Open Mic

October 2011

'First Is First and Second Is Nobody': A Must-See Movie Comes to TV. Upon Its Initial Release The New York Times Called It 'Shrill and Clumsy.' My Guess Is That The Times Was Put Off by the Film's Sexuality and Violence

Chuck Ross Posted October 18, 2011 at 6:16 AM

One of my favorite channels on TV, hands down, is TCM—Turner Classic Movies. I’ve been in love with the movies since I was a little boy, and so, for me, watching TCM is like giving a kid a chance to run around in a candy shop and letting him taste all the goodies.

And, if the kid is lucky, every once in a while he’ll be able to devour the store’s piece de resistence, a Ghirardelli hot fudge sundae.

Well, if you like movies, you can gobble down that delectable sundae on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, on TCM.

Starting at 8 p.m. (ET, check local listings for other time zones), TCM will present, uncut and uninterrupted (as always) movies filmed by the cinematographer John Alton. All the films they are showing by this master artist are worth recording, but I want to talk about the film TCM is leading off with at 8 p.m., “The Big Combo.” It’s a major must-see.

[Editor's Note: Now that Oct 19, 2011 has passed, one can keep a look out as to when "The Big Combo" will play again on TCM--its does play periodically. Also, the film is available to rent at Netfilx or to be bought at Amazon.com.]

There are many film buffs—myself among them—who consider “The Big Combo,” made in 1954 and released in 1955, one of the best film noirs ever made.

There are many definitions of film noir. The popular movie critic Roger Ebert has written a list of what makes a movie a film noir. Here are two of the characteristics on Ebert’s list. First, he notes that film noir is “a French term meaning 'black film,' or film of the night, inspired by the Series Noir, a line of cheap paperbacks that translated hard-boiled American crime authors and found a popular audience in France.”

Another characteristic of film noir, Ebert notes, is that it’s “the most American film genre, because no society could have created a world so filled with doom, fate, fear and betrayal, unless it were essentially naive and optimistic.”

Another film critic, David Thompson, has said of cinematographer John Alton that “in the space of a few years he helped create the look of film noir.” Most of those films were in collaboration with director Anthony Mann in the late 1940s.

But then, in the mid-1950s, Alton hooked up with B-movie master Joseph H. Lewis to create, in my opinion, the best movie both men ever made, “The Big Combo.” Lewis directed a script by Philip Yordan.

The main protagonist of the film is a character played by Cornel Wilde, police detective Leonard Diamond. Diamond is obsessed with bringing down crime kingpin Mr. Brown, played by film noir favorite Richard (Nick) Conte.

[And it's not by coincidence that Quentin Tarantino named one of his main characters in "Reservoir Dogs" Mr. Brown.]

Brown’s main squeeze is debutante turned gun moll Susan Lowell, who is played by Wilde’s real-life wife at the time, Jean Wallace. And oh yeah, Diamond (Wilde’s character) is also obsessed with Lowell.

Filling out the primary cast of characters are Brown’s three henchmen, Mingo (Earl Holliman) and Fante (Lee Van Cleef) who also appear to be lovers, and the partially deaf McClure, a Mr. Brown wannabe, who is played by Brian Donlevy.

“The Big Combo” has all the usual elements of great film noirs: It’s stunningly photographed in shadows and dark by Alton, plus it’s raw, gritty and violent.

But there’s something else as well. As Carl Macek writes in the book “Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style," “There is a sense of fatalism and perverse sexuality in 'The Big Combo' that exists in few noir films. The relationship between Susan Lowell and Mr. Brown is a blending of fatalistic deference combined with a feeling of raw sexual abandon. Brown adores Susan’s body.”

Here’s how the writer Shelia O’Malley describes it in a blog entry: “Susan used to be a society girl, and something of a prodigy at the piano, but she has given all that up, and thrown in her lot with her gangster boyfriend, much to the bafflement of the world she has left behind. Why would she leave polite society and hang around with this thug? Ahhhh, but that’s because Susan is obsessed with something, too: the kind of sex she has with her gangster boyfriend. It’s dirty, it’s passionate, it’s fierce.”

O’Malley then quotes an interview "The Big Combo's" director, Lewis--who died in 2000--once gave journalist and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich:

“I actually wanted to show – again by impression only – a man making love to a girl in this delightfully unique fashion that we have all dreamt about or experienced. Now, how do you show it on film? Well, I had an idea: as you saw the two of them, mixed with kissing her on the lips and then on the ear, the camera moved closer and closer and closer and, as you came into a huge closeup of Nick Conte and Jean Wallace, gradually Nick’s head disappeared: first kissing her neck, then lower and lower and then, at the precise moment, Jean, who was icy – I think she was afraid to betray herself for fear Cornel [her husband in real life] would raise hell with her – but at that precise moment I envisioned, I went ‘uh-uh-uh’ off-scene, and that was recorded. Cornel never forgave me for it.”

O’Malley continues, “The scene is as graphic as you can get, even more so because you don’t see it actually happen. You don’t need to.”

She adds, “Joseph Lewis got in trouble with the censors because of it. ... Lewis told Bogdanovich that one of the censors said to him angrily, ‘I can’t believe you have put this filth into the movie of a man going down on a woman.’ Lewis protested innocence. ‘That is entirely your projection. I didn’t show it. You have supplied all of the emotion of the scene, as an audience is supposed to do. So don’t tell me I’m a filthy director.’ The scene stayed.”

Sex and violence. A mainstay of American B-movies in the mid-1940s through the mid-1950s.
Calling “The Big Combo” a “wholly defined film noir,” writer Macek of the “Film Noir” reference book continues, “[T]he striking contrasts between [John Alton’s] black and white photography and [director] Lewis’s sexual overtones isolate ‘The Big Combo’s’ characters in a dark, insular universe of unspoken repression and graphic violence.”

Much of mainstream media at the time dismissed many film noirs—for example, The New York Times review of “The Big Combo” when it was released said that it “isn’t very big or good. … [It’s] a shrill, clumsy and rather old-fashioned crime melodrama with all hands pulling in opposite directions.” The review continues, “Philip Yordan, the scenarist … and director Joseph Lewis share responsibility for the open-throttle monotonous serving of mayhem.”

Of course as American movies grew up, sex and violence and this mayhem, once stalwarts of low-budget B-movies, gradually became staples of A-pictures, culminating, in the 1970s, with movies such as Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpieces “The Godfather” and “The Godfather, Part II.”

Oprah Knows the False Power of Ego. But Can She Recognize Its Latest Implication for Her Professional Life?

Chuck Ross Posted October 10, 2011 at 8:06 AM

It’s the "CBS Evening News," and it’s eerily familiar. The lead story is about Mitt Romney and his run for the Republican nomination for President of the United States

The newscaster then intones, “Also tonight, a wallet full of worries. Wall Street drops sharply after government reports raise new fears of a recession and inflation.”

Yet a third story in the newscast is “America`s biggest bank posts its biggest loss ever.”

The date of this newscast I’m quoting is Jan. 15, 2008. There’s also a short item in that news broadcast announcing that Oprah Winfrey and Discovery Communications have formed a joint venture called the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Just three days earlier, the 11th episode of a new series, “iCarly,” had debuted on Nickelodeon, and the series looked like it was going to become another hit for that network.

Just 13 days after that newscast, “In Treatment” debuted on HBO.

In three months from now, it will be the four-year anniversary of the announcement of OWN. “iCarly” has indeed been a huge hit, and “In Treatment,” winner of two Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Peabody, is no longer on-air.

Hundreds of other TV shows have been on the airwaves in the intervening years as well.

But it’s only tonight--Oct. 10, 2011--we were told last week in a conference call with reporters by Rosie O’Donnell, that OWN begins “its actual, real launch.”

“It was sort of a soft launch in January, and now we begin again,” O’Donnell explained.

The two shows that debut tonight are Rosie’s new talk show and “Oprah’s Lifeclass.”

The latter will see Oprah dip into her treasure trove of some 4,000 plus syndicated “Oprah Winfrey” episodes to illustrate, in Oprah’s own words, “The best of what I’ve learned and the best of what I want to share.”

Tonight’s first “lesson” on her “Lifeclass” is “The false power of ego.”

Hmm.

I like Oprah. What she accomplished during the 25-year run of her syndicated show is nothing short of extraordinary.

Entertainment Weekly’s estimable TV critic, Ken Tucker, had it right when he wrote this past May that Oprah “didn’t have to use [Phil] Donahue or any other talk-show host as her model, or rebel against those models. All she had to do was understand herself (that is, figure out what it was she wanted from life and trust that those desires were also what millions of other Americans wanted too) and then be herself. And being herself on camera is one of the greatest talents Winfrey possesses; she’s right up near the top of naturals when the red light goes on; Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite were her equals, not her superiors.”

Tucker continued, “There had never been anyone on TV like Winfrey before: a woman whose body shape didn’t conform to conventional notions of TV-personality attractiveness. A black woman whose interests, ideas, and curiosity cut across racial lines to appeal to the widest possible range of demographics. A star who pulled off a contradiction that is always at the heart of American stardom: being wealthy, powerful, and willful while coming through the TV screen as frequently humbled and always in touch with ordinary citizens’ lives and needs.”

I was thinking about Oprah and OWN last week when another iconic American, Steve Jobs, passed away.

The national and international outpouring of praise for Jobs’ accomplishments was spontaneous and well-deserved. What an incredible story, what an incredible life.

One of Jobs' life lessons for the rest of us is not to fear failure. On the path to innovation and changing our world, Jobs and Apple had their share of failures. To name a few, as recounted last week at the FrumForum:

“[T]he Apple III computer–the first PC built by Apple from the bottom up rather than as a hobbyist project–was so poorly designed that the company advised owners to pick it up and drop it a few inches whenever it stopped working. The Lisa, a personal computer that, if fully equipped, would have cost almost $20,000 in today’s money, sold very poorly (no surprise) and lost a bundle for Apple. Early Macintosh computers were slow, balky, lacked the color graphics that even the Commodore Vic-20 had, and broke far too often.”

There have been other notable failures by Apple and, sometimes separately, by Jobs—such as the Newton and the NeXT computer.

But Jobs was never afraid to say, after a time, that these products did not work in the marketplace, and he moved on.

At some point perhaps Oprah needs to say that running a network is not her forte.

And maybe that time is sooner than later.

Despite whatever hype one wants to attach to tonight’s “actual, real launch” of OWN, the truth of the matter is that OWN was announced almost four years ago.

Look around. Since that time Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Snooki have become part of the Zeitgeist, as have the Droid, the iPad and the movie “Avatar.”

On TV since that time we’ve had “The Good Wife,” “Modern Family” and “True Blood.”

And on OWN we’ve gotten … well, I don’t know about you, but I liked that behind-the-scenes series about Oprah’s last season of her syndicated show a lot.

OWN replaced Discovery Health, and the idea was that it would be a more popular destination for viewers.

According to the New York Post last week, “So far, OWN’s ratings are trailing those of predecessor Discovery Health. In the third quarter, OWN drew 15 percent fewer women ages 25 to 54 years old -- the target category for advertisers -- compared to last year, according to Nielsen figures."

The Post also noted, “Discovery needs OWN to be successful, as it has spent more than $200 million to fund the channel and has sold major marketers such as Procter & Gamble on multiyear ad deals.”

$200 million? Oh my. If I were a Discovery stockholder I’d be more than a little pissed.

Look, Rosie’s talk show will probably be fine. She did an outstanding job during the first iteration of her talk show, and she really understands pop culture. But Rosie certainly did not need Oprah or OWN to return to TV.

And “Oprah’s Lifeclass” is Oprah doing one of the things she does best--getting in-touch with her inner teacher. It’s a role in which she feels comfortable and in which she excels.

But that’s a program. It’s not a network.

Back in May I wrote the following:

There are a lot of ways to encourage people to live their best lives without the sledgehammer approach that too many OWN programs mostly use now.

First of all, show some movies such as “Sullivan’s Travels” on OWN. What Oprah did with her book club is the stuff of legends. And legions of Oprah’s fans will tune into Oprah herself presenting “Oprah’s Must-See Movie Classics” on OWN on Friday nights, presented uncut and with no commercials by Dove or Target or P&G or one of OWN’s other premier sponsors. Oprah will bookend the beginning and ending of the screenings with her comments, a la TCM’s Robert Osborne.

And OWN has got to get into scripted programming, no doubt about it.

Oprah loves the TV shows with which she grew up. OWN needs to have its audience--and a bigger audience than it gets now--love its shows as well.

Let’s develop a signature drama. How about one we’d call “Daring to Dream.” It’s set in Baltimore, circa 1964. An African American tween, originally from the South, is watching “The Ed Sullivan Show” one Sunday night and sees Diana Ross and the Supremes perform. The performance captures her imagination and she decides she wants to follow in Ross’ footsteps. First stop--trying to get on the local dance show on TV. This drama--with music--would be from Warner Bros. and executive producers John Waters and Oprah Winfrey.

I then made suggestions for other shows. You can read about them if you click here.

Then I wrote:

Oprah now has the time to devote to the network with her name on it. Let’s hope that she and OWN’s new president, Peter Liguori, see how great OWN can really become. To do so they don’t have to re-invent TV, but they do need to take the road somewhat less traveled, and mix both fiction and non-fiction programming. If they do that, they have a good chance to develop a network that picks up where Oprah's talk show left off, making a difference in people’s lives.

To be honest, I’m having second thoughts. Since that time OWN has hired Susanne Daniels to help with the network’s programming.

Daniels has got a terrific pedigree, having been an ace programmer for Lifetime and, before that, the WB.

But I’m beginning to think that the problem is Oprah. As those of us know who are big fans of the behind-the-scenes series about Oprah’s last season of syndicated programs, it’s clear that Oprah is running the show. Yes, there were hundreds of people at Harpo working hard to make sure each show was prepared to a fare-thee-well, but when all was said and done, whether each episode of her syndicated show succeeded or not was on Oprah’s shoulders.

And, as Jobs was clearly the driver of the products Apple produced--regardless whether a particular product was actually his idea--so, clearly, Oprah wants to be the driver of what’s on OWN.

But not everyone is a great TV programmer. Brandon Tartikoff was a great TV programmer. Fred Silverman is justifiably legendary. Les Moonves is a great TV programmer.

Even as clearly busy as Oprah has been over the past four years, if she were a great TV programmer--or really wanted to be one--we’d be getting much better programming on OWN today.

Oprah admitted the challenge of OWN when she told Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg last month in an interview that OWN is “a lot harder than I ever imagined. If anybody asks you if you want a network, think about that.”

It’s time Oprah took a page from Steve Jobs’ playbook. She needs to move on to her next great thing.

Oprah knew when it was time to pull the plug on her syndicated talk show. Her next “ah-ha” moment, I hope, is the realization that her time is far better spent being the great TV interviewer and teacher that she is rather than trying to be the great TV network programmer that she is not.

Indeed, as Oprah will say in her "Lifeclass" tonight, “beware the false power of ego.”

Attention Marketers: Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Customers, But What Your Customers Can Do for You. Secrets of Social Media Strategy from Harvard Square. 'What Would Zynga Do?'

Chuck Ross Posted October 6, 2011 at 9:11 AM

Where are your customers today? With more than 800 million users, Facebook is a good place to find a chunk of them.

In fact, says Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, an associate professor of business administration at the Havard Business School, if you add up all the people who use social platforms online, it tops the number of folks who have email by about 200 million.

Dunno if I totally buy that, but OK, we get the point.

Next, Piskorski clues us into what most of us are doing on Facebook. We’re stalking people, he says.

About 35% of us spend our time with profiles and people we know. Another 35% of our time is spent with profiles and people we don’t actually know.

Another 9% of our time on Facebook is spent monkeying with our own profiles.

Add to that 8% of our time adding content and photos.

And that same amount of time spent adding or deleting friends.

Doing all of this adds up to a whooping 95% of what we do on Facebook.

So Mr. and Ms. Marketer, Piskorski says, when you try traditional advertising on Facebook, no wonder so few people click on your ad.

No wonder that when you build a page on Facebook promoting your product or service, so few people come to it.

We’re not interested. We’re too busy with ourselves and our friends (and stalking those who are our friend’s friends).

The problem, Piskorski says, is that you’ve likely got some digital media strategy in place, but you don’t really have a workable social media strategy.

I learned all of this at the annual conference that’s a must-attend for the marketing brethren in the cable TV industry. For years it was called the CTAM Summit. This year its name is The CTAM in New York Conference.

Last year I noted that this conference is the smartest one we attend all year.

And so it is again this year. What Char Beals and her CTAM team are able to accomplish, seemingly routinely, is the presentation of thinking that’s outside the bun. This flows from the top—Char is almost an obsessively forward thinker. A good executive is one who wants to implement best practices. A great one is always searching for what will be the next best practice. That’s Char.

Not to leave you hanging, let’s get back to how Professor Piskorski says marketers can develop a workable social media strategy.

First, he instructs that marketers need to adopt the mantra “What would Zynga do?”

Zynga is the wildly successful game developer that has given us the social network games FarmVille and its even more popular successor, CityVille.

The key point about the Zynga games is how they encourage people to cooperate and communicate with each other.

That’s the “bingo” moment, the Oprah “ah-ha.” Ask not what you can do for your customers, but what they can do for you.

And, oddly enough, the key word of the new social strategy is exactly the same as the key word in any really successful sales strategy throughout history: relationships!

You want to develop closer relationships with your customers and potential customers who are on Facebook. Then, think of a clever way (ah, there’s the rub) for your customers to help you increase sales or awareness (or whatever your goal is) by becoming more involved with their friends. In other words, if you can get your customers to strengthen THEIR relationships with their friends—which they want to do—in a way that also helps you meet your goal, you're golden. And you’re getting your customers to do this for you for free to boot!

Piskorski then connects the dots to some real-life marketing examples.

One is an application on eBay called Group Gifts. As Piskorski explains it, one uses one’s Facebook info to sign up for Group Gifts, which then also loads into Group Gifts all your Facebook friends. You then decide for which friend you want to get a gift.

In the example Piskorski gives, he decides to give one of his Facebook friends---his sister--an iPad for her birthday. He decides how much he wants to contribute to the gift and Group Gift then asks his Facebook friends how much they want to contribute to the gift. The rest of the work in actually purchasing the gift and getting it to the recipient is done through Group Gift as well.

The service has been a boon to eBay. The price of an average gift is five times the average eBay sale. The cost to eBay—nothing—just the connection to Facebook.

Another example Piskorski gives is American Express, which offers its customers such deals as going to the Whole Foods site and spend $20 they’ll get $5 back. Amex then invites its customers to post this same offer on their Facebook pages.

In both examples, Piskorski says the key is getting your customers to interact with each other and helping people to commit to one another. In the process, you can get them to do something for you.

Basically, what you want to do is figure out something that’s unique about your product and then find a way to use that uniqueness as a way to encourage people to somehow get together.

OK. Mr. and Ms. Marketer, there you have it. And you didn’t have to attend CTAM to find this out.

But what I’m not divulging here are the other great marketing tips myself and my fellow CTAM attendees are learning this week.

So next October, when the CTAM annual conference hits Orlando, make it your business to attend. I get no money for plugging this.

What I do get from CTAM is a swelled head...from the new knowledge with which I’m getting bombarded. And that’s a good thing. #