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Fringe 2011 Review: The Mountain Song

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song

1h 0m
VENUE #12: 4th Street Theatre
Performance seen:Sat 13 @ 7:30
Remaining performances: Thu 18 @ 6:30 Mon 22 @ 7:15 Thu 25 @ 10 Fri 26 @ 3:45 Sat 27 @ 12*
http://pigpentheatre.com/

Rating: 10
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

“PigPen Presents: The Mountain Song” was already going to be a hot ticket on the strength of the company’s general excellence award at last year’s Fringe (for “PigPen Presents: The Nightmare Story”). Now it’s going to be a hot ticket for word of mouth. Before, it was “if it’s anything as good as last year… .” Now, it’s “it’s even better than last year.”

The Mountain Song has a lyrical and narrative cohesion that seems deceptively simple to achieve. Through song and prose, the story is told of an carpenter searching for his mute daughter’s wedding. Along the way, he scales a mountain three times, is launched into flight by a waterfall, meets a giant and builds for him a pair of shoes the size of a boat, and is carried to the ocean by a man who uses his suitcase as a horse.

The voice of this thoroughly original story is that of a tradition of tall tales that’s distinctly American—no Swiftian sarcasm here—and the language is authentically that of the Appalachian hollers—perhaps those of West Virginia, a stone’s throw (at least, a giant’s stone’s throw) from Carnegie Mellon University, from which the troupe of seven graduated this past May.

The style is an emerging form that we might call theatrical collage.

The Pigpenners use a hand-held length of fabric to represent the mountain, a child’s dress for the daughter, a papier-mâché head and hand for the giant, a pair of fingers for the man climbing the fabric mountain, a shadow-stencil for a village, a shipping pallet for a raft, more shadow stencils, and more objects d’puppetry. That no two are of the same scale, even in the same scene, only adds to the charm.

Last year’s Fringe saw at least two such shows; besides Mountain Song’s Pigpen predecessor, there was the astonishingly incoherent and delightful “Butterfly, Butterfly, Kill Kill Kill!” (imagine if, instead of making “What’s Up Tiger Lily,” Woody Allen had spent four years at CMU with the Pigpen boys).

There’s nothing incoherent about “Mountain Song” though. The story moves clearly and inexorably toward a bittersweet ending that’s fully foretold in an opening speech, and the speechifying throughout is as charming as the bluegrass music, the shadow and other puppetry, and the life-sized acting.

The whole thing made me want to rent a couple of grandkids and go back to the next performance. The only thing better than seeing “Mountain Song” through adult eyes or those of a child would be seeing it through both at once.

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Fringe 2011 Review: The Bardy Bunch

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

The Bardy Bunch: The War of the Families Partridge and Brady

1h 40m
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Sat 13 @ NOON
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 9 (sold out!) Sun 21 @ 8:45 Wed 24 @ 2

Rating: 8
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

When I say I thoroughly enjoyed “The Bardy Bunch” you have to take into account that I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of the Brady Bunch (nor the movie); I was not a fan of the Partridge Family; and I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare.

Yes, Shakespeare.

“The Bardy Bunch” is a telling of Romeo and Juliet where the rivaling families are the Bradys and the Partridges and there are two forbidden loves, not one: Marcia–Keith, and Greg–Laurie.

But the Shakespearean references only start there. Midsummer Night’s Dream, All’s Well That Ends Well, Tempest, and most especially Macbeth and Hamlet—I can’t tell you all the plays quoted from and referenced (the playbill claims a dozen), because they come fast and furiously and, as I say, I don’t have the greatest head for Shakespeare, confusing the various gender-bending ones, for example. Sorting out the Hamlet from the Macbeth was particularly tricky until I realized that the same ghost was doing double-duty: For the Bradys, he’s Duncan, for the Partridges he’s Hamlet’s father.

It’s a clever idea, and that kind of cleverness pervades the show—notably in the mixing of Shakespearean plots, without losing itself in fealty to any one of them, but also in the use of music, especially the way “Woke Up in Love” and “I Can feel Your Heartbeat” hurtle the conflicts toward their inevitable tragic and hilarious conclusion.

The huge cast is entirely outstanding—it seems unfair to single anyone out, but Marcia (Cali Elizabeth Moore) and Greg (A.J. Shively) are particularly aptly cast, Erik Keiser’s singing channels Keith’s voice perfectly and is terrific in its own right, and speaking of voices, Craig Wichman gets Reuben’s so right it’s eerie. It’s probably not possible for the Alice part not to be a crowd pleaser, but Joan Lunoe does a terrific job of milking the small role for all it’s worth.

I have only two small complaints about this show—the name, and the fact that in an early scene Marcie and Jan make an explicit reference to Romeo and Juliet. It’s unnecessary, and undermines the show’s greatest charm—that the subtext to a story grounded in the most ephemeral of 1970s pop culture is rooted in the 16th century writer who created the most enduring cultural monuments we have. Indeed, the number of Fringe shows that reference the Bard is literally and figuratively uncountable, but I can’t remember enjoying it this much.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: COBU

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

COBU

VENUE #14: Bleecker Theatre
0h 45m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 9:45
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 7:30 Fri 19 @ 5:15 Wed 24 @ 2:30 Thu 25 @ 5:15

Rating: 9
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Our favorite of our three-show opening night of this year’s Fringe was COBU, which describes itself as an “explosive fusion of Japanese Taiko drumming and funk tap dance … created and directed by STOMP veteran Yako Miyamoto. COBU is a dance/percussion troupe with the motto ‘Dance like Drumming, Drum like Dancing’.”

The first piece uses five drums, three upstage, and two down, each with a woman wearing a unique outfit that in one way or another—whether its pink hot pants with black fishnets, or a yellow tank top, yellow shorts, and loose yellow leg warmers, or just an orange golf hat worn backwards—bespoke hip-hop. The woman at the center drum, who I came to quickly think of as the queen drummer, wore olive drab baggie cargo pants and a sort of long sleeveless black hoodie robe.

The entire effect was both sexy and extremely powerful, and got only more powerful as the show progressed.

Three dancers appeared between the two rows of drums, at least, at first they seemed to be just dancers, but they held drumming sticks and soon alternated the choreography with drumming on the floor itself.

There were about nine distinguishable pieces—the boundaries were unclear, except when the costumes changed, which happened several times—and perhaps my favorite was the third, in which the queen drummer led off with a lengthy tap dance that included using the side of her square-heeled tap shoe for added volume and, for a moment, rising en pointe. After the dance, she sat cross-legged downstage, facing away from the audience and toward two drummers who came out and played the rhythms she had tapped out. In a later number, she would sit in the same place and do a call-and-response with the entire troupe, with her banging only the floor.

Every time it seemed we’d seen everything the troupe had to offer, something new was added. In the fourth number, drums lying sideways were struck on both sides by two different women, several of whom, standing between two drums, alternated between them. The eighth piece was mostly dance, with the queen drummer holding the beat—mostly dancing, that is, until it evolved into a beautiful chanting song.

I can’t easily describe the finale except as a tour de athletic force of rhythm and choreography that included cartwheels, dancers jumping over one another, and the queen mother wielding a six-foot-long stick with which to strike the sticks of others and be struck by them.

A powerful pas de quatre in which dancers circled four drums and with perfect precision struck their own and those of the others, first with little ronde de jambs over them, then with swooping, drumming 360 turns beside them, was the dramatic highlight of the piece and an altogether pleasing show.

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Fringe 2011 Review: Rachel Calof

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Rachel Calof

VENUE #2: CSV Flamboyan
1h 30m
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 5
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 2 Sat 20 @ 9 Sat 27 @ 2:15
http://www.rachelcalof.net

Rating: 4
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

A picture bride survives an unbearable childhood in Russia and a brutally harsh North Dakota family of in-laws and winter before things become better.

If this logline strikes you as surprisingly inactive for a dramatic story, you’ve identified the central problem in the one-person play “Rachel Calof.”

Teachers of narratives—whether it’s a play, movie, short story, novel, or even a memoir or nonfiction narrative destined for a magazine—all agree: If your story has a protagonist, the protagonist has to actively resolve the plot’s complications (or fail trying). Jack Hart, in his excellent book “Storycraft” says, “when you’re looking for a protagonist, search for the person who makes things happen.” Rachel Calof, it turns out, is no protagonist.

The play is based on a book, “Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains” (Indiana University Press, 2009) that in turn is based on a hand-written memoir Calof’s family found after she died, augmented by “scholarly essays that provide historical and cultural background,” according to IUP press materials.

In childhood, Calof, whose mother died when she was four, is bounced like a pinball between a thoughtless and cruel father, a thoughtfully cruel step-mother, and an imperious and uncaring great-uncle who, as Calof approaches marrying age, wrenches her from a growing friendship and love with a village butcher boy by sending her to America to marry a total stranger to the family.

In America, Calof is an impeccably passive fiancee and then wife and daughter-in-law. Her mother-in-law, by turns superstitious and just stupid, but always domineering, would make one long for the violently cruel step-mother.

Writer Ken LaZebnik shows almost no awareness of the need to make Rachel Calof at least somewhat the mistress of her own fate. It’s left to the music and lyrics (by Leslie Steinweiss) to show us a Rachel acting on her own initiative, pathetically fashioning a lamp out of mud and butter as the fuel. To be sure, in on lone, belated scene LaZebnik has Rachel saying no to the ridiculous demands of her husband, himself laughably submissive to his mother. It’s not enough. Every good thing that happens to Rachel—the visit by a neighbor to Rachel and her six-week old baby, left alone in a tiny shack; the declaration by the shochet that the ailing post-partem Rachel is allowed to eat unkosher ox meat; the children she is allowed by her husband to have—happens to her.

The narrative is bookended by Rachel’s desire, and eventually resolve, to visit her daughter in Seattle. Stepping across the threshold without her husband’s permission is apparently LaZebnik’s idea of the decisive act of an active protagonist. It’s not enough, and not just because all we see is a resolve; it comes 85 minutes and 30 years too late in the story. Worse, with a flat inactive protagonist, “Rachel Calof” almost inevitably has no other interesting characters either. Everyone, especially the husband and his mother, are flatly cruel and stupid, albeit hardworking.

There’s much to enjoy in Rachel Calof—the hardships of homesteading are novel and engrossing to a modern audience, and Kate Fuglei’s acting is inspired, her Russian-Jewish accent letter-perfect, and her singing voice is stunningly clear. In the words of IUP, “her narrative [is] both unique and a representative western tale.”

It’s not possible to rewrite a show from the audience, nor is it a critic’s place to do do, but it’s impossible not to note that the protatonist-confrontation-resolution structure is not the only one available to the author, nor is Rachel the only protagonist available.

The story as it actually seems to exist on the page’s of Calof’s memoir is one of a family with almost insurmountable challenges of culture, abject poverty, pride, and jealousy, finally and reluctantly uniting to defeat the greater enemy of North Dakota’s unrelentingly grim and nearly fatally harsh winters. In that story the husband’s admirable qualities of hard work and fealty to family would at least briefly shine, and the mother-in-law, enduring 40-below winters at the end of her life and, like Moses, given only a view of the promised land, might at least evoke our sympathy.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Fringe 2011 Review: Chagrin

Posted by metaphorical on 16 August 2011

Chagrin

1h 0m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Show seen: Fri 12 @ 7:15
Remaining performances: Wed 17 @ 10 Thu 18 @ 4 Sat 20 @ 12
http://michaelrossalbert.com/plays/full-length-plays/chagrin/

Rating: 5
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)


Four friends who used to star in a kid’s quiz show have drifted apart until they return to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, for a TV reunion and the near-suicide of the smartest one of them.

The structure of “Chagrin”—a single scene outside a hospital—requires that the power of the show consist entirely of the successive, ongoing reveal. That requires impeccably coordinating the twin faucets of mystery and information.

Here, unfortunately, the story goes cold, as the early minutes become bogged down with unimportant information that didn’t carry us far enough toward answering the bigger questions in the backstory, while the final minutes persisted beyond their being answered, to the extent the play answers them at all.

The only action in such a story is a character’s decision to confess something or lie. It’s not enough. At some point, the audience craves action in the present.

The lack of any real action means as well that there are no opportunities for the characters to change, and with only the four friends on stage, the story becomes, over time, claustrophobic.

By contrast, had, say, the TV producers come downstairs from their vulture-like perch at the one friend’s bedside (which we know about only second-hand), they could have forced the four to make choices and reveal character through actions instead of empty words.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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Non Company Mentis

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2011

The Company Men
109 minutes
Written and directed by John Wells

The dictionary defines “non compos mentis” as “not of sound mind.” How else do you explain the release a movie that’s missing the last twenty minutes of the story?

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without talking about, well, the movie, so, fair warning: spoilers ahead.

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From the trailer, the story line is clear: Ben Affleck is laid off from his white-collar job, others (Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones) are as well, they band together and start a new company of their own.

And, indeed, that’s what happens. It’s a little disconcerting that Chris Cooper doesn’t lose his position until a second round of layoffs, roughly at the movie’s midpoint. When are they going to get around to starting this new company? Tommy Lee Jones is still with the old company until plot point #2. Actually, I’m not sure there is a plot point #2. But we’re at the 90 minute mark or so. The new company doesn’t get started until the last 10 minutes or so. And then Tommy Lee Jones hires Ben Affleck. And then the movie ends.

Huh?

In other words, we never see Ben Affleck stealing away his old company’s big account, or, stealing away that new contract the greedy CEO-antagonist was counting on, or, well, do anything. So there’s no satisfying feeling of revenge. And there’s no real success—yes, his character’s fundamental desire is met: he has a job again now, and it’s not just hanging sheetrock for his brother-in-law the housebuilder. But does he have great success, or just a job that pays better than carpentry? Doe he have a job he loves?

More importantly, the movie violates perhaps the single most fundamental rule of movies (and all fiction, and in fact, all drama): the protagonist has to do the thing that achieves the movie’s outcome. Ben Affleck’s character does nothing—he passively accepts the job that Tommy Lee Jones’s character offers him.

There’s no question what the shape of this movie should be. The inciting incident is getting laid off—this should happen within the first ten minutes, ideally the first five. Chris Cooper should get laid off between minutes 30 and 40, Tommy Lee Jones would be laid off (or, for my money, quits) at the midpoint. The new company is started soon thereafter, and cannot survive unless Ben Affleck gets a big account, a task that will take us to the climax.

Yes, this would make for a very conventional three-act, two-plot-point Hollywood structure, but after all, this already is a conventional Hollywood movie. The trailer promises us one, and the movie is otherwise constructed as one. They just dragged out some of the middle parts, and forgot the third act. It’s pretty astonishing, the number of people of people who had to not notice there’s a quarter of a movie missing here—the screenwriter, the director (oh, wait, they’re the same person), the producer, and the studio. I don’t think the audience won’t notice though. Despite a great cast, the movie scores a mere 59% at Rotten Tomatoes. (Inexplicably, 71% from the critics. Maybe some of them are non compos mentis as well.)

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The Ghost Writer—2.5 of 5 stars, and that’s being generous

Posted by metaphorical on 8 January 2011

The Ghost Writer (IMDb, Netflix)

Written by Robert Harris & Roman Polanski, based on the novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris

It’s astonishing that this mediocre movie makes Script magazine’s list of potential Oscar nominees for best adapted screenplay—its mediocrity is deeply rooted in screenplay’s weaknesses.

The fundamental problem is that the movie violates the standard Hollywood understanding of a movie’s story. Drew Yanno, in his book The 3rd Act,, puts it this way:

Somebody wants something badly and goes after it against great odds.

The only thing the protagonist wants at the start of The Ghost Writer is to make a lot of money doing a quick rewrite of a former UK Prime Minister’s memoir. Later, he stumbles upon a secret and tries to unravel it. To be sure, doing so imperils his life, but it serves no interest of his beyond idle curiosity. It also puts at risk the only thing we him wanting.

A post at the blog Complications Ensue says much the same thing at far greater length and disgust, and includes a detailed spoiler-laden summary of the movie’s plot.

Posted in language, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Screenplays, 2010

Posted by metaphorical on 8 January 2011

The current issue of Script magazine handicaps the Oscar races for best screenplays. Some of their picks are still in theatres here, some are available on Netflix, the rest we’ll have to rent from iTunes or Amazon. Those with loglines I’ve seen.

Original Screenplays

1. Another Year (Lincoln Plaza, Angelika)
Written by Mike Leigh
  The happiness of her older friend from work eludes a middle-aged woman struggling through another year alone.

2. Get Low (available for Amazon online purchase 2/22/11)
Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell (screenplay), and Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke (story)
  A hermit hires a funeral home to gather the entire community to tell, Tom Sawyer-like, stories about himself before he dies, but really, it’s for him to tell his a story from his own dark past.

3. Hereafter(available on DVD 3/15/11)
Written by Peter Morgan

4. Inception (Netflix DVD)
Written by Christopher Nolan
  Haunted by his own dreams of his wife, Dom Cobb assembles a team of dream-stealers for one last act of corporate espionage—to plant an idea in the subconscious mind of a rival of his industrialist client.

5. The Kids Are All Right
Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
  When a lesbian couple’s children contact their biological father, the couple’s relationship begins to fracture.

6. The King’s Speech
Written by David Seidler
  King George V’s younger son can keep his stutter hidden from the world until a number of events thrust him in the limelight: his father’s death, his older brother’s abdication, the inception of WWII, and the new importance of radio. Can eccentric self-trained speech therapist Lionel Logue cure the newly crowned George VI in time for him to rally a complacent nation?

7. Somewhere (Clearview 1st & 62nd, Lincoln Square, Angelika)
Written by Sofia Coppola
  A Hollywood star is surprised by how much meaning his 11-year old daughter brings to his aimless existence when she comes to stay with him for a couple of weeks.

Adaptations

1. The Ghost Writer (Netflix DVD)
Written by Robert Harris & Roman Polanski, based on the novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris
  A ghostwriter, hired to complete the memoir of a former UK Prime Minister when the first writer dies suspiciously, pursues a secret despite putting his own life in peril.   (I didn’t think much of this movie, and briefly explain why here.)

2. Love & Other Drugs (AMC 84th St, Regal 42nd St, AMC 19th St, AMC Village 7)
Written by Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy
  Jake is a happy-go-lucky born salesman—now in pharmacuticals; Maggie, a talented and gorgeous artist suffering from Parkinson’s, refuses to commit to a relationship because drugs can only hold off her symptoms somewhat and only for so long. They’re perfect for one another, until they fall in love.

3. Never Let Me Go
Written by Alex Garland based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (available on DVD 2/1/11)
  A love triangle at a boarding school where cloned children are being raised for their body parts raises the question: will we understand life better – and will we live it better – if we know when we’re going to die?

4. 127 Hours (Landmark Sunshine)
Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
  It takes a hiker 127 hours to bring himself to a point where he can save his life by sawing off his arm with a dull knife.

5. Rabbit Hole (Clearview 1st & 62nd, Landmark Sunshine)
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire
  After the death of their 4-year-old son, a couple can’t get on track with their lives—nor with each other.

6. Shutter Island (Netflix Instant)
Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
  A U.S. Marshall’s investigation of the disappearance of a murderer-patient at an island hospital for the criminally insane is too zealous for the hospital’s director.

7. The Social Network (AMC 25, AMC 19th St, Quad)
Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Ben Mezrich
  The youngest billionaire in history is bound to have made some enemies along the way—and rightfully so. But then, some of them were assholes too.

8. The Town (Netflix)
Written by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
  A young, handsome, master bank robber has trouble leaving the life, and trouble staying. For one thing, he’s fallen in love with the only person who can identify his gang, and his best friend wants her dead.

9. Toy Story 3 (DVD)
Written by Michael Arndt (screenplay), John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich (story)
  Andy is headed for college, and the toys have to figure out how best to move on—a matter they have almost no control over.

Other movies that seem worth seeing

Black Swan
Written by Mark Heyman (screenplay), John J. McLaughlin (screenplay) and Andres Heinz (screenplay and story)
  A shy, young ballerina on the cusp of greatness has to embrace her dark side or lose her first starring role.

The Fighter
Written by Scott Silver (screenplay) and Paul Tamasy (story and screenplay) & Eric Johnson (story and screenplay) & Keith Dorrington (story)
  A Lowell, Mass., boxer with one more shot at the top is torn between professional management and his current manager (his overbearing mother) and trainer (his screw-up exfighter older brother).

Howl
Written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
  Out-of-the-closet beat poet Alan Ginsberg is liberated by the publication of Howl, while his publisher—poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti—stands trial for the poem’s obscenity.

True Grit
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
  A 14-year old girl seeking justice for her murdered father hires an alcoholic U.S. Marshall (because she’s told he has “true grit”) to hunt down the killer in Indian territory—forcing him to take her along.

Winter’s Bone
Written by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell
  In the Ozark foothills, a 17-year-old girl, already responsible for her 12- and 6-year-old siblings, now has to find her crank-dealing father, dead or alive, before the law takes away their house.

Blue Valentine
Written by Derek Cianfrance & Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis.
  As a marriage breaks up, you wonder what they ever saw in each other, but as they remember, though flashbacks, the relationship’s early days, you wonder how it could go so horribly wrong.

Posted in language, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 2 Comments »

Books about writing—a baker’s dozen

Posted by metaphorical on 5 November 2010

I’m teaching creative writing this term at The College of New Rochelle. It’s a monster 6-credit course, 18 sessions, 4 hours each. And I’m loving it. I’m an experienced enough teacher to know, even though this is my first time for creative writing, that this is a once-in-a-lifetime great group of students. But that aside, the course is helping me put together a whole bunch of thoughts about writing, some of which have appeared on this blog, in a more coherent (dare I say, systematic?) way.

So, naturally, in my obsessive way, I’ve been angling to teach more creative writing, and this week learned the fruits of those labors. Next term I’ll be teaching Creative Writing 101, a 6-week course at Gotham Writer’s Workshop, and Creative Writing 220 at The College of New Rochelle, a 3-credit scaled-down version of the class I’m currently giving.

In anticipation of the two new classes, I’ve put together a short (at least, as short as possible!) list of books about writing. This is about as far from being a definitive list as Sarah Palin is from the presidency, but I can certify this as a list of excellent books that I’ve found exceptionally helpful.

One disclaimer: I took classes from both Francine Prose and Susan Bell for my M.F.A., which was in creative nonfiction (at The New School, 2005-2007). Prose had just published her book and was constantly flying back from in from her book tour, which she hated, for our classes; Bell was still working on her book, and, reading the book I later came to realize, we were her guinea pigs for several of the more ambitious ideas of the book. It’s to her I owe the Berg and Ondaatje choices as well. By the way, Lopate also teaches at the New School, but only in the spring, so I had one chance to take his class and didn’t, more’s the pity.

Bell, Susan. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. Norton; 2008.

Berg, Scott. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Riverhead; 1997.

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 8th ed. Longman; 2010.

Flaherty, Francis. The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing. Harper; 2009.

Franklin, Jon. Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction. Plume; 1994.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 2nd. ed. Shambhala; 2010.

Hall, Oakley. How Fiction Works: Proven Secrets to Writing Successful Stories That Hook Readers and Sell. Story Press/F+W Publications; 2001.

(added) Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Pantheon, 1994.

Lopate, Philip (ed). The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor; 1995.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. It; 1997.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Knopf; 2004.

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Harper; 2007.

Snyder, Blake. Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese; 2005.

Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style (Illustrated). Penguin; 2005.

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Throw down your thesis

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2009

In my beginning writing classes, the one idea I spend the most time on is something that’s often called the thesis statement. It isn’t enough that a college essay—or any essay, or any piece of writing, or film, or play, for that matter—have a topic. It has to have a specific thesis within that topic. The thesis statement is like chess or go—it takes a few minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.

It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it does have to be a specific assertion. “My summer vacation” is a topic. “My trip to Disneyworld last summer was the best vacation of my life” is a thesis. (“My summer vacation, the first my husband and I took in our twelve-year marriage, saved our relationship” is an even better one, but we don’t always have as much drama in our lives as a writing class would like!) One sign of a bad thesis, or no thesis, is boredom in the face of crisp prose and strong action—when readers don’t know where the story is going, it’s impossible to keep their interest.

Once you have a thesis, you know just what to write—what to include, and, equally importantly, what to exclude. Unfortunately, a thesis doesn’t always come to us tightly wound, whole, and perfect, like a new ball of soft colorful yarn. And so sometimes we start in, thinking we’re writing about one thing, and it turns out we’re really writing about another. I once heard the writer Liz Braverman say, writing is a product of the struggle “between the words in your head and the words that come off the page.” The path to a thesis sometimes looks like the ball of yarn after the cats have played with it all afternoon.

I tell my students that often you don’t know what an essay is about until the first draft is done. When you read the draft over, think about what the thesis of the actual essay—the essay as it exists on the page—is. Then reread the essay with an eye to what comports with the new thesis and what does not. Every section, every paragraph—and eventually, after the final polishing, every sentence and every word—ought to advance the thesis in some way, so add and subtract accordingly.

Which brings us to Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary film about a trip the musician Béla Fleck made to Africa. It opens today, but I saw it back in November at the American Museum of Natural History’s 2008 Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival.

First, let me say that it was a wonderful evening and a wonderful show to watch. And the film is destined to be popular, and well-liked by anyone who likes Fleck’s kind of music, or just the wonderful sounds that can result when one culture’s symbols are made to clash with another’s. The movie gets an astonishing 8.1 out of 10 on IMDb, though only 15 people have voted, and I notice it won an audience award last month at SXSW, among others listed on the film’s website.

How could one not love a film named for a story that when men from Africa’s interior were brought to a certain coastal port in Tanzania, from which they would be shipped overseas, never to see their families again, they were advised to “throw down their hearts.”

That said, Throw Down Your Heart fails as a film. It fails for the same reason many of my students’ essays fail—the failure to rethink and rewrite the work, after the true thesis emerges from the first draft.

The film’s original idea was apparently to take the instrument Fleck is most closely associated with, the banjo, back to Africa. It was described that way in the promotional material that drew me to the AMNH. It’s described that way in the IMDb blurb: “A film crew follows the well-known banjo player Béla Fleck on his travels to Africa, where he learns about the instrument’s origins.” This thesis is still expressed in the movie’s trailer: “Where the banjo has come from” “A lot of people associate it with white southern music,” “There’s an instrument [in Africa] that may be the original banjo,” etc., and it’s expressed in the first few minutes of the film.

And indeed, throughout, the movie contains vestiges of that thesis, including the intinerary that forms the backbone of the narrative, taking Fleck and the crew through four candidate countries for the origins of the banjo (Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali).

In looking for the precursors to today’s banjo, some of which are instruments that are still played in Africa, Fleck encountered extraordinary musicians, some famous, some known only within a single village but of world-class caliber. It was, perhaps, inevitable, that the movie would devolve into a celebration of those musicians, and Fleck’s interactions with them, including a couple of terrific duets and other performances in which Fleck not only plays the banjo with them, but some of the precursor instruments as well. And that’s fine. But that’s a very different movie.

Worse still, there was a third thesis available to director Sascha Paladino, hinted at in the movie, and it is in fact the movie he should have made. The AMNH viewing ended with a Q & A with some of the film’s crew. In the course of describing how hard Fleck worked, we were told that he stayed up far into the night trying to learn new forms of music and getting the hang of those African instruments. Fleck didn’t allow those late-night moments to be shown.

It’s understandable that an eight-time Grammy winner wouldn’t want to be seen making bad music late at night with unfamiliar instruments he had only just been given. But the story of one of the world’s great musicians struggling to master new instruments and new musical forms would have turned a enjoyable music travelogue into an unforgettable musical odyssey.

The New York Post put up a short review of the movie yesterday that unwittingly gets it exactly right. “The movie is at least 20 minutes too long,” the Post wrote—an extraordinary thing for a review of a 97-minute musical film in which the music is called “infectious.” (Karina Longworth, in a generally very favorable review at Spout.com, agreed, calling it “somewhat overlong.”) Boredom is the inevitable consequence of a defective thesis.

The anonymous NY Post reviewer also wrote, “Fleck fails to provide any personal charisma.” Exactly. By withholding Fleck’s failings, the movie withholds its central character. Béla, if only you had thrown down your heart.

Posted in language, pop culture, screenwriting, the arts, writing | 1 Comment »

Too Clever By Half

Posted by metaphorical on 10 October 2008

THE BRANDING
OF A RESTAURANT
POWERHOUSE

When Triarc Companies Inc., the parent company of sandwich chain Arby’s Restaurant Group, Inc. acquired Wendy’s International, the move created the third largest fast-food company. The company was renamed as Wendy’s/Arby’s Group and required a new brand identity to embody the innovative spirit of both restaurant brands. The new brand identity also needed to illustrate the collective strength of the organization to its employees, franchisees and shareholders.

Wendy’s and Arby’s merged?

KCSA Strategic Communications worked closely with Wendy’s/Arby’s Group management to define the shared, core brand values of both Wendy’s and Arby’s, and articulate the company’s unique value proposition and intangible qualities that surround the Wendy’s/Arby’s name.

“Value proposition” – heh.

“Intangible qualities” – heh-heh.

“Each company’s brand is a valuable strategic asset,” said Joshua Altman, Managing Director at KCSA. “The challenge in this type of situation is to develop a symbolic, clear new brand language that creates new meaning to audiences without losing the tradition, legacy, and the already important values established by the previously separate entities.”

Tradition? Legacy? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity references identifiable visual characteristics from both Wendy’s and Arby’s, structured as a form reflective of the “W” and “A” in Wendy’s/Arby’s Group. The icon and the tagline, “Serving Fresh Ideas Daily”, support Wendy’s/Arby’s Group’s commitment to innovation and high level of quality.

Wendy’s has a new logo?

“The Wendy’s/Arby’s Group brand identity is designed not only as an acronym, but as a spiral continuum, maintaining the idea of continuous, flexible movement forward,” said Margaret Wiatrowski, Creative Director at KCSA. “The overall visual direction remains neutral by introducing entirely new elements to the combined entity, both formalistically and typographically. Symbolically, the two entities are combined through a mutual sense of innovation, authenticity and tradition.”

Innovation? Authenticity? Tradition (again!)? This is fast food we’re talking about, right?

Wendy’s/Arby’s Group unveiled its new brand to key stakeholders the first week of October, 2008.

Oh, it will have a new logo.

To learn more about this project or how we may serve you, please contact Joshua Altman at jaltman@kcsa.com.

Who wouldn’t want to learn more about this “project?

KCSA, a public-relations firms I’ve worked with, is better than this. Is there anything more inauthentic than saying that you have authenticity?

It’s time to return to the words of the master.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basis, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

“Key stakeholders,” “valuable strategic asset,” “overall visual direction,” “formalistically,” “value proposition,” “intangible qualities,” “innovation,” “tradition,” and “legacy” are all words that are used to dress up simple statements, give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments, and, as the master would be quick to say, are almost completely lacking in meaning.

Since only “key stakeholders” have seen the changes, it’s too soon to say whether this rebranding effort will be a success or a failure. And there’s no denying that brands are important. GM is trying to sell its Hummer brand, and according to today’s N.Y. Times, hopes to get a few billion for it. Since, in a era of $4/gallon gas, no one is buying Hummers (or cars at all; GM’s and Ford’s stocks jumped out the window yesterday, and even Toyota is going the zero-percent financing route), Hummer’s entire value is that it’s a name that is universally recognized (albeit often mocked).

What KCSA needs to remember, though, is that rebranding isn’t a sexy runway show. Rebranding is a little bit of backoffice sketching, and a lot of sweatshop work – cutting, sewing, ironing, fitting, and resewing. It can’t be dressed up with meaningless words. In fact, for a PR agency to talk of value propositions and strategic assets is like the designer showing up at the runway in a bathrobe.

Come on guys, you’re better than this.

Posted in language, Orwell, politics, pop culture, writing | 2 Comments »

No award for old men?

Posted by metaphorical on 24 February 2008

In the run up to the Academy Awards, Knowledge News has a nice article, “Oscar’s Biggest Snubs” (thanks Claire, for the link), describing how some of Hollywood’s best films didn’t even win best-picture in the year they were released.

Citizen Kane, often cited as the greatest movie of all time, tops the list, and two of my favorite movies ever are there as well, Chinatown, and Double Indemnity. Singin’ in the Rain, not one of my favorite movies, but surely touched by greatness, and Some Like It Hot, round out the list. There’s also an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, surely the most underawarded director in Academy history.

Singin’ in the Rain apparently lost out to The Greatest Show on Earth. Now that’s a movie that I could watch over and over again, but it’s hard to see it as better than one of a few score movies that people will remember for the next fifty years.

Hollywood has always confused entertainment with greatness, and it’s always fun to see that tension play out as the Academy votes each year. Oddly, they struggled in reverse with Hitchcock—voters obviously thought of movies like Rear Window and Psycho as throw-away entertainment, when in fact we now see their lasting value and Hitchcock as one of the great auteurs of all time.

Which brings us to this year. Of the five nominees, there’s no obvious winner, though a couple will be memorable for a long time and none of them is really disposable entertainment. (The official list is here, but you have to like ImdB’s for its linkability.)

Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

We can cross There Will Be Blood off the list right away. It’s a mess of a movie, structurally unsound, poorly plotted, and with absolutely no likeable characters. It’s hard to even see how it even got nominated, except for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance.

Michael Clayton is a terrific movie, but not the kind that normally emerges as Best Picture. For one thing, it has no actual point, other than revenge is sweet and, at least in Hollywood, the smartest guy sometimes wins. It puts wit and charm in an action movie, but, frankly, that was true of Sneakers and The Italian Job, and no one ever nominated them for Oscars.

No Country for Old Men is a strong contender, because it captures a lot of mind-share as possibly the best-ever for its genre, which is that of Gruesome Thoughtful-Action Movie, a specialty of the Coen brothers. Unforgiven was in that genre, and did well its year, as did Fargo. The comparisons are limited, in that each of those movies had characters more likeable than Tommy Lee Jones’s. On the other hand, there’s a growing recognition of the auteur quality to the Coen oeuvre.

Juno is the kind of small picture that can, in these post-Little-Miss-Sunshine days, easily get nominated, but perhaps never win. It does have the merits of actual themes, a plot, a point of view, and funky believable characters, the central one of which has just the sort of change that a leading lady, even one of 16, is supposed to undergo. In other words, it’s a classic movie, and those are in somewhat short supply this year.

Even more interestingly, the central character in Atonement is likewise transformed and then, as the characters who inspired it die off, reverts to her earlier self. That’s a remarkably difficult message for Hollywood to deliver, and Atonement succeeds against all odds. Combine that with the luminous development of two characters we give our hearts to in the first part of the movie, and the radically different cinematography in the front and back halves, either of which probably deserves an award in that category, and I would have to pick this as my favorite movie of the year, and the one I’d like to see win the Best Picture award.

Some other quick picks:

Best Actor – I only saw two of the nominated performances, so I don’t get a vote. If anyone beats Daniel Day-Lewis, though, I will have to run out and see that movie.

Best Actress – I only saw one performance here. Normally that wouldn’t matter, because it was Ellen Page’s, and you ask yourself, is anyone good enough to beat that? Unfortunately, when the category includes Cate Blanchett and Julie Christie, the answer is yes.

Best Supporting Actor – the three performances I saw, Javier Bardem, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tom Wilkinson, were pretty amazing. Even more astonishing, though, is that Casey Affleck is nominated for something that’s presumably even better than he was in Gone Baby Gone. Personally, I hope Javier Bardem wins, because we’ll see Philip Seymour Hoffman get nominated a bunch more times, while this was Bardem’s role of a lifetime.

Best Supporting Actress – I saw four of the performances. Ruby Dee might get it, for sentimental reasons. I hope not, because it just wasn’t that memorable a role, certainly not compared to Saoirse Ronan’s, or Amy Ryan’s. Again, the missing performance is Cate Blanchett, so anything could happen here. I’m rooting for the kid.

Adapted Screenplay – I missed two of these films, unfortunately. I just hope and trust that There Will Be Blood doesn’t win, because most of its problems as a movie, not the least of which is an ending that’s both totally inevitable and completely unsatisfying, could have been fixed at the screenplay level.

Original Screenplay – I only saw two nominees, but I hope Juno gets it. It is, truly, original, in its story and its characters, in all the best ways. As a budding screenwriter, I am in awe of the writing in movies like Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno.

Update:

Well, most of the awards I cared most about fell where I wanted them to. In many cases, I didn’t see the winner’s work, so I can’t judge how smartly the Academy vote.

One exception to that was Tilda Swinton, who won best supporting actress; it was a great little part, played with greatness, sure, but it was a little part, and surely any number of actresses would have done just as well. I thought none of that was true of Saoirse Ronan’s performance.

We actually have the DVD of “La Vie en Rose” in the house, I’m eager to see Marion Cotillard’s performance. She looked and sounded pretty damned good.

I’m disappointed that Atonement didn’t win Best Picture, but I’m happy that the Coen brothers won for directing. Similarly that There Will Be Blood won for cinematography; whatever that’s pictures flaws were, there were none at the level of images on the screen.

On the plus side, Javier Bardem won his gold, and gave a great speech.

Best of all, Juno won for original screenplay.

Posted in pop culture, screenwriting, the arts, writing | Tagged: , , | 30 Comments »

How low can high schools go?

Posted by metaphorical on 2 February 2008

Have you seen “Dumbing Us Down, The American Tragedy”? It’s a YouTube video that seems to be just going around now, even though it goes back to at least November 2006, when it was posted. It seems to have hit Digg just a couple of days ago.

There are a lot of links to it, but not much information. It was made by Brandon Telg, Jarred McKinney, Austin Woodall, three Gainesville (Fla.) high school students, at least at the time.

Their film takes a quick look at the declining state of education in the U.S. They call it a documentary, but at 13 minutes, its more of an outline of one. Still, they have a very nice mix of anecdote and statistic, and the video is pretty well made, a few easily excused typos and other glitches aside.

Their impetus seems to be a conversation with a history teacher who noticed, by accident at first, that almost none of his students — two of 32, in fact — knew who Gerald Ford was. The teacher later learned that only two of his students knew the name Mahatma Gandhi.

That led Telg, et al., to wonder how extensive the ignorance of their fellow students was. So they asked around to see what people knew of Gandhi. The depressing but predictable answer was, not much. Many didn’t know the name at all, while others misplaced it, such as the kid who thought Gandhi was a Mongol conqueror.

So the three videographers drew up two lists, one of famous names from history — Thomas Edison, Calvin Coolidge, Dick Cheney — the other pop culture stars — Eminem, Paris Hilton, Jack Black, and so on.

It’s hard to fathom the depths of student ignorance on display in the video. Edison was variously thought to be a former president and located in the 18th century by one student who mumbled, “kite, electricity, light bulb” — as if the light bulb were invented in the 18th century. Even Cheney was not universally known, though Eminem was.

They descry standardized testing mandated by No Child Left Behind. They invoke John Dewey, Horace Mann, and Cotton Mathers, and find, in their words, “This generation is witnessing first-hand the disintegration of the original intent of the American public education system.”

As I said, there’s not much information about the video and it’s more cited than discussed in the blogverse. But 24-year-old Daniel H. had some comments I found interesting.

For example, all I knew about Calvin Coolidge was that he was a president… that was pretty much it. I did know about Gandhi and Edison, but only a couple sentences’ worth. Now, I consider myself an intelligent person, but that doesn’t really help much for what would be considered “book learning”. You see, with the current state of our education system, students are learning less and less. I think it started around the time I was coming up through elementary school, and I’m only 24 years old.

In elementary school, I was given a calculator from day 1 and was told to use it when multiplying and dividing. Did we learn our “times tables” ? Yeah.. but we only went over it for a few days before we had a calculator stuffed in our hand. Talking to people even just a few years older than me makes me realize what all I never had in school.

Previous generations had to memory their multiplication table backwards and forwards- I never really did. They learned the presidents in order with facts about each- we barely went over the list once, and certainly didn’t have to memorize it. We never had to learn where all 50 states are in the US and the capital of each (I had friends in high school who thought Alaska was down by Mexico because of concatenated maps)… there are plenty more instances like that.

Daniel certainly overestimates the older generation. I went to some pretty good schools growing up, including the top high school in New York and maybe the country. While we were required to know our times tables up to 12, we never memorized state capitals or presidents. I have a self-selected group of very smart friends online, but of the people I know day-to-day in ordinary life, I might be the only one who can locate all 50 states geographically, another thing I wasn’t required to know growing up.

Anyway, it’s hard for me not to connect the video up with another youth-culture documentarian who this week floated through one of the mailing lists I’m on: Virgil, creator of Booksthatmakeyoudumb.

Basically, this guy looked at college students’ favorite-book lists on Facebook, then correlated them with the average SATs of the schools’ student bodies, to rank the most popular books in terms of the scores. Hence, Books That Make You Dumb. (“Yes, I’m aware correlation ≠ causation. The results are hilarity incarnate regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks.”)

Here’s the methodology in a little more detail.

Ever read a book (required or otherwise) and upon finishing it thought to yourself, “Wow. That was terrible. I totally feel dumber after reading that.”? I know I have. Well, like any good scientist, I decided to see how well my personal experience matches reality. How might one do this?

Well, here’s one idea.

1. Get a friend of yours to download, using Facebook, the ten most frequent “favorite books” at every college (manually — as not to violate Facebook’s ToS). These ten books are indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college.

2. Download the average SAT/ACT score for students attending every college.

3. Presto! We have a correlation between books and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

    Books ~ Colleges ~ Average SAT Scores

4. Plot the average SAT of each book, discarding books with too few samples to have a reliable average.

5. Post the results on your website, pondering what the Internet will think of it.

He takes at face value Facebook’s book names (“The Bible” and “The Holy Bible” are different, for example), and he categorizes the books by simply taking what shows up most for them on LibraryThing. And the methodology itself is probably specious, but the list is pretty interesting. The data itself is fascinating. While I think it’s mostly in accord with expectations, it’s good to see in living color.

It’s pleasing to see how popular 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, and The Great Gatsby are, and that East of Eden, Lolita, Running With Scissors, and 100 Years of Solitude show up at all — heck, I’m even glad that Atlas Shrugged and Anthem show up; as bad as Rand is, you can’t read them mindlessly. (It’s disappointing that The Republic isn’t at least as popular, though.)

As crazy as this project is, it’s worth a look. And given that the Facebook crowd is probably just a few years older than that of Gainesville High School, maybe there’s some cause for hope. At least a few college students have favorite books, and some pretty damned good ones at that.

Posted in education, language, pop culture, the arts, writing | 3 Comments »

What a difference a comma makes

Posted by metaphorical on 17 January 2008

My favorite example of punctuation placement is a sentence that, as far as I know, was invented by Mitch Wagner to prove the need for the serial comma: “This novel is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Another favorite example is a sign I used to see in Iowa City when I was a grad student there.

NO PARKING VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED

“Look,” I used to tell my Intro to Logic students. “Not only will parking violators not be prosecuted, but they’re nice enough to post a sign saying so.”

I thought of each of these yesterday when I read “Interest Fades in the Once-Mighty V-8,” by Bill Vlasic, in the NY Times.

Ford executives said they had at times wrestled with the decision to give up V-8s in some models, including a new sedan from the Lincoln luxury division, because they worried about customer reaction.

“I worked on the Lincoln Continental program 20 years ago, and people were vehement that it had to have a V-8,” said Mark Fields, Ford’s president for the Americas. “But now people don’t really care if the performance is there.”

Whoa, that’s a full 180 degree u-turn of ambiguity.

Which is it, Bill? People don’t care about the performance anymore? Or that’s all they care about?

Posted in journalism, language, pop culture, Times-watch, writing | 3 Comments »

Multicar Pileup As Snowstorm Hits Plains

Posted by metaphorical on 23 December 2007

DATELINE | CITY, PLAINS_STATE. — A strong snowstorm that cut visibility nearly to zero in some places as it rolled across the Plains on Saturday caused numerous vehicle pileups and forced authorities to close portions of several major highways.

Dozens of vehicles were involved in a pileup on Interstate NN in [western|eastern] PLAINS_STATE, authorities said. Sections of some NEIGHBORING_STATE_1 highways were closed because of whiteout conditions. Local authorities said it was the worst snowstorm in X years.

The PLAINS_STATE State Highway Patrol said preliminary reports indicated NUMBER to 2x_NUMBER vehicles, including NUMBER tractor-trailer rigs, were involved in the early afternoon chain-reaction wreck on Interstate NN [at|near] CITY.

Multiple ambulances were sent to the scene but there was no immediate indication how many people were injured or if there were any fatalities. HOSPITAL_NAME in CITY said it was treating several people from the accident though none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening.

The Patrol closed about 100 miles of I-NN from CITY2 to the NEIGHBORING_STATE_1 state line. The storm blew locally heavy snow across NEIGHBORING_STATE_2, [eastern|western] NEIGHBORING_STATE_3 and parts of NEIGHBORING_STATE_4 and NEIGHBORING_STATE_5.

In NEIGHBORING_STATE_1, Highway NN near TOWN was closed because NN to NN+10 cars had slid off the road or had been involved in collisions, authorities said.

By early afternoon, the storm had dropped N inches of snow in the CITY area, said National Weather Service meteorologist NWS_SPOKESPERSON_NAME. Accumulations of up to N+M inches were possible.

[ADDITIONAL FORECAST MATERIAL GOES HERE]

In [CURRENT_YEAR – X] a severe snowstorm claimed Y lives. Mayor MAYOR_NAME noted that OPTIMISTIC_COMPARISON_GOES HERE.

[Inspired by a recent AP report here .]

Posted in journalism, language, pop culture, writing | 2 Comments »

Books not dead yet

Posted by metaphorical on 21 December 2007

Webster University and Lee University have each “announced the creation of their own university presses,” Inside Higher Ed reported today.

The article calls this “a challenging time for the economics of scholarly publishing” and notes that they “will both publish in cooperation with other entities.”

I can guess what that means. Both the organization I work for and the one I worked for before that—professional societies each—had a Press unit that, during my tenure, developed “cooperation” agreements with large academic publishers. The book operation where I am now, for example, publishes them in cooperation with Wiley Press.

In such a situation, the Press isn’t exactly an imprint of the bigger publisher. My organization does all the up-front work of acquiring and editing manuscripts. Wiley handles production and distribution. The two do their own marketing in, um, cooperation. Each, in other words, does what it’s good at.

With the development of digital technologies, I wonder if music won’t eventually go a similar route. Why aren’t there small imprint labels that develop acts and produce them? Let the big record companies handle manufacturing and distribution. Well, in a sense, we may see a little of that—except that in the iPod/iTunes era, manufacturing and distribution are somewhat trivial. [ADDED: Music distribution was the subject of a forward blog entry, here.]

Well, let’s turn it around then. When will manufacturing and distribution become trivial for books?

As a partial answer to that, I saw my first Sony Digital Reader in the wild yesterday on the subway. The guy next to its owner was quizzing her as if it were an iPhone on June 30th. I heard her to say she’d had it since September and loves it. Maybe when ebooks are are common as iPods, the small universities and and the professional societies won’t need the “cooperation” of “other entities.”

Posted in journalism, pop culture, technology, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

And how would the candidates know what to say, anyway?

Posted by metaphorical on 22 November 2007

Here’s an interesting development in the Hollywood writer’s strike: it may affect the next Democratic presidential debate.

New York, NY (AHN) – The ongoing writer’s strike in Hollywood has started to have an effect on the political arena, as the upcoming CBS presidential debate is being threatened as candidates refuse to cross the picket lines should the station writers decide to join the strike.

Although CBS news writers have yet to talk of joining the strike, guild leaders are allowed to call one at any time, should they see it necessary. Candidates have been publicly announcing their respect for the strikers, as many of them have canceled television appearances for the sake of not crossing picket lines.

And not just the debates:

United Press International reported that Sen. John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth have canceled a scheduled appearance on “The View” so as not to cross the picket lines of the Writes Guild of America.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Newspaper and magazine writers had to get their digital due from the Supreme Court (Tasini vs NY Times).

What is it about digital that makes media companies think it’s any different from any other form that a work can take? Does it really matter, when it comes to paying a writer, whether you watch an episode of CSI on your television screen or your iPod?

Here’s the best statement of the writer’s point of view I’ve seen. It’s less than 2 minutes long and managest to say everything that needs to be said.

Studios, just pay the people with the talent. All of them. Just pay them and stop whining.

Posted in journalism, politics, pop culture, screenwriting, technology, the arts, writing | Leave a Comment »

Writing considered harmful to the soul

Posted by metaphorical on 17 November 2007

I had another run-in with Judaism tonight. The kid was in town with a couple of her friends for a terrific afternoon at the Cloisters. We took them out to an early dinner at a nearby Indian vegetarian Kosher restaurant. It’s pretty new and I hadn’t been there before. I didn’t know what their wine situation was, so I grabbed a bottle from the rack on my way out the door.

I was hopeful when I saw the menu not listing any beer or wines, but no dice, they have a license. They were willing to open our bottle anyway, but first, a question. “Is the wine Kosher?”

No, and guess they would have had to throw out any glasses into which it was poured, but I suspect that even if we’d also brought glasses, it would have been a no-go. What kind of religion gives a darn not only what goes on in the kitchen but what the customers do out front?

The same kind, I guess, that won’t let you write a note to yourself in the notepad you always carry around, if the writing is done in a synagogue.

It was earlier this year at a friend’s daughter’s bas mitzvah. It was one of those orthodox ceremonies where people kiss each other hello right in the aisles and then launch into long, full-voice conversations, right in the middle of yet another prayer in a three-hour service. That’s okay, but writing down something so that you won’t forget it is verboten.

“Writing is work,” I was explained. Well, often it is, and often it isn’t. And you know what? Talking is work if you’re a radio DJ. Kissing is work if you’re, well, a person for whom kissing is work.

What kind of religion thinks it can identify an entire activity like writing or talking or walking and say whether it’s work or not, independently of any context? Pulling a lever 4 times a minute, 240 times per hour, is a lot of work if you’re on an assembly line, but it’s apparently vastly entertaining if you’re in a Las Vegas casino.

Unfortunately, there’s no context in which I can find Judaism entertaining these days. It’s just annoying and simple-minded, for the simple-minded.

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Newspaper allegedly gets it wrong

Posted by metaphorical on 16 November 2007

The Daily News is far from the only paper to get this wrong, but it gets it more starkly wrong than most — right in the headline:

Barry Bonds indicted for allegedly lying under oath

You can look at the indictment, and as you might expect, the grand jury doesn’t charge Bonds with allegedly lying under oath, it charges him with lying under oath.

Take Count Five:

Barry Lamar Bonds, unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly, did corruptly endeavor to influence, obstruct, and impede the due administration of justice, by knowingly giving Grand Jury testimony that was intentionally evasive, false, and misleading….

The Daily News, in short, is commiting the sin of the double-qualifier. Either is correct:

. The grand jury indicted Bonds for x

. Bonds allegedly did x

but to put them together is to end up with something false, if not simply absurd.

Similarly, there’s a 20% chance of showers, and it might rain, but not, “there might be a 20% chance of rain.”

It is, in fact, a dead certainty that it might rain. And Bonds was absolutely indicted, not allegedly, for absolutely lying under oath, which he allegedly did.

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Romancing the stone

Posted by metaphorical on 4 November 2007

Does the public really like romance movies? Especially ones that aren’t romantic comedies?

The answer seems to, “not so much.” A friend of mine recently asked me to name my two favorite romance movies, generously allowing, when asked, that romantic comedies were indeed romance movies. I came up with my first choice very quickly: The Lady Eve.

The second one didn’t come so quickly, so I went to the IMDB list of top 250 movies ever, as determined by the ratings given by the hundreds of thousands of people registered at the site. (Note that people simply rate movies; they’re not voting specifically for either their favorites nor what they think are best-ever.)

Is It’s a Wonderful Life (#31) a romance movie? Not really. Forrest Gump (#68)? Both are feel-good movies, but not romances. Singin’ in the Rain (#71)? No, it’s about something else. Back to the Future (#115)? Too much adventure and male bonding. Manhattan (#231)? One user comment at IMDB was, “A love song to Manhattan disguised as romantic comedy,” which I think is pretty accurate.

So here’s what we’re left with. I’ve italicized the romantic comedies.

  • 9. Casablanca (1942)
    46. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
    78. Some Like It Hot (1959)
    94. The Apartment (1960)
    123. Annie Hall (1977)
    138. It Happened One Night (1934)
    147. The Graduate (1967)
    148. The Princess Bride (1987)
    162. The African Queen (1951)
    173. Gone with the Wind (1939)
    179. Groundhog Day (1993)
    207. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
    244. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
    245. To Have and Have Not (1944)

Without the comedies, here’s what remains, a single movie in the top 10 (barely), two in the top 100, and another three making it into the top 200. With eight in the top 250, pure romance makes for a mere 3.2% of the list.

  • 9. Casablanca (1942)

    46. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
    147. The Graduate (1967)
    162. The African Queen (1951)
    173. Gone with the Wind (1939)
    207. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
    244. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
    245. To Have and Have Not (1944)

Even with the six comedies, the broad category of romance-movie accounts for less than 6% of people’s best-liked movies. To me, that seems odd. While I’ve never worked out my own personal top-250, it might well include three movies from the highly specialized category John-Cusack-romantic-comedies, none of which makes the IMDB list, or even comes very close (#250 of the top-250 gets a 7.9):

  • High Fidelity (7.6)
    Grosse Pointe Blank (7.4)
    The Sure Thing (6.7)

Oddly, When Harry Met Sally, which I would guess is one of the most cited movies of all time, also get a mere 7.6. Soapdish, one of the few totally successful screwball comedies to be made after the 1940s, and one of the funniest movies of all time, in my opinion, gets an embarrassing 6.0. But this just confirms that romance movies, even romantic comedies, maybe be a staple of movie life, but it’s rarely what we feast upon.

Either the romance movie just isn’t most people’s cup of tea, or, perhaps, if the fault lies in the stars, and not ourselves, it just rarely rises to greatness. (Here’s a clue: The Lady Eve gets an 8.1 rating, but apparently not from enough voters, or enough of the right voters.)

Posted in language, pop culture, the arts, writing | 5 Comments »