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The Ruling Zeitgeist is Dead

Long live “The Ruling Zeitgeist!”

This blog is moving to my official site at www.jeff-holmes.com/blog. The blog as it exists here will not be deleted, but neither will it be updated. The past 4.5 years of archived content is already over at my new site, just as it was here (minus the random broken video embed). The new RSS feed is here, so please update your bookmarks.

Since moving to Atlanta I’ve had no luck acquiring a full-time job, not least because neither my potential employers nor I are sure what to make of my eclectic background*. Luckily I’ve so far been able pay my bills freelancing as a writer, researcher, and production assistant. Embracing that the forces of nature do not wish me to have a steady job with paid benefits and vacation time, I am consolidating my vast online presence into one site (still being tinkered with, FYI). This will, I hope, help to rationalize what I’ve done with my life so far and generate more work for myself by making it easier for folks to figure me out and witness my idiosyncratic swathe of skills.

*Suspected additional reason: gigantic world recession.

There are also attitudinal changes behind the move. When I first starting blogging, I kept my online activities in semi-anonymous silos and was mainly interested in providing value for myself. Monetizing my musings was not a priority. I often blogged like the tenured econ professors I still love to read, but I am not an academic and my blog posts on economics don’t get me columns in the New York Times or invitations to TED. My focus now is on creating content that gets me paid one way or another. Moving the blog to an official “me” site helps, as does being selective about time and topics. I like many of the econ-nerd posts I did here, but unless I go back to school, it feels self-indulgent to do many more. New site, new start, even if it’s the same blog.

I appreciate your continued readership. Please visit the new site, subscribe anew, click around. Experts agree there’s something fun for everyone.

Thanks,

Jeff

PBS is currently running a “Like Drive,” offering exclusive videos for every so many ‘likes’ their Facebook page receives. One of the latest to be unlocked offers a behind-the-scenes look at “The National Parks.” The video is a bit of a cheat on PBS’ part, since what it shows probably happened three or four years ago–could they find nothing from “Prohibition” or even “The Tenth Inning”?

I like this video though because it offers a brief but accurate feel of a screening with Ken*. Most videos like this, whether they’re focusing on a PBS documentary or a Hollywood blockbuster, tend to be overproduced in an attempt to make it more entertaining.  The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ approach favors authenticity (of some form) over entertainment, and appeals to a different curiosity.

*Yes I call him Ken and no he would not remember my name, though he reportedly said I was a ‘good guy’ after I left the room once. 

During my half-year with Florentine, three films were in various stages of production at the edit house. “Prohibition” was I believe technically wrapped but some work on it was still going on; meanwhile editors were piecing together the first visual versions of “Dust Bowl”(2012) and “The Roosevelts” (2014). During that time three screenings were held at the edit house: two for the two-episode “Dust Bowl” and one for the first four episodes of “The Roosevelts.”

Screening Room Alpha

Florentine doesn’t have a proper screening room at its edit house on account of it being an honest to God house. Instead, everyone crams into the office with the biggest TV, which is a 10′ x 20′ room on the first floor where a producer and two of the editors usually work. Since these are the first visual cuts of the episode, each episode will run maybe thirty minutes longer than the final version–often over two hours. Finding a comfortable chair is therefore crucial, and those with lumbar support are hotly contested. More than a dozen people–including Ken and co-director Lynn Novick, the writer, editors, etc–will find a space in here, and often another half-dozen will have to trudge upstairs to another impromptu overflow screening room directly overhead. When this is the case, an additional logistical difficulty is presented: the screenings must be started simultaneously, otherwise one screening will always be subjected to the echoes of the other*. As Florentine is always on the cutting edge of media technology, this obstacle is surmounted by connecting the two rooms via the office phone telecom. On the count of three or some such prompt, the person manning the station in each room will press the space bar and set the episode into motion.

* Echoes were expected and tolerated if you were in the overflow, but Screening Room Alpha was always to be slightly ahead if a perfect synch was not achieved.

Screening Room Bravo

At the end of these uninterrupted two-hour sessions, many rush to the two bathrooms the edit house generously affords its occupants. After a short break, everyone (even those banished to the overflow) then gathers back in the main screening room to share their impressions. This is Florentine at its most egalitarian: while the key players always give their impressions first, eventually everyone down to the lowliest intern is invited to opine, even if by that point there may be nothing left to add. The resulting discussion sounds something like what you hear in the PBS video, and it’s fun to witness.

That all of this goes on in some unmarked house* on the corner of a village street has tickled me since I first started there. Early on I asked some of the younger staff why no one seemed interested in highlighting that part of the Ken Burns production. They shrugged and said that the edit house ethos was to stay well and truly behind the scenes. I suggested that there were ways to accommodate that–my tweets didn’t betray anyone’s privacy–but I didn’t push it any further. I still think plenty of Ken Burns fans would like to see more of what goes on in Walpole, but for now this blogpost will have to do.

*I’m pretty sure there’s not even a house number–oh, and you enter through the back. New England can be cold.

The Nile Anniversary

 

Two years ago today Thelma and I were rafting in Uganda when we tipped in a torrent and were plunged into the Nile’s chaos. I surfaced quickly, calm and collected thanks to my extensive experience kayaking on streams and man-made lakes in South Carolina’s golden corner. Thelma, on the other hand, had grown up in Chicago and like most mid-westerners had no idea how to acquit herself in water. While her life jacket had returned her to air, it was too big for her slender frame and was threatening to abandon her. Knowing me as I knew me (and sometimes know me still), I should have met her plight with gentle indifference; instead I swam over and granted her a portion of my buoyancy. It was then I realized I loved her.

Later while pondering this on a calm stretch of the river, Thelma sensed my conflicted thoughts and tried to engage me with some playful foot tickling. I told her I wasn’t in the mood and to stop touching me.

 

My Radio Piece on Bensonwood

To listen to my half-hour radio piece about Bensonwood, click here or listen at the player below:

The background…

I spent the first eight years of my life in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, a small town now numbering around 6,700 people. When I prepared to move near Walpole, New Hampshire about a year ago to start at Florentine Films, I used my birth town as a model to imagine what Walpole might be like. This turned out to be unhelpful, as Walpole is practically star-studded even with 3,000 fewer folks: where Walpole has Ken Burns, Fountain Inn has Peg Leg Bates.

Though it sounds odd to American ears, Walpole is probably best described as a village, considering the ‘central settlement’ only has about 600 people. Yet in this village you can dine at the posh flagship cafe of LA Burdick, whose high quality chocolates are produced nearby and shipped hither and yon. If you sit long enough, you’re sure to see some of the Florentine Family grabbing a coffee or a bite to eat, seeing as the edit house is a five-minute walk away.  And you might meet there, as I did, Gary Smith, record producer most famously for the Pixies.

I’m terrible at the thing businesspeople call networking, so the first time I met Gary I really had no idea who he was or what he did, even though the night ended with him, another guy, and me sitting on his porch swapping stories for a couple of hours. I didn’t see him for a several months until we met again at a birthday gathering for one of the Florentines. During the chitchat, he mentioned he was trying to find content for the small community radio station he ran across the river in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The opportunity was perfect for me–except that I was moving to Atlanta in about a month. D’oh, I thought.

I met with Gary a few days later to discuss what I might produce for WOOL FM, and he suggested a series of ten-minute vignettes on local companies. Not the podunk ones*, mind you, but regionally or nationally-known ones of the Florentine Films and LA Burdick flavor. He gave me a list, and I was again amazed at the caliber and variety of companies in and around Walpole. The idea was to cover one company per week in the three or four few weeks I had left.

*Though as a Florentine assistant editor notes, Walpole does somehow summon the economic might to support two dentists.

The one I eventually decided to start the series with was Bensonwood, whose facility I had driven past dozens of times without really noticing it. Bensonwood designs and builds homes and commercial buildings all around the country using a pretty ingenious method, and Tedd Benson, the founder, was chiefly responsible for the national revival in timber-frame construction starting about thirty years ago. I interviewed Tedd, took a tour of the facility, and interviewed a few other people over the course of two days.

As I began putting the piece(s) together, it became clear that I wasn’t going to meet Gary’s output goal. The pace of my creative process is slow to begin with, and nearly glacial when haunted by the specter of possibly ruinous technical challenges**. Instead of doing three or four ten-minute pieces on different companies, I would tell one half-hour version of the Bensonwood story. In the end I finished it several weeks after moving to Atlanta.

** BLOG EXCLUSIVE: I recorded all my voice-overs in my car, as it was the most convenient and acoustically-suitable environment I had.

My goal was to achieve professional-level quality despite my limited resources, and it wasn’t until the final few hours of work I put into the piece that I felt I was getting anywhere close. I’m proud of the final product, even if it still sounds a bit amateurish to my ears. Gary and the folks at Bensonwood enjoyed it at any rate, and I hope you do too.

Readers may have noticed that in my TV viewing history, I didn’t list any multi-camera sitcoms. This is for the remarkable reason that, well, I don’t watch any and haven’t since long-ago lazy days watching the odd rerun in syndication. Nowadays sitcoms in that style feel anachronistic to me, and even the commercially and (sometimes) critically well-regarded ones like How I Met Your Mother just don’t do it for me. I find that I’m actually predisposed not to laugh at them, which is clearly not the intended audience response.

I’m not alone in this. For the distinguishing television viewer, sitcoms are overwhelmingly considered passé and even low-culture, even if many of those viewers loved the multi-camera Seinfeld back in the day. This article sums it up:

I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theory last weekend. This was not by design. I was on an airplane and my Kindle screen was frozen. I panicked. I’d already exhausted Sky Mall, there were four hours left on the flight and I needed a diversion. People seem to enjoy that show. It’s nominated for five Emmy awards this year. It’s about nerds. I like nerds. I gave it a shot.

You guys. That show is not good. Please stop telling innocent people like me that it is.

Here’s the thing about The Big Bang Theory. There were a few funny jokes and the performances aren’t bad, but I could just barely discern any of that through its slavish adherence to the old guard of formulaic television. It’s got the multi-camera setup, the excruciating laugh track, the lingering close-ups of over-exaggerated facial expressions responding to lame jokes. It feels so dated, so tired, that even if the writing were scintillating, I’d hate it. And the writing, my friends, is not scintillating.

Despite my agreement with this, I find myself wanting to defend the beleaguered the multi-camera setup, for much the same reasons outlined this excellent piece:

Multi-camera sitcom is a strange format that’s unique to television, because unlike single-camera, which is basically a little movie, multi-camera is a combination of different formats: a bit of film, a bit of radio, and a great big heaping helping of theatre. A multi-camera sitcom episode is a play, a performance.

Yep, and this does have its tradeoffs. I don’t like multi-camera sitcoms because the artifice of the production is so hard for me to ignore: sets look like sets (heaven forfend anything happen outdoors), lighting is white bright, and studio audience laughter–even when genuine–often sucks me right out. On the other hand, these theatrical aspects allow for stories to unfold in a different way, and lets a relationship and rhythm to develop between actor and audience that’s particularly important for comedy.

What’s odd to me is that theater is hardly considered lowest common denominator entertainment, but that sensibility applied to TV is. For that reason I wonder whether detractors of multi-camera are applying the wrong set of standards, and maybe even being a bit too distracted by the prettier single-camera aesthetic. Would the writer of the first piece have reacted so distastefully if she had watched the performance of Big Bang Theory live on stage rather than an airplane TV monitor? That’s not a apples-to-apples comparison I realize, but single- and multi-camera shows aren’t the same kind of fruit either. In terms of production, multi-camera sitcoms have much more in common with Saturday Night Live than they do with a single-camera comedy. The show is filmed in the course of single night, there’s usually a live studio audience, and jokes are rewritten on the fly in response to the audience. Does SNL represent such a dated format?

In the first article, the author claims that Arrested Development, a single-camera sitcom, “put the nail in the coffin of the traditional sitcom” for her. Interestingly, that show was created explicitly with the intent to mimic the joke-writing process in traditional sitcoms:

…Ron Howard had this idea to do a single-camera comedy that was as funny as a multi-camera comedy, which sounds sarcastic, actually.

(…)

[W]e often think of those kinds of sitcoms as being jokier, but really, there are more jokes per second, per page, than there are on a show like Sports Night, where there wasn’t an audience, and there was no compelling reason to rewrite. His question was, “What if we shot a show in digital video, so we could go very fast and didn’t have to spend an hour and a half lighting for each shot, we could just go out there and start shooting, like Cops or Blind Date? Could we spend that time sharpening the jokes and making a more ambitious production? What would happen if we applied the sensibility of multi-camera to single-camera?

I may disapprove of most traditional sitcoms, but I will defend to the death their right to more than a single camera.