Saturday, April 19, 2003
I saw Phone Booth.
This film is very old fashioned, but pretty taut and a good thriller. Colin Farrell plays a somewhat sleazy New York publicist who goes into a phone booth to call his would be mistress. The phone rings, he picks it up, and there is a voice on the other end who claims to be a sniper who will kill him if he does not essentially confess to all his sins to the people he has sinned. Essentially it is an old fashioned morality play. The trouble with that is that the screenwriter wants Farrell's character to be sympathetic to the audience, and for that reason he isn't actually all that bad. He is trying to make the Katie Holmes character his mistress, but he hasn't actually succeeded in doing so yet. And yes, he is a publicist, which means he lies to everyone all day long, but although publcists are scumbags, they are only minor league scumbags in the overall scheme of things. (And I think there are few men who could resist Holmes' brown eyes, which are I think the most beautiful in the world). Therefore, it seems somehow a bit excessive to single him out for this sort of treatment. On the other hand, if the voice on the other and of the phone represents God, then I suppose everyone has to atone for their sins.
However, as a simple thriller the film works. The idea is a good one, even if screenwriter Larry Cohen could not come up with an ending that was not Hollywood cliche. The film is only 81 minutes long, which is the shortest live action movie I have seen in a while. However, this is the right length. (It is also another way in which the movie is old fashioned. We get lots of long and bloated 130 minute movies, but 81 minutes used to be pretty typical, especially in the days of the double feature). Joel Schumacher directs pretty well, although he rather unnecessarily fills the film with rap music, split screens, and weird camera angles. Simple may have been better, but he does okay. The script was originally intended for Hitchcock and I would love to see his version of the film. (It was a perfect script for him).
As I mentioned before, the film was just made in time. It has to find excuses for people to even use phone booths, and is almost apologetic about this. In ten years it probably won't work any more.
However, the film is also old fashioned in one more immediate and perhaps slightly more grating way. The film was finsihed about two years ago, and then was held up for a while because the film-makers (accurately) thought that Colin Farrell was about to become a star, and decided to wait until a couple of his higher profile films (most notably Spielberg's Minority Report were released. The film was then scheduled for release late last year, but it was then delayed due to the Washington sniper. In the film there is a large billboard in Times Square that we keep saying. It says "NetZero. Free internet access for ever". In the film's world, we are still in the tech bubble. That now seems many universes away.
Friday, April 18, 2003
This post is a follow up to the piece I wrote a couple of days ago, attempting to explain British television commericals. That post focused on cultural and regulatory issues. This one is going to look at some of the people involved, and the influence of these people. If you haven't already, you may want to read that post first, and indeed this post from Brian that inspired it.
Brian spoke about the figures who made British advertising, of David Puttnam (who was more a producer - someone who facilitated the making of advertisements - than someone who really got his hands dirty and actually made them). He then spoke of the actual creative people, one named Parker, and "most of the others are named Scott". And if you look at these people (and another Brian didn't mention named Lyne there is a distinct career path. Art school, usually, then maybe a little while at the BBC, then time in the British advertising business, and then making movies in Hollywood, and also perhaps making commercials in America. But when you look more carefully than that, you find that one man led the way, pioneering a career path that at the time was unconventional, and the others followed his lead. And that man is the elder and more famous of the Scott brothers. Ridley Scott is quite a famous director. He is the man who brought us Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. But what is interesting is that if you look more carefully you discover that he is rather more influential than that. (I am aided in my ability to talk about Ridley Scott by the fact that I have a copy of a biography of the man handy, from which much of the information in the next few paragraphs is taken).
Before going on, it is worth having a brief discussion of movie and television credits. A producer is in change of a production, raises the money, and hires the other principals. The director tells the actors what to do, supervises each take, and is in charge of the actual filming. The director of photography (or cinematographer) actually positions the camera and composes the shots, makes sure the lighting is right, etc. Tha art director (or production designer) actually designs the sets and props and their arrangement, and is probably more responsible for the visual look of the film than anyone else. He is assisted by a set decorator, who actually builds the props.
Ridley Scott studied graphic design at the Royal College of Art in London in the lste 1950s. At the same time, he saw a great many films, and even made a short film with a 16mm camera that was lying around at this establishment, which did not actually teach film at the time. He then joined the BBC as an art director and at that time appeared to be ferociously ambitious and driven, designing the sets for a huge range of BBC productions at the time. He was noticed by the advertising industry, and started moonlighting as an art director for commercials made by a commercial director named Keith Hewitt. In Scott's words "..Keith gave me four commercials to art direct, and the money I was paid for each of those was much more than what I was earning from the BBC. I thought 'Jese Christ!. How long has this been going on?'". Scott moved from art directing to directing as well at the BBC, and then directing commericals as well but a year or so later had something of a falling out with the BBC, due to the fact that he found television production too limiting given his obsession with detail and style. He left the BBC, and became a full time director of commercials. He was dazzlingly successful, and his work was enormously highly regarded because of his great art direction and tremendous visual style.
After a short while working for other people, Scott in 1965 founded his own advertising production company, Ridley Scott Associates, which is to this day one of the most successful companies in its business. Scott was successful because of his dazzling abilities as an art director and director, and another, non-cultural explanation for British advertising being what it is today is simply that its leading practitioner in its relatively early days was so ferociously brilliant, and so driven. Scott himself shot something like 3000 commercials in a 15 year period. Scott hired several other up and coming directors (including his brother Tony, who had also been to art school, and who also had great visual style) to work for him. His chief competitors were guys like Adrian Lyne and Alan Parker, who were really kept on their toes by the competition. And during this period, particularly after the introduction of colour in the late 1960s, British advertisements developed their high production values and movie like qualities that they have to this day. Part of the reason is the influence of Ridley Scott, who was simply ferociously talented and extremely driven. And his competitors weren't far behind. At least four of the key figures in British advertising became major directors of motion pictures in Hollywood a few years later.
Going from advertising to features wasn't a common career path in those days, but Ridley Scott (and also Alan Parker) led. Scott made The Duelists in 1977 and Alien in 1979. Once he had opened up the past, it was easier for his contemporaries. Parker made Bugsy Malone in 1976 and Midnight Express in 1978. Adrian Lyne made Flashdance in 1983, Nine 1/2 Weeks in 1986, and Fatal Attraction in 1987. Tony Scott made The Hunger in 1983 and Top Gun in 1986. Hugh Hudson made Chariots of Fire in 1981, and Greystoke in 1984. All were in their 40s by the time they started directing features. This is old by Hollywood standards, but they had had their advertising careers first. Their films, particularly those of Ridley Scott, had great art direction, and a great visual look. Their advertising background came through. Scott's Blade Runner, although a financial failure at first, may be the most influential film of the last 25 years. In terms of the visual look of the film, this is hard to dispute. Blade Runner changed what the future looked like. Almost every vision of the future we have seen since has copied it. It was based on the fiction of Philip K Dick, who has since become a source for many Hollywood films. The term Cyberpunk had not yet been invented, but Blade Runner anticipated the sensibility.
And then, something interesting happened in American advertising. A couple of people have criticised my earlier post for being too hard on American advertising, and that is perhaps true. American advertising is easy to criticise for the same reason American television is easy to criticise. Turn on a random American television channel at a random time, and the programming and advertising are likely to be of low quality. The reason for this is once again that there is so much of it. People who want to criticise American television look at the average quality. People who want to praise it look at the best of it. And the result of the sort of Darwinian struggle that goes on in the American market is that the very best of it is very good indeed. In recent years, the best American television has been easily better than the best British programmng. I do not think the best American advertising has been better than the best British advertising, but it has none the less been good. It tends to be targeted for particular times though. The best advertising is that designed to go out on special occasions when particular target demographics are watching. Watch Friends and there will be advertising aimed at young women. Watch certain sporting events and you will find advertising aimed at various male demographics.
This trend to high quality special occasion advertising reaches its highest point at the Superbowl, when huge amounts of money are spent on advertising time, and extremely clever and high quality commercials are produced specially for the occasion. (That said, Superbowl advertising has been in decline since the dot com crash). Often these commercials are shown only once. The Superbowl has been the most expensive advertising event in America for a long time, but this move towards high quality once only oblique rather than direct advertising only really started about 20 years ago.
In particular, at the beginning of 1984 Apple Computer was about to release a new computer. This was the Macintosh: the first mass market computer with a graphical user interface (if you don't count Apple's previous Lisa, which is fair enough given how few it sold). At that time, the company of fear and loathing in the computer world was IBM, which had come into the PC market four years earlier. This computer was like nothing anybody outside Xerox Parc had ever seen before, and Apple wanted to introduce it with a TV commercial like nothing anyone had ever seen before. They bought a Superbowl spot, and commissioned a commercial. It so happened that people more attuned to the sort of commercial Apple wanted were the people who had been making interesting British commercials for the previous 20 years. The most famous of these was the man who had also made the most visually stunning Hollywood film of the recent past. And so, this man was hired to make the Apple Superbowl commercial. He was, of course, Ridley Scott. The Orwell inspired ad, which cost $1.6 million to make, and which can be seen here, is probably the most famous and influential advertisement in the history of American television. The best of the British advertising directors from then on were in demand to make advertisements in America as well as Britain. And they did.
And that is where we are. I have written mostly about Ridley Scott, because the more I look at it, the more influential a figure he clearly is. In terms of modern film and television culture there can be few people as influential. Which is interesting, because until recently Ridley Scott did not have the reputation he deserved. His film career was seen as mixed, and a lot of his films were more influential than they were financially successful. (There has been a tendency for lesser imitations of his films to be big hits for someone else a couple of years later). He had a reputation for films that had more style than substance - with the possible exception of Thelma and Louise. This wasn't entirely fair. His films had plenty of substance, but their style got the attention because it was truly something to behold. Scott was always good at getting fine performances out of his actors, and he has a history of discovering good actors. (Sigourney Weaver, Brad Pitt, and various other people got their big breaks in his movies). An economist friend of mine last year pointed out that Scott's movies were always good at echoing what society in general was nervous about. (Blade Runner was a very 90s movie about post-industrial dislocation, but it was released in 1982. Black Rain (1989). was about uneasiness with Japan. Read what you like into Thelma and Louise (1991), but it caught a certain cultural zeitgeist. G.I. Jane (1997) is perhaps not a great movie, but the women in the military subject had a certain timeliness. Gladiator (2000), about an all powerful but corrupt empire, did have a certain Clintonian quality. And Black Hawk Down (2001) was the story of the Mogadishu mission, which is an event that rather traumatised America's military thinking and emboldened Americas ememies in a way we didn't really understand until later. But Ridley Scott got it).
Listening to my friend, I had to conclude there was some truth in it. Scott got the zeitgest, which was probably why he was so effective in advertising. However, in film, he never really got credit for it. At least, not until recently, when it all changed. Ridley Scott's three most recent films (Gladiator, Hannibal, and Black Hawk Down) have been the three biggest hits of his career. He has received two additional Academy Award nominations in the last several years (He was also nominated for Thelma and Louise. He still hasn't won, however). The British government recently had him knighted. There have been a number of books published recently re-evaluating his work. His reputation is at its highest ever. (I personally don't think any of the recent films are as good as Blade Runner, but they are good. Black Hawk Down in particular is as jarring a picture of a military operation gone wrong as you will ever see. You can see why people who have seen it may have been nervous about getting into urban warfare subsequently). The extent of his influence appears to finally being acknowledged.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I travel a lot. I have been to many parts of the world, and I have done a fair bit of travel in Europe, and quite a bit in Asia, North America, and Africa. (I have not been to Latin America, much as I would like to go there). In I this, I am typical of my countrymen. Where I am not typical is that my travel has tended to consist of a lot of trips of a week to a month, whereas the Australian tradition is to go to university, work for a year or two to make some money, take six months or a year to see the world, and then to return to Australia for adult life, I suppose.
I have never done this. Part of the reason for this was that I was lucky, and I won a scholarship to go and study at Cambridge when I was 22. This way I was able to base myself in England and go on trips from there. Then later on I found myself in my present quandry: a victim of the financial job crash, which gave me the opportunity to base myself over here again for at least a bit. For some reason I have never got married and I don't have many of the things that tie many people down. I never got out of the habit of living like a graduate student, even when I was an investment banker, and my lifestyle is cheap. So I continue to pop off to interesting places fairly regularly.
When you do travel a lot, you meet certain types of other young traveller. (These are obviously generalisations, and there are exceptions to every rule). For one thing, it doesn't matter where you go in the world, you will meet Australians. Australians like to seek out exceptionally obscure and exotic corners of the world, and when they have arrived there they drink a lot of beer. Australians are great in moderation, but they tend to be a little loud when you have a large number of them together. They sometimes have a tendency to slightly more concerned with getting to obscure destinations than what they are going to do when they get there. They are loud and opinionated, and sometimes believe that they know more about the place they are visiting than they actually do. You also meet lots of English travellers. The English have a word for this: a "gap year". This is a year taken out of life between school and university, or betwen university and a job, or even at some other time, when people go travelling. You very frequently find English people taking their gap years in Asia and Australia. They are often younger than Australian travellers, and tend to travel in smaller groups. One subcategory of travellers consists of people who are astonishingly cheap. Once in a while you meet someone who is travelling around Indonesia and Malaysia and Thailand for six months on $5 a day. These people are nearly always English, and also seem to have the ability to seek out and find places of extraordinary beauty. The trick is to follow these people and see the same sights they do, and also to insist on finding out how much they paid and paying the same amount yourself. One also encounters German and Scandinavian backpackers throughout the world. These people are often......so..........serious. These guys have to learn how to relax, but somehow they never do. About a decade ago, it looked like that one was also going to start seeing Japanese people in large numbers on the backpacker circuit. This has happened a bit, but the consequences of the Japanese economic crash have come through, and you don't see them nearly as much as looked likely. This is a shame, because Japanese people are often rather uninhibited (in a fun way) after a couple of beers. Plus it seems that it is only the more eccentric Japanese who leave the country for prolongued periods. And eccentric Japanese people can be really eccentric.
In any event, this is all a digression. One sees relatively few Americans on the hard core backpacker circuit. Americans tend to be more upmarket travellers. The only Americans you tend to see travelling on a low budget are college students, usually over summer, and usually in Europe. You find them in great numbers in France and Italy in July, travelling around on Eurail passes, and seeing the sights. Over the years I have met a lot of these people, and my experience is that they are amongst the nicest people you could possibly meet. Often you find that they are outside the US for the first time in their lives. Often you find that they do not know very much about the rest of the world, because the American media (and I think the American school system) are very insular about the rest of the world. (Older Americans, who are more likely to be found in five star hotels than backpacker hostels, are often very well informed). But always they are curious and willing to talk about it. And they are eager to hear what I think of their country, and what I think about Europe, and..... They have a friendliness and warmth about them. They lack the hard edge of travellers from some other countries. If I am looking for somewhere cheap to stay, and I walk past the door of a hostel and I hear a lot of American accents coming out of it, I tend to go in. This has led to many pleasant evenings.
In any event, two weeks ago, I was sitting in a restaurant in the Rue Mouffetard in the Latin quarter of Paris, having a three course meal from the prix fixe menu and drinking a little red wine. Two young women of about 20 years of age came into the restaurant and sat down at the table next to mine, and started talking to one another with obvious American accents. Somewhat apologetically, as I did not want to interrupt a conversation if they didn't want to be interrupted, I said hello. There were American college students doing a term in London on an exchange program with a British university, and they had got the train over to Paris, which they had never visited before. One of them was from Ohio, and was a student at Ohio State. The other was from New York, and was studying at a college in New Haven, CT. (That's all I got out of her. I don't think it was the president's alma mater - she sounded more like the "small liberal arts college" type, and my knowledge of other colleges in New Haven isn't that great). The girl from New York was the daughter of someone who works for Merill Lynch as some sort of equity analyst. I then asked "What sector?" but she didn't know. None the less, of the two of them, she was the more knowledgeable of the two. The other had a certain midwestern charm. She was quite impressed that I had personally visited Columbus, Ohio. (I friend of mine used to teach at Ohio State, and I visited him there). I told them about my various American travels. I asked them what they had done in Paris. It was the usual set of things that people do on a first trip to Paris (The Louvre, and Musee D'Orsay, a walk up the Champs Elysee, Notre Dame, all that kind of thing). The conversation proceeded a bit further, and for some reason I was asked to explain the game of cricket. I did this with reasonable skill, I think. (With Americans, this isn't too hard, as you can use baseball as a reference point. Explaining cricket to Europeans is often harder). I mentioned I had enjoyed the modern art at the Pompidou Centre. The New York girl them mentioned that she didn't like the the Tate Modern in London. I expressed my admiration for the architecture, but mentioned that I think the collection was uninteresting. She agreed. I expressed the opinion that both the collection and the architecture were good at the Pompidou centre, but that New Yorkers are spoiled because their Museum of Modern Art is the best collection in the world (by far). We were getting towards the end of the meal, and I offered to buy the two young women a drink in a nearby bar. They thanked me, but declined, as they were going to go to the top of the Eiffel tower at night. We got up and walked out of the restaurant. I made a joke about the Boston Red Sox that they thought was funny. I asked if they were going to the metro station. They said they had to go back to where they were staying before the Eiffel tower.
In all, very pleasant. I am not sure whether they were trying to give me the slip at the end. After all, I was a thirty something man talking to two younger women. They may have thought I had ulterior motives. (And I am not entirely without ulterior motives, let's face it. I respond to pleasant young women in the same way lots of men do. However, I am completely non-dangerous and I hope to be non-threatening). But I rather don't think so. I rather think they were just going to the Eiffel tower, and they enjoyed the conversation with me as much as I did.
Still though, it's sad. I am getting a little older. Possibly this will make it harder for me to have conversations with American college students in European cities in the future. This would be kind of sad.
The second test between Australia and the West Indies starts tomorrow in Trinidad. Australia are planning on playing an unchanged team after winning the first test by nine wickets earlier this week. They could have played only one spinner instead of two, and brought in another batsman, but they will continue with five bowlers. Opening batsman Matthew Hayden and captain Steve Waugh would both like to get some runs in this match, I think, although neither player is in any immediate danger. Darren Lehmann really needs some runs soon, or he will lose his place in the side to either Martin Love or (less likely but my choice) up and coming batsman Michael Clarke, who I think should be given a test match soon. For the West Indies, batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan will be back from an injury, which they will be glad of, as he is a very fine player. Wicket keeper batsman Ridley Jacobs (who batted well despite being injured in the first match) and bowler Jermaine Lawson will miss the second match, and will be replaced by Carlton Baugh and Tino Best respectively. Both players are inexperienced but by all reports very promising. The West Indians should be stronger in batting terms but weaker in bowling terms than in the first test. Australia to win, but possibly in a high scoring match.
In other cricket news, India and South Africa played in Bangladesh again today. South Africa bowled the Indians out for a modest 215, and got the runs without too much panic for the loss of five wickets with an over and a half to spare. The South Africans will be encouraged by the comfortable but not overwhelmingwin. The two sides have been playing in a triangular tournament with Bangladesh, and have won all their games against Bangladesh easily, and will so meet again in the final on Sunday. This could be a decent game.
Interestingly enough, it seems that Starbucks is about to clusterbomb Moscow and St Petersburg. Reports are suggesting that they are going to spend something like $50m entering the Russian market. This is utterly unsurprising to me, as St Petersburg and Moscow (particularly) have the combination of a demographic mix containing a fair few upwardly mobile younger people as well as utterly terrible coffee at the moment and relatively little competition. The question is how easy it is to run a western style business in Russia. Apparently Starbucks are going to use the UK expansion model of acquiring chains of Starbucks clones that are already there. This might be because these chains have already set up logistics and supply chains, and because it is difficult for an American company to set these sorts of things for itself in a market as murky as Russia. In any event, $30m dollars have supposedly been earmarked for acquisitions, and two existing chains have been mentioned: Idealnaya Chashka and Coffee House. I do not know close clones of Starbucks these are, because I haven't been to Moscow and I don't read Russian. Still, this is interesting. One analyst suggets that this level of capital investment could mean something like 100 stores within a year or two. Clusterbombing here we come.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
Michael Kelly's last column for the Atlantic is in the May issue. He is as wise, and wryly funny, as ever.
Now as then, the better sort of global citizens are concerned with explaining to the great oaf America that war is not the answer. "Is it the right time to close the door?" Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, asked plaintively. "A crisis of this kind should be solved by exclusively peaceful means," declared Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose handling of the crisis in Chechnya has been much remarked on for its restraint. "The military option should only be a last resort," lectured France—a consistent nation, if nothing else: "Frenchmen, do not attempt to commit any action which might bring terrible reprisals," Marshal Pétain said in an appeal to his countrymen for continued collaboration with the Nazis on the day after the Americans and the British arrived in Normandy to exercise the military option.
He sure will be missed.
Iraqi clerics seem to be shaming people into returning at least some of their ill gotten gains. Plus, we may have a Lysistrata project that even Brooke would support, even if I doubt it is really happening much. (And yes, I suppose I should challenge the patriarchal assumption that it is the men doing the looting, and acknowledge that if this is not so the whole idea is ridiculous, but I think in this case it actually is men doing the looting.
And that is not to their credit).
Update: Slate has a piece - not at all complimentary to the administration - on the looting and the efforts to prevent it (or not).
If, like me, you know little about Mesopotamian art, the reports that emerged over the weekend might have found you unable to judge just how significant the loss was. By now it's clear that it's horrifically extensive: Archaeologists in the United States consider the National Museum of Antiquities, thoroughly sacked, to be among the 10 most important museums in the world. It was to Mesopotamian art what the Louvre is to Western painting.
The Pentagon has defended its non-action by saying that it agreed to protect the sites during battle, as distinct from any looting that came afterward. Splitting hairs, anyone? The United States could easily have done more to stop the ransacking. The looting of the museum began on Friday; it extended, according to a BBC radio report, for three days, at which point there still were no guards posted outside the building. Numerous newspapers quote Iraqi citizens who saw American patrols impassively watch as looters carted away vases, jewelry, pots, and other goods. The Guardian reported on Monday that U.S. Army commanders had just rejected a new plea from desperate officials of the Iraq Museum for aid.
Wednesday, April 16, 2003
Brian Micklethwait has some comments on British television advertising, and the creative talent that has come from it. In particular, he addresses the question as to just why it is that British advertising is so creative. Why is it that British television ads are like little movies, whereas American television advertising is mundane in comparison. He then specifically asks me to comment. I have taken a couple of days to respond (and I am responding on my blog rather than in his comments). The reason it has taken me a while is because I don't really know the answer. I do have some thoughts, though.
To quote Brian: "British TV advertising is a strange, strange thing". He gives a couple of possible explanations for this, one being that there are cartels that sell certain products (most notably cars) and that manufacturers of these products compete on some other basis than price, so you get really expensive advertisements. Another possible is that censorship is centralised in the UK, whereas in the US there are local and state censors that advertisers have to get through, and this leads to a lowest common denominator in advertising.
While I think there is certainly some truth in the first explanation (the British retail business is full of high margin cartels - the high street electrical business is another, although discount electrical goods can be purchased elsewhere if you know where to look) I am not terribly convinced by the second theory, at least partly because in my home country of Australia, censorship is centralised, and yet television advertising resembles American advertising much more than British advertising. (In fitting with the first theory, there are also fewer cartels in the retail business in Australia). Television in general resembles the American model much more than the British model.
Which leads to another theory, which is simply that British TV advertising is a strange, strange thing simply because British TV is a strange, strange thing.
In both the US and Australia, television was pioneered by private stations carrying commercials. Multiple commercial licences were issued, and competing advertising funded television stations were in the early days allowed to more or less figure the business out for themselves. Competing television stations were not restricted or only lightly restricted in how much advertising they could show, and because there were so many stations (ten or more in some US markets) there was a lot of advertising time to fill up. While government funded television exists in Australia, it is very much the poor relation. In the US, it is even more so.
In Britain, however, from 1936 to 1955, the BBC (which does not show advertising) had a monopoly, and when the advertising funded ITV came into being in 1955 there was firstly only one channel of it, and secondly it was set up in such a way that it could not compete properly. It was very heavily regulated and very restricted in how many commercials and how many commercial breaks it could show. (It also had an artificial, fragmented and regional structure imposed on it. It was also taxed very heavily by the government). Britain's second advertising funded station (Channel 4) did not come into being until 1980, and when it did, it was even more restricted in what it could do than was ITV. It was government owned, and had a mandate to produce alternative programming that would not gain huge audiences. ITV for many years was also responsible for selling Channel 4's advertising, so you got another cartel in the selling of television advertising time. This was changed substantially in the mid 1990s, when the laws regulating ITV were loosened somewhat, Channel 4 was given control of its own destiny and the laws regulating it were loosened a lot (although it is still government owned), Rupert Murdoch's satellite channels became (still small) players in the advertising market, and Channel 5, which is the first British TV channel to be licensed in much the same way as are most foreign channels, came into being. However, the pattern was set by then.
All this meant that there was an artificial shortage of television advertising time available to be sold. This may have not been a huge deal in 1960, but as the advertising market expanded in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, this shortage became a bigger deal. The law of supply and demand meant that television advertising time was expensive, and if the advertising time is expensive then you are less likely to want to fill it up with cheaply produced advertisements, but are going to spend more money on the advertisements themselves. This is to be contrasted with the situation in America, where there is and always has been an enormous amount of advertising time to fill up, and advertising time is thus chaper, and the advertisements themselves are produced on a lower budget.
Another factor is the length and frequency of breaks in programming for advertisements. American (and Australian) television has frequent ad breaks - perhaps five or six breaks an hour during which you see four or five commercials each. British television has fewer breaks - three or four an hour - each with more commercials. Some continental European countries have uninterrupted programs with the ads solely playing in between programs. Clearly the longer the break, the more likely the viewer is to get up and do something else if the ad is not entertaining.
One other factor might be the other opportunities (or lack of them) available to talented people in the UK. Over the last several decaded, Britain hasn't had much of a film industry. It has had a large television industry, but this has not had especially high production values compared to movies. (A lot of it has been shot on video rather than film, for one thing). Thus the sorts of people who really care about producing technically accomplished films end up in advertising, whereas in the US they end up in the movie industry. And although television advertising in the 1960s may not have paid much compared to a Hollywood features film, it paid enormously better than did television at the BBC.
I still don't think I have explained everything though. I think there may be other cultural factors at hand. A lot of it may be that Britain (and London in particular) is a place obsessed with detail - not just in television advertising, but in other walks of life as well. London is a city full of markets and shops devoted to obscure 1960s watches, and the distinctions between slightly different models of same. It is a city that caters to the obsessions of every type of obsessive. America isn't like this. (Japan on the other hand is like this). I think to some extent the structure of British television and British television advertising is a reflection of this. Cyberpunk author William Gibson is obsessed with seeing patterns and trends in the noise of civilization. I suppose it is fair to say that he finds the complexity of the noise to be greatest in those two cities. (He writes about them in this article. He sees advertising as essentially trying to see patterns in the noise before anyone else, and then to take advantage of those patterns as they emerge. His new novel Pattern Recognition has essentially the following plot: "Someone is mysteriously putting segments of an obscurely powerful film with great production values on the internet. The main character, who has an inate instinct for brands, is hired by a London advertising agency to investigate so that the film can be coopted into British advertising. She therefore spends the novel running around London and Tokyo getting pieces of information from obsessive otaku types and eventually the maker of the film is found". For some reason, that plot was not work if it was a New York advertising agency. There is just something about London. (This is also getting close to the question of why I personally find London such a fascinating place).
I don't know if I am just being pretentious here. But I just keep coming back to the gut feeling that British television advertising is the way it is because the British are culturally suited to that kind of advertising. Perhaps I could have just said that it was all about "ineffable cultural factors" and saved myself a lot of typing.
Or perhaps it isn't. Perhaps it is all due to the fact that Ridley Scott happened to be in the right place at the right time. Right now I need to go to bed, and the story of the Scott brothers belongs in another post. That one tomorrow.
Update: . I have rewritten this piece a little bit since I first posted it. No major changes, but a little extra elaboration in a couple of places.
Jay Manifold has another piece on the museum looting. He is of the opinion that all the ranting of the anti-war movement over the last twelve months is a case of "the movement that cried wolf", and when there is something that is really worth getting upset against, we are just getting responses along the lines of "That's just the anti-Americanism talking again". I wasn't going to respond again, but I feld like saying something, so I sent Jay an e-mail. Having written it, I now feel I may as well post it.
I've just been echoing the sorts of things you've been saying on my blog, and I'm starting to wonder if there is much point posting any more. This whole episode practically makes me sick. This isn't just any museum there - this is where civilzation came from. Figuring out just precisely how and why it happened is one of the most inspiring things that it is possible to do, and people don't seem to get this. I don't really care one way or another about people who want to loot Saddam Hussein's palaces, but the looting of the museum is a catastrophe.
No, I actually don't think the US military is the principal villain here. But once again they don't get it. (With his contemptuous comment about "vases", Rumsfeld clearly doesn't get it). If however, the point had been rammed home over and over again before the military got to Baghdad, then they may have only paid attention. (All it really needed was about ten guys with guns). The point is not that looting occurred. The point is what was looted.
I would at least have hoped that a smart guy like Glenn Reynolds would have got this, but apparently not. I could do without his "There’s just no pleasing some people — but then, I don’t think they want to be pleased, at least not with the doings of the United States" comment, too. Plus we have Jeff Jarvis' "In a war, you're a bit busy worrying about things other than the priorities an NPR audience would set" observation, which seems to suggest that caring about invention of writing somehow makes me some sort of self indulgent chattering class type who needs to start worrying about the sorts of things that real people find important.
I am about as far from being anti-American as it is possible to be, and I have helped out with condemning every idiocy that has come from the anti-war folks in the last year, but criticism where it is due. And here, sadly, it is due.
Sorry for ranting. I'm really upset about this. I don't care about blame so much as that I am really upset about the loss of these treasures. One of the reasons I wanted to see Saddam Hussein overthrown - a relatively minor reason compared to all the other reasons for fighting the war - was that it appalled me to see a place so important in the hands of such a vicious thug. Overthrowing him would mean that archaeologists could once again visit the country. It would even mean that I could visit the country and look at things like those in the museum. (There is undoubtedly still plenty to see, so I still may do this). This is civilization being vandalised.
Virginia Postrel was kind enough to post the e-mail I sent her on the spread of Starbucks, and to link to this site. One thing I said in that e-mail was this.
I think there may be an element of this "all or nothing" aspect in why Starbucks are such a favourite object of hatred for anti-globalisation types. Visit a few of the most commonly visited international cities (Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Bangkok) and from the evidence of these you will likely think there is a Starbucks on every street corner throughout the world, when in fact they only have outlets in maybe 20 countries, and only in the very biggest cities in most of those. In terms of global penetration, they are nowhere near being in the same ballpark as McDonald's, say.
Since writing this, I have also been struck by the thought that the socio-economic group of many anti-globalisation protestors (college educated, computer literate, middle class) and the target socio-economic group of Starbucks are actually very close to one other. Another reason why they would be likely to see a Starbucks on every street corner wherever they go is that Starbucks are targeting them, or at least people very like them. McDonald's and Coca-Cola are the sort of trademarks that people like this are likely to see as vaguely declasse and which consequently fade into the background. Starbucks on the other hand is aimed at them, and it therefore appears so much more in your face to them.
Link via nzpundit
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
Jay Manifold also quotes Don Rumsfeld on the museum looting
"The images you are seeing on television, you are seeing over and over and over," he complained. "It's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase and you see it twenty times. And you think, my goodness, were there that many vases?"
This is a big story. We will see who in the media has the guts to chase it up properly.
After pausing for laughter, Rumsfeld delivered the punch line: "Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"
Christ almighty. Playing the destruction of the artifacts of 7000 years of human civilization for laughs. Or not understanding its significance? No wonder the troops were not briefed on its importance. Perhaps I should go back to laughing with my lefty friends about Republicans after all.
This is a big story. We will see who (if anyone) in the media understands how important it is, and has the guts to chase it up.
Monday, April 14, 2003
Tim Blair (who will find that republishing his archives will fix his permalinks) is making fun of young Uday's love Palace. I rather like these comments from the Times, personally
Another soldier walks through, fingering the second-rate audio equipment fitted into the tackiest of green chipboard cabinets, fronted with shiny silver panels. And, of course, gold taps everywhere.
“This is a Saddam palace? I was expecting better than this. Look at what the man has, a Korean VCR. I got a Sony DVD at home, and I don’t make that much money compared to what this guy has.”
As Alicia Silverstone once said to Brittany Murphy after an equally nasty putdown, "That was way harsh"
After the cricket World Cup, I stated that I would continue cricket blogging and that I would cover the Australia v West Indies series. As cricket fans will know, the first test in this series was played over the weekend, and nothing from me. It seems I was still a little cricketed out, and I didn't feel like doing blow by blow coverage. (Scott Wickstein's blow by blow coverage was admirable, however). Cricket fans will know by now that Australia scored a comfortable nine wicket victory. Australia went into the match without their two best bowlers Glenn McGrath (who is in Australia tending to his sick wife - my best wishes to both him and her) and Shane Warne (suspended for being an idiot). They were also without batsman Damien Martyn, who looks like he played when not fit in the World Cup final, and aggravated his injury. (He may well consider it worth it, as he had a very good game in the final and he won't get play in many World Cup finals). The West Indies were without former captain Carl Hooper (who was not playing for inscrutible reasons to do with internal West Indian cricket politics, and Ramnaresh Sarwan, who was injured.
West Indies batted first on the first day and were soon 5/53. Really that was it Australia were on top, and they stayed there for the rest of the match, regardless of the fact that there was some good batting from the West Indies after that. In the first innings, Shivnarine Chanderpaul batted superbly, scoring a brilliant century off 69 balls, one of the fastest in test history. He was then given out to an incorrect LBW decision. Still, the West Indies were all out for 237, which was not nearly good enough. THe Australian bowlers clearly missed McGrath and Warne. In particular, the two spinners (Hogg and MacGill) brought in to replace Warne were a bit loose. Neither of them is Warne. (Nobody is Warne. That's why it's such a shame he is an idiot).
For Australia, Langer and Ponting then scored centuries, and although the rest of the order (with the exception of Adam Gilchrist who scored 77) were a little disappointing in the end, they scored 489, which was ample.
The West Indies played much better in their second innings. Brian Lara found some form, scoring 110. Even better, Daren Ganga scored a maiden test century. There is a type of player you see once in a while, who enters international cricket, plays a few games, and for a while doesn't quite look good enough. Then, suddenly, he will put together a performance that indicates that he does belong there after all. Ganga has been that kind of player, and he played that kind of innings on Saturday. He batted for a long time with his captain Lara, and Lara gave him the right sort of encouragement and he really rose to the occasion. This must have been heartening if you were a west Indian supporter.
However, not in terms of this match. On the fourth morning, Jason Gillespie bowled a fine spell for Australia, reducing the west Indies from 5/382 to 398 all out. Australia were set 147 to win, and got the runs for the loss of only one wicket. Langer (who was also once the sort of player who looked out of sorts at international level, but then came good) scored 78 not out and Ponting 42 not out. A good but not great win by the Australians.
Positives for Australia: Langer and Ponting's form. Signs that Gillespie may be stepping up to eventually become the main strike bowler. Negatives: Hayden remains out of sorts with the bat. The fielding was a little scrappy. The replacement spinners aren't Shane Warne. What is Darren Lehmann doing in the side?
Positives for the West Indies: excellent form for the two senior batsmen Chanderpaul and Lara, plus the hundred from Ganga and good support from Jacobs in the first innings. Good bowling from Drakes in the Australian first innings. Negatives: even though these players had good games, they were resoundingly beaten, and the West Indies have few good players other than these. In particular, their bowling is well below par.
I see no reason to update my forecast series result of Australia by 4-0, particularly given that Glenn McGrath will be back for the third test. If Lara starts scoring triple centuries, this might change, but I still cannot see them being able to bowl Australia out for scores low enough to win, at least not on good pitches like this one.
In other cricket news, South Africa yesterday played their first game since their debacle in the World Cup. They were thrashed by a below strength (ie without Sachin Tendulkar) Indian team by 153 runs in a one day tournament in Bangladesh. South African cricket continues to be in real trouble.
(Also, Pakistan last week won a one day tournament in the United Arab Emirates against Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and Kenya. This tournament was so meaningless that it is barely worth mentioning).
Jay Manifold links to this article on the looting of Iraq's national museum, and laments the loss of so many great cultural treasures.I can only agree. This is the sort of thing that is most vulnerable in the few days after an invasion, sadly. (I suspect also that Saddam Hussein's "We are actually winning the war, so there is no need to prepare for any invasion" type rhetoric doesn't really help. One thing that happened in Europe was that with the inevitable coming in World War 2, many great art treasures (Rembrandt's Nightwatch for instance) were hidden for the course of the war. And many weren't.
Other treasures thought to be housed at the museum -- such as the Ram in the Thicket from Ur, a statue representing a deity from 2600 B.C. -- are no doubt gone, perhaps forever, he said.
"This is just one of the most tragic things that could happen for our being able to understand the past," Newby said. The looting, he said, "is destroying the history of the very people that are there."
Not just the people there. All of us. This is where writing and agriculture were invented. This is where the antecedents of our monotheistic religions came from (some of them, anyway). This is where civilization came from. From an archaeological point of view, it is the most important place in the world, in my opinion.
Koichiro Matsuura, head of the U.N.'s cultural agency, UNESCO, on Saturday urged American officials to send troops to protect what was left of the museum's collection.
The governments of Russia, Jordan and Greece also voiced deep concern about the looting. Jordan urged the United Nations to take steps to protect Iraq's historic sites, a "national treasure for the Iraqi people and an invaluable heritage for the Arab and Islamic worlds."
No disrespect meant to the Arab and Islamic worlds, but a lot of this stuff long predates the Arab and Islamic worlds. It makes them look ephemeral and relatively insignificant. (It makes a lot of things look ephemeral and insignificant. That's why it is so important). These are the treasures of all of us, not just of the Arab and Islamic world.
Some blamed the U.S. military, though coalition forces said they had taken great pains to avoid damage to cultural and historic sites.
A museum employee, reduced to tears after finding her office and all administrative offices trashed by looters, said: "It is all the fault of the Americans. This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now." She refused to give her name.
The Americans knew that the museum was at risk and could have protected it, said Patty Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul School of Law in Chicago who helped circulate a petition before the war, urging that care be taken to protect Iraqi antiquities.
"It was completely inexcusable and avoidable," she said.
I doubt that they could have completely protected it, but it does sound like more effort should have been made. Sadly, though, protecting a museum doesn't get you stories on CNN. It is more a case of simply this is what happens in wartime, and this is another reason why war is so terrible. It may sometimes be necessary. I have argued that this war was necessary and I believe this, but it is still terrible.
I do not know what kind of "collector" would buy a many thousand year old treasure that had been stolen in this way, but I suppose you will find people who indulge in any kind of depravity you can name.
Of course the museum employee in question could have given her name. Nothing untoward would happen to her now for saying what she thought. Some things have changed. And it was a terrible thing for the cradle of civilization to be cut off from the world the way it was due to the country being ruled by a homicidal dictator.
But this is still terrible.
Update: There is another article here from the Washington Post. (Link via Oxblog). It does appear that various people tried hard to warn the Pentagon that this might happen, and they may not have managed to get the message about the level of cultural importance in question through to the Pentagon. Still, I am sympathetic to the armed forces here. Chaos for a few days is inevitable in this sort of a situation. I would like to have seen more done, but I am aware that this was somewhere between very difficult and impossible.
Further Update: Jay has more. His opinion: "This is a screw-up for the ages". I am coming around to the view that he is right. Either the armed forces did not get the message about just how important this stuff is, or they failed to anticipate the looting. The list he quotes of some of the things that have gone is enough to bring you close to tears. More should have been done.
Sunday, April 13, 2003
"I am pleased to bring Mohammed's skills to Miramax," Harvey Weinstein said via videophone. "I've been watching him and I am honored that he's joining our company."
Al-Sahhaf, who will be based in Miramax's new Baghdad office, got off to a quick start declaring, "The Academy Awards were blocked by the international gang of criminal bastards DreamWorks and Focus." When asked to elaborate, he added, "Marty Scorsese and Daniel Lewis won the Oscars, not the infidels Polanski and Brody. God is grilling their golden statuettes in hell."
Al-Sahhaf, 63, was the Iraq Information Minister since 2001. Before that, he was Iraqi Foreign Minister for eight years.
Referring to the recently released Gwyneth Paltrow film A View From The Top, Al-Sahhaf said as an artillery shell landed only yards away, "[The box office grosses] are all wrong. We blocked the film inside theaters. The movie is grossing $25 million dollars a day and is now more than $250 billion. You can go see for yourself." He blamed the deflated box office reporting on, "the infidels Bush, Katzenberg and Colin Farrel."
(Unknown origin, but quoted by Eugene Volokh, who also posted the rest of it).
Blogger and Blogspot were doing all kinds of bizarre things this morning, so I was unable to post, and I think people were unable to access the site. Thus blogging today is and will be light. I have a post at Transport Blog, however.
I spent yesterday evening in a pub in the Kensington area with the guys from Samizdata. It was good to meet Perry, Jonathan, David, Jonathan, Gabriel and quite a few others, although the exercise of matching names to faces to posting names (which are not always the same) was fairly complex. Anyway, it was an evening of good conversation with smart and interesting people while drinking mediocre beer. In all very enjoyable. Plus some very interesting ideas for indexing the blogosphere came out of a conversation between Gabriel Syme and myself. Hopefully we will get to implement some of this within a couple of month and the results could be quite interesting.
Anyway, nice to meet everyone. Please invite me to your future gatherings.
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