Thursday, July 31, 2008

Get the New But Keep the Old

Obituaries for the death of old media aren't hard to find. But this Sunday's New York Times seemed positively lousy with them.

On its front page (and for an entire inside spread) the paper examined the rise of online reading among teenagers and their subsequent rejection of books and novels. Elsewhere, a columnist looked at those shows that can pass for hits in today's declining television industry (Mad Men and Swingtown among them), noting that they're set in eras when the Big Three networks ruled the airwaves. A third lamented the demise of CD liner notes due to the growing popularity of downloadable music.

All of this in a newspaper, an industry that's grappling with old vs. new media problems of its own.

As someone with one foot planted firmly in both worlds, these stories left me feeling torn. Most of my reading occurs online rather than on the page these days as well, and like the teens quoted in today's Times, I often find novels too demanding of both my free time and attention span. I rarely watch television dramas or sitcoms, preferring reality science-based shows I've recorded on my DVR. (And my commercial-skipping skills are so well developed they've reduced my ad exposure to mere seconds per hour.) I download music frequently, and can't remember the last time I even thought about reading liner notes.

And yet. I'm a short story writer and aspiring novelist who relies on other people reading my words, preferably on a page. I can draw a straight line between my career choices today and the books that made a profound impression on me as a child and adult. I miss the television series I grew up on in the seventies and eighties, and recall with particular fondness how the networks used to promote their new fall line-ups with such fanfare and excitement each summer. I spent the majority of my professional like in the advertising industry. And my LP record collection continues to grow and bring me untold joy -- not only for all its lost music, but because of the words and images on the covers and liner sleeves as well.

Viewed one way, I'm as guilty of killing old media as any teenager armed with a smart phone and a Twitter account. Viewed another, I'm as much a relic as some love-lorn college student's mix tape from the eighties.

I'm firmly on the fence here, and that's where I'll stay, because I've learned my lesson about buying into -- literally and figuratively -- the hype surrounding the death of old media.

In 2000 I gave away all of my LPs from high school and college -- a collection of hundreds of albums from the seventies and eighties. While I loved all those old records, I'd moved on to CDs. I no longer owned a turntable, and didn't believe I'd own another ever again. And without a doubt it was one of the worst mistakes I've ever made. Because little did I know, a mere five years later, I'd chance upon a collection of hundreds of LPs from the '50s and '60s at an estate sale, which would lead to me falling in love with the LP all over again.

I've since moved on to MP3s, but you can bet I'm hanging on to all my CDs this time. And you should, too, along with your DVDs and books and anything else you've got taking up space. Because while old media dies, it doesn't happen suddenly. It hangs on, like a crotchety old aunt who'll probably outlive us all. That's old media. And like that old aunt, it'll probably outlive us all as well.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

I've Gone Mad

For the past two days I've been drowning my sorrows in Season 1 of Mad Men, an experience that not only brought on a lot of heavy drinking and smoking, but made me cheat on my wife as well.

Season 2 begins Sunday night, and seeing as how it's received such enormous critical acclaim, I thought it best to jump on the bandwagon now, since I obviously missed it last summer when it first rolled down my street.

I actually started watching Mad Men last year, but opted out after two or three episodes. Exactly why is a mystery, since everything about the show seemed designed to hit my sweet spot. It's set in the early sixties, my absolute favorite epoch, when men were unrepentant adulterers, women were frustrated housewives, interiors were sleek, smoking was cool and happy hour was whatever time it happened to be. And it revolves around the intrigue and political machinations inside an advertising agency -- an industry I know all too well. And yet, I stopped watching. What I didn't know then is that Mad Men is like an office party, one that doesn't really get going until late into the evening.

Maybe the first eight episodes were busy setting up the characters and conflicts, because Mad Men didn't become truly funny and inappropriate until the last four. Sure, there were plenty of scenes with pregnant women drinking mai tais and smoking cigarettes in the beginning, but they paled in comparison to a character bringing a rifle to the office and not inciting panic, or the sight of a grown man riding through the executive suite on the back of a model wearing only a bra and panties.

I think that's one of the show's greatest charms, watching these characters say and do things that would bring down the wrath of the HR department in our more politically correct times.

It's also hilarious every time the characters talk about how hard they work, since t seems the bulk of their business day is taken up with smoking, drinking, womanizing and gossiping, with occasional breaks for long lunches and shopping excursions. Yeah, I know, Mad Men isn't supposed to be reality, no more than Carrie Bradshaw's fabulous lifestyle on a writer's salary was in Sex in the City.

And yet. From everything I've heard, advertising truly was a glamorous business once upon a time, one filled with travel to exotic lands, unlimited expense accounts and workplace tomfoolery, all of it in the name of manipulating the American public to buy things they didn't need with money they didn't have. Those must have been the days.

It's a different business now. Advertising agencies -- especially those lacking a firm grasp of the interactive disciplines -- are running scared. TV commercials, formally an agency's bread and butter and caviar and champagne, are a much smaller part of the business, since fewer people watch TV and most of those who are zap past the spots. Clients expect results, not just pretty pictures, snappy copy and catchy jingles. And, saddest of all, people work their assess off now, trying like hell to keep the boat they're in afloat and hoping like hell that another big ship will come in.

I miss early sixties, even though I never experienced them. But, as my friend Jonathan keeps reminding me during every episode of Mad Men, "all those people are dead now." He's probably right. But at least back then they lived.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A GUD Cause

GUD magazine (it stands for Greatest Uncommon Denominator and is pronounced "good") is true to its name, a literary magazine with an eye for excellent design and a taste for dark fiction.

Their third issue will be released soon, and to promote the event they're holding a contest. Get the details here. The prize? A full set of their first three issues to have and to hold and read and enjoy.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"The Dark Knight"

2008; directed by Christopher Nolan; screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan

If nothing else, The Dark Knight is loud. Throughout its hectic 2-1/2 hours bombs explode, engines roar, glass shatters, cars crash, mobs scream and characters shout at and beyond the top of their lungs. In this respect it's the perfect summer movie for both teenage boys and the hard-of-hearing.

Like all summer blockbusters, The Dark Knight excels in its technical aspects. Fans of special effects, pyrotechnics, sound design and editing, cinematography and sheer volume (in both senses of the word) will certainly leave the theater feeling they got their money's worth.

However, audiences hoping to find a compelling story amidst all the sturm und drang will leave feeling not only cold but confused, since the screenplay is little more than one massive action sequence after another.

In this installment of the series, Gotham has been overrun by organized crime. The mob is involved in a multi-billion dollar corruption ploy in cahoots with the Chinese, Gotham's crooked police force can't be trusted to fight them, and the Joker is stirring it all up -- not for monetary gain, but only because he enjoys the thrill of chaos. (Judging from the results, he surely must have been pleased.) Only Batman and the tough new District Attorney provide any hope for justice. There are several character reversals and double-crosses that seem to come out of left field, some nonsense about Gotham getting the kind of hero it deserves, and a deus ex machina device that brings the whole thing to a close. None of it amounts to much.

I was most interested in seeing the late Heath Ledger's penultimate performance as the Joker, which did not disappoint. He brings an array of vocal and physical techniques to the role that make him the most interesting and entertaining thing in the picture. He commands our attention, controlling every room he enters, filling the screen and literally crowding out the other characters. Even beneath his smeary make-up his face is so expressive, his eyes so quick and intelligent, we can almost see the synapses firing inside his head. One wishes he had not only more scenes in the film, but more roles to come afterward as well.

However, I also think a bit too much has been made of it, with some going so far as to suggest that the performance required such physical and emotional demands that death became the logical result. This is not the case. Ledger does an outstanding job, eclipsing every other actor in the film including Christian Bale, who's been known to suffer for his art as well. Ledger's performance will serve as a thrilling end to a too-short career. But this is not acting to die for.

Let me be honest. It's rare for me to go to any film on its opening weekend, especially one as over-marketed as The Dark Knight. Invariably I sit there in the theater, feeling shoveled in by all the hype, and ultimately walk out wondering why I wasted my time, patience and $9-$10.

The Dark Knight was no different. The film tells us very little about ourselves, and way too much about what Hollywood thinks of us. To quote Shakespeare, it is "a tale of sound and fury... signifying nothing."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Verminators"

If, like me, you recoil at the sight of any life form smaller than a kitten, but enjoy watching them infest other people's homes from the safety of your own, Verminators is your show.

The series follows the day-to-day pest-killing adventures of a exterminating company located in Los Angeles. In the last episode I saw, the company's field crew tackled an all-out roach infestation in a lower-middle class apartment complex, a horde of rats in a slightly better apartment complex, and a bevy of black widow spiders who'd decided to nest in the horse barns of a well-to-do family's estate.

The lesson here? No one, regardless of socio-economic status, is safe from critters.

In addition to getting a good look at other people's bug-infested homes, the Verminators also pass on helpful tips and tricks for spotting them in yours. Rats and mice will leave smudge marks on corners and walls, for example. Termites are more likely to destroy moist wood. Regular house cleaning will keep spiders at bay.

All good things to know, especially if you're more interested in keeping vermin out of your house than figuring out ways to get rid of it once it's made itself at home.

New episodes of Verminators air Monday nights at 10:00PM ET on the Discovery channel; older episodes appear throughout the week.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Word Art

Yesterday Vince Liaguno, editor of the upcoming anthology I'll be appearing in entitled Unspeakable Horror, introduced me to Wordle.net.

Wordle is a clever Java program written by an IBM programmer named Jonathan Feinberg. It takes any text or URL (with a feed) that you enter, analyzes the prevalence of the words, and then transforms them into a lovely and fascinating word cloud. The one shown here is based on the the content of this blog. (Click the graphic for a larger version.) Vince used it to create an alternate view of the anthology's table of contents.

You can change the colors and fonts and layouts, and generally waste all kinds of precious time playing around with it. It's great fun.

However, it also has a useful application. At least for me, and possibly any other writers out there. I like to enter the text of my stories into Wordle, then use the results to find and weed out crutch words I often use, such as like, just, went, was, etc.

Thanks, Vince!

AFI Won't Leave Me Alone

You wouldn't think that sending a complaint to an organization would automatically put your on their spam list. Especially when their contact form says nothing about automatically adding you to their spam list, or gives you an opportunity to opt out of said spam list.

But that's exactly what the American Film Institute has done. Since my last post on this topic, the AFI has sent me two unsolicited emails.

The first was particularly amusing, since my original email to them was complaining about their "Ten Greatest American Films in Ten Classic Genres." It says:

Dear C. Michael,

Thanks for sharing in the excitement of AFI's 10 TOP 10, the newest chapter in the American Film Institute's ongoing celebration of American cinema.

(Yeah, well, I wasn't sharing the excitement. I was sharing my disappointment. But I guess it's all the same to you, right?)

We invite you to visit the TV show's companion Web site at AFI.com for fascinating details on all 100 movies, including exclusive videos of leading film artists. You can add your own comments and test your movie IQ with AFI's Movie Quiz: 10 TOP 10.

(Uh, already been there, done that, wrote to complain about it.)

It goes on from here, yammering about their upcoming salute to Warren Beatty and all the exciting extra features they have stored up at the web site.

The second email flogs the Warren Beatty tribute AGAIN.

It's not that I'm outraged about receiving unsolicited emails. My inbox is filled with them, and at least the American Film Institute isn't trying to sell me a high-quality replica Rolex or something with an all-new formula that promises to make my bedroom love times last longer.

But still. I wrote to complain. Given that simple fact, I'd say the chances of me being predisposed to receiving promotional emails from AFI are pretty slim.

Apologies to anyone who took my advice to write the AFI about their "Ten Greatest American Films in Ten Classic Genres" and, as a result, has been getting these annoying emails as well.

The unsubscribe link is at the bottom of their emails. Use it.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Greetings from Door County, Wisconsin

We spent the Fourth of July weekend in Door County with some friends.

This trip is becoming a bit of a tradition with us -- for two years now we've spent the holiday with these same friends, in a fantastic condo we were lucky enough to find last year.

We spent our time cooking, yard saling, driving up and down the peninsula in search of quaint charm (plenty was found) and, yes, enjoying a cocktail or two on the veranda. (From where the picture above was snapped. Fireworks just outside our door? Top that for Upper Midwestern luxury.)

Door County is one of those places that makes you want to leave your real life and stay there until all your money is gone. Then, once it is, to buckle down in search of a way to live there permanently.

At any rate, I hope your Fourth was as enjoyable as mine. Happy birthday, America!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Outrageous Fortune

Giving Rush Limbaugh $400 million dollars to do anything other than shut the hell up is bad enough. But the fact that this hypocritical, cigar-chomping, Vicodin-popping, fear-mongering, far-right gasbag mouthpiece will remain on the airwaves until 2016 completely horrifies me.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A Nightmare at the Opera

Long-time readers know I often lament the fact that horror ain't got no class. So it was especially good news to learn that David Cronenburg's 1986 sci-fi/horror classic, The Fly, is soon to be an opera.

Opera? As my high-school friends back in Iowa might say, "That's class out the ass."

Directed by David Cronenburg, with a score by Howard Shore (Cronenburg's long-time colleague and composer of the film's original score) and conducted by Placido Domingo, The Fly: The Opera will debut at the Paris Opera House and appear in September in a production by the LA Opera.

Though he's sticking close to the original story -- intrepid reporter meets fascinating scientist and his teleportation machine, scientist tests the device on himself in a moment of pique and accidentally gets a housefly into the mix, horror ensues -- Cronenburg is setting the operatic version in the 1950s.

For tickets and more information visit www.The FlyTheOpera.com.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

An Experiment in Sleep Deprivation - HyperiCon 4

I arose at 4:30 on Friday morning in order to drive to Nashville, where HyperiCon is held. I finally went to sleep around 2:30 the next morning. Lather, rinse, repeat, and you'll get a good idea of what my three-day experience in Tennessee was like.

The details? Plenty of those. Some I even remember.

For example, seeing my pal John Hornor Jacobs. (That's John with Fran Friel. More on her below.) John and I roomed together at the con, and it was his idea to bring some snacks to keep in our room. If it hadn't been for this wise suggestion, we wouldn't have had much to eat (or drink -- but more on that later) the entire weekend, because the conference hotel was inexplicably without a restaurant or bar. In addition to his uncanny prescience John's also a terrific writer, and gave me the manuscript of his first novel during the con. I've already read the first four chapters, and survey says we have a winner. John also has three -- count 'em! -- shorts slated for publication. (For a different view of the weekend's festivities, including a terrific and funny video, check out John's blog, Bastardized Version.)

One of the people I was most looking forward to meeting is Fran Friel, whose new book, Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales was recently released. In addition to being one of the nicest people you could ever meet, Fran has a hidden dark side which she gives free reign when it comes to her fiction.

As a result, Mama's Boy is filled with stories that are both lovely and troubling at the same time -- a tough act to pull off. She also makes a great dinner companion, which John and I discovered Saturday night. We went to The Melting Pot, a restaurant that specializes in fondue which, contrary to all rumors, has not completely gone the way of Pet Rocks and key parties.


Chatting with fellow Illinoisan Steven Shrewsbury was also a high point. Shrews, as he's called, is the author of the just-released Hawg, as well as a dozen or so other books, and just about as many more on the way. With a full-time job and family, I don't know how he does it. Shrews is also one of the most... um, animated?... readers you're likely to see. Seriously, if Steven Shrewsbury schedules a reading at your local bookseller, show up. If you don't, you'll be left wondering exactly what everyone else is talking about.

Saturday night saw several parties. My favorite was the Apex bash, hosted by Apex Book Company editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore, editor Mari Adkins (who I shared more than a few good laughs with), and graphics guru Justin Stewart. Apex is the publisher of Fran's new book in addition to many others, along with Apex Digest. For my money (and they managed to make off with a bit of it) Apex puts out some of the best-looking and -reading publications out there. Naturally, they put on a great party, complete with a truly horrifying shot concoction called "scrambled brains."

Seen, painted on the sidewalk, while I was in downtown Nashville.

Sunday didn't amount to much for me, other than a long drive back to Chicago with a sack of ten White Castles in the passenger seat, purchased to nurse my hangover. While I was glad I went, I was glad to be back home as well. Because I knew I was finally going to get some sleep.