Room & Bird

September 18, 2017

Most of us have our lists of favorite movies, and I’d wager no two lists of, say, the top 25 are exactly alike. However, we’re less inclined to make lists of the worst movies we’ve ever seen, because it’s our natural tendency to try and forget ’em, despite the best efforts of the gang at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Today I have two for you, so beautifully bad that they break through the looking glass: I expect you will thoroughly enjoy watching each of them. They’re both available to rent on Netflix, and they’ve both been heckled by my MST3K-veteran pals at RiffTrax, but you don’t need their help. Just hit PLAY, sit back, and ponder the depths of determination and delirium that got these two particular movies made.

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I first heard of THE ROOM in 2010, seven years after its release, by reading a Harper’s piece by Tom Bissell. Roughly halfway through, I had to start reading again very carefully from the beginning, just to make sure I wasn’t the victim of a practical joke (the issue date was August, not April!). For what Bissell describes as a “post-camp cult film” had actually attracted a devoted midnight-screening audience since its release, the same kind of groundswell which propelled THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW — which I must emphasize is a legitimate movie with professional levels of production and performance, in stark contrast to THE ROOM — only with slathers of irony, akin to putting a tablespoon of wasabi into your mouth. I’ll try to describe it for you, but I can’t get any closer than Bissell’s best line: “It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him.”

The auteur of THE ROOM is a man who calls himself “Tommy Wiseau.” He desperately wants to be a movie star like his idol James Dean, though he has a slightly vampiric look and speaks somewhat broken English with a distancing Eastern European accent. (To hear Tommy’s voice for yourself without seeing THE ROOM, call the film’s hotline at (323) 654-6192.) After frustrating failures in scene classes and fruitless attempts to get auditions, he writes a “play” intended for the stage — which begins with an “external shot.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tommy Wiseau.

THE ROOM is an effort to produce an intense personal drama about a love triangle, but it is written, directed and lead-acted with such monumental incompetence that it turns in upon itself and becomes a thing of fascination. The writer has no idea how to fashion a scene that makes any sense, let alone a feature-length plot. The star actor can barely remember the simplest line, forcing the production to use the first good take it can manage. The director is completely clueless about any aspect of staging, camera movement, continuity, or guiding a performance. Tommy Wiseau is the diametrical opposite of a natural. He makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles.

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If it all sounds like something you’d be better off avoiding, please read THE DISASTER ARTIST, a book by featured actor Greg Sestero and journalist Bissell, and you’ll be dying to see THE ROOM. As well you should. In fact, you might want to do it before December, when a feature film based on the book appears, directed by and starring James Franco as Tommy. (He reportedly stayed in character between takes, in a bit of warped good sense.)

The book — and, I presume, Franco’s movie — cuts back and forth between THE ROOM’s hilarious production phase and Tommy’s backstory, or at least as much as can be gleaned by Sestero, his somewhat reluctant best friend in America. Even to those who know him best, Tommy is a man of mystery. His very age is in dispute. As the author well understands, those few crumbs he drops about his earlier life have been provided by an unreliable narrator. Yet these same crumbs are vital to our curiosity: as Sestero writes, THE ROOM is “so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?”

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Tommy’s one-sheet (l.) and James Franco’s fake for the DISASTER ARTIST movie.

THE ROOM is a product of almost superhuman determination. It is also a vanity project. Tommy got rich enough somehow — the source of his money remains unclear — to bankroll the $6 million budget personally, and he goes to extremes and beyond. What tugs at you while the film runs is that the crew behind the scenes are evidently real movie people: the camera’s in focus and the sound is clear. It’s just that they, along with a handful of not-untalented actors who have been sucked into the project’s maw, have absolutely nothing to work with.

They were, however, working with Tommy’s own equipment, purchased — not rented, as anyone else would do — from Birns & Sawyer to the tune of a million bucks. Cameras, lenses, Arriflex lighting equipment. For reasons we still do not understand, Tommy decided to simultaneously shoot THE ROOM in 35mm and digital HD. He ordered a mount that could hold both cameras at the same time. That meant hiring two different crews and using two different lighting systems that did not agree with each other, constantly forcing the DPs (Tommy ran through two disgusted cinematographers and finished the film with a third) to split the difference. Why? Tommy wanted to be the first filmmaker to shoot this way. He never pondered why nobody else had preceded him.

The ROOM shoot is studded with examples of such amazing idiocy, but as you work your way through the book and get to know Tommy a little better out of context, he gains a human dimension, much like the obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt of the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE. The difference is that Borchardt has no money — and his knowledge of what he needs to do on set may be crude, but it’s still light-years beyond Tommy’s.

THE DISASTER ARTIST ends with the world premiere of THE ROOM, which of course bombed in a house Tommy had papered, then went on to gross $1800 — yes, that is four figures — during its original two-week LA engagement. But two young film students noticed it, encouraged others to come — as I hope you discover, it is mesmerizing in its surreal way — and before long alternative comedians like David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and eventually the general public, became believers. At midnight screenings, they use ritualistic synched reactions like a ROCKY HORROR crowd. The flick has played and is playing all over the world: Tommy has even started referring to it as a comedy. Against all odds, he has managed to become famous.

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I can only hope that in the movie version Franco treats Tommy with the empathy he deserves and plays him as something broader than a cartoonish object of ridicule. Meanwhile, I urge you to enter THE ROOM for yourself, making sure to pick up your jaw off the floor at regular intervals, and swirl, sniff, and savor. You are experiencing the awesome power of sheer will.

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“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Tommy’s James Dean moment.

In January 2009, I was walking down Park City, Utah’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival when a…car…festooned with phony crows and feathers, with loudspeakers broadcasting bird calls, drove by, attracting gawkers wherever it went. On the side of the car was a banner reading

BIDEMIC
SHOCK AND TERROR

I would learn to watch for this car, which made its lonely path down Main Street dozens of times during the fest. It was promoting an ultra-low-budget picture which we later found out was actually called BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. That’s right, the signage on the promotional car, the only way this film’s producers could possibly position themselves before the Sundance crowd (or so they hoped), misspelled the title of the film. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all saw it. We all added the poor missing R.

Then we saw the movie. It was not a stroke of genius.

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It was easy for director James Nguyen to overlook the typo, because like Tommy, English is not his native tongue. A Vietnam-born software salesman, Nguyen shot the self-financed BIRDEMIC on weekends over seven months, then spent several years looking for distribution. Also like Tommy, Nguyen fervently believed that he was producing a great work of art. Inspired by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (and, he says, APOCALYPSE NOW), Nguyen contemplated a romantic thriller with an ecological message. What he achieved was instead a mess — but, again like Tommy, the sheer ineptitude becomes entertaining all by itself.

Let’s start with the “birdemic,” because Nguyen doesn’t. In fact, the first bird attack won’t appear until about halfway through. But it is a master class in preposterous visual effects. Before that comes a romance between a Silicon Valley software salesman (!) and a wannabe model, utterly barren of chemistry or even nuance. At first it’s curious, then it becomes fascinating. Meanwhile, ecological anomalies begin happening behind their backs. Finally, when the tension reaches fever pitch — shock and terror! Or so we’ve been promised.

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“Can they get in?”

Nguyen also shares with Tommy a gobsmacking inability to simply comprehend, much less explore, the language of film. Scene-setting is done using a series of slow pans and crane shots, like you might see in a better movie, but they continue long after the scene is set, even after it’s been nailed down. When bids — excuse me, birds — mass outside the motel where they’ve just spent a snuggly night, the girl (who is actually movie-star-pretty but gets no help from the script, the director, or the rest of the cast) peeks out from the drawn curtains to see an eagle hovering outside. She goes back to the bed to sit by the boy. “Can they get in?” she asks. He stares at the shut curtains, moves his focus back and forth for a few seconds, and replies, “Not at the moment.” He hasn’t seen any birds. Rather, his motivation is, that’s what it says in the script.

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A “bird” “attack.”

The bird scenes are the pièce de résistance. Cheap video matte effects are re-used to the point of redundancy: a flight of birds travels from left to right, then the same effects shot is flopped and the bird group comes back in the reverse direction. Identical hovering birds are liberally scattered throughout. And these birds dive to the sound of turbines and spit fire or something, at which point the buildings below them emit what looks a little like computer-generated smoke and fire but couldn’t fool an attentive five-year-old.

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“Birds” setting “fire” to some “buildings.”

I’m aware that this all sounds terrible, but like THE ROOM, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR passes through a creative portal that, say, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE — the worst movie I’d ever encountered until I saw THE ROOM — can’t penetrate. MANOS has nothing to offer but boredom and its makers are clearly passionless. But Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen actually think they’re shooting terrific movies when they just might be in over their heads. Their stoic struggles actually do wind up legitimately entertaining the audience — two miracles which prove that thing called “movie magic” is hardly monopolized by the suits in Hollywood. They’re each sui generis, each tons of fun. Do yourself a favor. Two favors.

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Quelle Horreur!

August 18, 2016

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On May 24, 1976, nine French experts sat down at the InterContinental Hotel in Paris to taste a flight of wines that included some of the most revered products of their own vineyards along with new, little-known bottles from little-regarded California. What happened in that room changed the world of wine forever. JUDGMENT OF PARIS is the last word on this earthshaking event and its profound ramifications, written by a knowledgeable eyewitness. It’s one of the best wine books I’ve ever read.

The shocking effect of the “Judgment of Paris,” as the event has wryly come to be known, struck like a lightning bolt. It could hardly have been anticipated: such tastings happen all the time. The organizers, wine retailer Steven Spurrier and his colleague Patricia Gallagher, simply put together an amusing way to acknowledge the American bicentennial — and “the role France had played in that historic endeavor” — by introducing French super-palates to some of the interesting wines coming from the New World, both reds and whites. For comparison, Spurrier told the judges, he had also selected some French wines crafted in a similar style. Like many tastings, this one would be conducted “blind,” meaning the judges would not learn the wines’ identities until after they had rated them.

The Paris tasting was a watershed event for two reasons. First, the highest-rated wines, both red and white, were — spoiler alert, though this is not a book of suspense — from California! Second, a correspondent for Time magazine was present, and he sent the news to the world in the following week’s issue. Nobody is better qualified to write about this event, because despite Spurrier and Gallagher’s best efforts, only a single journalist could be roused to attend: our author, George M. Taber. Even Mr. Taber remembers idly brushing off the invitation in his mind: “it seemed almost absurd to compare the best French wines with California unknowns.” But when he saw a judge swirl, sniff and sip from one glass and pronounce, “Ah, back to France!” he double-checked the list in his hand with Gallagher. It was really a Napa Valley Chardonnay! Later, another judge dismissed another white wine: “That is definitely California. It has no nose.” Mr. Taber again had to make sure that the list he held was correct, for this was a 1973 Batard-Montrachet Ramonet-Prudhon, one of the best-regarded white Burgundies on earth. He realized, “Spurrier’s Paris tasting might just be an interesting story after all.”

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don't know.

At the 1976 tasting, from left: Patricia Gallagher, Steven Spurrier, and I don’t know.

This book is wonderful not so much for its account of the event itself — the blow-by-blow description is only twelve pages long — but for helping us laymen understand what came before and after. While it’s perversely thrilling to watch pompous, patronizing worthies brought low (the EXPERTS SPEAK effect), this is really an uplifting, human-sized story featuring the Napa pioneers Mike Grgich, Warren Winiarski and Jim Barrett, who was portrayed by Bill Pullman in the underrated film inspired by the white-wine competition, BOTTLE SHOCK. We get to know these quirky, obsessed guys and watch how they manage to craft wines superb enough to stand up to the best France had to offer.

After introducing Spurrier and his little Parisian wine shop, Mr. Taber draws the bigger picture, beginning with a concise history of the wine industry in both France and California (which was awash in everyday wine before Prohibition). It’s hard to imagine this some forty eventful years later, but keep in mind that at the time of the Paris tasting, France ruled the wine world to the exclusion of most others. Fine wine, as opposed to jug or table wine, was considered to be exclusively European: if not French, perhaps Italian or Spanish. That’s where premier wine was made, and nowhere else. To most aficionados, California wine was nothing more exciting than a giant jug of Gallo “Hearty Burgundy.” But out of sight of Old World wine devotees, things were rapidly changing.

The terroir — climate, soil, slope, everything that gives a place its identity — of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the most prized viticultural regions in France, has been producing distinctive wine for centuries. Generations of winemakers — often literal generations as progeny take over the longstanding family business — have learned over time how to exploit their land, coax out the most useful grapes, and deal with the vicissitudes of weather that make each vintage unique. California winemakers couldn’t count on the wisdom that comes with long experience; they had to improvise. But they did have some advantages. Without being tied to rigid tradition, they felt free to experiment with new techniques and technologies. And their growing season of warm days and cool nights, with relatively predictable rainfall, was far less volatile: the range of quality between good harvests and poor ones was thinner than that of their French counterparts. What they were doing was under the radar, which is why the idea of a world-class wine from California was “almost absurd” in 1976. But the visionaries had known for years that this place — the Napa Valley and Sonoma County — seemed just perfect for making fine wine. Now they had to learn how to use it.

A great winemaker is a combination of farmer, chemist, artist and salesman: a practical dreamer. Sometimes it takes more than one person to nail down all these qualities. Mr. Taber repeats the probably apocryphal but famous exchange between Modesto’s Gallo brothers: Ernest is reputed to have said, “I’ll sell all the wine you can make,” to which brother Julio responded, “I’ll make all the wine you can sell.” The runup to the tasting shows the many roads traveled by its American principals, who were devoted to quality, not quantity. Warren Winiarski discovered the conviviality of everyday wine while spending a graduate-school year in Naples. Mike Grgich was a Croatian who grew up in a casual-wine culture. And Jim Barrett had his first taste in law school but graduated to finer wines after his real-estate law practice in Los Angeles flourished. However it happened, each man became enthralled with the idea of producing wine, each inspired by the great growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But they needed each other to put together the total package.

They also needed practical experience, and Mr. Taber details the winding paths that led Winiarski to found Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Barrett to revive Chateau Montelena (Grgich was its chief winemaker), makers of the red and white wines which won the Judgment of Paris. Stints at various established wineries, and the breakthroughs generously shared by other obsessives like Robert Mondavi — a natural-born marketer who became the face of Napa wine — allowed them to collapse the European centuries into years. Although Mr. Taber pays the most attention to the two victors, with precise reporting on the making of both individual winning vintages, he also goes into detail on each of the other wines presented at the Judgment. Six California Cabernet Sauvignons were tasted alongside four Bordeaux reds, and six California Chardonnays with four white Burgundies. At last Mr. Taber arrives at the main event, as the unlabeled, pre-decanted bottles are brought in while the judges chat merrily.

When Barrett and Grgich’s 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was announced as the highest scoring white, the reaction of the judges “ranged from shock to horror.” As the reds were poured, Spurrier felt they would not let that happen again. They knew the French reds forward and backward. But, incredibly, Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet won as well. It was incontestable: fine California wines could now rival the finest in the world.

WinePouring_1-CREDIT_Bella_Spurrier_Paris-1976Actually, it was contestable, and the French judges’ grapes immediately turned sour. Mr. Taber’s report appeared in the June 7, 1976 issue of Time in the “Modern Living” section, a one-column note following a story on a new theme park in Atlanta. But the buried notice seized the wine world instantly, and the French started walking back the results. Mr. Taber summarizes their main objections and even concedes one, that the tasting was mathematically stacked against France by presenting more American wines. But Spurrier hadn’t been thinking of the event as a contest; in fact, he was certain the French wines would score highest. He was simply trying to showcase some interesting bottles from the New World.

Speaking of the New World, ask most winelovers about the significance of the Paris tasting of 1976 and they’ll say it put California wines on the map and forced serious oenophiles to take them seriously. But as Mr. Taber shows, that wasn’t the largest consequence. Winemakers all over the world realized that if they found the right spot, used the right methods and brought the right passion and taste to bear, they could also produce world-class wine. The Judgment of Paris demystified Europe in general and France in particular. It led to the globalization of fine wine. In the book’s longest chapter, Mr. Taber takes a globe-spanning tour three decades later to a few great wineries outside France and Napa/Sonoma. The world’s best Sauvignon Blanc comes from New Zealand. Its best Syrah is made in Australia (in “Strine” it’s “Shiraz”). There’s a fabulous single-vineyard Chardonnay produced in South Africa (now the rest of the world can actually buy it in good conscience), and a real Burgundian is making dazzling Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. And so on and on, for these pioneers represent many hundreds more. In wine terms, the “New World” now indicates everywhere but Europe.

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The finest French wines — if one can afford them — can still be mind-blowing, and the great chateaux are a deserved source of national pride. But France’s share of the worldwide wine trade has inexorably slipped in the years since the Judgment while newcomers like Australia and Chile have been on fire: they’re unafraid to target a specific promising market. For example, Yellow Tail is fairly-priced everyday wine specially crafted for the American palate and marketed under a brand name that’s easy to remember; it’s hugely popular, and it doesn’t come from Modesto, but from Down Under. France’s — and now California’s — competition is everywhere these days. Mass marketers like Yellow Tail aside, there has never been a better time to enjoy respectable wine at an affordable price.

My hardcover copy of this book was published in 2005, and I just now got around to it (so many books, so little time…). Click on the jacket art up top, or the book title in the first paragraph, and you’ll link to a revised and updated paperback reprint, about a year later. The further passage of time hasn’t really changed Mr. Taber’s conclusions. The wine industry, like so many others, continues to consolidate. But the Internet and the inevitable dissolution of remaining laws preventing interstate shipping (it’s up to each individual state legislature) are enabling smaller wineries to reach far-off customers without the permission, or the fees, of middleman distributors. Mr. Taber writes clearly and vividly, and assumes you don’t know a thing about wine. By the time you’re finished, he’s given you an excellent idea of how “bottled poetry” is created, and a front-row seat at the thunderous event that changed everything.


Terminological Inexactitude And Other Obfuscations

June 20, 2016

61b9BIkGz7L._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_If you find annoying the blatant B.S. rampant in politics, business and culture, here’s a chance to turn your grumbles into giggles. The latest collaboration by those scamps Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf is a compendium of doubletalk, deception and crude euphemism from all parts of society: SPINGLISH.

Our curators are a distinguished duo. Beard is the co-founder (with Doug Kenney and Harvard schoolmate Rob Hoffman) of National Lampoon and co-author (also with Kenney, while they were still in college) of the magnificent book-length parody BORED OF THE RINGS. In 1975, having fulfilled his contractual obligation, he cashed out of the Lampoon and became an instant rich man. The brand was as hot as it gets at the time and would soon scale new heights in the movie business, but Beard was sick of having to herd a ragtag group of high-strung cats like Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue. He equated the Lampoon years with his hitch in the Army Reserve, which he hated. But now he could do anything he wanted, which included a lot of golf. He tried screenwriting and didn’t like it, then returned to his real forte, intelligent humor, which often put him on the Times bestseller list in the ensuing years. Cerf was also a pixieish provocateur on the Lampoon staff in its Seventies heyday. Besides writing, he has worked in music and television: I still envy one of my closest friends for getting to share quality Chris Cerf time on the public television series BETWEEN THE LIONS. But he will always be my hero for co-founding the “Institute of Expertology” with Victor Navasky and then issuing the ultimate collection of learned but mistaken prognostication, THE EXPERTS SPEAK, along with its shocking-and-aweing little cousin, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! OR HOW WE WON THE WAR IN IRAQ.

51hbNavCQtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_514VuaGXeuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_At first glance, SPINGLISH’s wry explications of deliberately squishy phrases may suggest a 21st-century version of THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY. The difference is, Ambrose Bierce was mocking; Beard and Cerf are reporting. Every entry is sourced and footnoted, mostly with second-hand citations in articles and papers, but there are plenty of notes that come complete with perpetrator and date. For example, we all know a “gentlemen’s club” is really a strip joint and “ethnic cleansing” is a blander term for genocide, but what corporation would use the creepily cheerful claim that eliminating one thousand jobs was “rewiring for growth”? Walgreens did, in a press release on January 8, 2009. The book is ecumenical and favors no particular culture-war combatant over another: outre usage seems to be universal. In 2008 Tesla’s Elon Musk described the “layoff” (itself an example of Spinglish) of ten percent of his workforce as a “modest reduction in near-term head count.” Emotionally neutral ways to downplay firings are some of the most common examples of soft-serve spin: other popular inspirations include lying, plagiarism, bankruptcy, and the use of lethal military force.

On reflection it’s somewhat sad how many of these euphemisms have fallen into common use and thus are widely understood in their unadulterated true form: collateral damage, downsizing, Rubenesque, sanitation engineer, friendly fire, overserved, mobile home, semi-private, surgical strike (surgeons try to prevent loss of life), executive assistant, well-endowed, strategic withdrawal, and many more. To help further our understanding of this obfuscatory tongue, the bulk of the “dictionary” is “Spinglish to English,” but the authors include a handy reverse “English to Spinglish” section so we can experience verbal transmogrification in yet another way.

The droll observations of our two auctorial satirists provide lots of fun. “Support our troops” really means “support our policy.” “Judicial activism” is “what judges you don’t agree with do.” A “freedom fighter” is “a terrorist who happens to be on the side you’re supporting.” “Hands-on mentoring” is “sexual relations with a junior employee.” “Fanaticism” is “what enemy troops display when they storm a well-armed position. When our troops storm a well-armed position, they display bravery.”

51IVFr0ZoeL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_SPINGLISH is quite the welcome relief after Beard and Cerf’s previous reference, ENCYCLOPEDIA PARANOIACA, devised by the “Cassandra Institute” as a guide to everything you should be “afraid of or worried about.” It’s fundamentally hilarious in that the book’s very existence makes fun of the fact that we Americans are afraid of our own shadows, but entry after impeccably sourced entry may actually cause you to fret about something new after having lived thus far in blissful ignorance. “This book just might save your life,” it claims. “(Apologies in advance if it doesn’t.)” SPINGLISH is at once lighter and more transgressive. There’s only one thing funnier than someone who thinks he’s clever clumsily trying to put one over on the rest of us, and that’s a tiresome pontificator taking a well-deserved pie in the face. To enjoy that bit of verbal slapstick, you need THE EXPERTS SPEAK.


Capitalisn’t

May 5, 2016

51gjhcyg1lL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My friend Doug Ross sent me a book out of the blue. (I love when that happens.) He’d been talking about this breezy, fascinating volume by a Cambridge economist, but “Cambridge economist” alone had my eyes glazing over. In mild exasperation he sent it my way, and 23 THINGS THEY DON’T TELL YOU ABOUT CAPITALISM, its listicle title, consigned it to my “maybe one day” pile. For some reason that day arrived, and do I owe Doug a round of applause. This thing is substantial, economically sound, and thoroughly accessible to us civilians (unlike Thomas Piketty’s work). It’s also fun and puckish in the way it gleefully destroys received wisdom on how profit-centered economies really work. “There is no such thing as a free market,“ Ha-Joon Chang begins (that’s Thing 1), and he’s just getting started.

Most politicians who yak about the “free market” actually mean, “free from those pesky regulations.” But as Dr. Chang points out, all developing economies, including that of the United States, have used regulation and protectionism to give domestic wealth a chance to emerge and then to preserve it. Most regulations aren’t apparent to us, he writes: we notice one “when we don’t endorse the moral values behind it.” To the rich world, identical tactics in struggling economies can seem unfair, but that is not how global capitalism works. This conflict between perception (“common knowledge”) and reality powers the entire book, which mainly consists of hole-poking into the fiscal piety of what the author terms “free-market economics,” or simply letting the “invisible hand” of the economy seek its own level. That is not what happens, never has been, and if any state or consortium actually tried to leave its market alone, the result would be disastrous.

Each discussion of the author’s 23 Things begins with a paragraph called “What they tell you.” As I read them, I was struck again and again: jeez, that’s exactly what I was taught! The next paragraph is the truth, “What they don’t tell you.” Finally, Dr. Chang explicates his conclusions with data, logic and common sense, all sourced and cited in notes at the end. Never does he outpace the lay reader, not even when one or another of his Things seems counterintuitive (Thing 4, “The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has”) and deliberately invites scorn or disbelief until the author patiently proves his point.

The book’s brief 260 pages contain a wealth of upended “wisdom” and provocation. We do not live in a post-industrial age. The U.S. does not have the world’s highest standard of living, though its managers are paid too much, as are most workers in other rich countries. Africa is not doomed to perpetual underdevelopment. Financial markets need to become less efficient, not more. The trickle-down theory is a sham. Even after Communism, we still live under planned economics. People in poor countries are more entrepreneurial than those in rich countries. We are not smart enough to leave things to the market. And much, much more.

You will almost certainly disagree with at least a few of the 23 Things before Dr. Chang gets through with you, maybe even after. His institutional bias is certainly toward the collective and the global, and that’s all a right-wing radio host would need to cut him down. But there is no question that you will be made to think more rationally, and more planet-centrically, about “the things we know that just ain’t so.” What more can you ask of a book you can either ponder bit by bit, or devour in a single sitting?


The Stage, On The Page

April 12, 2016

The-Secret-Life-of-American-Musicals-by-Jack-ViertelThe Broadway musical is as American an art form as jazz or the blues, and it has patriotically survived the recent British invasion led by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The term “musical comedy” has become rather archaic, since we find very little humor (but there is some) in bombastic productions like LES MISERABLES or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Yet troupers are still singing and dancing on the Great White Way, and to record-setting business, too; the New York “legit” theater has never been healthier.

I know a few people who don’t like musicals on principle. It annoys them whenever a character breaks into the story to sing: it’s unnatural, unrealistic, even silly. (Now when a hobbit puts on a magic ring to turn invisible, they’re perfectly happy. But we all have our own contradictions, don’t we?) My niece, one of the most devoted Broadway fans I know, attends nothing but musicals. But to non-aficionados they’re all pretty much the same, distinguishable only by the setting or, more rarely, by the intrusion of a contemporary type of music (HAIR, RENT, HAMILTON). A devotee would certainly disagree, but how many of them have sat down and truly thought it through? Any presentation that demands the attention of an audience for nearly three hours has to lead it on some kind of narrative ride. My biggest takeaway from an eye-opening new book is how much commonality most well-made musicals share, even when very creative people are racking their brains for brand new ways to surprise and delight the folks in the seats.

There are general principles that most of the best, longest-lasting musicals observe, and they are deconstructed for you in THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel. It’s packed with anecdotes and lore, authoritative without forgetting to be fun, the best general-audience guide to “how Broadway shows are built” (per the subtitle) that I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Viertel is senior vice president of Jujamcyn Theaters, one of the three big Broadway owner/producers (see more below), and he has also been a dramaturg and newspaper critic. Over a long career he’s worked with both the creators and the landlords, combining an expert’s breadth of knowledge with a fan’s appreciation and enthusiasm. I used to joke that I was the only straight man in New York who saves all his Playbills. Evidently I was mistaken.

“Building” a musical, no matter what kind, requires some basic materials. When the curtain rises, the audience immediately needs to know, Where are we? Who are these people? How can I tell them apart? And why should I care? From there, a remarkable number of classic pieces — including the current hottest ticket in the world, HAMILTON — use similar patterns to create interest and pleasure in their audiences. “It’s only in hindsight that the patterns emerge,” Mr. Viertel writes, and he takes pains to assure us that writers and composers are not working from a cookie-cutter template. But in his hands it’s amazing to compare creative solutions that achieve common goals. Not all hit shows follow these patterns, and not every show contains every single one, but there’s much more agreement on what the author calls the “classic chassis” than you’d expect at first thought.

The book is organized like a two-act show. From the overture to the curtain call, Mr. Viertel illustrates structure with historical examples, trivia, and backstage color told with savvy assuredness. He shows how the “song plot” advances storytelling: despite my friends’ distaste, there are perfectly valid reasons why somebody starts singing. We learn about the “I want” song, which establishes a difficult goal (like “My Shot” in HAMILTON); the conditional love song (there’s a dramatic reason it’s “If I Loved You” in CAROUSEL instead of just “I Love You”); the “noise,” which uses comedy and kinetics to recharge the audience in the third or fourth song slot (“Hasa Diga Eebowai” in THE BOOK OF MORMON); the song which is basically there so a big star can shine; the Main Event, sometimes called the “11 o’clock number”; and lots more. You find yourself nodding your head at aspects of the musical experience that you’ve frequently seen but never really noticed, like the Second Couple (Will Parker and Ado Annie in OKLAHOMA!, Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide in GUYS AND DOLLS) which provides counterpoint to, and frequently comic relief from, the romantic leads. It’s a little like finding out how a magic trick works, but the net effect is to make you appreciate originality even more.

razzleMr. Viertel’s book is about the show. A second one is about the business. RAZZLE DAZZLE by Michael Riedel recounts the colorful, sometimes oddball history of the people who own the Broadway houses and battle each other for the best bookings. Mr. Riedel has been the wildly popular theater columnist for the New York Post for nearly twenty years; he’s probably the second most influential journalist in the field, just behind the lead critic for the New York Times. He is impressively well plugged in, and has either witnessed or heard first-hand accounts of some hair-greying events in a wobbly industry that was almost snuffed out by the slow deterioration of its Times Square neighborhood by the mid-Seventies. Now, of course, Times Square, most notably the formerly notorious 42nd Street, has been transformed into a booming, profitable family destination — and the Broadway theater owners had a great deal to do with it.

A pause for some definitions. Despite how it sounds, the difference between a “Broadway” and “off-Broadway” production is not location, but the number of seats in the theater. Five hundred and above makes it a “Broadway” house, no matter what’s playing there. One hundred to 499, “off-Broadway.” Below 100, “off-off-Broadway.” At Lincoln Center, for example, the Vivian Beaumont Theater, current home to THE KING AND I, is “on Broadway.” Under the same roof, down one flight of stairs, is the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, much more intimate and thus “off-Broadway.” And neither one of them is located in the Times Square “theater district.” So it’s the auditorium, not the address. There are exceptions, like Carnegie Hall, which usually hosts individual musical performances rather than scripted theatre; and the outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, home only to two “free Shakespeare in the Park” shows each summer.

This distinction isn’t simply academic. As you have probably guessed, money is involved. The actors, musicians and backstage crew work under different contracts depending on the producer’s potential gross. Furthermore, some Broadway houses are physically much smaller than others, so they tend to book straight plays, where every cost is more modest, and those productions can certainly yield profitable hits too. But big brassy shows, in the largest theaters, are where the real money is and where the tourists flock. If you’re waiting for discount tickets at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square and you fancy a play, go straight to the far window. Non-musicals only. Nobody’s there. Smaller doesn’t equal worse: much of the most exciting theatre in New York, including a few reduced-scale musicals, is performed off-Broadway. But razzling-dazzling singing and dancing in Broadway-sized houses is what each of these books is overwhelmingly about.

Mr. Riedel chronicles the rise of the Shubert family, Broadway’s biggest landlord, beginning with its hardscrabble upstate origins and finally its brave move into New York City, where a loose consortium actually referred to as “the Syndicate” — its founders were the five largest theater owners at the turn of the century, who controlled the best houses in the biggest cities across America — intimidated its rube competition as surely as Vito Corleone and his boardroom peers. We watch the bold, determined Shuberts buy and build, and suffer its own clan’s fools as must any family-run company. On July 7, 1972, the feckless, drunken surviving Shubert was deposed as head of the Shubert Foundation, which legally owns the theaters, by family lawyers Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld. “Bernie and Jerry” then became responsible for the Shubert Organization’s greatest years, and for a notable era were the most powerful producers on Broadway. Mr. Riedel has the most intimate access to these people, and my main beef is that he gives the other players short shrift. But after all, the Shuberts are arguably where the action is. They are far and away the largest landlord, with 17 Broadway theaters. The competing Nederlander organization owns 9, and Jujamcyn (Mr. Viertel’s employer, which is mentioned here only in passing) has 5.

The colorful business story is interspersed with fascinating producers’-eye views of how a few landmark shows (at least in a business sense) made their way to the stage: EQUUS, A CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS, CATS, NINE, CHESS, 42ND STREET, and more. Creative talents like Michael Bennett and Andrew Lloyd Webber deal with both adulation and ignominy before our eyes. And the long slog toward the desperately needed rejuvenation of Times Square — featuring Atlanta architect John Portman, he of the glass elevators, and his mammoth Marriott Marquis Hotel, which plants a gentrifying flag in the seedy district (its lobby is five floors above the hoi polloi at street level, and there’s a Broadway theater inside the hotel) — becomes a life-and-death struggle from the producers’ point of view. (“Where’s Broadway going to go? New Jersey?” asks a skeptical Mayor Ed Koch about the neighborhood.) Again, the book is too Shubertcentric: we also don’t get that close a look at interlopers like the Walt Disney Company, whose seemingly daft 49-year lease of the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater was the key to the revival of 42nd Street.

In the analog era I might have noted that some of the location description might be a little off-putting to people who don’t know New York City that well: I might have complained that there was no theater-district map. But everybody can locate these places on their frickin phones by now, so all you really need for SECRET LIFE and RAZZLE DAZZLE is a love for the American musical, and/or a curiosity about how it’s served to you. One’s for the notes. The other’s for the C-notes. But you can’t have Broadway without both of them.


Eudora Welty, 1909-2001 (Late)

January 17, 2016

eudora-welty-205x302I wrote this the week Eudora Welty passed away and just found it again after all these years. It’s for her friends and admirers.

Eudora Welty died at the age of 92, in Jackson, Mississippi, the town where she lived most of her life. Until her health became frail a few years prior, she had been a fixture of daily life in her quiet, wooded neighborhood, but not in the way William Faulkner once prowled the streets of Oxford, where the bemused locals referred to him behind his back as “Count No-Count.” Miss Welty—for that is how everyone addressed her until they were sweetly admonished to use her first name instead—was a genteel, beloved, active member of the community. She could be seen pushing her grocery cart through the aisles of Jitney Jungle #14, inside its absurd and incongruous “English Village” façade, straining to reach a can on the top shelf but always bearing her beatific smile. She was a regular at Fannie Mae’s hair salon, where gab was as important as styling. One might easily pass her walking on the street in the sultry summer twilight. Never did anyone stop, point, whisper that they were in the presence of one of the towering figures in American letters.

That’s because Miss Welty did not tower. Her work did that for her.

She possessed two talents that many writers of prose tend to overlook, and about which most hotshot screenwriters, judging from their output, can only dream: Eudora Welty had exceptional eyes and ears. Her authorial might derives from a gloriously detailed visual atmosphere, and from her uncanny ability to replicate, and then enhance, the quirky Southern idiom she heard every day and had stored in memory from her girlhood. She enjoyed watching others exercise those talents, too, and was an ardent theatergoer in a time when Jackson sported more than one credible company. She served on the board of directors of New Stage Theatre, the pioneering group that had opened its doors in the mid-Sixties with a raging production of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at a point when the community was more accustomed to the likes of SOUTH PACIFIC, and she saw nearly every show there. That’s how I got to know her, and that’s when she became “Eudora” to me.

At cast parties in the ornate residences of Southern ladies who lunched, in the rarefied social strata unlocked by her accomplishments, she would come up to the smitten amateur actors and bestow the kindest praise. She didn’t like everything she saw and she told you so, but her scorn was usually reserved for the playwright. I always wanted to say, compared to what you do, we’re five-year-olds putting on a show with flashlights in Daddy’s living room. I even suspected that her enjoyment might be something like what Daddy feels for his lisping children. But that’s not how one accepts a compliment gracefully, and Eudora was the living embodiment of grace.

Once Ivan Rider, then New Stage’s artistic director, invited me to dinner with Eudora, just the three of us. Wow! I looked forward to the event eagerly but nervously. What could I possibly say to amuse her? After a cocktail or two—and she was never shy about cocktail hour—I realized she was using a conversational gambit that comes in handy any time: we were talking about me. But whereas most of us coax someone onto the subject of themselves just to break the ice, Eudora was simply feeding the natural curiosity that made her an unique cross between an artist and a journalist. Ivan had conspired to serve barbecued shrimp, a New Orleans delicacy. To partake, you throw some old newspapers on the table, dump out the shrimp, put on bibs and any other protection you might have, and peel your way through the spicy, delicious mess. Eudora said this was a great dish because its sloppiness washed away any pretense, and diners would always “rise from the table as friends.” By this time, she was talking about herself. She’d just read a novel by a then-fashionable and wildly successful Southern author, and was not impressed: “Honey, you may think you’ve got it. But you don’t.”

The last time I saw Eudora, a friend had asked if I might facilitate some inscribed books for Christmas presents. Eudora insisted that we both come over. On the day, I was mortified that my friend was lugging an imposing stack of COLLECTED STORIES—I thought too many. But its author couldn’t have been more gracious, as ever. On her table was the current issue of Newsweek, with its stark black-and-white cover photo of John Lennon. She was quite disturbed over Lennon’s murder, not as a Beatles fan—she said she liked some of their melodies but I didn’t sense any particular passion—and not just for the potential work that the world wouldn’t get to hear, but chiefly for its meaninglessness; why slaughter an artist who had never hurt anyone? The culture of insanity had already introduced itself with Charles Manson, but we had not yet arrived at the point where schoolchildren took revenge on their tormentors with bullets. Eudora was perplexed over Mark David Chapman. Her vast empathetic skills were of no use here. She couldn’t put herself in his place. In the ensuing years, I’m sure she had to wrestle with this problem again and again, but by then I had moved away, to New York. And then she was gone.


The Five Biggest Cultural Events Of 2015

December 30, 2015

41199682-fa08-4cca-9691-bfdd5163c812_12731_CUSTOMHAMILTON. Every bit as crowd-pleasing as it is brilliant, this changes everything, as OKLAHOMA!, HAIR and RENT once did, by bringing fresh ideas into the theater just when we needed them. Among the show’s legion of fans is the President of the United States (and he saw the understudy!), who commented, ”I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on during my entire political career.” The night Cheney attended, creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “He’s the OTHER vice-president who shot a friend while in office.” A hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers is the toughest ticket in New York: who would have thought? Before HAMILTON wins its inevitable Tony next June, I predict it will have already earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

UnknownTRUMP. Talk about a disruptor! The Pub race was always gonna be colorful (Rick Santorum again?), but Jeb! was supposed to be unstoppable: guys like Rubio and Kasich were actually running for vice president, went the wisdom. Then Donald J. Trump shows up with a very simple message for the Pub base: (1) I don’t even HAVE a dog whistle, so I say out loud what you’ve been thinking all along; and (2) I’m so rich that the power brokers can’t buy me off. Add that to a general loathing of professional politicians among the Tea Party set (the wet-eared, anti-governance Freedom Caucus just obtained the scalp of its own party’s Speaker of the House), and Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina are promoted as electable not despite, but because of their ignorance. The star chambers which actually run the party have been impotently predicting The Donald’s demise for six months, but now the RNC is making contingency plans to protect its down-ballot candidates against an ever more possible Trump nomination. Absurd, yes. But party bosses have to think about it. Anything less would be malpractice.

Unknown-1ADELE. Recorded music was supposed to be dead to streaming and piracy. Then Adele released her album 25, and to say it was eagerly awaited is the understatement of the 21st century. In its first week, 25 sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S., shattering quarter-century sales records to bits and making it far and away the most lucrative cash cow of the digital era. To put it another way, that week 25 was responsible for 42% of all recorded music sales; the closest competitor in this regard is Taylor Swift’s RED one year ago, and she controlled barely half of Adele’s market share. Her listeners come from all shades of the music spectrum: men and women, old and young, people who barely follow what’s left of the music business. Her single “Hello” became so ingrained in the culture that it was able to serve as the recurring punch line for a SNL sketch, “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” the week she appeared.

tfa_poster_wide_header_adb92fa0STAR WARS. Adele the most fervently anticipated in the year of THE FORCE AWAKENS? I still say yes, because of the utter domination of her business. But I doubt there’s a living being anywhere up the food chain from the unicellular flagellate that wasn’t aware of the coming date of December 18. The hitch was that many devotees had been soured by the ho-hum “prequel” trilogy, so the #1 job of Bob Iger and the marketers at Disney, new owner of Lucasfilm, was to get the fans back on board. I won’t go into detail (see it soon or it’s sure to get spoiled for you), but mission accomplished. And the globe-spanning magnitude of STAR WARS fever was up there in Adele territory. It took THE FORCE AWAKENS just two weeks to become the all-time worldwide #9, and it could even be a notch higher by the time the ball drops in Times Square. Now let’s see if it can rack up a sick amount of multiple viewings like TITANIC or its 1977 predecessor. This is the first STAR WARS picture without George Lucas’s hands on it — he gets a “based on characters by” credit — but J. J. Abrams really performed under pressure, and this makes two iconic space franchises he’s re-energized. We’re starting to see a backlash develop among people who found the flick a little too familiar, but just now Disney is right where it wants to be, armed with the ultimate selling proposition: everybody wants it, and only we have it.

US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanGO SELL A WATCHMAN. That is not a typo: the event wasn’t really the content of Harper Lee’s second published novel — the critical reaction has been tepid to a story that pales when compared to her inspiring masterpiece TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD — but the circumstances of its discovery and dissemination decades after it was written. After keeping GO SET A WATCHMAN locked away for half a century, was the frail and ailing author honestly willing to approve its publication now? It was the fastest-selling book in HarperCollins’s long history (they published MOBY-DICK, dude), doing 1.1 million units in the first week and a skajillion more as the year wore on. More people wanted it in paper than on a pad — the opposite sales pattern from most works of fiction — and physical booksellers quite understandably rejoiced. Anything that brings in customers is good for everybody, and the book business could really use some good news right now.

4/18/16: And the Pulitzer Prize goes to…HAMILTON.

5/26/16: And the Pub nomination goes to…TRUMP!


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