Saturday, December 29, 2007

Tacos for Dinner

Growing up in Indiana, I spent a good chunk of time in the family basement. It was the place where I was free to watch eight hours of "M*A*S*H," "Gilligan's Island" and "Barney Miller"; glug bottle after bottle of Coke; ingest entire tins of Planter's Cheese Balls; and occasionally do something productive, like teach myself how to play guitar.

One night--I don't remember how old I was (I never remember how old I was)--I lay on the basement couch marinating in a thick depressive stew. About what, I have no idea. These were most likely my Catholic grade school years. I might have been ruing the principal's new rule that no one could kick the kickball more than three feet off the ground. Or the fact that Meredith Anzelc liked John Seckinger and not me. Or the alarming number of Frank Burnses in the world (compared to the scarcity of Hawkeye Pierces).

At any rate, I was in the muck. I didn't want to do anything. I hated everything. And I couldn't imagine myself ever being in a good mood again.

Then a voice came down the stairs: "Time for dinner!" My weak reply: "What are we having?" And then the answer:

"Tacos."

I can't describe the feeling that came over me at that moment without resorting to bald cliche. A fog lifting? Sure. Shafts of sunlight pouring through the window? That'll do. All the demons left. All the darkness turned to light. Everything old was born anew.

It was at that moment that I learned two valuable lessons: 1) No bad mood is ever permanent; and 2) I must not be the deepest pool in the backyard. (This has become an inside joke with Anne. If I'm ever down, she'll ask if I want tacos for dinner.)

Yesterday, I went to my clinic and found out that I have strep throat. This is not exactly a life-threatening illness. But after dinner, I quarantined myself upstairs while Anne watched James. Around 8:00, I was lying down, eyes closed, trying to sleep but unable. I pondered my impending career midlife crisis. I thought about all the things we still need to do in the basement. I remembered the recent car accident involving my father and sister that thankfully resulted in no serious injuries. I was generally feeling tired, sick, lost and overwhelmed.

Then I heard the sound of little footsteps climbing the stairs. They stopped, cautiously, several feet from the bed. I considered pretending to be asleep to preserve my solitude, but couldn't.

"Hi, James."
"Hi, Daddy. Which PJs are you rooting for?"

I won't bother to explain what that question means. It doesn't matter. Because I knew. I know. And everything that had been pulling me down at that moment, released. And when that happens, you feel like your body is floating. And nothing can get to you.

Tacos for dinner.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

It Really Is

The statement "behind every cynic is an idealist" is proven by looking at a slice of my DVD collection: Dr. Strangelove, Rushmore, Office Space, High Fidelity, This Is Spinal Tap... It's a Wonderful Life.

Yes, I'm an unapologetic lover of this ultimate "Capracorn" flick. And for that, I apologize. I know there's a huge crowd out there that is sickened by its cheesy sentimentality, and I understand that. But here's the thing. I popped in the DVD last night and watched most of the movie, plus all of the special features. And you know what? It's not just a guilty pleasure; it's a really, really good movie.

Here are the surprising elements that don't get enough credit:

1. The whole "George sees the world without him in it" part... how far into the movie do you think that comes? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes? How about one hour and 45 minutes. I was shocked to realize this. In screenplay-ese, the "inciting incident" is Clarence the Angel starting to see George's life. The second act is entirely made up of all the things that lead George to contemplate suicide. Clarence doesn't actually arrive on the scene until nearly two hours into the movie. The part that everyone remembers is simply the third act.

2. It's actually a dark movie. George's brother nearly drowns. The pharmacist's son dies of the famous 1919 influenza. The people of Bedford Falls live in slums during The Great Depression. Think I'm crazy? One of the reasons the movie disappointed at the box office is that crowds at the time found the movie too depressing.

3. The acting is superb. Jimmy Stewart is convincing not only as the cheesy "Auld Lang Syne" singer at the end, but as the guy who insults his uncle, gets wasted, yells at his kids, threatens to beat up the teacher's husband, crashes a car and jumps off a bridge. Uncle Billy, spot on. The pharmacist, Old Man Gower, thoroughly convincing as a distraught father (the actor, H.B. Warner, had been typecast after playing Christ in The King of Kings 20 years earlier). Lionel Barrymore, truly wonderful.

4. The only reason the movie ever got to where it did was a clerical error that threw it into the public domain. That's why every TV station in America put it on television in the 80s.

5. The final script (many were commissioned and rejected before Capra took over) is well-structured, and the dialogue quite good.

Surprising for the times:
"What's George Bailey doing here?"
"He's making violent love to me, mother!"

Casablanca-esque:
"George, I'm an old man, and most people hate me. But I don't like them either, so that makes it all even."

And the scene where Potter tries to hire George... in my book, one of the best constructed and acted scenes you'll find anywhere, right down to the too-big chair and cigar.

The movie also brought some real innovations to movie-making, including the complicated way the production designers made snow (to that point, studios had simply painted Corn Flakes white, which led to sound problems during walking scenes). The Bedford Falls set... four acres in an L.A. sound stage, shot during an unprecedented heat wave.

The early scenes of kids sledding with snow shovels hit me differently now that I have a four-year-old. When James and I woke up this morning and he spotted the trees and sidewalks coated with a sticky snow, we promptly bundled up after breakfast, went to the front yard, made a snowman and went sledding.

"Daddy, do you know what? It's just TWO DAYS until Christmas Eve! Isn't that great?"
"Yes, it is. It really is."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Juno

Years ago, I wrote a horrible short story about a guy whose desperate desire to be an artist is paralyzed by his self-consciousness and normality. The first scene was at a place like the old Loring Café. The main character watches this sensual, exotic woman play guitar and sing. He is Salieri to her Mozart, and there's nothing he can do about it.

I've always known that the main character is (painfully obviously) the author. But over the last year, I've come to realize that the woman playing the guitar is Diablo Cody. Diablo and I both write screenplays. We both came to Minnesota from Midwestern states that begin with "I." But I while I played saxophone in the high school marching band and didn't kiss a girl until I was 15, Diablo Cody, in addition to being a fabulous writer, was a former stripper.

I'm thinking about this because Anne and I went to see "Juno" yesterday with a mixture of expectations and pre-conceived notions. On one level, I just wanted to see a good movie, and if the New Yorker likes something (which they do about once a year), I have to see it. On another level, I wanted to kill its buzz. I wanted to hate it.

The verdict: I liked "Juno" right away, then I didn't, then I really did. I couldn't help it.

The ultra-smart, sarcastic, ironic, jaded-yet-still-innocent main character is a standout creation. One could argue that she's a carbon copy of the girl in "Ghost World," but she owns something unique even within that micro-thin indie character paradigm.

Then about 40 minutes in, I remember thinking, "Okay, witty banter will only get you so far. The writer is in love with her dialogue, the character is becoming tiresome, and the movie is in danger of becoming a 90-minute standup routine by a 16-year-old." This was my chance to scream "overrated!" and feel good about myself.

And then Diablo Cody foiled me again.

The movie and the characters took some interesting turns, and by the end, I realized that I had witnessed one of the most totally-unlikely-yet-somehow-believable love stories I had ever seen. All the attention will go to the dialogue. It should go to the characters. I don't remember any screenwriter so deftly making me like one character and hate another, and then completely reversing my opinion about those same characters—secondary characters, mind you—just an hour later. Damn, that's good.

Yesterday was a great day. I took a day off of work. I sat in my favorite theater, with my favorite person on her birthday. I watched a great movie with stale popcorn and a Coke. It would have been better if the people around me were laughing and crying at something I wrote, but it was good just the same.

Awfully, awfully good.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Carver Indeed

It took awhile, but I recently finished an anthology of short stories by Raymond Carver. I had read him in the past, but I'll admit that it was finally watching Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (which was based on Carver) a few months ago that inspired a deeper read.

I've recently heard that maybe Carver's editor deserves much of the credit for his success. Wherever the proper acclaim lies, it is well deserved. Not a word wasted here. Carver's writing has always conjured images of sculpting for me, and "carver" seems almost a too-perfect name for the author.

What's maddening about the man, though, is that he leaves me powerless to describe his appeal. It's easy to say that Edward Hopper is my favorite artist, because he captures a kind of uniquely American loneliness that no one else can even touch. It's easy for me to say that I'm drawn to the songwriting of Ray Davies because he has a certain cynical idealism and "two steps removed" perspective that I identify with.

But Carver? I'm at a loss.

Most, but not all, of his stories aren't much on plot. A boy goes fishing with a friend. A man is hostile toward, then becomes enchanted with, his wife's blind friend. A recovering alcoholic relates his experiences at a halfway house.

You read through the stories, navigating what seems like the mundane. You get to the end and you can't believe it's over. You mean after all that, the guy decides to rake his neighbors leaves? What the hell?

All I know is that he's onto something. It's become passe, cliche and a bunch of other French words for which Blogger will not let me add the accent to the "e"... to describe great literature as something that captures human nature, or that archaic term, "the human condition." But that's what still works for me, and all I know is, Carver did that. He dissected some element of that nature that no one else has in quite the same way. He did it without wasting a single word. And then he went outside and raked the leaves.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kill Mr. C

Okay, one more "agency" thing, and then I'm back to separating my personal and professional lives. This is a 60-second spot we recently did for a client. More on the client and why I believe in what they do later.

Please offer your brutally honest feedback.

(A handful of you will recognize the music at the end. Some of you will recognize the actor, but try not to think of him as Santa Claus from my previous post.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mojo Risin'



We interrupt this thlog to bring you a promotional plug for my agency.

ASI always does something creative for the holidays, and this year it's a song, music video and five-minute film called "Santa Lost His Mojo." It's about how ASI saved Christmas. We are an egoless agency.

I play two roles: the agency branding guy trying to be diplomatic with a surly, gin-swilling Santa (in the movie), and (in the music video) the creepy guitarist with arrows Sharpied onto his face who thinks he's in a real rock 'n' roll band.

If you hate it, I had nothing to do with it. If you like it, I'll tell you I had everything to do with it. If you can pick out the classic rock allusion in my guitar solo during the "mojo risin' part," I'll give you 100 points.

To watch it all, click here.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

(h)Accuracy, Inc.


Here's an idea for a business that will never exist. First, the rationale.

1. It's no secret that the Internet has decentralized and specialized media of all kinds, including news and information. We used to have three major networks, a handful of radio stations, some national and local magazines and newspapers. Now, if you're a Methodist 33-year old female from Topeka who loves beagles, plays cribbage, knows the nuances of dry sherry and collects twisty straws, there's a blog, a glossy mag and a Facebook group just for you.

The point: Americans can now go through their entire lives exposed only to the information that already interests them, and that they already agree with.

2. Thousands of people make really good livings based solely on the perception that they can predict the future. I'm not talking about psychic mediums (media?). I'm talking about every expert on every topic... including (taking my image as a small example), war, sports, weather and money.

The point: The actual accuracy of these people has very little effect on their employability. The perception of their authoritativeness does.

In short, I am utterly convinced that the people perceived as authorities on most topics are not actually the most accurate. And from now on, I want accuracy. We need a central source in our fragmented, ultra-specialized world that trumps perception with reality. We have bond raters; why not accuracy raters?

- Richard Perle sounded authoritative when he said, “A year from now I’d be surprised if there’s not some grand square in Baghdad that is named after President Bush.” He should never be able to get a job in politics again. (Actually, maybe if Guiliani gets elected, he'll build the square himself.)

- Sports TV and radio are littered with new-generation Jimmy the Greeks like Sean Salisbury and Mike Ditka who predict every game in the NFL season. Are they more accurate than my four-year-old? If not, bye bye.

- Weathercasters stand in front of acid-trip graphics and earn God knows what (half a million a year in the Twin Cities? I have no idea...) Do you know which local meteorologist is the most accurate? Why not? They publish five-day forecasts every day... the data are overwhelming.

- Jim Cramer is one of how many people raking in millions based on the perception that they can help you know what the stock market is going to do tomorrow. Who rates them based on their results and exposes every bad one? Anyone?

A simple rating system regardless of industry or subject matter: 1-10, 10 being the most accurate. You pay a mere $1 a day to access a website. There, you find out who is actually wrong or right, genius or fraud, prescient or retarded.

Now, the question is this: Would it be worth it to you? And if you knew who was most accurate, most often, would you trust them with your vote, your money, your life?

P.S. I basically make a living being trusted to predict how people will respond to products, services and ideas in what is known as "the marketing world." Please don't rate me.