Thursday, December 3, 2009

Play the Game

I was watching The Daily Show two months ago when Jon Stewart introduced one of those academic/author guests he likes to have on--a man by the comical name of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. Mr. Mesquita (I'll just call him "Bruce" from here on out) had written a book called "The Predictioneer's Game," and the initial banter clued me in to the fact that the author is an expert in game theory, and that in predicting geo-political events, he is twice as accurate as the CIA (according to the CIA itself).

The author described game theory as basically creating an algorithm of self-interest based on the influential parties involved in any dispute or negotiation. I then expected the conversation to turn to doom and gloom, because as we all know, the world is coming to an end.

Instead, the interview concluded with Stewart saying, "So actually, you think some good things are going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years, right?" "Yes," replied Bruce.

What?! The last thing I would ever expect right now is a rational case for optimism (dare I say hope). I bought the book the next day. Yes, it's dense in parts, but the overall thesis is compelling (the self-interest part, that is). Here are the highlights:

- Cultural distinctions play a minimal role in resolving disputes. Through the lens of large-scale national and tribal conflict, human beings are basically the same the world over. I find this both liberating and disappointing.

- There's no such thing as a perfectly "fair" election. The most memorable story from the book relates how the author got a company's board of directors to elect the least-likely candidate as its new CEO. How? Through bribes? Tomfoolery? Dirty tricksterism? No, by engineering the election process in a way that everybody thought was perfectly fair. (Is instant runoff voting, just approved in St. Paul, better than the existing system? Yes. No. And maybe.)

- Iran will always threaten to build nuclear weapons, but it won't actually build them. The details on this escape me, but basically, we're doing the right thing there. I've always thought Ahmadinejad was just a big talker. True.

- The best way to stabilize the most serious threat to world peace (Pakistan) is by massively increasing aid to that country and sending a lot more troops to Afghanistan. Pakistan is on the verge of collapse, and no matter how you feel about politics and war, you can't deny that an Islamist regime armed with nuclear weapons is not a good thing. In light of Obama's speech this week, I think he might have read Bruce's book.

- Global warming is a self-correcting problem (this one I don't buy). In the simplest sense, the problem creates more wind, rain and fire, and the key to a more sustainable energy system is basically more wind, rain and fire. (Again, this is one area where the author falls short. The other is in arguing that corporations would be a lot more forthcoming about their transgressions if they didn't face such severe punishments for doing so. Sorry, but the threat of punishment is the only thing keeping most large corporations doing the right thing at all.)

Ultimately, Bruce's book--and game theory in general--accepts the idea of a true and locked "human nature." We are creatures of self-interest. That might be hard to accept, but it's also hard to argue from an evolutionary perspective. Keep in mind that true self-interest is a great deal more complex than the term implies. (Being selfish, after all, is not always in one's self-interest.)

But this is the crucial debate the book should promote. Are we creatures with a consistent and predictable human nature? As another author, Chris Hedges, puts it: Are we a species that can evolve biologically and technologically, but never morally? Or is it a mistake to think of a species as adaptable as homo sapiens as being "locked" and "unchanging" in any way? My friends (and clients) at The Delta Center would likely take the latter point of view.

On the moral side, I find the issue troubling and unresolved. A strong case can be made that human beings do not, in fact, progress morally. That for every emancipation there is just another enslavement to balance it out. On the other hand, any argument about humans being pre-programmed or hard-wired (at least biologically) is also easily proved wrong. Just watch as the hysteria over the uber-causal power of genes will grow more and more challenged over the coming years.

Does an adaptable and constantly changing biology, including within our brains, enable us to change (improve) morally as well? I take some comfort in the fact that Bruce is always fiddling with his algorithm.

That comfort is quickly mitigated by the fact that his algorithm is only getting more accurate.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sunday, October 18, 2009

My Son Is Not Normal

In honor of the new Bob Dylan Christmas album...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Conk Creative TV Spot

Sorry for the self-promotion... this is a dual post with my professional blog, Chaos2Clarity, linking to the first Conk Creative-produced TV spot for Anytime Fitness. Concept stolen from the first Naked Gun movie...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Difference #5

This is the fifth installment in an ongoing series in which I attempt, as diplomatically as possible, to shed light on the actual differences between liberals and conservatives. For previous "Differences," see below:

Difference #1
Difference #2
Difference #3
Difference #4

Introducing Difference #5, this time expressed through the wonders of Keynote, Quicktime and Blogger.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Son Is Not Normal

This is a new trend, hidden iPhone videos. The first shows him talking about the difference between Minnesota and Texas tornadoes; the second is him discussing his plans to migrate south...

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Political Hypocrisy Test

Most people I know aren't mindless political ideologues. In fact, they have secret litmus tests to measure the appropriateness of their joy or outrage at the latest political event.

In light of several recent political events, I thought I'd share my top three.

Test #1: If you could wave a magic wand and make every member of the House and Senate into members of your party--as well as have the Presidency and the Supreme Court tilted your way--would you do it?

My answer is no. My party has its own whack-burger element that needs to be tempered by the opposition. Besides, majorities don't matter with Democrats; they still can't get anything done.

Test #2: If there is a heaven... or at least some place you go when you die where you can find out The Truth about everything (including where you lost that contact lens in 1987), are there any political issues you think you could be wrong about?

My answer: Yes, nearly all of them. I could be wrong on capital punishment. I could be wrong on abortion. I could be wrong that there's a happy medium between economic anarchy and European socialism. The two I know I'm right about: 1) creationism is bunk; and 2) homosexuals are 100% American and have no fewer rights than heteros.

Test #3: When you disapprove of the opposition's behavior in a given situation, would you feel the same way if the situation were reversed?

This is the most useful test on a day-to-day basis. Let me say this regarding recent events, imagining that George W. Bush were still president:

I would not question the President's birth certificate.

I would not keep my son home from school if Bush were addressing his class (in fact, I'd encourage him to be excited that the democratically elected leader of his country was speaking to him).

I would, however, take some sort of glee if a member of my party had shouted "You lie!" at Bush during a joint address to Congress. Sure, I would condemn the behavior and think it was immature and bad decorum. But truthfully, if it were in regards to Bush conflating Iraq and 9/11, denying global warming (or saying it "needed more study"), or denying that we have condoned torture, then deep down I would probably have been happy that someone, as the kids like to say, "spoke truth to power."

That I will admit.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Obama Guilty of Using First Person Singular

You'd think at the age of 40, nothing would surprise me anymore. You'd think that I'd be jaded to pretty much everything--even the techniques of Political Paranistas. You'd think I would have learned my lesson by now. I haven't.

On tonight's drive home, I thought I'd check in on the epicenter of paranoia and ignorance in today's America: talk radio. Why? Because Obama had given his school speech, and by now we all knew that it was just a good old-fashioned bully-pulpit performance on the benefits of staying in school and working hard. With nothing tangible to criticize, I wondered what the wingnuts would do. Would they acknowledge the egg on their face, would they move on to the next issue, or would they revert back to the "he's a socialist" playbook?

Nothing could have prepared me for what I heard.

When I turned to AM 1280, The "Patriot" (quotes added for irony), the talk radio host was saying that Obama had a definite theme in his speech. "In fact," he said. "Obama mentioned this theme 58 times in 18 minutes. So here it is, the edited Obama speech."

They then proceeded to play an edited version of the speech that consisted of starts and stops beginning with the word "I" or its possessive. "I'm glad to be here today..."; "I did things I'm not proud of..."; "My father left the family when I was two years old..."

Their point: The president is self-centered. Why else would he use the first person singular so often? That's right. Apparently when you've reached the office of President of the United States and are giving a speech to school children who are supposed to look at you as a role model, you are not allowed to share your personal experiences. That's right, a station that calls itself The Patriot thinks that the country's democratically elected President should not speak in the first person. That's right, they're either bat-shit crazy or they've abandoned the last atom of their shame.

The irony of all this is that Obama, more than any other presidential candidate in recent memory, won by constantly invoking the first person plural. His slogan was "Yes We Can," remember? He once said, "We are the people we've been waiting for." At one point in the campaign, he was criticized for not being human enough, for not relating enough of his own experiences. By contrast, George W. Bush began the first news conference after his reelection (by a margin far narrower than Obama's victory four years later) with the words: "I've earned some political capital here, and I intend to spend it."

Shameless. Desperate. Paranoid. Cynical. Take your pick, depending on what you think of the sincerity of such anti-thought. There are no parties in America right now. There are only rational people and irrational people. So 9/11ers and Birthers, I invite you to join with the newly formed FirstPersoners. Go ahead and put up your own candidate. Just do us all a favor and get off the radio.

Friday, September 4, 2009

If Michele Bachmann Practiced Medicine

Hello, my name is Michele Bachmann, and I’m here with a very special message that I think every American needs to hear.

As you know, some people are pressuring you to embrace the concept of Medicine. But as we also know, Medicine doesn’t work. It’s too big. It’s too powerful. And it’s too inefficient. I, like so many Americans, believe that we need to get Medicine off our backs. Believe me, no matter how some may try to convince you otherwise, the people who practice Medicine simply cannot be trusted with your well-being. In short, Medicine isn’t the solution; it’s the problem.

That’s why I’m desperate to be a part of this horrible, lazy, ineffective institution. I’ve always aspired to work for something I don’t believe in, and I’ve long admired the wonderful men who founded this insidious idea so many centuries ago. In fact, it’s always been a dream of mine to get up every morning, take your money for my salary, and then work hard every day to further an organization that is intrinsically ruinous to the lives of each and every American.

So in short, remember this: Medicine doesn’t work and is inherently evil. That’s why I want to be your doctor.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

KEO Syndrome

A family email thread and a recent summer experience have caused me to lobby for the addition of a new syndrome to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The family email discussion was prompted by my alma mater's recent announcement of "improvements" to the football Saturday experience--among them, a kid-friendly area likely full of inflatable crap. (A thoughtful ND alumnus responded more eloquently than I could ever hope to to this decision. Suffice it to say, game days at Notre Dame are magical enough on their own with nothing but fall colors and the marching band.)

The recent summer experience was our temporary placing of James in a daytime program at his former preschool. We expected the program to be fun and instructive (Art Mondays and the like) for three days a week. Instead, we were immediately barraged with extra charges for trips to batting cages, Chuck E. Cheeses, baseball games, movies, you name it. Art Mondays? Kind of lame, according to the 6-year-old critic himself.

One description Anne gave of visiting the program broke my heart. One of James' kindergarten classmates was also enrolled, but he often looked dejected. He's a nice kid. He's overweight. His parents both work. They probably have no choice but to put him in some kind of day care in the summers, every day. The program is supposed to be "fun" (it's in the name), but if anything, it proves that you can't substitute entertainment for parental love and attention. It's an illusion filled with constant stimulation and junky snacks. Not what we expected, so we took James out... without a fight.

Kid Entertainment Overload Syndrome. Put it in the books. They don't need more movies and cheese balls (although come to think of it, I certainly had my share of both growing up). They need the space to let their imaginations wander. We're raising a generation of kids who are one day going to have adult birthday parties where they get drunk and jump around in inflatable castles for old time's sake.

Yes, I'm spoiled... and yes, maybe I'm being self-righteous. We're fortunate to have a creative kid regardless. But there's nothing better than the experience of last Sunday, where James and I roamed our Taylors Falls campsite with no goal in mind. The river was high from recent torrential rains, so we wandered to what we dubbed "the peninsula," the only beach left above water. I skipped rocks. James built islands in the sand and named them. At one point, I ventured back to the campsite to grab the small garden hoe in the trunk. He didn't see me returning, so I just stopped and watched him. He was busy in his own little world, talking to himself, making up rivers, countries, borderlands. Perfectly content, perfectly self-entertained. There are few better sounds in the world.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

LangAlert: "Lead-Nurturing"

Spotted in an e-newsletter:

Jumpstart Your Lead-Management Program
A practical and affordable plan to jumpstart your lead-nurturing program in 7-10 days!

(Wow, I didn't know leads were so sensitive. Does this include the Glengarry leads?)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Plea from a Friend

I just received this story from a friend and former colleague. Stories like this prove how inexplicably immoral our health insurance system is. Some things work better under a profit motive; others don't. Do we care more about people being healthy, or about the sacred value of being able to make a buck? Time to decide which is more "American," people.

As a wise man once said, it's time for this country to get patriotic about something other than war.

P.S. The message below is from a Republican.

* * *

Subject: Can you help?

As much as you are able, I would be so grateful for any publicity or media coverage you might generate on behalf of a friend, Linda Fields - whose sister needs long term care insurance. Any health care reform package must take this into account - and here's the reason why. Linda's story:

Linda's sister, an art teacher in Baltimore was nearly eligible for her full pension when a catastrophic illness put her in a wheelchair. She now sits at home a paraplegic (nearly quadriplegic since she has limited use of her hands), depressed and feeling abandoned by our health care system. She, like more than 10-million other Americans, needs help at home. Her doctor prescribed it. But to my horror, her insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield (ironically, "CareFirst" in Maryland) feels that despite her spinal cord disease, a rectal prolapse which could cause her to hemorrhage, and an impacted colon which needs cleaning daily, she does not require skilled nursing and therefore is not covered. Her case manager at Blue Cross insists the decision is irrevocable and cannot be appealed since "custodial care is all that is required". Her husband cannot do it, so she is expected to find help on her own --- if she can afford it. She cannot.

As congress considers the daunting task of reforming our nation's health care system --I cannot help but wonder if there will be any consideration for the growing number of Americans who need long-term care. The only recourse is to be wealthy (or lucky enough to be among the small minority who have an expensive long-term care policy) or be destitute, in a nursing home as a ward of the state.

Why are the long-term needs of so many ignored? Our nation's population is aging and our politicians are near-sighted!!! This needs to be examined. Howard Gleckman at the Urban Institute would make a great interview -- and Linda's sister would, too.

Veni Vidi Vici

Pandora is a great thing. When I'm in a good mood and having a light day as a self-employed-in-a-recession Limited Liability Crackpot, I play Cheap Trick Radio. When I'm feeling a little more serious, I play Wilco Radio. When I need to give things some deep attention, I play Miles Davis Radio. When I'm crazed with work and trying to meet 10 deadlines in two hours, I play Mozart Radio. And when I'm on the verge of suicide, I play Gregorian Chant Radio.

Current Selection: Magnificat 6 in Tones 6 & 1 by the Tallis Scholars.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pacific NW Music Video

Tough to get it all in 4 minutes, but here it is to the tuneful strummings of the 5 o'Clock Shadows...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

My Son Is Not Normal

Even on vacation.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The adventure has begun


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

One Wing

We once belonged to a bird
Who cast a shadow on this world
You were a blessing, and I was a curse
I did my best not to make things worse
For you
It isn't true

I always knew this would be our fate
This is what happens when wings separate
This happens to all dead weight eventually

We may as well be made of stone
We can't be flown
One wing will never fly
Neither yours nor mine
I fear
We can only wave goodbye

One wing will never ever fly
Neither yours nor mine
One wing will never ever fly, dear
Neither yours nor mine
I fear
We can only wave goodbye

Bye bye

- Jeff Tweedy

Friday, July 3, 2009

James' 6th Birthday Music Video (2 Months Late...)

Due to YouTube's new rules on copyrighted music, I had to go with a safe choice. If you're wondering, it's "Kasfiki" by the long-defunct but awesome Providence, RI band Why The Fish. (The keyboardist is my long-time friend John Spencer, now a leading learning and development guru at the University of Iowa and the Delta Center, which is a Conk Creative client. See how this works?)

Monday, June 29, 2009

LangAlert: "Presenteeism"

Reading a corporate Request For Proposal today brought back a flood of unwanted corporate-speak memories: talk of "messaging" to employees, pointing to the need for a "versioned" one-page sales sheet, among others.

But you might say that one line broke new ground. Shifted paradigms. Stood on the cutting-edge of state-of-the-art revolutionarian innovationosity:

" ... [the presentation should show how the service] increases productivity and decreases presenteeism and absenteeism ..."

That's right, "presenteeism." According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia (you know the link; I don't have to provide it), presenteeism is " ... the opposite of absenteeism. In contrast to absenteeism, when employees are absent from work, presenteeism discusses the problems faced when employees come to work in spite of illness, which can have similar negative repercussions on business performance."

BBS/LangAlert Prediction: Within five years, political pundits will coin the term "presentee voters" to refer to those who actually go to the polls.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Of Mouths & Men: The Movie

As produced by Kicked Off the Roof Entertainment, my 48 Hour Film Project team.
Genre: Western or Musical
Required Character: Kevin Schnabel, an expert of some kind
Required Prop: a sandwich
Required Line of Dialogue: "I hope they decide soon."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Official Trailer...

... for my team's 48 Hour Film Project flick, "Of Mouths & Men."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Let the Insanity Begin

It's time for another 48 Hour Film Project, starting in four hours. Stay tuned (showing is next Wednesday at the Riverview, 9:15 p.m.).

To relive the glories, the passions, the forks ... of last year's entry from Kicked Off the Roof Entertainment, see below:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

P.S. from the SCSFe

I kept a running list of "learnings" from the Screenwriting Conference at Santa Fe (SCSFe) on a left-hand page in my large black notebook. These are the top 8:

1. Don't write a TV spec.
It's harder to break in, TV writers have to live in L.A., and if you're lucky enough to get an assignment, you get worked to death.

2. Don't be afraid to set something in the Twin Cities.
I've always avoided this, because some annoying voice always tells me that no one wants to buy or see a film shot in the Midwest. Problem is, I love the Midwest and I've lived 95 percent of my life there.

3. You have no choice but to do a passion project that's fun for you to write.
I'll start this in the fall after a final Deadbeat Boyfriends rewrite. I define "passion project" as something you do with no commercial aspirations. I have a basic plot for this that I developed at the conference. In keeping with #2, it's called "Twin Cities."

4. "If you don't love it without the money, you won't love it with the money."
A quote from one of the mentors. It isn't just relevant to writing; it basically applies to everything.

5. You haven't worked nearly hard enough to expect success.
Meeting working screenwriters who have written more than 100 scripts and didn't break in until #10 or so is both inspiring and humbling.

6. Put your main character where they would least like to be.
That's what forces you to figure out who this person is. (Question: What's the place I would least like to be?)

7. Conferences are a great way to break your patterns.
This is a huge realization. Perhaps no force is more powerful or harder to break than the tyranny of day-to-day inertia. If you have an interest in something, give yourself a chance to get totally immersed in it. It's a wonderful feeling.

8. You're a writer.
Sometimes I need to be reminded of this.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part VI

Final two pitches starting in 15 minutes. Shuttle coming. Home by 5:00. Fire lit.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part V

Today, the Hollywood Connection phase of SCSFe took over. This is where the educational part stops and the producers come in. First, all the writers get to ask all the producers (about a dozen all together) anything they want in an open Q&A, then you pay to pitch. Five minutes. I think it's $35 each. You sit outside a room and wait for your turn, then you go in and just start talking. It's over before you know it, with the producer either saying "send it to me" or "pass."

Luckily, I'm 1 for 1 so far (pitching Deadbeat Boyfriends). I wasn't supposed to have another pitch until tomorrow morning. But a fellow writer was kind enough to hand me his pass to a pitch happening in about half an hour, because he realized that his story wasn't right for this producer and mine is. Very nice guy. I'm starving.

Friday, May 29, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part IV

Funny what happens when you actually have a chance to immerse yourself in something.

When I started answering my questions listed in the previous post, I realized that I really don't know any great stories. I know great stories from film and literature, and I know great and interesting people, and I know good story vignettes from actual people. But as far as one of those full-arc Hollywood-type stories... uh uh.

So I moved on to the list of personally embarrassing moments (this is not an original idea for mining new material, I stole it from a screenwriting book I read years ago). And this was scary. Scary because it started off slowly, then I couldn't stop. Then I realized that despite the list, which keeps growing as I think of new ones, I've actually spent a good deal of time trying my damnedest NOT to be embarrassed, which makes for a pretty dull, opposite-of- Bridget-Jones-type existence.

Then I started analyzing the list-in-progress and realized that embarrassment has several categories. There are moments where you are completely and publicly embarrassed. Then there are moments where you're embarrassed looking back on it, but you weren't embarrassed at the time. Then there are moments where you should have been embarrassed but actually weren't. And then there are moments that were "embarrassing," but you didn't actively embarrass yourself. Subtle differences, but all very important.

Then I made the list of movies I truly love. Not the best movies ever made, or the most important movies ever made, but the movies I truly love. The list is as follows, in no particular order:

1. Rear Window
2. Vertigo
3. High Fidelity
4. Rushmore
5. Dr. Strangelove
6. This Is Spinal Tap
7. Waiting for Guffman
8. Being John Malkovich
9. Annie Hall
10. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
11. It's a Wonderful Life (sorry)
12. The Commitments
13. Amadeus
14. The Dead
15. Once
16. Cinema Paradiso
17. Lost In Translation
18. Glengarry Glenn Ross

I initially wrote down Manhattan, but then crossed it off. What I really love is the freedom of Annie Hall... the way Woody Allen moves from present to past, to animation, to imagining how great it would be if Marshall McCluhan appeared out of nowhere to humiliate a pseudo-intellectual standing in a movie line. I'd like to give myself that kind of creative freedom in a script, which is such a hyper-structured (and occasionally downright oppressive) format.

I wanted to watch Annie Hall instantly, so I went on Netflix to see if it was available as a "Watch It Now" movie. It wasn't, but Manhattan was. So I watched Manhattan on my laptop, lying in bed until midnight. And I remembered why I had initially put it on my list: It's the romance of it. Not the romance of Woody Allen's relationships (I don't know how he got away with having a 42-year-old man date a 17-year-old girl... yikes with the foreshadowing), but the romance that the movie is really about: New York. The opening sequence of a struggling author tripping over his own voiceover trying to express his love for the city, moving to breathtaking black-and-white shots of Manhattan set against the score of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"... it's never been equaled and probably never will.

(Then I remembered that as a teenager, I once rented a 30-pound video camera, shot scenes of downtown South Bend and later edited them against the same soundtrack. Let's add that to the embarrassing moments list...)

But making these lists has done two things so far: It's made me remember why I love movies, and it's started a new idea percolating. For better or for worse.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part III

As I sit through the early seminars, roundtables and presentations, rather than writing notes on what people are saying, I've been writing questions that I think will lead me to uncovering a new story. These questions have included the following:

What's the greatest story you know--about a person you actually know?

What are the most embarrassing moments you've ever had?

What are you obsessed with?

Why are you so self-conscious?

Who's the most "unexpected" person you've ever met (meaning, the person who didn't sound like they looked, or knew what you wouldn't think they would know, etc.)

What movies do you truly love?

Who's the most obsessive person you've ever known?

Why do you like satire so much, and is that a sign of weakness or a neutral trait?

When you have been under serious stress, and how did you react?

If you were to write a modern story based on a classic, which classic would you choose?

What was the most romantic moment in your life?

What's the nicest thing anyone's ever done for you?

What's the nicest thing you've ever done for somebody else?

What are 10 moments that made you cry?

I've only just begun to answer these questions, but the results are very interesting.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part II

I was kind of plunged into this conference and still haven't had time to decompress. Airport to crowded shuttle. Shuttle to hotel. Then right into the keynote speech by the guy who wrote Revenge of the Nerds.

First observation: This conference is quite a bit smaller than I had imagined, which is a good thing. So far there might be 50 people. I don't know why, but I had expected 500 or more.

Second observation: The attendees are older than I would have expected. Very few bright-eyed, fresh-out-of-college-looking types. It's a mature group, many of them veterans of this conference.

After the keynote was the Actors' Choice Awards. This is a contest where attendees submit only the first five pages of their scripts. Five winners are chosen, and a team of actors performs the scenes live on stage. I had high hopes that Deadbeats might win one of these slots, since the first five pages have always been the best part of the script (and the only part that has never changed). Plus, I now realized that I automatically had a 1 in 10 shot. But it was not to be.

The scripts that won were very good. One stole the show: A biopic on Bob "Butterbean" Love, a star with the Chicago Bulls in the '70s who has lived a rags to riches to rags to riches story. After his basketball career, he was hampered by a severe stuttering problem and sunk as low as working as a bus boy. But he worked to lose the stutter and is now the Bulls' director of community relations--and one of the country's most sought-after motivational speakers. The writer met Butterbean at a conference and just struck up a conversation. Smartly, he jumped on it. It's a story made for the screen, and I hope it gets there.

As for me, I'm in introvert mode, avoiding meeting people and reading "Long Day's Journey into Night," which unfortunately only inspires one to slit one's wrists. Busy day ahead... ironically, all about dialogue.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5 Days to Light the Fire, Part I

So I’m sitting on a plane on its way to Albuquerque, about to spend five days in Santa Fe attending one of the country’s better-known screenwriting conferences. The traditional purpose of events like these is to bring together hundreds of writers to network, attend classes like “Achieving a Killer Outline in Nine Days,” and—in the case of the Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe—to actually pitch their screenplay ideas to working producers and receive pragmatic counsel from those who have quote made it.

My purpose is a little bit larger. I’m looking for inspiration. Specifically, I’m conducting an experiment to see what happens when I force myself to be temporarily unobligated to work or family (thanks, Anne... I owe you bigtime). I haven’t had a significant side project since I started Conk Creative, and I need one to maintain my tenuous states of balance and sanity—and to continue my obsessive 25-year quest to avoid the ravages of mid-life crisis.

Will I come out of here wanting to attack yet another “Deadbeat Boyfriends” rewrite? Will I leave suddenly inspired to fully develop one of four frazzled movie and TV threads, or will a new idea hit? Will I decide to write, fund and self-produce a short film, or will I decide that I’m done with this genre... that I want to start another band, do another basement CD, start a video blog called My Son Is Not Normal, or go total obscuria and apply for a grant to write a book on the history of death rituals in Papua New Guinea?

Or will I spend my time eating guacamole and watching TV in my hotel room?

I’ve got five days to figure it out.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I Don't Believe in Global Warming

The question is asked often: "Do you believe in global warming?" And it's recently occurred to me that my answer is this:

No, I don't.

(Excuse me while I step on top of this soap box here. There.)

I don't believe in global warming because there's nothing to believe in.

There's nothing to believe in because things that require belief are those things that you cannot see, hear, touch, smell, taste, measure, analyze, understand, predict and change.

Global warming is a fact. That human beings have and are contributing to it is a proven theory.

The pattern is established. Causation is obvious. Effects can be measured and analyzed.

Predictions are as imperfect as all predictions are, but they are revealing that reality is actually falling on the "worst case scenario" end of the accuracy spectrum.

So do I believe in global warming?


I accept global warming as a fact. I take the warnings very seriously. And I support efforts to curb it before it does more damage than we want to believe is possible.

Also, please stop asking, "Will the Earth survive? Can we save the planet?" The planet will survive no matter what we do. This isn't about "the planet." It's about the survival of a species on that planet that I happen to care about.

So stop framing global warming in terms of "belief" and "saving the planet." Let's get real about how we talk about this issue so we can get real about mitigating it.

(Exit soap box.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thanks, Bill

I was listening to an audiobook this morning that started with William Faulkner reading his speech before the Nobel Prize committee. His drawl is beautiful, but surprisingly, he reads the speech too quickly and with virtually no passion, or even inflection. Yet, the words themselves really touched me with their ... I guess you would say "deep, fully conscious optimism."

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.

Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man.

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.

The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Random Observation

When a white man is introduced to a black man, he will always add ", man" to the end of "nice to meet you."

"Vickers, this is Jamal."
"Nice to meet you, man."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Success, Malcolm Gladwell & Daddy Issues

As someone staring 40 in the face, I've been thinking a lot about success lately, and it's made me hate Malcolm Gladwell.

Actually, that's not true. Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, has been a pleasant revelation to me in most respects. Anything that demystifies the concept of the born genius is a step in the right direction. Gladwell isn't the only one doing this these days. Book after book is pointing to the unsexy truth: People who succeed have to work really, really, really hard. They're not born with talent; they simply have more desire and a better ability to focus deeply on one goal for long periods of time.

But something still bugs me about Gladwell's thinking. Two things, actually. The first is the big intellectual elephant in the room throughout his book: the definition of "success." With no apologies, Gladwell jumps right into discussions of Mozart and Bill Gates. The success of these men can't be denied; they revolutionized their fields. But I want to know: Were they/Are they successful husbands, fathers, friends, citizens? Gladwell works from one definition of success, and it's not one that favors overall balance and happiness (because frankly, that's not as interesting).

The second is the lack of any discussion about the psychology of motivation behind the highly successful. I think about a screenplay reading I attended about three years ago. The writer was well-known and had adapted an Oscar-winning film already. Actors read the script in its entirety, uninterrupted. It was riveting. Throughout the reading, I thought about how the writer was doing things with character and dialog that I could only dream of. (On the drive home, I realized that in the end I didn't actually like it that much as a whole, but I digress.)

Then I remembered something the author had said during the audience Q&A: When asked about his inspiration for the script, he mentioned that someone had once told him they didn't trust his ability to "write women." That's it! I thought... there's a "chip on the shoulder" element to what's going on here. (See: Brett Favre possibly signing with the Vikings to stick it to the Packers...) The script is in development, and I've heard that Hilary Swank is involved.

Let's face it: The one element that's as important to traditional success as work and focus--the one crucial ingredient that Gladwell ignores completely in Outliers--is having a shoulder that can house many chips. And at least among men, no chip is bigger than the one produced by the absent or disapproving father. Look at presidents. Barack Obama: making up for an absent father. George W. Bush: still trying to please daddy-o. Bill Clinton: proving himself to his alcoholic papa. And did you know that George Washington's father was a violent, abusive opium and meth addict? Neither did I. It isn't true.

The point is this. I hate Malcolm Gladwell. I hate him because he's doing exactly what I would love to be doing: Using a highly integrative mind to form compelling master theses, interviewing fascinating people to support it, writing very interesting books, and then getting paid lots of money to speak about them.

Hey wait, that's a chip! I DO hate Malcolm Gladwell! Now if you'll excuse me, I have a book to write...

Friday, May 1, 2009

LangAlert: Redundonyms

Redundonyms (a term I've invented to refer to acronyms followed by the word already represented by their last letter) have been around for years, but lately they've been proliferating faster than swine flu. Here's my running list... I encourage additions via comments.

ATM Machine
IRA Account
HSA Account
MLB Baseball
GPS System
HLN News (CNN)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Son Is Not Normal

So I found this crumpled up on the dining room table. Let's analyze. This picture means: In his spare time, my son likes to draw maps. I'm fairly confident that this map was done from his head, and it's almost disturbingly accurate. Despite this, my son found this map so riddled with mistakes... so imperfect... so horrible... that he crumpled it up in frustration.

Conclusion: My son is not normal, and we continue to be in for a world of hurt.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire's "Hollindie Syndrome"

So I finally saw this year's "Best Picture" Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Seeing such a celebrated film so late presents a lot of problems. On one hand, your expectations are sky high. On the other hand, there's already been plenty of time for the inevitable backlash. Was Slumdog Millionaire a brilliant "feel-good" film, or was it an egregious exercise in how to depress audiences and exploit poverty at the same time?

It's hard to be objective in such circumstances, but I'll try.

The first thing that must be said about Slumdog is that it's a brilliantly structured film. As someone who has written five screenplays (including one that didn't suck), I appreciate structure. Structure is sorely lacking in many films, including, as I recently discovered, "Bee Movie" (I have a five-year old).

Organizing a film to show the distant past by playing a tape of answers to a set of questions asked in the recent past... to find out what's going to happen in the future... I'm sorry, but that's good stuff. There's a rule of screenwriting that you should avoid flashbacks. Slumdog exposes the absurdity of such blanket assertions. At least 85 percent of the movie is told in flashback, and couldn't work any better. You learn more about the characters with each question. You come to understand them and care about them. You not only want to find out if the main character wins the money, but if he gets the girl.

No doubt about it, the movie gets your attention and keeps it. And for that, any movie should earn at least a 6 out of 10. Slumdog is also well cast and well acted, so I'd raise that to a 7. It has a clear cinematographic vision that also works well, so that raises it to an 8. But unfortunately, just as the movie reached its climax, it broke my heart. In a bad way.

I would bet one-millionth of a million dollars that the original script for Slumdog had a different ending, but that the director, the studio, an executive producer or a focus group demanded that it be changed. And in the process, lowered their collective creation from the heights of brilliance down into the tepid soup of Hollindie Syndrome.

Hollindie Syndrome is when a movie is created and intended as an "indie flick," but then changes in the massive artistic and financial collaborative process into a Hollywood flick. The result is an interim solution whose identity crisis is infuriating. You may complain that dividing movies into "indie" or "Hollywood" is polarizing and unfair. Plenty of people have tried to define those increasingly murky terms. It used to be a simple matter of whether a film was financed by a big Hollywood studio or not. Now, with studios having spun off (and then shut down) indie divisions (like Big Beer getting into the "craft" brew business), the financial line is blurred.

The best definition comes from famed screenwriter William Goldman, who said this: Hollywood films reinforce the bullshit; indie films don't.

In other words, it's about happy endings. Great movies can have happy endings and horrible movies can have unhappy endings. The point is whether the film's ultimate intent is or is not to give us hope. (In other words, this is a rebranding of comedy and tragedy.)

Slumdog actually had a glorious chance to find a solid middle ground, and I'll be incredibly specific about how it could have done so. For his final question, Jamal is asked, "Who was the third musketeer?" after being given the names of first two. He doesn't know. He phones his brother, Salim (who has undergone a quick and convenient transformation to the side of the good), but through another set of convenient circumstances, Latika, the woman of Jamal's dreams, answers Salim's phone.

There were so many ways to go at this point. (SPOILER ALERT)

1. The script could have called for Jamal not to phone a friend at all, but simply smile and answer the question, "Latika" (whom he has always seen as his third muskateer). "Latika" isn't even an option, and Jamal knows he's wrong, but that's his answer and he doesn't care. He loses the money, but Latika hears him say it, is touched, and they end up together. I'm glad they didn't do this. Cheesy.

2. Jamal calls Latika and she knows the answer. That would be weird and random.

3. Jamal knows the answer. Letdown.

4. Jamal calls Latika. She doesn't know the answer either. But Jamal guesses the right answer anyway. This is what actually happens in the movie. So Jamal gets the money and the girl. It was too much. In effect, love and money get equal weight. I guess that's fair if you live in the slum that Jamal comes from, but that pushed an indie-minded film firmly into Terra Hollywoodia.

5. Jamal calls Latika. She doesn't know the answer either, and Jamal guesses wrong. Jamal doesn't get the money, but he gets the girl.

This is what I would have preferred. Yes, it still reinforces "the bullshit" that love conquers all, but it doesn't toss millions of rupees on top of it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Curse of One-Lens-ism

I suffer from ism-itis.

Every day, I'm warned about a different Ism from one source or another. I should be terrified of Islamic extremism. If that won't kill me, other forms of religious extremism will. Or maybe secular humanism is a bigger threat, I've lost track. Cultural relativism is surely a threat. As are atheism, agnosticism... or, depending on how you look at it, Catholicism and Zionism.

Mind you, this disease extends far beyond religion, and not every Ism actually has an "-ism." But the suffix is more and more implied as it pertains to any specialized though domain.

Some fellow Notre Dame alumni and alumnae are lobbying to have President Obama disinvited from this year's commencement largely due to his views on the legality of abortion and stem cell research. Others thought the same when George W. Bush was invited years ago, mostly due to his views on capital punishment and his doctrine of preemptive war. (We throw around the term "special interests," but we really mean "any interest." There are people in Washington who lobby on behalf sugar beets, for crying out loud...)

This is the problem. If you're looking for a real Ism to blame for everything wrong in the world, it isn't any of these. The real enemy of thoughtful discourse and good decision-making--the real thing we should be protesting on every street corner--is One-Lens-Ism.

Yet this intellectual disease is only growing in popularity. Why?

Because it's easy, that's why.

There are economists who see their discipline only through the lens of, say, currency valuations. Others focus on inflation. Others, employment. Others, deficits. Unsurprisingly, they rarely agree on economic policy. Some see energy policy only through the lens of fossil fuels. Others, wind and solar. Others, nuclear. Still others, biofuels. Unsurprisingly, each thinks their silver bullet will solve all of our problems (partly because they don't even agree on the problems). I'm sure veganism is a healthier lifestyle, but if I looked at absolutely everything through only that lens, it would be a disaster. And of course, we have the people who look at politics only through the lens of taxes, and they sound like children.

Think for a second about how easy this all is. We give people credit for passion and consistency when they see the world through only one lens, fighting every day for their micro cause. But we shouldn't. In fact, we should shame them. These are the most dangerous people on earth. Imagine waking up tomorrow and deciding, "From this day forward, I will see the world only through the lens of x." (Let's say it's "sugar maple trees.") We need more sugar maple trees! Sugar maples provide habitats and shade. They're beautiful, and they sequester carbon. They're way better than those stupid oak trees... they grow faster and bigger. We need more sugar maples! We need to prevent evil people from chopping them down! In fact, if someone wants to build a high-speed rail through a field that includes even ONE sugar maple tree, damn the rail line! (Even if it will keep more cars off the roads, lead to fewer traffic deaths and lower the carbon footprint more effectively than the trees...). I'm passionate about sugar maple trees, dammit, and I won't back down!

Now that's an easy way to live. You know what's hard? Looking through multiple lenses. Seeing how things are interrelated, how one thing affects another. Looking at legal issues as conflicts of rights. Looking at environmental and economic factors together, rather than assuming they're always in conflict. Looking at how high fructose corn syrup increases weight affects kids' health increases diabetes spurs greater use of the health care system increases health care costs raises insurance premiums eats away at family budgets makes parents buy cheaper food leads to their kids eating more high fructose corn syrup.

That's reality. Someone who only wants to look at one part of that chain: lazy. Someone willing to look at everything in a complex, multi-dimensional way and still try to solve problems: a leader.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Questions for The Economy

Dear Mr. Economy,

I have a confession to make. There are many things I don't understand about you, especially now that you're in such poor health. I was thinking that maybe if you helped me a little, we could both get better.

First, businesses like airlines, big banks, car makers and insurance companies. If these companies are all the first domino to fall in taking down a national or global economy (which is impossible by definition), and they truly do need government intervention to prop them up when they get into trouble, then why aren't they nationalized to begin with?

A follow-up question: If I'm the CEO, president or CFO at--or on the board of--one of these organizations, and I always know in the back of my head that if things get really bad in the future I'll probably get government help, then doesn't that affect my decision-making today, even in good times? In risk terms, doesn't it give me an incentive to take more risk than I should?

Next, AIG. If a single company like this is too big to fail (or more accurately, for us to let it fail), then doesn't it have a natural monopoly by definition? Isn't the competitive-rich capitalist system supposed to prevent monopoly power, and thus eliminate the "too big to fail" issue in the first place? I'm confused.

And finally, on a more philosophical note, let's be honest: Economics isn't a science; it's psychology. And value isn't real; it's a fiction. I don't care if we go back to the gold standard. Even gold has no intrinsic value. We assign it. We say "this looks beautiful and it's relatively rare and you can do things with it, therefore it has value." So if our entire economic system is based on psychological fiction, how can we go from producing and buying a ton of stuff one day to producing and buying nothing the next?

It's all just a story we've made up over time. Let's rewrite it!

Thank you for your time. I hope you get better. (Not just look better, but actually GET better.)


Mr. Liberal Arts Major

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Political Correctness: An Evolving History

I remember the first time I heard the term "African-American." No I don't. But I do remember my reaction to it. I thought it was a fantastic development. What a great step forward to refer to people by their history rather than by their skin color. I sensed a movement underway, a step in the right moral direction.

Then, before you knew it, the backlash emerged and branded this new language as "political correctness." I in turn branded the backlash people as "respect-challenged." (Not really, but I should have thought of it.)

As time went by--and hyphens became downright fashionable--a strange thing happened: I actually started to sympathize with the backlashers. This new terminological movement no longer moved toward the truth; it obfuscated against it. I found myself increasingly receptive to the comedians who exposed it as the domain of the human nature-denying academic bourgeoisie. "Hey, let's be honest, when we make a distinction about race, we really are talking about race. Isn't it dishonest to pretend we're talking about history when we really are talking about skin color?" I had to admit, they had a point.

But then, no sooner had I joined the anti-PC crowd that I felt compelled to switch sides again. Why? Because now I realized that every true bigot and misogynist was using "PC" as a shield against their racism and misogyny. I hesitate to think about how many Life Minutes I lost listening to idiot men on sports and political talk radio preface a comment with, "Well, I may not be the most 'politically correct' guy on the planet, but..." and then follow it up with something baldly racist or sexist. From their perspective, it was a brilliant ruse: Hey, I can say and do anything I want with no accountability, simply by being all unapologetically masculine about my hatred and/or ignorance!

Now, alas, as of one week ago, I once again find myself flirting with the other side. First, I was gently chastened for using the term "normal," when apparently "typical" is the preferred word. That's okay. If I think really hard about it, I can see that the former holds more of a value judgment than the latter. Next, I was sitting in my church, which I lovingly call Our Lady of Prius, when the band struck up "Amazing Grace." Everybody knows the words (at least to the first verse), but I nevertheless decided to glance up at the screen where they flash all song lyrics. And this is what I saw:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved someone like me.
"Someone"? "Someone"?! Excuse me, but the word is "wretch": that saved a WRETCH like me. I didn't know until now that "Amazing Grace" was written by a reformed slave trader, John Newton, and that the song may or may not have been his apologia for engaging in said profession. But it doesn't matter. Whatever this song's composer is regretting--and he's obviously writing from a state of extreme regret--he's calling himself a "wretch." A miserable person. Someone who is filled with self-loathing. It's a strong word. It's important.

You can't mess with author intent like that. You can't change self-loathing into matter-of-fact genericism. And what exactly is wrong with the word "wretch"? Is it offensive to somebody? Is there a cabal of self-proclaimed wretches out there who are both self-loathing and overly sensitive? Is there a wretch lobby that has decided to build awareness of their condition and demand more societal respect via a new microsite at

It's ridiculous. No, it's beyond ridiculous. It's shameful. In fact, it's not even politically correct. It's just incorrect... which is a PC way of saying "wrong."

- A Wretch

Friday, March 20, 2009

Totally Random

I haven't had time to keep up with this blog lately, which creates a serious lack of balance in my life. So as much as I like to make up a theme and actually put real thought into a post, right now I just need to write something besides marketing copy. Bear with me as I strike up the Randomizer.

- Tom Friedman is famous for using the term "the world is flat" in referring to globalization. What he really means is that there's a level playing field. So it's not really an original term at all. Also not original: my analysis of Tom Friedman's term.

- But speaking of that level flatness, here's what's actually flat right now: information. And it's disorienting. Go to right now and look at Latest News. We go from Ben Bernanke to Natasha Richardson to Obama to poor people to college students getting robbed on spring break to March Madness. This is supposed to be a snapshot of what's most important right now. Is a starving Bangladeshi really on the same playing field as a pick-pocketed college kid? Is a fatal head injury to one celebrity as important as global economic contraction? It's crazy. In a world where these things are treated equally, it's impossible to take anything seriously. And in a world where it's impossible to take anything seriously, it's impossible to change the world.

- On another level, I go up to my Firefox live bookmarks half a dozen times and day and click on the RSS headlines. I go from CNN to Facebook to my friend Pat Donnelly's blog. Only rarely does it occur to me how mentally out of whack this really is. I'm saying that I care equally about world events, what my friends are doing and what just ONE of my friends is thinking (don't get me wrong, Pat, I love your blog, and I hope you're reading mine, so I guess I'm part of the problem...). In a way, that's just reality. But there's something contradictory about a web browser: By leveling the information hierarchy, it actually distorts it.

Global warming is going to devastate the food and water supply in my son's lifetime, but dude, your status update was hilarious!

- I've never been one of those people who carries around a notebook and jots down novel, screenplay and song ideas. As a result, I probably lose 95 percent of my PCO (Potential Creative Output). So recently, I decided that I would use the Recorder app on my iPhone to do the equivalent thing. The damn device is practically subcutaneous at this point anyway; why not use it as a handy Dictaphone whenever an idea strikes? After two weeks, I've only remembered to do this twice. My ideas so far:

1) After seeing a billboard that implored me to "Take a YOU turn" on Hwy. 280, I recorded all those "you-ey" phrases that work in marketing because they enable navel-gazing. "Isn't it time YOU did something for YOU?" "Don't YOU need more time for YOU?" "Isn't it time people appreciated YOU for who YOU are?" These phrases make me sick, like the word "pamper." I wanted to create a fake commercial that overdid the YOU thing and made the audience share my nausea. But YOUism will never go away. (It's YOU-niversal.)

2) Two words: Bully Convention.

- There's a reason I forget about the vast majority of ideas that come into my head.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Not Normal

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Random Reviews

It's time to spew random opinions about random things. (My ratings system is based on a scale from 0-11, just to be annoyingly and self-consciously original.)

"No Line on the Horizon": U2 : 9

The sign of a truly good album is one that you don't like the first time you hear it. Such was "No Line." The first song they put on the radio ("Get on Your Boots") sounded like "Vertigo 2.0," and the first chord of the title track just hit my ear wrong. But after a few listens, something magical happens with this album. You get used to the tone, and you start hearing all those U2 trademark sounds. Edge's classic delay. Larry Mullins' 16th-note high-hat rhythm. Adam Clayton's bulky bass. And Bono singing as well as he has in years. But here's the thing. Unlike "Atomic Bomb," which was hailed early (and erroneously) as the band's best album, this one doesn't try to be liked. "Atomic Bomb" is filled with great songs, but it tries to reach epic proportions on every track. There's no relief, and that gets exhausting. "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was a great album, but it didn't seem cohesive. "No Line" is mature and developed without being dispassionate or overly produced. It's really the best "best of" U2 collection, because it somehow combines best sounds of "October," "Unforgettable Fire," "Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby" while still coming across as its own thing. My advice for the Dublin lads: Keeping working with Brian Eno, and keep choosing new locations for recording (this one was recorded largely in Morocco).

"The Sound and the Fury": William Faulkner: 10

A brilliantly written novel. I have no idea what happened.

The Coffee I'm Drinking Right Now: Starbucks: 7

I might be a victim of their marketing, but the Pike Place roast that Starbucks has been barista'ing out for about a year now does seem to be smooth and well-balanced. Nothing compared to a Sumatra at Kopplin's, however.

"I'm Not There": Todd Haynes: 4

This might be one of the only movies on DVD that I don't finish. I'm a big Dylan fan. I'm fluent in his life story. After hearing an interview with writer/director Todd Haynes months ago, I liked him and was eager to see this project. But it just goes to prove how fascinating it is to watch an ambitious experiment that doesn't work. Individual performances are good. I winced the first time Cate Blanchett opened her mouth, but after that, she sold me completely. The problem is that the film doesn't know what it wants to be. Some parts are serious. Others seem satirical, especially with Julianne Moore's obvious Joan Baez character. And other parts are trippy for being trippy's sake (an animated whale sequence comes to mind), which is incredibly annoying. The idea of splitting Dylan's character is inspired. But why pretend that each character--and so many other people--have different names? The Beatles are "The Beatles," but Joan Baez is "Alice Fabian." Why? I'm sure there's a reason in Todd Haynes' mind, but it doesn't matter. Mixing reality, magical realism and trippy trippyism is a little like making peanut butter soup.

"Froggy Style": Salut: 9

Salut on Grand was a pleasant surprise. Don't confuse it for a French restaurant. This is Minnesota. But in a way, that comes as a relief. If you go, order the sweet potato wantons as an appetizer. And if you don't hate gin, order a "froggy style:" Hendrick's gin, mint, sugar and cucumber--as girly as a drink can be and still be manly.

My Son's Newest Drawings: James Kelley Conklin: 10

On Friday, he drew a serious of pictures in marker accompanied by just one word: "Famous." One shows a small muscle man holding up a huge trunkless elephant in a cage. The colors and the web-like pattern of the cage remind you instantly of Spider-Man. But there's something about the image accompanied by the word "Famous"... it's oddly fashionable. I'd put it on a T-shirt try to start a trend if I were capable of starting a trend.

"Mad Men": Matthew Weiner: 11

If I continue this "RR" series, I'm simply going to end every segment with this review. Because "Mad Men" will go down as one of the greatest shows in the history of television, and I won't rest until everybody gets hooked on it. Get Season One on DVD. Trust me.

Monday, March 2, 2009

LangAlert: "On the Milk Carton"

So I was watching something pretending to be a Notre Dame basketball game tonight, in which the Fighting (hah!) Irish lost to Villanova at home, virtually guaranteed that the preseason #7 team wouldn't even make March Madness, and (most important) continued to make a mockery of my on-the-record prediction of their greatness.

One thing did make the game memorable, however, when midway through the second half one of the announcers described a player by saying, "He's been on the milk carton much of the season."

On the milk carton? It took a few seconds, but then I got it. "On the milk carton," as in "missing," as in "missing in action," as in "riding the pine," as in "sitting on the bench."

I'm usually open to a twisted sense of humor, as evidenced by one of my recent Conk Creative videos that prompted a complaint email from PETA. But "on the milk carton"? I'm sorry, guys, but that just ain't right.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Live Blogging the Oscars

Caught just a part of the Jackman intro. He's good, but Billy Crystal he's not. Too much talent, not enough "we're all in this together" charm.

James is finally in bed, we're watching some TiVo'd stuff. Thank God for Ben Stiller.

Seth Rogan bit... way too long.

Fast-forwarding through German guy.

Isn't it yet another sign of America's decline that we have to hire an Aussie to host the Oscars?

Oh no, he's going to sing again. Didn't we get rid of the song and dance numbers?

Beyonce got back. Obviously lip-synching, but the butt can't be faked.

Fast-forwarding through rest of overblown song-and-dance number. Wait, is that guys in tuxes playing snare drums?

I always wondered what ever happened to Cuba Gooding, Jr. Here he is!

"Seymour Philip Hoffman!" Bravo, Mr. Arkin!

Shit, I thought that was Burt Reynolds. It was just Josh Brolin.

Walken, oh my God. What's with the back bangs?

Kevin Kline looks old.

Does anyone think Heath Ledger isn't going to win this award?

Shit, I thought that was Yul Brynner. It was just Alan Arkin.

Heath wins. I can't say anything snarky. This speech from his family is authentic.

Werner! What kind of accent is that? It's more than German.

Time for Documentary. I think Bill Maher is presenting. He already made it clear on "Real Time" that he thinks he should have been nominated. I don't think he'll be able to resist making a similar sour grapes "joke" when he appears.


"Documentarians"? Is that a word?

I think "Encounters at the End of the World" is the only nominated movie that I actually saw. You should see it.

Upside-down Oscar trick. That's a first.

Why is it that the actual voiceovers for announcing the nominations are pre-recorded? It's always a little jarring to go from the live voice to the recorded voice. I guess actors can't be relied on to deliver their lines without screwing up.

Will Smith. You know, he could probably host sometime. He has the right energy.

"Slumdog" wins a sound editing award. America isn't hosting the show. America isn't winning the awards. (Wait, did that sound xenophobic? I just meant it to sound cynical.)

I have to say, I kind of like this year's set.

Film Editing award. I predict "The Dark Night." Nope, "Slumdog" again. Oh, a Brit.

A tribute to Jerry Lewis?! He's still alive?

Eddie Murphy. Wow, actually looking old. Jerry Lewis doesn't look half bad. Wow.

Why does Sean Penn always look like he's being uplit by a camp fire?

Very humble speech by Jerry Lewis.

Anne just said, "He is VERY fine" (re: Hugh Jackman).

Alicia Keys is very fine.

A.R. Rahman wins. This is seriously getting funny. We aren't even a super power on Oscar night! (He just said "God is great." Somewhere, Bill Maher just rolled his eyes.)

I'm not a very good judge of when people are stoned, but I think Alicia Keys is pretty much stoned all the time.

John Legend is a cool dude, no question about it.

Indians say "fillum"; the British Empire lives!

A foreigner even won Best Foreign Film! Where is the justice?!

I like Queen Latifah as much as the next guy, but why is she here every year?

I'm not liking this year's dead guy format. Too much attention on Queen L.; can't read the names of the deceased.

Michael Crichton died? Before global warming killed him?

Did they skip Heath Ledger? He died in Jan. 2008.

Reese Witherspoon. Lots of blue tonight. Unfortunately, most of it is in her eye shadow.

The director creates "one singular vision." Redundancy.

Ron Howard directed "Frost/Nixon"?!

Slumdog wins again. The Yanks are now, like 0 for the last 6.

Seriously, besides the screenwriter for "Milk," has an American individual won an Oscar tonight?

Halle Berry is the most beautiful woman in the world. Sorry, Gwyenth.

Please give it to Kate Winslet. Please give it to Kate Winslet...

Oh, Sophia. What the hell are you wearing, and what's up with your lips? Oh, you borrowed them from Angelina Jolie.

There's a peacock on Nicole Kidman's chest! (When did she go from beautiful to alien-like?)

Kate gets it. Thank God. (For the record, another non-American.)

More blue.

The dad whistle. That was cool.

Did Kate Winslet just tell Meryl Streep to "suck it up"?

(Hey, why no cutaways to a smug Jack Nicholson this year? Is there a Lakers game tonight?)

Woooowwww. Adrian Brody looks scary.

DeNiro rocks.

It's cheesy, but this peer-to-peer announcement thing works. At least for one year.

Anthony Hopkins is drunk.

Oh, Mickey! (Wait, did HE steal Angelina's lips?) Sean wins. He forgot to thank his wife. Hey, he's American! I don't mind the soap boxing, because I agree with it.

There's just no suspense for the Best Picture announcement. None at all. The only question is, will the cast and crew break into a song and dance number when they win?

There it is. "Slumdog" takes it.

Jackman: "Keep on making movies, and keep on going to them." Nice to end on a subtle hint of, shall we say, economic tension...

Thank you. Thank you all.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Who Says the Newspaper Is Dead?

Introducing America's newest newspaper, created by a five-year-old. You think he's kidding? Mom took him to make 10 color copies at Kinko's last night, and after school today, he's going to stuff them in plastic bags and deliver them to select houses on our block.

(I'm waiting for the day he says, "Daddy, today I want to start a social networking site!")

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

PETA Controversy

A few weeks ago, I embedded a YouTube commercial Conk Creative co-produced for Anytime Fitness. As anticipated, that spot has now prompted a complaint letter from PETA.

The video, the PETA letter and Anytime's response are now on the corporate Anytime Fitness Facebook page, and the company is encouraging opinions. If you'd like to take a look, here's a link to the Anytime Facebook page. You can view the video (in HD no less), and comment in the Video or Notes sections, as well as on the Wall.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Learnings from a Funeral

The sad part isn't the framed photo in front of the altar, or the blue-and-green-checked cap or other assembled life artifacts. It's the looks on the faces of those who must wake without him. Unlike the sun, grief is more powerful when reflected.

Every young parent should pay special attention to the eulogies of bereft siblings. They don't reflect upon big birthday parties and expensive toys. They remember five things: long, sustained moments spent together (even in silence); the times you taught them something, anything; advice, so long as it proved wise; quirks (the stranger the better); and when you spoke lovingly of their other parent.

Eulogies are sometimes confessions. Sons confess the moments when they felt that they couldn't live up to their fathers.

It is rare indeed when someone says, "He did not leave any unfinished business." And when they do, one must look upon that as perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Obama's Most Important Bill

Barack, Barack, Barack ...

I watched part of your press conference last night. Let me first say how refreshing it is to know that we're back to having a president with the guts to go on prime time and actually take (and answer) questions from the media in a partially unscripted format. But that's also part of the problem.

The shift in your effectiveness as a communicator makes a tangible clunking noise when you switch from "canned speech" mode to "off-the-cuff." It pains me, because I can actually hear the voices in your head as you formulate your answers. When a reporter asked about your lack of effectiveness in luring Republicans to your side of the stimulus debate, your inner voice said:

"Well, what the hell am I supposed to do with a bunch of Dittohead man-children legislators who divide the world into Evil Government vs. the Sacred and Infallible Private Sector? I mean, these people say they love America, but then despise the entity that manages it. They think government shouldn't do anything but funnel money to the private sector, which in this case has completely f***ed up. So when the people they govern have a serious problem, they just shrug their shoulders and walk away. How friggin' childish and lazy is that? What a way to view the world! What an easy job! What a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jeeeeez!"
Then you wish you could have prepared a speech to answer the question, which would have sounded something like:
"Just as we must reject the false choice between protecting our environment and growing our economy, now is the time to dismiss the myopic view of government and private sector as adversaries. To the men and women elected by the people to serve this great nation of ours, I say this. If you believe in the American promise--if you believe in serving the constituents who checked your name on the ballot--don't shrug your shoulders at their pain. Don't walk away from their suffering. Don't erode their trust. And do NOT dismiss their dreams."
But in the tug of war between these two voices, the actual voice that came out sounded like this:
"Now there are some folks... aaaand I acknowledge this... there are some folks who believe, fundamentally... thaaaaat government shouldn't intervene. Aaaaaand... I don't doubt their sincerity... but if that's... what you believe... theeeeen... I'm not sure... that's a productive view... aaaaand a view that I can work with. Aaaaaand..."
You need a little bit of The Bubba, Barack. You need to acquire the skills of an improviser. This doesn't mean anticipating every question and having a pat, meaningless answer. It means anticipating every question and packaging runs and fills that can be sprinkled throughout your answer. You do have an idea of how to respond to most questions, but first you struggle with how to say it diplomatically and respectfully, then you fall prey to temptations to digress on each element of the larger point. This has to change.

Bill was a sax player. He wasn't a great one, but he knew a few blues scales and some catchy runs and riffs. Over time, he developed the ability to improvise with the press, sprinkling his actual knowledge of the issues (a knowledge you obviously share) with images, metaphors and soundbites that got his point across while creating a clear dividing line between him and his opposition. And, unlike your furrowed-brow tone, he played this particular instrument with a mischievous smile that said, "I know this is a game, and damn if I ain't good at it. Suck it, Newt."

I know you can get there. And I hope you have eight years to hone your craft.