Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Summer Movie Rundown - The Last Five Minutes

There are two (count ‘em—two) time travel movies out right now.  And oddly enough—or maybe not so oddly, given that they’re both about changing the past—they’re both about creating a totally different world in the last five minutes of the film.

You know you’re watching something that says “To hell with the general audience, this is for the fans,” when the first ten minutes of an X-Men movie gives you Blink, Warpath, Sunspot and Bishop and tons and tons of Sentinels with nary a word of character explanation.  If those names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry: all you really need to know is that you’re in a dystopian universe where a bunch of super-powered people are fighting for their lives, and pretty soon some familiar faces start showing up (Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore) and then the need-no-introduction big guns (McKellen, Stewart, Jackman).  The only concession to premise is when Professor X tells everybody what they already know, so we’ll know it too; and then we’re off to the trans-temporal races, where Wolverine is mentally time-traveled back into his 1970s body, where he has to stop Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique from committing the murder that creates the Sentinels that are killing off mutants. 

It appears that, since X-Men: First Class, Mystique is more of a vigilante than Magneto, which is an interesting take on canon.  But then J Law is a bigger star than anybody but Jackman at this point, so it makes sense.  It’s also kind of a romantic triangle, since Magneto and Professor X are, in a sense battling over her soul; but really?  It’s more like one of those Howard Hawks movies where the two leads share the girlfriend but never come to blows over it because their guy bond is stronger than either guy-plus-girl bond.  (So yes, this triangle is so loaded it’s like the Uzi of subtext.)

It’s a ton of fun, it’s faithful to all three X-men incarnations (comic book series, first trilogy, and First Class), there’s a clever Star Trek moment, there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of an actor whose big scene was cut in post-production, and there is a (dazzling?  joyous? exhilarating?) set piece with a new character that will have you humming Jim Croce for the next two days.  

Sadly, there is also a prime example of movie illogic.  Let’s say you have a character whose power is so awesome that if you add her to your team, you are totally assured of a victory.  Do you (a) add her to your team or (B) bid her goodbye before you go off on your final mission?  If you said A, then you live in the real world.  If you said B, then you too can write for Hollywood.  Because seriously: you do not kick Wonder Woman off the assault team, okay?  You either find a valid reason why she can’t join you, or you come up with a way she can be neutralized during your mission, while maybe in the process getting you past a couple of dangerous situations.  Believe me, you do not want your audience saying, “Wait—you just showed me how awesome Superman is.  Why are you saying goodbye to him at the airport?” 
What makes this even dumber: IT’S A TIME TRAVEL MOVIE.  In a time travel movie, how hard is it to come up with a reason why you have to leave someone behind?  Something specific like: “You have to rush your mother to the hospital tomorrow.”  Even something nebulous would work.  “There’s something crucial you’re doing tomorrow, and we can’t tell you what it is, because we’ve screwed with the time line enough just by seeing you today.  These things have consequences.”  (And even then—when you have the power of this character?)  If you think about it for five seconds, you recognize it for what it is: bad movie logic at its best.  Or worst.


Speaking of time machines, Emily Blunt probably wishes she had one.  Back in 2005, she declared in an interview with The Telegraph that she would prefer to do badly-paid theatre for the rest of her life rather than be a spear-carrier in a Tom Cruise movie.  (A possible dig at  Kristin Scott Thomas, who was filming Mission: Impossible at the time?)  When confronted with the quote by Telegraph reporter Helena de Bertodano a couple of months back, Blunt at first denied it (“I never said that! What an awful thing to say.”) and then, when confronted with the actual newspaper clipping, she laughed and declared “Well, at least I’m not a spear carrier.”

And she’s not.  Half the fun of Edge of Tomorrow is watching this woman kick Y-chromosome ass from here to Helsinki.  And of course the other half is the sheer delight of watching Tom Cruise get himself killed, over and over again—deliberately, accidentally, and (at the hands of Blunt’s character) homicidally.   

Why?  In plot terms, because Cruise has gained the power to “reset the day” and keep living it over and over again until he defeats the alien invaders called Mimics.  In other words: he’s a real-life gamer, and if you’ve ever played a game where you train yourself to avoid this hazard and defeat that enemy to get to the next level, and then reached a point where you can’t get any further, a point where you have to go back and flank your past, in a sense, by striking off somewhere new, then this is the movie for you.  And if you’re not a gamer, it still works, because Groundhog Day With Aliens. 

It’s based on a Japanese novel entitled All You Need Is Kill, which was written by Hiroshi Sakurazaka (a gamer; duh), and there are a couple of things in the novel that don’t get explained in the movie, like why the aliens are called Mimics (they’re designed to mimic the first local life form they encounter, which in this case was a starfish).  The novel is also nowhere near as funny as the movie, mostly because of those recurring deaths, and who they occur to.  Plus it's a prime example of the classic Cruise arc of asshole-to-hero, and damn if you don’t believe the guy actually grows through all this Groundhog Day shit. 

Side benefits include Bill Paxton, in one of those Born To Play This Guy roles as the drill sergeant of your worst nightmares, and Emily Blunt, who is like Ripley in that exoskeleton times ten.   It’s an inspired piece of casting, and probably the first role she’s played which gives her a chance to display everything that makes her memorable all at once—her confidence, her smarts, her determination, her physicality.  There’s a recurring shot of Blunt coming up out of a push-up—which in long shot resembles the one-handed push-ups that everybody does in the novel—that just gets sexier and sexier every time you see it, and even though the look on her face is identical every time, it changes each time you see it because the lead-up to that look changes, and brings out something else that you didn’t see in it before.  That’s pretty damn amazing, and nowhere near what a spear-carrier does.  

Oh—and continuing an odd but current trend in trailer foreplay, the “you’re not a soldier, you’re a weapon” exchange from the preview?  It’s not in the movie. 

As for the last five minutes?  It is a gigantic plot-hole, but one you kind of go with, and it pushes the “reset the day” button with an American finger, if you will, because it’s also a cultural mirror.  In the novel, the war doesn’t end, only a battle; it’s very much a gamer conclusion, as well as a Japanese one, where the reward is skill and proficiency, not an all-out victory.  In the movie?  That’s all been Americanized.  The enemy is destroyed and the war is won by the quintessential American—the lone man who can make a difference, the outsider who has learned to fight after avoiding battle, the isolationist who has learned the virtues of intervention, and the only one who knows what’s really going on—and when he wins, his reward is the girl.  As entertainment, it’s satisfying; but when you compare it to the Japanese original, as a cultural critique, it’s quite illuminating.  
And the last five minutes of our other time-travel movie?  Well, all I can say is, if you didn’t like X-Men 3: The Last Stand—if you felt betrayed by the way it betrayed all the potential of the Dark Phoenix storyline—then you are going to adore the last five minutes of Days of Future Past.  Talk about a reset button . . .

Monday, June 23, 2014

Byron and Shelley and the Performance of Manfred

After completing his play Manfred, Byron arranged for an Italian promoter to perform a benefit staging of the final draft, in order to pay off the mounting debts of his European exile.  Ticket sales were sluggish until Byron announced that he himself would perform the title role, and within two days, the performance had sold out. 

Shelley, who had seen Byron act before and had also read the manuscript in draft form, sat near the exit.  During the first act, his wandering attention was drawn to a woman in blue who was seated on the aisle near the stage and who appeared to be in a state of nervous anticipation, for as the act progressed, she was constantly checking her program.  The act had barely ended when she rose from her seat and rushed through a side door near the front of the theatre that led to the backstage area. 

When the second act began, she had not returned to her seat, and Shelley decided that she had left because she had been bored by the play.  It was an opinion that went unchallenged until halfway through the first scene, which took place in a cottage in the Bernese Alps.   Byron, as Manfred, was talking to a character called the Chamois Hunter, when suddenly a local baker, famed for the sweetness and lightness of his pastries, entered the scene from stage right carrying a tray of his choicest and most expensive creations.  Byron and the actor playing the Chamois Hunter broke off their dialogue to praise the baker’s wares, and Shelley deduced that this was some clever theatrical version of a program advertisement, when, to his astonishment, the lady in blue entered from stage left.  Byron kissed her cheek, introduced her to the Chamois Hunter, and presented her to the local baker with the clearly audible words: “Your choice, my dear.” 

“My thanks, my dear,” the woman replied, and after examining the baker’s pastries, pointed to a large chocolate croissant, whereupon Byron plucked it out and handed it to her.  Byron then shook the baker’s hand, waved him offstage, and escorted the woman in blue to an upstage seat where, for the rest of the scene, she ate her croissant. 

Absolutely bewildered by these events, Shelley went back to Byron’s dressing room during the second-act intermission to confess his befuddlement. 

“And how are you liking the performance?” Byron asked when he saw his friend. 

“I like it immensely,” Shelley lied, and then asked, “But what was that Business with the baker and the woman in blue during the cottage scene?” 

“Ah, that,” said Byron with a hint of regret in his voice.   “The local promoter who agreed to finance the entire cost of tonight’s performance did so with one condition.  His mistress, it seems, has set her heart upon a career as an actress; she is the woman in blue who appeared during the cottage scene.  The promoter introduced me to her a week ago.  ‘I will finance your production,’ said he, ‘if you will promise to do one thing for me.’” 

“You mean?” asked Shelley. 

“Yes,” Byron said ruefully.  “I had to promise that I would give his mistress a roll in the play.”

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, June 12, 2014

More sad-but-all-too-true definitions from CRAPCOMM

ARCHITECTURE.   All the crappy DOS programs below the glossy Surface.   The skeleton that supports the body corporate.  Commonly used with the word “open,” as in OPEN ARCHITECTURE,  a structure which is flexible enough to change at a moment’s notice and strong enough to be impervious to major and minor modifications.  The fact that this is a contradiction in terms is one that is deliberately ignored by everyone from IT programmers to executives, all of whom believe that you can add an eighth floor to a four-story walk-up without actually building floors five through seven. 

What most corporate architecture looks like.

AUTHENTIC.  The approved version of false.  An authentic conversation, for instance, consists of all the backstabbing your boss wants to hear, not the backstabbing you want to say. 

BANDWIDTH.  The current sexy term for “plate.” In the old days, when you said, “My plate is full,” your boss would say, “Okay; we’ll get somebody else to do it.”  This is because plates are only so big.  Bandwidth, on the other hand, can always be increased—and it’s your responsibility if it isn’t.  Which is why these days you don’t tell your supervisor, “I don’t have the bandwidth for that,” because this means you are not willing to work overtime and weekends to get the job done.  Also—and more importantly—the phrase, “We don’t have the bandwidth for that” can never ever (ever) be said by any CEO about his company, because it implies that the company is as old, outdated and slow as the CEO.   

BUSINESS MODEL.  The way a company says it does business, as opposed to the way it actually does business.  The corporate version of an essay outline which makes perfect logical sense, and is then totally ignored because you haven’t written a word in weeks and the stupid thing is due first thing in the morning so now you’re going to stay up all night and type like Hunter Thompson on Ibogaine until the required number of pages and/or words is met,  just so you can have something to meet the deadline.  (See DELIVERABLE.) 

CANCER RESEARCH.  Corporate term for any long-range project which can never actually be completed, because when it is, it will result in the loss of millions of dollars in funding.   

CHANGE MANAGEMENT.  Renovating the building to support the penthouse.  In essence, “asking” employees who were hired to do Job A to “transition” to Job B, usually without any training or preparation, because (a) Job A is no longer making the firm any money, (b) the people currently doing Job B are so overwhelmed with work that nothing is getting done, or (c) the barbarians are at the gates, and the only way to hold the line is to deploy as many Job B warm bodies as possible against the onslaught while the CEO goes on TV to tell worried investors that everything’s under control. 

This used to be called “restructuring,” until the word came to imply that there was something wrong with the corporate structure to begin with—an admission which can never be made publicly, but which is always discussed on a daily basis in whatever after-work bar employees gather to blow off steam.  During which marathon, somebody will make the excellent point that if an executive with actual management skills had been calling the shots from the beginning, any change would not be necessary.  And then, after a couple of rounds of tequila shots, somebody else will sum it all up with the words: “The good news is, you’re still on the boat.  The bad news is, it’s still the Titanic.” 

CORE COMPETENCY.  The one thing a person or a company does best.  The thing you hire them for.  Until all hell breaks loose.  (See CHANGE MANAGEMENT.) 

CORE INCOMPETENCY.  The many things a manager cannot do, all of which you are expected to do for him.  (See TEAM PLAYER.) 

CULTURE, CORPORATE.  The catch-all phrase which describes the many unwritten rules of behavior, status recognition, and departmental warfare which must be obeyed by all full-time employees and permatemps.  These rules are neither explained nor invoked until and unless they are broken, in much the same way as a land mine is not discovered until you step on it.  Ignorance of the unwritten law is no excuse.  Whatever you did to get the stink-eye or the awkward silence, you should have known enough not to do it.  If you’re lucky,  someone will take you aside and inform you that you just spit in church by saying something like “Just so you know,” “A word to the wise,” and “In case you were wondering.”  Like fortune cookies which always attain their true meaning by adding the words “in bed,” the above three reminders achieve their true passive-aggressive brilliance by sub-vocally adding the words “you moron.”    

The word “culture” is also used in public relations as a loose synonym for “the really cool way we do business,” which makes it a verbal prophylactic to prevent the unwanted children of all business relationships, namely accusations of greed.  So you will hear a lot of talk about a company’s CULTURE OF EXCELLENCE (which means not doing things in the best way, just the best way we know how), its CULTURE OF COMPLIANCE (which means obeying every law the company has previously broken), its CULTURE OF RESPONSIBILITY (which means firing support staff whenever a manager makes a mistake), and its CULTURE OF TOLERANCE (which means not pointing to the gay albino in the wheelchair and saying “Look at that gay albino in the wheelchair!”). 

CULTURE CARRIERS.  Old people we haven’t gotten around to firing yet. 

JOB SECURITY.  Obsolete term for an employee’s belief that doing a single job and performing up to and beyond expectations will guarantee her a seat at the corporate table until she decides to retire.  The current term for this belief is “living in a dream world.”   

QUALITY CONTROL.  Making sure that everything shares the same low standards.

TALENT.  Wage slaves who can be monetized.   

TALENT, RETENTION OF.  Patting your wage slaves on the back for a job well done by compensating them with something other than money, and then claiming that whatever you’re giving them is more valuable than money, which helps to support the myth that there is actually something more valuable than money.   

TRANSPARENCY.  Making sure that all the profit-making loopholes are invisible to outside auditors and easily accessible to internal analysts.   

TRANSPARENCY, CREATE.  Regulatory sleight-of-hand. An investment bank will use the phrase “ create transparency” the same way a stage magician uses the phrase “Nothing up my sleeve.” 

UPGRADE.  Improve to failure.
ZERO TOLERANCE.  A policy which is applied without exception to everyone in the firm who is not an exception.  Saying a company has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, shady business practices, and anything that damages its reputation is like the NBA saying that it will always call a player for traveling—in both cases, the franchise players are exempt from the rule.  This is also pretty much how the Justice Department deals with investment banks in this country: they have zero tolerance for everything that everybody else does.  If Moses had come down from the mountain with the Commandments of Corporate America, there would only have been one of them: “Thou shalt never fail to produce results, because results always trump morality.”

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Summer Movie Rundown - Old Wine In New Bottles

So let's say you've got an idea that gives an interesting twist to an old familiar tale.  How do you make it work?  Obviously you're counting on a certain amount of story recognition in your audience, so where do you draw the line between all the old things that people know and all the new things you want to let them know, which are all part of that interesting twist?  If we're talking television, then this would be a post about Penny Dreadful (which I will probably get to when it's over in a few weeks, which is when I figure I'll be able to round up enough superlative adjectives to describe Eva Green).  But if we're talking movies, then we're talking two currently-playing films which are well aware that viewers are going to come watch them with expectations in tow:  Godzilla and Maleficent.

Some movies deserve to be spoiled, because if you walk into them with your expectations intact, you are going to walk out feeling gypped.  Such a movie is Godzilla.   

To paraphrase WC Fields: don’t let the poster fool ya.  Or the trailer, for that matter.  If you go into this movie buying all the things that are implicit in that trailer, you are going to be wavering between mildly disappointed and extremely disappointed.  The movie’s entire marketing campaign is designed to make you think that (a) it’s us against Godzilla, (b) all the destruction is being caused by Godzilla, (c) all the destruction done by Godzilla will be seen in its entirety, and (d) Brian Cranston is our hero.  (No, no, frustratingly no, and unfortunately no.)    

What the trailer doesn’t tell you is that (a) it’s Godzilla against a couple of other monsters (b) who are causing destruction so they can spawn (c) in San Francisco, because New York is still being rebuilt after The Avengers, while (d) our hero is the guy who played Vronsky to Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina who (e) acts as a monster magnet, always managing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and (f) surviving every single time, probably because (g) his neck is the size of a fullback’s thigh.  And we really don't care.  At least there aren't two unfunny comic relief characters, like there are in most of the Godzilla sequels.

Structurally, the movie attempts the Jaws trick of never really giving us a money shot of the title character until the final confrontation.  Whether or not it succeeds is dependent on whether or not you feel gypped when the movie cuts away from a Honolulu monster mash to show TV footage of the aftermath, or when the movie cuts away from the potentially much cooler destruction of Las Vegas to the same kind of post-event footage.  While this does build up expectations for the final showdown between the good monster and the bad monsters, it also threatens to make you feel so frustrated that you’ll watch that climax with your arms firmly folded across your chest, muttering to yourself, “Sorry, Gareth Edwards.  You lost me at Las Vegas.”

And yes, I said good monsters versus bad monsters.  The original Godzilla is a movie about a monster that we created back in the 50’s with all those hydrogen bomb explosions.  This movie is about a monster that we attempted to destroy back in the 50’s with all those hydrogen bomb explosions, a monster that acts as what one character calls Nature’s “alpha predator” (a character who, to add insult to injury, has the same name as the Japanese scientist who brought Godzilla down in the original movie). Evidently the Alpha Predator job description is something like “Ensuring that all the beta and gamma predators don’t get out of line.” Which is Hollywood science for "There is an actual animal hierarchy in Nature, and Nature knows best, because Nature has a plan;" which pretty much puts the God in Godzilla.  Also: if it’s an Alpha Predator, how can it ever lose?  Which is what the last half hour is about; and if you can make it through the first 90 minutes, those last 30 minutes are fantastic.
Bottom line: if you go into this movie with no expectations at all, you will probably enjoy it for what it is.  But it’s not what the trailer seems to promise, and it’s a really bizarre version of a Godzilla movie. 

A much more interesting re-imagining of a traditional story is on display in Maleficent.  Narrated by Janet McTeer (whose identity is not revealed until the end of the film), we get the distaff side of the Sleeping Beauty legend, starring Angelina Jolie as the evil witch in a fun-house mirror version of the original story, a version which shows us how that evil witch got to be so bad.  So yes, you know the story and now you’re going to be told the real version, which means you’ve paid $15 to see Sleeping Beauty’s version of Wicked, as Maleficent takes center stage and travels her own fairy-tale voyage through vengeance to redemption. 

Does the revision work on its own terms?  Yes.  It makes emotional sense, and our title character’s back story has a couple of twists and moments that work quite well, and God knows work a lot better than the three good fairies, who are more annoying than comical, and seem to have been shoehorned into the movie to protect Disney’s intellectual property rights to the characters.  Nothing new is done with them; if anything, they are even dippier than their animated versions, and thankfully they disappear for large stretches of the movie’s middle, only to come annoyingly back into prominence towards the end.   

There could be a neat little allegory about the powerlessness of goodness here, but the script is not really that smart.  The script is actually not really that much of a script, in fact. It’s just a bunch of plot beats with dialogue, like spoken word balloons on a storyboard, and it doesn't play with or echo the original movie cleverly enough to approach what Wicked does to Wizard Of Oz.  Jolie does her best to make her lines snap, and it’s to her credit that she manages to make you think she’s being deep and clever, because she’s given precious little to work with.  She can put volumes into a sidelong glance.  And she has to.  A lot.  If only to prevent you from wondering why, if a witch can transform someone into a dragon, she chooses to make him a horse and not a giant eagle; or why Liam Neeson isn’t playing the bad guy instead of Sharlto Copley; or why anybody would name their little fairy kid Maleficent and think she WOULDN’T grow up to be a nasty piece of work.  (“What shall we name our daughter, dear?”  “Oh, something sweet and innocent, like Evil Spawn Of Satan.”)  

In the end, Jolie is the only reason to see the film.  She carries the whole thing on her black-clad shoulders, and the facial look of the character, with cheekbones like shoulder blades, makes her even more exotically gorgeous.  That’s what you’ll walk away humming, although the bleak Lana Del Rey cover of “Once Upon A Dream” is just as haunting.  Almost as haunting as the lost opportunity of this film, which an actual script could have rescued.


So to complete the wine/bottle analogy of this post's title, the makers of Godzilla did everything they could to make you think that the contents of this particular bottle were vintage Godzilla, instead of New Godzilla, and would up with a lot of people feeling (rightfully) gypped.

And meanwhile, the creators of Maleficent made no bones about making sure the bottle for this film said SLEEPING BEAUTY FROM THE EVIL WITCH'S POINT OF VIEW, but when you taste the contents, it has all the right ingredients but none of the flavor, it has thinness and no body, and it feels like it was bottled so quickly the grapes didn't have time to age properly.   Making it more juice than wine.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Byron and Shelley and the Man from the Foreign Office

During Byron’s days in the war for Greek Independence, while he was planning an attack on the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto, Shelley sailed to join him at Missolonghi. On the boat with him was a functionary from the British Foreign office, a little whisper of a man named Burn, who revealed to Shelley in the course of a drunken conversation that he was not only a spy, but was carrying secret papers to Byron which would help the Greek cause. “But you must not breathe a word of this to anyone,” Burn declared.

Shelley quite naturally agreed, and was more than a little amused when Burn proceeded to act so secretive and mysterious over the next two days that everyone on board knew that he was a confidential agent of some sort. He became a secret figure of fun for everyone; whenever he made an appearance in the dining room or along the rails, a passenger would raise his hands in wide eyed shock and declare “Oh Mr. Burn, I hope you don’t think that I was SPYING on you,” or a man in a deck chair would pull his blanket up around his chin and announce, “Your pardon, sir, for not greeting you immediately; I was UNDERCOVER.”

Many such verbal manifestations of middle-class hilarity assaulted poor Burn for the duration of his sea voyage, and by the time the ship anchored on the coast of Greece he had become as introverted as a turtle and suspicious as a criminal, leaving Shelley the task of making travel arrangements to get the two men to Byron without encountering the ever-present Turkish army.

After a midnight ride through the mountains, the two men reached the village where Byron was planning his assault, and Burn immediately introduced himself and handed Byron a packet of sealed letters. The poet scrutinized the documents intently, then suddenly took Burn by the hand, dragged him into his bedchambers, and slammed the door behind them. After a few moments of silence, during which Shelley pondered the meaning behind Byron’s abrupt departure, there came from behind the bedroom door a series of low moans, followed by a loud groan and the sound of something heavy being thrown to the floor. The groans increased in frequency, and were succeeded by high-pitched yelps of such intensity that Shelley was reminded of a scene of exquisite torture he had witnessed once as a school boy at Eaton. Then the yelps ended abruptly in a final coloratura, a long “O” which rose and fell like the death of an opera tenor, after which the door to the bedroom opened and a very disheveled Byron re-entered the room.

“My God, man,” said Shelley. “What were you Doing in there?”

“Only what I was ordered to do,” Byron replied.

“Ah,” said Shelley. “So you were ordered to torture the unfortunate messenger, then.”

“On the contrary,” said Byron, running a hand through his hair. “I was ordered to have wild passionate sex with him.”

“Good God, man," said Shelley with alarm. "Is this typical British Foreign Office Procedure?”

“It is in this case,” said Byron ruefully. He snatched up the letters and held them out to Shelley. “See? It’s right there at the bottom. Big block letters. PLEASE BURN AFTER READING.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Some excerpts from CRAPCOMM: The Devil's Dictionary of Corporate Communications

ACTION ITEMS. A fancy term for your current workload, which used to be called “assignments” back when people didn’t take offense at being assigned tasks by their bosses.  But these days—when bosses are all called supervisors, like glorified hall monitors, because of Corporate America's rampant “I am the boss of me” sense of entitlement—which means that a supervisor can’t actually order around subordinates without making them feel like, well, subordinates— the Powers That Be want their slaves to feel like their chains are a fashion choice.  So it took Corporate America no time at all to come up with a sexy synonym that implies adventure instead of subservience and mind-numbing drudgery. This is particularly ironic because the main features that make up an action movie (adventure, violence, profanity and sex) are the same for an action item (the adventure is not getting fired, the violence is visions of killing your supervisor, the profanity is muttered under your breath, and the sex is you being fucked over).

ACTION FIGUREHEADS. Supervisors who promise change, results, and transformationals, and then assign the real work to you.

BEST PRACTICES.  What a company does until it gets caught doing it.  In theory, “best practices” means rigorously obeying the letter of the law as opposed to squeezing through the usual loopholes.  In practice, it means breaking the law without actually alerting the regulators that a crime has been committed.  All investment banks promote best practices as a standard; the fact that they continually have to promote them at all gives you some idea of how standard they really are.

CHALLENGING.  Impossible.

CHALLENGING ECONOMIC CONDITIONS.  (Also known as CHALLENGING ECONOMY.)  The current panic-free synonym for Depression, replacing the previous panic-free synonym Recession once it, too, became a cause of panic.  The beauty of this three-word phrase is that it is too nebulous to ever cause panic. It is also the drumbeat of doom that clever investment banks keep repeating over and over again, in order to lower salary expectations and undermine job security in their rank and file workers. Which is hilarious when you consider that “bad times” is defined as only making 2.1 billion dollars a quarter instead of 2.5 billion.  The phrase is also consistently used as an excuse for unpaid overtime and making employees do three jobs instead of their usual two, in the interests of “meeting the challenges of a changing economy.”    This is a meeting which will never take place in an executive conference room.

COMPLIANCE.  Diligently obeying all the laws you’ve paid a fine for breaking in the past.  Corporate compliance says that when your hand has been caught in the cookie jar, you have to be careful around the cookie jar.  The rest of the kitchen is fair game.  This is fine with Federal regulators because — like doctors and healthcare professionals — regulators are only interested in diagnosing the disease after the patient is sick, not preventing the disease from starting in the first place.  So as long as you don’t show any obvious symptoms, a smart corporation can manage to get a clean bill of fiscal health without the annoyance of regulatory check-ups.  Some common examples of compliance outside the investment banking industry can be found in the phrases “My wife’s suspicious; I have to play the good husband,”  “My teacher’s standing right over my shoulder; I can’t cheat on tests anymore,” and “There’s a cop in front of the bank; we can’t rob it.” 

DEEP DIVE.   Bullshit backed up by PowerPoint slides.  Ostensibly a presentation which supplies verifiable facts as opposed to the usual bullet points and jargon, a deep dive usually takes place (a) when people start asking intelligent questions that poke holes in the normal day-to-day BS that passes for information; (b) there is a special interpretation of the facts that needs to be understood so that the facts can be ignored; or (c) when an army of facts needs to be deployed to support a particular world view. The implication being that all the information we gave you originally was shallow, if not totally wrong, and this is what you really need to know, honest—until we do a deep dive on the deep dive. (See PRESSURE DIVE.)

DEPRESSION. The “Fire!” that always clears Wall Street’s crowded theatre. A word that is never, ever (ever) spoken aloud when discussing the stock market, which is proof positive of the herd mentality of the industry, as well as the house-of-cards stability of the current market economy, which can be blown over by a single whispered run-on-the-bank-causing stock-price-plummeting three-syllable word.

GAAP.  Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which, as the name suggests, are generally followed.  Not to be confused with GAAL, Generally Acceptable Accounting Loopholes, which are always followed.

“I HEAR YOU.”  Shut the fuck up.

MENTORING.  What happens when a man with experience or a high position takes a man with little experience or a lower position under his wing, and guides him through the mine fields of the company’s bureaucracy.  This word is sex-specific.  When a man with experience or a high position takes a woman under his wing at work, this is called HAVING AN AFFAIR.  And when a woman with experience takes another woman under her wing a work, this is called CONSPIRING.

ON BOARD.  Welcome to the Titanic.

ON POINT, STAYING.  Never saying anything that will result in an embarrassing question.

SENSITIVITY TRAINING.  “This is the shit that will get us sued.  By saying that out loud, we are now legally covered when you go back to your office and talk to your secretary’s tits.”

"THERE’S NO RIGHT OR WRONG HERE."  It’s wrong to the power of ten.

TOWN HALL.  A spontaneous departmental gathering during which scripted questions are given prepared answers, and after which profanity will be bleeped out, awkward pauses will be edited away, and Compliance will request a dozen edits of substance to retro-delete the two greatest enemies of Corporate Communications: remarks that are actually honest, and remarks that could lead to lawsuits or criminal charges.  The kind of meeting which, if it took place in Stalinist Russia, would be dismissed as nothing but propaganda; but since it happens in Corporate America, it stands as a prime example of the purest form of employee democracy, where everyone has a voice. Since that voice is always the glorified press releases of Corporate Communications, the “purest form” part of  this definition is (sadly) all-too accurate.

URGENCY.  Panic. When someone in management uses the phrase “sense of urgency,” head for the hills and don’t look back. Learn from history—Custer at the Little Big Horn had a sense of urgency. Travis at the Alamo had a sense of urgency. The French at Dien Bien Phu had a sense of urgency. They all soldiered on regardless. Do the same at your own peril.

Copyright 2014 Matthew J Wells

Monday, June 2, 2014

Byron and Shelley and the Teenagers

Forced by circumstance to take teaching positions at a co-educational private school for what was at the time referred to as “junior high students”, Byron and Shelley found themselves subjected to the usual indignities of the modern education system. Not only were they required to teach English Literature, they were also assigned a physical education class, as well as recess duty.

Their separate reactions to these assignments could not be a more perceptive illustration of each poet’s character. Byron, whose club foot was more of a challenge than a handicap, threw himself into his physical education class and despised recess; while Shelley, who could not hold a ball, a bat or a glove for more than thirty seconds without dropping it, hated Phys Ed but found the insanity of recess to be an endless source of social and philosophical fascination.

“It is Society in miniature,” he said to Byron.

“It is a chaos of hormones,” Byron replied with disgust.

“And what is Society but the regimentation of hormones?” cried Shelley. “It is here that the Rules of Accepted Behavior are first apprehended, albeit dimly, by a mob of barely-sentient adolescents. Perceive the manner in which the boys run in packs. Observe the fact that the girls hunt in pairs, one beautiful and one plain.”

“Fascinating,” said Byron sarcastically.

“But it is, Byron,” said Shelley, with the enthusiasm he always displayed towards a really fine intellectual conceit. “Take that boy over there -- the one looking over his shoulder -- do you see him?”

“Mark, isn’t it?”

“Mark, Martin, Matthias -- what do Names matter? Watch him. I predict that within the next five minutes he will contrive to approach that knot of girls by the swings.”

“And you know this because?”

“He has a Crush on one of them. Observe.”

Byron complied with ill grace, but sure enough, less than a minute after Shelley had spoken, the boy Martin or Mark or Matthias sauntered towards the swings with his mates, and walking up to one of the girls, he firmly put his hands on her shoulders and moved her to one side before walking past her without so much as a word.

“Did you see that?” Shelley cried, pointing. “He does it all the time! The girl and he can be the only children in the yard, and he will still find an excuse to go up to her and push her out of the way. And all because he feels an indescribable Affection for her! Isn’t that remarkable?”

“Not very,” said Byron. “You always herd the one you love.”