One night a year I get to pick the prime-time television show in this household, a household that continues to bring down the "number of televisions per household" statistics. Tonight is that night, and I pick the Academy Awards. I love the Oscars. I understand that in the past week or so the question kept popping up as to why middle America should watch an award ceremony so out-of-touch with most Americans. Here is my answer.
Most Americans did not see the movies nominated. So? I did. Zillions of Americans read books by Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham. This does not mean that they should get the Booker Prize or be read in English literatures classes fifty years from now. I am glad that not all movies have as central goals to merely entertain. Some movies I could watch over and over, like Grease 2. Some movies, like Schindler's List, I saw once, but that was all I needed to see it.
The movies nominated have political agendas. Every creation meant for an audience has an agenda. The agenda may be personal or not easily categorized, but many works build on universal themes from a perspective not universally held. That is what makes these works memorable. Thinking of other Academy Awards shows, many "best pictures" had liberal political agendas. Perhaps this continuing occurrence seems notable now because of its dissonance with the political leanings of other parts of the country.
The movies nominated are manipulative. Every creation meant for an audience is meant to persuade or change someone's mind. To do this, whether in comedy or in advertising or in a blockbuster movie, the creator uses the assumptions of the audience and takes the audience somehwere unexpected.
All this aside, I do think it's odd that this awards ceremony has its own "agenda." What is with this "some movies are meant only for the big screen, not for DVD players" theme? And did Jake Gyllenhaal not seem to ask the audience to realize that he was just reading his lines off the teleprompter and that he was uncomfortable being the messenger of this theme? I thought that to prove this point, the "epic" montage probably should have stuck with Gone With the Wind and Ten Commandments. But Grease? I did see Grease on the big screen five times, but then I've seen it on the small screen probably 50 times since, and it's pretty much the same.
My former student, Amanda Hill, got the "good-bye" signal from Martha last night. I haven't watched the episode yet, but on the website, the jist seems to be that Amanda was not a "team player." Now, that may just be rhetoric, but it may also be true. But maybe it's not her fault. She went to law school. Law school is competitive. We all know the speech -- grading curves mean that others improve to my detriment and vice versa. There are no team projects. We do not grade on how well one works in a team. (There may be some exceptions here, but bear with me.) Amanda is up against MBAs who are used to working in groups and who do so at work.
We did watch last week's episode, though, and I did want to give Amanda a call (assuming time travel). I think Amanda felt that the goal of each task was to win. Nope. The goal is to contribute to your team's efforts in such a way that makes the team more likely to win but ensures that if your team loses that the project manager will appreciate your efforts enough not to tell Martha you should go. Amanda played to win, even if she annoyed her team. So, when her team finally lost, guess who got the boot? I do think that Amanda was substantively a very strong player, though, so I'm sorry to see her go. I think Dawna will be the winner.
I would like to give you an update on last night's episode of Rome, but I watched most of the show with my eyes shut. Yikes.
We now interrupt our regular programming of law schools/rankings/ssrn talk to bring you something important -- popular culture. If ProfB had not admitted it first, I would not have the strength to admit that I am addicted to HBO's new series, Rome. Although I had doubts after the pilot (probably due to my huge expectations), I can now say that the only non-family programming that I watch with any frequency is my Sunday installment of Rome. (And Rome is almost by definition "non-family programming.")
I do disagree with ProfB's characterization of Vorenus as a "puritanical prig." Vorenus is the ultimate Republican (both big and little "r"). He loves the republic. He believes that the gods love the republic. He is the one of the few truly religious characters among many falsely religious characters. He believes in the military, he believes in the Senate, and he believes in the rule of law. He was faithful to his wife during the 7 1/2 year that he was fighting the Gauls. He is brave and merciful. I think Vorenus and his wife are interesting because they are the glimpse of the middle class. Vorenus was a soldier, then he came home and became a merchant, and now he is standing for political office.
I also like Titus Pullo, who seems to have come to a nadir in his story arc. Pullo is a more intelligent Lenny from Of Mice and Men. His caring for Vorenus and his wife leads him to torture and kill the brother-in-law lover and his care for the slave Eirene caused him to impulsively kill Eirene's fiancee. I hope things get better for him.
I don't watch a lot of network television, so I was surprised to open up the Texas Bar Journal today and find out that a former student of mine, Amanda Hill, is a finalist on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart! Amanda was one of my first students in 1998-99 when I was a teaching fellow at Texas Tech Law School. She was one of my best students that year and is now an attorney in Austin. According to the website, she is still in the running. If anyone watches the show, let me know how she is doing!
Maybe she'd like to guest blog about her experience. . . .
Yesterday I added HBO to our cable package so I could watch Rome. I recorded and watched the six episodes of the mini-series Empire, so I thought Rome would be even better. I'm not so sure. Sure, there's more graphic violence and naked women, but I'm not sure the show is much better. Of course, now I've paid my $10 ($15 with tax), so I'll watch it next week.
For starters, there is no likable character so far. I have to have one person that I care about. In Empire, I liked Tyrannus and Camane, the Vestal Vigin. Octavius grew on me. No such characters in Rome. The juxtapositions are interesting. In Empire, Octavius was an 18-year-old hedonist, with neither the appetite or the strategem for politics, but he was conflicted and rose to the occasion. In Rome, Octavius seems pre-pubescent and selfish to the point of cruelty. Although physically immature, he wraps up the hour-long premiere with three sentences that explain everyone's actions to the Roman officers. Oh, you thought Caesar was depressed and confiding in Brutus, while Brutus drunkenly spilled the beans to Pompey? No, that was Caesar's plan all along, and I know this, even though I'm 13, I haven't seen Caesar in 8 years, and no one talks to me about anything. Psychic or savant, this deus ex machina device was jarring.
All Alone is All We Are. Except for our iPods.
I am feeling some existential angst lately, brought on by Nate Fisher and Six Feet Under. Ann Althouse shares my fascination with the show (but not my angst), and she has been posting about the NARM episode, eco-burial, the architecture of the Fisher house ... which has led me to think more about the relationship between Gen X and branding. And a NYT article from the weekend discussed Gen X and branding. Does my generation have a special relationship to consumer products?
(If you are not caught up on the show, you may want to stop here. If you are caught up or don't care, read on below the fold.)
Six Feet Under has been intense lately. Nate Fisher, the older brother, died of a sudden stroke ("Narm" -- numb arm -- was the last word he uttered as he collapsed). Nate was the conflicted moral center of a deeply conflicted show.
Nate turned 40 this year, which places him at the front end of Generation X. More to the Gen X point, a flashback with Claire last week showed Nate distraught over the death of Kurt Cobain. The title of the episode, All Alone, refers to Cobain's lyrics, "All in All is All We Are." All alone. Grunge and Seattle may have passed on, but existential angst is still right here, still defining my generation.
What I am interested in is my generation's relationship to brands
and consumer products. Gen X's relationship to products is more
complicated and nuanced than either the boomers' or Gen Y's. My branding
paper brings a Gen X flavor to analysis of corporate deal structure.
Traditional economic analysis assumes that consumers focus on
attributes like price and quality when they buy products. The internal
corporate governance of the manufacturer would seem to be irrelevant.
But as the purchasing power of Gen X increases, that sort of un-branded
analysis doesn't work any more.
A bit of background: Gen X
refers to those of us born between 1965 and 1977, more or less. I'm
right smack in the middle. Irony is our defining characteristic. We
are labeled underachievers and slackers, but we created the dot com
boom. We are idealists, but we reject the naivete of the 60s. We grew
up in an "accelerated culture," watching way too much TV.
We are postmodernist, not modernist. (Although pomo predates us, our
generation was probably the first to really embrace it and incorporate
it into our pop culture.)
Whereas modernist critics resist advertising and branding, we resign ourselves to it. We understand and accept that our identities are shaped by the things we buy. The purchasing decision is not primarily about functionality. It is about shaping our identity.
Boomers are different. Baby boomers tend to fall to either extreme in their relationship to brands. Either they fully embrace the consumer lifestyle, irony-free, living in the suburbs and accumulating wealth. Or, influenced by the sixties, they resist. They boycott products. They move to Boulder. They avoid brand names as much as possible. They think corporations are evil.
Gen X doesn't boycott. We don't fight consumerism, at least not in
the same way. Instead, we accept that marketing suffuses our very
identity. Going to the supermarket isn't just about buying food. It
is about defining ourselves. Some Gen Xers buy Kraft Macaroni and
Cheese, seeking a nostaligic substitute for the home life
they were denied as latch-key kids. Other Gen Xers, knowing
that Kraft is owned by Phillip Morris, opt instead of an upscale
organic brand. But either way it's not just about the mac and cheese.
Back to Six Feet Under. Nate's character has always reflected my generation's dreams and troubles, from the life he led in Seattle (where he worked in a crunchy food co-op), to his troubled relationships with Brenda and Lisa, to his resignation to life as a funeral director -- exactly the life he always wanted to avoid. And yet he never let go of his idealism, comforting people, turning to Quakerism. He even told his brother he wanted an eco-friendly burial -- literally the last purchasing decision one can make. For our generation even death requires a socially-conscious purchasing decision. Even death is branded.
All of this supports my broader idea that brand image matters, and corporate deal structures are starting to reflect this. Gen X is acutely aware of the statement one makes by buying a product. I don't mean to suggest that it's all about social responsibility. Often it's about some other statement. We buy Minis, TiVos, iPods, and Treos, we fly JetBlue, we shop at Whole Foods, and we embrace Google. Or we buy SUVs, monster Bugaboo strollers, and Black Dog T-Shirts and totebags or bumper stickers that show that we summer in MV or ACK. Shopping defines us. For a branded generation, products are not about what they do for us. Products serve as a delivery vehicle for whatever brand image we embrace.
The NYT time ran an op-ed bemoaning the depiction of TV dads as bumbling doofuses. I have heard others riff on this theme before; I think Bainbridge has posted on the topic. In this post-PC era, it smacks of reverse discrimination to portray the mom as level-headed and the dad as a ditz -- like unseemly affirmative action for the Lucy/Ethel/Edith era.
The article reminds us that dads used to be level-headed. I began thinking not of Ward Cleaver, but of Mr. Huxtable, Mr. Keaton, and Mr. Willis. But the difference between family sitcoms of today and sitcoms of the 80s (Cosby Show, Family Ties, Diff'rent Strokes) and even late 70s (Welcome Back, Kotter, Good Times) is that family sitcoms used to feature level-headed parents and zany kids. The formula today is the opposite. Zany parents (yes, usually the dad) and level-headed kids. In some cases, the kids in the "family sitcom" are virtually invisible. Does Raymond actually have kids? In fact, the family sitcom is a dying breed among the Friends and Seinfeld generation, so even sitcoms with families have to go more for the big, often vulgar, laughs than for the heart-warming morality tales that used to be delivered by cute, charming chidlren.
So, if the formula is for one of the parents to be zany, then one of the parents is going to have to be abnormal, and probably sub-normal. Genius parents, sensitive parents, and well-organized parents aren't funny. So, one half of the parents will be a well-regarded comedian. Most famous comedians are men. A-ha! Zany dad. Even if you wanted to have the mom be the zany one, people won't watch unless the mom is also attractive. Hmmm. Famous female comedian and television attractive. Small pool to choose from. (Malcolm's mom comes to mind.) So, let's flip this Iron John moaning on its head. Maybe the over-representation of doofusy dads is more an over-representation of male comedian stars over female comedians.