Boston To Austin (Part 3)

“Sanity” was playing at a theatre in a Mall near the college. I think. Hell, at this point it’s amazing I can remember what I did on any given night. It was a midnight show, tempting me to stock up on toast, rice and toilet paper (if you don’t get that reference, you must have been living a sheltered existence as a teen, you poor pathetic loser) and, me being a wimp, I worried that we wouldn’t be able to get in since we were simply Interactive Panelists rather than Gold Ticket holders. So we—Derek, Drue and I—headed off to find food and shelter from the rain before hightailing it over to the mall.

Luckily, there’s always pizza.

My failing memory can’t recall the name of the pizza place, but if you live in Austin it’s got hanging plants aplenty and the tables are all covered with a one-inch layer of shellac and they have big canisters of iced tea sitting on the counter. There’s probably more than one of these places, but if you go to this particular one and sit at the second table in on the left nearer the front of the building but directly adjacent to the counter, you’ll find the word “glassdog” carved into the shellac with what looks suspiciously like a key, and “fray” carved on the opposite side of the table with the same key. The place was nearly deserted and the radio was playing scary and obscure synth-dance music from my youth (“Images of Heaven” by Peter Godwin, for Chrissakes! They never even played that on the radio the first time around! Extreme coolness! And pre-industrial Ministry, which is just hilarious to listen to now as they try to mimic English accents. God, Al really wanted to be Stephen Duffy, didn’t he?) and we ordered, after endless debate about what should go on top even though “I’ll eat anything” which is sadly true.

It was pouring rain outside. Monsoon season had come to Texas. I was playing Name That Tune with myself since I was the only one at the table who could remember no-hit NME wonders from the late 80’s like Feargal Sharkey and Roman Holiday and The Joe Boxers, or was it Joe Boxers UK? Anyway, the pizza was deep dish and heavy, the tea was strong enough to choke a horse and we sat and talked about different stuff like one does when one is killing time between gigs.

I was feeling enormously old, which is what generally happens at some point in the middle of these congregations of the Web. I’m usually the oldest person at any given function, unless Howard shows up, and then I’m the oldest person there who hasn’t been published and didn’t start a company or invent a piece of software. Other people my age have a different background and are sort of leading the charge. Me, I hang around the cool kids’ table and try to pretend I’m one of them instead of standing over with the school government members, the Class President, the head of the Cheerleaders, captain of the Football team, that whole do-gooder, heavy-achievement-or-die group. I don’t really fit either category, and feel myself gazing longingly at the other table no matter which table I’m sitting at.

Minor Celebritydom

We parked the car on the street, not really paying attention to curb signs or parking meters because it was, after all, nearly midnight and who’d care? Right? Am I right? I said, am I right?

The mall around the theatre entrance was jam-packed. Lots and lots of people mulling about hoping to get in because, we found out later, the pic in question had been filmed in Austin and was written, directed by and starred native Austinites. Austinians? So Drue, with utter confidence, grabbed her badge and held it up and got a ticket and walked in. Derek and I, with utter self-doubt, managed to follow her closely enough that we got the tickets, but when it came time to enter the theatre we were caught with our badges down and stopped dead. “You can’t get in without a Gold Pass.” “But we have tickets!” “You can’t get in without a Gold Pass.” Derek points to Drue. “But we’re with her!” The line of people behind us is looking none too pleased, they want to get everyone into the theatre, I’m resigned in my usual way that I won’t get away with anything and it’s no use trying when the guy shrugs and smirks and frowns simultaneously—which is a pretty remarkable feat, let me tell you—and lets us by.

In later discussions with Festival volunteers, we learn the magic secret of access to activities we have no business being in. Which basically amounts to, “just treat everyone like a person because all the industry people from Hollywood and New York get all this attitude and feel like they’re special and start treating us like shit, so we’d rather allow nice people in who actually want to see the stuff and are grateful so they fill the seats and all the stuck-up, obnoxious, annoying Industry touristas are left out in the rain.” See? Being nice works.

Every seat was filled and this comely woman with big hair and a small leather skirt was handing out espresso beans to suck on, adding that they had “a little extra something to help you keep awake in these wee Sunday hours”. Derek took one, I declined. We would later learn that this woman was the star of the film and I would regret not accepting something she offered. Story of my life.

Then, to introduce the film, in came this huge guy trailing a veil of red hair behind him bounding down the aisle toward where a pool of light was shining. This was the infamous Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News, the website that spills the beans on the film industry’s secrets. He is, apparently, an Austin landmark all on his own and everyone knew him. I’m a semi-regular of his Web site and actually offered to redesign it for him free, since I think it’s a great site but hard to get around in and not all that, um, attractive, but he never responded to my email. I’m sure more than a few of you know how that feels if you’ve written to me, but one sort of learns to accept these little slights and not take it personally.

So anyway, this arrogant asshole…

Kidding! I’m kidding! He seemed very gregarious and “totally stoked” about the film. Probably a really great guy to know and obviously in love with the world of film. That passion, you know. A powerful force.

The film was really good, too! I wasn’t sure what to expect and my experience with independent film has been about these experimental messes that no one except those involved in the film would care about. But this was a good story, the lead actor (the chick with the spiked coffee beans) was excellent, the lighting and music and script were all great. You could easily see where a bigger budget might have helped some of the movie, and they should put in the sex scene instead of having them get him all tied up and then the next scene they’re smoking together and discussing how great each other was. I mean, at midnight everybody like a little skin, y’know? Anyway, if “Sanity” comes around for a showing I recommend it. Lotsa fun for everyone!

What’s With Cars?

We were all tired (except maybe Derek who had a coffee bean) and headed out with the cattle after a nice apre-film discussion by the cast and crew to the street where the car was parked. Or, rather, where the car was no longer parked.

We walked up to where we all agreed the car had been before we entered the Mall. We stood there looking at the space in the street where the car should be. We looked up at the sign on the curb that said no car would be allowed to be there. We looked back at the empty space in the street, getting wetter and wetter in the rain in the dark. There was, quite obviously, no car there. It didn’t appear to have shrunk in the rain, it hadn’t rolled backwards down the street, it was simply not there. It was at this point that panic set in.

This was now getting ridiculous. I was jinxed, there could be no doubt. Another automobile mishap, only this time we lost the whole bloody thing! Drue went back up the stairs into the mall to ask whether the city actually cared enough about illegal parking that they send tow trucks out at midnight, in the rain, on a Sunday. Derek and I sort of stared at each other, shaking our heads. I got it into my brain that maybe, maybe the three of us were wrong and even though we were absolutely sure we had parked there, we really hadn’t. Or maybe gremlins had taken the car and transported it somewhere nearby and were on the rooftop laughing at us. So, I wandered to the corner, looked up the next block and…

There sat a car that looked suspiciously like our dark green rented Pontiac Grand Am. Someone had even gone to the trouble of putting Derek’s camera in the front seat, just to fool us into believing that this was our car, when clearly it couldn’t be our car. So I signalled for Derek to come over and verify that I was not delusional and that this was, in fact, the car. And he agreed that it was, in fact, the car.

A note to Mall architects: Do Not design the outside surfaces of your malls to look exactly the same from every angle! Those of us unfamiliar with the city you build them in might exit them very late in a rainstorm and get confused and start to panic and doubt our own sanity. We might think we parked a car, for example, on one side of your building when really it’s on another side that looks exactly the same in every way! Damn you!

Manic Monday

Derek and Drue had two panels on Monday, and Molly would be on the “Women And The Web” panel so I had a full day of stuff ahead of me. Plus, Richard Grimes would be delivering his speech about The Man in the morning so I had to drag myself out of bed and wander over to the Convention Center by 10AM.

I sat in the front row, partly so Richard could see me and partly to be annoying. Mostly the latter. The room was huge and there would end up being a smattering of people to hear him. Had he been in one of the Panel rooms, it would have been filled. As it was, it wasn’t.

Jodi Sax, the Law Girl herself, came and sat down with Drue and Derek. Jodi is the person on the Web most often mentioned whenever someone has a Web-related law question. “Ask Jodi!” Her site is becoming the one-stop shopping center regarding questions of copyright in this medium. Jodi’s got a wave of blonde hair and every time I saw her, she had on some animal print clothing somewhere on her person. Her voice is like broken china and she seems sleepy all the time. We listened to Richard go off on the way Big Business has attempted to protect its intellectual property by trying to squash several Web sites which have poked fun at them. This, it seems, is simply not allowed unless you’re Seinfeld. I suppose it’s all in how you look at it. Dropping a Junior Mint into a warm body from an operating room observation deck is funny, especially if you keep mentioning how refreshing they are even when they’re melting next to your kidney. Mentioning that the name “Fruit of the Loom” seems a little odd for a brand of men’s snuggies was not, initially, in the realm of allowed humor.

He made a good point, saying that caving in to the cadres of lawyers every time anyone creates something out here sets up a bad precedent and soon everything will be claimed to belong to someone. We tend not to separate the things we say to each other, like using Kleenex® and BandAid® and Jello® as part of some little joke, from posting the same material to a Web site. Except that doing so on the Web might mean a cease and desist order because those words are all registered copyrights, so you’d have to use facial tissue, medical adhesive strip and flavored gelatin. To be safe.

That was the reason why I felt it was important to support Mr. Styn’s recent round of legalese with Fruit of the Loom. It was simply a ridiculous claim. How would anyone feel like they won’t buy Fruit of the Loom because he said “wouldn’t meat of the loom make more sense”? If Seinfeld had based an episode around Kramer wanting to make Meat of the Loom underwear and he gets sued by Fruit of the Loom, do you think they’d bat an eye? And I got some mail asking why I didn’t support more pressing Web-related issues like record companies closing down MP3 sites (where people are basically ripping off entire CD tracks and distributing them free of charge) or other companies like Paramount wanting to protect their Star Trek material, or stupidass Oasis and The Artist Formerly Known As Popular shutting down unauthorized fan sites. Shit like that. You have to pick your battles, kids. You don’t like what someone’s doing? Say so. That’s all I did.

And, like those people, some in the audience also felt this was kind of a wimpy argument. Didn’t the companies have every right to protect their properties? As a Web publishers, wouldn’t you do everything you could to protect your work if someone else ripped it off? Or made fun of it. (My reaction is basically, no, I wouldn’t. I make fun of everything, so why should I be surprised or threatened if pops up one day? Frankly, I’m looking forward to it.)

Panel Envy

Derek’s first panel was on design, and the place was packed! I sat waaaaaay in the back since I got there late and it was SRO in the room. I’m sitting there thinking, “Jesus!” Because I often think that for no apparent reason. Just the name, y’know. ‘Jesus.’ Kind of a filler like ‘anyway’. Um, so, yeah, room was packed and… stuff. The moderator was AWOL so Josh, the Frog Prophet, filled in admirably.

After my less than enthusiastic moderator’s idea of moderating, i.e. “you go now. talk 15 minute. stop.” Josh was a breath of move-this-right-along air. No dilly-dallying, no getting bogged down, he kept it lively and let everyone speak. Josh, I must say, is a weird guy to try to get to know. He gives off no signals, so perhaps planting him on a stage facing an audience and handing him a mic and a baton to lead the orchestra of voices is perfect. You can never quite tell if he’s being serious when he says some of the rather rude things he says (my impression is that he’s always serious) and when he smiles you feel like he knows your secrets. Enigmatic would be a good word to use with him. Spooky, too.

The panel was there to discuss design technique, which is also one of those subjects which will mean different things to different people, but was apparently vague enough to attract a wider audience than development tools. I probably would’ve shown up for it whether I knew anyone on the panel or not. I have to admit as I write this a month after the fact that I cannot for the life of me remember what anyone said. I’m sure it was all very amusing and entertaining and educational but I can’t recall any of it. Hence, the utter usefulness of conferences once again illustrated for teh benefit of bosses and check-signers everywhere.

Next, I sat in on “Women & The Web”. Again, this was primarily because Molly was on the panel but also because I was curious about what they were going to talk about. I mean, I knew what they were going to talk about, but what were they going to talk about about it? The panel also included Heidi Swanson who runs chickclick, Lawgirl Jodi Sax, and Nikol Lohr the disgruntled housewife. All the panel members but Molly were part of Heidi’s loose network of sites. Molly runs her own collection, the pre-chickclick Estronet.

Chick Click is a somewhat amazing enterprise. Swanson has convinced actual cash-paying sponsors to spend money on a collection of personal sites with a loosely feminine theme, although they are not all run by women and do not all deal exclusively with “chick” issues. The fact that she convinced (A) someone to pay money for ad rights on these sites and (B) people to sign up to collect traffic counts between multiple sites to make it attractive for sponsors is the amazing part. I’m sort of stuck between admiration and disdain for it, though. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to make money from a Web site, although personally I would have a difficult time screwing up the appearence of my site with ugly ads and also constructing something with a personal slant while attaching commercials to it. It seems a little like I’m selling myself and I should imagine that you, the audience, would see what’s presented here in a much different light were a rotating selection of ads start flashing in your face at the bottom of the page. Even if I could keep “full creative control”, even if nothing changed, even if I kept on writing whatever and however I wanted to, you would view it differently, wouldn’t you? Or can you separate the commercial from the content. And if you can, what good does it do the sponsor? What, in fact, are they sponsoring besides annoyance?

Still, this seems to be the Next Wave. chickclick is but the first of a new model of supporting non-commercial sites so that there’s a reason for the creators to continue creating. The commercialized non-commercial site. It isn’t necessarily a new trend depending on how you view GeoCities and Tripod pop-ups and the ever-present Link Exchange banners on home pages everywhere. Me, I automatically close the pop-ups and sort of bleep over Link Exchange banners. They’re worthless. I don’t even bother checking them out. But if you can gather your friends together and create the My Friends Web Network and convince a sponsor in your demographic (Coke, Frito Lay, Nike, etc.) that you can deliver them the audience they want in sufficient number at a cut rate and that the fact that you’re all doing your sites editorial-free and loosey-goosey will make the audience believe that, by association, the product you’re advertising is also cool, you just might have something there, mightn’t you?

So, it’s a decision to make. Unless no one ever asks you to join such an endeavor or unless you don’t just go out and do it on your own. You’ll never make Big Bucks—no one is—but you could make some bucks out of it, in the long run. You just have to ask yourself how you would feel if you were your own audience and visited your site and saw ads there…

April 17, 1998

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