Operation Midnight Climax Depicts One of the CIA’s Dirty, Sexy Secrets

The 1950s, the CIA, the hookers it hired, and the LSD they dispensed to johns — a true story. That’s a heck of a pitch for anything, especially in the world of web video, which rarely trips into decades past.

Independent production company Strange Science LLC stumbled across the story of Operation Midnight Climax while writer Ramesh Thadani and director Zach Jordan were working at Videojug.com, where they were asked to research conspiracies for a potential video piece. There’s a full write-up on the operation at Wikipedia, but the Cliff’s Notes version is this — during the 1950s, as part of their experimentation with LSD and other mind-altering substances, the CIA hired prostitutes to dose their customers with drugs so that agents could observe the effects via two-way mirror.

Climax adds an element of fiction by depicting one of these brothels, run by Millie (Meredith Salenger, best known as Natty Gann from The Journey of Natty Gann), and its regulars, who have no idea that they’ve just become the subjects of a government trial in mind control. By putting the premise out front and center in a nicely rendered opening sequence, there’s minimal suspense in the first two episodes, which are mostly about the set-up of the experiment.

Instead, these episodes are more character study than narrative, establishing relationships and providing glimpses of backstory. So far, the most intriguing is that of the well-read African-American prostitute Bea (Vernetra Gavin), for whom turning tricks is a more dignified profession than any other career option available to her during that time period.

It’s a choice that plays well with the show’s deliberate pacing, which is just one of the ways the creators have managed to invoke the era they’re depicting. Anyone who’s ever tried to recreate a time period on a limited budget knows what a challenge it can be, but Strange Science produced the first three episodes for a cost somewhere “in the mid-four-figures,” according to Producer and Director of Photography Glenn Sauber.

It helps that the series is largely limited to one or two locations. The biggest expense was set construction, which pays off on-screen — the 1950s decor of the brothel is a huge factor in selling the show’s place in time. “We’re trying to find the fine line between impressing people by what we can do for so little and telling producers that we’ll work for nothing,” said Sauber.

Climax’s dialogue occasionally leans too heavily on the appropriation of 50s slang, but the lush, sepia-tinged cinematography alone is a draw, darting between a classic film noir look, the paranoia-inspiring perspective of the ever-watching CIA, and the actual drug-enduced hallucinations the men experience. Right now, the only thing missing is a stronger narrative arc, but it’s hard to blame Climax for that, given how it’s not even clear what exactly the CIA was hoping to learn from these experiments. The fact that they existed at all is drama enough, I suppose. It’s a little depressing to realize that the idea of our government experimenting on its citizens isn’t as shocking as it once was.

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Do Unto Others (On The Media: Friday, 10 July 2009)

In 2004, Micah Garen was filming a documentary in Iraq when he was kidnapped by a Shi’ite terrorist group. The kidnappers released videos of Garen, threatening to kill him within 48 hours if the U.S. did not meet their demands. Garen talks about what it’s like when the press does report on your abduction, and discusses whether the media have two sets of ethics: one for their own, and one for everyone else.

Mr. Khrushchev Goes to Washington (On The Media: Friday, 10 July 2009)

In 1959, with the Cold War in full throttle and MAD the doctrine of the day, Nikita Khrushchev crisscrossed America in a whirlwind circus of a tour, from Harlem to Hollywood. Peter Carlson, author of “K Blows Top,” sifted through the newspapers of the day to piece together an account of the visit.

Updated: Pandora Raises $35 Million After Near-Death Experience

Talk about a comeback. Not only has online music streaming service Pandora settled its long-standing disagreement with music labels over the royalties it pays, but the company has also raised $34 million of a $35 million round of funding we have confirmed. PE Hub first reported the news this afternoon. We’ve reached out to Pandora for comment. Pandora spokeswoman Michele Husak says that the company has closed a round of funding, which it will use to fund the service’s growth.

Pandora will have now raised $64 million since its start nine years ago. Greylock Partners led the investment round, joining existing investors Crosslink Capital, Walden Venture Capital, Labrador Ventures, King Street Capital, Hearst Corporation, DBL Investors, and Selby Ventures. Greylock partner David Sze is joining Pandora’s board.

The news of the funding comes only two days after Pandora and other internet broadcasters announced a new copyright deal with the record labels, although PE Hub says the funding had been closed before then. In May, founder Tim Westergen said the company could become profitable for the first time next year, assuming it could reach a favorable settlement. He also said Pandora was on track to double its revenue this year.

Updated: Google’s Schmidt On Chrome, Android: “They May Merge Even Closer”

Google’s entry into the operating system market with Chrome OS should have obvious, broad impact not only on Google (NSDQ: GOOG) itself but also on its established relationships with other companies. At the Allen & Co. Media Conference Thursday, CEO Eric Schmidt (pictured left, with Bill Gates), along with Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, fielded questions on some of the implications of Google’s new initiative. Highlights (via the WSJ):

Competition? What competition? The new operating system will increase the size of the netbook market, not necessarily cut into Microsoft’s (increasing) share of that business, the executives said. They also invited Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) to put its own browser on Chrome OS, although they acknowledged it was unlikely that Microsoft would do that.

What happens with Android One question is how much Chrome OS will overlap with the company’s existing Android operating system, which was already expected to be put on some netbooks. “There’s a great deal of commonality,” Schmidt said. “Eventually they may merge even closer.” Updated: On Friday, Google VP Andy Rubinclarified, however, that the Chrome OS isn’t going to replace Android on phones. “You need different technology for different solutions,” he said.

Schmidt’s role on the Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) board The FTC is investigating whether Google and Apple are violating antitrust laws because the companies compete and also share two directors, including Schmidt. Schmidt already recuses himself from discussions on the iPhone, which competes with Google’s Android phone operating system. He said Thursday he would talk with Apple about what to do about his position on the Apple board, considering their future competition in computer operating systems. “There is no change at the moment,” he said. Schmidt did not suggest that he was thinking of stepping down.

Look Who’s Coming to Dinner (On The Media: Friday, 10 July 2009)

A collective ethical gasp was heard when Politico reported the Washington Post’s intention to hold sponsored salons, during which lobbyists could hobnob with administration officials and Post employees for a price. Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi, who has been reporting the story, says the salon idea was likely the result of a really bad case of groupthink.

A King’s Farewell (On The Media: Friday, 10 July 2009)

For the past two weeks, coverage of Michael Jackson’s death has dominated the news, arguably at the expense of more pressing stories. Bob takes a look at how the media have handled the superstar’s passing.