Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why Republicans Like Barack Obama

One of the more interesting things I've heard about the current Presidential race is that Barack Obama is the most popular Democrat among Republicans.

One could attribute this to the simple fact that so many Republicans despise Hillary Clinton, but this was a stat bandied about by pundits back when there were something like 37 Democrats still in the race. At first, I found it to be a mild curiosity. But when my 92-year-old Irish Catholic grandmother (who doesn't care much for politics but generally votes the pro-life ticket) told me last Saturday that she likes Obama, I knew something wild was happening.

Could it be that America has suddenly become color blind? Mmmm... no.

Could it be that Obama is so inspirational as a public speaker that he truly does transcend party and race? Mmmm... maybe.

Could be that all you need to do is say the words "Ronald Reagan" as a Democrat, and 33 percent of Republicans will move to your side? Mmmm... sort of.

Could it be that Wall Street Republicans instantly trust a candidate who made Harvard Law Review, and who has chosen a University of Chicago economist as a key advisor? That might appeal to the George Will set, but let's face it, they're fairly small.

I think it's different. And yes, race has a lot to do with it.

* * *

There are only two intellectual frameworks from which we white folk can healthily look at race in America:

1. Instead of the accusatory "Am I a racist?" question, take the issue inside and honestly ask yourself how you think and act differently around and about black people. Then, when you acknowledge that every time a friend tells you a story about being mugged, inconvenienced or panhandled, you immediately ask, "Was he black?", instead of concluding that you're a racist, you can simply try to figure out what perception you're trying to validate by asking that question.

2. Just acknowledge that everybody's a racist. This can actually be a good place to start, because it's true. The only problem is that it results in what I call The Crash Effect (in reference to the overrated movie of a few years ago), the end product of which is to rub a salve on the collective white consciousness that I find a tad too anesthetic. ("Sure, there was that slavery thing and all, but hey, my Honduran hedge trimmer hates ME, too!")

These two frames are never used. When it comes to talking race with well-educated white conservatives, one of two things usually happens: They shut down and change the subject, or they roll their eyes and make some sarcastic air-quotey comment about "well, I guess I'm a racist then..." as if swatting an Al Sharpton fly that isn't in the room.

Why do they do this? You could blame the usual media suspects who play the race card as if it were the only one in the deck. But that group is painfully small when measured against this weighty defensiveness. I don't know the answer to my own question, so...

* * *

Back to Barack.

I'll admit that I was one of those downtrodden Democrats who almost leapt off the couch when Obama delivered a keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that even conservatives like David Brooks acknowledge will go down as one of the great feats of oratory in American history. I liked Joe Biden and Bill Richardson better in the Presidential race, but I prefer Obama in the reduced field because I trust his intellect, and I think he has the ambition and ego necessary to want (and do) the job of President of the United States, tempered by enough humility so as not to be dangerous.

Mostly, I trust him as our Chief Bartending Officer to never, ever fix the toxic cocktail of arrogance and ignorance that our current President has been schlepping for the past seven years.

But why do so many Republicans like Obama? I think it's this: They voted for W. (the first time) because he was the candidate they'd rather have a beer with. They like Obama because they know that if they ever went outside the bar to have a smoke with him, he wouldn't call them a racist.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Getting Conked: Part II

[For the previous post on what it means to get "Conked," click here.]

So I quit my job the other day. I mean, I "resigned my position." I knew it was coming, it just all came together faster than I expected. By about 16 months.

And it's cool. I mean, I always knew that eventually, to avoid midlife crisis, I would have to work for myself in some way. I had hoped that a magical production company would swoop in from Magic Land and option my magical screenplay providing me some kind of magical bridge to the other side... and that could still happen... but, what's the phrase... "hope is not a strategy"?

So I decide to start my own little business. Nothing big, probably a sole proprietorship. Some umbrella under which I can do my marketing thing, write freelance articles, do more screenplays or TV pilots. What name do I want for myself in this entrepreneurial, now-no-longer-hypothetical universe? It comes to me immediately: Conk Creative.

It's got alliteration. It has a chunk of my surname next to word that doubles as an adjective to describe me and, in the agency world, a noun for what I do. Fantastic! So I go to Verio to reserve the domain.


And not just taken, but by this outfit, which has one of the coolest websites I've ever seen.

What do you call it when you get Conked even on your attempt use the word "Conk"? Mirrors upon Malkovich mirrors appear in my head...

P.S. ConklinCreative.com: Also taken.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Guest Post: How to "Brand" Minnesota

This commentary from my father was just accepted for the Star Tribune. I thought it was worth sharing a sneak peek.

* * *

The new marketing campaign highlighting the livability of the Twin Cities has it all wrong. We don’t want to attract people. An influx of Californians would do to Minneapolis-St. Paul what it did to Santa Fe.

We want to repel people. To do this, we should adopt an already familiar phrase. Our USP (Unique Selling Proposition to you non-advertising folk) should be: “Minneapolis-Saint Paul: A Cold Omaha.”

The attitude we want to reinforce is the one that greeted my wife and me when we told our neighbors in northern Indiana we were moving back home to Minnesota. “You’re retiring NORTH?” came the refrain (this from residents of a region that gets more snow annually than the Twin Cities metro area).

We should keep quiet the experience of canoeing in Lake of the Isles at summer dusk and emphasize the lack of street crime in January. We should keep secret our park system and bike trails while educating prospective emigrants from places like Georgia and Texas about head-bolt heaters and hand-warmers. We should downplay our vibrant cultural life, and instead point up our unique positioning as a city where bridges fall down. Instead of touting our literacy, we should develop an entrance test that includes the ability to define terms like “galoshes,” “Alberta clippers,” and “Iowa.”

We should emphasize our defects. We have consistently disappointing professional sports teams, for example. We have one of the worst transportation infrastructures of any major U.S. city. We have a state government that would support public education entirely in a biennial bonding bill if they had the legislative votes. We have a Winter Carnival so popular it is on the edge of bankruptcy. We have one downtown almost bereft of retail and another tending that way. There are a number of things to our discredit that can feed a bad press.

One of our strong non-selling points is our weather. It has a range of temperature only matched by Siberia and a cast of skittish local television meteorologists who track potential blizzards all the way in from Oregon. We should tape these doomsayers every time they say “plowable” and blanket places like Nevada, Mississippi and South Carolina with DVD copies. At all costs we must not breathe a word of how Minnehaha Falls awakens to spring, how sailboats tack to summer breezes on 15,000 lakes or how the Mississippi River cuts through a russet gorge in autumn.

We got our work cut out for us in making the Twin Cities unattractive, but it can—and must—be done.

Richard Conklin is a retired university official who recently moved back to the Twin Cities after a 34-year absence.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Great Flood

Anne and I just finished watching an amazing (but surprisingly obscure, to this day) documentary. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Peter Weir, it tells the story of the flood of the Charlestown area of Boston in 1905.

The images of the flood, coupled with the voices and stories of those affected--most of them poor and working class--were touching and tragic in an unexpected way. What was particularly disturbing was to see, with the benefit of hindsight, the confluence of events (both natural and man-made) that led to nearly 500 deaths, including children and the elderly, due to everything from drowning to lack of medical supplies.

Those who survived were not immune from the tragic consequences, as they were separated from their families--children literally pulled from their parents' arms--in a bizarre relocation effort filled with empty and unfulfilled promises, creating yet another of history's diasporas.

The story is told with both humility and art, which is a rare find, and makes the viewer not only mourn for the victims and survivors, but for a truly great American city. If you have a chance, I strongly recommend checking it out. It's not only a great history lesson, but a cautionary tale for all Americans.

Oh wait... I got a few details wrong. The film was directed by Spike Lee. The city was New Orleans. The year was 2005. And the death toll was 1,800. Other than that, it's all the same.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Getting Conked: Part I

Most scholars are familiar with the tragic Greek characters of Sisyphus, Tantalus and Narcissus. Fewer are familiar with Conklinus, whose particular failed act of blind repetition was continually believing that he had come up with a truly original creation.

It started in South Bend, Indiana, when young Conklinus was a 13-year-old adolescent teaching himself how to play guitar. One day in his parents' basement, he invented a riff on the bass string. Later that day, he played it for his older brother: "Ted Nugent!" the elder said. Conklinus had never heard "Hey Baby."

Conklinus tried again, inventing a more complicated riff involving four strings, some of them open, others playing a melody in octaves. "Jimi Hendrix!" the elder exclaimed. Conklinus was then treated to his first listen of "Third Stone from the Sun."

And so the pattern continued. In college, Conklinus traveled the European continent and thought, "You know, the one consistent thing from Dublin to Budapest is the Big Mac. Economists should invent The Big Mac Index as a way to compare currencies." He did nothing about it, but, years later, The Economist did.

After college, Conklinus started writing screenplays. He penned a script based on a friend's idea about a couple giving birth to a baby that could already speak. Conklinus made the baby sound like Shakespeare. The story editor at DreamWorks liked it, until a producer pointed out that the baby character was obviously stolen from The Family Guy. Conklinus had never seen an episode.

Conklinus forged ahead. He wrote his first original screenplay, "Fake Your Own Death, Inc.," in which a madman kidnaps an artist and a priest and fakes their deaths to force society to value their genius and martyrdom. He recently learned of an obscure Mark Twain play called "Is He Dead?" from 1898, in which an entrepreneur conspires with an artist to fake his death and raise the value of his work. The play is now being performed for the first time in history in Manhattan, and today, the Wall Street Journal wrote about "The Death Effect."

Undaunted, Conklinus finally developed an idea for an original dark comedic novel, told entirely in suicide notes, in which it slowly becomes clear that the depressed hero can't even find the time or privacy to commit his final act of despair. At work one day, while directing a photo shoot for a writer about his age, he inquired about the man's recently completed novel. "It's a story told in suicide notes," he said. "It comes out in April."

And the story has recently continued. But more on that later.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Did She or Didn't She?

It's a hot debate in news rooms, living rooms and chat rooms across America.

So now I ask you, the millions of Bye Bye Shadowlands readers out there:

Was Hillary's expression of emotion in New Hampshire fake or genuine?


Monday, January 14, 2008

William Faulkner: Comic Genius

I never much liked reading as a kid; I far preferred watching Bugs Bunny, Bewitched and lots of other mindless TV shows (check that, Bugs Bunny was brilliant).

But the day I graduated from college, when I no longer had to read, a funny thing happened: I suddenly wanted to. In the summer of 1991... a perfect summer of no responsibility, when my band gigged in Dallas and some friends and I drove all over the western United States, I dove into some of the big ones, like The Brothers Karamazov. That next year, living in a trailer park in Western New York, I continued with Moby Dick and countless other "classics." Funny thing, I loved them.

Then I realized I had to make a living, and I lost interest again. Then I went to graduate school in creative writing, and had to read again, and didn't like anything except Raymond Carver and Toni Morrison. Then I graduated and lost interest again. Then I realized that I'm really a nonfiction guy. Then, most recently, I got tired of nonfiction and decided to go back to reading all the great fiction I've never read.

So I thought I'd start with William Faulkner, and I ordered As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury and Light in August.

Although I am not well read, I know that As I Lay Dying is one of the greatest books ever written. I can't add to the critical record on its cultural authenticity, its use of rotating narrators speaking in first person, its terrifying eternal quality. The only possibly original comment I can make is this: As I Lay Dying is a comedy.

This is what makes the book truly a work of genius. It's not about the Addie Bundren, the dead woman in the casket, who has had her eyes accidentally augered out, who is going through hell as her family (against all logic) tries to transport her back to her hometown to bury her, whose body is beginning to decompose to the point where buzzards are circling above the wagon. It's not about the sons and daughters, all with their neuroses and dark secrets, ranging from closeted homosexuality to hidden pregnancy.

It's about the idiot genius leading that family and its ill-fated journey: Anse Bundren... the man with no discernible talents of judgment, so incompetent that he pours cement directly on his son's broken leg to steady it, who's never worked a day in his life, who is pathologically helpless yet always finds people to help him. And who, after he has finally buried his wife after a tragic journey of epic ignorance, buys himself a new set of teeth and charms a woman blind enough to marry him.

This is the invention of dark comedy, and there is simply none darker.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Gern Blanston: Comic Genius

I didn't just read Steve Martin's new book, Born Standing Up; I devoured it. Martin is always a bit restrained these days—as if overcompensating for the "wild and crazy guy" of the '70s—but he offers just enough about his life and comic thinking to make the book an irresistible read.

The insights into Martin's craft are subtle but fascinating: At one point early in his standup career, he read a book about comedy that blandly described a joke as "a setup that builds tension, followed by a punch line that offers release." At that point, Martin thought: What if you provided a series of obvious setups with no obvious punchlines? The tension would have to release itself somehow, sometime…

At another point early in his career, Martin realized that he wasn't so much "doing comedy" as playing a character doing comedy. That ironic distance, combined with his intellectual love of philosophy and logic, which translated into his brilliant use of absurdity, are what allowed him to refine his act and make it work. (Like any groundbreaking craftsman or artist, it took many frustrating years for the audience to catch up with the performer.)

A golden family tidbit: Martin's father was a wannabe performer—a singer who never made it and was bitter for years. A key moment in Martin's childhood was the day his father, at the height of that bitterness, went too far in giving him the belt. Their relationship was never the same. Martin claims not to have known about his father's desire to be a performer until long after he had become famous, but I don't believe him. What better way to get revenge on his father than to become the famous performer he had failed to become? (It reminds me of Joe Eszterhaus, who claims not to have known that his father, Istvan, was a Nazi sympathizer until after he wrote the movie "Music Box," about a lawyer who defends her father against accusations of war crimes.)

P.S. For those of you who don't get the reference in my title, Steve Martin used to "admit" in his old standup act that his real name was Gern Blanston. His real name was actually... Steve Martin.

And now, The Great Flydini.

Friday, January 4, 2008

This Is How Movies Get Made

As a way of marketing my current screenplay (without living in L.A. or knowing anybody in the biz), it's available to production and talent agencies on a nice online service called InkTip. Once in a while, the service will send an e-newsletter to subscribers that includes specific requests from smaller production companies. If you've ever wondered how movies get made... well, the real answer is that every movie is developed differently. There is no formula.

But for those of you who think that movies come from ordinary people writing scripts, and "Hollywood" going, "Hey, I like your script. Here's a million bucks." This is more true to life... and a bit depressing.

* * *

Company A

We are looking for completed, feature length drama or dramedy scripts that are very contained (take place in no more than 3 locations), and that involve a small cast (no more than five main characters).

* * *

Company B

We are seeking completed shorts (or features) about 4-wheelers or ATVs. Scripts can be comedy, drama, thriller or horror, but should involve a lot of 4-wheeling. We prefer shorts, but will consider doing a feature.

Very low budget.

* * *

Company C

We are seeking completed drama screenplays that must include or be based around a teen (or teens) committing suicide.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Ironic, or Just Stupid?

Note the bumper sticker farthest left. Then note the kind of car it's sticking on.

At first, I thought this was just a case of Whole Foods Irony, but that kind of "cleverer than thou" attitude is way more Uptown/Minneapolis than Mac Groveland/St. Paul. Now, however, the more I consider the full array of adornments on the back of this Dodge Caravan, what I see is this: A marriage in crisis.

About five years ago, I published a photo essay in The Rake about how Minnesotans argue with each other via bumper stickers. The phenomenon peaked in 2003 with The Wellstone Wars:

"Wellstone Lives!"
"Wellstone's Dead. Get over it."
"What would Wellstone do?"
"Who cares what Wellstone would do?"

Perhaps this uniquely Minnesota trait has found a new manifestation... as the only way Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus couples can express their differences without talking to each other.