The Most 2008 Movie of 2009, or, Economic Uncertainty and Ennui Explained through Prostitution!

It might be a consequence of living in New York (where it takes place, albeit in a very different New York than mine), but Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience unsettled me as much as any movie I saw last year.

Not bad for a barely plotted, mostly improvised, movie about a high-priced escort.

It’s no secret that most movies about prostitution aren’t really about sex, but it is interesting to come across one that isn’t really about intimacy, or even relationships. Instead, it’s about economics. And what’s scarier right now than economics?

Filmed and set during a few days in late October of 2008, The Girlfriend Experience captures the feeling settled over the city in the time just after the financial crisis well and truly blossomed, when we all realized, regardless of our professional proximity to Wall Street, that we were in long-term trouble. More than that, it nails the way in which New York (or most cities, I’d imagine) runs on a combination of money and dreams, and how a disruption in the former messes with the latter.

In The Girlfriend Experience, every character who isn’t rich is chasing self-sufficiency, and are circling those who have the money to make that happen. The characters with money, meanwhile, seem willfully ignorant of the effect they have on the people around them. They’re focused on their own emotional needs.

When the financial crisis starts mucking up the equilibrium of this system, people’s dreams are even more effected than their lives. What’s chilling is the sense that, in the absence of the hope for either upward mobility or “having it all,” there’s very little left except the sense that at some point most of us got sold a bill of goods about what it means to be successful or to be happy. Once those possibilities start disappearing from the table, the question “What now?” seems to echo through the movie.

And “What now?” was a scary question in 2008 that’s only gotten scarier.

The Most 2008 Movie of 2009, or, Economic Uncertainty and Ennui Explained through Prostitution!

The Most 2009 Movie of 2009

The movie released last year that felt most like last year was Crank 2: High Voltage. I’m serious.

If Up in the Air is an example of what we want a movie that speaks to the current moment to look like, Crank 2 is what such a movie would actually look like.

Yes, Crank 2 is the appallingly violent story of a tough guy who, moments after falling out of a helicopter (at the end of the Crank 1), is peeled off the pavement by a Chinese gangsters who remove his heart and replace it with a shoddy mechanical one. (They need to put in the mechanical heart to keep his other organs viable for harvesting, particularly his penis. Still not kidding.)

And yes, the tough guy’s malfunctioning artificial heart requires him to periodically electrocute himself to keep it running while he’s kicking ass through a bunch of racially specific gangs in search of his original heart. That’s not to mention his Tourette Syndrome afflicted sidekick or stripper girlfriend.

It’s all wildly offensive and racist, but so broad in both that it feel like it’s commenting on crazy action movie violence and stereotypes. Which is a nice way of saying that some audiences will laugh with the jokes while others will laugh at them, and both groups will feel mostly fine about themselves afterwards.

Crank 2 is like a period specific update of Caligula that’s replaced the sex with violence, and the violence with more ridiculous violence. Despite featuring a bushel of porn stars and a herd of boobs, it’s not a bit sexy. That it easily qualified as mainstream entertainment says nearly as much as its story.

The right way to watch Crank 2, copyright-aside, would be on a bootleg DVD, complete with the guy holding the camcorder occasionally talking back to the screen and getting the shakes. It feels practically designed for it. (And it’s basically how the movie was filmed in the first place.)

We live in a Wile E. Coyote world at the moment. We’re constantly being (metaphorically) beaten up and have the nagging suspicion that, though we hope the worst is over, we’re about to find out that there’s only air under our feet. Crank 2 captures that.

The Most 2009 Movie of 2009

How Jay Leno Might Cause your local Weatherman to Stop Taking his Medication

The lesson we learn from the Conan/Leno late night imbroglio might have more to do with the power of mainstreaming conflict than anything involving NBC, late night television, or comedy.

It’s harder than ever to get people to care about entertainment institutions, and if the current late night late conflict has shown us anything, it’s that conflict sells. (Well, it’s also taught us that NBC seems to have standards for executive performance that would make them right at home on Wall Street, but that’s a story for a different day.)

One of the key moments in the ratings battle between the Conan’s nascent Tonight Show and David Letterman’s Late Show was Letterman’s involvement an extra-martial affair related extortion plot. With real life drama supplementing Stupid Pet Tricks, what active late night viewer wasn’t going to watch?

Naturally, since NBC’s stupid human trick put Conan on the spot, his ratings have been rising every night. Hell, the conflict even got me to watch Leno once. (On the wrong night, unfortunately, as I missed Jimmy Kimmel’s unreal appearance last night.)

So, while NBC’s brand is taking a hilarious beating, when it comes to the numbers that they really care about, ratings that will later be used to determine advertising rates, their ham-fisted handling of the Tonight Show has solved the very problem they were trying to address.

I’m wondering, why stop there? If real world conflict translates to advertising dollars, why shouldn’t a local newscaster, say, announce that they were going off their meds and didn’t know for sure what might happen? (Come to think of it, I just described Glenn Beck’s show…)

We’re living in a society that’s just about post-dignity and post-seriousness. Success, even in something as ultimately meaningless as television ratings, provides a patina of respect. It took American Idol, after its premiere, about two months to turn from a carnival sideshow exploiting damaged youth by exploiting their hopes for fame into a chronicle of the triumph of the human spirit. And Mr. Beck’s nuttiness has certainly worked out well for him.

So, I wonder if the lasting legacy of this very public conflict between millionaire comedians won’t be a sizable increase in the use of real world conflict to generate interest in cultural properties.

How Jay Leno Might Cause your local Weatherman to Stop Taking his Medication

Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]

Oprah exploited Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin knew this, of course. She signed up for it. It’s all part of the deal that people opt in to when they’ve when got a platform that’s larger than their employment prospects.

It’s a bad deal, though. And one that tells us some things about our deeply flawed media.

The deal is supposed to work like this: A notable figure writes a book. They spend the better part of a month giving interviews to as many venues as they can in hopes that the attention will get people to purchase the book. Then they take the money earned by the book out of the bank in singles, cover their bed it in, and roll around happily.

This quid pro quo is a much better deal for broadcasters than it is for authors (as loosely defined as the term may be in this case), and it diminishes both mediums. It turns book publishing into a de facto money laundering operation. Is there any doubt that everything Sarah Palin wished to express and accomplish with “Going Rogue” could have been done just as well with a series of interviews? Or 20 pages of bullet-points?

Worse, the arrangement gives an enormous free pass to a “news” culture that’s become to celebrity newsmakers what the NCAA is to athletes. In a time when the book business is ever more troubled, and the ability to draw an audience together for anything longer than a youtube clip is ever more valuable, how does it make sense for books to serve as the near exclusive means of monetizing interest, while television newscasters get paid millions upon millions for asking softball questions in service of  news broadcasts that serve as profit centers for multinational corporations?

Orpah and other broadcasters get a definable benefit, in ratings and advertising dollars, from having someone on who brings extra eye to the screen. If Sarah Palin brought one extra viewer to Oprah’s show, or to any of the other venues she’s been on in the last couple of weeks, why shouldn’t she be entitled to payment for the value she added?

Taking the idea a step further, imagine a broadcast where the journalists and their interview subjects shared the profits, in an above-board way.

Perhaps a profit motive might lead to someone like Palin answering questions that journalists typically don’t ask, like about Trig’s birth, or how she really feels about her political future. After all, nothing sells like conflict and revelations.

Most celebrity “news” interviews these days are non-confrontational to the point of propaganda. The news could cease showing their desperation for the ratings that come with a good “get,” and fearing that showing a semblance of spine would torpedo their chances. Instead, the could focus on offering the best financial deal, and preparing a show that would create the most possible interest.

We might even get more truth out of the deal.

(I, for one, would pony up $24.99 to watch Sarah Palin interviewed by Michael Moore on Pay-Per-View. Would the integrity of the news business really suffer in that kind of deal?)

It’s time for a new method of monetizing interest. (And if it only served to save us from all of those dubious books, that would be success enough.)

Sarah Palin is being Exploited [media]

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]

ESPN’s Bill Simmons is the most popular sportswriter in America. He’s arguably the only one that really matters anymore. He’s enough of a common denominator that if you end up in a semi-decent conversation about sports with a stranger under 45, that both of you read his column is a very safe assumption.

His popularity is such that his 700 page book about basketball went to number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List in its first week. His book signings have attracted fans in the high hundreds. His columns’ page views are measured in millions. He’s unquestionably a star.

And his ascension represents ESPN’s biggest new media failure.

Simmons was something of a phenomenon. Hired by ESPN in 2001 to write for their web site, first as the “Boston Sports Guy” and soon as just the “Sports Guy,” his was the first voice on a major sports site to write from a fan’s point of view. And a funny fan, at that. Simmons wrote about sports the way fans actually talk about sports and he did so with a looseness of style, not to mention column length, that was unique among big-platform sports writers.

It didn’t take long before word about him spread. I know I was a early evangelist, sending some of his earlier columns to more a few friends under subject headings like, “You’ve got to check this guy out!”

Upon seeing the success that came from have a columnist torpedo the idea that sports media was about “insiders” writing for “outsiders,” ESPN decided that there was no lesson to be learned there, and gingerly stepped away from that door. Instead of introducing a “New York Sports Guy” or “LA Sports Gal” or others, and seeing if they connected with readers like Simmons had, ESPN decided that, while Simmons would continue to do his thing, his situation would be unique.

With that decision, ESPN hasted the rise of the alternative sports blog scene, one that would bedevil them, by years; put itself in a more difficult situation in terms of talent negotiation; and made harder their current effort to generate revenue through locally-oriented content.

Make no mistake, Simmons is a talented writer and it’s admirable that, in an era when most sportswriters seems to view actually “writing” as a means to a radio show or regular television appearances, he takes it quite seriously. Simmons’ success, though, was also the result of his being the right kind of voice, at the right time, on the biggest platform imaginable.

A large part of the sports blog scene rose up in opposition to the relative stranglehold on sports media that ESPN had. Since the early 1990’s, The World Wide Leader (as it calls itself) decided what was newsworthy, what was interesting, and what was funny. And it presented a world where athletes didn’t swear; managers and coaches had to do something supremely dumb to be called mildly mistaken; and, for years, the only sports with steroid problems involved either the former Eastern Bloc or bike racing.

A roster of “outsider” writers, dealing with sports culture closer to the way normal humans do (though still without swears), would have seriously lessened the market’s hunger for sites in the vein of Deadspin, The Big Lead, and With Leather.

As it happens, one of that sports blog community’s favorite pastimes is reading the tea leaves about what Bill Simmons will do when his current contract with ESPN expires in 2010. He’s already, by my reckoning, more effectively monetized being a writer on the web than anyone else. There will be competition for his talents and who ever gets him will have to open up the piggy-bank. Meanwhile, ESPN hasn’t developed any voices that might be credibly able to take his place.

Another possibility, one that Simmons himself mentioned in an interview, is that he might start his own sports web site. The readership that he could take with him to such an enterprise would be significant, and with the low overhead of web journalism, I wouldn’t bet against him.

Finally, over the last year ESPN has launched several locally branded pages, such as ESPNBoston, to compete with local sports pages for readers and advertisers. If they’d used their experience Simmons as an example of how a local focus can be used as an incubator for talent, ESPN would already have writers with the experience and platform to bolster their local efforts. Instead, ESPN has to poach talent from the newspapers they’re competing with.

ESPN dealt with the success of Bill Simmons like an old media company.

When Bill Simmons succeeded, ESPN had discovered a new paradigm for sports media on the web, but was far more comfortable just deciding that they’d found a new star.

They’ll be paying for that mistake for quite some time.

Bill Simmons represents ESPN’s Biggest Failure [sports media]

Why NBA Teams Should Think of Bloggers like they Think of Players

Can something as ephemeral as cultural footprint make something as concrete as a sports franchise more valuable?

The NBA season just started with the majority of its franchises struggling in this economic climate. Television ad revenue is down, season ticket sales have cratered, and the number of marquee teams that can reliably sell out arenas has gotten smaller. So how should NBA teams maximize their dwindling revenue sources?

They should start treating bloggers like they treat players.

By which I mean, when a team identifies a player that they think will help them win, they try to acquire that player. In the same way that all players aren’t created equal, bloggers aren’t either.

Let’s go to a case study.

In the 2004-2005 NBA season Washington Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas had a great season. He was among the league scoring leaders and the leader of an up-and-coming team. His jersey, however, was not among the league’s top 25 sellers. He was a good player, but not quite a star.

In the 2005-2006 season, however, his jersey did make the top 25. And the year after, it was in the top 10. Not only that, but Arenas had become the kind of player who put butts in seats and brought viewers to the television. One who increased a team’s connection to its surrounding community. His game hadn’t changed, so what had?

He got a nickname. More than that, he became a character. “Agent Zero.” (After his jersey number.) And that happened thanks to a very popular, Wizards-centric, blogger. Besides just coming up with the “Agent Zero” name, the blog The Wizznutzz, unaffiliated with the team, also popularized the fact that Arenas had started to shout “hibachi!” each time he made a shot, and that he’d set up a giant tent inside his house to simulate high-altitude conditions. Their coverage of him went a long way from turning him from a player into a happening.

Even with his entertaining idiosyncrasies, Arenas was a high scoring guard who’d never won anything on a team that had more or less been moribund for years. His becoming one of the most popular players in a league with quite a few compelling characters was no sure thing and, without the blog’s help, may not have happened.

Think about what that means. NBA teams make money from every ticket and jersey sold, of course, but their value is also tied to the community they create. When the owners of the team think about selling, how much is having a player who’s become a local hero worth?

If the cultural capital generated by a great blogger moves the needle even 1%, the team will have realized millions of dollars in new value.

And what about when it’s time for a referendum on a new arena? What would a 2% swing in the vote because residents feel a real and deep connection to the team be worth? (Putting aside the issue of public money going for sports-related projects.)

If teams are trying to create value wherever they can, hiring a great blogger is a whole lot easier than putting together a winning team.

Why NBA Teams Should Think of Bloggers like they Think of Players

7 Things Having a Dog Teaches You

1. Dogs tell you a lot about your family.

Because dogs learn to see the family that takes care of them as their pack, you can learn a great deal about family dynamics from them. For example, our dog Annie is submissive and deferential to everyone in the family, with the exception of my niece Mary.

Annie, who’s part Border Collie, tries to herd Mary into various corners of our apartment when Mary visits. Thanks to Annie, then, we know definitively that Mary is lowest in the family pecking order and that if we’re ever attacked by a large jungle cat, she’ll probably have to be sacrificed.

(Truthfully, that was already our plan vis-à-vis jungle cat attack, but Annie made us feel more justified in it.)

2. Dogs keep you level.

It’s difficult to get too down on yourself when, every time you return home, you’re greeted by a couple a creatures who are totally thrilled to see you.

Likewise, it tough to get too full of yourself when you’re standing on the sidewalk waiting for a squatting creature to squeeze off a grumpy, knowing you’re going to pick up what’s being evacuated.

3. Dogs are like children.

They they need to be fed, they need attention, they poop unexpectedly, and they cry when they aren’t getting what they need. They are almost totally dependent on you.

Having successfully had a couple of dogs for a couple of years, and having not accidentally killed either of them, I’m pretty confident that I could take care of an infant for up to 48 hours without incident.

4. Dogs are not like children.

Turns out that when going for a walk with a dog wearing a diaper in a stroller while dragging a naked two year-old on a leash behind you, you might get some dirty looks from people. You might also get arrested and be told by counsel not to write anything else about the incident.

5. Dogs create empathy.

Looking at my pooches, with their soulful eyes and pleasantly swinging tails, and thinking about how sad I’d be if anything happened to them, has made me empathize with all living creatures. Like cows, which also have soulful eyes.

So now, if I want to eat a steak, I’ve got to first think about the cow from which it came committing a bunch of violent crimes, being tried a jury of its peers, and then being summarily executed. That way, my having a delicious steak is actually an act of deterrence against future bovine-perpetrated violence and I get to feel like I’m tough on crime.

6. Dogs can change size. But only when you’re not looking.

The amount of destruction a dog can create is wildly disproportionate to what their size and the amount of time they’ve been left alone suggests would be possible. Therefore, Occam’s razor tells us that as the door to one’s apartment closes, all dogs turn into mastiffs.

(I’m also working on a theory about secret opposable thumbs.)

7. Dogs teach you about sharing.

Occasionally Otis, our terrier, ends up with something Annie, our mutant Border Collie-Dachshund mix, wants, like a particular toy or spot on the couch. When Annie notices this untenable state of affairs, she’ll run to the front door barking, giving Otis the universal signal for “There’s someone strange here and we may have to bite/lick them!”

Otis, not being the brightest bulb in the chandelier, will dutifully spring from his spot and charge to the door, whereupon Annie reverses field and claims whatever it was that Otis had. Otis will remain at the door for several minutes before realizing he’s been bamboozled.

Learning from this, when my wife has the remote control or the good spot on the couch, I’ll say something like, “Honey, did you leave the stove on? I smell something burning,” or point to the window and yell “Bearshark! Bearshark!” Then I take her spot when she gets up. She’s a good sport about it and I’m a quick healer so the bruises don’t last too long.

7 Things Having a Dog Teaches You

Bill O’Reilly Needs a Hug

Bill O’Reilly’s recent statement in support of a public insurance option as a part of health care reform, followed as quickly as it was by him decrying being taken out of context and saying “the internet is a safe haven for liars,” reminds me of nothing so much as a baseball player who charges the mound, but does it just slowly enough to make sure his teammates catch up to him before he has to throw a punch. It’s a “Hold me back! Hold me back!” moment.

It’s got to be a bit tough being the Big Giant Head right now. With Glenn Beck’s crazy rise, Bill’s isn’t the cool table in the Fox News cafeteria anymore. When Media Matters does its daily round up of right wing half-truths, O’Reilly can barely even get ink anymore. He’s learning first hand that it’s better to be made fun of than to be ignored.

Why else would he ask that press be barred from his acceptance of a Media Courage Award over the weekend?

It’s a cry for help.

Bill O’Reilly Needs a Hug

Camping Tips – Tents: Your Best Friend, Your Worst Enemy

No piece of camping equipment has turned more people into incoherent obscenity spewing rage monsters than the tent.

Frustrating though they may be, however, they’re an absolutely necessary part of the camping experience. (For one thing, camping without a tent isn’t camping at all. It’s a “wilderness experience,” and too many of those and you turn into one of those people who wears a bandanna on their head all the time and gets a backpack with a built in canteen, and who wants to be that guy?)

Having considerable experience with tents of all shapes and sizes, I’m here to help. Let’s walk through the process together.

1. Selecting a Tent – When browsing the store, be it a specialty camping store or a Wal-Mart, all of the options can be a bit daunting. A-frame, dome, cabin, and other types, all with their own advantages and pitfalls. In the end, your selection should come down to two things, weight and size.

Here’s a rule of thumb as to whether or not you should care how much your tent weighs: If a cooler is prominently involved in your camping plans, go nuts. Compared to that case of beer you’re probably also bringing, no tent’s going to feel that heavy.

If you’re more ambitious and plan on hiking to your campsite with gear, look for the cheapest one with a smiling backpacker on the the box. Then spend the extra 50 bucks for the one lighter than that one. Your back will appreciate it.

The more common tent buying mistake has to do with getting the size wrong. Remember that when a tent says it’s for three people, that’s not including gear. Or largish sleeping bags. Or any presumption of personal space. In fact, where it says the number of people it’s for just add the words, “assuming the availability of a sufficient amount of Crisco and biblical familiarity among the occupants.” (It’s for this reason that two-man tents can not legally be sold in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and the territory of Guam.)

So, if you’re planing on four in your tent, get a six-man. For six, an eight-person. For two, a three-person. (Even you’re planning on going camping with your significant other, get the three-person. Even newlyweds occasionally need a break.)

2. Establish Dominance – Once you’ve got the proper tent, you can’t just stash it in a closet and expect it to be ready to go when you need it. Tents can be very difficult to deal with if they sense weakness.

The day after buying a new tent, I like to throw it in the passenger seat of the car and go on a drive to some isolate area, saying thing under my breath like, “Maybe I should have gone with A-frame…” Every couple of minutes I’ll glance over at the tent and quickly look away, while chewing worryingly at my lip.

Eventually, I’ll pull over at a secluded spot, tell the tent “If that’s going to be your attitude, this just isn’t going to work,” toss it out of the car, and drive off. Don’t worry, I circle back in a couple of minutes and pick it up. Its will is usually broken by then, and I’m not cruel.

3. Setting it Up – So you’re at your campsite, getting ready to set your new tent up for the first time. Before doing that, it’s important to build a nice fire. (For fire building tips, see this.) Once the you’ve got your fire going, you can proceed.

Now get out the tent instructions. Throw them in the fire. They would have only caused you pain.

That tent instructions are spectacularly useless is actually by design.

A quick history lesson: In 1959 the National Camping Association, nearly bankrupted by America’s new love of television, signed a lucrative deal with B.F. Skinner’s Society of Behavioral Psychologists. In return for the funding, the NCA agreed to make all tent instructions part of a decades long experiment on relationship stressors in wilderness environments. As part of the research, every first year psychology graduate student must do at least two months of field work hiding outside popular camp grounds with nothing but a pair of binoculars, a clip board, and a ghillie suit, taking notes on people struggling with their camp set up.

The best method, then, for tent setup is trial and error. If after the first attempt your tent looks like an arthritic porcupine with a pituitary condition, you probably didn’t do it right. But you have learned what not to do next time!

Keep at it! And if, after darkness has fallen, your kids are audibly yawning, and your significant other is cataloging your flaws, and you’re on your 15th attempt and the last tent pole that’s clearly supposed to go in that grommet there won’t reach dammit, well, there’s no shame in sleeping in one’s car.

Happy camping!

Camping Tips – Tents: Your Best Friend, Your Worst Enemy

Are Personal Brands Compatible with Corporate Ones?

In order to get a job in the public relation or marketing spaces, I’m told I need to have a strong “personal brand.” I don’t disagree, but I do wonder about the intersection of “personal” and “corporate” brands.

Where people in the communications business were once conduits for the authority that their company provided, now it seems that companies are hoping to be conduits for the authority that their communication hires can provide. (Or in the case of Best Buy, the number of twitter followers.)

In a corporate communications situation, the personal brand of the professional doing the communicating might dovetail with the needs of the corporation’s brand but if there ends up being tension between the two, it won’t really be a contest. An ever decreasing number employees identify with their employer or expect to be with them for the long haul, so while serving a corporate brand is at best a temporary assignment fostering their personal brand is a never ending job.

How does a company combat that? Perhaps through a strong company culture that nurtures and encourages employees, creating the kind of internal loyalty that’s hard to quantify. (Though I’m sure some economist has.)

Are Personal Brands Compatible with Corporate Ones?