Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cross-promotion time

For those of you wondering where my Marvel Sales columns are appearing these days, they're over at The Beat (now part of Publishers Weekly). Here's the July column - Marc-Oliver's DC/Indie column will be up shortly.

While I'm at it, I might as well flag up this week's X-Axis, which went up on Monday. This week, it's Claws #1, The Boys #1 and Phonogram #1.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Snakes on a Plane Box Office

(A slightly modified version of something I already posted at the V, but hey, why throw away half-decent material?)

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Snakes on a Plane - or, to use the full official title, Internet Phenomenon Snakes on a Plane - was the number one film in the US over the weekend. The surprising bit is that it only took $15.3m, and that's including the preview showings on Thursday. It's only marginally ahead of the number two film Talladega Nights. But Talladega was on its third week of release. It took $47m in its opening week, in a different league from Snakes. The previous number one film, Miami Vice did $25m. In fact, Snakes' opening weekend is below World Trade Center, Step Up and Barnyard: The Original Party Animals, none of which even made it to number one. So, yes, it's the box office number one... but it's a very, very quiet week.

It's become commonplace to talk about films being flops even when they have respectable takings. Snakes on a Plane is not, by any sensible standard, a flop. It's number one, for heaven's sake. And it's a ludicrous B-movie concept of the sort that normally goes straight to video via Roger Corman. ("Ooh, just the one set, you say?") A script like that is doing well to get a theatrical release at all, let alone to get Samuel A Jackson and a number one box office placing. It cost $30m to make; it'll make that back easily.

Even so, it was expected to do much, much better in its opening weekend. What happened?

I think their fundamental mistake was to massively overestimate the influence of the Internet and to position themselves as an Internet phenomenon. They disappeared up their own arse.

This film markets itself - literally. It's a one-line, four-word concept that catches the imagination. All you have to do is say it repeatedly. Snakes on a plane. Snakes on a plane. Snakes on a plane. Just keep repeating it in the week before release. Can't go wrong.

Instead, they've completely lost sight of the beautiful simplicity of the idea. They've got sidetracked into doing a marketing campaign about how great the Internet is, and how their film is a pop culture turning point. It's all "we're not showing it to critics" and "incredible buzz from the bloggers" and "homemade trailers" and "reshoots to include the fans suggestions" and so forth.

Where they ought to be selling a fun little B-movie, they've shifted the emphasis disastrously. It's been promoted as, at best, a cult movie for the Internet crowd. And at worst, a so-bad-its-good movie for students with a very laboured sense of irony.

They should have been marketing SNAKES ON A PLANE. They've ended up marketing TWATS ON A BLOG. Where they thought they were embracing a new mainstream, they were actually just turning themselves back into a niche film.

I think they'd have been better off showing it to the critics. Metacritic gives it an average of 60% - it wouldn't have been slaughtered. They'd have got a load of three star reviews confirming that it is, in fact, just a film about snakes on a plane, and not some esoteric cultural phenomenon for people who spend six hours a day squinting at Youtube. Now they'll have to rely on word of mouth to do that job for them.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Summerslam 2006

I'm out of town over the weekend, so I'd better get this week's PPV preview done today. (I'm flying down to Gatwick. Won't that be fun?)

Summerslam is, in theory, one of the WWE's big PPV shows that brings together a whole load of top matches from all their shows. It also helpfully confirms that multi-brand PPVs now include ECW, giving the nascent third show at least some regular presence on PPV. In practice, this is a very strangely booked card, built around some theoretically big matches on the undercard, and largely ignoring the world title matches are are supposed to provide the main event. Some of the title bouts have almost no story backing them up. One was just announced on the company's website without any explanation.

At time of writing, none of the secondary titles are scheduled to be defended, although they could always add something to the card at the last moment. Likely contenders would be the Spirit Squad v the Highlanders for the Raw Tag Team Titles (probably lots of comedy and bad wrestling), Johnny Nitro v Kane for the Intercontinental Title (could be good), London & Kendrick v James & Stevens for the Smackdown Tag Titles (okay, but nobody really cares yet), Finlay, Regal & Lashley in the three-way for the US Title that got cancelled at the last minute a few weeks back (too big a match to run without publicity), and Lita v Mickey James in a rematch for the Women's Title (not the worst idea in the world, but hardly a match I'm dying to see). As usual, poor Gregory Helms, the Cruiserweight Champion, has nobody to fight at the moment.

All of these, however, seem to be storylines on a slow burn for the next brand-only PPVs, which at least means there's a long-term plan for the undercard. Shame there's no long-term plan at the top. Here's this month's bizarre selection of matches.

1. WWE Title: Edge -v- John Cena. Nominally the top match on Raw, but it's been largely overlooked in favour of pushing DX -v- The McMahons. In fact, poor Edge has been reduced to doing the dreaded "Why am I being ignored when I'm the champion?" interviews protesting about the writing of the show. He's absolutely right, of course - this ought to be the focus of Raw, since the main title should almost always be the focus of Raw. Edge has been a success as an evil champion, and crowds actually seem to get behind the usually-divisive Cena when they're programmed against one another. There's money in this feud, and they should be making more of it.

The stipulation, for some reason, is that the title can change hands on a DQ. If they actually do that finish then they'll be out of their minds - there's no way Cena should be winning the belt on a cheap finish. More likely, they'll use it for a false ending, and then somebody will overturn the decision and Edge will retain, setting up a rematch. That's what happened when they did the same schtick with the Rock and Chris Benoit a few years back, and having announced the stipulation, they've got to do something with it.

Cena certainly shouldn't win the title at this stage - there's much more mileage in this feud, and Cena's much better when he's chasing the belt. Match should be good.

2. World Heavyweight Title: King Booker -v- Batista. Smackdown's main event was announced without any explanation on WWE.com, and there's no background to it at all. It's just a match. A Batista win is not out of the question, since Booker is fairly obviously a transitional heel champion to get the belt from Mysterio back to Batista (who could hardly return from injury and win back his title by heroically squashing a man half his size). As a comedy character, he really shouldn't stay champion for long.

But again, I think there's more mileage in this, and Batista's title win shouldn't be thrown away on a barely-promoted match. Booker should win on a screwjob to set up a rematch. The match will probably be good but not great.

3. ECW World Title: The Big Show v Sabu. Trivia buffs may note that this is the first time the ECW Title (in any form) has been defended on a WWE PPV. Yes, Rob Van Dam wrestled on PPV a couple of months back when he had the belt, but he wasn't actually defending it. Thrilling, I know.

Anyway, this is the token match from the ECW show. So far, the new brand has had a rocky road. The ratings are actually quite good, especially by the standards of the Sci-Fi Channel. But the show is a bit of a mess. It's filmed before an audience who came to see Smackdown, and who don't really understand their role or care about any of the characters. Or, occasionally, it's filmed before a traditional ECW audience, who loathe the show with a passion. You never know quite what you're going to get with ECW's audience - they might loathe the show or they might be completely apathetic. Actually enjoying it rarely seems to be an option. And it's hard to blame them considering that ECW is being used as a dumping ground for bozos like Mike Knox, a wrestler so dull that he prompted one critic to observe "Mike Knox brings nothing to the table other than his above average height." It's hard to disagree. And if it isn't Mike Knox, it's a WWE cast-off, or a vampire called Kevin. Purists are currently pinning their hopes on indie darling CM Punk, but whether he can cross over to a mass audience remains open to question.

Anyhow, the match. The Big Show has the ECW Title for a simple reason: he's there. The original plan was to have Rob Van Dam as champion, but he was suspended for a month after being arrested for drugs possession. Kurt Angle, the other established star on the show, was sent home to nurse injuries (and, days after returning, has been sent home to nurse them again). The Big Show was... at least somebody people knew. So there he is, as the unstoppable monster champion. He's not remotely ECW, but at least he has marginal credibility as a former WWE and WCW champion. It's not like they put the belt on a passing midcarder.

Given the backlash against early episodes of ECW, the show has settled down into a odd format where ECW founder Paul Heyman has supposedly gone mad and taken the show in a bizarre and incomprehensible direction, leading original ECW wrestlers like Sabu to fight back. Obviously, this is heading to a big climax where Rob Van Dam returns as the heart and soul of ECW and defeats Heyman and the Big Show to reclaim his title. So Sabu isn't winning, then.

It's not a bad direction for ECW, although it does involve the high-risk approach of acknowledging that they've made some truly horrid television. Big Show v Sabu is going to be a freak show where Sabu does some crazy stunts and then gets annihilated. And that's exactly what it needs to be - a chaotic trainwreck in the middle of a relatively polite WWE show. I'm not expecting wonders, but it could be okay.

4. D-Generation X (Triple H & Shawn Michaels) -v- Vince McMahon & Shane McMahon. Welcome to Planet Hubris. The de facto Raw main event sees DX, still doing their reunion, facing the chairman of the board and his son. So we've got a nostalgia act, which at least features two guys who are still top-level wrestlers, against... a sixty-year old man and his son, neither of whom were ever full-time wrestlers. For Vince to book himself as a fighter on a par with the top names in his company at the age of 61 is, let's face it, mad.

They've taken this schtick about as far as it can go, so hopefully this is where the feud conclusively ends, the good guys win, and they can move on to break up DX again before the gimmick outstays its welcome. HHH and Shane can probably carry their opponents to a decent match, and the personalities involved mean that there should be heat from the crowd. But god, let's draw a line under this and keep Vince out of the ring from now on.

5. Hulk Hogan v Randy Orton. Utterly silly pairing of the barely-mobile Hulk Hogan and the self-proclaimed "legend killer" Randy Orton. Since Hogan has creative control over his matches, we all know the ending. He's going to win, and Orton will just bounce all over the place trying desperately to get a good match out of the ludicrous arthritic relic.

Some Americans have nostalgic affection for Hulk Hogan. That's understandable. I don't. To me, he's just some bozo who was quite popular twenty years ago for putting on mediocre wrestling matches in another continent. I have no nostalgia for him, and he brings absolutely nothing else to the show. My heart sinks at the thought of a Hulk Hogan match. If we're lucky, it'll be short.

Hogan will win and the match will be an abomination.

6. "I Quit" match: Mick Foley -v- Ric Flair. The latest chapter in this frankly baffling feud, which seems to have been written by a squadron of monkeys on crack. The basic idea is fine - Ric Flair is the legendary old-school wrestler, Mick Foley is the legendary hardcore stunt guy who represents everything he hates. It's a mutual lack of respect thing. It should be hard to screw this up, but the writing has been horrendous, with motivations fluctuating all over the place and no terribly obvious logic to any of it. Still, it could be worse.

Their last match wasn't very good, but it was clearly intended as an angle to set up the feud, so that's not necessarily a problem. Both of these guys are years past their prime (decades, in Flair's case) but can still have good matches on their day. For all the bad writing, there does seem to be some genuine interest in this one, to judge from the crowd response on Monday night. The match should be good, and I expect Flair to win, since this is the big summer show and a natural place to do the payoff.

7. Rey Mysterio v Chavo Guerrero. Oh god. Former world champion Rey Mysterio is out for revenge on Chavo Guerrero, who cost him the title by turning on him. All well and good. The problem is that this whole storyline is still caught up in the all-too-genuine death of Eddie Guerrero. With astounding gall, the angle is that Chavo is upset about Rey exploiting Eddie's death to get a crowd reaction. Since this criticism is 100% justified, one can only assume the impetus for this storyline comes from the WWE's familiar parallel-earth morality.

Wrestling has never exactly been noted for its sense of morality, but when you start wheeling out Eddie Guerrero's widow so that she can tell us how upset she is, you're getting into very uncomfortable territory. It'll probably be a great match - Rey is fantastic, Chavo is solid. But the storyline leaves a bitter taste. Since they want this feud to continue, I'm sure Chavo will be winning to set up a rematch.

Worth buying? Meh. There are plenty of good matches on this show but no obviously great ones. I have no desire to see Vince McMahon indulge his ego, the Chavo/Rey stuff is just uncomfortable, and I really don't want to spend money supporting a Hulk Hogan match. I'm giving it a miss. It's not a bad card, in theory, but there's a lot of stuff here I actively don't want to see, and only Flair/Foley is really intriguing to me in any way.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Mark Watson

One of the reasons comedians like the Fringe is that it gives them a chance to stretch beyond the limits of a headlining slot at a comedy club and do a long form one-man show - even if they don't personally have the following to get away with a UK solo tour, Edinburgh will still provide a potential audience in a small, airless room for a month.

But few stand-up comedians exploit the full possibilities of the Fringe quite like Mark Watson. Watson is doing an hour-long daily stand-up show. He's also doing a daily show where he writes a novel with input from the audience, and posts it online. And every year he does one extra, insanely lengthy show. Two years ago, it was 24 hours and an official world record attempt. Last year, it was 2005 minutes (around 33 hours). This year, it's 36 hours.

The 36-hour show is underway as I write this. Thirty or so audience members apparently intend to stick with it for the whole time. The rest of the crowd is made up of people drifting in and out. If you're wondering how Watson works his two daily shows into the 36-hour marathon, the answer is simple: he brings in a second audience and performs to both of them at once. Presumably Watson isn't going for a personal world record this year, as strictly speaking the SHOW is continuing for 36 hours, rather than Watson personally. He took an hour's break on Monday evening - to do a stand-up set at the Assembly Rooms for a BBC Radio taping. The show continued happily in his absence.

I went to the first four hours yesterday afternoon. It's not a stand-up comedy show. It's more of a magazine programme. Assisted by a small support crew with wireless internet, and new-fangled technology that allows him to take phone calls from supporters, Watson acts as ringmaster for an assortment of random items and general improvisation. In theory, the theme of the show is that the audience are on a world tour, following a route that takes in every country in the world. So minute by minute, the show shifts to another "location" and Watson brings in new items vaguely - very vaguely - related to the country they're meant to be in.

It's a slightly ropey concept because the actual route isn't very obvious; last year he did "2005 years in 2005 minutes", where the link between the clock and what the audience were doing was more apparent. But it doesn't really matter, because it's just a device to give some structure to the show. It would be impossible to script a 36 hour show, but this gives Watson something to improvise around.

Introducing new ideas, getting continually distracted by random suggestions, chasing down blind alleys and taking phone calls, Watson soon ends up juggling nine or ten uncompleted items at once. Which is ideal. It means that there's always something there to fall back on.

More of a two-day party than a show in the strict sense, and driven by a demented blitz spirit, it's still an amiably joyful and enjoyable thing, with Watson just about keeping hold over the sheer, glorious, chaotic pointlessness of it all. Far from the publicity stunt you might think, it's just the sort of wonderfully absurd event the Fringe does best.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Vincent van Gogh and Robert Mapplethorpe

Continuing the festival, two more of this year's exhibitions. Don't worry, I'll be dumbing down enormously after this one. Besides, I just like the contrast with these two.

The National Galleries of Scotland have a curious fondness for running neighbouring buildings and claiming that they're separate entities. In the centre of town, there's the National Gallery and the RSA building. Off to the north, there's the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and, directly across the road, the Dean Gallery. Quite why they don't bill the whole thing as part of the modern art gallery, I've never understood. The Dean Gallery's remit is, er, to show modern art. It houses an overflow from the modern art gallery next door, as well as an Eduardo Paolozzi collection. You get a lot of Eduardo Paolozzi in Edinburgh galleries, because he's local. It's all the same, and it gets boring very quickly.

The Dean Gallery is running a small Van Gogh exhibition, which is stretching their remit, but at least they have the right size rooms for it. The theme is curious. It's perhaps understandable that they're not pretending to offer a full scale career retrospective; that would require them to get in some of the really well-known paintings, and frankly, I suspect the budget doesn't run that far. Instead, the theme is paintings that were bought by early British collectors of his work.

Now, this is not just an excuse to use paintings that are already lying around in the national collections. The stipulation is simply that they WERE bought by British collectors around ninety years ago, not that they remain in Britain today. Many of these paintings now make their home in galleries in Melbourne and Oklahoma. They've been brought back specially. It makes for an odd selection, with some curious omissions. For some reason, it seems the early British collectors never bought any sunflowers.

The result is a show which is part retrospective of Van Gogh, and part celebration of art collectors of the early twentieth century. If anything, it seems more interested in the collectors, most of whom had zero influence on Van Gogh's work - they bought the paintings in the years after he died - and whose stories frankly aren't very interesting. "The Fortifications of Paris with Houses was bought by a Manchester-based collector, Sir Thomas Barlow, whose wealth came from the family textile business. He bought it at the Leicester Galleries exhibition of 1926, for £157, and immediately presented it to the University of Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery." Do we really care?

Reading between the lines, there may be some attempt going on to rewrite art history. Britain was very slow on the uptake when it came to post-impressionism, and the first major London exhibition of the movement - in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh died - was widely greeted with bafflement and disdain. Since the mainland Europeans understood post-impressionism perfectly well by 1910, this is all dreadfully embarrassing, since it makes the English art scene look dimwitted and parochial. So this show is trying to set up a counternarrative where some people liked it after all.

The trouble is, beyond the fact that some people liked post-Impressionism ahead of mainstream British taste, there's not much more to be said. It's not as though they were all total mavericks - the exhibition includes the 1910 review from the art critic of the Chronicle, who understood it all perfectly. Perhaps it excites the art world to prove that they weren't all wrong, but really, does it matter at this stage?

Still, it's three rooms of Van Goghs, and that's something you don't get to see too often in Edinburgh. Worth seeing simply for the paintings themselves, but the big curatorial theme is a strange choice.

Across the road, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is running a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer probably best known for doing gay S&M imagery in the 1980s. It provoked something of a controversy in America because the National Endowment for the Arts had funded it. All of which is a little unfortunate, albeit that he was deliberately courting controversy, because it's only one part of his output.

Mapplethorpe is basically interested in making formally beautiful pictures, pretty in a stylised way (which is sometimes not immediately obvious). He likes elaborately balanced compositions and studies of anatomy. He does a lot of fairly conventional portrait work. He also likes playing up to his own image as a rebel figure, and yes, he was being deliberately confrontational by producing technically beautiful photographs which were blatantly homoerotic. But it's the formal beauty that links it with the rest of his work.

Perhaps with an eye to the UK's obscenity laws, this show doesn't venture into the more extreme parts of Mapplethorpe's output. It is, for example, light on the fisting. (Disappointed visitors keen to see some authentic Mapplethorpe fisting might enjoy this article which, obviously, is not work safe once you start scrolling down.)

So, not much hardcore sex. Then again, it's fairly light on the flowers, too. There may be too much emphasis on the formal side of Mapplethorpe's work at the expense of the controversy which, after all, is what he's best known for. But then again, it's also worth reminding viewers of the other sides of his work, because he wasn't a one-dimensional artist. In that sense, at least, it's a successful exhibition.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ron Mueck and Adam Elsheimer

Let's start with the galleries, since I'm trying to get round them this week before the Film Festival begins.

First up, the Royal Scottish Academy Building, perhaps the most hit-and-miss major gallery in Edinburgh. Sometimes it hosts top quality touring exhibitions. Sometimes it's just running any old crap by a long-serving member of the Scottish Academy - which generally tends to be modern art at its dry and self-important worst. It says a lot that, despite it being a huge slab of a building located right next to the National Gallery, I've met two people this week who didn't actually know what it was called. (The distinction with the National Gallery is even more blurred now that the two are physically connected by the Weston Link. I've no idea who controls which bits any more, although ultimately it's all under the auspices of National Galleries of Scotland.)

Strictly speaking the RSA building isn't part of the festival at all, but it does have two major exhibitions on at the moment, obviously timed to coincide.

Up in the main galleries, there's a collection of sculptures from Ron Mueck. He's a hyperrealist sculptor - his schtick is ultra-realistic human figures constructed on completely the wrong scale. Everything is hugely detailed and perfectly accurate, except the scale, which is either absurdly large or way too tiny.

Mueck isn't a trained artist; his background is making props for TV and film, although he made the jump to the art world a decade ago. If you're the sort of person who grumbles about modern artists not actually knowing how to do anything, then you'll like him a lot. Although there's some use of computers to scale up the models, and he has a sidekick who handles the body hair (individually added), essentially they're genuine handcrafted and handpainted sculptures.

There's no denying that Mueck's work is phenomenally impressive on a technical level. For the most part, his sculptures are eerily convincing. The question, perhaps, is whether there's anything more to them. Amusingly, Mueck tends to provoke "Yes, but is it art?" reviews from contemporary art critics, who argue that at the end of the day, they're just very impressive props. Where's the meaning?

Nonsense, of course; Mueck's work has as much meaning to it as traditional sculptures or portraits. Even if they were nothing more than hugely detailed studies of the human form, that would still be something. And the fact is that his lifelike giants, with perfect body language and expression, do provoke a reaction in people. They're objects of fascination. You just have to stand and watch the crowds. Of course a big element in that reaction is the shock value of Mueck's sheer technical ability, but what's wrong with that? Mueck is, perhaps, at the populist wing of contemporary art, but somebody needs to be.

Downstairs, in a drastically different style, there's an exhibition of paintings by the German artist Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610). Boldly reversing the normal way of doing things, Elsheimer was recognised as a genius during his lifetime, and has pretty much been forgotten since. (Although he did at least have the decency to die in poverty, after falling out with his patron.)

His speciality was miniature paintings with extreme levels of detail - to the point where you get a free magnifying glass with every ticket. No, seriously, you do. And you need it.

Art from this period can be a bit distant for the modern viewer, especially one without a reasonably thorough knowledge of art history. After all, most of it illustrated religious stories, for social purposes long since obsolete. It's difficult to truly understand how a contemporary audience would have reacted to them. Of course, many of the more interesting artists were really more interested in how they were telling the story than the story itself.

Elsheimer certainly impresses in terms of his ability to render detail on what seems an impossibly small scale. He seems to prefer the more obscure religious stories, possibly trying to escape from the constraints of the limited subject matter of the day. Not many artists have bothered themselves with the story of Empress Helena from the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, for example. (Helena, the mother of Constantine, supposedly conducted an archaeological trip to Jerusalem where she dug up the cross used to crucify Jesus. Actually, she dug up three crosses, but they were able to tell the difference because Christ's one could raise the dead. Honestly, that's the story.) Other times, Elsheimer relegates the story to a corner, so that he can devote most of the space to a nice landscape instead.

It's easy to see why he was acclaimed in his day - he's a technically brilliant artist, a master of composition, able to fit a whole story into a single panel, and able to cram his panels with detail without them becoming shapeless or cluttered. It's also easy to see why he drifted off the mainstream cultural radar - he's not really an innovator, so much as an exceptionally good example of his time.

Still, the exhibition presents his work persuasively, with surviving pencil sketches and contemporary copies representing some missing or damaged works. He's a surprisingly obscure choice of artist for a major summer show, but his paintings are still impressive four hundred years on.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

And now, the Festival.

Okay, so it's taken me longer than I expected to get back to writing here. But I'm a few restful days into my holidays now, so normal service can be resumed.

For those of you who may not be aware, August sees the annual Edinburgh Festival - or, more accurately, the cluster of Edinburgh Festivals. Once upon a time, there was just the Edinburgh International Festival, a tremendously highbrow collection of theatre, music, dance and so forth. It's the sort of festival that actually needs to specify in the programme that their performance of Shakespeare's Troilus & Cressida will be in English. Some years, it isn't.

Nobody pays the slightest attention to the Edinburgh International Festival aside from those directly involved, and those deeply fascinated by the most serious of art. In 31 years, I've never heard anyone say, "Ooh, have you seen what's on at the official festival this year? We must get tickets."

But this doesn't matter, because the official festival was long since dwarfed by its siblings. Far and away the most important is the Fringe, which started back in 1947 along with the official festival. The original idea was that some companies who weren't involved in the festival at all just turned up anyway and performed their own shows, in order to take advantage of the expected crowds. In reality, the Fringe long since grew to consume its parent. Running for almost a month (officially it's three weeks, but many shows do a week of previews), it sees any halfway passable building co-opted into a theatre and literally thousands of performers descend on the city. There is no vetting procedure. If you can find a venue, and you're willing to pay for it, then you can play.

This is what really attracts the crowds, who also descend on the city in huge numbers. Purists have been complaining for decades that the Fringe has become far too corporate and well-organised. A small number of mega-venues, operating clusters of makeshift venues in buildings mostly hired from Edinburgh University, have cornered the comedy circuit, and the comedy circuit has come to dominate the Fringe. Indie music has been doing fairly well in recent years as well, ever since Tennents started pouring some serious money into sponsoring gigs. Experimental theatre and mime, on the other hand, aren't quite getting the crowds in. Mind you, they're fooling themselves if they truly believe that they'd have big audiences if it wasn't for those darned comedians.

And the Fringe remains crazily open-ended. This year's programme clocks in at over 200 pages, each show receiving around 45 words to publicise itself. (You want more than that, you can buy an advert.) Of that, roughly 65 pages is the comedy section. But venture into the Dance & Physical Theatre section and you'll still find plenty of shows for the purists to enjoy. The ultra-condensed summaries of experimental shows are always a joy to behold. ("The dancers enjoy the difficulty of their brilliant choreography. They dance at the very edge of possibility and with a fullness of being that's rare anywhere, anytime.") Other shows are just plain baffling - there's a play this year called Petrol Jesus Nightmare #5 (In the Time of the Messiah). Mind you, the writer won an award here last year, so I suppose it can't possibly be as bad as that title makes it sound.

Nonetheless, it's basically true that the Fringe is a comedy festival. Stand-up comedians come here in the hope of having their big break with a successful solo show, and getting a Channel 4 series off the back of it. They all lose a fortune, but that's not the point. They're here to throw their careers on the mercy of Edinburgh's completely trustworthy, experienced and honest reviewers.

The Fringe now drives Edinburgh; the official festival is an afterthought at best. But the Fringe is so big that even more festivals have opened up to take advantage of the crowds. There's the Film Festival, which lasts a fortnight and is really very good. There's the Book Festival, which is rather low key but still tends to attract some interesting guests - although god knows who they are this year, since their programme is virtually unnavigable. There's the Jazz Festival - sorry, the Starbucks Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival - which gets in early and speaks for itself. There's the Edinburgh Art Festival involving the minor galleries, plus all the year's big exhibitions from the major ones (which aren't technically part of the festival, but might as well be). There's the Edinburgh Television Festival, which isn't open to the public and is just an excuse for people who work in TV to come to Edinburgh on expenses. And there's something called the Festival of Spirituality and Peace, which has apparently been going ever since 9/11, although I can't say I've noticed it.

You get the idea. It's a busy time.

I love the festival season, which is one reason why I always book these three weeks off work. Another reason is that I work on the Royal Mile, which is presently full of jugglers and bagpipe players - both of whom are best enjoyed from a safe distance of at least five miles. So, for the next couple of weeks, I'll be mostly rambling about stuff I've seen on the festival. Comedy, music, films, art, probably some things that aren't even connected with the festival. And maybe some throwaway stuff too.

Coming up: Ron Mueck, Richard Herring, Vincent van Gogh, and possibly Cars, which has nothing to do with the festivals, but I finally got around to seeing it.