Tag Archives: tv

Maybe It’s Time for America to Give Up on Movie Theaters

I was willing to ignore the first five texts that the three guys in front of me sent during To the Wonder. For all I knew, maybe they were waiting for important news from the hospital, and they were killing time in a Terrence Malick film. (Hey, stranger things have happened.)

But after they’d sent 15 texts in an hour, including several that were apparently so amusing that they had to pass their phones back and forth to share the jokes — while drinking beers — I got up and left.

I know you’re disappointed, because you hoped I would say something to them. You’d like to hear a story where I chastised them for being inconsiderate, and they would suddenly realize the error of their ways and they would, now humbled, settle down to watch the movie they’d been distracting the rest of us from enjoying.

But the truth is, we’re all adults here, and we all make choices.

la-fi-tn-movie-theater-texting-20120427Photo: William DeShazer / Chicago Tribune

The Charles Theater chose to show a film that has no narrative structure, and then allow people to drink while they watched it. Why? Because they respect the rights of adults to responsibly enjoy an art film and a beer at the same time.

These three guys chose to amuse themselves at the expense of the rest of the theater patrons. Why? Partly because the theater was almost empty — there were only nine of us in the 150-seat theater — and partly because they frankly didn’t give a fuck. To be fair, the one time the guy on the end needed to make a phone call, he did get up and do so just outside the theater door. Then he came back and sat down and laughed about it, but at least he was vaguely aware of what appropriate behavior should be around his fellow humans.

And I chose to not say anything to the offenders or the theater because, let’s be honest: who cares what I think?

At best, they would respectfully apologize, watch the rest of the movie in silence, and then explain on their way out that they really didn’t realize they were being disruptive, and thank me for making them aware of the impact of their actions. But unless they were each born in a test lab, I’m fairly certain they’ve been to a movie theater before, and they understand what “don’t talk or text during a movie” means.

More likely, they would just burst out laughing and / or passively-aggressively text each other for the rest of the film, because really, what else is anyone — including me — going to do to stop three guys who want to text during a movie? It’s not like the theater, which is staffed mainly by minimum wage art students who equally don’t give a fuck, is going to send someone in to reprimand them. The Charles is not The Alamo Drafthouse.

And maybe that’s the problem.

The Alamo is widely known for the quality of its film selection and its customer experience. (And, also, for serving food during the movie, in a manner that’s still, amazingly, not as disruptive as the guy in front of you texting someone is.) Hence, the Alamo is a destination, and people respect it as such. (Or, they get kicked out.)

Nationwide, theater owners complain that attendance is going down every year. (Yes, box office records keep getting set, but that’s all due to inflation, 3-D and IMAX prices.) So theaters try to improve their offering with better seats, better audio, better visual effects, and more showtimes for the most popular films, so you’ll (theoretically) never have to be inconvenienced…

… and then they make you watch around 15 to 20 minutes’ worth of ads and trailers before they start the main feature, during which you’ll spend two hours trying to ignore people texting and talking during the film.

Why put up with that? And why expect theaters to bloat their operating costs further by employing bouncers when people are clearly choosing to not act like responsible adults?

To the Wonder is a film that only works if you’re willing to immerse yourself in it. Watched at a side glance, it’s hokey and overwrought, and it means nothing. It’s a film that would benefit from theaters offering an “adult showtime,” during which you would be ejected immediately if your cell phone left its cupholder.

There’s a reason TV is kicking film’s ass right now, and it’s not just because it’s a medium that allows for better character development and more complicated plotlines than your standard two hour blockbuster. It’s because at home, even though you’re theoretically surrounded by distractions, you can control them. And if you missed what Don Draper said after that fifteen second slow burn — which, on the big screen, would have sent people scrambling to update Facebook — you can rewind it and watch it again.

It’s not that movie theaters are bad, or that people are bad.

It’s just that in this age of constant partial attention and perpetual connectivity, people just aren’t good in movie theaters.

Overcoming the Cult of Easy

This weekend, I tweeted a link to an article about the new ABC series Last Resort, which argues that Andre Braugher’s character, Capt. Marcus Chaplin, is a bold commentary on what it means to be a black male in modern America.

In return, someone who follows me responded:

I’d read that column, but I don’t have an hour to kill. It lost me in the first paragraph.

I, too, got thrown by a run-on sentence in the first paragraph.  The site it’s linked from, The New Inquiry, is a purposely self-indulgent meta-critique of pop culture, and I’m used to their style.  But I can certainly see how someone who’s never read their work before might find it challenging, and maybe the article does a bad job of giving a newbie a reason to stick with it.

But here’s what really worries me about that response: because the reader had trouble following the article’s logic, he gave up.  Note that he doesn’t say he found the article uninteresting; he says he’d read it “if he had an hour.”  (The article runs about 1900 words; it should take an average reader approximately 7-10 minutes.)

Not only that, but his response makes it subtly sound like it’s either my fault for sharing something that was beyond his ability to comprehend, or it’s the author’s fault for not making the argument easier to understand.

In short: it wasn’t low-hanging fruit, so it was ignored.

Welcome to modern society, 2012.

But Would You Want to Have a Beer with Him?

Since 2000, when education, intellectualism and expertise became synonymous with “elitism” — and elitism became synonymous with “Un-American” — society has been skeptical of intelligence and the efforts to acquire it.

Politically, we reward the people who seem most like us, rather than the people we’d most like to become.  Artistically, we reward TV that serves up predictability and music that provides us with [danceable] emotional escapism.  Scientifically, we question everything, believe nothing, and prefer to rely on conventional wisdom rather than statistical probability.

When critical thinking is frowned upon, even achieving mediocrity can start to seem rebellious.

This explains why films that seem smart end up being touted as modern masterworks, when they’re really just modernized rehashes of classic tropes.  Inception, Looper and Prometheus aren’t particularly complicated films, but when compared to anything by Adam Sandler, I can see why critics are desperate to call something “smart.”

Lowering Our Common Denominator

The Graduate

On Salon, film critic Andrew O’Hehir mourns the death of film culture, noting that TV has replaced film as the source for our most intelligent and boundary-pushing stories.  Whereas previous generations could debate the morals, ethics and cultural commentary found in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Chinatown on a near-weekly basis, modern audiences must turn to The Wire, Mad Men and Game of Thrones for that same level of authorial analysis.

Not that this is a problem, per se.  The rise of TV as the standard-bearer for intellectual pop culture may be surprising compared to TV’s own past, but the serialized format does lend itself to greater depth than a 90-minute stand-alone film. No, the problem isn’t that TV is now “smarter” than film; it’s that audiences who crave “smart” no longer exist in meaningful, market-impacting numbers.

If you adjusted for inflation, The Graduate (1967) would be the #21 film of all-time in terms of box office, at a staggering $686M.

That’s higher than The Avengers.

Meanwhile, The Wire — regularly cited as the most intelligent TV show of all-time — averaged 4 million viewers per episode.  Granted, it aired on HBO, which isn’t a standard free TV channel.  But considering TV viewership was hitting all-time highs in 2006, which was the same year The Wire aired what’s often considered their finest season (Season Four, AKA the “school” season), you’d think it could have attracted at least a quarter of the 13.89 million people who were watching Two and a Half Men.

Don’t Write for People Who Can’t Read

I realize I’m connecting dots here that may not be actually be adjacent.

I realize I’m basing my estimation of America’s sociological decline on my own opinions about popular culture, mixed with the kind of sepia-toned “things used to be better” nostalgia that’s easily debunked by pointing out that some pop culture is always smart, and most of it is always stupid.

But I’m also connecting these dots due to my long-simmering frustration with the increasingly vocal ghettoization of knowledge.

I get that we’re a busy culture, so stopping to read when we don’t have to is an imposition.

I get that we’re a depressed culture, so having to think about problems isn’t as fun as avoiding them.

I get that we’re a remix culture, so learning what came before is never as compelling as seeing what’s coming next.

But maybe if we stopped to dissect our modern culture a little more, we might understand it better.  And if we understood it better, maybe we could improve it, or we could at least stop rewarding the producers of information who demand nothing from us beyond a glance, a “like” or a click.

Maybe we could stop seeing intelligence as the problem.

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What Everyone Missed About the Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Controversy

I never expected Daniel Tosh, of all people, to be the impetus for my first blog post in a month. And since I find him to be one of the most aggravating personalities in entertainment, I didn’t expect to find myself defending him during his ongoing public pillorying over a poorly-interpreted rape joke, of all things.

But here we are.

This Is a Long Post, So You Should Probably Get Some Coffee First

As with all things in life, I want to preface what I’m about to say with three standard disclaimers:

* We never really know what anyone else is thinking.

* We never really know why anyone else does anything they do.

* We never really know why we react to things the way we do.

But unknown unknowns are the lifeblood of the Internet, which has been aflame over this issue for a week now, to the extent that you probably can’t think of anything else that could be said about this admittedly contentious situation.  However, the reasons I’m even writing about it at all are twofold:

* I’ve long held a silent suspicion about Daniel Tosh’s true intentions

* I think everyone who’s talked about this particular incident has missed the point

Ready?  Here we go.

The Setup

As well-documented on sites like MamaPop:

In case you missed it, Rape.0 went a little something like this.  Tosh, known for being as inappropriate and equal-opportunity-irritating, was doing a bit about how there are horrific things in the world and that being horrific doesn’t mean there aren’t jokes to be made.

The woman blogged:

I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

And then, after the blogosphere picked up the story and took Tosh to task, he apologized on Twitter:

The Problem

To me, the real problem isn’t that Daniel Tosh made a joke about rape.

To me, the problem is that nobody seems to understand what Daniel Tosh actually does for a living.

Let me qualify the following argument with one caveat: I’ve never actually seen Daniel Tosh live.  I’ve watched dozens of episodes of his TV show, Tosh.0.  I’ve read a little about him.  I’ve watched some of his stand-up routines on Comedy Central.  But I’ve never actually paid to see him live, unedited, and physically delivering his routines, so my impression of him is limited to the same reduced context that everyone has access to.

That said, I think Daniel Tosh is probably the most misunderstood comedian on the planet.

Yes, his routines are almost always designed to offend someone. He’s often accused of being misogynist, racist, homophobic, or any other designation you can assign to a person who denigrates others for a living.  And yes, he’s clearly doing it all on purpose, to push his audience’s buttons and provoke them into a specific reaction.

I just don’t think we give him enough credit for the reaction he’s actually pursuing.

What do I think he’s actually trying to do?

I think Daniel Tosh is trying to make you angry enough to stop paying attention to Daniel Tosh.

Let me explain.

Comedy is all about unexpected reactions.  You think you know where a joke, a story, or a scene is going, and then it veers into unexpected territory, and you find yourself grappling with your subconscious reaction to something that your brain hasn’t quite processed yet.  From stand-ups to sitcoms to performance art to film, the goal of comedy is the same: to generate a reaction from the audience that surprises them.

This is actually the exact same goal as horror and suspense, but while the twists of horror and suspense usually result in some kind of primal catharsis on the part of the audience, the twists of comedy usually make someone uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s the target of a joke that feels uncomfortable. But when a controversial joke is skillfully delivered, sometimes it’s the audience itself that feels uncomfortable.  (See: Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK)

Because when a controversial joke is skillfully delivered, you can find yourself laughing at a statement or insinuation which, on paper, you would decry as racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise hate-filled. Often, those jokes are intended as a commentary on society’s unspoken biases and hypocrisy; they’re a commentary on the audience itself. Thus, by involuntarily acknowledging the humor inherent in even the most grotesque situation, we’re then free to voluntarily ask ourselves why that situation exists in the first place, and why we may be culpable within it.

And that’s what I think Daniel Tosh is really up to.

Yes, it’s pretty clear that he rejoices in making other people feel uncomfortable. He’s almost giddy in his skill at knocking you out of your comfort zone. And even his biggest haters will admit that he leaves absolutely no stereotype unscorched. In Tosh’s world, no one is safe from humiliation for their masks and presumptions. And while Tosh.0 cashes its checks on the backs of fame-seeking idiots who post their own stupidity to the Internet, it also does something else: it rounds up a legion of — literally — millions of schadenfreude-addicted couch potatoes and challenges them to look away.

You Can’t Train a Monkey to Care

Tosh uses his fame to incite his followers to ape him. One recent challenge urged people to videotape themselves “lightly touching a woman’s stomach while she’s sitting down,” with the clear intention of making a complete stranger feel uncomfortable, if not vulnerable, or even violated.

Needless to say, people did it.

Maybe they did it because they thought it was funny. Or because they hope to get their clip shown on Tosh.0. Or possibly just because Daniel Tosh said they could, and since he — and, by association, his parent company Comedy Central — said it was okay, then it must be okay, right?

Which means scores of women had their days ruined, all because Daniel Tosh has a TV show.

Except that’s not why they had their days ruined (and videotaped).

They had their days ruined because people are assholes.  And that’s Daniel Tosh’s whole point.

Just like the girl who walked out of the Laugh Factory had her day ruined. It wasn’t because Daniel Tosh is an asshole; it’s because people are assholes.

The Machine Is Largely Unaware of Itself

Say what you will about Tosh’s sense of humor, or his delivery, or taste in cardigans, but he clearly understands people. He couldn’t possibly aggravate as many people as he does on a daily basis without understanding what buttons to press, and why, how, and how often.

I’d also wager that he’s just as incensed as you are about all the shitty things that people say and do to each other on a daily basis. (Heaven knows he sees enough of it.) In fact, I’d say he’s even more upset about it than you are. Because while you’re sitting here condemning his words, he’s on stages and TV screens every night, throwing those same dangerous words in people’s faces, over and over, and witnessing how they react.

And you know how those people are reacting?

They’re laughing.

And I bet that pisses Daniel Tosh off.

See, while I’ve never met Daniel Tosh, and I have no other reason to say this than my own instincts, I’d say that their laughter at his words is what angers Daniel Tosh more than anything else in the world.

Because he knows the things he’s saying are horrible. Hell, he’s spent his entire career perfecting the art of offense. And when people laugh at the horrible things he says, he realizes something that the rest of us — in our furur over propriety — miss:

Empathy is dead.

An Obituary for the Concept of Giving a Shit

It’s impossible to watch Tosh.0 and not fear for the future of our species.  Not just because people will videotape themselves doing the stupidest, most dangerous, most humiliating things imaginable. But because they will then put those videos on YouTube, with the explicit purpose of sharing them with complete strangers. Or, because other people will videotape the misery of others, and then share it without their consent.

And because, through it all, people will laugh at it.

Not only will they laugh, but they’ll pay money to sit in a studio and have a comedian point out other tragic or appalling things about these videos — and the people in them — that they might have missed if they’d just watched them at home.

Not only will the audience pay money, but global corporations will pay even more money to advertise on this ghoulish entertainment when it’s televised.  Why?  Because, at last count, more than 3 million people tune in to watch new episodes of Tosh.0.

What kinds of people?  People who will videotape themselves touching women’s stomachs if you ask them to, and millions more who will queue up to watch complete strangers be humiliated.

Now, after doing that for years, tell me that Daniel Tosh could truly enjoy it.

Well, anything’s possible, but here’s what I think is more probable.

I think Daniel Tosh enjoys his job. He likes making people laugh. And he likes pushing the envelope, not just because he likes to make people uncomfortable, but because he also likes to give them the opportunity to think.

He also knows when he’s pushing the envelope past the point of social acceptability, or when he’s about to push that envelope right off a cliff. And every time Daniel Tosh pushes the envelope, I truly believe he’s hoping that someone else pushes back.

But not like this, though.  Not like the national firestorm of “Denial Tosh hates women” accusations he’s heard before (and which, frankly, miss the point entirely by assigning the blame exclusively to Tosh himself).

I think he’s waiting for you to push back by not listening.

In fact, I’d go out on a limb and guess that nothing would make Daniel Tosh happier than if no one showed up at his comedy shows ever again.  Not out of some misplaced sense of moral outrage, as though they’re making an example of him by silencing him. But out of a sense of newfound empathy and humanity, and a refusal to laugh at the depths of mankind’s depravity.

Seriously.

For example, you recall Tosh’s apology on Twitter?  Here are some of the responses to that tweet:

Apart from Plimpton, a well-known actor and feminist who’s obliged to take these things seriously, what I find most telling is the banality of these responses.

Maybe they hate women. Maybe they hate themselves. Or maybe they think they’re being as funny as people think Daniel Tosh is trying to be. But the one thing none of them seem to be doing is “getting it.”

Tell me you could perform, night after night, to an audience like this and not snap.

Tell me you could be the poster boy for the basest instincts in the American psyche and not wonder if you were singlehandedly empowering the downfall of America on a daily basis.

Now tell me how long you could keep doing that, and seeing your audience become ever more oblivious to their own nobler instincts by the day, before you’d quit to pursue a less emotionally debilitating career.

Daniel Tosh knows what he’s doing. He’s just appalled that the rest of us are missing the point.

All of which brings me back to the actual rape joke itself.

The Mathematics of Comedy Is Nothing to Laugh About

See, the part of this story that’s been widely reprinted, as above, is only the middle of the story. If you read the whole thing, you’ll also read the beginning, which provides some context that’s missing from the part everyone is outraged over. To wit:

This is something that happened to a friend of mine in her own words.

“So, on Friday night my friend and I were at her house and wanted to get out and do something for the evening. We brainstormed ideas and she brought up the idea of seeing a show at the Laugh Factory. I’d never been, I thought it sounded fun, so we went. We saw that Dane Cook, along some other names we didn’t recognize we’re playing, and while we both agree that Cook’s style is not really our taste we were opened-minded about what the others had to offer. And we figured even good ol’ Dane can be funny sometimes, even if it’s not really our thing. Anyhoo, his act was actually fine, but then when his was done, some other guy I didn’t recognize took the stage. Of course, I would find out later this was Daniel Tosh, but at the time I thought he was just some yahoo who somehow got a gig going on after Cook. I honestly thought he was an amateur because he didn’t seem that comfortable on stage and seemed to have a really awkward presence.
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

You know the rest.

But what you didn’t know, if you only read the popularized and context-free account of this story, was:

* These people are not regular comedy club patrons.

* They did not know who Daniel Tosh was.

* They did not understand that his “awkwardness” is part of his schtick.

* They did not understand that his endless repetition of offensive themes is, literally, the whole point of his act.

The way the story has been reported around the web, you’d think Tosh made a statement about offensive comedy in general, and a sensitive audience member lobbed the rape topic back at him as a challenge, hoping he would admit, “Well, you’re right; that’s never funny.”

But that’s not how comedy works.  For better or worse, comedians like Daniel Tosh exist to point out that, yes, everything in life can be funny, depending on the context.  (And, in Tosh’s specific case, he’s simultaneously implying that this could be seen as a flaw in humanity that we should address before we lose our ability to process it.)

And that’s especially not how live comedy works.  Because anyone who interrupts a live comedian immediately becomes a threat to the act, and will be either silenced, escorted out, or incorporated into the act so that the comedian doesn’t lose a) control, b) his train of thought, or c) his authorial voice. It would have been impossible for Tosh to have a bit ready to go, stop it, validate the interrupter’s caveat, and then continue as though nothing had happened. To do so would be to admit that the entire act is a performance, and that it doesn’t matter.

And that’s absolutely not how Tosh’s comedy works. Because when he’s at his most venomous, it matters more than anything.

In this instance, Tosh wasn’t even making the point about rape as an action.  His retort was actually a deft observation about the nature of comedy itself.  Crusading against rape, and then immediately getting raped, would, as a human act, be unconscionable and deplorable.  But as a comic act, the timing would have been perfect, because it would be the epitome of an unexpected reaction to where you thought this story was heading.

And that’s the problem with comedy: it works best when it feels worst.

The intention isn’t just to say, “Hey, these horrible things are funny.” It’s for someone else to say, “Yes, but, they’re still horrible.”

When we all stop making that distinction between concept and action, or between comedy and humanity, we lose our ability to empathize.

And then we become the very ghouls who let poor Daniel Tosh cry all the way to the bank.

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Q&A Interview with Frank Rose, Author of “The Art of Immersion”

From the audience’s impact on the making of LOST to the eerie web promotions for The Dark Knight Returns, our media is becoming more immersive by the day.  WIRED contributing editor Frank Rose noticed this trend and embarked on a years-long voyage to connect the digital dots.  His goal was to discover why we’re demanding more and more interactivity and depth in our media experiences, and how advertising agencies, game and film studios and even scientists themselves are scrambling to meet — and dissect — our demand.

The Art of Immersion - a book by Frank RoseThe resulting book is The Art of Immersion, which covers a decade’s worth of anecdotes from media makers like James Cameron (Avatar), Will Wright (The Sims) and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), as well as a journey inside our brains to help us understand why video games are so addictive, and why our fantasies and our memories may actually be the same thing.

When I tweeted that I was reading the book, Frank Rose noticed and retweeted me, which led to me asking him if he’d be up for a Q&A when I was finished.  He agreed.  This is where that request led.

Justin Kownacki (JK): What initially sparked your interest in writing The Art of Immersion?

Frank Rose (FR): A series of articles I wrote for WIRED. The first was about 3-D. In September 2006 I flew to Montreal to interview James Cameron on the set of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the Brendan Fraser movie. He was there because it was the first feature film to use the stereoscopic camera system he had spent several years inventing with Vince Pace. But he didn’t have a lot to do, so I got to talk with him for several hours. Among other things, we talked about Avatar, which he had in development but Fox had not yet green-lit. He described it as an Edgar Rice Burroughs-type adventure film and said that to his mind, the best way to tell a story like that was to make it almost a fractal experience—something the audience could delve into in powers of ten and the pattern would still hold. The casual fan could just see the movie, but more committed fans could go deeper and deeper and explore the world he created. That idea stayed in my head, but I didn’t really have much to connect it to at that point.

Then, about a year later, I was working on a piece about alternate reality games, focused on 42 Entertainment and the Year Zero experience they’d created with Trent Reznor. Jordan Weisman, the founder of 42, had more or less invented the whole idea of ARGs back in 2001 with The Beast, which he developed with Steven Spielberg as a marketing vehicle for the movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. As far as Paramount was concerned it was a marketing vehicle, anyway, because the money to pay for it came out of the marketing budget. But to Weisman it was a way of extending the story. Weisman was creative director of the games division at Microsoft, which was about to release the Xbox at the time. But he wasn’t really very interested in video games. He’d played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, and he was really much more interested in that kind of story-based social interaction. So that’s what he set out to create with The Beast—some way to tell a story that was fully interactive, that basically let the audience discover the story and piece it together collectively for themselves. It was participatory storytelling.

Frank RoseSeveral months after that I was doing a piece on Hollywood getting into Web video. This was in the wake of the writers strike, which left a bunch of writers sitting on their thumbs with nothing to do. Some of them were television writers who’d moved into video games and were looking now for a way to combine the two. Others were people who lived on the fringes of the entertainment business, like the guys behind Prom Queen and Lonelygirl15, the breakout Web serial from a couple of years earlier. They all noticed that fans were writing in to characters on the show as if they were real people. Bree from Lonelygirl15 was supposed to be a real person, of course, but even after it came out that she wasn’t, viewers treated her as if she were. It took the writers and producers awhile to figure out that if people were writing in to fictional characters as if they were real, then the characters ought to write back. It was a blurring of the line between fiction and reality that kind of resembled what you had with ARGs, even though it was ostensibly quite different.

So in the summer of 2008, around the time the Web video piece came out, I began to sense that there was something bigger going on—a pattern that I could sort of identify but didn’t completely understand. It had to do with a new way of telling stories that didn’t necessarily happen online but seemed to have an online sensibility about it, so to speak. That’s when I started working on the proposal for the book. Frankly, most people didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. But the people at Norton did, fortunately.

JK: How much of the book’s final form was clear in your original outline, and how many of the chapters and themes were developed throughout the interview and research process?

FR: I wrote the proposal in the fall of 2008, and at that point I had to come up with an outline for the book. Most of the elements that went into the book were in the outline—the focus on people in movies, TV, advertising, and video games, the look at neuroscience, the historical comparisons with earlier kinds of storytelling, all that stuff. But the order changed pretty drastically. My thinking evolved a lot too over the next two years, which is how long it took me to write it.

JK: How were your own presumptions or theories about immersive media challenged or changed through the course of your research?

FR: I’d say they were more confirmed and extended. I mean there were people who challenged these ideas, like Nicholas Carr, who wrote that cover story in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, as I was starting my proposal, and then turned it into a book called The Shallows. We have the same editor, by the way—Brendan Curry. Smart guy. Carr’s argument was pretty much the opposite of mine. But I never really bought it. I mean there’s a sense in which we’re both right—the Web with all its links does encourage a kind of ADD-like behavior if that’s what you’re inclined to do, but I think it also encourages the kind of depth that I’m talking about—the idea I got from Cameron, essentially. I just don’t see superficiality as the defining aspect of the Web—far from it. And to the extent that it’s a defining aspect of our time, I’d say it’s much more a result of television than anything else. Television is completely bound by time. On the Internet, time becomes more or less infinite.

JK: Do you believe audiences been demanding more immersive experiences? Or has this increased immersion in media a natural evolution of digital communications that’s been driven by possibility, rather than any demonstrable audience demand?

FR: I think people have always wanted to immerse themselves in fictions. One thing I delved more and more into as I was working on the book was the idea of historical precedents. At first I didn’t think I would pursue that very far because I thought, who cares that much about the past? But the more I got into it, the more I realized how important it was. What I realized was that people have always wanted to delve into stories as much as their technology would permit, and that each new technology allowed them to immerse themselves more deeply than the one before. Books were more immersive than the campfire. Movies were more immersive than books. Television was more immersive, or at least more addictive, than the movies. And so on. The Internet is just the next stage in the continuum.

JK: What’s being lost at the expense of increased immersion?

FR: Hmm. Increased superficiality?

JK: How have the companies and advertising agencies you’ve spoken with adapted to the immersive trend?  Do they see it as a positive?  Do they believe it’s a permanent shift in the way customers and audiences engage with their messaging and products?

FR: It’s either/or. There’s a very significant number of people in the ad industry who see this as a necessity, or an opportunity, or both. And there’s a lot who wish it would all go away so they could just keep on making 30-second spots for TV. There’s no question that engaging directly with customers is a lot more complicated. But there’s no going back. Sorry.

JK: Although the book is densely packed with anecdotes and observations, I can’t help but feel like there’s probably as much left OUT of this book as there is included IN it.  Much of it reads like a blog post, in which allusions to related news items and major players would benefit from a text link so readers could explore the tangents even further.  What was the editing process for this book like, and how did you make choices about what (and how much) to leave in / excise?

FR: You’re right—there’s a lot that was left out. But that’s always the case when you put a story together. Most of the things that were left out didn’t make it because they never quite gelled. There was an amazing and totally unreported ad campaign that I couldn’t use because the client wouldn’t give the okay. And I very much wanted to include Battlestar Galactica, but I was never quite able to schedule time with the exec producers, Ron Moore and David Eick. In the end that probably would have been redundant anyway. The point was to produce a sampling, not an encyclopedia. Basically you just chase everything that comes across your radar and hope that you catch enough of it to make the whole thing work.

That said, there wasn’t that much that was actually excised. The big challenge was to tie it all together. When I turned in the first draft, each chapter was a series of anecdotes that was more or less disconnected from what was in all the other chapters. I knew how it was all  supposed to fit together, but it wasn’t obvious to anybody else. So I had to connect a lot of dots.

JK: Most chapters follow the same format: introduce a protagonist with a problem, then intertwine two related narratives that complement that chapter’s core theme.  Was that design a conscious choice, or an intentional nod to traditional three-act structure?

FR: Probably it was an unconscious choice.

JK: Considering this immersive trend is ongoing, and you could have potentially kept gathering an endless amount of related interviews, how did you decide when the book was “done”?

FR: That’s what deadlines are for. You’re right to suggest it was kind of arbitrary. This reinvention of storytelling is very much an ongoing process. I could have waited until it was all over, several years from now, but that would have been a very different book. Plus it probably wouldn’t be apparent that it was all over until five or ten years after that. The point of this book was to document a transition, what I think is a very historic transition, as it was happening. My publisher gave me a deadline, and they did their part by agreeing to crash the book–to produce it in six months rather than 12 or 18, which is the norm. That’s fine for biographies of dead people, but not for something like this. So I turned in the complete manuscript in August a year ago and my editor got it back to me in a couple of weeks, and I was still making revisions as it went into copyediting. I was adding sections to a couple of chapters as late as October. It was “done” on the day it had to go to press. That was in November, and we got books back two months later. Meanwhile, as you say, the trend is ongoing. That’s what the blog is for. Hopefully the book provides a framework, and the blog becomes a way  to follow the trend wherever it might lead from here.

********

Thanks to Frank Rose for deconstructing his own thought process behind the book.  As a writer, I’m always interested in how a finished piece comes together.  And as a creator (and user) of media, I’m always interested in what the new possibilities are, and how audiences are engaging with what we make.

From a book review standpoint, I’ll say this about The Art of Immersion: it’s filled with compelling stories that caused me to ask thought-provoking questions.  Anyone who works in social media or pop culture will be at least generally familiar with most of Rose’s subject matter, but seeing it all strung together under the umbrella of “immersion” incites the awareness of behavior patterns that we might not detect simply by judging each bit of media on its own.

I do think the book takes its premise — that increasing media immersion is inevitable — a bit too much for granted at the expense of asking “why” (or “really?”), but we can leave that to pop scientists like Jonah Lehrer.

That said, it’s impossible to read The Art of Immersion and not start to see mass media — and the economy that drives it — differently.  If we really do expect increasingly immersive experiences from our media, it’s worth exploring how and why those experiences “work” (or don’t), and why the best of them transcend the trappings of advertising or art on their way to becoming a world unto themselves.  Rose may not have covered all of that ground in The Art of Immersion (and really, who could?), but he definitely aimed his sled in the right direction, and I look forward to seeing it pick up speed as he explores further stories and studies in these topics on his blog.

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How My Broken Blog Led to Me Getting Interviewed on the CBC

A few weeks ago, my blog imploded.  For whatever reason, my backups weren’t actually backing up, and one day I awoke to a tweet from a reader informing me that none of my posts existed anymore.

That’s never good.

So I contacted my tech guy, Shawn Smith, who’s been saving my digital ass since 2003 (at least).  He was able (while on vacation) to restore the most recent uncorrupted backup of my blog… which was from January of 2010.  And while 18 months ago isn’t so long in people years, in blog years, that means most of my content had simply disappeared.

That’s a blogger’s version of the end of the world, right?

Well… not quite.

Eventually, Shawn fixed my corrupted WordPress blog (here’s how he did it) with help from our server, MediaTemple. That’s why things are back to normal now.

But in the interim, the most recent posts my blog was showcasing were decidedly dated.

And yet, in a paradoxical twist, they were also incredibly timely.

Here’s Where the Story Gets Interesting

Somehow, Dan Hughes, a producer for several Canadian Broadcasting Channel (CBC) news programs — and who frequently uses Twitter to schedule interviews — stumbled across my blog on the day it was broken.  The post that caught his attention was one of those “ancient” posts about how hard it is for us to manage our increasingly media-saturated lives, and he emailed me to ask if I’d like to be a live guest on an upcoming episode of Connect with Mark Kelley, to discuss Twitter’s five-year anniversary.

And by “upcoming,” he meant “in a few hours,” as in, at 8:30 PM that day.

It was around 6 PM when we finally spoke by phone.

I said “sure,” but I’d have to reschedule a shoot for The Baristas, and the cast was en route.

So while I was rearranging the schedules of half a dozen people on almost no notice, Dan was trying to figure out where I’d have to go in Pittsburgh in order to reach Connect via satellite.

In two hours.

Tip: Always Dress Like You MIGHT Be Interviewed on National TV

Realizing my behind-the-scenes wardrobe of a t-shirt and cargo shorts wouldn’t exactly scream “authoritative” on the CBC, I zipped off to the closest GAP to buy a shirt that wouldn’t get me shamed off Canadian television.

So many choices, so little time.  I texted a photo of my options to my girlfriend (since she’s the one who takes fashion seriously), but she never got the message.  Time passes.  I buy the shirt that seems least objectionable.

At the counter, I’m served by a cashier trainee, and the sales process ground to a halt while she attempts to figure out exactly how to detach those pesky security tags, then possibly rings my whole sale up wrong.  Precious minutes are ticking away.  I’m well aware that “I’m running late for an interview on the CBC” isn’t a reasonable excuse to ask minimum wage employees to please hurry, so I wait it out and then hustle back to my car.

It’s 8 o’clock and I zoom off down the highway toward… well, I have no idea.

Why Aragorn Would Have Hated Pittsburgh

The video production facility that Dan had emailed me an address for was somewhere in Gateway Towers.  These are a cadre of nondescript office towers at the very tip of downtown, straddling Point State Park.  Alas, the address I was given didn’t say which of the towers the facility was located in.

I call the phone number for the facility.  No answer.

I’m forwarded to their alternate answering service, which is way out in Plum, which is as far from downtown as you can be and still say you’re in Pittsburgh.  They have no idea which towers the facility is in either.  They forward my call to someone’s cell phone, whom I can barely hear.  As I’m explaining my situation, the call is dropped.

8:10 PM.

I get downtown and find a garage.  The cell phone connection has called her Plum colleagues back and explained where I should be parking, but still hasn’t specified which tower the facilities are in.

I park, change shirts in the car (like a boss), and run a few blocks to…

… all the wrong towers.

Because I’ve checked Google Maps, and it insists the facility is inside the Wyndham Grand Hotel, which is not true.

Nor is it in Gateway Towers 2, 3 or 4.

I finally ask a guy having a smoke break outside an actual broadcast facility where this mystery facility might be.  He’s just guessing, but based on process of elimination, it must be this tower of office condos that’s otherwise completely unmarked.

I doubt it.

But, on the off chance he’s actually right, I run to that building.  No address listed.  The security guy inside looks at me with about as much suspicion as I’d probably have for someone who looked as shady as I must have looked at that particular moment.

So I run to a different tower.  Someone else lets me into the lobby, where I ask the security guard where this phantom address could possibly be.  He agrees that it must be the office condo tower.  I tell him the addresses don’t match.  He tells me it’s not listed in any other tower.  I say fine, and run back to that damn unmarked tower.

Fucking A, the facility is in that goddamn tower.

So I’m in the Makeup Room

With no makeup people.

It turns out the facility was opened specifically because I had to film there, so only the two technicians who had to be there had come in.  Neither of these dudes are makeup pros, but they do let me sit there and drink water for a few minutes while I rifle through the drawers and blot my face with a cotton ball.

It’s 8:29.

They tell me I’m supposed to be on between 8:30 and 8:45 PM.

There’s a backdrop of “nighttime Pittsburgh” behind me.  One tech asks if I want it changed to daytime instead.  I reason that it’s nighttime as we’re filming this, so no, nighttime Pittsburgh seems like the right call.

I get in the chair.  They mic me up.  One guy asks if I can hear the live feed in my earpiece.  I say yes.  He says “Does it feel like it’s going to fall out?”  I say no.  He turns away.  It falls out.

While I’m fiddling with the earpiece, which keeps repeatedly falling out of my ear, the two techs get embroiled in a discussion about the medical properties of certain hallucinogenic substances.  This causes them to miss the incoming CBC phone call.  Several times.

Finally, the CBC producer calls one of the techs on his cell phone.  She gets him to promise to take the call the next time they place it.  They hang up.  The call comes in.  Apparently, I am the only one of the three of us who hears it.  But I can’t answer, because I’m in a chair with an earpiece that keeps falling out.

Silence.

The guy’s cell phone rings.

This time, they’ll try a different line.

Connection.

“Justin, can you hear Mark?”

“Yes.”

(A more accurate answer would have been, “Yes, barely.”)

“Great.  We’ll bring you in after commercial.  You have three minutes.”

My earpiece cuts to commercial.

Chit chat chit chat suddenly Mark Kelley is in my ear, talking about Twitter, and suddenly I’m on the CBC.

Justin Kownacki, Social Media Strategist, on the CBC

I stare straight ahead, because I want to focus on the reflection of a white check in my shirt pattern, so it’ll look like I’m making eye contact with Mark Kelley (whom I’ve never seen, met or spoken to before), but also because I’m afraid that if I move my head my earpiece will fall out on national television, simultaneously making a mockery of me, Mark Kelley, Pittsburgh, Canada and Twitter.

The interview goes relatively smoothly, if you ignore the fact that I manage to both wink at the camera and raise my eyebrow like The Rock as a form of punctuation, both of which, I think, would make anyone who’s never worked in social media but who sees this interview immediately believe that social media is exclusively a playground of douchebags, which would mostly be true.

Mark Kelley goes to commercial.  I’m informed by the producer that I’ve done well, and she thanks me for my time.  The whole interview lasts approximately five minutes and costs me exactly $25.99 in GAP receipts and parking fees.  You can see it all here, starting around the 42 minute mark.  (You’ll have to fast-forward the player manually.)

Justin Kownacki on the CBC's Connect with Mark Kelley

Incredibly, in the actual broadcast, it looks like Mark Kelley and I are staring right at each other.

In reality, I’m in a tiny room in the lobby of an office condo, staring at my own shirt.

What Did I Learn From All This?

A few days later, my blog was resuscitated and the January 2010 post that earned me a CBC interview was once again relegated to the archives.

And now, looking back on that day’s insanity, I’m honestly not sure what the lesson in all of this is supposed to be.

“Don’t back up your blog after all?”

“Trust the guy who’s on a smoke break?”

“Always keep a freshly-ironed dress shirt in your car?”

Who knows?

But the next time you see an expert being interviewed on your favorite news channel, you should probably give her the benefit of the doubt.

You have no idea how long she had to wait in line at The GAP.

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