It looks like Gavin Newsom’s Current TV interview with director Oliver Stone at 11 PM tomorrow about Stone’s new movie Savages is going to be a doozy. Stone, explaining both the movie’s plot and his opposition to the drug war starts out with the genesis of the film: “We have the best weed inthe world—I’m telling you that from my own experience for 40 years,” he tells California’s Lt. Governor. “We started on Vietnamese weed, Thai weed, Jamaican weed, Sudanese weed and it was all great stuff. But now, actually, because Americans are so technically-minded and mad chemists—they have really taken the Afghan seeds from the Afghan war—that’s the hypothesis of our movie—and brought them to California, rededicated themselves and made the finest seeds in the world, the finest grass you could smoke.” Current gave me an exclusive first look at the interview:
It is, of course, an illustration of the disparities of the drug war that a prominent white director can talk so extensively about his drug use without fear of prosecution. But I’m more intrigued by Savages, which apparently is about border violence and the rise of drug cartels as well as Blake Lively living in a threesome with two drug-dealing brothers, than I was before I saw this interview. The more the drug war and the militarized culture it enables loses cultural credibility, the happier I am.
I’m very fond of Mads Mikkelsen, the Danish actor who set a new standard for Bond villains in Casino Royale. So I was initially pleased to hear that he’d been cast as Hannibal Lecter in NBC’s drama adaptation of the classic serial killer story, a procedural that will follow Hannibal as he develops a productive working relationship with an FBI agent. But after watching The Following, I have some mixed feelings. I’m not normally a prude, but I wonder if this fall will be the season when network television steps over my personal line and starts depicting violence I find uncomfortable to the point of unwatchability.
It’s not as if network television isn’t quite violent, often in a way that’s desensitizing. Law & Order: Criminal Intent has always reveled in retelling baroque and frightening murders, while Special Victims Unit‘s churning out episode after episode of sex crimes. I love Bones, Fox’s procedural about forensic anthropologists, but the show tackles cases where things happen to people that are so dreadful that they turn from people into abstractions—they’re barely bodies anymore, but cuts of meat.
Even those shows, though, generally shy away from showing the commission of the gruesome violence they explore. If Bones is chasing a serial killer who dissects human bodies, we see the clean bones he leaves behind, not the dissecting process. The Law & Order franchise will show the moments leading up to a crime, but shies away from the actual commission, returning to the discovery of a body by civilians or its initial examinations by detectives. These shows may not always successfully grapple with victims as human, but they don’t aestheticize the acts that rob the humanity from our bodies.
Obviously the pilot may change before it gets on the air, but I found The Following, Fox’s midseason drama about an FBI agent and a serial killer, starring Kevin Bacon, jarring in its depiction of disturbing violence committed by individuals against individuals not as part of a conflict up close, and I say this as someone who watches Game of Thrones. But where in that show, violence is an organic part of the plot, in The Following, violence is the point and the plot.
And for the show to work, we need to at least respect the cleverness of the serial killer. In Hannibal, the serial killer in question will be half of a crime-solving partnership. Maybe this is the logical extension of our decade in the company of anti-heroes. But I’m not sure it’s a place I’m interested in going.
If you’re not at Netroots, never fear! My ThinkProgress colleagues and I are leading a series of conversations with the conference’s speakers and elected officials, which we kicked off with Amanda Marcotte this afternoon. The two of us discussed why liberals are dismissive of mainstream culture, whether Peggy Olson is actually one of Mad Men‘s main characters, and the awesome women of Game of Thrones:
The exceedingly NSFW (and I really do mean that) video for The Flaming Lips ‘The First Time’ has been making the rounds for a while now—for those who can’t watch, it features Erykah Badu, who sings on the track, naked in a bathtub with eye makeup that makes her look bruised, and her sister, coated in variou liquids, in shots that show her full frontal nudity:
It’s an unsettling set of images, but I considered them perhaps more closely than I might have otherwise given Badu’s prior willingness to use her body in her video art. Except it turns out she’s deeply uncomfortable with the video, and alleges that Wayne Coyne produced a video that doesn’t accord with the vision he laid out to her, and released it without getting her approval on either the images or the lyrics in a violation of her contract. In a long Facebook post, she writes:
You showed me a concept of beautiful tasteful imagery( by way of vid text messages). I trusted that. I was mistaken…You begged me to sit in a tub of that other shit and I said naw. I refused to sit in any liquid that was not water. But Out of RESPECT for you and the artist you ‘appear’ to be, I Didn’t wanna kill your concept , wanted u to at least get it out of your head . After all, u spent your dough on studio , trip to Dallas etc.. Sooo, I invited Nayrok , my lil sis and artist, who is much more liberal ,to be subject of those other disturbing (to me ) scenes . I told u from jump that I believed your concept to be disturbing. But would give your edit a chance. You then said u would take my shots ( in clear water/ fully covered parts -seemed harmless enough) and Nayrok’s part ( which I was not present for but saw the photos and a sample scene of cornstarch dripping ) and edit them together along with cosmic, green screen images ( which no one saw) then would show me the edit. Instead, U disrespected me by releasing pics and rough vid on the internet without my approval. (Contract breech )
Coyne’s response has not been precisely illuminating. In a series of posts, he initially tweeted an apology to Badu’s fans who might have been offended by it, saying “We are very sorry if it has offended some of Erykah Badu’s more Conservative audience! The video was intended for mature audiences and is NOT an Erykah Badu statement.. It is a Flaming Lips video!!!” The band as also acknowledged that the video was unapproved and unfinished. But since Badu herself voiced objections, he’s resorted to retweeting affirmations of his work like “Seriously?! http://bit.ly/LyY6gF Erykah Badu should be thankful to @theflaminglips & @waynecoyne for reminding people she’s still around,” rather than addressing Badu’s claims that he violated both his contract with her and her sense of trust.
Women in American entertainment often have to go along to get along, to accommodate just one more request from a director. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to maintain your sense that you own your body under those circumstances, and I’m speaking as a white woman, rather than as a woman of color, who are subject to a different set of demands and historical circumstances. As a person in business, if you make a contract, you should honor it. And as an artist working with another artist on material she finds difficult or uncomfortable, if you want to get a good, usable performance out of that person, it seems like respect should be your first-order operating principal. Hollywood often treats hiring actresses and purchasing limited rights to their bodies as the same thing. If Coyne did, in fact, give Badu the right to sign off on the video before he released it and failed to do so, someone needs to tell him to cut down on the self-congratulation and start thinking more carefully about the right he’s asserted to use black women’s bodies for his own self-aggrandizement.
I was on the train and cut off from internet access yesterday, social media blew up over a site that let people enter in how much they’d pay per month for stand-alone HBO GO. It was a recapitulation of a debate we’ve had here before, about however much people would like to have standalone HBO GO, it’s a move that would fundamentally blow up HBO’s business model, and that HBO can’t approach quickly or lightly given its current commitments to cable companies and the scope of the programing it’s invested in. But the experiment also demonstrated one of the core difficulties in this debate: the fact that the people who talk most about wanting options that would allow them to watch television differently are a vocal minority whose behavior differs from much of the rest of the country in ways they don’t always seem to recognize or acknowledge.
One of the things this experiment exposed is that subscribers aren’t willing to pay enough for stand-alone HBO GO to support HBO’s current programming investments. As Sarah Pavis pointed out at BuzzFeed, people who submitted their quotes to the site ended up producing an average price of $12, lower than many current HBO subscriptions. We’ve discussed this before, but the current HBO price is feasible both because it’s essentially a volume discount, and because the cable companies cover their administrative and customer service costs. What this experiment tells HBO is not that there’s a lot of money for grabs out there, but that if it blows up its business models and its relationships with the cable companies who could cut them off if they offered a stand-alone option, their replacement customers would want to pay less for service than the current ones do. It’s true that HBO wouldn’t be splitting those fees with distributors, but it would have to take on a whole new range of expenses, including administration and some promotion, in the absence of cable support.
And it’s not just that folks are mistaking their preferences for a profitable business model. Josef Adalian at Vulture highlighted this piece from the Economist from last summer, in which HBO estimated that while there are 77 million households that have committed to buying cable but aren’t subscribed to HBO, there are only 3 million households that have broadband but not cable, and that fall into HBO’s target income bracket. Far more subscribers are invested in cable’s basic model, but are yet to be convinced by HBO’s specific product than there are consumers who only want HBO on the condition that HBO move away from the model that’s allowed it to make gorgeous, intellectually rich programming.
In Business Insider today, an industry analyst points out another emerging trend that may have been analyzed out of proportion to its actual adoption: time-shifted viewing of television. 83 percent of television viewing, according to the piece, still happens in the time slot in which an episode airs.
Taken together, these two sets of information are a salient reminder that as frustrated as some people are with the current model of television distribution, and as much as some vocal subset of people are changing their habits, television as it stands is a model that an awful lot of people are happy with. That doesn’t mean that they’ll remain happy with it, or that their viewing and consumption habits won’t change. But it does suggest we may still be a ways out from the point where it makes sense for a network like HBO to blow up the existing model, suffer through several rough years with a clear light visible at the end of the tunnel.
“Kill white folks and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” That will be the line that most stands out from the first trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming slavery revenge flick Django Unchained. But from even the brief glimpse of the movie we get here, I think it’s going to be a richer, weirder text than I initially expected from the plot outlines:
It looks like Django Unchained will be less geographically specific to the South than I expected. We see cotton bolls mostly so we can see them sprayed with blood. But much of the landscape that Django and the man who freed him ride through is framed as Western rather than coded as Southern, whether it’s drought-stricken land, men riding horses down small-town streets into the sunset, or wide open spaces instead of trees heavy with Spanish moss. There’s something powerful about giving a slave the chance at a new start that’s traditionally allocated to former Confederates. It’s not a new idea—Hell on Wheels tried, but it looks like Django Unchained might do it while letting a black man be as violent and hardbitten as the Confederates he’s replacing.
Then, there’s the nature of the bargain between Django and Dr. King Schultz, the bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz. Schultz promises Django that once he’s helped Schultz track down his targets, he’ll free Django and help him free his wife. It’s an inherently exploitative bargain: the reward Schultz offers is so valuable, that I’d imagine he feels he can ask Django to do almost anything to live up to it. The movie may turn out to be an exploration of how much Django enjoys the work he’s meant to do to earn his freedom, but there’s something uneasy about suggesting that slavery under one set of conditions is unbearable while under another it’s sort of awesome. But Django Unchained might be a more interesting movie if it explores what it means to hold a man hostage against his liberty, and what you’ll do to achieve it.
I floated this on Twitter on Tuesday night and got a good response, so in this lacuna of summer television, and because it’s The Wire’s 10th anniversary, we’re going to revisit that classic show. I’d like to see if we can make it work at three episodes a week, but if that proves to be too much, we’ll drop down to two. To give everyone some time to get discs or streaming options in place, let’s plan to start with the first three episodes of season one on Monday, June 18, where it’ll take the first-thing slot vacated by Game of Thrones.