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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (4/18/11) 8:25pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Murder, My Sweet
TV:  The Muppet Show [2x14-2x19]
Books:  Don't Think of an Elephant [audiobook], The War for Late Night

Murder, My Sweet
This is the 1944 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, featuring private eye Philip Marlowe.  Again, I'm watching it as part of my continued research for the film noir show(My show notes are posted here.)

It's strange, finally watching a noir that exemplifies so many of the stereotypes we associate with the genre.  Yes, its protagonist is a world-weary private eye.  Yes, there are beautiful women who are nothing but trouble.  Yes, there's a voiceover with snappy comments about every-damn-thing.

And yet, watching it now, it feels like it lacks some really important qualities.  Most importantly, I never feel like the hero is doomed.  No matter how badly Marlow gets beaten, drugged, lied to, arrested, shot at... I sense that he's a bit like Indiana Jones -- he'll lose every step of the way through his story, but he'll still wind up alright.  The other noirs I've seen go the other way -- the hero might catch a few lucky breaks, but there's this *undertow* to them, where the protagonist just isn't quite strong enough to escape ruin.  The world is just a little too unfair, or the wrong choices are a little too tempting, or the situation is a little too stacked against anybody who's just trying to get by.  That doom hangs over the lead from the start.

Philip Marlowe isn't doomed.

And the L. A. that he moves through isn't particularly corrupt.  More precisely, you get the feeling that he's dealing with the criminal elements in a generally law-abiding society.  In other movies, it feels like everybody's on the take, and the odd do-gooder you meet feels like they're taking on a Sisyphan task.

So somehow, Murder, My Sweet pulls off the paradox of being both quintessentially noir and quintessentially not.  He runs through the kind of situation a film noir would deal with, and meets the kind of types who populate those movies, but he's always just clever enough to make a few witty comments about it and come out the other end with a solved case, a gorgeous brunette, and a sharp suit not riddled with bullet holes.

Isn't that nice?

Side note:  the plot of this one was, to me, completely impenetrable.  But no matter:  the hero would spin out one lengthy explanation after another, and each time he'd either be right or his wrongness would coax a new bit of information out of somebody.  It seems like the plot can be as byzantine as it wants, just so long as the characters know what they want to do next.

The Muppet Show [2x14-2x19]
This stretch of The Muppet Show features guest stars Elton John, Lou Rawls, Cleo Laine, Julie Andrews, Jaye P. Morgan, and Peter Sellers.

I picked up this DVD more or less at random, just so I could scavenge it for clips for a Dubbed Indemnity show.  I was surprised by how well it held up.

I was also surprised at how it was successful, and it was renowned, and yet it feels like it had no influence.  It feels like the marsupial of the TV kingdom.  Maybe a few modern shows have its anarchic streak (ScrubsFamily Guy?).  Maybe a few late-night shows share its "we're putting on a show by the skin of our teeth" vibe (Craig Ferguson? Conan O'Brien?).  But generally I watch The Muppets thinking, "This is great, and it resembles absolutely nothing."  When it ended, nobody -- Henson included -- took that ball and ran with it.

And now, production is underway for another Muppet movie -- Disney's last, hail-Mary attempt to turn its Jim Henson properties into something profitable.  There's talk of 'modernizing' the Muppets.  At first glance, this struck me as unnecessary.  I'll grant that the Muppets Show is dated, but I'm pretty sure it's always been dated.  It wouldn't surprise me if it was dated when it first aired, harking back to a decades-old tradition of Vaudeville that was out of date even when Henson made his Kermit.

If you modernize that, you wind up removing the thing that makes it what it is.

On the other hand, they may just be talking about bringing things from modern times into the Muppet-verse, rather than trying to 'hip up' the Muppets' sensibility into something that matches a (*shudder*) 'modern film comedy'.  Some viral videos they've released have hinted at this, with (say) Statdler and Waldorf discovering the Internet ("Everything here is immediately followed by sarcastic comments and nasty responses."  "Yup, we're finally where we belong!").  I was more worried by the one with the Muppets being interviewed in a quick-cut style best suited for a reality show -- it was hilarious, but at the same time, I wonder if it changes the style of humor too much.

Don't Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff [audiobook]
This is George Lakoff's book about how the political right uses framing to sway independent voters, and how progressives can use those same tools to their own ends.

Let's start with a short (and possibly inaccurate) definition of "framing":  framing is when you discuss an issue purely in terms of your own worldview.  You use terms that take your worldview as given -- for example, "tax relief" implies just through the terminology that taxes are an unfair burden, and not like paying dues at a club.  And when you ask questions, you frame those questions in a way that implies those basic beliefs, in a "When did you stop beating your wife?" kind of way.

The advantage here is that if you're dealing with very media-unsavvy people -- like, say, progressives -- then even when they argue with your points, they still reinforce your worldview.  "I don't agree in providing 'tax relief'" reinforces your attitude towards taxes, even though they're disagreeing with you.

I doubt I'll find much use for those techniques myself, although it might be useful to recognize them out in the wild.

Mostly I was interested in the section that just laid out a consistent conservative worldview, based around what he calls the "strict father model".  This basic notion of how a family should work extends into economics (wealth is attained through diligence and virtue; social programs should be eliminated, as they reward laziness) and geopolitics (America should act as the 'father' towards other countries, meting out punishment until the 'child' nations follow our principles).  Whether or not all conservatives adhere to all of those ideas, it did make sense of, say, "Why does the party that hates abortions also oppose birth control?" or "Why does the party that hates big government espouse massive military expenditures?"

It was also a depressing book, partly because it showed how thoroughly the progressives are outfoxed in this country, and partly because it reveals that most political arguments go nowhere because they never address these basic differences in worldview.  There's so much 'framing' going on that people rarely talk explicitly about their different worldviews, where the core disagreements lie.  Everyone talks past each other, if they don't give up on dialogue completely.

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter
This is New York Times television reporter Bill Carter's chronicle of when NBC planted Leno at 10pm and everything in late-night TV went to hell.  (The book's subtitle:  "When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.")

Mr. Carter has written a number of excellent books about television.  Back in the mid-90s, he wrote The Late Shift, about the machinations that got Leno the Tonight Show gig in the first place, and since then, he wrote Desperate Networks, a collection of stories about how the most successful shows on television succeeded largely in spite of the timorous, bewildered network executives who brought them to the small screen.

With The War for Late Night, he has a single story he call focus on, and two famous personalities at the middle of it:  Conan and Leno.  Some of the better-known TV executives -- Zucker, Reilly, Gaspin -- and some of the usual Hollywood movers, like Ari Gold, enterin to the picture, along with the whole cavalcade of other late-night hosts (Letterman, Ferguson, Fallon, Kimmel, Stewart, even Kilborn).

The book transforms what was, from the outside, a crazy media circus -- and an excuse for a zillion earnest news stories about the Millennial/Baby-Boomer cultural divide -- into a simple two-hander.  One guy, Leno, is a hard worker who wants to keep putting on shows so long as he still has breath in him.  The other guy, Conan, is younger and edgier, but he knows he has an audience and, while virtuous to a fault, knows he has a shot.  They both want The Tonight Show.  They can't both have The Tonight Show.  So what happens next?  And by the way, there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for NBC.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you set up a story.

It rolls along with such momentum that you might never see that Mr. Carter has written a book that, structurally, much resembles Desperate Networks.  On some level, this really is just a bunch of disparate stories about late-night TV through this period, but he can hitch them all to this steamroller of a narrative.  He diverges from the main narrative for a chapter to tell the story of Conan O'Brien's career from when he first showed up at Harvard to when he finally turned the ratings around on Late Night.  But the thing is, Mr. Carter provides that lengthy anecdote at the *exact* point where you're asking, "Where did this 'Conan' guy come from, anyway?"  All these stories swirling around the world of late-night television get carried along with the tide.[1]

You, as a reader, *want* these informative digressions.  Why?  Because the story is basically about a bunch of executives who are playing a multi-million-dollar game of poker.  If you're Jeff Zucker in this scenario, you have to come up with a deal that somehow keeps Jay happy, keeps Conan happy, and keeps the other networks from slaughtering your 11:35pm cash cow.  Furthermore, you've got a whole constellation of affiliates, producers, and talent all trying to nudge the deal one way or another.

So as a reader, you want to know exactly who all these people are.  You want to know exactly what is going on in all the other camps.  And, armed with all that information, you want to see exactly how this disaster is going to play out.

By the time things really hit the fan -- when NBC has booted Conan to 12:05, Conan has complained about it in a press-released manifesto, and now NBC is paying Conan to blast NBC with the whole press and blogosphere cheering him on -- it's a riveting story.  And as it plays out, it slowly dawns on you:  "So *that's* why it happened like this!"

To explain:  when this original Conan-Jay-schedule-reshuffle fiasco went down, TV critics were bewildered.  When Jay announced he was stepping down from The Tonight Show, the critics all collectively tilted their heads like confused pugs:  Jay lived for doing The Tonight Show.  Why would he possibly retire?  And when Jay hinted that he'd been coerced into retiring, they all tilted the other way:  why in god's name would NBC kick out their #1-rated host?  And when Zucker moved Jay back to 10pm, they collectively shrugged and said, "Well, maybe the crazy network executive knows what he's doing."  And when they announced bumping Jay to a half-hour show at 11:35, we all just threw up our hands and muttered that executives were crazy.

But this book drops you into the front lines, where all these seemingly-irrational decisions suddenly make a bizarre sort of sense.  It makes good use of a limited-third person POV that quickly switches from one person to another, and you get a sense of just how little each player knew about the overall situation.  This clusterfuck was a big, big elephant, and each blind man involved could only feel one small part of it.  They made the least-worst decisions they could every step of the way, and it still ended badly for almost everyone.

Side note:  it's also fascinating, reading the history of all the on-camera players as they spend the 80s and 90s moving through various comedy scenes.  It reminded me of the AIC, as different groups of talented people got together and put on exciting projects, and occasionally one of them would catch a few breaks and find success.  It was a nice, warm-and-fuzzy feeling.

It reached "get out of my head" territory when Mr. Carter recounted how O'Brien and his roommate, Jeff Garlin, played out a sketch in which O'Brien portrayed George Takei as a talk-show host, and Jeff Garlin was Takei's only guest.  They played out this sketch nearly every night for an entire summer.  Anyone who dealt with the Everyone's Gilbert sketch in the early 2000s might find this eerily familiar.

For next time:  more noir!  I'm watching The Killers this time.  After that, I'll probably get started on Sherlock.  Book-wise, I'm still working my way through Y:  The Last Man.  Audiobook-wise, I'm leaning towards trying a Vernor Vinge novel.

[1] Mr. Carter even works in the bizarre story of the David Letterman blackmail case, and you accept it as relevant because it could tweak the critically-important Nielsen ratings between The Late Show and The Tonight Show.

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