Thursday, January 29, 2009

Hot Air-bender is still Old Hollywood Gas

Scenes from "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

I always got a headache whenever I tried to watch "Avatar: The Last Airbender." I found much of the premise convoluted. I was totally confused throughout the series about which martial arts fighting style represented which element (thank goodness for Wikipedia) and who could bend what and why.

I've seen so much original anime over the years that this program always felt more derivative than original, more anime lite than anything else.

While I applaud the diverse cultural references to Asia inherent throughout the series, even these markers are either poorly emphasized in the storyline or are simply convenient tools to accelerate the story towards another goofball or fighting sequence.

At least "Avatar" was something different for the young viewer; it became a hit among the specific demographic of 6 to 17-year-olds who reveled in the adventures of Aang, Katara and Sokka.

Several months ago, I was surprised to read about ongoing negotiations with M. Night Shyamalan to write and direct a live action version of "Avatar." Why? I thought: Were the toys selling that well? Were the ratings that substantial? Did the general gaming public now know what an "avatar" was without first having to look up the word? Was the world ready for yet another "Village" or "Happening?"

Well the movie is now into pre-production. What could possibly go wrong in the politically correct, forever liberal environment that is the film business? Check out this link and find out. It's mind-boggling that in 2009 something so flagrantly stupid and insensitive could actually take place. Well, actually no: Hollywood has been wallowing in this specific form of color invisibility for decades.

White actors have been playing Asian roles since before "Broken Blossoms."

Hollywood has a long history of confusing Caucasian with Asian. Mickey Rooney played Japanese in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Brando played Japanese in "Teahouse of the August Moon." Peter Sellers, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Warner Oland, among many others, stomped around as Fu Manchu. In fact the Swedish Oland's most famous role was Charlie Chan.

This comment from actor Jackson Rathbone, dismissing the casting controversy, probably illustrates what I'm talking about best:
"I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan," he said of the transformation he'll go through to look more like Sokka. "It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."
Yeah: And Bruce Lee could play either Sara Lee or Robert E. Lee just as well, too.

Monday, January 26, 2009

OMG, Librarians are really Hip

"The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Dave McKean

Bookstores and libraries beware! Prepare for a mad dash of children coming in search of the 2009 Newbery Award winner, instead of just the usual crowd of well-meaning parents, guardians, nannies, and other individuals with constipated expressions searching for "legitimate" children's books to thrust onto book clubs.

Kids reading for fun and excitement in the post-Harry Potter era: What a concept! After years of selecting novels that gather dust on bookshelves after the initial hype has blown them out to sea, and with the debate raging about its own relevancy for kids in today's marketplace, The Newbery Award committee threw the betting crowd a real long shot when it bestowed this year's honor on "The Graveyard Book."

Who would have thunk that writer Neil Gaiman and his longtime illustrator, Dave McKean, would win the top children's book prize of 2008? Remember these are children's librarians who issued this award. The guardians of civility, top drawer manners, and "no talking at any time" are suddenly going rogue and kicking off their orthopedics; unbuttoning the top fastener of their "Little House on the Prairie" blouses; letting their buns down; and handing out their most important literary emblem to the geniuses behind The Sandman. Now roaming the halls of the San Diego Comic Book Convention really does have literary merit, Mom.

But anyone who has been following the careers of these Englishmen know they have wandered into the realm of children's literature before. There was The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (1998); The Wolves in the Walls (2003); and, of course, the much heralded, Coraline (2002), soon to be a major motion picture. All well worth the time to find, to read, to savor.

I've stood in line dozens of times at comic book conventions for Gaiman and McKean's autographs because I am a geek and this is a far more exciting thing to do on a Saturday's than ironing more wrinkles into shirts. Somewhere in the black hole I call my apartment, I have an original piece of artwork from Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth that I purchased more than 20 years ago when comic book artwork was not bathed in gold. The piece is dark; it is horrifying in its intensity; it makes your skin crawl and your teeth rattle. That's why for years I hung it in my bathroom, so I could study it when I didn't feel like reading.

Gaiman is an amazing writer; McKean is a phenomenal illustrator. It's comforting to know that we old time graphic novel readers have something now in common with today's Vanessa Bruno clad librarians. I wonder if they will still force us to "shush" in the library?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Defending Wolverine and the X-Men

Watching last night’s premiere of "Wolverine and the X-Men" reminded me once again of an egotistically stupid argument I had nearly twenty years ago. It forever ruined a friendship.

By early 1993, the Fox Kids Network (FKN) was well on its way to becoming the number one place for kids on Saturday morning. From a rather forgettable beginning in 1990, FKN had, with careful programming choices and a keen understanding of the changing children’s marketplace, catapulted itself into a position of ratings dominance over the other three broadcast networks. Two shows truly magnetized the viewers to FKN: "Batman, the Animated Series." which premiered in September, 1992 and "X-Men: The Animated Series." which began its the regular episodic run in January, 1993. I was the network executive in charge of both of them. "Power Rangers" would not make its juggernaut presence felt until September, 1993.

The success of FKN defied the pundits. They argued that the idea of a fourth network on Saturday morning was a very foolish, financially stupid proposition. Fox Television was having enough worries in the late 80's with their prime time schedule: Why add to their headaches with series from a time period already smelling like a musty relic?

Kids had been abandoning Saturday morning for years; advertisers were putting their top dollars into the toy-based children's syndication marketplace. Rumors abounded that all three networks were tired of the kids business and wanted out. The overall ratings were decreasing from year to year; the chronic lack of any substantial hits made jettisoning this daypart that much more appealing.

Pitching children’s programming to the three networks during the 70s and 80s was akin to being pistol-whipped, hog-tied, body-slammed, ridden hard and hung out wet -- and then saying "thank you" afterwards. Independent producers pitched to executives who had been glued to their positions for centuries: While pleasant enough individuals over a martini, they all failed to recognize the changing landscape brought on by syndication, video games, and the slow inexorable rise of cable. Kids were doing other things on Saturday mornings than waiting around to watch cartoons.

While "Scooby Doo" might have worked in the 70’s to attract viewers, it was more Scooby Don't by the mid to late 80’s: Don’t bring us anything that was too boy, too girl, too hip, not hip enough, too well-known, too unknown, too personality driven, not personality driven enough. In the end, the program homogenization was so safe one could store the family jewels within it.

Thanks to the National Association of Broadcasters decision to disband its Code Authority Board in 1983, advertisers suddenly found themselves bereft of any moral scruples, let alone any self-regulating obstacles to introducing toys, candy, and other enticements into the now free wheeling marketplace of children’s programming. A once-a-week offering of "Dungeons and Dragons" or "Muppet Babies" or "Saved by the Bell" was not competitive when advertisers could get more eyeballs with a Monday through Friday series of "GI Joe," "Gobots," "My Little Pony," "Jem," or "Strawberry Shortcake."

Throughout that time, parents and pressure groups were constantly confusing the toy-based syndication programming seen Monday through Friday -- and conveniently airing right before and right after school -- with that of Saturday morning fare.

Well enough of the boring minutiae. The argument was all about the X-Men in general and Wolverine in particular. What better place to have a donnybrook than at a festive children's television industry luncheon? Over some rubber chicken and rock-hard boiled potatoes, the conversation turned to the Fox Kid's Network's sudden rise in popularity.

I knew why we were successful: The design of our comedy shows was hipper, the writing was funnier, the editing was brisker. The action shows were beautifully constructed, wonderfully animated, and the story-telling was sophisticated and multi-layered. Our programs were classier and had more kid appeal than the retreads on the other networks. I thought the case was obvious.

No, my friend argued, the reason Fox was winning the Saturday morning ratings war was due to the lack of any decent broadcast standards and practices. The action shows on FKN were all but running red with blood and gore. Wolverine was a psychopath who had no business being on Saturday morning kids' television: What were we trying to do, turn every boy into a unbridled lunatic? The Fox success was based on how much we had bent the normal network rules of censorship. She questioned whether we had even hired any broadcast standards people at all.

She called "X-Men" a cheat, a show her network would never put on the air. The stories were too adult, too frightening, and incomprehensible for children. The irresponsibility of airing this program and saying we had a legitimate Broadcast Standards and Practices (BS&P) department was, to this person, a mind-boggling lie, and she said I should be ashamed of myself.

Of course we had a BS&P department. Fox Broadcasting was a legitimate network. Rupert Murdoch would not have had it any other way. The key difference was our BS&P officials had not been born in the 19th century. They weren't old biddies scared of their bloomers flapping in the wind. Our BS&P people were younger, smarter, and far more attuned to the goings on in the marketplace than their ancient counterparts at the other three networks.

Did they let us get away with more? Hardly. We could stage action sequences more forcefully and have our heroes in more jeopardy and dispatch our villains with more clever means; but no, there were no punches to faces, no torture sequences, no ongoing cries of pain by either hero or villain, no dispatching anyone permanently, no blood ever, no pointing of realistic armaments at anyone, no first person shooter points of view, and definitely no blowing up anything other than robots and vacant buildings. Any planes, trains, and automobiles involved in mayhem were empty upon impact -- piloted by robots, or safely brought down with no loss of anything except animation time. The list was endless. We knew the rules. We played by them. We made exciting programming viewed by millions.

I found her remarks stunning. Her network was spiraling downward faster on Saturday mornings than my GPA did during science classes. The shows on her network had, over years, become formulaic, slow, and tediously timed and edited. I told her that no animated human characters were hurt during the making of any of our boys' action adventure shows. She did not seem amused.

Even back then I was more worried about the continuing presence of 24/7 cable concerns like Disney, Cartoon Network and NICK, not the feeble competition of the other broadcasters. Cable was the wave of the future for children’s programming. Funny I wasn’t smart enough to ever get a position with any of the new comers.

I tossed out a few quips to lighten up the conversation: Her programming was so bad it drove kids outdoors faster than anything other the San Francisco Earthquake. Her shows were so bad kids begged their parents to drive them back to school. Watching her schedule could bring any kid down from a sugar rush. Okay, none of my quips were A material; they were churlish, I admit; but I was working extemporaneously and when I do, I rarely think before I speak.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed and we went back to eating and networking.

We never spoke again after that day.

Coming soon: My thoughts on the NICKTOONS, "Wolverine and the X-Men" series.