Everybody’s a Muggle in Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy”

As I type these words I have reached page 160 of J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” so I’m about one third done and have made enough progress to know that I’ll finish the book and that I can draw early conclusions.

Note: there are no plot spoilers here past the first five or so pages of the book, but you’ll get the sensibility.

It’s impossible to read this novel without Harry Potter in mind—nor would the “A Casual Vacancy” be so inescapably present in bookstores, airports and Costco without the Boy who Lived. It’s particularly true for me at the moment as my seven year old son is obsessed with Harry Potter, my eleven year old daughter is in the middle of reading the final book, and our idea of a great Saturday night is a bowl of home made popcorn and one of the Harry Potter movies—“Goblet of Fire” is on deck for my 45th birthday family celebration tomorrow night. We’re all in with Harry.

But Harry Potter is also a great way into what’s interesting about “A Casual Vacancy.”

If you take that series of novels and subtract the magic, you get a painful, grey story set in a British boarding school during one of the world wars. It’s “Dead Poets Society” sans Robin Williams or a British version of John Knowles “A Separate Peace.”  Bleak is an understatement.

Take away the boarding school and you have a novel set on Privet Drive starring Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their disappointing brute of a son and ingrate, possibly psychotic, nephew.

And that’s the sensibility of “Casual Vacancy.”

The novel begins with the death by cerebral hemorrhage of Barry Fairbrother, a  banker and town council leader in the picturesque British town of Pagford. We’re only in Barry’s head for a few pages before he strokes out, but in that time he comes across as dull– a caring but detached man, put upon by his wife Mary’s expectations and resentfully doing things because he ought to rather than because he wants to do them.

By any reasonable account Barry is a nebbish, which makes it all the more surprising when his death sweeps Pagford like an emotional earthquake, throwing relationships into conflict, destabilizing the Town Council, and wreaking havoc with the local high school.

The reader quickly learns that Barry was the best person in Pagford. He was a drab saint that the town is not ready to do without.  This much is obvious 50 pages in, and by 160 – where I am now – Rowling’s deft ability to jump deep inside a character’s pain has me hooked.  Unlike seven books in Harry’s head, we flit from character to character in free indirect discourse that is compelling and alarming. I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not sure that the sturm und drang about Barry’s open council seat will be enough of a spine for the book, but I’ll see it through.

But it’s hard to like any of these characters, as it was hard to like Harry in the fifth book, “The Order of the Phoenix” when he spent the entire 870 page book in an adolescent snit.

It’s almost as if “A Casual Vacancy” were a novelistic equivalent of those intolerably cruel yet can’t-stop-watching British television comedies like “Peep Show” or the original versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.” The closest American equivalent is “Arrested Development,” where there is nobody to root for.

The difference between a novel and a TV show, though, is that actors are charming. The charm of the performers in those shows cuts the cruelty like baby powder cutting cocaine.  “Rain Man” was another famous example: director Steven Spielberg convinced screenwriter Ron Bass to make Raymond autistic instead of retarded because Dustin Hoffman was so charming that the audience wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from loving him, but if he’d been retarded there would have been no conflict.

In “A Casual Vacancy” we mainline the meanness as we read.  There is no cushion of humanity.

The writer that “A Casual Vacancy” most reminds me of isn’t the Rowling of Harry Potter.  It’s Graham Greene, the master of quietly embarrassing detail, pasty human skin layered on squishy human bodies, small worlds from which escape isn’t so much impossible as unthinkable.

In “Romeo and Juliet” a banished Romeo says with horror, “there is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence, banished is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death.”

That’s Pagford.

“A Casual Vacancy” is compelling, dirty, middle-aged and painful.  But so far it’s worth it.

Postscript: A fine account of the Rain Man story can be found here.


Short Post: “Newsroom” Annoyances

  • Compulsively watchable?  Check.
  • Smug as hell?  Check.
  • Probably not able to hold up in the long run?  Check.

But here are things about the new HBO Aaron Sorkin drama “The Newsroom” that are annoying me today:

Why are Jim & Maggie the junior varsity version of Will and MacKenzie?  What is that parallel buying the viewers? And why is it that men and women can’t be friends on so many TV shows?  Could they just be interested in each other as people, without all the romantic tension?

Why are the names of all the characters so boring with the truly peculiar exception of Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn)?  Will, Mac, Jim, Maggie, Don, Charlie… even the Indian guy is “Neal.” Why?

We never get a hint at Charlie Skinner’s motivation for disrupting things at the show.  It feels like we’re setting up the character to reveal that he has terminal cancer at the end of Season 1, which would be a sentimental cop out.

Will Sorkin ever give Will McAvoy a worthy adversary either on the show or off?  Any debate that he loses, or that even makes him break a sweat?

Why Avengers ROCKS + Top 5 Superhero Movies

Yesterday my almost-seven-year-old son and I took in a 3D matinee of “The Avengers” and had a blast. We loved it so much that we plan to see it again in iMax.

The movie has everything—Joss Whedon directing off a terrific screenplay he co-authored, a huge budget with huge stars, and, startlingly for a popcorn movie, emotional arcs for several of the main characters.

However, what has sent Avengers directly into my top 5 list of all time best superhero movies is how it culminates the previous four Paramount Pictures movies—Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor & Captain America.

Each of those movies seeded hints about this movies that followed and about Avengers, and fans like me stuck around all the way through the credits on each film to see the parting hints.

You don’t have to have seen any of the previous movies to thoroughly enjoy Avengers, but if you have seen any or all of the earlier movies your pleasure will be amplified by your memories of the earlier movies.

Avengers’ optional relationship to its predecessors makes this series different than, for example, The Matrix series where by the third movie nothing much made sense if you hadn’t seen the first two, played the video game and read the comic book (Henry Jenkins wonderfully describes all this in his book Convergence Culture.)

This amplification is the topic that I spent eight years of my life researching in a different context—Shakespeare’s audience. (See the top video on this blog or the summary of my doctoral dissertation under “Writing” for more.)

It’s a complicated trick to smuggle extra experience into a movie to thrill the fans that won’t distract the uninitiated. Similar to but different than pop cultural throwaways like — @CNNLADavid’s favorite line, “Better clench up, Legolas.” Said to Hawkeye by Iron Man as they zoom roof ward, it’s a one-second tribute to The Lord of the Rings’ elven archer from another fan-fave movie cycle.

What’s different about in-series amplification is that it lasts: 100 years from now a viewer of The Avengers who has seen the previous movies will have the amplified experience, whereas the Legolas throwaway is contingent on different knowledge.

For those of you (anyone? anyone?) who care about good old-fashioned aesthetics, this phenomenon is the cinematic version of what Stephen Pepper described as “funding” in his classic book “The Basis of Criticism in the Arts” (1949), only he was writing about painting and how the second time (T2) you see the Mona Lisa you are actually viewing both the painting itself and your earlier experience (T1), and the third time it’s T3 + T2 + T1, and so on.  (I’ve written about this here before: click the “Cognitive Funding” tab to the right to find those posts.)

Moving on to my top 5 list of super hero movies and why

Mystery Men (1999): Hysterical and brilliantly cast exploration of every comic book cliché and why they’re still powerful even though cliché. A passion project for everyone involved, it was probably the only superhero team movie to work well before Avengers.

Superman 2 (1980): Like “Empire Strikes Back” in the Star Wars series, and Spider-Man 2, the second movie with Christopher Reeve surpassed #1 in this series by light years when it came to the story. Although the first Superman had the inspiring flight sequences and John William’s magnificent score, it was in essence a two hour preview for Superman 2, which still blows me away.

Iron Man (2008): The movie so effectively deployed star Robert Downey Jr.’s real-life brilliant, charismatic bad boy persona into the Tony Stark protagonist that it took my breath away, and having both Downey and Jeff Bridges square off in the movie was like the Foreman vs. Ali “Rumble in the Jungle” back in 1974—two titans.

Dark Knight (2008): Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker was so intense that it killed him. Unlike earlier portrayals across all media, Christopher Nolan’s movie didn’t try to explain The Joker or to resolve his paradoxes—each time the Joker explained how he came to be the story failed to match the earlier version. It’s a brilliant exercise in Keatsian “Negative Capability.” That paradox was the engine that drove the movie, poised in perfect tension with the equally powerful engine of Batman’s motivation to fight the evil that killed his parents. Batman is the only superhero whose origin story and motivation are identical, and it’s an inexhaustible supply of narrative.

Avengers (2012): See the first half of this post: it’s not just one movie—it’s five blockbusters tied together.

What movies are on your list? Please share in comments.


Mom for a Day. Oy Vey!

My wife Kathi left to teach in L.A. this morning and so I became the POD (Parent on Duty), also known as “Substitute Mom.”

That was less than 12 hours ago & I’m totally frazzled.

Unlike most of my posts, this has nothing to do with media– think of it as highly individualized anthropology.  Cue the Michael Jackson music because I’m looking at the Dad in the Mirror.

Here’s my afternoon’s itinerary:

3:10pm: Left house to pick up my kids (H, the 10 year old girl; W, the 6 year old boy) and W’s friend P (also 6).  It’s pouring rain.  I remember to get the extra booster chair for P out of my car and take Kathi’s SUV.  We have P because it is our turn for Tae Kwon Do carpool.

3:20pm: There is no parking near the school.  I park two blocks away.  It is pouring rain. Yes, I know I already said that but it stays annoying so I’ll keep saying it.

3:25pm: 47 moms and 3 dads cluster around the front of the school. When I join my fellow dads I quip, “look, we’re in the dad ghetto.” “We should get a velvet rope around us,” one other dad says.  “Yes,” I reply. “But it’s to keep us out, not to keep them in.”  H emerges.  Big hug.  Seeing no W or P she says, “Oh! they must be in the bus line,” and disappears to fetch them.  IThe moment she is out of sight W and P show up.  Before they can dive into the educational labyrinth searching for H my hands arrest their movement. “No, we’re just going to wait here.”  Five minutes later H emerges, “Ah! there you are.”  We walk to the car.  It’s pouring rain.

3:45pm: Leaving W and P to play with Legos in the car, I take H into her choir practice through the — you guessed it — pouring rain.  Aaron, the talented choir leader, tells me that practice will end at 5:30pm.  This shatters my evening’s plan as I had everything scheduled around a 6:00pm end time.  I am now running late.  I hate running late.  I race to the SUV.

3:55pm: W and P place their orders at Señor Taco, the surprisingly good local joint.  We then dart to Petco to collect dog food.

4:05pm: Burritos and quesadilla acquired, we zoom back to our house.  It’s pouring rain.

4:15pm: W and P play 30 minutes of “Smash Bros. Brawl” on the Wii, eat dinner, change to Tae Kwon Do uniforms.

5:15pm: We jump back in the car and zoom back to the choir practice.  It’s pouring rain.  While driving I call in another order to Señor Taco — “Hi, Mary, it’s me again.”  “Hi Brad!” — this time dinner for H and for me.  I did it this way so that everybody’s food would be fresh upon dining.

5:30pm: H’s practice isn’t over.  I check on the boys.  There is no blood coating the windows of the car from the inside.  Sometimes in life you have to settle.

5:35pm: It still isn’t over.  I feel pressure in my forehead.  Is it a migraine?  a stroke?

5:40pm: Choir practice ends.  The stroke subsides, for now, and I chivvy H into the car through the pouring rain.  As she climbs in, one of her fingers floats near W. So — of course, how can I not have foreseen this? — W bites H’s finger.  There is no blood.  W denies doing it.  H stands her ground.  I make it clear that if I discover that this has actually happened later that such punishments will ensue as to make the Terror of the French Revolution seem like a mere barked shin, only I don’t say this in so many words.  W confesses.  “W,” I say.  “Impulse control!  Please work on it.”  I wonder if any of them will notice if I use the Google Mobile app on my iPhone to search the keyword “orphanage.”

5:45pm: I collect the second order at Señor Taco.

6:00pm: I deposit the boys at Tae Kwon Do and drive H home.  It is pouring rain.

6:10pm: I escort H into the house.  She has her choir book and the “you might have to wait for a while after practice” novel.  She has her roller backpack that contains the 68 pounds of books she ferries back and forth every day to the fifth grade (!).  “Honey, where’s your jacket?”  She looks about.  She looks some more.  I feel the inter-cranial pressure mount again. “Did you leave it at choir?” “You were rushing me!”  Intemperate words spring from my mouth.  That Dad of the Year Award will elude me in 2011 just like 2010, and 2009, and 2008….  I get her into the house, plate her dinner and set up a show she likes via Netflix on the iPad.  I send quick notes to Aaron and his wife Dierdre about the jacket, send a separate note to the executive director of the arts center asking him to forward it to Lost & Found, and then I dart out the door.

6:20pm: I call my wife.  We chat while I’m driving to the arts center for the third time in less than three hours.  I find an open door to the center but not to the choir room.  I use the flashlight app on my iPhone to illuminate corners of the choir room.  There is one forlorn fabric lump in the corner.  Is it her jacket, some other idiot child’s jacket or a disused instrument cover.  Who knows?  Still chatting with Kathi, I wander the halls, eliciting bizarre looks from people in sundry meetings.  No jacket.

6:35pm: I look at my watch. Holy mackerel!  Tae Kwon Do ends in 10 minutes and I’m 12 minutes away.  I zoom through the pouring rain.

6:50pm: Tae Kwon Do lets out 5 minutes late.  I am waiting, an insouciant smile on my face, trying to suggest that I’ve been waiting a while.  They are boys, and therefore oblivious.  I guide them back to the SUV through the pouring rain.  H calls my cell.  A package arrived.  Per the Paternal Prime Directive she did not open the door, but she suspects that it is a package from Amazon and wanted me to know.

7:00pm: P is returned to the bosom of his family.

7:05pm: W and I arrive home.  It is indeed a package from Amazon.com.  I try to take W directly to the shower but he announces — in a voice that vibrates our neighbors’ windows — that he has to poop.

7:10pm: My burrito is cold.  I reheat it.  It now has paper stuck to it that is impossible to peel off.  “A good source of fiber,” I tell myself.

7:12pm: W emerges naked from the bathroom and dances in the loft, waggling his butt to show that he has wiped himself.  I escort him to the shower.

7:15pm: H rehearses her speech on manga for me.  It requires me to draw along with her.  I eat left handed.

7:20pm: I finish my burrito. The shower is still going.  “W?” I ask mounting the stairs.  My right knee twinges.  An old fencing injury.  Really.  My 12 year old Corgi, Dexter, huffs his way up the stairs next to me.  My knee just twinges.  He’s REALLY struggling.  “What?” I imagine him asking.  “You couldn’t have bought that one-level ranch home I liked so much?”  W is practicing Tae Kwon Do in the shower while making laser gun noises.  I suggest washing himself.

7:25pm: I suggest washing again.

7:28pm: I open the shower door and glower until he begins to bathe himself.  I go to check on H.

7:33pm:  W is now meditating under the water and not washing his hair.  I suggest that if he wishes to play video games again before puberty he rethink this stance.  He washes his hair.  Clean and looking like a large, peach-colored prune, he exits the shower.  “Please dry yourself,” I say and go back downstairs to make sure H has finished homework.

7:40pm: I return to the scene of the shower and find W practicing Tae Kwon Do, naked, in front of the mirror.  Just as I reach the door he KICKS the mirror and I hear a loud slapping noise not followed, thank heavens, by a series of tinkling noises.  “Don’t DO that!” I shriek.  “Impulse control, W, please!”

Tooth brushing follows.  I don’t know when.  I don’t remember what I was doing.  I might have blacked out.  No, wait.  Now I remember.  I went to the garage to get the DeLonghi space heater for W’s room, as it gets unnaturally cold at night and he is recovering from a cough. It looks like an old radiator from a New York apartment building, but it doesn’t make noise and doesn’t use electricity like a hair dryer.  I clean it and install it in his room.

7:55pm: The kids and I review their chore sheets and I award stickers for good behavior.  Down on my knees, at W’s level, I carefully go over the “don’t hit sister” line on the chore sheet.  “Do you deserve a sticker here?” “No.” “Why not?” “Because I bit sister and lied about it.”  “That’s right,” I say.  “And, by the way, because of this behavior you also lost dessert.  Sister gets dessert.  You do not.  Now please go upstairs.”  It is at this point that I see that a flurry of ants have colonized the island in the middle of our kitchen.  I see this because H has rested her arm on the island and 6 ants have crawled onto her sweatshirt.  I de-ant-i-fy her. At this point, W uses his arm to sweep across the island, infesting his pajamas with ants.  I de-ant-i-fy him and send him upstairs.  H generously agrees to read to him so that I can napalm the ants with Windex.  She dislikes bugs as much as I do.

8:05pm: Island cleaned, I come upstairs.  H trots off to her room to read.  I tuck W in and a thought occurs to me.  “W,” I say.  “Do you know what ‘impulse control’ means?” “No, Dad, actually, I don’t.”  I close my eyes and smile.  We then talk for a few minutes about the three words I’d like him to have in his head whenever a sudden desire to do something that might, perhaps, exceed the usual rules governing his day — kicking something, hitting somebody, throwing something sharp at high velocity toward the back of a waiter’s head in a restaurant (I speak hypothetically, of course).  “What words?” he asks.  “It’s simple, really,” I say.  “Just think, ‘wait a minute!’ whenever you have an irresistible urge to do something that might be bad, just think ‘wait a minute.'” He starts to talk about Bey Blades.  Laser sounds are involved.  “W,” I ask. “Can you tell me what I just said?”  There is a very long pause.  “Wait a minute?”  “Good,” I reply.  “I just like to know that you hear me once in a while.”  Kisses and hugs are exchanged.

8:20pm: I serve H her dessert — cherry pie and a glass of milk — and she happily reads her book while I empty the dishwasher, clean the kitchen, get the coffee pot ready for the morning, put the dog out in the pouring rain to relieve himself, and start going over tomorrow’s activities.  I notice that somewhere during the day the Henckle Kitchen Scissors Fairy has visited our house and stolen our scissors.  I let Dexter back in.  He nearly darts by me with muddy paws, but a quick lunge saves our carpets and my fencing past proves itself useful.

9:00pm: H is entirely ready for bed and happily reading her book.  She has only 20 pages to go, so I give her permission to finish the book so long as she rolls over and goes to bed upon finishing it.  She agrees.  I remind her that I will be waking her early to get ready for makeup picture day, as the pictures from the first go around show her beautiful face stretched by an expression one usually associates with electrocution.  She understands.  We discuss breakfast options (she is my picky eater).  Kisses and hugs are exchanged.

9:05pm: I begin writing this post.

9:41pm: H pops into the room to inform me that she has finished her book.  I sigh and wonder what the Google query on the iPhone managed to turn up.  However, since she is here it occurs to me to ask if she has indeed read the book for her Friday Book Club meeting, and if so what it might be.  She tells me that the title is “The Name of this Book is Secret” by Pseudonymous Bosch, but that she has not read it.  I send her to get the Kindle and proceed to download the book.  I also send a brief email to Kathi asking for confirmation on this title as well as if she happens to have brought the Henckle scissors with her to Los Angeles for mysterious reasons.

9:49pm: H returns to bed.

10:15pm: I go to check on H, listening at the door as she is a light sleeper and if I go in it will wake her.  It is possible that I hear the quiet murmurings of an audio book being played on her iPod Touch, but it could also be the sound of the now driving rain and howling wind whipping through the trees outside.  At least it’s quiet in there.  Sometimes in life you have to settle.

10:16pm: As I come back down the stairs I see that Dexter has levitated himself onto the couch.  If he had opposable thumbs I feel confident that he’d now be watching Animal Planet.

And that brings us to the present.

My wife amazes me.  She does this ALL THE TIME.  I feel like I must book a business trip just so that I can get some rest.

I’m going to join Dexter on the couch.  But since I have thumbs there will be no Animal Planet.

The coffee machine is set to go off at 6:00am.

Portland Startups to work with Target, Coca-Cola, Nike, Google, Wieden + Kennedy

Our industry has relapsed into a high digital startup fever, but this time with a new twist— brands working directly with entrepreneurs in order to find the next hot digital companies at the earliest possible stage and to stay at the sharpest edge of marketing innovation.

We’ve seen this elsewhere with the PepsiCo10 in New York and Europe, the Brandery in Cincinnati, and now PIE, the Portland Incubator Experiment, is about to launch its fall class right here in my town — Portland, Oregon – smack dab in the middle of the Silicon Forest.

What’s in it for the startup? $18,000, office space for three months and a rich community of other startups, PIE alums, the digital team at W+K and a mentor network that includes thought leaders from companies including Target, Coca-Cola, Nike and – as of just last week — Google.

You don’t have to be a Portlander to apply—applications so far have come in from the Northwest and as far as Vermont and Tennessee.

The deadline is August 8 at 11:59pm, so don’t wait—get cracking on that application today!

Imagine being an entrepreneur with a nifty idea who gets to work directly with folks who have rich startup experience of their own from Google and YouTube.

And on the flip side, many young digital companies begin with technology, then move to a terrific user experience, and only then do they think, “Hmmm, what about revenue? I know, let’s sell some ads!”

But that’s not how major brands want to get involved—they want to get baked into the process early, and they want opportunities beyond advertising, including strategic, technological and other communications-related innovations.

And what terrific advocates for brand-centric development in Target, Coca-Cola and Nike!

Apply today!


Further reading:

Netflix’s Big OOPS– didn’t these guys take Psych 101?

Topline takeway for this post: Netflix has screwed up, turning unconsidered background choices into front-of-mind considerations. They don’t understand how pleasure and satisfaction work.

I’m on vacation and somewhat unplugged, but I was still connected enought to receive a surprising email from Netflix yesterday saying that if I want to retain both unlimited streaming and one disk out at a time, then my price will jump from $9.99 per month to $15.98 per month– and that this will happen by September 1st.

Thin-slicing report: my first thought was, “huh, guess it’s time to cancel Netflix.”

(Side note: the inevitable social media death spiral has already begun, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.)

Whomever made this call at Netflix HQ doesn’t understand how locally unsatisfying but globally satisfying the current Netflix product is.

Even though I probably only borrow a dozen titles per year in disk form — and those disks become a Tivo-guilt-like homework assignment — my satisfaction index for those choices is moderate if unscrutinized. These are things I know I want to see to a sufficient extent that I’ll actually forego other options in order to have Netflix send me the disk. Netflix is so low-pressure compared to the other video rental services it is driving out of business (no late fees, etc.) that I don’t pay attention to how much of the $120 per year is wasted or not optimized– a real set it and forget it service. And the unlimited free streaming on top of that makes me even less likely to ponder the value.

So even though no local choice is a slam dunk — the way going to see “Cars 2” with my kids this week is likely to be an eventful and memorable outing — my global level of satisfaction with the service is acceptable.

Likewise, my endless Netflix instant-streaming queue is composed of things I vaguely want to see but haven’t gotten around to yet. “Huh, they’ve got ‘Hot Tub Time Machine,’ already… okaaaaay.” Most of what I watch on Netflix I watch alone, and so the choice of what to watch is quite arbitrary and mood driven. There is no killer content on Netflix — nothing I can’t get elsewhere if I really want to see it — just an amazing range of good-enough content for vegetating on the couch after a long day. I don’t do a cost-benefit analysis because I still think of the streaming as a freebie on top of the disk-rental agreement.

Until now.

Now, Netflix has forced me to think critically, and that’s never a good idea with a customer. Here’s a sample of my internal monologue:

Is $7.99 per month is a good enough price for unlimited Netflix streaming by itself. What about Hulu Plus? Golly, I’m already spending a ton on Comcast and they have free and fee VOD… do I really need Netflix? What about Amazon Prime? I already have an account there.  Should I spend the $94 I’m about to spend on Netflix streaming on a Roku box to hook Prime up to the big screen in the living room?

And the same is true for the disks: for $120 I can buy most of what I want, use VOD via Comcast or Vudu or Xbox/Zune, or look more carefully at the offerings at my local library.

In Barry Schwartz’s remarkable 2003 book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, he articulates that the problem of internet plenitude is that for every choice we do make the opportunity costs of the choices we don’t make sucks away our satisfaction away from the lucky thing chosen.

The current Netlix service — the one going away in the fall that combines one disk with unlimited streaming –neatly jumps over the Paradox of Choice because the opportunity costs of each choice are ameliorated by a different sort of plenitude. If I don’t like the disk, I can stream.  If I don’t like the stream, then what about that disk lying on my desk?

Each service compensated for the faults of the other, but — I think — neither is worth paying for itself alone when there are so many alternatives.

Right now, I’m paying monthly or annual service charges for:

  1. Comcast Cable with Premium Channels
  2. Amazon Prime
  3. Netflix
  4. Hulu Plus
  5. Xbox Live Gold

Something’s gotta give.  Until that email yesterday I wouldn’t have imagined that Netflix would be on the list of likely evictees.

Now it is.

Simile Search: Please Help This Writer!

I’m looking for evocative comparisons that talk about how one thing so automatically comes with another that we take the pairing for granted. Like, “the juice comes with the meat” (except it often doesn’t) or “the warmth that comes with the fire” but preferably less flabby.  Something taste or smell related (for its Proustian oomph) would be ideal.  If you can think of any, please share in comments.

Here’s why I’m asking:

My new book length project (now that Redcrosse is here) is called “The Shakespeare Strategy” and is all about why Shakespeare’s working context helped to constitute his immense business and cultural success, and that leads to an argument about how we don’t pay enough attention to context — including physiological and psychological context — nowadays.  For frequent readers you’ll recognize some of this in my longtime fascination with eventness.

I’m still working on the elevator pitch, but you can see the seed of the thinking here:

Before we had VCRs, DVRs, DVDs, streaming video, individual songs on iTunes and, newly, individual articles sold independently of their magazines context came automatically with our experience of music, TV, movies, newspaper and magazine articles.  Even books came in context because we found them in bookstores, libraries or catalogs.

We now lack much of that formerly automatic context, which is why books like Steve Rosenbaum’s Curation Nation are so interesting and relevant.

So I’m looking for comparisons that convey automatic pairings… as well as comparisons showing formerly automatic pairing that — once detached — reveal how accidental and contingent the link between the two things really was. That is, “the commercials that come with the TV show” (before DVRs) or “the sting that comes with the angry bee” (except more positive).

Any ideas? Please help!

Short Post: There’s More to the Amazon story than Fast Company conveys

Kit Eaton over at Fast Company (a must read in general) blogged today about Amazon’s announcement that it now sells more e-Books than physical books.  Here’s a relevant snippet including a link to the Amazon press release:

Since April the first, for every 100 print-and-paper books Amazon has sold, it’s also sold 105 e-books, according to a fresh Amazon announcement.

Kindle e-readers arrived, along with a small but fast-growing digital bookstore, in November 2007–by July 2010, Amazon notes, Kindle book sales had surpassed hardcover book sales, and then six months later beat the paperback books sales rate. Now Amazon’s customers are “choosing Kindle books more often than print books. We had high hopes this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” says CEO Jeff Bezos, comparing Amazon’s 15-year heritage of selling physical books to just four years of e-book sales.

What’s missing from this story are the economics. Sure, Amazon sells more e-books than physical books, but that’s because the electronic editions are generally cheaper than the physcial ones.  Moreover, when the book isn’t published by a major house with discount deals at Wal-Mart, CostCo, Barnes & Noble, et cetera, then the gap between physical and electronic can be huge.

What I want to know is this: how do the titles on the 105 e-books compare to the physical books? What is the intersection on the Venn diagram of those two lists, and what is the total list price differential between them?

Amazon is an exciting new frontier for small publishing houses or author-published books in both fiction and non-fiction — the Romance genre alone is changing fast because of the Kindle publishing platform.  As meat-space bookstores die — and this happens increasingly — Amazon will become only more important for both physical and e-Books.

But this 105 v 100 press release is a non-story without significant context.




Super Storytelling Smackdown: “Smallville” vs. “Thor”

This is a post about the difference between experiencing a story and remembering it later, a distinction that we pay too little attention to in the media world.  I’ll talk about theater, movies, TV, Superman, Thor and Shakespeare, and there will be spoilers… lots of ’em about the “Smallville” series finale, but I’ll be careful when it comes to “Thor.”

Those readers who have been following this blog or my other work at all will know that I’m a lifelong superhero geek, and over this weekend I hit a rare caped trifecta, watching the “Smallville” series finale, taking in the new “Thor” movie and receiving a big box of comic books from the shop in Los Angeles where I’ve been going since 1998.  I’m chewing my way through the comics, loved Thor (a bit more on this at the end) and have had a weird response to the Smallville finale where the farther I get from it the less I like it.

Although I got bored with the Clark/Lana/Lex triangle a few years ago and skipped a half season, I’ve watched Smallville for 10 years through the births of my two children, big career changes and a move from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon. The entire series has been a build up to the moment when Clark Kent puts on the blue costume and red cape and flies off to greet the world as Superman. I’ve spent a decade on this hero’s journey.

So why, in the much-advertised and long-awaited series finale did they deny us the money shot? Yes, we had Clark holding the costume, flying to the big battle while holding the costume, and then we had him, wearing the union suit, but in close up gazing lovingly through the round window of an airplane at Lois. Yes, we had a blue blur flying through the sky towards battle, and yes we had him – seven years later — (I did mention the spoilers, right?) running across the Daily Planet rooftop pulling open his shirt to reveal the big red S to show us that Clark now fully inhabited the Superman role.

But we didn’t have this:

or this:

or this:

Why not? At one point I thought, maybe Tom Welling got fat– the way William Shatner plumped up during every season of the original “Star Trek” series (they only took his shirt off during the early episodes each season), but a quick tour through Google Images suggests that this isn’t the case.

It’s a huge failure on the part of the series, one that got me mulling over the flaws in the finale with a microscope… and that’s usually a bad sign. Days later, I realized that in addition to the lack of a money shot we also never heard the word “Superman” as a name, although we did have a Nietzschean moment where a character referred to a superman in flashback.

The worst series finale in TV history was “Quantum Leap,” where in a bump shot at the end we learned that Sam Beckett never returned home, even though the entire series was predicated on that return. When I saw that I lurched forward clutching my stomach like I’d been stabbed. Smallville, in contrast, couldn’t resolve this season on its own terms, spending most of the two hours on the soap opera and only a few minutes on the heroics.

The show runners got distracted by a bunch of characters to whom the audience had said goodbye years ago, most particularly Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor and John Schneider’s Jonathan Kent.  Annette O’Toole’s Martha Kent made an appearance as well, but since her character hadn’t died a few seasons ago that made sense. Why the team didn’t bring back Kristen Kreuk’s Lana Lang (not that I wanted this) alongside everybody else has, I presume, more to do with Kreuk’s availability than anything else.

Yes, the mythology states that Superman will battle Lex Luthor forever, but we didn’t need to spend 10 minutes with Lex and Clark in conversation only to have Lex’s memory wiped in the final moments of the episode. Yes, the memory of Clark’s human father guides him, but we didn’t need to have the ghost of Jonathan Kent literally hand Clark the super suit.  Ghosts are not a key part of the Superman mythos.

Nor did we need to kill off Lionel Luthor (who oddly turned into Gollum between his last appearance and the finale) and Tess Mercer just because they have no place in the comic book mythology. One of the great strengths of Smallville was the tension between the comic book mythology and its own—the series stopped being consistent with the Superboy/Superman origin story in the pilot, so why care so much in the finale?

In the finale we got too much of the man and not nearly enough of the super, but that has always been the case with the series. The problem was that the emotional drama of the tenth season was abandoned in favor of the Clark-growing-up arc that the audience finished years ago.

However, when I watched the finale on Friday night I rather enjoyed it. The eventful-ness of watching it on that night, carving out time after the kids were asleep and my wife was doing other things upstairs, watching it nearly in real time (I got a late start but caught up via DVR), these things swept me up and gave me that special momentum of real-time experience… the tide that carries us through experience.

The only thing I noticed in the moment was the lack of the costumed money shot, and my dissatisfaction with that gap is what kept me thinking about the finale, probing it like a tongue searching for a missing tooth.  Then, to mix metaphors, the entire episode unraveled.

This phenomenon where time reduces satisfaction is well known in theater and makes a certain amount of common sense.  When we are in the middle of things, particularly things that possess a great deal of eventness, we are surfing a wave of experience rather than mulling it over. The critic Bernard Beckerman expressed it this way in his 1979 book “Dynamics of Drama:”

The memorial experience is not distinct from the theatrical but merely a continuation beyond direct contact with the presentation.  The form of action induces the theatrical experience directly but has an indirect effect upon the memorial experience.  When unable to return to the same artistic work, the playgoer must either avail himself of a facsimile, such as a second performance of the same production, or be content to recall the initial experience. Once removed from his fellow spectators, he gains a new perspective of the work.  Responses elicited in performance may seem alien in retrospect.  The process of rumination alters the work (157).

Rumination is key to the superhero genre because after seventy plus years of stories about these characters they are saturated with inescapable foreknowledge. Do a search on famous fictional characters and both Superman and Batman show up early.

Even people who don’t know much about superheroes – my wife, for example, before our son joined me in the cape-o-philiac club – approach the genre knowing that the stories are embedded in a network of earlier versions of the tales and will be followed by later versions. Deeply satisfying stories within these contexts are aware of all their predecessors and heirs.  J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the “Star Trek” franchise, for example, was brilliant in its deft balancing of the old and new versions of the universe.

And this brings me to “Thor,” which managed to weave into its two-hour span allusions to the 1960s “Thor” comic books, to King Lear, the Empire Strikes Back, the Lord of the Rings, the Lion in Winter and embedded itself neatly into the other Marvel Comics movies of the last few and next few years.  This isn’t transmedia in Henry Jenkins‘s sense so much as a deeply allusive network of references and parallels that increases the satisfaction of movie going for the experienced viewer and gives her or him a qualitatively different evening than the newcomer to the genre.

I won’t perpetrate big spoilers for “Thor” because the movie is so worth seeing on the big screen in a top-notch theater with stadium seating. Visually stunning, charmingly acted and with an immense sense of scope, the combination of director Kenneth Branagh channeling his own Shakespearean movies (“Henry V,” “Hamlet,” “Much Ado About Nothing”) and story architect J. Michael Straczynski (who redefined the modern science fiction epic with “Babylon 5” and has spent the last couple years on Superman and Wonder Woman in comics) means that this movie understands and embraces epic.

“Thor” is a thrill ride (plenty of money shots with this one), and as my wife and I talked over the movie at dinner afterwards we found some things to pick apart (Natalie Portman joining Elizabeth Shue in “The Saint” in the ranks of brainy-sexy-unbelievable astro-physicists… although Portman is more convincing) but nothing that caused the experience to collapse in retroactive dissatisfaction.

Instead, we talked about how Loki echoes Edmund in King Lear, how this film links up with “The Incredible Hulk,” the “Iron Man” movies and the forthcoming “Captain America” and “Avengers” movies, and how Chris Hemsworth’s body is possibly the movie’s single-greatest special effect (as was that of Megan Fox in the first “Transformers” film).

Rumination, in the case of Thor, deepened engagement with both the story and the performance of the story, with the structure of the narrative and the way that the execution and casting (e.g., Anthony Hopkins as a Lear-like Odin) linked that performance to other stories.

Culturally, we tend to suffer from what I think of as the tyranny of the object when it comes to stories. We evaluate the thing itself and not the context in which we experience that thing. Our ability to buy just one song on iTunes means that we don’t think as much about an album, and the birth of new one-off journalism at Byliner (and see my previous post about Fortune) means that we don’t think about publications in the same gestalt way that we used to.

Both Smallville and Thor, though, are deeply contextual in their meaning-making and in the experiences of that meaning. Smallville is the end of the beginning of the Superman story. Thor is the start of that hero’s journey on earth and in the middle of the current Marvel movie epic.

The growth of digital media and distribution has eroded the easy context that came with analog media the way “Cheers” came after “The Cosby Show” to create NBC’s anchor Thursday night.

I believe that in the next few years we will pay more attention to context, and that in doing so we’ll also be more aware of the gap between the memorial experience and the in-the-moment experience of storytelling.

Good storytellers deliver on the in-the-moment experience. Great storytellers do that and also think about memorial rumination.

The take-away? Go see “Thor” while it’s still in the theaters.