Saturday, 19 April 2008

When Hype is Not Warranted

The term hype has been in use since at least the Fifties. It is a word that simultaneously denotes excessive publicity and the commotion that sometimes comes with it. While the word may only date from the later half of the Twentieth Century, however, hype has existed nearly as long as there has been mass media of any kind, from the printed word to television.

Most often when hype surrounds a particular work, it is with very good reason. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, published in 1937, became the best selling novel of its time. Mitchell even won the Pulitzer prize for the work. For that reason it was quite natural that there would be a great deal of hype surrounding David O. Selznick's film adaptation, from the casting of Scarlet O'Hara to the film's complex production. It was quite naturally expected to be huge at the box office (and it was, becoming the biggest selling film of all time for many decades to come). One cannot say that the hype which surrounded Gone With the Wind was not warranted.

Another example of hype being well deserved also comes from the world of film. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was the biggest film of its time. It was quite natural then that there should be a good deal of hype surrounding its sequel, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. And while Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back did not do as well as the first film, it was still a phenomenal box office success. Today many regard it as the best of the series. Again, it would seem that Em>Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back deserved its hype.

While many movies, TV shows, and books do deserve the hype that they receive, there are other times when a particular upcoming work receives a great deal of hype for apparently no good reason. A current example which comes to my mind is Sex in the City: the Movie. The past few months have seen article after article on the film. And in many instances the writers give the impression that Sex in the City: the Movie will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, movie of the summer. It is not unusual for it to be mentioned in the same breath as Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Speed Racer, and The Dark Knight. My only question is, "Why?"

There can be no doubt that Sex in the City was one of the most popular shows on HBO. And the show most certainly has a loyal following. That having been said, I do not think that following is large enough to turn it into a smash hit at the box office. For one thing, it seems to me that Sex in the City was always one of those shows that appealed much more to women than men. Every single fan of Sex in the City I know personally is a woman. Not one man I know personally ever watched the show regularly, and all of them were either indifferent to it or outright hated it. From the outset, then, Sex in the City: the Movie will have an audience composed almost entirely of women. And, unfortunately for that film, it takes appeal to both sexes for movies to generally be big box office hits.

For another thing, I am not even sure that Sex in the City is that popular among women. Of the women I know personally who have seen the show, they seem to be divided about 50/50 as to the series. On one hand, my first best friend's wife and my second best friend are both indifferent to the show. On the other hand, my sister loved it. If the women I know are any indication, then, only 50% of all American women have any interest in Sex in the City. That certainly does not bode well for Sex in the City: the Movie.

That having been said, all of this is not taking into account that the movie is being released May 30, 2008. This will put it in competition with Iron Man (releasing May 2, 2008), Speed Racer (releasing May 9, 2008), The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (releasing May 16, 2008), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (releasing May 22, 2008). Given this sort of competition and its somewhat limited audience, I suspect the best that Sex and the City: the Movie can hope for is modest box office success on its first weekend, possibly ranking #2 in the top ten movies for the weekend. Of course, I doubt it will even do that. The question then remains why the movie is getting as much hype, if not more hype, than many of the summer's obvious blockbusters?

Of course, unwarranted hype is not limited to movies. It occurs in the medium of television as well. Early in its run, Ally McBeal received an enormous amount of exposure in the press. The character of Ally McBeal even made the controversial June 25, 1998 cover of Time, appearing alongside feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. The show also won Emmy awards and SAG awards, as well as receiving several nominations for various other awards. Despite the intense publicity the series received and the awards it won, however, Ally McBeal was not a smash hit in the ratings. Although it was one of Fox's more popular shows, for most of its run it rarely ranked in the top 25 shows for any given week. And while it did win awards, many critics were not particularly fond of the show, finding the title character annoying. Even worse, there were feminists who found the character of Ally McBeal an insult to women. When the show's ratings fell towards the end of its run, they did so spectacularly. These days one rarely, if ever, hears Ally McBeal mentioned except in discussions of television in the Nineties. Again, one has to wonder what the reason for all the hype was.

Literature having always been considered a more respectable medium than film or television, one would think it would be immune to hype. This is not the case, and sometimes that hype is unwarranted. The textbook example of a writer who was overly hyped is perhaps the late Norman Mailer. It seemed that every new book Mailer had written was published with a good deal of fanfare. He won the Pulitzer, among other awards. His novel The Naked and the Dead and his nonfiction work The Executioner's Song can be considered classics. There are those who count him as the most influential writer of his generation. And yet, with the exception of The Naked and the Dead, nearly all of Mailer's books received mixed reviews. While many of his books sold well, there were many that did not. Indeed, today Mailer's books simply do not sell very well. His book The Armies of the Night, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1969, only sold 3000 copies from 2006 to November 2007. This can be contrasted with the works of Kurt Vonnegut. His novel Cat's Cradle sold 130,000 copies in the same time period. Slaughterhouse Five sold 280,000. The question then remains why so much publicity would often surround the works of Mailer, even more than the works of Vonnegut, a writer who was not only critically acclaimed but adored by the public as well.

It is probably impossible to determine all of the factors which cause certain works to receive a good deal of hype which they ultimately do not deserve. And I rather suspect that the reasons behind it vary from work to work. That having been said, I think that to some degree there could be a certain amount of snobbery which results in some movies, TV shows, or books being hyped more than other movies, TV shows, or books that might actually be more deserving. This may certainly hold true for Norman Mailer. While I have only read a few of his books, I can say that they were generally well written and well thought out. I still think Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller are better writers, but I must give Norman Mailer credit where credit is due.

Of course, it is difficult for me to see snobbery at work with regards to such things as Sex in the City and Ally McBeal. I always thought of the former as simply a half hour dirty joke written for women and the latter as a superficial show with little depth at all. That having been said, there could be an explanation for why the cognoscenti in television would love both shows. Sex in the City centred on urban, single, working women, three of whom were nearing middle age and one of whom definitely was middle aged--this at a time when very few shows focused on urban, single, working women of any age. The show often had serialised story lines and even flirted with drama at a time when most sitcoms did not do so. It also dealt with issues that at the time were considered socially relevant. While there were those who found the show rather shallow in its treatment of single women in the Nineties, I can still understand why the series might appeal to many television critics and reporters in the entertainment industry, particularly women. There would then seem to be a bit of a snob fact at work with Sex in the City. I believe the same could hold true with Ally McBeal. Like Sex in the City it centred on a single, urban, working woman. And like Sex in the City it dealt with socially relevant theme. It also featured serialised story lines at a time when such were a rarity on television. I can then also understand how the show would then appeal to the cognoscenti in the television industry.

The snob appeal of some movies, TV shows, and books then explains why they are sometimes hyped even if there is no great clamour over them among the general public. It is a case of these movies, TV shows, and books appealing to a few critics and reporters who lose their objectivity and somehow believe that these movies, TV shows, and books should then appeal to the vast majority of Americans. I can guarantee that when Sex in the City: the Movie loses the weekend box office to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there will be those in the media who will proclaim it a box office disappointment and ponder why it did not perform better. What they will miss, of course, is that all the hype around the film was unwarranted and it will only be performing as well as is to be expected.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Scream Queen Hazel Court Passes On

Actress Hazel Court passed on Tuesday at the age of 82 from a heart attack. She is perhaps best known for her roles in horror films from both Hammer Films and American International. She played opposite such greats as Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Boris Karloff.

Hazel Court was born in Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham on February 10, 1926. Her father was a professional cricketer. She was only fourteen she studied drama at both the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the Alexander Theatre in Birmingham. As a teenager she was already appearing in stage productions. She made her film debut in a bit part in the movie Champagne Charlie in 1944 Her first credited role was playing in the movie Dreaming in 1945. She won a British Critics Award for her role as the handicapped girl May Raeburn in the 1946 film Carnival.

Starting with the drama Root of All Evil in 1947, Court would make several movies for Gainsborough Pictures. Although she preferred comedy, she played in a variety of movies early in her career, appearing in the crime drama Dear Murderer, the thriller Forbidden, and the drama My Sister and I. From 1944 to 1948, she would make only two comedies--the swashbuckler adventure Meet Me at Dawn and Holiday Camp (her last film with Gainsborough).

Hazel Court was absent from the silver screen from 1948 to 1952, her last film having been My Sister and I in 1948. When she returned to the big screen in 1952, it would be in her first horror film. Ghost Ship (not to be confused with the Val Lewton movie) was written and directed by B-movie master Vernon Sewell. For the next few years she would appear in such varied films as Counterspy, Devil Girl from Mars, and Hour of Decision.

The year 1957 would mark a turning point in Hazel Court's career. It was the year that she made her television debut, guest starring on The Buccaneers and cast as a regular on the ATV series The Gentle Killers. More importantly, it was in 1957 that she appeared in Hammer Films' Curse of Frankenstein. The film established Hazel Court as an undisputed scream queen and a cult star. She would have her own TV series, Dick and the Duchess, from 1957 to 1958. She would guest star in TV shows such as Playhouse 90, The Invisible Man, Bonanza, Danger Man, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Thriller. She also appeared in such movies as The Shakedown, Model for Murder, and Breakout.

Of course, it would be for her horror movies for which she would become best known. She once more appeared with Christopher Lee in Hammer's The Man Who Could Cheat Death. She was also the lead actress in Dr. Blood's Coffin. That having been said, it would be for Roger Corman's American International that she would make the bulk of her horror movies. She starred in Premature Burial, The Raven, and The Masque of the Red Death.

Hazel Court semi-retired from acting in 1964 to concentrate on being a wife and mother. Thereafter she made only scattered appearances on such televsion shows as Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, Burke's Law, and The Wild Wild West. Her last appearance on film was a cameo in Omen III: The Final Conflict in 1981.

Sadly, it seems that more attention has been paid to Hazel Court's most noticeable assets and her ability to scream in fear than the considerable talent she actually possessed. While the movies she made often gave her little more to work with than looking beautiful and screaming profusely, she was often very impressive in her various guest shots on TV shows. Examples of such are her roles in the episode "Arthur" of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the episode "The Contessa" of Danger Man, the episode "The Mink Coat" of The Invisible Man. Although she was not sometimes given the opportunity to display it, Hazel Court was indeed an actress of considerable talent.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Ollie Johston Jr., Last of the Nine Old Men, Passes On

Celebrated animator Oliver Martin "Ollie" Johnston Jr. died yesterday afternoon from natural causes the age of 95. He was the very last of the Disney's Nine Old Men, the core group of animators created most of Disney's classic works. They were deemed the Nine Old Men by Walt Disney himself, using the term that Franklin D. Roosevelt had used of the U.S. Supreme Court (here it must be noted that in the Thirties the oldest of Disney's Nine Old Men were only in their forties).

Ollie Johnston was born on October 31, 1912 in Palo Alto, California. Johnston attended Palo Alto High School and later went to Stanford University, where his father was the head of the romance language department. It was there that he met Frank Thomas, who would become Johnston's friend for life and another one of Disney's Nine Old Men. Both Johnston and Thomas attended the Chouinard Art Institute after graduating from Stanford. After Thomas started working for Walt Disney's studio in September 1934. Johnston followed suit in January 1935.

Johnston began work as an apprentice animator, working as an inbetween artist on such shorts as "Two-Gun Mickey" and "Mickey's Garden."The Tortoise and the Hare," on which Johnston worked, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Johnston would serve as an assistant animator to Fred Moore on Disney's first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Ollie Johnston would go onto work on some of Disney's great feature films. Under his full name, Oliver M. Johnston, he was an animator on Pinocchio, regarded by some as the greatest animated film of all time. He was the animation supervisor on "The Pastoral Symphony" for Fantasia and supervising animator for the character Thumper on Bambi. He was a directing animator on The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and The Rescuers. He was an animator on The Three Caballeros, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and Mary Poppins. Among the shorts on which he worked were "Peter and the Wolf," "Johnny Appleseed," "Chicken Little," and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Johnston retired in 1978, having worked for Disney for 43 years. He would also be the voice of the train engineer in The Iron Giant and performed additional voices for The Incredibles.

With his best friend Frank Thomas, he co-wrote four books: Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, Too Funny For Words, Walt Disney's Bambi: The Story and the Film, and The Disney Villain. He and Frank Thomas and heir lifelong partnership were the subject of the 1995 documentary Frank and Ollie.

For nearly his entire life Ollie Johnston was a train enthusiast. In 1946 he built a constructed a one-inch scale steam-driven train and track. In 1968 he bought and restored a 1901 H.K. Porter steam locomotive. It was Ollie's interest in trains which would spur Walt Disney's own interest in them, even leading to the construction of the railroad in Disneyland.

There can be no doubt that Ollie Johnston was among the greatest animators of all time. His expertise was character animation, and he animated some of the best loved characters in the history of animation. It was Johnston who animated the Great Prince of the Forest and Thumper in Bambi, Mr. Smee in Peter Pan, and Baloo in The Jungle Book. An animator Johnston could be very subtle when it came to his characters, allowing their emotions to be expressed through little facial expressions and movements of the body. If animated characters today have a greater range of emotion than they once did, it is largely due to the work of men such as Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. They were definitely among the best.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Social Networking Websites

In recent years a good deal has been written and said about social networking websites. For those of you who don't know what a social networking website is, it is essentially any website which is meant to facilitate interaction between its users. Many, if not most,social networking websites include blogs and messaging, and some even have their own email and chat. Perhaps the most famous example of a social networking website is MySpace.

Of course, it is hard to tell what the first social networking website actually was. As originally conceived, the web hosting service GeoCities was organised into "neighbourhoods" into which users would place their various web sites. Each user had his or her own profile. And GeoCities also offered chat, bulletin boards, email, and other community related features. In some respects, this isn't much different from the social networking websites of today. GeoCities came about in 1995, but has since done away with the neighbourhood setup and most all of the community features.

It must also be pointed out that Yahoo has had profiles nearly as long as GeoCities has been around. In one's Yahoo Profile one gives his or her Yahoo ID, his or her real name (if he or she chooses to), his or her occupation, his or her hobbies, et. al. The Yahoo profile was in many ways the ancestor of the profiles used by MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites.

Of course, one could always consider the online dating services to be among the earliest social networking sites. Indeed, Matchmaker.com's roots go all the way back to 1983, starting out as a bulletin board system. It was then among the first online dating services on the Web. Rival Match.Com was founded in 1994 and went live as an online beta in 1995. FriendFinder was founded in 1996. I must confess that I have no experience with online dating websites, but, from those who do, I know that they generally include rofiles, messaging, and other features generally found in social networking sites. Quite simply, online dating services can be considered highly specialised social networking websites.

Indeed, the earliest social networking websites did tend to be highly specialised. Classmates.com was founded in 1995 with the purpose of reuniting old classmates and keeping them in touch. Another early social networking website was SixDegrees.com. It was founded in 1997 and lasted until 2001. The name for SixDegrees.com was taken from the idea that there are only six degrees of separation between any two human beings. As a result, the website centred on indirect ties between people. SixDegrees.com was notable in that it not only included profiles, but users could create friend lists, post bulletin board messages to people, and so on. In many respects, it was the direct predecessor to MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and so on.

Yet another, but highly specialised predecessor to the modern social networking sites was AncientSites. AncientSites was dedicated to history, from ancient Rome to the Germanic peoples of the Dark Ages. Member profiles were written as if the individual was an ancient Celt or ancient Greek or so on. Members could join various groups, chat with each other (chatrooms were everywhere on AncientSites), post to bulletin boards, and so on. Founded in 1997, AncientSites closed its doors in 2001. It maintained a loyal following, however, so much so that its creators would develop a new site, AncientWorlds, that is pretty much the same as the original AncientSites.

Another predecessor of modern social networking websites is LiveJournal. LiveJournal was founded in 1999, primarily as a blogging service. What set LiveJournal apart from other blogging services is that it has characteristics of a social networking web site. Like MySpace and Facebook after it, users on LiveJournal can have "Friends." LiveJournal also features groups called "communities," where users can hold discussions on various topics of interest to them. In some respects LiveJournal has always been as much a social networking website as it is a blogging service.

While Classmates.com specialises in renewing school ties and LiveJournal is a blogging service. Care2 is also specialised. Founded in 1998, it is meant to encourage activism in individuals by connecting them with like minded people. Like the social networking sites that followed it, Care2 includes a profile which lists one's interests. And it includes bulletin boards and groups in which individuals can discuss things. What sets it apart from other social networking sites is that it emphasises activism. I have a Care2 account myself, it is one of the better social networking sites out there.

If there is a turning point when one can say social networking websites came into their own, it is perhaps the year 2002. hi5 was founded in 2002 and from the beginning was set up much like MySpace or Facebook. Users create their own profiles listing their various interests. They can make friends, post pictures, and so on. Although not as well known as MySpace or Facebook, it is still popular. In 2007 it ranked as one of the 25 most visited sites on the web.

It was also in 2002 that Friendster was founded. It launched in March 2003. The idea was simply that individuals would have profiles like those at online dating sites, but instead those profiles would be used to network with friends and acquaintances. It was successful early on. By June 2003 it had 835,000 registered members. Unfortunately, problems would soon emerge for Friendster. The large number of users put a burden on the website's servers, which meant page loads could take over a minute. Users became very unhappy, as word of the site's problems spread through boards and blogs. Worse yet, Friendster would soon have rivals to contend with.

The first among these was MySpace. It was in 2003 that employees of eUniverse, an internet marketing company, realised just how successful Friendster could really be. They then developed their very own social networking website. Launched in August 2003, eUniverse promoted MySpace among its 20 million users. By July 2005 MySpace had 22 million users. Much of this success would come through the site's MySpace Music service, in which bands could not only have their own profiles, but put samples of their work on the site as well. Of course, MySpace also has many other features, such as blogs, photos, groups, and so on. If MySpace has become the most successful social networking site, it is perhaps because there is so much to do there. Indeed, in 2007 MySpace even introduced MySpaceTV, their own equivalent of YouTube.

Another rival to Friendster arrived in Feburary 2004. Facebook was originally a very specialised site, initially servicing only students at Harvard. It quickly expanded to include the whole Ivy League and later still any university student. High school students were allowed to join in September 2005. In April 2006 employees of ten major companies (including Amazon and Microsoft) were allowed to join. Finally, in September, 2006, everyone was permitted to join.

Even though Facebook is now open to everyone, it is still in some respects more specialised than MySpace or Friendster. It is essentially set up along the line of networks based on geographic region, workplace, or school. And unlike other social networking sites, one's profile cannot be viewed simply by anyone. Someone in say, the Bangkok, Thailand network would not be able to view the profile of someone in the New York, New York network beyond his or her profile picture and name. While this does insure privacy, it is also a bit frustrating in that it can sometimes be difficult to determine if someone in another network is indeed one knows. Still, there is a good deal to do at Facebook. Indeed, the site features what they call "applications," features which can allow one to share his or her favourite movies with people or take quizzes or what have you.

Of course, there are more social networking sites out there than Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. There is Bebo, which seems to be most popular in the UK and its colonies (including the United States). There is Orkut, which is owned by Google, but seems to be most popular in India and Brazil. There is Yahoo! 360°, Yahoo's social networking site which they intend to replace with a universal profile system. In all, well over 100 social networking sites exist, not counting sites such as LiveJournal which have some social networking features.

Social networking has existed on the World Wide Web from the beginning. Online dating existed before the advent of the Web. Sites such as Geocities developed soon after. Perhaps the only surprise with regards to the emergence of sites such as MySpace and Facebook is that they did not emerge sooner. One thing that can be certain. They won't be going away any time soon.