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July 15, 2011

A Chat with Morgan Spurlock

July 15, 2011 Morgan Spurlock hit a home run with his first documentary, the fast food piece, Super Size Me. Now Current TV has him traveling to meet filmmakers and subjects of iconic films as he hosts countdown series “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,” a retrospective of the most influential docs of the past 25 years (premieres Aug 2, 9pm ET). In an interview, Spurlock said viewers need not be documentary aficionados to enjoy the 5-part series, which he expects to spur people to want to see some of the docs mentioned. We also asked him how this series might change his approach to making films. His enthusiasm for films and the series was palpable. This made him a delightful interview subject.   CFAX: The series has you on the road, talking to people who’ve been portrayed in iconic documentaries and the directors who made the films. What did you learn? Morgan Spurlock:  I loved the idea of going out and putting a face to these documentary films, whether it’s the filmmakers or the people in them. I think what we lose sight of is that while we watch these films and are impacted by them, the people in them are impacted by them and continue to be for years to come. They are tied to that movie forever. I can relate to this since I’m in a lot of the movies that I’ve made. It was great to meet the guys from Hoop Dreams 30 years later, they’re married and have kids and to hear them tell you how they’ve been impacted years later. Or the young preacher from Jesus Camp, who is now getting ready to go off to college. It’s interesting to see how these people have grown beyond the film. I’m fascinated by that as a filmmaker and just as a fan. CFAX:  Will these trips change the way you approach filmmaking? MS: I don’t know. But I think one of the things you’ll see [from me and others] is the use of social media to make an update page for their films. To keep people up to date on the people and issues you saw in the movie. I think you’ll see more communities created around projects that were successful and have had an impact and people can engage in a deeper and more resonant conversation as the film goes on. CFAX: Did one or two of the trips stand out for you? MS: I’m a big collector of street art and graffiti art and I was a fan of the movie Exit through the Gift Shop, so to be able to go out and paint with Mr Brainwash was an incredible thing, I really loved that, just as a collector and a fan of that movie. And Steve James  (Hoop Dreams, Prefontaine) has been a huge inspiration for me since I began filmmaking, so to go and hang out with him and the characters from his film was really important to me. So those were definitely two big ones for me.
[caption id="attachment_1245" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Morgan Spurlock"][/caption]   CFAX: How does this series fit with Current TV’s strategy? MS: I think the folks who watch Current ask a lot of questions, like a lot of us. I think Current is a network that goes based on an idea of questioning what’s going on in the world around us, wondering why. What can we do to change things? To fix things? Do we just want to be passive, passers-by in this thing called life or do we want to be active participants? I think what these docs do is encourage you to dive deeper into topics, issues and conversations and ask those questions. Current is a great network to do [this series] for that reason.   CFAX: What if you’re not a big documentary fan? What if you’re not familiar with a lot of these documentaries… MS:  That’s a great question. I have a lot of friends from growing up in West Virginia who maybe are not big fans of documentaries or might not have seen a lot of documentaries. So what I like to do is turn people on to gateway documentaries. To get them excited, to let them see documentaries can be entertaining, that they can be exciting. They have great characters, great stories. So I always give them a list of 5 or 6 documentaries that they should watch first. A movie like American Movie, The King of Kong, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Hands On A Hard Body. These are 6 great docs. I tell them ‘You should watch these movies. You’re gonna love these films.’ They’re fun, they’re entertaining, they have great characters, great stories and they’ll make you want to see more documentaries. CFAX: What I wanted to ask is for viewers who doesn’t know these documentaries going in, will they get something out of watching this series? MS: I think what will happen is you’ll watch this series and hear the stories behind some of these films and it’ll make you want to watch these movies. There are some on the list that I haven’t seen. As a result, I went on to watch afterward. I think people are going to be enthralled by these stories. I think they’re going to be fascinated by the behind-the-scenes conversations that happen. Ultimately this series will create even more fans for documentaries. CFAX: So you want people to walk away from this series hungry to watch more documentaries? MS: Yes and I think they’ll want to. I think the way it’s been put together and the way the stories are told you’ll be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t want to watch some of these films afterward. CFAX: Now to the aspect of the top 50. Is it actually a countdown? Will we see ‘This is number 49 and this is number 48…’? MS: Correct. They interviewed all these experts, the heads of the international documentary association, the heads of film schools, doc programs, who put together their lists on the most important documentaries of the last three decades. CFAX: On a personal note, did you agree with their rankings? MS: Well, I’m a very opinionated person so in some places I said ‘How can this not be on the list? How can that one be on the list? Where is that one? And why is this one at that number? This one should be higher.’ I think this series will create a lot of debate among filmmakers and film fans and there will be people who will see some very glaring neglect of some films they thought should be on the list and then there will be real champions of films that people are glad they made it. CFAX: And are some of your documentaries on this list? MS: You’ll have to wait and see [laughter].  [Note: Current TV will show several of films discussed in the series. The dates/times below were supplied by Current TV.] An Inconvenient Truth Wed., Aug. 3, 9pm (premiere) Mon., Aug. 15 9p Wed., Aug. 24 9p Roger & Me Thurs., Aug 4 9p (premiere) Thurs. Aug 18 9p Mon., Aug. 29 9p One Day in September Fri., Aug 5, 9p (premiere) Wed., Aug 17 9p Thurs., Aug. 25 9p Mon. Sept. 5, 9p, 12a (the anniversary) Tues. Sept. 13 9p Hoop Dreams Sun. Aug. 7 11p Wed. Aug 10 (Pt. 1) and Thurs. Aug. 11 (Pt. 2) 9p Sun. Sept. 18 10:30p Wed. Sept. 21  (Pt. 1) and Thurs. Sept. 22 (Pt. 2) 9p Biggie and Tupac Mon. Aug 22 9p Wed., Aug. 31 9p The Kid Stays In the Picture Thurs. Sept. 1 9p (premiere) Mon. Sept. 19 9p Madonna: Truth or Dare Sat. Sept. 3 12a (premiere) Thurs., Sept. 15 9p Tues., Sept. 20 9p Bowling For Columbine Sun., Sept. 4, 6p (premiere) Sun., Sept. 18, 6p  Sat., Sept. 24 6:30p King of Kong Wed., Sept. 7 9p (premier) Mon., Sept. 12 9p When We Were Kings Thurs., Sept. 8 9p (premiere) Wed., Sept. 14 9p

June 28, 2011

Future Shark

You don’t often associate sharks with fun. Sure, there are a couple of decent jokes that compare sharks to lawyers. And there’s the one about Jaws being the title of Howard Cosell’s autobiography. But generally, as Yogi Berra might have said, ‘Sharks are not a barrel of monkeys.’ Enter cable’s longest-running programming stunt, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which begins July 31, at 9pm. The folks in Silver Spring have sprung a light-hearted press kit and assorted tchotchkeys, designed to put a smiling face on an annual programming event whose stars rip their prey to shreds. Before you react badly to mixing sharks with levity, note that this is Shark Week’s 24thyear. You can’t envy Discovery Channel’s marketers having to come up with a new concept for this stunt each year that features these flesh-eating sea creatures. And the Shark Week programming this summer remains largely un-comedic. In fact, one of the shows, Great White Attack, informs us that sharks are swimming ever closer to coasts and beaches. We like to think sharks live far out in the ocean. That's just not true, the program's narrator tells us. So, let’s go easy on this year's fun-themed press kit, OK? It’s not like Discovery hasn't mixed fun with Shark Week in the past. Beginning in 2006 and also last summer, a 50-foot inflatable shark head (with wide-open mouth), 7-story tail and fins were affixed to sides of the programmer’s offices in Maryland. Besides giving new meaning to the word ‘headquarters,’ the shark required more than 6 miles of cloth, cost thousands to design, construct and mount, leaving Discovery with a whale of a bill, but a marketing scheme so clever, rival cable nets have reported on it. Of course there were clues that this summer’s campaign was going to be, as Discovery’s release puts it, a “fin-filled” celebration. One hint was the programmer’s public search for a CSO, a Chief Shark Officer. After an exhaustive process, the winner was declared to be a fairly toothy human, Andy Samberg. Apparently choosing the SNL cast member for the gig was not a fluke. In fact, Discovery insists it was done on porpoise. Explaining the infusion of party items in this year's Shark Week press kit, Discovery EVP PR Laurie Goldberg explained, "Shark Week is our Super Bowl. And since we've seen videos and photos of people celebrating Shark Week, we thought we'd give journalists, who may not have much time to shop for party favors due to the speed of the Internet news cycle, not unlike the speed that sharks travel, a head start on their celebrations." Accordingly, in the press kit is nearly everything needed for a Happy Shark Week shindig, including themed balloons, coasters, napkins, a bottle opener and a special bingo board. Called Big Bite Bingo, viewers are urged to watch Shark Week shows and use bottle caps to cover the Bingo squares. The squares contain scenes and sounds that might occur during a Shark Week show. When one of these occurs, the viewer covers that square on his Bingo board. The squares include fun and not-so-fun bits like: blood in the water, ominous music, shark bumps camera, dorsal fin above water, great white attack, feeding frenzy and Andy Samberg’s favorite, a hot chick in a bikini.  A few years back, Discovery treated reporters to a Shark Week tee-shirt whose tattered sleeves had seemingly been chewed. (If memory serves, one year there also was a similarly destroyed white beach hat.) Another press kit came with a Discovery tee that had the double-entendre ‘Chum’ printed on its front. That shirt’s color, appropriately, was a fuscia-blood red. This year’s shirt is a tad obvious, yet provocative and fun. The black shirt’s front reads: ‘Bite Me.’ Another piece of swag is a cookie cutter shaped like a shark. There's also a "killer" recipe for Shark Week sugar cookies that Discovery says "you can dive into." Perhaps the least difficult gift to, er, swallow is the shark-themed recipe card included in the package. One concoction, a drink dubbed Great White Attack, calls for the rum, coconut milk and crushed pineapple libation to be topped with raspberry liqueur so you'll have “a bloody good time.”

June 13, 2011

Saying Farewell or Not

The mood around the gorgeous Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne was anything but morose last week as the Florida Cable Forum ended its life with 2 days of panels, meetings, exhibits, networking, fundraising for charity and one heckuva closing party. Held dangerously close to dates of The Cable Show, Florida’s attendance nonetheless was strong, indicating that many of the 200+ attendees won’t be heading to Chicago. For them, this brief regional gem, staged by BrightHouse Networks’ tireless Reinaldo Llano Jr with assistance from New Horizon Media’s Jeff Kreger, is their chance to discuss best practices  and hear senior execs like The Weather Channel’s distribution chief Jennifer Dangar, who addressed topics ranging from cord cutting and Comcast’s beta test of delivering programming via IP to cable’s rapidly deteriorating video model to shooting hurricanes and tornados in 3D. Another panel concluded that niche programmers are niche no more and a TV Everywhere session provided an in-depth view of Cox and AEN’s TV Everywhere thinking. For many attendees, it was also the first time they got a live look at an authenticated network. They were also told that if a CTAM sub-committee has its way, the term TV Everywhere will be changed. To what, nobody is certain. As we know, the number of regional cable shows is dwindling. In their place, the Florida Forum, a joint project of CTAM Florida and the Florida Cable Television Association (FTCA), filled the void nicely. Although the tough economic decision to disband local CTAM chapters like Florida is understandable, it still hurts. Yet Florida’s story might not be at its end. Should the FCTA find a way to garner support again from sponsors like National Geographic Channel, BBC America, BBC World News, HSN, Bright House Networks, Comcast, Discovery, Disney/ESPN, New Frontier, NBC U and a slew of others, this terrific show, perhaps with a new name and agenda, might continue to live; the industry would be better if it did. Oh, and that party. Great food—it was the Ritz-Carlton, after all—and a 9-person band called Heat Wave, whose covers ranged from funk to soul and salsa, had the crowd dancing for hours. Out in the hallway numerous prize packages from sponsors were up for grabs, with a drawing benefitting a charity. Besides some fine insight on the future of cable, my favorite moment from the Forum will be Llano, resplendent in pale pink slacks and a powder blue shirt, leading the dancers well into the night. Should this indeed be the Forum’s finale, nobody can say it and its leader didn’t depart with gusto.            

June 7, 2011

RFK’s Last Journey

One Thousand Pictures: RFK's Last Journey, HBO2, June 8, 8pm. There have been several fine pieces recalling RFK. This short film, which recounts the journey from NY to Washington, DC, of RFK’s casket, is one of them. It's debuting on the anniversary of that June 8 trip, which was to take 4 hours; it ended up at 8 hours due to the crowds that jammed the sides of the tracks. Based on photos by Paul Fusco of people who lined the tracks that day in 1968, the 40-minute film does more than tell the story of RFK’s assassination. It provides a look at what life was like on that day for ordinary citizens on the east coast. As RFK press secretary Frank Manciewicz, one of the few well-known people in this piece, says, “We were a country of different races…there were great divisions…at the time.” There were great divides over the Vietnam War and race relations. But it also was a time of fear. Just 2 months before, Dr Martin Luther King Jr had been killed. “Why are all these people being assassinated?” recalls Robert Kettler, who stood near the tracks with his mother at Princeton Junction as a young man. A Chicagoan, Kettler was in NJ for the 5th reunion of his college class. There also was the mounting death toll in Vietnam. Jane Hayden recounts the day she learned her brother was killed in the war. “I just remember a lot of screaming,” she says. Indeed, “Everything was exploding,” says Sister Eve Kavanagh, who stood along the tracks that day with her fellow nuns. Dr King was Moses…“Bobby was David, who going to fight Goliath,” says Michael Scott, who stood on the tracks that day thinking, “Here goes our last hope.” Michael’s father, McKinley, a civil rights activist, was asleep at 2 in the morning four weeks later when his house was bombed. Michael says “to this day” it’s hard to think of those times. But, he says, “The country has come a long way.” This 40-minute documentary shows that much and more. *** As many of you know, I am leaving CableFAX as a full-time employee on June 17, the day after NCTA’s show in Chicago. I will continue writing short program reviews each Friday in CableFAX Daily as I have done for years, but now as a special contributor to the Daily. My blog will continue here, too. For all the wonderful programming execs and PR people  who’ve worked with me over the years making these reviews possible, I thank you and look forward to continuing our relationship for many, many years. I’ve long thought being a journalist is much more than a job. Being a cable trade journalist has been even more than that since this industry, despite its problems, is so creative and has a terrifically charitable heart. If one of the desires in life is to make a difference, I can’t think of a better industry to be part of, what with NAMIC, Kaitz and WICT, the former Cable Positive and the numerous educational efforts undertaken by NCTA, MSOs, smaller operators and programmers. I must also mention Sportsman Channel’s Hunt Fish and Feed program to feed the homeless, Golf Channel’s work with youngsters, Military Channel’s initiatives with veterans, NBCU and Comcast's efforts, and those of Cox, Time Warner Cable, Suddenlink and many others. These are but a small part of the story, for sure, and I apologize for omitting other terrific programs. Writing about these good works  has been one of my greatest joys. Getting a chance to learn from colleagues like Paul Maxwell, Steve Effros, Marc Smith, Mike Grebb, Diane Schwartz, Steve Goldstein and John Ourand has been wonderful. Helping to mentor writers like Amy Maclean, Chad Heiges, Daisy Whitney, Jeff Baumgartner and Steve Donohue has also been a joy. Competing against gentlemen and ladies  like Tom Umstead, Kent Gibbons, Teddy Hearn, Linda Moss, Linda Haugstead, Mark Robichaux, Todd Spangler  and the late John Higgins was a challenge, of course, but also was very educational. I will post a more personal blog entry later this month. Until then, see you in Chicago. It’s been a pleasure.

May 31, 2011

A Little-Known Parade

I spoke to nearly 20 people a few days ago about the Memorial Day Parade in Washington, DC. All had the same reaction: ‘There’s a Memorial Day parade in DC? Really?’ In fact, there’s been a parade in DC on this day for seven years. Yet yesterday’s National Memorial Day Parade, which featured more than 200 “elements,” as bands, celebrities and floats are known in parade lingo, was the first time the event was produced for television. The 2-hour-long parade down Constitution Ave was carried on Military Channel, The Pentagon Channel, Armed Forces Network and ALN, formerly known as the AmericanLife TV network. While it was a grand day and a fitting way to honor the nation’s veterans, one of the overriding themes of the day, sadly, was the weather. The temperature was a ‘balmy’ 99 degrees along the parade route. DC’s legendary humidity also was in fine form. As Parade Grand Marshal/Army veteran Pat Sajak put it, “I had to follow many orders when I was in the Army, although I had very soft duty. But the order that came with accepting the honor to be Grand Marshal might have been the toughest order I ever got—you must wear a coat and tie.” The Wheel of Fortune host enlisted in 1968 and spent time broadcasting from Saigon for Armed Forces Radio. His 06:00 gig required that he scream ‘Good Morning, Vietnam!’ at the top of his lungs every day, “which is not a smart thing to do,” he said in an interview with Jim Roberts, whose American Veterans Center presents the parade. Wearing a coat and tie this day wasn’t a smart thing to do either. Sajak kept the tie throughout, but removed his coat. [Your blogger, seated in the relative comfort of the covered VIP reviewing stand, also removed his coat about 3 hours into the festivities, which began at 12:30 with pre-parade entertainment and mercifully brief speeches. More power to the members of the US military and foreign military in the reviewing stand, who sported full dress uniforms throughout. Civilians in the reviewing stand were asked to wear business casual.] Despite the heat, the parade program was terrific. There was plenty of color, supplied by bands from all the services and a slew of high school bands from as far away as California. That most of the bands’ uniforms included black slacks, black coats, black hats or black gloves elicited sympathetic groans from the sweating cadre in the reviewing stand. Indeed one band had parents running alongside, spraying water into the mouths of its sweltering marching musicians. You don’t even want to think about the members of the fife and drum corps (heavy wool uniforms, white powdered wigs) and bag pipe troupes (OK, they wore kilts but those fur hats couldn’t have been pleasant this day). Despite the heat there was majesty, thanks in part to well-trained horses. There was also spectacle and fun, supplied by classic cars—including some loud Mustangs—and vintage motor cars carrying the likes of Presidents Teddy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (thankfully those cars were draped with banners announcing that their occupants were re-enactors, removing all doubt, I suppose). There also were celebrities, including Col Buzz Aldrin and actors Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise, who’s taken his Lt Dan character from Forrest Gump and formed a band that raises money for charities supporting US troops. The stars of the show, however, were the veterans, marching proudly down the broiling avenue, their military training kicking back into gear, helping them to block out the heat to some extent. The parade appropriately was divided into segments, honoring those who served in America's wars. The entourage included veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea and Vietnam, but the Revolution, the Civil War, 1812 and the Spanish-American War also were honored. Perhaps most memorable were the WWII vets, including Tuskegee Airmen, resplendent in bright red blazers (see photo below), and 3 survivors of Pearl Harbor. Fittingly, the parade announcers noted the last U.S. veteran of WWI had passed just months ago. There were several nice touches, too. American Indians were honored, as were 9/11 first responders, rescue workers and family members from the NYFD and NYPD (World Trade Center), Shanksville, PA (flight 93), and Arlington, VA (The Pentagon). Yes, it was brutally warm and humid. Sure, the burritos from Chipotle didn’t arrive until well past lunchtime. And just about every band played the same patriotic tunes as they passed the reviewing stand. Still, there was no better place to be yesterday in DC. As Joe Mantegna said, “This is our most important holiday, because it makes all the other holidays possible.” [caption id="attachment_1205" align="aligncenter" width="576" caption="Tuskegee Airmen on their float during the National Memorial Day Parade."][/caption]          

May 17, 2011

Is The iPAD Ruining Complex TV?

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes an article in a newspaper or a magazine makes a point that reminds you other people are thinking, feeling or saying things that you’ve been thinking, feeling or saying. Such are the pleasures of reading. A piece by the well-respected television writer Joe Flint points out that TV producers and show runners are creating dramas that are so complicated they are failing to attract and retain audiences. In many cases the shows are canceled. Part of the  problem, the article says, is viewers are watching TV while looking at another screen, a computer, an iPAD, a mobile phone. The result is the distracted viewer can't follow the shows complexities and details; they lose interest, flip the channel and ratings for that show plummet. The point resonated. For several years at press conferences, I’ve noticed the depth of questions has fallen. The reason? Reporters are simultaneously listening to the press conference, taking notes and blogging. This begs the question: Can anyone divide their attention and still stay focused on the main task at hand? Do you feel safe when you know people are driving and texting and/or phoning at the same time? My brother, a doctor, told me of a fellow he knew in medical school. The student would attend lectures head down, doing The NY Times’ crossword puzzle. Was he listening to the instructor? If you’re one of his patients, you must hope so. Yet this student was so bright it didn't seem to matter. Every now and then he would  pick up his head, raise his hand and make a  comment or ask a question. Invariably the instructor would find the student’s observation so important that the response would be, ‘Gosh, that’s so interesting. I never thought of that.' Or 'I think I should do a paper on that.’ Having made a brilliant observation, but interrupted his main task to do so, the med student would retreat back into his world of 6 across, 8 down. Pity that viewers of these canceled television shows lack the capabilities of that medical student. What about the super-simple plots of reality series? Does the viewer need to lean in there, too? Can a viewer divide his time with a laptop or iPAD and truly appreciate the wit and wisdom of Snooki? Certainly viewers must concentrate a bit more when the show in question is a complicated drama like the excellent Damages, which, I felt, was so detailed it was tough to miss a few minutes, much less an entire episode. Still, as one whose job is reviewing shows, I can assure you even reality shows require concentration from the viewer. In his article, Flint speaks to Laurie Zaks, executive producer of ABC Family’s Castle, a mystery series. Of her young audience she rightly observes, "Most people are watching TV with a laptop on their legs." She  adds, "If you don't capture the audience in the first two episodes, you don't have a chance." She’s right, of course, but wasn’t that the case before laptops also? It’s probably more a question of degree. Before laptops, video games, mobile  phones, TV remotes and cable’s seemingly infinite choice of channels, viewers might have given TV shows a few more episodes before losing interest. But not too many more, I suspect. The larger question is what this means for the future of television. Are we doomed to watch lightly plotted series? Or will show runners decide to amp up their work, realizing that any content—movies, plays, books, music, even commercials—must capture a user’s attention quickly or be gone. In a sense, not only are other shows competing with complicated dramas, so are films, books and Pilates class. Strong content, even with a distracted viewer, remains king.              

May 10, 2011

Disgraceful

May 10, 2011 Here’s fair warning. Tonight's special 2-hour edition of Dan Rather Reports (HDNet, 8pm ET; the program can be seen again Sat and Sun, 11am ET), describing the pitiful state of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS), is one of the most depressing and revolting pieces of television you may ever see. At a time when patriotism seems on an upswing due to the removal of Osama Bin Laden, this special, A National Disgrace, makes you wonder about America all over again. Indeed, Rather and his team had come to Detroit in 2009 to do a piece on the schools. What they found bothered them so much that they decided to spend nearly two years chronicling the appalling situation that is the DPS. And they got so caught up in the hopelessness of DPS to educate a young student whom they were profiling, that they crossed journalistic boundaries and became part of the story (more on that later). To Rather’s credit, he lays out the situation in Detroit slowly and with clarity, although you can almost see him working to control his outrage. Despite the obvious urge to frame this story in sensational terms, Rather is restrained, allowing the actors to speak for themselves. The viewer, on the other hand, could be excused for screaming at the television; the situation at DPS is that bad. After images of burned out Detroit buildings and a review of the history of the city, which left a poor urban class in the city as wealthier citizens moved to the suburbs, the first voice we hear belongs to Dr Connie Calloway, a former DPS superintendent. Describing one of the schools, she says 800-900 students enter the 9th grade here. By grade 11 there are just 345 students left. Only 245 graduate. OK, not great, but what’s really distressing is that of the 245, just 11 will pass a standardized test, which demonstrates minimum competence in reading, writing, math and science. The diploma that most of the graduates receive is a meaningless document. You could almost tell this seemingly hopeless story from those and other numbers. Roughly 50% of the adult population of Detroit is functionally illiterate. With the high dropout rate, it's little wonder Detroit is in such a terrible way. Another number is $250K. That’s the salary paid to the DPS superintendent. Despite a national search, just 20 people applied for the job. The implications are obvious. Rather talks to students, parents and teachers who say there’s not much learning going on in the schools. One student, Deanna Williams, who says she’s desperate to learn so she can go to college, tells Rather that in addition to violence in the schools, she’s witnessed sex in the back of classrooms and in the hallways. More than that, Deanna says one of her substitute teachers was drinking in front of his students. An incredulous Rather challenges her on all this, yet she seems to be a credible witness. We don’t need to take Deanna’s word for a situation involving her sister, Isis. The teen says sometimes it’s weeks before a teacher shows up to teach a class. HDNet’s cameras help here, documenting a day where Isis and her classmates waited for hours before finally being assigned to a classroom. Later in the show, Deanna claims her Spanish teacher is a substitute and doesn’t know enough of the language to teach. After several attempts, Deanna is able to drop the class. Actually, the conditions inside the DPS classrooms aren’t the main focus of Rather’s report. The DPS school board gets much of the attention. HDNet’s cameras are present a several board meetings, documenting the ensuing chaos: parents and activists screaming at the board, the board largely ignoring them. What can’t be ignored is that the board has control of DPS’ $1bln budget. As Rather says, “DPS is not poor.” On the other hand, allegations of waste, fraud and abuse abound. Money, computers and Blackberrys disappear from DPS’ coffers, critics charge. In fact, several DPS employees have pled guilty to embezzlement, and the Feds have been brought in to conduct investigations. Yet no board member has been accused. And with all this money, DPS can’t provide a decent education and the system is running huge deficits. A financial specialist, Robert Bob, was brought in last year from DC to audit DPS. Bob seems a no-nonsense type of guy who says he’s not afraid to make enemies. He unleashes a team of 40 auditors, “an army of auditors,” Rather calls them, who find 5 of 194 DPS schools had proper accounting procedures. “People were writing checks to themselves,” Bob says. He launches 300 criminal prosecutions. Bob says the school board is at fault. Rather remains impartial on this question, allowing the viewer to draw his/her own conclusions. Still, these findings seem to enhance Bob’s power. At this point you believe the situation at DPS might be on an upswing. Bob enlists Bill Cosby to promote DPS and the two mount a publicity campaign to generate confidence in DPS. Sadly, the rest of Bob’s tenure goes badly. The board feels he’s overstepped his role and he’s forced to leave. During his time DPS’ deficit has risen and test scores haven’t. Of course it’s the students who suffer most here. And back to Deanna Williams. Rather and his team are so frustrated with her lack of progress at DPS, they find her a tutor and her grades improve markedly. They help her to research financial aid packages for college. In the end, she graduates from high school and begins matriculating at Eastern Michigan University. Her grades, we are told, are far better than they were during her DPS career. But things are far from hopeful, Rather concludes. Changing “decades of neglect” can’t be done in a few months or a few years, Rather says. To solve the problems at DPS and elsewhere in our country, Rather says, “we must start with an honest accounting.” Bob’s effort to do that was met with “denial, contempt and political posturing by those invested in the status quo.” On issue after issue, “we’ve allowed ourselves to confuse finger-pointing with problem solving…we need to demand more from our leaders and ourselves.”      

May 3, 2011

Treme’s Co-star

It’s difficult to describe all the wonderful touches, myriad layers and complexities that make up HBO’s post-Katrina drama Treme, now in its second season (Sundays, 10pm). Named for a musicians’ village in New Orleans, the series shows how the Crescent City’s culture fights to remain alive while purveyors of that culture struggle with ordinary aspects of life in the aftermath of Katrina. The loss of homes, jobs, pride and loved ones is great, but somehow the food, spirit and music continue, although some compromises are made. One of the stunning aspects of Treme is how real the series is. Although I am generalizing, the people of New Orleans have supported the series, which, they feel, is an honest portrayal of the post-Katrina state of affairs. Co-creator David Simon, during a CTAM session last year, said New Orleans' embrace of the series has meant more to him than the critical praise Treme has received in NY and LA. Throughout New Orleans, bars are filled Sunday nights with people who lack HBO subscriptions watching the series. Want more reality? If you saw either of Spike Lee's fine documentaries about New Orleans and Katrina, you'll swear that many of the people he interviewed are being portrayed in Treme. The action in season II, which began late last month, takes place more than one year after Katrina. Among other things, people are coping with the slowness of insurance companies and the difficulties of living in FEMA trailers or friends’ homes. One character, Chef Janette Desautel (played by the gorgeous and talented Kim Dickens), has left New Orleans altogether after her restaurant went bust. She’s now cooking in a huge NYC restaurant whose head chef makes Joe Stalin seem like a nice guy. (By the way, Travel Channel talent Anthony Bourdain is part of Treme’s writing staff this season and he’s been instrumental in conceiving the plot line for Janette’s character.) Another character, Professor Creighton Bernette (John Goodman), has succumbed to the depression that rattled many residents. In last season’s finale, he took his life. His widow, victim rights attorney Toni (recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo), and his feisty teen daughter Sofia (India Ennenga) are attempting to live without their husband and father, respectively. It’s not going well. But not everything and everyone is down. An influx of developers, who see big business in rebuilding New Orleans, has arrived from other parts of the country. Are they purely opportunists? Or do they genuinely want to help and if they can reap some FEMA money in the process, well, so be it? It’s not clear. And something else is on the rise, crime. Unfortunately, like nearly all the elements in Treme, the rise in crime was not imagined by series co-creator Simon. A former Baltimore Sun reporter, Simon is a stickler for accuracy. That’s why much of the shooting is done on location and why the plot is sprinkled with references to actual events. [For a weekly explanation of those references, there’s no better source than Dave Walker, the TV writer at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, whose Treme Explained blog posts are a treasure trove of insight into each Treme episode.] In another quest for reality, Simon has cast non-actors in several parts, including a few of the line cooks in the restaurant scenes. They actually are working chefs. But back to the rise in crime. Like the chefs, it's real and continues to this day in New Orleans. A Justice Department report issued recently says the city’s murder rate is 10 times the national average; the report also blasts the police for brutality, unauthorized searches and general misconduct. Some of the entanglements involving the police that occurred right after Katrina still today are being untangled. As a device for examining the dynamic between the police and the people of New Orleans, Simon has introduced Lt Terry Colson as a vexed senior police officer. Lt Colson (played by the terrific character actor David Morse) knows the police did their best during Katrina’s chaotic aftermath. Yet he acknowledges mistakes were made during that somewhat anarchic period. He navigates the police bureaucracy to quietly assist crusading lawyer Toni with cases on behalf of people who were wronged, but he does so carefully, befitting his position as a member of the New Orleans PD. Another piece of reality in Treme is the music. Since several of the characters in Treme are musicians, each week’s episode is chocked full of performances, in varied styles and venues. Sometimes the fictional musicians in the series interact with real performers, including local New Orleans icons like singer John Boutté (that’s him singing the series’ theme song) and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. The music is so good that an NPR Music blog devotes itself each Monday to a discussion of tunes heard during the previous night’s episode. And HBO makes videos from the soundtrack available on iTunes after the show premieres each Sunday evening. Next Sunday May 8 the episode opens with a gorgeous rendition of jazz standard Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most. After seeing a montage of where each of the series’ characters is as spring arrives, we realize the piece is being played on violin at an exhibition opening by Annie (Lucia Micarelli). Annie spent much of season 1 living  hand to mouth as a fiddler on New Orleans’ streets. This season her career is progressing and she’s playing in clubs. Interestingly Micarelli, 28, who is both a terrific musician and a beautiful woman, actually is a Julliard-trained violinist. And while the actors portraying musicians in Treme are doing a great job pretending to play their instruments, Micarelli’s the really thing. On the other hand, before Treme she’d never acted. All in all, I’d say she’s doing a pretty good job helping Simon deliver a form of reality television we can appreciate.   [caption id="attachment_1172" align="aligncenter" width="800" caption="Davis (Steve Zahn) and Annie (Lucia Micarelli) sort CDs in a scene from HBO's Treme."][/caption]      

April 25, 2011

Is Snooki America?

Peggy Noonan’s regular weekend column in The Wall Street Journal, Declarations, has become a must-read for many in DC and throughout the country. Her background is formidable: best-selling author of 7 books; special assistant to President Ronald Reagan (1984-86); speechwriter for George H.W. Bush (1988); writer and producer at CBS News in NY, where she wrote Dan Rather’s daily radio commentary. She has a knack for capturing the nation’s pulse, or what she perceives it to be, and putting it on paper, usually before others do. She writes things many of us have thought, but haven’t necessarily said. A talented writer, Noonan crafts her columns so that they are useful for political insiders and general citizens alike. And, despite her political leanings, they are somewhat evenhanded. This past weekend she took up the argument that America is too busy abroad and should look inward. Doing so, she joined a debate that’s nearly as old as the country itself: should America be a nation or an empire? But instead of cracking that old chestnut with purely geopolitical or economic arguments, Noonan made the case that America should rethink its foreign activities because one of its primary assumptions is incorrect. Arguing that there’s “a new skepticism about America’s just role and responsibilities in the world in 2011,” Noonan attacked the “burly, muscular, traditional, but at this point not fully thought-through American assumption that our culture not only is superior to most, but is certainly better in all ways than the cultures of those we seek to conquer.” She correctly noted, “We are modern, they are not. We allow women freedom, they do not. We have the rule of law, they do not…We have religious tolerance.” At this point you might be wondering what all this has to do with cable. Wait. To advance her case, Noonan used the anthropological device of seeing America through the eyes of a foreign visitor. She wrote:   “Imagine for a moment that you are a foreign visitor to America. You are a 40-year-old businessman from Afghanistan. You teach a class at Kabul University. You are relatively sophisticated. You're in pursuit of a business deal. It's your first time here. There is an America in your mind; it was formed in your childhood by old John Ford movies and involves cowboy hats and gangsters in fedoras. You know this no longer applies—you're not a fool—but you're not sure what does. You land at JFK, walking past a TSA installation where they're patting the genital areas of various travelers. Americans sure have a funny way of saying hello! You get to town, settle into a modest room at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue. You're jet-lagged. You put on the TV, not only because you're tired but because some part of you knows TV is where America happens, where America is, and you want to see it. Headline news first. The world didn't blow up today. Then: Click. A person named Snooki totters down a boardwalk. She lives with young people who grunt and dance. They seem loud, profane, without values, without modesty, without kindness or sympathy. They seem proud to see each other as sexual objects. Click. Real Housewives. Adult women are pulling each other's hair. They are glamorous in a hard way, a plastic way. They insult each other. Click. Local news has a riot in a McDonalds. People kick and punch each other. Click. A cable news story on a child left alone for a week. Click. A 5-year-old brings a gun to school, injures three. Click. A show called Skins—is this child pornography? Click. A Viagra commercial. Click. A man tried to blow up a mall. Click. Another Viagra commercial. Click. This appears to be set in ancient Sparta. It appears to involve an orgy. You, the Kabul businessman, expected some raunch and strangeness but not this—this Victoria Falls of dirty water! You are not a philosopher of media, but you know that when a culture descends to the lowest common denominator, it does not reach the broad base at the bottom, it lowers the broad base at the bottom. This Jersey Shore doesn't reach the Jersey Shore, it creates the Jersey Shore. It makes America the Jersey Shore. You surf on, hoping for a cleansing wave of old gangster movies. Or cowboys. Anything old! But you don't find TMC. You look at a local paper. Headline: New York has a 41% abortion rate. Forty-four percent of births are to unmarried women and girls. You think: Something's wrong in this place, something has become disordered. The next morning you take Amtrak for your first meeting, in Washington. You pass through the utilitarian ugliness, the abjuration of all elegance that is Penn Station. On the trip south, past Philadelphia, you see the physical deterioration that echoes what you saw on the TV—broken neighborhoods, abandoned factories with shattered windows, graffiti-covered abutments. It looks like old films of the Depression! By the time you reach Washington—at least Union Station is august and beautiful—you are amazed to find yourself thinking: "Good thing America is coming to save us. But it's funny she doesn't want to save herself!" My small point: Remember during the riots of the 1960s when they said "the whole world is watching"? Well, now the whole world really is. Everyone is traveling everywhere. We're all on the move. Cultures can't keep their secrets. The whole world is in the Hilton, channel-surfing. The whole world is on the train, in the airport, judging what it sees, and likely, in some serious ways, finding us wanting. And, being human, they may be judging us with a small, extra edge of harshness for judging them and looking down on them. Noonan concludes: “We have work to do at home, on our culture and in our country.”   Well played, Ms Noonan. You’ve made some important points, but your evidence is circumstantial. So our Afghan visitor flipped on his television in the Hilton and found Snooki, Real Housewives and a bevy of Viagra commercials. My guess is Ms Noonan has it wrong. Our visitor’s first reaction to his television would have been, ‘My goodness, Americans have so many channels to choose from. And on some of the channels, the picture is so clear (this is his first experience with HD).This really is a land of plenty.’ After overcoming feeling overwhelmed, our visitor could have flipped to HBO and seen one of the terrific documentaries that Sheila Nevins, HBO’s doc chief, has brought to the channel. Or perhaps our visitor caught a glimpse of Treme, the excellent series about post-Katrina New Orleans that’s in its 2nd season on HBO. (Of course, if he’d seen Treme, he’d wonder why America is letting such an important part of its heritage languish for so long after Katrina. But that’s another story.) And since our visitor was tuned to HBO, he saw no commercials, Viagra or otherwise. Had our visitor flipped channels at another time or in another direction in his hotel he might have found TCM or a classic film on AMC, or a blockbuster on Starz or Showtime. Perhaps he would have caught an indie film on IFC or Sundance. Surely he would have been impressed with Hollywood, one of America’s biggest cultural and economic exports. Perhaps he would have flipped to a C-SPAN network and marveled at being able to see a Senate debate or a House committee hearing. 'Gosh, how transparent the government is over here,' he might have thought. Maybe he would flip to a good show on History, Nat Geo or Discovery; he could have caught an arts show on Ovation. Maybe he felt like escaping, so he watched Camelot on Starz, Game of Thrones on HBO or The Borgias on Showtime. Perhaps he wanted to laugh and caught The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. If it was the right time of day and correct season our visitor might have been able to watch the quintessential American sport, baseball, on ESPN, TBS or WGN. And since he was in NY, odds are he would be able to catch a Yankees or Mets game on YES or SNY. Of course, he’d be subject to plenty of Viagra commercials watching those sports channels, but you get my point. Sure, Ms Noonan is correct, there’s plenty to complain about on television. And she’s right that there are problems here at home with our culture, our values and our infrastructure (Ms Noonan rightly touted the majesty of DC’s Union Station, but anyone who’s taken the short walk from the Station to NCTA’s headquarters will tell you the street between these two spots is lined with homeless people; surely our Afghan visitor would have noticed them). But while Snooki and Real Housewives are part of American culture, they are only one part. Snooki is not America and The Jersey Shore is not totally representative of America, as Ms Noonan fears. In her anthropology experiment, Ms Noonan assumed our Afghan visitor was sophisticated. Surely then she must give him enough smarts to figure out that the people on our so-called reality television series are just barely real. In addition, if she allows him to flip a bit more he’ll find there’s plenty of uplifting, edifying content on his hotel television. And while my version of our foreign visitor’s channel surfing—Viagra commercials aside—is a lop-sided embarrassment of riches, Ms Noonan’s version is equally one-sided. I believe I am correct in expecting a more balanced view from Ms Noonan, who, after all, is hardly a media novice. She’s received multiple Emmy nominations for writing a PBS special about 9-11 and for her work on a pretty good piece of television called The West Wing.

April 12, 2011

Ovation’s Ovation For Spacey

Among the highest compliments one can pay an actor is to say that a performance was so natural you couldn’t see the acting occurring, you couldn’t see the gears moving. That was the case the other night at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, when nearly 2500 arts activists were treated to a tour de force by the actor Kevin Spacey.

The occasion was the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Art & Public Policy, a yearly speech about the arts, given in memory of a former chief of The National Endowment for the Arts. The cable arts network, Ovation, was a major sponsor of the evening, which kicked off a slew of activities surrounding Arts Advocacy Day in Washington.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that few if any of the 23 distinguished people who preceded Spacey to the Hanks podium over the years have presented the lecture with more gusto than the 2-time Academy Award winner and Tony recipient.

Obviously thespians have an unfair advantage when it comes to giving speeches. It’s what Spacey and other Julliard-educated stage actors are trained to do. Still, the combination of a master actor’s talent and Spacey’s dedication to arts education produced an evening as impressive and enjoyable as any I’ve experienced in the theater.

Using a printed text, but often speaking from memory, Spacey’s oratory style ranged from controlled diplomacy to highly emotional, with several apoplectic episodes. Between quoting from an eclectic pastiche of arts proponents, including previous Hanks lecturers Maya Angelou and Arthur Schlesinger Jr, but also Richard M. Nixon, Langston Hughes, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy—“after all it’s his hall we’re in”—Spacey wove the sections of his address together with a simple and personal question: “Does it matter?”

Does funding the arts make a difference? Does providing opportunities for school-age children to see live theater, music, visual arts and dance matter? Does it matter that exposure to the arts can change a single child’s life?

Spacey told of a boy growing up in New Jersey in the 70s. Shy, awkward and lacking confidence, the boy was sometimes assumed to be dull, Spacey said. In 1974, aged 13, the boy participated in an arts day at his school. He was chosen to deliver a dramatic monologue and did so. The actor Jack Lemon was in attendance that day. Lemon sought out the boy, put his hand on the kid’s shoulder and told him his performance was terrific. “’You really connected with the character, kid,’” Lemon said. The boy was a lad named Spacey.

“I wouldn’t have had that experience…found my voice…my self-esteem…my confidence” without the vigorous funding then afforded to the arts, he said.  Indeed, a photo projected on a large screen center stage showed a somewhat goofy-looking 13-year-old kid. Between the ages of 11 through 19, Spacey said the opportunities he had to attend live theater, symposiums, workshops and other training was outstanding. Arts funding then was enjoying its salad days. The experiences Spacey had during those years had “everything” to do with who “I am today,” he said emphatically.

The Lemon-Spacey connection reoccurred 12 years later when Spacey, then a young actor, auditioned for the role of Lemon’s son in a Broadway production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. He got the part and eventually worked in a trio of films with Lemon, cementing a lifelong friendship. “He was like a father to me,” said Spacey, who several times broke into a hilarious imitation of the Lemon inflection and patois.

“So, does it matter? You bet it matters,” Spacey said emphatically to thunderous applause.

The rest of Spacey’s talk was no less compelling, if a bit more impersonal. Primed for a heavy day of lobbying on Capitol Hill for arts funding, along with activists and fellow actors Alec Baldwin, Kerry Washington and Hill Harper and a small army of other arts activists, organized by Americans for the Arts, Spacey was well armed to make his case. His arguments began with the familiar and moved beyond the prosaic.

So does it matter?

Without federal arts funding, we risk “losing our cultural life,” he said. We can’t allow government cuts to put “our cultural life at risk.” Such cuts could create a society where only those with means, “who can afford Broadway prices,” will be exposed to the arts. He said this a bit sheepishly, aware that on some level he’s part of the system that charges high prices.

Though standing in the most political of cities, Spacey tried to steer clear of politics. “This is not about politics,” he said more than once. Noting Nixon’s support of the arts, he quoted the former president and frustrated pianist as saying, “Arts are vital to enhancing life among all Americans…[the arts are an] invaluable resource.”

And while Eleanor Roosevelt advocated federal funding for the arts, the first federal arts-funding bill didn’t come to be until the tenure of Nixon’s one-time boss, Dwight Eisenhower. It was in ’58 when that bill was approved to fund a national arts center. That building became The Kennedy Center.

So, does it matter?

At this point, Spacey was rolling. The arts touch so many fields, he argued. Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne devised his famed blocking schemes after watching a dance recital. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, told that spending for WWII would decimate arts funding, retorted, “Then what are we fighting for?”

Spacey touted the arts with defense and national security arguments. The arts combat political persecution and “downright cruelty.” We’ve seen that in this country, he said, where African-American culture in music, poetry and dance began as a way to escape, if only briefly, the darkness of oppression. “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” Spacey quoted JFK as saying. Moreover, “countries may go to war, but culture unites us,” he said.

Even despots know the arts are important. That’s why the first people corralled by newly installed dictators are writers, painters and actors. Even such evil people know artists can “move mountains with their words,” Spacey said.

Yet in tough economic times, aren’t the arts a luxury we can’t afford? No, was Spacey’s retort. “Culture provides the magic” of life, he argued. The country of Scorsese, Gershwin and Coppola should understand this, he stressed. Are the arts not America’s most potent export? And don’t the arts provide economic growth through restaurants and hotels that surround theaters and concert halls?

And the power of the arts, specifically drama, served another president well. Spacey noted during the darkest days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln remained more even-tempered than many because of his frequent excursions to the theater. Lincoln’s “artistic thirst” began when he was a poor boy in Illinois, Spacey said, reading Shakespeare so often he memorized it.

So, does it matter?

Then Spacey addressed the elephant in the room. Why should a Hollywood actor like himself dedicate his life to arts and arts education, as he’s done for the past 7 years as artistic director of London’s Old Vic Theater? Shouldn’t he spend his time between films lounging around a “kidney-shaped pool” in Beverly Hills waiting for his next script to roll in? “I’m paying back a debt to Mr. Lemon,” was his answer. Moreover, Spacey’s adamant that today's school kids have the kind of access to the arts that he enjoyed. If there are no school theater programs, who’ll train kids for Broadway, Spacey asked. “We abandon the arts at our peril,” he said somberly.

And if you’re successful in your chosen field, you’re obligated, as Lemon said often, to “send the elevator back down, because in life, it doesn’t matter what floor you’re on, there’s always someone just below you.”  We should all “keep a twist of Lemon” in our lives, Spacey said to laughter.

The question, Spacey said prior to a rousing ovation, is “can we afford not to support the arts?”

So, does it matter?

Apparently so. Slated for nearly a 26% cut by the House, the NEA emerged from Friday's late-night emergency budget negotiations with a 7% reduction. NEA's $155mln budget compares to its 2010 funding of $167.5 mln. Yet the 2011 budget for NEA, if approved, would be higher than both the initial House mark of $124.4mln and the White House's request of $146.3mln.

[The photo below shows Ovation CEO Charles Segars (left) and Americans for the Arts chief Robert Lynch flanking actors and arts advocates Kerry Washington and Kevin Spacey. Segars and Washington co-chaired Arts Advocacy Day.]

     
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