Monday, 30 November 2015



I don't normally do book reviews since I mostly write about the movie business, but there are these things called books, and some of them are about the movie business.
One such book is Tinseltown by William J. Mann which won the Edgar Award for Best True Crime book of 2014. It's a book that shows how intertwined the worlds of celebrity, business, and scandal really were, and how it goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the modern film industry that we know today.
Now the main crux of the book is a story of murder and scandal, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that, and presents a wider picture of a fledgling industry under siege. The best way to blurb it is to tell you a little bit about the main characters.
WILLIAM DESMOND TAYLOR: He was one of the most commercially successful and prestigious film directors for the Famous Players-Lasky Company (later Paramount Pictures). He was a man with a reputation for being a man of excellent character and probity, but he had secrets that he desperately wanted kept, and it's his unsolved murder in 1922 that forms the central crux of the book.
MABEL NORMAND: Was Taylor's best friend and confidante. She was also one of the biggest comedy stars in Hollywood, and was desperately trying to put a past of bad relationships and cocaine abuse behind her. However, the trial of her former co-star Fatty Arbuckle on bogus rape and murder charges, and the murder of her best friend threatened to destroy her career and her life.
MARY MILES MINTER: A Famous Players child star growing up into an ingenue desperately trying to get out from under the control of her domineering mother Charlotte Shelby. She's romantically obsessed with Taylor, to the point of practically stalking a man she could never have.
MARGARET "GIBBY" GIBSON: A former co-star of Taylor's from his acting days who came close to big-time Hollywood stardom, only to have her shot ruined by her fondness for scuzzy men and easy money. She will do anything to get another shot at stardom, and isn't one to let the law or morality get in her way.
ADOLPH ZUKOR: Started life as a penniless orphan from Hungary, and rose to become the head of Famous Players-Lasky, which at the time was the biggest, most prestigious, and most powerful movie producer-distributor-exhibitor in America, and by extension the world. He's also a man under siege, who is desperate to hold onto the company and life he literally built from nothing.
WILL H. HAYS: A former postmaster-general and campaign manager for the Harding administration. He's hired to lead the organization that will become the modern MPAA, and his mission is to save Hollywood from threats both within and without, and boy-oh-boy were there threats.
A series of scandals had rocked Hollywood, involving sex, drug addiction, and even death. This sparked a movement to regulate, censor, or even shut down Hollywood that became downright hysterical when Fatty Arbuckle was unjustly tried for a murder that never happened. It got even worse when Taylor was gunned down in his apartment and the police investigation, hindered by interference by both the studio, and the press who had just realized that Hollywood scandal sold newspapers like nothing before. That takes the book on three tracks. There's the investigation into the murder itself, the effects it was having on three women in Taylor's life Mabel, Mary & Margaret, and the effect on the industry as a whole, as witnessed by Will Hays and Adolph Zukor.
One thing I found surprising was the amount of sympathy I felt, not only for the women caught up in the murder and scandal hysteria, but for Hays and Zukor.
Like many I viewed Hays as a censorious prig, and Zukor as a ruthless cold-fish only out for himself, but this book showed me that I was wrong. (Yes, that happens rarely) You see Hays was deep down a true believer in free speech and free markets. He thought that movies should be free to show whatever they wanted, because the audience was free to not pay money to see something they didn't like. However he was all too often forced into playing the censor by outside forces.
Those same forces also drove Zukor to do many of the seemingly ruthless and heartless things. Yes, he's shown doing many things driven by ego, but most of the stuff he does is driven by inadequacy and a fear that he might lose everything he's struggled build.
Zukor's fears were not unfounded. We may look at the threats by the morality campaigners to have the government seize the entire movie industry, and move it to Washington where it would operate under the supervision of the US congress as ridiculous, but you have to remember that it was these exact same campaigners that got the Prohibition of alcohol written into the American constitution. Alcohol had been a part of the culture for millennia before the country had even been founded, and the movie industry had only been around a little more than twenty years at this point. When you look at it from that point of view those threats don't seem all that ridiculous.
But back to the book.
Mann does an excellent job presenting a very careful analysis of the crime, the evidence, and things that the investigators didn't see, and presents a pretty compelling theory as to what might have really happened.
He also presents where our modern obsessions with celebrity, scandal, and power begin, and is written with a fast paced style that manages to elegantly capture the complexities of this time and place
Now the story naturally has cinematic qualities. It has murder, sex, scandal, and the sort of big business shenanigans that audiences eat up these days. But it wouldn't work as a movie.
For this to be properly adapted, it has to be done as a TV series. While a relatively slim volume at a little over 400 pages, the story is just too damn big and broad to do justice to with a 2-3 hour feature film, or even a two or three episode miniseries. You could two  seasons of 10-13 one-hour episodes each, with season one dealing with events leading up to Taylor's murder, and season 2 with the investigation & aftermath, and then you might get the story right.
But back to the book.

I would suggest picking this up if you're into movies, murder, and history. William J. Mann manages to capture not just the story, but the era, and presents it with great energy and style.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Book Report: What's In A Head?

The people behind the World Fantasy Awards have lost their head.

Well, technically it's not THEIR head, but they have lost the head of long dead author H.P. Lovecraft, whose bust, designed by cartoonist Gahan Wilson, was used as their trophy for many years.
The reason for dropping the head of Lovecraft was that he was a racist person from a racist time and that sparked the usual online screaming match with terms like "racist," and "social justice warrior," being tossed around like grenades full of manure.

Some are campaigning to replace Lovecraft's head with the head of author Octavia Butler, who was a multi-award winning and groundbreaking fantasy and science-fiction author in her own right.

I disagree.

Now before you type out "you're a racist" in the comments, just let me make my case.

I don't think the award should be a bust of any one particular author.

Being a fantasy award, the temptation is to make it a bust of J.R.R. Tolkien who has been one of the most influential authors, but I disagree with even that.


Because if you use a human head, the award will end up being about that person, and if the award is about that person it will be about something about that person that offends one group or another.

Let's use Lovecraft as an example.

Yes, he was racist, maybe even more racist than the normal standards of the early 20th century. But even if he spent his short life campaigning for racial equality and love between all people, I still would oppose the use of his visage for the award.

He represented a very narrow sub-genre of fantasy, namely a specific brand of phantasmagoric cosmic-horror that we now know as "Lovecraftian." He doesn't truly represent the breadth and depth of the genre. No one author does.

Not even Octavia Butler, who despite the quality  or variety of her work, only represents a tiny corner of a very big tent, because she is only one author, with one author's interests and abilities. Plus, there will always be a nagging doubt hanging over her metallic head that she was chosen as some sort of token gesture of white-liberal-guilt atonement by those who allowed Lovecraft to linger for so long.

Plus, we don't know what some future biographer is going to discover about her. She might have secretly hunted the homeless for sport, for all we know.

Which brings me to what the trophy should be.

It should not be a person, it should be a symbol.

The fantasy genre is born from tales of adventure from mythology. So I suggest a classic fantasy symbol: the sword in the stone from Arthurian legend.

Now before you yell "you're not being inclusive" or that I'm being "Eurocentric" at your monitor, let me finish explaining my design idea.

Every culture has a sword.

That means that there can be a range of designs for the trophy, which can alternate. A classic European medieval sword one year, a katana the next, a scimitar after that, then maybe a jian sword, or an Ethiopian shotel, or an Indian Tulwar. You can pretty easily make a line of different trophies and rotate them among the various awards categories each year.

And to include the horror genre, maybe have the stone be carved in the shape of a sinister looking skull, marked with nonsensical arcane symbols.

Then you have a trophy that symbolizes the roots of the genre without really leaving anything out, and free from the baggage of any one person from the genre's history.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1257: Diversity…of Family?

Okay, this story begins with a complaint.

People are complaining that there is not enough diversity in Hollywood. One key complaint is that the numbers of directors getting regular work that are not caucasian males do not reflect the demographic realities.

But don't worry. 

Sony Pictures has swept in to save the day with a special "Diversity In TV" program. The mission of this program is to get more women and more "people of colour" into the world of directing television.

Sounds like a noble cause but when you see that the program's first reported recruit is Kate Barker-Froyland, the DAUGHTER OF A SENIOR SONY EXECUTIVE.

I call this Meta-Sexism, being sexist to mock sexism.

Now she is a woman, and she is a director, having made a film called Song One starring Anne Hathaway, which gives me an  excuse to post a click-bait picture of Anne Hathaway.

However, there is a problem with her familial connections. We live in an age where people are demanding that others "check their privilege" in the name of diversity. 

In the diversity fight Hollywood comes across as the pinnacle of hypocrisy. The citizens of their community that I call the Axis of Ego, are always the first to demand diversity in others, but are the worst when it comes to having diversity in their own house.

You will never find a people more ethnically, and ideologically homogenous outside of Hollywood. And it's not just the use of white stars all the time, even in so-called "ethnic" roles. The executive suites bear more resemblance to a trustafarian frat-house at an Ivy League university than the population in general.

This leads to the hiring of even more people that fit that vaguely general mould, and more and more people, feel left out, and not just women and ethnic minorities, but other white males who just don't fit in the club are blocked too. I'm a white male Gen-Xer, according to the activists I should have Hollywood dragging me from my home to write &/or direct big budget projects regardless of my résumé, when in reality Hollywood wouldn't touch me with a ten foot pole because I just wouldn't fit in with them, and never will.

However, this clubbiness when it comes to women and ethnic minorities challenges the liberal bona-fides of the Axis of Ego. That makes them look bad, and 

This leads to hackneyed token gestures, like tossing women and minorities the scraps from the franchise table, and the creation of programs meant to improve diversity, but only make things worse.

Now Sony may have hired her on her non-familial merits, her film Song One might be the most brilliant thing since Citizen Kane, I don't know, it hasn't really been seen by anyone, so I can't judge her as a filmmaker.

What I can talk about are the optics.

The optics are terrible.

"Diversity" is supposed to mean hiring from a pool of diverse genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, and beliefs. You don't say a program is about "diversity" and then hire from a pool even narrower than the usual monolithic upper class white Ivy League pool; the literal gene pool.

It doesn't matter if your hire is more brilliant than Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick combined, if they have the same last name of a senior executive, the first thing people are going to think when they hear the news is not "diversity" it is "nepotism."

It reminds people of the early days of Universal Pictures when the joke around the lot was that owner "Carl Laemmle had a big faemmle." However, most studios weren't as egregious in their nepotism. Sure, many viewed them as family businesses, but folks weren't hired solely on their DNA, that may have landed them a chance, but if they didn't deliver in the hard work department, they were often ushered out of the company and sometimes even out of the family.

Ironically, the Silent Era had a lot more diversity behind the camera than today, especially when it came to gender. There were almost as many female screenwriters, directors, editors, and technicians, as there were male, even in the executive suite at some studios. Ethnic diversity was a exponentially weaker because even the suspicion of there being some colour in a black and white film ran the risk of getting a studio's output banned in some states. (Up until the 1960s America was rife with politically powerful movements seeking to censor films for reasons that would seem comically ridiculous to modern eyes.)

This was because the old school moguls believed in one thing: Making movies that the audience wanted to see. They didn't care about making quotas, they were concerned with putting bums in theatre seats so they could make more money and more movies.

The rise of unions and the introduction of sound led to many women being shut out of the industry's technical fields on the bullshit grounds that they were now "too technical" for their feminine minds.

Then came the corporate era when the studios went from being stand-alone entities run by powerful "moguls" to subsidiaries of larger conglomerates and run by committees of Ivy League number-crunchers.

Which is what brings us to our current situation. They see the general population as a list of targets in a marketing report. That some people in these targets have an interest in making film and television instead of consuming it strikes them as inconceivable, because the making of film and television is their world, which is populated by people more or less like them.

Hollywood does need diversity, however, it will not be achieved easily, and most likely won't be achieved in any way we think it's going to happen.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1256: The Flops of Fall

Right now Hollywood has been kicked in the head by the audience. The last two weeks of October have contained more bombs than Curtis LeMay's Christmas wish list. Even fairly reliable box-office stalwarts like Sandra Bullock have seen their pictures crash and burn.
Now all of these films have flopped for different reasons, and I will lay out some of those reasons for some of those failed films in a wonderful little listicle!
Let's get started:

OUR BRAND IS CRISIS: The main thing this film had going for it was the star power of Sandra Bullock. Sounds like it should have worked, so why did it fail?
Not any specific politics, just the simple fact that the audience has about as much trust in Hollywood handling political subjects as they would trust a hungry dog with a t-bone. Tell the audience that Hollywood is going to tell them a political story and they're going to assume that it will be a joyless lecture about how wrong they are in all facets of life by people who think they are right about everything because they're rich, famous, and read the Huffington Post when one of their friends is in it, and will finally finish that Howard Zinn book someday.
THE LAST WITCH HUNTER: Here's what people saw from the trailers and advertisements for this movie: Lots of weightless CGI and lots of Vin Diesel telling every other character how he's better at everything than they are.
What did they NOT see in the trailers and advertisements for this movie?
The campy, goofy, sense of fun, and quirky family values of the Fast & Furious movies. Which is the chief reason of seeing a Vin Diesel movie.
STEVE JOBS: The first thing is that everyone had already heard so damn much about Steve Jobs in the months leading up to, and after his death. The second thing is that it lacked the sort of star power that can sell tickets to anything, which is rare. And the third thing is that the ad campaign seemed to strive to make Jobs look not only unlikable, but uninteresting as well. Audiences will pay to see an unlikable person, but that person has to be way more interesting than a guy who occasionally drinks Dos Equis.
BURNT: The whole of a guy trying to overcome his own stupidity and arrogance to sell overpriced food to rich snobs just doesn't really appeal to audiences no matter how popular celebrity chefs are on television.
SCOUT'S GUIDE TO THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE: The whole thing looked like it had been written for and by thirteen year old boys. Folks like zombie stories, but they appear to want QUALITY zombie stories. If it doesn't look like you've got more than gross out and genital jokes, they'll just stay home and probably catch it on Netflix, if they're high enough.
PAN: This movie reeked of desperation from the first frame of the first trailer. It looked like it had been composed by marketing gurus for maximum pandering. Audiences saw the ads, and thought: "Hmmm... the original animated Peter Pan still looks better."
CRIMSON PEAK: The buzz over this film among critics and those who actually took the effort to see it, tell me that this film could have a long life on video and television. I don't think the general movie going audience could get past the Victorian frippery and emphasis on boo-scares and special effects in the ad campaign.
JEM & THE HOLOGRAMS: This project could only be a flop. It's a franchise based on a property that's barely remembered by  Gen-Xers, and only for being really cheesy, sold to tweens who don't remember it at all, and using music and dialogue that makes Hannah Montana look like a collaboration between Kurt Cobain and David Mamet. There's no way it could succeed outside of some marketing gurus nonsensical imagination.
TRUTH: It was sold as the untold story of a story that was actually told very loudly and in great detail.
In case you can't remember recent history, Dan Rather and his producer Mary Mapes ran a story that they hoped would cost George W. Bush the 2004 election. In it they claimed to have letters from Bush's time in the National Guard that they claimed proved all sorts of derelictions and near-desertions.
However, there was a problem.
The letters weren't written on an early 70s military issue typewriter, they were written much more recently on a computer using Microsoft Word. Also, deeper investigations into the documents by bloggers found more and more evidence of fakery, and no evidence to back up the documents or what they claimed to prove.
As the "facts" of the story fell apart, Rather and Mapes defended it by saying the documents were "fake, but accurate."
Naturally, Rather and Mapes were eased out of their jobs, shockingly gently for how badly they embarrassed the once August CBS News organization, and they stand by their story to this day, no matter what evidence is given to them.
The movie Truth, failed because it was political, and as I said before, the audience doesn't trust Hollywood with political topics anymore, but that wasn't the only reason. The main reason was that the film, starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, was sold on the premise that the fake documents were somehow real, and that Rather and Mapes weren't raging egoists who were so eager to take down a Republican president they deliberately refused to do the proper due diligence on their so-called "evidence." 
It came across as vain, self-serving, tripe with the insulting audacity to call itself Truth. That's the marketing equivalent as pissing in the audience's ear, and telling them it's raining.

Audiences don't mind dumb movies as long as their entertaining, but they won't go see a movie that acts like they're the dumb ones.