Comic-Con Movies: From Tentpole to Shoestring

Actor Rainn Wilson and Director James Gunn discussing their indie film 'Super' at WonderCon 2011

Notes from WonderCon 2011

Although the name “comic-con” is based on the event’s origins as a convention for comic book fans, the comic-con has morphed into a broad survey of popular culture. Fans flock to these conventions in San Diego, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere, not just to complete their comic book collections or strut around sporting the costume of their favorite superhero, but also to see clips and attend panel sessions on forthcoming movies and television shows. This year’s WonderCon in San Francisco included the debut of an extended nine-minute sequence from The Green Lantern and clips from Hanna, Priest, and many of the other big budget summer movies.

While crowds mob into the large auditoriums at the comic-cons (such as the famed Hall H at the San Diego event) to uncover new details about their favorite television series or see a trailer from a forthcoming film, elsewhere, in the smaller meeting rooms, are discussions of more modest productions — independent films from up-and-coming directors and works-in-progress from first-time filmmakers.

At this year’s WonderCon, the middle ground between the big summer blockbusters and the low-budget entry-level works was exemplified by James Gunn’s Super. In a panel session director Gunn and actor Rainn Wilson (Dwight Shrute from “The Office”) talked about their radical reinterpretation of the superhero ethos, which is at turns outrageously funny and shockingly disturbing.

Gunn asserted that today “all studios care about is the opening weekend. So all that matters is the trailer.” Wilson lamented the difference from “the old days, in which ET could build an audience over several weeks.” He also pointed out that every studio is trying to release a “four quadrant” film, that is, one that appeals alike to young and old, male and female.

Gunn, however, is targeting a smaller, niche audience. His film’s odd tone and disturbing violence made the movie ineligible for an ‘R’ rating, so Gunn released the picture without an MPAA rating.

Gunn and Wilson were promoting a screening of Super in town that evening, imploring the audience members to come out to see the film “and bring your friends.” Wilson mentioned that each week he reviews spreadsheets showing  the ticket sales from each theater. For a movie of this scale, whether or not you bring a few friends makes a difference.

'What's Next in Indie Sci-Fi' Panel at WonderCon 2011

In an even smaller meeting room, a panel session on “What’s Next in Indie Sci-Fi” included an assortment of “do it yourself” filmmakers working to complete their own independent projects. Clips of works-in-progress and trailers without final music or sound effects provided insights into the process of creating a feature film on a shoe-string budget. A number of these efforts are using fan-funding campaigns through sites such as Kickstarter in hopes of securing the resources to complete their work.

Some of these potential films look promising. Others less so. Here are the filmmakers and the works they discussed on that panel. Take a look and judge for yourself:

Henry Barrial, Pig: http://thepigpicture.com/

Kip Rasmussen, The 95ers: http://95ers.com/

DJ Bad Vegan, In-World War: http://www.inworldwar.com/

Vincent Cortez, Roamer: http://filmmaker-cortez.blogspot.com/2011/02/roamer-trailer-and-status-update.html

It’s encouraging that in addition to the mass-market, “tentpole” productions that are pulling out all the stops to garner a large turnout for that critical opening weekend, comic-cons also provide a platform for indie filmmakers like Gunn and lesser-known aspirants working to express their personal vision on the big screen.

The next time you attend a comic-con — whether San Francisco’s WonderCon, the huge San Diego Comic-Con, or the other similar regional conventions — take some time away from blockbuster panels in the huge auditoriums. You’ll see all of these films as soon as they’re released anyway. Rather than hang out in Hall H in the San Diego Convention Center all day, venture into the smaller meeting rooms on the fringes of the conference and seek out the small, independent productions to discover what gems may be hiding there.

 

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WonderCon 2011 in Photos

Notes from WonderCon 2011

Photos from WonderCon 2011 are available in my Flickr photostream — 241 photos covering all three days from the opening on Friday through the close on Sunday afternoon.

Separate sets are available for some of the major panel sessions, including:

Immortals: Tarsem Singh, Henry Cavill, Luke Evans, Isabel Lucas, and Mark Canton

Immortals, with director Tarsem Singh; actors Henry Cavill (also cast as Superman in Zack Snyder’s forthcoming film, Man of Steel), Luke Evans, and Isabel Lucas;  and producer Mark Canton.

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Hanna: Joe Wright and Saoirse Ronan

Hanna, with director Joe Wright and actor Saoirse Ronan.

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Priest: Scott Stewart, Paul Bettany, Lily Collins, Cam Gigandet, and Min-Woo Hyung

Priest, with director Scott Stewart; actors Paul Bettany, Lily Collins and Cam Gigandet; and artist Min-Woo Hyung.

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Super: James Gunn and Rainn Wilson

Super, with director James Gunn and actor Rainn Wilson.

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Dr. Who: Toby Haynes, Mark Sheppard, and Neil Gaiman

Dr. Who,” with director Toby Haynes, actor Mark Sheppard, and writer Neil Gaiman.

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V: Marc Singer, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Scott Rosenbaum

V,” with actors Marc Singer and Elizabeth Mitchell, and executive producer Scott Rosenbaum.

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Green Lantern: Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively

Green Lantern, with actors Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively.

 

 

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And, of course, there are all the attendees who came in costume. There is also a set documenting an intriguing transmedia ad campaign for Acura and Marvel Studios’ Thor that I described in a previous post.

 

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Advertising as Entertainment

Mysterious images appear on the television in my hotel room. Look closely and you may spot Thor's hammer and an Acura automobile.

Notes from WonderCon 2011

The San Francisco version of Comic-Con, known as WonderCon, is a combination convention, festival, and weekend-long party for fans of comic books, superheroes, science fiction, and other genres of popular entertainment. It’s an opportunity for fans to see clips from forthcoming sci-fi and fantasy movies and television shows, meet celebrities, and shop for comic books, action figures, and similar fare. It also may provide a glimpse of the future of marketing.

One of the ad campaigns at this year’s WonderCon was a transmedia event jointly promoting Marvel Studios’ upcoming film Thor and the Acura automobile. Acura is apparently the official automobile of S.H.I.E.L.D., the fictional spy agency in the Marvel universe. According to Variety, this is the first film partnership for the luxury car company, for which advertising agency RPA has crafted a multifaceted marketing campaign — one that came knocking on my hotel door the first morning of the conference.

When I answered the door I was handed a card that stated, “You have been selected. Report to channel 72. Your official debriefing begins now.”

“Channel 72? On the TV?” I wondered. I turned on the television and switched to channel 72.

A series of mysterious images rapidly flashed across the screen. “Media Confiscation. Record number: 34857.” The image of a meteor crater. A governmental-looking logo.

On multiple viewings I could spot flashes of Thor’s hammer and quick — one might even say subliminal — shots of a car: an Acura.

The video asks, “Do you accept?” The spot ends with a web address: JoinSHIELD.com.

I went online to JoinSHIELD.com. The single page on the site thanked me for “considering global employment opportunities at Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division” and asked for my email address. I obediently entered it.

After leaving the hotel and heading toward WonderCon at the Moscone Convention Center, I encountered a tent guarded by a figure in a SWAT-like military costume patrolling a line entering the tent.

A sign proclaimed, “S.H.I.E.L.D. ID Badge Line Starts Here” A sleek black Acura was on display.

I asked a young woman who has just received her S.H.I.E.L.D. ID what the card would do for her. She wasn’t too sure, saying “They’ll send you viral stuff or something.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising to see young fans lined up to participate in marketing campaigns at WonderCon. Many of the presentations at Comic-Cons are, in fact, largely promotional events hosted by major movie and television studios.

While WonderCon hosted a number of sessions on the creative, historical, and sociological aspects of comic books and popular entertainment (“Breaking into Comics the Marvel Way,” “Goal-Setting for Creative Types,” “The Evolution of Comics in the Transmedia Space,” etc.), the largest events were those sponsored by the studios in the Moscone Center’s 5,000-seat Esplanade Ballroom. The marketing bent of these presentations was quite evident. Many sessions opened with the trailer for a forthcoming film or TV show. Near the end of one session the host shouted, “Wouldn’t you like to see that trailer again?” The crowd roared and then sat through the extended commercial for the second time.

For their rapt attention at these infomercials, the fans receive special rewards. They are the first to see nine minutes of footage from The Green Lantern staring Ryan Reynolds. They view the first publicly-shown footage from Tarsem Singh’s The Immortals. They may have the opportunity to ask a question of one of their favorite stars during one of the panel sessions. The fans trade their time and attention for bragging rights and logo-themed T-shirts. As entertainer Chris Hardwick characterized the appeal at one of the panels, “I have a thing you don’t have, other nerds. So you lose!”

I, too, waited on line for my S.H.I.E.L.D. ID. I don’t know why. Nonetheless, I filled out the form, entered my name and address, and checked a box agreeing that, “Yes, I would like to receive more infromation from S.H.I.E.L.D. and Acura.”

I now have my S.H.I.E.L.D. ID. I await the “cool viral stuff or something” that may ensue.

In a world cluttered with commercials trying to reach this key demographic of avid movie, TV, and pop culture fans, at WonderCon they wait in line to surrender their contact information in order to receive additional advertising. Welcome to the future of marketing: advertising as entertainment.

The screenshots and marketing collateral in this article may be copyrighted materials, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the production companies or the advertising agencies which created them. It is believed that the use of a limited number of web-resolution screenshots and scanned images for identification and critical commentary on this material qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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The Spirit of Laurel Canyon

Laurel Canyon Country Store

Wedged along a twisting road in the Hollywood Hills, the Canyon Country Store welcomes all. Photo: Kendall Whitehouse

Following Adobe Systems’ MAX developer’s conference in Los Angeles in late October of last year, I attended a performance by singer/songwriter Kat Parsons at a private home in Los Angeles’ storied Laurel Canyon. It was an apt location for an intimate evening of music.

Canyon Country Store: Welcome All

Canyon Country Store: “Welcome All” Photo: Kendall Whitehouse

While the history of Laurel Canyon reaches back to the dawn of the film industry’s arrival in Southern California — Western star Tom Mix purchased an early Canyon tavern and made it his home — the Canyon’s most notable inhabitants were musicians in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Graham Nash’s “Our House” was written about the Laurel Canyon home he shared with Joni Mitchell. Mitchell’s own album “Ladies of the Canyon” pays homage to the Canyon’s mystique. Frank Zappa lived in the cabin formerly owned by Tom Mix. The Doors’ Jim Morrison lived in the Canyon with Pamela Courson on a small side street immortalized as “Love Street” in the Doors’ song. Other Canyon residents of the era included David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Carol King, Jackson Browne, the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Don Henley, the Doors’ John Densmore and Robby Krieger, and many other musical artists both famous and obscure.

Before the arriving for the concert that October evening, I stopped by the Laurel Canyon Country Store (the “store where the creatures meet” in the Doors’ “Love Street”) to pick up a bottle of wine as a house-warming gift.

Canyon Country Store: You Are Here

Canyon Country Store: “You Are Here” Photo: Kendall Whitehouse

Although it’s been more than a third of a century since Morrison, Zappa, Mitchell and the others frequented the establishment, the late-1960s vibe is still in evidence. By the entrance, the store’s name dances with brightly-colored psychedelic lettering. As you approach the store from the cramped parking lot you’re greeted with a sign that cheerily proclaims “Welcome All.” And then there’s the mirror inset in the heart that reminds you that “You are here.”

Each year the store organizes “Laurel Canyon Photo Day” when the residents of the Canyon assemble in front of the store for an annual photograph.

As the proprietor was ringing up my wine purchase I looked up at the over-sized print of the photo from last year, taken on November 1, 2009. Just to make small talk, I asked, “When is this year’s photo?” “It was last weekend” he replied and added, “Sorry you missed it.” I demurely pointed out, “Well, I wouldn’t qualify to be in the photo — I’m not from around here.” The proprietor genially responded, “We would have loved to have had you.”

The offer sounded quite sincere. It made me smile.

Wedged along a twisting road in the Santa Monica Mountains between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, in the Laurel Canyon Country Store, the spirit of the 60s lives on.

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Knowing Alex Proyas’s ‘Knowing’

Alex Proyas's 'Knowing'

Whether Deterministic or Random, the One Thing We Know

Alex Proyas’s 2009 film Knowing is a science fiction thriller wrapped inside a philosophical discourse. But a discourse about what?

Roger Ebert was one of the few major critics who gave the film a positive review. Ebert also authored a blog post exploring what he sees as the movie’s central theme: Whether the universe is deterministic or random — or, more to the point, whether human beings have free will or are merely watching a predetermined fate unfold.

I agree with Ebert’s overall assessment of the movie — it’s both thrilling and thought-provoking. But I take a somewhat different view of the film’s underlying theme. (Note: Major spoilers are included in what follows.)

Nicolas Cage in Alex Proyas's 'Knowing'The story’s main narrative does, indeed, focus on determinism versus free will. The plot follows Nicolas Cage’s character, John Koestler, as he deciphers the clues on a mysterious piece of paper that has been buried in a time capsule for 50 years. The seemingly random sequence of numbers on the paper turn out to be anything but random — they accurately predict the date, location, and number of fatalities of every major catastrophe since the message was buried.

Early in the film, Koestler engages his students in a discussion of determinism versus free will. In the course of this exchange, however, the film’s focus subtly shifts. The topic becomes not whether life’s events are predetermined, but whether they hold any deeper meaning. Koestler, for his part, doesn’t believe they do. “I think shit just happens” he tells the class.

This question of life’s meaning inches closer to what I believe to be the film’s the core issue: How we deal with the one certainty of our existence — its inevitable end. Knowing that we will die and, in passing away, leave our children alone to create a future without us, how do we abide such knowledge?

Koestler’s estranged father, a minister, believes that he and his wife will be together in heaven following their deaths. John Koestler has no such faith. Having lost his wife in a tragic accident, he and his son Caleb are now alone in the world, relying only on each other. The source of Koestler’s strength to endure, his one belief, is that he and his son will be together forever.

But, of course, they won’t. Parents pass away and leave their children behind. And once we accept the accuracy of the film’s chilling predictions, the movie becomes a relentless march toward the moment when Koestler and his son will be separated forever.

To its credit, Proyas’s film has the courage of its convictions. Once we learn that the list of predictions ends with a victim tally that includes “everyone else” and the earth will be destroyed by a gigantic solar flare, the film doesn’t pull any punches. As predicted, this terrifying future unfolds on screen.

One of the film’s characters — Lara Robinson’s Abby Wayland — has, since her childhood, been told the date of her death. It is the date of the apocalypse that climaxes the film. Ironically, the character dies not in the planet’s destruction, but in a seemingly random traffic accident earlier the same day. It matters not how we die, but only that we inevitably do.

Whether the day-by-day events of our world are deterministic or random is, ultimately, of only academic importance. Either way, our death is inevitable. John Koestler’s understanding — and acceptance — of this truth is at the heart of the film.

Images from Knowing are from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Toynbee Idea in Movie '2001

Toynbee tile currently visible at the northeast corner of 37th and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. Photo: Kendall Whitehouse

Uncovering What Lies Beneath

In M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 film Signs, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), asks his brother:

“What kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?”

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles by Philadelphia filmmaker Jon Foy, is about the kind of people who see signs, who look beyond the everyday surface of things to uncover what lies beneath. People drawn into the mysteries of the world.

In this case, the mystery in question is a series of linoleum tiles inscribed with cryptic messages embedded into the asphalt of roadways in Philadelphia and other cities. The tiles, most roughly the size of an automobile license plate, began to appear in the early 1980s. The message most commonly found on these artifacts is some variation of the following:

'Resurrect Dead' poster

Poster for ‘Resurrect Dead’.

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOVIE 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

While Philadelphia appears to be the nexus of the tile activity, nearly identical tiles have been found across the Eastern U.S. in New York, Boston, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Washington D.C., as well as in several South American locations including Santiago and Buenos Aires.

While the tiles have occasionally sparked minor news stories over the years, both their origin and meaning have remained a mystery for nearly three decades,

Foy’s documentary follows its protagonist, Philadelphia house painter and aspiring artist and musician Justin Duerr, on his quest to uncover the meaning of the tiles and find whoever surreptitiously placed them in the middle of public roadways.

Duerr, we are told, was a promising art student in his early years, but was something of a misfit who would often skip school. He is someone “out of step with the world.” His brother tells us he was bullied in high school. Duerr dropped out of school at age 16 and moved into a squat with other youngsters in Philadelphia. Duerr’s crusade to unlock the mystery of the tiles gives his life focus and appears to become more than merely a search for the identity of the tiler — it’s a quest to discern the pattern behind the seeming chaos of the world.

Duerr’s investigation follows a tortuous path as he and fellow tile-seekers Steve Weinik and Colin Smith labor to decipher the clues they uncover: details in the text of the tiles, an old Philadelphia Inquirer article about a strange phone call received by columnist Clark DeLeon, a play by David Mamet which may or may not be based on a real-life call to a late-night radio talk program, pirate shortwave radio broadcasts that invade local TV news programs, and interviews with a menagerie of colorful Philadelphia characters who are possibly connected to the tiles. Clues that seem too meaningful to be coincidences turn out to be dead ends. Others lead deeper down the rabbit hole of the mystery of the tiles. Duerr and his compatriots persist as the trail becomes increasingly bizarre.

The film is, in a sense, a profile of an individual dedicated, perhaps a bit obsessed, with another obsessive personality. Mr. Duerr wants to solve the mystery of the tiles — to know who made them and why — but he also desires to establish a meaningful connection with the elusive tiler.

Jon Foy

The movie is also a tale of mass communication in the pre-Internet era. When spurned by the traditional media, the unknown communicator uses fliers, shortwave radio transmissions, and the roadway tiles to broadcast his message. While the more ephemeral of these media have faded away — and would likely have been lost to history were it not for the detective work of Duerr and company — the tiles endured. Although many have deteriorated or been paved over from subsequent road resurfacing, many tiles from the early 1980s persisted for decades after their creation.

Making the movie was itself something of an obsession for Foy. He had long known about the tiles, but his plans for the film were hatched when he crossed paths with Duerr through a quirk of fate involving a crank phone call Foy intended for his roommate that was unintentionally picked up by Duerr. Foy subsequently dropped out of UT Austin and embarked on the project to document Duerr’s quest to uncover the mystery of the tiles. While working on the film over a period of five years, Foy funded his effort by cleaning houses and participating in medical research studies.

By the end of the film, Duerr and company believe, based on a large amount of circumstantial evidence, that they have identified the individual behind the tiles. And Mr. Duerr arrives at a new understanding of his own quest to encounter the mysterious tiler.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles works on many levels — as an investigation of a historical puzzle as well as an inquiry into what motivates individuals to find the meaning hidden deep within the mysteries that lie, quite literally, right beneath our feet.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles was directed, edited, photographed, and scored by Jon Foy; and written by Jon Foy and Colin Smith. The film is currently seeking distribution.

[Update 1:] Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is distributed by Argot Pictures and begins a theatrical run on September 2.

[Update 2:] My interview with director Jon Foy appears in Knowledge@Wharton:
Building a Mystery: The Toynbee Tiles and Jon Foy’s Filmmaking Quest

[Update 3:] For additional information on subsequent screenings, photos, and reviews, see ‘Resurrect Dead’: Photos, Reviews, and Ongoing Mysteries.

 

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Soylent Green is Content

Soylent Green

Content Farms, Echo Sites, and the Future of Online Content

Investors today snapped up shares of Demand Media, whose IPO gave the company a valuation of close to $2 billion — more than that of the New York Times Co.

Demand Media is a prime example of a new kind of media entity, one made possible by the Internet and by the dominant use of a single search engine — Google — to access content on the web.

Demand Media’s properties include eHow, Cracked.com, Answerbag, and others. The company oversees what are typically characterized as “content farms” — sites which generate large volumes of quickly-produced, content-light material. This flood of content is tailored to the topics for which people frequently search (“driven by demand” as Demand Media’s tag line states). By paying low rates to create their content, optimizing for Google’s search engine, and generating many pages daily, sites in the Demand Media network have become among the most visited on the web. Furthermore, Google’s page rank algorithm often results in these pages being prominently featured in Google search results. By running Google’s AdSense ads on this rapidly expanding universe of content, the revenue rolls in.

Richard McManus at ReadWriteWeb has been covering this trend for some time. Over a year ago McManus railed against Google to “wake up and smell the coffee” and “find better ways to surface quality content.”

Earlier this week in a blog post titled “Google Search and Search Engine Spam,” Google’s Matt Cutts outlined the company’s plans to reduce the amount of “webspam” in Google’s search results.

Cutt’s readily admits that “As we’ve increased both our size and freshness in recent months, we’ve naturally indexed a lot of good content and some spam as well.” He goes on to say that Google has recently taken steps to “[make] it harder for spammy on-page content to rank highly.”

Beyond tackling traditional methods of gaming search engines such as detecting the misuse of keywords, content “screen-scraped” from other sites, and hacked sites,  Cutts also mentions Google’s recent moves to control the rankings of content farms “with shallow or low-quality content.”

The money Google makes from AdSense placements — which are typically the only source of revenue for content farms — have caused some to question whether Google is truly motivated to eliminate such practices. Fortune reports that AdSense accounts for 30% of Google’s revenue.

Google’s Cutts firmly denies the assertion that Google actively assists these sites:

One misconception that we’ve seen in the last few weeks is the idea that Google doesn’t take as strong action on spammy content in our index if those sites are serving Google ads. To be crystal clear:

  • Google absolutely takes action on sites that violate our quality guidelines regardless of whether they have ads powered by Google;
  • Displaying Google ads does not help a site’s rankings in Google; and
  • Buying Google ads does not increase a site’s rankings in Google’s search results.

These principles have always applied, but it’s important to affirm they still hold true.

While one can gripe about the quality of content in sites like Demand Media and other content farms like Answers.com, they do, at least, produce original content. Other, less reputable, sites merely grab content from elsewhere on the web to automatically generate pages to host Google’s AdSense ads.

Even a high-end site like the Huffington Post, which  provides a valuable service by highlighting and summarizing interesting content from around the web, generates much of its revenue based on the original work of others. To the extent that, as the New York Times reported nearly two years ago, the “Huffington Post summary of a Washington Post or a CNN.com report may appear ahead of the original article” in Google’s search results, something is wrong with how the search engine prioritizes content.

While it may be difficult to algorithmically assess “authoritativeness” in the abstract sense, one would think Google could, at the very least, differentiate the primary source of content from sites that echo or abstract it.

Google’s recent emphasis on “freshness” has exacerbated the problem. In an attempt to address the rise of “real-time” social media such as Twitter and Facebook, Google’s page ranking algorithm apparently gives priority to how current a piece of content is. But in many cases the most recent item may not be the most authoritative. Worse yet, this plays directly into the hands of content farms and aggregators that pump out large volumes of specious content at a furious rate.

The conclusion of the 1973 film Soylent Green (spoiler alert for those who have never seen it) is disturbing not only for its allusion to institutionalized cannibalism but, as well, for the more abstract notion of a society feeding on itself — a society so devoid of an external source of nutrition that it has to consume itself in order to survive. If the economic incentives continue to favor those who churn out low-value content or re-purpose the material of others — rather than those who generate meaningful original content — the future of the web may be equally bleak.

Image from Soylent Green is a screenshot from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the studio which produced the film. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

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Bruce Springsteen: December 9, 1980

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Philadelphia Spectrum on October 20, 2009

Nearly three decades after "The River" tour in 1980, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rock the crowd at the Philadelphia Spectrum on October 20, 2009. Photo: Kendall Whitehouse.

This past week an old friend of mine posted to her Facebook page a fond remembrance of her first Bruce Springsteen concert on December 9, 1980. My first Springsteen show was a bit earlier — in July, 1975, at Kutztown State College — but I was also at the show at the Philadelphia Spectrum on December 9, 1980.

My friend’s reminiscence reminded me that a decade earlier I had posted my own recollection of that concert in response to a post on rec.music.artists.springsteen (for those of you old enough to remember Usenet newsgroups). Here (with a few minor editorial tweaks) is what I wrote ten years ago about that night two decades earlier:

I was there that night. It was amazing.

Tickets were nearly impossible to get for that show but, through a stroke of luck, I had a friend with an extra ticket who invited me to the concert as her guest.

When I woke up that morning, my very first thought was “I’m gonna see Bruce tonight.” I was ecstatic.

Then I turned on the Today Show and heard the news. Mark David Chapman had shot and killed John Lennon the previous night. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed impossible.

I didn’t know what to think about the concert that night. Would Bruce still go on? Will he give a short concert and then retire to his home to be alone? As the lights went down at the Spectrum that night you could sense the strange mood of the crowd — anticipation mixed with sadness and apprehension.

Then Bruce stepped on stage  and — rather than doing the usual countdown for the opening number — walked to the microphone and said (as I recall it from 20 years ago). “It’s hard come out here tonight. ‘Twist and Shout’ was the first song I ever learned the chords to. But sometimes you just gotta go on…”.

Then he shouted “One, two…” and the band tore into “Born to Run.” And the concert began. The band seemed to play with a desperate intensity that night. As if it were the only thing you could do; the only thing that mattered.

Then, after an incredible concert that ended with a version of the “Detroit Medley” that seemed to go on forever, the band broke into “Twist and Shout”. The Spectrum house lights were up throughout the song and you could see everyone in the crowd singing and dancing.

And, I know it sounds corny now, but — there, at that moment — I thought: rock and roll is important. It can change people’s lives. And it will go on forever.

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Stephen Elop’s Quest for ‘Unparalleled Customer Experiences’

stephen-elop-wharton-conference-w520.jpg

Stephen Elop at the Wharton Business Technology Conference, 2009

Friday’s announcement that Microsoft Business Division president Stephen Elop had left the Redmond company to assume the position of president and CEO of Nokia has elicited a range of responses from industry observers — some encouraging, others less so.

Writing for BusinessWeek, Aaron Ricadela, Diana ben-Aaron, and Peter Burrows point out that Elop “brings a history of iconoclastic decisions that may benefit the Finnish mobile-phone maker as it competes with nimbler Silicon Valley rivals.”

Like a number of commentators, the BusinessWeek writers underscore the relevance of Elop’s experience in software, since it is the underlying software, more than the handsets themselves, that differentiates the current generation of mobile devices.

While Dan Frommer, writing for Business Insider, also praises Elop’s software background, he takes a more dour view of his selection to run Nokia:

Elop doesn’t have consumer electronics experience, or much consumer Internet experience — and his big competitors Apple and Google have a lot of it. And Microsoft is hardly the example of cool these days, especially the Office or smartphone divisions.

Frommer sums up his view with this dismal assessment: “[Elop] sounds like another suit, and not the dreamer that Nokia needs to beat Apple and Google.”

Elop’s recent hopscotch career is certainly open to multiple interpretations. At the end of a lengthy tenure at Macromedia he succeeded Rob Burgess to become CEO in 2005 — shortly before the company announced its merger with Adobe Systems. Elop subsequently occupied relatively brief stints at Adobe Systems, Juniper Networks, and Microsoft.

Despite the eclectic background, a key theme that runs through Elop’s work is a focus on user experience. At the Wharton Business Technology Conference in early 2009 Elop unveiled a Microsoft concept video titled “A Glimpse Ahead” that presented a portrait of the next generation of connected technology. While the content of the video is interesting, its style is equally significant — a point Elop emphasized when I interviewed him for Knowledge@Wharton following his presentation:

I came from companies where the experience is fundamentally the differentiator. In the video [presented at the Wharton Business Technology Conference], you saw our focus on: What is the user experience? What is the interaction model? How can we advance that cause?

Elop also explained that at Microsoft’s Business Division he had “six strategic imperatives” one of which was “to delight our customers with unparalleled experiences.” Elop readily admitted that “Microsoft does this sometimes; other times it does not.”

This focus on user experience is key to the success of mobile devices. And at Nokia Elop may have more latitude to achieve that goal than he did at Microsoft.

Microsoft Office is that company’s largest source of revenue. Microsoft tends to approach innovation in its existing products cautiously in order to avoid undermining their rich revenue streams. Nokia — facing a serious challenge from more innovative competitors like Apple and Google — may be better place for Elop to aspire to his goal to “delight…customers with unparalleled experiences.”

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Burning Bayreuth: The Gonzales Cantata and The Hunger Art

Soprano Julia Bullock

Soprano Julia Bullock as Alberto Gonzales

Melissa Dunphy’s Gonzales Cantata, a choral work based on the Senate Judiciary testimony of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, was recently given a new production at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY. The program also included Jeff Myers’ one-act opera The Hunger Art.

The event marked the debut of the Burning Bayreuth music series which seeks “to produce socially relevant works in an approachable format that invites audience response.” Both works were directed by Timothy Nelson and conducted by Burning Bayreuth founder Noah S. Weber.

The Gonzales Cantata premiered the preceding summer in Philadelphia as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. (For my review of that performance, see “Watching the Gonzales Cantata.”) The libretto is taken from the 2007 Senate Judiciary Hearings of Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and from Gonzales’ resignation statement on August 27, 2007.

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In Dunphy’s rendition, the genders of the performers are reversed from those of their characters. In the previous production at the Philadelphia Fringe festival, staged by composer Dunphy, the male senators — played by women — were attired with crinoline dresses and tiaras. (See: “Photos from the Gonzales Cantata.”) The staging at the Fisher was less frivolous. Arrayed in identical black suits, the Congressional investigation comes across as a more somber inquisition. Soprano Julia Bullock’s expressive performance — both musically and dramatically — intensified the gravity of the presentation.

There were still moments of humor, most notably when Bullock’s Gonzales sings “I don’t recall” 71 times — as the Attorney General stated in his testimony on April 19, 2007. Overall, however, the Bard College production accentuated the tragedy of Gonzales’ downfall.

As with the performance at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, the program opened with “three patriotic songs,” which ranged from countertenor Nicholas Tamagna singing a sublime and moving rendition of “America the Beautiful” to a tongue-in-cheek version of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

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Jeff Myers’ one-act opera The Hunger Art is a modern day mash-up of Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story “The Hunger Artist” and the biblical tale of Adam and Eve. As staged by director Nelson, the husband and wife hunger artists perform their craft not in a cage in Prague as in Kafka’s tale but on television, observed by a trio of cynical butchers who lounge on a sofa and swig beers as they watch the pair to make sure they don’t cheat by taking a bite of food.

Although the two works differ both musically and dramatically, the production connects the two pieces with motifs that echo through both works.

Just as the hunger artists in Myers’ piece perform their act on television, in the Gonzales Cantata we first see the Congressional proceedings through the window of a television screen — as most of us did the actual hearings. And just as when one of the hunger artists breaks the fast by eating an apple, when Bullock’s Gonzales falls from grace, it’s also with a bite from an apple.

These reflections between the two works reveal new overtones to Dunphy’s Cantata by evoking the taint of original sin in Gonzales’ fall and the voyeurism in our glee in watching it all play out on live television. Although conceived as a cantata, the staging and dramatic performances expand this version into a full-fledged opera.

One of the tenets of Burning Bayreuth is that works benefit from a second performance — that repeated viewings and new interpretations often reveal deeper connotations. Weber and Nelson prove the point with their realization of Dunphy’s Gonzales Cantata. This new production — and the strong performances of the cast — add additional nuances to Dunphy’s work.

There are rumors that Ms. Dunphy may bring the work to Washington D.C. If so, it will be fascinating to see what new dimensions the work assumes when performed so close to where the original events occurred.

Photos from the Burning Bayreuth performance of both the Gonzales Cantata and The Hunger Art are in my Flickr photostream.

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