About The Author

April 25, 2014

aboutThe author is a self-described “old gentleman watcher and teller.” His blog, “Matters On My Mind,” has some 138 followers, from up and down the Eastern seaboard and as far away as Indiana. He Facebooks, he Tumbls, and he has been honored with more than 36 “Re-Tweets.” His letters to the editor have appeared in the Tiller & Gardener Online and Philately Today, and petitions bearing his electronic signature have been delivered to a leading town council, a leading state representative, and the White House.

He has completed part of the first part of a trilogy set in the fantastic world of Freeistan, where humans, dragons and Yeti (the “mount-folk”) live in mutual harmony but become threatened by a sadistic army from the land of Mammonia. He is currently searching for a better exotic name for a civilization based on greed, because his online writers’ support group e-suggests, not to be anything less than 1,000% supportive, l.o.l., that instead of “Mammon,” the invented word instead evokes “mammaries” or “ammonia,” horrified HOME-ALONE emoticon! Still, the saga’s opening chapter, which is the product of nearly twenty drafts, is doggone near perfect, if the author does say so himself.

The author is single.

A fully certified graduate of Diplomas4all.com, where he majored in Leisure Studies, the author more humorously simultaneously earned an advanced degree from the School of Hard Knocks after months of grinding experience. Following the D4a.c e-commencement e-exercises, he began looking forward avidly to the future, but as a statesman once mused, “History? We won’t know. We’ll all be dead.” The author says that’s kind of brain-freaky, like Zeno’s Paradox or Rubik’s Cube, but still, provocatively stated, no?


Don’t get the author started about politics. A lifelong American, he is flabbergasted that so many people actually believe the crazy idiots on that channel. These issues are not exactly rocket science – actually, some of them are, but that is beside the point. The truth is perfectly clear to any discerning human, but some people simply will not listen to reason. These are known as “defriends.”

The author’s nieces, nephews, grand-nieces, grand-nephews, even that new baby that showed up somehow in the Facebook list of Friends, are all delightful. The author has Liked them till the cows came home. How now, speaking of cows, does an author “defriend” a member of his or her own family? Can anyone help the author here? The baby is still delightful, in case anyone is watching.

Turn-ons: 3-D, long battery life, Megan Fox. Turn-offs: gyms, zombies, the French New Wave.

The author may have to turn in early tonight. But first, the author will be dining on a garden salad, wheat pasta and Chicken Parmesan – prepared, though, using two tablespoons of water in the egg mixture: that is the author’s secret (it’s even better than the Olive Garden’s). He plans to pair a sultry White Zinfandel, which is now “laying down” in the refrigerator. More on Twitter as the entrée continues to bake.

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.

Roger & Thee

March 7, 2014

loudest voiceWho’s the most powerful conservative in the United States? God knows it’s not Mitch McConnell or John Boehner. Not Rush Limbaugh or Karl Rove. Not the former President Bushes or anyone in their family. Not even the Republican Party’s personal Mr. Monopolys, the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Nope, America’s most powerful conservative rules his fiefdom from a second-floor office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas. He is Roger E. Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, and as he will gladly tell you, he elected two presidents – and might well have made it three if he hadn’t been busy creating a monster instead.

The brash, mercurial Ailes – part instinctive genius and part paranoid bully – is the subject of a new biography by New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, THE LOUDEST VOICE IN THE ROOM. It tracks his career from the Mike Douglas TV show where he met and wooed Richard Nixon, to the 1968 campaign immortalized in Joe McGinniss’s classic THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT (with which Ailes eagerly cooperated before having to backtrack and humble himself before H. R. Haldeman), then to TV and theater production, an early attempt at partisan conservative broadcasting, a stop at CNBC, and finally permanent sponsorship in the form of an equally bombastic media magnate who felt “mainstream” journalism was too lefty. Since Fox News went on the air in 1996 (just in time for Monica Lewinsky), it has become the official campfire of the right wing, the nexus of one-sided opinion. Its slogan “Fair and Balanced” was created to get under liberals’ skin, and it’s worked: the channel is anything but either and everybody knows it. Fox News is the broadcast home of a parade of blowhards who never have to answer to the public, not even to Rupert Murdoch himself: only to Roger Ailes.

Piecing together Ailes’s upbringing is beyond any biographer, even one who can get a face-to-face with the subject (as Mr. Sherman could not), since Ailes routinely lies about dozens of biographical facts. For example, Mr. Sherman titles his first chapter after an allegedly traumatic childhood experience in which Ailes’s father extends his hand to catch his jumping son and then snatches it away to let him fall: “Don’t ever trust anybody” is the parental takeaway. The source is an Ailes confidant. The story is almost certainly a lie.

Another fiction which has stood the test of time concerns the signal day when MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW producer Ailes met guest Richard M. Nixon. According to official Ailes lore, there was a belly dancer named Little Egypt also booked on the show, “so I stuck Nixon in my office for 15 minutes. If I’d put Little Egypt in there, I’d be managing belly dancers right now.” This was the conversation – sometimes he says it was an hour long – in which Ailes convinced Nixon that he needed a “media adviser.” Trouble is, as the author reports, “According to several of Ailes’s colleagues who were present and the show logs, there was no belly dancer named Little Egypt booked that day.”

Ailes’s life is festooned with such bits of retroactive “history,” but friends and foes alike note that he has long created a “reality distortion field” as powerful and impervious as Steve Jobs’s. So why should we even care about digging through his shape-shifting past? Because Roger Ailes has become not just a reflector of modern American culture, but a driver of it to an almost unthinkable degree, the thought leader of a rabid, vocal and inward-looking minority. As Mr. Sherman writes, in Fox News’s early days, emboldened by Bill Clinton’s personal foibles, some viewers “kept the channel on for so long that the static Fox News logo…burned the pixels. Before a rotating one was introduced, even when they turned off their sets for the night, the outlines of the graphic remained tattooed to the dark screens.” Some cable channels have viewers. Fox News has believers.

I remember when Rush Limbaugh’s first book appeared in fall 1992. I’d never heard of him, but then I hadn’t listened to talk radio since my grad-school days twenty years earlier, when Atlanta’s WRNG, a 24-hour call-in station, entertained me on long car trips. Stuart Applebaum, Bantam’s corporate spokesperson, predicted a huge hit for our competitor Pocket Books. Why? “Conservatives don’t have anything to read.” And it was true: when I thought of conservative literature, it was ages-old screeds from Barry Goldwater or the John Birch Society, maybe ragged conspiracy-spouting pamphlets for gun-show booths. Well, conservatives didn’t have anything to watch either. For years it was accepted right-wing wisdom that the big-shot media were hopelessly biased in favor of progressivism, from organized labor to women’s suffrage to civil rights. (That continues to be a powerful motivating force on the right, which likes to view itself as the long-suffering victim.) And Rush Limbaugh represented its first shot across the bow, now that mass media had become untethered to even the pretense of objectivity.

For most of the 20th century, on radio and television at least, bald editorializing was actually quite rare. Eric Sevareid’s spots on CBS, for example, were devoted to explicating the news rather than promoting an opinion, which would have been anathema to the longtime journalist. When official opinion was broadcast, station owners – mindful that they were using airwaves licensed to them by the public and guided since 1949 by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” – would invite an opposing view. This conceit became a weekly 60 MINUTES feature called “Point/Counterpoint,” savagely parodied by the new satirical program SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (“Jane, you ignorant slut!”). But in 1987 the FCC rescinded the Doctrine, and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush beat back attempts in Congress to reinstate it, on the grounds that broadcasters’ First Amendment rights to free speech were being impinged. That opened the floodgates for partisan broadcasting that had no obligation to present an opposing view. This relatively recent development in mass media is the hottest thing on radio, and despite the public sackcloth and ashes, the leading programs are overwhelmingly conservative. As for television, Fox News speaks for itself – quite literally.

One of the most impressive aspects of the right-wing establishment is its message discipline. Do you remember just after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters, “I’m not going to engage in the blame game,” and continued to use the term repeatedly during his press briefing? Then the same term was picked up by Congressional Republicans, conservative talk radio and Fox News. It also happened when President Obama refused to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse because “we don’t need to spike the football”: the instant right-wing meme was that he was doing exactly that (perhaps hoping we’d forgotten George W. Bush’s flight-suit strut on that aircraft carrier), and this exact phrase tumbled from right-wing mouths for two days. What, does Fox hold meetings to decide what today’s talking points are going to be? As Mr. Sherman reports, why yes, as a matter of fact it does. That’s the exact opposite of reporting news, but that’s also what creates Fox fans. Besides, simply repeating something, no matter how preposterous, gives it weight, as Fox News has proved with the “Swift Boat” campaign against John Kerry and its laughable annual “War on Christmas.”

Many observers, including me, have long wondered whether the on-air opinionators of Fox News are simply performing for the camera or genuinely subscribe to the principles they’re spouting. After reading this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least some of the on-camera talent may indeed be pontificators-for-pay (Glenn Beck in particular was never an Ailes team player and stuck to his own messages, and Bill O’Reilly’s main orientation is apparently Bill O’Reilly), but Ailes himself actually believes a lot of this stuff. He is an intensely paranoid man who sees conspiracies lurking everywhere – perhaps they are remnants of his time spent with Richard Nixon – and is so afraid of assassination that he had his Fox News office bomb-proofed and installed a bunker beneath his mountaintop country home in Putnam County, New York (after purchasing the sleepy local newspaper and turning it into an advocate) to weather an attack, which will be easier for him to spot after having cut down the nearby trees and bought as many surrounding houses as he could.

Is Fox News the official organ of the Republican Party? You may recall that no less than Dick Cheney directed that all tv sets in his vice-presidential hotel suites be pre-set to Fox, and a host named Steve Doocy flabbergasted observers one day by casually consulting a GOP talking-points memo on the air. Or is it the other way around? After all, it was Fox News – particularly its acerbic host Sean Hannity – which fanned the flames of the nascent Tea Party and probably cost Republicans control of the Senate for two straight election cycles; hyperventilating bombthrowers can win Senate primaries, but it turns out they get clobbered in the more rational general elections. (In the gerrymandered House, quite a few bombthrowers actually won, and collectively became Speaker Boehner’s worst nightmare.) Whatever Fox News is, it’s here to stay for a while, if not exactly at full strength: the channel’s core viewers are aging white men, and most of their potential younger replacements have long since learned to laugh rather than obey. Let’s face it, it’s more fun — and more lucrative — to be Roger Ailes when you have an enemy in the White House; whatever would Fox run 24/7 during a Romney administration? For now, railing against the Kenyan socialist (while secretly hoping for another Clintonian punching bag?) will just have to do.

3/9/13: Read this great story on Chris Ruddy, the guy behind the Newsmax empire, who is ready to give Ailes a run for at least part of his money on television. Ruddy has calmly discerned and exploited the market potential of serving right-wing-but-not-frothing boomers, and in real life he’s an independent who makes up his own mind.

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

Christopher Jones, 1941-2014

February 9, 2014

joneswildWhat a fascinating career had Mr. Christopher Jones. Blazingly handsome – even we straight guys noticed! – he made his bones on tv but then got cast in a low-budget AIP satire called WILD IN THE STREETS and became a mini-icon in 1968, the perfect year to do such a thing.

Robert Thom’s script is about a rebellious kid who grows up to become a pop star and then takes the next logical step: he literally turns celebrity into power. He sponsors rallies, elects a Senator, lowers the voting age to 15, and finally installs “Max Frost” as President, at which point he declares 30 to be the mandatory retirement age and sends all geezers to LSD-fueled sunset camps. Hilarious – unless you’re a geezer yourself.

WILD IN THE STREETS is a monster movie in which the monsters are normal coddled boomer kids. We saw it as a goof, and our parents never heard of it, so there goes your satire. (Except for the final scene, in which a young groovily-raised tyke acquires camera and says, “We’re gonna put everybody over ten out of business.” Haw haw….huh?)

Chris Jones, the “new James Dean,” was the drive-in crowd’s faux hero because of this role, and we completely understood it was faux, even down to the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil songs Chris was hurriedly lip-synching. (One of them, “The Shape Of Things To Come” – thanx, H.G. Wells! – actually became a for-real pop hit, credited on the single to “Max Frost and the Troopers”!) Here’s Chris’s lip-synch.

But we drank in his next pic, the ludicrous THREE IN THE ATTIC, and then the classier THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, and no less than David Lean was also seduced, hiring Chris for RYAN’S DAUGHTER. (I think Lean came to regret his casting decision.) Chris retired from acting and became a hermit anent showbiz.

Quentin Tarantino, who’s perfectly aware of everything I’ve just written, begged Chris to come out of retirement for PULP FICTION: he wanted him to play Zed, the redneck sadist role that eventually went to Peter Greene. Only Larry Bishop, Joey’s son and his old WILD IN THE STREETS mate, could coax Chris out for a limp, incomprehensible mob story called MAD DOG TIME. I thought he looked and sounded fine, just profoundly disinterested.

Goodbye, Chris. If you knew who you were to a sliver of boomers, then I hope that could possibly make you happy once in a while. If it made you sad instead, then I feel complicit, but there the film is; I’d rather just sing “14 Or Fight” once more. My very fondest wish is much simpler. I truly hope you didn’t care.

My Sundance 2014

February 2, 2014

14sundanceIt was nicer in Park City – bright sunshine, temperatures just at freezing or above – than in New York, where an impending winter storm caused Delta to cancel our outbound flight, which was scheduled to take off just after a pretty big snow dump. (We wound up getting a foot and our later flight put us into Park City almost half a day late, so we missed our first two movies; our hosts donated the tickets to the needy.) It’s probably foolish to suggest trends when you see barely a tenth of what’s offered, but foolishness has never gotten in my way before, so here’s what I noticed this year:

There Was Lots Of Music. In five of the 17 flicks I caught, and at least six that I missed, music was the central binding thread: the whole raison, not just a scene or two. Since indies take a while to make it to the screen – you have to grub for money first, which is arduous and debilitating (Kickstarter is actually helping!) – it’s too early to call it a reaction to the sensational success of Sundance-preemed SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN and 20 FEET FROM STARDOM. Maybe it’s something more basic. Maybe the struggles to realize a musical vision and a cinematic one are natural artistic soulmates. <pause to let the pretension sink in> Naaah.

These “Cheapos” Look Like US$1MM. Digital technology has transformed indieland. It looks like film once it’s bumped up for the big screen, and you can goose the image in so many ways before you even get there, but consider. No schlepping dailies to the lab and waiting till the next day to see them. No wasteful hours-long breaks for lighting and setup, plus, all that equipment is more portable. This isn’t digital assist, this is full digital: with a good camera operator and dependable talent, you can tear through a script. The clichéd queries at festival post-screening “q&a”s are, how much did it cost, and what was the shooting schedule? By now, directors are bragging about the latter without even being asked. “22 days.” “15 days.” Are you kidding me? The way they do it is simple: preparation. Know your objective and you’ll know when it’s achieved, and you can even allow for happy accidents on set, tight schedule and all. A well-managed digital shoot may be fleet of foot, but when all is said and done the image quality – particularly given digital projection – is indistinguishable by us amateurs from that of a much larger production. (Times are indeed changing, my dear cineastes. One end-credit roll read, “Captured in <wherever it was shot>.” Not “filmed.” Captured.)

Anna-KendrickAnna Kendrick Was Everywhere. She was the second “romantic” lead in the first two flicks I saw (see below for why I chose quote marks), and the star of one I missed because of the cancelled flight. Her specialty is cute: the girl the lead overlooks, but you’d hack through a pack of hyenas to get next to. Indieland uses the same talent pool as everybody else, so even here, movie “wallflowers” would all stop traffic in real life. How can one actor do so much work? “22 days.” “15 days.” Think about it.

Standing Os Are Getting Cheaper At Sundance. I’ve written before about this creeping virulence, which has long infected the New York stage, but if you’re there in person and your movie was at all enjoyable, these days you get more than just enthusiastic applause. (Every flick, quality aside, is greeted with polite hands-together as the end credits roll — after all, the filmmaker and/or his gramma might be sitting next to you!) Nope, nowadays you also receive a standing fricking ovation. It was ten years between my first and second Sundance standing Os (I participated in both), now they’re everywhere. I wasn’t there when Mark Ruffalo got his for INFINITELY POLAR BEAR – I might have leaped to my feet as well, he was that good – but we remained seated for others when most everybody had jumped up. It might appear as if we didn’t like the film. Not so. We just didn’t think it deserved a standing ovation. Few works of art do.

Enough navel-gazin, hoss: let’s go to the movies! Here are the 17 I saw, in order of screening, rated on a five-star scale:

THE VOICES**** (World Premiere) It opens in one of those hyper-realities that you see in Quentin Dupieux or David Lynch flicks. There’s Ryan Reynolds, working away in the packing & shipping department of some company: who cares what it packs & ships? Everybody wears hot-pink jumpsuits, the boxes are stacked unnaturally perfectly, Reynolds is a tad too jazzed when the boss asks him to serve on the company-picnic committee. You’re soaking up lots of these little Lynchian details that subliminally make you nervous waiting for the other shoe to drop. Don’t worry, pal, it’s going to, not long after Reynolds gets home and his dog and cat start talking to him. This is a classic “genre-bender,” and I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a horror-comedy. It has actual nail-biting suspense and actual gruesomeness, though like PSYCHO it draws a line and never steps over. It’s transgressive, but it remains a comedy throughout. You would never guess the director: Marjane Satrapi, who gave us the sublime PERSEPOLIS a few years back. Before the screening, she warned us, “This has nothing to do with my previous work.” Afterward, she elaborated: I smoke a lot, I figure I only have so many years on earth, so I want to try something different every time. Brava. Not for everybody, but if you are at all intrigued by the above tidbits, this is one wild-ass ride.

bethLIFE AFTER BETH*** The latest entry in a surprisingly burgeoning sub-genre, the “zomedy.” A teen has lost the love of his life to a snake bite in the woods, and he’s beside himself with grief – but she shows up at her parents’ house the next day. Beth is back from the dead, and she’s not the only one! At first the amazing reunion is wonderful – in this movie zombies look just fine when they’re fresh – but soon Beth begins to exhibit more troublesome behavior…and we’re off. There’s actually a serious subtext among the antics of such doting fathers as Paul Reiser (his) and John C. Reilly (hers): this goofy story calmly illustrates how hard it can be for any of us to let go. Aubrey Plaza literally chews the scenery in the title role, and the savvy script is full of fun stuff: for example, the only way to calm down zombies is to play them “smooth jazz” — Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good” figures prominently. This minor but entertaining film never takes its eye off the jokes, yet the cast is so serious and sincere (like all effective farceurs) that you can’t help but play along.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE** (Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent) At posh Winchester University, one of the residence-and-dining halls, “Parker/Armstrong,” is predominantly black, but the school has adopted a diversity program and some whites have sneaked in. This infuriates a popular broadcaster whose “Dear White People:” aphorisms are all the rage and who runs for Head Of House – and wins. Their ardent opponents are the lads from “Pastiche,” the house of the humor publication – wait, I’m stopping right here. What is this fantastical place? Yes, Ivy League, Lampoon, I understand. But this manned-up attempt to depict the many colors of color – and I do appreciate the varied points of view – devolves into so many in-jokes that it flew over the overwhelmingly white Sundance audience’s heads, including mine own. (A black couple behind me signaled whenever some arcane but hilarious shit had just transpired. They loved it, suggesting that you might not want to pay attention to me on this one.) The climax is an awful white-thrown but black-themed Halloween party which the end credits reveal has actually happened, multiple times, at colleges over the last few years. I did admire the view into certain vagaries of ethnic-but-erudite culture, even as it applies to whites (our chief rabble-rouser has a white boyfriend), but I’m just not hip enough for this particular room.

LAMBERT & STAMP**** (World Premiere) A last-minute festival entry, a lovely documentary on two budding London filmmakers who decide to manage a rock band and document the process as their first film. After a long search, they find four guys playing as the “High Numbers.” The filmmakers are Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, they rechristen those rocking lads The Who, and the rest is sociology. Kit, the posh one, is long gone, but there’s plenty of his multilingual archival footage (even some early sync-sound of the High Numbers!). Chris, the bloke, who passed away in November 2012, is all over this film with fresh interviews, as is his elder brother, some actor called Terence. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey also participate, even together in a searing b&w passage. Kit and Chris were the mortar which bound The Who, and though all six people became angry with every possible different combination of each other at one time or another, this is still a love story. The High Numbers were originally Roger’s band; Kit took it away from him in favor of Pete and Keith Moon in exchange for worldwide superstardom, and not until TOMMY did Roger regain his artistic dignity. That’s just one poignant through-line you discover in this wonderful, if occasionally table-knocking, flick. Spoiler Alert: Kit and Chris never got around to making their film — but maybe this is it!

fishingFISHING WITHOUT NETS*** (Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, shot through the looking glass. An American director – bolstered by the Sundance Institute after his short version won a jury prize in 2002 – depicts Somali piracy from the pirates’ point of view. The largely improvised dialogue is mostly in Somali, a language which director Cutter Hodierne does not speak, and it is uttered by East African non-actors, so this is to some extent a stunt, albeit a colossal one. The moral heart of the film is Abdikani Muktar, who plays a poor fisherman unable to make ends meet for his new family. Beside himself with desperation, he is seduced into a gang which plans to hijack a cargo ship and hold its crew hostage; the captain and first mate speak almost all the English dialogue. “Abdi”’s sweet, honest face becomes our anchor in a sea of wide-eyed, khat-chewing near-psychotics as the outlaws grow weary of waiting for their ransom but remain jacked up to the very edge of carnage. The directing effort itself probably couldn’t have been made more difficult, but the story’s long middle section feels too familiar: the setup and beautiful dénouement are the most gripping parts.

SONG ONE*** A kind, gentle piece featuring pretty romantic leads, easy on both the eyes and ears. Anne Hathaway returns to Williamsburg, Brooklyn from Ph.D. work in Morocco to help care for her musician brother, who lies comatose after an auto accident; they’d had words the last time they saw each other. Looking through his journal, which contains song lyrics and other creative snippets, she finds a ticket to a concert by his idol, James Forester, a British acoustic singer-songwriter. She attends, has a quick backstage chat to deliver a demo CD of her brother’s songs, and the next day the singer shows up at the hospital room. Thus begins a warm, gradual romance in which each lost soul finds redemption with the other. Johnny Flynn is wonderful as the (offstage) bashful, retiring Forester, and the character’s original songs are worth hearing (he doubles on violin!), with lyrics just this side of precious. An IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT-ish climax makes all good again, so there’s really nothing new here, but it’ll play just fine to the ONCE crowd.

polar bearINFINITELY POLAR BEAR***** An unmitigated triumph for star Mark Ruffalo as a bipolar, manic-depressive Boston father in 1978 who is forced to get a grip on his mental illness and take care of his two daughters while his wife (a long-suffering Zoe Saldana) spends weekdays earning an MBA in New York. His recent nervous breakdown has rendered him unemployable, thus the family’s desperate plan of action. Ruffalo never falters for a second in depicting the difficulties he and the girls face despite their obvious mutual love: sometimes his behavior is so wacky it’s funny, sometimes so threatening it’s terrifying. There’s no pandering for the audience’s love whatsoever, only Ruffalo’s for his snooty, aristocratic relatives, one of whom offers to chip in by making him the ludicrous gift of the family Bentley. The film is based on the real-life childhood of writer/director Maya Forbes (her sister, vocalist China Forbes of Pink Martini fame, sings us out under the end credits), and I can’t imagine being able to call up such authentic-looking color without having lived through it yourself. It’s a near-impossible situation that everyone nevertheless faces down with grunting emotional effort, and that determination gives the rest of us a little boost as we confront our own far more easily surmountable problems.

RUDDERLESS**** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Again with the music. Billy Crudup begins as a buttoned-down advertising exec in his father’s shop (best pitch line I’ve ever heard in the movies: “Four bigger agencies are laughing right now because we’re here presenting to you. <pause, leans in> We are not laughing.”). Something bad happens to his son. (It will take us a few more moments to understand just how bad this something was.) Time passes. Now the slick adman has turned into a house-painting boat bum, urinating off the side of his lakebound Oklahoma vessel and sad-sack home. Also a musician, he discovers some of his boy’s demo discs (again with the demo CDs!) and learns one of the songs, sings it at an open-mike night without explanation, and attracts a kid (Anton Yelchin) who’s blown away by what he thinks is Crudup’s music. They form a band, and there are several more great songs in the son’s stash. They get popular locally. Something has to give, and it does. This is the directorial debut of William H. Macy, and he does a splendid job: the storytelling is confident and comfortable, you’re swept away technically without any of the tyro’s “Look, mom! I’m directing!” tells, and the performances are sublime. You were in good hands all along. At the q&a afterward, somebody asked Macy which he preferred: acting or directing. He grinned and said, “I want to do this again.” Judging from this piece, of which he can justifiably be proud, he has a great directing career ahead of him. Most actors don’t.

skeletonTHE SKELETON TWINS**** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) Like his SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE colleague Will Forte in NEBRASKA, Bill Hader is carving out a path as a dramatic actor. It’s a natural fit for sketch comedians (as opposed to stand-up comics), because sketches and improv, where most SNL cast members have trained over the years, are all about establishing character quickly. In this film he co-stars with another great SNL sketch comedian, Kristen Wiig. They are brother and sister, but they are, to put it mildly, screwed-up siblings. He’s gay, a failed actor and failed suicide (it’s the opening scene, so I’m not spoiling anything). She’s married to a sweet, well-meaning All-American doofus (Luke Wilson), who just isn’t the right fit for her, and deep down she knows it, which makes her terrified at the thought of having a baby, which is his fondest wish. Again, this is not a comedy, though there are comic moments (a scene where Hader lip-synchs to a famous Starship song to cheer up his sister is a highlight). It’s a non-sexual love story, both raw and tender, with a satisfying sense of redemption. Nice job all around.

GOD’S POCKET** Another actor-turned-director, John Slattery of MAD MEN, chooses a Pete Dexter novel for his first feature. In a blue-collar Philadelphia neighborhood, a psychotic young man who likes to trash-talk and flash a straight razor gets too close to one particular neck on a construction site and is battered to death – but all the other workers, who hate the kid’s guts (as do we, after only five minutes with him) pretend it was an accident. His mom, who is loosely connected to Some People, decides to get a few hulking toughs to investigate. She also enlists the deceased’s stepfather, a lowlife meat distributor who owes too much money to the wrong guy, and an alcoholic newspaper columnist from the tonier part of town who is fascinated by her, ah, upper carriage. This is one of those street-smart stories filled with great character actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman (I learned of his passing while writing this post), Richard Jenkins, John Turturro, Eddie Marsan playing American, MAD MEN’s Christina Hendricks as the top-heavy mom, Caleb Landry Jones as the meanest punk alive, and more. But it just doesn’t catch fire, and unlike in RUDDERLESS, you can see the effort on screen. I’m not saying it’s easy to direct a movie, but it does take a rare and nimble hand to make it look easy.

THE ONE I LOVE*** (World Premiere) I hate to sound coy, but I can’t go into too much detail about the plot without spoiling it for you, and I’d definitely suggest seeking this one out. It may take some detective work, because one thing this isn’t is a big summer popcorn movie. (It was sold to IFC Films.) A couple whose marriage is faltering goes to a therapist, who sends them to an idyllic spot to help them reconnect. There’s a guest house on the property. I have to shut up here, but you can try to guess all day and will never come up with the actual story. Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss do amazing work as the couple, as required by Justin Leder’s bizarre, brainy script. Once you spend some time rolling with the wild & wooly premise, you may suspect that this movie might not be quite as smart as it thinks it is, but provocative? Absolutely. Director Charlie McDowell (it’s everybody’s first feature!) keeps the drollery floating as these two people deal with existential questions about their relationship – ah, I’m babbling to keep from spilling. Far from perfect, but original and, most important, fun.

boyhoodBOYHOOD***** (World Premiere) A masterwork; a miracle; Richard Linklater’s crowning achievement. It’s more than just the best film I saw at this fest; it’s one of the best ones I’ve ever seen anywhere. It’s a drama about a Texas family, but here’s the thing: it was shot in bits and pieces over a twelve-year span beginning in 2002. So we meet the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, at age six, and follow him all the way to college. The same kid. Time breaks aren’t indicated by title cards: a simple cut, just like all the others, may jump ahead (to preempt your q&a query, only 39 total shooting days), but you know time has passed because you can see the actors age. Not only does “Mason” — that is, Ellar — grow up before your eyes, but also his sister, played by the director’s daughter Lorelei; his estranged parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette; and various members of the supporting cast of this majestic piece of art. Once or twice you may find yourself thinking about age makeup on the adults because you’re conditioned to receive such fakery, but that’s not the technique used here: it’s the actual passage of time. Just to be clear, this is not a documentary, like Michael Apted’s British “Up” series. It’s a drama (with tons of laughs, a la real life), in which we follow the fascinating, tumultuous saga of a single family over twelve years. The running time is longish for Sundance (2:41), but the last film I’ll discuss below, nearly half its length, felt far longer. By the end, it’s as if you’ve known these people for years – BECAUSE YOU HAVE. Rick Linklater, whose career was lit at Sundance, returned a conquering hero this year. Imagine the cojones required to even conceive of such a thing, much less depend on your prodigious dialogue-writing skills to guide it to fruition! Man, see this movie by any means necessary. Try to minimize your bathroom breaks. And find a friend who can replace your jawbone after it’s dropped to the floor.

whiplashWHIPLASH**** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic, Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic) For the second year in a row, both the jury and the audience agreed on the outstanding U.S. dramatic entry. (This particular agreement creates some scheduling awkwardness on the final day: Sundance’s largest venue, a high-school auditorium seating more than 1200 people, is forced to screen the same movie twice in a row. Last year’s double winner was FRUITVALE STATION. The movie released as PRECIOUS also did it in 2009.) A talented kid (indie fave Miles Teller) who wants nothing less than to be the next Buddy Rich gets into a storied music school and thus must face one of the great Awful Authority Figures in cinema history: a sadistic, imperious teacher/conductor played by J. K. Simmons in the role of a lifetime. He combines the worst qualities of the PAPER CHASE law professor, the FULL METAL JACKET DI, and the Great Santini. Simmons mops the floor with this part: you hate him, but you can’t take your eyes off him and you can’t wait to see that terminally-hip skin-tight black T-shirt literally burst through the rehearsal-studio door one more time. Not only is this flick a crowd pleaser (hence the Audience Award, proving that you don’t have to be a musician to love it) but it also contains the best frickin drum solo I have ever seen in a movie. (Which piece? Hint: remember your Frank Zappa!) I subtract one star for the ultimate inevitability of the story – albeit after some interesting turns – but don’t miss this one, even if it’s only to watch J. K. Simmons play a human T.rex.

I ORIGINS**** (Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) I admired Mike Cahill’s ANOTHER EARTH three years ago, but my host, a surgeon, couldn’t get past the scientific anomalies it utterly ignored – and then when it won the Sloan Prize for “addressing ideas or characters central to science or technology,” he was scandalized, and it’s been a kind of rueful joke between us ever since. Cahill has really grown as a filmmaker, and this year we agreed that his second Sloan Prize, for a far more sophisticated piece, was much better awarded. A scientist is trying to establish evolutionary traits in the eyeball; as we hear a speaker explain in the background, this is the voila for “intelligent design” adherents – formerly known as “creationists” – who say it’s an organ so complex that it couldn’t possibly have evolved naturally. His hobby is photographing and recording iris patterns, which are as distinctive as snowflakes. He meets and woos a mysterious woman who is more spirit- than science-based; then, years later, he seems to be on the brink of an earthshaking discovery. To really accept this film, even as entertainment, you have to get over beautiful people Michael Pitt and Brit Marling as “lab nerds,” and meditate in order to ignore a middle section of too much key-tapping and screen-gazing, endemic to tech-based dramas. But there’s a powerful climax ahead, and this one really takes on some big issues.

RICH HILL*** (U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary) I thought I might actually get out of Park City this year without seeing the kind of bleak, depressing film that makes you want to blow your brains out. Ah, Sundance. This film follows three young lads – they appear to be junior-high age, but here grade-levels are malleable – in the most inaptly-named burg in Missouri. They all come from hardscrabble families, but instantly one boy, Andrew, becomes the audience’s moral way out. He loves his (sub-attentive) parents, he listens in school, he lifts weights to better himself (he’s nearly always shirtless but hasn’t quite arrived at Six-Pack Station), he can actually envision a brighter future: the liberal role model. Not so for Appachey, a rage-engorged ADD patient whose brows are always furrowed to movie-villain angles, even when playing ball with other kids; or Harley, a knife-wielding mountain of repressed anger whose mother sits in prison because she tried to kill the slimeball who diddled her son. These are all, I repeat, kids in Missouri.  There are blessed moments of pleasure, particularly a July 4th celebration, that unite these boys in happiness, but all else is squalor. One of them turns to the documentarians’ camera and addresses it directly, and the indictment passes all the way through to the audience.

IMPERIAL DREAMS*** (Audience Award: Best of NEXT) A very nice job (another first feature), again boosted by the Sundance Institute, about an ex-con trying to protect his young son from life in Watts after returning from prison. The forces urging “Bambi” (John Boyega) to return to thug life, despite his being responsible for a youngster who can still be picked up in his arms, are powerful enough that most of us would probably capitulate. This father figure has more fortitude than that. I’ve seen a lot of inner-city melodrama before, though for a change the harassing cops here are not white. It’s based on a real person; the director is smart and well-spoken. But I still felt I’d seen it before, probably here at Sundance.

cave20,000 DAYS ON EARTH** (Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary, Editing Award: World Cinema Documentary) First, I have to bow to the tremendous creativity employed in realizing this movie. It’s a “documentary” only because they say it is. Most of the footage is staged, lit, shot and cut just like a Major Motion Picture: in the artist’s bedroom, bathroom, writing room, auto (clearly pulled by a camera car), interlocutor’s (therapist’s?) office, etc. The subject and co-writer, Nick Cave, leader of the legendary Bad Seeds, ruminates, ruminates, and ruminates some more, reserving yet more rumination for you yobbos who didn’t manage to pick it up the third time. There are two kinds of people in this world: Bad Seed fans, and everybody else. Bad Seed fans will be frustrated because they only get loud in the final :15. Everybody else will find this film impossibly turgid, a real ordeal. I actually looked over at my wife in shame once or twice to see if her eyes were still open, because the audience were restless: during a rehearsal of the complete “Higgs Boson Blues,” in which nothing much was seen but Nick and the mike, there were walkouts, pee breaks, etc., galore. (Once the Bad Seeds took the stage in Sydney for the climax, nobody moved.) I would call bullshit on self-indulgence grounds if Nick hadn’t actually done some great things over his long career, and I repeat: this is an inventive way to tell a man’s life story (to depict the young Nick, they simply unpack Mum’s box of photos on camera). I’m gonna start with two stars, which is what I saw. Add your own stars depending on how much you like the Bad Seeds. And if Nick Cave is your FAVORITE POP STAR EVER, then that’s your five, mate.


Previous Sundance Reports

2013   2012   2011   2010   2009   2008

2/6/14: This post was featured today in WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” section, our second such honor. Welcome to all new readers: click around the “category cloud” in the right column and have fun.

Phil Everly, 1939-2014

January 4, 2014
Don (l.) and Phil, the Everly Brothers.

Don (l.) and Phil, the Everly Brothers.

Two-part harmony is about as far as I got in my autodidactic musicology classes. After all, I had a lousy teacher. I didn’t even know enough to re-string my guitar for leftie play, because the chords I taught myself were from sheet-music books and I thought that was how the fretboard was supposed to look. My torturous mirror-image F chord, requiring one finger to act as a bar across all the strings, is painful for rightie (that is, almost all) guitarists to watch. But then, they have their own carpal troubles with a G, which is easy as pie for me.

Harmony, though? Two-part. I had the ear and could even improvise. Get into three parts, though, like Peter, Paul & Mary, and you’ve gone beyond my music teacher’s abilities: Crosby, Stills & Nash sound absolutely magical. This two-part synapse was fried into my brain by Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers.

I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia while the transistor (i.e., wireless) radio was the hottest electronic toy. We went to the beach a lot. There were only two Top Forty stations in town: WNOR and WGH (the call letters stand for World’s Greatest Harbor). Grade-schoolers like me could walk up and down the beach and hear an unbroken stream of music, like the underscore in AMERICAN GRAFFITI: whenever one station went to commercial, all the little cigarette-pack-sized radios whirred to the other one. That was my education in late Fifties/early Sixties rock & roll. It was planted in the back of my mind, but it stuck, and now I can still remember every note of, say, that stuttering sax solo on the Coasters’ “Yakety Yak.”

The Everlys were kings of that scene. As was Sting much later, they were gifted with sharp, clear voices that cut through the muddy transmission of AM radio. They were pitch-perfect, and they meshed together so well that you couldn’t tell which singer was which Everly. We wouldn’t hear that again until Simon & Garfunkel, who modeled their sound on the Everlys and even included a live version of “Bye Bye Love” as their “so-long” piece on their final album together.

The last time I saw Phil, who passed away yesterday, was on stage at Madison Square Garden ten years ago. Their acolyte Paul Simon, who was touring again with his old partner and antagonist (which of them was really Don and which was Phil?), took a mid-show break, but not before announcing, “Ladies and gentlemen, Don and Phil, the Everly Brothers!” Their four-song mini-set destroyed the audience, most of whom hadn’t been around in the day. As I recall, they ended with “Bye Bye Love,” and their benefactors regained the stage to join in. But by that time I was weeping with joy and could hardly hear a thing.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,423 other followers

%d bloggers like this: