Breaking News

Hashtag News

Hashtag News

The 24/7 news cycle ramped up through social media is one of the BEST things to happen to society in recent decades. Don’t believe that?  Then you’re not paying attention.

Twitter, Facebook or  (fill in platform of choice) enables information to be dispensed to massive numbers of people in mere moments.  Television stations like MSNBC (my addiction), CNN (no one’s real addiction) and Fox News (unfortunately, too many people’s addiction) are forced to cover and convey information on stories way beyond the mere half hour networks used to devote to their nightly news broadcasts.  People in general are engaged and MORE informed (no, the more is not a typo) on world issues than they ever have been at any time in history, partly because they can’t help but not be.

PLUS – two terrorists were brought down within days after blowing up hundreds of people at the annual Boston Marathon (3 dead, scores of others with severed limbs) in part due to the massive dissemination of information through these means.

Busted through broadband

Busted through broadband

That would be information on a story you wanted to know about but, after a bit, also wanted to turn away from.   Except nowadays you don’t have a choice.  You can’t. Every time you turn around someone is telling you something you don’t necessarily want to know.  But probably should.

We can never be sure how much television news and social media contributed to that key person in Watertown, MA being so acutely aware so continuously of this massive manhunt that they couldn’t help but notice that there was blood on the tarp of the boat behind their house – a boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19 year old bombing suspect was hiding after managing to escape from the police showdown where his 26 year old accused fellow terrorist brother Tamerlan was killed (some say by the car Dzhokhar was speeding away with).

But what we do know is this:

In the world of police work and reportage one clue leads to another, information begets information, and it is the piecing together of all the facts by dogged reporters and investigators that in turn leads to the solution of a case and the satisfactory completion of a story. 

There is no telling what the alternative ending would be if you removed any of the steps along the way that led the person to go behind the house, and check out the boat, and notice the blood, and look further in to see the guy moving in the boat, and walk back out without going further to call the police at the number that was posted everywhere you looked, to tell them about the things that they saw before the guy had enough time to regroup and flee.  If there were a way to predict such things, Back to The Future, a film that cautions against playing with the sequence of events that have already occurred, would not still be a perennial piece of movie wonderment that held any meaning at all among my young twenty something students (and, I can assure you, it still is).

Twitter as the new flux capacitor

Twitter as the new flux capacitor

Why is it then that much of what I heard in my informal survey during the last week were endless complaints of the sensationalizing of a situation on TV that couldn’t get any more sensational, of the news gone amuck, and of a society that was being encouraged to fixate on this latest unfortunate event of world terrorism the United States was currently enduring instead of fixating on…. well, what I’m not sure.

Of course, I have NO IDEA why people incessantly posted on sites that the 24/7 news cycle is trying and taxing and sensationalistic.  This IS life.  This IS what the world is about now.  This IS the connection technology has wrought – for both good and bad.

Perhaps I’m wondering aloud now but here’s a question to ask ourselves — what should television instead be showing? More episodes of Ready for Love  (cancelled after just two) or The Bachelor (which, like Celine’s heart, will go on and on and on) — is that what we’re missing?  What SHOULD be broadcast instead of 24/7 news?  How many more game shows? Soap operas?  Local news about the weather or perhaps chance of bad weather?  Or maybe a 24/7 obsessional show about bad weather (Intervention: Doppler Edition?).  Maybe more reruns of I Love Lucy or Cheers or The Cosby Show?  Or Friends?  Maybe more Dr. Phil?  How about an extra episode of Smash? (Yes, it’s still on).  I mean, I do love Mad Men, but the current number of episodes on the air (all 10,000 of them, including reruns) is just right, thank you very much.

Though I would be in full support of all day re-airings of episodes of Baggage. (petition to bring back the show on next week's post)

Though I would be in full support of all day re-airings of episodes of Baggage. (petition to bring back the show on next week’s post)

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not even close to saying that the cable news stations or their network counterparts are getting it right all of the time or are necessarily in it to make the world a better place.  You couldn’t possibly think that when you see something like this on CNN right after the terrorist face off:

The only thing Zooey likes about this... is being mistaken for 19

The only thing Zooey likes about this: being mistaken for 19

No, our New Girl had nothing to do with this.  The best anyone can figure is that the computer auto correct of Dzhokhar is Zooey.  Also, Zooey has forgiven them.  And if you want to know how I know it’s because Joel McHale from Community and The Soup tweeted it to Ms. D via Twitter and she tweeted back and those tweets were both run on a website I frequent and all of it was then reposted on Facebook by my most intimate of Facebook friends, who never lies to me about such stuff.  So there!!

But if the Zooey mishap and too many human interest stories related to major crime scenes that seem neither particularly human or even very interesting is the price to pay for being that much more aware of the world around us, I say we should keep ponying up.  See – the networks have realized even before us that breaking news is not only much cheaper to produce than fictionalized drama but that it is inherently more….dramatic.  Even better, technology has enabled them to present it in a way that is not dissimilar to a fast-moving hour procedural drama, albeit over an eight-hour period of time.

Yeah, I'm looking at your Caruso.

Yeah, I’m looking at you, Caruso.

Here’s what I got watching television all day Friday:

A major American city on lockdown.  A fugitive at large who might have a bomb (or two or three) in one of the most densely populated areas in the US.  Not enough clues to figure out what happened and a metropolitan dragnet and cast of characters better than any of the ones in any of the 23,432 Batman movies.  Jigsaw puzzle pieces of info on the shooters, the victims and the families of each and endless speculation of too many talking heads about all of it (really a show all on its own).

Then suddenly at the all is lost point at the end of act two, (screenwriters will best understand this), right on cue we get new gunshots fired in Watertown, MA. They think they have the shooter surrounded. Wait!  Weren’t we just told live by the police chief that it was more than possible the suspect had fled the area and that you couldn’t keep the entire city locked indoors any longer?  Well, maybe that was a ruse to smoke the guy out?  Or perhaps it wasn’t and time was just running out?  Oh, who cares.  This is real life. Not TV drama. (Or is it?)  Wait, now there’s spontaneous cheering from a crowd on the streets.   Then a firefight around a boat behind a house.  Followed by a lot of silence.  Followed by reports of a suspect bleeding.  Or not.  Then reports of a fire, which could be from the shots.  Then background on a woman who reported blood on the boat in the back of her driveway which, thanks to Google maps, we can see a visual of as we get reports that the bleeding suspect has been apprehended and now is in police custody.  To which we then hear thunderous rounds of applause from hundreds and then thousands of people gathering around on the streets of Boston to thank law enforcement.  A spontaneous show of affection that many on the air are saying is a first.  Or at least the first in a while.  Cue end of scene and end of story.  At least for now.

Freddie said it best: Is this real life or is this fantasy?

Freddie said it best: Is this real life or is this fantasy?

Since this took place over the approximately 8 hours I was watching television, I suppose I could be making this seem more exciting than it was in real 24/7 news time.  But if you want to live in the real world and see how real life happens this is it.  The reporting of stories is not what it is in the movies or on series television.  Neither is police work.  It happens in actual time and it doesn’t have three or five or seven act structure that will induce you to stay tuned in through the commercials or network IDs.

My time in journalism school and my early years as a reporter taught me that working on a story can be almost as slow and tedious as the “hurry up and wait” feeling you get being on a movie set that I experienced as a screenwriter – only 12 times as frustrating.  This is because eventually the scene you are waiting for on a movie set will be filmed.  Yet there is no guarantee or even likelihood a story will ever get written or aired if it doesn’t pan out.  And most times they don’t.  Except when they’re newsworthy.  That means that eventually….some do.  One way or the other.  And living in 2013 we are all lucky enough to be there watching it live.  If we so choose.

There are lousy journalists and great journalists.  That’s what we’re getting.  And we’re really, really fortunate to get it.  If we don’t like what we’re getting – we can TURN. IT. OFF.  But we have to stop complaining.  That includes you and me too – because given another particular issue – I’m no better than anyone else.

As a public, we’re already amped up.  The news doesn’t make it worse.  Information is power.  The lack of it is when we get in trouble and the bad guys win.  Or worse – take over when our backs are turned and we’re not paying attention.

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Storykillers

Norman's next victim

Most of us like a really good story in real life and in the movies.  So why is it so tough these days to find a really good story in the movies while we are surrounded by too many good stories in real life?

Before we go any further let’s be clear – by good we’re not necessarily talking about cheery, happy or life affirming.  A GOOD story is a story that grabs you and doesn’t let go; that affects you emotionally and perhaps makes you cry; that makes you bust a gut laughing (no small feat) or perhaps merely amuses you in ways that make you pleased.  For example, The Arab Spring contained many, many good emotional and affecting stories while the output of a filmmaker like Michael Bay (because he’s so easy to pick on and rich and famous) doesn’t.  A screening of Adam Sandler’s performance in “Jack and Jill” has negative 24 belly laughs and doesn’t help tell a good story while watching Jon Stewart (yes, I know he isn’t a film or filmmaker but tough) skewer Sarah Palin’s recent performance on “Today” has more than a few chuckles and tells a very good but certainly not life-affirming story.

Click for full video

I suppose any or all of the stories or sub-stories contained in these films or a Jon Stewart monologue could ultimately be life affirming, cheery or happy.  But if there are only one of those and no more it is more than likely that by our (my?) definition, it is not a good story.

Confused?  Me too.  And so are today’s story makers.  There is a lot of disagreement in the ranks about what constitutes good storytelling in 2012, especially in film.  For example, I have actually heard more than a few filmmakers say recently that story is just one of many tools to be used in narrative film (their words, not mine) and that many good movies these days don’t really need much plot or story to work at all.  Really?  Go back in time and tell that to Charlie Chaplin, Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder or Francois Truffaut, just to name a few.  Or perhaps stay on this plane of humanity and ring up Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson and Chris Nolan, and have a talk with them about it.  Better yet (and because I doubt any of them has a hell mouth into the past or any of their phone numbers) – perhaps it would be worth it to sit down and watch some of their work and tell us – is there not a good story at work there?  I mean, even “Tree of Life” has a story (Yeah, it does) whether you liked it or not.  (And no, I am not going to endorse it, explain it or intensely dislike it so you can easily categorize me as the old-fashioned artistic philistine that I know you may be dying to do).

The fact is too many would be hipsters, especially in movies (and in life) today are overly interested in breaking the rules or taking advantage of the changing faces of technology in the digital age and not interested enough in truly understanding the very, very simple tenets of drama.  In figuring out what, if anything, they actually have to say that’s worth watching, or even listening to and executing it in a way that tells a really good story.

Almost dry.... sigh.

As a writing teacher, if I have to try to interpret one more fractured narrative from students who don’t want to think a story through ,I’m going to scream.  On the other hand – I greatly admire those who actually take the time to develop a story and a reason for telling a story out of order and will run right towards that project quicker than I run away from phony morning show hosts from small Alaskan towns who work in NY one year and brand it as the home of “lamestream” media the next.  But I digress.

And that IS the point.  Digression, that is.   Let’s get it out there –

There is nothing wrong with beginnings, middle and endings.  That means out of order, in order or somewhere in between.  There is also nothing to be ashamed of if you are a writer who likes a story where there is a main character, conflict and an ending of some kind, or maybe a group of main characters who each make their way through 3 or 4 or 5 smaller somethings.  Only – please —  take me somewhere.  Although not to Sofia Coppola’s last movie “Somewhere” because that truly was a movie to nowhere and exactly the kind of film I’m talking about. (Yes, I liked “Lost In Translation” and “Virgin Suicides”).  Sofia (and you)-  don’t hold my hand through a film – I’m over 13 (at least chronologically).  But when you bring me into a candy store and ply me with samples don’t tell me when I want to buy a few boxes of something that you’re out of chocolates.  I get really, really upset and likely will search the web for the latest episode of my guilty pleasure TV, play a round of my favorite video game (well, not me – but someone else will) or even consider reading a book or tablet or….wait for it…simply start talking to a person live in real time rather than giving anything else you have to say in the future another chance.

A still from "Somewhere." Or a picture of me watching it.

The obviousness of “300” or “The Hunger Games” is one thing.  But watching a plethora of the out of order scenes that were “J Edgar” last year made me wonder how the story of one of the most compelling and aberrant figures of 20th century America could be rendered so deadly dull and muddled.  There are many good stories to be told about his life but in trying to “hip up” the overall storytelling the filmmakers forgot one thing – the overall story.

At this point most of us don’t expect technologically driven films to get too deep and complicated.  But isn’t that too easy?  Why can’t “Avatar” have real three-dimensional characters with subtext in addition to images highlighted with endless backgrounds and foregrounds?  I don’t need Errol Flynn, Bruce Willis or even Sigourney Weaver to kill aliens.  But don’t make me watch a lazy film story like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and – when audience and critics bring up confusing plot holes or its lack of commitment to an ending or point of view – cop out by claiming that it’s all about what’s “not there” and that the story is open to interpretation.  Obviously, all good stories are open to interpretation – as is everything else in life.  That’s what we human beings (and chairs) do all day – interpret actions, reactions and as ourselves act accordingly.

Something's wrong with these glasses... I don't see anything.

If this feels like a diatribe, well – I suppose it is.  But as the modes of delivery of stories change so do the structure of the way most stories are told.  As they have through time.  Except, except — narrative stories are still about character and action and conflict.  There is nothing wrong with a story whose ending is open to interpretation (watch “Blow Up”) but there is something afoot when the entire story feels just as confusing as the ending and you finish it up not really knowing or caring about most anyone or anything you’ve just seen.   Yes, I’m talking to you “Hunger Games” and also to __________________  (fill in the blank with the disappointing films of your choice in the last few years).

A bit too in-sync.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m an indie film kind of chair.  When “Back to the Future” came out (and please don’t hate me for this) I was a young writer and unabashedly kept telling people that it just felt like “a bunch of scenes on index cards that were perfectly shuffled together.” (Needless to say, that didn’t win me many Hollywood friends in the eighties).  For me, it was “too perfect.”  But I do also want to occasionally be thrown a bone.  Film stories as diverse of Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards,” Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” have really, really strong characters and stories and gut busting humor (well, to me anyway), as well as unforgettable images.

Certainly, it’s unrealistic to expect every film to hit those storytelling heights.  But it would be nice to think that the storytellers are at least trying to do so.  And that audiences are vocal enough, with both their words and dollars, to demand it.