows are seen by a lot of eyeballs, but how many paychecks come through as a result?

Yet, occasionally I find series that I think have true dramatic merit.  Unfortunately, it takes an awful lot of searching to find, and a person can’t be blamed if they give up before hitting any paydirt.  Hence my long hiatus from comments on web series.

The Bannen Way is an exception to my made-up-on-the-spot rule about dramatic web series not working very well in webisode format.  Each episode is 6 to 9 minutes on average, which is just about what you would get in between commercials on network television.  The series features a handsome and charismatic low-life scumbag who wants to set his life straight, but — you guessed it — his past sins keep dragging him down.  It’s written and shot in a Guy-Ritchie-ADD-style, jumping backwards and forwards, which I think suits the webisode medium rather better than it does a longer form.  Obviously, this complex story-telling style isn’t for everybody; unsophisticated viewers might find all this jumping around and lack of clear heroic character confusing, but I enjoy the complex stories.  As a neat side feature, Robert Forster has a small but important role.  I watched the first episode for about a minute before deciding to spring for the $9.99 to see the entire one-and-a-half hour video at Amazon.  (Hey, I’ve wasted more money than this on stuff that was complete and utter crap.)

For comedy, there’s always the venerable (by web standards, that is) Ask A Ninja, which has a ninja warrior answering various questions sent in by viewers.  It seems like a recipe for lameness, but the comic wit flies fast, and it’s accompanied by enough subtext to make a typical Bugs Bunny cartoon look like a quiet day at Pismo Beach.  The duo behind this production has slowed down since this year began, but there are plenty of episodes from the past 3+ years to keep you entertained for quite a while.  My only caution is that a little goes a long way, and I find Mr. Ninja is best when sampled in small doses.

The most interesting series I’ve seen is Odd Job Nation, which has parleyed four exceptional web episodes into a web community — and a development deal with Fox.  (Sadly, the development deal isn’t for a TV series, but a web series.  Instead, this lame blog concept got the TV series development deal.)  Each of the short episodes carry a full story arc featuring unique and interesting characters with actors that are well cast.   Not only are these stories sharply observant about their subjects, but also show subtext and character development.  I was left wanting to see more, and wishing that there were more comedies this good on TV.

From RedLetterMedia comes an insightful seven (SEVEN!) part video review of The Phantom Menace which accurately details exactly why that episode of the Star Wars saga is an utter and complete failure.  Along the way, you learn a lot about what the elements are that make up a good movie.  It’s as good as a film class, and costs you nothing but about 70 minutes of your time.  (RedLetterMedia also created a good video review of Avatar.)

Posted by: wolferiver | June 20, 2010

One Hundred Years Ago on the Internet

Here is a simple journey you can take, back in time, to San Francisco in 1905, before the big earthquake.  It’s not simply a quaint image of days of yore.  You see men and women casually crossing in front of the cable car’s path without so much as a glance at what’s coming at them.  Automobiles — a surprising amount of them — drive along the street, exhibiting America’s traffic pattern of driving on the right — mostly, that is.  Other trolley cars cross the tracks in front of the cable car we’re riding, and so do riders on horses, horse drawn carts, carriages, and bicycles.  A woman dressed in a long skirt with leg-o-mutton sleeve and a giant, veiled hat crosses the tracks.  Young boys try to hitch rides on the rear bumpers of automobiles.  (Yeah!  I know!!  They really did that!)

The streets are dusty, and seem to be paved mostly with bricks, and with few exceptions, the buildings go no higher than a few stories.  What’s odd to see is the complete lack of traffic lights, and how everyone, whether in a vehicle, on horseback, or on foot, just casually crosses the street wherever they feel like.   A few daredevil drivers even slither in between two on-coming cable cars.

This is real.  This wasn’t staged.  This is not a Hollywood recreation of a long-ago street scene.  This is how people dressed, looked, stood, walked, and acted one hundred years ago in America.

And…if you like this, take a charming street car ride in 1908 Barcelona.  It’s lovely.

Posted by: wolferiver | May 10, 2010

Cranky Old Boomer Edition


  •   Most Boomers grew up in some variation of a mid-century middle-class modest ranch or split-level home, and they still make up vast tracts of housing in many cities.  I, myself, live happily in a 3-bedroom house built in the late 50’s, complete with mint green tiles in the bathroom, a knotty-pine rumpus room in the basement, and a so-retro-it’s-groovy-again avocado green shag carpet added by another owner in another era.  The Retro Renovation blog (and sister site, Save The Pink Bathrooms) embraces these homes, providing information on how to restore these homes to their original charm.  I have no renovation plans, but I enjoy the trip to the past celebrating Mid-century Middle-class Modern tastes.  Almost everyone I grew up with lived in homes like this.


  • For an American, the English Russia blog evokes memories of our curious historical dance with our onetime WWII ally and subsequent Cold War nemesis.  The owners of the site post startling images from the former Soviet Republics, which either confirm our past fears, or confound them.  Mostly what I love about this blog is the wonderful, wry, dry, black humor that seems to be at the heart of the Russian national character.  The picture to the side is from this post about top Lenin monument pranks. 

Er…nothing subtle about the humor in the Lenin monument picture, I guess, but it’s funny in the same way that putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa would be.

Speaking about infantile humor, Mad Magazine, the one-time preferred purveyor of humor to all Boomers, is no longer what it once was.  Now owned by DC comics, and with a series coming to Cartoon Network, it’s gone all corporate and Hollywoody.  Of course, without the talents of Don Martin, the comic genius with the huge arsenal of sound effects, or the original Prohias Spy vs. Spy strips, I just can’t get that interested in seeking out new issues.  Sergio Aragones, however, still lives, and still creates his mad, loony cartoon sketches.  This image is from his recent art exhibit.

Posted by: wolferiver | April 17, 2010

Good News, Bad News

The good news is that FlickrLeech is back.

The bad news is that in the intervening year or so that it’s been gone, Flickr’s “Interestingness”  selections have become rather banal.

Tempus fugit, I guess.

Although…these look rather nice.



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