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 were 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.


Reality Distortion

November 30, 2015

51LNqvt+3oL._AA160_I’ve just read Neal Gabler’s definitive biography of Walt Disney, only a few weeks after seeing Danny Boyle’s movie STEVE JOBS, itself loosely based on the magnificent bio by Walter Isaacson. The confluence is striking: before the Gabler, I knew more about Jobs than about Disney, but there are so many similarities between these two pioneers that it’s actually amazing.

It has taken me nine years to get to WALT DISNEY. I bought it at pub in 2006 and knew I would eventually read it, but the hefty spine width kept dissuading me. I’ll bet you have books like that on your own shelf. Then a nice one on Bob Hope came out, and after that I was hungry to learn about another American institution. That’s the beauty of definitive biographies: they remain relevant no matter how much time has passed. I’m now going to dive into one about Charles Schulz, because I’m kind of revved on pop culture icons at the moment. But back to Jobs and Disney.

Both men were visionaries. Both could see where others couldn’t. Both were disruptors, game-changers, rebels, utter enemies of The Man. But Steve Jobs will always be remembered as the kid in the turtleneck, and Disney as the avuncular mustachioed host of a tv show, the harmless guy your parents felt safe leaving you with in the afternoon. Jobs died a “young man” at 56. While Disney lived only nine years longer, he came from two generations prior, when 65-year-old men had really earned their senior citizenship. We remember Walt older and Jobs younger, frozen in time like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, James Dean, John F. Kennedy, Edgar Allan Poe and David Foster Wallace. Imagine all those people living into their sixties and beyond. Think about Keith Richards while you imagine.

“Disney” has become a word of scorn in some circles, denoting a family-friendly worldview, vaguely sinister in its insistence on order, punctuality, and wholesomeness. (For a funny, creepy depiction of this point of view, see the ingenious “guerrilla indie” ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW, which was surreptitiously shot at Disney parks.) Times Square has, thus, been “Disneyfied,” though Walt’s company’s only genuine footprints are one retail store and some popular and lucrative Broadway musicals. But this reputation was scratched out over decades by dint of vision and hard work, and in case you think Walt was some kind of Organization Man pansy, allow me to re-hip thee. Once he decided animation would be his vocation, Walt Disney was actually a major-league badass, and he had a real problem with authority. In a sleepy industry that fed movie theaters cheap filler, he pioneered dozens of innovations including sound, color, realistic rotoscoping and, most impressively, full feature length. With the arrival of the majestic SNOW WHITE in 1937, a “cartoon” didn’t introduce the feature; a cartoon could be the feature.

Walt could mesmerize (some would say manipulate) his colleagues by the force of his personality. He matched Jobs’s “reality distortion field” with what longtime animator Ken Anderson described similarly: when Walt was pitching an idea, Anderson said he exuded a “magnetic field.” He knew the entire picture in such detail that it took him three hours to tell the story of SNOW WHITE, and his audience was not only rapt, it was insanely motivated to create something transcendent, something that would change the world. I heard echoes of Jobs while reading about this. For his adaptation of Felix Salten’s BAMBI, Walt insisted on the tragic early death of the title character’s mother against all advice, thus raising the power of animated drama to another vaulting (and child-traumatizing) level.

In the movie, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak confronts Jobs and asks him just what it is that he does. “You’re not a coder,” says Woz, you’re not this or that, what exactly do you contribute? In response, Jobs likens himself to a musical conductor, and that’s what Walt was too. “He’s a genius at using someone else’s genius,” griped an animator, complaining that Walt was sucking up too much personal credit. But without him, there would have been no credit to apportion. Like Jobs, Walt saw what people wanted before they even knew they wanted it. To deliver, he invented a method of labor distribution that is still used in animation today, even when it’s being realized on a computer.

Steve Jobs lost his company and was hired back as a returning hero; Walt Disney slogged through one existential crisis after another. It is excruciatingly difficult and expensive to produce an animated feature (just ask the folks at Jobs’s Pixar), and one or two so-so box-office returns could threaten Walt’s leadership and make bankers so sour that the studio was reduced to making propaganda films during World War II just to stay afloat. Walt’s brother Roy was the money man and tried his best to rein in his sibling, but the dreamer always asked for forgiveness rather than permission. It’s heart-rending to read that such gems as FANTASIA and PINOCCHIO almost cost Walt his business, since the fullness of time has revealed them to be masterpieces. But he lived on the brink of insolvency, time and again.

Like Jobs, Walt was self-absorbed and had few real friends. He was a doting and loving father to his two daughters, but he was married to his studio, and was paternalistic even there. He became a notorious union-buster after “my boys” broke his heart by striking, and as the company inevitably got bigger, so did the distance from his staff. Ever prescient, Walt realized that he needed to find an easier, quicker method of production, and nature documentaries became “True-Life Adventures.” Before he knew it, live-action was at the helm, culminating in the mega-smash MARY POPPINS. But Walt’s mind was already off in the distance.

Disneyland wasn’t just an amusement park to Walt, any more than the iPhone was just a telephone to Steve Jobs. Walt’s “Happiest Place On Earth” was a callback to the town of Marceline, Missouri, where he briefly lived as a young boy and which he lionized for his entire life. In homage to Marceline, Walt willed Disneyland into being (and Walt Disney World some years later). He played his tv network, the lowest-rated ABC, like a violin, and the resulting cross-promotion was so intense that by the time the park officially opened on July 17, 1955 (the best day of his life, said his family), with Walt riding a horse alongside Fess Parker in his “Davy Crockett” coonskin cap, a capacity crowd already awaited at Minute One. Ray Kroc, then just getting started, had wanted in on Disneyland; Walt palmed him off on a minion, and Kroc went away to build McDonalds.

The book is full of examples of Walt’s exceptionalism. People frequently thought he was crazy. People frequently resented him for pushing them too hard. He was not a perfect man, or even a perfect boss. But when the Chiat/Day ad agency created a series for Steve Jobs called “Think Different” (in the movie, I was delighted to see Jobs’s daughter correct the grammar in a fit of pique), it honored such Different Thinkers as Einstein, Dylan, Branson, King, Edison, Ali, Gandhi, Hitchcock, Picasso — and Jim Henson. Dude, Henson wouldn’t even be there without Walt Disney, and chances are, given the ubiquity of Walt’s creations, neither would you. Walt Disney should have been up there in your pantheon too, and if you couldn’t recognize that, Steve, then he wins the vision thing.

12/18/15: The organization that Walt built just opened its latest flick. They’ve still got that cross-promotion thing down, man.


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***

Last Year’s Fest


Stop Press: Print Is Not Dead!

September 23, 2015

stanley__livingstone_the_hague_travel_bookstore1Front-page “trend” piece in the Times this morning by Alexandra Alter, with some rare good news for the embattled trade book industry: by some measures, the initial excitement over digital publishing at the putative expense of print may have crested, at least for now.

E-book sales (trade only, not counting self-published titles) fell 10% in January-May 2015. Bundled subscription services, allowing e-reading from a library of titles, are struggling and failing. Sales of dedicated e-readers (like the Kindle or the Nook) have plunged. The reports of print’s demise seem greatly exaggerated. Yet this trend may not be as clearly delineated as it seems at first glance.

There is one piece of incontestable evidence for a resurgence of print bookselling in Ms. Alter’s story: in the last five years, the number of member bookstores of the American Booksellers Association has increased from 1,410 in 1,660 locations to 1,712 in 2,227 locations. The local independent bookstore — one key component in a community’s healthy cultural life — is experiencing a mini-renaissance. Nobody can argue with that, and those who care about books and reading can only hope this trend keeps up.

Trade publishers all over New York — and elsewhere — are smiling at this article today, but it’s not because of any healthy cultural life in any community. Print books, particularly new or “frontlist” titles in hardcover, are the industry’s high-margin cash cow, even after all the costly editing, printing, shipping and distributing is done. And those margins are completely under the control of the publisher, which can and does print any price it wishes on the front left flap. Common sense tells us that a digital copy, which costs next to nothing to distribute once the first one is made, should fetch a far lower price. But that, reason the publishers, would cannibalize the sale of a juicy hardcover copy. Therefore, e-books are a disruptor, an enemy. Meanwhile, we await the first $50 trade hardcover; it shouldn’t take much longer now. (Before MISS SAIGON, $100 Broadway tickets were considered gluttonous. Now they’re a bargain.)

The arrival of electronic books as a real market segment dates from 2008 and the release of Amazon’s Kindle. While many booklovers spurned the new technology, I jumped in and have been an avid e-reader ever since. As I’ve written before, there are three kinds of books: those in which I have no interest, those which I want to keep in the increasingly precious space on my bookshelves, and those I’d simply like to read and discard. This last kind is the perfect e-book. (A fourth kind, the bulky doorstop in which I’m nevertheless interested, is also much easier to read electronically.)

But there’s an important difference between the present-day consumer and the 2008 version. I don’t depend on a physical Kindle any more.

I’m not surprised at all that sales of “dedicated e-readers” have fallen, because you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle editions. You still need an Amazon account, but there are free Kindle-reading apps for any smartphone, tablet or desktop you can whip out. I own a Kindle Paperwhite, the single best e-reader available; its screen can automatically adjust for bright sunlight or a dark room instantly. But I only use it on plane flights or other long reading-friendly trips. My doctor’s-office or line-waiting device is my smartphone. Here at home, maybe a tablet to make the pages larger. I can skip among them at will; the software always remembers my place. Among dozens more, I’ve read all of George R. R. Martin’s mammoth SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books this way and didn’t miss a thing. Having a dedicated e-reader is no longer necessary.

Secondly, since the publishers wrested pricing power back from Amazon, which was selling Kindle editions as loss leaders (the same thing bookies did during World War II to create a later lucrative mass market), there has doubtless been some sticker shock. Speaking only anecdotally but including friends who feel the same way, I’ve quite often decided against buying a read-and-discard book at all because of the high Kindle price. When it exceeds the paperback reprint price, I really get frosted. And I repeat, I’m not alone. No wonder sales are slipping. The goddam things are too expensive. But boys, at least from me you didn’t gain a hardcover by overpricing your e-book. You lost a frickin sale altogether. Unless I still want to read it — and remember that I once wanted to — some day in the future as it falls into the “backlist,” the low-margin mines which actually kept traditional publishers alive for decades. Maybe I’ll buy it second-hand, in which case you get zippando.

Book publishers do not like change. They have responded to this disruptive technology the same way the movie industry has viewed every perceived encroachment: network radio and television, pay TV, home video, anything that tips the business model. And each time the industry has eventually been forced to embrace them as potential new revenue streams — in home video’s case, the very saviour of the movie business for almost twenty years.

Trade book publishing (that means books sold by the “book trade” as opposed to academic or self-published and distributed titles) has yet to cross that line. E-books are still the enemy, sold only grudgingly if at all. But let’s return to those self-published titles. While there is without doubt a cornucopia of dross out there, a few prolific category authors — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, erotica — have managed to carve out day jobs by selling serial novels at $1 or $2 a pop. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY was self-published. So was Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN. So was Hugh Howey’s series WOOL, about cities packed in silos (don’t ask). In fact, when Howey sold the rights to a trade publisher, it was a print-only deal: he gets to keep all his online money.

The point is that breaking through from the ground up may certainly be improbable, but it’s no longer impossible. And the e-book figures cited by Ms. Alter do not include sales outside the book trade, which is a world whose boundaries are unknown to us. God bless every new independent bookstore, and good luck to them all. But technology is not going to quit chipping away at the hegemony of the Big Five.


10 Things I Learned About London Theater In 3 Days

September 11, 2015
  1. Unknown-1In England, Roald Dahl gets a possessory credit above the title (like the one John Carpenter takes) for CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.
  2. They charge four pounds for a Playbill in London. But it’s bigger than the free US ones, each particular edition has some editorial material about the specific show you’re seeing, and, anyhow, somebody in front of me was somehow able to run down the cast (“Who’s Who”…) on his smartphone.
  3.  TPTGW106-700x325Slapstick works everywhere. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, which is basically the disaster act of NOISES OFF quadrupled, or maybe a live version of THE ART OF COARSE ACTING, should come with complimentary pairs of Pampers. Sometimes you can’t even breathe.
  4. When the manager of THE COMMITMENTS yells just before the fourth-wall-breaking encore set, “Is there anybody here from Ireland?”, a London audience can give him a huge response.
  5. UnknownThere are theater-busting assholes everywhere. Just to the right of me at THE COMMITMENTS, two biddies talked to each other using normal conversational tones during the entire show, as if they were home watching telly. Fortunately, whenever the soul band played, you couldn’t hear them any more. They did their best to ruin the show but failed.
  6. You can order “interval” (intermission) drinks before the show. When you get to the bar at halftime, they’re already waiting for you. The interval order taker is the most popular guy as the audience is filing in.
  7. Ice cream is a huge interval favorite, but can be queued for and consumed in the auditorium itself. No biggie. A member of staff will be by just before curtain with a big rubbish bag.
  8. They don’t tell you to turn off your phone or don’t take pictures or don’t bring anything into the theater. People just take all the pre-show pictures they like but know enough to turn everything off when they should. I never heard a cell phone ring or even saw anyone surreptitiously consulting one during the actual performance. The transgressive biddies were, sadly, non-electronic.
  9. maxresdefaultThose oompa loompas (five or six different sly costume-&-lighting gags to make an average-sized person appear to be half hisser actual height) are amazing and worth the CHARLIE ticket alone. The bad news: they don’t appear until Act II.
  10. Understudies and overstudies come out on stage for the final performance. The lead COMMITMENTS role — the asshole singer — was being played by the Sunday man, but his rest-of-the-week counterpart, and all other fill-ins, showed up on stage for the finale of the show’s West End run. Is the musical — book, in the musical theater sense, by Roddy Doyle — any good? Look: all they promise is that you’ll get to see the soul revue known as the Commitments throw down live on stage, and once they kicked the show proper away for a joyous out-of-character series of encores, they bloody blew the roof off the bloody dump. So no, and bloody YES.

The Trump Card

August 17, 2015

UnknownDonald Trump has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder by several non-M.D.s recently, in the scholarly land of blog posts and Facebook. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan even alluded to that the other day, himself quoting a blogger. But what if the root cause of the Republican presidential front-runner’s incredible blather is more prosaic? What if Trump has simply been paying attention?

In our polarized, attention-spanless culture, you don’t have to make sense to make noise. Fox News has proven that for the last twenty years. And the ability to grasp nuance, or even entertain an opposing viewpoint, is either lacking or lies hopelessly fallow in a significant portion of the electorate. At least the Republican primary electorate, the zealots, the Tea Baggers. To them, Trump is spouting a simple (some would say simplistic) message: your country has been co-opted by incompetents, moochers, and big donors who don’t care about you. I, and only I, can tell you the truth because I’m so rich I don’t have to kiss their asses.

He connects in a visceral way because he doesn’t use wishy-washy “dog-whistle” code words for immigrants or minorities like all the others do. Mexico is deliberately sending us its rapists. China and Russia are at war with us. All the grabbers and takers and lazy bums are wrenching America out of your control, and I’m the only one with the guts to tell it like it is.

Details don’t matter when you’ve got vision. How else to explain the knee-jerk opposition to our nuclear deal with Iran — without bothering to provide any alternative? Approving the deal delays an Iranian nuke by 15 years at least, and if they cheat, all our other options are still on the table, including bombing them back to the Stone Age. Doing nothing accelerates the process, probably erodes economic sanctions by other budget-busted countries that are aching to resume doing business, and brings us closer to a nuked Mideast. As Bill Maher put it the other night, this should be a no-brainer, and Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, agreed, as has a raft of former officers. But even talking to the enemy amounts to surrender, or, in Mike Huckabee’s inflamed world, genocide. (Trump’s rivals are starting to catch on to the concept of bombast.)

Trump has also noticed something about reality television, of which he is a veteran. It’s very much like pro wrestling: the obnoxious villain gets all the oxygen, and it is he — almost always a man — who keeps them tuning in. So he can call Mexican immigrants rapists. He can disparage John McCain’s military service. He can hand out Lindsey Graham’s phone number and wonder out loud whether Megyn Kelly was mean to him at the first Pub debate because she was menstruating. Each time the punditocracy said, this is the last straw, and each time Trump’s numbers held. He only got in trouble when he messed with one of Roger Ailes’s beauty queens, but Ailes — who counted the record number of eyeballs tuned in to The Donald Trump Show — made do with a back-off-just-a-schoche phone call and they’re still best buds.

We also had a very entertaining Republican clown car four years ago: at one point Herman Cain was the front-runner. Michele Bachmann, for God’s sake. This is the unintended consequence of the ludicrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision: now all you need is one billionaire who thinks you’re jake and you can stick around like a bad penny without a scintilla of popular support. Rick Santorum!

Well, Donald Trump is his own billionaire who thinks he’s jake. The only thing I can’t find is Trump’s upside. He lost his NBC show and several business relationships (though when this all blows over, don’t be surprised to see some fences mended: 24 million people watched that debate, making it the highest-rated non-sports cable program of all time — that means it set a new viewer record for Fox News — and they tuned in to see Citizen Trump). What’s in it for him? NPD adherents say it’s simple: he really thinks he can win. And every time he breaks another piece of china yet remains atop the Pub heap, it may well fortify that belief. Me, I don’t think Trump even wants to be president. I think he’s carrying this reality show as far as he can so he’ll emerge on the other side with an even better brand. The downside is that he’s making goons like Chris Christie and Scott Walker look reasonable in comparison, but in the meantime it’s delicious watching all these bully wannabes get stomped on by a professional.


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. Just enable the “skill” and talk away. Same deal.


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