Monday, November 15, 2010

LangAlert: "Mature"

Somewhere along the way it became inadequate to describe something as merely "developing" or "improving." More specifically, it was suddenly too boring and bourgeois to say that you "improve" or "develop" something, or just plain make something better.


Along came the invasion of the Formerly Intransitive Verbs. These are words that describe an action that can happen, but cannot be applied to something else. Evolution, for example, is something that occurs over a long period of time. "Evolve" is a passive word. It's observational. It describes something that has changed and adapted to its environment. It is therefore intransitive. Something can evolve, but you cannot, by definition, "evolve" something.

Now comes "mature." Not the adjective; the verb. Like "evolve," "mature" also describes a passive process from the outside looking in. Over time, people, animals and plants mature. It's like micro-evolution; except that it describes a cyclical, self-contained process of development in one person or thing, rather than the collective, cumulative change and adaptation of an entire species.

But these facts never stop the CorporateSpeakanistas. Did you know that you can now hire someone to "mature your processes"? Not "improve" them. Not "make them better." But "mature" them. Because hey, if you don't mature your processes, how can you evolve your business?

Friday, October 29, 2010

No Fly Zone Friday #6

I created the idea of No Fly Zone Fridays as a way of "forced disengagement." The concept: One Friday every month, take the day off to do the things that truly inspire you. It had an obvious idealistic basis to it ("The world is full of adventure; this is why self-employment is so great!") as well as a practical tinge ("If you don't do this, you're going to burn out and lose your creative IQ, as well as your income.") Nearly a year into the experiment, keeping in mind that I've only managed to do about one out of every two months for various reasons, it has become something else. No Fly Zone Friday has become an exercise in self-discovery through non-obligation.


Let me explain.

The problem with me, with creativity, with self-employment, with the culture, with growing up Catholic, with being a bloody Midwesterner ... is that you constantly preside over and attempt to mediate an internal war between your "craftsman" side (I can't bring myself self to say "artistic" in my case) and your responsible side. Being creative absolutely requires serious self-absorption. You cannot possess a vision to express without being in touch with yourself, which requires a tremendous turning inward. Being responsible requires shutting that impulse off. Snuffing it. A lot. Most of the time. Practically all of the time.

Add a family and self-employment, and you give great momentum to the responsibility side. Top it with a volatile and precarious economic climate, and you ratchet up the stakes even more. Throw inglorious middle age into the mix, when you're at the height of mortgage paying, new patio building, retirement and college planning and, most recently, disability insurance exploration, and you have all the ingredients for a new psychosis: Obligatory Obligation Syndrome.

The primary symptom is this: the feeling that everything you do in the course of a day is an obligation. It's not martyrdom, because you chose the path and would do so again. In fact, it's a luxury that you are even able to make these choices. This actually is what you want; it's just hard.

So No Fly Zone Friday comes along, and you have to ask yourself, what would I choose to do just for the next nine hours if all of those waves of obligation were temporarily parted? This forces you to go back into craftsman mode. Really, what interests me most right now? What would I like to do right now that has nothing to do what with I should be doing?

For me, it has become downright disorienting. I got into the car this morning having no idea where I was headed. I only traveled half a block. "I want a New York Times" is all I could think of. The nearest machine is right outside the St. Clair Broiler on Snelling and St. Clair. I parked the car, grabbed two dollars in quarters and took the last available edition. I got back into the car. What now? Head to my favorite coffee shop? "Not yet." I had a responsibility relapse and called the 800 number of the insurance company that was after me for a medical interview as part of the disability insurance process. That only took 15 minutes, fairly painless. In fact, it made me feel pretty good. "Think of all the questions you were able to answer 'no' to. You're pretty un-screwed up when you think about it."

Anyone watching me would have been terribly confused, because the next thing I did was get right back out of the car and head into the Broiler for breakfast. "What the hell? Get some eggs and hashbrowns and sit there and read the paper." So I did, half a block from my house. Then I did go to that favorite coffee shop, and I read even more.

Then I drove to The Walker Art Center with no knowledge of what exhibits were showing or what I wanted to see. It hit me that these NFZ Fridays usually tend to involve coffee, the New York Times, art museums and blogging. A clue? To something? Maybe?

When I entered The Walker, I stepped down into the first exhibit that caught my eye: a photographer named Alec Soth. It was spectacular. Here was a visual artist ("one of us," to boot ... always big with Minnesotans) whose sensibility interested me. Some of his photos had a Hopper-like lonely quality, but they didn't just stop there (let's face it, lonely is easy). Some had a very Midwestern sense of irony, humor, borderline satire, but they weren't judgmental. This is an artist who walks a lot of fine lines and somehow makes it all work. Perhaps my favorite photo was of a Niagara, New York, motel room from the outside in winter. Had it been just that, it would have been interesting enough ... decay, a bygone era, cold, loneliness ... but what makes the photo a work of art is what you see when you look closely at the snow: footsteps heading to the door. This isn't just another abandoned building; there's someone inside. Or is there?

But perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about Soth had to do with the camera he uses: a rare, large-format 8x10 device. This is the opposite of your iPhone digital camera. It's huge. It's imposing. You can't just walk by and inconspicuously snap a picture of a stranger. The physical presence of the camera makes the shoot an event. Soth has to stop and talk to his subjects. He has to earn their cooperation, even when they have other things to do. Then he has to get behind what amounts to a curtain to look through the camera. The whole process takes a while, and what he likes about it is not so much the quality of print the camera's huge negatives produce, but what the process does to his subjects. It forces them to relax in a way, to turn inward even in front of this huge camera. When he captures that feeling in a print, then he knows he has something interesting. And it shows in the photos.

I left with a smile on my face, and just a tinge of jealousy. After viewing Soth's photos, as well as listening to him speak about them via my phone (a nifty system I didn't know The Walker had), I realized that I was in the presence of a true artist who seems to have no trouble with obligation. He's long been perfectly in touch with his vision, and he's done everything he needs to communicate it to a random stranger like me. His obligation is to his art.

It made me consider what my project would be if I thought in terms of having an exhibit ... with no limits, no oppressive concerns about audience and entertainment ... no time constraints, and no need for disability insurance.

I came up empty.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Insane in the Membrane?

Chalk this up as one of those "obvious revelations."

I was reading a Vanity Fair article on the state of the American presidency. The point of the article was not political in any way; it was simply to give the reader a sense of how much the day-to-day experience of a U.S. president has changed, even since Clinton. The line that hit me came from a press secretary who talked about how you used to be able to at least catch wind of a significant development in the West Wing, then strategize your response, then respond and gauge reaction. Now, he said, there are no boundaries, no borders between big events. It's non-stop.

This is yet another example of the "constant stream" effect. From 24-hour news to social media communication to you name it, the biggest psychological change for people of my age is that we've gone from a world with manageable boundaries to a world that resembles an incessant stock ticker. To use a third analogy, we are people surrounded by bulging spigots labeled "work," "play," "entertainment," "information," and "basic human communication." By default, they're all on full blast. For people of middle age, you have some sense that you can turn these spigots on and off at will. And the challenge in life is to know how and when to do so before drowning. For people who grew up in the new world, there is no sense of this choice. You simply take it all in.

I'm resisting the temptation to be sentimental, to say that this new world is bad, wrong or immoral, and to call for a return to the past. True, the new reality does strike me as incredibly damaging at times ... and sure to result in a society where nobody possesses deep knowledge or critical thinking capacity, and where our gradual lack of competence, loss of focus and inability to choose the "right" and "healthy" versus the "easy" and "entertaining" destroys us. But that would be the equivalent of Thomas Jefferson and the old Republicans mourning the loss of the supposedly pure agrarian America as we moved toward manufacturing, commerce, paper money and raw individualism in the early 1800s. Jefferson's model wasn't sustainable, either.

I truly believe that The Great Rewiring is taking place. I'm talking about our brains, and "rewiring" is probably the wrong analogy, because our brains are much more plastic than we'd like to believe. We tend to compare our brains to the technology of the day, and for 25 years, that's been computers. Evidence points to the reverse: Our brains mold themselves to the environment. So what is this amazing evolutionary product called the human brain doing to adapt to the constant stream age? We're about to find out. Might it be disastrous? Possibly. Might it be wonderful? Equally as possible. Might it be both. I can almost guarantee it.

But for those of us who have known the previous world and continue to adapt to the new one (including Yours Truly, who only four years ago swore that he would never need or want a cell phone and now spends four hours a day opening and closing app spigots for banking, communication, weather, news, movie listings and sports scores), the constant-stream universe is, I think, causing a new form of insanity.

This will not be a clean transition for my tribe. You can live neither in the past nor the future. It is psychological homelessness.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Where do I begin?

I could start by saying that I might just be the luckiest man on the face of the earth (and that was before "Souvenirs" started to shoot). The rest is gravy. And what a fine, fine gravy it is.

Just over a year ago, I was pulled into a meeting with a Marine and a hunt club owner. I walked in a little annoyed, and the feeling only grew worse. I was juggling client projects, probably with multiple end-of-the-day deadlines breathing down my neck, and now I was told that these two gentlemen thought they wanted to make a movie.

I didn't take it seriously, because they didn't look like movie types. When they said they wanted to recreate some scenes from World War II in Minnesota, I scoffed; when they said they wanted to do the same with Iraq, I nearly laughed out loud. But still, I liked their premise of a grandson finding his grandfather's footlocker, and they weren't asking me to do anything for free. I didn't have any time for the project, and the Marine acted like he wanted a script by 5:00 that day, but something told me to say yes. I knew nothing about the topic, but I also had nothing to lose.

From that moment on, it felt like something was being set into motion that, to use the cliche (because nothing else describes it), has taken on a life of its own. Flash forward one year, and I'm watching a P38 plane ... one of only six left in the world that can still fly ... doing a strafing run over a fake explosion in a German tank. I'm speaking with Army generals who are telling me how much this story will mean to vets. A crew of over 50 people is working 12+ hour days to bring the pages I wrote to life, creating images that are being captured and edited to (hopefully) eventually be seen by many, many people.

Creation still mystifies me. The act of envisioning something in your brain and then making it exist in a form that can be experienced by others has always conjured my most intense spiritual feelings. Because movie-making is the most collaborative art form ever devised, the feeling is taken to still yet another level. P38s are impressive, but for some reason it was a sheep that really brought the feeling home for me. Imagine this: You write about a dead sheep lying in the middle of a road in Iraq, and a year later you are standing in a limestone quarry looking at a bloodied prosthetic sheep. Those words on that computer screen in your basement eventually caused a team of people to spend weeks (maybe months) creating this sheep. Someone designed and molded the fake ribs that are now exposed on its side. Another person has applied karo syrup blood to the wound. Still another has transported the sheep to this exact location, which, by the way, had to be secured via multiple interactions between still other people. And now a crew of 50 is spending the next two hours of their lives trying to capture this image so it can be placed within the context of a larger story--your story--and then, maybe within a year, be seen by others on a TV or in a darkened theater.

The entire experience of making "Souvenirs" has really been beyond belief, and I am the first to recognize the rare privilege involved. For me, the story I wrote on the page is ultimately about the importance of expressing gratitude. I guess by writing about the filming, I am expressing just a bit of that myself ... though I must say, it seems grossly, grossly inadequate.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Souvenirs

I'll have to spend some time when this experience is over to reflect on it more clearly, but for now, it's just a matter of documenting the incredible experience of making "SOUVENIRS."

From WCCO:

'Souvenirs' Movie Shoot Puts Iraq Near Mankato

It's not every day that journalists get to ride in Chinook helicopters. Of course, it's not every day the Minnesota National Guard is promoting a film about a soldier.

Around 9 o'clock Saturday morning, soldiers escorted 11 Twin Cities news people onto a Chinook helicopter. A half hour later, the chopper touched down in the Kasota Quarry outside Mankato.

That's where the movie "Souvenirs" is being shot. It's a fictional story about a Minnesota Red Bull named Kyle Vogel. When Vogel was 13, he found his grandfather's World War II footlocker and pushed him to tell stories of three items inside. The movie flashes back to the grandfather's service in WWII and forward to Vogel's time in Iraq.

"It's not about just the fighting and what happens in war," said actor Jonathan Bennett, who plays Kyle Vogel. "It's kind of about what happens after war, and why don't we talk about it."

St. Paul resident Marc Conklin wrote the script.

"The funny thing is we're not actually making a war movie. We're making a family movie," he said. "It covers two wars and two places and two different times, but it's really about what happens on a porch between a grandfather and a grandson over lemonade."

There's a famous face in the film, James Cromwell, who was nominated for an Oscar for his part in "Babe." He wasn't on set Saturday, but his son, John Cromwell, was. The Cromwells play the same character, Bud Vogel. John Cromwell plays his as a young man, James Cromwell as an older one.

"I won't be working with him," said John Cromwell. "On the same project. It will be fun to be on the same project."

There are 110 Minnesotans working on "Souvenirs." John Cromwell is one of them. His mother's family is from Medina.

"I got a job out here a couple years ago and came out, and I just like it out here and I stayed," he said.

Lt. Col. John Clearwater was on the set. He used to work in Special Operations, but last week he started a new job in the Army's Los Angeles Entertainment office. Clearwater said movies like "Souvenirs" help American understand and support their military.

"Films are a popular form of communication for the American public," said Clearwater. "It's a good way, among others, of getting the story out, of telling the story of the American soldier."

The Minnesota Guard and the Department of Defense are playing a key role in "Souvenirs." They're providing equipment, vehicles and advice.

Clearwater spent two years in Iraq. When asked if the quarry looked like a war zone, he said, "Through the lens of a camera, they'll pull it off. And that's what counts."

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Dirty Little Secret About Our Economy

Lately, I've been in a surreal state of ESEDD: Extreme Simultaneous Engagement and Disengagement Disorder. On one hand, I've been more engaged in my work and writing ... and even music ... than ever before. On the other hand, things that used to engage me (namely, news and opinion) are failing to cut through.

Part of this could be yet another symptom of middle age. I like to say that you spend your 20s thinking you know everything, your 30s realizing you don't know anything, and your 40s realizing that nobody knows anything. Last night on the way home from work, I heard callers to a talk radio show speak passionately about the Arizona immigration law. When asked if they had actually read it, not one said yes. I haven't read it either, so why should I have an opinion on it? I could get informed by reading the newspaper, but one of today's lead stories was about whether shorts are appropriate in the work place. (Really, Star Tribune, really?)

Researchers at the Institute of Made-up Facts in My Head That Are Probably True estimate that 80 percent of people who talk and write passionately about issues know nothing or very little about them. (The other 20 percent do, but are paid to take a position one way or the other.)

And then there are the ads. I've lately come to realize just how much marketing is based on the obfuscation of "causality" vs. "correlation." It's true that an alarming number of car accidents are caused by distracted driving. It's also true that a growing amount of distracted driving is due to the use of cell/smartphones. It's also true that a growing number of teenagers, especially girls, use cell/smartphones and text all day long, including while they drive. But is it true to say that being a teenage girl causes car accidents? No, that's correlation. Is it true that smartphone use while driving causes car accidents? Yes, that's causality.

Yet, this distinction is totally out the window when it comes to product marketing, or a lot of "studies" for that matter. "Parents who have a lot of books in the house tend to have smarter kids." Right, that's because having books in the house is generally a symptom of intellectually curious people. And those people tend to have smarter kids for all kinds of reasons. Do the books themselves, sitting on the shelf, unread, cause kids to be smart? Again, I am reminded of Navin Johnson's reaction in "The Jerk" as he stands by the gas pump, bullets meant for him instead hitting cans of motor oil: "Wow, this guy really hates cans!"

Which clumsily brings me to today's not-very-well-thought-out rant: The dirty little secret about our economy is that it depends on stupidity, laziness and willful ignorance. Who doesn't know that the real keys to being healthy are exercising and eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables? Yet how much money ... and how many jobs ... are generated from the outright denial of that fact? How much money is poured into pills, supplements and gimmick diets ... anything to help people avoid getting on a treadmill and steaming some broccoli?

Who doesn't know that a good night's sleep is the key to everything from mental well-being to maintaining a healthy weight? Yet how many people sacrifice sleep with the hope of making it up with Red Bull, 5 Hour Energy, or insanely expensive cups of coffee? (Oops ... )

So once again, I'm terrified at the fact that the incentives are not aligned. For the same reason that you'll never see an hour-long TV special on why you should turn off your TV, the government (especially in a recession and carrying a crushing debt load) is never really going to be serious about creating a sharp, informed, critical-thinking citizenry. If we actually had such a thing, our economy would disintegrate.

Friday, May 28, 2010

No Fly Zone Friday #5

Very scattered No Fly Zone today. In a way, going to the Screenwriters Conference at Santa Fe (which I do next week) is a week-long No Fly Zone, so I wasn't very disciplined about this one.

The day started with a work out (?!), followed by a visit to James' school to see students present some of their work. James was in a research group that developed books on the topic of their choice, and he chose Komodo dragons. The book was quite long and extensive, complete with at least six chapters that the young researcher read out loud. Yes, I couldn't have been more proud.

That was followed by an activity more typical for the stereotype that I am: drinking premium coffee at a snobby coffee shop while reading Tolstoy. That's not a joke; I've really been enjoying Anna Karenina, and I'm bound and determined to get through all 800 pages (350 to go). Those Russians just get to me; don't know why.

Next I was hit with some actual work. Blasphemy. And now I get a couple of hours to work on TWIN CITIES, the new self-indulgent indie screenplay.

All in all, a fantastic day with picture-perfect weather, but not really in the NFZ spirit. Idea for next one, courtesy of Count Tolstoy: Visiting the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis.

Oh yes, and I uploaded this old college production:

Friday, April 23, 2010

No Fly Zone Friday #4

Back on track for No Fly Zones after March's was spent with the family in lovely Atlanta.

Today's agenda was completely spontaneous. First an iPhone calendar alert reminded me to take in my old VHS tape of the "Bee Slippers" music video (made by my college band) for digitizing and eventual YouTubification. The deal is done. I'm paying way too much money. And the product should arrive in the first week of May. (Mid-life and nostalgia are a toxic combination.)

Next it was off to my office for a quick drop off. That left me strategically situated between the Twin Cities, so I opted for caffeination and the unique currant scones at Taraccino Coffee (Nordeast, across from Kramarczuk Deli) with a side of the New York Times. Did you know that the U.S. is exploring a conventional (non-nuclear) weapon that can strike any part of the globe in an hour? Did you know that Wall St. traders are pushing for the right to bet on Box Office futures? Did you know that Al Pacino is starring in an HBO biopic on Jack Kevorkian airing tomorrow night? Did you know that there are now ever-growing social media tools that enable you to post, among other things, everything you buy, and your decoded genome, and that basically the Digital Native population doesn't give a rip about privacy? It's all there in something called a "newspaper."

I was strategically positioned to take in the International Film Festival over at St. Anthony Main, but the earliest movie started too late. I opted instead to see "The Ghost Writer," a new Roman Polanski/Ewan McGregor/Pierce Brosnan vehicle that has largely flown under the radar. A brief review ...

The movie is essentially a political thriller in which one ghost writer replaces another (who apparently drowned in a suicide attempt) in drafting the memoirs of a controversial former British prime minister. It's a well-crafted affair that moves at a deliberate pace, strikes the right tone with its Cape Cod island setting, includes one of my favorite final scenes ever, and is definitely worth seeing, renting or streaming.

My only knocks are kind of picky. I hate it when movies are obviously based on real people and events, but use cheeky names to disguise them. Brosnan's character is obviously supposed to represent Tony Blair. His name is Adam Lang (not a bad effort, but trust me, the two-syllable/one-syllable similarity is no coincidence). When Lang is shown on CNN shaking hands with the Secretary of State, we see a Condoleezza Rice lookalike. Instead of "Halliburton," we get "Hatherton." Really?

The movie's other curiosity is its rather embarrassing attempt to move down from an R to a PG-13 rating. Little known fact, but if you want to write a PG-13 script, you get exactly one F-bomb. "The Ghost Writer" was written to be an R-rated movie, with maybe half a dozen effenheimers. But I noticed early on that they were being dubbed over ("Sod off!"). Sure enough, toward the end of the film, someone finally got to use the word unencumbered.

These nitpicks asides, "The Ghost Writer" is squarely in the classic thriller genre ... definitely too slow for the action movie crowd, but good fodder for those, like me, who are fans of the Hitchcock School of Suspense.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blogging the Oscars

Steve Martin & Alec Baldwin... thought I was going to be disappointed. Not at all.

What’s up with Clooney? Smile for hell’s sake!

Why won't Woody fix his teeth?

Christopher Walz, good.

Cameron Diaz still has the face of a clown.

Ed Asner is still alive?!

Wow, Up dude looks like thin Frankenstein.

Not a fan of the tux neckties. Bowties only please.

"Please welcome two actresses who have no idea who we are."

Mylie Cyrus talks like a pack-a-day smoker.

Randy Newman nominated again... twice? Doesn't win again. Is he ever in the crowd?

T Bone Burnett, creepiest man alive.

What is Tina Fey wearing? Me Tarzan, you Tina? What is Downey wearing?

Original screenplay goes to Hurt Locker. Okay, would have preferred Inglourious Basterds. Good speech.

Molly Ringwald?! Oh, it's a John Hughes thing. Is Molly Ringwald really tall, or is Matthew Broderick really short? Wow, for the most part John Hughes movies are filled with the broken dreams of young actors. Wonder why he gets so much more than the usual In Memoriam. In retrospect, nothing was better than "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." A great, great film.

I need to see Up.

Ben Stiller rules. James Cameron has no sense of humor.

What's with Jeff Bridges and the Colonel Sanders look?

Best Adapted Screenplay. Please don't give it to "Up in the Air." Good. Nice cutaway to "all the black people" after Precious writer's speech.

Has Queen Latifa lost weight?

Penelope Cruz is friggin' gorgeous and has the best taste... every year.

Best Supporting Actress... give it to Anna Kendrick, the best part of "Up in the Air," although she looks like a young Tom Cruise in the movie. Goes to Mo'Nique. I'd give it to her based only on the clips, haven't seen the movie. Forgot to thank the director.

Sigourney Weaver is wearing the drapes.

Art Direction should really be a more prominent award. Avatar, no surprise. Gotta start forwarding through the speeches, need to catch up on the DVR...

Awesome cut to a clueless Keanu Reeves after not getting a writerly joke from Martin & Baldwin.

Sarah Jessica Parker is scary, scary, scary. As Anne has pointed out, she looks like Dee Snyder from Twisted Sister.

Why are they saying "the winner is" instead of "the Oscar goes to"? I mean, I prefer it, but it's been a no-no for years.

How can you show Charlize Theron without a closeup?

Is there a lot of noise constantly in the background or am I crazy?

Horror doesn't get the respect it deserves? Puhleeze. The montage only reinforced how much better the genre used to be. Okay, except for The Birds. Oh man, Carrie still gets me. So does The Shining. Is Quentin Tarantino's face made of plastic?

Irony: The audio quality on Morgan Freeman's VO on audio editing ... sucks. Audio editing winner looks like Christopher Walken crossed with an albino witch. Hurt Locker surprisingly winning technical awards I thought were locks for Avatar.

Brad Pitt should have been nominated.

What the hell is it about James Cameron that really bothers me?

Why was Demi Moore not with the Brat Pack? Too good?!

In Memoriam coming ... James Taylor, sweet. Beatles, even sweeter. Dom Deluise died? R.I.P. Larry Gelbart.

A dance number ... fast forward.

Jesus, what is wrong with George Clooney? Almost caught up now ...

Will Avatar win Visual Effects? Is the pope German?

Good screenwriter joke, Mr. Baldwin's writer.

Snuggi joke good. Keanu Reeves bad. Always.

Don't know why main dude in Hurt Locker wasn't nominated. Oops, he was.

I kind of liked these "peer to peer" things last year; not sure this year. Clooney, get a haircut. I really love Clooney, but I have to say one more thing: He's starting to look more and more like he was drawn by Matt Groening.

Imagine a bunch of CPAs publicly loving each other as much as these actors do. Kudos to Tim Robbins for not taking it that seriously.

I love Kate Winslet. Even if she looks like toothpaste being squeezed from a silver tube.

Jeff Bridges. Haven't seen the movie yet, but good for The Colonel. He's stoned.

T. Bone Burnett, child molester.

Why is everyone wearing Martin Scorcese glasses?

Sandra Bullock, too much lipstick.

Wishing I could still fast forward ...

Why is Oprah being all mentory on acting? Good speech, though.

Most overused word on Oscar night: "brilliant."

Capping nominations rule, good bit.

Sean Penn: well meaning, never articulate.

Best Actress goes to ... Sandra Bullock. Kind of a letdown. "Did I really earn this, or did I just wear y'all down?" Good line. Great speech.

Who's the goon behind Helen Mirren?

Time for Director. "it could be, for the first time, a woman, or an African-American ... " But no, it's going to be another white dude who's already won. I'd actually love it if Tarantino won this one, but there's no chance. It's Bigelow! Good, the time has come indeed. Downright embarrassing that it took this long.

Who does Katherine Bigelow look like? Driving me crazy.

"I Am Woman"? Really?

Hurt Locker wins! Wow, quickest announcement (Tom Hanks) in history. Good for them. Sorry, James, you'll just have to go home and count your money. Feels good. A victory for theme, writing and acting.

"The show is so long that Avatar now takes place in the past."

Good show. I'd take Mssrs. Baldwin and Martin over every other host, except of course Billy Crystal.

Good night.

Friday, March 5, 2010

40, Part 1

As I close in on the last two months of 40, it's high time I finally wrote about this disturbing age, which has been somewhat of an obsession for me. May writing about it exorcise its many demons.

For as long as I can remember--or at least as long as I've been watching too much TV--I've feared mid-life crisis almost more than death itself. Why? Because it's always seemed clear to me that the 40s are the decade when men lose their minds. Why else would so many fictional men with wonderful fictional wives suddenly trash it all for the sports car and the aerobics instructor? (I'm talking to you, "Fatal Attraction" Michael Douglas and "American Beauty" Kevin Spacey.)

For most of the women I know, 40 is a liberating age. There's an easing of pressure accompanied by a comfortable acceptance of self. The weight of self-consciousness lessens. Old insecurities lose their punch. Hair shortens.

For men ... well, I won't speak for men ... I'll speak for me and see if other men agree: 40 has the opposite effect. The pressure is threefold. The acceptance of self: eh. Self-consciousness? Probably greater. Insecurities, still nagging, still pestering.

The dawn of subtle physical and mental changes starts the ball rolling. Why do I suddenly misjudge distances, banging my hand on the cupboard when returning a dish? Why do I bend differently to pick a toy up off the floor, knees akimbo like an old man, rather than easily and effortlessly from the waist? Why can I suddenly not remember the names of movie stars? Why do I seem to always feel my eyes, and why am I constantly clearing my throat when I speak?

Then it hits you: 40 isn't just mid-life. It's not like you had 40 years of health and growth, and now you get 40 more. Your healthy years are over, dude ... and that's if you're lucky to be alive and haven't had any major health issues to this point. You suddenly wonder what cumulative effects your past habits have exerted on your physical state. All those gallons of pop I ingested in my teenage years, all the Frito-Lay chemicals I shoved down the gullet, the acid from 20 years of coffee drinking, the second-hand smoke from years of playing gigs, the nearly first-hand smoke from working that summer in the cramped underground Dublin nightclub. Yikes. And I've lived pretty clean ...

Then there's that whole mortality thing. If you're the over-sensitive type like me, you already make a habit of noticing the elephant in every room. By 40, you realize that the elephant in every room is death. It's the backdrop to and context of every human action and expression: football, art, procreation, blogging, hedge funds ... it matters not, mere mortal. When you see everything through the death lens, you realize that every human endeavor is in some way an attempt to achieve immortality. It's so painfully, painfully obvious.

At the same time, you reach a point in your intellectual development where you either cling even more tightly to your prior beliefs, shut the lid on exploration and become more fundamentalist ... about your religion, your politics, your vegetarianism, your musical taste ... or you blow it wide open, question everything all over again and begin a new blank slate. I highly recommend the latter.

And, perhaps most interesting of all, you try to find a way to live with this: When you're in your 20s, you think you know everything and the rest of the world is stupid. In your 30s, you get enough of a taste of how things work to realize that you don't know anything and there's actually a reason why things are the way the are. Then you hit 40 and realize that the screenwriter William Goldman was correct in a much broader sense than even he intended: Nobody knows anything.

This is at once terrifying and liberating. On one hand, there's very little actually holding society together. At all. On the other hand, you look at the things that used to intimidate you, all the things you never thought you could do, the places you never thought you would go, and you shrug your shoulders and say, "Why not?"

NFZF #2 (No Fly Zone Friday)

NFZF #2 proceeded as follows:

8:00 a.m.
Dunn Bros. (Snelling & St. Clair)
Coffee and New York Times

10:00 a.m.
Accolades (Randolph & Cleveland)
Haircut

10:30 a.m.
Highland Park Library
Checked out books on histories of Mpls & St. Paul (screenplay research), two books for James, audio book: "The Quest: Historians' Search for Jesus & Muhammad" by F.E. Peters

11:15 a.m.
Chipotle

Noon
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Marco Breuer Photography Exhibit
Frank Lloyd Wright
French & American Impressionists
Minnesota Artists

3:00 p.m.
Nina's (Western & Selby)

4:00 p.m.
Common Good Books (beneath Nina's)

Monday, February 8, 2010

LangAlert: "Micropreneur"

Spotted in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

"It's a trend that began after the economic downturn of the late 1980s, as many laid-off professionals became consultants. Then it seemed temporary, though, tied to bad times. Evidence now suggests that this is our new economic condition. Today, in fact, 20% to 23% of U.S. workers are operating as consultants, freelancers, free agents, contractors or micropreneurs."

Wait a minute, am I a "micropreneur"? Why does that make me feel so ... small?

Friday, January 29, 2010

KumbayAvatar

Where to begin? Here's an epic movie delivered in the most epic way currently possible. James Cameron is obviously a genius, and that this creation originated in his brain is staggering. "Avatar" will break every record imaginable. It will indeed change the way movies (not all, but some) are made. I'm an hour removed from seeing it in 3D at an IMAX theater, and it's as hard for me to return to this world as it is for Sam Worthington's character.

And yet, just as evaluating Sarah Palin requires you to first imagine that she looks like Madeleine Albright, to really evaluate "Avatar," you have to somehow, some way, look beyond the technology. (BTW, my one digital effects criticism is this: Why is there still some element of "weight" missing from all animate objects? When they run, they still seem to float.) When you do that, "Avatar" doesn't exactly crash back down to earth, but it does lose some of its "ground-breaking" street cred.

A disclaimer about the angle I'm approaching this with; even I'm not sure what it is. In some ways I'm a film snob, generally favoring Hitchcock classics, your basic Oscar-nominated foreign and indie fare, Charlie Kaufman screenplays, Christopher Guest mockumentaries and modern documentaries that truly educate. On the other hand, I despise some art-house fare (most notably "Magnolia" and "The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover"), I'm an unapologetic fan of "It's a Wonderful Life," and just yesterday I launched a defense of that other small James Cameron movie, "Titanic," that may cost me a friend or two (just kidding, Dave and Terry).

I won't criticize "Avatar" in ways that I imagine the Academic Disgruntia already are (that it patronizingly glorifies "the primitive," that its Na'vi body designs objectify women, that it ultimately seems to advocate fighting violence with violence). Nor will I look through the lens of the Reactionary Right ("it's just another Hollywood elite, anti-corporate, anti-military, anti-imperialist fairly tale about native tree-huggers beating up on an enemy that's two-dimensional even in 3D"). Nor will I point out the obvious irony that somebody used every Western tool known to man to make garbillions of dollars on a movie essentially about preserving the rain forest--that is showing all over the world in energy-sucking air-conditioned IMAX theaters (oops, I guess I just did).

I have no problem with Avatar's epic fairly tale structure. I have no problem with making good guys good and bad guys bad. I came in expecting action, and calling "Avatar" a mere "action movie" is an insult to the movie. I guess my perspective is similar to the one I recently took with "Up in the Air," that of a coach who reserves his most virulent criticism for his best player:

"Avatar, you're good. Really good. But you could be better."

All it would take is a little more care with the script. I realized with "Avatar" that there's something I miss when watching a non-Spielbergian epic. Spielberg brings a certain breeziness, wit and sense of humor to his projects. Remember Indiana Jones watching the Ninja expertly cut the air with his sword, then sighing, shrugging his shoulders blowing him away with his pistol? James Cameron wouldn't have thought of that. Remember the plane propellers approaching the unsuspecting musclehead goomba, then the cut to blood hitting the airplane? Cameron wouldn't have done that. I watched "Saving Private Ryan" again recently and was amazed at how much Spielberg revealed with only sound. In other words, Spielberg knows how to speak in visual subtext. There's a wonderful moment early in "Avatar" when a huge American tank-like machine returns to the Pandora base, and we see the tires littered with arrows. That tells you a lot, and that's what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, it's the only visual-subtastic moment in the movie.

The rest of "Avatar" is on the nose, as is much of the dialogue. Again, don't get me wrong. When a blood-thirsty marine commander says, "Let's get this over with before lunch" (or whatever he says), or a turncoat pilot shoots at said commander and says to herself, "You're not the only one with a gun, bitch!", I'm not surprised and it doesn't ruin the movie. Plus, keep in mind that one of the main reasons I'm so critical of ham-fisted dialogue is that I've written a lot of it myself. (If I wrote a script half as good as "Avatar," I'd think I was a genius.)

But when I realized that "Avatar" is pretty much devoid of any kind of subtext or sense of humor, I felt ever so slightly let down. Because while I'm being transported to this amazing, imaginative paradise of a cinematic universe, I'm still thinking about what could have been.

Introducing "No Fly Zone Fridays"

So I decided that the one thing about self-employment that messes you up (besides health insurance expenses) is the blow to balance. In some ways, self-employment enhances balance. But the cancer is the constant "working without a net" feeling. You become obsessed with working, because if you're not working, you're not making money. And if you're not making money, you're not paying the bills. And if you're not paying your bills, your son can't go to college. And then everybody dies.

The irony of being self-employed in a creative industry is that the more you work, the less space you have to do the things that helped you be creative in the first place. Things like going to a movie. Staring at art for a few hours. Walking. Reading the newspaper. Playing guitar. And blogging (which is really just the process of writing self-absorbed personal essays, but with a much better distribution method).

So a waking thought came to me in December (pay attention to the first thought you have when you wake up in the morning, it's the best one you'll have all day): No Fly Zone Fridays. The last Friday of every month is a No Fly Zone. No work. No family (for eight hours, at least). No real responsibilities. Just the space for solitary inspiration.

Today is Jan. 29, and I'm coming to the end of my first NFZF. What did I do? I went to my neighborhood Dunn Bros. I got a 12-ounce cappuccino. I read a decent chunk of the New York Times (print version). I walked over to Great Clips for a haircut. I grabbed a burrito bowl at Chipotle. I went to see Avatar in 3D at the Rosedale AMC IMAX. I stopped at Cheapo and bought two old Kinks albums. Now I'm at Kopplin's Coffee on Randolph and Hamline, and I have more than two hours to do nothing but write.

It's heaven. I'll start with my review of Avatar.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Joe Mauer Project

Just thought I'd share the Conk Creative spot with Joe Mauer for Anytime Fitness:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Up in the Air": Not on Board

I can't put my finger on it. Was it because the movie had so much hype? Was it because I liked Jason Reitman's last two movies ("Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno") so much and was bound to be let down? Whatever it was, "Up in the Air" disappointed greatly.

The opening credit sequence, and indeed the first 10 minutes of the movie, are filled with promise. Patchwork geographic images of U.S. terrain at 30,000 feet move like puzzle pieces set to music: inventive, playful, classic Reitman. Then a rapid montage of Ryan's (George Clooney's) packing habits tells you everything you need to know about his primary character traits. Excellent.


But then, something goes amiss. Actually, five things:

1. The tone never achieves balance. Both "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno" established a universe and tone that felt immediately comfortable in the dramedy genre (the hardest genre to write and direct, in my opinion). This one never quite does. Instead of feeling like a film that is both funny and tragic, it never shakes the feeling that it can't decide between the two.

2. The structure is off. What sets the movie in motion (the "inciting incident" in screenwriting jargon): Ryan meeting Alex? The introduction of the company's new methodology and the sharp young female mind behind it? Or is it the subplot with Clooney's sister's wedding? It isn't clear, and these elements don't flow logically from each other in terms of plot or theme. I imagine that Reitman sees the unifying element as "commitment" (everything is about commitment and how Ryan views it). Theoretically, that's true. In practice, the center does not hold.

3. The writing is uneven. Parts of the film were brilliant, particularly the dialogue between the two main female characters ("Don't get me wrong, I appreciate everything your generation did for women, but...") was one element of the movie's best sequence. But it's telling that the best writing doesn't involve Clooney's character. In fact, at the movie's moment of truth, when Ryan is set up to deliver a game-changing speech, the writing is absolutely pedestrian. Either you have the speech be lackluster on purpose (because that fits Clooney's character in that situation), and then the speech doesn't have its desired effect; or the speech is profound and well-written, and it does its job within the story. Instead, Ryan somehow manages to underperform and overdeliver. You can't have it both ways.

4. Clooney's character winds up feeling unbelievable, and in the end, there's no emotional moment for the viewer. It's actually rare to see a movie where you completely buy a character during the film, but then by the end think, "Really?" But this is one of those cases. Could there really be a guy who likes to travel as much as Ryan? Sure. A guy who is as obsessed with miles and elite clubs? Maybe. A guy who travels the country firing people? Could exist, maybe already does. But a guy who also gets paid lots of money to give motivational speeches about dropping all of your commitments? Sorry. There's a reason we never see the audience's reaction to the end of any of Ryan's speeches: that particular message simply doesn't inspire. Plus, no company would hire someone to deliver a message of anti-commitment, because every company wants to build loyalty, not destroy it.

5. The movie suffers from "alternative music" syndrome. I appreciate films that do the unexpected. Lord knows we have enough movies that press blunt cookie cutters into processed emotional dough. But you can't be different just to be different. Calling your music "alternative" reveals your utter dependence on the thing against which you are rebelling (if it goes away, you lose your power). Movies like "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," which I watched the night before, seem completely "other." "Up in the Air" felt like it was producing a few twists just for their own sake, including the very end of the movie. It's not the Hollywood ending you would expect, and that's great. But does it ultimately make a statement outside the fact that it's "unexpected"? No.

* * *

I don't mean to pick on this movie too much. "Up in the Air" is still better than 80 percent of what's out there. But especially after seeing "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," this felt like a movie that desperately wanted to have meaning, but simply wasn't willing to do the work to achieve it. Like its main character, it marches up to the edge of profundity, and then simply escapes.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Souvenirs

Introducing the official pre-production trailer of my newest script, Souvenirs:

Friday, January 1, 2010

My Son Is Not Normal

The newspaper is not dead.