Friday, April 17, 2009

A quick one

That really was long. Here's a funny video. Let's never discuss the economy again. It'll be our secret.

Prague's Franz Kafka International Named World's Most Alienating Airpor

- Update: I don't know what the hell is up with that video. It won't resize properly, no matter what I do. Did I mention I've worked in IT?

Anyway, here's another video. Fingers crossed this works:

the dangers of journalism, or why I love research

When Obama ascended to the US presidency in January 2009 (yes he was elected in November 2008, but GWB didn't go back to Texas until the inauguration), there were lots of 'death of satire' articles floating about the news. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show publicly mourned his impression of the Washington Cowboy and wondered where they would now find humour. As it happens, they found it in their competitors.

In the US, big media is very big. Print media is on the same downward slide as it is everywhere else - less people read newspapers anyway, most organisations botched their entry online, dissatisfaction with their response to the last decade, particularly homeland security and the Iraq war - but television news is another story. The best way to understand them is to imagine a cross between the Sun and a glossy lifestyle magazine. TV networks like CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg & CNN sell (as they feel they must) the most distilled version of the news and have all the access that they require to the corridors of power. But when they get in there, they ask not why decisions were made and what has resulted, but rather, what wallpaper they choose and how awesome it is to be a billionaire.

In the boom market, there were (of course) many who criticised that approach. But let's not kid ourselves - it was the minority. this last decade was the one that gave us Big Brother, Celebrity Insert Reality Show Name Here, Cribs, The Fabulous Life of... and so on. We could shuffle right up to the velvet rope, because the veneer of success was so easy to achieve. When you can look like a winner, you can start to feel like one too. The real cost of things gets lost and your perception of both your wealth and the distance you are from losing it starts to become very skewed. As you start to believe in what you see in the mirror, you ask less questions about how it's being held up and by who.

This is why we're in the mess we're in right now. Not because capitalism failed, or because globalisation is universally bad, nor can we blame GWB or his cronies. We fell asleep at the wheel. If you questioned the rollercoaster, you were a naive lefty. If you questioned the left, you were a rabid neocon. These were convenient labels, especially in Ireland, where every party was equally left, right and centrist. At a recent talk by Malcolm Gladwell, someone from the floor raised the question : 'how did this happen?' to which the afro'd one replied that it was a consequence of intellectual laziness.


Paul Krugman, Nobel prize winner for economics, had been warning about the dangers of a crash for some time. He wasn't alone. Vince Cable in the UK, our own David McWilliams (full disclosure: I'm occasionally employed by that fellow), are notables among countless others. But who in Ireland did we listen to when warnings of a property bubble were aired? Esteemed economists who worked for the estate agencies and banks that most stood to gain from an improving market. This felt awfully close to scientists, employed by cigarette companies, telling the world that there was no link between their products and any ill-effects. Unless you could be too cool.

So all the signs were there. Why then, did we let things come to this pass? In Ireland, we're facing one of the most ridiculous budgets in years, which will profoundly affect everything about our country. We elected these people, these Galway tent cheerleaders, even though all the evidence shouted caution. Despite warnings that even after a decade of an unprecedented boom, little in the way of real infrastructure had been accomplished for this country, which would inevitably mean that we would be ill-prepared for any future problems, we voted in Bertie and his merry men. Who did we punish? The PD's, who allowed themselves to be manoeuvered into the whipping boy of Irish politics. Watching the Green party be even more inept and so comprehensively bullied, any languishing support so decidedly eroded, you develop a sort of respect for PD's (the last people in the Fianna Fail ejector seat).

Of course, you have no respect for these guys - but you don't have to. They don't need your respect. They'll get elected anyway. Watch how the media heat got turned off Bertie and where the money was from the moment he jumped ship and left Cowen to figure it all out. We are an electorate that has been bought and paid for in speed ramps and mortgage relief. Make sure your name is on short term local projects, or on a party level, small initiatives that make people think that they're saving money. Don't worry that it won't last long, or that you haven't dealt with the costs of the health service, or the iniquities of education. No-one will remember until after the election. If you don't quite make the grade, fret not. You can throw a bone at one of the other smaller parties, or better still, a few independents. All they want is a few extra traffic lights and they'll keep quiet for a few years.

It may well be that Fine Gael manage it this time round. But it won't be because they have a series of coherent policies, or are effecting a sea-change in Irish politics per se. It will entirely be about getting the only other party with anything approaching large enough numbers and support outside Dublin. But be in no doubt that whoever it is, as it stands now, you're just choosing between card sharps.

So what does that digression into a rant have to do with the beginning of the post? You may have seen this already - I've been meaning to write about this for a few weeks, but have a look at this:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
CNBC Financial Advice
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

Stewart and The Daily Show found another target after all. CNBC was a big cheerleader for the boom. Everything was great, even when it wasn't, just as in Ireland, when we were buying duplexes in invented towns with no infrastructure for more than a house in a nice part of any good city in the US. Every property section was our Jim Cramer. For a while there, it seemed as though his entire extended family were in some way involved in Mexican waving the entire Irish economy.

What NBC did have was access. More so than any person on the street, and more than most print or online outlets, even many television networks, they could get close to the halls of power. It's something of a shame that when they got there all they did was open the doors and ask if sir needed anything else for the evening. The Daily Show never had that sort of access. Sir Allen Stanford would never have turned up for a Stewart grilling. Bush never did, either. What they did have was the motivation to research. It was digging for the facts, as they did above, that has made this comedy show one of the most respected news programmes in the western world, and one that nobody in the US media can ignore. The thing is, the facts aren't hard to find. It just requires that you care more about them than who is going to be America's next top model.
When you have a media outlet that cares more about how those at the top feel than what they do, have done or will do, you have film and music magazines that are extended advertisements for whichever company is selling something that month, interviewers who ask soon-to-be-exposed-as-Ponzi-schemers 'how it feels to be a billionaire', or even, national television stations that report a news story then apologise for doing so, because a politician's feelings may be hurt. When a 27-year old woman's decline from cancer is relayed through every possible medium, but we are afraid to poke fun at our leaders, or watch our watchmen, we're doing something wrong, surely?

Apologies for the long rant. Someone give me a column so I can work these personal problems out in a more public forum.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What I think when I see big Hollywood Blockbusters

I've just come back from watching Monsters Vs. Aliens, which is one of those films where you see a trailer and laugh a lot, but when you're actually sitting in the theatre, popcorn in hand, you realise all the funny bits were in that trailer. Worse, the film feels like it's a succession of lead-ups to the lines that have already been delivered in the trailer that you saw (and if you are a parent with children that need distracting often, this will be a trailer you have seen too many times).

The tragedy of it, from my aged perspective, is that there are a lot of great actors in the movie: Will Arnett, Reese Witherspoon, Stephen Colbert, Hugh Laurie, etc, etc. (I've linked to their best roles, in my opinion. Get over it). But of course, the thing with actors is that you trust them at your peril. Anybody who decides to watch films based on the actor who's starring in it alone is a moron of the first water. Full disclaimer: I have been and continue to be that moron. Also, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't count. Or he's the exception that proves the rule.

I was an actor once. The 'once' is a silent implication that (a) I wasn't much good, and (b) more importantly, I wasn't successful, which is the real measure. Anyone can say they are an actor in the same way that they can say they are a successful brand of washing machine, but without the gold seal that is beautifully starched whites or a lead role in a TV series someone has actually seen, it's not going to fly.

Fundamentally, every actor needs to work. They are motivated in the same way as any other 'creative professional': "I need to eat, but I want to enjoy the process of getting there", but what they do is not the same. Unless they have written the script or are the director, they have little to no control over what they put out. Which can be hard. Imagine putting years of your life into your craft (and it is a craft, as are most things. People who tell you they are artists are pulling wool over their eyes and yours. That doesn't mean art can't be a result, just that it rarely starts there. Undergraduate rant over.) - but in the end, everyone only remembers you that guy from Steptoe.

Richard Dreyfus tells an anecdote about being poor: When he was a struggling actor, before Jaws, Close Encounters and the rest, he used to pass a car dealership and look admiringly at the models in the showroom, painfully aware that the gulf between him and a convertible was a lot wider than the thickness of the glass. Then, when success happened to him - for actors, success happens to you, you don't happen yourself - the dealer offered him the finest car gratis. This was what struck him: When he needed a car, he had no money, he couldn't afford much of anything, certainly not a glossy sportscar. But when he could buy whatever he chose, it was free.

I don't know if Dreyfus knew what to do with that realisation. He's certainly one of the forgotten great actors. All his performances (that I've seen) are great, but compared to his peers, he is the invisible man. Few remember the stuff he did unprompted. What it does for me is illustrate the great inadequacy that you feel as an actor: You can do the job, if only someone would hire you. But no-one will, because you can't get a job with which you can demonstrate your skills. If by some magic fortune you ever get the chance to show your quality, you won't need the job anymore. This was probably true more in the past than now - acting, like everything else, is oversubscribed: simply wanting to be something won't make it happen, but what it does explain is the way that actors grab at everything that turns up.

Ricky Gervais once made a famous comment to the effect that any time a British comic succeeds with something they are immediately everywhere, then go and do a terrible sex comedy and divebomb back to cruise-ship level fame (maybe he wasn't that cruel). I think he's on to something, though his take on it is necessarily different because he wrote his success. Look at the other actors in The Office. None of them have been particularly successful - certainly they've made money, and had a level of fame, but that's not the same thing. If you can catch a break, you can make some hay, but managing to keep that train rolling for years at a time is a different, more solid kind of victory.

You can only do that if you make your own success (i.e. you write it/direct it/in some way have real ownership of it) or are so charismatic that even the most rubbish film fails to torpedo your career. I wouldn't like to lay my life's dreams on the second category. So most actors, if they break through, take every job they can, trusting that if even one is as good as the one that made their name, it'll keep them going. Sometimes it works, but most of the time, the house wins.

Will Arnett is a terrific actor and delivers a knockout performance in Arrested Development, but nothing he has done since is remotely as good, so as a viewer you go from loving seeing the guy who played GOB in a movie you see in the cinema, to finding his performance a redeeming note in a throwaway flick you rented, to seeing his name on movies you will never see (even on TV) because you subconsciously know they will be awful. Arnett can't help that. He just wants to work. Getting jobs is hard enough, so it takes a long time before people start getting choosy about them. (A-list stars and their vanity projects is another issue and one that I'll leave alone this time round). He might get lucky - I think he probably will, his work is sublime and he deserves it - but then so do countless others.

Anyone trying to make a living of any sort, especially in the 'creative industry' knows, or ought to, that there are countless people behind them looking to catch up, and just as many in front, worried about their jobs. it's a fairly safe bet that however good you are, there are others just as talented and a significant amount who are better. If you can't live with this, you're in the wrong place. Your success is a function of skill, talent, luck and timing. Even Leonardo didn't get all the breaks. If you write music or words, you can at least create by yourself. If someone hated your last piece, you can do another. Maybe that'll work - you'll get a book deal, sign an album, get an article published. If you're an actor, or a performer, you can't. You can't turn up to an audition and say you gave the 21st century's definitive Hamlet to your bathroom cabinet. You need other actors, writers, directors, an audience. So you take every job you can get - good, bad and indifferent and pray to every god with an altar that somebody important notices the good stuff and nobody sees the bad.

Or at least that's what I think when I see films like Monsters Vs. Aliens.

This is why nobody wants to come to the cinema with me, isn't it?

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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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