The Velvet Underground: Sound vs Success

After reading Joe Harvard’s piece on The Velvet Underground and Nico I wasn’t sure to expect from the music. What had been described was a plethora of different sounds that didn’t seem to me to mesh well together at all, but in retrospect make for quite a unique sound. With inspirations as wide ranging as the poppy sound of the Beatles, all the way to the down to the earth folk goodness of Simon and Garfunkel,  Velvet Underground mixes and matches sounds with surprising success.  This is in line with what Harvard described in his piece, as the constant struggle between creative control and off-beat sound make for a fascinating one.

 

One such element that is clearly the centerpiece of Harvard’s analysis is the involvement of Andy Warhol with the band. This interesting history is wonderfully retold by Harvard, as he moves from the inception of the band, all the way to their first real collaboration in a recording studio. “The band soon became part of the multimedia “happenings” that Warhol had been planning, but which had yet to materialize.” (Harvard 136) Here, Harvard describes how the bands unique mixture of sounds meshed with the celebrity status of Warhol, as well as describing just how much was going on in a particular venue when the band played. One aspect of the bands indie factor was the aforementioned celebrity status of Warhol, who used it to shield the band from any intervention on the part of corporate big wigs.

 

Celebrity or Bond villain? You decide.

While Warhol did provide the band with such protection, Harvard is also quick to point out his lack of experience as a producer. “Warhol recognized that he could only offer the band limited aid in the specialized world of record companies, lawyers, and publishers.” (Harvard 138) However, this didn’t mean that Warhol wasn’t able to surround the band with the technical talent to allow their first album to become a reality. “Fair is fair; with Warhol in and out of the studio, only Dolph and Licata were present in the control room for the entire time the album was being made.” (Harvard 142) Ultimately, by surrounding them with the necessary tools for success, Warhol provided The Velvet Underground and Nico with the means to make their music. “Overall, any evaluation of Warhol’s managerial tenure has to acknowledge the dual role he played. His administrative shortcomings were certainly counterbalanced by the creative stimulus he provided the band. It was in that role that he was of inestimable value to them, and to their first album.” (Harvard 139)

 

Getting back to the band’s sound, it is undeniably unique in its own right. By mixing and matching the sounds of their particular era in music, The Velvet Underground is able to etch out its own unique vibe. I can only describe it as something akin to if The Beatles, The Doors, and The Blue Oyster Cult met up in a bar and decided to record an album. It’s something else for sure.

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Action Hour: To Boldly Go

In Derek Kompare’s piece Domestic Syndication in the Post-Network Era, he discusses how syndicated television became the backbone of major broadcast networks after the multi-channel transition. One specific example he uses is the “action hour”, where networks tried to appeal to a core demographic in the 18-34 range of age. CBS in particular found success in reviving its Star Trek series by re-establishing its footing on television in the mid-80s with the advent of The Next Generation.

 

Set phasers to 18-34.

 

One key to this process was the institutional changes that had taken place at CBS since its heydays back during the network era. Kompare describes how CBS and other major networks had become part of larger conglomerations that had effectively run out all other competition by the 1980s. “Accordingly, the most fundamental change in the organization of television  over the past two decades–the consolidation of studios, networks, cable systems, broadcast stations, syndication distributors, and other media entities into a handful of large corporations–has affected the relationship between theses sellers and buyers.” (Kompare 58) This would in turn inform the relationships between advertisers and the distributing networks. Syndication would take a turn for the worse by becoming of less importance on into the 21st century, but for the time being, it remained a key for networks.

 

 

We are the Borg. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated into the collective.

 

Now that CBS had become one consolidated entity (see above), they could now utilize other branches that shared their corporate allegiance. One such ally was Paramount Pictures and its production facilities. These studios would provide CBS with the essential components to craft a first run syndicated program, whereby they would have a stable product to rake in viewers. But what would be a safe bet of a product that could produce huge ratings on a consistent basis? The answer lay in a franchise that had left the airwaves all the way back in 1969.

 

It is highly logical that we may only last three seasons captain.

 

While the original Star Trek series that premiered back in 1966, backed by Desilu, never found mass appeal, it produced a loyal fan-base that was rabid for more episodes. It would not, however, return to the small screen until 1987, when the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation would premiere on September 26th. While fans seemed initially reluctant to accept the new crew of the Enterprise NCC-1701-D, they would grow to become highly popular, and highly profitable, over time. As Kompare notes, “By the mid-1990s, this ‘experiment’ greatly expanded the Star Trek franchise through two additional television series, an extended feature film series, and myriad merchandise.” (Kompare 60) CBS had found syndication gold in TNG by bottling a beloved science fiction franchise up into digestible chunks of hour long programming.  By utilizing every component of their greater whole, CBS was able to craft what would become a ratings juggernaut for seven seasons. Consequently, they provide a great example of first run syndicated television for Kompare to analyse and contrast to the blander syndicated brethren. If anything, Star Trek: The Next Generation represents a watershed moment within television as a medium that showed just what corporate conglomerations were capable of. As a matter of fact, you can probably still catch episodes of TNG on Spike TV, SyFy, or stream them via Netflix. This proves just how much syndicated television pays off in the long term.

Why read the caption when you can look at the picture?

Out of Sight or Ocean’s 10?

1998’s Out of Sight was director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney’s first collaboration.  It would lead to a highly profitable partnership that would in turn produce the Ocean’s franchise for Warner Brothers. This would lead to both Soderbergh and Clooney starting their own production company, Section Eight, which would serve them in their future endeavors together. As deWaard and Tait point out in their chapter entitled Impresario of Indiewood: Soderbergh as Sellebrity Auteur; “(Section Eight) focused on distributing challenging films to the multiplex and shielding them from studio interference.” (pg 38) But did the successful formula start with Ocean’s 11, or was their first collaboration in fact the spark that started the fire?

 

 

Out of Sight shares many aesthetic elements with its Ocean’s counterparts which give it a flare that is still uniquely Hollywood. These similarities start with its protagonist, Jack Foley, who’s habits of thievery have landed him in prison. Much akin to his counterpart Danny Ocean, the central character in the Ocean’s trilogy, Jack is a witty, cunning crook who is as good at pulling peoples strings as he is at cracking safes. This specific character is portrayed by George Clooney, who, as I’d like to note, is excellent at playing lovable anti-heroes. Aside from the protagonist, the overarching narrative seems to conform to what deWaard and Tait label “an idea of ‘pure entertainment’ (as being) at the core of the (Ocean’s) series.” (pg 51) This is incredibly apparent in its repeated turns toward a happy ending. For example, the final act of the film, while featuring plenty of murder and mayhem, takes a decidedly playful turn towards the tale end. Our protagonist Foley finds himself cornered by his love interest Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), instead of ending in bloodshed, however, they are able to navigate their way out of Foley going back to prison. This leads to a Hollywood ending if there ever was one, as our two main characters end up riding off into the sunset together.

 

How could you possibly shoot a man as handsome as this?

 

This is all to say that Out of Sight conforms to the same staples that the Ocean’s trilogy does. Lovable anti-hero played by George Clooney? Check. Twisting and turning heist narrative that features a romantic sub plot? Check. Eventual happy ending? Bingo. As deWaard and Tait state quite eloquently, “Ocean’s Eleven has all the necessary ingredients of a high-concept block-buster: a pre-sold property in the form of a remake, slick visuals set to an infectious soundtrack, a familiar crime/heist genre, witty dialogue, fashionable costumes, a glitzy setting in Las Vegas, and multiple music montages.” (pg 50) Aside from the pre-sold property and the setting, Out of Sight definitely fits the bill.

Quintessentially Indie: Sex, Lies, and Videotape

When Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989, it took audiences by surprise with its frank discussion of human sexuality. This bold film took on a topic that Hollywood all to feebly played at and hit it out of the park. For its accomplishments, it was awarded the coveted Palme d’Or, which in turn launched its then unknown director into the stratosphere. It is for these reasons and many more, that we can regard it as being a quintessentially indie product that at the same time was a breath of fresh air even to the festival scene of the late 80s. 

Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you Ultron in all of his naked glory.

Like indie titles before it, Sex, Lies, and Videotape spread by word of mouth. This was due to its core narrative content, which centered around characters that were embroiled in a hyper-sexual world of storytelling. To me it was a modern Shakespearean play, but laid out on a 20th century stage about a taboo subject that even that legendary playwright could only hint at. Its indieness also stemmed from its ability to vault its director into the public conscience and make him into one of the bright new American filmmakers of the future. It also had this effect on its star James Spader, as he saw interest in his acting craft  increase exponentially after his win for best actor at Cannes. All of this is to say that Sex, Lies, and Videotape performed exactly like an indie film should according to how Newman perceives it. It acted as a launching pad for the people who put an immense amount of time and effort into such a small project compared to the typical Hollywood competition. Funny enough, Spader himself is now a centerpiece of one of the worlds highest grossing film franchises, as he has been picked to play Ultron in the upcoming Avengers sequel.

The eagerly anticipated sequel to Sex, Lies and Videotape, Marvel presents: Fighting, One Liners, and Digital Imagery

But the promotion of the cast and crew of the film weren’t its only indie elements, as it also tackled a subject that many films are afraid to even whisper of. The aforementioned complexities of the narrative and its level headed approach to such a private topic are another aspect of Soderbergh’s work that make it stand out as independent. Even the title is upfront with what the film is about to delve into. Its so simple, yet so wittily brilliant at the same time. As a matter of fact, I’m sure the title had something to do with the films eventual success in wider domestic release as well as on the home video market. If there is any one truth in entertainment, its that sex sells. It spread like a wildfire from the festivals to theaters across the country and then finally into living rooms across America. This in turn allowed it to redefine the boundaries of what indie could become. Newman notes this in his piece, as he clearly defines a pre and post Sex, Lies indie scene. He even mentions that the director, while happy for the success of his film, found it unfortunate that it raised the bar so high for the rest of the field that it became an almost insurmountable barrier to entry in the first place. The advent of the mini-majors soon followed, as big Hollywood now wanted to replicate the success of Soderbergh’s work. All of these aspects make Sex, Lies, and Videotape a polarizing film for indie cinema, because while it revolutionized how we perceive what indie is, it also created a new barrier for aspiring indie filmmakers to transcend. A step back? A step forward? Who knows, its indie.

Sling Blade: Indie or Hollywood?

 

Sling Blade is a quintessentially indie movie. From the aesthetically different qualities of its design to the motivations of the main protagonist, the film leaves the viewer with a quandary to solve.   In Murphy’s introductory chapter, he discusses the facts that Hollywood and indie cinema are inextricably linked. As he notes in the beginning of his introduction, even the film festivals that are meant to foster and promote indie cinema are in place because of Hollywood. “In terms of the symbiotic relationship between independents and the Hollywood industry, it should also not be forgotten that the Sundance Film Festival, the single most powerful independent showcase and an event that has become synonymous with independent film, depends on the financial backing of Robert Redford, a Hollywood star” (Murphy 3). So does Sling Blade’s reliance on its star Billy Bob Thornton make it more Hollywood and less indie? Not according to Murphy, whose thesis is that “the film script is the heart of the creative originality to be found in the independent movie” (Murphy 6). Based on Murphy’s rule set, and more specifically in his reference to Syd Field, does Sling Blade fit the indie bill?

 

Is it indie? Even the characters are having a hard time deciding.

 

Right from the get go it certainly has all of the trappings of an indie film. The introduction of the main character creates an air of ambiguity as to his motivations and previous actions. In fact the protagonist doesn’t even have a line at first, instead he lingers on screen, seemingly incapable of expressing his thoughts. As the filmmakers have established before the fact that our setting is a mental hospital, it is up to the viewer to understand that the main character himself is somewhat disturbed and fractured psychologically. When Karl (Thornton) finally does speak it is to describe the reason he ended up in the mental hospital in the first place. This, I suppose, fits the bill of a Hollywood film in that it gives the back story of the character to the audience  directly from the dialogue. However, even as Karl describes his brutal actions, he still has an indelible impact on the audience as being an endearing character. This is due to a number of things that Thornton as an actor does with the character. He hunches over in his chair, his accent is laid on thick, and he comes off as being a quirky yet good hearted person. This is of course starkly contrasted by the description he gives of how he murdered his mother while she was committing adultery with another man. So while we are given something to work with in terms of a back story, the character himself is still a bit of an enigma.

 

The second act is much more straight forward, reintroducing Karl to the real world and having him adjust. He befriends a young boy and his mother, who put up with an abusive step father character. Just as Field would have it our conflict is immediately made apparent. What will Karl do to help the boy and his mother? Obviously they will have to clash by the end of the film, but what form will their confrontation take? The difference here is that instead of being so clear cut, again we are presented with a situation that is a powder keg just waiting to explode. Instead of immediately blowing up however, it is allowed to linger as the fuse burns. The second and third act in point of fact are very much character based, with Karl in the foreground and the conflict simmering beneath him. It would seem to me to fit Newman’s idea of an indie piece based on its character-centric driven narrative.

 

They still can’t decide.

 

Moving on into the third act we are finally given a conflict resolution when Karl ends the step fathers life rather abruptly. Again the treatment of the killing itself is quite different from your standard Hollywood show down. Instead we are given a fairly calm sequence where Karl asks the step father Doyle how to call the police. uninterested by the whole situation Doyle quips that he’d better call either an ambulance or a hearse if Karl is going to kill him. Then Karl simply rises from his chair and hacks twice with little to no sound and that’s that, conflict resolved. So again it fits in with Fields vision in terms of being toward the end of the third act, however it is much less bombastic then what is expected from something considered to be Hollywood.

 

So while it does fit with Murphy and Field’s ultimate summation of a three act structure, it goes about it in an incredibly unique way. To Newman I think it would be considered assuredly independent based on its character focus, aesthetic qualities and overall economic costs. However, according to what Murphy and Field agree upon, and that is that the screenplay is the ultimate decider of what is and what isn’t indie; Sling Blade would fit the bill of a three act Hollywood drama.

 

Just let him eat his taters in peace.

GTA: Changing Perceptions

After reading the Levine article for class on Monday I checked in on one of my favorite gaming websites to browse any new developments. With Grand Theft Auto V on the horizon, IGN has been posting new articles previewing the game over the past week. The latest article delves into GTA’s history and its progression through the 90’s and into the 2000’s. It details how GTA has gone from pure escapist fantasy all the way to a clever satirization of modern America. I couldn’t help but relate back to the Levine piece that I had just read. It seems to me that, within both popular as well as gamer culture, GTA has gone from being wholly reviled to  being the peak of storytelling in games.

Don’t get me wrong, its still seen by many as being an overly violent murder simulator. However, to many within the gaming community, GTA 4 changed that perception. Instead of a two dimensional, cardboard cutout of a protagonist, we were given Niko Bellic. Here was a foreigner who had just made his way to America, the land of opportunity. But instead of a simple rags to riches story, Niko finds he is valued for his killing prowess and is subsequently engulfed in the world of crime within Liberty City (New York). What followed was a 40 plus hour experience that saw Niko losing more and more of himself in a blood soaked realization of the American dream. Much akin to Brian De Palma’s Scarface, the fourth installment in the Grand Theft Auto franchise was a monumental success in terms of storytelling within an industry that was sorely lacking such experiences.

So I suppose what I’m really trying to ask is, can GTA transcend the cultural perception that it had made for itself? What if in 20 year Grand Theft Auto 13 is the most hotly anticipated critical release of the year? If I read Levine’s article correctly, which is entirely in question; what I understood was that media in time can become less or more significant so as to raise it into the public conscience as being high culture. Who knows, maybe some day video games will be considered high culture.