530

Five Three Oh

530

At 5:30 AM, you know who is truly fearless. Early birds shuffle into the guarded lobbies of fitness centers, jutting their chins and sticking their hands into hoodies not for warmth, but for protection against the unpredictable aperture between the end of night and the promising onset of the sun. A man rattles the locked door outside Starbucks, wanting his quick fix as the workers unpack big metal bins from the fridge and talk shop before putting on a customer-friendly face. A more subtle addict stands outside a diner with a Voice stuffed with bills and hands it over to his seller, who then hands a shopping bag filled with illegal merch, and proceeds to breakfast. Inside the diner, you can just grab the first batch of home fries and catch several snippets of the manager ordering this week’s supplies. The manager’s conversation is in Spanish and the numbers rattled into the phone reveal how his business is doing (not well). Delivery trucks rattle and stop, followed by taxi cabs, a few buses, and the odd automobile or two. Stacks of newspapers form outside newsstands and stores. Security guards are permitted to yawn. Mysterious vans pick up less secure workers at corners, where a few huddled souls begin a long day in Queens or Jersey with payments guaranteed out-of-pocket.

5:30 AM unleashes strange truths. A Duane Reade manager — a middle-aged man with an untrimmed moustache — shouts loudly about how much he enjoys hurting people just after welcoming you through the doors. It’s all about Modern Warfare 2, the latest twitch game making the rounds. He smiles as he talks of gunning down civilians and using bounce grenades to kill a crowd. Urination is more publicly practiced, but the rats are too tired to gnaw on the trash. Temporal minority groups welcome each other. The lonely chat with strangers: some demanding a response to “Good morning” and some looking for a two-minute friend. Social cues are more awkward at this hour. The lonely feel compelled to force intimate questions upon strangers in less than a minute. Requests for change carry a slight delay. No one quite knows the timing because you can’t always tell if someone’s just risen out of bed or about to head to dreamland. You can’t sit on a stoop, but you can bunch your frame near a door. In fact, it’s better that you do. The last thing you need is a property manager jostled before his alarm.

A man sans yarmulke sways in the wayward wind, singing a Jewish hymn. The smell of fresh bread careens from bakeries. The hardcore dog walking crowd, friendlier than the vigilant fitness freaks, conclude their constitutionals. A man takes his shirt off and hangs it over his head just because he can. And the normal sounds are preternaturally minimalist. Thin metal struts squeak in the breeze. The bright bus shelter signs are most visible at this hour. The signs advertise ghastly financial products and mirthless talk show hosts with rum, oversize jaws, but the messages won’t reach the people stirred up at this golden hour. Because this is the time when things are real. At no other time is the city so half-awake yet alive.

segundo311

The Bat Segundo Show: Marjorie Rosen

Marjorie Rosen recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #311.

Marjorie Rosen is most recently the author of Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town Into an International Community.

segundo311

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Kicked out of bed.

Author: Marjorie Rosen

Subjects Discussed: The white and non-Hispanic white majority in Bentonville, Arkansas, numerous houses of worship, multiculturalism, the largest population of Marshall Island immigrants in the United States, work for unskilled laborers, exploitation at Tyson and Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart’s $319 billion annual profit and its failure to offer proper healthcare, sentiments from former Bentonville mayor Terry Black Coberly, whether or not Wal-Mart is good for Bentonville, The Whistler Group, Wal-Mart, Christian-based merchandise, and staying in denial about being a “Christian company,” mandatory Saturday morning meetings, “diversity groups,” the conflict between Saturday morning meetings and shabbat, St. Paul Wal-Mart worker Abdi Abdi fired for praying on work breaks, the difficulties of integrating with a white community, trying to get Wal-Mart middle managers to disclose salaries, relative salaries and Bentonville’s relative economy, Bentonville housing, the abuses of the Bentonville and the Rogers Police Departments, the culture of fear spawned by Section 287(g), Rogers Mayor Steve Womack’s racist sentiments, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and white privilege, and the reasonable unification of culture.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

marjorierosenCorrespondent: Ajaydev Naliur said to you that the most difficult part of integrating into the larger white community was “not being able to socialize with them like we do with the Indian families. The people at work never say, ‘A.J., come to my house for dinner, come to my home.'” Now if Naliur has only a professional relationship with the Americans and he fears bringing Indian food even to the Walmart food day potlucks, then surely there’s a multiculturalism problem here. And I’m curious about why there’s this lack of integration.

Rosen: No, it’s interesting that you choose A.J. I think it was his problem.

Correspondent: Yeah?

Rosen: Yeah. Because he was so timid about everything. About sharing Indian food. You know, there are Mexican restaurants. There are Chinese restaurants. There are all sorts of restaurants in the area now. Not an Indian restaurant yet. But he was so timid about it. And yet there were other Indian families. Like the Kulkarnis, who were not at all. Who said to me, “Many American friends, we invite them to dinner.” And I kept wishing they’d invite me for dinner. You know, because I love Indian food.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Rosen: But when push came to shove, A.J. said that he was hesitant to embrace American values. Mostly because of his daughters. He has two teenage daughters. And he was very, very afraid that they would become too Americanized. And then he would lose control of them, in terms of boyfriends and in terms of setting up arranged marriages. And it’s definitely in the picture for him. And he wants to keep his girls under his wing.

Correspondent: But A.J. likewise wants to hold onto his job. And maybe the timidity comes from the fact that if he brings in the Indian food, by his standpoint, he could risk raising ire and possibly having people make fun of him. Or, I suppose, putting a red flag on the cultural divide. So is it really fair point to A.J. and say, “Hey, it’s your problem.” Because he is, in fact, the guy who is bringing sodas and pretzels and potato chips and the like. Basically conforming to American society.

Rosen: He said it was his problem.

Correspondent: He said it was his problem?

Rosen: He said it was his problem when I spoke to him about it. I said, “Gosh, people love to share.” Especially in terms of food. People are very open to that kind of thing. He said it was his problem and his timidity. It’s funny. His wife, it’s been harder for her because it’s taken her a longer time to learn English. Now that she’s learning English, she works at a day care center. She’s having a great time going to weddings of friends without him. Because she’s much more willing to socialize with Americans somehow. Now that she’s learned English, it’s easier for her.

Correspondent: Well, if she’s the social butterfly, has she brought Americans to her place? Or anything like that?

Rosen: Not yet. She’s still fairly submissive. A fairly submissive wife. On and off for the first two years that I spoke with them, I would visit them when I’d come into town. And I’d ask what he thought about something. And then I’d ask what she thought. And she’d say, with no irony, “I think what he thinks.”

Correspondent: Interesting.

Rosen: But now that she’s learning English, and she’s more comfortable in her own community and basically in her own skin, I really have detected a change in her. It’s really lovely to see that.

Correspondent: By comfortable in her own skin, do you mean as she’s learned English? What do you mean by that?

Rosen: As she’s learned English. She’s been able to take a job and hold a job by herself. And I think that’s given her a little bit of freedom. Not, I would say, a lot. But a little bit of freedom.

Correspondent: Freedom to further integrate with American culture?

Rosen: Yes.

Correspondent: Or…because it seems to me that we’re getting a one way signal here. I mean, shouldn’t multiculturalism work where everybody integrates together? And everybody goes, “Hey, Indian food. Hey, American food,” and that kind of thing?

Rosen: Well, I think it’s nice that she has American friends from the day care center where she works who invite her to their wedding. Which entails a whole day of traveling and celebrating. I mean, to me, that’s a gesture in a community that maybe ten years ago would not have made that gesture. And she would have been too timid to go without him.

BSS #311: Marjorie Rosen (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Play
nightlight

When Parody Replaces Opportunity

I don’t know if the world really needed a parody of the Twilight books. Stephenie Meyer’s acolytes, as cultural observers have opined, are quite fixed in their passions. I’ve always subscribed to the middle ground version of the “gateway drug” theory. You may not get the kids hooked on Ulysses or ensnare them within the apparent stomach-churning fallow of fan fiction. But you can listen to them instead of dismissing them, and, with enough patience, maybe get them started on Lovecraft or Poe.

nightlightThe Harvard Lampoon‘s Nightlight clearly doesn’t appreciate the source (the first rule of parody) and it reads like a funny idea best confined to a few thousand words. But the first chapter does offer some wonderfully awful sentences. “I had a dejected, brooding expression on my face, and I could tell from the reflection in the window that it was an intriguing expression,” declares Belle. Why are there two contradictory expressions in the same sentence? And why should any reader tolerate this? How can any serious writer forget about a pivotal detail established in an earlier clause?

Later, we get this exquisitely extraneous description: “So when I closed the door to my room, unpacked, cried uncontrollably, slammed the door, and threw my clothes around my room in a fit of dejected rage, he didn’t notice.” Aside from the discombobulated verb clauses, we have a door that is closed twice. (It’s also quite amusing that the mysterious Harvard Lampoon writer managed to slip “dejected” into these inconsistencies.)

Nightlight also declares war on silly similes. A finger is “squeezed through a diamond ring like a sausage through a slipknot.” We learn of a girl with “brown bushy hair in a ponytail that was more like a suirrel tail in the context of her beady squirrel eyes.” There’s even one sentence that reads: “He was muscular, like a man who could pin you up against the wall as easily as a poster, yet lean, like a man who would rather cradle you in his arms.”

The question isn’t why the Twihards are enraptured by vampires. That’s an understandable sentiment for any teenager seeking an engaging fantasy. The greater dilemma is why these fans continue to revere prose that’s written like a man with a high BAC level trying to ride a unicycle.

The fan base, however, isn’t without its skeptics. There was the campaign led by one fan to return Breaking Dawn for its inadequacies. Then there was the Midnight Sun leak, which was so riddled with gaffes that Meyer was forced to close up shop.

The discarded draft still exists (PDF) on Meyer’s site. And it turns out that the Harvard Lampoon wasn’t entirely off the mark. On page 9: “Her scent hit me like wrecking ball [sic], like a battering ram.” On page 15: “A spur of the forest reached out like a finger to touch the back corner of the parking lot.” On page 74, anger is “[l]ike a furious kitten, soft and harmless, and so unaware of her own vulnerability.” On page 109: “My body had turned into something more like rock than flesh, enduring and unchanging.” (Thanks for the specificity, Stephenie.) On page 145: “dark hair thick and wild and twisted like seaweed across the pillow.” (I guess some people slumber in morasses.)

I understand that young people are often drawn to associations, but how are any of the above similes worthwhile? Is there a way to get the Twilight fans more jazzed up about precision? I think so. One young fan named “Hot Diggity Dogs!,” responding to a review of Eclipse, wants to know:

what are some of the powerful similes that Stephenie Meyers uses in Eclipse? I can’t find that many, and i NEED some for school! please help, thanks!!

“Hot Diggity Dogs!” may be trying to cram a paper in at the last minute, but I’m wondering why she couldn’t ask this question of her teacher. Is it because the teacher condemns the main source of interest?

And there’s this Amazon discussion of Laurell K. Hamilton’s similes and metaphors in which several Hamilton fans try to come to terms with the clumsy language:

If she’d said “just before a devastating storm” it would make sense, but the sky doesn’t generally fall down. And it would be hard-pressed to destroy everything you own….I know what she’s trying to convey, but she really bites at these things. If she isn’t nonsensical, then she’s outright bizarre.

The takeaway here is that these books, whether authored by Meyer or Hamilton, clearly offer something compelling to these readers. And while those possessing literary standards can pooh-pooh “lesser” literature (as I have just done), I can remember when an English teacher ridiculed me in seventh grade for expressing enthusiasm about Stephen King. Now Stephen King may not be the greatest writer in the world, but he did manage to suck me in at an early age. And every now and then, he still does. But I certainly haven’t forgotten his role in leading me to a world of books. And I suspect that many Meyer fans will feel the same way in about a decade or two. While there’s certainly good cause to condemn Meyer, it’s something of an irony that King’s remarks about Meyer earlier this year initiated something of a jihad. But what the Twihards missed within King’s comments was his praise for Meyer’s compelling storytelling.

Nightlight might have functioned with this same duality in mind. But after the first chapter, the writers stopped mimicking Meyer’s faulty sentences and tried to sabotage the storytelling with lame jokes. I got bored, but the book was so short (and the subway ride so long) that I made it to the end. But what if the writers had designed the parody so that young readers could understand why adults sneered down at a “lower” art form? Not only might they have managed to get through to the Meyer fan base, but they might have kickstarted a internal debate about what was so troubling about the source. Some sensible advice about parody, which is particularly applicable to Nightlight‘s shortcomings and Meyer’s fans, arrives from a gentleman going by the name of “La Touche Hancock” in 1920:

To the parodist, then, I say: Make your parody such that the poet himself will laugh over it, and wish to make your acquaintance. Finally, remember that humor of the truest quality rests on the foundation of belief in something better than it seems, and its laugh is a sad laugh at the awkward contrast between man as he is and man as he might be.

notebooks

The Benefits of Notebooks

notebooks

I used to write in longhand all the time, filling up five-subject notebooks with the predictable angst of a young man in his early twenties and several early starts on stories, plays, and screenplays that I would revise or abandon. Taking notes was once the thing to do. Back in the nineties, when I wrote film reviews, half the critics took notes. And I learned to write in the dark by taking up large sections of the paper, noting a sentence and then sliding my pen downward to another sector. I felt that it was important to be true and accurate to any crazed thoughts or feelings, even the half-assed ones that I could dredge up in a pinch. Today, thanks to reduced column inches (and reduced journalistic expectations), very few critics, aside from those still writing reviews longer than 600 words, take copious notes anymore, whereas I still obstinately scribble without looking down at the pen. I suppose it’s the writer’s equivalent of learning how to assemble a weapon while blindfolded.

muninotebookThe result of all this scribbling has involved quite a few notebooks, most of which I have kept in two file drawers. I’ve just pulled one out at random and I see a drawing of a floor plan for a San Francisco streetcar. Flipping the pages, I see lists of interesting words I’ve noted in novels, such as “contrapposto” and “ephemeron.” There’s an awkward poem that begins with the line “Pigeon pecking pieces from discarded pizza boxes / Whopper wrappers flayed upon a health nut in detox.” I see a hasty budget I’ve drafted for a film shoot, noting the costs of renting fresnels, Tota kits, flex-fills, and C stands. Another page offers this curious list:

  • Party Animal
  • Collector
  • Amateur Sleuth (Sam)
  • Femme Fatale

And I instantly recall the moment in Java Beach when I wrote this all down, along with the research I did for a short film I wrote, but never saw through to production, called “The Collector.” Then there is this section from an entry titled “Observations in the Mission”:

At Muddy Waters, two ladies talk. One is more short-haired than the other and is enamored with such words as “never,” “layoff,” and “responsibility.” She keeps her left hand locked on the table, perpendicular to the surface. Her thumb sticks up. There is almost a butterfly-like spread, ever so slight. Perhaps the modest gust from the door can be felt this way. Her companion listens. “You are a robot,” says the angry friend.

These are curious details to observe. And I chide my younger self for not being more careful to observe the specific hairstyles of the time, which would perhaps be of greater value to me in reconstructing the moment. I am also needlessly zealous about the hand gestures. But I do remember being particularly interested in body language. Still am.

But sometime around the year 2000, I cut down on notebooks. I figured that anything that I could observe would be permanently captured on my hard drive. But I’ve had a number of hard drives die on me and I haven’t always been able to revive the files. A friend of mine just lost her thesis this way. We get so caught up in the act of writing that we forget that our tools are sometimes more fickle. And even if we do manage to backup our data, there’s always the possibility that it might be accidentally deleted or lost within a baroque directory structure.

Not so with notebooks. Like analog books, one flips through any notebook and finds a diagram or an abandoned idea. This is rather similar to the unexpected book you find in a library or a bookstore that just happens to be situated close to where you’re standing. Many of the discoveries are useless, but some are surprising. Some fresh idea you think you possess now was actually in some primitive gestation a decade ago. Even some phrases are similar. Your voice is yours, even when you didn’t quite know how to express it in early days. Ten years from now, will we be able to do the same with our blog posts and tweets?

notebookapthunt

That picture above is from an apartment hunt. I can adduce from the squiggles the apartments that didn’t pan out. And I can track the specific order in which I located an apartment by looking at this page vertically. I have the price ranges of apartments in San Francisco at a specific time. I also see that with this particular quest, I had my eye on the Haight Ashbury neighborhood (which I didn’t end up moving to, but eventually did later).

Since I’ve been less prolific with notebooks in the past nine years, I wonder how many ideas or thoughts or unintentional chronicles (such as the above) that I’ve lost. Smartphones may permit us to text our friends or send an email on the fly, but don’t we have some obligation to preserve our online thoughts? We call an Apple laptop a “notebook,” but is it really a proper notebook’s equal? Our pens do not have delete keys. We cannot take back a written thought, except by scratching it out or burning it. I wrote about linkrot and the problems with online permanence back in August. And it occurs to me that we may be driven to confess our most private details to Facebook — little thinking of the manner in which the social network giant is profiting — because we perceive it to be the new notebook.

But looking through even this one notebook, I can’t imagine a more foolproof technology. And I’m wondering if I should use notebooks more. Computers have produced interesting blogs, wondrous photos on Flickr, and a culture that is more documented than ever before (at least so long as the technology holds). But what about the subconscious buried within us? If we are prohibited from expressing unpopular or strange ideas on social networks because of what others might say or think, then is Twitter so reliable a tool? Could Kafka have written “The Metamorphosis” if commenters were constantly heckling him about his silly bug story? (Conversely, if Kafka couldn’t count on Max Brod to burn his papers, would he have succeeded in closing his online accounts? Or would the cache images live on forever?) If you’re at a party tweeting the names of people arriving into your BlackBerry, are you really being social?

I’m not against technology or e-books. The Internet has given us many great things. But I do feel it’s important to always contemplate the purpose and usage of any new development. If 90% of the reading public prefers analog books over digital, then now is not the time to declare a revolution or to suggest that the days of printed books are over. Moving forward and adopting tools is great, but maybe there’s more life in the dead tree technologies than some of us are willing to admit. Hell, maybe there’s even a good deal on an apartment vacant for years.

hatemail8

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #8

hatemail8A few hours ago, I learned that a notable writer wrote into The New York Post to express his disguised hatred for his ex-girlfriend.

Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue.

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail in question, read in the style of Jimmy Stewart.

I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #8 (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#7 A hate mail read in the style of Glenn Beck
#6 A hate mail read in the style of a Miss Manners schoolmarmish tone
#5 A hate mail read in the style of Richard Milhous Nixon
#4: A hate mail read in the style of a drunken Irishman.
#3: A hate mail read in the style of a quiet sociopath
#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style

Play

Slowdown

“It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

That’s some sensible advice from my favorite First Lady. (Dolley Madison is a close second.) Her other spiffy idea, which is very wise, is that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

I like First Ladies. They don’t get nearly enough credit. Abigail Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson, concerned about Shays’ Rebellion — that fantastic revolt that the unemployed and the working poor might want to take a few lessons from. And she got Jefferson to write one of his most anti-authoritarian sentiments, “I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” And then there was Lady Bird Johnson, who not only planted millions of flowers around Washington DC, but also had to deal with her boorish husband on a regular basis. On the other hand, how many Great Society programs would have been denied were it not for Lady Bird’s efforts? We may never know for sure.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Good Ol’ Eleanor comes along just as I’ve been rethinking what I do and revisiting places that I forgot were so wonderful.

And so due to unexpected bursts of inspiration (but, more importantly, perspiration) in other places, the results of which I will report if it amounts to anything, I’ve decided that this unforeseen self-discipline is more important than disciplined blogging. So I’ll be scaling down the posting frequency from five chunky posts a week to pretty much writing whenever I feel like it. Believe me, there are several strange and aborted posts in my drafts folder which I may or may not finish. But after a few nudges from friends (and some crafty withholding from parties known to feed me certain pieces of information which provoke 1,000 word essays), I’m now finding that my writing is leading me elsewhere.

This isn’t a full-blown hiatus, but it is a slowdown. The Internet, which is a mostly pleasant and valuable place, does not represent a tyranny, contrary to certain parties desperately in need of a chill pill, an ice cream cone, or a blowjob. But negotiating this terrain does involves a strange amalgam of inclusiveness and self-restraint. Or as Mark Twain once wrote, “Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

hatemail7

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #7

hatemail7A few days ago, I learned that a former college friend, who had initiated contact with me, had transformed into an incoherent lunatic. My girlfriend has benignly suggested, based on the evidence I have presented to her, that this man was likely a lunatic all along. I’d prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt. But one thing’s for sure. His email was loaded with hate, despite the fact that he claimed to be a peaceful optimist.

Therefore, my audio series — Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project — must continue.

The following clip represents my dramatic reading of the hate mail in question, read in the style of FOX News’s Glenn Beck.

I plan to continue reading more hate mail. Again, I will be happy to read any specific hate mail that you’ve received. (If you do send me hate mail for potential dramatic readings, I only ask that you redact the names of the individuals.)

Click any of the below links to listen.

Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Project #7 (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Previous Hate Mail Dramatic Reading Installments:

#6 A hate mail read in the style of a Miss Manners schoolmarmish tone
#5 A hate mail read in the style of Richard Milhous Nixon
#4: A hate mail read in the style of a drunken Irishman.
#3: A hate mail read in the style of a quiet sociopath
#2: A hate mail read in a muted Peter Lorre impression
#1: A hate mail read in a melodramatic, quasi-Shakespearean style

Play

Offices Within Offices

The office was ensconced within a vicious slab that prioritized desperate spendthrift tendencies over comfort and efficiency. The man who rented out this thin rectangle on the 33rd floor seemed to believe that the $1,200 he paid each month granted him some illusory status. He took advantage of the economic downturn and shouted at the receptionist every time she failed to mention his firm name. The powerless receptionist, who had initiated with an attorney to secure her job just after the Dow first plummeted below 10,000, was forced to comply with a smile. She hoped she wouldn’t have to lower her adulterous standards, but there were enough office rumors to make her suitably feared. She fed her priest all the sordid details in confession so that she could live with herself.

With special permission, the man who rented out this tenuous office could use the floor’s conference room, where he could hold meetings and attempt to persuade people that he rented out a substantial percentage of the 33rd floor. But every client with half a brain noticed his firm’s dubious placard situated next to the firm renting out the floor. So he took it upon himself to only meet with people who made less money than he did. And he took it upon himself to persuade them to give him money. There was never a question of morality. After all, he had office he had to pay for at $1,200 each month and he had to spend money on people who had more money than he did.

The receptionist was fired in June when the attorney ended the affair. After all, the attorney soon found himself more heavily supervised by the partners and he could not risk any half dalliance on the public record. He paid the receptionist a lot of money to shut up. But the receptionist could not find another job and, therefore, could not find another man with money to fuck. But since she had a lot of money — enough to rent out a small office for a good year — and since the man who rented out the thin rectangle had stumbled onto hard times, she decided to sublet his office. For $600 each month, the ex-receptionist rented out half of the man’s office. She was able to secure use of the conference room more effectively than the man because people on the 33rd floor still feared her. The attorney feared that she would reveal his affair and offered to give her more money if she would go away. Instead, she decided to sublet his office too. Soon, the ex-receptionist was traveling between her two sublets. The partners found the situation within the attorney’s office quite awkward and decided to let the attorney go. (Because the attorney was stressed out about the subletting situation, and because his anxiety increased because he never quite knew when the ex-receptionist would start working in his office, his work began to suffer.) The firm, thanks to the economy, had fallen on hard times. And the ex-receptionist, who ran an under-the-table cocaine operation within the 33rd floor’s otherwise ethical business makeup, then bought out the ex-attorney’s office. She also told the partners that she would rent out the thin rectangular office for $1,600 each month. Soon the honest man was told he had to leave and a pimp soon replaced him. The ex-receptionist began doing good business on the prostitution front. As the firm’s finances grew more shaky, and the ex-receptionist was feared more than ever before, she began — after establishing a reliable relationship with a fancy hotel two blocks away — recruiting various support staff to fuck the remaining men who had money to burn. The firm, seeing no other option for survival, then merged with the ex-receptionist’s lucrative business. And the ex-receptionist made a lot of money. She adopted a new philosophy, independently arrived at. Always meet with people who made less money than you did and be sure to take it.

The office was ensconced within a vicious slab that prioritized desperate spendthrift tendencies over comfort and efficiency. The woman who rented out this thin rectangle on the 33rd floor seemed to believe that the $1,600 she paid each month granted her some illusory status.

Live Conversation with Sarah Hall — November 3, 2009

The Bat Segundo Show may be on temporary hiatus (with several shows still in the backlog). But that doesn’t mean that I’m not talking with authors. Sarah Hall, author of How to Paint a Dead Man (the subject of a recent roundtable discussion on these pages), will be coming through New York. She’ll be appearing at McNally Jackson on November 3, 2009 at 7:00 PM, where I will be chatting with her about her fourth novel.

Please note that this conversation will not be recorded or released as a future Segundo show. I am remaining a stickler about my hiatus. Thankfully, this particular conversation is permissible through a technicality. So here’s a chance to see the Segundo format unfold in real time with a very talented writer. Feel free to stop by on November 3rd for some high-octane conversation.

Scene from a Mall (1993)

In 1993, I took a film class and was grouped with an amicable ragtag crew. We filmed little shorts with the Panasonic PV-535, the only consumer VHS camera that had chroma key and that was compulsively used at just about every opportunity. The camera had a little mini-camera that you would mount on the top. You couldn’t directly feed in a video signal into the camera, but those who used the camera certainly improvised around the limitations. I would make long-distance telephone calls to video engineers and technicians around the nation, wondering if a converter existed to transfer the signal. I even attempted to persuade Panasonic to send me the blueprint, but they weren’t exactly flexible to some 19-year-old kid trying to hack their proprietary system. The camera had been given to me and I certainly wasn’t in the position to purchase another one to reverse engineer it. But it did serve me and several other folks quite well during the early 1990s.

As the guy with the equipment, I somehow ended up being the one who organized the shoots. I certainly never intended to seize control. I was just the guy who ended up with logistical ideas. I rotated crew duties, shifting directorial, editing, and photographic duties after I asked our crew members specifically what they were interested in doing. In Sacramento, we had a small ensemble of actors that included several friends, my sister, and all of the crew members. I solicited ideas from the group, often stepping in to help others flesh out their stories into a screenplay. I had spent much of high school studying screenplays (I once had my Terminator 2 screenplay book confiscated by my English teacher after my friend Tom and I were geeking out as the teacher delivered a lecture), writing scripts, and even attempted to make a feature film (called Three Kinds of Respect). Armed with this experience, I’d often sit next to a writer at a computer, asking the writer questions about the characters and the situations. We’d then bang out an intricate shooting script.

The above film, “Scene from a Mall,” was one of many films made during this period. It was built around an improvisational situation in which I played a disturbed man and Misa Whiteford played a woman waiting for her boyfriend. We shot this at the Country Club Mall in Sacramento, California, about ten years before the renovation. I suppose we approached this mall because, like Sunrise Mall, the 1960s aesthetic appealed to everybody. (It certainly reminded me of the original version of Dawn of the Dead.)

I’ve revised the film slightly, taking out about 40 seconds from the original version. At the time, I was editing these little films using two four-head VCRs. So you’d be able to cut two shots and get it roughly within a half second of where you wanted. This was trickier than it sounds. Because you had to anticipate that the output VCR would begin recording at precisely one third of a second after you pressed the RECORD button. And it therefore took multiple attempts for each cut. When I later learned how to cut and splice Super 8, and when I worked on flatbeds, it was a luxury to be able to cut on the exact frame. The present generation is spoiled with their NLEs.

Of course, now that I’m working with NLEs, I thought I would exonerate my 19-year-old self and offer the cuts that I had intended all along just before getting this film up on YouTube. What once took patient hours now takes about one twentieth of the time.

The editing limitations never stopped me from being ambitious. I would eventually make another short film that would contain more than 100 shots and would be filmed in San Francisco, Folsom Lake, and various points around Sacramento. (I even managed to shoot some video with an ancient black-and-white video camera, but the camera was on its last legs and it actually shocked the cameraman and never worked again. My mother yelled at me for this technical deficiency, as if I had deliberately killed the camera. But that’s another story.)

I’m going to slowly get some of these old films up onto YouTube — in large part because the videotape sources are starting to deteriorate. And if I don’t digitize some of this footage now, it may be gone forever. (These films are from fifteen to seventeen years ago. Given that videotape is known to deteriorate within twenty years, it appears that I’ve got my hands full.)

I don’t know if I still have the original sources for this film, but I wince at all the mall chatter contained within the audio. I may revisit this film again and do my best to filter out the background noise and boost the dialogue. But however I mess with these films, I promise that Han Solo will not shoot first.

When I Had Hair

In the mid-1990s, I made my way around various film and theater circles. My interests were mainly centered around the prospect of putting on a good show. I enjoyed being one of those wizards behind the curtain executing an illusion. And it didn’t matter whether it was coming up with a wacky storyline or perfecting a visual detail that only a handful of people would notice. But because I was often so lively when I worked on sets, friends began to insist that I should act in their projects. One even promised me a bottle of vodka for a day of work. And it seemed impolite to say no. I would begin to point out to them that, although I had taken several acting classes to understand the process, there were plenty of people out there who could act.

But no, they wanted me. I had something that these actors didn’t. Or maybe they just liked seeing me ham it up. So in my early twenties, I would often be enlisted to act in short films and plays. I would either play authority figures (attorneys and doctors) or completely crazy characters (psychotic killers and lunatics in a sanitarium). I would develop an intricate character backstory far exceeding anything the writer had intended, and I would often work out elaborate character relationships with other actors so that we would have additional facets to work from during a scene. And it was all a great deal of fun.

Recently I discovered a videotape containing one such scene. I was twenty-two. It was 1996. I was enlisted by my pal Han Lee to play a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross for his film directing class at San Francisco State University. The other guy, playing Shelly Levene, is Eric Gibboney. At the very least, the clip demonstrates to the world that there once was a time in my life in which I did indeed have hair!

jsfeating

Eating Young Jewish Writers

[The following article is an excerpt from my soon-to-be-published book, Eating Young Jewish Writers.]

When I was young, I would often spend the weekend at my grandmother’s house. She would ask me if I was hungry. And when I would cry, she would tell me that I needed to toughen up and expand my gustatory horizons. It wasn’t until years later that I realized she was testing me to see if I had eaten a young Jewish writer for dinner.

jsfeatingYou see, my grandmother survived the Great Depression eating young Jewish writers. It wasn’t that she was anti-Semitic or anything. My grandmother would scavenge around America looking for inedibles. Unfortunately, other hobos had eaten the rest of the food. When the rotting potatoes, discarded scraps of meat, skins and the bits that clung to bones and pits had all been exhausted, the people who were still hungry would turn to other human beings to eat. This was before the Holocaust, when one could still eat a young Jewish writer and not be declared a National Socialist. I remember attending hotel buffets: while the rest of us kept our meals vegetarian, there would be some adventurous diners who would gnaw upon young Jewish writers and think nothing of it. After all, Jews tended to write a lot of books. This was one of the reasons that Alfred Kazin made so many infrequent appearances in his younger days. He feared being eaten by those who weren’t picky.

It was my grandmother who taught me that eating a young Jewish writer saved you money. The meat would last a long time. You wouldn’t have to go to a butcher. You could just show up at some shul, wait for some eager young Jewish intellectual to open up his notebook, throw a burlap sack over his head, and whisk him away. You could really make a young Jewish writer last a long time if you had a walk-in freezer. Of course, you’d have to inure yourself to his shrieks of anguish as you chopped him up with the hatchet. But if you were hungry enough, well, the possibilities were limitless.

We thought my grandmother was the greatest chef who ever lived. And we’d enjoy our meals until we realized that we were eating human meat. Then we’d throw up onto our plates and ask for seconds. There was always plenty of young Jewish meat to go around.

POSSIBLE AGAIN

When I was 2, the writers of all my bedtime books were young Jewish writers. The first thing I can remember learning in school was how to pet a young Jewish writer without accidentally killing it. This required some skill because many young Jewish writers were hypochondriacs. One summer my family fostered a young Jewish writer. I kicked him. My father told me that we don’t kick young Jewish writers. Years later, the young Jewish writer would write a three-volume memoir about how he had experienced severe anti-Semitism when staying with my family. He would base an entire lecture around the incident. Because of this, there were many years where I was banned from attending bar mitzvahs. When I had earned enough pocket money as a teenager, I was forced to hire a group of young Jewish writers to kick me repeatedly over the weekend.

When I was 7, I mourned the death of a young Jewish writer I’d won the previous weekend. I discovered that my father had chopped up the young Jewish writer and flushed him down the toilet. I told my father — using other, less familial language — we don’t flush young Jewish writers down the toilet. When I was 9, I had a babysitter who didn’t want to hurt anything. She put it just like that when I asked her why she wasn’t reading young Jewish writers with me.

“How is reading a young Jewish writer hurting him?” I asked.

“Because we goys can’t possibly know their level of suffering. We might hurt them accidentally if we read about their pain.”

The babysitter’s intention might or might not have been to convert us, but being a kid herself, she lacked whatever restraint it is that so often prevents a full retelling of this particular story. Frank is probably eating a young Jewish writer as I type these words.

Mark Twain said that quitting smoking is among the easiest things you can do: he did it all the time. I would add avoiding cannibalism to the list of easy things. In high school I refused to eat human flesh — whether Jewish or not Jewish, young or old — most often to claim a bit of identity in a world of people whose identities seemed to come effortlessly. I also wanted to be the biggest wanker in America. I wanted people to hate me because I crammed my views down their throat. Because I was a smug kid then and I’m a smug kid now. Eating young Jewish writers is certainly wrong and I don’t know if I can forgive my grandmother for what she did. But writing a boastful book on the subject is almost certainly worse. Thankfully, I have hired a bunch of young Jewish writers to beat me up at every stop I make on my next book tour. Together, we can correct the moral divide. But if you’re not willing to beat me up, perhaps you can find it within your heart to spend $25.99 on my 352 page book, Eating Young Jewish Writers.

New Review

In all the NYFF madness, I failed to note that my review of Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Darkappeared in Friday’s edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. It begins:

While the intrepid academic Morris Dickstein has been noodling around on Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (W.W. Norton, $29.95) for 29 years, the regrettable surprise is that the chapters read like airless lectures delivered to a fidgety audience that’s only sitting through the whole darn talk for a college credit or a free barbeque.

You can read the rest here.

Coverage Interruptus

A last-minute deadline for a very fun and entirely unanticipated eleventh hour project has cropped up. This development means a break in New York Film Festival coverage. I have quite a number of films that I still have to write about (and not just NYFF offerings), and my plans are to attempt to unroll as much of this as I can in the next week.

But for folks still on the fence about the films that are playing in the final days, here’s a quick rundown of immediate thoughts. Todd Solondz’s Life Under Wartime is a flawed offering, but but not without its moments. I can’t echo the angry “I’m done with Solondz” sentiments that seems to have made the rounds. I’m certainly not done with him. But if you’re looking for Happiness redux, you’re likely to be disappointed. I hesitate to recommend the film to anyone who is new to Solondz.

You can read my review of Broken Embraces here.

I had to miss Bluebeard because of a conflicting appointment, but Catherine Breillat is always an interesting and provocative filmmaker, and I hope to have a chance to see the film at a later time. I had to miss Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother for similar reasons, but I’ve asked around and heard solid but not ecstatic buzz about this latest offering from the South Korean filmmaker behind The Host.

And while I admire the intelligence that is often contained within Claire Denis’s films, I’m afraid that White Material was a disappointment for me. The film took a perfectly interesting subject (white imperialism) and turned it into a mostly pedestrian and sleep-inducing movie. (Had I not been wired on coffee, I am almost certain that I would have fallen asleep. I wanted to throttle the white characters for their narcissism and thoughtless stupidity.) But I can report that Denis was very passionate in the press conference that followed the screening, particularly when responding to an idiotic journalist who suggested that the African people were “tribal.” I have both video and audio of the exchange, and I hope to get this up, along with my review, early next week.

There’s also a full-length Segundo interview coming with a renowned filmmaker. Stay tuned on these pages for more. But in the meantime, have a fantastic three-day weekend!

lachman

NYFF: An Impromptu Interview with Ed Lachman

[This is the third in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

lachmanAt the Life During Wartime press conference, I noticed that director of photography Ed Lachman was a bit grumpy about differences between shooting on film and shooting digital. Life During Wartime had been shot, like Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, on the RED digital system. Now Soderbergh’s film looked a bit soft and strained to my eye. Lachman, on the other hand, had managed to beef up much of Life During Wartime using color correction. But I was really curious about how Lachman got these results. Plus, Lachman was wearing a pretty snazzy and stylin’ hat.

So I tracked him down, figuring that two guys sharing the same first name might just get along, and recorded an impromptu interview, which you can listen to at the end of the post. Many thanks to Mr. Lachman for being very gracious in talking with me just as he was heading out the door. My apologies to any cinematography die-hards for being a tad rusty.

Here’s the transcript.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the use of the RED digital system for this versus what you’ve done in terms of film. You alluded during the press conference to having some struggle trying to get the color right. Presumably, a lot of color correction in post. I’m curious to what degree you relied on preexisting locations, whether planning has completely shifted thanks to the RED digital system, and whether you have any possible regrets over this possibly inevitability of where film is headed.

Lachman: Well, I think there’s a place for the digital world and a place for film, and also the merge between the film and digital world. It’s just that my eye and feeling is toward film. Because that’s what I grew up with. It’s not to negate that certain stories can’t be told digitally. But I think it’s an erroneous argument to worry that the digital world should be film. Because the color space is different and the exposure latitude is greatly lessened. Now with a lot of time and money, you can get the digital world closer to film. But for me, it’s still not there yet. And the question they always bring up is that it’s a cost factor. Because it’s like $1,000 a roll for processing of 35mm. But I’ve seen the trend back towards film. Even if you shoot in Super 16 or three-perf 35mm or two-perf 35mm, and then go through a digital intermediate, to me, that’s like the best of both worlds. Where you’re originating on film because of the exposure and the color latitude of the film and also because, in the digital world, at least with the RED, you’re not actually seeing what you’re getting on the set. And the cameraman has to rely on what his eye and, when we use film, our light meter and our lenses. And with the RED, you have to estimate what it’s going to look like. Because you’re not actually seeing at what they say 4K, but is actually 3.2K at the output. Because monitors aren’t at 4K or 3K.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Where do you think digital filmmaking needs to go in order to be acceptable for you? Is it a matter of anticipating how you second-guess how it’s going to look? Once you factor in the potential color correction, the potential fixing in post, and the like? I mean, how does the eye adjust with such developments?

Lachman: Once the digital world can equate the exposure latitude with film, which I would say is close to ten or twelve stops. And for me, in the digital world, it’s about half of that. And then also, you know, there’s something to say about why an image looks the way it does. Being analog versus digital. And there’s a random access to the analog image on film in which actually it’s like an etching. The film is being created by light because of the action — not to get too technical, but the silver in the film is being etched away by the film. And then you’re projecting with light through a piece of film when you see a film. And digital, you’re on one plane. So your shadows and your highlights are on this one plane. And it has a different feeling. And I’m saying there are certain stories that I think can be told very well digitally. And I used the digital world as best I could in Life During Wartime, and I’m happy with the results. But I had to do a lot of post work to bring out things I wanted to feel and see in the digital format that in film I would have had.

Correspondent: What was the worst case scenario in terms of color correction? Did you have a situation in which you lit the heck out of a scene and you got it absolutely how your eye wanted it and it didn’t turn out that way when you looked at it?

Lachman: It’s not so much in lit situations. I can control that. It’s more in unlit situations when you’re outdoors and when you have a strong contrast of over ten or twelve stops. Between shadow, detail, and highlights. And there’s a scene — it’s a fantasy sequence — when you pan around a lake and you see the boy standing there. And you cut back and forth. I had to do that in a number of different passes to bring out the shadow detail, to bring out the highlight. And then I did it for the color space. And that’s not something I would have had to do in film.

Correspondent: How many passes did you do for that shot?

Lachman: Well, each take, I probably did about six passes.

Correspondent: Did you have to record a certain amount of information per pass and mix it all together?

Lachman: You do a matte actually. So you matte out. Let’s say you go for the shadow detail. Matte out the other part. Then I went for the highlights. So I just did different passes. And they can put it together. But that’s very time-consuming.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious. For a practical situation. For example, the night time parking lot scene. There you have a situation in which you have very little light. And you have to get this image of a woman walking in her nightgown across a parking lot. And so with a situation like that, was that pretty much all color correction? What did you do in terms of lighting the scene to ensure that there was some kind of information there to work with?

Lachman: Well, I’m glad you thought there wasn’t much light. And there wasn’t a lot. But I had to light it on a crane. A 12K on a crane. An 18K. And then a bounce. So I lit it the way I would have done it on film. Another aspect of the digital world that nobody tells you about is: Film right now, you can shoot at ASA 500, push it a stop, 1000, and get incredible results. The digital format, it’s about 200 to get an image that’s acceptable, that isn’t noisy and you have problems later with. So you’re losing a stop to a stop and a half to almost two stops. So then you’re in a position that you have to use more light. So then why are you gaining something by shooting in the digital world over film? Now the digital format loves low light. And I think that shooting at night scenes digitally is wonderful. Because you have lower contrast ratio. But in high contrast situations, where there’s a lot of light, the digital world, you get artifacts. You get highlights burning out. You don’t get as much information as you do with film.

Correspondent: What’s the ideal lighting for a digital situation? Presumably, how would Kino Flos work in relation to film versus digital?

Lachman: Well, you have to keep it within a certain range. Let’s say a 3:1 ratio. Where in film, you might go with a 6:1 ratio. So you just have to be a lot more careful. It’s almost for me like shooting with reversal film. Positive film, what we used to shoot. Now we shoot primarily negative. Well, we do shoot negative film. But when we used to shoot in positive film. Let’s say with documentaries or whatever. You had to be much more careful about the exposure latitude you shot with.

Correspondent: Since you’re dealing with such a limited spectrum, how have you adjusted, say, getting a spot meter reading or a light meter reading?

Lachman: Even though it’s a digital world and people laugh at me, I use my spot meter once I’ve evaluated what the ASA of the digital medium is. And I like to rate it around 200. I then just balance it with my spot meter the way I do with film.

Correspondent: Have you managed to get it so that you pretty much get an ASA 200 reading that more or less reflects the final results without artifacts? Or are you still having problems?

Lachman: No, I rate it at 200 and then do an exposure latitude of a stop and a half on the highlights and the shadow detail. That’s what you’re looking at in the film. When you see just the detail in Michael Kenneth Williams’s face, he’s African-American. And it’s so wonderful. You just read the detail. That’s because I made sure about what my ratio was between the highlight and the shadow. You know, I think part of the mystique of the whole digital world is the idea that for directors, it’s a liberating thing. If they see an image, they can shoot. But it’s a lot more than seeing the image that you have. It’s also about balance in the scene and it’s about creating the continuity of the image, so to speak. So it’s not enough to say, “Oh, I have an image we can shoot.” What happens when you go into the close-up? What happens when you start at one point of the day and you have sunlight and at the end of the day you’re in shadow or clouds? So it’s about balancing to make a scene look like it’s a continuation of the same time period, which many times you’re not allowed to do.

Correspondent: This leads me to actually ask you about depth of field and focus lengths. Obviously, if you don’t have as much of a spectrum, you’re going to have limits in terms of how far you can use the Z-axis. And I’m curious about how your photography has changed in light of the focus problem.

Lachman: I don’t worry about that. People say you have more depth of focus digitally than you do with film. That doesn’t worry me. If I use a longer lens. If I want to knock the background out.

Interview with Ed Lachman (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Play
brokenembraces

NYFF: Broken Embraces (2009)

[This is the second in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

brokenembraces

There once was a time in which I flocked to a new Pedro Almodovar film with a mad and unstoppable gusto, wondering just what iconoclastic ideas Almodovar would unleash upon the screen. You never knew if you were going to get an extended rape scene brazenly challenging gender assumptions (the notorious sequence in Kika) or Antonio Banderas confronting some dormant and out-of-left-field sexual feelings (well, just about every Banderas-Almodovar road show). But then came All About My Mother, a perfectly respectable film that softened Almodovar and revealed that there was a pedestrian melodramatic filmmaker underneath the madness. Almodovar, like many filmmakers in their fifties, lost his bite. And all he had left was the lachrymose material.

And it is my sad duty to report that Broken Embraces represents more of the same. Broken Embraces may offer a film within a film (Girls with Suitcases) that bears suspicious similarity to Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Girls with Suitcases is intended to be Mateo’s masterpiece, maligned by other hands. But when we actually see the footage, even the good takes that Mateo approves of aren’t particularly funny. And Almodovar falls into the all-too-common artistic trap of having other characters comment upon how brilliant and side-splitting an alleged comic masterpiece is, without injecting hilarity into the material itself. “Films have to be finished,” remarks a character at Broken Embraces‘s close. And it’s something you do blindly. But is Almodovar really all that blind?

Here’s a filmmaker fond of staging dialogue scenes by dollying the camera from character to character, instead of panning. Here’s a filmmaker fond of split diopters. Here’s a filmmaker who gets winning performances from his two leads. Here’s a filmmaker who can make a half-decent film in his sleep. So why does Broken Embraces feel like Almodovar settling for something less? Even a moment featuring a DJ doing drugs, with the obligatory MDMA reference, feels as if it’s been directed by a guy who hasn’t set foot in a club in at least a decade.

Almodovar certainly tries to inject his contrived story with a few interesting elements. He gives us filmmaker Mateo Blanco (winningly played by Lluís Homar), blinded by an automobile accident and denied his visual strengths. He also gives us a lip reader hired by a wealthy businessman named Ernesto Martel to make sense of secretly videotaped video. There’s the hint here of a broader moral dilemma concerning the relationship between sensory limitation and media saturation. Is Mateo really blind? When a mysterious stranger knocks on Mateo’s door, Mateo looks through the door’s eyehole. And we’re left to wonder whether Mateo is playing a role, just as the actors he once cast in his films played a role. (In the case of Penelope Cruz’s Lena, it’s an Audrey Hepburn wig.) We believe initially that the film itself may be using melodramatic elements to uproot our expectations. Unfortunately, Almodovar doesn’t quite follow through. It turns out that Mateo really is blind. And the roots of his blindness, both literally and metaphorically, are pounded home with all the subtlety of a jackhammer filling in for a clock radio at an early morning hour. Secret lovers? Check. Cliched fuck bunnies? Check. Animalistic sex scenes? Check, but the feral nature of these scenes just doesn’t ring true. Almodovar’s promising subtext subsides for an easy-to-guess storyline that is all about his father figure.

Almodovar’s strengths have worked best when there’s a natural edge and energy laced within his narrative. It’s not so much the story elements that have mattered, but the way in which Almodovar’s characters disclose wholly unexpected personality qualities at moments we can’t possibly predict. For Broken Embraces‘s first 30 minutes, Almodovar comes close to these instincts. He has Mateo (now in the self-made role of Harry Caine, a screenwriter who pretends to be a former adventurer) bed an attractive woman who has helped him cross the street. The camera dollies along the edge of a couch, eventually focusing on this woman’s raised foot and painted toenails, which fall beneath this line of demarcation upon seismic satisfaction. It’s a typical Almodovar moment: fun, perverted, and wildly improbable. One detects the indelible fingerprint of a younger and hungrier Almodovar. But this regrettably subsides to a pre-Internet flashback to the early 1990s, where Mateo falls in love with Lena, who is Ernesto’s mistress and the father of Ernesto, Jr., known in the present day as Ray X. Get it?

I was complaining on Twitter this morning about the needlessly bleak programming in this year’s New York Film Festival. I’m certainly not against depressing films, but the human spectrum also includes hope and felicity. But Broken Embraces‘s “comedy” feels stale and septuagenarian. And if Broken Embraces is the “comedy” to balance out all the heavy and esoteric dramas, then I suspect that this year’s programmers are probably humorless and terrified of letting anyone know that they enjoy ice cream. I don’t think it’s Hoberman’s fault. And for all I know, the insufferably smug Scott Foundas might even have a few decent jokes in him. But Broken Embraces isn’t comedy in the way that great films are comedy. It feels more like a Golden Girls rerun, which is strange given Penelope Cruz’s presence. It’s something you tolerate because nothing else is on. But you know deep down that Almodovar can deliver more. Let us hope he doesn’t calcify like Woody Allen.

* * *

On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Pedro Almodovar and star Penelope Cruz. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Almodovar answered questions in both English and Spanish, with English translation provided by Richard Peña.

Press Conference: Pedro Almodovar & Pedro Cruz — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Play
whiteribbon

NYFF: The White Ribbon (2009)

[This is the first in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

whiteribbon

(This post will be updated. Review of The White Ribbon TK.)

On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Michael Haneke. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Haneke answered questions in German, with English translation by Robert Gray.

Press Conference; Michael Haneke — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Play
ftc

Interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland

This morning, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials would be revised in relation to bloggers. The new guidelines (PDF) specified that bloggers making any representation of a product must disclose the material connections they (the presumed endorsers) share with the advertisers. What this means is that, under the new guidelines, a blogger’s positive review of a product may qualify as an “endorsement” and that keeping a product after a review may qualify as “compensation.”

These guidelines, which will be effective as of December 1, 2009, require all bloggers to disclose any tangible connections. But as someone who reviews books for both print and online, I was struck by the inherent double standard. And I wasn’t the only one. As Michael Cader remarked in this morning’s Publishers Marketplace:

The main point of essence for book publishers (and book bloggers) is the determination that “bloggers may be subject to different disclosure requirements than reviewers in traditional media.” They state that “if a blogger’s statement on his personal blog or elsewhere (e.g., the site of an online retailer of electronic products) qualifies as an ‘endorsement,'” due to either a relationship with the “advertiser” or the receipt of free merchandise in the seeking of a review, that connection must be disclosed.

ftcIn an attempt to better understand the what and the why of the FTC’s position, I contacted Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection by telephone, who was kind enough to devote thirty minutes of his time in a civil but heated conversation. (At one point, when I tried to get him to explicate further on the double standard, he declared, “You’re obviously astute enough to understand what I mean.”)

Cleland informed me that the FTC’s main criteria is the degree of relationship between the advertiser and the blogger.

“The primary situation is where there’s a link to the sponsoring seller and the blogger,” said Cleland. And if a blogger repeatedly reviewed similar products (say, books or smartphones), then the FTC would raise an eyebrow if the blogger either held onto the product or there was any link to an advertisement.

What was the best way to dispense with products (including books)?

“You can return it,” said Cleland. “You review it and return it. I’m not sure that type of situation would be compensation.”

If, however, you held onto the unit, then Cleland insisted that it could serve as “compensation.” You could after all sell the product on the streets.

But what about a situation like a film blogger going to a press screening? Or a theater blogger seeing a preview? After all, the blogger doesn’t actually hold onto a material good.

“The movie is not retainable,” answered Cleland. “Obviously it’s of some value. But I guess that my only answer is the extent that it is viewed as compensation as an individual who got to see a movie.”

But what’s the difference between an individual employed at a newspaper assigned to cover a beat and an individual blogger covering a beat of her own volition?

“We are distinguishing between who receives the compensation and who does the review,” said Cleland. “In the case where the newspaper receives the book and it allows the reviewer to review it, it’s still the property of the newspaper. Most of the newspapers have very strict rules about that and on what happens to those products.”

In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.

“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”

From Cleland’s standpoint, because the reviewer is an individual, the product becomes “compensation.”

“If there’s an expectation that you’re going to write a positive review,” said Cleland, “then there should be a disclosure.”

But why shouldn’t a newspaper have to disclose about the many free books that it receives? According to Cleland, it was because a newspaper, as an institution, retains the ownership of a book. The newspaper then decides to assign the book to somebody on staff and therefore maintains the “ownership” of the book until the reviewer dispenses with it.

I presented many hypothetical scenarios in an effort to determine where Cleland stood. He didn’t see any particular problem with a book review appearing on a blog, but only if there wasn’t a corresponding Amazon Affiliates link or an advertisement for the book.

In cases where a publisher is advertising one book and the blogger is reviewing another book by the same publisher, Cleland replied, “I don’t know. I would reserve judgment on that. My initial reaction to it is that it doesn’t seem like a relationship.”

Wasn’t there a significant difference between a publisher sending a book for review and a publisher sending a book with a $50 check attached to it? Not according to Cleland. A book falls under “compensation” if it comes associated with an Amazon link or there is an advertisement for the book, or if the reviewer holds onto the book.

“You simply don’t agree, which is your right,” responded Cleland.

Disagreement was one thing. But if I failed to disclose, would I be fined by the FTC? Not exactly.

Cleland did concede that the FTC was still in the process of working out the kinks as it began to implement the guidelines.

“These are very complex situations that are going to have to looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether or not there is a sufficient nexus, a sufficient compensation between the seller and the blogger, and so what we have done is to provide some guidance in this area. And some examples in this area where there’s an endorsement.”

Cleland elaborated: “I think that as we get more specific examples, ultimately we hope to put out some business guidance on specific examples. From an enforcement standpoint, there are hundreds of thousands of bloggers. Our goal is to the extent that we can educate on these issues. Looking at individual bloggers is not going to be an effective enforcement model.”

Cleland indicated that he would be looking primarily at the advertisers to determine how the relationships exist.

[UPDATE: One unanswered concern that has emerged in the reactions to this interview is the degree of disclosure that the FTC would require with these guidelines. Would the FTC be happy with a blanket policy or would it require a separate disclosure for each individual post? I must stress again that Cleland informed me that enforcement wouldn’t make sense if individual bloggers were targeted. The FTC intends to direct its energies to advertisers. Nevertheless, I’ve emailed Cleland to determine precisely where he stands on disclosure. And when I hear back from him, I will update this post accordingly.]

[UPDATE 2: Cleland hasn’t returned my email. But his response in this article in relation to Twitter (“There are ways to abbreviate a disclosure that fit within 140 characters”) suggest that bloggers will be required to disclose per post/tweet.]

[UPDATE 3: A commenter has suggested: Why not return or forward all the review copies that you receive directly to Mr. Cleland?]

[UPDATE 4: In an October 8, 2009 interview with Fast Company, Cleland has backpedaled somewhat, claiming that the $11,000 fine is not true and indicating that the FTC will be “focusing on the advertisers.” The problem is that page 61 of the proposed guidelines clearly states, “Endorsers also may be liable for statements made in the course of their endorsements.” And endorsers, as we have established in this interview, include bloggers. However, Cleland is right to point out that the guidelines do not point to a specific liability figure and that it would take a blogger openly defying a Cease & Desist Order to enact penalties. The Associated Press was the first to report the $11,000 fine per violation. Did somebody at the AP misreport the penalty information? Or was it misinterpreted?

Some investigation into FTC precedents would suggest that the AP reported these concerns correctly. Here are some precedents for the up to $11,000 fine per violation: non-compliance of wedding gown label disclosure, non-compliance of contact lens sellers, and an update to the federal register. On Monday, the FTC precedents establish heavy penalties for non-compliance, the the guidelines themselves specify penalties as endorsers, and Cleland insists that bloggers who review products are “endorsers.” On Wednesday, Cleland now claims that bloggers won’t be hit by penalties. The FTC needs to be extremely specific about this on paper, if it expects to allay these concerns. (Thanks to Sarah Weinman for reporting assistance on this update.)]

Bat Segundo Hiatus

I spent two weeks reading close to 2,000 pages of an author’s work. I wanted to give this author the respect that his work deserved. But this author threw a temper tantrum. The author first suggested that I was talking too loud. (When I played back the audio to my girlfriend, she strained to hear my voice.) Then the author asked me to offer questions pertaining to the “theme” in the book that weren’t “specific.” So I did. But this author couldn’t answer. Didn’t have the chops. And it saddened me to hear the lifelessness in this author’s voice. I then said, “You know, I don’t think this interview is working out,” with the idea of trying to determine what the hell was going on. The author then stormed off and said, “Thank you.”

The hell of it was that The Bat Segundo show has always been a place where people can be who they are. But this author was too terrified of having his work taken seriously, of being who he really is. And that’s the saddest thing of all.

So that’s two weeks of work that I could have given to several other authors. Two weeks of work that I could have spent writing. Two weeks of work that was wasted on this author. It did not help that all this occurred shortly after I lost a part-time job that I needed to stay alive.

There comes a point when priorities reshuffle.

So I’ve decided to cancel the majority of my interviews (I have three more still on the schedule) and take a hiatus of indeterminate length from The Bat Segundo Show. Probably for the rest of the year. Maybe longer. I don’t know. I apologize to all the authors I’ve had to bail on. (I have maintained my interview appointments for the most recent three authors.) I really wanted to talk with all of them. But this author’s unprofessional behavior really did a number on me. And I’m not in the mood to read much right now. Not unless someone’s going to pay me for it.

I will probably put up one or two shows that are in my backlog in the meantime. But I’ve always maintained that if what I do isn’t fun, then I have no interest in doing it. And right now, The Bat Segundo Show, which should be fun, isn’t.