Category Archives: Pop Culture

Adventures in Entertainment-Publicist Bamboozling: Black Swan and the Governator

The new Entertainment Weekly has a couple of hilarious reminders that the entertainment business — including most of the publications that cover it — is primarily a publicist-driven hype machine. Join me for the first installment of a potentially semi-regular feature, Adventures in Entertainment-Publicist Bamboozling. (And yes, I still get Entertainment Weekly. I also watch movies on a circa-2003 CRT TV.)

Natalie Portman did the Black Swan dancing :: Tom Cruise did his own stunts :: Avril Lavigne wrote her own songs

One of my favorite show-business lies is the “[big star X] did [obviously untrue feat Y]” claim, used to establish a star’s talent, grit, or authenticity.

Via EW, I see that we have a new entry in this storied marketing approach: the “Natalie Portman did basically all the dancing in Black Swan” claim. Apparently Portman’s body double Sarah Lane is causing problems for this strategy, pointing out that Lane — a professional ballet dancer rather than a dilettante actor — did the dancing:

“Of the full body shots, I would say 5 percent are Natalie,” says Sarah Lane, 27, an American Ballet Theatre soloist who performed many of the film’s complicated dance sequences, allowing Portman’s face to be digitally grafted onto her body. “All the other shots are me.” …

“They wanted to create this idea in people’s minds that Natalie was some kind of prodigy or so gifted in dance and really worked so hard to make herself a ballerina in a year and a half for the movie, basically because of the Oscar,” says Lane.

I haven’t seen Black Swan and don’t really care whether Portman did the dancing. But despite Darren Aronofsky’s defense of Portman, I would bet a lot of money that Lane is telling the truth. This is just how the entertainment hype machine works.

My favorite example of the phenomenon was the mid-aughts hyping of then-teenager Avril Lavigne as a totally real pop star who totally wrote her own songs!!! (Even though professional songwriting teams and session musicians clearly wrote the songs and played the music.) Edward Jay Epstein describes another example in The Big Picture, his terrific 2005 book detailing the marketing-and-publicist-driven reality of today’s Hollywood. It’s worth quoting at length:

The studio begins its marketing effort as soon as a project receives a green light. … The principal awareness instrument that the publicists have at their disposal, obviously, is the public reputation of the film’s stars. As part of their arrangement with the studios, the stars effectively allow the studios to use their reputations to publicize their films. To this end, the studios script “back stories” that merge the stars’ activities, real or invented, with those of the characters they play in the films. …

Consider Mission: Impossible II. … A back story was … scripted in which [Tom] Cruise was seen to be indistinguishable from Ethan Hunt, the acrobatic hero he played, via the claim that he, and not a stunt double, had done the free falls, fire walks, motorcycle leaps, and other perilous stunts that Hunt did in the movie.

This back story was keynoted in a publicity short, Mission Incredible, shown on MTV and other cable channels owned by Paramount’s corporate parent. Made in the style of a documentary in which the crew and cast of Mission Impossible are interviewed, it has the director, John Woo, expressing great fear that Tom Cruise would plunge to his death in leaps across mountaintops or be incinerated in fire scenes. Woo states, at one point, “Tom has no fear. I prayed for him.” In another publicity short, Woo says, “Tom Cruise does most of his own stunts, so we did not need a stunt double.”

In the actual production, there were at least six stunt doubles for Tom Cruise’s part. Even if Cruise had possessed the skills and training to the stunts himself, and even if the studio was not to object to the delays in shooting this conceit might cause, the insurance company, which insured Cruise as an “essential element” of the production, would not have allowed him to risk so much as an ankle sprain, much less his life. As far as this publicity script diverged from reality, however, it served its purpose by providing a plausible story for the entertainment meda — “Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt,” and a tag line, “Expect the impossible again.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Surefire Comic Book Hit!!!

The Black Swan tale doesn’t reflect on EW as a publication. Alas, their cover-story exclusive on Arnold Schwarzenneger’s post-governor plans is a bit more embarrassing.

The big news is that Schwarzenegger is teaming up with comics legend Stan Lee to develop the Governator, “a sunglasses-wearing superhero with an Austrian accent who’ll be at the center of an ambitious, kid-friendly multimedia comic-book and animated TV series codeveloped by no less a hero maker than Stan Lee.”

If this story were more than a publicist-hatched marketing plan, it might have pointed out that:

  • Stan Lee’s main contributions to comics and pop culture came in the 1960s and ’70s. His later career does not inspire breathless fandom.
  • The pinup drawing of the Governator — featured on a fold-out cover — is straight out of the Rob Liefeld school of bad ’90s comics art:

  • This photo of Schwarzenegger and Lee couldn’t be more staged:

  • The idea is terrible! Here’s Stan Lee: “We’re using all the personal elements of Arnold’s life. We’re using his wife [Maria Shriver]. We’re using his kids. We’re using the fact that he used to be governor. Only after he leaves the governor’s office, Arnold decides to become a crime fighter and builds a secret high-tech crimefighting control center under his house in Brentwood.” Um, have they focus-grouped this? Do they really think Maria Shriver and gubernatorial experience resonate with kids?

I’m happy to be proven wrong; kids have made successes out of far worse artwork and concepts. But Schwarzenegger’s publicist deserves a huge bonus for getting an EW cover out of this lame plan.

My favorite music of the decade

The 2000s were a great time to be a music fan. The “heavenly jukebox” became a reality as iTunes, post-Napster file-sharing, (briefly), Rhapsody, Lala, imeem, Pandora, Hype Machine, music blogs, and dozens of other sites and programs enabled us to access pretty much any song ever made, often for cheap or free.

Having the world’s music library available to anyone with an Internet connection made competitive notions like airplay, shelf space, and cover shoots a bit less important; attention became somewhat less of a zero-sum game. This allowed a sort of post-critical music culture to take hold, where notions of taste and guilty pleasures gave way to … well, at least to questions of whether taste and guilty pleasures had any meaning anymore.

The popularity of Pitchfork suggests that the more widely shared answer is “No, as long as your non-guilty-pleasure guilty pleasures are the right ones.” Inside my own head, the answer has been a more definitive no — so much so that I seem to have lost interest in one of my former life goals/dreams: being a music critic.

In that spirit, I wanted to share my favorite music of the decade. Not “the best” or “the most important” music of the decade; you can read any number of lists that will tell you why Kid A, Stankonia, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Merriweather Post Pavilion, et al were decade-representative and influential and great.

I don’t necessarily disagree; I respect or quite like Kid A, Stankonia, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Animal Collective does nothing for me, though). But respecting Radiohead’s artistic experimentation and growth doesn’t mean I ever think, “Hey, I know what would be fun to listen to now! Thom Yorke’s processed voice going ‘Nnninnn innnn onnnn ninnnnninnn mmnnnnn … Yesterday I woke up sucking on le-mone’ while a brooding synthesizer cascades behind him and the rest of the band chats about Chekhov in the other room.”

I’m increasingly convinced that the way we hear, appreciate, and respond to music is highly idiosyncratic, even biological. Here, then, is my highly idiosyncratic list of favorite albums and songs of the decade. Some of them I like because a note or chord change triggers an endorphin rush for me; some have interesting lyrics or structures; some I probably like because other people liked them; most of them I can’t properly explain why I like them.

And yes, a silly Darkness Christmas song really is my favorite song of the decade.

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Why I secretly want Conan to leave ‘The Tonight Show’

While I would never wish sadness or the crushing of lifelong dreams upon Conan O’Brien, I would secretly cheer if he decides to leave The Tonight Show (or if NBC honchos decide they’ve had enough of his on-air insubordination).

Conan’s a brilliant late-night host, of course. But his oeuvre consists of a classic Simpsons run and 17 years of late-night ephemera. Ricky Gervais has The Office; Chris Rock has his stand-up specials; Woody Allen has Annie Hall and Manhattan. Will Conan end up with “Marge vs. the Monorail” … and a box set of Masturbating Bear and Triumph bits?

There’s probably a behavioral economics argument for why sustained but ephemeral late-night genius is better than a half-dozen classic movies surrounded by a couple dozen The Curse of the Jade Scorpions. But it sure would be exciting to see that genius set loose from its late-night confines, even for a little while. Who knows what crazy shows, movies, Shouts & Murmers columns, comedy songs, and other assorted awesomeness he’d come up with.

Like any practicing comedy elitist, I have a visceral dislike of Jay Leno. I’m obviously on Team Conan. But are his monologue one-liners really that much smarter than Leno’s? Are Conan’s celebrity interviews really less puffy?

I’ve only seen scattered Conan bits since watching Late Night regularly for the first few years of the aughts (the little time I have for late-night shows goes to The Daily Show, obviously). On the other hand, I would have kept up religiously if he had instead made three movies, two seasons of a cult show, and a bunch of web shorts in those seven years.

So I hope, for Conan’s sake, that everything works out and he gets to keep his beloved Tonight Show gig in the right time slot. But if he has to go, this fan selfishly thinks it’ll be for the best.

(Adam Frucci has some thoughts along these lines at The Awl.)

Why Sony’s iTunes competitor will fail – and how they could (but won’t) make it work

Back when the Playstation 3 was in the works, I wrote a lot about Sony’s misguided strategy for the console. My doomsday scenarios haven’t come true, but the company is definitely struggling — losses are projected at $674 million this year after $2.6 billion in losses last year, according to BusinessWeek. (“The two worst-performing products: TVs and video games.”)

So it’s great to see Sony has more dynamite ideas up its corporate sleeve. Like building an iTunes-like service. Because everyone knows consumers are looking for yet another site where they can pay to download movies/shows, music, and books!

Surely Sony has some secret sauce that’ll make this service stand out from the zillions of other similar services, both living and dead. Take it away, BusinessWeek:

Sony will try to differentiate its service from iTunes. One example: Users will be able to upload videos shot on camcorders, save photos taken with digital cameras, and post other digital content to their personal online accounts. … At some point down the road, Sony would consider letting independent software developers create applications for the service, much the way Apple does for its iPhone.

[Slaps forehead as crickets chirp.]

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Roman Polanski and the grossness of ’70s Hollywood

Kate Harding has a terrific post in Salon pushing back against the dominant framing of the Roman Polanski arrest. Rather than first thinking of Polanski as a brilliant, persecuted director, she says, we should start here: “Roman Polanski raped a child.” Then he pleaded guilty, and fled the country before sentencing.

(Other good reading in this vein: Harding’s follow-up in Jezebel recounting the depressingly long list of Hollywood types who support Polanski. And Bill Wyman’s pushback against obseqious coverage of a 2008 documentary about the Polanski case.)

But something else in the Polanski tale keeps catching my eye. From the CNN report on Polanski’s arrest:

Polanski was accused of plying a 13-year-old girl with champagne and a sliver of a quaalude tablet and performing various sex acts, including intercourse, with her during a photo shoot at actor Jack Nicholson’s house. He was 43 at the time.

Nicholson was not at home, but his girlfriend at the time, actress Anjelica Huston, was.

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The best Michael Jackson tributes, appreciations, and responses

One mark of Michael Jackson’s cultural impact is the strain his death put on the Internet. Another is the number of appreciations, tributes, and responses that have been written about him in the past three days (and the range of people writing those pieces). Here’s a roundup of the best I’ve read so far.

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Why Settlers of Catan isn’t the perfect game (but Cities and Knights is)

I’ve been waiting for a decade for someone to write this story, and finally Andrew Curry did it for Wired: how Settlers of Catan and its German brethren revived the moribund and sorry (make that Sorry!) state of board games.

Curry nails why American board games are so lame — “either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyperintellectual pastimes for eggheads” — and why Settlers is so engaging: players are involved even when it’s not their turn; trading makes the game social, which makes it more fun; the board is always different; there are several possible routes to victory.

He also provides some tidbits that turn this into a plausible trend piece:

Last year, Settlers doubled its sales on this side of the Atlantic, moving 200,000 copies in the US and Canada—almost unheard-of performance for a new strategy game with nothing but word-of-mouth marketing. It has become the first German-style title to make the leap from game-geek specialty stores to major retailers like Barnes & Noble and Toys “R” Us.

But I’d quibble with one thing: Settlers of Catan isn’t actually perfect.

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