Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Patriot's Draft

The Writers Guild versus the AMPTP might soon measure amongst the most significant events of our recent national public-political discourse. Stateside opinion of this president’s agenda has descended into an absurd nonsensicality, an afterthought inherent to an administration crippled by its overseas endeavors. Our recent presidential campaigns have been muted by permeating senses of foregone conclusions, both bleakly desperate (2004) and cautiously promising (2008.) And by now the once vaunted “New” Congress has proved infinitely more interested in on occupying itself with the affairs d’Clemens and Belichick than seizing upon any major policy movements. Meanwhile, a major labor dispute has now come and not really gone, helping to define in no small way the terms of a major domestic industry’s growth for the immediate hereafter with few Americans knowing (caring?) about the matters at stake, not only as relate to professional writers, but our own very lifestyles.

The terms of the writers’ return remain undisclosed to the public, but it is probable that the writers will receive a royalty rate lower than the proposed reparations for DVD sales would have provided once the agreement is ratified, as well as royalties for new media still well-below the desired broadcast television standard. Though, thankfully, nobody will be losing their homes or starving in Los Feliz in the immediate future for this agreement, there remains no end to the dirty tricks at the disposal of our multinational overlords to squeeze entertainment workers for every last penny. Online media- on the back of content bereft of the costs of manufacturing, shipping, storing and retailing physical properties- may very well yield profits soon into the billions. And as other proposals that might limit the continued dominance of corporate media powers seem doomed to fail, an eventual revelation of the strike’s resolution turning out to be the “Home Video Swindle: Redux” seems not only plausible, but exceedingly likely. Come the maturity of an integrated, online age for all popular entertainment, we will see more and more importance implicit to such issues as those highlighted in the recent strike. Yes, our scripted television shows are coming back on the air, but for thousands of people who work in the industry bracing for the possibility of more upheaval, their livelihoods are very much still up in it. A settlement shouldn’t suggest anything has truly been settled.

HBO’s John Adams miniseries wrapped up its 7 episode Emmy-grab this past Sunday night. I share many of the criticisms of the series that have been commonly reported in critics’ circles. The performances throughout are consistently decent yet somehow disappointing, many episodes are given to interminably boring stretches devoid of any sense of historian David McCullough’s transcendent passion for its source material, and that this gritty age of telefilms’ insistence on realism has culminated in a most brutal extreme, seemingly independent of any storytelling purpose. Yet it still evident to me that Adams is possessed of at least one strength which elevates it from utter mediocrity: John Adams was a simply brilliant mind and a dynamic speaker in heated debate, whose talents here lead to several excellent scenes depicting the political contests of our nation’s birth and early years. Paul Giamatti, in the series titular role, plays his finest moments with a dour ferocity of belief in the import his duties, which take him from the courtrooms of colonial Boston to the hostile would-be architects of America at Independence Hall and even an Audience with King Crankypants the Second himself.

Sadly, these excellent scenes are spread too few and too far between diversions that, despite substantial runtimes, still feel too shallow and limiting in their depictions of Adams as a person. We endure lengthy treatments on his restless periods in Europe (the French here are hedonist airheads, the Dutch wry moneychangers) and infrequent interaction with his family that mostly settles for presenting the man in the simple dyad of sensitive husband, overbearing-yet-distant father. But more than anything, his endless frustration permeates our every sense of the man. While often depicted fretting that he may not have done enough to secure a future for his fledgling country, certainly seems convinced enough of his accomplishments as a legislator and diplomat to brood endlessly over his recognized place in history for them. Adams was all-too aware it seems, even in his own time, that he was destined to the second-tier of our historical remembrance, behind men more popular (Thomas Jefferson), weighty (George Washington) or merely adept at whoring for attention (Benjamin Franklin.) To this day the greatest tribute paid to him is a 752 page biography that most Americans will never so much as use to level a coffee table (and now, 8 or so more hours of HBO’s post-Sopranos programming.)

Our neglect for the contentious farmer’s son from Massachusetts parallels our current role as consumers regarding the status of entertainment workers. Mixed thoughts and opinions converge for me as I experience a viewing of HBO’s John Adams miniseries via a less-than-legal internet source. Tuning into Hulu, with its high quality streams and conveniently stable servers has taken on something of a conflicting feel for me. It is a fact that our continued support for online content has enabled the technology that makes it so much clearer, faster and more plentiful and profitable) than ever, yet this is also maybe the single largest source of the leverage used by corporate powers to shirk fairness and continue to dominate its own, largely anonymous workmen’s class.
John Adams, the series, asks us to glorify the most unlikely qualities of likability that define our uniquely American spirit, and to elevate the collective effort of those who raised our nation by celebrating the most relatively nondescript of our sacred statesman. Adams, the man, lost his place on Mount Rushmore not for undeserving, but as the cost of his inability to be both indispensible and beloved at the same time. Tuning into Big-Money outlets like Hulu for our 30 Rock fix now feels, in some small way, complicit with a similar kind of marginalization to that which Adams has endured in our collective consciousness. It is after all our demand for new media that has pit another great American institution- Labor- against the times.

Or am I just framing a self-serving argument for the torrent abuser in all of us? Are we privateers or pirates? I’m really not sure, though I think I can say that, today, being a buccaneer bootlegger has never quite felt so patriotic.

1 comment:

Steven Simunic said...

McCullough's hagiography aside, I think it's easy for us to ignore John Adams, our nation's most natural bore, simply because his star was outshone by his progeny: JQA was perhaps the most eloquent man in American history (final words? "This is the last of earth. I am composed."), and Henry Adams wrote the best work of non-fiction in English letters this side of Grant's memoirs.

And if you talk like that about Ben Franklin again, I'll cut you.