We Shade to Grey: my Sunday Business Post column, 8th February 2015

Truly, it is the love that dares not speak its name. People might not have been discussing it in their more hipster gatherings or at elegant dinner parties (in fact if the subject comes up, they’ll loudly decry their interest), but all around the country women have been slipping away to block-book tickets to see Fifty Shades of Grey, the film adaptation of EL James’s S&M global erotic romance smash, starring Irish actor Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson, which emerges, with deliberately cutesy timing, on Valentine’s weekend.
Speaking to one cinema owner before Christmas, he expressed doubt about how well Fifty Shades of Grey would do in Ireland, unsure if the book’s success would translate into bums on seats. But recent advance bookings have proved that the interest is there: the trailer has become the most viewed in movie history, and women are snapping up tickets at a rate of knots.
But that’s the deal with Fifty Shades of Grey. Everybody loudly condemns it, and then they download it onto their Kindles, sneak away with it on holidays or purloin their friends’ copies of the book. I used to own Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s long gone, disappeared through a chain of people who “wouldn’t read that rubbish”, but nonetheless asked if they could borrow it. One of the reasons for the novel’s initial ascent into mainstream popularity – leaving aside EL James’s mind-boggling feat of welding S&M to the type of sugary dialogue you’d find in a Sweet Valley High novel – was the fact that it could be bought on a Kindle, so no one could see you reading it. When it became mainstream fodder, Fifty Shades became acceptable to buy in shops, on the grounds that everyone else was buying it. But it still came pre-loaded with a sense of mortification, which continues to linger around the film.
Would you want to be spotted going to Fifty Shades of Grey? Let’s face it, it’s not like telling people you’re off to watch Birdman. I’m going to a reviewers’ screening soon, so I can justify the entire thing on the grounds that it’s for work. While I’m happy to go to the cinema on my own ordinarily, there’s no way I’d venture to Fifty Shades solo. I’m not sure I’d see it with a date either: you’d want to be pretty comfortable with your beloved to sit through those Red Room of Pain bondage scenes. (Advance word has it that a full fifth of the film’s running time is given over to sex scenes.)
But I am curious about it. So I can understand the reports that there have been 80 per cent block advance bookings for the film by women – they want to see the film, but they’re embarrassed, and there’s strength in numbers. “Will we go for a laugh?” they’ll say to each other, and “the laugh” will be justification enough.
Still, even as a guilty pleasure, the movie has to justify their time, and advance details to date don’t look inspiring. It has an odd choice of director: Sam Taylor-Johnson, best known for her work as a visual artist. The previous lead actor backed out of the project, leaving Jamie Dornan to step up. Some scenes have had to be reshot on the grounds that they weren’t “sexy enough”. In the trailers I’ve seen, Johnson looks to be massively overacting, coming over like Kristen Stewart in Twilight times 100 (a terrifying proposition).
Much of the problem stems from a confusion around the book’s success: no one suspected it would become such a hit – and people still aren’t sure exactly why it has been. In recent interviews, Dornan has sounded uncertain about the project, and he’s right to be. There’s a lot riding on this film, his career included.
Could it become the biggest turkey in history? Will it be a smash hit? Either way, expect illegal downloading of the movie to be rife – after all, if you’re going to watch a film in the privacy of your own home, with no one else to see you, Fifty Shades is a perfect choice.

Our so-called lives (my Artistic Licence column, SBP, Feb 1, 2015)

A few weeks ago, yet another new trend started on Facebook. Like last August’s ice-bucket challenge, but without the charity incentive, friends started daring each other to share their first profile pictures on Facebook, the ones they had posted up as far back as 2005, or whenever they first joined Facebook. Much amusement ensued as Facebook users posted up pictures of themselves from a decade or so back – younger versions sporting dodgy haircuts or accompanied by even dodgier ex-boyfriends. Everyone laughed (or LOLed, if you prefer). It was cute.

But looking at all the younger, fresher faces, I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a key difference between the old faces and the new, that had nothing to do with the age gaps involved. Back then, when Facebook first became a thing in Ireland, it felt like we weren’t all so concerned about how we appeared to each other on the site. We weren’t as self-conscious. We weren’t keeping up with the Joneses. We weren’t toting selfie sticks. We weren’t building social media empires. We were just ourselves, in internet format: lumps, bumps, bad fashion and all.

These days, Facebook is an entirely different beast. Around Christmas time, I was having a chat in the pub with a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. “How are you getting on?” he enquired. “Or do I even need to ask – every time I see a picture of you on Facebook or Twitter, you’re doing so great.” I was a little taken aback. Actually, 2014 had been a tough year. But would I have admitted that on Facebook? Would I hell.

Almost without realising it, I had become complicit in a kind of Facebook fraud, selectively editing my life for social media. In fact, when I thought back on it, it struck me that if my year had been better, my Facebook profile would have been less, well, incredibly happy looking. I wouldn’t have felt the need to bother.

Like an awful lot of people these days, my Facebook profile is something of a front. Sure, all the pictures on it are real. But it’s a selective truth, about as representative of my day-to-day life as a glitzy, big-budget MTV video is representative of a musician’s life. I don’t put up pictures of the bad days, the down moments. And here’s the thing – neither does almost anyone else.

If I want to see my friends getting engaged, crossing the line in marathons, getting their degrees, dancing at festivals, I’ll go onto Facebook. But if I’m going to find out about the pain behind their eyes – the truth about how their husband had an affair, or how their mum has been diagnosed with cancer – I’m going to hear it in a pub or a coffee shop, in intimate moments, not on social media. (The few people willing to post messages about life traumas remain exceptions to the rule.)

Facebook itself is a kind of fraud. It promises you friendship with others. But it’s a friendship that prompts you to share a kind of happiness that verges on boasting. It gives you a false impression of people. You might feel close to them through seeing their pictures, but you don’t know them. Not only that, but not only do you not see their problems, you might go completely the other way, and think they’re having the most marvellous time – and that’s bad for you. Study after study has shown that, although Facebook’s popularity is rampant, the network often depresses people. It makes them feel jealous – why did their friends have a party without them? Who’s that girl hanging onto their boyfriend? It makes them feel lonely and unpopular.

But Facebook is here to stay, at least in the short to medium term. That being the case, maybe it’s time for us all to put up some giant disclaimers about the nature of the site. When you use it, call it Fantasy Facebook in your mind – not just in regard to the stuff you’re putting up, but the stuff everyone else is sharing too. Facebook is just the life other people want you to believe they have.

Artistic licence: Are we selfie-absorbed? 16 November 2014 by Nadine O’Regan

The other day, I was having a little trawl around the internet – one of those supposed five-minute jaunts where you blink and it’s been an hour – when I happened upon the Instagram account of an acquaintance of mine, a nice guy who works in publishing. I’ll follow him, I thought.

But then I had a look at some of his pictures and came upon one of his recent shots – a self-taken close-up of his naked torso. To be frank, although he’s a good-looking guy, it was more than I bargained for on a Monday (although I’ll admit to examining the picture closely, the better to confirm my disapproval) and not what I’d expected from him – he’s not a model after all. But if it seemed vain or bizarre of him to put it up there, it had certainly racked up a lot of likes, the currency for popularity on the social media site.

He’s far from the only person at this lark. In the brief time I’ve been active on Instagram, I’ve come across countless selfies – the word for a self-taken picture – of users in the changing rooms of shops, pub toilets and swanky hotel bathrooms, anywhere there’s a large mirror basically. Some post fairly racy pictures, some confine themselves to face selfies.

Confession time: although I’m definitely not into randomly ripping off items of clothing for the dubious benefit of a few hundred Instagram followers, I post face selfies, too – and they’re actually fun: a visual diary of a hairstyle, a holiday, a festival or simply a gloriously vain experiment in finding an Instagram filter that hides all wrinkles and highlights your best side. So, I’m not exactly in a position to play moral guardian about the whole thing. I couldn’t care less what anyone wants to post, egocentric or otherwise.

But you have to admit it’s a strange phenomenon, this trick whereby many of your circle are pointing phones at mirrors in public, and touching up their make-up to take a picture of themselves. The question is whether the new trend for narcissism is an innocuous enough past-time. Presumably, unless you trip over yourself while taking the selfie, it’s unlikely to do you much harm, right? And what’s so wrong with having a nice (if overly flattering) picture of yourself? If celebrities are allowed their photoshopping, then surely we mere mortals can permit ourselves the indulgence of an iPhone camera and a decent filter? That hideous American trend for selfies at funerals aside, a selfie doesn’t seem like the worst of hobbies we could indulge in.

Equally, an Instagram account is also an opportunity. Whether you’re a professional mid-career or a teenager just figuring your life out, Instagram offers a brand-building platform for its users. Forty million pictures are uploaded to Instagram daily, and – as studies have shown – the more provocative the picture, and the smarter the hashtags accompanying it, the more likely it is that the person will get more followers and build their brand. It’s a kind of self-generating fame that will be pointless for some, but may translate into a career for others: budding photographers, models, stylists, television presenters and journalists may all grow fanbases from their obsessions with Instagram and Twitter.

Still, you can’t help but feel a slight prickling of discomfort about the whole thing – a sense that selfie culture may also be selfish culture; that we all might, like Narcissus, wind up dying next to the pool having realised that our reflections can never return our love. Perhaps our spiralling interest in ourselves is already translating into a lack of interest in other people.

A friend of mine was talking about social media recently. “No one reads Twitter anymore,” he pointed out. “They all just post stuff, but they don’t read other people’s tweets.” Imagine that, a world where we endlessly talk and never listen? If everyone is on the stage, after all, who’s left to be in the audience?

From the Archives: Artistic Licence: Getting robbed

[Note: I’m posting the below article from Spring 2014 because I had cause to think back to it this week, when my landlord announced that he has decided to raise the rent by 10 per cent, despite the fact that I’ve been living in my shared house for just six months and got robbed two weeks into living there. Dublin, eh? Oh, the humanity! I wrote the below piece on an iPhone — I’d come home at 7pm to write my column that night, but then of course, with the robbery, had nothing left to write the piece on except the phone I was carrying. Nothing was ever recovered — which won’t surprise anyone, I guess. Anyway, here ’tis.]

 

Artistic Licence: After the break-in
By Nadine O’Regan
How do you measure what’s valuable to you? One answer, I guess – at least if we agree to forget about monetary terms for a while – is this: its value can be calibrated according to how much you feel the pain of its loss when it’s gone.
I’ve had cause to think about this question lately. Not to go all U2 on you (you may not start humming ”all that you can’t leave behind quite yet”), but last Wednesday night I came home to discover that my house had been broken in to and many of my things were gone. So many things that it hurts to think about it.
So many things that when I walked into the Dublin 6 house, past the forced and jammed front door, after my housemate told me the news, I felt a little faint. The drawers from my bedroom lockers lay sprawled across the ground. Photo albums were open on the wooden floorboards. Bits of my life – notebooks, mix CDs – were flung into odd corners. Even my wash bags had been rifled through, suggesting the thieves thought I had diamonds buried in my toothpaste. I had been living in the house just two weeks.
When the guards arrived, they quickly adopted what I’ll call The Calm Face of Crisis. Garda Brian saw my stricken expression, as I started reciting what I had lost – laptops, a microphone, my jewellery – and his face grew calmer and calmer. By the end, he was so calm that I felt myself almost sedated by his placidity, ready to crack jokes about the burglars’ borderline offensive taste in my possessions – why did they skip taking my sunglasses?, I found myself idly wondering. Did they not like them? Is it possible to be aggrieved that your burglar didn’t steal something?
Of course, as the hours spiralled on, I couldn’t help but dwell on the missing stuff that’s of little monetary value, but that was still hugely prized by me. They took an old laptop with a bad virus on it, but which also contained the novel I wrote between the ages of 21 and 24. Now let me tell you, I wasn’t about to give James Joyce a run for his money. It was an intense coming-of-age drama, and I would never have wanted to publish it. But still: it was part of my history. They also took a necklace given by my late father to my mother, who gifted it recently to me. Bad timing, I guess.
People ask you questions when you’ve been robbed. Questions about house insurance. Landlords. Locks. Security. Questions that, when you answer, you feel like you’re failing an exam. They talk, too, about violation of space, and it’s true that you do feel differently. Did they look at your pictures? Do you even want to think about it? Or should you just concentrate on being glad, glad that you weren’t there, glad that no one was harmed, glad that Apple Macs and fancy gadgets can be bought back with money? And grateful to remember that at least you’ve never been too hung up on possessions anyway? And that it’s not good to be so?
A friend of mine took a decision a few years back to become a Buddhist monk. He went off to a monastery in England. For two years, he wore orange robes, he gardened, he meditated, he sought to reach a higher plain. Then, abruptly, before Christmas, he left, deciding that his fate lay elsewhere. The last time he emailed me, it was from Thailand. He was raging because his Kindle had broken. I shouldn’t have laughed, but I couldn’t help it. If a trainee monk can get upset about a broken Kindle, then there’s hope for all of us yet.
I’m going to do my best not to mind the burglary. And to be very evolved indeed. But reader: I may be a while with this. And if anyone buys a laptop off a truck with a brooding, unpublished novel on it in the meantime, let me know, will you?

Artistic Licence column: Battle of the budgets

Artistic Licence: Battle of the film budgets
02:53, 5 May 2013 by Nadine O’Regan

Some months back, I had a rather doleful conversation with a young Irish film-maker who really should have been jubilant. His new film Earthbound had just been released. A sci-fi comedy, Earthbound was the product of several years’ hard work and had received a number of strong reviews. But still, Alan Brennan was despondent. The problem, he said, was that few of his mortgage-strapped, 30-something friends would go to see the film, and he didn’t feel it was something he could reasonably expect of them either.
“They get to see one film every three months,” he said. “That’s their big night out for them, when they hire a babysitter. They want to see something big-budget, something Hollywood – not a micro-budget film. And how could I ask that of them?”
In the current Irish cinematic climate, his concerns are valid. Several fine Irish films have been released in the last few months – Good Vibrations, Pilgrim Hill and Earthbound among them – but when we’re talking about home-produced fare, there’s always a silent caveat: even with the more lavish productions, there is little chance of big-budget-style glamour: Scarlett Johansson is not going to walk through the door in a catsuit. Robert Downey Jr will not be on hand to crack a joke. There will be no David Bowie cameo.
So, how much do good reviews even matter for Irish film-makers, when Irish audiences are horrified by the prospect of spending an hour or two watching cows in a field (Pilgrim Hill) or observing a shop owner complain about Belfast (Good Vibrations)? “Sure, if I wanted that I could have stayed at home,” goes the patter as you leave the cinema.
The problem isn’t limited to Irish cinema. Last week, renowned US director Steven Soderbergh took the opportunity of a speech at the San Francisco Film Festival to complain about the industry machine. He explained the juggernaut effect; the phenomenon whereby the likes of Iron Man 3 would command huge audiences, while, say, a small film like Earthbound would snatch just €374 during its second weekend on release.
“Unfortunately the most profitable movies for the studios are going to be the big movies, the home runs,” Soderbergh said. “How many $10 million movies make $140 million? Not many. How many $100 million movies make $320 million? A pretty good number. There’s this domino effect that happens. Bigger home video sales, bigger TV sales. You can see the forces that are draining in one direction in the business.”
It comes back to the idea of those two struggling parents in suburban Dublin, who have a mortgage, young children and who haven’t been to the cinema in months. No matter how good the reviews are, no matter how much they want to support their friends, the fact is: they shelled out 60 quid for a babysitter and they need to have a good night out guaranteed.
What can be done about this? In the parallel world of Irish theatre, interesting initiatives have been taken to encourage bums on seats. At the Abbey Theatre, Richard Dormer’s Drum Belly has opened itself up to wider audiences – selling tickets for a tenner a head from Mondays to Wednesdays. At the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, if you’re under 30, you can buy tickets to Digging For Fire for just ten quid.
Irish cinema may never win those mortgage-riddled parents. But Irish film distributors might attract students if they play their cards right – and for the sake of our Irish film-makers they have to try. Imagination, after all, shouldn’t be limited to simply what’s on the screen.
…..
Nadine O’Regan is The Sunday Business Post’s Books and Arts editor.

Online self-publishing: my Biz Post column (20th Jan, 2013)

What does it take to become a success in the world of online self-publishing? Is there a particular kind of novel that is more likely to do well in an electronic format? And if there is, how would one go about writing such a book?

These are the kinds of questions that you don’t find authors and publishers debating much yet, but perhaps they should. Glance around your nearest bookshop or Amazon.com, and you’ll find a million manuals that explain how to create a novel, using chapter headings such as ‘Learning Your Craft’ and ‘Ten Rules for Good Time Management’. But few of these manuals discuss the importance of the space into which a novel is delivered, and what it means for the authors who are publishing now.

Make no mistake about it: publishing online is a totally different proposition from doing it on plain old paper. Think of the strain on the eyes of reading in an ebook format, for example. Think of the harried reader who buys a Kindle to read on crowded commutes. Think of the modern world, in which a million types of entertainment compete for our attention. And think of who is succeeding in this new world, and why.

Many self-published books which began life in an electronic format have now succeeded beyond the authors’ wildest expectations. Take the eyebrow-raising Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, for example; or new bestseller Wool by Hugh Howey, which is about to be turned into a big-budget Ridley Scott film; or Switched, the debut novel in the million-plus selling Trylle Trilogy by the 20-something Amanda Hocking.

What do these books have in common besides their humble origins? Actually, quite a lot. All the authors in question write within specific genres: S&M (EL James); dystopian fantasy (Howey) and trolls (Hocking). They are suspenseful and attention-grabbing, using blunt, effective (and sometimes very poorly rendered) prose to keep and hold readers. They are short, but allow for the possibility of sequels. They lack profound messages. “My goal was to keep people reading,” Hocking has said. “They have to ignore everything else and read the book.”

In his latest book, How Music Works, David Byrne talks about the importance of context in the area of music. The Talking Heads founder says that the type of music we make is vastly influenced by the space into which that music is delivered: so we get drums in a tribal space, which carry well over distance, and plaintive choir singing in a high-ceilinged church. At CBGB, for example, the small room lent itself well to the performance of punk rock – a sound which would have seemed ridiculous if performed in a church. The Ramones and Mozart both understood intrinsically what would work for their particular type of arena. They knew that environment plays a huge role in shaping the music.

For this new type of publishing space, it should be obvious that we need a new kind of book: one that grabs the attention fast, doesn’t bother with fancy language, relies on a clever idea and can be made into a series of books incredibly easily. Readers who choose to read in electronic formats will naturally want a different kind of prose. And the world of writers will have to learn to provide for that. So maybe it’s time for those self-help manual authors to take a leaf out of a new book – and begin to think about what it means to be a successful author in today’s world of e-publishing. After all, increasingly, it’s where the big bucks lie.

 

Media Shock (Artistic Licence, 19/8 Business Post)

One of the most fun things about science fiction — in books and in movies — is getting to see writers attempt to predict the future. Flying skateboards in Back to the Future; fingernails that changed colour when touched in Total Recall, the 1990 version; fridges that change to become writeable screens in the new Total Recall, which premiered in Dublin on Tuesday. Such acts are delicate brushstrokes across the sky — illustrations of new ways of being. Watching such films; reading such books, you marvel at the writers’ capacity for invention, and wonder how much of their art will become true creations in time (I’m still waiting hopefully on the hoverboards).
But in the midst of all that, you also wish someone, somewhere, might have predicted the existence of a thing called the internet. Because then, at least, people in the media and creative arts might have had a shot at preparing for the upheaval to come. Across the spectrum — in radio, print and television — every management team has a `plan’ in place to `cope’ with the internet. Every model is being explored: subscription; limited access; all-you-can-eat access. But no one — with the possible exception of the Daily Mail and its sidebar of shame — has figured out how to stop the internet cannibalising its produce, like a rabid, frothing dog with snapping jaws.
In the most recent Irish readership figures, a total of 59 per cent of people (2,118,000) read a Sunday newspaper — a figure that represented a stark decline of 8 per cent compared to the previous year. In the United States, newspaper circulation in the first half of the year has dropped even further, by almost 10 per cent. Quoting a publisher on the collapse, the New York Times said, “When the aeroplane suddenly drops 10,000 feet and it doesn’t crash, you still end up with your heart in your stomach. Those are very, very bad numbers.” And this is far from the first year of the plummet.
It seems funny now, to think I used to just feel sorry for the musicians. In Tower Records, where I had lunch with a music journalist friend recently, he noted gloomily that there were more people in the coffee shop area than the rest of the entire store. It wasn’t just the paid-for CDs that seemed antique. I felt like an old souvenir from the past too. Who needs a critic or radio broadcaster to sort out the wheat from the chaff, after all, when any interested party can go online and make up their own minds? People can download music, get films, even read whole novels for free on the net. Thinking on it, this little dinosaur wanted to curl up next to the old format CDs and have a little sniffle.
So far, optimism has been key to media predictions for years to come. The presumption is that the freefall must stop. Why? Because it has to, right? But are we just victims of our own positivism? In Total Recall, there’s a scene in which Colin Farrell as Quaid, strapped into his seat, reads a book as his train travels right through the earth’s core. When zero gravity hits, the book spins out of Quaid’s hands. The look of that book — floating in space — felt to me like the media in its current state. We have hit zero gravity, and everyone is grabbing onto anything for support. But we haven’t been shot out the other side yet. So we don’t know where we’re going to fall. We just know that we’re falling.