Storms, No Chasers

April 11, 2017

lightning - 1(1).jpgThe National Weather Center is housed in a 250,000-square-foot, five-story building on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. There’s a big observation deck facing south, because around here that’s where severe storms usually come from, and these people love to watch.

NWC is a partnership among OU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and state agencies. OU’s School of Meteorology is the largest such program in the country, with about 250 undergrads and some 90 postgraduate students. But these folks aren’t exactly studying for a slot on the evening news. Their facility also houses some of America’s most capable pros. Whenever there’s a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, the call originates in Norman, Oklahoma.

145e03515dc712626f7611577d4eea73.jpgThe building is pretty new — it opened in 2006 — but America’s severe-storm research infrastructure has been migrating to Norman since the early Sixties. Even before that, scientists deployed the first Doppler weather radar system here. It’s a great location because the topography is fairly flat — you know, the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain — and it sits smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. The National Severe Storm Laboratory (NSSL) studies most kinds of awful weather, but the National Hurricane Center is closer to the action, in Miami. (Although fracking has of late cursed Oklahoma with more than its share of earthquakes, the seismic experts are in Denver.)

Tornado.jpgThe coolest part of NWC is the Storm Prediction Center, where the forecasters work inside a ring of honking black Dell monitors that looks like a Bond villain’s lair. They are looking for any severe conditions across the country, including winter and fire weather. When they’re confident Mother Nature’s about to get mad, they issue watches covering the affected areas. Local National Weather Service offices take it from there and spit out on-the-ground info, such as a tornado touchdown, in the form of warnings. Each NWS office serves a strictly delineated jurisdiction, which is why severe weather watch areas are always expressed by a list of specific counties.

NWC is a resource for every sort of person. They’re diverse in age, gender, nationality, you name it, but nearly all of them have one thing in common. Their favorite movie is TWISTER. Not just because weather people are the heroes, but because their own work basically inspired the whole darn thing.

The notion of collecting data from inside a tornado, which drives TWISTER’s plot, is genuine. NSSL tried its best to do so in the Seventies and Eighties. They created a nifty device and wryly named it the Totable Tornado Observatory, which of course works out to TOTO, after the canine character in another big movie that featured a twister. The screenwriters Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, who came to NSSL for research, took that as a jumping-off point and dubbed their fictional device “Dorothy.” Several actors including leads Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, as well as producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, also spent time in Norman.

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From left: “Dorothy,” the competitors’ “D.O.T. 3,” both movie props, and NOAA’s TOTO, which is for real.

The TWISTER folks wanted to acknowledge OU by putting the university’s seal on the side of “Dorothy.” But to their surprise, permission was declined. Why in the world would OU do that? Because storm chasing is dangerous (as TWISTER viewers well know) and the school cannot support or even condone such daredeviltry, not even in a fictional movie. So the TWISTER production was forced to design its own phony academic seal, and the team retaliated by dressing the very craziest storm chaser, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an OU ball cap for the entire picture, and stenciling “O.K. L.A.” on the side of one of the props. No hard feelings: the Weather Center’s canteen is called the Flying Cow Cafe, after one of TWISTER’s best-known shots.

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Helen Hunt says thanks.

Some people at the Center nevertheless throw caution to, well, you know, and strike out themselves, but they’re doing so at their own risk. There are some beautiful color photos of severe storms on the walls, and one student told us, “If you can’t look at these photos and determine the vertical wind shear, you have no business chasing storms.” NSSL took the TWISTER actors out on a real tornado chase, but it had nothing to do with OU, wink wink. We visited the Weather Center on a gorgeous day: blue sky, low 70s, hardly any wind. They call that “boring.”

Severe weather predictions are one more of those things we take for granted, but they’re the result of hard work, eureka moments and sheer persistence. In 2009, a piece of equipment called VORTEX 2 successfully intercepted a tornado, more than thirty years after the first halting efforts that inspired TWISTER. I read once that local tv weather people tend to forecast gloomily because of human nature: if they predict rain and it turns out nice, everybody feels happy, but viewers resent being caught in bad weather by surprise. The scientists at the Storm Prediction Center don’t have the luxury of approximation, even though our climate is almost unbelievably complex. They’re not merely suggesting that you take along your raincoat. By giving everyone fair warning, they’re actually saving people’s lives.

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Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

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Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

garretbrown-2aFor our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a little breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

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The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


My NYFF 2015

October 11, 2015

Unknown-2Had to miss some second-week movies this year due to a temporary ailment, but I did manage eight, including all the ones I was really, really anticipating. The weather again cooperated, but not the Pope’s visit, for which FSLC had to postpone the fest opening by one day. It was the cusp of autumn, maybe a little warmer than usual. Some friends and I went inside for DE PALMA in almost mild-summery conditions, and when we came out two hours later, the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. My fest, on a five-point scale:

75-1MIA MADRE**** (U.S. Premiere) That rarest of avises: a heartfelt, human-sized, accessible drama made by and for intelligent adults. A film director in Rome (Marguerita Buy) tries to cope with both her latest shoot, featuring a comically imperious American actor (John Turturro, hilarious even in Italian), and the fading health of her beloved mother. Nanni Moretti’s beautiful film juggles these stresses and points of view in a non-linear fashion that gradually reveals itself to be impressionistic. Inspired by the passing of his own mother, Signor Moretti (who personally takes a crucial role) provokes moments of quiet recognition amongst many belly laughs, affirming that our lives are really more similar than they are different, each personal journey strange and beautiful in its own way.

depalmapaltrowbaumbach3DE PALMA**** (U.S. Premiere) The complete career of one of our most fearless, most unpredictable directors, an illustrated monologue which takes us from Brian De Palma’s short student films (featuring a very young Robert De Niro) to his latest pictures, made in Europe to escape the studio system, with nothing omitted in between. Unlike most film retrospectives, there are no talking heads except De Palma’s: co-directors Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach are skilled and confident enough to get out of the way of a great storyteller while beautifully curating the clips and memorabilia that engage us visually. Because of this one-note format, DE PALMA is probably not for everybody — no aspect of the filmmaker’s wide-ranging career, including projects that went nowhere or were eventually made by somebody else, is left uncovered — but catnip for anyone with a deep interest in movies. It’s an ideal festival film. De Palma’s artistic breadth is remarkable: the same man has dipped into blade-wielding thrillers, space science fiction, searing war stories, L.A. noir, even a pioneering rock musical. My main takeaway was how capricious the American movie business really is: De Palma careers from project to project in a series of happy (or otherwise) accidents and keeps going from chump (THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES) to darling (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) and back again. You have to be devoted to your craft to withstand the many indignities wrought by a constantly shifting cultural landscape, and though his wild career has toughened De Palma, he remains gracious and warm (he charmingly expresses surprise as, “Holy mackerel!”). He has thus earned the love and respect of the next generation, exemplified by the two young Turks who honor him here.

UnknownWHERE TO INVADE NEXT**** (U.S. Premiere) That populist provocateur Michael Moore is at it again, but his new film feels more playful, hopeful and uplifting than usual. Armed only with an American flag, Moore “invades” European countries and Tunisia to plant Old Glory on their soil and steal their best ideas. In France he discovers vacation/parental policies that would make the greediest American union member blush, yet companies are doing just fine and French workers are happier and more productive than we are. In Iceland, scene of the worst banking catastrophe of the 2008 financial crisis (every bank failed except the one run by women), all the big shots were prosecuted and are now in prison. He examines female empowerment, incarceration policies, health care and education, and finds real-life solutions demonstrated to be effective by others. And the thing is that all this progress is based on American ideas; even the banker prosecutions were aided by a veteran of the S&L scandal hired by the Icelandic government. (Y’know, he was available here too…he lives here.) Time and again, the interviewees demonstrate the natural state, a concern with the welfare of others alongside oneself, which is sorely lacking in the US. One Icelandic executive — where by law all corporate boards must have no less than 40% representation by the minority gender — says she wouldn’t live in America if they paid her, and our lack of devotion to our larger community is the reason why. These people are flabbergasted that there exist poverty-level Americans in the richest country on earth. After the screening, ushers handed out Faber-Castell pencils from a factory we’d just visited and a genuine application form from Slovenia that allows even non-nationals to study at the college level, in English, tuition free. Here’s a new aspect of Michael Moore: not sniping, just presenting time-tested solutions that work because labor and management — who have been at each others’ throats, to be sure — or the general citizenry which insists on proper education and health care want them to work. It’s constructive, not polemical, unless you stop for a moment to consider that solutions to many of our societal ills are right at hand, if only we could rouse ourselves to demand them of our elected leaders.

imagesSTEVE JOBS*** (Festival Centerpiece) A dedicated and assured effort by all concerned, but considering the pedigree, I felt a little deflated. You have red-hot Danny Boyle directing a script by rock-star screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, a stellar cast led by Michael Fassbender, and most of all, the mercurial personality of the subject, a zen visionary who still had to learn to care about other people. Though it’s assembled from Walter Isaacson’s biography, the creative point of view seems one-dimensional. I blame the screenplay. Yes, it’s boldly distilled into three long scenes, each taking place backstage just before a Jobs product launch: for the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT workstation in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. It’s nifty the way Sorkin makes us infer outward each time at all the inspiration and bullying that brought us to this place, while Jobs does the patented Sorkin “walk-and-talk” from one crisis to the next. But the throughline of the movie is Jobs’s relationship with his daughter Lisa (he originally denies paternity and that he named an Apple computer after her), not his effect on the broader culture. Furthermore, although a mellowing in Jobs is treated as a denouement at the iMac launch, we don’t get to see the achievements of his happier and more peaceful third act, including more traditional fatherhood: the coming iPod (though he briefly alludes to it and to the concept of a touchscreen), iPhone and iPad, which have arguably changed the world without any parallel competition from Bill Gates. Some of Jobs’s younger devotees may be disappointed, even puzzled, by the early stopping point. The acting is uniformly top-notch, although Ashton Kutcher put up a better physical impression than Fassbender does here. Jeff Daniels as John Sculley stands out among many good players; of contemporary actors he is probably Sorkin’s best motormouthpiece. But the summed-up whole was far from what I expected, which was a great movie. This is merely a good one.

75MICROBE & GASOLINE**** (U.S. Premiere) A wonderful laugh-out-loud coming-of-age/road picture/fantasia by the inventive Michel Gondry. It’s based on his childhood memories, but only up to a point. Two loners who are too hip for the classroom become friends, tax the system a bit, and then decide they’re going to split their oppressive school and family scene by building a car (actually not much more than a go-kart powered by a barely heavier engine) and sputtering through the French countryside; they solve all lodging issues by attaching a garden shed to the contraption. Here Gondry vaults into fantasy, for the movie boys go beyond his real-life dreams: they actually build their vehicle and head out into a picaresque series of adventures. The goading, teasing relationship between young actors Ange Dargent and Theophile Baquet is delightful, and Audrey Tatou as Dargent’s long-suffering exasperated mother is particularly fine. There is an undercurrent of sadness and danger, but Gondry means this as a loving toast to boyhood passions of several different kinds. You feel better just for watching it.

129BRIDGE OF SPIES**** (World Premiere) A tense, period-rich story about the famous 1962 swap that returned U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers to the West at the jittery nuclear-terror height of the Cold War, the first time the U.S. had been caught red-handed spying on the Reds. In exchange, the Soviets got Rudolph Abel, who had spent twelve years in America (though he was never actually proven to be a spy, key to what takes place after his kangaroo-court trial). Mark Rylance as Abel is the real discovery: he’s a quirky stage actor who hasn’t been seen much on screen, and here he creates the most hated man in America with an oddball humanity that radiates in every scene. His public defender is Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, today’s Jimmy Stewart) who thus becomes the second most hated man: these are serious Commie-fearing, rule-of-law-ignoring days. He resists the nearly unanimous calls for execution by pointing out that some day Abel might be useful in a trade for our own spy. Soon that very situation arises and Donovan himself is tapped as the negotiator in Berlin, since the governments can’t be officially involved (that would require officially admitting that Powers and Abel were in fact spying). Donovan and Abel develop a real respect for each other, for each man serves with honor in his way. All this is tossed together by Steven Spielberg, who displays his natural affinity for storytelling and for the joys of moviemaking. To some directors, the set is a workplace; to Spielberg, it’s a playground. For example, after one volatile press scrum the floor is littered with flash bulbs, and the photographers scrunch them with their shoes as they fly to the next opportunity — a great way to show frenzy. We learned in the q&a that this shot was unplanned, caught on the fly. Period detail in Brooklyn and Berlin is perfect: everybody smokes, everybody wears a hat. The script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen (!) is very sharp and manages to nail the era of paranoia without tiresome exposition: Donovan’s own children have learned atomic-war drills in school, and they come in handy when a vigilante takes aim at their home. Only time will tell how many viewers will want to relive this remarkable period, but they will find lush detail and a propulsive story: it’s another adult-oriented feather in Spielberg’s fedora.

Unknown-1CAROL**** Todd Haynes’s lovely adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, in which a mousy salesgirl and would-be photographer (Rooney Mara) meets a wealthy, assured socialite (Cate Blanchett) and falls madly in love. Their chief problems include the fact that Blanchett is married with a daughter, and that they live in New York in the early Fifties, when so much as a stolen glance is suspicious. The picture belongs to the two leads: their erotic chemistry never wavers during storms of tribulation, even as their relationship mutates with changing fortunes. The design and photography are superb. Sets, costumes, coiffure and lighting utterly transport us to the days when the Forties reluctantly give way and Eisenhower ascends, but the look is muted, darker, a world away from the hyper melodramatic Fifties of Haynes’s FAR FROM HEAVEN. Every buck is up there on the screen. Longtime Haynes watchers know to expect the unexpected (his previous film, I’M NOT THERE, is probably the wildest reach since his notorious Karen Carpenter short), but this intense yet gentle piece plays as the kind of surprise you’d been waiting for without even knowing it.

miles-ahead-movieMILES AHEAD*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Making a movie about Miles Davis is a tall order. Don Cheadle tries it as a quadruple threat — co-producer, co-writer, director and star — with mixed results. The film finds Davis in one of his hated interviews, swatting away questions with hipster grumbling and faux-zen pronouncements. He’s later revealed to be holed up in his Manhattan apartment, unsettlingly near madness, toward the late-Seventies end of his self-imposed five-year artistic silence. The MacGuffin is a reel of self-recorded audio tape that could reignite his career: everybody wants it, including a sleazeball from Davis’s label (played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who was also great as put-upon engineer Andy Hertzfeld in STEVE JOBS). The historic information is presented in a series of flashbacks that are intentionally jarring: a downbeat on Miles’s trumpet shock-cuts to a car chase, the rear of an elevator magically opens like a doorway onto the next scene. There is a backstory — we see Davis’s early Village days, the wooing and winning of wife Frances (the ethereal Emayatzy Corinealdi), and the roots of a rage that both buoyed and tortured him — but too much of the movie is basically an unwelcome heist caper and chase, all for that golden tape reel. Cheadle’s acting interpretation is likewise jagged and uneven: his vocal performance is monochromatic whispered anger, but unlike most music biopics, he does look like he’s actually playing his instrument, even in the tightest shots. Some Miles fans may insist the staccato form does indeed mirror his life, and his estate certainly cooperated with this project. But I still felt underfed after spending two hours with this game-changing musician. However, Cheadle does manage to bring the music front and center — there’s plenty of tremendous Miles Davis trumpet throughout.

WISH I’D SEEN: EXPERIMENTER, MAGGIE’S PLAN, THE MARTIAN (a quickly added surprise screening), NO HOME MOVIE (sadly, director Chantal Akerman passed away on October 5, two days before her U.S. premiere), THE WALK

ALREADY SAW: BROOKLYN****, THE FORBIDDEN ROOM***

Other NYFF Reports

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Two Good Movies (Four, Actually)

July 26, 2015

I saw two really good movies recently, but they’re both genre pictures and they might have slipped under your radar. Correct that if you care to: they’re both out on DVD.

th-1EX MACHINA is the latest and best in a mini-trend of thoughtful science fiction movies. (Even Tom Cruise’s recent EDGE OF TOMORROW has a tiny little brain under its light GROUNDHOG DAY veneer.) This one is about the essential Philip K. Dick concept, which has fascinated scientists for a century, readers for more than sixty years, and film honchos for maybe 35. It can be expressed in six short words: how do you know for sure?

You don’t have to be a techie to recognize the famous Turing Test. If a mechanical device can fool a human being into believing that it is human, does that not constitute intelligence? Alan Turing imagined a subject typing impromptu questions to a person and a computer and receiving their typed answers from the next room. If the interrogator can’t positively identify the human by session’s end, the contraption thus “passes” the Turing test. Should you find that laughably simple, consider the case of ELIZA, a program written at MIT in the mid-Sixties as (one would hope) a parody of Rogerian psychoanalysis. ELIZA simulates a responsive therapy session: “I’m troubled by bad dreams.” “Why do you think you have bad dreams?” “Because my father hates me.” “Who else in your family hates you?” The illusion of intelligence, which is actually only the ability to parse a few words, fooled many users, even after its amazed and delighted creator, Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, patiently explained how ELIZA really worked. This blind tendency to map human emotions onto machines is today referred to as “the ELIZA effect.”

In EX MACHINA, we revisit the Turing test many, many, many iterations outward. In that proverbial Near Future, the young lad Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest staged by his employer’s brilliant, rich, eccentric founder, who became a modern Croesus by creating the greatest search engine in the history of the world. This Sergei-Musky figure, Nathan, is played by the mesmerizing Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite film actors. You can’t take your eyes off him, as you couldn’t in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, in which he will remind you of the young Michael Corleone a dozen times. (Isaac will get to have more colorful fun in Disney’s forthcoming STAR WARS and X-MEN flicks.) Nathan soon reveals that the grand prize wasn’t just to spend a week at his magnificent, sheltered, high-tech research facility and bachelor pad as advertised, but much more: to be the subject in the most awesome Turing test in history, d00d. Nathan has created the next best thing to a human being (he chose the form of the gorgeous Alicia Vikander, a dancer by training whose movements marry mechanics and grace in a pleasant new way), and it will be up to Caleb to get to know her and evaluate Nathan’s achievement. Then, the first time the two are outside the compound’s ubiquitous zone of security cameras, “Ava” whispers: “Don’t trust him. Don’t believe anything he says.”

Wow. We’ve already been led by the nose several times here by writer-director Alex Garland, and we’re not even at the halfway point. Caleb has our empathy as the dewy innocent youngster. Nathan has already proven himself more asshole than could possibly be imagined, and he keeps pouring it on. Ava is far from a blank slate. And there are reversals and revelations galore still to come, which I won’t dwell upon. This is the man who wrote 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, the English NEVER LET ME GO, and DREDD, so he knows from screenplays. Knock yourselves out watching the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes Vikander appear to be mostly mechanical. What makes EX MACHINA work hearkens back to the Turing test. It’s all about the effect of technological achievement on human beings.

thIT FOLLOWS is both the title and a comprehensive two-word synopsis of a clever new horror movie that’s been getting a great critical reception since its release earlier this year. (THE BABADOOK is another recent modestly-budgeted terror triumph that I heartily recommend.) The premise of IT FOLLOWS is simple and diabolical: there is such a thing as a sexually transmitted demon. When you have sex with an afflicted person, the demon begins pursuing you instead. Object: brutal murder. It can inhabit the body of anyone, even somebody you know. There’s only one of it, but it can switch hosts at will. It doesn’t move fast, only plods with a rhythmic gait — but it will keep on following you, however long it takes, until it kills you. You can get rid of it by having sex with someone else, thus transmitting the curse, but if that person dies, the demon will work its way back down the carnal trail and come after you again. One more hitch: nobody else can see or hear it. Only you. (And the audience, of course.) It’s the paranoid’s worst nightmare: something actually is out to get you, and there’s no way to prove it to anyone else. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS time.

When I was a kid, I loved the classic Universal monster movies; I still do, after adjusting a bit for subsequent sophistication. To me, the most disturbing monster wasn’t Frankenstein’s experiment, or Dracula, or the Wolfman, or Mr. Hyde, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The one that really got under my skin was the Mummy. Because the Mummy was relentless. Classmates used to sneer: anybody can outrun the Mummy, man. True enough, but if ever you desecrated its tomb, even if you then flew in a plane to the U.S., it would walk across the ocean floor if it had to, step by step, and one day it would catch up with you. This thing requires no sleep or rest, unlike you. IT FOLLOWS brings the same creepy unending unease without traveling to Egypt.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

No, we’re in suburban Detroit, a bombed-out shell of a city that’s virtually deserted; this is that kind of “chamber piece” that exists in its own little claustrophobic world. The teenagers at the heart of the story encounter very few adults, and most of them are incarnations of the demon. There’s a quick gruesome shot early on to help establish how high the stakes are, but in general IT FOLLOWS depends on sustained dread, not graphic gore or cheap jack-in-the-box “gotcha!” moments. It’s a cousin to THE BABADOOK in this regard, and the polar opposite of such fare as the CHUCKY or FINAL DESTINATION franchises.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis get the most out of their digital gear, making a normal day look menacing (most of the setups in this horror movie are exteriors). They repeat a little motif I love, a slow left-to-right pan to set the scene. It’s innocent at first, but as they repeat the move once we’ve gotten used to the demon’s slow, determined rhythm, they’ll show it coming from way off in the background during the pan without visual comment. (Once we’re “punk’d,” but still.) By now we can make it out a mile away, but where a lesser talent would probably stop the move and push in, we just go, holy moley, girl, look behind you! A similar shot was one of the best moments in THE DESCENT (my fourth recommendation, a little bloodier though), as we pan past the trapped spelunking girls and get our first look at one of the cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies behind them. Did we just see what I think we saw? You don’t need a loud noise and a musical sting to jolt the viewer, or a big visual effects budget to make an impact. All you need is some old-fashioned creativity. The low-budget, high-powered IT FOLLOWS is crammed full of it.

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what's in the background, while you're screaming,

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what’s in the background, while you’re screaming, “Did I just go crazy?”

P.S.: If you’re interested in ELIZA, she’s actually available as an app. I doubt Prof. Weizenbaum is involved.

8/24/15: Maika Monroe, the young scream queen who stars in IT FOLLOWS (and THE GUEST, a terrific psychological thriller, so make that five good movies), was named today to VARIETY’s Ten Actors To Watch list for 2015. She is already getting attention among casting directors: she’ll star in the new INDEPENDENCE DAY flick.

11/30/15: ELIZA is now available in audio format via Amazon Echo (similarly known as “Alexa”). Just enable the “skill” and talk away. Same deal.


My Name Is Tom Dupree, Dammit!

July 13, 2015

thUsing the wrong computer language can actually lose you customers. Anybody who read the recent Bloomberg Businessweek issue (not just the cover, the entire ISSUE) on coding will have some inkling, but here we go.

My name is Tom Dupree. (Thank you, no, please take your seats.) It’s not Dupre, or DuPree, or Du Pree or Depree or Duprieux or anything else. It’s Dupree. Like “Dupree’s Diamond Blues.” Like “Cousin Dupree.” Like YOU, ME AND DUPREE (why does that movie title sound familiar?). Those simple nine letters, the perfect number for a theater marquee — my god, it could be a stage name! — placed in exacting order are how you spell my given name, and there is no other goddam way. Not one other single solitary bob jack cat tail way. French, wherefrom my surname springs forth, can sometimes be a confusing, um, milieu, but look here: I’ve just handed you the answer to the test! Go spell my name to a child. Or a computer science professor. Bet you can do it perfectly now. Thanks, and you’re welcome.

Now. I have this rule. I will never respond positively to any direct-mail solicitation that cannot reproduce those precise nine letters using one space break and first caps only. If you misspell my name, I’m no friend of yours and I instantly grow tired of whatever you’re selling. I mean it: I’ve ignored some worthwhile stuff over this, and I will continue until they lower me down. I’m tough but fair: I’ll accept “Thomas,” even all caps, but you gotta nail the last part or you are dead. To. Me.

But get this: one time, long ago, I complained to some financial institution with which I no longer deal (over this same flippin reason; I’m serious) who kept sending everything to Thomas DuPree. They said the computer language used by their database couldn’t bring the rogue capital P down. (I suspect the language to be COBOL, which is all over the banking industry, but I invite comments by people more savvy than I. Anybody know?) In other words, I would have to be Thomas DuPree forever, because this particular language defaults to the misspelling. It must be a popular one, too: I had the last laugh with my now ex-financial institution, but I still get solicitations from well-meaning charities that not only continue the mistake, but sometimes send me a stack of peel-off return address stickers employing the hated fargin error! (The most recent set came today, from the nice but inaccurate folks at Thirteen…) I’m tempted to gather them up and send them back in the postage-paid envelope, but I stop and think, not to a nonprofit: only to the Republican Party. (Save and recycle your postage-paid envelopes from Reince Priebus, chillun. That’s what I do.)

Even longer ago, a newspaper reporter out West decided it would be fun to do a feature on those nutty guys and gals who write “cover copy” for paperbacks. He called me up, along with a few of my counterparts at other New York publishing houses, and he wrote an entertaining story. One prob. This guy’s name was — I think I remember this right — Scott LaFee. So in Scott’s otherwise lovely piece, I became Tom DuPree. The first thing I thought was, GRRRRRR! The second thing was, Scott: don’t you ask your interview subjects how their names are spelled, as doofus high-school reporters are taught to do as the very first question?

I’ve bawled, I’ve complained. Sometimes the Roman letters can be fixed by the secret coders in the beast’s belly. But the Great Database Producers (otherwise known as GDP) of America can now be divided into two parts: those who get it right and those who can’t or won’t. So I repeat for “executive summary” skimmers: spell my name incorrectly, and you could be offering a backstage meet-and-greet VIP package to the frickin Second Coming, but I’m still going to throw your illiterate form letter the motherlovin frick away.


The River Of Retail

November 24, 2014

th-1I’ve just traveled back in time, to a more innocent age. I did it by reading a book about Amazon.com. “By the time you read this book,” opines business writer Robert Spector in the finale of his AMAZON.COM: GET BIG FAST, “Amazon.com will have changed in some profound way.” Man, did he get that right – because HarperBusiness published this tome way back in 2000, when Jeff Bezos’s website was just five years old and nobody’d ever heard of an “Internet bubble.” By the time I read this book, Amazon (the by-now-anachronistic “.com” was quietly dropped in March 2012) was barely recognizable.

Business books like this one are churned out mainly for eager MBA candidates and execs on the make who are busy taking notes or marking up the pages; Mr. Shelton helpfully provides summational “takeaways” at the end of each chapter so readers don’t even have to uncap their pens. The writing won’t win any awards – the market calls for simple, straightforward, didactic prose – and the book is poorly (hurriedly?) edited and proofed: dropped connectors, “baited breath,” “technocolor,” multiple introductions of the same event. But you do get a look at Amazon.com just as it was becoming an actual power, from a reporter who is still marveling at this new Internets thing. “The real winners,” writes Mr. Spector from 2000, “will be the so-called ‘clicks-and-mortar’ retailers that combine a physical presence with a virtual presence…the future belongs to these multichannel operations.” “One day,” he predicts, “we will even see Amazon.com in the physical world, either with stores or kiosks,” and in New York City, for the 2014 holiday season, his farfetched Hail-Mary concoction will have actually come true.

th-2Mr. Spector is much better at describing what has already taken place: the famed creation story in which Bezos quits his cushy job at D. E. Shaw & Co. – he’s flat-out brilliant – and, entranced with the mind-reeling growth of the Internet, uses Spocklike logic to choose an entry-point product (books) and a city from which to base his startup (Seattle). We watch as Bezos assembles a team of equally smart people who know nothing about retailing, yet build a crude infrastructure and go live on July 16, 1995. In a time period so compressed that it ate people up (you had to be young and driven to work there), Amazon.com became a constant exercise in scaling out, in keeping up with an unprecedented growth rate, in whacking the largest moles anybody had ever seen. The Amazonians fill more and more warehouse space and toss away their initial plan to be a store that is only virtual. They go public and charm investors by admitting they plan to lose money as far out as the eye can see, throwing every penny into getting big fast. They enter Britain and Germany by buying existing e-sellers and giving them an Amazon storefront. They add music and video to the mix and start a website buying spree. They hire executives from Wal-Mart and other retailers for adult supervision over the distribution chain. Within five years, they’ve survived their first soul-searing holiday rush and built one of the most famous brands in the world. In January 2000, they change their logo to the famous “smile arrow” that connects A to Z in the company name: we intend, they announce, to sell everything (except firearms, living creatures, pornography or tobacco). When Bezos holds up an unusual food product at a press conference, Mr. Spector is obviously getting his first look at what he calls an “edible (presumably)” turducken. And that’s where this book leaves them.

The author basically lionizes Jeff Bezos, who is named Time’s Man of the Year for 1999. Although Mr. Spector does note some early missteps – charging publishers for favorable placement on the site, just like Barnes & Noble and Borders had for years, only failing to tell customers about the sponsorships; Purchase Circles, which could let you see what others at your company are buying, which was TMI for outraged corporations like IBM; an unflattering fight with a lesbian bookstore in Minneapolis which had been using the name Amazon since 1970; and selling English-language copies of MEIN KAMPF from the US site to customers in Germany, where the book is banned – and reports some groaning from afar about working conditions, we never get a fully rounded view. For that we need thirteen more years to pass, and the publication of a very different book.

thTHE EVERYTHING STORE by Brad Stone isn’t written for business students: it’s a more major piece of narrative nonfiction. Mr. Stone has the benefit of the ensuing years in which Amazon has grown into a global colossus, large enough to push around his own publisher, Hachette (proprietor of this book’s Little, Brown imprint) and agitate for a larger piece of the pie, delaying or denying shipment of Hachette titles in the process. The dustup has only recently been resolved; click on the book cover to see how much Amazon has relented since I wrote this. I bought my copy, during the standoff, from Powell’s Books. (Fun fact: both Larry Kirshbaum, who ran an in-house publishing program at Amazon, and David Naggar, who presided over its settlement with Hachette, are former executives at the Warner Communications books group, which morphed into this particular member of the Big Five publishers.)

Amazon’s not a cute startup any more. But this is no Hachette job (sorry): though he does not talk to Bezos in person specifically for this book (as a business journalist he’s had the pleasure more than once), Mr. Stone does acknowledge the founder’s help in giving the go-ahead for “innumerable interviews with his friends, family and employees.” Bezos’s hesitation seems to be that he feels it’s still too soon to tell Amazon’s story comprehensively (I do not believe it has anything to do with the identity of the publisher), and the company is indeed a quickly rolling stone; it won’t be much longer before this book too is out of date.

Meanwhile, though, we get a ripping yarn about a scarily intelligent, scarily ambitious, scarily obsessed man who saw the face of the future back when everybody thought he was just a bookseller. Jeff Bezos reminds us naturally of Steve Jobs: the same driven personality, the same steely mind, the same screaming impatience with anything short of perfection, even the same “reality distortion field” that worked its will on every aspect of the innovative companies they built. They were both adopted by loving foster parents, and each man grew rich and famous without their biological fathers being aware of their relationship. It is clear from reading his story that Amazon as we know it wouldn’t exist without Jeff Bezos — the same existential importance as Steve Jobs had to Apple.

We inevitably go over some of the same territory as does Mr. Spector, but THE EVERYTHING STORE has caught up barely a quarter of the way in. Bezos’s vision was 20-20 even when he seemed to be the only guy with eyesight, back when the new company was called Cadabra (it sounded like “cadaver” to people on the phone. Another candidate was a little too on-the-nose: type in “Relentless.com” and, to this day, you’ll go straight to Amazon). You can’t succeed without having the guts to fail, and Bezos suffered some spectacular flops, primarily during Amazon’s big buildout during the dot-com boom, when the company wasted most of $2.2 billion in bond offerings in buying up smaller players that didn’t pan out. Its share price peaked on March 10, 2000, a few months after Jeff had been named Time magazine’s Man Of The Year, and Job One suddenly became simple survival.

th-3Amazon benefited both from Jeff’s foresight and the naiveté of others, to whom online commerce was viewed as a novelty, a technological fad that would eventually go away. Rather than do the hard, expensive work themselves, companies like Toys ‘R’ Us engaged Amazon to run their online presences. Later Circuit City, Borders and Target all entered into similar partnerships, but all they were doing was ceding advantage to Amazon. (About half of the in-person Borders stores were actually quite profitable when the company entered bankruptcy, but they were locked into too many pricey 15- and 20-year leases, more cannon fodder for Amazon’s lean, lithe business model.)

For anybody who is still surprised at the ruthlessness with which Amazon opposed Hachette (price wars are commonplace among other retailers but anathema to the cozy book industry, which sells its product on consignment and financially continues to press its historic advantage as the gatekeeper separating author and audience), one need only look back to 2002. Amazon’s contract with the United Parcel Service was up, but the shipper was facing union negotiations and felt it had no wiggle room. Amazon had already cultivated a relationship with Federal Express and that, coupled with driving its own trucks directly to the U.S. Postal Service, gave the retailer the necessary leverage. Amazon’s Jeff Wilke called supply-chain manager Bruce Jones and said, “Bruce, turn them off.” Within hours, unnoticeable by Amazon customers, its business with UPS simply dried up. A couple days later, Amazon received a bulk discount at UPS and taught the company “an enduring lesson about the power of scale and the reality of Darwinian survival in the world of big business,” writes Mr. Stone.

The flip side of that, of course, is that Amazon created a new revenue stream for the book industry by refining its desultory tentative steps into electronic documents. E-readers existed before Amazon’s Kindle debuted in 2007, but they were oriented toward the publishers, clunky and expensive. Amazon upended the industry by continuing to think about the customer (purchase of a Kindle book is even simpler than buying a paper copy on the Amazon site), and now it has a two-thirds share of the e-book market, which is not quite one third of all books sold in the US, a percentage which is likely to grow.

Much of this commotion seems intuitive, but only in hindsight. The fact is that Jeff Bezos is continuing to play a chess game against his competition — which is not only other retailers but also other technology firms — by thinking many moves in advance. The placement of Fulfillment Centers (i.e., warehouses) across the country is customer-centric, but not just for what Amazon sells today. These vast units are not tucked in the middle of nowhere: they’re near large cities, which will help Bezos achieve same-day service and gain the ability to deliver perishable groceries to most of the nation. Those infamous Amazon drones that Jeff proudly showed to 60 MINUTES sound crazy right now. But once so did Kindle, free shipping with a paid subscription, streaming audio and video as part of that same package, renting out server capacity, and a long, long list of other realities Jeff has basically willed into being. The notion of Amazon itself was judged to be nuts many, many times by graybeards who are still eating their words.

Mr. Stone concludes his book with a charming, lyrical bit of reporting. He tracked down and befriended Jeff’s biological father, 69-year-old Ted Jorgensen, who is the well-liked proprietor of the Roadrunner Bike Center in Glendale, Arizona. Mr. Stone explained who Jeff grew up to be, and Jorgensen’s eyes “filled with emotion and disbelief.” He sent letters via mail and e-mail to Jeff and his mother, and after a few months, the founder replied graciously and kindly. “He wrote,” reports Mr. Stone, “that he empathized with the impossibly difficult choices that his teenage parents were forced to make…he said that he harbors no ill will…and then he wished his long-lost biological father the very best.” There simply wasn’t room in Bezos’s makeup to waste time sifting through the past. It takes all his formidable skill to try his best to keep up with the future.


A Toy That’s Just My Type

November 16, 2014

th-3“Doris, take a letter!”

Have you ever heard anything like that? Dialogue in an old movie doesn’t count: I mean with your own ears in real life. The chances are greater if you’re older, greater still if you’re a woman. (And you may substitute any name, male or female, you wiseacre.) I’ll bet most of you haven’t, though it was once as unremarkable a phrase as the also-obsolete “this is where we came in.” (See footnote*)

“Take a letter” is the sound of a executive asking his (usually his) secretary (not “assistant,” secretary or steno, or, pace Kurt Vonnegut, member of the “Girl Pool”) to listen to him dictate a business letter, take down every word in shorthand on her (usually her) note pad, then go back to her desk and type it up for his signature. It is the way business was conducted for decades, and it was done this way because the executive hadn’t the faintest idea how to operate a typewriter.

We’re all made aware daily of the tremendous technological changes brought about by the ubiquity of digital devices over a fast (until you compare America’s infrastructure to the rest of the computing world’s, that is) broadband connection. But an even more vital cultural shift was in play long before the Internet revolutionized communications. In order to use a computer, you have to be able to type. So these days, everybody has learned. There isn’t just a computer on every desk. There’s also a keyboard.

There may remain a few emeritus execs who are senior enough to remember the steno pool, but today they are as rare as the three-martini lunches they once enjoyed. When these gents were growing up, typing was literally for girls. High schools offered classes, but they were as overwhelmingly female as “home economics”; the boys were in shop class. (The forward-thinking few who counterintuitively reasoned that typing class was therefore a great way to meet chicks tended to do well later in life, but they were still the few.) Young women dominated because typing class was seen as preparation for a job as a secretary, of which there were millions. Certain men made their living as typists, but as the operators of linotype machines.

Typewriters transformed the act of writing and dominated it for more than a century after their invention in the 1860s: now all output was eminently legible, no matter how ragged the author’s cursive scratching. But operating a typewriter is a skill, taught and learned — and without this skill the keyboard is useless.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Pretty damn close to my first one.

Most writers I know who are anywhere near my age were fascinated by the limitless potential lurking inside their first typewriters. It’s the same feeling rockers describe upon beholding their new guitars. My first axe was a portable Smith-Corona whose hard carrying case latched over the top. Without the upper snap-on, it was light enough to rest on my lap in a chair or on the bed. It was the most amazing thing my fifth-grade eyes had ever seen. I couldn’t imagine a word this machine couldn’t reproduce so beautifully that anybody could read it! Hallelujah!

There was only one problem:

I didn’t know how to type.

The fullness of time has instructed me that I probably should have found somebody to teach me proper touch typing (those classes were in high school, still a few years off), just like I should have had somebody explain correct left-handed guitar stringing before I taught myself chords from right-handed sheet-music pages. Once their fingers are properly seated (that’s why there’s a tiny raised ridge on the F and J keys below your very fingers today), touch typists can type their asses off without referring to the keyboard, the same disdain employed by sight-reading musicians. That skill really helps, trust me. But, swimming upstream like the sturdy salmon (I flunked metaphor class), I got by, enough to casually entertain on the one hand and earn a living on the other.

I learned how to type by, well, typing. When I tell you that I began by copying some of my favorite Poe, Bradbury and Asimov stories single-spaced onto yellow legal-pad sheets (Shakespeare was just too quirky and difficult), you might at first think me extreme. But you would then be surprised (as was I) by the handful of professional authors who have told me they also did such copying as kids. There must be something universal about watching the wonderful words flow through your fingers and land on the page. If you’re attuned to the feeling, it fuels the fantasy that you could make them up yourself one day. Nuts? No more than communing with a record by playing air guitar. The simple mechanical process of retyping something you love engenders a real kinship with the author — even with Poe, who never saw a typewriter in his life.

There are actually still tons of writers whose prose arises outside the QWERTY board. Rod Serling, my all-time favorite crafter of dialogue, spoke his scripts into a Dictaphone for “Doris” or whomever to type up. My ole pal Kevin J. Anderson dictates first drafts to this day into a recorder while he’s exercising his body on hikes, the best self-administered healthcare program for an author that I’ve ever encountered. (When Kevin was just starting out, he used to economize by staying with us when he came to New York, and I can tell you, this guy worked well into the ((Eastern time)) night, and he did it on a keyboard. But by this point in a given project he was refining, not creating.) Tom Robbins writes his first drafts in longhand on a legal pad. So did Don Coldsmith, and that’s also how Jerry Seinfeld composes his bits. Harlan Ellison owns a sick number of replacement parts because he never wants to quit using a typewriter in favor of what I and nearbout everybody else is using right now: a word processor.

Point being this: if you have the basic talent, you can approach this writing bidness anyhow you frickin want, bucko. I’m not imputing any particular mojo onto a mechanical keyboard, but I do definitely declare that when toddlers can type in a Sesame Street way, that means the skill devolves to everybody lucky enough to attend a school where teachers actually motivate their students. Typing these days equals basic communication, even through rapid thumb-fire texting. If you can’t type, you can’t talk. Self-publishing on Amazon is simply the logical end result. When you see infants in strollers happily tapping their colorful tablets, you’re forgiven for getting that little frisson at the back of your neck: what happens when these kids learn how to type? I don’t know, mate, and neither do you.

* For most of the glory days of Hollywood, right up to the Seventies and the era of the blockbuster, most feature films played continuously and you could enter and leave the theater whenever you wanted, even in the middle of a movie. You would then see the part you missed during the next performance, until you recognized the part “where we came in.” (Alfred Hitchcock famously upended this practice for the original 1960 run of PSYCHO, forbidding theater owners from letting anyone in once the picture had started. Disgruntled patrons were forced to wait in line out front, giving the impression that PSYCHO was a lines-around-the-block hit — and then the hype legitimately came true.) The phrase came to mean, loosely, “You’re repeating yourself.”

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