Friday, May 23, 2008

Journalism: discuss

New York Times Magazine: 5/18/08 cover story vs 5/25/08 cover story

In false blogger fashion (and what is blogging but the ultimate in online fashion) I'll be undersharing on this all week.

Required reading before I do? A compare-and-contrast exercise:

This comments section versus this one.

candle candle warm and round, tell me something real profound

Indiana Jones and the Temple of "It Isn't Dull"

From the blatantly obvious overdubbing of Harrison Ford's voice in the first ten minutes of the movie, through the total absence of that Spielberg touch in the direction, to the jokeless script that plays like it was cobbled together from six differently-authored drafts and then mixed in a National Treasure blender, this is the first 100% George Lucas Indiana Jones movie, which means (like the last 3 Star Wars episodes) it is by the numbers, joyless, and deadeningly earnest.

Was I bored? No. Was I excited? No. Did I laugh? Not even once. And you know me -- I howl at clever music cues. Is it as good as Iron Man? Not even close. Is it as good as the first three Indiana Jones movies? God no, and anybody who ranks this even above Temple of Doom is on crack, okay? Is it better than the last three Star Wars movies? Hell yes, and maybe that’s why it’s getting all these sigh-of-relief positive reviews. Because it really does feel more Lucas than Spielberg, which means it could have been a dog’s breakfast on a very pretty CGI plate.

A couple of comparisons and a burning question:

You know how in the original Star Trek there’s loud cheesy horn music everywhere because you’re watching a fun melodrama, but in Star Trek: The Next Generation there are all these muted strings under everything because this is DRAMA Goddammit and we’re taking this VERY SERIOUSLY, OKAY? I got the same message here: this isn't fun, folks -- the 40's were fun, okay? But not the 50's.

And not the 60's either, as in a bunch of 60-year-old guys getting together and instead of saying, “Let’s do something based on the serials we saw when we were kids,” they say, “Well, we had fun doing this serial-based kind of movie once, so why don’t we try to make one like that movie again?” In other words, Crystal Skull is a Xerox of a Xerox, which gives it the comfortable but recycled air of later Roger Moore James Bond movies like A View To A Kill.

And isn’t there anybody in LA with the balls to tell George Lucas that the phrase “I have a ba-a-a-ad feeling about this,” is not a fucking laugh line?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How to describe layoffs in LieBanker

In the investment banker (or IBanker) world, where a great deal of effort goes into creating buzzwords and phrases like “leveraging the franchise,” “increasing the footprint,” and “maintaining work-life balance,” an even greater amount of effort goes into creating pleasant synonyms for “We fucked up” and “You are paying for our fuck-up with your job, pal.”

What is not generally known is that these phrases and synonyms are collected and updated in a shared dictionary that is housed on a secure server underneath the Bank of New York building on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. It was originally called the Gould Standard, after robber-baron Jay Gould, who started gathering current Wall Street slang after he won control of Western Union in the late 1800’s. It is currently known simply as the LieBanker.

The 2008 version of the LieBanker mandates that any corporate discussion of billion-dollar write-downs, massive losses due to risky portfolio positions, and personal responsibility for stupid investment mistakes should all be described by the phrase “turbulent market conditions” or "current corporate environment." It also requires that, in every meeting or discussion of these conditions, the following quote from Charles Darwin should be prominently displayed:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
(The number of false assumptions contained in that single sentence are staggering, and deserve a separate post; for the moment let me just say that an investment banker who is actually responsive to change is like a mountain which is actually responsive to erosion –- the effects are visible only after eons, not e-mails.)

The following synonyms for “You are paying for our fuck-up with your job, pal,” are taken from the 05-15-08 LieBanker, which has not been updated since that date because the analyst in charge of it was from Bear Stearns:

Bobbit. A particularly emasculating form of severance; as in, "Did you hear what happened to Brian? It was a real Bobbit."

Boned. To have all the personnel and consultant fat removed from your group or department by those butchers in Human Resources; as in, “Oh man, we got boned in the last RIF.”

BS. A layoff which occurs because it will make the next quarter's balance sheet numbers look good. A BS always affects actual employees, not consultants.

Cap-sized. To have your numbers reduced based on budget restrictions and not performance. Departments that have been cap-sized usually end up life-boated (qv).

De-mailed. To have your absence in the company discovered only when someone realizes you are no longer in the e-mail directory; as in, “Oh my God -- Sharon Radulov just got de-mailed.”

Foxed. To be walked out of your office by security after getting boned. From Bud Fox, the character played by Charlie Sheen in Wall Street.

Life-boated. What happens when the survivors of a cap-size are assigned to different departments.

RIF. Reduction in Force. Not to be confused with ROF, which stands for Retention Of Fuckers, the worst of whom always seem to survive layoffs with their jobs and attitudes intact.

Right-size. The kinder gentler way of saying “down-size,” which is the kinder gentler way of saying “laid off,” which is the kinder gentler way of saying “fired.” Right-sizing means there was something wrong with having all those people doing one job apiece, and therefore something right about a smaller amount of people doing three jobs apiece. It also implies that the kinder gentler event which has just taken place is really just another example of the most overused word in LieBanker: a correction.

Tipped. To be pushed onto the life side of work-life balance.

Unpersonnel. Former high-level company officers who have to be edited out of all corporate historical records; as in, "Zoe Cruz has to be taken out of that video--she's an unpersonnel."

Wrapping. A large severance package; as in, "He's gone, but they gave him a lot of wrapping, so he should be okay for the next few months."

Z-sponsible. Used to describe the person least responsible for a multi-billion-dollar mistake, who then takes the fall for the person actually responsible. The rules of corporate z-sponsibility require that any mistake resulting in massive write-offs can only be rectified by de-mailing as many people as possible at the bottom of the payroll pyramid.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Elizabeth Hardwick on bachelors

From Sleepless Nights:

“I often think about bachelors. A life of pure decision, of thoughtful calculations, of every inclination honored. They go about on their own, nicely accompanied in their singularity by the companion of possibility. For cannot any man, young or old, rich or poor, turn a few corners and bump into marriage?”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Weekend Update

"What a rotten film. All we meet are crazy people." A horn-blaring traffic jam that lasts for ten minutes, self-aware characters who know they’re in a movie, ominous music that rises and falls with no apparent link to the actual plot -- but then there’s no actual plot in Week End, really --just Godard’s idea of a road movie, where the streets of France are littered with burning cars and accident victims, figures from literature and the French Revolution appear and lecture the audience, and immediate relatives are butchered like livestock for inheritance money when they’re not thrown into the stewing pot to serve as food for the revolutionaries. You want a time capsule from 1967? Look no further. It’s Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with neither charm nor discretion.

Prince Caspian. Fantasy? Nope. War movie? Yes. It’s more Two Towers than anything else, and except for the minotaurs, dwarves and centaurs, the whole film could be a subplot in El Cid. Kids who were charmed by The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe will probably be terrified by the darkness at the heart of this sequel, even though its message is even more overtly Christian than the first one: pride goeth before a fall, a little child shall lead them, and faith can move mountains, or at least deciduous oak trees.

The Writing Imp. How do you know you're writing something good? When your hand is taken over by a mischievous little imp who makes your characters say and do things that force you to either wrestle control of your pen back or throw out all your notes, outlines, strategies and preparations and see where the imp is taking you. Or, in my case, when a projected 10-page scene swells to almost 20 pages -- which, the way I write, is 30 minutes of stage time -- and a two-act play is threatening, in this draft at least, to become three acts. And yet. To quote Dashiell Hammett, I haven't had so much fun since the hogs ate my kid brother.

Why I'm Dreading Indy 4

It's this poster:

It's all over New York, so it's the primary image you're being programmed with when you think of the picture. And the reason it bothers me is because it shows Indy running. Which translates as: "Yes, we know Harrison Ford is long in the tooth, so we're going to prove he's still an action star by showing you he can run."

Look at the posters for the four movies in chronological order. In the first he's just standing there; in the second there's a tiny insert of him fighting. But it's the third and fourth where the subliminals start creeping in.

In the third poster? He's riding a horse. Subliminal message: Harrison needs a little help here. He's also pointing his gun straight ahead, which means he's not riding away from anything (despite all the riders and cars and tanks chasing him) but riding towards something, riding into battle.

In the current poster? He's running away--being chased by natives and running away. No other way to look at it.

I don't know about you, but that combination (See? He can run! And he's running away!) is making me look forward to this movie with what you might call wariness.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Reefer Busby Berkeley Madness

Listening to Carmen Miranda songs at the Cornelia Street Cafe recently reminded me of a night long ago which is etched in my memory.

Time: New Year's Eve, many many years ago. Place: an upstairs apartment where me, my roommates and a guest or three were celebrating the holidays. One of the guests pulled out a nice little cigarette case of hand-rolled cigarettes that were as thick as Balkan Sobranies, except not filled with tobacco. "A present from my sister," he announced, lighting up, and took a puff. Five minutes later, when he had stopped coughing and we had stopped laughing, he passed the cigarette down to each of us in turn, and every one of took a single smug puff and immediately coughed up a lung, to louder and louder laughter.

I think we only smoked the one. I think we went out in our street clothes and had a snowball fight at midnight. I think we ordered pizza and ate whatever was in the refrigerator. I know we were watching television, because The Great Escape was on, and one by one, as we came under the total influence of what we had smoked, we glommed onto it, each of us thinking in our heads: "This is the best movie ever! Oh look--they're machine gunning all the escapees! Cool!"

And when the movie was over, we kept it on the same channel, because none of us could move and we were totally hypnotized by what we were watching. And what we were watching now was a Busby Berkeley musical called The Gang's All Here.

I have no memory of the first three musical numbers, outside of the opening, where an obviously outdoor dockside scene segues into an indoor stage with people singing. That's the kind of mind-bending transition which is totally logical when you're smoking funny cigarettes -- of course there's an ocean on the stage, it's a musical. But the fourth musical number completely redefined mind-bending: Carmen Miranda singing "The Lady In The Tutti Frutti Hat."

Imagine, if you can, watching this number under the influence of a funny cigarette so strong that a single puff gives you a two-minute coughing fit. Imagine what your mind makes of all those giant bananas. And imagine in particular the final moments, when the camera pulls back to reveal the size of Carmen Miranda's hat, and you find yourself trying to keep your jaw from hitting the floor while your body is involuntarily leaning back, back, back against the couch, and you're thinking holy crap, is this actually in the movie or am I imagining this? Her fucking hat is twenty stories tall!!!

And then the number ends, and you look at everyone else in the room. And one of you says what the rest of you are thinking: "What the hell was THAT?" And somebody else says what the resat of you are also thinking: "I have to go to bed now." And the TV is turned off and you go to bed; and on New Year's Day, and for many days after, during any lengthy silence in the group conversation, one of you will stare off into the distance and say: "What the hell was THAT?" And everyone will know exactly what you're talking about.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Notebooks of a Magpie Mind

E-mail exchanges, quotes, and notebook entries:

BARBARA: Tom didn’t really say this, did he, when Suri was born?

Soon thereafter her mother changes her name because, as husband Tom Cruise explains, “Katie is a young girl's name. Her name is Kate now -- she's a child-bearing woman."

MATTHEW: Alas, I believe he did. The rumor is, he'll be changing his own name to Thomas once he actually has sex with a woman.

BARBARA: I’ve just now fallen off my chair in violent hysterics.

* * * * *

"However much you knock at Nature's door, she will never answer you in comprehensible terms." -- Ivan Turgenev

"People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"The way you think the world works is the way you work." -- Me.

* * * * *

MATTHEW: God can't write story to save His life, but He sure does know how to create characters . . .

ESTER: Hmm. It's true -- how could an omnipotent being be so limited as to only create seven archetypical storylines? Imagine if Eve hadn't been mildly inquisitive -- we'd only have the one story, and how boring would that be!

MATTHEW: We'd be watching it as The Gardeners on cable and saying "Oh look--there's us!!!"

ESTER: Now I finally understand British television . . .

* * * * *

The best quote ever about Andrew Lloyd Webber: At a party years ago, Lloyd Webber went up to Alan Jay Lerner and asked plaintively: "Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?" "Because it saves time," Lerner replied.

* * * * *

"Whatever they criticize you for, intensify it.” Jean Cocteau.

“Don’t touch shit even with gloves on. The gloves get shittier, the shit doesn’t get glovier.” Ferenc Molnár.

* * * * *


I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
Without ever having felt sorry for itself.

-- DH Lawrence

* * * * *

The more success we have dealing with failure, the less we have in dealing with success. -- Me

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Weekend Update

Style over substance. Like the rest of America, I spent two hours in a theatre watching a comic-book-colored movie with dialogue that made no sense, scenes that made you scratch your head and go "Huh?" and knowing, superior direction that was infuriating when it wasn't trying to get you to fall asleep. That's right, folks -- I spent my Saturday watching Speed Racer Godard's Pierrot Le Fou. There are a lot less painful things to do in a theatre than look at Anna Karina's face for 120 minutes, especially since Godard is so in love with it. Is there a plot? Not really. The key is Belmondo's monologue, where he says: “I’ve got an idea for a novel. Not to write about people’s lives anymore but only about life—life itself… what lies between people: space, sound, and color.” That's what you get for two hours: space, sound and color -- along with vintage anti-Americanism which, when you replace "Vietnam" with "Iraq," becomes tragically, ironically, contemporary.

NIXONLAND. Thank you, New York Times, for letting a conservative columnist review this book and totally ignore the book's thesis while nitpicking its factual errors and decrying it as yet another "wallow" in those awful 60's. The point of the book is that we are still living in the politics of polarizing personalities that began with Tricky Dick, and even a syndicated columnist with a closet full of bow ties should be able to see that the Right's loathing of Clinton and the Left's loathing of Bush fit that particular description like a fist in a boxing glove. Personally, I can think of no better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of 1968 than by wallowing in the glorious loathsomeness of our 37th President. There are little jewels on almost every page. Here's the best one-line description of Nixon's character I've ever read: ""He had to have someone with him so he could be alone." That's from page 18; only another 700 to go.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Theater of War: Tribeca Film Festival

This movie is the documentary equivalent of the Sufi parable about the blind men and the elephant. It’s a record of the rehearsal and performance process for the Mother Courage that was done in Central Park in summer of 06; it’s a mini-biography of Bertolt Brecht; it’s the clearest explanation of Marx’s theory of labor that you’ve ever seen; and it’s an anti-war agit-prop disguised as an examination of the intersection of theatre and politics. The fourth part is the least successful and the most predictable. Anti-Iraq-War marches and memories of anti-Vietnam demonstrations are threaded together with producers and writers talking about how theatre is only really meaningful when it addresses real issues blah blah what can one person do blah blah open eyes to blah blah make a blah blah difference. What would have been much more interesting, given the Brechtian subject, would have been a closer examination or questioning of the business decision of staging Mother Courage in 2006 –- an examination of what effect, if any, preaching to the choir has when an anti-war play is done in front of an audience that primarily agrees with its sentiments. (But that’s my documentary, not this one.)

To this documentary’s credit, there’s enough subversive and downright you’ve-never-heard-this-anywhere-else material to undermine Mother Courage as pro- or anti-anything, and make you ask questions you’re not supposed to ask in a job-based capitalist society. Most of this takes place in the Jay Cantor section. Cantor, an essayist and novelist, does an excellent job of quietly distilling the essence of Marx in a sentence that can’t help but resonate with everyone: “Marx’s theory of labor, simply put, says this: how you work, and for whom you work, equals who you are.” And when you work for people who are defined by the harm they do, as opposed to the good they do, you are part of that process. This is entertainingly illustrated by a section spotlighting the composer, the costume designer, and the head of Props at the Delacorte, and how their work contributes to the final show. Which is all interspersed with rehearsal footage and an on-camera interview with Meryl Streep about the play, the part, and her role as an actress.

In a film where you get to see Brecht’s famous “Yes I think maybe” appearance before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, and hear Brecht’s off-camera daughter telling you that this halting on-screen foreigner was really a crafty little bastard who could speak fluent English and left for Europe the day after he gave his testimony, it’s still the moments when Meryl Streep is talking or playing Mother Courage that are the most riveting and involving, especially when she’s talking about her role as an actress (“I am the voice of dead people.”) or about the rehearsal process (“Process comes off as bad acting, nobody wants to see process – it’s like you’re building a skyscraper and you show people the pipes and the plumbing. It’s the stuff that holds the building together, but it’s not what anyone really wants to see.”) It's her scenes and moments that I remember most, and keep coming back to. Does that make me a shallow apolitical slug who finds behind-the-scenes glimpses of famous people more interesting than political action? Duh. Is it going to stop me from thinking very hard about how my daily day-job contribution to corporate America helps perpetuate behavior and attitudes that drive me crazy? No. I just think that if Brecht were marketing this documentary, he’d stress the Streep part and downplay the Marxism, and maybe edit in some more of the one-on-one interview. It’s definitely the one course on the plate that puts a smile on your face as you’re being fed the rest of the meal. As Brecht himself famously said: “Grub first, then ethics.”

[director's commments in q&a to come]

Monday, May 5, 2008

Weekend Update

Man of Kleenex. Play hard, get sick hard, recuperate hard. Started fighting a nasty cold at the end of last week (which only made it easier to nod off here and there during Endgame at BAM), so instead of not only burning the candle at both ends but blow-torching the middle this weekend, I stayed home, ate soup, drank tea and watched foreign movies: Throne of Blood, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Shoot The Piano Player, Le Samourai, Army of Shadows, and Le Cercle Rouge. I feel much better now. Plus I'm starting to think in French with subtitles.

Man Against Man. Saturday I saw Theater of War, an inspiring and semi-preachy documentary about Brecht, socialism, theatre, war, and the 2006 production of Mother Courage in the Delacorte. The snippets of Meryl Streep talking about process make me want to see the entire unedited interview, and I will now never be able to think about my day job in the same way ever again. Review to follow.

Man of Iron. Not just a fun movie period, and not just building a franchise, this movie is building a universe, and a possible tradition. This is the first comic book movie ever produced by a comic book company's production wing, and it sets the bar very high. Stay through the credits at the end, okay? You won't be disappointed.

Friday, May 2, 2008

old computer game companies never die

. . .they just beg for quarters where Playland used to be . . .

Green Porno: Tribeca Film Festival

One of the extras that was shown during the Toby Dammit evening was a series of videos created by Isabella Rossellini that'll be running online here starting on May 5th and then broadcast on the Sundance Channel. The reason why the videos were part of a Fellini evening? Fellini used to work with Roberto Rossellini, Isabella's father. The subject of the videos? Insect sex.

We saw 4 clips: the firefly, the common fly, the queen bee, and the earthworm. They were alternately creepy and goofy, but totally entertaining. Their tone and subject reminded me a lot of this book, which is required reading for anyone who has ever wondered how long stick-insect copulation lasts for (10 weeks) and roughly how many species of females eat their lovers either before, during, or after sex (not counting investment bankers, that would be 80).

And here's the website.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Once Upon A Time In The West: Tribeca Film Festival

I was pretty shocked to discover that there were still tickets available for this the day before it screened; it’s one of the ten best movies ever made, and how many times do you get to see it on a wide screen the way it was designed to be seen, with Henry Fonda’s baby blues the size of swimming pools and Jack Elam’s two-day growth of beard like a forest of baby redwoods?

Judging by the reaction in the theatre, a lot of people were seeing this for the first time. Big clue right up front: when the story credit citing Dario Argenti, Bernardo Bertolucci and Leone comes up, and suddenly there’s a shocked whisper of “Bertolucci? Bertolucci was involved in this . . . this . . . western?” (I wanted to say, "Yeah and two minutes of Woody Strode can kick all of The Conformist's ass, okay?") There were also a lot of gasps of shock, like the Fonda reveal at the beginning; and a lot of laughter. You forget how funny the movie is until you see it in a theatre.

One of the things I noticed this time around is Leone's use of what I think of as camera frame POV. A character can be standing two feet away from someone on-screen, but until he enters the frame, he doesn’t exist and isn’t recognized. The classic Leone use of this is in The Good The Bad and The Ugly where Blondie and Tuco are captured by Union soldiers, and walk around a bush to see the gigantic siege hillside which they were right next to fifteen seconds ago, but never saw because the camera didn’t reveal it. The same thing happens here: almost every time Harmonica is discovered by the camera, he's entering frame from one side to the other in a giant Charles Bronson profile; the moment when Frank’s gun flips into frame and cocks in Harmonica’s face (big gasp from audience); the scene where Jill is looking for the Station model and it suddenly appears entering the audience right frame, and Jill looks up to see Frank holding it.

"Just a man." "An ancient race."

There are a lot of films that can be described as epic, but there are damn few that can be called monumental and live up to the billing. This is one of them. It's a revenge saga, it's an end-of-the-frontier story, it's a three-hour tour of the landscape of four faces, and for all its stately pace and Biblical echoes, there's not a moment wasted. To me there are few moments more monumentally thrilling in cinema than the one where Claudia Cardinale's cute little carriage lopes down a hill and right into John Fucking Ford's Monument Valley. But then to me there are few better movies, period.