The Culture Beat

March 9, 2011

The Continuing, and sometimes alarmng, C. S. Lewis Phenomenon

Filed under: Faith Issues,General Pop Culture,The Church,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:43 am

American Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals, love C. S. Lewis. Last Friday, the New York Times published an article by Mark Oppenheimer recounting the ever growing impact of British writer and scholar C. S. Lewis, including a recent edition of the Bible with annotations of quotes by Lewis addressing topics and themes of biblical passages, and plans for a new institution of higher learning, C. S. Lewis College. Oh my.

I hold Lewis in the highest regard, having read many of his books over the years. As a young Christian, his writings kept me from becoming too immersed in an emotion-based, subjective form of Christianity. His uniquely lucid writing made the greatest idea and doctrines of the Christian faith accessible to my untrained mind. It grounded me in logical thinking and made my imagination soar in ways no other writing did. Lewis’ immersion in the great thinking of medieval Christianity and his ability to explain “mere Christianity,” the faith common to the church universal created a bridge for me and millions of others to the great treasures of Christian thought.

Because of the impoverished nature of 20th century evangelicalism regarding the life of the mind, Lewis’ books were doorways of discovery to our faith’s heritage and because of his singular gifts, and prolific work, it’s understandable that there would be such a continuing fascination with this giant of the faith. Lewis is that rare figure who transcends denominational categories–reading Lewis’ books engenders the sense that one has not only gained knowledge or insight about the book’s subject, but that one has also gotten to know its author in a way that inspires gratitude, and a sense of acquaintance, that few authors achieve.

Still I feel awkward reading of a Lewis annotated Bible, or a college founded on his work–surely Lewis himself would recoil from such hero worship. At what point does one’s appreciation for a great man slip into something like idolatry?

But the reason I felt most compelled to write this post was a passage in the article that clearly marked it as a New York Times piece:

In “Mere Christianity,” Lewis writes of Jesus: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.”

This famous passage does not, on a second read, make much sense. After all, could not a great moral teacher have messianic delusions? But on a first read, it is quite persuasive, and classic Lewis. It is clear, confident and a bit humorous, and it offers a stark choice as it firmly suggests the right answer.

Mr. Oppenheimer, in ostensibly reporting on the Lewis phenomenon, cannot resist this slide into patronizing commentary. It implies that anyone who found this, one of the most quoted of all Lewis’ writings, to be a convincing argument for the deity of Christ, obviously never read the passage again or they would have easily perceived how bogus it was, poor benighted minds, unlike Mr. Oppenheimer’s. No, most people who’ve thought it through this most offensive of the claims of Jesus, would find it hard to to accept that a great moral teacher who repeatedly claimed to be the Son of God, and whose followers, often accepted death rather than disbelieve this crucial point, was simply having delusions of grandeur.

What the article doesn’t include of that famous passage says it better than I could:

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. – Mere Christianity, pages 40-41.


November 28, 2010

The “New” Hollywood Reporter

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 9:16 pm

For years I’ve subscribed to Entertainment Weekly in order to keep up with popular culture’s offerings. If you’ve ever read the magazine, a product of the Time-Warner media giant, you know it’s a mix of up-to-date news, gossip, some show biz analysis and plentiful reviews–usually mixed with heaping portions of snark–an attitude that says, “We don’t take show business that seriously, and we’re a little smarter than most of this, that is, when we aren’t swooning over Lady Gaga or Ryan Reynolds.” But after the fall of Premiere magazine several years ago (now only a website), it was about the only general interest entertainment magazine on the market. But that was before the “relaunch” of The Hollywood Reporter, several weeks ago. The 80-year old publication, a close competitor with Variety, changed from a daily publication, covering the entertainment industry, to a newly designed large weekly the size of the old Life magazine and stuffed with articles about every aspect of show business.

I recall leafing through issues of the magazine as it was a few years ago and found it of interest only if one needed to know who had just signed what deal to make which new movie/television show or other entertainment form–very insider, as you would expect of a business publication. The new version is much bigger, and designed to broaden the publication’s appeal to a mainstream audience interested in entertainment as a business. So there have been roundtable discussions with critically acclaimed actresses, noteworthy film producers or profiles of individuals such as Chuck Lorre, producer of The Big Bang Theory. One article offered a fascinating analysis of the success of Marvel Productions in adapting their comic book characters to the big screen. The second issue, pictured above, had an insightful feature, found here on their website, showing that most big television hits require Republican viewers to succeed.

I teach on film and television at Palm Beach Atlantic University and am finding the magazine very useful in helping to understand the way things work in Hollywood. Today I was at my local Barnes & Noble and was pleased to see that it is available on newsstands. If going a little deeper in entertainment news, beyond the latest Lindsey Logan antics, appeals to you, check out the new Hollywood Reporter.

August 29, 2010

Instant Documentaries

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies,Uncategorized — Alex @ 10:16 pm

Following up from my last post on how Netflix’s streaming video on demand (VOD) had transformed my home video experience, I can now report on several titles available from their instantly viewable library. All three are documentaries that I would have trouble finding at a local multiplex and might not even want via Netflix’s mail order service, since they would compete for attention with other titles I’d watch downstairs with the family. I’ve watched most of these films upstairs while on the treadmill, delivered via my son’s PS3 game console using the Netflix disc, similar to what they provide for the Wii console, except the picture is larger and not cropped. In order of viewing:

Welcome to Macintosh, a history of Apple’s innovative personal computer, told by those who were in some way involved in its invention and development. It informs a lot about the maverick nature of Steve Jobs and his compatriots as they sought to create a computer with a semblance of a soul, which would encourage creativity and how this resulted in a “cult of Apple” that has only grown over the last 14 years with the development of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and now the iPad.

Tales from the Script Hollywood’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams is littered with careers of would-be screenwriters who were crushed between the cruel wheels of feckless studio executives, and their own shortcomings at mastering the art of cinematic storytelling. This film is filled with interviews of those who have had some degree of success including Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption), Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) and master scribe William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, among others) whose famous maxim, about what succeeds in Hollywood, “Nobody Knows Anything,” captures the unpredictable nature of the business. It includes course language but is essential for anyone hoping to write and pitch their way into selling a script.

Art and Copy Contemporary advertising began a “creative revolution” in the 1960s as the formerly separate divisions of copyrighting, the dominant element upon which the artwork was based, gave way to a creative marriage of the two (which is what the AMC series Mad Men is currently depicting ). This documentary describes some of the brightest lights in the ad world who find ways to touch the deepest parts of our sometimes unspoken desires in order to sell cars, candidates and computers. Recommended if you want to begin to understand how commercial art is, like it or not, the highest creative achievement of the modern age.

Lest this come off looking like a plug for Netflix, it’s really just my way of expressing what I’ve found in this new VOD world that more and more of us will soon be enjoying–greater freedom to program the media of our lives.

July 29, 2010

Are Superhero Films Past Their Prime?

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 8:56 pm

That was the question being asked last week as this year’s San Diego Comic-Con launched another festival of all things pop culture including of course, comic books, wannabe blockbuster movies, video games, television and other attractions. Entertainment Weekly‘s Jeff Jensen traced the last ten years of ever more lucrative superhero movies and wondered if the viability of the genre was on the wane. Hollywood studios with mammoth budgets for next year’s Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class are betting that there’s still plenty of power in those spandex tights. Comic-Con displayed the casts of several movies due next year and in 2012’s The Avengers which combines the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and others in a Marvel extravaganza to dwarf earlier films.

Jensen is right to ask the question about how upcoming films can resonate with audiences now quite familiar with such characters–we relate to these characters on some level because we can relate to Batman’s quest for rough justice, Spider-Man’s struggle for a normal life, the X-Men’s societal rejection or the giddy fun of imagining ourselves in a cool metal suit. But what does Green Lantern speak to in the mass audience, or for that matter, the Green Hornet? Is the appeal of Thor or Cap limited to hardcore comic book geeks, the essential audience the Comic-Con panels were reaching out to but not the average moviegoer?

I think it will probably all come down to the story and the attitude of the production toward the character. If it takes an ironic stance toward the “star spangled sentinel of liberty,” Captain America, a character whose red, white and blue costume is hard to imagine in live action (see the picture I took at Universal Studios Marvel attraction) then the audience will mostly stay away. The new movie’s version of the costume, shown above, successfully adapts it to a live action practicality. As a character, Cap’s alter ego, Steve Rogers, a man of the 1940s patriotic spirit, was always at odds with his latter day resurrection into a more cynical and knowing culture–it was his quiet insistence on his American values that made him Marvel’s moral compass, what Superman is to DC Comics. I think it’s quite possible to pull it off if the director an script believes in the classic rendering of the character.

Thor, an actual Norse god, banished to Earth from his mythical home of Asgard by his stern father Odin, would, in big screen translation, have to avoid the attraction to wink at the material and pull a campy Wagnerian spectacle needing only Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny from the class cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”

This still from next summer’s release already reminds me of a scene from Das Rheingold or another of the Ring Cycle operas, missing only Brunhilda in a breastplate, helmet and spear. And Green Lantern’s tactic of using his power ring to create a giant boxing glove or fly swatter in combat has always seemed pretty cartoonish even for comics.

So success will all be in the tone and identification of the human drama of each character. Comic book characters only work because there’s something about the hero, other than their fantasy appeal, that attracts readers and makes them care about them. So, Cap is a man burdened with living up to the best ideals of his country–perhaps a metaphor for anyone serving in the armed forces, or with any duty to a higher national cause. Thor is a a golden boy who has never mastered himself or risen to the responsibilities of a royal household and must now learn to serve protect mere mortals, sort of a mythic rich kid who must do community service. And Hal jordan’s Green Lantern preceded and perhaps inspired George Lucas’ Jedi Knights, as an Emerald Warrior, a space cop keeping order on his assigned space sector. These are all types that, if adapted intelligently, will appeal to that desired blockbuster audience the same way Marvel second stringer Tony Stark’s Iron Man hit paydirt by showing that superheroes are always, after all, human.

June 22, 2010

The Golden Age of Pixar Continues: A review of Toy Story 3

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 5:10 pm

A generation of kids who grew up endlessly watching home videos of the Toy Story movies and other Pixar films can now in their twenties perhaps for the first time see these beloved characters on the big screen and in 3-D which at least partly explains the over $100 million in its opening box office over the weekend, not to mention to nearly $50 million in oversees box office. Woody, Buzz and the rest of the toy gang are indeed back and the joy of toys is too.

As my family and I walked into the theater, my son, anxious that the film might be another disappointing sequel, muttered, “please be good, please be good.” I responded, “I’m not worried,” since I knew that, unlike other studios, Pixar’s production process has insured that all along the four-year process it takes from conception to post-production, quality control principles allow anyone in the creative process to speak up and critique the story’s development. If you catch story problems at this point and offer corrections and improvements, which is how things work at Pixar, you eliminate 99% of a movie’s problems.

This union of audience appeal with artistic innovation using digital animation has resulted in a string of nothing but hits for the studio 11 feature films, unheard of in Hollywood history. Toy Story 3 is perhaps the best film yet from Pixar, an amazing achievement given the risks of a second sequel when other franchises begin to show creative exhaustion (Shrek 3, Spider-Man 3 for example) and the demands of executives to squeeze more dollars out of a popular property when there are no good new ideas. But this being a sequel to the revloutionary first Pixar feature, the team was determined to get it right.

Andy’s toys have been gradually left behind as their owner’s teen years have naturally drawn him away from childish play to more age-appropriate interests. Woody is the only toy Andy plans to take to college, so the rest of the toys, feeling neglected, welcome a move to a nearby daycare center. Thus begins their next great adventure as they discover that not having a child who owns them means not being special anymore. And there’s more than the rough treatment by toddlers too young to play appropriately with them–the gang soon realizes they’ve been set up by other toys to serve as virtual prisoners in the daycare center. As they did in the earlier films, this involves another Odyssey-like journey of escape back to Andy, if they can find him in time, except this is the most dangerous adventure yet, and probably the funniest–the trademark Pixar rapid joke frequency we’ve experienced since the first film is firmly operational as every gag possibility is full exploited–only Pixar’s writers seem to know the magic of creating laughs that appeal to both child and adult without depending on mostly pop culture references, as the Shrek films have, to a fault.

And the Disney Digital 3-D process adds depth to the images although I question the necessity of this in such well-executed storytelling–I peeked over the top of the glasses several times and saw how much brighter the picture was without them and prefer that to the 3-D image that quickly loses its wow factor.

The level of invention is so high in the film that I couldn’t help thinking it seems ten times more creative than anything in the family category and most others as well (as evidenced by the groan-inducing trailers for upcoming kids animated films). This generosity continues in the famous Pixar end-credit sequence that takes us from the deeply moving climax back to guffaws and joy. Frankly, I feel privileged to live in an era where such instant classics dependably come to us annually, as if Walt Disney was back on the job–in a way, he is; Pixar’s wizards, led by Disney creative honcho John Lasseter, have always loved Disney’s animation classics and sought to perpetuate his vision and spirit. In a summer poor in mainstream movie entertainment, enjoy another miraculous work of great all-ages storytelling.

May 30, 2010

The Prince of Persia at the Lake Worth Drive-In

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 10:06 pm

We saw the latest Jerry Bruckheimer-produced blockbuster film last night. And by we, I mean my son Benjamin, age 16, and I. Usually, my wife is part of our movie-going trio but we were going to Ben’s first drive-in movie experience, and Judith wasn’t particularly interested in the film, plus, she knew she’d be in the back seat of the mini-van and wouldn’t be able to see as well. We guys batched it the two-mile trek down to the Lake Worth Drive-In. We’d passed numerous time before while I wondered when we could finally introduce Benjamin to the outdoor movie experience that had been so popular in the postwar era before falling to the onslaught of proliferating multiplexes in the 1980s.

Drive-in movies had been popular in the 1950s affluence as they satisfied the population’s desire to not just see a movie but to recreate, to get out of the house into the great outside. A drive-in was sort of outdoors but with the added mobility of sitting in your big American car with the goodies you’d brought with you in the trunk cooler or picnic basket. The speakers hung on the rows of posts that looked toward the great white screen. Some drive-ins had sloped grass and gravel parking lines so that your car was angled up toward the screen to enable better viewing. I saw Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson as a child as my first drive-in experience and will never forget the opening scene of a wooden ship desperately tossed on a stormy sea against the night sky behind the screen. The speaker box hung on your open car window with the tinny soundtrack playing.

The best part about a drive-in was that you could get out of the car and walk to the concession stand while able to turn to watch the movie, and perhaps still hear the audio playing from nearby speakers, never missing a thing. Of course for the youth demographic, drive-ins weren’t family affairs so much as infamous passion pits where heavy petting and more could occur in the privacy of a car’s cabin. As car culture faded in the 1970s oil crisis, so did the popularity of the drive-in as the seasonal nature of its outdoor venue and less than theatrical quality of the picture gave way to the blockbuster era of special effects and Dolby sound and variety of the new multiplexes.

Living in south Florida, there’s no winter to shut things down so the Lake Worth Drive-In, like others in the region does fine with the right kind of movie. We drove in and could see that there were two screens, one with its back to the road, and the other in the far corner of the large lot. We paid $6 for each ticket, not bad for an evening show. The box office clerk told us we were at screen 1 and to tune our FM radio to 93.7 for audio. We drove down and onto the large paved lot with painted lanes and parking slots. I found a place just off center and on the third “row” back out of four row. We could see plenty of cars already there, most of them either mini-vans and SUVs, most of them with their rear facing the screen–as in this picture, taken during the last Indiana Jones movie’s release–at first, this was a little disorienting because it looked like they were facing an invisible screen opposite screen 1, but I quickly caught on that with the vehicle’s hatch doors open, passengers could spread out cushions and blankets to lay down and watch. Many folks had camp and lawn chairs set out besides their vehicles to stretch their legs and get comfortable.

Ben and I headed to the concession stand (pictured here) to check out the goodies. It was a crowded structure on the first floor with a smaller projection booth on the roof where images could be shown at both screens at right angles to each other. Ben ordered some cheese nachos and I got a small buttered popcorn for $3.00, still better than a regular theater concession price. We got back in plenty of time to tune our radio to the right station and soon the movie began.

It was strange watching a relatively small image behind our windshield, less bright than a theatrical screen, but the sound was fantastic coming through our car’s speakers; my seat vibrated with low frequency hums during the action sequences. And the movie?

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a typical summer blockbuster wanna-be, a good number of CGI special effects at the end and peppered throughout, but it was surprisingly straightforward in tone, lacking the tongue-in-cheek attitude I was expecting. The story of a street urchin, Dastan, adopted by the wise king of Persia and made the youngest of three royal brothers, it’s actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s second foray into blockbusterdom after being part of the ensemble of the disaster film, The Day After. Lots of actors who make their reputation in small independent films will do blockbuster rolls to earn big bucks while they take a pay cut on their more artistic endeavors, and as Johnny Depp showed playing Captain Jack Sparrow and Robert Downey Jr. did playing Tony Stark/Iron Man, one can have one’s artistic integrity and blockbuster fortunes too. Jake’s body is super toned up for the athletic role of the adventurous prince based on the video game from which the movie draws both its name and much of its plot.

A mystical dagger is the sought for object since it can be used to roll back time and thus change history so there are plenty of chases, fights, battles and derring-do but although it doesn’t take itself very seriously, it isn’t nearly as campy as Pirates of the Carribean. In fact, its plot is borrowed from recent current events. The Persians, led by Dastan’s oldest brother, invade a sacred city based on a spy’s false report that the city is forging weapons to use against Persia. These false pretenses are part of a larger scheme but somewhere in the writing stage, someone must have noticed the resemblance to the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq based on intelligence reporting Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But there seems to be no deeper ideological message so this isn’t Avatar. It did occur to me that none of the Caucasian featured players are close to being any ethnicity played on the screen and everyone talks in some type of British accent (to avoid sounding stereotypically “Arabic?”) so one really can’t take this Hollywood hoohaw with anything but a block of salt historically.

The script seems very much by-the-book in it’s structure and this familiarity may be too predictable for some, but the treasured object at the core of the story allow the climax to be surprisingly moving and heartfelt. It felt somewhat like an Alladin story in its style and lack of snarkiness. Benjamin liked it and thinks its the best movie adaptation of a video game, a task full of failures as moviemakers have so often missed what makes a successful adaptation from interactive to straight cinematic narrative. And he liked the drive-in experience but I’m not sure when we’ll find just the right movie to fit the exterior conditions and altered viewing conditions, but at least now he knows something of the wider American filmgoing experience.

February 21, 2010

Reboots in Multiple Franchises

Filed under: Comics,General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 11:15 pm

The ongoing saga of Hollywood’s recycling of once-profitable movie properties continues. Earlier this month, Niki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood reported that the brilliant Christopher Nolan would oversee the script for a new Superman film while also beginning work on the next Batman screenplay. The director whose vision revived the Caped Crusader’s movie career in Batman Begins and trumped that with The Dark Knight seems just the guy to rescue Superman from the dead end he faced after the unsatisfying Superman Returns. I trust he understands that Bats and Supes are characters with completely different tones and sensibilities and won’t be tempted to darken the Man of Steel but find a way to make the first superhero soar again. And yes, though I’ve expressed doubt whether there was any way to top The Dark Knight, especially without the return of Heath Ledger’s Joker, I’m certain Nolan’s earned the right to try, after a couple of years to ponder a sequel.

The other big news in reboots comes from Television Without Pity which reports that plans are in the works to bring back Daredevil, Mission Impossible, and Riddick. Let’s take each in turn:

Daredevil: After Mark Steven Johnson’s overly ambitious letdown of Marvel’s sightless superhero in 2003, a new take would have to rethink the bad idea of telling all of old Hornhead’s greatest tales in once compressed feature. Think franchise instead of one-shot and the next film should pace itself to tell just one great story at a time. This, by the way, is a character that could benefit from Nolan’s approach to noirish style–for decades Daredevil has been the champ of Marvel’s mean streets, an almost self-made hero like Batman, except instead of cool toys, he’s got supersenses.

Mission Impossible: I’m agnostic on this property since I’ve never watched one of the films, so distasteful was the original concept of replacing the covert team caper approach of the television inspiration with a star vehicle for Tom Cruise. I utterly disavow any interest in anything but a fresh approach to the original concept.

Riddick: I saw the first of the two films, Pitch Black, which was a pretty good sci-fi B-film that helped launch Vin Diesel’s career, but skipped the hyper pretentious Chronicles of Riddick. I imagine this is part of Diesel’s comeback course, so good luck to him.

I believe one of these linked articles makes the point that those holding the franchises on superhero character are reviving them mostly because their permission to use the characters is based on either exploiting them in films or losing those rights–thus, besides the potential for profitability, studios don’t want to lose the millions possible for a job well done.

October 12, 2009

Go Fish

Filed under: General Pop Culture — Alex @ 3:00 am

The Christian community has always had varying attitudes toward the surrounding culture. From the church’s early days when believers shunned the Roman games to the established church’s condemnation of the theater, there have been times when entertainment was seen as threatening. Other times culture arose from within the church with medieval miracle and morality plays. American evangelicals have a long history of eschewing the “idle amusements” of the novel, theater, and other popular entertainments, often condemned from the pulpits in 19th century as diversions from the pious life. Thus disengaged from the surrounding culture, Christians were unable to contribute much in the 20th century except protests when the new media of film, radio and television shaped society.

Now in the 21st century, attitudes have to some degree moderated with the recognition that all creative efforts aren’t necessarily evil, frivolous or corrupting. But wishing to avoid the bad and appreciate the good, many may find that the tastes of mainstream media critics don’t always align with their own biblical worldview and seek intelligent reviews that aren’t preoccupied with counting bad words or focusing on exposing supposedly nefarious ideologies in popular culture.

I’ve read reviews in print media ever since I was a boy reading my dad’s Time magazine and today read Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide to keep up with new programs and movies. But I know those critics simply don’t grasp the values I and a lot of my fellow Christians have that establishes certain basic parameters of taste founded in our view of human dignity arising from being made in God’s image–thus the extremes of exploitation of human sexuality makes many wary of shows such as you’d find on cable television–which often feels obligated to flaunt it’s greater freedom to show skin and sex regardless of the lack of artistic justification.

Thus I appreciate when publications like World newsmagazine reviews movies, books and new musical releases. But I’m also excited about a new site dedicated entirely to reviews of movies, television, books, music and even video games. The Fish is all about keeping up with the latest in pop culture, but with a Christian sensibility. To those who think such a site is needlessly sectarian, think of The Fish as an evangelical version of Latino Review, an excellent site offering “the Latin Perspective on all movies and pop culture.” That site exists because the second largest ethnic group in the US has interests in reviews that take its cultural distinctives into account. Similarly, the Fish has its Christian audience in mind when reviewing many of the same items found in mainstream publications and seeks to take those values into account.

That’s the nature of our widely diverse digital landscape–yes, it’s narrowcasting but the web makes niche criticism relatively more affordable in an era of declining newsstand publications suffering from a dearth of advertising revenue. The Fish is part of Salem Communications, the company behind the big Christian radio group and two other big sites and Crosswalk.

Finally, this is a plug for a site that I write for, fulfilling a long time dream of doing reviews of popular culture, which for the most part, will be television reviews. And the site will feature posts from The Culture Beat that I hope will direct attention here as well.

I think you’ll find The Fish is a place you’ll want to bookmark and visit regularly, with discerning and discriminating writers you’ll enjoy reading who love popular culture as much as you do.

September 25, 2009

Shake-up at Disney

Filed under: General Pop Culture — Alex @ 12:05 pm

Dick Cook

Show business news media is buzzing with the ouster of long-time Disney Studios chief Dick Cook. In a scant ten-minute meeting with Disney CEO Bob Iger, Cook was fired. Disney watchers are shocked because Cook was a lifer, having started out at age 21 as a Disneyland tour guide, he rose over the next 38 years to become one of the most well-liked executive in a dog-eat-dog business. As this Studio Briefing item points out, Johnny Depp is having second thoughts about returning to his role of Captain Jack Sparrow for a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film if Cook isn’t captain of the studio. And Los Angeles Times entertainment news reporter Patrick Goldstein captures the dismay of many at the sudden expulsion of the veteran executive.

In January of 2008 I wrote an article for World magazine (subscription required to read whole article) about the renewal of Disney’s family values brought about by Disney’s purchase of Pixar and the studio’s increased focus on family entertainment brought about under Iger’s leadership with Dick Cook among those credited for polishing one of the most distinctive entertainment brands in the world. Cook was canned for apparently being too secretive, which doesn’t sound like a hanging offense. And we can only ponder just what change Iger intends to bring to Disney that don’t include the successful approach of a widely trusted company veteran.

September 17, 2009

Sunset for Blockbuster Stores

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Movies — Alex @ 1:21 pm

Nothing demonstrates the advances in home video rental technology than this item from Studio Briefing about Blockbuster closing 1,000 or 22% of its stores, With Netflix mail-delivered rentals and Red Box DVD renting machines becoming the much preferred means of renting DVDs (and with more video on demand (VOD) technology arriving now and in the future) the once bright and shiny Blockbuster stores are a faded emblem of the VHS days of home video.

I remember when I saw my first Blockbuster. It was around 1990, almost two decades ago and the boom in home video on VHS cassettes was still rising. It had begun several years earlier with an explosion of mom and pop store fronts, followed by the inevitable next stage of local and regional chain stores, Blockbuster was one of the first national chains to bring a fresh and polished design to movie rentals retailing. I was living in Virginia Beach, VA and saw the building go up and the signage appear. About three blocks from my apartment, I was delighted to learn that, while studying film at Regent University, I would be that much closer to a source of films I would use for studying–and of course entertainment. When the building was finished and ready for business, I walked into it with a bit of wonder at its blue and gold design with bright marquee bulbs surrounding the signs within. For about ten years, Blockbuster was the place to go for a wide variety of VHS movies divided into many categories and genres.

I even won a contest that entitled me to dozens of free rentals. This was the golden age of home video that replaced late night movies as sources of cinema education for a generation or two of film buffs. Being able to rent and, better, own a copy of a great or favorite film changed the nature of fandom as we could now watch a film repeatedly in our home, learn its best lines by heart, and become obnoxiously knowledgeable about the trivia of a movies. Thus did new home video technology alter movie culture. In the late 90s, with the arrival of DVDs, we knew that we could now watch movies with far greater clarity and the new technology set a record for rapid diffusion through the consumer marketplace. Cheaper to produce and far lighter than VHS tape (which took a rapid decline), it was only a matter of time before a smart company like Netflix figured out a business model that profited on internet-ordered discs. When I get discs from Netflix, they usually come very quickly from the local center in my city, West Palm Beach. Blockbuster has long known that Netflix and eventually VOD would make driving to and from a bricks and mortar store obsolete and the rumors of the once mighty company’s demise have been around for years. But closing so many stores is part of the company’s long goodbye. Having overbuilt in its heyday, shutting down stores was inevitable. On the street in front of my neighborhood, there were three stores within a less than three miles stretch when we moved in four years ago. None of these stores looks as good as the glory days. Shelves are as worn as the carpet and there’s usually only one employee necessary rather than the bustling activity of the past. Now, because of earlier closings, there are two and I wouldn’t be surprised if another goes dark soon.

Blockbuster’s remaining hope would seem to be hope that the business that trounced it will save it. On the screen grab below of the Studio Briefing article linked to above, the right side next to the text happens to show what could keep the Blockbuster from joining Pan American Airlines and Oldsmobile in the discarded brands bin. Renting online and returning to a declining amount of stores might still offer a convenience to those still willing to drive for their home video but in the long run, this seems unlikely.
Blockbuster news screen grab

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