Media is changing. Newspapers are going the way of the dinosaurs. The Internet, once praised as a bastion of political activism, has become a battlefield. On Friday, a feature piece published in The New York Times detailed one journalist’s investigation into coordinated cyber-trolling, a journey that took him all the way to Russia. These professional trolls were responsible for panic-inducing false alarms like an incident on Sept. 11 of last year in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. The populace and even CNN were convinced of a toxic fume hazard before it was shown to be a hoax. The hoax was perpetuated through Facebook videos, Twitter updates, and even emergency text messages to residents.
NYT journalist Adrian Chen found the group responsible – the Internet Research Agency – (SIDENOTE: Any group with the initials IRA tend to have negative connotations, I find) to have funding connections to Evgeny Prigozhin a exorbitantly-wealthy restaurateur better known as the “Kremlin’s chef” in the independent Russian press for his government contracts and status as a good friend of Vladimir Putin.
Suddenly, a platform like Twitter, venerated for its use for protest, has become less trusted. Even something as simple as texting was used by these professional Internet “trolls.” Indeed, such misinformation campaigns are ongoing around the world, according to Chen. It makes one wonder how far some are willing to go to try to convince others of alternate realities, realities where the terms Putin and freedom aren’t antonyms and Adrian Chen actually was meeting with a Neo-Nazi to foment violent rebellion (it makes sense in context).
That story is amazing for two reasons 1) it’s a wonderfully-written piece and 2) it uniquely illustrates a juxtaposition of old and new media and the ever-changing quest to use them to shape the world – for good or ill. In this case, new media was cast as the malevolent villain while Chen used elemental reporting and investigating to ascertain what truth was behind this government-sponsored trolling and cyber-attacks. It’s an inversion of the stereotype, to say the least.
Old and new media haven’t really gotten along. The common narrative is akin to a stuffy parent and a gifted but immature tween. They hardly get along and they rarely learn from each other. But now, New Media is growing up and going through a crisis while the ways of Old Media change or fade away. It seems about 15 years after the dot-com boom started this whole Internet explosion, we’ve reached a transition period. And like any story, the second act that follows is darker and deeper than the first act before it.
When I’m talking about media, I’m not only referring to the means we get our news, but also the art and fiction we consume. They are both forms of communication through a medium, both stories we tell ourselves to inform what we know of our world and our own identity. And communication is inherently a two-way street; what we bring to what we watch is just as important as what we are watching and its content. Nothing exists in a vacuum. There’s even a scientific principle called the Observer Effect which basically states that the mere act of observation will change the act that is being observed. Regardless of “reality,” in the middle of perception and fact is what we as human beings determine to be truth.
Form, the structure or limits that created the blueprint of previous storytelling, is also going away. Film and TV are colliding. What even is a TV show anymore? Because I stream my shit. What’s a film? Game of Thrones showed the last two episodes of its fourth season in limited IMAX theaters in January and yielded $1.5 million. Hell, last week’s episode “Hardhome” ended with a battle sequence on par with any summer movie thus far.
Are terms like “Made-for-TV movie” and a “season” obsolete? High-caliber films as HBO’s Behind the Candelabra from Steven Soderbergh and Netflix’s child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation from True Detective helmer Cary Fukunaga were released outside cinemas. Thirteen hours of House of Cards and Daredevil can drop overnight, ready to be binged.
So old media and new media are pretty much useless terms. It’s just media and it’s changing, like everything does. The only thing that really concerns people is a) where the money is going and b) what effect that’s going to have on our citizens. What choices are we going to make with the options provided?
Above is a meme, one such type of communication that Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has mastered, making him veritable royalty on social networks like Facebook and the micro-blogging site Reddit. Various quotes from Sanders, FDR, or even Pope Francis accompanied by a simple photo will rack up tens of thousands of likes and shares on Facebook and hundreds of “up-votes” (which keep’s it on the front page) on Reddit. The New York Times even called him the “king of social media” among early presidential contenders, Republican or Democrat.
Most notably, Sanders’ success is despite, not because of, social media experts’ opinions. His memes are simple and don’t contain buzz words or hashtags. It instead relies on Sanders’ biggest strength: his consistency on record and his fans who adore him for his truth-telling. Of course, from the moment Sanders’ announced he would seek the Democratic nomination, most of what viewers of the mainstream media would hear were dismissals of a self-described socialist, basically saying he had no chance at all. Undeterred, he has clearly been showing them that there is an audience for what Sanders is saying.
The mainstream media is one of the most consistent-narrative pushing institutions in America, because all of our information communication is controlled by five major companies, each with agendas and views that permeate their entire catalogs. One of the most-trusted forecasters of our time, Jon Stewart, said on the May 28 edition of The Daily Show that most of political pundits’ incredulity and even negativity at Sanders’ campaign draws from his nigh-unheard of trait in Washington, D.C.: authenticity.
“What a, what a, what a, rational slightly-left-of-center mainstream politician . . . The problem here is isn’t that he’s a crazy-pants cuckoo bird,” Stewart said. “The problem is that we’ve become so accustomed to stage-managed, focus-group-driven candidates that authenticity comes across as lunacy.” After rolling perhaps the 90th clip of a pundit dismissing Sanders, this time as “unusual,” Stewart continued, “Yes, if by unusual, you mean honestly representing himself and beliefs rather than playing a cynical political game.”
Sanders isn’t the only one who has been cast in a predetermined role in the play of life perpetuated by the mainstream media. While the Baltimore Riots took place after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American who was arrested on April 19 for possession of a switchblade. Morgan Freeman, during an interview for his indie dramedy 5 Flights Up, summed up his thoughts on the media’s coverage pretty succinctly, as quoted above.
In the days after Gray’s death, the various networks like CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC had little to add the situation, other than bombard the airwaves with footage of people at their worst or at wit’s end with the abuse perpetrated against an entire race of people.
Freeman’s opinion is increasingly common in our day and age because it just so happens to be backed up with proof like this Huffington Post article by Nick Wing comparing different headlines concerning white suspects and black victims. For example, a white suspect accused of killing his parents got his headline: “Son in Staten Island was brilliant, athletic – but his demons were the death of his parents” was how The Staten Island Advance described Eric Bellucci while NBC News felt the need to run this headline after Michael Brown’s shooting death: “Travyon Martin suspended three times from school.”
The Ferguson Report, published after Brown’s death Aug. 9 last year shone a light on the media’s consistent criminalization of African-Americans. And now, almost a year later, the issue is as relevant and timely as ever. We can’t leave the issue of police brutality and how the media narrative portrays minorities behind. Reality won’t allow us. Those who perpetrate the sickness of racism won’t allow it.
On June 7, 2015, the most newsworthy event was in McKinney, Texas, where a video of a police officer pulling a gun on unarmed teenagers who refused to leave a pool went viral and trended #1 in the world on Twitter. The videographer, a 15-year-old Caucasian named Brandon Brooks, later told BuzzFeed (in an article I highly recommend), “Everyone who was getting put on the ground was black, Mexican, Arabic,” he said. “[The cop] didn’t even look at me. It was kind of like I was invisible.”
Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce) came out as herself in a big way with a Vanity Fair cover last week. Her choice to promote acceptance of one’s gender identity and to put herself out there as a symbol for all those who fear hate and ignorance was, in fact, brave. This was proven when, of course, it quickly became a firestorm. What was this person trying to be? Happy? Fuck her happiness, so many said! How dare we celebrate her and not the veterans . . . even though we as Americans celebrate our veterans often and vigorously (just not financially or medically).
Suddenly, I couldn’t log onto my Facebook or Twitter accounts without seeing images from conservative friends or outlets comparing Jenner’s so-called bravery to the sacrifices of our military. And it all started with a regular guy named Terry Coffey of Salem, Oregon.
He posted the above photo – pulled randomly from a search engine – Monday, June 1 with a caption, “As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!”
The post attracted over 800,000 shares and no ends of headaches for the guy, who had no idea what was in store.
Later, seeking to accredit the photo, Coffey discovered it was in fact part of a collection of photographs of soldier figurines, staged by a man named Mark Hogancamp who was nearly beaten to death in 2000 . . . for dressing as a woman. Hogancamp had a The New York Times profile in 2011 and a documentary Marwencol, titled and about the 1/6th scale version of the WWII-era town populated with toy figurines that he built in his backyard after his violent assault left him brain-damaged and broke.
In a second post published Tuesday, June 2, a newly-humbled Coffey said:
“The photo that accompanied my words yesterday to highlight ‘true bravery,’ was chosen from a quick image search. Just wanted something to fit my words.
“This afternoon, I wanted to find out who the photographer was, so I could credit his work.
“In an ironic twist, I have discovered that the photo is part of a documentary created by a man who was beaten nearly to death outside of a bar in 2000.
“After spending 9 days in a coma, suffering severe brain damage and being unable to walk or talk for a year, he chose to deal with the pain of the tragic event, by creating an imaginary world of characters and photos and stories, all set in WWII. His work is the subject of an upcoming documentary.
“Why was he nearly beaten to death by 5 strangers?
Because he was a cross-dresser.
I could have chosen any one of hundreds of photos depicting bravery, but I chose this one. Do I think it was an accident?
No, I don’t.
What happened to this man was cruel, wrong, and unforgivable.
Hate helps nothing
Love wounds no one
and God heals all.
(and irony makes you think)”
That post got over 1,000 shares.
The difference between it and the original post are staggering. This is how viral hits are made. Not in a lab, but in the wild, like lightning striking the specific tree which will set the wildfire that consumes the whole forest. Coffey’s post somehow struck the nerve of a cultural flashpoint; the growing disconnect Republicans face as progressivism trumps their base of fundamentalist extremists.
That wasn’t the end of conservative hate for Jenner. Last Monday, ESPN announced that it would award Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Conservatives were further enraged that Jenner supposedly beat out Noah Galloway, a former soldier who lost an arm and leg in Iraq who now competes as a distance runner. But here’s the thing.
It’s not true.
ESPN never released a candidate list and the whole idea Galloway in some way lost was a complaint of a Boston columnist irritated at the decision, according to The Washington Post
Change feels like the end of the world to conservatives. It means the world they know, the comforting rules they live by, are changing. In other words, they’re pissing themselves scared. As we’ve discussed, it’s not the first time the narratives that different groups hold dear, like trickle-down economics, have been crushed under the weight of reality. So while the Republican presidential candidates may screech about a persecution of Christians and “war on religion,” the fact is that is not the truth. It is a reaction to the truth: the world has moved beyond their narrow minds and their narrow perceptions.
It probably explains why there’s so much dystopia in entertainment (much more on that when we talk Tomorrowland below). After all, there’s nothing a Christian conservative loves more than the End of Days actually happening, so they can finally laugh in the faces of all their heathen friends as they descend to the fiery pits of Hell. Acceptance of Jenner’s transition in media proves to them, as pointed out in The Washington Post that they are losing the war for “traditional values,” whatever those are. What these people can’t accept is there’s no going back; only forward. No regress, only progress.
Trans pride is a growing movement with growing representation in media the biggest indicator of its breakthrough into the mainstream. Jeffrey Tambor won an Emmy for his starring role as transgendered parent on Amazon’s Transparent star. On June 12, 2015, Netflix premiered all 12 episodes of Sense8, which features transgender model/actress Jamie Clayton as one of its protagonists, Nomi Marks (formerly Michael), a politically-active blogger in the gay community of San Francisco. Once again, we are dealing with an issue of how the media portrays minorities yet seeing a breakthrough in pop culture, like Transparent in early 2014, can be a prognosticator for the truth of American consciousness.
The subject of media scapegoats also relates to how women and sexual violence are portrayed on-screen. Understandably, it is a tough subject that stokes a fire across media, obfuscating a lot of the nuance and ability to have a real public discussion. The public is encouraged and allowed to bury their heads in the sand, to be given opiates in various forms, and to vent their every thought and whim for good or ill.
Mad Max: Fury Road vs. Pitch Perfect 2 was a match-up unwittingly-geared to make an interesting cultural point: to contrast different forms of entertainment handling women on film. One was hidden under layers of hype and a titular male character, but revealed upon release while the other’s tagline was “We’re Back, Pitches.”
Meanwhile limited release of Ex Machina (my review & analysis here) examined human relationships, benevolent sexism, and misogyny through the prism of the advent of A.I. Then as if timed, Games of Thrones’ sixth episode of its current fifth season aired not long after, featuring the long-suffering princess Sansa Stark losing her virginity (on her second wedding night) to the psychopath Ramsay Bolton while her former foster brother Theon – brainwashed by Ramsay’s torture into his devoted servant Reek – is forced to watch. It’s a horrific rape scene that provoked websites and U.S. Senators to quit the show in an display of . . . well I’m not really sure what they’re standing up for, other than the censorship of tragic but timely issues.
The weekend of June 5, the action-comedy Spy starring Melissa McCarthy hit. Much has been made of her success as a plus-sized woman in Hollywood, as a symbol of progression but nonetheless she told EW that sexism in Hollywood is still a “intense sickness.” Not even this week’s major release Jurassic World has escaped the glare; there was a minor Twitter kerfuffle before Joss Whedon departed the platform wherein he commented on the first official clip released by Universal and tweeted, “I’m too busy wishing this clip wasn’t 70s era sexist. She’s a stiff, he’s a life-force – really? Still?” Here is the clip:
Later in the premiere for his small indie film Avengers: Age of Ultron (review here), Whedon admitted to Variety, “I shouldn’t have tweeted it. I don’t ever say things about other people’s work that are negative. That’s bad form. It’s not what a gentleman would do.” But he stood by his judgment. And when asked at the Paris premiere of the latest dinosaurs-on-the-loose franchise, even its director Colin Trevarrow didn’t disagree with Whedon’s assessment, saying it had been a Universal marketing decision.
On May 4, the day after Ultron’s $196-million opening weekend (second-highest, only behind the original) Whedon quit Twitter so he could clear his mind and decompress after the grueling production and press tour. But that was after so many speculated that it the vitriol thrown his way after the release, primarily focused on complaints about the Black Widow character.
Even popular comedian / Twitter personality Patton Oswalt initially criticized the ugly vitriol as the cause of Whedon’s departure in a since-deleted tweet that said, “There is a ‘Tea Party’ equivalent of progressivism/liberalism. And they just chased Joss Whedon off Twitter. Good job, guys. Ugh.”
Whedon clarified the whole situation quite plainly in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News on May 5.
“That is horseshit. Believe me, I have been attacked by militant feminists since I got on Twitter. That’s something I’m used to. Every breed of feminism is attacking every other breed, and every subsection of liberalism is always busy attacking another subsection of liberalism, because god forbid they should all band together and actually fight for the cause. I saw a lot of people say, ‘Well, the social justice warriors destroyed one of their own!’ It’s like, Nope. That didn’t happen.”
I could do a whole ‘nother column on liberals fighting each other while conservatives giggle to the bank, but the point is, all of that is essentially a summary of what inspired me to write my previous Slogged column “A White Guy on Feminism on Film and Women in Hollywood” which details some thoughts on being a male feminist, the struggles women face in cinema and, most importantly, how conversations have evolved in favor of progressivism, with so much road left to pave for future generations of girls. The last two weekends saw two more major blockbusters premiere at the box office, both “original” films sold on A-List star power and sci-fi conceits.
The previously-mentioned Mad Max: Fury Road has a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. The other two, Tomorrowland and San Andreas, tie at 49 percent.
What does this tell us: a unabashedly dumb disaster flick touted as “content” by its star Dwayne Johnson is the same as a film that director Brad Bird, writer Damon Lindelof, and co-writer/EW critic Jeff Jensen clearly thought had something to say, or rather, had to say something? Put another way, I doubt half-the-effort that trio put in to make Tomorrowland was used to make San Andreas, which is populated mostly by green screen, CGI, and Johnson’s biceps.
It’s reflected in how the respective creators responded. Disney’s Tomorrowland‘s $33 million opening weekend gross was soft for the $190 million sci-fi pic and its critical reception muted to say the least. Bird and Lindelof have more or less disappeared in the aftermath. The cancellation of TRON 3 last week was supposedly due to the sci-fi film’s low performance.
Like I said a couple paragraphs ago, the creative trio behind Tomorrowland set out with a goal and were quite proud to have achieved it: to make a film that hearkened to science fiction of the mid-20th century, when post-WWII everybody wanted to believe the future would be awesome like Star Trek because, frankly, it couldn’t get any worse than the not-so-distant past. In the world created by Bird, Lindelof, and Jensen (based on Disney’s own history and mythology), cynicism is oppressive and visions of dystopia (like the multiple versions currently dominating our pop cultural landscape) are detrimental to the overall progress of the human race. It’s all about positivity and inspiration.
It did not inspire positivity from critics. Brad Brevet from RopeofSilicon called it “a pointless, blathering wannabe, preaching about inspiration and imagination unable to live up to its own sermon” awash in structural problems like a shambling Act 1 and a weak finale. The New York Times‘ chief critic A.O. Scott was no kinder, calling its action “more frantic than thrilling” and its sense of wonder “rarely materializes.” The film, like most films, has its defenders though, such as Collider‘s Haleigh Foutch
Writer Lindelof is another creator who, like Whedon, quit Twitter in fall 2013 to cleanse himself of both his dependence on its approval and the toxicity of those who he says are “gunning” for him, a fact he had to tell Bird when they first met to discuss making the film. Lindelof has remained controversial and a target for Internet venom since wrapping Lost in 2010 and continues to take heat for his work on Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness. He said of such people that he’s intimately familiar with – trolls and obsessive online fanboys – will probably be too cynical themselves to cop to liking Tomorrowland.
He has a point. People equate optimism with stupidity and some millennials who worship irreverence have no time for emotional honesty or even hope. Sadly though, Lindelof is succumbing to the same trap we’ve discussed: believing their truth when it is but a reaction to the reality: Tomorrowland just isn’t very good. That fact seems indisputably even among its defenders, who warm to the spirit and intention Bird and Lindelof sought but have a hard time defending the weak first act and dud of a finale. More than anything, the reviews have been full of disappointment for Bird, given the reverence many have for his nearly 30-year career in animation.
The best argument put forth as to why Tomorrowland fails in its mission is put forth by Birth.Movies.Death’s Devin Faraci in an editorial comparing and contrasting Mad Max: Fury Road (amongst other dystopian fiction), as the kind of chaotic, post-apocalyptic film that Tomorrowland purports to be an alternative too.
He describes how Bird set out with a nostalgia for a “days of future past” if I may make use my pop culture knowledge minutiae. He basically runs through the 20th century fiction, detailing how the future is, first and foremost, always about today, and not tomorrow. It’s a great piece worth a read. Faraci sums up by saying:
So save the utopian retrofuturism for a time when blacks couldn’t ride at the front of the bus and gay men were arrested for kissing. I’ll take the modern wave of dystopian scifi that says to me, “Yeah, it’s tough… but you can get through this.”
On the other hand, Johnson took to his social media outlets (est. marketing value: $20 million) to express excitement at the $53 million opening weekend and many reports pointed to it as validation of Johnson’s long-term march to becoming an A-List actor of Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington levels i.e. someone who can command $20 million up front for acting gigs. He was paid $13 million to star in the $110 million disaster flick. It speaks to the power of Johnson’s charisma that a performance consisting entirely of this and this interchangeably can succeed on almost solely on his appeal.
Some critics like Adam Graham of The Detroit News did like the movie’s commercial sentiment and its no-frills entertainment. Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Enquirer summarized his 3/4 star review as “Quite literally, the blockbuster of the year.” However, others took issue with the film, like Peter Travers’ of Rolling Stone calling it a monument to stupidity and Birth.Movies.Death‘s Faraci saying it might be up for the “the most morally despicable blockbuster ever made” when !!!SPOILERS!!! Johnson’s main character – a LAFD helicopter rescue pilot and divorced father – abandons his post, steals a helicopter, and goes from LA to San Francisco to save his 20-something daughter played by Alexandra Daddario.
On a related note Daddario hilariously discounted claims of sexism on her role on True Detective (which included an explicit nude scene) last fall at the Venice Film Festival by saying it was what helped her get cast in this film. Yeah Alexandra, I don’t think they cast you based on how you acted in your topless scene.
Even the barriers of journalism, specifically online, and the material they cover is getting thinner. Umberto Gonzalez a.k.a. El Mayimbe, formerly of Latino Review, announced this year he would be striking out on his own. The lines have long been blurring between those who make the films and those who cover them. Just this year, popular fan-sites like LR and Collider were bought by corporations because of their power in driving the entertainment business. Gonzalez for example teamed with veteran film producer Daniel Alter to make a genre-focused entertainment site.
On June 1, he launched it – Heroic Hollywood, focused on the superhero, blockbuster, and franchise filmmaking that has become Hollywood’s bread-and-butter. Gonzalez’s move is detailed in a Forbes piece, which describes the new site as a “transmedia fan site.” It will not only cover genre fare but also produce their own original multimedia content. Mark Hughes wrote in the same article:
“Crossing that boundary from entertainment coverage to entertainment production within the fan site model is a big step, and opens a whole new door for online fan sites. Which will likewise open new doors for what’s financially possible for fan sites.”
Ok, so we’ve covered a lot and if you’ve read these words and you’re read even a fraction of the previous words, you are special to me. The intersection of art, media, and culture is a cross that never ceases to fascinate me and is the reason I enjoy talking about stories and media almost as much as I like making them.
Like so many of the controversial boundaries that have fallen, boundaries of sexuality, gender, perception, reality, and truth, boundaries some thought (and still do) were pillars of a static world are revealed to be false. Everything, including the truth, is dynamic and ever-changing, based on the stories we tell each other on the news and in our imaginations. In that sense, art and media combining, different forms losing meaning, it all serves to remind us, at their core, they are, and always have been, stories. And we are both the puppets – and the puppeteers.
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