Wednesday, December 17, 2008


The most fascinating thing about mass media is its own story. Right now, with technology taking off into the stratosphere and with the economy tanking faster than the life span of a new sitcom, the story of mass media is strictly high drama. A few of the current highlights:
Give your regards to old Broadway, and baby, do it fast. Between now and early February, 15 Broadway shows and going dark. Among them: “Grease,””Hairspray,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Spring Awakening,” “Spamalot,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “All My Sons,” and “Equus.” And for the first time in almost three decades there will be no “Forbidden Broadway” production on Broadway. Could it be that $300 worth of theatre tickets for two people is a bit of a stretch in an economy that saw 84,000 U.S. homes repossessed in October? (Figure from RealtyTrac Inc.)
Some theatre rats will tell you the reason for the sky high ticket prices is that the theatre-related unions are demanding a bigger chunk of the take. So, in order to even break even, a company has to inflate the prices. Others contend the prices have everything to do with the free enterprise system. How much will the market bear? Wow, that much, huh? Okay, cool. Let’s just charge that then. And then there is the artiste contingent that will fall on the side of art having worth in the culture that should increase in step with other consumer products. Go ahead, explain that to famed playwright David Mamet, whose own “American Buffalo” revival closed in November after just one week of performances.

When the best institutions start to shut their doors in a young culture like ours, those grandkids of yours won’t have a heritage to grab on to. Watching the otherworldly Patty Lupone belt out “Everything’s Coming up Roses” on YouTube will never match the enigmatic wonder of sitting in a darkened, too-cold Broadway house, fifth row center. Are we going to let Broadway ring the register so hard that it dims itself out? God, I hope not.

• Television broke a lifelong self-imposed boundary when a British television station recently aired Oscar-winning director John Zaritsky’s documentary, "Right to Die: The Suicide Tourist." The film follows 59-year-old Craig Ewert during his last four days of life, including his on-air suicide. Ewert suffered from Motor Neuron Disease (MND) that had rendered him virtually helpless. Reportedly, his position was that the world should witness a terminally ill person dying a peaceful, rather than horrendously painful death. It was apparently a political message with a large helping of humanity.

We have certainly seen murder on television – reference Lee Harvey Oswald’s on-air shooting in 1963. We have seen terrorist attacks on television, as recently as 2001. But suicide, planned, fully considered and executed on our home television screens is something else again. What does it say about us? That the true path to gaining public awareness and understanding depends on a full sacrifice of a man’s most private moment? That media consumers are so jaded generally that the only thing that can truly get their attention is ending a life in living color?

Zaritsky is an acclaimed, gifted film maker. He has every right to create a film like this. And the station in Britain is well within its rights to air it. But should this be all about artistic freedom and commercial viability? Is this truly what we wanted television to be? If you have ever had the misfortune of watching someone you love go through the dying process, you already understand the intense intimacy of the experience. It is not really a spectator affair. When one human being dies a technologically naked death on the airwaves, does he not compromise the privacy of each one of us and our own humanity? I’m thinking maybe so.

• If you’re going to dramatize two of the most significant moments in recent U.S. cultural history, find the right re-enactors and go as authentic as you can. Done. “Frost/Nixon” lets the actor’s actor Frank Langella recreate his eerily truthful stage version of Richard Nixon on screen. Is Langella not one of the most overlooked actors in the business? Maybe this is his moment. If you missed the real thing back in 1977, television personality David Frost interviewed the president who had resigned three years earlier. The resulting six-hour broadcast was riveting, but the behind the scenes tale of how it got on the air (and almost didn’t) is juicy, juicy. Here's a clip of the real Frost and the real Nixon back in '77:

As an admitted media junkie/nerd, I truly remember the Frost/Nixon interviews. You could not make this stuff up, but if anyone can bring it back to life in a meaningful way it is director Ron Howard. Here is the official theatrical trailer for the film, "Frost/Nixon."

• And then there is Sean Penn. Who knew 20 years ago that the wiry, tall-haired Penn of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” would slowly and methodically morph into maybe the closest thing we have to a true seasoned thespian in Hollywood? And who could have predicted his slow evolution into a committed activist who would bring the passion of his politics to almost every character he would play?

Penn is Harvey Milk (below, left) in the new Gus Van Sant film, "Milk." Harvey Milk, for those who do not recall, was the San Francisco gay activist of the 1970s who was elected to the city's Board of Supervisors. Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by another Supervisor, Dan White. It takes a filmmaker as versatile as Van Sant to tell a story of this magnitude. Van Sant, whose films run the gamut from "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" to "Psycho" to "Good Will Hunting," is probably the perfect collaborator for Penn, who seems to immerse himself more fully in each role he takes on.

Penn (below, right) is catching serious heat for his chummy tete-a-tetes with Castro and Chavez of late, but let's give credit where it's due. Taking on the role of Milk, exactly three decades after the murder, could be risky. Many young people have never heard of Milk, unfortunately. Some of those who do know his name do not understand the true extent of his influence on the contemporary gay civil liberties movement. With motion pictures like "Twilight," and "Transporter 3" burning up the box office, can a film about a gay guy who's been dead since disco was hip really make a buck? Here's the thing: Penn's got all the bucks he really needs. Based on his recent performances, and his outspoken rants about the issues that matter to him, it becomes clear the man has even more guts than cash. We like Sean Penn, don't we?

Final curtain calls on Broadway; final breaths on commercial television; and finally, quality recreations of two of the most dramatic moments of the late 20th century -- as I keep telling you -- nothing media can create will ever be quite as compelling as the backstory of media itself. And by now you know I'm just nosey enough to keep talking about it. Stay tuned, willya?

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