"Hoop Dreams" plus 15

The basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, which was released in 1994, is this year celebrating its 15th anniversary. A couple of new essays available online recognize the milestone, and discuss the film's legacy, including the fact that it is about so much more than just basketball.

Roger Ebert, in his amazingly insightful "Roger Ebert's Journal" (which is often about so much more than just movies), discusses his and the late Gene Siskel's early involvement with the film as cheerleaders who helped the documentary gain first distribution and then an appreciative audience. Ebert recounts the recent Chicago event in which the film's two subjects, William Gates and Arthur Agee, sat on a panel discussion with the filmmakers to talk about the film's impact on their lives.

Ebert provides a link to an older but still incisive essay on the Criterion Collection website by John Edgar Wideman. Wideman, writing from the perspective of an African-American man who fostered some of the same dreams as Gates and Agee, drills just as deeply into the idea that Hoop Dreams is about so much more than basketball, and about how dreams of basketball stardom were about so much more than sports and glory for young people like himself and the stars of this incredible documentary film.


The Quality of Movies, in IV Parts, from Movies from Every Angle

The movie blog Movies from Every Angle posted a sort of state-of-the-movies manifesto earlier this summer that is worth taking a look at. Here it is, in four (or should I say, IV) parts: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV. It has some interesting insights about the current (as well as past instances of) trends towards remaking movies. For instance, there's a particularly astute observation regarding how the makers/distributors of these movies have started to shy away from the term remake in favor of "reboot," or "reimagining."

The blogger at Movies from Every Angle, Michael Brody, was also quoted in a recent AP article about the strategies being used by movie theatres to compete and attract customers in this new streaming-video, hi-def, iPod age.


A.O. Scott on "The Graduate" in NYT's Critic's Picks

New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott, in the paper's online "Critic's Picks" video series, offers a perspective this week on the landmark 1967 film "The Graduate" (a favorite of the MediaLog). Scott doesn't really make any new observations about the film, but he does reiterate well three of the biggest reasons for the film's historical importance: (1) the ways in which Dustin Hoffman's performance (and appearance) helped rewrite the rules of being a movie star; (2) the ways in which the film exploited the new permissiveness in movies that was then emerging; and (3) the film's groundbreaking use of popular music. All of these helped contribute to the film's massive popularity among young people, another measure of the film's importance which Scott also mentions.


The MediaLog MediaFix: Vintage March Madness from 1983

In honor of the now-annual cultural and sports ritual known as March Madness, the MediaLog presents this pair of video clips from the 1983 NCAA men's basketball championship. Until the early-1980s, the NCAA tournament was a much smaller affair than it has become in the decades since. The 1979 championship game between Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird's Indiana State Sycamores (won by Michigan State) raised the tournament's profile greatly, and by 1985 the tournament had expanded to the 60-plus team size it has been ever since.

The 1983 championship was a match-up between the North Carolina State Wolfpack, coached by Jim Valvano, and the Houston Cougars, best known that year for their group of players (including future NBA stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) nicknamed "Phi Slama Jama." Valvano's Wolfpack pulled out a last-second upset over the favored Houston team. The first clip is a network preview package by sportscaster Dick Schaap that consists mainly of interview footage with Valvano. The second clip is the last minute or so of the championship game itself, with the customary immediate post-game jubilation.


"Phantom of the Opera" and More in "The Reel Journal" from 1925

A magnificent new resource for film historians and researchers--or for anyone interested in learning about old movies and the history of the American film industry--is the website Issuu, specifically the collection of "Boxoffice" magazines hosted there. "Boxoffice" (which is still publishing) is a trade publication for movie distributors and exhibitors that dates back to the 1920s. The historical back issues, nearly all of which can be found and browsed at Issuu, are a wealth of information--an embarrassment of riches, really--for studying American film history.

The above issue of "The Reel Journal" (a predecessor of "Boxoffice"), from February 14, 1925, features this double-page advertisement for "The Phantom of the Opera," starring Lon Chaney, which was then in release from Universal Studios. Interestingly, the image featured in the ad does not include Chaney, perhaps because the actor--known as the "Man of 1000 Faces" for his elaborate make-up--was being kept under wraps in the film's publicity to preserve the impression his visage would make on viewers.

The old issues of "Boxoffice" available for view on Issuu represent a unprecedented level of access for such an historical resource. Although the Issuu interface (available for use by anyone to "publish" newsletters and the like) is somewhat clunky--there's no easy way to conduct searching, for example, and in the case of "Boxoffice" at least, poor indexing of the hundreds of issues available--it is possible to bookmark particular pages, create your own library of publications, and (as seen above) embed individual publications on your own webpage or blog. There are several options for navigating individual issues, although (again in the case of "Boxoffice" at least) image quality is rather poor.

The above issue of "The Reel Journal" can be navigated and explored fully. It's an amazing immersion in movie culture of past eras. In the future, I will likely post additional issues of "Boxoffice" and its predecessor publications, as I discover nuggets of information and images that I think warrant the treatment.


MediaLog MediaBrief: Sci Fi Channel to Change Name to "Syfy"

Making the media news rounds today are plans by NBC Universal to change the name of Sci Fi Channel to Syfy. (Articles reporting said name change are here, here, and here.) The new name, while retaining identification with the genre of science fiction (it's pronounced the same as "sci fi"), is meant to broaden the appeal and scope of the network, with programming related to additional topics such as paranormal phenomena, fantasy, and other broadly scientific/fictional realms.

This strikes me as a rather bone-headed move by NBC Universal. Although not as widely viewed as some cable networks by virtue of the fact that its subject matter is not every viewer's cup of tea, Sci Fi Channel has had a strong identity that has catered to hardcore science fiction fans, as well as others who may not be as hardcore but who have been attracted to the channel by programming such as critical darling "Battlestar Galactica." This name change seems to be (potentially) chucking most of that brand equity and loyal viewer goodwill in a gambit to broaden the network's appeal. There's a very good chance that longtime loyal Sci Fi Channel viewers will be upset with the change (which includes the network's related properties, such as its popular website), and that nonviewers will likely remain uninterested in the network's offerings. There's also the chance that casual viewers seeing the name"Syfy"--with the built-in pronunciation issues for those not hip to the change --will not make the connection to the old Sci Fi Channel.

The change also strikes me as another in the trend of cable branding changes that has made most of the cable programming landscape into a mushy mess of watered down network identities in the free-for-all of attracting viewers. Rather than stick with what is perhaps a smaller but also a more loyal core of viewers, channels have made changes (not always involving the name of the network) that have represented abandonments of the network's original identity. ("Ice Road Truckers" on History Channel, anyone? How about truTV? Don't get me started on TV Land.) In many respects, what was once a terrain of well-established and well-defined niches for cable networks has become a muddled and increasingly desperate grasping for elusive large-scale audiences. Sci Fi Channel's rebranding as Syfy is merely the latest example of this.


A Hard Days Lego

Here's a great confluence of the cult popularity of Legos, popular music, and the Web: Lego versions of Beatles album covers. Flickr has a whole pool of photos that are Lego versions of different (and not just Beatles) album covers. Things like this make me wonder what we all wasted time on before the Web. They also fill me with wonder regarding the depth of awareness and knowledge regarding certain pop culture phenomena (such as Legos and Beatles album covers).


Does DVR Viewing = Less Urgent Viewing?

An interesting blog post by Wayne Friedman on MediaPost's TV Watch blog asks whether DVR viewing of a TV show means that a show is less urgent, by implication less important, and thus its advertising less potent, to viewers who choose to watch programs in this fashion. Friedman seems to think that the answer to these interrelated questions is yes, but I would argue that he misunderstands how DVR owners utilize their machines and how TV viewing is evolving for those viewers that have DVRs.

Of course, Friedman writes for an audience of industry insiders intimately involved in network programming strategies and/or TV advertising sales and strategy, people for whom the most important factor is how fully and effectively television ads are delivered to viewers. There's no question that DVR viewing waters down this effectiveness--which is one of the reasons why DVR viewing is becoming such an attractive option for millions of viewers.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I have a feeling that it is similar to many people who regularly view TV from shows recorded on a DVR. Viewing shows on a DVR alters the ways that you think about watching TV. And many of these ways--at least for me--have to do with avoiding or minimizing exposure to ads.

There are several viewing strategies for ad avoidance. One is to pause the DVR's live feed on a channel, leave the room to do something else for a short time, then resume viewing of the program and fast-forwarding through the commercial breaks. Another is to set a program to record on the DVR and to start watching the program 15 or 20 minutes after it has started; this also allows fast-forwarding through the commercial breaks. Recorded shows can likewise be viewed (and ads fast-forwarded through) later on after the actual broadcast has finished--anywhere from later the same evening to later in the week (or beyond).

These strategies are not news for anyone that has and uses a DVR. They are not even that different from the time-shifting methods used by viewers who used to (or still do) record TV shows on a VCR. This kind of time-shifting has two compelling benefits: avoiding commercials and compressing the amount of time it takes to watch a program. Despite the fact that--from the perspective of networks and advertisers--television programs have always been merely something to fill the time between commercial breaks, viewers would (in most cases) rather avoid ads whenever and however possible. Avoiding the commercial breaks also allows an hour-long show to be viewed in a little over 45 minutes, meaning that an evening's worth (three hours) of programming can be watched in a little over two hours--a benefit not to be underestimated in our overscheduled and time-scarce society.

Which brings me back to the question of whether or not DVR viewing equals less urgent viewing. Of course, strictly speaking, there is no doubt that this is true. Watching a program at a later time (say, the next day) when it could have been watched at the moment it was airing by definition makes that viewing less urgent. I would, however, challenge the idea that less urgency in viewing a program signals a lesser commitment to it. The fact that I often watch "30 Rock" on Friday evening, or even not until sometime over the weekend, instead of during its actual airing on Thursday evening, does not mean that I have less of a commitment to it. It simply means that because I record it on my DVR I don't feel any urgency to watch it immediately. I know I'll get to it within a day or two, and doing so does not reduce my commitment to or interest in the program.

Networks and advertisers (and the support functions for television, such as ratings services) are still adjusting to this new world of viewing options and possibilities. The fact that Friedman in his blog post seems to misunderstand the viewing habits and priorities of DVR users indicates that they may still have a lot more adjustments in store.


The MediaLog MediaFix: "The Jack Paar Program" (1963)

Today's MediaFix is a 1963 monologue by the great television humorist Jack Paar, who occupied the host's chair of "The Tonight Show" after Steve Allen and before Johnny Carson, from 1957 to 1962. Paar was unlike the other "Tonight Show" hosts in that he relied less on the kind of (sometimes wacky) sketch comedy and topical monologues of Allen, Carson, and Jay Leno, and more on a sort of gentle conversational humor that may have topical elements but was ultimately more interested in poking at broader human foibles.

That humor perspective is in full flower in this monologue, which is not from "The Tonight Show" but from Paar's subsequent prime-time talk-variety show that aired on NBC from 1962 to 1965 (and was very similar to Paar's "Tonight Show"). It demonstrates how Paar combined light topicality with good-humored prodding at the privileged class. Madame Nhu, first lady of Vietnam, movie producer Sam Spiegel, and Jackie Kennedy's sister "Princess" Radziwill are all broadly topical figures that would have been known to contemporary early-1960s audiences. Paar's jesting at their expense, though, is not caustic or sharp in the ways of Carson and Leno, but rather pokes fun at such things as Spiegel's yacht and Radziwill's royal pretensions. Even with this gentler approach Paar (with help from his writers) also demonstrates a savvy comedic sense, weaving throughout the monologue ribbing of Spiegel and the theme of items from society columns.


Mystery White House Theater 2009

For the past few days, the MediaLog has been following an interesting new development in liveblogging and political coverage. Ana Marie Cox, formerly of the political blogs Wonkette and Time magazine's Swampland, and now a columnist for The Daily Beast and a commentator for Air America radio and for MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, has been liveblogging White House daily press briefings using a platform called CoverItLive. Cox (or AMC, as she's known to fans) is joined by one or two other liveblogging companions and moderates live comments, all as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs gives his daily briefing to the White House press corps. (Here are the links to AMC's blog posts that include the press briefing liveblogs from Monday, Feb. 2; Tuesday, Feb. 3, and today, Weds. Feb. 4.)

The result is fascinating for a couple of reasons. The first, alluded to in the title to this post, is how this kind of liveblogging represents another extension of the kind of commentary that used to appear on the TV show "Mystery Science Theater 3000." That show featured snarky, ironic comments to schlocky old sci-fi movies, and it launched a whole new way of approaching all kinds of cultural events. Liveblogging in general is in its essence the MST3K modus operandi adapted to a variety of settings. Liveblogs of everything from last weekend's Super Bowl to awards shows such as the Emmys and Oscars are now commonplace, and most use the same technique that the robots used on MST3K: offering a running, often sarcastic and/or ironic, commentary as an aside to a media event while that event is unfolding.

Cox's liveblogs of White House press briefings extends this kind of commentary into a whole new realm. They are, to my knowledge, the first such commentaries applied to politics or public affairs. Although you might think that MST3K-style snark and irony would have no place in a presidential press briefing, you'd be wrong. AMC's stock in trade is precisely this brand of ironic meta-reporting that attempts to deflate the pretensions of the political establishment, and she brings it to these liveblogs just as she does to everything else she writes or says. Interestingly, Cox and her fellow commentators skewer the media correspondents just as much as (perhaps more than) they do press secretary Gibbs. ABC's Jake Tapper and especially NBC's Chuck Todd are the butts of much of the snark--even legendary (and quite elderly) White House correspondent Helen Thomas is not immune to the sometimes borderline cruel remarks. To read one of these liveblogs is to enjoy a form of civic discourse the likes of which we have not seen (at least not much) heretofore.

Another reason that these liveblogs are fascinating is that I expect that they offer a new kind of insight into the workings of the White House press. Although for most of the briefings so far, Cox has simply watched the proceedings on TV while liveblogging them, for today's installment she was actually in the White House Briefing Room. This added a new level of intimacy to the snarking, in such a fashion that I imagined that it consisted of the kinds of things that the back bench press correspondents have probably been saying to each other for years, only now the comments are published for anyone to see. Few if any of the comments have to do with the substance of the presidential press briefing. Instead, AMC and friends remark upon the daily tie selections for Gibbs and the higher-profile correspondents; obsess about Chuck Todd's facial hair; and fixate upon repeated words and phrases in Gibbs' briefings (such as "jobs" and "get ahead of"). You also get a real sense of the pecking order of the correspondents in the White House press, as Cox et al attempt to deflate the pompousness of these figures at least as much as they do to Gibbs himself (indeed, so far Cox and co. seem to have a certain level of pity for the greenhorn presidential flack).

If it weren't so interesting in terms of form and style, liveblogging a presidential press briefing using sarcasm and irony might end up seeming disturbing. For now, the simple novelty of treating a White House briefing like a bad sci-fi movie makes up for any reservations one might have in such an endeavor.