Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My True Story Email Chance at Super Stardom

Hi Ethan-

I hope this note finds you well. My name is Ariel ______ and I am a Talent Producer on the NBC television show The Voice. I came across your youtube channel and was hoping to chat with you about auditioning for us if it's something that interests you? We will be having invite only industry auditions (these are not open calls) in various cities over the next few months.  I would love to discuss the opportunity and process with you further, my contact details are below. 

*If you'd like to verify the legitimacy of this e-mail please feel free to visit and follow the steps to contact the casting team. 

Hope to hear from you soon!


Ariel ______
Talent Producer | The Voice

*The Voice does not permit companies or individuals to charge or take money from any potential auditioners, misrepresent yourself or organization as an employee or affiliate of The Voice, advertise, use The Voice logo or hold auditions without approval of The Voice.  Thank you.*

Hi Ariel,

This is something that interests me tremendously! However, I am not the Ethan Thompson you are looking for. I am Ethan Thompson the guy who is a professor of media studies, not Ethan Thompson the guy who sings. 

Actually, I do a mean karaoke version of No Sleep Till Brooklyn, but I doubt that will get me far on The Voice. I will say, though, that I have seen a terrible rap video by Ethan Thompson the guy who sings, and I think my skills trump his, so if he makes it on The Voice, I will happily appear to battle him.

Unfortunately, Ethan Thompson the guy who sings does not do a good job of proofreading how he writes his email address, and he did indeed put MY address in one of his videos. I am not sure what his correct address is. 

Believe it or not, I actually teach classes in television studies and I have a new book called How to Watch Television. My students and social media peeps have enjoyed this episode tremendously, as have my wife and kids, who are all big fans of The Voice. 

If you really need an Ethan Thompson, I'll be glad to try out. But I think you probably want the other guy... I also have an 8 year old aspiring pop star who would love a shot, so keep us in mind.

Dr. Ethan Thompson
Associate Professor
Dept. of Communication & Media
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Hi Ethan,

Such a great e-mail from you! I do apologize for the error but we are thankful for the support of your family, friends, and students!  If we're still on the air by the time your daughter is 15, feel free to get in touch ;-)

All the best,

Monday, December 09, 2013

Room 237 and Fair Use

While iced in this past weekend in the DFW area, I watched the documentary film Room 237, which is about several different theories about what Kubrick's The Shining is "really" about. As a whole, the film is a testament to Kubrick's artistic aura and the auteur theory. The readings all are grounded in the notion that every single thing we see (or don't see) was a conscious manipulation on the part of Kubrick to convey something deeper than the surface horror story.

I was disappointed that I never got to see any of the faces of the people spinning these yarns. However, I was immediately taken by the film's visual approach, which is overwhelmingly to use clips not just from the Shining, but other Kubrick films, and other films with Jack Nicholson, in conjunction with audio from the interviews.

I was happy to find out that (according to my cursory research) all these clips were claimed (rightfully) as Fair Use. Not surprising, given how astoundingly expensive it would otherwise be to license the material--much as it would have been to license the Beatles and Jay-Z samples for Dangermouse's Grey Album. Considering how much promotion Room 237 got, and how easily available it is on Netflix, this seems to bode well. Here's an article from last September, prior to the film's release.

If I find out they did end up paying licensing fees, I'll (sadly) post that.

Also, I'm still trying to make time to watch Los Angeles Plays Itself, a monumental Fair Use documentary consisting of Hollywood representations of LA that is on YouTube. (below)

Friday, December 06, 2013

How to watch SOML or other not very good TV

Last night I got into a little trouble for saying a TV show was bad, when I didn't say that all. I said it was not very good. Which was actually a compliment. I was talking about NBC's Sound of Music Live, which I was watching at my sister's house in Dallas with the rest of the family, after an eight hour drive which ended in freezing rain. Here's what I tweeted:

I support liveness therefore I support #TheSoundofMusicLive. Plus, TV is not supposed to be very good.

This statement was in reaction to a flurry of tweets from others about what was bad about the show. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with any of those. My point was that this was the kind of TV event that wasn't about quality and whether, say, Carrie Underwood can act. It was about watching something as it happened, and allowing for multiple pleasures for the audience simultaneously assembled. For me, it was reveling in a what seemed a desperate and nostalgic gesture of pure TV on a number of levels. 

A country singer/star and American Idol winner at the center of what is most famous as a film musical but seen by most people on TV, with Anna Paquin's vampire husband as Baron Von Trapp? This wasn't just about mocking the performance. I was genuinely impressed by the live staging. Yes, it might have seemed less awkward with a studio audience, but I can't imagine how they could have done that with so many sets and camera setups. I haven't read anything about the making of it, but I'm sure there were many cameras and stages.

Anyway, the bigger point I was making was that TV isn't supposed to very good if you look at it too closely. Right now, this was "pure TV" (aside from the production end of things) in that it was best experienced live with others, in a state of semi-distraction. Better if those around you have something at stake in liking Carrie Underwood. This being America, liking the Sound of Music, or at least knowing it through osmosis, is a given. Go make a drink or a sandwich and don't push pause. Just listen. You know the story already, anyway. What's the point of making fun of it? 

Am I reading against the grain of my own ironic sensibility these days? Every now and then.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Beastie Boys and Fair Use

I can't believe I've never before read the judgment in the ad parody case of Annie Liebowitz vs. the Naked Gun. It took an ad satirizing the Beastie Boys song "Girls" to do it. But I'm going to make it required reading in my Advertising Criticism class, and use the current Beasties vs. Goldie Blox "case" as an example for thinking about copyright and parody in advertising.

Here's the offending commercial (assuming it hasn't been taken down from this "unofficial" post). Seems to me to be a very transformative use of "Girls" and that it does transform it via satire. Worth remembering "Girls" came out in 1986 and the Beastie Boys of that era had dicks on stage and girls in cages. They were not the "enlightened" Beasties of Free Tibet, etc. So while that song (and other stuff on Licensed to Ill) might read satirically now, wasn't then.

Here's a really good article about the debate, with links to court judgments in parody cases, from Andy Baio. Also links to coverage of the fight in Hollywood Reporter.

The best part is reading the Liebowitz finding. Looking at this image, isn't it clear that the world is a better place with such parodies, even in the service of advertising?

As the GoldieBlox vs. Beasties Boys thing plays out, I think it's interesting that GoldieBlox is essentially in danger of offending what I assume is the very audience it is courting: "Slumpies"--the socially liberal, urban minded professionals advertisers love, and that have in some cases fueled more progressive media representations because they're the people advertisers most want. But they also love the Beastie Boys. And you don't want to go against the wishes of the Beastie Boys, especially Adam Yauch.

12 Years a Slave, Time, Catharsis

Last week I saw 12 Years a Slave and I’ve been thinking about the film and my reactions to it since. I haven’t spent much time reading what has been written about it, aside from recognizing its high critical metascores (which got me in the theatre in the first place) and a blog or two encouraging me to see it in the theatre, lest I never get the nerve to watch it through on DVD or Netflix. One of the things that I have read about the film, and therefore expected, was the profound emotional impact it can have on viewers, of the knocking-the-wind-out-of you sort.

It didn’t do that to me. It was an emotionally powerful and aesthetically successful film, no doubt, and I don’t really have anything I would fault it for. It just didn’t devastate me the way it has others, and I wonder why that might be. Maybe it’s because I’ve been acquainted with the specificities of the depravities of slavery since my college years, from reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an undergrad to various texts in African-American Studies classes as a grad student. I also think—maybe—that people outside the south are caught off guard by the film in a way they hadn’t expected, and this I think is a central formal and thematic success of the film. What I mean is, it is one thing to acknowledge and assume as a given in a general moral sense the evil and wretchedness of slavery. It is another thing to be acquainted with the specificities of the everyday acts of human depravity that were part and parcel of slavery. By this I mean the tearing apart of families, rape, torture, murder—the things that 12 Years a Slave rightfully portrays as everyday occurrences. It is yet another thing entirely to recognize that you bear some moral responsibility for such acts as indirectly benefiting from them or looking away from them as not affecting you—whether in the historical past or the present. The film isn’t so much about the evils of slavery, as it is about how looking the other way from something one believes is wrong isn’t good enough.

That’s one way I think the film is especially interesting, serving as a sort of necessary, catharsis-free companion piece to Django Unchained (a film I liked and think might be Tarantino’s best). So here’s where I could go and read everything that has been written about 12 Years a Slave and not write what I think about it. But I won’t because this is blogging. In Django, you witness casual brutalities of the most grotesque sort. But there is comic catharsis (the KKK hilariously arguing about how they can’t see out the eyeholes of their hoods!) and violent catharsis, again and again, it being a Tarantino film. Which goes for the comic catharsis as well, I guess. These relieve feelings of rage, shame, disgust, etc.
In 12 Years a Slave, there is no violent revenge. You know all along he will get back to his family. The suspense lies in anticipating what the next humiliating or horrifying act he will witness or have inflicted upon him will be. That builds and builds until you are just hoping not-of-the-south-and-maybe-therefore-abolitionist Brad Pitt will follow through and get word to the right people who will get Solomon out. The intertitles tell you he lost his legal cases against the people responsible for his kidnapping. So no nonviolent revenge, either. No catharsis.

The formal style of 12 Years a Slave is not very presentational—none of the showy camera or editing work you’d expect from, say, Tarantino. But there is one scene when it is formally deliberate (and the one I’m sure others have and will write about! Probably will end up in a class or two as well!). About midway into the film Solomon fights with an abusive overseer/laborer played by Paul Dano, who quickly enlists his pals to lynch him, putting a noose around his neck and beginning to hoist him on a tree branch. They are stopped by a higher authority (the overseer’s overseer?) who assesses Solomon as property more valuable than Dano’s shame. So the lynching is stopped, but Solomon is left precariously almost hanging, balancing on his toes in the mud. This goes on for minutes (in a single wide shot) until other slaves starting coming out of hiding and go back to work. The sense of the events unfolding in real time, without editing compressing anything, really contributes to a sense of witness.
Another way in which the film effectively represents the pervasiveness of the everyday evils of slavery is Solomon happening upon the hanging of two slaves just after he has cut through some trees, presumably to attempt to run away. The sense that there is the threat of violent death (or at least violent abuse) at anytime, that it is just below the surface makes the thought of any respite, much less escape, improbable.

This is one of the ways I think the film interestingly plays with screen/story time. The title announces “12 years” but scenes like the two above provide intense representation of moments or incidents—there are no montages of time passing. Another scene (the one I expect to be in the Oscar clip) occurs at a funeral. Solomon stares at the grave while others sing, we watch his face as he slowly gives way to the emotion and joins in the singing—there is some catharsis there for him, maybe. Or maybe instead it is gathering determination to survive.

When Solomon is finally rescued, my sense was that a number of years had past since the previous scene when we had just seen him. But it didn’t really matter whether I was right or wrong. He has lost track of time, too, I believe mentioning at some point that he has been gone several years. When he is reunited with his family, the aging of his children and especially the birth of a grandchild finally indicates the real passage of time. This is when the weight of the arbitrariness of the boundaries that have done this sinks in, too. North/South, Free/Slave, Friend/Kidnapper, Black/White, Slave Owner/Tolerant of Slavery, Doing something/Not doing something. One passes into the other without knowing.

The final intertitles underscore a sense of the arbitrariness of power and justice, history and memory. Solomon is free, but they tell us he loses his court cases against those who kidnapped and sold him into slavery because he lacks the legal rights to testify against them. He writes his book and becomes a popular speaker in the abolitionist movement. Then no one knows what happens to him, how he died or when.

So no closure there, either.
Michael Williams is in 12 Years a Slave, but he doesn't get to do anything Omar-like.