Sunday, January 30, 2022

I’M KING OF THE HILL, TOP OF THE HEAP [329]


With the street of Long Acre in London once home to coachbuilders and car showrooms, the similarly industrious Longacre Square in New York City, having taken its name, ironically also hosted horse stables, the American Horse Exchange finally closing in 1910. By then, “The New York Times” newspaper had built and opened its headquarters in the centre of the square, where Broadway intersects with 42nd Street, and convinced the city to rename the square after itself, something the other dozen or so daily papers at the time hadn’t done.

One Times Square, otherwise known as 1475 Broadway, opened in 1904, and remains the focal point of Times Square, hosting the New Year’s Eve ball drop first begun by the “Times” in 1907. The narrow end of the triangular building, which has famously hosted a Sony Jumbotron screen from 1990 to 1996, used by “The Late Show with David Letterman”, and displayed a realistically-steaming pot of Nissin Cup Noodle, now hosts a 350 foot-long advertising video wall projecting into the square, erected in 2019 to replace a number of smaller screens and billboards. However, it also resulted in removing the famous news ticker, or “zipper”, that had operated at various times since 1928. With similar video screens spreading around the building and across the square, its equivalent space in London has now moved to Piccadilly Circus.

For a building with so many eyes on it, I was surprised to hear it is mostly empty. I visited the ground level Walgreens drug store while on holiday in New York in 2011, but with only one floor towards the top used by the current organisers of the New Year’s Eve celebrations, the Times Square Alliance and Countdown Entertainment LLC, the rest of the building is used either as storage, or is completely abandoned. It matters nothing its owners, Jamestown LP and Sherwood Equities, as the tens of millions of dollars they charge in rent is for its exterior: so long as it acts as a frame for the video screens, it remains profitable.

With only a 500m2  trapezoid-shaped footprint, and only twenty-five stories, it may be easier for most businesses looking for space to find one floor in another building, instead of two or three at One Times Square. Even “The New York Times” started moving out of the building as early as 1913, as its corporate headquarters moved to 229 West 43rd Street, itself extended in subsequent years. However, production of the newspaper continued at Times Square until the last section moved out in 1960 - even after the “Times” sold the building in 1961, the printing presses, situated in the four-storey-depth basement, ran until 1997, replaced by a more advanced facility based in Queens.

Allied Chemical, a multi-industrial corporation that, through a continued series of mergers, is the company now known as Honeywell, bought the building in 1963, two years after the “Times” sold it to advertising executive Douglas Leigh, and proceeded to re-skin it for the first time, replacing the original Gothic architecture, which made it look not unlike the Flatiron building, with modernist marble, not that you can see it properly now. The Allied Chemical Tower opened in December 1965, acting as headquarters of its Fibers division, and the Fabricated Products division. The first three floors, however, were more like what you would have found at the New York World’s Fair that closed earlier that year: the ground floor housed a demonstration of the upcoming Apollo space project, and an animated model of a city that could then be built on the moon. Displays of chemical processes took the next floor up, and the third floor fashion show displayed clothes made using Nylon produced by Allied Chemical.

One Times Square was already on sale by October 1972 for a minimum of $7 million, Allied Chemical acknowledging they had too much office space in New York City, that the displays should be dealt with by a group more experienced with dealing directly with the public, and that they were never going to get back the full cost of their renovations. The next buyer, real-estate developer Alex Parker, ultimately paid $6.25 million, and initial talk of exhibition spaces on most floors were replaced by hiring out office space to tenants, although a Song Writers Hall of Fame did open on the eighth floor. Between 1974 and 1997, the building was sold six more times, with unfulfilled proposals to replace the exterior with glass, or stripping it to a bare metal frame to use for floodlights. Demolition of the building had also been proposed in 1979 as part of a plan to create an urban renewal district in 42nd Street.

Having looked through the numerous news articles on the “Times” website about changes in ownership and intent, the lack of consistency is perhaps the major contributor to tenants dwindling away – by 1982, there was reference to leases lasting from month to month, with nothing in the long term. Outside of the “Times”, Walgreens is seemingly the longest-running tenant of the interior of One Times Square. Their lease, signed in 2007, actually covers most of the interior, even though only the first three floors are used. It replaced a Warner Bros. studio shop, operated from 1996-2001 to compete with Disney’s store, but Warner Bros. continued to pay for the lease until Walgreens took over. I have seen evidence that the store closed again on 27thDecember 2021, but with Walgreens’ lease continuing until 2027, and with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, I could not confirm if this was temporary or not.

The current value of One Times Square is dictated by its advertising potential: Lehman Brothers bought it in 1995 for $27.5m, with the first electronic billboards being installed in 1996. The following year, it was sold to its current owners for $110m. A four-week placement on the main billboard installed in 2019 costs from $2.5m. Perhaps One Times Square is at the point where any future construction means advertising revenue lost. Ironically, the original scoreboard-like ad screen, installed above the “zipper” in 1975, is more famous as an artwork, being the screen on which Jenny Holzer displayed the message, “PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT”.



Sunday, January 23, 2022

LAUGH ABOUT IT, SHOUT ABOUT IT [328]


Social media has become as much of a bête noire for myself this website as the 45th President of the United States came to be, so I must now also write it out of my system until further notice.

Social media is just another form of traditional media, and should be understood as such. Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher whose work created the field of media studies, was forty-one years old when regular television broadcasts started in his native Canada in 1952, making him well-placed in commenting on television’s impact on communication and our world. The focus of his book “Understanding Media” was how we should study media more than the content it carries, and the impact of a new medium will be more than that of the content. For social media, which became part of everyday life during my twenties, content is fuel for the algorithm of the site, and providing content to the site is both amplification of your message and the price of admission. The “social” side is an impression created by the content.

If everyone uses social media, we are essentially all in the media business and, therefore, we all should receive media training to fully understand the uses and effects of media, so that we can use it most effectively and mindfully. I think this would press home the importance of acting professionally in the public space created by a media that requires us to act intimately in order to receive the content required to run it. Organisations specialising in media training offer communication skills, interview technique, provide experience in dealing with PR and media relations, and provide “key message development” for the messages you want to get across. 

It sounds not far away from preparing for a job interview, as you prepare to create the greatest possible impression of yourself, until I saw that one company, PA Mediapoint, also offers “crisis media training” in how to deal with intense media scrutiny – their website states that “the focus is on equipping comms teams and spokespeople with the essential techniques and strategies to limit reputational damage.” 

For all that you can hate about what Piers Morgan says on Twitter, his account can be viewed as the same collection of safe press release announcements and off-the-cuff pronouncements that define a brand-building social media account that keeps on the right side of the site’s terms of service, because Morgan knows how to play the social media engagement game. Whenever Twitter has been used in a controversial fashion, mostly by people since banned from using the platform, the “social” side of social media is not applicable. 

Something that is slanderous if spoken between two people is counted as libel on social media because it is media, it is recorded, it is written down. Putting yourself on public view carries an element of risk for anyone, celebrity or not, at any point, and whether it is worth putting on that off-hand comment, to be deleted later, or to target someone or something anonymously, carries its own risks.

I therefore use Twitter and Instagram primarily to link to my website, and to share things I like, because that is as much as I want to use it. I could decide to play the game, building social capital through likes and followers, but I think I prefer it more when that happens as a coincidence of one thing I posted about what I write elsewhere.

As everyone now has access to the media, we must not just get used to having a separate private and public face, but the management of that is now a life skill. That essentially makes it impossible to get it out of my system.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

HOW SHALL WE EXTOL THEE? [327]


On Friday 7th January, Britain’s Culture Minister, Chris Philp, said that the BBC should be played more frequently by the BBC, and by other public service broadcasters: “[the] more we hear the national anthem sung, frankly, the better.” This followed a comment the day before in the House of Commons by Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell that, with 2022 being the year of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, “will the minister take steps to encourage public broadcasters to play the national anthem and ensure the BBC restores it at the end of the day’s programming before it switches to News 24?” The minister in the Commons, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, could be heard saying “fantastic” in response.

Far from just being ridiculed in comments online, this reactionary step, in the literal sense that it is trying to return to something people used to do, is completely unenforceable: “God Save the Queen” has only been the official national anthem of the United Kingdom through tradition and use, with no law ever having been put into place, and any attempt to make it law now will, no doubt, inspire similar derision. In terms of TV channels, only BBC One and ITV – except for Thames, Granada, Central, Yorkshire and Border - have ever played the national anthem when they closed down for the night, and stopped doing so when they stopped closing down. BBC Two and Channel 4 have never played it, and Channel 5 launched with a 24-hour schedule from the start. Furthermore, BBC News 24 has been called the BBC News Channel since 2009.

My initial reaction to this non-starter was to think of “An Audience with Billy Connolly”, the 1985 stand-up special that ended by arguing that the parlous state of the country was due to the national anthem being boring, which I agree, and that it should be replaced by the theme from BBC Radio 4’s “The Archers”, with everyone singing “dum-de-da-de-dum-de-dah” instead of writing lyrics for it. The option of Simon May’s “EastEnders” theme since arisen, but far better the maypole dance of Arthur Wood’s “Barwick Green” than Eric Spear’s plodding “Coronation Street” theme. BBC Radio 4 is the one station than still closes the day by playing the national anthem, just before 1.00am each night.

Meanwhile, rearrangements of “God Save the Queen”, like Benjamin Britten’s blockbuster production, and Philip Sheppard’s arrangement for the 2012 Summer Olympics held in London, make me feel there is not much more that can be done with such a simple tune – Sheppard explained that his arrangement was designed to add tension, including an E minor chord that gave the impression the entire piece was in a minor key.

Having no official anthem means we have always had a choice. “Land of Hope and Glory”, “Jerusalem”, “Flower of Scotland”, “Scotland the Brave”, “Land of My Fathers” and “Londonderry Air” have all been used by the nations of the UK in different capacities, and despite the creation of national parliaments outside of England, none of these have become official. Another option could have been “Zadok the Priest”, written by Georg Frideric Handel for the coronation of King George II, and possibly the first national anthem, but its having been used by the UEFA Champions League since 1992 has probably ended any chances of that. The use of “Jerusalem” for England at the Commonwealth Games, however, came from a public vote held by the Commonwealth Games Council for England in 2010, polling just over half of the votes – “God Save the Queen” came third.

Personally, I would choose the second-placed song in the poll, Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, “Land of Hope and Glory”, with lyrics by Arthur C Benson. The lyrics referencing God mean about as much to me as singing about God saving the Queen, but it doesn’t matter in a song that, even more than “Rule Britannia”, must be played and sung as loud as possible. In an era where the “drop” is as important in pop music as the chorus, the approach and “drop” before the second chorus of “Land of Hope and Glory” makes me feel more patriotic for my country than anything, or anyone, can possibly do. The use of the word “hope” is also good. 

Sunday, January 9, 2022

I CUT DOWN TREES, I SKIP AND JUMP [326]


So often a shortcut definition for British humour, I needed a reminder of the revelation “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was on first viewing. Targeting the eccentricities and authorities found in British life was not new, but it was among the first comedy shows to play to an audience that grew up with television, comfortable with its bold fragmentation and abandonment of sketches, and stretching of established TV show formats. It didn’t second-guess the intelligence of its audience: an explanation of the philosopher Immanuel Kant was not required, whether he was a real pissant or not. The show’s dynamic style and form was also among the first comedy shows its audience would have seen in colour, although the first four episodes were broadcast in black and white before BBC One switched to colour in November 1969.

Despite having seen bits of the team’s later films, I knew none of this when I first saw the first episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” in July 1994, the BBC starting a repeat run to mark the show's 25th anniversary. I was eleven years old – I had seen the first series of “The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer”, but the first episode of “The Fast Show” was still two months away. I didn’t yet realise that what I was about to watch would reflect the attitudes of its time, despite that being the show’s target in 1969. I got the interview sketch about Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, Terry Jones’s composer whose nickname overshadowed his work, who is kicked off the arts programme when he complains – then John Cleese’s interviewer shouts, “get your own arts programme, you fairy.”

 

My immediate deduction from this was that the character, or the writer of that line, was scared of fairies. I had never heard the word “fairy” used in this context before, and have only heard it used in other TV and radio shows of the period, into the 1970s, and on other episodes of “Flying Circus”: when a journalist is asking the opinion of the man in the street, Terry Jones appears as on a house roof, saying, “I’m not in the street, you fairy,” while a display of an army units “camp square-bashing” chants, “we all know where you’ve been, you military fairy!”

 

Even after realising it was meant as an insult to gay men, one that appeared in the UK between the world wars after being coined, to describe particularly effeminate gay men, in the Bowery section of New York as early as the 1870s, I couldn’t take offence to something that sounded so bizarre. With homosexuality only having begun to be decriminalised in the UK in 1967, it was a current subject that appeared in “Flying Circus”, other episodes in the first series featuring a writer telling his son to go back to Yorkshire over “you and your coal mining friends”, a “Panorama” parody documentary on what makes a man want to be a mouse, and a sketch where a man, having been told by a police officer they can’t help over a lost wallet, asks the officer if he wants to go back to their place – the officer says, “yes, alright”, the audience laughs, the show carries on. Times were changing. I would love to have known Graham Chapman’s thoughts as these shows were first broadcast.


Comedy ages poorly, until it doesn’t: in September 2021, the Chinese government announced that broadcasters must "resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics,", as they are failing to encourage Chinese men to be more masculine. This limp step is apparently aimed at pop stars and internet celebrities but, as if to show how much times have changed, I haven’t heard the word “sissy” used in years either. The pejorative slang for effeminate men in China, as used by their government, was “niang pao” – seeing as that means “girlie guns” in English, that term is just begging for reappropriation by those who were called it, just like “fairy” and “sissy” were here.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

REMEMBER WHAT THE DORMOUSE SAID [325]


On Monday 27th December 2021, I watched “The Matrix Resurrections” at my local cinema, eighteen years after going there to see “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions”, and over twenty years since buying “The Matrix” on VHS cassette. Not only was “Resurrections” the film we deserved in this particular moment, but it symbolised why I have named this new year “Twenty Twenty 2: This Time It’s Personal”, before the “My Brother, My Brother and Me” podcast names it officially. 

On the surface, “Resurrections” can be viewed as a cynical sequel and reboot exercise by Warner Bros. to exploit their dormant intellectual property and catch the nostalgia of its audience, much as they did with “Space Jam: A New Legacy”, a film in which “Matrix” characters also appeared [link]. The “Matrix” of the original trilogy is portrayed as a video game, developed by Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) based on memories of himself as Neo, that Warner Bros. is also to be rebooted, either with or without the involvement of its original creator, a situation that mirrored real life before “Resurrections” entered production. Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is Tiffany, a married mother with no connection to Anderson, but was unknowingly the basis for the character. 

 

At this point, we are meant to believe this is the “real world” outside of the “story”, such as stories can be real. “Resurrections” begins with an on-screen “modal error”, referencing both the “modal” Anderson is using to test an element of a game he is programming, but also the philosophical concept of a “modal error”. Anderson’s explanation for his newly recurrent flashbacks to the events of “The Matrix” is because he is in it, but the world he is in is one where that proposition is the least attractive – it is one where the actual answer is to keep taking the blue pill, to keep him where he is. We can see where the error is, but the subject is kept in a place where they can only be wrong. It’s the kind of world where conspiracy theories work most easily, and people can spout about the system being “rigged”, because it is in their interest that the best explanation for why a proposition is possible or necessary must always have the opposite power.

 

I read a bizarre review of “Resurrections” in “The Times” newspaper on Christmas Eve 2021, describing the action as being “frequently muddy and dull,” “littering” the film with flashbacks “as if [director Lana Wachowski] has no faith in the film’s narrative power,” with a screenplay that “mistakes self-referentiality for sophistication.” What was new in the original “Matrix” trilogy has become the standard in any blockbuster film that wishes to add any level of thoughtfulness to its relentless action, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the works of Christopher Nolan. To miss the psychological and philosophical arguments over consciousness and representation of the original trilogy, then dismiss the same being done in “Resurrections” as “oddly preachy and [warning] audiences not to be ‘programmed’ by society”, is maddening, as it also skips over how audiences, with time, have become more used to more complex concepts being explored in mainstream cinema. To make a new “Matrix” film is to comment on what has happened to our representation of the world in the last eighteen years, because that is the only acceptable way to do it.

 

What begins as Neo and Trinity being recaptured in the Matrix, despite the end of “The Matrix Revolutions”, becomes crystal clear by the film’s end. Despite the peace between humanity and the machines, the Matrix was rebuilt, producing more power than ever if humans are kept running high emotionally - the fact that Facebook opened for business in 2004, the year after “Revolutions” was released, was not lost on me. Neo and Trinity were resurrected by the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) for study, finding they allow the Matrix to work most efficiently when they are kept close, but without their memories. 

 

I then remembered a certain incident on Twitter in May 2020. Elon Musk said, “take the red pill”, a major “Matrix” motif misappropriated by alt-right fascists. Ivanka Trump pipes in with, “Taken!” Lilly Wachowski, her work having been misread, replied, “Fuck both of you.” “The Matrix Resurrections” feels like a remake of that Tweet on a budget of $190 million. Its plot came from a dream Lana Wachowski had in response to the death of both her parents and a friend. Lilly Wachowski also revealed in August 2020 that the films were an allegory for being transgender, amid the sisters’ own personal journey: "I'm glad that it has gotten out... That was the original intention but the world wasn't quite ready.” I wish it had been. They may not own the intellectual property of “The Matrix”, but to make a “Matrix” film without either of its creators would be unacceptable.

 

“The Times” gave “The Matrix Resurrections” one star out of five. I will just recommend that you see it, because you will leave the cinema wanting to delete all your social media accounts to take back control – whether you follow through on that is another question.

 

I had already co-opted the tagline from “Jaws: The Revenge,” titling the new year as a sequel, “Twenty Twenty 2: This Time It’s Personal”, because it came from an anxiety that, culturally, the 2020s have not yet begun, and I need to get the decade underway for myself, so it feels like we are making progress of any sort.

 

“Cultural decades” never started on time: the 1950s only got started with rock ‘n’ roll in 1954, while Beatlemania and the Kennedy assassination began the 1960s in 1963-64. Civil unrest and the Beatles’ breakup start the 1970s pretty much at 1969-70, while the New Romantics and the rise of home computing, the fall of the Iron Curtain and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the World Trade Center attack, the Arab Spring and quality for LGBT+ people caused successive decades to begin culturally around a year or so after the calendar marked it.

 

Right now, it feels like we cannot move forward culturally, kept in a holding pattern by events that need to be resolved: the COVID-19 pandemic, the culture wars, and political deadlock. These will eventually pass, particularly when the end of the pandemic makes meeting people in person, and not through the mediation of the online realm, less of a strange experience. I have no idea what the cultural moment that properly begins the 2020s will be, but it won’t be found through social media, or through a Zoom or Microsoft Teams call. As much as you can create in isolation, or recycle what has been proved to work, that human connection will show you where to go next, and I’ve always preferred talking to someone in person.

 

Until then, it feels like we are in our own Matrix, and we are fine with it - but it all feels a bit too 2010s for me.