Saturday, January 31, 2009

Stepping off

My buddy, Howard, just retired from the journalism biz. I remember someone asked him how long he'd been writing and he thought a moment and said, "Since right at the first grade." And, given he's got two Pulitzers to his name for public service journalism, you gotta believe he knows a little bit about the subject.

But see, that's where you'd be wrong. Howard's laboring under the misapprehension that journalism is supposed to serve the public and protect its interests. That the Fourth Estate is a citizen's check against the other three branches of government, all of which need the open and transparent scrutiny of the press to ensure the survival of our nation's charter. Heady stuff, eh? Hell, Howard's so out of touch he thinks the responsibility of a free press is nothing short of a constitutional right – WOW, just how out of touch can one guy be?

The worst thing about having a friend like him is that you start to believe the same kinds of things he does. But only for 30 or 40 years, or so. Right up to this morning when I realized how out of touch I have become as a result of listening to Howard. Because this morning I read CNN.com, then Fox.com, then MSNBC.com – for content.

What the hell was I thinking?

There were three stories about Rush Limbaugh, two about Sarah Palin, one about Jessica Simpson and not one damn thing about Katrina victims (still waiting, still forgotten about), emergency aid to food banks (they're feeding more people now but with fewer resources), or reallocating resources from foreign to domestic aid (might want to take care of our own people for a change, just a thought).

Limbaugh is a gratuitous gasbag - why the national media gives him any space at all is a mystery to me given he is a RADIO ENTERTAINER. His job is to get more listeners not solve any of the deeply troubling issues facing our nation. He's not concerned about the gross domestic product, he's concerned about the Arbitron Radio Ratings.

The consolation prize to CNN.com running two "front page" stories about Limbaugh is that both were below a hard-hitting piece about the Jessica Simpson "weight controversy". Well, that's a relief. For a second I was concerned that electronic journalism had lost its rudder but I see the ship is well under way and heading full speed into Bligh's Banal Reef.

And speaking of gasbags and the banal, Sarah Palin doesn't have sufficient gravitas to even qualify as a gasbag. The problems facing our nation are not going to be solved by sound-bite leadership, especially from those whose obvious, if unstated intention, is to elevate themselves far beyond both their own competence or potential. When the media follows her every move they endorse the Palin Peter Principle of Politics.

Over 11 million people are unemployed and the major news sites are covering whether Sarah "I can see Russia from here" Palin is angling a new committee for support in a 2012 run at the Presidency? Really? Seriously, that's the highest and best use of your "news hole"?

My normal admonition is that the list of insufficiencies isn't endless but it is impressive. But the list is clearly long enough that it should at least push the Simpsons, Limbaughs and Palins off the home pages of "serious" new sites. I'm just saying that if you want people to take you seriously, you need to act seriously – or at the very least, responsibly.

So, I'm out. I'm stepping off. I'm buying a production grade camera for Indie and documentary work and I'm stepping the hell off. I'm going to make my little movies and let the next-gen step up. Call me back when the rest of the country gets as serious as Obama.

Meanwhile, my home page is going to rotate between the Hollywood Reporter, Variety and IMDB Pro. Yeah, Hollywood is a world of fantasy and banality. But at least the trades don't pretend it's something else.

Howard, you're on your own!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

10 minutes with Lucy

Somewhere along about 3.18 million years ago a homely but memorable girl apparently passed to her reward and went to meet the Great Hominid in the sky. Then, in 1974 while I was running around Nicaragua stumbling over burial mounds with a Harvard archeologist, Donald Johanson looked up a ravine in Ethiopia on his way back to camp and met the most important girl in his life: Lucy.

Lucy is now visiting the Seattle Science Center and today, after kicking back for the past 35 years or so in Ethiopia, she's making her rock-star tour of the US. Some museums are boycotting her for what seem entirely reasonable and utterly incomprehensible reasons. Fortunately, Seattle decided to give her a look and I got in today when the door opened.

I expected to find Lucy just inside with a sign that said something roughly the equivalent of, "Joe, you been waiting 30 years, this way to Lucy." No go, no sign, they didn't even know I was Joe. What I got instead was a large exhibit on the history of Ethiopia, a place about which I knew little and cared less. Where's Lucy? was the only thing in my head. Ethiopia happened to be the map coordinates, but let's be clear – when Lucy lived there it wasn't called Ethiopia, so why do I care what it's called now. Where the hell's Lucy?

You in the Gold coat, where's Lucy?
I gotta go through the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce exhibition first?
Far out, where is it?

First exhibit: Jews came to Ethiopia and blah blah with exhibits, artifacts, and photos.
Where's Lucy?
Next exhibit: Christians came to Ehtiopia and blah blah with exhibits, artifacts and photos.
Yeah, so where's Lucy?
Next exhibit: Muslims came to Ethiopia and blah blah with exhibits, artifacts and photos.
Next exhibit: Halie Sallasie came to Ethiopia and blah blah with exhibits and photos.
Cool, so we're getting the band back together, where the hell's Lucy?

By this time I was at the head of the First Pack of Lucy Lookers and must have looked desperate because a Gold Coat caught my eye. I raised my hands palm up like, "Where". He points down a hall and says, "Up two ramps – you'll be the first today."

The sign at the ticket booth was clear, "No food, drinks, or photography." Not a word about running. Feet, do your thing.

I blew past Gold Coat ignoring his plea to slow down, up two long ramps where people would later be waiting to get in. Right up to the armed guard where I broke stride and walked into the Lucy exhibit. Up to where she lay – a mandible and six skull bones, along with 40% of her skeleton.

All alone. Me and her. By myself. For 10 minutes I was the only one there and it gave me chills.

I'd seen history. Hell, I've lived through history.

But I'd never seen mankind. Never seen THE antecedent. Never stood that close to both ends of the evolutionary process.

It doesn't matter if you believe in God or not, according to the exhibit the Ethiopians have you covered no matter what your persuasion might be. But whether God did it or evolution did it, standing next to Lucy will convince you that something extraordinary happened in the woodlands of Ethiopia and you and I are the benefactors. I'm pretty sure Lucy didn't have a cell phone but am equally certain that without her, neither would I. Or you. That's the funny thing about evolution - or God - there doesn't seem to be a destination. But it's a hell of a journey.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Oh, look -- it's the horizon!

Today, I think I know my grandfather a little better. He remembered the first telephone, the first airplane, the completion of the Panama Canal, the influenza pandemic of 1917, first radio show, Lindbergh's flight, and the first "talkie". And I always wondered if it made him feel old or privileged.

I've lived through the Alaska earthquake, the first man on the moon, the first personal computer, first cell phone, and the inauguration of the first black President of the United States.

I'm going with "privileged".

Monday, January 19, 2009

Film School Tuition: $8.50

I actually met a "producer" who told me she had never seen "The Sting". She was one of the "creatives" at a production company (now defunct for reasons which will be self evident) and had button-holded me at a film festival I'd won for screenwriting.

"Yeah, "The Sting" was made before I was born and I knew that since everyone already knows the plot, why waste my time with a movie that'll never be remade?"

I have a tendency to fall silent when I think I've dropped a verb, so she comes back with, "Know what I mean? It's not relevant. The actors aren't relevant anymore. The shooting technology isn't relevant anymore. The plot can't be redone again. It's just sooo not relevant to modern filmmaking."

I told her I was feeling a little light-headed because of all the excitement and thought I might throw up.  On her.  Any second.  Maybe I should go to bathroom while you go text somebody. My best guess is that after her production company went down she would have graduated at the top of her barista class. 

You try to put people like her out of your head because there are plenty of stereotypes in Hollywood and there's no reason to beat up on blondes anymore than you have to.  But after seeing "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" I'd kinda like to get her take on it.

So let me put the record straight before I get off on a rant: I think "Benjamin Button" is a spectacular movie, and I'll be astonished if it's not a multiple nominee: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, spring quickly to mind.

And yet, I get the impression that my "Stingless" producer may been writing movie reviews between her Starbuck's shifts given some of the comments I've seen in the trades.

The one that got me onto this soapbox was a well respected critic who observed that the "Benjamin Button storyline just isn't the way life plays out." Or, "the plot was so contrived...." Really? Life doesn't play out in reverse? A movie about the metaphors of life is contrived? WOW – SNAP – dude, like... NFW.

Much easier to grasp that Dinosaurs can be reconstituted from an 80 million-year-old DEAD mosquito; that aliens would attack and kill off 85% of us before Will Smith flies an alien spacecraft to the mother ship to upload a computer virus to it; or how about this one: that a sitting US President would go on national TV to say he's prepared to go door-to-door to "get the guns" WHILE running for a second term.  Yeah, that's gonna happen.  Let's get down on this Skippy: ALL movies are contrived – there, I said it – go get the nails and cross. They have a name for movies that aren't contrived – they're called newspaper articles.

But let's get to the rave part: "Benjamin Button" is really not best described at all – it's a movie that has to be seen to be appreciated, on any level. Civilians may or may not enjoy it – it can be a downer if you don't get past the top level of the story – but filmmakers have to see this in the same way they had to see "Jurassic Park". It's a game changer.  It may not change the way you look at films, but it will change what you think you can do as a filmmaker.

The game changer here is the cinematography in concert with the lighting. It's just breathtaking. Most filmmakers sit in the audience, smug in their own arrogance, "I could do that if I had their money."  I sat there completely blown away wondering, out loud: "How the hell'd they do THAT?" Rule: your wife will move away from you in a crowded theater, and take her popcorn with her.

Yeah there was some minor vignetting and the CGI really pulled the premise together, but so what? The camera work and lighting support were like paint brushes in the hands of a modern impressionist.  In fact, I'm not at all certain that isn't what I saw, a modern impressionist at work. The framing – especially in the Russian sequences – is a study in how to do it. You can go to film school or buy the books and read about dissecting the image into thirds, then sixths. OR you could go through the house looking for loose change, put $8.50 down at the box office and get a cheap seminar in how it's supposed to be done.

And poor Brad Pitt. First he's sleeping with Jennifer Aniston and hanging out with Clooney et al, and now he's sleeping with Angelina Jolie and has become the modern Steve McQueen. The guy can't buy a break.

No matter what you thought of Pitt's chops before this movie (and I thought he was fine in action-comedy and comedies), he now owns the title as the new dramatic minimalist.  Jason Bourne is fine when he's masquerading as Matt Damon (not a typo), but Pitt's depth is simply astounding. What directors worship about McQueen, they have in spades with Pitt: he speaks with his body – he gives you another level of performance beyond what you get with dialogue.  Suddenly you've got character definition that's both horizontal in scope and vertical in depth.

With a lot actors – movie stars especially – what you often get is someone pretending to be the character – and let's not talk method vs. technique here, just the net effect of what winds up on the screen.  What Pitt gives in "Benjamin Button" is a full-on portrayal of a character that isn't Pitt-like in carriage, manner or legacy.  As Pitt regresses in age, it is astonishing to see his mannerisms regress to an earlier age as well; like it or not, a guy carries himself differently at 50 than at 30 than at 15. And Pitt nails those differences as though he WERE those ages, not merely pretending to be them.  

The new McQueen is subtle, nuanced, and powerful – just like the old one.  Pitt is one of those rare Hollywood leading men that have made a seamless transition from movie star to actor – and I can't wait for hell to freeze over so I can work with him.

"Benjamin Button" is a movie about life and it's expectations and how they slam up against the reality of your own situations.  And whether you are at a point in your life where this film has resonance, if you are a filmmaker you need to see it. I'm not asking you to like it because most filmmakers don't like any film – we often get lost in the minutia and lose the journey of the film.

But if filmmaking is anything, it's subjective and self-centered: you don't make films so other people will like them or you, you make them because you have something to say and don't much give a damn what others think.

Which is why "Button" is a must-see for filmmakers: the movie stands for the proposition that life is subjective, live it as you will, live it as you can. And the film itself is such a study of the art of filmmaking it is difficult to imagine we all can't steal --- errr – learn from it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The bling blog

Back when I was 25 and smart, the only filmmaker I knew was a pornographer. I didn't like him, he didn't like me and it all seemed to work in a nice harmonious symbiosis given he was a felon and I was a member of the local constabulary. But at least he had cameras, film, movies and a resume – which is more than most "filmmakers" have today. Now, all you need is a web site, a blog and, in the extreme, a Kinkos business card. If you're really showing off, maybe a whole box of them.

I mention this inasmuch as I can't help but notice that this looks alarmingly like a blog; I already have a web site, I'm well past a box of business cards, and my popularity on IMDB is waaaay below Pia Zidora, largely considered the drum majorette of Hollywood's walking dead. In fact, my popularity is even below actors who have actually been dead longer than I've been alive (for instance: Leslie Howard, "Gone with the Wind", killed in WWII; bummer – maybe if he'd lived longer his numbers wouldn't be so good). So I guess the good news is that as a writer-director -- not actor -- I'm only compared with other filmmakers nobody's heard of either.  I think this comes under the heading of "small consolation".

Anyhow, my wife announced she's tired of waiting for the bling and that I needed to kick this puppy up a notch, "Start a blog, it'll help you write your screenplays." This strikes me as roughly the equivalent of Jeff Gordon riding a bicycle to the track, but I get her point.

My daughter was more direct, "I'm the one who's going to decide which nursing home you wind up in, so be nice."

All of which is by way of preface to say that this is intended as mental gymnasium: a place to try things out, bat stuff around, somewhere to go at 2AM when I'm supposed to be writing. It won't all be about film – but film is about life and experiences, so don't be surprised if what you see in here, winds up in a screenplay.  And if I steal something of yours -- we'll it's because I respect you too much to insult you by trying to quantify your artistry with money.  -- Oh, yeah, baby... with that kind of B.S., the bling can't be too far away.