Monday, January 25, 2010

"All I Ask Is One Thing... Please Do Not Be Cynical"

Conan O'Brien signed off as host of "The Tonight Show" on Friday night after seven all too brief months. I know all my friends (and anybody who'd be interested in reading what I have to say on my blog, which is even an even more forgotten internet stop than MySpace) watched it, but here's his emotional and beautiful farewell speech (before his joyous, Will Ferrell-led performance of "Freebird") which you should watch again, because it's just that good:

Thousands and thousands of words have been written about the drama surrounding Conan's involuntary resignation after less than a year in his dream job. Many things have been said about NBC's mishandling of the mess, about the fact that NBC president Jeff Zucker should be the one leaving his gig, and about Jay Leno's seemingly Machiavellian maneuverings, which have exposed the lie in his nice guy persona. But I don't want to talk about the negatives or the show biz scandal or the drama anymore... Conan advised his young fans to not be cynical, and it's advice worth taking to heart. I want to talk about why Conan O'Brien means so much to me and my generation.

Conan O'Brien, the lanky, nerdy, red-headed Irishman who somehow ended up with a talk show despite his lack of performance experience, has become the defining comedic voice of the last twenty years. Conan's resume can be used as a map to trace the most important comedic touchstones of the last two decades. O'Brien was a writer for SNL in an era that launched the careers of Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Chris Rock, David Spade, Dana Carvey, and Mike Myers, some of whom are still huge stars to this day. Conan wrote on The Simpsons during possibly their best season, and is credited with scripting some of the show's most beloved episodes, including the monumentally funny "Marge Vs. The Monorail." And in 1993, the brainy, Harvard educated writer was given the opportunity to take over NBC's Late Night franchise from his hero, David Letterman (when Letterman left NBC to host his own show on CBS after losing out on The Tonight Show to Jay Leno in eerily similar circumstances.) We've all know the history of Conan's show... he started out as a slightly awkward and nervous host who evolved into one of the most unique TV personalities working today. Conan built on what Letterman did with Late Night and did his own thing, developing an absurd, proudly silly, strange, cracked, yet rarely mean (and never cynical) brand of humor that my generation has grown up on. Conan himself developed into a fearless performer, an endearingly self-deprecating talk show host who never cared about looking cool and who would put himself and his show through anything to earn a laugh. Conan is also a Jedi-like student of comedy, and he's been on the cutting edge of the medium, helping to launch the careers of edgy and strange alt-comedians while helping to birth a new kind of geekdom, the "comedy nerd." He's been rewarded with celebrity guests who don't just come on his show to plug their movies and shows, but because they're clearly fans of Conan himself. Look at Will Ferrell, Alec Baldwin, and Tom Hanks when they sit on Conan's couch... they're there because they enjoy talking to him, not just because they're selling their latest projects. And there's nothing better than seeing one of his guests (or long time side-kick Andy Richter, who returned to Conan's side when he started hosting "The Tonight Show" after a seven year absence from "Late Night") make Conan himself burst out into a fit of surprised and delighted laughter.

One of the biggest fears that fans had when he moved from "Late Night" to "The Tonight Show" was whether Conan could keep his comedic voice in the more mainstream 11:35 timeslot. For a few months, Conan did struggle with hitting the right tone on the show, sometimes to disappointing results. But his show had tightened and started to find its legs in the weeks leading up to the NBC mess. And his last two weeks of shows, when he knew he was performing on borrowed time, were some of the best few hours of television I've seen in a long time. Conan, with noting to lose, got to be Conan in a way that we hadn't seen in awhile, and it was fearless, gut-bustingly funny, un-predictable, and unmissably great television.

All of this explains why hundreds of people traveled from far and wide to rally in support of Conan, braving the pouring rain to wave signs and chant his name while his dream fell apart. A good talk show host does more than entertain their audience. They come into our homes night after night, trying to make us laugh and smile no matter how dark or difficult the world around us becomes. We relate to them on a more personal level than movie stars playing characters in films and television, and the best of them become like old friends we begin to rely on. Like Johnny Carson before him, Conan has become a beloved hero that millions of young people identify with in a real and earnest way. Who would ever say that about the bland and middle of the road Jay Leno?

Letting Conan move on to another network is a short-sighted mistake that will be remembered as a huge folly on NBC's part when the history books are written about this whole mess. The Peacock is missing out on the fact the Twitter crowd doesn't watch television in the same way as previous generations. We watch our favorite shows on DVR or in clips on the internet- but these same technologies which are changing the way television is consumed are also changing the ways we communicate, and for the better. Look at how the "I'm With CoCo" image spread everywhere within days, or the way the Facebook group with the same name gained half a million fans in less than two weeks (and continues to grow.) This is a mobilized, connected, and smart generation, and Conan is directly tapped into its pulse After the amazing outpouring of support for Conan in the last few weeks, NBC must be feeling a bit shellshocked and unsure of their decision to go back to Leno. But they'll get solid ratings for a few years with the kind of audience that still watches television in the conventional (and increasingly outdated) fashion. Conan O'Brien is the comedic voice a generation who will define how television is consumed in the coming decades. NBC has bet on the past by bringing Leno back to The Tonight Show, which is appropriate in a way for a sixty year old television institution. As much as sitting behind the desk that Carson once occupied was Conan's dream job, he'll be free to do something newer when he makes his next career choice, something built for the future of television consumption instead of the past. And an entire generation of comedy nerds raised on his humor will follow him wherever he goes.

We'll miss Conan during his contractually obligated eight month hiatus from television hosting, but eagerly await his return to television. Conan's comedic voice has defined an entire generation and helped us figure out what makes us laugh, and he's done it all with consummate class... even when masturbating bears were involved.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Singing Intergalactic Cowboys And The Future Of Film Distribution

In 2001, as a wide eyed and not yet beaten down by realty freshman film student, a couple friends and I went to see a very small and strange little movie called "The American Astronaut." I don't remember which theater we saw it at or which part of town we were in (I was new to LA at the time and still hadn't figured this strange and vast city out... as if I have figured it out by now, eight years on.) But I remember that screening, and vividly. There were only four other people in the theater on that warm night... and one of them was Andy Dick. The surreal, hilarious, tuneful, mesmerizing, and completely original Sci-Fi Western Musical blew all seven of us in the theater away... as troubled B-List celebrities and 19 year old film students who were deluded enough to think they knew anything about anything were united by an amazingly original piece of cinema. A few years later, I had the opportunity to see "The American Astronaut" on the big screen again, at a nearly sold out screening at the Arclight... with an introduction by none other than Andy Dick.

That's the strange power of the movie... it's so funny, involving, strange, so not like anything else in the world, that anyone whose seen it is inherently drawn back to seeing it again, and to use terms like "genius" to describe the film's creator, writer/ director/ actor/ musician/ animator/ all around nice guy, Cory McAbee.

I could go on gushing about how much I love "The American Astronaut," but that's not the point of this post. I'd let you, dear reader, borrow my copy of the DVD, but I loaned it to a friend a few years ago and haven't seen it since. Now I fear it's lost for good, and as much as I'd love to get another copy, "American Astronaut" DVDs are apparently selling on E-Bay for around $100 while the movie is currently unavailable on Netflix (good news though... Cory said more DVDs will be available in October.) Though it's a bit of a tease since the movie is so tough to track down at the moment, check out the trailer below for a brief taste of the movie's unique brand of geniusosity:

Cory has been absent from the film world in the eight years since "Astronaut" came out. He's been developing a movie called "Werewolf Hunters Of The Midwest," (which I'd kill to see,) but funding has been difficult. Sundance commissioned Cory to make a strange little short intended for mobile phones called "Reno," which you can see here.

But now, finally, after eight long years, McAbee is back with a new, major work. "Stingray Sam" is an almost feature length film that is now available for download in six serialized chapters that run about ten minutes each. It's very similar in a lot of ways to "The American Astronaut," in that its another micro-budgeted, black and white space Western with bizarre gender politics and impromptu musical numbers (with songs by McAbee's pretty excellent band, The Billy Nayer Show.) Though its similar to McAbee's previous feature, "Stingray Sam" is also a work like no other, wholly original and strange in different ways than "Astronaut." It's also laugh out loud funny, with amazingly out there photo collages full of densely packed and wildly imagined information, all perfectly narrated by "Frasier" alum David Hyde Pierce.

To try and explain the plot of "Stingray Sam" quickly would do it a disservice, but I'll simply say it's the story of a lounge singer on the formerly popular gambling planet of Mars who is roped into a mysterious rescue mission by his former partner in crime which takes them to the bizarre planet of pregnant men. Also, there are tiny robots that characters can zap themselves into.

Like I said, like nothing you've ever seen.

I saw all six parts of "Stingray Sam" last night at the ultracool new Dowtown Independent screening venue (which is in downtown LA, as the name implies,) to a sizable audience that really appreciated the movie's bizarre yet hilarious comedic sensibility and totally unique rhythms. The screening was also like nothing I've ever been to. The film was broadcast live on the internet for anyone who tuned in to StingRaySam.Com during the screening to see (McAbee described it as an "approved bootleg,") followed by a Q and A that was also broadcast live on the web. McAbee took questions from fans in a chat room live and even took a few calls from webcasters (though there were NASA-like three second delays, since the technology isn't perfect yet.) The premiere event was not held to celebrate the film's theatrical release... instead it was a celebration of the its release on the internet. You can download the movie right now at StingRaySam.Com.
If you need further convincing, watch the first episode and trailer in the player below:

Pretty awesome, huh?

McAbee is a true independent with an unbelievably personal and unique vision. And that vision extends to his distribution model. What's really cool about the whole "Stingray Sam" project is that McAbee is fully embracing the internet, as evidenced by the extremely high-tech screening event. The DVD for the film doesn't come out until October, but you can download the whole thing today for just $8. If you pre-order the DVD, you also get to download the movie, in fullscreen HD and formatted for your iPod, iPhone, or Zune (if you're a person who owns a fucking Zune... ) Or if you're a super fan, you can get the super deluxe edition with all of the above, a photobook signed by Cory, and a "Stingray Sam" T-Shirt. The movie will also continue to screen in theaters all across the country, fulfilling the poster's promise that the movie is "coming soon to screens of all sizes." This is a filmmaker finding ways to distribute his work that are as creative and original as the work itself.

I've lamented about the sorry state of indie cinema in previous posts, but Cory McAbee is exactly the kind of fresh, original, and exciting voice that indies desperately need... and he's not waiting for Hollywood to come running with money (though I hope someone finally ponies up the cash for him to get "Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest" going.) He's finding ways to get his work seen, with the unbending determination of a true cowboy. A singing cowboy, but a cowboy none the less.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Death Of A King...

The King of Pop is dead.

Michael Jackson was probably the most famous person on the planet. More famous than Barack Obama (or any U.S. president before him.) More famous than Princess Diana, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Paul McCartney, or any other living celebrity (and most dead celebrities.) He was an unbelievably flawed, troubled human being, a man who had no real childhood, who was accused of doing terrible things to other children, who was so obsessed with plastic surgery that he practically changed his skin color, as if he was trying to escape his racial identity in a country with a very troubling history of racial identity politics. Michael Jackson's story is a harsh reflection on America's values and culture, from our obsession with fame and our still uncomfortable relationship with race. More than eccentric, flawed, sometimes frighteningly and dangerously out of touch with what we see as normal human behavior, he lived inside a surreal fame bubble since early childhood that probably psychologically ruined him and turned him into a kind of monster, a modern Phanton of the Opera whose face was often covered in masks to hide the effects of his latest experiments in plastic surgery.

And yet... the music endures. I'm listening to "Off the Wall" on my record player right now, after spinning "Thriller" (still the biggest selling album ever and the only record to ever sell more than an astounding 100 MILLION COPIES) for the hundredth or so time. We've spent nearly two decades making fun of Michael Jackson's many disturbing flaws, after spending the two decades prior to that enjoying the brilliant pop music he gave us.

There are books that could be written analyzing how Michael Jackson reflects some of ugliest sides of America's character. But I prefer to listen to the amazing tunes he produced and remember the Michael Jackson before all the scandals, plastic surgeries that made him nearly unrecognizable, and increasingly bizarre, Howard Hughesian isolation from the rest of humanity. I prefer to look back the pop genius who gave us "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," "Rock With You," "Bad," "The Way You Make Me Feel," "Man In the Mirror," "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," "Smooth Criminal," "Thriller," "Beat It," "Billie Jean," "P.Y.T.," "Jam," "Black Or White," and "Dangerous." I prefer to remember the man who turned the music video into an art form and pop culture event with production values that rivaled the biggest movies (directed by some of the best filmmakers in the world.) I prefer to remember him when his weird tendencies just made him a more interesting artist. I prefer to remember the man whose Moonwalk dance moves made us believe he was sent from a different planet. I prefer to remember the musicians whose songs helped me develop a lifetime love and passion for music in my formative years. I prefer to remember the perfect version of Michael Jackson we all had in our heads until a couple years into the 90s. Because the reason he was the most famous person in the world was because he made music that everyone in the world loved.

Whatever else he did in his strange life, he was, and will forever be remembered as, The King of Pop.

And now, sadly, shockingly... The King is dead.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spike Jonze's "Where The Wild Things Are" Looks Like A Beam Of Pure Magic And Love

Watch the trailer for Spike Jonze's "Where The Wild Things Are" and tell me you've ever seen a trailer that gives you more of a feeling of what eating warm and gooey cookies just out of the oven feels like. I mean, it made me feel like a kid on Christmas morning, which is I feeling I'm not actually familiar with, being Jewish. Watching this trailer made me immediately revert back to childhood feelings of wonder, awe, and excitement... movies don't do that much anymore, and trailers do so even more rarely. Also, the Wild Things are puppet costumes, with CG augmentation... but they're not just pure CG creations. That's what clearly gives them a more tactile feel in the trailer, what gives them more personality and character than another digital monster. I feel like after this and "The Dark Knight," perhaps filmmakers are finally turning back to the often more convincing yet nearly lost art of practical effects? That's a discussion for another blog post... this one is just about admiring the vision, creativity, inventiveness, and heart that is on display in the amazing trailer below. Enjoy.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Mountain Man" Premieres

A few of my closest friends have been working very hard for awhile now on a new web series called "Mountain Man." They're describing it as "surreal comedy adventure." I'd describe the story of Jonas Hawkinus, former folk star turned survivalist who may be insane or may be the messiah, as a wildly creative and original web series that is honestly unlike anything you've ever seen before. Check out the "Prologue" episode below, watch new episodes at Strike TV and check out the show's official website at WatchMountainMan.Com.

BTW, I was one of the special effects wizards shaking the plants in the scene towards the end.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Zooey Deschanel Stars In "Quirk Is Killing Indie Movies"

I was surfing the infernet, watching some movie trailers today, and I discovered these two trailers for almost identical looking "quirky romantic comedies starring Zooey Deschanel as an eccentric and charming neurotic who pulls withdrawn and shy actors from other indie hits out of their shells, all set to an indie rock soundtrack."

The trailer for "Gigantic," featuring a very good cast playing quirk to the hilt:

This one is for "500 Days of Summer," (which I like a little more than the "Gigantic" trailer, mostly because it's probably the first movie to feature music from both The Smiths and Hall and Oates:)

Did you watch the trailers? Good.
So Wes Anderson's quirky, funny, wholly original work, primarily "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums" begat Oscar nominated and commercial hits like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Juno." "LMS" and "Juno" have now begat "Gigantic" and "500 Days of Summer." Just as Quentin Tarantino's lightning strikes in the early nineties, "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" led to nearly a decade of unwatchable crime films about pop culture obsessed hit men, now Anderson's work has led to this new generation of hipster approved, quirky relationship comedies about bored white people falling in love through their love of indie rock, vintage T-shirts, and hoodies.

And it's totally obnoxious.

I'm a massive fan of Wes Anderson's work. "Rushmore" is one of my five "desert island" movies, and I love all five of his movies with a deep and burning passion. The fact that most indie movies that get distribution and any kind of audience are pale imitations of his work (including the Oscar nominated "LMS" and "Juno,") is not his fault, and actually only goes to prove how influential and fresh his body of work really is, thematically, stylistically, visually, and pretty much every other way a film can be influential. I think that's what happens with almost every truly original voice in any artistic medium... but regardless, his work (and the work of similarly original filmmakers, like Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze, and Charlie Kaufman,) have led us to this place in the history of independent film.

These movies seem to have a very similar set of characteristics, which I will list below:

-CONFUSING CHARACTER QUIRKS WITH ACTUAL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: Michael Cera likes orange tic tacs. Paul Dano takes a vow of silence. Zooey Deschanel falls asleep at a mattress store and only thinks to ask if anybody can see up her skirt. Paul Dano wants to adopt a Chinese baby. John Goodman wears ridiculous scarves and talks about his daughter's sex life, much like nobody ever does. This is not character development that turns fictional beings into recognizable humans... these are just overly cutesy details that tell us nothing other than the fact that the screenwriters think they are more clever than they actually are. These quirks are generally also what passes for "comedy" in these movies...

-WITHDRAWN AND SHY MALES TAUGHT ABOUT LIFE AND LOVE BY "MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRLS:" I must give The Onion credit for coining the term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," or the type of girl "who exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." This is certainly the case with both "Gigantic" and "500 Days of Summer," as Dashanel is forced to play double "MPDG" duty.

-AN OBSESSION WITH MUSIC, AS IF THIS IS THE FIRST GENERATION OF HUMANS TO EVER "REALLY GET" MUSIC: This is a problem with the attitude of hipsters in general (our parents had The fuckin' Beatles, hipsters... get over yourselves.) I mean, Natalie Portman playing The Shins for a full 30 seconds while Zach Braff sits and listens should not count as cinema. And talking about bands does nothing to reveal character or advance plot, it just communicates to you that Jason Bateman and Ellen Page like Sonic Youth's cover of The Carpenters. Also, why do all these movies represent their lead characters' alienation by having them wear big headphones all the time?

-OUT OF PERIOD, OVER THE TOP COSTUMING THAT IS ALSO SUPPOSED TO CONVEY CHARACTER TRAITS: This is one of the most glaring examples of these filmmakers ripping of Anderson's aesthetic, but his movies kept developing more and more as story book worlds featuring adults who have outgrown them... while these other indie movies just feature people wearing (here's the Q word again,) quirky outfits. Why is John Goodman wearing thick glasses and a white scarf? Why do the characters in these movies look like they are cartoon versions of actors in a 70's Woody Allen movie? Why does the cast of the upcoming (and disappointing sophomore effort from Rian Johnson, who made the wholly original "Brick,") "The Brothers Bloom" look like they raided the wardrobe closet from "The Life Aquatic?"

-LOTS AND LOTS OF WHITE PEOPLE: All of them whining about their relationships (this I can relate to, but still...)

Independent cinema is clearly in trouble right now. It's getting harder and harder for indie movies to get financing, and many of the most prominent independent film companies have shut down in the last two years, including most of the studios' indie shingles. It's not fair to put the responsibility of "saving" indie movies on the shoulders of the filmmakers behind the new crop of Zooey Deschanel starring romcoms with hipster soundtracks, but the only way the whole scene will be saved (or destroyed) is one film at a time. A new Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino needs to step up now with an original voice and vision and lay the groundwork for the next group of directors to steal ideas from, because in this economy, independent film can't afford to coast on derivative copies of copies of copies. Indie movies need a good jolt of boldness, inventiveness, fresh ideas, new blood, and actual originality... and new quirks for Zooey Daschanel* to play do not count as true "originality."

*With apologies to the lovely Ms. Daschanel, who I feel is quite talented even if she's been saddled with weakly written roles in these movies and last years horrendous "The Happening," which was at least so madly terrible that at least it wasn't something I'd seen before. And that's more than I can say for "Gigantic" and "500 Days of Summer."