Friday, August 11, 2006

I Heart Sophie Muller

Sophie Muller is a genius. That was always the case but it seems another chunk of the population is realizing it. Right now, she is everywhere. The Beyonce Déjà Vu video is hers; the most sophisticated and stylized (and awesome) country music video of all time--excepting Johnny Cash’s Hurt--Like We Never Loved At All (Faith Hill) is also hers. She will soon put out Stealing Kisses (also by Faith Hill), which given the song itself, shall prove to be another genius video for her. She did the Dixie Chicks’s Not Ready To Make Nice. Beyonce’s going to work with her again, of course, in Ring The Alarm—cause Beyonce knows a good thing. Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie is hers as well.

Remember that fantastic Maroon 5 video, for She Will Be Loved with Kelly kick ass Preston? It was hers. So was their first video, This Love. Gwen Stefani’s been onto her for a while, with Underneath It All and Luxurious and No Doubt stuff like Don’t Speak. So has Nelly Furtado. Garbage, Annie Lennox and Eurhythmics and Sade and other UK acts were onto her long ago, of course. She’s done KT Tunstall’s Black Horse video too. My secret wish is that she will do KT’s Other Side of The World video, should that be a single—which it should.

She’s got that feminine intuitive intelligence (that men can have too, it’s not biology!), that aesthetic that can actually thrive while serving the medium of the music video and not the ego of the director (ahem, Hype Williams). Each video’s its own world, own little movie, moment, and emotion: each one’s its own visual interpretation of a song. And her style, though vastly ranging and super resourceful and creative, is consistently sophisticated and personal and sharp. Very sharp.

In mass culture, both originality and distinction are very hard to pull off I think. The culture seems set up precisely so that you can be superiorly good and still be just doing variations on the themes of the moment--you could just be brilliant at reverberating a same general tone as everyone else. Everyones bitches about lack of originality but when everything is so deeply submerged into a massively distributed aesthetic, a sort of coordinated "sense" of the times, to actually do something crisp and new and brilliant is very hard. The people who can do it have something beyond just being very talented. I have a video director crush on her. She’s on my list of idols now. I wish I could Netflix all her videos and have a Sophie Muller festival.

PS: And you know what else she did? The priceless, pitch-perfect, make your day better These Words video with the little radios that dance (Natasha Bedingfield)!!!

Friday, August 04, 2006

My Tube

I hate people who bad mouth television. Hating on television is analogous to collapsing into one story the highly sophisticated life of a courtesan back in the day with that of a Hunts Point-America Undercover-Bikini-wearing-in-the-snow hoe: you can say in principle a whore is a whore, but people, we can all recognize that there is a continuum of quality there. The same goes for TV. Although all over the world television if plagued by the most idiotic, base, mindless junk programming, that negative extreme of the continuum does not, in fact, define the medium. The medium itself is great.

Most of all because it is democratic. In an ideal world, the entire TV landscape would be done in the image of PBS, but that ship has sailed. Yet and still, when quality programming does go on the air, everyone with cable can get it, right? And not everyone, as we know, has to even pay for cable, because people have ways… Every time I am watching genius TV, whether it be Colbert or HBO's Real Sports, I realize this was offered to everyone, potentially. And there is a sophistication there, and there is an access to a cultural capital there, there is education there and doors are opening there. I am thinking about Sharkweek on Discovery, that I watched with my son this week, and well, that was a super fun, free of charge, no travel necessary education-camp we had in the evenings. This week we also watched Mostly Mozart on 13, because I wanted him to realize that people play that shit from memory sometimes. Same channel has allowed him to see Wynton do his jazz classes for kids—particularly the Nutcracker one. The first time he saw it he was too little; we’re going to try it again. In theory, any kid anywhere in the city, could also watch.

Obviously this is a pro-television position. It is not meant to disregard the many ills of corporate conglomerate consolidated junk media, which is, in the end, the bulk of what television is, unfortunately. That is the snow hoe TV that leads many a serious parent to forfeit television altogether for the little one. I’ve gotten criticism for not doing that: I think the criticism is classist, personally. Because maybe if I had the money, so that I could have the time, to cultivate and entertain my child with a perfect concoction of exciting outdoors and literary activities, various arts classes, a compelling array of teachers and mentors and what not, I too would forego TV. Like Madonna. But I am not Madonna. I am a single mother and if Elmo were not a puppet, I would leave Elmo something in my will, in never-ending gratitude for his profound contributions (along with the rest of the Sesame Street gang, along with the producers of Noggin’) to my child’s healthy development from ages 2 to 3 (he wasn’t allowed to watch before he was 2 because I do have common sense).

Sometimes I do wonder, because there is so much that people want to say about it, whether it is okay that my son and I watch and talk TV. We don’t do it at the detriment of books and other things, but we do it. He is a fan of Power Rangers and we often watch Power Rangers. We also do our own invented “Episodes” of Power Rangers as play, with the toys. We argue about which spin off is best, we discuss plot twists. We reminisce about particular episodes. When he is a better reader, and loves a book, we’ll have the same exact exchange about his favorite book (let’s hope it’s Harry) that we will have had for years now about TV shows and movies—is that a bad thing? It’s not. It’s good to have a sense of narrative, to watch this watered down version of social interactions between good guys and bad guys, to watch people have “dilemmas” (whether or not one can be a true leader and take on the Red Ranger suit; whether or not one should return the $100 dollar bill one found in the Recess playground), to understand the arch of a story. Even sophisticated stuff: the other day we had a discussion about the difference between gore and suspense, though not in those exact words. It was about how come he can watch very gory (I find them disgusting personally) monster movies on TV (Blade, Alien v. Predator) and love them, but any Spielberg suspense movie devastates him with fear (Jurassic, War of the Worlds, Jaws). I was able to explain the difference between what makes kids scared and how kids get scared, versus the more sophisticated idea of suspense. I probably finally got close to having him understand the actual meaning of “grown up stuff” and understand why he should stay away from it. Why, in fact, it was not a random rule to ruin his life, but truly in his best interest. All this progress, all this pedagogy and what not, came for free, by accident, while I got dinner ready and ran around and he did his thing watching TV. I like anything that can help me out and won’t cost me half my paycheck.

There is one thing about TV that I thought was without recourse, and that is reality TV. When it started I thought it was so profoundly low quality, that it would catch on, blow up and of course, die down. I watched with profound despair when instead it just became what is now a staple of TV. The shitty gift that keeps on giving: reality TV is like the furry animal that gets wet and turns into a million Gremlins. From The Real World, we went to the general paradigm of the reality show of cohabitation, now spun into a million modifications according to channel and demographic: cohabitate half naked, cohabitate to compete for money, cohabitate to win Flava Flav’s heart, and so forth. From Survivor, we went to a general paradigm of the reality show of competition. This one subdivided further when Idol hit, and we have the throwback return of the talent show, reality TV style (that means there’s audience cell phone voting, a British guy, and a pop star who is much beloved but much in need of a comeback; I must say, I take offense to the suggestion that Brandy needed to do what she is doing because she is truly dope, but it’s cool). I couldn’t begin to list all the ways reality TV is complete and utter trash: I found it particularly fucking stupid. Without any redeeming potential whatsoever. And most egregious of all, in a medium like TV that does excellent reality—as in documentary, to have reality come to mean manipulation was particularly annoying to me. Whatever happened, I thought, this “trend” and “type” of programming would never do anything but suck. And then, the smart channels decided to try it. Hence the advent of good reality TV, proof positive that TV, as a medium, is genius. Why? Because it can even elevate what is seems essentially un-elevationable. (That's not just true of TV, it's true of pop culture, I guess by default).

Behold what happens when concept channels that are very smart like Bravo and VH1 do reality. It’s brilliant. If anybody at Bravo was researching, they noticed that Food Network was a brilliant channel, “already ” doing premier reality TV in the form of the “celebrity chef” oriented cooking show. All they needed to do is conceptually elevate the concept to a Bravo-like quality (they are, after all, home of Lipton’s Actors Studio--be still my beating heart!), throw in the two basic staples of reality: cohabitation and competition. Voila Top Chef. Brilliant television. They also do a high-minded answer to Tyra’s Top Model: Project is clearly smarter, chicer, and hipper and fully aware of the fact that fashion is not about models—that is does not air on UPN is not an accident. (I’m not hating on UPN, they did Girlfriends!, and I watched UPN do its makeover and merge and change its name, and that shit was brilliant too). It’s sort of sweetly coherent for a TV watcher to be able to invent these narratives: so Bravo is the smart woman’s reality TV now, and if I had to say what it does, I would say it does lifestyle-lifecraft-oriented programming: gay makeover guys, tabloid journalists, fashion designers, chefs, and latest addition, workout gurus. Watching reality TV about people’s work and lives just has more soul, and soul is just more real than fake tans.

VH1 is a shining example of what one can accomplish when one loves and accepts one’s true self as a lifelong TVer. I say this because VH1 is truly like a person—me. And people like me. VH1 is my age and has my viewing habits and shares my frustration with music channels that do not show music and made the transition from MTV to grown up VH1 seamless and beautiful for me and my kind. And when they did reality—which they, like I, think is bullshit—they did it laughing, hence Celebreality. Because a) why would you watch other REGULAR people like yourself when you could watch train wrecks? and b) because if reality is the number two obsession that must be laughed out of the culture, celebrity is number one. The channel would be masterful with only Celebreality but when you add the I Love The... shows, Best Week Ever and now the World Series of Pop Culture, well that shit is a checkmate in mass pop culture demographic specific television programming. Even the so-called junk can be aged to higher quality, you see?

I recently thought MTV’s quality was awful—I was confused as to where the brilliance of that channel had gone, then I realized I just was older. Ha! I know it is still a shitty channel, because it could be programming better for its very young demographic anyway, and instead it programs worse (with obvious exceptions like the awards shows, Making the Video and the occasional News special). My being older though, makes my opinion irrelevant, and that too, I think is what's great and necessarily democratic about TV. Someone could say oh but it’s not kids programming for kids, it’s grown-ups programming junk for kids. It's top down. Ok, so grown-ups at MTV think that the kids are stupid, having sex, and all ADD? So do other grown-ups, like politicians. At least the people behind Pimp My Ride bring some decadent pleasure to the teen and teen masses, not mandatory academic dumbass testing, abstinence education and Ritalin… Still, I have discovered on MTV a reality show to rank high with the greats, a reality show that truly belongs on Bravo—Run’s House. Run’s House is absolute happiness. Run’s House is better than the Cosby show because it is “real.” That coming from me is very strange but having watched it, I have to stand by that. I can't say enough about Run's House. It’s a family reality show about love and laughter and how a family is filthy rich with both (and also filthy rich period, but you don’t even care, because you believe the substance of their happiness and good humor is not their money; I think to air that perspective on US televisionin 2006, on MTV no less, is Rev-olutionary).

My absolute favorite channel and the reason for most of my high opinion of TV, as displayed here, exists, is of course, HBO. (Please see side bar of this page, under Dream Job). I can quickly say that though recently it has faltered slightly (no more Carnivale? what is up with the slouch Sopranos mini-season that just ended? Rome needs some writers! too much air in Entourage!), we all would rather watch HBO fall short than watch most channels try for excellence… And yet, in the HBO-fication of its peers, we witness the rise of Showtime. No, not the gay shows—those truly are wack to me, but Weeds and Huff. I want to believe those shows were developed with HBO on the brain and HBO passed on them, because I believe that HBO’s advent made it possible for a kind of concept to be recast as television material that would otherwise not exist: material that is too good, too slow and too long for movies OR regular TV. Anyway, I heard Showtime cancelled Huff I think. If they did it’s a crime. That’s all I’ll say about it.

Although it is hard for me to not go into the real-time American Myth re-building televised theatrical brilliance that is Deadwood, I don’t think an entry about TV generally is where my love letter to HBO original programming belongs, because, let’s face, It’s not TV.