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THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Power in populist hands

August 19, 2003|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

In recent weeks, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been endlessly compared to Ronald Reagan, both men being actors turned politicians who made their first foray into politics during a California gubernatorial campaign. But to grasp what's at work here, it would be better to look not just at Arnold but at other figures who set the tone for our carnival-like recall election: Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles, Napster creator Shawn Fanning and the reality-TV gurus who brought us "Survivor," "American Idol" and "Joe Millionaire."

The Last Action Hero's sudden ascendancy in our electoral free-for-all is deeply rooted in the populist upheaval that has wreaked havoc on the creaky old top-down entertainment establishment. Call it the Revenge of the Outsiders.

Editorial writers all over the world have hooted at the zany opening week antics in our recall election, which features a cast of 135 self-styled candidates, including porn kingpin Larry Flynt, billboard diva Angelyne and, my personal favorite, Scott Mednick, who owns a company that makes beer aimed at spring breakers.

As some pundits have described it, the recall is the political equivalent of Gray Davis being devoured by an angry mob. The phrase has a familiar ring; nearly every new pop cultural force lately has been derided, at least by those in power, as a catastrophic threat to the established order.

In 1997, Knowles was an obscure film geek who ran his Ain't It Cool News Web site out of his father's house in Austin, Texas. Then, months before the release of the supposed sure-thing sequel "Batman and Robin," Ain't It Cool News posted a string of early, venomous reviews of a test screening of the film, one of which called director Joel Schumacher "pure evil."

When the movie had a lackluster opening, Knowles became Hollywood's Public Enemy No. 1. One studio threatened to sue him; another slapped him with a cease-and-desist order. It wasn't the vitriol of the reviews that incensed studio executives, but the loss of control. Just as in the recall election, where anyone with 65 signatures and a $3,500 filing fee can be a candidate, any geek with access to a computer could subvert a studio's carefully calculated marketing campaign. Overnight, $100-million movies were being undone by a kid from Austin and a gang of cronies with aliases like Moriarty, Hercules the Strong and Tom Joad.

The film establishment reacted similarly to the way much of our political elite has responded to the recall. "The worst thing about Harry Knowles is that he's perfectly reflective of the taste of predominantly young America," complained Variety executive editor Steven Gaydos. "He loves the garbage movies -- the big stupid movies and the little stupid movies."

In other words, the Internet, like the recall, was participatory democracy out of control.

Politics under siege

THE recall election has been fueled by widespread anger with Gov. Gray Davis, who to many represents everything that is wrong with insider politics. As veteran campaign strategist Tony Quinn put it recently: "What this recall is about is an assault on the whole political order."

I've heard that kind of rhetoric before, except it was directed at Fanning, whose creation of Napster put the music business under siege from a grass-roots insurgency led by its own fans as the heads of the major record companies were excoriated by fans unhappy with having to pay inflated prices for CDs that only contain one or two quality songs.

Enter Napster, which gained loyal adherents faster than Darrell Issa's petitioners recruited recall supporters. Napster became so popular during the 1999-2000 school year that by May 2000, 73% of U.S. college students were using the service to download music.

Since then, it's been a battle to the death. Just as Davis' career is over if he loses the recall, the music conglomerates believe their business model will go down the drain unless they destroy every outlaw file-sharing service. By allowing fans to swap music for free among themselves, Napster left the record labels out in the cold, in much the same way that the recall has eviscerated the power of the political parties, allowing candidates to appeal directly to voters. The labels sued Napster and put it out of business, but now Kazaa and other sites have popped up to take its place.

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