Daily Archives: February 4, 2008

David Simon as journalism’s Rip Van Winkle

I’ll have more to say about this season of The Wire, its misdiagnoses of journalism’s problems, and David Simon’s recent nostalgic column in the Washington Post. But for now I wanted to give my general response to Season 5’s Baltimore Sun storyline.

At Slate’s TV Club conversation about Season 5, David Plotz annoyed David Simon by referencing brief conversations they’d had at parties in which Simon bitched about the Baltimore Sun. Simon criticized Plotz’s post, concluding: “The Wire’s depiction of the multitude of problems facing newspapers and high-end journalism will either stand or fall on what happens on screen, not on the back-hallway debate over the past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities of those who create it.” This is what I wrote to Plotz in a solidarity e-mail after Episode 2 or 3:

Fair enough. But so far his “multitude of problems” are a) Too many Stephen Glasses, b) Pompous idiot editors too dim to see the clearly telegraphed Stephen Glasses and disinterested in getting at the root of social problems, and at a distant third c) Corporate cost-cutting. That is all.

Forget that a plague of fabulists isn’t (to my knowledge) currently destroying journalism from within, and that the problem with real fabulists is they aren’t usually transparent fakers right from the start. This is his grand diagnosis of the ills of modern journalism?

How about, I don’t know, the Internet? Or hemorrhaging ad sales and circulation (partly or largely because of the Internet). Or figuring out how newspapers can appeal to readers and stay relevant in this new competitive-media world. Newspapers are going through their most dire period of upheaval in decades and he thinks the issue is too many fabulists?

The problem with his portrayal isn’t just that Simon’s fictional newsroom seems like a caricature of a mid-90s newsroom. It’s that, despite his response to Plotz’s TV Club post, he so clearly framed his fictional view based on his “past histories, opinions passions or peculiarities.” What a coincidence that his grand statement, via The Wire, on modern journalism’s failures happens to exactly coincide with his oftstated feelings about his former editors and how they dealt with (or didn’t deal with) a fabulist and stories about social issues at the Baltimore Sun 15 years ago.

Jeffrey Goldberg voices similar frustrations in his TV Club post today:

We were meant to be getting a sophisticated look at the demise of daily journalism, besieged by the Internet and by venal media companies. Well, what we’ve got is a newspaper edited by a pair of impossibly shmucky editors who seem, in 2008, unaware of the existence of the World Wide Web and who have in their employ a reporter who is doing something no fabricator, to the best of my knowledge, has ever done: manufacturing information about an ongoing homicide investigation. Put aside, please, the fact that said investigation is a sham as well; the reporter, Templeton, doesn’t know that. Is this what David Simon really wants his viewers to believe happens at major newspapers? Is he that blinded by hate for the Baltimore Sun?

For such a supposedly brilliant guy and show, it’s depressing that the answers to the last two questions seem to be yes, and yes.

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How George Lucas will ruin Indiana Jones

It occurred to me, while reading the cover story on Indiana Jones 4 in the new Vanity Fair, that I haven’t watched the complete trilogy during my adult life. I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark on DVD a few years ago and have caught bits and pieces of Temple of Doom on its many syndicated showings over the years. But I haven’t seen Temple of Doom or Last Crusade in full since I was a kid.

I mention this because of a passage from the Vanity Fair story that should scare Indy fans even more than snakes terrify their hero:

While filming a 1993 episode [of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles] in which Ford made a cameo appearance, Lucas happened on something that gave him the idea for a fourth movie installment. He mentioned it to the actor, who wasn’t too impressed. Lucas later told Spielberg about his new concept, only to find that the director wasn’t so hot on the idea, either, although generally warm to the notion of a fourth film.But Lucas was adamant. It was this idea or nothing.

Great. Because we all know how well things turn out when George Lucas has brilliant ideas that nobody else likes but can’t veto because they aren’t George Lucas. Even Steven Spielberg inevitably bows to Darth Lucas’ power, it seems:

When Ford and Spielberg both rejected the idea, Lucas dug in. He hired screenwriter after screenwriter to make his MacGuffin the linchpin of a new Indy story. “So this went on for 15 years,” he says. “And finally we got to a point where everybody said, ‘Look, we’re not doing that movie.’ And I said, ‘Well, look, I can’t think of another MacGuffin. This is it. This works. I know this works.’ And then we stopped. I just said, ‘O.K.,’ and that’s about the time I started Star Wars again. But then Harrison was kind of interested. And I said, ‘I won’t do it unless we can have that MacGuffin. Without the MacGuffin, I will not go near this thing.’ ”

Needless to say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is the story of Lucas’ MacGuffin (i.e. “an object or goal that kicks the story into action and drives it to the third act”). No doubt the title is Lucas’ creation, too.

Lucas’ obstinacy made me wonder: Is the original Indiana Jones trilogy really as good as I remember, or did Lucas pull a Star Wars Episode 1 on those too? Which got me further thinking: How does Indiana Jones stack up to the other great popcorn trilogies of the ’80s: Star Wars and Back to the Future (Star Wars [’77] and Back to the Future III [’90] don’t keep them from being ’80s trilogies.) So over the next couple months I’ll be rewatching those trilogies to see how they really hold up and compare to one another — and to see how obvious the Lucas Touch was before anyone had heard of Jar Jar Binks.

Here’s my initial ranking, based on my memories of the movies (and more recent Star Wars viewings):

1. Empire Strikes Back
2. Star Wars (A New Hope)
3. Back to the Future
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark
5. Back to the Future II
6. Temple of Doom
7. Return of the Jedi
8. Last Crusade
9. Back to the Future III

Freeze frame

This is awesome. It reminds me of in elementary school when we’d play some game in P.E. involving someone yelling “freeze” and everyone had to (obviously) freeze — and people inevitably would freeze in an awkward position, like with one leg lifted back and arms airplaning to the side, rather than just stopping in place. Alternatively, it reminds me of the usually useless clock “weapon” in Castlevania. Anyway.

Enough with the Super Bowl ads

Maybe it’s because I always have to work on Super Bowl night so don’t seen many of the ads, but I really wish we could do something to suffocate the manufactured hype about the commercials.

It’s not the ridiculous cost that bugs me, or the fact that Saatchi, Saatchi, and the Other Advertising Bigshots Whose Names Nobody Knows try so hard to make such an impression. It’s not even that newspeople recycle the same stories every year (Hey, look how much the ads cost this year! And hey, remember that 1984 Mac ad? And hey hey — the ads just ain’t what they used to be. Etc.), or that they’re giving loads of free advertising to a bunch of advertisements.

What’s really frustrating is this whole tradition/charade continues as though ads mean anything anymore. Not that ads can’t boost sales and drive traffic and eyeballs to desired places (not like that, you dirty devil). But in terms of cultural impact, commercials haven’t been more than a blip for a long time.

What’s the last ad campaign that became a cultural touchstone, inspired a widely used catch phrase, or that had any kind of cultural effect beyond a bunch of one-off chuckles? The Budweiser “Wassup” campaign comes to mind (I still semi-ironically try to revive that one). Ipod and iTunes ads, maybe, but that kind of impact is hardly what people are talking about when they imagine the “water-cooler” possibilities of Super Bowl ads (and please note the quote marks; I hate the “water-cooler” cliche even more than I hate Super Bowl ad hype).

I’m not anti-adverts. If it were up to me, American schoolkids would have to say “Set it — and forget it!” at the end of the morning Pledge of Allegiance. I like to add a whispered “From Calvin Klein” to half of my spoken sentences. But the idea that this would actually happen — that advertising is still so powerful in the Ironic Age that once a year it can shape the culture by multiple-$2.7 million fiat (fiats?) — doesn’t hold up.

UPDATE: Dan Hopper makes a similar point at Best Week Ever. My favorite part (though mostly unrelated to his main point):

This isn’t to say that this year’s ads weren’t garbage. Those parodies of “The Godfather” and “Rocky” were pretty topical, weren’t they? Why don’t we spoof “Duck Soup” while we’re at it? What about “The Great Train Robbery”? Or some of Thomas Edison’s wax cylinder recordings? And why stop at references to “Dick in a Box” and “Night At The Roxbury” when we could have the Church Lady hocking Dr. Pepper or Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impression talking about Careerbuilder.com? Tons of untapped potential here, execs.