This Single Is A Homer

June 13, 2014

76 coverWhen did everything change? Because everything sure has. High rollers pay to go backstage at rock concerts, which are themselves underwritten by huge corporations, and Dylan tunes are musical beds for commercials. A stint on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, as writer or actor, is a golden ticket to a career in sitcoms or the movies. Pop and hip-hop musicians are regular White House guests, and it’s the rare politician indeed that doesn’t have some classic rock stuffed into his iPod, itself created by a company founded by a couple of hippies in a garage, not all that long ago.

David Browne makes a compelling case for 1976 as the cultural hinge point in a swell new Kindle Single, THE SPIRIT OF ’76. (A Kindle Single is an electronic piece too short to be a book but too long to be a magazine article; the writing is of professional quality, curated by editors at and sold through the Kindle e-book platform, which means you don’t have to own an actual Kindle to read it: just download the Kindle software on any Internet-connected device you have.) Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Browne fan, dating back to when he was the chief music critic for Entertainment Weekly. I also edited his first book, DREAM BROTHER, a fascinating history of the parallel careers of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff which, among many other pleasures, demonstrates that musical talent may actually be genetic. He’s still knocking them out today as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

While we were celebrating our country’s bicentennial, Mr. Browne reports, the counterculture was becoming mainstream in so many ways; the tremors were rattling dishes everywhere. The new SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, a rock-world reaction against corny tv variety shows like Carol Burnett’s, won the first four of its Emmys. The two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, were bringing the same sensibility to the decidedly non-hip world of computing. The Ramones arrived to carpet-bomb the artificial barriers between givers and receivers of music. A struggling, hangdog-looking actor created a movie sensation glorifying blue-collar determination and come-from-behind perseverance. A Southern-drawling peanut farmer who loved the Allman Brothers was a serious contender to dethrone the sitting president of the United States. They were all part of a wave of excitement and optimism that didn’t last long, but smashed its way through pop culture all at once. “It was the perfect year for new things to be born and develop,” says Tommy Ramone.

THE SPIRIT OF ’76 looks closely at all these events and more through that prism. It’s as breezy and authoritative as Mr. Browne’s astonishing book-length FIRE AND RAIN, which connects four important pop acts and albums from 1970 in such gorgeous detail that no matter how many times you’ve worn out these records, you will learn something new about CSN&Y, James Taylor, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles. (How does somebody so young find out all this stuff? It’s called journalism.) Mr. Browne’s work is so entertaining and likable because he seems to be speaking for the reader. He doesn’t live in a snobby critic’s ivory tower; he’s a fan just like you and me (albeit more industrious and learned). Pick up this Single and you’ll find yourself not only glad there was a 1976, but also sad that its vaulting spirit dissipated into venality and cynicism.

Retro Techno

March 15, 2014

missionWant to have some real fun? Do what I just did and rent MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, the first entry in Paramount’s popular and lucrative Tom Cruise movie franchise. You may remember it as a fairly smart action-adventure, but watch it today and it’ll be revealed as a time machine from another age.

M:I was released in 1996, believe it or not, a full eighteen years ago. I may well have some readers who hadn’t even been born back then. But what’ll strike you even more is how much technology has changed in barely a generation – both in the movies and in real life.

JURASSIC PARK had introduced “realistic” CGI effects in 1993, just three years before, so the spectrum of what we could see on the screen hadn’t yet been all that widely explored. As with its tv precedessor, the movie-version “Impossible Missions” force had access to all the latest tech playthings; that’s how they could sneak into high-security places, build elaborate sets to fool the chumps, etc. The visual effects supervisor on the film was John Knoll, a honcho at Industrial Light & Magic, which represented the state of the vfx art at the time. This was up-to-the-minute stuff, and that’s how we all accepted it in 1996.

But watch it today, 18 years later, and you have to stifle some unintended laughs. STOP READING HERE IF YOU HAVEN’T EVER SEEN THE MOVIE. I’LL TELL YOU WHEN IT’S SAFE AGAIN. Basically, our familiar tv boss, Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) sets up a big IM sting which is colossally botched, he’s shot to death, and the IM brass in Washington “disavows” our hero, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). So he has to set up a rogue IM force of other “disavoweds” to win back his reputation, retrieve the MacGuffin (a computer disk that matches our spies’ code names to real names), and discover the real mole who screwed the pooch and killed his mentor. YOU CAN COME BACK, IT’S OK NOW. So Tom Cruise calls forth the world’s best rogue safecracker and its best rogue computer genius (delightfully played by the hulking Ving Rhames). The first thing they’re gonna have to do is break into the CIA’s Langley headquarters, which has as many security checkpoints as does that RAIDERS idol. So Ving goes searchin, and he types


And a bunch of alt.this&thats show up on his screen. (Cruise does the same thing later when he’s trying to puzzle out a message in a Gideon bible.)

Now Ving has already bragged about this top-secret chip he’s glommed, a “686” – remember, this was the age when Intel 80486 processors were the bee’s knees in the non-Apple community, which was nearly everybody – so we’d already begun noticing the disconnect in the previous reel (it would have been so easy to call it a “P6,” as the Pentium Pro developers referred to their new architecture; nobody, least of all a supposed techie, called it a “686,” but so many contemporary viewers knew what a “486” was that it just sounded better). Before long, Ving also has to send a jamming signal by typing, in real big letters so we can read it:


The techies bitch about how their modems can’t connect…it goes on and on. We 21st century viewers realize that any earnest portrayal of the state of the art has to slip through our fingers, because the art’s sophistication is progressing faster than one can even develop the celluloid (another doomed technology).

Another advantage of a second viewing is that this time you will probably be able to follow the convoluted plot. There is a beautiful scene that went over my head in ’96 because I was devoted to soaking up information, and this took a bit of a twist. It’s a SENDING SPOILER JAMMING SIGNAL meeting between a surprisingly rejuvenated Jim and Ethan in a café. By now, Ethan’s figured out that Jim is the mole, and we see events explained away in Voight’s voice but interpreted by Ethan’s imagination – once he even gets it wrong but quickly reverts to what must be the truth (but we find out later he’s wrong about that; see the potential for confusion?). He even asks, “Why, Jim, why?” But Jim is busy pinning it all on somebody else. Heady stuff: thanx, Robert Towne. JAMMING SIGNAL ABORTED

The M:I crew is probably shooting right now, because #5 has already staked out a summer 2015 date. Each of the four we’ve already seen is a real popcorn-chompin thrill ride, heavy on physical, in-camera stunts, and it’s amazing how the franchise manges to retain its integrity even as it invites director after director to have a whirl. (Who are the returning greybeards? Cruise himself, his former partner Paula Wagner, and now J. J. Abrams.) John Woo did a great #2 and managed to squeeze in his signature fluttering doves and two-gun-firing-horizontal-dive. Then Abrams, then Brad Bird, and #5 will be by Christopher McQuarrie. I’ll be there with popcorn in hand, but fully aware that the flick will be setting down some technological markers that may look just as naive in twenty more years. Meanwhile, do you remember who directed #1? If you don’t, betcha can’t guess. It was an auteur who really put his mark on the film, as have all his successors. But he was the first one to latch onto the match. Brian De Palma, baby.

Hot Type, Cool Times

February 28, 2014

Remembering an old friend, a beloved Mississippi newspaper columnist who passed away last week after a life in the profession, got me thinking about earlier days, when both he and I were just scamps yipping around the newsroom of the local daily. Things were so different back then that it seems like a dream. I’m not talking about the cultural shift from newspapers to television to social media for most breaking news – that subject’s already been done to death by bigger brains than mine. I’m talking about the physical process of getting the news out every day in print, in a long-lost era when the term “ink-stained wretch” was more than just a metaphor.

The principle was quite simple and hadn’t changed much since Gutenberg: lay down a mirror image of what you want to see, slather just the right amount of ink over it, and press the ink onto a piece of paper with just the right porosity. Lift up the paper and you have a legible positive. But to get that mirror image required one of the most funky-looking yet way-cool machines ever invented: the linotype.

Mergenthaler_LinotypeThis doodad, in the hands of a skilled operator, could cast complete print-ready “lines o’ type” from a cauldron of molten metal (mostly lead), cool ‘em down, stack ‘em, and hand off to a compositor who physically picked them up and “slugged” them onto a page like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

A line o' type.

A line o’ type.

A chunk of type ready to be "slugged." (Can you read the headline? I can.)

A chunk of type ready to be “slugged.” (Can you read the headline? I can.)

Before the linotype showed up in the late 19th century, you had to set each letter by hand. Because of this tremendous physical burden, no pre-linotype newspaper was longer than eight pages. Linotype technology busted the newspaper business wide open and ruled for about 75 years. But I’ve always connected the machine with an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE that premiered exactly 51 years ago today, in which a devilish Burgess Meredith used a linotype to report on news events before they happened.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

A good linotype operator: a little TOO good.

The linotype operator used a different keyboard than the “QWERTY” arrangement you and I (and the reporters) use. It was as if he could speak, or at least type, a foreign language. ETAOIN SHRDLU (in lower case; I used the caps so you wouldn’t worry that I’d just had a stroke) is what you get when you run a downward glissando with your finger on the first two columns, because somebody figured out that this was the order of frequency of letters in English. When you hit an “e,” the machine grabs that letter and sets it in place, waiting for the rest of the line and its forthcoming lead bath. So the most-used letters were physically closest: the keyboard layout was strictly a mechanical issue, and lower-case ETAOIN… was a quicker, easier way for an operator to signal a break or an end than the journalist’s fancy-pants “-30-“. Sometimes, as you may have already suspected, “etaoin shrdlu” actually made it into the paper by mistake; there are thousands of examples in newspaper morgues across the country, but not enough have survived digitization to make my cursed spell-checker quit trying to “correct” it for me. But don’t feel so superior. If I made a big honking Mergenthaler linotype appear right now, sat you down, and gave you some copy to set, a skilled letter-by-letter hand-setter would beat you by a mile, because John Henry would know what he was doing while you were hunting and pecking the day away. Simply stated, the linotype operator knew something you didn’t: that foreign language expressed through his fingertips and thus translated back into English. Toward the end of the era, AP and UPI would send longer non-time-sensitive features on a roll of tape which could operate the linotype automatically, but the operators’ arcane arts were still absolutely essential until computerized typesetting came along.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

The ETAOIN keyboard.

I was already familiar with “hot type” when I started working for the local daily because our high-school newspapers were printed the same way. A few staffers used to trot out to Keith Press in Raymond, Mississippi and spend the whole day there, because as part of our “journalism training,” we were the ones who physically slugged the pages for the printer. Sometimes you’d want to change something, or the operator had made a typo, and you had to replace the offending line(s) of type – and only the bad ones – by hand. Some of us thus developed an interesting skill: standing at the head of the page, we got very good at reading type upside down and backward. Piffle? Not at all: I’ve read quite a few upside-down letters and memos sitting across the desk from an interviewee who’s busy taking a phone call, and once or twice I learned something I wasn’t supposed to know.

Although the news and sales departments were entirely separate, advertisements paid the bills and ran the show. The compositors made up the ads at the bottom of the page first, and the “editorial” content went in whatever space was left. There’s a practical reason journalists were taught to use an “inverted pyramid” in writing news stories: get the important stuff as high as you can and trail off with less-critical detail toward the end. The reason is, if the piece won’t fit into the available space, you dump the last paragraph, then the next-to-last one, and so on.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

Tube Central. Retro, maybe, but it sure beat running up and down the stairs.

When I got to the city’s daily (like most midsize cities by the mid-Sixties, Jackson was down to one newspaper owner, publishing morning and afternoon papers and a combined edition on Sunday), we weren’t as chummy with the linotype operators. They weren’t even on the same floor. To communicate with them, we’d roll up our copy and stick it in a pneumatic tube like the ones you can still see at some drive-in bank tellers. Off it sped, Jetson-like, to typesetting (down in the dungeon with the presses and all), and later the tube would pop out a printed proof for us to read and correct. It also showed us the length of the piece in column inches so we could lay out pages with paper diagrams. This proof was the first time you saw your name in print (if you got a byline) and gentle readers, I became addicted, which is a succinct but comprehensive autobiography.

Any big paper had a line o' linotypes.

Any big paper had a line o’ linotypes.

Newspaper offices are much quieter than they used to be. The clickety-clack of teletypes – not to mention linotypes – was once the sound of news. Even typewriters (they were manual and we typed hard onto huge rolls of three-copy carbon paper) were noisier than today’s keyboards. I’ll bet there are also fewer flasks of booze stuffed into desk drawers today, and the unfinished novels alongside them are probably unfinished screenplays these days. Things change, which is really what news is all about. My late friend stuck around long enough to see all those wonders get replaced by new ones: he was a real newspaperman and justifiably proud of the printer’s ink that ran through his veins. It’s a profession worth honoring, as the term “news” continues to be diluted and trivialized by too many of the mass media. Sue me, but I miss the days when etaoin shrdlu actually meant something.

To the memory of Orley Hood

Blockbuster Video, 1985-2013

November 7, 2013

BlockbusterI missed Blockbuster, by and large, so I won’t really miss it. But millions of others won’t miss it for an entirely different set of reasons.

In 1980, while waiting for the result of the home video format war (ask your parents), I became one of the first kids on my block to own a VHS videocassette recorder/player. I guessed right; though VHS was technologically inferior to Betamax, its cassettes held more stuff, and that was enough for me and the non-Sony world. This machine changed my life – and, as it turned out, the entire culture’s. Not only could I record ordinary tv programs to watch later (the eggheads instantly gave that phenomenon a fancy name: “time shifting”), but they also included, if I so chose, uncut and uninterrupted movies off HBO, or classic flicks that aired at 3 in the morning: I could set the thing like an alarm clock! How useful this would have been while I was struggling through my Master’s thesis on Fifties monster movies. They’ve gone about as fer as they kin go, said I.

As with television a generation prior, Hollywood had no vision of the future and its knee-jerk reaction was to fight home video tooth and nail. In 1976, Universal and Disney brought suit against poor Sony, alleging that home video recording amounted to piracy; by the time the matter finally reached the Supreme Court eight years later and time-shifting off the air was judged to be fair use, the practice had grown so widespread that the legal action was basically moot, now enriching only lawyers.

In the meantime, of course, the studios were taking big chomps of the new home video pie themselves. They began to issue official, “studio-struck” versions of their most popular movies. Fox Home Video was a pioneer: I remember being astonished to see PLANET OF THE APES, PATTON and M*A*S*H shown at people’s homes during parties (the serious film and tv production guys all had Betamaxes early on). At one such bash at my friend Dave Adcock’s, 2001 played with the sound off, and you could see people taking quick glances over your shoulder. Far from ruining the movie business, home video revenue came to carry the biz on its back – you made more money on home entertainment than on the theatrical release – and continued to do so until very recently.

Renting videocassettes, in both Beta and VHS formats, was the next logical step – after all, most adults only want to see a movie once – and it sprang up in thousands of mom-and-pop stores, located in strip malls and lesser venues, DIY-shabby but cute, like independent comics stores. Mine was called Video Station, owned by a wonderful movie fan named Curtis. The first time I walked in, I was gobsmacked at the choices I had, for movies I could see tonight. I simply must share this with others, I said.

So, every Friday night for several years, I screened a movie at my house. Ten or fifteen friends came over to watch – the audience was constantly changing and self-regenerating – and we loved having our own private movie theater. After the first few weeks, one of my neighbors timidly came to the door and said, “Sorry, but we just have to know what you do on Friday nights. All these cars pull up in your driveway and on the street. Then you turn off all the lights, and we can’t hear a thing!” (Remember, VCRs weren’t very common back then. Once I explained that we were all watching a movie, it made sense. Hope nobody thought I was hosting the world’s most boring coven.)

I was such a reliable customer that Curtis would give me a peek at release schedules and let me have pre-dibs on new movies, which were appearing on tape even before their pay-cable runs. One Friday his delivery ran late and he personally drove the cassette over to my house just as people were beginning to arrive for the movie. (He declined a beer, but accepted our warm applause.) This was the state of home video rental in the early Eighties: warm, personal service, hand-selling (Curtis recommended most of the lesser-known films we screened, just as Quentin Tarantino did at his video store out in California), the same qualities you want in a good independent bookseller. Video life was sweet.

Then, in 1985, a Dallas businessman named David Cook decided to take the concept wide. Mom-and-pop video stores were starting to add locations and develop into local and regional “chains,” but Cook’s eyes were bigger, and Blockbuster was born. Wayne Huizenga executed its national rollout: it quickly added videogames, swallowed up smaller companies and opened new stores aggressively, aided by a virtuous circle in which floods of new customers were entering the movie-rental market every week. Less than ten years after its founding, the now-ubiquitous Blockbuster was big enough to seriously propose a merger with Viacom.

Now all the homegrown Video Stations were out of business, and everybody was dealing with Blockbuster (there were 9,000 stores at its peak in 2004) or a franchise just like it. Oligopoly bred complacency as video rental became a typical weekend’s afterthought. Blockbuster customers were treated to a shelf full of thirty display cases of that weekend’s new release, all of them already rented. There was little quality control over returned rentals; you wondered exactly what some people had been doing with them. And then there were the late fees. You couldn’t ignore them like some did with their library books, because Blockbuster had your credit card. Grumbling about Blockbuster became a national pastime (especially when it appeared that late fees constituted a profit center), but its business model was already mortally wounded.

Those late fees inspired a Blockbuster customer named Reed Hastings to think of a new business model, and what he came up with was Netflix, which opened in 1997, concentrating on the new DVD format. There was no store; you ordered your movies via the Internet and got them through the mail. And – here’s the master stroke – you paid a monthly fee to have a certain number of disks at your house for as long as you wanted. The company got a reliable stream of revenue without having to charge late fees! Netflix subsisted on mail-order while it quietly broadened its “streaming” capability, and lately has even moved into original programming, the very thing which has kept HBO afloat all these years. Fun fact: in 2000, Netflix offered itself to Blockbuster for $50 million, and was turned down.

So why do you need Blockbuster anymore? Hmmm: you don’t. Yesterday the company’s current owners announced that it will close its remaining 300 company-owned stores by early January. That will leave only about fifty franchisee-run stores, and they’d better watch their backs, because the brand name’s “goodwill” has long since been used up. Entertainment is still big business, but the way it’s delivered to our eyeballs is constantly mutating and adapting to fit new technology. Blockbuster controlled the golden goose for 25 years, but these days it’s about as relevant as a Commodore 64 – and I know plenty of former customers who are just fine with that.

11/9/13: Variety reports, “Blockbuster has sent out tweets over the last several days alerting customers it will stop renting movies on Nov. 9, with most stores starting to liquidate inventory on Nov. 14.” (Note to Rand Paul: this is how you quote somebody without plagiarizing them.)

11/11/13: The funnest fact of all: Variety reports that the last movie rented from a company-owned Blockbuster store was THIS IS THE END. (First half: amusing. Last half: embarrassing. Kind of like Blockbuster itself!)

Spaced In

October 13, 2013

GRAVITYGRAVITY is every bit as good as you’ve heard. It’s not just a nail-biting thriller, not just far and away the best cinematic depiction of what it’s like to be in space, not just the finest performance ever from Sandra Bullock. Even more important, it introduces new concepts to the language of film: swirling, swooping, gyroscopic curvatures that observe no earthbound rules, that can take you inside a space helmet and out again without cuts or dissolves; the opening shot alone lasts for nearly 13 minutes. They’ll have to invent a new term to describe this constantly malleable point of view. But the story doesn’t stop long enough to let you ponder “how’d they do that?”* For all I know, they built some rockets and shot two game movie stars into Earth orbit. You’ve never seen anything like this. Nobody has.

It’s a howling, crowd-pleasing, eye-popping triumph for director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron. His resume is already impressive: besides directing the best Harry Potter film (PRISONER OF AZKABAN), there’s also CHILDREN OF MEN (he tops the opening shot here) and the delightful Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. His friend Guillermo del Toro, also a fan of the fantastique, must be bursting with pride. But Cuaron leads an army of technical wizards so state-of-the-art that I didn’t recognize several of the jobs listed in the end credits.

The story, by the director and his son Jonas, is simplicity itself. Two astronauts are on a space walk as the film begins. Something bad happens, and now it’s all about survival. Playing opposite Bullock is George Clooney, who knows more about this mission than her medical officer does, and delivers perfectly timed moments of lightness (he listens to Hank Williams in space and tells “Houston” – the unseen Ed Harris – “it’s not rocket science”). That’s your entire on-camera cast.

The space effects are beyond disbelief, and so is the sound design. You never hear “sync” sound unless it would be physically possible, and space is by and large silent, emphasized by an opening fanfare under the title card that gets louder and louder and louder…until we cut to space and utter silence for the beginning of that first magnificent, marathon, multigravitational, POV-shifting, “single shot.” But there’s a top-notch music score by Steven Price which ratchets up the tension almost unbearably.

GRAVITY set an October-opening box-office record here in the States, and continued its financial rampage in the second weekend, which is when I saw it, earlier today. I attended a regular-screen 3-D performance, and though the 3-D effects were leagues better than those in the trailer for THE HOBBIT 2 which preceded it, GRAVITY is probably just as enjoyable flat. But real thrill-seekers will go me one better and screen it in IMAX.

Do not miss this one. See it in a theater if you can. “Amazing” isn’t strong enough. Maybe the word we want is “GRAVITY-like.”

*3/1/14: On Oscar Eve (I doubt GRAVITY will win Best Picture, but any Best Director who beats Alfonso Cuaron will always, in his heart of hearts, wonder why), I recommend the just-released DVD version of this film, especially the backstage “special features.” These things are usually fluff, but here you really do get a good look at how the stunning effects were achieved. Another nice bonus is a lovely short by Jonas, showing you the Earthbound side of Bullock’s frustrating radio conversation near the end.

3/3/14: GRAVITY topped the 2014 Oscar list with seven awards, including a well-deserved Best Director statue for Sr. Cuaron.

5 Things I Learned Upon Being Freshly Pressed

May 23, 2013

This blog recently got “Freshly Pressed” by our host, WordPress. That means an editor stumbled in and decided to feature a particular post of mine, underlining its existence to the whole WordPress “community,” which is god knows how many bloggers. The net effect over three days or so was a ton of new readers of my “Adventures in Editing” series, many of whom sampled other posts as well, to my immense satisfaction. (Though still not as many in aggregate as showed up one single day in 2011 when I posted the first “Editing” installment, and it got noticed, then tweeted, then re-tweeted, etc. The viral deal is still the most effective method of rapid transmission. In olden days, we used to call this word of mouth.) Nevertheless, Fresh Pressing brought in lots of new eyeballs, so thank you, WordPress. For my take on my Pressing experience, look directly to the right. One may display the “widget” at the top of the column only upon WP’s award. It ain’t exactly a medical degree for the office wall, but still, I’m not complaining, I’m bragging.

I have been floating in a tiny WordPress backwater since I started this journal in 2009: in general, only people who already know me have tended to tune in, which is OK with me too. I’m fine with anyone who wants to “follow,” but the many curious newbies I’ve managed to Freshly Impress in the past few days may be only interested in one or two topics, and I’m not sure I can satisfy them every time. I’m really glad they’re here, but I’d rather roam instead. So let’s see how many hang on for the long haul.

Now the stallions have turned back into mice and my daily page views are gradually reverting to the mean. But being a WordPress soopahstah for a few days has shown me a few things that I never would have guessed otherwise, and when you, the WordPress blogger, accept a Fresh Pressing, you should remember them:

  1. There are lots of spam “followers,” despite WordPress’s generally great spam filter, and some aren’t so easy to spot. Once you get Freshly Pressed, the gates open. You get “comments” written in perfect English, but they’re robocall-ish, and a peek at the sender reveals all. You get people who are following you only because they hope you’ll click back: for example, I just now got a notice that I’m being followed by a blogger called “qualitydiabeticsocks.” I have sent the obvious dross to spamland, so good riddance, and I don’t mind if “qualitydiabeticsocks” gets an email every time I post – but I didn’t know such begging even existed until I got Pressed. (There have always been obvious spammers who aren’t fluent in English, like those sad-making, emailing “Nigerian princes” who want to “give you money,” but this is another level of sophistication.) Fortunately, nobody can post on this site without first being approved by me. But get Pressed and you’ll soon encounter an entirely different class of spammer.
  2. There’s a 14-year-old kid out there who thinks he’s Lenny Bruce. (I take him at his word on the age.) He likes to riff on the titles of Freshly Pressed posts, which often give him great ammunition when taken out of context. If you get Pressed, you’re probably gonna get mocked too. Sometimes his stuff is indeed funny, but not as often as he imagines it is. Keep plugging, kid, say I, and one day you too might be in the SNL writers’ room wishing you were anywhere else on the goddam planet.
  3. WordPress bloggers are more likely to talk back than is the general public. I love that. I’ve always wanted the dialogue (that’s what the name of my blog means, after all), and these are mostly people who are sending out their own blog posts for the same reason, to get some two-way going. I hip my Facebook friends to each new post, and lately most of the back-and-forth has unfortunately been over there, where it’s ephemeral, rather than here, where it sticks around. The bloggers who have gravitated my way in the past few days tend to feel the same way, and are much more willing to endure the moderation process, which may be annoying but is also quick and permanent — you only need my thumbs up for your first post; after that, your comments go straight onto the site. (Unless you suddenly decide to start selling quality diabetic socks, that is.) I’m every bit as gratified when you talk back as when you read in the first place, and bloggers tend to be chatters, so thanks, WordPress, for bringin ‘em on.
  4. There are many, many writers on WP. We’re all crawling, scratching, etching our thoughts into some verbal sculpture that others might recognize as notable. Dudes and dudettes, I know the feeling. You don’t need payment. You just need the rush. Many of you are super-inventive, and I have been constantly amazed at how many permutations there actually are. I was once an editor, which is what “Adventures in Editing” is all about, which is probably what helped Press me in the first place. But I’ve been inundated in the last few days by what I judge to be talented writers (yep, even the sophomoric Lenny Bruce kid!), who are dying to find a proper forum. Your biggest hurdle will be to forget about writing like somebody else and start carving out your own niche. They always say write about what you know. That’s still damn good advice: to seek reality (even if you’re writing about ETs or dragons) by working outward from what you can see and smell and taste and feel every day. I’ll call to the witness stand, oh, Scott Nicholson. Read this guy. He plugs and plugs. He’s innately good – as are quite an impressive few of you! – but his best stuff doesn’t issue from what he learned reading King and Matheson and Poe and Lovecraft and all the rest. It comes from what he experiences on a typical North Carolina day. And you have just as much raw material as Scott does, if you’ll only use it. Thus endeth today’s sermon. By the way: if you don’t read, don’t write.
  5. You need a “round number” like 5 or 10 or 25 to constitute one of these come-hither blog headlines, so here’s the last one. Sorry if you think I’m imploding at the end and cheating you out of something, but hey, that’s postmodernism. Meanwhile, I loved being a WordPress princess for a few days, and I invite you all to stick around, keep posting, talk back whenever you like, and above all, take care of each other.

Koox ‘n’ Flix

September 15, 2012

The fact that a poorly-made and hateful video can foment rioting halfway around the world is the dark side of instant communication. The same technology which helped create the Arab Spring can be used to upend it.

You can form your own opinion about what the varying statements by Mitt Romney have to say about his candidacy for President. I’ve certainly formed mine. But that’s not what I want to talk about. Unlike Governor Romney, I can speak with authority on this creative matter because I’ve actually seen the 14-minute “trailer” for a “film” called THE INNOCENCE OF MUSLIMS – from all we can tell, it’s the only part that actually exists. If you’re also curious, find it for yourself: it’s easy, but I’m not going to help you by linking to it.

The backstory is as shady as it can be: the video was made by pseudonymous people who have lied about everything, including their “$5 million budget.” (“Sam Bacile,” the “director,” falsely told everyone he was an Israeli Jew, just to stir the pot a little bit more.) They even duped their actors, who answered an ad in Backstage like most other struggling thespians and dutifully reported for work. The marketing department seems to consist of Terry Jones, the off-world theocrat who infamously threatened to burn the Koran a few years back and has been missing those ENG crews ever since. (Monty Python’s namesake member must cringe every time he hears about this blasphemous fool.)

OK, so let’s go to the video tape. It’s disjointed, impossible to follow in any traditional story sense, and it jumps around like a newborn wallaby. Thus, I’d imagine, its titular depiction as a “trailer”: we’re only giving you the best stuff out of context, just like the big guys do. But listen: most of the lighting is just what you’d expect from a competent film-school production. Most everything’s in perfect focus. You can even tell that some of the actors are obviously pros. “Tech creds,” as Variety might put it, are not dissimilar to those in a no-budget indie. It can absolutely masquerade as a real production to deep unsophisticates.

But any five-year-old can suss out the incompetent desperation. It’s clear that the actors on set were not required to speak the name of Islam’s prophet; it’s clumsily looped in (that is, re-recorded after the fact), like all those risible attempts to cleanse R-rated dialogue for network tv. I’m just spitballing here, but if the Backstage casting call actually asked for Muslim actors, then they would have been horrified to take part in a physical depiction of the prophet – a canonical no-no. Even the “innocence” title may have been invented to lure them in. I have no proof; I’m just speculating. (We later learned that at least some of the actors were told they were working on a film called DESERT WARRIORS.) One actress has come forward to say she had performed under false pretenses, and deeply regrets doing so. Other whole scenes are clearly looped, no doubt to conceal their real purpose on set; sometimes it’s like watching a Sergio Leone movie, with actors of multiple nationalities.

The CG work is hilarious. In “outside” scenes, the actors appear to be walking on air above the desert sands, like an 80s-era Chyron effect achieved by a high-school member of the AV Club. All that’s missing are the shimmer lines. As far as the red meat is concerned, we revert to elementary school. The prophet is accused of everything shivering haters can possibly think of, including being gay – and they use that precise word, “gay,” even though the “story” is “set” 1500 years ago. Man, I can distinctly remember using that word innocently in my own lifetime, wholly apart from its current context, and I’m not even 1000! He hacks through men, women and beasts. He molests children. His henchmen snicker like Snidely Whiplash as they fake drawing and quartering a senior citizen.

OK, you may be sneering right now, and this bilious piece of flyblown crap thoroughly earns your scorn. But here’s the thing. In the Arab world, some people just may not understand that any American has the right to assert that their duly elected President is a secret Muslim socialist. The “universal right of free speech,” which was affirmed in that original Cairo embassy statement, is a foreign concept to many radical people on our planet. To them, if this “film” exists, it’s because the U. S. ruler wants it to exist – otherwise, Obama could just snuff it out, like their leaders do in their own lands!

I haven’t seen all that much coverage of the many Muslim citizens who have condemned the murderous acts of their fanatic cousins, the Terry Joneses of the Islamic world. But they’re out there. They are just as ashamed of Osama bin Laden as we are of Fred Phelps, the nauseating GOD HATES FAGS guy. But, as we’ve been constantly instructed these past few years, whenever we oppose freedom in any sense, the terrorists win. That freedom is why this heinous video exists, and why its makers have blood on their hands, maybe even proudly. No, they probably didn’t kill Ambassador Chris Stevens; that may have been a back-burner plan which only used the video-induced riots as cover, just as we used 9/11 as cover to “do” Iraq. But by paying to translate their venom into Arabic, these zealots used their money, and the relatively new ability to communicate to the world, to forge a digital sword that quickly slew. It can no longer be sheathed. Shame on them for defaming a great, proud religion: Christianity.

Daisey, Changed

March 18, 2012

This has to be the week of progressives calling out their own. (Yes, poor “victimized” right-wing media, it does indeed happen.) First, Bill Maher airs a one-sided view of Mississippi and then compounds the error with an oafish election-night tweet. And Friday, the exemplary THIS AMERICAN LIFE radio program “retracts” the most popular story in its history, a piece by Mike Daisey about working conditions at Foxconn Technology in Shenzhen, China, where iPhones, iPads, and many of our other most prized devices are manufactured – mostly by hand.

The TAL piece was an excerpt from Daisey’s highly successful one-man show THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, ending its encore run today at the Public Theater (the closing date is a coincidence unrelated to this incident). We saw it down there last December. The heavyset Seattle-based monologist employs a cadence, and dynamics, that remind you of DAILY SHOW contributor Lewis Black: he’ll talk softly for most of a sentence and suddenly SHOUT OUT a word or two, so you tend to pay attention. (I had previously seen his monologue 21 DOG YEARS, about his experiences as an early employee of

This time, Daisey’s topic is Apple Inc. First, how wonderful and magical their life-changing products are; and then about the human cost of manufacturing them in China, an aspect that has escaped most Apple customers over the years. (Other companies use Chinese labor as well, but Daisey concentrates on Apple.) I don’t know about you, but I always pictured iPhones and iPods being assembled by robot arms in giant white high-tech clean rooms. Not so. The work is done by hand, with mind-numbing and body-grueling repetition, at places like Foxconn, the mammoth campus which Daisey visited. By Western standards, cheap labor is being sorely misused, and no matter how hip the company – as Nike discovered years ago – its role ought to bring shame and embarrassment, especially if executives in the supply chain are aware of the working conditions, and how could they not be?

But there turns out to be a HUGE problem. Not only can’t Daisey corroborate certain events which happened outside his purview, he also lied to TAL’s fact-checkers regarding the very identity of his Chinese translator who was first to dispute the accuracy of his account – meaning he knew there was something there to be discovered. Here is a detailed look at TAL’s objections. Also note that by Chinese standards, most Foxconn workers, mainly poor migrants, seem happy to have their jobs, even working exhaustingly long shifts for a pittance; instances of abuse and physical harm (such as hexane poisoning) certainly exist but may be rarer than Daisey insinuates; and, most seriously, he can’t possibly have seen everything he says he did in one six-day visit. He is describing something true using a fictional method. Nothing wrong there – most enduring works of art operate that way – but look at his stern assertion in the next paragraph.

Daisey’s halfhearted defense seems to be, yes, but this is theater, I shouldn’t have presented it to TAL as journalism. In response, I’d like to quote two bold-faced lines from the Playbill I was handed as I walked in the theater door (yes, Virginia, there is a straight guy who saves all his Playbills):


If the root issue is real, and Daisey’s heart is in the right place – he has certainly worked and succeeded, through drama, in bringing consumer-electronics labor issues into the public consciousness, and there’s reason to believe things are gradually changing at Foxconn – then why is this so important?

I can trust that Daisey’s basic premise is true not because he says so (though I took him at his word back in December, per that Playbill disclaimer), but because it’s been corroborated by independent news and labor organizations, most notably the New York Times, whose reporters have filed front-page stories about working conditions in China (arguably urged on by people like Daisey).

I can assert that his presentation is at least in part fictional because of those same independent news organizations. In fact, Times reporters in China also questioned specific points in Daisey’s piece as unlikely. Even the one with egg on its face, THIS AMERICAN LIFE, had guts enough to do the right thing retroactively after making one fatal error: they should have never allowed the story on the air after being unable to contact Daisey’s translator.

News and opinion can exist side by side. Away from its editorial pages, which of course are all opinion, The New York Times indicates the difference instantly using typography: each day, any story with a justified-right margin is reporting, truth, accuracy; any story with a “ragged-right” margin, like the one you’re reading right now, is opinion or analysis. TAL itself has a coterie of bright, thought-provoking contributors whose subjective musings are clearly labeled as just that.

But the fact that TAL has fact-checkers at all shows you they’re trying to ensure that what they present as truth actually is. Political blowhards on both sides of the spectrum (world’s most unavailable job: Sean Hannity fact checker!) spout opinion so fast and so loud that some folks probably can’t be blamed for taking it seriously. But if, say, Bill O’Reilly states that something happened today, I’m gonna need corroboration. (He earned my skepticism by inventing or adopting specious news items for his silly “War on Christmas.”)

We need independent news, and thank God we still have some of it amid all the cacophony. Meanwhile, what of the dramatist?

When the lights came up after AGONY/ECSTASY, my wife used an earthier term to say, “He’s a hypocrite.” If he’s so upset, why does he continue to use Foxconn-made gear? And the stars in his eyes during the show’s opening moments, when he’s describing his own happy Apple addiction, are those of somebody who trades in for damn near every new model. We didn’t yet know that what we’d just heard had been juiced for dramatic power. But now I can’t help but wonder if he was telling the truth about Amazon in 21 DOG YEARS. So that’s something that Mike Daisey must share with Bill O’Reilly. No more trust; I now have to verify.

An Analog Problem With Digital Books

March 9, 2012

Looks like the Justice Department is taking an interest in the pricing of e-books by major publishers. The Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Trachtenberg had the story yesterday, and the New York Times followed up this morning. DOJ is threatening a suit over the “agency model” of e-book pricing, in which the publisher sets the retail price and nobody is allowed to undercut it. Until a couple of years ago, e-books were sold under a “wholesale model,” in which the publisher sells for a set wholesale price, usually about half the “suggested” cover price, and retailers can discount however they like. (Physical books are still sold this way, which is why you frequently see an e-book that costs more than a paper one.)

DOJ is investigating Apple and five major publishers (curiously, the largest one of all, Random House, is not listed; at first they balked at the “agency model,” but came around a few months later). Very broadly, they want to find out if the companies acted in collusion to prop up the retail price of e-books. I can give them a quick answer: yes, they did. But is that illegal? Here are the warring points of view:

Publishers: By deeply discounting our e-books to $9.99, below its cost, Amazon was deliberately trying to establish dominance and reduce competition, which could hurt everybody in the long run: if they were the only e-bookseller, they could raise the price as high as they wanted. Also, e-books are eating into our sales of physical books – our very business model is at stake.

Apple: Damn right. And Amazon is the big kahuna. (For the first time ever, we were a little late to this e-book party.) Level the playing field and stop these birds from using your product as a loss leader.

The Customer: What happened to our $9.99 e-bestsellers? You don’t have to print, bind, stock, ship or accept returns on them. $15.99 is an absurd price you just pulled out of your posterior.

DOJ: Yeah! Aren’t you guys all going into a huddle and setting prices? That’s a no-no, and it’s anti-consumer.

Publishers: No way! Each publisher is free to set whatever price it wants. It’s just become a floor, not a ceiling.

Amazon: Man, you’re foolishly dampening the only bright spot in the book business. And if it weren’t for our Kindle, you’d still be looking for a savior. If you depend on Apple for largesse, just remember what happened to record stores, back when Steve Jobs contended that keeping prices down was a good thing.

Literary Agents: Our clients’ compensation is based on a percentage of a sale price. Reduce the price and you reduce our clients’ earnings. Oh yeah, ours too.

Publishers: Yeah! We have to think about our beloved authors!

Amazon: That doesn’t seem to bother you on real books, where the free market works just fine.

Self-Published Authors: This just in: if you’re good, you can make a living selling e-books at $4.99, and to hell with all of you. If you’re no good, you weren’t gonna get a book contract anyway, especially since the big houses have basically given up on the midlist, and their last big idea was to use social networks for publicity. Well, duh.

DOJ: <Points two fingers at its eyes and then back to the publishers>

The Customer: Hey, gang, I’m still here. But maybe not for long.

E-Customers Creeped Out By Price Creep

December 15, 2011

There’s a piece on page 1 of today’s Wall Street Journal about e-book sticker shock, another good job by the Journal’s book-beat reporter Jeff Trachtenberg. I’ve been railing about this issue ever since Apple persuaded the six major publishers to disallow any discounting by retailers on e-books. As Mr. Trachtenberg points out, this restriction doesn’t apply to print books, so you have the increasingly common phenomenon of e-editions equaling, and even surpassing, the discounted print edition at retailers like In at least one instance (emphasis on “at least”), Ken Follett’s doorstop FALL OF GIANTS, the publisher’s e-book price is $18.99 – but the paperback edition can be bought new for $16.50.

Let’s re-emphasize what’s actually going on here. The major players in an industry which faces massive headwinds, book publishing, are deliberately overpricing their most promising and fastest-growing revenue stream, specifically to dampen e-demand and reduce “cannibalization” of “higher-margin” hardcover and trade paperback editions. Mr. Trachtenberg points out that under the “retail model,” by which Amazon was charging $9.99 for new e-bestsellers, it was the retailer who took the loss; the author and publisher still received roughly half of the full hardcover price. But under the current “agency model,” the publisher retains 70% of an e-book price which it alone can set, and the retailer gets the rest. No more “loss leaders,” and essentially no more $9.99 bestsellers.

But look closer at the Follett. Dutton’s suggested retail price for this 985-page tome in hardcover is $36. Under the “retail model,” it collected $18 per e-copy, just as it did for a hardcover, and Amazon could give it away if they liked. Of course, that’s no way to run a business: “How do we do it? Volume!” What Amazon was trying to do was to jump-start a nonexistent e-book market and worry about coaxing it into profitability later; they’ve always been forward-thinking in that way. But under the “agency model,” Dutton gets 70% of $18.99, the highest price I’ve encountered for a commercial trade e-book, which is $13.30 per e-copy, and all retailers receive the same $5.70 (I rounded both numbers to the next penny). $13.30 — and remember, this is the absolute Beluga of e-pricing — is $4.70 less than $18. But who’s counting?

My point exactly.

Now let’s consider Apple’s motives. It’s a wonderful company, but it’s no less ruthless just because its antagonizer-in-chief has passed away. When Apple was the “first mover” in digital music, it used the leverage of its huge installed iPod base to oppose the big record labels by dampening the retail price from $15-$16 for a whole CD to 99 cents for an individual song (boy, that price rings a bell. And it’s increased since then, too). But in e-books, Apple found itself, uncharacteristically, in Amazon’s wake (Steve Jobs had infamously sniffed at the Kindle’s launch: “People don’t read any more”). So now what it had to do was eliminate Amazon’s price advantage – and, amazingly, in a reversal of its effect on the music business, it succeeded in propping up the retail price of e-books! Justice is now looking into whether preventing discounting constitutes illegal collusion among the major publishers (as are European authorities), and I don’t know much about the law so can’t speculate, but it does sound fishy, and it protects retailers (guaranteed profit) at the expense of consumers (higher prices).

I have some friends in the book biz who’ve read my previous musings and have some pretty good arguments that nobody seems to be considering. For example, it’s an age-old fact that for big bestselling authors like Mr. Follett, or Stephen King or John Grisham or Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts, publishers pay way too much up front as an “advance (against earned royalties),” otherwise known as a “guarantee.” First, it’s necessary because everybody else is waving huge paychecks around, and you have to be there to compete. Second, a major author can be a tentpole for the rest of your list: if you, Ms. Retailer, want the new Grisham, you’ll have to hear about all the other great stuff we have. Third, there’s the intangible prestige factor, as authors and agents want to be with the house that publishes XXX. But these millions represent a nonrefundable sum which has to “earn out” before a book realizes its true potential for perennial profit down the road. (I’ve heard that Mr. King has a deal which plays down the guarantee in favor of a larger participation on the back end, like major movie stars sometimes do.) A surprise hit like THE HELP is very profitable immediately, but big bestsellers from well-known authors always start out deep in the red, and I’d love to know what Kathryn Stockett’s agent has in mind for her next contract.

That means you have to scramble for every penny you can find during the hot new-release period with the ads and the DAILY SHOW spots, very much like movie studios do. My question is: why aren’t the big publishers doing so?

Mr. Trachtenberg quotes a publisher as saying people are realizing the advantages of e-books and are willing to pay a premium for them. I’ve heard that too from some consumers. But $18.99? (P.S.: Book prices never go anywhere but up.) He shares more ominous quotes from others. A reader says it’s hard to justify a $10-$15 e-book when you can pick up a used print copy for $2 or $3 on Amazon. If that was the Ken Follett, the author and publisher made no money on the used-copy resale, when they could have received $18 for a “retail-priced” e-book. Also, the ability to self-publish and shop online is hitting the major publishers from the low end. As an industry consultant says, some e-buyers may opt for “five-star-reviewed” self-published mysteries or romances which are going for $2.99 or $3.99. Plus, if it’s digital it’s stealable, and remember that millions of otherwise law-abiding kids believed downloading from Napster was justifiable because CD prices were too high.

I think it’s fair to say that most e-reading devices have been purchased since “agency pricing” went into effect about two years ago, so possibly it’s only the early adopters like me who recoil against $12.99 and $14.99 books, or e-editions which cost more than paperbacks. Most new e-reader owners may think that’s the going rate you pay for not having to lug the physical book around, being able to read it on damn near every mobile device there is, etc. Yet as a “veteran,” I’d still be willing to wait, even a whole year, so the publishers have time to sell every hardcover they possibly can, if they’d only then give me a fairly-priced e-edition so I could fairly pay the author and publisher instead of ignoring them.

As it is, I have a list of backlist books that I’ll never buy in print editions; I just want to read them once. Every month or so I check on them, and every so often a publisher will experiment with a temporary lower price (this is why the publishers will probably survive any accusation of price-fixing; each one is free to charge whatever it likes). Either I will get the price I want, or the publisher will lose a sale which I would guess is sorely needed. It’s as simple as that.

EDIT, 2/7/12: I have tried Dave Slusher’s program BuyItAtThatPrice, discussed in the comments section. It works like a charm, and the email that alerts you when the price of a book (and probably anything else on Amazon, but I’ve only used it to buy e-books) has been lowered to your satisfaction also includes a link directly back to the item’s Amazon page, so it’s delightfully easy to use. I heartily recommend it. Thanks, Dave.


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