erik lundegaard

Wednesday December 31, 2008

Good-Bye To All That

I was fairly healthy the first 10 months of the year but the last six weeks have been pretty awful. First a cold in late November, then an upper respiratory infection around December 10, then, while in Minneapolis for the holidays, a bad case of bronchitis, which I brought back with me to Seattle and still suffer from. I’m at the coughing stage now. Three sicknesses in six weeks.

All of which puts a cap on a year most of us are happy to see leave. Hell, I almost feel like giving it a swift kick as it exits. Take that, you little f--ker.

Some bright spots (Pres. Obama) but otherwise a lot of noise and short-sightedness, entropy and quick, unprecedented collapse. Nobody I know is hurting yet, but some are pinched, and everyone’s wary. We’ve been feeding on stuff we know is bad for us and now comes the price and the wrong people will probably pay it, as wrong people often do.

It’s an arbitrary point we’re crossing, but it doesn’t mean we can’t feel new. So wave good-bye (or swift-kick) 2008. And hello gorgeous.
Posted at 06:57 PM on Dec 31, 2008 in category Culture
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From the Vault: Freelance Writing 101

The following is a piece I wrote four years ago that was never published. Some of it is still relevant.

On a Tuesday morning in 2004 I received a phone call at my apartment and a male voice asked, “Do you have time to speak with Karl Rove?” A second later, the senior advisor to the President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.

The next morning a female voice informed me that Walter Mondale was waiting to speak with me. A second later, the former Vice President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.

Who am I that such powerful people contact me at home? I’m the most powerless person in the world. I’m a freelance writer.

In his novel “Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow got the job description right. “Most freelances are nervous craven creatures,” he wrote, “it is such a tenuous living after all…” Indeed, the same week I talked to Karl Rove and Walter Mondale I drove down to the unemployment office for a seminar on how to search for a job. Maybe I should’ve just asked Karl Rove for one.

This is the most bizarre aspect of being a freelance writer: You’re poor and powerless and yet – if the gig is right – you’re constantly rubbing elbows with the most powerful people on the planet. One of my regular jobs is writing for a law magazine, “Law & Politics,” which was founded in Minnesota in 1990. Seven years later, they created a Washington state version, which is where they met me. Then they created lucrative “Super Lawyer” magazines all over the country, which is where they sent me.

Last year they flew me to Dallas and Houston and L.A. and Chicago. I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, boxer George Foreman, “Godfather” producer Robert Evans and former Microsoft general counsel Bill Neukom. While calling an acquaintance of a Houston lawyer to set up a quick interview for a quote, I Googled him and discovered he was a Forbes 500 billionaire. Yikes. His secretary answered, put me on hold, then, 30 seconds later, put me through. “Yes?” he asked. I fumbled for my notes. If I’d known I was going to talk to a billionaire that morning I might have showered. Or at least worn pants.

The entrée in that case was the Houston lawyer’s name, but generally my entrée is the pub I’m writing for that particular day, which is often no entrée at all. “Who do you write for? And that’s what kind of publication?” Yet somehow it all works, and in this manner the powerless hook up with the powerful.

*  *

Unfortunately the powerless are only getting moreso. Fees are dwindling. writing contracts expanding. One place sent me a 10-page contract for a thousand-word article – three times as many words in the contract as in the piece. Another place – OK, the same place – hired a third party to create online invoices, but the process is so cumbersome and non-intuitive that your per-hour wage (which one part of your brain tries to keep track of) bleeds away as you attempt to master it. If I got paid for the hours spent trying to get paid I might actually make money.

The language in these contracts is enough to scare away the best writer in the world: “The publication [and its sublicensees] acquires exclusive worldwide rights in all languages to unrestricted use of your work in all media, existing or to be invented in the future, including in all editions of the publication.” To be invented in the future? Obviously they’re worried another Internet will take us all by storm but can a contract really lay claim to the future? Why not the past, too? Why not other dimensions? The publication [and its sublicensees] retain exclusive worldwide rights on the Bizarro planet and in The Land That Time Forgot, unless otherwise agreed.

Did I mention the dwindling pay? Two years ago, one newspaper paid me $50 less for the same work I’d done the year before. Last year they tried to cut it another $25. I balked. It’s often the puniness of the amount they’re trying to extract that’s insulting. A check arrived last week five dollars short. I searched for an explanation and found it in the invoice: “Deduction: $5.” As long as they had a good reason.

*  *

Yet it’s often editors who cause the most heartache. Let’s face it: Most freelancers aren’t in this for money or fame but for the joy of stringing a few words together, and editors often stomp on this joy. If I’ve been lucky lately with my editors, it wasn’t always so. My early editors were often uncommunicative and tin-earred. In my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Timequake,” I sketched a scene in which Kilgore Trout tries to wake people in a stupor with this call-to-arms: “You were sick, but now you are well, and there’s work to do!” I wrote: “The metaphor for our time is obvious,” but my editor changed it to, “The metaphor for our time becomes obvious.” Becomes obvious? What does that even mean? Who wrote this crap? “By Erik Lundegaard.”

That was a mere pinprick. Years ago I was working in a bookstore warehouse to make ends meet, and one Sunday morning, lugging books down to the basement in a gray metal tub, one of my co-workers, Chris, mentioned in passing, “Hey, saw your article in the paper the other day.”

I looked up, puzzled. “I didn’t have an article in the paper the other day.”

“Didn’t you? I thought it was you. Yeah, that was you.”

“What was it about?”

“Postage stamps.”

My jaw tightened. A week earlier I’d sent the local paper a humorous piece on postage stamps but hadn’t heard back. When I finally saw what they’d printed, my piece had been mangled beyond recognition. I felt like Brando in “The Godfather” pulling the sheet back from Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse: “Look what they done to my boy.” Mobsters at least have the decency to send along fish.

The next day I phoned the editor. “I sent you a piece last week.”

“Oh?”

“It was in the paper on Friday.”

“Oh?”

“Nobody told me.”

“Oh?” A chuckle. Then nothing. In his silence was a challenge: What are you going to do about it? I brokered a deal for money when I should’ve just blasted him. Kids: Curse today, for tomorrow the prick may retire, as this one did.

I’ll say it: Freelancing is truly an awful way to live. You start out with big aspirations – a novel, a play – but one day you write a little essay and lo and behold they publish it. Sure, they chop it up, but there’s your name, and suddenly you’re addicted. Even as they change the rules on you you’re addicted. The playing field gets smaller and smaller (1000 words...no, 800 words...no, 600 words), and the rejection notices pile up. You study the pubs, because that’s what people tell you to do, but they’re either celebrity-laden and corporate, or radical and ironic, and you don’t see where you fit in. You write specific pieces for specific pubs – bending your personality to suit theirs – which makes the form rejection notices sting even more. Maybe you’re doing bad work? You’re often doing bad work (“The metaphor for our time is obvious” is a pretty bad line), but what they print is usually worse. You tell yourself your skin is thickening but you doubt it. You feel weaker, not stronger; smaller, not bigger. The silence surrounding your rare successes is deafening. And then you’re at a dinner party and the executive next to you finds out you’re a freelance writer and says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write,” and it’s all you can do not to slug him.

My friends and family gave me metaphoric backslaps when I got an editing job this winter. It was seen as a step up and it is. Now I’ll send out the contracts with the threatening legalese, and now I’ll have final say on which words go where. But it’s not writing. The writing I’ll still do in the mornings before work. The editing? I’ve spent 15 years learning what kind of editor not to be. Hopefully some of it has sunk in.

Posted at 01:03 PM on Dec 31, 2008 in category Personal Pieces, Culture, Media
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Monday December 29, 2008

All Customer-Service Roads Lead to India

Just got off the phone with India. Okay, with amazon.com's customer service department. Should I put "service" in quotes? Yeah, like that.

We all know the game. Tried downloading a song off amazon.com, something millions have done without a problem, but when choosing the application with which to open the .mp3 file, I picked, apparently, incorrectly. At least a pop-up window told me I'd picked it incorrectly. But instead of sticking around to help, the window disappeared. Meanwhile a big thank-you from amazon on my purchase. And the purchase? Nowhere. Just another day in the disconnected neighborhood.

Amazon's "Help" section not only didn't help me locate the file anywhere on my computer, but somehow,while clicking this and that not too carefully, I inadvertently bought another song. One I'd never heard of.

So. Searched for and called their customer service number. Explained the situation in a very hoarse, bronchitis-ridden voice and was informed that they weren't trained for MP3 problems, but they gave me a number to call. That person, too, wasn't trained on MP3 issues but she transferred me to someone who was. Apparently the transfer went all the way to India (more likely: stayed in India) because the dude on the other end had a thick Indian accent. If he's in the U.S. I feel sorry for him because no one will think he's in the U.S.

After I explained the situation (sans the second, inadvertent purchase: too complicated), he said he was sending me an e-mail with instructions and I was to go to the amazon page and refresh it, but his instructions merely led to more questions, which I tried to ask, but which he batted down, initially, with a demand that I not interrupt him. Since his final instructions didn't answer my questions, I asked them. Do I refresh the amazon homepage or the "thanks for purchasing..." page? Do I click on this link in the e-mail?  Is refreshing the homepage supposed to do something? Because it did nothing for me.

He: "Sir, this is the last time I'm going to tell you this..."

Really? The last time?

This is how you lose customers. You create a needlessly complex model that contains bugs on common paths and a customer-service department half a world away.

Finally bought the song on iTunes. Time wasted: an hour. 

Posted at 08:04 PM on Dec 29, 2008 in category Culture
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Quote of the Day

"I often got ahead of the dailies by simply stating what was in plain sight instead of submitting to the straitjacket of spokespeople and prepared statements and pat answers."

— David Carr in "The Night of the Gun," pg. 263

Posted at 07:28 PM on Dec 29, 2008 in category Quote of the Day, Books
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Sunday December 28, 2008

Quote of the Day

"I lost my job in March of 1987, and by the end of the next year, I had multiple arrests, and I was in long-term treatment at Eden House. In the recollection and the telling, I had always thought I washed out of journalism for many years, but it was more like a single year, counting the time I spent in the booby hatch, and even in there, I wrote stories. Regardless of what happened to me, I rarely stopped typing. Perhaps I was worried I would disappear altogether if I did."

--David Carr, "The Night of the Gun," pg. 139

Posted at 01:03 PM on Dec 28, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday December 23, 2008

Escape from Sea-Tac

You know that scene in "The Empire Strikes Back" when Han Solo and his Millennium Falcon crew run away from x-wing fighters and land inside a hollow meteor, which they soon realize, as it rumbles, is not a hollow meteor after all but some kind of space creature, and so they zip out to safety just as the thing snaps at them and nearly devours them? That's how Patricia and I felt Sunday getting out of Seattle. Just with a lot more downtime.

Merely getting to the airport was an adventure, and involved a friend's 1961 Land Rover, several steep hills that were supposedly "closed" but weren't blocked off and which we went down anyway, a broken windshield wiper and a broken cable. But we made it...

Except you heard about Sea-Tac that day, right? Waited in line an hour, checked luggage, through security, drink at that sad little African-themed bar that has nothing at all to do with Seattle, then to Gate A14. Which showed no signs of our flight. Departure board said A11 and we went there. Voila. Except another flight, to New York, was loading. Just as it was leaving we were told, "Go back to A14." But there was another flight there that wouldn't take off for another hour. Meanwhile it kept snowing. Meanwhile all Alaska and Horizon flights were cancelled. Meanwhile our flight, which was "on time" and scheduled to leave at 4:10, disappeared completely from the Departure board because, I suppose, the flight was "on time" and it was now past 4:10.

Fun.

Finally we got the news: "Go back to A11." Where we were told that our plane, which had landed two hours earlier, would finally deplane at Gate A2, but we couldn't go there because that gate had no computer to check us in. Eventually it showed up, at A11, and, as snow swirled in the darkness outside, we boarded. About two and a half hours late.

Then we waited. And waited. For the de-icer. There were three planes ahead of us and two de-icers. (For the entire airport?) One broke. The second ran out of fluid. When they got the fluid, its pump broke. Meanwhile it kept snowing. Meanwhile the plane kept getting hotter. Meanwhile our pilot informed us that if this process took longer than 90 minutes, federal regulations stipulated that this flight crew couldn't continue and would be forced to take a sleep break. Meaning the flight would be cancelled? That question was left unanswered. Meanwhile, according to the Seattle Times Web site, which I checked via my iPhone, all hotels in the area were booked.

And still it snowed.

About 45 minutes later, our plane was finally de-iced. Then we sat in the darkness for half an hour. No word, no nothing. Finally, without a word, our plane began to move. People applauded. At approximately 10 p.m., or six hours late, we were airborne.

The awful thing about the entire process, like everything these days, is the lack of accountability. Yes, the snow, and, yes, Seattle is unprepared for the snow, but why the constant stutter-steps with the gates? Why was our flight unable to find a gate? Why did they run out of de-icing fluid? Etc. But who to call? Sea-Tac? Port of Seattle? Our tickets were purchased online and the entire horrible process felt that way. Like there wasn't a person at the other end.

The punchline? Airborne now, the pilot came on and announced: "We will be arriving in Minneapolis at approximately 2:50 a.m. Current temperature there is...eight degrees below zero."

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Posted at 03:31 PM on Dec 23, 2008 in category Culture, Seattle
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Sunday December 21, 2008

Seriously, Did That Guy Get Anything Right?

In our annual Christmas letter (I know), which went out yesterday (apologies), I wrote the following: "We gave up trying to sell Patricia’s condo in May but once we did it rented like that to a very nice woman — one of 30 people who desperately wanted it. Apparently it’s a renting market. As opposed to an ownership society. Seriously, did that guy get anything right?"

Even as I wrote it I began to wonder about that old Bush line, another catchphrase gone horribly awry, and why no one had done an in-depth piece on specifics of the Bush administration's culpability in our current housing — and thus economic — crisis. 

The New York Times to the rescue. In today's paper, Jo Becker, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Stephen Labaton have a great in-depth piece on the political push for an ownership society that led to our current renting market. It's easy to see in hindsight. Basically the administration was pushing for more ownership and less regulation at a time when housing prices were soaring and salaries were flatlining. How to fit more people into more expensive homes at a time when they had less real money and fewer people were watching? Yeah:

So Mr. Bush had to, in his words, “use the mighty muscle of the federal government” to meet his goal. He proposed affordable housing tax incentives. He insisted that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac meet ambitious new goals for low-income lending.

Concerned that down payments were a barrier, Mr. Bush persuaded Congress to spend up to $200 million a year to help first-time buyers with down payments and closing costs.

And he pushed to allow first-time buyers to qualify for federally insured mortgages with no money down. Republican Congressional leaders and some housing advocates balked, arguing that homeowners with no stake in their investments would be more prone to walk away, as Mr. West did. Many economic experts, including some in the White House, now share that view.

Regulation?

This administration made decisions that allowed the free market to operate as a barroom brawl instead of a prize fight,” said L. William Seidman, who advised Republican presidents and led the savings and loan bailout in the 1990s. “To make the market work well, you have to have a lot of rules.”

But Mr. Bush populated the financial system’s alphabet soup of oversight agencies with people who, like him, wanted fewer rules, not more. 

It gets worse. One of the top 10 donors to the Republican party in 2004, Roland Arnall, founded Ameriquest, one of the largest lenders in the subprime market. In 2005, White House aides discussed Ameriquest's troubles — including setting aside $325 million to settle with 30 states which claimed Ameriquest preyed on borrowers — but not in terms of the economy. They discussed Ameriquest because Pres. Bush had just nominated Arnall to be ambassador to the Netherlands.

Gov. Blagojovitch looks like a piker in comparison.

Read the entire article. It's worth it. Conservatives accuse liberals of being naive about the poor — that the poor are poor because they deserve it — and so helping them is pointless. But conservatives are just as naive, if not moreso, about the rich. They think the rich are rich because they deserve it — because they're talented, not because they're, say, predatory or ruthless — and so regulating them is unnecessary and just gets in the way of their talent.

Oops.

Posted at 09:37 AM on Dec 21, 2008 in category Politics
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Wednesday December 17, 2008

Cambio

My French teacher, Nathalie, spent a week in Sayulita, Mexico last month and took this picture of the Mexican version of Shepard Fairey's famous series of Obama posters. Cambio. Change.

The people there told her about the spontaneous celebrations that erupted the night Obama got elected. As here in Seattle. As all over the world.

I'm sure there are similar posters from different countries and in different languages. If you know of any, or, better, if you have images of any, please send them my way.

Posted at 09:19 AM on Dec 17, 2008 in category Culture, Politics
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Tuesday December 16, 2008

Delgo Boom

You might’ve seen this: a kind of guffawing article about the horrendous opening weekend for the animated film “Delgo,” which, since it’s “celebrity-voiced,” is apparently deserving of all that laughter.

The numbers are indeed horrible. “Delgo” opened in 2,160 theaters and barely made $500,000. How bad is that? The worst opener last year, for any film in 2,000+ theaters, was “P2,”  which opened in 2,131 theaters and still made $2 million. So “Delgo” is four times worse than the worst movie that opened last year. Yikes.

In fact, as the article indicates, “Delgo” has the lowest per-theater average ($237) for any "very wide" release (2,000+ theaters), and the third-lowest average for any “wide” release (600+ theaters) ever. Or at least since 1982, which is as far back as Box Office Mojo goes with their numbers.

The only films that have opened worse are, at no. 2, “The Passion Recut,” which averaged $233 in 937 theaters, and “Proud American,” a series of vignettes highlighting the pride and determination of Americans, which opened in 750 theaters this September and made $128 per. Remember those numbers the next time someone at FOX-News reads too much into the dismal box office of Iraq War movies.

The big problem with “Delgo,” though, is hardly those celebrity voices. Its distributor is Freestyle Releasing, and, of the 15 worst “wide” openings, Freestyle is responsible for three: “Delgo” at no. 3, “Nobel Son,” also released this month, at no. 6 ($374), and “Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour,” at no. 13 ($523). No other distributor has more than one film in the bottom 15.

Not sure what they’re doing over there. Overbooking? Underadvertising? P.T. Barnum must be rolling over in his grave. Or guffawing. Anyone who can't sell schlock to the American public should probably get out of the business.
Posted at 06:34 PM on Dec 16, 2008 in category Movies - Box Office, Movies
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Give the People What They Want

One of the top 12 videos on YouTube this morning is a thing called "Betty Cakes," in which, in the static "cover" image (is there a term for this?), you see an attractive woman's limbs and some cupcakes where breasts might be. Its three-star rating implies a come-on that goes nowhere.

The 11 remaining most-seen videos show the same thing: an Iraqi journalist throwing a shoe at President Bush. All have five-star ratings.

I've never seen such domination of the charts since the Beatles had all top 5 U.S. singles in April 1964.

That said, a friend of mine mentioned yesterday that he was more impressed by Pres. Bush's handling of the shoe-throwing incident than anything he's done during his presidency. He ducks but keeps the journalist in his line of sight. Made my friend think he's had shoes thrown at him before. One conjecture was Laura. Another was Condi. Feel free to make your guess below.

Overall, footage of the shoe-throwing incident occupies 62 of the top 100 videos on YouTube. 

Posted at 08:07 AM on Dec 16, 2008 in category Politics
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Quote of the Day

"I know we live in an age of fifteen-second sound bites, and that movies are a medium of mass entertainment. So perhaps this is what the public wants; perhaps we the people deserve no more. I do not believe this pessimistic and cynical judgment. I acknowledge the obvious fact that mass markets will accept and embrace pap when offered nothing else. But complex films of genuine merit can also be great commercial successes."

—Stephen Jay Gould, reviewing the godawful Arthur Hiller film, "The Babe," starring John Goodman, in "Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville."

Posted at 07:43 AM on Dec 16, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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Monday December 15, 2008

Updating Scrooge

I was reading something yesterday and the author used the word “humbug” as a noun and my mind immediately tried to translate it into modern terminology. “Fraud” would be accurate but my first impulse was “bullshit.”

That actually works better as a translation for the word as an exclamation. Which made me imagine Scrooge saying it throughout “A Christmas Carol.”

“Merry Christmas, Uncle!” said Scrooge's nephew, as he strode into the office.
“Christmas,” muttered Scrooge. “Bullshit!”

Makes him seem less quaint, and crazier.

Posted at 03:07 PM on Dec 15, 2008 in category Culture
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Quote of the Day

"Still, we must remember—and an intellectual's most persistent and nagging responsibility lies in making this simple point over and over again, however noxious and bothersome we render ourselves thereby—that truth and desire, fact and comfort, have no necessary, or even preferred, correlation (so rejoice when they do coincide)."

—Stephen Jay Gould in his essay "The Creation Myths of Cooperstown" from the book "Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville." 

Posted at 08:26 AM on Dec 15, 2008 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday December 14, 2008

The Obama Non-Stories

Idiocies of the week.

First this one. Here's AP's headline: “Many Insisting That Obama Is Not Black.” Suggested headline: “A Few Idiots Insisting Obama Is Not Black.” It's beyond annoying, beside-the-point, and could only be spouted by people who hadn't read “Dreams From My Father,” or who hadn't thought one inch into our cross-country racial history. Serously: STFU.

Eric Boehlert of Media Matters has smartly raised the other: the non-story of Obama's non-involvement in the Gov. Blagojevich scandal, which I've been bitching about it all week, particularly in connection with the New York Times coverage. Liberal press, my ass. Boehlert flags (and emphasizes within) this NYT graf:

Although prosecutors said Mr. Obama was not implicated in their investigation, the accusations of naked greed and brazen influence-peddling have raised questions from some about the political culture in which the President-elect began his career.

At least the Times used “some” here, rather than the AP's “many,” but even their “some” still turned out to be “some Republican operatives.” 

Meanwhile, what's Obama been up to? Nominating Nobel laureates to his cabinet. At least someone's taking their job seriously.

Posted at 05:48 PM on Dec 14, 2008 in category Politics
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Eastwood and CIA: Offline

I cut through the Sunday New York Times these days — basically: Week in Review, Arts & Leisure, Sports during baseball season, maybe the Magazine if the cover looks good (“The Year in Ideas”: No) — and in the cutting through this morning there was an interesting pro/con about the Internet.

In a mock-fearful but ultimately laid-back article on Clint Eastwood and “Gran Torino,” the writer, Bruce Headlam, whose first sentence is great, mentions that the menu at Eastwood’s Mission Ranch restaurant has plenty of meat, adding:

Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Mr. Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is. “I never look at the Internet for just that reason,” he said.

Meanwhile, in an Op-Ed in the Week in Review section, Art Brown, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, lists what’s wrong with our spy agency. His first point? Its distrust of outsiders breeds a brand of insularity at odd with its mission of keeping Americans safe:

Despite their reputation as plugged-in experts on other countries, many C.I.A. officers do not even have Internet access at their desks. Worse yet, they don’t think they need it.

I empathize with both arguments. The Internet is the new form of communication with a lot of crap on it. Doesn’t mean you can’t communicate on it well, or accurately, but it does mean that if you want to stay up-to-speed with what’s going on in the world you need to at least be aware of the kinds of things you’ll find there. The danger in not doing so is apparent in Brown’s Op-Ed and even in Headlam’s profile. Eastwood’s attitude is: I do what I do, and I do it for me. In his movies, he shows his age. With the exception of beating up punks, he acts his age. He’s got a great quote on not playing your age:

“You know when you’re young and you see a play in high school, and the guys all have gray in their hair and they’re trying to be old men and they have no idea what that’s like? It’s just that stupid the other way around.”

There’s a quiet power in movies like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River” but, Headlam notes, also an anachronistic quality at odds with their contemporary settings. This is part of what happens when you let modern culture and all of its idiocies pass you by. In Eastwood’s case, the trade-off might be worth it. The CIA, not so much.

Posted at 10:41 AM on Dec 14, 2008 in category Culture, Movies
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Saturday December 13, 2008

Marc!

Some of the most coveted real estate for any illustrator — probably the most coveted  — is the New Yorker cover, and this week, for I believe the second time, the owner is Marcellus Hall, with whom I ran cross country at Washburn High School in Minneapolis in the early 1980s.  He lives in Brooklyn now. You can view his Web site here. You can view his MySpace page, and listen to his music, here.

Amazingly talented even back then. Somewhere I have an old Marc drawing titled “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and delineating what we considered our predicament: a skinny, geeky dude sitting by himself, while a bulbous, dopey football player is surrounded by admiring girls.

The New Yorker cover is titled, in typically dry New Yorker fashion, “Green Christmas.”

Posted at 01:18 PM on Dec 13, 2008 in category Culture
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Milkless Globes

And the winner for the most embarrassing name for a cleavage-laden and/or ballsy awards program is... The Golden Globes!

I never thought much of the Double-G. It always seemed less Oscar-lite than Oscar-tawdry. The whole Pia Zadora thing in the early 1980s didn’t help. Producer-boyfriend treats GG voters to Vegas weekend and two weeks later she wins “best newcomer” award, in a role hardly anyone had heard of, over Howard E. Rollins in “Ragtime” and Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat.” Nice.

Even in this decade, in which we get to watch stars booze it up on national television, there’s something off about, if not the winners, then at least the nominees: “The Great Debaters,” “Bobby,” “Matchpoint,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

Two must-reads on the subject. The first is Sharon Waxman’s HuffPost piece from last January. An excerpt:
The Globes have long been the entertainment industry's dirty little secret. At the heart of the con is the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the tiny, cliquish group of foreign entertainment journalists -- and I use each of those terms liberally -- whose votes determine the winners.

The members of the association are not, generally speaking, film experts (like the people who judge the National Society of Film Critics awards) nor are they members of the creative community (like those who give out the Oscars). They're not even representatives of prominent foreign publications, like Le Monde or the Guardian or Haaretz.

Only a handful are full-time journalists; the rest are freelancers for mostly obscure publications, and some are simply hanging on for the parties and movie stars. To maintain their status in the organization, they need only write four articles a year.
Patrick Goldstein, a few days ago in the L.A. Times, cast light on some of those odd best-pic nominees:
Industry insiders say that if you want to really read between the lines in the voting, ask yourself--which movies that have been largely ignored by critics groups did especially well with those 85 Globes voters? The answer would be "The Reader," which landed a surprising four nominations, including the much-coveted best drama nomination, and "Vicki Cristina Barcelona," which scored an even more surprising four nominations, including one for best comedy.
What do those two films have in common? They are both released by the Weinstein Co., whose fearless leader, Harvey Weinstein, has assiduously courted HFPA voters for years...
So why do the Golden Globes still exist? Back to Waxman:
Because they serve everyone's agenda. The studios get their films promoted, the TV networks hype their shows, the stars get face time and rub elbows with friends during the dinner -- and NBC and the association rake in millions. Everyone wins.
Except, of course, quality, integrity, the sense that not everything can be bought or sold.

So the question isn’t: Does the fact that "Milk" didn’t get a Golden Globes nomination for best picture hamper its chances at an Oscar? The question is: Who gives a shit?
Posted at 11:22 AM on Dec 13, 2008 in category Movies
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Thursday December 11, 2008

Oscar Watch: NY Critics Pick "Milk"

Now it’s the New York Film Critics Circle’s turn. “Milk” for best picture, actor (Penn), supporting actor (Brolin). “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which opened quietly in October, and whose widest release has been 202 theaters, won for best director (Mike Leigh) and actress (Sally Hawkins). Cruz won again. “Man on Wire” again. Momentum for these two.

BTW: I may preface these awards with the title “Oscar Watch,” but it really doesn’t mean much in terms of the Academy. Critics are critics, and, for best picture, the NY version has only agreed with the Academy twice this decade: 2007 and 2003:

2007: No Country for Old Men
2006: United 93
2005: Brokeback Mountain
2004: Sideways
2003: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
2002: Far From Heaven
2001: Mulholland Drive
2000: Traffic

More importantly, they’ve only agreed with me... a couple of times. I guess it only counts if you make a pick, and I don’t remember picking much earlier in the decade, but, if I had, I wouldn’t have picked what they picked. “Traffic” was a huge disappointment. Same with “Mulholland.” Can’t fathom “Far From Heaven” over “The Pianist.” Was never a big “Lord of the Rings” guy. Despite what I wrote yesterday, I chose “Munich” in ’05 but liked “Brokeback” well enough (OK, a lot). But for the last two years? Yes. “United 93” is a great, underrated movie that didn’t even get nom’ed by the Academy, did it? Don’t know if it’ll last but it’s truly powerful. And "No Country" definitely over "There Will Be Blood."

There’s an article on the NYFCC site, from Stephen Garrett at Time Out New York, that touts this organization the way that I touted the National Society of Film Critics a few years ago, but either he, or they, left off some of the misses. Sure, they picked “Citizen Kane” over “How Green Was My Valley.” They also ignored both “Godfather” movies in place of foreign films. The valley isn’t always greener.

All of which is to say: It’s a tough biz saying within a year — really, within a month — what the best pics are, and Lord knows I’ve changed my own mind enough times. The last two years of the ‘90s, my original pics were “Saving Private Ryan” and “American Beauty” but now I’d go, in a second, and with full force, for “The Thin Red Line” and “The Insider.”

But it’s nice to have an opinion; it's nice to care. Most years I just shrug.

Posted at 09:07 AM on Dec 11, 2008 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies
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Wednesday December 10, 2008

Oscar Watch: L.A. Critics Pick "WALL-E"

The Los Angeles Film Critics Association announced their annual awards yesterday and not only did they go popular ("WALL-E"), they went popular twice (runner-up for best pic was "The Dark Knight"). This is in direct contrast to their recent history. Throughout the decade, L.A. critics have awarded best picture to character studies or quiet, somber films, drained of color, in which something horrific happens and is then resolved ambiguously or painstakingly:

2007: There Will Be Blood
2006: Letters from Iwo Jima
2005: Brokeback Mountain
2004: Sideways
2003: American Splendor
2002: About Schmidt
2001: In the Bedroom
2000: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Not a lot of laughs there. I guess not a lot of laughs in "WALL-E" or "Dark Knight," either. This is not criticism, by the way. My best pics this decade, which would include "Crouching Tiger" and "Brokeback Mountain," were mostly somber films: "The Pianist" in 2002, for example.

So a break from their recent history but not from their history. The Association, which has obviously differed over the years (you can see their current membership here), has often awarded bold, popular movies. I'm thinking "Star Wars" in 1977, "E.T." in 1982 and "Pulp Fiction" in 1994. I'd add "L.A. Confidential" and "The Insider," two Russell Crowe movies from the late '90s, but, as good as these movies were, I don't think they were ever popular at the box office.

Here are their picks over the years:

1999: The Insider
1998: Saving Private Ryan
1997: L.A. Confidential
1996: Secrets & Lies
1995: Leaving Las Vegas
1994: Pulp Fiction
1993: Schindler’s List
1992: Unforgiven
1991: Bugsy
1990: Goodfellas
1989: Do the Right Thing
1988: Little Dorrit
1987: Hope & Glory
1986: Hannah and Her Sisters
1985: Brazil
1984: Amadeus
1983: Terms of Endearment
1982: E.T.
1981: Atlantic City
1980: Raging Bull
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer
1978: Coming Home
1977: Star Wars
1976: Network & Rocky
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest & Dog Day Afternoon

Not a bad list. I'd also recommend checking out the LAFCA Web site, which is clean and well-designed for this kind of research. 

The rest of their picks for this year, including Best Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Supporting Actor (Heath Ledger) can be found here.

Posted at 08:48 AM on Dec 10, 2008 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies
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Tuesday December 09, 2008

HuffPosters

Two Huff Posts to bring to your attention.

The first, mine, is a look at Barack Obama's book "Dreams From My Father." It will also be in the book review section of this site soon.

In the second, Chris Kelly, a writer for Bill Maher and easily the funniest guy on the site, takes on those chest-beating Kid Rock/National Guard ads that play before trailers in chain theaters. The ad includes a "citizen-soldier" (read: out-of-work actor) in Afghanistan, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spinning the track, and Kid Rock screaming and then singing: "So don't tell me who's wrong and who's right when liberty starts slipping away/ And if you ain't gonna fight, get out of the way." First time I saw it I nearly threw up. Kelly shells the thing with his wit. Check out the rubble here.

But read mine first. 

Posted at 01:54 PM on Dec 09, 2008 in category Culture
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NY Times Links for the Day

David Carr, yesterday, on the only thing we have to fear...and why we've got a lot of it. Money quote:

Every modern recession includes a media séance about how horrible things are and how much worse they will be, but there have never been so many ways for the fear to leak in.

Michiko Kakutani, today, on the new Marlon Brando biography, "Somebody." Money quote:

He was hailed as the “Byron from Brooklyn” (though he was from Nebraska, not New York), a “genius hunk,” “the Valentino of the bop generation” and the essence of “the primitive modern male.” John Huston said he was “like a furnace door opening” — so powerful was the heat he gave off. Eva Marie Saint said he had the ability “to see through you” and make you feel “like glass.” Jack Nicholson said he had a gift that “was enormous and flawless, like Picasso”: he “was the beginning and end of his own revolution.”

Dave Kehr, today, on the DVD release of "Mornau, Borzage and Fox." Money quote:

It’s great to see Fox embracing its studio heritage with such scholarly dedication and serious financial commitment. Only Warner Brothers has done anything comparable, and Fox has perhaps gone a bit further in releasing these sets, comprehensive anthologies devoted not to genres or to stars but to major authors in the field of motion pictures.

And A.O. Scott, in a video blog, tells you everything you already know about "It's a Wonderful Life." But I like his last line a lot.

Posted at 12:17 PM on Dec 09, 2008 in category Movies
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Coughlin Jumps Orwell

So Hendrik Hertzberg, one of the “Talk of the Town” writers for The New Yorker, whom I've blogged about here, here, here and here, was jumped last week by a couple of guys with mics working for “The O'Reilly Factor” and then raked over the coals by the host of that show, who called him “dishonest” and himself “an easty target” for people like Hertzberg. All of which is a little like George Orwell being jumped and called dishonest by Father Coughlin. You can read Hertzberg's take on it here. My favorite bit is New Yorker editor David Remnick's response to a polite e-mail and invitation from the producer of O'Reilly's show:

Dear Mr. Mitchell,

Thanks for your courteous note. It’s an interesting contrast in tone with the the fantastical on-air description of Rick as a left-wing zealot, the nonsense that he had refused a real interview before sending a crew to his apartment building, and the sneering descriptions of Rick, me, and the magazine from Mr O’Reilly on air. Quite a performance. So while I appreciate your note, you’ll forgive me if I pass in wanting to engage this any more. What I said at the start stands: I thought Rick’s piece, considering Newt Gingrich’s language, was, as you might put it, fair and balanced.

Respectfully yours, David Remnick

Posted at 09:31 AM on Dec 09, 2008 in category Culture
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One-Sentence Review: “Slumdog Millionaire”

Proves that the three universals in our world are love, pain and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Posted at 09:03 AM on Dec 09, 2008 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Monday December 08, 2008

Gomorra in Europe

The European Film Awards (EFAs?) were handed out in Copenhagen over the weekend. Here are the nominees for Best Picture:

L DIVO, Italy
written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino
produced by Indigofilm, Lucky Red, Parco Film, Babe Films, StudioCanal,
Arte France Cinéma

ENTRE LES MURS (The Class), France
directed by Laurent Cantet
written by Laurent Cantet, François Begaudeau & Robin Campillo after
the novel of François Begaudeau
produced by Haut et Court, France 2 Cinéma

GOMORRA (Gomorrah), Italy
directed by Matteo Garrone
written by Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone,
Massimo Gaudioso & Roberto Saviano
produced by Fandango, RAI Cinema

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, UK
written and directed by Mike Leigh
produced by Thin Man Films Ltd., Summit Entertainment, Ingenious Film
Partners, Film4, UK Film Council

EL ORFANATO (The Orphanage), Spain
directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
written by Sergio G. Sánchez
produced by Rodar y Rodar S.L., Telecinco Cinema

WALTZ WITH BASHIR, Israel/France/Germany
written and directed by Ari Folman
produced by Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Les Films d’Ici, Razor Film
Produktion, ARTE France, ITVS International

"Gomorra," a modern mafia story, won, and will be released in the States on December 19, which should be good news for fans of mafia stories. Should be. We'll see how far-ranging the release is.

The European Film Academy, in case you're wondering, was founded in 1988, with Ingmar Bergman as its first president.

Posted at 01:35 PM on Dec 08, 2008 in category Movies - Foreign
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Sunday December 07, 2008

“The Most Vicious Smear Campaign Ever Mounted Against an American Politician”

Since the election, there's been a lot of talk about how the media favored Obama during the campaign. Hell, there's was noise about this before the election. Such talk seems to imply that all coverage should be equal no matter who the candidates are or what they say, but someday, when I have time, I might drill down to see if anything was unnecessarily positive or negative about either candidate, or if it was merely a matter of, say, Albert Pujols generating more positive media coverage than Willie Bloomquist because he’s the better ballplayer.

To what extent, in other words, can you remove a candidate’s performance from the equation? Baseball’s a little different, of course, in that you have quantifiable statistics rather than qualitative remarks or actions. At the same time, as I often say, objectivity is not stupidity. Journalists can’t, or shouldn’t, pretend things aren’t as they are. Put another way: I had my own problems, from a pro-Obama point-of-view, with the media’s coverage of this campaign. Here, here and here. And here and here. And here.

Besides, Michael Massing reminds us, in his excellent article in The New York Times Review of Books, “Obama: In the Divided Heartland,“ that a whole lotta media wasn't exactly backing Obama:

For months, [Rush] Limbaugh had been hammering away at [Obama]—for abetting terrorists, hating Israel, being corrupt, supporting socialism. Today, oddly, he was faulting him for his lack of passion. ”He's like a Stepford husband,“ he said. ”He's cold enough to consort with terrorists. Cold enough to dismiss small-town America as 'bitter clingers.' Cold enough to take our guns away. Cold enough to take our money away.“

Such charges were standard fare on the toxic, overheated combine of right-wing talk radio, cable television programs, and Internet blogs that has so multiplied and festered in recent years. Americans who do not regularly tune in have little idea how nasty and venomous a campaign was waged there against Barack Obama. Day after day, night after night, a steady stream of poison was directed at him not only by Limbaugh but also by Sean Hannity, on his daily radio show and nightly Fox broadcast; by Bill O'Reilly, on Fox, the radio, and the Internet; by Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, and a legion of other ranting radio hosts; by Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, Monica Crowley, and their fellow pike-bearers in the blogosphere; by columnists like Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn, Michael Barone (”The Coming Obama Thugocracy“), and Ann Coulter (”Obama's Dimestore 'Mein Kampf'"), all joining together to produce firestorms of manufactured rage about Obama's purported ties to Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, Jeremiah Wright, ACORN, Castro, Chávez, Ahmadinejad, and Karl Marx...

These outbursts were supplemented by a noxious barrage of e-mails, mass mailings, and robocalls claiming that Obama was pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel, unpatriotic, a Muslim, a madrasa graduate, a black racist—even the Antichrist. Amounting to a six-month-long exercise in Swift Boating, these attacks, taken together, constituted perhaps the most vicious smear campaign ever mounted against an American politician.

That's the question I'd ask anyone pushing one of these studies. Is talk radio included? And if not, why not?

Posted at 01:21 PM on Dec 07, 2008 in category Politics
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Authors: Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, Barbara Bush's Dog

What impresses me about Timothy Egan's Op-Ed today, "Typing without a Clue," about the likes of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin getting multimillion-dollar book contracts while real writers languish in obscurity and poverty, isnt' the logic of his argument, which is unassailable, but the fact that he can still be pissed off about it. I've taken it as a given for so long it doesn't even register as an affront anymore.

This isn't a criticism. Or, if it is a criticism, it's a criticism of me. Because Egan's right. He's so right:

Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.

Or this:

Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.

Posted at 11:55 AM on Dec 07, 2008 in category Books
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Saturday December 06, 2008

Oscar Watch: FOJ-Dub

On the Hollywood Elsewhere site, Jeffrey Wells, who always seems to misspell my name (“Eric”) whenever he reacts to one of my articles, posts an Academy insider's picks for Best Pic:

Slumdog Millionaire
Milk
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost/Nixon
The Dark Knight

The supposed shocker is Dark Knight, but I wouldn't be surprised and might even be happy to see it nom'ed . Either way, I get the feeling we're getting down to it. This is beginning to feel right — particularly with Doubt garnering tepid reviews. It would also mean that both Kate Winslet movies (The Reader, which I'm reading now, and Revolutionary Road) would be shut out. Again, not a surprise. Best pics tend to be male- rather than female-oriented, and have been for quite a while

Read the whole post here.

Posted at 03:04 PM on Dec 06, 2008 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies
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Friday December 05, 2008

Oscar Watch: NBR Picks "Slumdog"

Yesterday, the National Board of Review, the first body to present film awards for the still ongoing season (a season that’s barely begun for the rest of us), announced its awards for 2008. They are:
Best film: “Slumdog Millionaire”
Best director: David Fincher for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”
Best actor: Clint Eastwood for “Gran Torino”
Best actress: Anne Hathaway for “Rachel Getting Married”
Best adapted screenplay: Eric Roth for “Benjamin”; Simon Beaufoy for “Slumdog”
Best original screenplay: Nick Schenk for “Gran Torino”
Best supporting actor: Josh Brolin for “Milk”
Best supporting actress: Penelope Cruz for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
Best documentary: “Man on Wire”
Best animated film: “WALL-E”

Quick thoughts. Glad to see “Man on Wire” win. Cruz killed in “Vicky.” Brolin was great but wasn’t his role in “Milk” a bit small? Maybe not. Happy for my friend Deb whose friend Nick won for best screenplay and who wrote the screenplay that is garnering a legend like Eastwood acting accolades so late in his career. That's impressive. Have yet to see “Slumdog.” This weekend, I hope.

Most articles mention that NBR’s pick last year, “No Country for Old Men,” went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. So a good indicator, right? Well, let’s pretend life goes back a little further:

2007: “No Country for Old Men”
2006: “Letters from Iwo Jima”
2005: “Good Night, and Good Luck”
2004: “Finding Neverland”
2003: “Mystic River”
2002: “The Hours”
2001: “Moulin Rouge”
2000: “Quills”

Last year was the anomaly. Only once this decade has the Board’s pick gone on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In fact, in general, NBR is one of the awards bodies I agree with the least. Their picks are rarely surprising — the way that The National Society of Film Critics can surprise (“Babe”; “Out of Sight”) — and often feel safe and soft. Critics’ favorites that don’t have much staying power.

Oh, and among their top 10 movies for the year? This one. WTF?

Posted at 08:08 AM on Dec 05, 2008 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies
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Wednesday December 03, 2008

Didion, Clad in her Armor

Last night, the cover of the latest New York Review of BooksVICTORY!, with a cartoon of Obama in the center, and promises of articles by Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney and others — made me happy for a moment... until I began reading Didion’s article. Then I went: Oh yeah. This.

Didion was an established writer by the time I began to read serious literature, well-known for her essays, and I enjoyed White Album and others in my twenties but began feeling disappointment in my thirties when I read Salvador. I thought: “Does she only have irony? Is that her sole tool?” After reading all of Norman Mailer’s messy attempts to be engaged with the world, Didion’s ironic distance felt dry and useless.

In the Review she writes about how, in the Obama era, irony is supposedly out. Her essay proves otherwise. She casts an ironic eye less on Obama than on the support he engenders:

Irony was now out.
Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.
Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.
Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.
I couldn't count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people's babies dressed in Obama gear.

Was innocence ever prized in this campaign? Youth, yes, but innocence? As for the consumerism and snapshots, well, maybe she needs new friends. I received no snapshots of babies in Obama gear during this election season. My friends were too busy, among other things, campaigning for Obama. Being engaged.

She goes on:

I couldn't count the number of times I heard the words “transformational” or “inspirational,” or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade's war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see.

Must be tough to be one of Didion’s friends — to hear your words later mocked in her essays. Yet wasn’t Obama, certainly on the most basic of levels, transformational? Wasn’t he inspirational? It feels so small, her objections. She stands back, like in the famous David Levine caricature, holding her cigarette aloft, clad in her irony, while the world celebrates. It’s an easy stance because the world is full of fools and she quotes some of them. A commentator who said other nations now “want to be with us.” That’s how she ends her essay:

Imagining in 2008 that all the world's people wanted to be with us did not seem entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq, but in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become, this was not the preferred way of looking at it.

Maybe this was not the preferred way of looking at it because “wanting to be with us” came from a commentator after someone else’s election, while “greeted with flowers” came from the highest officials in the Bush administration before their own invasion. The first, though clumsily phrased, was based upon evidence we could actually see: people around the world celebrating Obama’s victory. The second was based upon evidence the Bush administration didn’t let us see and which they wanted to see: Their policy dictating their evidence, rather than vice-versa. Maybe that’s part of why Didion's way is not the preferred way of looking at it.

Irony isn’t out; it’s simply, as always, an easy way out.

Posted at 10:25 AM on Dec 03, 2008 in category Culture, Politics
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Tuesday December 02, 2008

What Recent Blockbuster Should've Been Nominated Best Picture?

Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences settled on five Best Picture nominees in 1944, there have been only six years in which no nominee was among the year's top 10 box office hits: 1947, 1984...and the last four years in a row. I wrote about this last January.

So the question: What recent top 10 box office hit has been worth nominating? Here are your choices:

2004
1.    Shrek 2
2.    Spider-Man 2   
3.    The Passion of the Christ   
4.    Meet the Fockers   
5.    The Incredibles   
6.    Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban   
7.    The Day After Tomorrow   
8.    The Bourne Supremacy   
9.    National Treasure
10.   The Polar Express

2005
1.    Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith   
2.    The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
3.    Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
4.    War of the Worlds   
5.    King Kong
6.    Wedding Crashers
7.    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory   
8.    Batman Begins
9.    Madagascar
10.  Mr. & Mrs. Smith

2006
1.    Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
2.    Night at the Museum
3.    Cars   
4.    X-Men: The Last Stand   
5.    The Da Vinci Code
6.    Superman Returns
7.    Happy Feet   
8.    Ice Age: The Meltdown   
9.    Casino Royale
10.   The Pursuit of Happyness

2007
1.    Spider-Man 3
2.    Shrek the Third
3.    Transformers
4.    Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
5.    Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix   
6.    I Am Legend
7.    The Bourne Ultimatum   
8.    National Treasure: Book of Secrets
9.    Alvin and the Chipmunks   
10.   300  

Of these, the only movies that had a shot at a nom, really, given the Academy's traditional predilections, are "Passion of the Christ" in 2004, "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Pursuit of Happyness" in 2006, and... that's about it. "Passion" didn't make it because, some may argue, it was too political in the wrong way. I'd argue it just wasn't good enough. "Da Vinci Code"? Again, not good enough. Same director and star as "Apollo 13" but no "Apollo 13." "Happyness"? Who knows? Probably should have been nom'ed, though — over "Babel" certainly. It's one of the few films over the last five years in which art and commerce blended well enough to create the happy medium that is usually the very thing the Academy honors. But they ignored it. Or, more precisely, it didn't make their top 5. Might've been no. 6.

Non-traditional arguments can be made for "Spider-Man 2," "The Incredibles" and "Casino Royale," but each would be unprecedented (superheroes, superhero cartoons, Bond), and it still doesn't answer the question: Whatever became of the happy medium of films like "Dances with Wolves" and "Apollo 13"? Has Hollywood changed? Has the Academy? Have we?

Posted at 11:25 AM on Dec 02, 2008 in category Movies, Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office
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Cieply: Academy Increasingly Foreign, Indie

Interesting if inconclusive piece in yesterday's NY Times by Hollywood insider (and frequent source of my disappointment) Michael Cieply on the Academy and its battle to reign in new membership.

The battle began in 2004 and has resulted in a slight increase in executive membership, along with decreases in acting and writing memberships, but the biggest change, unnamed in the piece, is a tendency toward political correctness: more foreigners, more indie filmmakers. 

Producer Lianne Halfon gets asked to join but not her production partner Russell Smith, who has virtually the same curriculum vitae. Mexican actress Adrianna Barraza, nominated for the nanny role in "Babel," gets asked, but not recent American nominees Ellen Page, Casey Affleck and Amy Ryan. Cieply writes: "...roughly a quarter of the 115 new members invited in 2007, for instance, worked on films like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Queen” — and those from the independent film world."

Unmentioned, and probably unknown, is whether this percentage (1/4) of new foreign and indie members is unusual. I assume it is.

Unasked is whether the Academy, which is a Hollywood and thus American institution, should lean toward foreign membership, when most countries have their own version of the Academy Awards. What's the point in going international? Does it make sense, and, if so, what kind of sense: cultural (the world is shrinking) or economic (increased viewership abroad at the expense of viewership at home)?

The result of this trend, if it is in fact a trend, is, Cieply writes, the promise of more indie and foreign-flavored movies like "Babel" and "Little Miss Sunshine" getting nom'ed at the expense of mainstream and commercial films.

But is that the question? How's this for a question? Which commercial and mainstream films should've gotten nom'ed in place of "Babel" and "Little Miss Sunshine"? Do the studios make those kinds of films anymore? I'm not talking "Gone with the Wind." I'm talking "Dances with Wolves" and "The Silence of the Lambs" and "A Few Good Men" and "Apollo 13," all of which wound up among the top 5 box office hits for their respective years in the 1990s and all of which got nom'ed. If "Dances with Wolves" was released this year, how many theaters would it wind up in? Enough? Or would it be considered a prestige picture and given to us in dribs and drabs?

The problem isn't just the Academy or its changing membership. What top 10 box office hit of the last five years has been worth nominating? 

More later.

Posted at 09:14 AM on Dec 02, 2008 in category Movies
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Monday December 01, 2008

The Reductive Headlines of the Seattle P-I

The NY Times, though, is a piker compared to the Seattle P-I, which is increasingly fond of reductive "X or Y" headlines. Their latest from Saturday: BICYCLES OR WILDLIFE? Apparently you can't have both. At issue is the widening of the Burke-Gilman trail for safety reasons, from 8-10 feet to 12 feet. A last-minute argument against widening the trail is the effect this will have on salamanders and wetlands.

The headline is reductive because it's not just cyclists who use the Burke-Gilman, it's all of us. In fact, the primary battle isn't bicycles vs. wildlife, since most cyclists will continue to use the Burke-Gilman no matter what happens. The primary issue is: Safety vs. Wildlife. Or Safety vs. Salamanders. Or Safety vs. Shade. All are less divisive, and thus less jazzy, headlines.

But the P-I got the headline it wanted because cyclists are thought to be pro-environment, and yet, lookee here, when it suits their interests they don't care about the environment at all. If, in fact, that's the issue. And if the issue is looked at myopically.

Because you could say: Well, if the issue is quality-of-life, or safety, or wildlife on the Burke-Gilman, what are the alternatives to widening the path? Is there a way to relieve some of that traffic? And there is. Give bicyclists their own lane on most roadways. A lane with a concrete barrier so they feel safe. Of course that leads us back to the real debate, which is bicycles vs. automobiles. That's "vs.," by the way, not "or."

But that's if this last-minute argument against widening the trail should be taken seriously, and my gut tells me it shouldn't. It's just another argument for doing nothing, which is what Seattle is famous for.

Posted at 09:14 AM on Dec 01, 2008 in category Media, Seattle
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NY Times: A Graf Too Far

A couple of bits in yesterday's NY Times turned me off the paper for the day — both in the Week in Review section. (Loudon Wainwright: "Now who in the hell wants a review?/ Once was enough for me, thank you.")

Peter Goodman's piece — on the Long Island Wal-Mart employee trampled to death by shoppers looking for bargains on Black Friday — went a graf too far. It should've ended with the pinata metaphor ("lots of treats in there, but no guarantee that you will get any"), but kept going to this: "It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began..." Fitting? That's some cold shit. And part of the Times' habit to make the news fit the times.

Then in Anand Giridharadas' piece on the Mumbai terrorist attacks, we got this graf on the reaction to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's "emotionless" television address to the nation:

His temperateness helped to keep the ever-present threat of religious riots at bay. But it also seemed to misread the mood of a country that wanted it to be 9/11 — if not in the sense of war and conquest, then in the sense of instant clarity, of the simple feeling that an era had ended and that enough was, at last, enough.

So if the Prime Minister misread the mood of the country, how does a journalist exactly read the mood of a country? The evidence given, in the following graf, is all YouTube commentary. Not exactly an unimpeachable source. More, if this is in fact the mood of the country, why doesn't the paper question it? Two areas to delve into: How are the Mumbai attacks not like 9/11? And where did that supposed post-9/11 clarity take the U.S.? Few things, after all, can be as obfuscating as clarity.

Makng up for all this is David Barstow's must-read piece on retired U.S. generals like Barry McCaffrey working for military contractors and the media at the same time — without mentioning the former to the latter, or to the latter's viewers, or to Congress when testifying on military policy. Even Ike didn't foresee this. A new question to ask when analysts show up on the news or before Congress: Who else do you work for?

Posted at 08:12 AM on Dec 01, 2008 in category Culture
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