Ask The A.V. Club - June 6, 2008
The Privileged Few
I'm pretty much paraphrasing what I left in the comments section on Sean's Sasquatch write-up, but since this really isn't directed at Sean, Ask The A.V. Club seems appropriate.
First off, I enjoyed Sean's write-up of the Sasquatch Festival, and have no problems with him. But any time I read a festival review from a media source, I can't help but feel jaded. The thing I dislike in these write-ups is that the experiences seem so unreal from what I have/would have experienced. Things like media passes, backstage passes, and random indie/comedy/indie-comedy celebrity run-ins just don't happen to 99.975 percent of the festival-going public. I don't blame anyone for taking advantage of these, but it comes off as being part of a cool club that 99.975 percent of those interested (a.k.a. those reading the write-up) can't be in. At a lot of festivals, I have to stand around for an hour ahead of time just to be able to see, let alone be "close." If I've been waiting around and someone tries to cut in front of me, by my standards, they're a jerk. So what does that make media people with their set-jumping-right-to-the-front-row ways? Write-ups heavy on the hanging out with Okkervil River, or getting backstage passes from some other band, or being let into a capacity-filled comedy show by the indie-comedic celebrity himself, just seem very hipster d-baggish to me. (I'm at work; I don't want to use words that may get flagged.)
I may be offbase with my assumptions and spite, so I'm wondering about the facts: Do media people get to cut in front of the crowds? Can they jump from set to set quickly enough as to see multiple sets in the same timeslots? Are there any policies about this at The A.V. Club? Are there instances where you "try to keep it real" more so than others? I understand where the festival would want the press to be able to do these things (the more you'll be able to see and the better your experience is, the better a write-up you'll do), but when does the line get crossed to where one might feel like a shill? (Please understand that I'm not trying to imply anything here about Sean or The A.V. Club.) If one were doing a review for something (anything) and the company producing it threw a bunch of gifts the reviewer's way, journalistic integrity might come into play. When do media privileges turn into gifts that could affect journalistic integrity?
As you can probably guess, most of my dislike comes from envy. But it's like having your high-school experience be retold by the captain of the cool club. (A wise teacher of mine would always say "analogies prove nothing"—so actually, it's not.) Keep up the good work.
Sean O'Neal left the VIP area long enough to answer:
Thanks for reiterating that you don't have a problem with me, Steve. I was reading this over with my good friends Gary Busey, Bijou Phillips, and the guys from Haircut 100, and we all agreed that was very charitable of you—between convulsive snickers of derision at your lowly Everyman status, of course. Then we hopped into one of those limos with a built-in hot tub and motored off to a nightclub so exclusive that if the unworthy were to speak its name aloud, their tongues would turn to boiling oil. Being a big-time journalist rocks!
Anyway, to answer your question seriously: Attending a rock festival as a member of the media—particularly in these ill-defined times, when everyone with a blog can apply for press credentials—is hardly ever the backstage rock 'n' roll fantasy you're making it out to be. But I won't lie; it sometimes has its advantages. At something like SXSW, for instance, the ability to sidestep the wristband crowd and get into the much shorter badge line does enable us to jump from set to set with only a minimum of worry that we won't be able to get in, thereby ensuring more comprehensive coverage for you, the reader. (And yeah, for more selfish pursuits, at certain "exclusive" after-parties, finding a fan of The Onion working the door means the difference between drinking free booze well past the point of logic, and just going home and getting some much-needed sleep.) Plus sometimes, in the "press tent," you get free bottled water or bags of Baked Lays. Glamorous, right?
But no, in the case of something like Sasquatch, having "media privilege" didn't net me much of anything other than access to free wireless and the small strip of road between stages, which in turn afforded me the opportunity to ambush musicians who'd somehow strayed away from their handlers. Yes, my media sticker did include access to the photo pit right in front of the stage, but I never thought to use it. (In retrospect, I kind of wish I had.) I actually saw every set the same way as everyone else: In the cold, in the rain, and often from the top of the hill—which required lugging my increasingly soft blogger's ass from stage to stage just like the rest of my fellow concertgoers, and straining to see over the crowd once I got there. I didn't do that to "keep it real"; I just have no interest in fighting my way to the front just because I can. Besides, being jostled by members of the "real media" and their hugely phallic, "professional" cameras while I'm fumbling with my tiny Nikon is an exercise in Freudian humiliation I just don't need.
The fact that a lot of my write-up was heavy on the "hanging out with Okkervil River" side can be blamed on two things: First of all, I have this icky compulsion to write about events exactly the way they happened. As some of your fellow commentators pointed out, that often translates to a lot of "whining when I should have been rocking," and obsessively chronicling all the minutiae of where I am at any given moment. My editors call this "behind the curtain" reporting (as in, "O'Neal, this report is a little too 'behind the curtain'"), but while it probably takes some of the shine off events like this, in my opinion, it makes for a more engrossing read. My favorite kind of music-festival reporting uses this navel-gazing, warts-and-all approach—such as Charlie Brooker's hilarious piece on Glastonbury from last year—and for me, it actually seems kind of counterintuitive to do it any other way. Granted, that attitude is symptomatic of the new "me-first" reporting style that, depending on your personal opinion, is either reinventing or killing journalism as we know it. But personally, I figure that if readers really just wanted flat, editorial appraisals of the performances without any color, personality, or irrelevant digressions, there's always the local weekly.
Second of all, most of those "hanging out" stories are a byproduct of things that have nothing whatsoever to do with so-called "media privilege." In my case, I've known the members of Okkervil River and What Made Milwaukee Famous for years, simply by virtue of living in the same town. My own bands shared stages with them in their early days, and—as I mentioned in my write-up—Will Sheff used to work with me at a video store, so hanging out with them has less to do with me hobnobbing with "indie-rock stars" (note mocking tone) than me desperately seeking out familiar faces while I'm so far away from home. And writing about it is just my way of trying to be entertaining—not to mention humanizing a world that too often gets caught up in fawning idolatry. But the rest of my celebrity encounters either happened by completely random chance—and believe it or not, most of them occurred on festival grounds, far away from any sort of VIP Shangri-La where celebrities and media types fed each other grapes and engaged in witty discourse—or through painstaking planning, weeks in advance, with various publicists. I'm positive you or anyone else could have had the experience I had with folks like Brian Posehn, Eugene Mirman, David Bazan, and Kathleen Edwards, for example, because my own spur-of-the-moment interviews were repeatedly interrupted by "regular" folks coming up to unload questions of their own. (Jerks! Didn't they see my super-serious "media" badge?!?)
You've pointed out the only time I exploited my Onion credentials at Sasquatch (asking Matt Besser to let me into the Upright Citizens Brigade show), and I hope you also noticed that I copped to it in the article. In that moment, my natural instinct to not be a badge-waving, name-dropping douche was usurped by my need to report on the show—and in instances like that, yes, I am thinking of the reader. Had I been forced to wait in line like everyone else, my write-up wouldn't have included anything at all from the UCB shows, because I just would have given up in favor of trying to cover something else. And I hope you also noticed that my getting preferential treatment didn't color my mostly tepid appraisal. That same commitment to "keeping it real" goes for any sort of "special" treatment I get, including any and all free merchandise sent my way. In fact, the opposite is usually true: The more a publicist bothers me, the more likely I am to have a preemptive grudge against their band. That's how I operate, anyway, because I'm naturally kind of bitter.
In summation, I resort to using my media credentials only in service of a better, fuller story, and not to be a dick. And I would argue that my festival experience really isn't more fun than anyone else's—in fact, it's usually a little bit less so, considering I never get to just watch a show and have a few beers anymore. Instead, I'm always scribbling notes and worrying I should be elsewhere—with the threat of the "I can't believe you didn't see (blank)! For shame!" comment always in the back of my mind—and enviously watching other folks just "rocking," since at the end of the night, they all get to go home and pass out while my workday is only beginning. So if you're jealous of me and all of my supposed specialness, allow me to throw that right back at you: Any shred of "privilege" we get comes with that price. Though don't get me wrong, because I absolutely love what I do; having seen rock shows from all sides (as a performer, as an audience member, and as a journalist) I'm definitely happiest in my latest role. But the existence of any sort of "cool club" is only an illusion, and one that's totally relative—just like it was in high school.
Who Got The Look?
I used to think of TV directors as workmen for hire, craftsmen as opposed to artists, who, at their best, get the job done quickly, efficiently, and with as little fuss as possible. However, as production values have increased and a more sophisticated/cinematic quality has become the norm for television dramas in particular, I find myself increasingly aware of and impressed by what a skilled director brings to the table. Still, directors rarely appear to be a primary creative force behind TV shows, which brings me to my question: Who is responsible for establishing the "look" of a show? Every show has its own distinctive look, from lighting to camera positioning to scene transitions, and so on. In film, one would feel fairly comfortable identifying the director as the one determining what the product ultimately looks like (even while acknowledging the contributions of the cinematographer, production designer, etc.), but TV works differently, doesn't it? Directors are still hired guns, right? Are directors intimately involved in the development of a new show? If so, why aren't they spoken of as creative forces in the same way as producers, creators, and show-runners?
Noel Murray—who used to perk up when he saw Asaad Kelada's name in a sitcom's credits—replies:
The main reason directors aren't cited as a primary creative force on a TV series is because the demands of TV production usually prevent a single director from helming every minute of every episode of a TV series, which makes it hard to think of a TV director in the same "buck stops here" way that we often think about movie directors. On TV, head writers, show-runners, and executive producers—titles sometimes held by a single person—outrank their directors almost every time. (Although they all ultimately have to answer to network executives.)
But that doesn't mean that a TV director's contribution to the direction of a show is negligible. When it comes time to shoot a pilot, the producers and writers work in close collaboration with their director to establish their permanent model. And it isn't always a smooth process. In Bill Carter's book Desperate Networks, Carter describes the conflict between Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry and director P.J. Hogan, whom ABC wanted to head up the pilot. Hogan assumed he'd be the one in charge, and would have the liberty to rewrite and reconceive Cherry's labor of love. When Cherry balked, Hogan quit, claiming the writer was impossible to work with. And since at the time ABC had more faith in the director of My Best Friend's Wedding than a former writer for The Golden Girls, Desperate Housewives almost died in development.
At other times, though, producers purposefully hire directors with a high level of taste, skill, and vision, and count on them to get their ship launched in the right direction. And then they take the helm themselves and follow course. Clark Johnson's work on the first episodes of The Wire and The Shield come to mind, as does James Burrows' staggering list of sitcom pilots.
Given how rigid a TV series' style quickly becomes, it can be an interesting experiment for auteurists to see how their favorite directors submit to the will of the system. When Quentin Tarantino directed episodes of ER and CSI, he was able to smuggle in some of his own personal style, and even reaching back to the early careers of Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, and Sam Peckinpah, their TV work often bears traces of what they would later do when they had total control. At its purest, directing is supposed to be about framing, camera moves, and managing performances, and sometimes it's easier to discern how directors handle those elements when most of the stylistic choices have already been made for them.
In the end, though, TV is a fundamentally different medium from cinema—in terms of storytelling, if nothing else—and while some directors shine on both the big and small screens, the ranks of directors who can be exclusively called "TV auteurs" is fairly small, and unlikely to swell any time soon.
Look! A Wagon Wheel!
Having grown up in the '70s and '80s, I watched copious amounts of Saturday-morning teevee. I remember the annoying PSAs on ABC featuring the Time For Timer guy, later parodied on Family Guy. I also vaguely remember, years earlier, that same character in a surreal educational cartoon about the human body. The most surreal element is that it involved Buffy and Jody from Family Affair. Through the magic of animation, they were inside the body of Uncle Bill and helped fight off an infection. Does this ring any bells? No one but my brother and I seem to remember this.
Donna Bowman hankers for a hunka cheese:
Annoying? I think you misspelled "awesome" in your question, there, buddy. Timer actually began his career in the ABC Afterschool Special The Incredible, Indelible, Magical, Physical Mystery Trip, which aired in 1973. You're right about the plot, but wrong about the principals—nobody from Family Affair was involved. Your synapses appear to have crossed due to the similarity of the characters' names—Joey and Missey and their ailing Uncle Carl in the Afterschool Special, Jody and Buffy and their indulgent Uncle Bill in the series.
Voice actor and wacky comedian Len Maxwell provided the voice for Timer as he guided animated versions of the kids through their uncle's overweight, stressed-out, couch-potato body. Friz Freleng and David H. DePatie (who together are best known for the Pink Panther series) produced. Composer Edward Newmark contributed five original songs, including "Have A Heart." I'm betting anyone who saw the Timer bumpers on Saturday-morning television can make up their own words to that title and sing it in true vaudevillian-Timer style.
This was only the fifth Afterschool Special of the first season, and it proved so successful that a sequel was ordered up for Season 2: "A Magical Trip Through Little Red's Head." Lennie Weinrib, a prolific voice actor who wrote and starred as the title character in all 17 episodes of H.R. Pufnstuf, replaced Maxwell as Timer's voice. (He's called Timer, by the way, because he's the manifestation of your body's circadian rhythms, telling you when it's time to do this or that.) In this installment, he led two different kids, Larry and Carol, through a healthy teenaged Little Red Riding Hood's mind. Little Red seems like an odd role model for clean living, given the whole sexual tension with the wolf thing, but these were simpler times.
Weinrib continued to voice the character in his PSA incarnation on ABC, providing us with the immortal cheese-glorifying song and others, like this instructive video on making fruit-juice ice pops. (Kids: Don't ask the sketchy guys hanging out on the corner for any Sunshine On A Stick.)
Next week: A matter of good character. Send your questions to email@example.com.