Friday, May 30, 2008

See This Movie: "Son of Rambow"

Here's a movie saddled with a two-headed marketing albatross: For the Blockbuster Crowd (BC), who is indifferent to (or despises) independent film--especially "foreign" independent film--it's indie and foreign. On the other hand, for IFFs (Indie Foreign Filmers), it boasts a title that reeks of "blockbuster." You can't win with a formula like that.

And yet, this movie does win. Big. And both crowds should see it. Here are two messages, customized for each audience.

* * *

To the BCs:

You had to have liked "Stand by Me." Think of this as a sort of "Stand by Me," but with only two kids and no railroad tracks. Imagine a 10-year old who's never seen a movie or TV show in his life, and the first thing he ever sees is "First Blood," and he goes nuts. He wraps his school uniform tie around his head. He puts on war paint and attacks scarecrows. All the while, he and his trouble-making buddy set out to covertly produce their own movie called "Son of Rambow" (they misspell it because this is the '80s, and "Rambo" hasn't come out yet... that and maybe for legal reasons) to win an amateur film contest.

The movie is funny, imaginative, touching (especially if you have a crazy boy of your own). It brings back all of those ridiculous '80s memories, mostly with its soundtrack. And, to top it off, it makes fun of the French.

To the IFFs:

Ignore the title. This movie has nothing to do with "Rambo," okay? Not really, anyway. It's not a war movie. It's not a violent movie. It's not a testosterone-tinted car-chase-cacaphonic Surround-Sound-saturated super-sensory blitzkrieg meant to overstimulate you into commercial submission. It's a British film about friendship, family, belonging, and most of all, the struggle between imagination and the forces that try to quash it for no good reason.

The directing is lively without being indulgent. The acting (particularly from the two boys) is stellar. It's a serious movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. And it succeeds in delivering a genuine and sincere tug at the ol' heart strings.

* * *

Now get off your collective asses and see the movie. Here's the information for Minneapolis.

Yes, BCs, you'll have to venture to the terrifying confines of The Lagoon. It's okay, there's Tex Mex nearby and no one will think you're gay if you throw out the "Stand by Me" line. IFFs, don't worry that your friends will think you've gone Rumsfeld... just say "British" and "coming of age" when you describe it.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Actually, Think Inside the Box

(This is a joint post with Chaos2Clarity.)

I was sitting in a small auditorium on the campus at Hamline University, listening to a young poet named Li-Young Lee. He was a wild and brilliant writer, incomprehensible to me most of the time. But as a speaker, he was amazingly clear, and one thing he said has always stuck with me. In discussing the abstract idea of contradiction, he said, "As an architect, the best way to communicate 'space' is to enclose it." If I remember right, to illustrate his point, he cited Grand Central Station.

Over time, I've shortened my interpretation of that insight to simply this: Creativity is born of restriction. Yes, popular culture is awash in stories and images of artists who only bloom when they shake the shackles of oppression--political, religious, cultural, mostly familial. And those who deal with creative types constantly hear them whine (often justifiably so) about being too restricted. But if you doubt that restriction is absolutely essential to creativity, keep in mind that poets themselves created the insane constraints of the haiku.

In my own experience, I've witnessed it several times. The song I use as the soundtrack for my Conk Creative website: We had just enough studio time left for one live take, and it turned out to be the most popular track on our CD (despite my sloppy guitar playing). The screenplay I recently optioned: I sputtered for more than a year until I decided that I had to complete a draft in time for a contest deadline. With my Conk Creative blog, I created the "CC Pick 3" email in part because I knew it would force me to publish at least three posts a month (this is number three for May). And keep in mind that pop songs and screenplays are already two of the most highly structured vehicles in their creative families. The latter is mandated to be written in three acts, not to exceed 120 pages in 12-pt. Courier font, with margins of 1.5 inches on the left, 1 inch on the right, top and bottom.

Most recently, I've enrolled for the 48 Hour Film Project, a contest in which you draw a genre out of a hat, then have 48 hours to create a film longer than four minutes, but less than seven minutes. We'll see if this level of restriction proves to be oppressive, liberating or both. (Note to clients: This post should have no bearing on setting deadlines for future projects...)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Death Becomes Them

For some completely bizarre reason, I've suddenly become enamored with many of the characters (and two particular periods) in American history. In the last month or two, I've digested the HBO "John Adams" series, as well as audiobooks of Lincoln's Melancholy and the Thomas Jefferson Presidency. I've read Mark Twain's The Gilded Age. I'm now in the middle of his The Innocents Abroad, and I'm also listening to a Twain biography I just picked up at Barnes & Noble.

This cast of characters basically covers two eras: the Revolution, and Civil War/Reconstruction... the late 1700s and the late 1800s. While so much can be said about these men and their influence on politics, culture and literature, the one common element of their lives and times that sticks with me is simply this:


We forget, in our padded modern existence, simply how hard life was... and how normal (almost expected) it was to witness the death of one's siblings and children. Consider:

- Mark Twain was one of seven children. Three died in childhood, one at the age of 20 (and Twain himself was largely bedridden for the first four years of his life).

- Abraham and Mary Lincoln had four sons. Only one made it to adulthood.

- Though John Adams himself lived to the age of 90, his daughter, "Nabby," died of breast cancer as a young woman, and his son, Charles, died of alcoholism.

- In addition to a stillborn son, Thomas and Martha Jefferson saw three daughters die before the age of 3.

Does a study exist that correlates premature experience with loved ones' deaths with leadership qualities... or something even less tangible: personal character? It makes one wonder, what childhood events will the biographers of future American presidents and literati be relegated to unearthing in making the case for their subjects' future greatness? The traumatic experience of getting one of their Twitter accounts canceled when they were nine?

Bring back small pox! Resurrect the bilious fever! God Bless America!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

R.I.P. The WiFi Squatter

Dear Fellow Squatter:

Times are tough in Squattistan, and growing tougher. Back in the Golden Age, a card-carrying member of the Overhead-Free Clan could saunter into any coffee shop and enjoy free, robust, reliable WiFi service. No longer, Squatter. They are attempting to banish us.

The first warning bell sounded at the Linden Hills Dunn Bros one month ago. To my surprise, I spied an abandoned corner table near the One True Thing ... not natural light, of course. I speak of Proximate Electricity. And not just one outlet. Two units, each with four outlets! (In my naivete, I rejoiced. In retrospect, I should have smelled Denmark's rottenness...)

In accordance with the Squatter Rules of Engagement, I planted my flag (computer case) on the table PRIOR to purchasing my first beverage. Away, interlopers! Iced Americano in hand, I returned to my temporary homestead, released the MacBook Pro, connected the two ends of the white Apple power cord and waited for the little dot on the square magnetic computer connection to turn green. My friend, it did not light.

I explored another plug. Nothing. I moved to the other outlet. Nada. A malfunctioning corner, clearly. I spied a less-desirable table near the play area for kids. Careful not to lose my home, I maintained my empty case at the corner table and carted the MacBook yonder. Another glorious four-piece of pure voltage awaited. I engaged. But no green. Different plug, same non-result.

I stepped to the counter to initiate Barista Diplomacy. The ambassador lifted a crooked finger and pointed to a far wall. "The laptop crowd is allowed to sit along that perimeter only. All the other outlets have been turned off in fairness to our other patrons." And with that, my friend, a shiver shivered down my shivery spine. "They're onto us," I thought. "The end is nigh."

Since that fateful moment, the pieces of Grand Conspiracy continue to merge:

- The Caribou on Grand and Snelling requires Squatters to purchase a libation for every hour of WiFi use.
- All other Caribous allow Squatters to receive, but not send, email (Sisyphusian problem-solving at its cruel finest, comrade).
- WiFi service at the Dunn Brothers at Lyndale and Franklin has always been spotty at best. But now, management has lost all urgency in remedying the matter. (A world without compassion, my MacBook Brother.)
- When last I darkened the door of the Longfellow Grill Dunn Brothers, I received a WiFi airport signal, but no actual service. (Cruel and unusual, my Squatter Sister.)

We are an accursed race, my friend. The infidels are banishing us to the ghettos. The Caffeine Oligarchs are consolidating their power. 'Tis time to reconstitute and seek amnesty in a more promised land.

Either that, or work from home.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My Kid Is Totally Normal

But his friends are nuts. Here's a little three-minute music video of the kid's fifth birthday party from last month... set to the musical stylings of Wilco and Woody Guthrie (Mermaid Avenue).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Movie Ramble: The Conversation (1974)

You've of course heard of Westerns, Thrillers, Romantic Comedies, Satires, Dramas. You've also heard of Buddy Movies, Road Trip Movies, Quirky Indie Movies, and Cross-Genre Mashups. To these I'd like to add a sub- sub-genre: the Sensitive Voyeur Flick.

Far from making fun of these movies, I think they're actually some of my favorite films. Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is still my all-time number one. One of most engrossing movies in recent memory was "The Lives of Others" (2006), written and directed by a man with the most uber-German name in modern history: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. And now I've seen the film that undoubtedly influenced him, "The Conversation."

Haven't heard of "The Conversation"? I hadn't, and I can't imagine why. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola between Godfathers I and II. It stars Gene Hackman. It includes a corporate punky-looking Harrison Ford in a creepy supporting role. And it's a fantastic flick that adds weight to the idea that the '70s might just have been the true Golden Age of Film.

What these three films share is a particular kind of protagonist: the unhappy man who cruelly eavesdrops on other people until he suddenly begins to care about them. L.B. Geoffries is laid up in his Chelsea apartment, trying passive-aggressively to avoid the bounds of marriage, when he starts to wonder what happened to the neighbor's wife. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler spies for the East German Stasi when he starts to care about the welfare of a renegade writer he's supposed to send to prison. Harry Caul cleverly records a couple's conversation on a San Francisco square (for a client known Orwellianly as The Director), then tries to thwart the murder he suspects will happen based on the evidence he has unearthed.

Surprisingly, "The Conversation" is in many ways the most restrained of the three. Jimmy Stewart's character is actually a pretty happy-go-lucky photographer who stumbles into his voyeurism and uses it to discover his real love for Grace Kelley (what the hell took him so long?). Ulrich Muhe spends stoic hours with the headphones on, but his character transformation is actually fairly traditional.

Hackman's Harry Caul is hard to peg. He's stoic, of course. He's (fittingly) obsessed with his own privacy. But it's not exactly clear what causes his change. It's not that he falls in love with the woman in jeopardy. It's a larger raising of conscience and consciousness, climaxing in a unique way when he realizes that that he's now being spied on, and he destroys his own apartment in a futile attempt to find the bug.

All of these films work because thematically, they exist in a mirrors-upon-mirrors world in which voyeurs (we) watch other voyeurs. As the protagonists begin to care about their spy subjects, we begin to care about the voyeurs. And as our daily lives seem more and more to be exercises in a two-steps-removed human existence, these films resonate like never before.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare $30 Billion?

It's been nearly two months since the Bear Stearns Paulson Prop-up, and something still bothers me.

It's not the action the Fed took. Unlike some people of my political persuasion, I'm pretty well convinced that it was the right thing to do. You can't talk about how humans are all inter-related as it applies to something like global warming without accepting that inter-relationships are strongest (and fastest) in global capital markets. Yes, it's true: Like a butterfly's wings causing a typhoon, if Bear Stearns goes down, somebody doesn't call me to do that website.

But for me, focusing the question on the Federal Reserve is a red herring. There's something bigger going on--something that allows me to pick on the never-ending hypocrisy of the talk-radio right, which is probably my favorite hobby.

Wingnuts hate panhandlers almost as much as feminists. The image of someone going through their daily life knowing that they can just expect a handout if they screw up gives them acid reflux. The guy selling roses in the bar. The illegal immigrant flocking to a nanny state. The welfare mom driving a Cadillac. These are all symbols of original liberal sins: no accountability, lack of personal responsibility, learned helplessness.

Yet, consider life from the perspective of Bear Stearns CEO James Cayne (or the CEO of a major airline, or any other business tightly woven into the global economic quilt). These guys know two things: They have to maximize shareholder value to stay alive, and if something goes terribly wrong, the government will step in and bail them out. In other words, their judgment of short- and long-term risk tolerance thresholds--the skill that is supposed to justify their salaries and stock option packages--is artificially inflated (one might say "subsidized") by the public sector. Me.

In other words, if I know that I’ll get bailed out to some degree, I have much less of an incentive to take on appropriate risk. That, in turn, encourages more risky behavior, like flirting with mortgage-backed securities that dip more than a pinky toe into the sub-prime market. Or smoking crack.

Government largesse enabling and encouraging risky behavior. Sound familiar? But ask a Dittohead if the two are related, and he’ll shrug his shoulders in passive forgiveness of his white-collar brother. The panhandler outside the bar on First Avenue in Minneapolis gets under his skin. The reckless CEO doesn’t. Yet the latter costs him hundreds of dollars in direct and indirect tax subsidies each year, while the former costs him 50 cents if he's feeling generous.

These guys both have their hands out. Why is one better than the other?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Holy Crap! (Part III)

For previous "Holy Crap" posts, see below:

June 2007
Sept. 2007

I was sitting at the Dunn Brothers in the St. Anthony neighborhood (the one attached to the Finnish Bakery, to make it even more Minnesotan) on Monday, when an email came: "I would like to option your script, Deadbeat Boyfriend (sic)." More beautiful words have never been spoken.

An option simply means that someone is "renting" the rights to the screenplay for a finite period of time. After that time, they either decide it's viable and buy it outright, or the rights revert back to me.

This is still quite a distance from Diablo Cody-Land, believe me. But it feels good.