Arts & Culture Blog
The Facebook furor, Bach rocks in Carmel, Dylan’s defiance and why California is still cool.
December 30, 2010
Call it the year of lame-duck achievements. Without attempting to gild the lily, 2010 ended better than it began. Here’s hoping the new year will bring us better times – and better luck. That said, a few of the more noteworthy cultural and political trends of the last 12 months follow below. Read it and weep.
FACE TIME: The Social Network swept best pictures honors of almost every film critics’ association, making it an odds-on favorite for the upcoming Academy Awards. Well, exc-u-u-u-s-e me if I didn’t care for it. With the exception of Justin Timberlake’s bravura, substance-imbibing performance as Napster founder Sean Parker, it seemed like a standard biopic, even discounting the questions about its accuracy, marking out a roadmap for climbing over people on the way to success. Director David Fincher’s brilliance was on better display in Seven and Zodiac, and his pairing with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin also seemed like a mismatch, with Sorkin’s talky skills better suited to A Few Good Men and West Wing. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put up a perfunctory defense in a few interviews, and dabbled in philanthropy by years-end, announcing a $100 million donation to help the troubled Newark school system, but being honored as Time magazine’s Person Of The Year raised more troubling questions than it answered. In a certain sense, the newsweekly’s decision was inarguable – Facebook’s success so dominates the social media scene that Myspace has become a running joke on Conan O’Brien’s show and elsewhere. (In a demonstration of just how desperate things have become, yours truly recently received an email from the Myspacers under the plaintive heading: “Where have you been?” It went on to add: “Hey, Paul - We’ve missed you at Myspace lately. Plain and simple, we think you should come back. And here’s why. The new Myspace provides the best social entertainment experience on Earth. For serious.”) Hey, here’s to the marketing geniuses who came up with the new campaign, but the sad truth is that FB has provided a better interface—even for diehards like myself who’ve refused to switch to the new format. All they’re missing is a vision. That’s what was lacking in The Social Network. And in Zuckerberg’s interviews. And in the whole dang site. It’s a great place to connect with old friends, get pitches for political causes, and wish a lot of people happy birthday, but it would be great if the undeniably huge Facebook phenomenon was directed to something tangible that improved people’s lives. Until then, it’s just a toy.
THE DEATH OF PRINT: It’s no small irony that a year in which Mark Twain’s posthumous autobiography became an instant best-seller was also one in which the much-ballyhooed Death of Print Journalism proved to be greatly exaggerated. While no one can underestimate the difficulties ink-stained wretches still labor under, given the bleak economic climate and their electronic competitors, there were signs of hope, however slim, on the horizon. Despite dire predictions that The Boston Globe, one of the crown jewels of mainstream daily journalism would be sold, their owners at The New York Times Company decided to keep the faith, and stay the course. Similarly, after sabre-rattling threats of closing the San Francisco Chronicle unless its working stiffs agreed to steep labor concessions, the Hearst Corporation continues to publish the Voice of the West. And while The Philadelphia Inquirer has been bought by new management, staffers continue to do good work under the usual set of daunting difficulties. And, lest we forget, after the Weekly’s memorable April Fool’s put on (“End Of An Era—Despite years of success as the county’s largest circulation newspaper, the Weekly ends its print edition and will go exclusively online and mobile,’’
http://www.montereycountyweekly.com/archives/2010/2010-Apr-01/despite-years-of-profitability-as-the-countys-largestcirculation-rag-the-weekly-ends-its-print-edition-and-goes-exclusively-online-and-mobile/1/@@index) turned out to be a hoax, to the relief of readers, many of whom fell for the prank, and to staffers deeply committed to the success of the paper.
The Huffington Post continued to snap up page views, and pay most of its contributors chump change, if any. And newsgathering organizations like CaliforniaWatch.org, Bay Citizen.com, partnering up with the New York Times with the help of a healthy cash infusion from San Francisco financier Warren Hellman and ProPublica.org, the nonprofit which pursued bad guys all the way to the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service, continued to thrive editorially, if not economically. The year ended in an unlikely merger between the financially failing Newsweek, which 92-year-old plutocrat Sidney Harmon bought for a song, and Tina Brown’s brash lovechild, The Daily Beast, which has financial troubles of its own. Corporate experts say 90 percent of mergers are doomed to fail, but here’s hoping that this one works out.
THE TOOTH WILL OUT: It’s a truism of the electronic age that information wants to be free. No single organization put the elephant in the room this year more directly than the organizers (if that’s the right word) of WikiLeaks. Leaving aside the ongoing questions about the personal morality of founder Julian Assange, he and his gang singlehandedly changed the news landscape this year, reducing most of the mainstream media to glorified transcriptions (and occasionally redacteurs) of exclusive looks at what was going on behind the scenes in the State Department, and the foreign states it does business with. Whether the civic good that’s been accomplished by all this outweighs the potential harm is, again, a judgment call. But there can be no debate about one thing: The toothpaste is out of the tube. The Justice Department can fulminate, and seek probably specious grounds for prosecution, but the brave new world WikiLeaks has unleashed is here to stay. So if you counter-hackers at the Naval Postgraduate School are reading this, a word of caution. Don’t put whatever you’re recommending in writing.
A NOD TO BOB: The return of veteran road dog Bob Dylan to the Monterey Fairgrounds in August was beyond memorable. As usual in his set these days, the lyrics were almost indecipherable, but Dylan and his crack band delivered sound, thunder, and not a little fury to a cross-generational crowd of admiring fans. As ushers tried in vain to stop people from taking cellphone pictures of the press-shy icon, his country crooning carried the day. And there was a memorable moment at the end, when he stepped forward, looking like he was about to say something—perhaps reveal the Secrets of Life—to the crowd. But in the end, of course, he just smiled enigmatically, and stalked offstage. Vintage.
CARMEL CLASS: The exit of Bruno Weil, maestro of the Carmel Bach Festival was undertaken with a style, grace and restraint that politicos in the troubled town would do well to emulate. A new era under incoming music director Paul Goodwin already promises new treats this July, with performances of a cello work by John Corigliano, orchestrating his “Fancy on a Bach Air,” and a first-ever appearance by jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano. But the year should not end without a bow, and a round of applause, for maestro Weil. He certainly deserves one.
PICTURE PERFECT: Not to get too gushy, but the folks who run the Monterey Museum of Art deserve acknowledgement for pulling off an aesthetic double-axel, following up an aesthetically worthy Ansell Adams photography exhibition that broke previous attendance records, with the more avant-garde offerings of Los Angeles-based artist Ingrid Calame, in tandem with a show of works by Miro, Matisse and Picasso and the contemporary Bay Area-based artist Hung Liu. Good show(s)! And the adventurous souls at Seaside’s Alternative Café also deserve props for keeping it real, with awesome offerings that live up to the gallery’s “notes from the underground’” name.
MOVING PICTURES: Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter did better with the critics than at the box office, but the tireless Carmel Valley auteur deserves credit for doing it his way. After executive producing the recent documentary on jazz legend Dave Brubeck, he’s moving on to direct Hoover, a biopic on the infamous F.B.I. director, scripted by Salinas’ own Dustin Lance Black. We hope we have that much energy at 80. And while we’re at it, here’s a shoutout to the good folks at the Osio Cinemas for keeping art flicks alive in the age of the multiplex—and packing crowds in, recession or no recession.
REVENGE IS A DISH BEST TESTED COLD: While we’re at it, let’s salute Conan O’Brien and Team Coco for taking the NBC suits on, refusing to cave over their humiliating demands, and carving out a new identity on Turner Broadcasting. Conan seems looser on the new show—it even starts a half hour earlier. While Leno may still rule the ratings, his act seems predictable and corny, and his actions—deposing Carson, maneuvering against Letterman (who seems re-invigorated himself these days), and reneging on his agreement to hand over the torch to O’Brien are questionable, to put it extremely mildly. Watching Conan go nuts introducing “the founder of Turner Broadcasting, Ted Turner” on the new show, riding a pet buffalo is great sport and a useful lesson in how best to overcome the objects of adversity.
COMEBACK KIDS: And speaking of adversity, how about Barack Obama—and the Democratic Party, for that matter? Let’s start with California, where despite the national “shellacking” in the midterm elections, the Deems ran the table, racking up victories for Jerry Brown, Gavin Newsom, Barbara Boxer and incoming Attorney General Kamala Harris. None of the races were slam-dunks, and although they may have been helped by weak competitions, they proved that not everyone in the country, particularly the Golden State, endorse Neanderthal values. There are tough waters ahead, but we predict better results—particularly in contrast to Schwarzenegger or the beleaguered Gray Davis—from the now-seasoned Brown, who has made a promising beginning with his pre-election “budget summit’’ and seems moonstruck with good fortune.
On the national front, Obama, who had been much-derided by the left and right, finished the year with a triumphant cadenza, passing a tax bill that, however flawed (we respect Sam Farr for his dissenting vote) at least had the merit of extending unemployment benefits to those who desperately need it, finally delivering on the promise to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and getting bipartisan support for the badly needed START treaty. However disappointed we may feel about the failure to pass the Dream Act – or the administration and Congress’ resolve to push for this overdue legislation, which became collateral damage to the other deal making that, was going on, the end-of-year performance was a valuable demonstration that this president can still get things done. He earned that Hawaii vacation, and I hope he enjoys it.
On that note, sincere wishes for a Happy New Year to y’all. Tips and thoughts for this blog are welcome, as always, at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, be careful out there.