Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dylan in Chicago 10-29

The Bad:

Chicago road construction made me miss Amos Lee and Elvis Costello, the opening acts. This article appeared a day too late to alert me: http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=680091

I had to pay $26 for parking.

The Good:

The 4,000 seat Chicago Venue was the oddest place I've ever seen a concert. Nice intimate theatre setting. The ushers didn't even know where the seats were. First concert I've ever been to where I didn't come home smelling like smoke (of any kind).

Dylan's set list. If Dylan had died in his motorcycle crash in '66, he would have been regarded as nearly the legend that he is today, based on his catalogue at that point. So last night, of the first 10 songs he did, all were post '66. He ended up doing exactly two from '66 or before- "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Like a Rolling Stone." He did zero songs from "Blonde on Blonde" and "Bringing It All Back Home," and he did two from 1990's somewhat obscure "Under the Red Sky." This might annoy some people; I thought it was great.

Dylan's band has a nice "Western Apocalyptic" feel to it (my term). Some eerie, spooky songs included "Ain't Talkin'" and "Cry Awhile." "All Along the Watchtower" fits this category as well. But most of all, "Highway 61 Revisited" was transformed entirely from a light blues-based romp to a harbinger of the end of the world. Hey, if the rather meaningless term "thin, wild mercury sound" can catch on, there is no reason why the "Western Apocalyptic" term can't be assigned to Dylan's current live shows.

Amos and Elvis getting to duet with Dylan on "I Shall Be Released."

Despite this being my 11th Dylan show, there were still four songs that I'd never seen him do before.

The Rest:
The couple behind us came specifically to see Amos Lee. That's something you wouldn't expect.

It would have been oddly easy to sneak into the venue. We almost did so without trying.

Dylan was a little more animated than he usually is for band introductions, the only time he ever speaks to the audience. He identified Stu Kimball, a guitarist, as the drummer, and drummer George Recile as a guitarist. Then he said "Oh man, I don't know why I said that," and re-introduced them. Then he chided an audience member for having his cell phone camera on all night.

Hopefully he swings through Wisconsin next year. I haven't seen him in Wisconsin since 2001. And I'm guessing that I wouldn't have to pay $26 to park.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ideas for Hollywood

With the increasing likelihood of a writer's strike, Hollywood is stockpiling scripts this month. While that might be advisable for film companies, I don't think this is the right approach for television. The emergence of reality television several years ago indicated a trend. Unfortunately, most people misinterpreted the trend. The broad assumption was that people were interested in voyeuristically enjoying back-biting conflict among "regular" people thrown into odd situations. Thus, we got a proliferation of such shows, which continue to this day. However, the leveling off of these programs indicates that though there is a sizable cohort of viewers attracted to this concept, the initial burst of interest should have been attributed to something else, something simpler. What intrigued people about early reality TV was simply novelty.

In the first ten to twenty years that television existed, things changed and turned over rapidly. TV in 1951 was nothing like TV in 1971. Also during that era, despite, by today's standards, a dearth of networks, there was a tremendous variety in programming, in both genre and presentation. The word "niche" was absent from the vocabulary of programmers.

And then, ironically, demographic research and niche marketing stagnated the whole medium. In the twenty or so years that I was an active television viewer (a period which I would claim ended about four years ago), very little changed, other than the names of the programs themselves. There has been a bit of a decrease in sitcoms, but the types of sitcoms followed one of two patterns: a nontraditional family struggling to get along, or a group of friends struggling to get a long. The number of dramas remained constant, with the settings (generally police stations, hospitals, law firms, and suburban residential streets) staying the same. The networks all have the same basic newsmagazine, which exists under about eight names. Other than sports broadcasts, this basically encompasses network television programming for an entire generation.

No wonder reality television became the phenomenon that it did. It broke the stagnant mold which had bred familiarity and contempt. Unfortunately, it became such a golden goose that the studios couldn't help but strangle it. Rather than look for even more novel concepts, they beat the novelty out of that one.

But now Hollywood gets a second chance. They are being handed an opportunity on a silver platter. I understand the arguments against innovation. A failed television concept means loss of money and loss of jobs. So what to do? How about a reality show where contestants try to come up with ideas for novel television programming?

If I were a contestant on said show, here would be some of my ideas:
1) A version of "The View" stripped of feminine connotations (not because women viewership should be discouraged, but because niche programming should be discouraged). Millions of people listen to other people having random conversations every morning on FM radio; it's not a stretch to think they would watch it on TV, especially before bed.
2) Riffing on this, shows built around conversations between known individuals. Would you watch a fifteen minute conversation between Bill Clinton and Stevie Wonder? Between Sandra Day O'Connor and Vince McMahon? Who wouldn't?
3) Documentaries that borrow from the History Channel, but incorporate Hollywood sensationalism. You could do hours on Wikipedia's List of Unusual Deaths alone.
4) This is the teacher in me coming out, but in the 19th Century lecturers used to be a source of entertainment. They used to flock in droves to see Emerson speak. If Emerson were alive today, would we put him on TV? What if our Emerson is alive? Shouldn't we put her or him on TV?
5) A continuous scrolling of public domain texts. The Hollywood writers can go on strike, but Shakespeare belongs to the ages.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Future Mundanity

Growing up, I wondered what it must have been like to live through a period of revolutionary technological development. I wondered how it affected people to transition from the horse to the automobile. How did people make sense of the telephone, or radio, or television? How did they reconcile these things with their prior experiences? I always had a vague notion that no one who lived through such changes could ever be truly be comfortable with the new reality. Since I literally could not conceive of life without television, it seemed to me that anyone who existed both prior to and after television had the misfortune of having lived in two distinct eras, and therefore was subject to some kind of undefined psychological maladjustment. I wish I would have gotten around to reading Toffler's Future Shock, since it deals with the same general idea, the notion that technology outpaces our ability to assimilate with it (I picked up a copy once, but still haven't read it).

However, I'm now more open to the idea that assimilation can be painless. This is partially due to my own experiences living through what I would identify as genuine technological revolutions. The World Wide Web and the cellphone are the two most impactful inventions of my life. To get a sense of how impactful these are, watch a televison program or movie or read a fiction book produced prior to the last ten years. Chances are the plot, if written today, would have to be altered to take into account the existence of the Internet or cell phones. Yet despite this, I find it remarkable how little difficulty the populace has had assimilating to the new modalities. Of course you have people who are resistant to these technologies, but such people are regarded as a curiosity by the mainstream, even objects of light reproach. For the most part, those of us who grew up with the encyclopedia as our oracle have seemlessly substituted google.com.

Perhaps part of what make our transition so painless is that for all the innovation behind our modern inventions, they are still updates of existing technology. The Internet is still largely text-based, and text goes back millenia. Cell phones are updated phones. In fact, my grandpa predicted cell phones years ago. He maintained that one day everyone would have their own phone that they would take with them wherever they went.

Therefore, as a way to guard against "future shock," it might be worthwile to predict today what the revolutions of tomorrow wil be. Based on the idea that future innovations will be based upon existing technologies I've managed to reason out three predictions:

1) All entertainment will be on-demand. This seems the most obvious, and the most likely to occur in the near future. Certain things like sporting events will remain communal events, but the time-shifting of television shows has already begun. No longer will TV networks have set schedules; they'll be a menu of shows. Blockbuster will be out of business, as movies will all be downloaded and viewed on-demand. The CD will be obsolete, as people will subscribe to a music service which will give them access to the songs they want, when and where they want them.

2) The Library of Alexandria will finally exist, and it will be accessible and searchable. This is one that I hope to live to see. The original Library of Alexandria was an attempt by ancient Egyptians to collect all the knowledge of the world, in the form of every mansucript they could acquire. Now, I believe it is within our grasp to digitally encode every book published, along with the capability to preserve every piece of film or audio ever produced. The hang-up is probably not technology, but law. But can you imagine how great it would be to do a google search of audio phrases, and get hits that include 1980s sitcoms, that you could then view on-demand? O.K., maybe not the best example of the benefits of this technology, but I'm sure the implications are obvious.

3) A new transportation system. We are coming to the end of the natural life of the current Interstate system. The new reality will be automated, environmentally-friendly vehicles. You get in your "car," and simply enter in a destination. The vehicle will then transport you, perhaps on some kind of magnetic track.

My hope is that whatever changes occur, blogger.com will be around so that future generations can use their new and improved search engines to find that I predicted these things way back in 2007.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Mr. Snufflupagus vs. The Trix Rabbit

From Wikipedia:

The phrase "Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!" has appeared in numerous pop-culture references, including those made by musicians Sonic Youth, Kix, Public Enemy, Fresh Prince, and the Insane Clown Posse, as well as television and film productions such as The Simpsons, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Golden Girls, Kill Bill Volume 1, Robot Chicken and Family Guy.

Meanwhile, Sesame Street character Mr. Snufflupagus has apparently been referenced in season 3 of One Tree Hill and season 1 of Friends.

My suspicion is that we have not seen the last pop culture reference to the Trix Rabbit, but that we have seen the last reference to Snuffy. Snuffy, from my understanding, still shows up regularly on Sesame Street, but only in the way that Vanna White still shows up on Wheel of Fortune. Both phenomenons of the 1980s, they are now squarely under the radar.

The common thread between Snuffy and the Trix Rabbit is that both are fictional anthropomorphic representations of an eternal misunderstanding between adults and children. Adults, for whatever reason, think that children like to be teased. Children don't really understand the concept of teasing. For years, my parents enjoyed telling me about the occasion when I was a toddler and my dad grabbed my nose and exclaimed "I've got your nose." I apparently registered little reaction, but surprised them about an hour later when I wouldn't let my dad leave, demanding my nose back first.

The grand irony behind the slogan "Silly Rabbit, Tricks are For Kids," is that adults are imposing this idea on kids. In actuality, most kids have historically felt sorry for the Trix Rabbit, and would have been happy to share their Trix with such a tortured creature. There is even empirical evidence that this is true: on a couple of occasions kids have voted to allow the Rabbit a bowl of Trix. I remember, though, even feeling cheated by the commercial in which he is afforded his one bowl, as he is mocked and told that he can't have any more.

This is the same frustration that I felt on many occasions while watching my favorite childhood show, Sesame Street. Actually, "frustration" might not be the right word. I was infuriated that the grown-ups thought that Big Bird's friend Snuffy was imaginary. The writers were downright sadistic in their taunting, too. It would always appear that Snuffy was on the cusp on being sighted. As a child, I hadn't yet developed the ability to discern a pattern in this portrayal; I was honestly expectant on each occasion, only to be dashed down.

Finally, in late1985, the show reversed course. Apparently afraid that victims of sexual abuse would be afraid to speak up for fear that adults wouldn't believe them, the writers and producers allowed Snuffy to be revealed to the grown-ups of Sesame Street. I have no recollection of that November 18 episode, but I do remember seeing him interact with other characters after that date and feeling eminently satisfied. Snuffy will always be one of the characters that first comes to mind when I think back upon my favorite childhood show.

And I'm sure that will also be the case for future generations, as evidenced by the famous tickle-me Snuffy doll...er, maybe not. Snuffy has lost has raison d'etre, and with that any chance at existing in popular culture. The Trix Rabbit, free from any greater social responsibility, beholden only to crass commercial interests, lives on.

I suspect that as children age, and the frustrations of childhood transmute into the frustrations of adolescence, and then finally the frustrations of adulthood, the childhood traumas take on a nostalgic gilding, and they convince themselves that they always got a kick out of the rabbit's failures. The revulsion they felt is now sublimated, and when they go grocery shopping for a breakfast cereal, they are drawn to a certain purchase by a spark of recognition, now unaware of what it is that they are actually recognizing.