MTV: The Making of a Revolution, Tom McGrath

Running Press, 1996, 208 pages, C$22.95 hc, ISBN 1-56138-703-7

If ever some future historians decide to study my life in detail, they’ll probably abandon before my twenty-fifth birthday out of terminal boredom. They’ll quickly conclude that I missed out on sex, drugs and most of rock’n’roll. It speaks volume that I’ve never seen a straight ten minute of MTV, and that was an accident. For all their much-vaunted influence, MTV and its Canadian equivalents (MuchMusic and MusiquePlus) are remarkably easy to avoid if you don’t have cable.

And yet, even I can’t argue with the impact of MTV and video clips. From the business side of things, it has produced a discontinuity in the way popular music is marketed. There is very literally a pre-MTV and a post-MTV era as far as selling pop music is defined. Before, you produced some songs, played them on the radio and hoped for the best. Now, with the artist in everyone’s home through video clips, the image is an integral part of the process. Is it any wonder that pop-phenomenons like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys can succeed today on unimaginative musical content? (Indeed, looking at today’s female singers, one can wonder if musical success is somehow genetically linked with attractiveness.)

But the true measure of MTV’s success is that its influence has spread well beyond the confines of music: By linking image and song, it has also boldly redefined the audiovisual universe of popular culture. Squeezing a mini-story in four minutes require some compression, best achieved with quick cuts, fast-paced action beats and the avoidance of subtlety. Television quickly noticed that the same rules could also apply to longer lengths, as initially proven with “Miami Vice”. Cinema took longer to catch up, waiting for clip directors to helm full-length pictures, but when Hollywood noticed the phenomenon, it never looked back. Action films are now filmed like videoclips, their frenetic pacing appealing to jaded viewers. The biggest summer movie of 1998, -ARMAGEDDON, directed by former music-video director Michael Bay- was called “the first two-hours movie trailer” by top film critic Roger Ebert.

MTV did this. MTV took popular culture by storm and single-handedly changed it beyond former recognition. That’s what Tom McGrath tells us in MTV: The Making of a Revolution. He goes beyond just a straight corporate history of the TV network and places it in context by linking it to other changes in the 1982-1993 timeframe. That’ how we end up not only with a book that decently traces MTV’s ascendancy, but also the associated fields of cable television (actually invented in the 1950s) and video clips.

As could be expected, MTV lovingly covers the pre-history of the network and its first few moments. (The first video played by MTV was, fittingly enough, The Buggle’s “Video Killed the Radio Star”. MTV Europe began with an even more appropriate clip, Dire Strait’s “Money for Nothing”) Then it’s America’s infatuation with Michael Jackson, Madonna, video clips, and MTV… But the book covers roughly fifteen years, and that’s just enough time for more than a success story. MTV briefly faltered in the late-eighties, as it realized that it could be only “FM radio with pictures”, but had to re-invent itself as a true channel with more to offer.

This is not a press-release book, nor is it a superficial look at a pop phenomenon. The writing is informative, witty and occasionally very funny. But McGrath has done his research, and the end result is truly a good look at MTV. Even the carefully-wild graphic layout respects the content and tries to spice up the rest. It’s a shame, for such a visual subject, that there couldn’t be more photos, and that the ones that are printed are limited to a bichrome palette.

In a nutshell, MTV simply accomplishes what it set out to do: Give a good and thorough history of MTV as well as make it clear that the impact of the television channel was significant on more than simply popular music. I was convinced, and that’s all I need to say.

Wrongfully Accused (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Wrongfully Accused</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, August 1999) The biggest problem with this film is that it’s far more interested in being a parody of thrillers than being a comedy. This gives rise to two problems: One, the films feels like a disconnected string of not-so-funny gags rather than a coherent laugh riot and two, the film doesn’t make much sense if you’re not familiar with the source material. Add to that the problem that Leslie Nielsen’s standard bumbling fool comedy personae is wearing thin (even the film’s opening credits acknowledge “Leslie Nielsen As Leslie Nielsen”) and… hmmm… the result is uninspired despite being all-inspired. Some grins, rare chuckles but no belly laughs.

The Untouchables (1987)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Untouchables</strong> (1987)

(On TV, August 1999) I had heard many good thing about this much-lauded film and frankly, I was caught unprepared at how… conventional it all was. Yes, David Mamet’s macho-guy dialogue is fun, and there are some pretty good set-pieces, but did it have to be so obvious? The infamous Eisenstein-ripped staircase sequence is set up for what seems like five interminable minutes, and it all ends up being barely okay. (The parody in Naked Gun II was far superior) Otherwise, you can pretty much guess what’s going to happen five minutes in advance, and the late-minute gunfight heroics aren’t really as satisfying as they’re made out to be. Good entertainment, but not a classic!

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

<strong class="MovieTitle">This Is Spinal Tap</strong> (1984)

(On VHS, August 1999) One of my favorite film gems is a little-seen pseudo-documentary comedy about the rise, fall and reunion of a rap group, Fear Of A Black Hat. Many other reviewers dissented, calling it a pale imitation of This Is Spinal Tap, an early-eighties pseudo-documentary comedy about the rise, fall and reunion of a rock group. After seeing the earlier film, I must say that it must be a generational thing: No only is the style of music of Fear Of A Black Hat closer to my rap/dance favorites, but the latter film simply seemed funnier than This Is Spinal Tap, which hasn’t aged very well. In fact, a lot of the film just seems too close to reality to actually being funny. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any chuckles here and there, but the music industry has changed considerably in fifteen years, and This Is Spinal Tap suffers from it. Of course, who’s to say how Fear Of A Black Hat will sound in ten more years? Probably that by then, there will be another pseudo-documentary about the rise, fall and reunion of…

The 13th Warrior (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The 13th Warrior</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) This is, from a detached perspective, a pretty bad film. Enormous plot holes, muddily-shot night battles, bare-bone characterisation, straightforward plot… But it does work well when you watch the film, provided you don’t expect much more than a gritty pseudo-realistic medieval battle fantasy. Antonio Banderas’ screen presence adds enormously to the film and the battle scenes are occasionally impressive. Though there are no doubt tons of anachronism, the Viking village looks suitably realistic on screen. Worth the time on TV.

The Warrior’s Apprentice, Lois McMaster Bujold

Baen, 1986 (1988 reprint), 315 pages, C$2.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-65587-6

In almost four years of steady book reviewing, I have somehow managed to avoid talking about Lois McMaster Bujold’s work. This oversight is inexplicable given that I’ve never read anything by Bujold that I haven’t liked. I’ve even had the chance to meet her in 1997, at Montreal’s Con*Cept SF convention (I unknowingly transgressed normal con-going etiquette by asking her to autograph a book while she was browsing the art show. Fortunately, she was gracious enough to sign my paperback copy of Mirror Dance with a smile.) So, allow me to use this review of The Warrior’s Apprentice as a general rave about her work.

Lois McMaster Bujold is not exactly at the cutting edge of science-fiction. Her books contain few original ideas, her future is comfortably extrapolated according to the old-style rules (no pervasive nanotech, no real infotech impact, etc…) and -if you want to get downright nasty- many of her stories could comfortably be told in fantasy, romance or contemporary settings.

But that is belittling Bujold’s considerable skills. What she lacks in terms of innovation, she compensate by creating some of the most realistic and sympathetic characters in the genre. Her writing is simple, yet elegant and powerful. Her plotting is meticulously paced to keep the reader racing forward. While her worldview is characteristically positive (the good guys invariably win), she doesn’t hold back on the punishment her heroes have to endure in order to triumph.

Most of her stories are set in one single universe and feature the same set of characters. This provides her with the opportunity to build one comprehensive universe, and to move her characters across arcs that would be impossible to complete in one single novel. Contrarily to other multi-book universes, hers holds together amazingly well, and seems more logical than most.

The Warrior’s Apprentice is, from real-world chronology, the first book to star Miles Vorkosigan, the tortured hero of most of her cycle. Published in 1986, it was her second novel, but it remains as good as her latter efforts. Ultra-intelligent Miles is introduced and brilliantly wins both his battles and the reader’s undying sympathy. After all, who else can fail his military academy exams and yet manage to build up a mercenary fleet?

Despite a few slight flaws here and there (it needed a bit more clarity in some spots, and maybe some fleshing out of the mercenaries), it’s very hard to dislike this novel. Not only is it compulsively readable, but the characters are all-around winners. Miles Vorkosigan’s superior tactical skills could be insufferable if they weren’t balanced by some wickedly funny self-depreciating internal monologue: A typical SF superhero with an atypical lack of pretentiousness. The other characters are well-handled and also made suitably sympathetic. Bujold not only writes good stories, but also has the knack of building up to great scenes. The Warrior’s Apprentice mixes coming-of-age episodes with space battles and one final great courtroom scene in a whole that’s just satisfying.

After that, it’s no wonder to see Bujold regularly nominated for the fan-selected Hugo awards, and to read some rabidly devoted comments by Usenet fans. She deserves all of it. Though maybe not imaginative enough to be an essential part of the SF panorama, the works of Lois McMaster Bujold are nevertheless worth some attention. And you could do worse but to try The Warrior’s Apprentice as an introduction.

Taxi Driver (1976)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Taxi Driver</strong> (1976)

(On TV, August 1999) This rescues itself from pointlessness in the last five minutes. What was up to then an unpleasant series of episodes starring a low-life taxi driver peppered by occasional moments (“You talking to me? Good, because I’m the only one here.”) suddenly becomes worthwhile, though one can’t help but to feel that this is one short film’s material stretched out to almost two hours. Viewer might be excused if they keep thinking about how many other movies are a more worthwhile investment of time.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Sixth Sense</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) While not as great as its fans have made it to be, this very well-done film allows us to envision a far better parallel universe where almost all Hollywood films attaint this level of all-around competence. The Sixth Sense offers a great little script, a sagacious non-usage of special effects, an original storyline, some great acting (notably by the young Haley Joel Osment) and non-obtrusive direction. Now, if only other films could aspire to this…

The Shining (1980)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Shining</strong> (1980)

(On VHS, August 1999) So what happens when a very competent director decides to do a horror film—while having no idea what horror should be? You get The Shining, a “horror” film with 75 minute’s worth of setup, three or four really good scenes, no clear resolution and some interesting camera setups. Fans of classical horror won’t know what to do with the storyline, which mixes together monsters, hallucinations, split personalities, bloodbaths, ax murders, reincarnation and/or a whole lot of stuff. Yes, the technical side of the film is polished and the “classic” sequences stay in mind, but the movie itself flops around without too much vigor.

She’s All That (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">She’s All That</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) A teen romantic comedy that’s far, far better when it remembers to be a comedy. Taking place in some fantasy high-school where students drive around in Porsches and Jeeps, She’s All That features some wickedly fun quotes and moments (the hilariously-directed why-I-dumped you scene, the energetic “Rockafeller Skank” dance number) but more often than not drags itself in unbelievable “dramatic” moments that just feel forced. Rachel Leigh Cook isn’t believable one second as an “unattractive” girl (it’s the glasses, yeah, even when she’s in that killer black swimsuit…) but Freddie Prinze Jr. manages to fulfill his role as “High School God” with a certain amount of coolness. Watchable, but not really exceptional.

The Replacement Killers (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Replacement Killers</strong> (1998)

(On VHS, August 1999) There’s no mistake that this is B-movie: Cop drama with hitmen, policemen, damsels in occasional distress, gunfights, cars, guns… Fortunately, if the film can’t transcend its roots, it faithfully exemplify the genre. Chow Yun Fat and Mira Sorvino are pretty darn cool/cute in quasi tailor-made roles, and the director is competent when it comes to action scenes. Unfortunately, the whole film feels curiously vapid and unmemorable, true to form for most B-movies.

Moonseed, Stephen Baxter

Harper Prism, 1998, 534 pages, C$20.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-105044-X

Sometime, I wonder how Hollywood producers deal with it.

No, I’m not talking about the sleeping-with-supermodels-and-rolling-in-cash part. That I can reasonably understand. But I really wonder how they have to deal with the trade-offs between story and budget. Consider disaster movie, which are all about showing expensive catastrophes on screen. If you’re on a limited budget (and even $150M is a limited budget), how can you deliver a really good disaster film when it’s literally too expensive to put it all on screen?

This isn’t a problem in novels, because when you get down to it, prose writers have essentially an unlimited budget for visual effects. They can blow up the earth for exactly the same amount of money that have two minor character talk to each other. No publishing house is ever going to bankrupt themselves by investing in a spectacular historical war novel over a simple romantic comedy. Movie studios, on the other hand, pretty much tattooed HEAVEN’S GATE in the forehead of every script acquisition manager…

Stephen Baxter’s Moonseed proves how much more satisfying a disaster story can be in written format. Not only is it more spectacular, but it’s also better-constructed and far more clever than its Hollywood counterparts.

It all begins on the night when astronaut Geena Bourne and geologist Henry Meacher decide to divorce. Venus blows up and Henry is transferred to Edinburgh, where a mysterious silvery dust soon begins ravaging the countryside. Before long, the Edinburgh dust pool is growing at exponential rate, and it becomes clear that they’ve got to stop it. Evidence points at contamination from one of the Moon rocks, so NASA puts together a mission using present-day technology to go back there…

Stephen Baxter is known for being a hard-SF writer, and Moonseed will do nothing to diminish this reputation. He plays the SF game and follows the rules, which does give a delicious particularity to the part where NASA puts together a baling-wire mission to go back to the moon. Otherwise, spectacular scenes abound, whether it’s Edinburgh being consummated by the “Moonseed” or Seattle being erased by a tidal wave. Big bucks special effects, backed by I-guess-accurate physics.

Moonseed is less capable when it comes to human characters. Some are barely introduced and then forever forgotten (Marge Case, Jenny Calder, Cecilia Stanley, etc…), others are superfluous (Blue Ishiguro, Hamish “Bran” McCrae and the remainder of the clichéd cult subplot), while the protagonists are involved in quasi-soap-opera plot complications to keep them together. (No, but seriously, wasn’t it possible to select a worse three-person moon team?)

But it doesn’t really matter, disaster stories and hard-SF novels being what they are. Even the lengths of the novel can be a good thing when they add such richness. Who cares about individual humans when the whole race is at risk? Moonseed is far more original than the usual catastrophe scenarios, ironically by going back to the source disaster story, the classic When Worlds Collide. The ending accelerates the pace of the novel, leading to a wide-open conclusion that truly rewards the reader.

So, next time you’re contemplating paying almost 10$ for a disaster movie, consider Moonseed as an alternative. Easy reading, original threat, imaginative plotting, neat gadgets and cool scenes not constrained by a fixed SFX budget. What more could you ask of an end-of-the-world story?

October Sky (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">October Sky</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) Any film featuring kids playing with guns, explosives and ballistic mathematics can’t do wrong! Naturally, a story about rocket-making boys at the end of the 1950s can’t be anything else but inspiration, especially when it’s based on a true story (Homer Hickman’ Rocket Boys). It gets even better when you realize that October Sky is a coming-of-age story that doesn’t focus on beer, sex or proms, but on intellectual breakthroughs, hard work and confidence in yourself. It works even better than it sounds, and is one of the very few movies to be watched by everyone in the family without any discomfort. An all-around winner, made with skill and distinction: See it, and see it now!

North By Northwest (1959)

<strong class="MovieTitle">North By Northwest</strong> (1959)

(On TV, August 1999) With Hitchcock’s 100th anniversary celebrations, two local TV stations ran some of his films. While I was not interested enough by Psycho to keep watching it beyond the infamous shower scene and couldn’t muster the interest to see most of The Birds (watched the set-pieces and returned to my book for the remainder of the film), I must admit that North By Northwest still works very, very well forty years later. Okay, most of the special effects are weak and the beginning could be tightened, but the dialogue and the plotting gradually build to a high pitch of interest. Interestingly, the movie uses (defined?) most of the modern conventions of thrillers, up to the gimmicky ending at A Famous Location. Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are great in their roles, and the overall result is worth a look.

(Second Viewing, On Cable TV, January 2019) Revisiting North by Northwest after seeing so many other Hitchcock or Cary Grant films seemed inevitable—now that I’m more familiar with that era of filmmaking, now that I know the quirks of Hitchcock and the charm of Grant’s performances, would it be as good? Happily, not only is it just as good as I remembered it—it’s even better. There’s a thrilling sense of adventure, plot twists, set-pieces and humour to the film, as Cary Grant becomes the prototypical Hitchcockian man on the run alongside Eva Saint-Marie, going from New York to the Rushmore monument along the way. The conclusion is abrupt, but there’s something to be said for not overstaying one’s welcome. The direction is top-notch, the actors couldn’t be more likable, and the mystery/suspense just keeps going. North by Northwest is simply a fantastic film no matter how you look at it, and no matter when you look at it.¶

Never Been Kissed (1999)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Never Been Kissed</strong> (1999)

(In theaters, August 1999) Thank goodness that the screenwriter didn’t take his script seriously! What could have been a tedious exercise in yet-another-teen-romance-that-ends-at-the-prom suddenly becomes an acceptable film with some greater resonance than what we might expect. Some choice gags (“The Simpsons” theme, a Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas flashback, etc…) pepper the film, making it seems far more clever than it truly is. Leelee Sobieski shines as the Hollywood hot-babe- with-glasses-so-we’re-supposed-to-know- she’s-smart-and-ugly. The movie falls flat near the end, as a long-awaited confession cuts off a half-dozen plot threads in thirty seconds, but the rest is okay.